She blinked at me, then looked down at Thisbe, who was still howling. ‘You can just put it down,’ she said, nodding at a nearby white bureau. ‘I’ll get to it in a second.’
I walked over, moving aside a stuffed giraffe and a book called Your Baby: The Basics, which was opened to a page with the heading ‘Fussiness: What Causes It, and What You Can Do’. Either she hadn’t had time to read it, or that book didn’t know jack, I thought as I slid the plate over.
‘Thanks,’ Heidi said. She was still rocking, the motion almost hypnotic, although clearly not to Thisbe, who continued to cry at full volume. ‘I just… I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. She’s fed, she’s changed, I’m holding her, and it’s like… she hates me, or something.’
‘She’s probably just colicky,’ I said.
‘But what does that mean, exactly?’ She swallowed hard, then looked back down at her daughter’s face. ‘It just doesn’t make sense, and I’m doing all I can…’
She trailed off, her voice getting tight, and I thought of my dad downstairs, eating his onion rings and reading the paper. Why wasn’t he up here? I didn’t know jack about babies either. Just as I thought this, though, Heidi looked up at me again.
‘Oh, God, Auden, I’m so sorry.’ She shook her head. ‘I’m sure this is the last thing you want to hear about. You’re young, you should be out having fun!’ She sniffled, reaching up to rub her eyes with one hand. ‘You know, there’s a place called the Tip, just down the road from here. All the girls at my shop hang out there at night. You should go check it out. It has to be better than this, right?’
Agreed, I thought, but it seemed rude to actually say that. ‘Maybe I will,’ I said.
She nodded, like we’d made a deal, then looked back at Thisbe. ‘Thanks for the food,’ she said. ‘I really… I appreciate it.’
‘No problem,’ I told her. But she was still looking at the baby, her face weary, so I took this as a dismissal and left, shutting the door behind me.
Downstairs, my dad was finishing his dinner, perusing the sports section. When I slid into a chair opposite him, he looked up at me and smiled. ‘So how’s she doing? Baby asleep?’
‘Not really,’ I told him, unwrapping my burger. ‘She’s still screaming.’
‘Yikes.’ He pushed his chair back, standing up. ‘I better go check in.’
Finally, I thought as he disappeared up the stairs. I picked up my burger, taking a bite: it was cold, but still good. I’d only eaten about half of it when he reappeared, walking to the fridge and grabbing a beer. I sat there, chewing, as he popped the top, took a sip, and looked out at the water.
‘Everything okay up there?’
‘Oh, sure,’ he said easily, moving the bottle to his other hand. ‘She’s just colicky, like Hollis was. Not much you can do except wait it out.’
The thing was, I loved my dad. He might have been a little moody, and definitely more than a little selfish, but he’d always been good to me, and I admired him. Right at that moment, though, I could see why someone might not like him that much. ‘Does Heidi… is her mom coming to help out, or anything?’
‘Her mom died a couple of years ago,’ he said, taking another sip of his beer. ‘She has a brother, but he’s older, lives in Cincinnati with kids of his own.’
‘What about a nanny or something?’
Now he looked at me. ‘She doesn’t want help,’ he said. ‘It’s like I told you, she wants to do this on her own.’
I had a flash of Heidi craning her neck, looking down at my dad’s office, the grateful look on her face when I brought her dinner. ‘Maybe,’ I said, ‘you should, you know, insist, though. She seems pretty tired.’
He just looked at me for a moment, a flat expression on his face. ‘Auden,’ he said finally, ‘this isn’t something you need to worry about, all right? Heidi and I will work it out.’
In other words, back off. And he was right. This was his house, I was a guest here. It was presumptuous to show up and just assume I knew better, based on only a few hours. ‘Right,’ I said, balling up my napkin. ‘Of course.’
‘All right,’ he said, his voice relaxed again. ‘So… I’m going to head upstairs, get back to it. I’d like to finish this chapter tonight. You’ll be okay on your own?’
It wasn’t even really a question, only phrased to sound like one. Funny how intonation could do so much, change even what something was at its core. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Go ahead. I’ll be fine.’
I wasn’t fine, though. I was bored, and Thisbe was still hollering. I unpacked my clothes, tried to crack my future Econ 101 textbook, and cleaned out all the messages on my phone. All of which took about forty minutes. At that point, with the baby still crying – still crying! – I finally grabbed a jacket, pulled my hair back, and went out for a walk.
At first, I wasn’t planning to go to the Tip, whatever or wherever it was. I just wanted some air, a break from the noise, and a chance to process whatever it was that had happened between my dad and me earlier that evening. But after I walked in the opposite direction from the boardwalk for about a block, the sidewalk ended in a culde-sac, a bunch of parked cars crowded along the edges. A path was visible off to one side, and I could see light in the distance. Probably a mistake, I thought, but then I thought of Hollis in that picture frame, and followed it anyway.
It wound through some beach grass and over a couple of dunes, then opened up to a wide swath of sand. From the look of it, it had once been all beach, until erosion or a storm or both created a peninsula of sorts, where now a bunch of people were gathered, some sitting on driftwood that was piled up in makeshift benches, others standing around a firepit where a good-size blaze was going. A large truck was parked off to one side, a keg in the bed, and I recognized the tall, skinny guy from the bike shop sitting beside it. When he saw me, he looked surprised, then glanced over at the fire. Sure enough, the guy who’d called out to me was there, in a red windbreaker, holding a plastic cup. He was talking to two girls – the redhead from earlier and a shorter girl with black hair, braided into pigtails – gesturing widely with his free hand.
‘On your right!’ I heard someone yell from behind me, and then there was a whizzing sound. I turned, only to see the short, stocky guy I’d seen earlier coming at me fast on a bike, pedaling wildly. I jumped out of the way just as he blasted by, rounding the dune and shooting onto the flatter sand of the beach. I was still trying to catch my breath when I heard the clatter of pedals, and two more bikes emerged from the dark of the path, the riders – a blond guy, and a girl with short, cropped hair – laughing and talking with each other as they zoomed past. Jesus, I thought, stepping back again, only to feel myself collide squarely with something. Or someone.