Sara leans over her belly studying the 1,000-piece puzzle she’s determined to finish. She has heard second babies come fast. At her feet, Cate, her two-year-old, mimics her concentration on an oversized floor puzzle that stretches almost the length of the room. A dozen times over the last week, Sara has helped complete Cate’s puzzle of enormous zoo animals caged in a series of boxcars, but, still, Cate pulls on her pant leg. “Help me, mommy?” She shakes the tiger’s ear in the air.
“You know where it goes,” Sara says under her breath. She glances toward the hallway where her in-laws are sleeping cramped in Cate’s bedroom and shushes Cate. They had arrived a week ago to cover for Mike, who had to take one last work trip. He’d promised to be on the first flight home at any sign of labor.
“Mommy, help me,” Cate whines.
“It’s your puzzle. I’m doing mine,” Sara says.
Facedown, the puzzle pieces are a bland brown, and it’s slow going. Still, Sara follows her mother’s rule: looking at the picture-side is cheating. This way you have to pay careful attention to what fits. If her mother were here, the puzzle would be finished. Her mother is no help to her now. Not on the puzzle or with her toddler or with this new, unplanned baby. Sara had pictured it all differently.
Cate crawls beside her puzzle with an exaggerated shuffle across the cold linoleum. Her tights catch on loose pieces, undoing them. Finally, Cate arrives at the spot where she knows the tiger’s ear goes, and she plops down, turning it over to the brown side. “I’m going to do it mommy’s way.”
“Don’t be silly,” Sara sighs. Cate is a gregarious child with a flair for drama. She doesn’t take after her namesake, her grandmother, Catherine, a quiet and deeply academic woman whose degrees hung over Sara like expectation. At the lab, Catherine had focused on molecular puzzles, at home, jigsaws. Once, when Sara was only a few years older than Cate is now, she had asked to watch Saturday morning cartoons instead of filling in the worksheets her mother provided every weekend. Seeing the disappointment on her mother’s face, Sara redoubled her efforts to please her. With pride, Sara remembers joining her at the puzzle table and her joy at being called her mother’s little helper. Sara tries to imagine her own daughter growing patient and focused one day.
Cate snaps the tiger’s ear into his mane, and flips the picture to the floor. She tries to turn the connected elephant and zebra over, but the pieces break apart.
“It’s broken!” Cate cries.
“I told you to keep it right-side-up,” Sara says. She sits next to her, trying to quiet her. As she strokes her daughter’s hair, Cate’s cries slow to a hiccup, and she presses her cheek against Sara’s belly.
“My baby brother,” Cate says. The pressure of Cate’s cheekbone hurts, and Sara resists her impulse to push Cate off her lap. Sara has read that she needs to be reassuring Cate during this transition, but she doesn’t know what to say. She tries to adjust to make more room for Cate, who is curled on her thighs and wrapped around her belly. The baby kicks, and instinctively, Sara slides her hand under her shirt and feels the baby’s foot push back. Sara brushes the skin of Cate’s soft cheek with one hand and the ridges of the stretch marks on her belly with her other hand. She worries about how she’ll adjust to being the mother of two considering how inadequate and lonely she already feels.
“I need you,” Cate says as soon as Sara is back in her seat with her feet propped on a chair to help with her swollen ankles.
“No, you don’t,” Sara says. Cate, now a demanding toddler, was a colicky baby. As a newborn, Cate weighed less than their cat, and she yowled like a cat too, pawing at Sara for sustenance. Sara remembers this with dread.
“I do, I do,” Cate chants.
The kettle whistles and Sara hears her mother-in-law, Janet, shuffling around in the kitchen. Moments later, she appears in the doorway in sweatpants and an oversized shirt. Sara can’t tell if the clothes are what she slept in or changed into.
“What’s going on here?” Janet asks, pointing to Cate’s puzzle with feigned surprise.
“Gamma!” Cate exclaims. She pulls on Janet’s arm. Janet works to steady herself and not spill her tea. “Help me,” Cate pleads.
Cate leads Janet to the floor where the elephant, bear, and tiger are complete, but the monkeys are only heads and tails.
“Oh dear,” Janet says as she sits next to Cate. “Did the animals escape the zoo again?”
Janet’s gray, thinning hair resembles Cate’s downy toddler wisps. Janet is pudgy and unkempt. She wears button-down checkered shirts in shades of green, brown and orange, always untucked. Janet indulges her granddaughter, sneaking her butterscotch and peppermints, riling her up before naptime. When Sara complains to Mike, he reminds her to be grateful that they have family to help. She’s not sure if he means to be hurtful.
Once again, Janet is using Sara’s Mind the Gap mug that she had brought back from her study abroad in London. Sara had been sipping instant coffee from that mug when the phone rang and an unfamiliar voice floated across international waters: next of kin, freeway ramp, struck from behind. Her father had been killed instantly and her mother died at the hospital. Sara dropped the phone, slid to the floor, and moaned. Her flatmates brought her water, held her hand, and asked her, over and over, if she was alright. It didn’t seem possible that she’d never see her parents again.
Light filters through the window as Janet slurps her fruity tea. “Have you been up long?” she asks.
Sara starts to answer yes, but Cate interrupts with another question about the puzzle piece. “Here? Or here?” Her words are a mimicry of Janet’s tone.
“I can stay longer if the baby’s late,” Janet says. Sara tenses at her suggestion.
Mike’s parents had arrived before Cate was born, too. Last time, Sara struggled to keep some semblance of privacy from her in-laws amid the hormones, the lack of sleep, the trouble nursing. She made tremendous effort to hide her pungent body odor, the leaking milk, the open flap of her shirt exposing her swollen and veiny breast, but her attempts at decorum failed. She had not been prepared for how messy it all was.
Janet, a ball of Midwestern energy, had clucked at baby Cate, held her nestled into the crook of her neck and instructed Sara on how to burp her. Janet folded the best swaddle, was quickest with diapering, and tested the bath water with her elbow.
Through it all, Sara had craved the quiet composure of her own mother, though she had not been particularly interested in babies, or useful in the kitchen. When her mother had said how glad she was to have stopped at one child, Sara interpreted it as a compliment about how good she was. Now that Sara is a mother herself, she understands that not everyone is a baby person.
“That won’t be necessary,” Sara says. “I’ll manage.”
“Mike’s birth was textbook,” Janet says. “That’s what the doctor told me. He delivered Mike and didn’t miss his dinner plans.”
“Yes, you’ve mentioned,” Sara says.
“Maybe since this is your second, it’ll be easier. Not like this one,” Janet says, petting Cate’s featherlight hair.
Cate pretend purrs under her grandmother’s touch, a habit Sara’s noticed with some concern.
“I couldn’t imagine leaving you alone after this one,” Janet continues. “Do you remember?”
“I’m not alone,” Sara says.
“You know what I mean, without help,” Janet says. “So everything’s not on Mike.”
Mike has arranged paternity leave and Janet’s comment feels like a jab. She disapproves of Sara going back to work. Like her own mother, Sara chose her career over endless hours of diapers, games of peekaboo, and mindless chores. Janet, was an exuberant stay-at-home mom, the kind of woman Sara was raised to scorn.
Cate’s purr becomes a yap. She’s crawling on all fours, snapping at the air.
“Are you being a doggy?” Janet coos.
“Settle, Cate,” Sara says.
“Are you my pet?” Janet says, patting the toddler on the back. Cate smiles broadly and nods her head. Her bark morphs back into a purr.
“Good girl,” Janet says, patting her, again and Sara cringes. On the floor, the elephant, tiger, and cage full of monkeys are complete. Janet is playing a game with Cate, who fetches the faraway pieces. Cate swings her diapered butt like she’s wagging a pretend tail.
Sara’s annoyed, but the game keeps Janet and Cate occupied so she can concentrate on the puzzle. With only a few gaps to fill in the section she’s working on, Sara focuses. Every time she fits in a piece, she feels a small joy, like a balloon being released.
“You’re such a smart girl,” Janet says, after Cate clicks one of the final pieces of the zoo train together. Cate barks.
“Doggie, I mean,” Janet says. She sounds genuinely pleased with her granddaughter, but Sara thinks this behavior is dumbing her down.
“The last piece,” Janet says, waving it in the air. “I wonder where it goes?” Cate snatches it in her mouth, twirls in circles on her hands and knees.
“Not in your mouth,” Sara says.
Cate looks from her mother to her grandmother and instead of releasing the piece held between her teeth, she bears down on it, grimacing and growling.
“Cate!” Sara says. She rolls her feet off the chair, and stands. “Drop it!”
Cate shows more teeth, grips the piece tighter. Sara can see the indents.
Janet pats Cate’s head, “Be a good girl. You heard your mom. Drop it.”
Sara is furious with Janet for encouraging the silly game, and for always indulging Cate. Sara stoops, reaching for the giraffe piece in Cate’s mouth, and tugs it with both hands. Cate’s growl deepens. She scoots backward, mimicking the kind of tug of war she’s seen at the dog park.
Sara feels the baby shift in and a cracking in her pelvis as he settles lower. She instinctively juts out her hip to balance her weight, still tugging on the puzzle piece. Cate’s torn through the cardboard with her teeth, but Sara doesn’t let go. She waves her hands up and down, side to side, and Cate’s head follows.
“Doggy, drop it,” Janet says.
“Don’t play along with her,” Sara says. This is the kind of confrontation she’d hoped to avoid after a week of being crammed into the two-bedroom house with her in-laws hovering over her and her toddler, who is drunk on their attention. She knows not to discipline Cate in front of her mother-in-law, but if her own mother were here this wouldn’t happen. Sara wants to growl back at her daughter and establish herself as the alpha. She tugs harder.
Instead of escalating the situation, Janet tickles Cate’s ribs, and suddenly Cate lets go to laugh. Sara falls backward into the table, knocking into Janet’s mug. Hot tea splashes on Janet before the cup crashes to the floor, wetting the zoo animals.
“Fuck,” Sara yells as she slides to the floor. She’s sitting in a puddle of tea, but also her own urine. Ceramic shards sprinkle the floor and the soggy puzzle.
Cate scrambles to her feet. “Don’t move!” Sara yells, afraid Cate will step on a shard and cut her foot. Cate looks from her mother to her grandmother.
“Everyone all right?” Janet pulls her wet shirt away from her skin.
“Yes,” Sara says. “Are you?”
“Just a little wet.” Janet unbuttons her shirt revealing a gray sports bra and rolls of fat. Cate laughs and pokes at her belly. Sara feels disgusted. Cover up, she wants to yell, but she’s a bigger mess herself.
At that moment, Janet notices the dark stain on Sara’s pants. “Oh honey,” Janet says. “Did your water break?” She reaches her hand out to Sara and braces to pull her up.
Sara considers tugging Janet down to her, but instead she waves her hand away. “No, I just need a minute.” She won’t admit to Janet that she’s peed.
“Look,” Janet says. “You’ve landed on the elephant.” There’s humor in her statement that Sara’s not sure she intended.
Janet holds Cate’s hand. “Careful, honey, hop this way. That’s it. Like a bunny.” Janet leads Cate safely down the hall.
Sara sits on the floor surrounded by zoo animals, each in a caged boxcar. The urine is already irritating her skin. Within reach are large pieces of her mug. She collects them into the remaining half of the cup, but realizes it’s too broken to glue back together.
Sara reaches under the dining hutch for a shard of her mug and her fingers brush something else: a pile of pieces from her own puzzle, hidden thoughtfully, like a dog might bury a bone.
Why would Cate hide these from her? Anger at Cate spreads with a contraction. Sara would never have hidden pieces of a puzzle from her mother. Sara stands, leans over the hutch, and sways with the pain. Her anger spreads to Janet, to Mike, to her absent mother. No one prepared her for this.
Sara hears Janet singing a cheerful melody with Cate in the kitchen, something like a Disney musical. Sara’s mother would not have known the words to the song even if she were alive. Sara doesn’t know the words, either. She moans low with her contraction, fear replacing her anger. Where will she find the strength to do this?
A gush of water drenches Sara’s pants, and she realizes Mike won’t make it home. It will be Janet in the delivery room with her. Sara bends over the table, and stares down at the dull, brown cardboard side of the puzzle that her mother had always insisted they use. She won’t finish it this way.
Carefully, she slides a piece of paper under her puzzle, holding it steady and flipping it over. Sections break, but they are easily fixed. Sara is dazzled by the vibrant fall color of the Maple trees on the picture. The showy leaves—yellows, oranges, and reds—cling to the dark brown branches. Sara grips the discovered pieces in her palm and calls out for her mother-in-law’s help.