Carrie decides to steal the baby the first time she holds him, his soft, bare head nestled under her chin smelling of soap and sour milk. He is nearly two weeks old, small, still below birth weight and not growing well. Nutrition has ordered him special formula, but it hasn’t helped. She can tell he’s hungry by the way he turns his head side to side, searching. He cries, and Carrie feels a pang in her chest, a yearning that is nearly overwhelming.
“I could feed him,” Carrie offers.
His nurse, Allana, looks up from weighing a diaper. “No,” she says. “That’s okay. You have things to do.”
“Really, it’s fine,” Carrie tells her. “Everything’s under control for once. It’s a quiet day.”
“What would that be like, I wonder?” Allana muses. She is at least ten years older than Carrie and has worked at the hospital fifteen years.
“I’m not supposed to say that out loud. I wasn’t thinking,” Carrie apologizes.
“What? Quiet? That’s just a load of bunk. Besides, I don’t think it applies to social workers. Just nurses.”
“Sure,” Allana says grudgingly. “Them, too.”
Allana shakes a two-ounce bottle of high-calorie formula and twists it open with a small pop, then effortlessly fits a disposable nipple into place one-handed.
“Sit there,” she instructs. Carrie sits. “Now, just give me a second to score him.”
Allana tallies the evidence of the infant’s withdrawal, writes the total on her forearm in pen.
“He can eat,” Allana tells Carrie, “while I get his meds.”
Alone, Carrie presses her face to the infant’s skull and inhales. He is not completely bald. She skims the fuzz with her lips, breathes in again. There are animals that eat their young, Carrie thinks. For the first time, she understands it. She would consume him entirely, if she could, his fists, his bony legs. She would swallow him whole.
“What’s his name?” Carrie asks when Allana returns with a small syringe.
Allana shrugs. “He doesn’t have one. She hasn’t named him yet.”
Carrie looks at the infant in her arms. She decides to call him Finn, after the Finnegan Abstinence Score the doctors and nurses use to determine if they can safely wean his morphine dose. It’s better, she reasons, than having no name at all.
* * *
“I can’t stay tonight,” the boy’s mother says, leaning over the nurse’s station, dyed black hair brushing against the divider. “I have court early tomorrow.”
His nurse sighs. It is not Allana today, who wouldn’t have hesitated to say what she was really thinking, but one of the younger girls, just out of college. Kristin, maybe. Carrie looks at her badge, but it has flipped backward. She digs deep, trying to remember. Krystal, Krystal with a K.
“Okay. But we need you to stay at least one full night before he can be discharged. I know it seems like he’s been here forever, but you’re getting close. This is his off dose. If he does well today, we’ll stop the morphine tomorrow. Think about when you can stay over, so there’s no hold up getting home.”
Carrie watches the woman shuffle toward the elevator, the collar of her puffy coat already turned up against the cold.
“Did her pupils look big to you?” she asks hopefully.
Krystal shakes her head. “Not really. No.”
“What was that smell?”
“It wasn’t pot,” Krystal says with the air of someone who’s been invited to those sorts of parties more recently than Carrie. “Just cigarettes.”
Carries sighs. “I’ll call DCF to update them he’s almost ready. His mother’s been cleared to retain custody. They did their home visit last week.”
Krystal half-turns her chair to look at Carrie. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
Shrugging. “She’s not ready.”
The nurse cannot be more than twenty-two or -three, but she shakes her head sagely, swivels to her computer. “No one ever is.”
* * *
Carrie plans to take Finn the night his mother stays in the hospital, so it will be clear the woman is at least partly to blame. There are security cameras, of course, but Carrie knows how to avoid them, how to get on and off the floor without being seen or scanning her badge. The wards empty out after eight, when visiting hours end. Night shift staffing is sparse. And Finn’s room is in the quiet part of the hall. She can sneak in and out, Carrie is almost certain, if she times it right.
Just after his midnight vitals offers the best window. It’s possible no one will even realize he’s gone until four. The methadone has likely made Finn’s mother a heavy sleeper, and Carrie is not worried she will wake the woman. She’s far more concerned Finn will start crying when she slips him into her bag.
Carrie goes to Target and buys diapers, bottles, a tin of powdered formula. She is careful to pay cash.
* * *
The following day, the boy is named Albert, after his grandfather, who died in Iraq.
“It took a while for his dad to come around,” his mother tells Carrie. She unfolds a fresh diaper. “He was set on Stannis, from Game of Thrones. But we couldn’t have that, now, could we?”
She wipes Albert’s bum and kisses his bare belly with a casual familiarity that makes Carrie flinch.
“Does he look like his dad?” Carrie asks, her voice shaking. She already knows the answer.
The woman laughs. “It’s pretty freaky. But my dad, Albert, he’s in there, too.”
Carrie looks at the infant’s snub nose and pursed lips. There is an entire family history written on his face, but it does not belong to her and neither does he. She will donate the formula and diapers to the women’s shelter.
It takes some time for her to speak. “Home the day after tomorrow, right? Congratulations.”
“I’m not ready,” Finn’s mother confesses softly.
In his crib, Albert stirs, and Carrie steps backward through the door. “No one ever is.”
by Meghan MacLean Weir
From: Flash Fiction Online