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Chapter 4

COPROCEPHALIC It irritated Ura Lee, the way folks just assumed that because she was a nurse, she'd take care of their problems, no matter what. Found a baby in a field? Why, give it to the nurse lady! Never mind that she's never had a baby in her life and never worked with newborns on the job.

Only people I ever diapered were Alzheimer's patients and stroke victims. Madeline Tucker, now, she's taken care of four sons, she's got diapering down to a science, not to mention bathing and feeding babies. She's got a car at home, no job that she's already running late for, and it's her boy found the baby. But it never crosses her mind to take the baby to the hospital herself, does it?

Because Ura Lee Smitcher is a nurse, so it's her job.

"Fasten your seat belt," she told Ceese.

When he didn't obey, she glared at him. He was moving his head and shoulders in a weird way.

It finally dawned on her that he was trying to snake his head through the shoulder strap.

"Use your hands, child, or do you think God stuck them on the ends of your arms so you could count to ten without getting lost?"

"I'm holding the baby!" Ceese protested.

"Your lap is holding the baby," said Ura Lee. "Use your head."

"I was," Ceese murmured as he let go of the baby and pulled the seatbelt across his middle.

Of course, the baby's head flopped down and hung like fruit from a tree. Ura Lee reached over and supported the head. "You don't just let go of the head, you want to break its neck?"

"You said to... I was just..."

"What were you doing with Raymo? Smoking something made you stupid?"

At first she thought he was being smart-mouthed and she was about to smack him when she saw that his eyes were glistening. It occurred to her that maybe this boy had been called stupid a few times too often.

His seatbelt fastened, he got his hand back under the baby's head, and she was free to shift into gear. She backed the car out of the carport and onto Burnside, then headed for Coliseum and then La Cienega. She drove gently, because she wasn't sure this boy could hold on to the baby. It looked like he was being so gentle that he couldn't get a decent grip on it.

"You sure you got no idea where that baby comes from?" she asked.

"I know exactly where it came from," said Ceese coldly.

"All right then," she said. "Who's the mother?"

"How should I know?"

"You said—"

"They showed us a movie in P.E.," said Ceese scornfully. "But it didn't tell us how to figure out who's the mother of a naked ant-covered baby you find in the grass by a rusty old drainpipe. I guess they only teach that to nurses."

Well, that was an interesting reaction. Seemed like young Ceese Tucker didn't take crap from anybody. Maybe there was more to the boy than tagging along after Raymo Vine.

At a light, she reached into her purse, pulled out her cellphone, and called work to tell them she was late because she had to bring a baby to the emergency room. She was explaining it for the second time to her supervisor, who seemed to think Ura Lee was so stupid that this is the kind of excuse she'd invent for being late to work, when she realized that the car in front of her was stopping suddenly. She jammed on the brakes and saw the baby fly forward out of Ceese's arms. It hit the dashboard—with its naked butt, fortunately, instead of its head—and dropped like a rock onto the floor.

The baby lay there, silent. Not crying, not whimpering, not even squeaking.

"God have mercy on you boy, if you killed that baby!"

"Why'd you stop so fast?" Ceese shouted back at her.

"What did you want me to do, you smart-mouthed little coprocephalic? Run into the car in front of me?"

"He's breathing," said Ceese. "You got so many McDonald's wrappers on the floor it probably saved his life."

"You criticizing how I keep my car, now?" brakes without warning!"

"I couldn't make the car in front of me disappear!"

"And I couldn't repeal the law of inertia that made this baby fly out of my arms," said Ceese.

"What you yelling at me for?"

It was a question to which Ura Lee had no rational answer. "Because you're here and I'm mad," said Ura Lee. "Are you going to pick the baby up or use it as a footrest?"

He bent over and scooped it up. Clumsily, but then it's not the kind of thing people got to practice much, picking up babies off the floors of cars. The baby still didn't make a sound. Hadn't made a sound the whole time, before or after falling on the floor.

Ceese was stroking the baby. Murmuring to it. "You all right? You okay?"

He wasn't careless with this baby. She'd judged him wrong.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you," she said.

He didn't look at her.

"I was just upset and I took it out on you," she said.

"That's okay," he murmured, so soft she could hardly hear him.

"That how you accept an apology?" she asked.

"I don't know," he said. "Nobody ever apologize to me before."

"Oh, now, that's just silly," she said.

"Sorry," he said.

Then again, he was the youngest, with nothing but brothers, and she didn't see Madeline or Winston doing much apologizing to their baby.

"Was that true?" she asked. "Nobody ever told you sorry?"

"Sure," he said. "My brothers. All the time. One of them hits me upside the head, he says,

'Sorry.' One of them walks by and knocks me against the wall, he says, 'Sorry.' "

"I get the idea," said Ura Lee.

"One of them comes up to me when I'm playing with a friend and pulls my pants down, undershorts and all, and flips me there where it really hurts and when I'm crying and my friend's run off home, he says, 'Sorry, Cecil.' "

"Damn right," said Ceese softly.

"What did you say?"

"Damn right, ma'am," said Ceese, loudly this time.

And Ura Lee busted out laughing. This boy was something. Or maybe holding a baby in his arms made him feel like more the equal of an adult. So he could give sass instead of just taking it.

"Is that really what it's like to have brothers?" she asked him.

"That's what it was like to have my brothers," said Ceese.

"But if you had a little brother, you wouldn't treat him like that?"

Ceese barked out a little laugh. "Miz Smitcher, I would be the best damn brother any kid ever had. But no way is my mom going to let me keep this baby, so you can forget it."

Ura Lee hadn't been thinking that at all. Hadn't crossed her mind. But now that she was thinking about it, she couldn't imagine why she had said that to him at all. How was he going to have a little brother, indeed?

Of course, one way might be to keep the child herself. Then Ceese would be the next-door neighbor. Not that they'd play much together. But when this baby was first growing up, he'd have Ceese next door as an example of a decent kind of boy. Kind of a protector maybe. Wasn't that what Ceese already was? This baby's protector?

She pulled into the hospital parking lot. For a moment she thought of taking the baby right to Emergency, but then she'd have to come out later and move her car, and it's not like the baby was choking or having respiratory difficulty or diarrhea. It was just naked and newborn and dirty, unless the doctors found something that wasn't visible to the naked eye.

Just take the stray to the vet, have him look it over to make sure it didn't have worms or the mange, and you take it home and voila! You had yourself a pet!

What in the world was she thinking? Keep the child herself! How could she possibly keep a child, what with them locking her up in a mental ward, since taking on some little lost baby would be sure proof that she'd lost her mind?

"Don't get out of the car yet," she snapped at Ceese as she brought the car to a stop in the parking space. "Let me come around and take that baby out of your arms."

"How am I going to get home?" asked Ceese.

She slammed her own door and walked around the back and opened his door. As she took the baby, she answered his question. "I'm gonna give you money for the bus."

"Then I'll tell you the bus route."

"What if I get off at the wrong stop?"

"Here's an idea: Don't get off at the wrong stop."

By now he was out of the car, tagging along behind her as she carried the baby toward Emergency. "Why can't I just stay here?"

"Because this is a working hospital and there isn't a soul to look after you."

"I could work. I know how to clean stuff. I help Mom with the housework all the time."

"You don't know how to do hospital clean, boy," said Ura Lee. "And they got people paid to do that anyway."

"Don't they have magazines? Like the doctor's office? I could read magazines."

It dawned on her that maybe this boy was really attached to the baby he'd found.

Or maybe he was just bored silly with life in the summertime, and he figured hanging around a hospital was better than walking up Cloverdale to ride down it on his skateboard.

"Tell you what," said Ura Lee. "They're going to tie me up with paperwork for an hour at least.

So I'm already missing half my shift. I'll take you home. When I got this baby admitted."

"Cool," said Ceese.

She was about to launch into a long list of warnings about don't talk and don't wander around and don't pick stuff up and for heaven's sake don't open drawers or cupboards or somebody's going to assume you looking for drugs.

Only before she said any of it, she remembered that this was a pretty good kid. Gotta give him a chance to prove he's an idiot or a criminal before you treat him like one.

This kid knew about Newton's laws of motion, which meant maybe he actually paid attention in school. Bill Cosby would be downright proud of this boy!

More than that, Ceese actually understood that coprocephalic meant "shithead." That made him so smart it was almost creepy.

She was going to have to watch this boy.

Chapter 3 | Magic Street | Chapter 5