“How are your allergies this year, mami?” Jason asked Maria as she applied makeup in front of the bathroom mirror. Sometimes he called her mami, like a macho Hispanic guy in a telenovela. It made her wince, but he thought it was funny.
“Not too bad,” she said out of the corner of her mouth as she applied eyeliner.
“Well, maybe you should take your meds just in case. We are going to the park, and stuff will be blooming,” Jason said. His hands fiddled with his belt loops, a nervous tic he’d never abandoned.
“It’s still early spring. I don’t think it’ll be a problem. Besides, do you think it’s okay to take antihistamines with the baby and all?” she said, starting on the other eye. “The doctor gave me a list of things I’m not supposed to take, but I forget where I put it.”
“I’m sure it’s fine, I can look it up on my phone if you want. What’s the stuff called?” he asked.
“Chlorpheniramine, I think. The prescription kind,” she said.
“Hmm…WebMD says its fine.”
“Okay,” she said, brushing her eyelashes with mascara. “Will you get them for me from the drawer in the bedside table? And a glass of water, pretty please?”
He fetched the pills, two of them, and a glass of water. When she was done with her makeup, he gave them to her.
“Thanks,” she said. “But I don’t really need two.”
“Better take the second one anyway. You know how you get. You don’t want your eyes tearing up and everyone thinking that you’re crying about something.”
“Weren’t these pills oval? Not round?” she asked.
“These are the generics that the doctor gave you, remember? They’re shaped differently from the old ones.”
She swallowed the round white tablets with a sip of water and Jason watched as her fawn-brown throat gulped it all down.
“Thanks babe,” she said with a smile. “You take such good care of me.”
He embraced her, kissing her gently on the mouth. He could feel her belly between them, a hard lump.
“We should go,” she said, cutting the moment short to breeze past him, out of the bathroom, leaving him with just her scent, the smell of vanilla body spray and skin.
On the subway, Maria started to tell him more about the pregnancy, new facts she had learned about human gestation. It was her latest obsession.
“I read this blog that said that fetuses are really just like those chest-bursters in the Alien movies. They’re parasites. I mean they’re not really parasites. But the analogy kinda works,” Maria said, laughing. “The blog article said that the baby attaches itself to your circulatory system and starts dumping hormones into your bloodstream to control you from the inside out. Isn’t that wild?”
“Yeah,” Jason said. “Wild.”
The idea sickened him, but he didn’t say so. He just looked at his reflection in the subway window and the absolute blackness of the tunnel beyond.
“The human placenta is really vicious, actually,” Maria said a little too loudly. The Hasidic man sitting next to her looked startled, gave her a sidelong glance, then looked away again quickly.
“Other mammals don’t have placentas that give the fetus direct access to the mother’s bloodstream,” she continued, fiddling with her cross necklace and the green beaded string she called a collare that she wore for spiritual protection.
“But the human placenta does?”
“It does,” she said. “And the fetus just takes and takes whatever it needs, directly from the mother’s body. It will even leech the calcium from her bones if it has to. That’s why, in a famine situation, the mother may be starving, but the fetus is still fed. Even after it’s born, it takes what it needs through the mother’s milk. That’s why you gotta eat for two, even after the birth.”
Maria was looking out the train window and her hands had dropped to cradle her belly. She smiled a soft, private smile. Even in the dirty, flickering light, Maria reminded Jason of an altarpiece sculpture of the Virgin. She was beautiful, but her sexuality had been stripped away and replaced with something untouchable, something transcendent. Placid, powerful, she exuded a wholeness that Jason suspected he wasn’t a part of.
“Thirteen weeks,” Maria said. “She’s the size of a peach now.”
“How do you know it’s a she? You haven’t had the sonogram yet,” Jason said.
“I just know. She told me.”
“You’re aware she can’t talk yet, right?” Jason joked. “She’s just a fetus.”
“See, now you’re doing it.”
“Doing what?” he asked.
“Calling her a she,” Maria said, pleased.
A canned male voice announced the upcoming stop. The train slowed, its brakes squealed as it pulled into the station. “Fifteenth Street, Prospect Park” the signs read. Jason helped Maria up from her seat, even though she really didn’t need the assistance, and they exited the train.
They pushed through the crowds on the platform, maneuvered the stuffy maze of concrete stairs, and eventually reached the fresh air and the sunlight above.
They walked to the park, that patch of green that was like a resting breath in the middle of the city’s cacophony. The first farmer’s market of the season displayed its bounty: tables piled high with greens, carrots, beans, and bunches of asparagus. Under a tent was a lady selling potted plants and bouquets of flowers, the man next to her was selling air plant terrariums in dangling glass globes. “Just hang them in the shower,” he said as they passed. “You’ll never have to water them.”
They tasted artisan hot sauces out of tiny paper cups, looked at displays of goat’s milk soap, and shared an organic pomegranate and cardamom popsicle, even though it was too cold for it.
“You’re so good to me,” Maria said with an off-handed smile.
“I’m not. You deserve better,” Jason said. He had his arm around her and he rubbed the small of her back in what he hoped was a supportive gesture.
“No, you are!” Maria insisted. “You’re always taking care of me. Like this morning when you reminded me to take my medicine. If you hadn’t, I’d be miserable right now.”
She leaned deeper into his embrace.
“You’re going to make such a good daddy,” she said.
She’s right, he thought, I am good to her. I know what she needs before she does. She’d be lost without me.
“Hey, you wanna get some sushi after this?” Jason asked.
“Can’t. Not supposed to eat it. Not until the third trimester, according to the internet,” she said. “Besides, the idea of raw fish makes me feel so sick right now. All I want at the moment is Saag Paneer.”
“You had that last night,” Jason said, recalling the leaking delivery containers that were currently stinking up the trash can under the sink back at their apartment. He sighed, ran his hand through his hair.
“It’s what my body wants,” Maria said. “You should be glad that the morning sickness is over.”
“I am glad,” he said, but he missed the old Maria, the one from before, the one who would have devoured an entire sashimi plate and a grilled rice ball in one sitting.
“Would you settle for Pakistani food?” she asked, as if Pakistani food and Indian food weren’t exactly the same.
“Look behind you,” Jason said, pointing. Maria turned.
A man wearing a dirt-stained neon bodysuit was juggling clubs while a girl dressed like a hippie-gypsy played the accordion. At that moment a car horn sounded, adding to the din.
Jason put two dollars in the street musician’s tip jar and the accordion girl started into a rousing version of “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” in his honor.
Maria looked like she was about to be sick.
“Are you alright?” Jason asked when the song ended. She was pale and shaking, clutching her abdomen.
“I need a bathroom. Stomach cramps. I must have eaten something bad. Or maybe it was that hot sauce sample,” she hissed in his ear.
He led her to a row of blue port-a-potties. She dashed inside while he guarded the door because the locking mechanism was busted. He leaned against the greasy door and listened to her rustling around inside, struggling to get her pants down. Then she gave a little gasp, followed by a long, low moan.
She said nothing, just made a thin strangled sound.
When Jason opened the port-a-potty door, she was standing there with her leggings around her ankles. There was a something gushing down her inner thigh. It looked black in the dim blueness of the port-a-potty, but Jason knew that it wasn’t black.
“911,” Maria whispered before she crumpled to the floor.
The bleeding didn’t stop, and the doctor in the Labor and Delivery ER told them that there wasn’t anything he could do for Maria besides monitor her.
“There’s still a fetal heartbeat,” the doctor said, looking at Jason and ignoring Maria. “She’s thirteen weeks along, you say? Almost at the second trimester mark. It’s rare that she would miscarry now, let’s hope it’s just heavy spotting.” The doctor looked doubtful.
Maria moaned from the gurney.
“It hurts,” she said as Jason squeezed her hand.
Nurses came in and out regularly to check if the bleeding was subsiding. It wasn’t.
“Did you take any medications today?” a nurse asked, writing something on her clipboard.
“You asked me that twice,” Maria said through gritted teeth. “I already told you.”
“Just her antihistamine,” Jason offered. “Chlorpheniramine.”
The nurse shot him a puzzled expression. Jason didn’t like the look of her, she made him nervous. He fiddled with his belt loops anxiously.
Maria made a quiet animal groan. Her eyes were glazed with tears, Jason could smell the cold scent of fear rising up from her skin. He felt helpless and somehow ashamed, and her hand in his seemed as hot and heavy as a star.
Then the blood coming out of her changed— there were clots of red matter, like disintegrating organ meat.
“What’s that?” Maria asked, hysterical, tears streaming down her face. The sour nurse said nothing and left quickly, but the doctor came again soon after.
“You’re expelling placental tissue,” he said, looking at Jason as he said it as if he thought Maria couldn’t understand him.
Maria looked confused.
“You’re miscarrying,” the doctor explained in a parody of helpfulness. “You can do this here if you insist, but most patients prefer the comfort of home. I’ll release you with some painkillers and some Mifeprex to speed the process along. And I’ll give your boyfriend some resources about the disposal of the rest of the tissue.”
Maria’s face seemed to shatter.
“Tissue?” she said weakly.
“You mean my baby,” she said in a barely-there voice.
The doctor ignored her or didn’t hear. He wrote some prescriptions and handed them, along with the discharge order, to the nurse. On his way out the door he flashed a sympathetic look in Jason’s direction.
Poor guy, the doctor’s look said. Glad I’m not in your shoes.
“Have the front desk call you a taxi,” the doctor said to Maria on his way out. “Wouldn’t want you bleeding all over the seats on the subway.”
In the taxi, Maria sobbed the whole way back to the apartment. Jason brought her up the four flights of stairs and tucked her into bed and went out to the pharmacy to pick up her prescriptions.
When he got back, she was naked and curled in a ball in the bottom of the bathtub. There was blood pooled beneath her and a bloody handprint, hers, on the beige tile wall. The stale air smelled like wet iron.
“Maria,” he said, putting down the bag of medications on the sink ledge. “I’ve been thinking… maybe it’s all for the best. You’re going to get through this…just like you did the first time.”
She said nothing, just curled into herself tighter.
“What’s that in your hand?”
She held something in her loose grasp, blood was squishing out between her fingers. He pried her fingers apart to see what it was and almost gagged.
It was an arm.
A tiny arm, purple and rubbery, with a little mitten hand.
Maria began to sob again. She sobbed and sobbed until she was almost retching.
“Shh,” he said, patting her back. “It will be alright.” He didn’t know what else to say.
By the time the rest of the baby came an hour later, Maria had stopped crying. She held the corpse in her hand and stared at it numbly.
The baby was red and purple. Its head, with a half-formed face that Jason thought looked as if it had been sculpted out of mashed potatoes, was far too big for its body. The corpse was about the size of a peach, just as Maria had said it would be. And it was a girl. Just as Maria had said it would be.
Jason got an old shoebox from the bottom of the closet.
“We’ll put her in here. The pamphlet said we can take her to a medical waste disposal facility if we want.”
“No,” Maria said. “You have to bury her. She’s a real person.”
“Okay…I’ll bury her in the park on the corner.”
Jason took the baby from her. Its body was loosely held together, as if it would fall to pieces in his hands.
“The arm too,” he said.
She gave him the arm. The delicate flesh had dents in it from the pressure of her fingers. He put the body and the arm next to each other in the shoebox.
“Wrap her up before you put her in there,” Maria said, her voice hollow. “She’ll get cold if you don’t.” So Jason sacrificed one of their aqua colored hand towels and wrapped the baby, binding its dismembered arm to its fallen chest. It looked like a tiny mummy he had seen at a museum once- a cat mummy, or some other small, non-human creature. He placed it back in the shoebox.
Jason left Maria, still bleeding, where she was. He took the shoebox under his arm and left the apartment. He hesitated at the front stoop, decided to walk in the opposite direction from the park. He dropped the shoebox in a big green metal dumpster in the alley next to the bodega.
When he returned, Maria was in bed. All the lights were off. She was curled up in a corner on her side of the bed, completely still. Jason could barely hear her breathe. He lay down next to her, spooned her and stroked her hair, whispering in her ear, “Soon you’ll be back to normal, mami. Soon.”
But Maria didn’t return to normal.
The first two weeks she couldn’t leave the bed. She used up all of her sick days at work. She didn’t shower, or put on a fresh set of clothes, or brush her teeth. She barely ate.
Jason let her be.
But on Tuesday of the third week, something changed.
When he got home from work, Maria was waiting for him with a homemade dinner, her Mama’s recipe for adobo chicken. She was showered, dressed. Her hair was brushed and her make-up applied. She was smiling.
“I have the best news, sweetie,” she said, kissing him immediately as he walked in the door.
“Yeah?” He took off his coat and dropped his messenger bag. “What is it? You look radiant by the way.”
“The baby,” she said, cradling her stomach with her hands. Her stomach had not shrunk at all, Jason noticed. If anything, it was bigger.
“The baby?” he asked, an edge of worry in his voice.
“Yes. She’s back. I mean, she never left. She’s here.”
“She told me today. She said, “Mama. I’m still here.” And I felt her too. She’s been kicking.”
His face drained of color.
“There has to be some explanation,” he said. “Maybe…maybe there were twins all along? Maybe one of them is still in there?”
“Not twins. Just her,” she insisted.
Jason said nothing, but early the next morning, on his way to work, he phoned the hospital.
“Troubling,” the on-call nurse said as she shuffled through Maria’s paperwork. Jason could hear the crisp rustling over the phone line. “There was only one heartbeat, according to the file. There could be a second fetus, but if there is, it’s most likely dead. I think you should bring your wife—”
“Sorry, girlfriend. You should bring your girlfriend in for a sonogram. As soon as possible. Carrying a dead fetus is extremely dangerous. If it is there, it will have to be removed immediately.”
“You mean I’m going to have to go through this again?” he said.
There was a pause on the line.
“Pardon me, sir,” the nurse said coldly. “But I’m not sure it’s you that has to go through the worst of it. I’d be more concerned about your girlfriend right now. Miscarriage is very traumatic for women.”
“Yes, of course,” Jason said. “Of course it is. Yes.”
Jason took off of work early that afternoon to take Maria to the emergency sonogram appointment.
“Really, the baby and I are fine,” she said on the cab ride there. “I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.”
The cab driver made eye contact with Jason in the rearview mirror. He had bushy old-man eyebrows and startling blue-green eyes.
“Congratulations,” the cab driver said.
“For what?” Jason asked.
“The lady, she is pregnant, yes?” His accent was thick, Eastern European maybe.
“Yes,” Maria said, smiling beatifically. “Yes I am. I mean yes we are.”
“We’re so happy,” she said and Jason cringed.
The sonogram went smoothly, but the technicians kept the screen away from Maria’s view.
“We don’t want her to see,” one of the technicians whispered to Jason. She was a young black woman with plastic purple-framed glasses and scrubs that had cartoon characters on them. Maria looked up at the ceiling as the other technician performed the scan, caressing Maria’s taught jelly-covered stomach with something that looked like a personal massager.
“Hold my hand,” Maria demanded. Jason took her hand. It was tiny as the baby’s body had been, but it was warm and it trembled like a small animal.
After the sonogram was over, a doctor sat down with them to discuss the results. It was a female doctor this time, a trim South Asian woman whose nametag read “Dr. Manohar”.
Dr. Manohar wasted no time.
“I have mixed news,” she said. “Luckily, there is no dead fetus. But there’s no live fetus either. There’s nothing.”
“Nothing?” Jason echoed. Maria didn’t seem to hear.
“Nothing,” Dr. Manohar confirmed. “It seems we have a classic case of pseudocyesis. All the symptoms are present: abdominal distention, false quickening, absent menstruation— although this close to a miscarriage I wouldn’t be too worried about the distention or the lack of menstruation.”
“What’s pseudocyesis?” Jason asked.
“Phantom pregnancy,” Dr. Manohar explained, “Rare, but not unheard of. The famous case most people know of is the phantom pregnancy of Mary, Queen of Scots.”
“Phantom pregnancy?” Jason couldn’t really wrap his head around it. “You mean you think I’m imagining it?” Maria said to Dr. Manohar, indignant. “I’m not imagining anything. She’s there. I can feel her. She’s there.” Maria was gripping the arms of her chair with bloodless hands.
“I can assure you, Ms. Vega, there’s nothing there. You’re not pregnant.”
“But I can feel her,” Maria said through clenched teeth. Jason put a hand on her arm, a comfort and a warning both.
Dr. Manohar looked at Maria with pity.
“The false quickening is a symptom of the pseudocyesis. A psychological symptom. With time it will lessen and eventually go away. If you want, I can refer you to an endocrinologist to put your body to rights and a therapist to do the same for your mind.”
Maria stood up. She was shaking. Her hands were on her belly in a shielding gesture.
“You think I’m crazy,” she said.
“No, Ms. Vega, I don’t think you’re crazy,” Dr. Manohar said in a level, neutral tone. “I think that you’ve been through a lot recently, and you’re still recovering. Pseudocyesis must seem very scary to you right now. I want to assure you, you are in good health and it will most likely go away on its own. And we will help you as much as we can. We can prescribe Valium to calm you—”
“I don’t want Valium!” Maria screamed. “What are you trying to do, kill my baby?”
“You don’t have a baby, Ms. Vega.”
“¡Maldita sea la madre que te parió!” Maria spat at Dr. Manohar. “I don’t fucking believe you! Show me the damn sonogram!”
Dr. Manohar took a sonogram image out of the folder on her lap and handed it to Maria. Maria snatched it from her and stared at it. She stared and stared for a long time and said nothing.
Jason got up from his seat and peered over her shoulder. All he saw was a field of grey noise, like old-fashioned television static.
“Oh, Jason,” Maria finally said, her voice about to break with tears. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
Maria took the empty sonogram home from the hospital and pinned it to the wall above the bed with a thumbtack.
“I can already tell that she has her daddy’s nose,” she said, pointing at a spot of static that looked no different from any other.
“There’s nothing there,” Jason said.
“You can’t see her?” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “You can’t see your own daughter?”
“I can’t see anything. The sonogram is blank, Maria.”
She collapsed into sobs, and he embraced her. Her stomach was still a lump between them, and he could swear that it was bigger than ever.
“Shh,” he soothed, stroking her sleek black hair. “We’ll get you some help, mami. Don’t worry.”
“You’re right,” she said, her voice muffled by his shoulder. “I need help.”
As he patted her head absently, his eye was drawn to the sonogram hanging there on the otherwise empty bedroom wall. From a distance he thought he could almost see something. A pareidolic image of a face, maybe. A mushy mashed potato face, half-formed. A trick of the light, he told himself.
The next day he came home from work to find a shrine on the coffee table in the living room.
“I got help,” Maria said. “I went to my mother’s Santero. We held a misa espiritual.”
“What?” Jason said, staring down at the shrine with distaste. There were white pillar candles dripping wax, a cheap dime-store statuette of the Virgin, a small white teddy-bear with a pink bow, some glasses of water, and a small dish of milk. And the sonogram.
“Misa Espiritual. Spiritual Mass. It’s like a seance, kind of.”
“I thought you were Catholic,” he said. “This doesn’t look like Catholicism to me.”
“Santerismo is Catholic,” she said, her arms crossed over her full belly.
“Anyway, I figured out what’s going on,” she continued. “Mama’s Santero said that the baby’s body is gone, but her soul is still there. She’s become a muerta. A dead one.”
She stroked her belly absently. The candles lit fires in her dark eyes, as if she were glowing from within.
“Is that like a ghost?”
“Yes…well…no, not really, but kind of,” she said. “Muertos will go to heaven if they are honored properly. If they have nothing tying them to the realm of the living.”
“But if not, they’re like ghosts?” Jason repeated.
“Yes,” she said. “I guess. The Santero said the baby is a muerta because she is upset. She died before she could be baptized, before she was given a name. Before she took her first breath.”
“But don’t miscarriages happen all the time?” Jason asked. “Surely all those dead babies don’t stick around, do they?”
“The Santero said ours is different. He’s not sure why. But she’s still here. Inside me.”
“Did this happen…before?” Jason asked, trying to be as delicate as he could.
Maria looked at him, puzzled.
“You know, when you… had the abortion. Before we met.”
“No.” she told him, serious. ”No, it didn’t happen then.”
He looked down at his shoes.
“Can I be honest? I think the miscarriage reminded you of… of the abortion. And you feel guilty. Is it guilt that’s causing…this?” He gestured at the altar.
She furrowed her brow, insulted.
“This isn’t about that,” she said, “You’re just like Mama, blaming every bad thing that happens to me on the abortion. I was nineteen! And I told you, I confessed to the priest and I prayed about it and everything. But I didn’t feel guilty- not then, and not now. Or if I did, it’s only because I was so relieved, you know? I wasn’t ready.”
“Jason,” Maria said, “Did you even hear what I said? She’s still here, inside me. Our child.” The tiny apartment was filled with shadows that flickered with the candlelight.
“Are you saying that she’s haunting you? Your… womb?”
Maria nodded solemnly. Her eyes were so unbearably large and dark, he thought he might fall into them. He looked down at the shrine, just so he wouldn’t have to look at her, at her uncanny eyes. The sonogram stared back at him. The face in it was fuzzy, but unmistakable.
“That’s why I can feel her,” Maria whispered. “That’s why I can see her in the sonogram. That’s why I can hear her.” She paused, reached a slim hand down to stroke the sonogram. “At the Misa Espiritual the Santero channeled her. Her voice spoke through him. The baby spoke through him and told me that she is very angry. She wants to live. More than anything, she wants to live.”
Jason’s stomach dropped.
“She told me how to do it. If I name her, if I prepare for her, if I honor her…that will be enough to do it,” Maria said.
“Bring her back to life.”
He told Maria he needed to go for a walk, but instead, he stood outside of their apartment building in the cold and called the hospital. When the receptionist picked up, he asked for Dr. Manohar. After an hour of waiting, Dr. Manohar finally came to the phone. She sounded tired, as if he had caught her at the end of a long shift. Jason explained the problem as succinctly as he could.
“It’s only been a day and a half, Mr. Cagely. Give her time to process the information, to let it sink in. Pseudocyesis is a rare, little-understood condition. But it usually resolves itself in a few weeks.”
“But she thinks the baby’s ghost is haunting her…her womb.”
“I realize that, Mr. Cagley, but she’s made progress from yesterday. Yesterday when I saw her, she thought the baby was alive. At least now she’s admitted that it’s dead. I would see that as an improvement.”
“You… you don’t understand. I’m worried about her. Scared for her. Can’t you…admit her or something?” Jason said.
“There’s nothing physically wrong with her.”
“I mean…to the psych ward?”
“There’s nothing I can do. If she isn’t a threat to herself or others, I can’t admit her to the psych ward without her consent,” Dr. Manohar said. “I’m afraid I have to go now, Mr. Cagley. Good evening.” And suddenly the line was cut. All he heard was the dial tone, shrill and persistent in his ear.
He kept waiting for Maria to get better, to recover.
Instead, her abdomen waxed full like a gibbous moon. She waddled under its weight, and when she lay down in bed it protruded upwards, a round island above the sea of covers. When she walked down the sidewalk, people would smile, ask her how far along she was. Old ladies would chuckle and touch her belly and Maria let them. Her friends and co-workers took her out to lunch, gave her baby-related gifts, sent her cards that had storks and rattles and prams on them. Her mother was crocheting a pink receiving blanket and matching booties.
“You didn’t tell them?” he asked her.
“Tell them what?” she said, her eyes wide and unseeing.
Maria kept growing bigger and bigger. Jason thought it was because she was eating so much. “I’m eating for two,” she kept saying, over plates piled high with huge lumberjack portions. Food started going missing from around the apartment, food he had bought for himself- his favorite breakfast cereal, his chive and onion potato chips- he would find the containers crumpled in the trash later, without ever getting so much as a taste. Jason figured that Maria was emotionally eating, that the “pregnancy” was mostly weight gain. He started to avoid meals with her, going to work early and staying as late as he could. He didn’t like to see her stuff her face— a hearty appetite was one thing, but gluttony was unattractive.
Eventually, Maria’s belly was so big that her commute became uncomfortable and sitting at her work desk hurt her lower back. Her boss was preparing the paperwork for her leave of absence and her co-workers were throwing a baby shower for her before she left.
“You’re invited too, you know. It’s after work this Friday. You should come,” she told Jason.
He looked down at her strangely thin face, her earnest eyes, and thought he might cry.
“No,” he said.
Jason tried to ignore Maria’s condition, but everywhere he looked there were signs of her illness. One day he found a brand new diaper bag waiting in the closet, the next he discovered that she had moved his socks from the dresser drawer to make room for perfectly folded pink onesies. There were plastic bottles with fleshy nipples in the kitchen cabinet, a breast pump in the bathroom, and later, a changing table and Diaper Genie in the corner of the bedroom.
Day by day the Santero altar grew in size and scope. Soon it was spilling off of the coffee table, colonizing the floor. There were twenty candles, then fifty, then a hundred. The wax splashed down, ruining the expensive West Elm coffee table. The glasses of water among the candles seemed to catch and multiply the light of the flames until the altar seared Jason’s eyes. Maria always kept the candles burning, even when no-one was home. Jason was surprised the whole thing hadn’t caught on fire yet. Maybe the glasses of water were meant to prevent that. Jason hoped so, as Maria had taken the batteries out of all the smoke detectors in the apartment.
It wasn’t just the candles that multiplied. The Virgin statues did too, as well as the stuffed toys that stared at Jason with their myriad of black, accusing eyes. The dishes of milk also seemed to reproduce by themselves and several had begun to sour. For some reason, the smell of the rotting milk made Jason think of the cardboard shoebox with the fetus inside. It was probably in a landfill by now, stinking something awful in the rapidly warming weather.
But the most disturbing thing of all was the sonogram. It seemed to be developing, like a Polaroid photo. Jason couldn’t ignore the face in it anymore. It was there in black and white- that mushy nose, those squinty eyes. That frowning line of a mouth.
He took the sonogram to work with him that Friday and showed it to a female coworker, a stern, no-nonsense woman named Janet.
“What do you see?” he asked her.
“Nothing,” Janet replied, squinting at the image. “It looks like television snow.”
The sonogram face continued to stare back at Jason as clearly as his own visage in the bathroom mirror. He fumbled with his belt loops nervously.
“Are you okay?” Janet asked.
“Yeah,” he said, slipping the sonogram back into his messenger bag. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
He wanted to burn the sonogram, rip it into little pieces, maybe put it through the paper shredder. But despite everything, he couldn’t. So on his commute home, he left it on the subway among the discarded candy wrappers and wrinkled copies of that morning’s Metro.
But when he got back to the apartment the sonogram was there on the altar, just as it had been before.
Maria must have made a copy of it, Jason thought bitterly. Multiple copies, probably. If I destroy one, she’ll just replace it with another.
Maria was at the office baby shower, so he began to search for copies of the sonogram in all of the out of the way places he could think of: the back of the closets, the underwear drawer, under the bathroom sink. When he opened the pantry to look, he was shocked to find it strangely bare. Only a can of baking soda, a jar of pickles, and some mouse droppings. He closed the pantry doors and looked elsewhere.
He was on his knees in the kitchen, looking in the oven’s bottom broiler, when he heard the door open.
“What are you doing, sweetie?” Maria asked.
Jason looked up at her. She was carrying a bunch of gift bags and had some pink balloons tied to her wrist that said “Congratulations” and “It’s A Girl!” She looked like a balloon herself, he thought. Inflated, round, hollow.
He closed the broiler quickly and got to his feet.
“How was the baby shower?” he asked.
“The baby shower was amazing,” she said with a smile. “But I’m famished, even though I ate three slices of cake. Eating for two, you know?”
“Yeah,” he said with false cheerfulness. “What do you want for dinner? I’ll take you out somewhere tonight.”
“I was thinking Indian food,” she said. He was sick of Indian food, but he took her to the Indian restaurant down the street anyway.
He ordered Tandoori Chicken and a mango lassi. She got an order of pappadums, a plate of Gobi Manchurian, a Chana Chat, the predictable Saag Paneer, a Naan bread, and a rose lassi. When the food came, he watched as she devoured it with a terrifying gusto. It was far more than he’d ever seen her eat before.
Even if she is eating for two, she shouldn’t be eating that much, he thought. And what else had she consumed that day? Jason thought about the three slices of cake she’d admitted to having at the baby shower.
“I just don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said between bites, wiping a glob of spinach from the corner of her mouth. “I’ve been eating so much lately.”
Jason pretended not to have heard.
“So I was thinking…” she said.
“Names for the baby. What do you think of ‘Angela’?”
“Angela…” he spoke the name out loud.
“Angela, the feminine form of Angel.” She pronounced Angel the Spanish way. An-hell.
The not-baby doesn’t need a name, he wanted to say, but he stopped himself.
“I like ‘Angela’,” she said, using her Naan to wipe the bottom of her plate clean. “She’s going to be our little angel.”
She paused, flagged down the waiter.
“I’d like another Saag Paneer please. And another lassi.”
The waiter looked at her strangely.
“I’m eating for two,” she said with smile, patting her globe of a belly.
She consumed the second Saag Paneer and the second lassi and then ordered a rice pudding for dessert.
“Are you okay?” Jason asked her as they were waiting for the server to bring out the rice pudding and the complementary mugs of Masala Chai.
“I’m great,” she said, reaching for his hand over the table.
He took her hand in his. It felt lighter than normal, and bony, as if her hand were a bird. He looked at her across the table. Maybe it was the sickly yellow flicker from the LED candle, but her eyes looked sunken, and he fancied he could see her skull beneath her face.
“No, really,” he said. “Are you feeling okay? You look sick.”
“I’m better than ever,” she said playfully. “You wanna know how much better I am?”
“How much better?”
“I finally feel like making love,” she whispered.
He hadn’t touched her in that way for months. From the morning sickness onward, she had avoided sex. It felt wrong, she said, knowing that their child was in there. And after the miscarriage, she had recoiled from his embrace entirely.
But lately, it was he who had been dodging her affection. She kept trying to kiss him, snuggle up to him, but with the phantom pregnancy, something just seemed vastly wrong about her. Jason dreaded touching her. Instead, he had been masturbating in the shower and thinking about the girl that she had used to be, that sexy, carefree girl.
But now, looking at her inviting smile so at odds with her hollow cheeks and her feverish eyes, he pitied her. Swallowing his revulsion was the least he could do for her, wasn’t it? Maybe if he made love to her like they used to she’d get better, go back to normal. Maybe if he went through with it, things would be like they had been before. He had truly loved her, before.
Back at the apartment, she led him past the glowing altar. The eyes of the sonogram face seemed to follow them under sleepy half-closed lids.
Maria took Jason into the bedroom. She dimmed the lights and kissed him hard on the mouth. He tried to reciprocate, but she tasted like the soured milk on the Santero altar.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing, my mind is just wandering to work stuff,” he said, feeling pathetic.
“Well maybe I can help you forget that pesky ‘work stuff’,” she said, her voice husky.
She began to strip off her clothes.
First she unbuttoned her blouse, let it drop to the floor. Then she took off her stretchy pregnancy pants. Next was her bra, then her panties. As she stood before him, he realized he hadn’t seen her naked body in months. He had to fight down the revulsion that rose in his throat like burning vomit.
She was emaciated.
Her arms were like sticks and her thighs had a gap between them that he would need a bridge to cross. Her breasts were shriveled, and he could see that she had been stuffing her bra with rolled up socks. He could count her ribs, and her collarbones were matching cornices. When she turned around in a parody of sexiness, he could clearly make out the shape of her shoulder blades and outline of her pelvis. He never imagined it was possible for Maria to become so gaunt and skeletal.
She turned to face him again. Her skin was mottled and dry, crepey as an old woman’s, except over her massive belly where it grew thin and taut as the skin of an overripe grape. The veins beneath twisted tighter and tighter, becoming a network of spidery capillaries on her distended belly.
Despite her concentration camp physique, her abdomen was huge, grossly bloated. It was a hard round lump beneath her ribcage, and her belly button looked like a protruding cancerous growth. If there was a child inside her, it was the size of an adolescent. Maria was enormous, she had the gravity of a planet.
As he watched her from the bed, he thought he could see something inside her stomach move.
Impossible. The light was low, and he was paranoid.
But then it happened again. A subtle movement, a pulsing beneath the taut belly. The network of veins seemed to contract and expand with a heartbeat too fast and jagged to be Maria’s own. Jason shivered, despite himself.
“Come take me, Jason,” Maria whispered, and the room seemed to fill with her sour breath.
He felt his penis recoil limply.
She opened her legs for him. There was something there, he thought, something red and purple. But it was tiny and fast, and it disappeared immediately.
He went over to her, forced himself to put his arms around her. He could feel her heartbeat pounding in her feather-light bird-body, and then that second heartbeat that overlaid hers, louder, more insistent. She tried to kiss him, but the stench of spoiled milk was overwhelming and he turned his face away. The not-baby was a space of miles between them, and he thought that he could feel it twitching, writhing beneath her skin. He thought he might scream.
She persisted in her seduction, took his hand and put it between her legs. She was moaning, but he felt something down there between her legs, something dribbling and wet and warm. Something that smelled like iron. He drew his hand away, saw blood.
He bent down to look.
There was blood and something else.
Something on her inner thigh, something that stood out against her fawn-colored skin like a brand. A red mark.
He looked at it closer.
It was a bloody handprint.
A miniature handprint, with stubby half-formed fingers.
A mitten hand.
He thought he was going to vomit there on the floor.
“Jason…” she said weakly.
He looked up at her, at her looming, roiling belly, her anorexic hips, her sunken face. She was shaking and struggled to breathe. She looked pasty and greyish, as if all the blood had been drained out of her.
Then she collapsed.
He called the ambulance.
Once Maria was stabilized, Jason was told to get some sleep. They wouldn’t let him stay the night in the IC room with her, because he wasn’t “family.”
“There are couches in the waiting room,” a helpful young nurse told him. She had pretty blue eyes, Jason thought. He hadn’t been with a blue-eyed girl in a long time.
“No thanks,” he said. “I’ll just go back to my apartment.”
At the apartment, he snuffed out all the candles on Maria’s altar, one by one. The sonogram face seemed to stare at him as he pinched each flame to nothingness between his fingers. The face in the sonogram had a solidity now, it had mass to it. It almost felt realer than his own face. Before he went to bed he poured melted wax from one of the candles onto the sonogram, obscuring it. He felt better.
He was awoken by a phone call the next morning.
“Is this Mr. Jason Cagley?”
“I have you listed as a requested visitor by a patient. Maria Vega?”
“Yes, that’s right. She’s my girlfriend.”
“Good news,” the cheerful voice on the other end said. “Ms. Vega is feeling much better today. The doctors are still doing tests, but you are permitted to come visit. She’s been asking for you.”
Jason went to the florist a few streets over and bought a lavish arrangement, all hothouse flowers: lilies, daffodils, irises. Remembering Maria’s sensitivity to pollen, he went back to the apartment and picked up her allergy medication. The allergy pills rattled in his jacket pocket the entire subway ride to the hospital.
When he got there, he checked in at the front desk, and a harried-looking nurse led him to Maria’s room on the sixth floor.
“Ms. Vega?” the nurse said, knocking on the doorframe briskly. “Your boyfriend is here to see you.”
Maria turned towards him and broke into a wide smile. She was tucked into a metal framed hospital bed and wearing one of those terrible gowns that tied in the back. She had an IV in her arm, and her abdomen was still grotesquely swollen, but she looked much better, not quite so drained. The color had returned to her cheeks.
“Sweetie!” she said.
“How are you feeling, mami?”
She was about to scold him for calling her mami, but then caught sight of the huge flower arrangement. She blushed instead.
“I’ll leave you two by yourselves for a few minutes,” the nurse said, shutting the door behind her.
The hospital room was a shared one, but the other bed was empty. They were really and truly alone now.
“How are you?” he asked her again.
“I feel fine now, but they think there’s something wrong. They can’t figure it out, though. They’re still doing tests,” she said. “You brought me flowers? You didn’t have to do that!” Her eyes were glowing, and she smiled gently.
“I wanted to.”
He set the flowers down on the little table next to her bed. She leaned over to breathe in their scent but got yellow pollen on her nose and sneezed.
“Oh here, you’ll need these too, I guess,” he said, fishing the bottle of allergy pills out of his jacket pocket.
She took the orange plastic bottle from him, unscrewed the child-proof cap, and let one of the pills roll out into the palm of her hand.
She held the pill up, looked confused.
“Weren’t these pills supposed to be round? These are oval.”
“No,” he said, playing with the belt loops of his pants absently. “Those are right.”
“But I thought…”
“They’ve always been oval,” he said. “Don’t you remember?”
There was a moment of stillness. He could almost read the thoughts on her face as it dawned on her. He saw her stricken look and realized that he’d slipped up. He put his hand up to his mouth as if he could stuff the words back down his throat, but it was too late.
“I wanted her,” she whispered in a voice that was entirely lifeless. She began to cry.
A sound came out, but it wasn’t the one Jason was expecting to hear. It was the cry of a newborn baby. Gurgling and piercing, the scream carried a savage and instinctive anger. Maria’s face went red and crumpled. Her eyes closed, her face looked lumpy, streaked with tears.
The giant belly lurched and trembled. Maria’s body went stiff and her muscles spasmed. Then there was a wet ripping sound, and Maria was silent, still.
The sheets were wet, blooming with sudden blood. Something was twitching beneath them.
Then it, too, was still.
Jason peeled the sheets back with shaking, blood-spattered hands. They fell to the ground, forgotten.
Maria was split open, like a burst fruit. Her intestines gleamed in the harsh fluorescent light. There was blood, so much of it, and her stretched-out uterus was torn open. There was nothing inside of her; she was empty as a hole, a zero.
The room filled with the foul, animal stink like milk and shit and blood.
Jason heard a soft squelching sound. And then he felt something clutching his shirt-front, climbing up his chest.
The thing climbing up his body was the as big around as a snake, and as long- No, longer, Jason thought. The hind part of the thing was lost somewhere underneath the discarded sheet. But it wasn’t a snake— snakes were not fleshy, red with blood, they did not move with a barely-heard wet sound, this Jason knew.
The thing seemed to stretch itself, almost luxuriously, as if it had been wound up tight, curled in upon itself for a very long time. It was slick with mucous, and it dragged a snarl of bloody tissue along with it, a mass that dangled and flopped against Jason’s leg with a wet smack. At first Jason thought the thing was some giant, red earthworm, but then he saw the blind mitten hand grasping at the air.
It continued to undulate up his body in boneless slithers.
He tried to shake it off, clawed at it fruitlessly, but it was fast. It climbed up to his face and he gasped— he felt its half-formed mitten hand force its way inside his mouth.
“Angela…” he tried to say, as if to name the thing would be enough to make it go away.
She was wet and warm and she tasted like dirty pocket change. He gagged as she wriggled, filling his throat. He heard his jaw pop, and tears came to his eyes.
He swallowed her mitten hand, then her arm, as thick around as an erect penis. He swallowed the bloody red mass she dragged with her, her placenta. She slid down his throat and he felt her there, grabbing at his insides and twisting.
And still, he swallowed, she kept coming and coming.
As he swallowed her, he thought about what Maria had told him, that babies were parasites. How a baby would take whatever it needed to survive, leaching the calcium from the bones of its host if it had to, taking anything and everything it needed to stay alive.
He remembered how Maria had smiled and looked up at him with her gentle eyes.
“You’re going to make such a good daddy,” she had said.