We were driving home from the Island Clinic, Marnie looking pale and fragile. She’d given birth the day before. It hadn’t been easy, ten hours in labor. I knew because I’d counted every hour since I’d brought her to the clinic. Her water hadn’t even broken when I brought her in. “I felt a contraction,” she’d said when she woke me at one in the morning. We dressed in a hurry and started the drive. We lived in the boonies on the windy side of the island in an old summer cottage left to me by my parents. Marnie had wanted to live closer to town but we couldn’t afford closer so the cottage had to suffice until something better came along. It was a long bumpy ride in the old Ford to the clinic, Marnie complaining all the way, ”Jesus, slow down, Gil,” “Go faster, for God’s sake,” “Watch the bumps.”
They would have sent us back home to wait until Marnie had really dilated, but I guess they took pity on us and let us stay. I think the doc wanted a good night’s sleep because he didn’t show until 7 a.m. looking all bright and well rested. He was an old guy, a father figure type, a bit corpulent, a bit bald, very quiet and kind. He disappeared into the room where they’d taken Marnie. She told me later she’d begged him to give her a C section. He said he would if the baby didn’t come soon. Marnie was exhausted, nine months of carrying that kid. She was constipated most of the time, had insomnia, worried about gaining too much weight and so on. Well, our son finally popped. He was a big boy, blond like Marnie, burly, almost too big to be called an infant. Marnie was so weak she could hardly lift the spoon to eat her prunes. She loved prunes. She knew they were good for what ailed her.
So we’re driving home down this rutted road. The pines are shimmering in the sunlight. Night rains always make the trees sparkle. I began to feel elated, my wife beside me, our baby in her arms. The sun on her face made her radiant like the ads you see for new mothers. They always look contented, like giving birth was the pinnacle of joy.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, this woman appeared. She dashed across the road and stopped in front of us. I screeched my brakes and skidded to a stop, waking Marnie. Our son started to whimper.
God damn it, I wanted to throttle that woman. “Are you crazy? You could have killed us.” I yelled out the window.
The woman, the girl really, she didn’t look more than sixteen, just stood there with this patchwork quilt in her arms. Her face was freckled, her dark hair limp and straggly, hanging loose on her slumped shoulders. She wore a long gingham dress dotted with blue and pink flowers. The hem was thick with dirt. Flip flops adorned her muddy feet.
She approached carefully, offering the blanket like a gift. Marnie soothed our son with her breast. The whimpering stopped. The girl came closer. I was so mad I wanted to run her down. But then she pushed back the blanket exposing a baby’s tiny head covered with reddish fuzz. “She’s sick,” the girl said. The child’s brown eyes were glazed, mucous clotted her nose, her forehead was crimson with fever. “Please,” the girl pleaded, “take us to the clinic.”
I started to open the door but Marnie stopped me. “Don’t, “she whispered, “that kid’s sick. She could be infectious.”
“We can’t just leave them here.”
“We can. Think of your son.” She held our infant closer. “If he gets sick he could die. He’s too vulnerable.”
Of course, Marnie was right. A newborn needs special care until it is old enough to have developed its immune system. I started to close the door. “Sorry,” I apologized, “we’ve a newborn here.”
The girl started to weep. “You have to,” she cried. “You just have to.”
“Close the window,” Marnie instructed. “God damn it, Gil. Shut the fucking window.”
I shut the window. The girl banged on it, shrieking now, her young face contorted with grief.
“We can’t leave her, Marnie. It’s not right.”
“I’m not exposing our child to infection, Gil.”
“If you take that woman to the clinic I’m getting out. I might not be home when you arrive.”
“Marnie for God’s sake, don’t threaten.”
“I am threatening. How else can I shove some sense into you? Can’t you see the woman’s a vagrant, a lunatic? How else would she be wandering about like this?
The girl sat down on the road in front of our car.
“I can’t run her over, Marnie.”
“She’s just daring you to. Can’t you see she’s crazy?”
By this time her baby was wailing which started our son wailing too.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Marnie said, taking the baby off her breast and buttoning her baggy blue blouse. It was stained with milk. Marnie had more than she was prepared for.
I had this strange feeling that this wasn’t really happening, that the whole event was some kind of nightmare I’d been trying to avoid ever since Marnie finally became pregnant. We’d been trying for years. I was ready to adopt but Marnie wanted her own flesh and blood. “My flesh and blood,” she repeated every time I brought up the issue of adoption. “I want my flesh and blood.”
By now the girl was lying down in the middle of the road, her baby cradled in her arms.
“God damn it, Marnie. I can’t leave her.”
Marnie started to slide from the car, shouldering the baby’s hospital gear, clutching the infant against her chest.
“Don’t,” I pleaded. ”For God’s sake, Marnie, don’t.”
She got back in. I started the truck and backed away from the girl. I forced a U turn on some gravel next to the tree line.
In my rear view mirror I watched the girl running after us, her free arm waving frantically.
“Where’s her husband?” Marnie muttered.
“Maybe she doesn’t have one. Not everyone’s so lucky.”
“Right.” Marnie turned away. I knew from that moment she would always turn away.
That night I tried to sleep, but our son’s crying kept waking me. When I tried to soothe him I saw her baby instead, as if her baby was mine and I could never be free of her. I looked in on Marnie. She was in a deep slumber, so I dressed quietly and snuck out the back door hoping it wouldn’t squeak.
The night air was chilly. Stars circled a hazy moon. I revved the engine and headed back down the road toward the clinic, toward the spot where we’d seen her. Maybe she’d still be there, maybe not. But I would find her. I had to.