For Thea by Linda Lacy

There’s one extraordinary thing about me: I’m pregnant. My body holds not only my own life, but the spark that is my baby growing ever stronger. I haven’t seen a doctor, and I estimate I’m about six months along. She sits high and tight, kicks under my ribs, tries to turn, and hiccups, which makes me smile.

“Nadia, we should go to your parents’ house. We can’t wait anymore.” My boyfriend, Nate, has worry lines etched on his forehead.

“We can’t live out of fear.” I pull his body into hers. He feels her little foot kick him.

“Theodore! No kicking your dad,” he teases.

“Thea,” I say with confidence as I kiss his mouth. His eyes turn dark.

“It’s not safe here.” Nate’s strong arms encircle my body, he buries his head in my shoulder.

“My parents don’t want us there. Let me enjoy a few more days of peace. Besides, you don’t want to be in Vermont this time of year. Trust me.” I try to tickle him, but he pulls away.

* * *

We wait it out, play Monopoly and Scrabble in our one-bedroom apartment, and watch the news until we drown in it. Rumors of war circulate amongst our neighbors, then everyone we know moves north. The South and the Midwest succumb to the invasion, the internet is shut down, and we listen to helicopters circle in the night.

Nate packs my clothes as I stare out the window. “You’re eight months now, right?” I nod. “We gotta get out of here. Your mom will know what to do.”

“She won’t, but…”

“It doesn’t matter.” He shoves his own clothes into a plastic bag, “The war is here. Baby or no baby, they’ll take us Nadia.” Nate turns me toward him, my round belly the bumper between us, his brown eyes plead with me. “Everyone has evacuated. We have to go now. Please.”

* * *

Leaving D.C. is hard. This is where I went to college, where we met, where we made Thea. I don’t want to think about my parents, their hard eyes judging me for choosing a black man. Nate siphons gas off an abandoned Escalade into our Honda. The city is quiet, the life sucked out of it, a hollow void.

He says we should stay away from the big cities, so we avoid Baltimore, head towards Gettysburg. It shouldn’t be too bad there. The March wind knocks our little car around as we make our way down the highway. I thought there would be hordes of people escaping the war, but there are no hordes, only empty lanes, wrecked vehicles on the sides. We missed the waves of humanity that fled the Eastern Seaboard two months ago. We don’t speak.

As we approach Allentown, the seat below me feels wet. I lift myself up to realize my water has broken. It’s ok, the contractions won’t come for a while. But I’m wrong, they begin within a few minutes. The pain is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I grab the door handle with my right hand and Nate’s arm with my left. He knows.

The contractions come and go as he drives us around the city looking for an open hospital even though we both know it’s useless. He drives into Bethlehem, worried eyes between me and the road. “Stop!” I scream, “Just stop somewhere, anywhere.” I have the seat in the flat position, I’m stretched out, I dread the next wave of excruciating pain. He pulls into a deserted 7-Eleven as another contraction hits. My screams worry Nate. He looks panicked, doesn’t know what to do.

“Calm down Nate, calm down,” I breathe. He nods his head, takes a deep breath. Our eyes lock, and he begins to prepare. He clears out the backseat, lays a blanket down, helps me into the back. Another contraction holds on forever. He takes off my wet underwear, tries to see if I’ve dilated.

“Nothing yet,” he says with shaky hands.

All through the night, he massages my back, brings me water, endures my cries and the foul words that leave my mouth. He checks, rechecks to see if Thea is on her way, and as dawn breaks, my entire being feels the primal urge to push. There on the backseat of a Honda, Thea slips into the world screaming for her life. Nate holds her in awe, stares at her perfect hands, legs, head, eyes.

“The cord,” I breathe out, exhausted, “there’s scissors in my backpack.” Nate cuts the cord and hands her to me. As we both wipe her down, she nuzzles towards my breast. My body knows what to do. The placenta comes out, and with Thea in the crook of my arm, all three of us sleep.

* * *

My world is Thea. I tell Nate I need time to over-love her, that I will fly back to him soon. He’s so understanding, kind. Sometimes I feel he’s too good for me, but I know he feels the same thing sometimes. We balance our self-esteem like a teeter-totter.

We try driving to Nazareth, but all the roads are barricaded. There’s one highway open, and it leads straight to New York, where it all began. We stop in Phillipsburg to rest.

“Should we drive to New York and hope for the best?” Nate paces on the spring grass. We are parked in a lot near the Delaware River, and the ancient sound of water calms Thea. She gurgles and spit slides down the corner of her mouth. She’s dependent, vulnerable. The weight of it overwhelms me if I think too long.

“All the roads north are barricaded or destroyed.” His forehead has permanent worry lines now. “We could try to go off-road, but the Honda won’t make it through I don’t think.”

“We could walk,” I suggest. “I’m scared to go to New York. What if…”

“It will take us months to get to Vermont if we walk. And with the baby, there’s no way.” He sighs, “We could stay here, find a place to stay.”

“This is their territory now, Nate. We’ve got to get north to what’s left of our country.”

“We might have to assimilate,” he says quietly, “if they don’t take us prisoner, or kill us.”

We both stew in our predicament.

Tonight, we eat our expired tuna with rice. Rice every day from the 50-pound bag our prepper neighbor gave us before we left. You’re gonna need it, she said, gun on hip. I don’t like to admit she was right.

Thea sleeps most of the time, but when she’s awake, her brown eyes melt into mine like warm chocolate. Her fingers curl around just one of mine, her skin is soft, the fuzz on top of her head kinky and beautiful. I’m in love. Nate is in love. She nurses, sleeps, and we worry.

“You ok?” Nate asks as we settle in for another night in the car, and I nod a yes. “Everything will be alright.” He mouths the words, but his face lies.

* * *

It’s decided. We will chance going to New York. Perhaps the worst is over. We will try to skirt the city, head north. We don’t know what to do. Nate has to siphon gas where he can, but most vehicles have been drained dry. Maybe we will walk after all.

On the way out of town, we meet a man who says the troops went through about a week ago, killing anyone they saw. He seems to enjoy telling us, and I try not to believe him. He says they threw the bodies in the river: men, women, little kids, even babies. The man looks at Thea, and I cover her with the blanket to protect her from this evil, this cruelty.

Later, Nate says, “That guy has problems upstairs, don’t worry Nadia. Don’t worry.”

I look down at our child. Thea is all I wish to be. I see her strength and resilience even now. I try to will certain characteristics into her: kindness, peace, justice, fight, principles.

“You will be a strong leader, my little chickadee,” I say as I nuzzle her creamy neck. “You’ll right the wrongs, show people the way to an honest life, a good life.” If I keep repeating these prophecies, she’ll be one to change the world. This is what is extraordinary about me now: I’m a good mother.

Thea’s eyes look up at me, inquisitive, ready to be filled with experiences, laughter, love. As the car rolls down the highway, she slips into a hard sleep, secure. I cover her head with a blue flannel quilt. I can’t resist stroking her delicate cheek just once. She is incredible.

We drive all morning and into the afternoon. All the highways northbound are barricaded with barrels, smashed vehicles, bombed pavement. Our gas takes us to Suffern on the outer limits of New York. There are more people here on the streets, but they stare at us, as if they know a secret we do not. We find a place to park near the Mahwah River. The water comforts us, it never changes, it takes us away.

“I think we’re gonna make it, Babe,” Nate says, breathing out the words. His forehead is smooth, I kiss his nose and wrap my arms around him. He is all I need in a man, confident, kind, strong. But I don’t feel his confidence right now. There is a buzzing in my heart, my hands feel prickly, there is a black darkness growing in the back of my head. The rise and fall of his chest deepens, and he falls into exhausted sleep. I extricate my arms from his warm body so I can nurse Thea. Soon all three of us nap into the night.

* * *

“Get out of there! Now! Come on! Move!” A man’s voice yells at me in a dream somewhere. “I’m not fooling around, move!” It’s not a dream. I wake as the butt of a gun shatters our windshield. As my arms reach for Thea, Nate attempts to shield us, and the man rams his rifle into the side of Nate’s beautiful head. Blood seeps down his scalp, his kind face. I’m in shock, can’t move, fear slides in like an arrogant usurper.

Another man screams, “Move, move, move!” My legs find their strength, and we scramble out of the car. They push us towards their pickup, the bed of which is already full of crying people. Nate helps me in as I crush Thea to my chest. He bleeds into my baby blue sweater. The colors mix into a dirty purple bruise.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” he repeats, eyes on fire, forehead creased. The woman next to me cries into her hands, the others shake with a fear I don’t know yet.

“What’s going on?” I whisper to her. She looks up, face wide with terror, starts to shake her head as her body rocks back and forth. I touch her arm. “What? Please, tell me.”

She cries it out, “If you’re…living on the street…they get rid of you.” Her gray eyes bore into mine.

“But we’re not homeless. We’re on our way to my mom’s.” Panic begins to wrap around me and slide into my chest.

The woman rocks in her rising trepidation. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.”

The next time the truck stops, the armed men get out and walk over to an old man sleeping on an abandoned tavern stoop. They drag his emaciated body over to us.

I scream at the other man standing at the foot of the truck, “We’re not homeless! We’re just going to my mother’s!” He ignores me. We don’t exist.

Nate’s arm tightens around my shoulders, I feel his skin tremble, his blood drain from his sweet body. I cup my hand around his cheek. “I love you, Nate. I loved you the minute you tripped on that chair you pulled out for me. Remember? At that stupid expensive French place? You tried to impress me, but I saw through it. I saw the tender man underneath, the good in you, the love you carry.” His eyes are on mine, but I see his life wandering away. “Don’t worry Nate, don’t worry.” He smiles and closes his eyes.

People stop on the street, stare at us with horror. Thea begins to wiggle in her sleep. I know what I must do, what horrible thing I must do. As they shove the old man onto the truck, I scan the crowd that looks on. A woman not ten feet away begins to cry, and I show her Thea, my precious, precious Thea. As the men are distracted getting into the cab, I lean over and hold her out. Nate’s blood and my tears cover her blue quilt. She runs over to grab her, our eyes lock, and I let go. This is what is extraordinary about me now: I give my baby life.

Nate’s head hangs down in unconsciousness, I hold him and cry. Did I do the right thing? Maybe death in my arms would be better than living in this violent world. My breasts are hard, yearning for Thea.

The pickup comes to a halt.

“Get out! Get out! Get out!” they scream, but Nate cannot move, he isn’t there. I kiss his perfect, furrowed brow.

“Good-bye Nate, I love you.” The butt of a gun hits the middle of my back, the pain juts down in lightning stabs, but I manage to climb out. They yell at us in a cacophony of confusion, and I jaggedly follow the other victims as we make our way to the river. I hear a shot back at the truck. It’s then the buzzing in my heart, my prickly hands, and black darkness in the back of my head all dissipates. A calm I’ve never known comes over me as they line us up by the riverbank.

Thea, my little one, you will be the light in a new world, a force for good, a warrior queen.

The others sob, plead, get down on their knees. I am the only quiet one, I stand tranquil, joyful even. A smile comes over me as I think on my child.

Be smart sweetie, don’t let them see your fear, fight for peace and equality, lead by example, love even when it seems there is nothing to love, and

Linda Lacy is a short story writer from Salem, Oregon. She worked at a homeless shelter for many years and now a men’s prison for the last decade. Her writing mirrors these career paths. Her work has been published in the Avalon Literary Review, Geez, Country Woman, North Dakota Quarterly, The Magnolia Review, Heart of Flesh Literary Journal, Universalist, The Adventist Review, Imperfect Women and The Anglican Digest.

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