Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from our favorite emerging writers
We were so excited and overwhelmed by the stories we received for our Intimacy chapbook that we had to share a few on The Rail! We're so pleased to publish this eerie speculative story by Spanish writer Santiago Eximeno (translation by Alicia L. Alonso). While first reading this piece, I was drawn to the uncanniness of it all. Like a vivid dream, every absurdity of this story feels too real to be true. I'm positive you're going to have just as much fun reading this as I did.
Keep an eye on Derailleur Press's social media for upcoming announcements on our chapbook releases, and of course keep an eye on The Rail for more brilliant writing each week.
- Derailleur Press
I need a hug.
This was the first thought that crossed Elena’s mind when she walked into her doctor’s office. She was lonely. Peter had insisted on staying home with the girls, believing that they were too small to go to the hospital with her. They would get nervous and bother everyone, and they - Elena and Peter - would end up getting angry as well. But what Elena really saw in her husband’s behavior was fear, lots of fear. And selfishness. The same selfishness that made him avoid talking about her disease in front of the girls, as if not talking about it could make it go away. As if mentioning it would tarnish him and the girls. Elena, after all, was already tarnished.
As she sat alone in the small waiting room, Elena felt – not for the first time - unconnected to her family, a family that valued fighting and playing games more than hard work, the kind of work that had to be done every day so that everything they thought they were entitled to would prevail.
It was not because Peter got fired from his job after fifteen years in the same company (always the same job, always the same tasks and responsibilities, zero willingness to prosper and get a raise). It was not because her husband wasted his time at home sitting in front of the computer or television while the girls were at school, or because he would not share his time with her when she came home from work, or because he simply forgot about the girls when Elena was home. She didn’t even care about the offhanded way he administered his severance pay (after all, they did share one single bank account; when they got married they had thought it romantic), as if a tomorrow of scarcity and shortages was not lurking in the shadows around the corner, waiting for them.
It was because of the shared giggles at the kitchen table that now excluded her, the gossiping, the mouth-to-ear whispering on the sofa, the girls’ looks of concern that turned to cackles with any inappropriate joke their father improvised. It was because she was sick and they were not, because she was isolated from their happiness, denied an embrace when she needed it the most.
Did she have a shorter fuse than some years back? Of course she did! He did not have to deal with a boss who wanted to fuck her – and, may her daughters forgive her, she was starting to think it was not such a bad idea – and who didn’t even bother to hide it in front of their colleagues. His body and his hormones had not been ravaged by two pregnancies. He had his Sunday game cards with his friends, yes, but never found a moment to leave the kids at home with a babysitter and take her out to dinner. So fucking selfish.
Elena was just about to pick up some of the gossip magazines on the coffee table at the waiting room when the nurse came in to invite her into the doctor’s office. She was annoyed by the way the woman – attractive, ten years younger, with two disproportionate boobs that must have cost her a fortune – smiled at her with a kindness that, in her case, she could only interpret as pitiful. Was she, Elena, really that bitter? She had an excellent job, a man who’d treated her with sweetness and respect during a great part of their relationship and two beautiful daughters. Why did she behave that way? Why did she focus on the most negative side of everything? What was wrong with her?
What was wrong with her was that she was sick. Really sick. And no one gave a fuck about her.
“It’s serious,” said the doctor.
I knew it, she said to herself. Fuck, I knew it and I’m ready. But she really wasn’t, and as she told her doctor what was happening to her, skipping all the medical jargon, she felt anguish creeping up her throat. She couldn’t help it when the tears started to flow and when the bawling tore her apart. It made her very uncomfortable, but at the same time it comforted her. Sometimes it was good to cry.
“We’re not dealing with anything irreparable here, but it is irreversible, and all we can do is look ahead, Elena,” said the doctor. Under her circumstances, her doctor didn’t want anything else taken from her. “The shortness of breath, the exhaustion… it will all just get worse. One of your lungs no longer functions, and the other one will need help for you to go on with your life.”
“Help?” she panted, sobbing.
“Yes, help. An external assisted breathing unit. In the past, what you’ve got would have condemned you to a life of bed-ridden agony. Yes, my words are harsh, but you need to understand. You were lucky to be born at the right time. You’re really lucky, Elena. We have symbionts now.”
And that’s how Elena met her new baby.
* * *
Pulmonary disease. The technical name for it was much more unpleasant, or so thought Peter. “We’ll tell the girls that you have a pulmonary disease,” he said. Elena cursed herself over and over for her inability to hold back her tears, for channeling her flooding rage the way that made her look most fragile to his eyes. And to the girls’ eyes. Those two little inquisitors judged every sign of her weakness as if she deserved some sort of supreme punishment. They condemned her, paying almost no attention to her pathetic excuses. Pulmonary disease. Collateral damage. Maybe what her husband really needed was a severe punishment. Maybe what that man needed – he who lived on euphemisms and badly used clichés - was a good walloping. They argued, of course, and he settled the matter with the usual mention of her sardonic smile.
“When you pull that sardonic smile it’s impossible to keep talking to you. And the girls know it,” he said to her, right in front of them. Alicia, the eldest, started crying and ran to her room.
Elena very much doubted that her husband, a third-rate intellectual whose greatest accomplishment was remembering the year that the first three-dimensional film premiered in movie theaters, knew what “sardonic” actually meant. And his ugly, unbearable, damnable habit of telling her off and humiliating her in front of the girls, as if he had the right and obligation to educate her as well as their daughters, shattered her soul.
Still, Elena didn’t do much, other than mutter a few more poisonous words and flash an extra sardonic smile or two, before seeking refuge in the conjugal bedroom. It was colder, emptier, more soulless in there every day. Hugging herself, she ruminated senseless revenge and told herself over and over that she would kick out the bastard who’d replaced her husband. At the end she just called her mother with her cell phone. She told her how serious her disease was, and lied to her about how her family had taken it. Her family, for fuck’s sake.
Her next appointment at the doctor’s office, with her doctor (yes… she really needed the possessive pronoun at critical moments like that) was programmed for Thursday, three days later. The doctor would have preferred to bring her in that very same day, Monday, but the protocol recommended certain previous adaptations on the symbiont to avoid a possible rejection, and the operating room would not be ready until Thursday morning. Elena didn’t complain. It was futile to complain about something that was beyond anyone’s control, and in any case every single minute that passed she was closer to the stage of acceptance than to any other stage of her grief. So she accepted to spend those days at home, mostly in bed, wired to an assisted breathing unit that the hospital temporarily lent her after her insurance paid up. When Peter became unemployed he suggested that she stop paying her part of the private insurance and limit it to the girls. He’d never been included in their collective insurance; always the cliché lover, he boasted about being “healthy as a horse”. Elena was obedient regarding most of the economic issues that came up in the family – he was obedient in other issues that she considered more important – but this time she’d said no. And now she couldn’t be happier about that decision. For once… for once, goddamnit, she had been right and he hadn’t. That certainty would help her deal with the exhaustion, the shortness of breath, the silences. The loneliness.
She passed the days in a certain placidity, faking a tranquility that in truth she was very far from feeling. When her oldest daughter came to her bed and, tearfully, (the little harpy!) reprimanded her for not attending her graduation party at school, Elena cried too, hugged her daughter and begged forgiveness. She promised to make it up to her, and didn’t scold her or tell her she was being selfish by not giving enough importance to her mother’s illness. No, she would not give Peter that satisfaction. He was probably orchestrating all these childish machinations in the background. She didn’t let herself be affected by the fact that she depended on Peter for her meals, for something as petty as picking up her cell phone so she could stay connected to the world. She just let time pass until the ambulance orderlies came to take her to the hospital.
“I think it’d be best if I stayed with them” said Peter while she was being placed on the gurney. “We’ll visit you at the hospital, of course”.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be back the day after tomorrow; you don’t need to come. I don’t want to cause any inconvenience”, answered Elena before she was rolled into the ambulance.
It was all reminiscent of a cheap theatre play. A shitty broken marriage feigning unbearable normality.
The girls waved good-bye with their little hands. Smiling. Flashing the despicable smiles of those who have no worries in life.
* * *
Elena woke up with horrible nausea. Retching, she spit a few times on a lead bedpan with the help of a blurry-faced nurse. She thought she saw blood on the metal and tried to stand up, but someone pinned her down to the bed. “It’s just a post-operational side effect of the anesthesia”, they said. “Calm down, sleep”, they said. She mightily wanted to calm down, but the lights and sounds coming from the machines in the room drove her nuts. The nurse administered a sedative through the intravenous needle they’d put on her left arm, and she slowly felt drowsiness taking over her thoughts. She was falling asleep, and that was a good thing. She felt a heaviness on her chest, an unpleasant oppression. But there was no breathlessness, which had been the inseparable companion to that feeling. It was strange, disturbing. She told herself that she would have to ask the doctor. She heard a moan and wondered if it had come from her. A clock on the wall, with clock hands, gave the time. An anachronism in a hospital equipped with state of the art technology. Tick, tock. Concentrating on that regular, monotonous sound, she stared at the clock and tried to understand what time it was. Then she fell asleep.
She woke up feeling woozy. Her mouth was terribly dry. A few seconds later a nurse appeared. This one didn’t seem to be the same one she’d seen before, whose face had been barely outlined. How long had it been since she’d left the operating room? Did Peter and the girls come to see her? Did they let them in? She didn’t remember if she’d given any indication, as she’d wanted to do. In any case, the hospital was under no obligation to comply.
“Would you like some water?” asked the nurse.
Elena nodded her head.
She sipped water from a plastic cup while the nurse held the back of her neck. The water was unpleasantly lukewarm. She felt the nurse’s cold hand against her own burning skin. She was shocked to realize that the continuous pressure she had been feeling on her lung since waking up was not due to the breathlessness caused by a dead lung but to the symbiont that rested between her breasts like a newborn. Like her baby. Covered by a thin gray fabric, the symbiont was a mass of pink, pulsating flesh that moved up and down to the rhythm of her breathing. In fact it moved too fast, as the nurse confirmed.
“You need to calm down. Let the symbiont breathe for you. Calm down, you’re forcing it”.
Elena tried to calm down again. She thought about that stupid butterfly mantra Peter used to recite a few years ago while he played with the girls. She concentrated on her own breathing. She couldn’t calm down, so she settled on watching the symbiont and its arrhythmic palpitation, and second by second its devilish erratic rhythm slowed down. Elena thought that if that thing was so similar to a baby then its breathing wasn’t really that unusual. But the truth was that she still didn’t know anything about the symbiont, beyond what she’d seen on the videos the doctor showed her and what she’d read on the symbiont forum and general information websites. It gave her the shudders to have it on her lap, breathing for her. She was surprised that she wasn’t terrified, and told herself it was probably thanks to the medication they’d given her.
Her doctor arrived a few minutes later and apologized for being late, a ritual that all private health care professionals who had ever treated her naturally incorporated into the patient visiting routine. Apologies for this, apologies for that… as if apologies could pay for bills or have healing properties.
“How do you feel?” asked the doctor as he checked the paper pad holder at the foot of the bed.
Elena, who hated her role as a convalescing patient, dismissed his question with a simple “I’m fine”. The doctor exchanged a few perfunctory words with the nurse before getting to the point.
“As you can verify, the operation was a success. There were no complications, and your body shows no rejection to the implant. I has accepted it naturally. We have placed it underneath your left breast. You may touch it if you want. The sooner you become accustomed to its presence, the better."
There it was, indeed. Elena had already grazed it with the tips of her fingers for barely an instant, not without a certain panic after feeling the protuberance of flesh. So warm, so alive. From it sprouted a conduit that joined them together. It was some sort of umbilical cord that pulsated and trembled with each of her breaths. The symbiont had no features. For lack of a better definition, it reminded her of her first ultrasounds, the ones that showed a still undeveloped baby.
“The implant represents the union of your body with the symbiont. You must keep it clean and dry. If you notice any anomaly in its color, texture or shape, go to the hospital right away. Whether it’s a simple infection or something more serious like a rejection, we will have to see to it as soon as possible. For you. For the symbiont."
Elena nodded. She felt tears streaming down her cheeks and asked herself why she was crying. Because she was alive? Because she had an unexpected second chance?
“The symbiont needs very few cares, but I suggest you stick to them. The nurse will show you the basic protocol and we will give you detailed instructions before you leave the hospital. Be scrupulous with the routine. Think of it as what it is: another part of your body, an essential part of your body. Bathe it, pay attention to any changes. Keep it warm.”
“Yes,” answered the doctor. “We’ll give you a discreet thermal blanket, like the one you’re wearing right now. Cover it up any way you want, don’t limit yourself. It’s important for you to be comfortable. And avoid excessive exposition to the sun. The best way to keep it warm is the way you’re doing it now. Hugging it."
Elena smiled and held the symbiont tighter. Her symbiont. The doctor smiled good-bye. He then handed the pad holder to the nurse –Elena added that to her mental list of anachronisms – along with a list of medications to be prescribed. She’d have to take the medication every day with no excuses, but it seemed to be a small price for staying alive. For keeping her life.
Before the doctor left the room, Elena spoke.
“Does it have a name?”
The doctor looked at her, not understanding what she meant.
“A name? Who?”
“The symbiont,” said Elena. “Does it have a name?”
For an instant, there was a look of confusion on the doctor’s face. Then he just shook his head.
“Not that I know of,” he answered before adding, with a smile: “Why don’t you give it a name?”
* * *
“Sophia,” said Elena to her daughters. “Her name is Sophia”.
They were all sitting at the kitchen table, on the gray plastic chairs Peter had bought in a furniture store a couple of years ago. She remembered because their anniversary was just three days away when he showed up at home with the chairs. “They’re comfortable and cheap,” he’d said, “and they don’t weigh a thing”. They had to take the other chairs to the storage room. As usual, Elena cut it down to a brief argument. Those things he did, without previous warning, without asking her first… they made her sick.
“Why did you name it?” asked Alicia, her oldest daughter.
There was that unpleasant look of disgust on Alicia’s face that Elena couldn’t stand, the same look she got every time she cooked a dish with too many vegetables. Alicia gave Elena and Sophia a look of apprehension. What the heck, no. Not apprehension, repugnance. Elena just wanted to stand up and get out of there, but she knew she had to be strong. She had to show them who she was, what she had become. What they had become. Her unbuttoned blouse gave the girls a hint of her scar, which was still a purple-yellowish color. They could also see the implanted valve. She had tried to cover up the scar’s sickly sweet smell with a few drops of her usual cologne. The smell was not unpleasant to her, but she was aware that the girls and her husband could feel the change, and it might make them uncomfortable. From the valve sprouted the fleshy pink warm and vibrating conduit that joined her to Sophia. She had wrapped it in a small orange blanket with a giraffe pattern, the same blanket she had used with the girls before. The same blanket that had covered their newborn bodies the day they left the hospital.
“She needed a name, like you did,” said Elena, and instantly cursed herself for needing to offer justification.
“She’s ugly,” said Maria, her youngest daughter. Elena screamed angrily at both of them to leave her alone.
Alone with Sophia.
Back in her bedroom, Elena lay on the duvet and stared blankly at the ceiling. She thought about her family. When she decided who she considered to be part of that category, her thoughts were not benevolent. At least not with those who were left out.
* * *
“You’ve got to talk to the girls,” said Peter to Elena.
It had been a week since she’d come home from the hospital, and in all that time Peter hadn’t shown any interest in her. A simple “How do you feel?” would have been nice; an “are you OK?” or a “does it hurt?” would have sufficed. Not one single question about her condition. Not one. Nor about Sophia. And now he was telling her off for not talking to the girls. Telling her off. What an asshole.
The girls were in bed already. She was lying on the sofa wearing nothing but white undies and holding Sophia against her chest. Sophia was breathing. She was breathing for both of them. Peter, as usual, squeezed out some time in front of the computer screen, browsing a dozen of his usual sites, which she thought were nonsense. Soccer. Fishing. A forum of old university friends. He criticized her for not keeping any of her friends from her childhood and youth, for having become so dependent on him and their daughters. On their family. “There are more things in life,” he would say to her, as if he truly did enjoy life and was not an embittered loser.
“I really mean it.”
Oh, of course he meant it. That mediocre man, whose face (and penis, probably his flaccid penis as well) were the perfect representation of repugnance. The repugnance that she (now joined to Sophia) made him feel. It wasn’t that he didn’t touch her anymore; now he even avoided looking at her. For the love of God. Elena hugged Sophia a bit tighter, felt the heat she gave off, just like the heat the girls gave off back when she breastfed them. She kissed Sophia’s warm skin without looking at Peter. She didn’t have to put up with that. She didn’t have to feel guilty.
“I’m going to sleep,” she said.
He nodded without taking his eyes off the monitor.
“I’m staying up a bit longer,” he muttered, and then added: “Alicia needs her mother, Elena.”
Elena gave no answer.
* * *
As she lay in bed with Peter sleeping next to her, Elena thought about the times the girls were born. Both days had been so different, and yet so similar. She could not separate them in her mind. She could not conceive that it wasn’t just one single pregnancy followed by a simultaneous birthing. It was as if it she needed them to share one single event so that Sophia, the newcomer, could be on equal terms with them. If she considered her daughters one indivisible entity regardless of the years that set them apart, everything seemed to make sense. Everything fit into place.
Cradled by the night’s quiet rustling, Elena imagined Sophia’s birth. As she reduced and grouped her daughters’ conception and birth, she magnified Sophia’s presence in her arms. Sophia was her youngest, and as such she deserved all the caresses, all the cares. Her sisters would have to understand.
“What are you doing?” asked Peter.
Elena jumped up in bed. She felt she was about to choke, but a few instants later Sophia recovered control of her breathing and she gradually calmed down.
“What?” whispered Elena. It was a rough whisper, loaded with badly concealed rage.
“You were humming,” said Peter.
There was reprimand in his voice, but also exhaustion. Elena felt him drift off to sleep next to her, and it gave her unexpected relief. She did not feel strong enough to explain what was going on, to justify something that, to her, was completely natural. There was nothing more beautiful than sleeping with your baby in your arms while you sang a lullaby.
* * *
Her company’s health insurance had approved sick leave for a month, but Elena knew how hard it would be to go back to work after that time. She knew she couldn’t go back. She’d spent the first two weeks on the sofa. She’d taken over the T.V. remote control and spread a blanket of silence between Peter and herself. He still took the girls to school and she, using her convalescence as an excuse, did nothing other than prepare simple meals and spend hours surfing the web on her mobile phone with the heady T.V. chatter in the background. Whenever Peter told her he needed to get out, go for a walk, get some air, she merely nodded without even looking at him. He was supposed to go job hunting during those walks, but he often forgot the folder with his resumes at home. At least he picked up the girls and brought them home at lunch time.
Elena hardly ever sat at the table with them, preferring to have a light meal in the kitchen. She raided the fridge looking for fruit, ham or cheese slices, and drank large glasses of milk. Milk was good for Sophia, she was quite certain about that. She didn’t need a doctor to confirm that she was doing all the best to take care of Sophia, so that she would be comfortable in her arms. So that the two of them could gently go to sleep, cuddled up on the sofa, with their synchronized breathing. Alone.
One afternoon Peter went out job hunting. He had an interview. As far as she was concerned he could take off and never come back, but the bastard forced her to look after his daughters. Two little harpies running all over the place. They turned the T.V. on and off without her permission, fought about everything, screamed happily whenever they caught her attention. Every second they interrupted her life. And Sophia’s life.
“Can’t you think about your little sister?” Elena screamed at them.
Then she turned on the T.V., found a children’s channel and ran to the bedroom to hide. But Alicia, the oldest, stepped in the way.
“That thing is not our sister,” she said, “and besides, it’s yucky.”
Elena slapped her hard.
She spent the rest of the afternoon packing. Just a few things; she didn’t need much more. In social networks she’d seen a few women who suffered experiences similar to hers: families broken by fathers and children who would not lovingly accept the newcomer, who were not prepared to share their love with a new family member. Families blinded by possessiveness and selfishness, who treated the mother as their property and would not accept her as she really saw herself now: free, complete, fulfilled.
There were still just a few, but they could get organized. She’d read about the first associations, about the brave voices claiming acknowledgement, spaces and rights. It was a question of time before newcomers like Sophia were accepted by society. It happened before and it would happen again. They’d have to fight, they’d have to face the lack of acceptance from obtuse individuals who refused to admit that a new life form was being born. Perhaps Elena would never live to see it, but she would contribute in every way she could to make it a reality. If not for her, at least she’d do it for Sophia.
When the girls’ father came home, both kids were still crying. Maria had tried to hit Sophia with a book, after which Elena had grabbed Maria by her hair and dragged her to her room, where her sister was. They were terrified. Before letting Peter take over the thankless task of comforting them, Elena ambushed him in the hallway. He was hardly surprised when he saw the piece of luggage she was carrying, or at least he hid his surprise as well as he could. Yes, he looked at her chest uneasily, almost as if he was scared of it. Sophia rested between her breasts, gathered into the same baby carrier she’d sometimes used with the spoiled brats.
“Dinner is in the fridge,” said Elena. “And the farewell letter is on the bed, on the pillow.”
Then she simply walked out of the house and shut the door behind her.
* * *
She had a lot to do. She had to think about her job and the bank account, and about many other small problems that would grow bigger day after day, but she didn’t feel she had the strength right now. At that moment, lying on her back on the bed in the hostel room, Sophia resting on her skin on skin, all Elena wanted to do was hold her baby and sleep.
She shut her eyes.
When she’d arrived at the hostel, the woman at the reception had offered her a room on the first floor, next to the elevator.
“So you won’t have to walk too much,” she’d said.
Elena had nodded and muttered her gratitude while she filled out her details on the registry book. Then, when she walked away, the woman had spoken again, but Elena hadn’t caught what she said.
“What?” she’d asked.
The luggage was heavy and she was dirty, sad and tired. She needed a bath.
“What’s her name?” repeated the young woman.
It’d taken Elena a few instants to understand the question.
“Sophia,” she’d answered. “Her name is Sophia.”
And, the moment she pronounced that name, the moment she said it to that young, smiling woman, Elena knew that from then on everything would be all right.
Santiago Eximeno (Madrid, Spain, 1973) is a Spanish genre writer who has published several novellas and collections, mainly horror literature. His work has been translated to English, Japanese, French or Bulgarian. His last book published in English is Umbría (Independent Legions Publishing, 2020). You can find him at www.eximeno.com or @santiagoeximeno on Twitter.