The first thing he feels is elation as the beat-up Mustang moves up the entrance ramp into the lane of fast-moving traffic. LeeAnn’s eyes are wide, fixed on the road stretching out in front of them. She is sitting forward in the seat, her head just a few inches above the height of the dashboard, and Mark has a flash of what might happen if he has to stop suddenly. “Sweets,” he says, “sit back and buckle up, please.” She looks at him with a lip beginning to pout, but he shakes his head. “I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t important. You can still see out the side window. Isn’t it better to see where you are than where you’re going?”
She looks confused by that for a few seconds, but then she slides grudgingly back in the seat. He keeps one eye on the road and the other on LeeAnn as she tugs at the belt but can’t get it to reach the buckle. Finally he leans over and buckles her in.
The car, though old, purrs along nicely. Mark watches the green freeway signs as they come and go, too quickly to make much impression.
“Want to see a flying whale?” he asks, when they are safely out of LA.
“Whales don’t fly,” she says. “A whale is a fish. Only birds…and bugs…fly.”
“For your information, a whale is not a fish. It’s a mammal.”
“What’s a mammal?”
For the next few miles he attempts to explain the differences between fish and mammals. It’s harder than he expected. Mammals give birth to live babies, but so do some fish. Mammals usually have fur, but not all of them. Mammals are warm-blooded: that’s a key point. And they suckle their young: mammary glands.
“If a whale is a mammal,” she says, “how can they drink milk under the water? That sounds like a ri…dic…u…lous idea.”
Mark doesn’t know how to answer that. Instead of trying, he adds another point, to get off the subject of mammary glands. “Also, mammals are protective of their young. They watch them and take care of them. They don’t eat their babies as many fish do.” But is that true? Is that always true?
He’s happy to change the subject as they approach the bend in the freeway where he has previously seen a ten-foot-long, helium-filled whale on a string. A promotional gimmick for some car dealership. “There,” he says, pointing. “What did I tell you? Is that not a flying whale?”
“That’s not a real whale,” she says.
He looks at her with exaggerated seriousness. “I never said it was a real whale, did I? Did you hear me use that word?”
She gives him the squinty-eyed, tilted-head look she uses when she knows he is just playing. The look makes her appear more grown up, and more like her mother. Painfully much like her mother.
“Would you like to hear some music?” he says, keeping his eyes on the road. “Why don’t you find us some nice oldies to listen to? You know how I like oldies.”
LeeAnn stretches forward in the seat. Held in by the seat belt, she has to stretch full out in order to reach the radio knob. She works the dial for a minute and lands on “Desperado.
“Is this an oldie?” she asks.
“It certainly is. This happens to be the Eagles.”
“I like eagles.”
“I know. And we’re going to see some eagles in San Diego. I promise. But these Eagles are musicians, not birds.” He pauses for a moment, listens to the song. You’d better let somebody love you…before it’s too late. “I used to listen to this song when I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Did I ever tell you about Santa Fe?”
She shakes her head. Her hair bounces loosely from shoulder to shoulder.
“Well, Santa Fe is a beautiful and interesting place.” He tells her a little about the Native Americans he used to see in the Town Square. What tribe were they from? Were they Pueblo? He can’t remember that.
“Can we go there? To Stanna Fe?”
Santa Fe,” he corrects. “Like Santa Claus.”
By then they are past the gray, oily air of Carson and well on their way. He feels a quick flutter of fear at the thought. He has been driving at 75. Through Long Beach he slows to the speed limit.
“Or Santa Monica. Santa means saint in Spanish.”
“What is a saint,” she says, “anyway?”
“That’s a good question.” LeeAnn has never had any connection with saints. As far as he knows, she has never been inside a church or seen statues of saints. He would love to take her to a little church he knows in Santa Fe, if they can get that far. If they have that much time.
“Time,” he says out loud. Time, time, time.
He reaches over and softly squeezes her shoulder. It will be 4:00 by the time they reach San Diego. By then Penny will have figured out what happened. He wonders how long she’ll wait before calling the police.


Mark was reading a newspaper in a Venice Beach café the day, three years earlier, when Penny and LeeAnn stepped into his life. He looked up as they came down the aisle and stopped at the booth across from him. Penny motioned for a booster seat for LeeAnn. She put the booster on the bench seat and lifted LeeAnn up into it. Then she sat down on the other side of the table and crossed her legs. A thinly built blonde with an upturned nose, she was wearing tight jeans that fit as if Calvin Klein had designed them just for her and had a pair of sunglasses perched on her head like a crown.
Mark looked over, hoping to make eye contact, for as long as he could without crossing the border into rudeness. Then he looked away.
When he looked back some minutes later, Mark thought the kid was about to fall. The booster was leaning at a 45-degree angle, and she looked perilously close to tumbling over. Mark inched to the edge of his chair and wondered if he should say something or get up and help her.
As if feeling his thought, the little girl turned, looked over at him, and smiled. A round, baby-faced, pudgy-cheeked smile. Then she slipped gently off the booster seat and landed on her feet. She stood with a cracker in her hand and crumbs all around her mouth, looking at Mark.
“LeeAnn,” her mother said, “sit back down, please.”
LeeAnn, with some effort, managed to climb back up to where she belonged.
Mark sipped his coffee and let his eyes return to the LA Times spread out on the table in front of him. It was another gruesome day for news. Endless wars, terrorist attacks, a sinking economy. He read for a while, but he was just seeing words; the meanings couldn’t find a doorway into his brain. Finally he folded the paper and moved it to the side. He looked again at the table across from him.
The mother was fair-skinned, with neat, boyishly cut hair. She was wearing a thin, sleeveless top that was tight enough to outline the shape of her breasts underneath. LeeAnn too was blonde, but slightly darker. Her hair hung in curls just past her shoulders, pulled back from her face by a pair of pink teddy-bear barrettes. The mother ate her food in silence, a salad with grilled chicken, occasionally reaching over toward LeeAnn’s plate to do whatever mysterious things mothers do to the food of their three-year-olds.
Across the aisle, Mark leaned back and stretched slightly, wanting to see what she was doing. He was still looking when the little girl turned around and hit him again with that smile.
“Whass your name?” she asked.
“My name is Mark. And you must be LeeAnn. A very pretty name.”
“That’s right,” she said. “I mus’ be LeeAnn.”
She picked up a piece of lettuce and held it out in his direction.
“Why?” he said. “Don’t you want it?”
She shrugged, a little upward rise of both shoulders. He understood the gesture perfectly, but he was surprised, even amazed, that she knew how to do that at her age. It occurred to him how little he knew about kids, at least little kids, having never had one of his own.
“LeeAnn,” her mother said, “eat your dinner please. Now.”
LeeAnn looked at Mark again, but she didn’t say anything else.
Though he rarely ate dessert, Mark heard himself ordering a piece of pie. When the waitress brought his pie, she refilled his coffee cup. He glanced again at the newspaper as he nibbled the pie, but all the stories seemed so distant, so unconnected to him. Across the aisle the woman, the beautiful young woman, was leaning on her elbow with her chin in her hand and her eyes gazing through the café window toward the street. From his vantage point he could see both her hands clearly. He was surprised to see that she wasn’t wearing a ring, either diamond or gold.
LeeAnn was picking at her food with her fingers.
“LeeAnn, use your fork. Only animals eat with their hands.”
“I like animals,” LeeAnn told her.
The mother turned just enough to give her a threatening look. Then she motioned for the waitress and ordered a cappuccino. While she waited for the coffee, she sat staring out the window, at nothing as far as Mark could see.
While her mother dreamed, LeeAnn rediscovered Mark. She climbed up on her knees on the booster seat, so that her chin rested on the back of the booth. She held up three fingers toward Mark. “I’m three years old,” she said. “How old are you?”
“I’m almost forty,” he said. “Can you count that high? All the way up to forty?”
She shook her head back and forth, back and forth, so definitively that he actually laughed out loud.
“LeeAnn,” her mother said, “turn around and sit right.”
The tone of her voice embarrassed Mark. He forced his eyes back to the newspaper. This time he tried the sports section. He opened to the baseball page and studied the standings for a while. When he looked up again, the woman had finished her cappuccino and was asking for the check.
Mark picked up his paper and stood up. “Excuse me,” he said. “I’d like to apologize if I was out of line talking to LeeAnn. She’s such a sweet kid, it’s hard to resist.”
The woman looked at him crookedly, head tilted, one eye half-closed. She had brown eyes, big brown eyes with a splash of green. He had expected blue.
“It’s okay,” she said. “No big deal.”
He looked at LeeAnn. “It was nice to meet you, LeeAnn,” he said. Then he aimed what he hoped was his most charming look at her pretty, brown-eyed, ringless mother. “And it was nice to meet you too,” he said.


In the motel room up the street from the zoo, Mark wakes up first. LeeAnn, on the other bed, is curled up on her side with her face pressed against the pillow. She is wearing her Supergirl pajamas, the last thing he threw into the bag as he packed hurriedly the day before. The room is small and viewless, but clean and cheap.
LeeAnn is usually an early riser, one of the ways that she and Penny differ. Mark is constantly noticing how similar and yet how different they are. But, like Mark himself, LeeAnn slept very little after the ugliness of the previous night, so he decides to let her sleep for as long as she needs on this morning.
He is just finishing his shave when LeeAnn begins to stir. “Hello, sleepy,” he says. “We’re in San Diego on a beautiful sunny morning, just a few miles from the world’s greatest zoo. Are you ready for it?”
She sits up in bed and wipes her eyes with the backs of her hands. “Yes,” she says in a scratchy morning voice. “I am.”
After a pancake breakfast at Denny’s, they spend the rest of the day at the zoo. It is, for Mark, an important promise kept. As they stop in front of some of the more exotic creatures, he tells her as much as he knows about them, along with whatever interesting information the zoo directors offer on the identifying plaques. He tells her everything as if it were coming out of his own head, and she is, as always, impressed by his knowledge. He likes that—that somebody is interested, that somebody cares about the things he knows and cares about. There is a lot, so much more, that he wants her to learn.
By closing time LeeAnn is so tired that Mark rents a little stroller in the shape of a car and pushes her, like a toddler, all the way back to the front entrance. Later, after a McDonald’s dinner, they stop at another cheap motel. LeeAnn goes immediately toward the bed.
“Not so fast,” he tells her. “What about brushing your teeth and washing your face? Do you think we’re giving up all civilized behavior just because we’re on the road?”
She looks at him to gauge his seriousness. Then she shakes her head.
As she pads into the bathroom, he thinks about where they might go next. New Mexico? Is that realistic? Old Mexico? They aren’t far from the border. Some part of him would love to do that: disappear into another country, start a whole new life. But that’s only a fantasy. His Spanish is terrible. And in Mexico he would always be an outsider, unconnected. He doesn’t ever want to feel that way again.
“How about Texas?” he asks, when she is tucked snugly into bed. He has a sister in El Paso, his only sister, his only living blood connection. “Would you like to see Texas? What do you think about that?”
Eyes already closed, she shrugs and forces them open with the day’s last energy. “I love you, daddy,” she says.
He bends down and gently kisses her cheek.
By now, the second night, he no longer feels the sense of adventure that accompanied their escape. The first day he saw himself as a daring rescuer, but now things are not so simple. As LeeAnn sleeps, Mark sits at the cheap motel desk, alone with his memories. Penny. Penny at her best is beautiful and talented, bright and determined. The sign over her bed reads, YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL! But she’s wrong. Something has to give; someone has to hurt; something has to break.
And Penny at her worst? When he closes his eyes now, a hundred miles away, he can still feel her anger, still hear her words, sharp as razors. For almost three years he tried his best to hold her. But can you hold a windstorm? Can you hold a flame? Can you hold the image on the silver face of a mirror?


Mark was walking on Venice Beach the second time he saw them. They were camped out on a large black-and-white striped blanket, Penny sunbathing in a black bikini and LeeAnn looking bored with her fingers in her mouth.
Mark stopped ten feet away, put down his own towel, and took off his shirt. “Hello, LeeAnn,” he said.
Penny’s big brown eyes opened. She lifted her head slightly and squinted into the sun, high in the sky behind him.
“Hi,” Mark said. “How are you?”
“Do I know you?”
“The café. The other day.”
“Oh,” she said, “yeah. You look different without a shirt.”
“Better or worse?”
“Better actually.” She gave him a playful little smile that made him happy about the dozens of recent hours he’d spent at the gym.
Mark went for a swim. Not just a dip but a real swim out into the bay. He was a strong swimmer, still in decent shape for a guy inches away from forty, and he hoped Penny might be watching.
When he got back, he toweled himself off slowly and smiled at LeeAnn again. Then he picked out a nice spot on the damp part of the sand, got down on one knee, and began packing it. Mark was a sculptor. Or at least he’d once been a sculptor. He wasn’t sure if that label fit him anymore.
LeeAnn walked toward him. “What are you doing,” she said, “anyway?”
Mark looked her in the eye. “Anyway, I’m going to make something. Would you like to help?”
She looked confused. “Make what?”
“How about a spaceship? Or a scary monster?” When he’d worked in the film industry, spaceships had been his specialty. Spaceships and aliens. “Do you like scary monsters?”
“I hate scary monsters. I like animals.”
“Okay. What kind of animal would you like? An elephant? A giraffe?”
“Yes, that.” She bounced up and down on the sand. “A giwaffe.”
“Well, then,” he said, “let’s get started.”
LeeAnn helped draw a line around their work area, and they went to work. Damp sand was not exactly modeling clay, but it was better than a lot of other things he’d shaped and molded over the years. Within half an hour, he and LeeAnn (she brought water and helped pack the sand) had created a three-foot-tall giraffe that wasn’t half bad. LeeAnn loved it. Even her gorgeous mother was impressed enough to get up from her blanket for a closer look.
She was wearing a Brazilian-cut bikini. As she walked toward him, Mark felt the impact of her body like a physical twist of his gut.
“It’s very good,” Penny said. She walked completely around the sand creature, checking it out from different angles. He tried, impossibly, not to check her out from different angles as she moved.
“I’m….uh…a sculptor,” he said. “It’s nothing much.”
“No, it’s really good.”
“It’s the best giwaffe I ever saw,” LeeAnn said. “We made it, mommy. Did you see us making it?”
“Yes, honey.” She smiled at Mark, and he rushed a smile back. “What kind of a sculptor are you?”
“I used to do fine-art work when I lived in New York. Then I did a lot of work for the studios when I came out here. Movie work pays a lot better.”
“I’m from New York too,” she said. “And in the industry, more or less. I’m a dancer. What do sculptors do for the movies?”
“Make models mostly. Things that can be shot in miniature but look really big on the silver screen. I used to make a lot of spaceships and alien creatures. Now most of that work is done with computers.”
She looked again at the giraffe. “What movies did you work on?”
When he mentioned some of the big studio films he’d worked on, her head came up and her eyebrows rose. “I guess I’ve seen some of your work then.”
“I hope they didn’t scare you too much.”
“If you made that Hell creature in Death Angel, it scared the shit out of me.”
They both laughed. Then Penny turned to LeeAnn and told her it was time to go.
While they were getting dressed, Mark moved a little closer. “I guess I ought to properly introduce myself. I’m Mark Rossi.” He put out his hand, and she shook it. Her hand was small, but her grip was surprisingly strong.
“Penny Fisher.”
He took a deep breath and decided to take a shot. “If you don’t have any plans, why not let me take you and LeeAnn to dinner tonight? I can tell you all about what sculptors do for the movies. And maybe we know some of the same directors.”
She hesitated, but that was a good sign—she wasn’t horrified, it wasn’t an absolute no. So he pushed it, hoping not to sound needy, trying to come off as strong without being desperate.
He was surprised when she agreed. “But only if you promise not to bring that Death Angel with you,” she said.
Before they left the beach, LeeAnn took another long look at her giraffe. “Can we see it again? Tomorrow?”
“I don’t think it will be here tomorrow,” Mark told her, as gently as he could. “Sand animals don’t live very long at Venice Beach.”
LeeAnn’s lips pouted, her eyes narrowed. She looked like she was about to cry.


In the restaurant that evening, Mark couldn’t believe his luck. The transformation he’d made from solitary outsider across the aisle to actually joining them, entering their world, made him feel like the scientist in one of his movies who discovered inter-dimensional travel.
It turned out that he and Penny had lived in some of the same places and had a lot in common. Mark was surprised at how easily the conversation seemed to flow, how willing Penny was to talk about herself. It was enough to last them through three rounds of after-dinner drinks.
They were almost finished with the third round when LeeAnn pulled on her mother’s sleeve. “Mommy,” she said through half-closed eyes, “can we go home soon?”
“I’m sorry, cupcake,” Penny said. “Are you tired?”
Mark picked up the check and got quickly to his feet.
By the time they arrived at Penny’s building, LeeAnn was asleep, stretched out across the front seat of Mark’s car with her head against her mother’s shoulder and her feet on Mark’s thigh. “Would you like me to carry her upstairs?” he asked after he’d pulled into her parking garage.
“I would love that,” Penny said. “She probably won’t even wake up. She sleeps like a rock.”
Up in their second-floor apartment, Mark sat on the couch while Penny tucked LeeAnn into bed and then went into the bathroom. He tried to do some breathing exercises to slow down his heart. He was trembling slightly. He had expected to be sent home after carrying LeeAnn up the stairs, but Penny had made no suggestion that he leave.
He loved that she was a dancer. He’d once heard some famous actor on a late-night talk show say that dancers were the world’s sexiest women. But as he waited on the couch, he tried not to think about that. He tried to think about something neutral. Some nice neutral—
“Would you like to smoke a joint?”
She had pulled her hair back with a red ribbon and was rubbing a fat joint between her thumb and her index finger. And she had changed into a pair of short denim shorts, unbuttoned at the top. He leaned forward on the couch. She smiled at him. Then she went to the window and stood for a moment, looking out. With her back slightly arched, her head turning toward him, she reached up and pulled down the shade.

Author’s Statement

TAKING LEEANN was inspired by two events in my life that occurred about ten years apart. In my twenties I lived for a short time with a woman who had a three-year-old daughter. We quickly became a family, sharing the raising of little Patty, feeding her, reading to her, loving her. The relationship with big Patty didn’t work out, as most relationships in our twenties don’t. She cheated on me, then asked me to leave. Before long, I got involved with another woman. But for quite a while after I moved out, I found myself missing little Patty much more than I missed her mother.
Ten years later, I was living happily with another woman who got pregnant. I confess that we weren’t very careful to avoid it. We were both struggling to make a living in competitive, creative fields, and we decided that the best plan might be an abortion. It felt like an impossible decision to make—trying in a logical, left-brained way to balance the idea of fatherhood with the likelihood of having to get a “real job” and probably give up my creative writing. We made the tough decision together, but at the clinic, on the verge of the termination, I thought about little Patty and couldn’t go through with the abortion.
TAKING LEEANN is a “what if” novel. The protagonist, Mark Rossi, is a guy who loves kids, is a great cook, and would make a great father. But, approaching forty, he has never had that experience. So what if Mark found himself in a situation like the one I experienced in my twenties—moving in with a woman who has a child and establishing that parental bond, that kind of special love, and then having the relationship, after three or four years, end the same way mine did, with the woman asking him to leave? How hard would it be for him to give up that little family? What might he do to keep the child he loves for as long as he can?
And if LeeAnn’s mom has a serious drug problem, and Mark thinks LeeAnn would be safer and better off with him, might he feel justified in taking her? Even if it will make him a criminal, a kidnapper, in the eyes of the law?
What Mark might do, how far he might go, is what I was exploring with TAKING LEEANN.

E. J. McBride is a novelist and short-story writer, and the author of a five-level, story-based textbook series for teaching English, available from National Geographic Learning. Prior to writing his Downtown textbook series, he earned an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA and published numerous stories, both fiction and nonfiction, in a variety of places, including the LA Times, LA Daily News, LA Weekly, Playgirl and Television and Families magazines, and literary journals including Crosscurrents and others.

Embark, Issue 18, April 2023