Martha kept the files in an unlabeled folder on her desktop, and routinely opened it between two and three in the morning, at least once a week. As David’s eyes rolled beneath his lids, as he lay deep in the trenches of a workaholic’s REM sleep, Martha’s face glowed a pallid blue and her pupils shrank to pinpoints from the screen’s artificial light. She maintained these nocturnal appointments with her laptop more rigorously than her prenatal checkups, which were scheduled for every Friday at one-thirty p.m. and which she was liable to blow off if she took the route past the frozen yogurt shop, as she often did.
Frozen yogurt held sentimental value. It was a snack that Martha and her mother had enjoyed together, in the time before artisanal, hexagon-wallpapered yogurt “shoppes” appeared on every commercial block of their upper middle class suburb. No — theirs were the halcyon days of TCBY. The one they’d favored had been at the edge of a modest strip mall, catty-cornered from a Blockbuster Video, which had always seemed bursting with customers. Martha’s memory of this was a complex knot of nostalgia and existential depression. Nothing puts one’s age in perspective like remembering Blockbuster in its heyday.
The video she was watching now somehow involved both Blockbuster and TCBY, these long-since-obsolete staples of her childhood. According to the timestamp in the corner, she was five years old here, kneeling in front of that boxy television playing a VHS tape, a cup of chocolate yogurt posing a perilous threat to the new carpet. The carpet was new, the TV was new, everything was new because this was a clip of them moving into the new house. Or the house formerly known as new, when it had first been constructed in 1995.
Martha watched herself watching some cartoon as her parents positioned bookshelves, and marveled at the neatness of the pattern: herself watching a screen filled with herself watching a screen. She wondered idly if there could be anyone watching her now, through a camera hidden in the walls, and found herself comforted rather than alarmed by the idea.
David never looked her in the eyes anymore, not since her mother’s death the previous October. Martha was freshly pregnant at the time and hadn’t realized that her nausea during the funeral was attributable to gestation rather than grief. She took the test on Thanksgiving, and afterwards couldn’t stop thinking about how soon she’d be as round as their shiny white turkey. She’d had two miscarriages before her mother died — a stroke following early-onset Alzheimer’s — yet here she was rolling right along, nearly in her second trimester without a hitch.
Another thought that plagued her during this time was that there had been some sort of spiritual, unwilling exchange of life. That her mother had died purely so this baby could live. She’d never believed in reincarnation before. Only when it could torment her with uncertainty and guilt did the possibility so much as flit through her mind.
Black Friday was the night the videos started. First as distraction, then as misguided consolation, and now as the epicenter of all her anxieties.
She’d stolen them off her dad’s hard drive before he moved to Shady Meadows and hauled everything into storage, with the sole exceptions of his Vitamix and elliptical machine. Her dad: he could barely use a search engine, but he knew the specific relative health benefits of seventeen different types of protein powder. Martha knew he wouldn’t miss the videos, figured he’d never really cared about them, and was subsequently shocked not only by the quantity, but also the quality of the well-preserved footage. Hours upon hours tracking the day of her birth up to her high school graduation, an intensive reel of color and light and movement from which she could construct her life when memory inevitably failed her, as it had failed her mother.
Intended or not, she’d been working her way through all of them chronologically, half an hour at a time. With each passing year bloomed more toxic feelings within her — worry that her daughter’s childhood wouldn’t measure up to this idyllic supercut, bitterness that the integrity of the videos would last longer than that of her mind, anger that her mother (almost always the bubbling voice behind the camera) had not lived to meet her future grandchild.
But most of all, wretched sadness that she could never return to these times, no matter how she yearned for them. The sensation that the best days of her life were not only already over, but had been over since elementary school. She was like Blockbuster, her glory days decades behind her.
Alone with her laptop, her soul laid bare before her past self, Martha cried silently but fiercely for her present unhappiness.
Finally the clip finished, the screen blanked, and Martha rose from the slouching armchair to curl into an escapist sleep. It was then that she felt warmth and wetness slipping down her legs, just as the tears of the night had seeped into the faintly etched lines on her face.
“Move it!” David shouted as they rushed through entryway of the hospital, him like a jackrabbit, her more akin to a motivated penguin, waddling with purpose. The admonishment turned out to be unnecessary, as the lobby was almost empty at three in the morning, but Martha felt a prick of delirious pride. She hadn’t seen David so animated in months. Then again, she herself hadn’t been so sleep-deprived and adrenaline-filled in just as long.
“Okay, hi, we’re having a baby! Three weeks early! That’s okay, right, everything’s going to be okay?” Her husband had stormed the intake desk and was motor-mouthing at the bewildered receptionist, managing to sound simultaneously audacious and hesitant.
“Thirty-six weeks is unusual, but certainly not unheard of,” she replied when he wound down at last. “Let’s get your wife into the maternity ward.”
Martha felt herself and her stomach, which she had begun to consider a separate entity from herself over the past weeks, being lowered into a wheelchair with all the tenderness and solemnity of a baptism. David and her favorite OB nurse, who was miraculously on call, flanked her on either side. They entered the frosted-glass double doors of the ward as a single unit.
Despite all her misgivings, despite the many tears she’d shed not even an hour earlier, Martha’s smile gleamed under the fluorescent lights. She’d never made it this far before.
She tried to remind herself of that fact as the contractions knit themselves closer and closer together, feeling every inch full of needles threading blood.
One hour in: It hurts so much, but it’ll be worth it.
Two hours: At least it should be over soon.
Three: Something is wrong.
She voiced as much to the nurse who had come on shift at six in the morning, a stranger who’d replaced her favorite in a seemingly ominous way, though Martha figured she was just as likely to be delusional from the agony. The nurse assured her that whatever she was feeling was typical, that there’d been no irregularities in either her or the baby’s vitals, that yes, the contractions might be down to three minutes apart, but they’d been that way for awhile now and there was no guarantee that —
Martha had cut her off by screaming. The great mass in her lower stomach had shifted in an unbearable manner; what had been excruciating before now seemed like a balmy stroll through the park. Her insides were blazing and roiling — a mutiny. She could no longer maintain consciousness. She heard everything else through her self-protective fog, a dozen or more voices, or what seemed like as many to her.
“She’ll need a C-section.”
“Someone page Dr. Banner.”
“I think he’s in surgery — ”
“Well, he needs to get here, stat!”
She could still feel the pain, but it was more distant now, as if some tangible buffer had sprung up between herself and the fire. A door that felt warm to the touch, but as long as she kept her palm from the white-hot handle, she’d be fine. Safe from the suffocating smoke that awaited on the other side. If not for long.
It reminded her of being extremely drunk, this feeling. Separated from reality, yet a kernel of keen awareness within her that something horrific was about to happen. In college it was alcohol poisoning: a vertiginous night on the bathroom floor, the never-ending migraine that followed. But even on her worst nights she’d never believed she would die.
Tonight, she knew at her core, things might go differently.
But after two miscarriages, what had she expected? What did she expect now? The kernel within her spewed the pessimist’s eternal mantra: expect nothing, and you will never be disappointed.
Only she didn’t want to live like that anymore.
Martha struggled to the surface just as they were making the first incision. They’d numbed her below the waist, and the physical pain was finally tolerable. David knelt beside her, both of his hands gripping one of hers, tears streaming down his cheeks in a way that she knew was unwilling but which he was powerless to stop. This was no months-absent excitement making a sudden reappearance. He had never cried in front of her before.
She breathed deeply and felt she was inhaling the salt off his face. He touched his forehead to hers. The surgical team sliced and separated the soft tissue below, excavating their child.
Martha thought only of what she expected, and envisioned each moment as if it had already happened, in full clarity and perfect detail.
Nursing the baby. Rocking her to sleep. Taking her to the park. Laying a blanket down on the warm grass and letting her squirm between she and David as they eat summer fruit and admire their handiwork.
Helping her start preschool and kindergarten. Assuring her that Mommy will be there every day at the same time, feeling gutted as she clings to the fence crying, overjoyed when she’s the first to sprint out of class at pickup time. Hugging her so tight, taking her out for ice cream to reward her for doing her best.
Fighting furiously with her as she gets into high school. All teenagers rebel and she is no different. They fight over a failed class, a bad boyfriend, a joint found under her mattress. They don’t talk for days and they’re on thin ice when they do. But each fight is underlain with the intense love that only a mother and daughter share.
Watching her walk across the stage at graduation. David grips her hand as he’s gripping it now. “She made it,” he whispers. “We made it.”
Sending her off to college with that same trepidation she had on the first day of kindergarten, even knowing it’s the right place for her, that she’ll fly so high there.
Realizing that this worry never lets up, only takes different forms. It comes with the territory.
Color. Light. Movement. Life.
Martha opened her eyes, her perspective shifting into focus.
“Do you want to hold your baby?”
She stretched out her arms, gasping, desperate, overjoyed.
Her newborn daughter was swaddled in a wrinkled hospital blanket, but her face bore a thousand wrinkles all on its own. She had a lollipop head and irregular tufts of black hair. Her skin was tinged blue and still smeared with blood, and micro-tubes protruded from every possible orifice.
Martha thought that she had never seen such a beautiful thing.
Savannah Cordova is a writer based out of the SF Bay Area. This is her first published short story.
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