The baby was howling when he approached the door. He quickly picked the lock and found her lying on a blanket in the middle of the dark one-room apartment. Putting his gun back in his waistband, he picked her up and walked out the door. He passed three people on the way out of the building. No one challenged him. When the flight attendant leaned down to talk to him before takeoff, he thought he had been caught.
“She looks just like you, especially with that pretty red hair,” she said.
He took a deep breath and let himself smile for the first time in a month.
Outer Banks, North Carolina
Camille gasped when she opened the door and saw her son standing there. She hadn’t seen or talked to him since he left for the navy five years ago. She barely recognized him. When he left at eighteen, he had been a skinny, gawkish boy. The man who stood before her now bore no resemblance to that boy except for his deep auburn hair that had unfortunately become a constant reminder of his absent father.
Mack had added at least fifty pounds of muscle to his six-foot frame. His once neatly clipped hair was now wildly overgrown. He had an unhealed gash that started at his left eye and zigzagged down his face until it disappeared into his scraggly, unkept beard. Tattoos now sprouted out of every opening of his T-shirt.
“Camille,” Mack said calmly as he walked past her into the house, leaving her standing on the porch, her mouth and eyes gaping.
Camille watched him from the safety of the porch as he unapologetically sat down on her immaculate couch in his filthy clothes. When he was growing up, Camille would have put him over her knee for breaking one of her cardinal rules. That wasn’t going to be possible anymore.
“Are you coming in?” Mack said, his voice an unusual combination of impatience and amusement.
Camille tentatively followed him into the room, making sure to leave the front door open.
“What are you doing here, Mack?” Camille said, trying to keep her voice calm to gain back some control over the situation.
“I’m here to introduce you to your granddaughter.” Mack stood up and walked towards her, slightly unzipping a backpack that was strapped to his chest to reveal an infant’s head.
Camille took a step away from him, holding her hands up to try to shield herself from the news that she was a grandmother. Mack smiled and shook his head. It was about the response he had expected from her. She had never been a big fan of children, especially her own.
Camille had gotten pregnant at sixteen from a one-night stand with a boy who had been vacationing in the Outer Banks with his family. By the time she found out she was pregnant, he was long gone, leaving behind only a fake name and phone number. She had blamed Mack for that his entire life.
Camille walked quickly past Mack into the kitchen, ignoring the news that she was a grandmother. “You look horrible, Mack. Does the navy not make you groom? Or did you get kicked out?”
“I’m still in the navy, Camille.”
“And, the navy allows you to run around looking like that,” she said, waving her hands at him.
“I’m in the special forces. We can look however we want.”
“Dr. Tripp told me you had made it into some special outfit. He wouldn’t quit talking about it, like it was something out of the ordinary.”
Mack didn’t say anything. He’d never had his mother’s approval, and he had stopped seeking it a long time ago. He knew that even becoming a SEAL would not impress her.
Holding the baby, Mack walked over to stand next to Camille. “Camille, this is Millie. Her mother died in childbirth, and I’m the only thing she has left. I can’t keep her because I’m on active duty. I need you to help me out. I need you to keep her.”
Camille looked like someone had just thrown a pot of boiling water in her face. There was no way she wanted to raise another baby. She hadn’t even wanted to raise Mack.
“Absolutely not,” she said, picking up a knife to start cutting up the watermelon she had picked from her garden that morning.
“Camille, I’ve never asked anything of you in my entire life. I need you to do this for me.”
“Well, she’s at least three months old,” Camille said, walking away from the baby’s outstretched arms. “If her momma died in childbirth, someone has been watching her since then.”
“I already told you she doesn’t have anyone left on that side of the family. She was in foster care when I found out about her.” Camille had never been able to tell when Mack was lying, and he had only gotten better at it since he left home.
“Well, maybe she should just stay in foster care. It might be the best thing for her.”
“Camille, she’s your granddaughter.” Mack almost laughed as he said it. He knew that was the weakest argument he could make.
“Are you sure? Do you even know for sure she’s your daughter?”
“She’s my daughter, Camille.” Mack tried to keep his tone civil, but he was due back at the base tomorrow. He was desperate.
“Well, then maybe you should take care of her. I haven’t seen you in five years, and now you just show up here, expecting me to take care of your baby.”
“Camille, I can’t just quit the navy. I’ve already been away from my team for two weeks. I have to go back. I’ll come to see Millie every chance I get. It’s less than two years until my enlistment is up.”
In reality, Mack couldn’t imagine leaving his team. It had been his entire life until he found out about the baby. But his training had taught him to deal with one problem at a time. He’d worry about the rest in two years. Right now, he just needed a place to hide Millie.
He breathed deeply, and finally played his last card. “If you take her in, I’ll start sending you half of my paycheck every month.”
Mack knew Camille needed the money. Her parents, whom he had never met, had been sending her a monthly stipend since Mack was born. He liked to think it was out of the goodness of their hearts, but he later found out it was hush money. They had been paying her to hide Mack in the Outer Banks—far from the prying eyes and ears of their hometown in Raleigh. He heard from Camille’s friend that they had stopped paying when Mack turned eighteen.
Millie started to stir. Her curly red hair was damp from being zipped up in the baby carrier. She rubbed her head back and forth against Mack’s broad chest and then looked up at him—her sparkling green eyes starting to fill with tears. Camille watched as Mack grabbed a bottle out of the backpack and took the cap off with his teeth. He held the bottle to her lips. She shook her head in refusal and cried harder.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Mack, heat the bottle up first. Give it to me,” Camille said as she grabbed the bottle and stuck it in the microwave. “And, it smells like she needs a change. Do you have any diapers, and do you know how to change one?”
Mack didn’t bother telling her that he had flown almost five thousand miles with Millie in the last week. He needed Camille to feel like she was in charge again. Camille took Millie from Mack’s arms and put her on the day-bed off the kitchen to change her. Mack brought a diaper and baby wipes in to her just in time to see Millie cooing up at Camille, bubbles coming out of her mouth. Although Camille wasn’t smiling, he could tell that she had changed her mind. He wanted to think it was because Millie was winning her over, but he knew it was more about the money.
“What’s her full name?” Camille said as she picked Millie up and took her back into the kitchen to feed her.
“Her full name is Millicent Mackenzie Marsh.” Mack had gotten her a birth certificate when they got back in the country. He had no idea what her mother had named her, if anything.
“I like the name Millicent better than Millie. It sounds more dignified. That’s what I’m going to call her,” Camille said. “And, I’ll take her for two years until you get out of the navy, and then I’m done.”
“I know Millie is not your responsibility, and I really do appreciate you looking after her for me,” Mack said.
Camille was happy that the balance of power had shifted back her way. “Your crib is still up in the attic if you want to set it up for her before you leave.”
Mack spent the rest of the day setting up his old room for Millie, and stocking the house with baby supplies. He got her to sleep in her new crib, and went downstairs to find Camille cooking dinner. Amazingly, it seemed that she was making enough for two.
“I’m leaving you $500 to start with. I’ll send you more next week.” Mack put five crisp one hundred dollar bills on the kitchen table. He saw Camille eyeing them hungrily.
“I’m making dinner if you want some,” she offered in a less snarky tone than usual.
“That would be nice. Thank you.” For all her faults, Camille was a great cook, and the smell of fried chicken had Mack’s stomach doing flip-flops.
Camille placed a large plate of chicken, and a bowl of mashed potatoes right in front of him. “Two years, Mack. And, you need to come down here and give me breaks whenever you can.”
He nodded affirmatively, his mouth already full of food. He wasn’t at all ready for the responsibility of having a baby, but he knew already that he’d spend every second of his downtime here. He had fallen in love with Millie the minute he had seen her lying in the middle of that tiny apartment.