by Stephanie Rabig
She was convinced everything would be fine if she was quarantined alone.
Yes, she’d still be living in the one-bedroom tiny-bathroom ‘guest house’ in her parents’ backyard, but at least she’d be able to binge Netflix and take naps whenever she wanted.
Instead, she had to deal with Francine’s incessant screaming.
Karina glared toward the next room. The nursery. Where her month-old daughter was currently imitating an air raid siren.
Two weeks ago she’d been convinced that everything sucked, but it had been downright perfect compared to now.
“Karina!” her mother called, handing her the cell phone. “It’s your sister.”
“Great,” Karina said, and she saw her mother’s eyes narrow at the insincerity in her voice. What the hell did she expect? There was a reason she didn’t answer Kameron when her number showed up on her own phone. “Hey,” she said.
“Hi, sweetie!” Kameron chirped, and Karina gritted her teeth so hard she was sure one might crack. “How’s my niece?”
“She’s taking a nap. She’s good.”
“Good?” Kameron asked with a laugh. “Come on, I need more detail than that!”
“She sleeps, she eats, she poops,” Karina said. “There’s not really much else at this age.”
Another laugh. “You’re so funny. Send me more pics, by the way! I’ve only seen one on your Instagram.”
“I will,” she lied. “So what are—”
Her attempt at steering the conversation away from Francine didn’t work, as Kameron interrupted her with, “How’s the breastfeeding going?”
Really none of your business, Karina thought. Ever since she’d started to show, people had either offered her unwanted and very personal advice or tried to pat her tummy. Jerks. “I stopped.”
“You did?” Kameron whined. Karina rolled her eyes. This was probably the worst news in her sister’s life since her hairdresser had given her a slightly wrong shade of strawberry blonde. “After only two weeks? Sweetie, you have to try harder than that.”
“I did try,” Karina said, feeling herself getting drawn into yet another unwinnable debate despite herself. “It hurt.”
“Well, yes,” Kameron said. “But it’s healthier for Francine! Do you know how many vitamins are in breast milk? Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for our children, Karina.”
“She’s doing fine on the bottle. Her doctor said—”
“‘Fine’ isn’t good enough,” Kameron said. “I’ll email you some studies; it’s not too late to go back to breastfeeding. Bottles are for women who have actual health issues, not those of us who are perfectly capable.”
“Shh shh,” Kameron said. “Wait until you read the studies. And I’ll talk to Mom, see if—”
“Do not talk to Mom.”
“Why not? She breastfed each of us for a little over a year, you know! If she can do it, so can you.”
Karina pinched the bridge of her nose. Why couldn’t they be like those sisters she always saw on TV, the ones who could actually talk to each other instead of past each other?
“I don’t want to,” she said. “It hurts and I don’t want to and I’m tired.” She didn’t realize the words were out of her mouth until the other end of the line fell silent.
“You can’t be a kid anymore,” Kameron told her, her voice taking on the same cold tone that their mother’s sometimes did. “I know you didn’t plan on this happening, but that’s not Francine’s fault. She deserves the best you can give her, even if that’s inconvenient sometimes. Understand?”
She blew out a breath, ashamed to realize she was near tears. “Yeah.”
“Good. Hand the phone back to Mom?”
A moment after the phone was back in her mother’s hand, Francine woke up from her nap, waving her tiny fists as she started to wail.
Karina barely held back a scream of frustration. She had to get out of here.
Now she stared around the sparsely decorated main room—her parents had brought in food and clothes and such, but hadn’t given her her laptop or even hooked up streaming channels on the TV; all she got was shitty basic cable—and groaned. Francine was still screaming.
A sharp noise cut through the wails. Karina jumped.
Just her mother, knocking on the front door.
Must really be out of it, she thought, if that had startled her. Every day at exactly noon, her mother rapped on the door, waited for her to give a thumbs-up signal through the window, and walked back into the main house.
Next time she saw one of those ultra-sappy commercials with grandparents cooing at their grandbabies, she was going to smash the TV.
Her parents had only held Francine once each, and neither had seemed happy about it. Neither of them called her by her name, either. It was always ‘her’ or ‘the baby’. She was surprised they hadn’t just gone with ‘it’.
Every time they looked at her, Karina could practically hear “why aren’t you more like your sister?”. Kameron had married at age 25, and now had three kids at 30. Their parents sent those kids money every month, along with extravagant birthday presents. Mom even hand-wrote letters to them instead of just sending emails like a normal person.
Francine was their grandkid, too, but that didn’t matter. Because she’d left home as soon as she was done with high school, dated off and on, and then she’d ended up coming back a little less than two years later. Kameron had moved out after high school, but it had been to go to college. She and her husband Bradley were deliriously happy, something they proved every other day in pristine Instagram photos complete with toothpaste-commercial smiles.
She even managed to get her kids into matching white outfits, for God’s sake. How did everything come so easily for her? For all the mothers on parenting forums? Where did they find the time, the energy, the love for all of this shit? Sometimes she looked at Francine and it seemed like she was someone else’s baby, not hers.
She’d babbled at her father one night that maybe they’d accidentally switched babies on her, that things’d be better if this was really her kid. Maybe all those bonding hormones people talked about hadn’t clicked because this wasn’t her baby. That made sense, right?
He’d told her she was being ridiculous—this wasn’t the ‘50s; hospitals were more secure now; babies weren’t switched anymore—and gone back to bed.
He hadn’t had to tell her she was a disappointment to them. She knew.
Fine, so she’d had to move back in for a while. Like it was her fault that rent around here was impossible to make without at least two roommates (or a wealthy husband, Kameron) and potential employers didn’t want to hire someone who was eight months pregnant.
She’d known they were gonna be pissed. But shouldn’t they have gotten over it by now, especially with all the quarantine shit going on? Everything she saw on TV was a bunch of kum-by-ya “we’re stronger together” “this is bringing us closer” and endless footage of people out on their balconies cheering for nurses or singing. And she knew her parents would watch those same commercials and get all misty-eyed and talk about how wonderful humanity could be, even as they kept her locked away out here.
She couldn’t believe COVID-19 had actually turned into a thing. She hadn’t taken it seriously at first. Who had? Just another flash-in-the-pan media scare tactic, she’d thought.
Two weeks ago had been the last normal night she’d had.
“Callie!” she exclaimed, as soon as her friend opened the door. She gave Callie her best doe-eyes and charming smile. “I know it’s short notice, and I’m so sorry, but I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t 110% desperate. I have to have a night away from the kid,” she said, bouncing Francine on her hip.
Callie bit her lip and glanced back into her apartment. “Well…”
“Is Tom over? Oh, I’m so sorry. I should’ve texted first.”
“No, he’s not over,” Callie said. “He’s really freaked out by this whole virus thing. I don’t think he’s left his house except to go to work,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “So I’ve got a date with Ben and Jerry tonight.”
Karina forced herself to giggle instead of groan. It was a joke Callie had been making since high school, but if it got her a babysitter, she’d laugh at it one more time.
“C’mon in,” Callie said. “So where are you going?”
“Out with Amanda and Leigha and Angie,” Karina said. “Some dumbasses are talking about having an actual shutdown and we want to check out that new club on 14th first just in case. We’d invite you, of course,” she said, when she saw the beginnings of a pout on Callie’s face, “but I know crowded clubs aren’t really your thing. Thinking next week we can make a Barnes and Noble run together, while Amanda babysits?”
“That sounds perfect! I don’t think Manda’s read a book since our English final,” Callie joked. Then she cooed at Francine and held out her arms, and Karina knew she was home free.
The club was incredible.
Well, not exactly—the drinks were overpriced, the music was kinda crap and the deejay wrongly thought people wanted to hear from him all the damn time—but it was so nice to be out on her own again that it more than made up for all that. To be Karina instead of ‘Mom’. To not have Francine shrieking for some damn thing or other every ten minutes and her mother and father silently judging her for not instinctively knowing what she needed every single time.
Here she could just dance, and laugh with her friends about the guys with too much confidence and even more cologne who seemed to have clones at every single bar, and pretend that everything was as it had been before she’d met Francine’s father.
Father, hell. Sperm donor.
And she wasn’t thinking about any of that right now. Amanda had just bought a round of shots for their table—well, for everyone except Angie, who’d drawn the short straw on driving tonight—and she wasn’t going to spoil her buzz by dwelling on old wounds.
Hours later, they finally left the bar at closing time, stumbling to Angie’s car, laughing and whooping at the latest filthy joke Leigha had learned. Angie dropped Karina off last, at Callie’s apartment.
She took a deep breath of the cool night air to help sober herself a little, said goodnight to Angie while promising that she’d be the designated driver next time, and then headed up to Callie’s door.
“Hey!” Callie said quietly, glancing back with a soft smile at where Francine was dozing in her car seat. “She was just perfect! I changed her and gave her a bottle…she got a little restless after that so I walked her around and sang to her. She probably stopped crying just so I would stop singing, honestly. Then we—”
Karina barely kept from yawning. Routines with a small baby were boring enough when she was the one doing them, let alone listening to someone else chatter on.
Well, at least Callie wasn’t going into detail as to what exactly had been in Francine’s diaper. Mom had signed her up for a couple of parenting groups online, but she’d left when she’d realized how many of the discussions centered around poop.
And the stuff that wasn’t poop-related was all happy and cheery and going on and on about the miracle of life and how babies were wonderful and how the moms hadn’t really known what life meant until they gave birth. They all made their own baby food and got up ridiculously early and spent all day playing Mozart for their two-day olds or some shit.
“Anyway,” Callie finished, “if you need me to babysit again next weekend, just let me know.”
“Oh my god, thank you so much,” Karina said. “I will so take you up on that. I feel like I haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in forever.”
“Do your parents really not help?” Callie asked. “Man, my parents’d give their left arms for a grandkid.”
“Not at all,” Karina said. “They won’t even change her once in a while! Mom just says she’s my responsibility and goes back to her book. They’re such assholes.”
In the carrier, Francine squirmed and squeaked, and Karina lowered her voice. God, she couldn’t even talk normally around her. “And it’s not like they have anything better to do!” she hissed. “They’re both retired; they could help! But they just sit around all day.”
Callie gave her a sympathetic look. “Want me to come over with Mom and Dad tomorrow? Maybe seeing them fuss over the baby’ll kick in their grandparent instincts or something.”
“Can’t,” she said. “They’re panicking about this stupid virus too. I actually had to sneak out tonight, if you can believe it. I mean, c’mon. It’s just the news trying to bump up ratings but they’re acting like it’s the end of the world. Our pantry is filled with toilet paper and canned food. It’s so stupid.”
“I know,” Callie said. “But it’ll blow over in a couple of weeks, and then I’ll bring Mom and Dad over. Okay?”
“Okay. Thanks again, Callie.”
Francine woke up as Karina clicked the car seat into place, and started screaming so hard that all Karina wanted to do was take her back in to Callie and leave her there. She turned on the radio on the drive home, at first hoping it would soothe Francine and then just to drown her out.
“Oh my god, enough,” she finally said, her voice uncomfortably close to a whine as she pulled into her parents’ driveway. How could something with such tiny lungs be so loud?
She looked at the clock. It was almost 4 in the morning. There was no way she’d be able to get Francine into her crib without waking her parents.
Should she drive her around some more? Sometimes that put her to sleep. But she was exhausted: she’d been dancing for hours and, truth be told, she was still a little tipsy. Driving any more than necessary probably wasn’t a good idea.
Well, her parents prided themselves on always getting up at 5 a.m. sharp anyway. This was only an hour early.
“C’mon,” she said, taking Francine out of the car seat. “I bet you didn’t act this way for Callie.”
She picked up the diaper bag from next to the car seat and started for the front door, pausing when she thought she saw movement through a gap in the backyard privacy fence.
Opening the gate instead, her mouth dropped open as she saw her dad carrying a box full of her clothes into the small guest house. “The fuck?”
“Language,” her mother snapped.
Ignoring her, Karina stalked toward her father. “What the hell are you doing? Put those back!”
“We don’t know where you’ve been,” her father said, dropping the box inside the door and then backing away from her like she was some rabid stray dog.
“You couldn’t even social distance for her sake?” her mother asked, motioning to the sobbing Francine.
“That stuff is bullshit! I’m not gonna stop living my life just because the news says so!”
“You’ll stay in the guest house for a month,” her mom said. “Until we’re sure you didn’t bring anything back home. We stocked—”
“A month?” she shrieked.
“We stocked it with everything you and the baby will need,” her mother carried on, as if she’d never spoken at all.
Karina dropped the diaper bag onto the sidewalk and dug her phone out of her pocket.
“Don’t bother,” her mother said. “No friends over. Quarantine means quarantine. And no complaints. Your grandmother raised—”
“Six children on her own out at the farm, yeah, I know. You only repeat that story every time I don’t act like a stick-in-the-mud widow from the ‘50s.”
Her mother closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. “Phone,” she said. “Now.”
Karina was tempted to scurry forward and spit in her face. Instead, she just smiled. “Come get it.”
“Don’t,” her father had said, leading her mom back toward the house. “Just ignore her. We’ll get it disconnected in the morning.”
She’d thought for sure he was bluffing. Her dad always folded before carrying through on threats. Since when had he gotten a backbone?
And not only had he gotten her phone disconnected, but he’d put a deadbolt on the outside of the door.
“This is a fire hazard!” she’d yelled through the window. When threats and cursing didn’t work, she’d resorted to her old standby. “Daddy,” she’d said, doing a good job at calling up some tears. “Come on. Please?”
Even that hadn’t worked. He’d simply assured her that he and her mother were constantly keeping an eye on the house, and that this was hurting them as much as it was hurting her.
Bullshit. They were just glad to be rid of her again, if only for a month.
Now she showed a thumbs-up through the window, giving her mother a wide smile that didn’t fool either of them. Her mother pursed her lips in disapproval, and then walked away.
Francine let out a particularly earsplitting wail, and Karina pressed her hands over her ears. “Just shut up!”
To think, she’d actually thought she might enjoy being a mother. She’d pictured Francine—Frankie for short—growing up, watching movies with her, going to concerts together.
Instead it was screaming and late-night feedings and no sleep and sore breasts and it had been two weeks in here; nothing was wrong with her. Nothing at all. She felt fine. She just wanted some sleep. Needed some sleep.
She’d tried everything. Why wouldn’t she stop crying?
Karina turned away from the window and stomped toward the nursery.
Francine was exactly where she’d left her last night, in her crib, perfectly still, a pillow pressed firmly over her face.
Nevertheless, she screamed.
Content/Trigger Warning: Infanticide, Child Death.