Heartbeat


Alexus does not know if she wants to keep the baby. I think that’s the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard, considering she’s a nineteen-year-old who can hardly feed herself with what she makes at the Dollar Tree, let alone take care of some baby. I know this because Alexus was my partner in health class when we had to carry around sacks of flour and pretend like they were babies. I took it halfway serious, while Alexus whined about why couldn’t we have the baby dolls with real faces and arms and legs like in the movies, and how was she supposed to pretend like this was some baby when it looked like the same shit they stocked over at the Dollar Tree—which she was working at back then, only part-time.

I tried to explain how movie schools aren’t anything like our school because movie schools have money and couldn’t she look out at the parking lot and see how our cars didn’t look a damn thing like what kids drive-in movies? Alexus just shrugged, and I got stuck with doing more than my fair share, which I think was sort of besides the point since I had (and still have) no interest in having sex with any of the asshole guys in this town, either the slime-ball jocks, or the druggies with their greased-up hair, or the crew who hangs out down Johnny’s Gas n’ Grub on Saturday nights, hollering at every woman under fifty. I mean, I don’t want kids, but I think the activity was more about sex. Like I said, the lesson was wasted on me and clearly on Alexus because here she is at three months and showing if you know how to look, which I do because I’m her best friend, and she still can’t make up her damn mind.

“You want a baby?” I ask when she comes to visit me at Fabrics n’ More. I have just finished slicing through what had to be every inch of fake fur in the store because it’s coming on Halloween and some woman was trying to make her kid a goddamn wolf suit or some shit like that.

Alexus twists her nose up. “Course not,” she says. “I don’t even think they’re cute.”

“Then why are you going to have it?”

She looks at me like I said I’d just kicked a box of puppies off the side of a mountain. “Because I don’t want to kill it.”

“You really think it’s killing, though? Like, you know if you were to drop dead right now, it would be dead, too, right?

“She,” Alexus says.

“Huh?”

“It’s a she.”

“How do you know that?

“Well for one thing my Aunt Glenice always said that with girls you get more heartburn, because of the hair. And let me tell you I’ve been up all night this past week feeling like I’ve got lava coming up my neck. It’s awful.

“You know girl babies don’t naturally have more hair, right?”

Alexus rolls her eyes. “Anyway, I got a picture of her.” She pulls a folded piece of paper out of her big ass Fake Spade bag and hands it to me. At first, I have no idea what I’m seeing. I think it’s some kind of an inkblot test, but then she explains to my stupid self that nah, that’s an ultrasound.

“Where’d you get this?” I ask, because, far as I can tell, Alexus hasn’t been to any doctor. Going to a doctor would mean driving a county over, and anyway, she’s still on her mom’s insurance. If she told her mom, Alexus would definitely be having that baby, because Alexus’ mom is even dumber than Alexus. I’ve seen the way she oooohs and ahhhs over babies everywhere- babies on TV, babies at the grocery store, babies in the park. She’d just be tickled if Alexus got pregnant so that she could have a baby doll to play with, never mind that she can barely take care of Alexus, who is her actual living and breathing child and plenty cute though not like, baby doll cute.

“There was this van over in the Walmart parking lot. Martha Mackey told me about it. They were doing free ultrasounds. So, I went.”

“Martha Mackey knows?” I thought I was the only person Alexus had told. I didn’t think she even liked Martha Mackey that much, Martha Mackey with her too big hair and her sour face.

“No,” Alexus says, and I relax. “She showed me a picture of an ultrasound that her cousin got done there. She was walking around Dollar Tree yesterday buying shit for a baby shower she’s going to throw for her cousin. She kept showing me that ultrasound even though I was like stop, that’s gross. Which I meant that Martha Mackey is gross. The ultrasound was just like mine.”

I don’t tell her that I think it looks like an alien, that if I had it inside my body, I’d be walking the twenty miles to Macon to get it out, especially if the alien in question was fathered by Caden Matthew, who has got to be the most disgusting guy I have ever met, so much so that when Alexus told me that that was who she’d started hooking up with, I could feel my throat start closing up so much that I almost gagged.

“He’s funny,” Alexus had said, shrugging, like funny was a reason to let someone stick his junk in you. “Plus, he’s got a truck.”

That was three months ago, but they broke up whatever it was they had going on after Alexus started getting moody because, you know, pregnancy and all. Far as I know, she hasn’t told him, though I do figure his truck would be helpful in getting her to the clinic, especially seeing as that’s probably where the baby got made in the first place.

I told her she needed to tell him and make him pay for at least half of it. Caden’s not like rich or anything, but he sure as hell makes more than Alexus does with his job down at the kaolin mine, and I feel like since he’s the one that got her into this mess, at least part ways, he oughta pony up something. Maybe trade a few of the after-work beers he’s always swigging over at Kevin’s Korner.

But even I know that that’s a bad idea because whenever guys around here find out that they’ve knocked someone up, which, congratu-fucking-lations but whatever, they start acting all macho and shit. Suddenly, even if they’d dropped out of the picture, they’re all like don’t you even think of killing my baby, and don’t you think of giving away my baby, and yeah of course I’m going to take care of my baby. We all know how that goes, and it’s pretty much the same thing that Alexus’ daddy did to her mom, so I’m sure she’s realized that fat-headed, bad breathed, no brain cells Caden wouldn’t be much better.

And that’s where it gets me on some kind of an anger spiral again because all I can think of is Caden? Why did it have to be Caden that she was fucking around with? And I think Alexus feels the same way because she wasn’t too terribly tore up when he told her he didn’t want to hook up with her anymore. Mostly, I think she was pissed because she heard he was hooking up with Katelynn McTyre, who’s still in high school and like, two weeks legal. Whatever. I don’t know how she expected anything else, but Alexus has never exactly had common sense.

Like right now, she’s waving around this ultrasound like it’s gonna tell her what she’s supposed to do. Meanwhile I’m trying to straighten up all those bolts that some evil kid whipped through here like a tornado and took down without his momma saying so much as boo. I’m worried that my manager is going to see me talking to Alexus and think I’m not doing my job, or, worse, that that’s my ultrasound, or that I’m hanging around with a slut, which would make me a slut, too. I don’t think that Alexus is a slut but I know how it looks when you’re a pregnant unmarried teen, which is what she is, technically.

We both turn twenty this spring. We were planning on driving down to Panama City and staying in some crappy hotel on the beach, passing a bottle of vodka back and forth and watching the sunrise. I was looking forward to it, even if it meant staying in a cheap hotel that probably has bedbugs and shit, and even if it meant draining a big chunk of what I guess you could call my savings, which isn’t at all like what I think other people might call their savings, but it’s something, and it would have gotten us to the beach.

Now, Alexus is going to have to either spend every last dime she’s got getting un-pregnant, or she’s going to have an actual baby, and those aren’t exactly a blast to take on a beach trip.

“They said she’s basically a baby at this point,” Alexus tells me. “And that if I do, you know, she’s going to feel pain.”

“I don’t know about the pain,” I tell Alexus. “But I can tell you that’s not a baby. I mean look at it. Does that look like any kind of baby to you?”

Alexus squints and points out the head and the legs and the heart and says that she personally thinks it looks like a sea monkey, but that the people in the van told her it was a baby and they were like, medical professionals. “So they know.”

I scrunch up my nose and point out that if these were real doctors, then what the hell would they be doing in a van? She shrugs and says she doesn’t know.

“Did they say anything about the kind of pain you’re going to go through having that baby? Because it’s not exactly easy. I was there when my last cousin was born. It was a mess. Lots of blood. Aunt Carolyn almost died.”

“Don’t say that, Kim.” Alexus scowls and leans on the fabric table. She’s sitting on a stool that’s supposed to be for customers. I keep looking over my shoulder, expecting to see my boss shoot me the stink eye.

“I’m saying it because it’s true. And those doctors should have told you that.”

“Well, I don’t see why it matters. They said I have to have her cause of that new law.”

“No,” I tell her. “I’ve been telling you, that law’s not gone into effect yet and even when it does, Facebook says it’s not gonna be upheld because of like, the Court.” I wish I could remember more of what I read on that post. I don’t know much about the law, but the person who posted it is one of the kids from school who went to an actual college and not some community college, and anyway, the bottom line is Alexus does not have any business having this kid.

“They said I could put her up for adoption. Said there’s plenty of people out there want babies. I could like, pick who she goes to so she doesn’t end up in some stupid-ass town like this one. They said they’d even pay my medical expenses and maternity clothes and all. I bet I could get some nice ones, too, like from the Gap. Then in like, six months, it’s gone and it’s like it never happened, and I haven’t killed anybody.”

“You won’t be killing anyone if you have an abortion, either,” I whisper, because we haven’t used that word yet, and anyway, it doesn’t seem like the kind of word you can just go around saying in a fabric store.

“She has a heart,” Alexus says, but her voice goes up at the end so it’s almost a question, which she thinks I don’t hear but I do.

“Speaking of hearts,” I say. “Did you tell them about yours?”

“Yeah,” she says, shrugging. “They said I’d be fine. Said babies were born to women with holes in their heart plenty.”

“Ok. Sure. But did they also say what happen to those women?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like how many of them die.”

“Oh my God. I told you not to talk about that.”

“But it’s just something you gotta think about. This is not a can you can just keep kicking down the road. I mean, obviously it’s not a can, since you came in here and showed me that picture and it’s got a fucking head and all.”

“Don’t say that about her.”

“Ok—ok, she. She has what I am sure is a lovely head, but she is not a real baby. Not yet. But you are a real person, and you don’t got the best heart, and I don’t want you to die. You know, life would really suck around here if you went and did that.”

I try to crack a smile so that she’ll feel better about me saying it and maybe she’ll listen. I don’t particularly feel good talking about her dying. In fact, it makes my stomach melt up because Alexus may have no good sense but she’s just about the best and the prettiest person I have ever met, and I’m not just saying that because we’ve been best friends since middle school, when her and her mom moved up here from Florida with another one of mom’s deadbeat boyfriends.

Back then, I didn’t have many friends. People treated me like I was trash, because my dad’s been in and out of jail for as long as I can remember, because we were poorer than most people even around here, because I’ve always been you would call a tomboy and girls where I live are supposed to be girly with their nails always done even if it’s just their sister painting them what is her idea of nail art, with beads and crystals and shit. Alexus doesn’t go in for all that, but she does wear skirts and high heels while I’m mostly going around in ripped up jeans and combat boots. Alexus is always telling me this is the reason why I don’t have a boyfriend—well, that and I don’t act very nice to guys. I don’t want a boyfriend, which I’ve been trying to tell Alexus for going on three years now, but she doesn’t listen because even though she is very nice, she still has that habit that even nice people have of doing such a good job of pretending to listen that they can’t hear a damn word you say.

But then I can’t complain because I’ve never been able to figure out why she even wanted to be friends with me. She came and sat down next to me in the lunchroom her first day. She said she liked my Nirvana shirt, and I shrugged because that was the shit the popular, pretty people always said to me before they started in on some kind of a joke. Then she started singing Lithium and swaying her head. She had the most God-awful voice I’ve ever heard.

“So,” she said. “Is this school as shitty as it seems like?” And I said, “Yeah, pretty much.” It turned out that her family was pretty broke and that her mom did about as much meth as my mom did pills, which is probably how come Alexus has that hole in her heart. Her mom smoked even when she was pregnant with Alexus, which I think is bullshit because Alexus straight up quit drinking as soon as she found out that she was carrying Caden Matthew’s demon spawn, even though she doesn’t know if she wants to keep it. That’s probably the best way to describe Alexus, that she doesn’t ever think of herself first. I figured out long ago that I have to take care of her like I did Momma back before she got clean. Only the way I feel about about Alexus is different than the way I feel about Momma in ways I can’t even begin to explain.

I’m failing at taking care of her right now. I know that much. If I were a better friend, she would have told me about her and Caden early on, and I would have made sure she knew how to go down to the county health department and get birth control pills. If she’d told me about the night the condom broke, which she did, but only when it was too late, then I would have hauled her ass down to the CVS and gotten her the morning after pill. Hell, I would’ve asked for it myself, even if it meant the pharmacist would think I was the one who’d been fucking around, or more likely, would look at me like who the hell is even having sex with you?

I don’t know why she didn’t tell me, except that probably she thought I would have judged her about Caden, which she would have been right about, but I like to think I would have done it in at least a nice way where maybe I could have convinced her that she was too good and too pretty to be wasting herself on his sorry ass.

None of that really matters right now. What I need is to figure out a way to get Alexus to Macon and also to get the thousand bucks she needs to get that abortion. The money, I’ve pretty much figured out. I can put it on my credit card, and she can pay me back or hell, she doesn’t even have to because that is how much it is worth to me for Alexus not to be pregnant, for her not to maybe die from having that hole in her heart. And then even if she does happen to not die, I need for her to not throw everything away on a baby. Because yeah, she’s talking about adoption and shit, but I know Alexus, and I know as soon as she sees that baby, she’s gonna be head over heels. She’ll stick a big bow on its head and give it a stupid name and then her life is pretty much over, especially if that ties her to goddamn Caden Matthews forever, which might be as bad as the baby itself, and I’m only halfway kidding.

“Look at me,” I say to Alexus. I make my voice just about as loud as I can for it being in the middle of the day and there being like, four old ladies on the other side of the store giving me the stink eye because they don’t like the way I dress, or they don’t like the way I cut fabric, or they don’t have any kind of a life beyond the fucking fabric store and why is that even my fault but I don’t know.

“You are worth so much more that Caden Matthews—do you hear me? You’re worth at least 2 million Caden Matthews. And I know this baby would be ok because half of it would be you, but also, I know that you’re pretty great, and I don’t want this ruining your life.”

None of that came out like I wanted it to, which is probably because this is one of those conversations where I can’t say all of the things I want to say, so everything is going to sound stupid and fall flat. And of course I’m trying to convey all the things I want to say in between the lines of what I am actually saying, but Alexus has never been one to read between the lines; she’s not exactly got an eye for nuance. I’m not saying she’s not smart. She is. She’s just—she sees things too hard for what they are. And when you do that, you miss seeing things for what they could be.

“I dunno,” Alexis says, shrugging and tracing her fingers up and down a pink gingham bolt I’ve just put up. “I mean, it could be kinda nice to like, be a mom. I mean, it would be something to do.”

“Are you serious?” I ask. “Like, you would have a baby because you’re bored? What the hell, Alexus?”

“I’m not saying it’s because I’m bored. I’m just like, I don’t know, wanting something else in my life? Like something exciting? And like you said, she’d be half me, and that would be something.”

Well, shit. I’d just thrown that in there to be nice, but now I see that when hard truths are concerned, nice isn’t all that helpful. I sigh and press my palms against the fabric table. I want to tell her that there’s more to life than just that, like how me and her used to talk about moving to Atlanta and getting better jobs and an apartment somewhere sort of nice. We’ve both long since figured out that’s not happening though, so no sense in bringing it up.

“Do you have any idea how much work a baby is?” I ask her instead. “And how much money? And you know that Caden isn’t going to help.”

“He’s not as bad as you always act like he is,” Alexus says.

“He broke up with you because you were pregnant.”

“Well it’s not his fault—he didn’t know.”

“So why didn’t you tell him you’re pregnant?”

She kicks at the ground. I know the answer to this, which is that she thought he would break up with her if he knew. She said that once, early on, and maybe she thinks I’ve forgotten, but that’s one of those details that you don’t forget.

“I mean, I really was being a bitch. It was stupid. I was mad because he got me the wrong kind of chili dog at the Sonic, and how was he supposed to know that the one with onions on it makes me barf? I didn’t tell him.”

“Again, all of which probably has to do with you being pregnant, and yeah, I know you can get a little whiny from time to time, but if he can’t put up with like, ten minutes of you being whiny, then he doesn’t deserve all the good things about you.”

She shrugs. “You’re just saying that to be nice.”

“No. I’m not. And anyway, you know me. You really think I’m all that nice?”

“Yeah. I do. I don’t think you want people to know it all the time, but I think you’re a very nice person. Except as far as Caden is concerned.”

She pouts. It’s cute. I look to the other side of the store and then back at Alexus. She doesn’t look pregnant, just a little pudgy. I’m willing to bet that would’ve put Caden off more than Alexus’ mood swings, but then her boobs have also gotten bigger, so that might have evened things out.

“Let’s say you do have the baby. What are you going to do with it?”

“Her.”

“Ok—what are you going to do with her when you’re working? You gonna leave her with your mom? Or—wait, I know—how about your mom’s boyfriend? That’s great. Isn’t he like, a child molester or something?”

“He never got convicted.”

“Well that’s comforting. You gonna leave him with Caden, then? Is this man who up and left you cause of some stupid fight over a godddamn chili dog gonna just like that become daddy of the year?”

“Maybe I could get a job like, selling leggings or whatever it is that Jenny Graham’s been doing.”

“Alexus, that’s a pyramid scheme. You won’t make any money.”

“Huh?”

“It’s a scam is what I’m saying. I bet you Jenny Graham has a garage full of leggings she can’t sell.”

“She doesn’t have a garage,” Alexus mumbled. “Her broke ass doesn’t even have a carport.”

“See, that’s what I’m saying. You aren’t going to make money off of that.”

“I’ll figure it out,” she says to me, her voice a little too sharp. “My momma raised me and she didn’t have much, and didn’t I turn out ok?”

“Of course you did,” I say, not mentioning the whole nineteen and underemployed and carrying some dipshit’s baby. Which, I guess, if you take the whole dipshit’s baby out of the equation would also describe me.

“Killing her just seems so—it’s so final,” she says

“Yeah, but so is keeping her.”

“Not if I put her up for adoption.” She’s still fingering that damn pink gingham fabric as she says it, and oh, like hell will she be putting that baby up for adoption. Even if she did, which she won’t, but if she did, that would be a mess, too.

I don’t know that it’s possible for people to die of a broken heart. I think it’s more like you get worn down from sadness, from getting disappointed over and over again, and maybe this means you don’t take care of yourself like you should, or maybe it does somehow actually start to work on your organs and shit. I feel this way when I go visit my dad in jail, or when I look at Alexus and think about all of those things that I want to tell her and never can. I can feel my heart start to sweat, which I can’t even explain except that is just what it is like.

I want to be able to take Alexus out of her brain and put her into mine. I want her to see all of the things I see, and maybe then, she’d think of herself as more than just the carrier of Caden Matthew’s spawn. I can’t help think that if she did, that she would have been in Macon asking for the pill like, yesterday.

Well. Too late for that now. If she’d been able to take the pill, then it would have been a lot easier, which is not to say easy. I’ve read plenty on the internet about how you feel like all your insides are come undone, like your body is punishing you. You go home, and you bleed a lot. And it would scare Alexus, who has never really done that good with blood to begin with.

But it’s cheaper than the surgery. They don’t have to put you to sleep, which, considering the hole in Alexis’ heart, is going to be more complicated. And then so is hiding it from her mom. We’ll have to be gone to Macon for an entire day, plus the day before for the whole 24- hour go home and think about it period. Alexus is gonna come home from the surgery all drugged up, and she might say something stupid, and then I don’t know what Alexis’ mom might do. With the pill, we could pick a weekend that my mom has a night shift at the hospital. We could hole up in my bedroom with movies and junk food, and I’d be there to hold her hand.

But we can’t do that now; it’s way past that point. I’ve tried to impress on her that every day that passes is one less choice she gets to make, but so far, she either hasn’t understood that, or she hasn’t tried, which I guess is sort of the same thing.

“Alexus,” I say, soft as I can. “You know you’re not gonna put it—her—up for adoption. You might think you’re gonna, and you might even have just the perfect family picked out, but I know you. The second you see her lying there all red and wrinkly and helpless, you’re gonna wanna take care of her.” Like you did with me, I think but don’t say.

“How do you think I feel looking at this thing?” She holds up that stupid ultrasound. She’s got tears in her eyes. I don’t do well with tears. I never have. I want to put my arm around her, but I’m at work and besides, I know what people say about me, and then I know what they’d say about Alexus.

“It’s not a baby,” I say, but she’s not listening. She’s been not listening. I’ve lost her, I’d say, only I’ve never even had her. And I can see in the way she stares down at that fabric all the ways that her life is going to unfold—maybe not the specifics, but I can see how she’s going to go her way, and I’m going to go mine. We’re each gonna take it step by step by step until all she is a speck on the horizon, her heart no bigger than that baby’s, my own heart still the same size as ever but broken, impossible to fix.  

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