Fiction by Kate Arden McMullen
When you get her pregnant, the girl, your neighbor Rhoda, something in you feels relieved. Relief’s not the word, but you won’t know the word for how it feels to know how the rest of your life will be. Not because you want it, her, the baby, but because you’re a coward, and now you’ve made the last choice, to have a woman and a baby to take care of. Even if you’re bad at it, it’s what you’ll do now. And you know what people will say about you, but they say enough about you anyway. She will wear a white linen dress and make herself a crown of shells and you’ll make each other honest in the little church, and her cheeks will be red and her eyes will have tears because she wanted to leave this place one day, the rock in the bay you both live on, but maybe now she’s relieved too, that she doesn’t have to try. Maybe you’ll ask to name the baby after your mama.
You’ll bring her home and your sister will be weird about it at first but they are friends, after all, and your sister is kind. Rhoda will give birth in the bathtub to a boy you’ll name after her daddy, not yours, another Robert but with your last name, and anyway you’ll call him Robbie. Her mother will hand him to you and you will hold his small wet body with slick bloody hands. Looking in his squalling face you’ll know he’s just like you. Your life is a long flinch waiting for him to punch something, to turn into you, or your daddy. Or into Ted, a friend you think, a good guy you think, and you don’t know this yet but Ted is why your sister is acting so strange. You go around saying you’d kill any guy’d touch your sister, and you don’t even know that one already did. Daddy always said to protect her and you believe he was right even after it turned out he didn’t care, and he’s gone now anyway, and he doesn’t know you have a son, and if he was here to tell you not to make the same mistakes you wouldn’t listen. When you get her pregnant, everything you already knew will make sense, and it will hurt you so much more. You have a wife now, a son, so when you find out about your sister, why she’s so fucking weird right now, avoiding people, that it’s because Ted’s being handsy and it’s a big fucking deal.
The island you live on is small but it will surprise you how people can still be strangers. How after you get her pregnant she turns out to be someone you love anyway, and you will say I love you, let’s get married, in the same breath, feeling the baby inside her, your baby. And you’ll say fuck you to more people than you’d thought over it all, even when you say you’re getting married, and you know it’s your daddy they think they’re talking to when they say you ought to be ashamed, and you want to say he’s not here, and this is your life. It’s no one’s fault that all of us are trapped here, like a collection of stars: when you look at them they are close, but if you traveled to them you’d find out they are millions of miles apart from each other.
Even in your own home, because you and your wife will be kissing your baby in the same moments that your sister is meeting Ted under some dock and he’s shoving a rough hand down the front of her pants even though she said not to, but when she comes home and says she’s fine, it may be that her star is just too far away for you to see. You’ll wonder how you didn’t know to look, how you could be so stupid, when you find out because your sister is brushing her teeth like six times a day because she can still taste him in her mouth, because your sister is peeling the skin off her nails when she gets nervous, which is all the time, and she’s going through band-aids like crazy and they take a week to come on the barge from the mainland super market, so she’s got pieces of an old shirt tied around her thumbs, and one night she doesn’t eat dinner at all so you’ll go to her room that you shared with her while your daddy was still alive and she looks up at you when you say, Birdie, what the hell is going on with you, and she says, I don’t want to get in trouble.
You read on the internet that you are what they call disenfranchised. You are what they call socioeconomically disadvantaged, because you find some kind of index that reminds people they aren’t all the same. You’ll die younger, have children you can’t afford, fewer opportunities for higher education, are at risk of suffering more adverse childhood experiences based on the zip code you entered. You’ll read this after she’s already pregnant, and she’s living with you now. You’ll laugh at this with some buddies, hey, the internet says I’m a fucking dipshit with no future but I could have told them that. You’ll wonder, what can these smart asses tell you about how to raise your boy so he can know how to grow up without you, since they know so much about you, your life, your family’s lives, when you’ll die. They know so much about all the choices that seal you into your life even before you make them. They know how come things are so hard for you. Who’s fixing it, or are they just fine with where you’re at? What you’ll never admit is how mad it makes you that these things they say about you are true, they’re right, and they’re sitting here making you feel sorry for your own shit, like it should be your excuse, like it’s Rhoda’s excuse for getting pregnant with your son and having him in your bathtub and it’s Ted’s excuse for being a dirty piece of shit and it’s your sister’s excuse for not knowing better and your mama’s for leaving and your daddy’s for dying. No one ever asked do you want to be this person? It just happened to you.
When you come at Ted over the shit with your sister he’ll hit you so hard it kills you. Not right then, but later, after you get Rhoda pregnant, make her honest, and you’ve worried about Robbie time enough that he will know you by your worry. The blood that pooled inside your head from that one time your daddy hit you and knocked you out cold on the beach, and then again when you found out about how Ted pushed your sister’s head down on his dick behind the chum shack, and spread his wide hand across her neck and shoulders until he came in her mouth. Those two blows will crawl around in your brain until they make something go wrong.
She, your wife, Rhoda, will wake up beside you already cold. Maybe there will have been signs, like you’ll get more migraines, and sometimes you will forget a word like door or ocean, but just as likely a switch will flip without warning at all, and your lights will go off. She will let the boy sleep for awhile. Let him not be afraid to wake up. You’ll be glad to know you went while no one was looking. It was what you wanted for them after all, that one day they would stop worrying about you. And if you were here to say it, you might say to your boy that this here is an adverse childhood experience, and you’ll tell him not to worry, because you already set the train of his life on its tracks, like your daddy did yours. You’ll say I’m giving this to you, keep it. The ocean is coming for the shores, and the market is coming for your job, and women are coming for your freedom, and sons are loading onto your train, this one right here, that I’m giving to you.
Kate Arden McMullen
Kate Arden McMullen is the Managing Editor of Hub City Press. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Her fiction has appeared in Paper Darts, Show Your Skin, The Boiler, Foglifter, The Pinch, and Carve Magazine, and her nonfiction is anthologized in Home is Where You Queer Your Heart (Foglifter Press, 2021). A Best of the Net and Pushcart nominee, she is the 2015 recipient of UNCW’s Colbert Chapbook Award. She lives in Spartanburg, SC with her partner and a pitbull named Holstein. Find her at kateamcmullen.com.