Bibit disliked her name intensely, she disliked her brothers, who acted like she didn’t exist, and at this very moment, she disliked the sun, not for the bright patches everywhere, but for the dark ones that made everything in them invisible—because she was searching for a dead baby.
Since Wednesday, all anybody talked about was the missing baby. If Bibit found it, she’d be somebody. Andy Dunn, from her third grade, found a dead man in the fall. Almost immediately, all anyone had talked about was Andy finding him sitting against a tree, “like someone poking his gums with a piece of grass.” That included Bibit’s little brother Toby in the second grade, her middle brother Clayton in the seventh, and even her oldest brother, Simon in the ninth.
It had been Mister Kemper who’d found the parked car on Wednesday morning down at the chain-off. When he saw the dead man and the dead lady in the car, he backed all the way home to call the police.
“This family has already been reported missing,” the policeman said. “The man killed the lady first, then killed himself. But where’s the baby?”
Which everyone had been saying ever since. Until at breakfast this morning, when Simon told Bibit the police already gave up searching.
“Because with both the parents dead,” he said, “the baby doesn’t matter enough to anyone to look for it.”
Bibit had been briefly indignant: today was only Friday! Besides, someone should have noticed the baby gone. Someone should have cared. But she had put those thoughts aside. She had a personal quest, and today was going to be her big break. That was how she had ended up at the chain-off, on the bottom edge of the Open Space on all fours, crawling through the chaparral up a rabbit trail.
For a stranger, the chain-off would look like a parking spot against a dead-end road that no one would ever go down, but anyone local knew that beyond the chain and the pile of dirt was a whole mile of path alongside the Open Space. Bibit had been there hundreds of times. Thousands. Whole episodes of her life had passed there. She discovered checker lilies in one exact spot, then looked for them every time she passed. Once, she got bored of following her brothers and climbed up Kemper’s Hill, where she discovered tussocks of grass where no one would expect anything but trees, brush, and poison oak. And even if no one else cared, Bibit was the one who invented the perfect name for the bushes that had white balls on them all winter: “marshmallows.”
One time, while following her brothers, Jerry Garcia walked by, which was very historic. Unfortunately, she hadn’t noticed him because she didn’t hear about it until they got home, and even then, all she knew about the vul-Deds was that he was their leader, the Great vul-Ded. Another time, Clayton used a branch to trap a baby rabbit in a hollow right above the road for eighteen whole seconds. Bibit hadn’t been there for that one but thought about it all the time.
This was the perfect place to get rid of a baby. Any other searcher would have taken the horse trail, but Bibit didn’t mind the brushy tunnel of the rabbit trail or its steepness, and she’d be able to see far in every direction despite how the shrubs shredded the light. The only place she couldn’t see was in the shade of her own body.
The dead grass under her hands stuck up through tiny rocks smaller than bouillon cubes. One time, Simon and his friends gave her a bouillon cube they said was a caramel. She had been skeptical but peeled the wrapper off. When she put the crystalized thing in her mouth, they all began to laugh. Her parents didn’t let her hate, only “dislike intensely,” but as Bibit spit the thing out, she knew, to the depths of her spine, that she disliked teenagers intensely. No matter what she did, they laughed at her, or worse, ignored her. Sometimes they did both at the same time.
Bibit was crawling now, her knees off the ground and her butt up. She felt the branches rake along her forearms, raising beads of blood, and was glad for her boy’s shirt she’d put on for protection. She was also glad for her shoes. She had stubbed her big toe on the first day of summer vacation, and with how much it was throbbing, she was sure it was bleeding, too.
She inched forward, searching for a lump in the brush, not a sitting-up body like Andy’s had been. She’d had such a crush on him after he found it and got famous. But Andy wasted his fame, that was for sure, because he moved away at Christmas. It was a sad thought that wherever he lived now, nobody knew, and he was dull old Andy again.
There was a bush mint at her side. She squeezed a leaf to sniff it. This was her place; she might as well have owned it. She’d even slept out in the Open Space once when her parents made her brothers let her join them. The boys had slept one-two-three next to each other and put her “on sentry” on the outside of all of them. They told her to please alert them if she was mauled by a mountain lion or a stranger. But she’d showed them: she did nothing when an owl hooted, over and over, in a tree, but when the horses that grazed there got nearby, she woke everyone up and saved them from getting stomped to death. After that, she kept her face out of the sleeping bag so she could hear everything and stayed awake until dawn. She owned this place, even in the night.
Now both her pigtails were stuck; in fact, her head was stuck, and she panicked: she was the lump in the brush. She had crawled away and got stuck, and no one would notice and nobody would care. Frantic, she kneeled, then swatted, swung, pulled, and wrenched at the tangle until her knees slid out from under her, grating her shins and dumping her on the hot gravel, outstretched, as long as her body could get. Perfectly still.
She lay there.
It couldn’t be true. She thought of her bedroom and the breakfast table with everyone at it talking at once. She couldn’t be the dead baby. That was a stupid thought.
Through pain-tears, she tried to will Simon into showing up to save her. He wasn’t always horrible. He had been the one who got out of his sleeping bag to shoo the horses away. The shirt she was wearing, which was her favorite, used to be his.
Bibit didn’t dislike her brothers intensely. She disliked intensely that they ignored her.
She got her arms under her and inched uphill to re-start the battle—and the plants finally let her loose. Then she crept backward down the trail. At the meadow, she stopped to become tall again and knock the rocks off her palms and shins. Bibit felt her hair, which was mussy and full of twigs. Her brothers would have called it a woodrat’s net.
After that, she followed a deer trail to the horse trail, which went through a meadow that had only a few oaks and patches of milk thistle. There was no place to hide a baby here; there was no use even looking. She was gravely disappointed.
But when she saw her cluster of buckeyes, she walked in that direction, heartened. The murderer might have left the baby there. Besides, the trees were still in bloom, and she’d always liked the way their spikes looked like kids on their backs laughing and kicking their legs. Toby said they smelled like Kool-Aid, but she wasn’t so sure. The trees were only as high as she could throw a stick, but they were old and had barbed wire deep in their gnarled trunks. They grew right above a big rock she considered her throne. After sniffing a spike of flowers and sneezing, she ducked under the wire and sat on the rock, her legs dangling. The Princess.
When her eyes adjusted, she searched, but all she saw was a Kent cigarette pack. She was very disappointed: no baby and the cigarette pack told her nothing. She didn’t know if the mom or dad had been smokers. Maybe Jerry Garcia smoked Kents, for all she knew.
Her brothers would never pay her attention now.
Three or four horses stood still along the lower fence of the Open Space for the coolness there. They probably wished they could go down to the draw that separated her, and them, from the chain-off she’d come in on. They probably thought there was still a creek down there, like in the rainy season, and that the fence was keeping them out. This was another sad thought, and Bibit felt even worse.
She kicked out her leg and was grimly happy to see that the toe of her Keds was soaked and black. Next, she picked gravel from her shin until it bled. Then she spit on it and rubbed it around until her shin was bronze. Maybe it didn’t matter so much about her brothers. Seeing her own self bleed like a broken dandelion, or anything else, proved she was real.
The horses started running because there were sounds behind them. It was two teenage boys she knew from Simon’s grade. She lowered herself down the front of the rock and crouched against it, but Stuart Spaulding saw her.
“There’s Rabbit,” he laughed. “See it? She looks just like a rabbit, but twice as scared.”
When he rushed toward her, she closed her eyes to disappear, but he never arrived. Then the teenagers’ laughter trailed off in the direction that would have taken her home.
They had de-throned her. She could never see them again. She’d have to go the long way home, which meant up the hot hill, through grass that was too bright and where she’d hardly find a dead baby, then up to the fence and out to the hot paved road and another forever of walking.
She left her hideaway and began plodding through the sun. The chain-off was well behind her now. She was crying just a little, not because of pain or blood that proved she was real, but because she was the rabbit everyone called her. In her blur, she tripped on a horse divot, sat, then dug again at the triangular flap on her shin. When it finally bled, she pinched her fingers in it to make them sticky. She unfolded and walked again. Even if she had found the baby, there wouldn’t have been school for everyone to talk about her in.
When the fence showed on the horizon, she began undoing both her braids. On the road, she would need “silky locks,” her mom’s words, not a woodrat’s nest. Then she pulled her hair into a ponytail, but she could feel it was tufty. She snaked under the fence and stood. Her mom’s station wagon rolled by and then stopped. This was the best thing Bibit could imagine. She became Princess again. She ran to jump in.
“Quick, quick,” her mom said. “Popsicles are melting.”
Bibit saw the grocery bags in the back as she scooched into the front seat next to her mother.
“You look hot,” her mom said. “Jump in the sprinklers when we get home.”
Bibit closed her eyes. The seat felt smooth and almost cool. The car started up, headed home.
Her mom said, “What’s the matter?”
Bibit wanted to sound cross because she hadn’t found the baby.
“Nothing,” she said, already imagining a red popsicle, cool and sweet in her mouth.
Barb Lachenbruch is an Oregon forest ecologist and writer who grew up in California. Her work can be found in High Country News, CALYX, Gold Man Review, Oregon Humanities’ Beyond the Margins, and a fiction anthology. She is formerly a professor at Oregon State University and now splits her time between Corvallis where she occasionally subs K-12 and keeps a hand in research, and her off-grid cabin where she beats back weeds and dabbles in making syrup from Oregon maples. You can find her on Instagram @botanybarb and @barblachenbruch and at barblachenbruch.com.