(Featured image via bbc/afp)
Mary shifted the heaviest bag from her right hand to her left and reached to scratch her ankle. Jesus Christ, she thought, this line is endless. She had been standing in the same spot for at least twenty minutes. She leaned out to see the front of the line, saw the woman in the front gesticulating wildly at two cashiers and shouting, but she was too far away to make out what she was saying. The look on the cashiers’ faces told her it wasn’t Merry Christmas.
Next year, she thought. Next year I’ll definitely have everything bought, and earlier. No more last-minute shopping, running red-faced and sweaty with heavy bags banging against her legs, pushing past the zombified masses, the shuffling people thronging every shop and intersection she needed to get through quickly because the shops are closing, betting is closed for the rat race.
The line inched forward, and Mary found herself in the baby goods part of the aisle. Her hand crept along the shelf for the bumper pack of nappies, squeezed the pack lightly and let go.
She hadn’t wanted to be a mother growing up. When the other girls were playing with baby dolls and miniature prams, she had other interests. Card games, shoplifting and petty arson were among them. “Boys’ things,” the other girls would say, and then laugh, maybe pull her hair a little bit, once spitting on her, another time pushing her into the dirty puddle outside the school toilets. Such activities are also held as “boys’ things”, but the contradiction was lost on these otherwise nice young girls, taking part in that unintentionally cruel play children excel at.
She passed through her teenage years with less trouble, having blossomed into an attractive girl, if not quite beautiful according to the magazines she spurned at the store. Encounters with boys were fumbling, mismanaged affairs, her guiding them as well as she could with her own limited knowledge. She never became overly emotional or attached, she felt only that physical closeness. It was all she wanted, or needed. She was never quite sure which.
After school lost its grip on her, she floated away from her home town, a distant and impersonal family providing no reason to stay. It was the normal thing to do, move out and find a job in the big smoke, find independence, freedom from small town thinking. She found a small apartment and a night job, waitressing at a little bistro place not far from where she lived in a small one bedroom apartment. She went out after work most nights, having no need to wake up early any day. It was on one of these late night sessions that she met Alfredo.
The suddenness of the screeching startled her, and her body snapped up like a rope being pulled tight. The shock of the sound was like glass exploding beside her head, and the piercing volume was like said glass being poured into her ears, slicing her eardrums on the tumble down the canal. She put a hand to the side of her face, suddenly and hysterically sure she would feel the stickiness of blood. Her hand came away dry, but she could feel the sweat resting on the back of her neck, cooling in the circulated air of the supermarket.
Was that a baby screaming?
Alfredo was the type of man young, small town girls dream of being whisked away by in their daydreams. Smart, tanned, exotic, well-traveled. He had approached her at the bar and asked her to buy him a drink. The confusion at the reversal of the usual way of things showed on her face, and he smiled a smile of perfect teeth. She answered with her own smile, and called for two straight rums. He called for another four after that, and when they were all finished, they spoke of their respective lives. He told her of the places he’d been and the things he’d done, but modestly, almost dismissively, never revealing the pride he took in his obviously more interesting life. She told a little of her home life, her job in the city, trying hard to hide her lack of worldly experiences and failing, caring less and less as the rum did its job.
She stayed with him that night, and the two nights after, caught up in a mini hurricane of lust. He demanded no emotional connection with her, and she asked for none. She surrendered to him, but he gave no quarter. For Mary, it was perfect.
After the third night, she returned to her little apartment, physically drained but happy. After work that night she called the number he had given her, but the little voice on the end of the line told her that she was sorry, this number was no longer in use. Mary was upset, but later thought it was for the best. Emotional ties had a way of winding themselves about a person after time, whatever their intentions.
Mary looked back down the line to the checkout. She saw the source of the ear-splitting cries, a baby indeed. A man who looked to be in his late thirties had the child held on one hip while pushing a loaded trolley with his free hand. Under his eyes were the tell-tale smudges of late nights, early mornings and little sleep between. His pallor was in stark contrast to the bright red colour of the baby’s head. Whatever was wrong, it certainly wasn’t the child’s breathing that was the problem.
Mary felt her heart skip a little at the sight of the baby. Male, she guessed. Either that or the father had never learned the old blue for a boy, pink for a girl system. But the hair! A thick shock of jet black hair sprouted out from the child’s head, just like…
Before she knew what she was doing, she left her basket on the ground and made her way down towards the man with the baby.
She had continued to work nights, sometimes waking up earlier than usual to enjoy the weather now that summer was creeping around the bend for real. Not that false start in May, the promising sunshine that tempted you outside without a coat only to find it’s the same temperature as March, but real summer. Sometimes she would dream, sometimes she would daydream. No great choices to make yet, she would think to herself. She was young enough that this was almost true.
Then in July, she started getting sick. In the mornings and early afternoons especially.
She stood in front of the man holding the screaming baby. She could feel the people around them straining not to look, not to comment.
“Hi there,” she said, “do you need a hand?”
The man’s eyes met hers. She thought she saw a haunted gratitude in them, and he nodded.
“Come on, you can take my spot in the queue,” she said.
“Are you fucking serious, girl?” a heavy-set woman in front of him asked her. “I’ve had to listen to that ugly little whelp scream for the last ten minutes and now—”
Mary slapped the basket out of her hand and pointed her finger at the woman’s face. The woman backed up into the shelves, knocking bags of chocolate covered caramels onto the floor.
“You’ll shut your piggy little mouth if you know what’s good for you, you barren cunt.”
The woman stood with her mouth open, and Mary heard one small word in between all the gasps from the onlookers and what was now the background noise of the baby.
“Come on,” Mary said to the man with the child, who looked like he hadn’t even heard this exchange, “let’s go.” They marched up the aisle back to where Mary had been. The people on either side moved back and let them both in without even a grumble or a tut.
“What do you mean, you can’t allow it? It’s my body for Christ’s sakes!”
“Ms. Belvedere, I’m simply not equipped to—“
“Well point me in the direction of someone who can do it. I’m not ready to have a baby, I can barely support myself!”
The doctor had looked at her over the rims of his glasses. She sat on his examining table, her face an artist’s rendition of fear and anger. He sighed, and went over to look outside the door into the waiting room. She was the last patient of the day, and nobody else was there. He shut the door and came back to Mary.
“Look, I can lose my job if this ever got out. I know someone, but they’re… unorthodox. And might be too expensive.”
She shook her head. “I’ll find a way.”
Mary and the man with the child left the supermarket together. Mary carried one of his bags as well as her own.
“I can give you a lift if you need it,” she said. The baby’s cries had softened now to a steady wail.
The man nodded. “Please, that would be most kind.”
“I’m parked just over here, come on.” She smiled at them both, and the man smiled back, the child’s cries sending up puffs of vapor between them in the cold night air.
She had arrived at the address the doctor had given her and rang the bell. As she did, the door swung open to reveal a dark hallway. Strange objects like twisted dreamcatchers and wind chimes made of bone hung from the ceiling. A smell of age and decrepitude lazily wafted out to her. She almost turned away and left, but her will pushed her into the house.
“Hello?” she called out in a feeble voice, “Madame Lamia?”
She heard a thump upstairs and she jumped a little, a squeak escaping her throat.
“I am she,” a thick voice said from the door to her left, “what is your business here?”
“I…” Mary started to say, then she cried out hoarsely. “I’m pregnant!”
The door on the left where the voice had come from opened slowly. There was someone sat in a chair with its back to her in front of a fireplace where dark red embers burned among blackened wood. A mess of matted black and brown hair with beads tied in hung over the back of the chair. As Mary entered the room, the figure rose and turned to her. The face was that of an old woman, the great grooves in her flesh around the eyes and mouth going unnoticed next to her shining green eyes and blood-red lips.
“This is me, just here,” the man said, pointing out the car window on their left. Mary guided the car into the driveway and shut off the engine.
“Would you like to come in?” he asked, the baby in his arms still sniffling and whimpering. Mary was amazed it was still awake after all its exertions. “I can make some tea, or coffee.”
“I’m okay, thanks,” she said.
“Please, I insist. Just to say thank you, plus it’ll help keep you warm on the drive home.”
“Alright.” He stepped out first with the child, and as he busied himself with the baby and one of his shopping bags, she slipped a knife from the glove box, hiding it up her sleeve. She got out of the car and took the rest of the bags.
They walked in step to the door. When they got in the kitchen, the man put the child in a playpen that had been set up in the corner. It immediately started wailing louder, its energy coming back somehow. Mary placed the bags on the table in the center.
“Hey, I never asked your name,” she said as she started to turn around. Just then she felt a blow to the back of her head, and everything went dark.
“With child…” the old woman had said, moving towards Mary with her hands out towards Mary’s stomach.
Mary started to shrink back from those gnarled old claws, but her resolve held. As the woman got near her, Mary could smell dead flowers and dust.
“Unwanted, is it?” the old woman asked, revealing her tombstone teeth in a wide smile. Mary nodded. “Alright then. I can do something for you, but there is a cost.”
Mary looked down at the ground. “I don’t have a lot of money right now, but I can pay you back later, I swea—”
“Hush,” said the old woman, putting a bony finger to Mary’s lips, “I don’t need money. A debt is much more valuable, I think. We can come up with another arrangement.” The old woman laughed, a deep and dirty sound. Mary’s stomach went cold, and her hands instinctively covered her belly.
When Mary came to, she was upside down. She blinked a few times to clear her vision, and saw she was hanging by her feet from the ceiling in what she guessed was the basement of the house. Her hands were tied behind her. Her hair trailed off her head and into a stone trough that she was suspended over. The baby was screaming again, and it sounded like it was in the basement with her.
“I’m sorry,” the man said, his voice coming from behind her, “it’s the only way.”
She spat a hair out of her mouth. “Wait! Wait, please, what’s the only way? What’s going on?”
“You were going to do the same to me,” he said.
Mary gasped. How could he know? she thought. Her arrangement with Madame Lamia had been her terrible secret. A blood debt, for freedom from her burden. She shook her head violently, her hair whipping back and forth.
“No, I swear!”
“Madame Lamia told me. She told me it was the only way to get my baby to stop crying. You understand, don’t you?”
Mary felt the blade on her throat, then the tearing as he opened it up. As her blood gushed out into the trough, she could hear as the baby’s cries softened to a whimper, replaced by the laughter of the old woman. The laughter surrounded her as she went down into the darkness.
The Blue Ridge Project: A Novel
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