fiction

Women and Children First

In this excerpt from Heartbroke, one woman haunted by the sins of her past finds salvation — in someone else’s baby.

Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock
Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock
Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock

Lisa was forty now with no job and hadn’t seen her daughter, Wonder, in two years. Two years not seeing your own child was a lifetime. All that could happen in a mere two years. She wondered if her girl had forgotten her. Lisa had stopped mailing letters. With no response it was hard to keep writing. Now her daughter would be eleven years old, a stranger.

She had named her daughter Wonder because she had wondered why God had allowed her to become a mother. Some things were simple. The rest of Lisa’s life hardly ever seemed simple and right now she was focused on finding a shelter for the night or a boyfriend, whichever worked out first. She had her wine from the corner market where Shelley knew her and took care of her. Shelley was a kind-faced old woman with most of her teeth knocked out. After Shelley had caught Lisa stealing, she took her hard by the arm and said, “What’s your story?”

And Lisa started crying right there in the aisle for the first time in so long, and she told Shelley how her daughter had been taken by social services and placed in foster care and no one would listen to her side of anything. How she was trying, every day, she was trying. But they expected her to fight an addiction she’d had most of her life with little to no resources and do it while caring for a child at the same time. Some days this seemed like something she should have magically been able to do, will herself into sobriety. But some days, most days, she was crippled by despair knowing the limits of her capabilities. Her need was immense in two opposing directions: she missed her girl, but also, desperately, she needed a drink. After she lost her daughter, she felt her shame confirmed: she must be a horrible person.

Shelley understood. From then on Shelley kept a bottle of wine for Lisa to come collect each day, no more and no less, and the two women smiled at one another because they were of the same cloth in one way or another. It hadn’t occurred to Lisa to ask Shelley what her story was.

Lisa had been to Women and Children First many times. They wouldn’t be happy to see her again. They said they never wanted to see the same woman twice if it could be helped, but they wouldn’t turn her away. She never caused problems, and sometimes she even helped out, picking up trash and reporting fights. But they wanted her to get a real life. To get better. But their service was about immediate safety for the night and then goodbye in the morning. Maybe they had given her the numbers of some rehabs, maybe they had tried to connect her with a social worker who could help, but Lisa needed someone to dial the number for her. She needed someone to hold her hand like she was their precious daughter and take her in and admit her and then be there when she got out, but that was not available. It seemed like for most of her life people were there to tell her to change, but never how to change. It’s a God problem, she’d heard before in her meetings. But was it? If God was so big, Lisa thought, why couldn’t he relieve her of the itch to drink? He had given her this mind after all. Why couldn’t he just make things better for her? But enough with God, because right now she needed some money. She needed to make something out of nothing. And no, there were no bootstraps for her to pull even if she wanted to. She took a few steps backward and sat on the bench to collect herself. Sometimes a man would drive up looking for a panicked woman who hadn’t made the shelter cutoff, who was liable to make a poor choice for the night, and Lisa was not opposed to this as there was always the possibility that she would be able to steal a wallet, or some cash at the very least. She didn’t have any love inside of her anymore, so sex had nothing to do with love, if it ever had. She didn’t feel she was giving anything away and she only felt shame late at night when she closed her eyes and saw her daughter’s face, but if she drank enough, the sweet amount, she wouldn’t see anyone’s face, and that’s how she liked it.

She closed her eyes now and saw her daughter. Everyone said Wonder looked like her father but Lisa could see a bit of herself inside the girl. She’d seen it when the girl laughed hard in the passenger seat of the car. She’d seen it when the girl cried at her feet. She was hers. And where was the father anyway? She hadn’t heard from him in years, though sometimes she remembered him in injuries—the time he threw her into a trash bin and she sprained her shoulder. The time he’d pushed her down the stairs and the time he’d given her a concussion by banging her head into the counter. She opened her eyes and standing before her was a man tilting his pelvis in her direction.

“You ain’t got no money,” Lisa said. “I’ve seen you around here begging like the rest of us.”

“Suck me off for ten bucks,” he said.

Lisa considered it. Ten bucks was ten bucks. She remembered this woman who spoke once at a rehab about the body collecting pain, storing it. The woman irritated her. Couldn’t things just happen and then those things were over? Why did everything have to mean something? Why did everything need to be “processed”?

The door to the shelter opened. “You coming in?” It was a younger woman Lisa had never seen there before, probably a college intern trying to get some real-world experience, as if that could really be gleaned by volunteering at a shelter once a week before going home to her dorm and boyfriend and nice laptop computer and spiced lattes. “We have one spot left, better claim it.” Whatever, Lisa thought. She had a place to sleep.

“See ya later, sucker,” she said to the man. He shrugged. She watched him walk down the street in a crooked and stumbling pattern, yelling abrupt vulgar things to people as he passed them.

Lisa had almost nothing with her. She’d found a pink child’s backpack left outside a school and kept everything inside, which wasn’t much: a few crumped math tests and some broken pencils and a dirty fleece hat, now mixed in with her cigarettes and the wine Shelley gave her. She had a small wallet with her ID in it, which she had miraculously managed not to lose, and a little picture of Wonder. Sometimes, tears would spring to Lisa’s eyes when she caught her reflection wearing the backpack. Her true self was horrified by the current state of her life. The self that had sat on her father’s lap as a child as he sang Swedish folk songs and bounced her on his knee, the self that had been a really good swimmer and freakishly strong. By seventeen she could pick her father up and throw him over her shoulder where he would dangle like a doll. It was like a party trick and everyone would clap and cheer. Mostly that self was buried though. There was no room to carry it around alongside the wine.

Lisa could imagine what Wonder would think of this shelter. Somehow her girl had come out smarter than her, more intuitive. She seemed to sense danger before it arrived. Wonder would lean in close to her and say, “Don’t talk to that one,” or “That woman’s trouble.” She was always right, and Lisa always found this out the hard way.

The trouble was in front of her now. A teenage girl perhaps, or a small-headed adult woman, with a face that looked like it had never been loved. A meth head most likely, Lisa thought, and felt superior. At least, at least, she hadn’t become that bad. Her old sponsor had told her she could add meth addict to her list of yets but Lisa knew she would only ever be an alcoholic, that alcohol was her love and her blood force, and she needed nothing else. She shook her head at the tweaking woman who was sitting in a ball on the floor shivering into her knees. Her eyes darted all over and she swatted at the invisible flies that landed on her sweat-slicked skin. A shame, Lisa thought. She straightened. She walked closer to the woman and was shocked to see a small pair of feet poking out from a blanket next to her.

“Lord, tell me that’s a baby doll under there.” Lisa said. “Gonna suffocate it under that blanket, don’t you know that?”

The woman looked down at the feet and then she looked at Lisa confused, as if she had forgotten there was a baby there at all. She pulled the blanket off and Lisa was relieved to see the baby was awake. It let out a cry.

“He’s fine,” the woman said. “He’s fine.”

“You know, they took my girl away,” Lisa said. “They said I was endangering her. You better be careful or they’ll do that to you.”

“You got anything on you?” she said.

“I didn’t come in here with drugs up my snatch if that’s what you’re asking. I have some self-respect.”

The girl sniffled and scanned the room. Got up and sat back down. Got up again. “Can you watch him for a few minutes?” the girl said. She looked up at Lisa and for a second Lisa could see the true her. The original girl was still somewhere in there but very deep down. Could this happen to Wonder? A chill came over Lisa then. No, her daughter was different. She would never be like this girl no matter what. Lisa looked at the baby. She had loved when Wonder was a baby and she could take her anywhere she wanted and there was no talk back and no judgment. She had even been sober for various lengths of time while Wonder was tiny. She liked babies, she remembered. They were only themselves. “Sure.”

Lisa sat down next to the baby boy who was on his back, helpless, and probably only six months old. He wore a thin and dirty white onesie, and his diaper was leaking out down his legs. The smell seemed too putrid for someone so small. She lifted him by the armpits and saw that the poop had spread up his back and had crested the collar of the onesie. Jesus help me, Lisa thought. She gagged and felt the wine rise in her throat. Her buzz left her and a headache crept in. But the baby needed help. She stood and carried him to the bathroom which had always reminded her of a prison situation, though she couldn’t confirm this, as prison was one of her yets, but there was no privacy to be had, just toilets in open air with no barriers from each other, and a big silver sink basin you could practically take a bath in but was meant for handwashing. An old woman with a braid down to her butt rifled through a large makeup bag seemingly full of only receipts. She lifted her gaze to Lisa as she walked in with the filthy baby and Lisa almost started explaining the situation to her, but then she went back to her receipts. Another woman did her business on a toilet near the wall, picking her fingernails with a pocketknife. A sudden fear washed over Lisa that one of them could at any moment pull an alarm, be so disturbed by the sight of the dirty baby, that they would recognize her as unfit. She wanted to say, “This isn’t my fault, I’m just fixing things,” but there was no alarm and no one cared. They were in their own worlds of relative misery.

Lisa held the baby out away from her while he shrieked. She couldn’t get poop on her sweatshirt. She didn’t know the next time she’d be able to get clean clothes or wash this one and she didn’t know how on earth she would care for a baby in a place like this, but then as if by magic, there, next to the woman on the toilet, Lisa registered a Koala Care changing table bolted to the wall.

“Gotta use this,” she said to the woman on the toilet and the woman obliged, putting her knife away. Lisa had forgotten how people couldn’t very well argue with the cause of a baby.

The woman flushed and stood up. “Cutie,” she said in a singsong voice. “Take care of yourself, mama.”

Mama. I’m not the mama, Lisa almost began to say but then she stopped. A thrill ran through her. “I will.”

She laid the baby on the changer and saw that the shelter had supplied diapers and wipes and a bin of donated baby clothes right there next to it for the taking. What a great shelter, she thought. At last, something was as it should be. She peeled off the baby’s onesie and threw it in the trash. Wet a paper towel and cleaned his skin gently as he cried. His eyes were pinched shut in agony. The receipt woman left and now they were alone, which felt tricky because on one hand no one could judge her, but on another being alone was terrifying because she was liable to do something wrong. Was he sick? she wondered. She felt hatred for his mother begin to unwind in her and alongside it a fresh-born love for this child. His mother didn’t care about him, that much was clear, and yet she had custody. But not Lisa. Lisa had never left Wonder with a stranger lady at a shelter. She never laid her on the dirty floor and forgot her. But there had been no gray area. Unfit, unfit. 

She took the baby over to the sink and let the cool water stream over his body. It was too cold for a baby but these were desperate times. She did it as fast as she could and dried him with one of the muslin blankets in the donation bin. She put cream on his immense diaper rash, the red and raised welts covering his skinny butt and balls, crawling down his even skinnier legs nearly to his knees. “I know it hurts, baby,” she said to him. Her own voice surprised her. It came out sure and smooth. Kind. “Almost done.”

She diapered him and dressed him in a little one-piece pajama with elephants on it and put a fleecy sweater that looked brand new over that. Socks for his feet. A little cotton cap. That wasn’t hard at all, she thought. What was wrong with his mother? She imagined herself in the courtroom confirming his mother’s failures. I was no saint, she might say, but I wasn’t nearly as bad as her.

By now he had stopped crying and looked up at Lisa, open and clear. The red splotches on his face had calmed down and she admired his big brown eyes. A head of dark hair. Olive skin. With his thick bushy eyebrows that nearly met in the middle, he reminded her of the Italian mob bosses from the movies she loved. “Who are you?” she asked. “What’s your name?”

He gurgled. She felt her true self right there at the surface and it was almost like a tingling in the spine, crawling up through her bones asking to come out. It was definitely time for more wine, she thought, but. But the true self needed to take care of this baby, needed to be better than his mother. Look how sweet he is, the true self said.

She pulled the baby to her chest and cuddled him a little. He didn’t smell great but he didn’t smell bad. What was this mother feeding him? He wasn’t plump like a baby should be. Wonder had been very plump and loved her milkies. She’d never gone hungry no matter what the court documents said. She remembered how Wonder testified at only nine years old that Lisa would leave her alone in their apartment for weeks at a time. That she set her own alarm clocks for school, figured out the bus, stole food out of lunchboxes. That their neighbors would leave her takeout leftovers and she’d eat them on the floor like an animal. Well, Wonder hadn’t said it like that. They’d asked her, “Where do you normally eat your meals?” and she’d said, “On the ground.”

Lisa emerged from the bathroom with the baby and walked around the cots to the front where a secretary of sorts sat talking on the phone. “Who’s that?” the secretary mouthed at her. They knew she didn’t have a baby. “Food,” Lisa said, pointing at the baby, and the woman handed her a brown paper bag and said no more. Inside was a six pack of formula bottles and a nipple. The nipple simply screwed onto the bottles and it was ready to go, no mixing or fuss. Mothers had it easy these days. She dropped and spilled the first one, her hands nervous and shaking now, and then took out another. She wondered how long it would be before someone came by and asked her more specifically about this baby in her arms. Perhaps they would take the baby from her right there, seeing as she had zero authority over him. She sat on the floor and the baby boy sucked the bottle down quick. She gave him another and then burped him. He barfed a little on her shoulder but kept most of it down. “There it is,” she said to him. “Fed, washed, happy. What more could you need?” She realized then that she had bypassed the idea that the mother would return for him. That it was the mother who could simply pluck him out of her arms.

He smiled at her. He had a single dimple.

It was now dark outside and Lisa had changed him again and fed him again, and she was beginning to feel her own needs surface in a loud roar. She settled on a cot on the floor in a sea of other women, some passed out, some talking to themselves. A few young and scared-looking women were doling out saltines and pink popcorn to small and surprisingly well-spirited children. The woman next to her was moving erratically and whispering to herself, “I’ll get the salt and you get the pepper,” over and over. The key to get through the night was to pretend nothing existed, Lisa knew. She would just focus on the baby. But she needed a drink from her backpack or she needed some food. She needed both. She couldn’t remember when she’d eaten last and she felt lightheaded. She didn’t want to go through the food line in case they asked questions, and she didn’t want to drink her wine while she held the baby, and it would be awkward to do that anyhow, the baby perched on her lap while she crouched in the bathroom, hiding it. You couldn’t just drink at the shelter. She had enough respect for the place to hide it.

She debated in her mind how the mother’s return would go. She imagined making the mother feel inadequate and rubbing in the fact that she had taken such great care of her son. How functional she was. Maybe, she imagined saying, you should just give him to me. He’ll be better off. Hadn’t they said that about Wonder? She’ll be better off with her grandparents. She’ll be so much better off. 

But when the mother finally came in she was slow. She scanned the room in a daze. She’d taken some kind of tranquilizer, Lisa guessed, could even be deep in a K-hole. She could tell this mother was the kind to take anything and do anything. Lisa looked around, wondering who would stand up for her if needed. But then the mother took the baby from Lisa’s arms and walked away without saying a single word. Lisa sprang up.

“Hey lady,” she said. “You might want to know that I washed him and fed him. He was all dirty. You know they have supplies for him in there. Hey, what’s the matter with you?”

The mother turned around and said, “Fuck off, bitch. I don’t know you.” She held the baby boy like a lifeless doll with one arm on her side. His head flopped. She laid him down on the cold linoleum and made a heap of herself next to him on the cot while he cried. They were two distant islands.

So that was it? Lisa thought. Fine. She went to the bathroom and drank all her wine, knowing it probably wouldn’t be enough to really conk her out for the night. If she ate something she’d be even worse off, even more sober by morning than she’d want to be, but this was her life. Acceptance is all we can take comfort in, she remembered from her meetings. She accepted this night and ate a flat hamburger patty and a slice of white bread and lay down on the floor and closed her eyes and listened to the baby cry. But then the baby stopped crying and she shot up. What was wrong? Had that mother smothered him in her delirium, putting that horrible blanket on his face? She had saved that baby today but what about tomorrow and the next day? When Wonder was a baby Lisa had a real bassinet for her. She had been working at Marie Callender’s and she saved up to buy it new. She was so proud of it. She rocked it every night before Wonder was born and she would fall asleep just waiting for the moment her own baby girl would be sleeping peacefully by her side.

She crept up on the mother. She remembered once in elementary school having a school-wide sleepover and everyone brought sleeping bags to the cafeteria and laid on the floor and this was like that but with adult women who were scared or crazy or numb, crying and shaking and speaking to ghosts. The lights were dim but it wasn’t dark. It rained outside and at least she was dry. She felt strangely alert. The mother was still passed out in the same position she’d been in hours before. She didn’t look well. The baby had scooted away from her a bit and had rolled to his side. Lisa felt panic. Was he dead? She bent down and pressed a hand into his stomach. She felt it rise and fall. His skin was cold.

She nudged the mother and she didn’t move. Lisa held a finger under her nose. She could easily die in her sleep, depending on what she’d taken. But there was breath. For now, at least.

She walked over to the night guard in the little office who was on a computer, dazed looking and in deep hatred of his job choice and life.

“There’s something going on out there,” she started. She had come in to report the baby all alone on the floor. She had come to report the unfit mother right before everyone’s eyes. Take that baby away! She was all set to tell them. But then. Something else came to her.

“Huh?” the man asked. His nightstick was leaned up against the desk.

“Yeah, some junkie chicks are fighting out there. Goddamn meth heads. You know at least I’m not that. They’re over there by the cafeteria lineup.” Lisa’s throat went dry with the lie.

“I’ll come take a look in a minute. You hens are always squabbling. Break it up now, break it up later, it don’t matter, you’ll all be back the same.”

Lisa hurried over to the baby and crouched near him. She watched the night guard’s head turn slowly toward where Lisa had directed him. She picked up the baby and kept her eyes on the man’s back. The mother didn’t move, not even when the baby was a few feet away from her. Her internal mothering alarm was deactivated. The baby whimpered but sort of pressed his face back into her chest. That’s right, Lisa thought. It’s me, the woman who took care of you before. The woman who loves you most of all. She pulled her jacket around him.

Then she was blocks away. She was running and then walking, catching her breath and running again. The baby was still with her and yet, no mother. The mother was not following. She turned around. No one was. The streets felt totally empty. Hardly any cars and Lisa wondered if this was real. Was this a new life she had just walked into? Just like that she was a mother again? She laughed and the baby slept in her arms like a little koala and Lisa just kept walking and walking, until she surprised even herself with a plan.

She used to work at Shimmers as a dancer and her best friend at the time, Jolene, still worked there. Jolene had cut her off when Lisa had slept with her boyfriend but she was the only person Lisa could think of to ask for help. She stood outside the strip club. Her arms ached from holding the baby boy and she wanted to set him down so bad but no. No. No setting him on the floor like that trash head mother of his and no drinking with him. Not this time.

She walked in and no one noticed her at first but then the hostess came up and said, “Oh no. We don’t have children in here, state law. Get on out.”

“Jolene here?” Lisa asked. She held the baby’s head in toward her chest.

“You wait out there. I think she’s on her break in a few minutes.”

Lisa stood outside and breathed in the cold air. “Glad we got you that little sweater, huh? You’ll need a nice warm coat soon. I’ll find one, don’t worry. I’m really resourceful.”

She reached behind her to pull the pink backpack around and see if she had a cigarette, but the backpack was gone. Her heart fell. She had left it there on the floor of the shelter. Had she left it right by the mother? She couldn’t remember. It was somewhere there. She’d soon need a bottle for the baby and the remaining bottle was still in the backpack. Lisa had meant to give it to the mother, but she’d walked away so rudely. But her little wallet with the ID. It had taken her days to get that ID, maybe months even. Gone now.

Jolene came out in a fake fur coat. “Oh shit, had you another one? Thought your ass was too old.”

“It ain’t my,” Lisa started to say but stopped. “Look, we need help. I need a bus ticket or something.”

“I don’t have no money for you, honey,” Jolene said. She lit a cigarette.

“Please. I’ve got to get out of Reno. I’ve got him now.”

“What’s his name?” Jolene asked blowing her smoke away from the baby.

“Can I have one?” Lisa asked. “Left my backpack somewhere.”

Jolene handed her the cig she had been smoking and lit a fresh one. “Shouldn’t smoke around a baby,” she said.

“Just one before I quit.”

“He ain’t got a name?” Jolene asked again, leaning in close to see his face. Lisa shielded him, bouncing and swaying back and forth in the cold. She saw an anti-abortion sign across the street floating above a quickie mart. Psalm 139—For thou didst form my inward parts; thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb. The words were in white under a photo of a child bathed in heavenly light. An angel of a baby asleep and beautiful.

“His name is Psalm,” Lisa said.

Jolene looked at her funny. “Is that so,” she said. “Gone all Christian on me too now?”

“Can you help me or not?”

Jolene smashed her cigarette on the ground. She handed Lisa five dollars and told her to get the baby some food. “That thing looks hungry. Don’t your tits work?”

Psalm woke up as if offended and shrieked into Lisa’s chest and sort of beat his head around. He was hungry. That’s what Wonder would do to Lisa and she always had a bottle ready. She had clean bottles with fresh formula. She’d tried to breastfeed but gave up after Wonder clamped down on her nipple the first time. Formula was a loving option for both of them, but Lisa knew it was probably just one more thing someone might hold against her.

She walked under the abortion sign to the quickie mart to buy the formula. She needed a drink and her hands were starting to shake. She’d once had a boyfriend who called this “earthquaking.” They were only in their early twenties then. This was before Lisa was forced to reckon with her alcoholism. It was still hidden under the guise of partying too hard, even though she blacked out most nights and woke with mysterious injuries. Even then she drank in the morning as if by instinct, not because she’d ever seen anyone else do it.

“Whatever happened to that guy?” she asked Psalm as they entered the bright store. The lights stunned him and he looked up glassy-eyed and quiet for a moment while she chose the formula.

She took her time in the warm store, walking each aisle, imagining she could fill a cart to the brim and pay for it all. She was sure that she’d never approached a checkout line without a buzz of fear, either because she would have to put some things back or because she had stolen several items and was waiting to be caught.

She bought the formula with the fiver and the man asked how her night was going.

“If you’ve got someone that can help me get out of here, my night would be going real well.”

“Might be able to help. It’ll cost of course.”

Lisa understood.

She strapped Psalm to the changing table in the fluorescent-lit bathroom and he cried and writhed, and the man stood, gut out, waiting. He put his pigly hands on his hips in a child’s stance of impatience that Lisa might’ve found funny in a way, if she hadn’t been sweating hard from withdrawal and some old familiar feeling of failure. Here she was already exposing Psalm to the ugliness of life not hours into becoming his mother. This wasn’t how she planned it. This was life, it was not unimaginable. Psalm wouldn’t remember it, but she would. She would always know it had occurred and maybe that was enough to transmute to Psalm so that once he could speak and talk and be a member in the world, he would smell it on her and not respect her and leave her.

“Can’t you make it sleep?” the man asked. “I got to get back out there, you know. Who else is gonna run this place?”

“Why don’t you just stand there, and I’ll give you a handjob? Keep your back to the baby.”

“I think more is in order.”

“What kind of person are you?”

He grumbled. He unzipped himself and sort of leaned against the wall and Lisa let her knees hit the tile. She couldn’t see Psalm but she could hear him, his high-pitched wailing, and she knew his wailing was making him out of breath, his cheeks bright with discomfort. She spoke to him with her mind. This is for you, just once then never again. I promise. Just to get us out of here. “No mouth,” she reminded the man, and before he could object she began pulling him off, watching his face as if a distant observer, his eyes on the ceiling with two fat fingers plugging his ears. It occurred to her he was once a baby boy like the one strapped to the table but it offered her no good will toward him.

He came and it pulled her back into the room. It had gotten on her sweatshirt. “Fuck,” she said. She wiped it with a paper towel but it would crust and stay all the same. She held her hand out to him. She should have gotten the money first, what had she been thinking. “Come on, I got to move on now.”

He wrestled up a twenty from his back pocket and she looked at it. It didn’t seem to match the moment. “I got a baby, man. Can you give me a little more?” The man now looked horrified to be alive, sweating and glancing around like he’d woken from a nightmare. He thrust two more twenties in her hand. “Just get on.” He hurried out. Lisa felt elated. Sixty dollars. She picked up Psalm and held him to her and he calmed immediately. He wanted her and he needed her, that was all that mattered now. It was all that was in front of her.

The night bus would take them to Fresno, where Lisa had grown up, an eight-hour trek that would cut a straight path through the Central Valley. Sometimes at night before she fell asleep, if she had enough awareness, she would take herself there, imagining the long expanse of orchard rows, the perfect symmetry of them and the way the flatness was a comfort. She loved the predictability of the valley. She hadn’t been back in years, though now the little farm church she had grown up attending beckoned to her, it would save her. It was so simple and so pure.

She would go to the church and the church would care for her. She had Psalm after all. A church wouldn’t turn her away with a baby in arms. Especially a woman like her, seeking salvation. What sort of salvation didn’t matter.

Psalm slept against her like the most natural thing as the bus churned along. On the way out of the quickie mart she had stolen another canister of formula. She wanted an ice-cold Diet Coke but settled for the formula instead. She had asked herself what a good mother would do in that moment, and then she had acted accordingly and she had to admit that it had given her the spark of a high to do the right thing. It seemed the world was opening up, offering solution after solution, and for the first time in so long she had hope and it fluttered around her, danced before the bus as it lurched down the highway like a sparkler, the baby on her body. She kissed the top of his warm head. She imagined herself confessing the story to him one day, telling him how she had saved him from squalor like a guardian angel. But then no. She wouldn’t need to. They could forget the hows and whys. Being his mother would be enough for both of them.

Excerpted from HEARTBROKE by Chelsea Bieker. Published with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2022 by Chelsea Bieker.

Women and Children First, From Heartbroke