by CRISTINA VEGA
The baby’s formless, squashed face began to contort. It had been making strained, breathless puffs that would break into shrill screams rivaling a mindless dog, deaf to pleas to stay quiet. Her father would kick the family dog if it got too loud and she couldn’t do that with the baby. Maybe if she stared ahead and kept pushing the cart down the aisle it would find respite in being moved.
Nicole made the mistake of looking at it again. Its face looked nothing like a human’s: its eyes were big and round behind formless eyelids that had no lashes. When it did open its eyes, they were watery and greasy, shimmering swirls of metallic gray, purple and white; like the body of a fly. Its mouth was a constant open slit ringed with bloody, gummy teeth. Its arms and legs were tubes of flesh and its belly was stretched taut like a drum; its bellybutton a piece of drying skin. It squirmed like a maggot underneath its white blanket. Her parents said the baby smelled like warm caramel and milk. All she smelled was warm mucus, salt, and shit.
“Don’t say that about him,” Matt had said to her when she’d handed it over to him. It hung in the crook of his arm like a swollen tumor. He sees it too, she realized, but he doesn’t want to admit it. He had held it the way she would hold it, moving it around awkwardly to make sure its overlarge head wouldn’t snap off its nonexistent neck. “I think he smells wonderful.” He lifted it to his nose and took a deep whiff and it squirmed and opened its wanton mouth in an exaggerated smile. It grunted and kicked its swollen, red legs. That only made Matt laugh harder. “Aww, you!” The rest of the dialogue had been abstract; noise reserved for cats and puppies.
It began to cry. Slowly at first, as if it were getting accustomed to the fact that it had a voice, although she wished it didn’t, that it stayed asleep more often. No, she didn’t want that either. Because then she would stay awake long after she shouldn’t, just waiting for it all to start again. Waiting it out was like waiting for a dog to stay quiet. It barked mindlessly and so did the baby, picking up speed now that it was aware of its lungs, squirming and tossing its overlarge head as it spread its cries from one end of the room to the other. Nicole forced her back straight and lifted her shoulders. No nipple, no maintenance from me. Even without the support of the store, she wouldn’t have given it anything; rewarding it only if it stayed quiet. It was easier to block out as she stared listlessly at the TV. There was often no Matt to take it from her hands. He was useful only to buy her more time, because eventually Matt would plug its wet, malformed mouth against a nipple, and leave to room vacuum or prepare dinner.
She couldn’t tell him she didn’t want it any more than she could tell the people eyeing her squalling tumor that it wasn’t hers. Her nails were bitten down to meat so handling most items left her as sore as her nipples. Her hair, once thick and combed over until it shone, had been reduced to half its former glory, the rest of it stolen to feed the baby when it had been a tapeworm in her belly. It took the color from her hair as well. She had to dye it, otherwise her hard cheekbones and bony shoulders would’ve completed the whole set of Premature Old Woman characteristics, more along the years than her own mother. Everyone lied and yet she was the one at fault? They were silently judging her, but continued to give her false information? And yet, when she woke up each morning and looked in the mirror, she expected something…magical? Some sign of recognition within her? That everyone’s lies would turn to stew that she could swallow? While it might be romantic to depict mothers as wholesome, blond twenty-somethings with wide hips and faces touched with makeup and Photoshop, she was warming up to the idea that it might’ve saved her more grief if everyone had been honest with her from the start. But no, they all insisted that there was something wrong with her.
Nothing’s wrong, nothing’s fucking wrong, but this thing. She rattled the cart when she was sure she was alone, making it almost scream as it swayed in its car-seat. She didn’t want it. It had been the most indubitable statement Nicole had ever announced, but it was like she could only say it in a language unknown to everyone she told. Change of scenery didn’t help. The answer was the same if she was at her parent’s house, or Starbucks, or a casual night at the movies. “You’ll be a good mother.” That ‘you’ll be a good mother’ was as bare as she could make it without reducing it to bones. If it was her mother or someone who already had a baby saying it, they discussed how she would just feel happy for it, as if free room and board would be tolerable if it was inside her and rent wouldn’t come for many years (unless it were checks made out to love or some abstract doggerel). Mother’s intuition. Matt had been removed from the picture, though it was clear he wanted to share the burden, rubbing her swollen, shiny belly, and pressing an ear to her stomach as he strained for any sounds of life. On good days, the baby moved listlessly like soup. On bad days she was aware of it like a tapeworm, growing large enough to be noticed and realizing that flushing it out was no longer an option.
The mothers and fathers in the store watched her with secret glances and private smiles. Oh, poor thing, they were probably thinking, she’s had no sleep and still she comes to shop. They were as bad as those who wore their disgust openly. They were all staring at her, dissecting her with their eyes.
It still kept crying. Her smile flickered. Her chest swelled painfully and she tried to scoop it up, disgusted at its heavy, almost dead weight. If they saw her tending to it, would they finally leave her alone?
Nicole thought she could warm up to it. Her cousins showed photos of their babies like they were trading cards. She connected to them in an abstract way, relying on secondhand accounts she had already received from friends and family who already had babies, swapping names and events around when it suited and borrowing heavily from novels she had already read.
Stories couldn’t help her. The baby started screaming, shrieking so loud its face was beet-red and its lips were turning blue. Strangle, she thought feverishly as her hands fluttered on tampons and packages of party-liners, knocking them over, trodden underfoot. Choke on your own spit and die.
She started crying.
It kept screaming, oblivious—or rather—knowing.
Projecting. She was projecting. It didn’t know any more than it could understand any of it. She left it alone to cry when she could afford to, but her stomach turned, she couldn’t eat or drink, and she would finally down to its level and gave it the attention it needed. No matter. It screamed anyway. Goddamn fucking thing, it screamed and screamed. Turning it over on its face hardly helped. She watched it squirm and cough and cry until she seized it and crushed it against her chest, kissing its sweaty, salty scalp and promising it mindless assurances of ‘I’ll-never-do-it-to-you-again’ or ‘I’m-sorry-sweetie-I’m-sorry’.
Give it up, give it up. But they wouldn’t let her. Nobody would let her. It screamed, mute to her pleas. The eyes peering at her from the isles had multiplied, and multiplied again, reproducing like rats. They wouldn’t stop judging her. They’d come and peck at her until she bled. She shoved the baby back in the car-seat. Their eyes flitted to it. You want it? It’s yours! She shoved the cart into the aisle. Take it! Have it! She held up her hands to show she had nothing. Everything she had with her was in the cart. No reason to come after her, no reason at all. Take it, she said, as she watched them seize portions of the baby for themselves. Take it and leave me alone.
Cristina Vega was born in California, has lived in Vegas most of her life, and is now currently living in Sweden. She goes back and forth between countries and spends most of her time in quiet solitude. She has been published in Halfway Down the Stairs and Circa Review and will soon have her current work featured in The Rusty Nail.
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