Mother May I Page 4

Just errands and emails, but I was operating on New Baby Time. Even the simplest things took four times longer than normal. The final bell was ringing as I pulled in to the parking lot by the new Performing Arts Center at St. Alban’s. Hordes of kids began streaming out of the buildings. I hurried as fast as I could while lugging Robert in his infant carrier, his diaper bag, and a reusable grocery bag full of snacks.

The PAC had a long, narrow greenroom between the chorus’s practice room and the orchestra’s, furnished in a hodgepodge of donated chairs and sofas. The whole back wall was windows, facing the parking lot. I saw Marshall already in there and broke into a trot. He was dressed for work in a blue suit that was older than Anna-Claire. I remembered Betsy buying it. It hung awkwardly on his long frame.

By the time I got inside, he’d already set up the table and was laying out fruit snacks and Capri Sun pouches for a steady stream of chattering kids.

“I’m here, sorry!” It came out chirpy and overbright.

“No problem.” He didn’t look up.

I set Robert’s carrier on a nearby sofa and started putting out milk boxes and Ziploc snack bags of baby carrots with hummus cups.

Marshall looked at my offering, his eyebrows lifting. “Does every bag have the exact same number of carrots?”

They did, actually. Ten. I felt a blush beginning, but I was saved from answering by Cara’s entrance. She looked so much like her mother that it hurt my heart every time.

“Hey, Sugar Peep,” Marshall said.

She shot him a mortified glare at the nickname and then said, “Hey, Auntie Bree,” overly loud and bright.

I said, “Break a leg today, kiddo,” and handed her a milk box.

She hurried out, and I gave Marshall a commiserating look. “Both my girls are in that same stage. Sweet to me at home, but in public I’m poison.”

He smiled, unworried. “I hear that in high school they stop pretending that they budded off of Rihanna and will admit to actually having parents.”

Just then Anna-Claire bounded through the door in full sunshine mode, her friend Greer in tow. She released Greer to hurl her arms around me. “Mom! Hummus! If you’d gotten pita chips, it would almost be a worthy snack!”

“Oh, yeah. I see how it is for you.” Marshall sounded good-humored, but not like Marshall. I couldn’t explain it, but I’d known him long enough to feel the difference.

Greer ignored the snacks. “Hi, Ms. Cabbat! Did you bring the baby?” As soon as she said it, she saw the car seat and dropped down to her knees in front of Robert. He was awake and beginning to make hungry noises. “Hi, Bumper! Oh, I love his feet! He’s so little. I can’t stand it!” She pinched his toes, distracting him, making him gurgle.

“We call him Robert,” I said.

“That’s right, Bumper, we call you Robert,” Anna-Claire said, grabbing snacks and then hauling Greer to her feet. They went galloping out in a swirl of plaid uniform skirts.

I turned back to Marshall to say something about adolescent mood swings, but what I saw over his shoulder froze my body, inside and out. It was a blotch of slow-moving darkness on the other side of the big wall of windows. It stopped my words, my very breath. It was her. The witch, from my dream. The one I’d seen peering in my window this morning. She was in the parking lot. Right beside my SUV.


She was not a witch, of course. Just a little old lady in a baggy black dress and cardigan. She lurched past my car, hurrying across the lot with a limping, pained gait. She did have a hat on, a dark knit cap that came to a sort of peak, but it was not tall or excessively pointy.

“Bree?” Marshall said, concerned. I wasn’t sure what my face was doing.

I pushed past him, running to the windows.

He joined me. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” I didn’t sound fine, even though this woman was the least threatening thing that I had ever seen. She was ancient, and toting an earth-conscious reusable grocery bag much like mine, for God’s sake.

But she did resemble my dream witch. Especially her hair, striped gunmetal gray and silver, the thin locks straggling out from under her hat.

I wondered if I should call the headmaster, or even the police, just to get a report on the record. In case the witch hadn’t been a dream but a thing my subconscious had made out of this actual woman. In case she really had been lurking in my backyard.

It seemed ridiculous, though. I knew what they would think of me, a mom with a new baby, overanxious and sleep-deprived. I could perfectly imagine their amused glances if I called them to report seeing a little old lady, maybe twice. It would be worse if I was truthful and mentioned the dream I’d had earlier. A witch, you say? They would be polite, but only because we lived in Decatur; we had high property taxes and our own police force. Money bought manners, and Trey made a lot of it. Otherwise I knew how it would go.

I knew because when I was growing up, my mother called the police on the regular. She lived convinced that my father might come back, even after he’d gone to prison. Even after he was dead. She’d hear him creeping around under the house or on the roof at night. And yes, she often thought she saw a figure peering in our windows.

I knew most of our regular beat cops by name. Officer McKenzie would at least shine his light into the crawl space, but his flat gaze and long, slow exhales made it clear he thought my mom was crazy. Officer Loblis was more blunt about it. There are people in actual trouble. And here I am. With you. Again. Officer Dobson was the worst, looming over us, anger palpable in the lines of his big body. Once I heard him mutter, I ought to give you something to be scared about, lady, as he left. He was only a little less frightening than the imagined man she’d called about.

When I got pregnant with Peyton so soon after Anna-Claire, my mom let us buy her a condo near us. I’d long wanted to evacuate her from the leaky two-bedroom ranch where I’d grown up, but she wouldn’t move until she believed she was doing it for me. It was wonderful having her close when I had a newborn and a one-year-old, but the best part of the condo was the on-site security. All guests had to sign in and out, and only residents had key cards that would activate the elevators. Mom hadn’t called the cops once since she moved in, and yet, as I considered calling them myself, the mingled shame and fear from childhood were churning in me. I’d never learned my born-wealthy husband’s ease. In his mind the police worked for him, cruising our neighborhood to keep us safe. Whenever I saw them passing through or parked on our corner, I was swamped with the irrational, anxious feeling that I’d done a crime so secret that even I didn’t realize it.

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