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art by Melissa Mead

In Vivo

Some of SJ Driscoll's stories appeared in Asimov's, Interzone and EQMM under a previous name. A refugee from the East and West Coasts, she found home on a limestone ledge in the Texas Hill Country. Visit her Tumblr at sjdriscoll.com or see her on Twitter at twitter.com/SJDriscoll.

The waiter had just set our dinners in front of us when Marlie stiffened and dropped her fork.
"Keith," she gasped, "it's time."
I leaped to my feet and put my arm around her to help her up. Her grotesquely large belly threw her off balance and she lurched as the next pain hit. She groaned.
"It's going to be all right," I said.
I walked her through the crowded tables toward the door. The diners, with their young faces and wise eyes, shifted their chairs to let us pass. A woman in the back started to applaud. Applause spread through the room, along with nods and grins.
Except for the elderly couple waiting by the hostess. As we passed, they pulled aside as if we'd contaminate them, eyes squinting in disgust, mouths pulled tight. "Selfish bastards," the old man muttered, and the old woman called shrilly, "Why don't you let some new souls come into the world?"
The hostess opened the door. "Don't pay any attention," she whispered. "We'll all be cheering for you."
"Thanks," I said, and tossed my keys to the valet. In the time it took him to bring the car around, Marlie had a pain that doubled her over.
She grabbed my hand as I buckled her into her seat, the lines around her eyes crinkling in distress. "I'm scared, Keith. I might not make it."
"I'm scared, too, babe. I don't want to lose you."
"Are you sorry we're doing this? Everything will be different."
I stroked her long hair. "Honey, we'll work it out."
We made it to the emergency room in three minutes. A perky aide helped Marlie onto a gurney and wheeled her away, me hurrying alongside, Marlie's hand clasped tight in mine.
A doctor who looked about eighteen did a quick exam, then frowned at me. "You didn't leave us much time, did you?"
"This is our first," I began, but the aide took my arm.
"Better hustle if you want to be there for the birth," she caroled.
I pulled my hand out of Marlie's grip. She was panting, eyes rolled up in her head. Strange animalistic noises broke from her throat.
I wasn't sorry to go with the aide.
She helped me dress in scrubs, then brought me through a maze of corridors to the birthing chamber and left me in front of the swinging door.
I pushed it open, blinking in the sudden strong light, and slowly walked toward the tank.
The doctor had his arms plunged to the elbow in the water, bending Marlie's legs back against her belly. A merry-faced nurse supported her neck and another very young nurse hovered in the background.
Marlie panted and writhed and moaned, biology turning her into a creature.
The doctor glanced up at me. "Don't you want to see?"
I stumbled closer.
Something red was emerging from between Marlie's legs, a fleshy, pulsing tube that doubled back on itself and slowly, at each contraction, edged upward over another inch of her hips, then her torso. Soon it would cover her head.
Bile rose in my throat.
Something bloomed from the hollow end. I saw toes, then the slender arches of the feet I knew so well. But these feet had never touched the ground.
"It's a breech," the doctor said, his youthful face suddenly drawn in old lines. "You'll have to wait outside."
I retched. I barely found the door. I fell against the corridor wall, trying to breathe.
The perky aide found me wandering the halls. She steered me back to the waiting area outside the birthing chamber and sat me down. "Feeling better, Mr. Randall?"
I wiped the sweat from my face. "I can't watch."
"This is the first time for you both?"
I nodded. "It's so... biological. There was an older couple just now who looked at us like we're freaks. I almost understand them."
She nodded. "It upsets some old-timers. Personally, I think they're jealous. Wouldn't you be jealous if you'd waited until you were past your prime? Until it was too late?"
"Do you mind me asking--You've done it?"
"Oh, yes. I've had my third."
"You look good."
"I should hope so!" She stretched her long, lithe body.
"So many people think it's unnatural."
She sighed. "That's sheer ignorance, isn't it? What's really unnatural was what they did in the old days. Why risk in vitro when in vivo's so much safer? They're your own cells in their normal environment. You can think of the process as a physiological assembly line. A reassembly line, really, with the stem cells of your self-umbilical cord as the little workers--"
I waved my hand wearily. "Thanks, I took all the classes."
The merry nurse stuck her head through the swinging door. "Everything's fine. Your wife's getting cleaned up. Do you want to see her?"
Relief flooded through me. I ran in.
The teenaged doctor was gone. A little aide, barely more than a boy, was muscling something limp and red, something I didn't want to see, into a big metal tray.
The very young nurse finished washing Marlie's face, then stepped aside.
"Marlie?" I whispered.
Her skin was so delicate, I was afraid to touch her. She had peach-fuzz hair. Her eyes shifted vaguely, unfocused.
She looked... new. No, she looked renewed. Not more than fifteen.
For the first time, I was sure we'd made the right decision.
I let out the breath I'd been holding in a spurt of laughter. "How soon can I bring her home?"
The merry nurse smiled indulgently. "Not for a few days. Then she'll have to take it easy and grow strong for you. But there's plenty of time." She tapped my belly.
Only four months along, and I was already showing.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Author Comments

Long exposure to the medical and basic science articles that I edit on the job sometimes blurs what used to be a sharp line for me between our intellectual, emotional and social identity as people, and our biological identity as creatures. I feel tentacles growing out of my back, but they aren't there. Are they?

- SJ Driscoll
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