[Sensory Deprivation Tank. A womb for adults. Image source.]
This flash story was originally published in Ligeia Issue #5.
Microwave explosion! Two injured!
I spill decaf over white bread-mayo sandwiches. My throat clamps. I force it open, swallowing.
Munich. 3,000 miles away. “Police suspect sabotage, with homicidal intent, by flat-owner’s vengeful ex-boyfriend.” I stare at the telly. Muted: less scary so. Thank god I broke up with Savazios before he could break up with me and burn my flat.
Time to lock away my microwave-oven. Why’ve I deferred this? Study my Sunday dinner. Yes: I’ll eat this every day. Hot food today isn’t worth being blown up tomorrow possibly accidentally.
Unplug my oven. Haul it to the storeroom. His office, that was.
A tiny room. A long three years. Nudge the door half-open. All the things I’ve put away threaten to tumble out.
Thrust in the oven. Lock the door.
Someday I’ll confront It. Meanwhile, this is only sense. The world bristles with dangers: to acid-melt your eyelids, to puncture your eyeballs’ rubberiness. If tomorrow matters, then today let’s scurry head-down, bunker in rat-burrows.
Finish my assignment. Blueprints for Manchester’s first pagoda.
I was an architect. Good enough that when, after It, I became housebound, they let me draft from home.
Windows, closed—last December, in Tours, a pigeon flew through a window, couldn’t fly out again, and terrorised an old couple. Doors, locked—yesterday, in the lift, a resident told her great-grandson there’d been rats on her honeymoon cruise-ship.
Bed. Drift in and out. Get up a few times to check doors windows radiator power-sockets rat-traps. Haven’t much left, to check, anymore.
Awake past midnight, gasping. My gut feels dying. Convulsions sit me up, then double me over. No, not my gut. Feels like—
Arms compressing abdomen, I stumble to the bathroom.
Lower my shorts. As I grasp my underpants’ waistband, with a final convulsion my body ejects something.
I know to perch, on bathtub’s edge, before inching off my underpants. Get them around my knees, splayed, before looking.
Two pieces of squirming nudity.
Panic clutches my throat. I massage my larynx. Lower underpants to tiles.
I squat. I stoop.
Two finger-long creatures. Like human foetuses. Or tiny walruses. Skin, transparent over pink-and-blank innards, a sac. Sealing eyes and ears. Mouths, too?
Walruses and humans—young enough, we look the same.
This I’d known. I’d known life, before It killed me.
I offer a fingertip. Breath, quick and warm, scopes me. Then two mouths. No: the mouths aren’t sealed. As toothless gums tickle me, I know what I’ve had. Rats.
I clean them. Carry them to the fridge. Here’s the milk-carton.
Into my hand’s small warmth the two morsels squirm.
I must heat the milk.
Reopen the storeroom. Microwave-oven topples out.
Feed my babies. They love to sniff!
Sniff out the drink. Sniff while they drink. Knead the saucer, as they’d’ve kneaded rat-tits. Get milk-soaked. Blind all through, half-sleeping.
I towel-swaddle them.
Let myself into the storeroom. Been a while. I’ve just been shoving things in. Here’s Muncher’s crate.
I dust it. Nest my babies. Set alarms for every half-hour. Get us to bed.
The alarm awakes me. I’d fallen asleep!
All week, they stay nude, skin-sealed, sleeping. Bones frail as cartilage. I count their toes: four, plus a hoof. Under the skin, flatnesses grow, protruding. In eye-sockets: raisins. Separating from skull: ear-buds.
The sixth morning, my final night-alarm awakes me to panic. Sunrays slant on something sick-shiny. They’ve wriggled, out of towel and crate, up against my thigh.
I sit up. Sun pours over them. I laugh.
Fur. It’s just fur, that they’ve begun to grow.
Run my finger neck to tail. Their bodies resist, now: life’s growing up, against. Springy muscle. Bones no longer crackling. The fur’s a gray dusting: just clothing pink nudity. Baby’s fur, softer than safety.
In a blink, two weeks pass. Their eyes open: black, sleepy. Ears leave fur. Thick fur, now. A coat, making them suddenly big. Gray differentiates into adult colours. One baby’s mostly cocoa, the other wheat.
Cocoa and Wheatie have the run of the flat. Scratch at the storeroom-door.
I bring them out the books I bought after It. Trauma, sickness, trust. Cocoa shreds them.
Bring them out Muncher’s toys. To a tennis-ball-sized, textured chew-ball, Wheatie clings two-handed, live-whiskered.
They fish out the fountain-pen. Empty, now. I scratch Cocoa’s neck, right of centre. She’s got a pleasure-point there, that’s saved me pellets in reward, training them. The gold nib scratches Cocoa’s fur. Cocoa’s right hindleg windmills. She thinks she’s scratching herself.
Little idiot. Like Muncher.
I squeeze Cocoa. Her jaws close on my forefinger. Pressureless. Lightning-fast. Their nonhumanness astonishes me.
Also astonishing: I’ve known what to do. I’ve felt it. Thought I’d forgotten how to feel.
Birth was terrifying. So would motherhood be. But for my lovely babies.
On hindlegs, Wheatie spends hours peering out the balcony-door, forelegs praying.
The balcony I locked up the day It happened.
But, when they start scratching the glass—teenagers now, but paws still foetal, quivering curious—I feel I’ve no right to fear, for them, what they don’t fear for themselves.
I stand. Hand on door-handle. Breathing slow. On my feet, sniffing the door-crack, Cocoa and Wheatie meerkat-stand.
Air invades my inside. Sun-dried. Autumn-sharp. I steady myself, hands on banister, gut clenching. Were there always these smells?
Honey-roasted peanuts. Leaf-fire, smouldering. Wine—
I peer below. Mulled wine, they’re selling, in styrofoam cups.
Mulled. Styrofoam. Here’s the world, still. Here’re the names for things, still. It’s all been waiting. A tide surges up my chest, up my throat, pulling me backwards and forwards.
I want to walk forward, back into life. And I want to draw back, to get back the three years of life that I let It take from me.
Laughing through my tears, I feel the tide subsiding, leaving wistful hope.
Squeals and scurrying alert me. My babies have fled the balcony. Still half-stunned, on auto-pilot, I shut the balcony-door behind them.
Motionless, a wingspan wavers. Blots briefly the sun. Wings fold away. Fully alert now, I’m looking, in his golden eyes, the falcon on my banister.
He regards my babies, safe behind glass. Turns on me eyes fire-clear.
I wave. He flies away.
I reopen the door. In the wine-drunk sunshine, babies huddle against ankles.
The tide has ebbed. Leaving accusation and absolution. Only soft white froth. A wake.
It wasn’t my fault. But, since then, it’s myself I’ve been killing. Choking, against tomorrow’s risk, today’s certain joy.