This story is by Susan J Liddle and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Emma rocks until the babe’s crying stops and her little mouth moves in a dream of feeding.
The parents think she’s being neighbourly, offering them adult time. But she’s only here for the baby. She doesn’t care what they do, so long as she gets this time to feel loving and useful, to have a taste of that remembered sweetness from when her own children were babies so long ago.
Emma shifts, wondering if she can reach her hoodie pocket and get her phone out. She wants to look up the baby’s name. She wrote it in her notes app after they made the arrangements yesterday. It’s a flower, but which one?
Heather(?) lets out a sharp cry, and Emma sways in time with her own rhythmic murmuring.
“It’s okay, okay, little one. All is well, all is well.”
Peony(?) settles, then a few minutes later she startles again, then calms. And then again.
Could something be poking the baby? Hands gentle, Emma lifts the blanket and unsnaps the sleeper. She takes a sharp breath.
She blinks hard, looks away and back. Goes to the window where the light is brighter. No mistake. The wounds on the baby’s tiny rib cage and belly look even worse when she nudges the sheer curtain back with her elbow to let in more light.
She wants to tuck the baby inside her sweatshirt and rush her away from danger. She wants to charge upstairs and demand to know who could do such a thing.
What she needs to do is call Children’s Aid.
She stands in the middle of the living room rocking and thinking.
She could find the number in her phone, but that would mean shifting Lilac(?) or even putting her down. If she cries too often, the mother might come downstairs.
Emma imagines phoning from this room. People at the door, a chaos of accusing voices. She thinks of trying to keep her words straight amidst the noise.
She’ll have to go elsewhere and call.
First things first. She needs to get the baby somewhere safe and quiet, somewhere she can put her down and look up the number, remind herself of the names.
Emma is aware that she’s crossing a line by taking the baby away without the parents’ permission. But if she doesn’t stand for this baby, who will?
She folds the blanket over Lily(?) gently and tucks it in. Still not a sound from upstairs.
Silent and steady, she walks to the hall, opens the front door and steps out, careful about her footing. She looks at the house number and panics slightly, then remembers that the address is in her app.
Her instincts push her to run, get away. She remembers running around the yard with the kids, chasing them as they shrieked with laughter. That must have been over fifty years ago.
Instead, she walks down the driveway the way she walks through a grocery store. As briskly as she can, with purpose. She hopes no-one is watching from the window.
No cars in the Lalondes’ driveway across the street, so no help there.
She turns left and heads for the park. She’ll find a bench there and make her call.
It’s just a few blocks. She keeps plodding on. Finally, she turns a corner, and there it is at the end of the street. She can make it, even if her daily walks are much slower than this — and she doesn’t carry the equivalent of a small bag of potatoes with her. Sweat trickles down her back, and her arms ache. One of her hands feels numb and tingly.
The trickling sweat and aching muscles bring forth a vivid memory. She must have been 13 or 14. She and Mum were spring cleaning, and Mum told her about an expression that she’d been taught as a child.
“Horses sweat, men perspire, ladies glow,” she said, pursing her lips and looking down her nose at Emma. Then she winked.
Emma swiped at the back of her neck and wiped her sweaty hands on her shirt.
“I guess we aren’t ladies?” she asked.
Her mother laughed, wiping her forehead with the back of her arm and glancing at the moisture there.
She flexed her arm and said, “We’re better than that. We’re women. Strong women.”
Emma brushes her thumb across Tulip’s(?) cheek. The babe lets out a shuddering breath and seems to get heavier.
She walks on, trying to think of anything but her aching arms.
At last, she turns into the playground and reaches a bench. She sits and places Nasturtium(?) — surely that can’t be it — on the bench beside her.
She shakes her arms a little, trying to get the feeling back into her hands, then pulls out her phone. Finally!
She takes a deep breath and presses the power button. The dead battery icon appears, then the screen goes black.
Oh, no. She must have forgotten to charge it again.
Baby’s name, mother’s name, address. All gone until she can charge her phone.
Blasted memory. She forces herself to stay calm, to not dwell on it.
She needs a new plan.
Over by the swings, three women are watching children play. One small girl tosses a handful of sand up in the air, and Emma watches a dark-haired woman with a heavy ponytail of braids walk over and murmur something to the child.
Emma picks up Pansy(?) and approaches the women.
A young woman with pink hair looks at her. Her eyes crinkle in a smile.
“What’s the baby’s name?”
“I need…” she says. She clears her throat to firm up her voice and tries again.
“I’m sorry to bother you. I need to show you something.”
Pink Hair tilts her head in question.
Emma lifts the blanket away from Petunia(?) to show the bruises and round burn marks.
“Oh,” says Pink Hair. “Oh, no.”
The two other women approach, and Emma can feel them leaning in, straining closer as if to build a wall of protection around the baby.
“I need to call Children’s Aid,” says Emma. “But my phone died —”
Emma sees movement and stops speaking as the mother turns into the park. Of course, she guessed where Emma would go. Of course.
Should she hang onto Primrose? Cause a ruckus? Get the police called? Surely if that happened someone would see the marks. It might be embarrassing, but the truth would come out.
In the moments it takes for the mother to walk over to them, Emma imagines a brawl. The mother lunging at her to take the baby, the other women throwing fists. They’d be up for it, Emma thinks. Pink Hair looks fit and tough. The round middle-aged one seems quiet, but she has a tattoo that wraps all the way around one arm. The one with the ponytail is watching the mother approach with fierce eyes. Emma knows better than to underestimate any woman when a baby is involved.
The mother comes right up to Emma and reaches a trembling hand into the circle of women, brushing Violet’s(?) soft wisps of hair. She stares at the ugly marks, then pulls the blanket over to cover them.
Emma curls her hand around the baby’s back and shoulder. The mother steps back.
“I’m Daisy’s mother,” she says. “Jane.”
She presses her lips together and glances at the kids in the sandbox. Turning to face Emma, her back to the playing children, she closes her eyes and lifts the front of her baggy t-shirt to reveal a row of ugly burn marks on her rib cage.
She lowers her shirt, then whispers, “We need help.” She stares first at Emma, then at Pink Hair. “Please.”
After a few seconds, Pink Hair points to a house at the edge of the park.
“I’m Lamia,” she says. “I live just there. Would you like to come inside?”
Jane swallows, then nods.
Emma moves close to Jane and asks, “Do you want to hold Daisy?”
Jane gathers the baby in, pressing her lips to the top of her head. Her shoulders shake with silent sobs.
Lamia collects one of the children from the sandbox and starts across the grass. She looks over her shoulder and says, “Let’s get you inside and make some calls.”
“Yes,” says Emma reaching out to place a gentle hand on Jane’s shoulder. “Yes, let’s do that.”
A sense of rightness settles over Emma as they walk.
It was not a good day.
But it was a strong day.