The Carseat in the River
The night that they found it was balmy and hot, so humid and sweltering that it felt like everything was sweating.
Doc and I were sitting on the porch, unable to bear staying in the house any longer, even with all the windows open, hoping to coax a nonexistent breeze into stirring the still curtains, he holding a sweating beer, and I nursing a tall glass of peach iced tea. Odd, the kind of little details that stick in the memory.
It was quiet, the silence only broken by the cicadas chirping in the trees and the occasional slurp from the two of us. After you’re married for a certain number of years, you find that you don’t have to fill the moments of silence with idle chatter, and so we just enjoyed the night, what we could of it. The screen door was open, and our German Shepherd puppy, Jax, barked sharply, and Doc rumbled with quiet laughter, the sound reminding me of a cello.
“Crazy pup,” He murmured, shaking his head as the puppy ran a few laps around the house, chasing an angry, chattering squirrel out of its perch in a tree.
“I do wish you’d be nice,” I told Jax, taking a sip of tea. “What did that poor creature ever do to you, you mad dog?” I held out my hand, and he came running, leaping up so quickly that he knocked the glass out of my hand. I scrambled to catch it, but wasn’t quick enough: with a merry tinkling sound, the glass hit the wood of the porch and shattered. For my part, I fell beneath Jax’s girth, massive even though he was still a baby, and was rewarded by a series of wet kisses; pinned beneath him, I tried to shove him off of me.
“I need to clean up this mess! Come on, Jax, let Mommy up,”
I looked around for my husband, who had disappeared, probably to get a broom. But when I finally managed to get Jax off of me and walk into the house, he was standing in the living room, his alcohol and the mess promptly forgotten, staring at the TV.
“What’s going on, Doc?”
“Shhh!” He said sharply, not looking away from the screen. “It’s the news. They’ve found a carseat in the river, over by the marshes.”
For a moment, I didn’t understand his words; it was almost like he was speaking another language entirely. Then it sank in, the words hanging heavily in the hot, humid room like the blackest, most toxic smoke.
“Wait, what?” I asked, the broken glass forgotten. “A carseat? I don’t understand.” My stomach lurched; who would abandon a baby at all, let alone in such a brutal, primal way?
“There was no body, Ellie. But they’re thinking that it was a homicide.”
I stared at my husband in confusion; Jax’s loud barking echoed in my brain, as though I were hearing it from underwater. It made no sense. A homicide, here? In a place where no one even bothered to lock their doors at night, or while they were out of town? And of all things, the disappearance of a child? Someone small enough to sit in a carseat?
What kind of human being—what kind of a monster—was cold and callous enough to do such a thing? The very thought was incomprehensible, chilled my blood.
“Maybe it isn’t,” I finally managed to say, around a lump in my throat the size of an orange. “Maybe it was an accident. They could still be alive.” As soon as I said those words, they floated in the air, as weak as flat soda. But I just could not reconcile the awful possibility that someone would do something so terrible to anyone, let alone a child.
“I don’t know, Ells.” Doc replied, and at last, crossed the distance between us, wrapping his arms around me. But it could not quite erase the dark fear that seemed to infect my mind and skitter long fingers down my spine. “They don’t very much yet, but I’ve just got a bad feeling about this. Maybe you should call into the station?”
In my haze of shock and horror, it hadn’t even occurred to me to call any of my coworkers to see what was going on. Doc’s suggestion made sense, but when I turned to look at the phone, dread buzzed at the base of my neck, climbing up into my skull like an angry swarm of bees.
I didn’t know if I could bear it, if something had happened to that child, whomever they were.
“Here, bring Jax inside,” I said, handing him a broom and dustpan. “After you clean up the broken glass.” Too late, I realized that I’d forgotten to so much as say please, and blood rushed to my face. Doc frowned, his forehead wrinkling, and he put his hand to my cheek.
“Are you all right, Ell? You look so frightened.”
I leaned my cheek into his hand, despite the irritational urge to snap at him.
Of course, I’m frightened! A child may be dead, lost without a trace, thrown away like garbage! If I had any children that still lived at home, I’d lock the doors and windows and never let them out of my sight again!
The darker side of humanity was a constant companion for me, an occupational hazard. I did my best to leave my work at home, but that wasn’t to say that I was not haunted by my own share of demons and ghosts. And whatever lay up there knew I wasn’t looking to add another to my ever-growing collection.
“Please. While you do that, I’ll call the station and see if I can get more information.” I said, forcing myself to swallow the vicious, poisonous words that had sprung to mind, conjured by my fear.
Doc looked at me again, hard, but did nothing but step back and go to the porch to sweep up the mess, calling for Jax in the deepening twilight. I heard Jax’s excited barks, and turned to the phone, dreading what waited for me on the other side of the line. The mere suspicion was enough to make me paranoid; to confirm it was almost too much for me. But I couldn’t just leave it; I had to know for sure.
I picked up the phone, cradling it between my head and shoulder, not trusting myself to hold it with my hands shaking so badly. The iced tea I’d drank roiled in my stomach, and I dialed the number of the station, hoping and praying that no one would pick up. Maybe Doc had misheard; maybe the news station had been mistaken.
It was a long shot, but I just didn’t want to think about the alternative, at least not until I had some concrete proof to this dark deed.
There was, finally, a click on the other end of the line, and my partner, Luna, breathed into the phone.
“Hello? Mackintosh Falls Police Department, how can I help you?” Her voice came across as raspy and weak, as if she’d been up all night, and it wouldn’t have surprised me, had that been the case.
“Sasha? What’s going on? Doc and I just saw the news,” I said, and the words all flew out of my mouth in one breath.
“Is it true? You found a carseat in the marshes?”
There was a short, pregnant pause. “The chief says that I can’t give out too much information. Doesn’t want to set off a public panic.”
“Oh, come on, Sasha. That’s not good enough. I need to know. I mean… Who could kill a kid like that?”
“They only said on the news that it might be a homicide,” She countered, and I could picture her, standing in our shared office, twitchy and worn out from yet another long shift.
“I have a really bad feeling about this, Lunes. Come on, give me something. I mean, God. A kid.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions. Tell you what; I have the day off tomorrow. We’ll get together for lunch and talk about it then, all right? For now, you need to get some rest. And so do I; I’ve gotta stop doing these long shifts. When I was fresh out of the academy, it wasn’t a big deal. But now… Well, I’m older.” She laughed, and the sound carried an edge of bitterness.
“Make sure you get a good night’s rest. You’ve been working too much.”
“Hey, you’re the one who called me on your day off. I’ll pick you up tomorrow, okay?” We ended the call with a quiet farewell, and I helped Doc finish cleaning up the remains of my broken cup. Soon after, we retired to bed, retreating into our air-conditioned bedroom.
But sleep eluded me, and I spent the night tossing and turning, dreaming restlessly, up and down all night, haunted by the gruesome discovery. Granted, it might not mean anything, but that wasn’t what my gut was telling me.
Something felt deeply wrong, and I frowned, biting my lip. Staying up all night would not be good for my fragile mindset at the moment, so I went back to bed, snuggling into Doc and wrapping myself around him, as if that would chase away the malignant thoughts that had taken root in my mind.
Eventually, I fell asleep with my face buried in his back, and this time, my sleep was as dark as the river, and it swallowed me whole.
I awoke to Doc gently disentangling himself from me, dropping a kiss on my lips and forehead before tucking me back in.
“I love you,” He whispered, rubbing my back for a moment before he went to go get ready.
With how awful I’d slept the night before, I needed no other incentive to go back to sleep. Besides, lunch wouldn’t be until eleven or so. I still needed to take a shower, but I didn’t feel like getting up after my long night. I turned over and fell asleep, almost as soon as Doc left the room.
I awoke to my phone ringing shrilly, and I looked at the clock: just after twelve thirty.
“Son of a bitch!” I swore to myself, kicking the blankets off and hopping out of bed.
I picked up my phone and answered it; Luna’s voice came through clearly.
“Ells? Where are you? I’ve been waiting for the last fifteen minutes, at the café down the road. You’re not getting sick, are you?”
“No, of course not, I just overslept,” I said honestly. “Be there in ten.”
“I already got you some coffee. Be careful on the way, the roads are still nasty, what with the rain and all.”
I hung up and changed into a pair of comfortable jeggings and a plaid button-up, and my combat boots. I grabbed my bag on the way out of the room; in my haste, I’d almost forgotten it.
If I was really being reckless, I’d go to the damn crime scene and do my own little investigation. But it would be wiser to wait, see if we could take the legal (fussy) way of things and get some information that way.
Running to the bathroom, I quickly threw my hair up into a sloppy bun, still swearing under my breath. Of course, today of all days, I’d sleep in well into the afternoon. Feeding and watering Jax and letting him go to the bathroom, I kissed him on the head and locked the door, walking out to the car.
It was just a plain black four-door, inconspicuous and unassuming. I put my bag in the front seat and pulled out. The drive throughout the neighborhood was slow, but when I finally arrived at the café, it was packed, full of people gossiping. I was so foggy that I could barely process what was going on.
I spotted Luna at a back table, next to a window. She waved, beckoning me over. True to her word, she had gotten me a coffee, thick with cream and sugar, but she hadn’t ordered any food; I felt a flash of guilt in my stomach. She’d been waiting on me forever.
“I don’t have very much to tell you, I’m afraid, since the case just broke.” She said, shrugging apologetically. “But let’s get food first, and we’ll talk.”