Chapter 1 - Unmasked
It rains with such force that the drops hitting the windshield of my car sound like tiny explosives being set off. It’s a wonder I can hear over the deafening ringing in my ears, though. Or maybe it’s me, wanting to block out the world, to immerse myself in a sea of blissful quiet for more than ten minutes without awkward conversations, pretensions, demands, impositions, or taunts being bombarded inches from my face.
But the damned whiny squeal coming from the back seat impedes it.
I give the bundle of blankets a contempt-filled stare for the millionth time, ignoring the constant pounding of my rampaging heart, the glacial fear bristling the hairs on my skin, the nerves tightening my empty stomach into painful knots, and the trembling in my knees. I lost feeling in my fingers about half an hour ago from compressing the steering wheel with fiery fury, but I still haven’t mustered the courage to get out and walk the few short strides to the desolate entrance.
Like on many other occasions, cowardice manifests itself like a demon, whispering how incompetent I am without truce or mercy. It’s not the first time, I suspect it won’t be the last either. I close my eyes and rest my forehead on my numb hands, sighing mournfully, depressed and so, so exhausted of all this shit. I wish I could lie to sleep and never wake up, swept away to a paradise where I’m allowed to be, finally, free. Stripped of delusions, where nothing is expected of me, a place where I don’t have to measure, calculate, every inhalation.
A bitter tear runs down my cheek and I wipe it roughly, abhorring my wretched weakness. Lamenting has never helped anyone, lamenting has never helped me. I look up at the stormy sky with a defeated exhalation, a reflection of my own hazy, gloomy emotions. I sigh, mentally listing the series of actions I have to do to get rid of this new unexpected obstacle, sending a renewed curse to the universe for punishing me like this, pushing with a gulp of thick saliva the bile back into my guts.
«Get out, leave it, escape, and don’t turn back.» It should be simple, but life has always managed to erase my hope with a powerful slap of enlightening, yet equally terrifying, reality. I laugh, because it’s either that or cry and I’m past that grueling phase. The sound is hysterical and unrecognizable, harsh and unpleasant. I’m so focused on freaking out that when the phone vibrates in my pants pocket, announcing an incoming call, I startle. I retrieve the device, such an easy task hindered by the cold sweat bathing my palms.
“April” flashes on the screen and I bite my lower lip, undecided between answering or rejecting it. I know what she’s going to ask because time is running out and she needs to check if the nightmare that has tortured us both for months now is over. Or maybe she just doesn’t trust that I’ll have the balls to do it. I have let her down in numerous circumstances in the past, so I understand her wariness. My thumb clicks the green option and I straighten up, staring out into the dark night as her voice slips through the line.
"Did you do it?" She asks in an unsteady tone, no greeting or unhelpful preamble, but no words pour out of my parched throat. ”Cameron?" She insists when I don’t answer. ”Please, Cam. Tell me you did." I smile, ridiculously relieved that she used the abbreviation of my name. The calm doesn’t last, though.
“I’m parked outside, but I... I don’t…” I stop, because confessing that I have been sitting here for almost an hour, frozen and unable to move forward, is like having my tooth extracted without anesthesia.
"I begged you to let me go with you." Is a statement, but I interpret it more as an accusation. She’s thrown many of those at me since the beginning of this torment. ”It’s all up to you now. You can’t run away, Cameron. Not after you forced me and wouldn’t take responsibility for..."
“I know!” I scream through my teeth like a rabid dog, insulted even though she’s right, but I have my limits too. The noise in the back intensifies. “I know, okay? It’s just that…”
"Now you’re remorseful?" She interrupts me, almost sounding gleeful, her irritating snort trespasses the static. ”It’s too late for that, Cameron. Way, way too late."
“That’s what you wanted?” I growl, anxious to hang up immediately and shut up her incessant recrimination. “To humiliate me further?”
"Look, just take care of the problem already, Cam." ‘The problem’ squeals and squirms in the wicker basket, struggling to push the fluffy pink blanket away. ”Delaying the inevitable will only make the situation worse.” She concludes in a pleading whisper that wracks my soul before ending the call.
I glance in the rearview mirror against my better judgment. Big light gray irises with soggy eyelashes are inspecting me, her snotty nose and bulging cheeks flushed from crying; little hands waving, struggling to touch me and seek comfort, protection. I don’t attempt to offer her any of that. I can’t, I shouldn’t. Instead, I reach for the bag on the passenger side and check that everything included is in order.
Diapers, formula, two nursing bottles, several clothes changes, a pacifier still in the package, three unused toys, a rattle, a gum”scratcher. I pull out the envelope I prepared in advance from the glove compartment. It contains a thousand dollars and a note, with only one thing written on it: Amber. My chest tightens, my vision blurs, and I struggle to breathe normally. She babbles, drooling one of her tiny fists as she gives up in her ineffectual purpose to get my attention, her feet swaying with a rhythm existing in her head.
«Get out, leave it, escape, and don’t turn back.»
The building doesn’t seem in bad shape; the colorful ”Children of the World Foundation" sign is not missing a single letter. One of the main reasons we chose this specific shelter system is because there are no surveillance or traffic cameras nearby, so spotting my presence or verifying my license plate number will not be feasible... or possible. I am absolutely certain of this, I confirmed it. What I am about to perform cannot be traced back to us ever. Also, April and I dug around online for days, reading reviews and comments regarding their reputation and the vast majority were quite positive.
It’s a poor excuse to justify our action, but one that worked. They have many generous donors and frequent state support, the children are well taken care of, properly educated, there have been no shocking and horrifying reports of subsequent psychological trauma or physical abuse. Adding further benefit to the matter: Amber is just a baby. Tomorrow she won’t remember me, she’ll forget April and me in a heartbeat, she’ll refer to other people as mom or dad, she may have a brother or sister. She will be part of a family and she will be happy.
With us, with me, she has no chance at all. How could I be a good father for her when I can’t take control and organize my own life? Those who know me describe me as a strong, assertive, determined, resilient, confident, and even cocky guy. They couldn’t be more wrong. For as long as I can remember, I find myself permanently spinning in a roller coaster of derailed emotions, uncertainty, imbalance, and vacillation. My mothers’ persevering stubbornness to excel, prove myself, and exceed their expectations is unnerving and suffocating.
And now I am supposed to raise a daughter? How? Why? I am not a marvel, a freak of nature with amazing gifts, nor am I invincible. The only appreciable or salvageable thing I have is the copious money in my bank account and I didn’t even earn it myself. I’m common and ordinary. The truth is that I’m less than that. I am definitely nothing special, there is nothing peculiar about me that stands out from the rest. By a mistake, or probably an undeserved revenge of destiny, what little I have managed to build might collapse. Isn’t that unfair?
So many huge questions and no solutions. What I can guarantee, however, is Amber’s safety. Mostly from me. I shouldn’t be misunderstood; when I had sex with April I did use a condom. It wasn’t until afterward that I noticed, alarmed and concerned, that it was broken when I took it off. Then the fights erupted, guilt bounced from one court to the other, fear seared deep into our bones, and anguish made its macabre appearance. Optimism that she would indeed not get pregnant was in vain, though she took the morning after pill to rule out unpleasant surprises. Useless.
The dizziness and vomiting were shockingly indicative, her progressively growing belly was both impressive and disturbing. I wanted her to have an abortion, she did not. After six months, she regretted it, her brain processing too late the tremendous negligence she had committed. If I have a noose wrapped around my neck, eerily tightening gradually, April has a colossal rock strapped to her torso, maneuvering to keep from falling into an abysmal ocean straight to her doom.
Her parents died seven years ago in a car accident, so she was forced to live with a paternal uncle, who works as a bartender, earning a pitiful annual amount, hardly enough to provide for both of them. How could she provide for a baby on her own? Impossible, even if she didn’t have a scholarship to lower college costs. So discussions resumed, weeks went by in which we didn’t talk, until, eventually, the idea of giving up Amber was created and solidified.
Hiding such a condition consisted of a series of meticulous manipulations and lies. I rented a temporary apartment for April downtown while the crucial date for her to give birth approached because her stomach was prominent and no baggy shirt could simulate it any longer. The explanation she gave her uncle was that she was accepted into a transfer program for an all-expenses-covered computer course or some shit like that, and the man didn’t do much research, I guess it was because of the financial relief he would have during her absence. Her classes were online thanks to a permit she applied for at college and fortunately was approved.
The absurd pretext for my mothers when they discovered the monthly statement the bank sent to my house was that I was helping a homeless friend. They beamed with delight at their son’s apparent good heart. I wallowed in a pit of my own shit for such shamelessness. Amber was born there, in that luxurious, spotless, impersonal apartment, among blood”stained pillows and blankets, with the assistance of a private nurse I hired. The confidentiality agreement I made her sign is tucked under my mattress.
“Okay, here we go.” I mutter to myself, slipping the envelope into the bag, zipping it closed, and hanging the strap over my shoulder.
The basket Amber is in has a long handle, so I wrap my fingers around it and carry it, opening the car door to get out. «I should have brought an umbrella,» an irrational thought when I should be raving about the barbarity I’m seconds away from executing. But I don’t back down. I trot the short distance, dropping the bag on the first step in front of the building, grateful for the curved roof as it successfully keeps the rain from soaking the threshold.
I place Amber gently, yet quickly on the floor, arranging the blankets to shelter her from the cold. It’s midnight, but I know there are people inside as several windows have lights shining. I arrange the wool cap on her tiny head and hesitate, my shoes sticking to the pavement.
«Get out, leave it, escape, and don’t turn back.»
“I’m sorry.” I whisper, even if she can’t understand me. Because it’s the truth, the only truth I’ll ever be able to grant her. “I’m truly sorry.” Wiping the pearls of water that spread on her innocent face, and she makes a gurgling noise, watching me carefully.
I stand up, ready to leave, when the door suddenly swings wide open. Damn it! I don’t linger to see who it is, I just turn and run. The piece of information I gather before fleeing like a criminal is that the silhouette belongs to a man, that’s all. I jump in my car, start the engine, and drive, exceeding the speed limits.
“Hey!” The roar echoes in the deserted street, but I don’t slow down.
«Get out, leave it, escape, and don’t turn back.»
That’s exactly what I do.