Marina held her baby close to her. Her baby. She was never supposed to have her, but she’d loved the baby right away. And when she named her, she knew that whatever name she chose had to shout that. She wanted to name her after the ocean, after flowers and rubies and the sun and the moon. So, she named her Belle, because she found out that it meant, “Beautiful.” Mostly, though, she just called her baby her baby.
Still, she could spell, “Belle.” She couldn’t remember what it looked like on paper, but she remembered the sounds they made when the nurse from the hospital spelt them out loud. Bee ee ell ell ee. She said those sounds to her baby every morning and night, so that her baby would always know what her name was.
Marina shifted in the hard grey folding chair. Her baby didn’t cry. Her baby was being good. She always was. The woman sitting in front of her, behind the grey painted metal desk, didn’t smile, though. “So,” the woman said, tapping her pen against a clipboard, “You want to work here.” She said the words slowly, and looked Marina and the baby up and down.
Marina smiled, so that maybe the woman would smile. The room was so stark, and so was the woman. The woman sat up straight, not slouching at all. Marina knew that was supposed to be a good thing, a healthy thing, but the woman sat as if there was metal-- cold, grey metal-- shooting through her veins. But Marina smiled. “Yes,” she said.
The woman ticked something off on the clipboard. She didn’t smile. “And you are how old?”
“I’m sixteen.” The woman eyed over Marina and her baby a second time.
“Sixteen,” she said, “sixteen.” She raised her eyebrows and her mouth fell into a thin, disapproving line. “We don’t usually hire under-eighteens.”
Marina kept her smile as steady as she could. “Sometimes it feels like I’ve lived a lot longer than just sixteen years,” she offered. She shifted in her seat. It was hard and uncomfortable, but her baby didn’t seem to mind. Her baby was so good.
The woman didn’t care. “But, you haven’t,” she said, still tapping with her pen.
Marina didn’t know what to say. The room was so dark and fluorescent. So metal and grey. It was too big and too concealed. The only pictures anywhere were faced away from Marina. As far as she could tell, maybe they weren't even pictures at all. Just frames. It was nothing like home. Her apartment, the one she shared with her parents and brothers and sisters and grandmother, was tiny but perfect. It was warm and colorful, and there was always laughing. There were never, ever any pens tapping on clipboards.
The woman sighed. “I don’t usually hire anyone under eighteen,” she said, again.
Marina hugged her baby closer to her. “I’m a good worker. Please.”
The woman sighed again, louder this time. “Well,” she said, “Do you have any special skills?”
Marina’s smile faltered before she could stop it. Not really, she didn’t think, but she couldn’t say that. She thought she was good at taking care of her baby, but she knew the woman didn’t care about that. The woman wanted her to say that she was perfect at using the cash register, or counting money, or smiling at customers with rampage in their eyes. So, she said the last one.
“Hmm,” the woman said. She didn’t look impressed. That was probably what everyone said. The woman stopped tapping, though, and rummaged through some papers.
“If you can just fill this out,” she said, “Someone will be able to get back to you in a few days.”
Marina swallowed. She eyed the papers. They had writing on them. She was expected to write on them. The woman put the papers on her lap. Marina stared at the papers, stared at the letters. They were just squiggles and loops and lines. Tiny squiggles and loops and lines. They didn’t mean anything. Couldn’t mean anything.
“Oh,” she said.
The woman looked over.
Marina blinked once. “I can’t read,” she said, but her tongue worked slowly, and it took forever to say.
“You can’t read,” the woman said.
Her baby was so good. She fell asleep on the long walk home. Home. Home was safe. No tapping, no needing to know anything. Marina could just stay home always. With her baby. Hold her, play with her, cook for her, teach her. “Bee ee ell ell ee,” she whispered to her baby. She was so good.