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by Claire Polders

Ella buys the boy a burger, ruffles his hair, bounces his body on her knees. Time has jumped back and she can do this again, the sky high and wide.

The boy cries in a toy store, spooked by robots that shouldn’t be talking. He calls for his mother between the sobs. Ella gets on her knees, soothing him with promises of a reunion and two scoops of ice cream in a cone. At the curl of his smile, their joint future shines.

Does he remember what happened to his mother at the grocery? It all went so fast. The screams and sirens. The mother’s exit on a gurney. It’s not kidnapping when medics deliver a child into your open arms. Ella promised to keep him safe.

The boy cries for a second time on the crosswalk — her grip on his hand is too tight. He doesn’t like it when she calls him Ruben, when she shows him the street where the van knocked them down. One step in the wrong direction, she says, and you’re outside your life.

At dusk, the boy tired and whining, they pass through the hospital’s revolving doors. If his mother has survived the stroke, Ella will do the right thing. If not, his room is waiting, unchanged. They will learn to love each other again. He’ll grow back into his clothes.

The hospital lights are relentlessly bright and the reception desk is busy. Would they let her keep the boy if she asks? Never. Sisters and grandmothers will stand in the way. Adoption waiting lists are endless.

Ella and the boy ride the elevator up alone. They spy through the open doors and glass partitions. On a day like today, fate should decide.

Claire Polders is the author of four novels in Dutch and co-author of one novel in English for younger readers (A Whale in Paris, Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2018). Her short prose is published wherever it is appreciated. Find more of her work at www.clairepolders.com.