A couple of days after we lost our baby I saw it struggling to get free from between the wicker strands of the hamper in our hallway.
I watched it land on the hardwood floor and start moving towards the far wall.
An inchworm? I got closer, until I stood over it.
No. Not an inchworm. A maggot.
I stepped on it.
I was still too numb to feel either disgust or triumph.
Dimly, everything had been dim since we got home that night, I noticed there was no crunching of a crushed exoskeleton, no smearing of innards. I looked; I’d flattened it into a gray spot, like old, dead bubblegum. The wavy pattern from my sneaker tread covered it.
Then it pulled back into its wormy shape and continued across the floor.
My forehead wrinkled with curiosity for the first time I could remember; finally I felt something besides dread and despair switching back and forth like sine waves in an increasing frequency.
I stepped on it again, giving my foot an extra little twisting action at the end, and again it reformed itself and kept going.
I looked at the hamper and suddenly remembered the gory, nightmarish clothes I’d dumped in there after stripping them off me and my wife. I’d put her in the shower and washed her the way I would have bathed the little kid we didn’t get to have, and then I’d joined her, scrubbing myself raw, craving the purification that warm water and scented soap couldn’t hope to bring even as our baby’s blood ran down the drain.
But somehow, left alone in the dark, that mass of bloody failed afterbirth snot had somehow congealed and twisted together and fused and sparked until, no longer than an inch, it emerged. Into our hallway.
I hurried to the kitchen. My wife was zoned out in front of a game show she wasn’t watching, her bathrobe unbelted, her hair messed up. The hospital shrink’s business card was on the table near her, and I’d scattered several other copies throughout the house like Easter Eggs, but neither of us could budge to make the call.
I opened a cabinet and got one of those saucers for tea with the raised ring in the center that mates with the bottom of the matching cup. I grabbed a butter knife from the drawer, returned to the hallway outside our bedroom and used the blade to scoop it up and smear it into the center of the saucer. I set the saucer on the kitchen counter and sat beside my wife. I put my arm around her and after a while she snuggled against me and we both fell asleep like that, peaceful and together.
I checked on it later that day. It had migrated out of the center of the saucer, inching its way around the edge of the plate.
“What’s that?” my wife asked. Her voice was hoarse and scratchy.
“I don’t know.”
She got off the couch, came over and peered down at it. “Is it a worm?”
“Something,” she repeated, and then she became the first of the two of us to touch it barehanded when she poked it gently with her index finger, her nail leaving a small, crescent-shaped indentation. “It’s dry, though. Where’d it come from?”
“It was in the hallway.”
She touched it again, longer this time, and it responded to her touch, wrapping itself around her finger. She rubbed it against her thumb, rolling it into a ball she returned to the center of the saucer. It straightened out again.
I returned to work for the first time the next week, accepting condolences and the murmured ‘sorries’ with the best half-smile I could manage, and I ate lunch in my cubicle. I had a picture of us at our wedding that I tried to avoid looking at, but couldn’t. I couldn’t resist the urge to slip back to that moment of wide-open future, in happy contrast to friends and coworkers who’d characterized marriage as a loss of opportunity or options.
By then it was bigger and thicker, slowly grown from the size of a piece of chewed gum to maybe a little finger.
That afternoon I finally touched it.
Its cool surface yielded and formed around my fingertip like clay or dough. I pushed it around a little, smiling as it moved along, keeping up with my finger as I reversed direction a couple times. The end of my finger felt dry and rougher. My wife was watching, intently.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know. It’s fine.” What should I say?
So I touched it again with another finger, rubbing it a little. It moved up my finger, across the hump of my knuckle and then to the back of my hand, before I gently picked it off and returned it the saucer, smiling at it. My wife was smiling at me. For the first time in a while, she kissed me.
When I got home the next day, it was a little bigger again, and she’d moved it to a larger plate from the same set of dishware.
It didn’t eat. It didn’t even drink water, but it grew from touching us, sucking the moisture or oil out of our bodies, from our skin. Handling it would leave my hands rough and dry; my wife’s got a little scaly and she gave me a dark look when I said something.
She moved it again to a larger dinner plate, and then to a soup terrine which it didn’t seem to like because of the sloped, rounded sides, so eventually she made its home in a flat metal casserole dish.
I’d come home and set my things down and it would move to the end of the dish, sticking its end out, like it was peeking at me, though it had no eyes or face. It didn’t inch itself forward, and it didn’t have legs or even muscles. It simply flowed through itself, somehow, so that when it wanted to move it would simply bubble and flow in that direction. As it went, the back end of it would suck itself in and flow toward the front, and the front would advance, like a portable, semisolid whirlpool.
With summer finally approaching the air conditioning in my car fritzed out and died, so by the time I returned home, there’d be a sheen to my forehead. I’d wipe my hand across my face and then touch it, in its casserole dish. I’d pick it up and it would twist itself around my hands, pulling gently at the hairs there.
A couple of days later it tentatively extended a doughy tentacle that spread out across my forehead like a rag, up to my hairline and down to my eyebrows, paper-thin as its edges reached my ears.
“See, you’re feeding it too,” my wife said, coming into the kitchen.
“Like it’s a baby?” I asked her, peeling it off my face, wadding it up into a squirming ball in my hands and then putting it back in the casserole dish.
Her expression darkened again as she sat on the couch, refusing to look at me when I tried apologizing.
I got the air conditioning in my car fixed. I had to; barbecuing in traffic, smelling either the stagnant exhaust fumes coming in through my open window or smelling the funk of fast food cooking oil that I couldn’t shake no matter how quickly I threw away the wrappers from my meals, eaten in place of what my wife would have cooked if she’d still been up to cooking, won out over making it happy to touch my sweaty face when I got home.
But I felt a twinge of regret, knowing that when I got home it would only touch my face a little bit, or maybe not even at all, now that I had restored the climate control to my vehicle. Truth was, I liked feeding it. I liked the way it responded to me, when I lifted it from its casserole dish or, more and more, my wife’s lap and stroked it a little, raising it to peer into its doughy mass, wondering about it without worrying about it, then letting it caress the sweat off my brow.
When it grew to the size of a rolled up newspaper my wife transferred it again, this time to a laundry basket. She cut a hole in the side of the basket with a pair of heavy scissors, lining the hole with duct tape to cover up any sharp edges it could snag itself on.
It kept her company while I was away at work. She’d been doing graphic design and illustration work from home; the plan was that she’d cut down when the baby came and then taper back up when she was ready, but there was no baby and she spent all day long on the couch in the living room with it curled in her lap, watching game shows and talk shows followed by reality TV reruns; anything, really, watching but not watching, fielding phone calls from sympathetic people who’d first called to offer awkward sympathy, unsure of how to express their condolences and who were now calling once in a while to check up on her. Our mothers and sisters and sisters-in-law and friends and a few other random people we knew.
She didn’t tell anyone else about it though. They’d all think she, or we, had crossed the line from grief and some kind of anticlimactic misplaced post-partum depression into florid schizophrenic hallucination. We’d sound ready for a rubber room and tinfoil hats. So I’d come home, knowing that she’d be parked in front of the television with it, knowing that she’d been that way all day long and that I couldn’t comfort her or talk to her. She would stiffen and then go limp if I touched her.
One day I started talking about how I felt, ignoring her vacant look as I blathered on about our family and our emptiness and how lonely and angry and stifled I felt. When my eyes welled up and tears started flowing down my face she put her hand on my knee.
It rose off her lap like a cobra.
Startled, I fell off the couch and landed hard, dazed.
It spread across my face, forming little suckers like an octopus that reached right to my orbital sockets.
I grabbed it and tossed it back onto the couch, scooting backward.
I stood up slowly, dramatically stretching my arms as I tested my achy back.
She wasn’t looking at me, though. She was stroking it with her fingers. It was nearly the size of a dachshund.
“I’m okay. Thanks for asking.”
She didn’t respond.
“You teach it that?”
“Teach it what?”
“The tears. It was attracted to them. You teach it that?”
“There are no tissues here,” I noticed. We had gone through tissues by the box after we had gotten home from the hospital, the symptoms of grief remarkably like having the flu, and for a while used tissues piled up around us anywhere we went.
“So, you’ve stopped crying? Or is it catching your tears, and that’s why it knows it likes tears?”
“What difference does it make?”
“Because we don’t know what it is, and…and…”
“And maybe crying all day long with…it isn’t the…healthiest thing for you…For us.”
“Maybe we should get rid of it, so I can go back to cooking and cleaning for you, is that it?”
“Did I say that? Did I say anything even like that? I know how bad you feel, and—”
“You don’t know anything.”
She hurt. I hurt. Did she hurt worse than I hurt? Was she starting to hate me for it, and was I maybe starting to feel like I was dog paddling away from a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean?
“That’s not true.” My tears had touched off this argument in the first place; she hadn’t been there a day or two ago when I’d started sobbing at work over a toy store promotional in the newspaper. I’d crawled under my desk and pretended to straighten out my computer cables in case anyone saw me.
“It isn’t a baby.”
Her expression darkened again, like last time. Only this time she snarled, “I don’t care. I don’t care what it is.”
“I care.” I reached for it, and she pulled it away from me, and I reached further and she pulled it away further.
“Look,” I said. “Look at what we’re doing now. To each other. Because of it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. All I know is that it’s helping me, and that’s enough.”
“Why can’t I help you?” I asked, seizing it. I yanked, and she yanked, and the thing stretched out between us like a giant rubber band, squirming and twisting as we both pulled on it in a tug of war. I held on tight, kneading it like dough, and finally overpowered her, ripping it free from her hands.
Stretched out like a towel somehow frozen in mid-snap, it grew hard and dense, congealing around my hand, stiffening to rock; when I slung it back to the couch, away from my wife, it was like heaving a shot putt. It ripped the couch cushion where it struck.
“Did you know it could do that?” I squeaked, my heart pounding in my throat.
She didn’t react. It melted back to its normal, doughy, softened self, and she picked it up, cradling it to her chest and I caught my breath, leaning against our table. “Did you know it could do that?”
“Don’t talk to me.”
“Yes. I did. I cared enough about it to pay it some real attention.” And she hugged it, puckered her chapped lips and kissed it. A ball of saliva at the end of her tongue quivered before descending her chin, only to be met by a doughy finger it formed.
“To me? Or to it?”
“To you both, I guess.” I approached, and the both of them froze for a moment and then relented. I sat down on the couch beside my wife, and the thing, which had tensed up a little, softened again. I extended a finger toward it, and it met mine with a tentacle and we touched, almost like shaking hands.
“I love you,” I said to her, and she smiled a little and let me kiss her, and it caressed the back of my hand when I set it on her lap as we embraced.
“I love you both,” she whispered to me.
But it doesn’t love you back. It’s just hungry. And getting bigger every day.
I started spending more and more time at work after that. I didn’t really notice at first, but gradually I’d be the only one left, straggling so I could organize old files or clean up my desk, using the communal feather duster until everything shined. No one said anything, if anyone else noticed. Things weren’t the same, but I couldn’t blame the rest of them, engaged in the groupthink consensus that I should be left alone for a while to heal on my own or something. I’d go to the water cooler and people would quiet down; they’d be more accommodating with my lunch preferences. I appreciated all of that.
We completed a project, on time and under budget, according to our manager, and celebrated with a feast of donuts and coffee, at company expense. I lined up and ate a couple donuts like everyone else until the color and consistency of the crème filling inside one of them reminded me of it flowing around its casserole dish or its laundry basket. I tossed away that donut, half-eaten.
“Where’s the milk?” a guy called out, holding up a cup of steaming coffee.
“Next to the copy machine,” a woman answered.
“No, that’s half and half. Where’s the milk?”
Someone else murmured.
“Where’s the milk?”
A third person answered, but by then I was already leaving the conference room, hurrying back to my cubicle. I grabbed my coat, feeling for my car keys even though I knew they were there, and turned off my computer without bothering to log out.
On the way out the door, forcing myself not to run to the parking lot, I passed my manager, on his way back inside from a cigarette break. I breathed to him that I wasn’t feeling well and had to leave, and he just nodded, patting me on the shoulder.
Where’s the milk? I stood on the accelerator turning out of the lot, leaving a rubber streak on the pavement. Where’s the milk? I ran a red light on my way home.
By the time I got home I’d calmed down enough to formulate a plan, so I parked my car a few houses down the street from my house and walked up the driveway, looking through the windows. The television in the kitchen wasn’t on. Usually I’d barge in and give a hearty ‘Hello’ even if I knew the house was empty; this time I walked around the garage, trying not to hunch my shoulders and skulk as I crossed my own lawn.
I took a full ten seconds to open the side door there, wincing first at the grating as my key turned in the lock, and then at the scraping of the door sweep across the concrete floor of the garage. Once inside I closed the door at the same agonizing pace, keeping the doorknob turned so the lock wouldn’t click.
I tiptoed around my wife’s dusty car. She hadn’t been out. At all. Kneeling, squinting, I saw that the deadbolt to the inside door wasn’t engaged, so I laid my hand on the doorknob, enjoying the cool metal against my sweaty palm as I opened the door.
Before crossing the threshold, I looked down at my feet and slipped off both shoes, frowning at the dust that adhered to my socks.
I didn’t bother closing the door to the garage behind me. My inseam whispered as I walked through the foyer so I tugged my pant legs tight to my thighs.
I crept into the kitchen, exposing only my head as if I were going to draw enemy fire, but the kitchen was empty. My reflection in the oven door was wavy and distorted. The spot on the couch where my wife spent much of her time had her body’s imprint. The laundry basket where it made its home, a few feet away, was empty as well.
I tiptoed into the living room, but she wasn’t in there either. I listened, closing my eyes for a moment, holding my breath, trying to sense something from the stillness in the room. She had to be home. Her car was here still. Otherwise it would have been in the laundry basket, patiently flowing and whirlpooling its way around and around, maybe peeking out the hole she’d fashioned for it. Certainly, there was nowhere she could take it. It wasn’t a baby, after all. No one to show it off to, with a pretty pink ribbon wrapped around its doughy body.
Something creaked. Not me; I hadn’t moved.
The noise repeated, louder, coming from the bedroom. I shuffled my feet in my socks, gliding through the hallway, past the hamper where I’d first found it, and into the bedroom.
My wife lay spread eagle on our bed.
I got closer.
Her eyes were closed, her forehead scrunched up, front teeth slightly exposed as she bit her lower lip, head nodding a little.
It lay on top of her in a Y-shape like a massive, flesh bikini. Giant suction cups suckled and kneaded her breasts, met over her belly and flowed between her legs, pulsating inside of her with a rhythmic chugging action.
My face twisted and my gorge rose but I still had time to be jealous, recognizing her blissed out expression, wondering when was the last time I’d gotten her looking like that.
It reacted to me; the thick doughy arms sucking at her breasts reared up, the bulk of it wadding into a ball on her stomach.
It didn’t stop driving between her thighs.
She leaned forward, getting her elbows beneath her. A drop of milk trickled out of her blue, bruised left nipple and down her breast. It extended a skinny, ropy shoot, the end of it curved like a spoon and it caught the breast milk before the drop could be lost to the bedspread. The milk soaked right into its doughy flesh and it caressed her breast, hungry, eager for more no matter how much it had already consumed.
“I’m home. Early,” was all I could say; lots of clever half-witty lines from movies I’d seen over the years piled up in my mind and died before they could come out of my mouth.
She nodded, distractedly.
I put my hand on her bare shoulder. She was warm, flushed red, agitated.
“I…I…Come to me.”
Its shoot thickened, lengthened, growing from the diameter of a straw to a garden hose to an arm, and then it whipped through the air and wrapped itself around my neck before I could get my hands up.
I staggered, grabbing at it, pawing, getting between it and my throat, and every time I did it flowed right between my fingers like pancake batter and got tighter, a stretchy rubber noose, choking me, pulling me forward.
I dug in my heels and tried throwing myself backward, but it stretched out to keep me, dragging me towards my wife on the bed.
The carpet below me slid and bunched up against the bedframe and I flopped to my knees in front of it, in front of my wife, gurgling, gasping for air as it strangled and throttled me, relentlessly reeling me in, pulling my body to the bed.
The room spun and swam, black spots clouding and spreading across my vision as I choked. Another branch bubbled and split off from the mass around my neck and forced its way into my mouth.
Cold, dry, chewy, it rammed its way down my throat; at the same time, the tentacle around my neck spread out, pouring over my head, flowing into my ears and down my forehead, swallowing me.
It flowed down my back and down my front, ripping open my shirt, into the waistband of my pants, grasping, spreading, probing, still hauling me closer.
My wife’s breasts grew larger in perspective as I was brought towards them, and the last thing I saw before it engulfed me was her flesh wrapping around me, pressing against me.
Alexander Jones has short fiction appearing in Akashic Books, Bastion and Crack the Spine. His poetry has been featured in Down in the Dirt and Juice Magazine; his nonfiction was recently anthologized by 2Leaf Press. He has a BA in English/Creative Writing from SUNY New Paltz and works as a metal fabricator. He lives in Jersey City.