The stone was white and sharp and to Janie, it stood out on the black road like a shout. “A pebble,” Celia would have protested. But Celia wasn’t there to roll her eyes and cross her arms as Janie squatted, one pink sneaker smack dab over each yellow line, to retrieve it. Celia was at the lab, and Janie, despite her detour, would still be early picking her up. Celia never said as much, but Janie could tell, by the small compression in her girlfriend’s shoulders as she spotted Janie’s Civic in the parking lot, that Celia would prefer Janie to be late. Ten minutes late, or fifteen – enough to scrub away the day’s minutiae, to pluck from the drain its one interesting moment, a cell that had made overtures to a long-sworn enemy, a single line that went down, instead of flat, or up.
If Janie left the house at 5:50, and took the backroads, South Street to Dover Road instead of the doublewide banality of 16, she would, in all probability, arrive at Celia’s lab at 6:10, when Celia would be scanning for her headlights with something approaching eagerness. But the backroads were full of stones and sticks and the occasional whipping plastic bag; the last time Janie had taken them she pulled into the lab at 6:23, and Celia had gone past eager and back to annoyed.
A car honked into Janie’s thoughts of early versus late, of ways to kill five minutes: picking up a Coolatta she didn’t want, didn’t really want, definitely didn’t need, or placing an order at Prince of Siam, or stopping at the college campus and walking down to its reservoir, sure to be resplendent with sunset and geese. The car honked again and Janie dropped the stone. She found that she was no longer in the middle of the road, but the curve of her abdomen swayed over the white line, forcing the honking car, a Range Rover, to swerve to avoid her. A blond head stuck out the passenger window, and a child’s voice shrieked at Janie to get out of the road. The voice was gleeful over this unexpected exception to the no-yelling rule, but, still, tears flecked Janie’s eyes. If only the car’s occupants had known the truth, which was that Janie, in grabbing the stone, had possibly saved their lives. But of course they couldn’t have known such a thing. And anyways, Janie could hear Celia saying, Range Rovers are safari cars, designed to crunch right over the obstacles Janie was so hell-bent on removing.
“You’re always helping people who don’t need help,” Celia had said, recently, at the end of a story involving Janie’s removal from a walking path a large, slobbery stick that just so happened to belong to the approaching runner’s fervid Labrador retriever.
“And you’re never helping people who do,” is what Janie had wanted to say, in response. Not so long ago, the retort would have been an accurate, if cruel. Celia had spent most of her first two years out of grad school shadowing various admirable entomologists for scant to no remuneration. That Celia had specifically sought out these types of arrangements, at one point turning down an offer of fifty-two thousand a year to study the mating habits of Japanese beetles in order to accept an offer of zero dollars a year to study the mating habits of Mongolian scavenger beetles, had struck twenty-six year-old Janie as some combination of moronic, selfish, and naive. But, by twenty-eight, Janie had come to understand that Celia was “principled,” she was “utterly committed to the work,” she “did not want to be fettered to the obligations a salary begets.” (Celia really spoke like this: 90% non-profiteer earnestness; 10% Shakespearean flourish.) Acknowledging anything to the contrary would have only further driven in the stakes of Celia’s suspicion that Janie was, at her core, nothing but a troglodyte.
At any rate, now that Celia was applying her wide – if not deep – knowledge of insect mating practices to the realm of human fertility, Janie’s yin-yang retort no longer held true. Celia was even collecting a steady and not insignificant paycheck for her good works, which was more than Janie could say.
Janie got back into her car. The Range Rover’s honk, the child’s shrill admonishment, still reverberated in the space around her, and Janie turned the radio up to drown them out. Newsies was in full swing, and though there were no witnesses, Janie blushed. For reasons unknown to Janie, the college radio station she usually listened to, plumbing it for upcoming shows featuring Celia-friendly unknown bands, had decided that Thursday evenings were reserved for continuous show tunes. Janie’s dead brother, Clayton, had starred in all the high school musicals, but even without that painful association, Janie believed she would have eschewed the genre. There was no pathos in Pippen, no angst in The Whiz. Even the hooks were made of spun sugar, easily snapped and liable to induce headaches.
Still blushing, Janie stabbed at the second preset, a station Celia dubbed Pepper Jam Live, for its over-reliance on tracks from those three demi-gods of late-90’s alt-rock. “The angel opens her eyes / damn those colored eyes,” Janie bellowed, as she turned the key. She had once wondered aloud to Celia about that line – what was wrong with colored eyes? Wouldn’t it have been stranger if the angel’s eyes were black and white? Or was the lead singer merely extolling his appreciation of those eyes, via a comma Janie couldn’t hear?
“It’s ‘pale blue covered eyes,’” Celia had said, definitively.
“I can feel it, turning back again,” Janie sang, now, as she put her blinker on. The lyric was punctuated by a loud, sickening crunch of metal on metal and a series of squeals that might have come from Janie herself. Janie’s head thwacked the steering wheel, while the rest of her unbelted body flipped over the wheel and onto the dashboard. Miraculously, the windshield held firm. (Or maybe not miraculously; it was Celia who remembered the rudiments of physics.) There was a fiery pain in Janie’s neck. The child in her belly was still, or else Janie was in too much shock to feel him.
When Janie’s brother died, the other kid in the car, a dancer named Tara, or else Tina, had flown through the windshield and wound up on the median some twenty feet from the accident. At the funeral, two days after the accident, Tara, or else Tina, had walked through the church doors unassisted. Her body knew to make itself limp, Janie’s father murmured, adding, with a soft shake of his head, “athletes.” Too late, Janie tried to limp her own body, in its snail-like ball.
Soon, Janie heard the comforting skirl of sirens. Her car, for a moment so silent, became a tumult of noise. A man’s voice, harsh and, to Janie’s ears, impatient, told Janie to blink if she could hear him. But Janie didn’t want to open her eyes – damn those colored eyes! – and nodded, instead, which the man didn’t like. “Ma’am, don’t move,” he ordered, like the accident was her fault.
More doors were cranked and pulled open. More noise – beeper static and the swoosh of fire-retardant overalls. The same man reminded Janie to stay as still as possible. “Stay in that ball you’ve got there,” another man added. The new man’s voice was warmer, thickly Boston-Irish. Under Janie’s still-closed eyes, the new man was the firefighter; his harsh partner, the cop. As the men lifted her, she became aware that her dress was snaggled around her upper half; but for her underwear, she was naked from armpit down.
The cop and firefighter did not comment on this; they were telling her this is a baseboard; it’ll keep you steady. We’re lying you down now; scream if it hurts.
“My neck,” she whispered.
“We won’t touch your neck,” the firefighter promised. But Janie wanted him to touch it.
There must have been four or five men in all, and Janie listened to them plan out her movements, one two three onto the stretcher, heave and up into the cab. Blood pressure, heartbeat, ma’am, we’re going to give you something for the pain.
That was when Janie should have brought up the baby, but wasn’t he obvious? Janie felt a brief prick of a needle in her lower arm and then she was flooded with beautiful cozy bliss.
(Janie loved drugs and hadn’t touched them since the night, eight months ago, when their fertility doctor called with the blood test results. The researchers at Celia’s second lab, out in Martinsburg, were notorious for their Mad Hatter Midnights, parties where goody bags of tabs and pills were handed out at the entrance and costumes were strictly enforced. Celia insisted the Mad Hatters had nothing to do with her wanting that particular non-job, but she hadn’t skipped one during the six months she worked there. At first, Janie had wanted to disapprove, but the two times Celia had invited her along had been magical. Under the flush of E, Janie’s innate curiosity beat out her accumulated shyness; she fell into long, starry-eyed conversations and came away with facts and anecdotes that served as ballasts in the faded days that followed. Armory had been born with the name “Resolved,” after some pilgrim Armory’s mom swore a kinship to. Dwayne’s brother had by chance come upon an open-air concert by the great violinist Yo-Yo Ma and decided right on the spot to become a violinist himself, even though he was already sixteen at the time and had never picked up an instrument other than the recorder. And did Celia know that Noah’s parents had met on a long-haul flight to Hong Kong? That they had skipped the equities conference and second cousin’s wedding that respectively awaited them to wander the hot jungle of streets together, hand in hand? Celia had smiled, then, and taken Janie’s soft hand in her own fine-boned one. “You surprise me,” she’d said, and had kissed Janie on the forehead, like a child.)
In the ambulance, Janie opened her eyes, no longer afraid. She beamed at the cop who was actually an EMT and flapped her fingers toward her stomach.
“My baby,” she whispered.
“We’re going to get the heartbeat now, ma’am,” the EMT told her.
Janie wanted to say “you don’t have to,” because she knew her baby, her little miracle boy, was swimming unperturbed in his watery cave.
“No,” she breathed. But the EMT laid a stethoscope on her bare belly, listened intently.
The baby had, improbably, been Celia’s idea.