©2005 The Angst Guy (email@example.com)
Daria and associated characters are ©2005 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Synopsis: On a dark and stormy night before a funeral, the tiny world of a married couple in college changes forever (story #9 in the Pause in the Air series).
Author’s Notes: “Labor Relations” is the ninth story in the Pause in the Air series, in which Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane are two college freshmen in Boston—a married lesbian couple with a baby on the way. The back story of this alternate Dariaverse is given in the earlier Pause in the Air tales, which include (in story order): “Pause in the Air,” “Thanks Giving,” “Moving Day,” “Silent Night,” “Shock and Aww,” “Family Affairs,” “Writes of Spring,” and “April Showers.” It is helpful if the previous story in this series, “April Showers,” is read before this one, as this continues a number of plot threads from the earlier story.
Acknowledgements: The beta readers for this story were wonderful and caught many mistakes, as well as giving me much needed support. They are, in semi-alphabetical order: Between_the_Lines, Brother Grimace, Canadibrit, Deref, Dennis, Gregor Samsa, Greybird, Greystar, Richard Lobinske, Scissors MacGillicutty, Thea Zara, and Veldrin. Thank you all!
It was a dark and stormy night. Sheets of hard rain rattled the first-floor motel-room window, whipped by a violent spring thunderstorm. Dressed entirely in black from her light sweater to her slacks and boots, Jane Lane watched from the dry side of the glass, melancholy but unperturbed, her arms crossed in front of her. Flickers of lightning illuminated the rain-splashed ponds in the motel’s nearly empty parking lot, bordered by a raging creek in the culvert by the highway. LEEVILLE HOSPITALITY MOTOR INN, glowed the blue-and-red neon sign rotating over the parking lot’s center.
Good thing we got here before the storm did, she thought as thunder boomed and rolled around her. I wish I hadn’t wrecked the car doing it, though. This was going to be a crappy weekend anyway, but now it’s totally down the drain. April is the cruelest month, that’s for sure.
“Is this the service department?” said a voice behind her. Jane turned to look. Sitting on one of the two queen-size beds in the room was an extremely pregnant, under-tall young woman with round-lens glasses, her thick brown hair cut in a bob. She still wore her traveling clothes: a simple white blouse with a black vest, a black ankle-length skirt, and black Doc Martins. She sat with her legs spread apart so her enormous belly had room to hang. “This is Daria Morgendorffer,” she said into the phone. “We own the silver Prius that was brought in to your dealership this evening . . . right, that one. We appreciated the staff giving us a ride to the motel. We hit a big pothole when we got into town tonight—” Daria leaned back and straightened her spine, one hand pressing below her left kidney as she winced “—right before the storm, and it did something to the right front . . . yeah. Uh, sure.” She lowered the mouthpiece, frowning as she rubbed her back. “I’m on hold,” she said to Jane.
“Backache again?” Jane asked.
“I think it got wrenched when we hit that pothole,” said Daria, making a pained face as she pushed on the base of her spine. “If I hadn’t had my seatbelt on, it would’ve knocked me through the roof. It hurts all across down here, above my hips.”
“You want to go to an E.R.?” Jane asked in concern. She unfolded her arms. “I think there’s a hospital in town somewhere.”
“No, it’s not that bad, just annoying. And our student insurance might not cover the cost of an emergency-room visit if they don’t think it was an emergency. After this little trip, we’re really going to have to watch our budget.”
Until the will contest over your grandmother’s estate is settled and we find out if you inherited anything. Jane hated herself for even thinking about it, but it was impossible to avoid. “If you’re hurt, we should go anyway.”
“I’m okay, all right? It’s not like my back hasn’t ever hurt before. Forget it.”
Like I actually will, you stubborn little minx. “Do you want me to work on your feet to help you relax? We have that massage oil that Quinn gave us.” And I like the feel of your silken skin, and the way you surrender to my touch.
“Thanks, but not right now. That’ll put me to sleep.”
“Maybe that would be a good thing, you know? You want me to talk to the dealership instead of you doing it?”
“No, but I could use a—” She turned her head and raised the phone. “Hello? Is this the service manager?”
Jane shook her head, then turned to look out the window again. Wish I’d seen that pothole, but it came out of nowhere and—BAM! Daria gets hurt. Damn this stupid trip! First the rain and the accident, then tomorrow we have the funeral, and after that her family will destroy itself in a battle royal over a few million dollars. Way to go, Daria’s grandmother. Hope you’re happy with the mess you left behind, cutting one of your granddaughters out of your will because she’s a lesbian and setting up her mother and aunts to kill each other on sight because you favored one sibling over the others when passing out the cash. And one of those aunts, unknown to you, is on the bi side—and it’s your most favored daughter, too. So, thanks a lot, Daria’s grandmother, thanks for everything, and I hope you enjoy your new condo in Hell.
A white flash of lightning derailed her train of thought. Maybe the rain will stop by the time the actual burial starts, so we don’t get soaked. Daria can’t be out in weather like this in her condition, but she’s determined to be there, of course, despite all the crap she’s gotten. She’s worse than a pit bull, bless her heart.
“Okay,” said Daria to the phone—then a titanic boom of thunder rumbled through the room. “Sorry,” she said, looking irked. “The storm is making it hard to hear you. What were you saying about the tire rim? What’s wrong with it?”
Soft electronic music began in the background. Jane turned from the window as Daria reached over and picked up her cell phone from the nightstand, handing it to Jane without a word. Jane snapped the phone open and turned to look out at the storm. “Yo,” she said. “Speak to me.”
“Jane? Is Daria there?”
Jane smiled. “Hi, Quinn. Yeah, but she can’t talk right now. We hit a pothole on the way in, and we had to take the car to a dealership. She’s talking to the service department at the moment.”
“Oh, no, you’re kidding! Are you stranded? I can drive Dad’s car over and get you right now if you need!”
“No, no, we’re at the motel already. The dealership had a courtesy van and drove us over with our luggage. Do you have a pen?”
“Just a sec. Okay.”
Jane read off the hotel phone number. “We’re in room one thirteen. Don’t worry about us, we’re fine.”
“How bad is the car?”
“Uh—” Jane saw Daria was frowning, listening to a lengthy explanation from the service manager of what was wrong with the car. “I dunno, it didn’t drive very well after I hit the pothole. That was quite a jolt. I’m sort of hoping that—”
“Three hundred and what?” Daria shouted into the phone.
Shit, there’s goes the budget. “We’re, uh, getting the bad news. The repairs are going to hurt. The metal tire rim was damaged, and maybe some other stuff, too.”
“Will you have your car back by tomorrow?”
“I doubt it. I don’t know if they have all the parts. I have to wait for Daria to get off the phone.”
“Jane, listen: we’re at the Grand Blue Ridge Hotel just a few miles down the road from you. Why don’t we swing by tomorrow on our way to the—just a minute. What?” Quinn muffled the phone, but Jane could tell she was speaking to someone in the room with her. It sounded like Helen, Quinn and Daria’s mother. “But Muuuh-ooom,” Quinn cried, “they kind of had a wreck! They’re okay, but the wheel something is broken and they’re stuck at the motel. No, it won’t be too crowded, Mom, and they shouldn’t have to rent a car. We’re right down the road from them, so we can . . . what difference does it make if you have to call the probate lawyers from the car? If I can listen in, so can she and Jane! You’re not making any sense! Mom, listen to me!”
Jane sighed and lowered the cell phone to avoid eavesdropping on the rest of the argument. Daria’s younger sister was very nearly their only devoted ally in either family, particularly with the vicious will contest looming as soon as the funeral was over. Jane felt that the less she knew about the coming battle, the happier she would be. Of late, happiness was a rare find.
“Well, when will you get the parts in?” Daria asked. She inhaled sharply and straightened up. “Tuesday? But we have to be out of here on Sunday! Well, can’t you stay open for just a little bit tomorrow? Is there any way to get the car fixed by—”
Jane heard Quinn call her name from the cell phone, and she quickly raised it. “‘Sup?” she said.
“I’m going to try to work things out with Mom and Dad about picking you two up tomorrow before the funeral service,” said Quinn. “We have more than enough room in the Lexus!” This last part was said in a rising voice, possibly for the benefit of Quinn’s mother. Helen’s voice was audible in the background, though Jane could not tell what she was saying. That things were going downhill was evident.
“Quinn,” Jane began, “let it go. We’ll find a way out to—”
“I’m sorry,” Quinn interrupted, “but I’ll have to call you later, okay?” Helen could be heard shouting something about Quinn doing as she was told.
“Sure. Bye.” Jane snapped the phone shut and dropped it on the bed behind Daria, who had already hung up the motel room phone. “What’s the word?” Jane said as she turned to shut the curtains.
“They said they can’t get parts until Monday,” Daria grumbled. “Part of the brake system was damaged, too, and the work won’t be done until Tuesday noon.”
But we have to be back in Boston for our classes Monday morning! “Daria, I have an idea. We can rent a car Sunday—no, wait, better do it tomorrow morning before the funeral so we can get around on our own, then we’ll drive back to Boston on Sunday. I can skip class on Tuesday because my photography project’s done, so I can drive back here and pick up the car. That’ll take care of it. Let’s do it.”
“Renting a car for three days . . .” Daria shrugged, then moved both hands to her lower back and pressed on either side of her spine. She made another pained face. “Fine, whatever. We’ll have to raid the savings account again. We’ll run it dry by Christmas.”
“Sunshine,” said Jane, eyeing her partner’s discomfort, “I really think we’d better get you looked at.”
“Not right now. Let it go.” Daria looked down at her swollen abdomen, then cupped her hands under it and lifted it slightly. “My back will be fine once Poppin’ Fresh here is out of the bakery in six or seven weeks. If I live that long.”
Not funny, Daria. “You’re not getting out of a lifetime of parenthood that easily,” Jane said as she walked over and sat down beside Daria, putting an arm around her waist. “You’ve got a lot of poop and drool to clean up, and don’t you forget it.”
Daria rested her head against Jane’s shoulder and closed her eyes. “I’m glad I’m having our baby,” she whispered, “but I’m kind of scared. I feel so overwhelmed.”
“Anyone who’d have my baby has a right to be scared,” Jane whispered back. Her head feels warm. That’s odd.
“I meant there are too many things we have to juggle right now, and I’m worried the timing is all wrong. We should have planned for a summer birth, not one when finals were due, too. I didn’t think this out very well. We should have gone to the reproductive clinic in October and scheduled a July baby. Even a mid-June baby would’ve—”
“Daria, stop. Look, we’re both doing fine in school, so no problem there.” It was so practiced a lie, it came out of Jane’s mouth just like the truth. “You’ve got all your work in, you’ve aced all your tests, I’m doing better than I thought I would, and finals will be a breeze.” I’m barely making a B average, you haven’t started your last three term papers, and dealing with childbirth and finals at the same time is going to kill us both—but this isn’t the time to face reality head-on.
Daria snorted. “You are so freaking full of it.”
“From the look of things,” said Jane, gently pressing a hand against Daria’s abdomen, “you’re the one who’s full of it.” The baby moved at her touch. Her face filled with awe. Hi, little one! We think you might be a boy, but whatever you are, you’re ours!
“Bite me,” Daria grumbled.
“Sure,” said Jane, dizzy with joy. “Show me where.”
“You know where.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Daria said wearily, “but I think I need to lie down.”
“First things first.” Jane’s hand arose and gently turned Daria’s face upward. The taller girl tilted her head sideways to avoid the big glasses as she came in. Their lips met and moved together for a long time. They forgot everything else—
—until Daria flinched and pulled back. “Ow!” she said with a grimace, as she reached behind her. “Sorry, it’s just my back!”
“That did it.” Jane let go of her partner and reached for the nightstand phone.
“No!” Daria clamped a hand down over Jane’s. “Wait until the funeral is over. I want to be there, no matter what, then we’ll go get my back checked.”
Jane reluctantly let go of the phone. “Why do you want to go through with this? I mean, what are you getting out of—”
“I just want to be there, that’s all,” Daria grumbled.
“You mean you want to show everyone that Grandma Barksdale might cut you out of her will, but she can’t cut you out of the funeral and the rest of your life? You’re showing her ghost and the rest of the family who’s the bigger person, right?”
Daria nodded, glaring into the distance.
Jane sighed, but not in surrender. I’ll call our obstetrician in Boston about this when I’m out of the room. Daria’ll be pissed, but she’ll get over it in a couple of years. “That’s my Daria, always stickin’ it to ‘em,” she said. “You enjoy that, don’t you?”
“‘I do.’ I remember the last time you said that.”
“I should have run off screaming.”
“Screaming?” Jane’s smile became a leer. Her husky voice dropped lower in register. “You want to make a little noise? Well, how about we get those heavy clothes off you, then you can lie down and get comfy on the bed while the Mistress with the Magic Fingers prepares to take a slow, magic pinky walk down to your magic—”
“Not right now. I’m sorry to put you off, but my—I just want to lie down.”
Her back must really be bothering her. Jane sighed, sorry that the Magic Fingers would have to go walking another time. “Take some Tylenol, then, okay?”
“All right. Can you get me a glass of water?”
Jane did, returning from the bathroom as Daria pulled a bottle of pain relievers from a ready pocket of her wheeled suitcase. After she took two pills, Daria undressed, put on a long black nightshirt with Lily Tomlin’s image on it from The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, set aside her glasses, and lay down on the bed on her side with her legs drawn up. Jane covered her up and tucked her in, then turned out the light by the bedside, leaving only the bathroom light on with the door open a crack. Rain drummed against the windows as thunder rumbled outside.
“Thank you,” said Daria in a small voice. “I’m sorry to be such a bother.”
“You are never a bother.” Jane kissed her spouse on the cheek. Hey, she’s really warm. What is this? “Are you feeling okay?”
“Tired. Stressed out. Okay otherwise.”
“You sure you’re not sick?”
“I’m fine, okay? Look, if you happen to go out, could you get me some apple juice, if they have any around here?”
“Sure. You want something for dinner, too? You didn’t eat much on the way down, as far as I know. You didn’t even try to sneak along a Pop-Tart. And you’ve hardly spoken all day. Is anything wrong?”
Daria frowned. “Nothing’s wrong, and I’m not hungry, just thirsty.”
“You’d better have a good breakfast tomorrow, then. I’ll be watching.” Eager to defuse the tension, Jane thought of the journey they’d made that day from Boston. “You know, that was a nice drive out here until the storm came.”
“Yeah. This part of Virginia is pretty. I like the hills.”
“You were here last when your cousin got married, right?”
“Oh, yeah. That was such a nightmare. We were at the Windsor Hills Resort on the other side of Leeville. Mom got drunk and had a big fight with Aunt Rita, my stupid bridesmaid’s dress looked like hell, and Aunt Amy took me out to—” Daria suddenly yawned “—to a bowling alley for cheese fries. Oh, I didn’t tell you, Quinn said my stupid cousin Erin might be getting divorced, for real this time. All that money Grandma spent on the wedding went for nothing, like the money she spent sending them to Europe so they wouldn’t get divorced last spring. Erin’s husband is such a jerk, but she was such an idiot for marrying him. He gave her herpes, did I tell you that? That’s why she married him. She didn’t think anyone else would have her. Her mom told us. I couldn’t believe she’d actually tell us that.”
“Yeah.” Jane rolled her eyes. “Kind of funny in a sick way.”
“It was, but pathetic is probably a better word. Brian was an intern with the CIA, if you can believe that, but he got fired for doing something that lacked intelligence.” She emphasized the last word. “Erin’s how I was afraid Quinn would turn out to be, only dumber. All bubbly, shallow party girl and no—” Daria yawned again. “Sorry. Quinn’s great, I can’t complain about her at all now—damn it—but Erin’s—” She yawned a third time. “Oh, whatever.”
“I’d better get your juice before you sack out on me.”
“Thanks. If I’m asleep when you get back, get dinner for yourself.”
“Juice for you first, burger for me later. And maybe a snack when you wake up.”
“Whatever.” Daria’s brown eyes closed. Her breathing began to slow.
Jane’s left hand lingered on the back of Daria’s head, stroking her short brown hair. My nerdy little spouse, my heart and my life. The gold wedding band on her ring finger glimmered in the bathroom light. My heart, my love, my life, my all. You and our child as one, together.
Her hand finally pulled away. She shut the door to their room as quietly as she could when she left, leaving their suitcases half unpacked on the spare bed. Plenty of time for that later.
Where to go, where to go. Jane started down the motel hallway toward the front desk, where she knew the pay phones were lined up down a side corridor. After that, she could ask if any apple juice was to be had. The long walk there gave her time to think about a host of troubling things: the funeral, the busted car, the looming will contest, the infighting between Daria’s mother and aunts, Daria’s weakened physical and mental health, passing their finals in their first year of college together, the decline in their sex life, et cetera et cetera, et cetera, and so on.
Jane shook her head. Daria was right: it was overwhelming, what they had to deal with. One day at a time, one day at a time. Don’t let it get to you. We’re in this for the long haul. We’re going to make it, one way or the other, but we’ll make it. We belong together. I just pray that I can hold out and keep things going.
The lobby was past the indoor swimming pool and mini-kitchenette/dining area, which had everything but vending machines. She pulled a prepaid phone card from a wallet in her slacks and dialed the number she had memorized for the obstetrician’s office. The doctor picked up her weekend messages at frequent intervals, so a callback was guaranteed. As expected, Jane got a recording, but she left a detailed comment about Daria’s backache, with the phone number of the hotel, their room, and Daria’s cell phone number. That done, Jane went to the front desk and waited patiently in line behind an old lady who wanted to argue with the sole receptionist about her motel bill. When the receptionist left to call his supervisor, she knew it would be a long while before she got a chance to ask about the apple juice. She sighed and looked around.
Sitting in the TV lounge adjacent to the lobby was a thin, twenty-something brunette with a beautiful face. She was bottle-feeding a baby in relative privacy, facing a turned-off television set from an overstuffed lounge chair. The young woman’s long brown hair was carelessly pinned up with a barrette; she wore a creamy denim jacket over a white shirt and bright blue jeans, with sandals and assorted jewelry. While Jane looked on, half of a mind to walk over just to see the baby, the woman shifted position where she sat and her elbow knocked the baby’s diaper bag off the arm of the chair.
It was the perfect setup for an introduction. Jane walked over, retrieved the bag, and sat it upright by the woman’s feet. “Hi,” she said brightly. “Thought I’d help.”
“Thank you so much for getting that,” said the woman, who had a Southern accent. “We’re almost done here.” She cut off the infant’s supper and dropped the empty bottle in the diaper bag, then lifted the baby to her diaper-covered shoulder for burping. The baby, dressed in pastel pinks and sporting a shock of reddish hair, appeared sleepy and content.
“Nice work,” said Jane with a grin, indicating the infant. “Beautiful kid.” I hope our kid is half as good looking as this one. Wow.
The woman looked odd for a moment, as if taken aback by Jane’s words. It passed, and she smiled. “Thanks, but she’s not really mine. I’m only borrowing her so her mom can have a bathroom break. I drove in from Arlington today, and they swung by for a visit. Her mom and I are old friends.”
“Felt a need to get out of the room?”
“Actually, I’m waiting for the front desk to give me a new room. I checked in before the rain, but they gave me a room for smokers.” She made a face. “Everything stank so much we could hardly breathe, and it can’t be good for the baby. It was gross. The stink got in my hair and everything.”
Jane nodded in sympathy, then looked at the infant. “How old?”
“She’s five months—”
The baby belched loudly. Both women burst into laughter. “Great pair of lungs,” said Jane.
“You better believe it,” the woman said. She lifted the sleepy baby in front of her and touched her nose to the infant’s. “She can really rattle the rafters when she wants to.”
“I’m Jane Lane, by the way,” said Jane, and she put out a hand.
“Erin Danielson,” said the woman, leaning the baby against her chest to take Jane’s hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
Erin Danielson? Daria’s “stupid cousin”? No way! Jane kept her smile firmly in place. “What brings you to the wetlands of Leeville?” she asked—and immediately wanted to kick herself. She knew why.
“Oh, nothing good,” said Erin. Her smile faded as she looked at her baby. “My grandmother died a few days ago. The funeral’s tomorrow.”
“Oh! I’m very sorry.” Jane was surprised that she did feel bad for Erin’s loss, despite her rage at the grandmother in question.
“I am, too,” said Erin, “but my mom’s more broken up about it than I am. She and Grandma were really close. Just the latest in a long series of real-life disasters.” She sat the baby on her thigh and jogged her leg up and down. The infant broke out in a drooling grin. “I’d love to have a kid like this one,” she said.
“What’s her name?”
“Madison.” Erin continued bouncing the baby. “It’s okay, but it sounds a little too much like a city for me. I’d have gone for Emma.”
“Well, she’s happy, and that’s what counts.” Jane smiled dreamily at the cheerful child.
“Yeah, that’s the biggie,” said Erin, her smile fading. “Keepin’ ‘em happy.” She looked up at Jane, then scanned the lobby. “Where’s Daria?”
Oh, great. She recognized my name. Jane drew a deep breath and sidestepped her embarrassment by looking down at Madison. It made it easier to talk. “She’s not feeling well. We had a little accident with a pothole when we got into town, and now our car’s in the shop until next week.”
Erin’s eyebrows went up at the news. “Is she okay? She wasn’t hurt, was she?”
“She has a backache,” Jane admitted. “The pothole came out of nowhere and really rattled our teeth. She took two Tylenol and—damn, I was supposed to get apple juice for her before she went to sleep.” Jane stood up, feeling awkward. “I apologize for running off like this. I’m glad I met you—both of you.”
“Good to see you, too,” said Erin, giving a little wave. “Give Daria my best, if you would. I hope she feels better soon. Oh—how far along is she?”
“Six weeks to go. I’ll tell her I saw you.” Jane started to leave, then made herself turn toward Erin a last time. “I am sorry about your grandmother,” she said, half appalled that she actually meant it. “I hope things get better for you.”
Erin’s expression was difficult to read. She did not meet Jane’s gaze for longer than a second before looking down at the baby. “Bad things happen all the time,” she said in a depressed voice. “Nothing I can do about it. See you later.”
Jane nodded. Having no idea of anything else she could say, she turned and left as quickly as she could. Hope I didn’t screw anything up, talking to Erin like that. She’s probably on her mother’s side in the will contest, and I’m trying to stay out of it. If Rita calls Helen and yells about this . . . oh, forget it. Halfway down the hall, she remembered the apple juice and almost turned back, but she couldn’t make herself return to the lobby. Instead, she consulted a layout of the motel mounted on a nearby wall, then set off for the dining room, hoping it wasn’t yet closed.
CLOSED, read the sign at the dining room’s entrance. No one was in sight, but Jane heard dishes clattering and carts rumbling just around a corner, and she ventured in anyway. A few minutes later, she left with a tall glass of apple juice, delivered to her gratis by one of the kitchen workers. She made her way down the corridors to room one thirteen, used her key card, and entered as quietly as possible. Rain steadily lashed the curtained windows.
“I’m awake,” Daria growled in the blackness. “Quinn called a few minutes ago. She’s in a taxi on her way over.”
“In this weather? You’re kidding me!” Jane opened the bathroom door wider, throwing dim light over the room, then made her way around the furniture to Daria while trying not to spill the juice.
The bedside light came on. Squinting, Daria pushed herself up on one elbow and took the apple juice from Jane. “Thanks. No, she’s coming, all right. We can expect her in half an hour. She had a big fight with Mom over something and took off. I told her not to do it because it was so bad out, but she won’t listen to reason.”
“Not listening to reason runs in your family, I see.”
Daria lowered the glass and glared. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing at all. You say she called from the taxi?”
Daria nodded as she drank.
“Great. Guess I’d better go wait for her in the lobby. Oh, and speaking of the lobby, guess who I ran into a few minutes ago.”
The glass lowered. “If it wasn’t Bill Clinton, save it until tomorrow.”
“Bill Clinton’s not your cousin, last I heard, so I’ll save it.”
Startled, Daria stopped herself before taking another drink. “Erin’s here?”
“What’s she doing here? She always stays in town with Aunt Rita!”
“Maybe she had a big fight with her mom, like someone else we know.”
“Not likely. She’s probably living off her mom’s money now, just like Rita lived off Grandma’s. Maybe Rita’s got too many boyfriends staying at the house, and there’s no room for Erin to party. I don’t know, and I don’t care.” Daria handed the empty glass back to Jane, then reached for something on the bedside table. “Can I ask a favor? When you go to the lobby to meet Quinn, would you take my cell phone with you?”
Jane set the glass aside. “Sure, but why?”
“In case Quinn calls and wakes me up again. I unplugged the room phone. See if she can get a place near ours. I’m going back to sleep. I feel really out of it.”
A strange note in Daria’s voice caused Jane to come fully alert. “Out of it? How?”
“Well—something weird happened in the shower this morning, and now I’m feeling—” She shook her head as if she’d said too much, then made a face and put a hand to her belly before lying down again. “Forget it. I don’t even want to think about it. Just let me get some sleep.”
“Daria, is something wrong?”
“Yes, I’m not getting any sleep.” The tension her voice was plain.
“You’re sure you’re okay?”
“Yes! Just leave me alone for a while, all right?”
“Fine, fine.” Jane pocketed the phone and kissed Daria on the side of her head. Maybe I’d better call the hospital here directly. I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t like the sound of this. “I love you, Sunshine.”
“Can you call me something less offensive, like Butch?”
“Butch, right, you look so freaking butch right now. I’ll just call you Stinky.”
“I’ve got a whole list of things to call you, and we’ll go through it line by line after I wake up.”
“It’s a date. G’night, Stinky.”
Daria’s obscene reply caused Jane to smile as she left the room, but the smile was gone when the door closed. Though she knew better than to take Daria’s bad moods too seriously, this particular bad mood was worrisome. Once she was alone in the hall, Jane snapped open Daria’s cell phone and dialed information. There was only one hospital in Leeville, so getting the number and programming it into the phone was easy, as was speed-dialing it a moment later.
Getting an answer, though, was impossible. The phone rang and rang, but no one picked up. What the hell is this all about? Jane wondered. This is the E.R. number. What’s the holdup?
Frustrated, she shut the phone, meaning to try again in five minutes. She felt a yearning for junk food, strictly forbidden to Daria, so she set off for the vending machine alcove next to the lobby. Once there, she examined the selection and was surprised to see peanut brittle. Peanut brittle was the snack food Daria had craved most during her pregnancy. Jane bought a pack of it, and she was making a final choice between spicy hot cheese puffs and barbecue potato chips for herself when a familiar voice said from behind her, “Any luck with the apple juice?”
“Oh!” Jane turned. It was Erin. “Hey! Yeah. I got lucky. The dining room was closed, but someone had pity and got me a glass. Daria’s trying to get back to sleep now. Where’s Super-Baby?”
“Super-Baby’s exercising her lungs in my new nonsmoking room while her mom’s putting her to bed. It’s going to take a while, so I’m out here getting comfortable with some Southern Comfort.” Erin reached behind her under her jacket and produced a silver hip flask engraved with the Southern Comfort logo. She offered it to a startled Jane, who shook her head no. “Why aren’t you with Daria?”
“I’m waiting for Quinn. She called and said she was coming over in a few minutes from the Grand Blue Ridge Hotel.”
“In this weather? She’s nuts.”
“Daria and I discussed that possibility a couple minutes ago. Quinn called from a cab, so we can’t stop her at this point. Anyway, if you stick around a few more minutes, you can pal around with her for the night. I heard the two of you were close.” I hope that’s still true despite all the legal bullshit going on.
“Yeah, she’s okay. She still under the legal drinking age?”
“It’s twenty-one around here, so that’s out. How old are you?”
“Almost twenty. We can wait in the lobby until I’m legal, if you want.”
“May as well. Uh—” Erin hesitated “—do you mind bein’ around me, because of the, uh, you know, the will and all?”
Jane suppressed a smirk—almost. “Do you mind that I married your cousin and we’re having a baby?”
“Huh?” Erin laughed. “Nah, that’s cool.”
go wait for Quinn.”
Jane tried to call the hospital E.R. a second time from the lobby, again without success. The lack of a response worried her, but maybe another five-minute wait would be the charm. They found an overstuffed sofa with a clear view of the motel’s front doors and settled back. Erin took a big swallow from her flask. “Whew!” she gasped, making an ick face. “I love this stuff, but boy, can it make you shiver! I’m gettin’ a good buzz off it, though.”
Jane searched for the right thing to say. “How’ve you been?”
“Oh, could be better.” Erin scratched her head. Her voice took on a pronounced Southern drawl as she continued drinking. “Mom came all unglued when Grandma passed, so I drove up plannin’ to keep her stuck together, but someone else’s already taken the job. I’ll go back there in the mornin’ to help her get ready for the funeral, then we’ll slog through the rest of the weekend till Sunday night or Monday when I head back to Arlin’ton. Lisa’s gonna to hook up with some friends of ours around here tomorrow, so I’ll be on my own afterwards. Shame about that, I’ll miss her kid. She’s a sweetie. Won’t miss the squallin’, though.” The flask rose and she swallowed again, eyes closed.
Jane watched, raising an eyebrow, then glanced at the front doors. No Quinn yet. “A little drink now and then never hurts,” she said, thinking that Erin was overdoing it.
“Hell, I chugged down a pint in the room since I saw you last. Figured it was my last chance before the funeral. This is my nightcap.” Erin coughed a few times and eyed her flask. “Love this stuff. You know, I gotta ask how you and Daria met. I don’t know much about what’s been goin’ on with you all.”
“Oh, yeah. We went to Lawndale High School together from tenth grade on, after she and her folks moved in from Highland, Texas. We were friends for a long while before . . . before anything else started happening. We’ve been doing all right.”
“Cool. I didn’t hear much from Mom about you all. I was sorta afraid to ask Quinn about it, but I prob’ly should’ve. I knew Daria was a genius or somethin’ since she was a little kid, but I never did get to know her very well. Saw her a few times at family get-togethers, but she—and I’m just being honest here, I’m not bein’ mean or anything—she didn’t talk much to the rest of us. Didn’t talk much to her own folks, either, I think. She’d go to a bedroom somewhere and read all day long. She was a smart kid.”
Jane grinned. “That’s Daria all over. She hasn’t changed.”
“Figures.” The flask rose, remained upside-down for several seconds, then fell. Erin screwed the cap back on as she coughed. “That’s all she wrote, no more Southern Comfort for me. You sure you don’t drink?”
“We used to have a little wine now and then, when we could sneak it. We haven’t kept anything around the apartment since late last year, though, after Daria got pregnant.”
“Now, how did you all do that, if you don’t mind me askin’? I just can’t . . . I just never figured on her wantin’ a kid so soon, and I gotta know how you pulled it off.”
“No problem. As long as we’ve got the time . . .” Jane explained how she and Daria had gone to a fertility clinic in Boston shortly after their wedding in Vermont, using Jane’s older brother Trent as the sperm donor. “So the baby’s got a little of each of us, as best we can work it out.”
“That’s so wild,” said Erin, playing with the empty hip flask. “I always knew Daria was different, but that’s pretty damn different. It’s cool, though.”
“Hey, it’s no fun to be normal,” said Jane, smiling.
“Hoo, boy, don’t I know about that. I was a party girl in high school. I don’t ‘member a lot of my classes too well. Can’t believe I graduated. I think I was drunk through the whole ceremony. Mom says I almost fell down on stage when I was gettin’ my diploma. I cleaned myself up a little afterwards, got into nursin’ school for a year, then I met Brian.” She shook her head with a rueful look. “I was doin’ so well until then.”
Jane winced. She’d heard little enough about Erin from anyone in Daria’s family, and what she’d heard was rarely nice. “What happened?”
“Oh . . . at first I thought it was great, you know? I mean, Brian was all handsome and clever, and he was sweet to me in public, so I thought he was the one.” She sighed heavily, looking off into space as the hip flask twirled in her fingers. “It lasted for a good while, till a couple months ago. Kinda wish now I’d stayed in school, but I wanted to be a wife, ‘cause I thought he’d be a great father, and then I come to find out he wasn’t.” She sighed again and looked down at the flask. “He’s off with his girlfriend, I guess. Turned out he had an old flame he’d never gotten over, and the day after we found out for sure that we couldn’t have kids, he said, ‘I’m outta here,’ and he took his stuff and left for her place. He musta been plannin’ it before then. I was all like, ‘Hey, we can fix it! We can go to the doctors or do something! Come back!’ But he didn’t. The doctors couldn’t fix it anyway. My tubes are all messed up bad.” Erin covered her mouth as she burped softly, then sighed again. “Shit happens, you know?”
Jesus, does it ever. Jane thought she probably knew more about Erin now than Daria ever had. “I don’t know what to say,” she said. “That’s so terrible.”
“Eh, I got over it.” Erin crossed her legs and began slowly kicking her foot. Her fingers still played with the flask. “Brian was messed up worse than I was. Got himself fired from the CIA, can you believe that? I don’t know what he did to screw that up, but he did it, and I was so pissed. Here he was, supposed to be so reliable, more reliable than my dad was, and he went and messed up like that. I was so mad at him. And then I found out he was stealin’ money from me, from my savin’s account that Grandma gave to me. He got into my papers and got all the account information and stole my money, he had all these debts from investments he said he was making that didn’t come out, and he started lyin’ about stuff. I couldn’t trust him at all. And before we got married, he got me to sign a pre-nup that gave him half of all my stuff if we ever got divorced, and I’d get half of all his stuff, but he hasn’t got anythin’ now, so I’ll come out the loser. He filed for divorce two months ago when he moved out with his girlfriend, but now that Grandma’s dead, he’s draggin’ his feet because he thinks I’m goin’ to inherit a shitload of money, and he wants half of it. I can’t believe him. I trusted him so much, and then he went and did that to me, and I can’t believe it.” She shook the flask, testing to see if it had anything left worth drinking. It didn’t. “I can’t believe me, either. I really fell for it. He reeled me in and scaled me good.” She looked up at Jane. “You know if this place has a bar?”
“No,” said Jane, stunned at her story. “I don’t think it does.”
“I was hopin’ it did. All the rest of my Comfort’s back in the room, but I can’t stand to hear that baby cry. She’s worse than a fire truck. Listen at her.” Erin was silent for a moment, looking over her shoulder at nothing in particular.
Jane listened hard. In the distance, to her surprise, she could hear a baby crying.
Erin shook her head, but she was grinning. “Good pair of lungs, just like you said. Two hallways down, too. I pity her mom. Lisa used to party around with me here in high school. We were just there to have fun. Didn’t learn much, far as I recall.”
“Did her husband come along, too?”
“Oh, she’s not married. Her boyfriend broke up with her before the baby was born. Up and left, just like my dad.” She frowned, thinking. “I haven’t seen him in, mmm, twelve years. Don’t know where he is now.”
“I haven’t seen much of my dad, either,” said Jane, trying to empathize. “He comes back every few months from photography assignments. My mom’s away a lot, too, studying pottery and crafts in other countries. The only person at home in Lawndale anymore is my brother Trent, and he sleeps most of the time.”
“Least your dad comes back,” said Erin. “I really miss my dad. I really thought Brian would be better. Brian was short, like Dad, but he was good lookin’ and fun, too, just like Dad. And he sure didn’t stick around when things got tough, just like Dad. Guess I really know how to pick ‘em.”
Oh, my God, Jane thought. “You’re not staying with your mom?” she said.
Erin shook her head. “No. She’s got a new boyfriend over, and I don’t want to be around. She’s not been very good at pickin’ ‘em, either, I guess. She’s had some bad ones before. I guess I have, too. Some of the ones Mom’s had were slimy, though.” She looked down at her flask. Her face tightened. “Reason I can’t have kids is because one of them attacked me, one of her old boyfriends. She never did believe me about that. He gave me chlamydia, which is a kind of STD that messes up your tubes. Mine are ruined. I got it when I was fourteen, and I didn’t find out about it until two, three years ago, and by then it was too late. Thought they could be fixed, but a few months ago, Brian and I found out we couldn’t have kids ever. Doctor said there was ways around it, expensive ways, but we didn’t have that much, and I wasn’t gonna to ask Grandma for more money ‘cause Brian’d just steal it again. Brian said it was all my fault, that I’d tricked him into makin’ him think I could have babies, but I didn’t know about that, you know? My mom kind of made it all worse, ‘cause she heard somehow that I had an STD, and she got it in her head that Brian had given me herpes, which he hadn’t, and then she went and told everyone in the family about it, and I was embarrassed to death. I couldn’t go anywhere without someone askin’ me about it. Did you ever hear that story about me?”
“I swear I never heard a thing,” Jane lied, her mouth dry. “Not a thing.” She dared not mention, too, that she knew first-hand that Erin’s mother, Rita, had been seeing another woman on occasion, and that the other woman was Jane’s oldest sister, Summer. Rita had bribed Daria and Jane not to talk about it. The news would make the whole conversation entirely too bizarre, and it might upset Erin, too.
“Daria probably knows about it, though,” said Erin. “Quinn does, I know, but she won’t talk about it. I like talkin’ to Quinn. She’s fun. If she was older, we could go out drinkin’ and lookin’ for guys or somethin’. She’d be a lot of fun to party around with.” Erin looked at Jane and smiled. “I’m sure a mess, aren’t I?”
Jane swallowed, and then said the first thing that came into her head: “You’re a good person.”
“I am?” Erin looked surprised. “No one’s ever said that to me. I sure don’t feel like one. I feel like my whole life’s been one long train wreck, with money thrown all over it. I mean, I’m cute and all, I can get a guy just like that—” She snapped her fingers “—but I can’t get a good guy, you know? So I just get one now and then for a night, and I leave in the mornin’ and that’s okay. It all works out, you know? It all works out.”
“Have you thought about going back to nursing school?” Please, Quinn, show up before I have an angst breakdown.
“Oh . . . nah, I don’t know that I’d be any good at it now. It was hard. I was doin’ okay, I guess, but it was so hard. I just don’t feel like doin’ anything anymore. I just party like I always did, now that Brian’s gone. Good riddance, I guess. You’re lucky, not havin’ to worry about men and all. I’m not gay or anything, but I kinda envy you and Daria, you know? I mean, you got each other, you stick together, and you sound like you’re both happy. I hope so, anyway. Are you all happy?”
Jane forced a smile. “Depends on which side of the bed we wake up on, but yeah. We do okay. School’s pretty hard to cope with, though.” Don’t talk about the money problems. She’ll think I’m begging for her to do something about the will.
“I imagine. You both in the same school?”
“No, she’s at Raft, majoring in English, and I’m at the Boston Fine Arts College. We call it ‘bee-fak.’ Daria’s working on becoming a writer. She’s going to have a story published later this year, her first big sale.”
“Wow, that’s great! What kind of story is it?”
“Uh, science fiction. It’s too hard to explain. She likes weird stuff like that.”
“You know, I knew she would. She was always like that, so smart you never knew what she was thinkin’ about.” Erin shook her head and tapped her thigh with the hip flask. “Not me.” She covered her mouth and burped again. “No, not—”
Electronic music filled the air. Erin looked around in puzzlement, but Jane was already reaching into her pants pocket for Daria’s cell phone. She glanced at the doors and saw no cars pulling up to the motel entrance in the rainy darkness outside. Quinn must be running late, hope everything’s okay.
The cell phone snapped open. “Yo, speak to me,” said Jane, not knowing if it was Quinn, the obstetrician, the hospital, or a wrong number.
“Jane,” Daria gasped over the phone. “Come back to the room. Please hurry.”
Jane sat up in her seat. “Daria?” she said, alive with fear. “What’s wrong?”
Daria was panting loudly. “The baby! It’s—” She cried out in pain.
“What—” said Erin, wide-eyed, but Jane was out of her seat and gone.
The corridors flew by Jane in a blur of motion powered by terror. She almost ran into a maid with a linen cart, twice startled motel guests as she rounded corners, and made one wrong turn, but she got to room 113 in less than a minute. It took forever to get her key card out and unlock the door, but then she was in.
The bedside light was on. Daria sat up on the bed in her black nightshirt, her knees drawn up and her back propped up on a pile of pillows stacked against the headboard. One hand was pressed to the side of her belly, and the other held a wristwatch inches from her face as she watched the dial with clenched teeth. Jane ran over to her and looked down.
A bloody, mucous-like substance stained Daria’s thighs, the nightshirt bunched under her rear end, and the sheet she lay on.
No. Oh, God, no.
Jane snatched up the bedside phone, unaware she was still holding the cell phone, and punched 911 after confirming that Daria had plugged the phone base in again.
Busy. She hung up, dialed again—busy. Shit! Don’t do this! Not now! And again. Busy. Damn it! Pick it up! Help us! She almost threw the handset across the room.
The intense spasm engulfing Daria passed. Her head fell back. The hand holding the watch dropped to the bed. Sweat ran down her face and dripped from her hair.
“Something’s really wrong!” Daria gasped, trying to catch her breath. “I think I’m having contractions, and the baby’s coming too early! They . . . started right after you left, every eight minutes . . . and that was the third. Then I dropped my glasses and I can’t get . . . I can’t get off the bed to find them. Please . . . please help me find my glasses!”
Jane found the errant glasses in seconds and wiped them off on a sheet before gently putting them back on Daria’s face. She then bent down and hugged her trembling lover. She couldn’t tell which of them was the most frightened.
“I’m scared!” Daria said in a quivering voice. “I don’t know if it’s . . . false labor or real, I hope it’s not real. The contractions are really . . . really powerful, and they hurt. I don’t think it’s supposed to feel this bad. I don’t know what’s going on. I plugged the phone in again and called you and I was so afraid you wouldn’t answer and—”
“I’m here,” Jane said. “I won’t leave you.”
Daria sniffed, fighting back her tears. “Is Quinn here yet?”
“Not yet. I was waiting for her in the lobby, talking to Erin.”
As a distraction, the comment worked wonders. “Erin?” Daria said, startled.
“She’s . . . it’s a long story, it can wait. I left her back there to find Quinn. Let me call nine-one-one again, okay?”
“Okay.” Daria held Jane’s left hand with both of her own, while Jane dialed 911 with her right thumb on Daria’s cell phone.
It was busy. “I don’t know what’s going on!” Jane snapped. “It must be the storm, car accidents or something!” She hung up and hugged Daria again, then stroked her partner’s wet brow. She feels really hot! Is she sick? Jesus! “I love you. We’re going to make it, Daria, all three of us. We’ll make it, I swear we will.”
“I hope so.” Tears ran from Daria’s eyes under her smudged glasses. “I think my water broke this morning. I was . . . in the shower, and I didn’t know if it . . . I thought something happened, but I couldn’t . . . because the shower was on, and I didn’t have my glasses, so I didn’t know if . . . if that was what it was. I don’t know.”
If her bag of waters broke, she and the baby have been open to infection all day. Thank God I didn’t do the Magic Fingers trick. Her forehead is hot, she’s sweating like mad, this is all wrong. Emergency room, must get her there immediately, somehow, but must calm her down first.
“I love you,” said Jane, forcing herself not to panic. “Watch your breathing, do it right. Remember what we learned? Hold my hands and we’ll do it together. Hee-hee-hoo, okay? Breath, Sunshine, let’s do your breathing.”
“I’m scared!” Daria’s face screwed up. Tears ran down her cheeks in rivers. “I’m scared that I’m losing the baby, Jane!”
SHIT! “Look at me. Sunshine, look at me. Look. Breathe like this.” Jane put her face close to Daria’s, then began to breathe: in-out-in-out-innn-ouuut. “Hee-hee-hoo, remember? Breathe like that. Let’s do it, okay? One, two, three.”
Their hands formed a single knot between them, a lifeline from one to the other. They began to breathe in unison: hee hee hoo, hee hee hoo.
“That’s it, you got it, Sunshine,” Jane whispered. “Keep it up. The pain’s going away. It’s going away. You’re looking better. Keep—”
A door squeaked. Footsteps could be heard behind them. “Daria?” said a new but very familiar voice. Stunned, Jane turned around, still holding Daria’s hands.
“Oh my gosh, what happened?” cried Quinn Morgendorffer. The ultra-cute longhaired redhead dragged a wheeled suitcase behind her, still wearing her pink, rain-drenched poncho. “What’s going on? Are you all right?”
“How’d you get in here?” Jane said in astonishment.
Erin Danielson pushed past Quinn. “Your room door didn’t shut all the way,” she said as she moved next to Jane, almost bumping her aside. A sweet-smelling alcoholic odor reached Jane’s nostrils. “Hon?” said Erin. “Daria, honey, what’s going on?”
“Erin?” Daria’s jaw dropped in disbelief.
“You havin’ contractions, baby?” said Erin. “Your back hurtin’ you? How often are the contractions comin’?”
“Wha—I—uh, eight minutes, they’re—”
“How many have you had already, baby?”
“Three so far, but—”
“Did you try drinkin’ some water and lyin’ down on your side?”
“I was doing that before the contractions started! What are you doing here?”
Erin turned to the shocked Quinn. “Get on the phone, quick! Call nine-one-one and tell ‘em to get an ambulance out here right away!”
“Right!” Quinn shoved her suitcase aside, moved around Jane and Erin, picked up the nightstand phone, then sat on the edge of the spare bed and began dialing, the phone base in her lap. Water dripped from her raincoat onto everything around her.
“I gotta wash my hands, honey. I’ll be right back.” Erin pulled away and walked quickly to the bathroom. She bumped into a chair and staggered for a moment, but then regained her footing and kept going.
Daria turned to give Jane an accusatory glare.
“She must have followed me,” Jane said. “Not my fault. You know, she’s got a point. If your bag of waters broke, maybe I’d better go wash my hands, too.”
“Did you say her water just broke?” Erin called from the bathroom over the sound of water running in the sink.
Jane glanced at Daria, then turned and called, “She thinks it broke early this morning when she was in the shower!”
Erin came out of the bathroom holding a damp washcloth, moving quickly. “Jane, go wash,” she said. “Hot water and soap. And bring some big towels, clean ones only!”
Jane got Daria to let go of her hands, then hurried off to do what Erin said. There was a confident and commanding note in Erin’s voice, as if she knew exactly what had to be done. When Jane returned, her arms full of white towels and washcloths, Erin had Daria off the bed and was making her stand with her face against a wall, her crossed arms forming a cushion on which her head rested. Erin was gently massaging Daria’s lower back over her nightshirt, avoiding the wet spot on her rear where she’d been sitting. A bloodstained washcloth had been tossed in a corner.
“Did you get a look at it when it came out?” Erin was asking Daria.
said irritably. “The shower washed it away, and I didn’t have my glasses on. I
didn’t know what was happening. I thought it might have been my bag of waters,
but I didn’t know.”
“Do you remember if it had a smell or a funny color? Did it smell bad?”
“No, I don’t think so. It was kind of clear like water, I think. It didn’t smell bad, that I could tell.”
“That’s good. Don’t worry about it.” Erin put a hand on Daria’s bare neck. “Your skin feels all warm, baby. You got a thermometer around here?”
“I’m okay, all right?” Daria snapped.
Jane set the towels aside, trying not to stare at the bed where Daria had been. There was more blood there than she’d previously thought. “We have a medical kit in this suitcase,” she said, reaching for a piece of luggage behind Quinn, who appeared to be listening to someone talk on the phone. Jane opened the suitcase, found a small red bag, and pulled a digital thermometer from it. “Here,” she said, handing it to Erin after sticking a sterile cover on the end. “To make it work, you have to put it in—”
“I know,” said Erin. She turned back to Daria and said, “Hold still, baby,” then gently inserted it in Daria’s right ear. The thermometer beeped faintly after a moment, and Erin pulled it out and read the result. She then tossed the thermometer back to Jane, who caught it at the last moment. “You got a headache?” she asked Daria. “Throat hurt?”
“My throat hurts when I swallow, and my head is killing me.”
Jane blinked. “Daria, when did—”
“Open your mouth and say ‘ahh,’” said Erin. “Wait, forget it, there’s not enough light in here and I don’t got a tongue depressor.” She turned around. “Quinn, you got the emergency operator yet?”
“Yeah, but she said they don’t have any ambulances left! They used them all!”
“Lemme talk to her.” Erin took the phone, but pointed to Daria. “You and Jane rub Daria’s back, at the base of the spine right over her butt. Don’t push too hard and don’t press on her backbone. Just move your hands around in circles, firm but soft. Be careful with her.” She turned to the phone. “Hello? This is Erin Danielson. Who’s this? Mindy? Mindy Roberts? No shit! Damn, girl, how’ve you been?”
Per their instructions, Jane and Quinn went to Daria and began to rub her lower back with care. Daria continued leaning against the wall with her head resting on her forearms, looking at the floor.
“She smells like a liquor store!” Daria whispered angrily. “Is she drunk? Does she have any medical training at all? Does she know what she’s doing, so she won’t do something stupid and kill me?”
“She was in nursing school,” said Jane, who could think of nothing else to say.
“She was?” said Quinn, her eyes widening.
“Yes, she was!” said Jane, eyes flaming
“Oh, right!” said Quinn. “Sure, yeah, she was!”
“No!” said Jane, even angrier. “I meant, she really was in nursing school!”
“She was?” Quinn said again.
“I’m going to kill you both,” Daria growled. “And then I’m going to—”
“Mindy,” said Erin behind them, “let’s catch up on our news later. I got a cousin with an Easter egg over here at the Hospitality Inn by the bypass, and Elvis is about to leave the building six weeks early. She thinks the dam broke this morning in the shower. Can we get a box over here sometime in the next two years? What? Where the hell are they? Oh. Wow. Did it blow up? So, they got hamburger helper with their weenie roast, is that it? Well, least it’s rainin’. Can we get us a SWAT team, or are they at the weenie roast, too? Isn’t anybody back at the doughnut shop? Anybody got a school bus, a go-kart, anything we can use? My cousin might have strep and she’s spottin’ all over. I want her seen stat, and I don’t mean ‘some time after tomorrow.’ Wait a sec.” Erin lowered the phone and called to Jane. “She got any other kind of symptoms of bein’ sick and stuff?”
“She was in nursing school?” Daria hissed with a dangerous undertone. She was about to say more when she stiffened and gritted her teeth in pain. “Owww, DAMN it!”
Jane made Daria turn around and lean on the wall again, while she and Quinn resumed rubbing her lower back. “She didn’t eat anything all day today,” Jane told Erin. “We’ve been really stressed between school, the funeral, and everything else.” Strep? Did Erin say Daria might have strep? Holy shit! I guess I’m next, but will it hurt the baby? How dangerous is it?
Erin raised the phone to her ear. “She’s off her feed, too. Prob’ly a bug goin’ ‘round. Wait a sec.” Erin raised her wrist and peered at her wristwatch. “I’m timing her contraction. Looks like she’s havin’ a nine on the Richter.”
Daria began to curse through her teeth in remarkably vivid and detailed terms. She addressed herself to the world at large and not to anyone specifically, for which Jane was extremely grateful. Quinn’s mouth fell open in undisguised horror, and even Jane—who did not consider herself a prude—winced. Daria was far more proficient in the use of vulgarities than anyone had previously guessed.
“Yeah, that’s a nine, all right,” said Erin to the phone. “She’s on the launch pad. If nobody’s around to take us to Babies ‘R Us, my rental car’s outside gettin’ washed, so I’ll dump her in the trunk and drive her over myself.”
“Wait! I’ll drive!” cried Jane, looking at the inebriated Erin with great anxiety.
“No, me! Let me!” said Quinn, equally motivated. “I drive great at night!”
Daria made an assortment of uncouth animal noises as she swore.
“We’ll take my car, then,” said Erin to the phone. “I’ll ride in back with my cousin in case Junior Johnson shows up, which it looks like he’s gonna do pretty quick. Better get haulin’. Yeah, good to talk to you, too. You still married to Steve, by the way? He did? Well, good for him. Tell him I said hey. Thanks, Mindy. Love you, too, babe. Bye.” She hung up, then turned to her three companions. “Looks like it’s just us girls. Everybody else is off watchin’ a gasoline tanker blow up. Men. What can you do?”
“I know what I’d like to do!” Daria snarled, the contraction finally ending. “I’d like to strangle someone for talking me into having her baby! I wish she was having her baby instead of me! I wish she was having twenty-pound twins, and I hope someday she does!”
“We’d better move it,” said Erin. “Where’s her shoes? And did she bring a coat? You bring a coat with you, baby?”
“I’m not your baby!” shouted Daria. “I’m having my idiot spouse’s baby! And I have to put my clothes on before I go anywhere, or I’m not going!”
That’s just the childbirth talking, Jane said to herself. She doesn’t really mean any of that. I still want to go outside and scream, though.
“Baby,” said Erin, “you’re not puttin’ on anything but a coat and shoes. You’re not puttin’ on pants or undies cause Junior Johnson’s comin’ down the runway real soon, and anything you put on’s gonna get ruined, trust me. We’re not goin’ to a fashion show, no one’s gonna care how you look, so where’s your jacket?”
“I don’t have one! We didn’t check the weather before we came down, and—”
“She can wear my raincoat,” said Quinn, quickly shucking it off and tossing it on the bed. “I’m a little taller than she is, so it’ll fit her okay except for her front.”
“Thanks.” Erin turned. “Daria, you gotta use the bathroom before we go?”
“No! I went all the way down here! I don’t have to go now!”
“You have diarrhea when you went?”
“What the hell are you asking me that for? Never mind, I’m not talking about it!”
“You know that’s one of the things that happens when the baby’s comin’,” said Erin. “When it drops, it presses on your insides and gives you the runs. Did you feel like the baby moved down today, like it dropped?”
“Yes! Yes, damn it!”
“Daria,” breathed Jane in shock. “You didn’t tell me that it—”
“I didn’t want to talk about it!” Daria yelled. “And I still don’t!”
“Okay,” said Erin. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“We’re leaving now?” Daria shouted wildly. “In the middle of a thunderstorm?”
“You want to have the baby in a hospital or here on the bed? Take your pick.”
“But it’s in the middle of . . . it’s . . . it’s too goddamn soon, I can’t take it, this is too goddamn soon and everything is such a mess and I don’t want it to be like this!!” Daria hammered the wall with her fists. “I hate it! It’s a total goddamn freaking piss-me-off sonofabitching goddamn MESS!”
“You’re right,” said Erin quietly. “It is a mess. Let it out, baby. Let all it out.”
Daria hammered once more, as hard as she could, then stopped pounding on the wall. She resumed her old position, leaning forward with her head resting on her forearms, but now she was sobbing aloud.
“Keep rubbing her back,” Erin reminded Jane and Quinn. She knelt down and began lifting Daria’s feet, sliding long socks over them before putting on the boots.
Jane felt horrible. Daria’s outbursts were bad enough, but now Daria had confessed she had been having symptoms of illness and premature labor all day long, symptoms that Jane knew were perfectly familiar to Daria because of the childbirth classes they’d attended, but her partner had said nothing about it, nothing at all. It was a betrayal of the relationship for Daria to not share any of this. How could that have happened? What had gone on in Daria’s mind that would make her do such a thing? Did she hate Jane in some irrational way?
She looked up from her massage work to peer at her partner’s face. Tears fell steadily from Daria’s chin, accompanied by a terrible, faint keening as she wept, the sound of a mother caught in the worst possible horror.
She’s terrified, Jane realized, aghast. She’s terrified that she’s losing the baby, just like she told me. This must be the worst moment of her entire life.
Jane stopped rubbing Daria’s back, quickly stepping close and putting her arms around the smaller girl. Daria turned and hugged her in return, wailing aloud and almost losing her glasses. Quinn moved in and hugged Daria from behind, and even Erin joined in the embrace.
“We’re going to make it,” Jane whispered fiercely. Burning tears ran down her face. “We’re all going to make it. I love you. I’ll always be with you. I swear I will.” If I don’t go insane, or maybe even if I do.
Daria did not speak, but she did not have to. They cried themselves out after a couple minutes, then Erin sent Daria to the bathroom one last time and sent Jane in with a washcloth to clean her up afterward, giving her careful instructions on how to do it. Then it was the pink raincoat that couldn’t be fastened in front, Daria putting her arms around the taller women at her sides, and Erin giving Quinn the keys to her rental car.
“It’s the red Pontiac Grand Am with the Virginia plates, about five cars down on the left as you go out the front,” said Erin. “Bring it up under the carport by the main lobby doors so we can get in without gettin’ wet. I woulda brought my Diablo, but I ran off the road comin’ home from a party a few days ago and totaled it. Insurance said it was covered, but it was a pain, I tell ya. Didn’t have a backseat, anyway.”
“I’m driving!” Quinn called, gripping the keys and her purse in one hand and holding the clean towels under the other arm. “You remember that I’m driving, right?”
“Sure, unless you want me to drive instead,” said Erin.
Quinn ran off down the corridor without giving a verbal response. Jane and Erin helped Daria out of the room.
“My back hurts so bad,” groaned Daria as the room door was pulled shut behind them by Jane. “It hurts worse when I walk.”
“That’s what happens,” said Erin. “It’s all normal. You’re doin’ fine, baby, doin’ fine. Just keep—”
Daria cried out again and almost sank to her knees as another contraction began.
“You know the fireman’s carry?” Erin said to Jane. Jane did, and they interlocked their hands, each hand gripping a wrist, to form a seat between them. They coaxed Daria to climb on and hold on, then they carefully lifted her and carried her along as they walked down the corridor toward the lobby. Motel guests backed against the walls to get out of their way, watching them go in surprise and concern.
Thunder boomed through the lobby as they crossed it, heading for the front doors. Outside, a red Grand Am rolled into view and stopped, its emergency blinkers on. A soaked Quinn got out of the driver’s side and ran around to open the front doors. As she did, something like a stone struck a window of the lobby. Two more hit the windows a second later, then a barrage of them battered the panes. Jane saw white, quarter-sized hail bouncing off the parking lot and driveway where the carport roof offered no protection.
The pounding increased as Jane and Erin carried Daria outside and carefully put her on her feet in front of the open rear door of the Grand Am. Erin got in the rear seat and helped Daria scoot in, easing her down to lay on her side. Quinn got back in the driver’s seat and buckled in. Erin motioned for Jane to come around and get in the car by Daria’s head, where Jane knelt in the cramped space on the floor, crouched over her spouse. Erin got in by Daria’s feet and got on the floor there, bracing herself against the back of the passenger seat.
Because of the noise from the hail, Erin had to shout to make herself heard by Quinn. “Take a right out of the parking lot onto the main road! Don’t go over thirty, we can’t buckle in back here! Continue down the road through the first four lights for three miles, then go left on Hathaway Road at the fifth light! The hospital’s two miles farther down! You can’t miss it!”
Quinn nodded and put the car in gear. As they exited the shelter of the carport, the hail became a deafening roar banging off the roof, hood, trunk, and windows of the car. Jane looked up from Daria to see out the rear window. The hail was over an inch across, and some pieces were bigger. This is nuts! she thought. This could break through the car windows! We should’ve stayed in the motel! I shouldn’t have let Erin—
Daria pulled on Jane’s sweater. Jane leaned over her lover, who rose up from the car seat to say into her ear: “What in the hell are we doing?”
“Getting you to a hospital.” If we don’t run off the road and die on the way—I AM NOT THINKING THIS, NOT AT ALL!
“Are you out of your goddamn—” The hail drowned out the rest of Daria’s sentence, though Jane was able to fill in the blanks by lip-reading. Ouch.
“You doin’ okay up there, Quinn?” Erin called when the hail let up briefly.
“I can hardly see the road!” Quinn yelled back. “This wasn’t such a good idea!”
“No shit, Einstein!” Daria yelled, almost sitting up on the back seat before Jane pushed her back down.
“Keep going!” Erin said.
The car braked suddenly and skidded, hydroplaning on the wet highway, then the tires caught and they continued on. Her heart in her throat, Jane resisted the urge to get up and see where they were going. It was too dark and rainy to see very far, and Daria was clutching her sweater too tightly for Jane to get up, anyway.
More braking, more skidding, more pulse-pounding moments that seemed to last forever. Erin said something, but Jane couldn’t understand her over the nonstop banging of hail on the car. Flickers of lightning illuminated Daria’s hair and her terrified face.
We might not make it. The thought came unbidden to Jane’s mind. We might not make it. We might die in a wreck only seconds from now. We might lose the baby and go crazy. We might not survive in any way, shape, or form. We are leaves blown through the night in a hurricane, and no one will remember us long after we are gone. We are nothing but our fears.
But here, at this moment, she needs me.
What should I do?
Jane’s fear fell away. She kissed Daria on the cheek. “I love you,” she said with feeling. “Our baby’s going to be all right. I love you.”
Daria buried her face into Jane’s neck. The lightning and noise and motions of the car seemed to recede. It became quiet around them. The center of stillness held on as the storm raged outside. Daria had another contraction. Jane held her and shielded her, whispering encouragement, helping her breathe. The contraction passed.
I love you. I love you. I—
The car braked and stopped. Jane could not tell if the engine was running, the hail was so deafeningly loud.
“I can’t get any closer to the emergency room entrance!” Quinn yelled. “Cars are parked all over the place!”
“Drive around to the right!” shouted Erin, peering over the back of the seat. “Go to the main entrance, the non-emergency one!”
Quinn spun the wheel. The car climbed over some obstacle, possibly a center median in the road, then continued on at a crawl. The hail lightened.
truck is in the way!” shouted Quinn. “It won’t move!”
Erin looked. “Drive up on the sidewalk! Go right up to the door under that roof overhang! Go on! It’s a rental car, anyway, and we have to get in!”
The car jumped as—Jane guessed—Quinn drove it up on the sidewalk. Abruptly the hail ceased. The engine shut off.
Doors opened. Light spilled into the car. “C’mon!” Erin shouted. “Get out of the car and get her inside!”
A flurry of activity took place. Jane’s legs cramped as she tried to leave the car, but she forced herself out and put an arm around her staggering spouse as they went through the glass doors into the building. People called to them, asked questions, brought over a wheelchair. Daria was seated in it, and Jane found herself hurrying behind it down a chaotic hospital corridor with Quinn and Erin and dozens of doctors and nurses and everyone else in the world going a thousand directions at once. Then, with breathtaking suddenness, they were in the emergency room and were deposited like flotsam on the most distant corner of the long back row of chairs in the waiting room, surrounded by crying infants and angry parents and bored children and tattooed bikers and snoring old people and ugly people staring at them in the rudest way. Everything came to a stop.
“How long will it be until she gets seen?” Jane called to the departing nurse. “Hey! Can she . . . hey! Damn it!”
“Truck accident,” said the nearest tattooed biker, a middle-aged woman in a jeans jacket with the sleeves cut off. “They brought a whole bunch of people in a few minutes ago.” She peered at Daria in the wheelchair, still wearing Quinn’s pink raincoat. “She about to have a baby, or what?”
“Wait here,” said Erin. “Lemme get someone.” She hurried off, bumping into chairs and people until she reached the nurses’ station across the room and cut to the front of the long line there.
“I’d better call Mom and Dad,” said Quinn, her lap full of clean towels. She took out her cell phone, thumbed in a speed-dial number, and held it to her ear, waiting.
“Daria,” Jane whispered, bending down, “can I get you anything?”
Looking down at her lap, Daria shook her head no. Jane put her hand over Daria’s forehead, noting how hot it was to the touch.
“Mom?” said Quinn. “Mom, listen. No, don’t hang up! Don’t—Muuuh-ooom!” Quinn sneered as she thumbed in another number. “See if Dad’s got his cell phone on . . . Dad? Dad, listen to me, this is important. No, don’t let Mom get the phone! I don’t care about that, Dad! The fight isn’t important! The funeral isn’t important, either! Daria’s having her baby! I said, Daria’s having her baby! Right now! Now, Dad! We’re at the hospital in Leeville and—Dad! Stop crying and pay attention to me, damn it!”
Jane looked up. Erin was walking back with an older nurse behind her. Something was odd about the way Erin carried herself—her hunched shoulders, the way her hands were wringing together in front of her, the anxiety in her face. What’s wrong? What happened? Where’s her confidence?
The nurse crouched down in front of Daria’s wheelchair. Daria looked up from her seat with tired eyes.
“You think you’re having your baby early?” the nurse began.
“I don’t know,” Daria muttered. “After that drive over here, I don’t even believe I’m still alive.”
The nurse snorted. “What kind of symptoms are you having?”
“My back hurts, I’m having contractions every eight minutes or so, I think I’m bleeding a little, my head—”
“Okay, did you try drinking three glasses of water and lying down on your side?”
“I drank some water and I was lying down before the contractions started, but—”
“Erin says you’re six weeks away, is that right?”
“Uh, yeah. I’m so tired, I just want to lie down.”
The nurse stood up and gave Erin a look of ice-cold fury. “Why’d you bring her out here?”
“Wha—she’s got a fever, Miz Austen! She thinks her water broke this mornin’ in the shower, and she’s got all the symptoms, just like you were teaching us when—back in—when I was in your nursing—”
“And you’re drunk, too,” snapped the nurse. “I can smell it all over you. God damn you for putting this young woman in jeopardy like you’ve done. If you’d just left her to lie down on her side for a while, the contractions would’ve gone away in half an hour, but instead you’ve got to drag her out in this ungodly weather, and put her and her baby and her friends in danger because you don’t know false labor from real. Even a retarded chimp has more brains than you do. You were the worst nursing student I’d ever had, and you’re still the dumbest, most worthless piece of shit on two legs.”
Jane’s mouth fell open. Erin was a head job, for sure, but did she deserve this? Or was the head nurse right, and Erin’s actions had been thoughtless? What should she do?
“I swear to God,” the nurse continued, jabbing a finger at Erin, “if anything bad happens to this young woman, I’ll see that it comes back to you. I’ll go to the police and have you arrested for endangerment and public intoxication and anything else I can make stick. I swear it. Now, you go sleep it off in a chair somewhere and leave these people alone, and when you’re sober, you get a cab and get your sorry ass out of here. You can drink and drug yourself to death at home without killing everyone else, too. You’ve done enough harm to last three lifetimes. Just get out of here! Go on!”
A pall of silence had fallen across the waiting room by the time the nurse was done. Her face blank with horror, Erin stepped back and stared at the older nurse. She glanced for an instant at Daria, Jane, and Quinn, as if wishing to explain herself, then looked back at the nurse with a dead expression, swallowed, and turned away. She bumped into a chair as she left, then her speed picked up and she ran down a side corridor and out of sight, her sandals slapping the tiles.
The nurse turned back with a sigh. “I’m gonna find you three a room with a bed and some chairs,” she said. “I’m sorry for what happened, she’s such a moron, but we’ll give you a place to rest. When you’re feeling better, we’ll arrange to have you taken home, or wherever you were before she dragged you out here. This should never have happened. Just wait here and I’ll take care of you.” She pointed to Quinn. “And you need to shut that phone off, honey. It interferes with our equipment. I’ll be back.” The nurse left, striding back to the main station at the front of the emergency room.
Quinn slowly raised the cell phone to her ear again. “Dad,” she said dully, watching the nurse leave, “I’ll have to call you back. No, we’re okay. I have to go. Bye, Dad. Sorry.” She snapped the phone off and shut it.
Jane turned to Daria and held her hands. She could not think of a thing to say.
Daria looked down at her lap and was silent.
“Do you think I should go find Erin?” Quinn asked nervously.
No one answered.
“I gave her back her car keys,” Quinn added. “She’s probably long gone.”
“She might be around here somewhere,” said Daria. She stiffened, gritting her teeth. “Damn it,” she whispered. “Another one.”
Jane held her hands. She looked over her shoulder around the waiting room, but Erin had not returned.
The older nurse was on her way back, however. “Come on,” she said when she got to them. “We’ve got a little side room for you. It’s not very big, but it’s got a gurney bed we can lower so Momma can get up on it. It’s comfortable enough. I’ve slept on ‘em before, I guess I’d know.”
Jane and Quinn got up and followed the nurse, who wheeled Daria ahead of them toward the E.R. rooms. Jane looked back once more before they went into the side room the nurse indicated. No Erin.
A few minutes later, after gulping down a large glass of water, Daria lay on her left side on the gurney bed, minus the pink raincoat, the boots, and her glasses. The bed railings were up and a light sheet had been pulled over her. Quinn sank into a nearby chair, setting the towels, purse, and raincoat on a wheeled cart.
“I’ll be back in a while to check on you,” said the nurse, heading for the door. “There’s too much else going on tonight.”
“Wait,” Jane said. “Daria’s got a fever. Can someone take her temperature?”
“A fever?” The nurse looked at Daria and frowned. “You sure?”
“I’m fricking burning up!” Daria growled, her face flushed. “I was trying to tell you that!”
“Erin said she was sick,” Quinn muttered.
“Well,” said the nurse, but she didn’t finish her thought. She left, leaving the door open. “Shane?” she called in the hallway. “Can you get a disposable thermometer and come over here?”
“Coming,” a young man called. Footsteps sounded in the hall. After taking whispered instructions outside the room, a tall, gangly, twenty-something male nurse came in. “Hey,” he said to everyone in general as he walked over to the gurney. He pulled a paper rectangle from his shirt pocket, tore it open, and pulled out a thin white strip of plastic. “Put this under your tongue,” he told Daria. She did, he spent half a minute checking his watch, then took the strip out and held it up. He stared at it, then frowned and squinted hard. “Whoa,” he said, and he was at the doorway in an eye blink. “Hey,” he called, “she’s got a temp of a hundred and two.”
“She what?” the older nurse called from down the hall. “Well, goddamn it. Go get one of the doctors out of the office and bring ‘im back there to take a look at her. See if Doctor Meyers is there, he’s an OB-GYN.”
“Be right back,” said the young man, and he hurried off.
Quinn and Jane both got to their feet to stand by Daria’s gurney, stroking her damp hair and holding her hands.
“Don’t get so close,” warned Daria. “You’ll catch this.”
“So sue me,” said Jane. If I get sick, at least I’ll have an excuse to stay home from classes. I’ll need a vacation after this.
“I mean it,” said Daria, who didn’t sound as if she meant it. “Keep your distance.”
“Oh, right, like I’m really going to abandon my sick pregnant sister in a hick town emergency room,” said Quinn. “I’ve been sick before, so tough noogies. Better to get my germs from you than from some people I know.”
“I don’t know why they’re so surprised about me being sick,” Daria grumbled. “Erin told them I was sick. She’s a better nurse drunk than they are sober. The people are idiots around here.”
Jane raised an eyebrow. Did I actually hear Daria defend Erin? Either she’s so sick that she’s become delusional, or else—
“I hope Erin’s okay,” said Quinn. “I never saw her so shaken up. I can’t believe that lady talked to her like that.”
Jane ran her fingers through Daria’s short hair, lightly massaging her neck. Daria turned her head and looked up at her spouse.
“You want me to go check on her?” said Jane softly. Say yes and get it over with. She’s probably miles away by now.
Daria nodded. “Would you? You’ve talked to her. Get her to come back if she’s still around.”
Delusional. I knew it. Jane nodded as if agreeing to Daria’s request.
“I’ll go get her,” said Quinn.
“You just got here,” said Daria, looking up at her sister. “Jane’s put up with more than enough from my big mouth already, so it’s your turn to be abused.”
“Gee, thanks.” Quinn put a hand on Jane’s arm. “Sneak her in here, okay?”
“Sure.” Jane sighed. That was sweet of Daria to say, but this mess is never going to end. I really do need to go outside and scream for a while. We could be here all night and—oh, shit, shit, shit. “I forgot about the funeral tomorrow,” she groaned.
“I think this is more important than the funeral,” said Quinn. She looked down at Daria. “Want me to rub your back, sis?”
“Please. I think I’m going to have another contraction.” Daria gave Jane a last look. “Hurry. I don’t want Erin to do anything stupid.”
Jane almost laughed, but she was too tired. “I love you, Sunshine.”
“We love you, too.” Daria managed a faint smile as Jane left the room—then grimaced and inhaled sharply. Quinn moved in and took her sister’s hands in her own. Daria shut her eyes and began hyperventilating as the pain intensified. Her grip on Quinn’s hands grew stronger as she trembled, teeth clenched.
“Oh, no!” Daria gasped. “Something’s happening!”
“What?” cried Quinn, who knew perfectly well what was happening.
“It’s coming!” Daria huffed a few times more. She rolled over on her back, knees up. “The baby’s coming! I can feel it! It’s coming! Get Jane quick! Go—augh!”
Jane was nowhere in sight, but Quinn’s brief, piercing scream brought doctors, nurses, and technicians aplenty, and they were of more help than Jane could have been for all that followed, for every single thing . . . but one.
There was no sign of Erin in the hall leading away from the E.R. waiting room, but Jane hurried in that direction nonetheless, looking for Daria’s cousin in every open room. A side corridor led back to the main hospital entrance where Erin’s rental car had been abandoned, and Jane went that way on a hunch. I know this isn’t going to end well, she thought. Erin’s gone, Daria will have complications, I’ll get strep, the funeral will be a disaster, and then things will take a turn for the worse. The tune for Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” came to mind unbidden.
The hospital’s main entrance was clear of vehicles, including Erin’s car. The hail had ceased, but the rain came down as hard as before. Jane pushed through the glass front doors of the hospital and walked out under the overhanging roof to see if the red Grand Am was anywhere in sight, though she couldn’t imagine it would be.
To her astonishment, it was. The Grand Am was parked by the curb about a hundred feet from the entrance, its lights out as the rain beat on it without end. Someone sat in the driver’s seat, silhouetted through the windows by the parking lot lights.
Jane looked up at the falling torrent, knew she had no umbrella, and sighed—then stepped out from the overhang and walked to the Grand Am, too tired to run and too tired to care. By the time she reached the passenger-side door, she was soaked from bangs to socks. She crouched and rapped on the side window with her knuckles, seeing Erin in the driver’s seat. Erin jumped. She had something in her right hand, which she quickly hid between her legs. With her left hand, she fumbled with the door buttons and rolled down the passenger window.
Jane stuck her head in. “Mind if I come in out of the rain?” she asked.
Erin hesitated several seconds, then nodded somberly and unlocked the door with another button. Jane got inside, plunked herself in the passenger seat, and slammed the door. Every movement she made was accompanied by squishing noises. After wiping the rain off her face and pulling back her wet black bangs, she looked at Erin and said, “Sorry about the mess. I’ll clean it up later, promise.” The rain thundered around them.
“Forget it,” said Erin softly. “Why’re you out here?”
“To get you.”
Erin shook her head, looking ahead through the windshield. “I’m fine right here. I’ve screwed up enough stuff for one day.”
“No, you haven’t,” said Jane—then rolled her eyes with a stricken look. “I meant, no, you didn’t screw up anything. You were right about Daria’s fever.”
Erin shrugged, not making eye contact.
“Daria wants you back,” said Jane. “So does Quinn, and so do I. That nurse had no right telling you what she did. We want you back with us.”
“I’m okay here.” Erin started to jiggle her right leg, still keeping her right hand hidden from view. “I don’t deserve to go back in.”
“That’s not true. Daria was sick, like you said. She has a temperature of a hundred and two. You were right all along.”
Erin’s knee stopped wagging. She looked at Jane. “What’re they doin’ for her?”
“I don’t know. Daria sent me out to get you before we found out. She said you’re a better nurse than the nurses are here. Come on back in, okay?”
“I’m not a better nurse,” Erin said sullenly. “Miz Austen was right, I’m a dumb piece of shit. A dumb, drunken piece of—”
“Erin, stop it. Daria really wants you. She wasn’t the same after you ran off. I think she’s scared to be without you. She wants you with us, whatever happens.” It’s plausible, I guess. Daria does want her back, but I can embellish it a bit for effect.
“Heh,” said Erin with a humorless laugh. “I can’t go back to the motel, anyway. Madison’ll be cryin’ all night, and I’ll never get to sleep. I was dumber than dumb to get you all into this mess. I can’t believe it. I’m so sorry. I’m so—”
Okay, okay, enough drunken prattle. “Erin, please come back.” Jane put a hand on Erin’s right arm. “It would mean so much to Daria if you . . .” She stopped. When her hand touched Erin, Erin closed her eyes and bit her lip, as if in terrible pain. “What’s the matter?” Jane whispered. “Are you okay?”
Erin shook her head. She sniffed hard, her eyes bright with tears. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice breaking. “I’m so sorry for what I did. I can’t ever make it up to you.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong, Erin.” Aside from getting wasted and almost killing us, but what the hell, we all make mistakes.
Erin stared at the steering wheel, still biting her lips.
I’ll have to be careful, Jane thought. I don’t want her to run off or, worse, throw me out of the car. “Come back inside,” she said. “You’re family. You belong with us.”
Erin shook her head, her face tight. “Please go,” she whispered.
“Sorry, cousin, if I can get away with calling you that. I’m staying here until you come back inside with me. Besides, I don’t want to get any wetter than I already am.”
A chuckle burst from Erin’s lips, quickly extinguished. She raised her left hand and wiped at her eyes. “I’m such a mess,” she said.
“We’re all a mess, but you helped Daria a lot tonight. She has a bad fever, and you got us here so she could be taken care of. It was the right thing to do.”
Erin shook her head. “I’m such a mess,” she repeated. Her right hand came up to wipe her eyes, too, though it was holding a dull black stub-nose handgun with the hammer pulled back, her index finger across the trigger.
Everything ceased to exist in Jane’s vision except that gun.
“I’m such a friggin’ mess,” said Erin, the gun by the side of her head as she wiped away her tears with her fingers. “I can’t take it anymore.”
“Please be careful,” Jane whispered, watching the gun.
Erin sniffed hard, swallowed. “Tell everyone I’m sorry,” she said.
“No. Erin, wait, don’t—”
“I’m so sorry.” The handgun rotated in the beautiful brunette’s grip, the barrel swinging in a short arc toward her breastbone.
Jane lunged for the gun, but her left hand struck Erin’s shoulder and her right hand did nothing more than shove the firearm off-target to the left. Erin tried to bring the gun around again. Fueled by panic and half out of her seat, Jane fought to get the weapon, screaming NO DON’T DO IT DON’T at the top of her lungs when the gun fired—
—and high-octane terror gave her all the additional strength she needed. When she was sane again and the adrenaline had mostly drained away, Jane found that she had wedged both the gun and Erin’s right hand against the driver’s door in an iron grip. A screaming whine rang in her ears. The smoking gun barrel was pointed away toward the undamaged front windshield. The air stank of burnt gunpowder. Erin was pinned hard against the back of her seat by Jane’s lean, wiry body, one long runner’s leg jammed into the dashboard and one knee braced against the gearshift.
Is it over? Am I shot? Is she dead? What the hell happened?
Rain ran down the windows. No one spoke.
Jane slowly pried the handgun from Erin’s unresisting fingers, then pushed away and fell exhausted into her own seat. She looked dumbly at the weapon, saw the safety switch, and clicked it on. She examined herself and found she was uninjured. Placing the gun in the space between her seat and the passenger door, Jane got up again and bent over Erin, who covered her face with her hands as she wept. It took a few moments longer to feel down Erin’s body, searching for the warm sticky wetness of blood, but there was none to be found. A round hole had been punched into the car seat an inch away from Erin’s left breast, however.
Jane pulled Erin into a soggy hug.
When Erin had cried herself out, Jane wiped off her beautiful face with the damp sleeves of her sweater. “Come inside with me right now,” Jane said. It wasn’t a request.
Erin sniffed and looked down.
“You’re going to have to climb over the gearshift and my seat and everything,” said Jane. “I want you to come out my door.” If I run around to your door, you might lock me out of the car. I don’t trust you at all.
Jane pulled back, picked up the gun by her seat, then opened the car door to the rain. She heard the roaring of water and moments later spotted a storm sewer drain by the curb, about five feet away. On impulse, she got out of the car and swung her arm, tossing the gun into the drain. The weapon clanked off an iron grating, then fell into the darkness and water and was gone. Jane then turned to Erin and helped her crawl out of the car. After shutting the door behind them, they walked back to the hospital entrance in the downpour, Jane’s right arm firmly around Erin’s waist to keep her close.
“Did you all hear something like a gunshot?” a man asked when they entered the hospital.
“No,” said Jane.
“I thought I heard something like it.” The man shrugged. “Oh, well.”
Jane directed Erin into a restroom, where they cleaned themselves up under Jane’s watchful eye. I cannot freaking believe this, she thought. I absolutely cannot believe this. I cannot. She began to get pissed.
“I’m sorry,” said Erin, clearly depressed.
“I know. Don’t go on about it.”
“You can have my share of money from Grandma’s will,” Erin added. “You can have all of it. I don’t want it.”
“I don’t want the damn money, either. It’s not my money.” Did I say that?
“Sorry, right. Look, I’ve got something to say to you, and you’re going to hear it now before we get one step farther.”
Erin nodded, downcast and drained.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” Jane said. She struggled with what she should say next, then reached out and grabbed Erin firmly by the shoulders and shouted, “Don’t you ever do that again! Don’t you ever!”
Erin blanched and did not look up.
“I want you to get help,” said Jane in a tight voice. “If you ever hurt yourself like that, after all the good you’ve done for us, it would kill Daria, not to mention your mom and everyone else in the family, and that includes me. And we have a baby coming. A baby, Erin! You would never hurt a baby, would you? Would you?”
White faced, Erin shook her head no.
“I know you wouldn’t, but you . . . you . . . God damn it, you are going to promise me that you aren’t going ever to try to hurt yourself anymore, not ever, not even once, and you’re going to make that promise to me right now, before we leave here, or else we’re not leaving here at all!”
Erin did not react. She appeared paralyzed with fear and indecision.
Jane’s grip eased, but her voice was hard. Her face came very close to Erin’s. “Look at me. Look at me, Erin. I won’t give up on you. You’re part of my family now that Daria and I are married, and even though I make jokes about it, I take family very seriously. You helped Daria and our baby tonight. You did a brave and wonderful thing, you took a big risk, and it paid off. We owe you, and we’ll never forget it, but you made a commitment to our baby, and you have to stay around to fulfill it. Make a promise, Erin; I want you to promise our baby that you won’t hurt yourself again. Promise, Erin.”
“I promise,” Erin whispered.
“Say it louder. Look me in the eyes and tell me, Erin. Promise our baby you’ll be around. You made a commitment to our baby’s future. Say it!”
Jane’s voice seemed to shake Erin from within. “I promise I won’t try to hurt myself,” she said in a shaky voice.
“For the sake of our baby. For the rest of our baby’s life. Say it.”
Erin was shaking. Tears ran down her face. “I promise for the sake of your baby,” she said. “I swear I won’t do it, I won’t hurt myself.”
“Thank you,” Jane whispered. She pulled Erin into a hug and held her as close as possible.
Which started Erin crying all over again.
Ten minutes later, as they prepared to leave the restroom, Erin ran a hand through her tangled brown hair and said, “Jane, can I ask you something?”
“Uh, sure.” Don’t suddenly decide you’re into women and make a move on me, please. I’ll go insane and kill you with my bare hands.
“Do you have an older sister named Summer?”
Jane froze in horror. Oh, great, she knows about her mom and Summer, too. That’s just great. She exhaled, put her hands on her hips, and looked at the floor. “Yes,” she said woodenly. “My oldest sister.”
“Oh.” Erin almost laughed. “Then I guess we’re kinda like family already, huh? Mom said she had this special friend or somethin’ that—”
“Erin, don’t,” said Jane sharply. “Just don’t. Leave it alone.”
“Oh, it’s okay,” said Erin with a fragile smile. “I just thought it was funny, that’s all.” She forced a laugh. “That’s my mom for ya. Anyone and everyone, everyone but my dad, that is.”
Jane sighed—and smiled. “She sure knows how to pick ‘em, doesn’t she?”
Erin burst out laughing. “Yeah, she does, right! She does know how to pick ‘em.”
“I don’t want to deal with it,” said Jane. “And I don’t think you want to deal with it, and neither of us wants to deal with the other one trying to deal with it, so let’s not deal with it. Let’s let it go, okay?”
Giggling, Erin nodded agreement. “It’s funny, I was just wonderin’ if you and I should—”
“God, I am so not listening to this! Not another word! Out! Go! Now!”
Halfway down the hall toward the emergency room, Erin said, “Jane—”
“I am not telling anyone anything about what happened, and I wouldn’t even under torture, but you have to get help. You promised our baby you’d be there, Erin.”
“I know, I will.” Erin coughed, then added, “I was going to say thanks.”
“Oh.” After a moment, Jane said, “You’re welcome.”
When they got to the emergency room, Jane tried to lead Erin back to the little room where Daria and Quinn had been waiting. A male nurse with a badge that read “Shane” stopped them.
“We’re looking for Daria and Quinn Morgendorffer,” said Jane. “Daria’s pregnant, short brown hair, glasses—well, she didn’t have glasses on when—”
“Oh,” said the male nurse. “They’re up in the childbirth unit.”
Jane’s eyes grew to the size of teacup saucers and her mouth fell open. “What?” she shouted.
“They’re in the childbirth unit on the second floor, next to the Women’s Health Center.”
“Daria’s havin’ her baby?” cried Erin. “Really?”
“Oh, no!” Jane turned and ran for the main corridor, looking for the elevators. “Oh, no! Oh, no!”
Erin caught up with her at the elevators. The ride to the second floor took about six years. When the doors opened, Jane bolted out and looked about wildly. “Where is it?” she cried. “Where are we supposed to go?”
“Left! No, left! Go down the hall that way!”
They saw signs for the childbirth unit and hurried through the doors to the main desk, next to a lightly populated waiting room. “Is Daria Morgendorffer here?” yelled Jane. “She’s having our baby!”
The receptionist looked at Jane in astonishment. “She’s what?”
“Daria Morgendorffer, has she had our baby yet? Where is she?”
“I certainly remember you,” said the receptionist to Erin with a frown, “but I don’t remember you.” She gave Jane a critical look. “Who are you?”
“We’re Daria’s family, Teresa!” Erin interrupted. “I swear to God we are, and we’re supposed to be in the birthin’ room with her! You’ve got to get us in there right this second!”
The receptionist looked from Erin to Jane and back. She reached for a phone. “Trouble is your shadow, Erin Danielson,” she said. “I think Security should handle this.”
A burst of impolite commentary was about to fall from Jane’s lips when Erin said in a loud voice, “Teresa Ann Gilbert, you better go get one of them nurses out here this instant, or I’ll get on the phone and call a certain toll-free phone number and spill everything I know about your uncle and that little farm he’s got growin’ up in his attic, you hear me? If you call Security, I’ll tell them, I’ll tell the police, I’ll tell everyone!” She pointed down a hallway in dramatic fashion. “Now, you get up and go get a nurse from delivery so we can get in there with Daria! I am not kiddin’ you! Go!”
Red-faced with fury, the receptionist put down the phone, then got up and walked down the hall to a door, pushing it open to go inside. A dozen people in the waiting room looked on with rising interest.
“What just happened?” Jane said, stunned.
“Take too long to explain,” said Erin. “Just go with it.”
The receptionist came back out into the hall, followed by a female nurse. “Jane Lane?” the nurse called. “Are you Daria’s partner?”
Jane raised a hand and hurried over, Erin behind her. They ignored the receptionist’s poisonous look.
“She’ll get over it,” said Erin later. “Everybody knows ‘bout his pot farm. She just gets p.o.’ed hearin’ about it all the time.”
The nurse got Jane and Erin washed up, dressed them in thin green gowns, and gave them caps for their heads and sterile breathing masks and gloves.
“She’s not had the baby yet,” warned the nurse, “but she’s close. Everything’s okay so far. She’s been asking for you, Jane, since she got up here. Her sister’s trying to coach her, but I think she’s a little flustered.”
“I can handle it,” said Jane, and she knew she could. It was her baby coming, hers and Daria’s, their own baby. She had no more doubts and questions because it was her brother’s genetic material and not hers. It just didn’t matter. It was their baby. Her baby.
“Thank you again, Jane,” said Erin. “For what you did.”
“Sure,” said Jane, feeling light-headed. “Anytime.”
“Are you ready?” asked the nurse, her hand on a door.
Jane and Erin both nodded.
The nurse opened the door. Beyond was a crowd of doctors and nurses around a young woman with short brown hair lying on a birthing table, holding the hand of a terrified-looking redheaded girl. Both of them had white sterile masks on.
“Daria!” called Jane.
“Jane?” Daria cried through her mask. “JANE!”
“I’m here!” Jane was by Daria’s side and caught her partner’s hands and held on tight. Together.
“Ready to push, Daria?” asked a doctor.
Daria nodded, her red face slick with sweat and her hair plastered flat to her scalp—much like Jane’s, Erin’s, and Quinn’s hair at this point.
“Okay,” said the doctor, “whenever you’re ready!”
Daria took a deep breath. “I love you!” she said to Jane.
“I love you, too!”
Daria clenched her teeth, shut her eyes, and pushed—and then screamed as loud as she possibly could.
One minute later, so did their baby.
Jane heard them coming from the moment they left the elevators down the hall. She gave a beatific smile as she slowly pushed back in the rocking chair.
“Which way are we supposed to go, gah damn it?” came Jake Morgendorffer’s distant voice. “My daughter’s having a baby! Why can’t we get any service here?”
“Jake, please!” Helen cried. “I’m on the phone!”
“Would you keep the noise down?” a nurse shouted back. “Patients are trying to sleep! And turn off that cell phone!”
“This way, Helen! We’re coming, Daria!”
“Jake! I’m sorry, Amy, but there’s no way I’ll do that. The very idea of working out a compromise with Rita is ridiculous. There are bigger principles involved than reaching a settlement. Yes, I know the legal fees for a will contest come out of the estate! You know what it is, Amy? You’re greedy. Yes! That’s what I—hello? Amy?”
Doors banged open. Footsteps approached.
“I can’t believe it! She hung up on me! Well, if she wants to see Daria, she can drive over in the rain by herself!”
“Hey, kiddo, we’re here! Dad and Mom! Kiddo, where are y—?”
The door to the little room where Jane sat opened. Jake and Helen Morgendorffer came in—and came to an abrupt halt as they looked around.
An exhausted Daria slept under a large blanket in the hospital bed, a sterile mask covering her nose and mouth. An IV drip ran under the blanket into her left arm. As dead to the world as her sister, Quinn lay curled up in a large chair next to the IV feed, her open pink raincoat draped over her so only the top of her red-haired head showed. On the other side of the bed, Erin lay sprawled over another chair, her head and her mouth open as she snored softly. A women’s magazine was about to fall from her lap to the floor.
Jane alone looked up, her face aglow. It seemed as if every weight had been lifted from her, and she had become a new person within her skin. It was her eyes, however, that commanded Helen and Jake’s attention: a radiant blue as pure as the sea and sky, as beautiful as the Earth in space—as blue as the blanket that wrapped the baby she held.
“Hi, Grandma and Grandpa,” she whispered. “Here to see our little boy?” She looked down at the scrunched-up, shut-eyed, pink face nursing from the bottle she held. The newborn’s fingers curled around one of her little fingers. Her blissful smile grew.
“Quinton Trent Erin Morgendorffer-Lane,” she said, “we have company.”