The Wombly arrives first on my father’s back. He brings it home, and it travels ’round the family faster than a whip crack. It passes from him to Liza Lee to Mom to me, except I don’t tap, so Mom doesn’t tap back. The circle hangs open around our necks, a family all Post-Wombly except for one, that’s me, I’m still Pre.
“I’m scared,” I say.
“Of course,” Mom murmurs. As the seconds pass, the Wombly steals around her neck. It goes up her thighs, her pits, her back. Slowly, so slowly, it creeps. I watch it go, and while I watch, she weeps.
“We’ll wait,” she says. “Go out and find someone to Bear it.”
It is a soap Wombly. Some say these are one of the best. Little Liza Lee had it for so short a time, she will shave the pebbly suds from her sides and her back, and no one will ever know she Bore it. But Dad will have it forever. He’ll don plastic bags to shower and be careful of rainstorms and puddles and dense fog because they will melt him. He’ll make a collection of galoshes and rain coats and rubber gloves and live forever in fear of water.
We have to wait to see how Mom turns out. Wait and see until I come back with a Bearer.
All Womblies can be passed off to someone else, except they can never be passed back. People with the worst Womblies, like steel or wood or sand, creep down the street begging for relief. Some people, the worst people, knock against you in secret to pass the Wombly on. You don’t even know you have it until you arrive home and take off your coat and see your fingertips are turning to brass or wax or concrete. If the Wombly Watchers catch you street-passing, they’ll chain you to a post and build a Wombly fence around you, and keep you there ‘til you die. It won’t take long because almost all Womblies need twenty-four hours to complete.
First, I went to Jill’s house, but nobody answered when I rang the bell. There was a sign on the door—At Uncle Rod’s Funeral. Wool Wombly to the Grave. God Bless His Soul.
Since the Womblies came, people believe in God again. And some of them believe in Womblies. I have to pass tiny knots of both on the street corner, Womblies on one side of the street and people on the other. Repent! say the signs. Repent and Be Free.
And on the other side, Surrender to Wool. Surrender to Glass. Surrender and Be Free.
It’s weird they both want the same things. But some of them are standing while Womblies eat them up. The man with the glass sign is already frozen in place, his fingers crystalline where they grip his sign, the lower half of his face see-through like a broken mirror. On the other side of the street, the people who believe in God throw things at him. They want to chip bits of his Wombly off and kick them down the street.
I know a girl named Savannah. She has long red hair, and I hate her because she is beautiful. I go to her mother’s house and tap, tap on the door. When it opens, I say, “I need a Bearer.”
Savannah’s mom pulls the door open further. Savannah’s father is on the floor, almost all bronze, but still he says through clenched-together jaw, “Don’t come near.”
I see now Savannah’s mother is crying. She says, “He’s chosen to take it to the grave. He won’t let us near.”
Not Savannah. Not her mom. Not like my dad. I leave the house, and I hate Savannah even more. I seethe with hate for her.
I think about the moment the Wombly came to the house. About how, without a thought, Dad passed it to Liza Lee to Mom, but not to me. How they left me dangling out the end, like the tail of the whip. How they are all Post-Wombly now, and I am still Pre. Why didn’t Mom move? Why didn’t she sandwich me between them, too? Like Liza Lee?
I go to Monique’s house next. She answers the door with her jaw made of tin, and when I gasp, she sputters tears.
She tells me it was her brother’s first. She says, “He’s out to find a Bearer. Would you—Could you Bear it?”
I don’t answer her. I think of the soap waiting for me at home, how at least it won’t freeze me up the way the tin has frozen Monique. I back off the steps away from her, away from her tin and her request, and the desperate, desperate eyes that perch above her neck. I bump into Old Man Roger, his arms bound behind his back. Monique’s brother, James, hauls him into the house. He shoves past me without even a hello and kicks the door shut behind him.
I peek through the windows and watch James pin Old Man Roger to the floor. I hear him scream and scream. All Monique has to do is tap him, a tap would be enough. But she straddles his stomach, leans in close, and licks the side of his face. Old Man Roger’s scream cuts off real quick, like he knows he’s done.
James leans over and whispers something into his ear. I can’t hear, but I can guess. To the grave, James says. To the grave. I run from the house. I should call someone and tell them what Monique and her brother have done, but I can’t. Because I am thinking—maybe that’s what I should do.
I go to the town square. There will be people there. There may be one or two with a kind enough heart to come home with me and tap after I tap. I even imagine not tapping at all. I imagine finding a woman who’s middle-aged, with love in her eyes, who stays my hand. She taps my mother instead. The Wombly passes from Mom to her right over my head, and I am safe.
But when I get to the town square, there are twenty people already there. Some yell into megaphones. Some hold large, bedazzled placards with rhinestones that catch the sun. They say, “Bearer Needed! Wool Wombly.” “Begging for a Bearer. Mere Soil. Save my Son.” There are even two or three with signs that say, “Bearer for Hire. $3,000.”
The ones who hold these signs are the worst. Little bits of everything cling to the people like layer cakes with barely any flesh left. They wrinkle with soil and cement, soap and concrete. There’s rumors that they’re the Street Passers, that that’s how they can take on a Wombly and pass it off so fast. There’s rumors that entire networks of Bearers for Hire exist, passing the Womblies from one to the next until they get to a town or a place where they can kidnap someone and threaten their family, a Wombly-turned finger pressed close, so close, to their neck. I wonder how they are human at all.
I go home well past midnight and steal into the house, but they are not asleep. Mom sits at the kitchen table beside my father. She is worse than he is now, the soap curling into her hair so it looks dried and dead. Her ears are all soap now. I wonder if she liked Dad to kiss her ear lobes, the way people sometimes do in movies. He will never kiss them now. There are whole parts of her that he will never kiss.
I tiptoe past them toward the stairs. I hear Mom say, “No, I don’t want you to look for her. I want her to come back on her own. I want her to want this.”
Father reaches out to grasp her hand, but freezes just above it. Her fingers are lined with soap, as if the curves of her joints have dried out and flaked. He stretches past them, past the place where his hand might leave imprints, and takes her wrist. “And if she won’t?”
Mom shrugs. “I cannot force this on her.” She clears her throat, and I wonder if it’s inside her now, crawling up her esophagus, lining her stomach. “I will not.”
Father’s hand clenches on her wrist. “She will take it. We have all Borne it, as a family, as we should, and she will do her part.”
Mom raises her hand and lays it on Father’s, and despite the soap that limns his elbows, that creases his eyes, I still see him flinch.
I creep past them up the stairs, and behind my eyelids in my bed that night, I see Savannah’s father hardening on the floor.
In the morning, I wake to Liza Lee sitting on my bed. Already, she has developed a nervous habit, scratching at the soap hidden in her armpit. Large pieces of it crumble onto the bed beside me. Horrified, I brush them away.
Liza shrugs. She is tiny for eight. “It is what it is,” she says. This is a saying she has learned from someone at school. “Are you afraid?”
“Of course. What does it feel like?”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she singsongs. Liza sticks a finger up her nose and pick, pick, picks. When she tugs it out, there is soap dust on her fingers. “It feels like fizzing wherever the Wombly sits.”
She rubs the soap dust onto my pillow. I flip it over and pull it away from her in disgust. “Dad says they will take me to a doctor to see what can be removed. Probably, there won’t even be any scars.”
No one will know, then, about the Wombly and Liza Lee.
I hide in my room. I flick Liza’s soap flakes off the bed, being careful to only use my fingernail. One time, I slip and it grazes my cuticle. I feel a tingling—the fizzing Liza Lee said? I can’t tell. My whole body has frozen in place, my heart beats dully in my ears. No soap forms. I don’t feel the tingle anywhere else. I can’t get the Wombly from Liza Lee’s soap, then. It is as harmless as dead skin. I am surprised by the disappointment that swoops through me as the adrenaline fades. It would be easier to have gotten the Wombly by accident than to have to take it from my mom.
Downstairs, they are calling me. They don’t know I am home. Dad becomes desperate—his cries going sharp like birds. When I roll over, I hear them through my pillow, their voices echoing around in my bed. Mom can only whisper now, her throat husky with soap. “I want her to come on her own. I want her to want this.”
Then Liza Lee’s voice, singsong-y and free: “She’s upstairs.”
I hear a shuffling on the stairs, ascending, ascending, ascending. I know it is her, even though it sounds nothing like her, nothing like the light skipping-step of my mother. The doorknob to my room makes a single guck, like a hand has knocked it, a hand that can’t use its fingers anymore. There’s a long pause before I hear it again—the soft tings of the knob being touched. Then the ease of it sliding open, pulling its trigger to the left.
I am hiding under my covers now, furious at my body for its terror. I whisper over and over: It’s just Mommy. Just Mom and me. The words slur together until I can’t tell the difference between “Mommy” and “Mom and me.”
And then the door creaks open so I see a crack of light. It widens to show the shape of my mother, her body blurred by soap. The hand that opened the door is still raised, she cannot put it down. She’s freezing right there, freezing slowly in place.
“Please,” she says, her words garbled, nearly lost, and I can tell her teeth are soap now, that the dumb press of her tongue is melting them. “I can’t take it anymore. It hurts.”
Even if I could hear the pleading at the bedroom door and connect it with my mommy, even if I could cure myself of terror and move to her, tap her cheek, her hand, her heart, even if. I could not save her. The Wombly has claimed her now. There is nothing left to save. In moments, she’ll be dead, freed from the Wombly or not.
She wheezes, “Please,” and her voice is vanishing.
“Please,” and it’s the whisper of a door that’s closing.
“Plea—” she says, and her esophagus has frozen shut.
Her arms stretch towards me, her fingers twitch once, twice, and stop. I think she is soap. I think, she is gone now. But then I see—she is still staring at me. The soap has not covered her irises, not yet, though it’s creeping close. I will be the last thing she sees, the daughter who sits, Wombly-Free, and watches while she’s eaten right in front of me.
K.L. Morris earned her M.F.A. from Lesley University in 2013. Her work has appeared in The Flexible Persona and Body Parts Magazine: A Journal of Horror and Erotica. She spends most of her time writing, walking her dog, and ignoring her husband in order to write. When no one’s around, she writes inside of a tent with a large glass of wine. When people are around, she writes inside of a tent with a large glass of wine and the door zipped shut. She’s neither as broody nor as introspective as she presents herself. Connect with her on Twitter @KareMoreIs. She blogs at www.thewritinggeek.com.
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