My water broke as I climbed out of bed on Christmas morning. I'd stayed up late the previous evening, listening to a reading of Dylan Thomas' “A Child's Christmas in Wales” on the radio. Afterward, I lumbered to bed and collapsed onto the mattress like a sinking ship. Less than six hours later, I was suddenly in labor with my first child. Murky rivulets of water trickled down my thighs and made a puddle on the carpeted floor. “Scott, I think it's starting,” I yelled. “What should I do? There's amniotic fluid everywhere.”
Scott entered the room, looking puzzled. “Amniotic fluid?” he asked. “That's where Nolan has been living, right? I think you'd better call the midwife.” I stared at the floor, stunned by the amount of fluid that had already seeped out of my vagina. I tried not to imagine the dismay my son was experiencing as his once-cozy home became increasingly dry and barren.
Slowly, I toddled to the phone and dialed the midwife's number. I figured he most likely wouldn't answer, since it was Christmas. Probably, he would resent the intrusion into his festive family activities. Dr. Palmer wasn't the most nurturing midwife in Seattle, but he exuded an air of professional competency.
My midwife answered on the second ring. “Hello?” he said cautiously. Most likely, he already knew what was coming.
“Hey, it's Leah,” I said. “My water just broke. I figured I'd better let you know.” My voice sounded deceptively casual, like I was accustomed to calling midwives on Christmas to tell them a baby was about to emerge from my womb.
There was a brief, troubling silence. Finally, Dr. Palmer asked, “Have you taken your temperature? You should do so now, if you haven't already.”
I shook my head, then remembered he couldn't see me. “No,” I said dejectedly. “I don't own a thermometer. The nearest store is six miles away, and I'm sure it's closed.”
“You NEED a thermometer,” Dr. Palmer said firmly. “You have neighbors, right? Go borrow a thermometer, and call me right back.” He hung up.
I carefully pondered my options. I lived at the southernmost tip of Vashon Island, surrounded by summer homes that sat empty during the winter months. In June, the houses swelled with rosy-cheeked children, sailboats, and large, well-fed dogs. After Labor Day weekend, the beach became eerily quiet.
I shambled uncertainly along the rocky beach, gazing anxiously at the buildings' facades. All of them appeared blank and unwelcoming. I detected a bit of movement inside one of the houses, and rapped on the door, but no one answered. Probably, the inhabitants had caught a glimpse of my pregnant silhouette and decided I was too much trouble. I wondered why I hadn't bothered to purchase a thermometer, and tried to remember whether Dr. Palmer had even suggested it. I was never prepared for major life transitions, and there was no reason why childbirth should be any different.
Finally, I spotted a crumbling shack, nestled in a grove of trees. Dark smoke curled from the chimney, and a couple of cats slumbered on the moss-covered porch, enjoying the winter sunlight. They stirred fitfully and glared with irritation as I ascended the steps. The porch overflowed with empty bottles of various sizes and colors, dusty shells, a ventriloquist's dummy, and two broken rocking chairs. I stumbled through the clutter, and rapped on the door.
I heard a confused rustling noise, like the inhabitant was trying to make her way through mosquito netting, and finally the door flew open. A frightened-looking young woman peered at me from the threshold. She was dressed entirely in black, but her face was stark-white. I'd seen her a few times, walking on the shared driveway that led from the beach houses to the main highway—a tricky hike that never took less than twenty minutes. My ancient Dodge van had rear wheel drive, and the road was too steep for my vehicle to navigate uphill. I parked the van in a grove of trees beside the highway. Walking kept me in shape through my last trimester of pregnancy.
“I wondered whether I could borrow a thermometer,” I said politely. “I'm in labor right now, and the midwife wants me to take my temperature.”
“Oh, my God,” the woman replied, clearly flustered. She opened the door and motioned for me to step inside. “I have one, but I'm not certain where it is. Wait here in the living room, and I'll look around.”
She vanished abruptly into the bathroom, and I heard the creaking of the medicine cabinet door, followed by the sound of objects hitting the sink. The pale winter sun shone through the window glass and bathed the contents of the house in greenish-brown light. The living room was filled with books, several additional ventriloquist's dummies, rows of herbs in window jars, and antique doll heads. All of the objects appeared comfortable in their spots, like they had always been there.
“Found it!” the woman hollered. She emerged triumphantly from the bathroom, thermometer in hand.
“Thanks,” I said. “I'll be sure to bring it back when I'm done.”
My benefactor looked mildly horrified. “Oh, heavens no,” she said. “You don't need to return it. Are you okay to go home by yourself?”
It was sweet of her to offer assistance, but there wasn't much she could do. She didn't own a car, and had to rely on the island's sparse bus schedule for her own transportation. “I'll be all right,” I assured her. “Have a good holiday.” I stepped outside. closed the door firmly, and picked my way across the slippery rocks to my own abode.
Once inside, I took my temperature several times. It remained at a perfect 98.6, unaffected by my body's state of major upheaval. The contractions began in earnest, rocking my body at increasingly frequent intervals. I gripped the kitchen counter and swayed with the force of the undulations. My son wanted out of my womb; he was ready to leave his soft aquatic home and take his chances with the outer world and its sharp edges. I wasn't sure if I was the right person to be his mother, but I'd been chosen for the task anyway. Perhaps my job would get easier as I went along, though I doubted it.
After several hours, I called Dr. Palmer again. “The contractions are closer together now,” I said calmly.
“Well, I think you'd better come in,” he replied. “Call me when you get to the mainland, and I'll head over to the birth center.”
I would need to drive the van to the ferry. Scott was left-handed, and had never learned to operate a stick shift. An old boyfriend had given us the van as a pregnancy gift several months earlier. I handled the ungainly vehicle as if it were a sports car, effortlessly shifting gears while maneuvering through island traffic. Scott always rode in the passenger seat, earnestly promising he would learn to drive the van before Nolan arrived. However, he'd failed to do so, and now it was too late.
“Are you sure you can drive now?” Scott asked as we slowly made our way up the driveway towards the van.
“No problem,” I assured him. “If Nolan peeks his head out of my vagina, I'll pull over to the side of the road.”
Scott stole a quick look at me. “You know, I have a feeling he won't be here until tomorrow,” I laughed. “Meanwhile, I'll just breathe my way through the contractions, like I did in Lamaze class.” My sense of calm was enhanced by the knowledge that I only had to drive as far as the ferrydock. We would park the car in the public lot, walk onto the boat, and sail into West Seattle. Once there, we'd climb into our second car-a decrepit station wagon with an automatic transmission. The walk-on fare was much cheaper than a car and driver ticket, and the savings paid for the cost of a second automobile in less than a year.
Suddenly, a contraction swelled within me, and I leaned against a pine tree until it subsided. Scott watched anxiously. “It's okay,” I assured him. I resumed walking, and he fell into step beside me, gripping my elbow. The two of us ascended the driveway, and finally spotted our van, parked neatly in the grove of trees. A couple of nearby houses had recently illuminated their holiday lights, and they twinkled warmly on the wet road.
Scott and I unlocked the door and clambered into the van. I inserted the key into the lock and fired up the engine, then shifted the vehicle into reverse. Scott smiled and shook his head with disbelief. “You're quite a woman,” he said admiringly. I smiled back at him, undaunted. I hadn't been joking when I said it would be a while before Nolan emerged from my body. I could feel both my own hesitancy and my son's resolve, and felt certain that he would eventually make it to his destination. I wasn't worried about Nolan's sense of timing. He was a cautious little Capricorn. I had carried him this far, and I'd be able to carry him until we made it safely to the birth center.
As I shifted the van into second gear, I leaned back in the cushioned seat and switched on the radio. The three of us continued our long trek toward the ferry dock, secure in the knowledge that a warm, safe place awaited us on the other side of the water.
Leah Mueller is an indie writer from Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of two chapbooks, “Queen of Dorksville” and “Political Apnea” and three books, “Allergic to Everything”, "Beach Dweller Manifesto" and “The Underside of the Snake” (Red Ferret Press). Her work has been published in Blunderbuss, Memoryhouse, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review, Origins Journal, Your Impossible Voice, Remixt, and many anthologies. She was a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival, and a runner-up in the 2012 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry contest.