Just Colic

Jennifer Ostopovich

Short Fiction

The heavy drapes are drawn, so that day is indistinguishable from night. I swallow hard. Acetaminophen clings to the back of my tongue. A taste I associate with childhood comfort: bittersweet. The clink of a spoon in a glass of ginger ale, the chaser for a pair of acrid cherry flavoured pills. There’s no comfort this time, and no flat ginger ale chaser. There’s not even juice to quell the empty pitching of my stomach. No one has been shopping in over a week. Mom’s not here. No one is here. 

Except her. 

My husband has left for work and I’m alone again, but not alone. Just like yesterday and the day before. 

I close my eyes. It’s quiet, except for the mechanical hum of the dishwasher and the far off sound of a train.

She screams. My eyes fly open. The whites are marbled with angry crimson lines and rimmed in dark aubergine circles. I don’t need to look in the mirror to tell me this: I know it because this is how they always look now. I cover my puffy, pale face with my hands, then run my fingers through my lank, greasy hair, noting the ever-expanding bald patch. I choke out a sob and then take a deep, ragged breath and am assaulted by the smell of sour milk and rank BO. I’ve been wearing the same shirt for two days, and it’s begun to grow a crust.

The screaming is more urgent. Sharp and demanding, tinged with fury and reproach. I try to move to a sitting position, but the tug from the black thread laced across the angry pink gash on my abdomen makes me wince. 

I’m not quick enough. My shirt fills with sticky hot liquid. No nursing pads to sop it up. They’re too expensive, we can barely afford diapers. Besides, how would I even keep them in place? I haven’t worn a bra in days. It hurts too much. No one tells you how much your boobs will hurt, or that just the sound of your baby’s cries will cause you to become a liquid projectile, capable of spraying anyone within a two metre range. 

I bend down and scoop the baby up, ignoring the gush of blood between my legs as I lift her to my breast. My pad is leaking but I can’t stop to change it. I’ll have to change the bedsheets after I’m finished. Or maybe I won’t. More likely, I’ll just sleep in a pool of dried blood and congealed milk. 

The baby roots furiously then clamps her tiny jaw onto my cracked nipple. I gasp from the pain. The mastitis is finally clearing, but my nipples are still cracked. When I pump, the milk sprays out a terrifying blush colour and I can see the scabby cracks on my nipple contract and expand with the rhythm of the pump. 

She looks up at me: oversized bald head, tiny features and wide eyes. My husband stopped touching me once she had begun to move inside my stomach. He said it freaked him out, felt like there was an alien trapped inside of me. I look down at her huge eyes and begin to wonder if she’s actually an alien, a deadly intruder attempting to steal my life force.

When she’s finished, I burp her and change her diaper. I know it’s just wet, and that the process of changing her will cut time off my desperately needed nap, but I still haven’t figured out what sets her off—everything seems to set her off—and I can’t risk her screaming because she’s uncomfortable. I finally get her back into her onesie. Her face scrunches up. And then, I smell it. The unmistakable sickly-sweet smell. 

I start to cry. Hot, angry tears stream down my face. Another diaper change means another five minutes of precious sleep gone. I want to scream at her, the way she screams at me. Instead I change her diaper and hobble to the trash bin. It’s full of shitty diapers and the stench has started to seep out and permeate the entire house. I curse my husband for not taking out the trash. 

She’s crying again. I can’t stop it, so I hold her close and just let her scream. I stare out the window. It’s late fall on the prairies, the hoarfrost clings to the bare trees and dawn light casts jagged shadows across the snow dusted sidewalk. The neighbour shovels the thin film of snow from his walk, he’s one of the few on the block that shovels regularly. Soon the walks will be too treacherous to navigate with the stroller, and I’ll lose the twenty minutes of daily reprieve.

I drive from one doctor’s appointment to the next, half delirious with fever. I’ve got another infection, this time my incision, and the baby’s jaundice still isn’t clearing. I struggle to keep my eyes open. The scene in front of me comes in surreal strobes, like flipping through the image disk of a pair of old view master toy binoculars. The baby screams relentlessly in the back seat, and I fight the strong urge to drive into oncoming traffic. 

Later that day someone stops by to drop off a blanket they made for the baby. They hesitate at the door, looking sideways at the sleeping baby in my arms, “I don’t want to wake her…”

“She just finished crying herself to sleep, she’ll be out cold for the next half hour,” I say, shoving the baby into their arms. I can scarce remember what it feels like to have the full use of both arms. I feel a thousand pounds lighter.

“There’s nothing wrong with her,” I explain between bites of leftover lasagna. I shovel the food in, barely tasting it, because I know as soon as she wakes and starts screaming, they’re going to pass her back to me. “The doctor says she’s healthy, it’s just colic.” Just colic, as if waking every hour on the hour to scream till her face was purple was no big deal. Visitors had slowed to a trickle. No one wants to be around a baby that just won’t stop screaming. Not even their parents. Especially not their parents.

My husband has started following Instagram models. Lithe beautiful young things, with large doe eyes, and come-hither smiles. He collects their profiles like baseball cards. They list their stats in colourful fonts: Brittany, 21, Sagittarius, loves dogs and Chardonnay. No pictures of leaking breasts, or mangled and bloated stomachs—not even any photos of dogs or Chardonnay. Just endless grids of bikini shots and sultry selfies. 

We’re sleeping in separate beds. My husband doesn’t like to be woken. He has to go to work every day and needs his sleep.

“What about the weekends?” I snap. “Can’t you at least get up with her in the morning and let me sleep? You don’t work weekends.” I can tell he’s angry. He’s angry at me all the time now. I’m angry too. I wonder how I ever loved him, and I fantasize about punching him in the face. Watching the shocked look on his face as his lip splits and blood trickles down his chin. Instead I cry, “I’m so exhausted, I just need some sleep.”

“I’m exhausted too.” He is. The baby screams so long and loud she’d wake the dead. Neither of us sleep. “You’re home all the time, you can sleep whenever you want.”

In this moment I hate him. I’ve never hated anyone this much. 

He gives me a dirty look, his eyes narrow, becoming two hard flints of steel. He storms off and I hear the back door slam.

I’m alone again. 

I feel the baby stir in my arms. Her little fists curl into tiny balls of fury, and her face contorts in a paroxysm of rage. I shush her frantically and reach in to my shirt to extract my breast. She takes it greedily and stares up at me with her alien eyes, mollified. For the moment at least.

Jennifer Ostopovich lives on the frozen plains of Canada with her family and five crazy pets. She is currently working on her first novel.

Photo credit: Fabrice Villard, Unsplash

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