Tara always pulled her minivan into the section of the parking lot littered with chalk drawings and with signs showing storks, strollers, and large-bellied fifties-style dresses. She could easily find one such place in large towns, more in cities. They all seemed so alike that it was hard sometimes to keep track, to never to be in the same one twice.
She got out and moved around the vehicle, opened the trunk delicately and slowly, removed the stroller, and unfolded it with a certain considerate care. She always smiled, straightened her robin’s egg blue or piggy pink or maybe light mint green skirt, made sure her blouse was tucked in, pressed her blond hair back into a headband or scrunchy — so tight her handful of wrinkles smoothed into a younger mask.
The baby came out of the car seat without a stir. It was always so well-behaved, so still, sleeping more than anything else. Tara hummed some wordless, unnamable tune as she tucked its blankets in snugly. Its lashes sat softly on doughy cheeks, one hand curled up above its head.
As they made their way into the large department store full of people — a swarm, a steady fuzzy white noise as bodies milled around clearance items and sales racks — Tara caught the eye of a middle-aged hen with three young boys in tow. One screeched about a toy, another about a treat. The mother cast one look into the pram and her eyebrows went up together in a sad, harried, reminiscent envy. “If only one more time,” she sighed.
“You’ve had three,” Tara scolded, good-naturedly.
She had never had any that old. Too old. Once they got to that age…
“Yeah,” the woman said, hoisting the youngest of the three out of the reach of his brother, who had started pushing him. “And I wouldn’t trade them for anything, much as it may seem.”
Tara walked over to exchange her stroller for one that the store had available that could double as a basket. They were lined up in playful colors and watched by an elderly man with suspenders covered in buttons and a too-large attendant’s vest.
“Red or blue?” he asked, his hands slow to bend, withered by age.
“Blue,” she said, giving him a sweet smile.
“What a cute little guy, there,” he said as she gently lifted and placed it into the cart. “Looks like my grandson when he was born.” He fished out his wallet, opened it to a picture of a laughing, joyful face. Tara took it, caressed the cheek with her thumb.
She had a boy that looked like that, for a time. Not anymore.
“He’s lovely.” She thanked him, squeezed his arm affectionately and continued on.
They strolled past the infant section, and Tara picked up a soft elephant whose ears made her think of washcloths. There was a girl with her boyfriend or husband — Tara didn’t see any rings but she wasn’t looking for them. She found herself studying the swell of her belly, bursting with life. She thought she saw the faintest crease of a hand or foot, maybe a head under the fabric, and she was certain the girl’s face broke with delight at the movement. They didn’t see her, and she said nothing, tucking the elephant under the baby’s still hand and finding her other hand resting on her own stomach. It growled.
Tara licked a bit of sweat from her upper lip. Soon. Soon.
It was when she reached a small corner of the store near the gardening equipment that she saw a woman with another blue stroller. Just like hers. She had walked a few feet away, was pulling at a few packets of parsley and lilies and tomatoes and poppies. Cornflowers. Love Lies Bleeding. She couldn’t have been much younger than Tara, and she didn’t smile. In fact, when the child squealed at some movement of light or sound, the woman scowled. She wore torn-up jeans, heavy boots. She took several steps farther away, occupied with lawn mower models.
Tara couldn’t see her carrying pictures of the child in her wallet.
Couldn’t imagine her years later with him or her in tow, tolerating high jinks and…
The girl’s back was turned. Tara’s fingers were shaking, heart beating fast, excitement building as she took the wash-cloth elephant from her cart.
One arm covered in tattoos grabbed a price tag from a shelf to study it.
Tara knew that one day this tattooed girl would appreciate the favor she was doing for her. Sometime after the pain subsided, the loss, the jeans-and-scowling woman would open a shop or a gallery. She would find meaning that obviously wasn’t here.
And oh, how happy she would be…__
It was the simplest movement. A push of her stroller, a pull of the other. One child for the other. One didn’t react, didn’t reach for her. The other clung happily to her charmed bracelet.
The tiny boy giggled at the soft toy, and she turned quickly, was gone, two forgettable, disappearing faces in a town that would never miss either of them.
Because no one looks for a witch that doesn’t wear a black, pointy hat.
Because no one thinks twice at a fair-haired woman and her child.
And because no one notices that a baby is a plastic, vinyl thing until it is too late.