“Be careful what you wish for,” I said to the baby with the birthmark in the car seat next to me. Everything was black and my ulcer was killing me and we were headed for the desert and I wasn’t yet sure where we were going. “Scrap that,” I said, and turned on the windshield washer, but the blades smeared bug guts over the glass until I couldn’t see. “What Mother really told me,” I said, “what she drilled into me, was this: Whatever you wish for, you’ll be sorry.”
What Mother really told me,” I said, “what she drilled into me, was this: Whatever you wish for, you’ll be sorry.”Even in the dark, it was clear that the baby could not have cared less. After wailing for hundreds of miles, she was nodding off again. She also was growing so fast I could hear her cells in their frenzied mitosis: divide multiply divide multiply. I slowed down and searched for a sign to clue me in on where we were, but her bustling cells kept distracting me, a sound like static, like aggressive white noise. I was afraid to look at her, afraid that when I looked over she would have become something monstrous, a giant monstrous baby filling the passenger seat and still growing.
But no. She was just her small self, a bit of drool trailing down her soft chin.
The phone rang again. It had been ringing since we left Santa Monica—and even though it was no surprise, the sound gave my heart a little electric jolt. I groped in the darkness under the baby’s safety seat and slowed the car just enough to read the incoming number. I already knew who it was. At first, my mother called every half-hour, then the calls accelerated to every ten minutes. My voice mail would be overstuffed with her. Still, I didn’t mute the phone. There was something about the demand of that ring that made me feel, not wanted, but necessary, a vital cog in this wayward wheel.
The sound set the baby to bawling again. I made what I hoped were soothing hush-hush sounds and stepped on the accelerator until we were pushed back into our seats, doing 85, then 90, then 95 into a night so black we could only see as far as the pool of headlights would allow. If anything wandered into the road before us it would be a blip of dead meat. Or we would.
The baby’s shrieks reminded me of my mother, though my mother’s greatest skill was glacial, the sort of bitterly chilled force that overtook you in increments.
But she, my mother, actually did let out a shriek—like a raptor, as I recall—when the clone, this baby with the birthmark, was delivered from the hired womb.
It was my father who had suggested a clone. He had the cash and the connections. He made sure it would be a quality model, not some knock-off. Mistakes were made though, that much was certain. But when I glanced at that birthmark in the seat next to me, I didn’t see a defect; I saw something real.
I remember wishing I knew where we were.
The hole in my stomach was churning, bile like roiling lava. The clone’s cries inflamed the pain until I bit my tongue for distraction. When I leaned down for the diaper bag on the floor, the car swerved wildly onto the shoulder, a burst of kicked-up gravel and terror, and we careened back onto the tarmac. This silenced her just long enough for me to pull a pacifier from the side pocket and pop it into her mouth.
“Let that be a lesson,” I told her.
* * *
For weeks I dreaded the cell cultivation, convinced it would involve some painful scraping procedure—or worse. I hate knives. A psychic once told me that in a previous incarnation I’d been stabbed to death. In the back.
I watched Dr. Turner examine the hairs under a bright lamp, and I began to itemize the ways in which my cells could have been poached: toothbrush, chewing gum, facial peel, haircut, pap smear, blood test.At the Institute, Dr. Turner told me to sit still. I flinched, but was relieved when he used a pair of long tweezers, like the pointed beak of an egret, to yank a few choice hairs from my scalp. Then it dawned on me how available my DNA—my most personal property—had been all along. I watched Dr. Turner examine the hairs under a bright lamp, and I began to itemize the ways in which my cells could have been poached: toothbrush, chewing gum, facial peel, haircut, pap smear, blood test. I thought of those superstitious Greeks who burn their clipped toenails to prevent enemies from putting a hex on them. Maybe they were onto something.
“At least there were no knives,” I said, trying to be cordial. Dr. Turner laughed, though it was more like a hiss. He said, “We only get out the knives when some idiot makes a mistake.”
* * *
I knew we were nearing civilization because of the billboards. The first could barely contain the figure of a generically seductive blonde in a giant cowboy hat. She was there on that desolate highway around the clock, inviting drivers to a gentleman’s club called The Rocket Ranch. On the opposite side of the road, a sign for a steakhouse called The Last Round-up Grill & Saloon featured a grinning cartoon steer selling out his compadres.
I slowed the car as we passed, laughing until the baby turned to stare at me. “Right there,” I told her, “is the grand summary of human existence, kiddo. Packages of meat, every one of us.” I said, “Ask any coroner. Meat.” I gave her a playful pinch. “Especially you.”
* * *
I needed to pee something fierce. Twenty miles outside Barstow, the Shell station was gruesomely bright; it lit up the desert for centuries. I left the sleeping baby with the birthmark in the car, and locked the doors. When I went in I ducked my head and kept my eyes on the grimy floor tiles all the way to the john. On the way back out, I stopped to examine a box of black hair color—a new identity—but there were other things I needed worse and I only had so much cash. The bleary-eyed clerk didn’t even look at me as she rang up a laminated map, a pack of Virginia Slims menthol lights, two jars of Gerber mashed bananas—about the only thing I could stand to smell in the car—and one economy-size box of Sleep-Eze tablets.
When I returned to the car, there was a thick woman in a long black jumper, face pressed against my passenger window. We were alone under the glaring lights. I tensed and readied my keys, one protruding between each finger of my fist.
“That’s not your car,” I said firmly.
She straightened and turned to me, wild prickly gray hair like dried bramble. I expected a haggard sparrow to flit out of it. She sized me up with watery pale eyes, then worked her fleshy face into a half-smile.
“That your baby?”
The woman blocked the door.
“It’s not my baby.” I stopped. “It’s—she’s my sister.” I despised this woman.
The baby dozed, the trail of chin drool glistening, her birthmark blue-gray, like a cloud passing over her skin.The woman smiled again, but it was tight and hard. Her jumper pattern I recognized, jagged lines, purple/green/white, stitches like tiny swift ants against black woven cotton moving so rapidly they appeared still. I watched them for a moment, those stitches, scurrying up and down in perfect order. Guatemalan. The jumper hung low on the woman’s ample bosom and I could see stretch marks against her slack tanned skin disappearing beneath the fabric.
“That stain,” the woman said in a husky voice. “That can never be erased.”
* * *
In the car, I lit a fresh cigarette from the pack and dragged deep. Then I panicked, patting down the carpet for rogue embers. The baby was still asleep. I took another long drag and studied the map. The burning sensation in my gut began to rise. What I wanted, what I needed, was a destination, a plan, an expected outcome.
The baby coughed a little cough, and I rolled down the window and used the map to flap smoke out into the cold desert night. I pulled her yellow duckie blanket up under her chin.
The expected outcome was the problem, according to my mother. Whatever you wish for…
I closed my eyes and crushed the cigarette out on the map. The melting laminate gave off a faintly irritating odor.
We had just enough gas to take us to the cigarette burn on the map. Just enough gas to turn around and go home. Either/or, not both.
I started the car, eager to escape the gas station’s glare. The baby dozed, the trail of chin drool glistening, her birthmark blue-gray, like a cloud passing over her skin.
We turned right, toward Joshua Tree.
* * *
We were supposed to go to art museums and see the exact same thing in the Pollacks. We were supposed to sit out on the verandah on lazy summer afternoons and one of us would suddenly express a craving for a particular dish at a particular restaurant that the other had just been thinking of. We were supposed to stay up late into the night and share secrets we already knew.
I was invisible. The clone would make me real.
The birthmark changed everything.
The stain covered the orb of her left cheek, its ragged borders suggesting an island in the middle of nowhere. In sunlight it was the color of crushed raspberries. At that moment, in the darkened car on that darkened stretch of blacktop, it resembled an ashy smudge. Sometimes I could hardly bear to look at it. But she—she was a different story. She was oblivious, content. How many times had I held up a mirror and she simply smiled that wet gummy smile?
* * *
I ground another Tagamet between my teeth. I’d been chewing on them since we left Santa Monica, but the pain in my gut would not let up.
From what I could see as I tried to drive and read the map by the dome light, we needed to head south for two hours. While I had the light on, I fumbled for the box of Sleep-Eze, weaving back and forth across the blacktop as I read every word. I went back and re-read the WARNING: KEEP OUT OF REACH OF three times.
“We have a map,” I reassured the baby. “Everything is going to be just fine.”
I pulled over and opened the car door so I could vomit. There may have been blood in it, though it was too dark to tell. But there usually is.
* * *
We were about an hour south of Barstow, and at first the fire looked as tiny as a flame you could hold in your palm. There was no visible horizon, no boundary between sky and earth, the landscape a black curtain, and the flame appeared to dance suspended in the dark, playful and twitching, beckoning us.We were about an hour south of Barstow, and at first the fire looked as tiny as a flame you could hold in your palm. There was no visible horizon, no boundary between sky and earth, the landscape a black curtain, and the flame appeared to dance suspended in the dark, playful and twitching, beckoning us. Who could resist such a thing?
I sped up, pushing the speedometer up to and over 110 then faster gripping the wheel, and I realized—quite calmly—that once you pass a certain velocity, things begin to drift into slow motion, the shadowy roadside yucca was the same plant, quivering but riveted in place, the dotted yellow line spun out as one continuous ribbon. Only the flame grew, became more defined, the sole indication of our progress.
The flame suddenly took on shape, and a tailgate emerged from the shadows. The pickup’s doors were wide open, fire blazing in the cab, smoke roiling and rising, thick and gray. We pulled up behind the spectacle and I rolled down my window to listen. The air was so acrid and sooty I could taste it. The tires popped one by one and the pickup sank to the ground with a prolonged hiss. Viewed through the windshield, it was festive, like watching a movie.
The baby began to wail again, but I wanted to stay and watch, so I searched for something to amuse her. In the diaper bag, I found a limp balloon. I pulled on my cigarette and stretched out the balloon, then put the rubbery lip to my mouth and exhaled smoke into it. I took another drag and blew into the balloon and kept it up until the thing was ready to burst, and all the while the baby cried and the car heated up and flames were spreading over the truck in front of us, the paint bubbling and peeling before our eyes.
I wondered if the truck ran out of gas before it caught fire.
“Look,” I said to the yowling baby, her eyes clenched tight. I felt powerful, as though I could breathe fire, as though I could immolate our own vehicle with the merest whiff of exhale.
I kept waiting for the fire trucks to come wailing down the dark highway. But none came.
Suddenly, that truck, being consumed by those flames, reduced to something disfigured and useless, made me incredibly sad, sadder than I could ever recall. I wanted it to stop, wanted hulking emergency vehicles to arrive with sirens and flashing lights and mile-long hoses to drench the blaze.
And I also wanted it to go on burning – forever.
“This is a moment,” I said solemnly to the baby.
Her birthmark looked like its own flame flickering bright on her cheek. She looked so beautiful and pure I wanted to weep.
I tried to see myself in her, to see the faint traces of my imprint. But of course she was just an infant and it was too early to tell.
She fussed a little as I reached into the diaper bag, then she looked up at me, curious, trying to focus. I tried to remain calm, tried not to distress her. I took her soft hand and the fingers immediately clenched around my finger and hung on. Her strength surprised me. With the diaper pin in my other hand I quickly pricked the tip of my thumb, then hers. She let out a screech of surprise, and I gently rubbed our thumbs together in tiny circles, smearing blood. “This is a moment, little sister.” The rubbing soothed her. We sat looking at one another in the warm blazing light, both of us sucking the salty drops of blood from our thumbs, tears sprouting from our eyes.
* * *
We’d been back on the road no more than a half-hour when my clone began to cry again. “What is with you?” I demanded. My mouth was parched and I took a cold swig of stale coffee from two convenience stores ago. When I pulled off and finally looked over, she opened wide and resumed howling up and down the scales.
She needed to be changed. Of course. The poor thing had probably been swimming in that diaper since Barstow.
I’d never seen a scorpion before. It skittered and stopped, skittered and stopped trying to escape the light. Tail poised, it bumped against her, reached out its claws once, twice. The baby lay with her legs and arms gently stirring the air, cooing up at the stars.I pulled a small flashlight from the glove box and looked around for a suitable spot. The air was cool, cold really. And quiet. The kind of quiet that leaves you exposed. The darkness was vast and beyond a few yards there were no discernible shapes. Something could get very close to you before you’d know it. My stomach churned and I chewed on my chapped lips. The ground was sandy, unsteady, a few cacti and other spiky plants here and there. I grabbed the diaper bag and set up: first I spread the vinyl changing blanket, then laid out a clean cloth diaper, counted pins, readied wipes.
The baby hushed as soon as I removed her from the car seat. Her skin was warm, damp, sweet. She felt so alive in my arms, a moist, pulsing thing.
I worked quickly, holding my breath, the small flashlight in my mouth as she lay looking up into the night. I stood and hurled the knotted, filthy diaper far from us into the desert.
When I turned back to her, it took a moment or two before the thing crawling onto her blanket came into focus. Dark, tiny, scuttling. It moved furtively, in ragged dashes. I turned the flashlight beam on it and inhaled sharply. I’d never seen a scorpion before. It skittered and stopped, skittered and stopped trying to escape the light. Tail poised, it bumped against her, reached out its claws once, twice. The baby lay with her legs and arms gently stirring the air, cooing up at the stars.
I stood there.
Even after the thing, the sharp thing, the poisonous thing scurried off the blanket and back into the sand, even after danger had let us alone for the moment, I stood there. I had not made a move to protect her. Had no reflex, no instincts. She’s not my baby.
* * *
By the time we saw the first sign, Joshua Tree 15 mi., I was longing to hear the phone ring. The baby was dry and happy, calmly sucking on her pacifier and examining her fingers as though they belonged to someone else. Her birthmark looked fresh and delicate, like a dark poppy in bloom.
With dread, I checked my voice mail. There were thirty-seven messages. In them, my mother’s voice was measured and cool, and certain of her words pierced through: six months… liability…Dr. Turner… window of time … damages. I could feel the hole in my stomach burning away at the edges. I skipped ahead to the last message. She said: I’m coming after you.
* * *
“The only way to survive in this world,” I said to the baby with the birthmark, “is to make your own choices. Never let anyone take that away from you or you’re asking for trouble.” I said, “Give that up and they will cut you to pieces, just because they can.”
What was it Dr. Turner said? We only get out the knives when some idiot makes a mistake.
“But don’t worry, little sister,” I told her. “I won’t let that happen.”
The Park Service Welcome Center was dark, and we slowly drove beyond it, deep into the park, curving past silhouettes of Joshua trees, hundreds of them standing in the dark like spiky sentinels.
There had been another pair of headlights behind us for the last five miles, but they disappeared by the time I pulled over.
My hands trembled as if palsied when I got out the Sleep-Eze. I had only one back-up jar of mashed bananas, and I didn’t want to drop and break it on the pavement.
I unhooked her car seat and swung it onto the hood where I could see her, just beginning to stir. I went back and felt around the dark floor of the back seat for the empty baby food jar I had tossed there miles ago. I wiped it out with one of the napkins, took the tire gauge from the glove compartment, and lined up these items next to her on the hood.
I talked to her, quiet nonsense, as I began to tear open each sealed compartment of the 48-count medication. She hiccupped a little, and snuffled from the cold desert breeze. There was a flutter nearby and the noise made me fumble a sheet of the pills; I had to pick up a few strays and brush them off. A nighthawk or a plastic bag, I never found out.
I could only drop a few tablets at a time into the small, empty jar; they took up too much space whole. I mumbled what I hoped were soothing sounds to her while I crushed the pills under the round chrome tip of the tire gauge. After I had pulverized twenty or so, I stopped and lit another cigarette, realizing too late it was the last. I had no recollection of smoking those others.
I crushed faster, making the powder nice and fine, a fine blue fairy dust.
I’m coming after you. My mother and her threats. But, mistake or no, she was not going to take this from me.
When I finished, I opened the full jar of mashed bananas and gently tipped in the blue powder. I stirred a little bit at a time until the powder was thoroughly mixed in. She hadn’t eaten in hours, and she seemed eager when I lifted the plastic spoon to her mouth.
Never let them make your choices for you.
Then I began spooning it in too fast, upsetting her. She shoved the spoon away no matter how I tried to dodge her little hands, no matter how I begged her to give me a break. I leaned in close and felt her tiny claws streak down my face.
When she was upset, the birthmark turned purple. It was very purple in that moment, like a bruised fist.
Finally I got the last little bit of food into her and I began walking in circles, kicking up a low-lying haze of dust from the dirt. It was big out there. And dark except for the stars and stars and stars as far as you could crane your aching neck to see.
I remember wishing I’d kept that last cigarette.
When I shuffled back to the car, her eyelids were drooping. She looked so pale in that darkness. I unlatched her from the car seat and gathered her up. She was calm now. I picked a soft sandy spot among the rocks and sat down, cradling her. It was the first time I’d really held her like that, and I wished I could have sung her a lullaby, but I didn’t know any.
“There will never be another like you,” I told her, tracing her beautiful birthmark with my fingertip.
“Look up and listen,” I said to the baby, “the stars are tinkling like glass.” And though out of nowhere a car’s headlights swung around and suddenly blinded us, her eyes were already closed.
* * *
This story originally appeared in ZYZZYVA, No. 96, Winter 2012. Listed as Notable in The Best American Nonrequired Reading (2009).