“You need to trust somebody sometime, Sarah,” they said, but I didn’t. I’ve never needed anything but children around me. I take care of them. It’s what I do.
The babies with their round cheeks and dimpled knuckles fill my living room. Crib after crib, they overspill into the hallway, my bedroom, the den, but not into my kitchen or bathroom. There is no logic in housing them with scalding water and toilet bowls deep enough for drowning. There is only one of me, and they are only as safe as I can manage on my own. I cannot stand guard over each of them. They are here for their own good.
They are cleaned and fed on an unwavering schedule. Only a caregiver with my training could fit diapers around their stiff little legs. They are effigies of infants, quiet and still. I try to forget the hospital nursery, where the air moved with the sighs of sleeping babies, all of them in my care, all of them mine.
These children are mine, too, bought and paid for. Yes, I must buy my children these days, but there is no shortage of infants at yard sales. Most of them are plastic, but I once found a china doll, the blush on her cheeks worn away by generations of kisses. Her wig was crafted of human hair, its blond ringlets only slightly mussed. She sleeps with me and I love her, but I miss the thrashing limbs and wide-open mouth of a living infant in full squall.
They needed me, those human infants, and I wager that they need me still. I was never fooled by a weeping mother explaining that she only turned her back long enough for the baby to fall. Infants came to us with bruised cheeks, snapped fingers, cracked skulls, and stories. All pediatric wards echo with stories crafted to portray fractured bones as mere misunderstandings, but only I disbelieved them. Time and again, I let parents take their patched-up babies home, solely because that day’s doctor said I should.
“You have to trust somebody sometime, Sarah,” they said, using their rubber-gloved hands to pat my shoulder, the one that was attached to the arm that was attached to the hand that needed to let go of someone else’s child.
I was certain that they were wrong. I didn’t have to trust anybody, ever. I was dead sure that it was possible to slog through a lifetime without trusting anyone, especially not the owner of the thumbprint.
The only thing making that last day different from any other was the blue thumbprint. It was hidden on the soft inner arm of a twelve-pound boy with a bruised kidney and a mother who had a perfectly plausible story of how it got that way. She also had a thumb that fit the thumbprint.
When the attending physician sent him home with her, I had no choice but to follow. You would have done the same. A nursing license and an aggravated assault charge are mutually incompatible. The restraining order only draws a bright red line under my unemployability. And so I am here, tending the children available to me. If one of them, just one, were to break into that familiar and lovely full-throated baby wail, I could be satisfied. If any of their vinyl bellies could be made to feel like yielding baby flesh, my mind could rest. As it is, that restless mind retraces its steps, conjuring up the sidewalks between here and that last child.
Is the thumbprint still there? Are there more?
If these plastic babies would open their mouths and cry, the sound would fill my mind and there would be no room left for thoughts of retribution.
Mary Anna Evans lives in Camden, New Jersey, where she spends her time writing, teaching, and pursuing an MFA in fiction. Some of her recent work can be read online at The Atlantic, Spartan, and Saw Palm. Her crime fiction has won the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Mississippi Author Award, and Florida Book Awards medals in both popular and general fiction. She is a former writer-in-residence for The Studios of Key West. A licensed chemical engineer, she combined her love for both words and numbers in her co-written book, Mathematical Literacy in the Middle and Secondary Grades. Mary Anna is at work on a novel about four sisters rebuilding their lives in the aftermath of war.