MJ woke up slowly, the sunlight coming through the gaps in the curtains burned. Or maybe that was the pain in her abdomen. Some kind of dull ache. She felt groggy, nauseous. Managing to lean over the railing of her bed, she threw up. It was just bile.
“You’re awake,” Kori’s voice greeted her from the chair by the window. Kori had been the last person she’d spoken to. No, the receptionist was. The timeline was blurry.
“You were shot in the abdomen?”
“The Hot Flash Muggers.”
“At the clinic…”
The pieces were coming together. Kori driving her to the clinic to get an abortion. Eric would have, but his mom had passed away that morning. MJ had told Kori she didn’t need to come in, that she’d call her when she was ready to be picked up. Kori had sat back in the car and pulled out a book to read. MJ walked in, up to the receptionist’s window, and given her name. Gunshots. She turned to look. An indescribable pain. She didn’t know what to do. She decided to play dead, remain crumpled by the wall. More gunshots. Things got fuzzy. The police arrived. The paramedics. She didn’t know who was dead, who was hurt, who was shooting. People were shouting, crying, moaning. She was on a stretcher. They kept talking to her and she kept trying to respond.
“What happened to the shooters?”
“We shot them. They refused to cease fire.”
“So they’re dead?”
Kori nodded. “Unfortunately.”
“So the case is closed?”
“Mostly. Police are searching their house, trying to get a better understanding of what they were working toward. They were delusional though. This wasn’t some political statement that had gotten violent. Honestly, I don’t know what it really was.”
“I guess it was a good thing that you were there then.”
Kori nodded. “Yeah, very lucky it worked out that way. Of course that means I’m working longer days, trying to help close this case.”
“Do you at least get a promotion from this?”
Kori shrugged. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
There was silence for a moment. MJ listened to the beeping of her heart monitor, steady and unending. “Did everyone make it?”
Kori shook her head. “The receptionist.”
“I was the last person to talk to her then.”
Another silence fell over them.
“There are counseling services available. I know you have a lot to work through, both physically and mentally. But you need to rest now.” Kori stood up.
“Wait. Am I still pregnant?”
She walked over to MJ’s bed, grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze before walking out.
MJ sunk into the bed, letting out a deep breath. She felt heavy. There was too much to puzzle through and her head was too foggy.
A nurse came in and checked on her.
“Am I still pregnant?” MJ asked her.
The nurse paused, her stern demeanor softened. She shook her head. “I’m sorry, honey. It was just a tiny thing, too early on to have a chance with the trauma you experienced.”
MJ looked down at her stomach. Something had been in there. It was dead now. Gone from her. She closed her eyes, trying to make sense of what happened.
The nurse placed a hand on her arm. “I can get you a minister if you’d like to pray for the baby’s soul.”
“No, it’s okay.” She leaned back and closed her eyes once more.
“If you change your mind, just let me know.”
A janitor mopped up the vomit. MJ dozed.
Later, there was a knock on the door before it opened and Eric walked in. He stopped at the foot of her bed. “Hey,” he greeted.
“I’m sorry I missed the funeral.” Tears formed in the corner of MJ’s eyes.
“Don’t worry about it.” He pulled a chair over to her bedside. “I know you would have been there if you could.”
“Thanks for stopping by. You must be busy cleaning out the house and stuff.”
“Of course. I’m glad you’re okay.”
“What’re you going to do now that she’s gone?”
“There’s a little bit of money left. I think I might use it to move to Washington.”
“Like Seattle or somewhere.”
“Death with Dignity is legal there. I don’t want to go like my mom did, wait for my body to decide when. I want to make that choice. It won’t be for a while, but I might as well establish myself before it gets bad.”
“But it’s across the country.”
“Yeah, I know. But I have to do this. And I’m putting some money aside for airline tickets for you and Kori. I want you there when I go.” He clasped his hands. “This probably isn’t the right time to talk about it. There’s been enough death.”
He reached for her hands. “Don’t worry. I’m not leaving just yet.”
They sat in silence until MJ drifted off to sleep.
A few days later, MJ sat on the edge of her hospital bed, waiting for the doctor to discharge her. Her mother, Nana, and John had come to pick her up. John had greeted her by informing her that God sent the shooters because she was killing a baby. Nana had told him to sit down and shut up. Her mother had been standing there with her arms folded over her chest, silent. Having them pick her up was not an ideal situation, but MJ conceded, as everyone else she knew was busy.
The doctor walked in, greeted them, and placed several x-rays on the view board on the wall.
“John, go wait out in the hallway. This isn’t appropriate for you,” MJ’s mother said. John walked out of the room, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground as he did.
“As you can see here, we were able to remove all the bullet fragments and repair the damage caused. I expect you to make a full recovery in two to three weeks. You’ll need to take it easy in the meantime. No lifting or physical strain. No vigorous exercise. Any questions?”
Her mother spoke up. “Will she be able to have children? I know the baby was lost.”
MJ glared at her mother. She felt like a kid, unable to ask the questions for herself. “Mom, that’s for me to ask and for me to know. I’m twenty-six. My body is my body. If you cannot respect that, please leave.”
Nana turned to her daughter and said, “Let’s give her some privacy.”
Begrudgingly, MJ’s mother followed Nana out of the room.
The doctor waited for the door to close. “Are you still interested in hearing the answer to this question?”
“I would assume so. There was minimal damage done to the reproductive organs. The trauma is what caused you to miscarry. I’m sorry for your loss, but I believe that you are perfectly capable of trying for another pregnancy in several months once your uterus has recovered and your period has returned.”
“I don’t think it’ll be that soon, but it’s good to know the option is there.”
“Yes, it is. And with that, I’ll discharge you.”
Once he left, Nana, MJ’s mother, and John returned.
“What did the doctor say?” her mother pried.
“We’re good,” MJ replied before putting on her coat. “Let’s go.”
“Well then,” her mother said. She didn’t say anything until they were in Nana’s car. “I don’t understand why you won’t tell me.” She leaned around the side of the seat.
MJ was sitting in the passenger seat, trying to doze. “It’s over, Mom. You don’t have anymore pregnancies to worry about. So let my body be my body.” She felt her mother sit back in her seat.
MJ walked around her empty apartment. Thom had been taking care of Willie and Oreo while she was in the hospital and was currently taking them for a walk. Despite it being quieter than normal–there was a noise to living things, even if they didn’t make any sounds–the apartment felt cluttered and lived in. This was all thanks to Thom who had quit his job, told Jamie he wanted to separate, and decided to couchsurf at MJ’s until he found a new job, an apartment, and a new direction for his life.
She sat down on the couch and wrapped herself in a blanket. She didn’t know what to do with herself. Maybe she’d watch NetFlix. Maybe she’d finally start writing that novel. The pregnancy, though unwanted and unexpected, had felt like a beginning. But it had come to an end. She was sad. Not for the fetus, but for herself. Her genetic chains were gone; she’d been set free, but to do what?
The door opened. Willie and Oreo bounded to their water bowls, lapping furiously while Thom unhooked their leashes. Suddenly they all realized that MJ was there. Her dogs bounded over to her and she put her hands up to protect her abdomen. They stopped at the side of the couch, their snouts twitching as they sniffed her before licking her face. She smiled and began to pet them, scratching their chests.
“How’re you feeling?” Thom asked, sitting down on the loveseat positioned perpendicular to the couch she was on.
The answer felt impossible to come up with. At the hospital there’d been a chart; it had been all about the pain. But the pain wasn’t really there anymore. It had lessened enough for her to have room for other thoughts. And that was what had made this question harder to answer. “I’m alright.”
“How are you?”
“I’m alright.” He laughed. “I was responsible enough to remember that it’s Halloween and we need candy to give trick-or-treaters.”
“Oh man, yeah, that’s right. It is Halloween. Thank goodness you’re here.” She exhaled and sunk into the pillows behind her. Willie tentatively jumped up on the couch and curled up at her feet. Oreo settled down on the floor between the couch and the coffee table.
“So I’ve been thinking…”
“Glad to hear you’re not letting your brain go to mush during your mid-life crisis.”
Thom gave her a look of annoyance. “I’m trying to be serious about my life for once.”
“Well gold star for you.”
“I think I liked it better when you were in the hospital,” he teased. “But seriously, you’re currently unable to walk dogs for the next couple of weeks and I’m currently in need of something to do, so why don’t I take over?”
“Okay…? You sure you can handle it?”
“Actually, I’ve already started.” Thom pushed his sleeve up to reveal a large scab on his forearm. “Rufus went for a squirrel.”
“What? Why did you just ask for my permission?!”
Thom shrugged. “It felt like the right thing to do.”
MJ groaned. “And how did your marriage manage to even last this long?”
“Hey now. I’m trying to work on this.”
“But you’re not going to walk dogs forever, are you?”
MJ shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Then I guess we’re just going to not know together for a while.”
Oreo set his paw on her forearm and looked up at her. She gave his head a pet.
There was a knock on the door.
“I’ll get it,” Thom said, getting up and trotting over to the door.
Willie lifted his head from MJ’s lap to see what was going on.
“Look who it is,” Thom said, pushing the door wide open to reveal Zoey in a witch costume cradling a brown paper bag and beside her, Jacob on crutches. He was wearing a soccer uniform. The bruising had faded and he had a less restrictive brace on his wrist.
“Thom mentioned that you were coming home today, and we thought we’d stop by. Maybe help you pass out candy to kids?”
“That’s really nice of you,” MJ said, sitting up. “But what about the trick-or-treaters coming to your place?”
Zoey waved it off with her hand. “Frederick’s got it taken care of.”
Thom shot MJ a confused look. MJ mouthed I’ll tell you later before offering Zoey and Jacob a seat. As Jacob made his way over to the loveseat, Oreo leapt up onto the end of the couch where Willie was, his ears back. They cowered together, watching as Jacob made himself comfortable on the loveseat.
Zoey said, “I actually need to get something from the car. Would you mind helping me, Thom?”
Thom nodded and followed her out the door.
“How have you been?” MJ asked Jacob.
“I’m getting better. How are you? I’m sorry to hear you had a run-in with the muggers too.”
“I’m going to be okay, I think. I guess the bigger thing is to figure out where I go from here. There’s not going to be a baby, but I never planned to have it. Still, things are different, you know?”
Jacob nodded. He shifted his posture and looked into her eyes before reaching his hand over the armrest to pick up hers. “MJ, I know we hardly know each other, but I care about you a lot and would very much like it if I could be a part of what’s different in your life. I’m not saying we need to consolidate our lives and get serious, but I want to take you on a date at least. Even if I have to wear sweatpants and you have to drive.” He smiled.
MJ returned the smile. “I’d like that, but a night on the town might have to wait for a couple of weeks.”
“Well, then we can just hang out, order pizza, and watch NetFlix until we’re up for that.”
“Oooh, that sounds even better. I never imagined Jacob West to be that kind of guy.”
“I don’t really know what kind of guy I am anymore. So be prepared for the emergence of Existential Crisis Jacob every so often.”
“Okay,” MJ said with a laugh, giving his hand a squeeze.
The door opened to reveal Zoey and Thom holding the leashes of Zoey and Jacob’s dogs. Foster, Duffy, and Webster were dressed as a squirrel, a turtle, and a dragon.
“Ohmygod, you brought all your dogs? How? Why?” MJ said, sitting up quickly. She winced before leaning back on the couch.
“Did you hit your head or something?” Thom asked. “Because it is very unlike you to refuse the presence of dogs.”
“We already have two here. And we need to properly introduce them, not just have some free-for-all playtime!”
“MJ, chill out. We’re not going to let things get out of hand. Don’t freak out,” Thom said.
MJ looked over at Oreo and Willie who both had their ears back and were cowering, their noses twitching as they tried to compute the new smells and creatures in their home. Sgt. Pepper and Lucy were sitting on either side of Thom like gargoyles. Duffy, Foster, and Webster were investigating the floor for crumbs around Zoey’s feet.
“It’s only going to work if you let things get a little crazy at first,” Jacob said. “And you’re not the only one capable of or responsible for wrangling these dogs.”
“Okay,” she finally agreed.
Thom and Zoey began to unclip the leashes. The Yorkies bounded about the space haphazardly, like balls in a pinball machine. Sgt. Pepper and Lucy slowly began to investigate the room, before they made their way over to Jacob and curled up on the floor near him. The Yorkies eventually made their way over to Oreo and Willie, jumping up so their heads were above the couch. Oreo watched as Willie bent down to sniff the dogs before joining him in the mingling. Their tails began to wag and suddenly Sgt. Pepper and Lucy had stood up to join in the greeting. MJ was surrounded by the dogs; she had never felt more at home.
“See? Everything’s fine,” Jacob said.
Zoey and Thom had disappeared into the kitchen to prepare dinner.
The doorbell sounded and the dogs charged for the door.
“It must be our first trick-or-treaters!” Zoey said, appearing from the kitchen with a plastic cauldron full of candy. “Anyone care to help me keep the dogs in?”
It took the rest of them to keep the dogs from running out so Zoey could hold a handful of candy through the cracked open door. When the kids had left, she said, “Well this isn’t going to work.”
By the time the next bunch of trick-or-treaters appeared–a boy dressed as Wolverine and a girl dressed as Jasmine–they’d found a system that worked. Jacob and MJ were sitting on kitchen chairs they’d moved to the front porch, a blanket draped over them and the candy bowl between them. The dogs were inside with Thom and Zoey who were fixing dinner. MJ’s house was full and chaotic, but in a way that seemed possible, enjoyable even.
Possible unlike she’d known before. The kind of possible where they could have a Thanksgiving together come November and even gather around the tree for Christmas. Still, this sense of possibility also meant they could end up in radically different places. For MJ, that felt like too much to worry about right now. Tonight, she just wanted to sit on the porch with Jacob passing out candy, join Zoey and Thom for dinner, and put on a movie and fall asleep with her dogs. That was about all she thought she could handle right now, so that was all she would do.