by Melissa McDaniel
At the age of eight, Martha May gave a class presentation about babies. What they smelled like. How they crawled around on stubby hands and knees. The food they ate out of jars. She made a poster with cut-out pictures of baby faces from her mother’s catalogues. Her classmates covered their ears when she played a recording of a baby’s cries. They giggled when she passed around a watermelon and asked them to pretend they were holding an infant. The teacher stood in the back of the room and sobbed, her hand covering her face.
Fifty years later, the other students in that class had all moved away, and Martha May was the youngest person left in the town. Large pink bows decorated her yellow hair, which was thinning and strung-out, overdosed on peroxide. She had only one friend, Charlie. He was seventy-two, with a sunspot shaped like a pretzel on his left cheek and a mouth brimming with stories.
On long, sleepy summer afternoons after church, Martha liked to sit below the dusty window in Charlie’s General Store, while Charlie told her about the way the town used to be. About all the strangeness that made it into what it was.
“This town’s a goner,” Charlie said, while Martha May helped herself to another cherry lollipop. “It’s all because of the curse.”
He coughed, and Martha May dutifully asked, “What curse?” She never got tired of listening to Charlie rehash the town’s downfall, which he spoke about wistfully, as though discussing a love affair gone sour. He blamed the Internet, or the President, or the latest reality TV show.
This time, he blamed the salesman.
The salesman, Charlie said, had green eyes. He was young, and moderately attractive, with a long, straight nose and a thin-lipped smile. He had a way of coming at the right time. When you were a little distracted, a little lonely.
Have you heard this one before?
The salesman carried a metal briefcase filled with neat rows of herbal supplements. He said they could treat almost anything: weight loss, hair loss, grief, pain, tennis elbow, digestion, heart problems, boredom, exhaustion, depression, menstrual cramps, self-doubt.
“Did you buy them?”
Charlie frowned; both of them knew that he couldn’t lie, especially not to her. “My ex-wife did. She got a six month supply. Practically cleared him out.” He glanced nervously around the room, as if expecting her to appear at any moment. Franklin, Charlie’s bug-eyed cat, meowed frantically as Charlie opened a can of food and placed it down on the dusty tile.
Anyway, Charlie went on, at first, no one noticed that anything was different. It seemed like a dry spell — nothing unusual. But after the maternity wards cleared out, the doctors noticed the sudden spike in miscarriages and became alarmed. Then it was in the newspapers — PLAGUE OF INFERTILITY! — and everybody went into a panic.
The people of the town started praying and exercising. They quit smoking and stopped drinking in public. The women blamed the men; the men blamed the women. Some moved away, but by then the curse had already done its damage. It stuck to them, like a stain. Some tried adopting, but the adoption agencies avoided them; they had labelled the town “unfit.”
People had affairs and divorced. Martha May’s parents retired early and moved to Florida. Now in their eighties, they sent her postcards with cartoon animals and called her every Saturday. They asked her why she didn’t visit more.
Schools closed, and church attendance shot up. Homes for the elderly became overcrowded and understaffed. Aging children cared for aging parents, until the whole town grew hunched and withered.
When she was younger, Martha May tried to make her own contribution to the town. Like many other girls, she thought that her body was somehow different than the others, that the gem between her legs would undo the damage. But her womb was like a drum, it could make sound but no music.
There was a period when this gave her the freedom she wanted. When she travelled, and studied languages, and dated multiple people at once, men and women who had never been touched by the curse. But somehow, the town always drew her back.
“Isn’t it time you got the hell out of here?” Charlie had asked her more than once. And Martha May would stick out her lower lip at him, because the truth was she didn’t know why she didn’t just leave. Once, she would’ve said that in a way she felt responsible. She remembered the way that other adults had stared at her whenever she went out in public with her parents. Eyes of longing, but also hatred. The last child born in town, Martha May was like a prized possession: unattainable, impossible. Her parents had boasted and worried over her. She had been kidnapped on at least three occasions, but each time she was safely restored to her parents within a few hours.
The town was still in denial. They went to shrinks and specialists. They were cursed, yes, but surely not damned. If they couldn’t produce their own children, then why couldn’t they bring in someone else’s?
The new mayor, a very practical sort of man, said it was a matter of supply and demand. He planned to develop a massive theme park, with huge, extravagant rides named after off-brand superheroes. Free admission for anyone under the age of ten. The whole town was excited by the idea. They didn’t worry about the town budget, or the noise, or anything else that might have concerned them before the curse.
Dream World opened on a bright Saturday morning. There were only three clouds in the sky, wispy heaps of white fluff. The new employees stood outside the park with free hot dogs and balloons to welcome the first visitors. Waiting in their cars, elderly couples held hands and listened to talk radio, giddy with anticipation. They thought about all of those children, wandering in the park, perhaps unsupervised. What if one of them wandered off alone? And what if he somehow got lost? Could he somehow be lured into their car, and taken home, and loved so well that he forgot all about his former parents and his old home?
At nine AM, the mayor cut the ceremonial ribbon, and the gates were opened. But the five hundred empty spaces in the parking lot remained empty spaces. The hot dogs grew cold. The park workers took turns cutting out to smoke cigarettes.
“Well, it’s a bit overcast,” the townspeople said. “Maybe there will be more visitors tomorrow.”
The next day, the free hot dogs had all been thrown out, and rather than waiting outside the park, the few couples who had showed up again rode the ferris wheel only once before leaving.
A week later, Dream World closed its gates and did not reopen them.
No more tantrums. No more bottles or pacifiers. No more toilet training. No more little shoes and socks. No more fireflies caught in mason jars. No more songs about the alphabet. No more parenting classes. No more “staying together for the kids.” No more pregnancy tests. No more “she has your eyes.” No more rebellious teenagers. No more ice cream trucks. No more runny noses. No more sand castles. No more miscarriages. No more baby monitors.
The town wanted a child, so Martha May tried to give them one. She tried to stay as young as possible. She sang in the church choir and organized plays for the nursing homes. She was as good a girl as she could be.
Time passed. People died at the average rate, which seemed to be faster than usual. The town shrunk. Gravediggers were in short supply.
Death came gently. The people of the town grew calm near the end of their days, patiently waiting for their turn to disappear.
Charlie’s store was going out of business. Martha May noticed the dust collecting on the shelves; the fact that he hadn’t had anything new in over a week. Now all he sold were the remaining cigarettes — and of course, candy for Martha May, which he ordered specially and never let her pay for (“You keep me company, and I need that more than fifty cents,” he said, although she usually ate much more than fifty cents worth).
“This town has gone to shit anyway.” Charlie was drinking his second beer of the morning behind the counter. “It was only a matter of time.”
“That’s not true,” Martha May said, watching Franklin clean his face. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”
Once or twice, over the years, both of them had thought about giving it a go together. But while Martha May could never be anything other than a child, Charlie could never be anything but an old man. The timing had never worked out, and all the while the town had always been dying, which did not make for the most romantic of settings.
Charlie was silent for a long time. “Life is only worth living when you have something to live for,” he said finally, scratching Franklin under the chin. Franklin arched his back.
The next Sunday, Pastor Groot didn’t show up for church. In the absence of his rusty baritone, there was only dust and a silence so thick it froze the churchgoers into their pews. They stared at the pulpit for an hour and a half before shuffling away.
After church, Martha May went to Charlie’s. But the door to the store was locked, and when Martha May put her eye to the single window, all she saw inside was darkness. She could hear Franklin scratching at the door.
“Charlie?” Martha May called.
The only response was a plaintive meow.
Martha May found the spare key under a potted plant around back — “In case you ever need it,” Charlie had said — and let herself in.
The store was cool and dark, and Franklin rubbed eagerly against her legs. The room had an odd smell to it. The shelves were empty.
She fumbled for the light switch, but her hand came back covered with dust. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light, and she saw the keys to Charlie’s spare truck sitting on the counter beside a few caramels and a bag of jelly beans. No note.
So Charlie had disappeared, just like everyone else. So, that was fine. Martha May tried to tell herself that nothing was wrong, that this despair was really just a craving for more candy. But the silence was too much, the darkness too strange, and soon Martha May was opening the door to Charlie’s truck. Franklin paced in the passenger seat and yowled as she put the key into the ignition.
Martha May drove until she found a park spotted with bright colors: picnic blankets, kites, frisbees, dogs with bright red bandanas. She found a tree beside a family and lingered in the shade, trying not to stare. The three children looked like small aliens.
At some point, a baseball rolled towards her, and Martha May picked it up.
“Give it back!” said a pinched face little boy.
The woman winced. “Joseph. That’s not how you talk to grown-ups.”
“Give it back please.”
“He’s adorable.” Martha May said, shielding her eyes against the sun and tossing the ball in the boy’s direction. The woman, tanned and lithe, smiled and looked away.
Martha May watched the family for an hour. There was a dance to it, the way the adults praised and reprimanded, doled out snacks and scoldings. All of their words were channeled through the children — “Why don’t you ask your dad?” or “Listen to Mom, okay?” The mother fussed over the newborn, while the father tossed the ball with the oldest boy. The middle child was left to his own devices, poking in the dirt with a stick.
It was time for lunch, according to Mom, but the little boy would not stop throwing the ball. Dad’s voice grew louder. “I’m going to count to ten…” The ball catapulted into the air. The boy reached, glove outstretched. The ball fell neatly into the glove, until the wrist twisted, and the ball collided with the wide open eye. He wailed, and panic ensued. There was an assessment of damage, a search for an ice pack, an outpouring of pity and a plea to “man up.”
In all of the chaos, no one noticed the shadow descending over the middle child.
Martha May walked carrying the child to her chest, Franklin following close behind them. It was nearly evening. Martha May had always thought the town looked best in the evening. Kind of golden and sombre. She imagined she was seeing it all for the first time through the eyes of the child. The town was a museum, and she and the child were the only visitors.
“Here’s the library. It’s closed now.”
“Here’s the post office.”
“This is my house.”
“My neighbor Elaine used to live here.”
The child bleated, “Mama. Mama.”
Her feet were tired and her back already ached, but Martha May kept walking. A strange desperation pushed her forward.
“Here’s the church. Here’s the steeple. Open the doors, and there’s no people!”
The child’s face quivered somewhere between laughter and tears.
She did not take the child into any of the buildings. The smell of death lingered, hovering over rooftops, invading living rooms and gardens.
Finally, Martha May found a bench in the town square and sat. She was tired. The years were weighing her down — not just her own years, but all of the years anyone in the town had ever lived. The years were sitting on her shoulders and pulling her hair.
She looked at the child, asleep in her lap, and she was surprised at the tenderness she felt. He didn’t look a thing like her. His eyelashes were perfectly curled. His skin was darker than hers, his hair black and thick. He felt nothing like a watermelon. He was warmer, squishier than that.
“Here’s what we’ll do — we’ll start again.” She leaned her head down and listened to the child’s soft, even breaths. Together, they waited for the dark to come and the curse to be lifted.