Small Great Things(7)

Written By: Jodi Picoult

The jury couldn’t reach a verdict—hung, they called it—and so this man was free to go. My mother completely lost it, shrieking, babbling about her baby and justice. The murderer shook hands with his lawyer and then turned around, walking toward us, so that we were only separated by a railing. “Mrs. Bauer,” he said. “I am so sorry for your loss.”

As if he had nothing to do with it.

My mother stopped sobbing, pursed her lips, and spit.

BRIT AND ME, we’ve been waiting forever for this moment.

I’m driving with one hand on the steering wheel of the pickup and the other one on the bench seat between us; she clenches it every time a contraction hits her. I can tell it hurts like a bitch, but Brit just narrows her eyes and sets her jaw. It’s not a surprise—I mean, I’ve seen her knock out the teeth of a beaner who dented her car at the Stop & Shop with a runaway cart—but I don’t think she’s ever been quite so beautiful to me as she is right now, strong and silent.

I steal glimpses at her profile when we idle at a red light. We have been married for two years, but I still can’t believe that Brit is mine. She’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen, for one, and in the Movement, she’s about as close to royalty as you can get. Her dark hair snakes in a curly rope down her back; her cheeks are flushed. She’s puffing, little breaths, like she’s running a marathon. Suddenly she turns, her eyes bright and blue, like the middle of a flame. “No one said it would be this hard,” she pants.

I squeeze her hand, which is something, because she’s already squeezing mine to the point of pain. “This warrior,” I tell her, “is going to be just as strong as its mom.” For years, I was taught that God needs soldiers. That we are the angels of this race war, and without us, the world would become Sodom and Gomorrah all over again. Francis—Brit’s legendary dad—would stand up and preach to all the fresh cuts the need to increase our numbers, so that we could fight back. But now that Brit and I are here, in this moment, about to bring a baby into the world, I’m filled with equal parts triumph and terror. Because as hard as I’ve tried, this place is still a cesspool. Right now, my baby is perfect. But from the moment it arrives, it’s bound to be tainted.

“Turk!” Brittany cries.

Wildly, I take a left-hand turn, having nearly missed the hospital entrance. “What do you think of Thor?” I ask, turning the conversation to baby names, desperate to distract Brit from the pain. One of the guys I know from Twitter just had a kid and named him Loki. Some of the older crews were big into Norse mythology, and even though they’ve broken up into smaller cells by now, old habits die hard.

“Or Batman or Green Lantern?” Brittany snaps. “I’m not naming my kid after a comic book character.” She winces through another contraction. “And what if it’s a girl?”

“Wonder Woman,” I suggest. “After her mother.”

AFTER MY BROTHER died, everything fell apart. It was like that trial had ripped off the outside layer of skin, and what was left of my family was just a lot of blood and guts with nothing to hold it together anymore. My father split and went to live in a condo where everything was green—the walls, the carpet, the toilet, the stove—and every time I visited, I couldn’t help but feel queasy. My mother started drinking—a glass of wine with lunch and then the whole bottle. She lost her job as a paraprofessional at the elementary school when she passed out on the playground and her charge—a kid with Down syndrome—fell off the monkey bars and broke her wrist. A week later we put everything we owned into a U-Haul and moved in with my grandfather.

Gramps was a vet who had never stopped fighting a war. I didn’t know him all that well, because he’d never liked my dad, but now that that obstacle was out of the way, he took it upon himself to raise me the way he thought I should have been raised all along. My parents, he said, had been too soft on me, and I was a sissy. He was going to toughen me up. He’d wake me up at dawn on weekends and drag me into the woods for what he called Basic Training. I learned how to tell poisonous berries apart from the ones you could eat. I was able to identify scat so I could track animals. I could tell time by the position of the sun. It was sort of like Boy Scouts, except that my grandfather’s lessons were punctuated by stories of the gooks he fought in Vietnam, of jungles that would swallow you if you let them, of the smell of a man being burned alive.

One weekend he decided to take me camping. The fact that it was only six degrees outside and that snow was predicted did not matter. We drove to the edge of the Northeast Kingdom, close to the Canadian border. I went to the bathroom, and when I came back out my grandfather was gone.

His truck, which had been parked at a pump, was missing. The only hints that he’d been there at all were the impressions of the tire tracks in the snow. He’d left with my backpack, my sleeping bag, and the tent. I went into the gas station again and asked the attendant if she knew what had happened to the guy in the blue truck, but she just shook her head. “Comment?” she said, pretending like she didn’t even speak English even though she was still technically in Vermont.

I had my coat, but no hat or mittens—they were still in the truck. I counted sixty-seven cents in my pocket. I waited until another customer pulled into the gas station and then, when the cashier was occupied, I shoplifted a pair of gloves and a hunter-orange hat and a bottle of soda.

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