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"They're getting ready to transfer her mother to Duke." Jill punched another few b.u.t.tons on the keyboard. "I don't know if they've decided whether to move the baby with her or send her to the peds unit."
"Prognosis on the mom?" Noelle rested a hand against the counter. She felt a little unsteady on her feet and was looking forward to sitting down in Emerson's room.
Jill shook her head, then winced as though the motion had done nothing to help her migraine. "Doesn't look good right now," she said, "and the dad is deployed, do you believe it? Mom was four weeks early and traveling here on business, so there's no family. We'll call Ellen first thing in the morning unless they take the baby with the mother tonight."
"Good," Noelle said. Ellen was the social worker for the unit. "So which room is Emerson's?"
Jill pointed to the door behind her. "She's sleeping, but I was about to change the baby and give her a bottle. Would you like to?" She looked so hopeful, Noelle laughed.
"You really need to go home to a dark room, don't you?" She smiled with sympathy. She knew all about pain. Her own had eased up nicely. She loved the floaty sensation that now filled her head.
Jill looked at her watch. "Can't wait. Therese'll be here any second."
"I'll take care of the Stiles baby," Noelle said. She rested a hand on Jill's shoulder. "Hope you get out of here soon."
Emerson was sleeping soundly in the softly lit, quiet room. She looked beautiful and Noelle was filled with tenderness as she leaned over to kiss her forehead. "You finally have your baby, Em," she whispered. "Your little girl." She wished she could have been here for her. She hated that Emerson had felt alone and deserted at such a difficult time.
She set the bottle Jill had given her on the small table near the recliner. Then she scrubbed her hands at the sink and moved to the ba.s.sinet.
For a strange moment of deja vu, she felt as though she'd already seen this baby. There was the little pink hat fringed by honey-brown wisps of hair. The delicate facial features. The six and a half beautiful pounds. It took her only a fraction of a second to realize it had been the baby at Jill's station she'd seen a moment ago, not this little one. Only a fraction of a second, but long enough to let her know she was more out of it than she'd thought.
"h.e.l.lo, precious," she whispered, beginning to change the little diaper. The baby-Jenny-began to stir, a small frown on her face, a tiny whine coming from her throat. Noelle's eyes filled and she bit her lip to stop it from trembling.
When Jenny was clean and diapered, Noelle lifted her from the ba.s.sinet, then sat down in the recliner, the baby cradled in her arms. Jenny's eyes were starting to blink open and closed, the frown deepening between her barely-there eyebrows, and her tiny perfect lips parted in the way Noelle knew preceded a good howl of hunger. She teased the baby's lips with the nipple and felt a little surge of pride when Jenny started sucking without much prompting at all. The infant's hand rested against her own, each finger a tiny sculpture in perfection. Noelle bent low to kiss her forehead. She'd held hundreds of babies in her life, and for the first time she whispered the words I love you to one of them.
Anna Washington, D.C.
When the girl showed up in the doorway, I took her in with one glance and that was all that was necessary for my heart to lurch toward her. My body, though, stayed frozen in shock. I stood next to Haley's bed, one hand on her tray table, the other pressed to my chest. Tara moved toward the girl and her mother. She was speaking, words that may as well have been a foreign language. Making introductions that were no more than white noise. Haley grasped my hand where it rested on her table, pressing her fingertips into my wrist and I knew that, like me, she no longer saw Grace and Tara. She didn't see the other woman, either. All either of us could see was the girl.
The white noise of Tara's voice suddenly stopped and she was staring at us.
"Mom," Haley said. "Say something."
"What's going on?" Tara asked.
If Haley and I had seen this girl on the street on one of our trips to Wilmington, we would have chased her for blocks, for miles, until we caught up with her. We'd been looking for her for so long. We would have known we'd found her, just as we knew that now.
"Did the midwife-" I had to clear my throat "-Noelle... Did she deliver you, too?" I asked the girl, although I already knew the answer. The woman in the doorway put an arm around her, tugging her close.
"No," she said. "Jenny was born in the hospital, delivered by an obstetrician."
She was lying. She had to be. My legs were rubbery, but I took two steps toward the night table and picked up the photograph of Haley with the Collier cousins in the Outer Banks. I held it with both hands as if it were very fragile and carried it toward the woman and girl in the doorway.
"This is my sister-in-law and her daughters," I said, holding it toward the woman. "Haley's cousins. Look at them."
I knew what they were seeing in the photograph. Four girls with round dark eyes. Nearly black hair and fair skin. Chins that receded ever so slightly. Noses a hairbreadth too wide to be beautiful. I stepped away from them, back to Haley's side, because I was afraid I would touch the girl. I would try to pull her into my arms. Right now, I had to settle for breathing the air she was in. Finally, I thought. Finally.
Tara and Grace moved next to the woman and Tara touched the frame where it shivered in her hand. "Oh, my G.o.d, Emerson," she said when she saw the picture. "How can this be?"
"Tara," the woman said, as if asking her friend to fix something that had moved entirely out of her control. "It can't be," she said. "It isn't."
I watched all four of them stare at the photograph. I watched as the truth sank in. I held Haley's hand, waiting for the moment I could take my other child, my firstborn daughter, into arms that had ached to hold her for sixteen years. In that girl's beautiful dark eyes, I saw confusion and fear and it broke my heart.
"Jenny," I said. "Is that your name? Did I get it right?" I hadn't really heard the introductions.
The girl slowly raised her gaze from the photograph. "Yes," she whispered.
"Don't be afraid," I said.
Grace looked at her mother. "I'm not...?"
It took Tara a moment to shake her head. "I don't think so." She touched the other woman's shoulder. "Em," she said, "is this possible? What do you remember?"
"I had her in the hospital," the woman said again. "It's impossible. It's ridiculous."
"When is your birthday?" I asked Jenny.
"August 31," she whispered.
My baby, I thought, my eyes filling. She'd lain alone in a hospital for two days with no mother to hold her. No mother to talk to her. She'd been all by herself until the midwife stole her away, quietly, taking all records of her existence with her, erasing her so that I'd never be able to find her again.
"You're my Lily, Jenny. I'm certain of it."
"Stop it!" the woman snapped at me, tugging Jenny close to her, and I knew I'd said too much, too fast, but I hadn't been able to help myself.
The girl pulled free of her mother and fled down the hallway. Grace took off after her. Tara grabbed the woman's arm to stop her from following them. "Let Grace," she said.
The woman looked terrified. "I don't understand what's going on!"
"She's Lily," Haley said. "She's so Lily."
Tara looked at me, her hands wrapped around the woman's forearm. "Let me talk to Emerson," she said.
I didn't want them to leave. I was afraid Lily would vanish once more into thin air. But what could I do?
"All right," I said. Emerson had already turned away, disappearing into the hallway, getting away from me as quickly as she could. "Please don't leave, though," I added, but they were gone and only Haley heard my words.
Noelle Wilmington, North Carolina
She awakened with a great start and couldn't immediately figure out where she was. The odd, dim lighting in the room disoriented her. She blinked hard, trying to focus. The small sink. The ba.s.sinet. She turned her head to the right and saw the bed where Emerson slept. She felt something hard against her thigh through her skirt and glanced down to see a bottle next to her on the seat of the recliner. She'd been feeding the baby. What was her name? Grace? They'd wanted to name her Noelle. No, this baby wasn't Grace. It was Emerson's child. Jennifer. Jenny. She had the vaguest memory of getting up to return the baby to the ba.s.sinet, but the ba.s.sinet was empty. She tried to think. Had Jill come in to take the baby from her arms? She drew in a long slow breath, worried she'd feel dizzy once she got to her feet. She pressed her hands on the seat of the chair to keep her balance, but as she started to stand, her glance fell to the floor at her feet and she saw the baby who had slipped from her tired arms down the silky fabric of her skirt.
She couldn't breathe. She bent over too quickly to reach for the infant and fell from the chair to the floor, landing hard on her hip. Grabbing the baby, she pulled her onto her lap but knew right away she was too late. Too impossibly late. The baby's head was at an unnatural angle, her lips already blue and lifeless.
Noelle stared at the infant, eyes wide, horror filling her chest. You killed her, you killed her, you killed her! Her hands trembled as she attempted to straighten the little head on the broken neck. She leaned over to try to breathe life into the purplish lips and tiny nose, where a trickle of blood had already crusted.
She pulled herself to her feet, one hand on the edge of the sink. She felt as though she was wailing, but the sound was caught inside her chest and couldn't come out. She picked up the baby and placed her in the ba.s.sinet, then stood stock-still, trying to clear her head. Trying to think.
The baby in the nurses' station. The twin to this one. The one with the dying mother. The missing father.
How would she get Jill away? Quietly, she crossed the room and opened the door to the nurses' station to find it empty. Jill wasn't there, but the baby was still in the ba.s.sinet. Brown hair. Six and a half pounds. No time to waste. No time to think.
Noelle lifted the infant into her arms. She grabbed the thin chart attached to the ba.s.sinet and slipped back into Emerson's room. Her hands shook wildly as she placed the motherless baby next to Emerson's child in the ba.s.sinet. Then she wrapped a flannel blanket around the lifeless infant, Emerson's little Jenny, and slipped her gently into her huge leather purse.
The wristbands! She reached into her purse and worked the band from the baby's wrist, then exchanged it for the one worn by the infant in the ba.s.sinet, but not before she noticed the name: KNIGHTLY, baby girl. She dropped that baby's record and wristband into her purse. She'd burn the records. She could already picture the fire in her fireplace.
She stole out of the hospital, pa.s.sing a couple of nurses and one obstetrician she knew, but they barely acknowledged her as they raced down the hall. The unit was an uncalm place tonight. As uncalm as she felt inside. As uncalm as she would feel for the rest of her life.
It was three-thirty in the morning by the time she got home and by then she was operating on sheer adrenaline. Almost without thinking, she found the shovel in her shed. She selected the corner of her yard farthest from the house and, in the darkness, she dug and dug and dug, the earth soft from August rains. She made the hole deep and narrow. She wrapped the baby in her favorite skirt, because it was beautiful and because she needed to sacrifice something she loved. She lay flat on the ground and carefully lowered the baby deep into the ground, then she shoveled the earth over her, finally letting her tears come.
When she was finished she sat on the ground above the baby, above Emerson's Jenny, not moving even when a misty rain started to fall. She sat there until the sky began to lighten with strands of pink and lemon and lavender, like a bouquet of flowers for a baby girl. That was what she would do this morning, she thought. She'd go to the garden shop and ask them what plants would bloom into a lush blanket of pastel blossoms that even a stranger would not be able to look at without thinking, This is a garden that's filled with love.
Tara Washington, D.C.
We found Grace and Jenny in the little room at the end of the hall. They sat on the floor, leaning against one of the love seats and my daughter-my daughter, I was sure of it-had her arm around her best friend. They looked up when Emerson and I walked into the room.
"Mom," Jenny said. "Please tell me I'm not her daughter! Just because I look like those girls doesn't mean anything."
Emerson sank onto the love seat. Every trace of color had left her face. She smoothed her hand over Jenny's head, gently squeezing a fistful of her hair as if she could hold on to her that way. "I don't understand how you possibly could be her daughter," she said. "Noelle had nothing to do with your birth."
I saw the doubt in Emerson's eyes as she spoke. We'd both seen the picture of those girls. You could exchange Jenny for one of them in the photograph and no one would know the difference.
"The letter Noelle wrote to Anna," I said. "It didn't say where she was when she dropped the baby, did it?"
Emerson jerked her head toward me, a look of betrayal on her face. "Do you actually think Jenny could be the one?" she nearly barked at me. "Tell me how that could possibly have happened."
I sat down on the love seat opposite them, wondering how much to say. How to say it all without being cruel because what happened now seemed so clear in my mind. "Noelle was upset you were alone when you were in labor." I felt all their eyes on me. "Ted was trying to get a plane home and Noelle was with Sam and me, remember? But once Grace was born, she had a doula come over so she could go see you at the hospital."
"She never came to the hospital," Emerson argued.
I looked down at my lap, where I was twisting my wedding ring on my finger. "That's what she told us later," I said quietly. I lifted my gaze to Emerson again. "Of course, that's what she'd tell us-that she never made it there. That she was so tired, she just went home and went to sleep. Didn't that seem unbelievable at the time, Em? That she wouldn't come see you?"
Emerson looked away from me. In her hand, she still held a fistful of Jenny's hair.
"Mom." Jenny put her hands over her ears as though she could somehow block out what was happening. "I can't stand this!"
I felt such relief to know that Grace and I were free from the nightmare, yet I was now reliving the emotions of this long day again, reliving them through the friend I loved so much. Tell Jenny she'll always be yours, I thought, leaning forward, and Emerson seemed to get my unspoken message.
"I don't know what's going on, Jenny," she said. "We'll figure it out. But I don't care who gave birth to you, your dad and I raised you and you're our daughter."