Danny wouldn’t stop asking where the babies come from, so finally Jon got tired of it and took him to the loading dock at the end of the city so he could see.
It comes up sudden, the loading dock. You turn a corner and there it is. It is so large—blocking everything behind it—that, even though you know this is impossible (because it’s smack-dab in the middle of things), it feels like the end of the city. Like this is where the world stops.
The loading dock is a big complex surrounded by a tall metal fence topped with razor wire. Plastic rags wave from the wire if there’s a wind. If there isn’t a wind, they reach down for the ground. They give off an air like they’re happy with whatever condition they find themselves in. They must be. They know no other world.
On the other side of these rags and the tall fence is a wide patch of concrete and a very large building. The building is made of brick and corrugated iron, and you can’t see the ends of it, which is what makes it seem like the edge of the city—the place where everything stops. It is just a large, impossible wall, with four massive metal doors, all of which have graffiti on them. Nobody remembers what it all means, because it is very old graffiti, some painted in a dead language no one can name.
Jon has been to this loading dock twice before. His father took him when Jon was Danny’s age. Then, when Jon and his wife, Denise, were notified that Danny was on his way, they visited the dock just to see. So Jon knows where it is and what to do.
Danny, seven, sits in the passenger’s seat. He peers through the windshield at the loading dock as they approach.
Jon rolls up to a gate in the razor-wire fence. The man guarding the gate, a big bearded guy with dead eyes, steps out of a security booth and walks up to the car as it slows. Jon stops the car just before the gate and rolls the window down. The man leans over. Jon knows what to say, because it’s the truth and he heard his father say it. It worked then, and it worked when he nervously tried it with Denise. It would always work, until the end of things: “He wants to know where the babies come from.”
It’s the only thing that will get him to the other side of the gate. If Jon had said anything else, they’d be asked to leave.
The man understands. Curiosity is always permitted. He glances at Danny who stares back at him, hard. Wanting. The man nods, walks back to the small security booth, and hits a button. The gate whines open. Jon drives inside. He salutes the man as he drives by, and the man does not respond.
They park and get out of the car. It’s a warm and cloudless day, so they can stand outside comfortably. Four other men are there, working the dock. They stand around, waiting. Barely moving.
Jon feels like he should say something to Danny, about where the babies come from, but he doesn’t know where to start, so nothing is said. Which is maybe okay, because Jon’s father didn’t say anything either. And he and Denise had been silent almost the whole time when they came.
Danny kicks stones across the ground in straight lines, back and forth, in front of the car.
Jon leans back against the car hood. He eyes the rags on the razor-fence. There’s no wind, and they’re still. Reaching. He chews his lip, suddenly uncomfortable. He thinks about what Denise said as they drove away from the loading dock, years ago: “Is there anywhere else we can get them?”
“No,” Jon had said. “Why?”
“This place is…bad.”
“What?” he’d laughed. “Bad? Bad how? They’re babies. We’re getting our own. It’s exciting. This is where life comes from.”
“But…hm.” She’d looked out the window at the world. She had the blue slip in her hands, and she twisted it into knots in her lap. Jon glanced at it.
“You’re gonna rip it,” he’d said, and snatched it from her.
He can’t remember what Denise had said then (“But did you know…” and something about the earth he didn’t understand), but it’s a warm day now, and cloudless, and he thinks comfortably about something else.
Jon and Danny only have to wait about twenty minutes before a truck comes. The guard outside the razor-fence waves to the truck driver, and Jon can see the driver wave back through the windshield. The guard opens the razor-fence gate, and the truck, a huge yellow thing, turns, and backs inside, right up to one of the doors in the building.
Two of the dockworkers open the back door of the truck, sliding it up in one long rasp into the truck’s ceiling. They heft themselves inside and face the entrance. The other two men go to a door in the building. Danny notices now that there are three thick padlocks holding the door in place. He watches the men unlock them, one by one, and drop the padlocks onto the ground.
They slide the door open.
And hundreds of tiny, screaming, blood-red bodies pour out.
They’re mewling, crying, moving their hands in tight half-arcs. Their eyes are slammed shut. They’re just piled on top of each other on the other side of the door. Like balls in a ball pit, Danny thinks. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Squirming over each other. Balls in a ball pit. You could dive right in.
One of the babies tumbles down, rolls, splats onto the ground, and turns purple. It shrivels up. Its hands twitch.
“Preemie,” one dock worker calls to the others, his voice official. Like calling out a sandwich order.
“Preemie,” one of the other workers confirms.
“Preemie,” someone shouts.
The first one who spoke picks up the baby and turns it over in his hands. He examines it, nods, hands it to one of the men in the truck. The man takes it and sets it down on the floor.
The two men at the door, where the babies are tumbling out, are shoveling the babies with their hands onto the truck. Scooping them in large armfuls into the waiting mouth of the big yellow thing. The two in the truck shove the bodies toward the back, making room. Danny can hear the babies slapping, thunking, bouncing on each other.
One baby falls to the ground with a small wet thud.
“Complications,” one man calls.
“Complications,” the others echo back.
The two men in the truck hop down onto the pavement and all four men stomp the baby to pulp. The two men climb back onto the truck. The other two go back to shoveling large armfuls of squirming, crying bodies.
No other babies fall. The shoveling goes on until the truck is full, right up to the brim. Somehow, the amount of babies inside the building has not diminished at all. It is still one large writhing mass. Now there is also a large writhing mass inside the truck.
There is never any shortage of babies.
Danny is in awe.
The men slide the truck door shut. They close the door of the building. Re-lock it. The truck drives away. The babies will be distributed throughout the city.
Jon sniffs. He hawks something up. Spits it onto the ground. It’s green. He grinds the toe of his shoe into it, into the concrete, as he begins to explain: “Four months before, you get this little blue slip in the mail that notifies you of the date of arrival. When the day comes, the truck driver gets one of the babies out of the back and hands it to you. The assignments are all random. I’m sure somebody keeps track of it, or has a system. Sometimes you can put in requests—apply for one—but they can get denied. You have to be a very good parent, and the dockworkers like to keep their own schedule. So, ah… So that’s where babies come from.”
Danny doesn’t say anything.
Jon grins, throws up his hands. “Well? Interesting, right?”
Danny doesn’t say anything.
The dockworkers have gone back to standing around like idle robots. They stay that way until the next truck arrives, which happens long after Jon and Danny drive home. Danny is positive they never leave the complex at all.
Their eyes are glass.
Later, at home, Denise is very tired. She almost can’t stand up. Almost can’t make dinner, do the laundry. She has no appetite, and laughing makes her stomach hurt. Makes her head swim.
As they eat dinner, she asks what Danny thought of the loading dock at the edge of the city, and what he thought of all the babies.
“It was cool,” he says, without feeling.
“Yeah,” she says, without feeling.
When Jon leaves the room for something, she says, quiet, “It’s weird, isn’t it?”
“…yeah,” says Danny.
“Yeah,” says Denise. She rubs her stomach.
“Where do the babies come from?” asks Danny.
Denise blinks. “From that building. You saw…”
“But where does the building get them?”
Denise knows what he means. She puts a hand on his. She’s about to explain about the women, the earth—
Jon comes back into the room. Denise doesn’t say anything. Jon doesn’t understand about the babies, the building, the earth, the women. He doesn’t want to, either. He doesn’t want to so bad, he doesn’t even know he doesn’t want to know.
Later when they’re getting ready for bed, in the bathroom, Jon asks Denise what she did all day.
“Yeah, I…didn’t really do anything today. Ran some errands…”
“I don’t think so. Why.”
Jon is quiet for a moment. He’s flossing, watching his gums get bloody in the mirror.
“Hey,” he says, smiling, “have you thought more about applying for another one? We could…”
Denise is flossing, too, and she shakes her head. Very calm.
“We could never afford it,” she says. “Nother mouth and all.” She winds the floss around her finger until her fingertip turns purple.
“But we’re good parents. I thought by now we might have gotten another one. I mean, would you want one?”
“I don’t know,” she says. The floss grows tighter.
Jon frowns. “Okay.” He spits blood in the sink.
They never talk about it again. They do not kiss goodnight, which is not something that’s new.
No one in their home sleeps that night. Jon keeps thinking about the rags snagged along the razor-fence. Danny keeps thinking about the sounds, the ball pit. You could dive right in.
What Denise did that day was go to a clinic where they burned the blue slip she’d kept hidden from Jon when it arrived. They asked her to pay a small fee (it’s lower for second children), and they stabbed her nine times in the gut.
They did not help her bandage her wounds. They did not help her clean the blood from her dress. She did all that herself.
They assured her the operation would go through. The truck’d be told to skip their home during its next delivery.
She asked them why she needed to be stabbed—what does it have to do with the truck? They don’t tell her. They don’t tell her lots of things.
When Denise was seven, her mother took her where the babies get made. It’s not a building. There is no truck. It is underground, in the earth. There are many women there, connected to tubes going up, up into the basements of very large buildings made of brick and corrugated iron, surrounded by fences and guarded by men, all over the place. The women are not allowed to leave. They scream.
Denise often has nightmares about that place. Now—she hopes Danny will, also. She hopes he, too, has nightmares about where the babies come from.