A squat yellow bungalow trimmed neatly in white, with twin wooden planters that had never been filled by anything but tidy beds of gravel—this was the church where Rick and I first met as kids. Inside, a wide-open room, empty until we set up ten rows of metal folding chairs before each service, empty after we stacked the chairs in two teetering columns off to the side. Near the windows, the table set with plates of cookies and lemonade for after the service.
Ever since we were old enough to sit quiet for the full two hours, our families brought us to Wednesday night meetings and Sunday morning services. All of us kids occupied the back row, running our fingers over the gold-embossed leather covers of the Bible, flicking through the slick white pages of Science and Healing.
I used to sneak glances at Rick in-between my hand games with Mary. As soon as the grown ups began to read aloud healing testimonies, he’d stop elbowing the other boys or squirming around in his seat and sit up real straight. When we got old enough to start recognizing the same old stories, he would sometimes mouth along the words, like he didn’t even realize, halfway and silently.
We lay our hands on him and kneel. Mine against his temples, to cool the flush. Fever licks off his skin in hot pulses.
Is any sick among you? The prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up.
—Heavenly Father, Rick begins. I know this prayer by heart now. Twenty times this morning. All day yesterday, all day Monday. But James is worse today than yesterday, worse now than this morning. Scared, too: more scared than I’ve ever seen him. More than the time our car broke down out near Crater Lake and we kept on walking around and around the same bends, pretending each time that the trees looked different. The thought grips me with its claws and shakes me all over. Even in the soft dark of James’ bedroom, I can make out two red clefts on his lower lip where his front teeth have been gnawing. My mouth moves fast over rote prayer.
Let him call for the elders of the church; and let us pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.
James called for me Monday morning from his bed, said he didn’t feel well enough for school. I know what you’re thinking: kids lie about this stuff. Thermometers against light bulbs. But James has never been the type, and when I saw him folded up half-sized in bed sheets, trembling and pale-cheeked, for the first time I let myself count out the things that could go wrong. A whole ton. Everything.
And then he got worse.
—It’s not working, I say. Everyone looks up with a start. Rick glares at me lips pinched like he could spit.
—…if it be thy will, he finishes. Amen.
—It’s not working, I repeat. James’s eyes flicker open and he watches me through half-lids.
—Not if you’re talking like that, Rick’s sister Anna says. Not unless we all believe.
—Unless you believe, Rick says.
—You’re saying this is my fault.
—If James doesn’t get better.
—I’m right here, James says.
—I want him to get better too, I say. I’m scared.
—Just try, Anna says.
—Look at him. He looks awful.
—I’m right here.
—How hard is it to fucking try, Rick says.
—Mom. Dad. I’m tired.
Rick looks at me and breathes deep like he’s the only one feeling it.
—We’ll see you in the morning, bud, Rick says, pulling the cover over James and tucking in the folds around his shoulders. Anna and her husband John touch the backs of their hands to James’ face one last time and leave the room. I linger for another moment after everyone’s cleared out and smooth my palm over James’ forehead. How many years until his hair turns all coarse like Rick’s? With a clammy hand, James reaches for my arm and grips it tight, squeezes it three times, like he’s trying to say something in Morse code. If he is it’s lost on me. But I know what I need to do.
Right above James’ bed I taped up three drawings he brought home from school last year. Second grade art class. The middle and the right are of me and Rick. I’m a peach circle atop a pink triangle dress. Rick is a peach circle and a red square and two blue rectangles. Rick’s smiling; I’m not.
And on the left: a self-portrait of James as a tiger. His face, tiger’s body. Actually, peach circle with two dots for eyes, a row of triangles for teeth, big orange oval with lightning-bolt lines. He brought these pictures home, splayed them across the kitchen table, and said I made art of us. I hung them up straightaway: me, Rick, and this tiger of ours.
There’s a commercial that plays on TV sometimes when Rick watches football. In it a woman has to take down photos from her son’s room after he died from some drunk driving accident. All day today I’ve been thinking about how I’d feel packing away the tiger drawing. I don’t know how Rick can blame me, if he does, or if he will.
In the middle of the night when Rick’s still as death on his side, I quietly dress and slip into James’ room.
—Mom? His voice is small and clear.
—You’re still up.
—I couldn’t sleep.
—Let’s go. Quickly.
He throws the covers off and climbs into a pair of pants. I hand him a sweatshirt and socks. We hug the walls of the dark house, James half a step behind me as we creep across the long hallway, then through the living room. When he stubs his toe on a bookshelf and yelps, I put my index finger to my lips. He nods and puts an index finger to his lips too, my little wide-eyed mirror.
We’re at the door. When the chain on the deadbolt tinkles, my breath catches, and I hear the half-imagined sound of Rick rolling over in bed. We stiffen up, hand in hand, waiting for the moment to pass. Then we step out into the cold.
—We’re going to the doctor, he says.
—Yep. Seatbelt, James. He scrambles around and I hear a click.
—Is Dad gonna be mad?
I start up the car, dimming the headlights as I roll out of the driveway, and throw a blanket from the passenger’s seat back to James.
—Don’t worry about Dad, I say. He wants you to get better too.
—But we snuck out.
—We sure did.
James nods with his eyes closed, and for a while I think he’s fallen asleep. I follow the signs up Highway 5. My headlights bounce off the sparse thicket of tree trunks around us. After Oregon’s dry spell over the last few years, bark beetles and twig weevils climbed into all those beautiful pine trees and hollowed them out. The county cut down the ones in danger of falling onto the road, but now the forest left behind looks even frailer. As I signal off at the hospital exit, James yawns and readjusts his blanket.
—Will it hurt? he asks.
—The doctor. Will it hurt? All the kids at school complain about the doctor.
—Oh, I don’t know, James. I’ve never been.
—Oh. At this he pauses and scrunches up his face. So I’m the first, he says, grinning wide.
I pull into the hospital parking lot and spot the sign on the far edge of the lot. Urgent Care. As soon as I see the entrance I want to turn the car around and drive straight home, say it was all a big mistake, pretend it never happened, I didn’t mean to take him to the hospital, let’s try the whole thing all over again. There but for the grace of God go I. My hands turn the wheel, and in my head I start doing the math—if we’ve been gone for forty minutes, if we get back in another forty, could Rick have been asleep this whole time?
But then I look in the rear view mirror. James has twisted his body inside his seatbelt and kneeled to get a better view of the hospital. His whole upper body is pressed up against the window, leaving what must be a James-shaped smudge mark on the glass. I put the car into park.
—You’re the first, James. You’re the first.
Freshman year of high school, the first time Rick and I snuck out of our houses to meet each other, I asked why he liked those testimonies so much. We were sitting in the parking lot of our school on the benches near the drop-off zone. It was late March and the night was cool. I leaned into his side for warmth and wondered if he could hear my heart all crazy. He said those stories were the closet thing he’d ever felt to magic. Other than this, he said, and turned his face to meet mine in a kiss.
And where is Rick now, in this moment? Is he still asleep on his side? How many hours until he wakes up and finds my half of the bed empty, my robe in a polyester pool on the floor? Until he rushes into James’ room and realizes what I’ve done? Will he immediately know where we’ve gone? Or will the realization that I’ve betrayed him come later, a sudden and sick lurch?
Will he forgive me?
Will it matter?
In the hospital lights James looks even worse. The receptionist hands me a form to fill out. I write down what I know in the first section under contact information, leaving only the home phone number blank in case they call Rick on accident. But then the rest of the front page, and the next page, and the one after ask for all these things I don’t know. Insurance number. Known allergies. Family history of disease. I give up and return the form to the receptionist.
—Is it all filled out? she asks, eyeing the nearly-blank first page.
—As much as I know.
After a short while, a doctor walks into the lobby and calls for James, and she takes us through double doors and through a hallway to a smaller room. As James climbs up onto a padded reclining chair with a thin sheet of paper on top, I eye only one other seat in the room and can’t figure out who’s supposed to sit. I stay standing.
—Hey, James, she says with a big smile like it’s not three in the morning. You’re not feeling so good, huh?
He shakes his head and swings his feet.
—It says here you’ve got a fever? She sticks something in his ear and waits for a beep, then reads the screen with a murmur.
—What is it? I ask.
—One oh four point five.
—That’s high, I say hesitantly. She looks at me like she can’t make out the question.
—How long has he had a fever?
—Since Monday morning. Three days now.
The paper beneath James crinkles as he shifts his weight.
—Is he bad off? I say softly. Can you do anything?
—Well, we’ll have to see. Hey James, you feeling up for some more tests?
—Yeah, he nods bravely.
She wraps a cuff around his arm and pumps a ball in her hand.
—It’s tight, he says.
—Do you know what I’m doing, James? He shakes his head no. Do you know what I’m doing? she turns to ask me.
I watch and try to remember doctors I’ve seen on television shows. She drops the inflatable ball in her hand.
—I was taking his blood pressure. That’s what I was doing, just now.
—This is our first time, James volunteers. I’m the first.
He’s trying to help but I want to cry. She turns to me slowly.
—You’ve never taken him to a doctor before.
—You’ve never been to a doctor before.
She stops and shakes her head, collects herself for a moment, resumes pumping the ball again, then scribbles something on her notepad with her face all scrunched up.
—His blood pressure is very low, she says. He’s at risk for septic shock. At my silence she continues. If you leave an infection untreated, it can enter the bloodstream. And if sepsis isn’t addressed—and sometimes even if it is, within twenty-four to forty-eight hours—it’s serious.
I turn to James in fear, but he’s reading a poster on the wall, his mouth moving in quiet shapes around the vowel sounds. If he dies it’s on me, I realize.
—Whatever it takes, I say.
I never even thought about kids until one day in March junior year of high school, in the back of Rick’s car, he pressed two fingers inside me and asked when the last time I bled was. When I took too long counting back the weeks he called his sister Anna, who had just married John that Christmas, and asked her to buy a pregnancy test. That night, before Rick brought the test over to my house, I locked myself in the bathroom and let the water run, told God I wasn’t ready, and then I sat in the bath for two hours and waited for red to bloom in the water.
Rick saw the two pink lines first, and from the scared look on his face I knew everything that would have to happen from there on out: the courthouse wedding, dropping out of school, Rick taking up a job at the paper mill, getting a place of our own. I worried I wouldn’t know how to love a baby I never wanted in the first place. Rick worried, too, about other things, but on his first day at the mill he laced up his work boots and gave me a wet kiss on the cheek and said It’s the first day of the rest of our lives, like one of those motivational posters, so I put on a brave face and waved at him from the window, and then after a little while I wasn’t pretending anymore, and I would catch myself standing and staring at nothing in particular with one hand on my stomach, and that’s when I knew I was ready.
After dozens of pricks and tubes and bags of clear fluid emptying into James, they finally leave him be on a hospital bed just before morning.
—How are you doing, champ? I stroke his upper arm. Did it hurt?
—A little bit. The doctors seem scared.
—We’re all scared.
—I’m not scared, he says. Are you scared?
—A little bit.
—Don’t be, he says. I lost an eyelash in the car and wished on it for good luck.
—Good, I smile a watery smile. We need all the luck we can get.
For a while we stay like that, mostly quiet, other than the beeps of his heart on the monitor. The spikes remind me of his tiger’s lightning bolt stripes, except the peaks are nearly identical each time, as if some secret miracle—his heart, I guess—is tracing out the same shape again and again.
Then there’s noise outside in the hallway, and Rick bursts in. The doctor rushes in after Rick red and flustered, and a pair of what must be nurses linger in the hallway staring at us. What do they see, when they see me and Rick, his busted-up work boots, or the smell of the paper mill chemicals like something burning, the kind of parents whose mug shots you’d see on the news. We weren’t always like this, I want to tell them, but that’s not the point, not now, if Rick’s gonna leave and take me and James with him.
—We’re taking him home, he says. He shouldn’t be here. I can’t believe you brought him here.
—He might die, the doctor says. He’s barely stabilized. He can’t leave.
—This place is only going to make James worse, Rick says. It’s not up to us. It’s up to Him. What’s all that shit he’s hooked up to. Get that out of my son.
—Please, Rick, I beg. You didn’t see James a few hours ago.
—It’s not up to us, he repeats.
—He’s already so much better, I say.
—It’s not up to us. How could you?
The doctor steps in between Rick and James.
—I’m not discharging him.
—Who says you can do that, Rick sneers. He’s my kid.
—Discharging James would be life-threatening. It’s not only your call to make here. I’m not discharging him, she says, looking at both of us, but I want to say, I’m with you, I’m on your side in this whole thing. But I don’t.
—I’m coming back, Rick says. Next time I’m taking him with me. He kicks the wall on the way out and the whole place shudders. The beeps from the monitor pick up. I tell James to breathe with me, it’ll be okay, and he nods and breathes deeply, and the beeps slow down easy again. The doctor grabs my hand.
—You were right to bring him here, she says.
—We should’ve come earlier.
—It seems like you were up against a lot. She’s watching me carefully, and I wonder what idea of me she has in her head. How close she is to correct. I shake my head and look at James, who stares back at me silently.
—I don’t want to do this, but there are grounds for negligence here, if your husband comes back and takes him home. It would be a complicated process, for James, she says. You could stand up to him.
—I—I don’t know if I can.
James lifts his right arm weakly and brushes it against my hand. A plastic tube touches my skin and I stiffen a flinch.
In my heart I feel a whole tower building up towards the sky and collapsing to the ground. I don’t say anything, just reach for his hand and hold it until he falls asleep.
At seventeen weeks I woke up in the middle of the night sweating, and when I drank a glass of water from the kitchen tap I felt wet rush down my legs. I undressed on the walk to the bathroom, climbed naked into the empty tub, and sobbed out for Rick.
He held my hand as it happened and led me through prayer. I clenched my eyes shut against the cramps and smelled copper. His voice got real tight when he asked if I wanted to look, I said I couldn’t. He told me to keep my eyes closed and I felt him reaching around the tub, then he left the room, and when he came back he turned the water on and off, let the tub drain, again and again. Finally he told me I could open my eyes and I could see on his face he had been crying.
I’m sorry was the first thing I thought to say. Even then I knew it wasn’t the smallest bit enough.
This is what we get, Rick said. This is what we get. What we deserve, for what we did, out of wedlock, this is what we get.
For months I wouldn’t let him touch me and even afterwards it was never the same, but then when I was eighteen, I woke up one morning and counted the weeks. I bought a test from the drugstore on my own, didn’t mention it to Rick. In the middle of the night I snuck into the bathroom. Before I saw the two pink lines I knew already I loved the baby, and as much as I could, I had to do everything right by God this time, for Rick, for what he did for me.
As soon as I hear shouts in the hallway I know Rick’s come back. The doctor rushes in right before Rick does and steps in front of James’s bed.
—We’re taking my son, he says, and Anna and John enter the room right behind him. They’re wearing police officer costumes, the kind you can buy from army supply stores, pressed navy slacks and cuffed shirts with stitched-on stars.
—Police, John says, all tough like he’s been practicing.
—Discharge James, Rick says. I’ve got the law on my side.
—We order you to release him, Anna says. She stutters when she says order, and again when she says release. Oh God, I think, Rick’s really done it this time. James is silent. The doctor looks at Anna and John, in their costumes, and then at Rick. Does she see what I see, Anna and Rick’s same-shaped features, or the tag hanging off the back pocket of John’s slacks, or how Anna’s eyes keep jumping to Rick, then to me, then to James?
—Show me your badges, the doctor finally says.
Anna shoots a panicky look at John, who looks like he could hurl or make a run for it.
—They’re officers of the law, Rick finally says. And they’re just enforcing it. I have the authority to take my son with me.
—I just want to see badges, the doctor says.
—Release my son. It’s the law.
A man in a suit enters led in by a nurse. I can tell he’s important because the doctor tenses up.
—They’re trying to order me to discharge the patient, but I’ve advised against it. A discharge would be risky, the doctor explains to him. And they’re not showing me their badges.
—Why don’t you—
—They’re not policemen, I blurt out. That’s why they don’t have badges.
For a beat the room is still except for James’ heart monitor.
—You should leave, Suit finally says. Before we call the actual police.
—We’re not leaving without my son, Rick says.
Suit turns to the doctor.
—What would you advise, based on the circumstances? he asks. The doctor looks at me like it’s my chance, now.
—What about you? What do you want? she asks me urgently. For your son?
I stop. I can feel everyone’s eyes on me, but I’m back in that bathtub with Rick’s hand in mine, and he’s pleading, he would do everything right by God if we could just keep it, and I know Rick is thinking about the same thing too, how he cleaned me up when I couldn’t look and washed the blood away, the way the water must have looked, stained red as it flowed into the drain.
When I open my eyes I’m staring straight at James, and I know he knows what I’m going to say. He’s looking at me with an expression I’ve never seen on him before, one I’ve always been afraid to see on his face, the same one everyone made when Rick and I told them about what happened with the first baby, mouths open and brows creased together, like there’s no saving us, we’re beyond saving. You’re the one who needs saving! I want to yell at him, at all of them. But no. I am.
The drive back is silent.
—Pull over, Rick says when we stop outside Anna and John’s place. The three of us need to talk.
I catch Anna watching me, her eyes in squints, but I don’t even care, I just stare ahead shaking with the thought If anything happens to him it’s on me, if anything happens to him it’s on me, until they disappear into the house.
I turn around to ask James if he wants his blanket, but he’s asleep. His face through the rear view mirror, sweaty sheen on his forehead and his lips a little open—and there, a spot of drool. Side of his cheek against the window. He’s going to leave a skin-oil smear on the glass that I’ll have to windex off tomorrow. If anything happens to him it’s on me. Too tired to meet my eyes, the softest thing. He that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Then I’m not worthy.
My whole heart.
We sit in the car like that waiting for Rick. The engine runs, choking out warm fog. Rain like glass beads gathers on the window. I want to tell him I love him but as soon as I open my mouth, I feel his heart beating inside mine. In each yawning gap of quiet I hear a whole tower falling apart. Building itself up again.