The Size of a Real Baby

Thomas Kearnes

Geena won’t shut up about her dead babies. There’s much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth. Her tears smudge the eyeliner she applied just minutes before. I want to comment on her resemblance to Tammy Faye, but I figure not everyone will get it. The queers have kinda taken her over, mocking and adoring and worshipping her. My last boyfriend before I got shipped to rehab believes Tammy Faye’s a feminist icon, like that singer who rubs a foam football finger between her legs during concerts. I text him now and then, pretending I’m still interested.
            The selfish bitch has no problem applying makeup while another person in the group processes, but God help you if you ignore her big moment. Yesterday, Holly and I were scribbling notes to each other on our relaxation packets, and Geena yelped she couldn’t trust anyone in our group.
            “Your piss-poor support is the reason I’m still addicted,” she cried.
            I actually wish that were true. Imagine what I could do with all that power.
            During smoke break, Geena perches on her usual throne: a lime-green lawn chair a few yards in front of the rotting picnic tables where the rest of us smoke. She doesn’t want friends, she wants an audience. Holly and I can’t stop laughing, me asking her if she remembers that “Three Babies” song Sinead O’Connor performed ages ago on Saturday Night Live. I think it was the same episode where she tore up a picture of the Pope. Fight the real enemy!
            “Tag,” she says, “your mind is a pop-culture junkyard.”
            “I just pay attention,” I say.
            “To all the trivial bullshit in the world.”
            “It’s not trivial if it’s your bullshit.”
            Geena puffs her electronic cigarette, blowing fat, wavering banks of white smoke. They look like what you’d exhale after hitting the meth pipe, and that’s the only damn reason she sucks on that thing. That bitch has been with us just two weeks, and I’m ready to exterminate her ass like herpes from an orgy.
            If Kennedy’s goons hadn’t iced Marilyn Monroe, she might have grown up—and out—to look like Geena. You know, Marilyn without the comic flair and fuck-me vulnerability. Geena has the same smudged, indistinct appearance—endless acres of bone-white skin always shading into vague darkness, maybe from bruising, maybe not. She wears either black leggings or those sweatpants designed to look like jeans. They sell them on infomercials after midnight. All that spandex even though she obviously hasn’t been anywhere near a Curves or YWCA in ages. A rat’s nest of bright blonde hair perches atop her head like the big and brilliant sun in a child’s drawing. Holly summed it up in one word: gross. Holly has a slight problem with overgeneralization. At least, that’s what our therapist, Blanche, thinks.
            After I bum a second smoke from Darnell, the black guy who strums old Willie Nelson tunes on his acoustic guitar during breaks, I gaze at Holly while she talks to Jasper about the bitch of a time she’s having getting her mood stabilizer refilled. I’m sure she feels my eyes on her, and no doubt Jasper, too, knows I’m waiting. In fact, everyone in the group but Geena hovers close to the picnic tables.
            It’s a simple plan, more of a stunt than a plan. Anything too elaborate would likely head south in a hurry, and I know these lazy bastards want maximum humiliation with only minimal effort. I left my backpack in the group room. After checking my watch, I dash toward the building, a converted farmhouse. A dense forest surrounds the rehab like a horseshoe; we’re forbidden to enter. The others know to give me two minutes then file inside, one by one. Geena’s such a nicotine freak that she always waits to return until after the techs announce group time.

space break

Last week, I was bragging to Darnell about how good we had it at the group home. “Last night, it was fried chicken for dinner,” I said, watching Darnell pick his teeth with a toenail clipping. We were all too grossed out to confront him about it. “Night before that, it was all the Hamburger Helper you could eat.” He frowned when I told him which variety. Darnell would never fit in at Hope House. He doesn’t appreciate shit.
            Geena, I guess, had been following the whole conversation because she cooed what a great man Clint Chambers was, so willing to share his experience as a reformed addict with those of us new to the recovery game. “Let him know that I ain’t here ’cause of the courts or nothing,” she said, eyes glassy and wide. “I’m here ’cause I need to be.” She leaned in closer, and I got an unwanted peek at her off-color cleavage. “I’m here ’cause I want to be.”
            I was confused since Hope House was an all-men’s facility. Geena explained that Clint started out three or four years ago helping manage another group home, and she’d met him then. According to Geena, she’d been bouncing from rehab to rehab and group home to group home since her triplets’ deaths. Of course, I didn’t know any specifics because Geena found them “too painful” to discuss. I flicked on that honeyed smile no one seemed to realize was a damn fraud and promised I’d let Clint know.
            Riding the van home, praying for God’s protection since all the techs shamelessly text their boyfriends or each other while driving, I’d already forgotten about it. I wasn’t a damn courier pigeon. It’s the twenty-first century—people have email and cell phones. After we’d been dropped off, though, Clint blasted me about not vacuuming the bedrooms that morning. Fortunately for me, Clint was easily distracted, and as smart as Clint claimed to be, he had his kryptonite: his fervent belief that recovery from addiction meant your shit no longer stank. I wasn’t trying to get out of work. After all, the vacuuming was done. I wanted to confirm, though, that I was again in his good graces. I found him in the kitchen slicing tomatoes for the burgers sizzling outside on the grill.
            “She still pimpin’ that story ’bout her damn dead kids?” he asked.
            “Whaddya mean?” My stomach tingled. I knew at that moment a shitstorm loomed.
            “Tag, her kids ain’t dead. The state took ’em years ago.”
            “But she said—she said they were triplets.”
            “Listen, white boy, ain’t nobody’s luck that bad.”
            While he diced onions, Clint announced in front of everyone (nearly all the tenants had gathered in the kitchen for dinner) that the first night he met Geena, the woman promptly offered to suck him off right then and there if he’d cough up an OxyContin.
            “Just one lousy pill?” I asked.
            “She’s a cheap slut, Tag, what else you wanna hear?” He found it beyond rich that Geena was still trying to convince him she was serious about recovery despite living on the other side of Houston. “Geena wants real bad to be a good girl, but she don’t wanna do the shit required.” Turning to the other tenants, all casual like he’d revealed tomorrow’s forecast, he announced dinner was ready as soon as one of us lazy-ass bastards brought the patties in from the grill.
            The burgers were terrific. They were so prime, I tricked the older dude, the one who always mumbles about the fantastic sums of money he lost in his youth, out of his burger, too. He asked me where it went, and I assured him he’d already eaten. “Those psych meds,” I said soothingly, “they’re a real bitch, huh?” I felt a little bad after that, but I’d stopped feeling bad about enjoying Geena’s desperation. That’s the trick—do something else bad so what you did before doesn’t bother you anymore.
            That night, from my top bunk, I sent my weekly text to my ex in Dallas. Unfortunately, he called in return, and I didn’t have time to dream up an excuse for not answering. He was still steamed I hadn’t found a local rehab to cool my heels until my probation officer forgot me again. He didn’t know I’d put up no resistance when she recommended the program in Houston. I told him about hitting the jackpot with Geena’s allegedly dead children. I’d expected laughter or a little gasp but heard only silence.
            “Isn’t that obscene?” I said.
            “She must be very lonely,” he said.
            “She’s a deranged bitch. She wears too much makeup.”
            “Be nice to her, Tag.”
            “You’re sadly uninformed about rehab politics,” I said, trying to ignore a surge of nausea. I have trouble believing in the goodness of goodness.
            “I’m learning how to Skype. Be good to yourself, okay?”
            It took me ages to fall asleep. Two of my roommates snored, and it wouldn’t have been so terrible except they never quite fell into sync. If I tried to follow the rhythm of one, the other intruded like a dripping faucet. I stayed awake thinking about Geena, holding those triplets, all three babies in her arms at once. That Sinead O’Connor song was older than God, but I still remembered her performing it all those years ago. I think a few weeks after that, Madonna tore up a picture of Joey Buttafuoco on the same show. Fight the real enemy!
            The day after I learned Geena’s ugly secret, Blanche requested an IT with me after group therapy finished. Some of the patients bitched about anything that cut into their smoking time, including individual sessions, but I enjoy these bite-sized counseling interludes. Sometimes they lasted only fifteen minutes, and that beat the hell out of listening to a paid therapist gabbing for fifty, and I also didn’t have to listen to wastes of space like Geena. Those damn babies were just as dead the tenth time as they were the first.
            “I’m glad you told me about this, Tag,” Blanche said, poking a pencil into the steel- gray hair piled on her head. Most of our therapists were fresh out of community college, but Blanche was a fixture at Better Tomorrow Recovery Center, a Medicaid-funded drug rehab and mental illness emporium. She was familiar like the rotting picnic tables and the stinky horse corral used for equine therapy. “But I think you should let the therapists handle this.”
            “She’s a fucking fraud.”
            “You don’t know the whole story.”
            “Neither do you, apparently,” I said.
            “It’s not your job to find out.”
            “We call each other on our shit. Isn’t that the point of group therapy?”
            Blanche grinned, goofy, and shook her head like I was a kid who wanted his cookies before his meatloaf. I kinda hated her. “That’s only part of it, Tag.”
            I was glad I’d played some of my cards close to the vest. I’d decided while Blanche and I strolled the grounds looking for a private area to talk that I’d save for the group my intel about Geena offering to suck black dick for a painkiller. Weirdly enough, I trusted every bastard in there, even Darnell. I suppose that should’ve made me feel safe, that level of emotional security, but instead it made me itch. Blanche had another patient to meet at the shack. That’s the part of the rehab where they store the patients who are one soiled diaper away from the state hospital. I agreed to keep quiet, but already my gears were turning. If I could convince my trusted peers to join the cause, there’d be nothing Blanche could do. She couldn’t evict all of us at once.
            When I told Holly the next morning about the OxyContin, she gasped like I wished my ex had two nights before. She laughed like the loser in a tickle fight. When I brought down the boom and told her about the state taking Geena’s kids, her face grew slack. I got a little nervous, my skin prickling. I hadn’t expected Holly to get constipated over the whole thing. My scheme wouldn’t work if she pulled some righteous indignation bullshit. In rehab, everyone expects you to lie, but they expect you to at least do it well. If Geena still weren’t sucking up to Clint, no one would’ve unearthed her little relic.
            “That’s disgusting,” she said, puffing madly on a cigarette. She always snapped off the filters before lighting up. “I don’t care if I’m officially a Democrat, I still believe in forced sterilization.”
            “You’re hardcore.” I paused for effect. “Should we tell the others?” My eyebrows arched in faux innocence.
            “You bet your ass I’m telling them!”
            Holly’s volume alarmed me. Others’ attention had started to drift our way, and I didn’t want to give Geena a chance at damage control. I gestured for Holly to keep it down and promised we’d give the bitch what she had coming.
            “What about the others?” she asked.
            “Tell them one by one.”
            “What if someone blabs?”
            “Who would?” I said. “Everybody hates her bleach-blonde ass. Pick me up Saturday.”
            Throughout the day, Holly and I informed the other group members behind trees, outside restrooms, and in line for lunch. They all agreed lying about your kids, especially lying about whether they’re alive or dead, was beyond horrible. Keep in mind, these people would sell their souls just to hear their moms say, I love you. These people got treated like punching bags or blow-up dolls by their dads. Darnell’s old girlfriend aborted his child without telling him. It took all my persuasive powers to convince them my plan would be more effective than simply balling her out at the first opportunity. I assured them the bitch was going down but to let me handle the details.
            I knew Blanche would ask me my true motives if she knew the plan. Of course, I’d cut her from the loop. I got busted by a damn piss test three or four weeks ago. You’d be surprised the men you find online and what they’re willing to do for you if you do certain things for them. I’m lucky as fuck the staff didn’t tell Clint. I’m sure Blanche would wonder, probably out loud, if I weren’t trying to divert attention away from my own relapse. Whatever, that’s not the main thing. I really wanted Geena to stop sucking all the oxygen from the room. I wanted her to know that her problems are no more pressing than ours. She wouldn’t be lying if she believed that. Fight the real enemy!
            Saturday afternoon, Holly pulled up in her shabby economy car, black on the right fender, blue everywhere else. She swore up and down she hadn’t discussed my little brainstorm with anyone. As we breezed into Walmart, past the sad-sack elderly greeter, Holly asked me where the hell I was going.
            Her brow clenched with confusion when we arrived at the toy section. She slowed down so I told her to hurry up. We found what I was looking for and I told her to make sure we had enough for each group member. Well, each one except Geena. Most of my check from the government goes to Clint. It’s usually Holly’s treat when she busts me out of the house. Fortunately, she still hasn’t learned to say no to me. She reached with hesitation to where I’d pointed.

space break

The group rooms in the old farmhouse look alike, all four of them. They used to be single bedrooms, each two sharing a tiny, adjoining bathroom we’re forbidden to use. I shut the door, ignoring the new rule that only therapists can do that. The techs once caught a couple getting frisky during smoke break.
            Knowing it’s a matter of moments before the first person in our group arrives, I take from the closet all the plastic dolls, each the size of a real baby, and start popping off their heads. It takes less than a minute. I pile the heads in the middle of the floor like one of those rock formations that Indians use to mark sacred ground. I place a decapitated doll in each of the chairs. The small heap of heads glares at me, eyes gazing in all directions, as if it were a mythic creature hopelessly lost.
            The floor appears to be paneled with wood, but I suspect it’s fake; real wood costs money. The therapists’ offices are upstairs—I’ve never seen them, none of us have. You can hear those bastards’ boots and flats clomp overhead.
            Our group’s size waxes and wanes. Excluding Geena, there are only seven of us right now. It’s for the best. If it were larger, there’s a chance some goody-goody wouldn’t go along with this.
            Darnell knocks on the door, and I give him the signal. “All right, dude,” he says. “I hope this don’t turn out to be a bunch of bullshit.”
            “It’ll take five seconds.”
            “What if she freaks out and kills herself?”
            “Narcissists never commit suicide.”
            “Narcissists…Don’t those people like to fuck the dead?”
            After all seven of us are in position, I send Holly out to fetch Geena. I wish her luck. She laughs and shakes her head. Naughty children, she says, someone needs to do something about you. Holly’s job is to go and tell Geena that she has something urgent to discuss with her, something she can’t tell anyone else. No doubt Geena will bite—she’s always bitching how we’re a clique, how it’s impossible to get a foothold in our group dynamic.
            About a half minute later, the door opens. We all hold our breaths. Of course, there’s the outside chance Blanche will walk in and spoil everything. There’s simply not a good explanation for what we’re doing. Lying wouldn’t be worth the effort. Geena and Holly’s voices filter into the room. “Honey,” Geena says, “I’m so glad you came to me.”
            Holly slips past Geena into the room and scurries into the corner, grabbing a headless baby doll. Geena looks puzzled at first. She can’t understand why her whole therapy group stands in a semicircle around a pile of eerie doll heads, each member grasping a decapitated plastic body. I’m sure we look like a satanic cult ready to make sacrifices. Soon enough, though, horror invades her face. Her jaw drops, her eyes widen. Her hands flutter toward heaven.
            I speak in a theatrical baritone and point at her. “You don’t deserve to be a mother!” The others follow with deep voices and pointed fingers. “You don’t deserve to be a mother!” We keep chanting until our voices form a chorus. The door stands open. Members from other groups drift toward the doorway, puzzled and alarmed, as if witnessing a child wet himself in public.
            Geena begins to mumble and sweat. Nothing she says makes sense. Then again, I’m so focused on the performance that I’m not paying close attention. It’s funny—this stunt’s all about her, and she’s become basically an afterthought. She never notices Blanche storm into the room, pen shoved inside her hair.
            “What the hell is going on!?!”
            Her demand breaks the spell. Geena wails, her head thrown back. She sobs, she howls, she runs. Blanche calls after her but Geena’s footsteps have already trailed from earshot. Blanche spins to face us, crimson with rage. She must’ve been pissed—she actually swore in front of us. You can get fired for that. “Stay here,” she says, still shaking. “I’ll deal with all of you later.” She bolts from the room, calling for the techs.
            A moment passes then Darnell drops his baby doll. “So,” he says, picking his teeth with a toenail clipping, “we done, Tag?”
            Silently, we toss the bodies into the closet. Everyone, including Holly, is afraid to touch the pile of doll heads, so I start picking them up. Like oranges, they’re impossible to corral. Just as I lift the last one, the whole bunch tumbles to the floor. Darnell and Jasper laugh.
            “This is so genuinely disturbing,” Holly says.
            “Maybe we should go outside,” I say.
            True, we’re supposed to remain in the room, but it seems silly to start behaving now. As a group, a cohesive unit, we march out on the back porch. We’re allowed to smoke here as well, but no one ever does except a couple of scary patients who belong in the shack.
            Outside, we watch a fragmented line of therapists and techs edging towards the forest. Other patients are already outside pretending to watch and really thankful for the chance to smoke. I ask someone where Geena went. She tells me the lying bitch fled into the forest and the entire staff is searching for her. She asks me what the hell happened.
            “Can’t say,” I tell her. “Confidential.”
            Holly rolls her eyes. “Group got a little intense.”
            All of us watch the woods, part of us wanting her to be found and another part hoping the excitement doesn’t end. Everyone in our group looks at each other, bewildered. The whole rehab will learn what we’ve done. How will we explain ourselves? Should we even bother? Forget telling my ex. I think about Geena out there in forest, legs scratched and blonde hair tangled with cobwebs. It isn’t totally my fault. The group had a problem, and the group found a solution. That’s one of the skills they teach you here.

THOMAS KEARNES holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of Texas at Austin. His two collections are “Pretend I’m Not Here” (Musa Publishing) and “Promiscuous” (JMS Publishing). His fiction has appeared in The Ampersand Review, PANK, Word Riot, Eclectica, SmokeLong Quarterly, wigleaf, Storyglossia, A cappella Zoo, Spork, The Pedestal, Digital Americana Magazine and elsewhere. His work has also appeared in several LGBT venues, such as Diverse Voices Quarterly, Diverse Arts Project, Educe Journal, and the Best Gay Stories series. He is studying to become a drug dependency counselor. He lives near Houston.