Something Terrible and New
by Melissa Reddish
At first, Joan didn’t even see the creatures. She saw only the two wet streaks on her kitchen floor, as though the forest had birthed something terrible and new. And when she finally stepped over the viscous trails and found the creatures halfway across the linoleum, naked and panting, she wasn’t certain her initial impression was wrong. They were small and jaundiced, with tufts of fur sprouting haphazardly along their wrinkled bodies. Both had their mouths open, eyes shut tight. One had a single tooth embedded in its side. Joan couldn’t tell if it was growing there or it had escaped some other, larger animal. Later, after Joan had taken stock of the situation, she would try to decide if these were rats or moles or perhaps very small dogs, but they seemed to defy easy categorization. They had no ears, for instance—just two indentations on the top of their head where ears should be. But as Joan stared at their bodies limp against the grimy floor she had meant to sweep, their chests rising in tandem like a heartbeat, she had wanted to punt them. How dare they accost her with their vulnerability? And on a Tuesday afternoon, after she had snuck home to eat her ham and cheese sandwich in peace.
As luck would have it, or maybe fate, Joan had two empty shoeboxes and plenty of fake grass from the Easter baskets she had made her niece and nephew. They hadn’t noticed the careful way Joan had arranged the shredded plastic to look rolling hills: they had simply grabbed the hollow rabbits and run. Joan’s sister had rolled her eyes and said, “Thanks for sugaring them up.” But wasn’t that the point of the season: to grind your teeth and wish it were Spring? Maybe next year she would wrap up a couple dirty magazines. That would shut her sister up.
Joan didn’t want to touch the creatures, still panting and wet, so she used a spatula to ease them into their makeshift beds. One of them was just starting to wake up. It made tiny chirruping cries. They were so pitiful, Joan expected some larger version of the creature to come barreling through the front door. She poured milk into a turkey baster and squeezed it, one drop at a time, into the creature’s toothless mouth. Eventually it stopped crying and went back to sleep. Joan waited for the second one to wake up, but it didn’t. She wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad sign. They looked exactly the same as when she first discovered them, but somehow, in those small cardboard boxes, they seemed less like roadkill and more like two perfectly packaged steaks.
She leaned her head close to their trembling bodies and whispered, “This is temporary. Don’t get too comfortable.”
She imagined touching her lips to their skin and shuddered.
The next day, Joan left the creatures next to a bowl of milk and a container of leftover brisket. She wasn’t sure the creatures would be able to reach the milk or the meat, but what was she supposed to do? She had a job, after all. If she came home and they were still alive, then great. If not, oh well. She didn’t want the creatures to die, per say—she just wanted them to be whisked away on a soft, fluffy cloud. Up, up and away!
She worked at an independent contracting firm with six other employees. Her father had gotten her a summer internship when she was twenty-two. Ten years later, her father was dead and she was still employed there, albeit with a salary. When she was hired, she had the distinct impression that the boss was making up tasks for her to do. She would proofread letters addressed “To Whom It May Concern.” She would check lists of figures against identical lists that still had the streak from the photocopier. Eventually, other employees began training her to do routine tasks for them. Payroll was her least favorite. Candice, a brunette with aggressive blonde highlights, would touch her face and whisper, “You have your father’s eyes.” And then she would maintain unwavering eye contact as she breathed audibly. Joan tried to avoid her, but the office was only three rooms, so that was impossible. Most of her time she spent in the conference room, playing Minesweeper on her laptop and waiting for someone to tell her what to do.
Today, she noticed the faint smell of sawdust. The building usually smelled of either armpits or boiled carrots, so this was new. Inside was a large, cavernous space, much larger than Joan remembered it. Of course, with all the computers and chairs and copiers removed, any space would look larger. She walked across the once-beautiful hardwood floors, now unfinished wood. A power sander lay in the corner next to an empty box of donuts. Construction certainly was hungry work. She suspected the empty space was a façade, a painted backdrop meant to fool her. She reached out as though expecting the backdrop to fall away but encountered only dusty air.
Outside, the sun touched every surface, turning the world two-dimensional. She felt dizzy walking down the sidewalk. Maybe they moved? But if so, wouldn’t they tell her? An e-mail, a note on the door? Or maybe this was their way of firing her: quietly, obsequiously. She wouldn’t put it past Gerald. Every time he gave her another made-up task in his soft, wheedling voice, she wanted to stuff him in a cardboard box and mail him to a Third World country.
Normally on a day so open and bright, she would have walked into the grocery store and tucked bananas into suggestive openings throughout the aisles. But with one obligation suddenly lifted, the other gloomily descended. Soon she was running down the street. Coming home to death would be unpleasant; she could just avert her eyes and tip the boxes into the trash. Coming home to dying— those accusing wails, the panic blooming inside her—that was too much.
She burst through the door and felt the heart-sink of both creatures mewling piteously, the milk and meat untouched. With shaking hands, she filled the turkey baster with milk, dropping it twice, and finally dripped it into each creature’s mouth, alternating one and then the other. She pulled strips of meat from the brisket and watched each creature gum it down. The whole thing took forty-two minutes.
Afterward, both creatures quiet and sated, their eyes open and trained on Joan, she finally relented.
“I guess you’re mine now.”
Days passed. Joan developed a routine for feeding and bathing the creatures. She stretched their limbs so they wouldn’t atrophy. She left them on the kitchen floor to see if they would remember how to walk. Then she would clean out their boxes. At first it was overwhelming, but if she broke each day into a series of tasks, minute by minute, hour by hour, it was doable.
In the middle of the night, Joan woke up shivering. The house had dropped ten degrees. Her boxer shorts, abandoned by a former lover whose lips were always too moist, were no longer sufficient. She walked quietly to the thermostat. 59 degrees. She flipped it to heat and rubbed her arms. It was unseasonably cold for May.
She padded down the stairs, peeking once at the creatures still sleeping in their boxes. She was afraid if she maintained eye contact, she would somehow pull them into consciousness. She opened the door and felt the chill of late February. Joan snorted. The shortest month, indeed. It felt like it had been dragging on for years. The air outside smelled of long grey fields, forgotten trees. She closed the door. She was long past due to remove the string of multi-colored lights from the banister. Other women would have boxed them away by now.
Well, let them judge her! She had other things to worry about!
As if on cue, one of the creatures—the one without the tooth—woke and cried. By now Joan knew the routine.
A week passed or maybe a month. Joan knew it was a unit of time, but it didn’t matter since none of it meant anything anyway. Putting your hair up, decorating your house with reclaimed wood—that was for women who swept their depression into a corner each morning before work. The creatures were changing, but not in the way Joan expected. They weren’t, for instance, growing more fur. Their tufts of fur were just getting longer. And they were still slick with the same mysterious clear fluid. It had begun coating parts of the house—the floor vent in the living room, every spice jar in the kitchen—despite the creatures’ inability to wiggle more than a couple of inches to the right. Joan just wiped each new item with a dishrag and went about her day.
She began sleeping on the creatures’ erratic schedule: up for four hours, down for two. Night and day no longer held their comforting shapes. She got to know 4 a.m. with its purring atrocities. Your mother stopped loving your father long ago. Every person you know is just waiting for you to stop talking. Eight a.m. was all hard shapes for her to navigate. Two p.m. was the shimmering boundaries of a migraine. And 6 p.m., when the sky unzippered and left her with its open wound, well, it was best not to think about it.
She spent most of her time watching a half-hour infomercial for a plastic bowl that could become, through a couple flips of the wrist, self-sealing Tupperware, a colander, or an ugly hat. The man on the infomercial kept opening cabinet doors until he was buried under plastic. How can anyone live like this? Joan had to agree. The man pulled his face into exaggerated pantomimes of emotion, spasms of ugliness that surfaced and then disappeared. Joan had the suspicion that this was the most truthful thing she had ever seen, that if she could peel away every expression, every smile or grimace, she would reveal the ugly writhing thing at its core.
The phone rang. It was her friend Cheryl. Joan didn’t really like Cheryl, but it was important to have someone who knew the size and shape of your moles.
“I decided to make risotto. And I had all the ingredients in my cart when I realized the store was out of rice. Can you believe it? Who runs out of rice?”
“My neighbor keeps one of those inflatable pools up year-round. Hello, it’s March! It’s not exactly pool season, now is it?”
“My co-worker told me that her Yorkie has worms. I just know it’s because she doesn’t let him outside enough. Poor thing. I always say, their whole life is inside your house, and you’re going to make it smaller by not letting them on the carpet or furniture? That’s what I say, anyway.”
Joan lay on the coach and placed the phone next to her. She suddenly felt drained. Maybe her friend was a vampire. She imagined Cheryl, a pale figure in a long black cloak, sucking the life force out of her. No, wait. Blood. Vampires sucked blood. What was it that sucked your life force?
When she held the phone up to her ear again, Cheryl had hung up. She walked into the kitchen and made herself a microwave burrito. It smelled vaguely of human sweat. Half of it was cold and half of it was hot and none of it was good.
The two creatures had begun humming to each other. At first it was cute, and Joan made up little conversations they were having:
My dear sir, this week’s bread has been terribly underwhelming. I think we should complain to the waitstaff.
Jolly good, and tell her to ease up on the poppy seed, would you?
Joan tired of the game immediately. She tired of everything lately. Whenever she opened her eyes, she thought, oh this again. She walked from one end of the house to the other, not touching anything, just walking.
One night, the humming woke her from a dream where she stood under a waterfall of teeth. In that moment, the humming coming through the monitor, Joan was certain she could see the shape of the universe. The universe was a bed spinning at an unfathomable speed, light and sound and color whisking by in bright electric streaks, and every living creature bound together by a web of invisible tendrils that thrummed, with perfect precision, to held high C.
Joan was starting to get headaches again. She had headaches in high school, when her crush Johnny Marlin had cornered her in the art room and asked her to suck his dick. Why he didn’t ask his girlfriend, Joan didn’t know. She kind of wanted to see it, always straining against his jeans, but she didn’t want to touch it, let alone put it in her mouth, so she just avoided him instead. The only safe place was with the kids who loitered outside, but their cigarette smoke made her dizzy and gave her headaches.
After a while, she noticed other injuries returning: her ring finger, sliced open while high on Robitussin; her sprained elbow when the middle school bully had slammed her against the wall for saying good morning. She wondered if he too felt his old constellation of bruises forming beneath his shirt.
Touching the creatures’ slimy backs made her feel a little better. She would hold each creature up to the window so it could get a little sun. The one with the tooth flopped backwards like it was playing dead. Joan laughed. She thought about trying to videotape it, but her phone was dead, and she never bothered to recharge it. Not like she had anyone to call anyway.
She began trying to spiff the creatures up a bit: comb their fur tufts, shine the protuberant tooth. She had also begun feeding them new and interesting things: barroom pretzels, leftover Thai, grease drippings directly from the pan. The creatures had peculiar tastes. One liked fresh paprika sprinkled onto everything. The other would only eat his food raw.
The humming was getting worse. What had started off as a window into the universe was now an onslaught. Humming all hours of the day and night, humming when they were eating, humming interrupted only by the mewling cries.
Joan covered her ears. Shut up, shut up, shut up. But the humming continued.
She walked to the front door. She wasn’t going to leave, not permanently anyway, but it didn’t matter—there was only a smooth wall where the front door once was. Joan touched the wall, which was warm beneath her hand. Actually, it wasn’t a wall so much as it was alive. She traced a protuberance running the length of her kitchen. It pulsed a clear liquid beneath her hand, a vein searching for a heart.
Of course, Joan thought to herself, living things don’t have doors. They have entrances and exits. And I am certainly not going through one of those.
She grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer. She was excited to have a project, something to organize her time. She jammed the knife into the wall and held her breath. She expected the wall to scream but all it did was jiggle from the momentum. She held the handle, having forgotten how to use a knife. Was it a back and forth motion or an up and down one? Maybe she could just wiggle it in a circle?
She looked up and standing in front of her was Billy Nester. “That’s not how you do that.”
She rolled her eyes and tried to hide the lump in her throat. In sixth grade, she had spent the summer at her grandmother’s house in a small lakeside town with a gang of thick, mean kids who all knew each other. Billy had followed her everywhere, asking her invasive questions about her parents, her favorite kind of cheese, her knowledge about robots. Every answer was wrong, and he delighted in discovering all the ways she was mistaken. He would report the right answers in a loud monotone and wait for her to fight him on it. No matter where she went, he found her: the park, the pier, her favorite tree. Even after she was home and away from his flat head and chicklet teeth, he still would pop up randomly in her daydreams, identifying every single misstep.
“That’s a steak knife. You need a butcher knife or a bread knife.”
Joan rooted in her kitchen cabinet until she found a butcher knife.
“Did you even sharpen it first?”
Joan shook her head. “I’m too old for this.”
“I’ll say,” Billy said in his boorish voice. “There are exactly 181 known moons in our solar system. How many can you name?”
Joan ignored him and began sawing with the butcher knife.
“Everyone knows that meat partially frozen for 45 minutes is easier to cut.”
“Oh, and how am I supposed to freeze it, tough guy?” Joan cursed herself: She had intended not to engage.
“Dry ice. Obviously.”
Joan clenched her teeth and continued to saw. It was just like Billy to show up when she was finally feeling focused.
It took fifty minutes to cut a slit long enough to crawl through. She had to keep resting her arm. Joan grabbed two sides of flesh and pulled. Soon she had a space wide enough to slip her body through.
Outside, the sky was gray and still. Even the trees didn’t move. She inhaled, expecting the smell of earth, of impending rain, but all she could smell was the rancid skin underneath her toenail. She should really get that checked out. When she was little, Joan liked to imagine the swaying trees as little old women wiggling their fingers at her. Toodle-oo! But now she could see they were piles of rotting sticks, nothing more.
She imagined being outside would be a welcome reprieve, but the whole world was just one sucked-in breath, waiting for her to leave.
She turned around and went inside.
The creatures had begun eating more: not just milk and meat but corrugated cardboard, wadded up tissues, the pink slime rimming the bathroom sink. They became engorged, distended. They still couldn’t walk or even hold up their heads, but they were now large and fat. They no longer fit in the shoeboxes, which was fine, since the boxes were starting to smell.
Joan spent most of her time watching them sleep. It was so goddamn boring.
The house rang. It rang and rang and rang and then stopped. A notification popped up on the house’s midsection. “A doctor is trying to reach you. Do you still feel like your life is a fridge full of spoiled leftovers? Press 9 to reschedule this call.”
There were no numbers anywhere to press. The house vibrated a soothing blue to calm her.
Joan stood up. She wasn’t sure where she was going, but her body seemed to have a destination in mind. Actually, she knew exactly where she was going, but now wasn’t the time to be a know-it-all. Now was the time to be a know-nothing, a no-thinking, a no-thought. She grabbed both creatures, tucked one beneath each arm, and walked into the bathroom. It was a struggle: both creatures were heavy and kept trying to slide out of her grasp. The clear fluid dripped on the hardwood floors, but Joan didn’t care.
She filled up the bathtub, checking the temperature of the water by instinct. When it was full, she dropped the creatures inside. She was ready to peel back her eyelids and watch the nothingness blossom in front of her, but to her surprise, both creatures began to float. They bobbed slightly, two golden-yellow buoys covered in slime. She pulled them out and dried them off. The one without the tooth belched.
The next day was Sunday. Joan woke up late because the creatures didn’t make any noise throughout the night. When she walked into the kitchen, the creatures had exploded into a million glittering sand crabs. Joan was so grateful for the change that she began weeping. The house was not appropriate for sand crabs—she would need sand, so much sand—but this was something Joan could do. She moved everything on the floor to a high shelf. She tucked the feeling that there was a sinkhole forming beneath her into an empty chamber of her heart, pulled her hair up, and walked out the front door.
About Melissa Reddish
Melissa Reddish’s stories have appeared in decomP, Prick of the Spindle, and Gargoyle, among others. She has a collection of stories entitled My Father is an Angry Storm Cloud (Tailwinds Press, 2016) and a novella entitled Girl & Flame (Conium Books, 2017).