The Man in the Station, the Lump in the Box, and the Woman in the Pine Tree's Shade

Submitted into Contest #195 in response to: Write a story about someone who receives — or makes — a life-changing, anonymous donation.... view prompt

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Fiction

Lyle sat in the Thinker’s pose, brooding over the red lump before him.

What brought you here? The question of who seemed less useful, really.

The lump had yet to make a noise, eerily frozen in an expression that seemed to precipitate a sneeze. Yet the vitals were good, and any minute now the lump would be whisked away for professional care.

In this strangest moment, Lyle was alone.


*

Outside, the day was warm for the snow on the ground. The weekend air was only occasionally disturbed by the slushy passage of cars. As the drip and trickle of icemelt multiplied with the hour, a woman stood frozen. She lingered like a thief amidst pine needles. Insulated. Morning hung overhead, but her eyes still could not thaw.


*

Lyle’s radio gave a static crunch and issued a familiar, faceless voice.

“Station Three, status?”

His hand lifted to his mic, his voice answered, and his eyes never left the lump.

It’s like she came back, he thought. A year to the month, and she came back.

It was a frivolous thought, of course. Lyle knew his child would be a year old by now, though he had so quickly forgotten what she looked like. What she would look like now.

Was your father like me?


*

The woman was shielded from the sunlight, and it felt better this way. She consigned herself to the shadows when that black metal door closed. She was herself a shadow. Light would banish her—when she walked away, spotlighted by the sun, she could only return one place.

She would find no solace there.

A shade. A ghost. A statue defaced and devalued. The woman did not move.


*

The lump had closed its mouth and settled into the most innocent of sleep. Lyle felt a basic human draw to the small being. The lump was, after all, an infant. A baby.

In a way, newborns all looked alike. It was red and tight-eyed with peculiar alien features, all oversized head and tiny mouth.

Helpless.


*

The woman’s eyes clouded after staring so intently at the same red bricks for so long. She replayed her actions feverishly. The long walk here. The fluttering resolve to take each step. The fearful approach to the fire station with its waiting black box that reminded her so much of a book return.

Her hands were cold when she opened that hatch. She had delivered the baby into the world only days before. And after leaving her mother's womb, her baby returned to this metal womb to gestate in its loveless warmth for a little longer. Her little girl would be born on the other side to a stranger who never carried her.

This brick building that became her mother could hum no songs, could not share with her foods it disliked but knew would nourish her. It could not feel the quiet, joyful kicks. It would not hold her inside sick with fear of her birth, wishing to keep her in its belly for just a little longer rather than face the realities of her welcome to the world.

Only her mother loved her in these ways.


*

Lyle, transfixed, was startled by the clang of the metal door striking the wall. A medic stepped in with the boisterousness of someone inoculated against tragedy. Lyle blinked, finally looking up from the swaddled infant.

“Someone finally used the Baby Box, huh? What a world.”

Lyle gave a noncommittal “yeah” and watched the medic lightly lay a hand on the baby’s chest. After counting respirations, the young man shifted the blanket aside and checked the pulse in the crook of her arm.

“I really don’t get it. Dropping off your kid that way?” The medic shook his head. “Some things I’ll never understand.”

Lyle felt his old guilt seep up.

“Anyway,” the other man continued. “Thanks for keeping an eye on him.”

“Her,” Lyle interjected. “There was a note—it’s a girl.”

The medic chuckled. “Her, then. Well, guess we’ll get going. See you ‘round.”

Lyle stood quickly and picked up the baby girl.

“I’ll carry her out,” he said.


*

The ambulance backed into the open bay of the station, and the woman glimpsed its doors yawning open. Someone walked through a small door in the side of the garage. The stillness of the day belied the suspense in her gut.

In a near-silent creak, the door swung open again. And the man who stepped out carried a bundle of blankets that cried out into the morning air.

The woman screamed with every organ inside her. The sound bounced back from the ice that still gripped her, reverberating and warring with such violence as she had never known. No noise escaped.

She saw the man pause at the baby’s cry. A voice out of sight struggled to get the man’s attention. After a moment, the fireman shook his head and passed the child to a medic’s waiting arms. He stood with an air of loss that she recognized through her grief.

She had begun to shake. Minutes passed, and the ambulance pulled out into the street. The woman watched the bright striped doors which safeguarded her little girl. It stopped at a stop light, blinker flashing. She felt a growing tension with the distance. The light changed, and the ambulance began to turn.

The woman stepped out from the pine boughs as if pulled behind the vanishing vehicle.

The sunlight hit her face.

Tears broke free. Her breath moved in with a shudder, then burst out in a sob. Her hand half-raised toward her baby as the ambulance disappeared from view.

She wept.


*

Lyle lingered in the bay, alone again.

I gave up my chance already.

He had been afraid, of course. That played a part. Afraid and selfish.

But now he did not know where his daughter was, and he never would.

I gave up my chance.

I gave up…

What if he didn’t give up?

He grabbed his jacket and hurried out to his truck. As Lyle pulled out of the back lot, he spotted someone across the street. A woman with her shoulders drawn forward, despondent. A few pine needles sat unheeded on her shoulders.

He braked hard in the middle of the street, and she turned to look at him.

He met her eyes, and he knew who she was. He swallowed hard and looked away. He made himself look over once more, and he gave a tiny nod to the quiet, crying figure.

Lyle drove away.


*

The woman watched the pickup take the same turn the ambulance had only minutes before. She was surprised how much warmer it was out here on the sidewalk. Her feet turned toward home, such as it was. She pushed up the sleeves of her sweater, uncovering bruises that her daughter would never bear.

She saw something in the fireman’s face. He knew her name.

That meant he knew her daughter’s name.


*

Lyle held the little girl in his arms. Adoption would be a somewhat simpler process than he expected, but it would be some time before she was officially his daughter. He looked into her still-sleeping face and mentally re-read the letter he had found tucked into her blankets.

“Your mother’s name is Daniela,” he whispered to the child he would raise. “She loves you. And she named you Mayra.”

Mayra gave a long, uncoordinated stretch in response.

The fireman smiled.


*

Daniela sat in her bed, anything but certain. She was a mother—but did she still have a daughter? Did she deserve to?

She shook her head. Daniela knew why she had opened that box, knew why she had chosen to surrender the locus of all the love and joy she had in the world. There would be no end to the doubts, either.

She looked to the crucifix on the dresser and said the first of thousands of prayers for her little girl.

Daniela’s eyes had not refrozen. That was good.

She would not raise her daughter.

But Mayra did have a mother. 

April 27, 2023 23:21

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