Chapter 1: Breathe

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"Breathe, Kathleen-Anne, breathe

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"Breathe, Kathleen-Anne, breathe."

Breathe. As if it's that simple. Breathe. As if I can focus on anything but the searing pain. Breathe. As if I'm not being torn apart by this thing that's forcing its way out of my body. Breathe. As if I can do anything but scream and scream and scream.

The midwife, a forty-something Irish harridan, who wears an expression like she's constantly smelling something nasty, glares at me in irritation and checks her wristwatch, as if me not breathing is somehow delaying her being somewhere else. Well, she can go for all I care. I'm tired of her fingers prodding and poking me like I'm some prize cow at the county fair. I'm tired of her rolling her eyes and pursing her lips in frustration. I don't want her here. I want Rheemus. I want my husband to hold my hand and stroke my brow and tell me everything will be okay. I want him here by my side, but this room, with its clinical, puce green walls, stench of bleach and the ghost screams of thousands of women before me, is no place for men.

I can't say I blame him none. I don't want to be here either. And I don't want this pain. I've endured twenty hours so far and I can't take no more. My legs tremble violently in the stirrups as another contraction cuts into me and I scream into the push, gripping the edges of the rubber sheet in clawed fists.

"Good, Kathleen-Anne," the midwife says, but nothing about her tone makes me feel like she's pleased with all the pushing. "I can see the head." And then she adds, muttering as if I'm not in the same darn room, "Finally."

The contractions are coming faster now. Too fast. I'm not ready. Twenty hours of Hell and still I'm not ready. I have to push again and it's burning so bad I wonder if this is what Hell feels like, to be constantly screaming and sweating and burning, and all the time knowing it's because of this thing inside you that feels like its gripping on for dear life and refusing to just get the heck out.

The midwife checks her watch again and frowns, deep lines scarring her forehead. Her bright shock of red hair is scraped back severely from her face, pulled into a tight bun on the top of her head and it's that I can see now as she leans in too close to me, close to where only Rheemus has been and I'm overwhelmed with how much I hate this, how much I hate the indignity and the shame. Why did nobody ever tell me? Why did they only ever talk of birth like it was some spiritual awakening, like having the preacher lay his hands on your head in church, while the choir sing and clap and bang their tambourines in jubilant celebration? I remember now. Remember how the old ladies that took a seat down at the store, would watch me over their wire-framed half-moon spectacles, eyes beady like hawks, thin lips frowning as I gushed and crowed over how beautiful it was all going to be. They'd known, of course. They'd pushed and screamed out just as I was now and darn it, if I wasn't just the stupidest, most empty-headed girl they'd ever clapped eyes on.

Something is wrong. I can see it in the midwife's face. Can feel it in the air even, as if these sickly, green-hued walls are closing in on me, the room shrinking by the second.

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