I wake up to the sound of a baby crying. I pull the pillow over my head and squeeze my eyes tightly shut like a child afraid of a bump in the night. If I pretend it’s not there, will it go away?

I know what you’re thinking.
“What kind of mother are you?”
But the baby,
She isn’t mine

My baby is dead.

I close my eyes tighter still and there’s a flash
A vision
Or a memory
I can’t tell what’s real anymore.

In it
There’s a man
And there’s a baby girl.
And there is me.

We’re sitting, the three of us, in a swinging chair in a living room that feels like a place I might have called home once. The baby’s face is pressed to my bosom as she sleeps, and the side of my own face is pressed into the chest of this man. He is warm and gentle and I can hear his heart beat- slow and steady. The ‘me’ in this fever dream appreciates that this is how his heart has always sounded to me- slow and steady. And the scene, it is warm and loving and familiar. The kind man strokes my hair with one of his large, handsome hands and the other finds its way to the baby’s back.

“Julia,” he says in a tone that is far too frantic for the scene, “she’s not breathing.”

“She’s not breathing, Julia!” He yells, this time, but his voice is no longer my head, it’s in the room.

I pull the pillow away and open my eyes, my body remaining securely fastened in a fetal position. The calm man is no longer calm, and he is looming over my bed. And there is blood. A lot of it. He’s holding the baby girl in his arms. She looks peaceful, asleep, but disturbingly still.

But his question is interrupted by an outpouring of blood from his beautiful mouth.

I jump out of bed and run right through him. He dissipates, as if he were a man made of mist. I pull my old, black sweatshirt off of the back of the wooden chair in my room with such force that it tumbles to the ground with a crash. I plow through the small apartment, out the front door, down the steps and into the street. The air is bitingly cold and my feet are bare. I stop for a second and look back at the front door. They’re standing there, the two of them, staring at me with eyes full of disappointment, blood still gushing. I pull at my hair and scream in their direction, “GO AWAY!!!!!” But still they stare.

I take off running again. I run until the air hurts my lungs and the bottoms of my feet feel like their made of a thousand tiny needles. I run until I find a park. Politely gated with wrought iron. Trees, sweet, wooden benches, soft, damp grass. It occurs to me that if I can touch one of these things, if I can feel something real, maybe I can come back. Maybe this will all be over.

A few feet away I spot a live oak that looks as real as anything I’ve ever seen. A great, gnarled trunk and branches that dip low to the ground. She must be over 500 years old. I run to her. I place both my hands flat against her trunk and press my forehead hard into her rough, magic bark – begging for salvation. I breathe in the sweet smell of her decaying leaves and with each exhale I feel the hysteria leaving my body. I sink down to my knees, turn clumsily so my back is pressed to her trunk and hang my head, eyes still closed. Deep breaths. You’re okay. You’re okay. I’m not sure if the sentiment is coming from me or her.

I finally find the courage to open my eyes. I do it slowly. Squinting one open at first. And when I see that there is nothing, nothing but dark and peaceful quiet, I open them fully, letting out a sigh of relief. I laugh a little, at my own expense. I must be losing my mind! I laugh a little harder.

But then someone joins me in my grim amusement. My body stiffens. I turn. The bleeding man is sitting beside me, laughing with his head tossed back.

“Why are you laughing?” I ask him desperately.

“Because you’ll never be able to outrun us, Julia.”