Years ago, right before I moved to Boston, the newspaper I was the design director for (in Kansas) ran its annual Christmas story contest. They would get some local author to write half a story, usually some schlocky, overly sentimental holiday tale, and then it would end on a cliffhanger, and readers were invited to finish it. I had already given my notice, so I sat at my desk and cranked this out in half an hour. The editor, Lori, who was a friend of mine, told me I had won.
The story was, I think, titled The Christmas Baby, and it was full of this couple, Anna and Gabe, prattling on about the precious things they had brought home from their travels around the world, when what they wanted most of all was to have a baby. I wish I had saved the original. They were awaiting word from the fertility clinic. The cliffhanger was a phone call from the doctor, presumably with the long awaited good news … and I took it from there.
Gabe’s face was ashen.
”Well,” he said, slowly, “you are pregnant. But …” ”
But what?” Anna asked.
”The doctors aren’t sure, but it appears that the baby is developing much more quickly than normal.”
They both instinctively gazed at Anna’s formerly flat midriff, which had a small bulge. They had chalked that up to the 78 chicken wings she had consumed at the holiday party the night before. It was quite a scene at the party, almost humorous, until Anna got angry with Gabe for advising guests to “keep your hands and feet away from her mouth.”
Anna stifled a burp under a manicured hand, recoiling at the mix of raspberry tea and partially digested chicken wings. Even now, she had a craving for more wings. She had heard of pregnant women craving pickles, ice cream, even escargot, but chicken wings? What did it mean?
Gabe was suddenly weak in the knees from the news. He sagged, clutching at the oak table by the entry way. It crashed to the ceramic tile floor under his weight, and he landed hard on the Madonna and Child figures from the Bahamas. The Bahamians, probably stoned, had carved the intricate figures from brittle bamboo instead of a more durable wood, and the precious heirlooms were instantly smashed to smithereens.
”You stupid oaf!” Anna cried, in horror, as she saw her prized decorations in ruins.
”I’ve got a splinter in my ass!” howled Gabe.
After Gabe had swept the Bahamian splinters into the ornate mother-of-pearl dustpan they had brought back from Nepal, the conversation turned to the baby they had always wanted.
”The doctor wants us to come back to the office right away so he can do a sonogram,” Gabe said. “We should leave at once.”
Anna sighed, and rose from the woven couch they had brought back on the plane from Tibet. It had been quite an exercise in diplomacy getting it down the jetway and into the 757, and they still received hatemail from passengers irked at not being able to get their drink service because it blocked the aisle. But it was precious, and worth it.
Gabe stood up, took one step, and accidentally crushed the baby’s first glass Christmas ball, brought back from Australia. It was reduced to powdered glass in its paper wrapping beneath his Timberland boot, brought back from Dillard’s.
He looked warily at Anna, but her mind was elsewhere. ”There’s a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the way to the doctor’s office,” she mused, with a faraway look in her eyes. Gabe felt a twinge of anxiety as he stole a glance at his lovely wife’s belly. Had the bulge gotten more pronounced in the twenty minutes since he had delivered the news?
”WHAT ARE YOU DOING, YOU IDIOT?!?! TURN IN HERE!”
Gabe was startled at the sudden bellow from his normally demure spouse. He yanked the steering wheel hard to the right, and their Citroen sedan, brought back from France, plowed into the parking lot of the chicken joint. He narrowly missed crushing several nuns who were walking to their Volkswagen bus. Incredibly, one gave Gabe the finger. What was wrong with people?
”Honey,” he began, then trailed off as he saw Anna looking at him narrowly. ”Just get me two dozen Hot Wings and keep your mouth shut,” she said. “I’ve had about all I can stand from you today.”
Feeling beseiged, no, henpecked, Gabe got out of the car and walked into the restaurant. In the reflection of the glass doors, he was troubled to see his beloved wife’s head bobbing back and forth. It was subtle, but unmistakable. How long before she started clucking? Gabe didn’t know.
”There’s no time to waste,” Dr. Spere’s nurse, Candy, said. “Come this way.”
Instinctively, Gabe allowed Anna to go first, the better to enjoy the view as Candy led them down the short hallway to Dr. Spere’s examining room. Gabe had initially had some misgivings about trying the experimental clinic on East Douglas — with a name like “Dr. Spere’s Zygote Emporium,” could good results be in the offing? — but Anna had insisted. He had grown to enjoy the visits, though, because whatever his qualifications, Dr. Spere had excellent taste in nurses, and apparently ordered their uniforms from Frederick’s of Hollywood, unless regular nursing supply houses offered short skirts, white seamed stockings and red pumps with 4-inch heels.
With an effort, Anna hoisted herself onto the examining table. It was a close call, as her hand, greasy with wing sauce, slipped on the black vinyl. But, as always, Gabe was there to help her. She smiled at him, and Gabe was relieved to see the head bobbing had stopped — for now. He smoothed her skirt, which had become askew. They had waited almost 10 minutes before Gabe got antsy, and stepped into the hall.
Just then, Dr. Spere emerged from two metal swinging doors at the end of the corridor. Gabe caught a glimpse of a large, brightly lit laboratory as the doors swung shut. Something snowlike appeared to be drifting through the air in there, but Gabe couldn’t be sure what it was.
The doctor bustled into the room, and closed the door. “Gabe, Anna, I’m afraid there’s been a terrible mistake,” he said. Dr. Spere was a tall, gaunt man, with an incredibly bushy head of black hair liberally shot through with white. He typically wore a long white smock, which was usually stained with something Gabe didn’t really want to think about.
Dr. Spere seemed to be having some difficulty gathering his thoughts, and Gabe noticed, with a thrill of horror, that there was a white feather caught in his hair. Could it be a chicken feather?
The doctor cleared his throat. “There’s no point beating around the bush here,” he said. “You two were not kept abreast of this, but this facility is experimental. We are funded by the Purdue Foundation …”
”Is that Purdue with a ‘u’ or an ‘e?’ “ Gabe interrupted. “The college or the chicken magnate?”
”It doesn’t matter now,” Dr. Spere said ominously. “What matters is there was a beak … er, a break, in security and procedure, and somehow, your wife has been impregnated with a chicken embryo. And, it appears to be developing. Quickly.”
Gabe glanced at Anna to see her reaction. She didn’t appear to be listening, staring stupidly into space, and, worse, her head was bobbing again. He felt weak, again. Almost boneless. Somehow, his beloved Anna had become entwined in some evil experiment that Dr. Spere and Frank Perdue had hatched. Anna didn’t seem to care. She chewed on a chicken wing — Isn’t that cannabalism? Gabe’s mind reeled — and still her head gently bobbed. Worse, she was scratching idly at the tile floor with her right foot.
Suddenly, Anna went rigid on the table, spilling her last four Hot Wings to the floor.
“Nurse!” Spere cried. “We need some help in here!”
Gabe flew to his wife’s side, and with Spere’s help, got her completely on to the table. Now her body was convulsing, the bulge in her belly almost volleyball sized.
”Dear God,” Spere murmured. “She’s about to hatch.”
It was too late to do anything. Anna emitted a horrible, gobbling sound, ending in a massive clucking. It was a sound Gabe would hear in his dreams for the rest of his life. A large white egg shot from between her legs and landed on the tile, cracking open. Their child — if you could call it that — emerged from the egg, its downy white feathers smeared with yolk.
Gabe screamed at the sight. It had the body of a chicken, and the head of Frank Perdue — wire-framed glasses and all. Anna was unconscious on the table. Dr. Spere seemed shellshocked, and all Gabe could do was listen as an evil cackling filled the room.
Just at that moment, nurse Candy opened the door, and the chicken-baby lost no time in seizing the opportunity and vaulting through the opening.
“Look out!” Candy cried. “It’s flying the coop!”
Gabe dashed into the hall, and saw the chicken-baby half-fluttering, half-running toward the exit. It took flight three feet from the door, slamming into the bar that opened it, and scuttled into the parking lot.
With Gabe in hot pursuit, the chicken-baby made its way onto East Douglas. But chickens are dumb, and in its rush to get to the other side, it raced right into the road without looking both ways. There was a screech of brakes and a sickening thump as a soccer mom plowed into the chicken-baby with her burgundy minivan. The chicken-baby flew fifteen feet into the air, and landed like a bag of wet cement in the other lane, where it was crushed by the wheel of a mud-splattered Chevy Suburban. All that remained was a clump of feathers and a smashed pair of wire-framed glasses.
On Christmas morning, Gabe served his wife her new favorite breakfast — eggs. They never spoke of the chicken-baby again. And they never opened the card from the Perdue Foundation.