The car refused to start. Thad opened the door and with one foot out and one in, he began to push. Four men with small dreams joined and after a while, the car jerked and came alive. Since Thad knew all four men, he didn't need to pay but he slid his hands into his jacket and pulled out notes.
Baby sat in my laps, her hands in her mouth. She still had that habit of sucking her hands despite knowing Thad hated it. She was six and small and overly quiet. Today she smelt of honey and daydreams.
Thad began to drive, his sleeve rolled up to reveal strong arms. He was quiet but we both wanted to talk. About last night and the unfinished meal, we left on the counter in the kitchen. I could picture the lights still on to indicate the holes on the dining room table. I could think of everything.
"Take your hands off your mouth." Thad glanced at Baby.
Baby stirred and removed her hands. She looked up at me, her blue eyes going teary. She liked the feel of her hands bathed in spit and sometimes I wanted to do that too. Thad said that was a bad habit that had to stop. And didn't I know my new husband was the smart one?
"Did you keep the disposable bags in the car?" Thad asked. His eyes were fixed on the road and at the cars that filtered past. The road was almost empty. The sun was cold and wet and the trees we passed looked deserted. Thad hated autumn.
"Yes, dear," I said.
Baby's hands were coming back to her mouth again. Thad did not notice. I reached down and touched her and she realized what she was about to do. Our silence was understood. She tried to smile as I squeezed her hands.
"Baby is grown up, you know. She should sit at the back." Thad said looking at us.
"She's just six." I threw back at him.
I should have known the day was going to be cloudy and rough from that conversation in the car that smelt like stale beer and armpit odors but I'd been too blind. Baby occupied most of my thoughts. The night before, I'd found her crying in the attic, a rag doll in hand. She'd forgotten about the habit Thad hated which said a lot. She lifted her skirt and there'd been a small red line on her thighs.
"I fell, momma." She was saying.
It could have been Thad.
The conversation should have told me a lot about how the day would end. Like when Thad rolled his eyes and gripped the steering wheel with all his might. Like when his knuckles grew white and he swallowed hard. There had been a lot of instances but none that stopped me right then. It wasn't as if I didn't know Thad. I knew him more than I knew myself. He was the third man Baby was seeing with me.
Perhaps the sun in the dying sky would not have been of any help. Thad was just a man with a short temper and bad breath. But he was smart. The first sign to come to me about the end was the conversation in the car. The second was the kiss.
It happened suddenly, as we stepped out of the car. Baby's hands were in mine, small and soft and I pressed it softly against my thighs. She smiled up at me and frowned when Thad tried to touch her. She hated the way his hands came mightily to touch hers and the way the roughness made her want to cry. I should have been a little bit prepared for the show of affection but of course, I'd been too preoccupied with Baby.
I remembered trailing my hands on her skin, gently and watching as small blood followed my palm. She shivered and began to thrash hard. There was something about the way she did that as if there was something hidden beneath the scar. Like a rough touch or a secret handshake.
I hadn't meant to but the question hit me hard. "Who did this to you?"
Baby sniffled, "I was playing and I fell."
I still think it was Thad.
So the kiss was unexpected. He reached over and he touched me. Even his touch was gentle. When he leaned in and kissed me, I thought he smelt like baby powder.
"Let's go pick some apples." He said smiling, "And I'll make an apple pie."
Thad was different. That should have been the second sign but I forgot about it.
The third sign was hard not to notice. He picked up Baby and kissed her cheeks. She looked at me with eyes that spoke of fear and burning leaves. She was speaking to me with her blue eyes and it sounded like firearms. I tried to forget the scar on her thighs, replaced by the rows of Apple trees in the orchard. We'd come early so only a few people were scattered across the large farm. The sun beat down hard on us and we had to squint as we walked in. But the scar was relentless. It tugged on.
That was the third sign. It was the first time I was knowing, understanding. Like butterflies and purple bougainvilleas. Baby's hands were coming again to her lips but his cold hands reminded her not to. We stopped at a tree and he put Baby down. He searched his pockets and handed her a bar of chocolate. Baby's small hands covered the chocolate and she gave him a quick smile.
We'd stepped on fallen apples before we'd gotten to the tree. There was no one with us. Baby sat on the ground, her hands still wrapped around the chocolate. Thad raised his hands and gently pulled an apple. He handed that to me.
"How do I pick apples?" I asked.
He laughed. His laughter was sore. It sounded like an afternoon fight. Like Thad's footsteps when he tiptoed out of the house in the night.
"You have to roll the apple upward off the branch. Twist it a little. Gently." He said.
I sighed and stretched out my hands. I was obeying his instructions when I touched the apple. I gently pulled until it came down. I held the apple in my left hand and laughed, "I was born to pluck apples."
My laughter wasn't mine. It didn't come from me, I was sure. I wanted -no, needed to talk about Baby's scar. But I was stalling and I didn't know why.
"We could make a whole lot of things with these apples." Thad said then looked down at Baby, "You like Apple pie, Baby?"
Baby nodded. She closed her eyes and opened them again. She was not smiling.
"I have a surprise for both of you. I've been planning it for a while now." He was laughing.
I pulled the bags closer and watched as Thad put the apples in. He was quick and he did it with efficiency. He'd worked once in an orchard, he'd told me before. And watching him now was great. Except that I wanted to know why Baby hated his touch.
"What did you do to Baby?" My question came out from my lips in a foreign accent. I dropped the bag with the apples and faced him. Baby looked up at the both of us and when she realized we were nothing more than humans with cloudy eyes, she looked away. Her hands came to rest on her lips and without thinking, she pulled it in and sucked diligently.
"What happened to Baby?" He asked. His expression was one of confusion and tortured innocence. And for a moment, I wanted to back out and forget it. But Baby was my daughter and I had a right to know what happened to her. I said I knew Thad but for the first time, I didn't know him.
"Don't act stupid." I said, "Baby has a scar in her thighs."
Thad looked at Baby. "Baby, let me see."
I stopped him on time. Baby was quiet. She was not looking at us. One of her hands held the bar of chocolate and the other was soaked up in spit.
"She claimed she fell." I said, "But I know she didn't get that scar from falling. And has fear in her eyes."
"I didn't touch her," Thad whispered.
"That's a lie and you know that."
He cleaned his hands in his trousers and looked away. He walked some distance, away from us and I stood there watching his back. When I turned around to look at Baby, she was chewing the chocolate and smiling.
"What happened yesterday?" I asked her.
She looked at her hands, covered in spit, and raised her gown again.
"Did he touch you, Baby?"
Thad came back and took the bag from the ground. People had started coming in and before long, the place was crowded. The bag was only half full.
Thad said, "We should go home. We'll talk when we get home."
I would have declined the offer but I didn't. I needed answers and so far, all I'd gotten was more questions. We went inside the car and Thad began to drive. There was no sign to signal the end except that Baby sat at the back, her hands in her mouth.
"Baby, take your hands out of your mouth," Thad said.
Baby did that. She looked out of the window, the trees skipping past. The leaves were all golden and brown and when Thad pulled the glasses down, Baby laughed. Her two front teeth were gone but she looked perfect.
The drive home was quiet. When we got home, Thad looked at Baby as she jumped down from the car. He sat still even after Baby and I exited the car and walked to the porch. There was a stillness in his steps like he was too afraid to near Baby.
I told Baby to go to her room. Thad sat on a chair in the kitchen, listening to the crisp pull of the leaves.
"I want answers, Thad," I whispered.
"I did not touch Baby." He said, "She's just a child for goodness sake. She's like my child."
There was truth in his words; truth in the way he just sat there, rubbing his eyes with the back of his palm. I know Thad and yet the sincerity in his eyes shocked me. I didn't know what to say or do. I did not know who to trust.
"I found her in the attic crying," I said.
"What kind of scar did you find?" He asked.
"A small shaky line. She swore she fell."
"I didn't touch her," Thad said. There were tears in his eyes, and pain so hard to grasp. I'd touched a soft spot in his heart in thinking he could touch Baby. "I could swear I didn't touch her."
"We'll talk tomorrow," I told him.
And there was no need to pick apples or learning how to laugh in the sun. Because in the morning, Thad was gone and Baby's hands were covered in spit. There was a small note in the kitchen, next to the bag of apples:
Maybe we should try again another time.
I turned to meet Baby's eyes, "Did Thad touch you?"
"I touched myself, momma." Baby's reply was quick.