The womb is a trap, Philip thought to himself. He caught his reflection in a shop window and slowed his pace, taking in his furrowed brow, his stooped shoulders. The trap was pressing down.
Bonnie was already naked when she answered his knock. He peeled off his pants without a word and followed the promise of her bottomless gaze.
Afterwards, she lay on the sheets, afternoon light making a triangle across her flat belly. She smoked and didn’t look at him.
“Judy’s pregnant.” He hadn’t really meant to say it out loud, but there it was, echoing among the sounds of the traffic from the street below.
He swung his legs over the side of the bed and reached down for his socks. “And I don’t know what to do about it.”
“Your part’s already done, champ.” She smirked as she watched the smoke coils hanging in the air.
“Fuck you, it’s not funny. You know Judy, she’ll expect marriage and happy family life and all that.”
Bonnie sighed and crushed her cigarette into the ashtray on the nightstand. “Why are you telling me this, Phil?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I should marry her. Carry on the family line, or something.”
She got out of bed and slithered into a silk robe. “This doesn’t much concern me, you know.”
“I’ve been fucking you for almost as long as Judy and I have been together.”
“You’ve been fucking others for almost that long. Whether you’re married or not isn’t going to stop you from fucking me or anyone else, so why drop all your angst on me today?” Her hands were on her hips, and her face was a perfect mask of bored contempt.
Philip buttoned his shirt savagely. “Okay, sorry. Just thought you might have some advice for a friend.”
Bonnie glided over to the bedroom door and stood on the threshold, clearly ushering him out. “I advise you to quit bothering me with your bullshit. You want to fuck, come on by. You want to bitch, call your therapist.”
Phil stomped the three blocks back to work, hands jammed in his pockets. In the elevator, he stared at his reflection again, noting the dark circles under his eyes, his ever more sloping posture. He didn’t know why he had told Bonnie anything.
For the rest of the afternoon, he simply sat in his office with the door closed, staring at his computer screen as if his own thoughts were projected there. When the clock finally struck five, Phil shrugged into his jacket and drifted out of the building, robotically wishing his co-workers a good weekend.
His walk home was just as automatic, but halfway there he found himself standing in front of a glass door emblazoned with three gold spheres. A bell jingled as he pushed it open.
“Help you?” The woman behind the counter was white-haired and regal, with pale, searching eyes.
He approached, his movements molasses-thick. The jewelry in the case was a riot of color, all seductive winks and fragmented images. His finger tracked along the rows of diamond rings. “That one,” he said. It looked much like the others.
“Very good choice,” the woman said, bending at the knee to slide the blue velvet box from its place in the lineup. “She’ll just love it.”
The corner of the woman’s mouth curled upwards. “You don’t sound so sure about this.” She put the box on the counter and peered up at him from beneath her lashes.
“I’m just…nervous. I guess.”
Phil freed the ring from its plush prison and gave it a perfunctory once-over. It was a solitaire ring, with a brilliant-cut stone and a thin white-gold band. It seemed adequate, classic even. He noticed as he moved the ring back and forth, the diamond flashed and then darkened. He caught a glimpse of his own haggard face in the stone’s depths before it disappeared again. “How much?”
The woman chuckled. “Normally that would be three, but I like your decisiveness. Twenty-five.”
Phil handed over his credit card. The money didn’t concern him; the implications of that tiny white-gold shackle did. He slipped the velvet box into his jacket pocket and left without another word.
Judy was arriving home just as he did, clad in her hospital greens and carrying a plastic grocery bag in each hand. She greeted him with a smile and a kiss on the cheek as he opened the door to the apartment building. “I got a couple steaks for tonight, thought you’d like that,” she said, her bags creaking as she fumbled around for her keys.
“Sounds good. I’d actually love a cocktail, though, if you could fix me one.”
She held the apartment door open with her butt as he went past her. “Sure, baby. Let me put all this stuff down first.”
Phil downed one cocktail in a single gulp and then moved on to a second. The smell of steaks frying permeated the apartment, a secretive, bloody tang. The TV was on, and he sat on the couch looking at it, drink in hand, but nothing on the screen was making any sense to him at all. Judy called him to dinner and he turned it off.
He had a third drink, then a fourth. He had taken off his jacket and slung it across the recliner, but he could still see the square protrusion in the pocket, like the rectangle of dirt covering a fresh grave. Judy, for her part, didn’t seem to notice anything amiss, humming as she washed the dinner dishes, prattling on about some funny incident at work. He half listened, smiled where he was supposed to. After a while she settled on the sofa with her tablet, her pleasant face lit by its blue glow.
He let another two hours pass before he glanced at her. His heartbeat was a death knell. “Judy?”
She looked up. “Hm?”
“I…have something for you.” He reached across and pulled his jacket into his lap. Judy watched him, sweetly curious. When he pulled out the ring box, she sat up straighter, and her eyes filled with tears. She let her tablet slide off to the side. He opened the box and held it out toward her, an offering. “Will you…marry me?” He felt as though he was speaking around a mouthful of sand.
Her tears spilled over and she laughed a girlish laugh, a sound like a tinkling bell. “Oh Phillip, you didn’t have to…because of the baby and everything…”
He realized he was still holding the ring box in one outstretched hand, like an idiot. He took the ring out and slid over to her, taking her hand to put it on her finger. “It’s not because of that,” he said. “I just wanted to. I felt like it was time.”
She stared down at the ring with something like rapture, then met his eyes. “It’s beautiful, Phil. And yes, I will. I love you.” She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his forehead, his ear, the corner of his mouth. Her tears left salty dampness on his skin.
“Love you too, Judy.” He returned her kisses, hugged her tightly around the waist. The ring sparkled in his peripheral vision. In the reflected light from the TV screen, the stone almost seemed to turn black.
He was still awake several hours after Judy had fallen asleep beside him. She had been especially amorous after his proposal, and Phil had tried, but the four cocktails and the thoughts of his impending marriage and the shitty day he’d had conspired to prevent even a glimmering of an erection. He’d apologized, shamefaced, but of course Judy had forgiven him. She always forgave him.
In the moonlight streaming in through the blinds, he could see her hands folded across her stomach, see the slyly winking diamond on her finger. Underneath that stone, underneath her folded hands, a piece of him was growing. He shifted his position on the bed, and punched his pillow into a more amenable shape. He imagined Judy’s belly inflating in seconds, like a balloon attached to a helium tank, and then exploding in a rain of blood and gobbets of flesh. Scowling, he closed his eyes, wondering what the fuck was wrong with him.
Judy rolled over in her sleep, and her hand flopped onto his chest. He opened his eyes again. The ring was inches from his face, its facets reflecting the room back at him in insect vision. As he stared at it, he thought he saw a trickle of dark liquid emerging from it and snaking its way down Judy’s finger. He felt wetness on his chest as the fluid dripped. He picked up her hand between two fingers and cast it away in disgust. Judy stirred, but didn’t wake. Phil sat up and looked down at his bare chest, but there was nothing there. Judy’s hand, now resting on the sheet, was clean.
On Saturdays, Phil had been in the habit of going to see Bonnie, or sometimes Rachel, while Judy was working her long shift at the hospital. Today, though, he slept until several hours after Judy had gone, and by the time he awakened he felt so dire that leaving the house for any reason was out of the question. He managed to stay on his feet long enough to shower and shave, staring at himself and wondering who the old man in the mirror was.
The sound of breaking glass brought his razor up short. Blood bloomed in a thin line across his jaw.
Swearing, he grabbed for a tissue, pressing it to his face as he stumbled back into the bedroom. He got his pistol from the nightstand and slid the drawer closed, quietly. The sound had come from the kitchen, he was sure.
The silence in the apartment pressed around his ears like a wool blanket. Slanted light painted the hallway as he crept along, feeling vaguely ridiculous with the gun held shakily out before him.
The kitchen was deserted, as was the living room when he peered out across the bar. He set the gun on the counter and let out a breath, scanning the area for the source of the sound. There was nothing fallen, nothing broken. He snatched open the cabinets and stared at the rows of gleaming drinking glasses, innocently intact.
He blinked. The glasses darkened, clouded, as if a shadow had passed before the window, and he spun around. For a moment he thought he saw a sort of shimmer, a bright rain of color bursts hanging in the air. When he blinked again, they were gone. He scrubbed at his face, scowling when his hand came away smeared with blood from his cut.
“Christ,” he said to the empty apartment, and even his voice sounded old, muffled by the close atmosphere. He had to get out.
Rachel wasn’t surprised to see him, but she wasn’t thrilled either. “Don’t you ever call?”
“I was just going stir crazy. Haven’t been feeling very well.” Phil sat stiffly on her futon, withering under the gaze of Plato, Rachel’s imperious Maine coon.
“Poor thing. Want some tea?”
“Maybe later. Come here.” He pulled her down into his lap when she approached, and thrust his hand under her shirt. She pressed her body against his, straddling his legs. The cat jumped off the futon with a squall.
Fifteen minutes later, Phil was hunched at one end of the futon, his pants back on but still unbuttoned, a cup of tea growing cold in his hand. Plato had returned to his place, swishing his tail in triumph.
“Well, you did say you were sick.” Rachel’s voice was flat.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me the last couple days.”
“It’s no big deal, really. You’d have had to go soon anyway, I have things to do.” She was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, her skin like smooth stone.
“Yeah. So do I.” He finished his cold, gritty tea and set the cup on the coffee table. When he stood up, his pants sagged and slid halfway down his ass. Rachel smirked as he yanked them up and buttoned them.
For the rest of the afternoon, he wandered the streets, not wanting to go back to the empty apartment. It was a pleasant fall day, crisp and sunny, but everywhere he went he felt as though he was enclosed in a dusky fog. He met the eyes of passersby, but their gazes seemed to slide past him. When he grew tired of walking, he ducked into a coffee shop and sat at the window, nursing a latte and watching the huge, indifferent world bustling past on the other side of the glass.
“Did you have a good day today?” She asked this every Saturday when she came home.
He threw his head back and emptied his beer down his throat. “Does it look like I had a good day?”
Judy flinched, but when her expression settled there was only concern for him there, no anger. “Sorry, baby. I thought you looked a little sick last night.”
“Yeah, I think I’m sick.” His momentary rage had dissolved, and he felt suddenly exhausted, claustrophobic. “Probably going to be an early night for me.”
“Need me to get you anything?”
Her eagerness to please was giving him a headache. He waved her off and she went into the kitchen, where he heard glasses clinking together and the sound of the water running. He put his beer bottle between his legs and sighed. For a second he entertained the notion of going into the kitchen and telling her about the noises he’d heard earlier, but the desire dwindled as quickly as it had appeared. Instead he staggered into the bedroom and fell asleep without even taking off his clothes.
He awoke a seeming instant later. He was lying on his back, and the room was hot. He moved his head and saw that Judy was also on her back, snoring softly beside him. Her stomach was an enormous mound beneath the covers, and it was then that he realized he was dreaming. Slowly, he reached over and slipped the sheets off her engorged belly. Distantly, he noticed that her diamond ring was now on his finger, the stone like an obsidian eye.
The flesh of her stomach pulsed. Phil watched it, curious to see what would emerge, but then, with the certainty of dreams, he understood. He placed the edge of the diamond against her belly button and sliced downward in one swift stroke. A ragged red fissure opened, blood pooling along the lips of the wound like quivering rubies. Inside was a riot of shifting, refracted light, illuminating the room like floodlights in a swimming pool. Phil curled his fingers around the edges of the chasm and pulled, widening the wound, intensifying the glow. The brilliance was now so blinding that he had to turn his head, and when he did he heard the faint sound of a baby crying, very far away.
Phillip awoke for real, his heart thudding, his sweaty hair pasted to his forehead. He felt his fingers, which were ringless, and a quick glance showed that Judy slept on, her still-flat midriff rising and falling in a steady rhythm. He swallowed and heard his tongue click. Then, another sound.
A baby crying. Phil sat up in bed. It could have been coming from one of the other apartments in the building, of course, but he’d never heard a baby crying in the building before, and it sounded close. He looked down at Judy again, but she hadn’t moved. He slid out of bed. The room seemed darker than usual, with barely enough moonlight to see by, and he felt assaulted by some grey miasma whose tendrils insinuated themselves into his nose and mouth.
The crying grew louder and higher pitched as he made his way toward the kitchen. He couldn’t believe that Judy hadn’t heard it too, and the fact that she hadn’t made him think that perhaps he was still dreaming, but no, everything around him was real and solid, and he could feel the wood floors slick beneath his feet, the cold walls beneath his fingers.
The kitchen was empty, but the sound of the baby crying was very loud. In the perfect square of the window, the moonlight was a solid, featureless white. The air felt suspended.
Phil waited, hardly remembering to breathe. The baby keened and wailed, the sound coming from everywhere at once. He covered his ears, but he still heard it, now as intimate as a sigh. The moonlight around him was flickering, a living thing.
He didn’t know how long he stood there. The baby’s cries eventually waned, like a fading radio signal, and Phil dropped his hands to his sides. It took a while before he was able to place one foot in front of the other, to push against the air that hemmed him in. The hallway before him seemed to stretch into forever, its angles skewed and fractured. He walked it like a blind man, keeping his arms extended for balance, staggering this way and that.
He opened the bedroom door. The darkness was nearly complete, and he strained to see. Swirling clouds moved before his eyes, revealing the bedroom as he had left it.
Except that Judy was standing very still at the foot of the bed, staring at him.
No, not Judy. Something else. Phil froze.
It was a woman, or the likeness of one. Her hair was white, and hung in straight curtains on either side of her face, partly obscuring it. Even so, Phil couldn’t help but feel that she was familiar somehow, her face a barely there memory. She was naked, and her breasts were pale globes that sat atop a monstrously pregnant belly. It was here that Phil’s comprehension of what he was seeing began to break down, for her stomach looked as though it was made of a polished, faceted diamond, all glinting prisms. Below the diamond was simply a smear of white that suggested legs, though at their extremities they seemed to drip, showers of falling stars that sizzled and vanished into the floor beneath her.
But all of that wasn’t the worst. For Phil could see that there was some small squirming thing moving inside the diamond in her belly. Something that seemed to be staring out at him with two shining black eyes.
He thought he screamed, but he couldn’t have, because Judy didn’t stir. The apparition hovered there for no more than a few seconds, but to Phil it seemed like time had stopped. The thing inside her belly pressed closer against its prison, and the facets of the diamond distorted its face into horrible geometric puzzle pieces. Still it stared, its eyes like holes.
Phil didn’t see it fade or wink out of existence. It was suddenly just not there anymore. He blinked and let out a ragged breath. The room appeared completely normal, the objects becoming a little more distinct as the first rays of dawn begin to creep in through the blinds. Judy slept, peacefully oblivious.
He stood very still for a long time, watching, listening, starting at the slightest sound. He stood this way until morning had broken fully and the room was filled with a pleasing, diffuse light. At long last, when nothing happened at all, Phil moved slowly to the bed and settled in beside Judy, resisting the childlike urge to pull the covers over his head. He stared at the ceiling for what seemed like hours, thinking he would never be able to fall asleep again after what he had seen. He was still thinking this when he drifted into unconsciousness.
Everything was in pieces when Phil opened his eyes, reality painted on fragments. For a long time he couldn’t understand what he was seeing.
There were the walls of his bedroom, and the ceiling, but they were all awry, the angles a crazy patchwork. Here was a glimpse of the blue comforter, there the sliver of a lampshade. As he struggled to fit the fragments of the picture together, he noticed fractions of flesh; the curve of a jawline, the arch of an eyebrow. Then suddenly he was in motion, his body lifted as though it was no more than an atom’s weight. He threw out his arms to steady himself, but they were boxed in, and his legs were likewise useless, folded painfully beneath him.
All at once, the fragments turned completely flesh colored, and then for a moment he saw nothing but a gigantic ice-blue eye, staring at him like the eye of a god. Another motion, and he realized that he was looking into Judy’s face, enormous above him, her expression uncharacteristically hard and venomous. He thought he screamed, but he heard no sound. He remembered his dream from the night before, and this seemed all of a piece with it, but also achingly real, as the white-haired woman standing by his bed had been. He realized with a start that he was seeing his fiancee from the perspective of the ring upon her finger, the ring he had so carelessly bought, the shackle that would tie him to her symbolically just as the creature growing inside of her tied him to her biologically.
The huge, fragmented woman above him gave a terrible smile, a wide toothed rictus, and then he was moving again, lower and lower, watching her body flash past him in a series of triangular flickers. Then it was all flesh again, growing larger and larger in his vision, and as the ring moved closer he realized he was now poised just above her belly, the midline of her abdomen as stark as an ink line on white paper.
There was very little resistance as the diamond penetrated the skin. For a moment, Phil saw nothing but red, and then the brilliant play of the stone’s light blinded him.