trbraxton

exciting author of suspense and the supernatural

 tHe 24TH wEEK

The Announcement

Fear, anxiety, and hope churned Maliah Baxter in a vice grip as she struggled against the truth. Although she had taken five home pregnancy tests in the past three days and all the blue lines were positive, she refused to accept her condition. Experience taught her that such acceptance inspired feelings of joy that could later morph into soul crushing pain.

Maliah and her husband, Tarik, shared such terrible pain this past July, when what Maliah thought was normal pregnancy spotting turned out to be the start of a miscarriage.

“You guys should probably wait two or three cycles before trying again,” Dr. Menkowitz, their ob/gyn, told them, facing them from behind a desk bookended with photos of his happy family. Those photos didn’t bother Maliah as much as the adjacent bulletin board that stood shrouded by photos of babies he had delivered.

“I can’t imagine the pain you guys must be feeling, but rest assured, I have had many patients suffer multiple miscarriages and go on to have several healthy children.”

Although she thought Dr. Menkowitz was a good doctor, Maliah couldn’t help thinking the man was blowing smoke up she and Tarik’s nether regions. The genial practicioner sought to make them feel better, but Maliah couldn’t imagine anything crueler than trying to force hope upon a stricken woman.

Tarik, on the other hand, embraced Menkowitz’s positivity like a long lost brother. He convinced Maliah to start trying again in September. Now it was October, and the first phase of their torturous mission was accomplished.

He’ll probably think it’s destiny when I tell him, Malaih thought. When Tarik arrived home from work, she kissed him and urged him to sit on the chaise lounge of their segmented couch. “I have something to show you,” she said.

Maliah adjourned to gather all of the home pregnancy tests from her underwear drawer and laid them on the coffee table. “You remember what the blue line means, right?” she said, expecting him to hug and kiss her, perhaps jump for joy.

Instead, Tarik put his hands to his temples. His eyes grew glassy, as if he had just suffered the worse of a prize fight. His body deflated, like a slashed tire.

“Tarik,” Maliah squealed. “You do remember what positive means, right? Aren’t you happy?”

“Yes, I’m happy,” he managed, his voice listless, a wan smile dragging itself onto his face. “I just- I guess I wasn’t ready for it to happen it again this quickly.” He stood and hugged her, a hug so weak that it might have come from a dying man. “I’m real glad,” he said, placing a dry kiss on her lips. “I guess I’m just in shock, that’s all.”

“Well, you better get over your shock real quick,” she chortled, seizing him in a bear hug and pounding her lips against his. “Get over your shock and get happy, ‘cause I think this is the one.”

Week 6

Maliah’s heart jack hammered in her chest as she exited Sinai Hospital and drove down Northern ParkwayI really am pregnant, she thought. Oh, God. I’m really pregnant.

 Before she went to get her sonogram, Maliah thought that she had digested that fact, that it all felt real to her. After seeing the image of what resembled a tiny bean inside her, she realized she hadn’t quite accepted her circumstances.

I’m no better off than Tarik, she thought. Walking around, talking about he wasn’t ready for this to happen, silly enough to feel surprised even though we’d been going at it like rabbits and using an ovulation kit. You might be silly, dear husband, but I’m no less silly than you.

Maliah chalked up their shared feelings of unreality to trauma. They’d suffered far more than their fare share of trauma.

Week 8

Tarik came home from work to find his wife weeping. He lost no time in sweeping her into his arms. “What’s wrong, honey?” Panic threatened to seize his voice as he searched her eyes. “Please tell me it’s not that.”

“I- I don’t know,” she said, eyes still wet. “I’ve had some spotting.”

“Was it dark red?” he asked, his regretful knowledge of miscarriages spurring the question. “If it’s not dark red, it’s just a normal part of pregnancy.”

“No, it wasn’t dark red,” she said. “But, I’m still so scared. Last time-.”

“This isn’t last time,” Tarik said, his voice now steady, “or the time before that. If it’s not a deep red, then it’s just normal stuff, Liah. You should call Dr. Menkowitz if you’re not convinced.”

Maliah shook her head. “I don’t want to bother him with my silly anxiety. He could be delivering another patient’s child right now.”

“It’s not silly anxiety,” Tarik said, “and if he is delivering another patient’s child or busy for any other reason, he’ll call you back as soon as he can. The man said to call anytime we have questions or concerns.”

Maliah stepped back from him and wiped her eyes. “He did say that, didn’t he?”

Dr. Menkowitz returned the message Maliah left within the hour, both confirming Tarik’s assertion about spotting and assuring his patient that it was not silly of her to worry.

As she and her husband ate dinner, Maliah confessed, “I’m so silly, honey. When I saw that I was spotting today, I left work early. I just couldn’t bear being around those shallow chicks feeling like I did.” At 34 years old, she spent most of her time at her part time job feeling annoyed by her twenty something co-workers. “That was very irresponsible of me.”

Tarik sat his fork down and seized Maliah’s eyes with his. “Your number one responsibility right now is to take care of yourself physically and emotionally, to give yourself the best chance of having a healthy baby. I told you that you don’t have to keep that job, you hate it so much. We can manage on my salary.”

“I know, but I want to help out, while I still can,” she said.

“You want to help out, take good care of yourself, so you can have the best chance of carrying this baby to term. Undue stress can be a factor of miscarriages.”

“I know,” Maliah said. She thought of how much she hated being a lowly research assistant, the only job she could get in this depressed economy. It paid an hourly wage that she felt embarrassed about, considering her Master’s degree in clinical counseling. “I just want to contribute, Tarik.”

“For the umpteenth time, I make enough, Liah. And giving me a baby would be a far greater contribution than paying a few bills.”

Week 10

Maliah was cruising on 95 North, headed to White Marsh Mall, when a great gush of liquid flooded her lap. She activated the hazard lights and pulled the Honda Accord to the shoulder of the highway, thinking, Oh, no, it can’t be, while knowing that it was.

She continued to deny the truth as the fluid continued to gush, arguing that most miscarriages occur within the first 13 weeks of pregnancy and that she was safe because she was in her 16th week. She looked down at her lap and knew that she was one of the tragic exceptions.

Maliah thought about having just told both sets of potential grandparents a week ago, on a Mother’s Day cruise on The Spirit of Baltimore, and how the news had delighted them all as the ship meandered along the Inner Harbor. She speed dialed Tarik on her cell phone, gasping and snuffling the horrible news.

Her husband joined her at Franklin Square Hospital, watching helplessly as she delivered the dead fetus in a horrible mockery of childbirth. The medical staff left their expired son bedside, giving them some time with his lifeless form before returning to take him away.

Maliah sobbed herself awake. Tarik stirred to the sounds of her misery, switching on the bedside lamp. “Dreaming bad memories, again, Liah?”

“Yes,” she managed, folding herself into his arms. “Remember what you said before they took Tahj away?”

He sighed. “Yes. I said, ‘He had a face. He had a face already.’”

“He did have a face. He had a face, but he died. Then, I lost another baby this summer. Oh, God, Tarik. I don’t know what I’ll do if we lose this one.”

“You’re not going to lose this one, darling.”

“I better not. I better not because I think I might really lose my mind if I do.”

Week 12

“So, what did you think of the movie?” Tarik said, braving the blustery late November air as he and Maliah walked back to the Accord after leaving Beltway Movies 6. He referred to Paranormal Activity 3.

“I’m glad we only paid four bucks a pop to see it,” she said, hooking her arm in his.

“That’s all we ever pay, nowadays,” Tarik chuckled. “I can’t remember the last time we saw a movie at a first run theatre.”

“I can’t remember the last time a movie has come out that’s worth seeing at a first run theatre.” Maliah released her husband’s arm and walked around to the passenger side of the car.

As he drove south on Belair Road toward their Belair-Edison home, a brooding mood overtook Tarik. He sighed terse responses to his wife’s continued attempts at conversation.

“What’s the matter with you?” she asked.

“Huh?” he said, as if surprised from a dream.

“I said, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ You only act this way when something’s bothering you.”

Tarik turned to make eye contact after stopping at a red light. “It’s just that- it’s just that- I’d like to tell somebody, you know? I feel like something good is happening to us and we’re keeping it a big secret, like it’s something to be ashamed of, you know?”

“The light,” she said, causing him to return his eyes to the road and ease the car back into motion. “You know why I don’t want us to tell anyone. The last time we made a big production of it, we lost our son. And I just had another miscarriage before this pregnancy.”

“You don’t have to recount that stuff for me. I’ve been here for all of it.”

“You think I don’t know you’ve been here?” The volume of her voice soared. “You think I don’t know you’re hurting, too? That’s why I don’t want to tell anyone, until we’re sure the baby can survive. That’s why we never told anyone about the second miscarriage. Don’t you remember how all the pity got to be too much for us after we lost Tahj? How even though it’s been more than four years, some people still seem to pity us to this day? I don’t need any more of that in my life, Tarik.”

“I know,” Tarik agreed. “Everything you say is right. But Maliah, Dr. Menkowitz said a baby’s chance of surviving outside of the womb isn’t solidified until the 24th week of pregnancy. That’s such a long way off, Liah. I wish I could tell at least one person. If I could tell one person- that would make this pregnancy a lot more real to me.”

They fell silent for the rest of the ride home. Maliah clutched her husband’s wrist after he parked and killed the ignition. “I really respect what you expressed to me earlier, honey. I really do. So, let’s make an agreement.”

Tarik’s lips parted into a cautious smile as he looked at his wife. “I’m almost through the second trimester,” she continued, “if I make it through that alright, we can each tell one friend, someone who won’t tell the whole world. We still don’t tell any family until the 24th week.” She removed the hand that had grasped his wrist and held it out for a shake. “Agreed?”

He obliged her with a firm grip, followed by an exultant hug. “Agreed.”

Week 14

“I told some people at work today,” Tarik said, causing Maliah to sit up from her perch against him on the couch.

“You told some people at work what?” she asked, brow furrowed.

“You know. I told them that you’re pregnant.”

Maliah scowled. “Why would you do that, Tarik? You were only supposed to tell Kevin.”

“I did only tell Kevin. Voluntarily anyway. But today, I was eating lunch with the usual gang when all of a sudden, Mrs. Loring blurts out, ‘So Baxter, what’s up with you and your wife having a baby? Have you gotten that done yet?’ You know, I used to tell my co-workers we were trying to have a kid last year.”

“And you know I didn’t approve of that.”

Tarik shrugged. “Anyway, I told the truth. Was I supposed to sit there and lie about it?”

Maliah sighed. “No, you weren’t supposed to lie. It’s just that, you know if something happens again, you’ll have to deal with the whole school feeling sorry for you.”

Tarik chuckled. “I know. By the time I left the school, at least five other people who weren’t there at lunch congratulated me.”

Week 16

Maliah felt so desperate, so stricken with fear about losing her baby that she broke her new policy and prayed. It wasn’t something she felt proud of, but she just had to do it. Her life had once revolved around a strong Christian faith, but years of unanswered prayers crushed her core belief. She’d given up prayer after her second miscarriage, seeing the tragic act as the cherry atop a kiss- my- heavenly- butt sundae from the big man upstairs. She and Tarik only drew what comfort they could from each other now, often reversing roles between weak and strong, optimist and fatalist. They had forsaken church, which was a simple task for Tarik because he’d always felt distaste for organized religion and only attended at her behest. Maliah held fast to her fading faith as long as she could, but she could not shake her belief that God and his ostensible house had forsaken her. She did not find his grace to be sufficient.

Still, she kneeled by her bedside on this morning a few days after Christmas. Today was the beginning of her 16th week of pregnancy, the doomed week during which she’d suffered her first miscarriage. “Please don’t take this one like you took Tahj,” she whispered. “If you have any mercy at all, don’t take this baby from me!”

Tarik said nothing of the day’s significance when he returned to the bedroom from showering, having chosen to ignore the bull elephant in the room. Maliah let him continue in that vein for a few hours before deciding that she’d had enough. “Tarik,” she said, as he parked the Honda outside a Walgreens, prepared to stock up on their favorite Arizona Iced Teas. “Do you really intend to act like you don’t know what the significance of today is? What the significance of this week is?”

Tarik kept his gaze on the windshield, although the car was no longer in gear. “I feel stupid now that you’ve said it, but I guess wasn’t going to mention it all week and hope for the best.”

“Look at me,” she said, causing him to oblige, “that’s not going to work for me, honey.”

Tarik placed the flat of his palms against his forehead. “Well, what will work for you? What will work for us?”

“I don’t know, but I think sweeping our feelings under the rug is going to make this week very hard for me. We should talk about it, at least a little bit.”

“You really think so?”

Maliah nodded.

Tarik’s hands fell to his lap as he took a deep breath. “Alright then, Liah. I’ll go first.” He drew another deep breath before attacking her with eye contact. “I think of this week as doom week. It’s going to be a struggle for me not to think about Tahj, the whole nightmarish thing. How you had to push him out when he was already dead- his rubbery, lifeless, tiny little body with a face on it- the hospital ceremony for dead babies, his tiny urn that we still keep, the memorial garden at the hospital. I’ve been thinking about all of it since this morning, thinking that I can’t bear a repeat.” He took her hands in his. “I’ve been thinking that as hard as it is for me, it must be much harder for you. I feel terrified about this week and I can’t wait for it to pass.”

Tears rushed from Maliah’s eyes. “I – I know everything you feel, Tarik,” she spoke in a tremulous voice, consoling her husband while willing herself to believe, “but we have to try not to let what we’ve been through in the past keep us miserable through this entire pregnancy.” She placed his left hand on her belly. “This baby feels strong in me, and everything has been okay during my appointments. I’m terrified of having my hopes crushed, but I feel like this baby could be the one to stay with us.”

Week 18

Maliah awoke to Tarik shaking her, a manic glow in his eyes. “Wake up, girl,” he chirped. “Wake up! Don’t you know what today is?”

“What’s today?” she asked, sitting up and rubbing sleep from her eyes. “And what the hell’s wrong with you?” She looked at the bedside alarm clock. “I don’t need to get up for another 30 minutes.”

“Sorry,” he chuckled, smacking her cheek with a kiss. “I just couldn’t contain myself. It’s your 18th week now.”

“And?” she said, thinking that it wasn’t time to feel any real excitement until she reached the 24th week, if she reached the 24th week.

“So, that’s a week closer to viability. That’s two weeks later than you’ve carried a baby before. And your pregnancy’s been so strong this time. Every checkpoint is just as it should be. I’m starting to believe, Liah. I think this baby means to stay.”

He swept her off the bed, almost causing her to fall. “What are you doing, you idiot?” she screeched as she steadied herself.

Tarik unleashed a long cackle. “I am an idiot! I’m an idiot who’s lucky enough to have a lovely wife and who will soon have a beautiful child. Now dance with me, lovely wife.”

Maliah couldn’t help giggling as her husband twirled her around the bedroom. His unbridled enthusiasm even made her think that he just might be right. Oh, God, I hope he’s right, she thought before cursing herself for thinking of God.

Week 20

Maliah lost a valiant struggle to stay grounded as she left Sinai Hospital. The results of her latest sonogram had been excellent, as had the numerous previous ones she’d been given because of the high risk nature of her pregnancy. That’s what women who have multiple miscarriages like me are considered to be, she thought. High risk.  She didn’t feel high risk as she headed south on Northern Parkway. She felt truly confident about carrying this baby to term. The doomsayer voice that had taken permanent residence within her had downgraded from a relentless clamor to an infrequent whisper.

Tarik waited on the couch for her when she walked in the door. She hung her coat, plopped next to him and planted a huge kiss on his lips. “I take it the sonogram went well,” he chuckled.

“The sonogram went very well. My cervix is a great size; the baby is in perfect health. Everything is beautiful.” She pulled him into a tight squeeze that he returned with equal enthusiasm, his lean midsection pressed against her blooming one.

Maliah giggled as she pulled back, looking into her husband’s eyes. “I just felt our baby move,” she said, grabbing his right hand and pressing it against her belly. “Do you feel it?”

“No,” he said, letting his hand linger. He pounded his opposite hand against his thigh. “I haven’t felt it one time yet.”

“It’s only been a few days since it started happening,” she said, kissing him on his cheek. “You’ll feel our baby, sooner or later. You know something?”

“What?”

“I’m starting to believe, Tarik. For the first time, I’m not just convincing myself to believe. I’m actually starting to believe.”

Tarik took a deep breath. “I’m starting to believe it, too. I think we’re finally going to have some happiness this time.”

Week 22

Maliah awoke in a cold sweat, staring around her dark bedroom in disorientation.

The fireworks in her heart detonated with decreasing frequency as she realized she was at home, not in an emergency room. She lifted her nightgown and examined her expanding belly to be sure that everything was intact. It was just a dream, she told herself, paying no attention to her snoring husband.  She lifted the shade and looked out of the window that faced her side of the bed, drinking in the stillness of her street lit winter block.

“You’re fine, little baby,” she murmured, rubbing her abdomen. “You’re fine. Why don’t you give mommy a kick, so I can be sure?”

The baby remained still. Maliah chuckled. “I guess you’re not interested in comforting mommy right now.”

Week 24

Tarik rose to an alley cat’s serenade, rubbing sleep from his eyes.  “It’s here, Liah,” he said, as he shook his wife awake. “It’s here.”

Maliah roared as only an angry pregnant woman can. “Didn’t I tell you about waking me up so damn early?” She sat up in bed, knowing that doing so would get much more difficult in the coming weeks, looking forward to having that problem. “I hate it when you do that!”

“I know,” Tarik said, turning on the bedside lamp. “I know you hate that. But, you can’t hate anything today. You can’t hate anything today because we’ve made it, Liah. You, me, and the baby…” He maneuvered her expanding form so that her back leaned against his side, reaching around and rubbing her belly. “…. have made it to a little place that I like to call the safe zone.”

Maliah laughed, for once not complaining when he lifted her nightgown to trace the path of her linea negra with reverent fingers. She hated the black line that now extended from just above her navel to the northern tip of her crotch, but Tarik celebrated it as a beautiful sign of her advancing pregnancy. It’s a sign, alright, she thought. But, it damn sure ain’t beautiful.

“Actually ‘safe zone’ is an oversimplification,” she said. “I’d call it the ‘safer zone.’ Babies can still be lost after 24 weeks. It’s just far less likely.”

Tarik stood and stared at his wife, a somber expression on his face. “Why is it that during this whole pregnancy, we seem to alternate taking turns into Negative Town?” he asked.

Maliah laughed. “You know why. It’s because of the terrible things we’ve been through.”

Tarik nodded. “Yeah, we’ve been through terrible things trying to have a baby. People are having babies all over Baltimore with no thoughts of how to care for them and responsible people like us gotta struggle so much?” He smiled, taking her hands in his and gently pulling her upright.

“That’s alright,” he said. “We’re not going to worry about any of that dark stuff today. We’re going to dinner tonight to celebrate.” He continued to hold her hands, his eyes shining with something that resembled her memories of happiness. “We’re going to celebrate and we’re going to start spreading the good news to everybody! People need time to plan a shower for you, don’t you know?”

 Tarik’s grin spread to his wife like an infection as he helped her to her feet. “Now, come on and dance with me, girl. You gotta dance with me at a time like this.”

Maliah squealed with pleasure as her husband spun her around the bedroom in a joyful dance. His optimism illuminated her spirit, banishing her darkest thoughts to the deepest recesses of her mind, at least for a while.