Robert McCammon


The Baby was crying again.

The sound roused her from a dream about a castle on a cloud, and set her teeth on edge. It had been a good dream, and in it she'd been young and slim and her hair had been the color of the summer sun. It had been a dream that she'd hated leaving, but the baby was crying again. Sometimes she regretted being a mother; sometimes the baby killed her dreams. But she sat up in bed and slid her feet into her slippers because there was no one else to take care of the child.

She stretched, popping her joints, and stood up. She was a big, heavy woman with broad shoulders, and she was six feet tall. Amazon Chick, she'd been called. By whom? She couldn't remember. Oh, yes; it came to her. By him. It had been one of his pet names for her, part of their secret code of love. She could see his face in her mind, like a blaze of beauty. She remembered his dangerous laugh, and how his body felt hard as warm marble atop hers on a bed fringed with purple beads…

Stop. It was torture; thinking of what used to be.

She said, 'Hush, hush,' in a voice raspy with sleep. The baby kept crying. She loved this child, better than she'd loved anything for a long time, but the baby did cry a lot. He couldn't be satisfied. She went to the crib and looked at him. Tears were rolling down his cheeks in the dank light from the Majik Market across the highway. 'Hush,' she said. 'Robby? Hush, now!' But Robby wouldn't hush, and she didn't want to wake the neighbors. They didn't like her as it stood. Particularly not the old bastard next door, who knocked on the walls when she played her Hendrix and Joplin records. He threatened to call the pigs, and he had no respect for God, either.

'Quiet!' she told Robby. The baby made a choking sound, nailed at the air with fists the size of large strawberries, and his crying throttled up. She picked up the infant from his crib and rocked him, while he trembled with baby rage. As she tried to soothe his demons, she listened to the noise of eighteen-wheelers rushing past Mableton on the highway that led to Atlanta. She liked it. It was a clean sound, like water flowing over stones. But it made her sad, too, in a way. Everybody was going somewhere but her, it often seemed. Everybody had a destination, a fixed star. Hers had burned brightly for a time, flared, and dwindled to a cinder. That was a long time ago, in another life. Now she lived here, in this low-rent apartment building next to the highway, and when the nights were clear she could see the lights of the city to the northeast. When it rained, she saw nothing but dark.

She walked around the cramped bedroom, crooning to the baby. He wouldn't stop crying, though, and it was giving her a headache. The kid was stubborn. She took him through the hallway into the kitchen, where she switched on the light. Roaches fled for shelter. The kitchen was a damned mess, and anger burst in her for letting it get this way. She swept empty cans and litter off the table to make room for the child, then she laid him down and checked his diaper. No, it wasn't wet. 'You hungry? You hungry, sweetie?' Robby coughed and gasped, his crying ebbing for a few seconds and then swelling to a thin, high keening that razored her skull.

She searched in vain for a pacifier. The clock caught her eye: four-twelve. Jesus! She'd have to be at work in little more than an hour, and Robby was crying his head off. She left him flailing on the table and opened the refrigerator. A rancid smell drifted from it. Something had gone bad, in there amid the cold french fries, bits of Burger King hamburgers, Spam, cottage cheese, milk, half-empty cans of baked beans, and a few jars of Gerber's baby food. She chose a jar of applesauce, then she opened a cupboard and got a small pot. She turned on one of the stove's burners, and she drew a little water from the sink's tap into the pot. She placed the pot on the burner and the jar of applesauce down into the water to heat it. Robby didn't like cold food, and the warmth would make him sleepy. A mother had to know a lot of tricks; it was a tough job.

She glanced at Robby as she waited for the applesauce to heat up, and she saw with a start of horror that he was just about to roll off the table's edge.

She moved fast for her one hundred and eighty-four pounds. She caught Robby an instant before he fell to the checkered linoleum, and she hugged him close as he squalled again. 'Hush, now. Hush. Almost broke your neck, didn't you?' she said as she paced the floor with the crying infant. 'Almost broke it. Bad baby! Hush, now. Mary's got you.'

Robby kicked and wailed, struggling in her arms, and Mary felt her patience tattering like an old peace flag in a hard, hot wind.

She shoved that feeling down because it was a dangerous thing. It made her think of ticking bombs and fingers forcing bullet clips into the chambers of automatic rifles. It made her think of God's voice roaring commandments in the night from her stereo speakers. It made her think of where she'd been and who she was, and that was a dangerous thing to lodge in her mind. She cradled Robby with one arm and felt the jar of applesauce. Warm enough. She took the jar out, got a spoon from a drawer, and sat down in a chair with the baby. Robby's nose was running, his face splotched with red. 'Here,' Mary said. 'Sweets for baby.' His mouth was clamped shut, he wouldn't open it, and suddenly he convulsed and kicked and the applesauce spewed onto the front of Mary's plaid flannel robe. 'Damn it!' she said. 'Shit! Look at this mess!' The child's body jerked with fierce strength. 'You're going to eat this!' she told him, and she spooned up more applesauce.

Again, he defied her. Applesauce dripped from his mouth down his chin. It was combat now, a battle of wills. Mary caught the infant's face with one large hand and squeezed the babyfat cheeks. 'YOU'RE GOING TO MIND ME!' she shouted into the glistening blue eyes. The infant quieted for a second, startled, and then new tears streaked down his face and his wailing pierced Mary's head with fresh pain.

Robby's lips became a barrier to the spoon. Applesauce drooled down onto his sleepsuit, where yellow ducks cavorted. Mary thought of the washing she was going to have to do, a chore she despised, and the frayed thread of her temper broke.

She threw aside the spoon, picked up the infant, and shook him. 'MIND ME!' she shouted. 'DO YOU HEAR WHAT I SAID?' She shook him harder and harder, his head lolling and the high-pitched wail still coming from his mouth. She clamped a hand over his lips, and his head thrashed against her fingers. The sound of his crying went up and up, a crazy spiral. She had to get ready for work, had to put on the face she wore every day outside these walls, had to say 'Yes ma'am' and 'No sir' and wrap the burgers just so and the people who bought them never knew who she had been, they never guessed, no never never in a million years did they guess she would rather cut their throats than look at them. Robby was screaming, the apartment was filling up with screaming, somebody was knocking on the wall, and her own throat was raw.

'YOU WANT TO CRY?' she shouted, holding the struggling infant under one arm. 'I'LL MAKE YOU CRY!'

She knocked the pot off the stovetop, and turned the burner up to high.

Still Robby, a bad seed, screamed and fought against her will. She didn't want to do this, it hurt her heart, but what good was a baby who didn't mind his mother? 'Don't make me do it!' She shook Robby like a fleshy rag. 'Don't make me hurt you!' His face was contorted, his scream so high it was almost inaudible, but Mary could feel its pressure sawing at her skull. 'Don't make me!' she warned, and then she held him by the scruff of his neck and slapped his face.

Behind her the burner was beginning to glow.

Robby would not bend to her will. He would not be quiet, and somebody might call the pigs, and if that happened…

A fist was hammering on the wall. Robby flailed and kicked. He was trying to break her, and that could not be tolerated.

She felt her teeth grind together, the blood pulsing in her temples. Little drops of crimson ran from Robby's nose, and his scream was like the voice of the world at the end of time.

Mary made a low, moaning sound, deep in her throat. She turned toward the stove and pressed the baby's

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