I wasn't due for another month when my water broke. Neal and I lay there naked and shocked in a puddle of amniotic fluid. We were an hour from the hospital, at Neal's house in Beach Haven. The bedroom was warm but my teeth chattered.
"Oh, God," I said. "I ruined the mattress."
"Stay calm. This won't be a problem," I heard Neal say, his voice tinny and distant.
Once the contraction passed, I did feel calm, almost buoyant. My baby was coming. Neal was right, there didn't have to be problems. He brought me a towel for my sticky thighs and checked the mattress. The scalp beneath his thinning gray hair was tanner than the rest of his compact, ropey body.
"Just the sheets," he said. "Easy fix."
We crammed the sheets in the trunk and raced up the Parkway. Wind gusted around the car. I panted through each contraction--taut belly tauter, fists clenched, white spots dancing in my periphery. Labor with the first baby was supposed to take hours. Neal would help me check in before he left and I called my family. No one would know.
By the time we reached the hospital exit ramp, my contractions were thirty seconds apart.
"Give me your phone," I gasped when I discovered mine was dead.
"That's not a good idea--"
"Just do it!"
My hands were shaking. Neal dialed and held the phone for me while he steered. He was good in a crisis. My mother listened silently, then asked who was driving me. A client, I said.
Of course she was waiting at the emergency room entrance. She must have driven like a maniac to beat us. I almost smiled picturing her hunched at the wheel, cyclists and squirrels scattering as she bore down.
Another contraction hit.
"I couldn't track down Daddy," she said as she opened my door. The wind lifted her headscarf, revealing a bit of downy scalp. Her hair had fallen out again, from the last round of chemo. "George is on his way."
George. My husband.
Neal jumped out to help. "Margaret, right? I'm Neal Larch. Jeannie and I ran into each other at a Viewcrest open house--"
She didn't even glance at him. She just gave me that focused stare she used on my father whenever she caught him in a lie.
"Get rid of him, Jeannie," she said.
My mother became a fixture at our house as soon as I brought Kyle home from the hospital. So I could ease back into work, she said, playing on my competitive nature. It was the height of the real estate craze, when I sometimes sold houses within hours. On good days she vacuumed, cooked, and watched Kyle while I made calls or showed a house. Her cheeks took on an almost-healthy sheen.
Other times she was too tired to help much. The chemo was still in her system. On her bad days, her hands trembled putting the teapot on to boil; sometimes she got forgetful, disoriented, a side effect of the full brain radiation she'd had the previous year. Those days, my father took off work--unheard of--and came over too. It was strange seeing him take care of her. Once, he caught her heading shoeless down the icy front path. Through the bay window I watched him grab her arm, look hard at her. He is tall like me and usually trim, but he had developed a gut, as if his body were absorbing the pounds melting off my mother. Even her bulky sweater couldn't hide how she had become all hollows. "Don't touch me," I heard her say, but he held her until she stopped struggling and let him lead her inside. Maybe she was just getting the mail. Maybe she didn't recognize him. I didn't ask.
Nelson Algren Award finalist
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