From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
"At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, ... it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."
"Are there no prisons?"
"Plenty of prisons..."
"And the Union workhouses." demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"
"Both very busy, sir..."
"Those who are badly off must go there."
"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."
Dec 19, 2020 news headline: AOC calls Amazon jobs a 'scam' because more than 4,000 of its employees are on food stamps. Amazon: 11 billion in profits, $0 in taxes.
I want to thank Author RAWallace for her beta read and suggestions. She has the eyes of an eagle for unnecessary verbiage.
I frowned at the message the receptionist had handed me when I arrived at work Monday.
"Dan's in the hospital? What happened?"
"No idea. The call came through ten minutes ago. No one knows what's going on."
I tapped the paper message against my thumb, thinking. We were getting pretty close to Christmas, things were slow. "Did anybody try to call Beth?"
"First thing I tried. It went to voice mail. She hasn't called back."
That made my decision for me. "Would you mind buzzing Karen and asking her to clear my calendar for today? I'm going to the hospital to find out what's going on."
"I'll pass that on. Give Dan our love. I hope it's nothing serious."
But that was the thing. People don't end up in the hospital unless it's serious. Dan was my work partner and a good friend. I tried to call Beth on my way to my car but got her voicemail too.
Traffic was a bitch. It took me a while to get to the hospital, but I lucked out with a car leaving a prime parking spot only half a block away. Stopping at the gift shop, I bought some flowers and a few novels, picking out some Clive Cussler kind of action books. Armed with those goodies, I headed up to his room.
Dan's eyes were closed, and his face looked pale. He was hooked up to an intravenous, some unknown liquid dripping into his arm. I was a little unsure about waking him when he opened his eyes.
"Come to gloat, Royce?" He was smiling but looked kind of out of it, definitely drugged!
"Well, yeah. Beth's all alone. I should take advantage of this to ask her out."
"She'd probably go; she likes you a lot," he groused.
"Can you blame her? I'm so much better looking."
"Gosh, I'm feeling a whole lot better since you showed up!"
We shared a chuckle and a fist bump, although his was a little shaky. I sat down on the chair beside the bed. "So what's going on, Dan? We got a message that you were in here but no details. What happened?"
"You remember I left early Friday. I went to the doctor to get snipped. Beth and I decided two kids were enough. I was supposed to be spending the weekend relaxing with plenty of ice after. Then back to work today. Instead, I got infected. My ball sack is swollen to the size of a football* right now. They've got me on heavy-duty antibiotics and painkillers."
[*Author's Note: Happened to a buddy of mine. His description, not mine! I took his word for it.]
"Ouch," I winced. I'd considered getting snipped myself. Unmarried at thirty-two with little time for relationships, I figured I was headed for perpetual bachelorhood. Getting snipped would take away any worries about a late-in-life or unwanted child. Balls swollen to the size of a football didn't figure into that decision. Maybe I'd wait a while yet. Perhaps I'd wait a LONG time!
"So, where's Beth?"
"She took the kids to her parent's place. She'll be back by suppertime. They're going to look after them for the rest of the week. Hopefully, I'll be out of here by then."
We chatted for a while, but it was apparent he was fighting to keep his eyes open.
"I'll go now and let you get some sleep, buddy. I'll try to make it back tonight. I bought these books for you, so enjoy. Take it easy, get better; I've got you covered at work."
"Thanks, Royce." He closed his eyes and was gone in a blink.
"I'm sorry, Julie. We've stalled this as much as we could. We can't hide you here any longer. The hospital administrator is giving us shit."
"But...!" I looked outside. The sky was grey and threatening, with tiny snowflakes drifting down.
"I have nowhere to go!" I whispered.
"Did you call Social Services?"
"I went in just before the baby came. They offered me an appointment six months from now."
"Bastards," the older nurse swore. Looking at the younger nurse, she nodded her head.
"Here." The younger one held out a large backpack. "There's a baby sling, extra blankets, food, baby formula, baby wipes and diapers in it. The nurses took up a collection; there's some money there to help you."
She put the backpack on the end of my bed. "I'll be praying for you," she said just before she burst into tears and went running from the room.
The older head nurse looked teary too, patting my hand. "Take your time, Julie. There's no hurry."
"Thank you all for helping me so much," I called to her as she left the room.
I didn't blame the nurses. I'd heard the head nurse battling it out with the hospital administrator. She'd point blank refused his demand to discharge a homeless mother out into the cold winter weather with a twenty-four-hour old baby. She didn't give a shit what his rules were; it wasn't going to happen. He started to get angry until the rest of the nurses listening to his demands ganged up on him and threatened a walk-out if he gave them any more grief.
He'd tried to send security up to remove me, but the head of security had told him where to stuff it. I'd be eternally grateful to this group of caring medical professionals. They'd put their jobs on the line to protect Emma and me. But the truth was this was a hospital, not a homeless shelter. I didn't belong anymore.
I looked at little Emma sleeping contentedly in the baby crib beside my bed. In the last four days since her birth, we'd been warm, fed, and been given medical care. Something I hadn't enjoyed for a while. Our lives were about to change drastically!
After leaving Dan, I figured I had the rest of the day off. That didn't happen often. Maybe it would be an excellent time to get some Christmas shopping out of the way. I took a look around the street for suitable stores. My eyes caught sight of a woman standing there. What immediately stood out was her jacket. It might have been okay for a cooler spring day but was utterly inadequate for the current winter weather. She was struggling to close that too-small jacket over what looked like a tiny baby in a Snugly. No way could she keep a baby warm like that. When the coat wouldn't close, she pulled a blanket out of a backpack and tried to tuck it over the top. With the snow drifting down, it wouldn't be long before that blanket was damp and useless. Tears were trickling down her cheeks while busy pedestrians detoured around her, completely ignoring a woman and baby in obvious distress.
That pissed me off! How could people be so hard-hearted toward someone in obvious need?
"Hi," I offered, smiling and trying to look non-threatening.
Her eyes flicked up to mine. I'd never seen such a haunted, forlorn look before. The shiver that ran through me had nothing to do with the cold. This was a woman in deep, deep trouble!
"Hi," she said back, shyly, brushing the tears away. I reached into my pocket and handed her a hanky.
"I was thinking. There's a warm coffee shop a couple of doors down. We could get something hot to drink, get your baby out of this weather. Maybe I'm out of line, but perhaps I can find some way to help you."
"I...," she said uncertainly. Then paused, appearing to consider it. "Okay."
Seated inside, I went and got us drinks and ordered her a sandwich and a large bowl of soup. I had no idea when she'd last eaten. I wasn't going to let her pride stand in the way of a good meal.
Setting the drinks down, I held out my hand. "Royce."
Taking my cue from the little pink toque on the top of her head. "And she is?"
"How old is she?"
"Four days now."
"That's so adorable. You were in the hospital?"
"Yes, but they couldn't keep me any longer."
"So, where are you going?"
She was silent, not meeting my eyes. Finally, she confessed, "We have nowhere to go."
"What about Social Services?"
"They offered me an appointment to see them in six months and open a file."
"SIX MONTHS?" I questioned with some disbelief. "When did you see them?"
"Several days before my due date. I told them I was homeless and out of work. I had no place to go. I've been living on the streets for the last three months. I lost my job and couldn't get another. I was having complications with the pregnancy and couldn't afford the rent and medical costs."
"So they knew you were pregnant, sick, due date near and homeless?"
She nodded. "The lady I talked to seemed pretty upset, but that's what they told me. Six months." She dug into her pocket. "Here's the appointment card they gave me."
I couldn't believe it. She was right. The date was six months away. I folded it away in my pocket. It would be important later.
"And the father?"
"He refuses to talk to me or admit it's his baby. He won't help me."
"We'll see about that," I swore. Just then, the waitress brought her food.
"I can't pay for this," she told me.
"But I can. Already did, in fact. Eat! Please."
She took a sip of the soup and smiled. "It's good. Thank you. The nurses seemed really upset over the six-month wait too. I got the impression it was happening a lot. They asked the lady from Social Services that works in the hospital to come and see me, but she never showed. Anyway, Emma and I will figure out how to survive, even if I have to...!"
I held my hand up. I didn't want to hear that. No way was she going to prostitute herself out as long as I was alive, if that's what she had in mind.
"Don't you have family?" I asked.
"My mom and dad were killed in a car accident years ago. I have no other relatives that I know about. Since I moved here I've had to work so many extra hours just to keep my head above water financially that I haven't made many friends. The ones I know have the same problem financially, and none are in a position to take us in. So what should I do?"
"It seems that your problems are something I can do something about. I'd like to get you two into somewhere warm, safe and secure. My company does business with a hotel close by, and I'd like to get you a room there. Then investigate what's going on here."
"I just had a baby. I can't...!"
Again, I held my hand up. "Julie, you've got a new baby, and you're in trouble. I don't need anything from you. You don't know my mom. Even though I'm thirty-two years old, if she found out I failed to help you, she'd yank my pants down and tan my ass till I couldn't sit.
For the first time, I saw a smile cross her stress-lined face; she started giggling at that vision. It struck me just how beautiful she was.
Her eyes searched my face and eyes. She nodded.
We talked a bit more while she finished the food.
"I'll go get the car. That jacket is too thin for you to be outside. I'll be back in a few minutes. Wait a minute. Excuse me!" That was directed at one of the waitresses walking by.
"Is there a ladieswear or baby shop nearby?"
"Nothing good in ladieswear, but there's a decent baby shop a few doors down."
Perfect. "Let's go there first," I urged. I stood and watched as she struggled to get her jacket on.
"Forget it. Take mine instead." I took off my camel hair overcoat and helped her into it. Plenty big enough to cover her and Emma.
"What about you?" she protested.
"I've got my suit jacket. I've survived worse than this in the past. Let's go."
We filled a shopping cart in the baby shop, jumpers, socks, shoes, boots, winter jackets, diapers, food and most importantly, an infant car seat. I could see by the look in her eye when I paid that she disagreed with me spending so much. When she had picked one of something, I had scooped up another dozen or so of whatever it was. The bill was in the hundreds, but I didn't care. I could easily afford it. Exiting the shop, we were only a short distance from the car. We made a dash for it. I installed the seat, and she strapped Emma in.
"Nice," she said, stroking the leather seats when she climbed in the front.
"Thank you. So where do we find you some clothing?"
"You don't need to...!"
"You got anything else other than what you're wearing?"
She shook her head. "There's a Walmart three blocks that way."
"Walmart it is!"
We filled two shopping carts heaped as high as we could get them, buying anything and everything a woman would need, including a heavy-duty winter coat. She looked a little sick at the size of the bill, but once again, it was nothing to me.
At the hotel, I tipped the valet a fifty to make sure all the parcels got up to our room. Inside, I asked the desk clerk for a one or two-bedroom suite with a view.
"Just for you, sir or will the young lady be staying?" She still had her old clothes on, and his tone and demeanour when he looked down at Julie pissed me right off.
I looked him straight in the eye. "Our company spends a couple of hundred thousand in this hotel every year. Do you treat all our guests coming straight from the hospital like that? Or should I call Bill down to ask him that question?"
At the mention of the owner of the hotel, his face went pale and he straightened up. "I'm sorry, sir. I meant no offence. Tell you what. I'll upgrade you to a lovely two-bedroom suite on the top floor. It has a terrace looking out over the harbour and city. There'll be no extra charge."
I handed him my business card. "Charge it to our account and make a note on your registration that whatever Julie needs you make sure she gets it. Clear?"
He looked at the card, and I swear his face went even paler. We got a key for her and hit the elevator.
Julie wandered around the suite, her hands touching all the items like she couldn't believe she was there. Someone knocked on the door, and I opened it. The manager walked in along with two bell boys pushing two loaded luggage carriers.
"Jesus, Royce, what did you say to my front desk clerk? I think he crapped his pants!"
"Sorry, John, he and I had a little come-to-Jesus-talk. I just got Julie here out of the hospital, and he was looking at her like he wanted to sweep her out the back door."
"Ma'am, please let me extend the hotel's apology for his behaviour. I'll be having a talk with him about it. In the meantime, I brought some champagne up, but I see a new baby. Nobody mentioned that fact, so if you're not drinking, perhaps you rather have some ice cream or something else?"
I learned something new about Julie when her face lit up with joy at the mention of ice cream.
"Chocolate?" she ventured, with a do-I-dare-ask kind of look on her face.
"Eek!" came out of me before I could control myself. Yeah, I don't like chocolate, so shoot me!
John laughed. "I'll send chocolate and vanilla. How's that?"
Julie, clapped her hands in excitement. "Perfect, thank you! Oh, a crib?"
"I'll send that too."
"Alright, good night, and please let me know if you have any more trouble with you know who."
"Good night, John. Thanks for everything."
The crib and ice cream arrived a few minutes later, while Julie was sitting on the couch amongst all our purchases. She rubbed several over her face breathing in the smell of newness. Suddenly she jumped up, her beautiful emerald eyes staring up at me. Without further ado, she hugged me.
I put my hands on her shoulders, holding my hips away, unsure just how much I should touch her. Having a baby in a Snugly between us made it awkward. Still, my traitorous cock erected the second she hugged me.
She giggled. "It's okay. I know guys get erections when they get close, so don't worry about it. Besides, I have a big diaper on and wouldn't feel you anyway."
This time we had a full-on hug with Emma in the middle.
She kept whispering, "Thank you, thank you," against my chest.
Emma started fussing.
"She's hungry," Julie said.
She sat down and started unbuttoning her blouse and moving her bra out of the way. Respectfully, I turned around to give her privacy.
"Royce, turn back around. I don't mind you watching. You've done so much for us. I can't imagine a more generous, charitable act than what you've done today."
I turned in time to see Emma latch on to a nipple and begin to nurse. Mother and child. It always held a strong association in my childhood life. Emma lost the nipple for a moment, and it swung to the side, sending a thin stream of milk squirting outward. Julie giggled and directed it back for Emma to latch onto.
We watched Emma nurse until she was sated and sleepy.
"Pass me a blanket; I need to burp her."
Impulsively, I offered, "Let me!"
"I'm not sure. She cried at the hospital when any of the males picked her up. Only female nurses could hold her."
I don't know why I persisted. "Let's try." I threw a blanket over my shoulder, and Julie passed Emma over. I patted her gently on the back while Julie watched. She settled in and gave up a huge belch before snuggling down on my chest again. She grunted a few times, and I felt her lower parts quiver. She'd just filled her diaper. The rising stench told me I'd guessed it in one.
"Well, I'll be damned. She likes you."
"Mmmm, not as much as you'd think. She just filled her diaper." I got up and grabbed the bag with the baby supplies and another jumper.
"I'll slip into the bathroom and change her. You relax. You've been doing a lot of walking today. You must be sore."
I heard her whispered comment while I walked away.
"Geez, a man who changes diapers. Whoda thunk it?"
When I got the diaper off, Emma was a lot dirtier than I expected. I wiped as much off as I could then ran the warm bathwater. Ditching my tie and rolling up my sleeves, I knelt beside the tub and bathed her. Emma lay quietly in my hand, her bright blue eyes staring up at me like she was assessing me. Trusting me! I noticed little flecks of gold floating in there. She would probably have green eyes like her mother when her eye colour changed. I gently shampooed the small amount of hair on her head, being careful of the soft spot, then rinsed. I had a feeling of being watched. I turned my head to see Julie standing in the doorway.
Completely bathed, I lifted Emma and wrapped her in a towel. Placing her on the countertop, I patted her dry, added baby powder and a diaper, then dressed her in a clean jumper. Cradling her against my chest, I turned to Julie seeing tears streaming down her cheeks.
"Who ARE you?" she asked in a whisper of a voice.
I wasn't sure I had an answer to that anymore!
We put her to bed in the crib, then stood watching her sleep. Emma was holding my finger tightly in her hand, refusing to let go. She was beautiful, and their situation tugged at my heartstrings. I swore right then and there she and her mother would get some justice for what had happened.
"She likes you!" Julie commented.
"I like her."
Julie wouldn't know it, of course, but I was the first child in our family. My brother and sister came along starting five years later. I was just old enough to be eager to help my mom care for them. Changing diapers, bathing and feeding babies was old news to me. Now that my siblings have grown up, I've been blessed with a niece and nephew. I help with them as much as I can, even though I'm often busy with work. I occasionally babysit, so the parents can have an adult night out. Somehow, what was happening with these two, especially Emma, played right into those feelings of family. I never thought I'd have children, but I found myself wondering if I was missing something good in life.