In three days, Nadine turns twenty-five. She wishes for the same quarter-life crisis as the thousands of other early- to mid-twenty somethings in and around San Francisco. Unlike most of them, she will have to choose whether to live or die. To live, she must stop the heart of a human. Nadine’s people, the Taricha people, don’t want to kill—at least, not all of them do. They cannot die for the first twenty-five years of their lives, but then after that point, they each have to take a life every ten years in order to stay alive. Named after the taricha torosa, the California newt, they are contagion encased in an innocuous shell.
Nadine always feels a little out of place at the Taricha gatherings. They meet at Benjamin's broad two-story home, overlooking the Berkeley hills. She is the youngest of the Bay Area contingent—the rest spread out along the Pacific coast—and the darkest. Descended from the few Taricha from Africa—and a mother who opted to die rather than kill—Nadine is constantly surrounded and always alone.
Benjamin, the oldest known Taricha, leans in until he’s just a couple inches from Nadine’s face. His face has few wrinkles and his eyes shine a fierce glittering green. He looks fifty-five instead of however many centuries old. The only hint of his true age is his breath, which carries the faint smell of his rotting tongue. He smells of the mint leaves he keeps tucked in his cheek with an undercurrent of decay.
The party hums around them with the easy-going conversations of a dozen people. Nadine fights to keep her face neutral against his stench and unsolicited advice.
Go for the black boys, Benjamin tells her. It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to pick them off. No matter how they die, it’s their fault. No drugs in their system? The media will claim drugs. No weapon on them? The police will claim there was a weapon. He chuckles. Reality ceases.
That’s how you make an endangered species, Nadine thinks. Callously ignore reality.
Won’t they be missed? She asks. She raises her drink to her lips to mask her look of horror. Most Taricha tell stories of the people they’ve killed they way some families talk about their annual vacations, an odd combination of enthusiasm mixed with monotony. It is just another part of the tedium of life. Nadine has noticed, though, that few people talk about their firsts.
Benjamin shrugs. It’s them or you, my dear. And you’ve got a better chance of doing some good, frankly. Even with your condition.
He talks about her dark skin and kinky hair like it’s a malady, something to be medicated and overcome.
Would you excuse me? She ambles down the hall toward the bathroom.
You could always do a homeless person, Benjamin calls after her.
Nadine pauses after a curve in the hallway, waiting for someone else to exit the bathroom, and stares out a floor to ceiling window that looks out over the backyard. The taricha torosa climb on the trees and vines Benjamin constructed for them. They dip in and out of the small pond.
Benjamin has a story he loves to tell about the taricha torosa. It starts: once there was a female taricha torosa whose belly glowed a luminous blue. The male newts watched her from a distance during the dry season. They craved her, lusted over her. When the first rain cloud of the new season burst, all the taricha torosa emerged from trees, vines, bushes, creeks, and they crossed the thin dirt road to the lake. As soon as the taricha torosa with the blue belly dipped her three-toed foot in the water, the males lunged upon her. In a ball of orange and brown with a speck of blue in the middle, the males writhed and lurched. They howled as the clouds parted to make room for the moon. The female with the blue belly stretched her arms and legs to shove the males away; she lashed her tail at them; she snarled, growled, and bared her tiny teeth. The males pressed harder, enclosing her in their vibrating ball. A long, piercing scream rushed from her mouth. But the males just howled louder. Then, she reached with her poison soaked hand into the chest of the nearest male, clutched his heart, and yanked it from him. With one swift motion, she bounced the heart off one male’s leg, and it popped into her mouth. She chewed, swallowed, chewed, swallowed, licked the corners of her jaws. As the heart hit her belly, the tetrodotoxin swirled around her middle and caused the blue to glow then burn. She felt heat but not pain. The male newts, however, heard and felt hisses escape their lips and their skin as they touched her. They scurried away in fright—not wanting to lose their hearts or scales—out of the lake, back across the dirt road, and back into the trees, bushes, and vines. The female taricha torosa smiled. She was alone—and hot—but she was safe.
Nadine places a hand on her own belly to calm the rising nausea. Nerves. She yawns. The stress makes her tired. She worries about getting caught although none of the Taricha ever seem to. But what made her life worth more than another’s? With each passing hour, she leaned closer to her mother’s path: a nice meal and a warm bath to welcome death.
Two days before her birthday, nausea wakes Nadine. As soon as her eyes open, she knows. It is as if a message crawls up her spine and explodes. She knows with the same conviction that she knows her mother’s spirit watches, hovers, over her. She swings the blankets to one side and throws her feet in the opposite direction. When her toes hit the cold laminate floor, vomit rises up in her throat.
Heave. Drive to the store. Back to the porcelain throne. Wait. Confirmation.
She tries to take on the full weight of motherhood in heaping gulps of breath on the bathroom floor. A crib won’t fit in her 300 square foot studio. They don’t offer daycare at her barista job at the cafe down the street. Her inverted nipples prohibit breastfeeding. The public schools in Oakland are subpar, but who could afford to live in Berkeley besides the Benjamins of the world? She doesn’t have a car and barely has health insurance. The one night stand that co-produced the fetus isn’t exactly daddy dearest material. Oh, and there is the matter of planning to die in two days.
Then, as suddenly as the whirlwind started, it stops. Noisy panic gives way to silent shock. She goes into autopilot. Shower, khakis, black shirt, coffee, banana, and work, an hour late.
At the cafe, she serves espresso and various bacon-wrapped veggies to an assortment of university students, professors, nonprofit employees, and techies. The thank you’s and have a nice day’s dull her mind. She refuses to think of him or her—no, it—at work. She shoves away all thoughts of it at home while she orders Chinese and cues up bloody action movies back to back until she falls asleep on the couch. Denial at its finest.
The Taricha don’t do babies the way humans do. They don’t ooh and ahh or make cutesy wutesy noises at the teeny weeny bodies. They don’t kiss boo-boos or hang up medals won at spelling bees or little league. They teach Taricha children to be mediocre. It is the only way to avoid suspicion, to last as long as possible. All lessons course down different paths and land at the same home: survival.
But one thing the Taricha and humans have in common is that they tell their children stories. As Nadine’s head sinks into her pillow, a story from her mother echoes in her mind.
The African Taricha arrived in North America in New Orleans. They lived among the Spanish, French, and natives in the bustling city as free people of color. They thrived. Early urban life presented enough death that the Taricha survived for decades without suspicion. They lived in a small enclave on the outskirts of the city. Their small one-story wooden houses formed a circle with all the doors facing each other. The river bordered the houses on one side and thick, shady woods shielded the circle on the other. A path with patches of moss and weeds led from the middle of the circle through the woods to the main road.
Then, Revolution in the East brought pale faces and trouble to the West. The winners of the Revolution purchased the land and moved in. They raided the Taricha neighborhood in the darkest hours of the morning. They shackled the people of poison and dragged them to the vast plots of land with Big Houses and fields. The Taricha were terrible slaves—uncooperative, defiant in the face of whips, lazy picking cotton, and constant runaways.
On one plantation, the mistress—unmarried and bitter—raged against her slaves, many of whom were Taricha. She was afraid. And her fear, left unchecked, morphed into a hatred that blackened her heart, like a chicken left in the oven to burn. Her slaves were beaten into a rainbow of colors, trapped in the shed with snakes, starved until their heads drooped heavy against their chests, and other abhorrent punishments. The Taricha took to pressing their hands against the chests of the other slaves and stealing their breath. In their resistance, they killed all the other slaves and each other over the years until there was one person left, who killed himself.
Nadine’s mother would sit back at the end of the story and cross her arms over her chest. What is the lesson? She’d ask. And she’d answer her own question: Choice in death, as in life, is power.
The day before her birthday, Nadine knows she has to make a decision. She calls out of work five minutes before her shift begins and stays in bed. Her bones ache with early pregnancy fatigue, but her mind won’t quit. All the advice she has received from other Taricha swirls into an incoherent mess:
People expect the homeless to disappear.
Rid the world of a felon.
Welfare queens are hard ‘cause of the kids.
Avoid white women; they always cause a fuss.
Prostitutes are tougher than you’d think.
Black boys, black boys, black boys…
Nadine imagines herself as one of the newts, moving along the margins of society, trying not to be seen, heard, or hurt. Poison coursing through every cell. Is this power? But what kind of power allows her only to prey on the most vulnerable.
Gina, an older woman whose accent varied depending on the day—sometimes Russian, other times German, still other times Hungarian—visited from Europe a year ago, before Nadine bore the weight of her twenty-fifth birthday. I’m a genocide chaser, Gina said. For centuries—centuries!—at any given time, somewhere in the world, a group of people seeks to destroy another group. It is nothing to stop one heart in a climate where thousands disappear. Survival necessitates the subjugation of the weak.
Nadine realizes, laying in bed, she knows the routines of all the homeless men and children of color within a three-block radius of her apartment. She doesn’t have to look outside to know Joseph is scooping trash from the bins on her block. Lucy is curled up near the air duct of the apartment building next door. Stacy is putting her treasures from a night of scavenging the automatic recycling-for-change receptacle at the end of the block. She knows James, Huey, and Lamar play basketball on the courts a couple blocks up after school until the streetlights come on. And Terry, Lynn, and Isobel watch them from just inside the chain-link fence that surrounds the courts. Whitney and Celine, the two prostitutes down by the Farmer Joe’s, would just be heading home. Why did she know all this? Had Nadine been scouting, hunting, without even realizing it?
She gets up, hands trembling, and leaves the apartment with only her keys and without doing anything to her hair. She passes six pregnant women on her three-mile trek to the lake and each time she reaches for her own belly. She wonders what their babies will be like: if they will be loved, if they will be extraordinary, if they will change the world, if they will hurt others, if they will steal souls one day. She begins to tell herself that maybe, just maybe, her life means more now that she’s carrying a child. She’s never given much thought to the idea of abortion before; she never had to.
A pregnant black woman sits on a bench and watches her two kids, who look just like her, play with a ball near a group of geese. Her hands rest on her belly and her skin, just a shade lighter than Nadine’s, shines under the bright afternoon sun.
When Nadine sits next to her, she asks, when are you due?
Nadine’s winces. Not sure. I just found out.
Get yourself to a doctor soon. Prenatal care ain’t no joke.
She is about ten years older than Nadine. Her eyes are kind and the skin at the edges wrinkle as if she were smiling. How do you do it? Nadine asks.
Best job in the world, is the simple reply.
The smaller of the two children bosses the other one. She creates a game involving her ball, the geese, and the small set of stairs nearby. The rules of the game are simultaneously strict and unclear.
Nadine imagines her baby as a leader, an innovator, someone who creates games. She imagines a little girl.
In the next moment, she imagines life without the baby. This could be a turning point for her. She could find a passion, and maybe become the innovator she wants her unborn daughter to be. What if, she thinks, what if I took my child’s soul? She could end the life inside her and live another ten years and make those ten years astounding. A sense of peace washes over her at the thought. The pressure of motherhood lifts. Her shoulders lower. She realizes they were pulled up tight near her ears.
On her birthday, Nadine’s first thought is a reassurance that terminating the pregnancy is the right choice. She goes over her options in her mind: 1) terminate the pregnancy, 2) kill someone else, 3) die. Number one seems like the obvious choice.
One Night Stand texts just after eight in the morning.
—*Smoochie emoji* I’d love to see you today *winkie emoji*
Nadine starts texting him:
—It’s my birthday, and I’m pre
—I’m not feeling great. I’ve got morn
—I need a hug. I really really need a
—Sure! Let’s hang out tonight. I’m craving Thai food. Meet where we did last time?
He texts back right away:
—Great! See you at 7.
She tries to go back to sleep, but the sun is too bright and the garbage trucks are too noisy. She drags herself out of bed and walks back down to the lake. The bright California sun’s reflection shimmers in the water. Three blonde women run in a pack along a trail, a Mexican man mans an empanada cart, and two black girls share a joint in the grass. The bench from the day before is empty. As she walks toward it, Nadine decides that at 5 ‘o clock that evening, she will say goodbye to her baby—no, fetus. Baby-fetus. In the meantime, she would come up with a plan for her life so baby-fetus’s short stay in her uterus would not be a waste.
An hour later, she does not have a plan. Every thought overwhelms.
Behind her, a stentorian voice booms, Get down! Get down on the ground!
She turns and sees a black boy, no more than sixteen, turn and stand about six feet away from a white patrol officer. Nadine pulls out her phone without a second thought and starts recording.
I didn’t do nothin’! The boy screams.
I have a report that you stole a wallet. The officer steps forward, hand on hip.
I bumped into that white lady, but I didn’t take nothin’ from nobody. Come check me then! Come check me. His voice trembles even though he keeps eye contact with the officer and tries to look tough.
Nadine stands without realizing it and moves closer to the boy. She focuses on recording, witnessing.
On your knees!
The boy mutters something under he’s breath but gets down on his knees. A second white cop scrambles behind him, gun pointed at his head.
Hands on your head.
The boy complies. His lips move slightly. Nadine is not close enough to hear him and cannot read his lips.
What did you say? The officer with gun drawn yells. Both officers move in a circle, one leg crossing over the other in side steps.
The boys lips stop moving. He stares ahead at the cop. His gaze washes over the burly man, looking through not at.
Tell me what you said.
I didn’t say nothin’.
Yes, you did. I heard you. Tell me what you said.
Man, I didn’t say nothin’.
The officer lurches forward, arms stretched out, and gun in hand. The boy shakes, a spasm consumes his body, his hands drop down to his sides and his torso bends forward like he is ducking for cover.
As one cop yells: hands in the air, the other fires.
The shots don’t seem real. It is too much like the movies. Nadine closes her eyes until the ringing in her ears subsides. When she opens her eyes, the boy is on his back, staring at the sky.
She runs to him. She gets close enough to see he is still breathing when the officer who didn’t shoot grabs her around her waist and lifts her up and away. She screams, I’m pregnant! Put me down. I’m pregnant.
He drops her. And for a second, he stares at his left hand, his ring finger. She knows he’s thinking of a pregnant wife back home or already existing children he would have to explain himself to.
Call an ambulance, Nadine demands.
He doesn’t move.
She reaches for her phone and begins to dial 911 when he rips the phone from her hands and reaches for his holstered weapon.
She runs back to the boy. They sit by his side—her and baby-fetus. His lips move again, and she leans over to hear what he is saying.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. He goes on to finish the 23rd Psalm and begins again.
Don’t be afraid. Nadine takes his hand. I will talk to your mother. I will tell her what happened, that you are good boy. I will talk to the reporters. I will tell them you didn’t do anything wrong.
He whispers: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
If only that had been true.
He squeezes her hand. Her tears mix with the blood oozing onto the concrete. A small crowd forms. More police arrive. Sirens ring in the distance. Nadine barely registers them.
What is your name? She leans close to hear his answer.
That’s a nice name. A strong name. Would you like to go now, Cole?
He starts to choke on the blood pooling in his throat. Nadine doesn’t wait for an answer. She rests her hands on his chest, careful not to look like she was performing CPR. She feels the soft beat of his heart and presses gently. He grunts and chokes. His heart beats once, twice, then not at all.
Warmth sprouts in her body just below her belly button. It spreads up to the place where her underwire presses into her torso and down between her legs. She peeks under the bottom of her shirt to see her skin glowing a radiant blue. She pushes her shirt down before anyone can see and scoots back away from the body.
Fear and anger mix in the air causing a dizzying paralysis amongst the cops and the crowd. She and baby-fetus go home.
Nadine tells herself she grabbed the boy’s life just before he died. She had spared him pain. She guaranteed herself another decade, and she knows she will kill again. Baby-fetus will need her the way she needs her own mother.
The tears come when she gets home and opens her refrigerator looking for something to eat. Her belly continues to glow and over the next hour burns hot. But she knows neither she nor her baby can die, at least not for the first twenty-five years. What a joy, what a privilege, to have a black baby that is sure to survive into adulthood.