Fiction - Ambergris

When I woke up, my husband had the face of our dead daughter.

Fiction - Ambergris

This is a short story originally published in Tales of the Fantastic around the start of last year (and was written closer to two years back) and lucky lucky, I'm totally in the clear to share it!

Unlucky unlucky, I can't find the final edited copy lmao, so expect plenty of mistakes that shouldn't be there. Think of them like cute little easter eggs just for you :)

This feels like ancient vintage Baxter to me now...enjoy!

(cw for infant death)


(Sweet Home, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

When I woke up, my husband had the face of our dead daughter. It barely fit his head. Her fat little cheeks were so out of place on his body that I couldn’t help laughing. He asked me what was so funny, but of course I didn’t tell him. I’m sure he would have only been upset.

That was the same day he was leaving. At the door, he asked me again if I was sure this was okay, though I knew my answer didn’t matter. We’d already argued about it so much. He tried to kiss me one last time, I suppose out of some sense of obligation, but the thought of meeting those tiny lips or brushing up against that underdeveloped pug nose made me want to vomit, so I hugged him instead and smiled like I was supposed to. He told me he’d call as soon as he got to his hotel and every day after that, and that he loved me, and that he knew there was a plan for us and everything would be okay. I waved, closing the door behind him, and when I couldn’t hear the taxi anymore, I laughed so hard I cried.

It only occurred to me then, when I was finally alone, just how much space was in our home. I thought I could fit my whole life into a single closet, and yet here were four, and three bedrooms, and two baths, and a basement I never went to except to get something from the deep freezer every now and then. Walking past her room, I imagined what everyone’s reaction would be when they saw his face, which made me laugh again. The instant of repulsion followed by confusion, then pity, then a clumsy attempt to pretend nothing was wrong. I tried to guess how far he would get before somebody told him. The airport? The hotel? Maybe even the new office. It was almost enough to make me wish I could go with him.

While taking my morning shower, I remembered the day he told me. We were eating dinner; I didn’t mention it, but I cut my finger cooking and blood had dripped into the pot. It was nice, watching him all nervous, trying to find the courage to say he was abandoning me while also eating me.

Around ten, I decided to go to the mall. I love the mall; on some days I think I spend more time there than home. It’s been this way ever since I was a child, when my mother first took me to meet a man dressed like the Easter bunny who had lunch with us in the food court. I liked how big it was, but at the same time contained, far away walls and a ceiling so high up it was like the sky. It made me feel like Pinocchio in the whale. I’ve only been to a different mall once, when I was twenty and in college, pressured by friends whose names I no longer remember. I hated it; nothing was where it should have been. I never saw that man again.

When I arrived I parked in the southern lot, which has always been my favorite of the four because it’s the least populated and where most of the workers park, who you can see sometimes waiting in their cars or eating lunch alone, I checked the time. 10:40.

Every day at exactly 10:43, garbage bags pile up by the south entrance. Through them, you can see the results of a day: unfinished food, crumpled wrappings and papers, leaked soda and vomit and wilting flowers. They remind me of the sacs of guts pulled out of a dissected animal. Sometimes, when I’m sure nobody is looking, I touch a few of the bags, which is what I did then. There was something soft inside one, not unlike fat, that my fingers sunk into. It felt good.

Walking the mall has become like walking my mind I’ve done it so much. When I’m bored at home, I’ll pull up the map online and stare at it for hours, imagining the stroll that I might have. From the star (You Are Here!) of the information board the map was taken from, I might start west, passing Pete’s Sneakers, Books-a-Million—which has been there the longest of all stores—and Bank of America, before spending some time at the bench sitting opposite The Candy Factory. It’s one of my favorite stores to watch because it’s at a corner and has two entrances, so sometimes the people who go in never seem to come out, like the store gobbled them up. Or maybe I’d take the escalator to the second floor instead, which is brighter than the first since it’s closer to the lights and, while passing the GAP, the empty jewelry store, and Harmony: Therapeutic Massage, enjoy a peek at the crowd below me. From up there, people stop looking like people and look like ants instead.

But that day I decided I’d go straight to my favorite place in the entire mall: the small aquarium installed beside the movie theater. The glass is dull with mold and hand-prints, and the fish are always tired, and even though it has always been there, nobody seems to care except for me and bored children. In particular, I like the turtle, who hides in the corner with his skin pushed up against the glass. If you wait long enough, you can see him snap and eat another fish whole. It’s the only time he ever moves. He is probably the only one who knows the mall better than me.

While watching a little fish attach itself to the turtle’s shell, I saw him on the opposite side of the tank. My husband. He had his old face again. It was almost enough to ruin my day. I watched him pass by—did he not notice me among the fish?—and wondered what I had ever seen in him. Had I given up? Settled? It’s not that he’s completely unattractive, but I could never stand his faded yellow teeth with their embarrassing gap in the middle. I tried to remember when we first met and what I must have felt then, but I couldn’t. I don’t remember a lot of things anymore.

I followed him, hiding behind fake plants and groups of people, or waiting at a faraway bench while he went into a store for a few minutes—an imported foods store, a shop selling shampoos and toiletries, the toy store that’s had three “Going Out of Business” sales in as many years. He never bought anything. I knew then, of course, that he must have lied about everything; he was here to kill time, or see her, or maybe get a gift to celebrate their new life together. I’d known about it for a while. I didn’t mind, I just wish he hadn’t come to the mall. He stopped for a moment at the window of a place selling suits but didn’t go inside. I didn’t recognize the jacket he was wearing. Maybe it was from her.

We only ever fought about it once. He said I was being ridiculous and I said why else would he always be on his phone when we’re together. He said something about it being for work. The baby was crying again. I couldn’t stop staring at his stupid gap tooth.

Eventually, we reached the southwest food court, tucked away in a corner of the second floor that I ate at with my sister once, after it had happened. We had cheap pizza and pretzels. She kept saying how strong I was, that if it was her, she wouldn’t even be able to get out of bed. She cried a lot and hardly touched her food.

Sitting down, I watched him walk by a wall painted a soft sky blue. Smells of grease and bread filled my nose; a dirty napkin stained with ketchup was on the latticed table in front of me. I hate that wall. A group of women were approaching him, walking the opposite direction. I hate it because the blue makes me think of clouds, which I love. They’re beautiful for one, and always changing even though they never really do. Best of all, they don’t have to be stuck in all that blue for long—in just a few days they turn dark and rain and that’s that. The women passed and stopped to look at a store exuding the rotten smell of incense and candles. It must be nice being a cloud.

For a moment, I didn’t even realize he was gone. I knew something was missing, but couldn’t figure out what. It’s a feeling I’m used to, and one I’ve come to accept as the natural course of life—continuing to lose pieces until there’s nothing left—but when I did understand, I rushed to where he had been and felt a vague nausea growing inside me. How many times had I passed that spot? How many times had I stared at that blue, touched it and leaned on it and envied it without ever realizing it was a door? At first, I doubted myself, then I doubted the mall. In a single moment, the pride of my life came crashing down and the comfort of being inside a familiar body was ruined. The mall had become a stranger. To my right, I could hear the women laughing and I knew they were laughing at me.

The door opened to a hallway. It was long and narrow, and just about wide enough for two people. The same fluorescent lights that lit the entire mall were here too; when the door closed behind me I heard their buzzing like flies. At the far end was my husband, disappearing into a wall. I remember thinking it odd that I couldn’t hear his footsteps.

I could hear mine fine. They echoed loud and made me aware of my own breathing. I wish breathing was as unnatural as it feels sometimes—maybe life would be better if we always had to struggle for breath. At the end of the hall, I took the corner just in time to see him disappear again. Each breath I took felt like too much or not enough. Another corner, another flash of his face in profile. I saw the little patch of hair on the right of his neck he couldn’t manage to shave away no matter how hard he tried, and remembered the time he cut himself there but didn’t notice. I watched it bleed and scab over into some horrible looking mole during breakfast. When he came home from work, it was gone. He never said anything about it. I wonder what happened.

He wasn’t there when I turned the next corner. I could have sworn the lights had gotten louder, and at the far end of the hall I could see the entrance to a bathroom. Though I pride myself on my knowledge of the mall, I’ve never been to the bathrooms before. In fact, in the past fifteen years, I’ve only been in a public bathroom once. There was a lot of screaming then. My daughter had soiled herself and wouldn’t stop crying, her face all scrunched up and red. For a moment I thought about forcing her to keep wearing her own filth, but I knew I wouldn’t get away with it.

I hate bathrooms because they disgust me in the same way my husband disgusts me. There is something so false about them. They can be dressed up as much as one likes, but we still shit and piss and vomit in them and then try our best to pretend they don’t exist. Ventilation and air fresheners try to mask it, but the smell of our insides never leaves. When I think about bathrooms, I feel like I understand things too much.

He never had a problem with them, of course. He’s never had a problem with anything. Sometimes he’d take a call and run into a bathroom. He’d say it was for work, and I wouldn’t believe him.

The tiles were green, the walls cracked, the baby changing station folded up like a plastic suitcase by the sinks. When I was young, I was so curious what was inside them–medicine? Surgery tools? Food?–and I don’t think I was disappointed when I learned the truth. My heart probably fluttered when I first saw one open and knew it was nothing more than a table. Like all bathrooms, the lights seemed harsher than the ones outside. I could hear a faint rumbling beneath my feet and footsteps from behind the farthest stall, and when I opened the door I saw a set of stairs where the toilet should be. I walked down the steps. The door closed behind me.

The stairs went on forever. There wasn’t any light anymore, so I kept my hands on the concrete walls as my eyes started playing tricks in the dark, floaters like worms and dense meshes of colored dots drifting by in front of me. I know it doesn’t make me special, but I never liked the dark. I used to have nightmares and hallucinations of little alien creatures resembling translucent spiders crawling closer and closer towards me every night, and I’d kick and scream and hurt myself trying to get away before realizing I imagined it all. Eventually, I taught myself to stop running away—I’d spend nights staring at them instead. My body doesn’t ache from the attacks anymore. I haven’t seen anything since she left.

I couldn’t tell if the walls were damp or just cold, and I began to feel unbearably upset at everything. I wanted to stamp my feet and scream and cry until my face turned red, and sit down right where I was and refuse to move for the rest of time, but I haven’t done that since I was little and I’m not a child anymore. So I kept walking. The rumbling was getting louder.

After it happened, everybody was like my sister. Everywhere, always, nothing but sympathy and tears. They told me they couldn’t even imagine, that they were here for me. Some insisted this was all a part of a greater plan. “You’ll get through this,” they said. I wanted to tell them that it was okay and I was fine and honestly, I was more relieved than anything, but I settled for thank you instead.

There was a light below me and the rumbling shook my body, like I was lying on tracks watching a train pass over me. I could hear voices and was sure one of them was his. I know he’d rather be anywhere than with me.

The stairs ended in a concrete room with a giant metal sphere in the middle that I thought might be a furnace. It had a small hatch and was clamped shut on the sides with thick bolts. From it, pipes ran out across the floor and disappeared into the walls. They reminded me of the veins that showed through her skin when she was born.

There were about a dozen others in the room, but I couldn’t see their faces because they were all facing the furnace. Among them, my husband, who I recognized from his jacket, stepped forward and reached inside it, pulling something out and returning to the crowd. I noticed then that everyone else was already holding something too, so I did the same. I passed my husband, who didn’t look at me—I knew he wouldn’t—and reached into the furnace; it felt warm and moist inside, and I wished I could crawl in and shut the door behind me. Something pricked my finger; I could feel blood welling up. I pulled out a rusted screw, maybe an inch longer than my longest finger and stepped back to the entrance. The rumbling was so loud.

When everyone turned to each other, I saw that they all had her face. It wasn’t very funny. The fattest of my daughters, in a loose cardigan too small for her, took the thin unpolished metal rod in her hand and pushed it down the back of another in a cute skirt beside her. My child moaned. The back of her shirt pooled dark. She took the hook in her own hand and hoisted it up into the underbelly of the fatter one while the rod disappeared where her spine should be. The rest followed. Thin wire pushed under fingernails, warbling sheets of metal cutting into mouths and grinding against teeth, nails pressed into legs and shoulders; they collapsed into a messy pile, stabbing, twisting, and inserting metal into each other. Pained groans mixed in with the rumbling. The smell of blood and sweat filled the room.

My daughter approached me from the rat king of bodies in jeans under a dress, making the same face she had when she slept, her lips slightly open and tongue poking out in just a way as to look alien. I once spent an entire night staring at that face, trying to understand it. Was it really my daughter, or had something taken her place? She held a broken cylinder in her hand like a straw and pushed me to the floor and sat on my chest and forced the cylinder into me while I twisted the screw deep in her ear. The furnace shivered. The room had become damp. My wish came true—it was just like we were inside its belly.

It was an accident so simple that you can’t help but laugh. We were walking in the park. He said he had to go to the bathroom, but I saw how he held his phone as he left me and the child. I always notice. It was hot out, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and while walking, I thought about how nice it was that she’d been so quiet the whole day. Then I tripped. It was silly, really, my feet catching on the root of a tree breaking out from the sidewalk. I fell on top of her and was happy because she didn’t cry. She didn’t make any sound at all. I got back up and kept on walking, and he caught up a few minutes later, his hair still a little wet from running his hands through it in some effort to convince me he had actually gone. Neither of us said anything until after we got home.

Under the fluorescent light, blood turned black. My veins bled iron, my child vomited oil. We melted together, remains of our bodies like muddied flowers wilting before the furnace of scrap. I never in my life knew such pleasure as the feeling of rust entering my ribs and scraping against bone. I cursed and I swore. In the corner of my eyes, I saw my husband with his legs spread open, his baby face red and scrunched up in that familiar way. I could feel tears running down my face while I laughed.

When I got home, he video called me from his hotel. He didn’t have our daughter’s face anymore. He drank canned beer and talked about nothing. He said it was time to go; he said that he loved me. After we hung up, I wandered around the house, cooked dinner and watched the news. Then I went to bed.

I dreamed of a spider.