There is always a last time. The last time to hold a child, the last time to tuck a child in at night…the last time.

When Steve fled with his three-year-old daughter Winnie in his arms, he was not thinking sentimentally. He was hoping it was the last time he would fear for his daughter’s life.

He ran to his sister’s house. Jane was much older, her children grown. He pleaded with her to take Winnie. “I walked in to find Terry holding a pillow over her face,” he stopped and coughed back sobs. “I honestly didn’t think—I mean, she never really took to motherhood, but this…”

Jane was happy to take the child. She had never cared for her brother’s wife, especially when she saw the utter neglect and carelessness toward Winnie. Terry was spoiled and riddled with mental illnesses. Steve had been captivated by her physical beauty and found out too late the traps set by such a shallow attraction.

Steve was in the military and soon deployed, so for the next year, Jane took over as Winnie’s sole caregiver.

At first, Winnie was silent, cautious. Jane could only imagine the horrors she had endured. For a toddler to be still and nonverbal, it spoke of traumas and fears that broke Jane’s heart. But after a few weeks, she started to transform.

Mornings were their favorite times together. They would walk through the wildflowers, the dew tickling their ankles, the sunshine kissing their faces. Winnie soon learned the different birds, yelling out their names upon sight. She was a bright child, a loving child whose smile was becoming more and more prominent.

Terry never responded to Jane’s offers for a visit, and Jane was happy with that. She would be thrilled to raise this baby herself. Her cheeks were filling out, flushed with constant play, her baby blue eyes lit up often with laughter. She was a beauty like her mom, but had her father’s easygoing personality.

There were many last times experienced during that year. The last time Winnie drank from a sippy cup. The last time she had an accident and wet herself. The last time she screamed in terror whenever Jane reached for her. And the last time she asked for her mother.

“Aunt Jane!” She held up a daisy, giggling as a butterfly danced near her nose.

She laughed, reaching for Winnie’s hand. The chubby fingers latched on, the adorable toddler singing as they walked through the field together.

When they returned to the house, there was a tall, attractive woman waiting.

“Winnie, I can’t believe how big you are now! Do you remember me?” A wisp of blond hair fell into her face as she addressed the retreating toddler. She tossed the hair over her shoulder and flashed a smile. “Hi. We met at Terry and Steve’s wedding. I’m Shana, Terry’s sister.”

She shook her hand, moving her mouth into a semblance of a smile. “I’m Jane. Steve’s sister.”

Clucking her tongue, Shana shook her head. “Not happy with Steve. He took Winnie away and then left—”

“He was deployed!”

“Winnie needs to be with her mom.”

Jane sank to her haunches and smiled at Winnie. “Hey, why don’t you go ride your big wheels on the sidewalk.” She waited until the toddler was out of earshot before standing and facing Shana. “The last time Winnie was with her mother, she almost died.”

“I don’t believe that. Terry suffers from depression, but she wouldn’t do that. Anyway, she’s getting help. She’s on medication. She has me and our other sister to help.” She paused and then added in a harder tone, “The child needs to be with her mother. Legally, you don’t have a leg to stand on.”

And Jane knew that was right. Trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice, she asked, “You and your family will watch—make sure that little girl is safe?”

“Absolutely. Our main concern is Winnie. You have our promise.”

Jane tucked Winnie in for the last time and told her she was going to see her mama the next day. Winnie’s eyes were wide, so unsure, so vulnerable.

The next morning, they took their walk through the field for the last time. Then Jane packed up her toys, her clothes, and tried to smile through it all.

Terry had no thanks for her as she grabbed Winnie and hissed, “Stop crying.”

“She’s confused.” She went to console the toddler, but Terry whipped her body around, hiding Winnie from her.

Shana stepped between the women. “Maybe call later in the week.”

That evening, after her sisters left, Terry tried to calm Winnie down. The child cried non-stop, begging for her Aunt Jane. Just a little longer, Terry told herself. She only had to put up with this a little longer.

At bedtime, Winnie continued crying, her voice hoarse. “I want Aunt Jane. Please. Take me home.”

“You’re home! Shut up!” She sighed, trying to gather her composure. “You want a bedtime story?” The little girl shook her head, her body convulsing with sobs. “Fine. You want something to help you sleep? The sooner you sleep, the sooner it’ll be morning.”

“And then I go to Aunt Jane’s?”

“Sure. But sleep first.” She gave her the cup, tipping it up as the toddler drank. “All of it. It’s yucky. I know. Drink all of it.”

As the little girl started to clutch her tummy and cry in pain, Terry sat calmly on the edge of the bed and read her a story for the last time. It was her last time to be a mom.

“Oooow, my tummy! Oooow!”

“Just a little longer, and you won’t feel anything. This is the last time you’ll feel pain. Promise. And that’s a mommy promise. That means something.”

She got up, tossed the book onto the writhing body, and walked out of the child’s bedroom for the last time.