Vicky’s milk had just let down when the first three shots rang out from the beach side of the campground. The baby continued nursing, pressing his tiny hand to her breast. He had gotten cold—the camper door had been cracked open all night, the lock jammed.
Leftover firecrackers, she reasoned—someone lit them on this last summer weekend. The baby was warming up; he was getting the hindmilk now, the richer milk that would keep him full and put him to sleep. She breathed, trying to let oxytocin—nature’s Valium for nursing mothers—do its work.
Another shot sounded, then two more. Angry shouts. The feline cry of a newborn, a man shouting, a woman pleading.
Some crazy bastard was out there…shooting crying babies?
Vicki clutched her baby in the dark and found her phone—dead.
She hadn’t wanted to go camping with such a young baby. Her husband thought it would be good for her. For all of them. Said plenty of people camped with babies. The fresh air would be good.
She found the truck keys and the flashlight. The jostled baby released her nipple and let out a howl. Shushing him, she felt inside the travel crib and along the sandy floor for a pacifier, then finally gave him her pinky.
She peered outside, senses keen as a bomb dog, baby’s belly against her own. The campsite was dark but for embers in the fire pit. Her husband snored in a whiskey sleep in the bunk above her older son. Both slept so heavily at home that the sound of a nearby jackhammer, or of dishes she had dropped on the ceramic tile—no such things caused so much as a shift in the sheets.
She put a fleece sleeper on the baby and lay him back down his travel crib. He sighed, settling quickly to sleep.
She would rouse her husband, drive them all to safety. But what if the shooter was waiting at the only exit? If she woke her husband, there was the possibility he would laugh, probably tell her she was being hysterical.
Hysteria. She had learned the word in a textbook many years ago. It was the first mental disorder attributed specifically to women, a condition of “heightened emotional state” caused by “movement of the uterus.” This ignorance made her angry, as did her psychiatrist’s suggestion that depression and sleep deprivation could cause delusions. Sleep deprivation from a newborn baby didn’t count, she reasoned. Women were made to endure birth and nursing. Surely nature provided some safety stops.
She had read that crime rates soared during full moons. The campground fairly glowed as she stepped outside the camper, making ordinary objects—like the bag of marshmallows and her husband’s cell phone on the picnic table—appear fairy-dusted. She put the phone—half-charged—in her fleece jacket pocket and looked across the sleeping campground. There was laughter and the glow of a fire. All was well. Nobody had to know what she had thought a few minutes ago, what her plan for survival had been. These were not unusual things for her to think about, and she had learned not to trust them, not to say them out loud, not to act on them.
Vicky headed back to the camper, brushing sand off her feet, when a man’s voice startled her.
“Can’t sleep either?”
She turned to see a man wearing board shorts and carrying a shower caddy, standing near her truck.
“Baby woke,” she said, hearing her voice waver. “Just checking on the fire.”
“We’ve got one, too. Two months. He woke up from those firecrackers.”
“I thought I heard fireworks,” she said.
He turned on a lantern. He was young—in his twenties—with a crew cut. Neatly arranged in the shower caddy was a toothbrush holder, soap, shampoo, and what appeared to be a pistol in a clear plastic produce baggie, its butt-end up.
Vicky felt him studying her and pointed to the sky. “Full moon,” she said.
“Say, would you want to come over, hang out with my wife by the fire while you’re up?” he said. “You could talk babies. She could talk babies all day. And all night for that matter.”
“Oh,” she said. “I really need to watch the baby, he’ll be hungry soon, and my husband is probably wondering where I am. Maybe I’ll see you all tomorrow?”
“Hope your baby don’t cry like mine does,” the man said. “It’s enough to drive someone out of their damn mind.”
“Oh no, he’s a good baby,” she said, glad for the dark as her eyes watered in fear. “Only cries when he’s cold or hungry.”
The man pointed toward the fire across the campground. “I really think you should come over. Maybe you could teach my wife a thing or two about getting a baby to be good and quiet. She doesn’t seem to have any womanly instincts.”
He laughed, a beat too late and a beat too long, so that the hairs on her arms stood up. He pointed with his chin to her camper. “That yours?”
“Yes. Better get back.” I can’t lock the camper, she thought. How long had he been standing there near her site? Was he just passing by, or had he watched her emerge from the camper?
“Yeah,” he said. “I seen you all earlier, down at the beach. People with kids always notice other people with kids.”
“That’s true. Always looking for playmates,” she said.
“Right,” he smirked. He glanced down at his shower caddy and looked up at her quickly. “There’s coyotes, you know. Bold ones that will come right up to a baby. So don’t leave him for a minute outside, even just to go in and get something out of the camper, you know?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” she said. She tried to smile.
The cry of a newborn sounded out and his face hardened. “That’s Jr.,” he said. He kicked the sand.
An overwhelming sense of dread flooded her body, warming the soles of her feet. “Oh,” she said. “Maybe it’s colic?”
“You have a good night,” he said, taking a deep breath. He walked toward his campsite.
The camper was quiet. She tried the lock again but it was truly jammed. She lay next to her older son, facing the door, and tried not to cry as she held her husband’s phone. 911 is not necessary, she told herself. There is wildlife out here. He’s probably one of those right-to-bear-arms morons who carries a weapon everywhere, even to the shower.
She thought about the Klonopin tablet in her purse, the one she stashed from after the panic attacks she started having during a PTA meeting two years ago. It was right after Sandy Hook, when the administration revealed the emergency plan in the event of a shooting. Studies of other shootings had shown there might be a benefit to not having a fence around a school, they said, there is more chance for escape when children scatter and flee.
Vicky wondered if she could take the Klonopin while nursing, but she had no way of finding out. Better to play it safe. She tried listening to her breath, which was shallow and fast, and started to fall asleep.
The knock on the door was frantic. Her husband, still passed out, didn’t react. In fact, the lack of reaction from anyone else in the trailer had her wondering if this was a dream.
It was the young man. “Can you please help?” he said. “Please.” This time he had the pistol in his hand but he held it limply, as though he were simply carrying it for someone else and had forgotten it was there at all.
Without thinking, without even putting on her shoes, she stepped outside into the peaceful, moonlit night, leading him and the gun away from her family.
His campsite was tidy, the fire high and cracking, bathing suits and towels strung orderly on the line. They had an old canvas tent, the kind nobody uses anymore, Vicky thought. The wife, who barely looked eighteen, was sobbing along with the baby, who was in the midst of a purple cry.
“This lady’s going to help you, Rita,” the man said. “She’s got a baby too.”
“Jesse,” Rita began and then stopped.
“It’s going to be okay,” she said to Rita. She reached out and Rita—almost eagerly—put the baby in her arms.
Vicky tried to smile at her and unfolded the loose swaddle. She lay the baby on a lawn chair and rewrapped him swiftly, tucking his arms against his sides as he cried, making the swaddle so tight he was like a little football.
She tilted him on his side, supporting his tiny head, and gave him his pacifier and shushed to him.
There was a double-bassinette stroller next to the trailer, and Rita stood to take a bundle from one side. She held it like a baby, hips swaying side to side—only the bundle was too tiny to be a baby, and Vicky was too nervous to look any closer.
The young man, Jesse, sat on the picnic table, hands over his ears, eyes squeezed shut. He had placed the gun on the table behind him. Vicky thought she might cry herself if the baby didn’t stop. This was like a sick joke, a horrifying pop-quiz. She could be shot if she failed.
The baby hiccupped, then suddenly stopped crying. Vicky leaned into his ear and shushed loudly, as though she could reboot his baby brain with her own white noise. He blinked, sucked rapidly, and closed his eyes. She swayed him back and forth.
Jess looked up, his eyes wide. “You’re a genius,” he whispered. “What did you do?”
“I’m not a genius,” she said, cautious to feel relief. “It’s from a Dr. Harvey Karp video. The maternity ward gave it to me.”
“That is a Goddamn miracle. Dr. Harvey Cop, huh?”
“Whatever. Dr. Goddamn Genius.” He smiled and raised his arms in the air in victory.
Rita continued to stare at the fire, holding the blanketed bundle. After a moment, Vicky put the sleeping baby in the other bassinette of the stroller.
“Did you see that, Ree?” he asked her. “Did you see how fast JJ got quiet?”
“I can show you, Rita,” Vicky said. “It really helped us.”
“You can try to show her,” he said. “Alls she does is make him a bottle and cry along with him. She’s not going to hear you anyway.”
“I’ll show you, then.” Vicky said. “I think men are better at swaddling because their hands are bigger; it has to be done tight and precise so it holds. Like folding a flag.”
“I know how to fold a flag,” he said. “Shit. I’ve folded a hundred flags.”
“If you have an extra blanket,” Vicky said, “I can show you. It’s too bad we don’t have a doll or something. I don’t want to unwrap your son and chance waking him.”
He snorted. “Oh, we got a doll.” He motioned to Rita. “Rita honey,” he said. “Give her the doll.”
Rita carried the bundle to Vicky and deposited it gingerly in her arms, supporting the tiny head with great care and kissing the little plastic face.
Vicky took her cue and treated the doll gently. “Thanks,” she said. She unwrapped the doll on the lawn chair and Jesse came over to watch, leaving the gun behind. She swallowed a bit of relief—things were going to be OK—and showed him how to arrange the blanket in a position that resembled a diamond. She was demonstrating the first fold when they both jumped at the sound of another shot.
It was Rita, both hands still on the pistol, aiming toward something in the far-off sea grass. Jesse grabbed her wrists and pried free the gun, which dropped to the sand. “Goddamn it,” he sputtered. “I can’t keep my eyes off you for a second.”
“It’s out there!” Rita insisted. Her voice was scratchy and high. “I heard it. I could smell it.”
“There aren’t any coyotes, Ree!”
She collapsed, sobbing. The baby began crying again, and Vicky picked him up and shushed wildly.
The couple sat at the picnic table, his arm around her. “You’re going to kill someone, Ree, and think about little JJ. Think about him, going through this world less than half. What would he do without the both of us?”
He looked up at Vicky. “She snuck a gun into our bag before we left,” he said. “I’ve got to bring it everywhere to keep it away from her. Out where we live, there are tons of coyotes and it isn’t any big deal to shoot into the dark.”
He went on to explain how Rita had been inside the house two weeks ago, fixing a bottle, when a coyote came right onto the porch where JJ was sleeping in his stroller. “JJ had a twin, I guess, you know?” he said. “Early on. Early. Disappeared from the ultrasound when he was what, Ree, the size of a sesame seed?”
“A kidney bean,” she said softly.
“I thought getting her out of the house would be good for her, you know?” Jesse said. He shook his head. “Nature is smart, something was probably just not right with it. I try to tell her that.”
Rita grasped Jesse’s arms and begged him to shut up.
The baby was quiet again, and Vicky put him back in the bassinette. She finished wrapping the doll and then handed it to Rita.
She wanted to tell Rita she was a good mother, and that this period of crying—the first few months when babies cry so much and for no good reason—would pass and then she would be fine and she would sleep again, would feel half-human. But she couldn’t say that. Instead, she told her she was sorry, and even that had no weight against it.
Jesse unloaded the gun. He handed it to Vicky. “Find some place to put this,” he said. “I don’t care what you do with it. Huck it into the ocean for all I care.”
She gripped the gun by the barrel, holding it the way a child is taught to safely carry scissors by holding the blades in a closed fist. She considered throwing it into the ocean but was afraid it would wash back, and that a child would find it. She glanced at Jesse as she left and he nodded slightly, still holding Rita.
As she walked back to the camper, a police cruiser—apparently waiting—shined its spotlight on her.
There had been a dozen calls about the shots, the officers said. Someone had been hurt in the dunes by a stray bullet. She would need to come with them and make a statement.
She emphasized that Rita was young, that they were in grief, and that they were only trying to protect their baby from coyotes.
Another cruiser silently drove by them, its lights a soothing blue strobe, and stopped at Jesse’s campsite where, strangely, there was no sounds of hysteria, just calm voices that—despite her best efforts to hear—were even-toned hums of indecipherable words.
Vicki sat in the cruiser, her breasts becoming full and tight. She began to feel panicked—not from fear of her safety, but from her baby or son waking and needing her and her being nowhere to be found. Her husband would never believe she was involved in all this. And if she told him the story, he’d probably coast right over the meat of it to the part where Rita’s logic went awry.
He’d say that’s ridiculous. That’s just fucking crazy. Everyone knows there aren’t coyotes out here, he’d say. Everyone knows that.
Jennifer Genest grew up riding horses and playing in the woods of Sanford, a mill town in Southern Maine. One of her stories won the New Delta Review Short Fiction Award in 2014, and was selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 (very) Short Fictions for 2015. Her writing has appeared in The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review, Cactus Heart, Extract(s), and elsewhere.
Jennifer lives in Orange County, CA with her husband and young daughters. Her novel, The Mending Wall, is currently seeking publication.