Author’s Note: The short story you are about to read is the backstory for three of the characters in the novel I am writing, The Six Provinces of Debris. To read the first chapter of that novel, click here.
Emmeline paced the marble floor, back and forth, back and forth. The balls of her bare feet made gentle slapping sounds on the floor with every step, her heels a dull sounding thunk. The sound, the rhythm, soothed her. The sector doctors had requested that she stay in the hallway, refusing to let her into the birthing room. Periodically, rhythmically, she could hear the moans and screams of labor. With every moan, with every scream, she quickened her pace, slapping her feet against the floor with purpose.
She didn’t usually come when Amabel gave birth. It had become such a regular occurrence that Amabel didn’t even bother losing the baby weight afterwards.
“What’s the point?” Amabel had said once over tea. “If I lose it, he’ll just try again sooner rather than later. I may as well stay fat and delay the inevitable for as long as possible.” She then sipped her tea daintily, averting her eyes in an effort to avoid Emmeline’s worried expression.
Usually, Amabel didn’t even bother telling Emmeline that she was pregnant. What was the point? She spent more time pregnant than not these days. She married Merrick, a powerful senator in the sector fifteen years her senior, more than seven years ago when she was seventeen.
This pregnancy was different, heavier somehow. Amabel didn’t need to tell Emmeline that it was wearing on her; Emmeline could just see it in the lines on her young face, in the way she carried herself to council meetings, in the way she stopped voicing her strong opinions so fervently as she had done in the past.
Two weeks ago they took the children to the park one Sunday afternoon. The great marble wall surrounding the sector glinted with a pinkish pearly hue, the great stone figures carved into the wall looking down lovingly on the city, protecting them from the uneducated masses beyond. Emmeline and little Willy had arrived first, and Willy, only eighteen months old with white blonde hair, was digging happily in the sand at the foot of the slide. Amabel arrived fifteen minutes later with her two children Pullox and Castor. The boys were fraternal twins and had just turned six two months earlier. Pullox had red hair and a light smattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks, with a random spattering of darker freckles across his forehead. Castor had a darker complexion and was more serious, but he also had freckles to match his brother’s.
Emmeline and Amabel sat in silence for a while as the children played. Amabel’s belly was round under her dress, and she rubbed it absentmindedly as pregnant women often do. Emmeline watched her, noticing the crows feet etched in the corners of her older sister’s eyes, thinking she looked far older than twenty-four.
“What is wrong, Amabel?” Emmeline asked, placing her hand on Amabel’s.
Amabel squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head as if to clear her thoughts and regain composure. “Did you know this is baby number nine?” She said, adding a second hand to her large belly. Emmeline was silent, ashamed to admit that she had lost count of her sister’s babies.
“I can’t lose another one, Emmeline.” Amabel said quietly, smiling at Castor who looked over at the two women with curiosity.
Emmeline didn’t say a word. What was there to say? It was out her control, just as it was out of Amabel’s.
“How do you do it?” Amabel asked, watching little Willy stick a fistful of dirt in his mouth. “How do you keep from being…like me?”
Emmeline was silent for a while, unsure of how to phrase her response. When she married Langston three years earlier she told him she wouldn’t be a “birthing cow” like her sister. She was ashamed of the memory and ashamed of her words. She could feel Amabel’s eyes watching her, waiting for a response.
“Well, I told him I didn’t want to give any away.” Emmeline responded, watching Willy absently, “So we find other ways to satisfy his needs…and mine.”
“And yours?” Amabel responded, sounding confused.
Emmeline looked her sister in the eye. “Yes, and mine. I enjoy it too. Langston…he’s very gentle, and very…sensitive…to my needs as well as his own.”
“I don’t enjoy it,” Amabel said. “I never have. Merrick, he claims to be doing his ‘duty as a senator’ by ‘spreading his seed around the Provinces.’” She had deepened his voice to imitate him.
“I think he just enjoys the act, and damned if he gets me pregnant or not.” She sighed, and started rubbing her belly again. “I’m tired, Emme. I can’t lose another one. Not again.”
Another scream sounded through the double doors leading to the birthing room, and Emmeline couldn’t take it any longer. She looked back at Langston who was sitting on the couch at the end of the hall. “I’m going in.” She announced, and Langston nodded his head and stood up to follow.
As soon as Emmeline pushed the double doors open, the screams grew much louder. She broke out into a run, and pushed her way past the doctor and nurses to her sister’s side.
Amabel’s face was covered in a sheen of sweat, and she looked pale and delirious. Next to her a nurse checked her pulse, watching a timepiece on her wrist intently.
“We asked you to wait in the hall!” The doctor said angrily, motioning for the nurse to grab Emmeline’s elbow to lead her out of the room.
“She’s not doing well…” The nurse said, looking uncomfortably at Emmeline. “Perhaps we should let her stay.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Emmeline said, grabbing Amabel’s other hand and squeezing it. It was cool and clammy, and Emmeline couldn’t remember if that was a normal reaction to labor.
“She’s not leaving.” Langston said coolly at the doctor’s shoulder, and the doctor glanced over his shoulder at Langston’s large, muscular frame.
The doctor shrugged, defeated. “Amabel, you need to push.” He said, sounding annoyed.
On the bed, Amabel just shook her head slowly, her eyelids drooping shut. “I can’t.” She whispered, looking at Emmeline. “I can’t lose another one. I won’t.”
Emmeline brushed the red hair out of her sister’s eyes. “Shh, don’t worry about that right now. Just push like the doctor said.”
“You have to take her.” Amabel said, looking at Emmeline desperately. “You have to take her. Don’t let them take her. I can’t lose another one!”
“Shh, you have to push, Amabel.” Emmeline said again, her heart quickening with the doctor’s stern commands to “get her to push or we’ll lose them both!”
“You have to take her, Emme. I won’t lose another one. I won’t let him give her away like the others. Please, take her, Emme.”
“Okay, I’ll take her, but you have to push, Amie! I can’t take her if you don’t push!”
A tear fell down Amabel’s cheek. “I can’t, Emmeline, I just can’t. I have no more energy. I just want to sleep.”
Emmeline looked at the doctor frantically and shook her head.
“We’ll have to do a caesarian.” The doctor announced, frustrated.
The nurse shook her head sadly, and turned to get a silver tray on the table behind her.
“No!” Emmeline shouted, growing frantic. Women in the sector rarely survived emergency caesarian procedures because the doctors were more concerned with the life of the baby than the life of the woman they were about to render infertile.
“Amabel, you have to push now! You have to, Amie!”
“I’m just so tired,” Amabel whispered, closing her eyes.
“Nurse!” Emmeline called, shaking Amabel’s shoulders to keep her awake. “Nurse!”
The nurse set the tray down and peered over her shoulder at Amabel. She walked over and picked up her wrist, checking it for a pulse again. She shook her head and shoved her fingers into Amabel’s neck, moving it around a few times to find the telltale pulse. She pursed her lips disapprovingly and shook her head at Emmeline.
“You’ll have to leave now so we can finish the procedure.”
“No!” Emmeline shouted, “I won’t!”
“She stays.” Langston said angrily to the doctor. “She stays or I will speak to your supervisor about your lackadaisical attitude about the lives of the wife and daughter of Senator Merrick Xadic.”
The doctor glared at Langston, and Langston glared back. Finally, the doctor sighed and said, “Fine, you may stay, but this part is not pretty.”
Emmeline didn’t move. She just clutched Amabel’s hand hard enough to crush the bone. Amabel didn’t react at all.
“Here we go,” The doctor said, holding a large silver scalpel in his hand and moving it across Amabel’s round, rippled belly in a single, smooth motion. The sharp smell of iron filled Emmeline’s nose, and she continued to grasp Amabel’s hand, now more for her own comfort than for Amabel’s.
Suddenly, her ears were greeted with the weak cry of a newborn. She turned and looked, immediately wishing she hadn’t. A bloody baby with a shock of dark, slimy hair screamed as the doctor swept her into the waiting arms of the nurse. He promptly removed his gloves, covered Amabel’s open belly with a cloth, and turned to walk out the door.
“Wait! Aren’t you going to stitch her back together?” Emmeline called after him franticly.
“There’s no point now.” The doctor said, shrugging. Emmeline looked down at her older sister’s big, green eyes, staring vacantly into a world Emmeline could not see.
“No! Amabel! Amie!” Emmeline shook Amabel’s shoulders, slapped her face, stroked her forehead, all the while repeating her name and hoping for a response.
Finally, Langston pulled Emmeline off of her sister and into another room, free of blood and afterbirth and sharp doctor’s tools.
“Shh, quiet.” He said, gesturing to a bundle in a basket on a table in the middle of the room. Emmeline took deep breaths, trying to steady herself and her pounding heart.
“Look, here she is. Amabel’s little girl.”
Emmeline looked down at the baby girl and remembered Amabel’s final words. You have to take her! Don’t let them take her!
“Langston,” Emmeline said, tears running down her face, “we have to leave. We have to leave the Sector. We have to take her.”
“Leave? Where? Why?” Langston asked, confused.
“Amabel, she asked me not to let them take her. She didn’t want to lose another baby. I think – I think she gave up, Langston. She stopped fighting. We have to leave, become readers, something. We have to leave the Sector.”
Emmeline’s body shook with distress as tears streamed down her face, “We have to leave. We have to take her.”
“Shh,” Langston said, holding Emmeline close to his body. “Shh, we’ll figure something out. Let me find the nurse.”
Emmeline nodded and gathered the newborn baby into her arms. She held her close to her body, whispering gently to her.
Langston returned shortly with the nurse, who looked uncomfortably at Emmeline and the baby.
“We need you to do something for us,” he said to her, placing his hands on both of her shoulders gently. “We need your help.”
Three days later, Langston and Emmeline submitted their resignation from the Senator Council and left the Sector to become readers.
They concealed the baby in a basket in Emmeline’s lap in the back of the wagon, and as they approached the large, marble wall, Emmeline looked up at the marble figures carved into the stone. Was it only two weeks ago that she had looked up at those same figures with fondness, thinking of them as protectors rather than jailors?
Their wagon was searched at the wall, and Emmeline pulled a sourdough roll out of the basket and passed it to the guard with a smile. “You look hungry,” she said, pressing the roll into the guard’s hand. He smiled back and bit into the roll gratefully. “Yes, ma’am, thank you very much,” he said through a mouthful of bread, moving on to the next part of the wagon. Both the baby and little Willy slept through the entire ordeal, and the guards accepted Langston’s transfer orders without hesitation.
Emmeline couldn’t believe how easy it was to leave the Sector. Not just physically, but emotionally as well. The death of her sister had disillusioned her from the Sector’s controlling laws: No more than two children to a family, one to replace each parent upon their deaths. Any and all children born after the first two would be sent beyond the sector to be adopted by the illiterate villagers of the provinces, sent to help repopulate the human race that was still suffering from the devastation of years past.
Once well beyond the walls of the Sector, Emmeline looked down at the baby in her arms. Only three days old and she was already growing quickly.
Langston glanced over and said, “You know, she still needs a name.”
Emmeline nodded, and remembered a conversation she had with Amabel when she had first married Merrick, flushed with excitement at her first pregnancy.
“If it’s a boy…Castor,” Amabel had said giddily, “And if it’s a girl…Adelaide.”
“Adelaide,” Emmeline said aloud, testing the name on her tongue.
“Adelaide Anders,” Langston repeated, “Adie.”
They rode in silence as baby Adelaide slept in Emmeline’s arms, Willy’s head in Langston’s lap, surrounded by the quiet dark of the unknown.
Want to read more? Check out chapter one of The Six Provinces of Debris, “The Table of Joy“