After the birth, she stared at the cord, gnarled and strange like roots. When they set him on her chest, his weight felt familiar. It wanted to meld back into her. He had a flaky scalp and a hairy back, but the nurse said he was beautiful. They both received hospital bracelets, like manacles. The nurses told her an alarm would sound if he was carried out. She didn’t ask whether hers would set it off.
A curtain separated her from the next new mother, someone twice her age. That family was loud in a way that Chari’s was not. They sang to their baby in the night. The curtain between them was decorated with dark green half-curls, like bits of plants. Chari kept trying to find where the pattern repeated. She traced it sometimes with one finger while she waited for the next thing to happen: the baby to return, the lunch to arrive, the nurses to check the incision. The hospital sent her home with instructions for the first week. Her mother came that day, unlit cigarette tapping against her purse.
Over the next few months, the baby grew. But he never stopped crying, not when she held him, fed him, changed him, rocked him, sang to him. The TV in her mother’s room grew louder. The phone stayed silent. She didn’t bother to climb down the fire escape. None of the boys waited for her at the corner now.
One night, at midnight, she tried putting him down in his crib to sleep. The plastic mattress squeaked and he woke up. She picked him up again and sat back in the armchair. Sometimes she could sleep that way if she leaned back far enough. Sweat rolled down her nose and dropped onto his cheek before she could stop it. She froze, not sure whether to wipe it off or hope he’d sleep through it. He clenched his hand into a fist and punched the air, but then turned and dropped off to sleep again.
The gray fabric of the chair had a rip in the corner, and a piece of vomit-yellow foam poked out. She remembered shoving her fingers into that hole, driving them in to hang on as she pulled the boys inside her, pushing her hand over their mouths so that her mother wouldn’t hear them gasp when they came. They seemed like babies themselves to her now, always gaping and hungry and desperate for something they couldn’t name.
An hour later she tried the crib again. Then 1:30, 1:45, 2:00, 2:10, 2:45. A siren passed. He thrashed in his crib, strewing drool on the grinning plastic characters. He looked blurry to her through the half-light. He squalled, his face red and tight. The doctor had told them to leave him when he cried, but there was nowhere else to go. Her mother said she had to keep him quiet. School started again in a week. When she lifted him, his nails scraped her face. In the light from the street lights outside the window, he looked out of place, like a pink squirrel fallen from a nest.
He twisted and screamed, loud as ever. He could not be comforted. It would be the same for him as it had been for her. They would always be alone. She didn’t mean to squeeze, to shout, but she felt her mouth move as her mother’s did, then her hands clench and tighten. His bones felt so light. One more move and it would all end. He paused, his yell frozen halfway out. The shock in his baby eyes matched her own.
But it was the taste that stopped her. Metal, like hard water. Iron filling her mouth. The memory of the sharp sting of a slap. She set him down again and unlocked her jaw.
He arched his back, his eyes on her. He thrashed and screamed again, and when he went quiet she felt a new fear. But he paused, opened his mouth, and let out a long burp. Then he grabbed his toes and made a soft gurgling noise, his eyes on her.
She lifted him again, feeling his unbearable weight. He nestled into her shoulder, formless as a barnacle, his lips sucking her skin. He smelled of her now: strawberry shampoo, nail polish, newly sharpened pencils.
DIANA REED lives in Chicago and writes on the L. Her fiction has appeared in Bartleby Snopes and in Six Sentences, and she's working on her first novel.