by Steve De Jarnatt
This excerpt from a short story is loosely based on a true occurrence, where a flawed law in Nebraska briefly allowed parents to jettison kids up to the age of 17 at any firehouse, police station, or hospital with no legal consequence.
* * *
They are drawn now from all directions—families down to their last drop of hope, coming through the gauntlet of a gathering storm to the dead center of America. They have until midnight to cross the border here in the Cornhusker State, before the music stops.
* * *
Arabelle Tunney drives a rusted Ford camper exactly the posted limit, heading east out on Highway 70—the comforting drone of engine and wind pierced by a shrill wave of young laughter.
“Simmer down back there. Simmer down!” she shouts to her children in the rear.
Arabelle buried her husband Earl under the turnips out in the truck patch late Tuesday night. His kidneys gave out at long last. Earl had a well-documented history of renal trouble, but the warfarin-laced stews she fed him the last few days probably helped the reaper do his work.
The bastard Earl kept Arabelle knocked up without mercy, seeding her womb, his “property,” with seven children in six years. Because the Lord told him to.The bastard Earl kept Arabelle knocked up without mercy, seeding her womb, his “property,” with seven children in six years. Because the Lord told him to. She hid away inside her ample girth—only her ornery toes would betray feelings sometimes, making the sounds of animals scuffling under a rug, clicking and squirming down in the fortress of her hard shoes.
She’s leaving hell back in the Beehive State, en route to the high plains of freedom and a second chance at everything. It’s not just mouths to feed with no option but for charity that has her in distress; it’s the six-year sum of all that’s been inflicted on a child bride thrown into such a cruel arrangement. Arabelle longs to know so much: Google, travel, and tender love. But she’s known only Pampers, breastfeeding, and the sting of a backhand slap.
Five girls and two boys. Now the eldest, Dora, can help some with the toddlers. These angels of hers should bring joy, but they reflect only some blank, engulfing sorrow. Sometimes when Arabelle looks their way they have no faces. Sometimes their voices scree like wounded birds and their eyes swirl like funhouse pinwheels. She craves a week of narcotic sleep, maybe a year of it—craves, for goddamn once, not to have something leeching off her blood, her milk, her time.
The children look out windows greased with noseprints, searching the lateral flow of countryside for white horses and old barns, a contest to pass the time. As they sing an old hymn, their off-key harmonies reach deep into Arabelle’s brain and begin to turn the red-hot screws again.
* * *
Ned Laporte drives his yellow Saab north from the Land of Enchantment. No need to rush; he left with time to kill. Headphones protrude from either side of his narrow, shiny pate. Spinning the crackling dial through a spectrum of fading stations, Ned smiles at the road ahead as tears crust on his cheeks. The confluence of three major fronts is birthing a statewide electrical storm. Lightning flashes somewhere, and speckles of a drought-ending rain begin to pelt evenly across a thousand acres, air spiced with a bouquet of fresh-dampened soil.
The boy’s hands are tethered together, on each a soft leather mitt. He wears goggles to save his eyes from mashing; a bike helmet protects his head, which bobs like a sports souvenir. Byrd screams at the top of his lungs.Ned’s seven-year-old, Byrd, strapped in a booster seat in back, squirms, face eclipsed by a bowl of black hair, hanging wet. The boy’s hands are tethered together, on each a soft leather mitt. He wears goggles to save his eyes from mashing; a bike helmet protects his head, which bobs like a sports souvenir. Byrd screams at the top of his lungs.
“You know I can’t hear you when I have these on. And you know your throat will bleed when you yell like that,” father calmly shouts to son. Ned beholds the perpetual fidget his boy is stricken with. He has always done the calm, correct thing with Byrd. Until this day. The boy’s tantrum melts to a passive slouch, and his eyes meet Ned’s in the rearview. A precious thing, such connection.
“It’s not your fault,” says Ned, and Byrd looks away.
* * *
Ned met his wife, Lenore, through Mensa personals, and it seemed perfect—two sensible, solvent academics on the fast track to tenure. Lenore’s fragile beauty was beyond any the average—looking Ned could ever really hope for, yet after two months there she was, agreeing to be his wife. The hooks went deep.
They both had a great wish for children, which proved difficult, then impossible. In their third year of marriage, after enduring a lengthy and humiliating process, they were finally blessed with a year-old orphan from Moldova. They kept his given, Bogdan, meaning gift of God, nicked that down to Bog, then to Byrd for the way he would sometimes tilt his head back begging for food.
All babies cry, but Byrd never stopped. They knew at the moment of his first seizure that rearing him would not be the bliss they’d imagined.
“He’s defective,” Lenore had said.
“He’s our son,” Ned had told her.
Ned stayed home with Byrd, putting his career on hold to provide the constant nurturing the difficult boy required as Lenore traveled more and more on the university lecture circuit. She withdrew, seldom even touching the child. For years the couple maintained the façade of what was expected of decent people, but in the end it came down to this—Lenore or Byrd. He still cannot believe the choice his heart is making.
Byrd lifts a plastic bottle from his lap, holding it with force between the awkward mitts. He sucks on the teat until a mouthful is ready, then spits the soy-milk concoction across the back of his father’s head. Ned does not flinch. He was expecting this. White glop swirled with blood hangs a moment, then slips down his neck across an already caked and drying mess. Byrd laughs, and then the sound—growing louder—turns back into a scream.
* * *
Coach Ike Pisapia floors his Dodge Ram balls out, racing up from the Lone Star State to beat the deadline. A large man, slumped in pain—his jaw tight and bothered, eyes red and watering. Mack and Jack, his corpulent fourteen-year-old twins, are ensconced in the quad cab playing World of Warcraft, one of many games that have usurped their young lives.
“We hungry yet?” Coach asks, and as if to answer, Nope, we’re fine. Mack rattles a half bag of Cheetos, not bothering to look up.
Coach had been an always-picked-last chubby teen, just like them, but he willed himself into becoming a lettered athlete at Texas A&M. The summer after high school graduation he was a new boy, eating only raw eggs and vegetables and doing his own killer two-a-days. He read The Power of Positive Thinking endlessly, then walked on varsity football with a different body and a ferocious new spirit, making the special teams squad freshman year.
Why are his little men so damn soft—so lost? That estrogen in all the food people talk about? Because he spared the razor strop his daddy used to mold him? Has he failed them with kindness?Coach has taken the twins to athletic contests since they could walk, tried to fuel them with healthy food and dreams. He’s played tapes of Larry Bird, Billy Mills, and a hundred others, encouraging them to choose whatever sport they wished, as long as they busted their asses at something. Anything. But Mack and Jack are bereft of willpower. All they do is gorge on processed crap, twitch their thumbs to kill imaginary monsters, shit, sleep, masturbate, and do it all again—day after day.
Last year Coach arranged to take the boys to a Galveston morgue.
Four dead bangers on the slabs after a gang shootout.
“You look long and hard at these fools,” Coach told them. “Full of life yesterday; now they all torn up with their purple guts leakin’ out. This is your cost of real violence.”
The twins seemed mildly bored with the corpses, muttered that the bodies smelled, then went back finger-fucking their little boxes.
Why are his little men so damn soft—so lost? That estrogen in all the food people talk about? Because he spared the razor strop his daddy used to mold him? Has he failed them with kindness? Does he blame them for breaking her open, for taking his one true love away? Marie and Coach were inseparable, never a day apart. If she hadn’t made that road trip with him—miles from nowhere on the way back from league quarterfinals—her breech could have been attended to, so it’s as much on Coach’s soul what happened that night.
Loose skin hangs from sinew near a constellation of bruises where he keeps an IV flowing. He has only months left, the doctors say. He wants to live them fully and, if he can, get another liver and live a little more. Coach knows he’s a stone-cold shit weasel for what he is set to do, but he’s claiming his own precious time—he can do no more as a bad father.
* * *
Every state has its Haven Law granting amnesty for leaving a newborn at any hospital, law enforcement office, or fire station. Thirty days is par for the course, up to a year in the Flickertail State. But here in Nebraska, the last to enact, no specific age was set, and the gesture of mercy has spawned a fiasco of unintended consequence, deluging the social-service network with an overflow of humanity, or lack thereof. Tonight, lawmakers toil in a special session in Lincoln, called back from fishing trips and mistress trysts to undo the gaffe they signed into law only months ago. Tomorrow it comes to end.
* * *
This piece originally appeared in The Cincinnati Review in the Winter 2012 issue.