I took Reese into my arms and began to soothe her the best I could. “Did you warm up a bottle?” I asked. Sammie wasn’t able to breastfeed no matter how hard she tried, so we were working with formula. I knew that was hard for my sister. She blamed herself so much for not being able to nurse her child.
I tried my best to convince her it had nothing to do with her skills as a mother, but I knew she didn’t believe me. I never would’ve been able to understand her pain through it all, either. I wasn’t a mother. I didn’t have the same struggles of trying to feed my daughter. Every time Sammie tried, she’d burst into tears from feeling like a failure. It wasn’t until the doctor recommended going to formula that Reese began eating.
Even then, Sammie had a hard time getting the little girl to take a bottle from her.
“Here,” she said, handing it to me. “She wouldn’t take it. It’s still kind of warm, but I don’t know. Maybe I gave it to her when it was too warm? Oh gosh, what if it was too warm and I burned her? What if—”
“Sammie. It’s fine. She’s fine. Don’t worry.”
She paced back and forth, raking her hands through her hair. She looked a mess. She’d been wearing the same clothes for days and hadn’t showered in who knew how long. Her eyes were swollen from lack of sleep, mixed in with her constant flow of tears. It was clear each and every day she was getting closer and closer to her breaking point, and I couldn’t blame her.
I didn’t see Reese’s father in that little girl’s face. I didn’t see his eyes, or his nose, or the crooked smile that he might’ve had. I didn’t see the way she resembled the man who’d stolen something away from my sister to create this beautiful child.
But Sammie did.
She saw him in her waking dreams and her nightly nightmares. She saw parts of him in Reese’s eyes, in her smile, in her everything. It was a daily reminder of the tortured situation she’d been placed in. It was a reminder of what had happened to her all those months ago, when she’d finally allowed herself to take a break and let loose.
I begged her to go to therapy, but she swore she was fine without. I begged her to talk to me, yet she told me she was fine. I prayed she’d open up to someone—anyone—because I knew she wasn’t doing okay.
Reese began to fuss while I was feeding her, and as the baby’s irritation started to rise, so did Sammie’s.
“I can’t do this, I can’t do this,” Sammie kept saying, kept reciting as she moved back and forth across the small space. Her hands were pressed against her ears as her annoyance grew more and more from the noise that had shaken us awake in the night. “I can’t . . . I . . . just stop crying! Shut up!” my sister hollered at the top of her lungs.
My heart shattered in the moment as Sammie paused her movements and looked up at me with tears sitting on the forefront of her eyes. I knew she was seconds away from a breakdown. Seconds away from spiraling further and further into the pit she’d been falling in for months now.
“I hate her,” she confessed, and in that very instant my heart split into two. “I hate her so much, Emery,” she said before covering her mouth with her hand and breaking down into uncontrolled sobs.
I held Reese to my chest and gave my sister a small smile, trying my best to hide how much she scared me in that moment. “Hey, how about you go take a shower, Sammie? Clear your mind and regroup. Then go to sleep. I got Reese. Don’t you worry, okay? I got her.”
Sammie opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Only an involuntary nod of agreement as tears streamed down her cheeks, and then she walked away toward the bathroom.
The sigh I’d been holding inside me for so long evaporated as I listened to the water start running. My main task now was to soothe Reese.
I rocked the little girl in my arms and got her to take the bottle after a few moments. When she stared up at me with those doe-brown eyes, I could tell she was exhausted too.
“I know, I know, sweet girl. It’s okay. I know you’re just doing your best. We’re all trying our best, okay? You’re okay. You’re more than okay. You’re so good,” I promised her, rocking her slightly in my arms as she kept her stare on me. “And you know what? Your mama is good too. She’s so, so good, Reese. And she loves you so much, no matter what. Okay? I just need you to know your mama loves you. She’s trying her best. I promise you, she’s trying her best.”
After a while, Reese faded back to sleep, and I laid her back in her crib. Once she was asleep, I went to head back to bed, but I noticed that the shower was still running.
“Sammie, you okay?” I asked, knocking on the door. My chest tightened when I didn’t get a reply. I knocked louder this time. “Sammie? Are you good?”
I heard mumbles, but still, no reply.
When I turned the doorknob, I witnessed my sister sitting in the bathtub as the water poured overhead. She was rocking back and forth as she scrubbed her arms up and down with her hands, to the point that her arms were reddened from how hard she was scrubbing.
“Sammie . . . ,” I whispered, taking steps closer to her.
“I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this . . . ,” she said on a loop, shaking as her tears intermixed with the water droplets shooting down from the showerhead. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this . . .”
“Sammie, come on, get out of the tub,” I said, turning off the water.
“I c-c-can’t do this,” she repeated. She stared forward as if she couldn’t even see me. As if she wasn’t even aware that someone was in the same space as her. She looked so far gone that I worried she didn’t even know where she was in that very moment in time.
I couldn’t get her to climb out of the bathtub. I couldn’t get her to snap out of the trance that she’d somehow entered. So I climbed into the tub with her and wrapped my arms around her shivering, naked body. “I want to go home, Emery. I don’t want this life. I need Mama and Daddy. I need them. I can’t do this. I can’t,” she kept repeating.
I pulled her close to me and held on for dear life as she kept her chant going, her whispers stinging my ears.
I didn’t let go until the sun rose the next morning.
Taking Oliver and Reese to my hometown terrified me. I had a horrible feeling in my gut, and I wasn’t sure how to shake it off. But I tried to look for the silver linings in the situation. I was able to show the two most special people in my life the place that had shaped me. Sure, my parents hadn’t been the best at raising my sister and me, but the small town where I grew up had a few gems.
When we got to town, it was already late into the night, so we checked into the bed-and-breakfast—getting two separate rooms. So when morning came, we were fully awake and ready to hit the town full speed ahead.
First stop was my old stomping ground: Walter’s Diner. Home to the best hash browns a person would ever taste.
“I worked here for three years. I started when I was fifteen, even though I was supposed to be sixteen to officially have a job, but the owner, Walter, let me slide, and he’d help me learn cooking skills in the kitchen with him. By the time I was sixteen, I was the head chef back there, flipping burgers faster than anyone around. It was in this place where I fell in love with cooking,” I said, looking around in awe.
Walter’s Diner was set up as a 1950s spot. From the red-and-white booths down to the old-school glasses that the Coca-Cola and sundaes were served in. The decor was posters of classic sports cars and models and actors from the fifties. They still even had the old jukebox that was spinning tunes from that time period. It was as if we’d walked into a time capsule and taken a seat to enjoy some food and history.
“This is the place where you found your passion,” Oliver commented.
“Not only that . . . this is the place that raised me. When my parents were in their moods and they’d take it out on me, I’d come here. Walter lives in the apartment right upstairs, and he’d always let me in, no matter what time it was, day or night, to teach me some cooking skills.”
“Sounds like an amazing man.”
“I owe so much to him.”
When Walter came out with menus in his hand, I grinned. He was the one who brought each table the menus every single day, because he wanted to know the people who were showing their support to his business. He didn’t only want to feed the people of Randall; he wanted to know how they were doing.
As he walked closer, still staring down at the menus, he began to speak to us. “Hey, hey there, folks, welcome to Walter’s Diner. I, Walter, am so happy you’re—” His words came to a halt when he looked up and saw me staring at him. His smile stretched so wide that I was almost certain my heart was going to explode from happiness. “Emery Rose,” he breathed out. “As I live and breathe.”
I leaped up from the booth and wrapped my arms around the older gentleman, holding him close to me. “Hey, Walt. Long time.”
“Too long,” he said, shaking his head in disappointment. “But I’m glad you’re here. Are you staying for a while?”
“Just the night. We’ll head out tomorrow, actually.”