by Barbara Harroun

Cynthia calls her younger brother at 12:02 a.m. because the panic has risen like bile, and if she doesn’t try to articulate what she is so certain of, she may seriously lose her shit for good.

Her call goes to voice mail, and at the beep she takes a deep, shuddering breath.

“Daniel, are you there? ” She tries to lift her voice cheerfully, but it comes out twisted and despairing. “Never mind. I’m sorry. Just delete. Don’t worry.”

Then Dan is on the line, his voice thick with sleep and concern. “Cynthia. What’s happened?”

He is three-hundred and fifty miles away, but his voice carries him to her with such immediacy she has to sit down. She did not know how much she missed him until just now, and it makes everything worse. She gives in and sobs. It sounds like the keening she once heard at a funeral. The mother had wailed in such a way that Cynthia thought of a sheet being rendered, ripped again and again for rags. Something whole no longer. Just parts.

“I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s happening. Is Jim there?”

At this, Cynthia startles. “No. Jim can’t know.” She whispers it.

“You’re scaring me, Cynthia. What happened? What did you do?”

She remembers when, after 17 hours of hard labor, the nurse had positioned the mirrors so she could see the baby’s waxy black hair emerging from her vagina. She was panting and trembling with exhaustion. She had never looked so closely, or for so long, at her own anatomy, and being revealed in such a way troubled her. She looked at Jim and said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” And the nurse stepped between them and said, “It’s beautiful. Look at that mirror. You’re having a baby. That’s your baby coming into the world. When the doctor gets back, two more big pushes when he says.” And Cynthia, nodding, wanted to explain that no, she was sorry she couldn’t be strong all of the time, that something had cracked within her, an unnamed fear and huge gaping uncertainty based on how rooted she was in this pain and laboring process—this body was flesh and bone and blood, and death could come at any time. And then the baby’s heartbeat was lost, and she was rushed to surgery, laid out like Christ, and she was certain that her thinking such thoughts was the cause. She closed her eyes then: fear was a living being that had swallowed her whole. Jim stood beside her, but she was alone, even when the nurse carried the baby to her, pressing the infant’s face to her own. Especially then. Jim had cried, holding the baby expertly, and he said, “Cynthia, I’m so proud of you.” He bent down to kiss her wet face and she cried harder, wanting her mother hard, so desperately she thought it was what made her teeth rattle, although it was only a physical reaction to the anesthetic. The baby seemed to open the gaping crevice of her loss, borne for six years. A loss only Danny truly knows the shape of.

“I had a baby, Danny! I shouldn’t have had a baby! I can’t do this. The baby knows too. The baby can tell.”

Danny is three years younger, divorced, two years out of the Marines. Once he wanted kids, but that’s dead, stillborn. He called from a sad motel room in Arizona after the divorce was finalized. Dan said it was crazy, but he felt like he’d lost more than a marriage: he’d lost the kids he’d never have now. They had lived in his imagination and had sustained him during the six-month floats to Greece and Africa, distracting him from the gut ache of not being with his new wife. Cynthia had murmured, “You can still find someone.”

Dan had shouted at her furiously, his voice halting with his rage, “No. No. I. Can’t.” The noises that followed told her that he was destroying whatever he could get his hands on and that he was destroyed himself. She listened, bearing witness until there was a terrible silence. They sat together in the room it made until Danny said, “I’m going to try to sleep. Will you stay with me until I do?” She had pressed the phone to her ear and exhaled his name so he would know she was there. She would stay.

She can hear him breathing now and thinking, trying to decipher what to say. She called him because she wanted to tell someone the truth so she didn’t have to carry it alone. She had been certain he could take it, absorb it, but maybe she was wrong. She had been wrong about so much.

“I’m sorry, Dan. I’m just so fucking tired. I’ve never been this exhausted before.” She sounds rational, so she continues, “But I’m fine. My incision is healing nicely. The baby is beautiful. Two weeks old now, Uncle Danny. Jim is so good with her. We’ll be fine.”

Danny listens. She wonders if he can hear what’s underneath the words. She thinks about the time they walked the frozen creek, jumping on the new ice to watch it shatter and web out from their shared weight. In one spot the ice was so thin and clear, they looked through its window into the dark water below, understanding that there wasn’t much that separated them from such frigid depths. It had thrilled them, children that they were.

Cynthia says, “Can we just sit here together, not saying anything?” In response, her brother’s breathing hitches, and then labors, on and on.

Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Rusty Toque, Black Sun Lit, the Kudzu Quarterly Review, Slipstream, Madrid: Journal of Contemporary Literature, The Circus Book, freeze frame fiction, Fiction Southeast, The Sonder Review, and Eastern Iowa Review. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing, reading or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo, or engaging in literacy activism and radical optimism.