By Kenny Kelly
Pepper, the class hamster, gave birth to three babies the morning before June arrived. My fourth graders had just learned the different ways baby animals are born, so when they saw the naked, little things like chewed pieces of bubblegum squirming in the sawdust, they accused me of being a liar. “Mr. Brooks,” they said, “you told us a girl and a boy were needed to make babies.” I tried to think of some explanation—another male hamster snuck into the class and impregnated Pepper or she was already pregnant when I got her from the pet store five weeks prior. Neither seemed likely since I’ve never seen a rogue dwarf hamster and the typical gestation period is twenty-one days according to the internet. But it was certainly more likely than a virgin birth, because God doesn’t exist and even if s/he did, why hamsters?
I drove home still thinking of improbable hamsters. When I walked in, Kim complained about an upset stomach and something that felt like menstrual cramps. We didn’t think they were contractions because she wasn’t due for another ten weeks, but they didn’t stop and then her water broke. Neither of us were ready and something had to be wrong.
The labor was quick; a doctor said she was so small she could fit in his front pocket. Kim didn’t appreciate that. She told him, “Don’t you dare say that. She’s perfect.” But the doctors thought otherwise. They explained that babies born before thirty-six weeks hadn’t yet developed their lungs, so she’d have to go on life support. Kim never had a chance to hold her before they took her away.
It felt wrong for her to be suffering without a name. We had narrowed it down to Miranda, Beth, and June. The plan was to meet her first and hope that she felt like one of them. We settled on June, a prayer that she would make it that long.
Throughout the day, doctors and nurses came by and told us they would give us any updates on June’s condition as soon as they had them. We spent the day reading through medical pages and forum posts on underweight births. The only consensus was there was no way to explain the premature birth. Kim didn’t do drugs, she didn’t smoke, she didn’t have diabetes, we weren’t having twins, she had never been punched let alone gone through a life of abuse. Kim found a Christian mom blog saying that mixed-race babies were more at risk, but we couldn’t believe our baby was in trouble because I wasn’t Japanese. The pages all gave varying odds of survival and what did it matter if she had a ten, fifty, or ninety percent chance of survival? She was either going to live or die.
Kim eventually blamed herself for June coming early. She said it was that glass of wine around Christmas or that she worked out too much or not enough or it was that she slept on her stomach before she really started to show.
It wasn’t often that I found myself wishing I were a more religious man, but while I sat in that hospital room, I wanted something I could pray on. Just that morning, I had been talking to Krystina about my lack of faith or lack thereof. It had been fifteen years since my mother told me I didn’t have to attend church if I didn’t want to and I hadn’t been since. Krystina isn’t religious exactly, but she’s Armenian and miracles are a part of her history. She doesn’t clutch crystals to her chest or anything, but she believes in a higher power. One that’s there to protect us and enforce a kind of justice.
Krystina took over art class when Mrs. Kowalski went on maternity leave. We both had our prep third period, so we met in the teacher’s lounge and I’d give her updates on my own wife’s pregnancy. I showed her the picture of our first ultrasound and pointed out where my daughter’s feet kicked and her head bobbed. I had her listen to an .mp3 of my daughter’s heartbeat and she said, “My god, it’s going so fast.
In turn, she would tell me things about Armenia, like how one day during the summer everyone—and I mean everyone—got in a water-fight called Vardavar. Old women dumped water on little boys, grown men shot each other with super-soakers, little girls threw water balloons from rooftops at passersby, and no one got mad at each other.
She mostly told me old Armenian folk tales. “Armenians,” she said, “are indefatigable. We’ve been invaded more times than we can count. Yet we’re still here.” There was a village besieged by invaders and the mothers of the village sacrificed themselves to save their children. The kids were safe, but they now had no one to take care of them, no one to feed them. The next day, the fountain in the middle of town erupted not water, but milk. She told me of a doctor who was locked away in a dungeon and forgotten about, left to rot fourteen years with no food. Then the king fell ill, and no one knew how to cure him, so someone went down to the dungeon and found the doctor there, still alive and well. He cured the king and earned his freedom.
She didn’t preface these stories with, “So the story goes,” or “Legend says.” She told them simply and factually, as if she were telling the story of Paul Revere’s midnight ride or Washington crossing the Delaware. She told them as if they were true and for a while I started to believe her.
When I showed Krystina my daughter’s second ultrasound, she said, “You are a very lucky man.” But she didn’t know that I lost a football scholarship to Cal State when I broke my leg senior year. She didn’t know that I made it onto the waiting lists for three Ph.D. programs but didn’t make it into any of them. She didn’t know that I lost my father to cancer when I was fourteen; he was just thirty-nine. She didn’t know that the reason she would be talking to another substitute the next day wasn’t that I was out with the flu.
I never told Krystina those things anymore. I was sick of opening up because every time I did, my friend or girlfriend’s face would turn sad and serious. I could tell they pitied me. I didn’t tell them so they could pity me. Pity didn’t help me heal. I didn’t even tell Kim about my father until we had been dating for six months. Kim never knew her father, so the topic never came up.
I hadn’t told the school the real reason I had to take off. It would be easier to explain once we knew the outcome, and if everything worked out, they would just be happy for me.
Sometime after midnight and neither of us speaking for a while, Kim said, “I want to see her.”
“The nurse told us to stay here. We can’t see her until the morning.”
“What do they expect us to do until then?”
“I don’t want to sleep.”
“I know. Neither do I.”
When I met Kim, she was certain that she’d never have children. She was twenty-one then and I figured what twenty-one-year old doesn’t feel that way. But Kim’s mother was an alcoholic and spent every spare dime from her paychecks at the liquor store. Since she had no example of motherhood, how could she be one herself? But then my sister had twins and Kim became the favorite aunt. Slowly, Kim started to believe that she could be the mother she never had.
Kim stared at her phone, reading the same WebMD pages she had read twenty times already until she abruptly set it in her lap and said, “Jeremy, when she dies, you have to promise not to leave me.”
“You need to get some sleep.”
“Promise me. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve read today saying that the death of a first child ruined the parents’ marriage.”
“I’m not going to leave you.”
“Yes.” I took her hand in both of mine and gently twisted her ring around her finger.
“Don’t you want me to promise not to leave you?” she said.
“You’re not going to do that.”
“How do you know? What if I can’t bear to look at you because your face reminds me of June?”
“I just know.”
“You have too much faith in me. I can’t even keep a baby alive, why would you want to be with me?”
“That’s not true. Get some sleep.”
“I can’t sleep.”
I leaned my head against the wall behind me and closed my eyes. Eventually my mind quieted enough for me to fall asleep.
That night I dreamt about another of Krystina’s miracles. I stood before the locked, wooden door of a medieval church with June in my arms. Clear, plastic tubes hooked into her, shooting air into her tiny lungs just to rip it back out again. Something rough and cold scraped against my abdomen. Carefully shifting June into one hand, I lifted my shirt with the other. From my waistband grew a rusted skeleton key, which I slipped out and into the lock above the door handle, but it wouldn’t turn. June’s mouth hung open and a respirator tube fell from it. Instead of reinserting the tube, I put the key into her mouth and turned, the motion feeling as natural as opening my front door. June opened her eyes and giggled. Her chest rose and fell with heavy breaths. She had her mother’s brown eyes.
When I awoke, June, the key, the church, everything was gone, replaced with the medical beige and cream walls of the hospital. I sat up, my neck aching from sitting in the chair all night, and carefully turned my head toward Kim. Her phone rested in her hand. She must have fallen asleep scrolling through self-diagnosis sites and Yahoo answers. If she were awake, I’d tell her about my dream because maybe she would feel some of the serenity and relief I felt when I held my smiling, breathing daughter in my arms.
I figured I should call my mother, even if nothing had changed since I spoke to her last afternoon. My phone’s battery had run out in the night, so I would have to go downstairs. I kissed Kim on the forehead, careful not to wake her, but her eyes opened anyway. “I’m going to call mom,” I said, “I’ll be back soon.”
“Okay,” she said, “hurry back.” She turned onto her side and, I went out of the room and tried to retrace my steps through the labyrinthine halls back to the front desk to call my mother, but I took a wrong turn somewhere and wound up in hospice care. I peeked inside a room with its door ajar. Inside, I saw a dying old man stiff and vulture-like with his mouth hanging open. Beside him, a man perhaps ten years older than mes, slept in a chair. I hated him. I knew nothing about him other than his father had lived twice as long as my own and his first child wasn’t dying. I watched the two of them sleep before a nurse turned me around and sent me downstairs.
I called my mother, but the call went to voicemail. I left a message saying I would try again later. On my way back, I came to a corner window looking over the visitor’s entrance; the building was arranged in a U-shape and I was at one of its tips. A fountain sat in the center of the walkway, and its waters ran clear like glass. From the bottom, a thousand dull, copper eyes winked at me from the wishes of strangers.
I got back to our room and Kim was sitting up in bed, wide awake, chewing on her nails.
“What did your mom say?”
“She didn’t answer. Ready to see June?”
She didn’t say anything, she just threw the sheets off herself and led me out.
June was kept in another wing of the hospital on a respirator. Tubes covered her unfathomably small body. We said hello though she couldn’t hear us beyond the glass even if she were awake. The doctor said that the longer she stayed alive, the better her chances of survival were. The thought was enough for my own hope to increase ever so slightly with each passing hour we watched the machine breathe for her. Finally, Kim said, “She’ll never remember this.”
She was right. No matter what happened, June would never remember being inches away from death. I suppose she was lucky in that way. When she was grown, she would be just as healthy as anyone else. If she didn’t make it, she would have no way of knowing how unfair life had been to her.
“We need to remember this when she’s sixteen and we catch her smoking pot in her room or making out with some shithead boy and we tell her not to do those things even though we both did those things—but shithead girls in your case. When she says something dramatic like ‘I wish you were both dead’ or ‘You have no idea what my life is like,’ and we feel like strangling her, we need to remember exactly how lucky we are to have someone we want to strangle.”
I laughed, but I don’t think Kim meant it as a joke to lighten the mood.
“She’ll never even appreciate this. Not until she’s, like, twenty and she reads that Raymond Carver story where the kid gets hit by a car and the baker makes the parents some muffins or something. Then she’ll remember us telling her how she almost died and she’ll think about us in the hospital, teary-eyed, chewing on muffins. Then she’ll get so sad, and she’ll call me from college and want to apologize for being such a shit, but she won’t actually say I’m sorry for being a shit. But I’ll know.” Then she was silent for a moment before saying, “I could really go for a muffin.”
“I can go get you one.”
“No, you stay here.”
“But if you want one—”
“I would rather have you here and if you’re here, you can’t get a muffin.”
The next day passed by uneventfully, which was good news. Kim’s phone had also died: we hadn’t packed a go-bag since we thought we had at least two more months. She sent me home to pick up her charger, her laptop, and our toothbrushes. She also told me to stop by the store and pick up muffins for the morning since I would be out anyway.
I stepped outside the hospital for the first time since June came and the sky burned a twilight orange. From the fountain, an opaque liquid sprang forth. I stepped closer, and the clean fragrance of milk hit my nose. I dipped my hands into the fountain and let it run thick and heavy through my fingertips. I scooped another handful and brought it to my mouth. It was undeniably milk and, my god, was it delicious. I wanted nothing more than to stay by this pool and grow fat off the endless milk and live in that present forever. But soon the sky darkened and the streetlights came on. The spell was broken; the milk turned back to water.
I got home and everything was deathly still. I didn’t turn on any lights for fear of disturbing the semblance of peace. I grabbed the things Kim told me to get and a few more things just in case. As I went down the hall, I didn’t dare enter the room we had set up for June. The door hung open and out the corner of my eye, I saw the diaper changing table, still in its box, unassembled, leaning against the wall. For a half-second, I thought of the hassle of having to return or sell that stuff before I pushed the thought out of my brain.
With everything I needed, I got back into the car and drove to Safeway to pick up the muffins. I grabbed a clamshell of four banana nut muffins and one of those flask-sized bottles of Jack Daniels and headed to the front. There were only two lanes open since it was late in the evening and both lines bled into the aisles behind them. I contemplated dropping the whiskey so I could go through the self-checkout, but I knew I wouldn’t make it through the night without it. I got in line behind an elderly woman with a basket full of cat food, when I heard a familiar voice behind me.
I turned and Krystina stood behind me holding a basket of vegetables and meats. She wore a denim jacket and her hair was down. I felt a little how one of my own students would have felt if they saw me outside of school.
“I heard you were sick.”
I might have told her the truth if we were alone in the teacher’s lounge, but I couldn’t tell her there in the supermarket, lest the woman with the cat food overhear me.
“You caught me,” I said. “I had to use my sick days sometime.” I hoped that she didn’t know I had no sick days and like her, I was paid per diem.
“Your class misses you. Ryder came up to me in art today and said, ‘Mr. Brooks needs to come back. Mr. C doesn’t know how to take care of Pepper.’ Oh, and I hear Pepper is a mother now. Congrats.”
“Thanks, though I don’t know if I should be taking credit for it. Honestly, I have no idea how it happened.”
“Has Ryder taken her home in the past couple weeks? His family just got some hamsters.”
She nodded. “He has a white male hamster named Salt.”
“He took Pepper home about three weekends ago. That explains it then. You know, I’m a little disappointed. I was almost starting to believe the immaculate conception theory. I think maybe it was all those stories you’ve told me.”
“Sorry, Jeremy. They’re just stories.”
I nodded and faked a laugh. The woman ahead of me stacked her cat food into two shaky towers.
Krystina continued, “I don’t think anyone aside from my grandmother believes them. But her parents lived through the genocide. That they survived is its own miracle.”
I wanted to tell her about the fountain outside the hospital, how it, too, turned to milk, but I knew she wouldn’t believe me. I hardly believed myself and I had tasted it.
I paid for my things and said goodbye to Krystina. Inside my car, I unscrewed the cap to the whiskey in my lap. I looked around to make sure no one could see and I took a long, painful swig. My body shuddered as I sat the whiskey in the passenger seat like a friend because in that moment, it was.
I threw the car in reverse and my phone vibrated, sending a shiver of fear through me. There was a message from an unknown number reading: Its Kim please come back.
I didn’t know what it meant but I felt my skin tighten with dread. I texted her back saying OMW and she sent no response. My tires screamed out of the parking lot. The roads were empty, so I filled them with the tired roar of my engine. The light turned yellow so I floored it. The light turned red just before I hit the crosswalk and halfway down the block, flashing blues and reds filled my rear view.
I pulled over and soon the officer came to my door and asked, “What’s the rush?”
I could have strangled him, but instead I told him in measured words that my newborn child was on life support and my wife had told me to come back as soon as possible and if that meant that I had to break a few traffic laws then so be it.
Something in his face softened and I could tell he was contemplating letting me go, but then he spotted the whiskey laying in plain sight on the seat next to me.
“Can you hand that to me?”
I obeyed and he saw the broken seal of the cap, the inch missing from the top. I started to cry because I knew I wouldn’t be seeing June that night and possibly ever again.
“What’s your wife’s number? I’m going to call her and see what’s going on.”
“Her phone’s dead. She texted me from someone else’s phone.” I showed him the number and he called it. I heard the line ringing on the other end. It sounded like it was coming from somewhere distant and unreachable. The call went to voicemail and the officer hung up. He sighed and looked back at his cruiser for a long while.
“I want to let you go, but speeding, running a red, an open container, and drinking and driving. You haven’t left me any choice.”
I used my phone call to notify the hospital where I was, but I couldn’t talk to Kim. I was released in the morning and I took a cab to the hospital. Inside, it seemed that no one would make eye contact with me. I got the sense that they knew something I didn’t. I don’t remember the walk up to our room, only that it was long. Kim lay curled on top of the sheets, her knees pressed to her chest, her whole body shaking. She didn’t have to say anything.
We had a small funeral, only close families and friends, those who would have known June as she grew into a woman. My mother flew out and cooked for Kim and me for a week before I went back to school. I did nothing but show movies and pass out worksheets for another month.
We kept the door to June’s bedroom closed for three months until we found out one of our friends was pregnant. We told her husband the crib and clothes and everything was all theirs, they just needed to come pick it up. We weren’t going to try again. Kim took it as a sign that she wasn’t supposed to be a mother after all.
After Mrs. Kowalski came back with her phone full of baby pictures, I only saw Krystina occasionally. Even she frowned when she saw me, if only slightly. She never told me about any other miracles. Either she didn’t know any more or she thought that I wouldn’t want to hear them.
A couple years passed like kidney stones. Then Kim said she was late again, but she would take care of it. I drove us to the clinic. Halfway there, a cat bounded into the street. I thought there was no way it would run straight for the car so I didn’t stop or swerve. I heard the back tire clip it and I hit the brakes. Kim looked up and asked what the hell happened. I turned around in my seat and the cat lay in the middle of the road, still and presumably dead. Kim buried her head in her hands and I got out of the car. The cat didn’t move as I walked toward it. There was no blood on the pavement, but I didn’t see it breathe. I was certain I had killed it. I knelt beside it and stared at it, waiting to see its little chest move, afraid to touch it and know the truth until Kim came and stood beside me. “Is it okay?” she asked.
I put a hand on its body and felt for signs of life, but I found none. Then Kim placed her hand on it, too, and the cat’s yellow eyes opened. It stretched as if waking up from a nap in a spot of sun. It got up and sat, its tail swishing playfully, as if nothing at all were wrong. I picked it up carefully and placed it in my lap. Kim scratched its head and the cat licked the back of my hand, then Kim’s, its rough tongue cleaning us.
Kenny Kelly received his MFA from Columbia College Chicago, and he is a co-editor of Wiki Lit. His stories have appeared in Joyland Magazine, Berkeley Fiction Review, Toad Suck Review, and elsewhere.