I woke up on one of those mornings that you can’t tell where the sky ends and the fields begin. The snow was as gray as the sky and they both stretched out forever, meeting at some point or maybe blending into one. Those are the days you feel like you’re the only person in the world.
I only evaded the memories of what had happened the day before for a few, blissful seconds after waking up. Glancing at my husband still asleep beside me, I felt the gravity of our situation settling in on us. I sunk into the bed, as though its heaviness refused to let me get to my feet. It was not our turn to have a baby. It was a dry year, nobody’s turn to have a child. Yet, here I was, seven weeks pregnant. My only thought as I lay in bed, my head whirring with the ceiling fan above me: I cannot have this child. It will kill someone.
Last year was a wet year, so one family was chosen to have a child. Odd numbers are always wet years, so the next one will be 1949. Last year, the Germinders had their second child, a boy, just like the city council planned in the records. Their pregnancy was charted, drawn out, conceived to coincide with Mrs. Germinder’s most fertile point in her menstrual cycle. Like all pregnancies that happen in Amber, the city council had received the Germinder’s Application For Child and had granted this application before it expired, before Mrs. Germinder became too old to have children. The one thing that wasn’t charted was who their son would kill when he was born. The day their son was born, the mayor died. He collapsed from a heart attack the very second that the Germinder’s son took his first breath.
I asked my husband yesterday who would have to die in order to make room for our child. Me? My daddy? Father Reedling? The Syrup’s baby daughter? We thought of leaving, but quickly discarded the idea. Bad things happen to people that leave Amber. Six years ago, the Mason family tried to leave after their second child was born and took the place of their first. Momma said that’s what happens to people who are greedy enough to try for a second child. “You never know who’s place your child will take,” she says.
The Masons left the town in a ruckus, yelling that the town was cursed, and that we were all crazy to stay here. We all knew they were crazy for leaving. All of us who grew up in this little town and whose fathers and grandfathers have grown up on these same fields have seen the population of Amber, Wyoming frozen forever at exactly 162. Never one more; never one less. The Masons crashed into a semi two miles outside of Amber’s border. Nobody besides the police saw the crime scene, but we all saw pictures in The Amber Fielder. It was like the whole car had hit a wall going 90 miles per hour. The day after the Masons died, a new family, the Germinder’s, moved into their old house with their daughter. The population of Amber remained at 162.
Albert stirred beside me and I knew he was awake, but didn’t want to admit it to himself. I traced the scar on his cheekbone, my fingernails fitting to the groove like a train on a track.
“You’d be a good father, Al,” I said under my breath.
He began to snore a little too loudly.
“Oh, wake up!”
His laugh shook the bed as the headboard clapped the flowered wallpaper behind it.
“Dotty, I’ve had an idea.” His voice was gravelly, still heavy with sleep.
I could tell from the way that the smile didn’t reach his eyes, like a half risen sun, that he was serious.
“I think our parents could help.”
“No.” I took my hand from his face and drew the covers up to my chin, shielding myself from the idea.
“Think about it,” Albert said, the gravel clearing from his voice. “Our parents have been through the exact same situation we have.” He was sitting up, his steel eyes freezing me in place.
“They haven’t, Al! Our births were planned. The city knew about us before we were born. They accepted that someone would die in our place.”
“We can’t be the first couple to become pregnant during a dry year. Our parents must know something about all this. Maybe your dad can pull some strings in the city council, get our Application expedited or something.”
“What?” I swung my legs out of bed and shivered as the cold floors greeted my feet.
“I heard a rumor that’s what the Syrups did with their daughter…” he said. I lifted the blinds and squinted at the gray canvas covering our wheat fields. I thought of the last couple that became pregnant during a dry year. A woman across the street from my parent’s house had become sick with cancer- she had exactly nine months left to live. Enough time for a child to be born. The police began sniffing around town, to find the couple that had conceived a child and sentenced another to death. They eventually found the couple that broke the Reproduction Regulation Act of 1900. The baby was forcefully aborted and the couple was exiled from Amber. We read weeks later in the Fielder that the bodies of the couple had been found on the plains nearby. Cause of death: dehydration.
“The Syrups aside,” I said, “bringing our parents together is an awful idea. Have you met them?” I slammed the blinds back down and they hit on the window sill like a judge’s gavel deciding a court case.
“Yes, Dotty, and I’ll bet your dad would have some thoughts that could really help us.”
“Al, nobody’s gotten over what happened on our wedding day. It’s still too soon to bring your dad and my parents together.” Al groaned as he rose from bed like an old scarecrow being placed in the fields for another season of work. He walked to the window, surveying the snowstorm’s damage, and I looked up into his steel eyes. His whiskered face hovered above my own.
“My dad has forgiven your mom for what she said on our wedding day.” He said softly. “Maybe it’s time we bring them all together again. Maybe it would be good for all of us.” I was quiet for a while, thoughtful. But I arrived at the same conclusion that I’ve found to hold true for the past five years of our marriage.
“Momma has too much pride to admit she’s ever done anything wrong. And she still believes every word she said.”
“Well even if that’s the case,” Albert sighed, surveying the empty fields, “at least no more harm can be done between my dad and your parents. The worst is already out.”
Albert could have convinced me to jump from the top of our grain elevator if he wanted to. I had two theories for this: either I was as stupid as the Masons trying for a second baby, or I loved him way too much. I’m not sure which is worse. Either way, jumping off the grain elevator may have been easier than bringing our parents together, but that’s what we did. The date was settled and written in red marker on my calendar. It loomed over me like a drought hangs over our wheat fields, simultaneously sucking the life from each individual stalk. Albert’s dad and my parents would come for Sunday brunch in two days.
I had a lot to do to get ready for the event. Namely, I had to get all of Momma’s pictures out of the basement and put them around the house. I heaved them off of an unfinished wooden shelf in the storage room and dusted off the metal frames. Me and Momma on a combine, working the fields. Momma and Daddy on our front porch, their silhouettes etched into the sky. Momma with Al, forcing a tight-lipped smile. I put the pictures on the mantle, as I always did when Momma and Daddy came over. For the first time as I looked at those pictures, I thought of what my parents must have gone through to have a child. Of course, my birth was textbook. My parents submitted an Application For Child to the city council, it was granted, and the whole thing executed on schedule. Planted and harvested. My birth had caused the death of an older nun, so I was lucky. I didn’t kill anybody’s sister or mom or daughter.
Albert wasn’t so lucky. He had an unusual birth, and all the elders in Amber viewed him as the experiment gone wrong. His family had submitted a unique Application to the city council in order to have Albert. Albert’s grandmother agreed to commit suicide on behalf of her unborn grandchild. She thought that Albert could take her place, and that his birth wouldn’t kill anyone else in Amber. Nobody knew, at the time, that we don’t get to choose who dies. The day Albert was born two people died: Albert’s grandmother and the nurse that delivered Albert. Hours after the two women died, a migrant worker, now one of Daddy’s farm hands, had moved into town to work. The population remained at 162.
Nobody was really sure exactly who chose who died in Amber. Well, of course Momma and her church group believed it was the sinners who were taken. I asked her if she thought she’d live forever because she wasn’t a sinner. She said, “we’re all sinners, but at least I try repenting.” Her church, the only church in town, preached a Jonathan Edwards-esque call for repentance. The majority of the town lived by this doctrine because it was easy. It provided all of the answers. But a few families on the outskirts of Amber had their own theories. Some said that the land was cursed by the Indians, forced from this territory by the settlers. Some even believed that the relatives of the Salem witches fled west across the plains and eventually settled in Amber. They say that those witches were the original 162 founders.
Albert’s family had been part of the church until his grandmother’s suicide proved useless. His parents wondered what sort of God would select such random victims for his idle game of roulette. They moved to the outskirts of Amber to live by, as Momma calls them, “the more liberal types.” They were afraid to leave and afraid to stay.
The day of the brunch, I woke early to the sound of wind clapping our shutters against the side of the house. I glanced at Albert, musing at how he somehow managed to sleep through the racket. I got out from under the covers, slowly, and tiptoed downstairs to make coffee. Our Sunday copy of The Amber Fielder was lying on our front porch and I slipped through the door to pick it up, shivering in my nightgown. While the coffee brewed, I unfolded the paper and flipped through it, Sunday, February 4th, 1948 it said at the top of every page. The paper was a daily ten page production: two pages for world news, two pages for U.S. news, two pages for Amber news (usually a profile on the citizen of the day), two pages for comics, and two pages for the Amber Willow.
The Amber Willow consumed the final two pages of every issue of the Fielder. It was a large, spidery tree printed in black ink, inscribed with names along the trunks, branches, and leaves. It was like a family tree, except instead of revealing the citizens’ families, it kept track of which births caused which deaths. I traced Albert’s name along a branch of the Willow tree to the nurse’s name, traced my name to the nun I had killed with my first heartbeat. The tree showed everyone who had ever lived in Amber: from its original 162 settlers to present day. On days of additions, the publishers paid extra money to print the tree, and the names, in red ink. We didn’t have to look very long to find the new death and the substitution on the tree. We all had it memorized from the tips of the leaves to the roots of the settlers in 1809.
I padded back upstairs to find Albert still snoozing, half of his leg hanging over the side of the bed. I jumped on top of the bed and shook Albert until he groaned a heavy mechanic noise, an engine starting up.
“We can’t have this brunch,” I said. Albert smiled sleepily and grabbed my hips. He pushed me from the bed and as I fell, I pulled the blankets down with me. I sat on the hardwood floor surrounded by a trough-full of blankets and stared up at Albert, grinning.
“This is my cocoon,” I said. I rolled myself tighter into the mass of covers. “I’m not coming out until brunch is over, until winter is over, until the baby is born, until whoever dies, dies. Then I’ll come out.” Albert smirked and got out of bed to stand over me. He grabbed the sheet and began to unwind my blanket cocoon.
“And will you emerge to be a beautiful butterfly?” He asked.
“Nope. I’ll still be a caterpillar.” I fought with him, trying to grab the blankets that were unwinding too quickly.
“Because we’ll never be able to fly from this place,” I said. We stopped fighting over the blankets. I held his gaze, and his eyes lost their playful glint and hardened into steel.
“Dotty, we’ve gotta get up,” he said.
So we got up. We dressed and went downstairs to finish cleaning the house for brunch. I grabbed the china Momma had given us for our wedding from the storage room and placed it around our table. I dusted and vacuumed one last time and heard Al cooking the chicken in the fryer. The smell wafted over me, nauseating me as I looked at my mother’s face glaring from faded photographs. The doorbell rang.
“Why Dorothy, you’re positively glowing.” Momma walked through the front door without waiting for an answer. She walked over to hug me, shadowed by my father. “I’m so happy you finally called us, you’d think there were three hundred miles between us instead of just three blocks!” Her laugh carried throughout the house, and I heard the distinct sound of Albert closing the kitchen swing door. He was hiding, the coward.
“Hi Momma,” I said hugging her. I wondered whether she’d be hugging me when she left.
“W-Well it sure is good to see you, D-Dorothy.” Daddy clapped me on the back, about the only affection he was capable of showing, but somehow this always felt warmer than Momma’s hugs. We headed into the sitting room and I watched how the wavering sunlight in the room highlighted Momma’s wrinkles like firelight finds the creases of a crumpled copy of The Amber Fielder.
“Dorothy, you really must replace this wallpaper. It’s just horrid.” She picked at the edges of the curling wallpaper, eyeing the faded patterns of Queen Anne’s Lace like my pony eyes the flies on her muzzle. She began to peel at the edges of the wallpaper, exposing the yellowed drywall underneath.
“Momma please don’t pick at our wallpaper. We’re working on replacing it.” This was not the first lie I’d made to pacify Momma.
“Wonderful.” She smiled a poisonous, sweet smile. “I can help you pick it out, if you’d like. You know I’m friends with everyone in this town and can get some new wallpaper ordered in easily.”
“Yes, I know Momma.” Momma and Daddy sat down on our living room couch.
“Honey, why don’t you sit down?” Momma said.
“How kind of you.” Momma ignored me. As usual, she heard what she wanted to hear.
“Now, where were you and Albert at church this morning?” Momma asked this every Sunday morning, even though we haven’t gone since we got married in the courthouse.
“We went last night, Momma.” Another pacifying lie.
“How funny.” She pulled at a loose thread on the armrest of the couch. “Father Reedling said he didn’t see you two.”
“That really is funny,” I said, smiling. Almost as funny as how he had a kid with one of the nuns, I wanted to say. Everyone always thought of Father Reedling as the guy from that one time when all of Amber thought that the curse that plagues the town was only a coincidence. My mother-in-law had been hit by a car the day after my and Albert’s wedding. She died at the scene, and the town threw a celebration that night that was bigger than Amber had ever seen. Nobody was pregnant at the time and nobody had moved into town. It was, they said, an isolated death. We all thought that this frozen population was a coincidence, and now we could have as many children as we wanted without fearing that with each life we created, we also took one away.
As it turned out, this was not an isolated death. Our neighbor Mr. Mason was walking down his driveway to pick up the daily copy of The Amber Fielder one morning when he heard a baby cry in the church across the street. We all knew that the only babies in town lived in the Mason’s house, the Fudd’s house, and the Syrup’s house. He went over to investigate and found that Father Reedling had gotten one of the nuns pregnant. Pretty easy to hide stuff when you only have to listen to confessions instead of making your own, I suppose. The next day, The Amber Fielder boasted the headline: Mrs. Foster Dies for the Sins of Father Reedling and Sister Helen. They named their daughter Pearl. Ironically, neither Father Reedling nor Sister Helen was fired. Nobody else in Amber was qualified to be a Priest, and the city council decided not to risk bringing in someone new. Daddy broke my reverie by choosing this moment to cut in.
“W-Where’s Al-Alb-Al-,” a bead of sweat rolled from his graying hairline. He looked at the floor, brow furrowed. Momma sighed.
“He wants to know where Albert is,” Momma said. I tore my gaze from daddy.
“Oh, he’s just finishing the chicken,” I said, smiling at Momma. My cheeks hurt. “Um, I’ll go and get him.” Thankful for the reason to escape, I left the room quickly, regretting ever inviting my parents over, and it was going to get even worse when Mr. Foster arrived. I rounded the corner to the kitchen like a bull running from the slaughterhouse, and pushed open the swing door to find Albert sitting at the table reading today’s issue of The Amber Fielder.
“Al!” I whispered. “You’re leaving me out there alone!” He grinned guiltily, the scar on his left cheek disappearing into wrinkles. My wrath melted a little as I saw him smile; he was impossible to be mad at.
“Sorry, Dotty.” He grinned. “I was just checking to see if anyone moved out of Amber. You know, always room for hope.”
“Well there’s no hope for this brunch. Momma’s going to peel off all our wallpaper if we leave her out there alone for another minute.” Albert put down the paper and was silent as he folded it back into its original shape. Finally he said, “Dotty, I know this is the right thing to do. Our parents deserve to know. You never know if they could help us.”
“If they’re not worried the beginning of our kid’s life is going to be the end of theirs.”
“Calm down, Dotty. It’s going to be okay.” The doorbell sounded and Albert rose from his chair. “We can do this,” he said as he left the kitchen.
I stood there another minute, hiding in the overpowering wafts of fried chicken. I heard Al greeting his father at the door. Mr. Foster’s voice boomed throughout the house.
“Where’s your woman?” he wanted to know. He laughed a characteristic string of breaths that sounded like a tractor purring as it plows through a wheat field. I swallowed, straightened my dress, and pushed open the swinging door.
“Good to see you, Mr. Foster.” I smiled.
“I know baby, it’s been a whole three days!” Mr. Foster pulled me into a hug of cigarette smoke and empty shotgun shells pressing into my ribs. “That was quite the game of cribbage we had Thursday night.” Mr. Foster laughed his tractor laugh, his body reverberating with the sound.
“Dorothy, you invited Elmer over to play cribbage?” Momma walked into the entryway with Daddy trailing behind her.
“Yup, every Tuesday and Thursday!” Mr. Foster said. Heat rose through my face. I didn’t dare turn to look at Momma. For once, she was on the outside. And I knew she hated it.
“Okay!” Albert broke in, dragging the word out like coal train. “Who’s hungry?”
“I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse!” Mr. Foster said.
“Well, hopefully chicken will do.” Albert grinned as we sat ourselves around a table groaning under the weight of Albert’s cooking.
“That just looks ravishing. I’m simply famished.” Momma said.
Albert smiled easily at Momma. “Dotty, would you like to say grace?” he asked. He was looking to pacify my parents, I knew. We never say grace when we eat with just Mr. Foster.
I answered by folding my hands and bowing my head, an action that was echoed around the table. “Dear Lord Jesus in heaven,” I began. “We thank you for these blessings with which you have provided us: our friends, family and food.” I glanced around the table and wondered whether I even considered myself family with Momma. “We pray that you bestow on us today your gifts of patience and understanding.” I glared across the table at Momma as though I could burn these gifts that she found so elusive into her mind. “Just as Jesus was patient with the weight of his kindness while he was crucified on the cross, we pray that you will help us be patient and understanding too in the face of possible new beginnings to come.” Mr. Foster looked up inquisitively from across the table. “Amen.” I finished.
“Well,” Momma cut in. “That was nice Dorothy, but I think it’d be better if we stuck to the traditional prayers.” I was silent. I heard the Germinder’s son yelling in the lawn across the street from our house.
“Hem.” Albert coughed. “Mrs. Miner, would you like any chicken?”
“Why, yes! I’d adore some.” As Albert served Momma, she looked out the window of the dining room at the Germinder’s son. “You know, Dorothy, maybe you should move closer to your father and I. Your new neighbors seem a little… strange.”
“Momma they’ve lived here for three years. They’re perfectly nice neighbors.”
“Hey!” Mr. Foster’s tractor started up again. “What do you call a horse that lives next door?”
“What, Dad?” Albert grinned as though he hadn’t heard the joke a thousand times before.
Momma laughed a little too loud and stabbed a piece of chicken with her fork.
“Doesn’t Albert’s father just have a lovely sense of humor?” Momma asked, turning to Daddy. Daddy smiled tightly, his hand shaking as he raised a forkful of potatoes to his mouth.
“W-What’s this lunch about?” Daddy asked.
“Well Dorothy obviously misses us, dear. Can’t you see that?” The way she talked to Daddy, like he was a hired hand on the farm, always made me so angry. I was seized with a sudden desire to make it perfectly clear that Momma was wrong, and Daddy was perfectly justified in asking what the lunch was about.
“Well actually, Momma, Albert and I have something to announce,” I said heatedly.
“I knew you’d decide to divorce Albert.” Momma said. “Thomas and I have planned for this day.” Momma grabbed Daddy’s hand. “Your room is still open at our house.” Daddy pulled away, but kept his gaze on me. He repeated himself.
“What’s this l-lun-lun-” he furrowed his brows and stared at his potatoes.
“It’s okay, darling.” Momma said consolingly, or condescendingly, or maybe both.
Daddy shot her a look that I’ve only seen once in my life. It was after one of our hired farm hands, the migrant worker that took Mrs. Foster’s place in Amber, had stolen a pair of Momma’s earrings. He had pawned them at the store on Larson St., but the owner recognized them at once as Momma’s. There’s not many diamonds like that in Amber. The owner of the store called Momma and Daddy down to the store to deal with Javier as they wished, and Momma had gone off on Javier like a grain elevator explosion. Momma had fired him on the spot.
Javier began to cry, an uncommon sight. He explained that his wife was pregnant, and waiting on the borders of Amber to move in. Amber’s strict border patrol will only let somebody inside the town if an Amber citizen had died a natural death. Family members of migrant workers, husbands who had left home to fight in the World War but want to return, grandparents looking for their children to care for them, all of these and more hover around Amber’s borders. There is no waiting list to get in. First come, first serve. There are tents pitched outside of Amber’s gates: people living their lives waiting for somebody else to die. Amber’s border patrol will never admit it, but the more money an outsider has to pay them off, the better chance the outsider has of getting in. Though he didn’t say it, it was clear that Javier had planned to send the money from the earrings to his wife, so that she could pay off the border patrol. He wanted to get his wife inside of Amber before the baby was born so that they wouldn’t have to wait for two people to die in order to come in. Daddy had seen the desperation in Javier’s eyes.
“Ch-Charlene!” he had yelled at Momma. “Enough!” His eyes shone with a sleeping dominance that has grown stronger, rather than weaker, with the years.
“I gave Javier these earrings,” he growled. Daddy stepped forward, taking up what seemed like the whole room. Javier shrunk in front of him, and Daddy grabbed the pair of earrings from the store owner. He handed the earrings to Javier, and folded Javier’s hands inside of his.
“I’ll see you on the farm tomorrow.” I had never heard him speak so firmly. “Tell your wife con-con-congrat-” his brow furrowed as he broke eye contact with Javier. Javier threw his arms around Daddy, a gesture Daddy wasn’t sure how to return. He stood awkwardly, a calf on his legs for the first time. Daddy backed away from Javier and smiled his twitchy smile. He shrunk about twenty inches, bowed his head, and left the shop without looking at Momma. Momma gaped at the back of Daddy’s head as the door slammed behind him. She grabbed my hand and pulled me after Daddy, but I turned around to look at Javier on the way out of the door. Before the door slammed in my face, I saw his tear-filled deep brown eyes, colored with a shade I was unfamiliar with: hope.
Maybe I gathered strength from remembering that moment, or maybe I was just plain scared. Either way, the words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
“Daddy, I’m pregnant.” It was more of a plea than a statement. I might have just as well screamed for help. Daddy’s face scrunched up in an unreadable emotion. It looked as though he was blinded, staring at the first winter’s snow covering the wheat fields. Mr. Foster searched wide-eyed around the room, looking for a way to react to the news. Momma had tilted her face to the sky, her lips murmuring an incessant prayer that I suspected may have been a string of profanities. Not surprisingly, Momma was the first to break the silence.
“Oh God,” she moaned. “Oh God. We knew this would happen.” Momma clasped her hands around her sweating water glass in an attempt to try to find something to hold on to. I turned to Albert, my eyes screaming for help with every second that passed.
“Hem.” Albert broke the silence again. “We actually thought you might be able to help us since you’ve all been through… something similar.” Mr. Foster put his hand on Albert’s shoulder.
“How far along is she?” He said.
“Seven weeks.” Albert said. It sounded like a death sentence. Mr. Foster bowed his head.
“Most couples who get pregnant during a dry year just… you know.” Mr. Foster’s boom was diminished to a scared whisper.
“My daughter will NOT abort this child!” Momma slammed her glass down on the table, making us all jump in our seats. Some of the water from her glass sloshed over the edge, making the white tablecloth turn to a faint shade of gray.
“Momma, it’s our choice what do with our child.” I threw my napkin over the spill on the tablecloth as though I could cover up what she had done.
“If you two are not condemned already for that sacrilegious, courthouse wedding ceremony Mrs. Foster had insisted on, killing this child will surely do the trick!” Momma stood up from the table, throwing her napkin on top of her half eaten plate of chicken and mashed potatoes. “Let’s go dear,” she said. “We can’t reason with these… people.” She said the word “people” like we were a different, lower species.
Daddy jumped in. “Ch-Charlene.” Her name was a warning.
Momma chose not to hear him. She said, “They saw what happened to Mrs. Foster after she tricked my daughter into holding her wedding in that courthouse.” She spat the word.
“Momma!” I yelled. “Stop!” But she wouldn’t stop.
“God picked her off! Just like I said would happen!”
“That’s enough.” Daddy growled. Tears slipped down my cheeks.
“Go home, Momma.” I said. “Haven’t you caused enough harm?”
“Harm?” She whispered this, but it felt like a scream. “Harm? My whole life has been spent making sure I raised you right.” She took a deep, uneven breath. “The Lord knows I’d only get one shot at raising a child in this town.” Her voice shook with wrath. “My whole life I’ve only done what I thought was best for you.” A single tear slipped from her eye and she turned to grab Daddy’s arm.
“Thomas, time to leave.”
“He’s not a child Momma!”
Daddy put up his hand, as though to stop the entire scene.
“Get y-your coat, Charlene. I’ll m-meet you at the door.” Momma threw the three of us still sitting at the table one final glare. Her eyes turned from Mr. Foster’s bowed head, to Albert’s face hidden behind his hands, and finally to my eyes.
“I love you Dorothy,” she said.
I didn’t know where to look. After all she’d done to tear apart this marriage, I still loved her. Somehow though, I just couldn’t say it out loud. She took my silence, I think, as a rejection and turned on her heel, walking out to the entryway to retrieve her coat from the closet. Daddy turned to me slowly, a stone figure coming to life.
“If the council will not expedite your application,” Daddy said, “I will hide you.” He glared at me, daring me to challenge his devotion. “I will defend you and whatever ch-choice you make until I die.” Albert and Mr. Foster stood from their chairs simultaneously, wooden chairs scratching wooden floors. Mr. Foster locked eyes with Daddy from across the table. I couldn’t decide whether these men had chosen to protect me out of love or simply out of the undying determination of Man to find strategies against extinction.
“Daddy…” I said. More tears ran from my eyes.
“And if you w-want to leave,” he squinted his eyes as though the idea caused him physical pain, “I w-will sell my farm to get you the m-money to get back in h-here when the b-baby is b-born.”
“Thomas!” Momma called from the front door.
“I have to g-go.” Daddy took Mr. Foster’s hand. “It was g-good to see you Elmer.” Daddy turned to me. “Write me,” he said. And then he and Momma left.
I sat back down at the table and glanced around at Al and Mr. Foster. They both seemed deflated, like Momma’s words had pierced them and let out whatever kept them standing and getting out of bed in the morning. Hope, I guess.
“Mr. Foster,” I started, “I’m so sorry about-” He looked up at me and cut in, gently, like a knife cutting warm butter.
“I know, Dotty. It’s alright. I know how it is to be so scared of losing your beliefs that you’d rather die than re-do how you look at everything in life.”
I moved my chair closer to Al and took his hand.
“So,” Mr. Foster said slowly. “You’re set on having this child.” It was meant to be a confirmation. What happened next was a collision bigger than the Mason’s car accident. It was like the last two oppositely charged particles in a storm cloud, hitting each other and bursting with lightening that struck the earth violently, carelessly.
I found myself in the middle of saying, “Of course,” when I looked over at Albert. I pulled my hand away from his. I thought I had heard him say, “No.”
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“I… Dotty.” Al tried to retake my hands, but they were frozen to the seat, hidden under my legs. “We’d have to leave Amber. And if we stayed, they’d find us. You think it’d be better to kill someone than continue living our lives like we used to? We were happy.”
My body shivered. We had never actually discussed aborting the child, but I had assumed it wasn’t an option. I assumed that some intrinsic quality in both of us- whether made intrinsic by creation or by evolution- caused us to refuse the option of killing the child. Though I had been in danger of dying my whole life, in danger of being picked off randomly due to the birth of another, for the first time I actually felt threatened. I began to sweat. I could feel the child swimming in my belly. It felt so alive. Mr. Foster broke in, his previous boom now a rasp of uncertainty.
“Maybe I’ll let you kids talk this out tonight.” He said. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”
I nodded. Grateful for the chance to get up, to get away from Albert, I walked Mr. Foster to the door.
“Goodnight, Mr. Foster.” He pulled me into a hug and I felt the empty shot gun shells pressing into my belly, my child. I felt his whiskers against my ear, and his breath filled it with a husky whisper. “Don’t let him tell you to kill that child,” he said. He opened the door and left without another word.
Wyoming breathed cold into our home. Through the open door, I watched Mr. Foster walk back home against the gray sky and the gray fields that became one at some uncertain point. As I closed the door, I saw the Germinder’s son laughing, playing catch with his father. I hoped he wouldn’t be the one to die.
Kelly is a college student that enjoys J.J. Abrams tv shows, buttered noodles, and the cornfields of the midwest. This is her first piece of published fiction.