Trigger warning: birth complications
Jude was born already dead.
The umbilical cord, the doctors noticed, was wrapped around her throat, long since choking her. She came out not red, but a palid, sickening blue. Her mother could not understand--her daughter had been a fighter in her womb, kicking relentlessly, not letting up for even a second. Days prior, she’d joked with her husband, “Don’t forget to bring earplugs. We’ll need it for the crying.”
But there was no crying, she registered, only her husband, pleading and screaming with the theatrics of an actor. She caught a glimpse of her baby, carried away in the palm of a nurse, and she closed her eyes. She counted the seconds. 1, 2, 3… 1, 2, 3...
Finally, it came. The piercing, agonizing scream, the cry of someone already demanding something. The first thing May West thought when she heard her daughter’s voice for the first time was: took you long enough.
Despite it all, Jude grew up a healthy, bright child, and the apple of her father’s eye.
He, with the care of a mother, placed her on her crib, cooing at her until she laughed. He worked with her sprawled across his chest, laying uncomfortably for hours at a time, and when she woke up and began wailing, he did not flinch like his wife, but instead ran for her, scooped her up, and threw her high into the air.
When she landed, he noticed, wildly, how much she’d already grown. She ate with a passion, making him wonder, for a fleetingly second, if he should try baby food. Maybe it would be good. Jude made everything look radiant, reflecting light like a mirror, making him crave her with the fervor of a teenager looking for love. Roman had been born an endless well, a pit in his chest that no matter how many people he stuck there, would never be full. Jude only amplified his longing, the hidden depth of a hunger he had not yet learned to dissipate. Because of her he felt young, unlike the other parents talked to him about, and he felt an immense gratitude, a desire in him to do more.
May, on the other hand, was glad to let Roman take care of their daughter, preferring the solitude of her office. Months into living with a baby, she’d gone out and bought noise cancelling foam. The walls of the attic now lined with it, she sat on her desk all hours of the day. Roman knew she wrote, though by then, they’d been married five years, and he’d yet to read a single line.
Jude, by all accounts, was as obsessed with her father as he was with her. He carried her whenever he went, even bringing her to work at times. Nancy, his assistant, hummed to her, playing where’s Jude? and reading her stories, letting her run her tiny hand along the books on the shelves. She was a curious, gifted child, her teachers said. She had a sheen to her, a childish glow that only got stronger as she grew. She went from a gorgeous baby, the prettiest they’d ever seen, to a well-loved, adored child. Her classmates loved her, the most popular girl in class. Her brains were applauded, her appetite for knowledge encouraged. They asked what she wanted to be when she grew up and she said a scientist, an astronaut.
“You want to see the stars,” they’d say.
“No,” she’d reply, confidently, “I want to touch them.”
Jude grew. By the time she was twelve, her mother came down the attic, carrying in her hands the biggest pile of paper Jude had ever seen. Invisible to her mother, she followed her down the stairs, into the kitchen, and watched from the hallway as May dropped the papers into the island, scaring her father.
“What is this?” he asked.
“My book. I want to sell it,” she said.
Roman stammered. “Well, alright. Can I read it?”
May stared at him like he was stupid. Jude often searched her own face for a hint of her mother’s. She really was beautiful, madenning so, tall and lean and elegant. May carried herself with the air of someone who already knew exactly who she was and Jude, braced with the awkwardness of teenhood, awaited for the day she would become like her. For she knew she would--she already resembled her in so many ways. The dark fall of her hair, the V-shape of her jaw. Her eyes, wide and long. Sometimes, when she spoke, her father glanced at her strangely and said, shaking his head, “You sound like your mother.”
He said it wistfully, but Jude did not understand why. She talked like that because she knew that’s how May did it.
When she passed by her on the way back, Jude sputtered out, “Can I read it, too?”
May turned to her, surprised to find her daughter standing so close. It was certainly strange, she thought, how a kid can sneak up on you. She smiled the way adults smile at children, like she saw something Jude didn’t, and said, “You wouldn’t get it.”
One a.m., and no one heard the creeping in the stairs, the creaking of a door, locked for so long, being opened. Jude, enchanted, took a moment to look around her mother’s office and realized, with a start, she’d never been in this room before. It was an odd thought, the concept of not knowing a part of something yours, but still she cleared her head and went straight to the desk. She ran her fingers along the typewriter’s keytop, up to the platen, and spotted the manuscript lying on top of a box in the far corner. She half skipped to it, excited, and sat on her knees. A religious moment, that, of a writer discovering what they are, and that was what passed through Jude, the hours she spent on the floor, her mother’s words soaking her with the care she’d neglected to give all these years.
Jude didn’t care then, though. The book gave her everything she’d been missing, that final piece of the puzzle. No wonder May didn’t care for her--who would, she thought, if they had this to pay attention to, this to create. Jude made a careless, dramatic promise to herself.
I’ll never have children, she thought. I’ll have this, and it is more than enough.
Jude was born on an attic floor, up with the dust mice and the discarded memories, and when she came down, she choked with the realization that her life was not yet what it was meant to be.
The morning after, she flew down the stairs, drunk with giddiness, and ran straight to her mother.
“I read your book!” she panted, smiling. “It’s wonderful, I loved it, and I want to do something like it one day.”
May did not react instantly. She stood for a moment, frozen like ice, and Jude could've sworn she saw the moment she melted out of her shock. When her mother struck her, it was surprising.
Roman yelped, sprinting to her, his coffee cup shattered on the ground, though Jude did not notice anything other than May, the way her face scrunched up, the way tears welled up in her eyes. She did not cry for her daughter, but for herself, the knowledge that a private, intimate part of her had been taken without her permission. May thought, bitterly, that she'd taught her daughter better than that.
Roman, worried over his daughter, did not see the moment May closed him off permanently. He did not care; they'd already broken up, in his mind--a relationship is no longer a relationship when love ran out--but simply everyday life. Though Roman was not a man made to be a bachelor, and so he stayed. He stayed through all that May did: the temper tantrums, the cold looks. The long periods of his life when she had ignored him. She had not come to his mother’s funeral, he recalled, and the memory warmed him. He was not used to feeling rage, but he did, now, at the mother of his child. He loved Jude more than he had ever loved her, and the thought of May hurting her was more than enough for him to break.
It was odd, the way Jude did not cry. He stood paralyzed in front of her, waiting for her to break down, but she didn’t. She stared straight ahead, and he swore he could feel the cogs in her brain working, a part of her turning off just for another to turn on. It terrified him--Roman often thought Jude was too much like her mother. It was normal for kids to want to be like their parents, but the idea of his daughter, the love of his life, turning into someone like May was more scary than he let himself realize. He couldn’t have that, he decided. May will not love her, but I will, he promised himself. I’ll love her enough for the both of us.
Jude, like her parents, had two realizations in the moment after.
The first one was that her father, the first man she'd ever loved, came straight to her, took her face into his hands, and with the care reserved only for the most loved, examined her face. It was stinging, hot like someone had struck a match on to her cheek, though she did not cry.
She did not cry because her mother was crying, and the thought both scared and thrilled her. It scared her, the way it came so brutally, as if she herself had been beat. A moment of weakness, Jude noticed, and with it came a seed, watered down, taking root inside of her. The idea of her, the child, being able to hurt her mother gave her an immense pleasure, a deep, wicked resentment that had long since been planted and had been festered by the years. Now it had blossomed entirely.
Jude had something May didn't. She now had a clear, polished purpose, and one she would take seriously.
She graduated from high school on the highest honors. Roman cried like she had as a baby, loud and unapologetic. Toby, Jude’s boyfriend at the time, was also there, and took a great deal of pictures. Her favorite: herself, walking across the stage, the single moment when she turned her head back over her shoulder, looking at the crowd. Her eyes were big and shining and she looked like a grown, accomplished woman, which, of course, she was. May West had not been present.
Many colleges had taken an interest in her. Letters from all over the country came to their doorstep and Jude, alongside her father, read every single one. Though she settled on a good, small college near her house. Her father implored her, “Dream big!”, but Jude already was. It was easier, living at home, no care for food or cleaning after herself. Besides, the commute to campus was quick.
“More time to write,” she said, smiling shyly, and her father could not argue with that.
Jude and Roman, already close, had become inseparable. A good day after Toby had dropped off the revealed pictures, she’d kissed his cheek and broken up with him. Her father had not questioned her (“I never liked that boy,” he huffed), and Jude was pleased with the decision. It was not a strange relationship, the one with her father. It was the one she wanted.
Jude was not antisocial, she simply had no need for anyone else but herself, her writing, and Roman. She loved him, and she was loved by him. She had not been born with a leak in her heart, as he had; she was more than happy with the little she had, if love like that could ever be measured.
Though she was not yet whole. Jude wrote a great deal, extraordinary things. Everybody she’d shown it to--her father, her english teacher, Toby and Miranda, who lived next door--all said it was incredible, the best thing they’d ever read. Though their praise did not mean much to her. She craved more, big, Hollywood fame. She wanted to be paid to write, wanted someone to read her words with the fervor which she’d once read her mother’s.
She went to college and loathed it, though she found refuge in her writing. She dated some people, mostly guys, and she was always the first to break it off. She ate dinner with her father, listened to music, read incredible works which inspired her, but still something deep, an ache coming back years, plagued her.
May had not gone to her graduations, any of them. When she left her college campus for the last time, she watched as every other one of her peers posed with their mothers. Middle aged, hands greasy and smelling of perfume. May did not look like any of them and that suited her, Jude thought. It was one of those things you just noticed. May West did not age.
In her youth, she’d been stunning. The decades passed did nothing but enhance that, and the success that came with her debut novel only solidified the immortality of her mother. Jude, in her age, was well-aware that magic was not real. Though she could sometimes pretend, when she caught a glimpse of her ghost passing by, down the attic staircase, that she lived with a faerie, was haunted by one. In her accomplishments, which Jude had plenty of, she had not yet managed to stop the hunger she’d gotten, a long time ago, when she was twelve. She wanted to hurt May. A part of her always had.
It was spring when it came, fall when it ended.
Jude West’s first book, her debut into the publishing world, left the entire community astounded. They called her a rare, mesmerizing talent, a precious contributor to the writing industry. Her book hit the best seller list on its first day out, and by the sixth week of its release, it had not yet left.
Her father called a celebratory dinner when it became clear it wouldn’t go away. Roman felt a gigantic pride, an ever growing admiration. It amazed him, the way he surrounded himself with great superiority, when he himself was merely common. Jude did not like hearing about it, though in the way of a father, he noticed the glimmer in her eyes. She was, in many ways, her mother’s daughter.
For the occasion, May West came down, too. She’d been following the news, and even when she did not bother to congratulate Jude, had felt it was about time she appeared into the conversation. May felt entitled to some of the recognition--after all, Jude had come from her. If she was a genius, as they all said, some part of it was because of her.
She went into the room after they’d already started eating. Jude paused, frozen, at the sight of her mother, though she did not rush to meet her like Roman did. He gathered a plate, filled it with food. He waved at her to sit. She did.
A long, tense silence followed. Jude did not eat any more, and stared unabashedly at May. She half wanted to jump into her arms, to beg her to talk, to compliment her, and she half tempted to fly across the table and smack her. May had not since touched her daughter, and now she found herself aching for it, to see if it still felt like it had--smooth like plastic.
Jude was the first to speak. “Did you read it?”
May looked at her a moment, considering, and then said, “No.”
That was enough. “Why?”
Her mother simply lifted her shoulder. “I didn’t think to. I already know so much--I read the news, you know.”
Roman, ever the pacifier, tried to stop the situation. “Well, Jude--”
“Yours wasn’t that good, you know,” Jude said. “I reread it recently. Pretentious.”
May laughed at that. “You’re a critic, too? I remember you said you wanted to do one like it.”
“I did it better,” Jude said bitterly.
May smiled. “That’s what the critics say, but I’ll suggest they say that because of your last name. No West could disappoint.”
“My success has nothing to do with you,” Jude said, and for Roman, who knew her best, the sound of her heart break was loud, like shattering glass.
“Everything about you has to do with me,” May said. “Everything. You came from me--I gave you everything you are.”
Jude started crying. How dull, May thought, bitterly. She didn’t understand how she could’ve raised someone so weak. Of course, it was not her who had raised her, but Roman, born with a weak heart. Of course Jude would also be weak.
Roman, startled, went to comfort his daughter. For the first time in her life, Jude flinched from him.
“Not you,” she said. “God, how did I survive here?”
She did not say it, but he understood, Jude, for all her life, had bended herself like her mother. The way she talked, the way she walked, even the way she styled her hair. The two of them were, by all accounts, tethered to each other. It really was too similar, the way they both broke his heart for the sake of keeping themselves intact.
Oh, Roman thought sadly, but history moves in circles.