Joey didn't usually have trouble sleeping after they made love. He’d just roll over and wake up the next morning.
That night he lay staring at the ceiling until his back hurt, then turned on his side. Mary was asleep already. What had he thought she did afterwards? Knit or read or something? That hadn’t happened. Why had he assumed she had to be doing anything at all?
When his side began to hurt he turned the other way. What time was it? It had to be getting late now, hadn’t it? After midnight, at least. His stomach growled. Enough of this. He’d get up and walk downstairs, make himself a bowl of cereal and drink some milk. Watch a bit of tele-vision. Maybe fall asleep in the chair.
His stomach growled again. Louder. He swatted at it. Three seconds later and the sound came once more. It confused him - it didn’t feel like his stomach was growling. Three more seconds and he realized it was coming from Mary. He smiled in the dark, marveling at the volume of his sleeping wife’s digestive tract. He imagined it full of food, pushing air bubbles around. It sounded animal. A bullfrog chirping in a pond some-where. He imagined Mary’s belly blowing up in the dark like the sack under the frog’s chin. Three more seconds and it came again.
He counted along, tapping his finger on the bed between them. One. Two. Three.
This was uncanny. How long could it go on for, at this rate? The growling noises coming from a stomach were usually from the resettling of whatever was left inside, weren’t they? Shouldn’t it settle already? Surely the noises would stop.
But they didn’t stop. He counted off nine more times in the dark, fascinated. He put his hand on her belly and felt them ripple. One. Two. Three.
He froze. It wasn’t his wife’s voice. It sounded like the frog. Her belly had said his name. He stopped counting but three seconds later it came again.
“What?” He said, too stupefied to keep silent. What did he expect it to say next? Surely it wouldn't answer him. Had he even heard it really say his name at all?
“Oh my God.” He wanted to shake her, to wake her up and make it stop, but couldn’t bring himself to move. Instead, he counted. One. Two. Three.
He felt his head go flat, his eyes saw ribbons of white in the dark. Was his nose bleeding? His finger started tapping again. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Joey held his breath. What would it tell him next? That it was hungry? What would he do if it said it wanted a sandwich - would he jump from the bed and throw himself out the window? He already wanted to, and who the fuck cared if it said “hungry,” or not?
If he had been himself he would have dismissed the entire thing. But he was tired, traumatized. He had also started thinking about his mother and the puddle of blood that had looked like Jesus. This was like that. Joey wasn’t religious, not to the letter, but he went to church and he pretended to understand. He’d tried to read the Bible, at least.
“You are?” he asked his wife’s gut.
If someone had told him he’d one night be talking to God in his wife’s belly growls, he would have probably turned around and walked away from that man as fast as he could. Now, he was surprised at how easily he accepted it.
For the next five minutes he kept quiet, listening to it speak. The Lord said, in two syllable pairs at the same three second interval:
“There is...a child...inside...Mary... He will...become...the Christ...reborn...
“I am...telling...you this...so that...when he... is born...you will...love and...keep him...as though...he were...your own.”
“He’s not mine?” Joey said, confused.
“Oh. Right. Do I have to name him anything? Like, should he be called Jesus, or what?”
But Mary’s belly didn’t shiver again.
Joey went downstairs and ate his cereal, unsure of how to feel. He was numb. He sat in front of the television and watched high definition insects devour each other until he was too keyed up to do anything but pass out.
The nine months went by fairly quick. At work, Joey was promoted to assistant foreman. Mary stayed at home and made baby clothes out of multicolored yarn. When it came, it was darker than both of them, and Middle-Eastern looking. Mary was apprehensive, afraid of what Joey would say, but he didn’t. He figured God just made this one look like the last.
They named the boy Jesse, and Joey did his best to love him.
When Jesse was five, he set fire to the neighbor’s house. Joey maintained it was an accident, but kept his reasoning to himself. He’d been at work, and Mary out shopping for groceries. It had to be a coincidence. No son of God was going to set a house on fire. Child Protective Services came by and asked questions, but Joey didn’t know how to answer. He wasn’t around most of the time, and sure, Jesse had tantrums just like the next kid, but wasn’t the type to play with fire. Mary was convinced they’d be slapped with neglect and CPS would take Jesse, but it didn’t happen. It all just went away.
In elementary school, Jesse and the principal got to know each other too well, and Mary kept having to apologize for the other kids who went home with black eyes and bloody noses. Every time Joey heard about it he got concerned, because he knew how cruel other kids could be to someone who looked different. But no son of God would be a bully, he was sure.
In middle school Jesse got caught selling drugs to sixth graders. Ecstasy in pill form, with little crosses printed on the sides. He told one girl it would give her a religious experience, and she’d had a minor freakout in a bathroom stall, sweating through her sundress and tearing her hair out. She had to get stitches in each of her palms, from how her fingernails dug in.
Joey couldn’t fool himself anymore. His kid was one of the troublemakers. What if that whole talking belly thing had just been his imagination? His conversation with the Lord just a waking dream? But he’d believed it so long now that there wouldn’t be any going back, even in the face of doubt. Jesse was just a late bloomer, he was sure of it. When the time came, he’d show the world who he was. Lamb of God, version two.
Jesse fought with his mother often, belittling her and threatening physical domination. He was taller than both of them by then. Joey kept out of the disputes, and before long he could tell his son despised him as well. Any time Joey spoke up, Jesse just sneered at him. “You're not my father,” he'd say. “Look at you. Whiter than she is.”
In high school, Jesse started a cult. It started with a few kids, jocks and bruisers, but that little group persuaded and intimidated a bunch more to join. By the time any of the teachers found out about it, kids were already cutting off bits of themselves and feeding each other as a kind of sacrament. Of course, they couldn't prove it was Jesse, even though he admitted it freely. The trouble was, every other kid in the cult also claimed responsibility for its existence. The school couldn't kick them all out (by that point they numbered almost two-hundred) so the assistant principal made an example of the few he thought had the largest likelihood of having a hand in it. Jesse was one of these.
By sixteen the boy had turned inward, and kept to himself in his room. Joey hardly saw him, and even his mother who was home all day only saw him for brief moments in the afternoons, when he'd take whole boxes of cereal into his lair, where he played crashing death metal and read Nietzche. Mary didn't bother trying to speak to him anymore, because any word or look she made was always taken as a provocation and turned into an argument. And then she had no recourse. He would yell, and she would end up crying. At night she told her husband. Joey felt bad for her, but he had more responsibility than ever at work, since he'd been promoted again, to foreman.
One night, Jesse stole a car and led police on a high-speed chase for over an hour. When they caught him, he told them he was the son of God. They cuffed his wrists and ankles and brought him in.
Joey came to the station and bailed him out with some money he'd been saving in a high-yield account for retirement. The boy scowled at him and didn't speak the entire way home.
That night, after his wife fell asleep, Joey cried. He did it quietly, and only allowed himself to keep on for ten minutes. After that, he pulled it in and tried to sleep. He couldn't.
His wife's stomach growled.
Joey's heart quickened, like it always did when Mary's belly did this. Maybe this time it would be the Lord telling him it had made a mistake. "Sorry," it would say, in its two syllable halt, "I was - was wrong - not Christ - just a - bad kid."
"Please," he hissed. "Please tell me what to do."
He counted, breath held.