"Anything?" Sally asked weakly. She'd been waiting, sweating and shaking, as Patrick had gone down once again to see if their friends had arrived. He shook his head, and she let her head fall back against the pillow. "Great."
"It'll be okay," he said. "You've got people here." Sally's mom was in the waiting room, trying to keep her siblings from running amok, but she would periodically run in to kiss Sally's forehead and tell her that everything was fine, and to get her as soon as the baby was coming. "Don't worry about a thing."
They were interrupted as the door opened and a gangly, pink-furred girl slipped into the room. She was dressed in a long white doctor's coat and carried a clipboard, but looked even younger than they were. She nodded at the nurse, who promptly left, before turning her attention to Sally and Patrick. "Hello," she said cheerfully. "I'm Mary Lou Larue, and I'll be shtudying your delivery, if that'sh okay with you." When they stared at her blankly, she coughed and shuffled her feet a bit. "I'm a medical shtudent," she added, bashful.
"Why are you so young?" Patrick asked. Sally just rolled her eyes and muttered something about it feeling like a zoo in here. "Everyone coming in and staring at me like I'm some exotic stupid bird . . ." she grumbled to herself.
Larue flushed, her skin as bright as her hair. "I shkipped a few grades." With that, she sat down on the stool that had been placed by Sally's bed, flipping through the papers on her clipboard and inspecting all the equipment. "Thish ish mosht fashinating," she murmured. "You're only exshpecting one?" she asked, glancing up at Sally. "That'sh very unushual." She then went into a long, lisping speech about how she was so excited to be studying the mayor's genetic line and their propensity for having litters of children, and that in this case, the single birth was bizarre. "Perhapsh your genesh are overriding the mayor'sh," she said thoughtfully, pulling a needle out of her pocket. "May I take a shample?"
"I —" Sally was cut off by another contraction that tore through her. Larue took the opportunity to slip the needle into her elbow.
"Marveloush," she said, looking at it like it was a buried treasure. "I musht tesht thish!" With that, she was gone.
Sally just stared at Patrick. "Should I go check for Ned again?" he asked, reading the irritation on her face.
"Wow," Sarah said, looking up at the meatball. It was bigger than she'd remembered. "They'll be okay with you taking this?"
"I'm the mayor. They'll have to be." She was a little worried about her friend's attitude; he was rarely this confident or stubborn, and she couldn't help but wonder whether this was some extremely complicated mental breakdown.
The float had a truck cab sticking out of the front. Ned handed her the keys and climbed into the passenger's seat. "I've never driven a meatball before," she said, turning it on and pulling gently forward, "so hold on tight."
"Better you than me," he replied, pressing his head back against the seat and closing his eyes. "I'd probably end up crashing us into the wall, I'm so freaked."
The street was black by now, with only a few streetlights creating small orange spheres of light in the mist. "Lovely driving conditions," Sarah muttered, peering forward to see better. She felt like she was driving way too fast, but judging by the way Ned's leg was bouncing and his hands were clenched into fists on the armrests, he was getting impatient. "We won't make it there if we die," she reminded him.
"I know." He groaned. "How long has it been since Patrick called you, again?"
"Uh . . . about four hours. But don't worry — first births usually last at least five, so we've got time." Relieved to finally have all that pregnancy knowledge come in handy, she began spouting off facts as they occurred to her, trying to avoid the most horrifying ones. "And most women when delivering tend to — Crap!"
Ned turned to her. "Really? They do?"
Actually, that was true, but the exclamation had come from seeing flashing red-and-blue lights in her rearview mirror. "I think someone called the police on us," she said. As if on cue, the car turned its sirens on, shattering the calm night.
"Don't even think about it!"
"What?" Before she could do anything, he had unbuckled his seatbelt and vaulted over the gear shift. Practically sitting in Sarah's lap, he mashed her foot against the gas pedal with his own, grabbing the wheel as they squealed forward. Luckily, the road was mostly empty, though Ned swerved around several cars, sometimes barely scraping by. Still, the police car was keeping up, and the sirens seemed to be getting louder.
Suddenly they heard a voice boom, "YOU ARE UNDER ARREST FOR STEALING ONE GIANT MEATBALL! PULL OVER IMMEDIATELY!"
"Ned —" Sarah began.
"Don't bother," he muttered, glancing behind him before yanking the wheel to the right, zooming through a red light and almost killing them both. "We're almost there."
"This is insa —" Her words were cut off by a scream as Ned took a corner too sharply, causing the two left wheels to lift off the ground. The weight of the meatball was too much, and they overbalanced, crashing with a shriek of twisting metal and breaking glass. Sarah's head hit the steering wheel, pain exploding through her nose and turning everything red. The windshield burst, scratching them both.
Ned crawled out of the truck's busted front, blinking blood out of his eyes and wincing as the rain fell into a cut that had opened his forehead, just below the hairline. He raised a hand to wipe it . . .
. . . and felt the cool steel of a handcuff as it closed around his wrist.
"You owe me so big."
Ned stared at his twin sister. His head had been bandaged up, as had Sarah's nose, and they were both sitting against the back wall of the police department, holding tissues to their less-hazardous cuts. Mimi shook her head at them. "You know you knocked over the Cloogan Farfoogans while they were practicing in the park, right?"
They'd been told. No one had been hurt, though, and apparently Mr. Farfoogan had had such an excellent time that he wanted to make it part of the Whoville parade next year.
Mimi slapped a wad of money on the counter, watching as the officer on duty counted it. "That's bail," he said. "You can go." They'd been waiting for a little less than an hour. Sarah had been worried that the delay would make Ned even more crazy, but it seemed to have calmed him down (though maybe that was just the head injury). "Where did you get the money?" he asked as they headed outside.
"The Chairman." She rolled her eyes. "He's mad, by the way. I think the only reason you're not grounded or dead right now is because 'his' grandchild is being born, and it's made him a little less annoying than usual."
"Where is he?"
"At the hospital." She gave him a pointed look. "That's why you owe me."
He was just about to ask what that meant when he heard the answer.
"Hey, little brother!" Tom was leaning out the window of his truck, a smirk on his face. "Took the meatball for a joyride, huh?" he said, laughing as they climbed in. "That was stupid of you."
Ned rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Just get us to the hospital."
Tom shrugged, stopping at a red light and spitting out the window. "I don't know," he said. "I kind of want to hang out with my friends, you know? So I think maybe I'll just drop you off somewhere."
Neither Ned or Sarah knew what to say, but they didn't need to. "Just be sure to leave us near a pay phone," Mimi said.
Tom wasn't a genius, but he was smart enough to smell a trap. "Why?"
Mimi shrugged, looking angelic in the glow of the dashboard. "Oh, I just want to give one of my girl friends a call. I'm going to be an aunt, after all, and you know how girls love babies. Maybe I'll call Kyra, tell her what's going on." She shot Tom a sly glance, then held an imaginary phone up to her ear. "'Kyra? You won't believe what my jerk step-brother did! You know Tom, your sister's boyfriend? He wouldn't take us to the hospital to meet Ned and Sally's baby!'" Tom was staring straight ahead, his expression thunderous. Ignoring him, Mimi continued her pretend conversation. "'I know!'" she squealed, making her voice as girly and annoying as possible. "'It's so rude! Do you think maybe he's just jealous? I mean, he did use to like Sally . . . oh!'" She gasped in pretend shock and covered her mouth with her free hand. "Did I say too much? Looks like someone just lost a girlfriend."
They made it to the hospital in record time.
"I have very good newsh, Mish O'Malley!"
"He's here?" Sally asked, lifting her head off of her sweat-soaked pillow. The doctors had said she was close, and she was never out of the sight of at least a couple nurses. Not to mention Larue, who would pop her head into the door, say something in her excited lisp, and then disappear. It seemed she was back. Plopping down on the stool, she dangled her long arms over her knees and looked at Sally like she was a beautiful work of art.
A sweaty, tear-stained, bloated work of art, anyway.
"Yesh!" Larue exclaimed. "Mayor McDodd ish being treated for his head wound right now, but I managed to get a blood shample from him! Now I should be able to get to the bottom of thish!" She leapt to her feet and sprinted out of the room.
Patrick and Sally stared at each other for a moment. "I'll go get him," he said immediately, following the crazy med student.
She hardly noticed his departure, however, because just as he left the room, a wave of pain more intense than anything she'd felt before washed over her, making her cry out. Before she knew it, she was surrounded by doctors and nurses, all talking extremely quickly.
"She should be okay —"
"Here's her chart!"
"Okay, Sally, this is going to hurt, but —"
"Just take deep breaths —"
Suddenly Ned was at her side, cutting through the confusion. She didn't even notice the gauze wrapped around his forehead, or how he looked like he'd gotten into a fight with a cat. She just snatched his hand, holding it to her chest and feeling her eyes well up with tears. "Don't leave me," she moaned.
He shook his head. "Never, Sal."
And he didn't, not until their son was put safely to sleep, wearing a tiny blue hat embroidered with the name "Jojo."
"You ended up being just fine," Ned said, ruffling Jojo's hair. "Though you were the funniest-looking ball of fur we'd ever seen."
Jojo stared up at him. He'd been amused by the giant meatball, but now he was dead serious. "But didn't Dr. Larue find out what happened?"
Ned shook his head. "I guess some things can't be found out, kiddo. But you're okay, and that's what matters." Besides, that research had gotten Larue her job at the Whoniversity, so it wasn't a total failure.
"Ned?" Sally stuck her head out of the dining room. "The kids are getting antsy."
"We're coming, don't worry." He watched as Jojo ran to the table. "Sorry, dear," he said, leaning over and kissing her on the cheek.
She took his arm and pulled him back into the living room, hooking her arounds around his waist and resting her chin on his shoulder. "You didn't tell him the whole story."
"Well, no," he admitted, taking her left hand in his and holding it up to the light so that their wedding bands shone. "I thought he didn't need to know all that right now. Besides, isn't that a story you'd like to tell?"
Sally laughed. "Oh, yeah, it's a real romantic one," she teased. "What girl doesn't dream of being proposed to while recovering from labor? The hospital bed, the smell of disinfectant, the fluorescent lighting . . ."
"It worked, didn't it?"
For a second she was there again, cradled in Ned's arms, Jojo sleeping in hers. How she'd been so afraid she was going to drop the baby when he slipped the ring on her finger, how he'd had to admit that he'd been carrying it around for months, trying to find the right time to ask. How Sarah and Patrick had kept the secret from her for so long, and how Mimi had cried when she'd heard. . . .
She looked up at him, and for a second he was a senior in high school again.
"Yeah," she said, smiling. "It sure did."