1. Natalie and Andrew Temple lived in a beige townhouse in the southwest corner of Green Estates, with a deep ravine snaking along the perimeter behind their property.
2. Though the Temples were atheists, the community around them was extremely religious, with the kind of piety that took place in drab stucco buildings—where networking was deliberately encouraged.
3. Natalie invested more energy than she should in housework, and as a result of excessive cleaning spent much less time maintaining friendships than she did even dusting. Though no one measured such things, there were exact ratios. She had a very clean house and few visitors.
4. One morning while Andrew was putting a measure of cream into his coffee, he mentioned to Natalie that he thought, despite the religion, the restrained religiousness of the community fit his vision of how a group should be organized; their neighbours waved and smiled, and everything was well-maintained.
5. The kitchen of their home had been renovated as an anniversary present to Natalie; much space had been added. When they’d first moved in the ground level had been separated by a dividing wall. Now, the living room and kitchen made up one expanse centred around a permanent table, shaped like a blocky horseshoe.
6. When Natalie came in after shopping she could walk in a direct line from the foyer to the island and disburden herself. From there it was two steps to the cupboard, two more to the pantry, and one step back to her ridiculously expensive refrigerator.
7. Of course, all the appliances had been upgraded during the renovation, but the Ur-Frost 2200 was the costliest piece, the most expensive non-industrial refrigerator available on the market. It featured an ice-maker, computerized climate control, a digital shopping list option, and even an electronic voice feature that could accept spoken orders. The voice setting was very difficult to program, however, and both Andrew and Natalie gave up trying a few weeks after delivery.
8. Andrew commuted 6 hours back and forth to work. His company paid for the gas because of the extreme distance. He considered dinner a secular sacrament and made it a point to spend the evening meal with Natalie. This cut into his sleep slightly, considering that he regularly worked 10-hour days. Thus dinner had to be efficient, over in no more than half an hour—preferably in 15 minutes, but 20 was acceptable. They would chat about their day, one talking while the other chewed. Both knew the other’s chewing rhythms well.
9. On the weekends Andrew slept late to catch up on the rest he’d been deprived of during the week. Then they would go out for dinner at one of the local suburban chain restaurants, often Steak’s, where they would order the buffet. Afterward they would often go watch a movie at the Megaplex Theatre. They alternated as to who would pick the film from week to week. Natalie enjoyed comedies; Andrew liked amazing adventure stories.
On the second evening of Andrew’s weekend he would attend the meetings of his local Freemason chapter, from which place he regularly disbursed charity to the community. His funds had been part of a greater collection of capital that had paid for not only a hospital, but also a local swimming pool. They had donated the money anonymously, following the dictates of their chief, who believed it was better to give and not be known.
10. The supper table was located directly beside the kitchen island. Andrew thought it inappropriate that they should perch on stools when they had a perfectly good oak dining table, with enviable chairs upholstered in a royal blue.
The dinner table was placed in such a way that one could walk directly, in a straight line, from the oven to the table; this was added in case Natalie, who lifted cumbersome roasts, required speed to avoid burning herself. It was a small ritual of Natalie’s to cook Andrew’s pork steak in a cast-iron skillet, lift it carefully with a plastic spatula, and place it on the white ceramic plate with the blue trim (along with a sprig of parsley) in exactly the same way each evening. Natalie would walk down the corridor beside the island like a soap bubble imitating Christ, and set down the plate.
Natalie’s practice in these actions was easy to achieve, considering that Andrew ate exclusively pork steaks. It was a decision he had reached in common with his fraters at the Masonic hall. Their grand leader had discovered some quality in pork steaks that, if consumed along with the correct purgations and days of fasting, could help the user realize his innermost dreams.
11. One night Natalie mistakenly prepared a steak for Andrew when he was to fast. There it sat, barely perceptible curls of steam still escaping as Andrew walked in the door. Staring at the table from the foyer, a look of disgust crossed his face. Natalie could not help but notice this grimace and they both were irritable that night. Neither spoke of it openly, but there was a feeling that somehow their comforting daily gastromancy had been compromised, polluted. Andrew went to bed after a terse 11 minutes.
12. Natalie wrapped the pork steak in plastic and put it in the back corner of the refrigerator after Andrew went up to bed. Melancholy tugged at the hem of her dress as she looked in at the suffocated fragment. It seemed to her that the steak was sad. She took the box of baking soda sitting in the opposite corner and turned it around, so that a cartoon of a strong, clean-looking man eating a bacterium faced the meat. Satisfied, she closed the door of the Ur-Frost and joined her husband in bed.
13. Of course, Andrew did not eat the leftover steak, and Natalie never offered it to him. The meat was poisoned with the unpleasantness of that night and was better forgotten. And yet Natalie could not bring herself to throw it away. It sat in the back left-hand corner of the refrigerator, aging.
14. For several mornings after the steak incident, Andrew was unusually cold toward Natalie. And then, the Monday following Andrew’s weekend off, Natalie was surprised by a visitor who disrupted her morning cleaning. The visitor was none other than Frater Moondius, the Worshipful Master of the local Freemason chapter. He was an imposing man, with leathery skin and jowls, who had become immortal, the fruit of his extreme and vigorous experimentation with innumerable methods of fasting. He arrived in his ceremonial garb, adorned with the square and compass, writ with essential moral precepts, complete with a large, slightly silly-looking religious head-piece.
They sat at the dining table on the other side of the island. Frater Moondius appeared mildly uncomfortable.
“Natalie,” he said, “I want you to know that Andrew is unaware that I have come here today. And I want to say what I have to say first, with the understanding that you will not mention to Andrew that I was here. I trust you understand.”
“I am a straightforward man and so I will just say what I have to say. You tempted Andrew with your steak.” The frater paused, allowing this to sink in. “It is very important for everyone, even yourself, to make a contribution to Andrew’s work, to support the members through the difficult travails of ecstatic fasting. I know that for you this was a simple domestic slippage, but Andrew confided to me last night that the temptation of the steak brought into his heart a kind of…well…a kind of unction…but in the negative sense. Anyway, I did not come here to lecture you, I just want to urge vigilance in the future, for the sake of Andrew’s success in the work. It is important to him, to us all, but I know now, after this conversation, most of all to yourself. A steak is so… Well, anyway, I thank you very kindly for the tea, I should probably be on my way.”
15. Natalie knew a few tricks for preserving meat. After a layer of slime began to develop, she removed the unctuous plastic wrap, threw it away, and put the steak in a wide, spacious piece of Tupperware. Submerging it in soy sauce, she sealed the steak in the plastic container and replaced it in the refrigerator. She pushed the box of baking soda right up beside the Tupperware in the hope that the steak could see through the foggy plastic of the container. Of course this is ridiculous, soy sauce being opaque.
16. At least a year went by, though time passed oddly and it seemed to resist measurement. It was a remarkably long time before Natalie opened the box to look at the steak again. Everything else in her life had returned to normal, save that she now was obliged to fortify the steak with a wall of no less than 8 baking soda boxes. They all faced inward, so that the cartoons were displayed to the concealed meat, but there was a basic pragmatism in their use that went beyond entertainment: the boxes throttled telling smells and maintained the line between the meat and her husband.
17. Natalie broke the seal of the Tupperware. The steak appeared to have undergone bizarre and primordial mutations in her absence. A fungal sheet, translucent white with solid flecks of dark green, had spawned across the surface, and around it a moat of viscous brown that looked as if it had formed and then dried into a crust on the bottom of the container.
It occurred to Natalie that this was an improperly achieved rot for a pork steak. For one thing a well-cooked piece of pork produced almost no liquid, certainly not enough to coat the bottom of a Tupperware container. Then she remembered the soy sauce. But the mould or fungus that had grown all over the steak was of a variety she had never seen in all her time observing the breakdown of food. What gave her the most pause, however, was what appeared to be a small plate of chitin or metal about one inch square that looked as if it was growing in roughly the centre of the plot of meat.
18. Daily the metal or chitin spread, dull and mathematical, no irregularities, always maintaining an equal ratio of length on every side. It slid its perfect 90-degree angles out in each cardinal direction, growing from one inch square, to two, to three, slowly colonizing the surface of the pork steak.
It did not look organic. There were none of the seams or scalloping that would have formed on a seashell, and there was nothing skeletal suggested, as in insect carapace. The growth resembled something more like a functional industrial tab, a piece intended to support the formation of yet other pieces. The surface of the dull metal glittered with crystalline points reflected from the fridge bulb, perhaps from displaced filaments of mould.
On the third day Natalie tentatively reached out and clicked its surface with her fingernail.
19. Bolder now, on the fourth day she pressed the pad of her index finger down onto the small square plate. Its texture was alien yet enticing. Though the square looked like some kind of discard from a factory, it was warm and felt alive. It was warm despite the cold of the Ur-Frost. She didn’t want to touch it anymore, for fear of hurting it.
20. During this time, kept awake by guilt, Natalie began watching Andrew as he slept. Her tenderness swelled larger than the room’s walls on these evenings. She slid her warm hand (which she imagined to be as soft as the interior of an apple, though this was not actually the case) onto the sleeve or leg of his button-up pajamas. She felt his body still hard despite the corporate saggings of desk work.
In addition to turning into a breathing organ of sensitivity, she also felt bitterly maternal and somehow mournful that she was being selfish in hoping Andrew would wake up.
21. The square continued to grow until the grey chitin-metal covered almost the entire surface, and at the top, near where the crescent of fat would have been found, there began to sprout a protuberance like a slimy bump or vestigial metal nipple, the first deformation of the perfect surface. All Natalie could see were the edges poking out underneath, and even these were covered in the malignant white mould, which made it look like the metal was resting on a patch of powder snow.
The first time Natalie saw the protuberance it was the size of a pearl button, then a nub about two inches high and about an inch and a half in diameter. It shifted upward daily, enlarging, engorged with mould and the refrigerator’s breath, gaining half an inch each time Natalie checked, and growing even more quickly toward the end.
22. A small metal tower began to reveal itself in the upward shifting of the square. As it rose, daily, the crown of the tower likewise bloomed, and a kind of belfry developed there, first appearing like an elongated finger joint, and then gradually yawning to reveal a hole in the centre. This hollow shape, at last, straightened until a sharp roof projected off the top with a needlepoint tip. Eventually Natalie was faced with the trouble of keeping the Tupperware lid on as the tower began to push against its underside. The top-most point of the tower was the last to form and, at that moment, punctured the plastic.
23. It disturbed Natalie because she could hear a buzzing sound coming from her usually silent Ur-Frost. It started shortly after Andrew left for work. The sound increased in volume as the plastic insulation of the door unstuck, and now, what had become a thrumming emerged from the plastic container. The lid was vibrating, and with the tower’s tip poking through, it looked like an agitated cymbal.
24. Peeling the lid off in the silence of the house, Natalie found herself met with an elegant chanting that was released the moment the vacuum seal gave way. The singing came from a small figure standing on the uppermost balcony, one that had, apparently, grown as an extension of the belfry. Though its song sounded human, and extraordinarily beautiful, what greeted Natalie from the tower’s highest balcony was a gross and garishly clothed malformation.
The creature looked like a translucent green amoeba, with darker flecks of green or black suspended within its jelly-like body. Two flagella rose off the thing’s shoulders and appeared, from Natalie’s perspective, to be tiny bleached rat-tails. These arms were grotesquely long and the creature twitched them as it sang. After observing it for a moment, she decided that the being resembled a more horrifying version of the cartoon bacterium with which she had tried to entertain the decaying steak. In contrast to the cartoon’s nudity, the creature appeared to be wearing some kind of robe.
Its voice, however, was so soothing that Natalie overlooked its unnerving appearance. She was paralyzed by the creature’s music, unable to imagine anything more pendulous with meaning. The singing seemed to fill in all her imperceptible personal fissures with a glorious epoxy that she’d felt, all this time, waiting to form beneath her skin. She remained standing there in the chill breath of the Ur-Frost until the song was finished and the amoeba-priest retired into its tower.
25. Natalie came to depend on the little songs, which blossomed daily into the buzzing humming and finally (with the Tupperware seal relenting) into something as beautiful as an idea of God or a naive watercolour painting.
26. The bacterium always began chanting at 6:05, 5 minutes after Andrew habitually left for work, and performed for about 30 minutes. One morning, Andrew rushed out late, at 6:05. The singing began at 6:10.
27. Starting her morning now gave Natalie a dimly shaded, pleasant feeling that she carried around in the bottom of her stomach all day long. Hidden music. Andrew began to comment at dinner that Natalie seemed unfocused. She was exceptionally careful not to upset any more of his Masonic rites, largely out of an irrational fear that he might look in the refrigerator and discover her tower.
28. The tower’s production of what looked like a tight-fitting plastic bag of blue meat took place over the following weeks and months.
First, long thin fibres began to extend from the belfry’s openings, stark white and incredibly thin, half the diameter of a piece of spaghetti. In the early stages of growth they all hung limp, but on hitting the surface of the plate they seemed to grow in a deliberate fashion, snaking to various preordained positions on the wide, flat plane of metal.
During this time the bacterium continued to sing, gingerly stepping over the stringy fibre that came from its window with an undefined pseudopodia.
The obscene-looking strands converged just in front of the tower. Hanging loose, in elegant inverted parabolas, capturing the fridge-light, they resembled dental floss or cartilage.
At the point where they joined, a sickly blue clot of flesh began to bud. The bud, which swelled over several days, eventually grew to the size of an overstuffed Ziplock bag. The sac appeared to be full of what looked like oxygen-starved meat, light and fleshy, shot through with dark veins and black patches that could have been horn or bone.
Natalie was disgusted by this new growth, and its arrival seemed to have ruined the bacterium’s songs for her. She couldn’t help feeling that the priest’s attentions were now divided, that while the embryonic growth fattened she lost the bacterium’s affection in equal measure.
29. She became more conciliatory toward Andrew. She cooked his steaks with particular care (in recent months the steaks had often arrived to the table undercooked, leading him to complain of trichinosis).
30. Although she hated the bulging thing hidden in the Ur-Frost, a spiteful and yet equally compelling inversion of her original obsession began to unfurl inside Natalie.
31. She had an irresistible compulsion to know what was being delivered to her by the tower.
32. Despite her revulsion, the division of the fridge-sac’s cells produced a seeming infinity of imaginative possibilities for Natalie, who envisioned births ranging from that of a small ram to some kind of shiny, rotting eggplant.
One day she became convinced that it was a large fresh-smelling potato (with a hint of eggshell in the bouquet).
33. Natalie dreamt. The tower grew a clone of her husband. She and the clone fled the beige house, taking refuge in a mid-range hotel for the time being, living on whatever funds Natalie was able to scavenge. The clone spent much of its time eating cereal late at night and watching pay-per-view movies. Eventually he was able to find himself a fake identification—stolen from a bank trash bin—and a job; they moved into a reasonably priced suburban home.
34. The very next morning, on waking and opening the refrigerator, she unmistakably saw a portion of Andrew’s face looking out, pressed against the mucous membrane. Being quite uncharitable to herself, she dismissed the experience as an attack of nerves of some kind, a hallucination brought on by her womb.
35. The following morning she was certain she saw the surprisingly ugly vulnerability of a baby.
36. On the third morning she was not entirely sure she saw anything, just the possibility of something else. A vague, minor, rippling cellular quick that may or may not have been anything more than the wearying stages of chrysalis.
37. That very evening the pod produced an additional bud, a choice-looking pork steak, unexpectedly and with frightening speed.
38. Natalie removed the steak with a paring knife, an act that punctured and deflated the sac or bladder or whatever it was.
39. She cooked it, and felt extremely odd when the meat changed colour, the protein shifting from red to whitish brown.
Andrew’s car pulled into the driveway and shortly thereafter he walked into the kitchen with a book under his arm. They greeted one another with lilts and he crossed the kitchen to put his arms around her, which was awkward what with the book under his arm.
“Oh you’re only cooking one steak?”
Natalie was surprised; Andrew didn’t notice those sorts of details.
“I’ll cook one for myself in a minute.”
“No, I told you. My fraters are coming tonight.” Andrew took the book out from under his arm and held it in his right hand. “I told you a week ago.”
“Oh God, I’m sorry, sweetie. Let me pull some more steaks out.”
There was so little time, but she finished the preparations just as the congregation arrived.
40. They sat in the royal blue chairs, and debated a kind of theology and poker strategy—mostly poker—but one enlightened fellow (the most enlightened at the table considering Moondius was not present) said, “…for some have entertained angels unawares.”
Which was the end of a Masonic maxim. He could not remember the beginning, but did remember that it was located near to the first authentic pictures of the temple of Solomon in the official edition of the Masonic Bible. Then, suddenly, a ferocious rattling, as if chain link were being kicked repeatedly, was heard far, far away. This started a dog baying and the gravy boat was accidentally overturned, which may or may not have had to do with the level of anxiety in the room. The conversation again turned to poker and everyone stopped trying to determine the maxim’s beginning.
Story copyright © 2016 by Y.X. Acs
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Gregory St. John
Y.X. Acs is a pseudonym, and thus implies the author’s desire for hidey-ness. It is also a deliberately irritating math pun. Y.X. Acs is also a person who works and writes in Ottawa, Canada. They have another story in Sci Phi Journal, and you can find their translation of a fictional Marxist wizard’s grimoire in Free Paper by Paper Pusher Press.
Gregory St. John is an artist and fiction writer living in Gainesville, Florida. If he is not painting or sculpting, tending to his gardens and chickens, studying history and science, reading while walking his four dogs, cooking, or building something, he is hard at work at the family perfume business, Solstice Scents. He is currently drafting his first novel and editing a collection of his short stories titled The Short and Curlies, featuring “The Presence of Hell,” “Servant of Stone,” “A Helping Hand,” and “The Dare.”