She is small and freckled. She doesn’t wear make-up and her hair is piled carelessly on top of her head. That hair! Thick and luxurious. Showstopper red hair. A sweet face, a pale oval like one you’d find in a locket. Long ago.
The horizon is a line of green and blue, corn and sky. She recognizes what was left of a rickety barn. Someone has harvested beams for a kitchen renovation and now it stands cannibalized, slats missing, nothing left but a rib cage.
When she crosses the pasture, heads for the rise, she appraises her new neighbor at thirty paces. He swipes at greasy strings of hair. They exchange nods like two polite men passing each other on the street. But they are a man and a woman! Up close, he’s tall and unshaven. She notices a slight roll of fat, the giveaway of early middle age. Scruffy and Tubby. Ha, two puppy names.
The next time she drives past him and she stops. She rolls down the window. The steamy air assaults her and she lifts her limp hair off her neck. He leans down. Wasn’t there a small quarry back around here, where older kids made out until someone drowned in the depths? No, she tells him though she herself swam in that quarry back when she ran in a pack, howling at the moon, feeling like back when anything was possible and she had power.
He admires her piercings, the glittery craft fair moons and stars. Their conversation is brief, a few minutes.
She pretends to listen while the gears are turning strategizing and calculating a next move. Waiting turns, now I talk, now you talk, without paying any attention to what is said. Silence is a game of chicken. She counts to ten. The more withholding you are, the more cards you hold.
They are just friends.
Money is tight. He’s not working.
“There’s nothing. The economy, you understand? He has a slight accent she can’t place. “I got an offer to make yurts.”
“Did you call them back?”
He smiles. He is amused by this. She likes how you can see his canine teeth, when he smiles. A wolfish look.
After that she asks him, “Well, did you call them back?”
It becomes their little repartee, their shared joke. He tweaks his answer: No, I am happy doing other things today. No, I didn’t get to it. No, I thought about it briefly in the car. No, I went outside instead. No, too tired. No, too much going on. No, no, not in the mood. No, nothing to say.
When he laughs, she understands she can be the one to make him laugh, to make him happy.
“Would it be okay?” He pulls back her hair, lightly resting his fingers on the back of the neck where the tattoo is hidden. Cyrillic writing? Arabic? Calligraphy?
She doesn’t know. They are pretty flourishes and curlicues.
“What does it mean?” He pulls out his cell and takes a picture of it.
“Really, I just liked the way it looks.”
There’s news. He got a job interview. He is very tall, so when he folds himself into her front seat, his knees touch his chest. They toast with plastic water bottles. There is a hole above the chest pocket of his pilled gray sweater.
“I’ve been thinking about you.” He tells her the tattoo is a word in Macedonian language. “Home.”
She braces herself for a kiss. His lips will brush hers. Instead, he takes her hand. Solace more than lust. Something she doesn’t expect, something new to her.
“Let’s go in.” He cups her elbow.
He. He. He. She speaks softly, in reverential tones. He leans down to try to hear what she has said. He He He. Talking about her baby. Napping. Not to be disturbed. There is a baby.
They sleep in her childhood bed. A motivational poster of kittens. Bully free zone. Race to the top. A white leather prayer book, gilt-edged pages, the confirmation cards stuck carefully inside, a pressed daisy, all the white petals pristine and accounted for.
The baby cries. It’s your imagination he says. Your room must be haunted, but she doesn’t think like that.
He doesn’t want a kid. Has never wanted a kid.
He’s not there on Saturday. Or Sunday. Or Monday. Or the next day or the next,.
She runs a bath. She scoops up her baby, peels off his clothes, and lifts him into the tub. The baby’s white gold hair is wispy feathers. He wobbles on two legs, unsteady like a space man in anti-gravity on the surface of the moon. Watch. Watch. Watch.
She puts down her phone. She skims her hand over the surface of the water, languid, slow. The baby picks up a red flower-shaped bucket. Drops it. She picks up her phone and hands the bucket back. The baby drops it again. He wants her attention. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me. She refuses to play that game. She checks her messages again.
She pictures the baby face down. Submerged. It is despicable, a despicable thought. She knows for a fact there is no rescue squad in these parts. If the baby gasps, wails in distress she could still fish him out of the water. She could easily run the hundred yards or so across the pasture to his house?
She plucks the child out of the bath, wraps him in a soft towel, pulls him between her legs, and clamps them tight.