written by Sarah Tinsley | illustrated by Sophie Page
The doctor placed her on the scales — a wriggling apple weight.
One hand pressed on the frog-bent legs, held them against the scale. Iris willed the little thing to lift its pudgy head, find a neck underneath those squashy folds to stretch out.
“45th.” That sounded accusing.
“She’s still on breast milk. And the baby-led weaning, I hate the way it makes her cough, but-” the words caught in her throat. “We watch Baby University, and play games.” What wasn’t she doing?
“Tablet?” He scrolled down a list.
“No.” She hated to see small eyes fixed on those flickering squares. “We play with toys, and balls. She has a lot of books. We wriggle on the floor every day.” That was her favourite time. Lying back and squirming under rainbow-tangled lights from the crystals in the window.
“Tablet computers provide the most stimulation for the cost.” Notes on the chart. Perhaps they had a found a reason for it, after all.
“I thought it was bad for their eyes.” Something between pity and disappointment in the doctor’s expression.
Lila was returned. Iris scooped her into the carrier around her waist. A trip to the shop then, for one of those awful electronic things.
Out on the street, parents, wary-eyed, cast glances at each other, scrutinised the tops of toddlers heads. Checking for the early signs. Autumn was the time to look out for it.
In other countries the season announced itself in a shout of colour. Here it was a reduced summer, as if someone had turned down the heat a notch, the plants withering.
On the way home she passed the park. It used to be swings and slides, that bouncy space flooring in bright colours. All ripped out last year, when the first cases came to light.
At one end was the Interaction Section — bubble machines, drones to fly, crafts and building activities. The busiest was the Technology Zone — banks of screens where small fingers swiped and tapped, the odd shriek as a wailing victim was dragged off to be fed.
Next to the fence was Team Building. A group of toddlers huddled around their plinth. One girl in orange boots moved among them, sorting them into small groups and handing out materials.
Against Iris’ chest, Lila had wilted into sleep. The warmth of that small mass seeped into clothing, a smell somewhere between sour and sweet. She couldn’t help it. A quick peek under the hat — no scaly residue. Everything was fine.
Behind the fence, their structure grew. Tape and plastic, fuel cells tucked under in a wire mesh cage. Engagement was the key. The thing that would keep them.
When the marshall came over for testing, their balloon rocket exploded. The other one lifted on one corner and fell over, was declared the winner. In a flash of orange, the little girl was next to her culprit. The boy cowered, looking over to his parents for support behind the barrage of her attack.
The grown ups smiled. Iris saw nothing but desperation. She had to get away from all this stimulation. They used to say boredom was good for children.
Clusters of people made ragged shapes in the street. Long coats, boots, despite the temperature. International magazines painted a wash over all bodies. At home she could wear a T-shirt without ridicule in this heat. Avoid the looks she got as a lone parent. How could she possibly keep one, without help?
Back home, she made dinner. Cold blended soup and rice. Hot things made them warm and sleepy, encouraged hibernation. She put a couple of ice cubes in, for good measure. Next door they had their food delivered from Ice Times — lolly versions of kids food. Fish pops and Jelly ice.
Lila had always been quiet. They said it was a bad sign. Even at the birth. Awaiting a roar of life between her legs, Iris was alarmed to hear nothing at all, just her own gasping, the beep of the machines. The sound was supposed to make it official. A midwife plucked the pale skin. The baby had fallen asleep as soon as she came out.
Iris chatted over dinner, Lila’s eating accompanied by a hum of pleasure. As soon as the food was off her face, Lila’s eyes sagged. No time for a bath. Iris picked over the crown, looking for the sheen of something under the fine hair.
Once the cocoon of the blanket was over, the video monitor dangling overhead, it was possible to relax. At first, she hadn’t been able to leave the room. Little by little, she moved the camp bed towards the door, finding a return to her bed was only possible when there was the grainy grey square of constant filming in her eyeline.
She flicked the telly on. Rates were up. 10% in Japan, 30% in Finland. Cities blamed the education system. There were crowds of women outside a school in China, thrusting games and snacks through the railings. Harder for them, to lose the only one they had.
Perhaps he was watching this. Wondering about the fate of his child. She’d not mentioned it, let him leave in his quiet way, edging out of her life by degrees. It was obvious in the circles under her eyes, the nausea over frying meat. If neither of them acknowledged it, they didn’t have to discuss the possibility of tangling their futures together.
Outside, a sound. Like the moan of a siren. She peered into the street. Still light out, the wailing odd against the warmed orange sky.
It was Jackie, from over the road. The sound flickered out of an upstairs window, in between the flapping curtains. Another one.
Back in the bedroom, she fretted the blanket over Lila, pushing back the image of the brown husk that was smeared all over the newspapers. You couldn’t get away from it. Yesterday, on the way back from the supermarket there’d been a woman handing out leaflets. Big picture of a leaf in the middle.
“Mother Earth is helping us.”
She’d taken one, to avoid getting into conversation. It said it was nature’s way of repopulating the world, making up for our mistakes. Easy to say if you didn’t have any of your own.
Nigel, the boy that lived on the same road as Mum, he’d come out as a rhino. There was still a taped-over bit in the front door where he’d escaped, been picked up by the SRU to a more suitable location.
He’d been like that for weeks, apparently. Sheila had tried to hide him, soundproofed the door so the neighbours wouldn’t hear him bellowing. Mum said he still liked his favourite food — Weetabix and honey — only in a bowl on the floor. The same eyes, Sheila said.
Iris crept back to the living room, the monitor clutched in her hand. It had to be a disease. Something in the genes, hidden until the crust started to form over the skin. Or a lack of love, of attention. All this nonsense about stimulation, it couldn’t be good for them. Nothing more she could give there. Work had stopped calling, her weekly excuses withering away. There was money in the bank, it didn’t matter. What use did tapping away at a screen do, now she had Lila? Everything had paled beside those piercing eyes.
After the news, a special report from Texas. A slight woman smiled out at the world. She cradled the cocoon in her arms — a blue-brown husk. She’d put a hat on it. Footage showed her pushing the thing around, strapped into the buggy.
“I’ve been chosen,” she said. “Personally I hope she turns into a dolphin, so I got someone I can go for a swim with.”
At the age of two Lila caught her sock on a nail. The scar was a red ribbon tied around her knee.
At three she found a shard of thrush egg in the park. It went into the box with the harlequin on, along with her other treasures — the stone from the seaside and a plastic Barbie shoe that had been discarded in a basket at Asda.
It wasn’t long after her seventh birthday that Iris noticed it. Not on the scalp, as she’d expected, but a sheen on the bottom of her left foot. They were playing their usual game in the bath — Iris creating mounds of bubbles in the water that Lila flicked into the air with her toes, shrieking with pleasure. In the flurry of white, there was a thickening, just under the big toe.
She grabbed it, the reflexive muscles trying to pull away. It could be a scab, just a little hard patch. One finger stroked over it. Smooth, almost metallic, a little cooler than the surrounding skin.
“It tickles!” Lila plopped her foot into the water, a large drop landing on Iris’ cheek.
“You know I love you, right?” Iris stood up, the urge to play leaving her.
“More bubble towers.” Lila leaned forward, scooping the remaining suds into rough mounds. Was that another patch on her back? Would the moles on her arm join up and seal her away?
“Bedtime.” The tone of her voice jarred the little body, jumped it to attention, disappointment registering in the eyes. Iris bundled her into a towel, scrubbing the moisture away.
“Ow.” It was said with deliberation.
“You’re old enough to do this now.” Iris pulled the plug and left the room, gripping her fingers against her palms. She wanted to hurt her. How dare she leave.
That was the first night the light was switched off without a story, no narrative to smooth the transition to sleep. Iris stayed up all night, clicking through the claims of cures, the parents who’d kept their children. Now the fault lay with affection, not stimulation. Millions had traded their tablets and computer consoles in for a Hug’Em, a contraption that allowed you to strap even a large child to your body, give them as much contact as possible. New articles about conversation cards to use with your toddler, groups of parents forming networks to help support single mothers and fathers, spreading their love thin to protect as many as possible.
National figures had decreased, she’d thought it was safe now. Seven was so old, so late, for the onset. When the birds announced the smudge of dawn in the sky, she crawled into Lila’s bed, the hands clutching around her arm in sleep. It had been nothing, she would be fine in the morning.
It advanced quickly. By the following weekend there was a sheet of it on her back — hard, yet it rippled with the movement of her spine.
“How do you feel?”
“Fine. Can we go skating?” It was her new favourite pastime, now the summer had arrived. They put wheels on their feet and let gravity pull them down hills. Lila always pushed ahead, reaching the bottom before her mother. Iris gripped fences and lampposts, lessening her speed when she felt her feet pull away from her.
That night, after washing her hair, she massaged lotion into the brown patch. It slithered off, not changing in consistency at all.
“Does it hurt?” She felt for an edge, but there was nothing to get a nail under to peel it off.
“No.” She was rearranging her crayons into colour order.
“How do you feel about it?”
“I don’t know.” The same answer, every time.
“You must feel something.” She didn’t want her to leave, couldn’t imagine the shape of the hole that would be left behind.
“These things happen.” A hand in hers, the large eyes serious, advanced in age. Arms around her neck, the scrawny body warm.
The following morning she pulled back the covers to a blue-brown pod. It was warm. Inside, things pulsed. It reminded her of the peas they picked from Grandad’s garden, peeling back the green strings and popping the little orbs in their mouths. Iris sat, stroking her hand over the warm thing. It wasn’t as unpleasant as it looked on TV. Somewhere between a banana skin and a leaf. She spent the day lying next to it, whispering the words she’d been saving for when Lila was more grown up.
After a few days, it hardened. A dead thing, a husk. She picked it up and took it down to the living room. It was lighter than she expected. Nothing to be seen beneath the surface now, but she placed a blanket over it just in case. Her days yawned open, all those lumps of time empty. She found herself talking to it, addressing the shape as she made dinner, dusted, watched TV. All her activities gravitated to the living room, so she could be close to it.
Two weeks, that’s what they said. Then the new thing would come out, whatever it was. Work hadn’t asked, friends hadn’t called. Nothing could be said. As the time approached she examined it closely, looking for changes in shape, texture, colour, anything to give her a hint of the thing that would emerge. Was that a hoof, tucked up in one corner? Perhaps the slight bulge near the top was a hump, or a pouch.
One morning, it started shaking. Very slight, the vibration only felt when she put her hand on it. Like a tiny heartbeat. It would not be long. She imagined the creature emerging, the Species Relocation Unit taking her daughter away in her new form. Was it still her? They hadn’t been able to establish neurological similarity, because of the lack of communication possible.
She sat next to the quivering cocoon, flipping through photos on her phone. The harlequin box clasped between her hands, the bright white bandage against pink skin, the halo of hair, flung out as she whooshed down the hill by the park. This was her, not the thing she had become.
Placing the chrysalis on the back seat, she drove to the nearest hospital. There were flurries of sirens, the clatter of wheelchairs. Inside, through the swoosh of the door, rushing feet on hushed floors. She took the thing that used to be her daughter and placed it on a bench in the waiting area.
As she drove away, the wail of something reached her through the open window. A cry she need no longer answer. Pulling into traffic, the city lights blinked, the moon an eye, watching her as she made her escape.
About the artists:
Sophie Page is a mixed media 3d illustrator and RISD grad based in NYC, from Conway MA. sophiegenevapage.com ~ @ladle_gull
Sarah Tinsley is a writer, teacher, runner and drummer who lives in London. She is prone to musing over gender issues and eating cheese. She won the Segora Short Story competition in 2015 and was Highly Acclaimed in the Aurora Short Fiction Competition in 2016. Her short fiction, reviews and blogs have been published on a variety of platforms. You can find her on Twitter @sarahertinsley or on her blog at sarahtinsley.com.