Since becoming a dad I have learned a few things. You will do anything to keep your child safe, and there are only three reasons why a baby will cry.
Noel Osualdini stops by to remind us of those reasons.
Noel Osualdini stops by to remind us of those reasons.
Night Escape by Noel Osualdini
After the newspapers reported another mutilated body out on the old mill road, John decided it was no longer safe for his growing family to stay in the town where he and Laura had grown up, met, and married. Although she was almost at the end of the first trimester with their second child, they spent the afternoon packing and didn’t leave until after dark.
Just outside town, they passed an abandoned car with its bonnet up. A kilometer later, the headlights washed over a hitchhiker, a short-skirted young woman, whose wild red hair flared into a long ponytail that fell halfway down her back. The night was inky, and for all they knew the entire human population of the world might be on this short stretch of highway. John edged the car onto the road’s graveled shoulder.
“Do you think it wise to be picking up strangers?” Laura asked, but he pointed out there’d been no other cars along this road at all.
“John, she could be a hooker,” Laura warned. “All those … contacts.”
“Nobody else is going to stop for her,” he retorted, watching the stranger in the mirror as she quickened her pace to reach them.
Sitting next to their toddler’s booster chair, Laura eyed the woman suspiciously from the back seat, noting the wrinkled skin on the hand that reached for the door handle, the talon-like finger nails painted black and flecked with various colors. Despite the baby-doll face, with its caked makeup, it was obvious this was no young woman, and Laura had no doubt at all now about her profession.
“Hi, I’m Di,” said the hitchhiker.
She confirmed it was her car they’d seen farther back, but Laura doubted it; ever wary of these types, she assumed the woman was more likely to have been here trying out new ground.
“With all the murders lately,” asked Laura, “aren’t you worried about getting into strangers’ cars?”
“I know how to look after myself,” said Di, wriggling her rump in through the door, “but let me tell you: I was just so relieved when I saw you in the back with your baby. Aw, she’s so sweet. What’s her name?”
It was an obvious question, but Laura spotted John’s eyes in the mirror, watching her.
“Laura,” she said, “just like me.”
The eyes in the mirror frowned. He’d always warned her not to reveal too much to strangers, and now she’d given her own name. She smiled sweetly—just as much a taunt to John as it was meant to comfort Di.
A few kilometers out of the next town, the engine began to make an odd sound.
“There’s a 7-Eleven just up ahead,” said Di, “with a lonely boy working nights to pay his way through university. I met him on my way out—”
Laura had no doubt about what Di had done to ease the boy’s loneliness. To John, she said: “I brought some food for the baby, but maybe something for us?”
They didn’t quite reach the store. With a final cough, the car stalled with twenty meters to go. From the dark road, they could see a single person in the glare of light from the store. There was only one car in the park, an ancient Holden, the sort of car that might be owned by a poor student.
John popped the bonnet open.
“It’s okay, I can walk from here,” said Di. “It’s not that far now and I need to get a pack of cigarettes anyhow. Thanks for the lift.” She stepped onto the road.
John leaned over to the passenger’s side and eased open the glove box to retrieve a tool wrapped in a dark-stained rag. In the back seat, the baby was waking. The cooing sounds suddenly erupted into a wail of hunger as the stranger’s high heels crunched across the gravel. John, raising the bonnet, warned Di it was too dark for her to proceed on her own, even for such a short distance, and he jogged to catch up with her.
With the child now screaming in the back of the car, Laura offered a breast. For a few minutes, the baby suckled on the liquid that dribbled out, watching its mother. It pulled the breast towards itself.
“Ow!” said Laura. “Stop biting.”
“I think she’s getting old enough for more solid food,” said John, leaning in through the open window. He’d already closed the bonnet, and there were dark oily flecks on his face and hands. He picked a couple of stray reddish hairs from his shirt.
A drool of saliva and a thin trace of blood trailed from the breast as Laura withdrew it. It took a moment for the baby to realize her source of nourishment had been removed, and she continued to suck and chew quietly on air before suddenly screaming and reaching for the disappearing flesh.
John tapped the baby to attract her attention. She growled softly as he teased her playfully with a finger. She swiped at the gyrating digit, grasping it with a powerful little hand. She held the finger in her fist and guided it towards her mouth.
John watched the little mouth open, spied the tiny, sharp teeth inside. He pulled the finger away, but was surprised at her strength as she tugged it back.
“You stay with the baby,” said John, “while I go and see our friend in the store.”
“Freezer bags,” Laura reminded him. She dropped the breast, with its torn, ragged nipple and part of a rib still attached on the other side, into a bucket on the floor.
The baby was gnawing on the finger, and had already stripped a lot of the meat away, revealing bloodied bone. John, retrieving the knife he’d set on the roof of the car, went in to see the attendant while Laura cooed to the child.
The baby looked up, smiling, and spat out a black, color-flecked fingernail.