The autumnal early morning sun shined through the cracks between the curtains. MJ shifted in the nest of blankets and sheets. Willie and Oreo were sprawled on either side of her, just as reluctant about getting up and starting the day. She sat up slowly, pushing back the blankets. It was Sunday. She had no obligations or tasks to check off her list. The owners were home to care for their own pets; no one needed her while they were on vacation. She relished these days, rare and perfect.
Still, there were rituals to be kept. Feed the dogs. Breakfast. Shower. Dress. Put on the dogs’ collars (purple for Oreo and orange for Willie). Walk around the block with the dogs. Drive downtown with the dogs. Walk them around the streets. Do it leisurely. Let them sniff anything and everything. Console them when a baby’s cry caused them to cower. Help them learn that people are nice. Stop at the coffee shop. Get a latte from Eric, favorite barista, cherished friend. Walk around the back of the building where the parking lot was. Meet Eric by the dumpster.
Eric lit a cigarette. “What’s up?” He was leaning against the dumpster, his long legs stretched toward her. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up sloppily, one slightly longer than the other. A chunk of his brushed-back black bangs had fallen forward over his slender face.
“I’m still pregnant or so sayeth the tests.” MJ was sitting cross-legged, staring at the cracked pavement. Oreo and Willie were curled up on either side of her, enjoying basking in the warm sunlight.
“I wish it were like the SATs and I could tell you that it didn’t really matter,” Eric said.
She shrugged. “Neither gave me the results I wanted.”
He knew that already. They’d known each other since freshman year of high school when Eric moved to Salem with his mother after she got a new job. His dad had been a deadbeat who worked the docks in Baltimore Harbor; he’d gone to jail for dealing drugs on the side when Eric was six. Ever since then it had just been him and his mom, so he’d relished the friendship he’d found in MJ.
“How many times you’d take it?” He held his gaze on her so she knew he wasn’t asking about the SAT.
“Twice last Friday. Four times yesterday. Six times total. Positive. Every. Damn. Time.”
“Good to know you’re capable of out-peeing a territorial male dog.” He smirked.
MJ cracked a smile. “I’m not sure that’s the correct approach.”
“Did you talk to Thom about it?”
“About the peeing?”
“No. About the pregnancy. He’s a doctor. They’re supposed to be able to help with that.”
“Right. No, he just told me I needed to take another test and we somehow ended up at Nana’s and then it was just a shitshow.”
Eric rubbed his hands together excitedly. “Oh, don’t hold out on that family drama. I’ve been jonesing for the good stuff.”
“Have you run out of your own supply?”
“Rhonda the day nurse and Wendy the night nurse sleeping with the same guy could only last for so long.” He let out a sad sigh.
“Bummer. Well, my reunion with Nana left little to be desired.”
“Apparently she’d a major stoner. She was smoking a blunt and Thom was eating some pot brownies that she made.”
“She sounds like an incredible woman.”
“She makes for a good story.”
“So did you just shoot the shit all night or what?”
MJ recounted the events of Friday night, excluding the part where she screamed in her car as neither of them liked to dwell on their weaker moments.
When she’d finished, he asked, “But it’s the only possibility, right? You never hooked up with Jacob.”
“Yeah. Still haven’t heard from him either.”
“Well fuck that guy.”
“I wish.” She let out a groan.
A gaggle of baristas emerged from the back door lugging coolers and a folding chair, which they set down on the opposite end of the parking lot. They waved to Eric. He nodded back.
“What’s that about?” MJ asked as the noise had caused Oreo and Willie to stir. She slowly stroked their backs, hoping to calm them.
Eric shrugged it off. “So you’re pregnant with like a clone baby or something.”
“Who said it was a clone?”
“Well there’s only one set of DNA involved…”
“Nana and my mom and I look nothing alike.”
“Medical advancements… hair dye… popular clothing styles… weight gain…” He ticked off the reasons on his fingers.
“No one has ever compared me to my mother.”
“Just because no one’s done that doesn’t mean you’re free of her genes.”
MJ sighed. “Ugh. You. Why are you so smart for a barista?” She flashed him a smile to show she was only joking. “I’m pregnant. So what am I going to do about this?”
Eric gave her a serious look. “Get out while you can.”
“You think so?” MJ had never thought about what she’d do with an unwanted pregnancy. She’d never let it be a possibility before, making sure the necessary precautions were in place.
“MJ, don’t take your exits for granted. You know I’d do the same if I could.” He stubbed the butt of his cigarette into the pavement.
She looked away from him, suddenly ashamed of how lucky she was. But was it luck or just opportunity? “Could I really though? Mom didn’t. Nana didn’t.”
“Cause that wasn’t a thing you did. And look how fucked things became for them. Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t carry it if it’s just going to screw you over in the long-run.”
“Are we actually discussing abortions by a dumpster behind a coffee shop?” She let out an exasperated sigh and put her head in her hands.
“I’m not handing you a coat hanger and telling you to do it yourself. I’m telling you to hold onto what agency you have over your life.” He held his gaze on her.
“I know, I–” MJ’s phone rang from inside her purse. “Hello?” she answered.
“Mary Jane, I need you to drive me to church.” John’s voice stated loudly over the line.
“Why can’t Mom take you?”
“She’s vomiting and has diarrhea.”
“I can’t miss it, I can’t.” He sounded anxious. “That’s a sin.” He let out a low humming noise, some hybrid of a running dishwasher and radio static.
“Why don’t you call a cab?” She knew it was a stupid question, but she didn’t want to miss an opportunity to remind John that there were other ways of getting places.
“I can’t, Mary Jane, I can’t.” He sounded flustered. The humming noise returned, this time louder.
“Fine. I’ll drive you.” She let out an exasperated sigh and hung up.
Eric looked at her, waiting for an explanation.
“John needs me to drive him to church. You know how family is.”
Eric nodded. “Don’t keep him waiting.”
“We’ll continue to talk about this later?”
“You know where to find me.”
MJ roused Oreo and Willie to their feet. They stood hunched, their tails tucked between their legs, aware of her malcontent. She bent down, placing a hand on each of their chests and stroking them slowly. “You’re okay. Everything’s going to be just fine, boys.” She looked up at Eric one last time before leading them away.
Eric turned to head back inside, but paused to watch his co-workers. They had changed into shorts and t-shirts. The brunette stood on a folding chair holding a bucket of ice, ready to tip it over on the head of the blonde who was talking to the iPhone pointed at her by the black haired girl standing a few feet away from them. He watched as the ice and water were dumped on the girl and she shrieked, jumping then dancing around. Soon she was handed a towel and began to dry herself off. Eric pulled out another cigarette from the pack in his pocket and lit it. He hated how the Ice Bucket Challenge had gone viral, clogging up his Facebook newsfeed with these slacktivist publicity stunts that barely grasped at what the cause was. He hated how they thought ice water could get the point across. Nothing could, nothing would except watching your fate play out in your grandmother, your mother, and then hearing the same fate delivered to you by a doctor, the message bound in terminology he’d learned the definitions of at a young age. It didn’t even feel like the disease was his, even if it would eventually own his body; it was Lou Gehrig’s after all. Why hadn’t he been bestowed a tragedy fit for his sins; why not lung cancer for the smoking or HIV for being gay? He’d rather the church smite him. He knew the verse, how his body was a temple, not a prison. But it would be. Slowly, until nurses were hired to fold his body into clothes, chairs, hospital beds like he was origami, something ornate and delicately crafted, not faultily designed. Two to six years of that and then they’d tuck him into his coffin. He lifted his cigarette halfway to his mouth and paused to look at his hand, already beginning to atrophy. He had been born this way, the invisible disease resting inside him, and he knew he could not lobby for an escape.
MJ sat in her car for a moment after turning it on. On either side of her, Oreo and Willie hung their heads over her headrest. They panted loudly. The car was stuffy. She reached both of her arms behind her to pet them. It was hard to think that they were three years old already. She’d known them since birth.
It was during MJ’s post-grad stint as an animal care technician at a SPCA, cleaning cages and herding the animals from one confined space to the next. A Lab mix with red fur had been dumped in one of the outside pens the previous night. Her belly was swollen and ready to give birth. They took her in, named her Raven, and gave her a cage in the room with all the pens of puppies shrieking, whining, and slamming into the aluminum covered cage walls. MJ had kept a careful watch over Raven, as she’d seen other unprepared mother dogs smother their babies shortly after giving birth.
When Raven had gone into labor, MJ spent the night with her. She had prepared herself for this moment, having previously read up on dog breeding and birthing. It was a bloody, messy affair. There had been no glamor in it as Raven panted, pushed, and shrieked. Nothing MJ had witnessed in the shelter prior to this could have prepared her. The tiny bodies of the puppies had spilled out into the world one by one, their bodies hitting the cold, newspaper-covered concrete. They were a motley crew of fur shades, indicative that there had been more than one father in the mix. She birthed seven puppies total: a male and female with red fur; three brindle females; and two black males with white on their paws, chests, and bellies.
MJ watched them grow. Ruby and Ronan, the spunky redheads, were the first to be adopted by a family with a rowdy bunch of kids. Rosie and Roxie, two of the brindles found homes several months later. A nice elderly woman took in Raven. River, the last of the brindles grew shy like her two black brothers, Roscoe and Romeo. A man had seen River’s story on PetFinder and fallen for her, eager to take on the work of making her less fearful of humans. Only Roscoe and Romeo remained, fearful of the caged world they’d been born into. MJ grew fond of them, watching them grow and grow. When she’d look out into the play yard and see them ignorant of humanity, their ears up and their heads held high, she saw what beautiful, muscular gentlemen they were growing into. When she left the shelter to start her dog walking business, her heart broke leaving them behind. She checked the SPCA’s Facebook everyday to see if they’d been adopted. It was only a month later that she saw a picture of her smiling face with her two shy boys, which she promptly renamed Orville and Wilbur (Oreo and Willie for short), on the SPCA’s page announcing that the last of Raven’s litter had found their way home.
MJ returned her hands to the steering wheel and maneuvered the car out of the parking space and onto the street. It was time she found her way home.