by Rachel Laverdiere
We are at Aunt Millie’s for Christmas. Her house smells funny—like orange peels and dirty socks and the pail in the washroom where Mother puts Baby Brother’s diapers after she’s rinsed them. Aunt Millie passes a plate of gingerbread men and mincemeat tarts. Father takes two gingerbread men. I cross my fingers because there is still one left.
He bites off one foot and puts the whole one on the arm of the chair. He is saving that one for my sister, Cookie, who sits on his lap. He only remembers me when he is angry or when I remind him of Mother. He has trouble loving her, too.
Aunt Millie is very old and stands with her shoulders hunched forward, like she’s craning her neck to see over her large belly. My heart flutters because maybe there’s a dead baby inside of her. Last week, when I helped Auntie Millie bake these Christmas treats, I asked why she didn’t have any babies. Her eyes became swimming pools when she told me that she’d tried once, but her baby died. Then she showed me how a ghost-shaped cookie cutter creates a perfectly swaddled Jesus for mincemeat tarts. Maybe when your baby dies its ghost stays with you, and you have to carry it forever.
The plate of treats comes to me last, but no gingerbread men are left. I smile politely and say, “No thank you.” I do not want a ghost baby in my belly. She sets the plate on the TV tray next to me.
We always start with the youngest, so Mother opens Baby Brother’s gift. It’s a blue knitted baby blanket. Then it is Cookie’s turn. Everyone is watching Cookie as she unwraps her Christmas gift, so I pinch the Christmas tree. The needles as soft feathers and now my fingertips smell like a forest.
Cookie squeals and hugs a new doll to her frilly pink bibbed dress. She drools splotches onto the doll’s red and green hooded jacket.
Now, it is my turn, so I sit like a lady—cross my ankles like Mother taught me and pull the hem of my dark green jumper down to hide the hole in my tights. I unwrap Aunt Millie’s gift. A soft white sweater she knitted for the doll I left shivering on my pillow. Her dress is thin and tattered. It is ugly because Cookie scribbled brown marker all over it. Now my baby will have something pretty and warm to wear. I stand up to kiss both of Aunt Millie’s cheeks before I caress the cool, pearly buttons.
Cookie squirms off Father’s lap and points at my gift and screams, “Mine! Mine! Mine!”
The hummingbirds in my chest beat their wings against my ribs when Father says, “Give it to Cookie. Now.” I plead Mother with my eyes. Her eyes are sad, but she shakes her head, limp hair gathering static like when she stuck balloons to the kitchen wall for my birthdays. Father hates me, but he loves her. And I hate Cookie. Nothing I want ever matters. Mother often tells me, This is just how things are.
As I let go of the soft white sweater, I think of my doll shivering on my pillow. Bite my tongue to stop the tears. My hands are empty, so I take a mincemeat tart from the tray and cram it into mouth—relish the bitter citrus and sweet dried fruit of the ghost baby—and wonder if it feels safe or afraid in my belly.
Rachel Laverdiere writes, pots and teaches in her little house on the Canadian prairies. She is CNF editor at Atticus Review and the creator of Hone & Polish Your Writing. Find Rachel’s latest prose in Burningword Literary Journal, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Bending Genres, Five South. Her CNF has appeared on The Wigleaf Top 50 and been nominated for Best of the Net. Rachel is a finalist for this year’s Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction. For more, visit www.rachellaverdiere.com.