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The Cradle

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Siggy lived in what her real-estate agent had called a “starter house”. One story, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a modest yard, the cookie cutter model shared by the rest of the neighborhood. She’d bought it with her husband before they divorced, and seemed to have ended up with it by default.

When she returned from the grocery store, Siggy realized that someone else had been in her home. The screen door stood open about an inch, something she always remembered to jam shut behind her. She pressed the plastic bag loops up to her elbows, worked the key in the lock, and opened the main door.

“Hello?” she called out.

“It’s me,” a man’s voice replied. Siggy breathed a long sigh. Just Doctor Alexander. She’d given him a spare key to move some things in, but hadn’t expected him to come so soon. “I’m in the nursery.”

Siggy dumped her bags on the counter, not bothering to put away the milk or the eggs or the frozen steaks that had already started perspiring in the heat. Instead she rushed to the room that had once been her ex-husband’s office.

They’d painted it “Robin’s Egg Blue” when she got pregnant the first time. Six inches of cloud wallpaper adorned the wall where it met the ceiling, and scattered throughout were stickers of ducks and bunnies. Against the far wall was Doctor Alexander, the gangly young genius she’d met online. He stood beside the crib, which for once wasn’t empty.

“Hello, Sigourney,” he said to her. She frowned. Only her parents called her that now, as she wasn’t nearly the Alien fan that they were when they named her.

“It’s ready?” she asked, scanning the folding table he’d set up, scattered with medical instruments.

“Indeed it is. Take a look,” he said, gesturing to the crib. She stepped forward, and bit her lip.

Inside lay what looked like a purple egg, large enough that it almost touched the wooden bars at either side. There was a metal hatch on top, closed and bolted shut, and she saw liquid swirling around inside.

“I call it the Cradle,” he said. “And if we’re lucky, it will serve as a surrogate womb.”

Siggy blinked a few times, trying to clear the tears that were making her vision blurry. Her hand went to her flat stomach, and her mind replayed the scene of her first miscarriage. Sitting in that hospital bed, blood forming a soppy bog beneath her. Holding something in her hands: and a cord, the umbilical cord, trying to press it back in as though she’d misplaced her entrails. Screaming for help even though no one seemed to be around for miles.

“Thank you so much, Alex,” she said, stepping forward and hugging the doctor.

“We… I don’t even know if it will work yet. The whole thing is experimental. You know that, right?”

“Of course. I knew that when I volunteered.”

“Good. If this goes well, I might just get the funding I need. This could change everything.” He moved over to the Cradle, and tapped the side like a child with a fish tank. “This could end the mind-boggling stem cell debate. We can grow them right here.”

Siggy leaned forward to see what he was pointing at. There, in the fluid, drifted a tiny fleshy sac. Her baby, suspended in a safe environment, protected from horrors like that of her second miscarriage, and the third that had almost killed her.

“Just tell me what you need from me,” she said. He smiled.

“You’ve been saving them, right?” he asked. Siggy nodded, and then left the room. In the bathroom she found the jar under the sink, filled about a third of the way with finger- and toenail clippings. It had disgusted her at the time, dropping them in there one by one as she cut them, but she’d since lost her revulsion. There was also a zip-lock baggy holding hair snippets, the reason for her new, shorter bob cut.

“Good. This should last us a while.” He moved over to the cradle, putting on a pair of latex gloves. Then he undid the hatch atop the purple egg, revealing a compartment that looked like a strainer. Without a hint of revulsion, he pulled a lock of hair out of the baggy, dropped it in the compartment, and sprinkled a pinch of nail clippings on top before closing the hatch again.

It’s like a compost bin, he’d explained to her three months ago. All we need to do is add your genetic material, which will provide nutrition for the stem cells.

Just mine? Or any organic material? She’d asked. His uncharacteristic silence had stuck in her mind. After pondering how exactly to phrase it, he finally spoke.

I had three smaller prototypes of the Cradle. At the time I was testing different fuel sources, so to speak. Only the one with my genetic material was a success. Others with plant matter turned out… poorly.

What were you trying to grow? She’d asked, hoping the answer was not human embryos.

Liver cells. Another potential use of this tech.

And what happened to the others, the ones from plant matter?

Complications. Hard to explain, lots of scientific jargon. You wouldn’t understand.

He would not disclose anything beyond that, and she didn’t press further. It might jeopardize her chance at finally having a baby. And now, that dream had started coming together. One of the eggs that the clinic had been unable to do anything with was now growing, impregnated with her ex-husband’s sperm (for consistency’s sake). He’d been with her on those visits to the fertility clinic, even though they divorced after the second miscarriage and separated entirely after the third. Despite everything, he still wanted to do what he could to give Siggy a child.

“So what do we do now?” she asked.

“The process is already started. Now we wait.”

***

Much of her life lately had been spent waiting. This time, however, waiting for a child didn’t involve the unusual and often exotic cravings. It also allowed her to smoke. Most of her free time was spent in the nursery, sitting beside the Cradle, gently rocking it and singing gentle lullabies. But when Alex needed the room for the science aspect of things, she stepped out on her back porch under the buggy light, and lit up a cig.

It was one such night, after a month or so with the Cradle, that she saw something out there in the darkness. Across manicured lawns and over white picket fences, something patrolled the area. It might’ve been a neighbor, if not for the peculiar way it walked. Swaying as though drunk, the upper body rigid like a buoy on a lake beset by waves.

She only caught a glimpse of it on that cloudy, moonless night, and explained it away to herself. It probably was just someone drunk. Although that didn’t explain the height. With the fence closest the figure for reference, it had to have been almost nine feet tall.

Two weeks later, it showed up again. This time, it was close enough that she could hear it breathing. A soppy, open-mouthed sound. At times the breaths would pick up speed as though the thing was excited, like a puppy seeing someone new.

Siggy didn’t move. Her cigarette burned all the way to the butt, at which point she let it fall out of her hand. Reason told her to go back inside, or at the very least step three feet to the left, out of the porch light. Yet she couldn’t. She just stood there, illuminated for all the world to see, as this thing made its way through backyards.

When it met a fence, the thing would struggle for a while, breathing deeper, trying to climb over. With one such attempt, it lost balance and fell into the next yard, temporarily out of sight.

With the spell of nameless fear broken, she tugged open the sliding glass door, stepped inside, and shut it behind her. As she was working on pulling the blinds closed, she heard it: the screaming of a cat. At first furious, then terrified, and then silent.

Siggy finally got the vertical blinds closed, and then sat with her back against them, burying her face in her hands. But she never made a sound. It was irrational, but the thought stuck in her mind that if she told the doctor about what she saw, or what she thought she saw… he’d take his experiment to someone else, someone less crazy.

***

It was the next day when her across-the-fence neighbor found the cat. He was mowing the lawn, providing the background noise for suburbia, until the mower stopped and he exclaimed “Jesus Christ!”

Neighbors gathered around him, circling the bloody mess. Siggy didn’t join them, instead listening from inside, next to an open window. Once they determined that he hadn’t just run it over with the lawnmower, one of the other men of the neighborhood remarked that it looked like the poor thing had its head bitten right off.

They stood around chatting for a while after that, as neighbors felt obliged to do, and Siggy lost interest. She returned to the nursery, and took her spot beside the Cradle. Alex hadn’t shown up for the day yet, so she got some time alone with it.

Siggy stroked it, staring at the little life growing inside. She thought about those obnoxious women on social media, holding up a grape or a cherry tomato with the caption “this is how big my baby is right now!”

My baby is literally a grape, she thought to herself, and smiled. A little grape inside a big grape.

***

The thing showed up again later that week. Even though she’d taken to smoking in the living room now—it was her house, she could do as she damn-well pleased—it still managed to make itself known to her. First through cracks in the window blinds. Movement, back and forth, as though it was pacing the grounds of its cat kill.

She didn’t go up to close the blinds the rest of the way. That would mean getting closer, seeing more. So she kept smoking.

Eventually it approached her house. On her fifth cigarette, it moved up to the patio door. Those blinds, at least, were firmly shut, held so by strips of packing tape. But she could see its shadow from the outdoor light beneath them. It must’ve been close to the glass, perhaps even pressed up against it, to cast that shadow.

And then it started scratching.

***

When Alex showed up the following day, he noticed things were different. The lights were on, even though it was sunny out. All of the windows, as well as the patio door, were covered in newspapers, overlapping each other and giving the whole house an odd orange glow.

Siggy’s hair was different, too. Shorter. Almost a pixie cut. And there were spots of blood on her fingernails, trimmed back as far as possible. That he understood. They’d been running out of organic material for a while now.

So when she offered to let him spend the night on the couch, he accepted, more out of a sense of responsibility than anything. Siggy needed someone with her right now.

While he did his daily checkup on the Cradle, Siggy stood in the bathroom, hands gripping the edges of her sink, staring into the mirror. A shaver sat in the sink basin, and she looked at the meager amount of hair left. This wouldn’t last, not until the baby was ready to be born. And how was Alex to have known that? This sort of thing had never been done before.

She lifted a hand, and wiggled her fingers a few times. Her eyes focused on the pinky for a long minute before she sighed and left the bathroom.

***

The next few nights seemed peaceful. With Alex just in the other room, she could sleep sound. At the thrift shop Siggy found a half-decent wig, and immediately shaved her head. Enough to sustain the walnut-sized baby for a little longer. They were both aware of the problem, but didn’t speak of it. Alex knew that, if such a time came in which they would need more, Siggy would make the sacrifice. In fact, he started a mental list of non-essential body parts.

His thoughts were interrupted by a scratching noise. He sat up from his spot on the couch, looking towards the source: the patio door. It started slow, as though someone was running a knife from the top of the glass to the bottom. Then it picked up speed. Alongside it he heard breathing. Quick, excited pants, borderline hyperventilating.

Siggy had left a baseball bat in the living room, which to Alex seemed like a lucky coincidence. He picked it up, and moved in the dark over to the sliding door. The newspapers dulled the glow of the outside light, but he still saw a figure silhouetted there. It looked hunched over, like an upside-down J.

As he approached, the scratching stopped. Alex held his breath. The blurry shadow moved as though pivoting itself in his direction. He hoisted the bat. The thing sucked in a wet breath. Then the glass exploded inward. Alex stumbled back, trying to protect his face.

And yet, in a second, something had wrapped around his head and his hands, which were pressed painfully to his cheeks. Something dark and hot and wet. Alex found himself lifted off the ground. He kicked his feet against empty air.

The space began to constrict around him. He felt his skull cracking like a walnut, and then there was a pop.

***

The crashing noise woke Siggy from a deep sleep. She shot up in bed, looking around with blurry eyes, trying to get a bearing on her surroundings. It took her precious seconds to reacquaint her brain with her body, to figure out which way was up, and what exactly was going on. The night air felt cold on her bald head.

There were more noises. Movement, something shuffling down the hall. And that breathing, something so excited that it could barely suck in enough air to fill its lungs, squelching warthog breaths, with almost a hint of laughter to them. That sound orbited around her, going from the living room to the hallway, past her door, and then towards the nursery.

She sucked in a breath of her own, and stumbled out of bed onto the floor. Her fingers grasped in the dark for a doorknob. There was a loud crack. Siggy finally got the door open, and ran into the nursery.

It was the thing. The creature. Something hideous and deformed, as though a child had built it from clay. The waist seemed crammed full of flesh, while the legs and upper body appeared malnourished and baggy. It shuddered and twitched with every gulping breath.

The creature leaned over the crib, reaching inside of it desperately, lifting something to its mouth and slurping. The Cradle had been cracked open, and the thing was reaching its hands inside, ladling soupy liquid into its mouth.

“No!” she screamed, running up to it and beating her hands against its back. The flesh felt clammy and stiff under her fists. “Stop it! Stop!”

The creature reached back carelessly, and shoved her against the wall. She crumpled to the ground, disoriented. Her hands, looking to hold something for support, stumbled upon something warm and wet. She was kneeling in a pool of blood, groping at a human corpse, chomped nearly in half. Alex. He’d been dragged in here, she saw from the trail of blood.

She got up again and leapt at the creature, digging what was left of her fingernails into its skin, kicking it, trying to pull it off balance. It resisted every pull, scrambling to get back to its meal. Then it pushed her off a second time, before turning away from the crib, doubling over, and vomiting all over the floor.

Siggy sat there, eyes wide, frozen in shock. The creature pulled its head back up, looked at her, and wiped at its mouth with the back of its hand. Smiling, satisfied, embryonic fluid dripping from the corners of its mouth. A floppy tongue slipped past its lips, and it let out a steaming warm sigh of contentment.

Then it left. Stalked right out of the room past bunnies and clouds and rainbows of a useless nursery, ducked its head to get out of the door frame, and was gone. And Siggy looked down at the precious beautiful thing it had gobbled up and vomited on the floor, and only a single thought came to mind.

My fourth miscarriage.

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