When John Morgan found the baby in the river, he thought it was already dead. It was eleven in the morning. He knew what time it was because it was a Tuesday, and he should have been an hour into his shift at SnoSlush instead of popping the tab on his second beer, leaning against his backyard fence that overlooked the river.
He heard the girl screaming before he saw the thing. That’s what it looked like—a thing—a flash of color barely distinguishable a few miles up the river, bumping and sliding along the current. John dropped his beer, hopped the fence and waded waist-deep into the cold waters, nearly falling over when the strength of the current caught him off-guard. The body came quickly, bumping right against his stomach and staying put, bobbing up and down like a cork. He picked it up and curled it under his arm like a football, before fighting against the current to get up and out of the water onto the dirt and grass.
The kid had on overalls and a red polo. It was a boy with skin a nasty grayish color. John Morgan was sure the kid was dead until he gave him a sharp smack on his back, out of instinct or curiosity or some mixture of the two, and the kid gave a massive heave and puked all over his shirt.
And just like that, John Morgan was a hero.
“You shouldn’t have talked to them cops, you know.”
John took a sip of his beer and nodded. “Yeah, well, you find a baby in a river, people’re gonna ask questions.”
His sister stood next to the green fridge with the door wide open, pitching expired items into a plastic garbage sack she had looped around her wrist. She came over shortly after the cops, but before the cameras and crew. She hadn’t left since.
“And those news people—you’re just askin for it, Jonny.”
John nodded. He was always asking for it. She never forgave him for losing Sam, and for some reason she showed up every week to remind him of this. He took another sip of beer, and watched as she pulled a package of meat from the back.
“How old’s this?”
“Can’t remember. Pitch it.”
She’d come over every week to clean ever since things went to hell and Amy left—only usually she came by on Sundays. John didn’t mind her probing questions and snide remarks much anymore—he figured it was his penance, and at least the place looked better by the end of it. In fact, he’d found some odd comfort in the ritual, and sometimes found himself leaving a hunk of cheese long past moldy for her to find.
“They’re not gonna leave you alone now.”
“Not much more they’ll want to know, I ‘spose. Kid’s all right—right?”
His sister sighed heavily, and knotted his garbage to take outside. She made a sign of the cross over her chest. “Thank the Lord. You did a good thing Jonny, let’s just leave it at that.”
“Hey—good thing I didn’t go in for my shift, huh?” He waited for her smile. Along with her weekly cleaning services, she provided him with the job at SnoSlush, a string of snow cone chains she took quite seriously. Generally she chided him at least once during her visits about not giving out too many free cones, or remembering to turn off the lights when he closed up. But today she just shook her head.
“I know you’re no hero Jonny. You’re just my damn lazy brother.”
The newspapers called the kid River Baby. The town was small, and generally the cover story of the local paper covered the record crop yield that summer, or some neighborhood business going under after 70 years. It only made sense that John saving the local baby Moses would make headlines. They were all over the place. “Local Man Saves Baby.” “River Baby Survives Without a Scratch.” “Mother Grateful for River Baby Return.” One high school paper got the story wrong and named John as the baby’s father. For his part, John smiled when told, and recited lines into microphones and tape recorders. He refused to take a picture with the kid, so their head shots were often placed side by side instead.
The whole thing would have gone down differently if the kid died. The mother would have been locked up probably, for pure stupidity. She wasn’t there when it happened—but certainly leaving her son in the hands of a kid barely out of diapers herself would have been cause for negligence. Then John would be witness to some-degree homicide. Girls would probably be looking at him warily as he doused their ice with sugary slop, rather than giggling and batting their eyes for more peach syrup. There was something safe about a hero. And heroes saved live babies, not dead ones.
John often ran through it in his mind. If he’d spent a little longer fishing his second beer out of the fridge, if he hadn’t smacked the kid hard enough to make him spew, if he had decided to go in to work in the first place. But he hadn’t. He’d been there, and he saved the kid. The mom was the poster-child for luck, not negligence. And it all could have changed in a second.
It was a fine line they were walking, and John knew all about that. How the man dating a twenty-year old is a lucky son of a bitch, but the one dating the seventeen year old is a sick fuck. How you spank a kid and you’re a father, but you leave a mark and you’re a monster. John knew all about the distinctions; he also knew the trouble they caused when they started shifting.
John didn’t invite the woman over—she just showed up. The whole thing died down a bit by then. Once in awhile someone would recognize him at work, when he’d pass the paper cup of sugary ice through the booth window. Most of the time he shook his head, topped them off with more syrup, and went on to the next customer.
The kid wasn’t sick or dying, so there wasn’t much to talk about. The papers tried to work the story longer, but by now it was bled dry. There were only so many updates about the kid’s remarkable recovery they could run over two weeks. John had all but forgotten the thing when he opened the door and saw her, with the little boy on her hip, looking all pink and normal. They stood there for awhile, like that, not saying much. The kid squirmed in her arms.
“I hope I’m not bothering you.” The woman looked good. He’d only seen her the once, about an hour after pulling the kid out of the water. She had on all black then, black shirt, black pants, black shoes—the same get-up she had on now. But her face had been all smeared and ruddy with tears, and it was hard to tell if she was good looking when she looked all hysterical like that. Now her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and her lips and eyes were painted up. She smelled familiar, like cigarettes and baby powder and too sweet perfume. Nothing about her reminded him of Amy.
He shrugged in response, and waited to see what she wanted from him. The woman shifted her weight and hoisted the kid higher onto her hip. She stepped inside the door, even though John left her little room to squeeze in. She poked her head around his shoulder and scanned the room.
“You’ve got a nice place.”
John followed her gaze and saw the blanket strewn over the couch, where he slept most nights, though a queen-size bed sat in the other room. The small TV had a pizza box on top with some slices still in it. Behind the couch the room opened up into the kitchen, which already looked shot to hell, even though his sister had swept through with her garbage raid only last week. Cans were left open. A bowl containing a mush of cereal and milk cemented at the bottom sat next to the micro. There were some crushed up potato chips in a pile on the floor. When the news lady first came to get his videoed statement, she had the crew tidy up the kitchen. Ultimately it didn’t matter because she decided to do the interview outside. Even professionals couldn’t get the place looking decent.
“Haven’t had a chance to clean up,” he mumbled.
The woman smiled, and walked into the house. She looked tired, now that John had a chance to stare at her openly, from the side. Her smile had lines sketched into the sides, and her eyes looked glassy. He wondered briefly if she was high.
“Listen—I wanted to thank you.”
John started to interrupt her, but she went on, as if she hadn’t heard.
“And I know this is last minute, but I was wondering if you could watch him for a little while. Christopher I mean,” She stopped, as if she expected him to protest. John just stared down at the floor, working up the reasons why he couldn’t. “Even if I wanted her to come back—the girl that watches him I mean, I don’t think she would after what happened. And if I miss another shift, well I’m not sure my job’ll be waiting for me when I get back. Mind if I smoke?”
John shook his head, even though his sister would complain of the smell next time she came. She was allergic to tobacco. “I’m no good with kids,” he said.
What he wanted to say was it wasn’t his problem—he did his part. He didn’t want to do any more.
The woman was undeterred. She put the kid on the floor, and he immediately started stepping unsteadily around the room. John didn’t realize he was old enough to walk. She pulled out a cigarette and lit it up, inhaling deeply and blowing a ring of smoke up to the ceiling.
“I think it will be good—I’d like him to get to know the man who saved him—ya know?”
The woman smiled at him then, and John felt his cheeks burn, like when the girls leaned over the booth at work with their low cut tops, showing the hint of newly formed cleavage. When he asked how long she’d be gone, he didn’t realize she’d already gotten him to agree.
It was easier than he thought, watching the kid. John kept his distance at first. He sat on the couch and watched him explore, picking up socks, crumbs, and some things John didn’t even know he had off the floor. The kid was pretty quiet, and John liked that. When the kid pulled on his pant leg to get on the couch, John hooked him awkwardly under both arms. He thought the kid would cry or scream—thought he’d recognize that John didn’t know what he was doing. That he was nervous. But nothing happened. The kid looked at him and he looked back.
After that, the woman—Becca was her name—brought the kid around a lot. At first John tried to stop her. He said Christopher didn’t like him. That he cried as soon as she left. That he was too busy to watch the kid. But none of that was true.
The truth was the kid kinda liked him. The truth was he didn’t bat an eye when Becca left. The truth was John had nothing better to do. The truth was John liked having him around. The truth was the kid reminded him of Sam.
There was a small park right next to the SnoSlush stand. John decided to take the kid there. Becca didn’t have work today, but she showed up breathless at his door that morning. John didn’t ask, and she didn’t tell. He learned not to ask much from Becca. He took a few bills from her when she had them, but mostly he watched the kid for nothing. Mostly he watched the kid for himself.
At the park, John strapped the kid into one of those black rubber swings that look really uncomfortable, but kids seem to like. Christopher laughed, John heard a click, and then they were both blinded briefly by white light. John looked around for the source of the flash, and saw a guy wearing dirty jeans and a white t-shirt loping off around the corner, a camera strung around his skinny neck. And just like that, the story started up again.
His sister tapped her foot on the kitchen floor, mashing some lingering potato chips into smaller pieces. Any other time she would have noticed.
“I told you to leave it alone, Jonny.” She was holding the latest paper in her hands, the one with the picture of him and the kid sharing an ice cream cone at Tasty Freez. The headline read, “Sweet Surprise for River Baby and his Savior Sitter.” John smiled.
His sister balled up the paper and threw it at him. John didn’t catch it, and it bounced off his chest and landed on the floor.
“Think this is funny? This ain’t your kid, Jonny. This ain’t your business.”
John reached into the fridge and pulled out a Miller Lite. “Wanna beer?”
His sister looked at him with an expression that started with disgust and ended with pity. “You know I don’t drink.”
“Just thought I’d ask. Just bein’ polite.”
His sister scrunched up the empty garbage bag in her hand and tossed it under the sink. “Leave the kid alone, Johny.”
For the first time in ten years, John watched his sister leave his house as messy as when she came.
John decided to build the fence the first time he walked the kid home. He wasn’t sure why no one else suggested it after the kid fell in—it seemed like something the news people would do and then run a story about later. Becca just nodded when he suggested it, but smiled really big later when she saw it finished and looking nice. John liked seeing her smile, though it made his cheeks burn when she caught him staring.
Christopher liked the fence too, but probably just because it was bright white and new and different. Probably for the same reasons he liked John. The first time he set the kid down in the new yard he just tottered along the fence line, running his chubby hands over the slated wood. John had sanded it down before painting to make sure there would be no splinters. Becca watched from the back porch for a bit, but then went in the house to get ready for her shift. The kid didn’t flinch.
When Becca got home, Christopher was already asleep. John felt awkward without the kid around, like he shouldn’t be there. His sister would say he shouldn’t be there anyhow. Becca shut the door and threw her purse and keys on the table, flopping onto the sofa. John immediately stood up, and walked to the door. He bent down and began to put his shoes on.
“Where you hurrying off to?”
“Just getting out of your way.”
Becca patted the seat next to her on the couch. “Why don’cha stay awhile? I’ll get you a beer?”
John awkwardly untied his laces.
“You can keep those on,” she said. With his laces untied, John stood and shuffled over to sit on the couch. He sat on the couch and Becca brought him a bottle of Budweiser.
“You’re good with him.”
John took a sip of the beer.
“Thanks for the fence, again. I didn’t know you did that kind of thing.”
“Used to.” John said it without thinking. He thought she’d press him more, but she didn’t seem to be listening.
“Those news people were nice, but I know what people think. They think I shoulda been there. They think I left my baby with someone I didn’t know. They think I’m doing that now, even. But they don’t know you.”
John took a swig of his beer, and pulled it down too fast, causing foam to rush up and over the bottle’s lip.
“Lemme get that.” Becca jumped up and came back with a rag, and started blotting his pant leg. John’s face turned red. Becca kneeled down by his feet, mopping up beer foam near his crotch. Her hand lingered there, with the dish towel bunched up in her fist. Her other hand crept up onto his knee, and John felt the beer warm in his stomach. “You’re a good man, John. I wanna know you better.”
John wanted to take another sip of his beer, but it was sandwiched between his legs and her hands were on either side of it. He didn’t know what to do with his hands. He felt red all over, red in his feet and hands, and he wanted to push her hand off his knee, but he was afraid of what would happen if their skin touched. He wanted a sip of his beer. He wanted something stronger.
Becca pushed on his knees and slowly lifted herself up, until she was level with his face. He could smell her last cigarette on her breath, and he could see the spots on her face where she hadn’t completely rubbed in her make-up. She leaned in and kissed him lightly on the mouth. John thought about how the last lips he touched were Amy’s, and how hers smelled of raspberries and sugar, even when they were in bed at night. He thought of Christopher. He thought of Sam. Then he thought of nothing, except how her lips were soft, and fuller than Amy’s, and how he really wanted to suck her bottom lip but wasn’t sure if he should. Her lips only stayed on his for a second, and then they left and she walked away as if it hadn’t happened. John grabbed the neck of his bottle and drank down the rest of the liquid. It bubbled and churned in his stomach, and he felt a burning in his throat.
When he got back to his house that evening, John half expected to see his sister sitting on the couch, her legs crossed, her foot tapping out the seconds. But the house was quiet. He opened the fridge, and his carton of two week-expired milk still sat on the top shelf. Pushing it aside, he reached into the back and grabbed a can of beer. He walked outside and leaned against his rotted wooden fence, listening to the river splash and trickle past him. The crickets chirped, gradually getting louder, and the repetition blocked out John’s thoughts, made his head clear.
“We didn’t do nothing,” he said. He took another sip of his beer. “Nothing happened.” The Miller tasted watery and metallic after the bottle from Becca. It went down easy. John squeezed the can until it collapsed, and tossed it over the fence and into the river. He watched it travel a few feet before filling with water and sinking below the surface.
John woke to rain. He called his sister to tell her nobody wanted a snow cone that would melt before it hit their mouth. She didn’t answer. He left a message. The rain pelted against the windows and John walked outside to get his paper before it soaked through. John didn’t read much of the news until recently—Amy was the one who needed it with her cereal every morning. After she left he didn’t bother cancelling it.
Usually he found it rolled up in a blue plastic bag, somewhere between the lawn and the side of the house depending on how hard the kid threw it that day. Today he nearly stepped on it walking onto his front step. The paper was carefully spread out beneath the rotted porch awning, turned to the latest story featuring the bright new fence he made for Christopher. The photographer took a close-up of the kid’s chubby face, laughing as he peeked out between the white slats. Next to the picture someone had taped another face. Next to the photo the words “He ain’t your kid, Johnny” were scrawled in red pen.
Amy took all the baby pictures of Sam when she left, but John’s memory was good. He was right when he thought the kid looked like him. They both had the same smile. Sam’s eyes were brown, though. And Sam wasn’t a baby when he died. He was almost as tall as John, and still growing.
John walked back in the house and watched the rain droplets pooling at the bottom of the window pane. He took the whiskey from the top cabinet, above the fridge. He poured a glass. No ice.
The bartender takes his keys. He gets angry, angry at Jess, the bartender, for taking his keys. He calls Amy, and she tells him to fuck off. Tells him to get his job back. He calls Sam. Sam tells him he’s coming. Tells him to wait right there. When Sam walks in his hair is slicked back to his head, rain dripping off his forehead. He’s mad, and telling John to leave his beer, to kindly get his ass off the barstool. John laughs and tells Jess this is his Pride and Joy. This is his Straight Arrow. Sam says he has a test in the morning. Sam says he doesn’t have time for this shit. John walks out with him and tries not to stumble. Sam looks disgusted. Sam looks straight ahead. The car ride isn’t long, but John manages to say things. He manages to apologize, and then call Sam an ungrateful son of a bitch. He cries a little, and says things he doesn’t remember saying. Sam ignores him. Sam is driving. The car that hits them swerves to miss a deer. The car that hits them collides with Sam’s side. The driver survives. John survives. Sam doesn’t.
The priest says Sam would want John to forgive himself. Amy says Sam would want John to burn in hell. John drinks so that when they lower Sam into the ground, his vision is too blurred to see any faces.
When John heard the knock that night, he thought it would be his sister. Instead he opened the door and saw Becca in a white shirt and jeans, dripping wet. Becca, wearing a shirt he could see through and black makeup that pooled under her eyes. Becca, with no umbrella and no kid.
John did not invite her in. “Where’s Christopher?”
“Can I come in?” John turned away from her and poured another shot into his glass.
“Mind if I have a drink?” John grabbed a glass from his cupboard and tossed it at her. It threw short, and smashed at her feet. Becca bent down and quickly started picking up pieces, but John walked over and kicked the glass under the fridge with his bare feet.
“Leave it.” He took another glass from the cabinet and gave it to her. She poured her drink.
“Your sister called me John—it doesn’t matter to me.”
John took a sip of his drink. “Where’s Christopher.”
Becca walked closer to him. “He’s fine, John.”
John stepped away. “You should be with him.” Becca’s shirt looked paper thin under the harsh kitchen light. He could see the faint outline of her bra. Her face looked out of proportion; her eyes too big, her lips too red, her cheeks too flushed. “You should go.”
“I don’t want to,” she said. Becca reached out and touched his arm. Her fingers burned his skin. Her purple nails grazed the inner crease of his elbow and his body felt warm from the closeness and the whiskey. He pushed her arm away and took a drink.
“Go home. Go take care of your son.”
“I want to take care of you. I want to help you, John.” She pulled her shirt up and over her head. Her skin looked pale and he could see her ribs, could reach out and touch them, count them if he wanted. Her breaths quickened, and he could see her stomach push in and out, could feel his deep inhales begin to match her own. She stepped towards him and placed her hand on his. She pressed her cheek against his own until her lips were against his ear.
“You’re a good man, John. It wasn’t your fault.”
John pushed her then, harder than he meant to and she fell down, against the fridge. He saw blood drip from her hand, a shard of glass jutting out of her palm; he saw the blood, mixing with the rain from the driver’s side window, his son’s eyes unblinking and frozen. “Please go,” he said.
She cried, and he lifted her by her arm and forced her up. “Go,” he pleaded. She pulled the glass from her hand and the blood seeped from her wound, dripping onto her pants. “Go home,” he said again. She shook her head, and cried harder, and John screamed then, because she didn’t listen, and she wouldn’t leave, and he didn’t want her forgiveness, and nothing would be the same anymore. “Get out of my fucking house!”
When she wouldn’t, he dragged her to the door. Afterwards he saw her white shirt, still damp, lying where she left it, and used it to mop up the blood.
His sister pulled a chicken breast from the back. “Keep it?”
He leaned against the fridge, watching her make up for the missed visits. She opened a Tupperware container and sniffed.
“Jesus Christ! What was in here?”
“Casserole.” She put the top back on and threw the whole container in the trash. She didn’t ask where he got it. She closed the fridge and made a trip around the kitchen, throwing paper plates and take out containers into the plastic bag.
“You still goin by that house? Seein that kid anymore?”John shook his head, but his sister didn’t see. “And what about that woman? Those papers true? Are you messin with this family, Jonny?”
“I don’t see her. She found a new sitter for the kid.”
“Good. I know you’re mad I called her but I did it for you. You can’t just find a new family, Jonny. Life don’t work like that. Shit!” She lifted up her foot and John saw a prick of blood on her heel. “Did somethin break in here?”
“Yeah—I dropped a plate or somethin awhile back.”
“Damn it, Jonny. You coulda told me.”
His sister sat at his table and rubbed the skin on either side of the cut, trying to ease the glass to the surface. John watched.
“Hey—I was thinkin. You know, maybe I’ll start lookin for work again. I was good with that fence—ya know, the one for the kid. I could do stuff like that again. Maybe start up my old business—see what kinda work needs to get done round here.” He turned away from his sister and looked out the kitchen window.
His sister stopped rubbing her foot. “You gotta job, Jonny. What’s wrong with the job you got?”
“Nothin. I was just thinkin about it. Just seein what you thought.”
His sister pulled apart her wound, delicately picking out the piece of glass from between. “What I think is you should leave well enough alone. That’s what I think.”
John turned back to face his sister. He took the bag at her feet and knotted it to take outside. “Spose your right. I told ya things would die down though, didn’t I? Told ya everybody forgets these things in time.”
Outside, the sun beat warm on his face. He dropped the bag in the trash, and then walked over to his fence that overlooked the river. He resumed the same position he had not too long ago, when he first saw the kid, except this time he wasn’t holding a beer. The river ran fast today; he was glad it ran slower when Christopher travelled down, somehow avoiding the rocks and branches and any other damn thing he might have come across. It still didn’t make sense to John, even now—how a kid barely able to stumble across the grass could make it a mile down the river unscathed and Sam could smack his head on the driver’s side window, seatbelt on, and die on impact. But after this long, he figured it better not to ask questions and accept what was given to him.
He walked back inside and his sister ran the water hot over a container filled with scalloped potatoes Becca brought before she stopped coming by.
She turned her head but kept the water running. “Took ya long enough.”
“Stopped by to look at the river. Current’s strong today.” He paused, and walked up beside her to begin drying the dishes. “You ever think about him? About Sam?”
He knew the words would break the tenuous bridge that had developed between them over the past decade; the bridge that was constructed on guilt and shame and redemption he never asked for. He watched as she rung out the dishrag and folded it on the sink. Her eyes swept the room; finding nothing out of place, she walked towards the front door and began putting on her shoes.
“Don’t think ‘bout him anymore than I have to,” she said, rubbing her left foot, the foot that got the glass, swiftly, before slipping on her sandal. “Suggest you do the same.”
She was out the door before John could respond. He sat down at his freshly wiped table and pulled out blueprints for his first construction project; something his sister didn’t need to know about. It would take about an hour for her to reach home, but when she did, John would call her and tell her he was done at SnoSlush. He knew this meant the end of their weekly visits, but he wanted to start cleaning up after himself—whether or not she was ready to let him. John looked at his blueprints, and grabbed a pencil. He thought of Christopher, swerving among those rocks and boulders, and started sketching.