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Counting Up to Counting Down

horror by Josh Vogt

She scrutinizes her profile in the mirror, shirt pulled up to just beneath her breasts. The sunlamp is tilted at an angle behind her, propped up on a sofa cushion. She both hopes and fears the light might shine through her swollen belly to illuminate the stubborn creature in her womb. The same way a flashlight pressed to a fingertip suffuses the flesh and outlines the bone and nail.

“What’re you doing?” he asks, paused in the doorway to their bedroom.

Her breath catches. She keeps one fist clenched where he can’t see. Her skin warms but resists the light’s probe, and only shadows are cast onto the glass. Whatever grows within her continues to bide its time. To lurk, her mind whispers, but she shoves the thought aside with polished habit.

“Two years today,” she says. “I wanted to see if there was any change.”

“If there’d been any, I think you’d be the first to notice,” he says.

Healthy, they say. Textbook, say others with rougher bedside manner. Every induction method has been tried, from bumpy car rides to nipple stimulation to herbal remedies. Pitocin drips, Cesarean and amniotomy have been offered — suggested and highly encouraged — but she resists with a ferocity that shocks even her at times. She clings to a dream of a natural birth, even though there remains nothing natural about this.

Yet is this dream hers or one that has grown like a tumor on her brain? Motherhood changes people, she’s been told, but how much? She can’t tell anymore, and doesn’t know if it matters, or if she cares.

This realization chills her the most.

“Why don’t you go for another walk?” he asks.

She’s tired of walking. Tired of being a one-woman elephant parade. And when she leaves the house, there’s the constant horde shambling at her with outstretched arms. Let us feel him kick, they beg. And it is a he. Sonograms confirmed this long ago. They burble and coo and grope, while she wishes beating them off with a crowbar would hold up in court as self-defense.

“Too hot outside,” she says. “And walking never helps.”

To her relief, he shrugs and heads out for the office without further questioning. She unclenches her fist and lets the silver crucifix dangle on its chain.

No reaction to shape or substance, she notes. And sunlight, artificial or not, does nothing but crisp her skin.

She switches the lamp off and plods to the nursery. As she goes, she opens a container of shea butter mixed with holy water and massages the blend into her stretch marks.

No reaction to this either, but preventative measures are all she can rely on until she discovers a more potent option.

She studies the nursery from the threshold. The cradle is sturdy and padded. Cartoon cowboys mosey across the walls. Horses and wagons dangle from the mobile, and a plastic horseshoe has been nailed over the lightswitch in the hall — for luck, he’d said — with a wink and grin, back when they’d joked about such things.

A name is picked. The wrong one, crows her traitorous mind, and she doesn’t argue. She knows the name that should’ve been given, but it isn’t pronounceable with only one tongue. She’s learned it through murmured lullabies that shift into guttural chants in her mouth. From fingers scratching letters along the lining of the amniotic sac.

There are other signs. Food cravings are all well and good, but for raw meat? Mood swings are to be expected, but white-hot rage when the toast is burnt?

The unborn are not supposed to growl in the middle of the night. She tells her husband it’s her stomach, and he fixes her crackers and cheese and raspberry jam. The unborn aren’t supposed to make dogs whimper and lower their tails as she waddles by.

She cups the swell again, feels a squirm. A kick. She moves her hand. The other tracks along without fail. She presses down.

A push back. Hard. Insistent.

Is it a tender connection between mother and child? Is it a warning? A threat?

Let’s come to an understanding, you and I, it seems to say.

She squeezes her thighs together and, in that moment, prays the child will never emerge. That way she can continue imagining it as pure and blameless. Observation equals confirmation. She read that somewhere. There are some things you cannot undo.

And there are some things you cannot prevent.

The inevitability of it weighs on her nearly as much as the added pounds. She’d counted up to nine months with the joy of expectant motherhood. Ever since then, her mind has been counting down. The days flow past, water around a rock, polishing her. Chemicals are exchanged. Hormones adjusted. The blood-brain barrier crossed.

Refining her. Adapting her. She feels it, and doesn’t know how to fight it. Or if she even can.

She leans against the doorframe, wearied by this impossible burden. Her bare arm brushes the horseshoe-lightswitch.

Icy fire bites into her flesh.

And the child flinches.

She jerks back and stares. Reaches a shaking hand to make certain —

Again, hot pain lances from fingertips to elbow. Again, the child cringes. Curls up deep inside.

Not a plastic prop, as she’d thought. Metal.

Iron.

A smile creeps onto her lips, and with it, a first flutter of hope. Perhaps it is time to take a walk after all. To the hardware store.

After snapping the horseshoe off its tiny plastic screws, she goes searching for her purse, ignoring the sizzling against her palm.

Sooner or later, blood will mingle with water, and all will spill out, bidden or not. Until then, she will count each day a blessing and a chance to prepare.

copyright July 2011 by Josh Vogt

Josh Vogt lives in Denver, Colorado.  His short stories have appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Leading Edge, Shimmer and the Dead Letter Press anthology, Bound for Evil. Josh compiles writing resources and tools at Write-Strong.com.

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