Blood in the Straw

Blood in the Straw

Blood in the Straw 3196 1589 Kelsie Bennett

They loved each other, but they didn’t watch the other pee. Of all the boundaries Henley had broken in their marriage, that one held fast. Janet pushed aside the shower curtain and stepped in after she flushed. Henley wiped shampoo out of her eyes and asked, “What did it say?”

“I’m pregnant,” Janet said. She reached for Henley’s hands and brought them to her breasts, which had not changed yet. The water was hot and curved with the shape of her body. “Do you want to be a Mommy or Daddy?”

“Which are you?”

“A Mommy,” Janet said, her eyes bright. “You could be one too.”

Henley didn’t know what their unborn child might think of a Mommy with a buzzcut and a drawer full of flannels. Their baby would think whatever they decided to teach it, Henley supposed. Henley still heard her own parents’ ideas as echoes. “I’ll decide later.”

“We’ve got time,” Janet said.

According to the books Henley had poured over when they first started trying to conceive, though, some things should not wait. “I’ll go toward Billings to find you some prenatals today,” Henley said.

Henley kissed the small of Janet’s back when Janet bent over to feed their border collie, Bandit. Bandit followed Henley out of the house and kept the respectful distance of colleagues between them. Henley wished Bandit would lick her thumb, ask for Henley’s attention the way a child might, to see if it might make something bloom in her. With a series of whistled commands, Bandit herded the sheep out of one field and into an adjacent one with fresh grass. Henley singled out their pregnant ewe and gently rolled her onto her side to check her belly. Her teats were firm. Not too long left.

A coil of dread unfurled in Henley’s gut as she looked back at the house. Her hands were more paws than fingers as she opened the door to her truck. Nine months was not enough time to learn to be a parent. Three years, and she still hadn’t worked out how to be a decent wife.

There was a higher chance of twins with IVF. Henley hoped for it, even if her and Janet’s bank account would fold under the pressure. Twins: if she were lucky, maybe one out of the two would like her. Would that be enough for Henley? Had it ever been enough?

At their town’s one stoplight, Henley messaged a man she’d met on a dating app and told him she was headed toward Billings.

 

The supermarket was forty-five minutes up the road. Henley scoured the vitamin aisle and secured three bottles. From the parking lot, she called Janet, told her the truck broke down. Janet blew a raspberry at her over the phone and promised to leave the porch light on.

The man from Henley’s dating app met her halfway so she didn’t have to drive into the city entirely. At the diner, a mom-and-pop joint, she learned that Christopher and his wife had left Chicago to make Chicagoan salaries remotely in Montana. They opened their marriage not to stave off divorce, but to make sure they both tried everything they wanted before they buckled down and had kids.

Henley drained her beer. Big cities like Chicago gave people the idea that they could have it all. In Montana, in reality, there was a reason they met off the highway and away from prying eyes. People from cites hadn’t learned that the attention of a few hundred townspeople weighed far heavier than millions of passive glances, and that those townspeople knew best.

When Christopher asked Henley why she and Janet opened up: “Same reason, actually. It’s fairly common in the queer community.”

“So you’re planning on kids, then?”

“Not just planning, anymore.”

He tilted his glass at her. The restaurant’s bright overhead lights bent through the glass and illuminated stubble on his cheek. Christopher had a sexy scar above and below the crook of his eyebrow, indicating where a piercing and no doubt a past life used to be. Henley decided then to rent a motel room.

Christopher took his shirt off in the bathroom. She pulled him to lie on the bed and wrapped her arms around him from behind. His chest was warm, unmuscled. He complained about her nails digging in and squeezing him too tight, so Henley took a deep breath. Christopher’s body relaxed into the mattress.

“This is nice,” he said.

In that moment, she was perfect to him. To him, Henley was there with her wife’s consent, offering affection and demanding nothing.

He turned his head and met Henley’s mouth. They kissed, sweet.

Henley breathed an apology into him.

She wrapped her hands around his throat. He rolled onto his back to say something, maybe a tease about BDSM. She saw her reflection in his wide pupils and stared down her own image as she leaned her weight into the grip, biceps flexing, putting in the strength of a lifetime of farm work.

“Do—” He gurgled. “Hen!”

She pretended it was a loving nickname rather than a lack of air in Christopher’s throat. He thrashed, several minutes. A vessel in his eye burst before his gaze slackened, no longer seeing. Henley listened for his heart. Silent.

Nausea rose in her gut, and she swallowed repeatedly so she wouldn’t vomit. She retrieved pliers from her truck.

“I’m sorry,” Henley couldn’t stop saying. She nestled her pliers around his lateral tooth. “If I loved her less, I wouldn’t need to do this. But I love her so much. It can only be her. What we did has to die in this motel room.” A pause: “I would have disappointed you anyway.”

Christopher’s teeth released with a twist and yank. It was pitiful to look at him with some but not all of them gone: the gapped mouth of the weaker guy in a fight, or an innocent child who tied their loose tooth to the doorknob. Like her and Janet’s baby might do one day.

“I know it’s my fault.” Tears dripped into her mouth, salty, and she spit them out on the wrinkled bedsheet. Her gut heaved too hard to control, and she finally vomited over the side of the bed.

She followed backroads to the forest with the body in her trunk. Kept her headlights to the dullest setting. Drenched the corpse in lemon juice to keep the dogs away. With the teeth removed, even if the body was uncovered years later, there would be no matching the remains to Christopher’s profile: Poly and partnered, new to the area, looking for new connections!

 

Annabelle was the first. Henley’s memories were apples shared between them in the elementary school cafeteria, earbuds split on the middle school bus. Annabelle grew up like Henley, yet there was a glow around her which Henley could never touch: Annabelle could have won pageants, had they not been beneath her; could have gone to Harvard, if not for her good heart to stay home and take care of her brother. The first time Henley shaved her head in high school, Annabelle held the clippers, and the pads of her fingers against Henley’s scalp made Henley shudder all over.

In the early stage of their relationship, Janet proposed Annabelle join them in bed. They were twenty-two, and Janet had never been told what not to do. It was unbelievable to see two nude, sunburnt women beneath Henley’s hands: Janet, skin she knew so well, and Annabelle, skin she’d spent her pimpled years berating herself for imagining.

Henley and Janet’s threesomes petered out as they had arrived: on Janet’s whim. Janet stopped inviting her single friends to town and stopped asking what Henley’s friends were up to. Henley missed it, had to bite her tongue not to ask, What did I do wrong? But Henley knew her urge to bring it up was selfish and perverse. Janet had grown up. Grown out of the carelessness from her adolescence in the suburbs. Henley needed to do the same, act like the faithful woman she was raised to be.

But Janet had unlocked something in Henley, and it would not stop growing, spreading. Two women beneath her hands. Two voices whispering her name.

At a mutual friend’s wedding reception, almost a year after Henley’s own ceremony, Annabelle had complimented how well Henley’s arms filled out her suit. Janet had been at home, an hour away. Henley called her. It went to voicemail. Texted her, no response. Annabelle, in her green cocktail dress, tugged on Henley’s lapel.

Henley followed Annabelle up the stairs of the colonial mansion and out to the balcony. Annabelle kissed the side of Henley’s neck. The lost feeling in Henley, a sense that she had been wandering through this wedding with her eyes closed, came home.

The breeze snuck through the balcony railing, and Henley cupped Annabelle’s breasts. It was all mixed up: the same cacophony Henley felt before she knew she was queer and couldn’t decide if she wanted to be Annabelle or just wanted Annabelle. Maybe she could have the moment, for her younger self. Annabelle wanted her. She’d wished on birthday candles for that.

Annabelle tugged Henley’s hand down to her waist, and Henley went under her dress. Annabelle came minutes later with a shudder.

As Henley wiped her fingers clean, she bit down on her tongue so the pain might make her think clearly. Annabelle’s moans sounded emptier without Janet’s to echo them. “That was a mistake. I’m sorry.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“It was.”

“Then why’d you do it?”

Henley’s mouth opened and closed. “You asked me to.”

Like she sensed Henley was about to flee, Annabelle said, “Don’t dash,” and tucked three fingers between the buttons of Henley’s shirt. “Should you take me home? Is Janet there?”

In her mind’s eye, Henley saw Annabelle bare. Touching Henley while Janet watched. That was why Janet had wanted it, years ago: so Annabelle’s glow would limn Henley for a moment, make Henley something worth looking at too. Normally she would be glad to be the link that brought two gorgeous women together, but with the moon just a sliver above, it only made it clear how unnecessary she was.

Henley shoved Annabelle’s hand off. Annabelle’s back hit the balcony railing. Annabelle would tell Janet. Janet would finally see Henley for the broken compass she was, instead of the full woman Janet believed she’d married.

Unfazed, having lived through an adolescence of Henley’s outbursts, Annabelle hopped up on the railing and opened her thighs.

Henley caught Annabelle’s wrist as she reached to touch her again. It wasn’t her, it was some hindbrain of animal fear—Henley pushed backward with all her weight. Annabelle sucked in a breath as her pupils tightened all at once.

She plummeted three stories and landed in a heap of tulle, green turning brown as it soaked with blood.

With no witnesses and no reason to suspect foul play, the police wrote it off as a drunken accident.

Two more had died after Annabelle and before Christopher. Corie and Stacia. Henley had buried them both with a kiss to their palms.

 

Janet hurtled herself out of bed to make it to the toilet. Henley threw on boxers and shuffled after her to rub circles across Janet’s back as she vomited. When Janet was done, Henley went to the kitchen to make something she might keep down.

“We can call Joey at the Herald,” Henley said over a pan of scrambled eggs. “Have him run an announcement that we’re expecting.”

Janet frowned, and it made her beautiful eyes bigger. A sleep line from her pillow crept up to her left temple. “You want Joey to be the first to know? Before our parents? I’m not even showing yet.”

“He’s just the mouthpiece. Aren’t you proud?” Henley’d done what she was raised to do: gotten married, kept the farm in the black, started a family. People deserved to know. She deserved to have people know.

“Proud?” Janet paused and tilted her chin at Henley. “Honey, it smells like the eggs are burning. Why would I be proud? People get pregnant every day.”

“Not people like us.”

Janet quirked her lip. “I knew lesbian moms growing up. I don’t need more credit than any other mom.”

Of course Janet knew lesbian mothers in the suburbs, where she also knew women to have threesomes with. Henley kept that thought to herself and turned off the burner flame. She walked behind Janet’s chair at the kitchen table and wrapped her arms around her, loose. Arms that wouldn’t hurt anybody.

Henley kissed below Janet’s ear. “I’m sorry. I’m just excited.”

“I know that everyone here is close.” Janet stopped, corrected herself. “I know everyone knows each other. But I’m not used to sharing with so many people.”

Janet wasn’t plugged into their town the way Henley was; Janet knew names and faces but couldn’t replicate Henley’s bonds, bonds produced by proving oneself to the same four hundred people for almost thirty years. Henley said, “It might help you make more friends.”

Janet laughed. “I hope any friends I make here will be interested in more than just my ability to carry a baby.”

Henley resisted the urge to bury her face in Janet’s back and never come up for air. She’d said the wrong thing. She’d reduced Janet down to the baby when she was actually the whole world.

“Let’s just keep it between us for now,” Janet said, and Henley’s stomach clenched with the rejection. “Could I ask you to rub my shoulders, honey? I’m all achy.”

Janet, always generous, no doubt steered the conversation elsewhere to spare Henley’s feelings. Janet didn’t say: What do you need me to make friends for? So you can sleep with them? It wasn’t: There’s nothing to be proud of—it’s you I’m having a baby with, after all. Henley swallowed a bitter joke. If Janet wanted to make an excuse, Henley would take the hint.

Janet knit her eyebrows. “You okay, honey?”

“Let me tell the baby I love them,” Henley said, and Janet scooted back until there was room for Henley to bend down and kiss her stomach. Henley draped her palms over Janet’s shoulders, hiding her eyes.

 

It was high time to repair the coyote fence. Janet waved to Henley from the driveway as she left for the community center to volunteer with teen cotillion, dust rising in her wake.

Coyotes jumped and dug to reach young, easy prey. The fence needed to be six feet high and buried six inches into the ground. Henley’s dad took Janet’s spot in the driveway with his truck, and together they carried the cross-hatched steel into the field. The digging was sweaty as Henley plowed twice as hard to leave less for her father to do. It left time for Henley’s mind to wander, which she tried to shut it out with idle chatter, until she could no longer speak around the one thing she wasn’t allowed to mention.

The news wanted to come out, was pushing against her teeth: her dad would be so happy. He’d tell her she’d really made something of herself.

“You got a name?” Henley’s dad asked, and Henley nearly jumped out of her skin.

“For the lamb,” her dad said. “Soon, right? Otherwise, God-willing, I’d be spending my Sunday in front of the TV instead of digging this damned fence.”

“I don’t know,” Henley said. Janet’s heart rate was supposed to increase as her body produced more blood during pregnancy, but it felt like it was happening to Henley instead, all the time, her heart too fast in her chest. “I’m no good with that kind of thing.”

He sucked his teeth and folded dirt around the base of the fence post. Growing up, Henley believed him to be someone skilled with his hands and not much else. Adulthood made her wonder if that wasn’t true, and Henley had just failed to learn the rest from him.

She asked, “How’d you name me?”

He rested his hands on his knees and smiled, yellow teeth. “I’d like to say we put some more thought into it than we would’ve done a sheep, but it was real serendipitous. Your mother and I had been tossing around a few names, still hadn’t decided, but then out you came. A week early. I held you in my arms and asked, ‘Are you Henley? My Henley?’ and you looked me right in the eyes like you were saying yes.”

Henley should have picked up a baby names book back near Billings. She needed to find the perfect name, one their child wouldn’t hold against her. “You make it sound easy.”

“What’s so hard about it?” He had a twinkle in his eye, evidence of a joke. “It’s just another human’s life in your hands, is all.”

 

Henley gasped awake with a nightmare. She’d held their newborn, still bloody, as Janet stared blankly from the hospital bed. Henley’d screamed, Who are you? Who are you? as the baby cried and cried.

 

With a ripping bleat, their ewe’s second water broke. Henley held her hip, and Janet soaped up both the ewe and her own hands with the bucket, water splashing over the side and wetting the straw of the lambing pen.

Janet switched her wedding band to her opposite hand and reached inside the ewe. Her hands, smaller than Henley’s and less obtrusive, probed for a minute longer than Henley had expected them to.

“I can’t feel any of its legs,” Janet said. “The lamb’s in breech.”

They’d have to pull. Henley fastened the lambing cord around the ewe’s fetlock joint, above the trotter. She tightened it at the same time as the ewe strained. It spread the mother to give the lamb a wider opening. “We’ll pull straight out, then down.”

Janet, a woman who had not done farm work until she was twenty, did not waste time in parting the ewe and reaching for the lamb with both hands. The ewe bleated again, and Janet gently shushed her. The ewe stuck her nose in the air and breathed in snorts.

After several minutes of the ewe’s push and Janet’s pull, the lamb’s tail appeared. The pelvis and back legs hesitantly followed. With the hind legs free, Janet was able to pull down, but she could only go as fast as the ewe would let her. Henley expected jabs about Janet’s own pregnancy: You better not put me in this pen when the time comes! Instead, Janet’s face was drawn and serious. Henley mentally scolded herself for thinking of the baby before Janet again.

Behind them, straw crunched as Bandit sat down outside the pen to watch.

Blood trickled down Janet’s wrists. Henley tightened the lambing cord in time with the next contraction. Blood spilled faster. Henley garbled a shout, the image of Janet soaked in red too visceral. Blood, blood everywhere. Soaking into the straw. Soaking into the earth. Her grip slid on the lambing cord, and the ewe’s leg jerked. Janet said, “Honey, careful!”

“I love you,” Henley said. Janet smiled without tearing her eyes from the ewe.

The bleeding slowed. It began to dry from the sun and crack on Janet’s wrists, crimson flakes falling. The lamb’s front legs appeared. The ewe stomped in the air. Several contractions later, there was the lamb’s head.

The umbilical cord was wrapped around its neck.

Janet peeled off the cord and clipped it. The lamb was pale where it wasn’t slick with blood. Barely breathing. The ewe licked the back of its neck.

“Do you want to. . .” Janet trailed off. “Does it have a chance?”

Henley didn’t answer. She wiped the lamb’s nostrils with a damp cloth to open them up. The lamb didn’t breathe easier. It would have been quick to snap its neck, put it out of its misery.

The ewe nudged its limp baby with her muzzle.

Henley didn’t touch the lamb. She let its breathing peter out until it stopped, blood and mucus clumping over its tight-wound newborn fleece.

Janet scrubbed her hands in the bucket before she placed one on Henley’s back. Henley tucked her face against Janet’s shoulder and compressed her urge to sob. She clung to Janet. The ewe leaned her ear into the straw.

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