Ms. Mansfield looked out her office window. She noticed the couple walking up to the building and thought about how it used to be, when orphanages were crowded and adoptions could take years. She shuddered. How horrible it had been for those children, watching a revolving door of parents come through, always picking another child. Always being left behind. Feeling unwanted. Alone. It was so much better now.
The couple paused to look through the chainlink fence at the play yard, empty except for the boy. He sat on the seesaw alone, trying to push himself up from the ground. He had red hair and freckles, like them. He would blend in.
In the small office, Ms. Mansfield told them about Jeremy.
“At least his parents died quickly, the doctors said, before the paramedics even arrived. Jeremy didn’t have a scratch on him, thanks to the carseat, but now he’s all alone in the world. He needs a family again.”
“It’s just that,” Mrs. Evans spoke up, “right now, well, it’s not a good time for us. Taking on another child is such a big responsibility, and we want to help, of course. It’s just not good timing. Perhaps…perhaps another family could be chosen?”
“Your family was selected because you are the best match, but it’s not compulsory, you know,” Ms. Mansfield said, with a hint of a smile. But of course it was. Everyone knew that.
“Doesn’t every child deserve a home?”
There was nothing more to be said.
Several signatures later, Mr. and Mrs. Evans walked out of the adoption agency with their new son.
Another successful placement.
• • •
And Jeremy, too, was gone.
Ms. Mansfield wandered the empty halls, remembering children at lessons, children playing, children fighting. There had been so many orphans and abandoned children after the Second Civil War. Within a few short decades, there were none. Every child had a home. A family. Thanks to the new social reforms.
The solution had been simple. Families were selected based on compatibility with each child’s background and needs. Orphanages emptied out, and adoption agencies all but disappeared. Only a handful were left for the few unfortunates like Jeremy.
• • •
Upstairs, she settled down for the night. She had lodgings in the house; a perk of the job.
She brushed her teeth at one of four sinks in the girls bathroom, then walked past empty bedrooms to her room.
So many bedrooms.
She closed her eyes and remembered little Jenny crying herself to sleep every night. No one had been able to console the girl. There were too many little girls. And little girls got bigger, and parents didn’t want them anymore.
• • •
In the middle of the night, the phone rang. It was the hospital. A child was alone.
She dressed quickly and drove across town. The nurse led her down the long, unnaturally bright hallway to a large room with a single crib.
“A woman came in,” the nurse explained, “put the baby on the reception desk and just walked out. She never said a word. Security’s checking the video tape.”
Ms. Mansfield picked up the baby girl, who cooed in her arms. Poor little thing, how could your mother leave you like that? She’d seen it plenty of times, but never understood.
“Was there a note with her? Anything to identify the mother?”
“Yes. The note just said: ’I’m sorry.’”
She took the baby back to the adoption center and cared for it while the police investigated. After three days, they brought in a woman who confessed.
The trial didn’t last long. Abandonment was a serious crime. Then she had to place the baby.
• • •
She sat at her desk and ran the program. The selection process had so many variables to consider, it always took a while. Finally, she had the new family’s info.
Maggie and Arnold Cunningham.
She read their bios and stopped short. It couldn’t be. Maggie? Little Maggie who braided the girls’ hair and sang lullabies to the little ones. Little Jenny’s best friend. But Maggie had been chosen. And Jenny had been left.
• • •
As the couple approached, Mrs. Cunningham paused and looked up at the building.
“It hasn’t changed a bit. I thought it would have.”
“Are you okay?” Her husband put an arm around her shoulders.
She took a deep breath. “I’ll be fine.”
Ms. Mansfield welcomed them and started her normal routine, barely noticing the words she spoke. She was searching the face in front of her for the girl she remembered.
Maggie was searching, too.
“Jenny?” Maggie interrupted. “Jenny Mansfield? You’re still here?”
• • •
They talked for hours. Maggie told Jenny about the family who had chosen her.
Her new parents told her she was special, and they obviously cared for her. But part of her never quite believed they really wanted her. How could they? Even her own mother hadn’t. So she rebelled. She did just about everything short of getting a criminal record.
Then she met Arnold. She was a mess, but he saw something in her worth fighting for. And gradually, he helped her to see it, too.
• • •
Jenny was shaken.
Maggie got a family. She belonged. How could that not fix everything?
What about the baby from the hospital? Would she be alright with Maggie and Arnold? Would Jeremy bond with the Evans’? What of the hundreds of others? The ones she had been jealous of?
Upstairs, she drifted through phantoms. She had read to Maggie in that corner. Bradley pushed her off that chair. Jason taught her solitaire on that rug. Denise explained the blood in her panties in that bathroom. She saw them all. The alone ones.
But they had been alone together. A sort of family, she realized, and felt warm inside.
Yet her family had been picked off, one by one.
Were they okay?
She marched down to her office. She had the entire database of adoptions at her fingertips, and a mission.
To find her family.
Every last child.