Clara slipped her feet into the stirrups, knees spread. Naked from the waist down, she felt the chill of the sterile room beneath the thin gown as the technologist handed her the wand, properly lubricated, and told her to guide it between her legs. The silent vision appeared, and out of the darkness materialized the uproar of the womb.
“There,” the tech said, pointing with one hand. The other was occupied beneath the fabric, turning the transducer as one might a key in a lock.
Clara squinted her eyes. The screen displayed a shifting fog which looked to be the churning of a storm.
“Where?” It was hard to focus with the discomfort below.
“Just there.” This time the tech merely gestured to the screen with a nod of her head and continued her work, rotating the wand while moving her cursor here and there, drawing short lines through faint shapes.
Clara caught sight of what she was meant to see–a dark blot in the chaos–before the cyclone closed over it.
Periodically the screen paused and the machine emitted a dual tone chime. The printer groaned. Clara assumed these were the pictures the consulting physician had mentioned. Though she had no interest in them, the surgeon wanted to review the images before determining whether or not she was viable for the procedure.
She was ready with the next chime. For a few moments, the wand was in the perfect position and the picture was still enough to make out the black spot more clearly. It had revealed itself the way satellite images expose the eyes of storms.
“See the fluttering within the gestational sac?”
At the edge of the calm there was some movement. She thought it looked like the beacon blink of a lighthouse in a storm, or else the flash of lightning at some dark horizon. Only quicker, more urgent.
“That’s the cardiac activity,” the tech said. “I’m taking a measurement now.”
Clara didn’t know what to say. She could feel the length of the wand inside, but found it difficult to connect herself with what the machine displayed. From this speechless elevation, she was not a girl in trouble. She was a god.
“126,” the tech said. “Normal. From the size, I’d say you’re just shy of six weeks in gestation. That would put the maturity date at August 18th.”
August 18th. It would be the two year anniversary of their first date. Owen would call it a sign, and it would be just like him to be so foolish and romantic. He said he wanted to keep it, telling her he would give up his basketball scholarship and pick up extra shifts at the auto shop. They could get married once she finished school. In the meantime his mom could help look after the baby. She hadn’t told him about the ultrasound or the center. He would have wanted to come. He would have fallen in love with that siren pulse.
“All set.” The tech slid the wand from beneath the sheet, removed the probe cover, and pushed the machine into a recessed cubby within the far wall.
“I’m going to take these over to the surgeon now,” she said, shuffling the pictures. “She’ll be in momentarily after she’s had a chance to review your file.”
The doctor returned within a matter of minutes. She was a willowy woman, tall and composed. Everything about her, from the press of her scrubs to the tidy bun at her nape, conveyed a confidence bordering on indifference.
“Everything looks to be in order,” she said, looking not at Clara but at her file. “If it suits, we can begin.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize–”
“As I’m sure you’ve been told, the procedure is non-invasive,” she went on. “You’ll need to rest after, but you can resume normal activity within a day or two. Any questions?”
Clara shook her head.
The surgeon stepped out of the room. In her place, two nurses entered, masked and dressed in blue surgical garb. One rolled a tray of instruments from the adjacent wall to Clara’s side while the other suspended an IV bag from its stand.
When the surgeon returned it was with her hands scrubbed and held aloft to dry. The last thing Clara remembered before slipping under were the nurse’s words and the fading clink and glint of metal.
“Only a prick, dear.”
“We need to talk,” Owen said.
He was waiting by her locker at the end of seventh period. The final bell of the day had flooded the hallways. Students jostled books into bags and slammed locker doors. It was Friday, the last school day before the winter break, and everyone was anxious to get as far away from school as possible.
He had leaned in, fencing her in with his arm, pressing her back to the cool metal. For a moment she thought of the chill of the operating room. Then she felt the warmth of his body, smelled the musk of his body spray, and thought about what had brought her to that room in the first place.
“Hi to you, too.”
“Clara.” Sometimes the tone he used made her feel like a little girl.
“Can we not? I’m tired.”
“Have you thought about what I said?”
She rolled her eyes.
“You don’t think I’m serious?” He felt into his pocket and pulled out a ring, picking a stray bit of lint from the setting before holding it out to her. “I was going to wait until Christmas, but…I know it’s not much, but it’s all I could afford.”
“What are you doing?” she hissed. “We’re at school.”
“I love you, Clara Marie.”
“Don’t. Please. Not now.”
“Then let’s go someplace, figure stuff out.”
“You can’t keep running away. Eventually we’re going to have to talk about this.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” she said, looking away.
“We’re in this together. You know you can trust me.”
“I said there’s nothing to talk about.” She had wanted to sound strong, but her voice tripped over the words.
“I told you I couldn’t do this.”
He recoiled, and even though there existed no physical bump between them, she recognized the new distance. The technologist had measured it in mere millimeters, but it was clear now how quickly that space was growing, dividing two people.
“Without telling me?”
“I’m telling you now.” She tried to take his hand, but he pulled away. “Come on,” she said. “Don’t be like that.”
“No,” he said. “You don’t get to act like you did nothing wrong. You knew I wanted–so you didn’t even–forget it. It’s pointless trying to talk to you.”
“It’s better this way,” she said. “Eventually you’ll realize that and we can go back to the way things were.”
He was reaching for his backpack as she spoke, hoisting it to his shoulder from where he had dropped it at his feet. He had closed his free hand over the ring, balling his fingers into a fist.
“Where?” he asked. It was a whisper, a hiss.
What was he thinking, that he could just storm in there and change what had been done? But that’s exactly how he would think. It was always Owen with a plan, Owen with the intricate dates and on-the-dot curfew drop-offs, with the lists and schedules and the five-year layout of their lives. Owen with a ring in his pocket. This was how he had been ever since his dad died the fall of her sophomore year.
“Does it matter? It’s done. Over.”
“Where?” he said, louder now. Bolder.
The few students that remained in the hallway were starting to stare, slowing their pace as they passed or lingering at open locker doors, pretending at fruitless searches while stealing glances at the couple.
“Keep your voice down,” she said.
“You think I care what people think.”
“Shut up and I’ll tell you.”
“This isn’t a game. I have a right to know.”
She had never seen him so angry. When he spoke, he looked through her, setting his gaze on some distant point as if he might be able to pin down the precise moment it had all gone wrong, when everything had spiraled out of control.
There, she wanted to say. We were in the backseat of your car and I wanted to but I wasn’t sure I was ready and you brushed the hair from my cheek. You said you loved me. Then you asked me if it hurt.
“Just calm down, okay?” she said.
“Don’t tell me to–”
“Everything alright here?” It was Mr. Martinez. He had stepped out into the hallway through the nearest classroom door.
“Yeah,” Owen said through gritted teeth.
“Fine,” Clara said.
Unsatisfied, Mr. Martinez fixed Owen with a glare and returned to his classroom.
Clara sighed. There was no use fighting. What was done was done. Not even Owen could change that. “The Osborn Center on Charleston,” she said.
Without a word, he turned from her and started down the hall. For a few minutes she waited, certain he would come back and apologize, but soon she was the only soul left in the hallway amidst the antiseptic gleam of tile and metal and fluorescent lights.
IT’S A WOMB NOT A LAB! read the sole protester’s sign. She was an older woman, pacing back and forth along the sidewalk in front of the Osborn Center, stabbing her message to the sky.
Owen watched her from the turning lane as he waited for a gap in traffic. A few cars honked as they passed but it was impossible to tell if this was in solidarity or outrage. He nodded to her when he finally turned into the parking lot. In return she eyed him suspiciously, then turned with the precision of a military guard and continued her patrol.
There was only one other person in the lobby when he entered: a woman with her face hidden behind a magazine. He found the atmosphere inside darker than he had expected, lit dimly with the warmth of table lamps and wall sconces. When he had gone online to find the address, the center’s website had convinced him he would be walking into a lab-white room lit with the cool burn of LEDs. The banner on the homepage proclaimed Pioneering research for a new generation! but the environment seemed more suited to a lawyer’s office than a research center.
“May I assist you?” The receptionist stood from her desk as he approached the window. She wore her hair in a sleek ponytail. Her clothes, like her hair, had been smoothed to perfection. He knew this was meant to convey professionalism, but the effect was cold and robotic.
“Yeah, my girlfriend was here. I don’t know when exactly but not that long ago. Her name is Clara Rodriguez.”
“I’m sorry, but we can’t divulge client information to third parties.”
“I’m not a third party. I’m the father.”
The receptionist said nothing to this, her expression unmoved.
“I don’t know what she told you, but I’m not okay with this. She didn’t even tell me and”–he struggled to find the words to make her understand–“and she didn’t have my consent.” Yes, consent. That was the root of it. Even at seventeen he knew the world to be a place of forms and signatures, and he was the father! He had rights!
“I’m sorry, Mr.–“
“Williams,” he offered.
“Mr. Williams,” she said plainly. “I’m sorry, but the law clearly states the woman has the right to choose a pre-maturation plan absent pressure from the putative father.”
“Putative father,” she said again, more slowly. “Seeing as you and the woman in question are not married, you may indeed be biologically connected to the contested tissue, but any rights you have would not come under review until after maturation which is not a consideration in this instance.”
“I don’t understand. I just want to see my kid.” Craning his neck, he tried to look around her, thinking he might be able to see something of note in the hallway beyond the office in which she worked. There was only a janitor of indeterminate sex, gray-haired and wrinkled, mopping the floor.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible. If you’d like I can provide you with information detailing how our extrauterine fetal incubation systems allow us to study development as it occurs and how this tissue is used in our extensive research, particularly its necessity in the eradication of degenerative diseases.”
She tried to hand him a pamphlet through the small cutout in the window, but he batted it away.
“I told you,” he said. “I want to see my kid.”
The woman in the lobby must have sensed the edging frustration in his voice because she dropped her magazine and made her way to the front door, pressing her phone against her ear even though it had made no chime.
The receptionist looked bored, as if this entire display were not only routine, but expected.
“Listen,” Owen said, opting for a softer approach. “I get that you’re just doing your job, but I’m not another stupid high schooler. I’ve been helping raise my little sister, and I have a job. I want to marry Clara and take care of our baby.” As proof, he pulled the ring from his pocket and set it on the counter between them. “Clara’s smart, but she can be impulsive. I don’t think she knew what she was doing.”
“I can assure you all our clients are given a full consultation and made aware of the process in its entirety before signing a contract.”
“But there are exceptions, right? You can make an exception.” He gestured to the ring with his open palm, as if laying down a winning hand in a high-stakes game of poker.
“I’m afraid not.”
“What if Clara changes her mind? What if she comes in and says she wants the baby?”
“If a client has signed a contract with us, she’s terminated her parental rights. It’s all here.” Again she tried to offer him the brochure. When he wouldn’t take it, she shrugged and pulled it away.
Once more he surveyed the room, understanding now the message the décor was meant to convey. Clara had signed a contract, and all the dark wood paneling of the lobby was a not-so-subtle nod to the severity of the people who would be enforcing those contracts.
“This isn’t right,” he said, stabbing his finger at her. “That’s our baby in there.”
“Embryo, Mr. Williams. Please understand the work we do here is extraordinarily important. Our clients provide us with an invaluable resource. It’s only through their selfless contributions that we are able to pioneer research for a new generation.”
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. How dare she stand there and parrot slogans to him? Couldn’t she understand that this had all been a mistake? He knew Clara better than anyone, didn’t he? And here this woman was trying to pretend like she understood their circumstances, like one consultation was enough to make a decision of this magnitude. Clara was sixteen. How could she even sign a contract?
“If there’s nothing else…” she started.
“Let me back there!” Owen pounded his fist on the counter, rattling the engagement ring.
“Sir, if you can’t be reasonable I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
He stood stunned for a moment, shocked by the force of his anger. He felt his face growing hot and forced himself to take a full breath. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to–please, I’ll do whatever you want” he said, his voice catching in his throat. “Just let me see my kid.”
As he spoke, he leaned forward, pressing his forehead to the cool glass. He realized only later that this is what he had always done in times of stress. Whether it was the backseat car window when he was younger or his bedroom window now, there was something about seeing the steady fog of his breath that calmed him.
To the receptionist this must have seemed the mark of desperation and desperate people were not to be treated casually. She stepped back and pursed her lips.
“I’m sorry,” he said, seeing her reaction. “But how would you feel?”
But he knew it was unlikely she could understand his position. He’d thought if he could be in constant control then nothing bad could ever happen again, that the reason his father had died was in part because he was a child who had assumed certain realties could stand without a scaffold of vigilance. Any fearful flier will know it requires wakefulness to keep a plane aloft, and he had only learned this truth after his own plane had crashed. If he could only see his child…
“Please,” he said, raising his voice.
The janitor looked up from the mop and made brief eye contact with Owen before returning to his work.
“Mr. Williams,” the receptionist said, sternly. “Leave now or I’ll have no choice but to call security.”
Owen went, torn between rage and embarrassment. After pocketing the ring, he staggered toward the door, feeling the weight of the receptionist’s eyes on his back as he fled the dark lobby and fell forward into the light. He caught himself before collapsing, his hands cupped around his knees as he bent forward and dry heaved.
As he walked to his car, the lone protester stopped her march and tracked him with a glare.
Clara had been promised confidentiality, but no one could protect her once the news spread. Someone from school had seen Owen sitting in his car in the parking lot of the Osborn Center over the winter break. The witness had made a quick U-turn and a creeping pass to confirm. Word was Owen had been there every day, sometimes staying in his car, or when the weather was good as it so often was in Vegas, sitting in the grass between the sidewalk and pavement, elbows to knees, staring vacantly into the distance. And just why was Owen there anyway? Given the couple’s relationship, the weight of that question wasn’t difficult to work out. Those who were unfamiliar with the center had only to nip online to invent all the intimate details.
While her classmates snickered to one another, Clara tried to work out why Owen was spending his time there. It didn’t make sense. What could he hope to achieve by hanging around the place? She thought to confront him, but though she’d made attempts to contact him during the break, all her texts and calls went unanswered. When school started up again, she would see him sulking in the hallways between classes but could never catch him after the final bell. On more than one occasion she’d elbowed her way out the door after AP English only to see the hump of his backpack as he rounded the corner toward the exit.
She had hoped ignoring the rumors would allow them time to fizzle out, but things only got worse as the days passed, as word spread throughout every corner of the school. When they couldn’t rile her with sneers and whispers, they started leaving messages on her locker in black Sharpie. They called her Dr. Frankenstein and used super glue to affix gummy eyeballs to her backpack when she wasn’t paying attention. Someone broke into her locker and left a plastic baby inside, stabbed like a voodoo doll with pins. The eyes had been blacked out, the mouth drawn to look like it was stitched.
She bore all this quietly until the administration called her into the office. They couldn’t understand she had collapsed so far into herself that the taunts came muffled, as though falling through fathoms of water. They were concerned, they said, and the school counselor thought it necessary to call her parents. That day, instead of going home, she summoned her nerve and drove to the Osborn Center.
He was there as she turned into the lot, fiddling with something in his hands. Seeing him she was suddenly furious. Everything she had endured over the past couple weeks was his fault. If he hadn’t been seen in this stupid parking lot then none of this would be happening. And now her parents knew. How in the world was she going to explain this to them?
Why couldn’t he have listened to reason? She knew she was right. They were too young to raise a child regardless of what he said. They were still in high school! They had their whole lives ahead of them. Why couldn’t he see that?
He didn’t even look up as she approached which only made her angrier, but as she looked closer the feeling faded. It was as if he were a child who had run away from home and been found alone and afraid, made immobile with the weight of a world misunderstood. She watched his arms pimple with cold as the wind picked up.
“Hey,” she said, surprised by how normal her voice sounded given the circumstances.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“What do you have there?” She knelt down into the grass beside him the way one might when coaxing a child from a hiding place. He stopped toying with the object and turned his palm up to her. It was the engagement ring. It struck Clara that she should have known what would be in his hand, but she hadn’t even considered it. She thought maybe he’d have a rock, a blade of yellowed grass, a discarded cigarette butt even.
“Oh, Owen. Why do you still have that?”
“I was going to take it back and use the money for a lawyer, but everyone I called said I could sue but it wouldn’t save our baby.”
“It’s not our baby.”
“No, you made sure of that didn’t you?” His tone was more weary than combative. She hadn’t seen him this way since his father died. He’d had the same catatonic look then.
“That’s not fair,” she said. “I did what I thought was best. For both of us.”
“It’s just like they said.” He turned and looked over his shoulder at the building. “I can’t do anything.”
And why should he be able to? she thought, feeling the creep of indignation rising through her. She would have been the one to carry the child, watching her belly bulge with the passing months, enduring hunger and sickness and the final tidal swell of labor pain. All the while he’d get pats on the back, nudges and winks and knowing smiles. Was there any question about the treatment she’d have to endure with the ever-growing reminder tenting her T-shirt? And that was just the pregnancy, to say nothing of what raising a baby would entail.
“So, what? Why are you here then?”
“I can’t leave.”
“Of course you can. Don’t be stupid.”
“You don’t get it.”
“You’re right, Owen. I don’t. And neither do you. Do you know what they’re saying about me? Do you know what it’s been like for me? Have you even considered that or have you been too busy with your little tantrum?”
The wind turned gale around them, whipping her hair into a frenzy. The intrusion of the physical world forced her thoughts outward and she suddenly became aware of the dense traffic along Charleston. How many people were witnessing their drama? Of those, how many might know her? She shifted her body so her back was to the street. The last thing she needed was to give more fodder to her tormentors.
“I’m sorry,” he said at length.
“I’m sorry we…” he trailed off but she knew what he had wanted to say. He was sorry for what had happened that night, for climbing into the back seat with her.
She hadn’t expected that. Most guys would be thrilled with the situation, wouldn’t they? He’d had his fun and gotten off scot-free. Some part of her had assumed the whole proposal business was one of obligation, another example of Owen stepping up when circumstance demanded. Once the procedure was done, she thought he’d be relieved, grateful. She’d done him a favor, hadn’t she? She wasn’t one of those girls who was going to sucker someone into staying with her just because she had gotten knocked up. But what if he had been serious about the whole thing?
No, if he had actually wanted to marry her he wouldn’t be regretting that night. He’d have wanted to marry her with or without the baby, but he’d never brought it up before.
The sun was fading fast, stretching the shade of a nearby pine tree so Owen’s face fell in shadow. Though his head was bowed, she had the strange impression he was looking down on her. The sky was closing into darkness and both palm and pine trees loomed in black silhouette overhead. Then there was Owen, peering down through his bent legs, and Clara felt it as layer upon layer upon layer of scrutiny, a concentric loop where Owen looked down on the sky to the trees to her. And down and down it went to infinity. It was no longer Owen who was the child, small and alone and afraid, it was her.
She lingered longer than she should have, jangling her car keys, waiting for him to speak, wanting him to take her hand and ask her not to go if only to prove that she was what he wanted–Clara for Clara, baby or no. There was a certain kind of pleasure in this torture she inflicted on herself, knowing he wasn’t going to stop her yet letting the splinter of hope imbed deeper as the moments passed. There seemed to be a million images and sounds that flashed through her mind in those few seconds–the darting of birds overheard, a lattice of golden sunlight on a stone wall, the shadows of clouds moving over grass, billowing white linen, and somewhere out of view, a child’s distant laughter. Was the child her? Or hers?
Before the tears could fall, she stood and headed back to her car. Through all this, he had never even looked up.
Owen had been dreaming, but the details deserted him as an impatient hand roused him awake. It took longer than usual for him to come fully into consciousness as the strangeness of his surroundings shifted reality into confusion. It was the face he noticed first upon waking, looking down on him. It was a familiar face, he knew, but he couldn’t place it. Then the building and the street. Those took longer to come into focus through the filter of night. He had never been here this late before.
“¿Estás bien?” The speaker was shaking him, and the loop of keys around the man’s belt rattled along with the words.
With the sound, Owen sat up with a jolt and scanned the parking lot through bleary eyes. His car had not been towed, a small miracle considering the center had obviously closed. Its windows were dark, and the only light distinguishing the building came from the lot’s lone streetlamp.
“Sorry,” Owen said, realizing where he had seen the furrowed face before. It was the janitor–clearly a man at closer proximity–who had made eye contact with him so many weeks before. He had seen him only distantly since then from his spot in the grass which allowed him a view through the back alley to where the janitor would regularly greet a man in a white truck. Both the truck and the red boxes they carried to it were marked with the unmistakable biohazard symbol. Each week Owen had watched the procession as they loaded the boxes, holding his breath as the truck lumbered past him and turned onto the main street.
Whether or not the janitor had seen him on those occasions was uncertain. He would often pause at the side door after the truck departed and stare off into space before venturing inside. Sometimes Owen thought he had been looking at him, but the distance was too great to be sure.
Now Owen scrambled to his feet, still feeling unsettled from sleep. The man tried to help steady him, but he shrugged him off. In Owen’s weariness and confusion, the janitor suddenly personified everything the center had come to represent to him. He was not only the keeper of keys, but a gatekeeper in the strictest sense of the word–the reason Owen had not been allowed to see his child.
“Don’t touch me,” he said. “Don’t you touch me.” He felt drunk with exhaustion and the surge of adrenaline that had accompanied waking in a strange place.
The man stepped back to give Owen some room, but didn’t leave, and Owen saw a flicker of recognition in the widening of his eyes. And something else…pity?
“How could you?” Owen said, certain now the janitor had overheard his side of the story that day and gone back to mopping the floor as if it had meant nothing.
He made to step toward the man, whether to get in his face and scream or physically lash out at him, he wasn’t sure, and he didn’t find out because he tripped over the strap of his backpack and stumbled forward. The man caught him before he could hit the ground and lifted him back up to a stable footing. But instead of releasing his grip on Owen, he pulled him closer into his arms. Initially Owen tried to push him away, but the man held fast. It wasn’t the customary comfort of a brief embrace followed by a quick pat on the back, it was a submission hold, and the harder Owen fought against it the stronger it became.
The weight of the man’s locked hands dug into his back. Owen tried to restrain the choking shudder of emotion, but knew he no longer had the strength to resist. He relaxed into the man’s arms and cried.
It couldn’t have been more than a couple minutes before Owen pulled away and wiped his eyes. He avoided any eye contact with the man as he shouldered his backpack and headed for his car. He felt foolish and raw and exposed, but above all he felt heavy and each step he took was like slogging through waist-deep water. From his periphery he could see the janitor was also walking to his car, their paths taking them in opposite directions, widening into a V as they progressed. It seemed the man was deliberately moving in time with him, slowing his pace to match Owen’s.
Reaching his car, Owen fumbled with the keys and hazarded a glance at the man. The janitor was standing with his back to a battered sedan and made no attempt to avert his gaze when their eyes met as he had done in the center. It seemed to Owen that he had wanted to get his attention, that he had been waiting for him to turn around and face him. Then there was the way he kept looking from Owen to the building and back again, and Owen knew intuitively why the man had stayed instead of getting in his car and driving off. For a moment he considered running to him, falling on his knees and begging, but he worried if he moved so much as an inch he would startle away any chance.
He was testing him, Owen thought. His capacity for silence was a measure of his patience and by extension his maturity. To break it would be to admit a lack of earnestness. Or else the man really hadn’t made up his mind whether or not it was worth the risk. Either way, Owen let the seconds tick by in their persistent pulse, not daring even to take full breaths.
Finally, the man spoke.
“Vamos,” he said hurriedly as if to get the word out before he changed his mind.
There was only light traffic along Charleston at this time of night, but the man continued to check over his shoulder as he hurried toward the building, as if expecting to be caught in the interrogating glare of headlights.
Owen quickened his pace, but kept himself from bolting for the door. It wouldn’t be right for someone to see a dark figure sprinting in the night.
Once, twice, the man tried the wrong key in the lock. His withered hands were shaking as he spun the keys along the loop, searching for the right one without the advantage of light. Owen said a silent prayer he would find the right one before he changed his mind. Finally, he turned the handle and pulled the door open.
For the first time in longer than he could remember, Owen felt that sense of wonder that characterizes childhood. This was a fairy tale, and he had gained the favor of an ancient wizard with a magic key who had opened to him a door to another world. The staggered emergency lighting heightened this illusion, giving the impression he was stepping not into a hallway but descending down into a tunnel from which he must later emerge a hero.
He hesitated at the threshold and may never have crossed it had it not been for the persistent tug at his elbow. It was obvious the man was itching to get inside and let the door close behind them. As the door slammed with its own weight, a hollow clang echoed through the hallway as the latch slipped back into its fitting. With it Owen noticed other layers of sound. There was the bassline drone typical of hospital corridors, the mosquito buzz of the reserve lights, and the shuffle of their footsteps on tile. He suppressed the urge to run as they passed a number of closed doors, feeling as though he were walking through a haunted house.
The janitor stopped at a door to their right. Once more he reached for his keys, but this time his hand was steady as it remembered by rote its task.
“¿Apellido? Uh…name?” he asked, testing the word.
“Williams,” Owen said reflexively. But that wasn’t right, was it? “No, Rodriguez,” he corrected. “Clara.”
The man nodded and stepped into the room alone, raising his hand to keep Owen from following. He returned with a manila file in hand. Without looking up, he proceeded to unlock the door directly across the hall.
The room he revealed was also lit with only backup lighting, and he didn’t reach for any switches, instead allowing Owen to step ahead of him into the dimness.
It was like walking into a dream. If Owen had indeed woken from where he had fallen asleep in the grass, coming into this room was like returning to his unconscious mind. How else to understand the strangeness of it all? But he knew that explanation was too optimistic given what he saw. He had wanted to see for himself, thinking the knowledge would satisfy him, but then he had no way of preparing himself for what lay in the room.
They were the ones dreaming, that was a better way to put it. In rows and columns, they were sealed in clouded bags, adrift in a liquid that glowed blue in the dim light. Then there was the sound that filled the room–layer upon layer of muffled cadence which gave the impression of distant rain, mechanical drops blending to static.
“Dos, dos, tres,” the man whispered, keeping to the doorway.
Owen translated: 223. He willed himself forward, reading the labels on the bags as he went. From these bags clear plastic tubes coiled out like vines, anchoring the drifting forms, then curling down to connect with flickering machines. Some tubes were red with what he assumed was blood. One tube carried clear fluid into the bag, another away. As Owen scanned the numbers, he avoided looking directly down into the bags.
At last he found it: 223. For several moments, he kept his eyes only on the label, tracing the bold black numbers with his pupils. He was terrified and it suddenly dawned on him that that’s what this had all been about. The argument with Clara, the confrontation in the lobby, the daily vigil. He had been trying to prove to himself he wasn’t afraid, that there hadn’t been a piece of him that had been relieved when Clara told him what she’d done. The reality was the fear and as much as he wanted to run he knew he couldn’t leave. His father had raised him better than that.
When he finally looked down a great howl resonated through the lab. Owen jumped at the sound, scanning the room wildly for its source before realizing it had come from his own mouth.
In the bag was flesh of his flesh. The arms and legs twitched as if lost in dreaming. The fingers were clearly defined as one arm came alongside the face to rub a deep sleep from eyes that remained sealed. He had thought this a quest where a villain might be vanquished, a treasure recovered, a damsel saved, but looking down into the bag he knew this to be a fool’s errand. It was just as Clara had said. Done. Over. There was nothing he could do. Break open the bag and the tremble of limbs would go forever silent. Abandon it and eventually the biohazard truck would arrive with the sobriety of a hearse.
He thought of Clara then. How could he not? He thought of the way her nose crinkled when she smiled and how she had a habit of tucking her hair behind her ear when she was nervous. He wondered if the child in that silent bubble were a girl, if under different circumstances she might have grown up to adopt these habits as her own.
It had been more than a month since he had stood in the hallway with Clara and offered her the ring. Now he pulled it from his pocket and placed it gently on top of the bag. The child’s length could have been easily cradled in the palm of his hand and the band seemed to encircle its head like a bonnet, the small diamond a crown. Through the fog of the bag, the diluted light softened the features. The slitted eyes and mouth were closed–blind and mute–the tranquility of the face belying the gruesomeness of the situation.
He sank to his knees, the apparatus low enough that he could see into the bag from eye level. From this angle, it was even more apparent the body was suspended in the liquid. There was something uncertain in its appearance, a sense the child was both levitating and falling. Enlightened and shipwrecked. Ascending to the heavens as if in resurrection and yet aimlessly adrift in the abyss. Owen sat back on his heels, and as he did the perspective made it seem as if the child were indeed rising. If he could only lean back a little farther…would it be possible the child might surface? But no, he thought, he and Clara had damned her already.
From his position on the cool tile, he could more clearly see the machine to which the tubes connected. There was a screen at its front displaying the telltale waves of the heartrate, but the tone it emitted was not the standard beep expected of such devices. It was deeper in nature, fuller, like the sonar ping of a submarine. All across the room were similar pings, the searching pulses of sound, but Owen sharpened his focus to only one signal. Here I am, he thought, hoping the ping would find his presence and relay the message by echo.
He knew the time was fast approaching when the janitor would call him from the room and escort him outside, but that time was not now. He wanted to weep, to scream out and bang his fists, to destroy the world with his rage and sorrow. Instead he closed his eyes. In the room of dreamers, he dreamed of things that would never be.