By Alex S. Johnson
A familiar absence, and the location of dread.
They were saying things that made no sense. The baby couldn’t be dead. Not her valiant Tommy. She’d seen the sonogram, the ultrasound, the brave little boy kicking through waves of rippled blue.
When they received the news of her pregnancy, Sarah Loveman and her husband James celebrated a miracle. The doctors had told them she couldn’t conceive, not at her age, but they’d been proven wrong.
Stillborn. What did that mean? Sarah batted at the iron rails of the hospital bed and glanced around: sterile whites, shining steel, the smells of antiseptic solution. The nurse hovered over her and put a damp cloth to her forehead.
“I’m so very sorry, Mrs. Loveman. We did everything we could. His heart just stopped beating.”
And how could she have been missing through the delivery? Sarah wanted to be fully awake and aware, to greet her newborn infant, to cradle Tommy to her breast. Anticipated the sweet smell of the clean little boy.
James came to her side. He looked worn. He passed his fingers through his thinning grey hair. “Honey…”
“Just hold me,” said Sarah. “Hold me close.”
“After this, I’m afraid…”
“I know.” The tears began to course slowly down her cheeks. “Could you get me a tissue, please? I don’t want you to see me like this.”
“You’ve experienced a trauma, Mrs. Loveman. It’s very natural to feel strong emotions after all you’ve been through,” said the nurse. Her voice was warm, but there was a calculated professionalism behind it. Sarah wondered how they kept their cool. Maybe they didn’t, maybe it was all a façade. Like the blue wallpaper, the mobiles, the baroque music she’d played for the developing fetus. She had nursed fantasies of Little League and soccer practice for him, teaching him the rudiments of math—the rest she would leave to her husband, who didn’t panic when equations became knotty and complex.
“Let’s go home, dear.”
She leaned on him, on his strength, on his patient assurances, as they made their way to the van. Behind the wheel, James was quiet, glancing over at his wife from time to time to check how she was taking it.
Rather than the freeway, he took side streets, which added about half an hour to the ride. He pulled into their driveway, cut the engine and placed the van in Park. Then he went to the passenger side and slid open the door.
“I can walk on my own, thanks darling,” said Sarah in muted tones.
The doctor’s orders were for bed rest with plenty of fluids and a liquid protein diet. In a few weeks, Sarah felt stronger, strangely stronger than she had after the miracle happened. She began to take walks in the park, phoned her friends and eventually summoned the will to begin work again. Her boss at the agency was sympathetic and told her she didn’t have to plunge back into the fray so soon, but she told him she wanted to, needed to consume herself in productive labor.
Then one night she heard a voice. It wasn’t audible outside, but seemed to emerge from within her belly and send sonic tendrils to her brain.
“Mommy? Why did you leave me here in this place? I’m scared.”
She shook herself awake. James stirred beside her and returned to his dreams.
Carefully, so as not to wake him, she made her way down the stairs on tiptoe and brewed a pot of Earl Grey. She sipped the hot tea slowly and watched the sugar cubes melt in the cup.
The voice began again. Sarah caught glimpses of a warehouse with a corrugated aluminum façade and high, rectangular casement windows on three sides. It was as though she were downloading a thought stream, a current directed to her drowsy brain. She recognized this place.
It lay across the railroad tracks that bisected the industrial section of Howard Heights, which predated even the old Latino neighborhood. The building was twenty minutes away.
Should she leave a note? Sure. Your wife is receiving telepathic messages from her dead son, and following up on them. Perfectly reasonable.
Then what would she write?
“Honey, I’m taking the van for a drive. I need to get my thoughts in order.”
That might work. Especially in the early days of their marriage, she’d gone off on little early morning expeditions. James had written this eccentric behavior off to her need for independence—unlike him, Sarah was introverted and had to recharge her psychic batteries on occasion, not so much isolate herself as focus her energy to meet the challenges of her life.
Moving down the hallway of their two bedroom house at the base of Mt. Jefferson, she slipped out of her nightgown and grabbed an old, comfortable grey sweatshirt from the closet, black denim jeans and ankle boots. She draped the nightgown across the back of the rattan chair in the dining room, along with the note.
And caught a glimpse of herself in the full-length mirror at the end of the hallway. A pale, auburn-haired, slightly frumpy woman in early middle age, hell-bent on some crazy plan to rescue Tommy, her son, who was dead at birth.
Maybe she was losing the plot altogether. She’d heard about women like her who began to mentally disintegrate around her age, never to fully recoup their marbles. She had visions of men in white coats with soft, soothing voices and sharp syringes.
Locking the door behind her, Sarah pressed the button on her key chain and the van let out a brief yelp. Then she was driving, down past the perennially dry river with its concrete abutments and ugly gang graffiti, past the colorful markets advertising dry goods and hot chiles and varieties of ice cream unknown to the gringo palate, across the tracks and into the heart of the industrial section where something—a phantasm, a neural hurricane, a hormonally induced nightmare—awaited her. But she had to know, one way or another.
She parked at the end of the alley across from the warehouse and looked up. Pale rays of sunlight touched the top windows. The air was cool but she knew it would be simmering in a few hours. The sky was a washed-out, milky blue haze.
Sarah went up the back steps to the door that for some reason she knew was unlocked, even though it refused to budge when she jiggled the doorknob. She tried it again and it burst open, nearly causing her to stumble.
The air inside the long, cramped corridor smelled like machinery and dry rot. Guiding herself by touch, she found a switch in the wall and thumbed it. A battery of fluorescent tubes shuddered to life and insects swarmed around them, ink blots with wings. She walked towards the service elevator and pushed the button, but though the UP triangle blinked, there was no movement. To the right were the stairs that led to the loft space that had formerly been a sweatshop, now abandoned, as far as she knew.
She took a deep breath, then began to climb the stairs. The whitewashed walls seemed to seep, dribbling liquid pictures that coalesced and vanished when she tried to examine them.
The voice in her head escalated to a scream.
Then, without any discernible transition from the darkness of the stairwell, Sarah suddenly found herself in a cavernous, high-ceiling room flooded with light so bright she had to squeeze her eyes shut for a moment, adjusting to the glare. When she opened her eyes, she saw steel girders supporting row upon row, stack upon stack of tiny cages, in which hung suspended forms covered in membranous sacks. At the foot of the cages ran a strip of metal with plates identifying the contents of the cages.
“I’m coming, Tommy, I’m coming!” Her heart battered against her chest. She then saw the cords and tubes emerging from the sacks, the tubes coursing with some kind of blue gel.
When she saw a ramp leading to the tiers of cages, she ascended it, boots clacking against the steel, and paused at the first level.
Her child was somewhere in here, somewhere among the cocoons.
And then she was standing in front of WXB-12, and the scream in her head disappeared into a black space.
The sack wriggled.
She tried to push a hand through the bars, but there wasn’t enough room. Applying pressure, she found that the bars were made of some soft metal she could easily bend. Inside the cage, she reached up and felt the side of the sac.
“Hold on, Tommy, Mommy’s here.”
Standing on tiptoe, she could just reach high enough to pull the sack down from the bottom. It pulsed in her hands—her son, alive.
Finally she had him in her arms. Gently, she began to peel away the membrane, which came off in her hands like pieces of caked-in soap.
The form inside was grey, with blue lips and closed eyes. A tube attached to its umbilicus appeared to be feeding it the gel.
Her son was still.
She pulled at the nozzle at his navel, and the tube came out with a wet plop. The blue gel began to squeeze out onto the floor of the cage like toothpaste.
Then Tommy opened his eyes.
He smiled, the toothless, sinister grin of the neverborn.
And the rottenness inside her miracle child poured forth.
Alex S. Johnson is the author of two novels, Bad Sunset and Jason X IV: Death Moon, the collections Wicked Candy and Doctor Flesh: Director’s Cut,the co-author of Fucked Up Shit! with Berti Walker, as well as numerous Bizarro, horror, science fiction and experimental literary stories, including works published in Full-Metal Orgasm, Bizarro Central, Gone Lawn, Ugly Babies Volume 2, Master/slave, +Noirotica III, Cthulhu Sex, The Surreal Grotesque, Cease, Cows, and many other venues. He is the creator/editor of the Axes of Evil heavy metal horror anthology series He has also been a music journalist for such magazines as Metal Hammer, Metal Maniacs and Zero Tolerance and he is a college and university English professor. Johnson currently lives in Sacramento, California.