Giver | Molly Lynch | Granta


Molly Lynch

My milk is green. That’s what Laurel tells me when I give it to her on day three. Too much salad, she says.

I see what she’s talking about – a luminescent, grassy hue as she holds the glass bottles up to the light.

It’s not that we can’t offer it green, she says. We can. We do. We call it extra live. Extra? I say.

Some clients request it, she says. But most of them prefer it creamy, you know? Another reason to eat oatmeal.

The first reason, I’m aware, has to do with the theory that oatmeal triggers a happy hormone that’s good for milk production. I know this from the literature that Laurel gave me on day one – a booklet with tips on how to relax at the pump. Look at baby pics, it says. Enjoy the feeling of giving.

Laurel pats my shoulder. Try eating more oatmeal!

Like for dinner?

She makes a surprised and interested face like it’s not a bad idea, like even she might try that. But she doesn’t need to try that. Laurel’s not here to give milk. She’s here to take it away.

This she does. After tapping an iPad and recording my volume, which is a low four ounces, she carries my bottles through the padded, swinging doors that separate the milk room from the rest of the place.

I haven’t seen the rest of the place. I only know that it hangs over the side of a cliff and that the Pacific Ocean is down below, exploding whitely against jagged rocks. Apart from the staff parking lot, I’ve only seen the milk room.

The milk room is beige and long and lined by a row of cubicles. Women’s heads poke up above partitions. The space is filled with the sounds of breast pumps at work: a mechanical moan-gasp-moan-gasp-moan-gasp many times simultaneously. Some of the machines also make small squeaks and cries.

Like an orgy, Xiaoyue said to me on day one. A fucking orgy – her actual words. She said this was why the women wear headphones. Why I needed to wear headphones. The next day I brought headphones.

Xiaoyue pumps in the cubicle on my right. On my left is a tiny woman I have yet to speak to. She has roughly shorn, bleached hair and a heavy frown.

So far the routine has gone like this: you pump for about half an hour, give Laurel whatever comes out, then go walk in the garden while your supply replenishes. The garden is a walled-in zone with a mulched path that cuts an oval through shrubby pines. There are a couple of benches where women congregate in clusters or pairs. They chat, eat packed lunches or chew on the soft-baked oatmeal cookies from Laurel’s big tray. After about half an hour of this, or when you feel ready, you go back to your pump for another round, and so on, until you’ve given fifty fluid-ounces or until six p.m., whichever comes first. I’ve had to stay until six p.m. every day.

Yesterday Laurel told me that my low volume was fine. She reminded me that I still have until day ten to reach the magic number fifty. More than three pints. She said, Don’t worry babe!

But what I heard was: Do worry babe. Because if you’re not giving fifty ounces by day ten, you’re out. And then you’re screwed again. You and your child. Back on the road looking for something else. Of course there’s always hair to sweep. Or someone to buy your hair. Or your individual eyelashes. You’ve got nice eyelashes. Eggs obviously go for more than eyelashes, but you’d want to have health insurance for that, in case something goes wrong during extraction. And then there’s your ovary tissue. The market for menopause reversal is growing.

And obviously, if it comes to it, there’s the dried placenta that you keep in case of emergency. But we don’t want that. We’re not into stripping you. We’re into well-being.





At three o’clock Xiaoyue returns from Laurel’s counter and makes a loud sighing sound.

She tosses a sheaf of glossy black hair over her shoulder, gathers various tote bags from her booth, then turns to me, twiddles four fingers and winks. I try to say bye, but my voice sticks in my throat. Soon after, the tiny woman with the big frown leaves too. And other women get up to go. I imagine the fifty fluid-ounces recorded in Laurel’s tablet beside each of their names. I feel shaky.

Pinkish brown nipple-flesh stretches in two flanges. Mariah Carey sings ‘Fantasy’ in my headphones but I can still hear my pump. It sounds desperate. A single drop of milk clings to my right nipple like a promise. Or a taunt.

At six o’clock I’m at a cumulative seventeen ounces. Laurel takes my last drops and says, Thanks babe!

I leave the way I came, with a couple of other stragglers, down concrete steps to the staff parking lot. I get into my car, a Honda with no muffler, and rip down the steep winding road toward the coast highway. It’s late April and the air is misty, but a veil parts and I see the sun bleeding over the ocean and for a moment I feel lucky to see this. But I know this feeling. It’s the at least feeling. It comes from things like scavenging a half jar of Ossetra caviar after massaging feet at a bridal shower on a luxury yacht. Fish eggs for lunch tomorrow, at least, you think as you ride a in a dinghy back to a harbor. It comes as you bag an unfinished bottle of vintage wine or the abandoned display fruits of a brunch buffet, or as you look at a beautiful view. So often it does come from a view, the one thing that the person you served couldn’t consume.





Helen shrieks when I walk into the motel cabin. Her mouth is huge and red. She runs at my legs and clings. Natalie, the teenager from sitters dot com, gets up off the floor and reaches for her phone. But then she stalls, crouches low and says, Bye bye, Helen. Bye bye.

Bye bye! Helen bawls at her. Bye bye!

Natalie’s gone before I have time to ask her anything. Like did Helen poop? Or eat dinner?

I hear her car start up. My phone chimes. It’s Natalie’s Venmo request. Did you poop? I ask as I hoist Helen up.


Did you eat dinner?

Happy! she says, but her lip pulls down like a cartoon sad face. Yet it’s not a cartoon at all. It’s very real. So is the black bowl cut and the round doll eyes. Helen strokes my cheeks with both of her little hands. Mama! Happy! she says, but tears spill from her eyes and something rushes from my brain to my boobs and I feel a tight tingling that transforms into a wetness suddenly spreading across the front of me. I look around for some container, but the milk wastes itself into the black cotton of my Rihanna Anti Tour T-shirt. Shit, I say.

I put Helen down with her Winnie dolls, which are all over the floor mixed with dried macaroni. Orange peels are strewn around the kitchenette. A packet of cheese sits open. I need to buy more food, but apart from the truck stop at the highway junction, there are no groceries nearby. I pocketed cookies from Laurel’s tray. I give one of these to Helen and change my T-shirt. I manage to order pizza, nothing green on it. While Helen eats cookies, I try to sweep the floor.

Helen shrieks with joy. She vaults off the couch, waddles over and grabs at the broom. I let her have it. The broomstick bashes the counter. She whips around, sweeping the walls. Joy overtakes her.


The pizza doesn’t arrive. I call a number but nobody answers. I boil water and make oatmeal. Helen and I eat it for dinner. Then I get her ready for bed. She’s very cuddly and sweet as I read her a book about a magic spaghetti pot. But when I tell her it’s time to sleep, she screams and her face turns dark red. I try to put her pajamas on but she writhes, then flops, then writhes again. We wrestle. It’s bedtime, I say.

Not ky-ing! she wails.

You can cry if you want. It’s okay to cry! Happy! she shrieks, tears pouring down. Happy!

I feel like crying. I feel like flopping, then writhing and flopping again. I worry about what these feelings will do to my milk supply.

Eventually I get Helen into the portable crib at which point she grows calm and very still.

I go out onto the front stoop of the cabin and quietly close the door. The night is warm and there’s a soft whooshing sound. A truck brakes and sighs at the highway junction nearby. I open my message thread with Helen’s dad as if I might find something new, something happy. Instead I see our last exchange and I quickly close the app.

I open a website for local apartment rentals. It’s not that I haven’t already looked. Not that I didn’t look before leaving San Bernardino. And not that it was ever going to be surprising. The smallest studios on the entire Oregon coast charge weekly rates. They also have special names. Eternity Retreat. Zen Ocean Haven. Each of these is pre-furnished. Zen comes with a stone buddha and a mini fountain in an ornamental bamboo garden. Zen’s weekly charge is the same as what I’ll make in a month at the center.

As I scroll, a car pulls up and stops in front of my cabin. A kid comes out with a pizza box. Hey, he says. Cabin nine?





Day four. I tell Natalie there’s cold pizza in the fridge and get on the highway and drive south along the ocean. Light and movement everywhere. Waves with no clear direction. After forty minutes I reach the sign with the white teardrop. The center has no name, just the logo. My Honda destroys the tranquility of its entryway.





The morning pump is supposed to your biggest. So says the literature. Your gold mine. Not for me. Today, after thirty minutes, a couple of watery inches is all I have in each bottle. It’s not green this time, but not white either. It looks grey, like mop water. Laurel holds a bottle up, softly biting her lower lip, tilting her head to the side. She says nothing about the quantity and nothing about color. She just taps her tablet, smiles and hands me my tall glass of water. Drink up, babe!

I go out to the garden to try to replenish so I can give more.

Give. That’s the word they use in the instruction book. Laurel says it too: Giving less than your last pump, babe. Or: If you want to give more, you can try nature sounds in your headphones. Or: One of you is going to be giving to an extremely famous quarterback today.

Outside the air is breezy but muggy. Birds peep in the pines. I start to walk a slow lap. I come to the first bend and approach a group of women. They’re laughing about something. One of them catches my eye. The tiny woman with the shorn, bleached hair and big frown, who sits on my left.

Hi, I say to her.

Frida, she replies. She sticks out her hand. I take her hand and give her my name.

Xiaoyue is among the group. For a moment I hover on the edge. But Frida makes a move and then there’s a shifting of shoulders, glances and the circle opens and takes me in. There comes an offering of names: Violeta, Cheryl, Sampaguita, Jen.

I learn that they’re talking about a senator from Colorado who’s apparently visiting the center. They joke about him signing booby bills. Then they joke about a regular client who supposedly is sending a spaceship to Mars and how he’s becoming mama’s-milk bros with the famous quarterback. I relax. I know this conversation. It happens in all the service quarters, behind those quiet doors of spas, across partitions, in galleys, kitchens, after closing. The ones who do the serving indulge a special power over those they serve: to laugh, mock, diss, say it as it is. Here, you don’t even get to see them. Pop stars, models, oligarchs, tech innovators, people hailed as geniuses for making money out of money.

Jen leans to me and says, How did you find out about this place?

A lady dressed the same as Laurel gave me a card in the hospital where my baby was born.

Jen nods. Did she also ask about your placenta?

She said the best way to preserve it was to dehydrate it.

You dried yours?


Smart. I wish I’d kept all of mine, Violeta says. The price for those is on the up.

Don’t sell it here though, Cheryl says. You’ll get way more for it online when you need cash.

You know why you need cash? Frida says. Cause they don’t pay us enough. You know how much those clients are paying for just one little ounce of milk? Just one tiny, little ounce?

So much, Sampaguita says, looking at me. They pay so much for this stuff.

Frida looks at everyone. They need to pay commission, she says. Fifty-fifty.

Xiaoyue interrupts with a joke about the famous quarterback who, she says, wants it straight from the source. No middle, she says. He’s here to suck mama-titties.

The women relax again and cackle at this. Wide grins. Eyes winking. Mouths open, top teeth showing.

But Frida’s not laughing. Commission, she repeats.

Cheryl looks at Frida. The other place up the coast pays commission, she says.

Where’s the other place? I ask.

It’s shit there, Frida says. Shit commission.

You been there? I ask.

It’s in Washington, Cheryl says.

Washington’s shit, Frida says. Fifty-fifty is what they need to pay us.

Is rent better in Washington? I ask.

Everyone laughs at this, but in a low way, teeth clenched, no pleasure. Where do you rent? I say to them.

Jen squints and shakes her head, looking down at her feet. Supposedly they’re building a worker village, Cheryl says.

I hate those places, Sampaguita says. My sister’s in one outside Aspen. They bus you. It’s like two hours away from the jobs.

I’m in a motel, I say. But the guy there says I have to leave at high season.

Trade Winds? Cheryl asks.


That guy’s not kidding, Cheryl says. He doesn’t care if you got three kids with you.

If they paid fifty-fifty you could get a real house, Frida says.

You ever cleaned house around here? Jen says. Those things aren’t real. I turn to Frida. Where do you live?

She raises her finger and points it at me. You need fifty-fifty. Everyone gets quiet. Frida looks around. Fifty-fifty, she whispers.





In any case, there’s something off about the sunset. I notice it as I roar down the winding road after six o’clock. Stunning red, beautiful, you might think. But I see something in that red that reminds me of the inland, southern place I got away from, a place where everything’s burning unless you have an indoor pool or another home to fly to until the skies clear. But all you have is a converted garage with your newborn child. And you have to pay another child to take care of your child so that you can go to your various jobs: holding pressure points on scalps, shaving dead skin off live feet, rubbing oils into human crevices, mopping residual sweat out of marble corners, discarding balls of hair, the general care for the shells of those able to have those shells cared for. And all the while you get sorry texts from the father of your child as he drives long distances to help pay for your garage, telling you he has to go even further this time, which means that every night you’re alone with your baby and when it’s really hot you have to sleep with the garage door open and that means sleeping with one eye open because of the desert animals and people in search of an open garage to rest in, which is fine, but there are also straight-up bandits and as you sleep with that eye open you see something. A new kind of red. It can only be seen in latest hours. It pulses. It comes from people in the other garages, the people sleeping in cars, people outside in smoke and smog and danger. And a voice in you says, Leave. Go now. Go north. If there’s nothing in the north, go north again.





Helen wants to sleep in her tent. She has a little teepee, white canvas, propped up with four wooden poles. Natalie set it up on a blanket in the middle of the motel cabin. After dinner Helen curls up on her front and sucks her thumb, her raggedy bunny under her arm. She says, Mama, book!

I climb in with her, my legs sticking out, and read two books. Then I say it’s bedtime. She says, In tent.

I say, In your crib.

In her crib, I know where she’ll be. Penned in one place. A prisoner, but safe. That way I can sleep.

In tent! Mama too!

It’s bedtime, I say. And yet I also want what she wants, for her to sleep in a place that seems magical. I want her to want magic.

Surprisingly though, she crawls out. I feel conflicted. Fight back, I want to say as I get her ready. Resist.

Instead she curls up in her crib, cuddles her bunny, grows quiet.





I stand on the stoop in a tank top and open old messages between me and Helen’s dad. I scroll back in time, to when I was driving Uber with Helen in her car seat.

1 April I texted: Nursing Helen in a traffic jam on Ventura Freeway.

Customers would climb in and say, Aw! A baby! Or they’d say: A baby? A fucking baby?

3 April: Nursing Helen in the rideshare zone at LAX.

4 April: Going north next week. Milk gig in Oregon. I have to wean Helen.

10 April: I’ll drop you a pin when we arrive.



Day five. Frida turns a slow circle, looking from woman to woman, telling us how hard it is for this center to find ladies who can give them what they sell. Especially these days, she says. An inch of the real stuff is worth more than you even imagine. She speaks in a hoarse whisper, saying that rights aren’t something that serve themselves like a brunch buffet. Rights are made to order. They’re what you demand. Then she whispers: Imagine it.

Imagine fifty-fifty.

Xiaoyue chuckles. I’d pump two gallons a day if they gave me fifty-fifty.

How? I ask. How do you do that? How do you pump so much?

Cheryl clears her throat, clicks her tongue. A breeze moves the ornamental pines.

Xiaoyue winks at me.

The women murmur things. They shuffle. They head back in.





A vacuum pulls my nipples. Shakira sings ‘She Wolf’ in my headphones. I look up and see Frida’s eyes on mine. There’s command in her eyes. She draws something out of me. I nod.

When I look down, a pale white droplet parts from my nipple. Falls. Breaks.



My boobs ache. I can’t sleep on my front. I like to sleep with my arms under me, pinned.

A lot of people like that. People pay for that. I was paid for that. I used to have a job, decent enough, wrapping a woman.

She was very young and lived all alone in this huge Spanish colonial house with terraced gardens in the Pacific Palisades. Every night I drove an easy hour against traffic, down to the coast and up into the hills. I let myself in through iron gates and followed tiny lights along a garden path with jasmine and oranges, aloes and cereus. Water trickled somewhere. I reached a pool in a garden from where you could see ocean and the melting sun. At the door there was a thumbpad. I’d enter quietly, slip off shoes, go upstairs.

Her name was Honey. I think. I mean maybe that was part of the deal. The rest of the deal was that I went into her bedroom every night at eight o’clock and found her stretched long and straight in cotton pajamas at the center of a large bed. She’d be on top of a fine muslin cloth, spread out diamond-wise against the square of the mattress.

My job was to fold her in: halve the cloth, enclose her feet, tuck around shoulders, pulling remaining portions with strength, downward, rolling her body halfway up, tugging snug, returning her to her back. There she would be, swaddled, eyes closed. I brought my lips to her forehead and whispered three words: Sleep tight Honey. I left her door a crack open with the hall light on.

Sometimes on my way out I would stand under the swaying trees. No sound of highways up there. No sirens. Only insects and that trickling water. I could see the last of the sun on the ocean. Sometimes it looked wild, that light and water, more real than anyone noticed.

Sometimes I’d stand out there a long time, seeing that realness, feeling lucky to know it was there, but also not so lucky.

I related to Honey, at least in the way I have always liked the wrapped-up sensation of sleeping on my belly with my arms tucked under me, the sensation of sleeping tight. But that kind of sleep ended when I had a baby in my belly. So did the job. When Honey found out I was pregnant, she let me go. I guess she wanted to be the only Honey.

Five months before Helen was born I added a new line to my resume and looked for another gig. That’s when Helen’s dad started driving.



I get up in the darkness and find the apparatus. It looks like a small plastic trumpet. It came in the welcome package and is meant for the excess milk that, the literature says, may start to come at night. I push my breast into the trumpet’s mouth. I squeeze the lever and hear trickling, then gushing. It’s instant. I hit the light switch to see the bottle filling with white. White spews from the nipple. I pull my boob out and milk shoots across the room. I blurt out a laugh. I feel like I’m in a movie I saw once where a psychotic American prospector who’s been digging a hole for months finally hits oil and starts bathing in the stuff. I work one boob at a time. Twenty-five ounces in ten minutes.

What the hell? I say to no one. I can’t stop laughing. I bag the milk in ziplocks. I put them carefully in the freezer. I cannot wait for day seven.



Day seven, first pump, only five ounces. I worry about my brain. Did I hallucinate last night? I work hard on my second pump, squeezing my breasts like a farm animal, which does nothing to increase volume. During my third pump a bald man with a tanned head walks into the room. I’ve seen this guy before. He often comes in with a woman dressed in the same floaty fabrics as Laurel. They smile at us adoringly, and always make a point of keeping their eyes on our eyes, never looking down. This time, he’s having a video chat, holding a phone in front of his face. I hear him say, Co-lah-strum. With a c, he says. Yeah, he says. Liquid gold. Hard to source, but so rich.

Apart from one long, sweeping glance down the row of pumpers, he seems to pay no attention to us. He goes into the garden.



Frida says she’s been talking to the other ladies. She says they’re all in. It’s afternoon and we’re standing in the garden.

All? Cheryl says.

Whatever, Frida says. More or less.

You really think they’ll give us fifty-fifty? Jen says.

If we give them no choice, Frida says.

The women get quiet, making space for Frida. It’s easy, she says. Easy as saying go. We do it together. She says, Tomorrow morning we keep our shirts on.

Wait. Tomorrow? Cheryl says.

We stand up, Frida says. I do the talking. I say to Laurel, They want this? They pay!

Laurel goes and gets the big boss. I say to him, You want this? We want fifty-fifty. Women chuckle nervously. They glance around at the pines in the garden.

You know how much they lose if they shut down for an hour? Frida says. We shut it down for a day and you know what happens? They lose clients. Those celebs who came to drink your stuff fresh, to rub it into their skin, put it into their veins, whatever, those clients who got corporate mergers to make happen, missiles to trade, they’re not sitting around.

They’d just give them cow, Xiaoyue says.

Frida says, Spaceship guy knows cow if he comes here and has cow.

Nah, Xiaoyue says. Cornstarch, pinch of sugar. He doesn’t know cow.

Cheryl clears her throat loudly.

Listen! Frida whispers. If we cut off their supply, they lose Spaceship guy and the Secretary General of the United Nations and whoever else. They’ll all head up the coast to the other place.

Spaceship guy would get his own boobies, Xiaoyue says. His own private milk bar.

Exactly, Frida says. Exactly.

The women are quiet. Their eyes move between Frida and the hedges that surround us.

Xiaoyue’s smile grows bigger until it breaks into a cackle.

We do it, Frida whispers. She smacks a tiny fist into a hand. Tomorrow.

Like tomorrow-tomorrow? Cheryl says.

What’s the point waiting?

Other women glance again between Frida and the hedges. I’m already in, Xiaoyue says.

Right, Cheryl says. Yeah.

My heart pounds.



In the freezer, four ziplocks from last night sit solid. I feel solid. After I put Helen to bed, I take out the handpump and it flows again. As I look at this stuff, I imagine that up at the center people pay a thousand bucks an ounce. Then I imagine five-thousand. Then I imagine more. Why not? Then I imagine getting fifty-fifty. And after that I imagine a house, a nice window, flowers. And from there, I imagine everything.



I wake up in the dark to a tapping sound. I understand what’s happening. I get up and open the door. Helen’s dad stands there looking far away, though he’s closer than he’s been for a very long time. I hold up my hand in greeting. He holds out two bags of groceries. We stand for a moment, looking. He comes in and I close the door after him.

There’s only one bed, I say. You can have it.

I’ll take the couch.

No, I say. It’s saggy.

So I’ll take it.

No, me.

We do this for a while until I give up. I put the groceries away and go back into the bed. I fall asleep quickly but wake up soon after. I reach my arm out to touch. But the mattress beside me is empty.



In the morning Helen is elated. She goes around the cabin collecting her Winnie dolls and bringing them to her dad. I feel good too, bright anticipation filling me.

Helen’s dad looks under slept, punched in the eyes with exhaustion. He cuddles Helen.

She cuddles back.

I scramble the eggs he brought. I toast the bread. But as we eat together, he says that he’s in a dilemma.

What kind?

The company. They want to pay us in a new way. By the delivery instead of the mile.

Like commission? I say.


Isn’t that good?

Not if they send you far away. I have to go to Miami tomorrow.

Miami, Florida?


Is there another company?

They’re all pulling it. Nobody wants to pay.


They won’t give back my deposit. Remember how much I had to pay for training? They still have that.

Can you do something?

Like what?

Plan something. Organize.

He laughs. For a flash he looks light and beautiful and I remember something I almost forgot about him – the way he would become delighted by something impossible, a wild idea of what could be. He was like that when we met, both of us in community college, taking History of Human Civilization, and Biology Three Hundred together, learning about organisms and imagining that we could keep living in the way we were at that time, free, or so it felt, in the suspended reality of our student loans.

He lowers his face to his scrambled eggs. He rubs his eyes.



As I drive to the center, I feel nervous and nauseous. I search for the hopeful feeling I woke up with. But I can’t so much feel it as remember it. I picture someone strapping me down and using force to get the milk out of me. This mixes with thoughts of Miami. I shout over the muffler, Miami? Could you get any further?



In the milk room, Frida’s booth sits empty. As women settle in, they glance at each other. But she doesn’t arrive. Heads lower. I see the motion of women hooking up to pumps. I hear the first gasps as drums fill with air, the moans as they release. Xiaoyue swaps her earbuds for noise-canceling headphones. She glances at me once, then looks down.

The day stretches, droops, tightens. Laurel hands me a tall glass of water. Laurel smiles so sweetly it looks like she’s in pain. Is she in pain? Does she know what happened to Frida? Does she know what Frida wanted? Another glass of water. Another sad smile. I want to know the reason for her smile. I want to receive that reason, for the reason to enter me.

The other women break at odd times, no one’s in sync. Xiaoyue speed-walks a solitary lap out in the garden and I can’t catch up with her.

My nipples are yanked through the flange. In the last half hour, no milk comes.



Helen’s dad sleeps in the bed with me. At first we lie on our backs beside each other. But then something shifts and we roll onto our sides at the same time. Spooning, they call it. But to me it feels as though we are a ship in the stars. But not a spacecraft designed by a great innovator. It’s simpler, warmer. Stiffness flows off our bodies. I tug his arm in close, bringing his hand to my sternum, not my breasts. He gets what I want. He presses his hand there and holds me tight. We fall asleep that way. I get up in the night to pump, then go back to our ship. He leaves early in the morning.



It’s my first day off and the last day before my last chance. Day ten is tomorrow. I want to take Helen to a rainforest beach, someplace wild, but I end up working the handpump with the television on. My volume is incredible. As Helen curls listlessly on the couch, I bag milk and put it in the freezer.

Outside, I carry Helen to a patch of weeds beside the highway. I lay out a blanket. Helen waddles toward the highway. I go after her, scoop her up from behind. She screams and kicks. I manage to calm her, and for a moment we look at the clouds. When I close my eyes, the highway almost sounds like the ocean. Then Helen is up again, running back to the highway. I seize her body against her will and she fights back and I say, I know, I know. I carry her, thrashing, back to the motel cabin. In the fluorescent lighting of the room, her skin looks pale. Her nose is snotty. She won’t stop crying.

I warm up a bag of milk and pour it into a cup. I sip. It tastes plain and somehow uninteresting. But when I give it to Helen, she grows quiet. She gulps it down. I feel a calm I haven’t felt since the week I started this job, the week I weaned her.



I compose a text to Laurel, but don’t press send. I could still go back. I have one day to hit the fifty-ounce mark. I could thaw a ziplock, smuggle it in. I could up my volume every day like this.

It finally hits me. Xiaoyue, and all the ones who leave early, are doing just this. I can’t believe I’ve been trying so hard to pump in the day. And Xiaoyue probably doesn’t even pump at night at all. As soon as I think this, I see it: Xiaoyue pulling in at the Seven Eleven on her way to the center and grabbing a carton of cow. I see Cheryl running into her, the women catching eyes, Xiaoyue winking. I see her winking at me as she has been since day one, winking and winking, silently saying, Come on now.

Something fizzes in my veins. Frida was in on it too. But Frida also knew about something else, something better.

Day ten stands ahead of me like a door to a future in which I could eventually live with Helen in worker housing among all the others, everyone bussing in to do shifts at the Seven Eleven or the truck stop with its gas pumps or the gated compounds with all the other pumps. But it’s already too late. A different feeling is taking over, a familiar feeling, and yet there’s something new this time.

I hit send. I pack up the room, post the placenta on a wellness trader site, and within minutes the offers come in. I take Helen to a Walmart Supercenter. You want to sleep in a tent? I ask. She shrieks and runs down an aisle in glee. I give her a chase. She’s happy. Then we load up with propane canisters and a cookstove. As we wait in the line I hear a chime on my phone.

Laurel Venmo’s me what I’m owed, along with a one-tear emoji, a daisy and a note: We’ll miss ya babe!

Warm lightness reaches my head. I know this feeling. It’s the elusive high you get from turning your back on a place that wasn’t for you, and glimpsing, for a moment, something might be. This time I see us camping out on a beach, not just me and Helen, also her dad, and friends, fellow workers – no, collaborators. I imagine us strategizing, making a plan. For a moment I think I see it, the plan, elaborate, fantastic, not impossible. My heart pounds. I look around. I’m standing in the Supercenter with its faraway ceilings and long aisles. Your turn hon, a woman says. She’s pointing to a self-checkout machine.

The Honda carries everything: shoes, books, a play tent, a real tent and an ice chest packed with frozen milk for Helen. Helen is in her car seat, her sippy cup full. Her eyes are bright in my rearview mirror, watching the silver skin of sand at low tide, the ocean pulled back like a curtain to a secret world.

I text Helen’s dad: Going north. Going camping. Don’t know where yet. I’ll drop you a pin when we arrive.


Image © Rob Oo

Molly Lynch

Molly Lynch’s first novel, The Forbidden Territory of a Terrifying Woman, will be published by Catapult Books, June 2023. She grew up on the west coast of Canada, as well as in Dublin, Ireland. She now teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan.

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