Water Babies

The lighter clicks and sparks, the flame brilliant against the purple twilight as Deandra holds it up to the joint and puffs until the tip glows. Inhaling, she holds her breath, her lungs stretching and filling. Laughter from neighborhood kids playing in the street drifts over the backyard fence as a skateboard rolls past, the wheels clicking over the lines in the sidewalk. Smoke swirls around her head, thick with the sticky scent of weed. Her mom’s latest batch is good. She exhales. Damn good.

She sinks into the wicker chair on Susan Calbert’s back patio and listens to insects fluttering against the dim porch light. Deandra cocks her head to the side, her eyes drawn to the second story window. A muted amber glow from Amy’s night light seeps through the glass. The baby’s a cute little shit, even though her mom’s a whore. Susan called Deandra last minute to babysit, claiming a business meeting with her boss got rescheduled for tonight. Deandra scoffs and takes a puff. Don’t think you’re suppose to wear a dress that tight to a business meeting.

Deandra flicks some ashes onto the cement and melts further into the chair, her limbs growing heavy as the cool night washes over her. A pleasant buzz fills her head and vibrates through her bones. Leaning her head back, she lets her eyes close.

A soft cry comes from the house.

Peeling her eyelids open, Deandra rolls her head to the side and drags her eyes up to Amy’s window again. A patch of heavy fog hovers in front of Amy’s window, muddling the glow from the night light. The surrounding sky is clear. Deandra frowns and rubs at her eyes with her free hand before looking again. The fog remains. Another cry, louder.

“Fuck.” The word stumbles across her lips, thick from the weed.

She struggles up from the chair and heads for the house. Her head swims as she fumbles through the sliding door leading back inside. She giggles at the sound her sneakers make as they squeak through a small puddle of water on the yellowed linoleum floor and slaps at the door in an effort to slide it shut. The muscles in her arm are too relaxed. Fuck it.

Trailing a hand along the peeling paint of the wall, Deandra teeters through the small house to the front entry and the base of the stairs. Amy cries again, higher and longer.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Deandra says. She steps into the living room to the right of the stairs, takes a puff and sets the joint on a glass coaster on the coffee table before climbing the stairs, her steps heavy and slow. Reaching Amy’s room at the back of the upstairs hallway, she pushes the door open with a creak. 

A chill hangs in the air. Deandra steps inside, rubbing her hands over her arms, feeling goosebumps. Amy stands in her crib, pudgy fists grabbing the rails. Her chubby face turns away from the window and toward Deandra. Fat tears run down her flushed cheeks. The kid looks like a wet cherub. 

Chuckling, Deandra hefts Amy up and strokes her back. “Shhh,” Deandra soothes, gently bouncing the baby in her arms. Amy whimpers against her, but the crying subsides. Amy’s eyes close as her breath deepens and slows.

“That’s a good little shit,” Deandra says and settles Amy back in her crib. She plucks a pink blanket off the rocker in the corner and lays it over Amy.

Pausing at the window, Deandra looks out at the night. The patch of fog is gone, the sky crystal clear again. Condensation beads along the window pane and cracked window sill. Wind whispers through the sides of the frame, faint and chilling. Deandra hugs herself tighter. Turning away from the window, she pauses at the door. The back of her neck prickles. She turns and takes one last look at Amy, who sleeps soundly and safely in her crib. Shaking her head, Deandra goes back downstairs.

###

A plume of smoke engulfs her. It floats around Deandra, seeping into the cushions of the sofa and the fabric of the curtains in the small living room. No way will Susan not notice the smell. Bitch used to buy from Deandra’s mom until she got all holier-than thou. Deandra laughs aloud, thinking about the look on Susan’s face that’s bound to be there when the whore gets home from her late night rendezvous with her boss.

Deandra should be smoking outside, but it was so far away and the couch so damn comfortable. Now, she doubts she could get up if she tried. Her and the couch are one, fused together. She’ll have to try to separate herself soon—she really has to piss. She gazes toward the hall and the cramped downstairs bathroom. So far away.

The overhead light crackles with electricity, then dims and flickers. Shadows dance and jump. Deandra’s breath hitches and she rolls her eyes to the ceiling, wary of the faint buzz still emanating from the bulbs. A floorboard creaks in the hall, the sound as loud and sudden as a gunshot. Deandra jerks upright from the sofa, dropping the joint onto the coffee table. Her heart pulses in her neck as a stab of panic lances through her chest. She feels eyes on her and spins, glancing around the room. She’s alone.

Deandra forces a small laugh and lowers herself onto the edge of the sofa, her back stiff. It’s the weed; it’s making her paranoid.

The ceiling joists groan and Deandra startles. Her gasp turns into a fit of laughter. She puts a palm against her chest. “Fuck, girl. Get your shit together.”

She falls back against the sofa and takes deep, long breaths. Her heart slows from a frantic boom to a slow throb she can feel in her toes. The house settles into silence and her ears strain against it, searching for the slightest sound.

The small tap-tap of dripping water.

It comes from the hall leading back to the patio. Deandra moves toward it, her pulse matching the rhythm. Tap-tap. She steps into the hall and freezes. The back door is open. Her eyes go wide. Did someone get in? Tap-tap-tap.

A bolt of adrenaline shoots through her and she rushes forward. Grappling with the handle, she slams the door shut and clicks the lock into place. She turns to look back down the hall, her breath heaving, and her shoes squeak on the linoleum. “What the hell?”

Tap-tap. A puddle of water pools in the middle of the floor. Deandra’s eyes rake across the trail of wet shoe prints leading away from it, ending at her converse, and back to the puddle. Water drops into it—tap-dunk—sending ripples across the surface.

Her brows knit together and she cranes her neck to look at the ceiling. Dread settles between her shoulder blades.

Veins of water race across the plaster, converging at the point directly above the puddle. The growing mass of water in the center spreads until it bulges outward. The water shifts and undulates, a rippling face emerging. The mouth yawns wide—and screams.

Except Deandra is the one screaming. She fumbles backward against the sliding door, fear seizing her. Her breath comes fast and hard. Clinging to the wall, avoiding the dripping water, she scurries down the hall toward the front door. She keeps her eyes on the liquid face leering at her from the ceiling. Something dark writhes behind the rolling eyes. Her back bumps into the front door and she spins, clawing at the handle.

Amy cries. Upstairs. Alone.

Her hand stills on the knob. She can’t leave her. She’s just a fucking baby.

A sob tears from Deandra’s throat. Her hands tremble as she pushes away from the door and races to the stairs before her courage fails. On the third step, her foot splashes into water. She looks up to the second floor landing.

Her eyes widen and her throat goes dry.

A figure of a woman stands on the landing. Her pale, mottled face peers out at Deandra with shadowed eyes from behind thick clumps of lank, black hair, water dripping from the ends.

###

Susan’s hands shake and she drops the keys. Again. “God dammit,” she says, crouching down on the front step. She scoops up the keys and shoves them into the lock. They rattle as she twists and pulls, pushing her shoulder against the door. Damn thing never works right. Add another item to the list of shit she doesn’t have the money to fix.

Hot tears press against her eyes. She sniffs them back and takes a deep breath. The bolt relents and Susan hurries through the front door, kicking off her heels and slamming the keys down on the table beside the entry. “Deandra,” she calls. “I’m back.”

She needs a stiff drink and a hot shower to scrub the memory of tonight from her mind and body. The musky scent of sex and cheap aftershave clings to her. A wave of equal parts loathing and disgust rolls through her and her stomach churns. Her shoulders tremble and she presses a hand against her mouth to stifle a sob. What the hell did she do?

Drawing a steadying breath, Susan squares her shoulders and forces her head high, refusing to let the tears fall. She did what she fucking had to. This promotion will keep her from losing the house to the bank, will keep Amy in diapers. Anger burns through her and a bitter taste crawls up her throat. This is Anthony’s fault. If that bastard hadn’t run out on her and his daughter, leaving Susan high and dry and up to her tits in debt she wouldn’t have to stoop so fucking low.

Her jaw clenches and she huffs out a breath. Pulling her purse open, she gropes around its depths and finds a wrinkled clump of cash. “Deandra?”

The light in the living room is on and Susan moves toward it, tossing her purse beside the keys and taking the cash with her. The dank smell of marijuana slaps her in the face. A smoldering roach lays on her coffee table beside a coaster full of ashes. Son-of-a-bitch.

“Deandra, you know the rules!” Susan yells, letting her voice carry through the house. “You better not have smoked this shit around Amy.”

That girl is going to turn out just like her mother. Susan pinches the bridge of her nose. She doesn’t want to deal with this. With anything. Shaking her head, she slaps off the light and goes to the kitchen, where she proceeds directly to the liquor cabinet. There’s only a splash or two left in the bourbon bottle, so she grabs the half-full bottle of vodka and a glass. Pouring herself two fingers, she throws her head back and swallows. It burns. She hisses, her face pinching together, but she can still taste the fat fuck. Another two fingers splash into the glass.

“Deandra?” Where the hell is that kid?

Susan sips the vodka, the burn lessening with each taste, and stares at the wall, thinking of everything and nothing at the same time. Cocking her head, she squints, noticing small trails of dark stains running down the length of the wall. Setting the glass aside, she moves forward until her nose is an inch from the stains. She touches one with a tentative finger. Damp.

“Fuck,” she breaths out. “Fuck. Me.” Grabbing the glass she downs the rest of the vodka. Now she has a fucking water leak? She rests her forehead in her hand. This day needs to end.

She leaves the kitchen, calling for Deandra. Pausing at the base of the stairs, she listens for a response. Still nothing. The nape of her neck tickles, but she catches the sound of running water coming from the second floor. Little bitch is taking a bath in her house. Biting back her exasperation, Susan tries again. “Deandra, I’m home.” No answer.

Susan tromps up the stairs to the second floor landing. Her feet squish into soggy carpet, water seeping between her toes, and she fears she might just lose her shit. Groaning, she trudges through the swampy mess with quick, squelching steps. She’s going to give that girl a lesson she’ll never forget. Expecting to find Deandra high, Susan shoves open the bathroom door.

It’s empty. Water roars out of the bath faucet in a deluge, spilling over the side of the flooded tub. An inch of water covers the floor.

Susan stares in disbelief for two blinks before her anger boils. The cold water stabs at her feet as Susan sloshes forward and cranks off the faucet. “Deandra, what the fuck is going on around here?”

A voice breathes into her ear, whispering across the hairs on the back of her neck. “Hush. You’ll wake the baby.”

Susan’s heart stutters. Spinning around, her feet slip out from under her and she falls to the floor, landing on her chest and soaking the front of her dress. The cold shocks her and she sucks in a strangled breath. Gripping the sink for support, she hauls herself up and whirls around the small bathroom.

She’s alone.

Fear claws through her belly and pulls it tight. She shivers from the chill seeping up from the floor as she speaks in a pleading whisper. “Deandra?”

The voice that answers is not Deandra’s. “Hush.”

Susan cries out and tears from the bathroom. She clutches at the railing of the landing and looks back, her chest heaving.

Amy.

She races to her daughter’s room. The door stands open a hair and the familiar amber glow of her night light spills into the hall. Susan bursts through the door, throwing it open. It bangs against the wall. Her wet feet slide on the wood floor as she darts for the crib. Clutching the side, she looks down. Empty.

“No.” Terror slams into her, the sheer force knocking her back a step and stealing her breath. Lunging forward, she rips through the sodden blankets in the crib, tossing them aside. Amy isn’t there.

The rocking chair in the corner beside the window creaks. Susan’s head snaps around. Her insides knot together.

A woman sits in the chair. Dark hair hangs about her face in heavy, wet clumps. Her pale skin is puckered and shriveled, like she’s spent too much time in the bath. A bundle of wet, pink blankets rests in her arms, one chubby fist clasped in the woman’s hand. Amy.

Susan’s voice is distant, as though speaking from a dream. A nightmare. “My baby. Give me my baby.”

The rocker creaks back and forth. Back and forth. Water streams down the wooden legs and pools on the floor. The woman stares at Susan with cloudy eyes. The rocker speeds up, until it thrashes back and forth in a frantic rhythm, nearly out of control.

Susan screams over the noise. “Give me my fucking baby!”

The rocking stops. The woman regards Susan before raising a finger to her lips. Water dribbles from the corners of her mouth as she speaks. “Hush.”

The pale, boggy finger reaches down and strokes Amy’s cheek, pushing aside the blanket. Susan’s heart wrenches. Amy’s face is blue and mottled, her lips purple. The woman releases Amy’s fist and the arm falls limp.

Raw grief and rage coalesce inside Susan. The world around her dims, the edges sliding out of focus. Sharp pain blazes down the center of her chest, the agony threatening to cleave her sternum in two. She stumbles backward, collapsing in on herself.

The rocker creaks again. Back and forth in a sick, lilting melody.

A desperate cry of rage tears from Susan’s throat and she throws herself at the woman. With a shrill cry, she rises to meet Susan and the two collide. But Susan is left clutching only her daughter’s lifeless body.

The woman and the water are gone.

###

Tami O’Shea hates reporting on cases like this, but they are the ones that get the most camera time. Hell, she might even be able to ride this one to her own hour long special. It isn’t necessarily wrong to prosper from someone else’s grief. Right?

She only landed this case thanks to a twisted stroke of luck anyway. The first reporter on scene that night broke down when he heard the vic was a baby. He’d lost his own son two years ago. Tami feels bad for the guy, but you can’t have a sobbing reporter on the eleven o’clock news, snot and tears running down a splotchy face—bad for ratings. So Tami got the call in the middle of the night and has covered the case exclusively for channel six since.

She straightens her pants under the maple desk and pulls her shoulder blades back while an assistant fiddles with her hair. The producer motions for everyone to clear the set and holds up five fingers. He folds them down one at a time, mouthing the seconds until they go live.

Five. Tami flexes her facial muscles, making strange gestures with her mouth—puckering and pouting—and her brows. Four. She arranges her face into an appropriately grim expression. Three. Draws a deep breath. Two. Lets it out. One.

She speaks to the camera. Clear voice. Precise enunciation. “Police have made no further arrests in the case of Amy Calbert, the thirteen month old drowning victim. The child’s mother, Susan Calbert, remains in custody. The toxicology reports on Calbert have been released, revealing that the mother was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the murder. Responding officers have reported that a heavy smell of marijuana was also present in the Calbert residence, although no further reports have been released.”

Let that hang. Let the viewers make their own conclusions.

“Reports say Susan Calbert claims an unknown female assailant entered the home and murdered the child. Police have searched for a woman that matches the description given to them by the mother, but none has been found.”

Pause for effect. Allow the tension and implications to swell.

“Police continue to search for seventeen-year old Deandra Thomas, who was babysitting for Miss Calbert on the evening the victim drowned. There is still no sign of her.”

Tami can’t see it, but knows a picture of the missing teen flashes across thousands of television sets and computer screens across the country—right beside Tami’s face. “If anyone has any information regarding Miss Thomas’ whereabouts, please call the number on the bottom of the screen.”

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