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The baby was not at all like he had pictured it. She was white, pale white ,and slippery with blood. Her face was scrunched up and her mouth opened and closed. Her eyes were like little slits, bright blue. Just like hers. Her little fingers slid over his palm, and the tiniest noise came from her mouth. She did not cry. She was small, so small. Too small for him to handle. Joseph didn’t like fragile things. He tended to break them.
He set her on the edge of the make shift bed, flipping the corner of the blanket over her naked body and stepped back. Her little tongue, pink as the ballet slippers Elise hung on her bedroom door, tasted the air. So did he. It was cold, freezing, and tasted like icicles and the staleness of the hay piled around them. It tasted like lonliness.
Elise stirred. Joseph watched as her eyes fluttered, then closed again, and her hand slid along the sheet, then stilled. He didn’t have much time.
Swallowing hard, he closed his eyes for a moment. The barn disappeared, replaced by blackness. The baby was starting to whimper. He blocked it out, instead picturing home, the bright sun beating down on the big white front porch, Elise in that blue sundress, her head tilted back laughing, a plane arching through the blue Arizona sky. The endless green of the football field, the ball spiraling through the air towards him. The cactus in the backyard. Perfect memories.
The baby was starting to whine. He opened his eyes again. The abandoned barn; Elise, her hair tangled and her face red, sleeping fitfully on the straw bed he had fashioned for her; the cracked windows, frosty with ice. His reality.
He picked the baby up again, awkwardly holding her in the corner of his arm while he dug through the bag at his feet until his fingers closed around the jumper Elise had so carefully picked out. It was yellow, with a tiny sun on the breast pocket. Laying the baby down, he hesitantly pulled one of her arms into the sleeve. She was so limp and helpless, so dependent. So breakable.
Joseph froze, the jumper hanging from one of the baby’s arms. Elise turned over again. He knew he had to hurry. He hastily struggled with the clothes until the baby was dressed, only to remember he had forgotten a diaper. But he didn’t have time.
He wrapped her in the blanket Elise had packed, the one she had spent months sewing. It was a quilt of all different things, sloppily stitched together. He recognized a square from the slippery pink satin of her ballet outfits, the soft yellow cotton of her own baby blanket, the one that was always draped neatly over her blue checkered bedspread, a square from a football jersey he did not recognize, and one from his own. He swallowed, then gently tucked the corners of the blanket more tightly around the baby. She watched him silently; she had yet to cry.
Holding her tight to his chest, Joseph moved towards the barn doors, then paused. He glanced over at Elise, the girl he had loved for so long. The only thing that mattered in the entire world.
His eyes slid back down to the baby girl, the one thing that had the ability to ruin it. He wanted to hate her, he had thought it would be automatic. But he didn’t. She was beautiful. He wished he could hold her longer, feel her warmth against his chest. He wished he could watch Elise hold her, watch her eyes light up. He knew how much she would love that baby, with all her heart. She was one of those people that had always had the amazing ability of letting everyone in, of giving everyone a chance at being loved. He wasn’t like this. He didn’t love often. But when he did, he loved greatly.
Joseph stepped back, his breath catching in his throat, and silently crouched down. Then he brought the baby towards Elise, so they were cheek to cheek. The baby made a noise, the softest little sound. Her lips moved together, almost to form a kiss.
That was enough.
Hastily settling the baby back into his arms, Joseph strode the length of the barn and set her in the basket he had waiting. He pulled more blankets over her; nestled her in deep. Then he pushed open the barn door, wincing at the creek, and stepped outside.
A fresh layer of snow had settled over the ground in the day they had been in the barn. Water droplets hung suspended from tree branches, frozen in the air. The sun glinted off these icicles, dancing in glittering patterns across the untouched snow. The occasional car crawled across the strip of highway in the distance. His heart sank as he realized how bad the highways must be, let alone the dirt road sprawled out in front of him. He pulled his keys out of his pocket and anxiously flipped them over in his hand, the sharp, cold metal pressing into his palm. The baby was making little sucking noises from the basket in his hand. Taking a deep breath, he crunched through the icy snow towards his car. He settled the basket in the backseat, then slid into the front. It was just as cold inside. Glancing down, he saw the baby was beginning to shiver. He thought of Elise, waking up alone inside the barn.
Gunning the engine, he began to drive.
A faint motor rumbling woke her. She turned over, a hand automatically reaching back to her mane of red curls, working through the tangles that came every night. There were more then usual, the kind that only came after a long hot summer day at Joseph’s house, dancing on the crackling dry Arizona grass, her hair streaming in the still air behind her. Only sweat made them so tangled.
A shiver wracked her body. This confused her, made her realize how disorientated she was. Her eyes flew open. Above her there were crumbling wooden rafters, around her piles of stale hay on the wooden planks of the barn. Decaying boxes were stacked in the corner, and the cracked glass of the windows was decorated with delicate, weaving strands of frost. She blinked, shocked.
And then it came back to her. The plane, the endless stretch of highway, the barn, the labour. The pain, intense and rippling from deep inside of her. The blackout.
She thought of her parents, only miles away now instead of states, awaiting her arrival, oblivious to the fact there was a baby at all. Of Joseph, holding her hand and stroking her face, promising her everything would be okay. Of the look of disappointment and sheer disbelief he had been hiding behind his eyes for nine months. Of the day it had all started, the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach when she realized.
And she thought of that little baby, safely inside the firm, swelled skin of her belly for so long. Of rocking back and forth in the shade of Joseph’s front porch, one hand on the warm cotton of her sundress pulled taut across her skin, of the baby’s determined, gentle little nudges. Of the feel of the needle and thread as she stitched a square each night, piercing together the baby’s first set of memories. Of the sudden swoosh of emptiness inside her before she passed out.
She briefly wondered where her baby was. Where Joseph was. Why she felt so hollow inside. And her arms so empty. She reached out, needing her baby to nestle close to her. But everything was still around her. She was alone, for the first time in nine months.
She began to cry.
He glanced at her every so often in the review mirror. He couldn’t help it. She was captivating. So tiny, yet so alive.
As he drove down the deserted, ice slicked streets, his mind began to wonder. Like he had been for the past nine months, he found himself imagine Liam. That was the only thing Elise would tell him about the other one. His name. Joseph felt his teeth clenching at the thought of him. He could still see it so clearly, even though his eyes had never witnessed it. He could see the seduction, Liam coaxing Elise to go on a date with him. He could see Elise wavering, thinking about Joseph so many miles away, the boy she said she loved. Then that thought would come again, with an emphasis on the distance. She would agree on a whim. Find herself getting dressed up. Her hair being done. Then she would get in the car and go for dinner, and agree to go back to his house to watch a movie. And before she knew what was happening, she was pinned down on his couch, struggling to free herself of his grasp.
Joseph didn’t realize he was crying until the tears blurred his vision. He blinked them back, noticed that his hands had gripped the steering wheel so tight that they had turned white. He could still remember the phone call, her voice moving up and down, rising and falling with the pattern of her tears. She begged him. She actually begged him to forgive her. To forgive her for being raped.
The word still stung on his tongue. Raped. He didn’t want to accept it, accept that it was a part of his life now, a part that would always haunt him.
He found himself glancing towards the backseat again. At that tiny little baby, the most solid proof that could be found. It was time.
The car swerved to the left. The door opened. The baby, still cradled in its basket, was nestled into a snow drift. The car door was shut again. The car drove off.
Although these things all happened, Joseph couldn’t register that he was the one doing them. He was filled with an instant numbness, and unwillingness to accept what he had just done.
Part of him knew that he had just saved her .
Part of him was filling with a sinking sensation, one that strangely enough started in his toes and seeped its way up to his head.
As he continued his drive down the road, there was only one thing on his mind. Elise. God, he loved that girl.
This was the last though he had before he saw the truck. He didn’t have time to really see it. He wouldn’t see the Smith MeatPacker’s logo on the side, or the faded purple and orange stripe under the writing. He wouldn’t see the terrified expression on the old driver’s face as he swerved franticly to avoid Joseph. He wouldn’t see the way the sunlight glistened off the shiny white roof of the car, illuminating tiny particles of dust in the air and sending strips of rainbows careening into the sky. He wouldn’t see the beauty in the situation. The workings of fate.
All he saw was Elise.