By Alayna Becker
It’s wildfire season in Spokane, so I’m stuck inside Crosswalk, the teen homeless shelter where I work. I’m the summer employment specialist, hired to help the homeless kids in my group learn to get a job and hopefully keep it. 12 kids are supposed to show up, but only two, Jessica and Reya are here and a third, Makayla is on her way. Usually we go outside to do the job the city gave us a grant to do – measure the slopes and accessibility of streets all over the downtown area, but today the whole city is obscured by the haze from fires on the edge of town. Walking feels like wading through a swamp.
My title, employment specialist seems ironic because for the past couple of years I’ve been pretty much unemployed. Mainly I participated in medical studies while co-conspirator roommate sold her plasma. I had a job working for a place that did digital investigations on people that were accused of looking at child porn, but when I accidentally saw a picture of a little girl in her pink underwear over the shoulder of one of the other employees, I left and never went back.
People don’t stop on the corner outside of 2nd and Post outside of Crosswalk except to wait for a light to change. Homeless adults and rough looking teens own the sidewalk bumming cigarettes and talking shit. Boys in long jerseys of teams that don’t exist hide their probably-stolen kid-sized bikes in upturned garbage cans so they can go inside for a minute. Every morning, girls in tight, once-white tank tops and low slung elastic jeans get out of the hooptie cars of their much older boyfriends and shuffle in to eat breakfast with the other kids. The girls look hard and in control, popping their gum like a warning shot. The boyfriends wait outside smoking cigarettes and scrolling on their phones in their cars or drive around the block waiting to collect their girls again.
Almost everyone outside is wearing a mask except for the other girl in my group, Makayla. Makayla is standing outside of the locked glass front door, impatiently knocking, waiting for the front desk volunteer to buzz her in. She has one hand on her stroller her other hand is dug deep into her soft hips. She’s six months pregnant now; the baby in the stroller is nine months old. Her greasy limp mohawk flops to the other side of her head as she shifts her weight in her too-tight black leggings that become partially see through when she moves. The door buzzer rings and she walks in like she’s being let out of her cell.
When I started working at Crosswalk a month ago, I didn’t know I was pregnant.
I was on continuous cycle birth control so I didn’t notice my missed period. I didn’t even think I could be pregnant until I threw up taking the trash out. I opened the lid of the can and the wall of hot garbage smell hit me in the face. I’d been feeling nauseous almost every day before that, but I wrote it off as another in a long string of bad hangovers. Turns out the two are not mutually exclusive. Each day of this pregnancy I drink more and more.
Getting an abortion seems like the obvious choice. I live in a studio apartment, Crosswalk is my second job and I’m still not making enough to get by. There’s a voice in my heart that quietly says, keep the baby.
I’m pretending I don’t hear it.
Even before I knew I was pregnant I felt the flick of a pilot light in the trunk of my body. A hot glow that churned my insides like a cauldron. The heat at my core is growing.
When a fire burns a tree to the top, it’s called crowning. When the trees spread to each other, it’s called a crown fire.
All of the crowns, the tippy top of trees, tall and strong, barely touching by the tips of their branches, alone and together, lighting up the night sky.
Last week I got in a bike accident on a busy downtown street, a car was following me too closely and when I turned to tell them to back off I rolled over my handlebars stopping rush hour traffic. As I lay in the street, cars rushing past in the open lanes, I winced under the late summer sun, hoping that I would miscarry, that the universe or God or whatever would make up its mind for me.
A few days before that, I had an appointment for an abortion at Planned Parenthood. The whole scene isn’t unfamiliar to me, Rock you Like a Hurricane wailing on the boombox while they did my blood work. Little kids playing with Legos while Mrs. Doubtfire plays on the TV in the corner. The nurse took me back for my preliminary transvaginal ultrasound and made my boyfriend wait in the lobby leaving me alone to bear the brunt of this. After the ultrasound was finished I got dressed and left. I couldn’t go through with it. When my boyfriend asked what changed, I said,
I just couldn’t do it.
I was pregnant when I was 17, too. Where I came from, just a mile and a half up the South Hill from Crosswalk, the shame wasn’t in getting pregnant, it was in staying pregnant. To have a baby as a teenager is to have a permanent and public record of the sex you had in your older boyfriend’s parents’ basement. A record of the sex you wish you’d had the confidence to say you didn’t want because you forgot your birth control, and wouldn’t it be better if we could just use a condom?
When I was 17, I called my mom to tell her what had happened, that I was going to have an abortion.
She said, How could you do something so stupid?
My mom had expected me to go to college the next year, something I had written off entirely because I had already dropped out of high school, but she didn’t know that yet because by then she had run away to Seattle for what she called a job. She wasn’t lying about the job, but she was also running from a ever complicated relationship with my father and an affair with her boss. After she left, I was left alone most of the time to care for myself and my younger brother.
Summers in Spokane are brutal. The rolling, blurry heat scorches the scablands, drying the brittle bones of ponderosa pines. One dismissed cigarette, or the hot underbelly of a car parked off to the side of the highway in dried brush can start the whole city on fire. The fires in Spokane feel worse now than they were when I was a kid. I have summer memories of dripping dry on the cracked pool patio at my neighbor’s house, tired and hungry, smelling the sweet smoke of distant forest fire mixed with chlorine. But now, the fires feel closer, hotter. The sun blazes encircled in a bloody halo; that’s what happens when the city’s on fire, the turf twists into an alternate reality where the sun glows hot red, the shadows are long but hazy and passing headlights catch the falling ash. The months of unrelenting full-sun days and clear skies lead to this annual late-summer hellscape.
Before humans, wildfires started on their own. After too much build-up of brush and downed logs, a couple of strikes of lightning could start up a big forest fire. The diversity of plant and animal life in the world’s forests, prairies, and wetlands is dependent on fire; some plants cannot reproduce without it.They say it’s a natural cleansing devastation burning the understory and erasing well-worn paths.
Fire breaks open the outside coating of some seeds and stimulates germination. What may at first look like total devastation soon becomes a panorama of new life.
Jessica, Reya and I are sitting at our table waiting for Makayla to sit down before we figure out what to do with our free day. The shelter doesn’t have computers so we can’t work on resumes or scour Craigslist for job openings. We usually do that at the computer lab in the public library, but it’s too far to walk in the smoke. I skim our options, which includes financial literacy worksheets from the 80’s or going over government financial assistance for needy families and WIC, but that’s more for me than them. These girls are experts on TANF, WIC, the diaper bank, and food banks and which buses to take there.
Around us, the other kids at Crosswalk are hunched over breakfast trays, shoveling up cereal and frozen waffles. Some are trying to sleep, heads cradled in their folded arms. There’s kids’ art all over the walls; roses with barbed wire. There are posters with happy looking kids getting their college degrees. A boy with a flat billed hat pulled over his eyes is blaring Korn from the tinny speakers of his TracFone. My eyes settle on a mural I’ve never noticed before, it’s a panel with dozens of handprints made by kids that stayed in the shelter 10 years ago, Crosswalk 2003 it says in the middle of the rainbow colored paw prints.
I do the math and decide that statistically, some of those handprints belong to ghosts.
Makalya’s dirty, flip-flopped feet pop out like a kickstand as she falls into her seat around our group’s plastic circle table covered with half-assed graffiti of gang signs, names of boyfriends in bubbly script and FUCK THE POLICE in fat sharpie. Reya and Jessica are already sipping coffee I stole for them from the staff coffee carafe and poking at the remains of breakfast sausage patties with limp sporks.
My bus was late and the baby was sick last night. So sorry, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Makayla huffed out in one long breath.
Her excuses are perfunctory. Makayla is always late. I wonder how she makes it anywhere while 17 and pregnant with a second child while her baby daddy is in juvie. I’m supposed to be teaching employment skills like being on time, but reprimanding doesn’t seem productive.
Glad you could make it. I say back.
Jessica is cooing at Makayla’s baby, Evangeline. Jessica is 16 with effortless blonde hair that is somehow always clean. Jessica has a baby with James, her 34-year-old boyfriend. She left James off the birth certificate because if she listed him, he would have been arrested for statutory rape. She lives in a house for homeless pregnant teens and new moms. It’s a mansion built in the 1800s with money from the silver mines, the house is now owned by Volunteers of America. Jessica turns her face to avoid the baby’s finger headed for her mouth. Her elongated neck reveals “baby girl” tattooed on her collarbone in sweeping script. She cradles the baby. Unlike Makayla, she is a born natural.
Hi happy baby! Jessica sings.
Evangeline giggles and flails.
I’m glad we get to be inside today. Reya announced to no one in particular.
Nick said I can’t wear shorts anymore and it would be way too hot for these jeans, she added, referring to her boyfriend who works at Little Caesars’ pizza part-time and regularly responds to Craigslist Missed Connection ads for casual sex, a fact Reya learned when borrowing his computer a few weeks ago. I don’t have the energy to address Reya’s abusive relationship because I catch Jessica staring at the growing moon of my belly.
At almost three months pregnant, I’m starting to show.
Jessica’s maternal instincts feel supernatural. I worry one glance at my stomach is a crystal ball through which she can see my entire being. I worry, she sees that I’m pregnant and lost. All the more lost the more time I spend with these teen moms. I think abortion is my only shot at getting out of this mess, but then I see Jessica and think If she can do it, I can do it.
I’ve tried to hide it. I started wearing a push-up bra to work, to make my boobs look bigger, so my stomach seems proportional. I wear Spanx under my shorts. I hold my backpack in front of me like it’s a misplaced prop in a TV show.
Bet I look like the good girl, cuz I’m not pregnant, huh? Reya asks.
It’s so much better to have kids this young, you get so much more money from the state.
Makayla proselytizes this like a sermon she’s heard a million times before.
Jessica nods, then looks at me like she’s looking right through me.
I think she might be omniscient.
I haven’t told them that I’m pregnant because I can’t handle what they’d say. What this forced confidence could convince me of. Because of Jessica and Makayla, I question what it even means to be a good mother. What if being a mother just means trying really hard to love this thing that came into your life. What if it doesn’t matter that I don’t have money, or a permanent job or that I would have to put a crib in the closet of my tiny apartment? What if it means trusting things will work out kind of makes them work out? Even if it’s in a sad, little quiet way.
Jessica passes Evangeline to me. She’s wearing a tiny black velvet dress with a red rose on the collar, it looks like a dress made for Christmas, but it’s August. The baby shriek cries in my arms, I stare into her tiny, black eyes looking for a sign that I, too, could be a mother. Evangeline kicks my stomach while thrashing, whipping her head looking for her mom. Her cry is so piercing it’s like the opposite of a sign. The smell of ammonia and slept in piss, forest fire fill my nose. I heave and hand the baby back.
Evangeline settles back down when Makayla tries to feed her a bottle. I’m jealous because the baby doesn’t seem to like me at all. I’m jealous that Makayla has something that I think I could want.
We should go in the clothing room and get something to wear to an interview, Makayla suggests with the baby laying on her arm like a sloth on a log.
You won’t find anything in there. It’s all crap that gets sent here. Reya says looking off into the distance.
I can’t think of a better way to spend our day inside so I agree to the dress up idea, so I start with a lecture about how to use baby powder like dry shampoo so you can still look clean at work even when you can’t wash your hair. I pour too much in my hair and try to rub it all the way into my scalp, erasing the white into the chestnut of my hair. The girls ignore me and start to pick through racks and piles of clothes. The clothing room is a floor to ceiling room the size of a shipping container packed with donated clothes. In the corner three washers are spinning.
Their cycles are hypnotic.
Jessica grabs a pair of expensive designer jeans on top of the stack.
Can I try these on?
I shrug, I dunno.
Jessica has the type of body that takes on the role of whatever costume she’s wearing. In these $200 donated jeans, she looks it. She look like a girl I went to high school with that’s now an Instagram model after dropping out of Pepperdine. It looks impossible for her to have a baby in child care two buses away from her Volunteers of America boarding house because it’s the only daycare with space available that takes the state vouchers. No one looking at her in those jeans would believe her 34-year-old boyfriend occasionally relapses on meth or that Jessica stays strong and says he can’t see the baby when he’s high.
Makayla flips through tops looking for a blouse to wear to her interview at McDonald’s later this week. It’s impossible to hide her life. Makayla’s belly is swollen and her arms are covered in scars from picked bug bites and cigarette burns. Looking professional is just an obscuration of the lives you’ve lived.
When men first thought they could outsmart nature, they used to fight fires with absolute suppression. A term that means they fought every fire when it started and prevented its spread as much as possible. Along with global warming, absolute suppression is the reason for the increase in major forest fires. The tools we use to keep disaster at bay sometimes become the thing that causes it to rush toward us.
Reya finds a mismatched suit in her size and hides behind the washers to try it on.
Jessica and I are standing alone against a rack of men’s work pants.
Do you want to have kids? Jessica asks me.
I don’t know what to say because I don’t know the answer. I am jealous of how certain Jessica and Makayla are about their babies. I want to be that certain about anything.
I don’t know yet. Someday, maybe. I manage to say.
Jessica looks like I’ve abandoned her. Her shoulders slump.
The most effective way to put out a fire is to wait for nature to be on your side. To wait for the fall rains to come and end the cycle. Fighting nature is impossible, you can only help her along.
My eyes catch a man pacing the sidewalk outside the windows of Crosswalk. He moves up and down the sidewalk like a hungry dog on a chain. He looks 35. He’s smoking a cigarette, wearing a brown leather duster; the get up seems odd because it is 90 degrees outside and the air is already so dense with smoke that the cigarette feels like he’s trying to prove a point. Through the hazy air he looks sepia tone. He’s wearing a green t-shirt with a stretched collar. I watch him for a while, until Jessica notices me watching him and looks out the window too. A look of scared recognition washes over her face. Jessica runs outside.
It’s her boyfriend, James.
I can’t hear them in side so I watch James throws his arms up in rageful defeat. He kicks an empty glass bottle of MD 2020 and it shatters into a million tiny glass jewels. Cars are whipping past. They feel faster than usual. As he stalks down the sidewalk, Jessica reaches after him like he’s something precious falling down a cavern.
I slide outside, into the smoke, hoping to not be noticed. James is the patron saint of abusive partners. I can hear him yelling now.
I just had to come down here to make sure you weren’t fuckin’ lying to me about where you were. James yells with his arms swinging.
My Spanx roll down in my hustle outside, cutting me in half like a burrito with a rubber band wrapped around it. I’m trying to pull them back up through my shirt while I listen for my cue to step in.
Why would I lie to you? Jessica responds calmly.
I just know you’re fucking another dude. I just know it.
Well, I’m not. I’m here. I’ve been here all day.
I remember all the hickies on her neck. I think of them now like a brand.
He storms off, punching a no parking sign as he goes.
James should be embarrassed, but it’s Jessica that falls into my arms, like she doesn’t deserve love or protection.
Jessica cries into the crane of my neck. Her face blushes in hot red patches and for the first time, she looks human.
I don’t know why he’s so jealous. I didn’t do anything. She hiccups out.
Her tears are soaking through my shirt.
I remember every bad boyfriend I’ve ever had. Every dude that showed up where he didn’t belong. I remember my old apartment, the one that was charred and unlivable by the end of my ex-boyfriend’s five day bender.
I hold her tighter.
It’s the next day. I call in sick to work. It’s raining for the first time in months. I hear the fire sizzle with each drop of rain. Sizzle, sizzle, sizzle. Until all there is a chorus of relief like cicadas. The earth breaths a sign of relief and I breathe with it.
Alayna Becker is a writer and comedian living in Seattle. Her work has been featured in the Pacific Northwest Inlander and is forthcoming in Shout Your Abortion an anthology of voices on abortion. She recently completed her certificate in prose from the IPRC in Portland, OR.