Paula is having contractions in my car when I decide we are not going to the local hospital where her doctor is waiting. I turn left and head for the freeway. Paula is in pain, and in shock when I floor it.
"What are you doing?" she cries.
"I don't like your hospital," I say. "It's ill equipped. I'm taking you to a much nicer one. Don't worry, I have money, I'll pay."
"But they're expecting me! I called before I left!"
"It doesn't matter. This hospital is only thirty minutes away." It is actually over forty minutes away. "You'll like it, we can get you a room with a view of the mountains."
"But I'm not going on vacation! I'm going to have a baby! I don't need a room with a view!"
"It's always nice to have a view," I reply, patting her leg. "Don't worry, Paula, I know what I'm doing."
This baby--I don't know what's special about it I don't know why Ray and Kalika are obsessed with it. But I do know they are the last people on earth who are going to see it.
The hospital I take her to, the famous Cedar Sinai, is surprised to see us. But the staff jumps to attention when I wave cash and gold credit cards in their faces. What a terrible thing it is that the quality of emergen?cy care is often determined by money. Holding Paula's hand, I help her fill out the paperwork and then we are both ushered into a delivery room. The baby appears to be coming fast. A nurse asks me to put on a gown and a mask. She is nice, and lets me stay with Paula without asking questions.
Paula is now drenched in sweat and in the throes of real pain, which I have often been intimate with. An anesthesiologist appears and wants to give her Demerol to take the edge off the contractions, maybe an epidermal to partially numb her tower body. But Paula shakes her head.
"I don't need anything," she says. "I have my friend with me."
The anesthesiologist doesn't approve, but I am touched by the remark. I have become so human. Even sentimental nonsense has meaning to me. Paula's hand is sweaty in mine but I have seldom felt a softer touch.
"I am with you," I say. "I will stay with you."
The baby fakes us all out It is eight hours later, at night, when the child finally makes an appearance--a
handsome male of seven pounds five ounces, with more hair than most babies, and large blue eyes that I assume will fade to brown over the next few months. I am the first to hold the baby--other than the deliver?ing physician--and I whisper in his ear the ancient mystical symbol that is supposed to remind the child of its true essence or soul.
"Vak," I say over and over again. It is practically the first sound the infant hears because he did not come out screaming, and the doctor and the others fell strangely silent at the moment of his birth. Indeed, it was almost as if time stood still for a moment.
Vak is a name for Saraswati, the Goddess of speech, the Mother above the head who brings the white light to saints and prophets. The baby smiles at me as I say Vak. Already, I think, I am in love with him. Wiping him gently off and handing him to Paula, I wonder who his father is.
"Is he all right?" she asks, exhausted from the effort but nevertheless blissful.
"Yes, he's perfect," I say, and laugh softly, feeling something peculiar in my words, an intuition, per?haps, of things to come and a life to be lived. "What are you going to call him?" I ask.
Paula cuddles her child near her face and the baby reaches out and touches her eyes. "I don't know," she says. "I have to think about it."
"Didn't you think about a name before?" a nurse asks.
Paula appears puzzled. "No. Never."
Death is a part of life. Calling home to see how Kalika has faired with the two police, I know the grave and the nursery sit on opposite sides of the same wall. That they are connected by a dark closet, where skeletons are hidden, and where the past is sometimes able to haunt the present. All who are born die, Krishna said. All who die will be reborn. Neither is supposed to be a cause for grief. Yet even I, with all my vast experience extending over fifty centuries, am not prepared for what is to happen next.
Kalika answers the phone. It is ten at night.
"Hello, Mother," she says.
"You knew it was me?"
"How are you? Did you just get home?"
"No. I have been home awhile. Where are you?"
I hesitate. "Ray must have told you."
"Yes. You're at the hospital?"
"Yes. How did you get on with the police?"
I have trouble asking the next question. "Are they all right?"
"You don't have to worry about them, Mother."
I momentarily close my eyes. "Did you kill them?"
Kalika is cool. "It is not your concern. The baby has been born. I want to see it."
How does she know the baby has been born? "No," I say. "Paula's still in labor. You can't see the baby now."
Kalika is a long time in responding. "What hospital are you at?"
"The local one. Let me speak to Ray a moment."
"Ray is not here. What is the name of this hospital?"
"But he seldom goes out. Are you sure he's not there?"
"He's not here. I'm telling you the truth, Mother. You will tell me the truth. What is the name of the hospital where you're at?"
Even as a human, I do not like to be pushed around. "All right, I will tell you. If you tell me why it is so important to you to see this baby?"
"You wouldn't understand."
"I gave birth to you. I am older than you know. I understand more than you think. Try me."
"It is not your concern."
"Fine. Then it is also not my concern to tell you where the child is. Let me speak to Ray."
Kalika speaks softly but there is tension in her words. "He's not here, I told you. I don't lie, Mother." She pauses. "But Eric is here."
I hear my heart pound. "What do you mean?"
"He's sitting on the couch beside me. He's still tied up but he's not gagged. Would you like to speak to him?"
I feel as if I stand on melting ice in a freezing river that flows into a black sea. A mist rises before me and the next moments are played out in shadow. There is no way I can second-guess Kalika because all of her actions--when judged by humans or vampires alike--are inexplicable. Perhaps it was a mistake to snap at her.
"Put him on," I say.
There is a moment of rumbling. It sounds as if my daughter has momentarily covered the phone with her hand. Then the line is clear. Eric does not sound well.
"Eric, it's me. Are you all right?"
He is breathing heavily, scared. "I don't know. She ... This person says you have to tell her something or something bad will happen to me."
"Put her back on the line. Do it now!"
Another confused moment passes. But Eric remains on the line. "She doesn't want to talk to you. She says you have to tell me which hospital you're in. She says if you lie she will know it, and then something really bad will happen to me." Eric chokes with fear. "Could you tell her the name of the hospital? Please? This girl-- She's so strong. She picked me up with one hand and carried me out here."
"Eric," I say, "try to convince her that I need to talk to her directly."
I hear Eric speaking to Kalika. But Eric is forced to stay on the line. I imagine his arms and legs still bound, Kalika holding the phone up to his ear. The tears in his eyes--I can see them in my mind, and I hear the many vows I swore to him.
"But I can promise you you're not going to die. I swear this to you, Eric, and I keep my word."
"You have to help me!" he cries. "She has long nails, and she says she's going to open the veins in my neck unless you tell her what hospital it is. Ouch! She's touching me!"
"Tell her the hospital is called St. Judes!"
"It's St. Judes!" He screams. Another soul-shattering pause. "She says you're lying! Oh God! Her nails!"
Sweat pours off my head. My heart is a jackhammer vibrating.
"Kalika!" I yell into the phone. "Talk to me!"
"She keeps shaking her head!" Eric weeps. "She's scratching my neck! Jesus help me!"
I fight to stay calm, and lose the fight. "Eric, shove the phone in her face!"
"Oh God, I'm bleeding! She's cut my neck! The blood is gushing out! Help me!"
"Eric, tell her I'll tell her the name of the hospital! Tell her!"
He begins to choke. "This can't be happening to me! I can't die! I don't want to die!"
Those are the last intelligible words he speaks. The rest--it goes on another two minutes--is slobbering sounds and pitiful weeping. It trails off into strangled gasps, then I must assume his heart has stopped beating. I sag against the wall of the hospital next to the place where the phone is attached. People stare at me from down the hall but I ignore them. Kalika lets me enjoy the silence. Another minute goes by before she returns to the phone.
"Then he should never have been born," she says calmly. "Is that what you wanted to tell him, Mother? Your famous quote."
I am in shock. "You," I whisper.
"I want to see the baby, Mother," she repeats.
"What is the name of the hospital? Where is it located?"
"I would never tell you!" I cry. "You're a monster!"
It is as if she smiles. I hear her unspoken mirth, somehow. Yet her voice remains flat. "And what are you? What did Krishna say to you about vampires in Kali Yuga?"
I can only assume Ray explained my dialogue with Krishna to Kalika. It doesn't matter--I am not in the mood for philosophical discussions. There is an ach?ing void inside me that I had always believed a daughter would fill. Well, the irony is bitter, for the real Kali has always been described as the abyss, and now the void inside me feels as if it stretches forever. Eric's death screams continue to reverberate inside my skull.
"I am human now," I whisper. "I don't kill unless I have to."
"The same with me. This baby--you don't under?stand how I feel about it."
"How you feel about it? You have no feelings, Daughter."
"I will not argue. I will not repeat my questions. Answer now or you will regret it."
"I will never answer to you again."
Kalika doesn't hesitate. "There is someone else here I want you to speak with. He also sits on the couch beside me. But I have gagged him. Just a moment and I will remove his gag."
Oh no, I cringe. My demon child.
Seymour comes on the line. He strains to sound upbeat.
"Sita. What's happening?"
My voice is filled with agony. "What are you doing there?"
"Your daughter called me six hours ago. She said she needed to speak to me. I think Ray gave her my number. You remember Ray and I used to be friends when we were both normal high school kids? I caught the first plane down. Your daughter met me at the airport." He hesitates and probably glances at Eric's body. "She seemed really friendly at first."
"I told you not to come. I told you it was dan?gerous."
"Yeah, but I was worried about you."
"I understand. Is Ray there?"
"I haven't seen him." Seymour coughs and I hear his fear. There is talking in the background. "Your daughter says you're to tell me the name of the hospital where you are."
"Or something bad will happen to you?"
"She didn't say that exactly, but I think it would be safe to bet that will be the case." He pauses. "She seems to know when you're lying."
"She knows an awful lot." Yet Kalika is unable to "tune into" where I am. I find that curious, what with her incredible psychic abilities. "Tell her I want to talk to her."
I catch snatches of more mumbled conversation. Seymour remains on the line. "She says you are to tell me the name and location of the hospital." Seymour stops, and a note of desperation enters his voice. "What she did to Eric--you'd have to have been here. She made the old you look like a Girl Scout."
"I can imagine." I think frantically. "Tell her I'll make her a counter proposal. I'll bring the child to her in exactly twenty-four hours. At the end of the Santa Monica Pier at ten tomorrow night. Tell her if she so much as scratches you, she'll never see this baby, if she searches the entire globe."
Seymour relays my offer. Kalika appears to listen patiently. Then the phone is covered and I imagine my daughter is talking to Seymour. A minute goes by. Finally Seymour returns.
"She wants to know why you need twenty-four hours?"
"Because the baby has to remain in an incubator for a day. Tell her that's normal hospital procedure."
Seymour repeats what I say. He doesn't cover the phone this time but I still can't hear Kalika speak-- her voice is too soft. I tire of this game. But there is a reason why my daughter doesn't let me talk to her directly at critical times. It heightens my helplessness, and her strategy says a lot about how her mind works. She is a master manipulator. I have as much hope for the two missing police officers as I do for Eric. Seymour finally relays her latest message.
"She says you are lying about the incubator but she doesn't care," he says. "As long as you bring the baby, she will wait to meet you."
"She has to bring you as well," I say. "Alive."
Seymour acts cheerful. "I made that a condition of the bargain."
"Does she know where the Santa Monica Pier is?"
"We both know where it is, in Santa Monica." I try to sound optimistic. "Hang lose, Seymour. I'll get you out of this mess somehow." He pauses. "Do what you have to, Sita." Kalika must have taken the phone from him. It goes dead.
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