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Robert P. Kaye

The Return Desk

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Mother and daughter approach the open counter of the Return Desk. It’s another busy day. “Hi, I’m Lori and this is Paris,” the woman says. “Is this where I trade in my kid?”

“Hi, I’m Ruth,” says the woman behind the counter. “Your contract please?”

Paperwork changes hands.

“Looks like you’re all set,” Ruth says. “Paris, please step through the red door.” She points to a wall across the back of the warehouse.

“Hold on,” Lori says. “I didn’t know this would happen so fast.” She thought there’d be interviews and counseling. She’d hoped someone would try to stop them.

“I understand,” Ruth says. “We find that ex-families adjust best if separation is sudden, but there’s no need to go through with it immediately. Or at all. We do ask that you step out of line if you don’t wish to proceed. The fee is non-refundable of course.”

“We decided,” Paris says. “You can’t do this to me mom.”

“We’d have to wait in line again?” Lori looks to the serpentine queue they’d stood in for hours, zig-zagging deceptively like Disneyland, which Lori hates for exactly that reason.

“Afraid so,” Ruth says.

“Do I get visits?” Lori says. “Are there updates? Emails?”

“That’s up to the ex-family,” Ruth says. “But we recommend a clean break.”

“Can we get on with it?” Paris says.

“Hang on,” Lori says. “What do the ex-whatevers do behind that door?”

“At Paris’s age, they go to school, listen to music and spend a lot of time on social media. Men pretend to work, but watch sports and porn, drink, that sort of thing. A surprising number of women cook and clean until they get the message nobody’s watching.”

“You don’t turn us into Soylent Green or sell us off as sex slaves like my mom thinks?” Paris says.

“God no,” Ruth says. “We’re structuring franchise opportunities in Europe and Asia. Can you imagine what that would do to our IPO?”

“Think of it mom,” Paris says. “No more fights over grades and test scores so I can get into a college I’ll hate anyway. Half my friends have done this. If you refuse I’ll hate you and you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”

“Casablanca,” Ruth says. “Her name’s Paris? I get it.”

Lori turns to Ruth. “Have you done this?”

“Yes, before I started working here. It sounds like my ex-son and I had similar issues as the two of you,” Ruth says. “My new daughter is in medical school now.”

“All right then,” Lori says. “How do I get a med school kid?”

“Luck of the draw,” Ruth says.

“It’s random?” Lori says. “I thought you got to pick.”

“Not random,” Ruth says. “First in, first out. FiFo.”

“So my replacement child could be worse?” Lori says.

“Like you can’t imagine worse?” Paris says. “Thanks. Roll the dice. You’re so indecisive.”

“You should be sure about something like this,” Lori says. Her heart hurts.

“You can never be sure,” Paris says. “And we’d have to wait in line again. Either I go or you do.”

Lori bites her lip, tries not to cry. She doesn’t want to hold her child back from the future she wants. Even if it hurts this much.

A bell rings. “Sorry,” Ruth says. “Our time’s up. I know it’s hard, but if you’re not decided I’m going to have to ask you to exit.”

“This is bullshit, mom,” Paris says. “It’s just so you.”

“Alright, alright,” Lori says. “Goodbye, my darling child.” She opens her arms for a hug, but Paris has already pushed through the gate, tossing a casual backhand wave before the red door shuts.

Lori places her hand on her chest.

“Breathe,” Ruth says. “A lot of moms pass out the first time. The pain subsides.”

“What happens if it doesn’t work out with the new one?” Lori says. “If we hate each other. Like Paris hated me.”

“You can always try again,” Ruth says. “There aren’t any guarantees, but we do have a rewards program. Just remember there’s nothing to be ashamed of. We all try to make parenting work as best we can, but life can be random.”

“And this is FiFo.” Lori laughs through her tears.

“Exactly, dear.” Ruth hands her a tissue and a card with a number. “Proceed to checkout to meet your new child. Congratulations from the Return Desk. I’m supposed to say ‘many happy returns’ but really I hope you’ll never have to come back.”

“Thanks,” Lori says. An unhappy looking father, mother and son are already walking toward them from the mouth of the line.

Lori follows the painted footsteps on the cement into the next room. A green door opens and a scared looking girl scans the crush for a matching number that will make everyone happy. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of their lives.

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