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book cover for Fresh Air Where Is The Baby?

One

Before they went, Wolf took off the door- and window-handles while Toadman put the pill in her mouth, the way he always did, and told her to swallow it. As soon as they were gone – she listened hard until she couldn't hear their voices anymore – she spat out the pill and crushed it between her fingers, then shook the dust away. It left a bitter taste in her mouth and she found her bottle of Coca-Cola and drank some. Then she sat and waited.

After a minute or two, she noticed something. The windows were painted black on the inside, but there was a crack at the top of one window where a thin strip of light showed. She looked at that strip for a time, thinking. If she could find something to push in there, between the top of the window and the frame, she might be able to get the window open.

Down on her knees in the back of the van, she pushed through pizza boxes and empty bottles, sticky straws and old newspapers, crumpled-up take-out bags and smelly clothes, groping in the dark for anything hard and thin she could push into that slit.

Then, just when she was ready to give up, her fingers found something and, near it, another something. A plastic knife and fork. She put them over by the window and searched some more, running her hands over everything until she was at the bottom, feeling the thin, gritty carpet that covered the floor of the van – and there was nothing else. Guided by that strip of light, she moved back to the window and examined her tools.

Deciding to risk the fork first, she fit the handle end into the crack, pulled down very carefully and the crack got a bit bigger. Encouraged, she pulled down some more and the window moved a tiny bit farther before the fork snapped and the handle end fell outside. Disappointed, the bitter taste of the pill still in her mouth, she sat for a moment then tried to put one of her fingers into the slightly enlarged opening. Not big enough. She reached for the plastic knife.

Its handle was thicker than the fork's but if she broke the knife, too, she'd have nothing left to work with. So she'd have to be very careful because she was determined now to get the window open far enough for her to climb out. She put just the edge of the handle end into the opening and used both hands to pull the blade down. The opening got bigger! Not yet big enough for her fingers, but almost. She tried again, pushing the handle a little bit farther outside before pulling down gently but firmly. It worked! The opening was wider. Still not wide enough, but almost. Almost.

It was getting very hot. The only fresh air was coming in through the small gap at the top of the window and she got up close to it, hoping to feel cooler air. But the air outside was hot, too. She was starting to feel as if she needed to pee, and the heat was making her sleepy. If she fell asleep, she might never have another chance like this. They might come back at any second, a thought that made her heart beat faster. It had to be now. So she put the knife handle back into the opening and this time, using both hands, she pulled down as hard as she could. The knife snapped and the part she was holding cut her hand. But she'd done it! Her fingertips fit into the opening. She was going to get out! Her heart was beating even faster now, and a voice in her head was whispering, Hurry, hurry!

With both hands, she pulled down on the glass as hard as she could and it started moving. Her arms began to tremble from the effort and she had to rest. But now she could get her hands almost all the way out. They might be coming. She had to be quick. So, her eyes fixed on that widened band of daylight, she put her palms over the top of the window and pulled down again, and again, and again. And little by little the window lowered, until both her arms fit through.

Wolf and Toadman could be on their way back, so even though her hand was stinging from the cut and her arms were aching, she pulled on the window with all her strength. Then, resting for another moment, she looked out. Straight ahead were rows of cars, and to the left were empty parking spaces. And with a burst of excitement she saw a big store on the far right. She went back to pulling on the glass, which had become slippery with sweat and smears of blood. She wasn't sleepy anymore, but she really needed to pee. When she got to that store, she'd go find a bathroom first thing. Then she'd find someone to help her.

Moving quickly, able now to see the whole ugly interior of the van, she found a T-shirt Toadman wore all the time. He loved that T-shirt. If Wolf even touched it, Toadman had a fit. She didn't care. She grabbed it, and draped it over the top of the glass, then tried pulling on the window again. This time, the glass came down far enough for her to get her head outside. A bit more and she'd be able to crawl through. It didn't matter whether or not she could reach the outside door handle because Wolf always locked the doors and checked them before he and Toadman went anywhere. So she needed enough space to be able to climb out. Just a little bit more . . .

At last, scared they'd appear any moment, she pushed her head and shoulders through the window. Wriggling back and forth and from side to side, she was able to get more and more of herself outside. Then, suddenly, when she was a slightly more than halfway out, she realized there was nothing to hold onto and she was going to fall. She couldn't stop herself. She tipped upside down. Her foot caught briefly on the top of the window and then she fell, throwing her hands out to try to break her fall. She landed on the ground. It hurt. But she was out, in a heap on the hot pavement.

Her eyes on the store, breathing hard, she stood up and began to run between the rows of cars, making her way to the wide entrance where people were coming and going. Heart thudding, her cut hand burning, both hands and knees skinned from the fall and her foot starting to hurt from catching and twisting on the window, she hurried toward the store. The heat was awful, the sun-glare stung her eyes and she had to keep blinking because everything was shimmery and hot.

She followed a woman and her two children through the doors, at once feeling wonderful cool air as she stopped and looked around. Lots of people. Any second Wolf and Toadman would see her and . . . No! She headed away from the entrance and moved between racks of clothing, came to an aisle and looked both ways, hoping to see signs for the toilets. They'd be at either side or at the back, so she kept moving, making her way toward the far end.

Finally, struggling to hold it in, she saw a woman poking at dresses on a rack, and went up to her.

'I need to pee.'

The woman turned slowly, her gaze moving from the top to the bottom of her in a way that made her feel bad. Then, making a face, the woman turned away.

An ache in her chest and the need getting worse and worse, she hurried on, making her way through the massive store.

At last, desperate, she approached an old woman who was holding a pair of socks in each hand and looking first at one pair, then at the other.

'Lady, I need to pee, please.'

The old woman's head lifted. She stared for several seconds with a look that was almost as bad as the first woman's, then she suddenly dropped the socks and shuffled away, without saying a single word.

'Shitshitshit!' The women were no help. They looked at her as if she was one of Toadman's smelly T-shirts with the horrible pictures. Arriving at the end of the aisle, she went up to a very dark man in a suit, who had a kind face, and said, 'Mister, I really need to pee, please!'

He looked at her for what seemed a long time and then said, 'Are you all alone?'

She nodded her head and he said, 'Wait a second, OK?' and called out across the aisle. 'Lillian, come on over here, would you, please?'

When Lillian came, he said, 'Take her to the ladies' room, will you, please?' He and Lillian exchanged a look, then she smiled and said, 'Sure. Come on, hon. I'll show you where it is.'

Lillian had bright red hair and very white skin with freckles; she smelled wonderful.

'You smell good, Miss.' All grown-up ladies were 'Miss.' That's what they were called on the cowboy shows Wolf liked to watch on the TV when they stayed sometimes in mow-tels.

'Thanks, hon.' Another smile, then, 'Here you go,' she said. 'I'll wait for you right here by the door.'

'Thank you, Miss.'

She barely made it to the toilet in time. It was as if she'd had gallons of Coca-Cola to drink.

When she came out, Lillian was where she'd said she'd be. 'Better?' she asked.

'Yes, thank you, Miss. I really had to go.'

'Good. I'm just gonna take you back over here. OK?'

'OK.' She went along, breathing in Lillian's flowery perfume, until they got to an office where the dark man was talking to another man in a suit.

'Everything OK?' the dark man asked Lillian.

'Yes.'

'Thanks, Lillian. You can go on back to work now.'

'Bye, hon,' Lillian said.

'Thank you, Miss.'

'You're welcome, hon.'

'Why don't you sit down,' the man in the suit said, indicating a chair beside his desk. 'Did you come with someone?'

'Wolf and Toadman,' she answered warily, staying upright.

The two men glanced at each other.

'Is one of them your daddy?'

She just frowned.

'What's your name, dear?' the dark man asked her.

'Humaby,' she told him.

'Pardon?'

'Humaby,' she repeated.

'How old are you?' the suited man asked quietly.

She shrugged.

'You don't know?' he said.

She shrugged again.

'Wolf and Toadman,' he said slowly. 'Are they related to you?'

She shook her head, and shrugged again, and said, 'I don't know.'

'Do you know where you live?'

'I stay in the van,' she answered. 'But I got out. The baby's still there.'

'The baby?'

'They just got her. She's sleepin'. I'm ascared they're gonna hurt her.'

'I see,' the man in the suit said, then turned to the dark man. 'Good you made the call, Aaron.' To her, he said, 'Do you think Wolf and the other man are in the store?'

'Yeah. They said they had to get some stuff for the baby. But maybe they went back to the van already. I'll be in bad trouble if they did.'

Two policemen came into the office and stood staring at her. One of them said something under his breath. He looked very angry and she wondered if he was mad at her. Wolf and Toadman always said to stay away from policemen. She didn't know why.

'Would you go with these officers and see if you can find those men?'

'Okay.' She got up, saying, 'But it's a big place.'

One of the policemen took hold of her hand and said, 'It is, but let's go try to find them anyway, and get the baby. OK?'

'Yeah, we gotta get her.'

To the man in the suit and the one called Aaron, the other policeman said, 'Make sure the service exits are covered by staff. We've got the front. And I'll cover the rear. If they're still in the store, they won't be going anywhere.'

'I spitted out the pill,' she told the one holding her hand.

'What pill?' he asked as they left the office and started through the store.

'Toadman puts a pill in my mouth and makes me eat it if they're goin' somewhere and they're gonna leave me. Tastes bad. I don't like it, so I started spitting them out. I can't amember how long since I beginned to spit them out. When they come back, I pretend to be a-sleepin', so they don't know I didn't eat it.'

'Good for you. That was smart.'

His shoes made a squeaky sound as they went up and down the aisles. She looked down at his feet, then turned to look back and saw two more policemen following them, looking around.

'I think they gived one to the baby.'

'The baby?'

'Unh-hunh. She was asleepin' when I got out the window. They gonna be in trouble, Wolf and Toadman?' she asked, shaky and scared inside her chest.

'Maybe so,' the officer told her. 'Did they hurt you?'

She just looked at him, not knowing how to answer. After thinking for a moment, she said, 'I'm ascared they're gonna hurt the baby. She kicked and screamed a really lot so Toadman crunched up a pill and put it in her mouth, made her drink some Coke. She went asleep right away. When she woked up and screamed again, he gived her some more. She's just little,' she said. 'She cries and screams "mama." I tried to make her stop but she kept on. I holded her after he gived her the pill and she went asleep on me. She's only little.' She was amazed by how small the baby was, and she liked holding her, even when she was crying.

'What's your name?' he asked, and she told him. 'That's kind of a strange name,' he said, his eyes moving over the faces of customers who stood frozen, watching their progress.

'It's what they call me,' she said and looked around, liking the cool feel of the shiny floor on her bare feet.

'What do they call the baby?' he asked.

'Nothin'. I don't think she's got a name,' she said thoughtfully. 'They only just got her.'

'Got her?' His eyebrows pulled together.

'They tooked her. She was in a push thing outside.'

'A stroller?'

'I don't know what it's called. It was outside, so Toadman jumped out and tooked her up from the push thing. Then we drove away really fast.'

'When was this?'

'Maybe yestermornin'?' She tried to think how long the baby had been in the back of the van with her. One night, for sure. 'I don't amember,' she said.

They were in a part of the store that sold baby stuff. She saw high chairs and the push things. 'There they are!' she whispered, tugging on the policeman's hand, and shifting quickly to hide behind him. If they were in the store, they weren't in the van. And if they weren't in the van, the baby was OK.

Toadman and Wolf were looking at something, arguing and Toadman was calling Wolf names, the way he always did.

The policeman with her had stopped and turned to the pair behind him, tilting his head in the direction of the two men up ahead.

'Got it!' one of the officers murmured, as they went on to approach the arguing pair.

'I'm ascared,' she said, clutching the policeman's hand. 'They're gonna be so mad at me. It's bad when they get mad at me.'

'Don't be scared,' he told her. 'You're going to be all right now. I'll look after you.'

'Yeah?'

'That's a promise,' he said, his face all tight and angry, even though he smiled at her. 'Think you could show me that van and the baby?'

'Maybe. There's lots of cars out there.'

'Tell you what,' he said. 'We'll drive around and see if you see it. How would that be?'

'Drive around in a van?' she asked, pulling back a bit.

'No, no. It's a police cruiser.'

'Is that like a car?'

'Yup.'

'You won't lock me up, make me stay inside?'

'Nope. Let's go see if we can find the van and get the baby. Then I'll take you to a place where some nice folks will look after those cuts and scrapes and make sure you feel all right, while me and my buddies try to sort things out.'

'Okay.' She watched the two policemen put Wolf and Toadman's hands behind their backs, then put shiny silver things on their wrists. 'What's gonna happen to them?' she asked.

'That depends on a lot of things,' the officer told her. As they were passing down an aisle with towels and sheets, he took a big towel from a pile on a table and wrapped it around her. Then he picked her up and carried her towards the entrance. The towel was soft, and feeling sleepy all at once, she put her head on his shoulder. 'What's your name, Mister?' she asked him.

'Brian,' he answered, his voice sounding funny. His arm held her secure as he took her through the store and outside into the heat to a blue and white car. 'This is the cruiser,' he explained. 'You're going to sit right up front with me while we see if we can find the van. OK?'

'Okay.'

He set her down on the seat, then closed the door and went around to the driver's side. She looked at all the buttons and dials while he started the engine, hearing little voices coming from somewhere.

'What's that?' she asked, leaning forward.

'What's what?'

'It sounds like tiny little people talking inside here.' She put out a hand and touched the dashboard.

He laughed and said, 'That's the police radio. You're a sharp little cookie.'

'What's that mean, Mister Brian?'

'It means that you're very smart.'

'Oh!'

'I have a daughter about your age.'

'Yeah?'

'She's almost five and her name is Lucia.'

'That's a nice name. I never heard it before.' She looked out at the rows of cars. 'I think it's way at the back. When I looked out the window, there weren't any other cars close by. Do you think maybe I'm almost five, like your girl?' she asked.

'You might be a little more, or a little less.'

She gazed out the window, considering the information. 'Maybe that's how old I am. Nobody never told me. Oh look, Mister Brian!' she exclaimed. 'There it is! Over there!' She pointed to the far end of the lot. 'I see it!' she said excitedly, her pointing finger jabbing at the air. 'It's the one with all the black windows.'

'Good girl!' He picked up his microphone and spoke into it, saying he wanted some uniforms to check for a baby in the back and put in a call to DCF, and a tow to load up the van. As he put the microphone down, he looked over at her, asking, 'How did you get out of there?'

'With a knife and fork.'

His eyebrows drawing together, he said, 'What?'

As they parked across the way from the van, she explained to him how she'd got the window open.

'And that's how you hurt yourself?' he asked.

'I cutted my hand with the knife when it broke. And I hurted my foot 'cuz it got caught in the window when I climbed out. I fell down on my hands and knees. See!' She held her hands palm outwards to show him.

'And how did you get these?' he asked, indicating the insides of her elbows.

'Toadman does those with his cigrets when I'm bad. I got more, if you wanna see,' she offered, reaching to raise the bottom of Wolf's T-shirt to show him.

'No, that's all right.' He stopped her hand. 'Bastard!' he whispered fiercely, his face going tight again.

'Toadman calls everybody bastard, 'specially when people piss him off. Did I piss you off?'

'Not one bit. You're doing great, and nobody's going to hurt you anymore. You're going to be looked after now.'

'Unh-hunh,' she said disbelievingly, looking at him thoughtfully, as if trying to make a decision. 'Mister Brian,' she said cautiously, 'I'm very hungry. Nobody gived me any food today cuz they said I was bad yesterday when I holded the baby until she went asleep. They telled me to put her down but I wouldn't. But I'll be good now. I promise.'

'I'll get you something to eat as soon as the officers get here for the baby.'

'OK,' she said, gazing at the partially open window of the van. The baby. Even when she cried and screamed, it felt good holding her, especially when the baby was all heavy, asleep. She liked the baby better than anything, ever. But she didn't want Toadman and Wolf to hurt the baby . . . no cigrets or other bad stuff. She gave her head a little shake, thinking about that.

'What would you like to eat?' the officer asked, drawing her eyes back to him.

'A cheese burgler an' fries,' she said in a rush. 'An' a chocolate shake?'

'Whatever you want, honey. Anything at all.'

'Thank you very much, Mister Brian,' she said softly, keeping her eyes on the van, wondering if he'd get on top of her after he gave her the food.