She was relatively young, just turning 24, and her paychecks were usually just enough to cover the necessities. She expected and was given no support from her parents or other family members, seeing as she had been disowned over six months ago. She was unmarried, and she was the expectant mother of twins- one boy and one girl.
And yet, despite all these stressful life factors stacked against her, Josephine Mooring was still optimistic of her life and even of her future. Regardless of the insults and dire predictions her parents had thrown her way, she still felt stable, secure, and even supported, by her boyfriend and his family, if not by her own. There were certainly stressors in her life, but all the same, she felt ready to handle them. She felt that her life was a good one, a happy one.
Until the day she heard her unborn daughter's voice, small and soft, but unmistakable in both its words and the sinister sincerity of its tone.
"When I come, I will kill your son."
The first time Josephine heard the voice, she was alone in the guest bedroom of her boyfriend's parents' home. They had insisted, once the twins' growth had rendered her large enough to have difficulty getting around, that she come and stay with them, where they could help her as needed- at least until the baby's birth. Now that she was eight months along, feeling heavy and exhausted with the thirty pounds unaccustomed pounds her pregnancy had added to her frame, Eileen Camden had voiced her concern at the thought of Josephine continuing to stay in her apartment alone.
"What if you went into labor and there was no one there?" she had worried, clucking her tongue and shaking her head at both Josephine and her son. "What if you fell down and couldn't get to the phone for help? No, Josephine, I insist, Mark and I would both worry ourselves sick if you were left there alone. And with the way Gabriel's hours are, there's no guarantee his going to stay with you would be any help. You come stay here with us. We won't bother your privacy, dear, but we'll be here if you need the help. Perhaps you'll even stay for a week or two when the babies come. Newborns are hard work, and with two of them, you and Gabriel will have your work cut out for you."
The offer had been sweet and sincere; Eileen rarely seemed to say things simply for the sake of saying them, a trait Josephine had not encountered in many of the adults in her life before Gabriel and his family. Josephine had hesitated- after all, she had been living on her own since she was eighteen, and could hardly imagine what it would be like to step back into almost the role of a child again, dependent in someone's home. But ultimately, with Gabriel's urging, she had accepted.
"It would make me feel better too, Jo," he had told her privately, when she shared his mother's offer. "I don't like the idea of you being alone right now either. Once we've saved up enough, we'll get our own place, big enough for us and the children. But right now, this is what would make the best sense."
Although Gabriel was a grown man, a year older than Josephine at 25, he was Eileen and Mark Camden's only child, and he had yet to leave his parents' nest to establish a place of his own. "Never felt the real need to," he had shrugged on their first date, when family and current living arrangements had come up. "My parents give me space, and it helps me save up on money. Once I have good reason and enough saved up for my own place, I'll go for it."
His admission at the time had almost been enough for Josephine to reconsider arranging a second date. She couldn't imagine anyone, let alone a man, actually being comfortable living in his parents' home as an adult. She had spent most of her time from her preteen years on counting down until she was old enough to make her own way in the world. Voluntarily staying with her parents, or accepting any sort of charity or assistance from them, was not only against her instincts, but actually a thought that made her shudder.
But Gabriel had been as sweet and sincere as his mother, interested in listening to Josephine and learning about her life in a way that she had never before encountered in a man. She was used to boys who looked at her with a distracted glaze in their eyes as they mentally undressed her, boys who asked her to pay her own way or who made a move to be invited into her apartment before they had even given her a kiss. Gabriel had been different, and although it was a difference that took getting used to, it was ultimately what made Josephine feel that this could be the first man she could love.
Two years later, their life together was not what she might have expected. Gabriel had never finished college, but his job at the local food plant was secure, with steady pay raises each year. She had graduated with a degree in creative writing, which she had since discovered to be rather useless, and obtained a quiet but enjoyable position at the library, a job with enough inactive tasks to allow her to stay on through her eighth month of pregnancy. Although the pregnancy itself had been unplanned, it was not unwelcome. She and Gabriel were committed to the coming children and to each other, and his family, long ago welcoming of Josephine, had greeted the prospect of grandchildren with much more excitement than disappointment or distress. Eileen had even thrown a baby shower for her, showing surprise that Josephine herself did not feel when only Gabriel's family showed.
As for Gabriel, he had paid for her doctor appointments, had attended sonograms and regularly asked after her health, even giving her back and foot rubs. He spoke into Josephine's stomach to his children, supported her decision to leave their genders a surprise, and helped narrow down names, finally deciding with her on two that would work for either boys or girls: Tristen and Bellamy. He had bought unisex clothing and supplies, although he had said several times- hopefully, Josephine thought- that he believed the babies would both be boys.
"It doesn't matter," his mother had shushed him, shaking her head. "Just as long as they're both healthy, that's all we really want or need, isn't it?"
Josephine had agreed, and it had seemed that her sort-of mother-in-law was to have her wish. With every check up, both babies were pronounced normal and healthy in their development, with strong heartbeats and fetal movement. Josephine herself experienced little more than weariness, aches, and pains; even the infamous morning sickness she had heard so much about never presented itself.
Perhaps this is why, when the voice first spoke, Josephine did little more than tense, looking up from the cup of tea she held cradled in her hands. Shifting her positon on the guest bed- her bed, for now, but nevertheless, one she thought of as Eileen's guest bed- she looked quickly around the room, confirming that there was, in fact, no one else present who could have spoken up. When she saw nothing unusual, nor could she hear anything like music or TV that could possibly be responsible for it out in the hall, Josephine had inwardly shrugged.
It was likely, she told herself, that she had simply imagined a voice, although it was a creepy sort of sentence to imagine. It was getting late, and Eileen and Mark had both gone to sleep some time ago, whereas Mark would not be expected back home for another hour. She was probably tired, a little lonely, and being alone at night was bound to sometimes influence the imagination.
She hadn't really heard anything at all.
Josephine took another sip of her tea, blowing slightly to cool it. Still feeling somewhat unsettled, in spite of her inward rationalizations, she reached for the book resting on the nightstand beside her. She had been trying to get through it for nearly a week now and still had yet to finish the second chapter. She had never been much of a reader, but she had limited mobility these days, and TV could only entertain for so long.
She turned a page of the book, not really registering the words she had read. Instead her mind drifted back to the voice, one hand absently coming to rest against the swell of her stomach. The words had sounded so clear, yet somehow close. As though they had been spoken through something that muffled and distorted them just slightly.
Something like her stomach?
It was silly, she knew, to be still thinking about something that had never actually occurred. No doubt it was late night anxiety stirring up again, as it sometimes did when she was left awake and alone in a somewhat strange environment. As happy as she was to soon be a mother, it was natural to worry and wonder just how she would manage, and whether she would really be up for such an important role.
It wasn't as if Josephine had had much in the way of role models when it came to parenting. Her own parents had been very distant from her in her childhood, seeming to fully embrace the saying of children who should be seen but not heard. Josephine could hardly remember her parents seeming to smile or take delight in her, their only child, and she suspected now that perhaps they had not wanted or expected to ever be parents at all.
They had never hit her or abused her, in the traditional sense of the word, and she guessed she had that much to be thankful for. Still, they had also never taken the time to just enjoy her, to play with her and listen to her, and she could hardly remember any touches that had not been strictly necessary, let alone cuddles or hugs. Her home had been a cold one, with expectations high and religious piety and practices the center of her parents' lives rather than any focus on Josephine.
Their relationship had deteriorated even further when Josephine applied for and then accepted a scholarship to a secular university. Her parents had felt that this was inappropriate; only a religious university could provide an acceptable balance of education with morality. Josephine's refusal to back out from the scholarship had led to their decision to remove themselves from her life, fully and completely, as soon as she turned eighteen and they could legally do so. They had expected her to provide for herself once out of high school, and she had had no other choice but to follow through on that.
It wasn't until meeting Gabriel and seeing his interactions with his parents that she realized others experienced family in very different ways than she had, that perhaps her parents' ways were not, as she had assumed, quite the norm. The first time Eileen Camden had ever met her, she had enfolded her in an embrace that was as warm and natural to her as though Josephine were her own child. She had treated Josephine with more grace and interest in the first five minutes of encountering her than Josephine's own mother had in her entire life. They had greeted her pregnancy with some surprise, but also pleasure; Josephine's mother, when she worked up the nerve to call her and share the news, had hung up on her before she could even touch on the subject.
It was because of her parents, Josephine realized now, that she sometimes felt like she were an observer of the world and its inhabitants, rather than actively engaging with them in life. It was because of them that she felt somehow fake and strained in the face of others' easy happiness and affection, as though she were speaking the language of attachments and relationships with an accent.
But things would be different for her own children. They were wanted and loved already, by so many, and Josephine would have support in their care. She would never let them grow up feeling invisible or unwanted, alone and unseen. Tristen and Bellamy would be cherished, and she would make sure they knew it, even before their birth.
Things would be better for them.
She took another sip of her tea, vaguely wishing that it were something stronger, something more satisfying. Of course she knew alcohol was bad for the babies, but she hadn't realized until Eileen told her that even coffee was not advisable during pregnancies. For someone like Josephine, used to at least three cups a day, weaning off from the routine as much as the actual addiction of it had been very difficult indeed.
She was just beginning to think of giving up on reading and lying down when she heard the voice for the second time. This time, the words were unmistakable.
"I'll kill him. My brother. He's going to die because of me."
Josephine set down her cup with a now shaking hand, pressing her lips together into a thin line as her eyes scanned the room, her breath briefly halting, cold in her throat. She had not imagined it, this time. There was no radio or TV playing; the rest of the house stayed silent.
And yet she had heard it. She knew it now, for certain.
She released her breath in an uneven whoosh, swallowing hard. It wasn't possible that there was someone in the house, even in the room…was there?
She swung her legs over the side of the bed awkwardly, already dreading the sheer difficulty of the tasks she was planning, but she had to know. With great effort Josephine managed to ease herself down onto her knees beside the bed, lifting the blanket to look beneath. There was nothing there, not so much as a large dust bunny. Eileen's cleaning wouldn't have allowed for that much. The closet too held nothing more than her own shoes and clothes, with the exception of a suitcase far too small to fit anyone larger than an infant in size.
There was no one else in the room. The voice had been too close, too soft for the possibility of someone being any further away than that. And if there was no one there speaking…well, what did that mean?
Her heart thumping, Josephine eased herself back onto the bed, but this time she remained fully upright on its edge, her feet dangling down over the side in preparation to get up again if needed. She waited, feeling both foolish and frightened, before she decided to speak.
"Who was that?"
She didn't think there would be an answer at first. Of course there wouldn't; how could she receive an answer from something that didn't exist? But just as she had let out an irritated breath at herself, beginning to ease back on the bed again, the voice responded.
"Don't you know me, Mommy?"
Every muscle in Josephine's body stilled. Because with those words, she did know. She knew exactly what was speaking to her, as illogical and crazy as it seemed.
It was her baby. One of the children in her womb, her own daughter or son. Somehow, it was the owner of the voice.
Even as this realization came to her, the voice spoke again, softer, almost sing song.
"I'll do it. I'll kill him, when we come out. I'll make him die, and you can't stop me. You can't do anything."
Josephine stayed up for most of the night, chilled by what she had heard, by what she had come to believe. Her mind seemed unable to settle, spiraling in crazed circles with possibilities and thoughts that jumped from one option to the next.
She could come up with no logical explanation for what had happened. Babies couldn't speak, not in full sentences, at least, and certainly not when they had yet to even make their entrance into the world. But it had happened. It hadn't been some intruder, or some voice on a technological device of some kind, or even just a thought or fear from inside her own mind, misinterpreted as extraneous. She had been hearing the first words of her child. She knew this just as she knew her own voice spoken aloud.
It was crazy, but it was true. She had no explanation for how or why, but it had happened.
But then…what could that possibly mean? Why would a baby say such a thing, her baby? How could a baby have the hatred, let alone the concept of thought, to want to kill its own brother?
But then, babies weren't supposed to be able to communicate any sort of thought at all before they even came into full existence. Clearly, this wasn't an ordinary pregnancy…so this was no ordinary child.
Josephine tried to tell herself that it wasn't true, that somehow, no matter how she felt, it was all imagination, some sort of waking dream. It wasn't worth the effort or the rationalization that would come to tell Gabriel about it, when he came home. But even as she told herself this and lay down, attempting to quiet her mind enough to truly rest, she couldn't believe her own attempts at reasoning. And it wasn't until several hours after Gabriel came to lay beside her that she managed out of sheer mental exhaustion to drift into true sleep.
Josephine had dreamed of her babies before, but this was the first night that she dream became a nightmare.
It started out peacefully enough. She was sitting up in a white bed that appeared, judging from the metal guard rails, to be a hospital bed. Her face was shining with sweat but alit with joy, her hair damp against her forehead as she held out two infants swaddled in her arms. She could see just enough of their faces to know that they were beautiful, that they both seemed to glow with health and newness of life and promise. She could feel her love for them, strong and almost painful in her chest, and she knew that they were Tristen and Bellamy, her children, just as she had anticipated. Just as they should be.
But then the brightness of the hospital scene suddenly ripped away from her awareness, and Josephine found herself in a darkened room, lit only with the frequent flicker of a dying overhead light. She squinted, frantic, frightened, and reached out blindly, trying to grasp an awareness of where she was- but more importantly, where were the babies she had moments ago been holding in her arms. She heard herself call out their names, and a soft baby's chortle greeted her.
But there came no relief at the answer of her child; as soon as her eyes adjusted, she took in the gruesome sight of her naked infant son, his face swollen and purple in death on the floor, smears of blood marking his still form. His eyes were open, dark, and glassy, never to see again. Beside him lay the naked but unmarked body of her infant daughter, eyes lit up with her bright smile, her legs kicking out as she giggled out loud.
She had done this. Somehow, she had done this, and she was delighted.
Josephine awakened with a sharp gasp, her heart thumping against her rib cage. Frantic eyes skittered about each inch of her bedroom, searching for the children, before her hands came to rest against the reassuring curve of her stomach, still harboring them inside of her. She felt the solid outline of a foot against her hand, the slight movement in response to her touch, and yet there came no real relief with this physical gesture.
She kept her hand over her stomach, trying to regain some sort of normal rhythm to her breaths. She had been dreaming, she knew that. Yet somehow, she could not quite believe that it had not been real, or that it would not somehow become reality in the future. The dream felt more than simple images or even anxieties thrown into an unconscious state. It felt like an omen.
She pressed the tips of her fingers against her temples, feeling the heightened beat of her pulse against them. Still, though her head ached and her eyes felt grainy and hot with fatigue, she didn't quite dare to close her eyes so soon after awakening.
The voice came just as she released out her breath, letting her shoulders drop in an effort to relax their tensed muscles.
"You'll see, when the time comes. I will kill him. I will kill him, even as I live. You won't be able to stop me."
To hell with calm; to hell with dreams or imaginings, or how crazy she might be thought to be. Three strikes and the voice's privacy in its speaking to her was out.
Josephine reached over for Gabriel, curled away from her on his side, and shook his shoulder, not bothering to be gentle in the gesture. He came awake with an indelicate snort, blinking in an effort to make out her features in the room's darkness as he struggled up to a seated position and turned to face her. Concern creased his features, and he looked somehow younger and smaller without his usual glasses perched on his nose.
"What, what is it, is it the babies? Are you all right?"
"Listen," Josephine whispered urgently, her voice barely more than a breath. "Wait. I want to see if you hear it too."
"What am I listening for-" Gabriel started to ask, but Josephine shushed him, making a jerky downward gesture for his quiet and grasping hold of his arm. He obeyed, still frowning, as the room settled into quiet around them.
One minute passed, then two. There was nothing but the faintly noisy breaths Josephine took in, the still rapid beats of her heart. She pressed her lips together tightly, still gripping Gabriel's arm, and sent out a silent will of her own for the voice to speak up.
There was nothing. Their child appeared to have nothing more to say for the moment. Or perhaps, it had nothing to say to anyone other than Josephine.
Could that be it? Could it speak only to its mother, with whom it held such a close and intimate physical connection? Was it possible that even when it did speak, only Josephine would hear?
She wanted to know, but how could she, if the baby refused to speak in front of others?
"Jo, I don't know what we're supposed to be listening for," Gabriel broke the quiet, some exasperation in his tone, after another minute of instilled silence. "I don't hear anything. It would help if you would tell me what I'm supposed to be possibly hearing though."
"I…I heard a voice," Josephine said after a few moments of indecision. She was careful in how she phrased herself, because even to her own ears, she knew the full story would make her seem crazy. "I wanted to see if you heard it too."
Gabriel stilled, even cocking his head like an overgrown puppy, taking her seriously. "A voice? Where was it coming from? What did it say?"
"It…nothing, it doesn't matter," Josephine murmured, hoping that his attention was otherwise drawn from the flush coming over her face. "I just wanted to see if you heard it too."
"Jo, if you heard someone in the house…if someone broke in, we have to call the police right away," Gabriel told her, hurriedly getting out of bed and pulling on the first t-shirt his hand drew from the dresser drawer. "Lock the bedroom door. Did you tell my parents?"
"No, stop, it's not…it's nothing," Josephine insisted, more weakly than she wanted to sound to herself. "It was nothing, really. A bad dream, I guess, or maybe it was one of your parents going down the hall to the bathroom. Please, Gabriel, just…let's go back to bed."
But Gabriel being Gabriel, he insisted on her locking herself into the bedroom as he checked the house out for himself, using the flashlight app on his cell phone to light his way. When he returned some ten minutes later, flushed but reassured from his little caper, Josephine knew he meant to be soothing when he climbed back in bed beside her and kissed the side of her head. But she felt nothing but coldness in her chest when he informed her that the house was still safely locked and empty of all humans but those supposed to be residing inside.
"Just a dream, honey," he told her, settling back under the sheets. "Anxiety, or even something you ate."
But as he easily drifted back into sleep, Josephine lay back with open eyes, uncertain whether potential nightmares would be better or worse than staying awake. And as the morning crept closer, the first strains of light breaking out across the sky, she heard the voice whisper once more.
"He can't hear me, Mommy. No one knows but you. No one."
Pressing her hand again against her stomach's mound, Josephine shuddered, remembering her dream's image of her bloody son, cold and still beside her laughing daughter. She imagined the two of them, sharing such close space inside of her, fear gripped her heart.
If her daughter could speak to her from within the womb, could nurture such cunning and malevolent intent already, what must she be doing to her brother already? What must she be doing to Josephine herself, deep within where she could not see?
The next morning, Josephine's mind was made up. If there was something wrong with her daughter or something that she had already done to harm their son, it was possible that it was something that could be detected or seen. Up until now, all exams had ended with the conclusion that both Josephine and her children were developing normally in the pregnancy. That wasn't enough to reassure her now, not with what had been going on.
"I want to get another ultrasound today," she told Gabriel.
They were standing in Gabriel's personal bathroom, now Josephine's to share as well. Gabriel stood bare chested, brushing his teeth, as Josephine stripped with some difficulty for the shower. Spitting into the sink, he rinsed, then turned towards her to reply.
"Again? I thought you just had one, Jo."
"I want another one," Josephine said determinedly, keeping her face turned away as she stepped awkwardly into the shower and began to adjust the water's temperature. Lately, she seemed very sensitive to heat, so her showers verged on cold. "I want to get checked out again."
She heard the faint noises of Gabriel continuing to ready himself as they continued to talk.
"Is this about the dream you had last night, honey? The babies are doing fine, you know that. It's normal to get anxious now that it's getting so close, but you know the doctors said they are both healthy."
"I just need to check again," Josephine repeated, quiet, but firm. "I need to, Gabriel. You don't have to come this time if you can't make it, but I wanted to let you know."
There was a few moments of silence between them before Gabriel pulled back the shower curtain just enough to step in behind her. Ghosting a hand lightly down the curve of her back, he let his palm come to rest against Josephine's hip.
"Of course. If you feel like you need to assure yourself, you do what you need to. It's your body and our babies, you do what you need." He paused, his next question carefully phrased. "Is there…is there something in particular that's making you worry? Do you feel all right?"
Josephine could hear the concern he was trying to hide, but she didn't try to reassure him. Instead she exhaled a breath, lifting her hand to cover his.
"I just want to check, Gabe. I just need to see them one more time."
As it turned out when she had prepared herself for the day enough to make the call to her obstrecian, there had been two cancellations for the day and there was an early afternoon opening for Josephine to come in on the same day. The day seemed to pass far more slowly than normal, so great was her anxiety for what was to come, what she might see, and what it could mean. It was almost excruciating to smile and make small talk with her mother-in-law and to try to pass for reasonable rather than paranoid as she drove up to the office and sat in the waiting room with Gabriel. But once the familiar questions had been asked and she had disrobed, allowing for the preparations needed to see into herself to her children once more, the doctor's expression did not change from its professional, pleasant smile. As Josephine squinted anxiously, barely feeling Gabriel's hand in hers, she strained to make out any strangeness, anything new or alarming in the black and white image showing up before them.
But there was nothing, nothing that she could see, but two shapes more or less in the expected form of infants. There were no odd or startling additions such as horns or tails, no sudden changes in size or anything else that she could see. Josephine was no expert on such matters, but had it been anyone's ultrasound but her own, and had she not experienced what she had in the past couple of days, she would have regarded the children shown to her to be ordinary indeed.
And that was exactly what the doctor said to her.
"As you can see, Ms. Mooring, your children are doing very well," she said kindly, laying a hand on her shoulder as if in support of her own words. "I would say they are even larger than expected of twins at this stage, though not abnormally so. Healthy, thriving, and very viable at this stage."
But then Josephine pinpointed what it was that bothered her about the image. Although she could see one twin's full body clearly, stretched out in her womb, the other child was partly hidden behind it, only its foot, hand, head, and shoulders fully in view.
"That one…it's behind the other," she said out loud, pointing. "Is that…is it okay?"
The doctor had chuckled, nodding her head. "Oh yes, very normal. Twins sometimes even hold hands or suck each other's toes or fingers in the womb, they don't seem to have any problem with being so close. Perhaps today the hiding twin there is just feeling a little camera shy."
But whatever the doctor's reassurance, Josephine continued to regard the image before her with a sick sense of dread. If her son was hiding from her view, then it was, she suspected, because his sister wanted to, perhaps because his sister was making him. And if that was so…well, there had to be a reason for it, and not one that boded well for him or Josephine.
"Did anything seem…strange, to you, when you were pregnant with Gabriel? Like…unusual?"
It had been close to six hours since her ultrasound, and Josephine had not heard her daughter speak again. Still, she was certain that this proved nothing. She had seen for herself that the child was hiding, physical proof of that in the ultrasound's image. She was lying in wait, biding her time until Josephine had let down her guard. But that didn't mean that her threats had been made invalid, or had never existed in the first place.
She hadn't intended to discuss the ultrasound or her growing fears with her mother-in-law. As nice as Eileen Camden was, she was the sort of woman who seemed to feel it her role in life to take care of others, even those who viewed it as uncomfortable at times, almost a violation of space. Others like Josephine. She knew that anything she said to Eileen would become the woman's full focus, and she had an instinctive understanding that her burden was not one that could be shared. If it was, then surely someone else would have heard, someone else would see without her having to speak of it.
But it would be another few hours until Gabriel came home, and Mark Camden too was still absent. Hours had stretched out before her, and it was impossible to avoid a woman in whose home a person was residing without seeming overly closed off to the point of rudeness. Even if Josephine hadn't cared about appearing rude, any change in her behavior might be seen as strange and worth pursuing in questions by Eileen, and so she had made an effort to maintain her usual daily routine of helping her with the cooking and light chores of the evening.
Wiping her hands on a towel, Eileen waited until she had ascertained each dish was dried and carefully set in its place in her cabinets before turning to face her daughter-in-law.
"How do you mean strange, dear? In the feelings of my body, or in my emotions?"
"Well…both, I guess, but that's not what I'm really asking," Josephine hedged, making sure that her gaze rested on the coffee mug she was wiping rather than on the other woman. Eileen's gaze felt somehow dangerous to her, as though she might somehow read beyond the surface of her words to the thoughts within her. "I guess I was just wondering if you ever…" she paused again, deciding to take a step back. "Yes, I guess with your emotions. Did you ever feel sort of…strange? Different?"
"Did I ever!" Eileen laughed, her eyes creasing at the corners as she shook her head. "There's a reason Gabriel is an only child. I had a very difficult pregnancy with him. I was bedridden for the last three months, just to avoid him coming too early. You know Gabriel, always impatient, always afraid to be missing out. I suppose he was literally born that way. Then he was a breach birth, on top of it all, and born blue. They had to work on him to get him to breathe. I'm sure you can understand how exhausted and irritable I was with his pregnancy. It didn't seem like anything would ever get better or make me happy."
She lowered her voice, glancing around as though to make sure no one else had slipped into the room to hear her before she leaned closer to Josephine, dropping her voice to a whisper. "I wasn't even sure that I wanted him, all the while that he was due to come, no matter how excited Mark was about the baby he was so sure would be his son. I never told Mark that, though, and I never told Gabriel."
Straightening up again, she raised her voice back to a normal, cheerful tone and volume. "But just as soon as I saw his little face, I loved him and wanted him more than I ever could have understood before. So don't you worry, dear. Whatever you're feeling now, I promise you that it's completely normal. Everything will be better when the babies come, just you wait and see."
Josephine felt her shoulders lose some of the tension she hadn't been fully aware they had been carrying. She gave her mother-in-law a tentative smile before realizing with a heavy, sinking feeling that in spite of what Eileen had said, even with all she had experienced, she hadn't actually mentioned anything that was anything close to what Josephine herself had encountered. Gabriel may have been an unwanted baby, initially, but even so, he hadn't been hostile. Even so, he had turned out normal and kind.
Was her own child's violence, her strangeness, her WRONGNESS, somehow Josephine's fault? Could she somehow sense that she had been unplanned for, that a tiny part of Josephine, however small, had not been happy to learn of her existence within herself?
But that couldn't be right. The children were wanted, had always been, once Josephine had had time to get used to the idea- and once she was sure that Gabriel would be accepting of it. Even if a part of her had initially been a little dismayed, wasn't that normal, wasn't that expected? After all, how many thousands and even millions of children in the world had been conceived by accident, and how many of those had not been wanted? How could a few brief doubts and conflictions of feeling have caused this sort of aggression in her child?
But perhaps that was the unspoken secret of motherhood, one that no one shared, for fear that she was the only one. Perhaps all mothers could hear their child. But even if this were true, that left one final question- why was it that her child, rather than all the others, that spoke not of love or excitement or even of need, but rather of anger and violence?
"Josephine?" she heard her name spoken aloud, questioning, and she looked up to see the other woman peering up at her, her head tilted with growing concern. "Are you feeling all right, dear? You look so far away."
Josephine was quick to smile, to nod her head in the affirmative, but even so, her smile felt stuck at the corners.
"Yes, yes, I'm sorry, I suppose I was distracted. I just wondered…when you were pregnant, Eileen, did you ever…well, did you hear things?"
"Hear things?" Eileen repeated, not seeming to understand. "Like having stronger senses? I suppose I did, in a way. I believe so, yes. Certainly of smell and taste. I couldn't smell pumpkin or cinnamon without feeling sick to my stomach, and I was near vegetarian for most of the pregnancy. Just couldn't stomach the sensation of meat on my tongue. Have you felt that way?"
"Well, no, not exactly…I meant…well, more like hearing noises," Josephine made herself clarify. "Things other people don't seem to hear. Noises in the house, maybe, or….well, maybe voices?"
She tried to keep her tone casual, as though she were throwing the possibility out there not as the main question, but a sudden idea. Still, her heart beat faster as she waited for Eileen's answer, and she had to struggle not to look towards her too intently.
"Well, no," Eileen said slowly, shaking her head. "No, nothing like that. Why do you ask, dear? Have you thought you heard something? I suppose it's an older house, and if you've been unsettled in the night, you may have heard the pipes or floorboards settling."
So it was just her, then. Or at least, it wasn't the experience of every pregnant woman, to hear the voice of their child.
Tonight, Josephine vowed to herself, as soon as she could find a way to gracefully extract herself from the conversation, she would research online everything she could find about odd occurrences with pregnancies, about the mental capabilities of a fetus, of the possible thoughts and voices of the unborn. She would look up fetal abnormalities and their causes, and she would narrow down somehow, however possible, what was happening. After that, she would have to have a better idea of what to do next.
But even as she promised herself this, she heard the child speak again, loudly and clearly- and yet, Eileen's face never changed expression. She showed no sign of hearing at all.
"She doesn't hear me, Mommy. But you can. Only you, because only you can know what I'll do…"
That evening, as she stood under the lukewarm water of the shower, Josephine looked down at her stomach, as she had so many times before throughout her pregnancy. Before, she had looked with curiosity, assessing its growth and change. She had felt awe and even warmth towards the lives she knew nestled inside of it. She had often touched or stroked its skin, feeling that in some way, she was touching and making contact with her children inside of it.
But today, she couldn't stand the thought of touching her stomach. It felt alien to her, something she was forced to carry rather than a part of her own body. The faint kicks or flutters of the babies inside of it felt far short of miraculous or welcomed, as it once had. Instead it felt as if she were being attacked, that the movements were threatening, even sinister.
Her daughter had not spoken to her in hours. She had waited and braced herself for it, but nothing more had come since the morning. She had listened as well for any other voices that might have spoken to her, perhaps that of her son. At this point, Josephine would have welcomed hearing her other child speak, if only to have another point of view, more information about the other.
But if her son could speak, he chose not to. Or perhaps her daughter kept him from doing so.
The gentle pressure of the water did not seem to ease up the knots forming in her neck and shoulders. Josephine shifted her weight, exhaling a loud breath, and then, with sudden anger rising up, looked down again at the mound of her stomach, addressing it aloud.
"Why are you saying these things to me?"
There was no response, either in words or in an answering movement or kick. Was it possible that her daughter was asleep? Or was she simply ignoring her, choosing not to respond in order to heighten Josephine's frustration?
"I don't understand," Josephine continued, taking another breath in her effort to calm her tone. "The things you're saying, they couldn't be true. You're only a baby. No, you're not even that, not yet. You have to be born to be a baby. You're a fetus. You can't do anything right now, not from inside me, and you won't be able to do anything from outside of me either. It isn't possible. None of this is possible."
Silence. Full silence; there was no response from either child, no noise at all beyond the steady rush of water against her skin, the slightly elevated rasp of her own breaths. But Josephine was sure now that her daughter was awake and alert, that she heard and comprehended every word. She was also suddenly certain that her daughter was reveling in her power over her, that she was amused at just how much control she already possessed.
Josephine's spine straightened as much as her jutting stomach would allow, and she raised her voice, almost loud enough to possibly be heard outside of the bathroom. Even so, she didn't care. In that moment she chose her daughter's name, between the two she and Gabriel had settled on, addressing her by it for the first time.
"Bellamy Skyler Camden, I know that you hear me. I know you better than you believe. You're my daughter. I've made you, your father and I. You wouldn't be here without me. Why would you say such terrible things to me? Why would you say such things about your brother? I'm your mother, Bellamy, and I demand that you answer me right this minute!"
She wasn't sure if it was the force of her words, or simply that Bellamy had already gotten any amusement out of her anger that she had sought. Regardless, Josephine heard her speak then, her words simple and direct, as though Bellamy had thought the answer to be obvious.
"That's why, Mommy. Like you say."
"What do you mean?" Josephine asked her. She raked back a straggling strand of wet hair from her face, trying to think back to her own words, to make a connection to her daughter's assertion. "Why what? Why you're saying these things? But I didn't say why, you didn't tell me!"
"Because you're my mommy," Bellamy clarified.
When Josephine frowned, still uncomprehending, her daughter continued to explain.
"Because you're my mommy. Because that's your job, that's who you are, to love me. No matter what I do, no matter what I am. You're going to love me anyway, you've got to….just like your mommy loved you."
Josephine choked down the gasp that rose in her throat. The words, she knew, were mocking. Her mother had not loved her; her mother had washed her hands of her, the moment that Josephine no longer fit her idea of what a daughter should be.
Was she doing the same, if she rejected Bellamy now? Was she shutting her daughter out for failing to fall in line with what she had thought she would be? Was Bellamy right- that it was her job to love her, no matter what she said, no matter what she was?
Squeezing her eyes shut, she stuck her head directly under the water's spray, trying to drown out anything more that Bellamy might have to say. But she still heard her, as loud and clear as before, as she repeated herself, over and over.
"It's your job to love me, mommy. You have to love me, no matter what I do. You have to love me, no matter what I am…"
For the next week, Josephine tried in every way she could to think of some solution to the problem of her unborn children- or more specifically, one of her unborn children.
The ultrasound had failed. So has talking to another woman who had been pregnant, as well as the hope that someone outside of herself could hear Bellamy speak. There were few options left available to her, and time was running short. The twins were due for delivery in less than two weeks, and being twins, they were almost guaranteed to come sooner.
She thought of trying to turn her daughter's disturbing nature with reasoning; each time she knew herself to be alone, she tried to talk to her, to reason to her, to speak to her about love and kindness and the family she was being brought into. Each effort at this was nothing more than a waste of breath, as her daughter repeated, each time, the same threat she had spoken from the start.
"I'll kill my brother, when I come. There's nothing you can do to stop me."
When this effort at trying to love and coddle Bellamy into stopping the threats proved futile, Josephine tried to harden her approach. She told her that she was foolish and cruel, that she had no room as a mother or a person to even listen to that sort of talk. She told her that she could do nothing, that she was tired of even hearing her speak. She even told her, when her words ran short, to shut up, as though she herself were a child with nothing more eloquent to argue with.
When this too did not detract from Bellamy's frequent refrain, Josephine tried to think of a more active solution. Could it be possible that her parents had had the right idea- that any child born out of wedlock was a child set apart as less than holy? Did she need to go to church, or be baptized again? Was it possible to baptize a child who was not yet born?
It seemed silly, but perhaps her parents had truly been right in their reaction to her. Perhaps they had seen in her, long before she even knew Gabriel, what sort of child a daughter like she would produce.
Josephine tried to pray, but each time she closed her eyes and tried to bring to mind the ritualistic prayers from her childhood, her mind went blank, all memories of the once familiar words beyond her grasp. She tried to think of her own prayers, no matter how simple they might be, but she felt strange, as though she were talking to an empty room, or perhaps begging of a fate beyond her control. But more than that, she felt wrong- as though she did not deserve or have the right to ask of a God she had abandoned.
And the worst of it was Bellamy. Each time she tried to pray, whether she spoke aloud or kept the words within her own head, she could hear her daughter laughing, mocking her.
"Isn't it too late for prayers, Mommy? Didn't you already throw that chance away?"
She never prayed for long, and after the first few days, she stopped. Bellamy wasn't wrong. Josephine had missed the chance of having her prayers granted long ago, likely years before, if it was ever possible to begin with.
She could think of nothing else to do. Her efforts only seemed to magnify her helplessness, and so all she had to fall back on was denial. Denial, and ignoring. So as her pregnancy grew more and more advanced, Josephine began to tell herself that she could not hear her, when her daughter spoke. Each time she became aware of Bellamy's voice, she quickly sought out a distraction- turning on music, turning up the volume of the TV, using the water of showers or the dishwasher to drown her out, or finding someone, anyone, to talk to, someone she could focus on instead of her daughter. She ignored her, and as the due date crept closer, she could almost convince herself that Bellamy's voice, if not gone, was softer, gentler.
She could almost tell herself that she had won whatever battle her daughter had waged. She could almost tell herself not to worry.
Almost, but for the occasional searching looks she got from Eileen, the questions about her sleep and eating and looking unwell. Almost, except for Gabriel continually asking her if she was all right, if there was something bothering her.
"Nothing," she told them both each time, forcing a quick, if strained, smile. "Just ready to have these babies, that's all."
But with every time she said this, it became more and more of a lie.
Gabriel Camden considered himself to be a very lucky man.
Most men at his age, he knew, did not yet even know for certain what direction they wanted to take their lives, let alone have most of their dreams falling neatly into place. Many of his college and high school friends were still drifting from job to job, relationship to relationship, hoping to find something that would click into place as right for them. Some of them sneered at Gabriel, saying that he was "whipped" or implying that his contentment made him somehow boring or old before his time. But although Gabriel couldn't call his life perfect, it was exactly what he wanted and needed to be happy and content.
True, it wasn't ideal for him to still be living in his parents' home, but on the other hand, at least his parents were understanding and easy to live with, and he had always been close to them. His living arrangements were by choice rather than force, and it would certainly help Josephine to have them to help for a time when the babies came. His job was steady and he was good at what he did. It paid enough for his and Josephine's current expenses and he was beginning to save enough for their future together. He loved his girlfriend and planned to marry her, when life had settled down for them both, if that was what Josephine wanted; if not, then he would be content to be her partner in whatever life threw their way, and the co-parent of their children.
It was their soon to be children most of all that gave Gabriel his deepest joy. He had not planned or imagined being a father so young, much less the father of twins, but already he felt as though he had loved and known Tristen and Bellamy for most of his own life. It seemed right for them to come now, when he was at his happiest, to make his life with Josephine that much more complete.
All in all, Gabriel's life was amazingly rich. He had loving parents, anxious to help their new grandchildren in any way they could, a sweet and beautiful girlfriend whom he was sure would be a wonderful mother, and two children he already loved. What more could a person want or need?
True, Josephine had seemed stressed and tired, for the past month or so of her pregnancy. At times she seemed far away in her thoughts, almost as though she were listening to something that Gabriel himself couldn't hear, and he thought that she looked sick at times, almost despairing. But every time he asked her how she was feeling she had been quick to reassure him that she was fine, and the doctors had proclaimed her and the babies to be strong and healthy during each of her check ups. He tried to remain understanding; after all, it couldn't be easy for a first pregnancy to be with twins.
Their life would only get better, Gabriel knew, when the babies came. Josephine would be able to get back into the normal state of her body, fall in love with her children as he already knew he would, and the two would begin a new life, the routine of parenthood together. Everything would settle, when the babies came.
The night that Josephine went into labor, Gabriel didn't realize it until his alarm went off for him to awaken and prepare for work in the morning. He had yawned and sat up, rubbing a hand over his face to arouse himself before rolling over to face Josephine in the bed, ready to greet her with a smile and kiss good morning. But as her face came into his view, he had stopped, taking in the taut, drawn look of her features, the way she was sweaty and trembling, her fingers gripping the sheets so her knuckles grew white. When he drew back the sheets, concerned that she were ill or injured, he had seen the dampness of her nightgown, tangled around her legs, and realized that her water had broke.
"My God, Jo, you're having contractions!" he had blurted, shock raising his voice. "How long has this been going on? Why didn't you wake me up?"
He never got a straight answer from her. But when he hurried to help prop her up in bed, frightened as to whether it would be safe to move her without causing her further pain, it seemed clear to him that her labor had been going on for some time. And all this time she had suffered beside him in bed, not so much as shaking his shoulder to alert him- suffering in considerable pain on her own, without saying a word.
After alerting his disbelieving parents, they had helped get her to her feet and into his car, hurrying her towards the emergency room. Gabriel had been too shaken to drive; instead he had elected to sit in the backseat with Josephine, holding her hand and stroking back her hair as he tried to hide his own anxiety.
"It's going to be okay, honey, you'll be fine," he tried to tell her, even as his hands shook, betraying his excitement and nerves. "You should have told me, but it's over now, I'm here. Just think of it, Jo, our children, they're almost here! We're about to see their faces for the very first time!"
Josephine seemed to go paler then, releasing a moan for the first time since he had awakened. Gabriel supposed she must have been in pain; it couldn't have been his words that would have caused that kind of reaction.
The process of getting Josephine into the hospital and settling her into a room seemed barely more than a blur to Gabriel. Through it all Josephine said very little. She had always been the sort to keep her feelings close to her chest, and yet it struck him as odd, how quiet she was even with the pain she must be in. He assumed that she must be trying to stay strong for him, and he tried to reassure her that her efforts at control were not needed.
"Please, honey, scream and yell if you need to," he told her, squeezing her hand for emphasis. "I know this has to be painful. But isn't it exciting? Just a little while longer, and we'll meet our children for the first time!"
Josephine nodded and smiled, mumbling reassurances that she was fine, that the pain wasn't bad. She agreed with him that she was excited. And yet Gabriel felt when he looked into her eyes that it wasn't really pain or even anxiety that he saw in their depths. It looked to him as though Josephine was frightened. No, not just frightened- it would be normal for any woman in labor to be afraid, between the pain and the anticipation of motherhood. But Josephine looked more than frightened, more than pained.
She looked terrified.
It took only nine hours for their children to be born. Nine hours of Josephine maintaining her stoic, strange near silence, doing little than to squeeze Gabriel's hand. At the crowning of their firstborn, Gabriel had hurried around the bed to be able to see their child's entrance into the world, almost breathless with excitement.
"Jo, it's coming, honey, it's coming! Stay strong, darling, here it comes!"
As the first infant slipped out into the world, ruddy skinned and slick from its birth, Gabriel felt his smile spread wide enough to stretch his cheeks. As the assisting nurse took the child and cuts its umbilical cord, beginning to check that its airway was clear, the child began to cry, the noise strong, indignant, and full of its vibrancy in life.
"It's a girl," the nurse declared, giving both Gabriel and Josephine a warm smile. "Congratulations on your firstborn daughter."
"Bellamy," Gabriel breathed, feeling tears well in his eyes. He swallowed, drinking in his daughter as the nurse continued to clean her in preparation for being measured and weighed. "Bellamy Taylor Camden. Our daughter, Jo. We have a daughter."
He was so elated that he almost forgot that there was still another child coming, that the day's miracles didn't end with his daughter's arrival. When he turned to gauge Josephine's reaction, he saw that she was of course still preoccupied with bringing forth their other child, and the doctor was bent over her, appearing very engaged as well.
Frowning, Gabriel took a step closer. Something about what was happening didn't seem right. There was a tension in the doctor's back that hadn't been present before, and Josephine's face seemed to have lost all color. When the doctor straightened, cradling the second born child, he addressed not the parents, but the nurse currently attending to the newborn Bellamy.
"Code blue. Stand by."
Whatever it was that this meant, it didn't sound good to Gabriel at all. His head swiveled back between the nurse, taking in her serious expression, to the doctor now holding his newest child. As the doctor lay the child down flat in one of the infant basins, he saw that he was using a scalpel to cut through something. To Gabriel's horror, he realized that something was wrapped around his child's neck- something that the doctor was removing. Was his child choking?
"What's happening, what's wrong?" he asked sharply, coming closer still, but the nurse asked him to keep back, and the tone of her voice stopped him. Gabriel watched, stricken, noticing then the odd colorlessness of his child's skin, contrasting sharply with the vivid red and purple hue of its face. Only as he took in his child's alarmingly unhealthy appearance did he dimly note that Josephine had born them a son as well as a daughter- his son, Tristen Sage.
He could see that his son was receiving CPR from the doctor, that the man was attempting to begin his heart's beats with his thrusting down on his narrow chest. Gabriel's fists clinched, his heart heavy in his chest with his hope, and he almost held his breath, waiting, praying to see his son's chest rise and fall with his first breaths.
But that moment never came. It seemed an eternity that he waited, swallowing tears, before the doctor straightened, turning towards both him and the still silent Josephine with gravity in his expression.
"I'm sorry. Your son is stillborn, and I am not able to revive him. It appears that he choked on your daughter's umbilical cord, perhaps when she was being born. Again, I'm very sorry for your loss."
The past hour had gone by with the same blurriness that had marked Josephine's admittance into the hospital. Gabriel had wept as he held his deceased son for the first and last time, trying to convey in his touch and in the words he barely remembered telling him that he had loved him, even if he could not spend his life with him. He had offered to let Josephine hold Tristen too, but she had just shook her head, her expression blank and still. He thought she was in shock and couldn't blame her. In all the doctor's appointments, all the assurances of both the children's health, how could they have known that such a thing could happen?
It had been difficult to tell his parents the bittersweet news of his daughter's birth and his son's death, and his mother too had wept, his father gripping his hand with a grim empathy that hurt also more than his mother's open grief. And yet, it was impossible to feel too much sorrow at the knowledge that his daughter survived.
Gabriel had marveled at her as he held her, freshly washed and swaddled, for the first time, looking down at her tiny features. She had an oddly wise, old look about her for such a new child, her eyes a cloudy color that was difficult to quite discern. As he cradled her, speaking her name, he swore that she had a sense of understanding as she looked up at him, as though she recognized him as her father.
Josephine had refused to hold Bellamy, when he first offered. She had shook her head, saying quietly that she was tired, that she needed to rest. Gabriel had left her be. It was undoubtedly true, and he could see the quiet sorrow still lining her face. The time would come for her to bond with their daughter; unlike with Tristen, Bellamy would have years ahead of their love for her.
It wasn't until his parents had left the room to get some coffee, as it was early morning and they had been up for most of the night, that Josephine spoke without being addressed. Her eyes coming up to meet Gabriel's, she licked her lips, then slowly lifted her arms.
"I think…I think I'm ready to take her now, Gabe."
"Bellamy? Oh, of course, honey, of course," he said quickly. Still cradling their daughter carefully, he came to Josephine's side, helping her arrange her in her arms and propping Josephine up in bed to support her. "Look at her….isn't she perfect?"
But as Josephine nodded slowly, her voice in reply seemed distant, and she didn't smile.
"Yes. Yes, she's…she's lovely."
She looked down at Bellamy in her arms, not saying anything to her, simply holding her. Gabriel was about to speak again, somewhat uncomfortable by the quiet stretching out, before she looked up at him, interrupting his thoughts.
"I'm very thirsty. Could you…could you go with your parents to the cafeteria, and see if they have some sort of juice, or maybe even some fruit? I don't think soda would be good for me."
"Yes, yes, of course," Gabriel told her quickly, glad to be able to do something, anything, that she asked of him then. "Yes, I'll be right back, honey. You're all right with the baby?"
"Yes," she said after a pause, looking down at the child in her arms. "Yes, everything will be fine."
For the rest of his life, Gabriel would never stop replaying her words, nor would he be able to stop seeing in his mind the far away look in her eyes. He would never stop tormenting himself with the last few moments that he saw his daughter alive, just before he turned and left the room.
It took him exactly thirteen minutes to locate the cafeteria, purchase a few containers of juice, update his parents on Josephine and the baby's condition, and come back up to her hospital room to bring her what she had requested. In those thirteen minutes, Josephine took her hospital pillow and held it over their daughter's face, pressing down long and hard enough to cause their daughter to smother to death.
Afterward, as the swarming hospital staff restrained Josephine to the bed and removed the dead infant from her arms, after the police had been notified, Gabriel screamed out at her in shock and fury, wanting to know how she could do such a thing, wanting to know why. Josephine had turned her head towards him slowly, and for the first time since their children's births and deaths, her lips curled into a smile.
"I couldn't stop her before," she said quietly. "But I could stop her after."