The guard nodded, radioed the news to someone else, and then told them to go back to their cell. “Someone will come for you, Baill.”
Lexi let herself be led down to her cell. There, she curled up on Tamica’s lower bunk and made it through the rising pain. Tamica stroked her hair and told her silly stories about her life. Lexi tried to listen and be polite, but the pains were sharper and coming faster now.
“I … can’t … take … it. How do women take it?”
She heard her name through this fog of pain; when the cramp ended, she looked up groggily.
Miriam Yungoh, the prison doctor, was there. “I hear there’s a baby who wants to come out and play.”
“Drugs,” Lexi said. “Give me drugs.”
Dr. Yungoh smiled. “How about if I examine you first?”
“Yeah,” Lexi said. “Whatever.”
Lexi hardly paid attention to all the things that happened next. It was probably just as well. There was the pelvic exam that any prisoner walking past the cell could see, the strip search in receiving (to make sure that she wasn’t trying to sneak something out of the prison in her vag**a—ha!), and the reshackling of her wrists and ankles.
She didn’t relax until she was lying in the gurney in the back of an ambulance, shackled to the bed’s metal rails. “Can Tamica come with me? Please? I want her at the hospital,” Lexi said between pains.
No one answered her, and when the next pain hit, she forgot everything else. By the time she got to the hospital, her pains were coming so fast it was like being in the ring with a prizefighter. She was in a private hospital room, with guards stationed both inside and outside the room. She wanted to roll over or walk or even just sit up, but she couldn’t do any of that. She was shackled to the guardrails of the bed on the left side. One ankle and one wrist. And they wouldn’t give her drugs because it was too late for that. Whatever the hell that meant.
Another pain hit. The worst one yet. She screamed out, her belly tightening so hard she thought she was going to die.
When the pain abated, she tried to sit up and then spoke to the guard. “Get a nurse or doctor in here, please. Something’s wrong. I can tell. It hurts too much. Please.” She was panting now, trying not to cry.
“My job isn’t—”
“Please,” Lexi begged. “Please.”
The guard looked at Lexi; her eyes narrowed. Lexi wondered what the woman saw: a murderer chained to a bed, or an eighteen-year-old girl, giving birth to a baby she’d probably never know.
“I’ll check,” the guard said and left the room.
Lexi fell back into the pillows. She tried to be strong, but she had never felt so alone. She needed Aunt Eva here, or Tamica, or Zach or Mia.
Another pain ripped through Lexi; she strained against the restraints, felt the cold metal bite into her wrist and ankle. Then it was over.
Sagging back into the pillows, she exhaled. Her whole body felt wrung out.
She touched her belly. She could feel her baby in there, wriggling, probably trying to find her way out of this pain. “It’s okay, little girl. We’ll be okay.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to imagine the baby inside of her. For months now, as she’d lain in her lonely prison bed, she’d dreamed of this baby, and in her dreams it was always a girl.
When the pain came again, she cried out, certain this time that her stomach was going to split open like that scene in Alien. She was still screaming when the doctor came into the room, with a nurse beside him.
“Chained to the bed? Where are we, medieval France? Uncuff her. Now.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor, but I can’t do that,” the guard said. To her credit, she actually looked sorry.
“Hello, Lexi. I’m Dr. Farst,” he said, coming to her bedside.
“H-hi,” she said. “I think I’m dying. Do they ever rip you in half?”
He smiled. “It just feels that way. I’m going to examine you now.”
He pushed her gown aside and positioned himself between her legs.
“Can you see her yet? Aagh—” Lexi arched up in pain again.
“Okay, Alexa, it looks like someone is ready to be born. When I say push, you bear down as hard as you can.”
Lexi was so tired, she could hardly move. “What does that mean, bear down?”
“Like you’re constipated and trying to go.”
“Okay, Alexa. Push.”
Lexi strained and pushed and screamed. She lost track of how many times the doctor told her to stop and start and stop again. She hurt so badly she could hardly stand it, and she wished someone were beside her, telling her she was okay, that she was doing great. That was how it happened in the movies.
And then a baby cried. “It’s a girl,” the doctor said with a smile.
Lexi had never known before that a heart could take flight, but that was how she felt suddenly; the pain was gone—already forgotten—and angels were lifting her up. She saw the doctor hand the baby—her baby—to the nurse, and she couldn’t help reaching out to hold her. One arm lifted; the other clanged against the restraint.
“Uncuff her wrist,” the doctor said to the guard, pulling off his blue surgical cap. “Now.”
Dr. Farst turned to the guard. “In this room, I’m God. Take off the cuff. Leave the ankle if you have to. That should keep society safe from this teenager.” He walked over to the bed. “You’re young,” he said.
It meant he thought she had lots of time ahead of her, that someday she’d be in a room like this, giving birth to a child that she would bring home and love. That someday she would nurse her own child.
She could have told him that he was wrong, that she wasn’t young anymore and that dreams were ephemeral things, like balloons that, once loosed, disappeared into the sky above you. But he was so nice, and she was tired, and she didn’t want to look truth in the face right now.
The nurse came up beside her, handed Lexi a tiny bundle wrapped in pink.
“I’ll leave you two alone for a minute. I know … there are people waiting.”
There was an awkward moment when truth muscled its way into the room, and then the nurse and doctor left.
Lexi stared down at her baby in awe, mesmerized by her little pink face and her bow-shaped lips, by her muddy blue eyes that seemed to know secrets that Lexi hadn’t yet learned. Lexi reached down and touched a grape-sized fist. “I have so much to say to you, little girl, but you won’t remember it. You won’t remember me. But I’ll remember you.”
Lexi held her daughter close, gave her all the love she had inside of her, hoping to imprint her in a way that would last. “Like geese,” she whispered into the tiny, shell-pink ear, “their babies imprint on the mama in the first sighting and never forget.”
There was a knock at the door. The guard answered, spoke to someone in the hallway outside, and then opened the door. Scot walked in. He was as rumpled as always, in a cheap wool suit and an out-of-date tie, but the look in his eyes was so caring and compassionate that she felt the start of panic. She instinctively tightened her hold on her baby.
“Hey, Lexi,” he said. At the red mark on her wrist, he frowned. “They shackled you? Motherfu—”
“It’s okay,” she said. “Look.”
Scot leaned down. “She’s beautiful, Lexi.” At the words, his face seemed to kind of fall. “It’s time,” he said gently.
“He’s here?” she asked, and even with all the pain that she knew was coming, her heart skipped a beat.
“He’s right outside.”
“Help me sit up, would you, Scot?”
He helped her get positioned, then drew back. “You sure you want to do this?”
“What choice do I have?”
“You don’t have to give up full custody, that’s for sure. When you get out—”
“Look at her,” Lexi said, staring down at this beautiful girl. “She’ll be loved by them. She’ll feel loved. She’ll feel safe. She’ll have all the things I can’t give her. Believe me, Scot, she doesn’t need a mother like me.”
“I don’t agree, but it’s your choice,” Scot said. “I’ll send him in.”
Lexi sat up straighter, and then he was there, in the doorway.
It hurt more than she’d expected, more than the labor she’d just suffered through. He stood tall, bigger than she remembered, his shoulders broader. Wheat-blond hair fell across his eyes, and she remembered how much he used to hate that, how she’d laugh when she pushed it aside to see his eyes as he leaned down to kiss her.
She loved him so much. It wasn’t only in her blood, the way she loved him; it was her blood. She didn’t know if everyone else was right and her love for him would someday begin to fade like an old photograph; how could she know that? She only knew that her love for him was the very best of her and without it her heart would be empty.
He moved closer, looking uncertain.
She was glad her daughter was in her arms, because she would have touched him. She wouldn’t have been able to stop herself.
Up close, she saw the scar along his jawline; the wrinkled skin was the same pink as their baby’s face. Soon, maybe, it would be gone altogether or become too fine to see, but it was there now, a visible reminder of her crime.
“Hi, Zach,” she said, hearing the tremble in her voice.
He drew in a breath, saying her name quietly, and there finally was the heartache. His voice reminded her of nights on the beach, of kisses that went on all night. Of dreams and futures.
“She looks just like Mia,” he said, and, with that, the past was here with them again, crouched alongside this bundled-up bit of the future.
Lexi wanted to apologize, but she held back. There was no point anymore; those days were over. This was about something else. Someone else. “I would name her Grace,” Lexi said, wiping her eyes. “If it was up to me.”
“You’re her mother,” Zach said.
Her mother. Lexi didn’t know what to say to that, so she said nothing.
“I thought you wanted to name … I thought you liked Katya.”
She drew in a breath at that: so, he remembered. It felt like a lifetime ago, that conversation of hope between two kids who thought that love was easy. They’d been on their beach, spinning diaphanous dreams of the future. “My friend … Tamica is a Catholic. She says when God forgives you, he grants you grace.” She looked down at her daughter. “Gracie? Is that you?”
The baby made a mewling sound, and Lexi started to cry. “Don’t cry, baby,” she said, kissing the tiny pink lips.
Then she looked up at Zach. “Tell her I loved her enough to do what was best for her.”
“I’ll bring her to visit—”
“No.” She kissed her daughter one last time, and then slowly, slowly handed her to Zach. “I don’t want her to grow up like I did. Keep her away from me.”