By Michelle Ross
Mr. Platt handed out the babies like he was delivering grade assignments.
“Colic,” he said to Tori, setting a plump rubber doll onto her desk, face-down.
“Jaundice,” he said to Marissa. Her baby had skin like my cousin Fiona who went on a carrot juice diet and ended up at a hospital where doctors force girls to eat.
Jem got croup, and me, I got “high needs.” Our babies were the color of raw chicken.
“Me or the baby?” I asked.
“Both most likely. Could be you consumed alcohol while you were pregnant. Could be you worried too much. Bottom line is your baby may be more demanding than some of the others,” he said.
Then he passed around pamphlets from our federal government: How to Care for Your Newborn.
“Just the basics,” Mr. Platt said. “You’ll need to supplement your reading according to your baby’s condition.”
He informed us that our babies were sophisticated pieces of machinery. Not only were they each programmed to exhibit the symptoms of the conditions we’d been assigned, they were able to detect and record a swath of data, from how often we fed them to the ambient temperature, to the force with which we handled them. The babies would know if we didn’t give them the particular care they required. Mr. Platt would know.
He warned also that if we dared open the little compartments on our babies’ backs to mess with the hardware, the babies would report that too, and we’d receive zeroes on the baby assignment.
“Now, who can tell me what the most common reason babies cry is?” he said.
“Hunger?” Tori said.
Mr. Platt looked at us, inviting additional guesses.
“Dirty diapers?” someone else said.
Mr. Platt just stood there, grinning.
“Is there a right answer?” I said.
“Nope,” he said. “Half the time you won’t figure out why the heck they’re crying. Could be they’re frightened by that pimple on your forehead. Could be simply that being a baby is ghastly: you’re at the complete mercy of giants who don’t understand you.” He shrugged.
Tori spent nearly the entire week in the school cafeteria, rocking and humming and cursing. She was excused from classes on account of the colic. Jem and Marissa and me and Tori’s boyfriend JoJo visited her from time to time. JoJo rubbed Tori’s shoulders.
Marissa said, “Get a room.”
Jem smirked. “Is that how you think babies are made?”
Me, I wondered what Tori’s secret was. She and JoJo had been dating for six and a half months. Before that, it was Ben Gallop: four months. And before Ben, it was Nate Tagg: five and a quarter months.
The most prolonged relationship I’d had, if you could call it that, was with Ward Pitts that past summer. June and July he fucked me off and on, when his parents were out of the house. Then in August, just before school started up, he said, “This isn’t a thing, you know.”
JoJo was a year ahead of us and had been through this baby shit already. When Tori whined that she couldn’t possibly take another minute, he said, “It’s only a week. You’ll get through it.”
When she asked him to take her baby for her for a little while so she could get a break, he said, “Hells no. I’ve done my time.”
“Fuck,” Tori said to us. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”
“That’s what got you into this mess in the first place,” Jem said.
Marissa, who slathered herself in sunscreen (uncoated, non-nano zinc oxide only) and shielded her head in a floppy sunhat if she was going to be exposed to sunlight for more than a few minutes, took her baby outside between class periods. Sunlight supposedly broke down the excess bilirubin in the bloodstream, which was what had given her baby its pus-colored hue.
Her baby wasn’t the only one who was rosy-cheeked at the beginning of every class.
“Forget your hat?” Jem said.
Marissa shrugged. “At first, yeah. But the sun feels kinda good.”
Jem reported making her bathroom at home into a sauna by running a hot shower with the door closed. This was to moisturize her baby’s breathing passages. Add a few plants and she’d have a rainforest, Jem said.
She complained about not being able to smoke cigarettes.
“Even if the baby can’t detect cigarette smoke, Mr. Platt will,” Jem said. “And I can’t afford another failing grade in this class.”
I wore my baby in a sling I made by tying two scarves together. Inside the sling where no one could see, I pulled my tank top down low, so she could nestle her head against my breasts. Skin-to-skin contact, that’s what the books in the birth section of the bookstore prescribed.
My baby wasn’t like Tori’s, inconsolable no matter what. As long as she was in contact with my body, she was quiet. Put her down, and she wailed. That first shower, I didn’t even rinse the conditioner out of my hair. I rushed to her, naked and dripping.
The babies were more life-like than you might think. True, they couldn’t move their limbs and when you gave them a bottle, their mouths didn’t suckle. But strapped against my chest throughout the school day, she felt as alive as any other being, with all those circuits and sensors monitoring me all the time. She was always paying attention.
At night, I wrapped my arms around her protectively as though someone might try to steal her in my sleep. Mr. Platt’s pamphlet advised against “co-sleeping,” but the books in the bookstore called this “attachment parenting.” They said sleeping with your baby makes her feel secure.
I could understand that. Those few times Ward hadn’t kicked me out as soon as he’d pulled his dick out of me, I’d watched him while he slept. The window air conditioning unit above his headboard had rattled, and I’d pressed my lips against his hot skin and arranged his arm around me and imagined he was my boyfriend. When a boy was out cold like that, you could fool yourself into believing anything.
It happened Wednesday night.
The next morning, I nuzzled her and kissed her cheek, and it was like running my fingers across Ward’s chest when he was asleep, like caressing a mannequin, only Ward’s skin had always been warm.
I knew for sure when I stepped into the shower. She didn’t make the slightest protest.
Mr. Platt said, “You slept with the baby, didn’t you?”
“She cries if I don’t hold her. The books said—”
“Cried. Past tense. She’s dead now. SIDS. You probably smothered her in your sleep.”
He took the baby away from me.
“You can’t very well go around carrying a dead baby,” he said.
In exchange, he gave me a new assignment: planning the baby’s funeral.
While I calculated funeral costs, Tori, Marissa, and Jem decorated their babies. Tori puttied purple rhinestones to her baby’s ears. Marissa wrapped her baby’s bottom in a green cloth diaper she borrowed from her toddler brother’s stash. Jem made her baby a black tulle skirt and a black pleather jacket with several zippers, much like the one she wore even though October in the desert was all sun and scorched earth.
They gave their babies daddies.
Tori chose JoJo, of course.
We sat outside at the picnic table under the school’s largest mesquite tree. Its dropped pods crackled beneath our feet.
“Girl, you better watch what you say. You could be carrying his baby for reals right this minute,” Jem said. She bit into a fried cheese stick from the cafeteria.
“Nah, I wrap that shit,” Tori said. She picked at her slice of pizza. She complained about the grease.
Marissa, whose lunch was the same as always, a cucumber sandwich and a green apple, chose Paul Lambert, the same boy she’d had a crush on since third grade. We winced a little. If he so much as asked to borrow a pen, she stiffened and went mute.
Jem chose Justin Timberlake.
Me, I stared out across the school courtyard, where Ward Pitts stood at one end of a lunch table that wasn’t mine. He bent his long body across the top of the table to snatch fries from Amanda Portsmouth’s lunch tray. On the basketball court that summer, where he’d once smiled at me in that wink-y way he was smiling at Amanda now, his jump shot had lifted him so high into the air, he’d loomed over the bodies of the other boys like he was another species.
“What about you, Sammy?” Marissa said.
The soft cry that had been coming from Tori’s baby grew exponentially now, and she shook the baby like she was making ice cream in a Ziplock bag, the way we had in chemistry class a few weeks earlier.
“I don’t have a baby anymore,” I said.
When Ward said that what we had wasn’t a thing, I’d just gotten done tracing my face with the underside of the tip of his penis, like he was a blind man and I was trying to help him see me. I’d read in a magazine that that was the most sensitive part of the male body.
I’d said to him, “Nobody has to know.”
I’d thought that if I could keep him around just a little bit longer, I might figure out what he needed, that getting Ward to love me would have been like figuring out why a baby was crying: if I just kept trying different fixes, something would eventually work.
But he’d looked at me like I was the sorriest dog in the shelter, the one missing a leg and wearing a cone collar and shaved down to the skin because of heat sores.
Now, Tori said, “Dead or not, it had a daddy.”
I tore my paper lunch sack into strips. I didn’t touch the peanut butter and honey sandwich.
“Or do you think you’re the fucking Virgin Mary?” Jem said.
The three of them laughed.
In the bookstore, I walked past the birth section and on toward the death section, where I inspected book after book about grieving.
A guy with a tiny conch shell hanging from a piece of twine around his neck joined me.
“Sorry you’re grieving,” he said.
“Sorry you’re grieving,” I said.
“My dog,” he said. “Had her six years.” He showed me a photograph of himself and a Saint Bernard. The dog’s head was nearly twice as big as his.
“How about you? Who’d you lose?” he said.
I felt like I’d come down from a sorry attempt at a jump shot and had plummeted into the earth. Like I was wedged in concrete.
I opened my mouth to answer him, but my words, they were stuck in concrete, too. The only sound that could wriggle free was a howl from somewhere deep in my belly.
Michelle Ross's fiction has won prizes at Gulf Coast, Sixfold, and Main Street Rag. Her fiction has also appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Atticus Review, The Common, Fiction Southeast, Hobart, The Nervous Breakdown, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other journals. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.