The wrong child slithered from Jenny’s womb.
Sighing, the new mother told the doctors they’d made a mistake.
“Put that one back,” she said, waving to the wailing form wrapped in pink, “and exchange it for another.”
But everyone smiled their tight smiles and assured Jenny the creature she’d birthed was good enough. Beautiful and alive and, most importantly, hers. All the proper parts were there, they claimed. Eyes, ears, arms, legs.
It was a most passable baby.
Of course, her husband loved it instantly, holding the squirming carcass above him, snapping pictures to show the grandparents, giving it the name Jenny had picked out long ago, back when she was asking, praying, wishing for a child.
“She’s perfect,” he said, and Jenny bit her lip until it bled to keep herself from arguing.
They drove home from the hospital as a family, watercolor shapes of empty kiddie pools and abandoned lemonade stands bleeding past the car windows. Summer was almost over, fading like a blurry reflection in a mud puddle.
In the backseat, the smudge of a child cooed and babbled in her plastic cocoon, a stranger in every way. Eel-like in her thinness, she resembled neither parent, a head full of decayed algae draped and matted around strangely blanched cheeks. Hair so dark it was green.
“Don’t worry,” Jenny’s husband said blithely. “It’s normal what you’re feeling. All new mothers feel it. You just need time to adjust.”
So he gave her time. Every morning at 8:15 exactly, he abandoned her with the child.
Jenny fidgeted, her withering body blocking the front door. “I don’t want to be here alone.”
Her husband kissed her forehead, suddenly a put-upon caretaker instead of a companion. “You don’t have to stay here,” he said. “Take her to the playground at the park.”
As though it would be any better there. The mulch-packed constellation of corkscrew slides and circuitous mazes reeked of sulfur and earth, noxious scents that nauseated Jenny. But that wasn’t the worst. The worst were all the smug mothers that paraded children past her, children they knew belonged to them. The hordes of offspring hung from monkey bars, glided down firemen poles, laughing and taunting Jenny, a constant reminder of what she lacked.
“What’s your little girl’s name?” the other mothers asked.
“Amara,” Jenny said without inflection. “She’s two.”
Two-years-old. An eternity wrapped in a minute. Time was different now that Jenny was a mother, her life somersaulting endlessly toward some unknown point.
“Go play,” she whispered to Amara.
Eyes bright and hopeful, the girl shuffled to join the other children. They welcomed her at first, but after a game or two, the pigtails and smeared faces expelled her from their braided groups, condemning Amara to a rusted seesaw in the forgotten corner of the playground.
The child sat alone, one half of a pastime that needed two.
Jenny excused herself from the vulture circle of mothers and took the steel seat opposite her daughter. Gently, she rocked Amara up and down, the closest to a cradle they’d ever shared.
“I don’t like it here,” the girl said, her features shimmering in the naked sunlight. Watery blue eyes that hadn’t changed since birth, lips a pale pink, the same shade as the dead. Everything about her was somehow strident and misplaced.
Was that what the other children noticed, the reason they ousted her from their nothing cliques?
No, Jenny thought. Only a mother could see it.
After they tired of the seesaw, she escorted Amara from the crowds, the two of them walking in silence along octopus arms that stretched in every direction from the playground.
It was summer again, and last year’s leaves crackled beneath their feet.
“Which way?” Jenny asked when they came to a fork, and the child pointed to an overgrown trail.
They could sense something was there before they saw it. Jenny wanted to turn back, but whatever was waiting for them wouldn’t let her.
The path Amara had chosen ended abruptly, and they found themselves standing in front of a cracked stone fountain. Pieces of aged granite crumbled toward them like a portent to stay away, but they crept closer. A wide basin overflowed with sour rainwater that stank of old country ponds and backed-up sewer grates.
Amara shrieked at the fearsome display, equal parts terror and glee, her petite hands clambering toward the brown-blanketed water.
“It’s a wishing well,” Jenny told her.
But it was too shallow for a well. Wells had no bottom, at least no bottom you could see. This was a fountain, the kind Jenny had loved since childhood. She used to close her eyes and toss in a coin. Afterwards, she searched the depths, trying to locate what she had just thrown away. It was a game she always lost since she couldn’t ever be sure which shiny treasure belonged to her.
Jenny rummaged through her pockets and uncovered a penny for Amara. “Toss it in.”
The child did as she was told.
It was over in an instant. Amara among the coins, face down and floundering. Jenny with her hands stuffed into her mouth, fragments of paralyzed horror splintering across her face.
A wish. Without meaning to, Jenny had made a wish.
A park guard heard her screams and managed to yank the sodden creature from the fountain. Gagging up mouthfuls of copper, Amara clung to her mother.
Still alive. Still a stranger.
“Thank you,” Jenny said and carried the shivering child home.
They didn’t diverge from the main path after that. If the fountain had a second chance, Jenny knew it wouldn’t fail.
But soon others went there for her. The smiling mothers with children they displayed like exotic jewels took their progeny to the wishing well and gave them to the bitter water.
Dusk was their favorite time to make the offering, but the macabre pilgrimage happened anytime, day or night. Children in tow, the women might take a jaunt there before lunch or after suppertime or even in the middle of the night. Whatever time they visited, the ritual was always the same. They proffered their children to the shallow fountain. And for each one lost, the stonework earned a new message.
Not mine, the women would scrawl, sometimes in sidewalk chalk, other times in lipstick.
They all had the same story for the police.
“I was trying to fix things,” they said. “The fountain told me it would fix things.”
But they weren’t the only ones who could hear the fountain speak. Each day, Jenny sensed it drawing her back. It called to her when she was at the playground, her name lilting on the wind. It called to her at home, its snickering shadows amassed in un-swept corners.
Yet she refused to return.
Because she could do nothing else, Jenny thought perhaps another child might set things right. She begged her husband to try again, to right the wrong they’d created, but he always demurred.
“Let’s get used to being parents once before we have another.”
Rejection after rejection, his body cold to her, Jenny became sick at the sight of him. After all, he was partly to blame. A stronger man, a better man never would have planted the wrong child inside his wife’s body. But a stronger woman never would have birthed it. Her insides should have twisted into Celtic knots to expel the invader. Anything to slough it off. She failed. So did he.
In the house with shadows that laughed at her, she exiled herself to bed each day. Her thoughts a feverish and dizzying blur, Jenny found she couldn’t remember why she wanted children in the first place. Becoming a mother was her greatest desire, but from where the idea had initially sprung she could not recall. It must have been a lifetime of little things, a daisy chain originating in childhood with pretty dolls and plastic kitchen sets. An instinct persevering through adolescent hormones and a book of baby names she exchanged among other tittering teen girls.
“I like Amara,” she’d whispered in study halls and over cafeteria tables. “No one take the name, Amara. That one’s mine.”
Now years later, the name was hers. But the child was not.
Jenny wept so hard she could never imagine stopping.
Amara tugged on her arm. “What’s wrong, Mommy?”
When her mother couldn’t formulate an answer, the girl curled up on the floor next to the bed and fell asleep.
Each afternoon, when her husband returned from work, Jenny went jogging. Baggy gray workout clothes limp against her body, the June heat searing through her, she hated every moment. But she needed an excuse to visit the park. Alone.
Down the twisting path and across the divots in worn pavement, the fountain rose lazily in the distance as if caught off guard and forced to construct itself on demand.
It hadn’t changed since Jenny last visited, but the landscape around it had. Leaned against the stonework was a drooping memorial erected from torn cardboard and paper spit from a printer that was running out of toner. Water—either from the summer rains or the derelict fountain—had warped and tainted what was meant as an homage. And a warning.
Children are a blessing, a crooked, blocky message spelled out across the top. The whole display more closely resembled a failed science fair project from a middling student than a sacred monument in honor of the lost.
Still, the sacrificed were in attendance, the little girls and boys the same age as Amara, represented in pixilated images and italicized names. Six so far, but the list of drowned grew so quickly there was space beneath the latest entry for write-ins. Enough room for at least a dozen more children.
Jenny read each name aloud, all the while wondering if she’d caused the deaths or been a catalyst for what was already coming or if she had nothing to do with it at all. Maybe she too was a victim of the fountain, her would-be drowning of Amara a soft opening for the cataclysm to come.
The cardboard memorial swayed back and forth in the wind, keeping time with a melody no one else could hear.
She jogged home, a little faster than before, her feet pressing into the concrete as if she could root into the ground and become part of the world, rather than outside of it.
July ushered in another round of deaths. The city ordered the fountain destroyed, but even once the original stones were chiseled away, the ambitious mothers would bring more, stacking them carefully until they’d reconstructed their altar.
The playground at the park emptied. No self-respecting parents wanted to take their offspring so close to death.
But Jenny couldn’t pull herself away. Besides, she told herself, Amara didn’t mind. The child, her glossy hair in two thin pigtails, squealed and raced across the abandoned mulch.
The place was hers now. Only one mother and her toddler son joined them.
“I don’t understand it,” the woman said as she sat with Jenny on a park bench. “Everyone has a rough day. You’ve had a rough day, haven’t you?”
Jenny nodded, her hands steady in her lap as Amara darted past.
“Nobody wants to talk about it,” the woman continued, “but it happens to everyone. It’s not worth all this. We do our best, don’t we?”
The little boy waddled from the slide and told his mother he needed to use the restroom. With a half smile, Jenny’s fleeting companion excused herself, placidly pushing the stroller down the path. It wasn’t until an hour later and the flashing lights arrived that Jenny realized the woman and her child had departed in the direction of the fountain.
Another name yoked to the lost.
In August, Amara turned three.
The girl had no friends to invite to a party, the fountain proficient at swallowing all her prospects, one by one. Jenny asked her husband what they should do instead to celebrate.
“Under the circumstances,” he said, “there’s no reason to do anything. The neighbors might think reveling between all the funerals is a little gauche.”
Though she wanted to rail against him and his ignorance and his propriety, Jenny said nothing. Her husband had no place at this birthday party anyhow. It should be her and Amara and no one else.
After three false starts and an all-nighter, Jenny crafted a three-tiered cake adorned with buttercream icing and fondant pieces sliced and shaped into pink dogs and pink cats and pink animals from every forest and kingdom, real or imagined.
“You’ve been busy,” her husband said in the morning.
Jenny kissed him on the forehead, the same spot he always fancied on her. “Have a good day at work,” she said.
Once he departed, she set an immaculate table of presents, all foil wrapped and curled ribbon, and arrayed the room in streamers and helium balloons.
Amara came down to a breakfast of smiley face pancakes. “It’s beautiful, Mommy,” she said, beaming.
Together, they opened a mountain of gifts and ate nothing but cake and ice cream for lunch.
For this day and this day alone, Jenny was perfect. There would never be another occasion like this one, and only she and Amara would ever know about it. It was their secret. It belonged to them.
When the balloons had plummeted to the floor and all the foil retired to the trash, her husband returned home from work and gobbled down the leftovers.
“You outdid yourself,” he said, a dollop of icing hanging from his lips.
He fell asleep early, his gut distended with sugar and cream. Jenny stared at him for a long time before rousing Amara from bed.
“I have a final present for you,” she said. “Don’t you want to see?”
The girl rubbed her eyes, elbows flying wildly, casting shadows against the polka dot walls of her bedroom. “I’m tired, Mommy. Can it wait until tomorrow?”
“No, baby, it can’t.”
The moment they arrived at the fountain, Amara began to cry. Perhaps she remembered their previous visit. Or maybe the fountain divulged its purpose in creaks of stone and whispers of wind.
“Go home,” the girl said. “I want to go home.”
Once again, Jenny said nothing, her face as unmoving as the stone around them. The fountain told her what to do next. The child flailing in her arms, she dipped Amara into the water, a morbid baptism intended to cleanse mother and child alike.
The memorial lurched next to them and collapsed on its side. Beneath scribbled names, there was still space on the cardboard. Amara would fit there.
Amara, the name Jenny had loved, the child she had desperately wanted.
The limp body rose from the water, and Jenny gazed into the hollow face. But everything was different. The features had shifted, rearranged to form something new. The change was slight, so slight no one else could have noticed it. Only Jenny could discern the transformation. Only a mother could see the difference.
At last, this was her child.
“Amara,” she whispered, peeling pieces of slick hair from the girl’s pallid skin.
Like a worshipper at an altar, Jenny carefully placed the body on the concrete path next to lipstick messages of ‘Monster’ and ‘Intruder.’ Her hands pressed into the tiny chest, and again and again, she forced air through those pale lips.
“Don’t leave me,” Jenny cried. “Not now.”
It went on like this forever. Her eternity that spanned mere moments. It didn’t matter. Amara was gone. Her child was gone.
But water, always defiant and restless, wouldn’t settle. It roiled inside the child’s lungs, propelling itself back up the throat.
Amara retched in Jenny’s arms. She returned from the dead.
“Mommy,” she said, her voice gurgling from within.
“I’m sorry,” Jenny said. “Baby, I’m so sorry.”
They sat together, embraced as mother and child for the first time. A guard found them there on the pavement, drenched and heaving. He guessed what had happened. Jenny didn’t argue.
They took Amara away in September. Jenny’s husband had refused to believe what the guard and the police and the courts said, but faced with choosing his wife or child, he opted for the latter.
Jenny watched her daughter rest that tiny face against the backseat window, the fogged glass mashing her green hair into those cheeks, those cheeks, those beautiful cheeks.
Amara didn’t understand why she was leaving, only that it was best this way.
“Goodbye,” the child mouthed, but Jenny couldn’t hear the words as the car backfired and pulled away.
Summer at last was over. The remnants of the makeshift fountain remained suspended indefinitely at the end of the abandoned trail. The town was too superstitious to disassemble it, convinced one wayward stone could set the drownings into motion again.
Though its call had dampened to a distant echo, Jenny still went there. She visited now, clad in the same gray workout clothes, because she had nowhere else to go.
The inscriptions from the mothers had washed away, but the cardboard monument remained, its saturated edges dissolving into the concrete path.
With eyes opened, Jenny tossed a coin into the water. Then in her best cursive handwriting, she added Amara to the bottom of the list.
Amara. Jenny remembered the entry for her daughter’s name in that dog-eared baby book from high school.
Amara (Female): Eternal.
Eternal. Infinity. The beginning. And the end.
Her girl. Her little girl.
She left the fountain as it was and jogged home to where even the shadows had nothing left to say.
Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction writer based in Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including LampLight, Nightmare Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, and Electric Spec as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology. As a regular contributor, she writes for multiple travel and entertainment sites including Horror-Movies.ca, Wanderlust and Lipstick, and her own 60 Days of Halloween, a collection of humorous essays chronicling her autumnal misadventures. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at www.gwendolynkiste.com and on Twitter (@GwendolynKiste).
Betty Rocksteady is a Canadian author and illustrator. Learn more at www.bettyrocksteady.com.