CHAPTER 1 — GUNPOWDER
The brisk steps of heeled boots beat rhythmically against the hum of engines and horns. Skyscrapers tower overhead, leaving little room for light other than the billboard screens of advertisements and PSAs. Her gaze remains fixed forward as she moves within the mass of people who surround her. The street ends at Central Park. She turns right along the waist-high stone wall that borders the valley below. Glancing over, she sees winter finches flit about cement walkways and barren trees. The ponds are dry. Drained for the winter, only a crisp film of runoff and leaves remains.
She heads east to cross Fifth Avenue toward her apartment in Lenox Hill. The smell of cinnamon breezes from a revolving door, catching her attention and casting it toward a man ringing a bell, backed by a sign asking for donations. She stops long enough to tap her phone against the contribution kiosk, nodding to the volunteer with a pursed smile. His voice is aged but strong. “The water babies thank you.” She does not respond as she taps yes to accept the suggested donation amount on her screen. Two more blocks and she is greeted by her doorman who ushers her into the lobby, warm and silent with hints of lavender and cedar. The door shuts heavily, sealing them away from the beating and begging streets. She says thank you to the young man standing behind her now and rings for the elevator to take her to the seventh floor of the eight-story building. The doors open directly to their flat and she finally eases her grasp on her bag. She has an hour before her husband gets home.
The full-floor apartment was purchased two years ago, following her promotion to lead architect and just before they married. They designed the apartment together, giving him office space and her a space to entertain. Ten-foot ceilings counter Brazilian Hickory floors while cool white walls cradle a fireplace that reflects in the western plane of windows. An open floor plan allows her to cook while in conversation with friends who perch along the granite kitchen bar, lounge atop the gray, Belgian linen sofa and smoke on the wrought-iron balcony. Photographs and artwork from their travels punctuate the pallet of greys and white, imploring conversations on the best London restaurants, debates over Amalfi and Capri and commentary on the rising prevalence of crime in the supply-stricken nations. “I just can’t believe the atrocities some of these people go through to get here,” one will say, while another will conclude, “I feel the worst for the children, jumping and dragging each other from one war zone to another.” This continual conversation pours easily from their mouths, as they fill glasses with whiskey and fresh ice.
She now stands by the kitchen sink and washes her hands slowly, letting them linger under the warmth of the water.
The security system triggers and she blinks back to the present; she’s lost an hour to her thoughts. As he takes off his coat, he looks at her and the tears come slowly. She is holding the test.
He looks in confusion at the small, slender piece of plastic and then back at her face. “Oh.”
She gives it to him and moves toward the sofa, curling into the corner for support.
“The first thing we need to do is see a doctor.” He settles himself into the idea. “Maybe it’s a false positive. Is that possible?”
“Maybe.” She wraps a blanket around herself. “I don’t know. I’ll make the appointment tomorrow.”
She sits in the room silently. Her posture erect, the silk of her shirt never sets to wrinkle. She scrolls through her emails, then sighs, shifting her attention out the window then toward the door well. The drone of traffic remains constant: the cars, the doctors, the patients and partners fluctuate with excitement and anxiety.
A doctor knocks softly and enters quietly. He smiles and shakes her hand, reading through her chart. The easy look on his face flickers with concern and he looks up to ask, “This is a natural pregnancy?”
“Yes,” she whispers.
He takes a breath and releases the crease of his brow. He then proceeds to outline the process.
“Ok, first we need a blood confirmation of the pregnancy, which will take twenty-four hours. I’m going to send a nurse in to finish your vitals and draw a few vials from you. We’ll call you tomorrow and go from there.”
He types something into her records and leaves the room. He is quickly replaced by a nurse with her orders. Cold and methodic, the nurse checks her blood pressure, types in her weight and asks her to hold out her arm. A clench of her fist, the quick prick of a needle, and four vials are full. The nurse unwraps the rubber around her arm and puts her equipment away.
“Ok, Mrs. Gardner, we’ll call you tomorrow.” Just before she reaches the door, she pauses, pivots her steps away from the door and looks toward Liv. Taking a moment, she visibly changes her mind and turns again to leave the room.
The door closes.
She moves through the rest of her day with frigid precision, the icy morning never leaving her jaw. She presents her latest project, a forty-one-story, multi-use development on the new edge of West 57th. The project is rumored to be a career height for her, a feat rarely accomplished so early. The long lines of the building reach into the backdrop of the city, serving as the welcoming monument for Hell’s Kitchen. As she stands before the models and renderings, she watches the design and development team analyze the heights, the curtain walls and the required green-to-living-space allocations. The building is a creation to be proud of, her first presented project as lead architect and one that will make the developer millions. She stands silent, watching men ask each other questions on feasibility and timeline.
“Congratulations, Liv,” one of the partners says. “It looks like we’ve got something that can really set the tone for this section of the city.”
The previous year’s mega storm had churned over New York City’s shaking windows for three days before wrenching out enough water to send fifteen-foot surges past sea walls and through city streets. The ferocity of the storm resulted in broken glass and unsalvageable livelihoods. The rubble being cleared away from the riverfront was the first sign of new life Manhattan had seen in ten months.
“Thank you.” A thin smile crosses her lips to show the beginnings of dimples, but nothing more.
Her route home is always the same. This time she actively passes through the crowd, overhearing excerpts of conversations that carry into the evening sky. She passes a woman, exasperated with a raspy response “I don’t know honey, I can’t keep up with . . . ” The next man is talking to himself. “I knew her apartment would flood. I told her a hundred times to get off the first floor.” She ducks from his left hand that catapults into the air. Across the street, she sees the night shift servers walking into restaurants, faces drawn and readying themselves for tourists who want to see the carriages that still line the street while they eat. They dodge past visitors and vagrants, sliding into doors opened by doormen who guard the warmth and water. To her left, below her in the park, a pair of cardinals dart among the branches, disrupting balance just enough to let the newest dustings of snow sift to the ground. She lines herself against the stonewall to stop for a moment, looking, and ignoring her ringing phone.
A touch on her shoulder brings her back.
“I thought that was you, Liv!” A woman she sees on occasion during corporate happy hours smiles and rubs her arm with a mittened hand. “Only a New Yorker would stop still in weather like this.”
Hints of her southern accent explain her neighborly nature. Their small talk concludes quickly as Liv declines an invitation for a drink but promises to call for lunch soon. They really should get together, the woman calls her last thoughts over her shoulder and through the traffic. Liv waits for the woman’s soft drawl to dissipate before turning back toward her route. She steps back into the movement and turns the collar of her black, tailored tweed jacket up. She keeps her head down, responding quickly to emails while avoiding the heels of the woman in front of her. Her gaze rises to the familiar scent of cinnamon. She finds herself heading directly toward the ringing bell. She quickly slows to let the crowd envelop her once more. The tinny rhythm softens as she turns another corner.
“How you doin’ today, Mrs. Gardner?”
Liv exchanges her phone for her key fob and smiles at the doorman.
“I’m well, thank you. And yourself?” Her words are systematic.
“I’m decent. You know, it’s getting a bit cold to be walking between midtown and here, you know?”
She notices his nylon jacket on his chair and hums at his answer, waiting on the elevator.
Alone again, she finds herself back in her kitchen, opening the bar drawer and pulling out a pack of cigarettes. They had been going through genetic pre-screenings and were waiting for the right time. They wanted a boy, who would show promise in engineering and design, and were looking into prep schools.
“So?” Her husband walks through the entryway. She places the pack back in the drawer, examining her manicure as her hands return to the counter.
“I won’t get real results until tomorrow.”
He stands quietly for a moment, unsure of the weight in the room, then takes his jacket and shoes off. His suit is made to measure, with cufflinks from his father. He walks over and stands behind her, working on her shoulders.
“You know you can call me, Liv. I’ve been waiting all day to hear from you. I know this is not what we planned, but I know that we’ll get through it if we do this together.”
Looking up at him, her long brown hair falls out of its bun and over his hands.
Midday, the next afternoon, she gets the call. “Hello, Mrs. Gardner, we’ve received your results.”
“The blood work came back positive. You are pregnant. We’d like to schedule you in for an appointment as soon as possible for an ultrasound to see exactly how far along you are.”
“Oh, okay. How soon can you get me in with Dr. Ballen?”
A pause. “Tomorrow morning, 8:30.”
“All right,” she nearly whispers.
“Great, we’ll see you tomorrow first thing. You’ll have an ultrasound and then you’ll meet with Dr. Ballen.”
She rubs her left thumb over the edges of her nails, feeling the squared off edges.
Her husband goes with her. Together, they drape their coats over their arms when called and follow a nurse through the hallways. The dark room is lit by monitors and she is asked if this is her first pregnancy.
“It’s a natural pregnancy, though, correct?”
They stare at the screen blankly.
CHAPTER 2 — BB
“There it is.” The nurse uses the mouse pointer to circle the mass. She points out the basics, highlighting the oval shape that will soon transition from embryo to everything.
They remain silent while the rhythm of the baby’s heartbeat fills the room.
After, they are moved into an exam room where the doctor soon joins them. His demeanor is kind, but serious. He’s been her doctor since she moved to the city and knows that they’ve been planning in vitro.
“Based on the size from the ultrasound, you’re at six weeks, five days.”
“Yes, that’s what the nurse said,” Liv agrees, dully.
“I know this is not the pregnancy you were hoping for, but you are still bringing a strong life into this world, which means you are also providing a major service to the country,” the doctor begins.
“With both of your backgrounds, your child will be well received by the Natural Born Forces. He or she will be given first choice of opportunities and prepped for an officer’s position. And supporting our forces is one of the best contributions we can give to society.”
The doctor clears his throat to speak again but is cut off by Liv’s husband. “We don’t need an overview on the noble sacrifice we are making for society. We were given the stack of brochures when we got here.” His hands are shoved into the pockets of his gray slacks. He begins to pace but stops himself, finding stillness once more.
Still quiet, Liv reaches for her husband’s hand and looks down between her burgundy New Balances dangling off the patient’s table.
“Obviously, we are having an unplanned, un-sequenced child. And obviously, we have to keep moving forward.” She stares in thought. “So what do we do now?” She forces the conversation back to the medical realm.
“Well, we already have both your genetic tests, so you don’t need to do that blood work again. We’ll schedule you, Liv, for a blood panel in two weeks and then have you come back to this office in five weeks and do another ultrasound. We’ll make sure the baby is growing and healthy and test for any genetic abnormalities. Normally, we wouldn’t have to do this part, but as you know, natural procreation is reproductive roulette.”
She stares at him with dull eyes, mouth slightly ajar. He clears his throat and finds his clipboard to review.
“And if the child is not healthy?”
“There is nothing that indicates your child will not be healthy, Liv.”
She continues to stare. Relenting, the doctor continues, “But, in a circumstance where the child will be born with a nonviable quality of life, unable to serve the Forces, then we will discuss options.”
He pauses and makes eye contact with her. “And you know all lost pregnancies must be reported to the Faith and Opportunity Office.”
She keeps the contact. “Regardless of reason?”
“Yes. In efforts to fully protect the lives of unborn children. And their mothers, of course. The organization collects data from every failed pregnancy to investigate and establish patterns in behaviors or locations, or anything, that may lead to the unwanted loss of life.”
Now he shifts his focus to her husband. “But, it is highly unlikely that you’ll have any issues. Both of you are young, healthy individuals with no disease or impediment in your background, as far as we all know, right?”
“That’s what I thought. Then you should have a healthy pregnancy. Both you and the baby will be fine. In the grand scheme of things, the coming eight months are nothing. It will fly by, and then you can focus on the rest of your lives again.”
“Yeah, sure. This is just a fucking momentary breeze.” He turns again toward the window, visibly finished with the conversation. “A drop in the fucking bucket.”
Liv sighs and resumes the conversation. “What do I do now?”
“Try to relax. If I can be honest with you?” The doctor looks for her nod of approval. “Think of this as a trial run for your future pregnancy. Just because you have a non-sequenced child now does not mean you can’t have your sequenced child later. The one you’ve been working and saving for.”
She pulls her phone from the side pocket of her bag, flipping through nothing. Her husband, disengaged, still stands by the window looking out.
“So in the meantime?” Her tone is dull.
“You can keep doing everything else you’re doing—work, exercise, travel, all that. But you’ll find yourself tiring easier, and soon you’ll notice a few changes in your body. You won’t show for several months, but you’re thin, so you’ll personally see it relatively soon.”
“So I have some time.”
“Yes. You have time before anyone will notice. And then I promise it will be over before you know it.”
A chilled silence lingers before the doctor excuses himself. “We’ll see you soon. Take care of yourself in the meantime.”
She slides off the exam table. Her dark denim pants hug her slender frame and need no adjustment. The lace straps of her gray camisole drape elegantly over her collarbone but are only visible momentarily as she rewraps her black sweater jacket. She looks at her husband and he follows her out the door.
A calm driver weaves through the frenzied traffic as the two silently stare out their windows. A light snow dances around black cars and coats, catching hints of the surrounding LED lights.
Liv looks through the collection of pamphlets she was given. Archaic tools in today’s society but still given as a formality. Titles include Modern Families, Traditional Truths – a lesson on the benefits of eliminating alcohol and tobacco, Be Prepared to Parent – with dates and times of infant CPR, breastfeeding and formula preparation seminars at her hospital, and Why We Design, a reminder that society helps choose the best futures for its children. She had been given this same booklet after telling her doctor she and her husband were discussing having a child. In her hands for the second time, she finally begins to read the first page:
Children Today Receive the Best Gifts of their Parents
These gifts allow them to be primed and placed in roles that help fortify and
protect our country. Having a genetically sequenced child today means
knowing that he or she will succeed in health, happiness and societal
requirements. Today’s GS children learn faster, adapt better and become
the world’s best engineers, scientists, doctors and strategists. They keep
this country at the forefront of a difficult environment, engineering new
alternatives for natural resources and building cities that harbor the best
security and surveillance technologies. GS children are truly our future.
She looks towards the roof of the car and folds the brochure closed. Without finishing its content, she shoves it into her purse. She closes her eyes and audibly exhales. “This is fucking unbelievable.”
Both driver and husband glance her way but say nothing in response.
As they round Columbus Circle she peers right. People meander and horses stand stoic, blanketed and warmed with handfuls of grain. Lobby lights shimmer and doormen welcome guests who smile warmly while handing away their luggage. A tall man wearing black stands between black SUVs, smoking a cigarette and waving off cabs. A police officer stands at the entrance of an alley, shielding the main thoroughfare from the less fortunate. Brownouts sit wearily along the sidewalk, their depleted skin blending into the plywood barricades that surround them. With their heads hanging, they wait their turns to receive water rations. Their faces suddenly rise and look toward a doorway, but the car drives by before she can see who called their attention. As the vehicle approaches the next corner, where the donation collector stands, time heaves with effort, inhaling through tar. With a slow ringing bell in hand, the man’s gray eyes watch the car pass. The sign behind him reflects onto the window: Support Our Natural Born Forces.
As she sits on the sofa, he starts a fire and opens the curtains. He checks the rain catch and returns with a half-full bowl of snow.
“It’s definitely not what we planned, Liv.”
She cuts him off with a wave of her hand before he can continue. He submits, turning away to empty the melting water into the small planter of basil.
The low hum of the electric fireplace fills the apartment.
CHAPTER 3 — 15 MM
The shock of light through the cracked curtains wakes her, even though it’s been warming her pillow for more than three hours. For the first time in years, Liv has slept through a morning run, the news, and her husband grinding coffee beans. As she curls back into the comforter, she reaches for her phone and sighs. She has slept for ten hours, barely having made it to midnight the night prior.
She stretches, slides from under the covers and pulls her legs to the side of the bed. She looks at her thighs, long and lean from years of running, perpendicular to a slim torso and growing breasts. A week and a half has passed since the appointment.
She pulls a soft gray T-shirt from her husband’s drawer and leaves the room as she pulls it over her head.
He greets her from the sofa with a smile and she lingers at the edge of the kitchen for a moment, smiling back at him before measuring out a cup of water for tea. His espresso is nothing more than a small ring of black at the bottom of a white cup. The faint smell that still lingers reminds her of the three-day withdrawal she endured without a morning double shot.
Letting the tea steep on the counter, she joins him on the sofa, tucking her legs to her side and her feet under his thighs. The news is covering the latest events in the water wars, panning slowly across wide shots of dry, deserted villages and distended bellies. A reporter whose health provides a glaring contrast to his setting recites stories of rebel attacks against the crumbling government. Smaller countries around the world are slowly being destroyed and disbanded, or, if any resources still remain, annexed by the larger powers. Nearly fifty years ago, the first water war broke out in the Middle East, after years of heated political tensions over the resource finally escalated into armed conflicts. Droughts became the climate and the war never ended. Rather, the conflict seeped into the surrounding regions and then permeated every corner of the world stage as water scarcity became a health, human rights and economic-based issue.
“Another boat filled with migrants capsized off the New Jersey coast this morning.” Liv’s husband tries to fill her in before getting sucked back into the broadcast.
Her tea is warm and sweet, each sip soothing her morning sickness. The television is now focused on American troops in the desert, sunburned and providing scripted answers to interview questions about securing access to dams. Their ranks and locations border the bottom of the screen. Liv diverts her attention to the balcony, pouring her energy into the icicles hanging from the rod iron railing.
“We’re going to tell everyone the baby died during delivery.”
He turns the television off and turns toward her. “Is that what you want?”
“It’s what we need. We can't tell everyone this baby’s not sequenced. Can you imagine what your father would have to do if the firm found out? He would never be able to give the firm over to someone so irresponsible.”
He looks at her in silence while she moves back to the kitchen counter. She places her hand on the granite to steady herself and continue.
“And I’ll never get any further in my career. In fact, I’d probably spend the rest of my career working backwards. Word will travel across the city that I had a natural child and I’ll never be looked at again. People like us don’t have Water Babies.”
“Can’t you take a sabbatical or something and avoid the entire conversation? We don’t deserve to be forced into hiding just because you got pregnant.”
Her look drills him to a stop.
“We got pregnant, Will. Our birth control, that I’ve been buying off the fucking black market, failed. And going on sabbatical would be me going into hiding, wouldn’t it?”
She pauses, realizing she’s shaking, but continues. “And no, I’m not able to just take a sabbatical. That’s not how that works and you know that. I’d lose my projects, and I’ve worked too goddam hard to get them.”
“I’m sure they’d put you right back where you left.”
“When have you ever seen that happen for a woman?”
Another pause and she closes her eyes.
“We have no other choices, Will. There is no option for abortion here. The last underground clinic in the state was found and bombed last year. From what I heard, they never recovered. I could look into the West Coast but I don’t even know how to go about that now.”
His sigh now fills the room.
“And even if I did find that option, I’d still have to report the loss.” She turns to face him. “Everything about our first visit to my doctor was recorded. You know we would be investigated if the doctor said the loss looked suspicious. And I’m sure I’ve already been flagged for even asking a what-if question.”
“I’m sorry, Liv” are his only words mustered.
“So, we are going to say the baby died during childbirth.”
With defeat he asks one last time, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“It doesn’t matter if this is what I want to do,” she begins. She walks over to the fireplace, keeping her gaze on the flames.
“Fuck, it doesn’t matter if it’s not what I wanna’ do. It’s what we have to do. There’s no clean way to get around this and I’ve played out all the scenarios. We’re pregnant. And we’re not a low-profile couple. If anyone in this city finds out about this, you’ll lose your path to partner and I’ll lose everything I’ve ever worked for.”
“This isn’t fair,” he starts. “We’ve done everything right and this is—” she cuts him off.
“—what is happening. Unless you are ready to leave New York and start all over, we need to do what will let us stay here, and stay where we are.”
She lets it sink in and turns to look at him. “Would you leave?”
He looks down.
“Then it’s settled.”
The fire cracks and the conversation is over.
CHAPTER 4 — SHOTGUN SHELL
Her alarm is muffled by her groan as she slowly rolls off her side onto her back. She takes a moment before making the effort to sit up, rolling her ankles and then her wrists under the covers. She begins to stretch her arms overhead, but stops short. The intensity of heavy sleep paired with relaxing muscles and tendons has left her shoulders in pain. She holds her still sore breasts as she rolls back onto her side and sits up into the morning. Her husband is still asleep, peacefully curled into white sheets and a down comforter. His left foot, free from the covers, moves enough to expose he is still dreaming. She takes a deep breath and pushes her weight from the bed, feet reaching the heated flooring and hair falling down her bare back. Slowly raising her arms for one more attempt to loosen the night’s grip, her muscles realign slightly and she exhales. She gets dressed for the first morning run she’s had in four weeks.
She is still lacing her shoes when the elevator doors open to greet her. In the silent descent, she finds her last moments to stretch, draping over her legs to awaken her hamstrings. She reaches each hand towards the other elbow to keep her hands from touching the floor and sways slowly side to side. The elevator rings softly and she rises, standing straight for the door to open. Putting her earbuds in, she nods to the doorman and makes her way outside. The first shocks of daybreak trickle into the streets as she quickens her pace. Cold air pours into her lungs, charging her as she begins her journey down stone steps into the park. Slowly, her gait comes back to her and she jogs past bristled squirrels, rustling through the dead leaves for leftover and last-minute nourishment. Large frostbitten rocks cast their shadows into the empty ponds. She keeps her eyes focused forward, a trained response to avoid the depths that sometimes invite the homeless and waterless to search for any last sips.
Not fully free from her morning sickness, her breath quickens and her mouth begins to water. She slows to a walk to accommodate the heat. She’s two miles into her route now, and a few others have joined her in the city’s last sanctuary. As the smallest birds begin to emerge from their roosts, she eases back into her run and navigates east toward her building. The doorman, with brighter eyes now, welcomes her back to her morning routine.
With a grateful smile, she says, “It’s good to be back.”
“Glad to see you made it out.” He greets her with a cup of tea.
“It was a good start,” she says while softly blowing into the rising steam.
He kisses her on the forehead and heads for their bathroom. Hearing the water rush, she walks to the balcony doors and watches the surrounding windows flicker to life. Her gaze reaches through the windowed balcony doors of the family across the courtyard. Two children are perched over the kitchen island, scooping their breakfasts from bowls to mouths as they watch the morning news. The mother walks into view and drapes her arm over the boy’s shoulder, momentarily stopping to watch the broadcast as well. Liv turns away.
She takes one sip of the steaming tea before hearing the end of her husband’s shower. The ritual of setting a saucer on the rim of her teacup is smooth and silent. She tosses her clothes in the hamper and begins to pull her hair off her shoulders. Stopping in front of the bathroom sink to fish a bobby pin from a drawer, her gaze travels from countertop to mirror as she sets her hair in a bun. With the pin set and her hands free, she straightens her posture and allows herself time to acknowledge her body. Her eyes remain placid as they scan from exposed collarbones to heavy breasts. She brings her hands to her hips and her elbows behind her and pivots to an angle. From her armpits down, lean muscle lies beneath the skin. She sees her ribs expand with each breath and contours soften on the journey below her belly button.
Her appointment begins with bloodwork and vitals. Once taken, she sits quietly until her doctor joins her.
“How’s everything going, Mrs. Gardner,” he queries as he scans her chart.
“Fine, thank you.”
“Has your morning sickness eased?”
“A little, yes. I was able to get up and go for a run for the first time this morning,” she started, “but didn’t make it nearly as far as I’m used to.”
“Well, Liv, you’re pregnant. Now’s not the time to be planning a marathon.” He smiles at her, easing her into a discussion about what she should expect from her body over the following months. The conversation concludes, and he calls for a nurse to escort her toward the ultrasound room.
Peeking her head through the waiting room door, she catches her husband’s eye. He stands, releases his phone into his pocket and follows her through the hallway to the same dark room he’s been in before.
They are greeted by a smiling woman, who automatically tells her to have a seat on the medical bed.
“You can sit there, Dad.” She points to an adjacent highchair.
Liv watches him adjust to the weight of the word.
“Let’s get this shirt pulled up and your skirt down below your pelvis bones. The gel is going to be a bit warm, just to warn you.”
A dark screen comes to life: a gray border surrounds a black canvas. The screen shows fast pans across the landscape, but the technician doesn’t stop to show them yet, taking quick measurements and tapping them into her records. The clicks of the keyboard cease and the screen slowly arrives at a new horizon. The small semblance of an otherworldly body brings itself to center and Liv gasps.
The technician begins.
“At twelve weeks, we can see the head, the beginnings of a nasal bone.” A pointer travels across a full screenshot targeting locations in front of the face and then a wide-angle view of an entire body comes back to screen.
“And you can determine the chest, abdomen and small glimpses of extremities.” Her voice trails as the image hiccups and a tiny hand waves into view.
“Your baby is moving around now, learning how to stretch.”
A small blur of a foot kicks, silently moving in its abyss. Liv sits in a parallel universe, voiceless with the sound of blood running through her ears. Tears stream from her eyes into the darkness that fills the room.
The two leave shoulder to shoulder, but do not touch. Both remain focused on their phones as they hail separate rides to their offices. Christmas is two days away.
CHAPTER 5 — GRENADE
Sitting at her desk, Liv looks down at her keyboard and notices her nails. She flips her wrist and bends her fingers to take a closer look. They are long, thicker than she remembers, and in dire need of a manicure. She pulls out her phone and calls her salon.
“Hi, Jen, it’s Liv. How are you?”
“Great, thanks! You’re past your regular visit. Tell me you’ve been on vacation.”
“No, unfortunately not. Just a bit busy these past few months.”
“Ah, well. I hope it’s good busy. What can I get you in for?”
“A mani and pedi, and . . .” she twirls a splintering pull of hair around her finger, inspecting “. . . and a haircut.”
“No, thank you.”
She considers, then declines. She jots the term down on her side pad of paper, adding it to the growing list of topics to look into.
Scheduled, she leans back and clasps her hands behind her head. She squeezes her shoulders tight, bringing her elbows outward. She stays like this, in suspended traction, until someone quietly knocks on her door.
An office admin slowly turns a handle and cracks the door, giving herself just enough space to be seen. “Good morning, Liv.”
Her voice is shy, as skinny as her shoulders. “A few of your colleagues have asked me to order ramen. Would you like some as well?”
“No, thank you. Not today.”
The young woman smiles and nods.
“Would you like me to keep this closed?” She wavers in the doorway. Her dirty blonde hair is thin, drawn back behind her ears to lie flat against her back. Her brown sheath dress lies flat against her front and she nearly blends into the oak wall behind her.
“No, I’m about to leave. Thank you.”
“No problem, have a nice lunch.”
As the girl backs away, Liv notices her shoes, pressed plastic soled flats. Aware of the attention, the girl stops in her tracks, her face flushes as she whispers an apologetic excuse. “I broke my heels on the way to the office today, these are just replacements until I get them back . . . ” Liv watches the young woman tuck one foot behind the other.
Still seated behind her desk, her own leather shoes are not visible from where the admin stands. “I hope you get them back soon” is her only response before looking down to signify the conversation’s end.
Alone once more, she rolls her shoulders back and down a few more times and stands up to leave. As she straightens out her shirt and brushes down her skirt, she sees a coworker at her door again. An older man, with grandchildren of his own already in private preschool in the Lower East Side, he quietly waits for her to invite him in.
She smiles and nods her head as an invitation.
“How are you?” he asks with his chin tilted, looking into her eyes for an honest answer.
“Good, thank you.” She is quick with the response. “And you?”
“Oh, just fine. Ready for vacation.” He meanders for a moment to mull his own agenda. “The family is going upstate for the weekend and I’m ready to not answer emails.”
She smiles. “Both of those things sound lovely. Are you going back to your spot?”
“Hmmm, not this time. If I was on my own and had space for my equipment, I would love to get another day out there . . . but alas, family.” He smiles and shrugs.
His photography hobby was well funded and nearing fine art. Haunting and heavenly photos of abandoned water parks and marinas peppered the hallways of the office. His prized shots came from a village of abandoned boats, perched on scaffolding along an old lakebed and near his family’s vacation home. The work he created there was known as his best, framing endless lines of fixed keels, disjointed angles of sails turned shades and portraits of the people who live among the dishevel.
He keeps his eyes on her a bit longer before looking down at the paper in his hands. “So every year I work with SUNY to review a class study on adaptable design.” He pauses to set the tone.
“The professor who oversees the study is a friend of mine, so he pays me in wine. Also, it's my alma mater, as it is yours as well.” Another moment to encourage camaraderie. “Though I don’t know if you’re originally from New York?”
“I’ve been here long enough.” She evades the question into her past.
He respects the answer. “Exactly. So, the students are undergrads, but finishing their junior and senior years. So their ideas are strong and some are even inspiring. Last year I even incorporated a concept into our project over the bridge.”
Liv keeps eye contact as he speaks. Her raised eyebrows invite him to continue.
“So, like I said, every year I work on this project. And I’ve had a great time doing so, but I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time to invite some fresh faces into the conversation. Which led me to think of you.”
He hands her the sheets of student profiles. “Would you have any interest in working with the university to mentor these students on this project?”
He looks to gauge her interest. She’s looking through the papers so he continues.
“I think you’ve got a great eye for innovation and could really help some of these students turn their projects into valuable proposals. I don’t know what you’ve got going on outside of work, but it does require some extra time. But it’s rewarding and very good for our resumes at the end of the day.”
He quickens his pace to conclude his pitch. “I love doing this and do not mind doing it again. I just thought this may be a good time for you to begin a relationship with the academic world, seeing as your project is going so well. But, there is no pressure. I will absolutely continue to hold the reigns here if you are too busy.”
“Of course I want to. What’s the timeline?” She leans over her desk and begins to open up a calendar on her computer.
“It’s about a three-month project, starting soon. It’s part of a national competition that will hopefully result in several low-resource residential transformations. They’ve been tasked to develop self-sustaining green roofs of all recycled materials.”
He pauses to find the project outline, then passes it to her. “But when I say recycled I mean recycled. Like found object, basically. We’re talking low- to no-resource areas, so no new technology and certainly minimal cost and hydro-input.”
“So, how far do they go?”
“Oh, all the way down the rabbit hole. Some of the proposals I’ve just glanced at include community kitchens for energy conservation, and water collection and filtration systems to fulfill residential needs and offset rations.”
“Wow.” She is sitting now, scanning the timeline details.
“Like I said, the proposals can be fascinating and helping these students find solutions is certainly fulfilling.” He waits for her to look up from the page.
“Okay. I would love to do this. Thank you. Thank you so much. What do you need from me?”
“I’ll make a few phone calls and Greg Paulson will reach out to you. I really think you’ll enjoy this.”
“Me too. It will be nice to work with the young and inspired for a change.” She smirks to show the jest.
He chuckles and leaves the papers on her desk. “I’ll shoot you an introduction email soon.”
“Sounds great, John. Thank you.”
She sees blood. Not a lot, but enough to trickle into the toilet and enough to cause her to gasp. She catches herself and straightens up, listening for any others in the restroom. Hearing nothing, she finishes and leaves.
Underneath facial, she writes down spotting. These words complete a list of other pregnancy notes and research topics: ultrasound January 15, herbal teas and psoriasis.
She looks at her calendar. Her next appointment is in two days.
She sits back down at her computer, opens a browser and types in sixteen weeks pregn . . . but stops. She deletes the text and grabs her things to leave for lunch. She heads home.
As she passes the shop with the man with the bell, he is this time accompanied by three young boys, no older than twelve years. They are clean, lean with the beginnings of broad shoulders and sharp stares. As she taps her phone to the kiosk to donate her unused water rations, her vintage leather gloves stand at stark contrast to their blue bare hands. The sign over the donation bucket states Where there is Water there is Life.
CHAPTER 6 — GLOCK 19
She begins another morning run jogging past the shadows of buildings and parked cars. She hears the rattles of changing shifts and sees the last night owls navigate towards their apartments. Her pace is steady, not yet slow, even though her weight is up and her back feels the pressure. She is visibly pregnant to those who know her.
Rounding a corner, she almost collides with a woman walking slowly. She is holding an infant wrapped in a blue blanket and speaking softly, sleepily pointing out the world—the trees, the leaves and the light. The little boy is alert, soaking up his surroundings and his mother’s voice. Liv slows down to a walk to pass mother and child, making eye contact with the baby before turning back into her run.
The doorman is ready and waiting for her upon her return. “Good morning, Liv.”
“Hi.” She is still breathless.
If he notices, he does not show. “Is there anything I can send your way this morning?”
“No, thank you. Thank you for asking. I’ve got to get into the office early today.”
“I wish you a great day,” he says with a smile.
She stops to look at him. A good service worker, he shows no sign of acknowledging facts he hasn’t been directly told. His smile lingers, then he turns in retreat to his desk. She fidgets with her key fob and turns toward the elevator.
With extra time to her morning, Liv dips into a small clothing store. A woman greets her through the racks of clothes.
“Good morning.” The shop owner is still setting up for her day, with dresses draped over her arm.
“Hi. Do you carry shoes?”
“We do.” She turns to acknowledge a back corner of the building.
“Great. Thank you.” Liv makes her way inward. “I’m just looking for two pairs of pumps. One black and one brown.”
“Any particular brand or style?”
“No. Just modest heels.”
“Yes, of course. I have a few options here.” The woman has laid the dresses on a nearby seat and walks toward the shoes and Liv. She looks down at Liv’s current attire. “Though I don’t think they can compare with what you may be used to.”
“Oh, they’re not for me. These look fine. I need a size eight in each, please.”
“Of course.” The woman grabs the shoes and Liv pays.
Liv sits down in her office before the rest of the staff arrives. With the new shoes tucked under the desk of the office secretary, she turns on her computer and opens her emails. An hour later, Liv is startled when her boss peeks into her office.
“Did you get in early? I saw an email come in before I even woke up.” She smiles, welcoming conversation.
“I did. I wanted to make sure a few of my tasks were complete because I need to take the afternoon again.” She pauses for a moment. “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
“Of course. Let me put my things down. My office in five?”
“Yeah, that’s great. Thank you.”
Liv prepares herself for the conversation by reading through the talking points she’s drafted on her computer. She checks her nails then walks out of her office to cross the corridor.
She turns a corner and meets the admin, balancing coffees for delivery. The girl stops, startled. Her shy voice is nearly a whisper. “Did you . . . ”
“I hope they fit.” Liv keeps her voice low as well.
“I don’t know what to say, I’ve never —”
Liv stops her again. “Don’t mention it.”
The girl smiles and nods, moving on with her day.
Liv turns toward her boss’ office, rolls her shoulders back and down, and walks in, closing the door behind her.
“What’s up, Liv?”
“I’m sure it may be obvious and you’ve just been waiting for me to acknowledge this, but it’s been a bumpy ride so I’ve been reluctant to really discuss this with anyone.”
Liv looks down, picking at her middle fingernail with her thumb. “I’m pregnant. Actually, I’m twenty weeks pregnant.”
She looks up. Her boss is smiling.
“I know. Well, I didn’t know you were five months pregnant, but look at you. Not that you’re not perfect as always, but you’re pregnant. I was wondering how many more shapeless shirts you had in your closet.”
Liv drops her hands to her side, visibly relieved.
“Congratulations!” She gets up to give Liv a hug.
“Thanks, Val.” The two embrace and Val squeezes her tight.
“Welcome to motherhood. It’s fucking wild, but worth it.”
Stepping back from one another, Liv wipes a tear away. Val looks toward her closed door.
“Just so you know, I don’t think anyone else has caught on yet.”
“Yeah, I know I’m late to discuss this.
“Not at all. You are allowed your privacy and your time. You don’t owe me any discussion legally until you’re seven months pregnant. All I truly need is lead time to find a temporary replacement for you after you have the baby. It’s completely up to you if you want to address your pregnancy with the staff right now.”
“Great.” Liv sighs. Looking out the window, she asks, “What would you do?”
“Well, I would tell our boss. That way we can schedule out future development plans now, rather than reschedule them later. I mean, if you are ready.” She looks at Liv.
“I have a meeting with him at 9:30, so we can both meet him in the beginning and let him know that we’ll be working on a plan to accommodate your leave. And then, I would just take it easy and wear what you want to wear. You don’t need to hide yourself underneath this.” She picks at the white cotton draping Liv’s shoulders. “Obviously, people will see and either say congratulations or stop asking you to happy hour.”
This time Liv giggled. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. And congratulations, Liv. I know you guys have been waiting for the right time. I’m so happy to see you found it.”
She stands up and quickly turns toward the door. “Thank you, Val.”
As she reaches for the handle, she turns with a recovered smile. “I’ll be back just before 9:30.”
“Mrs. Gardner.” A voice calls her to the patient rooms. Her husband is with her but does not get up. She looks at him and he shakes his head.
“I’ll be here when you get back.”
She says nothing and looks towards the nurse.
“Pull the top of your skirt below your pelvis bones.”
“This will feel warm.”
“Just one moment.”
She rubs the exam table paper beneath her between her thumb and pointer.
A whoosh, static and then the rhythm of a heartbeat. A fast and quiet thunder fills the room.
“Today, we’ll be measuring the head, the total length, looking at the organs. We’ll see the brain, the kidneys and the heart chambers.”
“It’s just to ensure everything is growing as it should be. We rarely have problems, of course, but we prefer to check more often than not with these natural pregnancies, just to be sure.”
Liv rolls her eyes freely in the dark room.
As the nurse moves through the scan, he continues, “Most defects have been selected out of the reproduction process, as you know. And even in your case, you and your husband have clean DNA, so the odds of any issues are very low. But there is no zero still.”
“Yes, I know.” Her voice is chilled.
Liv catches quick glimpses of the baby’s body on the screen. She sees split seconds of knees, a face and an arm.
He clears his throat. “I see you did not select to learn the gender during the last round of the testing.”
He waits momentarily for Liv to answer.
“In this case, it’s protocol to tell you. If it was your own—excuse me, your planned child, we’d be happy to withhold the sex of the infant.”
He pauses, a trained behavior for the type of situation. “But we have found that knowing ahead of time helps women with the process.”
Still no response.
Liv is gripping the chair, staring at the screen.
“Are you seeing the doctor after this?”
“Then I will take the pictures, show you everything but the baby’s sex, if you want to see its development, and you can talk to Dr. Ballen about it.”
“Thank you” comes out as a whisper.
“Well, Liv, I’ve been told we have to discuss the baby’s gender.” Dr. Ballen takes a seat. He looks at Liv with kind eyes.
“I know this is all hard. I can’t say I’ve been through what you are experiencing, but I can tell you I’ve worked with many women who have been in your shoes.” He gives her a moment, another example of trained practice.
“I’ll speak bluntly here because I know you can handle this. Knowing the gender of the baby allows you to have a dialogue with him or her before you give birth. You can come to terms with the situation and say goodbye before delivery.”
“Will I get to see the child once I deliver?”
“No, Liv, I’m sorry but you won’t. Natural-born children are placed directly with their surrogates to ensure attachment happens with their family unit rather than the carrying mother. It’s easier for all parties to move into their new roles this way.”
Her eyes are closed, and he studies the lack of rise and fall in her chest. He waits for her to resume her breath. “You’ll be able to fully recover at the hospital, with sleep and pain management, and your child will begin its life in the forces.”
“But what if—” Her eyes are still closed and her thought hovers in the air.
“You can handle this.”
He lets the simple statement sink in. “Studies have shown that parents who don’t know the gender of their child spend more time fantasizing about its future. Two potential genders mean two times as many possibilities. We believe it’s in the best interest of the carrier to minimize these daydreams.”
Liv finally makes eye contact with the doctor, still holding her hands in her lap.
“Knowing all the facts allows you to understand the child’s future. You can research the program the child will be enrolled in, address your fears and questions with NBF representatives, and even sign up to receive annual updates.”
Her sudden visible interest in the statement causes him to stop. “From the ward supervisors. Not from the child, of course.”
He waits for her to swallow, then continues. “You can prepare yourself for giving birth, and then giving to the greater good. Your natural-born child will play a vital role in securing water for the generations of lives to come.”
Liv nods as the doctor finishes his lines.
“Can you just write it down for me? I’d like to do this at home.”
“Unfortunately, no. I’m sorry Liv, but it has to be verbal at this point. As your doctor, it is my responsibility to make sure you know the gender by twenty weeks.”
Liv searches for a focal point. “The child is female.”
CHAPTER 7 — 20 ROUND
With more than half the pregnancy behind her, her jogs are slow and her running tights can no longer be rolled over at the waist to fit. She has gained twenty-four pounds to match her weeks and the little girl inside her is kicking.
The city’s traffic is growing as well. Revolving doors of hotels spin without end as tourists come and go, eyes gazing up toward the heights and hands reaching down into their pockets toward their phones. Liv navigates the visitors as she jogs back home, nodding at drivers who stand in loading zones and weaving past squatted beggars. With the warming weather comes the presence of the low resources, dehydrated and asking for water rations.
Once home, she continues her ritual of a hot shower and hot tea. The small light in her shower turns purple, alerting her that she’s used fifty liters of water. It remains a violet reminder long before she gets out. As she sits at the counter with her tea, her husband comes in from the balcony. Sliding his phone into his pocket, he walks toward the kitchen.
“That was my mother.”
“There is a surprise party for my father this Friday. He’ll be turning sixty-five and we think he’ll be announcing his retirement soon.”
He continues, “It will be downtown and she’s asking if we both can come.”
Liv looks at him, but he has already re-engaged with his phone.
“I don’t know.” Her response is slow as he continues to stare.
“I figured.” He shoves the screen in his pocket and looks at her. Walking across the room toward the closet, he grabs a suit jacket. Reaching through the arms, he closes his eyes and stops.
“What do you want to do, then?” His jacket lies heavy and limp over his shoulders.
“About the party?”
“About this, Liv.”
She gazes down.
“I don’t know. I want to get out of here.”
He looks at her. “We can’t. What does that even mean?”
“It means I can’t think straight anymore and I need a break.”
“From what? From this?” He moves his arm in reference to the apartment. “From the view?” His arm swings to call attention to their panoramic view of the rising day. “Or is it your driver service and your dry cleaning you need a break from? There’s no getting out of here, Liv, unless you want to give up those long showers you love. We are at the top here and anything that entails getting out of here is below.” He takes a moment to curb the rise in his voice. “This is our life, Liv. We live here. We agreed on these fucking cabinets for Christ’s sake.” He begins to rummage through a drawer for a pack of cigarettes.
“I just know this isn’t what I want anymore.”
“And you think this is what I want? I didn’t ask to be drug through this, and yet here you are, pregnant.”
She sets her tea down, slowly and silently on the stone surface.
“You think you’re being drug through this? You’re not even close to enduring this pregnancy.” She stands up and her body is visible. “You’re not here. You’re not fucking present. You’re so separated from this situation that you just invited me to your fucking father’s retirement party.” Her words are steady against the tension in the room.
“I’m carrying this weight. I’m the one who has to walk into an office every day and lie. I’m the one who has to smile when people fucking hug me and say congratulations. I am completely alone in this. And you. You have no fucking clue what this is.”
His glare travels toward her stomach then returns to her eyes for a moment. He turns to leave. “Mom knows you haven’t been feeling well, so she won’t be shocked if you can’t come.”
The door closes and she picks her teacup back up.
“Your driver isn’t here yet, Mrs. Gardner,” the doorman says. “He says there’s a crash on the bridge and he’ll be a few minutes behind. Would you like me to call you a cab?”
She walks towards his desk in the lobby and smiles calmly. “No, thank you. I can wait.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll let him know.”
She studies the doorman for a moment. “Sean, where are you from?”
“I am from The Bahamas but have been here most of my life now.”
“You have such a lovely voice, I’ve just never known the accent.”
“Thank you. You should hear my mother. Her voice floats across oceans.”
Liv smiles again. “I bet it does. Is your whole family here?”
“No, ma’am. It’s just my mother and my brother and me. When the island ran out of water, we all went wherever we could get in. We were lucky to end up here,” he says, swirling his finger around the alluded nation.
“Where did the rest of your family go?”
“Many of my family members went to Central America. They moved into the mountains of Belize and Guatemala. A few are in Mexico but most of them stayed close to the Caribbean.”
“Oh.” Liv’s response is quiet.
“It’s all good though, Mrs. Gardner. We’re all good now. When the U.S. stopped shipping relief to The Bahamas, we thought we were all going to die there. If not from dehydration then crime. We lived on lowlands that were slowly sinking, there was nothing but sand and the violence got worse and worse. People were desperate, paying their entire life savings to hop on jon boats to cross the Gulf Stream. So when we received approval to enter the U.S. as climate refugees, we thanked God.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I mean, I can’t even imagine.”
“I hope you never have to. And the same for your baby.”
Her hand reaches to secure her infant in waiting.
“So everyone is good down south? There’s no chance they’ll need to leave again?”
“No, not so much. They should be fine. The inland is high there. And most of my cousins have gotten married and had beautiful families so far, such beautiful children. They don’t have the rules we do here . . . ” he stops short, avoiding a conversation on privilege. “So I doubt they’re inclined to leave their lives there.”
She takes a seat in the lobby, turning the chair toward him.
He continues, “There is still clean water there. Not a ton, but enough to keep the villages healthy.”
“And that’s what it’s like? Just people living in villages?”
“No one has come in to prospect the supply?”
“No, ma’am. Not as of yet.” He crosses his chest in prayer. “When the lands in Belize and Ecuador stopped producing cacao, the whole region was kind of forgotten.”
“I never thought about that.”
“You’re not the only one,” he said with a smile. “But my family says they love their villages. They say they live an easy, simple life, together. By not needing much, they don’t produce much and stay below the radar of natural asset search and war.”
His gaze shifts. “Ah, your driver is here.” He nods goodbye.
A man in his late fifties holds the back door for Liv. “Good morning, Mrs. Gardner, my name is John.” His voice is raspy, aged deeper than the lines on his brow. “I’ll be taking care of you today. I believe Lowery is your usual driver, but he is out of town on a family matter.”
She smiles and shifts herself into the sedan. Once settled, she places her bag beside her and he closes the door with a nod. As he walks back toward the driver’s seat, Liv pulls out her phone, a preventative buffer against conversation.
The driver acknowledges the cue and stays silent, pulling into traffic and looping around the median to head west.
“I hope Lowery is well?” Liv ends the silence once the route is in full flow, opening the door for dialogue.
“Yes, yes. He is. His daughter is having a baby.”
“Ah. Wow, I remember him saying a while back his whole family invested. I’m so glad everything worked out.”
“I am too. Lowery is a good, hard-working man. It is nice to see him celebrate.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s so.” She ends the conversation.
CHAPTER 8 — RIFLE SCOPE
Liv begins to walk home from work, stopping by a small park east of her office. Tucked into the back corner of the gathering space is a small walk-up kiosk. She makes her way toward the aluminum-sided sphere of a building to arrive at a chest-high window. She sees two teens beyond the window, blatantly bored with their setting and sitting on a metal countertop within. They are leaning on the wall behind them, staring toward the ceiling and unresponsive to her arrival. She sets her bag on the window’s ledge to announce herself and they pivot their gazes toward her. The youngest, a teenage girl, sighs and slides to her feet. Her lackluster smile is backed by the other employee’s dull scowl.
“An iced water, please.”
“Do you want cold or iced? Ice is two dollars extra.”
“Ice, please.” She emphasizes her initial request.
“Yes, ma’am.” The girl steps back to look at Liv, then the serving cup options.
“That’s ten bucks unless you return the cup and we’ll refund four back to you.”
“Otherwise, we can—”
“I said that’s fine.”
The girl nods and reaches for a cup and walks to the freezer portion of the kiosk. The boy rings her up and passes the bill across the counter to her. She taps the tablet with her phone and passes it back.
With water in hand, she finds a bench at the opposite corner of the park. She sits in the shade created by a meager canopy of oak leaves. She sets the cup by her side and reclines, letting her posture slide down the seat, and tilts her gaze toward the sky. She holds her purse in her lap and closes her eyes. She listens. She hears the breeze rustle the bottom layer of leaves. Two squirrels chatter at one another somewhere behind her. Music streams from a couple lying on the synthetic turf in front of her. It muffles their conversation but not its rhythm. She lays one hand on the sun-kissed brushed aluminum steel of the bench, feeling its warmth. A young girl quickly passes by, speaking to an adult in heels, “Yes, I know but I don’t think she was listening to me.” Two men follow, one humming in agreement to the other’s argument to dam the state’s remaining rivers. She breathes slowly, pausing between draws and exhales, and moves her hand from the warm seat to her womb. A bell in the distance brings her back. It’s traveling toward her, coming closer with every ring. She keeps her eyes closed and the sound finally passes, but not before a voice proclaims to the passersby, “Where there is water there is life. We must support those who give us both.” His second verse is lower, traveling out of audible range. Liv opens her eyes and retrieves her water. The metal cup is cold with condensation.
Tilting her cup to watch the melt move, she hears a familiar voice.
“Well hello there, stranger.”
The accent is as bright as her blazer, a sunny Southern drawl.
“You look absolutely beautiful, Liv.” The woman stands over Liv, hands on hips and smiling.
“I walk through this park almost every day and have never seen you here. I’m so glad to see you now though, look at that baby bump!”
Liv slowly turns her head to acknowledge the woman she knows through early morning networking events.
“Hi.” She searches for a name.
“Gosh, well this explains why you never called me for drinks!” The woman smiles at her joke and then sits down in the sun. “So have you been well?”
“Yes, I’ve felt fine and the baby is healthy, so everything is going well.” Liv puts her cup down and looks toward her conversation mate. “How are you? How is everything?”
“Oh, it’s the same. It will be the same until I quit my job. Or find a husband. Or both, hopefully.” Another giggle. “But none of that is important. You’re having a baby! How are you feeling? Is it a boy or a girl?”
Liv’s shoulders rise against the pressure. “Like I said, I’m good. Everything is healthy so we’re just pushing along. Waiting until July.” She trails off on the due date, beginning to look around.
“July, oh my, what it must be like to be pregnant in the dead of the summer. Of course, I wouldn’t know anything about it really, though. My cousin was pregnant a few years ago, but it was a natural born so we avoided conversations about it and I never even saw it.” She stopped quickly in this thought.
“Where was your cousin?”
“Oh, back in Georgia. There’s a reason I came up here. I wanted to get away from the traditions and downfalls of the south. I mean it’s beautiful and I miss my family, but I didn’t want to be just another poor woman who has another poor water baby.”
Liv delivers the script. “The men and women who give us water babies are truly serving our country. Without water babies, there would be no water. And without water—”
“Yeah, yeah,” the woman cuts her short. “We all must do our duties in this world. But letting someone take your baby?” She covers her mouth. “Excuse me. That’s not what I meant. I just mean it must be hard to carry a life and never meet it.”
“It’s a burden to bear for sure.” Liv takes another sip and keeps her eyes on her cup.
“But it’s all crazy now, isn’t it? I mean, you had to decide the future of your child without ever knowing him or her. Choosing genes and selecting traits. So sometimes I do wonder what’s best, a child whose future is certainly war or one whose future resembles a polo pony.”
Liv did not respond but looked down at her growing middle.
“Oh my God, what’s wrong with me? I’m so sorry. I know I talk so much. Please don’t let my mindless rambling offend you. That was such an atrocious reference, I’m so sorry.” She shifts her weight to the far side of the bench to take in Liv’s demeanor.
“You didn’t.” Her voice is low. “But I do need to go.”
“Of course, of course.” She stands to depart. “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I just said that. I know you’re going to have a beautiful child, and have the family we all hope to have—”
Liv puts her hand on her shoulder. “It was nice to see you.” She gives her a moment to recover. “I’ll see you soon.”
“Ok, Liv. Have a great evening.”
“You, too.” Liv turns her back to find her driver’s number.
“Hi, I hope it’s not too late in the day to have you pick me up?”
“No, not at all. I told you I’d be around all day for you, so that is where I am.”
“Thank you. Do you see where I’m at?”
“Yes, I’ll be there in just a few.”
“All right, I’m waiting here.”
She does not greet him when he opens the door for her.
After a few moments of silence, Liv asks him if he smokes.
“Yes, ma’am, I do. But never in this car. But other people do, if they insist.”
“May I have one?”
“Of course. But I assume you’re trying to quit?”
She glares through the rearview mirror.
“I only assume because people like you only run out of things intentionally. You have no cigarettes on purpose.”
Another moment of silence. “And?”
“And I have the sense that you’ve just had a bad day. And that’s no reason to lose sight of the big picture.”
She’s quick to reply, “It doesn’t matter. This isn’t my child to protect.”
The driver flashes a glance at her then attends to the road. He slows for the circle and reaches into his glove box.
His tone is low as he hands her a cigarette and lighter. “You are bringing a natural born into this world.”
She holds the two items in her right hand and looks out the window.
“Without water babies there would be no—”
She cracks the window and lights the cigarette. She takes a full drag and coughs.
She sits with her elbow on the armrest, hand reaching toward the cracked window to allow the smoke to drift outward. A moment later she is cooler. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say . . . ” she waves her left hand as if brushing the air away, “ . . . that.”
“It’s fine.” He offers nothing more.
They near her building. “I won’t be seeing you tomorrow, or probably ever again. So if you don’t mind, I want to tell you something.”
She again looks in his direction and nods. She tosses the cigarette out the window.
“You’re not the only one. There are many of us who have water babies out there, and many of us who still hope for their return.”
Her jaw is tight. The car has stopped in front of her apartment. Her hand rests on her purse but she does not move.
“And like you, we have all been angry.”
“I’m not angry.” Her eyes are hot on the verge of tears.
She makes no movement to exit the car so he continues.
“My wife and I had a natural born twenty years ago. He was given our information when he turned eighteen and we still have not heard from him.”
“But that doesn’t mean he won’t find us when he is released from service in five more years.”
“I hope he does.”
“Me too. And I hope he uses his pension to start his own family and give them a life I couldn’t give him.”
“That’s a nice dream.”
“It’s reality for a lot of people.” He waves off an impatient cab and turns to her.
“A natural born has no future in this country unless he or she serves in the forces. So some of that bullshit propaganda we’ve been taught to believe and babble has a kernel of truth. Where there is water, there is opportunity.”
He puts the car in park and moves toward an exit. “And it’s fucked up, but some of us have to fight for that opportunity.”
“I get it.” Her voice is low.
He gets out and walks around slowly to open her door, allowing her time to compose herself. He holds out his hand to help with the step and the two connect.
“You have a long journey ahead of you, but your child will always be with you, in one way or another.”
Before turning away from the vehicle, she whispers, “Nobody knows.”
She straightens her dress and walks toward her building.
CHAPTER 9 — GAS MASK
Since skipping the party, their evenings have been as quiet as the sunsets. Her mornings are still early and her husband’s days start earlier, leaving the house before she returns from her run.
The warming days of May have churned up memories of family vacations on beaches, cabins on lakes and a story of a trip her grandmother had taken. She was given all her parents’ keepsakes when they died and keeps them in the guest room closet. Her grandmother’s photo albums are filled with cards, old playbills and photos spanning thirty years of married life. As she meanders through her grandmother’s past, she begins to recognize the images from the story. The flooded boardwalk, the mesh windows, her grandmother walking along old ruins. It was Belize.
She heads downstairs.
“Good morning, Mrs. Gardner,” the doorman says expectantly.
“Hi, how are you?”
“Doing well. Thank you.” Liv is down earlier than typical and his expression acknowledges the irregularity.
“Do you know where your family is, in Belize?”
“As in, what village?”
“Not off the top of my head, ma’am. No.”
She keeps her gaze on him. “Didn’t you say it’s near a river?”
“Yes, the Mojo, they’re up in the mountains in a few villages along the water.” He pauses, beginning to scroll through his phone. “I can find out for you.”
“Oh, it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I was just wondering. Thanks for telling me that much, I know it’s none of my business.”
The elevator doors are closed by the time Sean looks back up from his search. He is busy with another resident when she slides by the desk on her way out for the day.
She is wearing low slung jeans with an elastic-paneled waist. They are comfortable in her late stage, and a new concession. She wears a long green T-shirt that hugs her belly. At seven months pregnant, she is in her prime. Her thick hair falls down her back and her skin is glowing.
Walking to work, she succumbs to the hint of an old ritual. She opens the door to full-bodied roasts, the sound of steam, and murmurs between baristas. She orders a small cup of coffee and takes a seat in a well-worn leather chair, a luxury as rich as the wallpaper. She holds the cup with both hands, relishing its warmth while blowing off steam. She looks up to see a man standing in front of her. His blue eyes are as bright as the day she last saw them.
“Russ.” Though there is little inflection, the surprise is present in her voice.
A moment of silence. “What are you doing here?”
“Getting coffee.” He smirks and doesn’t answer the question. “You look beautiful, Liv. Congratulations.”
The crease between her brows relaxes. She looks down at her belly, comfortable in the embrace of the antique armchair, and she reaches for the armrests to push herself up and hug him. It lasts. They have not seen each other in ten years. “Here, sit. If you have time?” She moves her bag off the sofa beside her and begins to reach for the coffee table before he pulls it closer for her.
“Nobody has time here it seems.” He sits back, relaxed.
She gives him a kind smile. “We have time. We just don’t slow down for tourists.”
“Understandable.” He looks at the ceiling and then back toward her. “Well, I’m glad to know where you spend yours.
He sets his phone on the table, face down. “My work is relocating me,” he begins once settled. “I knew you were here, but I didn’t think you’d be here.”
“Small world I suppose . . . So have you already made the move?”
“No, we’re still on the West Coast for now, but as soon as I find a place I’m bringing them over.”
She focuses on her black coffee. “How is your family?”
“Good.” His voice wrinkles. “We’re having another child.”
Her hand cups the lower right side of her belly and she gives him a resigned smile. She decidedly asks no more questions.
He has turned his eyes from her to his coffee as well.
She leans forward in her chair. “So, I admit I don’t know what to say.” Liv begs for time. “It’s nice to see you, Russ. I can’t believe you barely look any older . . . That’s a stupid thing to say. Of course you look older—”
“Oh I do. It’s just that it’s concealed by this baby weight.” They both laugh, and the comfort of years spent together washes over them.
She looks at him. He is staring directly at her.
“You look beautiful, Liv. Really.”
She leans back into her chair with a smile, and lets her hand run through her hair.
“You already look like an incredible mother, comfortable in your skin and mindful.”
“I don’t think you know me anymore, Russ.”
“Maybe not,” he admits. “But maybe I’ll get the opportunity again now.”
She looks away, toward the barista’s bar and then the door.
“I guess you are on the clock this morning,” he notices. “That, I remember about you. Always working. I always wondered why you didn’t come to California, but maybe it would have been too slow for you.”
Her muscles tense.
“I didn’t move to California because you wouldn’t ask me to come.” She watches him search for the memory to no avail.
A few moments pass between them and he finally tilts his chin back towards her. “I’m sorry, Liv. I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t be. I shouldn’t have said that. A lot of time has passed since you left South Carolina.”
She sets her cup on the table and sits up straight. “I do have to go though. I’m already late as it is.”
“Sure. Yeah, of course. I understand.”
He rises with her and bends to reach for her bag.
“I’ve got it.” She beats him to the handles.
“I’m glad I got to see you, Liv. You look great and I’m glad you’re doing well.”
“Maybe we’ll see each other again when I’m here for good. If you want?”
“Maybe.” She smiles and opens her arms. He leans in and embraces her.
“Good luck, Liv,” he says when they part.
Liv spends the rest of her day completing reviews of the green roof projects she has been overseeing. Seeing the piles of paperwork atop her desk, she hears the colleague who invited her into the program knock on her door. She looks up and smiles.
“It’s been fun revisiting the basics,” she begins, standing up behind her desk and fanning out some of the projects. “I admit I’d forgotten all about rain barrel systems, and was surprised by how little has changed. And by how relevant they can still be to areas with low water supply.”
He agrees. “I know, it’s a reminder of how lucky we are to run our half-full dishwashers after our dinner parties,” scoffing at himself.
She giggles. “Yes, life here certainly has its advantages.”
He hums in agreement and skims over the plans she gave her highest grade to. “This is nice,” he affirms.
“I know, it’s such a fresh take on the concept.” She joins him on the guest side of her desk to admire the drawings. “I wish these students had been around fifty years ago, before we got ourselves into all these messes we now need them to fix,” Liv mused.
“I wish it could have worked like that. We had neither the technology nor the tools to facilitate these accomplishments.”
“Maybe that’s so.” Liv trails off, looking out her window. “Or maybe our accomplishments are turning us into Argentinian polo ponies.”
His snort of surprise is audible. “You’re too young to remember that, Liv,” he says with a smile.
“Someone brought it up the other day, so it’s fresh in my thoughts.”
He waits for her next thought.
“We studied them in school and I remember my mother telling me more than the books did. She called them shadow ponies.”
“My wife called them rubber stampers.”
Liv stood up straight and looked at him for clarification. “Same as your mom’s metaphor, I’m sure. The more you press a stamp, the less it looks like its original form. It slowly loses its contour and fades into nothing.”
Liv sighs and he catches himself. “But absolutely not, Liv. We are not a bunch of cloned ponies. What we engineer, what science has engineered, are better, stronger lives. Your child came into being one hundred percent healthy and is going to be the perfect combination of you and your husband. And one day, she will tell us to stop chatting and get back to work.”
She smiles at him, showing gratitude for his encouragement.
He crosses her office to look out her window with her. The project she designed and presented months prior was approved and underway, visible from her office. Added to a fast-track schedule to accommodate a recent wave of floods, the firm had received partial funding from the state. Preconstruction had already begun and she watched machines move systematically across scaffolding to lay foundational support.
“Just imagine what you’ll be able to accomplish in the years to come. We’ll only need to keep rising from here and I can see from your work now that you are always planning for the future.”
By the time her husband opens the doors to their apartment, she is already gone.