As Naomi stands in her kitchen, a hypodermic needle in her right hand, a bowl of Cheerios in her left, she wants very much to close her eyes, just for a few seconds. But she must make Andrew’s coffee. Pack Audrey’s lunch. Make Colby’s breakfast. She has been awake for the last thirty hours.
It was supposed to be Andrew’s turn on night-monitor duty, because Colby hasn’t slept in ten months and someone has to stay up with him. But Andrew has an early meeting, so she’s had to take a second night in a row. Tonight, he says, she can go to bed early and he’ll deal with the kids. She doesn’t remember how much coffee she’s had, but her stomach burns and her hands are quivering. Her eyelids flutter a little and the full bowl of Cheerios falls to the black-and-white checkered tile. She keeps a tight grip on the syringe—forty-five dollars a dose, after insurance. Dropping it is not an option.
“Mommy!” Audrey shouts, which causes Naomi’s heart to flutter and her eyes to pop open. “You’re a buttery finger.”
Her first impulse is to growl at Audrey to make her own damned breakfast for once, but she’d just cry. She takes a breath, holds it for ten seconds, releases. The urge subsides. “That’s ‘butterfingers,’ sweetie,” she mutters, pouring a new bowl. She’ll sweep up the mess later.
“Butterfingers,” the girl repeats slowly, exaggerating every syllable. She is seated next to Colby on the white leather couch, holding his hand while petting Scratchy McGee, their orange tabby, with the other. Colby is still in his Spider-Man jammies, cross-legged, his little gray toes just poking out from under his thighs. His rust-orange eyes, nearly whiteless, are fixed on Abby Cadabby as she turns Oscar into a grouchy butterfly. He doesn’t laugh, or even blink. She picks up her smartphone and snaps a quick picture of them together, in case he gets worse. She’s heard stories, unconfirmed, about little ones getting so bad that body parts start falling off, until there’s nothing left but a pile of dried flesh and bone that just keeps on living. The doctors have said that won’t happen to Colby; his case is less severe, and they should feel lucky.
She does not feel lucky.
“Breakfast, honey,” she calls out, and Audrey shuffles over to the kitchen and sits and the little corner table with her Cheerios, just out of view of the living room. Audrey cries whenever she watches this. Naomi did too, the first few times.
She uncaps the needle, squeezes out the excess, then tiptoes into the living room and eases onto the couch next to Colby. His attention is still on Abby Cadabby, trying desperately to turn Oscar back into a Grouch. Naomi gently snakes her arm beneath his shoulders until she has him in a half-nelson, and before he can move she sticks the needle into his carotid and pushes the plunger. He doesn’t cry or try to pull away—just a high little moan from deep in his throat—and when she pulls out the needle he gives her a long, blank stare.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” she says. “I know you don’t like it. You want breakfast?”
She knows what he’s about to say—the only word he’s said for the last ten months. Just once, she’d like to hear him ask for Cheerios, oatmeal, chocolate cake. He used to bury his hands in his cake and smear it on his face like a beard. Mirror-universe Colby, they’d call him.
It comes quivering out of his throat, a sound not at all like a little-boy voice:
“Okay, sweetie.” She pulls the paper-wrapped lump out of the refrigerator, peels the plastic off the gray spongy thing, pares off five thin slices with a filet knife. It was easier to find than she thought—you’d be surprised what you can get at a butcher shop if you ask. She arranges the slices in a smiley-face on a plastic Mickey Mouse plate and sets it on his booster-seat tray. The smiley-face, as always, is lost on him. He picks up a slice with his fingers—he hasn’t used a fork in nearly a year—and slurps it down with that low little moan. The cat jumps up on the table with a baleful meow, reaching slowly with one cream-colored paw to touch a slice of pig brain. Naomi brushes him off the table. He’ll be back up as soon as she turns her back, but she doesn’t care anymore.
She helps Audrey on with her windbreaker, then gathers up Andrew’s coffee and briefcase. By the time he comes out of the bathroom she feels dizzy and weak, and has to lean on the table. He puts his arms around her, not quite tight enough for her to let go.
“I’m sorry, baby,” he says. “I’ll be home as soon as I can, so you can rest.” She stares at his face, his close-cropped white-blond hair. He and Audrey have the same hair. Colby too, until the change. Andrew’s eyebrows crinkle over his deep-set blue eyes and he stares at her for a minute. “You okay?”
“I’m okay,” she says. If she tells the truth, he’ll get defensive, there’ll be a fight, he’ll come home bitter.
He kisses her. “See you later. Let’s go, Audrey!”
The girl grabs her backpack and they head for the door. Before she exits, Audrey turns around and bolts back to the dining room, gives Colby a peck on his veiny forehead. “Bye Colby!” she says, as if nothing’s changed at all. He sloshes some gray matter between his teeth without looking up from his plate.
“Gross,” she says. Colby looks up at her once, briefly, then scoops up another slice.
Andrew motions to Audrey, then they’re gone.
Once they’re off it’s Naomi’s turn—too much to do today, not much time. She puts on an episode of Dinosaur Train while Colby is still strapped into his booster seat and heads for the bathroom, peeling her clothes off in the narrow hallway as she walks. They fall to the tattered chessboard-pattern carpet they cannot afford to replace. She’ll pick them up later, along with yesterday’s sweatpants and T-shirt kicked against the baseboards. Andrew knows not to complain.
The hundred pinpricks of hot water hit her skin; her blood begins to flow again, the thin muscles above her ears loosen. She opens the sliding door and listens for a loud bump, Scratchy McGee screeching in terror. Nothing.
She wraps a towel around her body, another around her head, and peeks out the doorway. He is where she left him, in his booster seat, light from the TV flickering in his eyes, the cat pawing at his arm for attention. No problem at all. Never is, really. Andrew’s mother suggested an anti-prowl hitching post and harness, like the ones they sell on those specialty websites, but Colby has never needed one. Andrew said she was trying to be helpful, but she lives twenty minutes away and it’s been six months since she came to visit.
As Naomi slides into a dark purple tracksuit she glances at the lines of skirts in the closet, the floral tops and paisley scarves in every color. “Nonprofit chic,” Andrew called them. She used to throw them on in a frenzy, usher the kids out to the car, wait impatiently while Colby buckled himself into his booster seat—if she did it for him he’d cry and then she’d have to start all over again. It was always a mad rush, getting Audrey to school, Colby to preschool. Then the head teacher at the preschool called and said Colby was a danger to the other children, and they just couldn’t take that risk.
Andrew keeps telling her that one day, after the expensive therapies are out of the way and they have some money saved up again, it’ll be her turn to go back to work, and he’ll take the responsibility off her hands. He says that a lot.
Colby is still staring at the TV when she lifts him out of his booster seat, transfixed as Rosita shoves Elmo out of her way to answer a math problem on the chalkboard.
“Not nice,” Naomi says, though he doesn’t respond. She’s not even sure he knows what he’s watching.
His eyes stay fixed on the TV as his body moves, even as she lays him on the floor and strips off his clothes and diaper. The shit is light gray and slimy—no one ever warned her about that. Dr. Wendt said it was because his body only absorbs a specific protein out of the brains, and gets rid of the rest.
She fills the tub, dumps in the little bin of rubber duckies and frogs and sea turtles, puts him in. Colby stares while she waves a small blue duck in front of him, submerges it. “Help me! I can’t swim!” she says in a high squeaky voice, then lets it pop back to the surface. She squeaks the rubber ducky in quick bursts to mimic gasping. “Oh, thank you, Colby!” She lifts the ducky to his forehead and makes kissing sounds. He doesn’t respond, or even look up from the drain stopper. He never does anymore.
He sits there with water dripping from his steel-gray hair, down the bridge of his nose. She cannot leave or turn her back, or close her eyes, even for a moment—were he to tip over he might not even try to get up, and might drown. It’s been known to happen, more than once.
She imagines it—her eyes popping open to find him unmoving beneath the water, his rusty eyes staring into nothing. What she might tell Andrew: she was so tired, she couldn’t help it, and when she woke up she found him that way. No one would blame her, not really. In a few days, maybe weeks, they could all get on with their lives.
Then she feels a surge of something in her head, gasps, pulls him out of the tub, quick as she can.
His skin is gray and splotchy, slightly flaky on his elbows, knees and ass. When they’re done she has to slather him with lotion thick as Crisco to keep it from sloughing off. It used to be worse, in the weeks after the change. Now she only needs a single glop in her palm, which is good because it’s twenty-five dollars a tube. His skin sucks it up almost instantly.
“I know it’s yucky,” she says, though he doesn’t struggle. “But we have to keep your skin nice and moist.” When she gets to his elbows he turns his head just a little to look at her. It startles her, and she drops the tube. The stuff inside is so thick that none spills.
Then she slides a Thomas the Train Engine T-shirt and blue shorts on him, and it’s time to go. She brings the leash—a little brown monkey that straps on like a backpack—just in case. It’s been at least two months since he went into “zoombie” mode—that’s what Andrew calls it, and she doesn’t like it—but you never know. Last time he got loose in the mall and got tazed by a security guard. It didn’t hurt him, but the guard said he wished he’d had a gun.
The pediatrician’s office is empty except for a man with a bushy beard and leather jacket sitting next to a sullen, blue-haired teenage girl, both playing with their phones; and a woman in a maroon pantsuit beside a girl with blond pigtails, maybe a year older than Colby, in hot pink overall shorts. The woman is wearing big square sunglasses even though it’s cloudy outside and not that bright in the waiting room, her face buried in a three-week-old Newsweek. All over the walls are stick-on pictures of teddy bears, unicorns, big bright rainbows dotted with sparkly stars. In the middle of the waiting room is a cylindrical aquarium the size of a small car, full of bright blue and gold angelfish, a big brown loach skimming the bottom. The hum of the filter is hypnotic. Colby starts to wander over to it, but she pulls him back.
“Sit down, sweetheart,” she says, and when he doesn’t, she hoists him into a chair next to her. They are at the opposite end of the waiting room from the other patients and their mothers, in case he perks up. At least it isn’t crowded. A few people will usually keep their distance, but a crowd can turn into a mob.
The nurse calls in the blue-haired girl and her father, and then it’s just the two mothers and their children in the waiting room. It’s quiet: the light rock station is playing softly over the speaker system, and the hum of the aquarium filter is low, steady, constant. The waiting room is warm, moist. Naomi’s eyelids are heavy, but she forces them to stay open. Colby is still in his chair, staring at the fish, and the blond girl is across the room playing with a large wooden box with balls that move on metal wires. Everything is fine.
A little girl’s voice startles her. “What’s wrong with your eyes?”
Naomi’s eyes pop open, dart to the empty chair beside her. Colby is standing at the aquarium, the leash dangling slack on the floor, the girl in blond pigtails beside him. She’s a good six inches taller than him, bending over and looking into his face. He’s transfixed by a big blue fish with yellow fins, and doesn’t move. In her peripheral vision she sees the other mother get up, dash to her daughter, and shoo Colby away with the rolled-up Newsweek. “Get back,” the woman says to him, pulling the girl behind her. “Back.” Her voice is shrill and sharp, like an angry schoolteacher. Colby remains still, gazing at the fish.
Naomi springs to her feet, the leash tight in her grasp. The woman turns to her, peers at her over the top of her square sunglasses. “Would you please keep control of your child? It’s bad enough he’s out in public, but then you have to let him run around loose.”
“Is there a problem?” the receptionist says, but she doesn’t get up.
Naomi looks the woman in the eye, and her mouth opens. She wants to explain everything: he’s medicated, he can’t infect anyone, and wasn’t it the girl who came up to him? But Agnes, the head of her support group, warned her: no matter how much you explain or apologize, people will still be afraid. And she’s tired of explaining. She shrugs instead.
“Keep hold of him or next time I’ll call the police,” the woman says, and drags the little girl back to a chair. “Stay close to me, sweetie.”
Naomi stares at the woman for a minute, visualizing the horror on her smug face were Colby to go zombie and bite her daughter. Then she remembers Agnes’s warning: above all, don’t let things escalate, because if they do, Colby loses.
She tries the deep breathing again, and relaxes a little.
She sits down, pulls Colby up onto her lap.
Not thirty seconds later the nurse calls the girl’s name, and she and her mother follow. Finally they are alone. Colby is sitting dutifully in the seat beside her, staring into the aquarium.
“I’m sorry about that,” the receptionist says to her. “You’re doing a great job with him.”
Naomi says nothing. She didn’t ask.
She isn’t sure how long it takes for the nurse to call Colby’s name—maybe two minutes, maybe thirty.
“Hello, sweetie,” the nurse, a woman in her mid-fifties with steel-gray curls, says to him, like she would any three-year-old. “Are you having a good morning?” He doesn’t answer. She looks at Naomi with a strained smile. “Still not talking yet?”
“Not yet,” Naomi says. She wonders how long people will ask.
The nurse weighs him and checks his height—he does look a little thicker, but his height looks the same. Then the nurse guides them into an exam room. He sits still, staring at a large poster demonstrating the proper use of a child safety seat. She notices some new pamphlets in the rack, one featuring a little boy with grayish skin and dark eyes, and looks through it for a minute. The mother—almost certainly a model—is demonstrating how to use the hormone cocktail syringe while her toddler sits cross-legged on a blanket behind her, staring at a block tower. There’s nothing in it she doesn’t already know. But there are some websites listed at the end. She tucks it into her purse. There are a few others encouraging vaccination—there was some talk of Colby’s condition being a result of some contaminated vaccines, but Andrew said that was insane. More likely infected mosquitoes from the university lab up the road.
There’s a soft knock at the door, and Dr. Wendt comes in—a tall woman with long wavy black hair, a pair of squarish, oversized spectacles hanging on the bridge of her nose. Her large almond-shaped eyes peer over the frames at Colby.
“Hello,” she says to Naomi. “How’s he been doing?”
“Same as always.”
“And you and your husband?”
She would like to unload, just once. But Dr. Wendt is not a therapist. “Managing.”
Naomi feels Dr. Wendt’s hand on her shoulder. “You’re doing as well as anyone could expect,” she says.
The doctor looks over Colby’s chart. “So, it looks like he’s a half-pound heavier, and he’s grown an eighth of an inch since last time. That’s good.”
“Any new words?” the doctor asks.
“Still just the one.” She’s stopped counting how much it costs for him to stare at the speech therapist for thirty minutes, twice a week.
“And how about his diet? Any new foods?”
“Just the one.” It’s been at least two weeks since they tried him on anything new, because he just stares at it and then demands the usual.
The doctor smiles. “Give it time.”
Then she turns her attention to Colby, narrating as she looks in his ears and eyes, presses on his skin. “No eye deflation or macular degeneration,” she says. “Skin color’s better. And you’ve done a really good job at keeping it elastic.”
“Thanks,” Naomi says. Good to know she’s doing something right.
Dr. Wendt makes a few notes on her chart, fills out her prescription pad. She hands the scripts to Naomi and smiles. “I think we should bump up the hormone dosage,” she says. “It’s working, but not as fast as I’d like. As far as the food proclivities, the service club will be holding some fun, interactive workshops next month. The system they use has had some success in cases like Colby’s. I’ll have Jeanine send you the information.”
“Thanks,” Naomi says, and takes the scripts from her.
“See you in three months,” the doctor says. “And hang in there. You’ve done everything right.”
She gathers Colby up off the bench, takes the sheet to the receptionist, and they’re done. One more little trip to the supermarket for some milk, eggs, and flour—she’s in the mood for quiche tonight, something she can throw together, bake, and be done with it—and then she can go home and stick him in the playpen for an hour or two, and doze until it’s time to pick Audrey up from school. She feels guilty about her need for sleep—surely she could soldier on with vocabulary flash cards or interactive games instead of sleeping—but Agnes keeps telling her to do what she has to, or she’ll be of no use to anyone.
She pulls into the supermarket parking lot, a few spaces from the other cars, grabs a cart from the corral, slides Colby’s feet through the slots. Here, at least, she can push him around and lean on the cart.
Colby is busy staring at the zipper on her track suit top; she reaches out and guides his fingers to it, thinking maybe he’ll play with it, pull it up and down, but his hand just drops to his side.
As she pushes the cart through the sliding doors, a woman in green yoga pants and a pink sweatshirt exits on the other side. In the cart is a little gray-skinned girl about Colby’s age, her burgundy eyes staring at Naomi through glasses so thick it makes them seem twice their size. She’s seen them both before, at the support group. Naomi and the other woman pause for just a second as if about to say hello, ask how everything’s going, anything. Instead they both smile wearily, and part ways.
She goes down the snack aisle first, though she doesn’t need anything. She has a system, and going aisle-by-aisle reminds her of anything she’s forgotten to put on the list. She forgets a lot lately. Last time it was coffee. Low-acid, because her doctor said she’ll burn out her stomach lining if she keeps drinking so much of the regular.
“Hello again,” a little girl’s voice says. Naomi turns; it’s the little blond girl from the pediatrician’s office. Her fingers curl over the edge of the cart, and she shoots Colby a sweet smile. Her mother is nowhere in sight.
“I’m Hailey,” the girl says. “Can you tell me your name?”
So she turns to Naomi. “Doesn’t he talk?”
Naomi shakes her head.
“What’s his name?”
“Colby,” Naomi says. She looks around; the girl’s mother could come down the aisle at any moment. “Sweetie, your mom wanted you to stay away from him. She’s afraid you’ll get hurt.”
The girl stands on tiptoe, peering up at Colby. Slowly, he turns his head and looks at her, without blinking.
“You’re not gonna hurt me, are you?” When he doesn’t answer, she answers for him in a babyish voice. “No, you’re not.”
“Please . . .” Naomi says, because if this goes any further she doesn’t know what will happen. “Just find your mom, okay?.”
“Okay,” the girl says and clops away in her sandals. Naomi sees the edge of a shopping cart in the space between aisles, hears the little girl begging for some graham crackers. She grabs the biggest can of coffee she can find—regular, dark roast, because low-acid tastes like sewage.
Naomi sighs; one more thing and then she’s home, which is good because the fluorescent lights are nauseating. She maneuvers the cart parallel with the dairy case and looks for the half-gallon jug with the latest expiration date. With only Audrey drinking it, it keeps longer.
She hears a sigh, loud enough she knows it was directed at her, and looks up. The woman in the maroon pantsuit and big sunglasses has pulled her cart up right behind Naomi’s. Naomi moves to make room; all the woman needs to do is keep her mouth shut and accept the courtesy.
“Excuse us,” the woman says. “We need some milk too, you know.”
“No one’s stopping you,” she says, and waves her hand at the generous amount of space she has offered. For far longer than it should take, the woman pores over the different varieties of two-percent.
The girl sort of hops around the cart, looks at Colby, then at her mother. “His name’s Colby,” she says, flashing a big smile. Her teeth have wide gaps in between them. “Hi three times, Colby,” she says, and before Naomi can stop her she reaches out and grabs Colby’s hand, shakes it vigorously. “Pleastameetya,” she says in a high squeaky voice.
Before she can finish the thought, the girl’s mother races around the cart, grabs her daughter with one arm, slaps Colby’s little gray hand away with the other.
“Get back!” the woman growls. “You want to end up like that too?”
For a moment Naomi is in something like a trance, staring at the shallow indentation on Colby’s wrist where the woman’s palm struck him. He stares at it too, silent, still. Naomi doesn’t register the woman’s high-pitched hiss until a few seconds later. She doesn’t hear everything. But what she does hear is this:
“Keep that thing away from my daughter or I swear to God I’ll call my husband to come shoot it.”
Her fingers tighten around the handle of the milk jug.
The woman’s hissing continues: “ . . .should’ve done it right after it happened, not keep it around the house . . .”
Before the woman stops talking, Naomi finds herself swinging the half-gallon jug in a sideways parabola toward the woman’s face. The woman sees it coming, but it’s too late to duck. The vibration travels up Naomi’s arm and into her shoulder and chest, then suddenly releases as the jug bursts open against the side of the woman’s head, white droplets exploding all over the maroon pantsuit and the store floor.
The little girl screams; her mother collapses onto the tile, clutching her head and writhing in the cloudy pool beneath her. Naomi looks down at the woman, then at the cracked jug still in her fist. The old ladies and housewives nearby stare at her, mouths hanging open; a boy in a white apron and ball cap says “shit” and runs.
Everything has gone silent but for the Muzak coming over the intercom, a cover of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” played on a flute.
“Mommy,” a voice calls out behind her. “Not nice.” It’s high and raspy, a little boy voice, though not quite as she remembers.
Naomi turns around; Colby is still in the cart seat, his little gray hands gripping the handle, eyebrows tilted low over his rust-colored eyes.
“Not nice,” he says again, and this time she sees his lips move for herself, and it’s real.
The woman writhes on the linoleum, holds her head. “I think I have a concussion,” she moans, but no one pays any attention. The little girl bawls.
Naomi feels like something is about to crawl out her throat. In moments, store security will come, then the police, and she’ll have to call Andrew away from his meeting to come get them at the station with bail money they can’t spare, and she’ll have to look him in his sad, disappointed eyes and explain. She thinks she can. He would’ve done the same thing, and if he wouldn’t, she doesn’t want to hear about it.
But right now that doesn’t matter.
For now, all she sees is his pudgy face, patches of pink showing in the blue-gray hue. Those two syllables ring in her skull like musical notes, and as she slumps against the dairy case and to the milky floor, tears pooling in her eyes, she lets herself feel something hot and prickly in her chest, a feeling she remembers but until this very moment has not dared to name.
• • •
Copyright © 2016 William Jablonsky