Jacqueline has hugged the child tighter and is rocking her back and forth. The raven-black, glistening cascade of hair conceals the girl’s face, but tears are sliding down Jacqueline’s cheeks and lingering on her chin. Although she keeps sniffling, snot has bedewed her upper lip.
I hurry to grab a couple of tissues from their box, placed on one of the shelves between the balcony doors. When I return to my beloved, I kneel next to her and squeeze the mucus out of her nose into a tissue. I trail the tip of my tongue along her cheek, swiping a hot, salty tear. Jacqueline gazes at me with her striking cobalt-blues and rewards me with a smile of gratitude, but remains silent.
I pat the back of the child’s leather tunic. It feels rough against my hand. From up close she smells of wet boar, woodland moss and apples.
“I’ll state the obvious: this is my fault,” I say soberly. “Whoever opened that invisible doorway to the Ice Age intended to target me.”
“Don’t blame yourself, baby,” Jacqueline murmurs as she strokes the child’s scalp. “We’re in this mess together.”
“This poor savage probably believes that the Megatherium, or whatever that monster was called, devoured her, that she has ended up in hell, or whatever underworld people believed in before Christianity hijacked our civilization. The Megatherium is probably responsible for a lot of disappearances, including that of my parents.”
Jacqueline arches an eyebrow.
“That’s what you call our idyllic nest? Hell?”
“Jacqueline, I stood in that boreal forest, apparently at the latest twelve thousand years ago. I took deep, panicked breaths of that cold, crisp air saturated with oxygen. The breeze whispered with the voices of extinct species. I was immersed in an ancient icebox of nature, alone except for the intrusion of that monster as well as of this girl that I ended up kidnapping, who until that point had lived in freedom.”
“I hadn’t been curious about prehistory, but those people needed to hunt to survive, didn’t they? Maybe they couldn’t farm reliably due to the cold weather. And what about disease?”
“You are right, but still: I snatched this child from a sort of paradise and sent her to hell.”
When I lower my head, Jacqueline frees her right hand to stroke my neck and knead the muscles that are taut beneath my skin.
“Would you like to take walks in the woods, honey?” she coos. “Did you know I have a secluded park with lots of trees right in my backyard?”
I look over my shoulder at the balcony; because I’m sitting on the carpet, the parapet blocks the view. Someone, I assume a previous owner of the apartment, arranged fernlike plants with rounded stones in a way that halves the available floor of that part of the balcony. Two spiky plants that have grown in cube pots resemble still shots of a nail bomb explosion. Above the parapet, the night is onyx-black except for the faint outlines of oil-colored clouds. A single star glows in the dark.
It must be about five in the morning. It feels like the sun will never come up again, but soon enough the old fiery pervert will peek over the horizon to bathe us all in its whitish-yellow deluge of photons.
“I’m guessing you paid premium for this balcony,” I say wearily. “However, the apartment didn’t come with a garden.”
“I meant nearby. That park is a couple of minutes away. A hidden gem, peaceful and quiet. I’d love to take you there on a lovely day when the sky is clear. At night you can gaze at the stars, and no one will disturb you.”
I take a deep breath and rub my eyes. I’m an idiot that needs to think to connect dots that for the rest of people come joined by thick lines.
“That does sound pleasant,” I mumble.
I drag myself to my feet, then as I shuffle up to the balcony door, the glass reflects my face: I resemble a wan and emaciated gargoyle, all bone and shadows, with haunted eyes and a sour expression. I rest my greasy forehead on the cold glass pane.
In the distance, the palatial building that crowns the Mount Igueldo amusement park gleams white. Along the spine of the mountain glow pale cerulean lights, maybe cell towers. Some windows are lighted on the mountainside; the rich people that live in those houses may have woken up to go to work, or are wandering around in a daze with a hangover after a night of cocaine-fueled orgies.
“Sorry, I’m falling apart,” I say weakly. “And somehow I will have to tolerate the long workday ahead of me, even though I never returned to bed after that bunnyman-induced nightmare.”
I’m about to continue when a realization bursts in my brain. I gasp, then turn around. The wild child has snuggled closer to Jacqueline, wrapping her arms around the silky back of my girlfriend’s robe. The girl has closed her eyes, and her placid expression suggests that now she doesn’t give a shit about anything but the warmth that emanates from the pair of breasts squeezed against her ribcage.
“W-wait, we’ll be away for work at the same time,” I say, lowering my voice to avoid unsettling the child. “What the fuck do we do? Is there a company at our business park that lets workers abandon their kids there until five in the afternoon?”
“You know, there may be, but this isn’t the kind of child you can drop off at a daycare center and forget about, is she? Besides, we can’t even prove she’s ours.”
“Right, because she isn’t.”
Jacqueline cups the child’s head, then plants a lingering kiss on its top. The girl narrows her shoulders, dimples her cheeks, and lets out a soft noise of contentment.
“Any nosy do-gooder out there may want to snatch her away from us,” Jacqueline says with an edge to her tone. “And look at this precious baby, she’s like a stray dog who has never been stroked. So I’m staying home today, maybe for a few days. You should too, Leire. It will be fun, just you and me and our little doll.”
My mouth hangs open.
“You know I can’t miss work! I can’t imagine how stressed I would be knowing the amount of overtime I’ll have to do when I return to the office. How would I rest if I knew I’m neglecting the growing pile of tasks and contracts to fulfill, and that the unmentionable pig will be fuming and cursing me under his breath as he digs into a bag of Doritos?”
The child’s misty-eyed gaze drifts over to me as if wondering why I’m raising such a ruckus.
“Sorry for disturbing you, daughter of the Ice Age,” I say. “I envy you: I wish Jacqueline would cradle me and run her fingers through my hair until I fell asleep in her arms, but instead I have to venture through the nightmarish modernity that awaits out there, because we need to earn our right to keep existing in a world that wants us gone and forgotten.”
The wild child tilts her head in puzzlement, but a wicked smirk spills across Jacqueline’s lips.
“I will take care of you soon enough, sweetie. If you feel more comfortable going to work, that’s fine. But I will message you often.”
“A-alright. What about our boss, though? Should I tell him that you’ve come down with diarrhea?”
“I’ll figure something out. That guy won’t be thrilled, but he wouldn’t dare to fire me. Anyway, I don’t want to think about work now. I’m going to cuddle this sweet morsel of happiness.”
A yawn overpowers me, so I nod as a response. I’m dizzy and exhausted. When I stretch my back, my vertebrae crackle like a bonfire. Every cell in my body wants to slink back to the warmth of Jacqueline’s bed.
So now what, I’ll prepare myself another coffee, take a shower, then look up on Google Maps what bus lines will carry me from the hills of Donostia to the business park where we work? I almost got mauled to death in the Ice Age. I’ve learned that we are surrounded by an invisible realm; although I would prefer to ignore it, its inhabitants will keep harassing me. That realm is separated from ours by a thin layer of glass that if it were to shatter, let’s say by a horse headbutting it, I would get sucked into the void between worlds.
Now we need to give this wild child the love she desperately needs. We’ll bathe her in a tub full of bubbles; feed her with pastries and ice cream; dress her in a pink tutu and a pair of slippers; tell her that everything she does is perfect, and that we admire her even when she breaks things in a fit of rage. Later on, when this cute kitten grows into a lovely young woman, she’ll stay at home forever, becoming our personal servant as we progress toward old age and decrepitude. That’s right: I want to grow old with Jacqueline, and this wild child will wipe my ass for me. The rest, like our world that has made us its slaves, or the creeping sickness that invades our brains, or the fact that I’m half-woman half-goat, I will gladly forsake.
How often do plans work out the way they should have, though? I never planned for such a life, one where a child born during the Ice Age has become our daughter. This child may become a powerful wizard one day, and leave us to fend for ourselves. Or she might get frozen to death at twenty-six while trying to save a baby penguin from drowning. But maybe it doesn’t matter whether this girl grows into a beautiful princess or the spawn of a fucking vampire, or whether we live in the Ice Age or in the cesspool of a modern city where strangers dump their loads on our heads. Maybe we can live for those little moments when we forget about our pain.
I’m likely going through a shock and trauma that no psychiatrist is trained to treat, not that I would rely on psychiatrists, because that industry is a scam. Apart from my usual despair at the knowledge that human beings other than Jacqueline exist and that I may be forced to deal with them, now I risk walking into invisible traps. My otherworldly stalkers sent me to a boreal forest with my tits and buttocks exposed; what if the next time they open the other end of that doorway above the throat of an active volcano? Or what if the bunnyman interrupts me as I’m taking a shit, then he clobbers me in the face with his dick? I can’t defend myself against anyone stronger than a child. Maybe I should start carrying around a flamethrower or a chainsaw.
I take a deep breath and try to keep the lump of dread from swelling inside my stomach. When I hold Jacqueline’s gaze, something in my eyes must have unsettled her, because she straightens her neck and furrows her brow.
“Jacqueline, where have you hidden Spike’s revolver?” I ask calmly.
My queen gasps. She attempts to rise to her feet, but the child is clinging to her.
I consider prying our adopted daughter away from Jacqueline. However, I suspect that the girl would bite me, as it befits a cannibal.
“From now on I intend to keep the revolver on my person at all times, even during sex,” I say. “I should order some sophisticated holster online, maybe one that also works as a strap-on dildo.”
Jacqueline’s expression has grown grim.
“Leire! Don’t you think you are exaggerating a bit?”
“Nope,” I reply with the assurance of one who knows that only bad news await us. “I usually defer to your wisdom, my beloved queen, but you haven’t looked up at the furry face of that extinct abomination as it was gearing itself up to swallow me whole. Pushing a bullet-shaped load of metal through the monster’s skull at supersonic speed would have surely saved me. Well, who knows if revolvers shoot at supersonic speeds, maybe just sniper rifles do. Am I being irrational? I don’t need rationality, I’m not running a bank. Perhaps the most logical approach would be to wipe the face of every otherworldly kidnapper with a thick coating of toothpaste, but I’m afraid that they might retaliate by drowning me in a bathtub full of semen. So I’m going to carry Spike’s revolver everywhere. If the police stops me, though, I’ll be fucked; the authorities want us defenseless so we’ll be easier to control.”
Jacqueline’s cheeks are flaming red. As her eyes lose their focus, she nuzzles the child’s disheveled hair.
My guts feel like a dead man’s hand is gripping them. I blink away a sudden rush of tears.
“I got snatched as I was walking into your bathroom to take a shower,” I say in a low, hoarse voice. “Even as a child I dreaded to shower: I feared that a demon would jump out of the tiles and pee on my head. The feeling that some fiend was crouching behind the shower curtain was so strong that sometimes I washed myself in the sink instead. Every time I walked past the bathroom, certain smells could trigger my fear: my dad’s aftershave, bleach, lemons… Even the scent of pizza became too much for me. In the end I only ate snacks that had been packed in plastic bags and stored for years. When I opened the bag, I often found them filled with sand instead of food. One time, I even ate the sand.”
Hot tears run down my cheeks. I shouldn’t be allowed to keep any pet more dangerous than a gerbil; I’m a pitiful, spineless wretch with no self-control and the brain capacity of a cockroach. I can’t even masturbate properly: I need a certain level of stress to reach an orgasm. My own family walked on eggshells around me until they couldn’t stand it anymore. Even an imaginary friend would run away from me screaming.
“When I was seven I wanted to be a ballet dancer and I begged my mom to take me to a ballet class,” I continue in a ragged voice, “but she said she’d rather die than let me take dance lessons. And she did. She did. You know, I missed you so much when I was in the Ice Age, Jacqueline. I can hardly believe that I found my way back home. In a billion parallel universes out there, I told you to look out for horses in case they barged into the bathroom, then we never saw each other again.”
Author’s note: today’s song is “Greens and Blues” by Pixies.
I used a neural network to generate images from this chapter. Here’s the link.