I was born not breathing, a stunned baby slipping out of my mother with limbs as limp as strings of cold sausages. My mother pushed out her placenta in a red rage. She was no angel but did not deserve a dead baby.
The doctors worked on me in the corner and all was silent for the longest time. Finally, they left without looking my mother in the eyes once. A kindly nurse put me in her arms to say goodbye and right then my mother did the one thing she swore she’d never do since she’d left her parents’ house. She prayed. She prayed that I would come to life. She promised God that she would be good if only He would let me take one breath.
It seemed like God wasn’t listening, but my mother was used to that. She petted the peach fuzz on my arm and prayed so hard her soul lifted off from her chest on its crow wings and so my little hand twitched under her fingers. The nurse said it was rigor mortis setting in, but my mother knew. She dropped her hospital gown to press my loose-limbed body to her aching breasts and when the nurse tried to take me away, my mother held on, squeezing so hard I cried and that was proof.
I knew the story so well because my mother told it often, to whoever would listen. Even my mother, despite her avoidance of sober reality, needed a semi-logical reason for the things that I could do. The healing was a gift from God and His choirs of angels. My mother explained this fact to my Aunt Francis and me, as a fly crawled through a hole in the window screen. I was four years old and I knew that when I was born not breathing that Heaven’s powers rubbed off on me before the angels sent me along.
“It happens sometimes,” my mother said.
My mother, my Aunt Francis and I sat on the back porch in front of a fan, motoring at the end of an extension cord. A sea of tall grasses surrounded our tiny one-bedroom house as if we were sailing on a rickety ship across waves of green. Beyond the grass, the river flashed in broken fragments of sunshine on its way through the Sacramento Delta and I sat in the heat of summer at the feet of the two women that made up my family entire.
That morning when I spilled my cereal my mother called me bad and spanked me so hard that the porch floorboards still burned under my sore butt. Tiny slivers wedged into my thighs every time I tried to get comfortable, until Aunt Francis barked at me to quit fidgeting. Thirst gummed up my throat but instead of begging for a popsicle I sat in silence, the word “bad” thrumming inside my mouth.
Aunt Francis was sick of hearing my mother’s story. “What you’re talking about never happens,” she said. “You’re so dumb it defies God.” She smelled meaty in the heat, even under her rose perfume.
My mother bound down the porch steps into the waist-high grass, her long blonde ponytail swinging. I wanted to follow but Aunt Francis pressed down on my shoulder.
“Snakes out there,” she said. “Stay put.”
I wasn’t afraid of snakes. I was, however, terrified my mother would leave me there with my aunt. But she didn’t. Instead, she returned having picked a daffodil so yellow it looked like a piece of the sun.
“My kid is special.” She crouched down beside me, placing the long stem across my knees.
The daffodil was a slippery cup that I raised to my lips. My skin prickled with sweat and I longed to take off my dress and stand in front of the fan, but Aunt Francis took up all the space. My mother and aunt bickered above me, their angry words crackling like tin foil between impatient fingers. They made me so nervous that I poked at the flower in revenge. I tore the perfect thing open and shredded the stem. My mother was saying again that I looked like a string of white sausages when I was born, that’s how floppy and dead and not breathing I was. She exhaled smoke when she grabbed my face, the calluses in her palms scratchy as tiny claws. “When you were dead, I died too,” she said.
Aunt Francis huffed beside us, a noise my mother ignored. “I was eighteen years old,” my mother went on. “Never even drank a beer before.”
My aunt blew out her lips in response to that. She was so mean. Her hip in her thin dress pressed through the little diamonds of the wicker chair she was sitting in and when my mother let me go, I traced my fingers over the pattern of tiny cushions made by fabric and flesh until she slapped at my arm to make me stop. Her cheeks were powdery and round and I wanted to bite them so hard she’d cry.
I had to be good because before I was born Francis took my mother along with her on her escape to the Delta to go to nursing school when their mother died. For a while I had a grandfather in a trailer park in Redding but I never met him. My grandparents were the type of Bible believers who used an actual rod to beat their daughters with, sparing nothing in the attempt not to spoil.
“You shouldn’t let her do that to the flower. She’s making a mess.” My aunt pointed at the flower pieces in the valley made between my knees. My hands itched where the green juice dried on my skin. A feeling of being a bad girl also rested there, against my skin, as much a part of me as my sweat.
The long grass rustled by the riverbank before parting to reveal a woman carrying a little boy on her hip. They stood at the bottom of the porch steps and waited without speaking. A silvery rash crawled up the kid’s arms and neck like shimmering clouds.
“You think you know everything, Francis? Watch this.” My mother lifted me and shook the flower bits free from my dress. The screen door shrieked on its rusty hinges as she waved the mother and child inside and moved my palms to the boy’s stomach where his mother had lifted his shirt to expose more of his pebbled skin.
“Don’t.” Aunt Francis’ voice warned of rising floodwaters and bad omens.
My mother winked at me and joy spread through my limbs like cool water. She whispered in my ear. “Go ahead. Let’s show her what you can do.”
I shook my mother off of me to lay my hands on the boy’s inflamed rash on my own, my palms already heating as if from a good fire inside my bones. I closed my eyes and saw the whole entire sky. The clouds, the sun, the farthest stars. My chest filled with light and I didn’t feel prickly anymore, or hot, or sleepy, or ashamed. I opened my eyes as the silvery rash sloughed away to reveal the velvety brown skin underneath.
My whole body was wrung out but relaxed as if I’d just ran sprints across the schoolyard. The boy’s mother wept as she shoved wrinkled dollar bills into my mother’s hand.
“See what my daughter can do for people?” My mother folded the bills neatly and tucked them into her back pocket. “This is from God.”
“This is not from God,” Aunt Francis said. With a flashing hand she threw the shredded flower into the yard as the woman and child retreated through the grass.
My mother pulled me by my arm into the house as though I were in trouble, the back door slamming so hard the walls shook. In the kitchen she poured a plastic cup of purple drink on ice, which I downed in one swallow, the ice cubes crashing against my teeth.
“Never listen to my sister.” Chills ran down the back of my neck as she came around me and scraped my damp scalp with her fingernails, collecting strands for a braid. “You are good. Never let anyone tell you different.” She twisted a rubber band around the end with such torque that she pulled my hair, but I wrapped my arms around her waist and whispered “good” aloud over and over, the word catching in the cold sugar in my mouth and tasting sweet.
About The Author
Maureen O’Leary is married to her high school sweetheart and has two daughters. She and her husband live in Sacramento with four chickens and a cat. She had a job right out of college at a quaint little bookstore in a small mountain town and wonders why she ever left it. Her work can be found most recently in Coffin Bell Journal, The Black Fork Review, The Horror Zine, The Horror Zine’s Book of Ghost Stories, Monsters We Forgot Volume 2, Ariadne Magazine, and upcoming horror anthologies from Crow’s Feet Journal and Black Spot Books.
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