“Black Thumb” by Michelle Ann King

There’s something moving by the garden fence. Mice, again? Or worse, a rat? Debra puts the washing basket down and almost calls out for Stuart, but then she remembers.

She edges closer. Curled around the cracked base of her abandoned flower pot is a huge slug, sleek and iridescent in the patchy afternoon sun. Once, she would have worried about how to get rid of it, but there’s no point now.

“I wouldn’t stop here,” she tells it. “You’ll go hungry.”

Because there’s nothing for it to feed on in her blighted garden. Not unless it eats gravel and dry, yellowing grass.

Once, she’d thought it would be different– she’d bought tools and pots and seeds, enticed by visions of bright flowers, plump tomatoes and aromatic herbs. But either the shoots withered as soon as they appeared, or the seeds never sprouted in the first place.

Black Thumb, Stuart used to call her. She would chase him around the garden and he’d laugh and cringe away, saying, “Don’t touch me, Black Thumb. I don’t want to die.”

They used to laugh a lot, she and Stuart. Once.

Your husband is a fool, the slug says.

Debra gives a little gasp and jumps backwards. She kicks the basket over, spilling the washing onto the ground. Ellie’s dress flops into a patch of mud and the pale blue material blooms with dark swirls.

Debra grabs for it, but she’s too late. It’s ruined, and Ellie will be furious with her. Again.

Your daughter is a parasite, the slug says.

Debra inches forward again, crouches down and rests her hands on her knees. She couldn’t say how she knows the words are coming from the slug–it’s not like it speaks out loud–but she does. Somehow, she does.

The slug is rounded in the middle and tapered at the ends, and at least a foot long. Every now and then a quivering pulse goes through it.

It’s looking at her. Right at her. She couldn’t say how she knows that, either, because it doesn’t have any wavy eye-stalks. But she does.

“Hello?” she says.

Hearing her own voice startles her all over again. She straightens up, and her knees pop with an explosive crack. Ridiculous. Stupid. What on Earth is she doing?

Wait, the slug says.

Debra ignores it, snatches up the washing basket and runs inside. She leaves the dress in the mud.

From the kitchen window, she watches a magpie land on the fence. It hops down and disappears behind the flower pot. It doesn’t come out again.

She calls Stuart and asks if he can come over.

“Why? What’s the matter?”

“It’s nothing. Not really. I just– in the garden, there’s–”

He sighs. It sounds very loud over the phone. “Debra, you’ve got to stop doing this. I can’t keep coming over every time there’s a tap dripping or a light bulb needs changing. You’re going to have to learn to start dealing with stuff on your own, you know?”

Yes. She knows. She apologises, puts the phone down and goes back to the kitchen window. There are no more birds on the fence.

Hello, the slug says.

Debra pulls the blind down and makes herself a cup of tea. As the light fades, she can hear the slug singing softly.

She sits, listening, until Ellie comes home. The lights go on, the fridge door opens, bottles clink.

“What are you doing still up?” Ellie says.

“I didn’t realise it was so late,” Debra says. “I must have dozed off. It’s the song, it’s so restful.”

“Song? What song?”

Debra glances at the kitchen window. The melody soars. “Don’t you hear it?”

“Hear what?” Ellie slams the fridge door shut again. “There’s nothing to eat in here, Mum, do you know that?”

Debra goes to the fridge herself. “Oh,” she says. “I meant to go shopping, but there was the washing, and then–”

“Whatever.” Ellie pulls Debra’s handbag off the back of the chair and roots inside it. “Forty quid? Is that all you’ve got?” She tucks the money into her jeans pocket and puts the purse back. “You’ll have to get some more out tomorrow, then. And get some bloody food, while you’re at it.”

Outside, the slug stops singing.

Food, it says.

Debra shivers.

“Mum? Did you hear what I said?”

“Yes. I’ll sort it out. I’m just a bit tired, now. I think I might take one of my pills.”
Ellie snaps her fingers. “Oh, yeah. You’ll need to get some more of those, too.”

Debra looks at the mug on the table in front of her. A greyish skin has formed on the surface of the cold tea.

“I don’t think I feel very well,” she says. “Could you get me some water, Ellie?”

There’s no reply, and when she looks up Ellie is gone.

She thinks about her bed, but it seems such a long way to go. She puts her head down on the kitchen table instead, and the slug resumes its song. Debra closes her eyes.

Her dreams are vibrant, but soothing. She wakes in the morning with a stiff and aching neck, but a clearer head.

She takes the shed key from the drawer and goes outside. The shed is old and battered, the roof timbers sagging. She’d meant to waterproof it, but never managed to find the time.
Inside it’s dark, and the air feels warm and stale. A large spider scuttles away from the light.

Debra steps inside cautiously, and moves paint tins and dusty garden chairs around until she finds what she’s looking for: the rabbit hutch they’d bought for Ellie when she was little.

The rabbits have been ghosts for years, but the hutch is still strong and sturdy.

She locks the shed again and puts the hutch on the floor in front of the slug. It slithers

inside and curls up. She can feel its approval.

Debra takes the hutch into her bedroom. She sits on the floor and watches the slug eat a black-shelled beetle that was hiding in the old newspapers.

“Sing to me?” she says, and it does. It sings to her of a different life, a brighter world. A better world.

I can help you, it says. We can help each other.

She sighs. “I’d like that.”

It moves slowly, in a graceful undulating motion, to the front of the hutch.

I know peace, it says. And joy. Do you know joy?

“No,” she whispers.

But you would like to?

“Yes.”

There must be change, it says. Growth. Sometimes this is painful, but it is always necessary. I am with you. We will change together. I will show you many things. It will be beautiful.

“Yes,” she says. “Oh, yes.”

She looks at the hutch. Why had she thought it would do? It’s very obviously too small. The slug is much bigger than a rabbit. It can’t be comfortable, confined in there.

She lifts the latch and opens the door.

***

As a child, Debra was never allowed to have a pet. Her father didn’t believe she would look after it properly. Good intentions don’t feed a dog, he said, as if that explained anything. He never had faith in her. Nobody did.

It’s not fair. She means to do all the things people want, it’s just that there’s so much to remember. She loses track, sometimes.

She asks Ellie to go to the supermarket for her. She gives her a shopping list and some money, but Ellie doesn’t come home. She calls Stuart, but he sounds so disappointed that she hangs up without asking him anything.

She rings Ellie’s mobile and leaves another message.

She will ignore you again, the slug says. It is what she always does. She will not help us.

“I’m sorry,” Debra says. “I didn’t mean to let you down.”

You haven’t, the slug says. I have faith in you.

Debra vows to try harder. To be worthy. She has to, because the slug is hungry, and she’s promised to look after it. It needs food, if it’s going to carry on growing. If it’s going to carry on teaching her. And Debra wants that, very much.

She sits on the floor and leans against the slug’s body. It takes her weight comfortably, buoying and warming her. Its skin has thinned lately, allowing her to see the play of light and colour underneath. It’s so beautiful.

“Teach me how to sing?” she says, and it does.

***

She wakes to slamming doors and blazing lights. Both send spikes of pain through her head.
She stumbles downstairs to the kitchen, shielding her eyes. “Ellie? Is that you?”

“This place is a tip, Mum,” Ellie says, looking into the sink. “It’s disgusting.” She opens the fridge, then whips her head away. “Gross. What the hell have you been doing?”

Debra smiles. “Learning to sing.”

“Right.” Ellie glances around the room and shakes her head. “You’ve lost it, you know that? You should get some help.”

“I have all the help I need, now.”

“If you say so. Look, I’ve got things to do so just give me some money and I’ll leave you to it. You want to live in a shithole, that’s up to you.”

Debra feels the slug stirring, upstairs.

The girl should not talk to you like that, it says.

“No.”

“No, what?”

The girl is a parasite. Unworthy.

Ellie looks around. “Did you hear something?”

“Yes.”

“It sounded like– I don’t know. Weird. Slithering. Have you got rats?”

We need food, the slug says.

Ellie walks slowly towards the stairs, her head tilted. “It sounds like it’s coming from up here.”

There’s a snatch of song. “You should go and have a look,” Debra says.

For once, Ellie does as she’s told.

***

It takes Debra a while to realise the phone is ringing. She’s finding it harder and harder to hear anything other than the song, now.

“Hello?” she says. Her tongue feels thick and furry. Unused to words.

“Deb? Deb, is that you?”

“Yes?”

There’s a pause. She concentrates, tries to place the voice. After a while, it comes through in the song. “Stuart?”

“Yes, it’s me. What’s the matter with you? Are you sick?”

“Tired,” she says. “Working. Learning.”

Another pause. “Oh. Okay. Well, I just wanted to– check in, I suppose. I haven’t heard from you for a while.” He gives a short, stilted laugh. “You got another man, now, to run all your errands?”

“We have everything we need,” she says.

No, the slug says. Not everything. Not yet.

“Are you sure? You sound– odd.”

We must grow.

“What? Deb, what did you say?”

“Nothing. I have to go now.”

“Hold on, hold on. Is Ellie there? I haven’t heard from her lately, either.”

Debra struggles to think. Ellie?

Ellie is gone, says the slug.

Debra nods. She remembers now. “Ellie is gone.”

“Gone? Gone where? Do you mean she’s moved out?”

Debra takes the phone away from her ear and looks at it. It is ugly, and it doesn’t sing.

“Deb? Did you hear me? Are you still there?”

She puts the ugly thing down and goes back upstairs. She has work to do.

***

Before, she would probably have thought the slug smelled bad now. But she’s learning how to use her senses differently and she can hear the slug’s heat, see its joy fizzing along her skin, and taste the colours that flow under its sleek surface. Every part of it is beautiful.

Occasionally, the phone tries to interrupt their song with its shrill clamour. In the end, she throws it away. She throws a lot of things away, because she doesn’t need them anymore. All she needs is space. Space to grow.

She flicks away a fly that tries to land on her face. The flies are starting to get on her nerves a little. All that buzzing.

But she can’t afford to get distracted. She has to focus on her own transformation, now.

There is so much still to learn.

She’s forgotten about the doorbell, tucked up on a high shelf out of view, and the booming chimes scare her. For a long moment she can’t associate the noise with the cause; it’s been a long time since anyone came to the door.

When the sound stops she edges into the hallway and listens at the door, but it’s hard to hear anything above all the buzzing. She closes her eyes and thinks go away as loudly as she can, but there’s no sense of connection. The slug hears her, though, and stirs in its sleep.

“Debra?” says a voice, followed by an insistent rapping. “Are you in there? It’s Stuart. Can you hear me?”

The voice is thin, reedy. Unpleasant. She prefers the buzzing.

“Debra, open the door. I’m not going to leave until I see you’re all right. If you can hear me, open the door. Otherwise I’m going to ring the police.”

She stiffens. Police. Outsiders. No, that can’t be allowed. It isn’t time, not yet.

She turns the catch on the door and lets it open, just a little. Stuart is an irritation, like the flies, but she can deal with it. She is strong, now.

“Thank Christ,” Stuart says. “I’ve been worried, Deb. I’ve rung you I don’t know how many times, left you messages. Ellie as well, but I haven’t heard from her either. What’s going on? Are you– ”

“I’m fine,” Debra says. “Ellie’s fine. You can go now.”

She starts to close the door but Stuart puts the flat of his hand up against it and pushes back. A few flies escape through the gap.

Stuart swats at them. “I told you, I want to make sure you’re all right.”

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine, Deb. If you don’t mind me saying, you look like shit. And Christ, it stinks in there. What’s going on? You need to let me in.”

“No,” Debra says. “I don’t need to do anything. I don’t need you. Leave me alone.”

But then the slug speaks, for the first time in a while.

Let him in, it says. We need to grow. We need food.

Debra hears, and understands. She moves back, and lets Stuart come inside.

“Good God Almighty, Debra, what have you been doing in here?”

She closes the door behind him and locks it. In the kitchen, Stuart coughs and makes a retching sound.

She finds him bent over, one hand on his thigh and the other over his mouth. His eyes are watering. He coughs again and stands up slowly. It looks like it costs him some effort.

“What have you done, Deb?”

“I have grown,” she says, knowing he won’t understand. Knowing he can’t hear the song.

“Christ,” he says under his breath. “Jesus Christ.” He swallows, the muscles of his throat jerking, and looks around. “Debra? Where’s Ellie? Where’s our daughter?”

“Ellie is here. We are all here.”

Stuart holds his hands up, palms out. “You’re not well. You understand that, don’t you? You need help. You need to sit down, and I’m going to call the police. Then we’ll get this sorted out. I’ll help you. We’ll do it together. Okay?”

A small, dim part of her responds. Stuart always knows what to do. She can do what she’s told, just like she used to, and let Stuart deal with things. Let Stuart fix things. It’s easier that way.

That is how it was, the slug agrees. But not how it is. You have changed. You have grown.

“Yes,” she says.

Stuart runs his hands though his thinning hair. “Good,” he says. “That’s good, Deb.” He fumbles a mobile phone out of his jacket pocket.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Debra says, and starts to sing.

The slug’s song joins hers. Their combined song is powerful, and it takes Stuart easily. Lifts him up and carries him up the stairs. A hot, meaty smell creates swirling patterns in the air.

She worries, for a moment, when Stuart begins to scream– it’s a very discordant sound. But it’s quickly woven into the song, and becomes beautiful.

Not all things are meant to thrive. It’s sad, but necessary. She understands, now.

She reaches out for Stuart, and he cringes away just like he used to do. “Black Thumb,” she says, and smiles.

END

Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy & horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Penumbra Magazine, and is forthcoming in Strange Horizons. Her short stories are being collected in the Transient Tales series, and she is currently at work on a novel. Her website is at www.transientcactus.co.uk and you can find her on twitter @MichelleAnnKing

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