Scene preview: Would you have kept the baby?

Every Wednesday, I offer a free preview of a current project. The excerpt below is taken from Music of the Spheres.

Joan had never been troubled on her country strolls before today. She preferred walking to class because the time alone allowed her to think, though her friends thought it was dangerous. Though the trip would have taken five minutes by car, it was the solitude she liked, getting lost in her thoughts. Wind flowed over the grass like invisible surf, ghostly hands caressing the land, tugging gently at her hair. A humble road cut through the plains, lightly graveled. Joan liked the way the pebbles crunched beneath her feet, keeping rhythm as she trudged along.

She was both startled and disturbed to see a vagrant loitering ahead. He was a large man, unshaven, in what appeared to be the tattered remnants of some uniform. It was so dirty and faded that she couldn’t make out any patches or insignia. Against the pristine landscape, he was as out of place as a weapons rack in a library. And this was her special place. Seeing another person here almost felt like an invasion of privacy.

Was he perhaps some retired veteran? But no, this man was entering his middle age, or perhaps younger though he looked worn. Joan’s first thought was annoyance that he was here to panhandle, but that was illogical. Beggars worked in the city, where population worked in their favor. Not in the country where seldom a soul was seen.

So why was he here?

Joan’s second thought was her safety. Was he a cutpurse or rapist? She halted and considered what to do. It was too late, for of course she had been spotted. The man had been peering vaguely up and down the road, as if unsure where to go. But when he saw Joan, he immediately stalked in her direction.

Involuntarily, she took a step backwards.

He paused then, unsure, and Joan was immediately ashamed. A predator would not have hesitated. On the contrary, her faltering would only have encouraged him. Her major was family counseling; she needed to learn to judge character better. She gathered her breath and her courage and approached him.

But she was prepared to keep her distance.

“Greetings,” he offered as she came within hearing. His accent was strange. An offworlder. What else? The news had told of space battles over the other continent. Perhaps he was a refugee.

“Can I help you?” she asked, hoping her voice would not betray her timidity. Was he injured, or mentally unstable? Perhaps she could help him get to a clinic. Learning to help people was why she was in school, after all. Here was the perfect opportunity.

Instead of answering, the man began unfastening straps on his outfit, releasing some bundle that had been fastened to his chest. This surprised Joan; the man was much leaner than she had first thought, taking the bundle to be part of his bulk.

The bundle, it appeared, was a baby wrapped in a loose vest, covered in grime.

The man set it on the road in front of Joan.

“He’s yours,” he said simply, and turned away. An entirely different panic gripped her, then. Was he really going to leave Joan alone with this baby in the middle of the road? Surely not. But it appeared he meant to do exactly that, for he stepped off the road and onto the prairie.

“No, I don’t think so,” Joan said firmly. Thankfully, he stopped, turning to face her. He would realize how foolish this was. He would not leave the baby here with her.

“I’ve done my part,” he said. “The rest is yours.” His voice had a metallic edge. He expected no argument. His part of what?

Joan looked at the baby then, which appeared to be half-dozing with some contentment. That wouldn’t last, she knew. Babies were loud. And messy. And expensive. And utterly, utterly helpless. Left in the road for even an hour, it would be killed by traffic or predators.

Still, Joan would not pick it up. It was not her responsibility.

She sighed. “I’m sorry for your problems, I truly am.” She was surprised to realize this was true. “We can get you some help. But I cannot care for a baby. I’m a student, I have no income. I don’t even have family here.” These were not things she would have confessed to a thug, but this man presented an entirely different problem. She would more likely deflect him with honesty.

The man returned to the road, and Joan was flooded with relief. She had persuaded him. He would not leave this infant here to die.

But he didn’t give the child a second chance. Instead, he walked right up to Joan until they were face to face, and loomed over her by virtue of his size, though his manner was unthreatening.

“I’ve done my part,” he said again softly, sounding tired. For the first time, Joan looked at his eyes, realizing they were haggard and bloodshot, cracked with red like a pair of tiny volcanic moons. “When they find me, they will kill me, and that child with me. He will be killed.” He stated this flatly, as a fact. Unarguable and unalterable.

“I can’t,” she said again, faltering. Did he not realize the enormity of what he was asking her to do? Forcing her to do? Parenthood was not a frivolous venture, to be engaged because it sounded cute or fun or interesting. Joan was not ready in any way for a whole human life to depend on her.

He shrugged. “That is your decision.”

“You don’t care?”

His eyes went cold. “You can think what you want of me, little girl, but I would do the child no favors by keeping it any longer. I have risked too much as is, and every minute I’m near that child is another minute it is more likely to be killed.”

Even if what he said was true, Joan could not care for this child. He had just called Joan a little girl, hadn’t he? As galling as that would have been in other circumstances, it was true enough today.  “I’ll take it in town for you,” she said. “There are agencies. I don’t know what you’re running from, but that way they won’t find you.”

He chuckled bitterly. “As the hands of my allies deliver me unto my enemies,” he said. It had the sound of a quotation, but Joan couldn’t place it. “If you turn him over to the state, they will discover who it is and kill him. If they discover that you just adopted him, they will figure out who it is and kill him. If you leave it here, it will starve.”

“You’re horrible,” she whispered.

He shrugged. “If the truth is too hard to bear, you won’t make it in this life, baby or no.” He scratched at the sad scruff of a newly forming beard. “Personally, I hope he lives, or I will feel very, very stupid. You cannot imagine what it cost me to bring this child here, so I won’t try to tell you. But his best hope for survival is if you raise him. Alone.”

He turned away again, and Joan was left speechless. What could she say to that? But every minute she remained quiet, he got further away. The baby become more and more her responsibility with every step the man retreated.

She would take it into town. The father – if that’s who he was – must have been mistaken or exaggerating about the danger to the baby. That’s what it was. A lie to force Joan to become emotionally invested. To trap her in a particular course of action.

She wouldn’t fall for it. She would give the baby over to become a ward of the state. It was a sad fate for any child, but she couldn’t help that. It wasn’t her baby. Until this cruel man showed up with his impossible circumstances, it hadn’t even been her problem.

She knew as well as any freshman the statistics. Children from single-parent or low-income families were many more times likely to become criminals. Even virtuous ones rarely amounted to anything more than day laborers. Sure, there were always stories of exceptional individuals who had conquered their past, surmounted all obstacles and gone on to fame and fortune, regardless of background. But the reason they were memorable stories is because those were the exceptions.

Already she would be late for class.

The stranger had passed into the weeds and beyond sight. Joan was alone. With a sigh, she stooped to gather the baby into her arms, startled by just how heavy it was. Great. It would prove a considerable burden just walking a few miles. Caring for it was out of the question. She just hoped she wouldn’t have to change a diaper before giving it away.

No, Joan could not become involved with this baby. Giving it to the government or an adoption agency were her only options.

Weren’t they?

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