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.

 

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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