The path along the creek was the favorite part of her morning power walk. Regardless of the weather, the water tripped along providing welcome background music. On grey days, the creek was misty and subdued, but on sunny mornings the greens of the duckweed, the watercress and the myriad other plants carpeting the banks sang out.
Ever since her doctor had told her to “lose the damn weight,” walking had been the exercise that offered the most entertainment. The two miles she had mapped out circumnavigated the residential neighborhood and the creek’s very existence in this built up area was both a miracle and a respite. It was pleasant enough to look at the houses along the streets, see how the gardens were coming along, watch the progress of the construction of another “urban insertion” of a massive McMansion onto a too-small lot. However, the creek with its canopy of trees seemed another, peaceful world.
She ignored the mother hen cluckings of friends who had said that the path along the creek was too isolated. “There have been muggings there, you know” had been the refrain from several people when she had begun bragging about how she was now up to walking at four miles an hour; quite the clip and quite the cardio burn.
Nothing could spoil the serenity of this stretch of path with its deep, lush greenery, sunlit dappled water and babbling accompaniment. She reminded herself again to look up the names of the variety of plants that grew thickly along the water’s edge. Patches of green looked so soft and comfortable.
She was almost past the spot when she realized that the green she admired was not the right color green; almost but not quite. “Trash? In my creek?” she harrumphed and looked around for a stick or other something that would be long enough to snag the offending article and drag it out. Finding a sturdy branch, she reached out to hook the thing, a piece of carpet or blanket — cloth definitely.
When the tiny hand appeared, it didn’t register. “Jesus Christ Almighty!” she blurted when the penny dropped. She blundered back and the cloth settled, to continue gently bobbing with the current.
Frantically she whirled around to see if there were someone within hail. Of course not.
“What the fuck do I do now? I can’t go down there!”
Grabbing for her mobile phone, she fumbled; dropped it; kicked it with her foot as she reached for it. It skittered along the gravel. Finally she grabbed it in a handful of dirt, clutching it with numb fingers. “This is nuts” flashed through her mind she made clumsy attempts at control.
“What the hell do I do? Call the cops?” Horror movies told her that the slow motion of nightmares was not a dream — just try to hit those tiny, tiny numbers with fingers that become fatter as you try to type on a screen that dances in your trembling hand.
“What do I say? Help, dead baby? How stupid would I sound?”
“Just run away now.”
“Who would do such a thing? This is Princeton for Christ’s sake! No one would throw out a baby!”
“It must be from Trenton. Druggies from Trenton snatched a kid and did something horrible to it and then it died and they drove to Princeton to get rid of it. That’s it. No one here would do that.”
“Am I going to get embroiled in some horrible legal mess? Will they think I did it?”
“Oh crap, didn’t a Chinese couple move into that red house last year? FOX News says they don’t like baby girls. The wife had a girl and the mother in law smothered it and threw the body out because it wasn’t worth a burial.”
“It has to be them or the husband of that family from Somalia. Or Syria. Whatever. He scares me. They all are so strange. The women never speak when you see them at McCaffrey’s — no eye contact even. They don’t dress like us even.”
“Those people kill family members for the smallest slight all the time! One of the daughters got pregnant, hid it from her parents and then they killed her and the baby when they found out. Oh, Jesus, where’s the other body? Is that around here too?”
“Damn it! I hate this phone! Why can’t I see anyone around? What if I scream? What if the killer is still nearby? He’ll hear me and come back! Those people aren’t like us.”
“Shit, he’s going to get me too! What was that? He’s coming!”
Somehow daring to whip around toward the snapping sound, she saw a tree limb had caught on the blanket. The soft little hand underneath seemed to clutch at the twigs. The swift moving water carried the branch along, twisting and pulling as it tugged at the entwined cloth.
The arm came free, lodged in the tangle. The rest of the doll slid, naked, muddy and open-eyed into the stream, bumping along, hurrying to catch up with its limb. The tiny curved fingers waved goodbye as the current bobbed it merrily past the Princeton houses and the strangers living in them.
E.E. Whiting, a ghostwriter and Plainsboro resident, is a reader of the submissions to this issue.