The Water is Wide

Jan Lower

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Ford walked through the empty lot next to the parking garage, stepping over clumps of dead grass and avoiding the bottles and trash. He looked at the steely sky above the top level and wiped his nose with the back of his glove. At his elbow, his brother skipped and hopped and sang in a high voice, “Little frog and little toad, walking down a country road,” a tune he had learned last year in kindergarten. They were heading for the mall, to spend the last couple of hours of Saturday afternoon away from the house where they lived with the Hardisons. As foster parents went, Ford guessed, they were decent; but without kids of their own, everything they did seemed off.

He took Eddy’s hand and swung him onto the ledge of the garage’s street level. Then he jumped up himself, and they both scrambled over. The garage was half empty. Ford steered Eddy toward the stairs; they would use the second floor entrance, to avoid the fast food stands on the ground floor. Ford had counted out the coins in his pocket, and he didn’t want to make excuses all the way to the bookstore on the top level.

The door squealed as Ford pulled it open and guided his brother through. Eddy had barely put his foot on the first step when he stopped short and grabbed for Ford. Ford looked past him up the stairs, muscles tensing, his instant response whenever Eddy was alarmed. Midway up the staircase was a plastic grocery bag, and beside it was a blanket, folded around a lump of something. The lump was moving. They heard a faint cry. Eddy squeezed Ford’s hand and leaned against him. It can’t be, Ford thought.

“What is it?” whispered Eddy. “An animal?” Ford pulled his hand away and put his arm in front of Eddy’s chest, pressing him back.

“Stay here.” Ford moved up the stairs to the bundle. It wiggled. He pulled away the edges of the blanket until the face was exposed. It looked at him with a steady gaze.

“It’s a baby!” Eddy leaned over Ford’s shoulder.

“I told you to stay back. Yes, it’s a baby.” Its skin was pale and clear, and tufts of caramel-colored hair stood out on its head. The baby looked at them, from one to the other.

“Somebody forgot their baby. Or they lost it.” Eddy bounced up and down. “Do you think they’ll come back soon?”

Ford didn’t answer. He picked up the bag, surprised that it was heavy. He sat down on the step and went through the contents, Eddy’s head close beside his. A plastic baby bottle filled with a tan liquid, two empty ones, a can of powdered formula, a box of diapers, and a package of wipes. There was no note.

Ford looked at the baby. It waved its hands, quivering.

“What are we going to do?” Eddy clapped his mittens together. “I’m cold.”

“Okay, okay.” Ford stood up. “We can’t leave it here.” He handed the bag to Eddy. “You carry this, and I’ll carry the baby.” He took off his gloves, shoved them in his pocket, and picked up the bundle, making sure to fold the blanket around the baby’s body.

“Ford? What if it’s Willow?”

Ford looked at Eddy. His face was drawn and pale, no longer pink from the chilly air. Eddy almost never mentioned their baby sister. They hadn’t seen her for more than three months, not since the police came and took them out of the apartment after their neighbor called the ambulance for their mother. Ford had deflected the neighbor’s intrusions as long as he could, although in the end he had been glad when the paramedics came. But he was still angry at the social services people for sending their sister to a different foster home.

“It can’t be her. This baby’s hair is light brown, and Willow has dark hair like you and me. And brown eyes.” He tilted the bundle toward Eddy. “This baby’s eyes are light.” They’re blue, he thought, like a summer sky reflected in a lake. He had seen a picture like that once on a calendar in a gas station. “And we don’t even know if this one is a boy or a girl.”

“What if the people who are taking care of Willow leave her in a stairwell?”

Ford felt the yawning space inside, of worry and not knowing, that always came when he thought for more than a moment about his mother or his sister. He took a deep breath to squeeze the space smaller.

“They won’t. They know they’re supposed to take care of her. The police won’t let them leave her alone.” At least he hoped that was mostly true. He started up the steps.

Inside the mall, Ford walked quickly, trying to look as if he belonged with the baby and the boy holding onto his sleeve.

“What are we going to do now?”

“I don’t know. Give me a minute.”

“Well, where are we going?”

Ford wondered what kind of person would abandon a baby. It didn’t seem hungry. Did it need a clean diaper? At the end, before his mother went to the hospital, he had changed all of Willow’s diapers, for days. And made up her bottles. And fed her.

“We’re going to the bathroom to check its diaper.” He veered off the mall’s corridor into a department store and started searching for a men’s bathroom. He found one without having to ask anybody, in an alcove off the shoe department. Ford ushered Eddy inside and was relieved to find no one else there. It even had a pull-down shelf where he could lay the baby down.

He unwrapped the blanket and unsnapped the fleece pajama. It was a girl, and her diaper was dirty. Free of the blanket and cloth, her legs wiggled and she waved her arms. I bet you’re glad to be out of this, Ford thought, folding the diaper and tossing it in the trash.

The door swung open and a man strode in. Ford opened his eyes wide at Eddy, warning him to be quiet. Eddy moved behind Ford, away from the sinks and stalls. Ford leaned over the baby and put on a new diaper as the man flushed the toilet and washed his hands.

“Wish my son could take care of the little ones like that.” Ford looked up quickly to see the man smiling at him. He smiled back, and the man pushed open the door and went out.

“He thinks she’s ours,” Eddy whispered.

“I know,” Ford whispered back. He snapped the baby’s clothes together and returned her to the folds of the blanket.

“Can we keep her?”

How could they? “Come on. To the bookstore.”

They walked through the mall and took the escalator to the third level, Eddy skipping along, hanging onto Ford’s arm, trying to get the baby’s attention. Ford felt uncomfortable, as if everyone knew the baby wasn’t his, but he also felt like he fit in, like before, carrying Willow, leading Eddy, when his mother was okay, only starting to be sick.

They went to the children’s section. This time, instead of choosing books to look at, Eddy sat on the floor beside Ford, leaning against him, while Ford held the baby on his lap. She grasped Eddy’s fingers and he made soft animal sounds at her, laughing, his eyes shining. Ford glanced around and saw a woman watching them, but he relaxed when she turned back to the two children sitting near her. Listening to Eddy, Ford felt like he had jumped back to a time before anything bad happened, when he and Eddy and Willow were together.

He checked the cat-shaped clock on the wall above the picture books. Almost six. The Hardisons were hosting a football party tonight and wouldn’t expect them back yet. The baby’s fist was in her mouth, shiny with saliva. Now that she was in the warm air, she had a sweet baby smell. Willow had a sweet smell too; it came back to Ford as he pressed his nose into the baby’s hair, and he closed his eyes.

“Ford, I’m hungry.” Eddy tugged on his jacket sleeve. The baby rubbed her eye and whimpered. Ford realized he didn’t know when she had eaten last. Shifting her to one arm, he stood.

“Can I get a snack?” asked Eddy.

“A soft pretzel. I have two dollars.” Ford settled the baby on his shoulder and she put her head down. He pulled the blanket between her cheek and the scratchy wool of his jacket.

“But I want a chocolate chip cookie.” They walked out of the bookstore to the escalators.

“Okay, okay, you can have a cookie. One cookie. That’s all the money I have.”

When they got to the food stalls, the baby began to cry. Only three tables were occupied, all by adults. Ford gave Eddy the money and sat down at a table away from the others. He felt around in the bag beside him until he found the full bottle. He unscrewed the top. It smelled like formula. He remembered to shake it. It was room temperature but the baby didn’t protest. As he fed her, she reached up, her fingers pinching the bottle. Just like Willow, he thought. Ford felt the yawning, the worry, again.

“Are we going to keep her?” Eddy stood next to him, licking chocolate off his fingers. He put some coins on the table.

“I don’t know.” Ford’s eyes were full of the baby’s face, her tiny lips, her blue eyes looking around, her hair catching the light, sparkling. They couldn’t put her back on the stairs. Someone might see them leaving her. Or someone who shouldn’t have her could pick her up. If they told a security guard, he’d call the police and they’d be in trouble, kept at the station for hours. That would be like the bad time before; Eddy would get scared again. And wouldn’t this baby be sent to a foster home?

A scraping noise made Ford look up. A gray-haired woman in a baseball cap that said Broadway Curly Fries was clearing tables nearby, watching them. She had thin lips pressed together in disapproval, like their old neighbor.

“Please?” Eddy leaned over and kissed the baby’s hair. “She can sleep in my bed.”

Ford shook his head. “Keep your voice down. No, she can’t. The Hardisons would find out, and they’d never let us keep her.”

Eddy frowned. “Then where will she sleep?”

Ford glanced again at the woman. She still had her eyes on them. He looked down at Eddy for a long moment, deciding. “In the boat.”

Eddy tapped the toe of his sneaker on the floor. “You mean the boat in the garage?”

Ford nodded.

“But there’s no bed in there.”

“I know. We’ll have to make one.”

“But isn’t it cold in the garage?”

Ford remembered that Eddy had only been in there once, when they had stored their suitcases after they moved in with the Hardisons at the end of the summer.

“The garage is heated. It’s not as warm as the house, but it’s a lot warmer than outside.”

Eddy scratched his ear. “But won’t she feel lonely in the garage by herself?”

Ford put the empty bottle on the table and sat the baby upright, patting her back. She rubbed her eye with her fist.

“You kids can’t just sit here without buying food. Where’s your mother?” It was the woman in the cap. Her voice grated, and she smelled like cooking grease. She frowned at them, a dirty rag in the hand resting on her hip.

Ford stood up quickly with the baby in his arms and put the empty bottle in the bag. He faced away from the woman and whispered to Eddy. “You carry the bag. Hurry.”

Moving toward the exit, with Eddy trotting beside him, Ford tucked the blanket snugly, arranging it so that a flap covered the baby’s head. He held her tightly in one arm and clumsily pulled on his gloves. He pressed her head gently into his shoulder.

The house was bright with lights inside and out when they got back. Several cars were in the driveway and at the curb. Ford and Eddy stood with their breath puffing in pale clouds.

“This way,” Ford said. He led Eddy around the side of the garage to a door by the trash bins. It was unlocked, but a pile of newspapers inside blocked it, and Ford and Eddy had to push the door to move the stack out of the way. Ford flipped on the light. He closed the door and walked quickly to the boat, which was parked on a trailer in the middle of the garage. Ford was relieved to see that the covering was thrown loosely over the stern; Mr. Hardison had re-varnished the deck a couple of months ago.

“Help me make her a bed.” With one hand, Ford pulled the cover back and helped Eddy up the boat’s ladder, handing him the bag of supplies. The deck angled up to the bow, following the trailer’s tilt.

“Do you see any rags or blankets or anything in there?” Ford asked.

Eddy shook his head. “Just some really stiff-looking cloth. It’s folded up.”

The baby whimpered. Her hands were together in front of her chin, and her mouth was pulled down at the corners. “Just wait, baby, a little while more,” Ford whispered, his lips against the side of her head.

Ford found an old wool coverlet in a plastic storage bag and gave it to Eddy, who folded it on the canvas. Ford climbed the ladder, and kneeling on the deck, laid the baby down, then slipped his gloves into his pocket and pulled off his jacket. He could just see her in the dim light of the single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Her eyes were half-closed. She reached a hand up toward Ford; he put his thumb out and she closed it in her fist. With his free hand he wrapped the sides of the coverlet around her. After a few minutes, she drifted off to sleep, and Ford gently peeled her fingers away.

“Now what do we do?” whispered Eddy.

“We have to go inside.” Ford rubbed his arms from the chill. “Pretend that we just got back from the mall. Leave your jacket out here, though, for later. We’ll use the door into the kitchen.”

“What if she wakes up?” Eddy laid his jacket on the deck of the boat.

“They won’t hear anything. The game’s really loud. And babies sleep a long time.”

Again, Ford hoped it was true. They turned off the light and quietly opened the door. There were voices down the hall, but the kitchen was empty. Ford and Eddy filled paper plates with food and went to stand by the door to the living room, watching the TV as if they were interested in the game.

“There you are!” exclaimed Mrs. Hardison. “I wondered where you’d gotten to—didn’t hear you come in. Everybody who hasn’t met ’em, these are the boys we’re taking care of.” Some of the people looked up and smiled; a few just waved without taking their eyes off the TV.

“Dinner is good, Mrs. Hardison. We’ll just finish eating and go to our room,” said Ford.

“Fine by me.” She waved her hand and turned back to the game.

After they threw their plates into the trash, Ford rinsed out an empty soda container; he’d need it later for water to make formula. When they got to the room they shared, he closed the door.

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” He sat down on the bed he used and Eddy plopped onto the floor. “We’re going to pretend to go to sleep, and then I’m going to get up and bunch some clothes under my covers so it will look like I’m still in bed.” Ford rubbed the back of his neck while he thought. “Then I’ll sneak back to the boat and spend the night—”

Eddy jumped up. “Me too!”

“Shhh. Listen. What if they check on us and we’re both gone? I need you here for that.”

“But I’m scared to sleep alone. And when do I get a turn to be with her?”

Ford studied him. Eddy’s eyes were pleading. Maybe Ford couldn’t manage this after all. He missed his mother, the way she was before and right after Willow was born, until things got bad. He missed his sister more than he had known. The hollow feeling, made of worry and uncertainty, was creeping up into his chest. He took a deep breath.

“Soon,” he said softly. “I’ll come and wake you early. We can all be together then.”

It took Ford a while to get Eddy into bed. The noise from the living room ended, and Ford sensed that the crowd’s team had lost. He heard a heavy door open and close. His heart pounded until he realized it had been the front door, not the door into the garage. He put some clothes under the covers and then sat on the edge of his bed in the dark, not moving, willing the baby in the boat to keep sleeping. By the time the sounds of cleaning up had ended and the Hardisons’ voices had moved into the hallway and the bathroom, Eddy was asleep and snoring. When Ford had heard nothing for what seemed like a long while, he tiptoed down the hallway into the kitchen with the empty soda bottle.

He stopped there in the darkness. Ford pictured the baby in the boat, and Eddy in his bed. He couldn’t be with one without worrying about the other, more than he could stand. At the sink, feeling for the tap, he filled the soda bottle and put it by the door. Back down the hall, he felt his way across the room and shook his brother awake, holding one hand near Eddy’s mouth in case he made a noise.

“Eddy, wake up. It’s time to go sleep with the baby.” Eddy climbed out of bed and followed Ford’s whispered urgings to put on socks and sneakers, and a sweatshirt over his pajamas. They got the soda bottle, went quietly into the garage, and flicked on the light. The baby was still asleep. Watching her, they put on their jackets. Her pale skin looked soft, and Ford thought her eyelashes seemed like tiny feathers, long and thick. Her hands were curled under her chin, and her mouth was relaxed. Ford reached for the bag and opened the container of dry formula.

“Do you think she’s hungry?”

“No. But she will be when she wakes up. And I don’t want her to cry.” He peered at the label on the formula can, reading how many scoops he should use. He held one of the empty bottles up to the light, then smelled it to see if it was clean, and looked at the nipple inside and out. He measured out the formula, added water from the soda bottle, and shook it. It would be all right for a few hours, he decided, until she was hungry again.

Eddy yawned. “We have to tell them sometime that we have a baby and we’re keeping her.” He lay down on his side with his head on the edge of the folded canvas. “And we have to give her a name.” He pulled his jacket around him against the chilly air.

Ford sat in the dim light, gazing from the baby to his brother and back, imagining the baby was Willow. Suddenly he felt it was all right, just at this moment, this exact part of time. The yawning feeling was much fainter. Just Eddy, Willow, and him, here in the boat. For now. He wished he could make it stretch out, last for hours and days. Ford put his hand on the coverlet and listened to the silence. He closed his eyes, leaning against the bench in the boat’s side.

Ford woke with Eddy shaking his shoulder.

“Ford, I’m freezing, and the baby’s crying.”

He sat up, every muscle stiff. His hands and feet were cold. The baby was fussing and wiggling, kicking the blanket. Ford rubbed his eyes and hair, and found the bottle where he had left it in the bag. He held it for her, but the baby twisted up her face and howled.

“Why doesn’t she want it?” Eddy patted the baby’s leg. “Shh, baby. Shh.”

“It’s too cold.” Ford shoved the bottle under his shirt, against his skin. The shock of the cold plastic woke him fully. This won’t work, he thought. The baby’s crying stopped when she crammed her fist into her mouth for a moment.

“Ford, she’s hungry.” Eddy kissed the baby’s head, then looked at Ford, his eyes wide. He began to pat her leg again. She started to cry once more.

Ford stood up stiffly and pulled the bottle from his shirt. He put it on the deck. “I need you to stay here for a minute.”

“What are you doing? Are you going away?” Eddy grabbed his sleeve.

“I have to go inside to warm the bottle.”

“But what am I supposed to do?”

“Shh, keep your voice down.” Ford picked the baby up. She stopped crying for a moment; then her face crumpled again.

“Sit down.” Eddy sat and Ford put the baby in his arms. He took off his jacket and wrapped it around them, tucking it in under Eddy. “Hold her tight – not too tight – and sing to her. Softly, close to her ear. I’ll be right back.” He grabbed the bottle and hurried down the ladder.

“What if she doesn’t stop crying?” Eddy’s voice quavered.

“I’ll be right back,” Ford repeated in a loud whisper. He moved quickly into the kitchen, trying to muffle any noises from the boat, then stood listening. The Hardisons slept with their door closed but Ford knew that sound traveled through the thin walls.

For a moment he pictured Mrs. Hardison appearing in the doorway, wanting to know what he was doing. He felt himself closing off, going silent, protective. But she was kind, he thought, kinder than the social workers and the people who had come to the apartment from the school. Would she help them? He frowned. Mr. Hardison wouldn’t, he knew instantly. Ford’s mother had always said to be careful about trusting people. If Ford told them about taking the baby, maybe they would send him to a different family, leaving Eddy here alone. Ford breathed in sharply and realized he was gripping the bottle so hard a drop of formula had squeezed out and run down onto his fingers. He had filled it too full.

He heard the baby crying. Ford crossed the kitchen, wiping his fingers on his shirt. At the sink, he poured a small amount of formula down the drain. At their apartment he had run hot water to warm Willow’s bottles, but the Hardisons had a microwave. He put the bottle inside, standing close to block the light and mute the click of the door. The digital time glowed green. How long? He stood frozen, his mind scrambling, until he heard a squall from the garage. He punched in thirty seconds and hit the start button. Ford held his breath as the numbers counted slowly down, then hit the stop button before the timer ran out so it wouldn’t beep. He grabbed the bottle, put the top on, and shook it as he slipped back into the garage. A wail erupted as he squeezed the door shut. Ford ran to the boat and jumped up the ladder.

Eddy had tears running down his cheeks. The baby’s face was bright pink, streaked with damp, her eyes brimming, eyelashes sticking together. Her mouth was a wide circle, the corners pulled down around her tiny fist. Ford’s jacket and her blanket had slipped off.

“I sang, Ford, but she didn’t listen.” Eddy’s nose was running.

“It’s okay.” Ford put down the bottle, sat beside Eddy and lifted the baby from his lap. Her cries eased to whimpers and Ford wrapped the blanket around her. Eddy wiped his eyes and nose on his jacket sleeve. Ford shook a drop of formula onto the back of his hand. It was warm. He tilted the bottle to the baby’s mouth. She drank hungrily, tears sparkling in her eyes.

They sat quietly until the baby finished. Ford dried her eyes with the edge of his sleeve.

“I want to go back to my bed.”

Ford turned to Eddy. His shoulders were hunched in the chill. Ford put his arm around him, the baby kicking softly on Ford’s lap. Ford’s whole body ached.

He stood up, and transferring the baby from one side to the other, he shrugged on his jacket and put the empty bottle in the bag. They climbed out of the boat. The sky was pearly; the garage and everything in it was colored gray.

“Go back in,” Ford said softly. “You need to be brave and go by yourself.”

“Where will you be?”

“Taking care of the baby,” Ford said. “It’s all right. I’ll be back soon.”

Eddy nodded and went into the house.

Ford laid the baby on the newspapers, changing her diaper in the cold morning light. She never took her eyes off his face as he bundled her back snugly into the blanket. He picked up the bag and they silently left the garage. He threw the diaper into the trash bin. The streetlights began to shut off as he crossed to the empty lot.

Ford walked around the parking garage and in through the car entrance. It was early; no shoppers would arrive for a little while. He opened the door to the stairwell, climbed the steps and sat down. He settled the baby on his lap so she could look at him, and slid the blanket off her head. She reached her hand toward his face. The overhead florescent lights clicked off; a thin light came in through the windows in the wall. The baby’s eyes were the color of deep arctic ice.

“I’m glad I could take care of you,” he told her softly. “I wish it could have been for longer.” He looked into her eyes. “I have a sister. She’s called Willow.” He stroked the baby’s hair. He tried to picture Willow; she’d be bigger now. “I used to ask them if we could see her, but they always said no.” He thought about how he had eventually given up and how she had fallen into the empty place inside him. He held the baby close; she gazed at him. “But now, maybe they’ll let us. I don’t know. I want to ask again.” The answer might be the same, he thought, but he would try until he saw her, until he could hold her again.

He heard a car moving past the stairwell door. He waited until he heard a second car before he kissed the baby on the cheek. He stood up and laid her on the step, making sure the blanket was around her to keep her warm. He tied the handles of the bag and set it beside her. Ford pulled open the door into the parking lot. Other cars were arriving. He ducked around the corner and crouched behind a trash can. He heard a wail in the stairwell. A car pulled into a space a few yards away and a woman and three children got out, laughing. Ford pressed himself against the wall and closed his eyes. Their chatter echoed as they entered the stairwell.

The talk stopped abruptly. Ford heard cries of surprise and concern. He stayed frozen, listening to the voices. Then a sudden energy flooded him and he burst from his hiding place and bolted across the garage to the low wall. He vaulted over it as if he had wings, landed on the grassy lot, and ran fast into the morning.


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By Miciah Bay Gault

Miciah Bay Gault is the editor of Hunger Mountain at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She's also a writer, and her fiction and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Sun Magazine, The Southern Review, and other fine journals. She lives in Montpelier, Vermont with her husband and children.