"You know my wife," Tom told the grocer, "and you know what they say, happy wife equals a happy life."
The grocer smiled and nodded despite the fact no one had seen Carmen Sloane for five years. Her husband, Tom, on the other hand was always around. Tom stopped by weekly and purchased the same thing every time: box of Fels-Naptha, four large pork roasts, and a gallon of apple sauce. The grocer rang up the total, watching with a pained patient smile as his best customer counted out spare change. Tom ignored the exasperated sighs of the people queuing behind him. A few patrons put their meager items back or dropping them where they stood before bolting for another bodega.
The grocer spoke up, "Tom, I--"
"Yeah?" Tom asked without ceasing his count.
"I just wanted to let you know that, there was a detective come in yesterday asking about you."
"Asking about me?"
"About you--your wife mainly. I told him you were one of my best customers, like clockwork. He wanted to know what items you bought."
"Did you tell him?" Tom asked finishing his math.
"No, I told him to beg off."
"You shouldn't do that, not to a policeman, they have a tough job. They deserve our respect.
Listen if you see him again tell him where I live, I'd be happy to answer any questions he might have."
"You sure you wanna do that?" The grocer said sweeping the coins into his tray without recounting them.
"Absolutely, me and Carmen got nothing to hide."
Tom gathered his purchases and left. He pretended the news of the detective didn't bother him. He ignored the whispers behind his back as he walked down the street. Suspicious words about the man whom everyone believed murdered his wife. Tom knew Carmen was very much alive. He knew too that no one, in her present condition, could ever see her to verify that fact.
It was impossible.
The damage to his reputation and her good name would be catastrophic. So he allowed the hushed accusations to continue unabated. He donned an air of unflappable good humor and took the time to chat up acquaintances anytime they passed. Always assuring them of Carmen's good health. All part of his daily regimen. Tom knew the truth. And since Dr. Fielding's accident Tom was the only one left alive who knew. Although Carmen lived, her quality of life remained questionable.
Tom knew, it wasn't always this way. In the beginning, like all beginnings, Carmen's beauty turned heads everywhere she went. Tom sometimes wondered, how he got so lucky to have met her, wed her and bed her. But he did. He fell into the euphoria of love. The euphoria never stays long once the honeymoon is over and both spouses reveal their warts and farts. How does one maintain a marriage, without it falling into humdrum boredom or completely apart?
At stressful times, Tom remembered the vows he spoke that warm day in June so many years ago. Anytime he felt overwhelmed, Tom remembered his promise, in sickness and in health. It pacified most notions of fleeing.
Tom felt certain other men would've fled at the first sign of trouble. If the shoe were on the other foot, he prayed Carmen, with her charming good looks, would've kept her vows too. Personal sacrifice, he reasoned, is a learned trait.
Every day he walked the twelve blocks to work and home. He didn't mind the trek, it established a mind-clearing routine and provided good exercise. He'd return home later to care for his wife and agonize over the mountain of medical bills. He could file for bankruptcy, but he knew he'd lose not only his wife but his small business as well.
SLOANE'S SNACKS was the only mom and pop vending machine company left in Queens.
Before he met Carmen, his business was his pride and joy. These days however, just a means to an end. At its height, SLOANE'S SNACKS profited two million a year with a fleet of seven trucks and twenty employees. When the law passed making junk food and soda almost forbidden, all of Tom's business slimmed. He still owned the warehouse and their apartment building, but they were the only tenants and he was the only one loading the truck, driving the route and collecting coins. The number of machines dropped just enough to keep the lights on in Carmen's room.
She grew agitated and thrashed about anytime it went dark. Tom empathized. He'd be disgruntled too, if he'd been plunged into a black solitude with little communication, besides muffled grunts. But he loved her all the same and knew the feeling was mutual.
As Tom entered their apartment he could already smell her from downstairs, a moldering fetid aroma. He realized he couldn't remember the last time he'd checked in on her or given her a bath for that matter. How long had it been? Tom feared his days blended together. Surely it hadn't been longer than a week at the most.
Under her room Tom installed a drain pipe that led to the downstairs kitchen sink. This drain became necessary when Tom realized Carmen's mobility was no longer possible. He ducked under it setting aside the soap, apple-sauce and put three of the four pork roasts in the fridge. He knew she'd be hungry but it would have to wait. Her body odor demanded tending. When he passed by her room, the one they'd reserved for a nursery, her stink repelled him.
"Gee whiz honey."
Tom bit his lip in disgust pressing onward for the upstairs bathroom to fill the five buckets with soapy water. He sat on the edge of the tub as water gushed out the spout. It needed to be hot, by the time he carted each bucket to her room the water would've begun to chill. Carmen never responded well to a cold bath, and He wanted to avoid anything extraneous tonight. Besides it was the little touches that reminded her of his commitment.
Tom let the water and his mind run. He remembered after their honeymoon Carmen expressing a desire for a baby. Tom was more than pleased to make his beautiful wife happy and relished every romp.
They tried for months.
Every time, Carmen checked her status she saw the same pink dash, like a sinister hyphen between their vows to each other and the family she wanted. She would go on for days, in distraught fits and rages. At the height of this despair, Tom often worried Carmen might leave him.
Except for lack of pregnancy, Tom considered their marriage comfortable, yet Carmen saw their inability to conceive as monumental.
They visited their physician, initial tests revealed nothing wrong on Tom's part, but Carmen's tests were inconclusive. At their physician's recommendation, the Sloane's submitted to the conventional treatments.
In vitro fertilization at the time cost ten thousand dollars a pop. Tom was happy to write the check, besides business boomed. Each IVF treatment, just a drop in the bucket and it pacified Carmen's growing anxieties. A happy wife doesn't guarantee a happy life, but it's a good start. However, after the eleventh failed treatment. Tom wanted to pursue other options.
So began their relationship with Dr. Fielding’s Fertility Clinic. Fielding suggested they try his new, unorthodox approach, the Athena Process. Tom's semen would be injected directly into Carmen's ovaries. During her cycle, at least one already fertilized ovum would drop into her uterus, partially formed. The Athena Process sounded like the right medicine for the Sloane's despite its ridiculous price.
Dr. Fielding warned the couple about minor side effects. Tom brushed this off as typical fine print, insisting on trying the Athena. Dr. Fielding stopped speaking and looked at Tom. Tom looked into Carmen's eyes, smiled and signed all waivers. After the two separate six-figure checks cleared, Dr. Fielding performed the twenty minute procedure.
"Only time will tell," Tom remembered the Doctor saying.
However, the month passed with no changes.
Dr. Fielding suggested they try again. Tom wasted little time writing a second set of checks, even though Carmen seemed less than enthused.
“It’s a lot of money, honey,” Tom recalled her saying, although he couldn’t place his own response. He noticed a growing divide between them. Right around the time SLOANE’S SNACKS began tanking, Carmen spent less time at their apartment. He’d return to a dark home. No food in the kitchen. No wife by his side. She returned later with distance in her voice as she offered plausible excuses: a sick friend, et cetera. However Tom, certain of her duplicity, couldn't help harboring a suspicious heart. One day Tom lied about going to work. He waited around the corner and followed the taxi driving her into the city. To a high rise apartment. To him, her lover.
In the confrontation that followed, Carmen begged and pleaded for Tom to stop. He remembered how she swayed him from killing the other man. How pitiful she looked on her knees groveling and blaming herself. Oh, how she made promises, confessing nothing but love for Tom and only Tom. The gasping whimpers from her lover’s bloody body angered Tom, but when he looked into Carmen’s crying eyes he couldn’t help believing her. He told himself, this is just a bump in the road. What is a successful marriage without them?
Tom forgave her and contacted Dr. Fielding’s clinic. The doctor was hesitant, but Tom doubled the check’s amount and all parties agreed.
The month passed and finally the glorious day came when Carmen saw a pink plus sign.
She was pregnant.
When the Sloanes made their follow up, Fielding's expression seemed downright shocked. He breathed deeply and folded his hands across his desk.
"Please allow me to speak frankly. If I seem surprised it’s only because you’re the first successful patient who’s gone through the Athena."
"How many have you had?" Carmen asked.
"I'm not at liberty to say, as tests are ongoing. But I'm very happy for you. And everything looks normal."
Tom felt steam rising off the tub and began filling the buckets, remembering Carmen the night she found the first lump.
It appeared between her breasts near the end of the first trimester. Soft, squeezable and yet firmly rounded as if she'd grown a superfluous third breast. The Sloanes visited their regular physician who ordered a biopsy. The results came back negative for cancer, and the young physician stated that it was a benign tumor filled with healthy cells. He sighed at the couple then added, "I've never seen anything like it before…I don't really know what it is."
Since Carmen was pregnant, surgery would be put off until after delivery. Carmen became despondent over her tripled bust. Tom, try as he might, failed to soothe her. One morning, she awoke to find a new growth on her lower back. A week later, Carmen developed a pair on her abdomen. That morning, the Sloanes stopped by Dr. Fielding's for a sonogram, only to discover their fetus was abnormal. Small and embryonic, far behind schedule for the second trimester. Dr. Fielding sat there perplexed and muttered, "This just can't be."
"What, doctor?" Carmen asked.
Dr. Fielding parsed for the correct explanation, "The fetus has regressed to an even earlier stage of development. It appears to be a zygote again--"
Tom lined the buckets of water outside Carmen's room. When Tom pressed on the knob, the door didn't budge.
A streak of anxiety rippled across his face. How could she lock the door from inside? Tom leaned in and pushed, hearing the hinges give and squeal. He felt strange pressure from the other side. He pushed again and the door inched open a crack, a sliver of light splashed from the top of the doorway. Tom stepped back realizing to his horror what blocked the door. At once he saw the entire awful picture. He didn't bother asking himself why. He'd known all along that eventually something like this could, nay, would happen.
The night Dr. Fielding died, he called to explain his hypothesis. The Athena had accelerated her fertility and ovulation beyond a quantifiable measurement. Now, Carmen's ovaries, literally contained hundreds of thousands of fertilized eggs that, bombarded her womb every day. This state of constant ovulation, forced her body to reject each old fetus for the new one. But instead of passing them normally, her body absorbed the growing child inside her. Which led Dr. Fielding to conclude, the tumors which emerged at an alarming rate, were in fact fetal manifestations. And worse, she would soon be overtaken. The only way to reverse the condition, required a full hysterectomy. This meant they could never have children of their own.
Tom pressed harder against the door and the crack inched open. His fingertips brushed against the flabby flesh that spilled out of Carmen's stinking room.
"She must've fallen over," Tom told himself picturing her body breaking free of the tresses and moorings he'd installed, ”Carmen!"
Tom moved a knee into the works heaving into the room, barricaded by Carmen. Her swollen blob-like skin seeped into the hallway. Tom knew he needed to find her face. He needed to check her airway was clear. Tom chucked a hand against her loose billowy body. Tom felt its soft dampness as he clamored his head through the crack and scanned the room.
A sea of naked flesh rippled from wall to wall almost reaching the ceiling.
He gripped a fold pulling himself through, crawling delicately across her, sticking his hand in every crease looking for any sign of her hair or her face, but the roomful of sore-covered skin offered no clues.
Carmen was everywhere, and yet she was nowhere to be found.
He traversed this epidermal landscape and slid off to a rare square of floor. On his feet he
muscled under her frameless form as this heavy ocean engulfed him.
The smell was worse than ever before, as he crept in the reddish dusk of her body. After much pushing he pressed on, finally finding an eyebrow. He knew the rest of her face was around somewhere. His mind reeled and he remembered, shortly before her body rejected her skeleton and grew out in all directions, the last full words she said that day.
"Please Tom, if we don't find a cure, please don't let me go on like this hideous--"
"You're not hideous," Tom said ignoring the fact that her forehead drooped over her eyes and her cheeks sagged past where her chin once firmly rested.
"I don't want to live like this…if there's no cure."
"Trust me my darling, Dr. Fielding and I won't let that happen."
At that point, Tom was in no condition to tell her the truth. That a patient's husband had rampaged into his clinic, and shot Dr. Fielding full of holes.
Tom could've taken her to see their regular physician for the operation, but he just didn’t do it. Besides if she had the operation, she'd never have children, and Tom couldn't bear the thought of her leaving him again.
Now he needn't worry.
Tom could not bring himself to admit this to her. And on the last day she was able to speak words, he assured her that he loved her and he'd never leave her. For that was the only truth that mattered then as it did now. He knew how lucky she was to have him as her husband, lover and caretaker. Not to mention, father of their children.
Tom navigated his way to her red mouth. The only part of her body that remained attached to her bones. Tom quickly realized she was not breathing. It was too cramped to attempt CPR or any other lifesaving measure.
Carmen was gone.
Tom was too late.
He took her misshapen face and held it close to his own. He was seized with grief. But this grief, quickly dissipated into anger, when Tom realized they weren't alone. Somewhere under the vast corpus of his wife, he heard the tiny muffled coos of another one of those things.
Tom frantically pushed and plodded until he found the source of the noise. And there, bloodied on the floor lay an infant girl still attached to an expelled placenta.
Tom cursed it madly before collecting it and pushing his way out from under Carmen's dead girth into the hallway. He cut the umbilical cord and swaddled it in a dish rag, just like he done for all the others, and made his way to the bathroom.
As he twisted on the cold water, He remembered fondly that first one, so many years ago and how unprepared he was for it. It appeared normal, but Tom knew better. This little pink thing twitching in his hands. Its little toes and fingers fanning out in a state of newborn shock. And then he remembered the noise. The god-awful screams of this tiny creature. And Carmen, his poor dear Carmen, unable to hold the thing or breast feed it, or help Tom in anyway. How she just lay there, propped against the wall in her room. He remembered looking down at the first one with awed disgust, and how much he hated it.
For that small parasitic life form had destroyed his wife.
He remembered how clumsily he disposed of that first one, which Tom recalled distinctly as male. A year would pass before he stopped keeping records of boys and girls. By then he'd fully embraced the proceedings.
The parasites arrived once every two weeks.
Some arrived in pairs.
With Carmen's care his top priority, there was no room in Tom's life for these other things that kept falling out of her. She needed uninterrupted attention, and Tom was more than happy to provide for her, as he'd always done. He was not, however, willing to suffer these horrid creatures any longer than needed. Tom would've preferred to drag out their deaths for he knew, they deserved to suffer, just as they made his wife suffer. But their mere presence aggravated him and he wanted rid of them as soon as possible, so he drowned these horrible things in cold water. The furthest thing from a mother's warm womb.
Tom became very skilled at carrying out the process, and found that it gave him a thrill like no other. He felt like a superhero or Carmen's very own white knight, gallantly arriving and slaying the screaming demons. Once the little things stopped moving, their executioner, would bury their remains in the cellar. Just another set pattern in the routine of his life. No different than brushing one's teeth or picking ticks off the family dog.
Tom placed the stopper in the drain. The lime encrusted spout droned out any audible noise from the bundle of cloth on the tiles.
The water rose and rose. He moved a hand through the water to check the temperature. Satisfied, Tom twisted off the tap. He collected the thing, stood above the tub and submerged his charge in the water. He held her there counting the seconds, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three...Tom enjoyed watching the life float out of these vermin. He gazed down at the thing under the water and smiled triumphantly at his work.
Tom couldn't help but note certain similarities. The thing looked familiar. He knew in the genetic soup of the womb, each one was different and unique, yet all the same. This pest was particularly cunning, for it had developed certain features of its mother.
A mother it would never know. A woman whose beauty was beyond compare. A woman who had loved Tom, despite everything and vowed to be his wife until death separated them. A sacred vow for a wife whom Tom cared for relentlessly over the years, forgiving all her transgressions. Who, now, was just a moldering lifeless blob.
Tom felt his arms slacken. His wrists relaxed. His fingers still clutched the evil thing, but his mind soared elsewhere. Tom's emotions swelled in him, as he realized that this baby, would be the last one ever. He’d never again feel the joy of being Carmen's champion. Slayer of her demons. Killer of her disease. Keeper of their vows.
Tom pressed forward, if it was going to be the last one, he needed to make it count. He was going to execute it with supreme malice. He stared with dagger eyes at the tiny thing in his hands. But it only smiled back at him from below the water's surface.
The thing appeared calm.
It glowed innocence.
She radiated love.
She looked just like--
Tom looked at the drowning child's face and realized that this need not be the last one ever.
He'd need to change his routine, go on an extended hiatus, but in the meantime he'd have someone to care for. Not just anyone, but a newer version of--
He lifted the baby out of the water and patted her intently. The baby appeared to be unharmed by the ordeal. She held no grudge against him and breathed in a calm hiccuping rhythm. Tom looked over this child with awed amazement and christened her, Carmen, in honor of her mother.
He noted the small size of the child cradled in his arms. He counted ten fingers and toes. Two eyes and a very hungry mouth. To Tom, Carmen appeared healthy, which to any new parent is a moment of great relief. He was now, after waiting so many years, going to be a father. And he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he would protect her from all the evils of the world, especially when the time came, for Carmen to have children of her own.
Carmen's delightful coos soon turned as she became visibly upset. He knew at once what his crying daughter needed, warm milk or formula. The pair headed for the door, but he stopped short of opening it.
Tom realized he couldn't go shopping with baby Carmen. The grocer would ask questions. He countered that he could present Carmen as a foundling, but then foster services would surely take her. He'd again lose his Carmen. She'd come of age never knowing anything about her parents and how they loved each other, and what lengths they went to bring her into this world. Then he thought of the basement and the buried treasures that they’d discover there.
"That just won't do."
Tom at once formed a plan. They would walk the twelve blocks to the warehouse, climb into the delivery truck and drive to the country where they would start a new life together. The city, after all, was no place to raise a family.
He lay Carmen on his bed, packing a bag with clothes. He paused for a moment outside her mother's door and thanked her for everything.
Then together they scrambled down the stairs and hurried towards the door. In this haste, he failed to see the flashing red and blue lights outside his windows. As he pressed the knob the doorbell rang. In one swift movement the door opened and Tom faced a bewildered cop on the stoop. A neighbor had phoned in a complaint about an awful smell coming from his apartment and they'd come to investigate.
The cop's bewilderment subsided instantly once the opened door emitted the rancid reek wafting from upstairs. He recognized at once the putridity of dead flesh and drew his sidearm. The neighbors crowded the sidewalk and whispers chattered amongst them, about the man who murdered his wife.
Tom stood smiling in the doorway, unflappable as always, and displayed baby Carmen to the onlookers. Then beamed with pride at the policeman and said, "We couldn’t be happier. She's what my wife always wanted."