Maryanne had an ache in her stomach. It was a hard ache, like a rock settled there, down where her guts should be.
“Drink more water,” the Doctor advised her.
So Maryanne drank more water. Every morning, she stood at the kitchen sink and drank four tall glasses, one after another.
But the hardness did not go away. Instead, Maryanne could feel it moving upwards, from her stomach to her chest. Breathing grew difficult; she developed a cough. The Doctor prescribed her pills, for anxiety.
“The stress on modern women is enormous,” he explained.
Maryanne took the pills every morning, with her water. She worried less about the hardness, which seemed to continue its progression upwards, from her chest to her neck. When she swallowed, she could feel it resting there, at the very back of her throat.
* * *
One night, Maryanne woke suddenly, tasting blood, gasping for air.
“Take deep breaths,” the Doctor told Maryanne, kindly, when she called. “Have some water—you’re alright—you’ll be fine.”
Maryanne followed the Doctor’s advice. Back in bed, she propped her neck up, using three pillows, and closed her eyes, and tried not to worry.
* * *
The next night, Maryanne woke again, and tried to breathe, and couldn’t.
Something was lodged there, trapped in her airway—not hard, she realized, when she reached back and felt it, but soft, and warm, and wet. Maryanne pressed against the thing with her fingers, trying to force it back down her throat, but it was too big and too stuck and wouldn’t budge. When she ran to the sink, to drink from the faucet, the water came out her nose, burning.
She retched, once, then—without meaning to—and felt the thing move up, very slightly, to sit against the back of her tongue.
It moved again, with a second retch; and then again, with a third; and then again; and again and again; and up and up, and up; and then finally out—tasting of mucus, and blood—and into the sink, where it landed, softly, with a low, heavy slap.
Maryanne took a great, shuddering breath and clutched the counter for support. Her chest felt light, and strangely empty; the feeling of hardness had gone.
After a moment, she reached past the sink and switched on the light.
The thing was about the size of a tennis ball: perfectly round, and quite pink. When Maryanne leaned closer—blinking, squinting through beads of sweat—she could just make out the shape of a mouth, and two tiny nostrils, like poppy seeds.
Maryanne prodded it, gently, with her pinky, waiting for a twitch, or a cry. She prodded it again, and again and again, and then scooped it up, with both hands, and held it to the light. Its eyes were squeezed tight, in a kind of grimace. Its skin was bright with blood.
* * *
The Doctor was very apologetic.
“It’s just that this is not the usual progression of a pregnancy,” he explained to her. “It’s a highly unusual case.”
The baby lay in Maryanne’s lap, wrapped snugly in a woolen sock. It hadn’t stirred yet, or opened its eyes, but something about it felt real, and heavy—like a lump of coal, or a paperweight.
“Of course,” the Doctor said, “There was nothing to be done.” He paused, then said, “You mustn’t blame yourself.”
Maryanne, who had not been blaming herself, looked up from the baby at the Doctor. She had the distinct, inexplicable feeling that he was afraid of her.
“Do you want to be a mother?” the Doctor asked.
Maryanne looked down again at her lap. She shifted the baby, pulling it close, feeling its weight in the crook of her arm.
“But I am one,” she said.
The Doctor forced a smile, then reached over and took Maryanne’s hand.
“Of course you are,” the Doctor said, after a moment. “Of course you are, Maryanne.”
* * *
At home, Maryanne propped the baby up on a cushion and sat there for some time, watching it.
It was, she thought, a remarkably good baby: it did not cry or squirm; it did not cough or fuss; it seemed as happy to be lifted and held as it was to be set down again. But Maryanne held it anyway, and rocked it and bounced it, and put her nose to its head.
She thought again, with some resentment, of the Doctor: his apology; his strange fear.
Was she not a mother? The child had grown in her; the child was still growing. Even as she held it, she could feel it growing—if not larger, then denser—thickening, hardening.
Maryanne spent the rest of the day with her baby. When night fell, she tucked it into a shoebox and slid it beneath the bed, for safekeeping. She checked on it eight times, throughout the night, and each time found it sleeping soundly.
Alyssa Asquith’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, X-R-A-Y Lit, NEON, Adroit Journal, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. She has her MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.