Authors: Joshilyn Jackson
A Short Story
For my own Sam, for my own Maisy Jane
was twenty-one years old when I became a mother, though if I wanted to get technical, Natty happened three years and nine months earlier, inventing himself secretly inside me in the summertime when I was seventeen. That was just biology. It didn’t instantly remake me as a mother. I didn’t even know that he was there.
Not at first, anyway. I was two weeks into my senior year, training for cross-country and fretting about college applications, before I noticed that my period was late, late, late. All at once I started liking grapefruit and hot peppers, and I wept every time I saw this commercial where a lost dog finds his way back home.
It wasn’t possible. I knew it wasn’t possible, but I missed a second period, and all my bras and waistbands got snug. I couldn’t keep down any kind of breakfast.
I remember carrying the pregnancy test from the bathroom back to my room. I walked slow, careful to hold it level like the box said. My mom was working at our candy store downtown, so I had the house to myself. My best friend Walcott waited on my single bed, all his long limbs pulled in close and his spine bent into a worried hunch. I set the stick down in front of him, on the dresser.
It was low, my childhood dresser, with daisy-shaped drawer pulls and faded Barbie scratch-and-sniff stickers stuck all around the rim of the mirror. It was strange to see a pregnancy test lying beside my old silver pig bank. I sat down by Walcott, and we couldn’t look away from that stick. I could see a faint pink line already forming in the test window, telling me it was working properly. The results window wasn’t showing anything yet. I leaned forward to pull out a tissue and drape it over the stick, solemnly covering its blank face.
Walcott protested, “Shandi!”
I shook my head. “We can’t look for four more minutes.”
Still, we stared at the tissue, trying to X-ray eye the impossible answer that was happening underneath it. My old stuffed pony, Lobby-La, lay in a squashy pink flop on the foot of the bed. I picked her up and smashed her to my belly in a hug. The minutes ticked by so slowly that each one felt excruciating, and yet all four were gone too fast. They were over before I was ready to know. It was Walcott who stretched out one long, spider-skinny arm and peeled the tissue back.
I saw the pink plus mark, and the first word I thought was,
I thought it so loud the syllables reverberated around the inside of my skull, bouncing back and forth all through my brain like a whole crowd had shouted it into my ears. I heard that word exactly that way last September, when a bunch of folks I really, really liked yelled it as they popped up like muppets over the breakfast bar, holding a cake ablaze with seventeen candles and brightly wrapped boxes with all kinds of curly ribbon shooting off the tops.
I didn’t say,
though. I said, “Shit!”
That word came out almost as loud as
had sounded in my head, clipped short by panic. Walcott echoed me, instantly. We stared from the stick to each other’s reflections, back to the stick, back to each other.
He looked so floored and scared and lost, sitting beside me in the mirror. I didn’t look any of those things. I looked blank. Blank and unbelieving, while Walcott was leveled all the way down to the ground. I thrust Lobby-La away, standing up so I couldn’t see all the true things that I didn’t want, happening on his face.
“It’s not your problem,” I told him in a flat, dismissive voice.
The wad of cells multiplying inside of me was very literally
his problem. I loved Walcott, but not like that. I’d never been with him like that.
If I wanted to get technical, I’d never been with anyone like that.
It’s not your problem,
was the wrong thing to say to Walcott, who stood up, too, fast and mad.
“The hell it’s not,” he said.
He stepped in close and grabbed my hand, flipping it up and then pressing the flat part of his thumb to mine. I could feel the narrow ridge of his scar pressed to my skin.
I knew that scar. He’d put it there himself, for me, on his ninth birthday.
“Hell it’s not,” he repeated. That scar, fishing line thin, reminding me of all the ways we backed each other. Not one of those ways could have caused Natty, true, but we were both our mothers’ only children; we’d grown up together, living close on a slice of mountain with no other houses close by. Walcott was family, as dear to me as my little half brothers down in Atlanta. Between us, there wasn’t, there had never been, and there would never be, a
Not your problem.
Standing thumb to thumb with him—all the fear washed off his face, my other hand pressed to my belly—I understood that there really was some baby, real as Walcott, creating himself inside my body. But that didn’t make me feel like I was a mother. Not even after Walcott got his momses to take me to their lady-parts doctor for confirmation, or when he told all my family that I was pregnant, or even when my body swole up and I felt Natty shifting and flexing all his new pieces around inside of me. Not even when the pains started, with Natty wrong way ’round. Not even when they cut me open and lifted him out.
When I saw his squashy potato face with all the long eyelashes in a crumple around his screwed-shut eyes, love rose up in me so mighty and willful, it was like a second living creature I had grown inside myself, right alongside him. Natty opened up his mouth and wailed, and I knew he was
person. My person I had made myself.
But having him, even loving him so—it didn’t make me a mom; I brought Natty home to a pink-walled room with a daisy-chain wallpaper border and white eyelet window treatments. He slept in a bassinet with a patchwork rabbit guarding his feet, and I slept in my narrow bed with Lobby-La draped over mine. In the mornings, I fed him while my own mom slid fried eggs and melon slices onto my plate, feeding me.
I wasn’t a mother; I was just a daughter with a son.
I was a daughter with a son for three more years, until I went to the Lumpkin County High School Lady Indians’ Spring Blood Drive, and Natty and I crossed paths with Hilde Fleming.
The blood drive was all day Saturday, in the gym. I was supposed to meet Walcott and his girlfriend CeeCee there at two, but I was a little early. I sat in the car, waiting, and Natty wasn’t thrilled about it. He hadn’t been thrilled about anything, all day. His nap had been short and restless, and he’d woken up with his forehead in a mad rumple and his eyes overbright.
“This is a terrible idea,” he said in his weird, precise little voice.
He’d started talking early, at nine months old, hollering, “Keekee, Keekee,” whenever Mimmy’s little calico came in sight. Lord, he loved that cat, yelling his one word endlessly and reaching for her tail while she melted around corners and ducked under the sofa in alarm. Then Natty would sit back on his bottom, hooting, “Keeeeekeeeee,” after her in mournful tones. He soon added hummy-sounding versions of
for me and
for my mother; it took her months to get him to reverse those. I had to start calling her Mimmy before he would.
for Walcott, and on and on, new words every day. He was speaking in whole sentences by the time he was eighteen months old. At barely three he had a huge vocabulary and such oddly accurate diction that sometimes I felt I was in the company of a miniature tax attorney with chubby legs.
Now he was saying, “This hot, hot car is very terrible.” He struggled to undo his car seat straps, demanding, “Take me to a air-conditioning!” like a tiny Napoleon.
“Let’s wait for Walcott.”
I didn’t want to go in alone; I’d once been a Lady Indian myself. Sure, the kids I’d gone to school with had graduated and moved on, but I could still run into a teacher I had disappointed. I didn’t want to see Coach Wallis, or Mr. Bailing, or worst of all, Ms. Petrie, who tracked her eyes after me all sad whenever I ran into her downtown.
It’s not like I dropped out to gobble drugs and play Xbox like Denny French, but I had dropped out. Maybe the school would’ve let a pregnant Lady Indian graduate; I hadn’t tested it. I hadn’t wanted to walk the halls with my belly getting rounder day by day. I couldn’t face everyone either blaming blameless Walcott or speculating that I’d been slutting it up every other weekend at my dad and stepmom’s in Atlanta.
gotten a diploma via a homeschool program, and I’d rocked the SATs, too. I wanted to study design, and I had a kick-ass portfolio that wasn’t all virtual. I’d redone real rooms: Mimmy’s and Natty’s, plus my dad gave me a huge budget to remake my room at his place. All this won me a spot at Georgia State’s competitive interior design program. I ought to march into the school with my head high, their poster child for comebacks. But sitting in the lot, I still felt an invisible scarlet D for
glowing on my breast, right by a P for
and a T for
. Some folks, I’m sure, added an S or a W. Lumpkin County was close enough to Atlanta to draw a lot of city visitors, but in its heart, it was still the small-town South.
So I waited, with Natty grumping at me, “I am sweaty into all my hairs!” until Walcott’s ancient Subaru pulled into the slot beside me. Just him.
He grinned at me as we both got out, then came around to lift Natty out of the back.
“No CeeCee?” I asked, as we walked across the lot to the gym.
He shook his head, smiling wryly. “She
she got held up, the coward. Needles. She’s driving out this evening.” CeeCee was in my program at GS. She lived in Atlanta, but Walcott was back in Lumpkin County for the summer, working at his momses’ bed-and-breakfast. I lived here with Mimmy and Natty all year round, working part time at our candy shop and commuting to the city two or three days a week to take my classes.
“I want down,” Natty announced to no one.
“When we get inside, shorty. I don’t want you running around the parking lot,” Walcott said, and Natty made consternated eyebrows at him. “Is Natty feeling blue?” he asked, looking to me, but he only found my consternated eyebrows, just the same.
Directly inside, a fold-out table was manned by a Red Cross lady and a pair of cheerleaders. Varsity uniforms, so they were probably seniors. The blond one smiled and handed us our paperwork, while the blonder one peered deep into her phone. They had two more weeks until their summer started; two weeks to bounce about in flippy skirts and high ponies, and then they’d graduate and start their college lives and then their real lives, all correctly.
“I want to get down,” Natty said again, even more emphatically, his eyes shiny with mad. Walcott swung him to the floor, and he went monster-stomping off around the table, making explosion noises every time one small foot came down.
Along the basketball court’s midline, a white and silver medical version of pipe and drape hid the people who were in the process of donating. In front of that, one short section of the bleachers had been rolled out. Half a dozen people sat waiting for their turn: a skinny teenage girl hunched over a notebook, scribbling. A young couple I knew from Mimmy’s church. Two old local guys in running shorts, each thumbing through a section of the paper.
Nearest the pipe and drape, a lady in her fifties sat on the bottom bleacher. She didn’t look local. She had on resort wear and designer glasses, and her hair looked like my stepmother’s. Rich-lady hair, subtly striped a thousand chocolate-caramel colors with no gray. It wasn’t unusual to see folks like her in Lumpkin County. The little town near my house and Walcott’s momses’ bed-and-breakfast was surrounded by rental cabins and vacation homes. Very touristy, but cute, the kind of place where the store names had extra e’s tacked on—ours was called the Olde Timey Fudge Shoppe—and there were wine-tasting rooms and antiquing places.
As Natty monster-stomped loudly past the bleachers, only the woman in the front row looked up. She kept on looking, but in that fond, nostalgic way that told me she was a mom herself, one whose kids were old enough for her to miss having littlies.
Walcott and I sat down near her and started filling out our forms. Natty had stomped himself all the way to the pipe and drape. Usually he’d zoom his cars or look at books near my feet, staying inside an invisible perimeter. When he was a toddler, Walcott called him Orbit Baby, because of how he rotated around close to Mimmy or me as he played.
“Stay on this side,” I called to him.
He stopped by a second table, manned by two more Red Cross guys and yet another cheerleader.
“Well, hi there,” she said to Natty.
He turned around without speaking and started stomping back. He was usually so friendly. Sometimes overly so—last fall, he memorized our phone number, and for weeks he told it to every grocery-store bagger or bank teller who so much as smiled at him.
He sped up, trotting now, back past me and Walcott as we checked all the boxes that promised we hadn’t recently gotten a tattoo, or hepatitis, and that we hadn’t engaged in sex for money after 1977. As he picked up speed, he started chanting, “Gee! Gee! Gee!” in time with his feet slapping the floor. He ran straight at a big homemade Go, Indians! banner that was hung low at the back of the gym. He smacked his hands flat and loud against the wall, right under the G.
He spun away from the wall and ran stompy footed back toward the pipe and drape, already chanting, “Oh! Oh! Oh!” in time with his feet. As he passed, the skinny teenage girl looked up from her book, her head rising and swiveling in an odd, smooth movement that reminded me of those velociraptors in
“Turn the volume down, please,” I called.
Natty came even with us, then spun again and started running back toward the banner, still hollering, “Oh! Oh! Oh!” even louder.
“Nathan, I’m serious. Volume!”