from Sheeps & Wolves
Jeremy C. Shipp
Margaret, one of my least favorite wives, blocks the television as if anything she says is as interesting or witty as scripted dialogue crafted by professional writers; as if her smile with the chipped tooth is as enchanting as a celebrity's; as if I haven't seen this one a thousand times already. "I have something special planned for you later," Margaret says. "It involves strawberries, handcuffs and a very lucky umbrella."
I laugh, because she expects me to.
"Be honest," she says. "Is that too kinky? Not kinky enough?"
“You know what, honey?” I say. “I’m not really feeling it tonight. I’m sorry.”
“Not feeling it?”
“I don’t think I can do this so ... often anymore.”
“I’d like to. It’s just that my body isn’t responding the way that it used to.”
She should walk away. Run, really.
But instead, she steps closer. She can’t help herself. Not because of gravity or magnetism or even attraction. It’s because every night after she falls asleep, I sit beside her, and read to her from my notebook with the kitten on the cover. You probably don’t know this, but that kitten was run over and killed and run over a few more times three days after that photograph was taken. And if you look close enough, with a magnifying glass would be best, you can see fear in the kitten’s eyes. Part of him knows what’s coming. Part of him isn’t so innocent.
“Don’t look so sad,” I say. “Our relationship has evolved beyond the physical. I get so much more pleasure from talking to you now than touching you.”
“You don’t like touching me?” she says, closer.
“I do. Of course I do. But our bodies aren’t what they used to be. We’re not built for sex at this age. You can’t have children anymore, so we’ve lost our physical appeal.”
“I can get surgery,” she says, on my lap now. “I can change.”
“Yes, but you can’t change into a younger woman. You can never get back what you lost.” She holds me tight. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“You won’t,” I say, and smile. “No matter what fades from our relationship, I’ll always appreciate what we have. Always.”
She squeezes me. She cries on me.
Then she folds into me like a hide-a-bed, and poof. She’s gone.
“That’s how you do it,” I say.
Sonny pops his head out of the enormous vase where he was hiding and says, “I’m not sure exactly what you did, Mr. Grelding.”
“Of course you’re not sure,” I say. “You’re a student.”
Look at him jumping out of that vase like some green-screened ninja. He thinks he’s so great. Just because he’s young and good looking and smarter than the average bear. I bet he’s never traveled back and forth through time or fought in an intergalactic space war or saved the world from the apocalypse.
I bet he’s even a virgin.
After setting down in the forest clearing, I unfasten my rocket pack and let it smash a couple of mushrooms or mice or whatever they were.
“Now I’m going to teach you how to have a baby,” I say.
Sonny doesn’t unfasten his rocket pack. It’s heavy, and he’s trying to prove his manliness to me because when he sees me, he sees his father, which is always a nice money maker
“I didn’t think you could have a child without a woman,” he says.
“Without a woman?” I say. “Let me ask you something, Sonny. Are you retarded?”
“I take offense to that, Mr. Grelding. My cousin has autism.”
“Autism is the same as retarded?”
“I wouldn’t call anyone retarded. It’s insensitive.”
“I am insensitive, retard. The point is, of course you need a woman to have a baby. I have twelve inside me right now.”
“Women. Now pay attention.”
I gather the best bits and pieces from each woman inside. Linda’s math skills. Margaret’s libido. Cindy’s looks. Fran’s obsessive perfectionism. On and on. I gather them and sculpt them into a little boy. As for the leftovers. Linda’s ugliness. Margaret’s weak stomach. Cindy’s stupidity. Fran’s compassion. On and on. I dump the scraps into a little girl.
Soon I’m bent over, heaving, vomiting hard on a wounded mouse that managed to drag itself from under my rocket pack.
I upchuck the boy first. The girl comes second. They’re dripping with bile and I pull out my permanent marker and draw an X on the girl’s forehead. I carry them both to the cage and lower them inside. I’m careful.
“With everything I put inside him, he’ll be the next Einstein,” I say. “Or at least the next Bill Gates.”
“What will she be?” Sonny says.
“She’ll be a meal for the beasts. You might not know this, but in beast society, human children, especially babies, are considered quite the delicacy. I give them a few surplus children and they raise my real children in exchange.”
“But what’s the point of having children if you’re not going to raise them?”
“I take them back after they’re older and less annoying. It’s easier to assimilate them into human society than you might think. It just takes some tough love, and that’s something I have a lot of.”
His eyes twinkle, because he’s hoping that part of me loves him.
And I keep his hope alive by smiling at him. He’s pathetic.
I close the cage.
The troublesome part of having a wind up house is that you need to employ a fulltime winder and the turnover rate is 100%, what with the severe hand crippling. Other than the pesky paperwork and interviews, however, it’s a blast.
Most people, I suppose, like to detach themselves from the suffering required to keep their opulent lifestyles up and running. Me, I like to watch, sitting in my comfiest chair, gobbling down popcorn.
“Nice work, Hans,” I say, between chomps.
“Thank you, Mr. Grelding,” Hans says. He’s winding up the fireplace, which of course doesn’t require any winding. Hans is probably smart enough to know this, but he turns the fake winding key anyway.
Sonny comes in and pulls a Rubic’s cube out of a shopping bag. He holds it out to me.
“What?” I say. “I don’t want it.”
“You asked me to buy it for you,” Sonny says. “You said you’d pay me back.”
“I wouldn’t ask for this. I hate games.”
“I must have misheard you.” Sonny puts the cube back in the bag.
Hans continues to the turn the key. His hands continue to wither and die.
“Sonny,” I say. “We need to have a little talk. Sit down.” He does.
“First of all,” I say. “I want you to know that believe in you. Really, I do.”
“Thank you, Mr. Grelding.”
“You have the will to succeed in my program, but your body and mind are going to need a little extra help. I’m afraid I have to increase the cost of your tuition to cover the additional training time.”
Sonny scoots closer to me. “I’m already too financially strained as it is, Mr. Grelding. I’ll work harder, I promise.”
“It’s not as simple as that, Sonny.”
He moves closer.
“You can’t make your flaws disappear by working hard,” I say. “They’re a deep-seated part of you, and these limitations don’t make you a bad person. They make you special. I’m prepared to give you more of my time and energy to compensate for your special needs, but I need to be compensated in return. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Sonny should laugh in my face.
But instead, he sits closer. He can’t help himself. Not because of respect or admiration or even fear. It’s because every night after he falls asleep, I sneak into the guest room, and read to him from my notebook with the kitten on the cover. You might not know this, but I own a cat. He’s small and stupid. Without me, he’d die for sure.
“I’ll pay,” Sonny says. He starts to hug me, but I stand and head for the kitchen.
“The microwave, Hans,” I say.
“Right away, Mr. Grelding,” Hans says.
I can tell he’s in pain, and that’s my pain in his hands. It’s my childhood, my traumas. My house runs on suffering, and the whole situation makes me burst with laughter sometimes while I’m in the shower or stuck in traffic. Anywhere, really.
“Damn, I burned it,” I say. “The microwave again please, Hans.”
“Right away, Mr. Gelding.”
The scratch is worse today. I can’t say I’m surprised.
It all started a few days or weeks or was it months ago when my small and stupid cat approached me in my living room and clawed my leg for no apparent reason. When he headed for the door, I didn’t chase him. I didn’t kick him. In fact, I didn’t dignify this trivial scraping with any response whatsoever.
I forgot the incident ever happened, and any time I remembered, I forced myself to forget again.
When I first noticed the thick yellow pus on the cut, I laughed.
Days or weeks or was it months passed, and the wound spread, snaking up my leg, around my genitals thank god, and up my stomach. The swollen stretch of skin burns and itches. It’s infested with rancid boils spewing green ooze.
Obviously on some level, I should go to a doctor. But I can’t. I can’t let the cat win.
So I’m trying out another home remedy. Sooner or later I’ll invent something that works. Today I drench the injured tissue with gasoline and industrial strength wasp spray. I scream for a while, which probably means it’s working.
Before I’m done reapplying the bandages, a young woman enters my room. She points a spear at me and says, “You.” She says this as if she’s somebody, but she’s not glamorous or delicate or skinny or passive in the least. She’s nothing.
She slashes the blade across my chest, and I’m not very invulnerable when I’m not wearing my bionic exoskeleton.
I dip my finger in my blood. “Who are you?” I say.
“I’m your daughter,” she says.
“I don’t have any daughters.”
“You left me to die, but a beast named Elina saved me from the others and raised me as her own. She told me who you were. I finally found you.” She smiles.
I pick up the phone and try to call the police, but the phone isn’t wound up.
“Hans!” I say. “Phone!”
Then I remember he quit earlier today. He even managed to give me the finger, despite his handicap. That was before he stole all the keys.
“Sonny!” I say. Then I remember he left to buy me a new chess set.
The girl swings and slices my arm.
And I do the only thing I can think of doing. I scramble over to my nightstand and read to her from my notebook with the kitten on the cover.
“You’re unworthy,” I say. “You’re ugly. You’re stupid. You’re a failure. You’re unlovable.”
She growls at me, from the depth of what must be her soul or something just as frightening, and knocks the notebook from my hands. I know I shouldn’t be scared of this nothing of a woman. I know she’s small and stupid like my cat.
But I can’t stop shaking.
“What do you want?” I say.
“I don’t know yet,” she says, and cuts my other arm.
“I can give you money.”
“We don’t use currency in beast society.”
“I can try to be a real father to you.”
“It’s a little too late for that.”
She moves fast and carves up my forehead. She draws an X. I should walk away. Run, really.
But instead, I step closer. I can’t help myself. Not because of duty or empathy or even love. It’s because every night before I fall asleep, I think the things from my notebook with the kitten on the cover. You might not know this, but I’m not very happy.
I hold my daughter and say, “I can change.”
She pushes me away. She lifts her spear and brings it down on me. She cuts off my bandages.
I look down at my body, and in my mangled rotting flesh, I see faces. Linda. Margaret. Cindy. Fran. On and on. They’re squirming up my stomach, up my chest. They’re smiling. They’re chewing. I’m itching and scratching, and they’re gnawing my finger with sharp chipped teeth.
Finally, the faces reach my head, my childhood, my traumas, and poof.
Jeremy C. Shipp is an author whose written creations inhabit various magazines, anthologies, and drawers. While preparing for the forthcoming collapse of civilization, Jeremy enjoys living in Southern California in a moderately haunted Victorian farmhouse. He’s currently working on many stories and novels and is losing his hair, though not because of the ghosts. Vacation is his first published novel. You can visit his online home at www.jeremycshipp.com.