Mom had told me that my father died helping people. She would sit on our crinkly leather couch and cradle that old photograph of him with his brand-new police badge, holding back tears as she told me how big his heart had been and how much he cared about everybody and everything. He had spent more of his life in his uniform than out of it, but he hadn’t died in it; he had responded to a cry for help while off-duty and gotten shot because of it. Mom said he couldn’t stop being a public servant, right up until the day he died. I only had a few memories of him, brief and grainy like that old photograph. But I remembered he died helping people.
It was one of those last dragging days just before summer. I was riding my bike home from school with rays of sun warming at the back of my neck when I started thinking about my father and his big heart and how he died. I didn’t think about it often, or if I did I forgot soon after; but I was thinking about it then, wondering what kind of people my father had helped and if they had known how big his heart was or if they remembered him well enough to cry for him like Mom used to when she talked about him.
I kept thinking about this until I realized I had taken a wrong turn on my way home, way back at the other end of the street. I had made this mistake before and didn’t like coming this way; the houses here all looked tired and sad compared to my quiet red suburban house, not inviting like a house was supposed to look. There was chipped paint and sagging roofs and unfamiliar cars in driveways cluttered with junk. The windows of these houses were grimy, curtains pulled to keep the world minding its own business. I stood, straddling my bike and, looking from house to house, wondered how I had gotten there when I heard a baby crying loudly across the street.
Turning, I saw the woman for the first time. She was short, but her dark hair was long and pulled back in a ponytail to reveal a face that was both young and old, pretty but far too tired to show it. She was pulling the crying baby out of a booster seat in the back of a dirty mud-brown car; the car looked like it would be louder than the baby but I hadn’t noticed it pull into the driveway. She cradled the baby as she struggled to fit a key into the lock of her faded cream-colored door, murmuring comforting things that only the baby could hear as she entered her tired grey house. She never looked my way.
I watched her enter her house and close the door behind her, still wondering how I had ended up there. It felt important somehow, but I didn’t know why in that moment. When I arrived at our quiet red house some time later, I noticed for the first time how clean the windows were.
“What kind of people did Dad help?”
Three days had passed. The end of seventh grade had come and gone, and the heavy blanket of summer had settled over the town. I was sitting at the kitchen counter, eating Ritz crackers while Mom loaded dishes into the dishwasher.
The clatter of plates ceased abruptly, and I heard a sigh before Mom straightened and turned to face me. “Police officers help everyone, Grant. You know that.”
“Yeah, but what kind of people did he help? Like, specifically.”
Mom frowned, giving me the look she usually reserved for when I said I had done my math homework before dinner. “Any particular reason why you want to know? Did something happen?”
“No, nothing happened. I dunno, I guess I was just thinking about it,” I replied, which was true. I had been thinking about it, and still was. I wasn’t sure I had stopped.
Mom sighed again. She sighed a lot when I brought my father up, which wasn’t often. “Well, you know how he… the day he passed he was on his morning jog, and he heard a woman crying out for help from inside a house. She was—”
“Being robbed. By the crazy guy with the gun.” I had heard the story so many times before, but it still felt more like a movie than something real. Or maybe not, because I could never picture it; my small catalogue of memories regarding my father didn’t include any guns or action.
Mom nodded. “Yeah. See, you remember.” She paused, turning to look out the kitchen window and into the backyard. As I watched her I thought of the woman and her crying baby. “He had a big heart, your dad. If he saw someone in need he helped them, no matter what they needed or whether he was on duty or not. Helping was just second nature to him.”
I nodded, not wanting to push her further. “Yeah.” I started to excuse myself from the kitchen, but Mom spoke again, gaze never leaving the window.
“You know, that was what really set him apart. He went above and beyond, you know? To help people, I mean. It wasn’t just a job for him.”
I nodded again. “Thanks, Mom.”
She didn’t respond as I left the kitchen, still staring out the window as the baby’s crying echoed in my mind.
The next day I went on a bike ride and found myself once again in front of the house with the cream-colored door. This time the mud-brown car was gone, replaced by a shinier red car. The house’s grey paint was flaking and the door looked ready to melt in the heat. The curtains were undrawn and the windows open to the world. I could see the TV on in the living room, and faintly I could hear the baby crying.
I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the woman and her baby and her house since I had first seen them; they took up the space previously occupied by my father and school and summer plans, that nagging feeling of importance pulling me back every time I tried to dismiss it. Because this was important, somehow.
As I watched, a man appeared in the frame of the window, tall and bearded. He had a cigarette hanging from his lips. I realized in that moment that I was plainly visible staring at the house. I glanced around the neighborhood, eyes bouncing from house to house until I settled on an empty lot on the other side of the street.
I pedaled over to the lot; the whole place was overgrown, grass and weeds almost brushing my knees. I carefully laid my bike down in the grass and then eased myself down, letting the tall grass swallow me as I lay on my belly. Even through the grass I could see the tall man through the window of the grey house. It was a perfect hiding place.
Only a few moments later, the man turned to walk further into the house and I lost sight of him. Was he going to check on the baby? Was he the father? I listened to the baby’s cries as the front door opened and the tall man walked out, pushing the door closed behind him. He took a drag of his cigarette as he began walking down the street. I watched him go; he seemed deaf to the baby’s crying in the house.
The man knocked on the door of a house much farther down the street and was greeted by a large bald man, who let him into the house and closed the door loudly behind him. Anxiously, I waited for the tall man’s return. The woman didn’t seem to be home judging by the change of cars and by the crying of the baby still coming from the window.
Minutes passed, my muscles tensing as I lay in the grass. The baby’s crying was louder now, which worried me. How long had the man been gone? Would he be coming back soon? Would the woman? I knew babies cried a lot, but this felt far more urgent. I kept my eyes trained on the door that the man had disappeared into down the street, praying that he would emerge and come to the baby’s aide. More than once I glanced back at the entrance of the street, waiting to see the mud-brown car round the bend and the woman rush into the house.
Neither man or woman appeared, and the feeling of urgency increased with each second. My thoughts fixated on what Mom had said the day before. He went above and beyond, you know. I glanced down the street once again. There was a painful lack of cars, particularly mudbrown ones. The baby was still crying, louder than ever. A cry for help.
In that moment, I was seized by the need to go above and beyond.
It would have been a lot harder to break in if the man hadn’t forgotten to lock the door. In fact, “breaking in” seemed like the wrong term entirely; breaking implied that I had to break something, or else exert some sort of force. Really all I did was cautiously check the doorknob.
If it’s locked, I’ll go home, I thought to myself, but somehow I knew it wouldn’t be. I stepped through the door and found myself in a pastel-pink kitchen with a plastic fake-tile floor. The TV was on in the other room, but the volume was too low for me to hear. Tentatively I stepped through the kitchen and approached the source of the crying; it was coming down a hall to the left, the entrance between the kitchen and the living room with the window I had been looking into. The walls of the living room were butter yellow, and the stained carpet was halfcovered
I moved quickly down the hall and found the baby in a crib in a room at the end of the
hall, round face red and little hands grasping at nothing. I watched as a new bout of crying
began, wondering what to do next; I didn’t want to touch him, and I didn’t know any lullabies. I
glanced around for a pacifier and found none in the room, which struck me as odd. Maybe he
This led me back to the kitchen, the fake-tile floors sticking to the bottoms of my sneakers. A stack of dishes peeked over the edge of the sink, drying in the thick summer air that wafted through the open windows.
I wasn’t sure where baby food was kept, so I checked the fridge first; it was nearly empty, housing only a few vegetables and a box of Chinese leftovers. The upboards were in a similar state, empty space interrupted only by several varieties of individual ramen cups. Maybe the woman had gone to the store?
That thought served as a reminder that the woman— or more likely, the man— would likely be returning home soon, and so despite not having helped the baby or anyone else I exited the house and walked quickly across the street to the abandoned lot. I didn’t leave for home just then, however, instead lying back down in the tall grass and waiting until the door at the end of the street opened and the tall man walked back down the street and went inside the grey house. As soon as the cream-colored door closed I rose, grabbing my bike and pedaling towards home. I had almost reached the entrance of the street when the woman and brown car turned up the street rolled into the driveway next to the red car.
I paused, watching as she got out of the car, still not looking my way. I looked for grocery bags but saw none.
The next day after Mom left for work, I emptied my school backpack of now-useless
binders and old homework sheets and brought it down to our kitchen. We didn’t have anything a
baby would eat, so I stuck to the essentials; a few potatoes, oranges, a couple vanilla yogurts,
half a box of corn pops, the box of Ritz, a few cans of pink lemonade, and the rest of the
chocolate milk. I’d tell Mom that I drank it.
Despite the heavy backpack I rode faster than usual, with purpose. The cracks in the
driveway of the grey house grinned up at me, signaling the coast was clear. The door was locked
this time, which gave me pause until the weight of the food in my backpack reminded me of the
house’s empty pantry. These people needed help, and I couldn’t stop now.
After a quick search, I found a spare key under the doormat in front of the cream-colored
door and let myself in. The house was much quieter without the baby. I worked quickly,
unloading each item and placing them in the cupboard. There was no bowl for fruit in the
kitchen, so I placed the oranges next to the Ritz. Not much had changed since the day before;
the pantry had baby food now, but the Chinese food box was gone. Everything else was the
same, save my delivery. It all took just under ten minutes, according the green-yellow numbers
of the woman’s microwave clock.
I locked the door and replaced the key under the doormat before retrieving my bike. I
didn’t look back as I rode home, my heart feeling just a little bit bigger.
I went back the next day to see both cars in the driveway, the mud-brown car and the much shinier red one. Faint voices carried across the street from the open window; I could assume that they belonged to the woman and the tall man. Less than two minutes went by before the tall man left the house, a sour look on his face. I hadn’t bothered hiding in the bushes, and so when the man glanced across the street he saw me and frowned.
“What are you looking at, kid?” He asked, his speech casual and yet somehow dangerous.
When I didn’t respond, he shook his head and got into the shiny red car, pulling out of the driveway a bit too quickly. I pedaled home as soon as he turned the corner.
I went back the next day as well, and the day after that, my summer afternoons becoming silent vigils held within the cover of the bushes across the street from the grey house. At the end of the week I packed another backpack, waiting until the woman and baby left to deliver my groceries. I was satisfied to see that the food I left was gone; the woman must have eaten it.
I learned the woman’s schedule, keeping track of when she left each day. She left almost every day; most of the time she brought the baby with her, but sometimes the tall man (whom at this point I was convinced was the baby’s father) arrived to watch the baby instead. He usually stayed in the house, but once or twice he left and walked down the street to the house where the bald man lived. Wherever he was, the baby cried a lot when he was there; I didn’t like him.
As soon as I learned her schedule I created one of my own, bringing backpacks twice a week when I knew she would be gone.
After the third time, Mom asked about the missing food. “I didn’t even think you liked tomatoes,” she said accusingly. “Especially not raw ones.”
She didn’t press much further than that, but I knew that I couldn’t keep taking the food that she bought for us. I had been planning to saving my allowance towards a new video game, but in that moment I couldn’t even remember why I wanted it in the first place. For the fourth time I stopped at the grocery store after school, buying my own groceries. I even bought baby food.
On the third week I came to the house like always. It was a Thursday, and on Thursdays nobody was home; I could tell because there were no cars in the driveway. I let myself in with the spare key, walking quickly into the kitchen and swinging my backpack off my shoulder.
“Who the hell are you?”
I was just unzipping my backpack when the woman spoke, her tone a mix of anger and shock. I froze for a moment, collecting myself before glancing over my shoulder. She was standing in the hallway between the living room and the kitchen, where stained carpet met fake tile. Her hands were resting on her hips, her mess of dark hair still wet from the shower. The fabric of her shirt was too thin; I had only seen a girl’s nipples on TV before; I did my best not to stare.
For the first time I felt a twinge of guilt. I didn’t belong here after all.
“Well?” she asked again. When I didn’t respond, her voice rose. “You better start talking or I’m calling the cops!”
“My dad was a cop,” I said without thinking, as if it made everything okay.
“Well, I imagine he’s going to be pretty disappointed in you when he learns you’re breaking into people’s houses.” The woman made a move towards the phone on the kitchen counter.
“He’s dead. Has been for a while,” I said, unable to keep the words in now. “He got shot while he was trying to stop a robbery. He was off-duty when it happened.”
The woman paused, hand raised slightly but not yet reaching for the phone. Then she sighed, seeming to deflate a bit as she did. She turned to face me. “How old are you, anyway?”
“Almost thirteen.” I only had five months to go.
She glanced over to the backpack, which was still half-zipped. “And are you the one who keeps leaving those groceries?”
I nodded, seeing no reason to lie. Hiding anything felt unfair; her whole life was exposed to me, from the open windows to the nipples that were poking through her shirt.
I stayed quiet for a moment. I knew the answer to her question, but not how to tell her. “I heard the baby crying one day and thought you needed help,” I eventually said. It was the best I could offer.
The woman frowned. “Kid, babies cry. You know that, right?”
“Nobody was home.”
“What do you mean—”
“Well, the man with the red car was here,” I interrupted her. “He’s the father, right? I guess it doesn’t matter.” I told her the story, how the tall man had walked down the street and I had gotten in through the window and checked the cupboards, which had led me to bring the food. The woman only interrupted me once, letting out a frustrated groan as I told her about the
tall man leaving the baby.
“You live around here?” she asked when I was done.
She sighed. An awkward silence filled the pastel-pink kitchen.
“Listen, kid.” The woman broke the silence. “I appreciate the gesture, but you can’t just break into people’s houses no matter how much help you think they need. Besides, I threw out that food out so don’t think I need you coming by here.”
The words stung, but I didn’t say anything. It must have been evident by my expression,
though, because the woman’s expression softened a bit after she said it. “What’s your name?”
“Grant,” I said, thinking about my mother’s words. If he saw someone in need he helped
them, no matter what they needed. The woman and the baby were in need, as far as I could
tell. What had I done wrong?
“Okay, Grant. Look, you don’t seem like a bad kid, but you shouldn’t be here. Besides, what if someone else caught you breaking into their house? They might have hurt you. It’s a bad idea all around.”
I thought of my father, running to the aid of the screaming woman during the robbery. “That didn’t stop my father,” I said, unable to stop myself. He had a big heart. Cared about everyone and everything.
The woman blinked, staring at me for a moment. Then she sighed again, tentatively reaching out to touch my shoulder. “Look, I’m sorry about your dad. I really am. What he did was brave, and he wanted to help. But it got him killed, and if he were here now I think he’d tell you the same thing I’m telling you now.”
I felt numb, unable to bring myself even to nod. The woman continued, “Now, I don’t want to call the police, but if you’ve got to promise—”
A squeal echoed down the hallway, signaling that the baby was awake. The woman glanced over, looking worried, then turned back to me. “Promise me you won’t come back here, or do anything like this again. Okay?”
I opened my mouth, but my throat felt too tight to squeeze the words out. Instead I forced myself to nod.
“Okay, good.” The woman gave me a small, sad smile before turning and walking down the hallway, where the baby had started to cry softly. I stood for a moment in that pastel pink kitchen with its sticky fake-tile floor, the woman’s voice drifting down the hallway as she sang softly to the baby. In that moment the whole place was unbearable, a shrine to failed attempts.
I left my backpack with the spare key on the kitchen counter, feet carrying me through the door and away from the woman and her baby and the tired gray house. I never learned if the tall man was really the baby’s father, or if the woman threw out my last delivery, or even what her name was. I hadn’t thought to ask.
Willy Doehring is a recent graduate of the University of Maine at Farmington’s Creative Writing BFA program. He currently lives in Brunswick, Maine, working and honing his skills as a fiction writer and a poet. He has no idea what the future holds, but so long as he is writing he is sure it will be a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.
Image:Mother Art (Tribute to Adrian Piper) Sally Deskinsacrylic and pencil on paper, 2016