It was Karen’s intention to drive Nicki directly to the hospital. It was absolutely her intention. But the hospital came and went with a missed turn, and then a wrong turn, and then a strange overpass looming up in the road where Karen doesn’t remember an overpass ever being before, and now they’re somehow feeding off route 84 onto route 30, the old scenic highway through the Columbia Gorge. Nicki’s in the backseat, moaning and panting, and a glance in the rearview mirror shows she’s not looking so good. The contractions are coming fast and close and hard. Karen can tell from the way her breathing has changed, from the way the groaning has given way to an animal keening. There’s a smell of blood and saline.
Nicki’s so far gone now she hasn’t noticed they’ve gone off course. Karen imagines what it must be like to go animal like that, to have the lizard brain take over.
“Water broke, Kar. My waterâ€¦brokeâ€¦ Shitâ€¦your seatâ€¦your carâ€¦are weâ€¦soon are we gonna be thereâ€¦soon?â€ and the girl fades off again, then the keening, keening, a sound so high pitched it’s barely there and Karen says,
“Low sounds now, Nicki. Low sounds. Remember we learned the low sounds make the pain less.â€ And the girl pitches her moans lower, dutiful, malleable. A woman in labor is like a small child, Karen read in one of the books. She remembers that now, and it’s true. Nicki is sunk into herself, into the pain and the instinct; sunk in and trusting Karen to watch out for predators.
Karen meant to bring the girl to the hospital. She did. But the miles are ticking by. The car keeps moving forward, the hospital falling ever behind them.
Karen’s intentions were good. When she’d found out that Nicki-that ridiculous young receptionist, all red lipstick and cheap skirts-was pregnant, she’d bought an extra cookie at lunchtime and brought it back for the girl. “Eating for two now,â€ she’d said with a smile. Just to show that she was happy for her. All of twenty-three and unmarried and now pregnant, but who was Karen to judge?
When Nicki’s boyfriend had predictably left her-moving out in the middle of the night and leaving Nicki alone, six months pregnant and all her family back east-it was Karen who stepped in to help.
“You’re so good to me, Karen,â€ Nicki had said. She said that all the time, how good Karen was to her, wonder in her voice that someone-a stranger, really-should be so kind. When Karen stopped to reflect on it, she marveled, too, at her own kindness. How good a person she must be, how generous, to have stepped in to support the girl as she has.
“Don’t you want kids of your own?â€ Nicki had asked Karen once. They’d been driving home from the childbirth class at the hospital, Nicki yammering on about one inanity or another, and then out of nowhere she lobbed that question. “Don’t you and Alex want a family?â€ Karen had pushed her face into a smile and shaken her head. “That’s not for us,â€ she’d said.
Arriving home that night after dropping the girl off at her grim one-bedroom rental, Karen had found Alex at the kitchen table, hunched over the remains of his dinner. One plate, no leftovers. “Portland is full of single mothers,â€ Alex said. “You’re going to save them all, one after another?â€
“She’s alone,â€ Karen said, rummaging through the fridge, thinking to make herself a sandwich, or maybe she’d just open a can of soup. “All on her own. The least you could do is show a little compassion.â€ Compassion. Just a little bit of compassion.
Tires hum over asphalt, the road snaking and coiling through forest. It is something beyond Karen that is driving the car east now, away from the hospital, away from Portland, into the deep wet of the Oregon woods. The girl has pulled her shirt off; in the rearview mirror she is all belly, a quivering mountain of pain. “Karenâ€¦ kahâ€¦rnnnâ€¦oh god. Where are we? Weâ€¦weâ€¦weeeeeâ€¦â€
That sound, that awful wailing and whining from the backseat.
A miscarriage. Such an incidental word for the death of a child. A slip. A misstep. One day there’s the promise of a beating heart and the next day there’s bits of your baby floating dead in the toilet water. And not one time, one child. Three times like that. Three times. Three beating hearts gone to water.
“You’re alright, Nicki. Keep breathing. Watch your breath now, Nicki.â€
Nicki doesn’t hear her. Nicki is deep in her pain. Nicki is a primeval baby-making lump of flesh.
“Karenâ€¦karenenennnâ€¦hospital? What’s going on where are we Karen? Oh god, oh god.â€
“Low sounds, Nicki. Low sounds.â€ They’re well outside the city now, winding through the Gorge, no streetlights, no house lights, and the road is empty, middle of the night like it is. (Babies like to come at night, the childbirth teacher had told them.) The dark is deep and true on the old highway and it takes them in, swallows them whole, and Karen keeps aiming for the center of that darkness. East, eastâ€¦pushing east. It’s not too late to stop. It’s not too late to turn the car around and take the girl to the hospital. But the dark pulls them in, pulls them forward. There is a rope tied to Karen’s front bumper, some great unseen thing reeling that rope in, hand over hand, mile after mile, those unseen hands carrying Karen and Nicki and that baby into the deep wooded night.
“Let me out! Karen, let me out! The baby’s coming you let me out!â€ and Karen hears Nicki scrabbling at the door. The girl is grabbing for the handle, making like she’s going to leap out. What is there to do but pull over? To stop? Just ahead there’s a turnoff, a scenic viewpoint where in the daylight drivers stop to see the Columbia River spill out and stretch before them and across the river Washington State but at night there’s nothing to see but shapes that hint at cliffs, and the sound of the water.
Karen pulls the car in, the hum of asphalt giving over to gravel. Crunch of wheels on gravel and the car stops and out tumbles that girl, half naked and slick with sweat and out she goes, out of the car and looking wild and scared, looking at Karen through the windshield like a caged animal suddenly and unexpectedly freed and not knowing where to run, where to go first. Wanting to go every which way at once. And then she’s running, or trying to run, but a contraction hits and Karen is out of the car, Karen goes to the girl, catches her by the arm,
“Nowhere to go, Nicki. Now settle down. This is no place to be running off.â€
Nicki’s eyes are wide and rolling like a terrified horse, nostrils flaring, clutching at her belly. “Why are we here, Karen? What have youâ€¦Karen you take me to the fucking hospital NOW, Karen!â€ She grabs Karen’s shoulder with an otherworldly strength, clamping her fingers down so Karen thinks they might pierce right through her flesh, might meet in the middle and form a ring inside her shoulder. Talons of some awful bird of prey, sinking in.
And then the fingers release and the girl is on the ground. “Baby’s coming. Need to pushâ€¦ need toâ€¦â€ and there’s no time for getting the girl back in the car. No more moving east, no going back west. They are here and the baby is coming.
The girl is lying on the gravel in front of the car, writhing on the ground, her head, her belly, her foot rising to meet the flat yellow beams of the headlights. Karen kneels, positioning herself before the jutting angles of Nicki’s spread knees. The girl’s belly is a tense, thrashing planet and beyond it the river and the hills of Washington State muted by the dark.
Between Nicki’s legs, the baby’s head is crowning like a fearsome bloody dawn. Another contraction, Karen breathing with her, Karen urging the girl on. The head is out, the shoulders out, the baby slipping into Karen’s unworthy hands. A boy. “A boy,â€ she says. They knew it would be a boy, but to say it now, to say, “The child is here, he is born, a boy,â€ it feels necessary, a benediction. “You have been born. You are a son.â€
Karen’s children were never born, Karen’s children gone to water. She hears the sound of the river, soft and steady, swallowed by the dark. She thinks of her children as part of that river now, her children gone, gone, goneâ€¦
But this child is here, this child has arrived, and he is beautiful and he is terrible, a great screaming bloody thing, held up like the proof of God in the harsh glow of the headlights.