Hal was looking through his tool box when the doorbell bing-bonged, searching for the 3.0 mm drill bit. Smaller, he thought, would be unsatisfying. Using the 6.0 mm, though a dramatic choice, was maybe too much. It might shorten The Project, might ruin it. He was so happy he’d decided to do this. He’d been thinking about it for years, only lately had some inner drive spurred him on. It was about time he overcame his fear. He couldn’t quite place where he’d found the courage but he tried not to worry about it. He picked up a few more bits and stared at them side by side.
Hal froze when the bell sounded, fingers full of 2.3s and 4.7s and 3.2s, little slivers of steel-like machined fangs.
Just when he was getting started, an interruption. Still, he knew to answer the door when people came calling. If he failed to act normally, well…the authorities might get involved.
Always answer the door, he thought.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be back.” he told The Project.
He laid his hand on the power drill for another moment then closed the door to the project room on his way out.
A small, attenuated shape stood outside of his apartment door. A cloud of black hair seen through the peephole, bushy, a pair of wide-eyes, waiting. It looked like she had a baby-stroller. It was hard to tell. Hal sighed again, opened the door a few inches.
“Oh. Thank God, you’re home,” she said. “I need help, mister. I’m sorry, everybody else is at work, I guess. Thanks so much for answerin’ the door. I really need help.”
Hal looked down at the girl’s hands. Ragged fingernails. Clutched fingers. She did, in fact, have a stroller, a small umbrella style. It was a cheap one, ten or fifteen bucks at a big box store. This one was worn, stained and…occupied.
A tiny little face, pursed in sleep. He saw pooched little lips and a soft curly cloud mane. It was a chubby-kneed toddler in a summer dress with pink-sandaled feet. The neighbor’s kid. The baby across the parking lot. He’d seen them around, spoken to the mother in passing. That had stopped when The Project started. This bedraggled young woman at his door was not the mother.
“I gotta go,” she said to Hal as if they’d known each other for years instead of having just met. “Got an emergency and I can’t get aholt a’ Jessica.”
The babysitter grimaced. Her face was greasy. Acned. She didn’t make eye-contact. The girl ran through her explanation at a gallop.
“Can ya watch Zoe?” She rolled the stroller forward, then back. “I gotta go, mister. Seriously. It’s an emergency. I wouldn’t bother ya, but it’s an emergency. Seriously. Seriously. It’s an emergency. Please can ya watch ‘er?”
Hal stared at her for a moment, taken aback. The girl grew impatient. Twisting around in the hallway like she needed to pee. She couldn’t seem to stand still.
Her mouth opened and Hal raised a hand to stop her continued wheedling.
He heard a loud thump from the closed room behind him and glanced over his shoulder, a frown worried and sudden on his face. He looked back at the babysitter to see if she was suspicious.
“Just wait! Just wait…” he interjected, “I’ll—uh–I’ll be right back,” he said and walked down the hallway deeper into his apartment.
He turned the handle on the Project room door. Slid it open, cautious that the young woman with the baby didn’t have a view into the room. He raised an admonitory finger to The Project, suggesting silently that it hush if it knew what was good for it. He closed the door and returned to his combined living/dining area.
Hal froze at the edge of his area rug. His front door was wide open, the sleeping toddler in the raddled stroller parked just inside. The babysitter was gone. She’d left the baby’s diaper bag hanging on the back of the stroller.
Oh…crap, he thought.
Hal’s first instinct was to charge out of the apartment. Run down the hall. Call out at the top of his lungs, “Come back!” Three steps out into the breezeway with the wail beginning to slip between his lips, he thought of The Project. And the baby sleeping. And the cops. How was he going to explain the strange baby to the cops, let alone everything else?
The words died before they were uttered. He took the breezeway stairs, shaded his eyes with a raised hand at the edge of the apartment complex parking lot. Hot sun. He looked across the heat-rippled tarmac. The babysitter was nowhere in sight.
He returned to his living room. Closed the front door, sat on his unused couch and looked at the sleeping baby. The refrigerator’s compressor kicked on and ticked in the silence.
What was the mother’s name? He couldn’t recall though the babysitter had just said it.
Hal wasn’t certain that he’d ever known. He just knew her as the woman in 243. The single-mother that lived on the floor above his. She was polite enough, beautiful, worked long hours. She was often out late, which turned out to have been fortuitous for him. She was a nurse, he thought, or something like that. She wore scrubs a lot. Her name hadn’t, still didn’t, interest him.
The baby girl was slumped forward in her seat. Her chubby hands clasped each other, fingers interwoven. Her yellow striped sundress had an applique on the chest. Hal couldn’t tell what it was.
Maybe a frog…or a dinosaur…something?
Her chin drooped onto her chest. Her wispy hair quivered in the draft from his air conditioning. She took tiny sips of air between her little lips, shuddered and took a deeper breath, almost a sigh. He tensed, afraid that she was waking. Her eyelids fluttered and, then, settled. She slept on. He studied her at length. Pink shoes, yellow dress. They didn’t match. That bothered him.
The little girl’s name was Zoe, the babysitter had said.
Zoe—Zoe—Zoe…what do I do with you, Zoe?
Hal looked at The Project room’s door.
This is definitely no place for a baby.
He got up from the couch, walked into the kitchen and pulled himself a glass of water from the tap. He looked out of the window, thinking, thinking. He remembered an elderly woman that he’d seen around the complex. Jane something. She seemed to work with…Jessica. He’d seen them together. Maybe the old lady would take the baby, he sure as hell couldn’t.
Yeah, he thought. That’s a good idea. What’s her last name? What’s her last name?
It was no good, he couldn’t come up with it. He saw the apartment complex’s mail center out by the main road and thought, maybe… He couldn’t remember if the residents’ names were written on their mailboxes or just their apartment numbers.
Maybe, he thought. Maybe. Worth a shot.
That became the plan. Go down to the mailboxes and find the old lady’s last name. Then he could call some local clinics and hospitals, see if anyone by that name worked there. He’d seen the employer’s name printed on her work-shirt. He racked his brain trying to remember what it said.
Clairmont, Clerkwell, Crooked, some name that started with a ‘C.’
It was a place to start, at least. He looked at the project room again.
Can’t let the baby stay here. She might mess up The Project.
The mailboxes were a disappointment. There were apartment numbers only, as he’d feared, no names. The baby hadn’t woken. That was positive, at least. He’d carried the stroller down the stairs, balancing it against his right hip, taken the steps gingerly, leaned against the wall to steady himself. Her little head had swayed with each step. She’d slept right through the walk across the summer hot parking lot, down to the edge of the apartment complex property, to the side of the six-lane Maldonado Drive.
Cars rushed past carrying waves of air and sound. When he was finished searching the mailboxes, Hal was drenched with heat, his work shirt stuck to his belly. He was stumped for what to do next.
Hal pulled the stroller into the shade, sat on a bench and looked at Zoe.
She shifted a little.
He knew she’d wake soon and wasn’t sure what to do when that happened. He had a sudden inspiration and dug into the diaper bag looking for anything that might contain a clue to the babysitter who’d dropped her off. Her name. Employer. Anything. It was a long shot, but, maybe… The flap was broken, the bag almost empty. It contained a half-used tube of Desitin, a pair of little girl’s flip-flops and a t-shirt that looked too small. He dug deeper and found some plastic baggies of Cheerios and a changing pad. That was it. No diapers. No wipes.
Shoot, he thought. Guess I’m going to the store.
He ended up walking. Hal didn’t have a child seat in his van.
They walked down Maldonado, cars whistling by on their right, tires humming, windshields flashing. The occasional truck rumbled through. There were weeds in the cracks of the sidewalk. Flattened trash fluttered in the gutters, in the overgrown grass. There was a single weathered tennis shoe on the overpass. Adidas. Three teenage girls in a convertible dopplered by, hooting.
Hal hunched his shoulders, certain that he was the butt of their joke. He snarled to think about it and hunched deeper when a police cruiser streamed past. He sighed with relief when he pushed the stroller into the SuperQuik parking lot.
The little girl had woken and was looking around with big brown eyes. She rubbed her cheek with the back of a pudgy fist. Hal looked at her, expecting her to cry at any moment. She didn’t.
Zoe took the shop in, her eyes curious and alive. She looked around at the shelves. She looked Hal straight in the eyes, paused and said, “Appie juice.”
She sat back in her cloth seat and planted her thumb in her mouth, started kicking her foot. The pink sandal appeared and disappeared from view. Occasionally she glanced up at Hal, confidently expectant. He couldn’t help but chuckle.
I guess she ain’t afraid.
She frowned at him, a suggestion that he’d better get a move on, turned up her chin and continued to look around her.
“Alright, alright…” he said.
They rolled to the back of the shop. She leaned forward at the glass case and placed her finger on the clear glass door over a bottle of green Kool Aid.
“Appie juice,” she said again and nodded her head. “Uh-huh, uh-huh, appie juice,” and planted her thumb back between her teeth.
She rolled her eyes up at Hal. He shook his head, took the drink out and gave it to her.
I’m not her Mom. I’m not her babysitter. Not my problem if she gets cavities. No sirree Bob.
The store was full of bottles, cheap wines, hard liquors and big signs announcing lottery ticket sales. Hal approached the gated off checkout counter. A young man looked at him quizzically from behind the bullet-proof glass.
“Yeah? What’s up?”
Hal thought for a moment.
“Do you have any diapers? I just…” he waved down at Zoey, unsure how to introduce her into the conversation. He didn’t know what to tell the kid. “Just need some diapers.” He finished sheepishly.
“Nah,” the kid said and adjusted his flat-brimmed Cardinals baseball cap. “Nah, this ain’t that kinda store, man.”
“Well, I can see that,” Hal replied. “Guess I didn’t think…” he trailed off. “You know where I could get some? Oh yeah, how much for the juice?”
“You letting that baby drink that shit? Maaaannn, my sister don’t let my nephew anywhere near that stuff. Stains ‘em all up man.”
Hal arched over and looked down at Zoe. Sure enough, the front of her sundress was a blotched and spreading green. She tilted her head back and looked up at him, said “blacglelaggle,” or something around the Kool-Aid bottle that she still had in her mouth. She looked happy.
“Well, crap,” Hal said.
“Yeah man,” the kid went on, “if that’s what it’s doin’ to her dress, whaddya think it’s doin’ to her insides?”
“Yeah, yeah, I didn’t know.” Hal replied. “I’ll keep that in mind, nothing but real juice in the future. How much?”
“Fifty-nine cents, man.” Hal handed him a bill through the window. Took his change. “So yeah,” the clerk continued, “closest place for diapers ain’t that cheap. You walkin’ or drivin’?”
“Driv–” Hal started to say. “Walking I mean. Usually. I mean I usually drive is what I meant to say. Sorry.” He blushed.
Hal felt like a fool. Worse, he felt like he’d drawn attention to himself. This kid might remember him now.
This baby’s gonna be the death of me.
“So you’re walkin’?” the store clerk asked.
“Yes. Definitely walking.”
“Alright,” the kid said. “Well, you know that dolla’ store over on forty-seventh? They got diapers and stuff. Like I said, it ain’t cheap, man, but that’s the closest. Forty-seventh street.”
Hal groaned. That was at least four miles away. He looked at the little girl again, a small puzzle that he hadn’t yet found a solution to. He thought of The Project.
Dammit, he thought, I can’t take her back to the apartment.
“Thanks.” Hal slid a five-dollar bill under the glass. “You mind charging me for an apple juice? And a water? I’ll take ‘em with.”
“Sure,” the kid said. “You want I should call a cab or something?”
Hal thought about it for a moment, thought again about not having a car seat, thought about cab drivers talking to cops about reckless old men.
“No, no. We’ll just walk. Thank you.”
Back on Maldonado the traffic was heavier. Hal plodded along the gritty sidewalk. The sun pounded down. It was just after five p.m. and the end of the workday. There were more cars, more rushing wind. A large moving truck blasted by in the lane beside the sidewalk. Dry, hot wind and tiny particles of grit blasted Hal’s face. He squinted and teared up. Zoe started crying.
Hal reacted instinctively, jerking the stroller to the side of the walkway, pointing it away from the speeding cars. He crouched beside the small shape, felt his protesting knees pop and grind. It hurt. He lowered himself to sit on the concrete. The little girl was sobbing, tears threading down her cheeks. She had her fists in her eyes, her mouth open, wailing. She sounded frightened, heartbroken and forlorn.
Hal reached out and patted her knee, offered shushing noises, tried a tentative pat on her head.
“Hush now, hush now,” he said. The words felt awkward in his mouth.
She lifted her arms out to him, wanted him to pick her up, out of the stroller. He withdrew a little, uncertain how to react. Her face melted with fear and dismay. She gave a great sad wail of betrayal. Hal could hear the cars whizzing by behind him. He knew he couldn’t carry her far. He looked left, right, saw a side road leading into a blue-collar neighborhood. He’d just have to take a back route to the store. He unbuckled Zoe and hefted her in his arms.
They made their way down the busy street, turned left into a quieter neighborhood of small houses. The sound of traffic faded. Zoe’s tears faded with it. She hugged his neck tight. It felt like gratitude.
Hal had to put her back in the stroller. His back was locking up on him and he wouldn’t make it much farther carrying the baby. The neighborhood was quiet and felt a thousand miles away from Maldonado’s savage vehicles. There were birds in the trees. Zoe’s pudgy finger pointed out squirrels running on small lawns in front of cookie-cutter, square houses, and a yard with plastic flamingos. Hal gave her a bag of Cheerios, poured a little of the apple juice in the Kool Aid bottle when it ran empty. They made their way from street corner to street corner. Hal began to relax. He could hear the sounds of children in play, from behind the houses, around the street corners. A woman yelled from her porch, “That’s a beautiful baby!” Hal grinned, surprised at himself, proud. He waved back and continued walking.
The baby turned in her seat and smiled up at him. Hal wanted to cry, her face was so full of joy and trust. He didn’t.
He kept walking.
By the time Hal reached the dollar store, his back was killing him. The handles of the stroller were just a little too short and required him to bend forward, just enough to build up the pain over the miles. His knees hurt too. The bottom of his feet felt burned. The pavement was hot. He wasn’t used to walking so far. The water and the apple juice were long gone; he was parched.
He’d checked on the baby for the last mile or so, increasingly worried that the heat would get to her. He’d adjusted the sunshade multiple times, checked her cheeks with the back of his hand feeling for flush or sweat or…something. He didn’t know. He was startled when she smiled at him; he smiled back in surprise. He crossed the street to walk in the thin shade cast by the trees. She seemed all right, content and happy.
The kid at the quick stop had been right. Hal found diapers at the dollar store on forty-seventhth street and bought them another jug of water as well, this time a big jug, big enough to share with Zoe. He grabbed a proper sippy cup for the water and some jars of baby food. He looked at Zoe for a long time then put them back. He thought she was probably too old for baby puree. That left him stumped, he didn’t know what kind of food she liked, was afraid to let her pick her own.
He introduced himself as the hapless grandfather to the woman at the front counter and asked for help. She looked at Zoe, back at Hal, quirked an eyebrow and shrugged.
“Carrots? Apples?” she said and shrugged again.
She looked at him like he was stupid.
Hal blushed and went back to the cold case to get them.
He was pretty sure that the baby needed a change by now. He didn’t know how to make that happen. He was afraid to ask the lady at the counter to help him. She already thought he was an old fool. He doubted that she’d leave her counter and, worse, his asking might make her suspicious, might make her think about calling the cops. He felt himself growing angry thinking about it. He wasn’t an idiot. He knew he could change a diaper, he just wasn’t sure whether he should. Zoe was a girl baby. It didn’t seem right to him to strip her naked. He left the store instead.
Hal stood on the pavement outside of the dollar store looking at the park across the street. He was thinking hard. There was a water feature, something for the kids to play in. Short beams of water shot high into the air, then arced and splashed back down into the pavement only to launch again. The beauty of the impermanent shapes as they formed curves of frozen sunshine struck Hal with momentary wonder. He wasn’t used to noticing such things.
There were people in the playground, other children. They ran into the streams of water laughing, jumped from arc to arc, let it fall on their faces, splash in their hair. They rolled on the pavement, the water keeping them cool under the sun. Mothers and fathers sat around the edge of the little park, sprawling or perching on park benches in the shade. They chatted with each other and occasionally hollered cheerful instructions to their children. An idea crystalized in Hal’s mind.
He returned to the store. Found a swimsuit Zoe’s size and a hat for himself, a towel. He looked long at the sunblock. Looked at Zoe. Trying to decide whether she would burn. He didn’t know the rules for baby skin but decided to err on the side of caution and bought the baby version, the expensive one. It had a smiling sun on the bottle and cost more than he expected. He sucked his teeth and kept his eyes on the counter as he counted out his dwindling cash to the red-faced woman cashier.
Hal pushed Zoe across the street, entered the park and shyly approached one of the mothers. The woman had her long, brown legs extended with her ankles crossed, her hands rested on her rounded belly. Her eyes were alive with humor. She didn’t look too scary.
Her ponytailed friend was telling her something and tapping on her shoulder. Hal interrupted them just as the friend finished her story and they broke into laughter. The long-legged woman drew her feet under the bench and looked up at him curiously. He nervously explained to the woman, while her friend looked on with a raised eyebrow, that he was a new grandfather, that he didn’t know how to change a diaper. Would she mind helping? he asked and smiled self-consciously.
She gave him a surprised and considering look, Hal thought she might be a little scornful of him, maybe cautious, but, however she felt about him, the woman smiled warmly when she looked at Zoe and agreed to help. She insisted on making it a class and showed him how to take off the diaper, gave him a severe look when she saw how full the old one was.
“You gotta change it more often,” she said.
Hal nodded and looked away.
The woman clicked her teeth and her friend said something in Spanish. Both women laughed again and he felt the heat rising in his cheeks. The woman looked up at him from under her eyelashes, perhaps checking his reaction. Hal was certain he’d been the butt of a joke. The woman started to put the new diaper on the baby, turning to her friend to continue their conversation. Hal couldn’t understand a word, just gritted his teeth and counted to ten. Zoe lay on the changing pad playing with one of her flip-flops, spinning it over and over in her hands. She made baby sounds with her mouth.
Hal had an inspiration and while the two women spoke, he took the new swimsuit out of the shopping bag and handed it to the woman changing the baby’s diaper. Without thinking, she stripped Zoe’s sundress off and handed it to Hal, replaced it with the swimsuit. He gave the woman an ingratiating smile. She smiled back reflexively, said: “See? That ain’t so hard.”
Hal nodded, picked up Zoe and walked to the other side of the fountain. He heard the women laughing as he walked away and hunched his shoulders up, looked at the ground.
Zoe was squirming in his arms. Repeating,
“Let down! Zoe down! Zoe down!”
His embarrassment was forgotten. He chuckled, bent and released her to run into the fountain.
She played for an hour, maybe more. He made her stop once when he realized he’d forgotten the sunblock. Smeared it on her shoulders and arms liberally, dabbed it on her nose, brow and chin. He looked around at the other parents, watching to see if he was doing the right thing. No one seemed to notice, or to object. She played with the other little boys and girls, running in and out of the streams. Hal was her anchor.
He noticed that she wouldn’t go far. She kept an eye on him. Kept returning to him. She’d loop around, through the arching water, rolling on the pavement, playing with another child’s ball. Occasionally, she’d break free from the serious business of play and run up to Hal.
Just to check in, he thought.
She’d throw her arms up to him and he’d lift her onto his lap, soaking his pants. He gave her her sippy cup then. Hal let her draft on that as long as she wanted and smelled her hair, hot in the sun, smelling of newness and fresh baby sweat. He gave her more cheerios, some apple slices or a carrot. She’d snap them between her teeth and chew seriously, then smile up at him with tiny orange nuggets still between her lips, on her tongue. He’d blink and smile, awed by her.
Then, she’d be down on the concrete again, back to the water and the other little savages. She glanced at Hal often. He couldn’t figure it out. What was she checking for? Approval? She had that, he grinned at her every time she glanced his way. Safety? She didn’t know it, but he would do nothing to hurt her. Love?
Do small children feel love? he wondered. Or do they feel anything but love?
Hal wasn’t sure.
He wondered why he’d never married. Never had children. True…women didn’t like him. Thought him odd or, like the woman in the dollar store, stupid. They laughed at him, like the women who’d helped change the baby’s diaper. But this little girl didn’t. This little girl seemed to think he was okay. Maybe children would love him even if women didn’t.
He found himself wondering: What would it have been like to be loved so completely and trustingly by a woman? He found it hard to imagine. To be honest, he hadn’t tried hard. After the first couple of rejections it had just become easier to be alone. To live in the fantasy. To control his desires and passions with booze and work. Or to live them out secretly. Shamefully. Pornography. That had gotten him through.
But, he thought, it didn’t have to be this way. I don’t have to stay this way. Maybe, he thought, I can have a Zoe. Somehow? I don’t know. Maybe adoption. That’s ridiculous. Maybe I can have Zoe? That’s more ridiculous.
He watched as she ran flat-footed through the water, giggled as a stream splashed against her chest, hugged a little boy, who unaffected by fear, hugged her back.
Maybe I should just chuck The Project, he thought, take Zoe and head to another town. Her Momma sure doesn’t seem to care about her, if that’s the kinda babysitter she gets.
He thought it over for a while and had an uncharacteristically charitable thought.
Maybe, he thought, that little jerk was the best she could do?
He realized that he was defending a woman in his mind. It’d been a long time since he’d felt anything but desire or resentment for any female. Empathy was a stretch. His emotions, it seemed, were all over the place lately, swinging high, then low. He couldn’t understand it.
Zoe toddled out of the water. The late evening sun was setting behind Hal’s head. His shadow projected across the pavement in front of him. He put his arms out to gather her up as she came closer. At the last moment, blinded by the sun, she stumbled, tripped, fell through his hands to the pavement. Her chest hit the concrete with a wet smack. Hal was on the ground before he realized he was moving. His ropy hands reached and picked up the weeping baby. His mouth popped open. He was repeating,
“Uh oh, here we go. Uh oh, here we go.”
Over and over again. Something he remembered his mother saying when he’d hurt himself as a child.
“Uh oh, here we go.”
She clung to him while her heart broke. His broke too.
He realized later that he had no clean clothes for her. He also realized that no matter what, nothing, for him, would ever be the same. One way or another, Zoe had changed his life.
He returned to the dollar store before the sun set. Bought her a cheap but clean outfit. Some new shoes. Took her to dinner at the fast food place on the other side of the park and let her play for a while in the ball pit. He watched jealously as she giggled and chuckled with the other children. Night began to fall outside. He drank coffee and waited for the temperature to drop.
She grew cranky. Tired. It’d been a long afternoon. She was listless. Spent more time on his lap. Resting her head on his shoulder. Hal put Zoe back in her stroller and began the long walk home. Darkness fell before they arrived. Traffic had diminished on Maldonado. Taillights made red streaks in the night. His vision was blurring with weariness. He still didn’t have a solution to the problem of The Project and Zoe. He went home because there was nowhere else to go.
Zoe was asleep again when the apartment door groaned closed. Hal lifted her from the stroller carefully and laid her on the couch. He looked at the upholstery, rough-beaded and coarse. He wondered if it was hurting her soft cheek, thought of laying out a blanket for her and then did. She never woke, lying limp in his hands whenever he adjusted her. She gave off heat and little whistling breaths in her sleep. He found himself smiling, obsessing over covering her completely. He switched off the overhead light. The light from the parking lot shone into the living room, flooding across the few surfaces and just touched the baby’s face. Hal could see the tips of her teeth between her parted lips. Her features were completely relaxed, completely trusting. He watched her breathe for a while. He felt a strange lassitude, a strange peace.
Finally, he rose from his recliner and entered the project room quietly, easing the door open without a squeak. He slid it shut behind him. The Project sat slumped in its chair in the center of the soundproofed room. It had fallen asleep. Its chin tucked into its chest. Hal was reminded of the baby’s napping position in the stroller. The Project’s wrists and ankles had bled from the zip ties that he’d used to fasten it to the arms and legs of the sturdy wooden chair.
Somebody’s been tryin’ to get loose, he thought.
He reached over to his tool cart. His hand moved past the drill, the scissors, the pliers. His fingers hovered and then dropped onto the yellow box cutter. He took it and used his thumb to open the blade. It popped out of the case like lipstick, silver and sharp, slippery like a fish. It clicked. He stood and looked at The Project, opened and shut the cutter.
Thinking and studying. He followed the line of its cheek with his eyes, searched the slope of the nose, the shape of the swollen mouth.
Moved to its eyes and found it staring back at him. One eye puffy and closed, the other liquid with tears, dry tracks lined its cheeks. Its hair was wild and disordered. Its mouth began to tremble.
“Your name, Jessica?” he asked. He remembered the baby-sitter mentioning the mother’s name when she left Zoe behind.
Its eyes focused on his hands, glanced back at his face. He frowned and asked again. She nodded, couldn’t speak around the gag he had in her mouth. He sighed resignedly; he could see the baby in the mother now. It was the nose, and the liquid expressive eye. Something in the quivering lip when she cried…maybe. He cursed internally. He couldn’t see The Project anymore, he could only see Jessica.
“I was thinkin’,” he said. “I’ve got Zoe and…”
Jessica jerked like she’d been shocked and Hal remembered that the woman had thought the baby was safe with her babysitter. The chair rattled as Jessica jerked herself back and forth. The air blasted from her nostrils, her eyes widened in panic. Hal stepped forward and slapped her across the face.
“Stop now!” he said firmly. “Stop I say! You’re going to wake her!”
He moved to strike her again. He drew back his right hand this time, box cutter glittering and forgotten in his fist. She settled down instantly, kept her one good eye on him, tears streamed down her face again. She ducked her head.
“You ready to listen?” he asked.
She nodded, blinking above the gag. “There is no part of me, you understand? No,” he said distinctly, “No. Part. Of. Me. That’s going to hurt that baby.”
He stopped; waiting for a response that didn’t come.
“You understand?” he asked again.
Still no response. He frowned, uncertain of how to get through to her. She misunderstood his expression and jerked again. She nodded vigorously. Whimpered.
“Look–look,” he said.
Hal closed the box cutter with a clack, slid it into his pocket. She watched it disappear, watched his hand move away. Watched everything like she was recording it, her eyes ticking from spot to spot, freezing and capturing Hal’s movements. Tears welled over her lashes, but slowly now.
“Look, I’m not going to hurt her and I’m not going to hurt you. You got it? I got her here and I got you here and…well, I guess you could say Zoe, well…. You ain’t–I mean aren’t–aren’t going to get hurt, you understand?”
He waited while Jessica took it in. Her lips moved. He thought she was repeating to herself the words that he had said. She nodded once. A jerk. Then again, she nodded and he thought he saw hope blooming in her eyes and…maybe, calculation.
“So, I know I shouldn’t have done what I did to you and I shouldn’t have brought you here and all but… Sometimes,” he struck his forehead with his knuckles. Rap. Rap. Rap. “Sometimes I get confused up here is all. And lately, I’ve been real, really, just…con…fused.”
He paused and looked back at the door. Toward the living room on the other side, where Zoe slept.
“Confused a lot, I guess. But, you gotta admit…this isn’t all my fault. Okay? I could tell by how you were acting, how you were looking at me like you…at least…well…I thought I could tell…” he trailed off and his face compressed in thought. “I been pretty confused.”
“You picked a pretty crappy babysitter. You know that?” he asked.
He offered a glittering smile as his face cleared. Jessica looked at him, her face a blank. She was rotating her hands, back and forth. Tugging against the plastic. Slowly but forcefully.
“I’m not going to judge you. I know you had it hard and all but, seriously, that girl was a freak. Do you know she didn’t even know my name and dropped off Zoe here? Can you believe that? What kind of person does that kind of thing?” He gave a short barked laugh. “Crazy! Right?”
She nodded; he saw her cheeks tighten as she offered a placating smile behind the gag.
“Oh yeah, let me get that,” Hal stepped forward and jerked the gag down before she could pull away.
Her head went back and she took a giant gasp of air, started to say something, “Hkk…”and began coughing. He pounded her on the back until she stopped.
“Don’t go screaming,” he said nervously. “I promised I wouldn’t hurt ya and I won’t but I don’t want ya waking the baby. Nobody upstairs or down will hear ya anyway.” He motioned at the thick piled rugs and the foam egg crates he’d fastened to the walls and ceiling. She looked around, following his hands with her eyes. Hal saw her mouth turn down, her features sliding back into uncontrolled tears.
“Hey, hey,” he said, “it’ll be okay. It’ll be okay. Uh-oh, here we go. Uh-oh, here we go.”
He repeated himself several times patting her on the shoulder.
“It’s okay. I’ve got a solution to all this.” He got down on his knees in front of Jessica, placed his hands on her shoulders. She flinched.
“You need a babysitter, right? And, I, well I need somebody to love and I love Zoe, right? So, I’m a responsible adult and I’ve got my own money, so you don’t even have to pay me and you don’t have to work. Why don’t you let me watch Zoe? Take care of you guys? Cause unless we come up with a deal I can’t let you go, you see? Cause you’ll tell the cops and I can’t have that. You understand? So let’s do it this way. I’ll take care of you guys. I’ll get a place big enough for the three of us. Then I can help with the baby and you can be home with her too. I might have to lock you up while I’m at work or something. Just for a little while! Just till I know you can be trusted. It’ll work out for both of us. You see? It’ll be good. Right? Good for both of us?” he looked over her shoulder, his hands tightened and loosened on the muscles of her neck.
He was caught up in the idea.
She grimaced, but he failed to see.
“And maybe, you know I could buy presents and stuff around Christmas and her birthday and stuff. You know? Like I could maybe be her uncle or something. Just adopted, you know? Not lying. It’s not good to lie. You shouldn’t lie to a baby you know. But she’d be happy to have someone else who loves her don’t you think?” he rattled on. “And that way maybe you’d get what you need and I’d get what I need and I’m not sayin’ we’d ever end up together, you and me, or anything like that but if we did, cause we knew each other so well and all, it’d be good for her too. You see? Cause she already knows me and, of course, she already knows you. And you don’t have to worry about me going back to any of this kind of stuff,” his hands gestured around the room. His smile had gone seraphic. “Cause I’m telling you…everything, everything is different. Because…well, because of life. Did you know Zoe means life? I bet you didn’t. What do you think?” he looked at her searchingly.
“That–that sounds, yes, I mean, yes! We can do that,” she stumbled out as his face changed from excitement to hope, to doubt and then back to anticipation.
There was something in her voice, he hoped it wasn’t disgust. He watched her for a while, smiling as he ran through the future in his mind. She watched the happiness draining from his face.
“Yes? You said? Yes?” he asked. “Cause that sounded like a lie.”
He looked at her closely and his voice began to go slow and flat and she grew frightened again. Started to cry.
“You’re not lying?”
“No. No! I promise. I—I–I’m not lying!” she answered. Gasping.
“It’s not good to lie.” Hal said.
“No! It’s not good to lie. I promise! I promise! It’ll be just like you said. I promise, mister. I promise…”
The smile leapt back to his mouth, to his eyes.
“Well then. A promise is a promise.”
He chuckled and looked her searchingly in the eyes. She froze and waited like prey. He popped his hands on his knees, breaking the spell.
“Let me get you loose. Gotta get rid of those zip ties!” he said.
He paused for a moment longer; his lips twisting in deep thought, still doubting, still worrying. He straightened his back, removed the box cutter from his pocket, leaned forward and grasped the blood-smeared strip of plastic restraining her trembling wrists. He felt her pulse, like a sensual shock, flutter under his fingertips. Jessica took a quick hitching breath and held it. Hal tried to make eye-contact but couldn’t, her eyes were on the closed cutter in his fist. Her nostrils flared. He hefted the blade and flipped the toggle forward with his thumb.
He stilled again with a wry and gentle smile on his face, looked back over his shoulder toward where Zoe slept peacefully in the living room, looked again at the woman Jessica, measured her sincerity and thought, uh-oh, here we go.
Hal moved forward. He’d made his decision.
Christopher Farris has recently been published by Fairlight Books and accepted for publication by Proud to be: Writing by America’s Warriors and Military Experience & the Arts.