Kate never planned to steal a baby, yet here she was, driving around with a cheerful, bald-headed baby she’d only just met, kicking his stout legs on the passenger seat. He really should be riding in the back. Better still, secured in a car seat. Kate was terrified the airbag would go off and crush him. She remembered something about babies having soft bones, and, bonus, this baby was sturdy, a real chunk. He’d probably survive the impact, but the airbag would definitely hurt.
She was shaking, on the verge of hyperventilating, her blood thumping in her ears like bad house music. Not the baby. He didn’t seem to mind any of it. He was smiling at her, gripping her fingers where her hand braced him against the seat. Kate spoke to him. “You don’t understand what kind of trouble we’re in.”
At her voice, the baby shrieked and smiled a gummy, openmouthed smile, revealing two bottom teeth. Crazed as she felt, Kate could not help smiling back at him. She poked his tummy and said, “This is partly your fault for being so cute!” The baby shrieked again.
Where the hell was she going? Could she drop him off somewhere? They had those sites you could bring a newborn, no questions asked. Places where a girl who’d been hiding her pregnancy with loose sweatshirts could take the baby she’d pushed out, soundlessly, onto her closet floor in the dead of night. Kate tried to remember where those girls took their unwanted babies. Emergency rooms? Too many sick people. She didn’t want the baby to catch anything. Some kind of municipal building? Cameras, they all had video cameras these days. She couldn’t risk being seen. A rectory or church parsonage? Definitely not. Kate needed to stay the hell away from churches.
Besides, this baby was not new. He had teeth. Questions would be asked.
Kate couldn’t think straight, couldn’t drive straight. She needed help. She turned into an elegant residential neighborhood with elm-lined parkways separating the two sides of the brick street. She pulled over in the gap between a two story brick Georgian and a boxy, mod house, with a stripe of windows a few feet below the roofline. The engine running, Kate took a deep breath, then another. She scanned the sidewalks, the wide, deserted lawns and furnished porches with their colorful plantings and abundant throw pillows. She saw no joggers, no one reading the paper, only a yard crew cutting a lawn far up the street.
Kate held the baby’s hand. It made her feel better. She bent over him and kissed his jelly belly as she retrieved her cellphone from her purse. The baby nabbed a fistful of her hair. Kate untangled her hair from his grip, rechecked her mirrors for passersby, then touched her older sister’s work number and held the phone to her ear. Vivian answered on the first ring. “You’re up early.”
“I am so fucked,” Kate said. She looked at the baby and felt bad for cursing. “Screwed. In so much trouble.”
“I cannot even tell you, or you’ll be, like an accessory.” Vivian had been addicted to Law and Order in high school and college. Last year Kate gave her the entire box set—456 episodes, plus bonus features—for her thirtieth birthday. She knew Vivian would grasp the seriousness of the call.
“Okay, drama, what’d you do that’s so bad?”
Kate exhaled into the phone. “Promise you won’t yell at me.”
“I’m hanging up now.”
“I took a baby.”
“I took a baby.” Kate looked over at him. “A little boy,” she added, stroking his pudgy cheek.
“Whatever. I’m busy, Kate.”
“No. Seriously. I did.”
The line went quiet until Vivian said, “You’re serious?
“You stole a baby.”
“I didn’t steal him. I just, kind of, walked out with him.”
“That’s kidnapping!” Vivian replied in an urgent whisper.
“It’s not like that.”
“Why the hell—”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Vivian left room for a reply and when her sister didn’t, she asked, “Where are you?”
“In my car.”
“Did anyone see you take him?” Vivian whispered.
Kate spoke quietly too. “No. I mean, maybe.”
“Did they or didn’t they?”
“Nobody saw me take him. But people saw me with him.”
“You ARE fucked!”
“You’re not helping.”
Vivian raised her voice. “I know you’ve been having a tough time, but you can’t just go taking other people’s babies, Kate.”
“Stop yelling at me. You promised you wouldn’t yell.” Kate was on the verge of tears. She heard her sister breathing into the phone.
Whispering again, Vivian asked, “Whose baby is it?”
“A woman at church. She gave him to me to hold.”
“Wait a minute. She let you take him?”
“I offered to hold him so she could accept communion.”
“A woman gave you her baby to hold and, what, you walked out with it? Drove away in your car?
“Yes, but she has, like, three other kids. Little ones. And I’m pretty sure she has bigger ones in school.”
“So? What she’s not going to miss that one?”
“No. It’s just she can’t really take care of them all. You should see them straggling after her down the aisle. They’ve got nice clothes, expensive-looking, I mean, but they’re always a mess, pen on their faces, their hair unbrushed.” The baby squeezed Kate’s fingers. She squeezed back, smiled at him. She used a baby-friendly voice. “This little guy especially. Last week when he came to mass, he didn’t have anything on his feet. Not one sock.” Kate cupped the baby’s left foot in her hand.
“Oh, like you’d do any better.”
Kate was about to remind Vivian that she was great with kids, that kids loved her, how she had made a small fortune babysiting, had worked as a summer camp counselor all four college summers, so, yeah, she might be able to get socks on her kid’s feet. At least she’d do better than Vivian who had waited tables at Chili’s all those years. Before she could respond, Vivian spoke again, her tone gentler. “Oh God. Oh, Katie.”
“It’s been more than a year.”
Kate knew what she was going to say. She closed her eyes to brace for it. “I told you, I felt sorry for him.”
“Listen to me: it was absolutely the right thing to do.”
“I felt sorry for him.” Kate’s voice split. She didn’t want to cry in front of the baby so she pulled her hand away to cover her face. She thought of her own death—nothing specific, just dying.
“You weren’t ready–”
“I said, shut it!” Kate shouted. The baby startled. She forced herself to smile at him and rubbed his belly. He seemed to settle down.
Vivian replied in a severe whisper, “Fine. Whatever the insane reason, you’ve kidnapped some baby. You’re a . . . a . . . baby snatcher.”
At this, Kate wept, unclaimed grief geysering out of her. Her body convulsing, she turned away from the baby, but soon she could hear him fussing. She ignored this until his protests spiked to anguished wails. These cries ripped through her. She wondered if she wasn’t actually dying. When she couldn’t take another second, Kate turned back to him and felt terrible that, fists balled, his red face was screwed up and fat tears streamed over his cheeks. She heaved him up and held him to her while they both cried. She patted his back, swayed side to side, the movement and his warm, plump body a comfort to her. Before long, the baby tugged at her cellphone. Kate tried to keep it from him, but the baby pulled harder. She pressed the speaker button and key lock, gave it to him, and turned him around so he sat with his back against her. The baby flipped the phone over and over with both hands, content now. Kate tried to calm down too, to quit crying, since she knew baby’s could sense negative emotions. She wiped her face with one shoulder and then the other.
With things quiet Vivian said, “And since when do you go to church? Christ, Kate, we’re not even Catholic.”
Kate had no intention of telling her sister that she had been attending St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church for three months. She also attended Faith, Hope And Charity on the west end of town and the noon mass at Church Of The Ascension, twenty minutes north. She attended mass three times every Friday to steal cash out of the unattended Gucci or Downey and Bourke wallets of the aging, wealthy parishioners. Mostly women uncomfortable using ATM’s, the members of these monied faith communities would often leave cash in the very bank envelope the teller had given them the previous afternoon. Dressed in her best cashmere sweater and low heels, her head bowed, Kate sat behind these women and plucked fat envelopes from thousand dollar purses before, during, or after Holy Communion.
Before St. Bart’s Kate had never stolen anything in her life—unless you count the pair of Frye boots she’d borrowed from a college roommate who got mono and never came back to school. She only planned to work at the churches until she finished her internship and got hired at the station. She got the idea when she drove out to Lakeland on her day off to take her grandmother to lunch and Grandma had asked her to stop by the bank for cash. Short on time, Kate offered to teach Grandma how to use the ATM at the mall, but her grandmother insisted, said they could save some time by using the drive up window. At the bank, Grandma handed her an endorsed check made out to “cash” and Kate closed it in the sealed pod that travelled through a pneumatic tunnel to the teller. Through the same tunnel the teller dispatched an envelope thick with cash. Grandma counted it before she’d let Kate drive away: $300 in assorted bills. After lunch her grandmother slipped Kate a folded U.S. Grant. Kate tried to refuse, but Grandma said, “Take it. I know you can use it. Take it.” Kate did.
Kate barely heard Vivian ask, “Is the service over?”
“The church where you stole the baby. Is the service still going on?”
“It’s called mass.”
“Whatever. The mass. Is it over?”
“Um.” Kate took the phone from the baby and pressed a button to check the time. “It ends any minute.”
“Take it back then.”
“The baby. Take it back to the church.”
“I can’t do that.”
Kate looked at the baby. He stared out the passenger window, a contemplative expression on his face. Kate worried he might miss his mother. She turned him to face her and he laid his head against her breast. She rocked him side to side again, thinking of the thousands she’d lifted from the pews. “What if there are police cars?”
“Say the baby was fussy so you took him for a ride.”
Kate kept her eyes on the baby. His lashes fluttered and he felt heavier in her lap. “I can’t lie.”
Vivian laughed. “You can kidnap a baby, but you can’t lie. Fine, you’re going to jail.”
Kate covered the baby’s exposed ear with her free hand. “Don’t say that.”
“Well, it’s true.”
“Still, you don’t have to say it.”
“You go to jail if you take other people’s babies, Kate.”
Kate felt angry at her sister’s condescension, not to mention the fact that Vivian wasn’t contributing anything helpful. She tried to stay calm for the baby’s sake. Evenly, she replied, “I know that.”
“Really? Then why do you have some random baby in your car?”
“He’s not random.”
“What’s his name then?”
Kate didn’t answer.
Kate rested her lips against the baby’s enormous, bald head. She believed she could guess, would know, his name, so strong had their connection grown. She concentrated hard. Right off she got a feeling he was named for an apostle. Andrew. Peter. John. It might be John. Definitely John. No, wait. James. Of course, James, John’s brother. He was definitely a James, although she considered him more of a Jamie. Finally, she said, “I’m pretty sure his name is James.”
Vivian inhaled loudly. “Whatever his name is, you’ve got to take him back.”
“No one will believe me.”
“Fine. But if you don’t take him back, I’m calling the police.”
“What? Why?” Kate felt like crying again.
“You’ve implicated me in a kidnapping.”
“Stop calling it that!”
“If they find out you called me and I didn’t report you, I’ll go to jail too.”
The baby shifted in her lap. Kate whispered, “Stop talking about jail.”
“Make up a lie. Something. Anything.”
Kate sensed movement in her sight line. She looked across the parkway, up the other side of the street, and saw a white Chevy Suburban approaching slowly from the other direction. Hands to the wheel, she stomped the break, ready to flee when she felt the baby asleep against her. The Suburban sped up, but then halted directly across from Kate’s parked car. Quaking, her fingers suddenly ice cold, Kate flipped down her visor and raised her cellphone to obscure her face, the hazy thought, or wish, or prayer for death settling in her mind again. In her peripheral vision she could see that the Suburban stayed put. “Shit,” she cried out, causing the baby to open his eyes. He closed them just as quickly. “Shit, shit, shit,” she whispered to herself.
She dared a glance at the white car. Through the driver’s window she made out a blonde woman in big sunglasses, her head bent forward. Kate kept watching, waiting, holding her breath, gripping the baby far too tight. Now the woman leaned her forearms against the steering wheel, her cellphone visible. Prepared to bolt, Kate inched back into her seat and kept absolutely still as she watched the woman stab at the keys. Finally, the Suburban rolled forward, the woman still texting, never once looking over. Her breath clenched, Kate willed the woman down the street. At a stop sign the Suburban turned left and disappeared. Kate exhaled. Woozy, she rested her chin against the baby’s head.
“Uh, hello?” her sister called.
“I’m here,” Kate said. Still looking out her window she noticed a careworn Queen Anne with toddler toys and bikes littering its patchy, brown yard. The broken front walk was scuffed with colored chalk and a ratty umbrella stroller sat partway open at the bottom of the bowing porch stairs. Kate pressed her lips to the baby’s silky crown.
“Well?” Vivian asked.
“I’ll take care of it.”
“What do you mean, take care of it? You had better not hurt that baby.”
“I know what to do.”
“I’m calling back in five minutes and you better be back at your church.” Vivian hung up.
Kate tossed her phone onto the passenger seat. She looked down at the baby’s slack face, his shiny, pink lips parted to form a lopsided o. Every so often, dreaming, he twitched. Kate smiled wondering what Jamie could possibly dream about.
She watched the dilapidated Queen Anne with the baby snuggled against her, inhaled his pure, sugary scent, growing sleepy herself. After a minute, Kate turned off the ignition, reached for the door handle, and pulled it. She kicked open the door, eased herself out of her seatbelt, and stood, careful to keep her chest level. The baby readjusted, but remained asleep.
The day was mild, the sun beginning to gild the far side of the street. Kate looked both ways and, seeing no cars, hurried to the disheveled, kid-friendly yard. She walked up the uneven, graffitied path to the umbrella stroller, used her foot to push the crossbar straight and locked. She kissed the baby’s velvety head and lowered him into the stroller. His shoulders slouched and his chin dropped to his chest, but, still, he was fast asleep. Kate knelt in front of him. She watched his lips relax in two different directions, an elliptical smile. Jamie looked so sweet she wanted a picture, yet she knew it was for the best that she had left her phone in the car.
Kate looked up at the house a final time. She didn’t see anyone, though the front curtains were open to receive the sun, construction paper tulips taped inside the front windows. She turned and walked back towards her car. She had to call her sister. After that she knew she would need to act normal: go home, start her laundry, and take a nap before her shift at the radio station.