Little Girl Gone – Chapter 2

Reprinted with the permission of Grand Central Publishing.

Copyright © 2011 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 2

(Click here to read Chapter 1 first)

Five Years Later

Little Girl Gone Cover

Madora Welles rose from the living room sectional where she had spent the night and drank a cup of instant coffee, standing in the carport outside the kitchen. The cement was cool and slightly damp, and her bare feet stuck to it in a pleasant way. She ran her fingers through her light brown hair, a color her father had long ago described as mouse. Little Mouse had been one of his pet names for her. Little Mouse, Pug because her nose was pert, Runt because she was short. Sweetheart Girl.

How odd that her father’s voice, though he had been gone ten years, still came into her mind as if he were sending messages by a circuitry available only to them.

Before six on an early summer morning, as the moon dropped below the western horizon, the sky over the Laguna Mountains was a wash of pale yellow, and the cool air smelled of sage and pepper and damp sand and stone. Rough chaparral covered the bottom and slopes of Evers Canyon, softened by the cream-colored blossoms of the chamise and the curves and hollows of the tumbled, biscuit-colored boulders. The rocks were ancient, Willis said, maybe two hundred million years old.

Madora was twenty-two years old, and two hundred million was a number so big she wasn’t even sure how to write it.

From behind the Lagunas, the sun rose and kissed the head of Evers Canyon that loomed directly behind Madora’s house. In the nearest town, Arroyo, and in San Diego, thirty miles west, people were just waking up, but Madora was alert as she and the dog walked across the yard and the cul-de-sac to where a weathered sign marked a trailhead into Cleveland National Forest, a vast, barren territory of mountains, rocks, and chaparral. A rock one hundred yards up the trail resembled a chair, and she often went there to sit and think and watch the land as she waited for the sun; but this morning Willis wanted her to stay near the house. She leaned back against the trail sign and swallowed the last of her coffee as she waited for the sun line to slip down from the canyon rim and melt the stiffness in her shoulders and neck. Willis said she’d feel better if she lost twenty pounds.

It was June and the weather had turned the corner, heading into full summer. The balls of sagebrush scattered across the sloping land were already brown. Soon the house would oven up and stay hot day and night until October. Although Madora opened all the windows to lure the slightest breeze, at the dead end of Evers Canyon the trapped air did not move much. Dust settled on every surface and clung to the curtains’ coarse weave. It powdered Madora’s skin, got in her eyes and hair and ears; her nose was so dry it sometimes bled. June meant that July was on its way and right behind it August and September, the hottest months of the year. Fire season.

The pit bull Madora had found as a puppy pushed against her leg, wanting attention. Though Foo was only a few months old, his personality had begun to organize itself into a mixture of aggression and timidity, curiosity, loyalty, and affection. During the previous night the cries coming from the woman in the trailer behind the house seemed to frighten him. He whimpered until Madora drew him against the curve of her body where she lay on the sectional.

There had been five cabbage-sized pups in the box at the side of the road, only Foo left alive and him just barely. Brown and white and squint-eyed, he had felt in her hands like a small warm loaf of bread. Coyotes would have gotten him if Madora had not seen the box. Coyotes and hawks. Spiders and snakes. The world was full of danger. In Cleveland National Forest even the plants had spikes and thorns.

She buried the puppies in the sand along the dry stream at the back of the house and gathered stones for a cairn. She gave Foo water and then evaporated milk from an eyedropper and put a hot water bottle and a scrap of blanket in a box for him to snuggle up to. Willis said they couldn’t afford a dog, but Madora convinced him otherwise, pointing out that a pit bull would be a good watchdog. He needed shots and a tag with his name: Foo. Madora wanted him to have a proper license from the county, but Willis didn’t like signing forms that required his name and address.

Foo had become part of Madora’s nursery of injured animals and struggling plants. But he was more than that. His companionable presence made the long days less monotonous. She talked to him about the things that mattered to her; and as he listened, his small bright eyes never left her face, as if he believed she had all the answers, if only he could figure out what the questions were.

Under the carport there were pots and planters and whiskey barrels full of zinnias and cosmos and petunias, flowers that endured the heat as long as they were watered. On a shelf made of bricks and boards, a homemade cage held a rabbit with one ear ripped by a hawk. After six weeks it still cowered at the back of the cage. In another cage, she kept a coyote pup she’d raised from skin and bones, wild and mean. She had found him on the far side of the truck trailer where the girl was.

As Madora walked back across the road, back to the house, a stranger, a hiker or a boy riding a mountain bike, would have seen a fair-skinned girl made beautiful by innocence, candid green eyes, and skin turned to gold by the sun. But almost no one ever came this far up Evers Canyon; there were much easier trails into the Cleveland.

Madora and Willis had lived in the three-room house at the end of Red Rock Road for almost four years, renting from a man they had never met who kept the rent low as long as they paid on time and asked no favors or improvements. In Madora’s memory the months and seasons blurred; one summer was as hot as another, one winter as dry as the next. Country life suited her, but nature’s ruthlessness was frightening. On a walk with Willis she had stepped into a spider’s net cast between two trees on opposite sides of the trail. As she pulled the sticky webbing from her hair and face, a butterfly came away in her hand, its wings as dull and dry as paper. Madora wanted to destroy the web, but Willis admired the intricacy of the silken weave. He said there was a circle of life and coyotes and spiders as much as girls and butterflies were part of it.

Madora didn’t believe that life was a circle. Tending her damaged animals, she saw that it was more like a canyonback, where some got trapped and only a few rescued.

In the truck trailer up on cement blocks, the girl named Linda had screamed through the small hours of the night. Willis worked as a home health care provider and before that he had been a medic in the Marine Corps. He promised that compared to fixing men torn up by IEDs and land mines, delivering a baby was nothing. But still she screamed. Willis had given her pills, but Madora guessed from the cries that they had not been sufficient to ease her labor pains. Anyone walking by could have heard the noise she made, but the house was at the end of the road, almost a mile from its nearest neighbor, and the residents of Evers Canyon kept to their own business.

In the kitchen Madora followed the directions Willis had made her repeat back to him a half dozen times. She put a clean plastic tub in the sink with an old towel folded on the bottom. Another towel she folded in half and laid out on the counter beside the sink. On the other side she put a clean sponge and a bottle of lemon-colored extra-gentle bath soap and a third towel. The day before she had scoured every surface in the kitchen with Clorox, making her eyes burn and water. On her hands and knees she scrubbed the kitchen floor until she thought she would wear through the old vinyl to the gappy floorboards beneath. Afterwards she wouldn’t let Willis wear his shoes indoors until he pointed out that if Foo could run in and out, he should be able to as well. Madora could not ban Foo. He would be hurt and confused. She gave him a bath and washed the floor again.

She heard Willis come around the corner of the carport, his boots crunching in the gravel. He opened the screen door and let it slam behind him. He carried a bundle in his arms, wrapped in a flannel blanket.

“Do you remember what I told you?”

She nodded, taking the baby from him.

“When you’re done, put him in that nightgown thing with the cord at the bottom.” Willis’s black hair had come out of its ponytail and hung down thick and straight on either side of his handsome face, casting shadows and deepening the lines of exhaustion that accentuated the slant of his cheekbones. He looked like John the Baptist in a picture on the wall of the Sunday school Madora attended as a child.

In Madora’s arms, the newborn was light, a feather in a balloon wrapped in tissue.

“He’s so small.”

“Around six pounds, I’d guess. Not bad, considering.”

“How’s Linda?”

“Passed out, but she’ll be okay. She tore bad, so I had to give her more pills than I wanted. I stitched her, though. No problemo.” He walked out of the tiny kitchen toward the back of the house, his voice muffled through his sweat-stained shirt as he pulled it over his head. “While I’m gone

I want you to go in there and give her a good wash and change the sheets. I bought some of them female napkin things. She’ll need those.”

“How long will you be gone?”

He didn’t answer.

The baby in Madora’s arms did not feel as she remembered her baby dolls had, the snug way their rubber bottoms had rested in the curve of her arm when she was seven years old. Her grip on this shapeless mass was uncertain, and it was a relief to lay him on the towel beside the sink. She pulled back an edge of the thin blanket so she could see his face. She was sorry to think he was ugly, but it was the truth. His low forehead was covered with black hair, his  nose squashy, and his skin as red and scratched as if he’d been in a playground fight. She laid her index finger on his cheek and his puffy eyelids fluttered—such thick black lashes!— and opened just enough so that Madora could see that his eyes were the color of deep water.

“You had a rough time, didn’t you, little guy?” Her voice appeared to startle him. He jerked his arms and legs and made Madora laugh. At the sound, his eyes widened. She smiled at him and put her face close, wanting him to see her smile, as if this might go some way toward assuring him a happy life.

Be lucky, she thought.

As Willis had instructed, she ran a few inches of warm water into the plastic tub in the sink and unwrapped the blanket from around the baby’s body. She stifled a wash of disgust at the sight of his flesh painted with a sticky slime of blood and a white, almost cheesy substance. An inch of tied-off umbilicus hung from his stomach. Madora wished she knew if all babies looked this awful in the first moments of life. It would be a disaster and ruin all Willis’s plans if he tried to give the baby boy to the lawyer and he was rejected. Willis was in a saving frenzy, talking about medical school and how much he needed the lawyer’s twenty-five thousand in cash.

When the water touched the boy, he went rigid and yelped—a cracking huff of surprise that subsided when his chest and arms and legs submerged. After a moment, he seemed to like the water, and Madora wondered if it reminded him of the time before he was born. Did a baby in the womb feel imprisoned or safely cared for? It seemed like the older she got, the more often such crazy and unanswerable questions popped into her mind.

She poured a minute drop of liquid soap into the palm of her hand and smoothed it over his saggy mottled skin. His eyes stayed locked on hers, hardly blinking. She was not sure if he actually saw her; still his fixed, deepwater stare had an absorbing intensity and she believed that he was memorizing her. A year from now, if she saw him in a stroller in a supermarket, he would look up at her, lock eyes, and know her.

From the bathroom Madora heard the sound of shower water hitting the metal wall of the stall. Normally she didn’t like it when Willis used too much water, but this morning she would not mind if he took one of his long scalding showers and drained the tank.

The slippery baby bundle rested on her forearm and she ran her fingers between each digit of his feet and hands. She lathered the thicket of black hair and felt the pulse beneath the softness at the back of his head. Willis had told her what this tender spot was called and warned her to be careful of it. She trembled with the fragility of his body, and her tears salted the warm water. Cradling his buttocks in her palm, she smoothed away the sticky residue of the birth canal, moving her fingers up under his chin and beneath his arms. From between his legs, a cloud of bubbles popped to the surface of the bath and Madora laughed.

She lifted him from the water, long and limp and skinny; and as she did he cried again, a piercing sound Madora understood immediately as surprise and cold. She quickly wrapped him in a fresh towel and held him against her heart, patting and crooning soft assurances that he would soon be warm.

No one needed to tell her how to hold him and pat him dry. The skill was born in her, an instinct. Since she held her first baby doll, she had wanted to be a mother. In high school, career day never interested her. Kay-Kay had talked about joining the army and called Madora a wuss because the idea did not appeal to her.

The water sounds from the bathroom stopped, and the shower’s plastic door banged against the outside of the stall.

“We have to hurry now,” she whispered, fiddling with the disposable diaper, determining front from back. “We don’t want to make Willis cross, do we?” In the dry air of the June morning, his hair was a dark nimbus, floating like the tag ends of sweet dreams from before he was born. Madora slipped the cotton gown over his head and tied it at the bottom with a drawstring, enclosing his feet. The gown was blue for a boy, though they had not known what the sex of the baby would be.

It would have been dangerous to take Linda to a doctor, and so Willis had handled everything. From the perfection of this little boy, it seemed he’d been right when he said a doctor was not necessary. “All over the world women have babies without the help of doctors.”

During her five months in the trailer Linda had never spoken about the baby’s father, even when Madora asked directly. Whoever he was, Madora knew he didn’t deserve anything as precious as the lamb in her arms. Nor did Linda. Willis had arranged for him to be adopted through an attorney who specialized in such matters, a friend of the nephew of one of Willis’s clients. The adoption attorney did not ask many questions and told Willis it would not be necessary for Linda to sign any papers. He would deliver the baby to his new parents. There would be a birth certificate with their names on it.

He would not need to be fed immediately, according to Willis, but she hoped the lawyer had made arrangements just in case. There should be another person with him to hold this small creature and prepare a bottle when he cried. A pain cut through Madora when she imagined him strapped into a cold car seat, hungry and suffering and only hours old, just new in the world and passed from hand to hand like something bought in a store.

Willis came into the kitchen wearing the Levi’s she’d pressed for him and the heavy denim shirt that was as dark as the baby’s eyes. He had combed back his hair and twisted it up on his head. He looked from the baby to her and smiled and lifted his soft, felt cowboy hat off a hook and put it on.

In Madora’s experience even the most attractive people had imperfections—a bump on the bridge of the nose or one eyelid a little droopy—but Willis’s face had no such irregularities. The two sides matched exactly, and this balance gave his face not only beauty but also an appealing serenity because there was nothing about it that needed to be adjusted. The first time she saw him, he was standing in front of her on the porch of the old house in the desert. So beautiful and calm. She thought he must be an angel.

She said, “I’m worried about him.”

“The lawyer? He’ll be there.”

“The baby.”

“I checked him over. He’s fine.”

“What if he gets hungry?”

“The lawyer’ll take care of that. We’re going to meet up in Carlsbad.”

“Let me come with you.”

“I’m tired, Madora. I want to get rid of this—”

“He’s not a this. He’s a boy.”

Willis’s expression said that he had heard enough. “Give him to me.”

She pulled back, ducking her head.

“You ought to try being a little sympathetic, Madora. I’ve been up all night. Linda just had a baby and she’s pretty knocked out, but she’ll come to soon, and when she does, she’ll need you.”

The baby arched his back and twisted his mouth, making sucking sounds as Willis took him from Madora. She opened the screen door.


He stopped under the carport and scowled at her.

She said, “I want to have a baby.”

“Is that was this is all about?” His chuckle was softly derisive. “You got bit by the baby bug?”

“I’d be a good mother.” She knew this. “Please?”

“Don’t push me, Madora.”

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Reprinted with the permission of Grand Central Publishing.

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