I guess this is supposed to be a speech, to get you to cough up a few dollars to help the women down there. But nobody ever asked me to deliver a speech before, so I’m going to tell you a story. I’m going to tell it just how it happened and leave you to figure out what to do.
They come up to the house, the two of them, like they own it and I’m only there to answer the door. It’s fall, technically, but it’s yet another summer day, and the air they push through the screen is thick and hot. Am I sick of these men coming to my house! I was sick of it when Carl was still on the Force, but I’m really sick of it now.
What do you want? I say, but they say they have to come in, they need to talk to me, and it’s not anything I’d want my neighbors to hear.
They make themselves comfortable on the sofa in the living room and I lean against the wall with my arms crossed, waiting for them to speak. They know I’m not going to give them anything to eat or drink, so they get right down to it.
Your daughter came to school with bruises this morning, the stocky one says. I know his name, but I don’t care to use it. The young one I’ve never seen before.
We’re required to investigate, he says, showing me his palms sorrowfully.
And? I say.
And we need you to tell us what happened, the stocky one says.
What did she say happened?
She says she fell.
I shrug. Well then, I guess she fell.
The young one looks past me up the staircase. That where it happened? he asks.
Usually is, I say. She’s a clumsy girl.
We can take her away from you, the stocky one says quietly. Put her some place she’ll be safe.
I remember the last time you took her, I say. That worked out great.
His face turns purple, like he’s choking on something. We told Carl, he spits. It didn’t happen on our watch.
I know what you told Carl, I say.
If it had been me who went to confront them instead of staying back with her, smoothing her hair as she puked and sobbed, I wouldn’t have let that fly. Wouldn’t have let one of them kick me over a chair, wouldn’t have sat in it and heard them out. If it had been me, I’d probably be in jail right now.
You should be happy for her, the stocky one says. And for yourself, you’re going to be a grandma. A baby is a gift.
Not always, I say.
The young one jumps up from the sofa, all excited. We can take her in for that, right? he asks the stocky one.
But he ignores him, as do I.
I pick the mail up off the side table and pretend to look through it, but the stocky one just sits there staring at me until I give up and meet his gaze. My legs are starting to shake.
Seems like you had it pretty bad, he says, pretending to be nice.
The young one looks over, interested. Anyone who hasn’t had the virus yet wants to hear all about it from those that have.
I’ve got some things to do today, gentlemen, I say. If this part of the investigation has concluded.
The stocky one gets up finally and comes over, bringing his lips to my ear. You’re lucky you’re married to Carl, he hisses. Cause you’re a terrible mother. She shows up with bruises again and we’ll take her. Her and your grandbaby.
After they go, I fall down on the sofa. The knobby fabric’s still warm where they sat, and I hate lying there in their heat, but I’ve got to get my strength back before she comes home from school. The fact is, I didn’t know she was going to throw herself down the stairs, but I didn’t try to stop her either. It was her dad who kept her from going a second time. That’s not going to do what you want it to do, I heard him say out on the landing. That only happens in the movies. She went back to her room without a struggle, but oh, what bitter tears.
If I hadn’t been so sick, I never would’ve let them take her away to begin with and do God knows what to her, whatever it was she wouldn’t talk about when she got home. But when school let out for the summer, Carl had just started his job at the Verizon store, and we had no relatives in the area to help us. Her alone all day in a dark house, with me upstairs in bed, that was no kind of plan. So when his old buddies let Carl know about the Bible camp and offered to drive her up there, I went along with it.
I see Carl looking at her sometimes–it’s a worried look, but there’s no horror in it like there is with me. That’s because deep down he thinks there’s no reason to stop this train, it’ll all work out okay for her, the way the virus will for me. He’ll steer us through the tough times. That’s what they tell him in Men’s Group, and that’s what he likes to hear. Maybe it makes up for being let go when the Force consolidated, or for having to work at the phone store now, selling something everybody needs but nobody really wants, except teenagers.
Besides, what’s the alternative, really, we live in a sanctuary state—a sanctuary for unborn babies and nobody else. They won’t even let you drive over state lines to get help. You probably know about that already, the border controls. The thing you don’t know is how everyone watches everyone here, like one great big eye of God.
So I see it differently from Carl. She’s not on the train, she’s in the path of it, and if she can’t stop it in its tracks—isn’t allowed to stop it—she’ll get run over and become somebody else, someone who things just happen to.
I hear the screen door slam and get ready to see her. It’s something I have to prepare myself for these days, so I don’t tear up. Mom, she’ll say then and go to her room. Today I keep it together and fix her a plate of apple slices with peanut butter. I notice she only eats the tiniest bit—whether she’s nauseous or she thinks it’s a way out of her situation, I don’t know. It’s you who will suffer if you stop eating, I want to tell her. You can’t starve out a pregnancy. But do I really want to tell her that?
I do tell her about the visit from the Force, and she ducks her head to show she understands, like I’ve had her do ever since she was little so that I know we’re on the same page.
I wore long sleeves and leggings to school to hide the bruises, she tells me, and Ashley kept bugging me about it. I told her it was cold when I got up this morning, but she wouldn’t let it go. Then at lunch time I saw her in the principal’s office, and after lunch the nurse pulled me out of class.
Why’re you still talking to Ashley? I say. She’s the one who told on her in the first place, her best friend since kindergarten. The one she beat out for Dorothy in the middle school play last spring. Ashley got cast as the Wicked Witch, and a wicked witch she became. That was a surprise to me, I always had a soft spot for Ashley. But you know what they say, the heart wants what it wants.
I couldn’t not answer, Ma. Everybody was listening.
If only I’d seen you before you left, I say, tearing up. I was just so tired, sweetheart.
It’s okay, she says quickly. She doesn’t want this to escalate, again.
I press my hands to my mouth to keep my volume down. I never wanted any of this for you, I say through my fingers. Any of it, you understand?
Yeah, she says, ducking her head. But she says it in a heavy way, like it’s no real consolation.
It’s that heaviness that drives me to the virus boards. They don’t monitor those discussions like the rest of it—I guess we complain too much. Every symptom under the sun, and no cure in sight.
Around the time the sanctuary bill passed, I started seeing comments on one board from a woman named Jane. Want to get away? Call Jane. And then a phone number. Need a change of scene? Call Jane. Stuff like that. People kept telling her, you’re in the wrong place, plus you’re going at it the wrong way, sign up with Airbnb or Vrbo or something, and eventually she went away or got blocked.
But now here I am, going back through the threads trying to find that number. This Jane character showing up right at that moment—it couldn’t have been a coincidence, could it? They say the virus affects your mind, too, worms its way in and makes you paranoid, gives you crazy ideas, but what if those crazy ideas are right? I find the number around three in the morning, but I wait until six to call.
Hello? says a sleepy voice.
Is this Jane?
The voice perks up. This is Jane, she says. She asks if I need help and I say I do but it’s for my daughter.
How many weeks, she says. Her voice is younger than I expected. College girl.
I hazard a guess of nine or ten. It was a weeklong camp.
How old is she, she asks. Bastards, she says, when I tell her.
My throat seizes up at the unaccustomed sympathy.
At least that’ll make it easier to get her over the border, she continues. They’re not on the lookout for girls that young.
I don’t have the money, I finally manage to choke out, once she’s filled me in on all the details. My husband’s in a new job that pays less than his old one and I haven’t worked since—
Understood, she cuts me off. Just get here as fast as you can.
Carl stops in that night to pray with me before going on to the guest room. We don’t share a bed anymore, the official reason being that I’m up at all hours with the pain. He comes in to pray with me even though he knows I don’t care for it and certainly don’t believe in it. He chalks all that up to the virus, too—and it’s true, this is one thing I’m surer about now than ever before, because what god worth groveling to would want this life for me, or her? But when you’re sick, you’re a captive audience, and everybody thinks you want them to lay hands on you.
He sits on the bed, causing me to roll into him. He’s a big man, always has been. I used to take some comfort in it. He prays for me, that I may be healed, and for our daughter, that she may see the error of her ways. I take his heavy hand off my shoulder and throw it as far from me as I can.
The night I had her, I almost didn’t make it to the hospital. She came fast and sure and by the time we got there, she was pushing her way out. I was an older mother. I’d spent years wrestling with the idea in spite of Carl’s pleas and finally, command, and that doubt stayed with me till the very end. Not because I didn’t want a child, mind you, but because I did. I remember standing in the hallway outside the swinging doors under the big, lighted sign that said LABOR AND DELIVERY, thinking, this is how it is, we labor and deliver, and then they take them from us and make them theirs. Which if it was true then is even truer now. I had half a mind to turn around and stagger back out of there, I don’t know where to, but then the doors flew open and Carl and a nurse lifted me by the elbows and carried me onto the ward. And I felt cheated, and I felt scared, but like all the other mothers, I guess, I went ahead and brought her into this world, hoping it could be another way.
I’m surprised by my daughter’s reaction when I tell her. I wasn’t expecting pushback, but then again, why would she trust me? Why would she trust any woman who acts like she knows what to do and how to do it? We’re all re-learning the lessons of my mother’s generation: who’s in charge and who’s not, who can make things happen and who can’t.
This Jane, she says, wrinkling her nose. How do you know her?
I don’t know her, I sigh. I don’t even know if that’s her real name or if she’s one woman or a group of women who’re using Jane as some kind of password.
Then how do you know it’s not a trap?
Easy, I say. If it was a trap, the Force would already be here.
You only need to say one true thing to win over someone who wants to believe you. I lay out the plan: We’ll leave on Saturday after Carl goes off to Men’s Group. She’ll wear the dress she wore when she played Dorothy, the high-waisted one I sewed for her with plenty of room to grow. If the pattern worked to hide Judy Garland’s budding curves during filming, like the magazine said, then it should serve our purpose here.
What about after? she asks.
After is after, I say. It sounds better than I don’t know.
In the two days leading up to our departure, I’m laid out with break-bone fatigue. They call it that because it’s like somebody’s snapped every bone in your body. She looks in on me with a worried face when she gets home from school and I whisper that I’m making it out to be worse than it is. The second night, I insist on dragging myself down to the dinner table and the three of us eat a warmed-over lasagna somebody sent home from church with Carl. I struggle to bring the fork to my lips.
Small wonder he looks surprised to see me moving around the kitchen the next morning, making coffee and waffles. His gray eyes land on me softly and then on his daughter in her sweet blue and white-checked dress and he hums a little tune—well, it’s a hymn, but it’s still a tune. When we tell him we’re going to the mall, he’s glad to hear it. Stop by Verizon, he jokes sheepishly, I hear they’re having a helluva sale. He sits down carefully at the table, like he’s in a dream he doesn’t want to wake up from, a dream in which his wife isn’t sick and his daughter isn’t pregnant and he lives out his days basking in the warmth of their smiles. After breakfast he lingers on, till I remind him the Lord’s work is waiting, and that makes him even happier.
We’ve packed our bags, with only enough clothes for the three-day weekend we’ll tell Border Control we’re spending in Chicago, and she carries them out to the car. When she comes back, I’m lying on the sofa.
I knew you weren’t playacting, she says hollowly, standing over me. I knew you were never going to make it.
Just resting my eyes, I say, but a little part of me agrees with her, and it gets bigger the longer I lie there. I was never going to make it.
Mama, she says after a minute. I don’t want this. Do I have to have this?
I open my eyes. She’s pulled her dress up so I can see the thickening in her belly, the way it’s starting to round out from below. I haven’t seen it before, she wears so many layers, but I see it now and I can feel the bile rising in my throat like a life force, pulling me to my feet. I made my bargain, but I never thought to see my slim-hipped child carrying that weight.
When the close canopy of trees that has lined the highway for miles starts to open up onto fields, I can tell we’re near the border. We’ve been driving for five hours and the bile’s all gone. I’m a husk at the wheel, but somehow we’re making good time.
What do we do after we cross over? she asks, breaking the silence.
We stay on the highway, I answer firmly, more firmly than I feel, and not too far from the border, there’ll be a town. At the first crossroads, there’ll be a drive thru Starbucks, and Jane will be waiting for us in the parking lot.
She ducks her head and plays with the hem of her dress, counting out the squares on the gingham. Follow the yellow brick road, she says softly, and her voice already sounds a little lighter.
Not long after, I spot the low white buildings of Border Control and pull up alongside the first one. We’re the only car out there. The only people, too. When no one comes right away, I start to ease forward, thinking maybe they don’t have the manpower to guard this checkpoint. But then a man comes stumbling out the door, fumbling with his fly, followed by a pinched-faced woman. If they weren’t wearing uniforms, you’d forgive me for thinking they’d been partying in there.
I hand over our papers and he passes them to the woman. She looks at them and then back at us in a way that makes me jumpy, like she wants something to be wrong.
Hey darlin’, he says, leaning down and staring straight across at my kid with his bloodshot eyes. Going on a trip?
She nods and bares her teeth. Only I know it’s not a smile.
The woman kind of shoves him then, or I don’t know, something happens back there and he moves out of the way.
You, she says to me. Where are you on your way to?
Chicago, I say. Long weekend.
Pleasure for her. Some doctoring for me.
She gives me a closer look. What kind of doctoring?
Can’t get past this virus, I say. Town doctor says there’s nothing more he can do.
The man comes back into the frame and leans in so close I can smell the liquor on his breath. That’s all up here, he says, tapping his temple. Don’t talk yourself into it.
Sure feels like it’s down here, I say, moving my hands in the direction of my body.
Nah, he says. That’s what they want you to believe.
The woman’s still studying me, which is good. She’s distracted.
Yeah, she says finally, I’d say that’s a waste of a trip. And I can’t think why you’d want to take your grandbaby to that dirty city.
She tells me to wait and disappears inside. I rest my forehead on the steering wheel, trying to catch my breath. How did I ever think we were going to get past her? Past him, maybe, but not her. There’s a sudden pounding in my chest and I think about flooring it out of there—my heart too wants what it wants.
It’s only when the woman taps me on the shoulder and hands back our papers that I realize her mistake, and mine. I have to laugh. Sitting there hunched over the wheel, gray with fatigue, maybe I really do look like my daughter’s granny. The man waves us on with a bored expression, and in the rearview mirror, I see the two of them passing a bottle back and forth under the floodlights. Maybe they weren’t even on the Force, maybe they were only a couple of vigilantes, who knows—all that matters is we got past. Night’s falling over the fields and she laces her fingers through mine, our hands resting on the console. That hasn’t happened in a while. Look, she says with a squeeze, as the lights of a town come into view, beating steadily in the darkness.