The baby needs me.

         They found her, maybe, or she was born of me in a dream. Somehow through wish and wire she has sewed herself a baby-face; she breathes. She lives here, at Kid Kare, in the Palm Breeze shopping mall where I work.

         Kid Kare has a door that leads directly to the beach. Often I take her by the water to a cold cement picnic table. I breastfeed her, although I don't think she has a stomach or can swallow. Sea gulls circle, chill damp wind blows sand into my eyes. She likes the sound of it, the surf-- water like a body gone solid wet-whacking the ground, rolling back in tentacles of erosion. It reminds her, maybe, of a womb or guts she's wished for. It sprays us sometimes, a feeling somewhat like being spit on, but by accident, the spitter familiar to us, a feeling like being maybe even loved.

         She is an anomaly.

         When she is angry, or happy, or in need she can change herself. I don't mean diapers--I don't think she has diapers; perhaps she must. Perhaps I change them. But I mean her face, her body: she can change.

         When she is angry she has a face like a sock monkey, but garishly-colored, more bulldog than monkey. Sometimes when she is very angry, she can become something else, or vanish altogether. Once she became a pile of lint in my arms.

         She has an eye, though, that is very pink and pretty. When she is happy she hides the angry colors of her face in a bonnet sewn to her neck, and coyly watches from the corner of the one pretty eye. It must be on the side of her head, lidded or retractable; only she can reveal it. She looks more lamb than bulldog then, shy and wishing to be wooed.

         Her body feels as one might expect: a slug, a sack of wet rice or perhaps thick pudding. She is not wet--surprisingly warm, dry--but her bonelessness suggests wet things.

         Even so she breathes, and even has a little heartbeat, although it is irregular.

         I came for her, or brought her; I don't remember. There are others here, human babies with skin and bowels, but I am exclusively assigned to her, like a mother. I don't know where she goes when I leave. Sometimes my co-workers help me find her when she turns to dust, or a bit of frayed yarn that blows away down the beach.

         The press has come several times to witness and pry. I don't know how they know about her, but she is known, well-known, even internationally: a living baby doll, a morphing infant unborn. The store front of Kid Kare is plate glass, like a pet store's; all the children and cribs and scattered toys are visible to passer-bys, bright and eerily flat under fluorescent lights. But we shield her from sight. I wait with her in the changing room, behind dark shower curtains hung by a sagging string, whisper her to quiet. They ask many things, but we have no answers to give, other than that we wonder and endure.

         I am so tired, drained by her peevishness and the dry hungry suck of her mouth that is, after all, only a little threadbare fold. Sometimes I am reminded why I come here, care for her; mostly I forget. I do believe I love her. Perhaps she is mine, or was. Perhaps I denied her, deprived her of suck and love and left and so she picked up her own pieces, patchworked herself with string in place of sinew; now she calls me, she calls me.

         “All I wanted was a puppy,” I told a co-worker, as I swung her squalling in firm arms. He watched sideways as I pulled out my breast, wet the cotton of her mouth with milk, slow-spurting and steady. She studied me sleepily with her pink eye; I breathed low to relax, sitting as calmly as I could in a hard plastic chair.

         “How do I even know to do this, Brandon? All I wanted was a puppy.”

         He gently stroked the slow curve of her cheek, round the piping of her mouth, knelt to watch my face. He listens, which is unique among his kind, and he wants to sleep with me, which is less so. Mostly it wearies me, the thought of spreading for him, but I think it. The milk comes faster. Maybe riding him instead, somnambulist rolling hips--or letting him do it as I nap, a bit of drool tender and slow trailing from sleep-slack lips.

         I have a boyfriend; his name escapes me although sometimes I remember it by a particular whine or turn of wind as I walk her on the beach. I'm sure I remember when I am home, where he lives. I can see him shaving, a trail of blood-beads perfect like a necklace down his cheek, a sink-full of pinked foam. Perhaps he gave her to me. He says he is proud. I wonder if he would understand if I brought Brandon behind the curtains, just to separate my body skin and sensate from her cotton-stitching cling. I am sure that he has never held her, but he must have heard.

         I have a supervisor who is also my assistant, Brad: we are a team, as she is the kind of baby that, left to one person alone, would certainly be dumped in the rubbish. Sometimes I look at her and think, I need new socks. She must sense this--by this point she has memorized the terrain of my palms, surely notes the subtle shifts and clogs of my nostrils, tracks the slack and taut of my forearms as I lift her lumpy to the sky. Because when I look at her, when I see with want the silver flash of scissors, fantasize about the delicious rip of seams yielding to a steady pull, she shows me her pink eye, sweet and deep and calm as a jewel.

         In her eye I am a monster, fully reflected, hungry and mean; she loves me, craves me, despite my hostility. I am forgiven, then, seen by her unlike any other. I can do this, I think then, whatever this is, I must. I hold her to me. She is wretched, an anomaly, but perhaps I am, too. A mirror, a test. I lift her mouth to my breast.

         Perhaps she belongs to Brad. He is an earnest man, a listener, like Brandon: he understands the close relationship between selflessness and homicide. We won a peace prize--an international peace prize--for caring for her, or perhaps more directly for not killing her. Or maybe it is because she is some reflection of us, something awful we've done to someone else or many others. Maybe she is our hate, helpless and suckling, and our nurturing of her is like a collective wish for forgiveness.

         But whatever it is they gave us a prize, only we could not let anyone see how ugly she is, her flat and fuchsia bulldog face, the fierce orange piping of her cheeks, the clamorous lime green of her sewed-on eyebrows--they would be, frankly, horrified. And maybe they should be--maybe we all should be--but if she can see my own hungry horror in her pretty eye, then I can bear the daily suck of hers. So I stood behind more curtains--plush dark velvet ones this time, as soft as the lining of her mouth--and watched Brad accept the prize on behalf of us both. In his acceptance speech he spoke of my great virtue, to care for a creature so mysterious and wanting, but failed to mention my frequent jokes of tearing her apart.

         I think I love him a little bit, because I disgust him neither with my extreme giving nor my extreme distaste. He, like Brandon, wants to split and relieve me, and although I told him that I cannot, I am merely waiting my time.

         She does not like him. When he draws near, her face becomes more churlish, garish, the kicked-in flat of her snout more prominent as she pulls on my nipple in the farce of feeding. She places one warm rough hand, finger nubs spread distinctly, on the curve of my breast. This is why I mostly feed her outside; he does not like sand in his shoes, and watches instead from the glass door. I try to forget him, watch her face sweetening as she sucks light and gentle like a lover, but sometimes I am distracted, instead, by the crash of waves and how I could move my hips to that rhythm, his cock in me as keen and sharp as my nipples, the salt on my lips. I was distracted by such reveries on Monday, and so she turned herself into a narrow green and yellow bug. Her hard body--winged, suspended between six black legs sharp-angled--sprung to lift angry in the air.

         She's been gone longer than ever before; all week I have had little to do. Brandon slipped a puppy care manual into a dog bowl, also a rubber kong and a short purple leash with a note that I have yet to read. He slipped this gift beside me as I sat on one of Kid Kare's battered fold-out tables, wondering if my boyfriend would forgive me. “She doesn't want a puppy,” Brad muttered to Brandon, “she doesn't want to take care of anything right now.”

         “Listen,” Brad said to me, “the baby might not come back. You might be done. Just check in once a week, see if she has returned, but otherwise you are free to go.”

         His eyes are brown or green, reflective and beguiling as her pink eye. My milk let down, flooding the thin cotton of my t-shirt with warmth.

         I swung down to leave, hot flaring wet between my thighs as I considered how best to frame my invitation. Then I saw her: a group of co-workers, women who resent me mostly but are themselves as tired, had crowded quietly about her, noting any damage or change. I knew she wouldn't like that, so I came to her, as I always do.

         She gave me her most dogged face, vivid and clashing. “We found her in a window,” a woman told me quietly, knowing better than Brad or Brandon the complications of my disappointment. I stroked the baby's orange cheek, murmured to her; she knew as well as the woman, if not better, how my heart sunk at the sight of her, yet moved still by strength or duty to sustain.

         I cajoled her, rocked her, sung to and stroked her; slowly her face eased, turned coyly into her dirty bonnet to reveal the inevitable pink of her eye.

         I did not study my reflection there, already knowing as she knew. Instead I turned her from me, her boneless back tucked warm to my chest, bound firm in the steady of my forearms. I began to rock, breathing long and slow as I did, inhaling to lean back, exhaling to rock forward; together we moved over the pendulum of my waist, our chests rising, sinking in tandem as breath by breath we orchestrated our heartbeats back to dream-slow synch.

TT Jax is a parent, partner, mixed-media artist, and writer currently living in the Pacific Northwest by way of 28 years in the deep South. His work has been published under a whole zoo of pennames in a variety of literary magazines, including Mudluscious, Specter Magazine, The Mom Egg, Educe, and HipMama.

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