BY A. K. Cotham
This story was previously published in 2017 in Slink Chunk Press. Copyright is held by the author.
THE CLERK passed the clipboard of pages across the counter with monotone instructions: “Sign the yellow parts. Then bring them back.”
Olivia was almost mesmerized by the clerk’s voice, and wondered if she would sound like that even if she weren’t so clearly bored by her own words. It was surprising what people here got used to.
On the loveseat, Jonas actually began reading the papers.
“Just sign them.” Olivia pulled her cardigan tighter around her middle and sat down, then adjusted. There was a spring underneath her butt, under the faded, worn-thin mauve fabric. The ornate pattern complemented the old-fashioned wallpaper, which travelled up into the shadowy corners of the ceiling. Olivia wondered how much of the building was still original. Certainly the upper floors were more modern and sterile.
“It’s just procedure. I want to . . .” Jonas often trailed off, expecting her to know how his sentences would end. He signed, passed a paper over, and Olivia signed wherever she saw his signature. He absorbed each word, every last disclaimer. If he’d read something he didn’t like, he’d say so.
Jonas watched her sign the last page. “Want to grab some Thai food after this?”
Olivia stood up. “I need a restroom.”
Olivia returned the clipboard to the clerk, who flipped rapidly through. If Olivia had signed Audrey Hepburn, it wouldn’t have been noticed. “Restroom’s down this hall,” the clerk said. “Second door on the left. First room’s being cleansed again. These old buildings, you know.”
Olivia wondered if the bathroom she went into was also haunted and needed cleansing, or if it was cold because it was just an old building. Nothing happened. No eerie shadows in the mirror as she washed her hands, no strange breath on her neck as she dried them. The water turned hot and stayed hot. It was out of paper towels, though. She patted her hands dry on her long T-shirt, then — her custom now — put two fingers into the waistband of her jeans. Maybe just her imagination, but they seemed to finally be getting a little snug.
Heading back, Olivia paused at the first door. She glanced to see if the hallway was clear, then tentatively tried the knob. It was locked. Of course, the clinic anticipated curiosity. They didn’t want clients sneaking around where they weren’t welcome. It was somehow reassuring that they had taken that precaution. She wondered why they had to take that precaution.
Jonas was flipping through an old People magazine. “Want to see a movie later?”
“I thought you wanted Thai food.”
He grinned. “Can we sneak Thai food into the movie?”
The clerk reappeared. “Mr. and Mrs. Calvin, Dr. Moore is ready for you. Please come with me.”
Jonas stretched out a hand for Olivia just as she stepped back. “You ready?” he said, standing up on his own.
Olivia nodded, pulling her cardigan close again.
They followed the clerk down a dark hallway, into what might once have been a parlour. Dr. Moore sat behind a large mahogany desk, framed by a looming library. She took the file from the clerk while gesturing at the plush armchairs across from her.
“Mr. and Mrs. Calvin, good to see you. You’re both looking well.” Dr. Moore clipped and aligned the stack of papers against the desk, then spread them out. “I’m happy to say the background checks came back clean and your therapists have approved the procedure. No concerns there, so let’s continue. Did you have any additional questions?”
How dumb, Olivia thought. Of course they had questions. There weren’t many documented drawbacks so far, but then, this was a fairly new science. People once thought thalidomide and hormone replacement therapy were perfectly all right, didn’t they? Mercury treatments, cigarettes for asthma, bloodletting?
But any questions she had slipped away. She knew they were there, wisps hovering outside her ears, ready to slip back in when it was too late. She looked at Jonas, who nodded understandingly, picking up the slack.
“Well, we’ve talked to the references, and gone over all the materials,” he said. “I know we’ve been over it, but I — I guess our main question is . . . is the process, the timing . . .”
Be specific, Jonas, she can’t read your mind. Olivia’s thought made her feel mean, and then silly about her own snippiness, because these were the sorts of questions Dr. Moore must be answering all the time.
And she was being too hard on Jonas, again. “Be kind,” she heard Katey say. She and Jonas had met with Katey and Will, two of those references, a couple weeks ago. While Jonas and Will had wandered off to the garage to look at something with wheels, Katey bounced her fussing baby girl on her hip and gave Olivia a sympathetic smile. “Let me give you some advice. You have to be open, always, and you should be kind. The doctors don’t tell you that, but it’s true. Good vibes breed good results.”
Katey said she and her husband had followed this advice, and had success; she knew of another woman who had fought with her husband all throughout her pregnancy, and it had failed, terribly. Before Olivia could ask what “terribly” meant, or whether the “it” meant the marriage or the procedure, or something else, Jonas and Will had reappeared, still enthused about wheels.
“— A long process, and certainly there’s the chance it won’t take,” Dr. Moore was saying, when Olivia blinked back into awareness. “But that’s why we’ve extended the program to 60 months from your first transfusion. Now, our cases generally average about 36 to 40 months; none of our successful couples have ever needed the full 60 months. It’s more or less a precaution. We naturally want our clients to be fully satisfied. It’s not worth anybody’s time, yours or ours, to be dissatisfied with the results.”
“I meant, how long it might take until we know, one way or the other,” Jonas said.
Dr. Moore smiled patiently. “Every case is different, so we never guarantee TFD — time of first detection — but signs can become very clear, very rapidly. A birthmark, a facial tic, are common benchmarks. You may recognize other idiosyncrasies: fears, like squirrels, spiders, heights. Or attractions, a particular love for foods — oranges, pancakes, strawberries, fish. It’s not necessarily individual quirks, but rather when combined with others you recognize, that you see a mosaic forming.”
Pancakes. Strawberry with whipped cream, lots of it, and balsamic vinegar instead of syrup. Her and Jessie’s favourite breakfast as kids. That sounded really good. Olivia’s stomach twitched. She pictured their dad making goofy faces with the whipped cream.
Dad, Mom. Jonas had wanted to tell them. That had been their first big fight.
“— Can be hard to recognize,” Dr. Moore was saying, “which is why we encourage a professional evaluation at least every six months. Like I said, the majority of cases take about two to three years, usually conclusive by the time the toddler is talking in complete sentences.” She smiled. “Although our most expeditious case, I’d like to add, we evaluated as success at only six months. Still a baby.”
A still baby, Olivia thought. No — must think positive, be open and kind. Pancakes, strawberries. Oh God — Jessie loved olives. Will I have to start eating them?
It had been a childhood joke. “Olivia olive, olive Olivia, Olly hates olives, but olives loooove Livvy,” Jessie would sing. Jessie loved everything except onions and black pepper, and Olivia couldn’t make much of a song out of that.
“And the gender of the baby is guaranteed?” Jonas said.
Dr. Moore nodded. “Yes, to minimize the margin of error and reduce any peripheral, unnecessary trauma.”
Olivia remembered Katey’s whimpering baby, and finally thought of another question: If something goes wrong, what would that be? She looked at Jonas — her husband, her best friend, her pillow, her crutch — and she knew he saw her question. But then he looked away. This one, he wasn’t going to ask. He was supposed to get that answer, the most important answer, and he wasn’t going to do it, goddamn him.
Unnatural, he’d said to their therapists, to her. Their second big fight.
Dr. Moore moved her pen down the page. “Memory is also, of course, a strong indicator of success. It often first appears through dreams, sometimes quite vivid, visceral dreams. Pardon my bluntness, Mrs. Calvin, but do you know if your sister passed quickly?”
The avalanche of images, again — the same that cascaded at three a.m., while grocery shopping, at the gym — the wreck, the call, the services, the nauseating bouquets, and Olivia couldn’t speak. Then the moment was too long and Jonas took over. “They said yes. That the windshield — ” He took Olivia’s hand. “It was upon impact,” he said quietly.
“You may need to prepare for that,” Dr. Moore said. “The dreams can sometimes be managed with the proper medication. To be frank, this area needs further exploration —”
“Dreams?” Jonas asked.
“How do you know it’ll be her?” Olivia blurted, pulling her hand away. “How can you promise that it’ll be her?”
Dr. Moore leaned forward. “Mrs. Calvin, as I’ve said, we can’t promise. But we’ve documented a 73-percent accuracy rate, which is a phenomenal improvement from just five years ago. Every case receives personalized attention by our scientists, and they will share every pertinent detail with you, every step of the way. But we are working with a very short window of time, here. How far along are you?”
“Liv, are you sure?” Jonas asked. “We can do this, you know, naturally. These, these dreams, these side effects — maybe we should just wait, like the therapists said, and see if the baby has her own pers —”
“No,” she said.
The doctor’s pen tip-tapped, just once, on the desk. “Do you need some more time to discuss this?”
“No,” Olivia said again. “No, it has to be Jessie. It has to be this way.”
Dr. Moore came around the desk. She smoothed her long skirt before kneeling in front of them, then reached for Jonas’s left hand and placed it on Olivia’s belly. Olivia looked at his hand, his callused handyman’s fingers, so knotted he often couldn’t take his wedding ring off, still so knotted with grief they were warm on her belly. He knew her body as well as she did, maybe better. She wondered if her belly felt as flat to him as it still looked to her, as though nothing were happening, as if it were still the hardened hollow carved out by Jessie.
He nodded. “Anything you want, my love.”
Unnatural . . . But I’ll do it, anything, anything.
Jonas was trying, always trying. His capacity to do so hurt. He was always reaching out. She could only see in one direction, inward.
“Be kind,” Olivia heard Katey say again, her words warm, a bit loud, frazzled, over her keening daughter. (Another question Olivia had not asked: Who is your daughter?)
Kindness would be to lay her hand over her husband’s — she wanted to; somewhere folded into that cascade was the desire to do so — but she was so cold, she knew her touch would only dilute his warmth, his strength. And she needed that.
She needed her sister more.
But, a compromise, this time, she let his hand stay where it was, and counted the scars on them, and said, “I’ll be six weeks tomorrow.”
“No better time than the present, then,” Dr. Moore said. “Let’s bring Jessie home.”