She’s going to the bathroom again. As the months have worn on and her stomach has grown almost beyond belief, she’s had to go to the bathroom more and more. And every time she slides her legs out from under the covers and pads — silently, she thinks — to the bathroom, I lie awake; somehow I always manage to wake up the second her feet hit the carpet.
I lie awake, hoping that she’ll make it back to bed without getting sick.
Her morning sickness doesn’t come at any specific time, like most womens’. It comes sporadically — because of her illness, I think. One moment she will be laughing, those brilliant eyes of hers squeezed closed. The next minute they fly open and she races off to the bathroom.
Sometimes she makes it. Sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she collapses and can’t get up, and I have to carry her, getting vomit all over my clothes and hers.
As she climbs back into bed, trying to be as gentle as possible, I roll over onto my side and pretend to be asleep.
There’s a moment of silence, then, “Nathan? Are you awake?”
Shit. I can’t pretend with her. It’s funny — I normally consider myself a pretty good liar, but either she can read my mind or all my lying skills disappear when our eyes meet. Probably both.
I roll back over, propping myself up on one elbow. “Hmm?”
“Were you waiting up for me?”
Shit. I nod.
“Oh, Nathan.” She sighs and wriggles against her pillows, her hands splayed over her stomach. Still, her eyes don’t leave mine. “I wish you wouldn’t.”
“I can’t help it. It’s a reflex.”
She smiles a little at that, and I shift closer, resting my chin on the hollow between her shoulder and her breast.
“Did you get sick?”
She shakes her head. “Everything was fine.”
“No dizziness? No pain? No fatigue?”
“It’s the middle of the night and I weigh a million times as much as I used to. Of course there’s fatigue.”
“I’m okay, really. I just hate it when you wait up for me.” She leans her head against mine. “It’s so stupid.”
“Stupid? But, Marni —”
“I know. I’m sick, I’m pregnant, and I’m probably sick because I’m pregnant. You feel guilty. You have to be protective.” She kisses the top of my head and deepens her voice. “‘It’s for your own good, Marni. Don’t do anything rash, Marni. Let me walk you to the bathroom, Marni.’” Her tone, though mocking, is still tender, and I can’t help but grin at the impression; it really is uncanny.
“It’s all right.” She shrugs her shoulders, making me lift my head, and kisses both of my cheeks. “Just don’t do it again.”
“I can’t promise that.” But I kiss her once, being careful not to hurt her. When I pull away, she puts one hand on the back of my head and drags me back.
“Marni,” I say around her lips. “Marni.”
“Go to sleep.”
“Mmm.” She licks my bottom lip and slides her left hand down my back . . . lower . . . lower . . . Whoa. I jerk backwards with a gasp and she laughs.
I sigh and shove her away — carefully. “Sleep.”
She studies me for a moment, then seems to realize she can’t win this one. “Fine.” She slumps down further, pulling her blankets up to her chin.
I put my arms around her, one hand resting lightly on her stomach and the other on her hip. I lie there and listen to her breathe. One breath . . . another . . . another. . . .
Eventually — long after her breaths have grown deep and mingle with snores — I fall asleep.
The next morning she’s pale, with drops of sweat beading along her hairline and under her eyes. It’s not going to be a good day. I sit with her and tell her stories to keep her entertained while she picks at her toast. Her smiles are wan and her laughter weak, but it’s better than nothing. Still, I recognize the signs and spend the entire breakfast taut as a bowstring, eating even less than her.
When she turns white and claps a hand over her mouth, I’m ready. I hook one arm around her waist and steer her to the bathroom as fast as possible. She collapses over the toilet, throwing up everything in rhythmic heaves that first bring up a soupy mess, then bile, then sour-smelling spit. I hold her hair out of the way and rub her shuddering back until she quiets. She’s trembling.
I pick her up and carry her into her room, then go back to the kitchen and call Mag. Marni won’t be able to see anyone today, I tell her. She’s not doing well.
Twenty minutes later the doorbell rings, and Mag comes in without waiting for me to get the door. “Is she awake?” she asks. She has a container under one arm.
“I think so, but she won’t want to eat.” Whatever Mag is carrying smells like Italian.
“I know. This is for you.” I take it from her. The food inside is warm, and my stomach growls.
“You’re an angel, Mag.”
She smiles. “Thank you, Nathan, but it’s nothing. I want to help you and Marni. She’s my best friend, you know. And you’re really taking care of her -- a lot of people probably wouldn’t be able to keep it together as well as you have.”
I scratch the back of my neck, embarrassed. “Thanks, Mag.”
She gives me a stern look. “I mean it. You’re good for her, and that’s nice, because she’s good for me.” Her eyes, which are still newly enhanced, drop to her feet. “I don’t know what I’d do without her. Or you.”
“Yeah.” I smile, letting my gaze drift past Mag and out the window behind her. “I know the feeling.”
Marni’s voice drifts down the stairs, sounding thin but cheerful. “Is that you, Mag?”
Mag beams and heads up the stairs. “I’m coming!” She waves to me without looking back. Her attention has shifted. It’s her best friend that fills her mind now.
Once I can hear the sounds of conversation coming from upstairs, I put the food away without looking at it and slip down the hall, throwing glances behind me like a fugitive.
Time to work on the cure.
When I return, Mag has one arm through her coat and is heading toward the front door. She nearly runs into me, looking surprised.
“Nathan, where did you go? It’s late.” She’s right — the sky’s darkening as we speak, and the streetlights are turning on.
“Just getting some work done. How’s Marni?”
She shrugs. “She’s doing better. She fell asleep right before I left.”
“Wonderful.” I’m bouncing on the balls of my feet and can’t seem to stop. There’s too much energy flowing through my body, and no way to release it. I have to see Marni. I have to tell her the news.
Mag looks at me through narrowed eyes. “Are you okay?”
I grin insanely at her, trying to keep the smile under control and failing. “I’m fantastic, Mag. I really think everyone’s fine. Or going to be.”
She bites her lip, like she wants to say something else but thinks better of it. She says something I don’t hear — for all I know, she’s telling me to shove it, though her expression is friendly enough — and leaves.
I take out the food and set it on the counter to warm up, but I can’t even think about eating. I feel sick but exhilarated. It’s all I can do to keep from racing upstairs and waking Marni up. I have to let her sleep . . . but I have to tell someone before I explode.
I run my hands through my hair, making it stick up, and sit down at the table. I manage to sit there for thirty seconds, my leg bouncing up and down like a pogo stick, then I climb to my feet and pace around the kitchen, hearing my heartbeat slow down a little.
The sky is blackish-purple, and brightly-colored billboards are lighting up. I stop for a moment, hypnotized by the beauty of the city. It’s odd — I’ve never seen the city as beautiful before, but now it looks like something magical and lovely . . . more alive, somehow. Even the monstrous GeneCo sign doesn’t seem quite so huge and threatening. The world has been tinted rose.
A hand on my shoulder makes me turn with a gasp. Marni is standing behind me, her long hair a tangled mess around her face, which looks less sallow than this morning, though that might be my rose-colored perception adding color to her cheeks.
She laughs at my surprised expression. “Absorbed?” she asks, raising her eyebrows.
I shrug. “Just looking at the city. Pretty, isn’t it?”
Now it’s her turn to shrug. “I don’t know. I guess.” She stuffs her hands under her armpits and looks away. “It always makes me think of sickness.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Only part of me is listening. The other part is saying that I have to tell her now. I swallow. “M-Marni?” My voice is shaking, and so are my knees. All my nervous energy has fled, leaving me drained.
“Yeah?” She’s watching me with her hands on her hips, her head cocked to the side so that her wild hair covers half of her face.
Suddenly I can’t think of how to put it, how to say it. After a second or two, though, I brush the tangled, almost-black hair out of her eyes. “I did it. I finished the cure.”
For a few seconds — the longest seconds I’ve ever experienced — she doesn’t move. Her eyes are focused, wide and staring, on the GeneCo sign. She blinks slowly and turns to look at me, the dazed expression still on her face. “You did?”
I can’t say anything, so I just nod, feeling that silly, insane smile spread across my face.
Suddenly it sinks in. Her eyes widen even more, and she beams; it seems like my stupid grin is mirrored on a face far more beautiful than mine. “Are you sure?” she asks, but I can tell from her face that she believes.
“Y-y-yes. I’m positive.”
She lets out a strangled sound that is half-sob, half-laugh and flings her arms around my neck. “I knew you could do it, I just knew it, I never doubted you for a second! I can’t believe . . . I . . . you . . .” Unable to finish, she puts her hands on either side of my face and kisses me violently, almost painfully. Her lips taste salty, and I realize she’s crying.
So am I.
Eventually she lets me go and nestles against my chest, shifting to the side so that her stomach interferes as little as possible.
We hold each other like that for a long time, and I know we’ll be okay. I know it with the absolute naked conviction of a man desperately in love and positive of his abilities.
She knows it, too. I can feel it in the tears soaking through my shirt, in the way her arms tighten around my neck and she kisses my chest every so often, in the rhythm of her heart, beating steadily though her breathing’s ragged. She knows it, and I know it, and neither of us doubts it for a second.
We’re both so fucking stupid.
The next few days are like magic. Marni seems so much better. She can walk around the house almost all day, and even manages to eat dinner without throwing it all up again. It’s almost possible to ignore the shadows under her eyes and the waxy look of her skin.
We’re sitting in the living room after Mag’s visit. I have a book on medicine I’m pretending to read, and Marni is curled up against my side, only her head and slim white hands sticking out of the afghan. She’s reading — actually reading. She’s one-hundred-percent absorbed in her book. I keep trying to follow her example, but I can’t help sneaking peeks at her.
She seems so . . . real and focused. It’s as though the news of the cure is enough to make her better, though I haven’t given any to her yet. The side effects may be severe, and there’s still a chance that she’ll be fine without it, especially considering the way she looks now.
Her eyes flick from side to side as she takes in each line. They’re sparkling, something they haven’t done in a long time. It makes her look nineteen again, like when we’d first met.
That had been what made me fall in love with her, actually. It wasn’t that she was (or is) mind-blowingly beautiful — she’s always been too pale and thin to be truly pretty, and her eyes seem to eat up her face. But those eyes. They’d been alive with pure, carefree joy, and it made her entire body glow. It made the other girls look like cardboard cutouts. It made the guy on her arm fade into a gray smudge in the background. It made everything fade into a gray smudge in the background.
That light is in her again, and I can’t help but feel like I did then — dizzy and overwhelmed and madly in love.
Her eyes suddenly meet mine, and they are exasperated. “Will you read?” she asks, one eyebrow shooting up her forehead. “You’re making me blush.”
Is she? I squint, taking off my glasses. I suppose there’s a hint of color in her cheeks, but it’s very faint, and she’s looking translucent again — much, much worse than she did before. Dread hits my stomach like a lead ball, and I set my book down with a thud.
Marni looks at me, confused. “What’s wrong?”
I stand, shoving my glasses back on and pulling her to her feet. “You need to get to bed,” I say. “You don’t look well.”
“Nathan, this is silly —” she says, trying to tug her arm out of my grip.
“I don’t want to risk it!”
“Nathan . . .”
I hear the annoyed, patronizing tone in her voice and whirl on her. “Marni, I know you think you’re indestructible, but I’m a doctor. You’re not, and I have to be careful with you or . . .” I can’t finish that sentence, so I turn back around and continue pulling her up the stairs.
“That’s not your choice, though! It’s mine, and I don’t want to die, but this is ridiculous! You don’t own me, so stop acting like my jailer!”
That hits me like a slap, and I turn around. Have I really been keeping her like some sort of zookeeper with an endangered pet? Would I do that?
Yes. I would. I have.
I take a deep breath and close my eyes, trying to swallow the lump that’s risen in my throat. When I feel like I can speak, I open my eyes. “Then what do you want to do?”
“Well, first I want to finish my chapter. Then I want to go upstairs and . . .” She trails off, looking at me with those impossible eyes for a moment before turning around and returning to the couch, crossing her legs primly and flipping through her book as though she has no idea I’m watching her.
After a few moments — during which I haven’t done more than stare dumbly — she snaps her book shut and comes upstairs, pausing a few steps above where I’m standing. There she turns around and juts out a hip, running her fingers through her hair. “Well?” she asks, taking my hands and putting them on her waist. “Shall we?”
And I let her. Dear God, I let her.
My eyes fly open and I sit up in bed, fumbling blindly in the darkness until I can find her hand. It’s clammy and cold. Without letting go of it, I reach behind me and turn on the light.
Marni’s curled up around her stomach, her face twisted with agony. “Help me . . . Ohh God it hurts. . . .”
My blood freezes, then turns to fire. I practically fall out of bed, picking Marni up and carrying her downstairs.
She’s going into labor. She’s going into labor, and it’s going to kill her unless I do something. I nearly crash into the wall turning the corner to the living room. I have to set Marni down to pull back the fireplace, and when she hits the couch she screams. The sound . . . I never want to hear a sound like that ever again. When I pick her up again she clutches me, her fingernails digging into my back, and moans. I am dragged back to just a few hours before, when everything had seemed fine. The sounds she had been making then were disturbingly similar to the ones she’s making now, and under different circumstances they would have incited a desire that’s almost crippling in its intensity.
But these are not those circumstances — though there is nothing I would give to change that fact — and what I am feeling now is as far from arousal as humanly possible. All I can feel is a sick terror.
I’m almost afraid to put her down. Part of it is because I don’t want to hear her scream again, but another part of it is much too superstitious for a doctor to ever admit to; I’m afraid that if I let her go — if our fragile bond of skin-to-skin is broken for more than a second or two — I’ll lose her.
I set her on the bed, hooking her up to the EKG and listening to it count her heartbeats. This time she doesn’t make a sound when she hits the bed. Her eyes are glazed over, and her breath comes in shallow pants that make her stomach heave like she’s about to vomit. I set a pan on the bedside table, just in case, and open the refrigerator stored in the corner.
It’s right there, front and center. Exactly where I’d put it with such delirious happiness just a few days ago. I pour it into a clean beaker and hand it to Marni.
She looks at it, then up at me. Her hands are shaking. “It looks like lemonade,” she murmurs.
She sniffs it and grimaces. “It sure doesn’t smell like it, though.”
“I’m sorry. Will you drink it?”
“Take it!” I do, and the second her hand is free of the cup it balls into a fist. She leans her head back, sweat running down her face. She tries to suffer in silence, but a grunt of pain escapes her.
When she settles down again, I hand her the beaker, helping her hold it to her lips. She gives me the ghost of a smile before draining the cup with a childlike trust. Not for an instant does she doubt my cure, and neither do I.
For a second it works. Her body relaxes, and the pain leaves her eyes. For a second they regain a bit of the sparkle. For a second she can breathe regularly. I nearly collapse with relief.
For a second.
“Nathan, I —” Her words are cut off by a brutal choking noise that is oddly wet. Then she covers her mouth and coughs, and blood falls from between her fingers. Another second passes, but there’s no relief in this moment — only painful waiting.
Her eyes widen and fill with liquid. It isn’t until it spills down her cheeks that I realize that it isn’t tears but blood. Her head snaps back, causing those eyes to roll back into her head, and she screams again, arching her back and shuddering from side to side as though trying to escape. Blood stains the sheet between her legs like some disgusting flower.
What could have gone wrong? I had it perfect. There’s no way anything could have happened to it. . . .
“Nathan!” The scream is nearly hysterical.
I have to get her out of here. She has to get to the hospital. It’s not too far, and I think I can make it. I bundle her up in my arms again, ignoring the way my lower back protests.
We make it halfway across the room before she screams again, her body going rigid then twisting to the right. My grip on her loosens, and we crash to the floor.
She is still attached to the EKG, and if we hadn’t fallen I’m sure I would have pulled the entire machine out of the wall. At least, that’s what I think. As I watch, the lines that mark each heartbeat slow . . . slow. . . .
“Marni,” I whisper, and somehow she hears me, snaps out of her pain for a moment. “I don’t think I can save you. But if . . . if I can save Shilo . . . even if it kills you. . . .”
Her eyes roll down to her stomach, and there’s something like hatred on her face. But she nods, looking up at me. “If you can, do it.” Her voice is almost inaudible, and her eyes are losing focus. On the machine, the beeps slow . . . slow. . . .
I kiss her, and carry her back to the bed. “I love you, Marni.”
She smiles and opens her mouth, then closes it again as a fresh wave of agony racks her body. I pick up a scalpel and hope she’s too far gone to notice any more pain. I’d give her painkiller, but I’m afraid that if she drifts off, she won’t wake up.
The cut is relatively straight, considering my hand’s shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. I part the folds of skin and muscle and Marni cries out again. I almost lose my nerve, but the damage is done.
Getting Shilo free is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. When I pull her out and make sure she’s breathing, I hear the beeps slow . . . slow. . . .
A sound escapes me that I’ve never heard before. It certainly isn’t voluntary. I lay Shilo down on a table as though she’s nothing more than an object. I think I put the scalpel on the same table, maybe even within arm’s reach of her. I’m not aware of any of it; all I’m aware of is the blood-soaked woman on the bed, whose stomach has stopped heaving, whose heart has stopped beating . . . whose eyes have stopped sparkling. They stare, blank and dead, up at the ceiling.
This breaks me more than anything else, and I barely make it to the pan I’ve laid by Marni before I vomit. Each heave burns its way up my throat, and every time I think I must be dying. I must.
“I love you, Marni,” I croak, and retch. “I love you.” Retch. “I love you.” Retch. “I love you!” Retch.
I don’t want to love her. It’s a horrible thought, but I wish I hated her. I wish that I could look at her dead body and laugh, feel relief that she’s gone, or even feel indifferent. Oh, Marni’s dead? How sad. What a shame. Tough break.
But I can’t. I can’t say I hate her, even to myself. I can’t stop whispering “I love you,” even though each time makes me sick. I can’t stop crying.
Finally I dig my fingernails into my palms hard enough to draw blood and scream. “I love you! Marni, don’t leave me here! I love you! TAKE ME WITH YOU!”As though this is enough punishment, this confession, this plea, my stomach settles, letting me sit back and put my head between my knees. I clutch at my hair, wanting to pull it out. My glasses have skittered away and are lying in a puddle of bile, most of which seems to have missed the pan.
“Please,” I whisper. There aren’t any more tears; they went away when the vomit did. “Please, God, bring her back. She didn’t deserve to die. She shouldn’thave died! I gave her the cure! Bring her back!”
Nothing happens. Of course it wouldn’t have — God doesn’t bring people back, not since technology tried to cheat death. He’s always been a fan of natural deaths. Maybe that’s why my cure didn’t work. Maybe I’m being punished for . . . for something. My calculations are good. I took what felt like gallons of Marni’s blood to test; I know my research is good.
My back is against the bed, and Marni’s hand dangles limply near my head. I kiss it, thinking about my other patients. I always seemed able to save those patients, even when it should have been impossible, even when other doctors had given up. They call me a wunderkind, even though I’m only a few years younger than most of them.
What kind of wunderkind can’t save his own wife, the only one who matters? I realize that I would have let them all die, every last one, if it would keep Marni here. This thought is even more horrible than wanting to hate her, but it’s no less true. I’d find them all, kill them all, if that’s what it takes to bring Marni back.
It’s a devil’s deal, but one I’d be willing to take.
“Waaah!” The wail cuts through the silent air like a scalpel. The irony of that pun makes me giggle. It’s not a wholly sane giggle. I stagger to my feet, nearly slipping in the sick all over the floor.
Shilo has somehow managed to survive laying on the metal table next to sharp surgical equipment, but her small face is scrunched up and she’s screaming. She’s still covered in blood and gore, like Marni is. Like I am.
This little girl. . . . This is what I traded Marni’s life for? This tiny . . . helpless . . . thing? I suddenly want to hit her, to send her flying off the table and into the wall. This thing made Marni sick, made her die.
Then her eyes open, eyes that seem to eat up her face. My breath catches, and my knees wobble.
They’re her eyes. Those are Marni’s eyes.
And I can’t hold onto that hate.
I try — I really do. It’s much easier to hate something than to love it. Hate gives someone a perverse kind of joy, while love brings nothing but pain. I loved Marni, and now . . .
I want to hate Shilo. Almost as much as I want Marni alive, I want to hate our daughter.
After seeing those eyes, though, I can’t. I can’t stop myself from picking her up and holding her to my chest, kissing her bloody, tiny head. And with that kiss something explodes in, and all the feelings I had for Marni are rushing into this little girl, and I cling to her like I’m the helpless one.
“I love you,” I mumble, feeling the tears make a surprise comeback. “I love you, Shi, and I won’t leave you. Not for anything in the world.”
We stay like that until morning.