By Laura Lynes
Winner of the Trinty Term 2022 ORB short fiction prize judged by A.K. Blakemore.
M. was four when he first encountered the squirmy feeling of being only precariously held up by the floor, or by any of the giant 3D structures that made up his world. He was in bed, sticky with fever, when one of his My Little Ponies hovered into the air and, with plastic legs treading wildly, flew straight into the cold gap his mother had left open in the window. Later M. would reconfigure this memory as a dream, although it was true that the pony was lost, but the feeling that something he loved could very easily get loose from his world, that it could just wriggle out into the wide gaping night, never left him. And then all the ponies were gone, they were swapped out by his mother for a line-up of armed action figures, and these didn’t have purple or aqua blue manes, or bodies that were speckled with stars. By the time M. was five, real bodies started to get lost in his life. His grandfather, who had for years been shrivelling up on the twin bed next to his, stopped smiling at M., and then he stopped being on the bed. And then there was the pet caterpillar M. kept in a jar room, which he dropped one day onto the mud floor of the garden. The caterpillar had rolled out and, before M. could do anything, a cluster of ants had covered its yellowed, twisting body. Which might have been what happened to his grandfather, because the way his grandfather had once gurgled strangely in the dark and shouted stop it, stop it, for no apparent reason, was similar. Now it felt to M. like the gaping night was in fact a great mouth, sucking hard against the underside of the ground everyone was on.
And then M. began Year 1 in the big, primary-coloured school which was full of complicated structures. Here he finally understood that My Little Ponies meant ‘Girl’, and also that ants were for stamping on, and that doing this could prove that you were ‘Boy’, and not only that, but that you were a boy who wanted to kiss girls on the lips. Although M.’s first girlfriend, when he was eight, didn’t like the ant-stamping it turned out, even though M. was always careful to get the small ant bodies fully squished into the tarmac, rather than a bit squished and a bit writhing. What the girl preferred was for M. to pluck snails out of the glossy hedgerow lining the playground and place them, as she instructed, along the insides of her arms and thighs. He would hold each snail until the suction of its mucus foot made them stick to the girl, which would cause the girl, and M. in response, to giggle wildly and roll their heads back. And although M. worried that the snails would start to corrode the girl’s too-soft body, he never said anything.
But it all stopped anyway when the boys found out about the snails, and for months afterwards they called M. a sick paedo, which made M.’s eyes wet over embarrassingly, the way they did even when no one was saying anything, just looking at him a bit hard. It was at times like this, when his eyes got slimed up and he couldn’t see, that M. thought maybe the wide gaping mouth wasn’t so bad. He thought that if he wriggled into the damp wedge of air between the hedgerow and the undergrowth, he might just be absorbed away, nice and easy like the rotting yellow banana in the time-lapse video he’d seen in science class. Except when M. tried this once it didn’t work, and then he’d got told off for having a face smeared in soil, because he’d pressed it into the ground to try and help.
But other times M. would say to himself stop it, stop it, or tut sharply the way his mother did when he cried in front of her. Because there was one boy who, instead of ignoring or laughing at M., would find him in the toilet cubicles at lunch-break and say there there, the way his own mother must have said to him, and the boy would push his warm fleshy tongue then into M.’s ear and hold it there for just a few seconds, breathing loudly into M’s sweaty hair, which made M. feel like there were surfaces of the world he still wanted to touch or be touched by.
When M. got to being ten years old, which was a double-figured number, he began to get little bursts of joy from doing things he now knew he liked, and so could repeat, such as making his action figures dance together in the bubbles of his bath, which he could make for himself. And in M.’s favourite growly voice the action figures would say one to the other, no I’m not drowning! I’m daaaancing!, and they’d leap like ecstatic dolphins in and out of the refracted light of the bubbles, going weeeeeee! – although this always came out more high-pitched and girly. It was only when submerged underwater that the action figures would ever find each other’s slick plastic bodies, grasping them hotly with their sticking-out arms. When this happened, though, M. worried that he was letting them run out of oxygen, and the feeling was like being pumped up with air, birthday balloon-style, and like having the air wheezing out of you at the same time.
Eventually, M. realised he was too old to play with action figures anyway, and when a teacher said to him that part of being a grown-up meant taking responsibility, do you understand?, he decided then and there that he would start taking responsibility for the way his mother sometimes banged her head against the vinyl door leading into the muddy garden, which, although she didn’t do hard, she did in a sort of whimpering way, which made M. feel like the wide, gaping place was in his abdomen, sucking his chest in, and that if he wasn’t a better son his mother would, in the dead of night, wriggle her heavy, shaky body across the muddy garden and away.
So M. began doing things that he reckoned, by deciphering the complicated structures that loomed up around him still, were appropriate – like peeing standing up, with the door open so his mother could see, or like making little grunt-y noises instead of words. M. began to think that if he could make himself as solid and hairy-seeming as an animal like this, he would also be at less risk of becoming un-real, the way his magic flying pony must have been. Except it didn’t seem like M.’s mother picked up on this new stolidity, his ability to bear her unexplained whimpering, because now instead of banging her head against the vinyl she would shut herself away in the room next to his, and through the paper-thin walls he could only ever hear a dense silence. Sometimes it felt like this silence was undulating through M.’s body, which was really as papery as the walls, and like it came radiating straight from the gaping mouth, which, M. now believed, must be located directly underneath their thin, square house, suckling on it.
After M. turned thirteen, however, his mother found a partner, who was all bloated action figure, except for his bald head, which, in the way it reflected the light of the bulb in the kitchen, made him seem like a beacon. M.’s mother must have felt this way too, because since action figure’s arrival into the picture she was always giggling wildly, which made M. laugh, albeit in his silent, suppressed way. And when action figure cooked for them, M.’s mother would press the folds of her body against his big back, and when he sang in his low, growly voice, she’d try and sing along with him, even though M.’s mother never knew the words to the songs action figure would choose, and the way she’d try and sing would be all girl-like, even though her voice was bad.
M. noticed, too, that whenever action figure looked in his mother’s direction, she’d start making little juts with her hips and head, which M. had never seen her do before. But soon the sticky heat from all the food action figure was cooking, as well as from all the singing, including even his mother’s, made M. slip into a kind of happy reverie, in which he didn’t notice much, except, maybe, for the animal yelps that now came regularly from his mother’s room.
In his reverie M. started making bubble baths again, which he’d sometimes lie submerged in all night, thinking about action figure’s slick fleshy body and massaging himself under the dark water until light came paling through the frosted window film. But eventually action figure must have grown tired of M. and his mother, the way they were always tip-toe-ing around the house due to its thinness, because he left one day, not to any gaping place but back to his family. M. saw them a few years later, the family, walking together down the high street. He saw a woman with a face as bony as her body, and on either side of action figure he saw two glittering pre-teens, as pink and sturdy as packaging for girls. And although M. wasn’t close enough to hear the bony-faced woman, who appeared to be speaking, he imagined, as he had done in the aftermath of action figure’s leaving, that she must have a sweet, reassuring kind of voice, like a lullaby, or like death covering you up.
When M. turned sixteen, he began sprouting hair for real, even though he was paper-thin still, and two girls in his class started making the coy, jagged, little movements of his mother at him. Or at least his mother in her heyday, before she got all heavy and shaky again. And M. took them up on their offers, sneaking into the park bushes with each in turn, because he liked the way they stroked his hair afterwards, or the way the one with the glint-y eyes whispered into his ear. While M. never felt the hot feeling he had got from the boy’s tongue, he was able to perform his actions appropriately, and it started to feel like he was winning in a game of shoot ’em up, pow pow pow, like he finally understood how the world, in all its fizzling 3D pixelation, worked. So when his mother started heaving about the house, threatening its thin foundations, M. began pow pow-ing harder than ever. He became like a giant ant, crawling over and consuming everything according to system.
When M. was eighteen and his mother heaved so hard that she fell silently from the first floor of the house straight into the muddy garden, which because of the angle at which she fell, was enough to eventually kill her, M. succeeded in solidifying his body from the inside out, so that he now moved slowly, bulgingly, the way of a man who has found a kind of security. Even though M. didn’t speak much still, he didn’t need to, because he could move about the structures of the world freely now, jumping from block to block before they dissolved beneath him and making little grunt-y noises when he reached a new level.
His goal now was for hard exponential growth, and only as M. started frequenting basements full of men dancing in refracted light did it occur to him, briefly, that a body could be both solid and able to tread, wildly, the gaping air of the night.
LAURA LYNES reads creative writing at Wadham. Single female seeking attractive book to read.
Artwork by Ivo Freeman