The Liquid Animal

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When a zoo is closed, it sounds very different than when it’s open. The rising and falling babble of the crowds is replaced by a murmuring calm, gently broken here and there by the sounds of the animals feeding, breathing, relaxing, as their keepers tend to the daily housework.

It was evening, and the Williams Wildlife Zoo was preparing itself to sleep. Mr. Desmond Williams, after whom the zoo had been named, strolled through the wide thoroughfares in his pinstriped suit, taking in the quiet ambience and deeply inhaling the fertile air. What a wonder this place was. The sounds, the smells… It was almost as good as being there. It had been far too long since his last visit.

Desmond was fond of telling anyone who would listen that this zoo was the best investment he’d ever made. Not financially; no, he’d lost money on it for the past two years, in fact. But coming here, ah, it made him feel fresh and alive. It breathed new life into his old bones.

He paused at a railing and looked down into the lions’ enclosure. Three of the majestic beasts were lounging on a grassy hillock, their eyes reflecting the moonlight. “Be well, my friends,” said Desmond.

In the gorilla pens, a zookeeper was spraying down the painted concrete backdrops with a hose. Desmond called, “Hello!” The keeper smiled back and gave a wave. They were far more sincere, the greetings of these zoo staff, than those he encountered in the business world, where every smile had an agenda. If the zoo could only be as profitable as his real estate business, Desmond knew he would gladly retire from that predatory, soul-sapping corporate jungle.

For now, he had his walks.

Desmond rounded the bend towards the far reaches of the zoo, where the most exciting and exotic animals were kept. A new display was being constructed back here. It had been in the works for several weeks, from the look of it. Desmond wondered what it was for. As the zoo’s majority owner, he had probably received emails about it, but he didn’t have time to read all of those. He left most of the zoo’s operational decisions to the management team he had put in place. In the case of his zoo, he preferred not to mix business and pleasure.

The new display was fronted by tall, thick glass walls that had been papered off with promotional posters and banners. “COMING SOON,” they read; “FROM THE UNEXPLORED DEPTHS OF THE SEA: THE LIQUID ANIMAL.”

A liquid animal? Desmond wondered what that might mean. The gaudy colours and provocative phrasing of the posters put him in mind of a travelling circus. He would have to discuss that with the management. The zoo was meant to be a refuge of nature, a safari, not a cheap, glitzy show.

Desmond stepped up to the glass and tried to peer between two of the posters to see what laid within the enclosure. A large, rectangular tank of some sort was inside. Its sides, too, were papered over.

Something tapped Desmond on the shoulder. He spun around.

“Can I help you?” said a zookeeper. The keeper was a short man wearing a uniform that fitted him too tightly so that the fabric was taut at all the seams. He wore a hat low over his eyes, shadowing his face, but Desmond could see that he had a patchy beard and a soft, round chin. He wasn’t wearing a nametag.

“I’m Desmond Williams,” said Desmond. “I’m the owner.” He held out his hand to shake. The zookeeper’s skin was clammy, moist, and pale, and so thin that it was almost translucent. Desmond could see every narrow blue vein in the man’s wrist. He resisted the impolite urge to wipe his hand off on his pants after shaking. “I was just wondering,” he continued, “what, exactly, is going to be in this display.”

“Easier to show you,” said the zookeeper.

“It’s already here?”

“Arrived on Tuesday. Wanna take a look?”

“Why not?” said Desmond.

The zookeeper led Desmond around the side of the enclosure, walking smoothly, fluidly, almost like he was underwater. They entered an EMPLOYEES ONLY door set into a faux-rock wall that led to a dark stairway. The cheap fluorescent lights flickered as they came on, and the two men’s footsteps echoed as they climbed up the narrow stairs. They passed through a shadowy storage room filled with boxes and a couple of humming computers and came out onto a raised platform that overlooked the tank Desmond had seen through the glass. Scaffolding was built up the sides of the platform, and a half-constructed roof hung partially over the tank. The tank itself was about 30 feet long by 15 feet wide. It was covered over with a heavy tarp.

“What’s in there?” asked Desmond.

“It was on the posters,” said the zookeeper, with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “This is our liquid animal.”

“Uh huh,” said Desmond. “What does that even mean?”

“It’s a life form that exists in a liquid state. They found it deep in an underwater chasm.”

“You’ll forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical of that claim.”

“They all were,” said the zookeeper. “I can uncover it for you, if you’d like some proof.”

“Why is it covered up in the first place?” asked Desmond.

“Security, mostly,” explained the zookeeper. “Plus it doesn’t much like direct sunlight. That’s why we’re building the roof over it.” He stepped up to one end of the tank and began turning a wheel that rolled the tarp back.

The tank was filled to within about two feet of the top. At first Desmond could only see dusty, pale liquid, like water heavily saturated with salt. Then he caught his first glimpse of a silvery, viscous shape, its edges undulating slowly. When the tarp had been fully withdrawn, he saw that the shape took up about a third of the volume of the tank. Its colour and viscosity put him in mind of an aggregation of mercury. Different parts of it reached out and withdrew independently of one another, probing the edges of the tank as if testing for weaknesses.

“That’s an animal?” said Desmond, incredulous.

“Pretty special, isn’t it?” said the zookeeper. “Take a closer look.”

Desmond found he didn’t need the encouragement. His feet were approaching the edge of the platform of their own accord, and he knelt to bring his face a bit closer to the fascinating sight. He said, “What have they learned about—”

Then he felt two moist palms gripping his neck and his arm, and he was falling forwards. He barely had time to close his eyes and mouth before he hit the water and began to sink beneath the surface.

Desmond kicked his legs and reached for air, but his legs wouldn’t move. He forced his eyes open and looked down, through the silty water. Two thick strands had reached up from the silvery mass and wrapped themselves around his feet. As he tried to pull himself free, a long, thin tendril shot up towards his face. He closed his eyes and swung his arms up in front of him.

Something pressed in on his temples. He felt warm, and a bit dizzy. Then the pressure on his feet released and he thrashed his way to the surface. Gasping and coughing, he clung to the edge of the tank.

The zookeeper leaned down and caught Desmond by the wrist. With surprising strength, he hauled Desmond up and out of the tank, back onto the platform.

“You…” coughed Desmond. “You pushed me!”

The zookeeper, as he stood over Desmond, gave the businessman a curious look. “What are you doing?” he said. “Why did you fight it?”

“What was I supposed to do?” said Desmond. “Should I have let myself drown?”

The zookeeper just tilted his hat back a bit and scratched his temple. Desmond saw that the skin of the man’s face had the same pale translucence as his hands, and the pupils of his eyes were a clear, creamy white.

“I’m going to make sure you get fired for this,” said Desmond, furiously pushing himself to his feet. “You’ll be lucky if I don’t press criminal charges!”

“Yes, sir,” said the zookeeper mildly. “I’ll be here when you want to find me. Shouldn’t be long.” He pulled the edge of the tarp out and began to turn the wheel to draw it back over the tank.

Desmond took a deep breath before his temper could take any further hold on him. He opened his mouth to continue haranguing the man, but found he had nothing further to say, so instead he turned and stomped out through the storage room, down the stairs, and back to the zoo path, dripping a trail of water behind him and squelching in his shoes.

As he stormed back to the zoo entrance, wringing out his shirt, Desmond tilted his head to the side to get a drop of water out of his ear, but no matter how much he tilted and shook his head it wouldn’t come. He sighed at the annoyance.

One of the security guards at the entrance pointed Desmond to the zoo’s gift shop, where he grabbed some dry, though overpriced, zoo-branded clothing. The dampness of his skin and hair was making Desmond shiver. He hurried to the parking lot, climbed into his car, and cranked up the heat. Kicking off his soggy shoes, he drove barefoot.

Desmond turned himself towards home. The highway was a frenzied confusion of lights and noise. As he sat waiting for a set of traffic lights to complete their next cycle, Desmond found his vision beginning to blur. The sounds washing in through his windows were all blending together into a jumbled mess. Somewhere, a car alarm was going off, and Desmond heard honking, honking, honking…

Someone knocked at Desmond’s window. He fought himself out of the haze and jammed at the button to roll the window down.

A very frustrated-looking woman was leaning over him. “Are you going to get this car moving?” she demanded.

“Um…” said Desmond.

“Sir?”

“Do you… have any water?” said Desmond. “It’s just that I’m so thirsty.”

“You don’t look so good,” said the woman. “Should you be driving right now?”

“Just, just thirsty,” said Desmond.

“Are you feeling all right? Do you want me to call someone?”

“No,” said Desmond, “I’m just… No, thank you.” He rolled the window up, saw that the light was green, and stomped on the gas. Struggling in and out of the strange fog that had descended on him, willing himself to remain awake, he drove.

Some time later, he found himself at home.

His wife, Kate, greeted him at the door. “Des!” she said, as Desmond wobbled past her into the house. “Where are your shoes? And what happened to the car?”

“What?”

“The front bumper is all crunched in.”

“It is? I don’t know what…” Desmond trailed off, stared down at his still-bare feet, then stumbled into the kitchen and fumbled in a cupboard for a drinking glass. The glass slipped out of his grip and shattered on the floor. Fighting to control his shaking hands, Desmond grabbed at another, with the same result.

“Des!” said Kate.

Ignoring her, Desmond turned to the sink, slammed on the water, and put his head under the stream, letting it flow into his mouth. He spluttered and swallowed, more water, more.

Kate turned off the water and grabbed Desmond under the arms as he sank to the floor. “Des, what’s going on?”

Desmond sat back against the dishwasher, panting. It felt like there was water in his eyes. Tears? No. Maybe. He tried to blink it away. Kate’s voice sounded so distant, distorted, murky, like he was hearing her from underwater.

“You’re… You’re all wet and clammy,” she said.

Something churned in Desmond’s stomach. He rolled onto his side, gulped, retched, and then puked onto the floor. His vomit came out thin and pale green, just bile and water.

Des!

A ray of clarity cut through the fog in Desmond’s mind. “Kate… I feel really awful.”

“You look awful! What did you eat today? Maybe you have food poisoning.”

“I… don’t know… I’m just so thirsty.”

“Come on into the bathroom.” Kate pulled Desmond to his feet and supported his weight as she led him out of the kitchen and down the hall. His knees were wobbling, and his hands and arms were starting to twitch.

They made it to the bathroom just in time for Desmond to throw up again into the toilet.

“Feel any better?” asked Kate.

Desmond was trembling so badly now that he couldn’t shake his head to tell her “No.” Through chattering teeth, he said, “C-c-can’t think straight.”

“What happened, Des? Did you hit your head when you crashed the car?”

“I d-don’t remember c-crashing.”

“Not at all? You might have a concussion. We should get you to a doctor.” Kate helped Desmond stand again and brought him in front of the mirror. “Here,” she said, filling a cup with water. “Wash the taste out of your mouth.”

But Desmond took no notice of the offered cup. He quavered as he stared into his own reflection, taking in the paleness of his skin, the swelling of his cheeks, the fading colour of his once emerald-green eyes. He closed his eyes and saw that silvery tendril snaking through the water towards him, felt the warm sensation of that drop of liquid in his ear that wouldn’t come out…

He was so thirsty.

Desmond batted away the cup of water in his wife’s hand. “No!” he shouted. “No more water!”

“What—”

Frantically undoing the button and zipper of the zoo-branded shorts he was wearing, Desmond sank onto the toilet and began to relieve himself, forcing every last drop of urine out of his system.

“Desmond, what are you doing?”

“The zoo,” he choked out. “A l-liquid animal… S-something inside me, taking me over. Can’t think straight…”

“You aren’t making any sense!”

“Sh-shut off the water,” ordered Desmond.

“What?”

As he peed, Desmond’s mind grew clearer and clearer, but the shaking intensified. He kept talking. “P-put a chair under the handle of the b-bathroom door. L-lock me in. Then g-go shut off the w-water main, in the b-box beside the garage.”

“You’re scaring me, Des.”

D-do what I say.” The guttural command bubbled up out of Desmond’s throat like a threat.

Tears sprang into Kate’s eyes, but she nodded and fled the room, yanking the bathroom door shut behind her. Desmond heard her moving something around in the hallway.

He kicked his shorts away from around his ankles, pulled his underwear back up, and flushed the toilet. The sound of the running water made his mind swirl, but he gritted his teeth and fought to stay lucid. When he heard the front door open, he grabbed the counter and used it to lift himself to his feet. Working his way to the bathroom door, he rattled the handle and shoved. The door wouldn’t budge. He pushed harder. It shifted a little, but only an inch. If he had been a younger man, he might have been able to overcome this obstacle, but he was decades past his prime. He couldn’t get out.

Desmond started to panic, and the fog rolled in across his mind. Water. He was so thirsty. He turned on the water in the sink and drank frantically from his hands, but the stream quickly trickled away into nothing. “No!” he shouted, pounding the countertop. He licked every clinging drop off of his fingers.

Holding his mouth under the bathtub faucet, Desmond cranked the taps open. A few seconds’ worth of water held inside the pipes washed over his face and down his throat, and then it, too, was empty.

Ah, the toilet bowl still held water. Desperate to satisfy his uncontrollable thirst, Desmond flung up the seat and plunged his head into the toilet, sucking down every mouthful he could reach, heedless of anything but his need for more fluid, more water. He did the same with the tank. The shaking all over his body abated somewhat, and he sat on the edge of the bathtub breathing deeply.

It wasn’t enough. He needed more.

No, no more water. It was taking him over. He had to starve it. He had to fight.

“Desmond!?” Kate was at the bathroom door.

“D-don’t come in!” Desmond warned. “Kate… C-crank the heat up!”

“Why, Des? What’s happening in there?”

“I n-need to sweat it out. To g-get it out of me.”

“Sweat what out? What’s in you?”

“Just do it!”

Desmond listened to Kate’s footsteps in the hall as she obediently went to the thermostat, followed by a beep, beep, beep as she raised the heat.

“M-more!” called Des. “As high as p-p-possible!”

Beep, beep, beep.

Desmond heard the increasing hum of the electric furnace downstairs and felt hot air start to circulate into the bathroom. He leaned over, reached up, and slapped the switch to turn on the heat lamp.

The temperature started to climb.

Beads of sweat quickly broke out all over Desmond’s body. He peeled the damp t-shirt off of his tense, aching back with quivering fingers, and flung it towards the door in a paroxysm of futile rage. It fell limply a few feet away. He hugged himself around his shoulders to still the powerful shakes that wracked his body as he rocked back and forth on the edge of the tub.

The pounding of blood in his ears blocked out all other sound. Rivulets of sweat ran down his face, chest, and legs, making small pools on the floor tiles. At one point, Desmond slipped down off the edge of the tub onto the floor and began licking at the pools of sweat, but the tiles sizzled on his tongue and the sweat quickly evaporated. He resorted to wiping his hands slowly over his body and sucking his fingers.

How much time passed in that hellish, dehydrating heat? Desmond didn’t know, couldn’t tell, but slowly, slowly, his mind was clearing. The overpowering urge to pour some liquid—any liquid—down his throat was beginning to melt away. He became intensely aware of the cracks and fissures in his tongue and the roof of his mouth, the slickness of the skin on his face, the rolling and squirming of that one drop of liquid inside his ear…

Without warning, Desmond’s stomach gave a mighty heave. He reacted just in time to direct the thin, liquid vomit into the bathtub. His chest cavity contracted violently, over and over again, coating the bathtub with stomach acid. He felt a faint drip of urine run down his leg, and then a squirming, ticklish dribbling in his ear.

He gritted his teeth, shuddering uncontrollably, as that one drop of liquid wormed its way out of his ear and fell, plip, into the bathtub.

Every muscle in Desmond’s body instantly released. He collapsed, his lower body splayed across the floor and his head and arms hanging into the bathtub.

“Kate,” he croaked. “Kaaate…”

In an instant, his wife was kneeling at his side, draping herself over him, sobbing. Her tears fell on Desmond’s cheek, and he lapped at them feebly with his tongue.

“Des, Des… Are you okay? Is it gone?”

Through dry eyes, Desmond watched a drop of thick silver in the bathtub wind its way through what had once been the contents of his stomach, reach the drain, and swirl down into the darkness.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s gone.”

When a zoo is closed, it sounds very different than when it’s open. The rising and falling babble of the crowds is replaced by a murmuring calm, gently broken here and there by the sounds of the animals feeding, breathing, relaxing, as their keepers tend to the daily housework.

It was evening, and the Williams Wildlife Zoo was preparing itself to sleep. Mr. Desmond Williams, after whom the zoo had been named, strolled through the wide thoroughfares in his pinstriped suit, taking in the quiet ambience and deeply inhaling the fertile air. What a wonder this place was. The sounds, the smells… It was almost as good as being there. It had been far too long since his last visit.

Desmond was fond of telling anyone who would listen that this zoo was the best investment he’d ever made. Not financially; no, he’d lost money on it for the past two years, in fact. But coming here, ah, it made him feel fresh and alive. It breathed new life into his old bones.

He paused at a railing and looked down into the lions’ enclosure. Three of the majestic beasts were lounging on a grassy hillock, their eyes reflecting the moonlight. “Be well, my friends,” said Desmond.

In the gorilla pens, a zookeeper was spraying down the painted concrete backdrops with a hose. Desmond called, “Hello!” The keeper smiled back and gave a wave. They were far more sincere, the greetings of these zoo staff, than those he encountered in the business world, where every smile had an agenda. If the zoo could only be as profitable as his real estate business, Desmond knew he would gladly retire from that predatory, soul-sapping corporate jungle.

For now, he had his walks.

Desmond rounded the bend towards the far reaches of the zoo, where the most exciting and exotic animals were kept. A new display was being constructed back here. It had been in the works for several weeks, from the look of it. Desmond wondered what it was for. As the zoo’s majority owner, he had probably received emails about it, but he didn’t have time to read all of those. He left most of the zoo’s operational decisions to the management team he had put in place. In the case of his zoo, he preferred not to mix business and pleasure.

The new display was fronted by tall, thick glass walls that had been papered off with promotional posters and banners. “COMING SOON,” they read; “FROM THE UNEXPLORED DEPTHS OF THE SEA: THE LIQUID ANIMAL.”

A liquid animal? Desmond wondered what that might mean. The gaudy colours and provocative phrasing of the posters put him in mind of a travelling circus. He would have to discuss that with the management. The zoo was meant to be a refuge of nature, a safari, not a cheap, glitzy show.

Desmond stepped up to the glass and tried to peer between two of the posters to see what laid within the enclosure. A large, rectangular tank of some sort was inside. Its sides, too, were papered over.

Something tapped Desmond on the shoulder. He spun around.

“Can I help you?” said a zookeeper. The keeper was a short man wearing a uniform that fitted him too tightly so that the fabric was taut at all the seams. He wore a hat low over his eyes, shadowing his face, but Desmond could see that he had a patchy beard and a soft, round chin. He wasn’t wearing a nametag.

“I’m Desmond Williams,” said Desmond. “I’m the owner.” He held out his hand to shake. The zookeeper’s skin was clammy, moist, and pale, and so thin that it was almost translucent. Desmond could see every narrow blue vein in the man’s wrist. He resisted the impolite urge to wipe his hand off on his pants after shaking. “I was just wondering,” he continued, “what, exactly, is going to be in this display.”

“Easier to show you,” said the zookeeper.

“It’s already here?”

“Arrived on Tuesday. Wanna take a look?”

“Why not?” said Desmond.

The zookeeper led Desmond around the side of the enclosure, walking smoothly, fluidly, almost like he was underwater. They entered an EMPLOYEES ONLY door set into a faux-rock wall that led to a dark stairway. The cheap fluorescent lights flickered as they came on, and the two men’s footsteps echoed as they climbed up the narrow stairs. They passed through a shadowy storage room filled with boxes and a couple of humming computers and came out onto a raised platform that overlooked the tank Desmond had seen through the glass. Scaffolding was built up the sides of the platform, and a half-constructed roof hung partially over the tank. The tank itself was about 30 feet long by 15 feet wide. It was covered over with a heavy tarp.

“What’s in there?” asked Desmond.

“It was on the posters,” said the zookeeper, with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “This is our liquid animal.”

“Uh huh,” said Desmond. “What does that even mean?”

“It’s a life form that exists in a liquid state. They found it deep in an underwater chasm.”

“You’ll forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical of that claim.”

“They all were,” said the zookeeper. “I can uncover it for you, if you’d like some proof.”

“Why is it covered up in the first place?” asked Desmond.

“Security, mostly,” explained the zookeeper. “Plus it doesn’t much like direct sunlight. That’s why we’re building the roof over it.” He stepped up to one end of the tank and began turning a wheel that rolled the tarp back.

The tank was filled to within about two feet of the top. At first Desmond could only see dusty, pale liquid, like water heavily saturated with salt. Then he caught his first glimpse of a silvery, viscous shape, its edges undulating slowly. When the tarp had been fully withdrawn, he saw that the shape took up about a third of the volume of the tank. Its colour and viscosity put him in mind of an aggregation of mercury. Different parts of it reached out and withdrew independently of one another, probing the edges of the tank as if testing for weaknesses.

“That’s an animal?” said Desmond, incredulous.

“Pretty special, isn’t it?” said the zookeeper. “Take a closer look.”

Desmond found he didn’t need the encouragement. His feet were approaching the edge of the platform of their own accord, and he knelt to bring his face a bit closer to the fascinating sight. He said, “What have they learned about—”

Then he felt two moist palms gripping his neck and his arm, and he was falling forwards. He barely had time to close his eyes and mouth before he hit the water and began to sink beneath the surface.

Desmond kicked his legs and reached for air, but his legs wouldn’t move. He forced his eyes open and looked down, through the silty water. Two thick strands had reached up from the silvery mass and wrapped themselves around his feet. As he tried to pull himself free, a long, thin tendril shot up towards his face. He closed his eyes and swung his arms up in front of him.

Something pressed in on his temples. He felt warm, and a bit dizzy. Then the pressure on his feet released and he thrashed his way to the surface. Gasping and coughing, he clung to the edge of the tank.

The zookeeper leaned down and caught Desmond by the wrist. With surprising strength, he hauled Desmond up and out of the tank, back onto the platform.

“You…” coughed Desmond. “You pushed me!”

The zookeeper, as he stood over Desmond, gave the businessman a curious look. “What are you doing?” he said. “Why did you fight it?”

“What was I supposed to do?” said Desmond. “Should I have let myself drown?”

The zookeeper just tilted his hat back a bit and scratched his temple. Desmond saw that the skin of the man’s face had the same pale translucence as his hands, and the pupils of his eyes were a clear, creamy white.

“I’m going to make sure you get fired for this,” said Desmond, furiously pushing himself to his feet. “You’ll be lucky if I don’t press criminal charges!”

“Yes, sir,” said the zookeeper mildly. “I’ll be here when you want to find me. Shouldn’t be long.” He pulled the edge of the tarp out and began to turn the wheel to draw it back over the tank.

Desmond took a deep breath before his temper could take any further hold on him. He opened his mouth to continue haranguing the man, but found he had nothing further to say, so instead he turned and stomped out through the storage room, down the stairs, and back to the zoo path, dripping a trail of water behind him and squelching in his shoes.

As he stormed back to the zoo entrance, wringing out his shirt, Desmond tilted his head to the side to get a drop of water out of his ear, but no matter how much he tilted and shook his head it wouldn’t come. He sighed at the annoyance.

One of the security guards at the entrance pointed Desmond to the zoo’s gift shop, where he grabbed some dry, though overpriced, zoo-branded clothing. The dampness of his skin and hair was making Desmond shiver. He hurried to the parking lot, climbed into his car, and cranked up the heat. Kicking off his soggy shoes, he drove barefoot.

Desmond turned himself towards home. The highway was a frenzied confusion of lights and noise. As he sat waiting for a set of traffic lights to complete their next cycle, Desmond found his vision beginning to blur. The sounds washing in through his windows were all blending together into a jumbled mess. Somewhere, a car alarm was going off, and Desmond heard honking, honking, honking…

Someone knocked at Desmond’s window. He fought himself out of the haze and jammed at the button to roll the window down.

A very frustrated-looking woman was leaning over him. “Are you going to get this car moving?” she demanded.

“Um…” said Desmond.

“Sir?”

“Do you… have any water?” said Desmond. “It’s just that I’m so thirsty.”

“You don’t look so good,” said the woman. “Should you be driving right now?”

“Just, just thirsty,” said Desmond.

“Are you feeling all right? Do you want me to call someone?”

“No,” said Desmond, “I’m just… No, thank you.” He rolled the window up, saw that the light was green, and stomped on the gas. Struggling in and out of the strange fog that had descended on him, willing himself to remain awake, he drove.

Some time later, he found himself at home.

His wife, Kate, greeted him at the door. “Des!” she said, as Desmond wobbled past her into the house. “Where are your shoes? And what happened to the car?”

“What?”

“The front bumper is all crunched in.”

“It is? I don’t know what…” Desmond trailed off, stared down at his still-bare feet, then stumbled into the kitchen and fumbled in a cupboard for a drinking glass. The glass slipped out of his grip and shattered on the floor. Fighting to control his shaking hands, Desmond grabbed at another, with the same result.

“Des!” said Kate.

Ignoring her, Desmond turned to the sink, slammed on the water, and put his head under the stream, letting it flow into his mouth. He spluttered and swallowed, more water, more.

Kate turned off the water and grabbed Desmond under the arms as he sank to the floor. “Des, what’s going on?”

Desmond sat back against the dishwasher, panting. It felt like there was water in his eyes. Tears? No. Maybe. He tried to blink it away. Kate’s voice sounded so distant, distorted, murky, like he was hearing her from underwater.

“You’re… You’re all wet and clammy,” she said.

Something churned in Desmond’s stomach. He rolled onto his side, gulped, retched, and then puked onto the floor. His vomit came out thin and pale green, just bile and water.

Des!

A ray of clarity cut through the fog in Desmond’s mind. “Kate… I feel really awful.”

“You look awful! What did you eat today? Maybe you have food poisoning.”

“I… don’t know… I’m just so thirsty.”

“Come on into the bathroom.” Kate pulled Desmond to his feet and supported his weight as she led him out of the kitchen and down the hall. His knees were wobbling, and his hands and arms were starting to twitch.

They made it to the bathroom just in time for Desmond to throw up again into the toilet.

“Feel any better?” asked Kate.

Desmond was trembling so badly now that he couldn’t shake his head to tell her “No.” Through chattering teeth, he said, “C-c-can’t think straight.”

“What happened, Des? Did you hit your head when you crashed the car?”

“I d-don’t remember c-crashing.”

“Not at all? You might have a concussion. We should get you to a doctor.” Kate helped Desmond stand again and brought him in front of the mirror. “Here,” she said, filling a cup with water. “Wash the taste out of your mouth.”

But Desmond took no notice of the offered cup. He quavered as he stared into his own reflection, taking in the paleness of his skin, the swelling of his cheeks, the fading colour of his once emerald-green eyes. He closed his eyes and saw that silvery tendril snaking through the water towards him, felt the warm sensation of that drop of liquid in his ear that wouldn’t come out…

He was so thirsty.

Desmond batted away the cup of water in his wife’s hand. “No!” he shouted. “No more water!”

“What—”

Frantically undoing the button and zipper of the zoo-branded shorts he was wearing, Desmond sank onto the toilet and began to relieve himself, forcing every last drop of urine out of his system.

“Desmond, what are you doing?”

“The zoo,” he choked out. “A l-liquid animal… S-something inside me, taking me over. Can’t think straight…”

“You aren’t making any sense!”

“Sh-shut off the water,” ordered Desmond.

“What?”

As he peed, Desmond’s mind grew clearer and clearer, but the shaking intensified. He kept talking. “P-put a chair under the handle of the b-bathroom door. L-lock me in. Then g-go shut off the w-water main, in the b-box beside the garage.”

“You’re scaring me, Des.”

D-do what I say.” The guttural command bubbled up out of Desmond’s throat like a threat.

Tears sprang into Kate’s eyes, but she nodded and fled the room, yanking the bathroom door shut behind her. Desmond heard her moving something around in the hallway.

He kicked his shorts away from around his ankles, pulled his underwear back up, and flushed the toilet. The sound of the running water made his mind swirl, but he gritted his teeth and fought to stay lucid. When he heard the front door open, he grabbed the counter and used it to lift himself to his feet. Working his way to the bathroom door, he rattled the handle and shoved. The door wouldn’t budge. He pushed harder. It shifted a little, but only an inch. If he had been a younger man, he might have been able to overcome this obstacle, but he was decades past his prime. He couldn’t get out.

Desmond started to panic, and the fog rolled in across his mind. Water. He was so thirsty. He turned on the water in the sink and drank frantically from his hands, but the stream quickly trickled away into nothing. “No!” he shouted, pounding the countertop. He licked every clinging drop off of his fingers.

Holding his mouth under the bathtub faucet, Desmond cranked the taps open. A few seconds’ worth of water held inside the pipes washed over his face and down his throat, and then it, too, was empty.

Ah, the toilet bowl still held water. Desperate to satisfy his uncontrollable thirst, Desmond flung up the seat and plunged his head into the toilet, sucking down every mouthful he could reach, heedless of anything but his need for more fluid, more water. He did the same with the tank. The shaking all over his body abated somewhat, and he sat on the edge of the bathtub breathing deeply.

It wasn’t enough. He needed more.

No, no more water. It was taking him over. He had to starve it. He had to fight.

“Desmond!?” Kate was at the bathroom door.

“D-don’t come in!” Desmond warned. “Kate… C-crank the heat up!”

“Why, Des? What’s happening in there?”

“I n-need to sweat it out. To g-get it out of me.”

“Sweat what out? What’s in you?”

“Just do it!”

Desmond listened to Kate’s footsteps in the hall as she obediently went to the thermostat, followed by a beep, beep, beep as she raised the heat.

“M-more!” called Des. “As high as p-p-possible!”

Beep, beep, beep.

Desmond heard the increasing hum of the electric furnace downstairs and felt hot air start to circulate into the bathroom. He leaned over, reached up, and slapped the switch to turn on the heat lamp.

The temperature started to climb.

Beads of sweat quickly broke out all over Desmond’s body. He peeled the damp t-shirt off of his tense, aching back with quivering fingers, and flung it towards the door in a paroxysm of futile rage. It fell limply a few feet away. He hugged himself around his shoulders to still the powerful shakes that wracked his body as he rocked back and forth on the edge of the tub.

The pounding of blood in his ears blocked out all other sound. Rivulets of sweat ran down his face, chest, and legs, making small pools on the floor tiles. At one point, Desmond slipped down off the edge of the tub onto the floor and began licking at the pools of sweat, but the tiles sizzled on his tongue and the sweat quickly evaporated. He resorted to wiping his hands slowly over his body and sucking his fingers.

How much time passed in that hellish, dehydrating heat? Desmond didn’t know, couldn’t tell, but slowly, slowly, his mind was clearing. The overpowering urge to pour some liquid—any liquid—down his throat was beginning to melt away. He became intensely aware of the cracks and fissures in his tongue and the roof of his mouth, the slickness of the skin on his face, the rolling and squirming of that one drop of liquid inside his ear…

Without warning, Desmond’s stomach gave a mighty heave. He reacted just in time to direct the thin, liquid vomit into the bathtub. His chest cavity contracted violently, over and over again, coating the bathtub with stomach acid. He felt a faint drip of urine run down his leg, and then a squirming, ticklish dribbling in his ear.

He gritted his teeth, shuddering uncontrollably, as that one drop of liquid wormed its way out of his ear and fell, plip, into the bathtub.

Every muscle in Desmond’s body instantly released. He collapsed, his lower body splayed across the floor and his head and arms hanging into the bathtub.

“Kate,” he croaked. “Kaaate…”

In an instant, his wife was kneeling at his side, draping herself over him, sobbing. Her tears fell on Desmond’s cheek, and he lapped at them feebly with his tongue.

“Des, Des… Are you okay? Is it gone?”

Through dry eyes, Desmond watched a drop of thick silver in the bathtub wind its way through what had once been the contents of his stomach, reach the drain, and swirl down into the darkness.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s gone.”

END

This story was based on the 50-word story Liquid Life Forms.

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