This is part two in a multi-part story. It is recommended that you read the previous entry At the Library first.
“Hey! Hey wait!”
Aidan Brown, half-human, half-lobster, continued walking - or whatever crippled approximation of walking he was left with - and did not turn around.
“Wait!” A young woman's voice, tired, worn out, urgent. He continued on; nobody would or could be talking to him.
But then, with his one good eye, he noticed the woman at his side, easily matching his pace. He stopped.
“It was you… screaming earlier,” he slurred, the words reluctant to leave the mush of his mouth. “Outside the library. You saw me? You can see me now?”
“Yes,” she said. “But no one else can?”
“No one else can,” he said. His good eye scanned her briefly. Very good looking. Tall, slim, elegant. Then he looked down and saw the ruin of her arms. The ugly thalidomide-born stumps, the two things that might be fingers where they terminated. She saw that he saw, and she flushed.
He was about to ask why she could see him, especially as no one else could, when a child - a daughter maybe - appeared from nowhere and pressed up against the woman.
“What time is it?” she asked.
The woman raised and turned her arm and looked down, as if to check a watch, then stopped herself. “I forget sometimes,” she apologised.
Aidan Brown took three long wheezing breaths and steadied himself on his walking sticks. “You forget you've never had hands?” His lung palpitated in its half-corrupted housing; the platelets around his jaw moved and fidgeted with every painful intake or expellation of air. “Sorry,” he offered. “That was harsh. So… how long have you had your birth defects?”
The woman weighed up the risks of confiding in this strange, consumed creature; wondered how much she would be endangering her daughter, and how much she would be protecting her. She remembered the words at the library. Next time, you'll walk. That would be ten miles. She couldn't go on like this.
“Not here,” she said. “Can we go somewhere, get something to eat?”
Aidan studied her for a few moments and shook his head. “I don't really fit anywhere. People trip over my tail, drag their chairs over my legs… There's a park maybe two blocks away. Usually quiet. Your daughter - daughter? - can play there whilst we reminisce about the good old days.”
“Good old days?”
“Yeah, when you didn't have thalidomide and I didn't - wasn't… this.”
The woman smiled nervously and looked back at the library in the distance. Whatever this monster was, they shared a common history. “Okay,” she said. “Let's go.”
° ° °
“I woke up like this five weeks ago,” the woman said. She sat on a park bench in the shade offered by a maple tree, watching her daughter play on the swings. Aidan Brown stood near her, lopsided, awkward, mopping his face with a handkerchief. He shifted his weight on his walking sticks and shooed his persistent fan club flies away.
“You have proof you had hands before?” He asked. “Sorry for asking - I just - “
“In my clutch bag. Big pocket on the inside.”
Aidan Brown hesitated, then with his good hand he rummaged inside the woman’s bag. “Don't mess it up,” she warned.
“Think I got it,” he said. He pulled out a photograph, much worn, much looked at, of a goddess in a pastel pink bridesmaid's dress, holding her daughter smiling in her arms. Such lissom arms; such elegant hands and long, slender fingers. And a watch that, even today, she had forgotten she no longer wore. Aidan searched for something to say - a platitude, a consolation, a gesture of solidarity, maybe, but nothing was adequate - how could it be? In the end he slipped the photo back into the bag. “I'm sorry,” he said.
“It was him,” the woman said. And then, in hushed tones, as if she didn't want even her own breath to hear, “Harold Maine. He did this.” She closed her eyes. Sounds of children playing, bees or wasps or flies buzzing lazily, automobiles on the highway. And New Best Friend Aidan Brown wheezing and gasping as he stood above her, resting on his walking sticks.
“Yeah,” he said at last. “I figured as much, the sonofabitch. Knew it soon as you screamed. Nobody else sees me, notices me, it's like I don't exist. So you scream, and I wonder how come… I'm glad you waited for me outside.”
“I wasn't going to,” the woman said. “I was waiting for…” She trailed off and looked back at her daughter. “Angela! Come away from there! Stay with the small kids.” And back to the matter at hand: “I'm not a brave woman,” she continued. “I'm not resourceful, or quick, or smart. I live - lived - on my looks. I'm afraid for myself and for my daughter. I couldn't see any way out.”
“So you weren't for waiting for me after all?”
“No,” she confessed. “I was waiting for a truck. A big, big truck. I was going to throw myself and Angela under it.”
“Christ. Really? I'm sorry… What made you change your mind?”
The woman shook her head and laughed softly. “Angela. I couldn't pick her up.” She raised her stubby arms and the two deformed fingers on each stump. “I didn't change my mind. I just physically couldn't do it.”
There was silence between them for a few seconds, punctuated by the cries of the children on the swings and the flies buzzing around Aidan Brown’s head. “And then you saw me,” he said, “and you thought Halle-fucking-lulleiah, things ain't that bad after all.”
“I saw an innocent monster,” the woman said. “Something that couldn't exist. Horrific, nightmarish, agonised.”
“You sound like my ex-wife.”
“I recognised the work of Harold Maine. I knew he'd done that to you - whatever that is.”
“He was a regular at a home game I run,” Aidan said. “Poker. Always suspected him of not being quite right. Three weeks ago I see him set the deck. I confront him. He leaves. Phones me later, tells me I'm going to regret ever fucking with him. Tells me no one's going to listen to me again.” Aidan took a swig from a bottle of water and mopped his brow again. The mandibles and feeders around his mouth - or whatever they were - clicked and clacked momentarily.
“The next day, nobody else can see me or hear me. Colleagues, neighbours, people on the bus. I'm totally invisible to them. Like a ghost. The day after that, I wake up like this. Half lobster, or whatever the fuck this is. He rings me, says give him money and he'll make things better, don't and he'll make things much, much worse. No brainer. Been paying him what I can ever since.”
“Must be tricky if you're invisible.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I can't take any money out. Can't go to a pawnbroker. So I'm stuck with valuables - small items of jewellery, whatever cash I can get my hands - hand - on. I'm an honest man. I guess I could steal easy enough…”
“But I'm not that sort of person. I'm honest. I've never stolen. Now I'm going to have to.” He watched the woman's daughter playing on the swings. “Amazing bounce-backability, if that's a word,” he said. “Kids go through all sorts of shit, but they're like memory foam. Not like us.”
“No,” the woman agreed. “Not like us.”
Angela came running up. “It smells fishy here,” she complained. Aidan Brown rolled his good eye; the woman laughed. The girl ran off again.
“So what do we do about this?” The woman asked. “You know he'll never free us. You know he can fuck us up in ways even we can't imagine. I can't go on like this.”
Aidan Brown nodded. “How many d’you think he's collecting from? How many other poor fuckers out there waking up wrong every day? How? How does he do it?”
“I don't know,” the woman admitted. “Let's find out.” She stood up suddenly and called her daughter over.
“Where are you going?”
She looked at Aidan Brown and shrugged. “The library. Wherever Maine is, that's where you'll find the other ‘poor fuckers’ like us.”
“Christ,” Aidan wheezed. “We've only just left there,” he complained. “Took me half a fucking hour to get here, and now we're going back?”
“You don't have to come.”
“Well forgive me but…” He shooed the flies away and hesitated awkwardly. He raised his lobster claw, and touched her own malformed limb, softly and without malice, and she surprised herself when she did not flinch.
“…I thought you might like someone to hold your hand,” he wheezed. The different plates of his mouth moved outwards quickly, unlocking and blossoming open in what could have been some form of laughter.
“Fucker,” the woman said. “Absolute fucking fucker.”
“You know it,” Aidan said. “Come on; now we've founded the Harold Maine Fan Club, it's time to swell our numbers.”