It was a sign.
I almost missed the faded billboard for the Hummingbird Café, partially hidden by an overgrown elm. My dad had always requested hummingbird cake for his birthday, so I knew he was telling me to get off at that exit. But when I finally located the little café, it had been boarded up. Most of the town looked like it had been abandoned.
It started to rain. After all the turns I had made, I couldn’t find my way back to the highway in the dark, and my phone didn’t have any bars. According to my maps app, I was in the middle of a big fuzzy spot somewhere near my designated route.
That’s how I found myself on a desolate stretch of road in a cold drizzle, peering through the windshield into the darkness as the car crept around another curve.
That’s how I found the baby.
These roads were slick and narrow, with sudden sharp curves. As I rounded one, my headlights caught a glint of metal off to the side. It looked like the car had lost control, skidded off the road, and slammed into a tree.
I almost kept driving. There was no sign of movement or life around the car. The accident had probably happened hours ago, and the cops were waiting til the weather cleared to get the car towed. Right?
I sat idling in the road, just past the curve. I checked my phone. Still no bars.
Wouldn’t they have put up some of that yellow tape or something? Or did they only do that on TV?
I edged over onto the shoulder, such as it was, and turned on the hazard lights. I hadn’t seen another car on the road for the past hour, but I could imagine one rounding that bend and slamming into the car I was driving. I didn’t want to have to explain to the owner what had happened to his crappy Civic.
I grabbed a flashlight from the glove box and stepped out into a chilly, soaking drizzle. The embankment wasn’t that steep, but it was muddy. Just when I was thinking that I was going to have to pull off my shoes and throw them into a ditch before I got back in the car, I slipped and fell on my butt. Maybe the whole outfit was a loss.
The front of the car was wrapped around a tree, and the hood was sprung. As I approached, I shone the light into the driver’s side window. There was a person in there. I shuddered and forced myself to keep moving.
A person and a steering wheel are not supposed to occupy the same space at the same time. I retched and took a quick step back, and my legs slipped out from under me again. I sat shivering in the mud and tried to catch my breath.
For the amount of damage to the front of the car, the back didn’t look so bad. I got to my feet and forced myself to look inside. There was a car seat, with a blankie draped over it. I wanted to go back to my car and speed the hell away from there. I really didn’t want to see a dead baby.
The door wouldn’t open. I rounded the car to try the other side. That door wouldn’t open, either, but I broke the window with a rock. There was a movement under the blankie, and a baby started to wail.
I sidled into the car and slipped the blankie back. The baby didn’t have any visible injuries, and he had a healthy set of lungs. I put a shaky hand on his chest. He was wearing a blue onesie with a race car on the front, so I could assume he was either male or had a really progressive parent. I tried not to look at the driver.
“Hello, Kid. Everything’s going to be okay.” My voice was wobbly. I cleared my throat and tried to sound more confident. “My name is Amber. I’m going to get you out of here.”
How I was going to do that, I didn’t know. I rubbed his chest gently and spoke in a sing-song voice, trying to calm him. “What am I doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Why, thank you for asking! What a polite little boy. I’m going home. Doreen, my high school BFF, is going to let me stay with her for awhile. And her aunt is going to give me a job in her salon. I give the best pedicures around.” I gently massaged the baby’s cold feet. “See? You wouldn’t believe how many men have turned to putty in my chair.”
I tried not to be bitter about all the hottie pedicure customers I had turned down because I thought I should be faithful to that idiot John. One customer with particularly gnarly toes had recently gotten a job on the east coast and didn’t have time to drive his car cross-country. He had sat there complaining about how expensive it was going to be to hire someone to drive it for him. I knew my dad was sending me a sign that it was time to go back home.
The baby hiccuped, drawing my attention back to him. He had settled down and was staring at me.
I couldn’t call anyone, and I couldn’t sit around and wait for another car to come along. That could take hours. I couldn’t leave the baby alone in the car and go for help, but what if he was injured? I probably shouldn’t move him. I seemed to recall from an episode of some TV medical show that you should leave a baby in its car seat after an accident. That would stabilize him until he got to the ER. Thank goodness Mai had always kept the TV in the nail salon tuned to one of those stations that showed old reruns.
“Any idea where the nearest police station is?” I asked the kid. “How about the nearest town? No?” The baby kicked one of his legs and blew a little bubble. “Look, Kid, we’re in this together. You’re going to have to start pulling your weight.”
My dad used to say that to me when we went on one of our long weekend drives and got lost. He had loved nothing better than to hop in the car and cruise the back roads for hours. He had insisted on teaching me how to drive when I was fifteen. It was one of the last things he ever did.
I managed to figure out how to get the car seat free, then hefted it out of the car. When I told this story later there was going to be lightning and thunder, and a climb up a cliff face. In reality, it wasn’t so bad. Just a little slippery. Back at my car, I put the baby in the passenger seat and turned on the heater full blast. He was fussing a little, but hadn’t started crying again. I was going to have some explaining to do to the owner of the car about all of the mud.
“Doreen’s never going to believe this,” I said, making a surprised face at the baby, which he mirrored. “I’ll have to call her later. She has a little girl right around your age. If I had stuck around and married one of the local losers, I’d probably be a mommy now, too. Why did I leave? Well, his name was John. He wore black, and rode a motorcycle and wrote songs on his guitar. Need I say more? I would have followed him anywhere.”
I checked the baby’s feet and hands. He was warming up nicely. “Don’t grow up to be a douchebag like John, okay?” The baby made a little coo, and I laughed. “I’ll assume that was baby speak for ‘okay’.”
I turned on the defrost to clear the fog from the windows. I should strap the car seat into the back, but if I so much as opened one of those doors, stuff would come rolling out. A compact car was not ideal for moving everything you owned from one coast to the other. Also, I had taken some of John’s things that I thought I’d be able to sell. I had worked two jobs so he would have time to sit around and write his crappy songs. He owed me.
What were the odds that this kid would get into a second accident in the same night? We should be okay. “You can stay in front a little while longer, Kid. It’s warmer up here, and I’m sure we’ll find a police station or a hospital soon. And I’m tired of calling you Kid. I’m going to call you Andrew, okay? It’s a good name. It was my dad’s name.”
I got back on the road. Now that he was warm, Andrew was looking sleepy. I continued talking to him in a soft voice.
“Whatever happened to John The Douchebag, you ask? He’s still in San Diego. I finally left him a few days ago. Why? Well, John was a weekend bartender. He told me that he had to stay late after close to clean up and do inventory. But he came home smelling like a different perfume every Saturday night. He’d throw his stinky clothes in the hamper and I’d wash them. Then one day I was in the grocery store and I saw this jug of bleach with a picture of a sheep on the label. My dad used to joke about moving to the country and raising sheep, so I knew it was him sending me a sign. I bought four jugs and I waited for the next sign. Sure enough, a few days later my dad sent me this car. I did John’s laundry one last time. And I used every bit of that bleach.”
The road came to an abrupt end. I had to choose which way to turn and neither direction looked promising. All I could see either way was trees. I glanced at Andrew. His eyes were closed and he was breathing deeply. He had stuck his left thumb in his mouth, so I turned left. I had a good feeling about this road. Surely it would lead me to a town.
My mom had always laughed when we got lost on those weekend drives. She would offer to ask for directions, or at least buy a map, but my dad refused to pull over. He said that would be cheating. I used to fall asleep in the backseat, lulled by the rhythm of the road and my parents’ soft voices.
I felt my stomach clench at the thought of seeing my mom again. I knew I deserved the I told you so, but I didn’t want to hear it. We’d had a screaming match about John right before I packed a bag and took off in the night. I hadn’t spoken to her since.
After my dad died, my mom and I had become two strangers living in the same house. The effort required to get out of bed everyday and continue living our lives was exhausting. We rarely spoke, and we never laughed anymore. Then one day she introduced me to Bald Irv. She married him while I was still in high school.
I guess he wasn’t a bad guy. If you could get past the annoying, wheezy laugh and the golf shirts. I did everything I could to make his life hell, though. I walked around the house half-naked. I poured salt in his precious fish tank. Once when he hosted a poker night with his buddies, I made fudge with laxative in it. I thought it was hilarious when they were all fighting for the bathroom; my mom and Bald Irv did not. By the time I left, they were ready to kick me out.
In San Diego, my dad had kept putting reminders of my mom in my path. My apartment building had a big pot of pink geraniums in front of it, my mom’s favorite flower. A woman at work kept buying chicken quesadillas for lunch, my mom’s favorite food. The guy whose car I was driving had lived on Aquamarine Road, my mom’s birth stone.
If I turned on the radio right now, it would probably be playing a U2 song, my mom’s favorite band. The thought gave me a little chill. I didn’t reach for the knob. My dad wanted me to make up with my mom, and he wasn’t going to give up until I did.
A junction sign appeared up ahead. I had been right about this road. It didn’t take me to a town, but it intersected with a highway. It wasn’t the one I had gotten off of, but it was headed in roughly the right direction, so it would do. I still needed to find a police station, though.
I glanced at the clock and realized that I had been driving around for almost two hours. I also realized that I didn’t have a clue where that wrecked car was. How was I supposed to lead the police back to it?
There was a billboard next to the highway advertising a Fall Family Fun Festival. My dad had loved that sort of thing. We attended every street carnival, festival, and Renaissance Faire within two hundred miles. He was sending me another sign.
My dad had guided me to just the right place at just the right time to find this baby. If I hadn’t come along then Andrew might have sat in that car for hours, or even days. If not for me, he might have died in there. My dad had saved Andrew’s life so I could have a son, and repair my life. My mom would forgive me if she found out she had a grandson. And Doreen and I could push strollers through the park together, and gossip while we did midnight feedings. Our babies would grow up to be best friends. That was the life I had been meant to have, the life my dad wanted for me.
Judging by the smell in the car, I needed to find a place that sold diapers. And formula. Andrew must be hungry by now. But I wasn’t worried. I knew that my dad would guide me to what I needed.
I turned onto the highway and headed east.