He took a valium secretly in the bathroom and all three of them slept until dawn, not as if they were comfortable, but as if, he thought, to escape each other. Audrey had left the nubby curtains slightly parted, so that in the morning a thin sun illuminated the baby. Nicholas could see as he watched her sleeping that the lump had something like a pimple on it. When Audrey woke, she sat up, stroked the baby’s cheek, then carefully slid off the bed. Her breasts swung heavily under her T-shirt and Nicholas wondered if they were bigger, as if in metamorphosis—as if she could be pseudo-lactating. He had heard such a thing could happen, the mind could manifest amazing configurations. Thoughts were things. Look at what his own mind had allowed. His Buddhist coworker would secretly love, he felt, to see him in this room—

“Look after her, Nic!” she whispered, but her eyes were wild and her hair clung to her cheeks. She went to her purse and pulled out her rosary, then disappeared into the bathroom. There was hardly a morning that she didn’t pray. He deserved, he knew, her rebuke; since they had entered the motel room he had barely touched the baby, hadn’t even changed her diaper. He couldn’t stand to recall the heavy feel of her when he pulled her from the cart, how overtaken by love he had been. He was amazed that she was sleeping now, and he allowed himself to think for a moment that maybe she trusted them.

 

He opened the door when Margaux rapped on it and saw his reflection in her enormous sunglasses. Her hair was still wet from the shower and dripped on the paper bag of bagels and hash browns she carried. He felt the pull of her as she sidled past.

“They don’t know what the lump is.” She stood cradling the bag as she watched the baby in the playpen. “I turned on the news—I had to. I know you said it was a bad idea, but I couldn’t help it. The parents were on—”

“The parents—” He started blinking too much. He had hoped that the mother was alone, a teenage pregnancy or some such.

She removed her sunglasses. “The police chief said they don’t know what the lump is and that the baby was supposed to see a doctor.”

Nicholas took the bag from her arms and tried to focus on it, the feel of the paper and the smell of the hash browns, but the ordinariness was painful. “What the fuck have we done? How is this even possible?”

Margaux snorted. “All they have is six seconds of you and Audrey and the baby, and it’s like yeti footage, completely blurry and useless. I could barely recognize you. So that’s good news, Nic. Good news.” She stepped close to him, took a bagel from the bag, ripped a piece off with her teeth. Without swallowing she said, “Want to know her name?”

“I already do,” he said. “It’s Thea.”

 

On the third day, Thea’s lump had something sticking out of it. Nicholas, Audrey, and Margaux stood around her, staring. The bit protruding was pure white and small, like a thorn or the end of a quill. Sometimes the baby cried and swiped at it, and other times she seemed to forget it was there. Her appetite was normal and she ate orange slices and jarred baby food, and she drank formula, bottle after bottle, which they warmed under the faucet. She crawled around on the floor, even played with the toys they had brought for her, and used the side of the bedspread to haul herself up to standing. She didn’t laugh, but she didn’t cry much either, and Nicholas could almost pretend that she was relatively content, except when she turned her gaze on him, her open stare pitiless and royal.

They left the motel room for a drive. Margaux sat in the front seat wearing a new wig and Audrey sat in the back with a baseball cap on, sobbing into her hands. Back in the motel, Nicholas had wrapped his arms around her, felt her shoulders jerking in a way he hadn’t felt since Theo’s funeral. She had shrugged him off, saying in a choked voice, “We’re terrible people.”

The baby now sat beside her in the car seat and Nicholas could feel Thea staring into the back of his head. He was aware, too, of other things, the pedestrians who were free, the inviting spaces beyond the minimarts and auto shops. Margaux’s legs beside him. His brain, he felt, had been altered. He and Audrey had no plan from here. What, really, was the probability of what they had done in the first place, and what was the probability of getting away with it?

Margaux was turned around in her seat, saying what a beautiful baby Thea was, which was true enough, and she played with the little foot in the pink sock. For a moment, Nicholas imagined that the baby was smiling at her, but when he looked in the rearview mirror, Thea’s eyes met his and her face was grim.

Audrey said, “Stop the car. I’m going to be sick.”

 

Two hours later, it was Margaux who went to the trunk of the car in the rain and searched around in the toolbox after Nicholas said to get the needle-nose pliers. He and Audrey were looking at Thea’s neck, at the half-inch of white string or whatever it was, that poked out.

“Jesus, this is getting so weird.” Margaux handed him the pliers and they all looked at each other. Nicholas remembered a rusted bent nail that his father had yanked from the bottom of his five-year-old foot, the shock of the bloodless, unburied tip. “Well, are you gonna do it?”

Audrey held up her hand, “Wait.” Before Theo and the numerous miscarriages, before fertility drugs and in vitro, she had been a nurse, and a good one. She knew it should fall to her to extract whatever that was, but she simply couldn’t manage it. With Thea on her hip gnawing a rubber ring, she pulled a disinfecting wipe from her purse and smoothed it over the lump. “Now, she’s ready.”

Margaux’s eyes were big. “What if it hurts her when you pull?”

“Just do it,” Audrey said, looking away as she held the baby up. The rubber ring bounced on the floor when Thea folded up her chubby legs and clutched her toes.

Nicholas fixed the pliers on the end of the little white protrusion. “This won’t hurt, Thea, it’s okay.” He realized that it was the first time he had called her by her name. He tugged, gently, a millimeter at a time and the white piece emerged, one inch, two inches. Then it was free, a damp stick, and Thea’s face hardly changed.

“It’s a fucking feather,” Margaux laughed. Audrey, her face pale and startled, carried the baby over to the bed and sat down with her. She kissed the top of her head.

Nicholas stood, holding the feather, unbelieving. Margaux turned her face to him and in the motel light he thought she seemed a little ravenous, maybe ecstatic. They all seemed to want something, to be caught in unending cycles of desire, or perhaps he misread her. She grinned and said, “She’s a miracle baby, that one,” and touched his hand.

* * *

During the episodes of his childhood, when he would involuntarily pass out for hours at a time, he sometimes had dreams. They were usually about white birds in various guises, the names of which came from the lists his birding father kept pinned to the fridge. The dream birds, once generic, morphed over the years to include pelicans, egrets, kites, snowy plovers and snowy owls, sanderlings and terns. On this night as he dreamed in the motel, it was mute swans that came, falling from the sky with their wings braking and feet outstretched, clouds of doves, and an albatross with a white body and grey wings, what his father could have told him was a mollymawk. A foolish gull.

Margaux also made an appearance in the dream, her breasts, her thighs, forms that rose to the surface and descended again and caused a rush of arousal so strong that it woke him. After a while, he watched the wooliness of the dark room, the furniture and the people in it. The feather was beside him on the nightstand, because none of them could throw it away. It seemed like something they could make a wish on and find themselves back in time before the baby. The heating unit grated noisily and took periodic rests. Thea slept in her playpen between the two beds. If he sat up slightly he could see the rise and fall of her chest, the balled fists. He hadn’t known a baby who could sleep so well, who could impose so little upon the adults, and yet he hadn’t known anyone so imperious. The baby of the shopping cart was, in reality, a ruler. Anyone who could sprout a feather from her neck was the one in control.

He assumed Audrey was next to him, but his adjusting eyes saw the figures in the other bed. It took him a moment to remember that Margaux had decided to stay the night with them, that she and Audrey had been huddled at the door around 9 p.m., and that Margaux, who had been holding her purse and jacket, had stepped back into the room and put down her things.

The figures in the bed murmured to each other, and a realization spread over Nicholas as he watched them that what he was seeing was a single entity. Margaux’s fingers with their metallic nail polish clutched the sides of Audrey’s face like talons, or that’s what he would have sworn to, except that what he saw in the shifting of his wife’s body, and he immediately recognized it, was her response to pleasure. The two forms were seeking each other out, the mouths touching together almost with a magnetic click. He closed his eyes, felt himself sink back under the weight of the double valium he had ingested right before bed.

 

In the morning when he woke at last, the feather remained, but Audrey, Margaux, and the baby were gone. The playpen sat empty like a drained pond, with a pacifier and flannel blanket pooled at its center. On a piece of paper on the bureau, with the motel pen beside it, nothing floated except for his name written hastily and abandoned, and near the door there was a small jumble of clothes they had decided to leave without.

Sometimes, he knew, it is best to stay very, very still, and so it was two hours before he got up, raked his hair, swallowed some tap water. He saw that they had left him some bread and saltines, peanut butter and a large bag of trail mix. Half a can of formula. What to do was intangible, how to touch his feet to the outside world seemed impossible. It was better to think, instead, of the room as his and simply settle in, do what he and Audrey had always done, which was wait. Waiting could be almost professional, if the mind was trained on it. Seconds could fall open like canyons.

He waited for two days, sometimes watching the feather or the calluses on his feet, or pressing salt grains into his fingertips. He spoke out loud and the sound of it seemed too much, as did the toilet flushing and the ringing phone in the next room, so when the banging on his door finally began, it was a blow to his ribs, his sternum. They called his name and banged the door, and he stood on the other side of it, looking at the instructions, which had been glued at an angle, for what to do in case of a fire. They continued banging, and he went back to the bed and sat down on it. He picked up the feather and turned it in his fingers before placing it in his mouth. He put his head on the pillow and considered the feather, how familiar it was, because it was soft and also sharp.

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