It begins the night Jim finds the kitchen covered in slugs.
He pads downstairs, barefoot, in search of water. It’s perfectly dark, but even so his eyes are scrunched tight because he doesn’t want to wake up, not really. Then something pulls him out of the darkness, something cold on his heel. An eye opens a crack and there they are. Six of the little fuckers. Glistening and conceited in the moonlight. Two of the more courageous ones are scaling cupboards. One is trying to work its way into the cutlery drawer.
Jim’s skin bristles, alive on its own terms. He begins to prowl the terracotta, tracing the complex network of silver white trails which seem to converge underneath one of the cupboards. It’s almost three years since they bought the house – a lovely Georgian terrace – but it still doesn’t really feel like his.
Jim squats and thinks. What is their address? What day is it? What month?Howold ishe? None of the answers appear. As he wrestles with these holes he is suddenly conscious of something between his toes. The fattest of the slugs is nuzzling in, like a bloated flip flop thong. Time catches up, the moment collapses, and Jim is alive again, kicking wildly against nothing.
He must have screamed a little too because the next thing the main light is on and they are all there.
“Jesus Jim, calm down!” Jo is yelling. His wife’s face is unfamiliar, scowling and red. Callum, still so small for three, clings to her hip. In their crumpled pyjamas Jim feels a whole new complex rush of shame and protectiveness and has to keep moving to avoid being overwhelmed.
“Have you seen this?” he says, beckoning them in. “Yuck, right? Unbelievable!”
“I can believe it,” Jo deadpans. “You’re supposed to be a grown man. I thought you were being attacked. Set an example.”
“Wass wong, daddy? Wass wong?” Callum keeps repeating, in the background like a soft persistent alarm.
“Slugs, Cal. Look at all these horrid slugs”. Callum smiles and nuzzles into Jo’s hair. “Mmm. Hello slugs.” He crouches down to peer at the kickboard where the trails are most densely gathered, his dressing gown rucking up to reveal a white shard of thigh. There are no visible cracks or holes down there.
“For pity’s sake, Jim,” says Jo. “God forbid anything genuinely bad ever happens to you.” She places a slim wrist over her eyes. “It’s 4am. I have a client meeting in precisely four hours. Take him, I’ll deal with this.”
The slugs carry on, oblivious.
Jim carries Callum’s dead weight up to his bedroom, gratefully absorbing its hum of wholesome energy. He slips him back in between the still warm sheets, watched by all manner of stuffed and stencilled creatures. Having children means becoming accustomed to nightly horrors, Jim learned long ago. Piercing screams that hoist you out of bed before your legs have feeling. Emergencies that you deal with in hushed, urgent voices, before hurling yourself desperately back into sleep.
As he creeps away a little voice follows. “Where do they come from?”
“Where do who come from, buddy? The slugs?”
“I don’t know. I wish I did but I don’t.”
At breakfast, everyone has the same heavy eyes but only Jim wants to talk about it. He’s had a lot of coffee. “It’s just so weird, don’t you think?” Jo leans over, picks out one of Callum’s raisin wheaties and offers it up to his mouth, which opens and shuts like a battery-operated machine.
“They’re just following their instincts.” Something in the way she says this bothers him. The casual implication that he no longer has instincts, or doesn’t know how to follow them. It bothers him, he realises, because he’s afraid it might be true. “Just buy some slug pellets.” His stomach heaves as he thinks of the melted mess these toxic little candies leave behind.
“Then call an exterminator.”
“I don’t want them to die. I just want them to not want to come into our kitchen.”
“Call a hypnotist then. Maybe there’s someone who can lure them out with a flute.”
“It surprises me that you’re not more concerned about the hygiene aspect of this. But seriously, why us?”
“I don’t know! Maybe the whole world had slugs in their kitchen today. Or maybe we’re just special. Why are you taking this so personally?”
“I take everything personally. I’m a person. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
There are different kinds of silence when Jo and Callum leave. This one Jim doesn’t think he’s heard before. She’s been a legal clerk at the same small firm since before they met. An occupation infinitely more worthwhile than the steady flow of easy freelance design work that fills his own days. The very notion of law baffles him. Fusing together events and ideas into a physical fabric that can manage all human impulses. Even ones no one has had yet.
Jim sits at his computer, but he can’t concentrate. The slugs are still moving around inside his head. He makes more coffee and turns to Google. After forty minutes he is a minor expert. He knows their lifespan (up to six years) and the average number of teeth (27,000). He learns they have green blood, and that some are carnivorous. They are looking for food, says one website. Crushed eggshells might repel them, but they might also attract them, says another. He makes omelettes for dinner, mopping the floor ferociously afterwards, then scattering the shells around the garden. That night the kitchen is once again a minefield of gleaming living turds. There are even more now, twenty or so ribbed, shining blobs, like miniature seals, sunning themselves lazily in the electric light. Jim cannot bring himself to leave them, but he still can’t bear to kill them either. He compromises by scooping each one up on the end of a fish slice and propelling them out of the back door at high velocity. They make no sound at all.
The next morning Jim knocks along the road, asking neighbours if they have ever seen any slugs in their kitchens. They are without exception bored, unsmiling and suspicious. Only Mr Pavaletti invites him in, saying he saw one once long ago. Mr Pavaletti is very interested in the invasion, which he says reminds him of the war, which he doesn’t like to think about normally, but today it’s okay. They sit sipping his dark, treacly coffee, staring at the squishy grey linoleum.
“Something must have happened, to make them suddenly want to come inside,” Jim says.
“There is the inside, and there is the outside,” says Mr Pavaletti, stroking one silver-white sideburn hypnotically. “These are distinctions every living thing understands. I wonder, do they follow a leader? Or are they on their own private journeys?”
“I don’t know. But it’s disgusting.” Jim says.
That afternoon he dedicates several hours to fortifications. He wads old clothes into long sausages – giant, snuggly super slugs that he hopes will intimidate the intruders. He stuffs clothes and toilet paper into every opening and nook he can find. Then he goes back to his computer and tries not to think about it.
When he creeps downstairs at 3:15am, there are too many to count. Some of them have bright orange bellies with edges that undulate softly like sea anemones. Others, small ones, are a dense irretrievable black. As living things, they seem to be lacking something. They are like the insides of another bigger creature which has become lost.
“How could it not have meaning? It must mean something,” He knows Jo will only take so many more of these early hours rants, but he can’t help himself. She snorts awake then sighs heavily, places a hand gently on his scalp. “Jim. Get a grip. Just call someone. Why are you so upset?”
Now he sighs. He can’t explain it. His thoughts and words shift and slide away from each other, the space between them an accelerating viscous plane.
“I’ll call someone in the morning,” she says.
“Thank you,” he replies, curling into a ball.
Jim stands in the kitchen with the exterminator, a large woman named Diana. Her red boiler suit is embroidered with her name, and also a logo which depicts a rodent rearing up, ready to fight. Diana talks quickly, moving round the room in a hurry. She seems ready for a fight too. Jim does not feel ready for anything. He tells her the story of the slugs. “I feel like something terrible is going to happen. I can’t explain it.”
“A powerful sense of foreboding,” she says, leaning in. “That is how you explain it. I understand completely.” Diana examines the kitchen, telling Jim tragic stories that he did not ask to hear, about places he doesn’t want to go. She tells him about a woman in Nuneaton who was bitten by a man-eating tarantula. About three different children who died after being stung by three different swarms of wasps, all on the same day. The children didn’t know each other, but the wasps may have, according to Diana. She describes how a newly married couple fell off a cliff together after recoiling from snake that turned out to be a sock. “These are the tales I hear every day.”
“I really don’t want them to die,” Jim says. Diana explains that this is not an option. She says the slugs will be sorry they were ever born. That they will leave him alone forever. That there will be no mess for him to clear up.
Jim thanks her and goes upstairs.
It is agreed that Jo and Callum will move in temporarily with her parents until the matter is resolved. Jim spends an anxious night in a Travelodge before returning to a house that looks and smells exactly as he left it, but which he knows in the very depths of himself has been changed completely
Diana’s procedure, whatever it was, has worked. For three straight nights he stays up, lying in wait, and there is not one single slug. But the feeling he has been waiting for, that he has focussed on at the expense of all others, also fails to materialise. On the fourth night and then the fifth he finds he is still there, taking up his position in the darkness, rocking gently on the stool.
There is the inside and the outside. All living things understand this distinction, Mr Pavaletti had said. But as he sits there rocking, Jim decides that he no longer believes this to be true. Because he doesn’t understand it himself. He thought he was on the inside. That his lifelong duty was to protect this inside. But things appear where they should not. The threshold is not sound. There is perhaps no threshold at all. He feels like he is disintegrating, stretching a huge distance in order to pass through a very, very small gap. And it is the gap that was the problem, he realises now, crouching down to press his cheek against the cool red tiles, to better see the narrow black slit beneath the cupboard. It was not the intruders that bothered him. It was the discovery of a gateway to a secret world.
Eventually, from a long way away, he hears a woman’s voice. It is Jo. She is saying that enough is enough, and she is right, because he thinks he is almost ready now. The thing he has been holding back can no longer be held back, thank god. The feeling of relief is all he needs, then he can go to bed. He will change his soaking pyjamas and make everything okay. He will become a better father, a better husband, a better person. He will move on. This will be the end of it.
He has reached the edge of it now. Definitely.
This is it.
Matt Cook was born in 1979 in Chelmsford, Essex. His short fiction has appeared in The Stockholm Review, Oblong Magazine, Imbroglio, Number Eleven, Spelk, Small Doggies, and the Cooldog Short Story Prize. His debut novel Life on Other Planets will be published by Lendal Press in Spring 2021. He lives in Liverpool with his family. More at www.mattcookwriter.comTwitter: @mattcookwriter
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