The baby had large eyes that tilted slightly upwards, a snub nose, fleshy cheeks, and an upper lip that split straight up to the nostrils. Its fingers were melded or missing entirely—lobster claws. The legs, attached together from hips to ankles, made a mermaid tail, and it had the beginnings of short, pointed teeth.
It looked like a fucking monster.
“God, Tony, what did you do, photoshop all the bad pics together?”
Rhia bent over his shoulder and eyeballed the screen. He knew the moment she caught the program’s title; when she inhaled sharply a second later, he knew she’d seen the obstetrician’s official watermark on the picture itself. Her fingernails dug into his shoulder when she said, “What the hell is this?”
“A feature,” he said. “Everyone gets it now.”
She straightened, didn’t let go of his shoulder. Distance made her voice sound sharper. “That’s not what I meant. What is it?”
Tony skimmed the cursor over the image’s direction arrows and made the baby spin. “Twelve months after birth. EEC Syndrome and sirenomelia, mostly. A couple of personality disorders too, according to the prediction software, but I think that’s my fault.”
“Get rid of it,” she said. The light off the computer made the dark office look as if it were underwater. Something a mermaid baby could swim through. Rhia looked sick, as if she wasn’t feeling the giddy high he felt, the near-miss sensation.
Tony looked back at the screen. Image number twenty-six. Possibility twenty-six. One through five were great, six through eleven were viable, and all the rest were just . . . what the predictions had made of the others. “She could have been ours,” he said. “If she didn’t abort naturally or something. Don’t you—”
“Shut up, Tony.” Rhia reached for the mouse and clicked the image closed. Underneath twenty-six was twenty-five, with Down Syndrome and syndactyly. She clicked that away too. Twenty-four looked normal, but the program predicted severe achondroplasia. Twenty-three gone, twenty-two, twenty-one. She got rid of them all except the first five, talking in a low voice at Tony the whole time, words he couldn’t quite hear. He had an auditory processing disorder. The summaries weren’t detailed enough to tell him if any of the babies did too.
One through five shuffled for the remaining space on the screen. Two girls, three boys. Predictions: well into normal parameters. High intelligence. Blue eyes, like Rhia. Black hair, like Tony. Better teeth than either of them. “We’re going to have one of those,” Rhia said. “Stop messing around.”
After Rhia went to bed, Tony pulled up twenty-six again. He didn’t quite get the software yet, didn’t know how to read the predictions much beyond the summary. He could tell a little by manipulating the image view. That seemed to be the extent of what the fertility clinic expected parents-to-be to want: proof of the wisdom of the doctor’s choices.
Twenty-six would have had brown eyes, like him. Ears set low on the head. Even at twelve months, she had no eyebrows, eyelashes, hair of any kind. She didn’t look real.
He chose an angle that made the most of her looks: over her shoulder, a soft cheek, the tail curling out of focus.
The folded-up printout was a little too thick to fit well in his wallet, but he didn’t mind. He sent the entire program to the trash can before turning off the computer.
The obstetrician’s office had a cheap landscape painting tacked onto the ceiling; it changed colors depending on the angle you were viewing it from. It didn’t really fit the decor of the rest of the practice, but maybe a nurse had put it up. The painting was centered over the examination table.
Tony didn’t understand at first, and then—yeah, it was something for a girl to look at while lying back and getting prodded. There wasn’t anything on the walls for a guy to look at.
Dr. Schomburg’s wrinkled little face smiled out from behind his square-cut beard. “How’d the program go?” he asked, and tapped his fingers on his knees.
“Great,” Rhia said. She was smiling, legs crossed, linen shorts notched up her thighs. “We’re very happy with the predictions for several of the embryos.”
There was a pause. “Yes,” Tony said. The changing landscape was just outside his peripheral vision, and he kept looking to see what was moving on the ceiling.
Dr. Schomburg looked down and tapped his knees again, pushing the palms of his hands against the joint. Arthritis. “Good, good,” he said. “We’ll transfer three of the embryos from the ones most likely to succeed and we’ll see what catches.”
“What happens if none of them implant?”
Dr. Schomburg turned his attention to Tony. “Then you have a couple of options. Embryos four through eleven are still excellent candidates. We can try with those during the next cycle. Or we can induce ovulation again, go through another round entirely.”
“What if they all implant?” Rhia picked up Tony’s hand. Her nails were painful.
Schomburg smiled dryly. “It’s unlikely, but we can selectively reduce the number of fetuses once we’re certain which are likely to thrive. You can probably safely carry two children to term, though, maybe all three with long-term bedrest—”
“We reduce to one,” she said. “You’ve read my family history.”
“Of course, of course,” Schomburg said. He leaned back sideways on his little swivel seat, propping his elbow on the examination table. Tony’s eyes followed him; the landscape went light blue. Rhia’s family had a genetic counseling profile an inch thick. Tony had the hearing thing, and he needed contacts he never wore, and he had mild anxiety. His family’s profile was three sheets paperclipped to Rhia’s dense folder.
Schomburg was watching Tony. The doctor said, Izz abbot permat yer forties declensions.
Shit. Eyes ahead, on the lips, take it apart, “What?” —izz, skip it, abbot, abbot, a bit, it’s a bit—
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Schomburg said. “It’s a bit premature,” he said slowly, loudly, “for these decisions.”
Declensions, decisions. Close. “No, I’m sorry. I have a,” he waved at his head, smiling the shit-eating apologetic smile, “a hearing problem.” Not true, but faster to say. Schomburg nodded politely, and Rhia laughed, and Tony said, “When’s the next appointment?”
Tony and Rhia both worked as programmers for a database developer. They used to eat lunch together. These days Rhia went out with her friends, all new mothers, and Tony bought sandwiches downtown. He ate them on the steps of the city library. People would pass by, carrying books either which way, and they’d stop and wait for the bus that came by every fifteen minutes.
Today Tony finished his sandwich just as the bus drove up. Not much thought went into what happened then; he just picked up his coat and walked on. The fare was cheaper than he’d thought it’d be.
He sat next to a black woman, middle-aged, a suit and bright heels. They started to talk. Easy chatting stuff. He’s going to be a father. She’s a mother of two. She’s getting off at the other end of town. She has a library bag filled with children’s books, easy readers and chapter books. This author in particular is good. They’re both very proud.
Tony finally said, “What do you think of this new prediction software? From the fertility people?”
“The stuff that lets you choose which baby you want?” Tony nodded. The woman pulled a book from the bag. A fox gamboled across the cover, following geese. The animals all wore colored hats. She said, “My youngest, she’s four. She doesn’t have a right arm. If they’d had the predictions four years ago, I wouldn’t have picked her, especially if it looked like there might be something else wrong too. I hate saying that. I wouldn’t have picked her.” The woman tapped the book. “She can read this front to cover. No help from me. These easy books aren’t for her. They’re for her older sister. She’s five, petty ada pecnure, but can’t read like Leily can.”
The woman put the book away. Tony pulled the folded picture from his wallet and asked her what she thought of number twenty-six.
The bedroom’s shades were drawn. It wasn’t really dark in the room. Just not bright. Rhia had put herself on bedrest, just for this part; she didn’t want to jostle the little embryos trying to find a place to stick themselves on the uterine wall. It was boring as hell for both of them, but Tony didn’t say anything about it.
Rhia slept heavily. Maybe she had narcolepsy somewhere in her DNA, the gene just waiting to slip into place, the possibility of that combination higher in her than in a hundred dozen other people. She had cheeks that puffed out a little as she slept. Above her lip was the faint scar of the laser treatments she’d had when she was younger to remove a skin pigmentation. Tony’d seen pictures; twelve-year-old Rhia looked as if she’d chewed a ballpoint pen to the breaking point. Or like she’d been punched in the mouth.
The sheet had slipped from her shoulders, and Tony pulled it further down. Under her tanktop were three cookie-cutter possibilities. They wouldn’t know if any’d implanted for two weeks. And if more than one baby decided to go forth and multiply they’d have to make another choice.
Tony thought about reaching out and pushing right above the pelvic outlet, pushing and twisting and maybe beating the shit out of Rhia’s possibilities while she slept on and on and on.
You shouldn’t name pets unless you’re going to keep them. Tony found a cat when he was seven, lying limp on the side of the road, covered in fire ants. It was still breathing. Tony named it Samson and carried it home in his T-shirt. The ants were biting Tony by the time he got Samson home, and his parents had to rush him to the hospital. Samson was left in the front yard. He was dead by the time Tony got back.
Sirena swam in the bathtub and let her daddy paint scales on her skin with Ivory soap. She giggled, a high, delighted sound, through her dolphin teeth. She couldn’t talk, but she could laugh, and she liked to watch him from under the water, her wide, black eyes fey-like and unblinking. Sirena. Daddy’s little mermaid.
When Tony woke up he locked himself in the bathroom with the printout of number twenty-six, struck with dry heaves that brought nothing up, nothing. Thank God for two bathrooms—Rhia was getting morning sickness, double the puke for both the babies that had implanted.
“Doctor Schomburg? Hey. I was wondering if the prediction summaries are still available for the remaining embryos.”
Idnt nouget tuh packet?
“Yes, we got the packet, but there was an accident. It was deleted. I was wondering about one of the summaries in particular, number twenty-six’s?”
Yes, ess. Fasting case.
“I’m curious about the accuracy of the prediction software. Would it be possible to let twenty-six grow, maybe in a lab environment, just to see how far—”
Oh. No. I’m sorry; wed ostroy’d lumber twenty-six. Seize a manner dove breeze spawn debilitating—
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
Breeze spawn debilitating.
Reeze spawn debility.
“Oh. Right. Of course. No problem. Sorry for troubling you.”
“I’m sorry,” he’d said when they first met. “I have a hearing problem.” He’d smiled deprecatingly. “Well, actually, it’s an auditory processing disorder. I can hear sounds fine, they just—they don’t really translate well on the inside. Especially if I’m stressed or, or a pretty girl talks to me or something.”
The girl had laughed, all long tanned legs and blonde hair tied up in a knot. Blue eyes sparkled. Miss America learning C++ with a room full of social epsilon semi-morons. She’d said, “That’s okay. I laugh like an idiot when I’m nervous, and—well, I’m not perfect either.” She’d sat down beside him. “I said my name is Rhia. And that I like your smile. Want to study together later?”
Suty tether ate her.
Tony’d smiled blankly during the pause needed for translating her syllables. His eyes tracked the middle distance, and he’d hoped it didn’t look too weird when he finally focused back on her, Rhia, and said, “I’d love to.”
Years later, they were talking about kids, what they each believed in, and she’d run her nails up and down her cheek, over and over as she looked at the ceiling and said, “I’m not sure I should have kids. There’s a lot of stuff that missed me, Tony, but I still carry it all. I’m not sure I could handle something going wrong. And it wouldn’t be right for me to play genetic Russian roulette with something too little to choose if it wanted to live with so much wrong . . . “
And he’d agreed with her. Of course.
The idea was that you stuck a needle into each baby’s sac and sucked out a bit of their amniotic fluid. You scanned the hell out of each sample and then plugged the results into the prediction software. Three days later—the joy of modern technology, just fast enough to make you wonder why it’s not faster—the summaries popped out along with new possibility strands that could be pushed all the way to age eight.
“You realize that it’s considered healthier to allow both fetuses to continue,” Dr. Schomburg said as he capped the last needle, pulled the tube of slick yellow-clear fluid, tossed the sharp into the hazardous material can, and labeled the tube for the lab.
Rhia was on her back, facing the ceiling landscape. “I thought multiple-birth pregnancies heightened the health risks for both the mother and the fetuses,” Rhia said. Tony leaned forward in his chair, gently, not obvious. Watching their mouths.
“Traditionally, yes,” the doctor said. “Take some deep breaths, now, don’t try to get up yet. While technically it’s safer to carry only one child, the new technology has to be taken into account. There’s some fascinating research out there. How do we know patients or unscrupulous doctors won’t misuse the software and keep only the ‘perfect’ results? It’s like China and the male children. Worse. The human species lacks enough variety as it is. Make us entirely homogenous and we won’t be able to adapt in the future.”
Tony said, “So we should purposefully choose the less-than-perfect options? To help with the species?” Rhia kept her eyes on the landscape, lips tight.
Schomburg removed his gloves, slowly rolling the latex down his hands. “No. This is the argument for allowing both of the best choices to continue. There’s nothing wrong with keeping perfect Baby A and, say, color-blind Baby B. For all we know, color-blindness will be necessary in the future—we shouldn’t get rid of it. But if you’re talking about purposefully choosing children with the possibility of serious problems . . . there’s nothing helpful in that. It’s you making choices for yourself instead of for the child. And as for your children, well, they have plenty of variety built right in; no need to add some on purpose.” Schomburg patted Rhia’s foot. “Try sitting up now. Would you like something to drink?”
They sat on either side of the balcony table. The apartment was grossly expensive, but Rhia had wanted some place she could show off. She’d bought it with the trust fund account her mother had started in case Rhia had turned out like every other generation of their family. They’d both gotten lucky. Rhia had been mostly perfect.
Tony was just a programmer, short and thick and with hands that looked like slabs of meat. He was lucky to be with someone like Rhia.
The results of the amniocentesis were lying on one half of the table, a rough printout of a graph and decimals, each point carefully labeled in a monospaced font as within normal parameters. Their laptop sat beside the printouts. Floating gently on the screen was Baby A, a boy, and beside him, Baby B, a girl, curled up around one another like a wound-up ball of twine. How they’d look in a few months, if they were to keep them both.
Rhia slid the cursor over the animation cell and the picture split, showing each baby at birth, at three months, seven months, eighteen months. The possibility strands stretched as far as the program allowed with this level of information plugged into it. The animation showed the children grown to the age of eight. Baby A had a snub nose. Baby B had a pixie smile.
A percutaneous umbilical cord sampling would push the strands to the age of twenty—they’d be doing that later too, after they’d selectively reduced. It was another feature.
The animation ended. The summaries came up. Baby A and Baby B were mostly perfect. Rhia exhaled. Her mouth moved, and it looked as if she said, “Thank God.”
“Why?” Tony asked. The bay was lopsided, bits of trash washed up along the edges. “What were you expecting?”
Rhia sat back from the computer, resting her hands on her belly. The pregnancy barely made a lump on her skin; she rubbed her hand back and forth across it. “They could have had something that wasn’t caught the first time around. My grandmother’s ectodactyly. My mother’s Apert Syndrome. My—”
“My hearing problem.”
Rhia snorted. “I’m not worried about that. That’s nothing.”
Spats nodding. A speedboat cruised the water and sent off blinding flashes of light each time it bounced on a wave. There used to be manatees in the bay, but they’d all been killed or run off long since. “The basic summary doesn’t report auditory processing disorders anyway. Too rare, but not the exciting kind of rare.”
“Exciting? Grow up. People die every day from the stuff I could pass on if I’m not careful.” Rhia’s expression was pinched as she looked over the bay. “Do you know how many kids my mom had before me? Three. Two of them miscarried from defects so bad they couldn’t even make it in the womb.” A flash of light came up from the speedboat, and Rhia blinked hard. “The one before me, my mother had aborted. The tech was finally getting good enough that the doctors could tell the baby would survive long enough to be born, but . . . it would have been a monster, Tony. Monsters don’t do too well in the world. Limitations frighten people.”
He’d caught one word in three. “Yeah?” he said. “That makes me wonder why anyone in your family kept reproducing.”
She took it for a question. “I don’t know why my grandmother or my great-grandmother did. Maybe they didn’t understand that nothing could be perfect, even if it looked it. My mom . . . there was the chance that she could have a healthy baby. And then, if I have a healthy baby, maybe our grandkids won’t have to worry as much as any of the rest of us have. That seems worth it.”
He wanted to ask, why have any children at all? They were reducing to one child now because the odds went up for a missed condition the more babies were born. The odds would be zero if Rhia had her damned tubes tied.
But you’re not allowed to ask questions like that. There’s a picture on the obstetrician’s ceiling for the women, the mothers, and nobody else matters at all.
“So who do we pick?” he said instead, because that was a hell of a lot easier than saying anything that would leave her talking fast, turning away, smudging her words, leaving nothing for him to catch but things that almost made sense, but not quite, not quite, not quite.
They don’t choose the baby. Schomburg does. He sees more thorough predictions than parents ever do. He calls them on a Tuesday, and says he’s got an opening the next day for the reduction.
Rhia gets the phone—Rhia always gets the phone—but Tony’s at the fax machine when a sheet starts printing off. The number “26” appears handwritten at the top of the first page. It’s a prediction summary. Not the simple one the software had provided Tony with, but a longer one, less prettied up. Word after word, meaning nothing.
Embryogenesis ectodermal ectrodactyly cleft genetic severe dysplasia anomalies photophobia lacrymal dentition tetramelic hypotrychosis sirenomelia congenital disruptive vascular defect fusion bilateral renal agenesis autosomal dominant absence sacrum rectum genitals lungs hypoplasia imperforate simpus dipus.
Sounding it out, a syllable at a time, he translated it as: She could have survived everything except the mermaid’s tail.
The bedroom ceiling had no paintings on it, moving or otherwise. Tony was on his back. Rhia was curled around him, a knee over his, an arm curled over his chest and her hand tucked under his shoulder. She was taller than he was, just by a little bit. He always remembered that just as they were going to sleep.
The door of the master bathroom lay directly opposite the foot of the bed, a black rectangle cut into the dark. He hated insomnia.
Breathing, slow, his. Rhia’s breath puffed against him.
They had the bay view, but the sound of the waves didn’t carry. Sometimes they heard the pipes from other floors, toilets flushing, showers running, a loud rush of rattling air, water, and debris shoving through the piping. Not gentle. Not this.
The bathroom was dark. The edges of the door would glow yellow when someone was in it. Rhia was heavy on him. The clip-clop curling sound of skin moving through water came again.
Water slid and splashed onto what sounded like the tile floor. The bathtub? His arm was trapped under Rhia’s head, her breathing was masking other noises, other breaths. Water lapped onto the floor in off-rhythm waves . . . a tail cracking back and forth, steadying a little body trying to keep from sliding under and drowning. He hadn’t put Sirena to bed.
Water, slide, three people breathing in the nighttime. Rhia’s deep, Tony’s fast, and the third . . .
He didn’t get up; he just listened, awake, until Rhia turned away from him and the water finally stopped moving.
Tony was supposed to go to the obstetrician’s after lunch. Reduction day. Rhia was waiting for him in the car, watching him from a side street as he chewed his sandwich one slow bite at a time.
The bus pulled up. The black woman he’d spoken to three months before walked down the library steps, carrying another bag of books. She was prettier than he remembered. Tony could see Rhia’s mouth open, could even see the words forming, as Tony followed the woman onto the bus. He sat down beside her. She pulled her bag further onto her lap. The seat creaked.
“Hey,” he said. “Remember me?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I remember you.”
“Listen,” Tony said, “can I ask you a question?”
“What? I’m sorry, I have a hearing problem.” He smiled brightly at her. “It’s just—I don’t have a lot of time. Your daughter, the armless one, whose fault was she?”
Her eyes went wide, and then she was looking away from him. “I don’t understand. Excuse me—”
“Whose fault was she?” Too loud. That was a little too loud. The woman was facing straight ahead now, but he could feel her pulling closer to the window, away from him. “I mean, did the flaw come from you or from the father?”
“I don’t know,” the woman said. He wondered if he looked strange, staring at her mouth.
“You have to know,” Tony said. “Everyone knows their genetic profiles. It must have been one of you. Right? You must’ve been asked this before. Someone has to have wondered. What do you tell people when they look at your daughter and then look at you? What do you think they’re thinking?”
“Jesus. You— I have to get off here. This is my stop.”
“No, it’s not,” Tony said. “You don’t get off for another six blocks. I remember. This is really important, okay? Just stay here for a second, just help me out with this, and you can move or whatever.” Tony slid sideways in the seat, blocking the woman, and he kept his eyes trained on her full and painted lips. “Listen to me. When they look at your daughter, they see an armless freak. Okay? Preschool teachers, PTA members, the nurses at the doctor’s office, the customers at the grocery store, all of them are looking at your daughter and they’re looking at you and they’re wondering who the hell you fucked to get something like that in the end.”
“Jesus.” The woman wasn’t blinking. Her hands were trapped around the book bag.
“Maybe,” Tony said, getting closer, he couldn’t hear what she’d said, everything was too quiet now and he had to make up for it, “you look down at your daughter, and you see a freak too. And you make yourself feel proud because she can read like a pro and maybe her stumps are really smooth, you can learn to like the feel of that, but whenever you bring her into public you think to yourself, I look normal, I have arms, they won’t think I’m defective, they’ll think it’s him, the guy, and they won’t say anything but you’ll stretch your arms up to reach for a can of peaches or something on the top shelf and they’ll get that knowing look, you’re safe, it wasn’t your fault, and that makes you feel better, that’s what lets you keep taking her out and letting people stare at your pet monster, because the more wrong she is the more right you are.”
The bus had emptied, ones and twos, and no one had come on. The automatic drive rolled them merrily along. They were alone. It was almost her stop.
Tony leaned in, and the woman shook.
“So whose fault was it?” he asked quietly.
“Mine,” she said.
It took a second, but he got it.
Three years later and Tony is visiting the baby. He’s just starting to talk. Boys develop more slowly than girls, but this is getting to be a bit much. Tony points it out whenever he’s back in town, but Rhia just shrugs and smiles and chucks her baby beneath the chin. Justin’s mostly perfect.
Tony’s been out of the country, working for a software manufacturer in Sweden. The same one, in fact, that developed VisioTech, the prediction generator. It’s Justin’s birthday today. Tony picks the baby up from the restaurant’s booster seat and ignores the boyfriend’s glare. Justin has black hair like his father, blue eyes like his mother. Might even have perfect little teeth when the adult ones come in, though Tony knows a bit more about the possibility strands now than he used to, and those teeth could look perfect, or have Tony’s slight overbite, or even Sirena’s tiny, sharp points. That last one’s less likely, but it’s still possible. It’s all still possible.
Tony keeps Sirena’s picture in his wallet, folded too thick. The near-miss feeling doesn’t come as quickly as he wishes it would.
Justin opens his mouth and no words come. “Slow, huh?” Tony says, and Rhia ignores him.
Tony holds Justin to his chest, jiggling the kid on his knee like his father used to do with him. The restaurant is dark, and mouths move in shadows. Tony looks down at Justin’s face, an angle that maybe isn’t so bad. “Hi, kid.”
Justin looks up at his father, blue eyes black, and says, I.