Birthmarked Page 39

"Come with me, Mom," Gaia whispered, beckoning.

"Where are we going?"

"We have to find a place to hide you," Gaia said, hoping she sounded more confident than she felt. "Are you okay?"

She nodded. "For now." She held one hand to her stomach, and Gaia reached for the other.

Gaia checked down the hallway once more and looked along the ceiling for camera lenses, seeing none. She had no idea how to find her way out, but she knew generally where the courtyard and the school she'd escaped through before must be, and she headed in that direction, north through the building. Her mother couldn't go far. When she came to a corner, she looked again for camera lenses and saw none. Either Mabrother Iris didn't see a need for surveillance in the secure, upper hallways of the Bastion, or the Bastions inhabitants insisted on their right to privacy.

They passed several doors, hearing nothing behind them, and then the hallway opened onto a long, covered balcony.

"Let me rest," her mother said, leaning over.

Gaia could see a courtyard three stories below. At Gaia's level, arched openings and pillars led all around the upper perimeter of the courtyard in one continuous balcony. Voices carried upward, and Gaia ducked down behind the balustrade, bringing her mother with her so they would be out of sight.

"Where are we?" Bonnie asked.

"Near the school," Gaia said. "If we can cross around to the opposite side of the balcony, we'll be above the school, and there might be another way down."

A whistle blasted and loud voices came from below.

"Attention! We have an escaping prisoner. Let no one in or out of the Bastion. All guards to your stations! Immediately!" The whistle blew again.

Gaia heard a flurry of footsteps along the hallway behind them, and when she turned, she found Rita and a young man skidding to a stop before them. Her red, sleeveless dress was askew, and the buttons of his brown shirt were half undone.

"Oh, no," Gaia whispered, sheltering her mother behind her where they crouched.

Rita's honey-colored hair was tumbled around her face, her expression grim. The young man hurriedly stepped forward, shielding Rita behind him.

"It's them!" the man cried.

Beside Gaia, her mother moaned quietly again, and Gaia lifted pleading eyes to Rita. The man leaned toward the balcony, clearly intending to yell an alarm, but Rita clutched his arm.

"Not a word, Sid," she said in a sharp low voice. "If you call down, they'll find you and me together. Is that what you want?"

Sid backed away from the balcony, his expression openly confused and angry. "But, Rita-- !" he began.

"Be quiet," she snapped. Rita came forward and crouched beside Gaia. Gaia felt her frowning, penetrating gaze. "It's you," Rita said in a flat tone. "Why am I not surprised? Are you insane?" She scowled at Gaia's mother, and then back at Gaia. "What are you doing with her?"

"She's my mother," Gaia said.

Rita's almond eyes widened in shock, and then she glanced quickly at her boyfriend. "Give me a hand," she said. "Quickly."

Sid hesitated another moment with his powerful arms crossed, and then he angrily moved behind Gaia's mother. "You're going to get us both killed," he whispered to Rita.

Rita was leaning over. "No, you are, moron," Rita said to Sid. "Hey. She's in bad shape, isn't she?"

Gaia guided her mother up with Sid's help, and then pulled her mother's arm around her neck and braced her against her hip.

"Come on," Rita said.

But Gaia's mother let out another moan and her knees buck-led. Sid swore and scooped her up into his arms.

"Where to, genius?" he demanded.

Rita turned back the way they'd come and hurried them along a narrow hallway, then up another staircase. They were going farther from the only way Gaia knew out of the Bastion. Yet she had no other choice than to trust Rita, and a few moments later, Rita pushed open the door of a small room. Gaia, and Sid with his burden, followed her closely inside.

As Gaia shut the door, Sid knelt on the floor and gently laid Gaia's mother on the wood where she sagged, her face contorted in pain. Gaia was dimly aware that they'd entered a long, narrow room with shelves along the walls. She crouched beside her mother, taking her hands. "It's okay, Mom," Gaia said.

She glanced up at Rita, who was passing her a pile of white towels and sheets. "Here," Rita said. "We have to go. I'm sorry, but this is the best I can do. I have to get Sid out of here some' how. Sid," she said to him. "We're going past the library, to the school. You're going to be okay."

They heard more shouting noises and loud footsteps passing in the hall. Gaia saw Sid's face go chalky with fear, and she was certain hers was the same. Rita had her hand on the door' knob, waiting. As she tucked a strand of her blond hair behind her ear, Rita looked utterly unflappable.

"If you make it until dark," Rita said, frowning, "I might be able to come back. But don't count on it."

"Thank you," Gaia said. It was still hard to breathe normally. "You saved our lives." She slid several towels under her mother's head for a pillow and glanced up again at Rita.

"I heard what you did for that convict's baby," Rita said. "That was the bravest thing."

"What?" Sid said, obviously confused.

But as Gaia understood, she was filled with gratitude. "I just had to," she said.

Rita gave a determined nod, and her eyes flashed once more in Bonnie's direction. "Take care of her."

"What baby?" Sid insisted. "How do you know this guy?"

Gaia realized he had not yet recognized who she was.

Rita took Sid's arm. "Are you ready, my sweet troglodyte?"

"You re the one slowing us down," Sid said.

Gaia watched them hesitate one more instant by the door, and then Rita opened it and they were gone.

As Gaia focused again on her mother, she saw that her eyes were closed. Her face was relaxed in the relief and exhaustion that came between contractions. It was frightening how quickly her contractions had started up, and how intense they were. Gaia knew, since her mother had had three children, that this fourth child could arrive more quickly and with less pain than the earlier ones, but she was also alarmed. She had no assistance and no tools to use during the delivery.

"It's okay, Mom," Gaia said softly, when her mother moaned again.

"Heaven help us," her mother said. "What have we come to?"

Gaia glanced more carefully around the room to see what there might be to use, and mentally thanked Rita again for her quick thinking. They were in a kind of laundry room or giant linen closet, with rows of shelves where towels, sheets, and blankets were neatly folded. At the end of the room, two large, white cloth bins stood on rollers, and from the way their sides bulged, Gaia guessed they were full of dirty linens. At the end of the narrow room, a tall, thin window let in enough sunlight for Gaia to see easily. A look at the door showed her there was no bolt. Anyone could come in at any minute to discover them.

Gaia took a quick look at her mother's closed eyes and hurried to the end of the room, near the window. She rolled aside the two bins and quickly layered blankets and sheets into a pad against the wall. Here, with the bins arranged to block the view, they would be shielded from a cursory glance into the room.

"Mom," Gaia said, and her mother opened her eyes. "Can you move with me, down there?" She pointed.

Her mother nodded and held up a hand. Gaia gripped tightly, and helped her mother to a hunched, standing position. Carefully, moving slowly, they passed the shelves, and her mother sank onto the makeshift mattress. Gaia bunched fresh towels under her head, and collected the others from where they'd first come in. With the bins arranged at Gaia's back and the window above her mother, Gaia had the sense of being in a sort of laundry nest. She pulled off her jacket so the extra cloak and the rope fell out of her shirt. When she tossed off her hat, she felt a piece of the mask along her forehead break free with the brim.

"There you are," her mother said gently with a crooked smile.

"I'm sorry, Mom," Gaia said. Her throat tightened. "I didn't know you were pregnant when I came for you. You would have been safer if I'd left you with Sephie. Should I go back for her?" She remembered Sephie was drugged into sleep. "Or find another doctor?"

Her mother shook her head and touched a finger to Gaia's cheek. "I want to be with you," she said. "Couldn't be in better hands."

Gaia let out a choked laugh. "How early are you?"

"I'm around thirty five weeks. It'll be a small one. But it's strong." Her mother caught her breath, and Gaia put her hands on the bulge under her mother's dress, feeling the contraction tighten her belly. When it eased, Gaia gently lifted her mother's gown out of the way. Blood was seeping out of her mother, oozing onto the white towels. Gaia's heart froze, and then started up again in alarm.

"Don't worry, Mom," Gaia whispered. "I'm going to see how dilated you are, okay?"

She nodded, and Gaia examined her, feeling the hard knob of the baby's head. She forced herself to smile at her mom, and wiped her hands on a clean towel. Her mother had another contraction, visibly gritting her teeth with the strain. She stopped, panting.

"Fm almost there, aren't I?"

Gaia grabbed her hand, holding hard. "Yes," she said.

Her mothers face was an awful, pale color. The contractions came steadily then, one wave after another. Gaia helped as best as she could, waiting for the first moment her mother would cry out and knowing the noise would bring the guards. With a shaking hand, her mother reached for one of the towels, and before the next contraction, she put it between her teeth. When next the pain came, she bit into the towel, and at that moment, her baby's head slipped out. Gaia quietly encouraged her, and with one more contraction, the rest of the body slid out.

Gaia s mother collapsed backward in relief, turning her colorless face toward the light of the window. Gaia was concerned by the blue, mottled color of the baby, but awed by its astonishingly small, perfect shape. She swiped a finger through its mouth and rapped it smartly on its back. Nothing. Laying it on a clean towel, she compressed its chest several times, then covered its tiny mouth and nose with her mouth and breathed lightly. The baby jerked. Gaia breathed again and gave the baby one more smack, and then it cried, a tiny, mewing, peevish cry. Relief washed through Gaia, and her mother turned her face to see.

The baby's color began to change with each more assertive cry.

"Oh, Gaia," Bonnie said, reaching. "Let me have him."

"She's a girl," Gaia said, and passed her over.

Gaia's hands were trembling. She watched the loving, tender way her mother drew the little baby close to her face, and she smiled at the abrupt silence when the baby stopped crying and instead made a soft, smacking noise with her tiny lips. This was one of the smallest babies Gaia had delivered, and like other early ones, it was also covered with a cream' colored substance. Beneath, her skin was deepening to a healthy red.

Gaia refocused her attention on her mother, and saw there was something terribly wrong with the way blood continued to pulse slowly out of her. Gaia cleaned up the afterbirth and massaged her mother's abdomen, guiding the womb to con' tract. She did everything she knew to make it stop, but still the blood was coming, more than it should.

"Mom," she said. "You're still bleeding. What am I supposed to do?"

"Do you have any shepherd's purse?"

Gaia shook her head. "I don't have anything here. Nothing at all."

Her mother winced, and seemed to be holding her breath. She licked her lips and turned her gaze to Gaia, who couldn't bear it when her mother tried to smile.

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