The room was grey, pale grey and insubstantial. Two candles struggled to bring it definition - each at either end of the cramped space - but neither did more than provide their own diffuse halo. Grey walls, grey floor, grey curtains drawn to keep out the grey night with its grey rain. Grey skin and grey bone lay on the grey bed, teeth gritted. The only colour in the room - in the whole world - was the glowing inferno eating away at her belly.
The woman on the bed gave a low moan, clutching at her swelling belly. Nobody came to her aid: the motel was that kind of place.
Two hours ago, and everything had been fine. She had been on the run - to what, from what, she didn’t know - and afraid for her life, but at least her baby had only been a soft bump in her belly and a warm glow in her heart. Two hours ago, she had been hard pushed herself to tell that she was pregnant: now there was nothing else she could think about, no way she could ignore the burning pain.
She had been standing in the bathroom, examining the fine lines around her eyes in the mirror, when the pain hit. Her first thought was contraction, but as the next blast of fire knocked her feet from under her, her thoughts turned darker. This was her first pregnancy, and she had no idea what a miscarriage would feel like.
She had tried to make her way to the telephone as the pain faded in and out, a blazing heartbeat inside, but as she reached the bed something burst and the pain redoubled its efforts. She barely noticed as she let out a piercing yelp, not feeling the bed as it leapt up to catch her falling body: the pain was growing, and would not fade. That was all that there was now, all there would ever be. If anybody heard her cries, they did not come to help: she had chosen the motel wisely, sure to be left alone.
Her fingers kneaded at her belly almost unconsciously, as if the fire was a cramp that could be massaged away.
Please God, don’t take my baby. Take me. Don’t take my baby.
In her mind, she thought she could hear screaming.
‘Shh,’ said the little man. ‘It’s going to be alright.’
Tears streamed down her face, but failed to douse the flames.
She didn’t know where he had come from, or how he had got through the locked door into her room, and she didn’t care. He was here. He could help.
But he wasn’t moving.
He stood at the foot of her bed, his fingers pulling as if of their own accord at the garish sweater he was trying to hide under his pale jacket, looking down at her with sad grey eyes. But he didn’t take a step nearer, and he didn’t so much as lay a hand on her.
Relief evaporated, and she found herself terrified again.
And the fire raged.
‘Please,’ she gasped through her teeth, ‘my baby.’
‘Don’t worry. This is all perfectly natural.’
Another growl of flames inside, and she found herself bent to kiss her knees. As she fell back onto the bed, the little man continued.
‘The creature in your womb is eating away its human genes, tearing away its “weaknesses”, becoming itself,’ the little man’s eyes dropped, and he breathed: ‘All perfectly natural.’
The woman shook her head, panic swelling until its waters almost extinguished the fire.
‘No, no, you’re . . .’ a flare, a cry. ‘Please.’
And then the tears, burning hot, warmed by the fires within.
‘If Mel were here,’ the little man said, not looking at the woman, still, ‘if Mel were here, I suspect she’d tell me to help you. No, no, she’d demand that I help you. She sees the world in black and white, right and wrong. But Mel isn’t here.’
And the woman on the bed tried to pull away from the little man, until the fire burnt away her strength.
‘I think she’ll leave me soon, and then . . .’ he shook his head slowly. ‘She’s the only link I have now. The only thing stopping me from . . .’
‘Please don’t hurt my baby.’
Grey eyes fixed her with a cold stare, and her heart stopped beating.
‘Your baby will tear through this reality like a tempest, when she’s born. Past, Present, Future, the whole of causality will be tossed about like a dingy in the ocean. Her birth cries will be echoed by the fabric of the universe tearing itself apart, leaving the way open for forces you cannot begin to imagine. Millions upon millions will suffer, millions upon millions will die. And the only thing here to stop her, is me.’
‘Please . . .’
‘Look into my eyes,’ the little man intoned.
And she had no choice but obey.
The cold grey room flickered and faded, and all that remained were his deep eyes. She fell into them, falling forwards and over and over, deeper and deeper. She felt herself tumbling, weightless, the grey swallowing her whole. And the deeper she fell, the more the burning agony in her belly began to dissipate and fade. In her mind, the screaming faded also, until there was nothing but those eyes and the cold and the silence.
She jolted as he turned away, and found herself back on the bed.
The fire in her belly was gone.
For a few moments, she couldn’t bring herself to speak.
‘What have you done?’ she whispered, not wanting to know the answer.
The little man didn’t catch her eye, his fingers still dancing.
‘I took away your pain,’ he said.
‘My baby -‘
‘Is fine. It’s still becoming, still tearing at itself. But you don’t have to feel its pain any more.’
Relief flooded over her, washing the energy from her body, pulling her back down onto the bed.
‘Thank you, she whispered, ‘thank you.’
And then silence, for a moment.
‘When I woke up as me,’ the little man said, half to himself, ‘when I finished becoming, I made a decision. This time I was going to find myself a nice little place to settle, and play the spoons in a jazz band. Or be a magician, or a circus performer, or keep children entertained by pulling ferrets from my trousers. That’s what Mel reminds me: what I want to be. Unfortunately, the universe has other ideas, and you can’t argue with her.’
The woman tried to lift her head to look at him, but now the pain was gone all she could do was rest, and recover. She couldn’t even keep her eyes open any more.
‘We’re both becoming, your baby and I,’ his voice whispered in the darkness, ‘and I owe it to us both to find out what we’ll become. But I’m afraid, afraid we might both be monsters, in the end.’
She heard him sigh, such a small breath so near her ear. She felt a single tear scold onto her skin.
‘If I meet your baby once I’ve become, I will defeat it, by whatever ends I see fit. I pray it won’t come to that, but then . . .’
The gentle pressure of a kiss, absolution gently brushing her forehead.
‘Sleep well,’ he said, and then said no more.
When she opened her eyes again, much later, there was no sign that he had even been there at all.