Christine Nilsson walked to the closed door with anticipation. She knew everyone was waiting for her inside the teachers’ lounge, ready to surprise her. She’d guessed what they were up to, leaving their classrooms after the dismissal bell, then her principal summoning her for a “quick meeting,” even though there was no such thing at Nutmeg Hill Elementary. It was sweet of them to throw her a good-bye party, especially on the last week of school when everybody was crazy busy. She felt grateful and loved all of her fellow teachers, except Melissa Rue, Resident Blabbermouth.
Christine reached the lounge door and plastered on a smile, then stopped herself before she turned the knob. She could manufacture enthusiasm like a professionally cheery machine, but that wouldn’t do. Her friends knew the difference between Teacher Enthusiasm and Real Enthusiasm, and she didn’t want to fake anything. She was going to truly enjoy every minute of her party, which was the end of her teaching career, at least for now. She had finally gotten pregnant and she was going to stay home with the baby, embracing her New Mom status like an immigrant to the United States of Parenthood.
The notion flooded her with a hormonal wave of happiness, plus residual Clomid. Pregnancy may have been a breeze for other couples, but it had been a three-year struggle for Christine and her husband Marcus. Thank God it was over, and she was looking forward to painting a nursery, buying a crib, and fetishizing motherhood in general. She’d read the baby books and visualized her baby at its current stage, two months old and curled like the most adorable shrimp ever. She couldn’t even wait for her baby bump, so she could wear ugly maternity clothes. A smile spread naturally across her face, and she knew it would remain in place throughout the party, if not forever. She opened the lounge door.
“Surprise!” everybody shouted, a gaggle of female teachers with end-of-the-day grins, their makeup worn off and their hair slipping from ponytail holders. There were only two men, Jim Paulsen, who was rail-thin and taught gym, so he was obviously called Slim Gym, and bearded Al Miroz, who taught sixth-grade math and was the faculty trivia expert, whom they called Trivi-Al. Bowls of pretzels and potato chips sat atop the counter next to paper plates, Solo cups, and liter-size jugs of Diet Coke. The damp aroma of brewing coffee permeated the air, and the bulletin board held notices from the district, under a sign: The best way for students not to act like the school year is over is for teachers not to act like the school year is over. Under that, someone had written, GET OVER YOURSELF!
Everyone hugged Christine, filling the small windowless lounge, which had a few fake-wood tables and chairs, a donated coffee-maker, an old microwave, and a brand-new TV playing cable news on mute. They’d won the TV as a consolation prize in a contest for Teachers’ Lounge Makeover, but they’d deserved first place. Burn in hell, Dunstan Elementary.
“Thanks, everyone!” Christine said, overwhelmed by their kindness, and she felt how much she would miss them, after eight years at Nutmeg Hill. She was the reading specialist on the Instructional Support Team, helping students who had reading issues, and she’d grown closer to her friends on the faculty since her fertility drama. They all knew bits and pieces of her story and they’d been kind enough to ignore her premature hot flashes from Pergonal or to schedule meetings around her doctors’ appointments. Christine was grateful to all of them except Melissa Rue, who’d caught her throwing up in the ladies’ room and blabbed about her pregnancy. Everyone had assumed that one of Christine’s fertility procedures had been successful, but only her best friend, Lauren Weingarten, knew the whole truth.
“Girl!” Lauren shouted, her big arms outstretched, in a loose white blouse and black cropped pants, enveloping Christine in an embrace that smelled of fruit-scented Sharpies. Lauren was the Academic Coach at school, so she taught the faculty whichever new curriculum came down from Common Core, which they all called Common Enemy. Lauren’s oversized personality made her the most popular member of the faculty: their Pinterest Queen, Ed-camp Organizer, and Head Energizer Bunny. This, even though Magic Marker covered her arms like defensive wounds.
“Thanks so much, honey,” Christine said, touched, when Lauren finally let her go.
“Were you really surprised?” Lauren’s dark eyes narrowed, a skeptical brown. She barely had crow’s-feet, but she had beginner laugh lines because she loved to joke around. Her dark brown hair was pulled back, trailing in loose curls down her back.
“Totally,” Christine answered, smiling.
“Yeah, right.” Lauren snorted, her full lips curving into a grin, and just then there was a knock on the door.
“What’s that?” Christine asked, turning.
“Aha! Now you will be surprised!” Lauren crossed the room and opened the door with a flourish. “Ta-da!”
“Hey, everybody!” Christine’s husband Marcus entered to applause and laughter, ducking slightly as he came through the doorway, more by habit than necessity. Marcus was six-foot-two and 215 pounds, built like the college pitcher he had once been.
He must have come straight from the airport because he still had on his lightweight gray suit, though his tie was loosened.
“Babe!” Christine burst into startled laughter.
“Surprise!” Marcus gave Christine a big hug, wrapping his long arms around her, and Christine buried herself against his wilted oxford shirt, its light starch long gone.
“I thought you were in Raleigh.”
“It was all a ruse.” Marcus let her go, meeting her eye in a meaningful way. “Your boss gets the credit. I just do what I’m told.”
“Well, thanks.” Christine smiled back at him, reading between the lines, that the party was the principal’s idea and he had gone along with it. She turned to Pam, who was coming forward holding a flat box.
“We’ll miss you, Christine, but a baby is the only acceptable reason to leave us.” Pam beamed as she set the box down on the table. “I brought this from a bakery near me. No grocery-store sheet cake for this occasion.”
“Aw, how nice.” Christine went over to the table, with Marcus following, and everybody gathered around. She lifted the lid, and inside was a vanilla frosted cake that read in purple script, Good-bye and Good luck, Christine!
Underneath was a drawing of an old-school stork in a hat, carrying a baby in a diaper.
“This is too cute!” Christine laughed, though she felt Marcus stiffen beside her. She knew this couldn’t have been easy for him, but he was putting on a brave face.
Pam looked over at Christine and Marcus. “The stork is okay, right? I know this isn’t your baby shower, but I couldn’t resist.”
“Of course it’s okay,” Christine answered for them both.
Pam smiled, relieved. “Great!” She looked up at Marcus. “Marcus, so, do you want a boy or a girl?”
“I want a golfer,” Marcus shot back, and everybody laughed.
Lauren handed over the cake knife. “Christine, will you do the honors?”
“Grab your plates, kids!” Christine eyeballed the cake, then started cutting pieces.
“Isn’t somebody going to make a toast?” Melissa called out from the back of the crowd. “Marcus, how about you?”
“Sure, right, of course. Yes, I’ll propose the toast.” Marcus flashed a broad smile, his blue eyes shining, but Christine knew what he was really thinking.
“Go for it, honey!” she said, to encourage him. “They hear enough from me.”
Lauren snorted. “Ain’t that the truth.”
Everybody chuckled, holding their plates and looking at Marcus expectantly. They didn’t know him as well as the other husbands because he traveled so much, and Christine could tell they were curious about him from the interest in their expressions. Lauren used to joke that Christine had the Faculty Alpha Husband, since Marcus was an architectural engineer who owned his own firm in Hartford and probably made a better living than many of the faculty spouses, most of whom were also educators. The running joke was that it took two teachers’ salaries to make one living wage. But Lauren had stopped making her alpha-husband joke when it turned out that Marcus was completely infertile.
He’d been devastated by the diagnosis of azoospermia, which meant, literally, that he produced no sperm. It had come as a shock after they had been trying for a year and couldn’t get pregnant, so Christine’s OB-GYN referred her to Dr. Davidow, an RE, or reproductive endocrinologist. Christine had automatically assumed that she was the problem, since she was thirty-three years old and her periods had never been super regular, but tests revealed that she was perfectly healthy. Dr. Davidow had broken the news to them, choosing his words carefully, cautioning that male infertility was “a couple’s joint problem” and neither husband nor wife was “to blame.”
Marcus had taken the diagnosis as a blow to his ego, as well as his manhood, and it was a revelation for them both that a handsome, masculine college All-American could be completely infertile. Marcus attacked the problem with characteristic goal-mindedness; he ate enough kale to start a farm, since vitamin A was supposed to raise sperm counts, and he avoided tighty whiteys, bicycling, and hot tubs, the last not proving a problem since he thought they were disgusting. As a last resort, he even underwent the TESA procedure he’d dreaded, whereby Dr. Davidow had operated on his testicles in an attempt to find viable sperm, but it didn’t succeed.
I’m really shooting blanks? Marcus had said when it was all over, still in stunned disbelief.
They’d entered therapy with Michelle LeGrange, a psychologist employed by their fertility clinic Families First, and she had taught them that the key word was “acceptance.” Christine and Marcus had come to accept that they had a choice, either to adopt or to use a sperm donor. Christine would’ve gone with adoption so that Marcus wouldn’t have felt left out, which Michelle told them was common among infertile men, who didn’t make a “genetic contribution.” But Marcus knew that Christine wanted the experience of being pregnant, and he’d said in one session that he wanted a child to be “at least half-ours.” Michelle had suggested that wasn’t the best way to think about the decision, but there it was. After more therapy and tears, one night, they’d been sitting at the kitchen island, having take-out Chinese for dinner.
Marcus looked over, chopsticks poised. I made a decision. I think we should go with a donor.
You sure? Christine hid her emotions. It was what she wanted, too, but she didn’t want to pressure him.
Yes. We tried everything else. Marcus set down his chopsticks, moved his plate aside, and pulled his laptop toward him. Let’s find this kid a father.
Not a father, a donor.
Whatever. Let’s do it. Let’s make a baby.
So they’d gone on the websites of sperm banks, which had the profiles of their donors online, so you could search the physical characteristics of each donor before you chose, and in the beginning, Christine and Marcus felt uncomfortably like they were on Zappo’s, shopping for people. They wanted a donor who matched their blood type and phenotype, their physical traits, so the child would look like them. Marcus was an ash blonde with a squarish face, heavy cheekbones, and a strong jawline, and his parents were of Swedish ancestry. Christine was petite, five-three, with an oval face, fine cheekbones, a small, upturned nose, and long, straight, brown hair; her father was Irish-American and her mother Italian-American. Christine and Marcus both had blue eyes, his rounder in shape and hers more squinty but wide-set, and they both had decent teeth, never having worn braces.
Christine got used to the idea of shopping for a donor online, admittedly sooner than Marcus did, and she became obsessed with checking the bank websites, like Facebook for the infertile. She could “Like” and “Favorite” donors, and the banks refreshed their pages throughout the day—New Donors Daily!— although the tall blond donors were often Sorry, Temporarily Unavailable! Try Again Soon! Finally, Christine narrowed it down to three choices, the way she had when they’d bought their first house.
Donor 3319, Marcus had said, which was Christine’s first choice as well. Donor 3319 was on the Homestead Bank and had kept his name and identity anonymous, but he had nevertheless, like many of the donors, provided two photos of himself, one as a child and one as an adult. Donor 3319 had round blue eyes like Marcus’s, lemony-blond hair a shade darker than Marcus’s but more like her highlights, and a medium build, like a combination of them both. He reportedly had an out going and friendly personality, plus he had been accepted to medical school, which had been the clincher for Marcus. What had made the decision for Christine was that she’d loved the expression in his eyes, an intelligent and engaged aspect that showed interest in the world around him.
So they had phoned Dr. Davidow, who ordered Donor 3319’s sample, and when Christine was ovulating, she returned to Families First, where Dr. Davidow performed IUI, or intrauterine insemination, injecting the pipette of sperm inside her while she held hands with the nurse. Unfortunately, Marcus had been called back to a job site in Raleigh the night before and so was out of town when their child was conceived, but that was form over substance. He was back for the home pregnancy test, which they weren’t supposed to take but did anyway, its happy result confirmed later by the doctor. And in the end, Christine had gotten pregnant and Marcus was going to be a father, a fact he was still trying to wrap his mind around as he stood before the teachers in the lounge, about to make a toast.
“Everybody, let’s raise a glass, or a paper cup, or what have you.” Marcus grabbed a Solo cup of Diet Coke from the counter and hoisted it high. “To all of you, for being such good friends to my wonderful wife. Nutmeg Hill is a great school, and she will miss all of you, I know.”
“Aw,” Christine said, feeling a rush of love for him.
“Hear, hear,” Pam said, nodding.
Marcus turned to Christine, smiled at her with love, and raised his cup to her. “And to my amazing wife, whom I love more than life, and who truly deserves the happiness and joy to come.”
“Thank you, honey.” Christine felt her throat catch at the glistening that came suddenly to his blue eyes, and she put her arms around him while he set the cup down and hugged her back, emitting a tiny groan that only she heard.
“Love you, babe.”
“I love you, too.”
“Get a room!” Lauren called out, and everybody chuckled. The party swung into gear, and Christine circulated with Marcus, introducing him to those who hadn’t met him and saying good-bye to all of her colleagues, whom she would miss. They exchanged teary hugs, and the party wound down until only a handful of people were left: Christine, Marcus, Lauren, Pam, and Trivi-Al, who turned on the TV while they cleaned up.
Suddenly Trivi-Al gestured to the TV screen. “Oh look, they caught that serial killer.”
“What serial killer?” Christine asked idly, gathering her good- bye gifts.
“That serial killer they’ve been looking for, they caught him in Pennsylvania.” Trivi-Al pressed the button on the television to raise the volume, and the voiceover said, “Zachary Jeffcoat, here being transferred, remains in custody outside of Philadelphia for the stabbing murder of nurse Gail Robinbrecht of West Chester, which took place on June 15. The FBI and Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia authorities also link him to the murders of two other nurses . . .”
“Al, really?” Lauren said, annoyed, as she picked up dirty cake plates. “Don’t be so weird.”
The voiceover continued, “The first alleged murder took place January 12, of Lynn McLeane, a nurse at Newport News Hospital in Virginia, and the second alleged murder was of Susan Allen-Bogen, a nurse at Bethesda General Hospital in Maryland and took place on April 13—”
“Al, please turn it off,” Pam chimed in.
Trivi-Al ignored them, glued to the TV. “Oh this guy’s a freak, let me tell you. They call him the Nurse Murderer. I’ve been following this guy.”
Christine finished her task and glanced at the TV, then did a double-take at the screen. It showed a young blond man in a rumpled jacket, his hands handcuffed behind his back as he was escorted to a police cruiser. A cop put a hand on the man’s head to press him into the backseat, then the man glanced up with round blue eyes.
Christine felt her heart stop.
She recognized those eyes.
She would know that face anywhere.
The serial killer was their donor, Donor 3319.