Published in Overland Issue Fiction in Lockdown Uncategorized As armour Laura Stortenbeker Content warning: pregnancy loss, abortion The sign on the freeway says we wish you every happiness together but they knew better than that red neon. ‘I can feel your pulse.’ B reads all signs, speed limits, church boards, distance till destination. Mari has her feet on the dash, one hand tucked into the hem of her skirt. The other holds higher on his thigh, femoral pulse. ‘We wish you every happiness together.’ ‘We’re not married yet.’ ‘It still sounds nice, like a blessing.’ ‘We’re not.’ ‘Hey.’ Earlier that night in the car park they waited for a friend of his, a ride home for small change. Mari sat with bare legs touching the concrete, said they’re all smooth. B put a hand to both. Felt a shaving cut on her calf. She wanted to tell him, wanted to ask what’s good for us but thought it would be clearer. She worked hard, she said apologise to me, she asked what’s good for now. The freeway spans on forever. ‘Touch me please.’ Mari puts her leg between his knees in bed in the morning, is reminded that they take care of each other, says I said I’m sorry for leaving. Says I am pregnant and I don’t want to be. Knife of a conversation. He wakes up fully. ‘For how long?’ ‘Nine weeks.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘I know how it feels.’ ‘Baby.’ ‘Yes?’ ‘It’s all right.’ He presses at the crucifixion points of her hands when they fuck. He is rough, but it’s okay. She says yes. Blood transfers from his dick to her stomach. She has always bled like this when there’s a baby inside. Soft cervix. They wouldn’t tie her tubes because she’s twenty-six. He makes a cereal breakfast for both of them. The babies are at his mother’s. He thinks about the time he and Mari fucked on the lawn of the neighbours’ house and told them they’d seen someone else do it. He thinks about how it felt when they first moved to this rental, when he saw her waiting for him in the kitchen with her back to him and then how it felt when she turned and moved her face to show she was glad to see him. B remembers the fresh start of it, asking Mari to prepare a meal, to prepare a place for him to sleep in her room, I don’t wanna sleep in your bed but I wanna be close to you, even if it’s the next room, let me have this. Her clothes, an outfit, short-sleeve white button-up with black paint stains. Mari, a planned look, fade of lipstick, hair parted on the left. A beginning, met Mari and told her he wanted to fuck but couldn’t offer a larger cut of time, betrayed that promise to himself, made plans, out on the ballast field, touched the socket (eye, not electric), deliberately kissed next to her mouth. And now the three babies, two daughters, a boy in the middle, names all starting with pointed letters. A long-lasting relationship, an achievement in love. Mari comes from the bedroom. She says we can’t afford this baby. She says I know this will destroy something. We’re already struggling (this she yells) and I don’t want it. All the power in I don’t want. In a small dark room Mari and B look away from the image of the baby, that joy feeling won’t last. They pace a food court. He tells her, ‘Glad you’re my girl, even when things are shit like this.’ ‘I want to have an abortion.’ ‘I know.’ At home Mari prepares fruit for the children, simple things. Apples, melon. For herself she wants adult fruits – a quince, a mandarin, pomegranate, all fruits that would look good resting in a hand in a photograph. She thinks of less beautiful things, a line of nails arranged with tips pointed same direction, a cut-off stone, a piece of skin pulled from another part of a body, a peach pit, a plum crushed and bruised from her own force. B comes back late from the bar. Lays across the bed shirtless, still in jeans. Mari’s mood is low. ‘I can’t look at you, I can’t fuck you,’ he says. Sometimes their smallest child sleeps at the side of their bed on an old cot mattress. ‘You could punch me very hard.’ ‘What?’ ‘In the stomach.’ ‘I understood you, I won’t do it.’ ‘We can’t afford this.’ ‘It won’t work. It’ll just hurt you.’ ‘You want me to have it.’ ‘No. There are just other ways.’ ‘Where will the money come from?’ They used to fuck around on each other but got past that, got settled, had their babies. The red baby, the pink baby, the blue baby, they still remember the colours they were when each was born. B is out of work, but not for long. Legally he’s unskilled, but he can do a lot of things. Heavy work, construction, paint jobs, drives. Today he’ll work three hours north dragging plants around a cleared dirt field. When he goes out the door Mari presses a tangerine into his palm. ‘Where will I put this?’ ‘In your pocket.’ B tells the boys on the job my girl’s pregnant again. There’s swift congratulations, talk of his powerful cock, good on you, number four, hey. He remembers Mari big with a baby in her the first time (the red baby, but not angry to be birthed). B still loves that body, when Mari walks around with just underwear on, white or lighter blue. Five years later now, didn’t mean for this, had pulled out, reminded her of birth control, tried not to come inside her, but you know, when you’re right in it, sometimes, can’t stop. While B hauls soil, Mari works the house, laundry cycle, printing her name on the inside of her shirts to tell them apart from his (same size, same kind, bigger on her body). Last year, B found an old shirt at the St Paul’s charity shop, volcano as a faded print. This one they share. Her time is consumed. When B used to work regional construction he would leave for days. When she missed him the most she’d wear his deodorant, sweats through it. Mari remembers the time she had to go pick him up, too drunk to make his own way back, B off the side of the road, grass cut uneven, dirt sprawl, burn of rubber, one hand tucked into his shirt sleeve while waiting to cross to her. Another time he came home with pollen in his hair, stripped the mattress and slept on the unmade bed. She remembers when he told her he used to put his father’s wedding ring on as a child and imagine belonging to someone, how he wanted to go places – he’s let that go now, but there’s still a print of Mt Loma Prieta on their bedroom wall, he’s never been, 3,790 feet. She walks the babies to her friend’s house. Takes her time, feels that humidity come and clasp itself to her skin. They stop to talk about the flowers. She presses her thumb into the centre of some. This is a strange secret thing, soft, a hard stamen sometimes. She doesn’t know all the names. Frances is waiting out front, her own daughter plucking at her shirt hem. Inside, they set the children in front of the television and begin their routine. ‘Why do you wear all white so often, you’ve got three kids.’ ‘Well I want to feel pure,’ Mari does an ugly laugh. ‘I want to feel like me.’ She waxes Frances’ eyebrows and armpits. ‘Next time we can do your vagina, if you want.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yeah baby, of course.’ ‘Did you talk to him?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Does he want it?’ ‘He said sorry for fucking up again.’ ‘Did you decide what you’ll do?’ ‘I won’t have it.’ ‘All right.’ B texts her alrite when she says he needs to find a way. It’s dark out when he comes home, babies in bed. ‘What are you doing?’ He watches her, wiping the leaves of a plant with a cloth. There’s a low-rimmed bowl resting on the table. She dips the fabric, spreads a leaf on her palm and pads at it. ‘I’m cleaning the dust.’ ‘With what?’ ‘Milk.’ ‘Really?’ ‘It makes the leaves glossy.’ His hand goes to her stomach, as instinct. She moves away, guides her body past him. ‘You know how you get when you’re really high and your thoughts kind of rip in to each other?’ ‘You’re high?’ ‘No, but it feels like it.’ She comes back across the room to him. A hard kiss, says you taste like whiskey, oranges. He hangs his bicep neat on her neck. ‘I asked around. Mackie said he’d loan me the money,’ says B. ‘He doesn’t have enough.’ ‘He wouldn’t offer if he couldn’t.’ Mari makes a little distance between them. ‘Did you tell him why?’ B’s arm is still around her. ‘I had to.’ ‘Fuck, you’re unbelievable.’ She pushes him away. ‘Do you want to have an abortion or not?’ ‘Its between us, me.’ ‘He’s just gonna go out drinking with his mates. If you want borrow that money for you, borrow that money for you.’ ‘I do not want this baby.’ She says it again, as armour. ‘I don’t want this, baby.’ ‘I do.’ ‘Don’t.’ ‘I won’t lie to you,’ he says. ‘You can’t do this.’ ‘I’m not doing anything.’ ‘Don’t be that way.’ ‘I want this baby, but I’m not going to make you have it just because I think we can make room.’ She looks at his face, thinks right right, it’s meant to be more like this, doesn’t tell him I still sweat in my sleep when I focus on you. He shifts from distance as desire to straight up I wanna fuck you, head back when he says it out loud. She asks him to be softer but then harder, again, now. She puts her mouth close to his but doesn’t touch, it’s what they both want. He touches her face at the edges, her rosacea blooms from the centre. ‘I still think we’ll get married, when we can afford it.’ Mari, with her body positioned so it’s easy to move off his. ‘Are you happy?’ ‘I’m all right.’ In the morning at work he sees a text from Mari: are you happ y. He takes time to reply. The woman doing paychecks for the landscaping work asks about his family, his girl. ‘Such a love between us.’ ‘Plans for more kids?’ ‘No, not now.’ He asks Mari if she wants him to bring anything home. She spells it cigarettee in the message. Mari imagines B coming home to say but I blame you, you’re all at fault, shut the fuck up, stop this, I won’t take any of that and have it on me. She has Frances drive her to the grocery store, loads the kids in back. Plastic bags tucked between their little knees. An apology meal. A lamb roast. Sets the children the task of ripping rosemary leaves from stems. B texts all day. He’s sorry too. She wants to be forgiven, knows she will be, but not when. Do you want me to bring anything home for you? x I would love a cigarettee. B can’t finish his meal. He is too caught up in himself, troubled thought, worried to say the wrong thing once more but wanting to say what he means. After dinner they stand leaning on opposite sides of the door frame. Mari says, ‘I want to make things not bad between us.’ He can see the light through the weave in the armpit of her jumper. When she speaks again she is flat, determined. ‘I did some research and you can get a pill now, if you’re not too far along.’ ‘Would it hurt much?’ he says. He expects her to touch at her own stomach but she stays still. ‘I don’t think it’s meant to be so bad, probably not any more painful than going to the dentist.’ ‘When I had a tooth pulled it fucking destroyed me.’ ‘Not numbed?’ ‘Yeah, but after. When it wore off.’ He presses his whole palm to his cheek. ‘I didn’t know you’d had a tooth pulled.’ She feels for the gap in his mouth, finds the place, smaller than a molar. He knows she hasn’t touched him like this before. They take the babies to his mother’s for a few days so they can both work a house-painting job down south. Mari picks a fight over getting out the door on time, all the things small children need. B has become ugly to her. It happens sometimes, then it passes. In the car, she says, ‘I know I’ve been hard to love today.’ ‘Don’t talk like that.’ ‘I’m sorry. I’m stressed out.’ ‘We’ll sort it.’ ‘You keep saying that.’ ‘And I mean it.’ ‘I don’t want you to resent me.’ ‘I wouldn’t, not for this. I just want you to be sure.’ ‘I am.’ ‘Will you be alright to do this job?’ ‘I’m not sick.’ ‘I know.’ Mari eats a peach, imagines wedging the pit in between B’s teeth. She thinks of plums and then plumes. B begins to read signs again, beam the highway. One for a fire warning, dangerous times, church billboards, come into my heart lord Jesus, signs that say, slow down, signs warning of cameras, cops, places where it’s easy to swerve off the road. They sleep on a simple mattress at a cousin’s house for three nights, their limbs burn from reaching towards ceilings, higher, higher. One night they find a small possum on the hood of the car, no movement. They have nothing to bury the animal with so they place it under a tree, lay flowers, sprig of a green weed, a yellow flower part closed in the night. Another night, Mari pretends to read B’s palm. An old game of theirs. She tells him he’ll live forever. When they come home she cries as they collect their children. She visits Frances’ sister in the morning. B drops them off on his way. ‘You’ve still got paint in your hair,’ says Cole. She brings Mari an instant coffee. ‘It was double the money if I went, couldn’t really say no.’ ‘You’re doing all right, yeah? Frances told me.’ ‘We’ll be okay.’ ‘If you need anything, let me know.’ ‘I will.’ ‘Promise me?’ ‘I’m tired of talking about myself. I’m not cut up about it.’ In the afternoon light, Mari smokes her third cigarette, her arm hung out the window, the babies are down for a nap. B makes a round of calls, can I help you out, twenty an hour’s better than nothing, no injuries, free whenever. His birthday is soon. ‘Be nice to have something steady by then,’ he says. ‘Maybe if you wish for it when you blow out your candles.’ ‘I’m gonna have to wish pretty hard.’ ‘Something will come up.’ ‘You’re doubting it?’ She asks him ‘What would you like for your birthday?’ She doesn’t look at him while she speaks. He laughs, says, ‘Should you be smoking?’ She takes the cigarette away from her mouth. ‘It doesn’t make a difference.’ B keeps searching the suburbs for work, no luck, short shifts, dragging timber, small cash. Today, he can’t manage Mari’s troubled face just yet, sits by the river near the job site to wait it out a little. There’s a pink neon sign outside a factory that says, if it’s not safe don’t do it that way and it flashes on and off. A leashless greyhound comes to him, blonde. B pets it and it pushes its head into his hand, lets its tongue hang. When it walks off, he notices it has three legs. The sign keeps flashing in the dimming evening, B repeats it to himself, don’t do it that way. He spits in the water, drives back home, stops by the bottle shop, both hands hauling a heavy case of drinks up the steps, the apartment smells warm and damp. She’s waiting for him in the shower, heats lights on, her hair slicked to her back. He leans against the sink and tells her his boys are coming at eight. She clears through the steam on the glass so they can look at each other. She has traces of soap in her hairline. He tells her. She tilts her head back under the water, asks is that better. He starts to take off his shirt. ‘Can you get me a towel from the laundry?’ When he gets back she’s sitting on the toilet. She reaches out to him. He knows the baby’s died when she hands him her tampon wrapped in toilet paper. It still feels warm from her body. Read the rest of Fiction in Lockdown, edited by Elena Gomez If you enjoyed this special edition, subscribe and receive a year’s worth of print issues, the online magazine, special editions and discounted entry to our literary competitions Laura Stortenbeker Laura Stortenbeker is a Melbourne-based writer/editor. Her work has appeared in Stilts and Voiceworks. She is currently working on a short story collection. More by Laura Stortenbeker Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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