by Hayley Hudson
The night Janet gave birth to her second child, she woke up with a pain below her stomach and knew she had to get to the hospital, even though the baby wasn’t due for three more weeks. She had fallen asleep on the couch with the TV on and buzzing. Her husband John was backpacking in the Grand Tetons; absent. She looked at her daughter, Chloe, sleeping on the sofa’s other end in her Little Mermaid nightgown, the iron-on Ariel figure with hair the color of John’s. Janet had eaten three cups of cooked spinach every day for the past nine weeks, hoping it would give the baby green eyes.
Chloe opened her brown ones.
“I was just going to wake you,” Janet said. “It’s time for us to get in the car and go to the hospital so your brother can be born.”
“Maybe it will be a girl,” she said.
Chloe was still hoping for a sister.
Janet grabbed a coloring book and Chloe’s coat from the coffee table and helped her get into her Velcro shoes. Bending over to Chloe’s height made her feel lightheaded, so she was relieved when they were inside the car with seatbelts fastened.
Janet didn’t think she’d be driving herself to the hospital to have the baby, but in some ways it fit with her new life here. Since moving to Pennsylvania, she did a lot of things alone — alone or with Chloe. . She hadn’t made new friends here, except for coworkers, who bothered her too much to be true friends. Janet’s family still lived in the Midwest, and so did John’s. John occasionally went out after work, which was easier for him to do, being a teacher. On those nights they’d call the babysitter, Leigh, who would cover until Janet got home from the law office.
“Remind me to call Leigh when we get to the hospital,” she said.
“We’re going to the hospital?” Chloe asked, panic in her tiny voice.
“That’s where everyone goes to have babies,” she said. “Leigh will meet us there and play with you.”
“Mommy, I don’t like playing with Leigh.”
Janet felt another round of cramps. She wasn’t calling them contractions yet.
“That’s not very nice to say,” she said.
“But I don’t! Leigh doesn’t know how to read. I can read better than her.”
“I’m not sure what you mean, honey,” Janet said. “Leigh is an adult.”
“Mommy, how come when I look at lights there’s sometimes long lines coming down from them and they’re kind of blurry?”
“I don’t know, sweetie.”
She wasn’t sure why Chloe expected her to help her understand a world she didn’t understand herself.
John tried to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. He and six friends from high school climbed a particularly tough stretch of trail on their way to the summit of Mount Latent. He could hear Hugo’s footsteps behind him strike the ground in a halting fashion, as if Hugo shortened his natural stride to keep pace with John’s, which had been slowing for the past 45 minutes or so.
“I’m gonna sit down a minute,” John finally said. “But you all can go ahead—I’ll make up the time after I eat something.”
Most of the group looked relieved, except for Hugo, who looked concerned.
Hugo walked with John to a tree stump underneath the shade of a tall pine. Now John noticed how far they’d made it compared to where they started out this morning, when their backpacks were packed and strapped on before dawn.
“Wow,” John murmured. “Nice view.”
“It gets even nicer up ahead,” Hugo said. “How you feeling?”
John took a long sip from his water bottle and wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve.
“Jan’s pregnant,” he said. “I’m not sure if I should have left her home alone.”
“I think she’s probably okay,” Hugo said. “But are you?”
John proceeded to tell him his concerns: that Janet wanted to get pregnant again for the wrong reasons, that she wanted a chance to undo damage inflicted on Chloe.
“She’d never admit it, of course,” John said.
No one had heard John tell the story of the damage before. He wasn’t sure how the whole thing would end up sounding out loud, but he could sense how good it might feel to tell Hugo, like ascending the peak at the end of their difficult hike, so he started talking.
Hugo learned everything for the first time. One weekend about a year and a half ago, Jan stayed home to watch Chloe while John attended his yearly staff retreat, when the school invited the faculty to spend a Saturday and Sunday in spring staying by a lake, relaxing by the water, breaking in the afternoons for meetings and curriculum planning.
They’d made good progress that weekend, and everyone was dismissed earlier than planned. John stopped by a pizza shop halfway between the lake and their home, thinking he’d surprise Chloe, who loved pepperoni. John opened the front door of the house and thought he heard crying. He called his wife’s name, then his daughter’s, and heard a sharp hissing sound, like someone was getting shushed.
He followed the noise into Chloe’s bedroom, which Jan had just redecorated with wall decals of characters from the Little Mermaid.
Chloe sat curled into a tight ball in the corner of the room furthest from him. Her brown hair looked unwashed, stringy. He said hello, but she didn’t turn around, and shot a confused look to Jan, who stood glaring at Chloe with her arms folded over her chest.
“Daddy’s home,” Jan said curtly. “Show him what you did.”
Chloe looked over her shoulder at John, then stood up on two feet and slowly turned around to face him. She wore a pink nightgown with purple leggings underneath it. On her lower arm between her wrist and her elbow were four tiny red marks in a straight line. The skin didn’t look like it had broken, but the marks were not faint.
“She’s started playing with forks,” Jan told John. “Can you believe it? I’ve never seen anything like this. She was supposed to be picking up her toys and—“
A feeling at the back of John’s throat made him question whether Chloe really did it to herself or whether it was Jan, but that was a thought he didn’t want to entertain longer than a couple seconds. Jan looked so angry, her eyebrows glued to the top of her forehead in a kind of incredulous shock, a superiority placing her above all others, but especially above her daughter.
“I gave her a fork from the dining room,” John said. “She wanted to comb her hair like Ariel.”
Jan softened and asked John to follow her into the next room.
In a hushed voice, she said she didn’t know, that she’d gotten really angry with Chloe for disobeying her, for having something she shouldn’t, an expensive piece of real silver with sharp points that could hurt people.
She made a stabbing motion to demonstrate, perhaps confirming John’s suspicions, but before her hand could make a full arc, he grabbed her wrist, intercepting the violence.
“I’m afraid you’ve done permanent damage to our daughter,” he said. “The cues she’s taking in from the world right now are crucial to her development, and—“
Jan jerked her hand out of John’s.
“Oh, is that right?” Jan asked. “You go to one lake retreat without me and now you’re a child psychologist, too?”
“Well, no,” John said. “Although if you know of any…”
Jan ripped her hand out of John’s, returning to the posture he’d found her in. She looked toward the window, and when John caught a glimpse of her face again, he noticed it looked wet.
That was when she collapsed into him, sobbing.
“I want to do better,” she said between gasping breaths.
John could smell lavender shampoo in her hair.
“We’ll do better,” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes.”
“Chloe was a mistake,” she said into his chest. “I want to start all over.”
She looked him in the eyes.
“I want another baby, and I want to throw away this rough draft.”
Maybe it was better John was away for this, Janet thought on the hospital bed after giving her final push of the 10-hour birth. She hated letting anyone see her vulnerable. Luckily she’d never see this doctor again, assuming the birth goes well.
Leigh was in the waiting room with Chloe. She tried to make a mental note to ask for a receptionist’s impression of Leigh, and if she could read. Chloe had strange ideas sometimes. Janet thought it was part of the damage, which she’d acknowledged by now was mostly her fault. It was a little bit John’s fault for being away that weekend, too, she thought. Everything is easier with two parents, and Jan liked having someone to hold her accountable.
Suddenly the new baby was being put into her lap, and Jan scooped her arms around the tiny body. It was a boy, just like she’d thought. She looked into his eyes, still blue from being brand new, and thought she couldn’t wait for them to turn green. She touched his nose.
“You’re perfect,” she whispered to him. “And I will be perfect for you.”
She named him Roger.