Day Ninety-One

by Joanne Withers

When the food ran out, the government started putting supplements in the water.

We were never hungry again. The water incorporated a perfect balance of vitamins and nutrients for energy and growth. It was the colour and consistency of the stuff that pours from a tuna can when it drains, faintly metallic in odour with an oily sheen, but we got used to it and it was satisfying. After a while, people forgot that they’d ever had to eat. The water gave us everything we needed.

Five years later, the problems started. At first, the government refused to accept they’d caused the deformities. They blamed the lower classes, said it was drug abuse or genetic abnormalities, anything except the water. But over time, the incidents increased until one in every hundred kids was born that way.

When they first emerged, they didn’t look much different. But they grew like crazy. They had a full set of teeth by day ten and by day fifteen they were walking, although not like any kid you’d seen before. With hands and feet on the floor, they scuttled and pulled themselves along like a half-squashed beetle, joints clicking and creaking as they progressed.

By day forty, they were going through their teenage phase and there was no reasoning with them. Most families found it easiest to lock them away, releasing them again on day forty-five when the perplexities of puberty had waned.

Of course, everyone worried where this rapid growth would lead. It didn’t take long before the parents’ worst fears were realised, and their children began to die. It was a sickening death too. Most of them would begin to stiffen around day eighty. From then, rigor mortis would gradually possess their still-breathing bodies until finally on day ninety, only their eyeballs could move in tiny flickering circles inside their petrified frames.

The parents were distraught, but the government found the situation convenient. The children were born, lived a short life and died. Their life-cycles played out within people’s homes without encroaching on the overloaded health care system and there was no need for research into such a short-lived problem. In a gesture of goodwill, they extended maternity and paternity pay to parents of those affected so that they could spend the entire three months of their offspring’s life at home. Everything was reasonable and contained and the government saw no reason to intervene.

Then, suddenly, they began to evolve. Some of them didn’t stiffen at eighty days old, some of them started to survive. But there was a catch. If they made it to ninety days they needed to feed, no, to feast. That’s when the killings started—dogs, cows, sheep, people. All found in the same way, with the same horrific scars on their lower backs where their marrow had been extracted.

The government acted immediately, started monitoring the babies born in hospitals and taking the ones away that showed abnormal growth in the first twenty-four hours. No one knew what happened to them, but they never returned.

A nasty period of mass hysteria followed where people tried to beat the system and risked having their babies at home rather than have them taken away. Women stopped going for prenatal scans and tried to disguise their pregnancies. Childbirth had gone underground.

After she was born, we were both in denial for the first few hours. Hidden away in our family’s cabin, it was a mercifully easy birth, but nothing was simple after. Laura tried so hard to feed her on the first day, but she had no interest in her mother’s milk; all she wanted was the water. By the next day, it was obvious she was one of them.

That first cycle we just made the most of every day. She couldn’t talk but she’d nestle against us and we felt that most primitive bond between parent and child. As day ninety approached we made her a bed in the woodshed, tied a sheep inside and left her there. On day ninety-one, I held Laura in the cabin whilst horrendous preternatural screeching sounded from the woodshed.

When we opened the door later, we thought she was dead. The adult daughter we had left there that morning lay on the floor, ribs split down the middle like some interrupted autopsy. Laura was crying and screaming for our dead daughter and everything felt hopeless, when suddenly, I saw a small hand move inside the ribcage. As I looked inside, I saw our daughter, newborn again, nestled inside her old self—a new baby in a basket of her old bones. I tried not to look at the shrunken sheep skin in the corner as Laura tenderly lifted our baby daughter into her arms again, kissed her head and called her ‘Miracle’ as she had the first time she was born.

Over the years, we’ve learnt what works, how many rabbits or squirrels I need to catch and keep for her on day ninety-one. It’s wonderful afterwards, we take it in turns to hold her for the first time again.

They track us down every so often. They sent a health visitor out first. When she didn’t come back they sent a government official. People can keep her sustained the longest, if she doesn’t drain them fully the first time we can keep them alive to last another cycle. I suppose they’ll send the police next. When she’s finished with them it will be time to move on.

We’re on day twelve again now. In a few days she’ll be walking. Today, she reached up and pulled herself onto my lap for the first time this cycle. I took a photograph and stuck it in her baby book, all dimples and blonde curls. Through all her cycles we’ll build memories just like any other childhood and like all parents, we’ll love her unconditionally.

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