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It Begins With Neon Lights

by Liz Scheid

Flood lights between my thighs. My eyes, now slits, strained, glossy from the drugs. I see spots with each contraction. Daylight melts into midnight and the moon hangs like a fingernail.


It begins unexpectedly.

I arrive at my sister’s house Tuesday morning. I’m here to watch the kids while she goes to school. She opens the door, half confused, her face half lit in sunlight. She tells me that she didn’t need me to come over today. She says she thought she called me. I stay anyway. I try to help her dress my nephew, but he screams for her. I feed her newborn a bottle. I tell her I’ll stay with the baby while she takes my nephew to preschool. I watch Regis. I fall asleep with the baby on my belly. She returns. She shows me some items on Target’s website. She writes me a check for money she owes me. She shows me what she’s gotten the kids for Christmas. She tells me about her dream the night before; she barely remembers it but knows that our dead grandfather was in it. His words are distant, cloudy.


It begins tragically.

Recently I read the headline: INFANT DEAD AFTER MOTHER PUTS IN MICROWAVE. I can’t read the story. I don’t want to know. I mumble something about why she had the child in the first place. I try to stop there but my imagination runs wild: I see her pacing in the kitchen, the baby screaming, shrieking; she’s frantic, shakes his small body, yanks his arms; she can’t think straight; she doesn’t think he’s real; no he’s made of plastic; she tosses him on the couch but his screams are louder, piercing; she smokes a cigarette; she just wants a quiet house but this thing won’t stop; its mouth is open, bursting, red and wide; she doesn’t want it; she doesn’t want to see its eyes; she opens the microwave door—


It begins with a surprise.

I already have a four-year-old daughter, who caught me off guard, who altered my world, rocked it. My home functions fine with the three of us. No one knows about my panic attacks: those sudden spasms that slice through my spine. Knuckles grinding in my stomach. So when my husband wants another, I question this. I’ve adjusted to chaos already.


It begins with a sudden blow.

Blows to the body take time to absorb. It doesn’t hit me all at once; it drops like doses.

She’s late to return from picking up my nephew. She knows I have class. I think about taking a shower but only get half my foot in because I fear something might be wrong. I pace. Phone my boyfriend. Consider getting into the car to see if she was in a fender bender. I don’t have a car seat. I wait. Pace. Watch the clock. I’m angry and worried at once. I think that once she gets home, I’ll let her have it. Someone rings the doorbell. I glance out the window and see an unmarked police car. I open the door; there’s a man in a blue uniform and a woman standing behind him. He asks if this is my sister’s house. I nod. I’m shaking. I’m not certain what to expect but something doesn’t seem right. The woman is intense, frowning. He glances toward a picture frame on the table; is this your sister, he asks. Yes. He shakes his head. The woman doesn’t say anything. He tells me to sit. I’m afraid. He says that there was an accident. That it was a fatality. That someone ran a stop sign and hit your sister’s truck, causing it to propel into the air. That it landed upside down. That it hit power lines. I shake my head. I ask where she is. He says he’s sorry. He says that it was a fatality. He says she died on impact.  She just left this house, I say. She was just here. I’m sorry, he says.


It begins with hesitation and want.

My body gives in and craves another. After all, I can’t function without chaos. My body needs it to survive. This is reciprocal.

Anthropologist Meredith Smalls points out, “We also have all the pieces for the answer to why our infants our born so helpless. They are born with unfinished brains because the pelvis simply cannot be any wider or any bigger. If it were, women couldn’t walk.”

And so we’ve sacrificed finished brains for half finished brains in order to walk on two legs.

Which means the nervous system is half developed.


It begins slippery.

That moment the newborn is placed in my hands, bloody and furious. That moment I see my husband holding him for the first time. His small wet head curled in his open palm, how small this world is, how fragile he is, how powerless we all really are—


It begins with numbness.

Faces and buildings collide in the car ride to my nephew’s preschool. The chaplain talks but his voice only rings and echoes like distant bells. I think about strange things; that Thank God, I won’t have to take my political science final. All the people I have to call. I remember she told me she took her clothes to the cleaner’s. I remind myself to pick them up for her. I think about her fiancé. How he doesn’t know yet because she had his cell phone. At my nephew’s preschool, teachers gather at my arrival, embrace me, tell me how sorry they are. I don’t want to listen to them. It isn’t until I see my nephew, gallantly running toward me, asking if I have candy for him that I really cry. I remember right then that my sister came back once before leaving to grab a treat for him. She said she couldn’t forget his surprise. I want to tell him but can’t. The chaplain takes over; diverts his attention toward the airplane in the sky, asks him if he knows how to make paper airplanes, tells him that you’re all going to his grandma’s work. My nephew doesn’t question my strange behavior, the man in blue driving my car; he’s excited that he’s going to see his grandma.


It begins with urgency.

I hear the chair collapsing first: a splintering sound from behind. My husband’s body unravels, infant in his hand, wavering, the bottle in the other. But I can’t stop it. I watch my baby fall to the floor and hear a low thud as his small head hits hardwood, my husband’s body next to him on the floor as the chair splits beneath him. He shrieks; this cry is different from the ones I’m familiar with. This has urgency in it. Instead of going to him, I run into the other room.  I hide from what I don’t want to see.


It begins with disconnection.

Not long ago my father calls to tell me that the twelve-year-old boy who lives in the house that I grew up in has died. That he was struck by a car while crossing the street on his bicycle. I only met him once. One summer while visiting my dad, he burst through the front door. He greeted me, introduced himself, told me he was looking for my stepsister. I told him she wasn’t there. He asked if all the kids in the room were mine. I told him that one was; the other two were my nephews. He said that he thought I looked a little young to have so many kids. I thanked him. I thought he was smart, strange and frantic.


It begins with helplessness.

That moment I arrive at my mother’s work. I don’t know how someone could ever tell a mother that they’ve just lost their child. I think I should be the one to tell her but suddenly I can’t speak. Everything moves quickly. My nephew runs ahead of me and into my mother’s office. She’s excited to see him; she picks him up and hugs him. She gives him peppermints. He asks me to open them. She looks at me. She looks at the man in blue behind me. She looks at me again. Then the man in blue again. I know she knows but doesn’t want to know. She asks me where my sister is. I can’t answer. The chaplain approaches her. I grab my nephew by the hand and try to get him out of the room. But I’m only half way out the door when I hear her scream loudly. My nephew grimaces, looks at me confused. She runs past us both and collapses in the concrete, sobbing. I wish I could help her. I wish I could shield him.


It begins with failure.

The car ride to the hospital is a blur. What I remember most about that night: shuffling the baby out of my hands and into the doctor’s. She shines a bright light in his eyes. She waves her hand in front of him. She undresses him and investigates his small body. She asks me a surge of questions: what happened? Did he land headfirst? Did he cry? Did he vomit? Is this the first time something like this has happened? I feel incompetent, that I’m not fit to protect anyone from the tragedies of this world, that I’m bound to fail.

Screams are good, the doctor says. It’s the silence that’s concerning.


It begins with uncertainty.

That moment we all dreaded, postponed; to tell my nephew the truth, that his mother isn’t coming home today or any other day. I can’t remember who says the words; she’s dead. But I remember he hops in my lap and looks at me for some sort of security, and how at this very moment I believe there is no such thing or that there ever had been. How the two of us are connected by uncertainty.


It begins here.

And so when the doctor tells me that my baby’s fine; that I’ve escaped unscathed, I won’t allow myself to believe this. They don’t want to run a CAT scan because there weren’t any visible signs of damage; no bruises, no bumps. The baby’s responsive, agitated. All of which is good, she says. But I think there’s something hidden; a bruise on the brain that no one can see; that’s it’s bleeding; no one will know it until something snaps; triggers something else; something no one saw coming. I ask how likely it is that he suffered brain damage. She says the chances are slim. But I only think about those slim margins of error. I think of the woman who threw her infant in the microwave or the parents of the twelve-year-old boy that I met once. Or what my father’s face must have looked like when my uncle drove out to his house, 2,000 miles away, to tell him the news. I know the sound of a mother’s scream. Or the sullen silence of my sister’s fiancé as he opened the door to his house to find a house full of relatives and fruit salads. My brother on the other end of the phone. How seconds ago, they thought they were unscathed, how no one escapes; my other sister pulling over on the side of I-5 as my mother tells her the news, how she can’t believe it; the sound of the cars blowing past her. How seconds made the difference. How I could have just barely said her name before she left and how that second could have stalled her, saved her. Or how I could have called her right before that moment, causing her to slow down, look for her phone and say hello. And the Camero wouldn’t slam into her car; instead it’d fly past. A shimmer of glass in the wind. She’d say, Holy shit, that was close.


Liz Scheid received her MFA (poetry) at California State University, Fresno. Her essays and poems have appeared in Mississippi Review, Post Road, Third Coast, DIAGRAM, MiPoesias, and other literary magazines.
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