Lord, what a long day! And the worst of it was that nothing had really gone wrong. The fishermen came on time with their catches, the customers came as expected and took the catches away, money moved from Grady to the fishermen and from the customers to Grady. There had been no disasters, nothing that could even be termed a mishap. It was just … long.
But that was what happened when you ran a shop alone. Everything took twice as long as it did when you had another person with you — particularly another person as capable and experienced as Toinette.
The customers had noticed and some of the regulars had even been kind enough to ask after her, hoping she was doing well. Grady had been able to reassure them on that score. Toinette was fine — it was the kids who weren’t faring too well.
“But it ain’t much ter worry about,” Grady had said when some of his kindlier patrons looked at him in alarm. “It’s not that bad. Jest a kid sickness. It’s gone through half the kids at the school already, an’ all o’ them were jest fine after a few days.”
Granted, they were a few miserable days. Of Grady’s own kids, Paddy had been the first to go down. He’d taken to his bed with a slight fever, chills, vomiting — the usual suspects. Toinette’s mother had come been kind enough to come and take care of him, letting Toinette and Grady concentrate on the business. But after a couple of days in bed, basking in the undivided attention of his grandmother and her chicken soup, Paddy was up again and raising hell as usual.
Katie was the next go down. But she had recovered even faster than Paddy. Grady wasn’t surprised. His kids were strong, well-fed little champions. If a disease like this had hit Grady and his siblings in their leanest years, it might well have killed them all. But Grady’s own children barely blinked.
If Grady had ever needed proof that he was a better man than his father, or at the very least a better provider, he supposed it was right there.
But after Katie had sickened and gotten over it, Nora had been the next to succumb. And Nora … Grady’s steps slowed, and for the first time, he looked up at his fine new house with a sinking feeling in his stomach.
Nora had been the worst. He had last seen her this morning — high fever, thrashing about, shivering and shuddering. That was why Toinette had stayed home today, instead of asking her mother to come and look after Nora. Oh, Toinette had said it was because they had trespassed on Cerise’s good nature too much in the last week (Grady wasn’t aware that Cerise had all that much good nature to trespass on, but he had wisely let that potential argument pass), but Grady knew the real reason. Toinette was worried.
And if Toinette was worried …
Grady shook himself and marched himself into the house. If Nora had gotten worse, drastically worse, then Toinette would have sent Katie or Paddy at a run for him. He had nothing to worry about.
He opened the door, slipped inside, and announced his presence with the customary cry of husbands everywhere: “Honey, I’m home!”
“Grady?” came the questioning cry. Grady poked his head in the other room, then up the stairs.
Poor Toinette had dark circles under her eyes, and more hair than usual had worked its way out of her messy bun. “Honey, ye all right?”
“Oh …” She tried to smile. “I’m fine.”
“How’re the kids?”
Toinette sighed. “Nora’s doin’ better, but Sean’s went down jest after dinner.”
“How bad is he?”
Toinette shrugged. “Not too bad, but –”
“MA! Sean’s throwin’ up again!”
“Oh, hell — Paddy, get the bucket!” Toinette yelped and dashed into the boys’ bedroom.
Grady hesitated at the foot of the stairs, but he knew from experience that he was no good in a sickroom. He was fine with the kids were just feverish or coughing, but the minute vomit came into the picture … Grady shuddered and tried to will his own queasiness away. No, he was no good with that. Toinette would just be irked with him for giving him another patient to deal with.
Besides, there had to be other ways to help her. If Sean had gotten sick just after dinner …
He poked his head around the corner into the dining room and, sure enough, there was still a plate on Aileen’s chair. Toinette had probably left the cleaning-up to the kids, and they had forgotten that. Ah, well, what were husbands for if not to clean up after forgetful kids?
On his way out, he cast a quick glance at the table. Not only was it clean, somebody — Katie, probably — had gone over it with a rag. That girl was trouble in some ways, but in others, she was a godsend. Toinette had taught her cleaning, as every mother taught her daughter, but Katie actually seemed to like it. And now that she was big enough to be trusted with chores herself, she often did them to a standard that surpassed Grady’s or Toinette’s. Nora was shaping up to be the same way, if not better — or worse, depending on your perspective. Toinette and Grady had to yell at the boys about the state of their bedroom at least once a week, but once or twice Grady had caught one of the girls sneaking into his and Toinette’s room to dust or make sure the bed was made just so.
He brought the bowl into the kitchen, only to find the sink half-full of half-cleaned dishes. He paused. If Katie had been put in charge of cleaning up, they should have been cleaned — so why weren’t they?
As Grady put the bowl into the stack and filled the sink with water from the bucket someone had already brought in, his stomach sank. What if Katie had felt sick again?
His movements were hasty, feverish, as he ran soapy water over the dishes and scrubbed the dried food and sticky residue from them. He knew Katie’s way. She first cleared the table, then she cleaned it with the rag. Then she did the dishes. Or, if Nora was well — which she probably wasn’t, yet — Nora cleared the table and cleaned it while Katie did the dishes. So Katie must have been called away, or gotten sick again, when the table done but the dishes weren’t. But that didn’t explain why Aileen’s dish had been left out —
Grady snorted and kicked himself for a fool. Katie had probably put Paddy in charge of cleaning the table, that was all. If there was anything Katie liked better than a clean room, it was making her brother to work in making it happen. And of course Paddy forgot something. That boy put the pigs to shame when it came to living standards.
But then why had Katie left the dishes only half-washed —
It wouldn’t do him any good to speculate. What would do good would be to finish the job, make sure the kitchen was clean, as was Aileen’s chair, and then go upstairs and check up on the girls, since Toinette was more than busy enough with the boys.
Cleaning the kitchen luckily didn’t take long. Knowing Toinette, she had been exhausted by dinner, and so had fixed something not terribly complicated or messy. There hadn’t been enough left of dinner for Grady to figure out what it had been, but there had been more bowls than plates in the mix. She had probably made a stew of some sort, or maybe had just given everybody the soothing soup she was feeding to the sickly ones. That was Toinette’s way. Easy and simple, and who knew — it might even keep the healthy ones from getting sick, or make them feel better if any sickness still lurked within them.
But with the kitchen clean and Aileen’s chair wiped down, there was nothing else to do — downstairs, at least — that would count as giving Toinette some help. He headed upstairs.
He’d feel better as soon as he’d seen his kids.
He hesitated at Sean and Paddy’s door, but it didn’t take long before he heard the tell-tale signs of retching. Grady shuddered and hurried away before Toinette had to clean up his mess. He still remembered the first time she had gotten morning sickness with Katie. Grady had held her hair back and patted her back out of a confused sense that that was what a husband was supposed to do, but the smell … and the sight … once Toinette had been done and had finally straightened up, she had cast one glance at him and asked in some alarm, “Grady, what’s wrong? Ye look –”
He’d had to shove his poor pregnant wife away from the bucket. That had also been the last time Grady had held her hair back for her while she was sick with any of the kids. It was easier that way.
He knocked and poked his head into the girls’ room. “Girls? How are ye –”
“Hello, Katie,” Grady said, kissing his biggest girl’s cheek as she hurtled herself over to him. “How are ye feelin’?”
“Fine!” she replied, but even though she was excited, she was … well, as quiet as she could be. Grady looked sideways and saw the reason: Nora, fast asleep in her bed.
“Ye sure?” Grady asked, feeling her forehead out of habit.
“Da! I’mfine. It’s Nora an’ Sean who are sick.”
“If ye’re sure …” But she seemed sure, and more importantly, she didn’t feel warm. She ought to be as fine as she was claiming to be. “But if ye feel a little bit sick, ye tell yer ma an’ me, all right?”
“O’ course, Da.”
He wouldn’t bring up the dishes. She was so good, usually, about things like that, and she was still a kid. But she seemed to sense it anyway, for she added, “Ma wanted me ter help with Aileen, an’ then watch Nora, so I didn’t get the dishes …”
“Katie, Katie, don’t worry about the dishes. I took care o’ ’em. Ye jest watch after yer sister.”
“… Oh …”
Grady narrowed his eyes. “Katie? What’s wrong?”
“I jest …” She scratched her head and looked at Nora. “I dunno what to do …”
“What ter do about what?”
“Ter make her better.”
To make her better? Oh, his poor girl. Toinette would have only wanted Katie to keep an eye on the situation, not be the sole medical authority. And Katie had to take that one, two, five steps further. His girl had done a lot of growing up in the past year or so — maybe too much growing up.
“Sweetie, ye ain’t got ter worry about that. That ain’tyer job. Yer ma jest wanted ye ter watch her, that’s all. Here,” he suggested, “I’ll go check on her now, will that make ye feel better?”
The way Katie nodded left no doubt on that score. Grady tousled her hair and went to the bed.
Nora lay sprawled on the pillow, the covers half pushed down her little body. Grady felt her head. Warm. But not, he thought, as warm as she had been this morning. Her cheeks weren’t as flushed, either. And even if her limbs were flung every which-way over the bed … well, Nora tended to sleep like that even if she was well. All in all, she seemed to look worse than she was.
Grady smoothed her hair back from her brow, and Nora slowly stirred, blinking. “Da?”
“Hello, baby. How are ye feelin’?”
“Ye think ye’re gonna need the bucket anytime soon?”
“No,” Nora replied. “But …”
“I’m sleepy, Da. An’ I’m hot.”
“Poor baby.” Grady kissed her forehead. “But ye look better than ye did this mornin’.”
“Ye’re welcome. Now ye get some sleep, Nora.”
Nora flashed a quick smile at him, then she rolled over and dropped back to sleep.
Grady turned to Katie, who had shadowed him to the very foot of the bed. “She’s fine, Katie. Don’t ye worry none about her. At most … feel her head every now an’ again. If she gets really warm, ye yell fer yer ma or me, all right?”
“But Sean’s so sick …”
“Don’t ye worry none about that. Me an’ yer ma will take care o’ ye kids. That’s our job, not yers.”
“But I can help!”
“An’ ye are helpin’. Tell ye what …” He mused. “If it’s all right with yer ma, an’ she don’t need yer help around here, why don’t ye come ter me shop after yer done with school tomorrow? I’ve got some things ye could start learnin’ how to do. Heck, bring yer brother, he can go fishin’ in the pond an’ I’ll show him how ter sell what he catches.”
“Are ye sure Ma would be all right with that? If she needs me help …”
Toinette would probably give up Katie’s help if it meant getting Paddy out of her hair for the afternoon. Of course, he could just take Paddy … but it didn’t seem fair to do that without offering Katie the opportunity. “If she does, ye’ll stay here, but if ye don’t, ye can help me. Sound fair?”
Katie pondered that, but after a long, slow moment, she smiled and nodded.
“Good girl. Now, if ye don’t mind, I’d better go check up on yer other sister. Where is she?”
“I cleaned her up and put her to bed, like Ma said.”
“That’s me lass.” He kissed Katie again. “Now — ye need any help, ye yell. But I think yer sister is in good hands, with ye around.”
He left Katie beaming as he went into his own bedroom to see Aileen.
He lit a couple of candles when he entered the room, but he didn’t hear Aileen stir. Good, she must have been fast asleep. That was one child safe and accounted for.
But when Grady bent over the crib to make sure, he saw that she was flushed.
“Aileen?” he whispered, not daring to be loud enough to wake her up. He stroked her hair, getting just one finger to feel her forehead …
She was warm.Very warm.
Oh, Lord. How had Katie not noticed this? Maybe it only came on after she’d been put to bed — that could be it. Or Katie was just too young to know how warm was normal, and how warm was too warm. Of course. She was only eleven.
“Aileen?” Grady murmured again, a little louder. If her eyes would just open …
They did. And she whimpered. “Da-da!”
“Oh, baby,” Grady whispered, reaching into the crib and lifting her out. She came, limp and lifeless as one of Nora or Katie’s dolls. Aileen hadn’t been this unresponsive since she was a newborn and Grady had to mind her head.
“Aileen, baby, what’s wrong?” Grady asked, pushing her hair — red as his own — back from her face, trying to get a closer look at her expression. But Aileen only whimpered and clung to his neck.
“Sweetheart …” But there was no use asking questions. Aileen wasn’t talking much, yet. She’d mastered “Mama,” “Da-da,” and “ba-ba,” but not much else. She couldn’t say that her tummy hurt, or she was too hot, or she just felt miserable.
That was Grady’s job to figure out.
He rubbed her tummy, because rubbing an upset tummy often served to sooth it. It didn’t make Aileen look any happier, but it didn’t make her look any sadder, either. There had to be something said for that.
But then she whimpered and rested her head on Grady’s shoulder. “Shush, shush, baby. It’s all right, Daddy’s here …” He rocked her from side to side, kissed her forehead.
Good Lord, she was warm! She was warmer than Katie or Paddy or Nora had been at their worst —
And then a thought hit that made Grady’s stomach plummet.
Katie and Paddy had bounced right back from their illness. But Nora and Sean were still sick. Nora was on the mend, but Sean was taking longer. If it got worse the younger the patient … where did that leave Aileen?
No. No. He wouldn’t think of that. He couldn’t have come this far, gained so much, only to lose —
He clutched Aileen to his heart, rocked her, tried to calm his racing heart.
He would get Aileen calmed and soothed, and then — then he’d run for a doctor. That Brother Andy, maybe. He was damned expensive, but he was closest and he would be worth it.
Because Grady had not come this far, gained his and his children’s freedom, only to lose one of them now. He had borne so much — but this he could not bear.
“Shush, shush, Aileen,” he whispered. “It’s all right. Daddy’s here. Daddy will make everythin’ better. Just ye wait an’ see.”