My daughter will be joining me soon, and while part of me loves that idea, it fills me with sadness too. It will mean the end of an era, the final disintegration of our family which was small enough to start with. I sit with my husband and my daughter sometimes. I sit with them and mourn the way the laughter has died in all of us. I know it’s my fault: I broke us all apart. I sit with them in icy silence, only interrupted now and then when one of them murmurs, ‘Getting a drink, want something?’ only for the other to sigh out the usual lie, ‘No, I’m fine, thank you.’
We used to be one of those annoyingly happy families who always got along well. We sang together on road trips, Ella happy to provide the harmonies and the high notes to complement our older, less tuneful voices, unembarrassed about enjoying time in our company. But then, Ben and I had been like that from the start too.
Our early life together reads like a cliché. Friends, growing close, that first kiss. Graduating together, travelling a bit, marriage. Buying a house, doing it up. All that. Everything going perfectly. And so we decided to have a baby.
I was pottering around the house, my belly a tight swelling seed pod, tidying and rearranging the tiny clothes, the massive packs of nappies and the astonishing array of baby-oriented products that we had been stockpiling, most of them gifts from friends and family. Humming to myself, I was lost in thought as I glanced over at the cot, assembled and made up with sheet and blanket, even though it was still months before it would be needed.
Suddenly, an image flashed into my head: my hands pressing a small head face down into the plastic covered mattress, pressing harder and harder until –
I shook my head, dislodging the intrusive sight. I stared at the cot, chilled to my core, then left the nursery, unable to recapture my happy mood. It had been so vivid, so realistic. So abhorrent.
Similar visions plagued me daily. I saw myself hurting my baby over and over, in different ways each worse than the last. Sure that I was some kind of monster, I stopped eating and sleeping. The strain began to show. My cheekbones sharpened, and I lost the rosy glow that had displayed my contentment to the world. Ben noticed, of course, and worried, lavishing concern on me and buying thoughtful little presents almost every day. When I couldn’t tell him what was wrong, he addressed the doctor directly, immediately after a satisfactory ante-natal scan.
‘I’m glad the baby is doing well, obviously. But my wife is unwell. She’s very pale and she’s lost weight. Is there a tonic or something she can have?’
The doctor looked at me appraisingly. I bit my lip, feeling guilt flood my body. Why hadn’t I spoken to the doctor myself?
‘How are you feeling, Mrs Armstrong? You do look a little peaky.’
‘I… I’ve had some – bad dreams.’ At the last moment, I couldn’t bring myself to say the word ‘visions’. ‘Bad dreams where the baby gets hurt.’ I also couldn’t admit that it was me doing the hurting.
‘That’s quite normal.’ The doctor didn’t seem disgusted at all. ‘Quite often mummies-to-be even have dreams in which their babies pass away. It’s the brain’s way of dealing with worries that you may not even be aware you have, along with, of course, a massive flood of various hormones into your system.’
‘Will they go away? The dreams I mean?’
‘Oh, yes.’ She seemed surprised at the tension in my voice, ‘I’ll write you a prescription and you’ll be much happier.’
I shook my head, ‘I don’t want anything that might affect the baby.’
She smiled at me, ‘Don’t worry, Mrs Armstrong. These tablets are very mild. They won’t affect the baby at all, but they will take the edge off your worries.’
The tablets worked. I regained my appetite and my healthy colour as my belly swelled even more and we marvelled at the gymnastics our baby performed, rippling and distorting my belly as she rolled and turned and stretched.
Ella was born, a crumpled scrap of thin, reddened skin, with a formless mouth, ungainly limbs and cobweb fine hair. It seemed impossible that such a fragile body could survive the harshness of the world: exhaust fumes, burning sunlight, the sudden plethora of dangers everywhere I looked. My anxieties came screaming back, and along with them came the fantasies of harming her: bright, sharp-edged hallucinations that seemed more real than life itself. Unable to deal with the realisation that I could not guarantee her absolute safety, I withdrew from Ella, even as she grew stronger and beautiful. Oh, I fed her and changed her and all. But I couldn’t allow myself to love her: I didn’t play with her, or let myself cuddle her once she’d fallen asleep, often with a drop of warm milk still on her lip. I would put her straight into her cot and leave the room, unable to watch her sleeping, just in case the monster inside me got out.
A month after she was born, Ben was offered redundancy from his job. I thought he would be devastated, but he came to me with a proposition.
‘Babe,’ he said, ‘how would you feel about going back to work earlier?’
‘Huh?’ I was trying to get Ella to latch on properly – it hurt like hell if she didn’t – and I wasn’t really paying attention. He repeated himself.
‘Well, yeah, but…’ I looked at Ella.
‘See, I wouldn’t mind spending a bit of time at home with the baby.’ He leaned forward, keen to persuade me. ‘I’ve heard of a new company starting up, but they’ll only need people with my skills in about six months’ time. With the redundancy money, I can afford to be off work for a little while, and if you’re happy to go back to work early, that will work out nicely. Or, if you want to, we could both be off for a bit, spend some quality time together?’
I could tell that’s what he really wanted: the three of us together, so I agreed that we would try that for a while.
I lasted two weeks. Having Ben around made me feel as though I was being watched, and it made the visions worse. I dreamed of hurting my daughter for hours at a time, barely able to speak coherently because of the intrusive images that hounded me, shredding my reason until I hardly knew the real from the fantastic. He was a good dad. He spent hours with her lying on his lap, staring into her face, talking to her and pulling faces at her. It was to him that she offered her first gummy grin, and it was for him that she would settle, taking a bottle of breast milk from him with better grace than she fed from me. I felt a spike of jealous rage, watching her snuggle against him one night, and that decided me.
I went back to work, happily resettling into my routine. Away from the insular cosiness of the nursery, along with being able to physically tire myself out, I slept better. When she was about six months old, we weaned her and my breastmilk dried up readily. It didn’t take long for my hormone levels to settle down. I began to look forward to coming home and seeing them, and instead of experiencing only emotionless but violent visions, I felt a surge of love for her. Finally, I understood what all the parenting podcasts meant.
When Ben’s new job came through as promised, I happily cut my hours down, and spent time enjoying her, watching her grow and develop a unique personality.
So back to the cliché of the perfect life. It really was wonderful although, of course, it is only now that I appreciate it. At the time, there were challenges: money worries, political concerns, stresses about potty training, getting Ella into the right nursery, the right school, the right social circle, all the horror stories about children getting stabbed, getting into drugs, getting into trouble, getting killed, abducted, assaulted, mugged. The world seems scarier when you’re responsible for someone’s whole life.
Ben wanted another child, but I had only just regained my sense of self. When I demurred, he became more insistent, so I told him we could try. But all I did was hide my pills, and make sure that I kept taking them. One tiny tablet a day, saving me from those visions. He gradually stopped asking the monthly question, and the subject was mostly dropped as we got on with living our lives.
When Ella was in high school, I began to work from home. It was intense work, a little bit isolated, but liberating from a timing point of view. I could choose my hours, as long as the work was done.
It was an odd existence, easy to lose track of the days: weekends and office hours meant nothing, and my days were punctuated instead by meal times and my work schedule. I guess I must have forgotten a pill, because I missed a period. And then another.
I’ve put this all together since that day. At the time, it was all so vague, so peripheral and unimportant: I noticed a thin film of dust on my box of tampons in the en suite. I picked up the box and brushed the dust off, looking at the grimy residue on my fingers as I calculated the last time I’d touched the pack. It had been a while.
I put the tampons down, washed my hands and did some work. Cooked a meal. Had a bath. Went to bed. Slept.
The next day, I got up early and cleaned the bathroom, wiping down all the surfaces and dusting everything. I cleaned the mirror, avoiding meeting my own eyes as I scrubbed off tiny flecks of toothpaste and soap residue. Then I cleaned the rest of the house.
I suppose it was some form of denial. I didn’t do any tests, I didn’t put it together and come to a conclusion, I didn’t do anything. I began to feel mildly ill, constantly queasy, but I never threw up. My stomach began to bloat a little, but nothing worse than the indigestion I am plagued with when I eat too many onions. Did I realise what it was, on some level? I don’t know.
About two months after I had cleaned so thoroughly, I realised that I was cursed. That there was a demon incubating in my body. The demon grew quickly, savaging my insides: pushing down on my hips, making them ache, hurting my back, cramping my lungs, and tiring me out. Stress and lack of sleep took their toll, and I made mistakes with work. When my supervisor cautioned me, I apologised, explained I wasn’t well and said I would take some time off to get better. She said that would be for the best and that they would be happy to have me back afterwards, which she guessed would be quite soon as I would need the money, wouldn’t I? I didn’t reply, just quietly pressed the red button on my phone.
I didn’t tell Ben or Ella that I wasn’t working. I would beat the demon or die, I thought, I didn’t need to worry them about any of it.
Ben came home early that day, making no noise as he assumed I was working.
I was curled up on the sofa, reading a magazine.
‘Hallo! You finished work already?’
‘Oh! You startled me.’
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to make a noise, I thought you were working.’
‘Well, I’m not.’
‘Okay! Just saying.’ He set his briefcase down. ‘Jeez! So, you’re not working then?’
I gestured to the sofa, ‘Obviously.’
‘You don’t have to be such a bitch, babe, I didn’t know you weren’t working, so I came in quietly so that I wouldn’t disturb you. I’m sorry I gave you a fright –’
I don’t know if he meant it that way, but it sounded like sarcasm. It escalated from there: we quarrelled, we shouted, we cried, he stormed out, I stormed upstairs. Ella was away on a sleep-over. Perhaps if she’d been home, we would have dealt with it better.
I didn’t think he’d be long. An hour, two at the most. But the hours crawled by, ten o’clock, eleven o’clock, midnight. Two in the morning. At three, the demon moved, rolling in my belly, and with that movement unleashed horrors.
Every nasty thing I’d ever thought or said or done, terrible memories flooded into my brain. I wailed. This was the damned demon: I wasn’t a bad person. I needed to get rid of it, get it out of me somehow, cut it out. Cut it out. Yes.
I’m in the kitchen. I’ve always liked good quality knives, taken pride in my cooking. My filleting knife can go through bone. I pick it up, test the edge. A thin line of blood oozes on my thumb, warm and salty. The filleting knife it is. I carry it upstairs to the bedroom. I stand in front of the full-length mirror and undo my dress. I shrug it off and it falls to the floor. I see my reflection in the full-length mirror as I pinpoint the best place to get the demon. My face is absorbed, fierce. I examine my body with attention. Where? Beneath the naval, I decide, just there. I pick the spot and press the tip into the side of my belly, where a bulge swells: the lair of the demon. I press down and the blade dimples the skin, but doesn’t break through. I pause. For a long moment I stare at myself, at the dimple that the knife is making in my skin. Then I dig the blade in forcefully and the skin breaks at last. It is awkward. I reach across, putting my other hand over the one holding the knife’s handle and seat the blade more deeply. There is brief resistance, then a dull pop and a gush of watery fluid. I pull the knife across my belly, finding the sweet spot on the keen edge, and the knife slides along quite easily. The fluid continues to gush, then thickens and reddens, the smell of blood rising to my nostrils. There is pain, but it is distant, unimportant. I close my mind to it. I watch in the mirror as a red curve opens in my belly like a cheerful flower blossoming, then unfurls to my thighs. Blood is splattering, staining the carpet, but I am so close. I can’t stop now to clean up the mess. I drop the knife and delve deep. A squirm under my hand lets me know that I have found it. I seize it, pull it. Something rips, jaggedly widening the breach, and the splattering intensifies, painting my feet and legs with thick streaks and splats of red. It won’t come out. I reach in, feeling my way: it is surprisingly warm and soft. My hands are entirely inside my belly before I can prise the demon loose, tugging the slippery burden out in a series of uncoordinated movements. The relief as it comes loose. It is out. I am free. I hold it in front of me, eager to face my enemy, but my vision blurs as though the lights are failing. I move to the landing where it is brighter, hold the demon closer to my face, wanting, needing to see. My limbs refuse to respond after a few steps, and I am tired. I have no recollection of falling. The demon is lying close by, a small purple-red shape. I stretch out a hand to touch it, to turn it so at last I can see its face, but greedy blackness swallows me whole.
Ben had had a flat tyre in a mobile dead zone, had been trying to inflate the spare with an old hand-pump for ages. It was Ella who found me. Ella who’d been trying to call us for hours: a fight amongst the girls on the sleep-over had scattered them back to their houses in the early hours of the morning. She’d unlocked the front door and crept up the stairs, only to see the dreadful thing that I had done. The dreadful thing I had become. By the time I came home, they had their own ideas about what had happened and why, and all my protests went unheard.
Ella hated me for killing her brother. Ben hated me – but was it hate? What Ben felt was a mess of guilt, horror, denial and revulsion. Whatever it was, I’d ruined his life, it seemed. We couldn’t go on as before.
They barely spoke when I came home. They acted as though I no longer existed, and I know it is only a matter of time before I have to move on, get on with whatever comes next.
Here’s an example of why I can’t stay, why I can’t try any more to make it work. One night, not long after my return, they were in the kitchen, talking in low voices. I went in, put on a cheery voice, ‘Hi guys, how were your days?’
Ella paused in what she was saying, closed her eyes for a long moment, then said to Ben, ‘Did you hear something then?’
He hugged her, rubbed her upper arms as though warming her up, ‘Ah, don’t, love.’
‘I thought I heard something.’ Her face was deadpan. She looked around at me. Through me. Shuddered and turned back to Ben, ‘I’m not hungry any more, Dad. Sorry.’ She abruptly left the room, leaving him bereft and diminished.
I moved to him, wanting to comfort him. He stared through me. ‘Babe.’ I spoke softly, but I might as well have spat in his face.
He flinched back, turning to the sink, holding onto the edge as though he needed the support. ‘Oh, God.’ His voice sounded teary and thick. ‘What have you done? Why would you do this to us?’
The sadness in his voice hurt me, and I regretted so much.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, but my words fell dead against the sound of his stifled sobbing. Even in his distress, he was trying to protect our daughter.
He had so many whys. Why hadn’t I told him I was pregnant? Why hadn’t I gone to a doctor? Why had I stopped working? Why had I done what I had?
I didn’t have answers for him. Things that had seemed sensible or logical before were shown to be foolish, dangerous and even cruel viewed from the calm of after.
I haven’t made any definite plans yet. I’m waiting for Ella to decide.
I thought she hated me, but I’ve seen hints here and there. Caught her looking at a photo of me, tears ruining the careful cat’s eye line that she draws on painstakingly every morning to hide her sadness and her vulnerability, tracking through the foundation that smooths over the few spots on her cheekbones. I’ve seen her burying her face in my wardrobe, snuggling against my coats when she doesn’t know I’m watching. I’ve caught glimpses of her diary over her shoulder, seen how she misses me, that she wants to join me, that she will join me soon. She doesn’t want to leave Ben all alone though. I want to be outraged, to cry out, ‘What about me being alone?’ but I don’t. Because I know I lost the right to demand consideration when I did what I did. I long to have her with me, to regain our old camaraderie, but if I’m honest, I don’t know that it will be the best thing for her.
We’re sitting in that silence now, but Ben and Ella seem to be preparing for something. As usual, they haven’t told me what they’re up to. He stands, ruffles her hair. She normally hates that, pulling her head away and complaining, ‘Daaad! Doooon’t.’ But this time, she reaches up, taking his hand and holding onto it. He pulls her in and they hug. I want in. I move close, closer. I can smell her perfume, and underneath the faint tang of clean perspiration and something that could be fear. They break apart before I can put my arms around them. They put on coats and leave the house. I hasten to follow, wondering where they are going. We never were a family for walking, really. They walk to the end of the road, turn left. Right is the way to town, to bright lights, restaurants, the cinema, a small theatre; left is –
I don’t want them to go there. I don’t want to go there. I follow them, faster now, wanting to get ahead of them, block them. I get in front of them, turn and face them, put my hands up. They move towards me, unstoppable.
I call out, ‘Stop! Don’t go there! Please!’
Ella tilts her head, as though considering it, but then tightens her mouth and continues. Ben shakes his head and he does not stop. They continue, towards me, past me, onwards, towards their goal.
It is modern inside, laid out like a park, neat white stones flat against the ground, neither standing proud nor crookedly gothic. Ella kneels, using the heel of one hand to clear rain-splattered earth and autumn leaves from the stone. I move closer, both dreading and knowing what I will see. I make out the words, in reassuring square letters: BELOVED MOTHER AND WIFE. Underneath that: more words, small, picked out in so delicate a gilded script that they are barely there: also James Armstrong, taken by the angels. This latter epitaph is followed by the date that it all happened. As I stand there, I understand the silences, why Ella has been so cold and sad, why Ben cries silent agonised tears standing on his own in the kitchen.
And I understand what Ella intends. I have to stop her. How?
Liz Milne is a Zimbabwean-born writer. She returned to education as a mature student, gaining a BA (hons) which she enjoyed so much she is undertaking an MA in Creative Writing and Publication. She plans to try her hand at a PhD next, just so that she can say ‘yes’ when asked if there is a doctor in the house. Her favourite animals are tigers but she can’t afford to feed one, so she has two cats instead.
If you enjoyed ‘Reunion’ leave a comment and let Liz know.
You can read more of Liz’s writing below:
Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine https://www1.chester.ac.uk/flash-magazine/issues vols: 9.2, 10.1, 10.2
You can find and follow Liz at:
Photo by Stux
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