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We stare at each other. "I saw you in the toy store. A couple days ago. "
She closes her eyes again, regretful, understanding her mistake. She doesn't let go of the kid. I could just take it out of her arms, throw it on the floor and shoot it. But I don't. Her eyes are still closed.
"Why do you do it?" I ask.
Her eyes open again. She's confused. I'm breaking the script. She's mapped this out in her own mind. Probably a thousand times. Had to. Had to know this day would be coming. But here I am, all alone, and her kid's not dead yet. And I keep asking her questions.
"Why do you keep having these kids?"
She just stares at me. The kid squirms around on her and tries to start nursing. She lifts her blouse a little and the kid dives under. I can see the hanging bulges of the lady's b.r.e.a.s.t.s, these heavy swinging mammaries, so much larger than I remember them from the store when they were hidden under bra and blouse. They sag while the kid sucks. The woman just stares at me. She's on some kind of autopilot, feeding the kid. Last meal.
I take my hat off and put it on the table and sit. I put my Grange down, too. It just doesn't seem right to blow the sucker away while it's nursing. I take out a cigarette and light it. Take a drag. The woman watches me the way anyone watches a predator. I take another drag on my cigarette and offer it to her.
"I don't. " She jerks her head toward her kid.
I nod. "Ah. Right. Bad for the new lungs. I heard that, once. Can't remember where. " I grin. "Can't remember when. "
She stares at me. "What are you waiting for?"
I look down at my pistol, lying on the table. The heavy machine weight of slugs and steel, a monster weapon. Grange 12mm Recoilless Hand Cannon. Standard issue. Stop a nitfitter in his tracks. Take out the whole d.a.m.n heart if you hit them right. Pulverize a baby. "You had to stop taking rejoo to have the kid, right?"
She shrugs. "It's just an additive. They don't have to make rejoo that way. "
"But otherwise we'd have a big d.a.m.n population problem, wouldn't we?"
She shrugs again.
The gun sits on the table between us. Her eyes flick toward the gun, then to me, then back to the gun. I take a drag on the cigarette. I can tell what she's thinking, looking at that big old steel hand cannon on her table. It's way out of her reach, but she's desperate, so it looks a lot closer to her, almost close enough. Almost.
Her eyes go back up to me. "Why don't you just do it? Get it over with?"
It's my turn to shrug. I don't really have an answer. I should be taking pictures and securing her in the car, and popping the kid, and calling in the cleanup squad, but here we sit. She's got tears in her eyes. I watch her cry. Mammaries and fatty limbs and a frightening sort of wisdom, maybe coming from knowing that she won't last forever. A contrast to Alice with her smooth smooth skin and high bright b.r.e.a.s.t.s. This woman is fecund. Hips and b.r.e.a.s.t.s and belly fertile, surrounded by her messy kitchen, the jungle outside. The soil of life. She seems settled in all of this, a damp Gaia creature.
I should be cuffing her. I've got her and her kid. I should be shooting the kid. But I don't. Instead, I've got a hard-on. She's not beautiful exactly, but I've got a hard-on. She sags, she's round, she's breasty and hippy and sloppy; I can barely sit because my pants are so tight. I try not to stare at the kid nursing. At her exposed b.r.e.a.s.t.s. I take another drag on my cigarette. "You know, I've been doing this job for a long time. "
She stares at me dully, doesn't say anything.
"I've always wanted to know why you women do this. " I nod at the kid. It's come off her breast, and now the whole thing is exposed, this huge sagging thing with its heavy nipple. She doesn't cover up. When I look up, she's studying me, seeing me looking at her breast. The kid scrambles down and watches me, too, solemn-eyed. I wonder if it can feel the tension in the room. If it knows what's coming. "Why the kid? Really. Why?"
She purses her lips. I think I can see anger in the tightening of her teary eyes, anger that I'm playing with her. That I'm sitting here, talking to her with my Grange on her grimy table, but then her eyes go down to that gun and I can almost see the gears clicking. The calculations. The she-wolf gathering herself.
She sighs and scoots her chair forward. "I just wanted one. Ever since I was a little girl. "
"Play with dolls, all that? Collectibles?"
She shrugs. "I guess. " She pauses. Eyes back to the gun. "Yeah. I guess I did. I had a little plastic doll, and I used to dress it up. And I'd play tea with it. You know, we'd make tea, and then I'd pour some on her face, to make her drink. It wasn't a great doll. Voice input, but not much repertoire. My parents weren't rich. 'Let's go shopping. ''Okay, for what?' 'For watches. ''I love watches. ' Simple. Like that. But I liked it. And then one day I called her my baby. I don't know why. I did, though, and the doll said, 'I love you mommy. '"
Her eyes turn wet as she speaks. "And I just knew I wanted to have a baby. I played with her all the time, and she'd pretend she was my baby, and then my mother caught us doing it and said I was a stupid girl, and I shouldn't talk that way, girls didn't have babies anymore, and she took the doll away. "
The kid is down on the floor, shoving blocks under the table. Stacking and unstacking. It catches sight of me. It's got blue eyes and a shy smile. I get a twitch of it, again, and then it scrambles up off the floor, and buries its face in its mother's b.r.e.a.s.t.s, hiding. It peeks out at me, and giggles and hides again.
I nod at the kid. "Who's the dad?"
Stone cold face. "I don't know. I got a sample shipped from a guy I found online. We didn't want to meet. I erased everything about him as soon as I got the sample. "
"Too bad. Things would have been better if you'd kept in touch. "
"Better for you. "
"That's what I said. " I notice that the ash on my cigarette has gotten long, a thin gray p.e.n.i.s hanging limp off the end of my smoke. I give it a twitch and it falls. "I still can't get over the rejoo part. "
Inexplicably, she laughs. Brightens even. "Why? Because I'm not so in love with myself that I just want to live forever and ever?"
"What were you going to do? Keep it in the house until-"
"Her," she interrupts suddenly. "Keep her in the house. She is a girl and her name is Melanie. "
At her name, the kid looks over at me. She sees my hat on the table and grabs it. Then climbs down off her mother's lap and carries it over to me. She holds it out to me, arms fully extended, an offering. I try to take it but she pulls the hat away.
"She wants to put it on your head. "
I look at the lady, confused. She's smiling slightly, sadly. "It's a game she plays. She likes to put hats on my head. "
I look at the girl again. She's getting antsy, holding the hat. She makes little grunts of meaning at me and waves the hat invitingly. I lean down. The girl puts the hat on my head, and beams. I sit up and set it more firmly.
"You're smiling," she says.
I look up at her. "She's cute. "
"You like her, don't you?"
I look at the girl again, thinking. "Can't say. I've never really looked at them before. "
My cigarette is dead. I stub it out on the kitchen table. She watches me do it, frowning, p.i.s.sed off that I'm messing up her messy table, maybe, but then she seems to remember the gun. And I do, too. A chill runs up my spine. For a moment, when I leaned down to the girl, I'd forgotten about it. I could be dead, right now. Funny how we forget and remember and forget these things. Both of us. Me and the lady. One minute we're having a conversation, the next we're waiting for the killing to start.
This lady seems like she would have been a nice date. She's got s.p.u.n.k. You can tell that. It almost comes out before she remembers the gun. You can watch it flicker back and forth. She's one person, then another person: alive, thinking, remembering, then bang, she's sitting in a kitchen full of crusty dishes, coffee rings on her countertop and a cop with a hand cannon sitting at the kitchen table.
I spark up another cigarette. "Don't you miss the rejoo?"
She looks down at her daughter, holds out her arms. "No. Not a bit. " the girl climbs back onto her mother's lap.
I let the smoke curl out of my mouth. "But there's no way you were going to get away with this. It's insane. You have to drop off of rejoo; you have to find a sperm donor who's willing to drop off, too, so two people kill themselves for a kid; you've got to birth the kid alone, and then you've got to keep it hidden, and then you'd eventually need an ID card so you could get it started on rejoo, because n.o.body's going to dose an undoc.u.mented patient, and you've got to know that none of this would ever work. But here you are. "
She scowls at me. "I could have done it. "
"You didn't. "
Bang. She's back in the kitchen again. She slumps in her chair, holding the kid. "So why don't you just hurry up and do it?"
I shrug. "I was just curious about what you breeders are thinking. "
She looks at me, hard. Angry. "You know what I'm thinking? I'm thinking we need something new. I've been alive for one hundred and eighteen years and I'm thinking that it's not just about me. I'm thinking I want a baby and I want to see what she sees today when she wakes up and what she'll find and see that I've never seen before because that's new. Finally, something new. I love seeing things through her little eyes and not through dead eyes like yours. "
"I don't have dead eyes. "
"Look in the mirror. You've all got dead eyes. "
"I'm a hundred and fifty and I feel just as good as I did the day I went on. "
"I'll bet you can't even remember. No one remembers. " Her eyes are on the gun again, but they come up off it to look at me. "But I do. Now. And it's better this way. A thousand times better than living forever. "
I make a face. "Live through your kid and all that?"
"You wouldn't understand. None of you would. "
I look away. I don't know why. I'm the one with the gun. I'm running everything, but she's looking at me, and something gets tight inside me when she says that. If I was imaginative, I'd say it was some little bit of old primal monkey trying to drag itself out of the muck and make itself heard. Some bit of the critter we were before. I look at the kid-the girl-and she's looking back at me. I wonder if they all do the trick with the hat, or if this one's special somehow. If they all like to put hats on their killers' heads. She smiles at me and ducks her head back under her mother's arm. The woman's got her eyes on my gun.
"You want to shoot me?" I ask.
Her eyes come up. "No. "
I smile slightly. "Come on. Be honest. "
Her eyes narrow. "I'd blow your head off if I could. "
Suddenly I'm tired. I don't care anymore. I'm sick of the dirty kitchen and the dark rooms and the smell of dirty makeshift diapers. I give the Grange a push, shove it closer to her. "Go ahead. You going to kill an old life so you can save one that isn't even going to last? I'm going to live forever, and that little girl won't last longer than seventy years even if she's lucky-which she won't be-and you're practically already dead. But you want to waste my life?" I feel like I'm standing on the edge of a cliff. Possibility seethes around me. "Give it a shot. "
"What do you mean?"
"I'm giving you your shot. You want to try for it? this is your chance. " I shove the Grange a little closer, baiting her. I'm tingling all over. My head feels light, almost dizzy. Adrenaline rushes through me. I push the Grange even closer to her, suddenly not even sure if I'll fight her for the gun, or if I'll just let her have it. "this is your chance. "
She doesn't give a warning.
She flings herself across the table. Her kid flies out of her arms. Her fingers touch the gun at the same time as I yank it out of reach. She lunges again, clawing across the table. I jump back, knocking over my chair. I step out of range. She stretches toward the gun, fingers wide and grasping, desperate still, even though she knows she's already lost. I point the gun at her.
She stares at me, then puts her head down on the table and sobs.
The girl is crying too. She sits bawling on the floor, her little face screwed up and red, crying along with her mother who's given everything in that one run at my gun: all her hopes and years of hidden dedication, all her need to protect her progeny, everything. And now she lies sprawled on a dirty table and cries while her daughter howls from the floor. The girl keeps screaming and screaming.
I sight the Grange on the girl. She's exposed, now. She's squalling and holding her hands out to her mother, but she doesn't get up. She just holds out her hands, waiting to be picked up and held by a lady who doesn't have anything left to give. She doesn't notice me or the gun.
One quick shot and she's gone, paint hole in the forehead and brains on the wall just like spaghetti and the crying's over and all that's left is gunpowder burn and cleanup calls.
But I don't fire.
Instead, I holster my Grange and walk out the door, leaving them to their crying and their grime and their lives.
It's raining again, outside. Thick ropes of water spout off the eaves and spatter the ground. All around me the jungle seethes with the chatter of monkeys. I pull up my collar and resettle my hat. Behind me, I can barely hear the crying anymore.
Maybe they'll make it. Anything is possible. Maybe the kid will make it to eighteen, get some black market rejoo and live to be a hundred and fifty. More likely, in six months, or a year, or two years, or ten, a cop will bust down the door and pop the kid. But it won't be me.
I run for my cruiser, splashing through mud and vines and wet. And for the first time in a long time, the rain feels new.
by James Morrow.
James Morrow is the author of the G.o.dhead trilogy and seven other novels, including the World Fantasy Award-winning Only Begotten Daughter, This is the Way the World Ends, The Last Witchfinder, and The Philosopher's Apprentice. His novella Shambling Toward Hiroshima was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, and won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His short fiction-which has appeared The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and in many anthologies-has been collected in Bible Stories for Adults and The Cat's Pajamas & Other Stories.
Once a year, a person gets to celebrate a birthday. For children, it's the best day of the year. For most adults, it's something to pretend to forget or to celebrate with a quiet dinner out. After all, a birthday only means another year tacked on to an already large number. But no matter how old you are, a birthday is special because it marks the most important instance in a person's life: the moment of their birth.
In our next story, a birthday is hardly anything to celebrate. Life is as rainy and drear as the climate. The United States has been fragmented into a constellation of reefs and islands, the rest swallowed up by the rising oceans. And a new kind of church has mandated that the lives of those already born are less important than the lives of those who are as yet unconceived.
Here is a place overflowing with babies, packed with pregnant women, smothered by the stench of dripping diapers. It's a world where a menopausal woman might be put to death and an infertile baby drowned, because those who can't procreate are without value.
Father Cornelius Dennis Monaghan of Charlestown Parish, Connie to his friends, sets down the Styrofoam chalice, turns from the corrugated cardboard altar, and approaches the two young women standing by the resin baptismal font. The font is six-sided and encrusted with saints, like a gigantic hex nut forged for some obscure yet holy purpose, but its most impressive feature is its portability. Hardly a month pa.s.ses in which Connie doesn't drive the vessel across town, bear it into some wretched hovel, and confer immortality on a newborn whose parents have grown too feeble to leave home.
"Merribell, right?" asks Connie, pointing to the baby on his left.
Wedged in the crook of her mother's arm, the infant wriggles and howls. "No-Madeleine," Angela mumbles. Connie has known Angela Dunfey all her life, and he still remembers the seraphic glow that beamed from her face when she first received the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Today she boasts no such glow. Her cheeks and brow appear tarnished, like iron corroded by the Greenhouse Deluge, and her spine curls with a torsion more commonly seen in women three times her age. "Merribell's over here. " Angela raises her free hand and gestures toward her cousin Lorna, who is balancing Madeleine's twin sister atop her gravid belly. Will Lorna Dunfey, Connie wonders, also give birth to twins? the phenomenon, he has heard, runs in families.
Touching the sleeve of Angela's frayed blue sweater, the priest addresses her in a voice that travels clear across the nave. "Have these children received the Sacrament of Reproductive Potential a.s.sessment?"
The parishioner shifts a nugget of chewing gum from her left cheek to her right. "Y-yes," she says at last.
Henry Shaw, the pale altar boy, his face abloom with acne, hands the priest a parchment sheet stamped with the Seal of the Boston Isle Archdiocese. A pair of signatures adorns the margin, verifying that two ecclesiastical representatives have legitimized the birth. Connie instantly recognizes the illegible hand of Archbishop Xallibos. Below lie the bold loops and a.s.sured serifs of a Friar James Wolfe, M. D. , doubtless the man who drew the blood.
Madeleine Dunfey, Connie reads. Left ovary: 315 primordial follicles. Right ovary: 340 primordial follicles. A spasm of despair pa.s.ses through the priest. The egg-cell count for each organ should be 180, 000 at least. It's a verdict of infertility, no possible appeal, no imaginable reprieve.
With an efficiency bordering on effrontery, Henry Shaw offers Connie a second parchment sheet.
Merribell Dunfey. Left ovary: 290 primordial follicles. Right ovary: 310 primordial follicles. The priest is not surprised. What sense would there be in G.o.d's withholding the power of procreation from one twin but not the other? Connie now needs only to receive these barren sisters, apply the sacred rites, and furtively pray that the Eighth Lateran Council was indeed guided by the Holy Spirit when it undertook to bring the baptismal process into the age of testable destinies and ovarian surveillance.
He holds out his hands, withered palms up, a posture he maintains as Angela surrenders Madeleine, reaches under the baby's christening gown, and unhooks both diaper pins. The mossy odor of fresh urine wafts into the Church of the Immediate Conception. Sighing profoundly, Angela hands the sopping diaper to her cousin.
"Bless these waters, O Lord," says Connie, spotting his ancient face in the consecrated fluid, "that they might grant these sinners the gift of life everlasting. " Turning from the vessel, he presents Madeleine to his ragged flock, over three hundred natural-born Catholics-sixth-generation Irish, mostly, plus a smattering of Portuguese, Italians, and Croats-interspersed with two dozen recent converts of Korean and Vietnamese extraction: a congregation bound together, he'll admit, not so much by religious conviction as by shared dest.i.tution. "Dearly beloved, forasmuch as all humans enter the world in a state of depravity, and forasmuch as they cannot know the grace of our Lord except they be born anew of water, I beseech you to call upon G.o.d the Father that, through these baptisms, Madeleine and Merribell Dunfey may gain the divine kingdom. " Connie faces his trembling parishioner. "Angela Dunfey, do you believe, by G.o.d's word, that children who are baptized, dying before they commit any actual evil, will be saved?"
Her "Yes" is begrudging and clipped.