An Excerpt from:
THE ONLY WITNESS
by Pamela Beason,
Daphne du Maurier Award Winning Author
Monday, 5:45 p.m.
Brittany Morgan knew she was a good mother, no matter what other people said.
She parked her old blue Civic around the corner from the main entry, in the shade of the grocery store so the car would stay cool in the early evening sun, maneuvering it into the middle of three empty spaces. She couldn’t get or give any more dings or she’d have to listen to her father’s going on and on about the deductible again. When she pulled on the hand brake, it squawked like a Canada goose, interrupting her favorite song. She had to figure out a way to make her parents buy her a better car. She was, to quote her English teacher Mr. Tanz, ‘biding her time.’ At first she’d thought it was ‘biting her time’, which made a lot more sense, because you could see how people might want to bite off minutes and hours and spit out the boring parts to get to the good ones. But Tanz made her look it up. It meant, like, waiting.
She’d been biding, putting off asking for a new car for almost a year. All because of Ivy. She looked at the baby, sleeping in her carrier in the passenger seat, backwards like they said, so she wouldn’t get a broken neck if the air bag went off. But then, this junkmobile probably didn’t even have an air bag on the passenger side. She’d have to remember to ask her father, who you would think would show a little more concern for his granddaughter.
The last strains of Love Was faded away and Radio Rick started talking about the upcoming news. She turned off the engine. When the car did its death lurch like it always did, Ivy jerked in her sleep, waving her tiny butterfly stockings in the air. An iridescent bubble formed in the bow of her lips, broken almost instantly by the sucking motion her lips always made as she drifted back to sleep.
Brittany’s breasts tugged in response. She pulled out her tee-shirt and inspected the lavender cotton fabric. If anyone saw her with big wet blotches over her boobs, she’d just die. But the pads were working. Plus, they made her look at least a cup size bigger. Maybe she’d keep using them after she quit nursing. Her stomach got flatter every day and she knew her boobs would follow once she quit feeding Ivy.
Everyone had been wrong about what it’d be like to have a baby. How could anyone not adore Ivy Rose Morgan? Only two months old, she was already prettier than any baby in the ads, with her long lashes curled against her ivory cheeks and her soft peach-fuzz hair. She was a sure bet to win the photo contest.
Diapers were disgusting, it was true, but she changed them herself, even at night. And here she was, planning ahead, going to the store after school to get Huggies even before she’d used the last one. If that wasn’t responsible, what was? As soon as she graduated from high school, she’d work on her clothing design business but she’d also get a job at Sears, because then she’d be able to get anything she needed for the apartment she’d have. Just her and Ivy. And her friends, too, of course, whenever she wanted them to come over. And maybe Charlie would come around sometimes, too. After all, he was Ivy’s father, and once he saw her, he might decide that he really wanted to take care of his family instead of staying away at college.
Before Brittany got out of the car, she made sure all the windows were down a couple of inches. Not so much that people could stick their hands in, but just enough for good airflow. When she turned the key in the driver’s door, she heard the locks click into place all around the car, but she walked around to double-check Ivy’s door, like any responsible mother would.
She glanced at the tall gray van parked in the space to the right. It had those weird rock-star windows, mirrored so you couldn’t see inside. It didn’t look like the sort of ride that a rock star would be caught dead in, though; it was kind of faded with white lettering on the side. Talking Hands Ranch. Sounded like a camp for deaf kids. The mirrored windows were probably so people wouldn’t make fun of the little boys and girls signing instead of talking.
Turning back to her car, she leaned down, moved her lips close to the opening at the top of the passenger window, and whispered, “Mama will be right back, Ivy Rose.”
Monday, 5:50 p.m.
Neema pressed her face close to the inside of the van window. Her broad hands fluttered in the air, signing soft soft. The girl’s hair was red-gold, long and swishy. She wanted to touch that hair, press it to her nose to smell it, maybe even taste it just a little. But the girl walked away around the corner and then she couldn’t see the sunset color any more.
Neema turned to watch the baby. It slept curled up in its chair, just like a baby cat in a basket. She wanted to play with that baby. She wanted its eyes to open and see her. She hooted softly, her breath briefly steaming up the dark glass. The baby didn’t move.
Neema slapped the window with her open hand, making a hollow noise that was loud in the closed van.
The baby woke, opened round blue eyes, and put its fist in its mouth. Hello, Neema signed. The baby’s face wrinkled. Was it going to cry? She wanted to open the window. But the window buttons didn’t work when Grace wasn’t in the van. Neema ducked her chin and made a rocking motion with her arms, holding a pretend baby close to her stomach. She smacked her lips, gave it a pretend kiss. She knew how to be gentle with babies and things that could break.
A shadow moved past the van. When she looked out again, a man stood between her window and the car. He watched the baby through the car window. Then he turned toward the van.
Neema backed away from the glass. The man leaned closer. His face was mean. Neema tried to look fierce. She showed him her teeth, but he didn’t even see her.
He stepped back and looked around the parking lot. Next he pulled a plastic bag from his pocket and stretched it over his hand.
Glove hot, Neema signed to herself. Gloves were for cold.
He turned to the car, pulled a long metal thing from his pants.
She signed Long knife. What was he going to cut? Not the baby! She hooted softly, signing bad bad.
He stabbed the knife down the window. Then he opened the door and reached for the baby. His long sleeve caught on the seat belt. It slid up, and there was a flat blue snake around his arm, its head on the back of his wrist. A snake! So close to the baby! Snake bad snake arm, she signed, hooting with fear. Snake!
He lifted the baby in its chair and grabbed a blue bag. With the baby under one arm, he shut the door with his glove hand.
The baby cried. The man shook off the bag-glove, and holding his snake hand over the baby’s face, he walked to a green car parked behind the van. Neema scrambled to the back window. Snake Arm gave the baby to a woman in the car, then got into the driving seat. The green car got small and smaller and finally disappeared far away. Neema pressed her hand to the window. Bye baby.
A bug crawled up the window on the other side. Neema moved her hand to watch it. She pressed her lips to the glass. How would the bug feel on her tongue? Would it taste good? Most tasted bad. She didn’t taste red and black ones anymore.
The side door of the van opened suddenly with a loud screech. Neema jumped and banged her head on the roof. Grace thumped two bags of groceries into the box on the floor. When she saw Neema in the back of the van, she signed as she said, “What are you doing?”
Neema hung her head, avoiding Grace’s eyes.
“Get back into your seat now, please.”
Neema squeezed down the narrow aisle and climbed into the rear passenger seat, sticking her feet carefully out in front of her. She looked for bugs between her bare toes. She found a grain of sand.
After Grace closed the side door, she walked around to climb into the driving seat. She put a banana up by the window and turned to look at Neema.
Neema gestured the peeling sign and patted her own chest. Give banana.
“Put your seat belt on. We wear our seat belts in the car.”
Neema remembered the other car. She signed baby.
“You’re not a baby, you can do it yourself,” Grace said.
Neema signed baby again, and then car.
Grace signed as quickly as she talked. “Neema, no pretending now; you’re not a baby. You promised you’d be good if I let you come. Josh is waiting for us. And Gumu. Don’t you want to play with Gumu?”
Neema signed back.
“Snake make baby cry?” Grace’s eyebrows rose. Neema loved those thin black eyebrows. Like flying birds. Now one flew higher than the other. “Are you calling me a snake?” Grace asked.
Neema hated the word snake. The sound was bad. And the sign was like a snake moving. Scary. Baby cry, bad blue snake.
Grace looked down at her blue shirt and laughed. “That’s pretty creative, Neema. Good use of words.”
“I’m no snake and you’re no baby. Put your seat belt on before the banana.” She pointed to the dangling buckle.
Neema shoved the seatbelt parts together.
Grace reached back to pat her leg. “See, you can do it by yourself.”
Neema breathed in. The banana smelled like candy and sunshine. It was for her, she knew it. It had brown spots, just the way she liked it. Give banana Neema, she signed.
Grace turned the key and reached for the stick, trying to wiggle it into its place. The van made grinding noises. “C’mon, damn it,” Grace said, shoving the stick back and forth. “Reverse. Is that too much to ask for?” Finally, she seemed happy and put both hands on the wheel and turned to look out over her shoulder.
As Grace backed the van out of the parking space, Neema watched the girl with the soft-soft red-gold hair come around the corner carrying a bag of food and a pack of soda. Then Grace pushed the stick to another spot and turned the van away and Neema couldn’t see the girl any more.
She stretched her arm as far forward as she could, making big gestures so Grace could see even while she was driving. Give banana. She impatiently wiggled her fingers.
Grace finally handed her the banana. Neema raised it toward her mouth. Then she remembered. She tapped her chin lightly and thrust her hand toward Grace. Thank you.
“You’re welcome.” Grace smiled at her in the mirror on the front window. “You’re a good gorilla.”
~~END OF EXCERPT ~~