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Child looks over his shoulder, and the lady is still fussing with the toddlers, so he moves his hand up to the baby’s head. He strokes her on the temple and tells her it’s all right. He rests his palm on her forehead and spreads his fingers. Her head doesn’t feel soft to him. It feels like his own head, only smaller. He presses his fingertips against her skull, lightly, and then harder, and then as hard as he can. Child knows the quiet baby can see him do this through the bars between the cribs, but it’s all right because babies can’t talk. Child grits his teeth and keeps pressing, but he can’t do it very long because his arm gets tired, so he lets go. The girl baby is still crying, but not any louder than before.
When the teacher gets the toddlers calmed down, she comes over to relieve Child. Oh thank you, she says. That’s so helpful of you to check on the babies. She’s only a college student, an early-education major, and this kid makes her so uncomfortable she wonders if she should switch to business. He slips past her and goes back to sit in the corner, where he waits to see if he’ll want to eat coffee.
After church his mother comes to get him, and the words are there: I squeezed a baby’s head, but he doesn’t say them.
Mother takes her child to the mall to buy new shoes. Mother loves the mall. It is cool and bright and full of glass. It makes her feel calm and very, very clean. Pretty salesgirls smile at her and ask if they can help, and she always says yes, yes they can. Where might I find curtains, she asks, or lingerie, or jeans size four, or menswear, or children’s shoes? This entire trip to the mall she doesn’t ask for anything she’s really looking for except the children’s shoes, and she already knows where those are. But she likes to make the pretty girls happy, so she lets them lead her around stores to browse new, sweet-smelling, well-organized items she doesn’t need.
They’ve already bought the shoes. Can we please go home? her boy asks. We’ve been here all day. We have not, she answers, but we’ll look at just one more big store and then we can go. Inside the store, she asks a handsome boy for the jewelry counter, and he walks her over to costume jewelry and says his name is Sean and that he’d be happy to help if she needs further assistance.
Jewelry is near handbags, and while Mother looks at earrings and watches, Child wanders to a display of bags shaped like animals—Scottie dogs and cats and even birds. Mother keeps one eye on him, and Sean keeps an eye on both of them. She’s kind of cute, he thinks, but awfully skinny. She doesn’t look old enough, but the skinny kid must be hers.
Honey, don’t go too far, Mother calls, but not loudly. Child doesn’t nod or say okay. She watches him play with the animals for a minute, then she backs up a few feet to fondle long beaded necklaces hanging on a circular rack. The beads are translucent and smooth, like colored bits of ice, and she presses a handful to her forehead. Sean watches her and wonders if this is a shoplifting operation: she leaves the kid alone as a distraction so no one will pay attention to her.
Behind the necklaces are brooches, which don’t interest Mother, and then a rack of hats, with veils and feathers and wide floppy brims. Church hats. She tries on a pink woven one with a thick black ribbon and a veil of dotted tulle, which she pulls down and tucks under her chin. She can see her boy through the veil, but she vanishes a little behind it. Mother lifts the hat off her head and puts it back. Behind the hats are umbrellas and scarves and light gloves for fall, and behind those is a huge makeup counter. Sean follows her as she walks slowly to the makeup, but before the pretty smiling girl in a white lab coat can ask if she needs help, Mother zips around the other side of the counter and the boy is lost to her and she is lost to Sean.
Mother vanishes. She is fast now, and pleasantly breathless. She passes rack after rack of skirts and blouses and jackets, then moves into the juniors’ section, where everything sparkles. She speeds through girls’ and boys’ and men’s and stops in housewares to finger an ironstone bowl and ask an old woman whose nametag says Frann about wineglasses.
In housewares Mother feels safe. She is in her grandmother’s beautiful home. She is just a girl, and she can take a nap when she wants, on a bed whose quilt and sheets and pillows all match, and she can sit at a dining table set with crystal and china in Grandma Frann’s pattern. She can stay here until she hears her name over the loudspeaker, when she will rush off to wherever she is summoned. For now, though, she can relax because everyone is safe.
Mother sits on a sofa and turns on the lamp behind it to inspect the upholstery. It is a soft textured green, so lovely she could cry, and the lamp’s base is all soldered vines and rosebuds. Oh, she breathes, running her hand over the sofa’s back and arm. Oh, she says again, trailing her fingertips down the lamp’s metal greenery.
Her grandmother approaches the sofa, smiling, and Mother smiles back. The old woman leans over and says in a low voice, Ma’am, they found your son. Oh, Mother says. Oh, oh yes. She jumps up and looks around. But he was right here! I thought he was right here. Oh my heavens! Yes, well, Frann says, come with me. Mother tries to get excited about seeing her boy; she tries to anticipate his relief at seeing her, but there was supposed to be a loudspeaker.
Mother follows Frann into a hidden room behind menswear, and there is her child, sitting in an office chair and holding a Scottie bag with his bandaged hand, and two of Sean’s fingers with his good one. Her boy wails when he sees her: Mama! Oh honey, she says, and picks him up. It’s okay, it’s okay, I’m here. I thought you were right behind me! She holds him and rubs his back, then she tries to set him down but he won’t let go.
There’s another man in the room. Mother turns to him. He’s very handsome. Thank you, she says. I thought he was right behind me. Yes, the man says. Right. That happens. The man and Sean and Frann all wonder if they should call someone, the police or child protective services.
Mother feels the Scottie bag pressing against her neck, and she reaches up and pries it out of her boy’s hands. She tries to offer it to the man, but Child screams. No! He said I could have it. Oh no, Mother says, shaking her head. No. The man takes it, but holds it away from himself. He doesn’t want to touch the bag the kid had pressed to his face. It’s okay, the man says. I did say he could have it. No, Mother says. No. It’s not ours. Ma’am, just take it. I can’t sell it like this. He wants to punish her a little. He knows he’s not going to call anyone. He lifts up the bag and she can see it’s wet and the leather is stained. We’ll just write it off. I’ll pay for it then, Mother says. The man sighs. Ma’am, it’s a hundred and fifty dollars. Mother works her jaw, unsure of what to do, and her child screams. He said I could have it! The handsome man and the old woman and the boy Sean stare at her. Finally, she nods at them. Thank you all the same, she says and walks out of the room. No! No! the child cries. It’s mine! He said I could have it. It is mine! She walks through the store while he screams at her. It’s mine! I hate you! People turn at the sound of the screaming, and she ignores them. She marches outside, but then she must go halfway around the mall to find her parking spot. He screams all the way.