It was two in the morning on a late September Thursday when the Father waited in the dark parking lot of a former convenience store on Rosedale. Like many of the older buildings on this stretch of the road, it had been razed to make way for new construction. Temporary chain-link fencing had been erected around the rubble until it could be hauled away.
The outdoor temperature was unseasonably cold for north Texas. He’d kept the engine and heater running in his truck, and now the inside of the windshield had fogged. He pulled the end of his flannel coat sleeve over his hand and reached out to wipe the glass with the cloth.
A shadow appeared ahead, moving toward the truck, eventually taking the shape of a man. The man’s breaths were visible in the air, hanging about his head like conversation bubbles in comics.
The Father hit the button to unlock the doors and the man climbed inside, quickly closing the door behind him.
“Any problems?” the Father asked.
Good. The Father gave the man an approving nod and slid the truck into gear.
Fort Worth Police Officer Megan Luz
My K-9 partner Brigit and I were patrolling the Mistletoe Heights neighborhood in the wee hours of the night when my cell phone jiggled to life. I cast a glance at the screen, which indicated it was my boyfriend Seth calling.
I pulled over to the curb, jabbed the button to accept the call, and put the phone to my ear. “Hey.”
Brigit raised her furry head off the cushion in her enclosure behind me, her brown eyes watching me closely. My partner wasn’t just a large shepherd, she was a smart one, too. She knew that me talking to someone on my phone or radio meant we might be called into action. Brigit lived for action. Me? I’d be happy if everyone obeyed the law, took each other’s hands, and sang “Kumbaya.” Of course if everyone conducted themselves so perfectly, there’d be no need for police officers or detectives, and I’d have to come up with new career goals. But human nature being what it is, my job was in no danger of becoming obsolete any time soon.
“Can you come to the station?” Seth worked as a bomb squad technician and firefighter for the Fort Worth Fire Department. His station was located within the confines of my beat, only about a mile from my current location.
“I’m not due for another break yet.” As much as I’d like to see him, I couldn’t shirk my duties.
“This is official police business.”
Instinctively, I sat up straighter in my seat. “It is? What’s going on?”
He kept his cards close to his vest. “Come see,” was all he said before hanging up.
“Official business,” I repeated, looking back at my partner. She pricked her ears to listen. “What do you think that means, girl?”
She offered a small wag of her tail, the canine equivalent of a shrug.
I slid the phone back into the cup holder, made a quick check of the dark street, and pulled out, aiming directly for the station. When my cruiser pulled into the front parking lot, I spotted Seth standing in the station’s lighted foyer, his broad back to the glass door. An army reservist, Seth sported blond hair cut in a short, military style. His angled head and bent elbows told me he held something in his arms. Three other firefighters and one of the paramedics were gathered around, looking down at whatever he was holding.
Seth glanced over his shoulder as I parked. His yellow Lab, Blast, recognized my cruiser and ventured closer to the door, his wet nose pressed to the glass, his tail eagerly whipping back and forth.
I opened the door of my cruiser and stepped out into the night. The air was unusually cold tonight, a not-so-subtle reminder of the winter weather to come. It couldn’t come soon enough for me. The summer had been a scorcher. Grassfires fueled by dry, dead vegetation had kept Seth and his fellow firefighters busy the last few weeks.
I opened the back door to let Brigit out of the car. If I was going to get a little time with my boyfriend, she should get some with hers, too, right? Her nails clicked as she hopped down to the pavement and trotted along beside me.
Doug Harrison, a seasoned, dark-skinned paramedic, pushed the door open as I approached. I acknowledged his gracious gesture with a nod and smile.
“All right, Mister Mysterious,” I said as Brigit and I stepped inside. “What’s the big secret?”
As the door swung shut behind me, Seth turned around. Cradled in his arms was a newborn infant swaddled in a baby-sized quilt. The baby was sound asleep, its chubby face pink against the white trim of the colorful blanket. Atop its head was a knit cap in the same brilliant purplish blue as the accents adorning the quilt.
I stopped in my tracks and looked from Seth to the other men and back again. As far as I knew, none of their wives or girlfriends had been pregnant. Besides, who’d bring their child to the station at this late hour? I took a step closer, noting tufts of shiny black hair peeking out from under the tiny cap. “Whose baby is this?”
Seth shrugged. “I don’t know. I was checking the hoses on the truck a few minutes ago, and a guy just walked up and handed the baby to me. Said he was making a safe drop.”
My mouth fell open. Though the Texas Safe Haven Statute, sometimes referred to as the “Baby Moses Law,” had been in effect since 1999, it had rarely been utilized. The law allowed parents of a baby up to sixty days old to leave the infant at any designated safe place, which included hospitals, freestanding medical clinics, and fire or emergency medical stations. So long as the baby was handed over to an employee and was unharmed, the parent would not be charged with abandonment or neglect. The statute was enacted after a rash of dangerous abandonments, with the hope that the law would save young lives by giving desperate parents a legal and anonymous way out of difficult, hopeless situations.
As Brigit raised her head to give the baby’s blanket a curious and thorough sniff, I reached out to run a finger over the baby’s soft cheek. “Is it a boy or a girl?”
Doug chimed in. “Girl. I checked her for signs of trauma. Everything looked okay.”
Thank God. Domestic violence was one of the most difficult things police officers faced on the job, and the stakes and emotions increased exponentially when children were involved.
The baby began to stir inside the blanket, her eyes fluttering. “Uh-oh.” Being the oldest of five children, I knew newborns had only two modes—fast asleep and feeding frenzy. And if you didn’t feed them fast enough, they’d scream loud enough to wake Satan’s minions in the deepest circle of hell.
Seth’s eyes flashed in alarm and he held the baby out to me. “Here! Take her!”
I scoffed. “You run into burning buildings and defuse explosives for a living, but you’re scared of a tiny baby?”
“Yes!” He thrust the baby at me again. “Babies are terrifying.”
I rolled my eyes but took the baby from him and settled her in my arms, gazing down at her. “Hi, cutie.”
Her body wriggled and her tiny mouth opened in a toothless yawn as she struggled to wake. Looking at her, I couldn’t help but have questions. Why did her parents give her up? What circumstances had they faced that forced them to make this heartbreaking choice?
Despite the Texas legislature’s attempts to restrict abortion in the state, it was still legal under certain circumstances. The mother of this child would presumably have had the option of terminating her pregnancy if she’d had the means and inclination to do so. But she hadn’t. What does that tell us? Where did you come from, baby girl? My gut squirmed with that same sense of frustration I felt when it was clear Brigit knew something I didn’t and couldn’t communicate it to me.
As the other men wandered off to return to their tasks, Harrison said, “One of the guys ran to the store for diapers and formula. He should be back soon.”
“Great.” Instinctively, I hiked the baby into a more upright position in my arms and began to bounce and sway side to side. She yawned a second time, blinking her eyes against the harsh glare in the bay. When I looked up again, I caught Seth eyeing me, a soft smile on his face.
He lifted his dimpled chin to indicate the baby. “Don’t get any ideas.”
I rolled my eyes a second time. “Don’t you, either.” I planned to take the detective exam as soon as I was able. The last thing I needed was a child getting in the way of my career aspirations. That said, I’d want a kid or two later, once I’d had a chance to solve some big cases, prove my mettle. Did I want my children to also be Seth’s kids? Maybe. Probably, even. But there’d be time to figure all of that out later. We’d only been dating a little over a year and we were in no rush to settle down and start a family.
The baby began to fuss, emitting little mewling, hicuppy cries. “It’s okay, baby girl,” I told her in my best soothing voice as I cranked my bounces up a notch. “Everything’s okay.”
Of course that wasn’t true. Everything was most definitely not okay. If things were okay, she’d be with her mother and father right now. Only a few hours old and already she’s been abandoned by her parents and lied to by a cop. Not an auspicious start, was it?
I pushed the button on my shoulder-mounted radio to contact dispatch, giving my current location. “A baby girl was dropped off here. Can you notify Child Protective Services so they can send someone over to pick her up?”
The dispatcher’s voice came back. “Will do. How’s the baby doing? Is she all right?”
I pushed the button to respond, but before I could get the word out the baby mustered up every bit of her strength and let loose a wail. Waaaaaaaah!
“My Lord!” the dispatcher cried. “She’s got some lungs on her!”
“Sorry.” I pulled the baby away from the mic lest she burst the dispatcher’s eardrums. “But I guess that’s a good sign, huh?” A sick baby wouldn’t have been able to muster up such a strong sound.
Thankfully, the firefighter who’d gone for formula pulled into the lot. Seth met him at his car and took the bag of provisions from him. As Seth carried the bag into the station, I followed with the baby. Waaaaah! Brigit and Blast padded along after us. When we reached the kitchen, Seth pulled the items from the bag and set them on the table. He looked from the table to me, raising his voice to be heard over the baby’s cry. “What now?”
It had been a long time since I’d been around an infant. None of my friends were mothers yet, and the last time I’d babysat was over a decade ago. But having helped my parents with my four younger siblings, I remembered the basics.
“Rinse the bottle and nipple,” I directed. “Then pour a couple of ounces of formula in the bottle and run it under hot water for a few seconds to warm it up just a little.”
Seth did as I’d told him and handed the warm bottle to me. I checked the temperature by dabbing a drop on my wrist. As Goldilocks would say, it was just right.
“Dinnertime, little g-girl.” Actually, it was more of a midnight snack, but she was too young to know the difference. She was also too young to realize I suffered from what was now only a minor stutter, but which had virtually silenced me during my childhood. Of course my struggles with my speech seemed minor in comparison to what this baby faced.
I slid the nipple between the baby’s lips, teasing the roof of her mouth until she clamped down and began to drink. The little thing had darn impressive suction, the bottle pulling against my fingers. I had to tighten my grip lest she suck the bottle right out of my hand. Suck-suck-suck.
Her cry having been answered, she blinked to clear the tiny tears she’d mustered along with her wail, the little drops running down her temples to dampen her hair. As I gazed down at her, I couldn’t help but wonder who her mother was. Was the baby also wondering if I was her mother? My mind recalled the children’s book Are You My Mother? The bird in the book had an acute lack of self-awareness, inquiring whether various animals of other species and even a piece of construction equipment were its mother. Sorry, kiddo. Not me.
I took a seat at the table while she ate. Now that the baby was at dog level, Brigit and Blast took the opportunity to check her out more fully. They sniffed her blanket and her little curved ears, sniffed at the bottle, too. As if to get a complete look at the baby, Brigit grabbed the loose tip of the knit cap and pulled it off the baby’s head, releasing a cascade of fluffy black hair that would be right at home on a Muppet.
“Bad dog!” I tucked the bottle under my chin to hold it still for the baby and reached out to grab the cap from Brigit’s teeth. “Give me that.”
Brigit released her hold on the cap, turning her attention back to the baby. She sniffed the infant’s dark hair twice—sniff-sniff—then opened her mouth and gave the baby’s head a slick lick from back to front. Slup. The girl’s hair now stuck up in a point above her forehead, like Alfalfa from The Little Rascals. Unsanitary, sure, but adorable as heck, too.
I looked up at Seth. “Take a picture.” Whoever the baby ended up with long term, they should have a glimpse into her first few hours. Hopefully they wouldn’t be disgusted by dog germs. They didn’t seem to bother the baby. She continued to drink, undeterred by the dog slime. Suck-suck-suck.
Seth pulled out his cell phone and snapped a quick pic of the baby with her canine coif. “She must get that dark hair from her mother.”
“What makes you say that?”
“The guy who handed her off was blond. Or at least his beard was.”
Hmm. Were blond genes recessive? I wasn’t sure. “Was he young?”
“No. I’d put him around my age.”
In other words, the guy was around thirty. Again, hmm. I’d expected the father of the baby to be younger, maybe even a teenager, but I supposed parents of all ages could find themselves unable to take care of a baby. And while the Baby Moses Law had an age limit for the child, it didn’t impose any age restrictions on the parents giving up the baby.
Brigit and Blast gave the little girl one last sniff before losing interest in her and wandering over to the fridge. Brigit nudged the door with her nose, looked over at Seth, and woofed. The dog might not speak English, but she could nonetheless communicate very clearly with us humans when it came to certain things.
“All right, Brigit.” Seth stepped over and opened the fridge. “What sounds good?” he asked my furry partner. “Hot dogs? Bologna?”
Brigit stuck her nose into the fridge. She started by sniffing the lower drawer where the fruits and vegetables were kept, but worked her way up to the higher drawer, which contained hot dogs and a variety of lunch meats. She nudged the upper drawer and sat back on her haunches, gazing up at Seth expectantly.
Seth opened the drawer, reached inside, and retrieved the hot dogs, a package of ham, and a package of bologna. Brigit nudged the bologna with her snout.
“Bologna it is.” Seth returned the other items to the drawer and finagled a couple slices of the lunch meat from the package. He tore the slices into strips and hand-fed them to Brigit and Blast, who wagged their tails in appreciation.
One of the other firefighters wandered in, grumbled when he found the coffeepot empty, and set about brewing a fresh pot.
The baby’s sucking eventually slowed and I removed the bottle from her mouth. “Tummy full now, sweetie?”
She replied with a cute baby toot.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’” I rounded up a dish towel and draped it over my shoulder. Properly protected now, I put her up to my shoulder and patted her back until she offered up an itty-bitty baby burp. Burp. Fortunately, the burp was all that came out of her. Burping my younger brother Joey had always been more akin to an exorcism. You never knew what manner of demon might spew forth.
“Shoot,” said Seth’s coworker, pulling a coffee mug from the cabinet. “With all the noises that baby’s making, she’d have been right at home at my frat house.”
I looked down at her and offered her her first piece of advice. “You steer clear of frat houses, hear me?”
The baby now fed, I rounded up a diaper from the grocery bag and carried her across the hall to Seth’s bunk to change her. The dogs plopped down on the floor and engaged in a tussle, mouthing each other’s necks and limbs and growling playfully. Seth leaned against the door frame while I laid the baby down on the bunk and unwrapped her blanket. The piece was an intricate work of art, featuring quilted bluebonnets, the state flower, which blanketed roadsides and fields each spring. The person who had made the quilt had found the perfect shade of fabric for the flowers, which were a unique mix of royal blue with a hint of purple. The baby wore a soft pink gown and blue crocheted booties that matched her cap. Whoever made the clothing and blanket was skilled with both crochet needles and sewing needles. Had they been made by the baby’s mother? It must’ve taken hours and hours to hand-stitch the blanket and crochet the cap and booties. That says something, doesn’t it?
“What’ll happen to her?” Seth asked.
I pulled the tapes on the girl’s diaper to loosen it. “CPS will take her to a hospital for a complete exam and to get the shots and other stuff that’s normally given to newborns. Once she’s released, they’ll find a foster home to take her in until she’s put up for adoption.” She’d have no shortage of takers. Healthy babies were in big demand.
After wiping the baby’s teeny, perfectly pink bum, I wrapped it in a fresh diaper and left her in Seth’s care while I went to the bathroom to dispose of the old diaper and wash my hands. When I returned, I spread out her quilted blanket and plunked her down in the center of it, pulling each of the points in and tucking the last one in by her chin as if she were a burrito. “There you go, sweetie. Snug as a bug in a rug.”
I picked her up and gently placed a kiss on her forehead. When I turned around, I caught Seth eyeing me. He said nothing, but his eyes made it clear there was a lot going through his head at the moment. What is he thinking? Whatever it was, he didn’t seem intent on sharing it with me, at least not yet. I didn’t push him. He tended to clam up when asked about his thoughts and feelings, but I’d learned that if I gave him enough time he’d eventually share the important ones with me.
The baby looked up at me with her glassy, unfocused newborn eyes. At the same time, my heart swelled with some type of maternal instinct and my gut wrenched at the thought that this moment could be critical in the baby’s formation of her thoughts of the world. I had no idea what she’d endured so far. Just because she hadn’t been bruised or battered didn’t mean she’d been cuddled and coddled and welcomed to the world the way every new baby should be. I had to reassure her that the world was a good place, at least for the most part, and that there was a special place in it just for her—even if she hadn’t found it yet.
I raised her up until her face was only inches below mine. “Would you like me to sing you a song, baby girl?” Unfortunately, the only lullaby I could remember was “Hush, Little Baby” and, frankly, the song’s message didn’t sit well with me. The lyrics basically told the baby that if it shut up and didn’t complain or question, it would be rewarded with a diamond ring and other gifts. Hell, that was the arrangement many philandering men had with their wives. Screw that! Better this little girl forgo jewelry and other material things and instead learn to stand up for herself. Hmm. What to sing, then?
When I hesitated, Seth cocked his head. “You don’t know any lullabies?”
“Only ‘Hush, Little Baby,’ and no way am I shushing her. She’s got a right to speak her mind.”
“How can she speak her mind? She doesn’t know any words yet.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
Seth looked up in thought. “Okay, how about this song, then?” A classic rock fan, he launched into Cat Stevens’s hit from the seventies, “If You Want to Sing Out.”
I gave Seth a smile and a nod, and sang along with what lyrics I knew, rocking back and forth gently on the bed with the baby in my arms. He stepped over and sat down next me, draping an arm around my shoulders and rocking with me.
We were in the last verse of the song, singing to the baby about how there were a million things to be, when Harrison rapped on the open door. We stopped singing and looked up.
“CPS is here,” he said. “The caseworker’s waiting in the lounge.”
“Okay.” I looked down at the little baby once again, feeling an odd need to explain myself to her before handing her off forever. “I’m about to turn you over to a social worker. She’s going to get you medical treatment and find you a good home. I might never see you again, but I’ll be thinking about you and I won’t ever forget you, okay?” I pressed my lips to her cheek and whispered in her ear. “Have a wonderful life, little one. Don’t let anyone or anything hold you back from chasing your dreams.”
My eyes pricked with unshed tears and emotion gripped my throat. Sheesh. If I was this choked up, how difficult must it have been for her parents to give her up?
Seth reached out and gave the baby a soft chuck on the chin. “Good luck, squirt.” Was it just my imagination, or did he sound a little choked up, too?
We stood and made our way down the hall to the lounge. A woman in her forties who looked like she’d been roused from a deep sleep stood waiting, a well-used infant car seat in her hand.
She set the seat down on the coffee table and turned to me and the baby. She gazed down at her. “What a cutie. We’ll find her a family in no time.”
The social worker reached out her arms to take the baby. Before I handed her over, I gave the baby one last, tight cuddle and closed my eyes in a quiet prayer. Goodbye, baby girl.
As the woman took the baby from me, the corner of the blanket that had been behind the baby’s head flopped over, and loose threads on the trim caught my eye.
Wait. That’s not just loose thread. There’s a word there, too.
I gasped as my mind processed the image before me.
The thread spells “HELP!”
My palm shot up in a stop motion. “Wait!”
The woman froze. “Something wrong?”
I gestured to the quilt. “I need to take a closer look at the blanket.”
She gave me an odd look but shrugged. “Okay.” She freed the baby from the blanket and handed it to me.
Seth stepped closer, a puzzled look on his face.
My fingers frantically worked the fabric until I found the word on the trim. I held it up. “Look! This thread spells out ‘Help!’”
The word was followed by what appeared to possibly be the remains of a stitched peace sign, a circle with an inverted Y inside. It was hard to say for sure given that the thread had pulled loose, a couple inches of it hanging from the fabric. But on close inspection I could see tiny holes in the fabric where the needle had gone through. Oddly, there were two such holes inside the circle, on either side of the vertical line. What does that mean? If the stitching was, in fact, a peace sign, the symbol would be at odds with the word “help.” Terror and tranquility were polar-opposite concepts.
Seth and the caseworker leaned in, squinting for a moment before making out the word, their eyes popping wide in surprise. The three of us stood in stunned silence for a moment, trying to process things.
Seth eyed me intently. “What does it mean?”
There was no way to know for certain. But I did know one thing. “It means Brigit’s about to be put to work.”
Before my partner and I stepped away, the caseworker asked, “Is it okay if I take the baby to the hospital now? I don’t want to put it off too long.”
“Sure,” I replied. After all, it wasn’t like the baby could provide any testimony, tell us where she’d come from and who’d brought her here. Too bad. It would make things so much easier.
I exchanged business cards with the caseworker so we’d be able to contact each other as necessary. Official matters over with, I reached out to the baby one last time, picking up her tiny hand in mine. Instinctively, her little fist tightened around my index finger, as if she were holding on for dear life. Her eyes opened and seemed to focus on mine, imploring me to do what the word on the blanket asked, to help.
Brigit and I will do our best, little one.
Copyright © 2018 by Diane Kelly.