Scrap Metal Baby likes her momma’s milk best. It fills up her hollow tin stomach and pools in the corners of her mouth. White foam laced with gasoline and a hint of motor oil.
Watching the greasy mixture drip down the front of her blouse shocked Momma at first.
The doctors said her body would adjust and it has. Momma’s breasts bear tiny clean scars and fresh cuts from the baby’s mouth. Miniature white leeches in a criss-cross pattern swim against her creamy skin. The baby readjusts her mouth at the nipple and fresh blood rises to the surface. Momma winces as the baby kneads the breast with her corrugated phalanges. She sucks her momma dry, one breast and then the other, and they hang limp like deflated balloons.
“We’ve got to get you on transfusion oil again, Shelby,” Momma says. “I need some sleep in a bad way.”
Momma rubs her eyes and yawns. She leans back into her rocking chair and her eyes fall shut for a moment. Shelby releases a burp, which perfumes the air with the flinty scent of cold steel. Her engine makes a satisfied low rumbling and begins to purr. Then she curls up in her momma’s arms and the metallic slits of her eyes snap shut. Momma sighs and holds Shelby close, grateful for the moment when this love doesn’t damage her.
When Momma and Daddy learned that they were to have a Scrap Metal Baby, they met the news with silence. Blank stares. Searching eyes.
“But what does that mean?” Daddy stammered to the doctor. “I don’t get it.”
“Well, it means your child is special. She seems to have grown completely from parts of something else. Metal parts. She’s extremely rare. One in ten million,” the doctor said.
He collected pamphlets from a drawer beneath the table. They were labeled Your Special Needs Child and Coping with Rare Disorders in block letters without pictures.
“There are books you can order. Manuals which will explain the procedures and such. Scrap Metal Babies are extremely rare, but there are a few others out there,” the doctor explained.
Momma looked to the pamphlets on the wall of fat smiling babies and wanted to take those, too.
The pamphlets and belly filled Momma’s lap.
“I don’t understand,” she whispered, “did I do something wrong?”
“No. Of course not. An anomaly like this isn’t anyone’s fault. We don’t know why the baby turned out like this. She just did. Let’s take a look at the ultrasound. Do you see the places that emit light?” the doctor asked.
He held up a series of pictures with the neon outlines of a baby. Glowing limbs and fingers were suspended against black.
“Your baby doesn’t have any bones. See the little engine there? She’s made entirely of scrap metal. That’s why the parts look like they’re on fire.”
“Will she live?” Daddy asked. His voice broke and he looked at his hands.
“Yes, for awhile. We don’t know how long. There may be complications as she grows. She’ll need replacement parts, tune-ups, oil changes. Other Scrap Metal Babies have lived for a few years. One lived into her teens. The problem is usually the engines. They aren’t meant to run continuously like a body needs. They’ll go about 3000 hours. It’s a lot to process. It does explain why this pregnancy has been so uncomfortable,” the doctor said.
Momma thought of the baby swimming inside her. The steel pressing against her ribs, the cold metal feeling that tickled her, the sharp jabs that woke her at night. She put her hands on her swollen belly and rubbed.
“How will she come out?” Momma asked.
“It will have to be a Caesarean delivery. It’s the only safe way,” the doctor replied. “Let’s get you scheduled. A baby this big might come early.”
The fluorescent lights of the operating room are blinding. Daddy squints and shields his eyes. He stands by Mamma’s head and peers over the white drape that reveals the rest of her body. The light bounces off the metal being pulled from Mamma’s insides and the glare causes Daddy to squeeze his eyes shut for a second. The incision seemed small enough, but through his splayed fingers, Daddy sees the doctor’s cutting and tugging more of the skin. There are video cameras and lights hung from the ceiling. Cords. Shiny instruments. Machines beeping. Doctors and nurses speaking in code. It’s hard to see anything.
“You’re going to feel some pressure now,” the doctor says. Mamma nods through a sleepy fog.
“I can’t feel anything,” she mumbles. “Do you see her yet?”
“I don’t know. I can’t tell if it’s the knives or the baby. Maybe a leg?” Daddy answers. “I don’t know.”
He shakes his head and smoothes back the hair which has fallen from the paper gauze hat on Mamma’s head. He wipes his sweaty palms on his own blue scrubs.
A loud engine suddenly fills the room. It revs and whirls. The doctor lifts a flailing shiny baby into the air. Daddy sees the baby’s face first. It looks like it’s covered in bloody aluminum foil. The baby cries and Daddy stares hard, eyes wide open. He sees metal tubes where arms should be and metal fingers and toes. The nurses wrap the baby in a pink blanket and bring her to Momma on the over side of the sheet.
“Oh, Shelby,” Mamma says. She nuzzles her flushed cheek against the cold steel. Tears stream down Mamma’s hot face. “There’s Mamma’s baby.”
The nurses rush the baby away and a team of doctors surrounds Scrap Metal Baby.
“Look at these shreds, Shelby,” Momma says holding up tiny clothes. The dresses, pants, and onesies are sliced into pieces. “What am I supposed to put you in?”
Scrap Metal Baby just smiles and releases more wet rocks into her pants.
“Well, that’s not going to help the process,” Momma says.
She smiles at her baby and makes a silly face. She reaches for another diaper and opens the bin of clean wipes. The scent of animal and rot fill the room.
“Ugh. That smells terrible. You’ve got oil everywhere.” Momma tosses the ruined clothes into a growing pile of laundry. She misses the top of the pile and the slimy mess runs down the wall.
Shelby kicks her stiff tube legs in the air and grins with a mouth full of incisors. Her face is a metal mold of the chubby baby displayed on the diaper box. The smooth metal cheek is smeared with gasoline and it crusts in the corners of her twisted nostrils. Momma runs her hand over Shelby’s shiny surface and corrugated parts. Momma used to wonder why Shelby’s face was so baby-like, fat and round, when the rest of her body seemed so constructed, but lately she’s forgotten to wonder. The tin arms are soldered together at different seams, and the baby’s elbows protrude at odd uneven angles. The baby body is one flat sheet bent to make the trunk. A scar runs the length of the trunk and more scars surround the places where the limbs are attached.
“You’re a beautiful baby. Momma’s little baby,” she coos tracing a finger up the ball of an alloyed foot. Shelby’s black metal eyes blink and the corners of her cheeks snap into a smile. “Let’s get you cleaned up,” Momma says and lifts Shelby into her arms. Grease smears on Momma’s shirt but she doesn’t notice.
Momma holds Shelby on her hip and flinches in pain as the sharp metallic legs encircle her soft jiggly belly. “I used to have a shape. Men used to watch me walk. Now look at me, honey, I’m all broken and bruised.”
Shelby makes a puttering noise and bites into her momma’s neck.
“Ouch! No! We don’t bite Momma! Biting hurts, Shelby!” Blood runs down the baby’s grin and she claps her hands in the air. Clank. Clank. Creak.
“You’re squeaky. Let’s get you some oil for those hinges. Your Daddy keeps it in the garage.”
Clank. Clank. Creak. Shelby’s hands bang together like a marionette clapping. She tries to put her tin fingers together in the Itsy, Bitsy, Spider fashion. The metal makes a scraping sound as her fingers collide.
“That’s right, Shelby, down came the rain and washed the spider out,” Momma sings while moving around cans and bottles on the garage shelf. She locates a can labeled “Shelby’s Oil” and places it in the crook of her arm. The baby lurches for the new object and bangs her nose on the can.
“Waaahh…” she screams into her momma’s ear.
“Oh, baby. Come here,” Momma says cuddling the baby into her neck. “That hurt, didn’t it?”
Shelby whimpers and oil and drool mix into Momma’s hair.
Momma tried to prepare herself. She read every book she could find: Raising Your Special Metal Child, You and Your Broken Baby, How to Properly Care for a Scrap Metal Construct. A nurse suggested auto mechanics manuals and engine instruction guides, too. And yet nothing prepared her for loving something so dangerous.
“It will be difficult,” the doctor told them shaking his head, “she’ll need a lot of special care and constant upkeep.”
Momma nodded her head and bit her bottom lip. Daddy looked out the window into the office parking lot and counted the cars.
“We’ll name her Shelby. Like my mother,” Momma said to Daddy on the ride home from the doctor’s office. “Shelby,” she said again out loud. Daddy scrunched up his eyes in thought.
Suddenly the wheel jerked to the side and Daddy tightened his grip to keep the car on the road.
“What’s wrong?” Momma asked gripping the dashboard and her belly.
“Let me check,” Daddy said. He slowed the car and pulled it over to the side of the road. He popped the hood and stood looking at the engine. His coat flaps fought in the wind with the speed of the passing cars.
“Shelby,” he said out loud.
At play group Shelby sits in the center of a round multi-colored carpet. The letters of the alphabet in pleasing hues are beneath her. Dried spots of blood have turned black on the letters B, M, and Q. Fat fleshy toddlers of all sizes crawl around her and over her. One plump finger traces the smooth surface of Shelby’s leg.
“Cold,” the toddler says up to her mom.
“Careful,” her mother says back, “metal can go ouch!” The nurse on call crosses her legs in the corner, looks for the sight of blood, and listens for the wail of injury. A first aid kit sits at her feet. She wears thin rubber gloves. The nurse sighs in boredom and inspects her finger nails beneath the latex. The first five minutes of playgroup are usually safe. Mothers arrive and unload babies and bags. Babies watch each other and cling to their mothers a moment more. Then the babies drift to the toys and the mothers chat and compare notes on the price of diapers and the advice of pediatricians.
Momma likes coming to this playgroup at the local public library. It makes her feel normal, even though they never stay long. She and Shelby drove six hours north once to meet another Scrap Metal Baby and Momma cried the whole way home. The other child just lay on the wood floor and kicked its rusted metal legs into the air. His corrugated limbs made awful squeaks, which filled the stuffy air of the trailer. The parents didn’t even bother to dress him and Momma kept tossing blankets near the baby, but they fell to the sides as the grotesque limbs flailed. Shelby sat on Momma’s lap, her hard head pushed into Momma’s soft chest.
At playgroup Shelby swats at a plastic fuchsia truck with her tinny hands. The truck moves forward out of her reach. Shelby follows it and falls over onto her rigid back. Her legs scissor in the air and come down hard on a pudgy knee. The skin splits open and blood pours from the cut. Momma rushes to grab Shelby. Another set of arms rescues the bleeding toddler and hurries him to the nurse. The nurse jumps up and begins cleaning the cut. She sprays antiseptic into the wound and the baby’s screams echo through the hollow spaces in Shelby.
Momma holds Shelby close, pressing the baby’s rigid face into her supple neck. She walks Shelby over to the bleeding child.
“See, Shelby. When you kick your legs like that, it hurts other babies,” Momma says.
“I’m so sorry, Jane. Is Tyler okay?” Jane turns to Momma with a blank stare and Tyler points one chubby finger at Shelby and puts another finger in his mouth to suck.
“I’m sorry,” Momma says again. She looks around the room for a friendly face. There are none.
Mothers hover around their children glaring at Momma and Shelby. A few nostrils flare and a lone tongue clucks in disapproval. Momma readjusts Shelby on her waist, careful to keep her on the special padding that protects her own midsection and walks toward the door.
“Don’t forget your diaper bag, box-thing,” another mom calls.
Momma turns around slowly and re-crosses the room. A baby sits nearby, releasing the latch on the stainless steel box that serves as a diaper bag. Momma tries to balance Shelby on one hip and lift the toolbox with her free hand but the split lid falls open and a wrench spills to the floor.
Shelby sees the abandoned truck on the rug nearby and begins crying. Shelby lunges for the toy and there is a rush of movement as moms grab their babies and shield their bodies. Momma holds Shelby tighter, kicks the toolbox shut with her foot, and lifts the heavy box with one hand.
She straightens her shoulders and pretends the weight is not too much to bear. Wailing fills the room and seeps out through the door as Momma closes it behind her. She leans for a moment against the copper Public Library sign. She sets the toolbox down by her feet and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. Then she takes a deep breath, collects the box, and opens the glass door with her hip. Momma’s grimace reflects back at her in the surface of Shelby’s cheek. The sunlight makes Momma and Shelby squint and recoil into each other.
“She looks ridiculous,” Daddy says.
“She looks adorable. You’re wrong.” Momma shakes her head in disagreement.
The baby sits in the middle of the living room floor watching T
he Wizard of Oz on the television. She is dressed as a giant orange pumpkin. The blousy orange material surrounds her and the costume stuffing serves as a barrier to break Shelby’s falls. Green leaves sprout from the sharp edges on her neck and a single brown stem keeps falling off her metal head. The Tin Man comes on the screen and Shelby clangs her hands in delight. The stem tumbles to the floor again.
“Put it on that metal piece sticking out the back. That will hold the stem,” Daddy suggests.
Momma attaches the cloth stem to a piece of jutting metal that she’s been meaning to file down. The metal punctures the cloth as it holds the stem in place. Shelby’s engine makes a wheezing sound and Momma looks to Daddy with an alarmed face.
“What is that noise?” Momma asks.
“I think it’s a hole in the cylinder. I’ll take her in in the morning,” Daddy says. He lifts Shelby from the floor and looks at her costume.
“See. I told you. She’s my little Pumpkin,” Momma says focusing the camera on the baby’s face.
“Smile for Momma, Shelby. Smile!”
“Ridiculous,” Daddy mutters.
The doorbell rings and Momma lifts up the baby to greet their first trick-or-treaters.
“Get the bowl!” Momma calls to Daddy.
Daddy walks to the door with a bowl filled with Tootsie Pops and Hershey’s kisses covered in orange and black foil. Daddy hangs his head and hides behind the front door. Shelby reaches for the bowl.
“No, Shelby. These aren’t for you.” Daddy pulls the bowl back. “This is ridiculous,” he says again.
“Shh…” Momma replies. She opens the door wide and meets the trick- or-treaters with a huge grin. Before her stands a small witch wearing a black cape and plastic green nose which bobs precariously on her face.
“Trick or Treat!” the tiny witch squeals.
“Well, aren’t you just the cutest little thing!” Momma dips her hand into the candy bowl and drops a few treats into the open bag. The nose bobs thank you and the witch turns away. The witch is passed by two mummies on her way down the cement sidewalk. A father dressed in a heavy Carhart jacket waits at the street with flashlight in hand. Toilet paper streams behind the mummies and catches in the bushes. They stop to untangle themselves and nudge each other up the sidewalk.
Momma stands with Shelby the Pumpkin on her hip waiting. The boys look too old to Momma to be trick or treating but this seems to be how it’s done these days. The mummies hold out their Wal-Mart sacks and stare.
“Trick or treat?” Momma suggests.
“Oh yeah. Trick or treat,” a mummy answers.
“What is it?” the other mummy asks.
“She’s a pumpkin,” Momma says putting a single piece of candy into the bags.
“She looks like a robot...”
“Yeah, a robot dressed as a pumpkin,” a mummy says.
“She’s a pumpkin,” Momma says again through pursed lips, “And your costume is falling off.”
The mummies shove and push each other down the sidewalk. One of them falls into the bushes and leaves most of his costume behind. Momma slams the door and Shelby lunges again for the bowl of candy.
Shelby wakes up on her first birthday in a drafty oversized garage. The sign over the door is neon yellow and reads Super Lube. The rolling steel doors are closed for the night. The pegboard walls are covered in aluminum hooks and hold spare hoses and windshield wipers still in their packages. Three enormous workbenches boast shiny Craftsmen tool sets, battery operated drills, and giant hacksaws.
The baby is on a wooden creeper. With an IV of oil attached to her corrugated arm. Red bricks stop the creeper’s wheels so that Shelby isn’t sent sailing around the cement floor of the garage. The “creeper crawl,” as Momma and Daddy call it is her promised reward at the end of a tune up. If Shelby is a big, brave girl through the procedure, the mechanics will take her on a ride around the garage and give her a lollipop. They’ll even let her blast them with the air hose. Shelby’s other arm lies on a nearby workbench waiting to be welded back in place. The open wound on her right leg juts up at an odd angle, orange rust and dark mildew peek from her parts.
Shelby’s motor chugs, then pauses.
Momma pulls the thin flannel blanket over the baby’s leg and readjusts the hot pink bow in Shelby’s steel wool hair.
“There. Now that’s better,” Momma coos running her fingers cautiously at Shelby’s hair line.
The baby makes a puttering sound and Momma leans her body over Shelby’s. “I know it hurts, baby. That’s why we’re here. So they can fix you up. Kiss and make it better, Shelby.”
Momma and Daddy arrived the night before at the Super Lube just as the garage was closing. Shelby’s engine was making strange noises. Kept stalling. Her battery wouldn’t hold a charge, her arm hung by a single soldered piece. Shelby kept touching her leg, saying “Ow!” They decided to spend the night in the garage rather than risk moving the baby again. Momma looks around at the mess of her daughter and tears roll down her soft cheeks.
“It’s your birthday, Shelby. One year ago today. All shiny and new. And look at you now. You’re all grown up, baby. My precious Shelby,” Momma says. Her cries become sobs and she covers her face with her hands.
Momma’s cries wake Daddy in the waiting room. He lifts himself from the yellow plastic bench and wipes the drool from his face. Daddy walks to Momma and looks over her shoulder. He smiles down at the baby.
“Hey there, girl. How’s my Shelby?” The baby blinks at him. Tries to lift her chin. “No. No. Just hold still. The garage opens at eight and we’ll see what they can do. You want some air, don’t ya?”
Shelby smiles weakly. Daddy grabs the air hose and pretends to be blowing into it. Then he sprays the baby’s nose with a burst of air. Shelby giggles and whispers, “More.” Daddy sprays some air into his own face and pretends to fall down. The baby smiles and tries to lift her head to see better.
“Hold still, Shelby. Daddy will come closer,” Momma says.
Daddy sprays the air into Momma’s face and her hair blows back. Momma smiles and swats at the air hose. The baby’s eyes snap shut and her engine dies. It makes a clicking sound as it tries to turn over. Suddenly the garage doors open with loud clanging and high-pitched squeaks as the mechanics come in for their morning shift. They nod politely at Momma and Daddy.
“Why don’t you guys wait in there? Jim, put on a fresh pot of coffee for these folks,” the first mechanic says. His mechanic’s overall is black with grey pin stripes and Bob is stitched over his breast.
“I think it’s her piston rings this time,” Daddy says. “They’re all worn out.”
“We’ll be right back, Shelby, after your tune up. Just hold on, girl. Everything’s going to be fine. Momma loves you.” Momma runs her hands over Shelby’s broken parts. Daddy puts both hands on Momma’s shoulders and leads her to the waiting room.
They sit on the hard plastic bench and wait. Momma chews her fingernails and stares blankly at the television. Daddy paces the small space and rubs his scratchy face. Katie Couric drones on about how to know when a turkey is properly cooked for your Thanksgiving feast. On the screen she is dressed in a tan and cream business suit with a gold turkey lapel pin. Katie slices into the flesh of the roasted bird and shoves a forkful into her mouth.
“Mmm,” she says. The music cues the segue. “Now let’s preview some of the fabulous floats you’ll be seeing this year in the Macy’s parade. Matt?”
Momma and Daddy both look up when the tiny bell on the waiting room door tingles. Bob holds the door with one hand as if to make a quick escape.
“I’m sorry,” Bob says, “we can’t seem to get her engine to start. The pistons are shot. There’s no compression. No spark either. We’d have to replace everything to rebuild the engine. We don’t have the parts, though, especially not for an engine this small. And her body’s not holding either.”
Momma rises to her feet. Her breaths become labored.
“There just isn’t enough scrap left to hold her,” Bob continues, “she rusted out from the inside. When we welded the arm back on, it just wouldn’t hold. She’s barely holding on. We’ve got her going on a battery but she won’t last without it. There just isn’t time. I’m sorry.”
Through the slice of the open door, a pair of pliers clangs to the floor. A deafening echo.
“It’s my fault. I should have brought her sooner. I didn’t know.” Momma takes Daddy’s hand. She pulls him up from the bench. To her side.
“It’s no one’s fault,” Daddy whispers into Momma’s hair. “We knew this would happen.”
“You can see her. We’ve got our ten o’clock oil changes coming in, though.” Bob sniffs once and looks out in the garage. “We need to know what you want to do with her. Her parts, that is.”
Momma and Daddy see Shelby laid out in pieces, on the workbench through the glass doors. Her eyes are closed. She looks like she is sleeping. The pink bow rests on the bench next to her head. Orange extension cords tangle on the floor beneath the bench.
“Can she hear us?” Momma asks Bob.
“I don’t think so. I don’t know. She hasn’t responded at all.”
“Shelby,” Momma whispers, “it’s Momma. Baby, can you hear me?” Momma leans down over the baby’s body to listen to her chest. The metal is freezing against her cheek. Clicking sounds come from within. Shelby doesn’t move.
Daddy stands behind Momma. With one hand on her shoulder. The other over his mouth. He looks out the garage doors into the sunlight.
“We have to get her out of here,” Daddy says. “She shouldn’t be like this. We have to say goodbye.”
“I’ll give you folks a minute.” Bob cocks his head to the side motioning the other mechanics to join him in the waiting room. “We’ll be in there if you need us. I’m sorry.”
Momma’s mouth is open. Frozen in the moment before she will wail. Bob shuts the glass door to the small room. Muting Momma’s scream.
In eight years of these visits, the dog has never stopped barking when they arrive. He runs the length of the chain link fence growling and standing up on his huge back legs threatening Momma and Daddy. The dog pushes his mangy black nose through the gaps in the chain link and snarls his yellow discolored teeth in their direction.
Momma just smiles. She likes to think the dog protects Shelby inside. She approves of the dog’s fierce loyalty to the parts of their little girl. Momma gets out on the passenger side and closes the door behind her. Daddy sits in the idling car and waits. Momma walks to the "No Trespassing" sign on the front gate that separates the road from the abandoned cars inside and calls to the dog in her soothing voice.
“Good dog. Shh. Good dog. You see my little girl in there? You see Shelby? Shh. Good dog.”
Momma places a single sunflower on the gravel at the base of the gate. The huge golden petals overwhelm the brown center. When Momma sees her baby in her dreams, Shelby is climbing the steps in their split-level ranch and Shelby is giggling as she picks up Easter eggs in the backyard. In Momma’s dreams, Shelby is intact and full of life. But Shelby isn’t. Momma forces herself to remember this.
“Good dog. Be a good dog,” she says. Then she walks back to the car and climbs in the passenger seat. Daddy backs the car out of the lot and points it toward the highway. The dog stands by the fence, ears rigid, and waits.
-Melissa Scholes Young is a writer, a mother, a teacher, a pathological reader, and a professional juggler, in the metaphorical sense. Her work has been published in Mothering, Literary Mama, New Plains Review, Mused, Stone’s Throw Magazine, and other literary journals. She’s contributed to the anthologies A Cup of Comfort for Teachers and the Voices of series from LaChance Publishing. Melissa is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Southern Illinois University and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Visit her website for more information: http://www.melissasyoung.com/
-Photography by Christopher Barrio