All Manner of Thing
by Rebecca Mlinek
[This story originally appeared in F(r)iction #4.]
Blood pooled in the corner of the baby’s mouth.
His mother sat with her eyes closed. He was warm and sleepy. He matched his breathing to hers.
Tired, Sophie thought. The word rolled through her mind like a mantra. Tired. Tired. Tired. She felt it layer over her like the quills of a porcupine. She envisioned herself curled up on the bed, quills out. Tired. Tired.
Through the closed bedroom door she could hear dinner being prepared: the clink of dishes and the sizzling of meat under a steady current of voices. A laugh, high and false, knifed through the other sounds and Sophie winced. She looked down at the bundle on her lap. If she never came out of her room, would they just go away?
Pain was the only thing keeping her awake. Needles were being shoved into the soft fragile skin her infant had claimed; she grit her teeth to resist pushing the baby away. When he was done, finally, Sophie drew the baby to her shoulder. She rubbed his back until she felt air bubble through his tiny frame, then she lay him in her lap and looked him over. He was asleep, but the edges of his lips were blurry. He looked like a drunk woman wearing lipstick. It took Sophie a moment to process: blood. She looked down at herself in alarm. Tiny rivulets of red, seeping from raw cracks in her nipples, mingled with milk in pale pink droplets.
She did not see the baby smile, faintly, in his sleep. Sophie could not tear her eyes away from her own body.
When dinner was over and the baby fed with Sophie back to her bed, after David thanked and accepted congratulations from and dismissed their parents, the apartment door finally closed and he breathed deep at last. He stole to his room. Sophie was half asleep, the baby curled in the crook of her arm.
“Hey,” she whispered.
He moved closer to the bed, and put his hand lightly on Sophie’s hair. He smiled down at her, and she smiled back.
They settled down on the couch together to watch television as a family. David put his arm around Sophie and she nestled against him, the baby resting on her lap.
They watched a late-night show and chuckled in the right places and thought about nothing.
David flicked the television off and hauled himself off the couch, wondering if he could still fit in a quick shower. Turning the lights off, he looked back and realized that Sophie had not moved from the couch.
“He’s going to need to eat again,” she said finally, sounding weary.
“No, he’s going to be a model son, just like his daddy.”
“Another Momma’s boy?”
“Just enjoy the luxury of having your very own perfect child now.”
He carried the baby to the white bassinet Sophie had set up in the bedroom. Giving up on the idea of a shower, he undressed silently and collapsed into bed with as quiet a sigh as he could manage.
Sophie moved more slowly. She blushed as she took off her bra and felt her newly gigantic breasts sway freely against her torso like udders. The t-shirt she replaced it with did little to help. David smiled at her. She gingerly maneuvered herself into bed, close to him, but when he put his arm around her she shuddered from the pain in her engorged breasts.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
“It’s okay, it’s just…” Sophie tried to move her shoulders so that his arm was around her back, a space between them to protect her chest. Awkwardly, David’s arm fluttered over her, finally settling on her hip. Their eyes met, wide and confused. Sophie burst out laughing.
“I don’t know where to touch you,” David whispered.
He kissed her cheek lightly, “Poor baby. You’re losing an awful lot of blood.”
“Is it so obvious? I’m sorry, it’s disgusting.”
“Oh, no. Poor girl. Is it normal to lose this much?”
“I don’t know. I guess. It’s gross.”
“You just had a baby, hon. It’s okay.”
Her breathing was already slowing. Sophie nestled her head on his arm and sighed. David lay still and listened to his wife fall asleep. His pounding heart finally began to calm, but he was still angry with himself.
Of all the times to slip, he thought. I can’t do this now. The smell of blood coming off of his wife made it hard to unwind.
The baby began to squirm.
Sophie snapped awake instantly. She could hear his tiny arms strain against the swaddling blankets and the wet smack of his mouth as he began to root. She willed him to sleep, feeling how warm it was in her own bed, David’s arm so nice around her waist. Dear God, she thought, please let him sleep.
He began to cry, a thin, inhuman-sounding wail that went straight through Sophie’s body like a surgical needle. She threw the blankets back, the sudden chill air hitting her sharply. The front of her shirt was wet with milk.
A weary ritual began. She trudged back and forth between her armchair in the living room and the bassinet they had set too optimistically beside the bed. The baby fell deeply asleep in her arms again and again but every time his body touched the cool clean sheets of his own crib, he would begin thrashing and the entire routine would repeat.
Rocking and rocking and rocking, for hours her feet pushed rhythmically against the carpet as the baby nursed. Her head swayed with fatigue.
David slept fitfully. The moment Sophie crossed the threshold of their room he woke with a start, his senses on high alert. He kept his breath slow and deep as his wife crawled under the covers, and then listened, tense, until the baby inevitably began to cry.
When the alarm sounded in the morning he was in an empty bed. He threw on a t-shirt and went down the hall, listening to the low murmur of the television. Sophie sat in her big padded chair, her nursing pillow wrapped around her stomach, propping the baby against her skin. She was sound asleep. He stood for a moment indecisively but as the baby was snug, his small face turned toward the ceiling, he tiptoed back to their room to take a shower.
The moment he turned the faucet on, it hit him. His body convulsed and he barely had time to make it to the toilet before the contents of his stomach came hurling out.
He leaned for a long time against the basin, heaving, while the bathroom air grew heavy with steam. It had been so long that he was in shock. Resting his head on his forearm, he debated skipping the shower but he was growing nervous about the hospital smells in his hair, the Sophie smells. Quickly, not giving himself time to react, he stood up and stepped into the circle of hot water. He began to heave again; gritting his teeth, he ran soap over his body, fighting to keep his thoughts from getting lost in the pulsing rhythm of water hitting the tub. He was done in three minutes and turned the faucet off with shaky hands. Dripping, he lowered his head.
It is not going to happen, he said to himself. No.
By the time he was dressed, David could hear Sophie moving about the kitchen. Coming down the hallway, the sight of his disheveled wife standing in front of the open fridge seemed much more real than the fear in the bathroom. Coffee sputtered in the pot on the counter, filling the room with the aroma of dark roast. The baby lay in his carrier, his eyes wide at the sight of the kitchen floor. David came up behind Sophie and wrapped his arms around her waist. Surprisingly, to his relief, she did not smell strongly of blood. She smelled like milk and baby power and herself, and it filled every crevice of his mind with calm.
“Did you sleep at all?” he murmured into her hair.
Sophie twisted in his arms and he kissed her, wanting nothing so much as to hide with her under the blankets in their bed. She kissed him back mechanically, tiredly, and he let her go.
“I should go,” he said. “Will you be okay here?”
When the door closed behind David, Sophie slumped against the counter. She stared at the baby carrier mournfully. The refrigerator hummed and from the apartment above water gushed through a pipe, and Sophie did not move. Time passed and the scene stayed frozen until the baby began to fuss. Sighing, she scooped him up and trudged to her chair. She balanced the remote on the arm, holding the squirming baby against her shoulder as she settled the nursing pillow and scrolled through the cable menu. It occurred to her that her glass of water was in the kitchen. She was suddenly, intensely thirsty. Oh well, she thought. Too late. She looked down at her son, now wriggling frantically against her, his mouth open. He looked like a shark, the way his eyes rolled back in his head. Her nostrils flared with distaste. When he latched on she looked away, the soothingly bright home improvement show a welcome distraction. Every once in a while her jaw would clench, but she did not look down again until the baby was done.
David locked his office door. He kept the lights off and hoped the students would assume he was out. His plan was to run over the exam for his upcoming class, and he bustled about his desk with that in mind. His hands shuffled the papers and clicked the spring of his pen, his eyebrows lowered in concentration. Eventually, he realized it wasn’t working. Okay, he thought. One minute to look, one minute to get it out of my system. He stood up and pulled aside the curtains covering the window that ran the length of the wall. A small stream ran behind his building and on into the woods that bordered the university. This picturesque view, so much nicer than the view of the parking lot most new professors enjoyed, indicated high favor from the Dean, according to his colleagues. Inwardly, this made him laugh. He had not voluntarily been near nor looked at a natural body of water since his early childhood. The parking lot would have been his first choice.
The curtain open, he now watched the stream expectantly. Water ran smoothly over the shallow bed as always. There was nothing unusual. But he could feel it, the strain under the current. It was coming. Probably. Possibly.
A framed picture of Sophie smiled out at him. I need to bring in one of the baby, he thought vaguely. Then, despite himself, I knew this would happen. It had been fifteen years, fifteen, but he always knew. It had never been just a phase. He always knew it would come for him sooner or later.
The voice itself, horrible, inhuman, was worse in the echo, the way it had of coming from nowhere and everywhere. He closed his eyes, exhausted.
He thought of his father’s face that first time. In truth, David had not given the old man much thought since his death four years ago. Not even after the birth of his son had he considered his own father or missed his presence. Now he felt a sudden, desperate wish for one last chance to talk. His father had been reserved, unemotional, but he was there, solid and reliable, the first time it happened.
He remembered waking up, a boy of fourteen. He was on a tile floor, thick and damp on his skin. A whimpering, small and mewling, bounced off the ceramic, disorienting. He listened blankly, panting as he woke, before the sound resolved itself into something he recognized: a girl, near his own age. He jumped to his feet. She was a mess of blood and mud, but it was the noise she made more than the sight of her that told him she was injured. He stepped toward her, desperately irresolute, and she cried out loudly in terror at the sight of him. Her wails, frantic, drove him out of the place and he began running, barely registering his own nakedness, with the sound of her cry ringing in his ears. He ran all the way home and spent the rest of the weekend locked in his bedroom.
On the second day, his father knocked in a way that could not be ignored and David opened the door, ashamed and afraid. His father locked the door behind him and sat heavily on the bed. In his hand was a tattered t-shirt, splotchy with brown, stiff stains. David recognized it as his.
“Not so close to home next time,” his father said thickly. “When you feel it coming on, start running—as far away as you can.”
David looked up, too stunned to reply.
“Running will tire you out, make you less violent. You’ll go farther than you think. You are less likely to hurt strangers. I don’t know why. Get far away from home, away from people you know.”
Tears dripped down David’s nose, but neither of them acknowledged it.
“The voice speaks over the water. Always. You will probably begin to feel an aversion to water in the day or two before it comes. Pay attention; it’s the only warning you’ll get. Stay away from lakes or ponds, even pools. It will find you anyway, but it’s worse near water.
“You will feel a desire to give in to it. Don’t. Fight it. Something tells me that if you give in, you won’t ever come back. Fight it. It will make you furious, it will make you violent, but you will return.”
They sat in silence then, father and son, the blood-soaked shirt between them. “Did she….?” David finally asked, but his father immediately shushed him. “I don’t know. It’s best not to wonder.” David hung his head then, oppressed beyond what he thought he could bear.
“Next time, not so close to home,” his father repeated. “And bury your clothes. I’ll buy you new ones.”
David tried to meet his father’s gaze, but the old man was looking at his feet. After another moment of silence he stood up, the bed creaking, and left, closing the door behind him. They never spoke of it again, but David would find new jeans and t-shirts laid out on his bed with regularity.
His cell phone buzzed once, a reminder for the exam. He knew that his colleagues and students would be anxious to congratulate him. He hoped they would attribute his haggard weariness to the stereotypical condition of a new father. He was grateful that his classroom offered no views of the stream.
When David returned home he was surprised to smell something coming from the kitchen. They had agreed, when it was clear the baby would be arriving during final exams, that meal preparations should be the domain of either their anxious-to-help mothers or the pizza delivery man, so that Sophie could focus on the baby while David focused on his work.
She had music playing, and David watched her for a moment as she swayed, moving the spoon around in time with the music. He longed to bury his head in the softness of her hair and to forget, for a moment, the bell tolling in his mind. Setting his briefcase on the floor, he moved toward her and she turned with a start.
Sophie smiled and he reached out, but her arms were occupied between the infant and dinner. He stopped awkwardly.
“I thought your mom was bringing dinner tonight?”
She shrugged, “It seemed easier to cook myself than to deal with her today.”
“She thinks I need to be on medication.”
“She thinks you’re depressed?”
“She thinks everybody is depressed.”
David could sense an anxious undercurrent. He watched his wife for a moment. “Do you think you’re depressed?”
Sophie glanced at him and then away. “Oh,” she said, “I think I’m tired and sore and, you know, adjusting here. But I don’t think it’s anything I can’t handle.”
David nodded, relieved. “Just let me change,” he said, rubbing her shoulder, “Then I can at least take the baby.”
When David disappeared through the bedroom door, Sophie set the spoon on the counter and clenched the edge. His casual attitude about the baby, as something he could pick up or put down at will, filled her with jealousy. It felt remarkably similar to hatred. She squeezed the counter until her fury passed and then, as she had many times that day, kissed the head of the infant in her arms. “I’m sorry,” she whispered into his ear.
Dinner was quiet. David held the baby against his chest while Sophie inconsistently felt lost and empty with the use of both her arms. When they were done, she took the baby and settled in her chair to feed him while David cleared dishes. He clattered loudly, unused to clean-up duty. Something clinked onto the floor and her heart warmed to the sound of her husband mumbling as he picked it up. She gathered up the baby and the nursing pillow and her water and re-settled herself on the couch, next to where David would sit. For the first time that day, she felt hopeful.
Sophie had filled the pots with hot, sudsy water before dinner, but now it was tepid. A greasy film covered the rims. David froze, acid roiling in his stomach. It took an extreme effort of will to touch the water. Sweat beaded on his lip.
David had tonight. It would not be tonight, but soon. Tomorrow? Soon. I have to make a decision. Confess to Sophie or leave. Neither seemed possible.
He left the dishes and quietly took a bottle of scotch they kept for his father-in-law. He held it close to his leg until he was in the bathroom. He was not a drinker and the scotch made him cough, but he immediately chugged more. He should tell Sophie, just tell her. So she would not wonder when he disappeared. How the hell can I say this out loud? He closed his eyes, forced himself to think, to know for sure: could he tell her? No. No.
David took another drink. His shoulders felt soft and warm. It all seemed so ludicrous, so impossible. He could only think about it so much. Over-thinking his condition was, he knew from experience, a fruitless exercise.
He quietly set the bottle on the counter and rejoined Sophie in the living room.
When David came into the room, Sophie looked up and grinned. The baby was sound asleep on her lap, his tiny fists clenched. David looked at her and then sat across the room, in her chair.
“Clicker?” he asked.
Wordlessly she held it out, and he leaned over the coffee table and took it.
“Are you okay?” she asked
“Sure,” he said. He lifted his eyebrows and smiled, but the expression on his face was that of a stranger, hooded and empty. “Are you okay?”
Sophie nodded, cowed. Instinctively she pulled the baby closer and he snorted in protest. David casually flipped through the channels. It was the first time she could remember ever sitting apart from him in the evening. Covertly she watched him, the weight of her son’s head heavy on her arm and a feeling of dread sliding over her body, compressing her lungs. Something was wrong.
For the next hour nobody spoke. Sophie nursed the baby, burped him, nursed him again. She did not even look toward the chair where David sat alone. Eventually she just closed her eyes.
The current had somehow shifted and left David on the opposite bank. The easy flippancy between the two of them was suddenly gone, and she was powerless to renew it. He must know, he could tell that she was not cut out for motherhood, that this had been an enormous mistake. Or was it that he found her now unattractive, unappealing? There was no way to know—if David did not guess her ambivalence toward their son she could never, never tell him.
Tears welled under her closed eyelids, but she let them seep. They were a relief.
David stared at the television until he felt enough time had passed. The scotch was a mistake. Sophie smelled it, saw him take the bottle, something. She was suspicious. He glanced over while she was absorbed with the baby, the light from the television reflecting off of her hair with an eerie blue halo. She looked like a painting, her serene face bent gently over the infant, peaceful.
His eyes were watery, mostly from the scotch. He imagined throwing himself at Sophie’s feet, sobbing out a confession until her hand, luminous in the blue light, reached out to touch his head. Her connection with the baby seemed to unite her to the earth itself in some powerful and fundamental way. The David in his mind found absolution and healing there.
Instead, he got up and poured himself a glass of milk from the kitchen. Standing in the florescent light, he eyed the scotch as he drank.
Sophie heard David leave the kitchen and head for their bedroom. She made no move to follow. She expected him to come back sheepishly, to kiss her properly and laugh about being tired, or freaked out about fatherhood. The baby snuggled his head into the crook of her neck and Sophie closed her eyes, savoring the sudden rush of warm, sweet love. The numbness that plagued her broke and she rubbed her chin along his crown. Her eyes began to leak again. It was such a relief. It was such a relief. The kitchen clock ticked loudly. Her son sighed and burrowed his head even further into her neck. For a moment she was lost in the magic her child wove around them.
David felt sure that if he could get some sleep, things would be fine. The answer was bound to come to him. He just needed sleep. His chest warmed with scotch, he crawled into bed and felt nothing but relief as he sank into unconsciousness.
The sun rose bright and cheerful. The baby found his hand and began sucking on it forcefully. The noise woke Sophie. They lay on the living room floor, where she had placed him after his last feeding, curling around him to keep warm. She sat up. Light beamed in defined rays through the living room blinds and she blinked at the dust motes reflected in it.
Thinking of David, she wondered if she was just getting paranoid. She decided to put on a pot of coffee. Then she would wait for David to appear and see if things were, after all, just fine.
Two hours passed. She drank the entire pot of coffee and made another. She changed the baby, fed him, and then changed him again. Don’t bother changing the baby until after he eats, she reminded herself. We’ll spend a million dollars in diapers this way. All the while her mind hummed to the thought of David. Every noise in the apartments around them made her jump, thinking it was him. Finally she heard the shower turn on down the hall. Five minutes later David made his appearance, wearing the boxers he slept in. His hair was wet but he looked haggard and bleary-eyed, and he stumbled toward the coffee pot without looking at her. The cabinet door creaked and the cups clinked, and David came out of the kitchen with a steaming cup, turning back to their room without a word or a glance.
Sophie was mortified.
Her fear from the night before hit her like a plank of wood. Her eyes took on the look of a hurt animal. She could not have said why David’s refusal to look her way felt so disastrous, but she felt sure it did. She pushed against her eyelids with her fist to keep them dry.
When David emerged fully dressed, carrying his briefcase, she snatched her son off of the floor and stood to face him.
“I’ll be home late tonight, remember,” he said, hoisting his laptop over his shoulder. Sophie nodded, clutching the baby, and he was gone.
David closed the apartment door behind him. She hasn’t noticed a thing, he thought. It’s going to be fine. He would have time to figure it out. Everything was going to be fine.
The door closed, and the baby began to cry. Mechanically Sophie sat down in her chair and pulled her nursing pillow around her stomach. She unlatched her bra and looked down. Her son’s gums gnashed behind his puckering mouth.
Every fiber in her body rebelled against the call to nurse. I might hurt him, her mind warned. I should set him down. I might hurt him. His gums were tipped white at the top, hard as teeth. The thought of him gnawing at her still-bleeding nipples made her want to scream. She couldn’t bear the thought of his clingy little body touching her.
Maggot, she thought.
She set him on the floor.
Sophie imagined herself kicking him against the wall. She saw his cries stopping with a grunt as his flannelled body thudded against the plaster. She felt the heaviness of the impact in her mind and in the deepest part of her a madwoman crowed in triumph.
The baby choked on his sobs, silent a moment as his body rocked. She leaned over him intently. His chest shuddered and his cries resumed on a gulping burst of air.
She had to move. Heaving out of her rocker, Sophie stepped over the baby and walked behind the chair where she could crouch against the door and not see him. She slid to the floor, the welcome mat skittering under her feet. Her hands pulled at her hair without her knowledge, she felt the pain but not the clumps of hair in her fingers.
She was afraid. I wouldn’t hurt him, she told herself.
Yes you would, the madwoman laughed.
A whine, low and groveling, escaped her. Loose hair tightened around her fingers.
The baby grew louder. Milk streamed from Sophie in response. She crossed her arms over her chest and began to sob. Her cries were deep and heaving, and they drowned out the pleas of her son.
David locked his office door. He positioned his chair near the window so he had an unobstructed view of the stream. He wanted to think.
The water still gurgled freely over the rocks, but he could sense it gathering under the surface, the tension, the deep thrumming that always heralded the coming of the voice.
His morning confidence was shattered. Be a man, David told himself. If you don’t face it now, it will be too late. I’m going to hear the voice. Tonight. Glittery sparks leaped from the surface of the stream. David’s stomach began to churn. Nothing is going to be okay. Vomit surged in his throat and he lunged over his desk for the trash bin. Just in time. His teeth pinged with metallic aftertaste.
Wiping his mouth with an old napkin, David closed his eyes. He could run. In his youth, he found his father’s advice helpful; running kept him from the worst trouble. Unfamiliar scents did not entice him the way familiar ones did, and among strangers he was less dangerous. He knew from experience, too, that his capacity for running would increase as the day drew to a close. He often began running the afternoon before a call, and would wake the next day to find himself hours away from home. He long ago lost the plastic money pouch he used to wear on a lanyard, but he knew ways to make do without money. He could run. Think of an excuse to tell Sophie when he returned. This might, after all, be an aberration brought on by the birth of his son, not a complete return of his former condition.
Tears welled up beneath his eyelashes. The sad, heavy lines of his father’s mouth came to his mind. His father must have known, when David was still quite little, that this would come. And now David would see his own son suffer, would wake in the middle of the night knowing that his own son was out there, in a desperate and violent struggle to maintain his humanity.
He could run, as he always had. Fight the call with an animal fury and return home after battle, broken in spirit but otherwise intact. He could return to Sophie, try to maintain the life he had grown to love.
But there was another way. Despite his father’s advice, instinctively he always knew there was another path. The voice wanted him body and soul. The defiance of running did not preserve his body, but it kept some part of his soul in his own keeping. If he stayed, and relinquished the small hold left to him when he was denatured, it might satiate the voice. David as he knew himself would be gone. He had no doubts about that. It was a fact as sure as his name. But it could possibly protect his son from the call; if he lost himself to the voice, it might look no further for another messenger.
He thought of Sophie the morning before, cradling the infant in her arms with her eyes closed, so peaceful.
When a knock came on his door, David jumped. He noted to himself that his hands were shaking as he unlocked it. Standing on the other side looking concerned was a student, a young red-haired go-getter from his Faulkner class.
David felt his legs trembling but could not stop it.
“Uh, Professor,” the student stammered, “Aren’t you coming?”
“Isn’t today Friday?” he demanded. She nodded, still staring at him.
“I only have evening class today,” he said, truly disoriented.
“It’s 6:30. The exam should have started half an hour ago.”
David stared at her until he realized that she was squirming. He ran his hands through his hair. “Of course,” he said vaguely. “I’ll be right there. Tell them I’ll be right there.”
The girl left, scurrying away, her hair whirling on the air behind her. David turned to his desk to snatch the exam but stopped, his hand hovering. His office was in absolute darkness despite the dusky light still outside. Through the window he could see the stream, fuller than before, almost spilling over its bank. It was perfectly still, like a path of glass reflecting the tops of the trees.
It was time. He stumbled out of his office, not bothering to close the door. Murmurs from his class could be heard from the hallway, but he barely registered them. He was staggering, his hair suddenly wet with sweat and his pressed shirt and the t-shirt underneath stuck to his body. He hurled open the classroom door and hung his head over the jamb.
“The exam will be rescheduled,” he rasped. The students immediately began to react, some protesting loudly.
“Go home,” David growled. The class, a petulant batch of undergrads, was immediately silent. This looks bad, this is bad ran through his mind like a looped recording.
“Go home,” he said again and turned away. He could hear the frantic screech of chairs on tile, the buzz of zippers. He began to run.
When he reached his car, he realized his keys were still in his office. Without thinking, he ran around the building. In front of him the stream stretched menacingly, and he jumped over it in a panic, crashing through the underbrush beyond. Following the instincts he had developed long ago, he began to run with all his might.
The baby had long ago stopped crying. His breath shuddered, but he had been asleep a long time. Sophie slept too, badly. Her dreams were filled with large, grotesque bugs.
She opened her eyes, and in her half-sleep she saw herself from a distance, slumped uselessly against the wall. Behind the chair the baby began to kick, but she couldn’t see him. It wasn’t until he began crying that she remembered he was there. Sophie pulled herself off the floor. She moved like a ghost, like a misplaced actress in a flickering movie reel. She stooped in front of him and gently, slowly picked him up. His cries turned to relieved gasps; he was glad to see her. She couldn’t believe he was so glad to see her.
She stripped off her soaking bra and pulled her infant in close. She studied the curve of his nose, his tiny ears, she mapped the hairs of his head. The madwoman in her chest was crushed in an onrush of pity and tenderness.
It was fully dark before David gave a thought again to where he was. He pushed through a wall of brambles. Past the brush, he found himself standing on the slope of the county reservoir.
It was too late. He shook his head in confusion. His apartment was less than three miles away, the reservoir an attraction for Sophie’s Saturday morning walks. He couldn’t work out how the woods could lead here, so close to home, but it was too late. He was too close. The scent would draw him home. Sophie would be lost. The baby would be lost. He was trapped. To his left, the moon hovered over the line of trees, reflected on the water in lapping circles.
The moment he saw it, it began. The water gathered itself like congealing jello and began to thrum, rolling and foaming in the center where the moon touched it.
It came over the water, as he knew it would. It came faintly at first, then louder as it grew close, a deep and ancient sound, heavy, suffocating. It came from over, then above, and then from the water itself.
“David,” he heard.
David slipped on the muddy shore, crashing on his side, his left leg bent painfully under him. He tried to pull himself upright, but a sharp electric surge shot from his leg up his spine. He thought of Sophie.
He could feel the pull of his skin against his chest as though it were being vacuumed from the inside. He thought of his son, the funny blank look of his eyes, the wide spaces there.
Leaning on his arms, mud caking between his fingers, David strained to find his voice.
“David,” It called.
David crouched with his forehead on the ground, his hands still outstretched clutching at the mud. He thought of Sophie undressing for bed, her shoulders uneasy and stiff, blushing.
“Here,” he groaned at last, “I’m here.”
Air hummed through David’s guts like a bass drum. It reverberated through his skull, overtook his arms. He splayed in the mud, shaking like a doll in the jaws of a dog. The pain in his leg was gone. There was no pain. He felt his limbs strengthening, growing. His heart beat frenetically.
Overhead, a cloud lazily passed over the moon, overshadowing David like a blanket. When it cleared, the wind began to soften. The light picked out threads of his hair like silver.
He threw back his head and cried out with a wild, pure joy.
Sophie crept backward out of her bedroom. The baby slept, undisturbed in his tiny bassinet. She went into the kitchen and refilled the coffee pot. The baby monitor magnified the apartment air so that it sounded like a gathering storm in the still room. When the coffee maker began to percolate she took a deep breath. It felt nice, and she took another. She thought about the rich warm smell of coffee, and she thought about the kitchen tiles, cool on her feet. She did not think about the morning. The baby might wake up, but she had the smell of coffee and the freedom of bare feet and those could be enough, for now. She did not think about David except to remind herself to keep such thoughts away.
She did not notice when she began to pace. The baby played some part in the back of her mind but she would not have said she was thinking of him, either. She simply felt the need to move. The kitchen was a small space but she did not leave it. She simply walked, nine steps from the refrigerator to the doorway, nine back to the window. Her footsteps left fleeting, iridescent footprints behind her on the black and white tiles that were gone before she turned and could see them.
When David came she heard no opening door, no clink of keys or thud of shoes. He was suddenly just there, covered in mud, hunched in the doorframe.
They looked at each other. Her legs trembled beneath her; she could not move from fear. The low growl of David’s breath filled the apartment and Sophie faced him on shaking legs for a long, long time. She forgot she had ever done anything but stare in horror at her husband.
Over the monitor, the baby shifted and took a shuddering breath and Sophie’s hand automatically jerked toward him. The movement startled David and he growled, low, the tips of his teeth just bared. She froze, but her eyes grew bright and hard.
When she spoke her voice was hoarse, barely audible.
“Listen to me.”
He did not move.
“I almost hurt the baby today.”
He did not move.
“Whatever happens, we can’t hurt him.” Tears ran down her face but her voice grew stronger and her legs began to steady.
“I need you to help me, David.”
He recognized his name.
The infant John opened his eyes. He smacked his lips in expectation. The room was too quiet, he turned his head in search, though of what he did not know. There was a desire in the pit of his stomach. He turned his head to the other side, still searching.
The blinds were open and the light from the moon rose and shone onto his face. The bright intensity gave him the impression of warmth. He forgot for a moment his hunger. He gazed at the bright disk, and without knowing what his body did, his hands reached out toward it. The light played among his fingers and cast savage, fantastic shadows across his face.
John knew nothing of perspective. To him the moon felt close, very close. He recognized the shape as it shone on him with comfort and familiarity.
He opened his mouth, confident at last that all would be well.