The free carnival pass dropped through Penny’s mail slot on Wednesday, exactly ten months after her mother died, three weeks after her son was born, and seven days before she planned to drive her car off Myrtle Pier.
Penny had shoved the stack of letters behind the door, along with other bills piling up since she’d gone to the hospital, so she didn’t discover it until the day of the event. It was bright pink cardstock and floating, along with soup tins and orange rinds, across the linoleum end of her one-room flat.
“Christ,” she said.
She considered going to bed until the baby stopped crying. A helpless, inconsolable loss welled up at the thought of touching him. She thought of walking out, but she couldn’t. What would the neighbors think? She pressed a hand to her forehead.
She should call the landlord about the pipe. There were so many things she should do, but none of it would matter after her car came back from the shop next week.
She opened the door to her flat and let the water spill out.
The pink card fetched up against the corner rail.
She picked it up.
The carnival was crammed into a narrow lot among row houses. She passed cinnamon almonds, a ring-toss, pony rides. The baby fretted in her arms.
“Penny for the ferryman?”
Penny glanced around. Games of chance, handcrafts. No one paid her any mind. Then she saw a wizened old woman up the way. She stooped toward Penny with the directness of a compass needle, if compass needles were bent like fish hooks. She had bluish hair, a pin that said “Ask me about scissors!”, and she worked a candy floss stand.
Two other women stood with her. The second was rail thin and stirred an empty pot. The third was plump, with dangly earrings. They all wore gold tennis shoes.
The plump woman beckoned. “You must be Penny! I’m so glad you saw the card. Don’t mind Morta. She doesn’t get out much.”
Morta crossed her arms. “I get out as much as you!” To Penny, she said, “Decima hates that I get the last word.”
“I do not!”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t!”
“See, you can’t let me win.”
“Hush, both of you!” The thin woman dropped the cardboard stick in the empty pot. “Did she bring the child?”
“Yes, Nona.” Decima’s face softened. To Penny, she said, “It’s good that you did. Can’t be too far gone, if you brought the child. Oh, don’t mind Nona, she’ll be wanting to hold him.”
Penny sidled. These women were mad as spoons. “How do you know my name?”
Morta laid a finger alongside her nose and said, “We’ve been waiting for you. We’re good at waiting.”
“Hush, now,” said Decima. “You’ll scare her witless.”
“Can we spin him a candy, dear one?” asked Nona.
“I can’t pay for it,” Penny said. Mentally she added, And you’re not spinning with a full pot.
“You can work for it,” said Decima.
“I just need his name,” Nona said.
“Wait, I didn’t agree — hold on with that — ”
“His name?” Nona prompted.
The baby stirred, and women fixed on his movement.
In Nona’s pot, a wisp of candy floss grew into being.
Gooseflesh trailed up Penny’s arms. He had no name. Choosing a name made him real.
The baby wriggled in his blanket, his little arms straining to get free. Penny held him tighter and stepped back.
The floss thinned in Nona’s pot.
Morta hissed, “It’s the child’s life, not yours. Let go!”
Penny thought perhaps the sensation of falling was only in her mind. Whatever it was, it happened when her gaze had snared on the flytrap of the old woman’s eyes. Now she was a speck on the bank of a black river. Cold, slow currents moved there. She readied herself to fall back. Her tension was gone. All emotion was gone. The last petals enclosing her grief fell away.
It was memory that washed over her. Her mother’s death. Loneliness. Sex, lots of sex, terrible mindless sex. The missed period. The failed classes. Expulsion from university. Patrick’s birth.
The name plunged her into waking.
“There, now,” Nona soothed, and Penny thought the old woman was talking to her. Then she saw the tiny bundle in her arms.
Patrick. Penny couldn’t take her eyes off him.
“What happened?” she asked.
“You choked,” said Morta.
Decima smacked her. “You almost lost her!”
Morta shrugged. “Sometimes they just need a preview.”
Nona clucked her tongue and pointed with her chin toward the pot. Wisps grew from nothing at all into a baby blue cloud.
Penny watched it grow. It had a glitter to it, like Christmas ribbon. Her breath caught. “Wait, are you — is that — ?”
Decima gathered the floss onto her stick and Morta scraped the pot. Nona took the candy and held it near Patrick. He regarded it. The old women cooed and tickled his nose.
Penny’s chest went tight. She wasn’t a fit mother, it was true. Patrick deserved better. But still, seeing him here and real, she wanted to hold him. “Can I have him back?”
Nona said, “I think she’s ready now.”
“She hasn’t paid,” said Decima.
“But she balked at the River!”
“Nothing’s free,” said Decima, waving a finger.
“As much as it pains me, I agree with Decima. Give her a free ride and she’ll be back in a week,” said Morta. “Besides,” she glanced at Penny, “We could use another delivery girl.”
Penny climbed the stairs to a run-down flat where the smell of unwashed baby things wafted from an upstairs window. An eviction notice hid the number, but she knew this was the right place.
Patrick burbled from the sling on her back. “Hush now, Patrick.” The ghost of a smile crossed her lips. Patrick.
It wasn’t what she’d planned, but it was enough.
She dropped a pink card through the mail slot.
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