This month our guest author is a pinch hitter. She stepped in rather last minute and delivered this awesome tale. We're lucky to have her and her talent visiting LQR. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome Madeline Mora-Summonte.
Delia doesn't remember a lot of things, but she'd remember stealing a baby. Wouldn't she?
Delia doesn't remember stealing the baby.
She stops walking, stares into her rusty shopping cart. The baby girl, swathed in a clean pink blanket, sleeps among the lumpy garbage bags stuffed with Delia's life. Delia leans over, sniffs. She can't always trust her eyes – she sometimes sees things that aren't there. Her nose twitches. The smell of innocence - baby shampoo, apple juice, cookie crumbs – punches through Delia's own stink, knocks down any doubt still standing.
Delia whirls around, panic scratching the inside of her throat with familiar fingers. No, no, no. Not the police. They'll lock her up. Not the doctors. They'll put her away. Again.
But the area around Delia, the edge of town, is deserted. She pushes the cart down an alley, breath rattling the fragile birdcage of her chest. She leans against the wall. The baby watches with serious eyes. Delia rubs her aching forehead. She doesn't remember taking this baby. But she doesn't remember a lot of things. She frowns. The baby's brow furrows in response.
"Don't worry, princess. Here . . . " Delia rummages through a bag, puts the storybook on the baby's belly. The baby gurgles, ruffles the book's swollen pages, gnaws on a corner of the stained cover.
"I can't read it to you, little one. I never did learn so good." Delia knows only from the pictures that it's a book of fairy tales, of princesses and dragons and knights who save the day.
She used to wish someone would save her from the voices inside her head, and the ones outside that called her names, that demanded she do nasty things. She used to wish someone would save her from dark corners and probing fingers, from blood and bruises. But she learned early that fairy tales don't come true for people like her.
Delia shuts her eyes, hard, tight, searching her memory for where she found this baby, for picking her up, for putting her in the cart. But Delia can't find anything anywhere. She gasps, opens her eyes. What if . . . what if she didn't steal this baby? What if . . . what if someone gave her to Delia? To protect. To save.
Delia studies the baby, who looks healthy, clean, well taken care of. But so did Delia. Once upon a time.
Rage fills Delia's heart with the heat of a dragon's fire. She will save this baby, save her from a life like Delia's. She will not let this baby girl down.
Delia pushes her cart, her life, behind the dumpster then scoops the baby into her arms. They have to go. Now. The baby hugs the storybook and gives Delia a big gummy smile as if she agrees, as if she knows Delia is her destiny.
Delia leaves town, taking back lanes and worn paths. She whispers to the baby, to herself, "You are a beautiful princess, and I am your guardian ogre, and we are running, running, running from the dragon . . . "
Delia walks until her knees almost buckle. She sings and tells stories until her throat scrapes. She bounces the baby in shaky arms, muscles turning to rubber. An unfamiliar deserted road winds and twists under her, ahead of her. Heat rises from its cracked, scaly surface.
Off in the woods, an old-fashioned school bell clangs. Delia stumbles, stops. Her mind sweats, her thoughts swim in salty confusion. She looks down at the baby. Is Delia supposed to take her to school?
"You want to go to school, little princess? You can learn to read, read that book to me." Delia brushes the baby's cheeks with gentle fingers.
The baby wriggles in Delia's arms, smiles.
Delia steps among the trees, into their cool, damp embrace. The baby gives a joyful screech. Delia laughs. The bell cheerfully beckons them, but Delia's not sure which way to go. She turns slowly, stops, squints. A path. She thinks.
They burst into a clearing.
|Artist: Abby McClean|
The bell, shiny and sturdy, slows, quiets as the boy riding the rope lets go, landing with a soft thud. Children turn and face Delia as one.
Shock sends Delia to her knees. The storybook falls to the dirt. Delia can only take in pieces – scalded skin, blistered faces, boiled skulls, tufts of hair, withered limbs. She blinks hard, rapidly. Is she seeing things again? She sniffs, gags on the stench of rotting, decayed flesh. Her bowels let loose. The baby whimpers.
The boy who was ringing the bell hobbles forward. He grins through crisped skin. His one eye gleams with excitement.
"He told us you were coming." The boy's voice rasps.
Delia shakes her head, terror seizing her speech.
"The dragon." The boy points to the hole inside the school. Black and blue smoke plumes lazily, a languorous forked tongue tastes the air. "The dragon said the ogre would bring a princess to play with us."
The other children circle around, their skin crinkling. The baby wails, the sound piercing Delia's ear, her heart.
"But I . . . I saved her."
The boy holds out his arms.
"I…I'm her guardian ogre."
A horrible, horned reptilian head rises from the bowels of the burned school, as a remembered truth rises inside of Delia.