by Charles Hermesmann, 3.24am May 10th 2021
Martha’s son Thomas was a freak of nature. Not only had he survived a late-term abortion, but he’d also managed to live through being fed puréed carrots mixed with toilet bowl cleaner at the age of six months. As much as she hated having a son, and as much as she refused to believe in the existence of God, Martha began to pray on her knees every night—not for Thomas, but to Thomas: the Boy Master of Death. She asked him to forgive her for what she had done to him, because she reckoned that Thomas somehow knew, even as such a little child, the evil that she’d done. No matter how much she prayed she never regretted a thing.
Thomas grew older every year, as children do, but he never learned to speak, and although Martha was okay with that, she did admit that it was slightly eerie—and suspected it might have something to do with his unusual condition. He also refused to eat much other than bone broth, but one day Martha saw him peering at the toilet bowl cleaner she’d tucked away in the bathroom and even coming close enough to read the list of ingredients. It was either an uncanny coincidence that he’d be drawn to this particular bottle, or somehow his little mind remembered what his mother had done those many years ago. And so Thomas pulled a little medicine cup from the kitchen cabinet and filled it with the thick blue liquid, then slid the substance down his throat like it were a shot of whiskey. Martha only watched.
Thomas lived to his sixth birthday, and on the day of his party he baptized his kindergarten class in his mother’s hot tub like he’d seen done in church. This was cute for Martha to watch. The children filed into a single line before him and held out their hands to be touched by him, then allowed him to dunk their bodies underwater into the hot, rolling foam. When each child emerged, the others applauded and covered them towels. They played in the grass as Martha stood at the window, dunking dishes into soap.
Martha’s attempts to bring up an ordinary child failed repeatedly. When Thomas was eight, he stuffed the cat, Raven, inside a piano bench. Before his lesson, he took the cat and pressed his body firm against the wood, forced his bones to shift so they were parallel to the panel and closed the door. During the lesson, Thomas’s instructor ordered that he stop playing when she heard the sound of a faint mewing come from beneath her. She felt a mild jolt. When the instructor opened the bench, the cat sprung from its hiding place with a maniacal hiss, then sprinted off. That evening, Thomas indulged in his beverage of choice, the toilet bowl cleaner that has become his life’s nectar, drinking it in small doses from the same plastic cup. It continued day after day. Martha sometimes found the evidence, but let it be—it didn’t seem to be hurting him. His teeth were a bit crooked, not unlike other children his age, but otherwise his mouth had not decayed like she feared it might. The dentist took great pleasure in performing his teeth’s biannual cleaning. Down his throat the bleach went, through the spaces and nooks between each tooth; he liked to swish it around in the hollows of his cheeks and feel it burn at his gum before he swallowed.
It was raining on the day he died. The doctor told Martha “I’m so sorry” and said it was a rotten case of food poisoning—perhaps the spaghetti dinner she’d cooked that night. The meatballs, maybe. He said it was left to fate. Maybe he’d make it if his body could handle such strain. Thomas groaned for five more minutes until his head lolled to the side like a paperweight pulling down a balloon. Martha looked over his body and blinked twice. She wondered how she’d manage to cry at the funeral