Caleb’s Mama and Grandma warned Caleb’s daddy not to leave him alone with Snapple, but Todd Atkins never listened to anybody, least of all his nagging wife and meddling mother. Besides, nothing was going to happen to the kid. The damn dog was crazy about the baby. So much so, that Todd’s Ma bragged to all her bingo buddies at St. Luke’s about how that yippy little critter treated her grandson like he was her very own puppy.
“Still,” Carrie Sue Atkins said, unfolding a fleecy blue blanket across her son. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, Todd.”
“If you’re so worried, hurry your fat-ass back home,” Todd said. “Or send mom alone. It don’t take both of you to buy milk and diapers.”
Carrie Sue opened her mouth and then shut it again without explaining. She hadn’t left Caleb once since he was born. She never got to go anywhere without Todd and the baby, so even going to Wal-Mart with her mother-in-law seemed exciting, but Todd would just laugh at her if she told him that, so Carrie Sue climbed into car in spite of her misgivings.
“I warned you not to let yourself get pregnant,” Mary Louise Atkins said as she wedged her stout frame behind the furred steering wheel of her Subaru. “God never meant for an Atkins man to be a daddy. Mr. Atkins stayed around just long enough to teach his boys how to drink, how to cuss, and how to take a punch without crying. The only useful thing that man ever taught his sons about being men was how to pee standing up. Son of a bitch gave them his bad aim too.”
Carrie Sue nodded and sighed. Being married to Todd wasn’t easy, but she still couldn’t regret her sweet little boy. She loved Caleb so much sometimes she wished she could gobble him up just to have him inside her again.
Once his wife and mom pulled out of the drive, Todd bent down tucked the blanket around Caleb.
“Your ma’s pretty silly, ain’t she?”
Caleb’s full bottle drooped in his chubby little fists and the nipple popped out of his mouth. He started to fuss, so Todd searched for something to keep it propped up and picked up the raggedy, thick rope that belonged to the dog. He wiped the slobbery toy on his denim-covered thigh and then stuck it on his son’s chest under the hands gripping the bottle to keep it upright. Snapple, an orange Pomeranian with the attitude of a rabid pit bull, barked at him once or twice but then settled down and rested her tiny head on Caleb’s legs.
Todd and his brother, Kurt, lugged an ice chest out to driveway, sucked down long-neck Buds, and tinkered with the engine of Kurt’s Ford Pickup and didn’t give much thought to the little guy. Kurt was three years older than Todd and had three kids of his own, but both brothers had perfected the art of shutting out the cry of a hungry baby or one with a fully loaded diaper until there was a woman around to deal with it. Their Ma said all Atkins men were like that, that they inherited some special skill to neglect their children, but the screech that pierced the air that hot summer afternoon snapped the shaggy, greasy heads of both Atkins men toward Caleb, and Todd’s blood throbbed with a primitive fear and his mind buzzed with a wild need to protect the genes he had left inside Carrie Sue—the genes that were now inside that bundle of screaming blue fleece under the maple tree in his Ma’s front yard.
Now, Snapple didn’t mean no harm to that child. Why, she didn’t even mind that he had dropped his bottle and had started gnawing on her chew toy. She loved that baby boy more than bones. All she wanted was a tiny piece of him that she could keep for herself. She took a nibble, it was no more than the pinky toe of his chubby left foot, and that wasn’t much at all.
It took some work, but Snapple got his toe off Caleb’s foot and pranced away to her favorite patch in the garden to bury the chunk she got from her precious boy. She’d hide it and keep it safe, and she’d keep it forever.
When Caleb’s Mama and Grandma got back, Todd wouldn’t tell them where Snapple or Caleb’s little toe were and he acted like the bloody pulse coming from the baby’s foot wasn’t a big deal, but Carrie Sue started bawling, so he finally told her to take Caleb to the damn doctor if she was so worried about some stupid little toe. Todd’s Ma hit him with a beer bottle then, and the sheriff got involved, and Todd finally showed them where he and Kurt had buried Snapple and his son’s pinky toe under the red and pink geraniums. The story even made it in the local newspaper, but in the big picture, Todd was right after all. What happened to his boy wasn’t a big deal, not really, not when you considered the pieces other bitches were going to tear out of Caleb Atkins during his life.
Love consumed him. Just not all at once.