The "CLOSED" sign at So-Cal Coffee House swayed back and forth on the door as the lone occupant bolted out the front. Jesse dove into his car and started the engine. Shutting off the loud hip-hop that kicked in automatically, he lunged into traffic.
"Oh, you gotta be kidding me…!"
He didn't get more than a few blocks before he found himself bumper to bumper with an entire lane of automobiles of every shape and size. The procession looked like it reached for miles, and it was stalled.
"Dammit! C'mon! Move, bitch!" He punched his car horn. The car in front of him crept forward, then stopped. Jesse followed, then tried the horn again. This time the driver flipped him off.
He growled, slammed an aggravated fist on the dashboard and slumped his head onto the steering wheel. Jane needed him. Their daughter was coming early, and he absolutely had to be there for both of them.
A horn blasted behind him to alert him to move. He had barely let up on the brake before stopping directly behind the next car again. Inside one of the other cars, he could hear the passengers singing the chorus to "I Wanna Rock And Roll All Night (And Party Every Day)."
His kid was about to be born…but no amount of inching forward, assaulting his horn or yelling obscenities could change the fact that every KISS concert-goer in the city sat between him and the hospital.
Jane gulped in several deep breaths and lay back against the inclined bed. She wiped her forehead, drenched with sweat, on the sleeve of her hospital robe. Her face puckered with the urge to openly weep. Not yet, you don't, she chastised herself. The contractions weren't that severe yet, and the nurses had told her nonstop since she was admitted to relax between them.
But relaxation was made utterly impossible by the several emotions sparring in her mind.
She was angry at Jesse for putting her in this position, making her endure eight and a half months of maternity misery, and then not being here. She was angry at herself for giving him reason to pick up an extra work shift today and not to be with her, when any combination of the words "I'm sorry," "I love you" or "I can't wait to be a mom" would have easily kept him at home.
She was remorseful for implying that she'd rather go back to being a junkie than go on being a mother. This child was the only reason they were sober (maybe even the only reason they were alive) and in those few words she'd shouted last week she'd insinuated it wasn't worth it.
She was scared…partly of the hours of pain and suffering ahead, but more so of facing them alone. Above all else, she was scared of the risk of losing their baby in this preterm delivery. After a week of almost total silence between herself and Jesse—after she'd virtually said she didn't want this baby—she couldn't bear to imagine how deeply that loss would cut him.
"Hey, if you're trying to sell me something, I got four little words for you: Do Not Call List. However, if you're cool, leave it at the beep." Beeeep.
Jesse mouthed "Shit," smacked his phone shut and tossed it into the passenger seat. He didn't expect Jane to have her phone on or with her in the hospital, but it was a shot.
If he ever saw Mr. White again, the first thing he'd do would be to apologize for putting him in this exact same position once. His old partner had also missed the birth of his daughter because, instead of standing by to complete their deal of the century with the Pollos owner, Jesse had been in bed with Jane, sleeping off the aftereffects of his first dose of heroin.
He went numb. Jane had sworn up and down she threw out that smack in the bathroom drawer when she found it. But what if she didn't? What if she did use it, and that's why their baby was being born too soon?
And even if she had, what difference did it make now? There had been eight and a half months worth of missed opportunities for him to support her and help her stay clean. He had promised to quit smoking alongside her, then never so much as bothered to buy a box of Nicorette. And he had been the one to stash that needle away in the drawer to begin with…making it twice in their relationship he had lured her into a relapse. If she did relapse, and if their kid was born a premature addict, it was all his fault.
From the passenger seat, his phone chirped with a new text. Since he still wasn't going anywhere, he checked it. It was from Nica. "In line at door. Just checking in. Doing ok?"
In his frantic rush out the door, he'd forgotten to tell her he was closing early. "Closed. Jane in labor," he texted back.
Within seconds, his generic ringtone announced a call from his boss. Upon answering, he heard muffled cheers and commotion in the background. "Did I read that right?" Nica called over the noise outside the concert. "Jane's in labor? I thought she was due next month!"
"She-!" he began to shout back, but then realized she could hear him just fine. "She was. It's premature."
"Oh no!" Well, don't worry about work! You go and take care of her, pronto!" Nica instructed him.
"I'm trying to, but it's like traffic from Hell out here!" Jesse complained.
"Yeah, it's gonna be backed up awhile. You probably should have taken the Metro Rail."
He paused. Oh, yeah…Los Angeles had a subway. "I didn't think of that," he admitted. "I was kinda freaking out. Actually, I still am. I mean, what if something goes wrong, and I'm not there?"
"I'm sure Jane and the baby will be fine," Nica assured him. "Doctors nowadays are way better equipped to deal with preterm births than they used to be."
"But what if the whole reason it's going down like this is because I screwed up? My kid's coming early, and she could be born real sick and weak all because of…" he searched for a more benign example than heroin. "…I dunno, secondhand smoke."
"You know what you sound like to me? Every freaking new parent I've ever met," she proclaimed lightheartedly. "The good ones, anyway."
Now he knew his boss was cracked. Him? A good parent…who gets his girlfriend and unborn baby hooked on drugs? "Nica, I'm serious here. If I told you all the stuff I was doing before Jane got pregnant—"
"It wouldn't matter. Everyone worries they're not ready for this. What sets the good ones apart is why they worry. If you're scared you'll ruin your daughter's life, it just shows you're already looking out for her. Congratulations, Jesse…that's called being a good parent."
At this assurance, he couldn't help smiling. "Thanks."
"No problem. And, hey, I expect a slice of cake when you two have that birthday party."
After the call ended, Jesse clung to Nica's words. He was a parent, one who may have made mistakes. He wouldn't get it all right, but he'd never stop trying, and he'd never stop being there for his kid. It may not be much…but it was more than he ever got from his own parents.
Two hours later, he finally arrived in the USC Medical Center parking lot and raced to the welcome desk. "Uh, Jane Margolis' room?" he panted, out of breath.
The receptionist scoured a computer screen. "You're the father?"
"End of the hall, to the right."