The Late Fee
She wove through traffic, guiding the car into the open spaces between trucks twice the size of her own hatchback. The radio played songs from her childhood, beat out tunes as familiar to her as her own heartbeat, melodies that hummed through her bloodstream whenever she dared to listen. She was late, as usual. The alarm on her phone had gone off twice before she had complied and began gathering her things. Then, on the way out, she had gotten stuck in the lobby, an old client on the way up to see her boss, asking about her husband, her son, how parenthood was going. She had tried to disengage, mentioned that she was in a hurry, that she had to pick up her son from daycare, that she only had fifteen minutes before they started charging, but that she would love to catch up some other time. The client had brushed past that, beamed about his new granddaughter, her sudden and jarring entrance into the world, how she would grab his pinky from her bed in the NICU, the tubes rustling and twisting around her like halos. She had not wanted to interrupt him and had instead smiled and gasped, listened intently to his descriptions of the procedures that she would have to undergo in the next few weeks, his own smile wavering only slightly and then returning with an assurance of her strength and tenacity. In truth, his story had knocked her flat, made her ache to hold her own son in her arms and kiss the tips of his fingers.
By the time he had finished, it was five after six, five minutes past pick up time and the daycare charged by the minute for tardiness -- ten dollars for the first five minutes and then one dollar each consecutive minute after that. It would take her twelve minutes to get there, on a good day with no traffic, which, judging by the amount of water on the roads already, was not today. The red brake lights around her reflected off puddles like strobe lights flashing across her vision, hitting her hands as they gripped the steering wheel. She hated driving in the rain, it made her stomach clench up and twist about as her tires sent walls of water up on either side of the car. Rain meant flooded streets, carrying a baby carrier in the crook of one arm and holding an umbrella up with the other as water poured down the back of her own shirt. She turned the radio up to distract her, then turned it back down because she felt like the noise impeded her already reckless driving.
The phone rang and she glanced down before answering -- the daycare letting her know that she was late, which of course, she already knew. The stern voice of the owner chastised her for her thoughtlessness -- please call next time and let us know, it's the least you could do. She mumbled an apology, felt shame bubble up into her neck and shoulders, her cheeks hot. She couldn't explain that she was doing the best she could, trying to figure out where she fit into the business world when she had to step out of meetings to pump in the bathroom or skip mandatory happy hours because there was no one else to pick up her son. She didn't know how to explain that she desperately wanted to stay home with her four-month-old, while at the same time she felt like the only time she could breathe was when she dropped him off in the morning wearing his pajamas from the night before. She would bob her head at the other mothers whose kids came in their freshly laundered matching sets and their environment-friendly cloth diapers while she quickly thrust a package of Pampers at the teacher, her son's name written in big black letters across each side.
When she arrived, she was thirty minutes late, her son one of two children still there. She rushed in, umbrella trailing behind her, dripping across the floor as she fumbled with the computer to check out, and selected the option of adding the extra $35 to next month's tuition. Her son lay on the floor, gumming a toy microphone, oblivious to the delay of her arrival. She bent down to pick him up, noticed the trail of mud she had left in her wake. Her cheeks burned a deeper shade of red and tears welled up at the corners of her eyes. Her son dropped the microphone and snuggled his head into her shoulder and she closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of his shampoo. His teacher smiled and handed over the diaper bag, shrugging off her profuse apologies as she walked them to the door. She waved from the doorway as the they wove their way through puddles and the runoff from the gutters above.