It was 4 a.m., the city still asleep, still oblivious. Paul strapped himself into the breasts. The mold rested on his chest, the aluminum milk tank secure on his back. The tank felt heavy enough to last two days, but Paul couldn’t refill it at the pumps outside. Not after last night.
Paul unbolted the bedroom door, steeling himself for the spiteful sight, the dreaded confirmation that what happened did in fact happen. He cracked open the door.
The fibershop was in shambles: metal shelves knocked over and corn, wheat, and fruits and vegetables scattered across the floor. The plunderers didn’t come for fortified products. They came for the source: that so-called “black gold.” They stole all of it but a little bit. And what if they came for what was left in the tank? Worse yet, what if Lu took too long to come back?
The baby wailed. At seven months old, Davina had mastered the art of demand-making. Just like her mother. Paul cradled Davina’s head but couldn’t steady his hand enough to make her feel safe. He had done this a few times. Each attempt was marginally less awkward. He tickled her lips with the nipple so she’d opened her mouth. With his fingers and thumb, he pinched the breast like a sandwich, aiming the nipple at her top lip. Once she latched, the tank hummed on. Breast milk flowed through the replicated breasts like Lu herself never left.
“I’m here.” Paul tried his best to sound paternal. “I’m right here.”
He said the words but working off of an hour of sleep at best, he knew he was lying. And this was why Lu’s note made zero sense. Paul wasn’t built for breastfeeding. Paul wasn’t father material. And clearly, after last night’s break-in, holding down the fort wasn’t his forte, either.
Paul stuffed the gun into his waistband. “C’mon,” he said after the baby was all fed. “Let’s go find your mother.”
The glass door was broken. Nearly ripped off the hinge, the frame hung there like a loose tooth. Outside, the milk pumps—oval-shaped, with short flaring necks—had been beaten to the point of malfunction. What a mess. Paul stepped with caution as he exited the building, watching for glints of broken glass under the canopy of the pumping station.
In the yawns of pre-dawn, Paul crept through the city in a ski mask, the baby tied to the breasts still strapped to his chest. The outside air bore the stench of burning, a bitter wind that forewarned of winter and stung the sore parts of him. Rotor blades gargled overhead. Down below, hollowed-out brick buildings stood like skeletal sentries, remnants of yesteryear’s Rust Belt now converted into vertical farms. Steel mills that once built tanks and bombs on this eastern edge of Ohio became eco-incubators, displacing workers who lost the war against automation. Hardcore workers. Hungry boys like Paul and the guys he used to build with, smoke with, eat red velvet cake and butter cake with. Like Hal.
For them, Youngstown was home, but never a good place to roam, not in the dark. Monitors had the major streets choked off. For protection, they said. To block looters from penetrating a city-under-reconstruction, they said. Which is to say, the aimless ended up shot. Paul had no intentions of going down that road, so he stayed off the main ones. Still, as he stood at the crux of an empty intersection, he realized he had no idea which way Lu went.
Which way? Which way? Which way? Which way?
“You calling me a witch?” Lu asked.
Paul raised his hands, defensive. “Hold on. I never used that word.”
“Well, you ought to,” she said, tying her box braids with gold highlights back in a bun. “Because I am.”
They were cleaning out the convenience store, her sweeping the dusty floor while he wiped down gondola shelving. This was two years back, after she purchased the abandoned gas station and right before Paul moved in there with her. She told him to. Of course, if she told him to jump off the Cinderella Bridge in Mill Creek Park, he would’ve asked if he should land on his heels or head. But this was how it always was, how they grew up: Lu with the big, bold ideas and Paul with the wide-open nose. Her latest brainchild, she claimed, came through a dream her unborn daughter whispered from the womb: a full-service pumping station.
Inside, Lu would redesign the convenience store into a fibershop. Outside, after draining the petroleum hazards beneath the lot, Paul would transform the old gas pumps into milk pumps: 3D self-service printers where mothers could come to have their breast milk sample duplicated, then flowed into re-chargeable aluminum tanks that hook up to personalized lactation molds.
With a $28,000 city grant to support biotech startups, the vision grew legs and took off. Paul, being the resident technician of their operation, understood his role. Still, to him, the idea of mothers making copies of their own breast milk seemed redundant. “But what’s the point in coming here? Can’t they pump their own milk at home?”
Lu stopped sweeping and stared out the glass window, rubbing her not-yet-showing belly. For a second, Paul didn’t think she heard him. But then, finally, with her voice bare and barely above a breath, she said: “Baby, home ain’t always safe.”
That sentence never haunted Paul more than now. Four bright words around an empty center, which, like a gluttonous black hole, made the entire body collapse under its own gravity. After last night, the words bore even more weight.
Davina squirmed awake on his chest. Followed by a prologue of panting.
“Jesus,” Paul said, “didn’t I just feed you?”
Davina couldn’t care less. She flung her voice at the brick buildings, begging these agronomic structures to take care of her because the man in whose charge she found herself clearly could not. In the hazy cloak of early morning, Paul turned into the nearest alley. Crouched beside a dule of powered-down doves, Paul lifted his gray shawl to feed the baby.
This time, it didn’t take too long to get that deep latch. Davina surrendered to the moment, her hazel green eyes half-closed. Paul turned away, ashamed suddenly for watching this child, this strange little girl, experience such pleasure. But the self-regulation still fascinated him. Babies go from being hungry to being full, whereas grownups go from being hungry to being more hungry. At what age does enough mutate into not-enough?
A helicopter whizzed above, but he couldn’t see where. Paul didn’t like being out here, out in the open like this. Exposed. The same way he felt when he told Lu it might not be best to live in her shop. It was too vulnerable, prone to plunderers. He said that. And what did she say? Bye-bye, she said. If he was so scared, he could skedaddle, she said. He couldn’t, and she knew he couldn’t, because he didn’t want to feel that pain again—that pain of getting laid off. Paul wanted to feel vital, not voluntary. No, he wasn’t Hal. He could never be. All he wanted was for Lu to see him less as a mess and more as a man. But after last night, how could she?
Paul froze. Those were clomping sounds he heard: boots. He counted four sets of steps, maybe five. Monitors on the move. Headed his way. He squinted through the ski mask into the dim light. Slowly, he removed the right breast from Davina’s mouth. She cried out. He stuffed the breast back in her mouth while rising to relocate.
If they caught him, it was over. They would accuse him of violating curfew. Or just flat-out shoot him and make accusations after the fact.
Which way were they coming from? From the right. No, left. No, no right.
Paul stepped back. Bumped into a dove. The ornithopter beeped to life, which activated the dule. They flapped and grunted, flying in different directions to their assigned areas.
Paul juked around them, his heart pounding, and he didn’t look back when he heard the shouts.
He fled the alley as the baby kept feeding, but soon as Paul turned the corner—thwack!
The butt of a shotgun greeted him in the face.
He fell to the ground and heard absolutely nothing because he had already blacked out.
There were breasts everywhere.
The shipment had arrived from Ann Arbor, where the company Lu contracted for molds was based. Davina was seven days old, asleep in the bedroom at the pumping station.
It was a gray afternoon, low clouds ready to rupture. Paul helped Lu remove the various molds from boxes: breasts with pinched nipples, flat nipples, bulbous nipples, breasts with Montgomery tubercles or scars from breast reduction, and areolas of various shapes and sizes. Twelve local mothers had signed up for Lu’s first breastfeeding trial. These molds belonged to them, custom-made in their own images. Paul wasn’t yet used to Lu’s own extra pair of breasts hanging around, so another dozen in his face felt unexpectedly like he was getting ganged up on.
Forty minutes into unpacking, Lu clutched her own real breasts and groaned.
Paul knew that look and that sound. “You ready for me, babe?”
Lu nodded. Paul locked the front glass door and they migrated to the bedroom.
Davina was asleep. Lu removed her top and lay down on the queen bed. Paul positioned himself accordingly. He brought his mouth to her engorged breast like he’d been doing all week. Lu was an overproducer, making way more milk than Davina needed and stashing the leftovers. Sometimes she recruited Paul to relieve pressure, keep the ducts from clogging up. He obliged. But what started as a kind, if uncomfortable, gesture evolved into something else.
Lu cradled Paul’s head and pulled him closer. He moaned. Him drinking from her cup and her feeding him in this way was a sweet flavor of foreplay. Sometimes intercourse followed, but not always. The first time, Paul came in his pants. He tried to hide it, but Lu saw and smiled. “Looks like we both got some leakage going on.” She didn’t shame him, which made him feel safe. So, the ritual continued. Intensifying to the point where Paul, with breast milk on his breath, implored her: “Don’t you ever leave me.” And she rubbed his head and said: “Baby, I got nowhere to be but here.” The act of adult breastfeeding created such a connection that Paul usually felt high afterwards, free and forgetting everything.
But on the day the breasts arrived from Michigan, Lu wouldn’t keep quiet long enough for him to surrender to the suckling. Him being there seemed immaterial. There was no intimacy. No bonding happening. Focused on the future, Lu practiced her pitch for an upcoming investors meeting regarding the fibershop.
Fiber in breast milk is key to a healthy gut microbiome in infants. Good bacteria teaches the immune system how to fight, how to keep intruders from raiding the GI tract. But things change with age. Most adults don’t get enough fiber in their diets, which could cause a host of problems. Paul had heard the pitch so many times, he quit listening.
“Hellooo?” Lu nudged Paul. “Are you listening to me?”
“Mmhmm,” Paul said, his mouth full of breast.
The week prior, Lu finalized a licensing agreement with a biotech company in Davis, California, which found a method to break down long chains of complex carbohydrates into short chunks. Using this technology, certain foods—corn, wheat, and fruits and vegetables—could be measured accurately, opening the door to fortify different products at the cellular level.
“Ugh! I hate having to explain myself.” She shook Paul again. “Did that make sense?”
“With these fortified products, adults can get the prebiotics babies get from breast milk. By enhancing microbes in the gut through food, we can reduce the risk for all kinds of ailments: heart disease, stroke, certain cancers. Now that’s what I call protection!”
Paul stopped suckling. All at once, the substance on his tongue turned metallic and a lump in his throat made his stomach curdle. It wasn’t the milk. It was the word. That word.
“What are you doing?” Lu asked. “Why’d you stop?”
Paul backed away from her and wiped his mouth with the heel of his palm. “I’m finished.”
“No, we’re not. Look, I still got more. Look.”
“Save it for the baby.”
Paul crawled off the bed and sulked to the bathroom.
Lu followed him. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No.” He turned on the shower and held his hand under the water as it warmed up.
“You can’t just abandon me in the middle of our ritual.”
“Abandon you? I abandoned you?” Paul scoffed.
“What would you call it then, huh?” Lu grabbed a towel off the rack to dab herself. “Look at me. You got me leaking all over the damn place.”
Steam filled the space. “Do you mind?” Paul flapped his hand for Lu to leave him alone. He couldn’t strip down with her there, not then. It didn’t feel right. “Give me some privacy.”
“Don’t tell me what to do, Paul!”
Right then, Davina started crying. Paul gave a self-satisfied shrug, and when Lu went to get the baby, he shut the door. But Lu came right back in, bouncing the baby on her hip.
“Nuh-uh, Mister. We’re not done here,” she said.
Paul faced the mirror. The shower water kept running.
When he finally did speak, he addressed his own reflection. “Did the condom break?”
Lu frowned. “Is that what this is about?” She shook her head, at a loss. “Oh my God, Paul—what do you want me to say, huh? Where is this even coming from?”
Paul kept staring at the man in the mirror, his head all clouded up.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Lu said. “Hal is dead. Whatever we had is history. You’re the one I want to be with. Remember? You’re supposed to be my lab partner-in-crime–”
“And that’s supposed to be my baby,” Paul said.
Lu exhaled. The shower water kept running, running.
Paul said: “I’m not one of your little crash breast dummies.”
“One of your molds out there. I’m nobody’s stand-in, you understand?”
“Nobody said you were,” she said with a soothing maternal tone. “But you can’t be mad at me for…How was I supposed to know we’d end up together?”
“Well, I’m a scientist, Paul, and my life is all about trial and error. Period. I got a baby on my hip and I’m too busy to carry regrets. Do I want us to be together? Yes. I do. But I promise you this: We won’t last if you stay haunted by the ghost of what-coulda-been. You can’t live here and live in the past at the same time.”
With that, Lu left him alone in the bathroom. The shower water still running, running, running.
Paul remembered running.
Something about running. But why? Nothing made sense. He woke up inside a building. A rundown diner, windows boarded-up. Empty. Smelled like mildew. He sat in a dining booth, dusty with red cushions. The place felt eerily familiar, but he couldn’t place it.
Where was he? And why? And who?
Paul knew his name: It was Paul. But he couldn’t recall his last name. Paul Something. Didn’t it start with a D? In the dark room, he kept blinking to get his bearings. Everything hurt. His head hurt. His back hurt. Breathing hurt. What did he remember? A break-in. Three men in white masks. Plunderers. But no, that was earlier, that was the night before.
What happened after that?
The note. He remembered the note. And Paul couldn’t call Lu because she didn’t trust phones like that. Right. That’s right. It was all coming back to him now: the burning smell outside, the Monitors on his tail, the doves, and the sudden running through an alley downtown, getting hit in the face as he clutched the baby—the baby!
“Hello?” he called out, his throat drier than gunpowder.
Paul reached in his waistband. No gun. No gun and no baby.
Where was Davina?
The question, which had no immediate answer, ignited something in Paul—a feeling that flowed through his bruised body, oozing from the crown of his unmasked head down to his fingertips and all over, not stopping till every single cell had been seized by this single feeling, which Paul knew the name of but refused to acknowledge because it wasn’t fear, but something else, something unexpected, something he hadn’t felt in years: freedom.
Freedom from the fear of failure. Because after you fail, what’s to be afraid of?
It was liberating to confirm what he’d always been convinced of. That he didn’t have what it took to raise a child. He couldn’t protect Davina. He couldn’t protect Lu. Hell, he couldn’t even protect his damn self. No. Paul had absolutely zero business being a guardian, especially not with karma on the loose.
There was a creaking sound. Suddenly. From the kitchen area.
Someone was coming.
Paul turned. The figure emerged, face shrouded in a hood, swallowed by shadows.
The man came around the counter. He sat across from Paul, at which point Paul remembered where he was, and why and who.
“Paul Dixon,” the man said with that same old, cheesy grin as he lifted his arms. “Welcome to the new-and-improved House of Sweets.”
“The hell you want, Hal?”
Hal raised his hands, defensive. “Whoa! Is that any way to greet your best friend, who I’d be remiss not to say, just saved your backside?”
It had been years since Paul last saw Hal—two years, four months and one week, to be precise. He looked a lot like his old self, but not quite, his hazel green eyes somehow empty.
“Where’s the baby?” Paul asked.
“She safe,” he said. “Sleep in the kitchen. You hungry, man?”
It wasn’t till just then that Paul realized he hadn’t eaten all day. Not out of negligence, but to punish himself for letting Lu down. “I’m good.”
They used to come here, to the House of Sweets, every day after work. Paul, Hal, and a couple other guys from the mill. Hal always ordered the butter cake. Ate that thing like he never learned how to eat properly, crumbs smeared all over his face. It was in these booths that he used to go on about how in love he was. How one day Lu was going to be his bride and have his baby.
“So.” Hal leaned forward on the table. “How’s my ol’ lady?”
“Why’d you bring me here?”
“What? I can’t reunite with my boy? I’m just playing catch-up is all.”
“You live here?”
“Yessir. Moved in some years back, after the place shut down. Not much to look at, but it gives me the freedom to hide in plain sight. To keep an eye on…things.”
Paul cocked his head. Something in Hal’s tone sounded off. Shifty. But there was no way he was one of the plunderers. Right? Whatever beef they had between them, Hal wouldn’t bring harm to his own flesh-and-blood. No way. Not a chance.
“Was it you?” Paul asked.
“Was what me?”
“Brother, I’ma need a wee bit more specificity. What happened last night?”
Paul studied him, those eyes of his showing no signs of anything. “Nothing.”
“What you mean nothing? Something obviously happened.”
A tightness in Paul’s throat stripped the sentence bare. “We got plundered.”
Hal’s eyes grew wide. “For real? At the pumping station? Is Lulu alright?”
“She good. You know Lu. She’s a fighter. But they took her stash of milk…”
“Damn, man. Sorry to hear that.” Hal sucked his teeth. “But I can’t say I’m surprised. Lulu got that black gold. That’s the commodity of the future right there, boy.” He sat back, bridging his fingers and tapping the tips of them. “I’m still dead, right?”
Paul nodded. “I, uh…I’m supposed to meet her actually, so I’d better get a move on.” He started to scoot out of the booth. But Hal grabbed his wrist.
“Before you skedaddle,” Hal said with a smirk, “I’d look favorably on a little sample of that good-good myself.”
Hal pointed to Paul’s breasts. “Would’ve snuck me a swig while you was knocked out, but I didn’t wanna be a creep–”
“Are you crazy?”
“Just a little bit.”
Paul tried to pull away. “Let go of me, man.”
But Hal wouldn’t let go.
“We not doing this,” Paul said.
Hal pulled out the pistol, the Ruger, and pointed it at Paul.
“See, that’s always been your problem, P. You think…you think you got all the answers. Like you the only one in communion with the Most High. But brother, lemme tell you: You not.”
Paul slid back into the booth, his hands raised.
Hal kept the gun on him while pulling out a blunt to smoke. “I get visions.”
Paul kept his eyes on the pistol.
“I get visions and I done seen the end of days and they look like a spitting image of what you seeing outside.” Hal took a puff. “Us men? We done here. It’s over for the likes of us. We not fit to be caretakers for the world we moving into. This was the realization I had when I walked away from the love of my life.”
“You abandoned her.”
“Nah, brother. I spared her. She didn’t need me and she damn sure don’t need you. You honestly think you can raise a female in this environment? Uh-uh. No, sir. You not equipped, my guy. See, because brothers like us, we got too much on our backs to raise up anything without breaking something.” Hal raised his blunt in the air. “Eat, drink, and be merry, muhfucker.”
Truth was, Paul couldn’t disagree. Such ideas had been circulating in his own brain since before Davina was even born. What role did he have in this evolving ecosystem? Did his mere presence do more harm than good? Was he, biologically, the bad bacteria in this macrobiome called America?
“Call me crazy if you wanna, but I done seen the light. In this world, you either well-fed or fed up. And best believe, when I go down, I’m going with an empty clip and a full belly.” He took a deep puff. “Now. That said, gimme some of that liquid gold.”
Paul shook his head.
Hal turned away as if speaking to someone else. “He really think this a negotiation.” Then, turning back to Paul, the pistol pointed at his heart, he ordered him. “Lift up your top.”
Right then, the baby started crying in the kitchen.
Paul looked over there. “I need to go feed–”
“Nah, what you need to do is do what I say or else this reunion’s gonna be a wee bit shorter than we thought. Lift. Up. Your. Top.”
Paul obliged. He lifted his shawl, revealing the breasts.
Hal moved closer. Pressed the barrel to Paul’s belly. Paul flinched. The metal was cold, Hal’s breath hot while caressing the breasts with his left hand. “Lord Jesus. These take me back.” Then, to the breasts themselves, in baby talk: “Did you miss me? Yes, you did. I know you did.”
Paul turned toward the kitchen. The wailing wouldn’t stop.
“So, how this work?” Hal cocked his head, assessing the angle. “I just suck on them?”
Paul’s eyes burned. “You can’t.”
“Oh, I most definitely can and most definitely will.”
“The breasts are biometric, so that means you can’t–”
“I know what biometric means, fool.” Hal grunted. “That Lulu’s one smart somebody.”
That she was. Too damn smart to be with a mad man like Hal. Or Paul.
“Then take it all off,” Hal said. “Gimme the whole thing.”
But maybe this was the way. Maybe the break-in had to happen for him to end up here. Maybe Paul, with his obsolescence, needed to remove himself from this situation—to let Lu, Hal, and their baby be—before he lost the last scraps of his sanity. He never was father material.
As Davina cried her heart out, Paul pulled the shawl over his head.
“That’s what I like to see,” Hal said.
Paul unstrapped the harness. Lifted the breasts and tank up over his shoulders. Once clear, Paul swung the tank—bink! The aluminum connected with Hal’s skull, and Hal went down, fumbling the gun. Paul snatched up the pistol. Held it to Hal’s temple. Hand shaking. Finger on the trigger. Itching. Hal tried to lift himself but fell back down.
“I’m already dead, remember?” Hal cackled. “You can’t kill a ghost.”
Paul closed his eyes. Did he have to shoot him? Does a loaded gun have to be fired?
He stepped back and kept his eyes on Hal while he went to get Davina. He stuffed the gun in his waistband and carried her in one arm, the breasts in the other.
Hal kept laughing, too disoriented to stand.
“You a goddamn fool, Paul,” Hal clamored. “You can’t live off the lies you feed yourself. Lu was mine first. Remember that. And that’s my baby. You ain’t nothing but a substitute teacher. I’m the Almighty God and you Joseph! And one day, sooner than soon, that little girl’s gonna be grown. Believe that. She gonna see the real you. The good-for-nothing man. The powerless man. Yeah, that’s the Paul Dixon I know. Softer than butter cake. Crumble, young man, crumble! That’s you. So, gone ‘head! You can run, brother, but ain’t no ducking the truth. No, sir. Every time you look into those hazel eyes of hers, every time you feed her, every time she call out, ‘Daddy!’ you gonna remember my high-yellow ass.”
Paul ducked through the boarded-up door. Outside, the sun hid behind low clouds and the sky was full of doves. Paul didn’t look back. He disregarded the disgusted stares from people who apparently never saw a man with a baby and breasts in his hands before.
Next to a vertical farm building, he stepped into a leaf-covered public restroom.
“Hold on,” Paul told the crying baby. “I know you hungry. I am too.”
After she was all fed, Paul headed home, limping along the waking streets of Youngstown, back to the pumping station to clean up the mess and hold down the fort.
Copyright © 2022 Russell Nichols