BIRTH ACT (an excerpt)

BY RACHEL FUREY

In front of her sixth grade class, Riley acts out her own birth. Mother’s Day is this weekend and this is supposed to be a simple speech – something with pleasant platitudes about her mother’s kind acts. Things like baking cookies and making dresses and teaching her how to catch fireflies. But Riley isn’t a speech sort of a girl. She dreams of becoming an actress, preferably one like Sandra Bullock. She, too, wants to star in a movie called Miss Congeniality, wants to be transformed from her geekish self into a confident, beautiful girl capable of attracting men. She wants a scene like Sandra Bullock’s, one in which she gets to stand in front of an audience and demonstrate the SING (solar plexus, instep, nose, groin) pressure points on a merciless man standing on the stage beside her. She wants to hear him groan and watch him crumple to the stage floor. A little blood, real or fake, would be nice too.

Today, Riley is playing the part of herself eleven years ago, before she had emerged from her mother. She is crouched under a stool, her friend Sandra (not Bullock, but Markerelli) atop it, playing the part of her mother. Sandra is good. She will get a part in a movie before Riley. Sandra has her hands on a pillow squeezed in under her U2 T-shirt. Her eyes are opened only partway, like she’s still halfway in dreamland, and she quietly hums to herself. Riley thinks it’s a song from The Little Mermaid – “Part of Your World,” maybe. She rocks a little beneath the stool, as if the humming is slowly bringing her to life. She hopes for Sandra to take this slow, to let this favorite part of their act last.

Riley is aware of their teacher, Mrs. Panger, sitting in her desk adjacent to them, her legs crossed under her skirt, her eyes stern under her thick glasses. She is also aware of her classmates watching, their bodies leaning forward to observe what is not another usual speech. Sandra’s humming grows louder and Riley stirs a little more. The floor is cold and hard beneath her knees and hands, and she slowly pokes her head out from under the stool, rolling it from side to side, crying gently the way she imagines she must have that night. When they practiced this act in the basement of Sandra’s house, Sandra looked at Riley and said, “Real tears, they have to be real tears.” When Riley said she wasn’t sure she could make it happen, Sandra sat her down and said, “Just think of that night. Just think of what happened.” She kept going, making up details – Riley’s mother biting her tongue so hard it bled and blood dripped down her chin, Riley’s father fainting flat onto the floor and having to be carried out on a stretcher – and Riley couldn’t be any more sure these details were false than real. Like those tears in that final practice session, these ones today are real.

“Let’s start wrapping this up, girls,” Mrs. Panger says. But they don’t listen. They agreed on this already. Actresses must be dedicated to their art; they must persevere. They will not stop this act until someone carries them out of the room. Sandra begins to groan and shake atop the stool. She bites her tongue and then lets out a long wail that pierces the warm classroom air and wakes up Roger Blogden, who fell asleep in the back. Sandra has a nice pair of lungs and the energy of her scream makes goose bumps rise along Riley’s skin. Riley sticks one hand out from beneath the stool and wiggles her fingers a bit. While Sandra’s scream trails off, Sandra grabs the ketchup packets pushed into her jeans pocket and squeezes them in her fist until they pop open and leak, streaming down onto Riley’s neck. This is the only part Riley can be sure of. When she asked her father about that night, he simply told her she wouldn’t want to hear. And when she asked why, he said, “There was a lot of blood.”

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RACHEL FUREY grew up in upstate New York, received her BS from SUNY Brockport, and recently completed her MFA at Southern Illinois University. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Press 53 Open Awards Anthology, Women’s Basketball Magazine, and the Twins and More edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul. She also placed as a finalist in the 2008 Charles Johnson Student Fiction Award and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s Story Contest and had work appear in Main Street Rag’s short fiction anthology XX Eccentric. In the Fall, she plans to begin work on her PhD at Texas Tech University.