Rumpus Original Fiction: Habitat


In fifth grade Charlie Bell called JJ an abortion. He’d never heard the word. His mother said, “It’s hard to be ten.” She was a nurse and explained using terms like “aspirate” and “terminate,” words that left him with the impression the doctors ate the baby. Still, it was an action. A person could not be an abortion.

This satisfied him until he was twelve and Jupiter, his eighteen-year-old sister, had to have one. The family normalized it as best they could, but he was told there was no need to speak of it outside the house. Telling people was up to Jupi. Being in seventh grade, he didn’t think about babies much. The whole subject existed inside a gooey, cosmic muck. For two days, Jupi didn’t come out of her room, except to use the bathroom. Even the sight of her closed door made him vaguely sick. JJ didn’t know whether he was pro-choice or pro-life, but by then he knew you were one or the other.

By age fourteen, the subject was largely forgotten. Charlie Bell had dropped out of his life, along with Legos, soccer, and juice boxes. Braces had straightened his teeth; his hair was shiny and thick. JJ ran track and played saxophone in the jazz band with his best friends, the Ts—Taylor and Todd. A part of him believed he had stars on the inside. His blood was starlight. It came out his eyes, was in his breath.

On a Saturday not long after school let out, he was in his tree house. It wasn’t actually a house, but a wooden platform his dad built three summers before, way too small for him now. The floor was plywood resting on planks mounted on four elm trunks, two trees that each split to form what felt like an open hand. The platform was ten feet up; JJ built walls by wrapping the trees with baling twine. When he ran out of twine, he used old climbing rope he found in the garage. Then fishing line and garden twine. Neighbors heard about it and dropped off all manner of rope: clothesline, paracord, dog leashes. All of it he wrapped around the elm trunks until the walls were almost four feet high. He covered them with a tarp for winter but they still sagged. The removal of the tarp and the shoring up of the walls was a spring ritual.

This year when he stretched his body across the platform, he had to bend his knees, practically folding himself in half to prevent his feet from shooting out the fragile walls. He was too old, but it smelled so good up there. High above, new leaves had unfurled, revealing their pale, delicate selves. Theirs was a green known only in June. Chickadees and sparrows flitted to the feeders hanging above the deck where his mother and her friend Sonya sat talking.

Sonya was also a nurse. They worked together. Well sure, Jeremy heard his mother say. It was noon and already warm; he was consumed with the familiar, snuggly feeling of being up here listening to the low murmur between them, a sound that had occupied the background of his life for as long as he could remember. When he thought about his future—and he tried not to—JJ counted moments like this high on the list of losses to come.

The Ts rarely spoke to their mothers. When they did it was with one syllable, sometimes not even words, just derisive grunts. There were bouts of explosive irritation. Yelling matches would erupt, right in front of JJ, most often about messy rooms—Todd’s was truly a sty. They both left their uncleared plates at the table and they never lowered the toilet seat, revealing piss-stained rims. Clothing was strewn on chair backs; books, papers, and snack trash littered the back seats of their parents’ cars and the cracks between couch cushions. Jesus. JJ saw no purpose to being such a dick. His own room was tidy. He and his mother would sit at night sometimes till 11 p.m., reading their books, or talking. He told her about Daisy Brighton, his running partner. They were both milers and practiced every day after school. They had vowed to break their own times over summer break. JJ wanted to do it in under six minutes; for Daisy, the number was seven.

His mother had a gesture for Daisy. She’d hold up both palms, fingers spread wide, and turn them while making a sound like an old-fashioned phone ringing. It was exactly how he felt. This cracked him up, a punctuation mark each time Daisy’s name was mentioned. Jeremy would pause in his stories so his mom could do it: Brrrring!

Instinct told him that this couldn’t go on. The Ts’ disdain was the norm. Disdain was easier to live with, probably because it was easier to leave. And everybody left, sooner or later. He couldn’t like his mother this much and like Daisy Brighton. One of them would have to go, and it was bound to be Trudy. His mom, Trudy Skelton. When looked at directly, this fact filled him with heavy dread.

Jupi drifted through the sliding door to the back deck, whining about have to go to work. She had just woken up, was still wearing pajama pants and a tank top. Jupi lived at home while she attended the university. She worked at a burger place downtown, a situation she loathed. When she got no sympathy from their mother or Sonya, she went back inside. The gossipy tone resumed.

“…barely older than Beth herself,” Sonya was saying. She was talking about Bethany, something about the clinic in town, where she was interning. Something had happened her first day on the job. Sonya always wore lipstick, frosty pink. Her straight teeth were continually buffed by her frosted lips. Her voice bordered on deep. Her Ss sizzled. An early memory was the back seat of her car, riding next to her daughter Bethany. The sound of Sonya’s fingernails on the plastic steering wheel.

“She said the father almost popped a vein when he wasn’t allowed in the room,” she continued. “I mean, can you imagine?”

JJ was watching a couple of sparrows through the tiny slits in the walls when he felt a sudden rise in tension below. He grew still, listening to this hiccup of air between the women. The pause was lasting way too long.

“Yes, I can imagine,” his mother finally said, but in a tone that suggested offense.  The in-suck of air grew deeper. JJ was holding his breath. What could she imagine? The sparrows outside kept cocking their tiny heads, aiming the black beads of their eyes at him.

“Jupi had an abortion at that clinic,” she said.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Sonya. The word came out as a hot, horrified exhale.

“Nothing to be sorry about. We were glad we didn’t have to drive three states away.”

A coffee cup was set on the glass tabletop with a delicate click. The sparrows fled. The inhale began again.

“I didn’t know,” Sonya said. “I knew you… a long time ago, but that turned out okay. You never told me about Jupi.”

“Why would I? I know how you feel. And they all turn out ‘okay.’ The point is the choice. We get to choose.” After a pause his mother said, half laughing, “Close your mouth, Sonya. A bug will get in.”

Sonya did not respond. The tense breath of the afternoon pulled in further, choking on itself. JJ had never heard his mother speak to Sonya with contempt. He knew they disagreed about things. His mom would talk about ways Sonya irritated her but he’d never actually witnessed it. Technically he wasn’t witnessing it; he was faced the wrong way, towards the backyard and his father’s painting studio, a shed in the back corner. He wished he could see his mother’s face. Did she have an abortion?

The airless bubble expanding over their yard now included him. He could hardly breathe. It was hot up here. The door to his dad’s studio opened; the bubble had reached him, too. Soon the neighbors would come out of their houses to see what’d happened to the oxygen.

His father emerged, blinking behind his glasses, an ancient badger. The paleness of his bare feet flashed in the grass as he stepped into the yard. He painted wildlife. Mostly birds. One of his crane paintings hung in the county court house. He also painted commercial signs. Popular downtown coffee shops and restaurants used his signs in support of local artisans. This was a point of pride when JJ was little but more and more he wanted a normal dad, one who went to the office every day like everybody else. His parents could leave together in the morning and not be not seen again till the evening.

His father ought to be warned, but JJ was frozen against the plywood floor, listening. “You act like it was no big deal,” he heard Sonya say. The weight of the pressure cloud increased; the balloon was expanding as it rose.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” said his mom. “It was a decision, a procedure. Over and done.”

He sensed heat between them, a terrible heaviness. Half the time what you felt going on between people was more accurate than what you saw or heard.

“Well, that is not how this patient’s father felt. He was outraged.”

Their voices had risen. They were coming in loud and clear.

“Too bad for him.”

Sonya sucked her teeth in response. “That’s his daughter!”

“He made her,” his mother snapped, “but her body is hers. She gets to decide.”

Without looking, JJ could picture exactly how his mother was sitting. She was leaned back in her deck chair, her legs crossed at the knee, flip-flop dangling from the upper foot. Her mouth was pursed in a not-quite scowl, her chin jutting outwards.

His dad had reached the elm tree and passed out of view. The old badger was about to walk into the fray. Russell. Russ Skelton. JJ imagined he was standing with his hands on his hips. Another cup hit the glass tabletop.

“I’ve just told her about Jupi’s abortion,” said JJ’s mother.

Russ was probably rubbing his forehead in bafflement. He was speaking; JJ caught the last part of it: “…why you’d get into that, knowing you disagree.” Exactly. Sonya was pro-life. As opposed to pro-choice, the contrasting term, which made no sense to him—the concepts were hardly opposite. But nobody asked him.

More muttering, an exclamation from Sonya: “But you made the right choice.”

This silenced them. Sweat burst from pores up and down JJ’s back, a sensation that bordered on pain. The strain in the air was near its breaking point. His mom was about to blow this capsule to bits.

“Trudy was thirty-one,” said his dad finally. “Quite a different story.”

JJ’s eyes began blinking of their own accord. He felt a division within his mind, a fast track and a slow track. Cow brain and beaver brain. Cow brain chewed on worry for the old badger, who was walking a terribly thin line. Beaver brain was busy flipping through a rolodex of terms: procedure. Over and done. Aspirate. Terminate. An image of Charlie Bell whizzed by. Doctors sitting down to a meal, bibs tied around their front, forks in balled fists. The hot, tight air of the backseat, belted in next to Bethany. The crisp click of a turn signal.

The numbers were irksome. Thirty-one. Last month his mother turned forty-five. Fourteen years ago, something happened. Below him chairs scraped. A fork was laid across a plate. Fourteen. Well.

For the rest of his life, JJ would tell the story of what he learned that day. It would take years to process, a decade before he was able to repeat it, put it into any kind of coherent narrative and even then it would only be people he trusted. Lovers. A handful of friends. The retelling never included the day itself, what actually happened, that he was the one who finally popped. The universe had inhaled him, a process opposite to resuscitation. His lungs were sucked out from inside. He squirmed, kicked and unfolded, destroying the tree house walls as he fell. For a terrible moment he was caught by his leg, dangerously swaying, repeatedly smacking the tree trunk with his right hip.

Bits of the next ten minutes would still come back to him weeks later, details like Sonya’s cloying voice when she called him Poor thing; his father’s sharp rebuke when JJ cursed her; her small darting form as she ran crying from the deck; his sister’s tall figure standing in the open door, late for work.

An absurd detail of the incident was the lack of pain. By evening his hip turned eggplant purple, then green, a bone bruise. It was good he’d been wearing running shoes. He landed on his feet, some kind of feline superhero. But he didn’t feel like a hero, sputtering and cursing. He yelled at his mother when she came at him with her napkin, scared. He was bleeding, had cut his forehead.

“What the fuck?” he screeched.

The badger started in: “This is going to be hard for you to understand—”

“How you almost aborted me? I guess! What, did a counselor talk you out of it? God!”

The badger began talking about finances, the expense of raising children.

“Oh Dad,” JJ interrupted, balling his fists. “Boo fucking hoo.”

His mom must have tried to dismiss his father; JJ didn’t hear it. But his dad stopped talking, folded his arms and said, “I’m not going anywhere, Trudy.”

“Nobody talked me out of anything,” his mother said, sitting down, looking directly at JJ. There was a pause. She leaned against the back of the chair as if preparing for story time. And they listened. His dad sat across from her, Jupi leaned in the door, and JJ stood on the ground, looking up.

His parents had driven to the clinic after a week of sleepless nights. Jupi was in school. There hadn’t been any snow that year and the staff kept talking about the dry weather. In the procedure room, after the ultrasound, a larger woman, the counselor, stood near her head and a nurse wearing a mask—a woman she knew, though they did not acknowledge each other—stood by the instrument tray. The doctor was an older man she did not recognize. He had a medical student with him, a man about her age. The room was too small. It had a pocket door and felt like a closet.

“This early we’ll use dilators and a curette,” the doctor said to the intern.

His mother was in her gown with her feet in stirrups and could see the tops of their heads, one thick with dark hair and the other with pale scalp peeking through. Glancing at the floor she noticed three bloodstains. It was a clean clinic yet here was somebody else’s blood on the linoleum. Three dots, small, perfectly round and dry, diminishing in size from a nickel to a penny to a dime. She let go of the counselor’s hand and pushing off the stirrups, sat up. Her next three words brought everything in the room to a halt.

“Wait a minute.”

Four people blinked at her in an airless room on a dead-end street near the river.  Trudy closed her legs and swung them off the table, covering the dried blood with her bare feet. The young man looked stricken; the older one looked tired. The nurse pulled the instrument tray towards the bed, leaving a straight path to the door. His mother reached it in two strides and pushed it with the meat of her hand. People were rushing towards her as she walked bare-assed down the hall, trying to pull off the gown. The fleshy counselor had followed her out and now took her by the hand. How many times did women get up off the table in a week? “Oh, we see it all,” she said, not the least alarmed. She led Trudy to an empty exam room. “Wait here,” she said, leaving the door open. The men walked by, neither looking her way.

“The place wasn’t sterile,” she told her listening family on the deck. And why should it be? Must everything be white and silver and silent? Of course there was blood on the floor. A clinic was not a hotel.

Yours was an act of courage! Sonya would shout along with the clinic picketers. But it wasn’t courage, JJ’s mother said. She was looking at him with an expression he’d never seen, one he would not forget. A mix of sorrow and triumph. She sat on the edge of her chair, leaning forward, elbows on her knees. You do it or you don’t, she said. The decision changes how you will live your life, but it doesn’t say much about what kind of person you are.

“You think it does.” She looked over at Jupi. “People want you to think it does. But it doesn’t.”

She smiled at JJ. “I’m good with my decision. I think most women are, finally.”

There was a breeze. High above the ruined tree house, leaves fluttered. The hair on top of JJ’s head moved, tickling his scalp. He could hear the soothing percussion of bamboo chimes from a nearby yard. She might have decided otherwise and still be saying these same words.

Thank god she didn’t expect gratitude. She did not look ashamed or apologetic. Her bare heels were lifted off her flip-flops and her toes had turned white with the effort. JJ was drawn to her, longed for the feel of her hands in his hair even as he was repulsed by her white toes. He knew something now. His throat thickened. She looked sympathetic, as if this were a sick kind of initiation.

So the fields at the edge of his neighborhood were not infinite. There was no starlight in his veins. His life, his saxophone, all the races he won or didn’t win, every breath he ever took, all of it came out of his mother. That dark, spongy habitat.

She stood suddenly and JJ backed away. He bounded through the grass, loping to the end of the yard. In the greenway between houses he gained speed, not thinking about distance or time. When he hit the wheat field, he was sprinting. The grain was already shin-deep. He could see the dark earth between rows as he ran. Grabbing the collar of his shirt, he pulled it over his head and let it go. Billowing like a thin red flag, it came to rest on top of the growing stalks, swaying with them. His body was pale and weightless, the air cool and sharp on his neck and face where his hair stuck to it, sweaty and alive.


Rumpus original art by Lizz Ehrenpreis.

Christy Stillwell's first novel, The Wolf Tone, won the 2017 Elixir Press Fiction Prize. Her poetry chapbook, Amnesia, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2008. Stillwell holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College, an MA from University of Wyoming and a BA from University of Georgia. Her work has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Literary Mama, The Tishman Review, Hypertext, Salon, and others. She has received a residency at Vermont Studio Center and is a Wyoming Arts Council Literary Fellow. She lives in Montana. Learn more at More from this author →