Here Is How
My wife and I are expecting a daughter. At night in bed my wife cries about this. Not every night but almost. I hold Cara close, urge her to think positive thoughts. How will we keep her safe? she asks. I tell her she’s making a mountain out of a molehill. A reckless teen out of a bell-pepper fetus. That’s the size our daughter is now.
We usually get home from work around the same time. Cara puts on sweatpants and headphones, sings along to the same country song over and over while we make dinner. I know it by heart because she used to play it full blast from speakers until I said, Please—no. The ballad is beautiful but rips me up. It goes like this: “Girl, watch your mouth and watch your weight.” The refrain pines for a God for the daughters, seeing as there’s God the Son and God the Father. When Cara belts out the last line for the seventh or eighth time, I remove her headphones, lead her to a chair, bring over the food. We bow our heads. I’ve never been one for prayer but lately I find myself mouthing one every night.
On Friday Cara’s curled up on the couch. She’s heard about a murder in Morningside. Barnard student. Eighteen years old. She refuses to get dressed for work. She declines my hug, my kisses. When I come home she’s still on the couch, eyes closed, head lolling near the edge. I spread a blanket across her slightly swollen belly.
Around midnight she comes to bed. Finally a good night’s sleep, I think, as we’re both worn out. But soon the keening begins. Who watches over them?—she cries—Who?
I will, I tell her, and you will. We both will. I speak urgently and reach for her in the dark but she slips from my grasp. We’ll protect our daughter, I say. It’ll be our number one job.
Come Saturday she pores over details about the murdered student. Clips a photo from the newspaper—the girl with her mother, father, brother at Thanksgiving—and examines it closely.
That poor mother, Cara sobs. Poor family, I say.
How will the mother go on? she asks. I have no answer.
She refuses breakfast. Then lunch. Her hair is limp, her nightgown crumpled and damp at the collar. Online, she reads about Natalee Holloway and Laci Peterson then selects Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes on Netflix.
Stop, I plead. We’re supposed to be happy. Especially right now.
She turns up the volume.
You’re focusing on the wrong things.
Am I? Her face is pinched, her eyes slender as apostrophes.
Sunday, she makes coffee. I am surprised. Relieved. She slides a tray of sweet rolls into the oven and joins me at the table. The kitchen smells like hope.
Here, she says, and hands over a story about a home invasion. The father survived, she tells me, like it’s my fault.
The wife and daughters were raped and killed, Cara says. Tied to bedposts and burned alive.
Her eyes are bigger today, lit with fire.
The father survived, she says again. She sips her coffee.
He hid in the basement.
I tell her I’ve heard enough. I get up, go into my office. I print a story about a Texas mom who drowned her five children in the bathtub. I print a story about a mother who pushed her newborn and toddler from a rooftop parking lot. I print another about a woman who drove off a cliff into the Pacific with her wife and six children. There are more. Many more.
Our printer needs ink. I change the cartridge and think of Debbie Hibbard, my schoolmate. About the night her mother went into her room and shot her in the head. She shot Debbie’s brother too. And their father. She called the police then killed herself. The story was on the front page the day I started ninth grade. I’d gone into the kitchen for Cheerios. My parents were at the table.
Don’t look, my mother said. But I’d already seen the headline. Family wiped out while sleeping. I’d cut the Hibbards’ grass, shoveled their sidewalk. For weeks afterward I dragged my bureau across my bedroom door before I went to sleep. Should my mother try to enter, I’d be alerted by the noise. I’d fight or run or hide. My mother would come up empty.
When the printing stops, I staple the pages and put them in a folder, labeling the tab: Here Is How (Not to Mother). Cara will know I’m kidding—we’ll laugh about it someday—maybe at Bell Pepper’s wedding. We’ll combat fear with love. We will do right by our daughter. We have each other and that is enough. This is what I rehearse as I walk to the living room.
She’s curled on the couch again. The nightgown now bunched between her knees, its bloody hem in her hands. I call the doctor. Wrap her in a coat. Carry her to the car. Everything will be okay, I say, even though it’s not true. I keep my hand on her thigh while I drive.
She groans and clutches her stomach then whispers, I’m scared.
Me too, I admit. So what do we do?
It’s still morning. Icy and bright.
I’m the one crying now. Cara turns toward me and I point out the window, indicating the sun, the sky. We keep praying for a God for the daughters, I tell her. For this daughter. Or the next. Whatever comes our way.
First Prize in Flash Fiction
2020 Stubborn Writers Contest
Cynthia (Cyn) Nooney’s stories and essays have appeared in New Flash Fiction Review, Ursa Minor, Fractured Literary, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Her story “Tiers of Joy” was named 2020 1st Runner-Up of the Anton Chekhov Prize for Very Short Fiction. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.