I was a typical mother in my horrifyingly atypical world. I wasn't sure that I could even call it my world any more since every day brought more evidence of the infestation that had taken our society away from us. Still, there were far too many familiar things in this world to think of it as anything else.
There were tragedies and triumphs, things to fear and things to appreciate. More than anything, there were many things for which I could be grateful. It took me four months to thank God that Josue died a free man rather than one of the centipedes' hosts. It took me even longer to be grateful that he had left me behind, alone and pregnant in a world turned on its head.
Noemi Anne Valdiviezo, named for Josue's mother and my sister, came six months after we buried Josue and I only had my green-eyed midwife and friend Lily to help me through the labor. Brigham and Women's was the only completely free hospital left in Boston. In the year since the first sighting of the invaders, every other hospital had welcomed its Healers to its staff in hopes that they would be spared. I had driven all the way from Salem with my contractions coming too quickly, only to nearly deliver my firstborn on the doorstep of the ER.
It took less than an hour to deliver my daughter, but it only took me five heartbeats to feel grateful that when my husband had died free, he left me this perfect creature. The midwife only took her from me long enough to cut the cord and ensure that she was healthy before returning mijita to me. Noemi demonstrated that she had her papi's lungs by squalling and I wept in that moment because I had forgotten how to hope.
Like a typical mother, I spent as much time as I could in the deserted nursery, singing everything from Naranja Dulce to old Beatles songs so that she would know the best of both worlds. I must have counted her fingers and toes a thousand times between the night of her birth and the time that Lily's brother brought us home. I caressed her dark hair and memorized every feature that reminded me of myself. Much as I disliked the idea, I accepted the gift of baby formula because I would not chance being too malnourished to feed my daughter when times grew harder.
James helped us settle in, got the dilapidated furnace working and then left us both with a smile and a promise to return soon. There was no telling if it was safe to be here, but we would stay while we could.
It was in that first lonely night, when my womb still ached for Noemi and the full weight of my new responsibility pushed tears from my eyes that I made my discovery. At my request, James had set Noemi's crib next to my bed and I fell asleep listening to the soft whistle of her breath.
For now, for the first time in months, I could pretend that life could go on. Finally at the only home that I had known as Josue's esposita, I was able to sleep within moments of letting my head hit the pillow.
I awoke suddenly less than ten minutes later as if someone had called my name, but the only noises were the murmur of the wind through the gutters and Noemi's quiet breathing. Still, there was an uncomfortable sense that I was being watched. I took a quick, almost furtive tour of the house, but there was nothing there. There was not even traffic on Carpenter Street.
I returned, half-convinced that it was all in my mind. I had been afraid of being Sought out since I learned of the invasion. Noemi was in the first generation that might grow up with hosts for kindergarten teachers or police officers. There was no telling if they might have their hunger sated and if there would be a stopping point. The optimists said that we would find a way to live in peaceful coexistence. The realists believed that we might last the year.
Noemi was squirming in her crib when I returned and I immediately reached into the crib. My arms shifted her into a cradling position as I began running through the checklist of what might have awakened her. She did not smell as if she needed a diaper change and it wasn't time for her feeding yet. Maybe she'd just gotten lonely as I had.
It was a temptation to replace her in the crib and let myself get some sleep before she really needed me, but the weight of her against my arms was comforting. I turned on a low light so I wouldn't stumble over something in the dark and retreated to the rocking chair that Josue had bought three days before he was killed.
The night was too quiet. In the days before, there would have been a dog barking or the Armenian neighbors arguing. I'd have closed the window and tried to drown out the sound with some racket of my own. Instead, the wind whined at me and Noemi squirmed impatiently.
I had never been one for singing—Josue had been the one to teach me the songs of his youth while I botched the Spanish and made him laugh with my sense of pitch. The unsettled feeling that had woken me up made it impossible for me to think of a suitable lullaby, so I picked the first thing that came into my mind.
"When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
"Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be."
Noemi hadn't heard good music yet, so she sighed a little and quieted. I looked down to give her a grateful smile for putting up with the best she had...
The words died in my throat and I nearly dropped the only person I had left in utter shock. Instead, I stood as quick as was possible and staggered to the crib. Noemi squalled in protest, but I set her down and backed away so quickly that I fell over the edge of the mattress.
Noemi was still howling when I came to myself, hugging a wall of the kitchen and hyperventilating so badly that dark spots flung themselves into my field of vision. I tried to slow my breathing, but it alternated between sobs and gasps and I finally slumped down the wall until I found a more stable position on the floor.
The girl was still upstairs, screaming in confusion and what must have been fright, but I couldn't pull myself together. Instead, I covered my ears and bawled for my own reasons.
And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree,
there will be an answer, let it be.
For though they may be parted there is still a chance that they will see,
there will be an answer. let it be.
Let it be, let it be ...
Lily had cared for Noemi as if she were a child of her own. She had been more than patient with my inexperience and had wrapped my daughter securely in enough blankets to ward off an Alaskan winter.
Somewhere between all of Lily's ministrations and my maternal selfishness, someone had taken my daughter from me. I had spent so much time recognizing Josue's nose and my bow mouth that I had overlooked the pink scar tissue on her neck.
Whenever it had happened, there was no mistaking the silver gleam in her dark eyes. I had awoken with the feeling that I was not alone because there was someone else in my daughter's mind.
My daughter was only five days old. She wouldn't have been strong enough to ward off the creature. Maybe everything I had seen and felt between us since the beginning had been a lie because whatever was wailing disconsolately, it was not my daughter.
I had no idea how long I huddled there against the wall, cowering like a frightened child, but when my hands slid down my neck and uncovered my ears, I could hear only a vaguely sulky whimpering from the other room.
That's right. The game is over.
It was too late to call Lily or James. My family was in Lowell, but they didn't know about Noemi yet. It was too dangerous to let word of an uninfested child to get around.
But Lily had insisted that I could call at any time. My hand reached for my cell phone, but I was halfway through dialing the number when another thought struck me.
Lily had been with Noemi almost as much as I was, maybe even more often. If I called on her for help, I might catch the same silver gleam in her eye as she tried to tell me comforting lies. Maybe it had been James who implanted her. There were rumors of people being implanted and returning to work the next day with stories about a 24-hour stomach bug. It could have happened at any time.
It might not have been either of them. Maybe Brigham and Women's called themselves the last free hospital out of naivete or blindness. Or maybe it had all been a lure.
The front of my cotton nightgown was soaked through, since my body had responded to that thing's bawling. Startled from my state of shock by that simple thing, I folded my arms stubbornly over my swollen breasts as if to cut off the thing's food supply.
I made my way back to the bedroom, shuddering either from cold or anger. It was nearly impossible to distinguish the two.
The creature was flailing its arms, reaching for comforts it didn't deserve. Its face was screwed up in preparation for another yell, but I stepped back. If it was smart enough to take my daughter from me, it should be smart enough to know I wasn't going to be fooled by its needy-baby display. If I could just convince my body to think the same way, I'd be fine.
No, not fine.
"You want this?" I demanded, uncrossing my arms. "You want to live? You give her back."
It resumed its wailing, the volume rising to earsplitting levels. It was crying so hard that Noemi's body twitched spasmodically with the effort. It was said that breastfeeding increased hormones that encouraged a mother's nurturing side. Instead, the creature's need for me only infuriated me.
"I'm not like you!" I shouted, competing in volume and pitch with the damned shrieks that it thought would make a difference. "This isn't for you and I'm not going to pretend otherwise. I don't care if you have to die..."
The enormity of that lie brought on the tears once more and I found it impossible to speak. Instead, I turned away and let the thing see the force of my grief in how hard my shoulders shook.
The thing finally fell silent. Maybe it was shocked by how uncooperative I was. Maybe it was contemplating another method of attack. Maybe it was too exhausted to cry any more. I was starting to understand that last sentiment.
"I can't..." I inhaled sharply because I still couldn't breathe normally. "I can't do this to her. If there's any part of her in there..."
I whirled to stare at it accusatorily. "Do you even know who you took away from me?" I demanded. "Did you know her name is Noemi Anne? Did you know that her abuela lives in Oaxaca and is named Noemi, too? Do you know that her father insisted on playing Shakira music twice a week and that he was a lawyer? Does it even matter that she was named after my sister Anne who's now one of you and is a Seeker who calls herself Rides the Wind? Do you even care?"
The thing didn't answer. Of course it didn't answer. It was limited by the motor and verbal skills of someone who couldn't even roll over yet.
"I'm not like you," I reiterated between ragged breaths.
Then kill me was the unspoken challenge in the thing's unnaturally expressive eyes. Noemi may have not learned too many facial expressions yet, but this thing was obviously not a beginner.
"I'm not like you," I repeated. "I wanted her more than anything and I'm not throwing her away just because you are trespassing. I can't just stop being her mother and until I know how to deal with you..."
There were no words for what I was asking myself to do. I couldn't explain to it or to myself why I was showing compassion. The only way I could explain any of this was to be a mother.
Reluctantly, I reached for the thing in the crib. It responded to my touch exactly as Noemi had and for half a minute, I thought I had imagined it. Still, as it suckled, I could not forget that demon glint of silver and I found myself begrudging the creature every breath it took on Noemi's behalf.
Anne recommended group therapy. It had supposedly done wonders for her in her post-scumbag years and she was the sort to recommend something until you tried it out of sheer exasperation. I wasn't something I looked forward to, but as she pointed out, I wasn't exactly in the best shape. I was hormonal, overwhelmed by the upcoming deadlines at work and I was recently widowed. She reasoned that I would spend as much money on therapy as I did on my monthly supply of Haagen-Dasz. I could not argue with that, so I began attending weekly meetings in Needham. It was a long drive, but helped to clear my head after a long day at the school.
The meetings themselves were mostly a joke. None of us was extroverted enough to make real progress and the counselor was patronizing. When I did speak openly of my troubles, it was because I could no longer endure them.
In order to make the most of our weekly sessions, the victims of this group therapy met once a week for either drinks or pizza. Jacob with the identity crisis was a fan of anchovies. Matt-the-recently-divorced groused over the quality of the beer and would take any jalapeno that he could get his hands on. Sean was the one who had moved from Ireland to marry the girl he loved only to have her leave him for another woman; he drank anything he could get his hands on and didn't mind the puddle of grease in the middle of every pie.
Lydia and I were the only women in the group and, by chance, we were both pregnant. Lydia worked in Public Relations and her husband was a well-respected professor of literature at Northeastern, which meant that she tended to speak very formally about her woes. We had yet to hear anything that suggested that she needed therapy; more likely than not, she was one of those women who scheduled group therapy between their Pilates class and their pedicure.
Tonight, we were the last to leave. Jacob had been too much of a gentleman to let us pay, but we were abandoned with the last few slices of meat-lovers' pizza and our third glasses of Dr. Pepper. Neither of us seemed to have anything left to say, but neither of us made a move to leave. Lydia wore her baby bump under a stylish dress that made her look as if she took the Angelina Jolie approach to maternity. She would never need a forklift to get out of bed, but if she did put on an ounce of unnecessary weight, she'd do it with style.
Tonight, she didn't seem quite so chic. She was wearing plain black flats and her red hair was in a low ponytail. I took it to mean that either she was becoming more comfortable with the lot of us or she was having an off day.
I was halfway through my drink when she tilted her chin and eyed the bulge under my Red Sox t-shirt. "When's your due date?"
"November 24," I replied. "If I'm lucky, I'll get out of going to my sister's house for Thanksgiving and spend it with my kid instead."
She made a half-hearted attempt at smiling. "Michael lets his mother do all of the cooking," she confided. "He comes from a long line of spectacular Italian cooks and never lets me forget it when I burn grilled cheese sandwiches. Is your sister much better?"
"My sister's a vegetarian and spends most of the day glowering at everyone who dares to look longingly at Butterball ads," I pointed out. "I love Anne to death, but the first thing I do after Thanksgiving at her house is to find a Big Mac."
She sucked with her straw at the bottom of the glass, somehow making the sound dainty. I decided to discard the straw and drained the rest of my glass in one long pull.
"What about you?"
"December 3," she said with the same lackluster smirk. "I have a while to go yet."
I was beginning to wonder if she showed any enthusiasm for anything. Maybe that was why she came to therapy.
"Is Michael excited?"
That finally broke through, but not in the way I had intended. Instead, she looked quickly away and pursed her lips so hard that they turned white. Instinctively, I reached for her hand in case she needed something to grip.
"He was," she said finally.
For another minute, there was no explanation forthcoming, but she found a single tissue in her Louis Vuitton bag to dab at her eyes.
Finally, she left the tissue wadded on the side of her plate and dropped her hand to rest on her stomach.
"We found out that there will be some..." She blanched before uttering the next words. "...Defects. It's possible that our baby won't live long and the doctors think that it might be best to abort the pregnancy now."
Acid coated the back of my throat, but I kept a firm grip on her hand. "What do you think?"
"Michael thinks that it would be more humane this way," she said evasively. "I wouldn't carry the child to term only to lose it. I wouldn't grow as emotionally attached and there's no reason to believe that I won't be able to have another."
From the sound of it, what he was expecting her to do was anything but humane. Before I could even repeat my question, she finally met my gaze again.
"I don't know how long he'd live," she admitted, "but what makes Michael think that I'm not emotionally attached to our son now? He has a personality of his own and I've been looking forward to seeing how it develops. Even if he lives just a few hours, I want him to be mine and I want to see myself in him. Is that too much to ask?"
I wasn't sure if she was desperately delusional about how difficult it would be or if she was much stronger than I had suspected. Either way, her logic resonated with my own.
"It's not too much to ask at all," I agreed.
I awoke in the early morning light to find the outside world covered in snow and someone knocking impatiently on the door. A quick to my left revealed that the other was still asleep. I peeled myself off the mattress and pulled my old red robe over the nightgown that I had been too tired to change last night.
I could see Lily through the small windowpane on the door and my first instinct was to stay out of sight, but human or not, she wouldn't be fooled by that. I pulled the front door open instead and tried for some kind of facial expression other than numb shock.
Again, Lily wasn't fooled. Her hand went to my cheek immediately as if she were my mother checking for a fever.
"Rebekah, you look wrung out," she said frankly. "Do you want me to come help tonight?"
I didn't answer until she had met my gaze with those steady green eyes. When I was satisfied that I couldn't see even a hint of silver there, I shook my head.
"Come with me."
She closed the door quietly behind her as if trying to keep from breaking anything. She was already treating this as a crisis and she didn't even know what was waiting for us in the bedroom.
As soon as we entered the room, she went to it, checking it over. Having found nothing wrong, she settled back on her heels and turned once more to look at my haggard expression.
"What happened?" she asked quietly.
I said nothing, but pulled its eyelid gently up until she could see the mark of the creature. Immediately, her hands went to her mouth to muffle a dismayed cry and I repented of every suspicious thought I had allowed last night. A moment later, she joined me on the edge of the bed, too weak-kneed to stand.
"I don't know," I muttered, voice cracking on the last word. "I only saw it last night. I was half-convinced it was your doing."
She didn't condemn me for it in anything but expression, but I felt the need to explain myself.
"I wasn't thinking right," I stammered on. "I tried to convince myself to let it die and I wouldn't feed it for a while..."
This time her silence was more of a condemnation than anything.
"I fed it again," I insisted. "I don't know what to do with it except treat it as my own."
"It's possible that Noemi is in there," she protested weakly.
I wanted to shake my head, but instead lifted my shoulders in a shrug or a cringe. "I may not know for years," I countered. "It could deceive me for years to come just because I want to believe there's hope for mija."
"Or you could dispose of it now."
This was the woman who had helped me through the worst of the contractions and who had been the first to hold my daughter. It was frightening that she could speak so casually of putting a new life to death.
Then again, it had taken me most of the night to fall asleep again. By the time I had dozed off relucantly, I was thinking of the creature as her again. That impulse had faded in the morning light, but it could return.
"I can't dispose of it," I whispered. "I can't let it starve and I can't think of putting it to death for the crime of living. Not after all that I went through for Noemi."
"Make it a foundling, then," she suggested more urgently. "Even now, it could be a danger to you. If you left it for one of the Healers, we could find you a place where they would never find you."
Lily was one of the ones who saw no peaceable ending to this conflict. It was too much her nature to think of everything in terms of all or nothing and this was no exception.
"I've been thinking," I said instead. "It can only grow as steadily as Noemi. That means I have years to gain its confidence. Maybe by then, there will be no reason for it to turn against me."
"Or maybe..." Her breath hitched. "Maybe you'll realize too late that you should have listened to me today."
I was fairly certain that I was supposed to be the pessimist here, but Lily hadn't been here all night. She hadn't been the one to fight the temptation to smother the thing posing as her daughter.
"I'm fairly sure you're the one who said both good and bad parenting was something to take one day at a time," I said. "No matter what happens years from now, we're still on day six."
Lily studied me closely for a long moment as if trying to prove a hypothesis right. She shook her head and glanced at the crib.
"The ones interrogated say they like taking children because there is less resistance," she said almost desperately. "Whoever you think is in there with the creature, she doesn't have much of a fighting chance."
I reached a fingertip through the bars of the crib and gave one chubby cheek a conciliatory caress.
"Noemi is her father's daughter and has me to teach her," I concluded. "Whatever is in there with her has no idea how much of a fighting chance she could have."
Lily's mouth turned up at the edges for the first smile of the day. "We'll see," she said. "For now, it can't hurt us."
That seemed to be the last word on the argument. A moment later, she glanced back at the plastic bags which she had left on the floor beside the bed.
"You like your omelets with peppers, right?"
"If they're fresh," I agreed.
"Stay here," she instructed. "Noemi will need feeding soon and we don't want either of you going without."
She left the room as if we had not just spoken of murder and betrayal or hope and faith. For Lily, it was a compromise between "I told you so" and "You were right."
I slid onto my knees and slid my hand through the bar to reacquaint myself with how her skin felt against my knuckles.
"I owe you half a lullaby, mija," I said quietly. "It's not much of one, but it'll have to do for now..."
And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light, that shines on me,
shine until tomorrow, let it be.
I wake up to the sound of music, mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.