Welcome to Chapter 4 of The Next Chapter. If you want to catch up with other chapters, you can go HERE, or you can wait until all the chapters are together in one book in the Spring of 2022.
To read my other books, visit my Amazon Author Page.
“I still think you should have come to stay with us a few days, Liz. Climbing up and down these stairs while you are recovering really isn’t a good idea.”
Marge Cranmer was a blur of activity, placing food on Molly and Liz’s small kitchen table, pouring drinks, pausing every few minutes to smile and coo at her sixth grandchild.
Liz shrugged. “It’s really not a big deal. I won’t have anywhere to go for a few days. My follow-up appointment isn’t until next week and Molly’s been nice enough to offer to get me supplies and groceries while she’s out.”
Marge scooped rice onto her daughter’s plate. “Well, that’s nice, but the offer still stands if you change your mind. Of course, I will be over here to help watch Isabella while you rest. Isabella. I love that you chose that name. Your grandmother would have been tickled pink. Really. It was sweet of you.” Marge reached over and pushed a strand of hair back from Liz’s face. “You look so tired. Did you rest at all in the hospital? I bet you didn’t. Hospitals are so hard to sleep in, plus I’m sure you were watching the baby. Did the nurses take the baby? They should have so you could sleep.”
Liz took a deep breath, waiting to see if her mother was done talking yet. She wasn’t.
“This is the rice recipe I got from Ginny at Tiffany’s last baby shower and the chicken you said you liked that time you came over for dinner a couple of months ago. Oh, and so sorry your dad couldn’t stay after he set the crib up. He had a meeting at the church with the building committee. I told you they’re building on right?” She sat abruptly and reached one hand toward Molly and the other toward Liz. “Let’s say a quick prayer of thanks.”
Liz glanced at Molly, trying to catch her attention, but her eyes were glued to Marge, her brow furrowed and her mouth slightly open. She was probably thinking what Liz was. How much sugar has Marge consumed today?
“Lord, bless us this food to our bodies and thank you for this wonderful day and for my little granddaughter. In your name, amen.”
“Amen,” Liz and Molly chorused.
Liz picked up her fork. “This looks great, Mom. Thank you for making lunch of us. You really didn’t have to.”
Marge set a glass of lemonade on the table. “Of course, I did. It isn’t every day your youngest brings home her first little bundle of joy.” She smiled down at the baby asleep in the car seat next to the table.
Looking at her mother, cheeks flushed from rushing, Liz couldn’t decide if she liked this new version of Marge — the one who seemed delighted Liz had given birth to a baby instead of the one whose eyes had filled with tears the night Liz told her she was pregnant, or the one who had barely spoke to her the entire two years she’d lived with Gabe.
“Is Gabe the father?” she’d asked the night Liz had told her. “Does he know he’s going to be a father even?”
And now she was back to Gabe as she sat down across from Liz. “So, did you let Gabe know that —”
“That what? That I gave birth to the baby he told me he wanted nothing to do with?”
Marge raised an eyebrow. “Well, I thought maybe his mind might change if he knew — or if he saw the baby.”
Liz swallowed the retort she wanted to give. Her mom had been trying so hard to be kind and understanding the last few months, something she’d once been fairly poor at. She didn’t want her mom to think the retort was aimed at her. She decided a softened tone was in order instead.
“I don’t think his mind would change, no. I’m sorry. I know you don’t like the idea of your granddaughter not having a father, but Gabe isn’t father material. He wasn’t even boyfriend material.”
Marge set her glass down on the table and nodded. “Okay, hon’ . We don’t have to talk about it right now.”
She reached her hand out and covered Liz’s briefly, a move that startled Liz since her mother hadn’t necessarily been affectionate in the last few years. Not that Liz could necessarily blame her. She hadn’t been the best daughter, or really a daughter at all.
She’d been selfish, self-centered and a first-class know-it-all, which is why she was now a single mother of a child fathered by a emotionally and physically abusive man. Her mom didn’t know about Gabe’s abuse though. She knew he hadn’t always been kind or attentive but there was only so much Liz could handle her parents knowing about how far she’d fallen. They already knew she’d moved in with a man she wasn’t married to, drank too much while with him and, obviously, gotten pregnant from him. How could she also tell them that she’d been stupid enough to stay with him even when he yelled at her, pushed her against a wall once, slapped her another time, and cheated on her at least once, if not more? She was humiliated enough.
A knock on the door broke the tension.
Liz stood quickly. “I’ll get it.”
When the room blurred into a mesh of colors, she clutched the edge of the table and gasped.
Molly was at her side immediately, her hand under her elbow. “Sit down. You just had a baby. You can’t rush around like your used to.”
Liz nodded, the dizziness fading as she slowly sat. “Thanks for the reminder.”
“I’ll get the door,” Molly said. “You going to be okay?”
Liz nodded slowly, trying to shake the left over weakness in her legs.
“Sip your lemonade,” her mother instructed. “It’s probably low blood pressure. Maybe you should go lay down.”
Liz shook her head. “No. I’m fine now. Really. I think I probably need food more than anything.”
“You’re eating for two for real now by breastfeeding.” Marge sighed. “Really I don’t think you should be breastfeeding at all. That’s a huge time commitment. You have a job you’ll be going back to and that won’t leave much time for nursing sessions.”
Ah, here was the old Marge Cranmer, creeping back in.
“Linda is completely supportive of my decision to breastfeed. She’s already told me I can pump in the back office anytime I need to.”
“It’s not the logistics that concerns me but the exhaustion it’s bound to bring,” Marge said, spearing a piece of chicken with her fork. “You’ve never been as hearty as Tiffany.”
Liz laid her fork down and groaned. “Really, Mom?”
“It’s not an insult, honey. It’s just the truth. You’ve always been a little more . . . sensitive I guess I’d say. That’s just how you are made.”
Liz folded her arms across her chest. Here we go again, she thought, a burning in her chest spreading up into her throat. “Yes. I get it. I am made of less sturdy stock than perfect Tiffany.”
Marge tipped her head and pursed her lips. “Liz, hon’, you have got to get over this whole competition thing with your sister. I’ve told you that before. And that is not what I said. Don’t place your insecurities in my words.”
Liz pushed her plate back and stood abruptly. “You know what? I’m not hungry anymore. I think you were right. I should lie down for a while.”
Marge stood as well. “I wasn’t trying to start an argument.” Her tone denoted the annoyance she felt but Liz could also see by the jumping muscle in her jaw that Marge was trying to keep her temper in check. “I was simply expressing concern for you.”
“Right.” Liz tossed the napkin she’d been clutching onto her plate of half-eaten food. “Because I can’t handle it. I got it, Mom.”
Turning on her heel, she winced as the room tilted again. She closed her eyes against her swirling surroundings, a static buzz filling her ears. She felt herself falling and reached out into the darkness, her hand colliding with something firm, yet soft before darkness overtook her.
When she came to, Matt was standing over her, brow furrowed, his face etched with concern.
She was on the couch and Molly was kneeling next to her, pressing a cold cloth to her forehead. A coldness touched her lips as Molly lifted her head. “Drink this. I haven’t seen you drink anything all day.”
Matt set his hands on his hips. “Maybe it’s low iron. Did they test her iron before they sent her home?”
Her mom was over her next, smoothing her hair back from her forehead. “Maybe we should take her back over. They could have missed something.”
Liz sipped the water and after pushing the glass away propped herself up on her elbows. “I think I’ve just pushed myself too much today, guys. How about I rest a little and if I’m still not feeling better, we can discuss me going back to the hospital.”
Molly stood and sat back on the chair across from the couch. “I think that sounds like a plan. I’m going to call the store and let them know I won’t be in for the afternoon shift.”
A small cry came from the kitchen and Marge turned and started walking toward the car seat. “No need, Molly. I’ll stay here with her.”
“Don’t you have your ladies group?” Molly asked.
Marge kneeled by the car seat and uncovered her squirming granddaughter. She lifted Isabella out gently and placed her against her shoulder. “Nope. I told them I needed to postpone it until Monday because Liz was coming home today.” She patted the baby’s back, the small whimper now becoming a full-on wail.
Liz laid her head back against the couch pillow. She hated the idea of her mother seeing her in such a weak state, having another excuse to call her weaker than her older sister.
At the same time, her entire body was actually weak not to mention aching and her head was still spinning. Maybe her mom was right. Maybe Tiffany really was made of sturdier stuff.
“I’m going to head out and let you rest.”
Matt’s voice startled her. She’d briefly forgotten he was there and now that she remembered, the familiar flush of humiliation spread from her chest to her cheeks. Yet again he was seeing her in a vulnerable position.
“Did you need something?” She flinched when her voice squeaked out the last word like a boy going through puberty.
Matt shook his head, his eyes still clouded with concern. “Just stopped by to see if you and Molly needed anything before I headed to work.” His gaze slid to Marge. “Luckily Mrs. Cranmer is here.”
Marge waved a hand. “Matthew McGee, there is no need to call me Mrs. Cranmer. It makes me feel so old. Please. Call me Marge.”
Matt nodded, grinning. “Old habits die hard.”
“You haven’t been in my Sunday School class in over 20-years.” Marge laughed and winked. “Kill the habit, young man.”
Liz’s eyes narrowed. Since when did her mom wink? Maybe she had an eyelash in her eye. Of course, this was Matt McGee, Encounter Church and Spencer Valley’s golden boy, she was talking to. The man who felled criminals all day as an officer with the Spencer Tri-Township Police Department and led Bible studies when he was done. He was also a Little League coach, a volunteer with the county boys and girls club, volunteered with the soup kitchen and the local pregnancy care center, and last year the town council had tried to convince him to run for mayor. At this point she couldn’t decide if she should be jealous of him or submit his name for sainthood.
If any of the women in town were turned off by the fact Matt wasn’t as built or muscular as one might expect of a police officer, they didn’t show it. His bright hazel eyes and charming smile and personality more than made up for what he might be lacking in physique. Liz’s eyes drifted across broad shoulders and down the length of this arms. Then again . . . had he been working out?
“No problem, Marge.” Matt said the words, but Liz heard the strain when he said her mom’s first name. “Looks like Liz is in good hands so I’m going to head out. Reggie doesn’t like it if we’re late for staff meetings.”
Liz knew she shouldn’t laugh but she couldn’t help it. “Reggie Stoddard holds actual staff meetings?”
Matt mocked gasped. “Now, Liz, don’t pick on Reggie.” He teasingly wagged his finger at her. “Yes, he is one of the laziest people I have ever worked for, but he’s also a good man and he loves the people in this community. We’re lucky to have him.”
Lazy was an understatement, but she supposed Matt was right. Reggie, the department’s chief, did care about the community, even if he did make his officers and everyone else do most of his work for him.
“I’ll check on you tomorrow, okay?” Matt smiled and she swallowed hard. It wasn’t fair he had such a nice smile when he was totally out of her league. “Get some rest.”
Molly was the next to leave, on her way to the farm store. After nursing Isabella, Liz pulled the covers up over her shoulder and decided she’d take a nap on the couch instead of finding her way to the bedroom.
Her mother began swaddling Isabella in the bassinet she’d brought over the week before. “That was nice of Matt to stop by. I didn’t realize you two were friends.”
Liz closed her eyes. If she laid here long enough maybe her mom would think she’d fallen asleep. In fact, she was almost there so —
“Not that it is a bad thing you are friends. Matt is a wonderful man. He leads the singles Bible study at church, coaches the local Little League and everyone in town just adores him. I just didn’t realize you two knew each other that well. I mean, well enough for you to give birth in the front of his pickup truck that is.” Marge cleared her throat. “Which is something I’ve been meaning to ask you about. How did that all come about anyhow?”
Liz attempted a realistic sounding snore.
Marge sighed. “I know that tactic, Liz. You’ve been doing that since you were three, but okay. If you don’t want to talk about it right now, that’s fine. I know you’re exhausted. Get some sleep while you can. Isabella will need to be fed again soon and you still have to establish that milk supply.”
Yes, mother. I know. Despite what you think, I do know something about taking care of a newborn.
Liz thought the retort, instead of saying it, glad she was too tired to open her mouth and speak the words out loud.
“You know, I should get you a copy of that book Tiffany got when she had Evan.”
Why was her mother still talking?
“The Baby Book by some doctor. It was like her own personal baby bible for the first 18 months of Evan’s life. I’ll ask Elaina at the bookstore if she has it or can order me a copy, but in the meantime, I bet you could find a copy at the library. Just ask Ginny to look it up for you. I’m sure she’d be happy to.”
Oh, yes. Of course. How wonderful.
Now not only would her entire family, her best friend, and Matt McGee know how inept she was at motherhood, but now her sister’s mother-in-law would know too.
She was grateful when sleep washed over her, so she didn’t have to think about how bad she was going to be at this whole motherhood.
Matt shook his head as he drove toward the police station.
What had he even been thinking stopping to see Liz like that?
They weren’t dating. They were barely friends.
For goodness’ sake she’d just given birth to another man’s baby in his truck three days ago. If that wasn’t a sign there wasn’t anything between them, he didn’t know what was.
Of course, that man wasn’t in the picture anymore and never should have been in it in the first place.
Liz had plenty of people to take care of her, though. What did he think he was going to do? The only good thing about him stopping was that he’d been there to catch her when she’d blacked out. His mind had been racing as he carried her to the couch.
He’d been ready to call an ambulance until her mom assured him she was probably just weak from needing to eat. Still, he’d kneeled next to her, taken her pulse, checked her breathing and even laid a hand against her forehead to see if she was feverish. He’d heard of women having infections after giving birth.
That’s what this was.
Thinking and worrying about a woman he wasn’t in a relationship with. It wasn’t that Liz was rude to him, but the walls she flung up whenever they were alone should be sign enough of a sign she didn’t want him around.
Inviting her to go fishing with him at his favorite spot on the lake had probably been one of the stupidest ideas he’d had, especially she was nine months pregnant at the time.
He’d been tired of her talking about how fat and unattractive she was when they were hanging out with Alex and Molly. No matter how many times he told her she was beautiful and glowing, how pregnancy made her even more beautiful, she wouldn’t listen. Plus, she was stressed that the baby hadn’t been born yet, so he thought a trip to the lake would take her mind off things.
They’d been standing on the edge of the pond when her water broke.
He’d just brought her arm back to show her how to cast when she screamed. He looked over at her saw her looking down in horror and followed her gaze to the puddle on and around his favorite pair of hiking boots. He missed those boots. They were in the trash out back, waiting for his next trip to the landfill.
Basing his experience on his sister and sister-in-law’s labors he’d thought they had plenty of time to get to the hospital. That assumption had turned out to be completely wrong halfway to the hospital, making him wish he had even more experience of women in labor.
“I’m not going to make it,” Liz had told him with wide eyes.
Thinking she’d meant she wasn’t going to make it through labor, he tried to encourage her. “You’ve got this, Liz. You can totally get through this. Millions of women do every —”
“I’m not going to make it to the hospital, McGee! This baby is coming NOW!”
McGee. What was with that anyhow? She’d been calling him McGee since high school, but he thought by now, a decade later, she could manage to say his first name.
She hadn’t made it to the hospital either. He’d pulled the truck over, silently rehearsing what he’d learned in his first aid classes about delivering a baby as he walked around to her side of the truck.
Thankfully his brain had switched to police offer mode during the delivery. He’d focused on the task at hand, acting as if Liz wasn’t the woman he’d wanted to kiss at the lake an hour earlier, and instead pretending she was a stranger he’d come upon during his shift.
He realized with a start he’d been sitting in his truck outside the police station for ten minutes while he remembered Isabella’s birth. He looked at the clock on the dashboard. That meant he was now 15 minutes late to work instead of five.
“McGee!” Reggie’s voice from the back of the building was sharp, but Matt knew there was little bite behind it. “Get in here!”
Matt tossed his jacket on to the back of his chair and headed toward Reggie’s office. The portly police chief was standing, pushing a drawer of a green metal filing cabinet closed
“Sorry, I’m late chief, I —”
Reggie scowled as he walked back to his desk, but Matt could already see the smile trying to tug at the corners of his mouth. “I have you for two more months McGee, don’t start checking out now. I’m not going to have you acting like a space cadet until you leave for the academy.”
Reggie reminded Matt of a roly-poly toy he’d seen last year at an antique store while he was on a hunting trip with his uncle. The buttons of his uniform trained against a round belly, short, stumpy legs stuck out from the bottom and wild tufts of graying brown hair stuck out from the top of his head. He was rarely clean shaven and today was no exception.
“Sorry, chief. Really.” Time to be open. “I stopped by to check on Liz and she passed out. I stayed until I was sure she was okay.”
Reggie huffed into a ripped black desk chair and slapped a file onto his desk. “Passed out, huh? She low on iron?”
Matt shrugged a shoulder. “Thought the same thing. She’s not sure, but her mom was with her so I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
Reggie leaned toward the desk and tipped his head down to look over a pair of cheater glasses he’d picked up last week at Bert’s Drugstore. “What’s the deal with you two anyhow? Somethin’ you ain’t tellin’ me, McGee? You the father of that baby of hers or what?”
Anyone else might have taken offense to Reggie’s straight forward questions, but Matt never did. He knew Reggie meant well. He simply lacked tact.
“No sir. We’re just good friends. I’ve known her since high school.”
After a couple of seconds of watching Matt with narrowed eyes, Reggie seemed to accept that answer and leaned back in his chair, flipping the folder open. “Alright then. That topic is closed. Now. I’ve got a case here I’d like your help with since you’re the brains in this outfit.” He pushed the file across the desk. “Bernie Denton. Know him?”
Matt nodded as he looked at the mug shut attached to the file. “Yes, sir. He was in my class at school. We didn’t graduate together. He dropped out in tenth grade. Been in trouble ever since. I picked him up for drug possession my first year here. He moved to Clarkson a few years back, so he’s been someone else’s problem, but I’ve seen his name in the paper more than once for several different offenses.”
Reggie folded his fingers against his palms and tapped the top of the desk. “Yep. That’s him. Well, guess what? He’s our problem again. Not directly our problem, exactly. He’s living somewhere in the area. As far as I know, he’s not in our jurisdiction, but the state police are looking for him and they’ve asked for our help. He’s up on some bigger charges this time. Meth manufacturing and trafficking.”
Matt sat in the chair across from Reggie’s desk, flipping through the file. “And here we thought the heroine epidemic would push meth out the door. Guess not.” He laid the file down and leaned back in the chair. “What help are the state police looking for?”
The sigh that came out of Reggie triggered a brief coughing spell. He sipped his coffee and cleared his throat. “Dang allergies. Ragweed must be blooming out back the house again.” He took another sip of coffee. Matt knew it was mostly black with a drop of creamer. He’d poured it enough for him. “Anyhow, they want us to keep an eye out and let them know if we see Bernie. If we do, they want us to contact them, but they also might want one of our guys to make first contact, break the ice, so to speak, and help them get their foot in the door with him. They don’t think he knows they know about the meth factory he’s got up at his junkyard, if you know what I mean.”
Matt laughed. “Yeah. I get your drift, but if you think I’m the guy for this job, you’re wrong. Bernie and I never hit it off in school and he knows I’m a cop. He’s not going to open up to me.”
“Probably not, but you’re a familiar face. He might trust you more than a statie from out of the area. Maybe we can bring him in without too much fanfare.” Reggie dragged the folder back across the desk and slapped it closed. “Of course, all of this will be moot if we don’t happen upon him in the next couple of months. After that you’ll be lost to me. Down state being brainwashed by them gray gods.”
Matt snorted a laugh. “Now come on, Chief. Not all state police are like that.”
Reggie looked at Matt over his mug of coffee and rolled his eyes. “Just the majority of them.” He gulped the last of the coffee and set the mug down hard on the top of the desk. “Promise me you won’t let them change you, make you one of the elite who look down their noses at us small towners.”
“I promise,” Matt said, raising a hand and plastering a solemn expression on his face.
Reggie scowled at him, but a faint smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
“Get out of here, McGee. I’m tired of looking at your handsome face. Go do some actual work for once. Start with training that rookie out there. He’s driving me nuts, following me around and reciting what he learned in the academy like he’s some big shot.”