I’m pretty sure I’m Trashcan Baby.
Star Baby would never spend her days in a cubicle processing gun permits for the great state of Florida. The requests are endless, the thanks are few, and the ramifications uncertain at best.
I wanted to see, though, if Star Baby was in there somewhere, underneath the skin. Dad said she was. The moon wasn’t out, it was still new and a bit antisocial. But that’s okay, it just meant I could see all the stars. And I’m not from the moon anyway.
I sank into the hammock, the nylon cords embossing my back with diamonds, and swung. Extreme stargazing, no blinks, always calms me down. I stared until the stars came alive, squirming against the restraints of darkness. My eyes watered and twitched, but I refused to lose my staring contest with the sky. By the time I was winning, the stars had joined me, dipping down and swimming in the resting tears.
One fell into the palm of my hand. Its glow crept through the periphery until it landed, squirming and tickling. Eyes on the skies, I closed my hand around it.
And crushed a lightning bug. The crunch was barely audible, yet utterly nauseating. Four of its six legs were bent at awkward angles, and I couldn’t see the other two. Neon liquid, like a busted Halloween glow stick, smeared my palm and illuminated the horror. It was gross, and squishy, and dead. Every sensory nerve in my body erupted, leaving my brain in the ashes of a personal Pompeii. I sprinted to the house and scrubbed my hands until they were red, then fell asleep with pillows on my ears, trying to drown out that tiny crunch.
It was horrifying and obligatory—the office birthday cake.
I knew it was coming. These were all folks that had watched way too many old sitcoms, the ones where everyone celebrates office birthdays with singing and cake. I thought it was just a TV thing, but shortly after I started working for The State, I found out it was a real-live human thing, too. And everybody thinks you’re weird if you don’t want to sing to people you don’t know/like. Or be sung to by people you don’t know/like. I should have called out this morning.
The horde of well-wishers poured into and around my cubicle, singing a mutilated version of the Happy Birthday song. It was like the one the staffy sings at Friday’s, lots of clapping and chanting, but worse. They placed the cake before me triumphantly and my stomach turned. Unnatural blue blobs (flowers?) wreathed it, and I could pick out at least three distinct thumbprints. DNA evidence for days.
Gena, my cubicle neighbor, was smiling way too big, like she might hurt herself. It hurt my cheeks just looking at her. I was trying to figure out what she was so happy about when she pulled a shiny packet out from behind her back.
“Look, Celeste! Astronaut ice cream!” Her grin widened, and I got scared she was going bust that creepy vein in her temple.
“Oh,cool,” I said, and did the expected chortle. I hated that I didn’t know if she was’s fucking with me or being sweet. Gena prides herself on being thoughtful, so maybe she was being nice, but it sure seemed like she was fucking with me.
“You know, like they eat in space.” I didn’t think she felt congratulated enough.
I was sorry I ever told her I studied astronomy in college. For one, it took me three months to convince her that I couldn’t “do her horoscope.” And two, every time I space out at team meetings she yells “Earth to Celeste!” and giggles until she turns red and snorts. It’s not beautiful.
But mostly, I just hated to be reminded that I’m stuck here, bitter as hell, because I’m too scared to move away and actually get a job in my field.
Still, the astronaut ice cream seemed a much safer bet than fingerprint cake (vacuum sealed and all), so I nibbled a strawberry cube as the acquaintance mob spectated. The silence and eyes crushed me, until some jackass towards the back started the Happy Birthday abomination again. I needed to set the record straight.
“It’s not really my birthday,” I said. “It’s just the day my dad found me. I don’t have a birthday. So, you guys can just keep the cake.”
The baffled stares reminded me that I probably am just Trashcan Baby. I should have just cut the stupid cake.
It wasn’t until third grade that I found out I might be Trashcan Baby. The kids at school said I was. Actually what they really said was, “Trashcan Baby, stick your head in gravy!” I didn’t stick my head in gravy, but I did go home and look it up on the internet. I have to admit, they had a case. The same year, month even, that I was born they found a baby in the trashcan behind McDonald’s. They said it looked like the mom went into labor in the bathroom there (what must that have looked like?), and then chucked the baby girl in the trash on the way out. It was a big thing on the news.
I asked my dad about it, but he said it wasn’t me. He said he wanted the Trashcan Baby and tried to adopt her, but they gave her to a nice Christian couple from Marianna. He was really sad about it.
But then he found me.
We were on the porch when he got home, my Star Mother and me. But he didn’t see me at first. He was too worried about her. My Star Mother’s body was sprawled out on the steps, twisted like a badly used Slinky. Silvery and metallic like a Slinky, too. Her fluid skin had a life of its own, though, rippling heavy clouds that swirled around her frame. Moonlight washed over her quicksilver flesh, and it shimmered in response. Her form was delicate, feminine, and broken. Dark mercurial liquid poured from the corners of her blackened mouth, and she stared up him with eyes that dripped galaxies.
That’s what he said, anyway.
When she talked to him, her voice was in his head, and he heard her, not with his ears, but in the space behind and between his eyes. “Keep her safe, help her be human.”
Dad knelt and took me from her long fingers. As he did, he felt my skin harden in his hands. The whirling mist of me stilled and became solid. He held me to his chest and my tiny heart began beating in time to his, slowing from its rapidly erratic rhythm. Mine followed his, and we knew we would love each other.
That’s what he said, anyway.
He knelt by my Star Mother’s side, cradling me between them. Tarry blackness gushed from her mouth and starry eyes, then she was gone.
Completely and forever. He felt a sudden and loving vibration, like a thunderclap, surge through the air as her body dematerialized. The air around us was thick and shiny, and I breathed in the sparkles that remained.
My body hardened more as weeks passed, and I grew a layer of human skin. But Dad said I kept the stars in my eyes, churning grey flecks in baby blue skies.
I may have grown a human skin, but I never felt comfortable in it. I made Dad tell me that story every night before bed. I couldn’t go to sleep until I knew I was special. Not just “special.”
I still tell it to myself as part of my bedtime ritual, but tonight it wasn’t soothing. Since Dad died and left me, it was much harder to be an Earth Person. He used to explain everything so well, and there’s nobody to do that now.
Maybe I should go back to being a Star Baby. Maybe she’s still there underneath. Humaning’s too hard.
I crept back down to the hammock and pulled off my pajamas. The ropes scraped against my bare skin, but I ignored the scratches, and hooked my toes into the cording and stretched my arms above my head. I bathed in the stars, letting the light penetrate my skin with trillion mile pinpricks. My body responded, tingling in the glow, ancient and familiar. It was lovely at first, tiny kisses covering my body, cooling my aggravated senses. It felt homey.
Then the sky kisses turned to teeth, and tore at my flesh with hungry mouths. The stars were devouring my earthly skin, ripping away the human shell. It was a labor of rebirth, painful and raw. Maybe even more so than actual birth, because you’re doing it to yourself.
It was too much.
My skin undulated around me as I forced myself from the hammock and, tumbled into the rough grass. I dug my nails into the soil beneath the roots, a sensation that normally disgusts me, but I had to see if Earth would take me back.
She did. The tearing of my skin stopped, and I was safe in my cocoon of fake personhood. Thanks, Earth. I think. I don’t know, it might have been a bit of a letdown. I wish I wasn’t such a wimp.
I checked the mirror when I got inside, to see if I looked any different. Silvery freckles spattered my cheekbones. I couldn’t tell if the stars had painted them on or rubbed some skin off.
Star Baby it is.
No one at work noticed my new glam face. After all, it wasn’t my birthday anymore and they didn’t have to sing for cake. They could pick at the congealed remains in the break room until they had completely consumed the last remaining crumbs of Celeste. I don’t like it when people eat my name.
Not many permits were processed that day as I lurked about the cubicles, wanting people to notice my face, but not really notice. I wanted them to know I was special, but then again, that was my secret. I stared at them until they looked back, then ducked quickly behind my dark hair curtain. Don’t look at me. I mean, look at me. Gah! Why are you looking at me?
It was a really long day. Eventually, I stopped eye-stalking my coworkers and sat down to Google solvents. Turpentine looked good. They had it at the hardware store and it seemed more “natural” than some of the other options. I made sure to get the “real” kind, the kind that’s made out of trees. Fight Earth with Earth, you know. I was hoping to get stripped down, dissolve this layer of human skin, and find out who I was underneath.
You’re supposed to be in a well-ventilated area when you use it, or you’ll overdose on the overpowering pine-ness of it all or something, so I decided to use it in the backyard. I waited until it was dark and a few stars had popped out to keep an eye on me.
I rubbed it all over my skin with an old dishrag, until I smelled like a decayed, chemical forest, and climbed into the hammock. My skin prickled all over as more stars broke through the night sky. It burned a little bit. I should have gotten one of those big silver tanning reflector things, the kind ladies always use in old movies when they’re sunbathing.
Maybe the backyard wasn’t ventilated enough, because I passed out beneath the weight of the sky and smells. And when I woke up, I wasn’t sure I woke up. I felt squishy, like a water balloon. I kind of looked like a water balloon, too. My skin was thin and translucent. Beneath its wobbling surface a wet fog scintillated, sparkling as it swirled around my core of bones.
Walking felt like floating, and I splashed inside my feet. The last spidery web of human skin clung to my Star Self. Just a little more off the top.
The can of turpentine was on the porch, and I made my way slowly over. I couldn’t actually feel my muscles, I just directed my hazy innards. It took a long time.
I sat on the steps, where my mother had left me, and rubbed the dampened cloth over my legs. I wondered if I looked like her, inside.
And then I saw her. She slithered along the grass, a floating mist in feminine form creeping over the green blades.
“Mother?” The word plunged from my mouth, rushing like a waterfall.
She reached the bottom step, her damp curling fingers clinging to the splintered wood. Black eyes, dimmed clouded nebulas, stared up at me. She shook her head slightly, which must literally be the universal symbol for No.
“I knew her, though,” she said. Not out loud, but in the space between my eyes and nose. A vibration that emanated from my sinus. “You look like her. Underneath. I knew it was you when I set the course. Your glow called to me across space and time.”
She pulled herself up on the step next to me, and I saw the black liquid dripping from her mouth and ears. “You’re hurt.”
She nodded, then smiled. “Earth is a crash landing. It takes a lot of personal momentum to make it here. I don’t mind. I got her here safely.” She ran her hand up her chest and pulled from her ribs an infant, perfectly formed and rippling like Mercury. “You’ll take care of her, I know. Teach her to be human. It’s safer here. Home is not a good place for our girls.”
“No?” I was surprised. I’ve always thought I’d fit in there. That it was Earth that was all wrong.
“Our girls are slaves.” An icy blue mist emanates from her eyes. Tears.
“Me. Your mother. But not you. Not her,” she said as she placed her little one in my hands. “We got you out. You have a chance here.”
The Star Baby grabbed my pinky and laughed, a sweet thrumming that washed over my sinus cavity. Her rapidly churning skin stilled and hardened in my grasp and, my fading and lucent skin hardened in hers. The vibration came next, the loving supernova that signals a Star Mother’s last sacrifice. Salty Earth-water tears flowed from my eyes—there were so many more things I wanted to ask and say. Instead, I breathed the sparkles that hung in the air.
I looked down at the wriggling little mass in my arms, my Star Baby. Her eyes were twin galaxies, and I named her Andromeda on the spot. I can call her Andy for short. That’s cute.
Nestled against my chest, she cooed musically in time to my heartbeat, and we knew that we would love each other. We’ll figure this Earth thing out together. I’ll never be a traditional human, but now I have enough personal momentum to make it here.