by David Priest
The old wood raft rocked on the water. Baby sat on the edge, lethargic from the heat, fingering her necklace. She still wasn’t looking at Dalton, who knelt and gazed across the water. The sun was high and the current had been shifting since he’d steered into the bayou; he couldn’t remember which way was west. A catfish slid just under the water’s surface beside the raft, but Dalton didn’t notice. The edges of the sky shimmered, and tiny grey shapes—were they just trees?—smudged the horizon like oil stains.
Dalton mopped pearls of sweat from his freckled forehead but kept his eyes open. Insects screamed mating calls. The noise pulsed, like all the water and algae and trees and little silt islets shared one thunderous heartbeat.
Dalton squeezed his eyes shut and tilted his head down. No sirens whined underneath it
all. No sirens.
The first car belonged to Baby’s mother. It was old, wheel coverings rusted out and chassis bent from an accident two years before. The passenger side door wouldn’t close unless the convertible roof, dotted with holes, was up. But it was blue, so Baby loved it.
“Where do you wanna go?” Dalton had asked that morning, sitting on the curb in front of Baby’s house. Baby, arms splayed out and feet planted on the curb like a balance beam, had paused and scrunched up her nose. The expression looked oddly harsh on her soft brown face—a thing still finding its shape. She teetered.
“Could just drive,” Dalton had said. He’d run a hand through his dirty blonde hair. “Get away awhile.”
“New Orleans.” Baby’s face had broken open again. “I wanna go to New Orleans.”
Once they were on the road, Dalton knew the car wouldn’t last. Hot air rising off the asphalt on the highway whistled through the holes in the nylon top and ballooned the roof, compressing his eardrums. They pulled over and folded the roof back into the trunk, and the sky inflated above them, giant and clear as water. But now Baby’s door flapped as they drove, like the fin of a tiny bluegill.
Baby fished for static-free radio stations, failed, and settled on a frequency catching both a talk show woman and Country guitar licks. As they drove south, the signals mingled, the woman’s shrill “And husbands are just as bad! I’m trying to pull the kids out of bed, and George’ll walk out in his bathrobe…”—and then like a harmony, the deep resonance of some singer neither Dalton nor Baby knew overpowered the woman for a moment. They alternated, but eventually both parts faded into the applause of static and wind.
“This is nice,” Baby shouted over the wind.
“Put on your seatbelt,” Dalton yelled.
“What?” Baby pushed aside the cloud of her thundering hair—what Dalton had innocently called an afro at first.
Dalton pulled his own seatbelt meaningfully, and Baby, pouting, strapped herself in.
Dalton scratched his nose to cover his smile and watched the road.
The necklace was only a silver line across the geography of her throat and collarbone. From it dangled four beveled blue stones clasped by what looked to Dalton like four tiny silver claws. The fifth claw was empty except for crushed blue shards that still glimmered in its grip. Guilt tightened his chest. Dalton followed the course of the necklace down to the jewel that hung lowest, resting on her sternum, suctioned to her brown skin by a sheen of sweat. It pointed like an arrow to the gentle swell of Baby’s chest.
“It’s like the hot side a’ the pillow here.” Baby blew a mosquito from her face and looked up at the cloudless sky. “But all over your body. Hard to breathe.”
Dalton turned west, holding his hand against the glare of the sunset. He chewed the inside of his cheek and spit into the water lapping the edge of the raft.
“It’ll cool, yet,” he said. “Take a drink a’ water.”
She rolled her head to the side, casting a glare at the plastic milk carton tied to the raft’s edge. Dalton had filled it just before entering the bayou and it was already nearly empty. Baby stared.
“Never mind,” she said.
Dalton looked back at Baby. Her legs sprawled out in front of her, and she propped herself on her hands, occasionally leaning up a moment to slap a mosquito that had docked on her dark shoulders. Dalton looked at his own shoulders, skin pink, crowns of white peeling off their bald heads. He grimaced and looked away.
Baby dropped her head back and closed her eyes to the warmth of the sun. She smiled, in her own sightless world of fecund odor and insect calls vibrating into her ribs. When she opened her eyes, cattails swayed around her once more, and algae waved with the water. A cloud of flies tumbled across the face of the bayou, drunk with the reflection of itself.
“If you squint just right,” said Baby. “All that blue and green starts meltin’ together.”
They stayed in motels the first two nights. As Baby showered the second morning, Dalton turned on the TV and saw himself staring back. It was a high school picture. He watched his image shrink down next to another of the same size: Baby, but she looked like a little kid. The photo must’ve been from years ago. The banner scrolling along the bottom of the screen read, “Local Girl Disappears.”
Suddenly a grainy video of Baby’s mother flashed on screen. The skin under her eyes was dark and swollen. She sniffed and played idly with one tight coil of hair draped over her ear. She looked into the camera, right at Dalton, and spoke.
“He took her,” she said to Dalton. “And he took my car and—”
“He took everything.” Her voice caught.
The newswoman cut in to ask viewers to get the word out about the Midwest Kidnapper. Even the weatherman weighed in between heat waves.
The shower shut off, and Baby opened the door in a cloud of steam. A white towel covered her, tucked under her armpits like a plush dress. She held the soaked mass of her hair balanced on her head. The way she walked into the room reminded Dalton of a picture he’d seen at school of an African woman carrying a basin of water on her head and a child swaddled against her chest. Baby smiled at him and hopped onto the edge of the bed.
“We need to go.” Dalton stood and turned off the TV. “Your clothes dry?”
He walked to the window and bent down one of the plastic slats. A blade of outside light cut onto his face. Down in the parking lot, in the entrance booth, the pock-faced woman who had checked them into the motel was leaned back watching her desk television.
“Get dressed,” he said, still watching the woman downstairs. She held a phone to her ear now and turned away. Had it rung, or had she dialed a number?
Baby sighed and lay back on the bed. Dalton walked to the bedside table and looked at the alarm clock. It was getting late. He pocketed the keys and headed for the door.
“I’ll pull the car ‘round,” he said. “Be down in three minutes.”
Baby sighed and rolled onto her chest, arms spread wide, as Dalton reached the door. He glanced at her lying there. She looked comfortable.
The car Dalton had idling below was not the convertible. It was a dark green jeep. When Baby came out the door, he leaned toward the passenger window and waved her down. She came slowly, waddling uncomfortably in her damp jean shorts.
“Sorry,” he said, as she sat. “We can’t stay in motels anymore.”
“Okay.” Baby fiddled with the glove compartment.
“This one ain’t blue,” Dalton said. “But at least the door closes.”
Baby smiled. Dalton shifted into drive. In the distance sirens whooped to life. Dalton
pulled out of the parking lot and turned south.
They drove southwest from the motel, following state roads as Baby’s finger traced the map in a zigzag. She carefully circled each town that looked small enough to keep them moving, but large enough to offer some anonymity.
At night, Dalton explained as the bright cornfields flew by them, they would have to avoid towns. They could sleep in the car. Baby nodded and played with the glove compartment, clicking it open and slamming it shut. Click, slam. Click, slam. Click.
From the compartment, a small revolver fell onto the floor. It was a tiny silver thing. Baby didn’t move, and Dalton’s foot slipped off the accelerator. The tires crackled onto the gravel strip on the roadside, and Dalton parked.
It was late afternoon, and all around them fields of gold corn rippled. The inside of the car warmed like an ember, and the liquidy red sun-drop drained into the earth ahead.
Dalton leaned over and picked up the gun. It was heavier than he would’ve guessed, but empty—six hollow chambers. No ammunition was in the glove compartment or the hidden upper shelf where the gun had been tucked. Dalton weighed the revolver in his hand, and both of them stared. Then he pushed it into his pocket and pulled back onto the road. Dalton flipped on the headlights and drove another hour in the purple dusk.
The creek they found that night was perfect. A narrow dirt trail—just a set of tire tracks—lined back from a bend in the state road, arriving at the stream. To the left, a grassy recess just large enough for a car was tucked between trees smoky with moonlight. Dalton parked here.
Baby found a small lever at the foot of the backseat and used it to fold the seat into the floor, creating a flatbed trunk with enough space to lie down. Dalton rolled up his shirt for a thin fabric pillow—barely enough for them to share—and they lay together, Dalton’s lanky form surrounding Baby.
Sometime during the night, Dalton heard her shivering and draped an arm over her. They both slept, waking now and again pressed into the warm body of the other. Later, Dalton couldn’t be certain whether he was awake or not, Baby pulled his wrist farther around her, tighter. After a time, he pushed down into her shorts. She wasn’t wearing underwear. Neither of them moved. Dalton rested his hand there, feeling how soft she was. His chest tightened. His hand twitched.
“The first time,” he whispered. “It shouldn’t be like this the first time.”
She was breathing slow, measured breaths. Dalton couldn’t tell if she was even awake. His heart thunked and his head felt suddenly hot. He wanted to wake Baby up then, to shake her to life.
He cupped his hand slowly and stroked her with his thumb. Her skin was softer than anything he’d felt. And suddenly he wanted to pull her into him—to crush her. He wanted to tear her apart.
“It ain’t,” she breathed.
“What?” His voice was too loud.
“The first time,” she said.
Dalton and Baby slept on the raft, listing silent through the water. The sky was brightening and the morning mist glowed like lit cotton. Birdcalls warbled through the bayou. Insects perched on twigs stretching their wings. Barely visible spiders skittered on the taut surface of the water. Trees rose like pillars all around—cypresses with bulbous bases, tupelos with root systems fingering millionly into their reflections.
Baby wore only a white beater and a pair of faded jean shorts with strings hanging off the bottoms—no shoes. She would curl her toes to hide them whenever she caught Dalton looking her direction; they were the only part of her body mussed by time. “My feet look like an old woman’s,” she would say. But now her toes stretched free in the humid air and her shoes lay sun-bleached on the edge of the raft. Around her head was a pillow of hair, coiling out like brown Spanish moss.
Dalton wore the white tee whose sleeves he’d torn off a day ago. His shirt and cargo shorts were streaked brown and green from wading to push the raft from the Mississippi current into the bayou. His left hand was still raw and swollen.
“Let me see it,” Baby had said, her feet planted wide on the deck. Dalton had offered it gingerly, and she’d kissed it six times—once on the palm and once on each finger. Then she’d stood back and nodded once with finality. Since then, Dalton had tried to act like it didn’t hurt.
Dalton shifted in his sleep, cradling his burnt hand against his chest.
Dalton and Baby woke to light spidering through the cracked car window. It was their first morning in Louisiana. The car was already oven hot, yet somehow Dalton knew outside wouldn’t provide any relief. The SUV they’d taken two nights ago was an old, grey junker. The windows and A/C didn’t work, and the floors were almost rusted through. The driver side door shuddered and groaned each time it was forced to open on its old hinges.
Dalton and Baby slid over the center console into their seats and stretched. The car had begun to smell, and Dalton doubted they could take another day of it. The odor wasn’t stale, exactly—the air was too moist for that. It was sour, a little saline: a smell that made him suddenly need fresh air more than anything, and then fresh water after that. They had run out of money yesterday, and now a cavernous hunger was beginning to set in, too.
Pulling onto a state road running parallel the Mississippi, Dalton followed the signs for a breakfast diner. They could always dine and dash, though it might bring unwanted attention.
When they turned into the diner parking lot—Mama G’s—they saw only two parked cars, old and dirty, with vaguely different pastel paintjobs. Beside the diner, an embankment descended into the Mississippi, and a floating dock jutted out, curving with the current. An old wood raft trailed by a frayed rope from the end of the jetty. They parked beside the exit, Dalton murmuring, “You can never be too safe.” He killed the engine and turned toward Baby.
“We can eat now,” he said. “We just gotta leave real quick after we finish. Make it seem like we left some money at the table, then run.”
Baby’s hands were on her knees, and she looked down at them. She said nothing. Dalton felt the weight of the revolver at his waist, then. He looked at Baby a moment and turned the key.
“You stay,” he said. “I’ll leave the car runnin’ and be out soon enough. Alright?”
“Dalt,” Baby said.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll be back ‘fore you can say New Orleans.”
A tiny bell jingled as Dalton opened the diner door. He pulled out the gun and held it by his side.
“Nobody move,” he said.
A couple in their seventies sat in the corner booth, heads leaned together—the woman, cobweb-haired and thin; the man, black with a straggly beard hanging like Spanish moss from his chin. The waitress sat behind the front counter, feet up with stockinged fat drooping from each leg. The nametag clipped to her beige dress read “Yvette,” and the novel resting on her stomach was titled Forbidden Love—its cover font spiraled across a detailed illustration of a busty, corseted torso. Yvette didn’t look up.
“Seat yourself,” she said. “I’ll be with you shortly.”
An older fat man with a large chef’s hat on and black hair curling over the neck of his beater strode out from the kitchen and leaned against the counter, his back to Dalton. Two soft pouches of flesh sagged on the man’s back, just below his armpits.
“Now Wy-vette,” he drawled. “That ain’t no way to talk—”
“Nobody move!” Dalton yelled this time, raising the gun and pointing it at the man.
Yvette dropped her book and screamed. The old couple looked over and froze. The chef turned and threw his meaty hands up in the air. The black hair under both armpits opened like twin fans, matching the shape and color of his mustache.
“Take out all your money,” Dalton said, then added, “And nobody look at my face.”
Eyes down, Yvette pulled a bundle of cash from her apron—at least seventy dollars. Dalton dragged his eyes from the money to watch the chef. The big man was the only one who might try something. His mustache was wet with sweat.
A rickety pickup truck slowed to a stop on the road beside the diner, and Dalton suddenly realized anyone could see inside through the great windows opposite him. The truck rumbled a moment at the stop sign out front, then turned away from the diner. Dalton switched the gun to his left hand and wiped his palm on his cargo shorts.
“Nobody move,” he said again.
Suddenly, the bell tinkled behind Dalton. He whirled and found his gun pointing at Baby.
“Goddammit, Baby,” he said, eyes swinging back to the chef. “I told you to stay put.”
“You were takin’ a long time,” she said quietly. She looked around the diner. Everyone was perfectly still.
“Take the money from her,” Dalton said. “The waitress. Take it.”
Baby stepped around him and held out her hand. Yvette gazed at Baby’s face while she handed over the cash.
“Look at your shoes.” Dalton trained the gun back on Yvette, and her eyes dropped.
“I like her necklace,” said Baby, looking at the old woman in the corner. Around the woman’s neck was a delicate silver chain with five blue gems dangling from it. Dalton edged toward the woman.
“Gimme the necklace,” he said. The woman was already unclasping it.
“Please,” she said, holding it out.
The woman’s head was down, but the man opposite her looked at Dalton. His thick lower eyelids cupped two yellowing eyes; brown specks blotted his irises like paint drops on old fabric. The man looked pained.
Dalton looked back to the woman and grabbed the necklace. He moved slowly back to the front counter. He glanced at the jewels as he moved.
“It’s fake, Baby.”
“No it ain’t,” she said.
“This one’s cracked.” He set the necklace on the counter so she could see, but kept his eyes on the chef. The revolver seemed to be getting heavier and smaller at the same time. He switched it to his right hand again.
“Just cause it’s broke don’t make it fake,” she said.
Dalton’s head was pounding. He looked at Baby, then the necklace. They didn’t have time to argue. Suddenly he brought the butt of his gun down on the fractured stone. As the blue glass shattered, the handle of the gun slipped from Dalton’s grasp. It fell on the counter heavily, tiny blue shards sliding out around it. The revolver’s hammer fell home with a hollow click. No one moved.
Baby began to cry. Dalton snatched the gun up, holding it on the chef again. He picked up the necklace and shoved it in his pocket.
“Move,” he said. Baby walked through the door holding the wad of cash to her heaving chest, and Dalton backed after her. The chef’s hands were dropping and his dark caterpillar eyebrows were crawling toward each other.
Dalton whirled and ran through the open door to the SUV. Baby stood outside the car gasping for breath between sobs. Dalton pulled the handle. The door didn’t open. He tried again, his hand slipping as he did. He ran to the other side of the car and yanked the handle. The car idled on, keys hanging from the steering column inside. Dalton ran to Baby and leaned down in front of her.
“Did you lock the car? Baby!” His voice cracked. “Baby, look at me!”
The bell jingled from the diner’s front door, and Dalton looked up. The chef was walking out. They locked eyes, and he began walking toward them, one step at a time. Dalton held up the revolver and the man stopped, but this time his hands remained at his sides. Dalton grabbed Baby’s wrist and began to drag her toward the embankment, down toward the raft. The man followed slowly.
Backing to the end of the dock, Dalton half lifted Baby onto the raft with his free hand and began to tear at the mooring. The knot was tattered into one mass, fibers grown into the peg. His fingers couldn’t find purchase anywhere. As he rubbed his hand raw, he heard a heavy footstep at the end of the dock. He looked up to see the chef walking toward him slowly.
Dalton threw his shoulder into a pull and the rope came loose. As he turned, the fat man took a step and lunged forward. Dalton stepped back, his foot falling off the dock into the water, and as he tumbled backward, he threw the revolver. It cracked against the chef’s cheekbone with a sound louder than Dalton expected, and the man tumbled to the side. Dalton landed hard on the raft as it drifted free of its baying and he kicked off the end of the dock.
The man, white hat askew, floated away from them slowly, holding a coarse-haired hand
to his face, thick red seeping between his fingers.
A heron stood on the island. Its body was slender and its bill looked to Dalton like a giant needle. As he and Baby floated closer, the bird spread its huge wings and floated upward. Baby jumped off the raft, and mud engulfed her legs up to the knee. She let out a little shriek.
“Ooh, it’s colder than I’d a’thought.” She looked at Dalton and laughed. “Feels good.”
Dalton flashed her a smile as he pulled the raft up, lodging a corner in the mud. As he waded in the shallows, a frisson worked from his submerged legs to his sunburnt scalp, leaving a wake of goose bumps rippling through his body. He scrambled up onto firmer soil and shook himself warm.
They sat side-by-side, hands on the grassy mud, knees up, toes rooting in the cool earth. Baby leaned over and rested her head on Dalton’s shoulder. He winced a little, but didn’t mind. They watched the sun climb the branches of a nearby tupelo.
“I’m sorry,” Dalton said.
“For what?” asked Baby.
Dalton said nothing
“S’alright,” she said. “Couldn’t last forever.”
Neither one said anything.
“I’m thirsty,” said Baby. “Can’t we drink the water?”
“It’ll make you sick.”
“It looks clean,” she said. “It’s all blue.”
“It ain’t blue,” said Dalton. “The sky’s blue. It’s green and I told you it’ll make you sick.”
The bugs chattered. The sun was reaching its peak.
“Do you know where we are?” Baby asked.
Dalton turned the other way.
“Back there, where the sun rose—that’s east,” he said. “That’s where we came from. This is where we’re going.”
The sun was beginning to drop now. Baby stood and walked to the raft. She tilted the milk carton up and dripped a few drops of condensation on her tongue. She walked back and sat by Dalton.
“When they come,” she said, “I’ll tell them it was my idea.”
Dalton stretched his legs in front of him. He picked a long blade of grass and began to chew it. He could feel his chapped lips cracking when he talked. He closed his eyes. Still no sirens. He wondered if they’d ever come.
“It might be good if I ain’t here,” he said quietly, “When they come.”
They watched the sun drop like a deflating red balloon. A perfect watery copy rose to meet it at the horizon. Baby was motionless. Dalton let his eyes relax, and for a moment he couldn’t tell which sun was real, which was warm and which cold.
“They’ll be here for you soon.” Dalton rested his hand on Baby’s knee and noticed how truly thin she was. When the sun settled on the horizon so half was real and half was just reflection, Dalton stood and walked to the raft, dislodged it with his foot. As he stepped onto the deck, Baby looked over her shoulder at him.
“Do you love me?” she said.
Dalton stood still a moment, until Baby turned away. He pushed off the shore. She grew smaller, balled up on her tiny island, till Dalton wasn’t sure if he could see her or not.
“I do,” he said, but his voice was barely a rasp. He tried to swallow.
“I do,” he said, but no one heard him.