by Carrie Etter

Terry’d done what a teenager was supposed to do if he got a girl pregnant, right? He gave her money for an abortion, and when she decided on adoption instead, he didn’t ask for the money back—though he was tempted and raised the possibility with Greg, who just looked at him and said, ‘Maaaaaan—,’ like it was the longest word in the dictionary.

One last step remained: signing the papers at the social services office. Sarah was there, of course. He wanted to stroke her cream blond bob the way he used to, rest his hand on the nape of her neck.

‘Welcome, Terry,’ the social worker said. In her pale blue pantsuit, she struck him as resembling a real estate agent more than a do-gooder.

‘Thank you,’ he said. There was only one other chair in her office, right next to Sarah, so he sat down and saw her draw herself in.

‘So where do I sign?’ he asked. Afterwards he and Greg were going to go to the lake with a six pack Greg got from his older brother.

‘First,’ the social worker said, taking her seat, ‘I thought you’d like to know your daughter is still at the hospital. She had a minor infection, so she was held for a few extra days.’

What did that have to do with him? He looked from the social worker to Sarah for an answer. Sarah huffed. ‘She’s trying to say you can see her first if you want to.’

See her? He tried to imagine an infant that resembled him in some way and couldn’t conjure it. ‘When?’ he asked.

‘Well, ideally, now,’ the social worker answered. ‘You could go see her at the hospital and be back by four-thirty to sign the papers.’

He turned to Sarah. ‘Do you want to go?’ He couldn’t without her.

‘I guess. If you do.’

Forty minutes later, they waited in a small room adjacent the hospital nursery. He kept cracking his knuckles.

‘You should hold her first,’ Sarah said. ‘I’ve already said my goodbyes, but I’d like to hold her last, anyway.’

The nurse, who resembled his mother with her short, dark curly hair and fleshy arms, entered the room with a pink bundle. ‘Who’s going to hold her?’ she asked brightly.

Sarah pointed at him. ‘I—I don’t know how—’ he said.

‘Sit in the rocking chair—that’ll make it easier.’

He sat down, and the nurse, as she lowered the baby, adjusted his arms with a nudge here, a nudge there. ‘I’ll be right outside.’

The warm weight in his arms, the smell of—was that baby lotion? He stretched a finger to stroke the small pink face, its peach-like fuzz. He glanced at Sarah, who was idling as far away from him as she could and still be in the same room. ‘Did you name her?’

She took a step closer and nodded. ‘Alice. For my mom.’

He leaned in. ‘Hello, Alice,’ he said. He liked that she had his dark hair, a real mess of it, and wondered if it would turn curly. Should he introduce himself? He wasn’t Daddy, and for the first time he thought of her as someone who would go out into the world, have other parents, a whole life. Would he ever see her again?

‘You should take her,’ he told Sarah. He was afraid even to lift her up, afraid she’d drop, break seven ways on touching the floor.

Sarah scooped her out of Terry’s arms and took his place in the rocking chair. She held Alice close, nuzzling her face, whispering words he couldn’t hear, and soon, crying.

He didn’t speak on the drive back. He said as few words as he could in the social worker’s office. He muttered, ‘See you later,’ at Sarah on the way out and supposed her mentally responding, Not if I can help it.

Terry got in his car and drove. He drove miles past the lake and pulled over. Alice, he thought, Alice. He wasn’t going to tell that name to Greg or his first wife in six years’ time or his second ten years after that. ‘Alice,’ he said and shifted his arms to cradle her.

Carrie Etter has published four collections of poetry, most recently The Weather in Normal (UK: Seren; US: Station Hill, 2018), and one chapbook of flash fictions, Hometown (V. Press, 2016). Her story, “Stephanie,” appeared in the Best British and Irish Flash Fiction list (the BIFFY 50) for 2019-20.