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The third call in a row forced Mariah to answer. Who didn’t text first? She slid her thumb across the screen and heard Jess hyperventilating: “I need you to come over – now.”
“What happened? Jess, are you ok?” Mariah couldn’t extract anything besides warnings not to call 911. She told Jess it might take a while if she couldn’t find a cab.
She pulled on leggings, threw a chunky green sweater on over her t-shirt, and grabbed her pea coat and oversized scarf before slamming the door behind her and half-running to the bus stop two blocks up. The city was in the middle of a weeklong arctic blast; the temperature never climbed above freezing during the day, and nights were inhumane. One in the morning, and virtually no one was out – Mariah had never seen the streets calmer than this. The moon and the streetlights cast white light on the emptiness. It set her anxiety ablaze. Construction, cars, and explosions of anger during the day meant nothing more sinister could percolate. With silence came the threat of the void, the threat of total helplessness. The icy air froze an extra layer of ominous stillness around her. Only the sound of her boots on the concrete disturbed it.
No cabs. Mariah wished she’d worn another shirt or had at least remembered gloves. Her clenched fists burrowed deep into her coat pockets, but the sharp iciness ripped through the thin wool as though it were a paper towel. She walked along the bus route in the unlikely event that one might pass. Walking would keep her from dying of exposure, at least. Frozen fingers pulled up her phone and she texted:
no cab/bus walking mb 45 mins
A family death, maybe? It was bound to happen eventually, and Jess actually liked her family. She considered her mom her best friend – Mariah envied and mocked her for it. That kind of relationship was so foreign to her she considered it deviant. It was a weakness, a flaw that crippled Jess’s independence and left her in childhood. Playing auto-therapist to ignore the intensifying cold, Mariah reminded herself that her own experiences forced her into early maturity, that her narratives made it difficult to accept flaws as anything but moral failures, that she resented those who asked for help yet found herself unable to set boundaries. Look at her now. Walking alone in the middle of the night, chattering with cold, acting blindly out of a vague sense of obligation. Narratives. It was all about narratives.
Worse possibilities rose to active consciousness. Maybe Jess had picked up someone at a bar or met someone online. Mariah didn’t think Jess would put herself in a bad situation – she immediately scolded herself for victim-blaming, then scolded herself for scolding herself, recognizing these self-recriminations as a product of the patriarchy. She hoped nothing like that had happened. But it wasn’t improbable.
Her fingers, toes, and most of her face had shut off their nerves by the time she walked up the steps to Jess’s apartment. With her knuckle she pressed the buzzer, heard a click, and walked up mildew-scented, creaking stairs lit by flickering greenish light, covered in amoeba-esque stains that had become so familiar she no longer found them revolting.
No response to her knock. Mariah turned the knob and felt a warm wall of incense and bleach crush her nostrils. The kitchen and living room were dark. Down the hallway, past the bathroom, the bedroom door was cracked. Jess sat on the floor, crying silently, back against her bed, a bottle of vodka and three cans of raspberry seltzer next to her. She looked up but said nothing, took a gulp of vodka followed by a gulp of seltzer, held them in her mouth for a beat, then swallowed.
Mariah sat down next to her and took a drink. She put her hand on Jess’s leg. “What’s going on, talk to me.”
“I swear I didn’t know. I think I fucked up calling you, I’m sorry, but I just… I didn’t know.”
Mariah pressed herself closer and wrapped both arms around Jess, whose muscles felt soft, no resistance. Jess sobbed out incomprehensible half-sentences before she abruptly stood up and led Mariah to the bathroom. With a flick the light came on, and Mariah saw an off-white towel lying on the floor against the sea foam green tiles, in its center a bloody, abstracted crescent cradled by two folds of the fabric. Jess finally spoke coherently.
“I don’t know what to do. I can’t flush it down the toilet.”
Understanding flooded into Mariah’s brain despite her efforts to dam it up, carrying with it millions of questions as detritus. She limited herself to one: “Are you sure?”
Jess nodded. “It’s like some trashy reality show, I can’t believe it’s my life, this doesn’t happen to normal people. That’s not what I mean – it doesn’t happen to people like me, I’m educated, there’s no excuse, I should’ve known. You know what I mean, right?” She’d started crying again.
Mariah forced herself to stare at what had been an amorphous red-brown splotch on the towel in her peripheral vision. It looked hyperrealistic: only a couple inches long, if that, but unmistakably human. Like someone had lacquered and preserved a tiny specimen of an extinct, ancient relative that grew to a fraction of modern human size. It rested in a gelatinous pool the towel had only partially absorbed, next to a small mass. She saw distinct fingers and toes. Her hand covered her mouth involuntarily, suppressing an exclamation. The last thing Jess needed right now was shock, even a hint of judgment.
“I’m so sorry Mariah, I didn’t know what to do, you were the only person I could call… what should we do?”
Now it was we. They left the bathroom and wordlessly passed the vodka bottle. Mariah asked, “Do you feel sick or anything? Bleeding?”
A shrug. “I obviously didn’t feel bad enough to notice anything until now, so I guess I’m fine.”
Silence again. Mariah made an attempt in what she thought was a gentle voice: “It might be easiest to flush it.”
Jess shook her head. “No. It’s bad enough as it is. Flushing it would just – I can’t be that person.”
She should really make this easier, Mariah thought. She sucked air deep into her lungs and held it for five seconds. “Look, this must happen hundreds, maybe thousands of times a year in New York, there’s gotta be a process for this. It’s not like it’s your fault, they must have some kind of system set up. They. You know what I mean.” Mariah struggled with her phone, her fingers had thawed but hadn’t regained full functionality.
“I already looked it up,” Jess said. “There’s no way I’m going to the hospital. I read a story about a woman getting charged forty grand when she miscarried. Anyway, am I supposed to take that thing on the subway with me? In a cab? One site says you can ‘bury the remains at home,’ but that was a British law. America’s different. There are different laws by state for this, right? I can’t deal right now. I can’t flush it down the toilet, I can’t just dump it on the street, Mariah, what am I going to do, I can’t be the person who didn’t know she was pregnant and just flushes the fetus.”
Reenergized, she started crying again. Mariah continued scrolling on her phone. “Ok, so, I found a New York City thing, it’s a health code situation.” She drank from the bottle and Jess leaned on her shoulder, eyes closed. Mariah scanned the impenetrable language of bureaucrats. “This says you have to get rid of it ‘in a manner provided for human remains generally’ but only if you’ve reached 24 weeks of gestation. That’s… what, six months? You weren’t six months pregnant, were you? I mean, that doesn’t look like a six-month fetus, right? Fuck, I guess I should look that up.”
Jess kept her eyes closed.
Mariah clicked the images tab. “So, this isn’t all that helpful, there are a lot of illustrations. Except… holy fuck. I never thought I’d find anti-abortion sites useful. They have no reservations about posting pictures of dead fetuses. Jesus fucking christ. The British tabloids have some fucked-up pictures too, obviously.”
Her mouth hung open slightly, so she closed it around the bottle.
“Sometimes they can live, extreme preemies. So you must be less than 24 weeks, let’s say. You’ve gotta dispose of the remains – this is kind of funny, they call it a ‘conceptus.’ What a creepy word.”
Jess refused to smile.
“It’s gonna be ok, Jess, we’re figuring this out. It says you have to dispose of the conceptus according to article 205. Soooo… let’s find article 205.” She refrained from mentioning the fines and penalties listed. The document was difficult enough to decipher without them.
Article 205 was just as dispassionately worded. A section on amputated limbs had been “repealed.” Nothing addressed the one question she needed answered, and the entire article referred to a case of “death or termination of pregnancy” as though they existed in the same category. A morbid thought. If Jess turned up dead she’d be looking at the same pages? No, a dead adult requires officials. But still. Absolutely insane that no one had thought to convey a clear set of instructions for what to do when you’ve got an unexpected fetus on the bathroom floor.
“It seems like you’re technically not allowed to move any remains without some kind of certificate from the health department. But as far as I can tell, you have four days to do that? I can help you try to get one. Or,” Mariah said hesitantly, embarrassed that she hadn’t suggested it earlier, “We could call your mom”.
“No.” Jess had her face in her hands. “We had a fight. A big one. I haven’t talked to her in two months.”
Mariah paused to reign in her rising anger at being forced into surrogate motherhood. Again, she scolded herself, this time for her lack of empathy, her inability to tap into a basic sense of compassion for a friend in a horrible, unimaginable situation. The only way out was through – the line played on loop in her head.
Jess interrupted: “I’m not gonna call up the health department, either. What, I should ask which is the conceptus form to fill out? Are you kidding me?” Her frustration frustrated Mariah. “I can’t deal with that. What are we going to do with this thing?”
She was becoming hysterical. No, don’t even think that word, Mariah told herself, hysterical, intrinsically gendered. Hysteria: of the womb. Well, she admitted, in this case it may be the perfect word. She shook her head to expel these tangents, but when she looked at the health code, her eyes almost instantly refused to focus, the dryness of the language desiccating her irises and pupils. Jess was right, they couldn’t go to the health department.
It was approaching four in the morning.
“What if we burned it? Cremated, I mean.” The suggestion fell out of Mariah’s mouth without her knowledge.
Jess looked at her. “What do you mean? How?”
Mariah began improvising. “There’s nobody outside, it’s frigid, it’s the middle of the night, and the park is only two blocks away. We could get like a paper bag or some newspaper or something, wrap it up, set it on fire, dump it in a trashcan, and just walk away. Even if someone sees us no one’s going to look inside the bag while it’s on fire. We could pour lighter fluid on it so it really burns.”
“That will work, you think?”
“It should only take a couple of seconds once we get there. And if we get in trouble, it’s just for, I don’t know, improper waste disposal?” Mariah lied. “Only a ticket, I bet.”
Jess stared blankly at her for a full minute. “Ok. Let’s do that.”
Mariah’s heart scrambled to escape her chest. She’d have to be the one to direct this operation. “Do you have a paper bag somewhere?”
“Under the sink, maybe? I don’t know, they’re mostly plastic.”
Mariah walked out to the kitchen and began rummaging around. Nothing but plastic, though she did find a bottle of isopropyl alcohol. She called back to the bedroom, “no paper bags, do you have any newspaper?”
“Why would I have newspaper?” Jess shouted back. Mariah dropped her head.
“Will you be ok here for a few minutes? I’m going to run to the bodega to grab a couple of paper bags.”
“Please be fast,” Jess said.
Mariah threw on her coat and hurried down the stairs. The corner was absent of the usual lurkers, and inside the fluorescent bodega there was only Ramon – with whom she’d drunkenly made friends, or kind of friends, whatever you could call that kind of impersonal relationship obstructed by culture and class and language – sitting next to a space heater. A black cat crouched next to the register. Mariah kept her head down and walked purposefully back to the refrigerated section. Opened a door, picked up two malt liquor 40s, and brought them to the cashier. “Hey Ramon,” she forced a smile, he smiled sleepily back. She pulled out a 20-dollar bill and tossed it on the counter. “Can I get two paper bags, please?” she asked with a quick look over her shoulder to make sure no one had congregated near her. “And two lighters?” Ramon wordlessly pulled out two blue lighters and put them a bag with one of the 40s.
She sprinted half-drunkenly back to Jess’s place. “Fuck it’s cold!” she shouted as she opened the door, made momentarily giddy by the freezing air and the surreal nature of their mission. “Get layers on, it’s not far but it’s brutal. Can I borrow a sweatshirt actually? And do you have gloves I can wear?”
They bundled up before approaching the towel in the bathroom. Mariah slipped the lighters into her pocket, put the bottle of isopropyl alcohol in her purse, and turned to Jess.
“How do you wanna do this?”
Jess’s bleary eyes offered nothing.
Mariah took her by the wrist into the bathroom. “Get a bunch of toilet paper in a ball, she commanded, then pick it up and drop it in here. I’ll hold the bag open.”
Jess shook her head. “Can I hold the bag? I can’t touch it.”
Who wants to touch that thing? Mariah almost exploded. Instead, she handed the bag to Jess and held her breath after unfurling nearly the entire roll into a wispy cloud. She looked more closely at it. The eyes were like a stereotypical alien’s: big, clouded over, on a head too large for the body. Scenes from Alien inserted rolled through her brain, the horror of an unknown body incubating inside you. These thoughts distracted her as she scooped up the conceptus and forced it into the paper bag. She took the bag from Jess, rolled it, and squeezed it into the other bag. She held the bland, brown loaf between them.
“We should leave.”
Jess nodded, stood up, and followed Mariah into the icy black morning. Crystals of frozen water seemed to hang in the air, and they walked quickly, not talking, preceded by thick geysers of steam flowing out of their mouths and noses. They reached the park’s entrance and began searching for a spot out of view. Jess looked up at the cloudless, sharp sky. “What kind of moon is that?” she asked.
“Waning gibbous,” Mariah replied after a beat. “Not as good as a waning crescent, is it?”
“No, definitely less picturesque.”
“Less moon-y. A waxing crescent, too.” They glanced at each other and allowed themselves small half-smiles.
“There.” Mariah pointed to a can behind a stand of trees where the path split in two. Jess nodded, and they moved quickly toward it. Mariah twisted open the alcohol bottle with fingers that had nearly frozen under Jess’s gloves. She soaked the bags in the liquid. “Here,” she directed Jess, “you light one end while I light the other. We’ll do it at the same time.”
After a few clicks, each held a tiny flame against the arctic air. Mariah hovered the drenched paper bag over the center of the trashcan and started counting. “One, two, three.”
Two flames shot up and almost instantly joined into one. Mariah dropped the fireball and jumped back, but she felt a stinging sensation on her left hand and realized the glove had caught. She ripped it off with her right hand, which also ignited. Both gloves followed the fetus into the can, which was glowing orange against its blackened green paint.
Jess stood beside her, staring at the flames, barely registering that the gloves were gone. “Are you ok?” she asked Mariah absently.
“I’m fine, I don’t think I got burned. She held up her hands to her face but couldn’t see or feel anything. Come on, we should get out of here.”
They said nothing until they got back to Jess’s apartment. “Can I stay here?” Mariah framed the demand as a question. “I’m not going to work tomorrow. Today.”
“I want you to stay.”
Mariah went to the bathroom and ran her hands under warm water, which felt like a thousand tiny knives chipping away at the ice in her fingers. She washed her face and used Jess’s toothbrush, then walked back to Jess’s room. Jess was asleep on top of the covers, coat still on. Mariah tugged at the sleeves, Jess rolled over and half-consciously allowed her friend to take off her pants and jacket before pulling the covers over her head. Mariah stripped down to her underwear, put on a t-shirt from Jess’s closet, and hurried into bed next to her, pressing her thawing skin against the warmth of another body.
Anthony Schneck is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in LA Review of Books, Thrillist, and more.