“Hannah, what happened to you?” demanded Mrs. Taghi, stopping the young woman on the concrete stairs. “You used to be so pretty! So tidy!”
Hannah glared at her neighbor. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m just worried about you, dear. That’s all.”
“Don’t be. I’m fine.” Shaking her head, Hannah fished out her keys and moved around the woman. Her bladder was uncomfortably full and cramps were making her legs tremble. She needed to go to the bathroom and—
“Hannah!” A hand clutched Hannah’s arm, halting her. “If you ever need anything, if you ever need someone to talk to—”
Not now! “I’m fine, Mrs. Taghi.”
“Are you? When was the last time you washed your hair?”
Hannah flushed. I’m not looking for a new mother, she wanted to snap, or, None of your business, but she’d already been so rude. Mrs. Taghi was so kind, bringing her meals from time to time. “I dunno.”
“Please take care of yourself,” Mrs. Taghi pleaded. “Treat yourself to a nice long bath tonight.”
That does sound nice. “Sure, Mrs. Taghi.”
“You’re not alone, Hannah. You’ve got people looking out for you. Remember that.”
“Yes, Mrs. Taghi.”
The hand released her at last, and Hannah hurried to her apartment. She shoved the keys into the lock and entered, throwing the deadbolt behind her. Her purse landed on the couch, her keys on the piles of paper burying the kitchen countertop as Hannah hurried to the bathroom.
Never alone. What a joke.
Hannah was always alone, always had been. Her parents had died when she was still a kid and her extended family was dead, too, or estranged. Foster care had not been kind to her, and neither had dating. An abusive boyfriend and then an overly-possessive girlfriend taught her she didn’t need companionship or sex the way other people did.
Hannah hiked up her dress, pulled down her underwear, and sat on the cool toilet seat, letting out a sigh of relief as she began to pee.
When her bladder was blissfully empty, Hannah wiped and reached between her legs. She tried to relax as she pulled on the tampon string. A few tugs, and it was out, followed by small clumps of her uterine lining. She wrapped the tampon in toilet paper and put it in the trashcan, then cleaned herself up with more toilet paper and inserted the new tampon.
Hannah stood and turned to survey the mess in the toilet as she reached for the flusher. A flicker of movement in the water caught her eye, and she froze.
It’s just a bit of womb lining caught in the water currents, she told herself. Another heartbeat later, and she was sure that it was definitely not drifting.
It’s a squid, Hannah realized in horror as she stared at the little blood-red creature flitting around the toilet bowl. And it’s alive. The cephalopod danced through the pink-orange water as Hannah gaped at it in shock.
What do I do with it? Flushing it would be easiest, but what if it reached the ocean? What if it grew? What if some marine biologist found it and traced its DNA back to her?
No, flushing the toilet was not the answer. What if she killed the squid? Squishing it might work. Don’t cephalopods regenerate somehow? She needed to be sure it wouldn’t come back to find her.
Then another realization struck, rocking her back on her heels.
What if it’s a real-life miraculous conception? What if God’s given me a miracle? She could raise the squid as her offspring, love it and care for it, be a parent to it. She could be the parent she’d never really had. And if I keep it, I won’t be alone anymore.
Besides, if it was a gift from God, surely He would punish her if she killed it. She wasn’t sure what horrible retributions God might deign to wreak on her if she killed the squid, but He had proven creative in the past.
How will I feed it? Hannah didn’t even know what squids ate. If it dies, I can tell God He didn’t given me any instructions on how to care for it. There couldn’t be any real harm in keeping it. God would provide. God doesn’t want me to be alone. He’ll help me.
Hannah left the squid floating in the toilet water as she ran to the kitchenette and grabbed a pint glass from the cabinet. She returned to the bathroom. It took several tries before she cornered the darting little critter and captured it with the glass.
Hannah lifted it out of the toilet and poured out most of the bloody water. She flushed the toilet and took the cup to the sink, where she carefully covered the squid with plain tap water. If it’s happy in a toilet bowl, she reasoned, it’ll be happy with fresh water, too. She washed off the glass’s exterior, careful not to spill its contents, and then cleaned her hands.
Satisfied that she was free of contamination, Hannah took her baby squid over to the apartment’s only window, dodging piles of dirty laundry and bags of trash she kept forgetting to take out as she went, and held it up to the light. She stared at the blood-colored cephalopod. It watched her with its small, red-black eyes, then flicked the tips of its tentacles at her and began darting around, testing the limits of its new home.
Hannah had never liked the idea of childbirth — it repulsed her, to be honest — but she decided she liked this little squid. It has spunk.
Maybe, for once, she was part of something bigger, something important. Now she had a child, a miracle, and she wasn’t alone.
The unnaturalness of it was unsettling, but everyone knows the Lord works in mysterious ways. “You are the strangest little blessing,” she told the squid, turning the jar this way and that. “My little miracle.”
Hannah’s squid grew at an alarming rate, filling the glass within a day. She called out sick from work to take care of it, and went to the nearest pet shop to buy a small aquarium for it. It grew, even though it refused every last bit of food she tried to give it. After a week, there was no denying that it needed an even bigger container, so she ventured out to the nearest pet shop and bought a five-gallon aquarium.
“Looks like you must have a growing reptile!” the store clerk said, ringing her up.
“Something like that.” Hannah shifted nervously, feeling a trickle of sweat run down her brow despite the chill breeze from the shop’s air conditioning.
The blood squid took to its new home immediately, swimming like a child given too much sugar. Hannah set the new aquarium on the card table in her living room and watched it play.
Her child didn’t scream, didn’t cry, didn’t even poop as far as she could tell — it was nothing like the brats in the pet shop.
Yet again, Hannah thanked God for giving her the chance to experience motherhood without any of the traditional annoyances of bearing, delivering, or raising a human baby.
Hannah went back to work the next day, but worry about her child gave her a panic attack. She pled a migraine to go home early. Her boss pursed his lips in disapproval. “You’re going to get your hours cut if you keep doing this,” he told her.
“I’ll need a doctor’s note about your condition next time.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He nodded, and she hurried back to her desk to grab her things and get home.
The squid had stopped growing and was now inexplicably lethargic. When she returned to the apartment, it didn’t as much as twitch.
“Poor baby,” she whispered, trailing her fingers along the side of its tank. “You look like a wilted flower.” It broke her heart to see it in such a miserable state.
“Are you sick? Do you need more space?” It only half-filled the new aquarium, but maybe it needed a bigger one. Hannah winced at that thought — her budget wouldn’t be able to cover a second new aquarium this month. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to carry the aquarium herself, either. Finding someone to help her — and explaining away a large aquarium — would be difficult.
The squid flicked a tentacle at her, and closed its eyes.
Two days later, Hannah was sure that her child was seriously ill. Now it kept its eyes closed most of the time.
“Fuck it. I’m calling in sick again. I need to figure out what’s wrong with you,” she told the squid. She was halfway ready to go to work, but this was a family medical emergency.
What will I do if it dies? How will I get rid of the body?
She called in, left a message with the manager on duty, and turned off her phone’s ringer. “Any mother would do the same,” she reassured herself. “What mother would leave a child as sick as you are?”
Hannah decided to move it to the bathtub in case it did need more space. She half-filled the tub and then carried the aquarium into the bathroom, straining against its ungainly weight. Her wrists trembled as she poured the squid into its new home, grunting with effort as the squid’s weight shifted.
The fall must have startled it awake. Her baby thrashed as it fell. One tentacle whipped her cheek and another seized her left wrist in a vice-like grip. The sudden pain frightened Hannah, and she cursed aloud as she almost dropped the aquarium. “Dammit! Can’t you see I’m trying to help you?!”
As if it were ashamed of what it had done, the blood squid released her arm and sank into the tub, submerging. It huddled near the drain as Hannah glared at it.
I’m bleeding, she realized as she felt something trickle down the back of her hand.
Trying to ignore the raw pain where it had grabbed her, she returned the aquarium to the card table and inspected her injuries. She let out an involuntary gasp when she saw what it had done to her wrist.
Her skin was ripped away in circles where the squid’s suckers had gripped her. The undamaged skin around the circles was already bruising a black-purple. Blood still dripped down her arm. I need to stop the bleeding.
Hannah went back to the bathroom, found the peroxide and cleaned the wound, hissing at the pain as the solution bubbled and fizzed. She blotted the blood and white foam away with toilet paper, then slathered Neosporin over her injury and wrapped it in gauze and medical tape.
The squid watched her.
Hannah looked away hastily, embarrassed for some reason. “I’m sorry.”
Did it look less hungry now, or was she imagining things? Had it been trying to eat her?
The cephalopod was her baby. Children don’t eat their mothers, Hannah chided herself. She tried to ignore the nagging voice in her mind that whispered, Squid eat their weak sometimes. What’s to stop them from eating their mothers?
Hannah shivered. I’m not weak.
She met the squid’s gaze. “It was an accident,” she announced. “An accident, and I forgive you.”
The squid flicked its tentacles at her, swirling the water around it. A faint pink-orange trail followed one of its tentacles, and Hannah looked away. That couldn’t have been a chunk of her own skin clinging to its suckers, could it?
Over the next two days, the squid grew and grew. It grew so much that it could barely fit its body in the tub. Each shift sent blood-tainted water splashing onto the white and blue tiles of the bathroom floor.
“You can’t stay,” Hannah told the squid when she came home from the grocery store. Her arm still ached from where it had torn away the skin, and she was starting to worry it was infected.
The squid was her baby, and she loved it, but she wasn’t so certain she’d be able to care for it the way it needed. Responsible parents make hard decisions out of love for their children.
Somewhere behind her, the phone was ringing insistently — probably her boss, calling to tell her she’d been fired for too many no-calls, no-shows. When was the last time she’d gone to work, anyway? Now that she thought about it, when was the last time she’d gone to bed at a decent hour? Or made herself a real meal?
Hannah didn’t care. She had, quite literally, a bigger problem to address.
“You can’t stay,” she repeated.
The squid glared up at her. Glared? Hannah couldn’t remember ever seeing any emotion in its black-red eyes before.
“I’m taking you out to the river.”
The river wasn’t too far away, not really — less than a block from her ground-floor apartment. She could bundle the squid in an old blanket and drag it to the riverbank. All of her neighbors should be at work, except for Mrs. Taghi.
Maybe she should call Mrs. Taghi for help? Hannah discounted that thought almost immediately. No, she’ll just lecture me about how messy my apartment is and tell me I should be taking better care of myself again. Even if Mrs. Taghi saw her, the old woman would probably think she’d imagined it. Probably.
“Look, I can’t keep you here. There’s not enough space, I don’t know how to feed you, and I don’t want you to die. I love you. There has to be more food for you. I can’t be a good mother to you like this. At least I can come visit you at the river. Please, you have to understand, this is for your own good.”
She took a deep breath. God, please give me the strength I need. I know You must have meant this child as a gift, but I don’t know how to care for it. I swear I’ll keep caring for it and do great things for You.
“Please, trust me, this is the best thing for you.”
When Hannah reached for the squid’s head, it sprayed her with a sanguine ink and twisted about, violently sloshing water onto her feet. She gritted her teeth and reached for its mantle, shoving aside tentacles as she groped blindly.
The blood squid’s tentacles twined up her arms and paralyzed her in a grip so strong she feared it might break her bones. It could snap my arms, she thought, terrified. It could snap my spine, it could break me in two. It could kill me.
Panic swept over her, and Hannah began to thrash, trying to free herself from her offspring’s too-strong embrace. She placed her wet feet at the base of the tub and yanked, but the squid held her fast.
“I’m trying to save you! Let go!”
It yanked back, pulling forward and making her feet slip, sending her headfirst into the tiled wall above the tub. The force of the blow cracked the tiles — and the skin of her forehead. Pain split her head, and Hannah screamed in agony, but she persisted.
“Please, you’re going to die! I’m trying to free you!”
A tentacle reached up, brushed her bleeding forehead, and the squid tilted so that it could stare at her with one of its large eyes. Its grip loosened slightly, and Hannah caught her breath, wheezing and wincing at the pain.
It couldn’t speak, but Hannah knew, she knew that’s what it was thinking. It was intelligent. A chill ran down her spine and with it came conviction. She had to protect her baby.
“Do you trust me?” she asked.
“Hannah, you look better than you have in months!”
Hannah smiled at Mrs. Taghi as their paths crossed on the concrete stairs and shifted the beach towel over her shoulder. “Thank you, Mrs. Taghi!”
“Have you been seeing a therapist?”
None of your business, but… “I’ve been spending more time by the river, and I’ve taken up swimming again.”
“Oh, how marvelous! I’m so glad! Fresh air and sunlight work wonders!”
“They sure do, Mrs. Taghi. I’ll see you later. Excuse me, I’ve got an appointment to keep.”
As her bare feet padded down the stairs, the older woman kept talking. “Did you hear about the bodies that washed up along the shore last week? Murdered, they said on the news. How tragic! Be careful, Hannah!”
“Don’t worry about me!” Hannah sped down the stairs. There’s no greater protection than a mother’s love.