Raising Tom Chambers
The wound became pink, and then red, with angry streaks that webbed across the back of her hand. It itched incessantly and it wouldn’t heal, no matter how much salve she applied.
At night, Tom Chambers was restless. His little body, now a full nine inches in length, was warm to the touch at first, and then it was like the handle of a skillet, left too long on a stovetop.
Within a week the wound was weeping clear fluid, then clots of greenish pus.
Tom Chambers became weak. There were days when he wouldn’t move at all, and his respiration was shallow.
On one of those sluggish days, Penny finally decided to leave the bluff in search of medicine. She wasn’t sure if any of it still worked, but she had to try.
She was in the doctor’s office, a little place with a faded sign that read Grace Sagcal, M.D., General Practice out front, when Tom Chambers died. She was in the pharmacy, reading the labels on the orange plastic bottles, when he became agitated. She felt his head moving from side to side.
“Oh!” she said, startled. “Tom! Tommy, what is it, little one?”
The Astra moved his head back and forth, as though registering a brisk “no,” then he grasped the sides of her ribcage with his little fingers and began to extricate himself from her.
“Oh no, Tom! No, honey, please—please, just stay still. I’m working on it! Just give me a few more minutes and I’ll have our medicine. It’s nothing. Oh, Tom, it’s nothing!”
She was blubbering, on the verge of complete collapse, and now the Astra seemingly couldn’t wait to be free of her. It squirmed at her side, wriggling its head to and fro, and then, with a gusher of fluid and an audible “pop,” he was free. The creature slipped out of the harness she’d sewn into her shirt and fell to the hard tile of the pharmacy floor.
“Oh God! Oh my God!” Penny shrieked. “Tom! Tommy, honey!”
She fell to her knees and scooped him up. He moved weakly in her cupped hands, his gore-slicked mandibles clacking together, the sound like castanets. Tom Chambers lacked eyes with which to see her, but it didn’t matter to Penny Crump. She knew they saw each other—really saw each other—in that moment.
The creature hitched in a half dozen ragged breaths and then the pincers clacked together and apart again and then he was gone, shuddering in her hands, his fingers and toes stilling suddenly.
“Oh, no,” she gasped, pushing the Astra’s corpse to her cheek; the sobs coursed through her, pushing her grief to the surface, where it bubbled out of her in torrents. Her tears mixed with bubbles of snot on her upper lip and she found it hard to breathe, her sorrow was so complete. “No. No. No. No!”
She crumpled to the ground, Tom Chambers clutched tight to her chest and, when she’d exhausted herself in her grief, she fell into a deep and tortured sleep.
She slept through the afternoon and the night and, when she woke the next morning, the storm clouds had invaded the gorge. A cold wind blew across the Columbia Plateau. Penny Crump stood and scooped up as much of the medicine as she could carry. She took Tom Chambers home and placed him in a casket she fashioned from an old apple box.
The rain fell the rest of the afternoon, softening the ground in the small cemetery she created behind the house. The next day she buried Tom Chambers and, after saying a few words over his marker, she retreated inside.