Calleigh rested her hand on the bulge of her stomach, pressing heat into the latest ache from the baby’s kicking. It was almost time. She was sure she was stretched almost to her limit. Her skin felt thin to her, and it was her skin under her palm… but it was someone else’s foot, elbow, shoulder, head. Some stranger’s, maybe. She hadn’t seen their face yet.
She rubbed over the spot, feeling the baby turn, maybe press back at her for a moment, and took a breath. Not deep. There wasn’t much space in her for a deep breath these days.
“Did you love me before I was born?” she murmured.
Her mother glanced up from the book she was reading under one of the parlor’s other windows. She looked surprised, a little disconcerted. “What?” she asked.
Calleigh offered a small smile to soothe her mother’s reaction, but watched her seriously. “When you were carrying me,” she said. “Did you love me already? Or did it come after?”
“I have always loved you,” her mother told her.
Calleigh nodded. “Yes. But when I was little…” She took another breath, tilted her head, tried to hear her mother’s voice from a decade and a half a go as if it were coming through the wall behind her. “You used to say that you had loved me the instant you laid eyes on me. I never thought anything of it, but… Is that the moment when it happens?”
“Sometimes,” her mother said. “Does that bother you?”
“No,” Calleigh said quickly. “No, no, Momma.”
“You don’t love your baby yet?”
Calleigh paused before she shook her head. She rubbed her stomach again, as if that would keep the baby from feeling the other motion. “I want to,” she murmured. “But… it seems so far away. Stupid as that sounds when I can’t get away from it. But this doesn’t even feel like its mine.” She raised both hands around her stomach, not even sure anymore if she was talking about her body or the stranger inside it.
“It will,” her mother assured her calmly. She put her book down and closed it against her knee so that she could meet Calleigh’s eye steadily. “Maybe the first time it’s in your arms, maybe the second, maybe the third, maybe the hundredth. You’re going to hold that child and no beyond any question that she is yours. Don’t worry about when. It’s as certain as sunrise.”
Calleigh smiled in the honesty that fell off her mother’s voice like gravity. For a moment, she understood, there was simply no other way for the world to spin. So, she nodded, and smiled, and took a longer breath.
And three days later, when the midwife laid her kicking, crying baby girl in Calleigh’s arms, she called her mother a liar. She bundled her little girl close to her chest, still in tears herself from the effort of pushing her out, and touched the baby’s nose, round cheek, tiny curled fingers. The baby squirmed, and Calleigh almost laughed, and didn’t know why. She pulled her little girl closer.
“I’m yours,” Calleigh whispered.