Helen counted the tiles on the path to the elevators, as Liz’s voice rasped over her skin and continued along the empty cubicles.
“I don’t know why you wanted a baby anyway. Do you know what that would do to your career?”
Forty-six…or was it forty-seven? She’d lost count again. This was a large floor, such a shame it went unused except for the large conference room they were just leaving. Behind them, loud conversation still spilled out from the open door. Helen had left quickly, longing for the quiet her own office, but Liz had latched onto her.
“And Ethan, he’s scum of course, but you’re lucky he left. Did you really want to have a kid with him? Think about that, Helen.”
Helen had thought about it. Long into the nights, as the stars twinkled then faded, and the grim hue of dawn appeared again, she had thought about it. Tears welled up and she could not fight them down.
“Go ahead; I’ve got to use the bathroom.” Helen dashed away, head down. For a moment she feared Liz would follow her, but instead her friend crossed her arms and huffed.
“Don’t be long. I want to go out for coffee soon.” Liz whined. “You’re really playing up these bathroom trips, Helen. You were barely pregnant.”
Tears streaked down her cheeks just as Helen stepped inside the darkened bathroom. A sensor clicked on her right and the lights sprang on, purple and shadowy as they struggled to warm up. Even in the dim light, the fixtures gleamed. Helen went to the far stall and slumped down on the toilet. She wept into her hands, shaking with the sobs. Her body felt bloated and fleshy, but her mind felt as brittle and fragile as porcelain. The comments from Liz, the unmailed wedding invitations sitting in her office, every day without a message from Ethan—each one a hammer blow against her composure. Her condition grew worse each day, instead of better. How much longer could she hide in bathroom stalls or empty stairwells crying?
Noise outside interrupted her thoughts. Someone moved in the bathroom. With a flush of shame, she stopped crying and wiped her face. The person outside moved so quietly that Helen strained to hear. She tried to peek through the crack around the door, but could see only the furthest sink. When Helen heard nothing for a few moments, she wondered if she’d only imagined the other woman. Hadn’t the room been dark when she entered?
Then one of the faucets started.
Helen waited for the water to stop, for the other woman to leave, but the water did not stop. On and on it gushed, until Helen was irritated by the sound.
She left the stall, avoiding her own reflection in the bank of mirrors. The faucet, sensor-operated, continued to pour despite no one standing before it. Helen walked over, uncertain what she might do to fix the problem. She noticed there was an object in the sink: a large, white stone.
Helen lifted it out and the water immediately shut off. The stone was smooth and opalescent, and exquisitely carved like a tiny baby girl. Her back curved into Helen’s palm as she stared up with textured irises and a slightly open mouth. She looked to Helen for an explanation as to why she’d been left in a sink, but Helen had no answer to give her.
A buzz from her pocket startled Helen, but she gripped the child tightly so as not to drop her. The phone vibrated again. Liz was calling to find out where she was. Helen pulled a pack of tissues from her purse and delicately wrapped the stone child in layer after layer.
“Just until we get out of here.”
She placed the child in her purse, shielded in its cocoon of tissue paper.
The next day was Tuesday. Helen found herself in the fourth floor bathroom again. She’d spilled coffee onto her shirt during the meeting. She’d been clumsy all day; she hadn’t slept well. The stone child had cried all night. Every time Helen closed her eyes, the baby called out, but when Helen went to comfort her, the girl had stared up silently at her with eyes like fire opals.
Helen had left her in a quilt-lined a laundry basket this morning. Would she be okay by herself? Helen found the worry surprising and absurd. She tried to laugh at herself, but the sound emerged as a sob. Helen rushed toward the far stall, but passing the middle sink, her eye caught sight of a form: another stone. This one as dark as the other was light. The stone glistened with water.
“Hello?” Helen called out to the quiet bathroom. She peered under the stalls checking for another person, but there was no one. She scooped the obsidian stone from the sink. This one also carved as a girl child. Helen dried her delicately with the end of her blouse and wrapped her in tissues as she had her sister the day before smuggling her from the room.
“Why not?” Liz whined as music thundered in the background. “We haven’t been out drinking in forever. It’ll help you forget Ethan.”
Helen mumbled “no” until Liz hung up. She felt drained by the struggle. In the sudden silence of her own apartment, she felt more alone than ever. The stone children looked up at her from their plastic bassinet, but she had nothing to offer them. She spread out across the bed and ran her hand over the slight swelling below her navel. When the phone rang again, she reached out reflexively.
“Helen!” Ethan’s voice rang through her head. “How have you been?”
Before Helen could force her constricted throat to scream at him, Ethan continued.
“The change has been great for me. I love it here. Watching the sunset on the ocean every evening…I mean, this is where I was meant to be. Listen, though, I was talking to some friends about how things went down with us, and they got me thinking. We’re cool, right? No hard feelings.”
A half-gasp, half-gurgle escaped Helen’s throat.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Everything for the best, right? We just weren’t meant to be together. You’re happy there, and I needed more.”
Laughter erupted in the background. Gulls and revelers joined together in raucous celebration of the fading day. A woman called out Ethan’s name.
“Listen, babe. I gotta go. Just wanted to make sure things were good between us. I’d hate to have that bad karma chasing after me. Take care of yourself. Good luck with your career and all that.”
And as the laughter surged up again, the line disconnected and Helen was left alone in her bedroom. Almost alone. The stone children had listened to her unspoken words. They watched her. Helen burned, curses and questions twisted and compressed down inside her, feeding the furnace of her anger. She picked up the stone children, they were so cool against her flushed skin, and curled up on the bed. They nestled against her chest, soothed by the warmth. Her feverish heartbeat calmed as she drifted into a dreamless sleep, deep and still as a forgotten lake.
The following day, Helen brought the stone children to work. In the wicker basket with the thick arching handle, they looked like strange Easter eggs. Helen rocked them to sleep beneath her desk, only half-listening to Liz.
“You should have come. It was amazing. I’m still recovering.” And she looked it, the foundation and mascara failing to disguise sallow skin and dark-ringed eyes. Is that how I used to look?
Helen made a promise to go next time to assuage Liz and get her to leave.
Liz frowned for a moment before forcing a grin.
“Next time,” she said, and slipped out of the office.
Helen stopped rocking the basket and leaned forward in her chair, listening. When the sound of Liz’s heels disappeared, she bolted from her chair and ran for the stairwell.
The bathroom was pristine as ever, smelling faintly of bleach and lilacs. The stone child waited for her in the first sink. Rounder and fatter than his siblings, his rosy form bespoke of a cheerful and open nature. Helen scooped him from the basin, warm and wet in her hands. She wrapped him with a cloth she had brought and delivered him to the others.
His presence soothed them. Flanking him in the basket, his sisters nestled close and cooed in their sleep. That night when Helen awoke from a dream of a beach full of laughing gulls and broken bottles, the soft sounds of sleep still came from their basket.
On Thursday, Helen found another brother. Long blue veins stretched across his gray marble flesh. He was thin and long, and his hands clasped each other across his chest in a frozen act of pleading. His nervous energy roused the other children. They looked to Helen for answers once more. They cried if left alone even for a moment. She carried them around the apartment in their basket. They watched her cook dinner, but would eat none of the soup even after she strained it and offered it up in little spoons.
On Friday, the children were restless under her desk no matter how Helen rocked or cooed at them. Her only hope was that the fifth child, and there would be a fifth, of that she was certain, that the fifth child would restore the calm. But getting upstairs alone had been impossible. Liz had hovered over her all day.
“Why are you so busy all of the sudden? Have you been taking on projects I don’t know about?”
“No, I’m just behind.”
Liz narrowed her eyes in disbelief.
“What’s going on, Helen?”
“Nothing, really. Actually, I could use a break. Let’s go out to the café on Main.”
Liz’s face lit up. “Great, I’ll get my purse.”
As Liz hurried out, Helen called after her. “Go ahead, I’ll meet you there.”
Liz flared her nostrils and scowled, but continued down the hall. Helen didn’t wait for her to disappear around the corner before rushing for the stairwell. It was late, much later than she had ever visited the room before. A sense of worry fluttered in her chest as she lurched up the stairs, two at a time.
The worry flared into panic as she reached the bathroom alcove. Both doors were ajar, propped open with wooden wedges. Helen rushed inside. As the lights hummed awake overhead, they shone down on a row of empty sinks. In disbelief, Helen dipped her hands into each one, triggering every faucet, but the water splashed into empty basins. There was no fifth child.
Helen could not accept that. She felt in her heart when she looked at the others that the set was incomplete. Helen called out, but only her footsteps against the tiles answered. Crouching, she looked under the sinks, then around the trash can, until she was crawling on her hands and knees, just as she had been the night of the miscarriage, wracked with panic and guilt. She had felt as if someone was in her uterus with a knife, cutting out her heart. Just the memory made her ill. She crawled to one of the toilets, worried the burning at the back of her throat might become more.
Then she saw her. A small, clay-colored child with large, staring eyes lay wedged between the wall and the toilet base. Helen’s breath caught in her chest as she noticed the jagged scratch etched into the brown stone flesh. She lifted the child and pressed her to her chest. In that manner, she went back downstairs. She didn’t care if anyone saw. As she placed the wounded sister in the basket, the others awoke.
Five pairs of eyes screamed to Helen for help. She was drowning in their cries. Surely others could hear, too, and would come looking. In a panic Helen grabbed the basket and left. From her backseat, they called out for comfort, but she could not comfort them. She sped down the road, past Liz sitting outside a café with a sour look on her face. She went into her apartment and put the basket on the kitchen table. With frozen mouths, they cried their stone cries, and Helen could do nothing. She rubbed ointment over the wound of the last child, but that small one stared at her the most intently and cried the loudest.
Helen felt awash in emotion. Everyone was right; it was best she was not a mother. She leaned over the basket and wept and wept and wept. Showered by her tears, the stone children grew quiet. Their stares, their silent pleading, those did not yield, but the crying lessened. In a moment of inspiration, Helen pulled the jar of sea salt from the cabinet and carried the basket of children to the bathroom. She poured the salt into the tub and ran both taps at full until steam and a faint scent of the ocean filled the room. One by one, Helen placed the stone children into the tub. With the first, she worried that she had gone mad, that she was drowning them in her madness. But Opal’s wavy face gazed up at her with a look of relief. This was not an answer, but at least it was comfort. Helen lifted the final child, such a small stone compared to the others, and noticed tiny golden flecks within her form. Once she was placed in the tub, the apartment was quiet and Helen could think beyond her own battered nerves.
But the quiet was soon broken. From her bedroom, the phone rang. Helen imagined Liz, irate after being stood up. She didn’t pick up. But the caller tried again and again. The children in the tub motionlessly blinked up through the ripples. “Answer it,” they said. So Helen did.
“Helen?” It was Ethan. There was no cheerfulness in his voice and no laughter in the background, only the call of the seagulls, and even they sounded mournful.
“Helen, I’ve been doing some thinking. Maybe this isn’t the right place for me, you know? I think the karma of what I’ve done has caught up with me. I’ve heard some hurtful things about myself that I’ve never heard anyone say before. And maybe she didn’t mean any of it, but I can’t help but think that it’s all related to how I ended our relationship. Do you see what I mean?”
“No,” Helen said, though she was only half-listening. The children were calling from the bathroom. She could hear their words rising up like bubbles. “She who?”
“That’s not important now, Helen. I’m trying to say that I’m coming back to the East Coast. The transfer’s already gone through so I’ll be home in a couple weeks. I think we should try again, start over. What do you think?”
“Ethan, I’ve got to go.”
Ethan’s protests were silenced sharply as she slid the phone back onto the cradle. The sounds in the bathroom drew her in. The air there shimmered with heat and energy. The tub boiled with the words of the stone children.
Ma ma ma ma ma ma….
Helen felt overwhelmed. If she could have cracked open her rib cage and set each one beside her beating heart, she would have. Instead she stripped off the garments of her sad life and climbed into the bubbling water.
As Helen wound her way up the empty parking garage, the late morning sun came through the sides and blinded her. Why was she here on a Saturday? There were only five. She believed that, but she had to be certain after what happened with the last one.
She slid her key card at the front door and smiled at the guard as she crossed the lobby. He raised an eyebrow at the sight of the basket, but said nothing. Helen was surprised to find the lights on the fourth floor already on. She saw no one, but music came from behind the closed meeting door. She hesitated.
The whimpers of the stone children brought her back to her purpose. She moved the blanket that covered them. Delicate eyelashes traced the almond eyes that gazed up at her. She moved to the bathroom which was already brightly lit. Helen was not alone. The sound of weeping came from the furthest stall. She stepped back quietly, not wanting to intrude, but something about the weeping tugged at her. It sounded so familiar. She made her way to the stall and hesitantly rapped on the door.
It swung inward to reveal a sobbing woman draped over the toilet. She lifted her head to gaze up at Helen with stone eyes. Helen gasped. She jumped back as the woman stretched out iridescent arms. But the stone woman did not reaching for Helen, she stretched toward the basket. Helen saw that she had not covered the stone children again. Their little mouths silently called “ma ma ma” to their mother-of-pearl mother.
Helen felt betrayed by this change. She had rescued them. She had cared for them. Last night she was their mother. She held the basket just out of reach.
The stone woman stopped grasping and looked up at Helen.
“Are you the Goddess?” she asked, her voice a whispered rumble.
“Me?” Helen was stunned. No one would ever mistake her for a deity.
“You’ve saved my children. You’ve done the impossible. You must be the Goddess.”
The woman stood. She slipped her smooth fingers between Helen’s to clasp the basket handle as well. The stone children sighed with joy. Helen looked down at their smiling faces. Even the marble-boy was at peace. She released the basket.
“You have given me life again,” the stone woman told her. “I will never forget that. I will return and speak of the magnificence of your face.”
Questions spun in Helen’s mind. She did not know which to ask first. The stone woman gazed down at her adoring children, oblivious to Helen’s turmoil.
Approaching voices pulled Helen back to the awareness that they were standing in a women’s bathroom. One voice rose above the others. Helen recognized it instantly: Liz.
The stone woman heard the voices too.
“The Others?” Her voice trembled and she clutched the basket close.
Helen gripped the woman’s shoulders and pushed her into the stall.
“Take care of the children. I’ll handle this.”
Backing out, she ran a finger over the cheek of the opal child, her first. Then she rushed to the bathroom door. The voices were just outside.
“I will never forget you,” the stone woman called out from the stall.
Then in a cacophony of hinges, tile, and flesh, Helen pulled the door open and crashed directly into Liz. Liz swelled to lash out in anger, but recognizing Helen, recoiled with icy composure to wait for a better strike. The two other women stood back and watched.
“What are you doing here?” Liz spat.
“What are you?” Helen rejoined.
Liz blinked in surprise, but quickly resumed her narrowed glare.
“We,” she indicated the other women, “are organizing the company picnic. You’d be part of that, too, if you weren’t too busy standing people up.”
For a moment, they stared at each other, Helen not moving from before the door.
“I know what you’ve been doing here,” Liz said finally.
“You do?” Fear fluttered in Helen’s stomach.
“I’m not an idiot. I know where the sub-director’s office is located.” Liz pointed to a door at the end of the path before the bathrooms. “Do you think a promotion will fix everything else in your life?”
The words sunk into her flesh like a venom. In the past, the poison never failed to take hold and bring fever-visions of failure and sickening bouts of self-loathing, but this time Helen felt something within her resisting.
Liz put on her false-sympathy face.
“Oh, Helen, this isn’t healthy. It’s really time you let the whole experience go. It wasn’t meant to be, and let’s face it, you would have been a terrible mother.”
Anger flared in Helen and, for once, she didn’t push it down. Her hand flew out and struck Liz across the mouth. She felt the teeth like stones beneath the flesh of the lips.
Liz covered her mouth and stared at Helen in shock. The two other women grabbed Liz and pulled her away. Wordlessly, they hurried toward the elevators. Helen knew there would be no repercussions on Monday; Liz was too proud. Once in the elevator, she would threaten the other women to silence while drops of blood fell from her mouth.
Helen stood guard before the door, watching their retreat. She felt enlarged, alive, potent.
When the others were gone, she rushed back into the bathroom. She called to the woman, but there was no answer. She pushed open the stall door to reveal a vacant space. They were gone: the stone woman and her multi-colored children.
Her anger faded. Helen felt small again. The realization that there would be no stone children to rock to sleep that night stung her. But she felt something else too. She looked into the mirror. The face that stared back seemed tired, but had a strength there, too–the strength to start again. Not with Ethan, but with herself.
Helen walked to the door and stopped for a final look around at the room. She could not help but laugh as she imagined about a world where the face of a goddess wore the drawn features of a mid-level accountant.