((I was asked about this story by a few people, reread it, and felt – as usual – that I didn’t even remember writing it! But here it is again, a strange story about a man and a woman, and a baby))
Anne wasn’t hit by a bus. She was standing still, staring at a painting she didn’t give a shit about, when her eyes glazed and she dropped her purse. It took Don five minutes to realize that something was wrong, to remember that Anne didn’t care about paintings or museums. Anne only really cared about the baby growing inside her.
That evening, Don had been in the hospital with Uncle Charlie, the sole member of Anne’s family that had medical training.
“It’s probably nothing,” he said, sipping a coffee.
Paramedics wheeled in a stretcher with an old lady on it. Don tried to spy her face, and wondered why they weren’t moving faster. “Shouldn’t they be moving faster?”
“It’s probably nothing,” said Uncle Charlie. Another sip.
An hour later, the doctor came. Hypovolemia – a sudden loss of blood. He said something about salt, to which Don said that he thought salt was a bad thing. Only if you have too much; if you have too little, that’s also bad, the doctor said. Next to him, Uncle Charlie nodded sagely, as if to say: “This is true. But it’s probably nothing.”
That night, Don slept on a plastic chair. The next morning, the doctor came back. “She’s in a coma. Yes, it’s serious. No, we don’t know about the baby, but we’re checking.”
Pickle. Anne was sleeping, but it was a strange type of sleep, and she felt that she was snoring loudly, but it was hard to tell. Her mind flitted to the baby. It was the only part of her body that she could feel. Am I drunk? she asked. No reply. The baby, it seemed, could not yet diagnose her sobriety. Kids, she snorted; but really, there was no snort.
Two months ago, she’d walked to the back porch and found the gazebo draped with curtains. That had been odd, but then she’d walked inside to find Christmas lights everywhere. On the floor were mattresses and pillows. And a naked Don. “No way,” she’d said, but that hadn’t prevented her from losing her clothes. There they’d fumbled, a sheet of vinyl separating them from the outside world and the neighbors locally dwelling within it.
“Pickle,” Don’d said, to get a laugh. “We’ll call him Pickle!”
Anne had jumped on top of him to tell him what she thought about that. For Don, it had been mission accomplished, his wife bouncing up and down with the furious, laughing conviction that their third child would never, ever be called Pickle.
Don read to her. He’d started with Knusgaard’s “A Death in the Family”, which he’d heard was genius because it used cute kid phrases. He’d stopped after fifty pages, because genius – what? Plus the relevance of the title to his current predicament had come crashing down on him in the open-mouthed stare of a nurse who’d glimpsed what he was reading.
Uncle Charlie sat in the corner with it now. Don was reciting “The Big Honey Hunt”, because the doctors had assured him that Anne’s mental activities were suspended. She was able to breathe and her bodily functions proceeded with help from hospital instrumentation, but the rest was done, so he might as well read a kids’ book. He’d picked a classic.
“This is terrible,” said Uncle Charlie, dropping Knusgaard. “Can I read one of yours?” He picked up Fox in Socks. Smiled.
Todd and Rayne came in. “She move?” Todd asked.
“She can’t,” said Don.
“Could happen though,” noted Rayne, snuggling next to her mother. “There’s a statistical chance.”
“Come on Mom,” added Todd. “You bought lottery tickets, and those odds were shit. It’s not like you didn’t think you could win.” He took a picture of Rayne on the bed. “Look at this,” he said, handing the phone to his dad.
On the screen, Rayne’s was almost like a second head under Anne’s, some kind of adorable mutant creature made of bed sheets and gown linen. Rayne’s eyes were open, and in the flash from the phone, it looked like Anne’s were too.
It was undefined, the amount of time it took for Anne to understand what had happened. You can only go so long without consciously going for a poop, she reasoned. Or eating. Most of all, she missed eating. There was something about chewing on food that made you feel human, and in her present condition, she was unsure of where she stood on the humanity scale. Low, she estimated. Very low.
Force your eyes open! she became fond of telling herself. She said it in three languages that she could claim to know, and after that, in new languages she made up, creating grammar and vocabulary on the spot until she was fluent.
“This is Don’s fault,” she surmised. “Some kind of ultra-aggressive pregnancy.” Words came in eight different languages. She swore in twelve.
Deeper inside, the baby was with her, a little boy. She could hear his thoughts. He was doing okay. Not great, but okay. He didn’t seem to be growing fast.
“Don’t worry about that,” she told him. “Don’t you worry at all. I’ll take care of this.”
And so she did.
“You’ve never looked thinner,” Don said to Anne. “Ninety pounds. I think you overshot your goal, though…” He kept his voice down, so the nurses wouldn’t hear. They were preparing to move her to the birthing unit. Anne’s belly was remarkable, shooting out of her diminished body like a pyramid.
“This is it,” he said. The books were gone. Even Uncle Charlie was gone. “First kid by C-section! I’m sorry about that. And no breastfeeding this time, I guess.” He thought back to the two plus years that Todd and Rayne had breastfed. Anne had even managed it in the back-seat of the car, stretching to the limit of the seat belt to pop a nipple into a waiting mouth. She had been the best.
“You’re the best,” he said. “And now you’re going to do it again.”
The nurses asked that he step out of the way. “Figure you can’t hear me, luv.” A nurse stared. “Wanted you to know that I’m getting a car big enough for three kids. And a diaper service. And pretty sure that I’m not going to remarry.” The same nurse made a sound. The rest huddled around the stretcher. They pulled it towards the door.
Anne felt sluggish, even for her. She’d been building a house in her head, not a big one, just enough for a family of five. She’d made a layout, placed the windows, picked paint colours and carpet. It was small but cute. Plain but sturdy. Just like her! she thought. Just like her.
She was moving… or not. She was in a brighter place, maybe. Weren’t those hands on her body? And wasn’t that a voice, maybe Don’s? Open your eyes, she told herself. Open your eyes.
Something pricked her. At once, she leapt inside and found her baby – baby of no name, baby still too small but doing just fine. “It’s okay,” she laughed, then curled around the child like a snake. “I’ve got this.” And then something tore into her, a tremendous volcano of something that made her constrict around the little life-form. For a moment, she saw herself, how small she’d become. Somehow, she’d gotten smaller as her baby had grown, as if they were growing towards each other – as though they were eventually going to be the same, somehow. As the tearing increased, she squeezed. “I’ve got this,” she laughed for the little boy. “I do.”
Don sat on the bed, baby in his arms. His wife’s eyes were closed. The wires and tubes that had kept her alive were to the side, like a sagging tree that hadn’t been watered.
“Knew you could do it,” he said to her. “Have to say, this one looks like me. Or Uncle Charlie, take your pick. He’s the heaviest baby we’ve had – didn’t see that coming.”
Baby made a sound. Anne was sleeping, it seemed. Her hair was in curls, and her mouth open on the pillow. In three months, she would have been 36. In thirty years, she would have been a grandmother. Don put baby next to her. “I know you’re wondering,” he said, taking a breath. “I know you want to know if I picked a name. Well, I did, and I think you’ll like it.”
He leaned over and whispered it into her ear. As he did, baby raised a hand and brushed his whiskers. The gesture seemed to say, “Hey Dad, don’t worry. I know this one’s tough, and I don’t have much to offer you just yet. But we got this. Really, we do.”
Don looked at the little life-form that was touching him. “Yeah, I know,” he said, and for a moment felt strange for talking like that to a baby. But the moment passed, as all moments did, and this one in particular so quickly that he barely remembered it having happened at all.