Tia Levings | from:English

Tertullian’s Law – Third Place

Maggie is an expectant mother in a state that grants personhood at conception and protects the child’s rights over those of their mother.

 

The world changed when I wasn’t looking. That’s what it felt like, my eyes blurring while I scrolled. If I tried to unplug and walk away, the gas flame of my anxiety snapped to high heat. Didn’t you hear what happened? Don’t you read the news?

I don’t. I keep an ear up for hot words. Major events. I keep up appearances. I made manager at the bank, got an apartment. I’ve seen Ryan four weekends in a row. There’s potential.

I knew more as a little kid about what I wanted my life to be than I do now as a grown adult.

Five days a week I drive to the office, scan my badge, and listen to AI say, “Good morning, Maggie.” The data will read: Dickinson, Magdalena, twenty-seven, zero seven hundred, January eighth, two thousand twenty-eight. I’m punctual and reliable, as my annual review states. I avoid surprises, which makes me good at my job. Banks love it when you blend in.

It’s a vast, open tabled space, a sweatshop for accounts. Managers get small, square desks near the elevators with chairs in front of them for meetings. No one has ever sat in mine until today.

She stood over me, in charge, and stuck out her hand. I reached to shake it.

“I’m Janice, your Primigravida Liaison.”

I’ve heard of these. “I don’t understand, I’m not— “

“You are.” She sat down and took out a tablet. She swiped, then held it out for me to see the charts for myself.

“The biometrics since your sexual event seven days ago demonstrates the fluctuation in your hormones and elevated heart rate. Fertilization and ovum implantation have occurred. It’s my job to report the happy news and inform you of your child’s rights.”

“My what?”

“Maggie, you have conceived. I have your files and instructions. Finish the week here. You have time to make any necessary arrangements. Next Monday you will be taken to the Para Maria Centre for the remainder of your confinement. Be grateful for a generous employer. PMC is practically a spa. You’re permitted to work remotely for minimal disruption in your career.”

My neck flushed warm and red. “Why can’t I stay home?” “Child protection. All Primas must report. Proven

multigravida mothers are not required.” “What if I don’t want to?”

The sales pitch of her smile wiped as if the sun paled to gray. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that. Resistance toward state ordered protections is ordinarily a marked offense. You get one free pass.” She smiled again and stood.

“Please do report on time. Maternal arrest can be quite stressful on the child and changes your accommodations at the Centre considerably.”

She shook my hand again. “Congratulations, Maggie. You have the opportunity to become a mother.”

I sat, a concrete body affixed to the floor. My lungs gasped in vain. My heart throbbed. Preg-nant. Preg-nant. The fluorescent lights swirled, buzzing like gossip and whispers. Black stars blurred my vision. The carpet melted. I felt sick. Surely there’s been a mistake. I used legal protection and timed my cycle. Hadn’t New Year’s been an infertile day? The vast room yawned, full of cacophonous murmurs and microwaved smells, and I sank into the void.

I puked in the bathroom. Jane followed me, squealing. “Did you know Lara in mortgage loans just got back? She has a boy.

Your baby will be adorable.”

I called my parents. “The support is different now than in my day, Meg,” my mother consoled. “What does Ryan say?”

I met Ryan for lunch at the harbor where there were nagging seagulls and boats.

“A kid. Wow. That sure changes things.”

“Yeah, but not for both of us, right? It’s not like you have to put your life on hold and go stay in some weird place.”

He read the pamphlet. “‘Preserving the sacred season of gestation. Your child’s rights restored’.”

“I can gestate at home.”

“Don’t. I’ve read about resistance. I don’t want my kid going to some stranger.”

“Aren’t we?” “Aren’t we what?” “Strangers.”

“I need some time. I’ll visit. Try not to worry.”

“Don’t take too long, Ryan. Fathers are marked a person of interest.”

On Wednesday, Ramona in HR handed me a packet.

“Remote onboarding. Here’s the contract demoting you from managerial status for the duration of your confinement. Sign it. Here’s research to work on— it’s less stress for the child. Your pay will be adjusted to offset the cost of your care.”

On Friday, I packed my framed memories. Riding bareback on the beach. Mt. Rainier. My dog Marvin, before he crossed the rainbow bridge. These images were from another life, a distance now, and belonged to someone else.

Lara found me in the break room.

“Gawd, I’m so glad to have caffeine.” She laughed. “How is it really?”

Her eyes went to her cup, the counter, the wall—everywhere but mine. “Think of it like Mommy Camp. You’ll make great friends. Your baby makes everything worth it.”

 

I wanted to walk in the park and clear my head. My biometric band beeped an air quality alert. I looked up at the canopy of trees in the park, at the neatly manicured hills.

Nothing remained wild anymore.

The man two lampposts away is following me.

I dart behind a tree, then run at full speed, a startled deer.

He doesn’t catch me. But when I stop to hide in the shadows, there’s another man watching me.

I’d call the police but I know now, he is the police. On Monday, they come and get me.

 

***

The driver checked off our names. Veronica. Meredith.

Magdalena. We drive over an hour, out of the city, past hills, woods, pastoral farms. A man by the side of the road with an axe, chopping a fallen tree, looks up and makes eye contact with me.

Veronica, arms crossed, glares. “Guards are for criminals.” Meredith overwrites the tension with a cheerleader’s enthusiasm. “We are so lucky to get Para Maria. The urban centers aren’t as nice.” We pass under an arched gateway. The iron reads, “For the Children.”

 

Orientation begins with a tour. Lullabied halls, oak floors. Inside, guards and nursemaids. They speak softly and urge us to keep our emotions even-keeled. Our schedule fills with yoga, meditation, nutrition, and proper infant care.

Vitamins are doled out. Meals are regimented. I can see why Janice called it a spa. We’re encouraged to spend time learning world cultures and try new foods so as not to project our biases onto our growing child.

I’m given my computer and research assignments. Nursemaid Monica says, “Feel free not to work during your confinement.

Your company is required by law to understand.”

After my six weeks prenatal appointment I’m ushered into a paneled office to meet my child’s attorney.

 

Lara’s right. This is like Mommy Camp. At night we whisper hauntings bed to bed across the dormitory.

“How would someone get out of here?”

“Can you even have a baby off the grid anymore?”

“I heard there’s a safe house, if you can get to it.” “No one thought these laws through.”

“What about my rights?” “I miss my husband.”

“I miss my life.”

“I bet putting us in captivity plummets the birth rate below repopulation.”

“Shhh… they measure ambivalence, girls.”

 

I’ve just finished my first trimester. I wear maternity gowns now.

Ryan comes. We sit across from each other at a table in the visitor’s room.  “I’m ready to be a father.”

“The judge will happy to hear that,” I spit.

He laughs. “Nursemaid Monica warned of sharp moods.” “We aren’t allowed to have moods.”

“Oh come on. Be a good sport. A spa can’t be so bad.” “You know, we aren’t automatic parents just because you knocked me up.”

“What do you mean?”

“Our child has an attorney. Point Parity is at twenty weeks gestation. It’s the first of two assessments to see if we are in our child’s best interest. Your involvement helps. We have to prove our fitness and desire to become parents, Ryan.”

He’s horrified. I envy his freedom to have reactions.

 

At dinner, there’s a scene. Veronica slams her tray.

Like a crow, she circles the guard, a crazed, wild light in her black eyes. She spits rage at being caged. “IT’S NOT A CRIME TO HAVE A BABY!” She steps a half circle back, then spins back at him, flailing at him with all of her strength. He must maintain order without force. Don’t upset the entire ward. I see his hand slap his band for help.

I see blood stains in the creases of her maternity gown.

Vaginal blood. She is as far along as I am. Our children are not yet viable outside the womb. The police arrive.

Veronica is hauled out by the arms, fresh red blood now spreading like ink on her dress, screaming and crying for freedom.

Nursemaid Monica addresses us shortly after. “Deep breaths, Primas. Reduce the cortisol poisoning your child. Veronica’s negligence triggered an Abortus. She has murdered her child through her rebellion. Veronica is going to jail. Now, get some rest.”

 

Today I felt my baby move. The night filled with ghosts.

“Do you think the safe house is real?” “Do you think your husband can find out?”

 

***

A name circulates a contact. I commit to my secret mission. I write it on wax paper and hide it in a piece of gum. When Ryan comes, I kiss him and pass it along. I bear the soul of my eyes into his. Help us.

 

Ten weeks pass. My stomach stretches, shiny lines on my skin straining taught. The baby rolls and kicks. My examinations reassure the nursemaids. See the mother thrive under our good care. See the child grow.

With nine others, I’m summoned down the oak halls to the exit.

We drive past the lush, August farms, the summer swollen trees. All of nature seems pregnant with me. The countryside scrolls by. We come to the city. It’s a long time since I’ve been home, to the place where the one I was before used to live.

At the courthouse, we are led to a row of chairs in a green hallway. There’s to be a pelvic exam to determine if we are close to delivery at the time of the hearing.

I rise and follow the attendant. Disrobe. Lay back. Make frog legs. Feel the hand. And then, something else. The doctor pats my thigh and reminds me to use the restroom before returning to the hall. I do.

In the stall, I raise a leg on the seat to reach my vagina.

I pull out a thinly padded vial that dangles from a string. A message in a bottle.

 

The judge listens. I am unwed, distant family, low-quality air, propensity for worry. However, the father is here. My child’s attorney expresses concern over our reluctance. Janice testifies. “It’s my belief Ms. Dickinson’s experience is not atypical. Although surprised by pregnancy, she demonstrates an adaptivity to reality, rather than wishful thinking. I think she’ll adjust to motherhood beautifully.”

I feel grateful. Ryan squeezes my hand.

The judge rules probation. If we are found inadequate two months postpartum, our child will be removed and placed for adoption while it is still a desirable infant. The gavel sounds.

 

Two vans wait outside. I follow the written instruction to get into the blue one. The mood is heavy, weighted at the thoughts of losing our babies. I am breathing slowly to prevent my biometric sensor from alarming, a watchful doe on high, calm alert.

Sirens wail behind us. The driver curses, pulls over abruptly. My heart rate rises.

The officer approaches the window. “I’m removing Magdalena Dickinson.”

“What for? She’s due back.” “Biometric Urgency.”

The driver waves me out. The guard escorts me to the car. Minutes later the officer is speeding.

“Take off your band,” he says. The car careens around a corner. “They’ll know in minutes. Get that band off. Twist and rip.”

I try ripping the bracelet. Metal spikes activate and pierce my skin. Twist and rip. Blood spurts from a ring of wounds on my wrist but I get it off. The officer lowers the window and I fling the band out over the rail of the bridge, into the roiling river.

The AI dispatch speaks. “All points. Primigravida near term. All Saints Bridge.” But we’re over the bridge now. The water search will buy us time.

 

I’m passed off in the night. Handed a backpack. We’re hiking under a full moon. My back cramps. “Are we going to Ryan?”

“Shh.”

The flutter of helicopters builds in the distance. The hiker curses the moonlight. The choppers are sweeping the forest. They’ve found my band and not my body. The hiker presses me into the black shadows. The searchlight probes the forest around us. Somehow, our particular tree is missed. The bird swoops to the east.

We turn west.

In a dark cabin, we rest. I drink and rub my back. “How are those contractions,” the hiker asks.

“How did you know?” “Another life.” “Irregular,” I say.

“Fright isn’t conducive to birth. They’ll pass. Is Ryan the father?”

I nod.

“You trust him?”

My hesitation is just long enough.

“Look. Child’s Rights target fathers too. Safe house gossip is often a test. You sure he didn’t turn you in to cover his own ass?”

I remember Ryan’s hand squeeze. My back contracts. This time, I know.

 

A second night. He wants me to lay down in the padded cavity of a boat. I ask if he’s done this before.

“I run this mission on the regular. There’s no shortage of people wanting out of the United State. We aren’t One, no matter what they say.”

I curl into the fetal position. He covers me with canvas. I’m rocked by the river to sleep.

I wake to swirl rapids, the bow dipping and rising in the churching waves. My belly seizing. My legs aching, sliced like knives from lying this way for so long.

 

Water. Splashes of foam from the river slide into the boat and soak me. A second realization, water warm and wet between my legs.

Our hunter now is Time.

The boat lurches violently. I brace myself and exhale pain. Later, the impact with the rocks drowns my cries.

Grunting. The hiker half carries me up a hill. There’s a cave, he says. A tunnel.

The rest comes to me in flashes. Lay back. Bear down.

Breathe. A ring of fire sears. The head. One more. The shoulders. A wet, red, wailing thing wrapped in a hoodie. A girl.

A mining cart. I’m lifted in. The hiker settles us amid cargo blankets. He moves. We sleep.

 

My daughter is nursing as we emerge into morning sunshine.

Ahead, there’s a woman. And Ryan.

The world changed when I wasn’t looking.


*Image by roboleary.net

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Nickolaus Pacione

An interesting piece as I am talking with the ones who run this place about featuring an anthology of short stories from here; including mine on http://www.blurb.com — how did you get the tags in place because I could use some of them myself.