“Put it down.” Mara’s tone has changed. She is begging me now. Desperate. But my hand doesn’t move.
“The syringe contains sodium pentobarbital, which will stop Mara’s heart. The knife is the one method you’ve always . . . preferred. And that gun you’re holding to your head has only one bullet.”
He’s so sure I won’t do it. Doesn’t care whether I do.
“Please,” Mara says. “Please.”
I barely hear her. All I can think is that I am nothing more than a tool to him. But a tool can’t work if it’s broken.
I pull the trigger.
THE PROFESSOR PICKED UP ON the first ring.
“Get here now,” I said. “David keeps threatening to call an ambulance.”
“Don’t let him—if anything changes, I can’t predict the outcome anymore. The ambulance might crash before the child is born. It could die while still in the womb.”
“She’s bleeding,” I said to him. My clothes were damp from the evening drizzle, and I hugged myself to stave off the chill. “It’s bad.”
“She’ll survive.” The professor’s calm was maddening. It always has been. “He’ll come when he’s ready,” he added.
That’s what Naomi said. “Look, I’d feel a bit more comfortable if I had some assistance? Unless you’re busy with something more important than the potential future of the human race, or whatever it is you’re fucking around with here?”
The professor refused to be baited. “She lives. He lives. It has to be this way, Mara.” But before I could argue, I heard Naomi scream.
“Come,” I ordered him. “Come now.” I hung up the phone and rushed back into the room.
Naomi was still in bed, propped up against several pillows. Wisps of her blond hair were matted to her forehead and her pale cheeks. She looked at me with glassy eyes but managed a wry smile.
“I think my water finally broke.”
I looked down. A red stain blossomed beneath her.
“I’m calling the ambulance,” David said, his expression a mixture of wrath and terror. He’d wanted to call one from the beginning. He’d wanted Naomi in the hospital, a controlled environment. Protected. He rushed to the door and shot a dark look at me over his shoulder. “Stay with her.”
As if I would leave now, after everything. But of course David didn’t know everything. He barely knew anything.
“This.” She paused to breathe. “Sucks.” She tossed her tired head back against the pillow. “How come no one told me how much this would suck?”
“I believe I did, actually,” I said.
“It feels like he’s trying to chew his way out.”
I managed a small smile. “You’re so weird.”
“I’m fascinating. There’s a difference.” She breathed shakily and opened her eyes. The humor had left them. “I’m really scared, Mara.”
“I know. But he’s seen this,” I said to her in a low voice, one David could not hear. “I know it feels like you can’t do this, but you can. I believe in you.” The words were bitter in my mouth. I felt like a farmer leading an animal to its slaughter, holding out a sweet to tempt it to its death. That Naomi knew what she was doing, that she chose this, didn’t make me feel less guilty.
The sound of the doorbell echoed through the house just then, and I both hoped and feared that the ambulance had arrived. It hadn’t. It was the professor instead.
He followed David into the room, carrying a doctor’s bag that I recognized from half a century before. He settled in beside the bed. “May I?” he said, gesturing to the sheets. Not even so much as a hello. Bastard.
“Make it stop,” Naomi whispered as he checked her.
“Not much longer, my girl. You are doing well.”
“What about the blood?” David said angrily, trying to mask his fear. It didn’t work.
The professor did not look up. “The placenta may have detached.”
David seethed. “May have?”
The professor ignored him. “But the contractions are strong enough now that even if there were time to take her to a hospital, I wouldn’t. But Mara,” he said, turning to me. “When the baby comes, I want you to be ready to call one if we need to.”
“Is he going to die?” Naomi asked between gasps.
“He is not going to die.”
“Am I going to die?”
The professor smiled. “Not today.”
I could kill him. Sometimes I wish I had.
“Just promise he’s going to be okay,” Naomi said through gritted teeth.
The professor obliged. “I promise.”
Naomi twisted in the sweat-soaked, blood-soaked sheets and screamed. David’s face was ashen. He looked so young. My heart ached for him.
“Brave girl,” the professor said to Naomi. “You know how to do this. Now I want you to start pushing.”
“Fuck. It hurts.”
“It was no different for me,” I said to her, hating the sound of my own voice, hating my false smile. “Or the millions of women before us.”
David looked shocked for a moment. “You have children?”
I have a grandchild, I almost said, which would’ve shocked him even more.
It was barely a few minutes later when the professor said, “He’s ready, Naomi. Are you?”
“All right, then. Give it everything.”
She did. I held one hand and David held the other.
“Good,” the professor said. “He’s almost—he’s here.”
Naomi made a sound, somewhere between a sigh and a whimper, and fell back against the pillows. David’s face was ashen, but his eyes were full of awe.
“I want to hold him,” Naomi said weakly. Then, a beat later, “Toss him here.”
“Is it—is it a boy?” David asked.
“Yes,” the professor said in the eerily silent room.
“Why isn’t he crying?” David asked, and then saw the baby. He was blue.
“Oh God,” David whispered.
“What?” Naomi said, with an animal fear in her eyes. “What is it?”
The professor worked quickly. He was afraid, too, but no one would ever be able to tell but me. I held Naomi’s hand as she asked, “Is he—is he—?”