There was something breathing in the other room.
Alice sat in the corner, knees to her chest, shaking her head, knowing it was impossible.
The rain stopped, and after what she had just witnessed, the stillness outside, and the eerie calm inside the cabin made her weary and frightened. These days she tried to avoid the quiet altogether, preferring instead to be surrounded by music or the cacophony of the city – anything to shut out the jealous thoughts that plagued her whenever she saw a baby carriage, or heard the laughter of children. At night when all was still and she lay in bed beside her husband, she could almost hear her biological clock tick-tick-ticking in her ears.
They both wanted children so badly. They tried naturally for five years, then decided to seek medical intervention. They both went through all kinds of tests. In the end, it was determined that the difficulty was Alice’s. No one told her she would never conceive, but it was clearly not going to happen without the help of fertility specialists, which they couldn’t afford.
Michael borrowed money from his parents for the treatment – three months of hormone injections, and then after that was unsuccessful, the fertility doctor recommended an even more aggressive dosage for a further three months. Again, nothing happened. Every month when the time came, Michael did his part, and after six months, the doctors started talking about In Vitro Fertilization, which they said they couldn’t guarantee would be successful, and would be much more expensive.
About three months ago, after night after night of Alice crying herself to sleep, Michael finally told her that he didn’t want to do it anymore.
“I can’t stand seeing you suffer like this,” he said. “I don’t want us to live in constant disappointment of what we don’t have, when we could be enjoying what we do have. And these dreams you keep having – these nightmares – it’s not healthy.”
He stroked her cheek, wiping the tears away, and tried to kiss her, but she pulled away. She’d been pulling away ever since that night, filling the ever-growing silence between them with whatever noise would shut out her grief.
The sudden silence of the cabin was maddening. It felt like an almost physical force pushing down on her, smothering her. The contrast was just too stark – not a half hour before, the air had been filled with screams and screeches, and some strange, inhuman clicking noise that sounded like the bleating of a robotic sheep. Now it was a dead calm, but behind the dripping raindrops and the furious beat of her heart, there rose a wheezing, gasping sound from behind the closed door of the bedroom.
She saw with her own eyes what happened to her husband, but still could not bring herself to believe it. No explanation could ease her mind, or make any sense of it, and nothing was going to make Michael any less dead. And yet, the breathing continued.
There are certain things the mind just doesn’t have any point of reference for. The thing that came out of the vanity mirror and grabbed Michael defied conventional thought. Even as she was screaming at the insane impossibility of the creature’s very existence, her mind tried to make sense of what she was seeing and spat back two words at her: spider and teeth.
What alarmed her most was the sense of recognition she felt when she looked into its horrible eyes – huge white pools with no iris or pupil. She felt as if the thing knew her, and worse, that she’d seen it before.
After months of waking up shaking and covered in sweat, Michael insisted that she see a doctor. Her doctor suggested seeing a grief counselor. She told her about the nightmares she was having – dreams in which she was pregnant, and gave birth to a monster that ripped her apart, then turned on her and ate her with its rows upon rows of needle-like teeth. The grief counselor sent her to a shrink, who nodded and jotted notes as she described the thing she gave birth to as almost like a mechanical spider, part creature and part machine.
“And then it eats you,” the doctor repeated back the last part of her story from her notes.
“Yes,” Alice nodded. “I feel like I’m going crazy. How could I dream something so horrible? How could my mind do this to me? What does it mean?”
“Well,” the doctor said, “I think you are grieving the loss of your children, while at the same time experiencing an anger and resentment, much in the same way some women experience post-partum depression. Some women have been known to hurt their children.”
Alice gave the woman a blank, unbelieving look.
“I think your mind is at war with itself, and as a defense mechanism, part of your subconscious is turning your unborn children – the children you have been unable to have – into monsters, so that the part of your mind that still longs and desires for children will find the prospect less desirable. You’re trying to convince yourself that you don’t want children.”
The doctor prescribed a mild sedative and sent her on her way. Alice didn’t feel any better at the thought that she was symbolically turning her unborn children into monsters as a way to cope with her inability to conceive, but she was glad she didn’t mention the sudden paranoia she’d been experiencing. Everywhere she went, she felt eyes on her. She thought she saw people staring at her out of the corner of her eye. She found herself checking her reflection in car mirrors, windows, puddles, trying to catch a glimpse of whoever – or whatever – was following her; spying on her.
Then one day, she was standing in front of her mirror with a pillow under her shirt and posing, seeing the pregnant version of herself that would never be, when suddenly she froze. She swore she saw someone staring back at her from the mirror.
“I’m not crazy!” She screamed, beating her husband’s chest with both fists. “There was a face, a horrible face. I saw it, Michael!”
Michael held his wife and fought back tears. The nightmares he could deal with, but if she was starting to see things when she was awake…
Suddenly Alice was obsessed with mirrors, insisting that she couldn’t be around them; that she didn’t trust them. So Michael indulged her, even though it broke his heart to see her falling apart. He took down the mirrors he could, covered up the ones he couldn’t, and that seemed to calm Alice down some. But he couldn’t take down the mirrors everywhere, and pretty soon, Alice became afraid to leave the house. She refused to go back to the doctor, insisting what she saw was real, and not just in her head. Any time Michael tried to calm her down, she started screaming at him, blaming him, cursing him for not giving her a baby.
Michael would have done anything to give her what she wanted, but the doctors had told them there wasn’t any problem with his sperm count. When Alice screamed at him, he had to remind himself it was the grief talking and not to respond with the truth – that the problem was with her biology, not his.
For weeks, it was nothing but screaming and crying, and strange talk about catching glimpses out of the corner of her eye of faces staring back at her out of reflections in windows, spoons; a sink full of water. Then one day, he came home and found Alice sitting in the spare bedroom – the one that would have become a nursery, but never would be – just sitting and rocking. When she saw him, she looked up at him with love for the first time in months, and reached out her hands to him. Smiling, he reached out and helped her up and into his arms.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and wept into his shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”
“Shh,” he replied, cupping the back of her head with one strong hand and wrapping his other hand around her back and holding her tightly.
“This room,” she said, “this house is killing me. This big empty house is killing me.”
“Killing us,” Michael corrected. “And I’m not ready for us to die.”
“Oh, Michael, what are we going to do?”
“What do you say we rent a cabin on the coast for the weekend; get out of the city?”
Driving through the rain for hours, they listened to an audiobook that required their attention and discouraged conversation, though in truth, neither of them was really listening to it. The rhythmic swoosh-swoosh back and forth of the windshield wipers, and the droning patter of the rain mesmerized Michael, and the voice coming out the radio was merely ambience for him. Alice had her eyes closed, avoiding the glimpses of things she was desperately trying to convince herself were not real in the side mirror, or reflected in every raindrop.
They stopped at a trading post, where they could pick up the keys to the cottage and any supplies they might need. Michael said he’d take care of the rental, and could Alice pick up some drinks, snacks, and whatever else she wanted.
Alice picked out a six-pack of Heineken for Michael and a bottle of cheap red wine for her, a carton of milk and a box of cereal. She moved, trancelike, toward the sales counter, her eyes drawn inexorably toward the convex mirror to the left of the counter, wedged in between an advertising board for KOOLS cigarettes and a Budweiser clock. Something in it caught her eye – something that didn’t belong. She stared at it with trembling hands clenching the few items she’d picked up, and when the silvery bubble started to ripple, she nearly dropped everything and screamed.
“Ma’am,” a voice called, pulling her back to reality. She glanced at the mirror again, and saw that nothing was out of the ordinary.
“Yes, sorry,” she said, putting down her purchases on the counter. “Wool-gathering, as my grandmother would have said.”
“You heading on down to the cabins, I suppose?” The man said, making conversation.
Alice nodded, still a bit shaken.
“I’d recommend getting some candles or lanterns or something, if you don’t already have ‘em. Storms like this, sometimes we lose power.”
Again, she nodded, and looked around for her husband to return.
“And we’ve got dry firewood for sale, too. If you weren’t prepared for the wet, that is.”
“Yes,” Alice said.
Alice looked up at the man, who was regarding her with a look of concern. He wore a Pabst Blue Ribbon t-shirt and had a great beard of the likes you used to only see on shut-ins or serial killers, but had suddenly become popular among the early twenties crowd. Alice didn’t think it made him look gentle or sensitive, only unkempt and disheveled. She’d been wool-gathering again, lost in the messy tangles of the young man’s beard.
“I’m fine, thank you. I’ll have my husband pick up some firewood. Thank you for the suggestion.”
“You sure you’re all right? Do you need me to call someone?” And then in a hushed tone: “Is he taking you somewhere against your will?”
“What?” Alice asked, alarmed. “What? No!”
She shook her head like a dog drying off, in an effort to shake off whatever it was that was haunting her.
“Sorry,” she said, forcing an embarrassed smile. “You’ve got the wrong idea, really. I’ve just not been well, that’s all. How much for all this?
The clerk took her money and made a mental note of her face, still worried that she wasn’t as fine as she’d claimed.
She could leave. She could just leave and she’d be fine. Just get in the car and drive to Canada and start a new life. Leave Michael’s body – what was left of it, anyway – for the police to find, let them try to understand what happened. If she stuck around; tried to explain it, they’d lock her away.
Alice held her breath and listened to her pulse thumping in her ears. It was impossible. What was more likely was that she had some sort of episode; some sort of psychotic break, and her mind was manufacturing some kind of monster to reconcile what she didn’t want to admit – that she killed her husband. The doctor told her about how her mind had created monsters out of her unborn children. These monsters had visited her in her nightmares.
“No,” Alice said to the empty room, moving her dry and pasty lips just enough to hear her own voice. “I’m not crazy. I know the difference between dreams and reality, goddammit.”
Something moved in the other room, and Alice stifled a shriek.
Michael was dead. Whatever else had happened, whatever else she knew, she was sure Michael was dead.
But what if he wasn’t. What if he was still alive? What if he needed her help?
He had to be dead. There was so much blood.
Michael was standing in front of the mirror, lamenting his middle-aged paunch and receding hairline, waiting for Alice to come out of the bathroom. He bought her a lovely satin teddy, hoping to remind him that she was his wife, the object of his desire, and maybe they could re-connect; make something new going forward. Alice played along. She really did want to try to make this work. But when she came out of the bathroom and saw her husband standing in front of the vanity mirror, she froze.
The mirror began to ripple, as if it were a pool, and a stone had been dropped into it.
“Alice?” Michael asked. “Alice, what’s wrong?”
She tried to speak, tried to warn him, but was unable.
Michael opened his mouth again to tell her he’d cover up the mirror, that he was so sorry, he forgot, when the first silvery tendrils shot out of the mirror like fishing wire, wrapping themselves around his face and pulling him against the mirror with a wet thud. The mirror didn’t break, but instead began to dissolve around Michael’s head, globs of silver liquid suspended impossibly in the air around the mirror like mercury.
Alice screamed in horror and disbelief as she watched the first black and silver leg come through the mirror and into the room. More silvery filament shot out, wrapping her husband up in what looked like Christmas tinsel but seemed as strong as metal cable, and was cutting into Michael’s skin as it bound him. Blood oozed from his naked torso and face, and red bubbles formed through the threads around his mouth as he tried vainly to scream.
An almost simian head emerged from the newly-formed hole in the mirror, followed by the engorged black torso of something that was not a spider, but just reminded her of one at first glance. It looked at her with big blank eyes, its lips peeled back in a horrible mockery of a smile full of silvery teeth that took up the entire bottom of the thing’s face and made her think of icicles.
With long, armoured, multi-segmented legs, the thing spun Michael’s body like a spider wrapping up a fly, hissing at Alice as she cowered on the floor beside the bed. She was crying and screaming for it to stop, but was powerless to do anything. Michael was completely bound in the silver filament – Alice wasn’t sure if it was something organic, or some sort of metal – and the thing that had come out of the mirror wrapped its legs around his encased body, pulling it towards its own strange torso. The creature tilted its head back and started making a strange, almost mechanical sound that reminded her in a weird way of the bleating of sheep, and began convulsing. It opened its mouth, distending its jaw, and something moved up its throat and poked out of its mouth. Lowering its head, Alice could see that whatever it was, it was deadly sharp. It was bright red and throbbing, a sort of proboscis, like a butterfly uses to get the nectar out of a flower.
Before she knew what was happening, the thing buried its face into Michael’s chest, cutting easily through the silver filament, and plunging that strange red thing into him. Her husband’s blood sprayed onto the bed, and began to pool on the floor as the creature ravaged him. Around its head, streaming behind it as if blown by the wind was a strange mix of black and silver tubing. The black tubing was covered with tiny bristles of hair, like what you might see if you looked at an insect’s legs at a high magnification. The silver was pliable and flowing, much like the liquid the mirror had become. Alice watched the creature’s chest rise and fall in huge expanses, and the tubes writhed like eels behind its head. It was as if the thing was draining something out of Michael with one tube, and then pumping something into him with the other.
Alice could only think of shit, and she nearly laughed hysterically.
This thing is eating him with one tube and shitting him out with the other, she thought.
Within moments, it was over, and the thing’s legs relaxed their hold on Michael’s corpse, letting him fall to the floor. It seemed weakened, somehow, and staggered across the room on uneasy legs toward Alice, who scurried into the bathroom and tried to close the door on the monstrosity, but only managed to bang its head with the door handle, right before it collapsed in the doorway, dead. Alice sat behind the door of the bathroom and listened for movement. There was none, but a foul smell assaulted her. When she finally opened the door, all that was left of the thing’s body was a black and silver muck the consistency of tar.
She fled the room in a rush, but not so big a rush that she didn’t stop to check on Michael, who was quite clearly dead.
So why was there something moving in the bedroom?
Alice could hardly move. Her legs felt rubbery, and her hands were shaking. She felt like she might pass out if she tried to stand up. But she couldn’t ignore the sounds coming from the other room anymore. The creature had melted into a puddle of goo, and the mirror had returned to normal – not that it couldn’t have opened up again, she supposed, but for some reason, doubted.
She pushed herself off the wall, bracing herself in case she fell over, and was relieved when she didn’t. Creeping slowly toward the bedroom door with her hand held out in front of her, she tried to remember to breathe. It wouldn’t help her to forget that.
Alice pushed the door open and called Michael’s name, knowing she was wasting her breath. She stepped inside and looked where Michael’s body had lain, wrapped up tightly in the silver filament, but found only a pile of the silver mess, along with Michael’s blood and a sticky pink residue that covered the entire thing.
Something skittered across the floor, a click-click-click of hard, spider-like feet.
Itsy bitsy spider crawled up the waterspout…
She could hear something scratching on the wooden bedpost, as if it were trying to crawl up onto the bed, and she looked around for something to use as a weapon.
She didn’t find anything.
A grey, hairless head poked up over the side of the bed and opened its eyes. Huge, white liquid globs stared at her, and seemed to gauge whether or not she was a threat. It inched its way forward onto the bed, a miniature version of the thing she’d seen come through the mirror – maybe the size of a cat. It had smooth grey skin and black spider legs – six of them. It walked toward her on four of them, and hesitantly reached out with the other two. It cocked its head at her like a dog, and then shook its black and silver mane, ridding itself of the last of the pink slime it was coated in. When it stopped shaking, it looked at her – vulnerable, helpless, and needy – and smiled a huge, toothy smile.
Alice thought it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
She pulled the teddy over her head and stood naked before the infantile monster.
“Come here,” she said, arms outstretched.
The young creature opened its mouth and launched itself at Alice’s breast, digging its teeth into her and sealing its mouth over the wound. Alice felt the sharp stab of the thing’s proboscis and moaned in pain and ecstasy.
“There you are,” she cooed, stroking the black and silver tubing as it rippled with its feeding.
Alice was starving.
She had been able to drive to the trading post, but if she didn’t get something to eat – and soon – she was going to faint, and that wouldn’t help anyone.
She pulled her raincoat closed, covering up the thing that was attached to her breast and feeding off her.
Moving up and down the aisles, she frantically filled her basket with Slim Jims and powdered donuts, potato chips and chocolate bars. She was famished, but knew she’d not be cooking any proper meals in the car. She picked up hamburger buns but no hamburgers, cereal but no milk, and three jars of pickles.
She got up to the counter and the young man who had served her before tilted his head in recognition.
“Forgot a few things, huh?”
Alice nodded weakly. She was starving.
“Hubby didn’t come with you?”
She shook her head. She wanted to rip out his throat with her teeth. Instead she smiled.
The man nodded and smiled as if they’d just shared an inside joke and started ringing her up.
“Wow, this is quite a haul,” he laughed. “Someone got the munchies?”
“Well,” Alice said, and gave the man her sweetest smile. “I am eating for two these days.”
“No shit! Well, congratulations,” the bearded man said, and gave her a friendly smile.
“Thank you,” she said, beaming with pride. “Motherhood is such a blessing.”
* Paraxenogenesis - from the Greek παράξενος (paráxenos) meaning ‘strange’ and γένεσις (genesis) meaning ‘birth’.