On a day in April 1999, Nicholas saw the white birds circling the parking lot, descending to an invisible drain. People filled their trunks with boxes and bags, the roof racks, too, they left shopping carts thirty feet from the corrals where they caught the wind, and clanged. Nothing is simple and nothing is complicated; this was the sentence in his mind, the one on repeat, a koan for stealing a baby. Nothing is complicated. He expected this day, however, to be charged with unexpected delays and witnesses and jangled nerves. Birds choked back wads of yarn and paper that drifted on the pavement, and music blared from speakers high up, though he couldn’t have said what the music was. His wife, Audrey, clutched the baby and jerked across the lot, terror and glee affecting her limbs. He thought she looked ridiculous, yet nobody was noticing anything except their keys in the locks, their tortilla chips and bleach and rubber spatulas trundled like riches. Nothing was garbage yet. The world was new and the detergent bottles hadn’t yet been opened and the plastic beads were still unworn.
Nicholas put his hand on Audrey’s back. The baby turned her head like an owl’s, taking everything in as Audrey jiggled her toward the car. Babies, he knew, see who you are, but even though she looked straight at him with an expression that said she had him all figured out, she didn’t make a fuss. She went along with the charade that they were a family like any other, that this was normal and fine and so was the car and the hazy light and the white birds. Where their friend Margaux was he didn’t know, but he pictured her shimmying out of clothes, he pictured her running and tossing her glasses, he pictured her.
Everything was fine, except the baby had a lump on her neck and he thought he had noticed it in the store, but now that they were out in daylight, he was certain it was there, a small egg shape tight under the skin. Right below it, a tiny collar in white with pink rickrack, a pearl button. When she had been sitting in her mother’s shopping cart near the tower of paper towels, she had swiped at her neck, then watched her own hands. Nicholas and Audrey had watched the baby from twenty feet away, pretended to discuss the sunscreen and sand pails for a child they no longer had. They worked out how this baby in the cart was a thing to take like any other, how the baby’s mother, looking cold and prim and much too young, would recover soon enough. Later on, they would not be able to explain their dislike of her, how their plan to take a baby suddenly became a rescue mission in the span of three seconds, and yet it did. Their hearts pounded. This was the one, the very baby they were meant to pluck. She was meant for them.
Taking a baby, however, was supposed to be difficult, if not impossible. Nicholas figured it would go wrong with the simple act of reaching for her, that the gesture would tangle with all manner of botches, alarms and crashing gates. They would be caught even before they had made it ten feet. He looked at Audrey as she watched the baby, her eyes big and staring, her purple purse tucked under her arm, fat as a heart. She had stopped bathing recently, and though he had asked her to shower that morning, she was superstitious and wanted to continue her five-day hiatus, like a footballer before a big game. Her fear-soaked scent wafted around them, mixed with leatherette, polyurethane, artificial jasmine.
They weren’t properly dressed for this; they were hardly altered. Nicholas had slicked back his hair, donned an old coat he could ditch, and Audrey had tucked her long hair under with pins, so she appeared to have a bob. Anybody who knew them even slightly, however, would be able to identify his large-nosed profile or her bumpy walk in a dark video ten seconds long. Anybody who could judge the situation would judge that they wanted to be caught. Still, hardly anybody knew them, and this was a day when white birds flocked. A fire door was left open two inches by employees sneaking smokes during their break, a toilet overflowed and dripped down to the basement electrical panel, and the surveillance system, never properly installed in the first place, was defective. All eyes, even the electronic ones, were either turned away or couldn’t be relied upon. Nothing was true. With no wit among the witnesses, there was little to parse.
Still, the witnesses, such as they were, would argue for a full twenty minutes over who, exactly, had a red handbag, who looked at the chlorine bleach too long. None of which was known to Nicholas, who had had somewhat washy luck all his life; to him, he and Audrey were fluorescent, shifty, and left a trail of scent. They would be stopped before it got out of hand. He counted on it.
What he didn’t count on was the baby’s mother, that she would act in such alignment with their plan, slipshod as it was, that it wouldn’t falter. The mother went to the next aisle, leaving the baby in the cart, fat and sweet and swiping her neck. Soft pretzels churned in the guts of the people watching the giant TVs, the toilet overflowed in the men’s, and Margaux didn’t miss a beat. She was the lunatic on aisle twelve where the mother happened to step. Margaux feigned confusion so expertly that the mother, after glaring at her for a full seventeen seconds, decided that maybe she was someone who needed help. The mother, absorbed in Margaux’s neediness and inexplicable looks, said, “Can I get someone for you?” Margaux seemed familiar somehow, both gorgeous and wretched, like a misbehaving celebrity, and her hair seemed askew—which it was, being a cheap blonde wig snatched from the spot not far from the DVDs and the personal lubricants—and her eyes, enlarged by a pair of 2.5 reading glasses, also snatched, had a slight craziness to them. The mother, being barely nineteen and therefore undaunted by celebrity or craziness, tilted her head at Margaux and asked her again, “Is there someone I can get?” even as her baby was being carried off. Margaux let a pool of saliva shine on her lip and crossed her legs like she had to pee, suddenly bending down so that the mother gave a little surprised cry and reached out to touch Margaux’s jacket (aisle four).
The baby felt electric to Nicholas, the twenty-four pounds and five ounces of her, as he pulled her from the cart. Her chubby legs curled up like a hedgehog, and she shoved a fist in her mouth. He felt her breathing, and what he believed was her soul—he believed deeply in souls, if not necessarily gods. He felt her gaze rocket through him, a hole through his chest. She had seemed tiny at first but swelled in his clutch. The crisp dress and hot abdomen. Rather than run straight from the store, he luxuriated in these seconds of total awareness—what his Buddhist coworker and archnemesis at the accounting firm might call presence. Presence was never so grand, or fraught, or awful. But Audrey, panting, grabbed the baby. Her fingers scraped his, and the baby—this is when he really saw the lump and then suppressed the noticing—was gone from his hands. In a blink, Audrey placed the baby on her hip like an expert mother, like the mother of many children, though she had only had the one. It all came back, the nub of her hip as if meant for resting a baby, a feeling of terrible rightness.
This was all taking too long, they were dawdling. They should have been out the door by now. She shut her eyes, inhaled with a smile Nicholas hadn’t seen in years, and it was on. They raced a few steps before catching themselves and lurched by the registers and through the glass doors that read Entrance—no matter, nobody noticed, not even the greeter who was digging in a pocket for the camping knife she wasn’t allowed to have—and the alarms were quiet and the vestibule strangely devoid of people. They reached the parking lot and the baby swiveled her head, and Audrey’s knees were about to buckle. Nicholas pressed his hand into her lower back and she would have felt it, except that she was numb.
Margaux wasn’t far behind. She knew exactly when to calmly straighten up and smirk at the mother, who at last remembered the baby. By the time the mother was back to her empty cart and frantic, Margaux was on her way to the hair section to replace the wig and jacket, take a different pair of thick-framed glasses and a scarf. She wasn’t even surprised to see the propped-open fire door right before she sailed through it, without alarm, unimpeded. She had, all her life, the expectation of hidden exits, money in the sofa crack, cabs waiting at the curb. She had a hard face that no one could pin down, she could change her bangs and her own mother would find her unrecognizable. Later on, she would show Nicholas how she had looked, laughing and flicking the glasses on and off her face like a deranged librarian. She would even imitate the mother’s scream. Audrey hated that, especially if someone in another room could hear it, and would have told her to shut up if Margaux hadn’t helped them get the baby in the first place. Audrey paced the motel room with the baby and held her tight to her chest, and Nicholas said, “Careful. You want the baby to breathe, don’t you?”
His focus was clouded briefly by a delicious oblivion—which wasn’t new but a thing since childhood when he had been incorrectly thought to be narcoleptic. He splashed water on his face in the motel bathroom and in the mirror was an astonishing vision, the face of a man getting away with something. Yet his surroundings were not ideal, were sodden in a way, as the motel stood on the side of the mountain range that scraped all the rain from the clouds, so the beds were damp and a ghost Hawaii stained the bathroom ceiling. He brought out the plastic cups in cellophane from the vanity, intending to pour drinks for him and Margaux. Audrey hadn’t had a drink in two years, not since her last binge after Theodore. The baby was lodged on her hip as she paced. The moment of his victory was gone and he understood, as he surveyed their luggage and bags of food and diapers, their fugitive sprawl, that they were all fucked. Wildly fucked.
“What do you suppose her name is?” Margaux said, running her fingers over the baby’s soft head until Audrey turned the baby away. “Well, she’s a beautiful baby, even with the lump. I like her dress.” Winked at her. “Expensive.”
Audrey watched Nicholas over the top of the baby’s head. “They’ll be going over the tapes by now, wondering who are these assholes?” She cracked a tiny smile before her face was serious again. Nicholas saw a resemblance between her and the baby, identical slate eyes and doleful expressions. But the baby’s gaze, as she moved in the arc that Audrey traced, stayed fixed on him. She didn’t seem to blink.
“What’s the lump about, do you suppose?” Margaux had taken the cups and was picking off the cellophane. It was an obvious thing to wonder, and yet he didn’t want to invite the answer. Out in the world, buildings were dynamited, wars were underway, people drove their cars into rivers, sometimes on purpose, but it was in this place, this room, where he imagined chaos was about to wake. They were merely acting as if calm, as if the edge on which they were poised was only imaginary.
The baby suddenly whimpered and swiped at her neck, then her ear. Margaux said, “Do you think it’s hurting her? What if she needs a doctor?”
Audrey put her hand over the baby’s face and glared. Nicholas wanted her to be good to Margaux, not only because Margaux had agreed to do this, but because she was the one who, when baby Theodore died, sat with Audrey for days, lighting her cigarettes and pouring her vodka. Margaux was the one who had said that, since they couldn’t afford more in vitro, perhaps they should consider other options and that she would help. She had a way of seeming she could conjure. She laughingly skipped straight over adoption and went to stealing. The awfulness of what she meant and their understanding of it, especially when they sobered up, seemed not to come from them, or not the selves they knew at least, but from an entitled logic sprung from loss. Theodore’s death, senseless as any other because he had simply stopped breathing—and whether he had been wrapped or snuggled too tightly was undetermined—left not a void but a territory whose possibilities included everything but bringing him back. Nicholas had seen things he never thought he would see, and he watched Margaux then, how she stood, drunk and even vulnerable as she offered herself, in the wild’s epicenter, and he found himself marveling at the creature who seemed to be his own discovery.
The lump. The interior of which he assumed to be rife with infection but he couldn’t be sure. The baby continued to stare at him, unsmiling. “Maybe it’s just a swollen gland,” he said.
Audrey pressed her lips to the baby’s hair. “Maybe she’s supposed to take medicine.” The baby batted her neck and Audrey started hushing and jiggling her again.
Margaux picked up her jacket from one of the beds. “I’m going home now. Gotta feed the dog. See you tomorrow.” Fluttered her fingers in the air and the door latched loudly behind her, and it seemed impossible, this coming and going, how unafraid she was. Impossible that he and Audrey should be left there, nestled in the motel’s orange hues, sunset and rust and Fanta, with a baby who wasn’t theirs stuffing her fingers in her mouth and continuing to stare at him. Fraudulent him. The baby understood him, how wrapped in doom. Her gaze said very serious things about this situation, that she was not to be owned. She softened a biscuit with her gums before shoving the whole thing in her mouth without once taking her eyes off him.