Waking up on the worst day of your life so far you won’t know why you are uneasy, only that everything looks OK, but something is not right. Sun’s up, coffee’s good; Sasha Egan is in pretty good shape, considering. Nothing wrong, exactly, but she can’t quite shake the feeling.
“Go away,” she says to no one. “Just go away.”
About the obvious: Sasha is nothing like the sweet little hicks murmuring in the solarium, but here she is, trapped with a gaggle of betrayed prom queens and unwitting cheerleaders, castoff girlfriends and beaming fundamentalist kids bobbing in the sunlight like so many giant chrysanthemums. The regulation pastel scrubs, the Lite Rock piped into every room, the resolutely cheery decor, even the potted trees in the hallways make her despair, but she made an informed decision. Now she is here. It’s not that she’s pro-life, exactly, although she is at some deep level still a Catholic. She’s here because she’s pro this life.
Luellen Squiers tugs on her arm, wheedling. Nice kid, has the room next to hers. “Party in the solarium, Sashie, are you coming? Cookies from Mom.”
“Great,” she says.
“So come on. Come on, Sashie, aren’t you coming?”
“Soon, OK?” She’d rather die, but usually she manages. Why do these kids look up to her anyway? Maybe because she is older. She smiles until Luellen lets go.
“Why not now?” At the end of the hall, pregnant teenagers lounge on flowered sofas striped with sunlight, giggling over their morning milk and disintegrating brownies packed in wax paper by mothers who don’t have a clue. Whatever their anxieties before they moved into the sunny dormitory at Newlife, whatever their second thoughts, the moment is past. They’re happy to sink back into the arms of Newlife, which is the trendy new name the agency has given the Agatha Pilcher Home for Unwed Mothers, which is what they are.
It is--- face it--- what Sasha has become.
The timing couldn’t be worse. In real life she is an M.F.A. student, a printmaker whose soul blisters the surface of her work. She spends all her work time chasing a vision she hasn’t quite caught. The year she and Danny Gray lived together in Santa Barbara, she almost broke through. It wasn’t breakthrough work but it did get her into the Massachusetts College of Art. When she’s working sometimes she forgets to eat; she’ll pass a window on her way out of the print shop and suddenly discover that she forgot to comb her hair. The work means more to her than Danny or any other man, and this baby . . . God, what was she thinking? This just can’t happen. Not now, not now! Until the test strip turned pink, her mentor at MassArt was grooming her for a fellowship in graphic arts in, oh God, Venice. A year in Italy, apprenticed to a printmaker she respects. Instead she’s in the third-trimester wing at Newlife, stalking the halls like an outsider, which is also what she is.
Too bummed to be nice right now, she tells Luellen, “I can’t.”
The pregnant child’s voice trails after her. “Oh-kaaaaay.”
She ought to go down there and mingle but right now she isn’t feeling strong enough to look into their bright, hopeful faces or deal with their emotional demands.
Poor kids, they’re all here for the usual reasons: he hit like lightning--- first love or date rape, how do you draw the line--- or they never want to see him again--- a relative, sometimes, those are the worst cases, or it was some boy they thought they loved and learned to hate. Unless they’re here because they’re still in love but he wants her and her only, but not this, as in, as soon as she told him, he ran.
Some of these girls checked in because embarrassed moms made them, or because they love being pregnant but are just too young to keep it, and others because their beliefs preclude the alternative. Some were in denial for so long that by the time they got around to facing facts it was too late, and the rest? Their folks kicked them out or they came because they don’t have anywhere else to go. It’s odd, how even these times of great shortages and eager single mothers, the old social order still prevails in certain circles. As though time and change will never completely erase the stigma.
The others are here for the usual reasons, and Sasha?
It was the fumes.
The inks and solvents she and the other artists use in the university print shop just aren’t safe. She knows printmakers whose fingertips are dissolving and a couple with patches on their lungs and one woman whose hair is coming out in patches, and she personally turned out to be allergic to the ground she mixes to prepare the copper plates for her prints; the compound gives her headaches in spite of the rubber gloves.
Is that anything you’d expose a fetus to?
Why she’s hosting said fetus is another question, and the answers are so many and so complex that Sasha can’t unpack them; she can still feel the surge that knifed up into her when she found out she was pregnant, that strong, sexual twist. At the time she put it down to fear. Now she knows it was wild joy. The rush. Without even trying, she had done this amazing thing. Shaking, she laid the pregnancy test strip on the windowsill in the women’s bathroom in the Fine Arts building and went back to the print shop and packed up her stuff and left. She won’t go back until this is over.
Just because you love a thing doesn’t mean that you have to keep it, which is the real reason Sasha is here.
Her baby, she thinks, is like a firefly; you have to let it out of the jar so it can fly away and light up its scrap of sky. The issue is autonomy. Without it, how can he soar? She plans to have this baby, put her thumbprint on his forehead and say goodbye, but whoever the new parents--- and in spite of institutional prodding Sasha is taking her damn sweet time culling the Newlife folders--- whoever the new parents and wherever he goes afterward, this baby will still be hers. A unique print stamped with her mark.
After she has this baby, after she sifts through the sad stories of the parent-wannabes and picks out exactly the right ones from the welter of moving letters and heartfelt videos; after she’s observed the finalists through the one-way mirror in the dayroom and questioned them at length; after she rips off these people’s scalps and looks into their pulsing brains to make certain, she can put her baby into the right parents’ arms with a clear conscience and walk free.
Eventually Sasha will meet the man she wants to love forever and wake up next to every morning for the rest of her life; by then she may even want children, but Gary Cargill was never that man. An OK guy, pleasant expression but not anybody you want to see a lot of. Face it, she hardly knows him! He was, she thinks, just a comfort fuck in the depths of a hard New England winter, like that pint of Rocky Road you accidentally scarf because you’re lonesome and depressed. Sasha’s hopes are not tied up in him. She has her work to think about, which is why she left Cambridge without telling Gary. If she does this right she may get back in time to take the Venice fellowship, and nobody has to know. She didn’t tell her family; Grandmother is the last person Sasha would tell and believe her, she has reasons. She didn’t phone Danny in Santa Barbara, even though they are best friends. It’s her secret--- safe in the heart of the former Agatha Pilcher home.
Like most artists, Sasha is a control freak. She chose Newlife because the agency promises complete confidentiality. Nobody has to know. Unless the birth mother opts for disclosure, even the adoptive parents will never know. See, if you’re the only person who knows a thing, you can absorb it. You can adjust and move on. Do this pregnancy right and it can’t hurt her; do it right and there will be no change in the fabric of her life, no interruption in the pattern, no unsightly holes. As far as the world knows, this baby never happened. In a funny way, Sasha was never pregnant and none of this ever came down. As long as nobody outside Pilcher finds out that she is here.
After she wrapped her half-finished copper plates and her engraving tools and took them out of the print shop, she went to the dean. She thanks her stars that the university is so big that the dean of the art school didn’t have the foggiest who she was. She pleaded artistic difficulties and arranged for an academic leave. It took her a few weeks to plan her next step.
She started with phone calls. Then she let her fingers do the walking on the Web. The Newlife Web pages are thick with the confessions of happy adoptive parents and digital photos of other women’s badly timed, OK, unwelcome babies beaming in adoptive mothers’ arms. One phone call and Newlife sent the paperwork and a set of psychological tests. She aced the onsite interview. Sasha packed and gave away the cat and got out of town weeks before she started to show. Good timing, good management. Perfect control.
Then why is she on edge? Tense and brooding, as though in the middle distance, beyond her range of vision and just out of earshot, events are spinning out of control?
She doesn’t know. Unlike Sasha, the girls in the solarium murmur along happily. They have surrendered to process. Relieved of responsibility, the accidental moms slap leaf-patterned cushions on the bamboo sofas and drowse in the sunlight without a care for what happens next. Let the institution do the heavy lifting while the world spins on however, without input from them. After all, their babies will have the very best. Newlife moms send their babies home with people who can afford the very best because this is, after all, a seller’s market. They will grow up with advantages that their teenaged moms never had and live well-furnished lives that these girls can’t hope to touch. These girls have the great good luck to be pregnant in a time of unprecedented shortages. How lucky they are that thousands of women who grew up scared of getting pregnant--- can’t. When did it change? How did it happen anyway, was it the march of technology that did it or two-career families or zeitgeist or hormones in our food? Is it the toxins we breathe or something in the water that caused the shortages, or just too many women waiting until Too Soon turned into Too Late? The heartbroken childless couples who come to Newlife are many. The ones who rise to the top of the placement list are the best. The world is running out of babies. There just aren’t enough babies to go around.
So what the hell is wrong with Sasha today? Nothing, she tells herself uneasily, it’s nothing, just pregnant nerves.
Her belly is out to here. The Pilcher obstetrician tells her the baby’s dropped. The ideal parents are out there somewhere; they’re waiting, all she has to do is pick them out. She has to do it soon! The responsibility is tremendous. What if she makes a mistake? Her ankles are swelling and she can’t wear contacts because her eyes have changed; she’s breaking out and she looks awful all the time. The local water smells like sulfur and comes out of the tap brown, so her dark hair stands out from her face like a frizzy cartoon of a bad hair day. Today’s scrubs are bright yellow, splattered with orchids in a car crash of colors; it’s a good thing nobody she cares about has to see her this way. She doesn’t even want the girls in the solarium to see her this way. Even though Sasha keeps her distance the poor kids seek her out, like, she’s older, so she must know what to do. Usually she listens and gives advice like a no-fault big sister or a kindly surrogate mom, but she can’t be that person today, even though little Suzy begged her to come.
On any other day she would tell herself to get over it and go in, but she is not fit company for anybody right now. She turns away from the door.
Too late. Suzy DeLoach shrieks, “Sasha, you came! Over here.”
“No no, Sasha, it’s my turn.”
Elsie-somebody mutters, “So Sasha, I’ve got this, problem?”
“Sasha. Sasha!” Tubby Betty Jane Gudger waves Discman earphones, desperate to catch her eye. “Over here.”
“Look, picnic pictures!” Redheaded Luellen is fanning snapshots like a card shark, sweet little pest with thick, pale eyelashes and that Smurfette squint. Kid adores Sasha, not sure why, maybe because Sasha got up and went to her when she woke up crying the other night; she drew a cartoon for Luellen and made her laugh and ever since she’s followed Sasha around with that gooshy smile. Crush, she supposes. Poor little kid.
Sallie Bedloe begs, “Brownies, Sasha, then let’s do our eyes.”
I would give a fortune to have a grown-up conversation. Faking a grin, she falls back on the old in-joke. “No thanks, I’m watching my weight.”
Janice Ann-something squeals, to get her attention. “Sasha, Betty’s hurting me!”
“Nobody’s hurting you,” she says, nailing Betty with a look. “They wouldn’t dare.” Never should have come in here. Got to get away before they find out that even grownups get depressed. She doesn’t know why, she just knows it’s her responsibility. As senior inmate, right, inmate, she owes it to these girls because against all indications, these pregnant children seem to look up to her. She knows exactly which tone to use to make them giggle and agree. “Right, guys? You wouldn’t dare.”
“Sasha, look at my . . .”
“Gotta go.” Swamped, she has to improvise. She lurches for the doorframe with a little gasp. “Braxton Hicks, guys. I think. Better go get it checked out. No no, keep on doing what you’re doing. Nurse hates it when a whole gang of people come.”
Luellen jumps up as if to start CPR and two others flock to follow but Sasha is spun on her heels by plump, grim Viola Nagle, the supervisor on the third-trimester floor. “Egan, I need you.”
Grateful for the rescue, she turns. “What?”
“In the office. Phone.”
“They asked for you.”
“No they didn’t.”
Sasha, why are you shaking? “Nobody knows I’m here.” Nobody knows my real name.
“That’s what you think,” Viola’s fingers bite into her upper arm. “Egan. Egan isn’t your real name. It’s Sarah Donovan, according to the book.”
“Not any more.” Never mind why she is estranged from her family. She is estranged from her family.
“Is Egan your married name or what?”
It was her father’s name. Sasha glares until Viola lets go. “What were you doing in my files?”
“Is that the Philadelphia Donovans?”
“Never heard of them.”
“Construction, right?” They are in the glass breezeway leading to the main building with Viola in the lead. She spits, “They asked for you by name.”
Who did? She snaps, “You’re supposed to play dumb. It’s in the contract!” Even though she had to present her driver’s license and her passport as proof of identity when she signed on here, Sasha’s real name is supposed to be safe in the vault. Right, Viola, Egan is not her real name. “What the fuck happened to confidentiality?”
“They made certain threats.”
When you’re hiding something, you can’t let down. “Like what?”
Viola smirks. “They said get you to the phone or Mrs. Donovan’s lawyers would come down on us. With the FBI.”
Grandmother! “You’ve got the wrong person.”
“Sure I do.” Viola never liked Sasha; her grimace can’t disguise the triumphant smirk as she opens the office door and shoves her inside. “Lawyers, get it? I had to call the shot.”
Sasha makes clear that she isn’t picking up the phone until Viola leaves. When the door clicks shut she shouts into the receiver. “Grand?”
The other person listens just long enough to make sure it’s Sasha speaking and hangs up.
“Who,” she shouts at the dead phone. “Who!”
Telemarketer, Sasha tells herself crazily. Wrong number. Stupid mistake. Biting her knuckles, she bursts out into the hall with possibilities following like a swarm of hornets. She wants to grab Viola and grill her, but Viola is gone. Sasha paces on a loop, juggling contingencies until thought blurs like white sound and the compression sends her hurtling outside. She explodes into stunning noon light: harsh Florida sunlight strikes white buildings and white walks and ricochets off white sand. A shadow knifes across the blinding white cement.
She throws her arm up, as if to shield herself. “No!”
“No, hell. Yes. Don’t you know me? Sasha, it’s me!”
For a minute she doesn’t recognize him, their night together was that short, but then she does. It’s Gary. Cargill, he told her, but that was afterward. She hardly knew him before that night. Hell, she doesn’t know him now. He’s supposed to be in Boston, where he belongs. He was supposed to forget her but Gary that she slept with exactly once back in Brookline, Massachusetts, is here on the grounds of the Newlife Institute in central Florida, baring freshly whitened teeth in a grim smile and running his fingers through that retro spike. It defies logic but here he is, the laughing dancer from the studio party, the cute guy she took home after her friend Myra’s opening at MassArt: regular features, pleasant expression, bland and, OK, out of shape--- five more years and he’ll be running to fat. Nice and uncomplicated, she thought, and at the time she was grateful. Not too smart. But her thoughts fly ahead of the memory: We hardly know each other and here he is. What does he want?
Clearly Gary’s smarter than she thought. After all, he’s here. He’s tracked her down and come a thousand miles. Nobody gets into the building without a visitor’s permit so Gary used his cell phone to yank her chain.
Grinning, he pats the Nokia on his belt. “What kept you?”
Stupid. I’m the stupid one. She assumed he was safely in her past, when he’s been out here waiting the whole time. Here is Gary Cargill standing in our courtyard, and he knows more about me than I thought. “That was you on the phone.” She does not ask: How did you get my real name?
“And that’s you standing there, bigger than a house.”
“You son of a bitch.”
The grin just misses being engaging. “That’s not very nice.”
“What do you want?”
“Aren’t you glad I’m here?” The gesture he makes--- that curve outlining her belly--- is condescending. “Look at you!”
“What’s it to you?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Trapped here in strong sunlight, Sasha considers, but only for a second. A lock inside her clicks. “Nothing to tell.”
“You’re going to have a baby . . .”
No, my baby, she thinks, surprised. “You don’t know that!”
“You know damn well it is.”
Careful, Sasha. Keep it light. “What makes you think it’s your baby?”
Gary has a pleasant face really, nice blue eyes, nice way he shakes his head at her, a little bit sad, a little bit sweet. Why does she hate him, then? Maybe it’s the smug way he says, “You’re not the kind of girl you think you are.”
“You have no idea what I’m like.”
“When you dropped out I did a little research.”
He laughs. “Call it my bio project for the term.” He thinks they are still kidding; when she doesn’t laugh he says, “So, everybody knows you’re a serial monogamist, Sash. You’re famous for it. Even when it’s a one night stand.”
“OK Gary, what are you really doing here?”
“I heard you were in trouble.”
“This isn’t trouble, it’s something I chose.”
“I came to help.”
“You want to help? Then go away.”
“Sasha, don’t be mad at me. I came as soon as I heard. Don’t be ashamed, you should have told me. Every baby needs a father.” Then he gives her a wise look that makes her want to kill him. “You should know.”
She flinches. Direct hit, but Gary can’t know that. He can’t possibly know. Damn him, he won’t stop smiling even when her voice turns cold. “If I wanted a father, don’t you think I would have been in touch?”
“I thought you were being brave.”
“I was being realistic. Nice talking, Gary. Gotta go.”
“Wait, OK?” His thought processes are grinding like heavy machinery. His face clots with the lie he is about to tell. “I love you, Sasha. I want to take care of you.”
“No you don’t.”
“And I want to take care of our baby.” Gary grabs her wrist; he is sweating with good will. Smiling, he repeats the lie. “I don’t know you very well but I do love you, OK?” Smiling.
Like I’m supposed to mmit, it’s my baby too.” The gel in Gary’s hair has dissolved in sweat; in another minute his head will melt. He digs his front teeth into his lower lip and Sasha is surprised to see blood. “I want my baby and I want to do right by you, and besides . . .”
“Gary, you hardly know me. Just don’t.”
His eyes keep shifting from left to right and back again so that he is perpetually looking not at Sasha but over her shoulder, scoping the facade of the Newlife building with that terrible, unremitting smile. “Newlife. They do placement, right? So, what. Are you, giving my baby away?”
“What I do is my business.”
“Wait a minute, it’s my business too.” Raking her with that blind smile, Gary Cargill, who came all this distance, plods toward the conclusion he had in mind before he started on this trip. “Hey, if you don’t want the baby no problem, I’ll take it.”
“The hell you will.”
“It’s mine, OK?”
Her anger is so sharp that they are both surprised. “No. It’s mine!”
“Listen. No kid of mine gets handed off to some high roller just because they write the biggest check. Not when he has family out there and they want . . .” When she stiffens, he breaks off to refine his pitch.
What family? His or mine? Sasha jerks away. Gary moves with her. Her wrist is slick under his fingers but she can’t get free. There’s the outside possibility that Gary means well, but her mind is running ahead to the Donovans--- Grandmother--- and if he hasn’t sold her out to Grandmother, what must his parents be like? Just like Gary: genial, passive-aggressive chunks of flesh with stupid minds and stupid, agreeable smiles. Which is it? Which is it anyway? She shucked her name and came all this distance to save her baby from Grandmother, but which is worse? Either way her beautiful firefly is trapped in a Mason jar, battering himself to death against the glass.
Gary gives her wrist a little shake. “Are you listening to me?”
“What do you want with a baby, Gary?”
His face films over with earnestness. “I want to take care of him, and besides.”
Grimly, she tries to loosen his fingers. She’d like to break them and pry them off, one by one. “Besides, what?”
“Goddammit, he’s my blood.”
What does he really want with this baby, quick sale to the highest bidder, or does he actually want a living shrine to his genetic set? Damn you, Gary. Go. “What if I tell you it isn’t a he?”
“Work with me, Sasha. We were in love.”
“We don’t even know each other!” She is revolted by the reddish fringe that passes for eyelashes. She wants to smash away that shiteating grin but he still has her wrist and nothing she’s tried here is working. “OK, Gary, what do you want?”
“OK,” he says, and Sasha is treated to the sight of Gary Cargill thinking. “OK.” She can’t tell whether the machine in his head is turning up cherries or lemons but she can hear the tumblers click. In spite of the tremor of insincerity that won’t let his voice settle on one note, he’s trying to sound cool. “Tell you what. If you don’t want to come with me right now you don’t have to, I’m cool with that. If you don’t want to keep the baby, fine. Promise I get to pick him up when he’s ready; sign off on him and we’re done.”
It’s a struggle but she lightens her tone. “How did you find out where I was?”
“I told you,” he says, “I know a lot about you.”
She studies him. What, Gary, did you hire detectives? Anger isn’t helping, Sasha. Play it cool. Try hard not to ask. It’s time to stop fighting. Instead she says mildly, “That’s interesting.”
Encouraged, Gary presses, backing her into the cement flowerbox outside the main entrance. She dodges this way. That. Like a guard in pro basketball, he thwarts her every move. He is so close now that her belly bumps him and the contact makes her shudder. “Come on Sasha. You know you want to get rid of it.”
He is so close to the truth that it makes her flinch.
“What difference does it make to you who takes him home?” Then, because he thinks he has her, he blows it. “You can’t be doing this for the money. Everybody knows your grandmother has pots.”
Sasha’s jaw tightens. Yes he hired detectives. Or Grandmother did. Gary’s scheme unfolds like a slick travel brochure. He’ll go in to the big house holding her baby in front of him and Grandmother will get all sentimental and pay and pay and pay. Worse. Grand will want to bring him up. She will bring him up the way she did Sasha, wreaking her will on him. “OK,” Sasha says, scooping up sand from the cement planter. “OK.”
Gary’s grin sprawls out of control as, surprised, he lets go. “OK really?”
“What do you think?” She tosses it in his face. Then she swipes her card and is inside the building before he can rub the grit out of his eyes.
She can hear him shouting, “Sasha, is it a girl or a boy?”
On the worst day of her life so far, Sasha does what women do after a rape. She goes upstairs and gets into a shower turned on so hard that hot water pelts down on her head in a little hailstorm. No way, Gary, she thinks, shivering and scrubbing her hair with a bar of soap. No way.
The knowledge rushes in on her like a runaway freight. I can’t stay here!
In ordinary circumstances she’d be more resourceful, faster, strong enough to fight, But Sasha Egan is eight months pregnant. She’s huge and unwieldy and tired all the time now, and so short of breath that she can’t act fast and she certainly can’t run. She’d never even make it to the main gate. She doesn’t know how to get away but she has to go.
Her issue, then, is how to disappear.
Copyright © 2006 by Kit Reed