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And so she was the one who felt things. The only one! It was why she yearned for the child, and felt her heart melt each time his little hand waved and he said “Bye-bye” to her, calling out her name in his silvery voice, smiling that amazing smile.

She would not let them take that from her, that feeling. If someone in authority noticed the error, if they delivered a supply of pills to her, she thought defiantly, she would pretend. She would cheat. But she would never, under any circumstances, stifle the feelings she had discovered. She would die, Claire realized, before she would give up the love she felt for her son.


The supply boat was once again moored by the Hatchery. Its ropes had been looped over the posts and its slanted gangplank slid ashore. Recalling the delay they had suffered a year ago, this time they had arrived early and would be leaving before the coming two-day event prevented their departure.

The time of the Ceremony was fast approaching. Had it really been that long? Had she been here at the Hatchery for well over a year? It was hard to believe. But when she thought of the child, of little Abe, she was aware of how he had developed from an infant wailing for a bottle when she first encountered him into a giggly toddler who could say her name, wave bye-bye, and imitate the funny face they now made to each other as a greeting that made them both laugh.

Hearing her coworkers mention the upcoming Ceremony reminded her that Abe would be assigned this time. He would move to a dwelling, have a set of parents and perhaps an older sibling. She would have to find a new way of continuing their relationship. Of course his new female parent—Claire could not make herself think mother—would have a job in the community as all women did. So the child would go to the Childcare Center each day.

Claire had done volunteer work there when she was young and fulfilling her required hours. She had enjoyed that time and knew that Abe would be well cared for there. He would be given educational toys, fed a balanced diet fortified with vitamins, taken for walks in the big multichild stroller, and introduced to basic discipline: the meaning of no and don’t; how he must not suck his thumb, though he would be permitted to stroke his comfort object if he needed soothing. He would be tucked into a crib at naptime, when the big room’s lights were dimmed.

Thinking of the naptime ritual, Claire felt a little concerned. Abe still was not a good sleeper. Most toddlers in the Childcare Center responded to firm discipline and learned quickly to be silent when the lights were dimmed. She remembered the rows of cribs with most of the little occupants sound asleep, and those who were wakeful staring quietly at the ceiling. The small children had names by then, and she recalled walking along the row and reading LIAM, SVETLANA, BARBARA, HENRIK, on the identifying cards. Soon, after the upcoming Ceremony, he would be officially Abe. She desperately hoped that the crib with his name on it would not contain a wailing, sleepless little boy who would toss his hippo to the floor and thump his feet rhythmically against the mattress. Shrieking and kicking, sometimes holding his breath until his face turned frighteningly dark, was what he was still doing at the Nurturing Center at naptime. Whatever would they do with such a child when he entered the childcare system? Failure to thrive, they wrote on his chart when he was very young. Now? Failure to adjust? She shuddered. There were very severe consequences in the community for a citizen who couldn’t adjust. Surely they would be more lenient with a very small boy, Claire thought. But she wasn’t certain. It made her nervous to think about it.

She rode over to visit one afternoon two days before the Ceremony and could see the cleanup crews working hard outside the Auditorium, obviously preparing for the one time each year when the entire community gathered. Claire would attend this year. Already they had assigned a different worker to remain at the Hatchery. It was important to her to see Abe assigned, to know where he would be next. Maybe, since the assignments were so close, she could sneak a look at the paperwork; sometimes there was a clipboard on the nurturer’s desk. Perhaps the information was there.

But when Claire arrived at the Nurturing Center, she could feel immediately that something was wrong. Of course, she thought, they are all very busy because of the Ceremony plans. They have to prepare these children, all fifty, for new families. A letter would have to accompany each newchild, a letter with instructions for the parental unit: feeding information, schedules, discipline reminders, health data, and observations about personality. Of course the staff was preoccupied and distracted. It accounted, Claire thought, for the heightened tension she felt. The nurturer who had always been so pleasant to her, the one with a son named Jonas who took Abe to his dwelling at night, was oddly abrupt when she greeted him. He seemed angry. She could hear a muttered argument taking place in a corner. No one smiled at her.

Even more distressingly, when she went to pick up Abe, who was playing with a wooden toy on the floor, someone snatched him away.

“Not a good idea to play with this one,” a uniformed female worker said. “There’s one over there: that girl? She needs to be changed. You could do that if you want to be helpful.”

The woman stalked off, holding Abe. She plopped him into an empty crib and he began to howl immediately. Everyone ignored him.

“I could maybe quiet him down,” Claire suggested, “and you’d be able to get your work done more easily.”

“Leave him,” the woman commanded her.

Claire looked questioningly at the nurturer whom she had begun to think of as a friend. She realized, suddenly, that in all these months she had never asked his name. But clearly now was not the time. His face was set in hard lines, and he looked away.

“But I—”

“I said: leave him,” the woman repeated impatiently.

Claire wanted to argue, perceived that she must not, and fell silent. Dutifully she picked up the baby girl they had indicated and took her to the changing table. In the background, Abe screamed and kicked at the bars of the crib. No one moved toward him.

Claire cleaned and diapered the cheerful female and set her back down with her toys on the floor. Other babies crawled and played nonchalantly, as if they were accustomed to the shrieking boy in the crib. At the desk, the nurturer whose name she had never thought to learn, the one who (Claire knew) cared about Abe, suddenly slammed shut the reader/writer device he’d been working on. He stood. He looked at the clock on the wall.

“I’m leaving early,” he said.

“Excuse me?” The uniformed woman looked up. She seemed to have some authority.

“I have a headache,” the nurturer said.

The woman glanced at the communication system on the wall. “You can call for medication,” she pointed out.

The nurturer ignored her. He went over to the crib and picked up Abe, who was clutching his comfort object and still shuddering with sobs, though his shrieking had subsided. “I’ll take him with me now. You know he spends the nights in my dwelling.”

“No need,” she said sharply. “He might as well stay here tonight. What’s the point?”

“The point is that my family is fond of him, and I would like to have him with us this evening.” He was speaking firmly to her, and Claire could see that she was trying to decide whether to argue. When she turned back to the papers in her hands, it was clear that she had decided against any confrontation.

“Return him early tomorrow,” she said. It sounded like an order.

“I will.” He walked toward the door, the toddler in his arms, and then spoke to Claire. “Do you have your bike? Why don’t you ride partway with us? You can turn off to the Hatchery at the main road.”

Confused, Claire nodded to the woman, who ignored her, and followed the man and Abe. She waited to watch him pack the hippo into the carrying case, then strap the child into the bike seat, then mounted her own bicycle and rode beside him on the path. He didn’t speak. The baby glanced at her, smiling now. She lifted one hand from the handle grip, waved to him, and watched him wave back. Both bikes slowed at the intersection where Claire would turn to the right. They stopped.

“Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said uncertainly. “I know you have a lot of work because of the Ceremony, but—”

He interrupted her. “I know you didn’t attend last year,” he said. “Do you plan to go to this one?”

Claire nodded. “I especially want to see Abe get his assigned family.”

The man hesitated, then told her. “They’re not assigning him. And no more extensions, either. They’ve run out of patience with him. They voted today.”

Behind him, the child began to churn his legs. He wanted the bike to start up again.

“But what, then? Where will he—?”

The man shrugged. “You should say goodbye now. He’ll be sent on his way in the morning.”

“On his way where?”

The child had heard the word “goodbye.” He opened and closed his chubby hand toward Claire. “Bye-bye!” he said. “Bye-bye!” Then he thrust his tongue into his cheek and made their secret funny face with its creased forehead and wrinkled nose. Claire tried hard to make the face back to him, but it was difficult; she was breathing hard and could feel tears rising hotly behind her eyes. “Where?” she asked again.

But the man simply shook his head. It seemed to Claire that he was unable to speak, that his breath was coming quickly as well. Then he gathered himself, and said offhandedly, “It’s just the way it is. It’s for the best. It’s the way the system works. And by the way, you have his name wrong. It’s not Abe.

“Ready, little guy?” he asked, swiveling his head to check on his passenger. “Off we go!” As he started forward, some pebbles spat from the path and stung Claire’s ankle.

Stunned, she watched the bicycle set off across the path that led to the family dwellings.

Years later—many years later—when Claire tried to piece together memories of her last days in the community, the last things she could see whole and clear were the bicycle moving away and the back of the child’s head. The rest of the hours that followed were fragments, like bits of shattered glass. No matter how she tried to piece them together, she could never create it whole and unblemished.

She remembered that the cargo boat was still docked. It was loading. They were rushing, for some reason. She heard someone call to another about weather concerns, a phrase she didn’t understand. There were the usual complicated sounds of the departure preparations. Whistles and shouts. The thump of the crates being stacked.

But then night came and went and the boat had not left. Something had happened in the night. There were alarm bells. In the Hatchery? Something wrong in the lab?

No. Not there. The boat? Were the alarms from the boat? No. From farther away. From the main building. And from the speakers in each room. Loud announcements. Waking everyone. But why? What had gone wrong?

It was morning now, in her memory. The boat crew had been preparing to cast off the ropes and leave. But they were delayed. Time had passed. Usually the boat was there so briefly. But this time it was longer. Something delayed the boat’s departure. Everyone was looking for something. Someone? Yes. It was that: Someone was missing.


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