If Not Affection…

If Not Affection…

Daryl awoke and found the fist-like lump just under his jawline. His wife was busy with the children—the children who were too careless to notice while he shuffled to get his coffee and a bowl of cereal.

At the factory, his supervisor said Daryl needed to go to the doctor, but instead Daryl went to Denny’s for breakfast. While there he watched a father spoon feed his baby daughter scrambled eggs.

“Open up. Here comes the choo choo.”

The girl held her mouth shut while the choo choo gently bumped against her lips.

“Come on,” the father encouraged, and then she did, chewing proudly.

“Now that’s my good girl,” the father said, preparing another bite. He seemed so young, Daryl thought, with an attempt at a goatee and wearing a blue hoodie. Daryl saw that he had a spider tattoo on the inside of his wrist, but he was all smiles and gentleness with his daughter.

When Daryl was the man’s age, his dream was to teach, to instruct kids in the way of the world, but his own grades never amounted to much. His father arranged the job at the glass factory for him right after graduation. As time went on, the idea of giving up a paycheck to go back to school seemed tedious. Then he met his wife and she almost immediately became pregnant. She seemed to resent him but accepted the proposal, along with the second baby a year later—twelve years ago. He knew neither of them had ever been very happy.

The lump didn’t hurt, though it was heavy and seemed to be growing, swelling down his neck. He imagined it looked like a goiter. Eating his pancakes, he found it a kind of company, a new part of himself to get to know. The waitress eyed it. He wondered what she thought. What it did to her perception of him.

Daryl decided to tell his job that the doctor sent him home. On the way, his wife called his cell phone after calling the plant and demanded to know why he wasn’t at work. Wanted to know “what the hell” he was doing. Daryl told her he didn’t feel well, leaving the lump out. Said he was going home to crawl into bed.

“Well, at least try to get dinner ready then.”

Later that afternoon, the lump had grown to the size of a softball, and he could feel the weight of it pulling down the skin on his entire face. It jiggled when he shook his head in the mirror. Daryl figured he should have gone to the doctor, but he was tantalized by the idea of something being wrong with him—of his wife and children realizing he might be at some sort of risk. Maybe it is cruel, he thought, but how much can another day hurt?

At the lump’s hanging bottom, Daryl saw a small red spot. A perverse urge had him squeezing, attempting to pop it like a pimple. As he squeezed, he felt a sharp pain in his ribs, similar to a running cramp, but soon the spot burst and started to leak a great deal of blood and a clear liquid. He stepped in the tub. His shirt was drenched and toes felt sticky with the gunk. As the lump deflated, seeping, he could feel something hard floating inside. The lump was moving now.

He heard a gurgling moan. Grimacing against the pain, Daryl took a straight razor and carefully sliced on each side of the hole. He barely caught the thing that fell out.

“Dear Jesus,” he muttered at the tiny baby girl, emaciated, covered in little red tumors, wailing, so small she perfectly fit into the palm of his hand.

As blood circled the drain, he tried to coo and soothe, but she was in a fit of tears. The huge pocket of skin hung off his jaw to his shirt collar. He remembered how his own children got this way, unable to be calmed. Daryl counted, finding she was missing three toes on her left foot, two on her right, and both thumbs.

His side ached more than ever as he bathed the crying baby in warm water. After wrapping it in an old t-shirt, he sat on the stool—rocking her, singing the only song he could think of “Jesus Loves Me.” He fought the urge to curl against the pain in his ribs, wondering what to do. Should he drive to the hospital? What would his wife say? The hospital would certainly take the baby away, study it. With the tumors, he could guess at the fate they would design.

It was his baby. He must give her whatever comfort he could.

Daryl had no idea what to feed it, but she ate the yogurt he offered, and the banana, crackers and turkey slices. She already had sharp little teeth and chomped at the food greedily. Soon, she cried herself to sleep, the red tumors throbbing.

He lay the baby in the sink, a towel folded underneath it, and lifted his shirt to inspect his aching rib. What he saw was a flap that reminded him of a fish’s gill. He slowly peeled it up to see under and pain surged through him. As he bowed over, teeth gritted, a three-foot flat creature the color of chicken fat with a wide head slithered out of him and onto the floor. As it flopped, Daryl noticed both of its eyes were on one side, like a halibut. Gasping for air, its head and body flopped over the linoleum floor, knocking over the trashcan and toilet brush holder.

Daryl ran to the kitchen and quickly filled up the mop bucket, but when he tossed the creature in, it coiled upward and bit his arm with its long pointy teeth. It flopped around in the bucket for a little while, but calmed down, coiling into a circle on the bottom, both of its eyes watching him.

Exhausted, Daryl sat on the edge of the tub, his mysterious children a few feet away. His body was covered in blood and slime, his bite ached and bled. His side and jaw oozed a salty brine. The stench was horrible.

He stared down on his sleepy little baby, looking nearly like a monster with all its tumors. He named her Sofie and the other Jerry, after his favorite Math teacher in high school.

Daryl didn’t have time to rest because everyone would be home soon. As he stood, his feet and knees ached. Biting against the pain, he carried the bucket out to his workshop in the garage. Then he followed with the baby, carefully placing it in an empty Nike box. He saw it was growing several new tumors on its head.

After cleaning the bathroom, showering and changing clothes, he crawled into bed, so tired he fell right to sleep, despite the throbbing in his feet and behind his knees. Despite the overwhelming fear of what might be happening.

“Oh my God! Daryl!”

His wife stood over him with bags under her eyes. She had her blouse in her hand. She stood over him wearing only a giant white bra.

“What has happened to your neck? It looks like a popped balloon. Look at the mess you’ve made.”

Looking down, he saw his jaw had leaked all over his clean clothes and the linens. He started to get up, but his legs and knees were sore, and he could feel they were impossibly swollen. Two giant lumps were behind his knees, and he sensed they were leaking.

“I thought you were going to the doctor’s. Kids, come see this”

Daryl thought of Sofie and Jerry, how he would most likely be hospitalized and they would have no one to take care of them. He knew his wife would balk at the idea. His children would play video games over helping do anything.
Justin and Robert sauntered in, looked at their father and said “cool” and “gross.” Justin yanked at the skin under his jaw and Robert tried to pull the blankets away to see how much he had oozed.

“Ouch! Stop. Please just leave me alone,” he said, holding the comforter up.

“I’m leaving,” Justin announced, and his brother followed him out to the TV.

“This is just too disgusting,” his wife said, “I’m calling an ambulance.

“No. Don’t. I am fine. It’s just a big cyst. It popped on its own. I just need to rest.”

“You’re a fool. You should see a doctor!” his wife said. She looked tired after a long day at the drugstore. He couldn’t remember the last time his wife wore her hair down, instead of pulled back with one of those “3 for 99 cents” scrunchies.

“I popped it. It’s fine.”

“Did it pop on its own or not?”

“It started and I finished.”

“Serves you right,” she said, shaking her head. “I better get dinner ready for the kids. What is this life?”

That night she slept on the couch. In the middle of the night, he woke, wanting to check on Sofie and Jerry. His legs were so stiff and swollen, he could only walk straight-legged like the Tin Man, each step making him wince. He was sure his wife would hear but she snored through. In the kitchen, he grabbed some bread and a jar of smooth peanut butter.

The baby was wailing so loud he worried everyone in the neighborhood would wake up. Its body had shrunk into a wrinkled coin purse, and all the tumors had swelled. More little tumors were between them. Sofie couldn’t even open her right eye because the tumors swelled over. When she kicked, the tumors rubbed against each other.

Holding her, he tried to sing through the wails, but she only calmed down once he put some peanut butter on his finger, which she greedily bit and sucked. He also fed it little bits of bread he moistened with his mouth. He knew he was mostly feeding the tumors, but he saw no way around that. Once she calmed down and fell back to sleep, he kissed her red forehead and laid her back in the box.

The pain in his legs was awful and so he sat down and threw rolled up bits of bread into the bucket. Jerry ate them.

He worried the bucket was far too small and tried to think of something bigger he might have.

When he looked back at his baby, he saw its tumors were further crowding its small little body, some leaking a greenish pus.

He decided to tell it a story, hoping it might soothe her. “Once there was a boy who had no mother or father and he was very sad. Every day it prayed for someone to come and love him…and one day he found a dog. A dog he named Larry. The dog licked the boy’s face and nuzzled against him. The boy had never been so happy. He sure loved that dog Larry and found petting Larry gave him great joy.”

Daryl didn’t know what to say after that. He didn’t sense it was the end, but everything he thought of that might come after was horrible. Larry dies. Larry leaves. Someone takes Larry away. Larry changes and begins to bite the boy. Daryl could think of no way of extending the story that didn’t take the boy and Larry away from the happiness. And so he just stopped.

Daryl’s son, Justin, was sitting at the kitchen table eating cereal when he happened to look outside and saw his dad lying in the backyard, ten feet from the garage. He contemplated what might have happened. Maybe he fell asleep there. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe he had a heart attack. But then he saw the spots of blood, one at his side and it looked like each of his toes was oozing some sort of bloody black sludge. He slid open the patio door and crept outside, hoping his mom didn’t hear.

His dad was nearly covered in blood, and Justin walked a wide circle around, taking pictures with his phone. He saw a tooth hanging off his dad’s lip and a few scattered on the grass. Around them were black, flat worms, wriggling. Some were scorched dead by the morning sun. The rear of his dad’s pants were bloody and ripped open. Something had crawled out and left three-toed bloody paw prints up his back to his shoulder. Whatever it was, was gone. Spikey green worms had crawled out between his dad’s toes and were making their way into the bushes. He stood still and watched, but his dad was definitely not breathing. The police would come, he thought, but he’d have enough time to go to his dad’s dresser and take the money out of his wallet. Then he saw his dad’s bloody foot prints came from the garage. He stepped on the spiky green worms while walking there.

In the garage, Justin found more creatures, sloshing and thumping inside various containers: A long, pale kind of fish in a bucket, its two eyes staring up at him; A red lump of creature flailing little hands out of a shoe box, muffles cried coming from somewhere. He took photos, and then he grabbed a hammer and smashed the fish-like creature between the eyes. He took more photos.

Lastly, he stood over the red creature, arms and legs waving. It was covered in red bumps, leaking green ooze, little cries coming out from between them. One little eye stared at him through the red mounds. He wondered where his father found such a creature, what he was doing with it. Justin took a screwdriver and slowly forced the edge against the creature’s head until he broke through the tumors, the skull, and felt wood underneath.

Then he wiped the hammer and screwdriver handles clean.

When he stepped outside, his mother was standing over his father. His brother, Robert, was next to him. She had her robe on and a cup of coffee in her hand. He wondered if she would cry.

“What happened?” she said.

“How would I know?” Justin said, measuring the advantages and disadvantages of one less parent, how he’d be able to play video games uninterrupted when he got home, how he could have friends over until his mom came home. She would probably pay less attention to the bad things he did and be more generous in other ways. He saw how Christmas’ and birthdays would be affected. Justin wondered if his father had a life insurance policy. His grandparents and aunts would feel compelled to do more, buy more gifts. There would sympathy. He relished the coming weeks like a surprise party he knew was already planned.


About the Author

A.W. Marshall’s work is published in Red Wheelbarrow, theNewerYork, Fiction Attic, Austin Review, Appalachian Heritage, Vestal Review and The Fiddlehead. His flash fiction piece, “The Lover” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. His collection of short stories, Simple Pleasures, was published in 2015 by ELJ press. His play Pan was published in 2015 by Mead Hill.



"Crawling," a photograph by Dean Souglass