Helen had never really been a vain person. Yes, she took a modicum of pride in her appearance, but it was never her raison d'être. Her body did as she commanded: running through the halls of her Sanctuary with each emergency; dissecting dead abnormals for necropsy purposes; dancing.
She missed dancing. She missed balancing nimbly between positions as she waltzed, spinning in a fleckerl, not throwing up if she turned too quickly. The last six months had been horrendous. With her expanding waistline came a voracious appetite and an even more aggressive sickness than she had anticipated. Food turned her stomach but all she could do was eat.
The baby moved, the kicks getting harder. She could see where her skin rippled, feeling it pull above her growing child’s karate moves. Helen knew this was normal - the midwife having detailed some of the changes she’d experience - and, on one level, she loved it. She was growing a whole person in her body, guarding the little one as cells divided, fingernails grew, and their heart beat. But in darker moments, as she threw up for the second time that morning, as her hips ached, as any inclination towards sex remained fully comatose, love was not the strongest emotion. Nothing was her own, not even her own skin.
Looking in the mirror, watching the ever expanding bump ripple, the warmth that other mothers spoke of left her cold. Nothing was right. Stretch marks had slowly appeared, marring her pale skin with angry purple slashes. Her waist, never tiny but always in proportion, looked like she’d swallowed a beach ball. Her areola, once a light, pale pink, were huge brown splodges on her breasts, her nipples constantly at attention. Nothing fit from one month to the next, save a pair of maternity dungarees and a cotton tunic with the most insipid print ever. How could a woman feel human in this state?
She didn’t even glance at her ankles. Water retention was not a joking matter, and not something she wished to dwell on today.
Another fortnight to go.
Reaching for the light blue dress hanging on her wardrobe door, her hip twinged painfully. Even reaching for things was now a chore. She just had to keep reminding herself this baby was worth every electric shock of pain down her nerves, every bit of regurgitated food, every fitful night’s sleep full of heartburn and leg cramps. It just had to be.
Ignoring the whole bloody lot, she threw on her dress, slipped on her shoes, and waddled out the door. Another day to work through was another day closer to giving birth. And another day closer to reclaiming her body.
Things still didn’t fit. Her hips were wider. Clothes that had fit like a second skin now pulled and pressed in places she hadn’t expected, so she stuck with jersey materials. Stretchy, slouchy, shapeless jersey.
On the bed, in a nest of pillows and blankets, lay baby Ashley, fast asleep. Helen wanted to curl up next to her, ignore all the clothes strewn around her room, ignore everything around her. So long as she and Ashley were well the rest could go hang. “Shall we do that, darling? Stay in bed all day?” she asked, looking at her daughter sleep.
That still made her mind reel. Daughter. The seven month wait, the whole day of contractions, pushing through the night to be told, “Sorry, Helen, her heart rate is dropping. We have to do an emergency cesarean.” None of it seemed real. Ashley still didn’t seem real. Helen kept expecting a voice from above to call out how it had all been a mistake, that the child would have to be taken to her real mother, away from the sham family she had been placed in. Her heart clenched, her stomach dropped. No, she was Ashley’s mother, no-one had a hope in hell of taking her away.
Still… What if someone found her lacking? She had a whole network of sanctuaries to care for as well as her baby, what if someone looked at Ashley and decided Helen wasn’t fit?
Tears started falling. Groaning, she wiped furiously at her face as she tried forcing them to stop. It was in the middle of a stern scolding someone knocked at the door. A soft knock. “Just a minute,” she called, voice stronger than she expected. Glancing in the mirror and deciding that the off the shoulder t-shirt and leggings combo was good enough for a small visitor, she bade them enter, walking to her four poster bed and collapsing next to Ashley’s nest.
“Are you ok?” Henry asked, his voice small.
Putting on what she hoped was a dazzling smile, Helen replied, “Of course I am, Henry.”
He nodded slowly. “Ok… Can I see the baby?”
Helen copied his action, holding a hand out to him. “She’s asleep at the moment, but you can still talk.”
“Does she still like our voices?” he asked, peering at Ashley. At a fortnight old she looked small in Helen’s bed.
“Something like that,” Helen answered, wincing as he clambered onto the mattress. “Careful of her feet, Henry. They’re still very small.”
“Will she wake up soon?”
“Not for a few hours.”
“Can I stay here with you?”
Helen baulked. She had wanted to stay here, just with Ashley, but Henry needed her too, however much she tried denying herself that information. He had no-one else, save Biggie (as he affectionately called her old friend), and to say no would not help either of them in the long run. “How about we three go out for a walk? It’s a lovely sunny day.”
He smiled instantly. “Can we go to the park?”
She licked her lips, took a breath and said, “Of course.” The park. Where all the other mothers were. Where they all looked put together and had perfect snack bags and perfect changing bags and perfect children who behaved and--
“And after, can we make biscuits for your tea?” He was hanging onto the nearest post, his face earnest and full of young, exuberant joy, making Helen forget for a second that nothing felt right. “And I can help feed the baby!”
Swallowing raggedly, she nodded again. “Alright. But little howler monkeys have to stop playing on my bed first before we go to the park.” Was that her voice, all perky and chummy mummy?
“Ok! I want my bike too.” He jumped off the bed, landing with a hard thud that shook the floor. “Can I take my bike?”
Nodding, smiling as he cheered, she watched as he raced out of her room, ignoring the creeping tendrils pervading her thoughts. A few hours in the park. She can do that. If she can settle a sand ray in the middle of a sandstorm, she can sit in the sun in the park.
And glare at anyone who looked at her or her family wrong.