Maggie’s belly gnawed on her backbone. The half-eaten Big Mac and soggy fries the fat man had tossed out his car window into the gutter yesterday afternoon had long since been digested by her scrawny frame. Now, here it was almost midnight a day later and no meal in sight. But she was used to being hungry. Since they’d put her out of the hospital a few years back, her belly had been empty a whole lot more than it’d been full.
“Steak sounds good,” she said to the empty streets. “Think I’ll go by Delmonaco’s.” If she was lucky, maybe she could fish one out of the dumpster in back.
Pushed by a frigid north wind, crackly brown leaves skittered along the sidewalk, danced around Maggie’s feet, then disappeared into the blackness of the alleyway behind her. Ice pellets freckled her face. Beneath four layers of clothing, she shivered. Pausing, she pulled the ratty knit cap firmly down over her ears, then grabbed a threadbare blanket out of the chaos of dingy rags wadded in her shopping cart, and draped it over her shoulders.
Maggie wondered if she would survive the winter. Her arthritic joints griped constantly, and their combined voices were getting harder to ignore with each passing year. Even her brain had grown stiff.
She moved through the sleeping town, pressing on until she reached the alley that ran alongside the police station. She stopped and leaned on the cart, letting her labored breathing slow.
Across the street, a woman emerged from the darkness. Clutching something to her breast, she stepped onto the deserted roadway and hurried across. She mounted the steps that led up to the door of the police station and laid down her bundle in the circle of yellow light cast by the street lamp. Then she rushed back across the street and disappeared into the night shadows from which she’d come.
Like she was never there, Maggie thought.
Except for what she’d left behind.
Wonder what it is?
The bundle shifted. Maggie heard a thin cry.
It’s a baby! Lord above, it’s a baby!
She moved faster than she had in years, the shopping cart clump-clump-clumping over the uneven sidewalk. She stopped just outside the sphere of light and eyed the door; it remained closed. Leaving her cart behind, she made her way to the foot of the steps, then grunting with the lift of each cold foot, climbed the short distance to the top. Her knees cried out as she squatted, but she ignored the pain, completely focused on what lay on the concrete. Reaching out a trembling hand, she folded back a corner of the heavy blue blanket, revealing the face of a baby who couldn’t have been over a few days old.
Maggie did a quick survey of her surrounding. All alone, just her and the baby. She flipped the blanket back over the pink face, swooped up the little body and got to her feet, then hustled back to her cart and buried the swaddled baby among the rags inside. Heart pounding, she hurried away.
The cart clattered. The baby cried. Maggie picked up her pace, anxious to distance herself from the police station.
“If they see me, they’ll take my baby,” she muttered under her breath.
Two blocks farther on, she turned into a familiar alley. Slower now, she made her way to the back of Saint Mary’s, parked the cart against the brick building next to the steps, and dug the baby out of its cocoon of rags.
“Mine.” She cuddled the infant to her bosom, remembering another time, a time long ago when she’d held another baby. She’d hurt and hurt down there, then Mama’d put a baby in her arms. But only for a minute. Then Mama took the baby away, telling her that she didn’t have sense enough to take care of it. Maggie never saw the baby again.
“No one’s gonna take you away.” She turned back the blanket, smiled down at the exposed face. Sleet peppered the pale skin. The baby sucked in a startled breath, wailed out into the night.
She pulled another tattered blanket from her cart, wrapped it around herself and the infant, then mounted the steps to a covered stoop that crouched at the church’s back door. Baby in her arms, she sat down and squeezed her wasted body into a protected corner. She hummed. She rocked. The infant quieted.
After a time, Maggie slept.
She woke cold to the bone. The baby was crying again, but not as vigorously as before. Maggie sang and she rocked back and forth. The infant still fussed.
The wind gusted, blowing sleet and snow over her and the baby. Maggie shivered and shook. The infant squirmed.
It’s too cold, and I can’t get it warm.
And Maggie realized that if she didn’t do something, the baby would die. Her too, but that didn’t matter. Only the baby mattered.
She tottered down the steps and pulled a dry blanket from the bottom of her cart. She wrapped it around the blue blanket, snuggled the swaddled infant against her chest, then made her way back through the frigid night to the police station. Her feet unfeeling blocks of ice, Maggie carefully climbed the steps. She pushed open the door and walked in.
A lone policeman manned the front desk. Maggie recognized him: Officer Sweeten. Good. She wouldn’t have to give the baby to a stranger.
“Here.” She held the infant out in front of her.
Office Sweeten stood up. “What is it, Maggie?”
“A lady left this outside. I was afraid it’d freeze.”
The baby wiggled. The blanket fell away from its face.
“Good God!” Officer Sweeten moved around his desk.
She softly kissed the baby’s cheek, then with tears streaming down her wrinkled face, placed the small treasure in his arms.
Maggie walked back out into the bitter night. As she moved down the sidewalk, winter enveloped her in its brittle embrace, and she ached from the cold–except for her bony chest. There, she could still feel the baby’s warmth.
Photo from Pixabay