He was a few hours old and about to be thrown away.
Ayla shuddered. The baby shuddered.
She counted his fingers and toes. She touched his chest to make sure he was breathing and smoothed the caramel-colored down on his head. “You’re the prettiest baby in the world.”
That’s what good Mommas were supposed to say. Ayla wasn’t going to be a Momma for very long, so she had to get everything right.
“You’re beautiful,” she added. “You’ll have a very good life.”
“Ten minutes,” Mack’s voice roared through the gloomy basement apartment. He sounded like a Harley revving up for a long trip. Sometimes, Ayla would remember the caramel-and- white colored feral cat she had found on the street. It was a beautiful creature, but lost, just like Ayla. There was sadness in the cat’s yellow eyes – no one wanted her but Ayla. Like no one wanted the baby in her arms.
Mack appeared, a shadow beneath the crooked, caged industrial light.
The air smelled subterranean – moldy, old, and mildewed. Eerie canned music reverberated through her head. A commuter train thundered nearby, passing through the Freeport Long Island Railroad Station.
They lived in the basement of a crumbling house, behind a factory on Sunrise Highway, and a block south of the railroad tracks. The entrance was in the back, through a sagging fence that was once painted bright blue. A water tower hovered over them like a blue monster stealing the sky. Druggies lived upstairs – she never knew how many – there was a constant flow of people, coming and going, beneath the old white metal awning on the front door. The tenants sold and used everything from heroin to meth. Sometimes there was an eerie quiet; other times music was so loud it hurt her ears.
“Ten minutes,” Mack said again, his voice threatening. “Me,” Mack pointed to his chest, “not him.” He lifted his right hand, curled three stubby fingers into a fist, extended his index finger, and raised his thumb in a simulation of a gun. Grinning, he aimed at the baby’s head. “Click.”
Mack turned away and everything swirled in hand-held camera action – dizzying distortions on a bigger-than-life screen. Ayla blinked. She was tired and sore, but alive. The day had passed in a blur of pain; a day she would never forget and a day she would never fully remember.
Mack was the answer – the only road out of the basement apartment.
Mack’s arms and chest swelled with bulging steroid muscles rippling beneath a sleeveless tee. His thick jeans hung over steel-toed Dr. Martens embedded with shiny silver eyelets. Both arms were covered with tattoo sleeves ending in SS lightning bolts that shot up his neck. On his thigh, the lightning bolts pointed to his penis. The tee covered a shoulder-to-shoulder chest tattoo of a Nazi Iron Eagle, a swastika in its claws, and a blood red eye.
Ayla closed her eyes. She was mesmerized by Mack’s Nazi Iron Eagle. What did it say about him? Often, after they had sex, she would lie naked in his arms and trace the outline of the tattoo with her finger. It was like playing with fire – tempting energies that stoked both guilt and excitement. Why would a grown-up man play Nazi? Why did it make her heart pound and her body ache for him?
“You hear me?” Mack snarled. He never yelled; always spoke in frigid monotones.
His voice shocked her back into the present. The Baby. Mack.
“I hear you,” she said quickly.
Ayla thought of her mother’s favorite song. She softly sang two lines from Patty Smyth’s ballad.
There’s a reason why people don’t stay who they are
Baby, sometimes, love, it just ain’t enough.
It had been a long and painful day. Ayla replayed the events like a television rerun. The pain began slowly and then escalated into wracking contractions that hurt more than anything she knew existed. Mack fled when the hard contractions began.
He left her alone and terrified.
She was lucky. He didn’t punch her or use his Dr. Martens to kick her belly. He didn’t call his buddies to watch, or pull her hair until she cried. He just left.
Ayla didn’t know what to do.
How do you have a baby? She remembered videos from high school health class – detailed views of women giving birth. But she wasn’t a woman. Women had happy people at their bedside, Daddy dressed in green scrubs, smiling nurses, and approving doctors. Pink and blue teddy bears were everywhere.
“See how special it is to have a baby,” her teacher always said when the videos were over. “When you’re married, grown-up, and ready to be a parent, it can be the greatest joy in your life – one you’ll never forget.”
This was very different. Ayla wasn’t in a hospital with doctors, nurses, machines, and happy people. There was no pink or blue anywhere. She was a kid alone in a dingy basement apartment. Panic took over. Tears coursed down her face. Fear drenched her in sweat.
What happens when a kid has a baby? Am I going to die?
Ayla closed her eyes and recalled the sign painted on the side of a trailer, set at the edge of Merrick Road in Wantagh. It had been there for years. She never noticed it until after Mack had tried to beat the baby out of her. They were on his bike, zipping down the street, headed to Mack’s favorite place, the lighthouse at Montauk Point. It was a long trip but Mack didn’t care.
He loved the noisy absence of people and the surf pounding the rocks at the Eastern tip of Long Island.
They passed the sign on the way out, but it wasn’t until the return trip that Ayla, in a rare moment of insight, memorized the number.
Would they help her now?
She grabbed her cell phone and with trembling fingers, hit the numbers. It was hard to dial, her fingers didn’t want to work, her body convulsed in contractions. She finally got it right. The cell rang through and Ayla heard a voice.
“How can I help you?”
“Please,” Ayla begged. “I don’t know what to do.”
The voice was strong and gentle at the same time. “What’s happening to you?”
“I’m having a baby,” she choked. “I’m having a baby – and I don’t know what to do.”
“Take it easy,” the voice replied. “Where are you?”
“What’s your name?”
“Go to a hospital, Ayla. Tell me where you are and I’ll send an ambulance. They’ll take you to Nassau University Medical Center or South Nassau Communities Hospital, whichever you prefer. You’ll be safe. Doctors and nurses will take care of you.”
It sounded so good – people to help her – not be afraid like in the videos at school. Ayla shook her head. The other questions leaped into her mind.
What about Mack?
What about their deal?
Their done deal?
That was more important than the pain and the consequences.
“He’ll kill me,” she shrieked, “and the baby. I’m sure. No one can know. I can’t go anywhere.”
“He won’t kill you – he can’t if you’re in a hospital. You’ll be safe and . . .”
“No. Noooooo.” Ayla howled. “You don’t get it. You don’t get him. I have to hang up. I can’t . . .”
“Wait,” the voice stopped her. “Don’t hang up. We’ll do it your way. If you won’t come in, I’ll help you from here.”
“I don’t know . . .”
There was a sigh. The voice had heard it all. “We’ll do it your way, Ayla. I won’t tell anyone or call an ambulance. You can trust me.”
“He’ll kill me,” Ayla cried again.
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