Jean confronted the rat. She had walked home through the park after settling for an inadequate bus when her train didn’t come. Now the swollen rodent greeted her, looming at the top of the stoop like a demented sentry. It rested on its back haunches, blinking; a miniature newspaper and coffee mug would not have been out of place. The rat seemed to have lost track of the furtive nighttime ways in which city animals were meant to behave. What had become of this world? Her hand fluttered to her belly.
Inside the apartment, Greg fought a losing battle with Lucy, the mission objective being the consumption of Band-Aid-sized strips of quesadilla. Jean slumped on the sofa. “What about that email, anyway?” she said, after the usual greetings.
Greg waved the white flag, joined Jean. It was a small apartment. In the “living room” they were thirteen inches away from the “dining room,” where their daughter shredded her “dinner” into greasy confetti, celebrating their exhausted surrender. Greg slung an arm around Jean’s shoulder and drew her close, kissing the top of her head. “What email? Fine, how are you?”
Jean nestled into his chest. The smell of Lucy’s congealed meal turned her stomach. She breathed in Greg’s musky armpit instead. “We should at least apply.”
“Whatever you think. Sure. I can dig out the tax returns if Little Miss ever deigns to go to bed.” Lucy glared at them, left the table in a huff, disappeared into the bedroom. They heard her a moment later, mumbling doll dramas. “Our three-year-old teenager,” said Greg.
The even-handed way in which he dealt with their daughter was one of the many things Jean admired in her husband. Because she did, even after all their years together, admire him, she was still able to see him as the stranger she had mooned over, watching him play violin in a school concert a decade earlier. What was the song, the mournful sonata that had wormed into her brain and made her his forever? It seemed terrible that she couldn’t remember. She hadn’t had any particular feelings about classical music then, hardly did even now, but had always gotten a vaguely erotic thrill from watching people do things they were very good at. It never mattered what the things were, the mastery was what did her in. She had once fallen momentarily but completely in love with an excavator operator, who let a cigarette dangle from his lip while he moved the digger’s claw through the dirt so gracefully it seemed more animal than machine . It had been a long time since she had seen anything like that, though. There wasn’t much building happening anymore. There wasn’t much expertise either, now that she thought of it.
“I mean,” she corrected herself, “It would be weird. If we got it. Right? Wouldn’t it?” Greg picked something out of her hair and they both examined it: the abandoned husk of a prehistoric insect. “I had to walk home through the park,” she said. There was something else she’d meant to tell him too, but now she couldn’t remember what.
Greg turned the translucent exoskeleton over in his hands. “Hm,” he said carefully, the way you’d speak to a person you had to work not to distress. Maybe he could tell. In the park she’d had a kind of a breakdown, coming across a rose bush in full, lascivious bloom. It was January. Nothing seemed to know how to be itself anymore. Would the buds know to bloom again in the spring? Would the same thing happen to her daughter, would she grow up too fast the way girls these days rocketed through BPA-induced puberty before hitting double digits? And did anyone care? While Jean, in her own little life, painstakingly sorted her recycling and checked ingredients for toxins, what were the people who could actually make a difference doing? Jean, overcome by rage, had taken a stick and smacked the roses until the pink petals covered the ground. Then she had wept. Then she had noticed the park person—there were more and more of them these days, living in makeshift shanties in the meadow—watching her, standing between the trees, watching her, and quivering in a way that indicated he was either praying or masturbating. Back at home, Jean’s heart still raced, as if a car had nearly hit her.
Greg pressed her hands away from her mouth. “It would be weird to get used to a new place, I guess, but it might be a kind of an adventure, right? It’s not like we want to stay here forever, after all,” here meaning their marginal neighborhood that had begun sliding toward the wrong margins. “The email said there was preschool onsite.” Sprouties, the local preschool, was so expensive as to prohibit all but their richest neighbors. Even as the city had emptied out, wealthy people still occupied the brownstones by the park, their devotion to city life insulated by their ability to pay for security systems and long trips away.
“I mean, it’s public housing. Would it be all…” Jean didn’t know quite how to say it. She watched a leak trickle down the corner of their living room/dining room/kitchen. The landlord lived downstairs and while one would think this might engender a certain sense of urgency when it came to fixing structural problems, there was the leak, still glistening from last night’s rain, keloid against the once-white wall.
“Poor people? Like us, you mean?” Greg said. Jean nodded, though what she meant was actually some hazy concept she had of gang people, drug people. “It’s not actually public housing, remember? It’s run by a corporation, not the government.” This sounded better from their vantage point in the crumbling city, where every few months more civil services dropped away without warning, public programs were lopped off like gangrenous limbs. Hate crime had become just imperfection in the texture of the city. At least a corporation would want its venture to be successful, would be faithful to its own clearly defined bottom line. After all, he was right. The income bracket indicated in the application package had matched theirs. They had gone to college, she had a decent job, and they couldn’t make ends meet. It was exactly for people like them.
Greg stood up to clear Lucy’s meal and start preparing theirs. He planned all the meals, took Lucy with him on the bus (which Lucy had been trained to call the “adventure mobile!”) to the gritty Pathmark where they foraged for edible produce hibernating in the wilted bins. “If it’s anything like how it’s described on the website – with the shopping center and groceries and health club and schools through 12th grade – it will certainly make life easier,” he said with his Gregly equanimity. He was for it, Jean realized, but was letting her think she’d thought of the idea. “Might as well take the free tour. Don’t forget there’s refreshments.” For some reason this struck them as hilarious, that the tour offered refreshments.
She had more to say to him – she remembered the judgmental stoop rat and wanted him to know how much it had frightened her, the way Lucy needed to tell them about the monsters under her bed so that they could announce with their parental authority that was definitively nothing there – but he had turned on the radio and delved into dinner-prep bustle, and it was easier to stay on the collapsing couch and close her eyes. “Mmm,” she said. “Refreshments.”
Cities were over. That’s what everyone said. Income disparities had gotten Dickensian, there was no more middle class. Or maybe Jean and Greg were themselves the last vestige of it left standing, the last (middle class) people on Earth. Everyone they knew seemed to either have deep wells of secret family income or to be one missed paycheck away from disaster, and most of both kinds were leaving for the countryside. The city – where Jean had grown up, where they had met as anxious youths graduating college in the post-war recession, where they had married and started their own family – had gone cold on them, like a spouse distracted by secret mistress. The restaurants and coffee shops and bookstores – everything besides the dollar stores and the big, grim chains – were closing, one by one. Commuting to the tech company where she worked in a warren of cubicles, Jean waited unreasonable lengths of time for trains that never came. At night she heard gunshots in their neighborhood that had been white-collar families and creative types when they’d first rented their apartment. Some weeks the trash simply wasn’t picked up. She could call 3-1-1 with her spotty cell service as the world’s last newspapers withed around her legs, but it only routed her into a Mobius strip of recordings. The mayor hadn’t appeared in public in years. Was anyone even running the city anymore? Or was there just a large computer parked in City Hall, redirecting phone calls and emails into infinity?
That was the winter that never happened, that never even seemed to try, everyone sweating in their spring-weight jackets and muttering over the ruined earth. It affected the animals, too, like the daytime rat that had menaced Jean on her stoop, like the sea gulls that massed, circling above the park, even though all the manmade lakes had run dry years ago. Squirrels fell out of trees, as if noticing for the first time that the way they climbed and leapt was impossible. Abandoned pet-store parrots swarmed, picking violent pecking fights with the sparrows. Everything had gotten out of joint.
Jean lay awake at night, feeling flutters in her belly that she couldn’t possibly have been feeling, not really, not yet. For some reason she still hadn’t told Greg, even though she knew he would be happy. Instead Jean ran calculations in her head. Anything extra would be too much. They had no savings; they already paid for half their groceries on a high-interest credit card. But was there even another option anymore? She hadn’t been able to get an appointment with a competent general practitioner in years. Who would take care of it? She shuddered at the phrase. “Taking care of it” was precisely the opposite of what taking care of it would be.
Three nights in a row she sat up in bed and fumbled for her phone to reread the email, glowing in the dark – New City, Now Taking Applications – clicking all the attachments to study the floorplans and application materials. What was this new/old, faraway/familiar feeling? Her stomach churned. She smiled at odd times. She allowed herself to picture the future. She knew this feeling, she did. But what was it called, again?
They first saw New City from the private bus sent by the management to scoop up all the applicants in their waning neighborhood. The architectural drawings on the website had not included 10-foot-high electrified barbed wire fences circling the perimeter of the angular towers. The tour guide assured them the fences were merely a temporary measure meant to keep marauders out of the site; they’d had a problem early in construction with desperate characters stealing plumbing pipes and copper wires.
The tour guide called it “A City on a Hill within a City,” which seemed a bit wordy to Jean, though she was stirred by the implied grandeur. It was its own little world, idyllic as a snow globe. In addition to the high-rise apartment buildings, New City included five or six different schools covering K-12, a firehouse, a police station, houses of worship, a large factory, parking garages, its own ecologically friendly energy power plant, and, most compelling to Jean, over 200 acres of safe, man-made, well-maintained green space. When she looked out at the parks veined with walking paths, she could almost remember the way the city had once been – the way groups of children played baseball on dusty diamonds, the way people let their dogs romp off-leash in the early-morning mist – before the roving civilian militias armed with action-movie guns had spooked people into staying inside as much as possible. She watched a smiling biracial family saunter down a flower-fringed path. Were they planted there for the tour? Jean wondered, quickly correcting herself – no, they must have already been living there, after all the tour guide had said the town house section was already occupied.
The large residential buildings were still in their architectural third trimester, but everything else appeared fully formed: the shopping center and grocery complex lavishly stocked (“rotisserie chicken!” Greg moaned with pleasure, as Jean gasped, “fancy cheese!”); the health club’s Olympic-sized pool sparkling in the sunlight that filtered down from the glass-domed roof. As part of a special “Pioneers Deal,” the residents who signed that week were not required to pay the customary first and last month’s rent, deposit, and broker’s fee. There was even a special clause in each lease that residents would never be evicted based on inability to pay rent, which was a third of what Greg and Jean had paid for their terrible old floor-through.
The way Jean later remembered it, their application was accepted immediately and within a few days they had settled into their shining three-bedroom apartment in West Tower 2, New City, Ward 6. But in reality, by the time they were hanging pictures on the pristine walls she was only a few weeks away from her due date. Moving to this sprawling development at the edge of the old city had saved the life of the boy. Now he could join them, now Lucy could be a big sister, now they could be a Christmas-card-perfect family of four. Now things were as they should be.
New City delivered on its brochure promises. The streets were clean, the air was fresh, the amenities better than anything they could remember. And it wasn’t, thank goodness, scary people or weird people or even poor-seeming people. The unwashed creeps from the parks hadn’t migrated from their culvert shantytowns into the gleaming towers, of course not! Once they moved in Jean saw it was people just like them. At the playground, Greg laughed at all the dads with glasses like his, markers of a certain kind of guy. He spent more time talking to the new neighbors than Jean did, and reported that there were already plans in place for potluck pasta suppers, a listserv set up to share the free but strangely limited music and book files New City Library doled out. These were people who valued the same things they did, who decorated their blocky apartments with original art and eclectic flea market finds, who offered interactive projects and cooperative board games when Greg and Lucy came over for playdates after school. People who checked with Greg before offering Lucy apple juice. Greg was so happy he was practically translucent.
Lucy seemed happy, too, as she skipped off each morning across the landscaped green. The subsidized coop preschool was populated by a storybook rainbow of children and cheerily staffed by young teachers who spoke of “inquiry” and “discovery” as if they’d memorized the early education texts Jean skimmed when Lucy was born. This left Greg free to compose during the day. New City encouraged Complete Onsite Living, a relief now that public transit had gotten so unreliable, so Jean worked in the communal remote office with the rest of the freelancers. The loft-like space was bright and clean, the various suites – she was in stowed in Tech but noted the signs for Creative, Accounting, and Legal on the same floor— stocked by invisible custodians with fresh flowers and endless coffee pods for the machines that were placed every few feet, between foosball tables and “creativity” benches for power naps.
It was how things should be. In fact, that was the official motto: New City, How Things Should Be. Jean and Greg said it to each other, incredulously; they said it to their new neighbors when they met in the hall on their way to the free communal laundry or well-maintained compost stations. There was a comprehensive medical suite on premises available to all residents, no matter what paltry health insurance coverage with which they had previously had to wrestle, and Jean found her prenatal appointments there to be efficient and personable. There was even a New City credit union with no-fee ATMs in every building onsite, so like all the other new residents Jean and Greg moved their anemic account from their old bank, a faceless conglomerate notorious for CEO corruption anyway. All in all, New City was too good to be true. So you could ignore certain things. Or Jean tried to, anyway. At first.
Greg was making vegetable fajitas and black bean soup and blackened chicken –the New City Grocery Store sold organic chicken breast! – and the apartment smelled dreamy, like the perfect restaurant happened upon after a long day of travel, an experience Jean only abstractly remembered. She leaned on the kitchen island, rubbing her belly, watching Greg flip the pan full of sizzling peppers. Lucy colored happily at the table, munching raw red pepper strips, singing a song she’d learned at school. The windows were open and the breeze tumbled in fresh and cool. The baby kicked, as if dancing an amiable little jig. Jean closed her eyes. Feel this, she told herself. Feel this happy, normal family moment. This is how things should be.
Greg seemed to glow. “I composed the beginnings of a sonata today,” he said. “More than I’ve written since Lucy was born. I’m really playing again. I feel like myself again!”
Jean smiled. “Look at my hands!” she said, by way of agreement. “Have you noticed I’ve stopped biting my nails?” As soon as she heard herself speak, though, she faltered. It was true that in the last months in the old neighborhood she had taken to gnawing at her cuticles with the compulsiveness of the crazed backflipping polar bear at the city zoo (before it had been bizarrely murdered and dismembered, of course, poor bear). And she didn’t doubt that Greg’s creative life had stumbled out of hibernation thanks to their improved living conditions. But their conversation sounded stagey to her, scripted, as if it had been lifted from New City promotional copy. Before they moved in, the local busybody in the old neighborhood had told Jean she’d heard there were security cameras hidden in every apartment. Despite herself Jean looked around now, studying the corners of the walls.
Greg noticed. “What are you looking for?”
“Oh, just admiring the novel sight of a wall without leaks,” said Jean quickly.
“Right?” Greg turned his attention now to shredding cheese. Jean had offered to help but he’d waved her away, handed her a glass of wine to “relax the baby,” so she just watched him, feeling helpless and faraway. “Do you know, when I picked up Lucy today from after-school enrichment, we walked across the green, and all of these other kids from her class were there with their parents, running around in these little packs, and screaming and laughing and rolling down the hills – it was like something out of an old picture book. We really lucked out, you know that? I never told you, but in those last days in the old neighborhood Lucy and I were barely leaving the apartment. I would take her on walks in the stroller, strapping her in, circling around the same two blocks every day, the blocks that still felt ok to walk down. It was like the walls were closing in. Isn’t that odd, how fewer people in the city makes it feel not larger but smaller? Anyway today I was watching her and thinking, this is how things should be—”
Jean cut him off. “Wait, sorry, but what on Earth is she is singing?”
They wheeled around. At the table, absorbed in a coloring book from school, Lucy was sweetly warbling to herself an unfamiliar song in a minor key: “And I pwedge awegiance to New City, how dings should beeee! Dee only pwace for dose like meeeee!” She looked up, noticed her parents watching, and stood on the chair to do a little curtsy.
Jean studied the bulbous light fixtures on the ceiling as she knocked on the door of the first floor apartment, down the hall from the on-site super and custodial staff. Each of the 40-plus residential high-rise towers was run by a manager, a kind of a cross between a college dorm RA and a butler. The manager of Greg and Jean’s building was a chirpy blonde called Kellie, and the residents were meant to funnel any complaints or questions through her, though Jean suspected it would be about as helpful as stuffing a message in the bottle and flushing it down the toilet.
Kellie opened the door with a camera-ready grin. “Good morning, resident! Whoa, look at that bump! When is our new friend joining us?”
Jean looked over her shoulder as if someone might be standing behind her. “Oh,” she said, patting her belly, “I’m due in two weeks.”
Kellie clapped. “Wow-EE! You know, I think you might be the first resident to give birth in New City! Our first little colonist! Like Virginia Dare, right?” Jean nodded, though her pregnancy-muddled brain couldn’t dial up any information about what Virginia Dare meant. “Let me talk to the Big Guy about you. I heard there was a special bonus for the first birth!”
“Bonus? Like, money? For having my baby?” Jean stared at Kellie’s mascara-encrusted Minnie Mouse lashes. “Wait, I had a question for you.”
Kellie clapped again, like a deranged camp counselor. Jean became suddenly aware of how their voices echoed down the hall. It was clear Kellie was not inviting her in, so she shifted her weight and tried to speak discreetly. “Well, I was wondering – wait, who’s the ‘Big Guy’?”
The ponytail bobbed emphatically. “Oh, that’s our nickname for Bob. You know, Bob Strubb,” Kellie cooed, as if she were talking about a teen idol.
“The real estate guy?”
“Of course, silly! He’s the main investor behind New City, and he’s the president of our Board of Trustees!”
Jean swallowed. “The guy from television, ages ago? That sleazy reality show about his wives? Wait, wasn’t he running for city office or something?”
Kellie went tight-lipped. “So what can I help you with, resident?”
“Oh. I was wondering – so funny, but it seems like we can’t get to certain websites on our home computer. Like, news websites. CNN, The New York Times. The WiFi works, but certain sites won’t load.”
“Oh, no! That’s the pits. You’re going to want to talk to Tech Support about that, they’re in Ward 2, you know, over by the squash courts?”
“Oh. Okay.” Jean tapped “2” and a pumpkin emoji into her phone’s notes, hoping she’d be able to translate later. “I had another question, too. I’m supposed to go into my office, I mean, the actual office, in the city, the old city I mean, for this annual meeting thing for work. But, and this may sound silly, but I guess I haven’t actually left the complex since we moved in, and I was having a hard time finding the right bus schedule. Or even, what bus I take to leave. Or even, where the exits are.” Despite the end of major construction, the fences had remained. They loomed in the distance when Jean took her roving walks.
Kellie’s smile plastered back on. “Sure! Definitely! You’re going to want Transportation Services for that. They’re in Ward 5, I think? By the police and fire stations. Have you seen the firemen?” she added conspiratorially, fanning herself. “Oooh, girl! I’d walk you over there myself, but I’m slammed today. Good luck! And I’ll be in touch about that baby bonus! Thanks for stopping by!”
Jean’s stomach was dropping – what exactly was this? – and she’d wanted to ask about Lucy’s song, too – what did that mean, exactly, pledging allegiance to New City, and the line about those like me? But Kellie’s door had already clicked decisively shut. Anyway, Jean was starting to see the pattern. She’d only be directed to ask the preschool teachers themselves, who would probably refer her to another agency she’d never heard of. Oh of course! You’re going to want to ask the Song Development Department in Ward 97! It’s twelve miles that way, up that sheer cliff. Have fun! Bye!
The lobby opened to a curved cobblestone path linking the ward’s towers, lined with thick-necked marigolds that looked capable of surviving a nuclear holocaust. Though the freelancer’s office was to the right, Jean turned to the left. She’d allowed more time for meeting with Kellie than they’d used. Besides, maybe it would make her feel better to get a cup of coffee from New City Roasters and look out over the reflecting pond for a few minutes. She wanted to call Greg, but was pretty sure she knew what he would say: so New City had some rough patches to smooth over still, nothing worked perfectly right from the get-go, and this was a gargantuan feat of coordination and engineering and cooperation after all, and why didn’t she give him her to-do list and he would do all the legwork for her. Greg was an inveterate bright-sider, his optimism as truculent as New City marigolds.
The café was tucked into a Snack Center – there was one in each ward – a hexagonal food court like the kind they’d once had at roadside truck stops, each shop hosting its own little cave. There was brick-oven pizza, a French bakery, a sweet shop shining with apothecary jars full of hard candy. Jean went to the café, where you could charge a latte made with almond milk caressed into the shape of a leaf straight to your New City Credit Union account. What was this miraculous drink from the distant, prosperous past? It reminded her of how honey supposedly lasted forever. All along, fancy coffee drinks had been crystallized in some collective unconscious amber in which Bob Strubb had thought to invest while he waited for the fancy coffee drinkers to awake from their cryogenic slumber.
As soon as she got to the reflecting pond, cup in hand, Jean felt stupid: the pond had been constructed specifically for residents to come reflect and now here she was, obediently reflecting. But she wasn’t ready to start working for the day, and the breeze was soft and pleasant. Here it was, summer, a season that had in old neighborhood been characterized by blistering heat baking up off the pavement with relentlessness that left her depleted. How was it that the weather was different in New City? Even the newly-transplanted plants behaved according to the old seasonal ways. That first April she’d been beside herself with delight to see cherry blossoms and forsythia blooming in docile synchrony.
She sat on a bench and sipped her coffee. At least she had a moment to be alone with her thoughts. She closed her eyes, tried to concentrate.
“Well, hello, stranger!” As if on cue, a large, soft body plumped down beside her.
Jean opened her eyes. “Marybeth? What are you doing here?”
Marybeth had lived in their old neighborhood, had monitored the neighborhood list serve and community action groups right up until the end, when goodwill and energy were sparse. Marybeth had been the one who’d hysterically suggested to Jean that New City might be some kind of a police state, with the residents under constant surveillance. Jean regarded her now, her kind, acne-scar-pitted face, her glittering ice-blue eyes, her wispy hair pulled back over what appeared to be a balding spot. Marybeth smiled. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be having that baby any second now?”
The baby kicked in protest. Jean didn’t blame him. Baby bonus, indeed. She wished, with panicky urgency, that there were a way to prevent him from being born, to keep him safe inside forever. But she gathered herself and replied, “Two weeks,” and sipped her latte. “Really, I never expected to see you here.”
“I thought this place might need an organizer type,” Marybeth answered mysteriously. “Besides, everyone’s here now, right? You should see the old neighborhood. I know you’ve only been gone a few months, but it’s cleared out. Nothing but the bums and the park people left. A gang took over the rec center, where they stockpile looted goods and who knows what else. They literally guard it with semiautomatic weapons. It’s like a third-world country.”
“Seriously?” Jean shuddered. A seagull circled the reflecting pond, dove suddenly down. They must have stocked it with fish, aquatic dopes who thought they were getting a fresh start in the clean, filtered water, never realizing that they’d been held captive and fattened up to be someone’s meal, like Hansels and Gretels with gills, up until the moment the bird’s beak pierced their flesh.
“Take my word for it. After all, you don’t want to go back and see for yourself, do you?” Marybeth rubbed her hands together as if she were freezing. Her dry skin rustled. Jean felt a twinge in her abdomen. Maybe the coffee was getting the baby too jazzed up. She put the paper cup down in the drink holder built into the bench. It was perfectly sized to match the cup. As she stared at the cup in the drink holder, her thoughts opened inside other thoughts, like Matryoshka dolls.
“No,” she said, “I suppose I don’t.”
She excused herself and headed toward the office. As she walked her phone dinged. A text from Kellie: “Your meeting with the Big Guy is in the queue for tomorrow! You will get a notification of your meeting time soon – don’t be late. Good luck!”
Tonight’s dinner was an elaborate bibimbap Greg had been planning all week, during which their fridge had been colonized by jars, pickled vegetables floating like corpses awaiting dissection. Lucy sat on the kitchen table, thumbing through a picture book they’d given her at school called “New City is Where I Belong.” Jean paced the apartment. She’d had to have Greg buzz her in because she couldn’t find her keys. Now she stopped to rummage wildly through her bag.
“Jeanie, why don’t you sit and relax?” said Greg.
Jean whirled to face him. “That’s what they want, isn’t it? For us all to just sit and relax?” The violence in her voice surprised her.
Greg raised his eyebrows, showed his palms. He seemed glassy today and emitted a faintly woodsy smell that made Jean wonder if the “cool” mom who’d hosted today’s after school playdate hadn’t offered him something to smoke along with the fresh banana bread Lucy had raved about. “I’d love to play you the song I’m working on,” he said, casually. “It’s a nocturne.”
What was a nocturne? Jean couldn’t think straight, found that she couldn’t conjure any music in her mind at all. It sounded like it would be a lullaby. It sounded like something you’d play to anesthetize the thoughts of someone about to discover an unpleasant truth! Jean’s mind raced. “You know what I realized today,” she said. She knew it was a non sequitur but it burst forth anyway, like a baby who couldn’t wait, birthing itself in a taxi. Her words pooled on the kitchen floor: “There’s no polling place here. Did you know that? I’ve asked around and no one can tell me anything. I tried to access the proxy voting online but it won’t load. Do you realize there is a major election this November, and we won’t be able to vote?”
Greg stared at her. “I’m sure they’re still working out the kinks. No one is trying to prevent you from voting, Jean. This is America.”
“No, this is New City,” Jean spat out. Something in her tone made Lucy jerk her head up and give Jean the same appraising look Greg wore on his face. Jean took a deep breath, went to hug her daughter. Lucy rubbed her pudgy hands over Jean’s belly. “Come on out, baby!” She said cheerily. “Come on out and play, Robby!”
Greg laughed, the tension cut. “Robby? Who’s Robby, Lulu-Bear?”
“Dat’s the baby brudder’s name! Robby!”
Jean rubbed Lucy’s back, feeling the tiny wing bones behind her shoulders. “No it’s not, sweetie. We don’t have a name for him quite yet.”
Greg cracked an egg over the top of the first bibimbap mound. “Aw, that is so cute. ‘Robby.’ Lulu-Bear, are you excited to meet your brother? Oh, that reminds me! Jean, a package came for you today – a huge gift basket, full of baby stuff, from New City Management. Isn’t that nice?”
“Smashing,” Jean muttered. “It probably tells us what to name the baby, too. Maybe it even includes his future work detail, and a list of what he’ll be allowed to think.”
“Sweetie,” Greg stopped. “Maybe…” He scooped Lucy off the table, began to set the table. “Maybe it would help to see a doctor? They have all that wonderful free mental health help here. It might help to talk to someone? You’ve seemed awfully tense lately. And with the baby coming – you know, just to talk it out?” He said it so kindly, so gently, that Jean had to chew on a thumbnail or she would scream.
And there was a clicking sound from somewhere but now Jean couldn’t mention it or she’d sound crazy. A few seconds later her phone dinged with another text from Kellie, reminding her of tomorrow morning’s Big Guy meeting time, but she couldn’t mention that either, or she’d sound crazy, even though not mentioning it was making her feel more crazy. And Greg’s solicitousness was making her feel the craziest. The veins in her legs pulsed, her pelvis and back thrummed with primordial aches.
“I think I’m just tired,” she said.
“Yes. Yes, you must be tired,” said Greg. “Poor kid.”
They sat down to dinner.
“But maybe it wouldn’t hurt,” added Greg, after she’d thought they were finished with the topic. “Just to talk. To a doctor.”
One of their doctors, Jean couldn’t say out loud. Yes, it could hurt.
Jean woke up in the middle of the night, her back and sides aching, her legs twitchy. She wished she could roll onto her back, but felt mired, stuck, as if shackled to the bed. A cramp gripped her abdomen. Oh RIGHT! Her mind whirred with insomnia’s speedy intensity. Virginia Dare. The first baby born to the first American colonists, she remembered, impotently, in the dark, as if her brain had suddenly clicked into gear, like the clunky bike she’d once ridden over the hills of the old city. Kellie was probably too stupid to have remembered what happened next, how along with that entire first colony, Virginia Dare had disappeared without a trace.
By the time Jean got up in the morning her labor had begun, contractions cresting at uneven intervals. She insisted that Greg go ahead and take Lucy to school and run some last errands, that she would be okay. And she was. She was so okay that her labor stopped with an existential shrug. As she padded around the apartment looking for her keys, it occurred to her that perhaps her key ring had fallen out of her pocket near the reflecting pond, when she’d sat down on the bench with Marybeth. Everything made her anxious lately – maybe Greg was right, maybe she was just stressed – and not knowing where her keys were weighed heavily, as if the baby could not be born while this issue of her keys remained unresolved.
It was a bustling time in New City, people hurrying out their doors, invested in the value of appearing busy more than in actually needing to arrive anywhere at a particular time. Drones buzzed past toting banners: “Chin Up and Work Hard Today, New Citizens!” and “New City, Old-Fashioned Values!” and of course “New City! How Things Should Be!(tm)”
Jean walked against the stream of pedestrian traffic. People hustled past her towards the snack courts or the shopping center or the remote office centers. She moved slowly, as if walking through water, the baby’s head heavy against her pelvis, the occasional Braxton-Hicks seizing her gut. She felt that sense of starting to leave her body that she remembered from giving birth to Lucy. Or not leaving her body, more like leaving her mind, her self, her construction of herself, becoming instead entirely body. It transformed the crowded walkway into a tunnel; it made her unselfconscious about staring into every face as it passed her by. It made her see things, know things. There was something familiar about each and every person, though she hadn’t lived there long enough to actually know them and she was sure she’d never seen most of them in her life. And yet it pulsed, it grew, the feeling of familiarity. There was something they all had in common, but what was it? There was a reason they had all been invited to New City – because after all she knew people who hadn’t gotten the emails, who had no idea what she was talking about when she asked if they were considering it – they had been chosen, they had chosen to be trapped there, in their pleasant, cherry-tree-lined, espresso-filled, gilded cage, but why them? – there was some common thread. But what? What could it be? Jean’s weird sense that everything was separating from its background and floating in space like bad early 2000s virtual reality – it was allowing her to get close to some truth, some truth no one could see! – but at the same time was making it difficult for her to think a thought all the way through, to articulate even to herself what she was suddenly knowing – and so how could she warn them? How could she be the only one who knew, when her addled brain wouldn’t even allow her to express her thoughts –? She couldn’t even get Greg to understand, let alone –
Once she reached the benches Jean dropped to her hands and knees. She thought it would be easier to spot a fallen key that way, but also something in her body demanded it. Who would this baby be? They still hadn’t agreed on a name.
She was realizing that the voice calling, “Jean? Jean, dear, are you quite all right?” was not a hallucination but a real live Marybeth leaning down solicitously, and she was feeling a contraction clamp down over her, when something glittering caught her attention. It was her key ring, gripped in the jaw of a large, muscular rat.
Amy Shearn is the author of two novels, The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is The Ocean From Here. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Real Simple, The Rumpus, The Millions, Electric Literature, Five Chapters, and elsewhere, including the Underwater New York anthology Silent Beaches, Untold Stories and the Burnt Books anthology History of a Day. She is an editor at JSTOR Daily, and lives in Brooklyn with her family.