“Mommy.” My daughter’s first word. Isn’t that what every new mother is dying to hear? One word to magically transform this organic object into a new human being. All the pain and fear and doubt suddenly have purpose. One word, and mothers will know it was all worthwhile.

“I love you mommy.”

I just wish little Claire had waited until she was born to say it. Over 8 months pregnant, I was sitting in the car waiting for my husband to get back with the groceries. I almost had a heart attack on the spot. I thought someone was in the car with me, so I jumped out to get a better look in the backseat but –

“Don’t worry mommy. It’ll be our little secret.”

The voice was coming from inside me. I felt the vibrations as much as I heard it with my ears, almost like the rumbling of indigestion. I didn’t say a word when my husband got back. I was waiting for Claire to talk again, but when she didn’t, I just kept my mouth shut too. My husband had more than enough to worry about with his extra shifts at work. I didn’t want him to add my sanity to his worries.

“I don’t like that. It’s nasty.”

I put down the salad I was eating. Alone in the kitchen this time; Clarie only spoke when I was alone. Usually it was just an isolated word, or sometimes I’d catch her humming along to a song that was playing. If she didn’t like something, she’d let me know. She didn’t care for most vegetables, and jazz music seemed to make her restless.

As weird as it seems, it’s something I got used to. I grew into the habit of asking her how she was doing, and if she was comfortable. I’d tell her about the things we’d do together and talked about myself. Sometimes if I was lucky, I’d hear her respond, a faint murmur; so far away but so intimate that I knew it could be nothing else.

“There are lots of colors,” Claire answered once when I asked her what it looked like. “But they’re all black. It’s warm and close and safe. I’m part of everything here.”

“What about before you were there?” I asked. “What’s the earliest thing you can remember?”

I could feel her squirming. She didn’t speak again for almost a day after that, until suddenly when I was about to enter the shower she said:

“I don’t want to talk about it. Before isn’t a nice place. The people living there aren’t nice people.”

I didn’t want to upset her, so I didn’t pry any further. Besides, even thinking about it made me uncomfortable, and I felt as though my discomfort would be passed on to Claire somehow. We were two halves of the same soul, and it almost seemed like I could feel her thinking before she even spoke.

“Mommy?” she asked one night when I lay half-asleep in the solitary darkness. My husband was on a business trip, and it was just going to be me until a few days before I was due. “Who else is inside you, mommy?”

I told her that she was an only child. That she was so big she took up my whole tummy all by herself, and that soon she was going to be too big even for that. Then she would come out where I am, and we could see each other for the first time.

“Are the people nice out there?” she asked.

I had to tell her the truth. If I didn’t, I figured she could probably feel it. I told her that people try to be good, but some of them don’t know how. But she shouldn’t worry, because I’m going to teach her how and then she can teach everyone she meets. I was almost in tears as I said it, marveling at the wonder I carried. Clarie and I will have known each other more truly than any mother and daughter before. Our bond would be stronger. I was so happy to have this blessing until –

“Don’t lie to me, mommy. I know I’m not the only one here.”

I told her not to be silly. I’d been to the doctors, and they showed me what it looked like inside. There wasn’t anyone –

“One of them followed me,” Claire interrupted. “From the before place. Mommy make them go away.”

I did my best to reassure her, but I was completely helpless against her mounting distress. “Don’t let it hurt me. Don’t let it take me back. I don’t want to go back. I want to be with mommy…” She wouldn’t listen to anything I said. I couldn’t get through to her anymore.

Listening to her cry inside me was more than I could bear, but then she started shrieking and I had to get out of the house. I hustled to the car as swiftly as my swollen body would allow, made even more difficult now that Claire was thrashing and kicking inside. I was trying to stay strong for her, but I was so terrified as I ripped down the streets toward the hospital. I’m sure she must have felt that too. I was doing everything I could to stifle my sobs when the kicking suddenly stopped.

There was no movement at all. No sounds. And I thought that was even worse than the crying until she spoke again.

“I have to go away, mommy. It was nice talking with you.

I was at the hospital now. I practically drove straight through the glass doors in front of the emergency room. Don’t go, Claire, don’t go. But I didn’t say it out loud. Instead I said:

“Please help me. There’s something wrong with my baby.”

The nurse asked me how I knew, and I didn’t know how to answer. I just started crying again. They put me in a wheelchair and brought me into an examination room. The nurse said she would be right back, but I didn’t want to be left alone. At least while someone was here, I could tell myself that Claire wasn’t speaking because of them. If she stayed quiet when I was alone though…

“Don’t cry mommy.” I held my breath, desperate to catch every word. Claire was speaking so faintly that I could still barely hear it over the frantic double percussion of my heart. “You’re not going to be alone. The one from the before place is here. He promises to be good, but I want you to be careful mommy. Goodbye.”

The nurse was back, and there was a doctor with him. I think they were trying to ask me some questions, but my whole awareness was so focused on any movement or sound from within that I couldn’t register what they were saying. They started doing an ultrasound, although it took a long time before I stopped shaking enough for them to get a clear picture. The whole while, Claire didn’t say a word. That was okay though. She never did when people were around. Maybe when they were gone she would…

But then the doctor gave me a big smile, and I let out gasps of stale air that I didn’t even know I was clinging to.

“I want you to know that you have nothing to worry about,” the doctor said. “The baby is perfectly healthy.”

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I shouldn’t have bothered you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, taking off his gloves. “It’s common for expecting mothers to have anxiety or panic attacks. Even hallucinations sometimes.”

“Hallucinations, yeah,” I managed. “I guess it’s a pretty traumatic time for the body.”

“Exactly,” he said. “But I want you to know that nothing in the world is wrong. Just a few weeks and you’re going to be holding your son for the first time.”

“My son?”

“Yes ma’am. Didn’t you know? Look here, it even almost looks like he’s smiling.”

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