Connections Jan 2015 - Page 29

imagined the entire incident. I love you. Neal shuddered again, the words still reverberating in his mind. Her voice had been so strange and creakysounding, almost sarcastic. And the image! He could still see Natasha’s inexperienced, infantile mouth crudely twisting out the words. Something about it made his skin crawl. He gawked unblinkingly at the baby, unable to get a grip on himself. The hair on his arms was standing on end. But Natasha didn’t say anything more. The angry expression on her little face vanished as quickly as it had appeared. She lay on her back on the countertop where Neal had hastily deposited her, staring up into space, kicking and wiggling the way babies do. It was as if the entire episode never happened. When Neal heard Annie coming in the front door, he finally snapped out of his paralysis. He glanced in the direction of the living room, then quickly stepped over to the stove and turned off the burner. He wanted to pick up Natasha before Annie came into the kitchen, but he could hardly bring himself to look at the child, let alone touch her. As soon as Annie entered the room and saw Natasha, she gasped. “Don’t put the baby on the counter!” she snapped, scooping Natasha up into her arms. “What’s wong, sweetie?” she cooed in baby-talk. “Did Daddy leave ooo on the counter while Mommy went bye-bye?” Annie turned towards Neal, her black eyebrows furrowed together. “What’s the matter with you? She could have fallen on the floor!” “I...she...” was all Neal could manage to say . He ran his hand uncertainly through his sleep-corkscrewed hair, debating whether or not to tell Annie what had happened. But he decided against it—he was sure she wouldn’t believe him. He pulled a mug from the cupboard and prepared his instant coffee, then sat down in one of their flimsy, vinyl-covered dinette chairs. It squeaked as he did so. “Well, Neal?” Annie said. “I’m waiting for an explanation. Why did you leave her on the counter?” Neal did not answer. Annie made a growl in her throat. “You know better than that. She could fall on the floor and break her neck, or some other bones. Babies have extremely delicate bones, and even the smallest fall can result in a fracture—my books say so. If you’re not careful, she could easily break...” Neal gazed down at his cup, no longer listening to his 19 year old wife. Some of the instant coffee hadn’t dissolved. He watched the brown grains swirl around and around, like Annie’s lecture. “She talked,” Neal interrupted, at no point in particular. Annie’s mouth was still open, mid-sentence. She closed it and stared blankly at Neal. “She what?” “She talked, Annie.” Annie glanced down at Natasha, then back at her young husband. “I know it sounds strange,” he said, “but it’s true.” Even though such a notion was crazy, Neal could tell she at least wanted to believe him. He knew that some part of Annie was convinced she had given birth to the next Messiah, or, at the very least, a child prodigy who would grow up and change the world. He supposed all mothers held such hopes. “You mean, ‘ga-ga, goo-goo’?” Annie asked. “No. I mean words. Real words, Annie.” She laughed. “I hate to tell you this, Neal, but five month old babies can’t talk.” “I know.” Neal took another sip of the lousy instant coffee, wishing he had spiked it with a shot or two of whiskey. Annie watched him for a moment, then apparently decided maybe it wasn’t such a far-fetched notion after all. “What did she say?” Annie said, with hushed excitement. “What words, exactly?” Neal let out a laugh, but it sputtered to an uncertain halt. “I love you.” Annie’s face went slack. “‘I love you?’” “Yeah.” Annie let out a cackle that sent chills up Neal’s spine. She looked down at Natasha. “Did ooo tell Daddy