art by Melissa Mead
by SJ Driscoll
The waiter had just set our dinners in front of us when Marlie stiffened and dropped her fork.
"Keith," she gasped, "it's time."
I leaped to my feet and put my arm around her to help her up. Her grotesquely large belly threw her off balance and she lurched as the next pain hit. She groaned.
"It's going to be all right," I said.
I walked her through the crowded tables toward the door. The diners, with their young faces and wise eyes, shifted their chairs to let us pass. A woman in the back started to applaud. Applause spread through the room, along with nods and grins.
Except for the elderly couple waiting by the hostess. As we passed, they pulled aside as if we'd contaminate them, eyes squinting in disgust, mouths pulled tight. "Selfish bastards," the old man muttered, and the old woman called shrilly, "Why don't you let some new souls come into the world?"
The hostess opened the door. "Don't pay any attention," she whispered. "We'll all be cheering for you."
"Thanks," I said, and tossed my keys to the valet. In the time it took him to bring the car around, Marlie had a pain that doubled her over.
She grabbed my hand as I buckled her into her seat, the lines around her eyes crinkling in distress. "I'm scared, Keith. I might not make it."
"I'm scared, too, babe. I don't want to lose you."
"Are you sorry we're doing this? Everything will be different."
I stroked her long hair. "Honey, we'll work it out."
We made it to the emergency room in three minutes. A perky aide helped Marlie onto a gurney and wheeled her away, me hurrying alongside, Marlie's hand clasped tight in mine.
A doctor who looked about eighteen did a quick exam, then frowned at me. "You didn't leave us much time, did you?"
"This is our first," I began, but the aide took my arm.
"Better hustle if you want to be there for the birth," she caroled.
I pulled my hand out of Marlie's grip. She was panting, eyes rolled up in her head. Strange animalistic noises broke from her throat.
I wasn't sorry to go with the aide.
She helped me dress in scrubs, then brought me through a maze of corridors to the birthing chamber and left me in front of the swinging door.
I pushed it open, blinking in the sudden strong light, and slowly walked toward the tank.
The doctor had his arms plunged to the elbow in the water, bending Marlie's legs back against her belly. A merry-faced nurse supported her neck and another very young nurse hovered in the background.
Marlie panted and writhed and moaned, biology turning her into a creature.
The doctor glanced up at me. "Don't you want to see?"
I stumbled closer.
Something red was emerging from between Marlie's legs, a fleshy, pulsing tube that doubled back on itself and slowly, at each contraction, edged upward over another inch of her hips, then her torso. Soon it would cover her head.
Bile rose in my throat.
Something bloomed from the hollow end. I saw toes, then the slender arches of the feet I knew so well. But these feet had never touched the ground.
"It's a breech," the doctor said, his youthful face suddenly drawn in old lines. "You'll have to wait outside."
I retched. I barely found the door. I fell against the corridor wall, trying to breathe.