Anyway, I figured I would share it here. I'm not usually one for short stories. I typically write full novels. This one just...had to be written. Readers should know that it is not heavily edited and it is religious in tone. Hope you enjoy.
Samarah tilts her face upward as tiny flakes flutter all around her. A flurry of nervousness invades her chest. She has never felt so cold and alone as she does in this moment. This is what it’s supposed to feel like, to experience the emotions. Isn’t it?
“You volunteered, remember?” she whispers. Volunteered or not, she’s now unsure if she’s fit for this. The snow picks up and an icy blast of bitter wind shoves her square in the back, forcing her to take a step forward.
“Okay, okay. Thanks for the push.” Samarah takes a deep breath. “I’ll get through this.”
A tiny whimper catches her attention. She looks down at the child who’s nestled against her chest. A small part of the infant’s face is visible beneath her coat. She smiles. This is why she volunteered: to hold a baby, to experience the warmth, to smell the sweet smell that only babies have. From afar, she’s watched many mothers smell and kiss the tops of their baby’s head and wondered what it would be like. Intoxicating is the word that jumps into her mind as she touches her nose to the top of the infant’s head and inhales slowly. It’s her favorite scent that she didn’t know she wanted. A pang of sadness rocks her when she realizes she won’t be allowed to remember the experience later. It’s part of the deal in case of failure, but something this real never goes away. Not all of it.
Looking up at the sky again, Samarah pleads for the acknowledgment that this moment will remain with her forever and for a sign that the snow will stop. It’s unbearably cold. How can anyone handle these temperatures, let alone a child?
She pulls the edges of her coat a little higher to block the bite of the wind and the baby settles. “Don’t worry, I’ve got you,” she whispers, and plants a quick kiss into charcoal hair. Samarah wishes she knew where she was supposed to go.
The city block bustles with people darting in and out of shops to avoid the cold. The holidays are always like this in New York. A scene once enjoyed at a distance is somehow more disjointed and overwhelming at ground level.
Christmas is mere days away. Chaotic excitement mingles with the stress of finding just the right gift. It wafts in the air like the sweet smell of cinnamon drifting tantalizingly from Sage Bakery three doors up. The baker, Mr. Lethler, always leaves the door open a crack in the week leading up to Christmas.
Samarah shakes her head and chuckles. Doesn’t he know he’ll spend just as much on the heating bill as he will make in sales if he leaves the door open like that? He never could resist, especially when there’s a potential profit to make. This year, his eighteen-year-old daughter, Hannah, goes off to college in California. Mr. Lethler’s new concern is about the cost of books and housing and how he and his wife will handle the separation. The tears he keeps at bay each night when he looks upon Hannah’s smiling face is heart wrenching.
“Oh, Mr. Lethler, you’ll visit often. It will be difficult, but you will all get through it. I should tell him that,” Samarah says, bracing the cold and heading toward the bakery. She elbows the door, but maneuvering is a little trickier with a sleeping baby snuggled against her chest. She isn’t quite strong enough to muscle the heavy door open. She holds the child tighter, then pushes again with all her might but to no avail.
Samarah looks off into the distance, “Do you not want me to intrude? I just want to see up close. It won’t take long. Besides, it’s freezing,” Samarah mutters and tries the door again.
A young girl with tight golden curls held together with a prayer and a pink polka-dot ribbon bludgeons the door out of the way so Samarah can step in. The two exchange a smile.
“Thank you, Lisa,” Samarah says to the young girl.
The small bakery is packed. Samarah can barely hear her own thoughts over the din of small talk and the deafening wail of Lisa’s mother, who’s shoving her way past an elderly couple debating the merits of bear claws verses snickerdoodles on Santa’s plate this year. The mother grabs Lisa and pulls her a safe distance away from Samarah. Other confused patrons are trying to make sense of the scene. The instant they recognize Samarah their faces turn to disgust.
“What’s going on here?” Mr. Lethler stands on his toes to see over the crowd. “Get out of my bakery, ya bum! Paying customers only,” he barks.
The door bangs open loudly behind Samarah. She jumps and clutches the baby closer to her chest.
“Sorry about that!” a customer entering the shop yells and struggles valiantly to pull the door shut behind him.
An icy air swirls through the bakery. Some people wrap their scarves and jackets tighter around themselves. The sleeping baby lets out a mournful cry and squirms without bothering to open its eyes and Samarah quickly leaves the shop.
“Bum? I’m a bum?”
It takes some rocking and walking and bouncing and snuggling to quiet the baby and her own racing heartbeat. She creeps past a storefront window and gasps at her reflection. Disheveled, dirty hair. Sallow, sunken cheekbones pressed into the tattered bits of a faux fur-lined hood.
“I’m a homeless bum. How ironic,” she mumbles, unable to keep a bitter sarcasm from taking hold.
The baby stirs and she bounces to lull it back to sleep. “Shhhh, shhhh. I’ve got you,” she coos. This time the words are more for her own consolation than for the baby. Samarah certainly didn’t expect that type of reaction in the bakery. People can be cruel, but she’s never had to experience it firsthand. They were so quick to send her away. The way they looked at her, as if she were nothing, as if she wasn’t worth the dirt on their boots. Samarah gently rubs the child’s head and tries to justify what she’s supposed to do. Tears burn her eyes and she shivers from the cold. “Will you grow up to act like that mother? Or to say things like that baker? Is this what doubt feels like? I don’t care for it,” she tells the sleeping baby.
Mrs. Parson, an elderly woman dressed in a knee-length red coat, approaches with a sour look on her face. Samarah takes a step backward.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Mrs. Parson snaps. “Dragging that little one out in all this! Now, maybe it isn’t my place to say, but you people just don’t know when to help yourselves. At least take care of that baby!” She admonishes with a shake of her head, then hands Samarah a bulging brown bag of delicious smelling food from the bakery. “There’s a shelter a few blocks down on the right. Promise me you’ll go? If you hurry you might make it before it fills up for the night.”
Dipping her head, Samarah smiles warmly. There’s no use in arguing with Mrs. Parson. She’s a middle-school English teacher at Bronson around the corner. It’s a rough school, but she loves her kids and a good fight. She’s seventy-eight and knows she should retire. The school board has been pushing her out the door for years, but she just won’t give it up. What’s more important than helping kids learn to read and find the love of literature? Samarah knows she’ll keep on fighting retirement and for city kids’ right to a fair education until she no longer can.
“Thank you, Mrs. Parson. I’m a big fan of the work you do.”
“Now how in the world . . .”
“Mrs. Parson!” A throng of middle schoolers enjoying the snow and the holiday break emerge from an alley and swallow the old lady with hugs and squeals of delight at seeing their favorite teacher shopping in their neighborhood.
“I wouldn’t have told her, you know,” Samarah whispers to the baby.
Emboldened by the kind gesture and confident that Mrs. Parson’s directive is a sign, Samarah turns and heads in the direction of the shelter.
The sun is beginning to set when she reaches the shelter. A man, dressed in raggedy clothing and skin that looks raw and irritated from braving the elements daily, limps away from the entrance.
“Mr. Anderson?” Samarah gasps. She hardly recognizes him beneath the layer of dirt and the stench of frostbitten toes long gone gangrenous. He doesn’t look the part of a seasoned decorated soldier anymore. When was the last time she looked in on Mr. Anderson? He had to have been in his thirties, healthy and fit. His daughter was just turning three and he was being deployed for the final time. It was such a short time ago. This can’t be the same man.
“Do I know you?” he asks, then quickly shakes his head, dismissing her. “Don’t bother. Shelter’s full and they aren’t taking anyone else. They’re all full . . . the shelter on Forty-Eighth, the on Lafayette, and the one on Fulton,” he says with an exasperated sigh. “This’ll be my night. My bones can’t take more walking.”
“Don’t say such things. I’m sure everything will work out. You can come in with me.”
Mr. Anderson raises his eyebrows and watches her approach the door. She tucks the bakery bag under one arm, adjusts the sleeping baby, and gives the door a hearty knock. No one answers.
“Told you. This one’s full.”
Samarah knocks again, harder this time. Desperation sinks its tiny fearful teeth into her bones when no one answers.
“You’re wasting your time,” says Mr. Anderson.
“If the building is full, why is no one answering?”
“They don’t answer when it’s full. Least that’s the way it is here. That way they don’t have to deal with the guilt of turning people away I guess.” He waves a fist at the door and stalks off into the snowy night.
“But wait!” Samarah calls, and follows him. “Where do people go when the shelters are full? What do people do?”
Mr. Anderson shrugs. “Pray? That doesn’t do much good. No one answers there either.” He looks up at the sky and frowns.
Samarah’s heart sinks into her toes. “He won’t abandon us.”
“Ha! That’s a good one.” Mr. Anderson laughs.
Samarah stares at him, shocked. “You must not be doing it right.”
“Doing what right?”
“Praying. What do you pray for, Mr. Anderson?”
“You mean today? Right now?” he asks incredulously. “How about some food and a place to sleep? You’re a crazy lady. What does anyone else in our circumstances pray for besides just the damn basics?”
Samarah flinches at his tone and the bakery bag tucked under her arm falls to the ground. She stoops down, carefully cradling the baby, and picks it up. By the time she stands, Mr. Anderson is limping away.
“Wait!” she calls after him.
“Oh, come on, you crazy lady! Leave a dying man alone, will you?”
“Here,” she says, and thrusts the bag at him.
The man looks shocked and then suspicious.
“Take it,” she insists. “It’s of no use to me. Take it.”
“Lady, you really are crazy.” Mr. Anderson takes the bag and Samarah walks away with a smile on her face.
“Go to the ER!” Mr. Anderson calls after her.
Samarah turns slightly.
“It’s the last place any of us go when the shelters are full and it’s this cold outside. Bellevue’s not far from here. You don’t want that kid getting sick.” He points and gives her brief directions.
“Thank you, Mr. Anderson. Won’t you join me?”
“Told you, this is my last night . . . and my last meal.” He holds up the bakery bag, examining the logo in the light of the streetlamps, and smiles before walking away.
Samarah watches as he digs a glazed bear claw out of the bag and trudges away through the snow. Each streetlamp he passes flickers off for a second as if mourning his passing. Distraught at his blunt acceptance of this existence, she sends up a prayer for him.
It’s a long walk to the hospital in the bitter cold. Her face is frozen. Her fingers are numb. The snow, now ankle deep, has long since soaked through her sneakers, freezing her feet. By the time she nears the entrance to the emergency room, she’s beyond tired and weary. It’s one thing to be here to have a job to do; it’s another thing to be homeless and placed in these circumstances to do it. Another blast of arctic air freezes her bones, making her body quake, and she loses what little composure she had left.
“Don’t you care about us? Don’t you care about this child? Does it really need to be this cold?” She zips her jacket over the infant’s head and hopes she’s doing enough to keep the baby nestled against her chest warm.
Suddenly, a maniac driver barrels past her and sprays slushy ice water all over the front of Samarah’s coat. Mercifully the child stays dry and keeps sleeping. She looks down at herself. Disgusted, she sweeps frozen chunks off her face and fights the urge to curse. It hasn’t been twenty-four hours and already she’s ready to throw in the towel.
“Here.” A young woman approaches and hands her a packet of tissues.
Samarah takes a deep breath and accepts them. “It’s okay. I’m sure they were desperate,” she says sarcastically without looking up.
“Looks like it.”
The young woman’s sad tone causes Samarah to glance up. A desperate elderly man is yanking an unconscious woman from the backseat of his car. He’s yelling wildly, something about a heart attack. Medical personnel are rushing out to help him. Samarah’s anger melts away. The longer she watches the scene, the more annoyed with herself she becomes. So what if her coat is drenched? The elderly man is crying, his movements jerky and frail as he attempts to help the woman. In a matter of minutes, she’s lost all sense of compassion and humility. She realizes she didn’t even thank the woman for the tissues.
“Thank you for the tissues,” she says, and turns to the young woman. She searches her memory for the woman’s name but she can’t seem to remember it. That’s odd. I always know who everyone is . . . The young woman doesn’t seem to hear her as she stares at the vacant car idling at the entrance to the ER. The car engine groans, stutters, and dies.
With a nervous gulp, Samarah wads up the tissues she’s used to dry her face and stuffs them into her coat pocket. They immediately fall out the bottom through a giant hole. “Great. Just great,” she mutters.
“Why are you here?” the young woman asks suddenly.
“That’s a really good question. Why am I here? Give me a sign,” Samarah huffs.
The chopping sound of medivac helicopter blades cut the snowy air above them, drowning out the last of her words, and a blinding ray of light from the chopper’s search lamp illuminates the young woman’s face for a moment.
“Well, okay then,” Samarah says quietly. “Why don’t I know you?”
“Pardon me?” The young woman rubs her eyes, trying to get them to readjust after being blinded by the light.
“Nothing. Uh, why are you here?”
The young woman frowns. “I don’t know. I don’t even know why I’m talking to you. If my husband were here . . . I mean, I don’t normally talk to . . . people like you . . .” She looks away.
Samarah huffs and turns away. “People like me? If this is the woman I don’t see how she’s wor—”
“Do you need a place to stay?” the woman blurts out, then quickly covers her mouth with her hands.
The young woman looks dazed. She places the back of her hand to her forehead as if trying to remember something important. “I don’t know why I’m here,” she admits. “I’ve gotten out of bed every night at this exact time for the last three weeks and had to come here . . . right here. Again and again and again. My therapist . . .” She pauses for a moment. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I'm telling you this.”
“Yes. We’d like a place to stay for the night,” Samarah says.
The young woman looks suddenly worried. It’s clear she didn’t intend to extend an invitation. “We?”
Samarah unzips the smallest portion of her coat just enough to see perfect wisps of charcoal hair pop out, standing on end with static electricity.
“Good gracious,” the young woman exclaims. Distracted by her nightly excursions, she didn’t notice the homeless woman was carrying a baby. The poor thing, snuggled against her chest in a frayed makeshift sling, is somehow snoozing happily despite the wretched cold. She knows she can’t possibly leave the two out on the streets in this awful weather, but who just invites a stranger into their home? Her husband would never approve. What if she steals things from the house? What if she tries to kill her while they are sleeping?
Terrible thoughts swirl through the young woman’s head, but one tiny, disgruntled coo from the infant as the homeless woman tucks the baby back into her coat has her gesturing for them to follow her. “It means more walking, and I’m sure you are completely frozen—”
“A walk is fine,” Samarah says quickly. After braving the elements for this long she doesn’t want to risk the woman changing her mind.
They walk in silence. Samarah follows just a pace behind, doing her best to step into the young woman’s boot prints. It’s easier traveling with someone else cutting a path. For a second, Samarah allows herself to relax. New York, supposedly the city that never sleeps, is somehow subdued now. Maybe it’s the snow coming down in relentless buckets that’s chased everyone inside. A few cars sputter and slide through treacherous driving conditions, but the people are gone. No more last-minute shoppers rushing to and fro. Stores are closing early. The laughter of children frolicking through freshly plowed snowbanks is gone. She should feel lonely, but having one other person with them makes all the difference. Samarah allows herself one precious minute to enjoy the snow: the sound it makes as it crunches under her sodden sneakers, the tapping of the flakes on metal streetlamps. She sticks out her tongue like she’s seen so many youngsters do and catches the frozen bits in her mouth. Despite how cold she is, this is nice and she can’t help but smile.
“What are you doing?” the young woman asks.
“Just feeling,” Samarah admits quietly.
The young woman frowns and pauses. Samarah notices the young woman’s growing apprehension in the hard lines around her mouth, and she fears she might change her mind. Samarah shifts the weight of the baby in hopes that will remind the woman why she’s so apt to help the two of them.
It works. The young woman’s facial expression shifts from fear to compassion. “Come on. We’re nearly there.”
Samarah nods and follows the woman one more block, then up a steep set of slippery stone steps into a towering brownstone building. The young woman uses the toe of one boot to pry the other from her foot and repeats the process until both feet are free. She gestures for Samarah to do the same.
Samarah shrugs off the layer of snow on her jacket and follows the young woman into a huge family room. Despite the warmth emanating from old-fashioned standing radiators, the room is cold and uninviting. The young woman doesn’t bother to switch on a light; she simply shuffles to a large couch that’s pushed against an enormous bay window and flops down. Samarah doesn’t know what to do. Should she sit? Would this woman be upset if she reached her hand mere inches to her left and switched on the light? Samarah waits a moment for an indication about what to do. After an uncomfortable silence, Samarah shuffles toward the couch and sits down beside the woman.
The young woman watches Samarah approach, never taking her eyes from the telltale lump of baby still hidden protectively beneath Samarah’s coat. Even in the dark, Samarah can see the sadness on her face.
“Tell me your name,” Samarah says as she grabs a hunk of heavy fabric shrouding the windows and pulls it to the side. Ambient light from the streetlamps bathes the room in an eerie glow.
The young woman sweeps a gray knitted cap from her head revealing dark ebony hair. She lets the hat, snow chunks and all, fall to the floor. “Kaylah,” she says.
“Ah, beloved,” Samarah says with a smile.
Samarah unzips her coat a little. “Your name means ‘beloved.’”
“Hmmm,” Kaylah says, pursing her lips. She reaches a hand out for Samarah’s jacket.
Samarah reluctantly unzips the rest of the way out of her coat. She’s not sure she wants to give up the added warmth that the extra layer provides. She’s just beginning to become comfortably warm as her fingers and toes thaw. As soon as she takes off her coat, she realizes that the only thing separating pink baby skin from the rest of the world is a dingy, tattered sling wrapped around her upper torso.
“My name is, Samarah. It means, watched by God,” she offers.
Kaylah takes Samarah’s coat and watches longingly as she rubs warmth into the baby’s arms and kisses the top of his head. Then she stalks to the hall closet to hang their coats. When she returns, she makes a point of pulling the curtains closed again, darkening the room.
Samarah doesn’t say anything or try to open the curtains. She tries not to watch Kaylah stare at the baby in the dark, but she’s becoming more and more uncomfortable.
“Are you okay?” Samarah asks finally.
“I haven’t been okay for a long time,” Kaylah admits without taking her eyes from the infant.
The mood is turning sourer by the second and fear begins to chill Samarah like the cold, snowy night outside. Her heart races as she worries about Kaylah’s fixation on the child, and she wonders if she will turn violent. Maybe she should be looking for a way out.
“May I use your bathroom?” Samarah asks.
Kaylah nods and points down the hall past the kitchen. “Third door on the left.”
Samarah moves quickly. She reaches the bathroom and is suddenly aware that if she has to leave in a hurry she can’t. She’ll have to go past Kaylah, as her coat and shoes are near the front entrance.
“Why would you put me in this position? Haven’t we been through enough? Now we’ll have to go outside without shoes and a coat?” Samarah asks quietly. She frantically flicks on the bathroom light.
The white bathroom is simple and sparsely decorated—just two green towels hanging on the wall and a damp white washcloth thrown haphazardly on the sink. There isn’t an exit or a window large enough for her to escape. She pulls the shower curtain aside in hopes that maybe a window or a door is hidden behind it. There’s nothing but some soap and a bathrobe hanging on a plastic hook at the back of the shower stall.
She’s about to close the curtain, but the bathrobe holds her attention. It’s a child’s bathrobe.
Samarah pulls the neon green bathrobe from the hook. There’s a yellow ridge of soft spikes that resemble the back of a dragon. She holds it next to the sleeping infant. The top of the bathrobe has a rounded top that would fit his head just perfectly. Samarah can’t help herself; she places the hood on the baby’s head. The child yawns and stirs, so Samarah carefully places the robe back on the hook.
Before leaving the bathroom, Samarah flushes the toilet even though she never intended to use it. She runs the water in the sink to wash her hands, wishing she could take a shower. Layers of grime from her hands swirl around the sink basin and disappear down the drain. She washes her face and finds a pale person with high cheekbones accentuated by blue eyes and a lovely smile staring back at her beneath all the filth. It’s a shame all people have seen so far is a dirty homeless woman.
Samarah switches off the bathroom light and heads down the hallway to where Kaylah is waiting. She doesn’t get far before something else catches her attention. The yellow glow of a star-shaped nightlight beckons her into the bedroom beside the bathroom. She knows she shouldn’t intrude, but she can’t seem to help herself.
When she presses the bedroom light switch, the room is lit with dozens of colorful stars dancing on the ceiling and across cream-colored walls. A lovely chocolate brown crib nestled against the far wall is guarded beneath the watchful gaze of a sleepy-eyed dragon perched in a painted tree mural. The dragon is holding a book and painted words across the top of the tree say, “Once upon a time there was a little prince . . .”
A deep sadness overwhelms Samarah as she gazes at the empty crib, painstakingly made with soft color-coordinated fabrics. Everything in the room is organized and pristine except when she looks closer she notices a thick layer of dust on every surface. Walking across the room to the crib, she brushes a finger over the top rail, clearing the dust. She wonders how long the crib has been empty. Instinctively, she rocks the sleeping infant even though he’s not making any noise and backs out of the room. She switches off the light and heads back into the family room to find Kaylah curled on the couch with her arms wrapped around her knees, tracing the floral outlines on the closed curtains with her eyes.
Samarah turns on the light and Kaylah jumps, covering her eyes. The baby twists its head deeper into her chest to block the sudden brightness.
“Hey!” Kaylah starts.
“I can’t begin to fathom the sadness you must feel,” Samarah says, stroking the back of the infant’s head.
“What are you talking about?”
“The crib. How long has it been empty?”
All of the color drains from Kaylah’s face and a torrent of emotions twist her features. “How dare you snoop through my home? What right do you have to assume you know anything about. . . what are you doing?”
Samarah starts to carefully undo the sling holding the baby to her chest. “Perhaps you would like to hold the baby?” Samarah asks.
This stops Kaylah in her tracks.
“Maybe you could wrap him in a blanket too? I don’t have anything for him to wear besides his diaper.”
“I . . . yes . . . I have a blanket.” Kaylah flits frantically around the living room searching for a blanket. Samarah’s offer has taken her off guard and it takes her a moment to realize there’s a blanket draped over the back of each couch in the room.
Coming to her senses, she snatches a white-and-blue handwoven blanket off the couch beside her. The familiar scent of baby powder hits her square in the face along with a wave of agony. Her mother knit this blanket for her grandson before she passed. The yarn has somehow managed to hold onto the precious smell of infant even after several months of not swaddling a baby.
Kaylah hands Samarah the blanket, and Samarah wraps it around the infant. She holds the baby out in front of her for Kaylah to take even though she wants nothing more than to do just the opposite. This is where the baby should be, close and safe against her chest, not in the arms of a stranger who hides in the dark. And yet, she knows Kaylah needs him more than she does right now.
Kaylah pauses. She sees the reluctance on Samarah’s face and is unsure that she should take the baby despite how desperate she is to do so. Desperation wins in the end, and she both skillfully and greedily accepts the child and folds her arms around him. The baby nestles against her, warm and comfortable the way all newborns are. His head fits just perfectly into the space between her collarbone and breasts. It has been too long since she’s held a baby. She closes her eyes, leans her face into his hair, and breathes deep. For a second he smells just like Evan and she silently weeps.
Kaylah rocks and bounces, attempting to soothe both herself and the baby as tears pours from her eyes. She never allowed herself the time to mourn, and now the tears won’t stop. She misses her family more than anything in the world, but they are gone, and holding this baby isn’t going to bring them back. It doesn’t stop her from imagining that the last few weeks have been nothing more than a bad dream. When she opens her eyes, this child, who smells like Evan, will indeed be him. Her husband will walk through the door after a long day’s work just like he’s done hundreds of times before and they’ll catch up with small talk and witty jokes about hapless city folks they’ve had to deal with today. They’ll laugh and have dinner together, and then after the baby’s been bathed and put to bed, they’ll snuggle on the couch under a blanket and bask in the perfect love that only they’ve been so lucky to find.
Samarah places a hand on her shoulder and Kaylah opens her eyes. The vision bursts in a kaleidoscope of blurry tears. She will never get that life back, not even a sliver of it.
“The crib has been empty for too long,” Kaylah admits.
“Perhaps we can lay him in there. That way it won’t be empty tonight.”
Kaylah nods vehemently as another wave of tears rocks her body. The two women change the baby, dress him in one of Evan’s fleece onesies, and lay him in the crib. He hardly stirs the whole time except to let out a tiny coo and flash the women a fleeting adorable baby smile as he drifts off to dreamland.
Kaylah and Samarah stand, leaning over the crib rail, watching the baby sleep peacefully. Each feels their own different and equally tormented set of emotions.
“What happened to your baby?” Samarah hesitantly asks.
Kaylah shuts her eyes and grips the top rail of the crib a little tighter as if willing the memories not to come. “They shouldn’t have gone out that night,” she mutters. Tears plop audibly on the crib railing and she swipes the back of her hands across wet cheeks. Shaking her head, she says, “It’s not fair. He was only home for a few weeks when it happened.” She chuckles suddenly, which seems such an odd switch in emotion that Samarah jumps.
“What?” Samarah asks.
Kaylah shakes her head again. “It’s just . . . my husband was overseas for so long. We were finally going to get a chance to add to our family without any fear. We even had names picked out. Well, a name: Evan. For some reason that’s the only name we both agreed on.”
“Evan,” Samarah whispers. The name means, “God is gracious.” And yet, she gets the impression that the story Kaylah is about to tell her is going to be anything but.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Kaylah says. “Man, I don’t know how many times we talked about bombings and shootings and missions gone wrong . . .” She rolls her eyes at the stars flickering on the ceiling. “But he always came home. He finally finished his tours, home safe once and for all. And for what? To get killed in a car accident a few weeks later? Drunk driver in the middle of the night. I didn’t find out until morning, and by then he was gone. They both were.”
“Both?” Samarah asks, confused.
Kaylah nods, blinking back more tears. “He took our baby out driving,” she says sarcastically. “Evan never really slept well, and my husband was trying to do me a favor so I could get some sleep. He switched off the baby monitor by the bed. I’d been so sick with the stomach flu that when Evan woke up crying, he put the baby in the car. He always slept in the car.”
The tears are back again and Samarah doesn’t know how to help. “I’m sure there’s a reason—”
“A reason?” Kaylah snaps. “I assume you mean a reason from God,” she says spitefully. “What possible reason could God have for taking an innocent infant and my husband?”
Samarah hangs her head. Kaylah’s right. She spends a few minutes desperately wracking her brain for any explanation. “You’re right. Maybe there is no reasonable explanation and there’s nothing fair about this situation,” she says, and wraps the woman in a hug. She allows Kaylah to cry into her shoulder for what seems like forever.
Finally, Kaylah comes up for air. “Thank you,” she whispers.
“For what?” Samarah asks. “I’m the one who should be thanking you. The baby is warm and dry and safe. That’s all that matters.”
“My parents are gone. I have no one left, and my therapist, while she allows me the space to talk and cry, is little help. Wait until she finds out I invited a complete stranger into my home. A homeless person no less. It’s not safe to do things like this, but you seem so genuine and with a baby . . .” Her words trail off as Kaylah runs her hands through her hair. “Maybe I needed the help more than you did.”
“I don’t see how I’m much help,” Samarah says sadly. She can’t help feeling completely lost. Why is she in this woman’s home? What’s supposed to become of this child? Is she just supposed to leave it here with this woman?
“You let me hold your baby and do this.” Kaylah gestures to the crib and snaps Samarah from her lonely reverie. “I know I can never have my family back, but this is like closure to me. A do-over. A chance to make sure a baby sleeps peacefully through the night and wakes up alive and safe. And in the morning, we’ll talk about how we can make sure that happens for the two of you every night from now until . . . until forever,” she says solemnly. “I don’t know how you’ve even survived on the streets with an infant. Did your husband, or boyfriend, kick you out? What happened to you? Here I am going on and on about how unfair my life is,” she says, “and here you are. You’re homeless with a child!”
Samarah dodges the questions. She’s not allowed to reveal where she came from or what her mission is even if she’s not entirely sure what her mission is herself. “That’s very kind of you. Can we talk more in the morning? I feel very weary.”
“Right. Of course.” Kaylah gently rubs the baby’s arm and touches his fingers. Then she leads Samarah out of the nursery and into the adjacent bedroom. “You can sleep here. I’ll set up one of the monitors so you can hear your baby if he wakes up in the night.”
Kaylah leads Samarah into the bathroom and hands her fresh towels. She then fetches a sweater and pajama pants from her own room for Samarah to dress in.
Freshly bathed and dressed in warm clothes that fit her as perfectly as if they were her own, Samarah stands in front of the mirror. A new person smiles back at her. Clean golden hair, rosy cheeks, pale pristine skin. It’s amazing what just one shower and clean clothes can do to uplift her mood. She looks just as any other normal person in the city would. Her immediate happiness fades. Normal. The word seems inappropriate and once again she’s lost in a sea of clashing emotions that she’s not accustomed to feeling.
“Why must it be like this?” she asks the woman in the mirror. “How can it be that I can feel so happy and comfortable one second and so lost and hopeless the next? What is the meaning? And why have you tortured this poor woman so? You stripped her of her family. Why?”
Samarah slips out of the bathroom. The house is dark and she hears rhythmic breathing coming from inside the nursery. She pushes the door ajar just enough to see Kaylah curled in the rocking chair across from the crib. She’s dozing with the baby resting against her chest under the blanket made for her own child.
A twinge of jealousy rears its ugly head. She should be holding the baby, not this woman. He’s hers to watch over. She takes a step into the room and feels a reassuring presence wrap its arms around her. A sensation of peace settles in the pit of her stomach. “Finally,” she breathes a sigh of relief. “I was so worried you’d abandoned us.”
It’s time to leave. The words roll through her entire being and she is immediately distraught.
“Leave?” she whispers as she looks longingly at the child. “I can’t leave yet. I just got here. What will happen to him?”
Fear not. He will be loved as I love you.
Samarah walks to the rocker and runs the back of her hand down the infant’s tiny cheek. The thought of leaving him makes her sick to her stomach. “And I won’t remember any of this, will I?”
No. All of the emotions you’ve felt will be relieved.
“Then what’s the point of all of this? I just . . . I can’t leave him.”
You were meant for her benefit. Not for his. He will be but a memory for her. A needed one nonetheless.
“A memory? You mean to take him too?”
All souls play a role, young or old.
The once reassuring presence fades away leaving Samarah feeling empty and alone. The thought of Kaylah waking to an empty home and a vacant lap is more distressing than the thought of leaving the baby with her.
“Please, please!” Samarah falls to her knees in front of the rocker. “Let her keep the child. She needs him. Please don’t take him away.”
Your compassion is noble. I hear your prayer for her and see your desire to watch this child grow. There is a way you can both benefit. But you must understand that it will be difficult for you. It is difficult for all my guardians.
“Please. I don’t care how difficult the road.”
Understand that things will not be easy for him. No mortal life ever is. Heartbreak and sorrow will follow him. Death and sadness will be as much a part of his existence as happiness is. If you stay, you will endure watching the best and the worst his life has to offer.
“Will I be able to provide comfort?”
“Yes, as no one else can. You will do so without being seen or heard. Only felt as I am felt. He will feel you with him. A brush of warm wind on his cheek will be your kiss. A calming during the worst of times will be you wrapping your arms around his shoulders. He will know you are there without knowing you are there, and that is the way it has been since the beginning of time. You asked what the point of your journey is. Why have I made things so difficult for you?
Samarah nods attentively.
I was unsure whether you would choose to stay or go. To stay you must feel all the emotions an ordinary person would feel. Happiness and joy at the simplest of moments like watching the falling snow. Desperation and humility in impossible situations. Anger and grief when things are not as you expect them to be for yourself or others. And above all, unconditional love for and from another person. How else can you understand and be of comfort without having walked the path yourself?
Samarah bows her head in understanding.
Now, my child, say good-bye.
“But I thought you said I could stay,” Samarah says, distraught.
And you shall, but you must start from the beginning. Saying good-bye is only for a fleeting moment for you. In this you must trust.
Gulping down her doubt and fear, Samarah rises. She leans over the rocking chair and presses her lips to the baby’s temple. “Good-bye for now. I love you,” she whispers.
The dark of night brightens into day as the child is taken in a cluster of radiant sparks. Kaylah is awake in an instant to find the child cradled in her lap, gone.
“Don’t worry. Everything will be all right,” Samarah tries to assure Kaylah through her own desperation. “How could you take him from us?” she cries.
Kaylah walks right past Samarah as if she can’t see her at all. The blanket wrapped around her falls to the floor in a heap as she heads straight for the crib. Samarah follows even though she knows the crib will be empty. Affirmation is Kaylah collapsing into a heap of tears on the floor. She lets out the most mournful of sobs. Samarah can hardly bare it.
Samarah places her arms around Kaylah’s shoulders, absorbing the sobs, and Kaylah suddenly pauses. She glances around the room as if she’s looking for something particular.
“Don’t worry, I’m right here,” Samarah says.
Kaylah doesn’t respond and Samarah is immediately aware that she doesn’t exist, not for Kaylah at least.
Kaylah stands, tears streaming down her face, and begins a fruitless search of the rest of the rooms in her home. Samarah follows behind her as she goes to the hall closet and finds Samarah’s jacket and shoes still there where she’d placed them.
“Why leave the only article of warm clothing you have?” Kaylah searches her house but finds nothing out of place. No jacket, pair of boots, piece of clothing, or material possession is missing.
Kaylah finally returns to the nursery. As she picks up the blanket from the floor, a perfect white feather falls out. When she stoops to pick up the feather, an intense flutter in her stomach nearly takes her breath away. She places her hand on her abdomen and feels the flutter again. She’s felt this kind of stirring once before and looks up at the stars on the ceiling, thinking. Maybe the stomach bug was not an illness at all.
Samarah wraps her arms around the woman and Kaylah feels an unbelievable sensation of peace. This time when she weeps it’s not with sadness and loss but with joy and anticipation. Her tiny family is not gone forever.
After nine months of planning, her long awaited baby boy arrives. He’s just as perfect as she imagined and with a full head of beautiful charcoal hair. Kaylah gazes upon him, nestled against her chest, and is reminded of the moment in her home as she held Samarah’s baby and rocked him to sleep. There’s an unshakable feeling that this is the same baby. The name, Evan, that she’d chosen before doesn’t quite seem fitting.
“I wish I would have asked what your name was then,” Kaylah says, kissing the baby’s hair.
Samarah, who has been anxiously awaiting this day just as much as Kaylah has, places a hand on both of them.
“Matthew. That’s your name, isn’t it?” Kaylah whispers as the name pops into her head. The name comes to her as easily as breathing.
Samarah smiles and runs her hand down the back of the baby’s face. He smiles peacefully in his sleep. Matthew is the perfect name. It means “gift from God.”