I’m one of the blind alleys off the main road of procreation.
Christine realized she was pregnant in late March of last year. Two mornings of vomiting and a pregnancy test taken over her lunch break confirmed it. She thought she could already feel the intruder glacially eroding her uterus. The tube looked like a cheap toothbrush, and she’d kept it under her counter at Kaki-Dans. She kept pulling it out every two minutes to confirm the two purple lines on the end. Positive. She’d turned twenty-one three weeks ago. There wouldn’t be many legal consequences for the drunkenness, but manslaughter by alcohol-induced miscarriage might be harder to pull off. She’d probably just end up with a retard, even dumber than James.
She thought about the joint bank account, and mentally added up the cost of a child. How much would it cut into their monthly paychecks? They’d have to give up drinks and burgers at O’Malley’s, maybe sell her car and take the bus to work. No, James would have to sell his car and take the bus. He’d also have to stop buying those Kurosawa and Fellini films off eBay. Maybe she could even sell his book collection online—Nietzsche, Heidegger, Rand, Faulkner, Balthasar, de Beauvoir, Swift—get at least a hundred bucks off those. She was so sick of looking at them, all lined up neatly in alphabetical order. She could put some paintings on that wall, and she could finally look out the front window. Hell, it would be fun watching him suffer for nine months, a preemptive revenge for the pain she would feel at the end of it.
The tube leered at her from below, like a snake peeking out from beneath a shrub. She tucked a stray blonde strand of hair behind her left ear and smiled for the customers. A stocky black man with a goatee walked through the glass doors and made for her counter. He had on a striped black sweater and light brown corduroys, and was carrying a long-sleeved orange thermal crew and a crumpled receipt. Christine mentally estimated the return at forty dollars as he walked up.
“I’d like to return this,” he said. “It wasn’t quite what I was looking for.” He put the shirt on the counter and handed Christine the receipt. She scanned the receipt and opened the cash register. Hamilton, Lincoln, and Washington stared up at her unamused. She ignored them and counted out the correct change.
“Thirty-two dollars and twenty-six cents,” she said, and dropped the money into his hands. “Have a great day.”
“You too.” He smiled and exited through the glass doors.
Was it her week to get groceries? She’d gone to Wall-Save that morning to get the pregnancy test, but that had been a drug store. James would have to start buying groceries all by himself, now. She’d still do the list, otherwise they’d be living off energy bars and beer. He had been putting off repainting the bedroom for too long. Of course he would have to start doing the dishes and cleaning the bathroom, too. Now that she thought of it, things might actually be looking up for once. A sense of contentment came over her. Christine glanced down at the tube and caressed her belly as though it were already round and bursting with new life.
“Just you and me, baby.”
* * *
She lay on her side of the bed and regarded James by the light of the orange lava lamp. He had indentations above his ears where his glasses sat most of the time. His black hair was messy in a way that she sometimes liked. His beads of sweat had started to dry. He’d be asleep in a few minutes if she didn’t interrupt.
“Your boys sure can swim,” she said.
“Your boys.” She reached down for emphasis.
“I feel ya.”
“You know what I’m talking about?”
“Is it important?”
“I’d say so.”
He thought about this for a few seconds. “All right.” He shook his head, breathed deeply, and leaned on his elbow. “What is it?”
There was a pause long enough for the lava to make a whole revolution.
“Oh,” he said. His eyebrows furrowed. “You’re not screwing with me, are you?”
“Apparently so.” She smiled like she always did when she said something clever. He didn’t smile back, but looked away and stared at the ceiling for a bit.
“We can’t keep it.” He was looking her in the eye now. “We can’t afford it.”
Christine’s smile vanished. Her eyes went hard. The urge to cry bubbled up.
“What if I want to keep it?”
“We just can’t. You know that, Cee. I’m working at the bookstore, you’re selling t-shirts, and that just isn’t enough to keep us steady with a baby tossed in. I’m sorry, that’s the way it has to be.”
“What if I don’t want to throw our baby away like a piece of trash?” She started to tear up, but refused to sob.
“Oh, come on, it’s not a baby until it’s burping and pooping all over the place. We have to be reasonable about this. We’re adults. We need to be responsible for our lives. And we wouldn’t really be responsible if we brought another life into this world. I mean, what kind of world is this, anyway? It’s so overpopulated that the whole human race is about to push itself into the ocean. We can go to the doctor this weekend and get this sorted out. It won’t take long. Hey, we can even go to that new place south of the city, and we’ll do it in style. What was it called, Happy Hills?”
He reached out for her, but she pulled away from him, and stared at the lamp. He ran his fingers over her tattoo of the Chinese symbol for luck.
“Come on,” he said. “Do you really want to ruin our lives?”
Not really, she thought, but what kind of life was it? She remembered her grandmother, who’d lived on a farm in South Dakota with her grandfather, her eight aunts and uncles, and her mother. Christine and her family had visited there once when she was twelve, after her grandfather had died. The farm had been sold to a young couple. It smelled of cattle, and she kept having to scrape excrement from the bottom of her shoes. A herd of cats lived in the barn with all the tools, and survived on a daily supply of raw hamburger. Her mother had walked them around the place, leading a tour that she obviously didn’t enjoy. At one point they had come up to a brown two-story house that had been beaten by the sun and rain for decades. The top floor windows were layered with dust, but the ground floor was visible through hastily wiped glass. Inside Christine had seen a partially collapsed ceiling and support beams rotting into splinters.
“This is where we all lived,” her mother had said. Her voice was cold and toneless. Christine couldn’t imagine it, living in a tiny house with ten people you couldn’t stand in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do but read books and decapitate chickens.
The sun had set by the time they left. She remembered sticking her head out the car window and drowning in the undulating seas of grain. Above the fields there were more stars in the sky than she thought existed. She had imagined herself as an ancient mariner, navigating her way back home with the help of the north star.
She turned back to James. “No, I don’t,” she said.
* * *
They arrived at Happy Hills around lunch time. Christine sat in a red faux-leather seat that hurt her back and wolfed down a couple of energy bars while James checked in with the woman behind the welcome desk. Christine wondered whether ice cream and pickles would ever taste good together. Pregnant women were always eating stuff like that in the movies. She went to the bathroom (were pregnant women always puking, too?), and when she came back James was talking softly to a middle-aged, gangly man whose limbs seemed too long for his body.
“…prices are reasonable for the services we provide, of course,” the thin man said. “We have some private funding to help offset the cost, and of course it’s not nearly as costly as any funeral home would charge for an Extinguished of the adult persuasion…” He stopped when he saw James looking over his shoulder at Christine.
“Ah, you must be the young lady.”
“If I must,” she said, and forced a smile.
“I was just telling your husband here…”
“Boyfriend,” James interrupted.
“Yes, boyfriend. I was suggesting that we take a tour of our peaceful facilities. After all, what we offer is peace of mind for the Kindred Lights of the young Extinguished Flames.” You could tell he was capitalizing the words. He smiled and showed his teeth.
They walked through a glass door that read: You are entering sacred ground. Please maintain a respectful silence. The grounds sloped down gently from the office building to a flat stretch of grass that ended at a passing road. A concrete path rolled with the hill down to a black fence that surrounded the grounds, and on either side of the path stood rows of white mausoleums twenty feet high, most with two sculptures flanking the doors. Each had a small torch burning above the doors. Trees bloomed with pale pink flowers.
“Each of the Houses are designed to match the Torch-Bearer’s belief system,” the thin man said.
“That’s you,” James said.
“Hmm, yes.” The thin man continued, “Here on the left”—he pointed to a mausoleum with statues of a woman wearing a long robe and a Grecian helmet and of a man with two round horns and vines all over his body—“is the Pagan House. The inscription over the door is an ancient Egyptian prayer for the dead.” Christine walked up to the horned man and rubbed her fingers over the stone vines growing up his arm. “And right across the path is the Catholic House.” They turned and saw a statue of the Virgin and another of Christ opening his chest to expose his heart. Down the path were at least two other structures with the same statuary. “We’ve had to expand that House quite a bit, lately. Further along you can see the Atheist House, the Muslim House”—this one had no statues—“the Humanist House—we tried to find a less alliterative name for that one, but, well, consistency is everything—the Jewish House, and a few others, if you’re interested. Would you like to step inside to view the interior?” They both nodded their assent.
Before they could move, a young woman came out of the Pagan House. Her light hair was streaked with red and black, and her visible body parts showed off various piercings. She clutched a blue blanket in her hands. She tried to smile at the three of them as she passed.
“I believe the Humanist House is unoccupied,” the thin man said. One of the statues outside the House was of an aristocrat in fine eighteenth-century dress and carrying a stack of books, the other of a muscular man carrying a large, stylized sphere on his back.
Inside, it looked like a giant filing cabinet. Plaques filled every wall in an enormous grid. The closest plaque to her read:
A FLAME BURNING IN OUR HEARTS
She turned back slowly, getting the panoramic view. She wondered how much she could learn by opening up each drawer and reading the contents. James was whispering to the thin man. Christine listened.
“So that covers everything?”
“Yes, the procedure as well as the plaque. Of course, since she isn’t very far along, there will be no remains to speak of. The plaque will be strictly symbolic, but I think you will still find it useful as a place of peace and recollection.”
“Good, I want this to be nice for her.”
“We have a number of payment plans, if you wish to take advantage of them.”
“I think I will, yeah.”
“Very good.” The thin man raised his voice so Christine could hear. “Would you both like to step inside the office to schedule a time and make the final arrangements?”
James looked at Christine. She looked confused.
“I don’t know,” she said.
James looked worried. “But—” he said, and didn’t finish the sentence. Finally he nodded and turned to the thin man. “We’ll call you back in a week to let you know for sure.”
“By all means.”
* * *
Sunday they tried to talk about it, but all Christine could say was that she needed more time to think. James gave her a hug and said it was okay, he understood. They caught an old Chaplin film in the afternoon, and talked about the history of cinema over dinner. That night Christine dreamt about having a tea party with Mary Poppins, and woke up in a sweat.
Monday, Christine went to work. She’d accidentally left the pregnancy test under the counter, and Stacy had found it. When she realized it was Christine’s she was so happy and screamed omygod we need to go shopping for baby stuff eeeeeeee! and they did over their lunch break and it was sooooo fun because Christine got some stuffed dogs and bears and Dr. Seuss books. That night she dreamt again, this time about slaughtering cats on the farm, cutting off their heads and watching them run around headless, but she felt sorry and gave them striped top hats as replacements. She did not wake up until morning.
Tuesday morning James found the toys Christine had stuffed in the closet out of sight, and they argued until they had to go to work. That night, nobody talked. James hammered out something really long and tedious for his political blog, “Atlas Unplugged,” and Christine read one of his Russian novels about an idiot because there wasn’t anything else to read in the apartment except One Apple, Two. She did not dream that night.
Wednesday, Christine kept daydreaming at work. Anthony the manager yelled at her twice. Visions of sugar cookies, soccer practices, and “the talk” about the facts of life danced through her head. She wanted to throw up and cry, and did both in the store restroom. She went home early. When James came home she surprised him with a striptease and afterwards she thought they were going to be okay, that everything was going to be okay. They still didn’t talk about it, but she dreamt of a world made of pillows, with skyscrapers higher than the clouds and as soft as feathers.
Thursday it stormed, and the rain kept customers away from Kaki-Dans. Christine called James at the Quarter Bin and said she had something important to tell him when they got home. That was great, he said, they’d go out for dinner at O’Malley’s. Once they were in their usual booth James ordered buffalo wings and, before she could say anything, began logically formulating exactly why they couldn’t afford to have a child, why neither of them was mature enough to be a parent, and why children shouldn’t even be born these days since there were too many people eating up natural resources. After he had reached his finale, Christine stood up and walked out of the restaurant. James quickly left ten bucks on the table and followed her. They walked through large puddles in the poorly-lit parking lot and screamed at each other, asshole, bitch, bastard, cow, deadbeat, and so on through the alphabet. They argued for ten minutes, and said nothing else until they fell asleep in bed.
Friday morning Christine called the local clinic and made an appointment for 5 p.m. Her health insurance covered the whole thing. She came home with a feeling of immense emptiness, as though she had been hollowed out by an ice cream scoop. She sat on the couch and waited. A few times she looked out the window at the sky, but could only see orange-tinted clouds. After sunset she lit candles rather than turning on the lights. James didn’t come home until eight, and when he did he looked mildly drunk. His eyes tried unsuccessfully to focus on her as he entered the living room.
“Hey,” he said. He looked away and jingled his keys to fill the silence.
“I’ve been thinking…”
She cut him off. “Don’t bother.” His eyes became sober for a second. “It’s out of our hands now. I went to the clinic today after work.”
“Oh.” He breathed heavily, trying to keep his balance. “Oh. You know, I would have paid for the Hills.” His generosity had been snubbed, and he sounded hurt.
“It wouldn’t have mattered.”
“Turns out I wasn’t pregnant, anyway.”
James stared at the candle flames trembling on the coffee table. “Oh. That’s good, I guess.” He pulled himself to his feet and stumbled into the bedroom.
Christine remained on the couch, and hummed a tune she had learned from her mother.
Jonathan McDonald grew up in St. Louis but is now a resident of Texas, where he is working on a Masters degree at the University of Dallas. This is his first published work.