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Excerpt for The Women's Place by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

“Don’t kill your baby!”



The protesters waved signs spattered with blood and tiny dismembered limbs. They loomed over Shayla like lightning clouds, threatening to strike. She had her hand on the window pane of Jade’s car, drawing a heart in the dew, when the man in the hunting jacket appeared.



“Repent!” he spat. “There’s a special place in hell for women who kill their babies!”



Shayla’s teeth gnawed at her lower lip as she looked to Jade for solace. And what a stupid idea that was. Jade’s face reminded Shayla of a hog’s, with beady porcine eyes and a snout where her nose should be. Shayla heard a story once about a rabid mob of hillbillies who killed two men in Alpena and fed the bodies to pigs.



Jade looked like one of those pigs, Shayla decided.



“You gonna sit there all day or what?” Jade hissed. “Go!”



As Shayla inched the door open, the woman in the orange vest appeared, her voice soothing and angelic.



“You don’t have to talk to them.”



Her vest had CLINIC ESCORT printed on it in big, bold, black letters. She linked arms with Shayla as they left the safety of the fenced-in parking lot. They made haste toward the abortion clinic. They called it The Women’s Place.



The walk to The Women’s Place felt like Jesus’ walk to the hill where they crucified him. What was the hill’s name again? Golgatha, Shayla thought. She remembered from Sunday school that the name had something to do with skulls.



At that very moment she saw the man with the cross, holding a blood-and-guts sign with a decapitated fetus on it.



“No peace for the wicked!” he shrieked. “No peace for those who kill innocent children!”



The angel-woman in the orange vest touched her arm. “Don’t listen to them,” she said. “If they were any sort of big Christians, they wouldn’t sit their tails out here, doing what they do.”



Inside the fortress of The Women’s Place, Shayla sat in a bare grey room with a ring of chairs. The other women who were having abortions sat there, silent. They’d also walked past the swarm of protesters calling them killers and sinners.



Shayla looked around. An obese, mean-faced woman and a scrawny parakeet man squished a girl between them. She looked no older than twelve. Across from Shayla, a blonde woman in a cashmere sweater held her husband’s hand. Their wedding rings touched. Tears rolled down the woman’s cheeks and dripped from her jaw. “We wanted our baby,” she breathed. “But he has no brain. Well, no brain beyond the stem...”



A black woman with a swollen belly snatched her jacket from the floor.



“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t.”



In the circle of chairs, a nurse talked to them about the procedure. The word “procedure” made Shayla think of the line at the BMV, not something that involved seaweed sticks and anesthesia and took two days. She stopped listening.



In another room, the ultrasound technician rubbed jelly on Shayla’s belly. She took measurements on a screen with a cold, clinical expression on her face. Shayla peeked at the black-and-white image. A ghostlike figure floated across the screen, twisting and flinching. “That’s it?”



She spotted two black orbs that couldn’t be eyes. Could they?



“Eighteen weeks,” the tech was murmuring in the next room. “No,” Shayla said to no one. “That’s not right.” She must have said eight weeks.



Shayla flopped her head onto the table, knowing this story started much longer ago than eighteen weeks.



Maybe it was junior year of high school. That was the year Shayla moved in with new foster parents who asked nosy questions.



“Do you smoke cigarettes?”



“No.”



“What about premarital sex? Do you have premarital sex?”



“No. Not yet.”



“What do you mean ‘not yet’?”



They told her they were enrolling her in a Catholic girls’ school. The students there had oversized J. Crew cardigans and undersized souls.



“You’re a foster child?” one girl sneered at Shayla. “My mom says it’s a matter of time before you pop out your first Medicaid baby.”



“What’s a Medicaid baby?”



They liked to talk about babies at that school, although none of the girls had babies. But the theology teacher said they murdered them up the street. The routine killings took place in a clinic in a crumbling office building, right next to a sleazy law firm.



“That’s horrible,” said Shayla’s only friend, Janet. “I would never kill my baby.” But when Janet got pregnant the next year, the nuns expelled her. That was the day Shayla dropped out.



She got a dumpy apartment and a waitressing job on the outskirts of Oakland County, Michigan. The middle-aged men at the bar tipped her well when she mixed their Jack and Cokes and 7-and-7s.



That was how she met Karl.



Shayla had her hair tossed over one shoulder in a haggard braid, mopping the floor behind the bar.



“I need another Jack and Coke.”



Karl eyed Shayla in her bent-over position. His stares were so intense that Shayla had trouble looking back at him.



“Another one?” Shayla replied. Her natural voice was thin and high, and it made her sound sweeter and more pliable than the other bartenders. She knew it was why the men liked her.



“One second.” She heaved a sigh and put away the mop.



“You know,” Karl said, “you’re too pretty to be working here.” Shayla flushed, wiping her hands on the tight black V-neck and jeans that was her uniform.



“Where do you live?” Karl asked, his eyes scanning her hips and round, pasty breasts. She yanked her shirt up, thinking she could use a spray tan and some scarlet lipstick.



“Um, I live off Clintonville Road in an apartment,” she said. She didn’t tell him how her little hovel was so close to I-75 she listened to the cars rumbling all night. Or that her roommates smoked crystal meth.



“You have nice curves, nice hair.”



Shayla tugged at her sweaty braid, wondering if he was kidding.



“If you want to serve drinks at a classier place, call me.” He slipped a business card across the bar.



She read it, wide-eyed. “You own the Henhouse?” It was a chain of middlebrow strip joints—not nice clubs, but nice enough.



“Yeah,” Karl said. “But you’re too sweet to be a dancer. I’d make you a cocktail waitress.”



A few weeks later she took him up on his offer. A few weeks after that, he offered her the guest bedroom at his sprawling McMansion on Lake Pontiac.



“My girls all live with me for a while,” he told her. “I’ll take good care of you.” He handed her a credit card with his name on it. He told her to make her hair blonder, her alabaster skin bronzer, and her nails long, red, and fake.



“I love red nails on my girls,” Karl said.



That was what Karl called them: his girls. And Shayla was his favorite girl. She should have known it would happen. One night, as she drifted to sleep, she felt Karl’s fat, hairy stomach against her back. “It’s time for you to earn your keep around here,” he said.



She was helpless as he stripped off her underwear and pinned her down with his enormous weight. She didn’t have the muscle strength to fight him off--and nowhere to go, anyhow. He did it every night for weeks, groaning and grunting on top of her as she squeezed her eyes shut in shame. She tried not to recoil in disgust as sweat from his face dripped onto hers.



One night, after he rolled over, she moaned, “I hope I don’t get pregnant.”



“What?” he exclaimed, as if she’d confessed an outrageous misdeed. “What do you mean, pregnant? Aren’t you on the Pill?”



She pursed her lips and shook her head, bright red spots marring her chest. His eyes narrowed as he lit a cigarette. “Jade will take you to the clinic tomorrow.”



Karl called Jade his House Mother. She was the mean middle-aged woman he’d hired to police his girls. If they slept around or dipped into the liquor cabinet, Jade made their lives miserable. If she felt nasty that day, she’d rat them out to Karl.



“The clinic?”



“Yeah, the Women’s Place,” Karl replied. “To get your pills and fix any problems down there.”



“You better not get pregnant,” he said before he slammed the door on her.



Summer arrived in Michigan, and Karl was getting jealous. He forbade Shayla to work nights at the Henhouse, and the patrons knew to keep their hands off her. One night, when a customer yanked her breast out of her bikini top, Karl grabbed him around the neck.



“I’ll kill you,” he hissed, spittle flying from his lips. In July, Karl sent her off to house-sit at his summer place in Northern Michigan.



“I’m going to Vegas,” he said, voice curt. “You can’t stay here alone.”



“What about Jade?” Shayla replied.



“I’m thinking of firing her,” Karl replied. “Fat bitch is lazy.”



Jade fell asleep on the couch most nights after mixing a few whiskeys and Oxycodones. Karl raped Shayla one more time before putting her in a Lincoln Navigator with Jaysen. Jaysen was a bouncer at the Henhouse. He was wide as the refrigerator, with the same mean, beady little eyes as Jade. He never spoke to Shayla, although he eyeballed her from the neck down.



“Keep her away from Casey,” Karl said to Jaysen.



“Who’s Casey?” Shayla asked.



“One of my fuck-up nephews,” Karl said. “My half-brother ran off with one of my girls and produced the little bastard. He got shot by a drug dealer outside the club when his kids were little.” Karl shut the door. “I let the kid work on my house up north,” he said. “I’ll bet he needs drug money, and I need cheap labor.”



Shayla clutched the armrest in fear as they headed north on I-75, into the big woods. Karl owned a big log cabin on Lake Michigan where the pine tree hills sloped down to the water. Severed animal heads dotted the walls, bucks and elk and black bears, and they haunted Shayla at night. The glowing eyes of dead bears and bucks glowered at her, threatening to eat her. She stayed awake all night reading trashy novels to escape the nightmares. Jaysen still didn’t speak to her, not once.



The silence ended the afternoon the back door crashed open, without a knock or a doorbell ring to warn them.



“Goddammit,” Jaysen huffed. “Why doesn’t that kid call before showing up here?”



Casey wasn’t as scary as Shayla expected. He wore sagging jeans, a backward hat over wispy blonde hair. He had dimples when he smiled, one deeper than the other.



“I’m leaving,” Jaysen announced as soon as Casey set his overnight bag on the stairs. His whipped a few paper bills in Casey’s face and motioned toward Shayla. “Don’t touch her.”



Casey reached into his back pocket and pulled out a bigger wad of money. “I’ll give you twice that much to sleep somewhere else tonight and not tell Karl.”



As soon as Jaysen left, Casey turned up the radio and unlocked Karl’s liquor cabinet. He pulled down a bottle of top-shelf whiskey, the kind Karl forbade his girls to touch.



“Don’t look so scared,” he said to Shayla as he poured himself a straight shot. “When I leave, I fill it up with the cheap shit from the party store on the corner. He doesn’t notice.”



Shayla stood in the kitchen, pretending to do dishes.



“Karl wouldn’t like--”



“Who cares?” Casey snapped. “My friends are coming over tonight. Are you ready to have fun for once in your life?”



“Why would you assume I never have fun?” Shayla asked, incensed.



“Because you live with Karl.”



He flashed her a defiant smile. She smiled back at him, only a little. She still remembered what Karl told Jaysen: Keep her away from Casey.



By nighttime, the kitchen was full of boys in backwards hats and sagging jeans. They blared country music and dove into Karl’s top-shelf liquor. Shayla slinked away to take a shower. She wrapped herself in a towel and ran to her room, imagining Karl was watching over her shoulder. She didn’t dare speak to the strangers in the kitchen.



But as Shayla combed out her wet hair, Casey rapped on the door.



“Shayla,” he said, pronouncing her name like Shy-la in his redneck accent. “Open up.”



Casey stared at her for a long second, eyeing her wet hair and bare shoulders.



“Rule number one around here, we don’t give a fuck what Karl wants,” he said.



“Okay. I’m sorry,” Shayla said, nervous for no good reason.



“Rule number two,” he said. “Rule number two, well...nevermind. I guess there aren’t any others. Are you coming out tonight?”



“I have to fix my hair,” Shayla said.



Casey looked over his shoulder at his friends drinking downstairs. “For these guys?”



Shayla laughed a little. “Give me five minutes.”



They jumped into Casey’s ancient Jeep and tore up the back roads that led into town. They flew across hunting lands and private properties.



“We call this stump jumpin’,” Casey shouted over the music. The Jeep bounced over tree roots and giant cracks in the mud. They made frivolous stops around town, collecting tall-boy beers and packs of cigarettes. The main boulevard in town was their final destination. Four penny-ante bars huddled together near the railroad tracks.



They danced in the moonlight to “Dancing in the Moonlight.” Casey put “Layla” on the jukebox and sang it to her: “Shayla, you got me down on my knees. Shayla...” Shayla ran her hands through her hair, ecstatic to be free of fake nails and sticky hair gel.



The magic ended when her phone lit up with another phone call from Karl. “Oh God,” she breathed. “Do I sound like I’ve been drinking?”



“Man, fuck Karl already,” Casey said. He snatched her phone and played a game of keep-away with his friends.



“Hey, give that back!” Shayla shrieked.



Casey lifted Shayla up and sat her on the bar, grabbing her hands and placing them behind her. “What’s rule number one?” Casey said.



“Let’s do this every night til he comes home,” Shayla replied.



And then Casey kissed her--a warm, wet kiss as he pressed into her hips. “Let’s do this every night after you run away,” Casey said. He ran his fingers through her scalp and down the length of her hair. “With me.”



They went home and made love against the cabin walls. First they were standing, beneath a black bear’s head that no longer scared Shayla.



“Let’s go to bed,” Casey suggested.



Afterward they laid there, looking through the skylights in the ceiling. “What happened to your dad?” Shayla asked him.



“What did Karl tell you?” Casey asked. “That he was a lowlife, right? A real piece of shit that got shot.” Shayla’s back stiffened at the bitterness in his voice.



“He had a problem with dope for a while, before he met my mom,” Casey said. “But he was getting clean. Just because you have problems doesn’t mean you don’t love your kids. He loved me and my brothers.” Casey rolled onto his back, his hands behind his head. “He was a good dad,” he said with a deep, sad heave of his chest.



Shayla looked at him in the greyish light streaming in through the glass.



“Was he anything like you?”



“He was just like me.”



“Then he was a great dad,” Shayla said.



That was the first time in her life she fell asleep on someone’s shoulder.



They were still in bed the next morning when the heavy door on the first floor slammed. The elephant-like footsteps were unmistakable. It was Jaysen. Shayla let out a noise that sounded like a half-moan, half-wail.



“Casey!” Jaysen shouted. “What did you do this time?”



Liquor bottles and empty beer cans clanged in the kitchen. Casey grabbed Shayla’s hand.



“Come on,” he said. “I ain’t scared of him.” Casey breezed downstairs, sailing past Jaysen with a smirk on his face and not a word to say.



“What were you doing upstairs with that girl?”



“That girl?” Casey shot back. “Do you even know her name?”



“Did you fuck her?”



“Nope,” Casey said. “Unlike my uncle, I don’t fuck every girl I see, whether she likes it or not. Especially if I can’t get their name right.” He grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and opening it with a hard, loud, defiant crack.



“I’m outta here. Shayla, you can come with me, if you want.”



“You fucked her,” Jaysen said. He tried to chase Casey across the yard, but he was too fat to make it down the dust-covered driveway. “Hey! Come back here, you little--”



Casey whipped around to Shayla. “What did I tell you, Shay?” he said. “You’re just another girl to Karl. Another of his whores.”



“I’m not a whore,” Shayla replied, her voice for once angry and loud.



“That’s not what I meant...”



“Get the fuck out,” Jaysen said. But now he had an ice pick in his hand.



“Nash,” Casey said to Shayla as he jammed the keys in the ignition of his Jeep.



“What?” “That’s my last name. I live in Cadillac,” he said. “Run away. You know where to find me.”



He tore off, leaving a pocket of mud of dust where the Jeep used to be.



Jaysen went upstairs, ripping out drawers and dumping them over onto the floor.



“That kid stole all our cash,” he said. He dialed Karl on his phone, screaming on and on. “I’m gonna kill him.”



“No,” Shayla breathed, running for the door. Jaysen stomped up to her, his glare demonic.



Like a bloodthirsty, human flesh-eating hog. He cracked her hard across the face. She took it without a flinch. She knew it was their silent agreement that neither would tell Karl where they slept last night.



Karl came home six weeks later. He’d met a high-end prostitute to shower with gifts and take on weekend getaways. But when he came home, he raped Shayla throughout summer and fall. It happened when the locusts sang all night, and the day the last yellow-brown leaf drifted to the ground. It was November. She never saw Casey again after that magical week in July. Karl grumbled something about how he was in jail up north again for petty theft.



One cold morning, in the middle of a shower, she had to shut off the water and dive for the toilet. As she stood there washing vomit out of her hair, she knew she was pregnant. She told no one but Jade.



“I think I’m pregnant,” she said, trying to recall her last period. “I know I’m pregnant.”



“Good luck telling Karl,” Jade huffed, opening a bottle of Oxys and shaking a few pills loose. “He has child support orders for three other kids, and they’re pretty much a mortgage payment. You, you ain’t getting shit. He’ll probably just seek custody this time.”



Shayla swallowed a scream and said the unthinkable.



“Does that clinic in town do abortions?”



Jade stared at the stove as if she hadn’t heard her. Then, slowly, she nodded.



And now here Shayla was, laying on the table as a nurse shoved long sticks inside her. “It’s called laminaria,” she said as Shayla grit her teeth in pain. “They dilate the cervix. The products of conception will come out tomorrow.”



Products of conception? It was her baby, she thought. Her baby and Karl’s baby. Karl’s unwanted baby.



Or was it? Her brain, numbed to the horror of the day that began with that walk past the protesters, snapped awake. How long ago was eighteen weeks?



Shayla stumbled into the wan November afternoon when it was over. She scoured the parking lot for Jade’s car. And what a stupid idea that was. After an hour, she knew Jade had abandoned her and gone back to Pontiac.



Shayla sat on the curb, wondering if she could cry in peace.



“Do you need a ride somewhere?”



The woman in the orange vest appeared like a guardian angel. “Please,” Shayla said, opening the passenger door.



“I’m Nancy,” the woman said.



“I’m Shayla.”



“Sorry about the holy rollers,” Nancy said.



They drove toward the motel where Jade had rented a lonely little room. It was a dumping ground for Shayla, where she’d wait out the night alone. Karl was on a hunting trip this weekend, and anyway, he didn’t know.



“What do you mean?” Shayla asked Nancy.



“The holy rollers. You know, the people who show up to scream at women they’re baby-killers, so they can go home and feel righteous.”



Nancy popped a piece of gum as if to disguise the bitter taste in her mouth.



“They’re the same people who forced me to give away my baby forty-some years ago,” Nancy said. “Back then, pregnant girls ‘went away.’ I went away to a maternity home where the social workers tied girls to the beds and forced them to deliver babies. The social workers stole them and gave them to nice married couples.”



Shayla was certain she’d vomit. And it wasn’t the hormones.



“But I looked at my son before the social workers snatched him,” Nancy said. “Today, I make sure girls have a choice. That they can make it to those clinic doors if they want, even if the holy rollers scream fire and brimstone at them.”



She pulled into the motel parking lot and squeezed Shayla’s hand.



“It’s your life, hon,” she said. “You make up your own mind.”



“Thanks,” Shayla said, playing with her hands. “I think that’s the first time in my life someone told me that.”



Nash.



Shayla would never forget the last time she saw Casey. His words replayed in her head like a bad song: “Run away.”



Back at the motel, Shayla limped to the front desk. The laminaria stabbing her if she twitched the wrong muscles.



“Do you have a phone book?” she asked. Then she remembered 411. She would call 411.



“City and state, please,” the operator said. “Cadillac, Michigan,” Shayla said, sounding both frail and frantic. “I need the number for Nash.”



She memorized the number as the operator connected the call. A raspy smoker’s voice answered the phone.



“Casey?” she asked at the first hint of hello. “It’s Shayla. I’m in trouble. I’m pregnant, and I thought it was Karl’s, but...”



The voice interrupted. “Casey don’t live here no more.” Shayla slammed down the phone, swallowing a scream as she left the receiver dangling. The next day, she made the walk to the clinic doors by herself. It felt like a death march. She wanted to sob with relief when Nancy grabbed her arm. She was like Simon, that man who helped Jesus carry the cross to Golgatha after he fell.



Shayla sat in the circle again. She looked at the woman whose baby had no brain. And the little girl sandwiched between her mean-faced parents. She tried to give them a little smile. The abortion doctor walked by reading a medical chart and ignoring them. Shayla wondered if she was only woman parts to him, a vulva and vagina and cervix. It was a strange thought, but one she couldn’t shake. From the lobby a voice screamed for her...voice she’d know anywhere.



“Shayla,” Casey cried. “Shayla, why didn’t you tell me?” Two security guards ran after him, snatching his arms.



“It’s too late, Casey,” Shayla said, her face blanching. “It’s just too late.”



“No, it isn’t,” Casey said. “It’s not too late. I talked to a guy outside the clinic who can help us. A doctor can reverse it.”



“What?”



“Reverse the abortion.”



“That’s impossible.”



“No it’s not,” Casey said. “Because the baby is still alive. The heart is beating...they didn’t stop the heart yet.”



A security guard lunged for Casey. “We’re calling the cops.”



Casey grabbed Shayla and picked her up, carrying her the way a fireman would carry a little girl.



“Shit, anyone else want a ride out of here?” he said.



“Me,” the young girl said.



“Sit down,” the mean-faced woman commanded. “You ain’t going nowhere.”



“Wow, how old is that girl, twelve?” Casey said, with the unique outrage only he could muster.



“And let me guess, he’s the piece of shit who knocked her up.”



The mean-faced parakeet man jumped out of his seat. “Mind your own fuckin’ business, you...”



“I’ll take that as confirmation,” Casey said. He looked down at Shayla in his arms.



“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m getting you out of here.”



He shoved the security guard aside. “Fuck you,” he said as they stepped outside.



A protester hit Casey with his cross. “Baby killers!” he screamed.



“Fuck you too,” Casey said.



“Is it true you were in jail?” Shayla asked him in the safety of his Jeep.



“Did my uncle tell you that?” Casey said. “I’m not in jail anymore, am I?”



Shayla didn’t answer.



“Look, I’ve got a rented house and a job in Cadillac. I work at the car plant, where I have a labor union and health insurance and...whatever. It’s all we need. You can live with me.”



“The baby might be Karl’s,” Shayla said.



“I don’t care. Neither of us will ever see him again, and neither will the baby,” Casey said. He cupped Shayla’s face in his hands. “Do you hear me? I don’t care.”



At the second hospital, the nurses shot anesthesia into her woman parts.



The slimy luminaria sticks came out one by one. They fell into an ever-bigger pile on the cold silver tray next to Shayla. She winced and shut her eyes. “Don’t look,” she breathed.



A woman wearing scrubs poked her head into the room.



“Abortion reversal,” the doctor said before she spoke.



“Right-wing propaganda,” the woman spit her voice sharp and hate-filled.



“It’s her choice.”



The slimy sticks came out. The nurses wheeled Shayla down the hall.



“There’s the heartbeat.”



The heart. Shayla remembered the flickering heartbeat she’d watched on the black-and-white screen. Bomp bomp. Bomp bomp.



She didn’t know she’d fallen asleep until Casey shook her awake. A tiny body floated onscreen, mesmerizing Casey with every flail and twist.



“Eighteen weeks,” the tech said. “Female fetus, due about April fifth.”



“You mean it’s girl?” Shayla asked.



“The due date,” Shayla said, doing quick math in her head. “That means she is yours, Casey.”



“And that’s Good Friday this year, isn’t it?” She thought about naming the baby April, or even Easter.



Shayla thought of what Nancy said. “It’s your life, hun.”



She thought of what she never had during her twenty years of life. Parents and money and a little white cottage to come home to after school. She thought of what Casey never had. A house without wheels and above all, his dad.



“Don’t worry, Shayla,” Casey said. “I promise you’ll be a great mom, and I’ll be a great dad.”



Shayla clutched her womb and promised Easter, too. Then they got into Casey’s Jeep and drove down I-75 toward the small town where he grew up.


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