"Natalie, come over here! We want a picture near the tree!"
The house was a hubbub of activity and the smell of pine and gingerbread hung in the air. Grandma and grandpa were talking to Ralph while they drank little cups of champagne and mom was pushing Sophie and Quentin toward the huge Christmas tree. It had been nearly a year. I had not bounced back.
I was curled on the couch gazing dispassionately out the window into the cold December night, swaddled in a blanket all on my own. It was warm and everyone was laughing but I didn't want to move a muscle. Sophie was wearing a pretty green dress and her boyfriend, Patrick, was politely waiting for my mother to give him instructions. Quentin was in a suit and tie, dressed to the nines for the party.
I'd come back home but I couldn't settle in, just as I had feared. I stared at all of them and watched mom dust some crumbs off Quentin while Sophie took her boyfriend's hand. All of them were so happy and when I stepped into a room it was like a cold front sweeping in. None of them knew what to say. I didn't talk very much about Pierre but I assumed they understood it hadn't been good.
My emotions were raw. I kept them heavily guarded. I could not enjoy the same things I used to or smile and laugh while I talked to Amanda on video chat. My carefree attitude was gone with the advent of a wail precisely one month ago while I lay half-conscious in a hospital bed, hardly breathing through the agonizing pain. I'd turned 20 and become what I feared.
A warm hand touched my arm. "Maeva needs you."
My stomach turned at the thought of seeing my own daughter. I didn't know what was wrong with me. Mom said it was normal and that a few visits to the doctor would make me feel better—postpartum depression or something. I'd been fine while I was pregnant but ever since I'd brought Maeva into the world I couldn't tolerate seeing her, let alone feeding her.
I was beginning to think we would both be better off dead.
Agitated, I turned away from Alex. He was dressed up like his son and holding a glass of water. We lived together in Seattle where he had resumed teaching high school students while I stayed home. I detested being home all day. I'd done enough sitting inside with Pierre. I wanted to go outside and enjoy the sunshine (or rain: it was Washington) and be young again. I didn't want so many burdens on my back.
"You feed her," I said coldly.
"I would if I had breasts." Alex smiled at someone who caught his eye and leaned over me, raising an eyebrow. "Come on, Natalie. You need to feed your daughter."
"I know babies are overwhelming but it gets easier. Let's go."
"I said no."
Alex rubbed his eyes. "She needs you. How can you—"
I furiously slapped the glass of water out of his hand and jumped to my feet, invigorated by my fury. "I don't care what she needs! She can starve for all I care!"
All of the noise in the house stopped. They were all looking at me, eyes wide and surprised. Sophie pressed closer to Patrick and mom's eyes began to tear up. My grandparents and Ralph just looked dumbfounded. I ground my teeth together and shoved past Alex to go upstairs to the spare bedroom where I had abandoned Maeva a few hours ago in her crib. Mom kept it around for when Alex and I visited, which happened frequently. I couldn't deal with my daughter.
The room was dark and I flipped the lights on without a second thought. Mae immediately began to wail, hungry and alone and abruptly blinded, and I irately approached her. I couldn't stand her crying. I was always so exhausted and I didn't have the energy for anything. All I wanted to do was sleep.
My one month old daughter was in her pink pajamas with a small hat on her head that covered the thick black hair she'd inherited from her father. She couldn't move much of course and settled for whimpering and twisting her tiny arms as much as she could to get my attention. I glared down at her. Why couldn't she take care of her damn self?
"I'm assuming you're looking for a free meal," I said.
Mae's blue eyes roamed the room and her face scrunched up like she was going to cry again. I leaned down to scoop her out of the crib and carefully supported her in my arms. She was an awfully pretty baby and not much of a fusser but I was so tired and weak that I couldn't bring myself to take care of her properly. I was wracked with guilt, not only for the lies I was hiding for Pierre but for my lack of maternal instinct toward the little innocent life I had created. I was a horrible mother.
We sat in the rocking chair. Mae wasn't shy and quickly took to feeding while I gazed blankly at the wall, only barely holding her head. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I'd been so excited to see her and when the nurses put her in my arms, everything became real. I was responsible for her. She was a direct reflection of Pierre; another piece of him I had to take care of.
A gentle knock on the door made me look away from the wall. Mom was standing in the doorframe with her hand raised to knock again. She smiled weakly at me and stepped inside to sit on the bed near the chair I was in with Mae. I hated when people watched me feed her. It took me a long time to get used to my body being mine and I found feeding my daughter awkward and dirty for a few weeks.
I tilted Mae closer, refusing to meet mom's eyes. "What do you want?"
"I only came in to check on you, that's all." She looked down at her hands and spun her wedding ring on her finger. "You don't have to breastfeed, dear. I didn't with Sophie."
"I'm fine. Isn't that the whole reason I have boobs?"
Mom laughed. "Technically, yes. Have you gone to see the doctor yet? Grandma had postpartum depression when she had me, you know. It's perfectly normal. Don't you want to be able to enjoy her? She's the quietest, most well-behaved baby I've ever seen besides your sister."
"She doesn't smile much," I muttered.
I'd noticed a few quirks like that about Maeva. She was too quiet sometimes.
"She will," mom said. "Don't worry yourself for a few more months."
We fell into silence. I waited until Mae was done on one side and moved her to the other to see if she wanted more and she was happy to oblige. It was surreal having my own baby sometimes. I'd been wheeled out of the hospital with a tiny human in my arms that depended on me to educate her, clothe her, feed her, and make sure she was safe. I was absolutely terrified of that.
I swallowed, looking down at her half-lidded blue eyes. They were a lighter shade like mine but there was still no question of who she was related to. She would look a lot like Pierre.
"I'm scared," I whispered.
"I know, honey. Becoming a mother isn't easy but you made the right choice. We're always here if you need us for anything at all."
After Mae was full my mother got Alex so we could all leave. I was embarrassed saying goodbye to everyone after my outburst but none of them seemed to care. Sophie hugged me tightly around the waist and kissed her niece of the forehead. Grandma and grandpa told me to call if I needed anything and Ralph patted me on the back. I thanked all of them and we left for home.
The drive was quiet. Quentin fell asleep in the back seat and his head lolled against Mae's carseat, jolting both of them with each bump we hit in the road. I smiled for the first time in what felt like forever. It was going to be okay. I could take care of her and everything would work out.
We lived in a small house on the outskirts of town. It was white with blue shutters and a picket fence—the type of life I had dreamt of. Alex scooped Quentin out of the back and I got Mae. I was so distracted staring at her that I almost ran straight into the gate. I quietly apologized to the sleeping baby and hurried inside after Alex. For some reason, I was uneasy.
We'd decorated the place densely with all sorts of things, like statues of owls and plenty of throw blankets and books stuffed on the shelves. It was quaint and comfortable. We brought the kids upstairs and Alex put Quentin in his bedroom while I took Mae to hers.
The walls were blue because we thought Mae was a boy up until the day she was born. The doctor had been just as shocked as we were but I wasn't hugely disappointed. I'd been worried about having a boy. I walked across the plush blue carpet and changed her into a clean diaper and clean clothes before setting her in the crib. She didn't make a peep the entire time.
I leaned on the edge of the crib to watch Maeva sleep for a little while. There hadn't been any complications during the pregnancy and she had been healthy as a horse when she was born. It could've been much worse when factoring in the Percocet I'd had easy access to and the IUD.
Alex was standing at the door in his pajamas, head cocked to the side. He had been supportive during the whole ordeal and offered to let me live with him. I didn't want to burden my mother and Ralph so I agreed. We got along well enough but for the past few months he had been pestering me to marry him and it was getting under my skin. I kept the house clean, made dinner, did the laundry… I tried to contribute as much as I could, given my circumstances.
I shrugged when he approached. "No, I was just looking at her."
"Ah." He leaned on the crib as well and gazed down at Mae. "Have you been thinking about what I asked? You told me you'd have an answer by the New Year."
Good lord, it was way too late at night to be arguing with Alex about getting married. I rolled my eyes and stepped away from Mae. She was still cranky as hell if she was woken up from a nap.
"No," I said, "I need more time. I don't know why you want to go married so badly."
"Why do you need more time? Christ, Natalie, we've been living together for almost a year. What's the harm in making it official?"
"I gave birth a month ago and I've been a teensy bit stressed out about that. Marrying you is not very high on my priority list right now."
We left the room, shutting the door softly behind us. I tried to walk away from Alex but he grabbed my arm and turned me around to face him. I glared frigidly at him.
"You're waiting for Pierre to come back," Alex accused. "Are you using me?"
I struggled to tear free of his grasp. "Using you?! Are you insane?! You're the one who volunteered to follow me here and likewise volunteered for me to live with you! I have never asked you for a goddamn thing, Alexandre, so don't make it out like that!"
"And you only agreed so you had a place to wait for him." Alex stepped closer to me and I shrank back slightly on instinct. "If he comes here, I will call the police. You're not going anywhere with him."
"You think so?" I hissed. "Pierre isn't the sharing type and I'm sure he won't be pleased to see his daughter living with you. If he does come here you're better off praying both of us make it out alive than worrying yourself with calling the police."
"I'll be damned if I let a murderer and a pedophile have any sort of happiness!"
"Pedophile? You think Pierre is going to grope his daughter because…"
My thoughts trailed off and I blanched. How could I know the answer? Pierre had been molested by his mother so he could potentially do the same to Maeva. But he wouldn't. He never put his hands on children for whatever reason; maybe whatever sliver of a conscience he had. Mae would be perfectly safe with him if I was there to keep an eye on them.
Part of me knew Alex was keeping me around to get back at Pierre. I didn't know where exactly his hatred for his cousin rose from but I assumed much of it was due to what he suspected Pierre could become. He'd killed his 'father' and, unknown to everyone but me, his mother as well, who had been an unstable pedophile herself. He could turn into a far worse monster than he already was.
I wrenched free of Alex's grasp and he didn't follow me. He slunk back to the bedroom and I went downstairs to sleep on the couch for the majority of the night. I hated thinking about Pierre.
The night was still. I drifted off in the silence and had slept for a long time before groggily waking around three in the morning to a strange sound. Exhausted, I slipped off the couch and stumbled upstairs to peer into Mae's room and make sure she was still asleep. Her back rose and fell with the slow movement of slumber and I left to stop in the bathroom.
I walked across the cold linoleum and kicked the door shut. When I reached the mirror I bent my head to rub my eyes, relishing in the darkness. Light really hurt. I leaned my wrists on the counter and took a deep breath before flicking on the overhead lights and meeting my reflection.
Blue clashed with blue; solid ice striking a wave. My heart fluttered and began to beat again.
Pierre slammed me into the counter and a black gloved hand covered my mouth before I could make a sound. His other hand yanked down the back of my pajama pants and stroked my backside, squeezing hard to compensate for the lack of sensation through the leather. He buried his face in my hair and inhaled deeply while I tried to decide if I was hallucinating.
His pants unzipped and he held me tightly around my ribs to abruptly sink inside me. My eyes rolled back and I tried to balance myself as he kissed and licked and bit and gripped my hip bone to violently force us together. He didn't say a damn word and I didn't mind a damn bit.
I could barely contain myself when I finished. Pierre grunted into my hair and stiffened, filling me in the same way he had that got me pregnant in the first place. I whimpered and slouched over the counter, spent from the sudden assault, and he released my mouth to let me breathe. One of the gloves slipped off his hand and curiously wound up my shirt to my breasts. It only took a bit of stimulation for me to leak and I irately squirmed, caught between him and the counter.
He rubbed it between his fingers and turned me to sit me on the sink facing him. He'd shaved his face entirely and looked a lot different, but not in a bad way. I was emotional as hell and on the verge of tears as he tore open my shirt and eagerly sealed his lips over my nipple. He pulled and I jerked back, cheeks burning, but he held firmly and kept drinking like I was a cow.
"That's for your daughter!" I whispered angrily, yanking on his hair to make him let go.
On cue, Mae began to wail from her bedroom.
Pierre's gaze sharpened and he rezipped his pants, abandoning me on the sink. I hopped down and scurried after him, praying Alex was still asleep and in a bit of shock. He was back. Had he finished his sentence or broken out of jail? I hoped it was the prior.
Our daughter was beyond irritated. Pierre reached into the crib and carefully picked her up, examining her calculatedly. Mae's head began to loll back and I took a quick step forward but Pierre caught her before she hurt herself. She twisted in his hands blinking rapidly at him while he stared at her and I waited with bated breath for his reaction.
He offered her his finger and Mae instinctively gripped it, flailing the rest of her limbs around in distress. Pierre held her closer to his body to offer her more support and she relaxed. Her mouth opened in a telltale 'o' and I irately stepped forward to take her from his arms.
"Thanks," I snapped, "now she's looking for food."
Pierre smiled at Mae. "Papa doesn't like to share maman, little one, but I suppose I can make an exception for you." He stroked his finger along her cheek and she turned her head, rooting around for me to feed her. "Breast milk is a bit too watery for my tastes, anyway."
I took her by force and sat in the rocking chair, a very familiar place, and Mae latched on as fast as always. Pierre watched curiously. He was wearing jeans and a black peacoat and the one of the black gloves was hanging out of his pocket. There was also a knife handle jutting out from his belt loop.
And for some reason, I felt better than I had in months. I rubbed Mae's back while she drank and I wasn't the least bit ashamed. Her father smiled wryly.
"Is your sentence over?" I asked tersely.
"Of course. I was released several weeks ago, a bit too late to witness our daughter's birth. I recollected my assets in the meantime to ensure my woman and child would be comfortable. I could hardly wait—wasting away all those months dreaming of fucking you was pure torture." His eyes flickered down to Mae and he raised an eyebrow. "Does she have a name?"
"Maeva Amelia; Mae for short. I figured you'd want some stupid French name."
"How thoughtful of you. Have you noticed her lack of emotional expression? I've seen bricks that are more vocal."
"She's only a month old so the doctors can't check her for anything," I said. "I wonder if she caught whatever you got."
Pierre rolled his eyes. "It's not a cold, Natalie, it's… well, I'm not sure. Louis never informed me."
"Alex lives here. He came back to America with me."
"I assumed he would." Pierre scratched his chin, scowling. "As much as I'd like to slit his throat, I'd prefer we leave quietly tonight. I wouldn't want my offspring being harmed in the process."
"Are you thinking about other people and the consequences of your actions?"
"Somewhat. I have never been an unabashed killer, which is why I've remained undetected. Only those who become overconfident and lose focus wind up in prison or as fugitives. This is far safer and serves me much better. Isn't that right, mon chouchou?"
Mae released me and zonked out in my arms. I touched her hair, suddenly overcome with motherly affection, and smiled down at her. She really was perfect. We could all be together and I would get through to her father with enough time and patience. I rose and nodded to Pierre.
Alex never did wake up. We gathered a few blankets to keep Mae warm and left the house without another word. Pierre peeked into Quentin's bedroom and touched the hilt of his knife but I quickly dragged him away toward the door. The object was to not kill anyone. I would take his secret to the grave and as long as Pierre could control himself, no one would ever find out.
It was freezing out so I held Mae close to my chest. Pierre pulled his other glove back on and looked up at the moon dimly visible over the skyline before glancing back at me, smirking. My heart pattered.
"I parked down the street a ways," he said. "Are you ready, Natalie?"
I took a deep breath. "I sure hope so."