Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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The Philip's Baby

by Joseph Jordan


"Do you know how much I love you?" Arthur's wife teased as she slid across the sheets and into her husband's arms.

Arthur caressed the skin of Antonella's back and let his fingers continue over her buttocks. "No. Tell me how much."

Even in the darkness of their bedroom, Arthur could see his wife smile, her eyes filled with mischief. "I love you so much that I want to have your baby."

Arthur chuckled. "Listen you gorgeous thing, as soon as we save up enough money for the chemical womb, we can have as many as you want."

"No, not like that." She moved closer, pressing her body against Arthur's. Her tongue explored his ear, making him dizzy. Arthur wondered what had caused his wife's passion to suddenly swell, to run over like a glass filled to the brim and beyond.

Between licks, she whispered, "I want to have a baby the natural way." She patted her stomach. "Inside me."

Arthur pushed away for a moment, staring into Antonella's face. He looked for but could not find any humor in her expression. "You know, the more aroused you get the crazier you get."

Antonella smiled, not responding. Instead, she pulled Arthur on top of her.

He forgot her ridiculous comment for the moment. He began to move, feeling her breasts against his chest, drowning himself in her flesh.

At the end, when Arthur climaxed inside his wife, he did so without worry, with no concern. He didn't suspect, had no idea that this time his sperm was not entering a barren womb.

####

Dr. Sensenig entered the office fifteen minutes late with nothing more than a mumbled apology. After reviewing the chart in his hands, he looked at Antonella.

"Mrs. Philip, you've been careless with your contraceptive medicine," he scolded. "You're pregnant."

Sitting in a chair on the far side of the room, Arthur nearly fell to the floor. He glanced at Antonella who was seated on the examination table, her crossed legs dangling from the table top in a carefree fashion.

She was smiling!

The doctor scribbled notes on the chart he still held in one hand. "I'd like to set you up for an abortion as soon as possible."

Antonella's eyes widened. "An abortion? Are you mad? This is my baby you're talking about."

Arthur tried speaking. "Antonella, honey, what are. . ."

"Hush for a moment," she interrupted. She turned back to Dr. Sensenig, challenging him with her stare. "I'm having a real baby, not something you mad scientists create in your laboratories."

Arthur caught only a few words from the rest of the conversation between his wife and the doctor. He felt numb, caught up in his own thoughts.

I'm going to be a father!

He couldn't believe how happy and proud he felt. A baby!

But Arthur knew it was dangerous to have babies the natural way. He'd heard the warnings from the medical community all his life. Instead of having a beautiful, bouncing baby, Arthur and his wife could end up with an abomination.

Dr. Sensenig repeated similar warnings to Antonella, but without much success.

"You're wasting your breath, doctor." She folded her arms as if to end the conversation.

The doctor sighed, wiping a sweaty palm on his smock. "Mrs. Philip, at least allow us to remove the fetus and put it in a chemical womb. We can observe its growth and inform you if there appears to be damage."

"You bastard!" Antonella jumped from the table. She backed away from the man as though he had just burst into flames. "Lay one finger on me and I'll kill you."

Arthur realized he had let the situation get far enough out of control. He grabbed Antonella by the shoulders. "That's enough. Let's go home now." Turning to the doctor, he said, "Listen, uh -- I'll give you a call later. After I've talked to her."

The doctor shrugged. "Very well."

Antonella pulled herself from Arthur's grip. "Men!" she grumbled as she retrieved her coat.

"I can't believe you deceived me!" Arthur yelled as he slammed the front door to their house. No longer numb from shock, Arthur was scared.

And angry.

You purposely didn't take your medication. You never said anything to me. Don't I have a say in this?"

Silently, Antonella dropped her coat to the floor and walked towards the kitchen. Arthur followed.

"Don't you understand the dangers?"

Antonella poured herself a glass of bourbon.

Arthur sighed. "You're pregnant. Alcohol is dangerous."

She dumped the drink into the sink.

"That's the first sensible thing you've said to me all evening."

"What am I supposed to say when you do crazy things like -- like. . ."

"Like have a baby? Your baby!"

"You know what I mean."

Antonella leaned against the sink, watching Arthur. "I did it because I love you so much. You'll be happy. Maybe you'll even understand when the child is born."

"I love you too, Antonella. But why are you taking this risk? Even if the child is conceived in a chemical womb, it would still be our child -- my seed and your egg."

"Sure." Antonella poured herself a glass of milk. "After the cells have been scrutinized, analyzed, sanitized, and manipula-tized by technicians. The baby would belong more to the damn chemical company than to us."

"But what happens if this child is born blind, or mentally retarded, or with only one arm?"

"Then we give the baby even more love and more attention. Dammit, Arthur, I knew you'd be scared at first, but I didn't think you'd be so insensitive."

Eventually, the scowl on Antonella's face gave way to tears. She sought Arthur's embrace.

"I know you were born like that, Arthur," she mumbled into his chest. "It seems normal to you now. But I wasn't born that way. My mother carried me and loved me during the entire pregnancy."

Arthur tightened his hold. He knew Antonella didn't like to talk about her mother or the rest of the family she lost in a car accident in their home country of Italy so many years ago. That tragedy had brought Antonella to the United States at a young age to live with surviving relatives.

"You've been in America too long, darling," he said, as gently as he could. "You've got the virus just like us."

"I know." She sobbed against him.

"Look, now that you're carrying that child -- my child -- I'm not crazy about taking its life away either. But couldn't we do like Dr Sensenig recommended? Let's put the baby in a chemical womb. Let the doctors watch over it."

Antonella backed away, looking into Arthur's eyes. She smiled. "You poor Americans." She ran her fingers through his dark hair. You've had this problem for so long that your women don't know what it's like. To them, pregnancy means nine months of watching a fetus grow inside a vat of incredibly expensive chemicals.

"That's not the way it should be. I want to carry our baby. I want everything that goes with childbearing. I want to throw up in the morning, and watch my breasts swell with milk, and grow into a big fat blimp, so big that I'll need help getting out of a chair!"

Arthur laughed then, and suddenly he felt better. Maybe things would work out for the best.

Just maybe.

####

Arthur peeked around the door of Dr. Sensenig's office. "Can I talk to you a second, before your next patient comes in?"

Surprised, Dr. Sensenig placed the chart he'd been studying on his desk and motioned for Arthur to sit. "Were you able to talk some sense into your wife?"

"Actually, she talked some sense into me." Arthur gazed at the floor, not wanting to meet the doctor's eyes. He wasn't as sure of his decision now as he had been last night with Antonella in his arms, the two of them laughing and crying and babbling about how beautiful their baby would be.

"That doesn't sound very encouraging." Dr. Sensenig looked at Arthur with renewed interest. "Please, tell me more."

"She's determined to go through with this. She's from Italy, you know."

"I understand. It's always more difficult for immigrants to adapt to this tragic situation of ours."

"Worse than that, she's got me convinced it's a good thing. I'm really excited." Arthur finally looked up. "Is it really as bad as everyone says it is? I mean, I've heard all the stories. I listened to the lectures in school." Arthur licked his lips before continuing. "You don't hear much about it on the news anymore."

The doctor frowned, studying Arthur's face, measuring his words carefully. "Mr. Philip -- Arthur. I could quote you all kinds of statistics -- tell you horror stories about children born so deformed they didn't live a day. But this virus has been out of control longer than I've been alive. The American Medical Association condemned natural childbearing long before I started practicing medicine."

The doctor reclined further in his chair. "Believe me, even though it doesn't make the news much anymore, it's still the number one priority of the medical community. Progress is slow, though. No one knows where the virus originated. No one knows why only higher order primates are affected, or why only the gonads become infected. And we sure as hell don't have a cure yet."

"But not everyone has the virus, do they?" Arthur could not help sounding desperate. "And not every reproductive cell is tainted, is it?"

Dr. Sensenig sighed heavily. "It's very complicated. Everyone is affected to one extent or another. In some people the virus lies dormant. In some people, only a small percentage of the ova or sperm is infected."

"So it's possible we could have a normal baby?"

"Yes, that's possible. You could also drive down a street with your eyes closed and maybe not hit anything."

Arthur's shoulders slumped as the doctor pressed forward.

"Mr. Philip, I wish there was something I could say to make you change your mind. The only way to have children nowadays is to allow us doctors to remove an ovum and spermatozoon from the prospective parents so we can inspect the cells for viral damage. That way we can guarantee a zygote free of infection.

"What your wife is doing is reckless."

Arthur attempted a chuckle. It sounded more like a sigh of resignation. "Regardless, I guess we're actually going through with it. Which is the real reason I'm here. I was hoping, even though you disapprove, that you would care for my wife during the pregnancy."

"Absolutely not!" the doctor snapped. "My insurance company would drop me like a bomb if they learned I was treating an actual fetation. I'm sorry, but I can't help you. I can't care for your wife anymore."

"I - I see. That's too bad." Arthur placed his hands together as though to pray. "I suppose under the circumstances we're going to need all the help we can get. Do you know anyone who still handles -- how'd you say it -- fetations?"

"No one I know practices such things," Dr. Sensenig mumbled.

The two men said nothing for a moment. Arthur made no sign he was ready to leave, and the doctor made no mention of his waiting patient. Finally, the doctor grabbed a piece of paper and scrawled out a name.

"Gerald Bradley. I interned under him for a while, a long time ago. The fool was still delivering babies as late as then. "I hear he has a practice on the north side of town. He must be about seventy years old by now."

Dr. Sensenig stuffed the paper into Arthur's shirt pocket. He stood from his chair and opened the door for Arthur to leave.

"I wish you and your wife the best of luck."

####

Tall and lean, with silver hair and a wrinkled face, Dr. Bradley was a jolly man, the type of person who brightened like a light bulb when he saw something he liked.

And this man adored babies.

"My, my." A smile stretched across his face. "Do you realize how long it's been since I've seen a pregnant woman?"

He pulled out a stethoscope to check Antonella's heart and lungs. Then he removed her top and probed around her stomach, his withered fingers searching the young flesh for signs of new life. He even took a blood and urine sample from Antonella and analyzed both specimens in his office.

Finally, he sat with the couple to chat.

"Thirty years. Yes, almost thirty years." He sat in a plush armchair, rubbing his age-worn chin. "I can't believe it's been that long since I last delivered a baby. I was one of the few doing it back then."

"You must really miss that," Antonella said. She sat next to Arthur, holding his hand.

"Yes indeed, one of my greatest pleasures." The doctor nodded as though agreeing with some infallible wisdom. Then his expression turned sour. "Until that damn virus came along. I can't imagine anything more horrible than a disease that prevents our young women from bearing their own children." He shook his head. "Horrible disease."

"But tell me doctor." Arthur swallowed hard. He could tell by the way Antonella squeezed his hand that she was just as anxious to know. "How is my wife? How is the baby?"

"Oh." Dr. Bradley started as though being awakened from a nap. "She's doing fine. All the vitals are good. I'm afraid it's too soon to determine if the fetus's cells are infected by the virus."

Arthur glanced at Antonella's stomach. He couldn't see any visible progress, not even through her clinging sweater.

"Will you be able to treat here during the pregnancy?" he asked.

The doctor's face turned serious, an expression that surprised Arthur.

"No, my dear people. I'm sorry, but no."

He stood slowly from his chair and walked to the couple. He placed a hand on Antonella's shoulder. "Believe me, I would like very much to be your doctor, and deliver your baby, but I can't practice without insurance. In fact," he glanced at Arthur, "if you ever tell anyone I examined your wife, I'll deny it. The checkup is free because I don't want any records." He smiled again. "And also because it was my pleasure."

Antonella sighed. "But what can we do? No one will see us."

Dr. Bradley shrugged. "I'm afraid our society is no longer structured for pregnant women. Only place I know where you might be treated is at a public clinic." A strange expression came over his face, as though he was sorry he had even made the suggestion. "They are not pleasant places. For the most part, you'll find pregnant women only in the ghettos, and so the urban clinics may have a few resource."

"I don't understand," Arthur said as he looked at the fear in Antonella's face. "The contraceptive drugs are free."

"Yes, and subsidies are available to those who can't afford chemical wombs. But when a woman is impoverished, or abused, or addicted to some substance, she is often distracted and does not take the proper regiment of medicine. And then, some of these women reject abortion for religious or cultural reasons."

The doctor shook his head. "It can become a vicious circle."

Antonella's hand went limp in his own. She appeared ready to start crying. Arthur had no encouraging words for his wife.

####

The silence that surrounded the dinner table at Arthur's parent's house made Arthur nervous. He tried several times to start a conversation, with little success.

"My company began production in the new building," he said between mouthfuls of potatoes. "I may be offered a foreman position on the new line."

"That's nice," his mother responded, not even bothering to look up from her plate.

No one else seemed willing to pick up on the subject, so Arthur let the topic die and gave up on small talk. He returned to the food on his plate.

Towards the end of dinner, after several glasses of wine, Arthur's father began talking.

"So, Antonella."

Antonella almost jumped from her seat. She was not accustomed to being spoken to in this house -- at least, not while Arthur's mother was present.

"Are you excited about the baby?"

She smiled at her father-in-law. "Yes. Very excited." Unconsciously she rubbed the stomach that now bulged visibly.

"Please, must we discuss this at the table?" Arthur's mother gathered up her plates and marched into the adjoining kitchen. The swinging door slapped shut behind her.

Arthur clutched his own dinnerware and followed. Antonella and his father rarely spoke to each other. He wanted them to have this opportunity.

"I knew something like this would happen when you married a foreign woman," his mother scolded as Arthur placed his dishes in the sink. "This is outrageous!"

"What? That she's having my baby?"

"That she's pregnant. Pregnant, for crying out loud!" She threw her arms up in the air. "Maybe in the barbaric parts of Europe they still do such things, but this is America."

Arthur didn't feel up to arguing with his mother, so he returned to the dining room where he found his father laughing at a comment Antonella had just made. The man stopped laughing when Arthur's mother reappeared.

"I suppose you're very proud of yourself," the woman said, glaring at her daughter-in-law.

Antonella said nothing. She kept her head down, looking at the table.

"What happens if your precious child is born deformed," her mother-in-law demanded.

"That's a risk families have been taking since the beginning of time." Antonella still refused to look up.

"Very witty. But I believe even you are smart enough to know that this is different."

Arthur watched the quarrel unfold. He had hoped his father would intervene, but the man remained silent. Neutrality had been the only way Arthur's father could retain his sanity during thirty-five years of marriage. Arthur had learned that much from his old man.

"What I feel now is something you'll never know." Antonella finally looked her mother-in-law in the eyes. "And I feel so very sorry for you."

That comment seemed to slow Arthur's mother, but the woman wouldn't quit an argument. Like a lioness, she never released her grip until the prey was subdued. "Well, tell me dear, which doctor is treating you for your -- your condition?"

Antonella ignored the last remark. She turned to Arthur. "Could we leave now? I don't feel so well."

Arthur retrieved Antonella's coat.

"Funny," his mother said as Arthur helped his wife don the coat. "I'd always thought that pregnant women became sick in the morning."

Arthur didn't bother to tell his mother that Antonella was well into her second trimester. The period for morning sickness had all ready passed. His mother, of course -- being a prim and proper lady -- had never been pregnant. She wouldn't know about such things.

####

Arthur returned home from work and stepped through the front door. He heard his wife speaking to someone in another room.

"Are you sure she can't help us?"

Arthur followed Antonella's voice to the kitchen. He found her clinging to the telephone, tears streaking her cheeks.

"No, I understand." She sniffed back her disappointment. "Thank you."

She placed the phone back in its cradle and began crying in her hands. Arthur noticed a list of names written on a sheet of paper next to her. Each name had been scratched out with a pen. The Yellow Pages directory lay next to the list, opened to the doctor's section.

He wrapped his arms around Antonella to comfort her. The hug reminded him of the advanced stage of her pregnancy and of how long it had been since she'd seen a doctor.

The depleted list on the table proved how much longer it would be.

####

Arthur felt the gloom of the clinic's waiting lounge, a reflection of the five other pregnant women who shared the room with Antonella and him. Arthur had never imagined he would see so many expectant females. He also never imagined he would see so much misery in such a small group. The five women -- some of them no more then girls -- were ethnically diverse, but united in their obvious poverty. No men accompanied them. A couple of them had their mothers with them, but the rest had come alone.

Antonella stirred next to Arthur.

"We've been here almost an hour," she whispered.

Arthur patted her hand. "I know. The receptionist said it would be a while."

"But no one's been called since we arrived." She nudged him in the ribs. "Go see what the problem is."

Arthur stood from his chair. He shuffled over to the reception desk. The middle-aged woman behind the desk showed no more enthusiasm to see Arthur than he had in approaching her. She lowered the book she'd been reading and removed her glasses for a better look at Arthur.

"Can I help you?"

"Yes." Arthur cleared his throat. "My wife and I have been here for an hour and we noticed that no one's. . ."

"The doctor hasn't shown up yet," the woman said. She glanced at her watch. "He's very late, too," she added, obviously annoyed that she was here at work while the medic was out running around somewhere.

Arthur returned to Antonella. The waiting room chair seemed to groan as Arthur settled back into it.

Antonella poked him in the ribs again. "Well?"

Before Arthur could respond, the doors to the waiting room burst open. A very young and very pregnant girl stepped through the doorway. An older, plump woman supported the girl on one side.

"My God!" Antonella exclaimed. "That girl can't be more than fifteen years old."

In addition to being too young, the girl was much too thin. Except for the well-developed bulge in her stomach, the girl had nothing but skin on her bones.

The older woman half escorted, half dragged the girl to the reception desk. The receptionist jumped from her seat, startled by the abrupt entrance.

"You gotta help my daughter," the older woman cried out in a harsh, tinny voice. Tears flooded her eyes. "Gotta help her. She's bleedin' real bad. Where's the doctor?"

"Uh - uh," the receptionist stammered for a few seconds. "He's not here yet."

"But you gotta help her. Ain't no hospital gonna take her in, and she's all ready lost a lot of blood."

As though on cue, the girl fainted. Her mother eased the fragile body into a nearby chair. Arthur noticed the big wet stain on the front of the girl's skirt.

"Oh Lord, please help my little girl! She's bleedin' real bad."

The receptionist looked helplessly around the room. "Uh, I don't know what we can do. Maybe if we lie her. . ."

"Arthur!"

Antonella's voice tore Arthur's attention away from the commotion.

"Let's go."

"But honey, you haven't been examined since we saw Dr. Bradley."

Antonella stared at the girl who was still unconscious in the waiting room chair. "Take me out of here, now!"

Arthur opened his mouth to argue, but closed it when he saw Antonella's pale face. He helped her from the chair and escorted her out the door.

####

"What was that all about?" Arthur asked when they returned home.

Antonella turned around. Some of the color had returned to her cheeks, but she still looked shaken from the ordeal at the clinic. "That's no way to look after pregnant women."

"Great. But what about. . ."

"I'm not going back there!" she snapped.

"Fine." Arthur stared at his feet, not knowing what to do next. "What happens now? What are you going to do?"

"Just me? Have you suddenly washed your hands of this affair?"

"I apparently have no say. You're the one carrying the child."

Antonella frowned. "Don't forget, it's just as much yours as it is mine."

Arthur shook his head. "You alone decided to have this baby. I can't be responsible for your mistake."

That remark ended the argument. Without another word, Antonella stomped up the stairs and into the bedroom.

It took Arthur a half hour and almost three shots of bourbon to prepare for his apology. He stumbled up the steps and found Antonella sprawled on the bed. With her head cradled lazily in one arm and the other arm draped across her round belly, she looked as though she fallen asleep curled up with a beach ball. Arthur struggled to keep from laughing at the sight.

Slowly, gently, he eased himself next to her. He reached an arm around her waist. She sought out his exploring hand, entwining her fingers with his.

"Do you still love me?" he asked.

In response, she pulled his hand to her lips and kissed the palm.

"I'm sorry," he finally said.

"It's all right."

Arthur felt tears fall onto the back of his hand.

"Maybe I did make a mistake," Antonella said. "I - I never expected so many problems. I didn't really think. I just wanted a baby so badly."

She wiped her face.

"I guess people like your mother and Dr. Sensenig were right. Becoming pregnant was an irresponsible thing to do. My God, Arthur, what if our baby is horribly deformed? What if he looks grotesque, or he's severely handicapped? He'll be miserable all his life, and it'll all be my fault."

"Hey, what happened to all that optimism -- all that enthusiasm you got me hooked on?"

"It's slipping, Arthur. The bigger I get, the more scared I get. Each day I'm less and less sure about this."

"Well, it's too late to turn back now." Arthur caressed her cheek. "We might as well hope for the best."

He tightened his arm around Antonella and held her like that for a long time.

####

Teresita Núñez was a large woman, about fifty years old, of Mexican heritage. She sat across the table from Arthur and Antonella. In her hands she clutched a satchel full of documents: a resume, state license, letters of references, and other legal papers.

"I've been delivering babies for over twenty years," the woman explained in her heavily accented English. "The last ten years here in the United States. I do about two or three a year. I've never had a call this far out from the city. I didn't realize rural folks were still having babies the old-fashioned way." She smiled smugly.

Arthur picked up Teresita's resume from the table and read through some of the paragraphs. He had no idea what qualities or qualifications to look for in a midwife. He looked at Antonella, arching his eyebrows.

Antonella saw the question in his expression and nodded.

"Ms. Núñez. . ."

"Please, call me Teresa."

"Very well, Teresa," Arthur continued. "What do you need to get started?"

The Mexican woman hesitated. She stared first at Antonella, then at Arthur. "I'm sorry, I don't understand. Does that mean I got the job?"

"Sì, signora," Antonella replied in her native Italian.

Teresita looked down at the pile of papers she had presented to the couple. All but the resume remained untouched. "Don't you want to look over the letters of recommendation, or maybe call some my references? Señora, you don't even know how much I charge."

Arthur placed a hand on Antonella's stomach. "Teresa, as you've probably noticed, my wife is going on her eighth month. You're the only person who's answered our ad for a midwife. If you want the job, it's yours."

"Bueno!" Teresita pulled another sheet of paper from her satchel and presented it to Arthur. "Here's my contract. My fee is two thousand dollars for everything: prenatal instruction, the actual delivery, and postpartum care. Please read the fifth clause carefully. It's important you understand that one before signing the contract."

Arthur began wading through the indicated clause, but he understood nothing in the tangled legal jargon.

"Get a lawyer to look it over if you'd like, but the fifth clause basically says I'm not responsible if the baby turns out abnormal."

Arthur dropped the contract and stared suspiciously at the midwife.

"Mr. and Mrs. Philip," the woman explained, "I'm not going to pretend that everything is guaranteed to go well. You're taking a very serious risk. I've seen some terrible things in the ten years I've been up here.

"I've also delivered some beautiful babies," she added with a broad smile.

Arthur looked again at Antonella. Once more she nodded, sealing their silent agreement.

Arthur reached for a pen. "Where do we sign?"

####

"Are you sure we should be doing this?" Antonella asked again, this time just before Arthur reached for the doorbell.

"I haven't been sure of anything for the past eight months," Arthur exclaimed. Then, to soften his words, he leaned over his wife's belly and gave her a quick kiss on the lips. "Don't worry. They're nice people. Just enjoy yourself."

When the door opened, they entered the house of Arthur's friend and coworker, a man named Peter. Inside, a dozen or so people stood about, some of them drinking, some chatting.

"Hey everyone!" Peter announced. "It's Arthur and the blushing mother-to-be!"

Most of the guests acknowledged Arthur and Antonella with a salutation or a raised drink. They were employees from Arthur's plant, along with family members. Many of the people also knew Antonella, though none of them had seen her since her pregnancy began.

Arthur wondered if this party had been a good idea. How would these people react to an honest-to-goodness pregnant lady?

The host escorted Arthur over to the bar while a crowd of women intercepted Antonella.

"What's your poison tonight, Arthur?"

Arthur looked away from his wife and smiled, trying to hide his preoccupation. "Uh, bourbon and ice, please."

"How's life over on the new line?" Peter asked as he handed Arthur his drink.

"Thanks. Oh, things are going well. Lots of bugs to be ironed out, of course."

"I'm sure if anyone can make it work, you can. We sure do miss you over on the other side, though."

Several other men clustered around the bar, reaching for glasses and liquor.

"Your wife is the hit of the party, Arthur," exclaimed Bob, a tall, lanky man Arthur had met a few weeks earlier.

"She sure is," agreed someone else.

Arthur glanced across the room. Antonella was at the center of a small mob. All the women at the party surrounded her, laughing and staring like groupies in the presence of a rock star.

At least she seemed comfortable. Before the party, Antonella had been overly conscious of her appearance. She wore a self-made blouse of simple design, and a very large pair of pants she had altered to suit her inflated waist. Tailoring had never been her specialty, but maternity clothes no longer existed.

Fortunately, no one noticed her clothes. The women around her showed interest only in the bulging flesh beneath the blouse where they knew, in an abstract sort of way, that life existed and thrived. One girl reached out to touch Antonella's belly, as though she didn't believe the rounded surface was real. She quickly retracted her hand after making contact. The smile on her face indicated her delight in discovering the whole thing was real.

Antonella encouraged the others to touch, to explore that which they'd heard about all their lives but had never seen and would most likely never experience. Some of the bolder women placed flattened palms on the underside of the outstretched skin. Little kicks and punches from inside rewarded their advances.

"That is a special lady you've got there," Peter commented, breaking the silence that had befallen the bar.

The other men mumbled in agreement. From a distance, they all seemed just as memorized as the women did.

"I don't know anyone else brave enough to go through with a pregnancy," one of the men said.

"You may know another one soon," declared Bob. "My wife's been inspired by Mrs. Philip. We're considering having a baby -- the real way, I mean. That is if. . ." The man glanced at Arthur and stopped. His face turned bright red.

Arthur knew that Bob had intended to say, that is, if the Philip's baby turns out all right. Arthur wondered if the inspiration Antonella created was a good thing. Even if their own child came out normal, the odds remained high against everyone else. If enough of Arthur's friends decided to have babies themselves, eventually an unfortunate couple would end up with a monstrosity, the type of disaster that had instilled fear into two generations of Americans.

For now, though, everything seemed fine. Antonella looked happier than she had in many months, and Arthur finally relaxed.

The next month would tell.

####

The time came soon enough, catching Arthur by surprise.

In the critical moment, Arthur could find no way to be useful. Teresita Núñez had all ready handled the preliminaries such as administering the enema, cleaning Antonella's perineum, and sterilizing the instruments. Arthur tried to assist the midwife in some of the tasks, but his bumbling gave the woman such a fit that she yelled at him.

Will you leave me alone, Mr. Philip! Go over there and hold your wife's hand. Tell her how much you love her or something." She shook her head as she went back to work. "Never have seen a father worth anything during his own child's birth."

At first, Arthur had been happy with his assigned task. He stayed at the head of the bed with Antonella, caressing her bare arms and cooing in her ears. Antonella seemed pleased to have her husband by her side. Every once in a while she asked him to wipe her brow with a damp cloth.

But the time for comfort soon ended. Antonella's contractions came so close together that she could no longer tell when one ended and the next began. She concentrated on the pressure between her legs, on the impossibly large pea trying to break out of its pod.

Arthur could only stand back and marvel.

"You're doing just fine, señora." Teresita's reassuring voice boomed from the other end of the bed. "Everything is going like clockwork."

Antonella's complexion turned bright red, her face twisted. "I don't know, there's a lot of pain!" She gasped, struggling for air.

"Nonsense." The midwife brushed Antonella's complaint aside. "Arthur, it's almost time. Prop another pillow in back of Mrs. Philip."

Arthur helped his wife lean forward as he stuffed a second pillow behind her. She winced and cried out in a way that Arthur had never heard.

"Sh - she's really in pain, Teresa." His voice trembled, bordering on panic. "Can't you give her more painkillers?"

The large woman shook her head. "I've all ready given her fifty milligrams of Demerol. You want you child to be a junkie?"

She gave Arthur a stern look before crouching between Antonella's legs. "Don't worry, Mrs. Philip, it's just like making a hefty bowel movement."

"B - but the pain isn't down there." Tears streamed down Antonella's cheeks. She tried to speak between clenched teeth. "The - the pain. . .it hurts inside. Inside my belly."

Arthur cried along with his wife. "It'll be over soon. Just a few more minutes." He caressed her face, helpless as ever.

"I'll just check to see if she's completely dilated," Teresita announced as she reached for Antonella.

Arthur lowered his face to the pillow, resting his head next to Antonella. He listened to his wife's breathing, waiting for the midwife's verdict.

But the midwife said nothing.

After a few minutes, Arthur looked up. Teresita sat silently at the foot of the bed, unmoving, like a figure petrified. The woman had an uncharacteristically frightened expression on her face.

What's wrong?" Arthur queried.

A few more seconds of quiet, then Arthur screamed, "Dammit, woman, what's wrong?"

As if in answer, Teresita raised a gloved hand drenched in blood.

"Oh God!" Arthur stared with his mouth gaping. "Where's all the blood coming from?"

"I don't know. I swear -- oh Lord, there's blood all over the place! How did I miss it?" Teresita jumped from the bed, putting distance between her and the horrible sight. "Oh Lord, that baby must come out of there now. She needs a Caesarean. I can't deliver this baby. We must get her to a hospital."

Arthur glanced down at Antonella's face. She was oblivious to the conversation going on around her. The pain blocked her senses, not allowing her to notice anything else.

Arthur could handle the sight no longer. He ran to the midwife and grabbed her by the shoulders.

"Listen, dammit!" Tears filled Arthur's eyes, but his voice was rock solid. "There's no hospital that will take us in. You're the only one who can deliver that baby. My wife didn't go through nine months of hell just to lose this child."

His harsh words snapped the midwife from her spell. She nodded, returning to her position at the foot of the bed.

Antonella's head was lolling back and forth when Arthur returned to her. Arthur tried talking to her, but he didn't think she could hear him

Teresita pulled Antonella's legs upward, opening the thighs.

"We can't do this ourselves, Mr. Philip." A hint of calm returned to the midwife's voice. "The baby's ready to come out, but your wife has got to push."

Arthur grabbed Antonella's hands. The wild strength in her fingers nearly broke the bones in his own hands, but he ignored the pain.

"Antonella! Can you hear me? You must push!" He placed his mouth close to her ear. "Antonella, if you want our baby to live," he shouted between sobs, "he has to come out now. You must push!"

For a few terrible moments Antonella didn't respond. Then she arched her back, and with all her remaining strength, she pushed. Her cheeks bulged, threatening to explode. She screamed, unleashing a sound Arthur would never forget, no matter how long he lived.

Afterwards, Antonella's head dropped to the pillow. Her breathing became slower, each exhale pushing life from her body.

"Oh, Antonella, don't leave me." Arthur wrapped his arms around her limp form.

Her shallow breaths forced Arthur to move closer as he strained to hear each one.

"God, no, please!"

Eventually, the breathing stopped. Arthur kept listening, but the only sound he heard was his own weeping -- and then something else. Something unfamiliar.

Somewhere in the background, a baby crying. . .

####

Severe abruptio placentia. That had been the diagnosis. The placenta had separated prematurely from Antonella's uterus, causing massive hemorrhaging, and then -- and then. . .

And then Antonella was gone.

Arthur unlocked the front door and walked into his house. Arms limp by his sides, he glanced around the rooms, so lonely now. He'd have to leave. No way he could go on -- not in this house.

For now, though, he was exhausted. He hadn't slept in over thirty hours, although he didn't think he could sleep just yet. Besides, his parents would be over soon.

He fell into the closest chair and covered his face. The entire ordeal ran through his mind again. Every detail.

The stupid doctors had been so excited when the ambulance pulled up to the Emergency Room. They'd never seen anything like it, of course. They had to research through old medical journals to understand the symptoms and to learn all the fancy jargon that accompanied Antonella's final condition. Abruptio placentia, hyperfibrinogenemia -- the ghouls had been careful to explain each term to Arthur. Didn't they realize that he wasn't interested? Why the hell should he care?

Antonella was gone!

And now, so many decisions had to be made. But Arthur wasn't used to thinking alone.

Approaching footsteps startled him. He looked up and saw Teresita Núñez walk into the room carrying a bundle of sheets in her arms. Incredibly, the bundle moved.

"I was hoping you'd be back soon," Teresita whispered. "I never got a chance to tell you it's a girl."

She held the baby out for Arthur to hold.

Arthur jumped from the chair and backed away.

"Wh - what are you doing?"

Teresita's eyes widened. She gave Arthur the stern look that always made him nervous. "I'm giving you your daughter."

Arthur hesitated, but finally reached out his arms. He held the bundle clumsily at first, holding it away from his body as though refusing to accept it. When he pulled back the sheet for a look at the baby, he gasped. He stared at the pathetic little creature, realizing that his greatest fear had come true.

"Oh no. She is abnormal." Arthur almost started crying again. "Look at how small and sickly she is."

"Be quiet you big buffoon!" Teresita scolded. "Your daughter is perfectly normal. It's all those other babies out there, the ones you're used to seeing -- they're abnormal. Do you think doctors are satisfied with simply choosing cells that haven't been infected by the virus? Of course not! They search around until they find the biggest, the best, and the strongest cells.

"Mr. Philip, you remember this, and you remember it well: this child of yours was selected naturally to be born. That makes her more special than any of those kids they produce in their chemical wombs."

Arthur remained quiet for a while, letting the midwife's words sink in. As the minutes passed, the bundle began stirring in Arthur's arms. He glanced down at the little girl. Tufts of brown hair covered her head. Gray eyes stared in wonderment at the surrounding lights.

Arthur tried holding back new tears. "But what am I going to do with her?"

"I'll tell you what you're going to do." Teresita folded her arms. "You are going to take care of your daughter. You're going to love her, and raise her, and give her all the things a little girl deserves. And then, one day, you're going to tell her all about her brave mother."

Arthur turned his attention to the bundle in his arms. "You're going to be smaller than all the other children, and you'll probably get sick more often. And you're going to grow up without your mother. You have so many strikes against you all ready." He pulled the baby closer.

"I guess you'll need everything I can give you."

THE END


© 2008 Joseph Jordan

Bio: Joseph Jordan is a 47 year old defense contractor who has served in such places as Germany, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. When not wondering around these exotic locations, he tries to keep up with his wife, his daughter 24, and his son 21, who live in Naples, Italy. His novelette, At the Gate of God, won third place in the Writers of the Future contest for the third quarter of 2005. Mr. Jordan's two-part serial Listening to the Words debuted in the October, 2007 Aphelion (with Part 2 following in the November issue).

E-mail: Joseph Jordan

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