Every Saturday I post a new chapter of my Christian contemporary novel, Substitute Family. If you like stories about single dads, cute toddlers and a nanny who has a sense of humor, you will enjoy reading this book.
We are halfway through the book. This coming Saturday I’ll be posting chapters 18 and 19.
You can read this first chapter, then go back through the blog posts to catch up.
Emily turned into the driveway of her cousin’s ranch-style suburban house, feeling nervous. It was the first time she’d been here since Julie passed away in November. Emily wouldn’t have come today, if Julie’s dad hadn’t fallen off a ladder at his construction job yesterday and fractured his leg in two places. Uncle Stan was going to be laid up on the couch for a few weeks. Aunt Peg had been babysitting the twins, but needed time off to take care of her husband.
Emily’s mom had called her last night, after talking to Aunt Peg. “Do you think you could go up to Garret’s house tomorrow and watch the twins so he can go to work? Peg is worried sick over what he will do for a babysitter.”
Emily had agreed, but she wasn’t a babysitter. She was a kindergarten teacher. She was used to being in charge in a roomful of five-year-old’s, and she had no problem with that. The idea of watching twin toddlers for ten hours was a little scarier.
The last time she’d seen the twins was at Aunt Peg’s house on Memorial weekend. They were as cute as could be. Chloe had Julie’s blond curls and blue eyes. Cody looked like a miniature Garret with dark blond hair and brown eyes. They were different in personalities as well. Cody had been active, running around and playing in the yard. Chloe had been shy and fussy.
She worried about how they would act with her today. She was pretty much a stranger to them.
She got out of the car and started up the sidewalk to the front deck. There were flowerbeds along the front of the house, edged by red brick. Some of the bulbs Julie had planted last fall were in bloom, but weeds were growing up among the plants. Emily bent and plucked out a few weeds, wondering if Garret would agree to let her come on another day and do some work on them.
The steps of the front deck were showing signs of weathering. Julie had planned to apply another coat of paint this spring. A large black pot that had been filled with flowers last summer stood in a corner, with a few dry weeds poking up through the hard soil.
Emily knocked on the door. Julie’s husband Garret, now a widower at age 30, opened it. He held Chloe in his arms. The toddler’s blonde curly hair was uncombed, and she was still in her pajamas.
“Hi, Chloe, remember me?” Emily spoke in the sing-song voice she used on her kindergarteners.
Chloe ducked her head into Garret’s shoulder and whimpered.
Her throat tightened when she swung her gaze to Garret. He’d always been a handsome man, but Emily hadn’t seen him since the funeral eight months ago. He was thin, and his hazel eyes looked hollow. Those eyes used to light up every time Julie walked into a room. She couldn’t imagine the burden of grief that weighed him down.
“Hi, Em. Thanks for coming on such short notice. My mom couldn’t take off work on short notice. Peg suggested we call you.” He sounded as if every word took great effort to get out.
“It’s no problem. I’m out of school for the summer, anyway. I don’t mind helping out.” She gestured towards Chloe. “I’m not sure how she’s going to react when you leave.”
He sighed heavily. “I can’t help you with that. Peg said you would know how to handle them, since you’re a teacher.”
“I do have some experience with kids.” Best not to mention that she had no clue what to do with toddlers who were still in diapers. “Aunt Peg gave me three pages of notes.” It was an exaggeration, but Emily had jotted some things down.
His mouth turned up briefly as he almost smiled, but then he sighed again. “Sounds like Peg.”
He brushed Chloe’s curls back from her forehead and planted a kiss. Then he handed the toddler over to Emily and picked up his laptop case. Chloe reached out for him and started crying. He nodded to Emily and strode to his car without looking back.
Emily went into the house and closed the door. She jiggled the wailing toddler in her arms. “It’s okay, sweetie. You’re going to be okay. Daddy will be back soon.”
In the first few days of the school year, she always had a handful of five-year-old’s that were not ready to be away from their parents. She was used to taking them by the hand and leading them to a quiet seat and talking in a soothing voice. That wasn’t going to work on this little one.
Above Chloe’s cries, she heard another cry from the back of the house. She walked down the hall to the nursery. Cody stood up in his crib, howling. His fine brown hair stuck out in every direction. He stopped crying when he saw her and reached out his arms.
She set Chloe on the floor. Chloe plopped down and bent over until her head was on the floor, keeping up a steady wail. Emily lifted Cody from the crib realizing he was soaked through his pajamas. The wetness went through her T-shirt. She grimaced. “Yuck.”
Hazards of watching kids in diapers, she supposed. When she went to change Cody, she was happy to see that someone had switched to disposable diapers.
“Your mommy used cloth because it was better for you and for the environment, not to mention cheaper.” Cody had no idea what Emily was saying, but he giggled because she was talking to him. “I did not know how I was going to handle cloth diapers and pins.”
Chloe had not stopped crying yet. Emily picked her up and changed her diaper and put on an outfit she found in the drawer where Peg had told her it would be. Then she walked out to the kitchen, Cody trailing her and babbling.
Peg had given her instructions on what they ate and when. There were sweet potato pancakes in the freezer that she’d made fresh yesterday morning. Emily was supposed to microwave them and put applesauce on them, then dice them up for the twins. Emily could handle that all right, as well as the banana that she cut up and added to their plates. She put milk in their sippy cups.
When she sat down to watch them eat, it was like a circus. Cody did not understand the concept of taking one bite at a time. He crammed his mouth full of pancake and applesauce oozed out. Chloe, on the other hand, refused to eat. She did drink some of her milk, until she decided to start whining and threw her cup on the floor. That was when Emily learned it wasn’t a spill-proof cup, because the milk went everywhere.
“Oh, shoot.” Emily’s reaction made Cody giggle. He pounded his fist on the highchair, and pieces of pancake went flying.
Chloe was crying in earnest again. Emily wiped up the milk with paper towels. She would use a sponge mop on it later. She took Chloe out of her seat and held her. After a few minutes, her sobs subsided into sniffles.
After Cody had eaten his fill, Emily held Chloe on one hip and wet a washcloth. Cody wiggled and scrunched his face up when she wiped it with the cloth, making it impossible to get all the food bits off his face. She removed the tray from the highchair and with one hand, helped him down.
He stood looking up at her, his lip quivering. She wanted to avoid a meltdown from him. She threw her free hand up in the air. “It’s playtime!” she shouted. “Where are your toys?”
He giggled and ran for his toybox. Emily sat down cross legged beside him on the carpet with Chloe in her lap. She took a shape sorter out of the toybox and twisted it to release the pieces. She showed Cody where to put them in. He struggled with getting them in right. After a few tries, he gave up and went on to play with a truck. Emily tried to interest Chloe in the shape shorter, but Chloe just laid her head on Emily’s shoulder and stuck her finger in her mouth. Emily put the pieces back in the sorter and set it aside.
She gave up trying to interest Chloe in the toys and watched Cody. They’d been sitting on the floor for twenty minutes when she got a whiff of a bad smell. It was coming from the sweet little angel on her lap. “Diaper change time.” Emily got up and carried Chloe back to the nursery. She changed Chloe, then tried to brush her hair. Chloe was having none of that, though, howling as if Emily was torturing her.
When she returned to the living room, she realized Cody also needed a diaper change. She left Chloe in the middle of the living room floor and listened to her cry for the few minutes she was in the nursery changing Cody.
More time sitting on the floor followed. By mid-morning, Emily suffered from caffeine withdrawals without her diet cola. She would have to stop and pick up a case of it to bring with her tomorrow. She’d told Peg that she would watch the kids all week.
She was also getting hungry. Breakfast had been a long time ago, while she was still home. Home was her cottage in the small town where she had grown up, an hour from Julie’s house. Julie had grown up in the suburbs. The two of them had always referred to Emily as the “country cousin” and Julie the “city cousin” like the mice in the childhood story.
The memories hit Emily hard, and she fought against her tears. She’d spent time with Julie here, both before and after the twins were born. “It’s just not real to me yet that you are gone,” Emily whispered to the ceiling.
She ate some cheese and crackers while she fed the kids snacks, and washed them down with a glass of water.
The rest of the morning was spent sitting on the floor, playing with Cody and holding Chloe. Chloe kept looking at Emily and her eyes welled up with tears, but at least she’d stopped whining. The twins babbled back and forth. Cody could say a few words, but Chloe couldn’t yet. Or wouldn’t.
Since they had turned one year old just three months ago, Chloe’s lack of speech was not a huge concern. It bothered her grandma, though. Peg blamed it on Garret not spending enough time with the kids in the evenings.
“I work with her all day on saying words, and I know he doesn’t do that at night,” Peg had said more than once.
Emily almost felt sorry for Garret sometimes, the way Peg criticized him so much, even though it was nothing new. Peg had been critical of the twins’ care even when Julie was alive to mother them. Julie had stressed out as a mother of newborn twins and sought her mom’s advice often. That had been a mistake, Julie had confided to Emily a few weeks after giving birth. Peg always though she had a better way of doing things than Julie did.
Julie had read books on parenting and attended some parenting classes especially for mothers of twins. There were things she tried to do with the kids that Peg argued with her about.
“That’s not the way I did things with you,” had been one of Peg’s often-repeated sayings, and Julie’s least favorite.
Peg’s interference had been hard on Garret as well. He had tried to make Julie stand up for herself, but that had only made Julie angry at him, too. Emily wouldn’t have known so much about it, but she and Julie had been close friends as well as cousins. Emily never knew what to say to Julie about child-rearing, or about her problems with her husband, but all Julie had needed was an objective listening ear and the assurance that she was doing a good job as a mom and as a wife.
She’d been doing great with both, and then in an instant, a drunk driver had taken her life away.
After lunch, Emily fixed bottles of milk and sat down in the rocking chair with the two toddlers on her lap. She realized her dilemma when they fell asleep and she tried to stand up. It was almost impossible to do so without dropping one of the kids or falling herself. She managed, however awkwardly, and carried them back to the nursery.
Peg had told her to think of their naptime as her own break, but there was the matter of the toys scattered everywhere and the dining room floor with the food crumbs and sticky spot where the milk had spilt. She took care of all of that before she finally grabbed her phone and sat down on the couch. She turned on a worship playlist and sat back to rest.
It was hard to relax. Memories of Julie were everywhere in this room. Julie’s touches were still visible. There was a painting and sconces above the large flat-screen TV. The décor was not new, but the TV was. The frames that held the twins’ portraits had their six-month photos in them, taken just a couple of weeks before Julie passed away. The books on the shelf looked untouched. The framed wedding photo of Julie and Garret that had sat prominently on top of the bookcase was gone. Emily wondered if he’d been unable to look at it.
She didn’t have to see a photo to remember what Julie had looked like. Julie had sunny blond curls, and Emily’s hair was a duller shade of blond and straight. Julie had the bright blue eyes, and Emily’s were pale blue, almost gray. She was taller and heavier than Julie’s petite frame. She’d always felt like the plain cousin next to Julie’s beauty.
That was probably why she had felt so insecure when they went away to college together. It hadn’t taken long for Julie to become popular. Emily had hidden in her shadow, having a hard time making friends on her own. It hadn’t been a problem until Julie started to date Garret. Then Garret had made Emily feel like a fifth wheel.
Emily had responded by trying to convince Julie that Garret was not right for her. Emily tried to tell her that Garret was too controlling, and Julie was giving up too much of her freedom to spend time with him. Garret told Julie that Emily was jealous of their relationship and wanted her time to herself. Julie had felt torn between the two of them, and they’d all been miserable.
That had changed when Emily went home for the summer, and Julie and Garret stayed to take summer classes. They bonded, and Emily was left behind. Julie confronted her when they were getting ready to move back into the dorms. “I love Garret, and Garret loves me. I know you don’t like him, but I don’t want to choose between the two of you. If you can’t understand that he and I are meant to be together, then you and I aren’t going to be roommates, and we are not going to be friends.”
Emily had been so hurt by Julie’s words. She’d talked it over with her parents. Their wisdom made her realize that she was the one at fault. She was jealous of Julie and the love Julie had found with Garret. If Emily wanted to continue to be friends with Julie, then she was going to have to let her jealousy go. Emily apologized to Julie, although she had never apologized to Garret.
Julie and Garret had gone on to get married after college. Emily had stood up in their wedding. She and Garret had never really been friends, but they had not stood in the way of each other’s relationship with Julie. Julie had loved them both. Emily had spent time with Julie here, but it was usually when Garret was gone. The times that Garret was here, they had been polite to each other. Every once in a while, the old tensions flared up, but they’d worked hard to get along for Julie’s sake.
She wished that Garret and Peg could do the same.
End of first chapter.