Aurealis Award Nominee, Best Horror Short Story
Catering was potluck. Potluck, for God’s sake. Catriona forced a smile as the neighbours streamed into her living room, all plump and tanned and healthy, not a scar among them. They carried platters and casseroles and cheap plastic plates, the flimsy circles all gaudy crimson or green—probably discounted post–Christmas stock from Costco, she thought, cringing. Cling wrap was whipped off, cellophane crinkled into handbags or pockets, and the offerings laid out, higgledy-piggledy, on her late grandmother’s antique dining table. Fat two-litre soft drinks were plunked on the sideboard, rattling the crystal glasses Cat had rented for the occasion. Bottles of red, white, and bubbly emerged from blue cooler bags; unscrewed and uncorked, they passed from hand to smooth hand, poured, then clanked one by one on the board. Chatter was instantly lively. Too many lovely round cheeks were already flushed. Cat’s practised smile slipped. She thought she spotted food stains spilling down the front of her father’s polo shirt—as if he’d just left a barbecue, as if they all had, as if they’d all been scarfing down snags and fried onions before coming over. As if they’d been saying goodbye without her.
But that couldn’t be, she thought, forehead wrinkling. That wasn’t part of the deal. She’d signed the consent forms, she’d made the necessary agreements. Years ago, her boss at Grantham & Noble had double-checked the clauses, the sub-clauses. Nothing had changed since then. Not her role as legal secretary, not the resolve to build a family, not the regulations. The law is the law is the law, Grantham himself used to say, a litany under his breath, whenever cases like hers crossed his desk. Now there was to be a funeral—Cat had come to terms with that—but beforehand, a bona fide feast. A celebration.
Tension seized the muscles in her neck when someone changed the music. Instead of the soft, soothing jazz she’d chosen, a powerful voice suddenly called out from the speakers, bold and strong, supported by a deep-thrumming choir, clicking tongues, tribal rhythms. Goosebumps shivered across Cat’s skin as the soundtrack played. Elton John. The Lion King. One of Annie’s favourites.
She hurried over to the stereo, back rigid. Ghost hands seemed to press hard on her shoulders, ghost fingers squeezed her joints. Standing in front of the revamped Victrola, she stared at the knobs, the pause and play buttons, but couldn’t convince her body to move, to make the song stop.
Across the room, Mark guided his mother to a wing-backed chair in the corner, out of the way. Half-turned, he caught Cat’s eye. Raising his brows, her husband gestured at his lips, mimed a big friendly smile. He held her gaze until their expressions matched. One job, she thought, knuckling the AM/FM lever, switching to contemporary classic. She’d given Mark one goddamned job—invitations, the simplest task she could delegate—and he’d still managed to botch it.
Cat had wanted a maître d’ at this party. Waiters in black vests and bow-ties. Drinks circulating on silver platters. Caviar on little toast points. Smoked salmon mousse. Risotto balls and fried Camembert. She’d wanted, for once in her life, to splurge. She’d wanted it to be special. She’d been prepared to blow a bundle, dip into her pension if she had to—but on the invitations, letter-pressed, one-of-a-kind invitations, Mark had had inscribed Bring a plate. Bring a freaking plate. Later, after half a dozen phone calls from Annie’s teacher and other moms from the school, he’d sent an email to clarify: Bring desserts and candies and anything else kids can stab with toothpicks. Make it fun. All the treats Annie loved, but was rarely allowed to eat.
There was no way Cat could change the menu after that.
Today, tomorrow, now and always—everything was for Annie.
The bunting, for one, was Annie’s choice. Red gingham triangles strung up on hemp ribbon, interspersed with deep yellow pennants, faded sage and the occasional purple—not lilac or lavender, but a robust amethyst. Annie had never been a girly-girl; there were no pink princesses or ponies in her room, no tiaras or tutus in her closet. She’d always liked unbleached cotton, beige linen, natural wool. Her favourite toys were handmade—or at least appeared to be. The retro blocks Cat had spent a fortune on customs ordering in from the States. The free trade rag dolls supposedly sewn by Peruvian grandmothers, bought in a pop-up boutique downtown. The threadbare velveteen rabbit that Mark lied and said had been his, when he was a boy—but it hadn’t, it wasn’t. Cat took a swig of champagne, rinsed the bitterness from her mouth. Mark had picked the thing up at an op-shop, last minute, on the way to the hospital. With the travel sewing kit she kept in her purse, Cat had added a few stitches to its legs and arms, so it wouldn’t fall apart before they got there. And Annie had loved it, of course she had, she’d loved the age and story behind it, loved that it was from Daddy—though she’d tried to play cool when he gave it to her, tied with a bow, like a proper gift. Squeezing the toy in the crook of her neck, ear pressed to its soft belly, Annie had said thanks, pretending to be caught up in the news on the little screen hanging above her bed. Wincing at the state of the world.
Annie had flicked through the channels, settling on a show about Greenpeace. Stoic while the narrator described the harpooning and butchering of endangered whales, the girl’s chin had quivered when the camera zoomed in on all the waste. The slabs of blubber dropping back into the sea. The gigantic heads lolling, slipping overboard. The beautiful, dead tails slapping dully against the ship’s hull. Most of the carcasses—the fins, the baleen, everything that helped the beasts eat and swim and soar in great bursts above the waves—left to rot.
She’d always wanted to know what was going on, Cat had thought, kissing the top of Annie’s head while she cried. She’d always wanted the truth, no matter how hard. Always wanted to have her say. Poor thing felt she’d missed out on too much already, cooped up inside for so many weeks at a time. She’d wanted so badly to be able to get out there, to be able to make a difference, to be able.
Eight going on eighteen, Mark used to joke, when their daughter asked the nurses for quinoa at dinner, or if the tuna in her purée was dolphin-free. When she insisted on wearing headscarves that were bought at Oxfam. When she’d said she wanted to help Cat with decorations for the wake.
‘We can upcycle my clothes. Since, you know, I won’t be needing them anymore.’ Blushing, Annie had hesitated. She would design the burial dress too, if only Cat would let her.
How can such a big heart be failing, Cat had thought, before finally saying, It’s not that you don’t have the talent, hon. You do. But, lowering her voice, prevaricating, who will sew it?
Nostrils flaring as she exhaled, Annie had looked down at the vintage pillowcase she wore as a nightdress, at the lack of sleeves, the grotesque bulge of her ribs through the thin fabric, the stumps of her little legs poking out beneath the hem, gnarled and knobbly as chunks of ginger root.
Such a pretty face, Cat had thought. Don’t let them ruin her face.
‘We’ll be a team, Mom,’ Annie’d continued, lifting her chin, brave enough for both of them. ‘I’ll choose the fabrics, and you can be my arms. I’ll be the designer and you’ll be in charge of the CMT.’
‘The “Cut, Make & Trim”,’ Annie had said, stopping short when Cat quickly broke eye contact. Vision blurred, she’d fumbled for her purse. Rummaged for a tissue.
‘You watch too much Project Runway,’ Cat had mumbled, dabbing tears. ‘Let’s just stick to the wake, okay?’
‘Don’t worry, Mom,’ Annie had replied. ‘It’ll all look good. Promise.’
They’d compromised: Cat would choose suitable garb for the funeral, but her black-tie soirée would feature hints of Annie’s hipster-chic. The bunting. Handmade ribbons dangling from the rented chandelier. Instagram photos of the two of them together, blown up and printed on extra-large canvases; retro, personal murals installed in the living and dining rooms, above the Georgian liquor cabinet, next to the reproduction Venus de Milo. Their washed–out faces, multiplied, pressed cheek-to-cheek, smiled all the way down the front hall. Their styles overlapped throughout the house, prominent, not quite blending.
‘It works,’ Mark had claimed, again, before the guests started arriving. He’d squeezed Cat’s forearm, given it a reassuring pat. There were cake-pops on the table, sprouting from crystal bud vases. Porcelain platters heaped with cupcakes and fairy bread. Old-fashioned glass urns on rustic brass stands, ready to dispense lemonade and raspberry soda for the kids, sangria and pre-mixed margaritas for the adults. Ice-filled coolers camouflaged as apple crates were stacked in aesthetic piles along the walls, bristling with bottles of French champagne. On that detail, Cat wouldn’t budge; this was her party—hers and Annie’s—and tonight, just this once, she would drink nothing cheaper than Veuve Clicquot. And the funeral wasn’t until Friday, so there’d be two full days for the alcohol to clear out of her system…
Mark had handed her a full coupe, then rocked back on his heels to take it all in. ‘It’s perfect.’
This from the man who’d told people to bring a plate.
It isn’t the kiddie food or the jumbled decorations that really gall, Cat thought now. It’s the plastic. Between the fine linens and the crocheted doilies Annie had picked out, between the silverware—pure silver!—and the hand-turned Huon pine bowls, between the silk chair–covers and the embroidered nameplates, there were Dixie cups, for God’s sake. There was Chinet. She drained her glass, waved half-heartedly at old Bry, who used to take Annie to school in his wheelchair-friendly van. When the driver slid a Styrofoam tray of cinnamon donuts onto the table, Cat had to turn away to hide a sneer. Didn’t they know Annie had taste? Didn’t they know Annie at all? She would never settle for such cheap crap. Her daughter only wanted—only deserved—organic. Original. Authentic material.
That’s the whole point, Cat thought, gazing up at the oversized self-portrait she and Annie had taken in the summer, before she’d started treatments. Annie had wanted to go to Paris, visit the galleries there, wear a beret. The Make-A-Wish foundation wouldn’t fund her trip, her case didn’t qualify, but old Bry said he’d lend them his RV if they wanted. They could head out west for a week or two, see the Paris of the prairies.
Cat had politely declined.
Any offerings her girl got, any hand-me-downs, had to be the best. That was the whole point.
And surely, by now, Cat thought, as the doorbell rang, and more and more well-wishers filed in, surely everyone had to know that.
Tonight they were all being so nice to Cat, to her face. Her mother-in-law, clucking over the great grand-kids, refrained—for once—from disguising criticisms as niceties. How on earth do you keep up with an eight-year-old? I had three grandchildren at your age, dear… Wattle under the old woman’s arms jiggled as she raised a red tumbler of sherry, her I-told-you-so lips pressed in an upturned line. Cat’s colleagues from the firm topped up her glass, spoke in overly loud voices as they talked about nothing important, avoiding all mention of work. Yoga-fit moms smooched the air beside Cat’s ears, then wrapped their seamless arms around her, telling her how good she looked. But as soon as she stepped away to nibble some baked olives, the whispers started.
I hate to be the one to say it, but…
It’s her own fault…
The law’s the law…
She had plenty of warning…
We all have.
It’s her own fault…
How old was she then?
Forty? Forty-two? What was she thinking?
Irresponsible, that’s what that is…
Yep, the law’s the law…
With a toothpick, Cat speared one perfect green oval after another. She sheared the salty flesh off with her teeth, sucked the stones clean.
They’ve always been so close…
She’s grown so attached…
Annie’s a tough little thing; she’ll cope.
Of course she will. But at what cost?
Cat pinged the pits into an empty ramekin someone had scrounged from a cupboard and put on the table. Picking up a pewter knife, she served herself wedge after wedge of triple-cream brie, forgoing the flavourless crackers. Yes, having Annie had been a risk, she thought, moving on to cubes of marbled Colby. Yes, she had paid a lot—physically, financially—for her daughter. She stuffed her mouth so full she could hardly chew. Yes, she’d had a half-decent career first—but with medicine what it was nowadays, with professional advice, with technology, she knew, she thought, she’d be fine. No matter what, the baby would be fine.
Cat had signed all the necessary documents. Her declarations had been notarised, legalised, filed for posterity. The birth had been approved, the aftermath set out in plain English, bullet–pointed, and sanctioned. She was in for the long haul.
The child would be fine. No matter what.
‘Attempting the “death by cheddar” manoeuvre, are we?’ A steady, broad hand pressed against the small of Cat’s back; another quickly came around in front of her. Palm up, the firm’s fitness guru held out a napkin. With a sigh, Cat leaned over and spat a pile of pale orange mash into the silk cloth, which immediately disappeared into a sports jacket pocket. ‘Have some water—and put this down.’ The champagne glass vanished from Cat’s grip, replaced by a thin plastic cup. Light-headed, she drank while he watched. ‘Think of Annie, Cat. In the morning, I want you to run that shit out of your system. Five Ks, minimum. We need you in top form for Friday. Got it?’
Think of Annie.
Think of Annie.
As if she’d ever done anything but.
The trainer was a head taller than Cat, double-dimpled but imposing, and sculpted with all the confidence and stupidity of popular twenty-one-year-old boys. Twenty-one-year-old men, she supposed she should say, waving him off before grabbing another full flute of bubbly. Twenty-one-year-old fathers of two.
She and Mark hadn’t even met at that age—and when they had, five years or so down the track, and when they’d married, her new husband had been philosophical about kids. Unrealistic.
‘We have time,’ he’d said at first, and when she’d brought home pamphlets from the doctor’s, when she’d outlined their dwindling options, he’d simply said, ‘Later.’
That’s just how it was with him, Cat thought. Later and later and later.
Mostly, she was okay with that.
Mostly, she was afraid of regret.
‘I don’t want to lose you,’ Mark had said, when it was later, when it might already have been too late.
Just try, she’d said, winking. Straddling. Getting him good and ready.
‘I love us,’ he’d said, closing his eyes, moaning. ‘I love our life just as it is.’
So do I, Cat had said, honestly—but they were already going now, they’d already started. Further discussion was useless. No words would stop them, not clomifene citrate, metformin or bromocriptine, not fertility banking, not intrauterine insemination, not IVF or ICSI, not thalidomide. It didn’t matter how this child was made, Cat had thought. It would be made of all the best pieces of them.
‘What if it’s sick?’ Mark had asked, a year after they’d started trying. ‘What if it’s… incomplete?’
It’ll have us, Cat had said, pumped full of hormones and bluster. We’ll be a team.
‘But I don’t want to lose you,’ he’d said. ‘I don’t want to lose—’
Cat had pressed her fingers to his lips. You won’t.
Fifty, maybe sixty people milled in the house, most congregating around the food. In less than an hour, the noise level had risen to overwhelming levels; waves of voices swelled and crashed, words garbled and frothing. The acoustics in this room have always been bad, Cat thought. The high ceilings and hardwood floors amplified even the smallest sounds, the lowest murmurs, sending them roaring back.
Like when the team of surgeons, neurologists, intensivists, and anaesthesiologists came to see her and Mark last week—a new service, these house calls, designed to make patients and their families more comfortable, more accepting, while accepting life-changing decisions. The doctors didn’t carry black leather bags, they didn’t wear white coats or those little mirrored circles on their foreheads, but they were vintage. The real deal. And the concept of an at-home meeting was retro enough for Annie to encourage it, even though it meant she couldn’t be there. Half a dozen experts sat on the white leather chesterfield and cowhide club chairs while Mark and Cat had perched on the rustic school bench they’d dragged in from the kitchen. Every word, every medical term, every procedure, echoed in the open plan living room, thunking into their hearts like a butcher’s knife through sides of beef.
Bone and skin grafting.
Ventilation, resuscitation, recovery.
Graphs and slides on extra-large tablets had showed where the cuts would be made, where muscle and arteries would be removed then fused, where lungs and liver and kidneys would be resettled—everything, they’d said, but the brain would be replaced. They didn’t want to change her personality, after all.
‘We’re good,’ chuckled the intensivist, ‘but not that good.’
The surgeon’s fingernails clicked on the screen, so very loud in their hollow room. Eight to twelve hours, he’d said, all told, depending on complications. ‘Success rates in inheritance cases like this one are 98.9%. Blood types are a match, the genetics are sound… And our plastic surgeon is an artist. Her stitches are virtually invisible—’
‘And her lasers are a marvel,’ added the anaesthetist.
The surgeon nodded earnestly, ‘State of the art.’
‘Will it hurt much,’ Mark had asked quietly. ‘For either of them?’
The doctor’s tone was a well-practised version of caring. ‘We aim to minimise the trauma for all parties. Rest assured, Catriona, you won’t feel a thing.’
Cat’s snort had resounded. The law is the law is the law…
‘I appreciate that,’ she’d said at last, glance falling on the basket of teddy bears Mark’s mother had brought over for Annie. Despite her pretensions, the girl loved those soft toys, their limbs stuffed and weighted with beans, heavy enough to hug her even though she couldn’t yet hug them back. ‘I’m sure Annie will, too.’
While Mark had continued to ask question after question, Cat had looked around the room, gaze flitting from the polished wall sconces to the restored gramophone to the wooden dressmaker’s dummy she’d inherited from her own mother. Who will keep track of her favourite things? Who will tell Annie what was valuable, and what wasn’t? She glimpsed the ugly tartan ottoman she’d never liked, but which stayed in the collection because Mark adored it. Will this hideous thing become Annie’s most precious heirloom? Why not the sleek brass Brancusi sculpture? The one Cat had stroked a million times, recalling how her Grannie had forever encouraged her to touch priceless art.
Cat’s pulse had slowed, then her palms had cooled at the thought of caressing that cold, hard brass. Muscle memory, the doctors had called it—but would her hands always remember?
Silhouetted against the front room’s picture window, Mark clinked a teaspoon against his wine glass to get everyone’s attention.
This is a wake not a wedding, Cat seethed, clearing a space to sit on the edge of their heavy oak coffee table. Loafers squeaking, Mark climbed onto a chair nearby, teetering like a clumsy old man, so awkward in his pressed corduroys and snug vest. Conversations cut short, the guests formed a ragged horseshoe around them as Cat’s husband fished for his speech.
‘Thank you all, so much, for coming,’ he said, hands shaking as they unfolded a wrinkled piece of paper. ‘I just wanted to say a few words, while we’re all here—’ voice wavering up an octave, he cleared his throat, swallowed hard, ‘—to celebrate my beautiful girl’s life. My darling Cat…’ After the applause died away, Mark lifted his notes, obscuring half his face behind the sheet. He peered at her over the top edge while he spoke, eyes flicking up and down, as if he’d suddenly grown too shy to meet her gaze.
That’s just how it was in the delivery room, Cat thought, swaying from the booze, sighing.
Swaddled in scrubs, sitting on a metal stool next to the operating table, stroking the shower cap covering her hair, Mark had been there, he’d been right by her side—but he’d been masked. His attention had belonged to the doctors. Moments after Cat had undergone an emergency c-section, the nurse had whisked Annie away to intensive care. Lower half hidden behind a low curtain, Cat hadn’t seen the baby’s birth. There’d been a tugging across her midsection, some discomfort. Liquid spattering. Sweat beading along the obstetrician’s brow. ‘The child needs extra attention,’ he’d said sadly, gaze obscured by spotlight reflections in his glasses, mouth indecipherable behind a blue paper mask. The child needs extra attention.
That was it.
Is it healthy, she’d asked, unable to sit up, craning her neck, searching, reaching for her husband. Is it a boy or a girl?
Mark’s posture had been stiff, his hand in hers cold, his expression tight as held breath.
She—, the doctor had begun, pausing as Mark exhaled, eyes closed, slumping in relief.
Of course he’d wanted a girl, Cat thought now, drinking deep as Mark talked about the years they’d spent together, before, those wonderful, unforgettable times…
She is here now, the doctor had continued. For better or worse, she’s here. Let’s all do our best to keep it that way.
…and as he yammered about how much they both loved Annie, how she’d changed them in ways he could barely articulate, changed their lives forever…
Adjustments will have to be made, the doctor had said, if she survives. We’ll have to make the call, send our reports. You’ll need counselling, physiotherapy—you’ll need proper training. Are you prepared for that, Catriona? Do you understand what that means?
Yes, Cat had said, though her tongue had felt numb, though pins and needles had tingled up her spread legs and sweaty arms, leaching all feeling from her extremities. Yes, she’d thought, I’ve seen all the paperwork. I’ve signed all the consent forms. And if it had been a boy… She’d frowned up at Mark, who still wasn’t looking at her, couldn’t look at her. Ink on his fingers would soon be scrubbed clean, not indelible like hers. Yes, she’d thought, the girl is my responsibility. She is mine.
I’ll be ready, she’d said firmly. Whenever she needs me.
‘What’s it like?’ Annie had asked. The nurses had propped her up with new pillows and the fluffy quilt Cat had brought in from home. A muted glow from the overhead light washed over her features, made them look even more yellow. She’d been watching some Sunday afternoon documentary with old, grainy footage. Our Nation’s Great Humanitarians or something like that. Snapshot interviews with Rick Hansen, Steve Fonyo, Terry Fox.
Cat had been nestled in beside her, laying fabric swatches out across the blankets. ‘What’s what like, hon?’
Annie had wiggled her little twisted toes, brushing them against Cat’s leg.
‘Running’, she said, foot brushing, brushing. ‘Pushing yourself as far as you can.’
Cat’s hands had dropped to her lap, a square of sage terrycloth limp in her grip. Annie had been even tinier, once. Until her first birthday, she could wear this hand towel folded around her, with room to spare. And now, suddenly, she’d be nine next month—nine and big enough to fit into her mom’s t-shirts, with hips only just too slight for her jeans. Cat placed the cloth on her thigh, smoothing it out, while she gathered her thoughts.
It’s the wind whistling in your ears, she could’ve replied. It’s hot cheeks and salt on your lips. It’s the pounding of feet and blood and muscles, and legs driving forward, harder and harder, and your heart throbbing, urging you not to stop. It’s tough, and tiring, and exhilarating. It’s living at full speed.
But instead she’d reached over, squeezed the wizened stub of Annie’s foot and said, ‘You’ll see.’
Long after Mark’s speech had descended into blubbering, long after the guests had been invited to partake in the ceremonial toothpicking—giving Cat gentle pokes with sharp skewer ends, not too deep, just so that she could feel the prickles all over her body, stimulating the nerves, tracing the places the scalpel would cut, reminding her what pain and life and every piece of her flesh felt like—long after they’d returned home, laden with leftovers stacked artfully on their cut-rate dishes, long after Cat and Mark had lazed in bed for hours, weeping and making love, saying farewell, long after she’d run not five but ten detoxifying kilometres before taking a cab to the hospital, Cat was shivering on the pre-op table, naked as her first day.
The pale burial dress was pressed flat beneath her; Annie’s favourite vintage pillowcase, which would be just about the right size when Cat was done.
‘We’ll start with the vital organs first,’ the transplant surgeon had said, over biscuits and plunger coffee, that day in their living room. Mark had asked him to run through the procedure twice, making sure he’d understood, making sure scarring—mental, physical—would be minimal. For Annie’s sake. For his.
Now the doctor repeated the sequence, the breakdown, the order of operations. ‘Lungs, liver, kidneys, heart. Further incisions here,’ he traced a finger along Cat’s hip joints, then moved onto the shoulder sockets, ‘and here.’
She blinked slowly, breathed deep. The law is the law is the law… ‘I’m ready,’ she said, inhaling the sharp scent of steriliser. Clean rubber. A whiff of formaldehyde. In the best interests of the child…
Beside her, machines and displays blipped steadily. Ice-filled pans and limb-troughs were strapped to wheeled carts, all set to be filled and rolled into the next OR, where Annie waited. Across Cat’s forehead and chin, around wrists, elbows, knees and ankles, leather straps held her in place. The honest, natural cow smell of the strips relaxed her. The ministry of health and welfare had spared no expense. As always, she thought, they’d chosen organic.
‘Just to be clear,’ the doctor explained, despite all the waivers she had signed, all the red tape, ‘this isn’t a punishment, Catriona.’
‘I know,’ she said as masks crinkled over faces, gloved hands picked up scalpels and suction tubes, serious eyes fixed on the roadmap of pen marks drawn all over her body. Dotted lines bisecting her torso, running up between her breasts, around her waist. Thick and black at the clefts, at the base of her neck.
‘I know,’ she said again, slurring slightly as the anaesthetic kicked in. I’ve had eight years to prepare for this, she thought she said. I’ve had long enough. As a nurse taped her lids shut, Cat pictured Annie healed and healthy. That pretty face smiling, no shadows beneath her eyes, no lingering sadness. She saw the girl she’d created, made strong, made smooth, made whole. The heart monitor raced, uphill and down. And in her mind’s eye, Cat watched her little girl running.