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Terre Haute

We’ve been quarantined in the school gym for three weeks when we realise just how much we’ve forgotten. Not just about the inseminations, the mysterious stomach-swelling sickness that spread like chicken pox at Elmwood last fall, but everything, way back. We make a list, chalk the outlines:

 

The name of the fourth grade teacher we loved, with the soccer cleats and hair like notebook spirals; the names of boys, their smell; the quadratic formula; what our knees look like.

 

Our mothers visit and they ask, again and again, how could you forget? How could your brain just slide over something as monumental as losing your virginity? Some of you are in National Honours Society. Some of you play the oboe/viola/bassoon.

 

When Riley arrives in the gym — late because no one realised she was hiding a baby under that pear shape — she brings reports from the outside. ‘Everyone is talking about us,’ she says, awed. ‘Our parents are on TV.’

 

She’s smuggled in an issue of Time, with our school portraits tic-tac-toed across the cover. We crowd to read it, almost tear the pages we’re so eager. Lila Hanson was Miss Teen Indiana and her talent was public speaking: a performance of Yeats in a dress sequined and feathered, to flaps of applause. She rips the magazine from our hands and stands on a stack of aerobics steps to read:

 

“‘Half the honour roll. The entire starting squad of the basketball team. Why have twenty-three students at Terre Haute’s Elmwood High School fallen pregnant this year? Ed Coolers reports from Indiana’s Gomorrah of Underage Sex.”‘

 

We swear to our mothers we didn’t have sex. We sit with them on the bleachers and down the slope of the drained pool, squeeze their hands and vow we’re telling the truth. We show them the chastity contracts we signed in health class, the ones they laminated and made us keep in our wallets like drivers’ permits. We show them the promise rings our dads gave us, at a ceremony in a banquet hall with Styrofoam Greek columns and napkins folded like swans.

 

Our mothers look back at us as if we’re spoiled eggs, about to crack all over their yoga pants and cashmere.

 

They’re not mad, they’re disappointed, they say. The Board of Education too. We’re skewing the stats, driving down house prices. Christmas cards and district newsletters will have to edge around us, the huge crater we’ve opened up in Terre Haute. That’s why they’ve shut us in this gym, the only place in town big enough to bunk us all. They say it’s to protect us from the media that’s flocked here from the coasts like migratory birds to cover another Midwest tragedy. But they act like we’re infectious, like if we could wander out the gym doors we’d blight our sisters and cousins, initiate them into our gestational coven.

 

When we first arrived in the gym it was hard: too many hormones, too many cliques. We fought over deliveries of food and hair care products. We were prepared to take bats to each other’s knees over a back issue of Pregnancy Today, or a shot at the locker room showers before the water ran cold. We claimed territory and squabbled. The in-crowd staked the bleachers and lounged there with their swallowed-melon bumps and attractively tumescent tits. The Elizabeths, dumpy in hand-me-down maternity wear, set up camp in the corn-chip reeking locker room, and the hipsters bivouacked in the disused pool.

 

It’s like grounded gulag here but the adults promise that as soon as they solve this fertility whodunit they’ll let us out. So they bring in child psychologists; hypnotists; the few of our friends who haven’t become pregnant, wearing wires under their sweaters and asking leading questions. They leave paisley-covered diaries around the gym and hoped we’d spill our secrets there in gel pen: ‘Dear Diary, I had sex and now I’m denying it like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.’

 

They think we’ll crack, tell them about boys from different high schools, boys with drainpipe jeans and empty houses, biology teachers, swim coaches, maybe; being drunk, being promiscuous; being secret table dancers; agreeing to carry the baby of a gay couple — their list of theories goes on.

 

The police come by and interrogate us, squinting like they can work out by sight if we’re sluts or survivors. They think our collective amnesia is ‘mighty convenient’. Officer Schmidt squiggled that in the notepad he left behind the last time he visited, along with ‘call girl club???’ and ‘Jesus Christ’.

 

Several of the child psychologists diagnosed our intramural pregnancies as a phenomenon of peer pressure — a pregnancy pact, even. ‘If your friends all started to grow human beings, would you grow a human being too?’

 

We try to tell them there’s no way a trend that started with Maya Connelly — girl stoner, reputedly famous on the internet for her blue-dipped hair and ragged tour T-shirts but definitely ostracised here — could possibly radiate to the homecoming court. And the woodwind section. And the volleyball team. And the faceless substratum of girls who wear tennis shoes every day and spend their Saturday nights with their parents. We’ve had some stupid trends here at EHS, like boot cut jeans and slicing yourself in conspicuous places for attention. But gestation wasn’t one of them. We’re not even friends. But it doesn’t matter how many times the police question us, or how many rivers our mothers cry about the waists we’ll never have again and the junior prom we’ll never attend. It doesn’t matter how many people speculate and fever dream and try to put our story on cable TV. We just can’t remember. The autumn is a crater, furrowed by some asteroid that just wasn’t sex.

 

But almost no one believes that, and most of us lost our hymens horseback riding.

 

We’re hanging out together more now. We don’t like each other; we’ve just realised we’ll have to figure this out ourselves. We sit cross-legged and in a circle, stuck in the grooves of elementary school when we’re together like this, and we think. We play word association games, free write in those paisley journals, anything to jostle loose a memory — some way we didn’t ask for this, with our hunger and our vodka and our breasts.

 

We brainstorm, like we were taught in school. Wheel out a chalkboard, draw clouds with edges like curlicues, hook them up to other clouds — clues and leads.

 

This is what we know. It began with Maya Connelly, the day she wore a crop top over a baby bump to a football game and boldly ate three hotdogs with ranch dressing.

 

Lila writes this down and the chalk squawks on the blackboard:

 

What to expect, when you’re expecting: crop circles of chest hair beamed around your nipples; eating four packs of Fritos from the vending machine and then puking them up and doing it again (not much of a change for Allie — a few of us insist we insert that); temporary dementia, baby fog, your foetus devouring your brain.

 

We can’t ask Maya herself how it started. Her water broke the third night of our quarantine, flooding the sleeping bags of three girls. Her parents arrived, thunder-faced and bickering, dragged her off, and we haven’t seen her since. So we put our heads together, try to winch back some memories from the collective fugue.

 

We think fall. The feeling when school supplies are new, pencils barbed and jeans creaking. The new summer height on boys, their wristwatch and sandal tans, their facial hair new and feathery. The punch-drunk savageries of a lower division football game, when our boys are running like dizzy kids and we’re screaming for blood.

 

We were in the stands every Friday night to watch the Elmwood boys play: prance in their Hercules-shouldered pads and smash into farm kids as big and unresponsive as refrigerators. We’d paint our cheeks in black and blue, Elmwood colours, and pass around a flask of vodka to stay warm. We liked being seen, in our down gilets and flat-ironed hair, and seeing each other. We kept track of each other’s wardrobes, weights. And at the second home game of the season — Elmwood Thunder versus the Prairieton Bulls — we noticed Maya Connelly looked fat.

 

At first we didn’t pay her much attention, although we saw she was in leggings and not her standard skinny jeans, although we saw the three hotdogs and their Hidden Valley garnish. We had other things on our mind. Elmwood was losing: near the end of the second quarter and down a touchdown and a field goal. We were almost resigned to it — the end of our championship dreams and it wasn’t even October.

 

But then — we remember this really clearly — right before half time Dylan Chestnut, quarterback and dreamboat, broke away from the tackle and started running. He barrelled thirty yards, forty, fifty, right into the Elmwood rushing records. He started stumbling at five yards, lurching, tottering, swan-diving — right over the goal line. Touchdown and a bone-splitting crunch.

 

We went wild. We screamed for the heads of the Prairieton hicks. We screamed for Dylan to let us sign his inevitable cast. The band heaved into our fight song, and we leapt to our feet, stomping so the stands shook.

 

We didn’t notice Maya wasn’t cheering. We didn’t see her puking beneath the bleachers. Only the flautists saw, and Chloe, dutifully holding back her best friend’s hair.

 

The rest of us were too busy watching Number 48 Chestnut, god of the 11th grade, still lying motionless under the goal posts. The refs jogged up and rolled him over. His swimsuit model face was like an open-bun Sloppy Joe, but he was alive — the refs shot thumbs up to his parents in the stands. Only he wasn’t holding the ball. The fight song trailed off. We looked for that ball, straining our eyes to the end zone, sure it was going to be bouncing somewhere there in the painted grass. Then one of the Praireton boys crouched to pick up something near the five yard line and he was off: pigskin gripped with both hands like he was afraid it was greased, darting faster than any Praireton kid had ever moved, pushing his own teammates out of the way, 95 yards and soaring over the goal line before anyone could stop him. 0-13.

 

The crowd fell so silent we could hear Maya, spewing under our feet.

 

Maya confirmed the pregnancy later that night, at Cory Santos’s afterparty. She burst in on Natalie and Allie in the bathroom, peed right in front of them and just said it. ‘I’m pregnant’, flatly, shrugging, as it wasn’t the end of the world and her hopes of college. That’s what we remember more than anything: her lack of shame, the casual way she arpeggioed her fingers over her new girth and yanked up her elastic waistband.

 

Sometimes we lie awake under the basketball nets or down the slope of the emptied pool, and wonder if Maya died in childbirth. Her hips were very narrow, not anything like the child-birthing hips Mr Obermeyer said Jen Vogel has, when his sex ed curriculum binder instructed him to discuss ‘secondary sex characteristics’. Maybe we’ll all die in childbirth, but especially Robin, who’s about curvaceous as a yardstick.

 

Names for boys: Maxfactor, Hercules, Dad.

 

Erin Leakes remembers something about the game the rest of us don’t. She sits on a wrestling mat and strokes her belly like it’s a kitten. She’s one of the maternal ones — talking about names, parenting philosophies, preschools. Some of us can’t even think about the infants growing under our skin without feeling like we’ll puke.

 

But we gather around her like she’s an oracle. ‘Shh, listen to Erin. Stop.’ Pregnancy hasn’t been kind to her: her face is cratered with acne and her breasts are lumpish and huge. But before it, before the gym, most of us didn’t know her name. She fidgets under our stares.

 

‘When Dylan got hurt,’ she says, ‘and the paramedics arrived, I put my flute down and rushed over, to see if I could help. I wanted to be a doctor, before this —’ she nudges her stomach ‘— and I have first aid training and I thought — I thought I could put it on my CV.’

 

‘And…’

 

‘Well, you know how messed up his face was.’ We nod: when Dylan had returned to school three weeks later, midway through a regime of reconstructive surgery, his face was like a badly-shaped hamburger patty. He was so ugly Lila had felt obligated to back out of their homecoming date.

 

Erin takes a deep breath and continues: ‘He’d taken a blow to the head and he was delirious and babbling, but I swear he said a swan tripped him.’

 

We’re still; we remember the swan. We remember the day he arrived at Elmwood like yesterday — maybe better than yesterday, because we spent yesterday in the gym and everything here is a blur of massage chains and police interrogations and boredom. But we remember the swan.

 

The fountain in front of the high school was empty after school that Thursday in October and then Friday morning he was there, drifting as passively as a pool float. He was still paddling there at lunch, when the freshman tried to feed him potato chips. And he was still swimming there the next morning, as if the fountain was a sun-dappled pond, pebbled with lucky pennies, and not a rusted memorial installed by the parents of a senior who drowned a decade back.

 

Rumours about the swan hatched everywhere that week, in the corridors and biology labs. People said he was a gift from an eccentrically wealthy alumnus. He was a marketing stunt for an amateur ballet production of Swan Lake. He was the feathery reincarnation of that dead senior. He was Monday’s chicken fingers.

 

We remember the eighteen stitches Eddie Arnett received after trying to ‘lasso the bird’ and his juvenile court citation for animal cruelty. We remember the visits from Vigo County animal control, their three attempts to relocate the swan to various bodies of water in western Indiana and his dogged reappearances a day after each move. He was certainly attached to that decrepit fountain, but when we compare notes we realise we were seeing swans everywhere that fall: drifting in the creek in the park, where Robin walked her dachshunds every afternoon; bobbing in the fountain in the food court in the mall, and even, Allie swears, sculling in the wading pool at the YMCA, hissing and terrorising toddlers.

 

We wonder now if it was the same swan, but how do you tell them apart?

 

Ways we could have gotten pregnant without sex: non-consensual in vitro fertilisation; mishaps with turkey basters; asexual reproduction; ‘Messiah situation’.

 

We fall asleep discussing the swan and he skirs across our dreams: a beaked paddleboat drifting into a love tunnel; a wedding announcement with a pair of them, crooking their necks to form a heart. We could swear someone is piping Tchaikovsky into this gym.

 

We sleep like we’re gassed, drowsing late: two dozen incubators in a line. It’s cosy here in the gym, warm like a pond, and we’ve wrestled the mats out of storage. We do pre-natal yoga on them, and French braid and lower back massage chains, but mostly, we sleep. Our mothers warn us we’ll never sleep like this again, once we have our babies and watch them grow legs, learn to squawk and scare us. We have to take advantage of it, they say, our last weeks on the highest, thinnest branches of the family tree.

 

But this morning someone is pounding on the locked gym door, and we’re getting up. Hauling our foreign bodies out of sleeping bags: bilged faces, bloated tits, stomachs of varying circumferences, and somewhere below, our feet, spreading out of our shoes.

 

We’re expecting deliveries: pre-natal vitamins and fake nails. We’re expecting our mothers: clam-mouthed and red-eyed, just about getting over their crushing disappointment to share some advice about hatching and raising humans.

 

The knocking quickens, but we’re moving slowly, unaccustomed to the convex geometry of our bodies. We have to hoist ourselves up like freshly hydrated giraffes, asses aloft. Robin, who did backflips for the cheerleading squad, manages it first and takes off across the polished wood floor in her socks. She looks like she’s smuggling a watermelon.

 

‘Courting miscarriage,’ Chloe says after her.

 

‘Solve all our problems,’ Lila says.

 

Those two are teetering right on the edge of motherhood, fat enough for eight months. They’ve been conspiring about fainting bump-first onto gym mats, or leaping from the lip of the empty pool to the deep end and hopefully not breaking both legs. They make some of us — Erin Leakes — cry when they talk like that.

 

(Of course, we all believe these fellows under our navels are human, with souls and First Amendment rights. And we’re sure they must be cute; we’re just saying it would be convenient.)

 

Kelsey comes back with Officer Schmidt in tow. He’s a familiar sight, usually deputised to local schools to teach first graders the street names of drugs and how to say no to smoking ten different ways. Given his relationship to Elmwood, he’s leading the task force about us. He thinks our amnesia is a feint, or just convenient feminine forgetfulness, like how women don’t remember they were asking for intercourse all evening, what with their bodies and faces like that.

 

But he’s got some other leads. For one, our possible victimisation by a highly organised and highly fertile date rape ring. Or a potential mass immaculate conception. That’s the way he’s steering the investigation today, after several hotline tips from local Sunday school teachers and conspiracy theorists. We’re still hauling on our bras and scrubbing the sleep from our eyes but Schmidt is caffeinated and ready for the rapture. He sheep-dog whistles us into a circle on the gym mats and rocks in his orthopedic patrol shoes near the three point line.

 

‘Look, ladies — and I’ll still call you that no matter what they say outside.’ The radio on his belt gurgles something about a car crash and he rolls the volume down. ‘We’ve gotta chase down every lead. You know I’ve been interviewing your male classmates here at Elmwood — don’t ew at me — and sniffing around bars, but I think we need to take this all the way to the top.’ He flicks his index finger upwards and spirals it.

 

He puts the radio to his mouth — ‘Send him in’ — and a man in a polo and blazer gusts through the gym doors. He has hair sculpted like topiary and a bow-legged cowboy walk. Some of us recognise him from the campaign ads: green-screened flag flapping, promises of abolishing the federal government to let Hoosiers live like agrarian kings — that’s Todd Ackerman. In the commercials his cell phone screeches and he picks it up and it’s God.

 

‘This, ladies, is State Senator Ackermann,’ Officer Schmidt says. ‘He’s come to see if we’re dealing with a Messiah situation.’

 

Rachel Ward waves at the Senator, hand cranking as if she’s enthusiastically screwing in a light bulb. ‘State Senator! State Senator!’ she calls.

 

Another thing we forgot: she’d interned for him in the fall, had worn his pins on her blouse all through election season.

 

Ackermann tweaks his telegenic chin at her. ‘Rachel. Other women. I’ll get straight to the point: we’re trying to determine if any of you is incubating our Lord and Saviour.’ He stands before us, stance like a cartoon character experimenting with roller skates. He slips a notecard out of his breast pocket and reads: ‘Has the Angel Gabriel visited you?’

 

We look to each other. ‘God, I don’t know.’ ‘What does he look like?’

 

We think we know, from paintings of Mary: he’s pearlescent like shampoo, with mammoth white wings and a bulb of celestial light. We confer quickly. Erin is hell-bent on a virgin birth and keeps insisting she received word from God in a dream that she would birth the next Christ, but she’s Catholic and they’re fanatical about reproduction. Chloe maintains that she woke up once in October with white feathers scattered across her duvet, but she wore a marabou-hemmed dress to Homecoming and owns a ruminant Golden Retriever.

 

We’re forced to tell Todd Ackermann that no, we weren’t visited by an angel announcing our pregnancies. Schmidt takes frantic notes, his pencil scratching.

 

‘Is anyone aware of any famines? Oceans of running blood?’ Ackermann sees our faces. ‘This is all standard,’ he says, but he slips the notecard back into his pocket. His voice, normally creamy like a newscaster’s, is high and tight. ‘How do you dress, normally?’ He looks at us, our sweatpants at the end of their elastic, our hoodies like kangaroo pouches, our hair like birds’ nests. ‘How short were your skirts? How low were your necklines?’

 

We stand to demonstrate the EHS dress code: skirts and shorts not shorter than the stretch of your fingers on your thighs, shirts long enough that they don’t show skin when you raise your arms. Only we’re fat now, every one of us, and our t-shirts hitch up when we stand, show our bellies like full moons, with stretch marks like bites.

 

‘Maya always wore crop tops,’ Erin whispers.

 

Ackermann covers his eyes and flaps his hands. ‘Sit down, sit down. Cover yourselves, women.’ He won’t look again until Schmidt reassures him we’re covered.

 

He asks next about our sins, and it all falls apart. Some of us — we’re not naming names —  have shared sleeping bags at summer camp. Some of us have made creative use of detachable showerheads. Some of us have rounded second base. We scuttle the rapture before it even begins. Todd Ackerman puts his hands in his pockets. He has an implacable look.

 

‘Pray for God’s forgiveness, women,’ he says.

 

Schmidt’s pencil stills. ‘Son of a gun,’ we hear him mutter.

 

Ackermann’s cell phone drones from his hip holster, and he nearly runs for the door.

 

‘Maybe it’s God calling,’ Chloe says.

 

‘Shut up.’ Rachel is sobbing, her face like a sundried tomato.

 

‘Rachel, Rachel, it’s okay.’ Chloe fights to wrap her arms around Rachel, still her chest heaves. ‘You didn’t want your baby to be crucified, anyway.’

 

We’re all upset, to be honest. It had been a comfort to think about our babies as prophets, when our moms keep telling us they’ll work nightshifts and need Ritalin, just because we’ll become their moms at sixteen. Sometimes over the last few weeks we’d loll around, fat as leeches, thinking about the religions our babies would sprout. There’s no chance of salvation now. We hold each other, as close as we can with our bodies like this, alien and bulged.

 

Things we have in common: basements stuffed with polyester Disney princess costumes; the way our perinea ache; virginity, of varying degrees.

 

Within weeks of Maya’s public puking that fall, every bathroom stall at school was occupied by a vomiting girl — so many the school organised an unsubtle assembly about bulimia. But everyone was getting fatter that season, growing out of cheerleading uniforms, volleyball Spandex, homecoming dresses. A girl would show up to school in her fat jeans, run sluggishly in PE, and then she’d faint in class, hobble to the nurse’s office, and be handed a stick to pee on. And inevitably Nurse Hawkins would be bringing out the tissues and the file with her parents’ work numbers, and by the end of the day the news would have leaked into the corridors: another one down.

 

‘We should have known,’ one of the Elizabeths says. ‘About Maya, about everything. Maybe it was a warning.’

 

‘We just thought she was drunk.’

 

‘Or bulimic. That can make you fat. Isn’t that right, Allie?’

 

‘Shut up, Nat.’

 

‘Listen up: we’re all fat now and no one is fatter than anyone else, okay?’

 

Lila squirms in her leggings. They’re stretched almost to translucence over her ass. ‘Yeah,’ Nat says. She tugs up her shirt and shows us her belly: distended, ovoid. She’d been into yoga and Greek yogurt before, but she’s a blimp now.

 

‘Even if we knew she was pregnant, how could we possibly have known it would turn out like this?’ Another of the Elizabeths, curled fetal on a wrestling mat.

 

‘I don’t think the Maya thing is related. She wasn’t like us,’ someone says.

 

‘Yeah, she definitely… did things that would make her pregnant.’

 

Our heads bob in unison. ‘Sex.’ We can only mouth it.

 

‘I heard she and Dylan Chestnut… you know,’ Natalie says.

 

‘He was A-list, at least before his face got messed up. He never went anywhere near Maya,’ Lila says, indignant.

 

‘It was Derek. You know, pipe cleaner-skinny kid from the other high school? Works at Yankee Candle and always smells like weed and your parents’ bedrooms? They were dating.’

 

‘I thought they’d broken up by then.’

 

‘Yeah, they definitely broke up in June. She couldn’t handle his folk guitar shit,’ Chloe says. She’d held back Maya’s hair when she puked; she would know. ‘And she just gave him blow jobs, I swear.’

 

‘Yeah, but what about you?’

 

Chloe had been the next to turn up pregnant. We’d all thought her too serious about ballet to gain a pound, much less forty and an infant. But then again, our mothers had always ‘disapproved’ of her. Once, in middle school, she’d invited boys to her birthday party.

 

Chloe holds up her hands now, aghast. ‘I haven’t done anything! Swear to God!’

 

‘So who was next?’ Allie’s eyes rove, over the in-crowd and the volleyball squad and the Elizabeths, and land on Erin Leakes.

 

Erin writhes and crosses her arms over her belly. ‘Not me — no way,’ she says. Admittedly, Erin is more of a mystery than Maya or Chloe. She’d hidden her condition for months under baggy university hoodies and a home baking hobby. But it had all spilled out one day in early December in a torrent of morning sickness all over the lab tables in Advanced Placement Biology.

 

But Erin wore a sports bra every day and to our knowledge had never even slow danced with a boy, much less had sexual contact, potential fertilisation grade, with one.

 

But there’s something fluttering at the edge of our memories —

 

Morgan voices it: ‘What about that Matthew? Matthew Heron?’

 

We remember this: pepperoni-faced Matthew, bragging to all his friends that that he’d done the deed after Erin turned up pregnant. He’d contrived a sexual position epic to describe just how. Erin didn’t show up to school for three weeks after that story started spreading.

 

‘All I did was text him a few times,’ she says now. ‘Just winky faces. We never did anything. I still have my purity ring.’ She waggles her hand at us, and the band flashes. We lean in to look: it has a dove and an inscription — ‘True Love Waits’.

 

‘Only my future husband is supposed to take this off,’ Erin says. ‘He was my soulmate, but he won’t want me now,’ she sobs.

 

Places Satan operates: school curricula, especially in states where you can’t say ‘under God’ and ‘bless you’ in class; mixed-gender birthday parties; Jacuzzis and other man-made bodies of water.

 

We’re starting to suspect it was the adults who engineered our fugue — operated the fog machine, knocked us on our heads. We almost remember sex ed from before, before the state mandate about abstinence, before our sexuality was dangerously incipient. Our sixth grade science teacher — we forget her name but we remember her hippie skirts, her cage of guinea pigs, how they multiplied — had actually wept when she told us about sex: how beautiful it was, how earth-shattering, like an asteroid.

 

In high school we learned how much of an apocalyptic situation it was. The boys’ PE teacher, Mr Obermeyer, taught the girls sex ed with a binder of religious exhortations and a set of guidelines straight from Todd Ackermann’s desk. Obermeyer would turn puce at the mention of menstruation and pop a VHS into the rolling media center so we’d stop asking questions. And after the incident with Jen and her ‘child-bearing hips’, he gave up entirely and called in the experts. A mission of chastity evangelists had cycled through third period Health. They were always women: crisis pregnancy centre staffers, passing around fake foetuses the size of rubber chickens; Franciscan nuns; and a mother of eleven, with her stomach permanently stretched out and her neck hanging like giblets. They warned us about herpes, pregnancy stretch marks, the dangers of oral sex with orthodontia, and how uncool it would be to bring a baby to prom. They passed out hard candy and made us suck them, put them back in their wrappers, suck them, put them back in their wrappers again and then look and describe what we saw: slivers of candy, slimy, germy, and tasteless.

 

‘No one wants that candy now, right?’ they said. ‘It’s been used. That’s what sex is. It changes you. You can’t put the sweetness back, you can’t remove the sickness.’

 

And they were women so we trusted them. They knew all the consequences of sex, and how they’re always ours: the sadness and the shame and the tiny humans.

 

We’ve been thinking about that class a lot. If we’re not incubators of the next prophet and we’re not capable of asexual reproduction, we must have had sex. We’re that pre-sucked candy, nearly used up. After we realise this, we can hardly look at ourselves.

 

How to prevent pregnancy: pray; rhythm method or something; don’t have sex until marriage; you can’t.

 

By the day we’re getting hungrier and fatter, bursting out of leggings and maternity tees, swelling like Violet Beauregarde, and it can’t be stopped. Five OBGYNs examined us on Friday and they all said soon, soon and it’s sad, I have a daughter your age. Ultrasound techs next: smearing our bellies with jelly, nosing the beaks of their machines along our new curves. We catch glimpses of our insides for months static like a TV or outer space and these bulb-headed things in the middle, with mouths and paddling feet. Our mothers coo and cry and snatch the photos away, to magnet to their fridges, where our art once hung and our diplomas were supposed to.

 

Then the mothers and the healthcare professionals leave and we have only each other. We gather at the edge of the gym pool, dangle our vanished knees to where the water should be. We remember swimming lessons here, with goggles and pool noodles, learning to float and scull. We remember the fall a raft of ducks took up residence in the shallow end and filled it with so much shit the chlorination system couldn’t keep up and our mothers petitioned to have the pool drained, the birds netted and killed so they couldn’t infect us.

 

Our mothers bring in a tape of a CNN broadcast about us, probably to shame us into confession. We watch it now. Doleful voices play over footage shot at Elmwood. Students between classes, framed from the waist down, just pants and groins shuffling through the corridors. The women’s choir, bravely rehearsing with all the sopranos missing. Todd Ackermann and Jerry Falwell Jr and Nancy Grace hand-wringing about school prayer, sexting as a gateway drug, the decay of America. Jen’s mother sniffles in front of her hedge. ‘Do you know how much money we spent on bassoon lessons?’ Mr Obermeyer appears, resplendent in a tracksuit three sizes too small. ‘You teach them right from wrong, and how to say no ten different ways, but sometimes you just can’t knock the evil out of ‘em,’ he says and shakes his head. Dylan Chestnut is next, his wrecked face still swaddled in gauze. ‘I did not have sexual relations with those women,’ he says.

 

And then a wide shot of the school, with the banner announcing it was a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in 2003, and the swan in the fountain on the lawn, swimming figures of eight.

 

Things we can’t describe: sex, becoming mothers, our mothers.

 

We remember something else. A straining of necks, an entering nudge, a fluttering in our bellies and the blood rush of meeting fate — ‘This is it, this — this!’

 

Sometimes we wake in the night in our sleeping bags, sweaty and frantic about something half-remembered, hands bunched in the gusset of our panties, brains shot to feathers.

 

We can’t talk about this, couldn’t even if we had the words, but it’s there. When the shower water is warm and like fingers; when your bladder is full (and it’s always full now); when you close your eyes in the massage chain and forget it’s one of the Elizabeths kneading at your neck.

 

Our mothers look at our circumferences and say it won’t be long now. When it’s time they’ll come, they promise, catch us in the safety net of their love and their health insurance, whisk us to a hospital and the legless numbing of an epidural. We’ll become mothers ourselves then, and they promise everything will make sense. It’ll feel like fate, they say.

 

They sit on our sleeping bags, stroke our hair, and tell our futures. How we’ll recline in hospital beds, nested in blankets and gift shop balloons, and hold our babies and love them so much we’ll think our hearts will break. How we’ll nuzzle the down on their heads and count every toe on their orange, jaundiced feet. How they’ll be ugly but we’ll think they’re perfect. Little gods, destined to be the Dylan Chestnuts and Lila Hansons of all their schools, to outshine us and outgrow us.

 

And someday, our mothers say, we’ll look at them, especially the girls, when their breasts are like apricots under their sweaters, their hips curved like the violas we bought them. When they won’t let us pigtail their hair anymore and wriggle away when we try to thumb the sleep from their eyes. When men’s eyes stray to them, follow them, the way they must have us when we were young and supple, before we forgot. Teachers, principals, police officers, politicians, our husbands — all staring. And we’ll stare too and taste rage like vomit in our mouths and wish sometimes that we’d smothered our children in their sleep, that we’d driven them off while they were still young, before they could outgrow us and replace us.

 

That’s what it’s like to mother a thing, they say: to make yourself a god who only wants to run from you.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a recent graduate of the Prose Fiction MA at the University of East Anglia. She is working on a novel. 'Terre Haute' was shortlisted for the 2017 White Review Short Story Prize (UK & Ireland).

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