The baby's breath is sweet. It has the smell the woman has come to love, the sweet remnants of breast milk suckled twenty minutes ago. Now the baby has had a second burp and is content. The woman knows part of what she loves is the sweet smell, and part of what she loves is the sweet silence of a baby finally pacified.
The sweet silence.
But the woman also loves the warm round mass squirming gently on her chest. The baby's breaths, the slight rise and fall, the occasional hiccup or twitch each remind the woman of the cold outside, the cold beyond the insulated windows and the steaming cups of coffee on the tables around her. She looks out and watches a man cower against the rain and wind. She watches him shrug his collar up higher on his neck. He shudders. When he gets to his parked car, he gets in, slams the door, and tries to shake off the rain and cold. The brake lights shine a blurry red in the fog of the coffee shop window, and the woman imagines the man's relief at being in out of the rain and feeling the car heater chase the chills into the dark corners of the car's cab.
The car pulls away. The baby kicks in his sling.
The woman knows the cold. She learned of it in second grade when her drunken step-father forced her out into the November air at Thanksgiving. He said she'd been bad again, said she was always being bad. “You're gonna learn, though,” he'd said, nearly crushing her tiny hands as he slammed the door, “you're gonna learn, one way or another.”
She didn't dare bang her freezing fists on the door and yell to be let back in. She didn't dare call for her mother, who watched silently from a living room chair. She knew her mother wouldn't voice opposition. She knew her mother would say nothing. No sense in both of them being locked out in the cold.
She didn't dare involve the neighbors, or child services, or the police.
She didn't dare.
She walked to the side of the house. She would have to wait for a few minutes. She would have to hold out. She crouched, tucking into a ball so she could blow her hot breath into the junction of pajama pants where her knees came together. There, the heat would help warm her legs, at least for a few seconds, before succumbing to the surrounding air, now near freezing. She would wait there, crouching, shivering, below the dryer vent. She knew if she waited there, her mother would pretend to put a load of clothes in the dryer. Her mother would make a good show of it, letting the buttons and zippers clink and clang against the hollow aluminum. Mother would dampen them, first, in case he checked the clothes. He never checked. He was too drunk to care.
Two minutes of sitting on frozen ground surrounded by frozen air listening to her father yell at the TV and her mother pretend to be transferring wet clothes from the washer to the dryer. Two minutes to sit and huddle and absorb her own breath. Two minutes cast out into the wild. Two minutes in a cold, lonely hell.
Two minutes until she would be bathed in billowing air and the sweet smell of fabric softener. There, she would wait until her father passed out and her mother felt safe to let her back in.
Two minutes was a long time.
The cold clawed at her feet and fingers, tried to burrow its way into her back, up the back of her neck, through her tangled hair and clenched teeth and tightly shut eyes. The claws went deep. The cold found its holes, found a way in every time. She wondered if she would be able to last through the cold every time. She wondered if her mother would turn on the dryer, wondered if she would take too long or forget, or even choose not to turn the dryer on. What if tonight was the night her mother was tired of dealing with all the trouble-making? What if tonight was the night she was tired of her daughter causing more problems than she was worth? Every time, at least for a few seconds, she wondered if this would be the time her mother would give up and let her die alone out in the cold.
But every time, moments after these thoughts, the wall would rumble to life and the vent at her back would begin pouring hot air out over her huddled body and into the cold night.
That first burst of warm air was renewing. That first burst of warm air was a rebirth.
She wouldn't feel that resurrecting warmth again until the first time she felt her son's tiny body pressed against her chest.
Now, watching the world outside darken under the cold rain, she shivers. She shivers, knowing she will never be made to feel that kind of cold again.
“Small hot chocolate for Reese!”
Reese braces the sleeping baby boy as she rises from the chair and steps gently toward the counter. She takes the hot chocolate and smiles. She returns to the chair, squatting slowly so the boy doesn't wake up. As she settles into the soft leather and the chair hisses, the baby twitches again. His arm jerks outward and grabs wildly at the air. Reese settles into the chair and holds her breath, slowly wrapping her palm and fingers around the baby's back. She shushes quietly. After straining for a few seconds, the boy's arm relaxes and falls back down onto Reese's chest. His tiny fingers scratch lightly at the skin over her collar bone. She can feel him slipping back into sleep as the rhythm of his scratching slows.
Before he stops, his fingers find the scar.
Above her collar bone, just to the right of her throat, his fingers find a scar, thin and a few inches long. He flicks at one of the scar's raised edges, follows the edge down to its end, then back up again. His tiny fingernails are sharp and without looking Reese feels the redness he is creating. She doesn't mind it. His scratching may inflame the skin a little. It may draw more attention to the area. Someone, like the older woman in line at the bank a few days ago, might ask about it. Maybe someone here in the coffee shop will notice and wonder. As Reese looks around, she realizes she wouldn't mind if any of these people asked about it. She could just lie.
She's lied about the scar many times.
To the woman at the bank, she said it was from a car accident.
People rarely followed up after disclosure of a major car accident.
To the man on the bus, she said it was from surgery.
A vague reference to surgery, she noticed, tended to shut people up, too.
To the woman renting her the apartment where she was staying, she said it was to remove cancer. A single mom with an infant and cancer? That got her rent lowered.
To the man who sold her his car, she said it was from a childhood bike accident. She told him it's why she needed the car, she couldn't bring herself to ride a bike again after that. He, too, lowered the price.
The scar, the fear, the tone of her voice, it all garnered the right kind of attention. The kind of attention that brings sympathy, and the kind of sympathy that brings favors.
Before that, she told a man she worked for that the scar was from a bully at school. She told a teacher once that it was a birth mark, that she'd always had it and would always have it. That would mean, in a way, that she got it from her father, so in a way, that version wasn't a lie.
She told people she loved it. She told others she hated it. She told people it meant a lot to her, that she enjoyed the imperfection, that it made her feel special, that it made her feel strong. She told people it was the mark of a warrior, of a survivor.
She told men she needed to manipulate that her boyfriend did it, or that her ex-boyfriend did it. Or that her father did it. She let them get angry about that, let them assure her they weren't those kinds of guys, they would never do something like that. They told her they would look after her, that they would protect her. They promised her they would never let that happen again.
She told people what they needed to hear, what they wanted to hear. She told people exactly the ways they could help her while feeling like they were in control, like they were helping themselves. She told them what they needed to hear to give her the money that fed her and the baby for the past six months. She told them what they needed to hear to buy the car she drove here, to buy the hot chocolate in her hand, to buy the handbag over her shoulder with the .357 Magnum and the box of spilled shells. She told them what they needed to hear to get her these things without a path to trace.
The baby's hand slides away from the scar and back against his chest as he sleeps. The scar sings and throbs from the abuse of his fingernails. She feels it must be shining and red, that everyone in the coffee shop must see it and wonder. She pulls her shirt up a few inches. She tries to cover it but the shirt won't stay. It doesn't matter, she decides.
Let them see. Let them stare at it and see. She thinks of a new story to tell the next person who asks her about it. She thinks about the girl who handed her the hot chocolate and what she would say if the girl asked. Dog attack? Gun shot wound?
Maybe I'll tell the next person who asks the truth.
She smiles considering this. What would little miss braided blonde hair behind the counter do if she asked about the scar and wasn't ready for the answer? What would she say? What expressions would ripple across that peaceful face?
I can see you looking at my scar. It's okay, I get it all the time, and it's fine. You're wondering how I got it, right, what happened? Well, I did it myself.
She'd never told anyone she did it herself. She'd never told anyone she pulled a steak knife from a kitchen drawer and slid it, twice, slowly into the muscles of her neck. She'd never told anyone about one of the coldest November nights and the icy chill in her bones and the look on her mother's face when she opened a side door to let her daughter back into the house after her step-father passed out. She'd only considered cutting his throat once she was at the hospital. Thinking about it now, she thinks she made the right choice. Cutting her own neck and hearing about the police kicking down the door and throwing her step-father to the ground and hand-cuffing him and taking him to jail made her smile then and makes her smile now. Seeing him prodded into a courtroom in chains made her smile then and makes her smile now. Hearing the judge give her decision, twelve years for first degree assault of a minor, made her smile then and she smiles now.
But this smile fades.
She heard he got out early on good behavior. Only a few months after she watched cancer take her mother, she heard he was out. She heard he'd been living in an Oregon town and working at a place called Castle Lumber. Even through the mist of rain and through the foggy glass of the coffee shop's front window, she can see the letters of the business sign directly across the street.
She scratches at the scar on her neck. She feels the heat from the other scars on her body. She made the one on her neck, but she didn't make the others.
Tonight, in the rotting apartment he lives in, her step-father will remember. Tonight, when he pulls in at 5:15, when his keys scrape the lock and when the deadbolt clunks free and he walks in and sees her, he will remember. Tonight, he will remember all of the scars.
Another figure appears, bracing against the grating rain. She knows the hunched back, the staggered walk, the way about him. He gets into a truck and the break lights shine to life and he sits and lets the engine warm and the heater do its work. She can see him cupping his hands, blowing into them, then rubbing them together. She can see him cold and shivering and struggling to shake off the chill. She smiles and finishes the hot chocolate.
The baby coughs. She puts her hand on his back, shushing quietly, and holds him close to her as she stands. She lets the truck back out of its parking space and pull away before she leaves the coffee shop and heads to her own car. The air in the car is cold but she doesn't notice. She catches up to him at a red light. He turns. She follows.
“You're gonna learn, though,” she says. “One way or another.”