DIAPERS by Amanda Pauley
OLIVIA HEARD LABORED BREATHING from one aisle over. She stopped flipping through the pages of a well-worn copy of Deliverance in search of the infamous scene, and looked up. Martin was watching her through the shelves of fiction. His look was not unkind, only interested, like a cat watching a bug. Three months of working at the public library had introduced Olivia to a strange crowd. Someone peering through the shelves at her on a Saturday morning was not that unusual.
“Hello,” she said.
Martin came around to her aisle and stood a respectable distance away, first tapping on the spines of books, and then running his fingertips along them. His eyes moved from Olivia, to the books, and then to the ceiling. A bitter, dumpster smell accompanied him. He was in his fifties, perhaps, though his attire was boyish. His shorts may or may not have been swim trunks. His dark hair was wet, dripping. Enormous arm holes in his loose tank top revealed too much of a slightly overweight man. Six feet tall, he bore a hulking backpack, and carried a green water noodle under one arm. His smile was brief, babyish, sweet.
“Aw right now,” he said, and then left.
A voice from behind her: “Would you please help me find a DVD?”
Olivia turned around to face down little Sampson Raft, who was holding up a piece of paper torn from a notebook. He was eight or nine years old, blond, big-eyed, and scary as hell, because he spoke like a middle-aged man. His father had been banned from the library two months ago. A patron had informed the library director, Anita, of a large number of DVDs at a second hand store, all bearing a scrap of the Bradford Public Library label. Anita involved the police. It emerged that for a couple of years, Wilton Raft, Samson’s father, had been siphoning DVDs out of the library in a backpack, while little Sampson held the attention of whomever was at the desk. Costly security strips for DVDs were not used by this library, only the little red caps that locked the DVDs until these were removed at the front desk. Mr. Raft broke them off with a screwdriver after taking them home. He was scheduled to appear in court next month.
At first, Olivia’s inclination had been to feel sorry for little Sampson, but after she caught him attempting to swipe a candy bar—not once, but twice—from the Rescue Squad’s fundraising candy box on the counter, she took offense. With his father’s library card long since blocked, little Sampson was now using his own card, which he’d gotten with the help of an elderly woman who claimed to be his grandmother. Samson seemed to be here on his own this time, which meant that his father was probably in the parking lot with his feet up on the dashboard.
Olivia took the scrap of paper from Samson. A spastic scrawl read: military operations or snipers.
“You’ll need the nonfiction section.” Her tone was cold. She hated the idea that this kid thought he could pull a fast one on her. He wasn’t that cute.
“I’d also like to find a DVD about the Bible, but not one where they bring harm to our Lord Jesus,” he said. “I find that very distasteful.” Sampson widened his eyes and raised his eyebrows as he spoke. She imagined his father at home instructing him. Raise your eyebrows so that your eyes look bigger. Look a little sad. Despite the absurdity of the Raft family, she imagined a sweetness to their relationship, the father’s pride in his child’s accomplishments.
“Don’t you?” he asked.
“Find movies about hurting Jesus distasteful.”
Olivia looked at her watch. She hadn’t gotten much shelving done and she was next to relieve David at the front desk. She put the copy of Deliverance on the cart. “Come on,” she said. She led him by the row of public computers, all twelve occupied. Old Renny, in his faded coveralls and emanating the scent of car oil, sat between two school-aged children. He liked to look up bloody crime scene photos and print out color copies.
Felix—a short old man with a pot belly, glasses, and veins on his nose—sat alone at a table. “There she is! There she is!” he said as Olivia walked by. “How you doing today?”
Olivia groaned softly. Felix wore cheap-looking, metallic-colored suits and came to the library to read newspapers and watch women. On her first day, Olivia had made the mistake of being friendly. She’d shelved books while Felix talked about the civil rights movement and working as a teacher in a big city decades ago. She shared that she was just out of college, a little confused about her career path, but hoping to get a full-time position in a library by working her way up. He told her that they had a lot in common and should get together outside of the library when she wasn’t working. She ended the conversation then and gave him a clear, “NO,” in a fake library whisper. Each time she saw him, he asked for her phone number.
Now she ignored him, almost thankful for Samson at her side. She searched the database with keywords related to the military and snipers. Sampson Raft stood beside her, talking quietly about weather patterns, Biblical errors, and the county’s water system. Olivia didn’t find any Biblical titles in which she could ensure little Samson of Jesus’s safety, but she did find a documentary, Special Combat: Snipers in Training, just as David called her name over the PA system. She wrote down the title and call number, handed the paper back to Samson and told him to see if he could find it himself. He stuck out his other hand like he wanted to shake on it, but she pretended not to notice.
At the desk, David went on break and Olivia took over. Ms. Elliot needed a book about cats. Mr. Reece wanted to pay a fine for his elderly mother. Jonah donated some plastic bags, complete with cockroach carcasses inside. Dale refused to pay his fine because he was sure he had told his wife to turn in Guns, Ammo, and Explosives long ago. Emma needed a book about jazz musicians to use for a tenth grade homework assignment.
Martin had settled down at the single computer at the window where he sometimes spent half a day or more, his water noodle and backpack on the floor beside him. His expression was peaceful, and his lips moved as if in silent conversation. He looked about the room periodically, his attention clearly drawn to movement. Olivia had been unable to determine his exact mental capacity. Usually he spoke clearly for a few seconds and then trailed off into a mumble. At first, she’d wondered if his favorite phrase, “Aw right now,” was a mild flirtation, but she had since concluded it simply to be his form of greeting. He typed for hours on end. She couldn’t imagine what he was writing about.
At the desk, a man, regular to the establishment but never to the front desk, clopped by in sloppy flip flops, pushed open a restroom door, and disappeared. There were two sets of public bathrooms in the library. One was visible from the front desk, one was not. Olivia had begun keeping mental notes on restroom goers. Dumping the trash at night was one of her duties, an initiation to the library pecking order. At first she was horrified at the idea, but looking at the trash as she poured it from the cans to a large bag was interesting. She’d encountered a repeated discarding of energy drinks, beer bottles, and pill packets in the far men’s bathroom. She was trying to narrow down a pattern and a culprit.
Stephen appeared before her at the desk, though keeping a distance. She cleared her throat.
“You may come forward now, Stephen.”
Stephen walked with perfect posture and measured paces to the front desk, then placed his books on the counter. While Olivia checked them out, he recited his rap sheet and his mental health history in a whisper. He did this every time. She did not interrupt. When he came to the end of his speech, Olivia handed him his check-out slip. He waited.
“You have no fines currently due,” Olivia said softly. “You have paid all of the fines that you have ever accrued. Everything looks great with your account.”
His face remained drawn, tight. His light blue eyes searched Olivia’s face for something she hadn’t yet provided. His brow furrowed beneath his red hair and his fist balled, crumpling the slip of paper, so she said it again. “You have no fines currently due. You have paid all of the fines that you have ever accrued. Everything looks great with your account.”
The tension dissipated so suddenly that his whole body reeled slightly to one side. His angular face softened. He backed away from the desk, then turned at a right angle and went out the door with the step of a younger man and a fresh stack of books. Stephen had only lost control once in the library. His cousin was contacted, along with the police, and no one had been injured. Now, he had a routine that all the library employees knew to follow, and he seemed to be doing well.
Why, Olivia wondered, was there a simple fix for some, but not others?
David returned, picking peanut skins from his teeth.
“You wouldn’t do a quick restroom check for me, would you?” Olivia asked.
“Agent 007 at your service.” David was in on her investigation of the beer-drinking pill-popper. At night, when Olivia dumped trash she was allowed to knock and then enter the men’s room, but during the day she relied on David.
He came back shortly, shaking his head. “Nothing,” he said.
“Thanks for checking,” she said.
“Did Anita mention the newspapers?” David asked. “They’ve microfilmed through this month, so you can recycle anything from earlier.”
Upstairs, Olivia stood over piles of newspaper. She had a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Here she was emptying trash cans, wiping unknown substances off of tables, and more often than not, responding to requests for books about cats. Three months ago, the day after she graduated, she’d realized that she didn’t want to be a licensed counselor and had decided instead to see if her place in the world would be in the library.
That afternoon, she was working the front desk when Graydon came in. He paused at the front door, as usual, until she looked at him. Olivia’s pulse sped up. Attractive, unmarried, childless, not-homeless men in their twenties were a rare sight, here. She’d felt something the first time she saw him. Once, they had stood side by side in the DVD aisle for several minutes without speaking. They’d looked at one another, and that was all. Olivia had never felt something so forceful in the mere presence of someone. Since then, they spoke often. She felt sure he would ask her out eventually. She had already practiced what she would say to break things off with Richard, the guy she was dating.
Graydon came to the front and turned in a book. Olivia hoped for no other customers, but then Martin loomed behind Graydon. The bitter dumpster smell was powerful. Graydon wrinkled his nose and turned around. Martin stood his ground, his eyes on the ceiling. Graydon smiled at Olivia and moved on. Olivia tried not to let her disappointment show.
Martin was having trouble with a printer. David returned to the front, and Olivia, breathing through her mouth, followed Martin to his computer, stepping over his water noodle. He mumbled something about paper. The printer was jammed. Olivia opened one side and cleared it. She handed the papers to him and he looked them over, then handed some back.
“Copies. You can throw those away,” he said.
It took a second for her to realize that she had in her possession some of Martin’s mysterious writing. She didn’t want to risk taking the pages back to the break room and having someone tell her she shouldn’t read it. She headed for the Westerns section.
She read: I hear my mother coming down the hall. My diaper is dirty. She picks me up and puts me on the changing table. I stop crying. She takes my diaper off and cleans my butt. She puts powder on me. She puts a clean diaper on me. She holds me. Says she loves me. She pats me on the back. She sings to me. She puts me back in my crib.
Several paragraphs ahead, the baby was getting his diaper changed a second time. And then a third. Then the mother was dressing him and putting him to sleep. Then the mother picked him up in the night and changed his diaper again. It went on like that for all four pages. The heading on the top of the first page read: Chapter 124.
Olivia felt disappointed and impressed at the same time. The writing was elementary, sure, but she wouldn’t have thought him capable of writing from any other point of view than his current age. The text was rather neutral. He hadn’t written about the feelings of the infant, only actions. He was smarter than she’d given him credit for. Were the other pages more of the same?
She was struck, too, by the contradiction between Martin’s easy going demeanor, his seeming peace with the world, and the profound sadness she felt about the idea of a grown man writing over and over about an infancy that he could not possibly remember. The loudspeaker called Olivia to the front again. When she passed by Martin at the computer, she thought he looked at her curiously, but maybe it was just a feeling she had.
On Tuesday, Olivia was at the front desk when a braless lady leaned heavy breasts on the counter. She was dressed for summer in a tank top and shorts several sizes too small. Olivia guessed she was about thirty-five.
“Excuse me,” the woman whispered. “I’m using one of the computers, and there’s a man looking over my shoulder. It’s creeping me out.”
“Is his hair wet?” Olivia asked.
“I’m sorry. He’s harmless. He just gets caught up in the movement on the screen. I’ll talk to him as soon as my co-worker can take over for me.”
The lady sighed and scratched a sunburnt arm. Flakes of skin salted the desk.
“Okay, I’ll wait here,” she said.
Great, Olivia thought. “Okay,” she said.
Anita and Glitter came back several minutes later. Glitter was the newest page. She was in her sixties, soft spoken, and insisted that people call her Glitter even though her real name was Catherine. She had also taken it upon herself to feed the local cat colony on the edge of town. Anita went back to the offices to work and Glitter took over the front. Olivia went to see Martin.
“Martin, could I ask you to please move away from this lady’s computer? I know you’re not doing anything, but it’s disturbing her.”
Martin swung his head toward the far wall, then he looked at the computer screen where the woman was playing a game. Martin looked directly at Olivia with a sweet smile.
“Aw right now,” he said.
Back at the front desk Glitter was listening to a patron. “This gentleman wants to use his step-father’s card,” Glitter said to Olivia. “Can he do that?”
“He can if his step-father has given permission and it’s noted in the system.” Olivia looked at the guy. Perhaps in his twenties, he stood with his arms crossed and his upper body tilted back. Camo pants and a dirty T-shirt. A sizeable chain swung from belt loop to pocket. He hesitated and turned to look at a woman who stood just behind him. Both looked like they’d been left outside overnight.
“Yeah. I got his permission,” the guy said.
“I was having trouble pulling up the name in the system,” Glitter said.
“What’s your step-father’s name?” Olivia asked.
“And your name?”
Olivia pulled up the infamous account to see if Jeremy had ever been on Wilton Raft’s account. She doubted it. The fines on Wilton Raft’s account had stopped at two hundred and twenty seven dollars. There were notes about notices, excuses from the patron, the upcoming court situation, but no mention of a Jeremy Wells.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t see your name on his account as being authorized to use his library card.”
“No, sir. I’m sorry.”
“Is my name on it? I’m his mom.” The woman behind him spoke but did not move closer.
“You’re whose mom?”
“His,” she said, poking a thumb into Jeremy’s shoulder.
The woman couldn’t have been more than four or five years older than Jeremy, but Olivia played along.
“What’s your name?”
“Amy. Amy Wells.”
She checked the system to see if Amy had a card. No. She wasn’t listed on Wilton Raft’s account either.
“No, ma’am. I’m sorry. I don’t see your name.”
“What names do you have?”
“I can’t share that information, ma’am.”
“Does this mean we can’t check these DVDs out?” Jeremy leaned over on the counter with his arms crossed.
“You could apply for a card for yourself and check them out,” Olivia offered.
Little Samson Raft strolled coolly by just then. Olivia gave Glitter a look so that she took off to shadow Samson around the stacks. Olivia looked back at the two at the counter. There had been no acknowledgement between Samson and this supposed step-son of Wilson Raft.
“I’ll do that,” Jeremy said.
“Get my own card.”
“I’ll just need a driver’s license or some proof of your residence.”
“Shit. I ain’t got that.”
Olivia looked at the woman claiming to be his mother. “What about you ma’am? If you have a driver’s license or something that shows your address, you could apply for one.”
“I don’t have that either. What if we have Wilton Raft call you and tell you to put us on his account? I can use your phone,” Jeremy said. He was already reaching over the counter toward the cordless.
“That wouldn’t help, sir.”
Now it was getting sticky. She couldn’t share information on other people’s accounts, but fortunately, Anita emerged from the office at that moment. Olivia explained the situation to her and Anita told them flatly that the account was blocked.
“Blocked? Why?” the man asked.
“That’s all we can say. Mr. Raft would need to speak to us directly about the account,” Anita said.
Olivia relaxed. Anita knew what she was doing. She slid over to the other computer, leaving Anita to deal with the oddballs. Olivia wondered if Wilton Raft was really this guy’s step-dad. Olivia couldn’t help smiling about that woman claiming to be Jeremy’s mother.
Martin approached the counter.
“Aw right now,” he said.
She focused on what he was checking out: Child Psychology, Nursery Decorating 101, Toddler Training, and First Words.
Olivia glanced around. The two who had been arguing with Anita were gone now, and so was Anita. “That’s quite some reading you have here,” she said.
“Aw right now,” he said again, not looking at her.
She watched him walk away to gather his things from a table. Two pre-teen girls from the summer reading program ran up to the desk, huffing in excitement.
“I think a dog pooped on the carpet!” the red-haired girl said.
The other girl covered her mouth. Then both squealed. Glitter arrived with an empty book cart. Olivia went to the aisle the girls had pointed to. Dog poop, indeed. On the carpet, closest to the shelf of books on spirituality, was a lengthy clod of human feces. Olivia turned and ran to the back door where she had a view of the parking lot. A real beater of a car pulled out, the three passengers riding tall: Jeremy, Amy, and little Sampson Raft. The kingpin, Wilton Raft, sat in the hot seat grinding gears. She would have guessed Sampson for the culprit, but from the size of the sample, she bet on Jeremy.
Olivia went back to the aisle. Felix was standing over the thing.
He grinned. “Girl. How ‘bout that phone number, now?” He threw his head back and laughed as he walked away. Olivia stared after him as another patron rounded the corner.
“I need to find some books about climate change,” she said. “My kid has to write a paper.”
“Would you mind asking the lady at the front desk? I need to take care of this before someone steps in it,” Olivia said, pointing at the thing.
The woman looked down and took a quick step back. She glared at Olivia and was gone. Olivia went to the janitor’s closet for gloves, a trash bag, a scrub brush, and disinfectant. While she cleaned, she planned her breakup talk for Richard. She would call him tonight.
The next week Olivia started carrying around a notebook in her back pocket to keep track of the number of beer bottles and pills in the trash. The times and dates. Names of patrons she thought might be culpable. Wednesday night was quiet. She and Glitter took turns at the front desk while Ellen, one of the librarians, worked at her desk in the back.
Olivia was at the front when Graydon came in. He waved to her and then disappeared in the DVD section. When he finally came to the counter, he was empty handed. He leaned on the counter and rested a hand on it, palm up. Olivia looked at it.
“I was hoping you could come help me look for something,” he said.
“I’d have to call Glitter up to cover the front,” she said. She knew Graydon didn’t need help finding things.
“I know,” he said.
Olivia’s mouth was dry. That open hand still waited on the counter. She wanted to touch that hand. “Stick around while I don’t have anyone to ….”
An elderly man came to the front.
“I’ll let you get to work,” Graydon said. “I’ll be back.”
“Okay.” Next time, she thought, she would ask him out.
Two patrons later and Martin appeared.
“How’s it going, Martin?” she asked.
“I had to buy diapers this week,” he said.
“I had to buy diapers this week.” He seemed annoyed.
He placed two books on the counter: What to Expect When You’re Expecting and The Early Years. While Olivia scanned the barcodes, Martin shrugged his lumpy backpack onto the counter. His hair dripped.
“Where do you go swimming?” she asked.
His answer was indiscernible. He dug around in the backpack and produced a large plastic bag of infant sized diapers. He set those on the counter and slid them toward Olivia.
“Oh,” Olivia said. “Oh.” What could he possibly need those for? She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Ellen, the senior librarian, came out of the back office, took one look at Martin and the baby diapers, turned around and left.
Olivia inspected the bag. Martin watched her face. The diapers weren’t in the original packaging, but in a large re-sealable plastic bag. Neat rows of tiny newborn diapers. A white mailing label with a handwritten determination of size and cost.
Olivia searched for a proper response. “Do you have to buy them every week?” she asked.
Martin’s face drew tight. He rubbed the back of his head, then his forehead. “Sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes not.”
Then the phone rang. She handed the check-out slip to Martin and picked up the receiver. The woman’s voice was loud and angry.
“There is a man in your library right now with two kids.”
“Okay,” Olivia watched Martin stuff the diapers back into his backpack. Then he wandered off.
“The police are about to serve a warrant on him. I don’t want the kids to see it. His name’s Tony. Blue tank top. You see him? You tell him to come outside and stand near the tree.”
“Listen,” Olivia said. “I don’t know who you are or if you’re for real, but I’m not interfering in police business.”
“You tell him to come out here! Hurry!”
“Ma’am, I … hold on.” Olivia sent the call back to Ellen. Shortly, Ellen came to the front, one finger circling at her temple.
“Nut job,” she said. “Pure nuts. Even if it’s true, we stay out of that. If you want to check for a man in a blue tank top with kids, though, you could. Don’t say anything, just walk around.”
“Sure,” Olivia said. She started off and then stopped and turned back to Ellen, who was looking over her tiny glasses and flipping through some index cards. “Martin doesn’t have a baby does he?”
“Oh, no. He’s just… I don’t know. But no. I wouldn’t pay any attention to that.”
“You’ve seen the books he checks out?” Olivia asked.
“Yes,” she said. “And the diapers.”
“He’s harmless,” she said.
Olivia found a man in a blue tank top at one of the public computers, but he didn’t have any kids with him. At his computer, Martin typed on, his woeful expression reflected in the dark glass of the library’s front wall. Olivia shelved books and imagined her first date with Graydon.
At closing, three empty energy drink cans, two empty Bud Lights, and eighteen pill packets surfaced in the far men’s restroom trash can. She searched the internet for the name on the back of the packets. The pills were for high blood pressure, unless you took a bunch of them; then they could give you a terrible street high. The police never came for the man in the blue tank top. Olivia wondered what the anonymous caller had had planned for him, if he had come out earlier.
The next Saturday, Olivia was shelving true crime books, when she was paged to the front. She saw Felix at a distance and was able to turn a corner before he saw her. David and Glitter were working a busy front desk. Olivia stepped in so Glitter could go on break, and a man in a wheelchair rolled up.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. “I’d like to use a computer please.”
His rare politeness was duly noted. Olivia gave her best customer service. She walked with him to the computers, careful not to walk too fast and choosing the widest path. Then she explained how to log on, where the public printer was, and how to pay for printouts. Walking back to the front she saw Samson Raft going in the far bathroom. She helped six more patrons before the man in the wheelchair appeared again, saying that he was having trouble printing. She followed him back to the computer.
This time Felix saw her. “There she is! There she goes!” he said. Felix had a stack of newspapers in front of him. His suit had a metallic purple tint, and he appeared oblivious to Martin’s large, open backpack, baby diapers spilling out one table over. Martin was nowhere to be seen. The printer was jammed. She explained to the guy in the wheelchair that she would reroute his pages to another printer. Little Samson Raft seemed to be everywhere in the library. She saw him, his blond head recently shaved to the scalp, books under one arm, DVDs in his other hand, and his small mouth working up a large pink bubble of gum.
Back at the desk, Olivia was checking out murder mysteries to eighty-seven year old Glenda when the printer beside her began humming and catching. It bore several images from the website Girls on Guys in Wheelchairs, which caught Glenda’s eye before it caught Olivia’s. Glenda stood transfixed, with the dark visors raised on her old fashioned glasses like an open door to a peepshow. Olivia killed the power on the machine and grabbed the pages. She left Glenda frozen in place and held the photos below the counter so David could see them but the patrons in his line could not.
“Yep. That’ll do it,” he said.
Olivia approached the guy quietly. On the computer screen, the guy had a window open to a website titled “Faith and Healing.” Nice cover, Olivia thought.
“Excuse me, sir.”
“Yes?” He didn’t turn his head from the screen and he kept his hand on the mouse.
“Could I speak to you at the front?”
Those around him turned to look. He gave her a stony look, and that pissed her off. She delivered the news right then, softly. The guy backed his wheelchair out from the computer desk, rolling over Olivia’s toes as he left.
In the afternoon, Glitter and Olivia swapped stories while they straightened the graphic novels. Olivia described the photos of the hot girls on the guys in wheelchairs. Glitter had an update on Samson and his father: she had gone to Stop and Shop a few day before and found Wilton Raft and little Samson sitting at a table out front taking donations for a cancer organization. Samson’s blond head had been shaved to look the part of cancer survivor. Inside, Glitter asked the manager if he had any idea what kind of funny business those two had going on. Wilson Raft added Stop and Shop to the list of places from which he was banned.
Later, Olivia rolled a cart of books to the Science Fiction section and found Martin running his fingers along the book spines of the top shelf. He looked at Olivia, then put his hands together and looked at the ceiling. Still looking up, he said, “I’m writing a romance novel.”
Olivia waited for him to look at her. “You are?” she asked. “That’s awesome.
He said nothing further.
“Martin, what do you do with the baby diapers?”
He looked around the room. Olivia waited.
“They help me sleep,” he said.
“Oh,” she said.
He walked off abruptly. Maybe she had gone too far.
She tried to shelve books, but the Sci-fi section was a disaster. Every third book had been moved several shelves from its place. She went to tell David that she would be there a while.
A short while later, she saw Graydon come in the front door. Her heart sped up. Then a girl she knew from school came in behind him. He put his arm around her, and they went toward the DVDs. Olivia stood there staring for a minute before it occurred to her that her face probably resembled Richard’s the night she’d broken things off with him.
At home in her bed that night, Olivia stared at the nightlight across the room that gave the nearby trash can a shadow five times its size. She’d had the same nightlight since she was a child. Olivia thought about the fact that she was twenty-one years old and living in her original bedroom, just down the hall from her mother. She wondered where little Samson’s mother was. She considered the straightness of Stephen’s posture as he waited for permission to approach the front desk. She thought about the long, red-haired ponytail on the girl that came in the library with Graydon. One image kept rising to the surface above all others: Martin, pushing that bag of baby diapers across the front desk.
Olivia barely slept. The next day she was off from work. She lay in bed, tired, irritable. She heard her mother leave the house. It was mid-morning before she got up and washed her face. She grabbed a leftover cupcake and got in the car. She ate the cupcake while she drove toward the address in her notebook. She passed the house, parked on the corner, and surveyed the neighborhood, which was low-end, but tidy. She got out and walked back toward the house. There was no car in the driveway, no bike out front. At the house next door there was a car, but no one was outside. His neighbors had a tool shed and a high wooden fence so she was hidden on that side as she walked up the side of his yard. She moved along the wall of his house toward a window, but stopped short to slow her breathing. Her hands shook. It hadn’t yet occurred to her that this was a bad idea. Someone should check on this guy and see why he had such a thing about babies if he didn’t have one. Her shirt stuck to her back in the heat.
There was nothing in the side yard, and she could only see a single lawn chair in the back. She heard movement at the neighbors’ house. A door shut. Through the slots of the fence she watched the shape of a car pulling out. The engine ran smoothly, and the shape dipped at the end of the driveway before it took off. She moved to the window, put her face to the glass, and shielded her eyes. It was the kitchen, small and messy. She’d imagined everything from an actual baby to a house overrun with cats wearing infant diapers. But there was nothing. She moved on to the next window. It was a bedroom. And there were tiny diapers in a bag on the floor, much like the bag he had brought to the library. She inhaled the familiar bitter smell as it escaped through the inch of space where the window wasn’t completely closed.
There had to be a connection between the endless pages he spent his days writing, and the need for diapers, the purchase of which seemed to irritate him so. She couldn’t leave it alone. What, for the love of God, did Martin do with the diapers? Olivia had to know. And it was important to know, even if it meant climbing in the window of a mentally challenged man’s reeking house to find out.
She heard a siren off in the distance. Her reflection looked out of the window. Her hair needed washing, combing. She hadn’t bothered with makeup, and she wore the T-shirt she’d slept in. White icing grouted one corner of her mouth. She raised her hand to wipe it off, but stopped because she thought a shadow deeper in the window than her reflection had moved. The siren grew louder. In that moment, she realized that the wail might have something to do with her presence. Was it better now to run, or stand her ground and state her case? She turned toward the street just as she heard the voice.
“Aw right now,” he said. His voice was pleasantly nasal, undisturbed, and as friendly as ever. It came from the open window, so she backed away several feet just as the police car stopped in front of the house.
She knew she was going to have to tell one hell of a story shortly, but she gave it one last try. She turned to her reflection in the window and shouted. “What do you do with the diapers?”
There was no answer. She heard the police getting out of the car. The sky was blue, the sun, hot. She was not going to get an answer. Not on this, and probably not on many things. She was going to have to figure out how to live without answers because chasing the why too far could leave you standing outside of a disabled man’s house, contemplating breaking and entering. The cops came toward her. She had enough sense to put her hands up. They didn’t draw their weapons, but kept their hands at the ready. Olivia imagined Martin watching her from inside. His look would not be unkind, only interested, like a cat watching a bug.
AMANDA PAULEY completed a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Hollins University in 2014. Her stories have appeared in Press 53 Open Awards Anthologies, Cargoes, Clinch Mountain Review, Canyon Review, West Trade Review, Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review, The Masters Review Anthology III, Gravel Literary Journal, Steel Toe Review, Mud Season Review, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things, Canary, Atticus Review, The Tishman Review, Arts and Letters, and Carve Magazine. She lives in southwestern Virginia, is a member of the Virginia Master Naturalist program, has three pet goats, and works at Radford University’s McConnell Library.