My dad pushed open the next door down, then waved me in with one hand. ‘Sorry for the small quarters,’ he said as I stepped over the threshold. ‘But you have the best view.’
He wasn’t kidding. Though the room was tiny, with a twin bed, a bureau, and not much room for anything else, the lone window looked out over an undeveloped area of land, nothing but sea grass and sand and water. ‘This is great,’ I said.
‘Isn’t it? It was originally my office. But then we had to put the baby’s room next door, so I moved to the other side of the house. I didn’t want to keep her up, you know, with the noises of my creative process.’ He chuckled, like this was a joke I was supposed to get. ‘Speaking of which, I’d better get to it. The mornings have been really productive for me lately. I’ll catch up with you at dinner, all right?’
‘Oh,’ I said, glancing at my watch. It was 11:05. ‘Sure.’
‘Great.’ He squeezed my arm, then started down the hallway, humming to himself, as I watched him go. A moment after he passed the door to the pink-and-brown room, I heard the door click shut.
I woke up at six thirty that evening to the sound of a baby crying.
Crying, actually, was too tepid a word. Thisbe was screaming, her lungs clearly getting a serious workout. And while it was merely audible in my room, with just a thin wall between us, when I went out in the hallway in search of a bathroom to brush my teeth, the noise was deafening.
I stood for a second in the dimness outside the door to the pink room, listening to the cries as they rose, rose, rose, then fell sharply, only to spike again, even louder. I was wondering if I was the only one aware of it until, during a rare and short moment of silence, I heard someone saying, ‘Shh, shh,’ before quickly being drowned out again.
There was something so familiar about this, it was like a tug on my subconscious. When my parents had first started to fight at night, this had been part of what I’d repeated – shh, shh, everything’s all right – to myself, again and again, as I tried to ignore them and fall asleep. Hearing it now, though, felt strange, as I was used to the sound being private, only in my head and the dark around me, so I moved on.
My father, sitting in front of his laptop at a desk facing the wall, didn’t move as he said, ‘Hmmm?’
I looked back down the hallway to the pink room, then at him again. He wasn’t typing, just studying the screen, a yellow legal pad with some scribblings on the desk beside him. I wondered if he’d been there the whole time I’d been sleeping, over seven hours. ‘Should I,’ I said, ‘um, start dinner, or something?’
‘Isn’t Heidi doing that?’ he asked, still facing the screen.
‘I think she’s with the baby,’ I said.
‘Oh.’ Now, he turned his head, looking at me. ‘Well, if you’re hungry, there’s a great burger place just a block away. Their onion rings are legendary.’
I smiled. ‘Sounds great,’ I said. ‘Should I find out if Heidi wants anything?’
‘Absolutely. And get me a cheeseburger and some of those onion rings.’ He reached into his back pocket, pulling out a couple of bills and handing them to me. ‘Thanks a lot, Auden. I really appreciate it.’
I took the bills, feeling like an idiot. Of course he couldn’t go out with me: he had a new baby at home, a wife to take care of. ‘No problem,’ I said, even though he was already turning back to his screen, not really listening. ‘I’ll just be back in a little bit.’
I walked back to the pink room, where Thisbe was still going full blast. Figuring at least this time I didn’t have to worry about waking her up, I knocked twice. After a second, it opened a crack, and Heidi looked out at me.
She looked more haggard than before, if that was even possible: the ponytail was gone, her hair now hanging limp in her face. ‘Hi,’ I said, or rather shouted, over the screaming. ‘I’m going to get dinner. What would you like?’
‘Dinner?’ she repeated, her voice also raised. I nodded. ‘Is it dinnertime already?’
I looked at my watch, as if I needed to confirm this. ‘It’s about quarter to seven.’
‘Oh, dear God.’ She closed her eyes. ‘I was going to fix a big welcome dinner for you. I had it all planned, chicken and vegetables, and everything. But the baby’s been so fussy, and…’
‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘I’m going to get burgers. Dad says there’s a good place right down the street.’
‘Your father is here?’ she asked, shifting Thisbe in her arms and peering over my shoulder, down the hallway. ‘I thought he went down to campus.’
‘He’s working in his office,’ I said. She leaned closer, clearly not having heard this. ‘He’s writing,’ I repeated, more loudly. ‘So I’m going. What would you like?’
Heidi just stood there, the baby screaming between us, looking down the hallway at the light spilling out from my dad’s barely open office door. She started to speak, then stopped herself, taking a deep breath. ‘Whatever you’re having is fine,’ she said after a moment. ‘Thank you.’
I nodded, then stepped back as she pushed the door back shut between us. The last thing I saw was the baby’s red face, still howling.
Thankfully, outside the house it was much quieter. I could hear only the ocean and various neighborhood sounds – kids yelling, an occasional car radio, someone’s TV blaring out a back door – as I walked down the street to where the neighborhood ended and the business district began.
There was a narrow boardwalk, lined with various shops: a smoothie place, one of those beach-tat joints that sell cheap towels and shell clocks, a pizzeria. About halfway down, I passed a small boutique called Clementine’s, which had a bright orange awning. Taped to the front door was a piece of paper that read, in big block print, IT’S A GIRL! THISBE CAROLINE WEST, BORN JUNE 1, 6 LBS, 15 OZ. So this was Heidi’s store, I thought. There were racks of T-shirts and jeans, a makeup and body lotion section, and a dark-haired girl in a pink dress examining her fingernails behind the register, a cell phone clamped to her ear.
Up ahead, I could see what had to be the burger joint my dad mentioned – LAST CHANCE CAFÉ, BEST O RINGS ON THE BEACH! said the sign. Just before it, there was one last store, a bike shop. A bunch of guys around my age were gathered on a battered wooden bench outside, talking and watching people pass by.