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For Safekeeping by Robert Hilles

for safekeeping

Averie turns north onto 10th Street, eager to put distance between her and what has just happened. Before this morning her biggest worry has been coordinating her ovulation cycle with Bruce's low sperm count. For days at a time she has thought of little else. Do the math her sister told her. That's the trick to getting pregnant. Karen has three lovely children to prove it.

She takes 10th Street because it's faster than 14th Street. The long wait at the first set of lights near Memorial Drive causes her to drum her fingers on the steering wheel and take quick glance toward the passenger side, despite the risk.

Once through that intersection, traffic moves faster and she soon passes the Safeway where Arnold works as store manager. She last saw him there, not long after his promotion. She'd been in the produce section when she heard his peculiar belly laugh at the front of the store. When she moved closer for a better view, he stood at the express checkout flirting with a customer and cashier.

By the time Averie had finished shopping and reached the busy bank of checkouts he had returned to his office. She recognized the bald back of his head through the office window as he sat with the phone pressed to his good ear.

She and Arnold are practically strangers now. She had heard recently that his wife Cheryl just had their third child. All those years Averie had lived with Arnold, he had never wanted a family, hadn't wanted to ruin any children the way his father had ruined him.

She passes Riley Park, and above that a hillside patch of greenery, before the earthen-brick high-rises of The Southern Institute of Technology. Bruce and she went regularly to the pool at Riley Park on summer evenings to soak in all the hopeful energy from noisy children.

She concentrates now on the green Toyota passing on her left, careful not to get too close. Her nerves are already frayed and she has to keep telling herself that she's done right thing.

Her Subaru and the Toyota stay side by side as they go under the LRT bridge, and then the Toyota speeds ahead. One of the taillights has been hastily repaired with red reflector tape. She spots the cop in orange and yellow safety vest and brakes immediately but the officer has already pointed to the Toyota.

She increases her speed once she's past the SAIT campus, where her father used to teach mathematics, and then later, when his mind slowed, statistics, which he considered a waste of time.

For years, Averie's life could be summed up by a simple set of whole numbers-15 years in school, 5 years living common law, 10 years at the same electronics firm, 6 years of marriage to Bruce. Now it's fragments of fragments-a partial set of calculations at best.

Until her father died she hadn't wanted children and only thought of them as part of a vague future she hadn't committed to yet. Then out of grief came this sudden urgency that had delighted Bruce. For years he worried that he had lost his one chance at being a father when his first girlfriend insisted on having an abortion. At nineteen, he had been relieved, but since the results of his tests, she sometimes catches him at the kitchen table watching frantic children in the small playground kitty corner to their house.

When she pulls up, Bruce's Volvo is parked out front. She lingers in the car, and although she's all bubbly in her heart, her stomach is full of butterflies.

She has always enjoyed Bruce's imagination, the way he can turn a glance into a whole story, embellish an encounter with the police into some hilarious hi-jinx that has everyone splitting their sides with laughter. But today she worries how he'll spin this.

At the front door, she fumbles with her keys and has to set everything on the step. In her excitement, she tries to use the key to her old house, not yet discarded from her key ring. Once inside, she hears the rumble of Bruce's speakers, and other muffled noises of virtual warfare from the World of Warcraft.

As long as she doesn't take another step there is no choice to make. No telling. Nothing but this moment between the world she woke in today and this new one she's standing in now. She's the same person in the mirror and yet changed in ways the mirror can't show.

She runs a finger along the child's face and her glistening newborn eyes open, all dreamy and startled as she struggles to attend to Averie's finger.

"Averie?" Bruce leans against the doorway of his office, the battle noises turned off.

"Look!" she says.

"What have you done?"

"It's not how it looks."

"Are you out of your mind?"

They sit on the couch and she offers to let him hold the baby, but he shakes his head. She's never seen this cold resistance in him before, and yet his gaze rarely leaves the baby as she speaks.

She describes how she had been parked in the alley behind The Bay when she saw the young woman-a teenager really-her hair black except for two bright streaks of red and one very long strand of orange.

"She didn't see me as she leaned into a dumpster. I thought at first that she had lost something or that she worked in one of the big cafes or stores on 8th Ave and was dropping off a heavy bag of garbage."

When the woman straightened up, she took out a cigarette from a leather pouch around her waist. She puffed a couple times to make sure the cigarette was lit and then drew deeply and blew out three large smoke rings. Then she tossed the cigarette to the pavement and put it out with one quick twist of a purple boot.

The young woman leaned back into the dumpster and didn't stand erect for several minutes. When she did, she stayed beside the dumpster for another five minutes before she walked briskly toward 8th Avenue and disappeared in the busy noon-hour crowd.

Averie might have driven off then, but something about the woman's actions felt odd. She got out of her car and looked into the shadowed interior of the dumpster, filled with swollen garbage bags and a half-dozen blue two-by-fours and one broken venetian blind. One of the plastic bags wasn't fastened and rustled in the bit of breeze. When she spread it apart she saw bits of hair and blue eyes that did a wobbly circle and closed. Someone had meticulously washed off any messy signs of delivery from her face but her colour and the wrinkled newness of her suggested that she was less than a few hours old.

Averie lifted the baby out, red towel and all, and rushed back to the car and laid her on the passenger seat. The baby had thick tuffs of red hair and a round face and a perfect bump of a nose. She was well proportioned from head to toe without a mark on her.

Avarie re-bundled the baby in the crusty towel and lay her on the passenger side floor, where she would be safest, and where she could keep an eye on her.

"I think we should call her Bonnie after your mother," she says to Bruce.

"We can't keep her. She's bound to have a family. And how would we ever explain her? We have to call the police."

"She needs a good home and what better one than ours? I thought it through on the drive."

"This isn't the 1920s. Babies can be traced. Do you want to go to jail?"

"But Bruce, look at her. She's so beautiful. She'd never know. No one's going to miss her. Her mother would want this."

"Sooner or later we'd be found out and then what would happen to her?"

"If I hadn't come along, she could have died before anyone noticed her."

"You don't know that. The longer we wait before phoning the police the harder it will be to explain how we ended up with her here. You should have called them from the alley. We've probably broken several laws already."

"I've broken, you mean. Don't worry I'll come clean if that's what you're worried about."

"Of course that's not what I'm worried about."

"We want a family and she needs a family. It can't be any simpler than that. If we call the police they'll put her in a foster home and charge her mother. No one wins then."

"You shouldn't have given her a name."

"But how could I not give her a name? Look at her."

He turns his back on her and dials a number on his cell phone.

She detests him at this moment more than she has ever detested anyone, despite seeing the truth in what he says. In every way he is right. She sees the clear logic in it, as her father taught her to see and value logic, but then Bonnie opens her eyes, and right now, as Averie holds her, they are a family. Not one that will exist long, but at this moment she feels connected to Bonnie in a way she has never felt to anyone. Not to Bruce or her parents or Karen.

Her mother and Karen must have this love even more intensely. All these years, she has missed out on this very necessary thing. She understands now the joy she's seen on her sister's face.

Bruce may have his doubts but she doesn't. As long as she holds Bonnie, she has a daughter.

Regardless of all those years poring over numbers and delighting in their precision, she's come to believe that happiness comes about because of a series of miscalculations, just like those today. This morning, the odds had been steeply against Bonnie, but that's all changed now.

Bruce would make a better father than her own. He knows how careful and tenuous relationships are. She imagines, too, her nieces fawning over Bonnie and how much closer she would feel to Karen. She aches over the mother-daughter stories she might have shared with her sister. Everything in the future is a vague smear except for this new, deeply seated longing.

Billions of choices are made every second for billions of reasons and yet all those choices derive but a single outcome-this present moment, caught briefly in a ripple of time. Just as quickly it's gone.

Bonnie wiggles and smiles in the accidental way newborns do. "You're lovely," Averie says. She kisses Bonnie's forehead and inhales her slightly sour odour. "You'll be alright," she says, and so much wants that to be true.

Bruce has finished the call and doesn't say anything. Instead he holds out his arms as a signal the he wants to take Bonnie. She reluctantly passes her to him and he pushes aside the towel and gently strokes her cheek. He rocks her slowly and hums quietly almost to himself. She's never heard him hum before.

He stops humming and says, "You did the right thing."

She looks out the front window. They will come without the lights flashing or siren going as they inch up the street and come to a full stop behind her car. There will be two of them, one a woman.

From the outside, their stucco and brick house looks exactly like every other house on this block, built in the careless boom of the 1970s. The police will have to check the address again just to be sure they've got the right house.

The sky darkens and there are several claps of fierce thunder in rapid succession. This makes Bonnie cry and Bruce rocks her and hums softly and she quiets.

After the thunder comes a driving rain so heavy that Averie can barely see the houses across the street.

She doesn't recognize the tune Bruce is humming now, but it blends so well with the sound of rain that she lets go a little, but not enough to change anything.

"She needs a bottle," she says.

"They said they'll bring supplies."

The front window has started to fog from the humidity.

"Now that's a real downpour," Bruce says.

Averie can't imagine what the rain must sound like to Bonnie-maybe like the static of a radio off its station or the sea from far away. She walks down the hall to the linen closet and gets a fresh, white towel. She takes the baby from him and wraps her in the clean towel and holds her as she stands.

"Averie?"

She walks to the front door. The rain has already abated but she covers the baby's face just in case and runs to the car.

When she drives off, Bruce is holding screen door half open.


When she reaches Canmore, she pulls into the Cascade Resort, a two-story motel with a bright orange railing. She signs in under her own name and uses a credit card. She considers calling Bruce but decides to wait until morning. From a purely mathematical point of view her choices are simple, manageable, but she's rounded a sharp curve in her life and the way ahead is not yet calibrated.

From her trunk, she unloads an assortment of baby supplies she bought at the last Walmart, on the way out of Calgary. She has watched her sister wrestle with armfuls of baby paraphernalia over the years but only now does she appreciate the sheer number of chores involved. She makes several trips from the car holding Bonnie the whole time, and then bathes her on a folded towel in the bathtub and dresses her in a diaper and Onesie and a soft pink sleeper. She pulls a tiny knit cap over her red tufts.

Averie warms formula in the microwave next to the TV and sits in the only chair-an uncomfortable wooden backed desk chair. At first Bonnie resists the bottle and moves her head from side to side, until she negotiates the nipple into her mouth and begins to suck. Averie takes the bottle out halfway through to burp her.

Bonnie drinks the rest of the bottle and bobbles her head about as though trying to take in the room in the vague light from the bedside lamp. Averie rocks her and sings softly to her, Hush Little Baby, the one song that comes to mind. In no time, Bonnie is asleep and Averie eases her into the car seat. Averie lies atop the covers on the king size bed, her mind too busy for sleep. Eventually she gets up and watches Bonnie. The quickness of Bonnie's short breaths surprises her.

Later, she sleeps for an hour or so until the phone in the hotel room wakes her. She considers letting it ring through but after a half dozen rings she answers.

"Averie?" Bruce says, and then waits.

"How did you find me?" she says, but then guesses immediately that he's called the credit card company about their joint card.

"You've got to come home."

"I can't."

"It'll work out, you'll see."

He hasn't told the police yet where she is or they'd already be at the door. But whatever he's told them they are looking for her already, maybe even tracking her cell phone.

"What did you tell them?"

He goes silent and she thinks at first that he has hung up until she hears him breathing.

Bonnie fidgets in her car seat, but her eyes aren't open yet. In no time she will start to cry for a morning feeding and a diaper change. The mothering rhythm of that and other demands are Averie's priority right now.

She can imagine the derivations her father would go through in this situation and they are not unlike the ones Bruce has already done. She knows him well enough that she doesn't need to hear him voice any of it. But coldhearted logic will not help Bonnie right now.

"I've got to go."

"Averie?"

She hangs up before Bruce can say another word.

At the car, she secures Bonnie into the middle of the back seat. It feels good to put her energies into Bonnie's safety. She'll go south to Radium. That part is easy. After that it gets more difficult. She'll continue south, which will take her to the border and if she manages to cross, then what? If she's lucky, by the time the police find her car she will be far enough away that she will essentially have disappeared. Getting into Mexico should be easy. She'll have to get word to her mother and sister, but all in good time. Sometimes saving a life means risking everything. But what young life isn't worth that?

She puts on the Raffi CD she bought at Walmart and has the highway nearly to herself, encountering only a few transports and cars going the other way. She keeps to the speed limit, the morning brilliant and crisp, the mountain light putting a sheen on everything.

When Bonnie fusses again, she pulls over and opens the back door to use the rear seat as a change table. She has babysat numerous times for her sister and yet the level of intimacy is different this time. Bonnie's tiny body is no more than two of Averie's hands in length and yet possesses a wholeness she will carry with her throughout her entire life.

Behind Averie, the air smells of pine and spruce perked up by last night's rain. And that smell triggers a memory of her mother rocking her on a porch somewhere. She couldn't have been more than a couple of years old. Her mother is singing in this memory and there is a red wall behind her. She tries to remember when her mother stopped singing to her, but recalls only that at some point she no longer sang.

By then Averie's father had taken a larger role in her life. He had her write the numbers from 1 to 100 sequentially. He put a large red X through any number she did not write perfectly. Later he had her do multiplication tables to twenty, and by then she had the hang of numbers and liked the little tricks she could do with them. But mostly she felt proud every time her work was free of red Xs.

There is a bit of a chill in the morning breeze at her back and she quickly bundles Bonnie up and is once again on her way. The highway cuts through one range and then another and the sun appears and disappears with increasing regularity. The intermittence of dark and light feels natural and completely out of her control save for the speed of the car.

An hour farther down the road, Bonnie cries again and once again Averie pulls over, this time to feed her and coax her back to sleep. When she is about to set off again, she watches the gradual progress of an advancing shadow from some cloud just above the tree line.

This is as far as she'll go into the mountains, but having decided that, she isn't yet ready to turn around. Surrounded as she is, she feels outside time, where it's possible to believe that the two of then will always be together, everything here the timeless backdrop to a hundred million years or so that have skimmed past. She and Bruce have climbed similar peaks and have seen from the very top how haphazardly mountains piggyback each other. There is no mind at work here, only brute force.

Right now Bonnie has no comprehension of her precarious first two days of life, but in Averie's eyes, even the scenery is transformed from harmless stillness into a tightly wound spring awaiting release. There is no sign of a larger hand orchestrating. Bonnie will learn this in time, too, her body perhaps already sensing it in all of the odd transactions of these first days.

A large bull elk rises up from the brushy shoulder of the highway and steps onto the pavement, its determined strut that of the rutting male. The fierce majesty of the animal causes Averie to catch her breath.

When the elk nears the car he leaves the centerline to comes alongside and his 14-point antlers scrape against the driver's window. She doesn't dare start the car for fear of triggering an attack. She voices a silent command for the animal to move on.

The Elk stands still, as though listening and she wonders what thoughts circulate in its animal brain. From this distance one powerful neck thrust would smash the antlers through her window. But instead, he turns away from the car so his sizeable rump faces her, and she has the irrational thought that this is what a horse does before it delivers a powerful, fatal kick.

Bonnie lets loose a sharp, piercing cry. The elk lifts his head and bugles a long bass note. This is answered by a warning blast from an air horn. There are two more bursts as a transport gears down with that familiar, throaty rumble. The elk bolts to the safety of opposite shoulder and disappears down the bank and into the trees. The truck slows nearly to a crawl as it nears her and honks again. She waves and the driver waves before speeding up.

When Bonnie cries more urgently, Averie unfastens her seat belt and squeezes past the gearshift to gather her up and rock her. It takes twenty minutes to settle Bonnie, and when she's finally asleep again, Averie watches her eyelids flutter and her nose twitch now and then as if bothered by an odor.

If this were a dream, this is the moment Averie would choose to wake, Bonnie still in her safekeeping. But the promise of this will not last. She wishes she could see ahead to Bonnie's fiftieth birthday and be assured that she will have a happy and full life. But her vision is confined to this walled, tangible present.

She wonders if her father ever worried in this way about Karen and her. He insisted that he didn't believe in worry, but she's certain that is just another lie he told himself.

It is the smell of Bonnie that she won't forget. Until now, she has assumed that all babies smelled alike-of baby powder, baby oil, and of something earthy and sweet. But Bonnie smells like herself and nobody else. Averie wishes she could preserve that scent, as she might preserve a sound or an image.

She slips Bonnie into her car seat, and then gets back behind the wheel. She starts the engine and checks the rear view mirror for vehicles, and even though there aren't any, she signals before she eases back onto the highway.



Robert Hilles has published 19 books and received the Governor General's Award for Poetry for Cantos From A Small Room. His first novel, Raising of Voices, won George Bugnet Award. His latest novel, A Gradual Ruin, was published by Doubleday Canada. His books have also been shortlisted for The Milton Acorn People's Poetry Prize, The W.O. Mitchell/City of Calgary Prize, The Stephan Stephansson Award, and The Howard O'Hagan Award. The story included here is from a book in progress tentatively titled, The Conversationalist and Other Stories. His 20th book, Time Lapse, will be published in the spring of 2012.

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