SAVING A CHILD

Submitted into Contest #119 in response to: Start your story with an unusual sound being heard.... view prompt

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Fiction People of Color Contemporary

SAVING A CHILD

          The sputtering sound intrudes into Marie’s semi-alertness, breaking the silence of the early morning. Soon it becomes a rattling cough, like a last breath choking on dust. This can’t be one of the children. Marie doesn’t have enough syrup to make this go away. She sits on the twin bed wedged between her makeshift desk and the mud wall and pulls the earplugs out. The noise shifts along with the gears. In her old life, this would be a car, but she hasn’t seen one in this village since she’d been here in over five years. With a last whimper, the noise died.

        Footfalls run toward the door, while voices from children at various level of puberty competed with the roosters and the goats in the fading dawn. Marie runs her fingers through her short afro and yawns before pulling her cotton nightgown off her already damp skin. She looks over at the aluminum basin in the corner of the room with water for her morning wash and shakes her head. She dons a pair of denim shorts, a sport bra, and a sleeveless cotton shirt to combat the summer heat and hastens her steps to the front door. Her mind must be playing tricks on her. Even the commercial mopeds drop passengers at the bottom of the hill, and you can’t hear the sounds until the visitor is upon you. Like an apparition.

           “What’s all the racket about?”  Marie asks her helper, Antonise, a village woman of undetermined age.

     “The children run down in a stampede,” the old woman says, holding the youngest addition to their family in her arms. “Don’t know what be down that hill.” She pushes the boy’s face into her bosom as if to protect him from invisible harm. “Sound like the devil done break the chains, Miss Marie.”

         Marie smiles, reaching for the toddler. She kisses his forehead, inhaling his baby scent of talcum powder and urine before putting him down on the cement floor. “You need to stop carrying him around, Antonise. He walks.”

          Antonise scoffs. “You say, he the last one we be taking in, so I wanna baby him some.”

         “We don’t have the space,” Marie says, “nor the resources. I’m sorry.” She rubs Antonise’s shoulder.

         Marie bumps into the two older teens as they burst through the front room, breathing hard and holding their sides.

          “Why aren’t you getting ready for class?” Marie asks, ready to go down the hill.

         “Miss Marie, there’s a car below and smoke’s coming out of it,” Moise says, his eyes twinkling with excitement. “It’s big and stuck between two trees. Can we keep it?”

           “What fool would try to come this way in a car,” she mutters.

          “Oh, there’s a white man walking up.” Moise points toward a figure lumbering up the steep hill. His eyes open wider as the figure gets closer.

          “Why, you look like you see a ghost,” Marie says, shading her brown eyes with her hand

   for a better look. “Oh, dear! It’s Dr. Bill.”

          “Who that?” Antonise asks, behind her.

          Marie sighs and turns. “He’s an American missionary. He scours the countryside, looking for very sick children and finds them free medical care in the States,” Marie replies. “Wonder how he found me.”

          As Bill gets closer to the low-hung structure where Marie feeds, schools, and cares for orphans, she sees the small girl cradled in his arms.

          “Come,” she said, waving him inside the house.

          “Marie, wait till I tell you Cedrine’s story,” Bill says, before he was fully inside the front room. “You’re the only one who can help me get her out of the country in time to save her life. Oh, I’ll have to leave her with you until we get all the travel documents.”

          “Wait a minute, Bill! I’m beyond full. I can’t take anymore. Haiti’s always crawling with orphans. I’m turning kids away…”

          Dr. Bill sniffs the air. “I’ll have some of that coffee.” He licks his sweaty lips. “Nothing like Haitian coffee. I miss it when I’m home.”

          Sitting in one of the cane-backed chairs around a wooden table, he places the girl in the one next to him. “Cedrine was born with a hole in her heart. She lives with a woman who mistreats her. At my last stop on the other side of the mountain, a neighbor brought her in and told me where to find you.” Bill sips the coffee Antonise places in front of him. “You can’t hide from me, Marie.” His light blue eyes close in a smile.

        “I wish.” She grunts, shaking her head. “This place is too small, sometimes.”

        Bill turns serious. “Her heart’s failing. She’ll need surgery soon and I need a passport this week. So I need your help.”

          She shifts her body from her chair to stare into his eyes below a shock of sun-whitened blond hair. “Bill, you know it takes about three months to get a passport here. How do I get one in a week? You must be mad.”

          Bill squeezes her fingers. “I know you’ll do your best, mon amie.”

          “But…” Marie exhales. “Bill, look around you. I can’t—”

         “My car died below. Glad I could make it up the hill, since Cedrine can’t walk anymore. Her heart…you see…”

          Marie had gone to school with Bill’s daughter in Boston, years ago. His family took her in and made her life comfortable away from her family in Haiti. She owes him. Bill had saved that card for a special occasion. Favors are limited here. He wouldn’t be reckless in spending his. Marie turns to Cedrine, who immediately looks down at the floor.

          “How old are you, ti pitit?” Marie asks the small girl.

          “I…I don’t know, Auntie,” she whispers, looking at Bill as if she has failed the first test.

          The fear in her eyes, prickles Marie’s skin. In Cedrine’s world, failing at anything shows up as the scars zigzagging her skin. Marie takes the girl in her arms, hugging her for a long time. “You’re safe now.” She kisses her bony cheek.

          Cedrine gives into the physical contact, wrapping her thin arms around Marie’s neck and sobs. “Shhh,” Marie rocks her. “No one can hurt you here, Bébé.”

          “She’s ten,” Bill says, handing an envelope to Marie. “Everything you’ll need is in there.” He sighs. “I have a promise of a visa from my contact at the American embassy in Port-au-Prince. I have doctors and hospital ready to operate on her in Cleveland. But without a passport...” He shrugs.

          That night, Marie tosses and turns waking up many times from nightmares of children chasing her while they beg her for help. The next morning, she leaves early to embark on the improbable journey of getting a Haitian passport in a couple days. She hops on a moped at the foot of the hill, grabbing the driver’s midsection with both arms. Villagers, mostly men, stand around Bill’s car with hands cupping their chins, some looking up at the trees as if it had dropped down like a ripe fruit.

         “Umm…Miss Marie,” the young driver says, his belly caving under her palms.

         “Sorry,” she says, pulling her arms outward. He gulps air.

         People on foot yell at her in greeting along the road. She nods, keeping her mouth close against the dust and flying insects. Some time later, she gets off after paying the fare and runs her palms over the wrinkles on her blouse. Nothing she can do about the fine powder that covers her exposed skin. She crosses the street to the commissariat building where the villagers get birth and death certificates, identification card, land survey, passports and anything that requires a seal on a piece of paper and an official signature.

       “Bonjour monsieur,” Marie says to the clerk, pasting a smile on her face, although the coffee she drank earlier is bubbling in her stomach. She swallows the acid burning her throat.

      “Take a number,” he says, without looking up from his book. He opens his top drawer.

       Marie sits on the bench squeezed between a young woman bouncing a baby on her lap and an old man reeking of tobacco with a pipe sticking out of his shirt pocket. The room is furnished with two long benches, a small desk, and a file cabinet. A ceiling fan stirs the hot air pouring in from the open windows. A phone on the desk rings periodically, the clerk listens, and nods as if the caller can see him. He then signals someone from the crowd who had dropped something in his drawer before walking the person to the inner door with the sign that says Directeur. By the time, the clerk declares the office closed for the day at two in the afternoon, people were standing or sitting on the tile floor.

          The following day, Marie waits all day at the commissariat only to return home once more empty-handed. Meanwhile, Cedrine no longer moves from her cot. That night, after a supper of yellow porridge with red bean soup, Marie snaps a few pictures of Cedrine with her old Polaroid and waits for daylight.

          In the morning, anger pushes Marie like a hurricane on her back. Inside the building, she kicks the machine with the numbers and barrels past the clerk, who drops a cup of coffee on his book, as he jumps up from his seat to stop Marie.

          “Madame, please, you have to take a number.”

          “Get the hell out of my way,” Marie growls, heading toward the Director’s office. She leaves the door wide open and drops her body in the chair facing his desk. The man stutters on the phone, his eyes bulging out of his over-fed face. “I have to go,” he whispers to someone and disconnects the call, but still holding the receiver.

        Marie swivels her head around the air-conditioned office. Her eyes stop on the framed picture behind him of two chubby-looking girls dressed in identical outfits.

          “How did you get in here without an appointment?” the director asks, pointing the phone at her like a weapon.

            “Is that what we call bribe now? Appointment.” She yells, staring at him hard. He looks toward the door. “Your daughters look the picture of health,” Marie says, ignoring his question. He follows her gaze.

            “They’re twins,” he says. “Their names are—”

           “Take a look at these.” Marie slides the envelope on the desk, cutting him off.

          His eyes recede into a frown. He empties the contents of the envelope on his desk and sifts. Marie knows what he’s looking for. He flips through Cedrine’s pictures. His head jerks up as if Marie has prodded him with high voltage electricity. She glares. He reads the medical records from Dr. Bill.

          “What’s this?” he says, staring at the open door.

          “This,” Marie says loud enough to be heard by the people waiting outside “is a child you’re killing, as if you’d put a bullet in her diseased heart.”

          “You…you can’t barge in…What do you want, Madame?” He lowers his voice. “That’s not the way things work around…”

          “I need a passport,” Marie says. “Cedrine can’t wait, and I can’t afford to pay the bribe.” She puts the money Dr. Bill had given her for the cost of the passport on the desk. A group of people crowds the office doorway, pushing and yelling in frustration. Fear dances in his eyes.

          “Come see me personally tomorrow, Madame. I will have the passport ready,” he whispers. “Please close the door behind you.”

           Marie pumps her fist. The waiting room erupts in applause. Cedrine will get her chance at a healthy and pain-free life.

     Tomorrow.

November 10, 2021 16:44

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2 comments

Melissa Balick
06:12 Nov 15, 2021

Hey! I really liked your story once it got going. I’d recommend starting it with the boy seeing the car with smoke coming out, not at waking up. You can still get all that great stuff in there about the baby who can crawl but the helper wants to hold it all the time anyway, even without the waking up. It just doesn’t feel like the right start to this story. Like when you tell someone the plot of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” you don’t start it with “Goldilocks woke up and got dressed.” You start it with “Goldilocks was wandering in the wo...

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15:29 Nov 15, 2021

Thank you so much, Melissa for your reading and feedback. Your comment is well received and on point. Wish I could edit it now. I see exactly how I'd have started it. I wrote it fast to meet deadline. I think I'm going to love this community. 💜

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