Natalie and her friends wore stiff neon vests like sandwich boards advertising their faith in finding Bettina, the little girl who’d wandered into the bush three days ago. At least Natalie’s friends had faith—this was their second time through the same field because Morgan had a “good feeling”. They were just a few of the hundreds of volunteers, mostly locals but also people from neighbouring provinces, who’d responded to help in the search. The friends were four abreast, stepping through a field of ripe wheat, and had to shout to hear one another over the wind and susurration of drowsy wheat heads. Natalie’s vest flared out over her belly, and her ankles swelled further with clingy chickweed. Her friends actually thought they were going to find the girl alive, and she’d give them a big hug or something. Like there wasn’t another possibility.
Natalie had learned there were possibilities aplenty. Before she got pregnant the possibilities were few but brilliant: highest graduating mark in school division, scholarship to university, medical school, residency, specialty residency, fulfilling relationship with architect, children optional, half-marathons, wine appreciation, minimally decorated rooms, world travel. All this before thirty. Instead, she was pregnant by way of Andy fucking Gustafson: boy she’d gone to school with since kindergarten, boy who’d hilariously rubbed a powdery marshmallow on his butt in grade five, boy who’d grown disastrously irresistible. Natalie knew the girl, Bettina, was dead. Knew it like she knew Tuesday came after Monday.
Sweat trickled down the aching arch of her lower back into the waistband of her maternity leggings, creating a kind of wet girdle. Uncomfortable, for sure, but better than canning tomatoes with her mother, feeling disappointment as thick and scalding as steam off the canner. Natalie dragged her feet out at the end of the field, shrugged off the vest.
“We’ll find her tomorrow,” said Katie. “She’ll be so happy to see me. I’m her favourite babysitter.”
“You’ve said,” said Natalie who’d never been a popular babysitter. Too serious, didn’t like to play, showed frustration when the kids wouldn’t go to bed and let her get her homework done, children never asked for her. And now, having been irresponsible enough to get pregnant in high school, forget it. As a result, she only knew this Bettina as one of the many little faces tearing around wild-eyed with excitement at community suppers.
“Natalie-Fellatalie!” said Christian who’d remained his old, vulgar self around Natalie, which she appreciated. “Want a ride home?”
“I’ll walk, but, here, take this.” She handed him the vest.
“You sure?” shouted Morgan as she raced Katie to the car to claim shotgun.
“I can’t spend another minute with World’s Greatest Babysitter,” said Natalie, the truth of it carried away on the wind along with the absurd thought that soon she might need Katie to babysit. The sun was low and in Natalie’s eyes. The weight on her pelvis made her legs feel squashed. She already regretted turning down the ride, but there was no way she was going to chase after them, and she couldn’t turn back time: not one minute, not eight-and-a-half months. She called out, “And I don’t collect stamps anymore, Christian.”
Their old joke sounded stale, and she heard Katie’s unmistakable, “Awkward.” Katie was right. Natalie was awkward, and not just socially. She waddled up from the ditch onto the gravel road and inhaled the dust kicked up by her friends’ departing car. Then a red truck with an out-of-province licence plate sped by in the direction of her parents’ farm, fishtailing to a stop half a kilometre away. A man jumped out and ran into the bush bordering a harvested field. Whatever. People were acting weird these days.
She yarded on her leggings and started walking along the side of the road, reflexively checking her dead phone for a message from Andy. He was harvesting with his dad, making an effort to learn the business so he could “support the baby” after he graduated. He actually had a plan, but the thought of living in the old farmhouse Andy’s family normally rented to their hired men made Natalie want to cry. Though it was certainly minimally decorated—the only thing on the walls was a faded Playboy calendar stuck on September 1987 Playmate of the Month, Gwen Hajek—it didn’t exactly have the Scandinavian vibe Natalie dreamt of. In that old farmhouse she’d become as stuck in time as poor, naked Gwen.
This story was originally published in subTerrain, vol 8, issue 30, 2018.