From the first moment she holds Flora in the hospital, Olivia is sure that this child is not hers. Maybe it's because of her own trauma—after all, Olivia was almost murdered when she was only four months old. And Olivia's own mother became convinced afterward that Olivia was no longer the child she had loved.
Olivia's wife, Kris, is glowing with happiness. The baby is beautiful. Everyone seems to think that Olivia should be blissfully, contentedly happy. But Olivia's nights are riddled with nightmares and visions of a mysterious, terrifying black-haired woman...
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Hours passed like seconds. Seconds like hours. Olivia’s body twisted inside out, and waves of heat and cold rippled across her skin. She smelled blood and meat. Her mouth watered. She swallowed against the nausea only for it to come roaring back.
She shook her head, worrying what would come out if she opened her mouth.
“It’s okay, Liv. It’ll be okay.”
Something inside her ripped and she felt liquid seep down her legs, soaking the sheet beneath her. She shivered.
“Get ready, Olivia. We’re almost there.”
The room had taken on a smoky quality. She blinked and it cleared for a second. Long enough that she saw the bloody fabric by her feet. The murky puddle on the floor.
“Is she supposed to—there’s a lot of—”
A giggle choked the back of her throat. Of course blood was fluid. No. Wrong word. Viscous.
Coppery and unnervingly cold.
“Up on your elbows, now.”
Olivia didn’t have elbows. Or arms. Or legs. She was on fire.
“Here we go, and—”
After it was all over, after they whisked the baby away, leaving Olivia spent and sweaty and broken in the middle of the bed with fresh stitches between her legs, a janitor mopped her fluids up off the floor while a ring of keys jangled merrily on his hip.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ve seen worse.”
The midwife popped up from between her legs, waving a white cloth like the last few hours had been some twisted magic trick. “There. You’ll have to keep an eye on that for a few weeks. You’ll want to avoid wiping while that heals. We’ll send you home with some stool softeners and a fun little squeeze bottle. You’ll be fine.”
Olivia’s midwife’s name was Happy. She liked breathing exercises to the beat of “Another One Bites the Dust” and fun little squeeze bottles and tie-dyed hair wraps.
She patted Olivia’s thigh before easing her leg down flat. The epidural had only worked on the left side of her body, so while her right side had been in agony, she’d screamed at the nurse to catch the left leg before it fell off the bed. She still couldn’t feel it and in her post-birth haze imagined herself a one-legged Barbie, hopping on tiptoe through her pink and purple dream house.
“You did good,” Happy said. “Really good.”
On the other side of the room, Olivia’s baby shrieked. Her skull tingled with the force of it.
“Is she okay?”
“More than okay. The louder, the better.”
Olivia’s wife, Kris, didn’t seem to think so. Kris leaned over the side of the bassinet where another nurse poked and prodded and cooed.
Kris frowned, deepening the lines around her soft gray eyes. At some point she’d sweated through her nice shirt—a navy button-down with faint pinstripes she’d insisted on wearing because this was the first time they were meeting their daughter and she’d wanted to make a good impression—and was now wearing a T-shirt Olivia didn’t recognize. “She sounds scared.”
Happy nodded. “She probably is.”
“She sounds angry.”
"She probably is.” She winked. “She’ll feel better once she’s had a bath and something to eat.”
“Sounds like someone else I know.” Kris smiled at Olivia. “She’s right, you know. You did good.”
The baby shrieked again, a sharp yelp of pain.
It was like a needle to the pain center of Olivia’s brain. “What are they doing to her?”
“Shots,” Kris said. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not okay. Are you listening? It sounds like they’re murdering her.” Olivia started to pull herself up, but her leg lay there useless, and any movement sent waves of pain up her middle. She felt a gush and, for a hot, humiliating second, thought she’d pissed herself. An excellent start to motherhood.
“Done,” the nurse chirped.
But no amount of petting and shushing would calm the baby. Her screams were like ice water down Olivia’s neck. Her heartbeat thumping in her ears, her temples, her throat, Olivia leaned as far over the side of the bed as she dared, but the nurse blocked her view of the bassinet.
Happy gently grabbed her shoulder, pulling her back against the pillows. “Better bring her over. Mom’s getting antsy.”
The word startled Olivia. She was only brought back into herself when the nurse placed a bundle on her chest, a squirming, writhing thing wrapped tight in a thin blanket that smelled like lavender and laundry soap.
“Remember the latch,” the nurse said.
The baby’s mouth gaped wide, her tiny tongue trembling with the force of her cries. Her face was purple.
The nurse helped Olivia wrestle her breast free of the hospital gown and within a few seconds, the baby was latched. Her daughter made throaty kah, kah, kah sounds as she swallowed. The purple in her face faded to a soft pink.
Kris leaned over the both of them, kissing their heads. “My girls.”
Olivia gently stroked the soft down of the baby’s head. Her eyelashes were long and pale, and her fat cheeks trembled with the force of her swallows. Her eyelids fluttered over blue-gray eyes. Olivia searched for a piece of herself in her daughter’s face, anxious to claim the curve of an earlobe or subtle swoop of the nose.
She didn’t notice Happy and the nurses leaving, but when Olivia finally looked up, the three of them were alone.
Kris pulled a chair beside the bed and set a cup of coffee on the table, pushing aside the stack of books Olivia had brought, thinking there’d be time to read (because there was always, always time to read), and rested her head on Olivia’s shoulder. “She’s beautiful.”
Olivia frowned, only to snatch it back. New mothers weren’t supposed to frown. “She’s a stranger.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean she doesn’t look like me.”
“Sure she does.”
“I don’t see it.”
“She’s a baby. Babies change, like, hourly. You’ll see.”
Olivia hoped so. They’d chosen artificial insemination over in vitro mainly because of the cost. Olivia was an adjunct English professor, and Kris worked in human resources for a tech firm that always seemed on the cusp of going out of business. They didn’t have a ton of extra money and, thankfully, it only took two rounds for the pregnancy to take. But every day she was pregnant, Olivia couldn’t help thinking that the baby growing inside her was half of someone she would never meet. She would look into her child’s face and see someone she didn’t know. Their biggest fight had been over whether to ask a friend to donate sperm. Kris had hated the idea, saying she didn’t want to risk losing their daughter to a guilty conscience and biased court system. Olivia had wanted to tell her that their friends wouldn’t do anything like that, but she couldn’t. She hadn’t realized until that moment, but she didn’t know their friends all that well because, at the end of it, they were all Kris’s friends.
“She’s still going,” Kris said, impressed, as she wiped some dribbled milk from the baby’s cheek.
Olivia’s back was starting to ache and the tug on her nipple had gotten sharp, but she didn’t dare move.
A good eater, Olivia’s aunt Erin would have called her. Olivia smiled, oddly proud at the thought.
My daughter, the good eater.
Olivia remained perfectly still, her lower half still throbbing with pain and her arm falling asleep. Soon, she thought. Soon she would feel that rush of warmth, of fierce protectiveness. Soon she would feel like a mother.
They named her Flora, after Kris’s grandmother. Olivia signed the paperwork over Flora’s head as she fed, the third time in an hour. Olivia, however, hadn’t eaten in almost forty-eight hours, dreading that first trip to the toilet. Her insides felt wrung out and weak, and each time she felt her own diaper fill with blood, her stomach rolled. It didn’t stop Kris from trying to ply her with vending machine chocolate, egg rolls from her favorite Chinese restaurant, and a slice of apple pie from the hospital cafeteria.
“You have to eat something,” Kris said, holding the egg rolls under Olivia’s nose. “You gotta be starving.”
If Olivia was starving, she didn’t feel it. Hours after giving birth, it was like she was a passenger in her own body, seeing through a thick pane of glass and going through the motions, detached. The pain was someone else’s. The weight against the pillows was someone else’s. The arms holding Flora were someone else’s.
“What I need is a break.” Olivia arched her back, only to quickly readjust when Flora lost her latch and immediately started to whimper.
“Already?” Kris said. “You just got her.” Seeing Olivia’s face, she added, “I’m kidding.”
The barb had already hit home. Kris was right. Of course she was tired. Of course it was hard. That was what it meant to be a mom.
Better not to say it though. Not out loud.
She gently brushed the bridge of Flora’s nose with her fingertip, and Flora’s eyes fluttered open. She remembered their birthing class—the one they’d signed up for as a joke, two in the morning and laugh-drunk after Lamaze, breathing at each other for so long they almost passed out—and how they told her babies couldn’t see more than a couple of inches in front of their faces. Olivia could swear Flora saw her just fine.
I’m your mama, Olivia thought. I love you very much, and I would never do anything to hurt you.
Flora’s eyes fluttered closed, and her eating slowed. Soon she was asleep.
“There, see?” Kris said. “You’re a pro.”
“You’d sleep too, if you drank your weight in warm milk.”
“No. It’s you.” Kris kissed her. “You’re the best.”
The room went briefly out of focus as Olivia heard a murmur in the back of her mind. It sounded like a rush of air, like hot, expended breath. It sounded like lies.
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