Ghost in the Womb by Kevin Catalano

When the blood bubbled up from the shower drain of the house we had just moved into, I thought: here we go. This is the beginning of it. Just like in the movies—it begins with blood, then the flies come, the hurled furniture, the claw marks, and the couple will try to tough it out. One of them will scream, “This is my home!”, but after the climactic scene where they barely survive, involving a torn-open hole to a ghostly dimension located in their basement, they will quickly move out.

It always begins with blood.

My wife was at work when it happened, thank god. She couldn’t handle much since becoming pregnant. The other day, mounting a curtain rod, the drywall crumbled onto her head. She screamed and bent the rod over her knee and went up to the bedroom to cry. I brought her an ice cream sandwich, the only thing that settled her these days.

The blood seemed fresh, warm as the inside of a person. It had a texture to it—liquid meat, something you fist. I called a plumber.

***

“It’s blood, alright,” the plumber, an orange, old-country Italian, said. He’d removed the shower floor, and we both stared down into the pipe. I was uneasy about seeing such exposed things, like what’s below my feet in the ocean or inside my wife’s uterus.

“Where’d it come from?” I asked.

“The blood? Hell if I know. Came from this pipe, can tell you that.”

“You don’t seem too surprised.”

“Son, you know what I’ve found in people’s pipes?”

Much later I wished I’d offered guesses: a first-edition Superman comic, the 12-inch Chewbacca I never got for Christmas, human teeth.

What I did think to ask him was: Do we see things in pipes that we put there ourselves? If so, what was it that he put in people’s pipes? And whose blood did I put into ours?

***

People who stare into shadows seeking forms should not be allowed to view an ultrasound. I tried to explain this to Sara, but for the previous few weeks, her capacity for logic had disappeared. Her freckled nose would scrunch at my attempts to break down syllogistically a problem: I am afraid of ghosts; ultrasounds take ghostly pictures of babies; therefore, I am afraid of ultrasounds. “You’re stupid,” was her final comment as she waited at the door, digging into her nose with her pinky, ready to be taken to the hospital.

Nurse was a beautiful black man the size of two men. He smelled of jasmine and appeared to be wearing eyeliner. He sat next to Sara, who was laid out on the table, and announced, “I’m going to squirt some warm jelly on you now.” Then did just as he told. Sara squirmed and giggled as the tube farted out gel. When Nurse rolled the wand over her belly, Sara doubled up and laughed. “Oh my God, it tickles so bad!”

Eventually she settled, and Nurse proceeded. What danced on the monitor yanked at my throat, a sensation that seemed to also affect my bladder. It was like digital smoke, oozing and morphing around in the liquid pitch. At one point, its head turned, revealing a face, except it was unfinished: big gaping holes for the eyes and mouth. I tried to disguise my terror, but it seeped out, first in a squeak between my pursed lips, then as tears.

Mercifully, Nurse stopped. He flicked on the lights, and printed out pictures of the spirit. When he handed them to me, I couldn’t hold on anymore. I pissed myself, soaking my jeans down to my thighs. Sara laughed hysterically, but Nurse was affectionate. He put his hand on my shoulder as I waddled out of the room: “It’s a beautiful day in your life,” he cooed, his breath smelling of burnt coffee, but the rest of him like flowers from my childhood, the kind my mother picked from the garden Spring mornings to place on the kitchen table. I yearned for him to pick me up and hold me in his massive arms. But Sara was rummaging through the bowl of candy at the counter, scattering lollipops all over the receptionist’s desk.

***

The blood began spitting from all the faucets. It was chunky and stunk of aluminum and fruit. I noticed it when Sara was filling the coffee pot with water, her bump brushing the counter.

If she noticed, she didn’t care. She poured the blood into the coffee maker and filled the filter with grounds.

“Wait,” I said from the couch before she turned it on. “Turn on the faucet again.”

She did, and it ran frothy red. Then she turned it off. “Anything else I can do for you?”

She got out a cereal bowl and poured in the Honey Nut Cheerios and two handfuls of mini marshmallows.

I was worried, less about the blood than her. She was oblivious; she would drink that water and brush her teeth with it, and if she’d do that, then what else would she do? The coming weeks would answer. She became clumsier: breaking dishes, dropping the canister of sugar, spilling milk on my laptop. She forgot doctor’s appointments, her daily vitamins, the time. She would often forget she had to work that morning, and when I reminded her, she’d come downstairs wearing sweatpants, one of my T-shirts, and black knee-high boots.

***

It was a girl. I suffered through another ultrasound, this one worse. The fetus’s spine glowed in the dark like one of those prehistoric fish, the kind that appear in the dark ocean of my dreams. As tears ran down my face, Nurse hugged me and said I’d be a wonderful father. Sara was singing Gagaga-girl! as she skipped down the hall.

That was twenty weeks in, which marked when the banging started. I was grading papers—Sara upstairs asleep snuggling up with her body pillow—when it first happened. It started as muffled thuds that a normal person would have blamed on the furnace or old plumbing. Then it was pounding, so hard the walls shook, knocking my beer onto the papers. The light fixtures rattled and the few pictures we had hung on the wall crashed. There seemed to be a pattern to it: definitely at night and after Sara had eaten. When she was active, it was quiet. Of course, this was something else Sara didn’t notice. Not even when we were watching TV on the couch and the pounding became so violent that a chunk of wall collapsed on my head.

Christmas break was nearing, which meant classes were almost over, and the upstate NY winter was digging in its heels, and the freezing wind was whipping through the holes and cracks in the walls created daily by our ghost. I was frayed.

Being an academic man, home repair eluded me, but I had to learn it. Every morning and evening I was on a ladder slathering the spackle. At rare slivers of time, when the pounding had ceased and Sara wasn’t bawling her eyes out at some incomprehensible problem, I felt productive and needed and masculine. My hands were blistered and cut up and caked—not the smooth, manicured hands of academia—and I had accomplished something visible; I had repaired a wall that kept the winter from my pregnant wife. The tiny dick in my pants swelled with pride.

Until the ghost thundered once more, destroying my work.

***

In the deepest corner of the sea, a strange creature lolls in the tar. Its body translucent, its spine neon blue, its organs yellow balloons, its face a jellied skull. It will never be discovered by humans. Though, just once, in its interminable timeline stretching far beyond the extinction of man, some unlucky soul will dream its exact form.

***

I held Sara in my arms at 3 a.m., rocking her and humming. She had woken screaming again. Her hair matted to her damp forehead, despite the cold night air breathing through the unfixable holes in the roof and walls. The stars in the winter sky winked. An owl had perched just inside our bedroom, who-who-who-ing in what I believed was a logical rhythm. There were squirrels racing around our living room. A family of deer visited on occasion to rummage the refrigerator. Ants swarmed the sticky blood that seeped from the walls.

Sara was now twenty-four months pregnant.

The baby was kicking again. Sara’s drumskin belly jumped and bulged. The doctor said she wasn’t ready, though he never specified which she. But I knew. Girly wasn’t ready because there was no Girl. There was no baby. Or there was one once, and then there wasn’t, and the difference between the was and the wasn’t became its own entity. An in-between thing that will not come out. So I have to find a way to deliver this half-thing and feed it to the owl. Get it out of here. This is my home.

Kevin Catalano is the author of a collection of short fiction, The Word Made Flesh (firthFORTH Books). His stories have been, or will be anthologized in Press 53’s Surreal South ’13, Dark House Press’s Exigencies, and Fiddleblack Annuals #1 and #2. Other work has appeared in PANK, Booth, Gargoyle Magazine, Used Furniture Review, Pear Noir!, and Atticus Review, among other places. He has an MFA in fiction from Rutgers-Newark, where he teaches literature and composition. He lives with his wife and two children in New Jersey.

Lead image“the devouring mother” (via Flickr user madamepsychosis)