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The Children We Never Had

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Delia and Charles had just completed the first round of IVF treatments. Delia was fanatic about getting all toxins out of the house, so one Saturday the Maitlands, Beetlejuice and Lydia were helping Delia get rid of any plastic containers in the kitchen, to be replaced with glass containers.

“Why is there so much Tupperware?” Delia exclaimed.

“One of Mom’s friends sold Tupperware, and we had a few parties,” Lydia said. “Mom was sick for years. If she’d been able to keep up with the science, I doubt she would’ve kept them. She was nuts about the environment.” Lydia frowned thoughtfully. “Say, Delia, what exactly are your thoughts on vaccines?”

Barbara and Adam shared a look. They knew from the Maitland-Deetz’s biweekly parenting meetings that Delia had anti-vaxxer tendencies. She was, at least, open to a respectful discussion about vaccines. Give Charles a few conversations and she’d probably give in to science and reason—the newlyweds were crazy for each other.

Not that Lydia had any of that context.

“I’m just not convinced vaccines are necessary. I have some very interesting websites I can show you later, Lydia. There’s a lot of doubt about the so-called ‘science’ that Big Pharma doesn’t want you to see.”

Lydia’s lip curled in the disgust.

“Are you an idiot?!” Beetlejuice said. “I lived in a world without vaccines. It was shit!”

“I just don’t know if I’m willing to take that risk,” Delia said, with her polite, argument-deflecting smile. Adam’s parents had been masters at avoiding conflict, so Barbara knew what would happen next. She’d say something light or silly and try to get everyone focused on the kitchen again.  

“I should draw a door and bring you to the Netherworld, Delia. Give you a tour of Diaper Town so you can see all the dead babies that’re there from before childhood vaccines were a thing.”

“Diaper Town?” Lydia asked.

“Eh, that’s not the real name—just what we called it. Where the dead babies go. Ugh! I had a shift in Diaper Town for a few decades. It was the worst.”

“I imagine they look like they did when they died,” Lydia said, thoughtfully.

“And they never age! That’s the only reason people hang around babies—because they eventually become not-babies.”

“What about miscarriages? Mom had a few before me. Is there going to be a clump of Deetz cells in the Netherworld?”

Barbara reached out for Adam’s hand and found it within seconds. (He’d been across the room a second ago. He must have teleported.) She clenched it. Hard. 

Beetlejuice didn’t notice.

As a ghost, you were always cold. Barbara couldn’t get colder. She also couldn’t swallow to try to wet a dry mouth. Her hands wouldn’t grow cold and prickly with shock. Her emotions were completely disconnected from bodily sensations. She could feel Adam behind her and leaned back into him slightly. Not that he made her feel warmer. Nothing ever would.

If she’d been alive, she might’ve looked like Delia: her face pale as she forced a too-wide smile onto her face. “Let’s all talk about something else, shall we? I don’t want any bad vibes.” Her hand rested on her stomach. During one of their parenting meetings, she’d mentioned she only had a few eggs left. “Not—not right now.”

Lydia glared at her. “Seriously? Hearing about a dead woman’s fertility issues isn’t going to hurt your fetus.”

“The Deetus,” Beetlejuice added. “Deetz fetus. Get it?”

Lydia ignored him. “Bad vibes aren’t a thing!”

“We’ll agree to disagree on that one.” Delia hurried out of the kitchen. “Would anyone mind a smudging ceremony? Just to clear the air and usher in tranquility?”

Lydia followed with a shriek of rage. “’Smudging ceremony’? Are you from an Indigenous tribe, Delia? Because if you’re not, that’s major cultural appropriation!”

“Ooo, cultural appropriation! I know that one!” Beetlejuice said, delighted. When he’d first come back from the Netherworld, the Maitlands had held a few sensitivity seminars for him so he could stop getting into arguments with Lydia. Beetlejuice’s views were a weird mix of surprisingly progressive and incredibly archaic. “It’s a culture, not a costume!” He floated over to Barbara and Adam. “Did I do that right? Do I get a kiss?”

It took a lot of effort to focus on Beetlejuice right now. “Sorry,” Barbara said. “We’re not going to reward you for being a decent person. But thank you for trying.”

Beetlejuice huffed in disappointment.

Adam cleared his throat. Barbara glanced at him. Adam tilted his head slightly at Beetlejuice, raising his eyebrows questioningly. He was asking her for permission to tell Beetlejuice. After a moment’s thought, Barbara nodded. Beetlejuice liked to keep things light, but he was their boyfriend, after all. He should learn a bit more about Barbara and Adam.

“What happens to children who died before they were born?” Adam asked quietly.

Beetlejuice shrugged. “I dunno. I was born dead in one of the original versions of the musical, but it ain’t canon. There aren’t any fetuses floating around the Netherworld. Maybe they go someplace else?” He shrugged, spreading his hands. “I got nothing.” 

Out of habit (not because she actually needed to breathe), Barbara sighed in relief. Thank God, was her first thought, despite having a pretty good idea that God didn’t exist. She let go of Adam’s hand, giving him a small smile.

“Why do you wanna know?” Beetlejuice asked.

Barbara shared another look with Adam before saying, “When I was 22, I got pregnant.” She cleared her throat. She hadn’t talked about this in years.

Beetlejuice didn’t like silences. Immediately, he said, “Quit pulling my leg. If you were pregnant, then where’s your—”

It took a few moments, but his eyes finally widened and his jaw dropped. “Oh. Ohhhh. I didn’t think…” His hands began flapping, then running up and down his sleeves and fiddling with his cuffs. “So we’re bringing in some of the movie backstory. Okay. Okay. Sure.”

“The what?” Adam asked.

“Nevermind. So you guys had a miscarriage.”

“An abortion, actually,” Barbara said.

Beetlejuice stopped bobbing faintly, freezing in mid-air. His voice rose in pitch as he said, “I saw the tags on this fic and I assumed you’d be hurt/comforting me! I’m the one with all the issues! Who the hell told you that you guys could have issues?!” 

“What now?” Barbara said, forcing her tone to stay even. 

“And also, our lives weren’t perfect,” Adam said. “I just want to remind you that both of my parents are dead. So…yeah. When we were alive, we had struggles and challenges like everybody else.”

Beetlejuice began coughing. He stuck his fingers in his mouth, eventually pulling out a foot and tossing it on the ground. (Barbara had learned not to ask whose foot.) “Um. Can I try again?”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “Feel free.”

Beetlejuice opened and closed his mouth a few times, but didn’t say anything.

Adam said, “Just so you know, Bug, this isn’t something to share.” Beetlejuice was a compulsive oversharer; they’d learned to explicitly tell him what was appropriate and what wasn’t.

“It’s not because we’re ashamed,” Barbara said quickly. “It’s just our story to tell, that’s all.”

“Right! I can do that.” He focused on something in the middle distance. “Although maybe some people could really examine their need to inject complicated real-world issues into a stupid five-page fic for Beetlelands Week. Not every fandom and every fic can bear that weight! And some characters definitely aren’t designed to deal with shit like this! They’re awesome Deadpool-style badasses and not…not…whatever this needs!”

Barbara loved Beetlejuce, but he was getting on her last nerve. I didn’t think he’d completely disassociate like this. It’s only a goddamn abortion. He didn’t even have to deal with anything! “Well, I’m sorry my and Adam’s history is such an inconvenience for you. I’m going to go find something to do. If you want to talk when you’re not spiraling and doing whatever this is, come find me.”

Barbara teleported to their bedroom, the Deetzes’ former guest room, upstairs, and Adam teleported with her.

Tears wavered in his eyes. Startled, she held him, stroking his back.

“Sorry,” he murmured.

“No, don’t be.”

He sniffled a few times, wiping his tears away. Their ghostly bodies still remembered how to produce tears, and if Beetlejuice was any indication, that memory would stick with them for centuries. He whispered, “We would’ve had a child. If it weren’t for me—”

Adam had always felt needless guilt about mentioning the abortion first. She’d thought he’d gotten over it. “You didn’t force me. We had student loans, the recession had just hit the year before, we couldn’t find work, and most importantly? We weren’t ready. We were barely ready 10 years later, when we had a house and good jobs.”

He smiled sadly, wiping the tears from his eyes. “Sorry. I don’t know where this is coming from.” He stroked her cheek. “I’m here for you. Whatever you need.”

She blinked. “I’m…fine? I’ve been fine for 10 years.” She hadn’t been fine immediately before and after the abortion. There’d been lots of crying, praying, and long conversations, but that had been a long time ago. Gently, she asked, “I thought you were, too. Was I wrong?”

When did we really talk about it except immediately after? Barbara couldn’t recall.

Adam gave her that same distracted smile he used to give her after his parents’ funeral. He was a brave little soldier, marching forward. “You weren’t wrong. I’m fine.”

You didn’t push when you saw that smile. “I think I’m going to read something. Want to join me?”

“I wouldn’t mind working on the model a bit more. Call me if you need anything.”

“I will.” She kissed his cheek, and he went up to the attic to work on his model of Winter River.

She was choosing between Michelle Obama’s biography a polyamory how-to guide when a spider skittered underneath the door. The spider climbed up the wall then began spinning a web in the corner of the room at unnatural speed. Letters appeared in the web.

SORRY

I WAS A BAD BOYFRIEND

It’s a Charlotte’s Web homage, Barbara realized. She’d loved that book as a child. He remembered. “Apology accepted, Beetlejuice.”

He knocked on the door. Opening it revealed him reading from index cards. Delia, who was using her life coach skills to help Beetlejuice adjust to being part of the family, had encouraged him to write down important things.

“I should have reacted a lot better than I did,” Beetlejuice read. “You and Adam trusted me with with a part of your lives, and I should have liz—lizden? Shit, I’m bad at spelling.” He looked up from the cards, rocking back and forth on his feet. “Anyway, thanks for trusting me, baby. Sorry I was being a dick about it. You and Adam having an—an abortion had nothing to do with me or my feelings.”

Beetlejuice could talk about the filthiest sex acts and talk about rotting corpses without flinching, but now he was stumbling. Interesting. “Well, ‘we had an abortion’ might’ve been a lot to throw at you. We could’ve prepared you better.” She nodded him inside, and he floated in. She closed the door behind her. “I imagine abortions weren’t really talked about in your day.”

“Well, we thought ladies’ wombs wandered around their bodies, so…no.”

“Do you have any questions?”

“Um…are you okay?” He fidgeted. “You’re all…y’know, motherly and shit. Are you sad about having an abortion?”

“No. I mean, I don’t love that I needed it. Adam and I were a lot more careful making love after that, believe me. But Adam and my family had my back, and luckily I live in a state where I can access an abortion easily. I also found some forums, and chatting with people who’d also had abortions helped me feel less alone. Honestly, until Lydia brought up miscarriages today, I hadn’t thought about my abortion in years.” Feeling awkward, she chuckled. “Um, really glad I won’t have to deal with a clump of cells following me around in the Netherworld, though.”

She felt a twinge of guilt for not feeling guiltier. Her Good Christian Girl upbringing still reared its head now and then. But I did what was best for my family at the time. That’s all anyone can do. If I’d known Adam and I were going to die 10 years later, we might’ve done things differently, but how could we have known that?

“So, that’s my story. I was supported and very lucky. I’m not sad or guilty or anything.” She frowned. “Adam might be, though. He was strangely upset.” Did I do something wrong? Has he been suffering for years without me noticing? “He’s upstairs working on the model again.”

“I’ll cheer him up!” Beetlejuice said. He clapped his hands together. “It’s hurt/comfort. Time to be goddamn comforted, Adam.”

“I’d give him a few hours.” Adam was a brooder. There was a certain point where he just wouldn’t engage.

Beetlejuice chuckled, patting her smarmily on the head. “Your boring, married-couple rules don’t apply to me, Babs. I’mma shake things up and heal his wounded heart. You can come up and watch, if you want. Watch me win.”

Barbara made herself laugh as she tried to ignore her jealousy. Beetlejuice was just being his usual low-grade dickish self, but what if he was right? Maybe Adam will respond better to Beetlejuice than to me. I didn’t expect Adam to be this sad, after all. What else have I missed? “If you succeed, feel free to come back and give me a play-by-play of your victory.”

Beetlejuice poofed away, and Barbara decided to read the how-to guide to polyamory. It couldn’t help to get a refresher.

If Beetlejuice made Adam feel better, then that was a win for everyone. She could ask him how he’d done it and learn from him. The entire point of dating Beetlejuice was to break out of their old patterns and add a little excitement to their afterlives.  

Barbara was lying down on their bed, reading the first chapter when Beetlejuice teleported back in.

“You mighta been right,” he grumbled.

“It’s almost like I’ve been dating him since I was 16.”

“Of course you were high school sweethearts. You two are so cliché, I blocked that out.” Beetlejuice floated closer, whining, “Sexy raised his voice to me, Barbara!”

Barbara set the book down. “Oh, I’m sorry, Bug.” That was the Adam equivalent of full-blown shouting. (Adam had shouted at Beetlejuice before, of course, but that was when Beetlejuice had been a villain.)

“Me! The favourite!”

Barbara raised her eyebrows. “Maybe you should read this chapter with me about egalitarian polyamorous relationships—and how terms like ‘favourite’ are toxic.”

Beetlejuice floated away from her. “Mmm, nope, too many things to do.”

She’d expected that. It wasn’t clear when Beetlejuice had died, but it was definitely before therapy and couple’s counselling had become more mainstream. He didn’t have the same ability to talk about and reflect on his and other’s feelings that Barbara and Adam had. Usually, he just reacted to his own. Barbara wouldn’t have gotten into a relationship with Beetlejuice if she’d been unwilling to teach him.

“Lemme know when he’s ready to talk, okay?” the demon continued.

“Well, I don’t have a psychic link to him, but I’ll try…if you read this chapter with me.”

Beetlejuice crossed his arms over his chest, harrumphing. After a few moments, he shrugged, floated over to the bed, and curled up beside her.

If her eyes could water, they might have at the smell of rotting flesh. But Barbara quickly got used to the smell. “Let me guess—your clones poked around and didn’t find anything else interesting happening right now?”

“Ha! Busted! Delia, Lydia and Charles are still arguing about vaccines. Yap, yap, yap, yap, yap. Making out with you is way more fun.”

“We’re learning how to have a more equitable, communicative relationship. Not making out.”

“We’ll see, baby.”


They approached Adam later that afternoon.              

He looked up from a figurine he was painting, expression guilty. “I’ll come down when it’s time for dinner, okay?” he said quietly. “Don’t worry about me.”

“Is there anything we can do for you now?” Barbara asked.

He looked between Barbara and Beetlejuice. His eyes were so haunted…. Barbara took a few steps forward.

“Adam?” she said softly.

“You said we weren’t ready,” he murmured roughly. “What if we would’ve been? We never even gave ourselves the chance….”

He showed her what he’d been working on: a little child figurine with her blonde hair. “There would’ve been part of you and me living now. Someone with your hair and my eyes, or your smile….”

Okay. We haven’t talked about the abortion in years, and now he’s making a model of what would have become our child. So, this is new. But I can handle this. I know him. I’ve got this.

Nevertheless, a tiny part of her really wanted to tag out and let Beetlejuice handle this one. Not that he would’ve done well—he was frozen except for his eyes, frantically flicking between her and Adam.

While Barbara thought of the most empathetic, respectful way to respond, Beetlejuice blurted out, “Someone’s got a case of the Shouldas.”

“Hmm?” Adam grunted, looking uninterested.

“You know, shoulda done this when I was alive. Shoulda done that. Every newlydead goes through it. Of course, usually they’re stuck in an endless void and not chilling in the living world with their sexy boyfriend.” Beetlejuice nodded to Barbara. “And your sexy wife.”

So he had learned something from that chapter they’d read together. Barbara gave him a small smile. “How do newlydeads usually get through it?” she asked.

“‘Get through’ is real optimistic, Babs. They just get crushed by overwhelming despair and hopelessness. It’s the Netherworld. Everything sucks there.”

Adam grunted again.

Beetlejuice rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I can’t really talk about ‘healing’ and shit….” He gestured frantically for Barbara to do something.

One thing about spending so much time with Beetlejuice was that you got used to out-of-the box thinking. It was time for a little experiment. Barbara didn’t give herself time to think, and dove right in.

“Congratulations, Maitlands.” She made air horn noises. The words ‘The Life We Never Had’ appeared in bright text above the model town. “Welcome to your life where you had your child!”

Adam and Beetlejuice both stared at her in stunned silence.

“This got so dark, so fast, but I kinda love it,” Beetlejuice commented.

“Well,” she said, “first of all, forget this house. We’d probably be living with your parents. They don’t even live in town.” She took a few moments to create a mental map, then gestured at the model. It grew larger, to the surrounding counties. Adam’s family farm was on the outskirts of this new map.

“And forget the CPA degree. No way we can afford that now. But your uncle Eddy has that plumbing business. He’d probably give you a job.” She manifested Eddy’s truck, making it drive through town. “I’d probably knit and sell things on Etsy…. Wait, it’s 2010. Does Etsy even exist?” Barbara couldn’t remember. “Or I’d sell them at the local farmer’s market. We probably still love our projects, even if we don’t have as much time for them now.”

Barbara could’ve gone darker. In this future, she would’ve been stuck in Adam’s parents’ home with no career prospects and a baby she wasn’t sure she wanted. If anything was a recipe for postpartum depression, that would’ve been. But she kept it light.

“Oh, jeez,” she realized, “I forgot all about names! What do you think of Aspen?” Barbara had always wanted a nature-themed name.

“It has the word ‘Ass’ in it,” Beetlejuice complained. “Do you want bullies to give your kid swirlies?”

“You’re not here, mister. You don’t get a say.”

“Hey, that’s right! We never meet if you don’t move into the house.” Beetlejuice frowned. “Truly, this is the darkest timeline.”

“What about River?” Adam said. “For our child.”

“River. That’s beautiful. Okay, so little River goes to school here.” She gestured to the school in town. “What do you think? Good grades?”

“Of course.”

“And then you guys commit crimes!” Beetlejuice interrupted.

Barbara raised her eyebrows.

“What? Boring people commit crimes all the time and become awesome. Weeds? Breaking Bad?”

“I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t.”

“Argh, fine, I was just getting bored of all this slice-of-life shit. Let’s spice things up!”

“Ooo, maybe we solve crimes? Like a cozy mystery set in rural Connecticut.”

“Committing them is way more fun, but I’ll take anything at this point. Your ideal lives are so boring! River’s gonna do meth just to feel alive!”

“They might fall in with a bad crowd in high school,” Barbara said.

“Thank you! A little conflict, please. It’s the essence of drama!”

“But we’d be there for them,” Adam said. “Hmm. Mom and Dad would still die, I suppose. I’d probably disappoint my Maitland ancestors and sell the farm.”

Barbara watched him intently. He wasn’t smiling, but he seemed a bit more engaged than he had been.

“We could move into one of the homes here,” she suggested, nodding to one of the small houses on the outside of town.

“That’s gonna really suck for you when the zombies attack,” Beetlejuice said.

Barbara kept making up their fake life, with Adam chiming in every now and then, both of them trying to ignore Beetlejuice’s input. They tried to give River a nice life, with a full-ride scholarship to NYU (which was, coincidentally, Lydia’s dream school), lots of friends, and a home that may not be full of money but was full of love.

Eventually, Adam smiled and shook his head. “Thanks for playing dolls with me, guys.”

Barbara hugged him from behind. “If you need time to mourn, take all the time you need. Beetlejuice and I are here for you.”

Adam wiped some tears from his eyes. “I think I do. Sorry, sweetie. Sometimes all the things we never got to do…they just hit me, hard. Even things I’d made peace with long ago. I spent so much of my life worrying….”

Barbara moved to stand beside him, kissing his cheek. If she could’ve made him feel warm, she would have.

Beetlejuice was spaced out, staring into the middle distance. Thinking of his own Shouldas, maybe? Nah. He never looks back unless he’s trapped in a traumatic memory about his mother. Probably wondering when we can make out again.

She nodded him over, and he blinked, coming back to the present. Hesitantly, he floated over and rested his chin on Adam’s head.

They were both still and silent, two things Beetlejuice hated, so it wasn’t surprising when a horde of centipedes skittered across the model, or a tiny King Kong grabbed a figurine and climbed up to the top of the town bell tower, roaring.

Lydia interrupted them when she poked her head into the attic and told them dinner was ready. “And the leftovers will be stored in glass containers—if you leave us any leftovers, Beej. Delia cleared the cupboard of all plastics. Don’t worry about the baby, either. If Delia continues to believe tea tree oil can cure pneumonia or whatever, Dad and I will get the kid vaccinated when she’s not around.”

Barbara smiled at her chosen daughter. Beetlejuice was right; they weren’t stuck in the lonely void of the Netherworld. There was life and family just downstairs. “I’m glad. But I’m sure we’ll be able to convince her otherwise. We have nine months.”

“You’re more optimistic than I am, Barbara.”

Adam put the River figurine with the smattering of other children outside the school. “Let’s go,” he said quietly.

The three of them followed Lydia to the dinner table.