by reetchick

**Warning: This story contains subject matter that certain readers may find disturbing.
Thanks: to CJ, for letting me hear that it's okay to let my dark side out to be heard. To moss, for thorough and balanced comments. To phil, for loving me even though I'm a sick pup. *g* To all of the above, for beta duties. Any remaining errors are my own.
For those who are interested, this was written while the Dixie Chicks' "Top of the World" was in almost constant play.
Feedback? Please.


~~They make red applesauce now, you know.~~

Sarah was a beautiful little girl. We'd wanted two children, a boy and a girl, and Petey had been asking for a sister, so when she came along, well, our family seemed perfect. Complete.

Petey was four when she was born, and he was so happy to be a big brother. He told everyone how he was going to take care of her, protect her, be the best brother ever.

I was an only child.

~~Red isn't the only kind; they make blue and green applesauce, too.~~

There was never a question in my mind that I'd stay home with our kids. Not that I think there's anything wrong with being a working mother, of course - but having grown up without my own mother, it was important to me to be around for as much of their childhood as I could. Besides, we could afford it.

Sometimes, after Pete would get up in the mornings, Sarah would sneak into our bed and snuggle up with me for a while. They had their own little game on those mornings; he'd pretend not to see her when he leaned over to kiss me goodbye, and she'd pop up to 'surprise' him. Every time she did that, he'd act surprised. Every time.

I wonder if my father played games like that with me.

~~But I'd never buy it for her. ~~

Chloe and I shared a room for just about seven years. Three years in high school, when I lived with her and Mr. Sullivan, then almost four years in the dorms at Met U. She was an only child, too. Before either one of us was even engaged, we agreed that when we had the chance to be mommies, we'd be 'aunties' to each other's kids.

Petey and Sarah never got the chance to meet their Auntie Chloe. It figures -- I just know that Chloe would've been Sarah's favorite aunt.

~~She'd ask for it, and I'd tell her that applesauce was supposed to be yellow.~~

Sometimes I'd sit next to Sarah's crib and watch her sleep. Kids always look like angels when they're asleep, have you noticed that? So quiet and peaceful, like there's nothing in the world that could possibly hurt them.

I never did that with Petey, not once. But things are different for boys, aren't they. Even when they're little, they're tough. Yes, there are things that bother them, but they just aren't as ... fragile ... as girls.

I sat next to Sarah's bed all night on the day she turned three. I looked at her, tracing the outline of her cheek, smoothing the hair back from her forehead. Watching her breathe. Wondering if I'd looked like that when I turned three.

I have nobody to answer those kinds of questions for me.

~~Sarah didn't care about 'supposed to,' not when it came to applesauce.~~

Believe me, I know that taking care of kids can be tiring. I know that. Sometimes you just need a break, a chance to go be a grownup, no endless questions or sticky little fingers or chubby arms grabbing at you.

I go out sometimes, but only when Pete is at home. After Sarah was born, he tried to get us back in the habit of going on 'dates' - arranging a sitter so we could have an evening for just the two of us.

I'm sure that's what my parents were doing. I must've been awful if both of them needed to be away from me at the same time.

~~When the time came, I decided to get the red applesauce for her.~~

The thing about people who care about you - for you - is that they always leave. Sometimes they mean to, like when they move to another town; other times, it's an accident. Maybe they're only planning to go away for a while, but things happen, and they never come back.

Life is funny like that. You can't predict who you'll see next, who you'll lose next.

~~I knew she'd like it, and she deserved a special treat.~~

After a while, you start to wonder. Wouldn't it be easier for people if they never had to go through that? The pain, I mean. Of loving a person, getting close to him, telling her all the things you're thinking, making him part of your family, being welcomed into hers?

Because when they go away then. Your heart kind of snaps back, but it can't go back to the way it was. There's an empty place where it was stretched out, and it just doesn't settle back into shape.

~~She did, she loved it, she gobbled it up so fast I'm sure she hardly tasted it.~~

My whole life has kind of been that stretched out place. My parents died when I was so young, I hardly remember them.

And Nell, when she moved away - well, she asked me to go with her, but when I made a fuss about it? She gave up on me pretty quickly.

~~She always takes her nap after she has a snack.~~

Whitney said he loved me, and in practically the same breath, told me he was leaving town.

Chloe was supposed to be my maid of honor, she was going to be an Auntie to my babies. She was supposed to be there for all of this.

~~When I tucked her in, I noticed the tiniest bit of red smeared above her upper lip.~~

There's someone else, too, someone I can't really talk about. It's just...he's a friend of ours, of mine and Pete's, since we were kids. But he's forever leaving, and I know he hates that we know. He worries, especially now, with the kids.

So when I looked down at Sarah, at her sleeping, trusting little face, I wondered, should she have to feel all this? Should she have to be torn up like this?

~~I watched her breathe, in and out, waiting until it slowed down to wipe her mouth.~~

I was three years old the last time I saw my parents. On the afternoon they left, I was happy. They loved me. I was their precious girl. I knew all of that, I was sure of it, as sure of it as I was of the sunshine and the air I breathed.

It was the last time in my life I was that certain of anything.

~~I used the corner of my sleeve to clean the red from her face.~~

Sarah is that certain of things right now. She has a mommy and a daddy and a brother who love her, and nobody has ever hurt her.

~~Then I kissed my baby on that little spot between her nose and her lip, right where I'd wiped off that smudge of applesauce.~~

I can't protect her forever, no matter how much I want to. She's going to grow up, kids always do.

~~It was over so fast, in less time than it had taken her to eat her applesauce.~~

But now she'll never get hurt like that. She'll always be a baby, our princess, safe and warm and with a heart that's all together and unstretched.

Nobody understands that. I love my baby. Nobody's going to hurt her now.

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