Underground Reading: Assembly by John O'Hara
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Fiction: "Bundle of Joy" by Tiffani Angus

Egret, via Wellcome Images

When Brian Parker left for work on Tuesday morning, he didn’t see the tiny white baby shoes on the porch. And a good thing, too, because he likely would have thrown them away.

The little shoes, hanging from the doorknob with their laces tied together, were impossible for him to miss when he came home that evening. Tired from back-to-back meetings and little to show for it, Brian snatched the shoes up, wondering how to hide them before his wife got a hold of them. He also made a mental note to give that Janice Cutter next door a talking to. Every other week, she got Laura all worked up about babies. She’d show up at the door with one of her three (or was it four?) kids and foist its moist and sweaty weight, smelling of spoiled milk and pureed fruit, on his wife as a sort of trial-size sample. She’d go on about what his wife could have if only she tried the newest in miracle fertility drugs that Janice had read about just that morning in whatever check-out rag she’d picked up at the Safeway. Then Brian was left to deal with Laura and bring her back to the reality of their life together, just the two of them, free to come and go as they pleased.

He was imagining cramming the shoes down Janice’s throat, effectively ridding himself both of her and the evidence of her latest meddling, when the front door opened. He put his hands behind his back, but not quickly enough.

“Put them back!” Laura said. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes wide and glassy.

Brian noticed how both of the shoes fit neatly, compactly, in one hand. Laura grabbed them away from him, and the imagined warm solidness of tiny feet dissipated.

“That woman’s interference is getting out of hand,” he said as his wife hung the shoes back over the doorknob. She just smiled, calm and happy, and Brian guessed that Janice must have brought over a doozy of an article. He sighed, too tired to find the energy or the patience, really, to get back on the baby merry-go-round tonight.

Sure that the shoes were where she wanted them, Laura grabbed Brian’s arm and pulled him inside, closing the door behind them with a solid click. The shoes rattled softly against the outside of the door for a few seconds before settling, and Brian couldn’t help but imagine a ghost baby outside, kicking the door to be let in.

 “Laura, what’s going on?”

She beamed at him. “I had to accept the invitation. Not that there was any choice, really. And to celebrate I’m cooking your favorite chili. Soon, you know,” she shrugged, “I won’t be able to. Isn’t it exciting?”

Brian dealt every day at work with people who said one thing but meant another, promised an action only to do the opposite. He thought himself pretty savvy when it came to analyzing people’s secret wants and needs by watching the way they acted when they spoke. Everyone had a tell, some people had dozens, and learning the quirks and tics was the only way to get what he wanted from them. He’d been married to Laura for six years and had memorized her tones and looks, knew how she would speak in half sentences when she had bad news. He knew she twirled her hair around her fingers when she was calculating how to manipulate him into doing something, from taking out the trash to going on a double date with her sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Guess How Much I Paid for That. But this Laura, with her firm hand and bubbly excitement, wasn’t his Laura. He waited for the punch line, for a translation guide to help him figure out this new side of his wife.

“Laura—” he started.

With her hands wrapped around his waist and her head under his chin, what she said next was muffled.

“What?”

She tipped her head back. “I always through it was just a fairy story. I told my mother I believed, but I never really believed. Until now.”

Before he had a chance to ask her again about the shoes or fairy stories, she grabbed his hand and pulled him to the door at the end of the hallway. Years before—before the tests, the shots, the chore-like sex, the Petri dishes and thermometers, before they’d spent all of their savings and gotten nothing in return but a lame apology from the doctor who’d announced their final attempt at parenthood unsuccessful—this small room was going to be a nursery. It had, instead, become a sort of junk room, the place where old computers, half-finished quilting projects, and the dusty treadmill had come to die. Laura grabbed the doorknob and paused to smile for dramatic effect. Being unable to read his wife was one thing, but her teeth, the unnatural stretch of her mouth, and her bounding energy all gave her the air of an un-made-up clown, and that was something else entirely. Brian resisted a sudden urge to smack her hand or throw himself at her—anything to make her stop.

She pushed the door open. A white crib sat in one corner beneath a colorful mobile. Next to it stood an empty rocking chair draped with a soft yellow blanket. There was a changing table, a toy box, and a shelf containing story books propped up with bunny-shaped book ends.

“I did it all today, took the whole day off. I called in and told Brenda that I had to quit, effective immediately.”

“Wait! You quit?”

But Laura ignored him and kept talking. “She wasn’t too happy about it, but I don’t have two weeks, not now. And I know that it’s probably a boy—that’s what Mother always said it was in the stories—but just in case I thought yellow would be okay.”

Without consciously deciding to, Brian glommed onto the most obvious reason for Laura’s manic excitement. “You’re pregnant, then? When? How?”  Before she had a chance to answer, he grabbed her arm but kept his grip soft, trying to get his message across without really hurting her. “Laura, why all this?  You know what the doctor said about waiting until after the first trimester. Remember what happened last time?”

She shook her head. “Oh, Brian. No. I’m not pregnant.”

The no scrabbled around in his head, trying to find a place to settle.

She shook her head again and then leaned in and whispered in his ear. “The stork is coming.”

That was when Brian Parker, a man who believed himself logical and sure, saw his future. Laura had battled depression after each unsuccessful in vitro attempt and miscarriage, and she’d barely held it together during their new nephew’s baptism only a month before. But now he imagined checking his wife into a facility. He’d visit her on weekends while she stared at the wall and twisted her hair between her fingers. One day she’d come back home, and he’d hire a full-time nurse to make sure that she didn’t burn the house down. After a few years, he’d begin to wish that she would burn the house down, with herself in it, so he’d be free to have a normal life again.

He dropped into the rocking chair. Its curved rockers scraped the wall and he jumped at the sharp sound, his nerves jangling. Laura didn’t seem to notice. She stepped from crib to changing table and back, touching everything, smiling absently as if she were in love for the first time. “I never thought it would happen to me. And when I got the message this morning, when I saw the shoes, I said yes immediately, of course. And then I got to work right away.”

He rocked the chair back, thumping the wall on purpose this time, like pinching himself to see if he was dreaming. “Laura, honey, that woman next door did this. She put those shoes there to bait you.”

“But she didn’t—”

“Of course she did,” he said. “You know how she loves to get you all riled up.”

“No.”

Brian stood. “Yes,” he insisted. “You know what? Let’s take a break, go to the beach. You want to sit in the sun, have people wait on us, do some sightseeing? I’m sure I could get some time off.”

“You can’t take a new baby to the beach!” She laughed at the idea. “Really, Brian, you act like I’m making things up. Surely you’ve heard the stories?”

He turned away from the crib to focus on his wife, to read her hands and eyes, to find the tic that would tell him that she was having fun at his expense. “What stories, Laura?”

“You know, about the stork delivering babies.” She stopped circling the room and her voice was even, matter-of-fact. “Mother told me—”

A crash and chime of breaking glass came from the other side of the house.

Brian lunged for the bedroom door, unsure which was the more imminent threat: his wife or the intruder.

“It’s here! It’s here!” Laura sang behind him, clapping her hands.

He stopped halfway down the hall and strained to listen. No footfalls. No voices came from the kitchen. Only a whooshing like the wind in a tall pine tree.

Laura elbowed him in the ribs and dove to the other side of the hallway. He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her against him. “What is that?” he whispered into her hair. She squirmed around in his arms but he held fast.

“What the hell is going on?” He thought he was angry at having to ask questions but getting no clear answers, but the sparks of adrenaline along the backs of his hands told him it was fear.

She struggled against him. “It’s here. I’m supposed to meet it.” She turned and punched him in the chest and neck. “Let me go!” She scratched at his hands and kicked him in the shins, and he felt her take a deep breath as if readying herself for battle. “I said Let! Go!”

He wouldn’t have let go of her if not for the hollow clapping sound that carried up the hall.

As soon as she was free, Laura disappeared into the kitchen. Brian stuck his arm in the hall closet, grabbed around for anything to use as a weapon, and followed her.

The stork took up most of the kitchen.

It hunched down uncomfortably but couldn’t keep the black tips of its wings and tail from brushing the cabinets. Every time its small head scratched against the ceiling, little bits of acoustic popcorn came loose and scattered along its back and onto the floor. When Brian entered the room, umbrella held high like a baseball bat, the bird startled and sent a cutting board clattering to the floor with a brush of one wing tip.

The bird stared down at them, its eye tiny and dark, a mirror that Brian was sure he could see himself in were he to inch closer. He barely registered the clicking of its talons on the tile floor, but the smell of it—bird droppings and something stagnant and cold at the same time, like clouds made of lakewater—hung in his nostrils. It lifted its head and rattled the top and bottom halves of its beak together, and the hollow clapping sound bounced off the walls. Brian’s arm shook as he pointed the closed umbrella at the bird.

The stork ducked again. Something wiggled in the stained blue blanket the bird held in its lance-like beak, its weight a pendulum rocking back and forth, causing the stork’s head to bob slowly in time.

Brian finally found his voice. “You invited this thing?”

“Oh, Yes.” All of Laura’s attention was on the blanket, and she swayed slightly in imitation of the bundle’s movement. “It’s a dream come true. Don’t you see?”

A cat-like howl broke the spell, and Brian learned that there was something in the world more nightmarish than a giant stork in his kitchen.

Laura lifted her arms toward the stork, and Brian batted them away with the umbrella before turning back to the bird.

“No! We don’t want it!”

He jabbed at the bird’s side. It tried to move away but bumped the refrigerator with its tail, knocking itself a bit off balance, and it brushed the stove with a wing the size of a car door. The pot of chili crashed to the floor, sending a hot wave of beans and meat up into the room, like the splash of a heavy rock being dropped into a calm pond. It sprayed across Brian’s pants legs and stained the bird’s white under-carriage dark red.

The stork lunged at Brian. He swatted its beak, trying to avoid the bundle but not really caring whether he made contact with it in the scuffle, and the bird retreated. Brian pursued it, pushing it back toward the broken window until he slipped in the chili. He landed hard on the floor, his legs tangling with the bird’s scaly orange feet. He recoiled when his shoes rolled over the creature’s lumpy knuckles.

It cracked its beak together again and the wooden sound filled Brian’s ears, drowning out the crying bundle and Laura’s yells at him to stop. Brian pulled himself up, realized he’d lost the umbrella, and grabbed the first thing within reach. Chili dripped down the handle of the wooden spoon and onto his wrist. The bird stepped forward. He threw the spoon down and turned his attention back to his wife.

“Tell it that we don’t want it, th-thank you very much,” he said.

The stork shook and resettled its wings. Bits of white feather floated in the air like snowflakes.

Laura, her free hand twisting a lock of her hair, studied Brian and cocked her head as if listening for instructions. “I want it. And anyway, there’s no choice.”  

She let go of her hair and the wistfulness in her eyes vanished, replaced by a clarity that Brian hadn’t seen in months, years even. “Once you accept the invitation and the stork comes, you can’t say no. Those are the rules.”

She shrugged out of his grip, turned back to the bird, and held out her hands. The stork leaned over and, with great ceremony, began to lower the bundle.

Brian bumped Laura aside and grabbed the umbrella out of the puddle of chili. He faced off against the stork, hoping to have a chance before it could make its delivery. The tip of the umbrella glanced off of the stork’s beak as it bobbed out of reach. Brian ducked beneath the bundle, the cry from within it rising now in fear, sending an echo through the room that grew and doubled, as if a child and a man were howling in unison. He poked at the stork but it moved again, and the chili sauce on the umbrella dripped on the bird’s downy chest like old blood.

A shove from behind threw Brian off balance and he dropped the umbrella again. He slid and was sure he was going to end up face-first in the mess on the floor this time. But the kitchen spun and tilted until he was facing Laura, his back to the stork, his shoulder pinched tightly in its beak. She had the bundle in her arms, and when he tried to get to her—to get at it—the stork snapped him back.

Laura was already cooing and making faces at what she held in her arms. The crying had tapered off to a low mewling, and a tiny fist waved a black feather above the edge of the blanket.

“Give it back.” He spoke to her as if she were a child. “That doesn’t belong to us. Where are its parents?”

She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter where it came from.  I’m its mother now.”

“No.” The stork bit down hard enough to make him wince, but Brian couldn’t stop. “You’re not. It’s not ours. It’s … listen to it!” The crying was unlike any sounds he’d heard from his nieces and nephews. Brian felt that it knew what he was saying, that it was angry at him. “What if there’s something wrong with it? What if it’s special?” He whispered that last word. The bird shook him slightly and he bit the edge of his tongue while his shoes slid around in the spilled food in a grotesque soft-shoe.

The serenity in Laura’s face was tinged with a kind of pity for her husband. “Well, of course it is. That’s why it’s such an honor to be chosen.”

“But I didn’t choose this.”

She shrugged the shrug of someone who’s just lit a fuse and walked away, knowing that it’s too late. “It’s not about you, Brian.”

She turned her attention to the bundle. “It’s about you, isn’t it?” Then she took the little creature’s hand and waved it at Brian. “Say bye. Bye-bye, Daddy.”

The stork pulled at Brian, and the image of Laura standing in the wrecked kitchen warped and shrunk as if viewed through a makeshift microscope. He felt himself sucked back and compacted, bent in half until his knees pressed into his eye sockets, and his whole body was wrapped in a feathery heat. With a sharp pop Laura, the bundle, and the kitchen disappeared. And the next time Brian was aware, he was being gently rocked, blue sky all around. He reached a tiny, pink hand up toward the cloud that floated above, a cloud of soft white feathers that rippled in the cold air as he and the stork sailed through space.

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Tiffani Angus is an ex-pat PhD Creative Writing student in Cambridge who is finishing her dissertation and an historic fantasy novel set over 400 years in an English country-house garden. Her published stories include "Fairchild's Folly" in Irregularity. She also has a story in the upcoming Athena's Daughters, Volume 2.

This is the first publication of this story.

Image credit: "Egret flying over water", Paul Gunning, Wellcome Images