Stella’s part in the story begins in the California town of Barstow, on the night of the Yellow Puff-Ball Mushroom Cloud, which was, coincidentally for Stella, also the night when she finally decided to run away for good.
Stella was pregnant. Her mother was in jail. Her father was unknown. Her aunt would kick her out soon enough. So as soon as everyone went to bed Stella stuffed all the money she had into her underwear: the fifty-seven dollars that she had saved up honestly, plus the three twenties from the baby’s father. Into her L.L. Bean tote bag went some extra clothes. Into her back pocket went the index card with the name of her baby’s father and his address written on it. The phone number had turned out to belong to somebody else but the address was straight from his driver’s license—she had copied it down herself after borrowing the three twenties from his wallet.
Just as she was going out the door her baby’s voice stopped her in her tracks.
Take the kitchen shears, her baby said.
“What do I need with the kitchen shears?” Stella said.
You’ll see, the baby said.
Stella was in a hurry so instead of arguing she went to the kitchen and grabbed her aunt’s shears from a drawer and stuffed them into her bag.
Take the gun, too, the baby said.
“No gun,” Stella said sternly.
She opened the front door and closed it softly behind her and took her first steps toward her fate, past her aunt’s cactus garden, across the parking lot, and under the neon apartment sign, half-burned-out and sickly humming. Once on the other side of the road she picked her way through a field full of broken bottles until she got to a wire fence. She pulled the wires apart and squeezed through. From there she followed the railroad tracks. Time sped up mysteriously. All of her sluggish regrets and random fears fell away. The tracks led her to another road and she took it. A blood-red moon was rising and it looked like a half-eaten, red Nilla Wafer. At last she came to the part of town that was shaped in a grid, with sidewalks and streetlights. One block past the Rotten Robbie station she got to the Interstate, where she stood under the streetlight by the onramp with very good posture and waited for her ride to come along. She could have made excuses about her behavior but she didn’t. Ever since getting pregnant she had felt herself becoming ever more healthy and strong, day by day. She felt fecund. She felt blessèd. She felt feral. She felt like dropping to the ground and running on all fours and howling. The baby’s father’s name was Lix Tetrax and much of his body including his private parts had been sheathed in luxurious fur. To call Lix Tetrax hirsute did not do him justice. Making love with him had been something like making love with a large plush toy. His teeth were small. His accent was foreign. His laugh was maniacal. He owned a Harley Soft Tail Fat Boy. He told her he worked for the Government, but which Government wasn’t clear.
Nethalem, you must get to Nethalem, the baby chanted.
“All right, I’m going,” she said, and wondered when her ride would come along.
Now you would think Stella would have asked herself now and then why her baby was so bossy, even in utero. You would think she would wonder now and then at her baby’s apparent command of the syntax and usage of more than one Indo-European language. You would think Stella might even have wondered about the meanings of some of the comments her baby made, now and then, for instance: ego sum dominus pestifer mundi, a favorite saying of her little babe, or: morimini! morimini! morimini!, which her baby would sing in a bell-like voice and in a playful little tune of the baby’s own making.
But Stella took life as it came. Also, like many women with a wanted baby on its way, Stella had fallen unconditionally in love with the little thing. She was going to love her baby no matter what its peculiarities. She had begun to believe that every mother had just such an intimate communion with her child, and could hear it speak even before it was born. Sometimes when she was alone she would hold her baby and herself at the same time, wrapping her arms around their shared body. She would sing songs from the radio to her baby and the baby would sing back using its own special words. How could it be otherwise? Did not every other mother feel the same way exactly?
This is your ride, coming up now, the baby said. The driver’s name is Margie Peach. Be careful. She will want to know all your business
The car stopped.
“I’m Margie Peach and I breed whip-tail lizards,” the woman behind the wheel said. “What are you doing trying to catch a ride out here in the middle of the night? It seems unwise. Anybody could come along.”
In spite of the woman’s persnickety nosiness, Stella got in. She was tired of standing there in the dark and making no progress toward her goal. She settled into her seat gratefully. She even made small talk, if a little spitefully, for as long as she could manage it, until she fell asleep.