TARPON SPRINGS — The blood still on the wall is a constant reminder. So is the IV stand and the yellow stethoscope dangling from it. So is her son’s face.
The image haunts Kassandra Morales in the shower and in the car going from doctor appointment to doctor appointment. It haunts her in her dreams.
It plays like a movie in her head: Her 6-month-old son Jaxon rigid and stiff as a board, turning blue as the seconds tick by and he inches closer to death. He’s choking on something. And she can’t get the object out.
Pause. Rewind. Fast forward. Replay.
No matter how many times Morales tries to escape the confines of her house, she can’t — she starts to have a panic attack. And every time she goes to scrub the blood stain clean, she freezes and replays the night of July 17.
She said she came home from work that Tuesday to find her boyfriend, Michael Hurley, standing in their apartment. He told her their child was choking — on a baby wipe.
Morales ran her hands along Jaxon’s throat, as if it were a tube of toothpaste. Squeezing, flipping and moving him in every which direction, working to dislodge the wipe.
Hurley, now charged with child abuse, stood motionless behind the kitchen counter.
• • •
Among the few things that have stayed the same about Jaxon since that day is his love for the Disney movie Coco. His piercing blue eyes are focused on the television.
The fair-skinned baby with protruding fat rolls and a single thick, brown curl in his hair used to be the "perfect" baby. He’d sleep for hours and cry only for diapers and food.
Now, Morales is lucky if he sleeps for an hour at a time — it’s usually less than half that.
Jaxon’s eyes dart around and he kicks his legs frantically. Morales worries about scaring him even more. She second-guesses little things like wiping his lips after he spits up and putting his plush elephant pacifier in his mouth.
Doctors told her he probably won’t remember and shouldn’t be triggered, but she can’t help but wonder, what if he does?
• • •
Jaxon’s eyes were rolled back into his head and his tongue was raised. Blood was spewing from his mouth and nose. He wasn’t breathing.
Morales estimates it was about 30 minutes before she was able to snatch the wadded-up wipe from Jaxon’s throat and the ambulance arrived.
"It looked like an organ. I was screaming ‘Did I do something wrong? What did I do wrong?’," Morales said. "I honestly thought I had hurt my baby."
Jaxon was in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa for two weeks, including three days in the pediatric intensive care unit. He was diagnosed with a laceration in his esophagus and has a blister, mostly likely from the chemicals in the wipe.
Doctors still don’t know what — if any — lasting neurological effects Jaxon will have from the incident.
The baby has a swallow study at the end of September that will provide crucial answers. It will determine whether he can begin eating solid foods or if a feeding tube needs to be surgically placed in his stomach.
• • •
It could be easy to mistake the 30-year-old mother for a nurse.
Jaxon’s throat is still damaged and fragile. He has to be fed a 24-calorie meal every four hours through a thin, off-white tube that sticks out of his left nostril.
Morales checks the tube with ease, listening intently through the stethoscope for the "pfft" noise to signal it’s in its proper place. Morales knows how to replace the white tape that keeps the tube secure on her son’s plump cheek and knows exactly what positions will make him vomit up the food being pumped into his stomach. She has also mastered how to flush the tube, ensuring it’s clean and ready for the next feeding just a few hours away.
The United Insurance customer representative is happy to have her son home but sometimes she misses the hospital. At least there she could talk with nurses.
At her home in Riverside Apartments, she’s all alone.
Morales’ family lives in Puerto Rico. Her now ex-boyfriend is in jail. Friends just don’t understand.
Her soon-to-be 5-year-old son, Adrian, "her guy," was shipped off to Puerto Rico to stay with family while Morales adjusted to her new normal.
He’s been gone almost a month and returns this weekend, ready to celebrate his birthday in Orlando. They’ve had the Disney tickets for months but now, instead of Morales taking Adrian herself, her mom will step in.
Morales avoids going out in public if she can. If she needs diapers or food, it’s a race against the clock to get home.
A friend recently convinced Morales to go shopping at the mall. Within an hour she was hyperventilating and shaking, having an anxiety attack.
"It feels like no matter where I go, all eyes are on me," Morales said, tears brimming behind her thinly rimmed glasses.
• • •
Hurley and Morales met through a dating app in April 2017. The two went on a coffee date and clicked. Morales was pregnant by August.
Hurley wanted a girl. He was visibly disappointed when they found out Jaxon was a boy, Morales said.
All the same, Morales said, Hurley was a good dad, helping out when he was needed and jumping in to change diapers.
There was tension in the house over money when Hurley would skip work at his part-time job at Walmart and use Jaxon as an excuse. Morales said it was never a fight, always a discussion.
But a week before the incident, Morales couldn’t take it anymore. She was better off living paycheck to paycheck than nagging Hurley. She told him she didn’t want to date him anymore.
They agreed to continue living with each other and co-parent until Hurley could get enough money for a place of his own — and until Adrian’s birthday had passed. That arrangement seemed to be working, right up until she left for work that morning.
"There was nothing that told me, ‘Kassie, don’t leave,’ " Morales said.
Now Adrian calls his mom and asks about Hurley.
"He’ll ask me, ‘Momma, why haven’t you talked with him? Michael said he would always be there for me and love me forever,’ " Morales said with tears welling in her eyes. "I have no idea what to tell him. How do you tell a 5-year-old that he tried to kill his brother?"
She has no plans to talk to Hurley ever again. He is being held in lieu of $505,000 bail, charged with aggravated child abuse. He could face up to 30 years in prison.
• • •
The bills are starting to arrive.
Morales has no idea when she’ll return to work. And with her agenda book filled with neat handwriting denoting the twice-a-day doctor appointments, it doesn’t seem soon.
Her co-workers had a bake sale and gave her a few hundred dollars. And she has her last paycheck.
All Morales can do is take it day by day.
The door to her bedroom usually stays shut. Anytime she goes in there, she visualizes the spot of blood on the comforter and hits replay on the sequence of events.
She doesn’t know when she’ll be comfortable enough to trade in the light brown leather couch with thinly striped rainbow throw pillows for a real bed. Right now, she takes comfort in being able to frequently wake up and peer over at Jaxon sleeping in his black playpen.
"If I’m not sleeping right there, I’m worried I might not hear him potentially choking or catch something that might not be right," Morales said.
Besides, sleeping in the room where her son was tortured makes the nightmares even worse.
Facing so much uncertainty, the one thing Morales knows for sure is that in four hours, she’ll be up pressing a stethoscope against her son’s belly to prepare his feeding tube with Coco playing in the background and a much different movie on repeat in her brain.
Contact McKenna Oxenden at email@example.com or (410) 258-2324. Follow @mack_oxenden.