And there he was eating a sandwich, and it was just an ordinary sandwich with no particular lumps in it, she thought it was ham and tomato, it doesn’t matter what, but the sandwich was smooth—and he was telling her a funny story from work, and it wasn’t that funny really, but he was laughing and so she was laughing too—and then suddenly he stopped—the chewing, the talking, the laughing, all of it, stopped—his eyes popped out, his mouth fell open—he put a hand up to his throat in what looked like wonder, and then his knees buckled and he went down to the kitchen floor, hard, and he didn’t care it was hard because he wasn’t going to get up again, was he?—“What is it?” she cried at him, “what’s wrong?”, but he was beyond speech now, his eyes rolling in their sockets, he was choking, she should hit him on the back, or, or get him a glass of water, or, or—but then the eyes stopped their rolling, all that rolling came to an end and they stared straight ahead and not at her, and the body shuddered and then (and this was worse) stopped shuddering, and in one final heave he sprayed out the contents of his mouth. And she noticed that the sandwich hadn’t been ham and tomato after all. It looked like egg mayo. So. There you go.
She thought she might scream. Was she going to scream? She thought she might. Because it was all so quiet, wasn’t it? Half an hour ago she’d asked him what he’d like for dinner. What, ten minutes after that, she’d asked if he could help her on Saturday with the supermarket run. She thought she might scream, because he was dead, wasn’t he, was he definitely dead? (Yes.) Her beautiful husband was dead, although even as she looked at him now she thought he wasn’t all that beautiful. He’d run a bit to seed, his skin had blotched, that extra weight he’d always talked about shifting had never actually shifted at all. Oh, and there was that single black hair growing out of his nostril.
She’d scream. It was decided. But just then, she started in surprise.
Because his face seemed to quiver. The eyes stayed dead, the mouth stayed dead, but there was a quiver, and she looked and looked and it seemed to come from his throat. The throat rippled. Then bulged, something was trying to get out. Something was heaving against the constraints of the skin—and then it gave an almighty shove, and the force jerked the head so it arced backwards and left the neck jutting up towards the ceiling. The skin broke. There was blood, and there was sinew, and there was a little hand tearing through and reaching out into the light, scrabbling for purchase, grabbing on to the chin finally to haul itself out—all of it, out, its head, the shoulders, the little bloodied body beneath, this little mannequin, her husband.
She gawped at him. He gasped for breath. Steadied, then glared at her. “What the fuck are you looking at?” he said. He was covered with gore. “Well, get me a fucking towel.”
She rinsed the towel with warm water, and sponged him down the best she could. “Not so hard, you want to rub my fucking skin off?” It was her husband, naked, and no bigger than six inches tall from head to toe. And he was young and handsome, the way he used to be.
“I’m hungry,” he said. “Peanuts.”
“I want peanuts.”
“We don’t have peanuts.”
She was stooped towards him, and he slapped her hard across the face. “Liar!” he shrieked. “You better not be holding out on me!” His voice was high and tinny, like a record sped up, she thought she might laugh. He slapped her again, and this time he used his itty bitty nails, and there was blood.
In the back of the cupboard she found an old jar of peanut butter. She never bought peanut butter, Chrissie must have left it when she’d last been home from college. She offered it to him. He tipped it over on to its side, and clawed at the contents, he pulled it free in gobbets over the kitchen floor. He dug out all the hard bits of nut, stuffed them into his mouth. At last he’d had enough, lolled back sated against the side of his own giant corpse. He grinned, farted.
“Now listen,” he said. “You tell no one about this. This is just our little secret, okay? You tell no one, or I’ll hurt you so bad.”
She found herself nodding. She found herself crying.
“Stop that,” said her husband. “Or I’ll give you something to cry about. You go out, get me more peanuts. In a bag this time, I don’t want this butter shit.” It jabbed a hand dismissively towards his own dead body. “And you better take care of this.”
Chrissie came down from college to see her mother straight away. She brought her latest boyfriend with her, a rather quiet stick insect that mumbled he was sorry for their loss. “I just can’t believe I’ll never see him again,” she kept saying to her mother, and every time she did the boyfriend would take her hand and squeeze it limply.
“I have to tell our daughter,” she had said, “she has to know you’re alive!” And that had made her little husband angry. “I’ll hurt you if you tell,” he said. “No, I’ll hurt her. I’ll follow her home. I’ll crawl in through the letter box, and up the stairs, and I’ll slit her throat as she sleeps. Do you want that?” And she said she didn’t.
“I’ll never see my father again!” said Chrissie once more, and she was blubbing. And her mother was dying to tell her the truth, but she stole a look towards the door, and there was her husband watching her in the corner, always watching her, and he was shaking his head, and he grinned then, and pulled a little finger across his throat. “I loved him so much,” said Chrissie, “and I’m now nearly an orphan!”
She looked at Chrissie, no longer a girl, now a woman—long blonde hair, big breasts, teeth too white, and so much prettier than her mother had ever been—and she was sure she was sleeping with that vague thin boyfriend of hers—she looked at her daughter, and realised she didn’t like her very much. It was a bit of a shock, but not in itself an unwelcome one, and with all that had happened the last couple of days the realisation washed over her as something clean and pure. And just for a moment she thought about telling Chrissie in what reduced circumstances her father had survived, just to see what he might do to her.
Chrissie offered comfort all afternoon, then went back to college.
And she fetched her husband bags of peanuts from the supermarket, and he gobbled them up. And she was a bit puzzled, he’d never seemed to like peanuts before, and she dared to ask about this. “There are lots of things I liked you never gave me,” he said. “But I’m never holding back again!” He’d cup the peanut in both hands, and balance it on his lap, and then he’d nibble it all over, fast and furious, he looked like a squirrel. He asked for beer, too; she gave him a can of lager, put a straw in it. “Don’t patronise me,” he seethed—but he snatched at the straw anyway, he stuck the end in his mouth and sucked so hard his cheeks hollowed, he sucked the can dry.
He looked so fresh and new, like the man she’d first married all those years ago. Before the paunch and the bad breath, before the growth of the nostril hair. And she wondered whether all of that middle-aged dumpiness had been something terrible she’d done to him, she had taken this gorgeous man and made him old and made him ugly, and it was all he’d been able to do to keep some little piece of his true self hidden inside and waiting for a chance to be set freed. The man she had married had been loving and kind, docile even—he had never raised a hand to her, never said a cruel word. Not so his tiny counterpart—he called her a useless bitch, a heifer, he told her she was a saggy titted cunt. He’d ask her to bend close to him, just so he could slap her or spit in her eye. But still, he was beautiful. He was every inch, every little inch, the man she had fallen in love with.
And sometimes she’d go to the bathroom, and lock the door, and close her eyes, and touch herself. She hadn’t found her husband attractive in so very many years, when had all the desire slipped away?
At night they’d go to bed together. “Strip for me!” he’d squawk, and he’d give her a slow hand clap as she did so, and then she’d be as naked as him. “You great enormous cow,” he’d laugh. “Lie back.” And she would, and then he’d leap on top of her. He’d scamper all over. He’d pinch at her breasts with his fingers, he’d bite and claw, and once in a while he’d break the skin, and he’d squeal in delight as if he’d struck oil, he’d do a little victory dance in her blood. And he might lie face down and hump away at her flesh, any part of her flesh, there was no rhyme or reason to it—down he’d go, and she’d feel his little dick jabbing away at her, and sometimes it hurt, and sometimes it tickled.
“You’ve had your fun,” he’d then tell her. “Now it’s my turn!” He’d climb up to her face, and she panted, she didn’t like this bit. “Open wide,” he’d say. “Wider than that!” But she never opened wide enough, and he’d tut in irritation. And with one hand he’d grab hold of her top teeth, and with the other the jaw, and he’d pull—he’d pull so hard, who could have guessed the tiny chap had such strength to him?—he’d wrench her mouth open wider and wider, and she could hear bits of it crack. “Wider, bitch!” he’d laugh—and then, at last, the whole of her head would just swing wide open like a lid, the hinges would give and the mouth was as wide as could be. “Lick me,” he’d tell her, and she’d do her best to lick him, all over and as much as he liked. And then when he got drowsy he’d stretch out his little arms and he’d yawn; “nighty night, sweetheart,” he’d say, and it was just like the old days, and despite all the pain she warmed to that, she could feel how much her husband cared for her still. He’d settle down in her mouth, wrap her tongue about him like a blanket, and soon he’d be fast asleep, and his high squeaky snores were just darling.
It was hard for her to sleep with her head pulled open like that, but she found a way. You adapt, don’t you? She learned to adapt.
And she thought, had he always hated her? Had he always wanted her hurt? All those years, had it been just pretend? And she thought back on her marriage, the times they’d laughed, the summer holidays, the Christmases, the times they’d cuddled and kissed. Had he been abusive the whole time? Had she been too stupid to tell?
The day of the funeral. And it took her ages to get ready, she had to keep changing her dress. “You’re not wearing that, are you?” her husband would ask. “The way it shows off your fat arse?” Eventually she found a combination that worked, or at least her husband stopped criticising, maybe he’d just got bored. She put him in her handbag, and kept it on her knee during the service, and would carefully feed him peanuts when no one was looking. It was a good service. The vicar was nice. He said some things about her husband she hoped in some way were true. “Try not to mourn,” the vicar said. “He has been set free. Don’t all men want to be set free?” Chrissie was there, and she wasn’t blubbing any more, she’d now mastered an expression of heroic forbearance and she looked good on it, bleak and tragic suited her. And sitting in a pew to the side, there was the mother-in-law, a nervous bird of a woman she had never got to know. Who had only lost her own husband a year ago, who had now lost her son too. She watched her. She watched as the grieving mother would look about, and then, so carefully, feed peanuts one by one into a handbag of her own.
She summoned up the nerve to ask about it at the wake. The mother-in-law stood apart, in one hand a paper plate of quiche, in the other the handbag. As she got closer, and peered at the older woman’s face, she saw how it was marked with careful bruising that could be concealed with make-up. She made small talk about the weather and the order of hymns. The mother-in-law played along. When she ventured on to the subject of homunculus husbands, the woman looked horrified.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she hissed. “Leave me alone!” And it seemed that instinctively the woman covered up the mouth of the handbag so that whatever might be inside couldn’t hear.
Soon the funeral party began to break up. The men louder and more boisterous, laughing over their beers. The women huddled together with gin and tonics and gossip. All of them, loosening their ties or unbuttoning their blouses, making their goodbyes to the widow and heading off to the pub. “Goodbye, Mum,” said Chrissie. “You’ll be all right.” She was with her boyfriend, all neat and spindly in his best suit; he clutched on to Chrissie’s hand tightly, and smiled at her, and his tongue licked at his lips.
The last person to leave was the mother-in-law. She hung around furtively in the background until the coast was clear. She came up to her, so close that she thought was going to kiss her, she whispered in her ear. “He’s asleep,” she said. “One thing I’ve learned? Lace the peanuts with a little wine. Makes him drowsy.”
She thought she was going to cry then, and she wasn’t sure whether that was the horror of it all catching up with her, or the relief she wasn’t suffering alone. The mother-in-law looked embarrassed, then gave her a hug. “Hey,” she said. “It gets easier. Give it time. You’ll see.”
What sort of family have I married into, she asked. What monsters, who seem so loving and warm on the surface, but are brutes beneath the skin. And why hadn’t she been warned! And the mother-in-law just stared at her in bemusement. “Don’t you know, dear?” she said kindly. Trying to keep the laughter out of her voice. “It’s not your husband, it’s not my husband. It’s all the men. It’s every single one.”
And now she was left with the unwanted food and plastic cups. All alone, just her husband and her—it reminded her suddenly of their wedding party, and he had looked at her and winked and said how pleased he was at last they’d all gone home, he didn’t need them, she was the only person in his life that mattered to him now. And that was right, because she loved him, and she’d promised to spend the rest of her days with him. She looked inside her handbag, expecting to be spat at or pinched, expecting at least a torrent of abuse—she hadn’t fed him any peanuts for a good half an hour. But he didn’t hurt her. He took the peanut from her fingers, and chewed at it thoughtfully.
They got home, and as soon as the front door was closed and they were safely alone, she reached into the handbag for him. He was crying. “Don’t touch me,” he sobbed. “Don’t even fucking look at me!” But she lifted him out and held him in her arms and he wailed there like a baby. “They didn’t have to burn my body,” he said, at last. “They didn’t have to go that far.”
They were tired. She took him up to bed.
He gambolled over her naked breasts, he pinched and bit, but it all seemed rather desultory. His heart wasn’t in it. He sighed, and he had too small a body for a sigh like that, it made him shiver all over like a jelly.
“You know why I have to hurt you, don’t you?” he said.
She didn’t answer. She nodded. From beneath the mound of one of those sagging tits he liked to sneer at, she wasn’t sure he could see.
“I just want you to be better,” he said. “I want you to be the best you can be. You know I love you. I love you, Annie.” And when her husband had died she didn’t think anyone would ever tell her she was loved again—but it was the fact that at last he’d used her name that made her cry.
“This isn’t working,” he said.
“I don’t want to be like this. It doesn’t work.”
“We can make this work.”
“Then take me to the kitchen,” her husband said. “There’s no need to get dressed.”
Downstairs they went together, she held him in the palm of her hand, he let his legs swing over the side.
She put him down on the kitchen table. He told her to fetch a knife, the sharpest she could find. She did.
Her heart was beating so fast she thought he’d be able to hear it, and that would make him angry, and she didn’t want him to be angry. She held the knife against her arm—or would he want her belly, her legs? She was shaking.
“No,” he said. “No,”—and his voice was the lowest she had ever heard it, even when they’d first been married, even when he’d pretended to be a gentle giant—the voice was so grave and so solemn and all the squeak had gone out of it. “I don’t want you to go through this alone. Cut me. Hurt me.”
She bent over him. She hesitated. But she did as she was told, she always did as she was told.
Just a pinprick to his leg, really, she only brushed the surface—he was so slight she dared do no more. He gritted his teeth against the pain.
“Again,” he said. “Deeper. Bolder.”
She sliced at him then, and the blood came out, and he laughed, and she laughed too. “And spit on me!” he squeaked. “Spit for all your worth!” She hawked, and it splashed straight into him, it was thick and bubbled and he was drenched in it.
They played for hours, her naked body towering over his own, and his dick was hard, and she nicked that with the knife too. “You’re beautiful,” he cried. “You heifer. I love you. You disgusting sow.”
And he said, “You want things to be better, don’t you?”
And she said, “Yes.” She moaned it, she so really did.
He said, “I don’t want to be like this any more. Will you help me?”
And she said, “Yes! Yes!”
“Then stab down,” he said. “With all your might. Please. Set me free.”
Now he was crying. He nodded at her, he smiled. It’s all right. Be brave. Set me free. And with a wail she lifted the knife up high, and plunged it down deep into his tiny chest.
His eyes rolled, they were doing the rolling thing again. She stabbed him more. Faster, harder. She was sprayed with blood. The blood wasn’t red. It was black.
She carried on stabbing, why stop now just as she was getting good at it? She stabbed, and he had no face left, he had no body, and then she just dropped the knife, and she slumped down on to the kitchen floor and she wept.
She sat there for a very long time.
And then the laughter caught her unawares.
She heaved herself up off the floor, and stared back towards the table and the ruins of her husband. And they were shuddering, they were convulsing. For one insane moment she thought the body parts themselves were laughing at her—until she saw the bulge thicken amidst the chunks of flesh. The skin burst open with a pop, and he was there—smaller, leaner, now no larger than her thumb. But her husband’s mouth was too wide for its little face. And her husband’s smile was too wide for its little mouth. And when he spoke the pitch was so high it seemed like an ache right in the middle of her forehead, an ache that would never go away. He gibbered at her, so happy, splashing about in the black blood, he looked like a small child surrounded by wrapping paper on Christmas Day. “You set me free,” she heard. “You set me free, just as I asked. And now we’re really going to have some fun.”
Originally published in The Spectral Book of Horror Stories, edited by Mark Morris.