On each subsequent visit, Rose appealed to William for something new. At first, her requests were simple and seemingly harmless. A Walkman to listen to music. His sticker album filled with scratch-and-sniff stickers. She loved the bubblegum scent, but wrinkled her nose comically at the smell of skunk. He even smuggled a bottle of Sylvie’s homemade dandelion wine for them to try. Once, she asked William to bring her a puppy or some other furry animal. He’d had a terrible time catching a stray bunny to bring her. The poor thing had cowered in his arms, shaking from fright. She’d held the rabbit against her chin, snuggling it close, then kissing its head between its twitching ears in a long, slow manner. He’d watched her, her lips pressed to the white fur, her eyes closed, her chest rising as she inhaled the scent of the rabbit’s fur.
Two days later as William was walking with his grandmother to the corner where they met the bus, he saw something white lying on the side of the road, unmoving. He walked to it, bending down to turn it over, when his grandmother called out to him sharply. “Don’t touch that, William!” she cried. “It’s dead. It’s probably disease infested. Now come here.”
He walked back to her slowly, a terrible feeling rising in him. It had been a white rabbit lying on the road’s apron, quite possibly the same rabbit he’d captured the other day. No, he told himself. No. There were dozens of animals in the open fields and woods. It couldn’t be the same animal. And if it was, he rationalized, it died of natural causes. No reason to fear.
Yet as he sat beside his grandmother on the bus, his head pressed to the window, his chest felt heavy with guilt, with the sure notion that he’d done something wrong.
* * *
“I want a child,” Rose said, sitting on the windowsill, looking out at the waning light of the afternoon. William turned to her. He couldn’t have heard her correctly.
“What did you say?” he asked, his voice low.
“A child,” she said again. “I want to see one for real. A baby.”
“What in the world are you talking about?” William asked. This was her latest request? “How?” he asked fearfully.
“Can’t you figure out a way, William?” she asked, looking at him imploringly. Her hair was down over her shoulders, and the sun fell on it, creating the illusion of a halo on the crown of her head.
“No,” he said, forcing himself to look away. “It’s impossible.”
When she didn’t answer, he glanced back at her. She looked crushed. Her head was lowered so her hair fell all around her face, and her hands fidgeted in her lap. “Don’t you understand?” she asked in the most helpless voice. “This is what I need most. Not to smell a flower or read a book or taste a cookie. I need to hold a child. Please, William? Please?”
He knew he couldn’t refuse her. “I’ll see what I can do, but I don’t really know how, okay?” She brightened as if his very words sealed a promise. And he didn’t want to disappoint her. That was the last thing in the world he would ever want to do.
On his way home, as he tried to figure out a way to please Rose, he suddenly remembered his grandmother’s words after they visited the Howells. “It would be nice for you to go over and offer your services on occasion . . .” Yes, he thought with rush of excitement. That’s what he’d do. His grandmother would be pleased, and he had an excuse to return to Rose the very next day.
When he suggested the idea to his grandmother that evening, she smiled at him. He wasn’t used to seeing such a warm expression on her face and for a moment he felt a twinge of shame at his less than honorable intentions. “William, dear, that would be lovely,” she said. “Mrs. Howell and her daughter will appreciate that very much.”
The next day, she walked him over and presented him proudly. “Gretchen, William would like to take the child for a walk in his carriage, if this is a good time,” she said.
“Come in, come in!” Gretchen said, ushering them into the living room. Gretchen’s daughter was sitting in a chair near the window, gently rocking her son in her arms. “Olivia,” Gretchen said, “William here has offered to take David for a walk. Isn’t that nice?”
Gretchen’s daughter Olivia glanced at him, sizing him up. William shuffled his feet nervously as she stood and walked to him, holding her son close to her chest. “Yes,” she said uncertainly. “That’s very sweet. It’s just . . . he’s rather fussy today.”
“We have nothing to fear, do we, William?” Gretchen asked, tussling William’s hair. “David is in good hands I’m sure,” Gretchen reassured her daughter. Sighing and nodding, Olivia reluctantly agreed. William saw the exhaustion in her face and felt the pang of guilt again.
As Gretchen and Olivia fussed over dressing the baby and placing him in his stroller, William stood anxiously to the side. He cringed every time the baby fussed, wondering silently what he’d gotten himself into. They pushed the stroller to him, and he took its handles in sweating palms, promising to return shortly.
The baby waved his arms at him as he pushed the carriage down the road away from the Howell’s house. William’s heart was pounding so loudly he was sure the baby could hear it. But David stared at him trustingly, blinking up at him from beneath the stroller’s canopy.
When William had walked a mile and was no longer within view, he began to run with the carriage, wanting to save as much time as possible. David made small gurgling sounds as the stroller jerked over the uneven road. William looked down at him uneasily, but the baby seemed undisturbed.
When William reached the overgrown yard of the crumbling house, he stopped and stared up at the high dormer windows. Rose was there, he could tell, even if he didn’t see her. He could feel her gaze on him. He could sense her steady patience and anticipation. He walked to the side of the stroller and stared down at the baby. He would have to carry David, and this thought scared him. He wasn’t sure how he would make it up the stairs with the child in his arms. With his animated arms and kicking legs, David looked as hard to hold as the bunny had been. Taking a deep breath, William lifted him awkwardly, cradling his head the way the adults had, and carried him inside.
Rose was standing in the center of the floor when he reached the top of the second staircase. Her hands were clasped between her breasts, and she was again wrapped only in one of the hanging veils. It was as if, in her eagerness, she had forgotten once again the necessity of clothing. Her hair was a lovely mess all around her.
“Come here. Bring me the baby,” she implored. “Let me hold it, please.” Her voice was barely a whisper. William had never seen her like this before. He nodded and walked to her with deliberate steps, placing the child gently in her arms. She sighed as David cooed and squirmed, nestling himself in his human cradle. His little fists now punched the air beneath Rose’s bent face.
Rose turned away from William and walked to the davenport. She sat against the cushions, her hair falling all around the child as she continued to stare at him. David seemed to be hiccoughing softly. “Listen to it!” Rose said excitedly. “What a funny noise.”
“His name is David,” William said, walking to them.
“David,” Rose breathed. “That’s a lovely name.” When she looked up at William, he saw such longing in her eyes. “I’ve never loved anything so much,” Rose said in a hushed tone, squeezing David closer. He wriggled in protest.
“I’m going to have to go soon,” William said apprehensively, feeling an unexplainable urge to take David from her arms immediately. He knew if he was gone one minute too long, they’d come to look for him. If they caught him with the baby in this place . . . he shuddered and put the thought from his mind. Rose was nodding. She lifted David in her arms and bent her lips to the soft down of his head. William took a step back, watching as he’d watched her with the rabbit. Her moves were so careful, so languid, that time seemed to slow to match her pace. She pressed her lips gently to David’s forehead, but instead of pulling away, she inhaled, her chest rising and carrying the baby with it as she breathed. William saw David’s eyes move up in their sockets as though he wanted to see Rose’s face. But then they rolled so high that their whites began to show beneath the delicate fringe of lash.
“Rose,” Williams said nervously, reaching out for the child. He wanted to take David away from her and rush him back home. He suddenly wished he’d never brought him in the first place.
“Isn’t it wonderful, William?” Rose asked as she looked up. David was fussy now, pushing against the material of the cloth covering her body. “Isn’t he beautiful?” She asked, still looking at William. David had hold of the cloth in his fists, and William saw that Rose’s breast was exposed. He knew he should glance away, but he couldn’t. Rose seemed unaware of the baby as she gazed at William with a wistful smile. David was whimpering now, inclining his head toward her chest, his mouth closing on her nipple. William’s knees went weak. He felt like he was trespassing on something very private, but he was unable to move. A soft moan escaped Rose’s lips and she closed her eyes. William felt the blood rush to his cheeks. He could not and should not watch. But he was unable to turn his eyes away.
David began to suck harder, grabbing at the material so tight his pudgy knuckles grew white. He gave a muffled whimper. William thought he seemed restless, frustrated. The gurgling noise issuing from his mouth grew louder. And suddenly, Rose screamed.
“Stop it!” She gasped. “Stop it!” She yelled louder. Her eyes flew open and she pried the baby away from her, his sudden wails mingling with her sobs. “William,” she gasped. “William, it bit me. It hurt me.”
William didn’t know what to do. He was paralyzed where he stood. Rose seemed scared of the child’s crying, and she stood on shaky legs, walking across the floor, away from William. She held the child out at arm’s length. “Why is it doing this?” she demanded. “Why?” She was standing in a single beam of light coming from a high circular window in the very corner where the two roofs met. She was trembling, and suddenly she yelled at the baby, “Stop it! Stop it right now!”
David only cried harder, his arms moving frantically. His cheeks had gone a deathly pale, deadly white. Rose bent and placed David on the bare floor boards in one swift gesture, then backed away from him rapidly. She turned and ran for the shadows of the wall.
William stood for one moment staring at the deserted child lying in the single ray of light. He felt disconnected, as if he were not a contributor to what was happening, but was instead watching everything unfold from afar. As David’s cries grew in volume, William finally roused himself. He knew he had to get out of there and take the child with him. He ran to David and lifted him in his arms. David’s cheeks felt so cold, but William didn’t have time to worry over it.
“I’m going, Rose,” he said.
She didn’t answer. She was crouched in the shadows, her legs drawn up, her hair falling all around her, hiding her eyes. She didn’t make any request. She didn’t say a word. And as William ran down the stairs and out of the house, he knew he’d never see her again.
Melissa Hunter is an author and blogger from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her articles have been published on Kveller.com and LiteraryMama.com. She is a contributing blogger to the Today Show parenting community, and her short stories have been published in the Jewish Literary Journal. She is currently writing a novel based on her grandmother’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and the psychological impact this had on her life. When not writing, Melissa loves spending family time with her husband and two beautiful daughters. Connect with Melissa via her website, Facebook, and on Twitter as @cleancopywriter.