Death by Disease
All right, I've done this a hundred times.
Seated behind the wheel, Marisa waited for her body to take over. Hand at the ignition, key fumbling between her fingers, her foot eased onto the clutch.
"There we go!" The car rumbled to life.
Pulling into the street, she forgot to look and was rewarded with a screeching horn from an oncoming car. The driver waved his fist at her from an open window.
"What the hell is your problem, buddy?"
Marisa looked behind her and all around, but still she felt dizzy, terribly dizzy as if she wasn't looking at a street at all, but some newfangled kaleidoscope. And that gnawing hunger deep in her belly would not go away.
She eased down the street.
"This isn't so hard." And then abruptly, like hitting a brick wall, she slammed on the brakes. People turned to look, glared at her under slanted brows.
Something was wrong. An image materialized in her mind. There'd been someone in the back seat. The hairs on her nape stood on end. She forced herself to look down, away from the mirror. I can't look! she thought. I just can't look!
There was someone back there!
Trembling, one hand at the wheel, the other at the door handle, her body ready to shoot out onto the street, she turned around.
Why hadn't she noticed him before?
She looked closer. Not a baby, more of a toddler, maybe two, three years old. His head slumped, eyes closed as in sleep.
"Baby?" She reached back and nudged him gently, but the boy wouldn't wake up.
Do I have a baby? she wondered. She couldn't even remember that. Do I have a family? A husband - yes, Rick, Richard - Mitch? What was it? Tall. Dark hair. She wanted to pluck him from her brain with her fingers but he disappeared.
The boy's red jumper was dirtied with mud and grass. The white shirt underneath stained.
How did you get here?
She looked closer, was that blood?
Oh God. I have to take him to the hospital, yes, the hospital...
But, but I don't even know where I am!
Dusk had arrived, turning everything blue, blending buildings together like their corners had been smudged. Driving along, she realized she was going in circles. No matter what street she followed off the main road, she always ended back on it. And the people were always the same. They looked at her angrily, she thought they yelled things too, she just couldn't hear them.
Frustrated, she pulled onto the curb and jumped out of the car. A nicely dressed couple saw her coming and ran. She yelled to them but they continued to run, then disappeared around a corner.
Tears blurred her vision. She slumped to the sidewalk, held her knees with her arms. Her fingers shredded the grass growing between the concrete. And then nearly all on it's own, one reached into a gaping hole in her jeans. And what's this? Her blouse was not only ripped but bloody too.
Jesus, what is going on?
She stood, rocking on the curb, and peered into the back seat. The child lay there, motionless, and it would appear, not breathing. She watched his little red jumper for any sign of movement, but nothing happened. Open the door and hold him! she demanded herself, but she couldn't. She didn't want to hold the dead baby, didn't want to think for a moment that she might be the reason he was dead.
She clambered into the driver's seat and rested her forehead on the wheel. What can I do? She lifted her face to the streetlight where a cloud of moths gathered at the bulb. She couldn't even remember her own name.
"Please!" Another couple was passing by. "Please, this baby and I need help!"
But they hardly looked at her, just continued on their way.
Through the rearview mirror she looked at the baby. In the darkness he resembled a cabbage patch doll, resting to one side, silent but still lovable.
She couldn't bear to touch him. Just couldn't.
The hunger gnawing at her insides was undeniable now. It had been there all along but had grown into a monster. A burning, seething monster.
The monster, she realized, had come alive when a neon sign flickered to life across the street.
Rows and rows of golden bottles. Shelves and rows and cases - all filled with the glorious liquid!
She felt the burning, like a trail of fire, spark in her gut then up her throat. Her lips moved obscenely as if nursing the neck of one of those bottles. Closing her eyes she could almost taste it on her tongue.
Without looking, she crossed the road, eyes on the sign, completely oblivious to the cars around her. Horns blared, people yelled, but she couldn't hear. Her mind had emptied and retained only one thing: the word "liquor" in glaring red neon.
Bubbling with excitement she nearly knocked over an old man on his way out.
"Hey, watch it sister!" She saw only a mouth with missing teeth and swollen, purple tongue.
The bottles were gleaming, reflecting the long fluorescent bulbs like diamonds in a mine.
Lifting her legs to dance, because she truly felt like dancing now, they wouldn't oblige. She walked with a limp and, looking down at herself, realized the extent of her injuries. Her jeans were badly torn, embarrassingly so, and her ripped blouse was soaked and caked with blood.
Still, none of that mattered. All that mattered were the bottles of liquid winking at her. It didn't make a difference which one she chose, any would do, any one would pacify the monster inside her.
She carried one of the largest, heaviest bottles to the front counter. The cashier, a man with a pregnant gut and sweaty head peered out from behind his paper.
She dove into her jeans pockets.
A bobby pin.
Goddamnit! She pulled the pockets inside out then reached into the back ones. Nothing! SHIT!
The cashier's eyes slanted. He reached for the bottle. But she was quicker.
Her grip tightened around the neck and a tug of war ensued.
"Gimme that!" the man yelled.
And then she won, and lost.
Falling backwards, the bottle flying with her, she landed on her rear. The bottle crashed, splinters of glass exploding everywhere, the precious golden liquid pooling out over the yellow tile.
Hurriedly, she got on all fours, but before she could taste even a drop - that damn fire would kill her! - the cashier had her under the arms. She kicked and fought, but he was a strong man, even with that pregnant belly of his, and threw her out to the sidewalk.
The bells on the door rattled as he slammed it closed behind him. And then the brilliant, gorgeous neon sign blinked out of existence. Nothing but hollow metal tubes.
Someone laughed at her as they passed by. She could barely look at them, could only look across the street at her car. And then she remembered something. What was it? Ah, yes. The baby.
Struggling to her feet, she limped back to the car. Night ate at everything now, made her blind to things. Was the baby alive? Perhaps if she willed it into being, maybe it would happen. But darkness was only a mask, it could not change the truth.
Climbing into the back seat, she let her gaze linger on the featureless sack beside her. Where had he come from? Was he hers? Hell, she couldn't even remember her own name, or why she was hurt.
Pushing all fear aside, she lifted the baby under his arms and held him to her. How cold he felt, how cold and stiff. She wrapped her arms around his little body and squeezed him tight. Kissing his muddy blond hair, she rubbed circles on his little back. Still, she couldn't feel him breathing, prompting her to hold him even closer. Tears raced down her face and into the child's hair. She squeezed him so tightly she feared he might break.
Wearily, she looked at the town and its people ambling the sidewalks. Were these the same people? Why were they smiling at her now, when before, they ran away? Had they been watching her all along? And across the street there'd been something nice... a neon sign? Her eyes remained only half open as she surveyed the town. The dark was making her tired, tugging on her lids like fingers unrolling a shade.
Just before drifting off completely, before absolutely nothing made sense, the town, the car - the boy in the red jumper moved his neck. He took a deep breath and exhaled on her arm.
The sweet scent of his mother was the next thing he knew. He opened his eyes and with blurry vision saw her red face, she was crying. He felt her hand enclose his and instinctively, his free hand moved to his face. His father pulled his arm to his side. Red, puffy blotches on his father's face made him think he'd been crying too. But why?
As the blurriness faded, the pain returned. His head hurt more than it ever had before. He felt things in his nose, unnatural things. And his leg felt so heavy, looking at it, he wondered why it had turned so white and bulky. White curtains went all the way around his bed. Where was he? But it didn't really matter. Not now. His parents were there, and although they were crying, they seemed to be happy. They smiled at him and he wanted to say something, anything, but could only look back. His mother stood up and bent over top of him. She embraced him long enough and hard enough so he'd know he'd be all right.
He wondered if it was her that hugged him in his dreams.
"Death by Disease" is Tricia Urlaub's first online published story. Another story, "Escaping the Dark" is slated for an October publication in the print magazine, Ralph's Review.
She busies herself raising two young, energetic sons and writing in her free time.