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Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
I still can’t get what happened last week out of my head. I mean, it doesn’t fit together at all. I haven’t been able to get any rest for the past few days just thinking about it, so I figured I’d just write it down here and see if you guys had any better luck explaining it.
I work in daycare. It’s a pretty established place in a big city on the coast. That’s about all I can say. I still work there and I don’t want someone linking this post back to my employer. I’m not supposed to talk about anything that happens to the kids online.
We mostly cater to the professional crowd. Busy people in finance and internet startups, who don’t use the office daycare. Or don’t have any office daycare. It’s a common sight to see someone in a business suit drop of a baby with a large cup of Starbucks in the other hand. People who can afford to blow twenty five bucks a week on coffee. Go figure. One of the attractions was that we offered daycare for infants as well. A Godsend for the jet setting crowd in the city I suppose.
Lucy C. was my favourite baby. Lucy’s her real first name, which is all I’m prepared to share. We all have favourites, working in daycare. We’re not like parents, having to spread the love out equally. Anyway, when you’re faced with four screaming babies, you grow to like the quiet ones more than the others. Lucy C. was as close to a perfect baby as we’d ever cared for. Wasn’t much of a crier, unless her nappy was full. Went to sleep like clockwork. She had a crown of wispy blonde hair, which set off her piercing cornflower blue eyes.
Mr C., as far as I could gather, was a self made businessman. One of those internet start up companies. I never caught what he did, and the five minute handovers in the morning really didn’t make for startling revelations about his hopes and dreams. He was always dressed sharply. I’m not one for chasing fashion but some of the other girls here whispered designer labels that I’d only heard of in celebrity mags when they referred to his latest threads. He seemed genuinely pleasant, if a little distracted in the mornings.
I’d never seen a Mrs C. There was an Abigail C. on the emergency contact form all the parents had to leave with the centre but she was listed as his sister. I know some of the others joked about whether he was on the market, so to speak, when they saw his sports car pull up to drop little Lucy off in the mornings, but that was just our equivalent of locker room talk. He was awfully rich though, successful in an ecosystem which chewed up and spit out a hundred other young businessmen every year. Some kind of magic touch, the others said, coming out of nowhere and building something up like that. Young entrepreneur of the year award and all that jazz.
I try and think back to that morning last week. Did Mr C. look strange that morning when he dropped Lucy off? To be honest, I’ve been over those five minutes hundreds of times over the past few days. His suit was immaculate. He greeted me like he did with the rest of the staff, warm smile, a kiss for Lucy, a gentle request for us “to take good care of his girl”. Just about the same thing any of the other twenty or so parents that hour would have said. Maybe there really wasn’t anything wrong. I keep on thinking back because if things had gone differently, I might have been able to save Lucy. Shit, I don’t know why I wrote that. Lucy’s fine. Or she should be. I don’t know why I can’t get it out of my head that I made a terrible mistake. Why there’s this guilt I feel when I check in at work and look at her favourite toys on the playroom floor.
The children were taking their afternoon nap after their midday meal. The chime told me that someone was at the desk. The other staff were busy with cleanup, so I went to see who it was. We didn’t have any early pickups scheduled, so I thought it might be someone making enquiries.
The guy was dressed in a suit, same as most of the other parents. It was a rich part of town. My breath caught a little when I saw him. He was really good looking. Not your high school crush good looking, I mean that guy looked like he was plucked straight from a fashion magazine. He stepped up to the counter and flashed this perfect white smile at me. There was something about this guy. I mean that smile made me go a little weak at the knees and it’s embarrassing to say but it also gave me a bit of a tingle down in my pants, if you know what I mean.
And then the strange part. As soon as I felt that little spark of arousal, it got drowned in this terrible feeling. Dirty. I felt dirty. Shameful. Like that time I’d walked in to call my younger brother down for dinner and found him jacking it to some random porn site. The kind of dirty that makes you feel like you’ll never be able to scrub it off.
When the man spoke, he had a sort of radio voice, you know kind of deep and smooth. It fit him perfectly.
“Mr C. and I had an agreement. I’m here to collect Lucy,” he said.
Not that Mr C. sent him. Not introducing himself. It was such a strange thing to say that I just stood there and gaped for a minute.
He just stood there, his eyes twinkling with good humour from that devilishly handsome face. Like he already knew the punchline to the joke.
It was an odd request. But we do get third party pick ups from time to time. It’s very, very rare. And we either need to be told in advance or be informed personally by the parents. Nobody had mentioned that baby Lucy was going to be picked up that day.
I told the man that we couldn’t do it unless he had authorization from the parent. He appeared to wait a while, deep in thought. Then he smiled and told me that everything had been arranged. He gestured towards my phone on the table. Just then, the damn thing rang. I jumped, a little edgier than I should have been. This strange man was really making me nervous. He had this weird air around him. It was intimidating. Like I was totally undeserving of his attention. His stare made my breath catch in my throat.
On the phone. Mr C. That was odd. He didn’t have my number. Hell, I didn’t have his number stored on my personal phone either. And it was on Facetime as well. I accepted the call and Mr C’s face filled the screen. Something was off about the call. At first I figured it to be the network connected. A little lag. His lips were out of sync with his voice. It was a disconcerting image, like a badly dubbed film.
“Hey. There’s a guy over there with you right?” Mr C. had a look of intense concentration on his face. There was something else there, a mark on his cheek. It was too small, too blur on the screen of my phone to make out. I knew for sure that it had not been there when he left Lucy in the morning. It seemed like some angular shape, the size of a quarter.
“Yes, there is sir.” I was mesmerized by the video feed.
“You need to give Lucy to him, you hear? Just give him Lucy.” His tone was clipped, urgent. There was something else about those flapping lips. They seemed to be repeating the same thing over and over.
“If you say so, Mr C. Is there something wrong?” Same two words. I could almost make them out.
“Nothing’s wrong. Just give him the girl. It’ll be fine after that.” I could see the slight parting of his lips for the sibilant. A small roll of his tongue for the second word. And repeated, over and over.
I looked back up at the man, standing there with a quiet smirk on his face. “I’ll go get the baby.” I left him there, and slowly made my way to the creches. S. L. I turned the words around in my head. What could Mr C. have been trying to say. S. L. Save. Save? Lucy?
I stood over the crib where she lay sleeping. She gave a gurgle of complaint as I scooped her up into my arms. Save Lucy, Mr C. had said. Did he know about the man at the counter? What agreement did they have? My mind was clouded with questions. I’d been given a direct instruction from the parent. Maybe there was a home emergency or something else.
The man beamed widely. He drew closer to the counter. There was a smokey smell about him, I hadn’t figured him for a smoker, with his perfect white teeth and his toned physique. He reached out for Lucy. I stopped short. “How do I even know you’re the man that Mr C. told me about, you could be anyone?” I said defiantly, not intending to let her go without a fight.
“Oh, Mr C. and I go back a long way. You could call me a godparent almost.” His mouth twisted at the penultimate word, like it left a sour taste in his mouth. “I’ve been watching over her since she was a baby. Here, I’ll prove it. She has a small birthmark on her left hip. Check and see.”
Triumph. There was no such birthmark on her. I’d gone over the files of each of my charges and I knew them almost as well as their parents did. Maybe even better, after all, I spent more time with them. I placed Lucy on the table and tugged at her nappy. Expecting to see pale skin, my mouth dropped open when I saw that angry red mark on her hip. That was not all. It was familiar. It was the same mark that had been on Mr C’s cheek. I try and try to remember what the mark looked like, but every time I do, my mind slides of the shape. It’s slippery in my mind, like trying to grasp a fish. It was small and angular. Almost like one of those runes they have in fantasy novels. That’s the worst thing. I stared at it for a good five minutes and I can’t form the shape in my head when I try to remember it.
“You seem reluctant, young lady. I assure you that no further inconvenience will befall you regarding this matter. The business is between me and baby Lucy here.” He leaned forward onto the counter. “It’s a slow day, I supposed you and I could come to some small agreement for the handover? The child needs to be given willingly and I’d hate for this to be delayed any further than it already has.” The smell of smoke grew stronger.
I picked up the baby and hugged her to my chest. She began to squall at the uncomfortable pressure. “I’ll need to speak to my supervisor about this,” I said. The man sighed and straightened up. “I was really hoping to be done with this business this afternoon. No matter, what’s due to me will come in the end. If not from you, then maybe from someone else more amenable.”
I turned around to call for the manager, but when she called back and I turned to the counter, the man was already gone, without so much as a chime from the door. I shook my head. He had been there a moment before and there hadn’t been a single noise when he disappeared. He left nothing but the faint smell of smoke and a freezing cold spot on the counter where he’d rested his elbows.
I censored the worst part of the events of the afternoon, saying that someone had come by to pick Lucy up had left without her. The manager, Jane, didn’t believe me. She looked Mr C. up on the register and gave him a call from the counter phone. I watched, biting my lip, as her jaw dropped and her face turned white. “You must have been mistaken. Mr C…” she swallowed. She took a shuddering breath. “That was the cops. Mr C. is dead. After dropping Lucy off this morning, he drove straight to his office and blew his brains out.” I shivered. Jane mistook my reaction for shock. That it was, but shock of a different kind. I took a look at my call history. Three thirty-five. The call was at three thirty-five. I shook so hard that the phone clattered to the floor.
Jane was still her take charge self, even while reeling from shock, she managed to call up the emergency number from the register with shaky fingers and dialed Abigail C., Mr C’s sister. The cops weren’t going to pick Lucy up, they had better things to do. She would be on the red eye flight over to get Lucy the first thing in the morning. That left us with the problem of taking care of the baby overnight. Jane offered to pay me double to stay there overnight with Lucy and I’d get the day off the next day to boot. It was a practical decision. None of the staff had small children at home and it would be easier to leave the baby in a familiar environment than to move all the stuff to one of our houses.
I had settled down for the evening. Dinner was some forgettable microwaved package out of the fridge. At least the place was set up for sleeping over. I’d been given a couple of hours off to grab and overnight bag and a shower. One by one the rest of the staff said goodbye, until it was just me and Lucy.
I couldn’t shake off the feeling that there was someone else in the centre apart from Lucy and I. The kind of feeling you get on the small hairs on the back of your neck that something isn’t quite right. I put it down to that creepy episode with the dark man earlier in the day and that impossible phone call. I checked on Lucy for the fifth or sixth time. She was sound asleep. Sleep came less easy for me.
Lucy’s crying woke me up in the middle of the night. I rushed over to the next room. I checked her nappy, she didn’t need changing. It was only after I blinked the sleep from my eyes that I saw the indentation of a hand on the clean white sheets of her crib. A big print. A man’s hand surely. I didn’t have to touch it to know that it would be freezing cold just like the countertop, but I did it anyway. I sucked at my lips as the cold sheet burnt my finger, almost like putting my finger on an ice cube straight from the freezer.
I hugged Lucy to my chest.
I gave a little scream as my phone rang from the next room. I looked at the number. Mr C. It took me three tries to hang up, my quivering finger missing the little spot on the touch screen over and over. Immediately after I killed the call, my phone sounded again. And again. And again until I powered it down. I glared at it, chest heaving. Ever wondered what goes through your mind when there’s nothing pumping through your veins but ice, and no motivation but raw animal fear? Nothing. That’s what. Instincts take over. You look for an escape. An opportunity. But what was there to run from? The feeling that I was being watched by that dark stranger? The phone calls from a dead man? I hit all the lights in the centre, power bill be damned. I felt trapped by those cheery pastel walls. I looked at the clock. Three am. Another three hours till first light. I held Lucy tighter. Those were the longest three hours of my life.
A rap on the front door woke me up. A tall, thin woman stood outside the glass doors of the centre. She was dressed for mourning, black from head to toe. It was windy out, her short bob whipping around her head. I hurried to let her in. She introduced herself as Mr C’s sister. Sensing my doubt, she showed me her driver’s license and the phone which had the number on our records. Lucy didn’t complain when the lady picked her up.
I got the release form ready and passed it over for the lady’s perfunctory signature. Everything checked out except for one thing. She didn’t have a trace of sadness around her, apart from a little dark under her eyes from the late flight across the country. Funny, for someone whose brother had just shot himself. She flashed me a smile as she pushed the signed form back across the glass counter.
I watched her stride confidently back out through the glass doors. There was something out of place with Mr C’s sister.
*from someone else more amenable.* That’s what the man said. If not me, then someone else.
There was a thud as the door closed. The wind snagged the woman’s hair from the collar of her dress, and there, red and raw on the nape of her neck, was that same symbol.
By the time I got out from behind the counter and out through the door, they were both gone.
It’s been a week. Mr C. didn’t have family in town. The authorities didn’t bother us about her, really. A cop called by to make sure that she had been handed over to an appropriate guardian and that was that. When nobody was looking, I would try dialing both Mr C’s number as well as his sister. The numbers were live for a day or so, then they were disconnected. I’ve tried for hours to remember the symbol that was on Lucy’s hip, the bizarre thing that appeared the day her father died. But I can’t. I just can’t do it.
I wonder what kind of agreement he had with Mr C, and how Lucy fit into the whole thing. I hope that Lucy is alright, somewhere out there, and that I’m just being paranoid. I know deep in my heart that this is a lie I need to tell myself if I am to have any semblance of normalcy after that one day. Most of all, I try to forget the face of the dark stranger with the perfect smile, who made me feel all hot and shameful at once, with those freezing cold hands. And I lie awake in bed, hoping that if I forget him, then maybe, just maybe, he will not remember me.