Single mother Tracey Hiatt prides herself on having a close relationship with her daughter-the kind of relationship she’s always wanted, but never had, with her own mother. When her mother suffers a debilitating illness and faces a lengthy recovery, family takes on a whole new meaning for Tracey as she finds herself pulled back to her ex, Steve Eldridge. There’s only one problem: he’s involved with someone else. Steve is drawn back into Tracey’s family drama and after her mother awakens from a coma believing he and Tracey are married, the two are forced to confront some fundamental questions about their relationship. Can they put past hurts behind them and take a leap of faith into a new future together?
The steady beep of the heart monitor filled the room, along with the whooshing sound of the ventilator. Out in the hallway, Tracey Hiatt could hear the occasional chime of the elevator and muffled voices sounding over the hospital intercom, but she paid no attention to them, her focus remaining on the still form in the bed. Pamela Hiatt had long cut an imposing figure, at least where her middle child was concerned, but now she lay completely motionless, a machine in charge of her breathing. ‘Comatose and unresponsive,’ the doctors termed her condition, while at the same time insisting Pamela was aware of what happened around her and could hear what people said.
“Talk to her,” Tracey’s brother had urged when she arrived at the hospital, before leaving her alone in their mother’s room. “It’ll mean a lot to her that you’re here.”
Yeah, right.Brian meant well. Tracey didn’t doubt that. He’d always tried to be the peacemaker and stick up for his little sister in the face of Pamela’s constant disapproval, and Tracey appreciated that. It was because of Brian, for Brian, that she’d rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital upon learning her estranged mother had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke and lay in a coma.
Talk to her. Fine. What was she supposed to say? Tracey sucked in a breath as she fought back tears. She’d long thought that Pamela lived to torment her, and she wasn’t quite prepared to see her mother like this, barely clinging to life.
“Hello, Mother,” she finally said. “It’s me, Tracey. Bet you didn’t expect to see me here, huh? It’s been a while.” How long, exactly, she didn’t remember. Over the years, Tracey had extended a few olive branches, hoping to repair the relationship with her mother for the sake of her own daughter. Occasionally Pamela reciprocated and they forged a somewhat tentative truce for a short period. Other times, Tracey’s efforts were met with a frosty response and she stopped trying.
“Anyway, I’m doing well,” she said. “I’ve got a new class assignment this fall. I’m teaching Tort Law. Isn’t that exciting?” Tracey still recalled Pamela’s look of disapproval when she accepted a position teaching Legal Writing at Northern Illinois University’s law school. The job wasn’t prestigious enough for Pamela’s lofty standards. Maybe not, but Tracey enjoyed teaching it and was good at it. Still, with the retirement of one of the senior members of the faculty, she’d been presented with the opportunity to take over a Torts class and she jumped at it. She’d been contemplating calling her mother, extending another olive branch, when Brian called to inform her of Pamela’s stroke. Life was cruel sometimes.
Pamela didn’t stir, but Tracey continued on. “I’m really looking forward to the new challenge. Classes start next week.” She paused, again studying her mother’s form. No change. Nothing. “Lindsay’s starting sixth grade next week, too. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that. You wouldn’t believe how big she’s gotten.” Of course, maybe you would if you saw her on a regular basis.
Tracey took a deep breath and tried to get a handle on her emotions. Now, with her mother fighting to survive, was not the time to dwell on past slights and years of hurt. Once Pamela recovered, they’d have the opportunity to talk about everything, and maybe, hopefully, repair their relationship. Tracey wanted it to happen, but she wasn’t quite ready to make a bargain with God. Instead of bargaining, she settled for the simple truth.
“You drive me crazy, Mother,” she said. “And you make me angry. Always comparing everything I do to Brian or Kim, never just letting me be me and loving me for it. Maybe I should have given up on you years ago. I’ve wanted to plenty of times, but there’s something I want more. I want a relationship with my mother.” Tears ran down her cheeks, and Tracey wiped at them with the back of her hand. “Isn’t that just the kicker? After everything you’ve done to push me away, I’m still not ready to give up and say goodbye. So you better not be, either, okay? We both have some work to do.”
With the issuance of a challenge, Tracey half expected Pamela to open her eyes and object, but she never stirred. For another twenty minutes, Tracey followed the advice of the doctors and talked to her mother. She talked about her plans for the new school year—for herself and Lindsay—and the prospects of the Bears or the Cubs ever winning another championship. When finally she ran out of things to say and couldn’t listen to the sounds of the heart monitor and ventilator any longer, she got up to leave. “It’s been nice talking to you, Mother.” The longest conversation they’d had in years, and Pamela never said a word.
Tracey jabbed at the elevator button, anxious to leave. The doors opened and she rushed forward, colliding with a person stepping off the elevator. “Excuse me. I’m sorry,” she stammered.
“No worries,” Steve Eldridge said as he out a hand to her. The elevator doors closed again, leaving them in the hallway. “You okay, Tracey?”
She wanted to say yes, tell him she was fine and to leave her alone, but it would be a lie, and Steve would see through it right away. Instead, she shook her head as she looked up into his green eyes. Eyes their daughter had inherited. “It’s been kind of a rough day,” Tracey said, opting for understatement rather than dishonesty. “How’d you know I was here?”
“I have a case with Brian. He asked to reschedule a hearing for personal reasons,” Steve explained. “Obviously I was concerned. He gave me the whole scoop. I’m really sorry, Trace.” There was no questioning the sincerity of his words. “Don’t you think this is something you should have told me yourself, though?”
“We’re not married,” Tracey reminded him needlessly. They never had been, but still Steve shared a close enough relationship with her brother to freely chat about family news, a fact Tracey didn’t always like. How was she supposed to get over Steve if her own brother basically considered him part of the family?
“Your choice, not mine.” Steve shoved his hands in the pockets of his khakis. “It doesn’t mean I don’t care about you.”
Care about her, yes. Tracey didn’t doubt that. Love was another matter, and one she didn’t care to get into with him at the moment, if ever. Her primary concern was where their daughter was, since it was Steve's visitation week and he was now at the hospital. “Where’s Lindsay?” she asked, changing the subject.
“Meredith took her for pizza and ice cream.”
“Are you sure that was a good idea?” Tracey couldn’t keep her displeasure from her voice.
“Yes, I thought it was a fine idea,” Steve said. “Why do you have to say things like that? You make it sound like you don’t trust Meredith around our daughter.” He raked a hand through his dark hair, mussing it in front. “She passed a background check to be admitted to the state bar, so it’s not like she’s a hardened criminal, and besides, Lindsay’s known her for a year and a half and enjoys spending time with her. You know that.”
Tracey swallowed hard. Yes, Lindsay did seem to enjoy spending time with Daddy’s girlfriend Meredith, and yes, Tracey still had a bit of a problem with it. It was her problem, though, and she’d have to work through it. It didn’t give her the right to be a total bitch. “You’re right,” Tracey said, softening her tone. “I’m sure they’ll have fun together. I’m sorry I snapped at you. Like I said, it’s been a bad day.”
Steve nodded. “Understandable. Want to go downstairs and get some coffee and talk about it?”
“Actually, I really just want to get the hell out of here.”
“That works, too.” Steve placed one hand on her shoulder and with the other pressed the elevator button. “I’ll drive.”
Tracey didn’t say where she wanted to go, and Steve didn’t ask, instead driving in silence through downtown Chicago before ending up at a familiar sports bar. Steve had no idea why he chose it, other than maybe because it was so familiar. After all, it was the site of one of best moments of Steve’s life, and also one of the worst. That he counted them as one and the same no longer seemed strange.
“Why here?” Tracey asked as he held the door open for her and led her inside.
“Why not? It’s close to the hospital, and we like the food.”
“True,” Tracey said, settling into a booth. “Thanks for getting me out of there. I don’t think I could have stood it much longer.”
“I figured.” It was why he’d left for the hospital as soon as he’d learned of Pamela’s condition. Thankfully, Meredith seemed to understand why he needed to go and offered to entertain Lindsay. At least he hoped she understood. Steve knew it wasn’t always easy for her, but Mer knew from the beginning he had a daughter. That linked him, forever, with his daughter’s mother, and she had to accept that. “You holding up okay now?”
“Trying to.” Tracey picked up the menu, then set it down without opening it. “It’s ridiculous to be this emotional. I don’t even like the woman.”
“No, but she’s still your mother and you love her, even if you don’t always like her.” Steve long ago realized there was a difference, especially when it came to the dysfunctional relationship between Tracey and Pamela. “She’s a strong, stubborn woman, Trace,” he said. “She’s going to get through this just fine.”
“Of course she will, if only to torture me further,” Tracey said, but Steve could tell from the look in her brown eyes that she wasn’t confident in her words.
“How hungry are you?” he asked, changing the subject. “Want to split the taco pizza?”
“Sure, that sounds fine.”
“How about a beer?”
Tracey shook her head. “No. Just a Coke for me. I still have to drive back to DeKalb tonight, and I’d rather not fall asleep at the wheel.”
“I’d rather you didn’t, too,” Steve said, and flagged a waitress down to place their order.
For the next forty-five minutes, while they polished off a taco pizza, Steve tried his best to keep the conversation light. They talked about the Cubs’ losing streak, the Bears’ prospects, the annual mid-August heat wave, Steve’s recently completed trial and their daughter’s upcoming school year. Sixth grade. He could hardly believe it. In some ways, it seemed like only yesterday that he’d met Tracey at this restaurant after work and she’d announced she was pregnant. The news shocked him, and he’d proceeded to make a complete ass of himself, a scene Steve regretted more than once. Since he couldn’t undo it, he simply hoped he’d done right by both of them in the decade since.
“Don’t forget her reading list,” Tracey said, interrupting his thoughts. “She should be reading half an hour every day.”
Steve nodded. “Yeah, we got it. We’ve been working with her.”
“Good. She likes to read, so it probably doesn’t take much to get her to do it.”
“No,” Steve agreed. “Are you going to be okay tonight, Trace? Because if you want to take Lindsay back with you...” He didn’t want to make the offer. He valued his time with her. Still, it seemed like the right thing to do.
Tracey shook her head. “No. It’s your week. School starts soon, and I don’t want to cut into your extended time with her before then. Besides, it’d be past her bedtime by the time I get back home. I don’t want to disrupt her routine.”
Steve smiled. “Thanks. I appreciate that.”
“Thanks for rescuing me from the ICU. I should probably get on my way, though.”
“At least let me drive you back to your car.” Steve pulled his wallet from his pocket.
“I can take the L,” Tracey said. “Just as fast. Ten minutes back to the hospital, grab the car, and I’m home in a little more than an hour. I’ll be fine.” She stood up to leave. “I’ll see you Friday, okay?”
Friday. When his week with Lindsay would be up and she returned to her mother’s home. They'd been following the arrangement for ten years and had the routine down, but it still hurt to say goodbye to his daughter at the end of a visit. “Sure.” Steve hesitated. “But if anything happens in the meantime and you need to talk...”
“Yeah, I’m sure Meredith would love that,” Tracey said. “Thanks, but I can handle this on my own. I’m not your problem anymore, Steve.”
He watched her walk out of the restaurant, then sighed. “That’s just it, Trace. You’ve never been a problem.”
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I caught the writing bug in sixth grade, when I threatened to write a whole book after a class assignment to write the first chapter. I never finished that book, but the desire to create stories never left.
When I'm not giving life to the voices inside my head, I can probably be found watching a hockey or football game on TV, hoping one day the Dallas Stars will win another Stanley Cup and the Denver Broncos will win another Superbowl. (Hey, it might happen!) Either that or I'm busy with my day job as a juvenile court attorney, a position that never ceases to provide new material for my books!