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Reality CheckTo Susan B. Townsend's previous piece


I pulled my maternity jeans out of the drawer and held them up. In five months, I knew I'd hate them. I'd want to burn them, but right now, I slipped them on under my nightgown eagerly and ran my hands over my slightly rounded stomach. It was a relief to shed my regular, tight clothes, but I refused to make the switch until I knew - knew that this baby would live. Last time, I felt the first flickers of life within me, and then, only days later, I discovered the baby had no brain. No brain equaled no hope, and my baby was washed down the drain like leftovers on a dinner plate.

This time, I had seen the ultrasound myself. I saw the straight spine, a perfect white railroad track of tiny bones, ending at the top with a smooth, round skull. I watched the heart beating its impatient rhythm, and I relaxed for the first time in sixteen weeks.

Two weeks ago, we moved into our brand-new, custom-built house. Five huge bedrooms and three color-coordinated bathrooms for me, my husband Chris, and our two kids. Years of dreaming, months of planning, and seven weeks from the day they broke ground to the day we moved in. I still couldn't believe it. In less than a year, I'd be thirty-five, and I had everything I'd ever wanted. Almost everything, I supposed. In high school, I used to tell my friends I wanted a good man, a good dog and a house full of kids. Now when I told my friends about my teenage ambitions, I said that I almost made it because I got the dog and the kids. They always laughed, but they didn't know I meant it.

We'd lived in this town for eight years. While Chris did his thing, I created a life for the children and me. When there's a population of only 2800, everyone pretty much knows what everyone else is doing. A three block trip to the post office might take over an hour because you're bound to run into at least ten people you know.

I shared coffee and secrets with half a dozen other women, women who had kids the same age as mine, who helped me run the hot lunch program at the elementary school, and who agonized over their husband's infidelities at my kitchen table. Maybe Chris wasn't the man of my dreams but at least he knew how to keep his dick in his pants. He was too busy growing dope and stealing other guys' wood to be screwing around on me.

I had no time for pot, and when I met Chris, he said that his days were numbered, too. A bad habit from the old days, he told me, and I believed him - for awhile anyway. As for stealing wood, Chris was one of those guys who was always looking for a quicker, easier way to make money. Why break your back, he figured, when someone else could do it for you? All you needed was a mill owner who looked the other way and never asked for a scale slip.

The doorbell rang and I froze. Who the hell could it be at six-thirty in the morning? When I reached the top of the stairs, I saw Mike Cain through the glass panel beside the front door. Mike was one of the cops in town. I knew most of them. We all did. Damn you, Chris, I thought. Busted. I knew it. Shit, I just knew it.

I unlocked the door and opened it. Mike nodded in acknowledgment and cleared his throat. "Hi, Mike," I said. "What's going on?" You asshole, Chris. I told you a hundred times you'd get caught someday, and now it's happened.

Mike shifted his weight from one thick, black shoe to the other. When he opened his mouth, I fought the urge to put my hands over my ears like a toddler who's being told to take a bath. I didn't want to hear anything he had to say. "There's been an accident," he said.

I looked down at my nightgown pulled over my jeans, and I wondered if Mike could see my breasts through the sheer white material. I stared at the tiny bulge in my stomach and I wanted to slam the door. Maybe if I went back up the stairs and stood in front of the mirror, I could have a do over. I could find a shirt to go with my jeans, wake my kids up for school and go on with my Thursday. Thursday was my turn to read at the kindergarten. I needed to make cupcakes for my daughter's class party.

Instead, I nodded as if Mike came to my door every morning with the same announcement. "We're not absolutely sure what happened yet," he said, "but it looks like Chris fell asleep at the wheel and hit a tree."

I nodded again and backed up, allowing Mike to step into the foyer. I sat down in one of the wicker chairs by the door and put my head in my hands. "Is he going to be okay?" I said and looked up.

"He was alive and conscious when we put him on the ambulance. His head and chest hit the steering wheel of the van on impact, so he may have sustained some internal injuries." He shook his head. "I'm not allowed to tell you anything else." His shoulders lifted briefly in a self-conscious shrug. "Liability, I guess."

"Shit," I said. "I can't believe this." I stood up. "I've got to go see him."

"I'll make sure you get to the hospital. I don't want you to drive. We'll find someone." He paused, and I knew there was more. So much more. He was going to keep opening his mouth and saying crap I didn't want to hear. "The accident occurred about one o'clock this morning. On one of the old logging roads about fifteen miles out of town. What was Chris doing out there in the middle of the night?"

Chris had told me what to say if anyone ever asked. I had rehearsed this one, and I kept my voice calm. "Well, you know how hot and dry it's been, Mike. Chris likes to go out really early and start cutting as soon as the sun comes up. Get some extra hours in. You know the forester won't let them run their saws past noon. Sometimes he even leaves when I go to bed and sleeps for a few hours until daylight." Come on, Mike, I thought. Tell me what was in the back of the van. He was doling out information with the same agonizing slowness my father used to hand out the Christmas presents. Just like then, I wanted it to yell, "Come on what are you waiting for?."

"There's one more thing," he said and a wave of nausea buckled my knees and forced me back into the chair. "There was a passenger." Saliva rushed into my mouth, and I pictured myself vomiting all over his glossy black shoes and perfectly pressed pants. His next words came out as a whisper, but I heard them as a shout. "She didn't make it."

It felt like a game. If I didn't react enough to one statement, Mike would come up with something new. Maybe I should drop to my knees and start sobbing. Then he might shut up and stop throwing these grenades at me. "She?" I said.

He glanced behind him as if hoping that someone else stood there, someone who might have easier or better words. He took a deep breath. "Laurel Carson," he said and exhaled. "Her wallet was in her jacket pocket and I've just come from notifying her family."

What family? I thought. Laurel lived with her two kids just outside of town. Her boy came over to play sometimes, but Laurel and I had never been very good friends. I knew she'd traded dope for firewood with Chris a few times, and that told me just about all I needed to know. What kind of mother did that? Suddenly I wondered what kind of mother lived with a man who went out in the middle of the night to check his marijuana crop or steal some other guy's wood?

I guess Mike decided he'd given his latest bomb enough time to sink in, and he started to speak again. "We figure her neck got broken when the truck hit the tree. A bucket of potting soil flew forward and hit her in the back of the head. The van was full of buckets and jugs of liquid fertilizer."

Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner, I thought. Chris must have been out there transplanting his seedlings that he started at home.

Mike was staring at me, waiting for me to respond. I said nothing. "So you didn't know Laurel was with him, and you had no idea what he was doing out there?" he said, and his voice told me I was no better than either one of those people who had crashed into that tree.

"Laurel told me once she worked in the bush for awhile before her kids were born, and I already told you. He was out cutting wood."

"His chain saw wasn't even in the van." Mike gestured to the stairs. "Is there someone you can call to come and watch your kids? Someone to drive you to the hospital? I don't want you driving. We don't need two accidents."

"I won't drive."

"Okay, well, I should go, but Sergeant Miller wants to talk to you later. We'll want to talk to Chris, too, you know. " He paused. "Depending on his condition, of course."

"Of course." I started to climb the stairs and then stopped and turned around. "Great job, you've got, Mike. Bet you love this part, huh?"

He shook his head. "I've done this dozens of times, but I never get used to it, and I do a shitty job every time."

"No, you did fine, Mike. You did just fine," I said and continued up the stairs. I didn't turn around. I guess he let himself out.

I called the hospital and they told me Chris was in surgery, but his prognosis going in had been excellent. Then I phoned a couple of my friends. Lisa promised to come over and watch the kids, and Yvonne said she'd drive me to the hospital.

In my room, I sat down on the bed and glanced around at the stacks of boxes, waiting to be unpacked. I have to get dressed, I thought. I needed to wake up the kids and tell them what's going on. I should be worrying about Chris, and I should try to figure out what Laurel was doing in Chris' truck. No, I decided. I didn't ever want to know that.

What the hell was I going to tell Yvonne and Lisa? Once those two knew, I might as well put a full page ad in the newspaper. I remembered the time Yvonne told me her husband, Matt, was having an affair with one of the girls over at the grocery store. I recalled my soothing, sympathetic words, the ones that efficiently masked my pity and self-satisfaction. What ever made me think I was so Goddamned special? With a jab of humiliation, I realized that his relationship with Laurel upset me less than the thought of the whole town finding out.

I stared at the carpet - dusty rose, to match the tile in the bathroom and the countertop in the kitchen. I thought about the hours spent looking at paint charts, carpet samples, light fixtures and faucets. I had spent the money Chris made on oak cabinets and custom made drapes without a thought as to where it came from. It bought me what I wanted, didn't it? Just because I wasn't there when he stole the wood or harvested the marijuana, I could claim innocence?

I stood up to finish dressing, but stopped abruptly when I felt it. Like the brief flutter of a butterfly's wings before it lights on a flower blossom, the baby moved within me. Instantly, my hand moved to cover my stomach in a protective gesture, and I closed my eyes. The doorbell rang and I began to cry.

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