Chapter no 16 – Labor

Lesson, in Chemistry

“Library?” Elizabeth asked Six-Thirty about five weeks later. “I’ve got an appointment with Dr. Mason later today and I’d like to return these books first. I’m thinking you might enjoy Moby-Dick. It’s a story about how humans continually underestimate other life-forms. At their peril.”

In addition to the receptive learning technique, Elizabeth had been reading aloud to him, long ago replacing simple children’s books with far weightier texts. “Reading aloud promotes brain development,” she’d told him, quoting a research study she’d read. “It also speeds vocabulary accumulation.” It seemed to be working because, according to her notebook, he now knew 391 words.

“You’re a very smart dog,” she’d told him just yesterday, and he longed to agree, but the truth was, he still didn’t understand what “smart” meant. The word seemed to have as many definitions as there were species, and yet humans—with the exception of Elizabeth—seemed to only recognize “smart” if and when it played by their own rules. “Dolphins are smart,” they’d say. “But cows aren’t.” This seemed partly based on the fact that cows didn’t do tricks. In Six-Thirty’s view that made cows smarter, not dumber. But again, what did he know?

Three hundred ninety-one words, according to Elizabeth. But really, only 390.

Worse, he’d just learned that English wasn’t the only human language. Elizabeth revealed that there were hundreds, maybe thousands of others, and that no human spoke them all. In fact, most people spoke only one—

maybe two—unless they were something called Swiss and spoke eight. No wonder people didn’t understand animals. They could barely understand each other.

At least she realized he would not be able to draw. Drawing seemed to be the way young children preferred to communicate, and he admired their efforts even if their results fell short of the mark. Not a day went by when he didn’t witness little fingers earnestly pressing their chunky chalks into the sidewalk, their impossible houses and primitive stick figures filling the cement with a story no one understood but themselves.

“What a pretty picture!” he heard a mother say earlier that week as she looked down on her child’s ugly, violent scribble. Human parents, he’d noted, had a tendency to lie to their children.

“It’s a puppy,” her child said, her hands covered in chalk. “And such a pretty puppy!” the mother rejoined.

“No,” the child said, “it’s not pretty. The puppy’s dead. It got killed!” Which Six-Thirty, after a second, closer look, found disturbingly accurate.

“It is not a dead puppy,” the mother said sternly. “It is a very happy puppy, and it is eating a bowl of ice cream.” At which point the frustrated child flung the chalk across the grass and stomped off for the swings.

He retrieved it. A gift for the creature.

They walked the five blocks together, Elizabeth in a shirtdress that strained at her bump, striding as if going off to war. On her back was a bright red satchel stuffed with books; on his, bike messenger panniers repurposed for all the extra books her satchel could not hold.

“I’m starving,” she said aloud as they walked, the air heavy with November. “I could eat a horse. I’ve been monitoring my urine, analyzing my hair proteins, and…”

This was true. She’d been tracking her urine’s glucose levels, noting the amino acid chain of her hair’s keratin, and analyzing her body’s temperature in their lab for the last two months. It wasn’t clear to Six-Thirty what any of it meant, but he was relieved to see her taking more interest in their creature

—more scientific interest at least. Her only practical preparation had been the purchase of thick white cloth squares and several dangerous-looking pins. She’d also purchased three tiny outfits that looked like sacks.

“It sounds fairly straightforward,” she told him as they strode down the street. “I’ll experience prelabor, then labor. We’ve still got two weeks to go, Six-Thirty, but I think it’s good to think about these things now. The important thing to remember,” she said, “is that when the time comes, we stay calm.”

But Six-Thirty was not calm. Her water had broken several hours earlier. She hadn’t noticed because she’d expelled only a modest amount of moisture, but he’d noticed because he was a dog. The scent was unmistakable. As for her hunger pains, they weren’t hunger pains; they were prelabor contractions. As they neared the library’s front door, the creature decided to make things a bit clearer.

“Oh,” Elizabeth moaned, doubling over. “Oh my goddddd.”

Thirteen hours later, Dr. Mason held the infant up for an exhausted Elizabeth to see.

“That’s a big one,” he said, looking at the baby as if he’d just reeled in a catch. “Definitely a rower. Don’t quote me, but I think she’ll row port.” He looked down at Elizabeth. “Good job, Miss Zott. And you did it all without anesthesia. I told you all that erging would come in handy. She’s got great lungs.” He peered at the baby’s tiny hands as if imagining future calluses. “You’ll both be with us for a few days. I’ll swing by your room tomorrow. In the meantime, rest.”

But worried about Six-Thirty, Elizabeth checked herself out the very next morning.

“Absolutely not,” the head nurse said. “Completely against protocol. Dr.

Mason will have a fit.”

“Tell him I need to erg,” she said. “He’ll approve.”

“Erg?” the nurse practically shouted as Elizabeth dialed for a cab. “What is erg?”

Thirty minutes later, Elizabeth walked up the driveway, the baby tucked snugly against her chest, her heart pounding with relief at the sight of Six-Thirty, panniers still on, sitting like a sentry at the front door.

Oh my god, Six-Thirty panted, oh my god oh my god you’re alive you’re alive oh my god I was so worried.

She bent down and showed him the bundle.

The creature was—sniff— a girl!

“It’s a girl,” Elizabeth told him, smiling.

Hello, Creature! It’s me! Six-Thirty! I’ve been worried sick!

“I’m so sorry,” she said, unlocking the door. “You must be starving. It’s”—she consulted her watch—“nine twenty-two. You haven’t eaten in more than twenty-four hours.”

Six-Thirty wagged his tail in excitement. Just as some families give their children names starting with the same letter (Agatha, Alfred) and others prefer the rhyme (Molly, Polly) his family went by the clock. He was named Six-Thirty to commemorate the exact time they’d become a family. And now he knew what the creature would be called.

Hello, Nine Twenty-Two! he communicated. Welcome to life on the outside! How was the trip? Please, come in, come in! I’ve got chalk!

As the three of them bustled through the door, a strange joy filled the air. For the first time since Calvin’s death, it felt as if they’d turned a corner.

Until ten minutes later when the creature started to cry and everything fell apart.

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