Mold

The ultrasound promises twenty fingers, four marble feet, two spherical heads, bug-eyed and toothless. Bailey covers them with her hands, the swell of their folded bodies pressed taut against her palms. Lucas curves his arms around her expanding waist, the space between his fingertips growing further and further apart.

"We need more room." Bailey decides and Lucas agrees; their cramped apartment has been shrinking with each passing day. The newspapers advertise a house on the edge of town: two bedrooms, a kitchen with real granite countertops and a crawl space in the ceiling. Lucas signs the check with shaking hands, counting backwards from one hundred as he pens his name.

The new house floods every time it rains. When Bailey and Lucas move in, the walls are already spotted with mildew, tinted hues of conifer and black that pass thoughts of plague through their heads.

"But it's nice." Bailey sighs, as two weeks later they're still unpacking, putting up furniture in one room and then scooting it into another because it just didn't fit. They've had to avoid the speckled walls, setting everything in the middle of the rooms, so it appears as if a vortex came through the house, sucking everything to the center. "The mold gives it character."

Lucas paints the bedroom ceiling yellow, the walls a safe mixture of grey and white like the homogenous contents of his closet. Bailey pretends not to mind, but every time the brushes and rollers appear she retreats outside, one hand resting protectively on her protruding stomach. "The fumes might hurt the babies," she explains, and disappears onto the front porch to sulk in the water damaged rocking chair the previous owners left behind.

"We should have the neighbors over for dinner," Bailey suggests, over breakfast of tea and cinnamon-sugar oatmeal she eats with her fingers.

"Neighbors? What neighbors?" Lucas checks the clock. He's late for work again. Coffee doesn't sell itself, and they're saving up to get the roof fixed. The mold has started to spread.

"There is a couple across the street. They have a little girl and a pool. They keep a garden, Lucas. We should keep a garden."

Lucas looks up at his wife, her eyes wide and hopeful that he'll say yes, yes to anything. Her belly has grown to the size of a watermelon, the fabric of her dress stretched thin across its shape. "You're beautiful." He wants to say, "Really." Instead he blushes, retreating into the mind of the fourteen year old he was when they met.

"Sure, have them over, and we can look into gardening." He kisses the top of her head, breathing in the scent of vanilla and pear. "I'll call if I'm going to be late."

/

The neighbors are in their late twenties, older than Lucas and Bailey, and their daughter is less than a year old, stuffing chubby fists into her mouth. Bailey coos over the baby, offering drinks and snacks and ushering the couple into the living room.

Lucas remains silent, smiling cautiously as Bailey speaks, weaving sentences with her hands in the air: how are you, where do you work, may I hold your baby?

The guests are both musicians, teaching to make ends meet somewhere between desperate and comfortable, but they manage to grow their own vegetables and swim every evening at six. Lucas downs glass after glass of boxed Chardonnay and watches Bailey fall in love.

The neighbors come over at least once a week for dinner and Lucas finally gets their names right: Jinnee and Daniel Wingman. They complain about work, the ridiculous hours and mediocre pay and boast over their baby's sprouting teeth. Bailey sits enthralled, plucking olives from her salad to roll over her thumb.

"They're great, aren't they?" She says every time she's finally shut the door behind their retreating backs and slumped against it. "Like older siblings. I always wanted a sister."

Lucas doesn't answer, doesn't tell her that he misses when the house was just them, alone with the mold, alone with Chopin playing on the stereo and Bailey humming along, alone with the two little girls floating beneath her skin. Instead he kisses her, hands gently cupping the sides of her rounded face, and carries her to bed.

That night, something bursts inside her, flooding the sheets and waking them both.

"You alright?"

"No."

"Is it time for them to come yet?"

"I don't know!" Bailey yells in frustration, grabbing the duffel bag of clothes and CDs she packed when she first found out she was pregnant (just-in-case-for-whenever) as Lucas ushers her to the car.

"We should get Jinnee!" She calls, lurching out the car door as soon as she's inside, but Lucas pins her in the seat, arms trembling with strain.

"Please, Bailey. Just us, ok? Just us."

/

She gives birth to two baby girls, six pounds each, one of the smoothest deliveries the doctor has ever seen. Lucas looks on in horror, wondering what the difficult births are like, if the easy ones produce enough blood to make his guts knot up like a tangled jump rope.

Bailey wants to name them Violet and Maroon, the only pleasant shades the store had of the cheap paint they used to color the nursery. Lucas fights her for a Jillian and wins the twin with a large black mole decorating the underside of her tiny chin.

They look like Bailey, no questions asked, with her grey eyes, piggy nose, and tiny pucker-kiss mouth. Lucas lets them clasp his index fingers in their pebble-sized hands, pretending not to hear when Bailey asks when Jinnee and Daniel are planning to visit. He ignores her when she whines about the babies' crying and the tasteless hospital slop.

For three nights Lucas returns home to sleep alone in the white and grey bedroom, cold even beneath the thick patchwork comforter, curled up in the middle space between the dips of his imprint and Bailey's. He watches Jinnee and Daniel leave for work in the morning, carrying their daughter out to an old Toyota minivan. Lugging briefcases, diaper bags, stroller.

Every day for three days he visits Bailey in her tiny white cell, kissing her face and then Jillian and Violet. He listens silently as Bailey describes each of the nurses, the body of every "congratulations" card she's received, the fact that little Jillian isn't breathing right and they might need to stay in the hospital for another day. Every day, waking up requires a drink.

/

Bailey comes home swinging the babies in their padded carriers, taking the Saturday morning sunshine with her into the paint-splattered house. She leaves them on the kitchen counter among the unwashed pickle jars, empty wine bottles spilling sticky drops onto the grout. The dimly lit house feels almost foreign after a week of basking in fluorescent light, and the moldy walls burn spots into her pupils.

"Lucas?"

"I'm in the bathroom."

Bailey runs, feet padding the tile, rug, tile again. "Lucas!" She catches him by the waist the second he steps through the open doorway, hiding her face in the warmth of his bony chest.

"Who brought you home?" Lucas bends to take in her smell, the tip of his nose flattened against her unwashed scalp.

"Jinnee. She's coming over later to cook us dinner."

"You didn't tell me they were releasing you today." He can barely feel his lips move as he mumbles, and the words tangle up in Bailey's hair, dropping lifelessly to her ears.

"I wanted it to be a surprise."

Silence falls like a curtain, ironed and starched until it's tense as cardboard and they stand there wrapped around each other, afraid to let go, too uncertain to keep holding on.

"I'm going to take a shower."

Bailey lowers her hands to grab Lucas's wrists, flattening his veins between her fingers. "I'm coming with."

/

Dinner is spaghetti with turkey meatballs, garlic bread, and chocolate cake with icing that slides like slug slime onto the plates and hangs off the back of Lucas's throat. His fingertips tingle from touching the stretch marks decorating Bailey's deflated belly, his skin burns where her lips drew maps across his ribs.

Bailey barely touches her food, crumbling the cake into the pile of noodles on her plate and leaving it like that. Lucas watches her feed the babies on the living room couch, peeling off her wrinkled tee shirt and sitting half naked as the tiny mouths latch hungrily to her nipples.

Lucas doesn't realize that he's alone at the table with Jinnee until he's scraped the last meatball from his fork with his tongue. She smiles at him with a mouth full of too many straight white teeth and he reddens, wiping the spicy tomato sauce from his lips with the back of his hand.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Jinnee rests her cheek on her delicate hand, her dark hair falling in a short fringe over her eyes.

"What?"

"Motherhood. That." She points, bright red tipped fingers, to Bailey with her empty womb and swollen breasts, Jillian nursing an empty stomach and Violet with one thumb caught between her gums.

"I don't know. There's something off about the whole thing." Lucas can't manage to raise his voice above a whisper, and he picks at the skin around his bitten fingernails, peeling it back. "Producing miniature humans, birthing them, feeding them."

"They're kids, Luke." Jinnee deadpans, but she's laughing, a hiccupping guffaw that twists Lucas's lips into a crescent moon smile. "You're a dad now. Get over it."

/

The babies fuss every night, from when the sun disappears completely, to the second it peeks out from behind the clouds. Lucas drowns out the whimpering with glass after glass of red wine, and stumbles into the bathroom every morning with a headache pounding out of his ears.

Bailey insists on sleeping in the babies' room, spitting out, "Sudden Infant Death Syndrome," but Lucas knows she just can't stand the smell of alcohol on his breath, or the way the colors of his brain are swabbed over the bedroom walls. At first he tries to ignore her absence, stretching himself out across the mattress, but as the days get colder he misses how her warmth would spread out beneath the sheets, reaching all the way to his toes.

/

At three months old the babies can sit propped up on the couch, babbling incessantly and drooling strings of chunky saliva over their tiny fingers. Bailey moves a spare mattress to the nursery floor, beginning every morning with kisses placed on their round faces. Lucas starts dragging his bones out of bed only after he's hit the snooze button on his alarm several times, trudging to the kitchen for a cup of coffee just so he can stay awake through a five minute shower.

"When are you going to start sleeping in the bed again?"

Bailey never looks up when he speaks anymore, and she's started eating her oatmeal with a spoon, shoveling it down plain. Lucas misses the aroma of cinnamon and green tea in the morning; the creeping mold is starting to smell.

"Bailey, did you hear me?"

"I don't know, Lucas."

From the nursery, Jillian starts to cough, a lung rattling hack that turns every angry thought surging through Lucas's head into whiny puffs. "We need to get out of this house." His voice is weak; I give up, laced into every word.

Bailey doesn't answer, scraping the last tasteless bits of oatmeal from the bottom of her bowl as the coughs grow into a resounding wail.

"I'm going to shower."

Nothing.

"Maybe we should take her to the doctor."

Nothing.

"Why won't you talk to me, Bailey?"

"Why won't you stop drinking?

Lucas slams his empty mug down on the counter, the perfect granite tiles smashing the weathered china to bits. He hears Bailey screaming in the background, but Jillian's crying drowns it out, pounding nails into his already throbbing skull.

"What the hell is wrong with you?"

"I don't know."

"Why are you doing this to me?" Bailey shakes her head back and forth, side to side like a hurricane, tears sliding down her face. They're both crying, Lucas realizes in a wash of shame, and he roughly wipes at his wet cheeks with the side of his bloody hand.

"I'm not your father. I'm not going to hurt you." Lucas grits his teeth, closes his eyes. "I promise, Bailey, I would never do any of the things he did to you. I swear to God."

When he opens his eyes he's alone in the kitchen, dripping red onto the floor.

/

Lucas comes home late from work to find the Wingmans in the kitchen, grocery bags on the counter, Bailey passed out on the couch.

"What are you guys doing here?"

"Bailey asked us to make dinner tonight. She said she wasn't feeling well." Jinnee looks up from the tomatoes she's cutting, the ever-present smile shining on her face. "Is jambalaya alright with you?"

Lucas nods, his hand is stinging mercilessly and his stomach feels numb. "Are the twins asleep?"

"As far as I know. Ours is in there too. They're so adorable, all snuggled up in the crib. You should go see."

Jillian is awake in the crib, gurgling and blowing spit bubbles, kicking her fat little legs. She smiles when she sees her father, a tiny twitch of her slobbery mouth, and Lucas can't help but grin back, reaching down to pick her up.

She's light in his arms, soft as a pillow, and he gently kisses her cheek, breathing in her sour baby smell, wondering when she was last bathed, how long she's been wearing this stained night dress. She doesn't hesitate to cough all over him, her face screwing up in distress as she pulls in a heavy breath, about to cry. Lucas quickly grabs a pacifier from the changing table, shoving it into her mouth and she calms down, laying her forehead on his shoulder.

Lucas can feel himself start to shake, slowly lowering to his knees, resting his head against Jillian's, as she breathes softly into the crook of his neck.

/

No one speaks at dinner, and every click of utensils on the china plates sounds like a hammer put to a window. After the neighbors leave, Lucas pulls Bailey into the bedroom, onto the bed, over him like a blanket.

"Are you drunk?"

"No."

"You promise?"

"Yeah."

Words don't show themselves again until they're lying side by side on the lumpy mattress, trying to get their heart beats back in sync with the clock hanging on the wall, counting down the seconds till daylight.

"Do you think we need a break?"

Lucas turns his head, mouth falling open. "Do you?"

"I don't know." Bailey shrugs loosely, lifting one hand to pull it through her knotted hair, fanning the strands out over the pillow.

"We could paint the bedroom, start a garden…"

"Jill needs to go to the doctor."

"Yeah." Lucas closes his eyes, relaxing into the twisted springs that press bruises into his bones. His back hurts- everything hurts. "I hate the Wingmans being over all the time. I hate strangers."

"I know."

His mouth wants to ask, beg, "let's wait it out, please wait it out," but Bailey has already turned away from him, the expanse of her naked back reflecting the shadows the trees cast through the open blinds. Lucas sighs, eyes dropping shut and he swallows the words that cling to his tongue, saying nothing at all.

8