The Thirteen Films of Victoria Umlat by Katie M. Flynn

Katie M. Flynn is fiction editor at the Indianola Review. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Flyway, Monkeybicycle, Paper Darts, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. She’s been nominated for a Pushcart prize twice and holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco. You can follow her on Twitter @other_katie.

Alan held a map open on the streets of Oslo. It was not helpful. They were lost, just as their daughters had predicted they would be.

“I can’t read this thing. Can you read this thing?” He thrust the map in Phyllis’ face, and she waved her hand at him as if to say not now.

“I’m home,” she told Alan and kissed him lightly on the cheek. Technically it was true —Phyllis was born in some Oslo hospital. But according to the story, her adoptive parents had immigrated to America when she was a toddler.

“If you’re home, then maybe you can tell me where the hotel is.” Alan had traveled all his life for work. He hated traveling; he had to fold his long legs up like an arachnid, the flight food was a gastrointestinal bomb, and they charged for it now — amazing! The service was shit, security lines like death marches. He wanted nothing more than to hole up in their little house on Lake Darling and read the newspaper. He had plenty to say about the president’s diddlings with that intern, that stupid war they were trying to win with air strikes alone, and the rise of that murderous narcissist who would surely commit genocide. But, why not? He’d run a sales team for a major American brand, traveled the world, seen it all twice over.

Phyllis pointed. “Let’s go that way.”

“Why that way?”

“I don’t know. That’s part of the fun.”

They wandered. Luckily they’d packed light — a bag over one shoulder each, plus Phyllis’ big black purse, the one she’d had with her the night they met.

Alan watched her smile at the people they passed on the street, watched the people smile back at her. He could feel Phyllis inflating. My people, he was sure she was thinking. For whatever reason, he found it irritating, just as he had when she’d insisted everyone call her “Mormor” instead of “Grandma.” None of them could master the challenging Norwegian pronunciation. His grandaughter took care of that, reducing the name to the unflattering “Momo.”

Alan reminded himself that Phyllis had no living family; her adoptive parents were killed in a car wreck a couple years before Alan met her. All she had was this, the country she came from. He decided to make an effort, to give her a break.

“There you have it,” Phyllis said. And sure enough, the hotel was right in front of them at the end of a street that had felt never-ending. “I told you. I’m home.”

. . .

At home, Lauran and Jane waited by the telephone for disaster to strike. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust their parents to travel abroad alone, it was just, well, they didn’t trust their parents to travel abroad alone. They had plenty of reasons, and they shared them over their afternoon tea ritual. Lindy, Jane’s four-year-old, lay on the rug playing dead. “I’m dead,” she said periodically, to remind her mother and aunt.

Jane was the younger sister and she spoke too loudly, like she was always competing to be heard. “They’ll be kidnapped by their taxi driver.”

Lauran was terribly pregnant and could barely raise her head from the couch cushion. “Their organs will be stolen.”

“The kidnapper will contact us. I’ll have to sell the house to pay the ransom.” Jane was getting worked up, sloshing her tea as she talked.

Lauran swallowed back a yawn. She was dying for a nap. “Mom will leave Dad.” She cringed, knowing she’d gone too far. Jane stopped laughing.

Lindy moaned from the rug, “I’m dead.”

The sisters’ husbands had been loud men who were always joking, never meeting their obligations around the house. Jane and Lauran had threatened divorce, but only to each other.

“I want a divorce.”

“Me too.”

They commiserated constantly about the ineffectuality of everyone else. How had they gotten so strong?

But it was their husbands who left them. First Jane’s, then Lauran’s — two months apart. Lauran had only one question: Had they agreed to do it together? It seemed too coincidental not to be connected. She had no one to ask except Jane, who was no help. Being a familytherapist had made her overconfident; it was a special kind of blindness.

Lindy hopped up off the rug and announced, “They’ll be cut up with a pair of giant scissors!”

“You shouldn’t say that,” Lauran snapped, still mad about what had happened at the park earlier.

While Jane met with a new family, Lauran had taken Lindy to the playground. They hadn’t been there five minutes before Lindy stomped her way into the sandbox and pushed a smaller girl down. As Lindy glowered at the girl, sobbing and shamed, Lauran realized her niece was a bully. A surge of contempt crept up her face and stung her cheeks, her eyelids, her forehead.

Lauran marched into the sandbox and took Lindy by the shoulder, made her apologize to the little girl. After a long minute of quiet defiance, Lindy leaned down and said, “Sorry,” in a voice that suggested she was not sorry at all.

Lindy hadn’t spoken to Lauran since the incident, but now, she got to her feet, fists balled. “I can say what I want. This is my house, and I’m not sorry!”

Once Lindy had run from the room, Jane asked, “What’s that about?”

Lauran merely shrugged, a small lie. She didn’t want to get into it.

She had moved into Jane’s large lake home after her own lake home had felt altogether too empty. It was only temporary, until she got through the pregnancy, those first tough newborn months. Lauran was eight months pregnant, far enough along to want somebody around, though she knew her baby was fine, just as she knew it was a boy.

. . .

Alan and Phyllis ate dinner at a poorly lit, overpriced restaurant.

“What a wonderful place. Isn’t this a wonderful place?” Phyllis leaned across the table, taking Alan’s balled hand. “Your hand feels like a piece of warm wood. Have I ever told you that?”

Alan was doing the conversions in his head. He had to drink a good deal of vodka to keep from saying anything about the prices.

Phyllis sipped daintily on her white wine. “Would you like to go dancing later? A nice young man at the hotel said there’s a fantastic spot for dancing down the street. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“That’d be nice.” It was one of the few things they both enjoyed. Alan was a decent dancer. He had rhythm — that was undeniable — and he was still pretty quick on his feet. Even with the roundness in the middle, long legs getting skinnier with each year, he knew he still had it — whatever it was.

Alan let Phyllis work at his fingers until they were open and knitted with her own.

“You know,” she purred, a little drunk, “it’s not too late to rekindle love.”

“Who said it needs rekindling?”

“I like being in love.”

Well, I do too, Alan thought, but he didn’t say it.

The club was crowded. Alan pushed his way onto the dance floor, holding tight to Phyllis’ hand. It made him feel young bumping up against all those bodies. Phyllis looked lovely in her maroon dress, the one that ended above her knees, showing off her shapely legs. Besides a little pooch, she had a wonderful figure. She shook her small blond head as if she were saying no, no, no, but it was just dancing. Alan loved when she did that. She rarely said no to him, and he found it an oddly powerful gesture.

They danced close to each other, in part because they had to — the floor was so crowded — but it felt good to Alan, good to be in another country surrounded by strangers. He spun Phyllis, then pulled her close, smelling her flowery hair. He knew that smell so well. She’d been using the same shampoo for over a decade — unbelievable that he didn’t know its name.

A man dancing next to them leaned in, his long face shimmering with sweat. “Victoria? Is that you?”

The woman he was dancing with laughed. “It’s good to see you, Victoria.”

Phyllis had nearly stopped dancing; she sort of swayed side to side, staring at the floor. Alan tried to smile even as he told the couple, “You’ve got the wrong lady.”

“It’s a joke,” the man said, “it’s something we say. Your wife has a Victoria face.” He turned to his dance partner. “Doesn’t she?”

The woman nodded solemnly. “She does.”

“In fact,” the man leaned in even closer, “I’ve never seen a Victoria quite like this one.”

. . .

Lauran was knitting a pair of booties on the couch when the phone finally rang. Knitting was one of the few things her mother had taught her. She could feel Lindy nearby, as if the girl were stalking her.

Jane hustled down the stairs to answer the phone, her hair wet from the shower, in her bra and underwear. Her abs, my goodness, they were rock solid, and her butt, God, her butt! Lauran had always been the pretty one. Being older helped for the longest time, but now she wondered if her sister wasn’t superseding her.

“Dad!” Jane shouted into the telephone — always so goddamned loud. Lauran went back to her knitting, waiting for her turn to talk, for Lindy to pounce.

“What actress?” Jane asked, as much to Lauran as to their father. The daughters shared a wide-eyed look.

Lauran took a quick nervous bite of the cookie she’d been saving. It had sat on the end table for nearly an hour. She was trying to practice discipline; she didn’t need to gain another pound. As she bit into the stale thing, a dizzying shudder of pain blew through her head like a landmine. She let out a little howl, and Jane put her hand over the phone, hissed, “You’ll get your turn.”

But that wasn’t it. Ever since Lauran went in for a filling a few months ago, her back molar had been sensitive. Most of the time it was fine, but occasionally she hit the spot, and the pain — it was electric. Sometimes she cried because of it.

Jane sat back down on the loveseat, ran a spidery hand through her hair.

Lauran cupped her cheek, her tooth beating like a second heart. “I didn’t get a chance to talk to them.”

“What’s the point? Dad’s got nothing to say, and you know Mom. She’s—” Jane made a gesture with her hand like an airplane taking off.

Lauran thought of Chuck, her husband. Up until his departure, she had very little to wonder about. She figured that besides childbirth and death, life’s real mysteries were over for her. But then she found out — too late, mind you — that there was a mystery right there in her own marriage, one she still hadn’t unraveled, and she got that bottomless margarita free-falling feeling.

. . .

Alan had never heard of this woman, this Victoria Umlat, but everybody kept saying she was very famous, very beautiful, perhaps the most famous and beautiful woman in all of Norway. She was dead. She would have to be for people to say things like that.

Back at the hotel, Phyllis on his arm, Alan was in a joking mood, and he sauntered over to the clerk and asked, “Do you have any Victoria films?”

“Of course.” The man smiled at Phyllis. “Would you like to borrow one?”

“Oh no.” Phyllis tugged on Alan’s sleeve. “We have no time for movies.”

Alan was not surprised to hear this. Phyllis had always hated movies. He stared at his wife, at her small round face, her big lashy blue eyes — makeup enhanced, mind you, but still beautiful. What if she had been an actress? Why not?

Sometimes Alan wondered why she married him. He’d been a college athlete once. Well, he’d made the team anyway. But the drinking, the classes he had no interest in — English composition for crying out loud! He’d dropped out and taken a job at Land O’Lakes, where things finally clicked — he was V.P. of sales by the age of 30, and a husband and father even before that.

He’d met Phyllis at a bar he often went to after dinner with clients. This was his place. It was called the White House and its stale beery smell didn’t keep the bar from filling with quiet heavy drinkers who mostly kept to themselves or shouldered off in pairs. This suited Alan just fine, as he was often all talked out by the time he got there. He sat at the bar and swirled his drink, idly watching a hockey game on the TV.

He noticed Phyllis at the end of the bar, her big black leather bag sitting on the counter like a companion. She was staring at the television, her mouth slack as she concentrated. She seemed to notice Alan’s approach, to sit straighter, to button herself up, so to speak.

“I’ve never watched hockey,” she said before he’d even sat down. “Men dancing around each other on ice. It’s quite lovely.”

Alan took a slug of his drink. “Well, you must not be from Minnesota.”

Phyllis studied his face. “No, not originally,” she said, with a touch of accent, inherited from her immigrant parents, she told him later.

He had been pleasantly surprised, shocked even, that this tiny burning beauty wanted to date him, to marry him after only a few weeks. He moved her into a lovely lake home and traveled most of the week while she nursed herself through two pregnancies, nursed their two daughters through the daily trials and illnesses of childhood, adolescence, the teen years. He’d been gone for most of that.

Phyllis spent her evenings walking the girls around the lake or playing on the shore. She never watched movies. She said she disliked their artificiality. But he’d caught her once on the couch, crying over some foreign film — grainy black and white, a blonde lying dead in an upturned car. A man dragged her from the car and held her to his chest, crying. He kissed her dead lips and spoke soft foreign words to her. There were subtitles, but Alan couldn’t read them from the doorway. He watched his wife bend over herself, rocking gently. Then he stepped secretly from the room and left her there alone.

. . .

“Victoria Umlat. U-m-l-a-t, but it’s pronounced Oom-lah,” Jane said, still in her underwear. “Get this, Mom said to think of the ‘t’ as an ‘h’ then make it silent. Does that even make any sense?”

It did, Lauran thought. It made perfect sense in a Phyllis kind of way. “Let’s rent one of her films.”

They weren’t easy to find. Their regular video store didn’t carry any nor had they even heard of Victoria Umlat. So Jane made some calls. She found a video store across town that rented old foreign films, and they just so happened to have a collection of Victoria Umlats.

“She was a dazzler, a real gem,” the clerk said before clicking off.

Jane, Lauran, and Lindy drove to the store and checked out the whole collection: thirteen films in total.

The first one was called “Rare Creatures,” about a woman who can’t have a baby, so she steals her neighbor’s son and moves to the country. Victoria Umlat takes the baby from the stroller where he’s napping — outside! in the snow! — and runs down the street to her car, real frenzy in her eyes.

“This movie is boring.” Lindy was propped up on the rug, her head blocking the subtitles. “And that doesn’t look anything like Momo.”

Lauran had to restrain herself from saying that the actress, this Victoria, bore an unsettling resemblance to her mother, the dramatic gestures, her smallness, the pouty mouth.

By the end of the film, Victoria Umlat’s husband finds her and makes her return the baby. After that, he treats her like a domesticated animal, locking her inside the house and giving her a list of chores, even beating her. Lauran looked over to see Jane’s face scrunched up in a distorted smile that Lauran knew was not a smile at all.

Long after the movie ended, Lauran lay in bed thinking about the last scene, when the camera zoomed in on Victoria’s face, her eyes, all the way inside them — what they found was a pure iron black. The woman would escape; Lauran knew it.

. . .

Over the next several days, strangers continued to approach Phyllis and make Victoria comments. Her reaction was always the same — an embarrassed smile, an oh, thank you. But when one joker asked for her autograph, she’d actually signed the man’s paper napkin!

Alan couldn’t help himself. “Boy, you’re really getting comfortable with this.”

“Comfortable?” Phyllis said, sounding irritated.

It was their fourth day in Oslo. They were in the National Museum, looking on Edvard Munch’s “Night in St. Cloud.” It was a rather solemn image, a man sitting alone, staring out at a ship, as shown from behind a curtain, peeping the poor lonesome soul. And with the name and all — nevermind that it wasn’t the St. Cloud of Minnesota — it got Alan thinking about home, his girls so far away, his heart peeling apart like an onion. Alan was feeling all this as Phyllis was having a pleasant conversation with a nice young man about art and, of course, Victoria. The man invited them to lunch at a café across the street from the museum. Alan agreed. He loved eating with locals, to be their guest; it was one of the few pleasures of traveling.

The restaurant was smoky, with low ceilings and a forgetful waitstaff. The young man, Philip, ordered them a cheese plate, rounds of fruity beer, and Alan watched as Phyllis grew more and more drunk. She asked the man for a cigarette.

Alan couldn’t believe it. “Since when do you smoke?”

“You don’t know everything about me, Alan.” Smoke curled out of her mouth, up her nose, like she’d been doing it her whole life.

The young man said, “I want to take pictures of you. Would you like that?”

“Oh, yes.” Phyllis smiled broadly, but when she saw how Alan was looking at her, she turned to the window, and for a flicker, Alan saw in her posture something of that Munch painting — was she doing it intentionally? She took a deep drag of the cigarette and coughed lightly, palm to chest.

“Stop that.” Alan reached across the table and took the cigarette, stamped it out.

. . .

Lauran sat in the dental chair, a paper bib around her neck. While the dentist poked around in her mouth, she stared at her distorted reflection in the round silver sink.

“Everything looks fine,” he said, his words muffled by the paper mask, “your teeth can take up to six months to fully heal from a filling.”

“But the pain feels abnormal.” As they spoke, Lauran could actually hear her tooth aching, a quiet whir like electricity. It was driving her crazy.

“Well, I could write you a prescription for pain relievers but,” the dentist removed his mask, “in your condition…” He smiled, showing a mouthful of shiny veneers.

Back home, Lauran went immediately to the couch to lie down. She pressed her cheek into the cushion, wishing she’d asked for the prescription, and moaned herself to sleep, in too much pain to worry about whether Lindy was lingering.

She woke to Jane’s scream. A bird had flown into the house, and Jane was swatting at it with a broom.

“Don’t kill it,” Lauran said wearily, but Jane was frantic. Lindy had come in and was staring, hands over her mouth in a look of either excitement or terror — Lauran couldn’t tell.

“It could be diseased,” Jane said. The bird was circling near the ceiling. It banged into the wall and fell, close enough for Jane to swat at it, making contact.

“You killed it,” Lauran said, though she wasn’t sure it was true. The poor thing lay inert, but there was no blood. It could have been stunned, she supposed, peeling herself off the couch and nudging it with the tip of her socked foot.

“Don’t do that!” Jane took Lauran by the shoulders and pushed her into the kitchen.

Deposited into a chair at the table, Lauran watched as Jane rummaged through the drawers until she’d found a freezer bag and a pair of tongs.

Lauran listened from the kitchen as her sister swept the bird into the bag and took it out back, Lindy following, panting, “Can I do it, Mom? I want to bury the bird.”

There was a pause as if Jane were considering; then the sounds of Lindy’s happiness — clapping, a yip of glee — traveled through the half-open window above the kitchen sink. Lindy grunted as she dug.

“It might still be alive,” Lauran called, but nobody answered.

. . .

Philip invited Alan and Phyllis back to his place. Alan didn’t know what kind of scenario this was, but he felt more or less at ease. The boy seemed harmless. He lived alone in a spacious loft-style apartment that reminded Alan of business trips to New York in his hard partying days, back when he’d end up at some exec’s loft, snorting coke until sunup, wondering what Phyllis would think if she knew.

Alan studied the shelves — mostly art books, photography, philosophy, not one book he could talk about. Philip came up next to him, his shoulder brushing against Alan’s in what seemed like a demonstration of intimacy. “Here,” the young man said. He reached for the shelves and selected a book of photographs, paging past beautiful actresses in black and white who reminded Alan of his childhood. He’d loved movies then, up until he met Phyllis and she told him she preferred true human experience to illusion.

Despite being an artist, Philip was an attractive, masculine young man, Alan thought. His large nose dominated his face except when he was smiling. He had a boyish smile, open and gleeful, which even Alan found appealing. He wondered if one of his daughters would find Philip attractive.

“There,” Philip said, holding the book out for Alan to see. The lighting had been kind, Victoria’s face soft, like the dewy insides of a freshly skinned apple. Alan took the book into his own hands. It was not hard to see the resemblance. She had Phyllis’ large eyes, her full lips. But this woman was younger, and she wore a glamorous gown and wig, heaps of makeup. Alan bet this Victoria wasn’t nearly so striking in real life. His Phyllis — she was the true beauty.

“Beautiful girl,” Alan said. “How old was she when she died?”

Philip took the book and slid it back onto the shelf. “She was our greatest actress, but she was only twenty-seven when we lost her. Imagine what she could have done had she lived.”

Phyllis emerged from the bathroom, her lips lined and colored red, eyes outlined in smoky black. Her hair was slicked back, pulled away from her face, a hairstyle Alan had never seen her wear.

It was a strange thing to watch. Alan sat on the sofa while his wife posed. She certainly wasn’t shy, leaning on the kitchen countertop, her profile to the camera, angled to catch the late afternoon light. She was an actress, Alan realized, and he was almost angry to only be finding this out now. All their years of marriage, and he’d never known what she could do. She’d probably done it to him; she was probably doing it to him right now.

. . .

Lauran couldn’t stop watching the films. When they were on, she hardly noticed her headache. They were always dramatic — great stories of love and love lost, of suicide, murder, war, families torn apart and reconciled, women with children they loved, women with children they hated, women in haunted houses with the men who could not protect them. Lauran lay on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, the videotapes lined up in front of her, and she watched them back-to-back, all day. Sometimes Jane joined her. Other times, Lindy would sneak into the room, slithering along the floor, trying to scare Lauran.

She woke to Lindy standing over the couch, the dead bird in her hand. Lauran didn’t sit up, determined not to let the girl frighten her. The buzz had grown in her ear. “Did you dig that up, or did you not bury it?”

Lindy only smiled, slipping the bird under the blanket near Lauran’s feet. She wanted to stop her niece, to do something, but the sound in her ears, the ache in her head — it was too much.

“What’s wrong with you?” Lauran hugged her stomach, wanting to comfort her son, to tell him that she was not talking to him, that he was perfect.

Lindy pointed at Lauran’s belly. “There’s something wrong with you!”

Lauran covered her baby and felt as the headache passed from one temple to the other, like two nodes on a power grid. “Stay away from me,” she said, “stay away from us.” Why couldn’t she get along with her niece? God, what if she didn’t get along with her own son? Lauran clenched her eyes shut as Lindy ran from the room.

When Lauran woke later, there was no dead bird under the blanket, no Lindy. She wondered if she’d dreamt it. It had felt so real. She looked at the television where a movie was playing — Victoria Umlat dancing, turning circles with a man — handsome, destined to leave her.

. . .

Alan began to see Victoria’s face everywhere. There were posters up in cafes and framed photographs in restaurants, even T-shirts — a man wearing her likeness passed them on the street! Alan held tightly to Phyllis’ hand as if at any moment she could be gone, plastered on a wall, smothered behind a frame.

“You can’t go,” Philip said over dinner. They’d become friends: Philip and Phyllis. He took them to dinner and to parties at the houses of gushing Victoria fans, and they all marveled at Phyllis’ likeness.

“Well,” Phyllis drew on a cigarette, “maybe we won’t. Right, Alan? Maybe we’ll stay here forever.”

Alan thought of Lauran, pregnant and without a husband. The trip — they’d put it together so last minute, so unlike them, knowing that once the baby came, they wouldn’t be traveling for a long time. He hadn’t realized it at the time, but this trip had come at the exact moment when his daughter needed him most.

“Excuse me.” Alan went out of the restaurant to a payphone on the street, slid in his prepaid card, the one his daughters had insisted he purchase at the airport. He didn’t know what time it was, but Lindy answered. He felt a swell of shame, hearing her small girl voice.

“We’re watching one of Momo’s movies. She’s kissing a man on the mouth right now.”

He forced out a laugh, but it wasn’t remotely funny.

The day before they were scheduled to depart, Phyllis came down with a terrible headache and couldn’t get out of bed. “Go on,” she said, her head underneath a damp cloth, “go meet Philip.”

Alan went, not because he wanted to, but because he thought it rude to stand the young man up. He’d have to live without one last visit with his precious resurrected Victoria.

Alan apologized for Phyllis’ absence, but to his surprise, Philip didn’t seem upset. He said he understood. Goodbyes were difficult.

Feeling a well of fondness for the boy, Alan ventured, “There’s a question I’ve wanted to ask you. How did she die?”

“Victoria?” Philip lit a cigarette, exhaling a plume of smoke over Alan’s shoulder. “Well, it’s become a sort of legend. See, the common belief is that she killed herself, jumping from her private boat. Others think she was murdered by a lover and thrown overboard.”

“Was the body ever found?”

Philip leaned forward, as if to confide a secret. “That is why some people believe she is still alive.”

“Go on.”

“See, Victoria had many lovers, but no true love. A rumor spread that she sold her soul for fame, giving up her right to real love in the transaction. Men would make love to her, of course — how could they not? — but they would not love her. One former beau spoke of how uneasy it was being with her. In his words, it felt doomed.”

Alan thought about how he loved Phyllis. It was a sturdy thing, his love. And hers, well, she had bound herself to him for whatever reason. They had married so fast, and it had felt right that way, efficient and easy.

“She is so lovely in this picture.” Philip held the photo out, of my wife, Alan had to remind himself — all he could see now was the echo of that young actress.

“What do you think happened to her?”

Philip leaned back in his seat, stared at the ceiling. “I think she never existed at all. She was just a girl made into a star, then deconstructed by an obsessive public, and then she was gone. Whether she’s alive or not doesn’t make any difference. Victoria was a character. An idea.”

“You’re dodging the question.”

Philip signaled for the check. “I know.”

When Alan returned to the room, Phyllis was gone. He went to the bathroom and looked for her there, but it was so quiet he was certain she had left. He searched for a note, a missing bag — proof, so to speak, but she had taken nothing except her black leather purse. Even the money was still there, in the bottom of Alan’s bag. Maybe she’d gone out for a walk? He sat on the edge of the bed and waited.

She had done this once before — left him and the girls, for days on end. He hadn’t expected her to come back then, just as he didn’t now. But she had come. She’d returned with her black leather purse, sat across from him in the living room, and smiled.

“Happy to see me?” she’d asked, and he’d wanted to hit her, to smash her beautiful face into something unrecognizable.

It wasn’t the only time he felt that way. He figured it was a part of love. And he’d loved her so convincingly. He’d stayed in character even as she bore the baby, Lauran, six months after they married. He gave the baby his name, and he was a father to her, not only in title, but where it counted, in the thumping of his heart. “She’s just early,” Phyllis told him, “she just wanted out into the world so darn bad.”

In the sheets, Alan found the cloth that had been on Phyllis’ forehead. It was still damp, but its temperature was no different now than that of the air.

. . .

The thirteenth film is about a little devil child, a boy who kills his baby brothers and sister so as not to have to compete for Mother’s attention. Mother is played by Victoria Umlat. In the film, she’s a sleek city woman, which makes no sense given the number of babies she’s had. But there Mother is in a fashionable pant suit, hair like a mushroom top, carrying a large black leather purse.

Lauran sat up and said to an empty room, “That’s the bag Mom carries!” Her headache sizzled, and she lay back down, feeling faint.

Eventually the little boy is upset by his mother’s constant attempts to get pregnant, so he kills her too, pushing her off their apartment balcony. The film ends with the boy living alone with his father, drinking beer and watching soccer.

Foreign films, Lauran thought as she rewound. She watched Victoria Umlat die again. Sure, she was beautiful and had tremendous screen presence, but her range was not extensive. Her screen death had no real commitment — an arm thrust at the sky, a look of anguish. Lauran was less than impressed. She looked down at the rug where her niece was lying. “Are you playing dead?”

Lindy jumped up and snapped a photograph with Jane’s old Polaroid.

“Don’t,” Lauran said, shielding her eyes.

Laughing crazily, Lindy snapped another picture, another. Lauran lunged for the camera, tripping over the twisted blanket, falling, trying to protect her belly, her nearly ready baby. She landed heavily on her side and groaned as Lindy stood over her.

“Get your mother,” Lauran said. “Please.”

. . .

Jane was in the room, Lindy too, when the doctor said she was going to let nature take its course. Labor had started, Lauran was thirty-four weeks, two centimeters dilated, no signs of fetal distress. “Just a kick-start,” the doctor joked unnaturally. She was a severe little woman with thick black glasses and a boy’s haircut. But surgery was exactly what Lauran wanted — for the baby to be extracted from her womb, which she had come to believe was a dangerous place. Lindy was taken into the waiting room by a cheerful nurse with promises of a popsicle and coloring sheets. Jane texted Chuck to let him know his son was on the way, and Lauran kept expecting him to come barreling through the door, ready to coach her through labor like they’d practiced in parenting classes.

When the pain was too much Lauran called uncle, and an anesthesiologist wheeled a cart into the room, slid a long needle into her spine, which really hurt until nothing hurt from the waist down. Her head — it went on buzzing. It felt as though her lower half had been lopped off, as if she’d been cut in two.

Four hours later, the door came swinging open. Lauran was not disappointed to see that it was her father with his bag, straight from the airport. She didn’t ask where her mother was. The buzzing mixed with the sadness or the hormones or all the missing people — she couldn’t tell where one pain began and the other ended. Her father held her hand and coached her.

“Go on,” Alan said, “push her out.”

“Him,” Lauran wanted to say, but she couldn’t find the words. She listened, did what he told her to do.

When the doctor said, “We’re almost there,” Lauran propped herself up to look, saw Lindy in the doorway, peering in. Lauran was about to tell Jane to get Lindy out when the doctor said the baby was coming. It only took a handful of pushes — bearing life wasn’t nearly as difficult as Lauran had thought it would be.

“It’s a girl,” the doctor said, her eyes smiling at Lauran from over her mask. Lauran heard the doctor perfectly, the buzz in her head gone.

“Are you sure?”

“Well, yes,” the doctor said, “I am.” After the nurses cut the cord, cleaned up the baby, and swaddled and capped her, she was deposited in Lauran’s arms, so warm and screaming. Lauran could hardly bear the resemblance the baby held to her mother — the pouty lips, the little red face bursting with emotion.

Lindy had snuck up behind Lauran, gawking at the baby, cooing, already in love. Lauran realized how stupid she had been. This was not a Victoria Umlat film.

“See,” Lauran said to her niece. “Doesn’t she look like Momo?”

Lindy leaned in and studied the baby’s face. “Yes,” she agreed.

Jane hovered at Lauran’s side. “What’re you going to call her?”

“No idea,” Lauran said as she handed the baby to her father. She watched him examine his grandchild. He said things to the baby, words Lauran swore she’d heard in a film once, or maybe not — God she was tired. What difference did it make? They belonged to her father now, and she would remember them as his.