207

By Claire Zajdel

“And a recent study shows that Millennials are more dissatisfied with their careers than any other generation, and more after the break—” 
 

    Drew jerked the old Toyota into park, silencing the radio DJ. 
 

    The earth outside was encrusted with frozen rain that arrived just as the snow had begun to decay into thick grey sludge. The resulting dirty crystals were clumped along streets and sidewalks, mid-winter stalactites that did little to improve the suburban strip. 
 

    “Do you want anything?” Drew asked. They were parked beside the pump at the Mobil. They didn’t need gas, but Drew needed gum, his distraction of choice. Lauren’s fingers thumped against the door arrhythmically, impatience gnawing at her nervous system. 
 

    “Hmm?” she mused. Drew exhaled, releasing a warm puff of breath that broke the cold air. He was snug in a thick down coat she was sure he’d owned since high school. Frugality was a point of pride for him. He had recently put down a deposit on a townhouse near downtown. Lauren, who felt perpetually suffocated by her own finances, could make no such claims. “Maybe a lemon iced tea?” 
 

    He smiled and kissed her on the forehead, a gesture that was beginning to feel uncomfortably fraternal. She gave his cowlick a friendly pat, and he opened the car door, allowing a sharp whip of air to snake into the front seat as he slipped into the night. 
 

    Out the front dash, the main six lane drag was scattered before her like organized litter. Automotive repair. Pizza chains. Cash for gold. Jewel Osco. It was the same for miles. Lauren felt like she’d spent her whole life driving past different versions of the same strip mall, lightly rearranged. She burrowed into her ski coat and curled her toes against the fleece lining of her boots. She made a point of avoiding her reflection in the rearview mirror — her plain face hiding behind her chestnut hair piled on top of her head like tangled yarn — a painfully homespun reality that she actively avoided, if only because improvement seemed improbable. 
 

    A navy minivan sidled up to the adjacent pump. A blonde woman in her early thirties hopped out, an overflowing purse and a pair of wool mittens grasped in hurried hands. She slammed the driver’s side door. Her seat shook in her wake as she walked into the mart, reverberating, Lauren presumed, from the force of the slam. 
 

    Then she saw her, the baby in the car. A toddler, maybe two, two-and-half. She was kicking the drivers seat in a fit of spite and injustice. Lauren swallowed her breath. She craned her neck, searching for a stream of exhaust pouring from the rear. 
 

    The exhaust was cool. She clawed at her own door, as if it were possible for her to rescue the toddler using its own futile methods. Something — common sense perhaps — stopped her from pulling at the door handle and releasing herself into the frigid night. After all, the baby must be locked in, safe from predators, sure, but not from the elements. How long would it take for an infant to contract hypothermia? Ten minutes? Fifteen? 
 

    She would never leave her own child in the car. Not that she had any children, but any hypothetical child of hers would never be left alone in public to contend with the January windchill. The toddler, dark-haired and pigtailed, was as delightful as she was furious. Her puffy face was twisted in betrayal, her tiny cheeks pink with cold and vengeance. Lauren felt an uncharacteristically strong urge to save this small girl from a potentially cruel fate. 
 

    Her fingertips were bluing from the cold but still clasped around the door handle. Liberating the child, from what was surely a routine and tranquil Midwestern life, was an act far cry from heroic, perhaps nearer to the criminal. And yet, there was the possibility, however small, that the mother didn’t care for the girl, that she held in her an afflicting apathy, endangering her daughter’s life daily. Certainly all children should be rescued from indifference.
 

    “Hey, Laur.” 
 

    Winter snuck its way back into the car, securing icy hands around her trachea, stealing her breath. In the opposite car, the girl had stopped fighting with her absent mother. Tears tumbled in somber resignation. The abject desolation of the scene cracked Lauren a little. 
 

    “Lauren?” Drew hovered in the doorway, holding out an iced tea in a gloved hand. She was still focused on the child, and she took it distractedly. “They didn’t have lemon, so I got you peach.” 
 

     It devastated her that someone so small already knew what is was to be trapped. 
 

    “Laur? Hello.” 
 

    “It’s terrible, isn’t it?” Drew followed her gaze, his light eyes settling on the little girl crying into her carseat. 
 

    “Her parent is probably just inside.” 
 

    “That’s crazy dangerous, Drew!” He threw the car into drive. “Wait, wait—” 
 

    Drew was pulling out already, so Lauren contorted in her seat, keeping an eye on the other car. As Drew’s car hit the street, the mother raced out of the mini mart, a small jug of milk clutched between her mittens. Lauren’s body loosened, reflexively relieved for the child’s safety. 
 

    “What do you think?” Drew asked. 
 

    “Hmm?” she hadn’t heard him.
 

    “What do you want for dinner?” 
 

    Food was a far away thought, something ill suited for anxiety of the moment. Even her bottle of iced tea was beginning to numb her fingertips. She released it into the cup holder. Condensation was coagulating along the bottle’s spine. It seemed suddenly repulsive. 
 

    “Is this the brand that’s made with that carcinogenic additive?” 
 

    “What? No,” Drew spat, bringing the talk radio back to life, allowing it to impregnate the space between them. 
 

    “I mean—” Crazy Carl, Drew’s radio personality of choice, cajoled, “I wasn’t happy with my career when I was twenty-four or twenty-six. Cathy, I didn’t get to sit here and make fun of you until I was almost thirty.”
 

    “Honestly,” Drew muttered. 

 

 *         *         *

 

    Skipper was floating in a green ring of algae when she got to the office the next morning. He was orange belly-up in the tank, eyes permanently fixed on the other fish sniffing at his expiring scales. He made the third to die that month. Dr. Zabat would be pissed. She liked her aquarium to appear tropical and well-populated. 
 

    The office was in the process of a few light renovations. Dr. Zabat had, at Lauren’s suggestion, the walls painted “millennial pink.” Now that millennials were the generation having children, Dr. Zabat felt that the decor should be catered to their aesthetic taste. Lauren wasn’t sure that it mattered, but she had kept herself busy in a sort of nesting process, preparing the waiting room for its new arrivals. The tank, however, was timeless, in Dr. Zabat’s words and would be removed the day that she retired, which, she assured Lauren, would be the day she died. Lauren, however, had been nauseous all morning and wasn’t sure she could stomach conducting Skipper’s funeral first thing. She turned to the messages blinking on the landline. 
 

    It was nearly noon before Dr. Zabat appeared over her shoulder. Lauren was stuck on phone with another confused customer — there was a man two towns over named Zabat who sold gyros — and smelled Dr. Zabat’s jasmine dabbed wrists before she saw her. 
 

    “Sir, this is a doctor’s office,” Lauren intoned. “For women. A gynecologist.” 
 

    Dr. Zabat reached over and snatched the phone with diminutive, weathered hands. “No meat here. Call your urologist or order online like everyone else,” she snapped, jamming the phone into its charging bay. She glared at Lauren, her wrinkles winking in disbelief behind her designer spectacles. “You killed another fish.” 
 

    “Maybe they’re cold. Tropical fish aren’t built for Illinois winter.” 
 

    “The tank is heated.” She crossed her arms over her self-referential coat: Dr. Elena Zabat, OB/GYN. She had a rotation of three, all of which Lauren had scrubbed in the staff bathroom more than once. There was a level of intensity trapped in Dr. Zabat’s eyes that demanded respect. Lauren gave it willingly because, despite all else, Dr. Zabat was decent and fair. She never made her clean the toilets and offered a generous benefits package. No level of respect however could keep her actively engaged in her in the repetition of the reception desk. “You forgot to cancel my two o’clock. Do you remember, she lost the baby last week? And order me some lunch. No gyros. And flush Skipper.” 
 

    Dr. Zabat turned away and Lauren’s pulse quickened with anticipation. The previous week she’d promised herself that today was the day she’d ask for more responsibility and successfully grab hold of an opportunity for greater intellectual stimulation. Of course, she hadn’t expected an accusation of murder to precede her plea. Skipper had unwittingly put her in a precarious position by crapping out on her watch. 
 

    “Dr. Zabat?” she paused. Blood rushed to her temples. Inadequacy bobbed in her throat. “Would it be possible for me to do some additional work? Maybe helping Greta with some research?” 
 

    “You want to be a PA?” she said with a lilt, as if the image of Lauren in a set of scrubs amused her.  
 

    “Maybe.” 
 

    “So I should reward your incompetence with important work?” 
 

    Lauren’s cheeks blushed with heat. Skipper’s death had screwed her, emphasizing a sleepy will and an inattentive mind. She reached into the future and began leafing through the years to come. She could be sitting in this very chair three years from now, eight years from now, sending appointment reminders and ordering Dr. Zabat’s salmon salad from the shop across the street. Immobility was her fate; she would be the same today as she would be in infinite tomorrows. 
 

    “No,” she demurred, daring herself to look Dr. Zabat in the eye, “of course not.” 

 

 *        *       *

 

    Lauren had loved geography as a kid. She’d won the bee in seventh grade over Anders Pedersen, the class genius, after he mistakenly identified Cape Horn as a part of Argentina, and she’d correctly listed Somalia, Djibouti, and Yemen as the countries bordering the Gulf of Aden. She enjoyed maps, the contour of the mountains and plains, the vastness of the oceans, the unrefined boarders between far away nations. What she really loved was the feeling of potential between her hands. The manifestation of anywhere-but-here that made it feel as if anywhere might be a possible destination. Her mother still had the award pinned to a bulletin board in the mudroom. Very little had changed in the house over the last thirteen years. Her mother liked it that way.
 

    In the kitchen, the oven hummed with a homemade meal, beef and potatoes nestling into a stew. Beneath her, the furnace rocked the house, bouncing it to sleep like a baby. Lauren listened to the rattle of the ice maker as cubes fell into the rectangle in the freezer. She used to be fond of quiet, the absence of noise allowing room for her imagination to grow in different directions. Now the stagnation of silence frightened her, it’s inability to generate anything convincing her once again that nothing was to come. 
 

    Her interaction with Dr. Zabat came up again and again her mind like a hiccup. She didn’t necessarily want to be a physician’s assistant. She just wanted to be something. Unfortunately today she’d still been the receptionist and done her duties, slipping files into sheet metal cabinets and digging dead fish out of scuzzy tank. After she’d laid Skipper to rest in the toilet, her body lurched unexpectedly, and she vomited straight onto his still body.
 

    Cringing a bit still over her stammered request, she pulled a pint of cookie dough ice cream from the overstuffed freezer. She hopped up onto the faux granite counter beside the oven, allowing it to warm her and her pre-dinner treat. The dough chunks seemed most necessary in her quest for solace, so she unearthed them from the cream. 
 

    “Lauren!” Her mother was upstairs, in the linen closet, by Lauren’s estimate. She yelled again, muffled by the cotton and terry cloth surrounding her. 
 

    “I can’t understand you!” Lauren shouted back. She returned to her hunt for the pieces. Near the bottom there was a clump, four tiny dough balls stuck together. She shoved the whole thing in her mouth, storing it in her cheek like a squirrel. 
 

    “Lauren, honey, did you take out the stew?” her mother Maureen, who had recently legally changed her last name back to Mahoney after twenty-eight years of being King, carried a small stack of dish towels as she made her way to Lauren. Like Dr. Zabat, her mother was small and fierce, her dark, greying hair pulled into a regal plait. Her style itself was sensible and homely, but to Lauren it was familiar and safe. Despite the pain she must have felt after Lauren’s father relocated to Champaign to live with a marketing professor named Trina, Maureen never cried. At least not in front of her children. She slapped Lauren on the leg. Lauren obeyed and hopped off the counter. “You’re eating ice cream? Are you PMS-ing?” 
 

    “No I had my—” she paused, a piece cookie dough stuck over a molar. She dropped the pint on the counter, turned from her mother, and took the stairs two at a time. 
 

    Her bedroom was likewise a shrine to her childhood. Her walls were filled with dance competition ribbons, school diplomas, maps of other continents. A basket of stuffed animals in one corner faced her bed like a disappointed jury. She ripped open her desk drawer and pulled out her planner. It was a neurotic collection of daily habits — what she ate, how long she exercised, when she got her period. Her record keeping itself was intermittent; she’d keep highly detailed notes for several weeks, then would stop using it altogether for months. 
 

    “Lauren come down for dinner!” her mom bellowed. 
 

    There was a gap in note taking where she wished there wouldn’t have been one. 
 

    “I’m going out!” 
    
    She bought two and did them both. To be sure. She balanced the sticks on the edge of the tub and watched them from her perch on the toilet as she waited. The bathroom had settled into a similar collection of Lauren’s past, accented by her present — a hairbrush with a nest of hair in its bristles, a flurry of hair ties, and untouched, expiring prescription bottles. 

 

    The walls were painted a fading daisy yellow. Their sunny promise used to brighten her as a little girl at bath time. She would imagine herself on a pale beach somewhere on the Atlantic or in a creek alongside a meadow, watching chickadees hop over mossy logs. Perhaps one day she’d be putting her own little girl into a bath. She’d let the bubbles overflow onto the mat as she listened to her hum a toon to rubber animals diving beneath the surface.
 

    Lauren knelt down over the tub and flipped both sticks at once. 
 

    “What?” The tests didn’t match — one for, the other against.
 

    “Lauren?!” Her mother’s footsteps padded down the hallway, approaching the

bathroom. She shoved the sticks into the back pocket of her jeans as her mother forced open the door. 
 

    “Can I have a moment of privacy?”
 

    “You can have privacy when you start paying rent,” she spat. “Did you eat?”
 

    “No.” 
 

    Her mother studied her face, her limning blue eyes evaluating Lauren’s pallor. 
 

    “Are you depressed again?” 
 

    “Jeez, Mom, no—” 
 

    “I don’t want to you back on that medication again, it does terrible things—” 
Lauren glided past her, squeezing her way through the narrow hall to her room. 

 

    “I’m not depressed!” she called, collapsing on the edge of her bed, the tangerine walls of the room mocking her with their clarity and optimism. Her mother lingered in the doorway. Lauren said nothing more.   
 

    Her mother nodded. “Leave the door open.” 

 

   *        *       *

 

    Lauren spent the night navigating her emotions. On one hand there was the guilt of becoming pregnant before marriage, before a commitment, before too she had the opportunity to make something of herself. Drew was the only man she’d ever really been with in that way (not that her mostly Catholic heart was at peace with it) but everything about their relationship had begun to lose its shine. She knew that was in a way to be expected, but she’d recently realized that she might not love him enough without it. Initially, Drew’s steadiness, his resilience and pragmatism had felt like coming back to reality after four isolating years on the east coast, studying pre-law and art history with people far more casually informed and worldly than herself. She’d gone there with the dream of becoming a curator, cultivating exhibits in the Natural History Museum, creating a globe of artifacts for anyone who longed for anywhere-but-here. If that didn’t work out, she’d thought maybe she’d go to law school and secure a fancy job, something that might fund flights to Thimphu and Asuncion; then, she could retire early and spend her later years on a sail boat or living in Europe. 
 

    When her mother found Trina’s blouse in the backseat of her father’s car, Lauren’s world became unsteady, warping into the funhouse version of itself. But it wasn’t simply her parents’ contentious relationship: it was the heartbreak she suffered after discovering the boy she loved with another man, the string of failures and retests in her courses, her roommate being arrested in their living room for dealing drugs. She leaned on her circle of friends, only to be struck by the youthful realization that there wasn’t much compassion beneath their pretense and hedonism. Depression burrowed into her vacant body; either pessimism or exhaustion forced its hand and the opportunities afforded to her peers seemed to evaded her until graduation. Lauren clawed her way out of college with a lackluster grade point average and collection of unrealized dreams, collapsing into the comfort of her childhood home just as her father left it. 
 

    Meeting Drew reminded her that she could connect with another human being, gave her new space to breathe. She didn’t have to pretend to know something or be anyone other than herself; before she knew it, she’d rather remain mentally ill than lose his presence in her life. Recently, things had begun to shift. She couldn’t stop noticing his ordinariness. His button-down shirts and creaseless pants. His obsession with music festivals and Heineken. His ability to talk about the Bears and the weather with just about anyone as if they were actually interesting points of conversation. His obsessive but passionless interest in computer software. 
 

    Now she was going to be a mother. Potentially. It filled her with strange relief. As if she had finally found for what she so long had been searching. God had given her the gift of purpose, but not without the price of shame. She wasn’t sure how she might tell her mother, who had closed herself to much of her social circle after the scandal of her father’s affair. Her mother was traditional in that way; indiscretions were still imbued with unforgivable dishonor, and she knew hers would be no exception. Still, excitement superseded dread, and she was eager to share it with Drew, regardless of their connection or lack there of. 
 

    She sat at the reception desk that morning vibrating with anticipation. Her phone was resting in her lap, a message blinking on the screen. She didn’t know how to phrase it that she maybe, most likely, had life growing inside of her. Adrenaline took over and began typing for her: Meet me at Starbucks? 12:30? 
 

    Relaying the news in person would make it feel more real. Drew would be able to see how this new life had restored her own. The dormant suburban dad in him would stir. His opinions on the groundwork for a stable home could finally become practices, rules to live by. Together they would awaken their sleeping souls and start living in service of something bigger than themselves. 
 

    “Are you texting?” Dr. Zabat was leaning against the cabinet with a small stack of files. Lauren threw her phone beneath the desk. Dr. Zabat spun the folders over Lauren’s keyboard as a command. Lauren’s throat was raw and ill equip to voice her desperate request. 
 

    “You have an opening. At three.” 
 

    “So?”
 

    “Are you covered on my insurance?” 
 

    Dr. Zabat paused, tilting her head, examining. Her gaze fell to Lauren’s flat abdomen. “You mean the insurance that I provide to you? Don’t be stupid.” 
 

    She turned away, her eyes not losing their focus on Lauren’s mid section. She hesitated in the eve of the doorway and gave Lauren a sharp nod before returning to her patients. 
    
    The banality of having Starbucks as a usual meeting place wasn’t lost on her. It was more or less half way between her office and Drew’s, and because the only other adjacent food service establishments were an IHOP and a Long John Silvers, they would meet over grande non-dairy lattes. Drew actually almost always ordered a regular coffee with extra cream. 

 

    She’s considered saving the tests to show to him, as a sort of evidence of her own befuddlement. The physical presence of the sticks would be proof that something was, for the first time, actually going to happen to them. Perhaps, she hoped, she would look different to Drew, hung with purpose, glowing with maternity. So too she wanted Drew to be changed — more capable, dynamic, full of adventure and possibility. 
 

    There was a small rickety table in a corner a bit away from curious minds that she chose specifically for the reveal. Customers poured in for the lunch rush, eager to fuel themselves with caffeine in place of nutrients. There was something about the ease of mass consumerism that Lauren found unsettling. Perhaps it was the comfort of it, the way it used the human need for security to encourage thoughtless consumption. What made her truly nauseous was how readily she herself gave into the familiarity of predetermined choices and nostalgic flavors. Perhaps she might now start making different choices, pushing past the usual into the unknown. Everything could be different now that she felt suddenly alive. 
 

    She hadn’t, however, brought the tests. When Drew walked in thirteen minutes later, she knew she’d gambled by presenting such a claim without facts to her data-driven boyfriend. Drew didn’t apologize for his tardiness or order a familiar beverage for the sake of routine. He simply sat across from her, hands shoved in the tattered pockets of his old coat, perhaps as an alternate comfort. Lauren had once romanticized his clear blue eyes; they were too small to ever look sad. She’d only seen him cry twice — once after his grandfather passed away and once when his three year-old nephew took an aluminum bat to his crotch — and it seemed unlikely that fatherhood would change him. Hope, however, had found a new face in her life.
 

    “Drew,” she began softly, as not to express too much of her own excitement, “I need to tell you something.” 
 

    There was a chilling silence between. Lauren wanted him to invite her speak, to anticipate her joyful news without knowing that it was hers to give away. When Drew finally indulged her, it wasn’t with expectancy so much as resignation. He didn’t take his eyes off the table as he addressed her. 
 

    “I have something to say. I need to say it before you voice whatever ridiculous anxiety you need reassured.” His lips were chapped and raw, dry as if used as a chew toy for unaddressed insecurities. “I think we should break up—” 
 

    “I might be pregnant,” she interrupted without reservation. She pushed aside the sting of his declaration, knowing it might become irrelevant in light of her news. She studied his face for a shift in desire. 
 

    “Why would you say that?” Drew’s voice was flat, devoid of every emotion that she could have anticipated. Reflexively she reached out to him, to join them together, anew. 
 

    “I… I took two tests. One positive and one negative. I don’t know what it means.” 
 

    He flinched, retracting his hand. “So you also might not be pregnant.” 
 

    “I was going to bring the tests to show you but I was afraid it might be gross since this is an eating establishment.” 
 

    “Did you even hear what I said? Do you understand what I want? We aren’t connecting. Not anymore.” 
 

    It was true — they were islands separated by a strait. Although it shouldn’t have, it surprised her that Drew had noticed. Yet, somehow a world where they were broken up wasn’t conceivable. Not because she hadn’t thought about it — desired it even — but it’s possibility didn’t seem to coincide with her accepted reality. 
 

    “But—” 
 

    Drew stood, his eyes glossing over the menu above the counter so that she couldn’t meet them. He pretended to be interested in the merchandise for a moment. His fingers trembled through his sandy hair, his cowlick bobbing side to side. He blinked furiously. She was wrong — his eyes could look sad. 
 

    “Paranoia doesn’t suit you, Lauren.” 
    
    Without Drew, she anticipated that her excitement would dissipate. As three o’clock approached however, her cheeks began to glow with a blush, her stomach alive with a speck life and a swarm of nerves. The clip of the keyboard beneath her fingertips grew rapid with impatience. At a quarter-to-three, she stopped exercising her fingers and sat on them instead. When Dr. Zabat came up behind her and laid a chilly hand on her shoulder, she jumped. 

 

    “Are you ready?” 
 

    Dr. Zabat had decided to secure her into the stirrups. Lauren, though it embarrassed her some, was still squeamish about having her blood drawn and insisted on a pelvic exam instead. Impossible, Dr. Zabat had called her. Impossible was how the day seemed to be going. 
 

    As soon as she scooted off her underpants, Lauren knew something was wrong. Dr. Zabat had given her a moment of privacy to prepare. Her thighs were hot and bound together with a thick fluid she decided to let Dr. Zabat evaluate. She situated herself on the exam table, releasing a low cough to let Dr. Zabat know that she was ready. 
 

    With gloved hands, Dr. Zabat approached her lower half. She wasn’t a foot away from Lauren’s genitals when she intoned, “You’re bleeding.” 
    
    She was wearing a super-absorbent menstrual pad between her legs when she left for the day, an hour early. She was surprised that Dr. Zabat had believed her, even let her take out the tests and lay them side by side, fossils from a brief period of hope. 

 

    “Chemical pregnancy,” Dr. Zabat had declared, like Lauren wasn’t the slightest bit delusional, just rather unlucky. 
 

    As she washed herself in the employee bathroom, a cave of disappointment opened in her chest. She’d foolishly believed that things were going to be different. Despite the periods of desolation in her past, she had never felt a hollowness so heavy. She wanted to gut herself, to free herself of the weight, but she was afraid there was already nothing left. Her desperation gave way to a deep, low anger at God — at the universe — for robbing her of possibility, for extending this barren season. She’d spent so long walking through the desert and at site of the oasis, had forgotten the deceiving ways of a mirage. There had to be someone she could blame besides herself.  
 

    On her way out, she stopped by the fish tank. She wondered if the fish knew that there was more than five cubic feet of water in the world, if they yearned for their natural home, expanses beyond reasonable measure. At least here there was security without the threats of predators and disasters. 
 

    “Shit.” She noticed a fourth fish, Finn, static at the surface. He was the most glamorous of Dr. Zabat’s collection, his multi-colored scales glinted a rainbow of chrome hues beneath the lights. He too would need to be flushed. She considered hurrying him away before Dr. Zabat noticed, realizing that she could use her condition to spend an extra moment in the bathroom. But Finn’s death pulled at that heaviness, as if her own failings were revealed to no longer be a pattern but something innate and unavoidable. She left him in the tank to be dealt with by the other fish. 
 

    The pad weighed her down as she waddled into the burgeoning night. The lot was empty, save a tall woman running through the slush in dirty boots and a pink parka. She smacked into Lauren and continued into the building without apology. A cry of annoyance leapt from Lauren’s mouth, but the woman was already inside. The silver Honda she’d owned since she’d been old enough to drive was alone in the lot next to a glossy, idling hybrid. 
 

    In the backseat, a baby — a real, tiny newborn baby — was cocooned in a plush, mint snowsuit. Lauren rubbed her fraying lips together and, without hesitation, tugged at the handle. The door opened into her, the baby still soundly asleep in his nest. With a click of a button, he was free. 
    
    She didn’t really know where she was taking him. To anywhere, she thought, anywhere-but-here. Looking back, she made sure he wasn’t jostling as the car serpentined through rush hour traffic. He was snug, safe and sound. Indulging the ache inside her, she gave his teeny foot a squeeze. 

 

    She braked, the car lurching to a stop. It was either the suddenness of motion or her own desperation for intimacy that woke him. His blue eyes fluttered alive cautiously. His lips formed into a hollow as the car settled into the driveway. 
 

    As she hurried to the backseat, freeing her little snowsuit angel from his carseat, she noticed Drew still standing in the driveway, perhaps just arriving home. She pulled the baby — Henry, maybe Henry was a good name — to her breast and bounced him lightly. 
 

    Drew dropped his keys in the slush at the sight of her. “Whose baby is that?” 
 

    She nuzzled the baby closer to her face and let his tears fall against her chin. His head smelled sweet like spring. When she didn’t answer Drew became more insistent. 
 

    “Whose baby is that?” 
 

    Mine. Even caught in her mouth it felt wrong. Mine. Henry was someone else’s son, likely with a different name. Drew stared at her as she clambered back to the car, buckling the child in his seat with fluttering fingers. She pulled on her seatbelt as Drew started toward them. Lauren threw the car into reverse. 
 

    “Remember me, Henry,” she whispered. 
    
    The parking lot was alive with light. As she pulled in, a cop car began tailing her in a way that made it seem unnecessary to park legally. Henry had fallen asleep again in the backseat. She exhaled, trying to catch her breath, hoping to generate any sort of explanation that might exonerate her. Nothing came to her. Perhaps she didn’t deserve for anything to come. 

 

    Obeying her nerves, she was fast out of the car. The police officer who had rolled in behind her was quicker than she was. He pulled Henry’s carrier from the backseat as Lauren lunged for it, if only to touch his foot one last time. Another police officer stood with the tall woman in the pink coat, his imposing frame the very picture of enforcement. The woman sprinted toward the first officer with unconstrained relief. The imposing officer pulled a walkie-talkie to his lips, “We have an update on the 207 on 95th. Suspect has returned the child.” 
 

    “Lauren!” Drew ran toward her, fuzzy in the barrage of red and blue. 
 

    She opened her mouth, which she found garbled with desperation.  
 

    “I just wanted—” she began. 
 

©2020 by Variant Literature Inc.