Mary worked night shifts because of the babies. At night, when the lights were dimmed in the hospital nursery, she could hold and rock the newborns. During the hubbub of the day, when administrators roamed the halls and the fluorescent lights blazed their bleak light, no one had time for the state wards lined up in their plastic bassinets. Mary believed it her role to give the babies the touch and comfort they were missing. As she cradled them in her thin arms, she wondered about the mothers, but not too much.
Maybe because Mary was so slight, not much bigger than a child herself, or maybe because of her competence as a med tech, the rest of the night staff workers indulged her time with the babies. As she moved from incubator to incubator, charting vital signs, and humming lullabies, she appeared reliant and dedicated. But the rumors Mary had heard about hospitals outside the New Confederacy intrigued her. They said that in the Western Republic mothers and babies weren’t separated. There was no Section 38. Mothers were never labeled with warning codes. All births were unrestricted.
Mary was a product of the New Confederacy; had grown up in the isolationist country run by CorpHQ. News rarely penetrated the wall separating her border city from the Western Republic. Without adult male family members in one of the other sectors, she wasn’t even eligible for a temporary exit pass. Mary had left her hometown only once, in her childhood more than 30 years ago, when one could travel freely, and her parents were still alive. They drove to the beach. She remembered the grit in her bathing suit as she lay in the surf, the stinging heat of sunburn on her neck, and the waves rocking her body at the ocean’s edge. She’d recall this trip sometimes when the ubiquitous video monitors switched to relaxation programming and broadcast sunset scenes or the sounds of ocean waves.
Most of the time however, the monitors ran mandatory CorpHQ broadcasts, or blared Section 38 alerts. The alerts summoned the Neonatal Protection Nurses to intervene when a mother had endangered her unborn child. Whenever the alarm jingle blared, Mary’s back muscles clenched and her pulse pounded in her neck. On the labor deck and nursery floor, it seemed the frequency of NPN calls grew each week.
Leah rubbed her belly as the fog rolled in over her deck in the Western Republic. She hadn’t felt the baby move yet, but she sensed a boy grew inside her. She lifted her narrow chin and let her sandy bangs fall back away from her face. He’d have Judd’s red hair and her dimples. With this pregnancy there’d be no need for a C-section. She’d read about vaginal birth after C-section, and despite having emergency surgery with Heather, a normal delivery was possible this time. She would not suffer the anguish of her first birth again.
That delivery haunted her. Post-partum depression the nurse called it when Leah had cried in loud, dripping sobs upon leaving the hospital because the safety expert wasn’t available to help install the infant car seat and the risk of a mis-clipped strap or too loose buckle loomed over the delicate being in her arms.
“It’s just hormones, dear,” the well-meaning woman said. She patted Leah’s shoulder while Leah wiped her nose on a corner of her daughter’s pink receiving blanket.
But labeling her emotions didn’t make them less terrifying. She couldn’t hide the irrational crying, but the deeper fears she concealed; how when she stroked her newborn’s fine downy hairs, feelings of tenderness were invaded by thoughts of heavy lamps or bronze bookends swinging toward the eggshell bones of her baby’s skull. How easy it would be to crush the tiny, fragile head. Or, when she pushed the stroller around the lake, how she panicked that a force beyond her control might tip the carriage on its wheels and send the baby hurtling to the bottom of the dark, green water beside the path.
This pregnancy would be different. They wouldn’t sedate and numb her and cut her open, or take the baby away before she’d had the chance to hold it to her breast. With Heather, when they finally gave her the infant in the recovery room, Leah had been too drugged and weak to bother stripping off her gown. She blamed her difficulty nursing, and Heather’s colic, on her exhaustion and the lack of skin-to-skin contact in her child’s first moments in the world. That wouldn’t happen again.
A Neonatal Protection Nurse rushed past the nursery wearing starched grey scrubs emblazoned with the red and orange “Section 38” logo on the sleeve and the New Confederacy crest on the breast pocket. Monitors flashed and an alarm jingle blared. Mary had worked for 15 years at this hospital, since the days before the NPN program, and she regarded them with slight disdain. Rumor had it that the position was a political job, and if you met your quotas you gained extra points in the CorpHQ’s Loyalty program. The NPNs never lasted long, and few of them smiled. Mary kept her head down, obeyed her supervisors, and tried to avoid the NPNs and the deliveries where they were present.
Lately, Section 38 policies had expanded beyond drug-addicted mothers and enforcement of antiabortion laws. What actions constituted “endangerment” of the unborn child, and who at CorpHQ determined it, were vagaries not to be questioned for fear of losing Loyalty points, or worse. However disturbing, Mary couldn’t afford to jeopardize her job in the nursery. Even listening to her friend Hester’s stories, whispered during their midnight lunch break, Mary kept her impressions to herself.
Hester, a phlebotomist, had tended a woman with a miscarriage in the ER. The woman had fallen down a flight of concrete stairs and lay in the gurney clutching her belly, blood dripping down her legs. As Hester drew samples for a transfusion, the pale woman confessed her husband had pushed her. She revealed eggplant colored welts on her arms and back. Officials at the desk murmured terms like reckless endangerment and manslaughter. But it was the bleeding woman, not her husband, that the Section 38 guards dragged away in handcuffs.
Thinking about the fate of that woman in the ER, and that of her friend Hester, twisted Mary’s gut. She turned away as an NPN wheeled an empty baby warmer past the supply rack where Mary was stocking towels and emesis basins. Mary wiped her forehead and hugged the towel against her belly. Several days ago, Hester had confided she was pregnant. They’d sat near the parking lot, in the shadows of the outdoor floodlights, eating their dinners at a wobbly picnic table.
“I found someone that might be able to fix it,” Hester whispered.
“You can’t. It’s too dangerous,” said Mary. She dropped her half-eaten sandwich in a rusty trash bin. Despite her concern for Hester, Mary was unable confess to the scraping and infection she’d endured years ago in similar circumstances. The raw physical pain still ached in her pelvis, and even to her friend, she couldn’t explain the shame and regret.
Hester had shrugged. “What else can I do? I can’t raise a child on my salary. Especially after the Loyalty point deductions and status downgrades I’ll get as a single mom.”
The next day, Mary found a note slipped under the door of her studio apartment with Hester’s key. “I’ve been ‘recruited’ to Single Mothers Prep and Rehab. Please water my plants. XOXOX.”
Hester hadn’t responded to Mary’s texts asking about the camp and Hester’s well-being. After one night of eating her sandwich alone in the shadows of the flood lights, Mary skipped her lunch breaks to stay with the babies.
The grating NPN alarm receded, and the lights dimmed for nighttime in the nursery. Mary dumped the towel in a hamper and hurried to finish stocking so she could feed the babies and stop worrying about things outside her control. As long as she followed orders and didn’t ask questions, her confined life remained safe and stable. She considered it a small victory to steal a few moments of contentment with the newborns.
She loved to stroke the soft spot on their scalps and sing them lullabies. She counted their fingers and toes and bathed them with a warm sponge.
“You’re so good with them. How many children do you have?” asked one of the nurses.
“None,” said Mary.
Leah gazed at Heather napping in the crib and rested one hand on the slight bulge below her waist. She’d finished packing for the move to the New Confederacy tomorrow and the movers were coming in the morning. Her feelings of doom had lightened somewhat as the new baby grew, and she felt hopeful about the future. She had balked when Judd first announced his transfer to become External Relations Manager and CorpHQ Economic Liaison for his commodities company. But he’d convinced her.
“It’s a promotion and a raise plus bonuses. Besides, the winters are warm down there,” Judd said, “Maybe the sun will be good for you. Brighten you up.”
It was the closest he’d come to acknowledging her mental state since Heather’s birth. She leaned into his embrace and absorbed his warmth.
Her friends from La Leche League and New Mom’s therapy group showed less enthusiasm.
“What about the communication embargo? You can’t even text us.”
“Don’t you know CorpHQ controls all the media?”
But as a government consultant, Judd would have special status. Her messages shouldn’t be embargoed. And what better place to have a baby than a country practically formed around the idea of protecting fetal life. Leah respected those values. Motherhood was sacred and ought to be protected.
People said that since the embargo, CorpHQ had cracked down on women’s rights, free speech, and even child labor protections. But she figured these stories were WR government propaganda. Although the Western Republic received very little information about the New Confederacy, nothing but a fence and some border guards separated it from ordinary life in the rest of North America. They had doctors, hospitals, and modern conveniences. She agreed with Judd, and believed the warm sun would nurture her pregnancy.
The charge nurse offered Mary a choice between the Section 38 maternal ward, or the prenatal clinic for her mandatory overtime. Floor 38, as they called it, was where all the NPN monitored births occurred. It smelled of lochia, and the animal sweat of desperate women. Those mothers reminded Mary of her own empty, scarred womb. She chose the clinic.
Leah was the last patient of the day. From the cut of her dress and the way she held her chin Mary saw she wasn’t from the New Confederacy. As the consultation ended, the doctor shook her head.
“I’m sorry, but with your prior history of emergency C-section, it is much too risky to attempt a vaginal delivery.” She gave Leah a hard stare. “We can’t put the baby at risk.”
The doctor crossed to the sink to wash her hands, “Or you,” she added.
“But I researched it. My doctor at home said it was safe,” said Leah. She wrapped the paper sheet around her belly and jumped off the table. “You’re the third hospital I’ve visited. ”
“There are government regulations. We have to protect your baby.” The doctor faced Leah again, smiling with only her mouth before exiting. Leah didn’t cry, but her sadness sucked the air out of the room. Mary’s throat tightened. Instead of following the doctor, Mary held Leah’s hand for a long minute.
After the visit, as she input urine test results into Leah’s chart, an orange flag popped up, a warning to the staff that the patient was a “Mother of Concern,” the level before a Section 38 red flag – a woman who had endangered her unborn child. Mary’s temples tightened as she clenched her jaw. Leah didn’t deserve that for wanting to choose her own kind of delivery. What a relief to return to the night shift in the nursery the following week, away from the mothers.
Leah lost weight, despite her growing belly. Now that Heather, a sturdy toddler, ran across the yard on her chunky legs, Leah’s fears evolved into men in flak jackets swarming the house, strapping her legs together and tearing the baby out through her scar at the hospital. Sometimes she lay awake, visions of shiny blades and anesthesia masks preventing her sleep.
“We have to go back to the WR for the delivery,” she told her husband.
Judd’s CorpHQ status, associated with some perks, was nonetheless limited as an outsider. Even with their diplomatic passcodes and permits, messaging contacts in the Western Republic was glitchy and unreliable, and exit passes for women were scarce. When Judd made inquiries, colleagues reminded him that protecting the unborn was a key principle of the New Confederacy charter. Section 38 crimes carried heavy penalties. No one wanted to help a foreigner with anything related to a pregnant woman. Ultimately, Leah tracked down a midwife, no longer licensed, but still practicing underground.
The midwife patted the grey knot of hair at the back of her neck and agreed to attend the birth. Elated, Leah daydreamed about a water delivery in the deep, claw-footed tub of their rental apartment where she liked to soak. She barely registered the midwife’s parting words.
“But I can’t do anything if you end up at the hospital,” the woman cautioned. “Once you’re in CorpHQs hands, there’s nothing anyone can do.”
Mary rocked in the nursery chair, bottle-feeding one of the state wards. His mother had triggered a “Dr. Strong” alert a few evenings ago. The alerts and takedowns of frantic, uncontrollable mothers were another reason Mary preferred to avoid Floor 38. Some of the staff thought the mothers’ hysteria proved that they shouldn’t be allowed to keep their babies. Mary believed the government shouldn’t choose for them, but didn’t risk arguing the point.
“When you’ve fed that one, they need help with IVs on the labor deck,” ordered the charge nurse.
Mary smoothed the baby’s milkweed mohawk and laid him back in his plastic basket. She tucked a stray arm back into the swaddle of the unnamed girl next to him. At Labor and Delivery, some NPNs hovered around the nurse’s station and the triage nurse conferred with two dark-suited admin types, unusual at this hour. In the triage room, a woman winced and held the lower bulge of her pregnant belly. A glance at the computer monitor blinking with an orange flag and Mary recognized Leah.
The midwife had determined Leah was only at three centimeters and the baby wouldn’t come anytime soon, but the pounding in Leah’s back didn’t relent. The thought of food made her retch. She forced water down in weak sips. She hadn’t slept in two days. After twenty-six hours of contractions and no evidence of labor progression, Leah clutched the sides of the bathtub and wondered if they should visit the ER.
“I’m dehydrated. If they just give me some IV fluids, I’ll feel better. We can come home for the delivery.”
“Just IV fluids doesn’t exist. At a CorpHQ hospital, they care more about unborn children than born ones. Or their mothers,” said the midwife. “Here, drink some of this tea and wait it out honey.”
But Leah vomited up the tea, twice. Judd shook his head at his sweaty, heaving wife and insisted they go in.
“How unreasonable can they be?” he asked.
The midwife pursed her lips. She reached for Leah’s arm, as if to restrain her. Leah licked her cracked lips and moaned. Judd took Heather to the neighbor’s and grabbed their coats.
“IV fluids, that’s all,” said Leah. “I won’t deliver in that place.”
At the hospital, they were ushered from the ER triage desk to a yellow room smelling of bleach where Leah was stripped down, covered in a gown, and a monitor strapped around her belly. The screen on the triage nurse’s desk blinked a spiky regular pattern.
“Well, baby looks good and healthy. I’ll alert the OR. You’ll have that child delivered in no time,” the nurse said in a tone with which one might confirm an order at a fast-food drive-through.
“No! Wait!” Leah’s pupils dilated. Her forehead dripped with sweat. “No OR! No C-section! Just fluids. I can go home and labor it out.”
“I don’t think so, dearie. You’d be endangering that child. If I let you go home, I’d be abetting the crime.”
The nurse punctuated her words with a brisk click clack of typing into the computer, then marched out, taking Leah’s clothes and shoes. Judd chased after her. “Crime? Now listen, I have CorpHQ status…”
Leah recognized the tech in baggy peach scrubs. She remembered how Mary had held her hand in the clinic.
“You must help me!” She pleaded. “It’s not supposed to be like this!” Leah flung up her arms and gestured at the fetal monitor. “You heard her. The baby’s fine.”
Mary frowned. Technically, she was neither qualified nor permitted to do anything more than place the IV catheter. Plus, the blinking orange flag on the electronic chart had turned red. No longer a “Mother of Concern,” Leah had triggered Section 38 for considering her own welfare above the baby. Mary could be prosecuted for supporting the mother’s wishes over the well-being of the unborn child. These were basic rules, drilled into the staff over and over at monthly CorpHQ perinatal training sessions. The fetus comes first in all circumstances. Mary pictured the rows of state ward bassinets and wished to be back upstairs in the rocking chair.
Leah grabbed Mary’s hand, “You understand. I saw it in your face in the clinic.” Leah squeezed harder. “My husband has connections. He can get you things. Loyalty points.”
Leah’s expression reminded Mary of a newly hatched sea turtle she’d seen on her trip to the ocean as a child. The turtle, no bigger than her five-year-old fist, lay on its back, waving its flippers, unnoticed as other beach goers walked by, kicking sand onto the exposed soft underbelly of its shell. Mary had picked it up carefully by the sides. The look in its bulging, heavy lidded eyes seemed to change to surprise as she carried it to the water’s edge and let it go. The turtle made a few ineffectual paddles then sank. When Mary picked it back up, the eyes reflected nothing, and she dropped the carcass into the surf, letting the ocean carry it away.
“Get me out of here,” said Leah.
“It may be too late,” whispered Mary.
Judd stormed back into the room. “These people! No diplomatic immunity for Section 38 crimes? What crimes?” He slumped and caressed Leah’s stringy hair.
“Honey, things are getting out of control. Maybe you should have the C-section. Maybe it is the best way.”
“Not you too!” Leah wrested away from Judd. Her shoulders convulsed, though no tears fell. Mary let go of her hand, but Leah clung to the hem of Mary’s peach top.
“Please! My birth. My plan.”
Mary glanced at the cluster of people at the triage desk. Leah tugged Mary’s shirt. Deep inside Mary, a fluttering of purpose and possibility stirred. Outside the door, one of the NPNs nodded and frowned with a phone at her ear. Mary straightened her back. They’d have to act fast.
“No C-section, sir.” Mary pointed Judd to the desk.
“Buy us some time, say she’s changed her mind, that she’s agreed to the operation. Then, pull your car around to the ER entrance. Keep the engine running.”
The authority in her voice surprised all of them.
The insistent spasms in Leah’s back pulsed at regular intervals, like heavy chords of a sinister background music track. Mary hefted Leah to her feet and pushed her out the door, away from the nurse’s station holding the back of hospital gown closed over Leah’s bare bottom. Leah glanced behind her. Voices rose from the animated crowd at the desk behind them.
“I’m taking her to the bathroom,” Mary said, “Should we head to pre-op after that?”
“No, come back to triage,” someone called after them.
“Keep walking,” Mary whispered. Mary steered Leah around a corner with a grip stronger than she expected from this tiny woman.
As they shuffled down the hallway, a contraction seized Leah and she stopped to push her palms into her back. Mary towed her onward, through a doorway. Inside the stairwell, cold air blew up the cement shaft into Leah’s gown and around her naked thighs and belly. Leah padded down the stairs after Mary, the soles of her feet sticky on the concrete floor. The rhythm of the chords pounded through her body, growing more triumphant and less sinister as they approached the ground floor. Just before the final flight, the clunk of an opening door and heavy footsteps echoed down the shaft. The beeping of a CorpHQ alert bounced off the walls. Overhead speakers announced a “Dr. Strong” alert. Mary began to run. Leah dragged herself along the cold iron handrail toward the exit as fast as her heavy, tight belly would allow. They would not operate on her.
Mary reached the door first and pushed it open, triggering the fire alarm. The high-pitched wail provoked another contraction and Leah doubled over at the bottom of the stairs. Mary grabbed Leah’s arm and hauled her out into the damp night air. Just beyond the sidewalk shone the lights of Judd’s white, state-issued sedan. Leah staggered toward the car. Mary’s hands, hot on her back, pushed her into the back seat.
At each automated checkpoint, the gates flew open to let the diplomatic car pass. Leah panted from the backseat, “Message the midwife. We made it.” But Mary didn’t think so. Not yet. Leah grimaced at a contraction in the back seat and reminded Mary of Hester. Through the windshield, the faint light of dawn illuminated the haze on the horizon.
“I know where to go,” Mary said.
She directed Judd toward Hester’s apartment block. As the sun’s orb crested the horizon, Mary yanked off her hospital badge with its embedded tracker and tossed it out the window. The colored ribbons she had accumulated as Employee of the Month fluttered like confetti as the badge fell into a murky drainage ditch.
They pulled into an alley behind a row of identical concrete tenements. Mary pointed to a spot beneath some scraggly trees and long kudzu vines. The sedan would be harder to spot from the street, or from above, if they sent out drones.
“If the car has a locator, at least they won’t know which building we’re in,” said Mary.
Leah slung one arm over Mary’s shoulders while Judd held her other side. Gravel dug into her bare feet as they hurried down the alley behind blocks of housing complexes. They made their way past broken bottles and used condoms, then ducked into the shelter of a back entryway to wait for a contraction to pass. Leah pressed her palms into the graffiti-covered wall, leaned over, and breathed into the pain. A spot of blood spread from a cut on her big toe, but her feet were numb, her only sensation the insistent pressure on her low back and pelvic floor.
Still two buildings away from Hester’s, the sound of drones hummed from the opposite end of the alley. “Here!” Mary yanked the three of them into a dank space between a dumpster and the alley wall, covered by the dumpster’s open lid. The cramped shelter reeked of urine and the carcass of a dead rat behind them. Mary squatted next to Leah as she retched. The whirring of the drones buzzed above them and then faded into the distance.
“This is crazy!” said Judd, a pool of yellow vomit on his shoes. “Let’s go back to the hospital. I’m sure we can clear all this up.”
He drew his phone from his pocket.
“It’s too late. I need to push.”
“You can make it,” said Mary. She blotted spittle from the corner of Leah’s mouth with the sleeve of the hospital gown.
The threesome stumbled down the alley, reaching Hester’s apartment at last.
Leah squatted in the kitchen, her hands gripped to the edge of the stainless steel countertop and moaned. Mary slipped on an apron that Hester had left hanging on a bare hook. She’d attended enough births to know the basics. She coaxed Leah to push and breath. Judd paced in the short hallway, taking his hands in and out of his pockets. As Leah pushed one last time, Mary caught the slippery baby girl. She marveled at the pink bleating body so full of life and potential. Leah reached for her baby, but Mary held her another few seconds before laying the child on Leah’s belly. While Leah stroked the baby’s back and murmured a prayer, Mary cut the umbilical cord still pulsing with the connection between the mother and child.
The midwife arrived by bicycle in time to deliver the afterbirth and stitch the places where Leah had torn. After the midwife had washed her arms and departed as stealthily as she’d come, Leah held the infant against her bare breasts and smiled. She lay in Hester’s sparse bedroom, a pot of dahlias in the window, a faint scent of witch hazel in the air. A tenderness and ease, like a warm light soothing every cell in her body, overcame her. Judd leaned over and kissed her and the baby. The newborn girl suckled and Leah fell into a heavy, exhausted slumber.
In the kitchen, Mary mopped the floor and bundled up the soiled towels. They weren’t safe here. She conferred with Judd. He needed to convince his bosses at CorpHQ to call off the NPNs now that Leah had delivered and everyone was fine. She urged him to hurry.
Mary wiped her hands on the apron and listened to the sleepy breath of Leah and the baby. The exhilaration of beating the NPNs waned, and the uncertainty of her own predicament grew. Outside, beyond the flimsy aluminum shades, the sky darkened with storm clouds. Shadows deepened the corners of the already dim apartment. Even if Judd pulled rank and protected his wife, Mary had broken countless rules and regulations to help a woman she didn’t even know. They wouldn’t drop the charges against her. Mary was defenseless against CorpHQ. The small liberties and status she’d earned in fifteen years of service at the hospital lost. Leah and Judd had each other, their country, and their baby. Mary had nothing.
She threw off the apron. They may have got Hester, but not her. She searched the apartment for loyalty coupons, opening drawers and rummaging amongst Hester’s papers and junk. From the bedroom, the newborn emitted a single, soft squeak. As if looking into a tide pool after the surf had receded, Mary’s next move became clear.
She exhaled, ignored the lump in her throat, and slipped into the bedroom. She stood over the sleeping bodies curled together on the mattress on the floor. Mary hesitated at the Monalisa smile on Leah’s face, her odd sharp-chinned beauty, the dark puffiness below her eyes. The infant was swaddled in a threadbare towel Mary had found in the bathroom. A brief ray of sun through the clouds and the slats of the shades illuminated the baby’s head. The downy covering of her scalp glistened. Mary’s chest expanded with heat, as if the ray were filling her ribcage with energy and light.
Brakes squeaked and car doors slammed in the parking lot outside. Mary bent close enough to smell the fruity acid smell of Leah’s breath, a smell of starvation, and hopelessness. She whispered, “Forgive me.” Though Mary knew what she was about to do was unforgivable. She had no choice. The rules were simple, drilled into her over and over. Protect the baby before the mother in all circumstances. She slipped her small hands under the wrapped baby bundle and lifted the child from the crook of Leah’s arm. Leah shifted but didn’t wake. Mary tucked the infant inside her peach scrub top and, without another glance at Leah, crawled into the dumb-waiter as footsteps and radio crackles filled the hallway outside.
Leah awoke to a noise like animals rooting and grey light filtering through the cracks in the shades. The threadbare white sheet, sticky with colostrum, barely covered the curves of her swollen breasts and fleshy belly. She was alone in the bed and cold. Leah blinked and sat up. A woman in grey scrubs with narrow pupils knelt on the floor next to the mattress and smiled. Footsteps shuffled and rustled in the next room. Leah pulled up the sheet and tucked in her chin.
“Where’s my baby?”
“We’re here to protect your baby, ” said the NPN. She leaned toward Leah and patted her shoulder.
“My baby?” The question turned to a wail.
The woman removed a needle and syringe out of a plastic tackle box embossed with a red and orange “Section 38” logo. The NPN smiled, and uncapped the needle with her teeth. A drop of liquid slid off the tip as she leaned over to squeeze Leah’s deltoid. Leah scooted away, flapped her arms, and shrieked. But the nurse’s grip overpowered her. By the time they rolled Leah out of the apartment into the waiting van below, a liquid heaviness had engulfed her, as if dragged beneath the surface by the invisible undertow, and she slipped into silence.
Mary’s eventual happiness suppressed the rest of the events of that day and those that followed. If the rumbling of distant thunder conjured the sound of the NPNs’ boots in the hall outside Hester’s apartment, she ignored it. She barely recalled how she had trembled in the rusty dumbwaiter with her knees folded and the newborn pressed against her dry, flat chest. She forgot completely the taste of bile in her throat and the gnawing in her gut when Leah had howled for her baby.
But Mary remembered the border crossing with a strange tenderness. She still felt the baby’s body curled against her in the stifling car trunk, and the infant’s warm smooth mouth sucking her ring finger. How, despite her fear the child would cry and give them away, Mary had swelled with an unfamiliar hope and joy.
Mary’s mind never strayed to the hospital, or the other babies, and especially not the mothers. It was easy to forget, here on the coast of the Western Republic. The wind blew a strand of prematurely grey hair into Mary’s mouth and tasted of sea salt. Pelicans dove off the pier and coasted above the waves. Families picnicked on the beach and mothers pushed strollers along the promenade. A sunburned preschooler ran down the edge of boardwalk ahead of Mary, heedless of the dark green water below. The redheaded girl held an ice cream cone, a large scoop of vanilla, tilting precariously off the top.
“Wait for Mommy,” Mary called.
The child smiled a big dimpled grin and continued to run.
Linda E Keyes is a writer and emergency physician in Boulder, CO. Her work has appeared online in the The Common, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She’s been recognized with Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train & the CRAFT Short Fiction Prize. Some of the events in this fictional future are based on true experiences of current day American women. Find her on Twitter @LindaKeyesMD
read next: Shanna Merceron, “Once Upon an Ending“
“A Mother of Concern” appeared in TLR: Contents May Shift (Summer, 2020)