Chapter 1 – Maybe a Baby
(West Charleston, West Virginia – 2017)
A bee under cellophane makes a sound like a baby wailing. Melanie Bailey glared against the bright moonful of window to reason away a cry, maybe a baby cry in the night. Maybe one of the hornets from the nest on the vacant house next door had gotten trapped under the plastic her son Devin put up last weekend.
That’s all it was: an aggressive, stinging insect attempting to breach the final membrane of defense against the elements and invade her bedroom. Yes, what a relief if it was only a hornet.
Hand lingering on the light switch, she tried to focus without her glasses, watch for movement against the navy of night sky. Small flecks darted in the moonlight, alive but un-beelike. Only eye floaters. She needed to get more sleep, and what was her sister’s gospel? Hydrate. Hydrate and pray the floaters away.
November was surely too late in the year for bees anyway, but then again, it had been hot and rainy until Halloween. Seasons were all mixed up anymore in West Virginia. Not even the starlings knew whether to flock up or start nesting all over again in the magnolia beside the porch.
There it was again. A cry like a bone-saw ripping into her sternum. A forlorn howl from the basset hound down the street vouched that it emanated from some dark place beyond the house.
But didn’t that dog fuss every time cats fought in the alley? Its owner was a deaf old man who let him carry on day and night. And didn’t cats sound just like infants squalling when they got puffed up? Instead of a baby, it could be one of the dozens of unneutered strays that roved the neighborhood.
That’s probably all it was: a bunch of disease-bearing feral cats out there fighting or mating in the moonlight. Just the whole world descending into chaos.
That wasn’t it, and really she knew it. Melanie Bailey, veteran social worker for opioid orphans, was dilly-dallying while maybe a baby was somewhere alone in the night. The truth was she was afraid, afraid of a baby out there in the cold.
The cry bit into her chest, decidedly un-catlike. “I’m coming,” she whispered. She plucked her glasses from the dresser, tightened the fleece robe over her tee-shirt and shorts, and padded into the hall. The rim of light around Devin’s door was screensaver blue. She tapped lightly and waited. He didn’t respond. Practically a miracle that he was asleep at a reasonable hour for once. It was the last school night before Thanksgiving break, and maybe they wouldn’t bicker in the morning about getting out the door on time. Maybe she should leave him be. Devin rarely got enough sleep.
She squeaked down the stairs to the kitchen door. A frost glazed the backyard moonlight silver, just the way her breath fogged her glasses in the cold. She wiped the lenses as she crossed the yard, squinting at the broadest gap of the wooden fence in search of cat shadows.
The warbling throat of an infant called out for her or anyone who could hear. Angry, desperate, echoed by the dog’s howling. Mel clutched her robe over her chest and thrust open the stubborn back gate.
This section of West Charleston had become such a wild and desolate place at night. The ragged bricks of the alley glinted with watery, windy activity. For a moment, the only sound came from trash cans rolling together in the deep pothole at the center of the block. They congregated there every week, like seals frolicking in the break of an ice sheet.
Spine straight, Mel strode to retrieve her own can sans lid. A streak of animal made for the shadows. Cat or raccoon. She shuddered. Stray animals made her jumpy.
The baby cry came again.
“Where are you?” she asked.
The hound howled like an echo.
Her eyes adjusted to the darkness in tandem with the defogging of her glasses. She saw clearly now: Parked in the shadow of the garage of the vacant house, under the broken security light, was a dark sedan.
Mel’s mind flew to her ex-husband Jason, who long ago drove exactly this model of car – a forest green Buick LeSabre with a strip of plastic woodgrain on the dash. Shortly before the divorce he’d crashed drunk into a sycamore tree along the bank of Mud River and broke his nose on the steering wheel. This was not the time to think about that. It was not Jason’s figure slumped over this LeSabre’s steering wheel in the dark.
Instead, there was a young woman with streaky blonde hair. She wore a spaghetti strap top like it was hot out, with one arm out the open driver’s side window. Her other arm sprawled over the center console. It was still tied off, with a needle dangling from the skin below the moon-pale crook of her elbow.
In the back seat, properly strapped in and wearing fuzzy blue pajamas, was a dark-haired, pink-faced baby of perhaps three or four months – that age when babies turn a corner from newborn to holding themselves upright and seeing more clearly. Mel held her breath as he turned his head to look her over. His crying had been that tearless, fearful kind that left the throat raw and cheeks flushed. He was done for now.
Mel swallowed down her alarm. She was a mandated reporter for child endangerment, and she had to intervene on behalf of this infant. She must be calm.
She reached into her robe pocket where she usually stowed her phone, but she’d left it charging beside the bed. Mel and the baby studied one another. Down to the slight bob of his head as he struggled to look up, he resembled baby Devin. Somehow it felt wrong to run back inside, even for a minute. She held her hand up in greeting to him. His dark eyes danced over her face while she shifted from foot to foot. “I’m not going to leave you here, sweetness.”
She shuffled to the driver’s side door, meeting that amalgam of odors familiar to her from the homes of clients: cigarettes, urine, scorched plastic, metal, chemical. “Miss?” she mustered. Mel didn’t have any naloxone to reverse an overdose.
Baby shifted in the back, trying to arch under his seat restraints. “Can you see me?” Mel asked him. “Don’t cry. Don’t cry.”
But his mother was waxy still. Mel watched the knots of her spine for signs of breathing, then touched the woman’s cold arm. She was alive. The first two fingers of her hand moved, but not in reaction to Mel’s touch. Her heartbeat was pulsing them into a peace sign, muscle-memory cigarette. Victory.
Mel pulled away. The woman could have drug residue on her hands. A batch of fentanyl was going around here in West Charleston. Even a grain of that could knock her down. “Miss. Miss, are you okay?” she said. She clapped her hands hard enough to make the woman’s hair puff. The dog barked in time. “Your baby needs you, Momma. Where are you at? You need to come back. Baby needs you. Momma.”
She reached in and rolled the woman backward against the headrest. Her face was gray, mummified by drugs. The needle plucked her white skin up like a fancy dinner napkin, then dislodged and rolled out of sight under the seat. The hole released a thick black pearl of blood.
Mel cupped her own throat and raced back to the house.
She sprinted up the stairs and knocked her bedroom door against the wall in the rush. Her muscles jumped with surprise – it had been a good ten years since she’d run so fast, maybe since Devin was in little league and she had to chase down his wild practice throws in the yard. A lifetime ago, when the neighborhood had enough kids for a little league team. When there were no vacant houses and heroin didn’t course through the alleyways.
She jerked her phone from the charger cord and unlocked it in a frantic shudder. All the local emergency responders were in her contact list, but she decided to dial 9-1-1. Faster to let the dispatcher make the decision on who to send out. “Devin?” she yelled in the hallway. He was silent; Mel pushed his door open to explain while she listened to the ringing on her phone. “Dev, I gotta be outside—”
Devin’s bed was empty.
“9-1-1, what is your emergency?” came a steady monotone.
Mel’s eyes tracked across her son’s disorderly pillows, the turned wave of comforter, piles of peeled-off clothing, a rumpled chip bag beside the bed reflecting computer-blue in the dark. The plastic over his window billowed against a gap.
“What is your emergency?” the voice came again.
From outside, the baby wailed.
A deputy pulled on a blue glove and jiggered the door handle of the LeSabre. He was a good fifteen years younger than Mel; he probably never rode in a car like that, unless his parents had owned one. “You gotta lift hard on those things,” Mel said over his shoulder.
The officer jerked his head backward and glared – not at her, but past her into the lights of an ambulance – and intoned a coppish “Ma’am.” He evidently didn’t recognize her, although the moment he turned she recalled his name, Dehart. He had come along on two separate home visits last month in West Charleston. Without her professional social worker getup she supposed she was just another ma’am in an alley.
Giving the door another yank, Officer Dehart let the young woman roll out sideways onto the cold bricks. He nudged her flat with his heel, uncapped a Narcan, and depressed the plunger in her nostril. The deputy tipped her up against Mel’s fence to check her vitals. After a few minutes she stirred and breathed through her mouth like a child, her bare skin breaded in alley dirt. A stray pop tab from someone’s garbage had embedded in her shoulder. Mel rubbed her own shoulders and turned away. She hated seeing people being arrested.
The baby was whimpering in the back of the idling ambulance. Another police officer sat in the cruiser filling out paperwork around the bulk of his coat. Mel tapped on the glass and the man’s head whipped up. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m the one who called 9-1-1. Do you need to talk to me?”
“Go home,” he mouthed and pointed a finger down the alley.
She nodded and stepped behind the ambulance to peek once more at the baby. He was safe now. He was still strapped into his car seat, warming under a foil blanket. He would be okay. He would be taken to the hospital for a health check and a bottle, and then possibly released to a father or grandparent if he was lucky enough to have extended family outside of the drug epidemic. Otherwise – well, that’s what Human Services was for. Her coworkers in the back corner would be getting a call for emergency foster intake in the morning if this baby had nowhere to go. They received such calls every week.
The infant rocked his head side to side as he cried, fighting sleep even on its doorstep. “Just rest, sweetness,” Mel said. “You need sleep. We all need sleep.” She patted the cold metal frame of the ambulance, nodded to a stone-faced paramedic, and stepped back into her yard.
The kitchen threshold creaked under Devin’s socked feet at a quarter to eight. Though she’d been awake, Mel hadn’t woken him at his usual time. She’d barely gone back to sleep before her own alarm startled her out of bed this morning.
“You ready?” Devin asked.
“I am, but you aren’t,” she said without turning around in her chair. She debated how to ask him where he’d gone in the night but pursed her lips. Hold in the questions, hold it all in. It was so hard to talk to him lately without an argument erupting. They would have some time to talk over the break. She would talk to him about sneaking out. And his sleep habits. And his grades. But not now. “You need to eat something,” she said.
“I’m not really hungry.” He breezed by to the cabinet. “There’s mouse shit in here again. Can I use your travel mug?”
“That’s fine,” she sighed. “Take a Pop-Tart.”
“Mom, I said I’m not hungry. Besides, what if the mice got into them?”
“I put them on top of the fridge.”
“You know I don’t have an appetite in the morning.”
Mel closed her eyes. “You’re going to be starving by ten o’clock.”
“Well, I don’t see you eating breakfast.”
“I’m a grown-up, not a boy with a racing metabolism.”
“You’re hungry all the time,” he said, turning away. “I can always hear your stomach growling.”
An angry headache intruded. Don’t fight, don’t take this bait. She watched his bony frame as he bumbled over the coffeemaker and sugar bowl. Three heaping spoons of sugar, no cream, just like his dad. His back looked more and more like a slim version of Jason’s. Square-shouldered and long-necked, not hunched like Mel. Aside from his broad, freckled cheekbones and brown eyes and hair, she supposed he was all Jason. He craned to appraise the sleet coming down outside the kitchen window. She squinted out the window, too, at the ice encasing the hornet’s nest on the eave next door.
Devin tossed the spoon into the sink without looking. “Are you sure they didn’t call school?”
They pulled out their phones together and twiddled around for updates. “West Charleston’s not on the closing list,” she said finally.
“Damn.” He flipped his shaggy bangs and took a sip of his coffee. “I want to stay home. You know we’re not going to do anything on the last day before break.”
“You can’t stay home,” she said. “I have to work.”
“Mom,” he groaned. “I’m almost seventeen. I don’t need you to be home with me.”
“I need you to go to school.”
“Dad would let me stay home alone.”
Mel pressed her palms into her eye sockets. Her floaters drifted into a buzzing kaleidoscope. “Dev. I can’t do this today.”
They gathered their coats and bags in a sullen silence and stepped out the door onto ice. Mel slipped her glasses down and surveyed the house: a teenaged boy could easily climb out the window and drop from the low porch roof. To get back in, though – did he shimmy like a bear up the trunk of the magnolia tree, the way he used to do, or somehow scale the porch column? Always was a daredevil. Under the tree, where the frost was lightest, she detected signs of pre-dawn activity in upturned leaves. But then she saw cat tracks.
“You coming or not?” Devin asked.
When she jerked her head around, the weight of her tote bag threw her off balance. She scrambled in her bare-soled shoes. Devin’s hand flew out to steady her with a grip on her arm, and they burst into a peal of panicked laughter together. The basset hound down the street hooted like a flugelhorn, right on time.