It had spread; we found that out five months ago, and on her birthday! It was a death sentence handed down by a short, chubby doctor with a shiny, bald little head who smelled like he had never known deodorant even existed. (We’ve since switched doctors at my suggestion.) My mother didn’t mind his scent and didn’t even seem to mind the news. In fact, I think I saw an expression of relief on her face. I think she was tired of fighting—and not the cancer, but against life itself. I was an only child, and my mother’s side of the family lived halfway across the country. They were calling and Skyping us frequently, but something was always “coming up” or someone was “crazy busy, I’m so, so sorry!” and therefore it was just me taking care of my mom.
It was very late at the hospital, these five months later, and a very cold night in February. It was so quiet. Hospitals have patients and staff 24/7, so why is the nighttime silence still the creepiest? I was upset; I couldn’t stand seeing my mother reduced to an almost skeletal appearance; she had been such a great cook, a lover of food with a fantastic palate and appetite. She seemed to be sleeping peacefully, at least. I had been sitting in a chair with ripped fake leather (the ugliest shade of green) by the window, looking four stories down and wondering what that fall would be like. I drifted off to sleep while imagining a large rectangle with no more glass, just diving through it, arms and legs splayed out, the cold rush of air, the pavement rising up to meet me and give me a hard embrace…
And then my eyes opened a little in that state of half-wakefulness, and I saw my mother moving. Only she wasn’t sitting up or getting out of bed. I knew I must be dreaming, and back to sleep I went.
I think I only woke up because I almost slipped off the small chair. I was startled, and I checked the clock on the wall. 2:24 am. I knew that between 3-4 in the morning, the nurse would come in and check on everything. I decided to stay awake, and I stopped thinking about my suicide dive out the window, but I did remember that dream I had of my mom moving around. I got up to go to her side, thinking maybe she had been wriggling around, in pain or something and unable to speak. But before I was able to finish stretching, she started to move again. No, wait, that’s wrong. Totally wrong. She was not moving. I rubbed my eyes to clear them of any sleep gunk, thinking blurry vision was distorting what I thought I was seeing. Her skin…was lumpy. And the lumps were moving.
“What the hell?” I said to myself, and I did what you only see on TV sitcoms or read in books—I pinched myself to make sure I was awake. I pinched really hard. I made myself bleed. I was awake, all right. I remained near my chair by the window, listening to the silent room and hospital, and I continued to watch the lumpy movements under my mother’s skin. The lumps were everywhere—under her legs, arms, abdomen, even her neck. The longer I stared, the more I realized that they were growing.
I wanted to rush over to her bedside and push the emergency call button, but I was simultaneously horrified and fascinated. My mother’s face was still so peaceful looking, as if she couldn’t feel these golf ball-sized lumps moving about under her skin. I checked the clock again. Only a few minutes had passed since I woke up, but how long had this been going on?! Cursing myself for not acting sooner, I started to walk to the call button when one of the lumps burst.
I gasped in surprise, but I didn’t scream. This time I didn’t hesitate to go to my mom and grab her hand. “Mom? Ma! Are you OK?” Clearly she was not—at least physically—OK, but I wasn’t sure what else to say or ask. Still, I didn’t press the call button. Don’t ask me why. I gently tapped my mother’s cheek, which was warm enough, and repeatedly said, “Mom!” to try to rouse her from her sleep or whatever kind of state she was in. The lumps moved. Another burst.
I kind of turned away and ducked when it burst, as if it would spray me with blood or pus or tissue. I ducked as if it could be contagious. Another burst. There was blood, but it didn’t spray. And I felt as though I had a lump in my own throat, and for a second I panicked and thought maybe I had caught whatever this was. But I was just nervous, and confused as all hell. I held my breath as I leaned in to look at what the bursts had revealed. They looked like small, deformed fetuses.
I could not move. I had no idea what I was seeing. I stood there like a freaking statue until all of the lumps—21, I counted—had burst. My mother’s face remained peaceful, but a lot of the color was gone. She was pale and her cheek was cold now. Sometime during this incident (for lack of a better word), she must have passed away. I couldn’t see her chest rise and fall. But maybe that was because the lumps—the fetus things—were wriggling all over her neck, arms, stomach, legs…
Her flesh was torn all over. It appeared to be still tearing, maybe because the things weren’t finished bursting, but then I saw and understood. The fetus blobs were eating her flesh.
I pressed the call button and held it down.
The nurse walked calmly into the room, and her eyes only very briefly went wide as she looked down at my mother. Then she heaved a sigh. “Sit down,” she told me. I didn’t know what else to do, so I sat back down on the torn green leather. I rubbed at the spot where I pinched my skin and had made a wound. I felt the sting as I dug my fingernail into it. I was awake, all right.
The nurse pressed the call button without looking at my mother. “Dr. Scott? You’re needed immediately in Ms. Ricci’s room. It’s happened again.” She stood with her arms folded across her chest and watched the lumpy fetus things eat my mother’s flesh. Much more had been consumed now. I could see bone. I tried to hold it back, but I started to gag. Anxiety and a growing (a spreading, like my mother’s cancer) depression had taken my appetite the past couple of days, so I only dry-heaved until Dr. Scott walked into the room. He shut the door behind him and locked it.
They watched the lumps as I dry-heaved. Finally I got myself together enough to ask, “What?” It wasn’t a full question, but they knew what I meant. “Well, it’s a bit complicated,” Dr. Scott began. He sighed as the nurse had. “Sometimes—it’s rare, and you are only one of a handful of people across the globe who has actually witnessed this happen firsthand—the cancerous tumors grow differently. They are tissue, and while we aren’t entirely sure, we believe they somehow obtain the necessary cells and components to…become human.”
I dry-heaved again.
Dr. Scott continued. “To put it simply, these…beings…attempt to form into fetuses, but they are lacking something. We haven’t yet discovered what. So the skin, essentially, gives birth to these would-be babies. They can survive on their mother. They die once the corpse has been reduced entirely to bone. But…” Dr. Scott paused to grin, “…what we have recently discovered is that they do not always need their mother. Would you like to see?”
“Wait,” the nurse said. She leaned close to the doctor as if telling a secret, but she spoke just loud enough for me to hear. “Should you be showing him? I mean, is this something he needs to see? What if he tells?” The doctor looked at me for what seemed like a long time. “He won’t tell,” Dr. Scott said, referring to me. “Would you like to see?” he repeated his question.
No, I didn’t want to see, but my head was nodding yes. I was dizzy with blurry vision as Dr. Scott and I left the room and walked through double doors that lead to a staircase. There seemed to be hundreds of steps, and the doctor walked down slowly ahead of me, looking over his shoulder every few seconds to make sure I hadn’t stopped or even turned back. The nurse had remained in my mother’s hospital room, the door locked, her locked inside, to prevent any unauthorized person from seeing or, worse, from entering.
Finally we reached what seemed to be a basement. I knew hospitals had basements and morgues, but this basement was different. It was mostly empty except for rows of long shelves on the walls with rectangular glass tanks. Dr. Scott took my elbow and guided me over to one of the walls. I peered inside a tank and saw the tumor babies. Would-be babies, as the doctor had called them. I opened my eyes wide to get a better look at them. They didn’t have any discernible features, but you could tell the spots that were supposed to form a face, or arms, or legs. They were certainly blobs, and they were all white. Some weren’t moving—sleeping?—and others were…eating. Maybe I should’ve have asked, but I did. “What do they eat?” Dr. Scott waited a few moments before responding. Then he said, simply, “Meat.”
He told me that this hospital was one of three locations in the world where these would-be babies exist. They never grow any larger, they don’t make noise, but the meat, for an as-yet undiscovered reason, sustains them enough to keep them living. There isn’t enough funding to study them properly, because the government isn’t aware this can even happen. Then I asked a question. I don’t know why I asked. “Can I have one of my mom’s…would-be babies?”
I was sworn to secrecy, of course. I have no idea why the doctor trusted me—I was the first person to ask to keep one, I was the first who didn’t have a nervous breakdown. Although you can’t tell what sex they would have been, I think mine is a boy. I named him Jack. (My mother’s name was Jacqueline). He is easy to feed—I just buy live mice from the pet store. He prefers them instead of crickets because they’re meatier. It might just be my imagination, but I think he’s getting bigger.