Aired by Pseudopod
Rae was sure she was pregnant because the thin white test, slick with urine on one end, said so.
It was the digital variety, not the kind with two ambiguous lines, and it spelled out the one word she’d waited to see for a very long time. Her heart came alive; it throbbed steadily in her chest and she grabbed hold of the sink for support. The test rested on the edge of the marble vanity and she watched it for what felt like thirty or forty minutes, disbelieving, waiting for her eyes to readjust, for the word “Not,” which would precede “Pregnant” on a negative test, to darken into view.
But it didn’t.
The tears came then, and her limbs struggled to brace her heavy torso. An unsettling sense of déjà vu tiptoed around like a prowler, close enough to make her uneasy, but not yet ready to strike. She kept the unpleasant sensation at bay and allowed herself a single celebratory moment before reality—and fear and anxiety and panic—set it.
She’d experienced a similar moment of elation before, thirteen months prior to this balmy August evening. Rae recalled the way she’d struggled to contain her excitement and how she’d paced their modest, single-story bungalow until midnight, when Chris came home from his shift at the restaurant. After she revealed the news, they made love on the kitchen floor, neither able to properly verbalize their happiness, and afterward made plans to turn their home office into a nursery. It had taken sixteen cycles—472 days to be exact, marked diligently in Rae’s spiral-bound planner—to conceive a child. It took fewer than sixteen seconds for her obstetrician to discover the fetus had stopped developing.
The memory dampened Rae’s good spirits, but she recovered quickly and pushed it from her mind. Now was not the time for retrospection; today marked a new beginning.
She pictured Chris at work, carefully searing a piece of tuna or meticulously deboning a red snapper. As sous chef of the Main Line’s newest venue, Fruits de Mer, he wouldn’t clock out until almost eleven—still three long hours away. Rae wasn’t sure she could contain herself until then. She considered calling the restaurant or texting her husband a picture of the positive test but decided against it. Joy was best shared personally—particularly joy of this variety. She had waited thirteen long months for another positive result, and she could wait three short hours to reveal the news face-to-face.
Still, the idea of pacing the house again like she had last year caused a silly and superstitious sense of dread, so she decided instead to take a stroll and settle her nerves. Twilight had always been Rae’s favorite time of the day, and tonight’s was nearly perfect: darkness had only begun to creep over their quiet town and the temperature had settled comfortably in the mid-seventies. She threw on a tee shirt, shorts, and sneakers, grabbed her cell phone and house keys, and started down the block.
The brisk pace released a bit of her anxiety, and as she turned the corner and distanced herself from the house, Rae thought about their bumpy road to conception. She and Chris had tried unsuccessfully for a year before consulting their doctors. The visits had proved fruitless; they had both been in good health and faced no fertility hurdles, yet six more months transpired before they’d found success, only to miscarry a few weeks later.
The news had blindsided Rae. She’d expected to feel the baby’s death—both physically and intuitively—and had believed wholeheartedly in the growing fetus’ health. Her frequent bathroom visits offered no sign of early problems, and increasing bouts of nausea and fatigue had signaled her hormone levels were steadily rising. But worse than failing to detect any tangible signs of miscarriage was the knowledge that her gut—the keenest sense of perception—had let her down. She’d been sure of the viability of her pregnancy, and that false sense of security perturbed her most of all. Rae wondered, with an increasing sense of self-reproach, if she could ever trust her intuition again.
The first few months had been the hardest; she’d measured every day in should haves. When she and Chris attended the Dracula Festival in Philadelphia with friends on Halloween, Rae should have announced her pregnancy. On Thanksgiving, rather than drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon as the Saints secured a late win over the Cowboys she should have been sipping ginger ale and snacking on pasteurized cheese. And it went on; each new should have more painful than the last.
But Rae was no stranger to pain; she’d experienced her fair share of physical and mental abuse during her adolescence, and the experiences had prepared her for the suffering. She had been lucky—or unlucky, depending upon how you looked at it—to learn as a preteen that life was like a closed fist: it could unclench and offer a helping hand or it could swing and clock you in the mouth. Rae liked to think she was prepared for either, thanks to the perpetual bullying she’d endured.
It had begun in the seventh grade. The random and inexplicable nature of girl-on-girl violence was what made the acts so terrifying, and even as an adult, Rae could not define why she had been targeted. It started with mock whispers in the cafeteria and false rumors of promiscuity but quickly escalated to physical violence. Once, she had been pushed in the school hallway and broke her wrist on the unforgiving linoleum floor; in another instance, a soft ball-sized snowball to the face had resulted in a black eye. But it had not been the bodily harm that upset Rae—she’d always had a high threshold for pain—it had been the constancy of the attacks. Habitual bullying bruised the psyche, and the last two decades had hardly lessened the sting. But you somehow find a way to get up and go on, and Rae had then, just as she had following the miscarriage. Some people called that strength; for Rae, it was just life.
The sun had ducked behind the overgrown trees on Twining Avenue, and she checked the time on her cell phone. She’d been meandering for almost thirty minutes, and if she went any further, she wouldn’t have the energy to trek back. She turned around and started the journey home, feeling strangely fearful of the sudden darkness. The streetlights hadn’t yet been activated and the lack of illumination made her uneasy. She picked up the pace, wondering if her protective new-mother disposition had heightened her sense of self-preservation. More likely, the recollection of her unpleasant childhood had caused the unrest.
She turned the corner onto another darkened block and tried to steer her thoughts to a more optimistic topic, like her pregnancy, but she couldn’t shake her disquiet. Bad memories seemed to follow her tonight, and Rae developed the uncomfortable suspicion that she was no longer alone on the street. She slowed, determined to eliminate the possibility that something tangible—and perhaps threatening—trailed behind her. But before she could turn around, confirmation came in the form of a blow to the legs. Pain exploded in her right kneecap and she fell to the sidewalk, her mind leaping to that day in the seventh grade when she’d been pushed in the hallway. Instinctively, her arms thrust forth to break her fall, but her fight-or-flight instincts were numbed by surprise and fear. Her attacker took advantage of the temporary shock and thrust a bare arm around her neck; the stranger smelled vaguely of cigarettes and barbeque sauce, and just as it registered that it was in fact a man—and not her bad thoughts—which had been stalking her, a cold, hard object was pressed against her temple.
“I’ll shoot if you scream,” he said, and despite the warning, Rae couldn’t help herself. The scream had formed in her throat the moment her legs had been bashed, and even though it felt like the act had transpired minutes before, in reality, only seconds had passed. The cry was on her tongue now; it was a high-speed train moving at breakneck speed, too fast to stop, and as she opened her mouth to let it pass, a white light blinded her. The pain came next; it crawled over her skull like cracks in glass, and then everything went black.
Consciousness hovered overhead, circling, but not yet touching down to fully revive her. Something stiff had been pushed inside her body, and Rae considered the possibility that the past thirteen months had been a dream, that she was still lying on the operating table at her OB/GYN’s office.
After the miscarriage, her body had failed to dispel the fetus on its own, and she’d made the difficult decision to undergo a dilation and curettage procedure to surgically remove it from her uterus. The procedure had been performed in a small operating room in her doctor’s office, and anesthesia had been administered to sedate her but not fully knock her out. She’d held on to the vague memory of coming to during the treatment, feeling bloated and groggy, and asking her obstetrician if she could take a break. She recalled seeing the woman’s face, but not her hands, which were hidden beneath the thin hospital paper, scraping the remains of Rae’s dead baby from inside of her. Now, lying on her back with a bright light shining overhead and someone poking around between her legs, Rae wondered again if she was still on the operating table. She considered asking the doctor to stop; it was starting to hurt and she needed a rest.
But she’d eventually woken from the procedure, hadn’t she? Yes, she believed she had. And during her follow-up appointment two weeks later the doctor had confirmed she’d been uncomfortable during the surgery, but not to worry because everything had gone well and she was ready to conceive again. She’d told Rae the tests revealed her baby had Trisomy 16, a chromosomal abnormality, and the most common chromosomal cause of miscarriage. Rae had cried, tears of sadness and relief, and the doctor had hugged her, had told her to do something nice for herself, but instead Rae went back to work. She went back to work and on with her life because that’s what Rae did: she took life’s blows, brushed them off, and went on.
She went on for thirteen months, until tonight, when she’d taken another pregnancy test and it was positive. It was positive and she went for a walk, and the light over her head grew clearer, the floor under her back colder, and the pain inside of her intensified. It was not a doctor working between her legs, not a doctor but a man, a man who was not her husband, a man who smelled of cigarettes and barbeque sauce, whose cheek was pressed against her cheek, his tongue in her ear, the deep, feverish sound of his breathy grunts filling the room.
Rae tensed and felt a tremble of revulsion course through her body. Despite the powerful ache that gripped her skull, her mind emerged from its hazy, semi-conscious state and fixated on one word: pregnant.
Had she not taken that test, she may not have emerged from her blackout, and if she had, she may have succumbed to this creature in the hope that he wouldn’t murder her instead. Not tonight. She was a different woman now, different than she had been only two hours before. Rae would not allow this man to endanger the life inside of her—she knew too well the result of such a tragedy. Loosing a child, at any stage of its being, was a lot like dying: a darkness crept over you, dampening all hope and happiness. Rae had lived in the darkness for thirteen long months, and she would not return to that place. She thought again about life, that unpredictable fist, which constantly took jabs at her.
Tonight, she would swing back.
Rae shifted her gaze to the left, ignoring the steady throb of her right temple. His ear was exposed, his fair skin flushed and peppered with white heads. He’d pulled his frizzy brown hair into a sloppy ponytail tied with a rubber band, and Rae could see the string from a black plastic eye mask just above it. Her mind had conjured several courses of action, but her fury trumped reason and she struck in a manner that would cause the greatest deal of pain. She opened her mouth, took his whole ear, and clamped down.
She felt his breath retract, his throat click and his body tense before the screams came. The sound of his agony was sweet, and she breathed in the aroma of barbeque sauce, imagined it slathered on a crispy piece of chicken, and grinded her teeth. Cartilage cracked and her taste buds flared as the metallic tang of blood filled her mouth. He tried to pull away, but his movements only aided her demolition and he screamed—oh how he screamed—and Rae thought the only cry lovelier than his agony would be her newborn child’s first wail in the delivery room.
He struggled against her, and she held tight until one of his fists connected with her side; it pummeled the soft area between her hip and rib cage, causing her to gasp and unclench her jaw. The attack stunned her, but she recovered quickly; his blow had come close—too close—to her abdomen and anger dulled her pain. She slipped a hand between his hip and her thigh—despite her attack, he was still inside of her—and gripped his balls in her fist. This time, his scream soared to a high-pitched squeal and he scrambled away. She released his testicles and sat upright, finally grasping the damage he’d inflicted on her legs when he’d ambushed her on the street. A mound of purple, distended flesh swallowed her right knee, and an open wound pulsated above her left ankle. She couldn’t run—she would have to fight.
Processing this notion, Rae assessed her surroundings. The room was small, perhaps twelve feet on all sides, windowless, and concrete all around. Above her head, a naked bulb hung from a black wire, and a duffle bag had been discarded a few feet away. She could detect no exit, only a stack of concrete blocks against one wall, piled chest-high. Even if she hadn’t been hobbled, she couldn’t escape. He’d gone to great lengths to contain them.
Struggling to her feet—her attacker had doubled over in one corner, clutching his ear in one hand, his balls in the other—she scanned the room for a weapon. Her mind whirred, flicking thoughts and ideas at rapid speed. She remembered he’d threatened: I’ll shoot if you scream, which meant he had a gun, and her only chance of survival was to get her hands on it before he did.
She scrambled toward the duffle bag, her kneecap singing at the sudden movement. The pain was enormous, worse than any she’d ever experienced, and Rae had to bite her lip to keep from screaming.
He spotted her sudden movement and leapt toward her; in that instant, he reminded Rae of a demented super-villain from a poorly drawn comic book: black mask concealing his identity, shit-brown ponytail swinging behind him, plastic gloves over two outstretched hands. He reached her just as she neared the duffel bag and wrapped an arm around her left leg, his right hand collecting a fistful of her tee shirt. She tensed and pulled her elbows into her chest as she fell forward, protecting her hips and belly. The flesh of her forearms hit the floor first; she rolled onto her back, felt her butt cheeks against the cold concrete, and realized she was naked from her waist to her ankles. The sight of her most private area, exposed and vulnerable under the harsh overhead light, stirred a deep, unrestrained rage, and the pain in her legs fled long enough to pull her knees into her chest and kick with all her strength.
Her attacker hadn’t bothered to remove her sneakers, and her right heel connected with his jaw, causing his head to snap back like a plastic PEZ dispenser. Rae kicked a second time, and smashed the bottom of his nose, unleashing a stream of blood and mucus. He let her go and clutched his battered face, offering the chance she needed to reach the duffel bag.
It was open and she grabbed the bottom and dumped its contents. Behind her, the man spat and lunged again. His fist connected with her shoulder and she cried out, collapsing onto the items she’d strewn on the floor. Masking tape, a water bottle, keys and a cell phone—not hers—but no gun. He spun her around, her shattered right knee colliding with his and sending a lightning rod of pain through her body. One gloved hand went to her breast; his fingernails dug into her soft flesh, and she retaliated by wrapping a free hand around his penis, which he had hadn’t bothered to put away since her initial attack, and yanked with all her might.
He cried out and swung at her face; his knuckles clipped her jaw, and she bit her tongue. Blood filled her mouth for the second time in minutes and she released her grip, giving him the chance to scramble away. As he retreated, his choked cries echoing in the tight space, the gun fell from his pants pocket and clattered to the floor.
They both lunged for the weapon; Rae felt the strength in her legs faltering but she pushed on. Her chest throbbed and she could feel blood dribbling down her chin, but he was in worse shape: his mangled ear was nearly unrecognizable; his nose leaned to one side and blood saturated his tee shirt; a chunk of hair stuck up from his forehead and the mask had shifted, covering one eye. Had he the benefit of clear vision, he would have reached the gun first, but his hindered sight caused him to misjudge the distance to the weapon. Rae snatched it up and then retreated, using one wall for support as she climbed to her feet. Balancing precariously on her left, less damaged, limb, she raised the gun and took aim.
He watched her, and his one unconcealed eye widened in surprise and fear before a smile parted his lips, revealing a row of browning teeth. Rae cocked the gun, ensured it was pointed at his chest to minimize her chance of missing, and said: “Get up and open the door.”
He chuckled and placed both hands on the ground in an attempt to regain his balance. Rae shook the gun threateningly and said: “I’ll kill you. Don’t think I won’t.”
He ignored her and stood slowly. Rae watched him, feeling secure with the gun in her hands, and let her eyes wander. She detested the vulnerability her nakedness stirred and wanted desperately to put on her shorts, but the clothing was on his side of the room, and she didn’t want to get that close.
“Don’t move,” she ordered. “I’ll kill you.”
He laughed again, a deep breathy chortle, and Rae tightened her grip on the weapon.
“Go ahead and shoot,” he said. Hearing his voice for the second time caused the fine hairs on Rae’s back to stand on end. It was such a normal voice, the kind you heard when you called to make an appointment for a haircut or when you placed an order at a drive thru. She had expected him to be evil, terrifying, and the normalcy of his tone deeply disturbed her.
He took a step closer; he was limping, but strong enough to lung at any moment.
“Take another step and I’ll shoot,” she threatened.
“It’s not loaded,” he said and grinned. “The fucking gun isn’t loaded.”
Rae’s stomach fell to her bladder and she clenched her pelvic muscles to keep from urinating on herself. He stepped closer still, and she fired the gun. It clicked, mockingly, and the barrel rotated, but no bullet emerged. She fired again, and again, eight times in total. Nothing.
He whooped, the sort of excited cheer a man makes when his favorite team scores a winning touchdown, lowered his shoulder, and rushed her. She brought the gun down just as he wrapped his arms around her waist and shoved her back against the wall. The barrel connected with his skull and a hideous thunk filled the room.
Blood was on his neck, his arms, and then her shirt and her bare thighs before Rae realized it flowed from a deep groove in his forehead. The man’s body went limp and he fell, landing facedown on the floor. She scurried away, the gun still clutched in one hand, the vicious throb in her injured legs and temple back with a vengeance. He moaned, coughed, moaned again.
Rae had neared her shorts on the other side of the small space when her legs trembled and gave; she collapsed a few feet from the clothing. The man turned to look at her, his cheek pressed against the concrete floor. Blood dripped into his eyes and with a trembling hand he reached up and tore the mask away. Rae got a good look at him then: blue, wide-set eyes sat above flushed, pockmarked cheeks. The start of a mustache painted his upper lip; a deep dimple settled into his chin. He gave a face to the darkness she feared, reminded her why she had fought so hard to escape it. In the light, there was hope; there was always a chance that life would uncoil its fist and offer a hand. But in the darkness, there was only this man.
“I would have…” he started and then stopped. He cleared his throat and swallowed before starting again. “Let you go. I would have let you go...after.”
Rae said nothing.
“If you would have just…”
Rae watched him struggle to speak; the act took great effort and required several pained breaths between each statement. He was wounded and probably couldn’t get up, but she refused to let his chatter distract her. She was hurt too, and if he rallied for another attack, she had to be ready.
“I would have…I would have just left you here. Why…did you…fight me?”
This time, Rae noticed something murky churn in those blue eyes, like a gathering of clouds before a storm. He was lying; he’d had no intention of letting her live—if he had, why had he barricaded the door? He had an unloaded gun, masking tape, and no other weapon. He’d planned to kill her, a slow, agonizing death, with his bare hands.
Rae had unleashed a fury on this man she hadn’t known lurked inside of her, yet his lies stirred an even greater hate. She longed to destroy this disgusting excuse for a human being, but first, she wanted to scare him shitless. And she knew answering his question, telling him why she’d fought back, would do the trick.
“I’m pregnant,” she said. The statement supplied a rush of adrenaline, which pumped to her temple and legs and settled the ache. Her heart quickened and the corners of her mouth teetered on the verge of a smile.
In contrast, the muscles in the man’s face slackened and fear dampened the heinous sparkle his eyes had possessed just seconds before. Rae saw defeat in those eyes: he understood the opponent he faced; he understood that if he rose to fight again, Rae would fight back—and she would win—because in her current state, she was a danger greater than any man or beast.
Still, he placed his left palm on the floor, and then his right. With a deep, furious grunt, he peeled his bleeding body from the floor and climbed to his feet. Rae did the same, still naked from waist to ankles, but now fixated only on the adversary before her. She gripped the gun in her right hand; when he came for her, she would drive its butt into his skull a second time and scatter his brains all over the room.
He was steady now, facing her, red from head to toe except for his eyes, those hideous eyes: two blue puddles of delirium. Rae’s heart stopped; her mind, which until this moment had stepped aside and let instinct and action reign, screamed. He started for her, but his right foot slid on the cold slab and the leg it steadied gave way. His blue eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed, a bundle of limbs and bodily fluid.
Rae looked down at her attacker and noticed urine flowing from between her legs; it puddled around her sneakers and mixed with the blood that spread from beneath the man’s limp body. The warm fluid enflamed her injuries and Rae’s legs, which had held out longer than she’d ever dreamed they could under such distress, gave way beneath her. She fell onto the floor beside her attacker, dragged herself away from his motionless body, and reached for her shorts. She dried the urine that dampened her thighs and pulled the clothing on, feeling a quiet sense of relief as she dressed.
Finally clothed, she observed his body, unable to assess if he was alive or dead. To escape, she would have to move a dozen or more concrete bricks, and in her condition, the task could take an hour. Rae couldn’t risk the possibility that he would regain consciousness and attack again.
She crawled toward the contents of the duffle bag, grabbed the masking tape, and approached her attacker, feeling her bladder stretch and waver at the thought of touching him again. Pushing her fear and revulsion aside, she slipped her hand beneath his belly and gripped his right wrist, twisting it free and laying it down on his back. She repeated the action with his left and then taped the appendages behind his back, certain that at any moment, he would wake.
But he didn’t, not when she pulled the concrete blocks from the exit one by one, not when she crawled to freedom, and not when she called for help on the cell phone he’d had in the duffle bag.
Outside, Rae discovered the man had taken her to a deserted construction site on the outskirts of town. She trudged toward the street and sat beneath a dim yellow streetlight to wait for the police to arrive.
As her terror dulled and her mental clarity sharpened, Rae thought about why she’d taken what should have been a brief, relaxing stroll that night. She’d gone to relieve the anxiety conjured by the news of her second pregnancy, true; but more importantly, she’d gone to escape her self-loathing. Discovering she was pregnant again had renewed the mistrust in her body and mind the miscarriage had initiated. When she’d left the house a few hours ago, she’d had little to no faith in her ability to protect herself, and her unborn child, from harm. But even worse, she’d lost confidence in her intuition. She’d been sure that innermost reflex—the kind that sends up a flare in times of danger—would let her down again, the way it had during her first pregnancy.
And maybe it would.
But it hadn’t tonight.