The Government’s Babies

Anne placed a gentle palm over her stomach with cheek pressed against the cool passenger-side window. Stasia drove, the car weaving the unusually empty streets of suburban Boston. Droplets of late summer rain tickled across the windshield like kamikaze bugs, not enough to for wipers, but enough to know the day wouldn’t get any better. Beneath the trembling fingers, Anne swore she felt the tiniest of movements.

            “I support your choice,” Stasia said, flipping the right-turn blinker and looking at the barren roads. Her patchouli laced dreadlocks, nose ring, and bra-less attire harkened to the free spirit of middle class white women poets who believed in solving the world’s problems through free form dance and drum circles.  “The government makes it sound like they care about the sanctity of human life, but more babies means more soldiers.”

            “Where is everyone?” Anne asked, pushing further against the window. Everyone, it seemed, had decided to keep their distance. Prato took off after finding the positive stick in the bathroom and now refused to answer calls. She hadn’t spoken to her parents in New York City after the blowout argument about leaving junior year at UMass Dartmouth to move in with Prato. The friends on campus moved on, took other classes, and closed their social circle by one person. The situation held a common denominator, and once resolved, a proper life might be salvaged.

            A police car and ambulance screamed by, their lights flashing wildly. The women tracked the route with their quiet eyes until the emergency crew turned a corner and disappeared.

            “Must have been an accident,” Stasia said. Anne looked at her stomach and took a long, slow breath.

            “What if it hurts?” she asked.

            “It might,” Stasia said, “all good decisions do.” But as they pulled up to the clinic, they noticed the locked doors, the lack of cars in the lot. Anne sat up in a panic.

            “I had an appointment…” she said. Her long brown hair combed straight, soft make-up applied earlier that morning under the dim glow of the bathroom mirror’s light, summer dress so that she wouldn’t have to slide in and out of pants, this day was supposed to be a new beginning, a fresh start where her past was scraped clean, a way to take back control until she was ready, stable.

            Stasia turned on the radio and scanned. Every station frantically reported the same thing. Something about an airplane, the Twin Towers in New York City, an attack on America. She paused on a single voice.

            Authorities encourage citizens to stay inside. A second plane just hit the towers on this day, the 11th of September, 2001. Radical Islamists citing jihad, or holy war, are claiming credit through the channels of Al Jazeera, their leader Osama Bin Laden announcing victory against what he is calling the Great Satan, what we know as America.

            Anne put her palm over her mouth. Tears pushed across the dry skin of her fingers. Stasia turned up the radio and stared at the dashboard in disbelief.

            “No, no way this is real,” she said, the distance in her voice childlike and haunting. She unbuckled and hopped out of the car. Anne followed. Stasia dropped a quarter into a payphone outside of the clinic and dialed her father, a retired Army General. “Daddy? What’s going on?!”

            “It’s real, baby,” her father said loud enough that Anne heard through the distorted receiver.  “Get to safety. Our boys will figure this out.”

            Stasia said I love you and hung up. She grabbed Anne’s hand and ran back to the car firing up the engine so fast that it could have been one singular movement. Again in the passenger seat, Anne buckled. She wept without meaning to.

            “I’m not ready for this,” she said, her dreams of the future melting away like kamikaze raindrops on the windshield.

            “None of us were,” Stasia said, and floored it up 95 north until they reached her father’s home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The man ushered them inside pouring each a glass of ice water, and turned back to the television news with arms crossed.

            “Cowards,” he spat. “What type of person actively chooses to end innocent lives? An evil person, that’s who!”

            On screen, Anne watched one of the towers collapse onto itself. People ran screaming through the streets as a great plume of dust opened its mouth to swallow them whole. She felt sick, the ice water sitting heavy in the back of her throat. Her stomach clenched.

            “I need to lie down,” she said.

            “Don’t your parents live near the towers?” Stasia’s father asked, turning to Anne with his stone face and grey eyes. “Have you heard from them?”

            Stasia touched her father’s wrist and looked up from the couch. She shook her head as if to say that it was complicated, that there were significant moving pieces.

            “What were you two even doing out this morning?” the man asked. Stasia shrugged and turned to the television, knees bouncing, tattooed purple flowers shivering on her shoulder. Anne slapped a palm over her mouth again and ran to the kitchen. Over the sink, she heaved up the still-cool water and watched it disappear down the drain. She spit thick saliva. Her knees dropped until she sat on the floor, head resting against the cupboard, as news broadcaster announced that citizens should prepare for the worst, that life would never be the same.

            “May I use your phone?” Anne asked. Stasia and Stasia’s father didn’t turn around. Both waved their hands and gave the thumbs up as Anne wobbled into the first floor’s master bedroom, sat on the corner of the mattress near the landline and dialed her folks.  Each time, three ascending beeps and a recorded voice claimed the receiving number was currently unavailable. She hung up and tried again. And again. And again until her fingertips went raw, the things inside of her growing into more than dread, into more than fear, and into more than the false promise of a once bright future.

*

Anne named her child Noah Thomas Burke, because her mother loved biblical names and her father thought hard consonants projected strength, confidence. Swaddled in donated blankets, Anne brought her boy to the grave plot where a marble headstone contained her parent’s etched names. The location and instructions had been laid out in their will, the same will Anne had been written out of save for a pair of sterling earrings.

            “I begged them to reconsider,” the family lawyer explained, his temporary New York office stacked with files and loose paperwork. A month before Noah’s birth, Anne traveled by bus to the city for a sit-down meeting because the phone calls seemed rushed and impersonal. “They were upset, emotional. I think they thought it might scare you into getting back on track. Their track.”

            “Is there anything you can do?” Anne asked, bouncing her legs in the cold office, her very pregnant body barely able to fit in the small rolling armchair.

            “If I could, I would,” the lawyer said, and that was that. The small fortune turned over to the state, the family legacy aged in dust.

            But Noah’s birth had done something to Anne that she wasn’t expecting. He delivered an unparalleled sense of purpose, a direction in an otherwise directionless life. The moment the boy looked at her with those eyes like frozen blueberries, she couldn’t believe he had ever been considered a burden, a choice. In front of her, pink skin and thin new hair, the smell of blossoming life like a fine powder, Noah’s life reinvigorated Anne into the type of person that might make her parents proud.

            Anne worked two server jobs over the first years while Noah attended daycare. She didn’t date, she didn’t have the time, but she did miss the intimate comfort of another body beside her. Stasia tried to set her up a few times, but it was always the same type of guy. Well meaning, but ultimately dull and a touch too idealistic.

            “Coffee sounds good,” one guy told her, “as long as it’s fair trade or locally sourced. None of that capitalist chain garbage.”

            “If we do dinner, I prefer a place with gluten free and vegan options,” another said. “And that we split the bill fifty/fifty regardless of who orders what.”

            “I find the true test of intimacy to be popping pimples on each other’s backs,” a third said, which was a shame because he had been the most promising. His pictures made him appear tall with dark hair, goatee, and athletic build. It wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker until, over the phone, he had requested to meet Noah after their first date. It made Anne cringe, red flags soaring. The thought of inviting someone into her space to gawk at her boy, the potentially sly move of saying well, what should we do next?, and squeezing zits instead of enjoying each other’s company brought the conversation to a halt. She ghosted the man, similar to the way Prato had disappeared to Italy, and refused to answer the phone without it going to voicemail first.

            Then Stasia moved to Portland, Oregon after her father came out of retirement and shipped out to Afghanistan.

            “It got too hard,” she told Anne over the phone a month after the move. “Thinking about all the possibilities, what might happen, feeling stuck. I just had to…you know…get out of dodge.”

            “Oh,” Anne said as Noah suckled her little finger. He kicked his baby legs. “I see.”

            “The weather here is amazing,” Stasia said after a moment of silence. “The men too, so caring and thoughtful. A different breed.”

            Anne rummaged through the mail on the kitchen table and found her bank statement. A trip might be possible if she used the credit card, which would only add to the already mounting debt. Seeing the west coast might be nice, and traveling with Noah meant more quality time together.

            “Is there room on your couch?” Anne asked.

            Two weeks later with the essentials packed, a change of diapers at the ready, sterling earrings in, Noah sat in Anne’s lap in the back of a taxi en route to terminal 3 at Logan International. She paid the fare with the last bit of pocket cash, wished the driver well, and wheeled her suitcase through the whooshing airport doors with son strapped to her chest. The news reported on longer security checks, but she hadn’t expected to see fully armed military personal cruising the atrium with automatic weapons. Metal detectors chirped at the head of tight, serpentine security lines like the screech of a wild beast. Anne approached the service desk, handed over the ID, got her ticket printed, and joined the line.

The people who filed in behind crowded too close. They bumped forward knocking Anne and Noah into the people ahead of them.

Eventually, a TSA agent at a standalone kiosk checked her ID again, asked the child’s name, asked for the final destination, nature of the travel, and then waved her through without once looking up. Anne put her carry-on suitcase onto the roller and joined another line for the metal detector. She watched everyone go through, as people with a certain look were pulled out and frisked by men in soldier uniforms.

“Next,” a woman said, and waved Anne to the edge of the machine. “Anything in your pockets? Belt? Keys?”

“No,” Anne said, and stepped through with Noah still on her chest. The metal detector chirped, and the woman running the line rolled her eyes.

“Step through again,” she said, yawning. “By yourself. Please hand the baby over.”

A soldier stepped forward and reached for Noah. For a moment, Anne couldn’t breathe and shoved down the urge to lash out with violence as the man scooped the child and stepped to the side. He bounced Noah in his arms, his face stone-like and stoic.

“Please don’t take my baby,” Anne said, even though it had already happened. She backed up through the machine. It chirped again. Anne patted her pockets and shrugged. She looked up to see Noah reaching his small, chubby hand toward the face of the soldier. “Please, he needs me.”

“It’s your earrings, ma’am,” the soldier said. Anne slapped her palms over her lobes in pained disbelief. She popped the backs, and both fell into her cupped hand.

“We’ll need to run those through the machine,” the TSA woman said.

“Just take them,” Anne whispered, shoving the pieces into the woman’s small plastic bowl. She stepped through the silent metal detector and marched to the solider. He handed off the boy who had seemed to calm in the short separation.

Even as she collected her things and stormed to the gate passing enormous windows of tempered glass, Anne realized that Noah wouldn’t take his eyes off the man in uniform.

*

Noah hadn’t come home yet, and even though they lived a block from the school, she began to wonder if he’d received another detention for behavior. Third grade had seen the boy transform into the type that went over bike jumps as large as he was, swim too far into the deep end of the community pool despite orders not to leave the shallow end, and saunter inside on warmer days with suspicious bruises that didn’t jive with the explanation of “playing”. Somewhere, Noah had learned to lie and Anne found the discovery unsettling for a number of reason, mostly because she knew she was to blame.

            “How come I don’t have a dad?” Noah asked as classmates crowded the birthday cake glowing with candles for his 9th birthday. The question made Anne feel like her tongue was swollen all the way down her throat. The other parents watched with worried eyes, their curious brows invested in whatever response she could manage.

            “Because he’s on a secret mission,” she said, and kissed her son on the top of his shaggy hair. Noah nodded, thought for a moment, and blew out the candles. The other parents eyed each other, many turning hard shoulders.

            Shortly after, things started going missing from the apartment. A porcelain wade figurine of an eagle from the mantle in the living room, the magnet on the fridge from Portland, the long and rusted skeleton key from the junk drawer, and more than once Anne walked in on Noah playing with toys she hadn’t purchased for him.

            “Where’d you get that GI Joe?” she asked. Noah shrugged and kept his eyes on the toy.

            “I’ve had it forever,” he said, and continued playing like his mother wasn’t standing in the door with eyes burning a hole into his stocky frame.

            Now, Anne pushed back the curtain and looked down the block to see if her son might be playing in the schoolyard, even though she told him to always come check-in first. Instead she found him being walked home by a large man in khaki pants and tucked-in polo shirt. Mr. Carlsbad, Anne realized, the athletic director from those parent/teacher meetings. She watched the man duck with his shoulders like a charging lineman, plant his feet and rush forward for two quick steps, Noah’s eyes glued to his movements.

            Anne spun around and hid the dinner box of macaroni and cheese sitting next to the stove, shoved the pile of unopened bills into a thin plastic grocery bag, and pulled the window shade across the pane of glass with duct tape over the splintered cracks from when Noah played dodgeball inside.

            There was no knock. Noah used his own key—another thing that gave Anne pause—to push open the front door. The boy clomped in while the athletic director rapped on the open doorframe with thick knuckles choosing to stand in the hall. Anne entered with the feigned breath of a pleasant surprise and invited the man inside. Noah kicked off his shoes, the small rubber soles sailing across the room.

            “Hi Ms. Burke,” Mr. Carlsbad said. “There was a bit of an incident at school today, I’m afraid.”

            Anne felt her body tighten, even though she did her best to appear confused. Of course, she thought, what else is new?

            “I’m so sorry,” she said, putting a hand over her eyebrows. “We’re kind of skating by at the moment, as you can probably see.”

            “No judgment,” the man said, and went on to explain that during afternoon recess, Noah tackled a kid and pummeled him for being mean to a girl, the girl he might have a crush on, Carlsbad surmised, and when teacher’s stepped in to break it up, Noah took off running so fast that the other students cheered him. The pursuing faculty couldn’t wrangle the boy. “He surrendered when the principal threatened to take away afternoon movie privileges for the entire class.”

            Anne sat on the ottoman in the living room, boiling. She looked at Noah sitting in his room, proudly playing with action figures, a self-satisfied smirk pouting his lips.

            “Is the other boy hurt?” Anne asked.

            “Boys will be boys,” Mr. Carlsbad said, “but in cases like Noah, we don’t think detention will send the right message. Have you considered signing him up for football?”

            “Too violent. And he’s too young.”

            The athletic director nodded at the taped-up window glowing through the pulled shade, the ruffled couch blankets, the chipped kitchen table.

            “I understand, but consider that he already possesses something he’s having trouble expressing. The gridiron allows release, instills discipline, creates a system of positive, male role models.”

            Anne’s vision went red, her jaw clenching so tight that a vein in her temple pulsed. She knew what the man meant, but something in his voice implied judgment, that Noah wouldn’t act this way if she could only keep a man around.

            “Thank you for your concern, but we’ll manage,” she said, holding out her arm toward the door with eyes that burned the message get out.

            “Please, mom?” Noah said, standing in the middle of his room. “You don’t let me do anything the other kids do. I want to play football. I want to have friends. I want to wear clothes that aren’t bought for a dollar from a place that smells like a basement.”

            “Noah…” Anne said, the tightness softening. “It’s not that simple.”

            “Don’t you want me to be happy?” he asked, stomping his foot and clenching his fists. Behind his eyes was that manipulative smile and Anne wanted to scream at him, to yell in his face that people didn’t just get what they wanted just because they wanted it, that life was hard and unfair, and that rewarding bad behavior only encouraged more bad behavior.

            “Let me see what I can do,” she said instead, and closed her eyes to calculate the time to cost ratio required with taking on yet another shift.

*

Stasia paced the living room, the old dreadlocks lopped in lieu of a silver pixie cut. She checked the phone, and dialed again. Voicemail.

            “This is Noah’s fault,” she growled. “Caspian is a good boy, and your boy corrupted him.”

            “I can phone the police and say they stole my car, but if caught, Cas gets a record,” Anne said. It wasn’t the first time Noah had taken her car without asking, and she knew it wouldn’t be the last, a small price to pay for the uptick in good grades and scholarship offers. After landing a job in admissions at UMass Dartmouth, Anne turned in the old beater for a Rav-4 and rented a one-story ranch on the outskirts of Cape Cod. The weekend was meant to be a housewarming.

            “They just pulled up,” Stasia said, and bolted through the front door talking faster than the winds of a nor’easter. Anne watched Noah pop out of the car laughing, the letterman jacket fitted to his muscular frame, a petite girl in tight pants climbing out of the passenger seat and giving him goo-goo eyes. Caspian stepped out of the back in his too-large pants, ill-fitted rugby shirt, and crooked glasses with a brunette in a slim tank hanging from his shoulders.

            “I love it here, Ma,” Caspian said, stumbling up the walkway to a furious Stasia.

            “Are you drunk?!” the woman asked, cupping her son’s face and looking into his eyes, his mouth, his ears. “You are fifteen years old!”

            “He’s not drunk, just in love, Ms. P,” Noah said, grinning the grin of a starting varsity wide receiver. He traipsed up the steps and gave the finger guns to his mother in the bay window. Stiff white papers stuck out of his back pocket. Anne leaned into the doorway.

            “As someone three years older, I expected more from you,” she said, and Noah brushed it off as the group stepped inside. Anne watched the young girls paw and swoon over the boys and felt weightless nostalgia course beneath her skin. The way these pretty little things must have spent hours getting ready, prepping their hair, choosing an outfit, practicing conversations, things that the boys wouldn’t even notice, a part of her reached out in solidarity to the remembrance of the excruciating high of puppy love. Noah kissed Anne on the cheek and peeled out of his jacket.

            “If you ever…” Stasia said, marching toward Noah with her finger pointed into his face. “This is my baby boy, my cub, understand?”

            “He’s not a toddler. Maybe fly the helicopter elsewhere,” Noah said, and opened the refrigerator. He pulled out the OJ and took a swing from the carton. The girls huddled against the wall holding their small purses below their pierced belly buttons.

            “Unlike your mother, I actually wanted to have him,” Stasia said. She snapped her fingers at Caspian and motioned to gather his things. The boy adjusted his glasses and obeyed.

            “Stasia!” Anne said.

            “What’s that supposed to mean?” Noah asked.

            “Did she ever tell you where we were when we found out about 9/11?” Stasia’s red face turned toward Anne. “What she had planned?”

            “This is my twitter handle, and my insta, and snap,” Caspian said, handing a ripped piece of paper to the brunette. The girl forced a smile as she stuffed the paper into her purse and looked at the floor.

            “What did you have planned? And don’t you lie to me,” Noah said. Standing there demanding an answer, his wide shoulders filling the room, his dark eyebrows and wild hair, Anne thought he looked so much like Prato.

            “Termination,” Anne whispered, and looked at the floor. When she looked at Stasia, she found her friend mortified, face pulled into the twisted mask of regret unable to utter anything that could salvage the situation.

            Noah reached into his back pocket and removed the papers. He placed them on the table, walked into his bedroom, and slammed the door.

            “I’m going to call an Uber,” one of the girls said, and the two let themselves out. Anne watched them go wanting to tell them no, to stay, that if they were a friend of her son they were welcome inside of her home. She wanted to tell them to love fiercely, but to think longer than the moment, beyond schooling, beyond the overpowering feeling of the now.

            “Oh god,” Stasia said, picking up the papers. She clutched the top of a wooden chair for balance. Caspian stood on his tiptoes to look over his mother’s shoulder, smiling. Anne walked over holding her breath, and felt lightheaded as she read the enlistment papers signed and dated.

            That night, she stared into the stucco blankness of her ceiling unable to sleep. A small spider soundlessly crossed the ceiling toward the far corner. Noah had refused to open his door, even though she heard him rustling, pacing, talking to himself. Stasia had offered a tearful apology before she left, that her emotions had bested her, that she and Caspian would stay in a hotel near the airport. During a day of togetherness, all had fled.

            Anne heard a window slide open and a hushed voice through the wall. One of the girls from earlier, she thought, come back to offer comfort, as if teenagers had any grasp on the concept. The spider descended from a small web and swung itself against a wall. Noah’s deep and steady voice pushed through the space and across her ceiling like he was already gone, a ghost of the boy she knew stepping into the role of a man. Light thumps on the wall. Bed frame squeaks. A child following in the footsteps of his mother.

            Funny, she thought, how a tragedy revealed the greatest joy she had ever known, and how eighteen years would never be enough. But it would have to do. She thought of everything she’d given up for her child, the nights out, a dating life, new clothes, jobs that required travel, and how she never once questioned that she’d made the right decision. The ambient glow of the streetlamp outside made the spider’s web sparkle like silver.

*

Anne hadn’t slept in days. She sat on the corner of her bed scrolling through the news apps on her phone, many of them reporting on Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani’s attack on the US Embassy where Noah was stationed. She hadn’t heard from him. At all.

            She told herself that he was ok, that his fighting spirit and will to survive already overcame impossible odds. Yet, her body felt hollowed out like a gutted pumpkin at Halloween. She put a cigarette between her lips, a habit developed to quell the worry, and slid open her bedroom window. The empty house ached with memories.

            Anne drew in a long breath. She exhaled out the window where the late summer rain sprinkled like ice cream toppings across the un-mowed lawn where Noah’s rusted mountain bike sat unused still chained to the fence.

            The doorbell rang. Anne stamped out the cigarette on the windowsill and checked her phone. She didn’t remember ordering any food, but since Noah’s deployment into hostile territory, the neighborhood rallied and often sent take-out on their behalf. The clock on the phone read 4:15 PM. An early dinner wouldn’t hurt. She walked through the living room and opened the front door to find two soldiers in formal dress taking off their hats.

            “Ma’am,” the first one said. “It’s about your son…” and Anne’s knees gave out, the world slipping into a dream.

            Two funerals. One for the military with a 21 gun salute blasting blanks into the sky and ruining the serenity of solemn remembrance. Soldiers she’d never met crowded next to the politicians that had sent her baby to war, the same balding white men who actively fought against a woman’s right to choose.

            “We’re so sorry for your loss,” they said, shaking Anne’s hand with showy grips and polished smiles. “He died a hero.”

            “No. He died,” Anne said, squeezing tight and begging for eye contact.

            “If there’s anything we can do, please let us know,” they said, and then left the funeral like they had never existed at all. Eventually, a check for $100,000 came, tax free, the apparent cost of her son’s life. In the same shipment was the American flag used at her boy’s funeral folded into a compact triangle.

            The second funeral happened in New York City, a headstone placed next to her parent’s. Stasia came. So did Caspian and his Bahamian wife with perfect, shining skin. They stood by Anne while she wept and touched the cold marble, her finders running the curves of Noah’s strong, confident name. Both days had been sunny, the grass green, the wind slight. Anne wondered if her son had ever been happy.

            When Anne returned to Massachusetts, she found herself driving through the suburbs of Boston in a haze, the old streets and towns no longer the places she remembered. The layout held the same patterns, but they pulsed with different life, different shops, different people. She pondered the emotional impact of mourning her son twice, about her new prescriptions that slurred her words and turned the world into a swimming pool until she realized it wasn’t just two.

            Anne managed to find a familiar brick building now abandoned and wrapped with vines. Shattered windows led to dark insides, the door chained shut, the city posting a sign announcing the property as derelict. She popped a cigarette between her lips and lit up leaning her cheek against the cool window of the driver’s side door. The building sat unused, left behind and forgotten.

            As she exhaled and the interior filled with bitter smoke, Anne placed her hand over her stomach. She felt nothing.

Woodie Williams grew up in South Carolina. His family has lived in the South for generations. He currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia where he works as a commercial photographer.

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