WHEN JANE WAS BORN, the first thing the nurse said was, “There’s a monster on her cheek.”
Wendy struggled to sit up. “Let me see her. Let me hold my daughter.”
“I’m so sorry,” the doctor said, her mouth turned down, not quite meeting her eyes.
“Did you get vaccinated?” the nurse said.
“Of course,” Wendy said. And she had. But bitter guilt crushed her.
Jane’s cries were loud and healthy, and her little fists waved in the air, searching for something to hold onto. On her left cheek, a little, fuzzy, steel gray monster covered with bumps wriggled in time with Jane’s fists as if it, too, sought something to hold onto. When it opened its tiny blue eyes, Wendy choked back a scream.
* * *
“I’m sorry,” the specialist said. “The monster is linked into Jane’s nervous and circulatory systems. Removing it might harm Jane. There’s nothing we can do.” She gave a thin smile. “She’s a healthy baby otherwise, though.”
“I don’t understand,” Wendy said. “I took the vaccinations just as recommended. How did this even happen?”
“Sometimes it just does. We’re still studying the virus. It’s so new and… well.” She hesitated. “There’s a support group that meets up in Houston once a week for families with birth defects like Jane’s.”
The thought of going out in public made it suddenly hard for Wendy to breathe. The doctor, the specialist was one thing, but to face others… she wasn’t strong enough to deal with the stares, the questions, the ignorant comments. She was the wrong mother for Jane. Jane needed a warrior, not… Wendy.
* * *
“You need to get out of the house,” Wendy’s mother said. “You and Jane need sunshine.”
“We get out,” Wendy said, the cell phone tucked between her ear and shoulder as she wrestled with the dirty diaper and a squirming, fussing baby. She tried not to look at the monster, but that meant not looking at Jane’s face.
“In the backyard,” her mother said. “That’s not what I meant. Go to the library, or the park, or something. Anything.”
A bubble formed in Wendy’s chest. It grew until it squeezed her heart and lungs. “I can’t. People will say things, and I don’t know what to tell them.”
“It’s none of their business. Tell them that.”
Wendy wished she had her mother’s courage. “Tomorrow. We’ll go out tomorrow.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“No,” she said quickly. “It’s not necessary.” She hung up, knowing that she wouldn’t really leave the house tomorrow, and finished with the diaper.
Jane cooed and smiled. The monster on her cheek blinked.
* * *
Three in the morning, and Wendy dragged her ass up and down the hallway, rocking Jane, singing, telling her stories, playing videos on her phone, trying anything to get her to calm down. She’d changed diapers, offered her breast, offered a bottle, given Jane a warm bath, and then done it all over again, and again.
“Please,” Wendy groaned as she sank onto her bed. Tears stung her eyes. “Please.”
Her eyes burned from lack of sleep. One tear fell on the monster. It shrank against Jane’s cheek, eyes blinking, its little bumps waving much like Jane’s arms waved. In that moment, it looked less like some hideous growth and more like a fuzzy, gray caterpillar.
“Caterpillars aren’t so bad,” Wendy murmured. “They do become butterflies eventually.”
Jane cried louder.
Wendy bent her head over Jane’s and breathed in her baby smell. She planted a soft kiss on Jane’s forehead. As she drew back, she brushed against the monster, touching it for the first time. It was so soft. She jerked back.
The tiny monster blinked up at her as Jane bawled.
The monster’s presence made Wendy’s stomach curdle. But it was tied to Jane through shared blood, a shared nervous system. It wasn’t her, but it was part of her, and Wendy had ignored it this whole time, ignoring part of her daughter.
She leaned forward tentatively and lightly kissed its tiny head. The touch tickled her lips.
Jane’s cries turned to hiccups. She settled in Wendy’s arms, and moments later, she slept.
The tiny monster’s eyes shut, and it curled against Jane’s perfect, chubby cheek.
* * *
The next day, Wendy pulled out the stroller and set it by the front door. They’d walk down the block to the park, then back. She tried anticipating all of the ignorant things people might say or do, wrapping her own responses around her like invisible armor. With Jane in her arms, she paced.
She stopped. “I don’t think I can,” she said.
Jane looked up at her with wide, adoring eyes, as did the tiny monster. They were counting on her to protect them. To teach them. What was she teaching them by staying holed up in the house?
“We can do this, baby,” she said softly. “Monster,” she added. She strapped Jane into the stroller. The baby gurgled and cooed, and the little monster swayed back and forth.
She pushed the stroller out the door into the hot, humid air and sunshine, and they started down the street.