My mom calls at 5 a.m. with the news. In Michigan it’s an hour later than here, but still too early for her to be awake. I take the call in the space between the kitchen and bathroom, one hand clutching the door frame, the other pressed against the aching softness below my belly button, where you might still be living. “Mom, what’s wrong?” “Well . . .” I picture her twirling the white plastic cord around her finger. My parents aren’t just the last people in my life to use a landline. They’re the last people on the planet, as far as I know, to keep the old telephone that tethers them to one spot in the house. Whenever we talk, I know they’re within two feet of the half-wall between the living room and kitchen—my dad noticing broken things to fix or scanning the backyard for rare birds, my mom considering the peony-printed wallpaper or looking out at the rusted swing set and overgrown cherry tree. Except right now, it’s still dark and she won’t be doing either of those things. She might be wearing her salmon-pink bathrobe with the frayed sleeves, or she might have bought a new one. She might be steeling herself. “It’s your grandma,” she says finally. I understand this to mean my father’s mother, Imojean. “Is she okay?” Mom gives me the details. She passed at 3:30 exactly, according to the nurse. They’re not investigating the cause—she was old, these things happen. Probably her heart. Dad stopped by to see her yesterday. She seemed normal, which is to say, sleepy and cataracted and groping for her own edges. He brought a slice of pumpkin pie and a small Tupperware of whipped cream and they talked about the old house in Ferndale, where she hasn’t lived for ten years. “We’re still having Thanksgiving tomorrow,” Mom tells me. “The funeral’s on Sunday.” For several seconds, I can’t speak. “I know you weren’t planning to come out, what with your work. I just wanted to let you know. There’s no pressure.” No pressure. I almost laugh. I think of how (breathe) my sister and I used to twist the chains of swings into tight braids (breathe) and let them unwind, faster and faster and then slower again (in and out), our hair whipping around us. One day my dad will replace the rusted chains and my daughter will swing on them. Maybe someone will swing next to her. Maybe the swing will be empty. Mom clears her throat. “Honey?” “I’ll explain it to my boss,” I lie. “She’ll understand.” My boss, who already gave me the whole week off, paid sick leave, who told me to call if I need a hot dish sent over. “Are you sure? Everybody would understand if you can’t make it. An eight-hour drive is torture with a one-year-old—feedings, diaper changes, hours of crying—” If it was her own funeral, she’d still try to convince me not to come. “Mom. Stop. We’ll be there.” She keeps talking; I hit mute and slide down the wall, my uterus drawing the rest of me inside like a collapsing star. I am, as it turns out, an inhospitable environment. You are tender plants in an early frost. Mom is still going on, her words blending into a gentle wash of sound. I can smell orange peels from the kitchen trash and it makes me want to vomit. Blood orange: 14 weeks, wasn’t it, or maybe 15? I’ve never liked the food comparisons. What kind of contortionist baby-in-training could be a papaya and then an ear of corn and then a pineapple? When I was pregnant with your sister, I used to imagine her split down the middle and crowded with dark seeds, then bumpy with hard yellow nubs, then armored and sprouting green spikes like a punk rocker. She’s all of that and more. Or maybe none of it. Time will tell. Your sister started growing around the same time of year as you did—late summer, which is supposed to lower the risk of miscarriage. A few days after I found out about her, I noticed pink spots in my underwear. A cramp like a runner’s stitch, but farther down. She came through it. She grew and grew. So when it happened with you, I thought—I hoped. We had the same thing with Lucy, I told your dad stubbornly, even as the blood darkened from pink to red, even as he rubbed my back to avoid looking me in the eye. The wave passes. I unmute and bring the phone back up to my ear. I’m already making plans. Do we have enough quarters for the tolls? How many diapers for an eight-hour drive? How many pads for a nine-week miscarriage? Will we bring sandwiches or stop at the Oasis for fried rice? Black dress, or cardigan and slacks? Should I bring the tin of candied ginger? Better safe than sorry. For better or for worse. For as long as we both shall live. “—And maybe we could put Lucy’s playpen in the study. It’s quieter in there, away from the road.” Mom is making plans, too. We are plan-makers, she and I. In my mind, she twirls the cord around her finger. Releases it. “What do you think?” “Sounds good. I’ll text when we head out, okay?” She keeps talking, but the call drops, and it seems like an omen. I return to the bedroom, where Lucy’s crib presses up against the foot of the bed. I watch her sleeping, the velvet of her hair, the soothing rise and fall of her. She’s squeezing her stuffed bunny around its plush neck. You would’ve loved her. She would’ve loved you. Maybe I’ll tell her about you when she’s older. If she asks. I crawl back into bed. Your dad stirs a little, folds against me, burrows his nose into the hollow at the base of my skull. His bare chest feels soft and warm. At home, Mom is still cradling the phone between her ear and her shoulder, talking to no one. “S’okay,” your dad mumbles into my neck. “It’ll be alright.” “My grandma died,” I whisper. Just for practice. He is heavy-limbed, cocooned in sleep. I am alone with you a little longer. I press a hand to my tightening stomach, and I try out a name: Imojean. But you are the size of a Michigan cherry, and the name slides off you like soap in bathwater.
Lindy Biller grew up in Metro Detroit and now lives in Wisconsin. Her fiction has recently appeared at Heavy Feather Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Okay Donkey. Find her on Twitter at @lindymbiller.