His mother had often said “You have an angel’s name.” She said this whenever things went bad or he was sad and overwhelmed. She said it with a weight and seriousness that always made Michael look at her. When his eyes found her’s she would smile and whatever grief or sadness he had would wash away like dirt from skin. She had such big power, his momma. When she said it was all right, it was all right.
She had been gone for a little over a year. Some sickness that couldn’t be treated fast enough to keep her alive. She had good insurance through her job at the hospital and she was loved by the staff and doctors. But whatever she had been sick with took her over almost before the doctors could name it.
Michael remembered the taste of little chocolate chip cookies that he would feed to her on those days that he spent sitting at the hospital. They watched TV together and didn’t speak much. No words were needed nor could they convey her love or his fear. To have a woman so strong, big, loving, and calming suddenly ripped from his life had left a ragged hole that had only slightly started to fill. But what it would be filled with still remained to be seen.
Now he sat in his cousin’s small apartment. Watching TV and listening to his cousin’s baby mewl and gibber. Michael listened to the layers of sound in the apartment. Topmost was the TV. The baby competed with the junky box fan in front of Michael. Next was the mad whir of cicadas. Finally the mellow rumble of traffic on 30th Street. The sounds mixed and flowed over each other so that sometimes the traffic seemed to come from the TV or the baby made the mechanical humming-buzz of the cicadas.
The light was out in the refrigerator but it was still cold inside. Michael took out two little plastic bottles shaped like barrels. Each bottle was filled with colored sugar water and capped with a foil disc. His favorite flavor was orange but he liked cherry and blue sometimes. Lately the flavors in the mixed packs had gotten strange. Mango, kiwi, and other musky flavors that reminded him of the scent cans that his cousin put under the front seat of her car. He stood in front of the refrigerator enjoying its coolness.
The baby started crying.
Michael walked into the living room and smelled shit. He put down his drinks and went about the task of changing the baby. Oddly for someone his age he did this task with gentleness and efficiency. Unpleasant biology didn’t bother him overly much and he didn’t find it funny unless he was goofing with his friends at school. His mom had always told him that when he was old enough he could get a job at the hospital. A good job she’d said, drawing out the word “good” so that it felt satisfying and definite. He wondered if he could still try to get a job there, a “gooood” job. But it would be five more years before he could try.
He put the diaper in a plastic shopping bag and tied it tightly. He walked to the dumpster at the back of the projects and threw it on top of a sprawling mountain of trash. Huge flies buzzed around the dumpster and Michael was glad that his cousin lived towards the front of the complex. As he walked back to the apartment he looked over to his school. It was mostly empty and it made him sad. The huge asphalt playground in the back was totally deserted, its black surface too hot to play on. A few cars sat in the parking lot and he suddenly wondered if they would let him in. He’d take the baby and sit in the coolness of the library until his cousin got home. But he remembered that the library was closed until Fall and only the office staff was there. Maybe he could go talk to them.
When he got back to the apartment the baby was asleep. Michael sat on the couch and stared at the TV. He thumb-mashed the remote and cycled through all of the stations. He stopped for a while on a music video, all leering men shouting at the camera and women sticking their asses out, but turned it. The women made him feel strange and the men made him angry. the faces that they made reminded him of his male cousins when they got drunk. Or his daddy the last time he’d been to see momma.
For a few months after his mother’s death Michael had been taken to see his father at the work release center on New York Street. His cousin would drive him there and always stayed in the car while Michael spent an hour with his father. He had asked his cousin why she didn’t come in one time and she had glared at him and said something about his daddy never getting near to her again.
These hours with his father were spent playing Connect Four on a chipped and dirty rack that was as old as Michael. It was the only game that they could play together since his dad didn’t know chess and Michael didn’t like checkers. And the routine of filling up the rack with checkers only to have them vomit out from the bottom served okay in place of actual conversation. His father always made a point of buying Michael a grape soda and animal crackers.
The baby was crying.
Michael stood over the baby and watched him cry. The small face was crushed by the wailing that poured from it. The eyes clamped shut and the mouth as open as it could go. Michael knew that he should be calming the baby, finding out what was wrong. But instead he watched him cry. It was an oddly satisfying feeling to watch something smaller than him suffer. Finally he made the baby a bottle and fed him. Michael stood over the baby and held the bottle like someone would feed a goat. The only contact between them was when he picked him up to burp him. He put the baby back in the bed and the baby went to sleep.
Michael stood staring at the baby. The soft brown features were calm and passive in sleep. The little hands would occasionally bunch up into fists as the baby burped or farted. His arms and legs sometimes moved in a slow motion version of a sleeping dog chasing rabbits. Michael thought about his world and the baby’s world. They lived in a small apartment that reeked of mold and stale cigarettes. They lived next to a playground that was too hot to use when they actually weren’t in school. They lived in a world where huge black flies burrowed into dirty diapers, a world of fruit flavored sugar water, a world of dead mothers and wicked fathers. They lived in a stifling, stinking, shitty world.
His hand over the baby’s face was large and its skin darker than the baby’s. The hand descended like a storm cloud to cover the mouth and nose and to hide the eyes. Michael suddenly knew what his hand was doing and the only thing right now that could stop him would be to see the baby’s eyes open. While he was asleep the transition wouldn’t seem so extraordinary. Baby’s died in their sleep all the time.
He felt the wetness of the lips and nose, felt a slight sucking feeling as his hand sealed over the holes. The baby shook slightly. There was no great struggle, no flailing of infant arms trying to force him away. Only a mild shudder and then calm stillness.
Michael didn’t remember turning off the TV but he couldn’t hear it anymore. The only thing he could hear was the blood roaring in his ears and the whirring of the cicadas. The roar and whir built and built in his head. His cousin would come home and find the dead baby and scream. The rest of his family would wear black and scream. Everyone would point their fingers at Michael and scream. The screaming would build and build until it broke away his memories of his momma. This last thought brought up one massive sob from Michael as he dropped to his knees on the stained carpet. He cried, he sobbed, he roared, and finally he screamed.
Momma, what have I done?
There was a long clean wail that cut through Michael's crying like the bright note of a trumpet or a spotlight at night. It was a note that held strong and demanded attention like the explosion of fireworks in late Summer. It was the cry of a baby.
Michael peered over the edge of the baby’s bed with puffy, moist eyes. The baby was screaming and rocking itself back and forth like it wanted to roll over and stand up. His fists swung at the air as his legs pumped into the bedding. The baby was alive. And the baby wanted the whole mother fucking world to know that he was alive. Suddenly the roles had been reversed on Michael. He had become powerless in the presence of this child. The baby knew more about life than he did. Perhaps because he was still so close to its beginning. Michael smiled and wept and smiled. He lifted the baby and comforted him. The baby calmed and opened his eyes to Michael. Michael felt a rush of love that almost hurt, a love that throbbed in his gut. It was as strong as his love for his mother but somehow more fierce, more immediate. It was a pure love of life and of being.
The cicadas had gone quiet.
Michael and the baby were sitting together and watching TV when his cousin got home.
Brian S. Roe is the co-creator of "Noir: The Film Noir Roleplaying Game" and the boardgame "Zombie Plague". He is a graphic designer, writer, and stalwart geek who can still whip the whole lot of ya! Most of his time is spent coloring comic books like Atomic Robo and Clone Wars with the lovely and talented Ronda Pattison under the banner of RSquared Studios. He lives in Indianapolis but is not quite sure why.