Alma was angry. Angry at herself, angry with Kevin, even a little angry with God. Not that she thought He’d notice, let alone care. Most of the time, she wouldn’t have taken a thought like that personally, or would have tried to stifle it as blasphemy, a fear her deeply religious childhood had instilled in her. Most of the time she tried to understand. If there was a God, she thought, and he was responsible for the whole of Creation, then surely the problems of two people in the cosmos didn’t, to paraphrase Bogey, ‘amount to a hill of beans’.
Today though, she didn’t care. The anger sat just below her breasts at her sternum, and burned white-hot. She could feel it radiating out of her like a corrupted heat, and a sudden spike of rage made her wish that it was sending a perfectly clear message of ‘Fuck Off’ – capital ‘F’, capital ‘O’ – to the universe.
She sat at the kitchen table and stared out at the little patch of yard behind their house lit by the midday sun, and willed it to go dark. When that didn’t work, she stood and closed the drapes to the sliding doors, and then sat back down. It felt good to sit in the cool dark, and she lowered her head to the kitchen table and closed her eyes.
She found his ring on the kitchen table with a note. It had already been a long day – clients pushing for more than they were quoted, her boss pushing for more commitment, and her friends pushing for more time with her – so when she opened the door to an empty house, ice dug at the pit of her stomach. It wasn’t just that the house was empty – Kevin had been late before – it was that it smelled wrong. Not lived in. No aftershave and sweat smells that said he had come home on lunch to change after the gym. No hint of reheated lunch in the air.
It got worse the farther she went into the house. There was no change on the table in the little hall that served as a foyer, though he always emptied his pockets if he had grabbed a coffee in the morning. There were no dishes in the sink from lunch, coated with a mix of refried beans and sour cream from those damn frozen burritos he loved so much. She had opened the fridge door to see if anything had been moved, and that ice in her stomach just grew harder when it was evident nothing had.
Fighting it down, she had sat at the table, and pulled her phone out to call him, when the note he had weighed down with his ring caught a breeze from the open kitchen window, a corner of the paper fluttering. She reached out, and slid the paper from under the gold band. Read the unsteady script written on it, once, then twice, and then balled it up and threw it against the wall as hard as she could. It bounced off with an unsatisfying ‘click’. She stared at it, laying on the floor, and screamed. Once, and loud, but that ice in her stomach melted a little bit, and she was able to sit and think.
She opened her eyes and lifted her head from the table. The lump of ice was back, this time feeling as though it were crawling through her bowels. She clenched down hard and gritted her teeth, and the feeling passed.
Self-pity is wasted thought.
She eyed the knives on the kitchen counter, brushed steel handles shining with a dim reflected light. Her gaze slipped past them to the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink. Drano, lye, bleach, a dozen other toxic chemicals lurked under there. Revenge tickled the corners of her mind, and was gone. She refused to deal with the aftermath. It made no sense to take a life if you were just throwing your own away in the process.
The hate came on her again like a wave, and she could feel her jaw tighten. How dare he? How fucking dare he? All the things she had given to him, all the things she had given up, not least of which was ten years of her life. Ten years of swallowing the little things, and sometimes the big things, ten years of lying on her back and letting him fumble around and inside of her, ten years that turned out to be a lie.
The edges of her vision grew fuzzy, and she saw sparks jump in front of her eyes. She could feel the heat in her face, and pressure behind her eyes. She would not give in. There was no reason to cry, no reason to feel anything other than the hate that burned in her stomach. Even that was wasted, she thought – anger with no direction – so she took a breath, a deep, cleansing breath, and swallowed it down.
It took a moment, but the heat gradually subsided, the pressure behind her eyes, and the aching in her jaw. The feeling in her bowels – odd, but it felt more personal than that – returned, like a ball of ice forming inside her. She ignored it, and discovered she was hungry.
She wasn’t a stress eater, so this struck her as somewhat odd, until she realized she had only had a salad for lunch and nothing for breakfast. She stood, and moved to the fridge, pausing for a moment to decide what she wanted before she opened it. When she couldn’t decide, she opened it anyways, and grabbed the first thing her hand landed on.
It was a package of hot dogs. She pulled a plate out of the cupboard, and opened the package. The smell of cold meat hit her full on, and her stomach rumbled. She shrugged, and pulled a hot dog out and bit into it, sweet and meat swirling in her mouth. Her stomach growled again, and she took another bite, then another. The hot dog was gone, and she was on a second one. Then a third and a fourth.
She finished the package, standing in her kitchen over the sink, and her stomach still groaned and growled. She dropped the hot dog package, and moved to the fridge again. She almost flung the door open in her haste. Again, she grabbed the first thing in sight – a package of raw burger.
Shit, I should cook this.
The thought came and went, and then she was ripping into the package with bare hands, and eating the meat inside in scoops she tore out with her fingers. In the back of her mind, she was amazed she hadn’t gagged yet, and then it was wiped away. She was past flavor, past texture, simply eating to fill what felt like a gaping hole in her stomach.
It was over in a matter of minutes, the empty burger package joining the hot dog plastic in the sink. Alma stood there, her breath coming hard and shallow, and she wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. It came away red, and she almost retched. A short struggle and she was in control again.
That ice was back in her stomach, stronger than ever, a cold that seemed to radiate out and send tendrils into her hips and groin. She ignored it, and waited for it to pass. Instead, it throbbed and ached, and she decided the best thing to do was maybe sleep it off.
She stopped for a moment, and washed her hands, then scrubbed her face and lips with a dishcloth. When she was finished, and it came away pink, she made her way to the bedroom. She slipped out of her socks and pants, and then under the covers. Fatigue washed over her in waves, and she was only able to hold her eyes open long enough to place her head on the pillow, and then, nothing.
A dream of fire and ice, emotion rolled over her, scalded and froze her at the same time, until she was sure she should crack like pottery. Images slid by, and she was pulled into them. A walk over the bridge in the park, making love by the moonlight, fights where words were smashed into hearts as often as doors were slammed into their frames.
The dreams shifted, tone and place, and she found herself in darkness. She felt something grab her ankles, thick vines from a dark garden, and she was spread wide. Pain stabbed through her insides, and she felt blood trickle down the inside of her thighs. Then she was screaming as something inside began to force its way out, tearing flesh and cracking bone to find the light outside, and it was cold. She began to shiver, the pain in her hips dulled by ice, and her teeth began to chatter, loud and hard.
The clicking sound woke her. She opened her eyes to darkness. It took her a moment to realize the clicking sound in the room was from her teeth chattering, and not the refrigerator cycling in the kitchen. She forced her jaws to stop with an effort, and pulled the sheets closer. It was no good though. She had to pee, and when you had to go, fighting that feeling was like trying to swim upstream.
She got out of bed and padded to the bathroom, wiping sleep-bleared eyes. She flicked on the light, and looked down to lift the toilet lid. She stopped, and frowned, her brain trying to make sense of what she saw.
Her belly poked out, showing from under her shirt, the skin taut. She reached down and pulled her shirt up, and ran a hand over the skin. It was cold to the touch, and tight. She was still frowning in concentration, panic seeping in at the edges, when whatever was in her womb moved. She snatched her hand back, and felt her bladder let go.
The urine ran down her leg, a warm stream that left a puddle on the floor, but her mind was too busy trying to crawl in on itself to notice. She placed her hand on her belly again, and the thing inside moved a second time, its motion like that of an eel in a jar, swirling itself in circles.
Okay, okay, I can figure this out. We had sex, what, a month ago? She was having a hard time with math just that moment. And my period was – shit, that doesn’t work. Oh God, I’m a mess.
She took off her panties as she thought, and used them to mop up the urine as best she could, then tossed them in the wastebasket. The shirt was next, and then she turned the shower as hot as she could stand it, and got in. The water felt good on her back, and for a while, she just stood under it and let it warm her. After a bit, her thoughts began to order themselves.
Maybe it’s a parasite. She looked down at the bump in her stomach. On the other hand, a whole shitload of parasites.
I ate raw burger. The thought made her stomach twist, but not as much as she expected. It passed, and she ran a hand over her belly again, almost absently this time. She was surprised to find she did not mind as much this time when the thing inside moved in response, though her skin was no warmer, despite the hot shower.
The doctor – I’ll go to the ER tonight, and figure out what this is.
Almost as soon as she had the thought, the cold in her stomach, which up till that moment had been a simple chill, intensified. It grew from the chill of an autumn day into what felt like a blizzard, rushing through her insides and spreading to hips and thighs and deeper, into bone. She managed to step out of the shower, and wrap herself in a towel, but got no further.
The cold deepened, seeming to wrap itself in the marrow of her bones, and her legs gave out. She managed to catch herself with her hands as she went down, and at the least was relieved that she would not be nursing a concussion or a busted nose from the fall. Lying on the floor, she gave a whimper, and was immediately angry with herself.
I am not weak.
She drug herself inch by inch across tile she could no longer feel from the waist down, until she was laying on the warm carpet of her bedroom floor. She turned onto her back, and tented her legs, the position relieving some of the pressure she thought she felt on her hips. She lay there for a time, willing the cold to abate, and thought daggers at Kevin.
Fuck you for not being here, and fuck you for being selfish, and fuck you for this.
Her hands clutched and pulled at the shag under her, as the cold began to throb, a new sensation she was not happy about. She lifted her head to look down, and screamed, when she saw the skin of her stomach being stretched, expanding at a rate she could not accept. She threw her head back and clinched her eyes shut, and cursed the world again.
Fuck you, she thought again. Fuck this, fuck life, fuck fuck fuck.
She was spent, her breath coming in short ragged gasps. Then the pain came.
She thought she was too numb, but it still ripped through her, like ice turned jagged, and she screamed at the first wave. It rippled from her womb in a down and back motion, sending cramps through her bowels and back and thighs. The second came as soon, and she screamed again, unable to clamp down on her reaction.
Alma could no longer see, the pain sending up waves of black and yellow stars that obscured her vision, and cut out all thought. She felt for her stomach, hands frantic in their motion, and found it was distended even more. The skin felt so tight, she felt sure it would split any moment, and then, another wave of pain, so sharp and intense it was almost indistinguishable from pleasure. She screamed one last time, and heard a crack, then another, and another. Breath was stolen from her, and she was sure those sounds were her ribs giving way. Then she was still, dead eyes staring at the black that never left her.
She walked through the house, her fingers tracing items as she came across them. Here a picture, there a vase of flowers, and there a small ceramic heart that held a locket. None of these things held any value for her. She thought her mother too sentimental.
The few lights that still burned in the house seemed to dim as she passed them, her skin, black and dull, as though she had been dipped in matte paint, drinking their glow and returning nothing. As she walked, small patches of frost formed on the walls and the floor, and then dissipated, leaving only dew drops behind.
She paused in her tour, hearing a key in the lock below. Her fingers tightened around the shard of bone she held, a piece of her mother. She thought it fitting, a rib from the woman who birthed her. His voice echoed through the house.
“Alma?” He waited, and then it came again. “Alma? You home?”
She walked to the bedroom and waited. For a while, she thought he wouldn’t come, and then he was there, a shadow in the doorway. She smiled when she saw him, and he thought her Alma. She moved to him, and he opened his mouth as if to say something.
She slammed the rib into his larynx, the jagged bone ripping through flesh and cartilage. He tried to scream, and she ripped the bone free, taking his windpipe with it. Of all things, he would not profane this place with an imitation of her mother. She stood over him as he gaped and struggled to fill the hole in his throat. She looked at him, a gaze devoid of passion and mercy alike, and then she made it last all night.