The lizard was an unusual choice for a favourite toy. It wobbled like old jelly and its rubber had the catch of human skin to it. Half of its bottom jaw was missing on account of Matilda’s insatiable need to chew. It went everywhere with her and today it was in the kitchen, its green mouth gaped over the crusty end of the bread.
“Move it, Tildy.” Mallory stopped sawing through the loaf. “The kitchen is no place for a lizard.”
The directive was met with a stomp and a pout.
“That thing has been in your mouth. It’s not hygienic. Take it away.”
“Matilda! Do you want time out?”
The little girl grabbed the lizard to her chest with chubby hands.
Mallory thought she saw it move of its own accord, the ugly beast, but it always looked that way to her, like it was alive. She couldn’t recall how the lizard came to join them in the first place but she’d noticed it only after Matilda’s father had disappeared.
She tilted her head to the side. “I don’t want to be angry with you again, darling. It’s the weekend. I want a fun day. Can we have a fun day?”
“I want a fun day,” Matilda said.
“Let’s start over.”
“Okay, mummy. Start over,” she said and she looked up, her sweet grin brimming with white curls.
“There’s a good girl. What shall we do today?”
She was thoughtful for a moment, before wide-eyed cries of, “Zoo! Zoo!”
Mallory straightened up and checked her phone, lips and forehead crinkling in accord.
“Nope. No. Sorry, sweetie. Weather bureau says there’s a seventy-five per cent chance of rain.’ She smiled down at her daughter. “That’ll be no fun now, will it?”
Blue eyes dropped to low beam.
“We could do something else,” said Mallory. “What do you think?”
“Yes!” Matilda sparkled. “Park!”
“Sweetheart,” Mallory said. “Seventy-five per cent chance of rain, remember? So, no outdoors activities. But we could do a picnic in the lounge room. You love inside picnics, don’t you? We could have popcorn and your favourite movie. We could watch Godzilla.”
“All right, mum. If it’s what you want.”
“Oh, sweetie,” she said. “It’s not about what I want. This is about you. We’ll do the park, the zoo, wherever else you want another time, yeah?”
Matilda nodded but her mouth kept its downward droop.
“Great! We’ll have a super fun time, you and me. You’ll see.”
But, as the movie’s opening credits rolled, the phone rang. Mallory sprang for the door and slid outside, onto the back patio that was visible from the couch, where she talked and agitated with her hands. Then hands were on hips and the conversation was extended by a wire from jeans pocket to ear.
To Matilda, she was a beautiful statue.
When Mallory re-entered the house, the TV screen was black; the room, dark. She clicked on the gas heater and rubbed her hands together. It was cold, but it hadn’t rained.
“You didn’t watch with me.” Matilda materialised at her side, lizard in hand, face sour.
“Sweetie, aren’t you watching— Gosh! Is it done? That took longer than I thought. Sorry. I had to take that. You do understand, don’t you? It was a very important client.”
Matilda planted the lizard in her mother’s face.
“Hold it, mummy.”
“Ugh, no.” She shuddered. “It’s yours. You play with it.”
“Hold it!” The girl was turning purple.
“Matilda! Stop it!”
“Gizzard wants you to hold!” Matilda screamed. Her neck pulsed with a ridge of vein. Was her skin looking green?
“Okay, okay!” Mallory snatched up the lizard and pressed its back in hard strokes. Its painted-on bulges rose to meet her own eyes. She shoved it back at Matilda. “Better?”
Matilda cuddled into her mother’s leg with one arm. The lizard’s tail stretched up and down at the floor like a bungee cord with her movements, squashing its head sideways in each brief meeting with the floor.
“Honestly, Matilda,” Mallory said in an undertone. “Three going on twenty-three.”
‘Twenty-three?” Matilda looked up in a squinted in smile, still attached to the leg. The toddler in her was fading.
“Yes.’ She sighed. “Sometimes I think so.”
With one hand, she stroked Matilda’s hair; the other was fixed, with her eyes, to her phone, its screen aglow.
Matilda arched back and tore off the straps, bracing herself at the edges of the child seat. She struggled against her mother’s hands. They were both sweaty with the effort.
“Not again, Tilda,” Mallory growled. “Get in.”
“I have work and you have daycare. You like daycare, remember?”
“No, I hate it. Gizzard hates it too.”
“Honestly, Matilda. I think you and Gizzard need to spend some time apart.”
“Let me strap you in. We need to go. Now.”
Matilda pouted and swapped her lizard from side to side. Her mother pinned her chest, forcing arms into straps.
“I hate you,” she said.
Mallory stopped to look at her daughter. “I’m sorry to hear that, Tildy.”
“I hate you, mummy.”
Mallory slammed the door. She took her seat and clenched the wheel until white stripes formed over her knuckles and her hands. She remembered reading somewhere that the hand had no muscles, only ligaments. Ligaments, then, was what she could see tightening under the skin as she accelerated hard up the driveway.
A prolonged honk drew her eyes to the side mirror and her foot to the brake. She’d narrowly missed a truck. The driver abused her as he passed and she stopped only until she’d taken a breath, adrenalin overtaking her urge to cry.
On the freeway, Mallory’s hair caught on something, yanking her head into the headrest.
“Ouch! What was that?” In her periphery, she spied a flourish of green.
That damned lizard. “Matilda! I told you not to swing things in the car.”
“It wasn’t me. It was Gizzard.”
“Keep it away from my chair, Matilda. I’m trying to drive. I don’t need any distractions.”
“Matilda!” She bashed a fist on the dash. “I’m on the freeway. Hold onto whatever it is until we stop.” In the background she perceived the continued flicker of the lizard’s tail. “Put it away!”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
Matilda’s scream shattered what was left of Mallory’s concentration. Her eyes shot a glance at her rear vision mirror, flashed forward then back to her daughter in horror.
“Matilda!” she shrieked.
She swerved across three lanes of traffic and the emergency lane, partway up the embankment.
The car jerked to halt. She screwed her body around in her seat, braced he back against the steering wheel. Her daughter was being consumed, transformed, by what she did not know.
“My baby! Let her go! Stop it, whatever you are!”
It stopped and Matilda’s body slumped, her chest barely moving.
Mallory started to reach for Matilda but twitched back before making contact. She wasn’t sure of exactly what her daughter was anymore but she didn’t look human: Matilda’s arms and legs had atrophied and elongated, and she’d sprouted additional, tentaclish limbs. Her skin was scaled and seaweedy; her head, a mottled grey-green.
A siren whirred behind them.
“Thank goodness!” Mallory said. “It’s my daughter. Please help.”
She stumbled from her car, towards the officers funnelling out of theirs.
There must have been fifty of them—a squadron of identical figures that had the car surrounded with squatted postures and handguns.
“Is all of this necessary?”
“It’s okay, ma’am. We’ll handle this.” The tallest officer held a hand at her.
The officer nodded. He wore sunglasses that reflected her back at herself, and a helmet in the same, dead black of his uniform. His hand signalled with a punch at the air.
In unison, the squadron nodded and jolted open the doors to the SUV, its contents billowing after them.
The girl, if that’s what she could still be called, revived when her body hit the grass. Uncoordinated limbs thrashed anound her face like the Medusa. Her mother was petrified. The movement cleared an eight-foot circle.
“Mummy!” she screamed. “What’s happening to me?”
Some of the officers stood back and probed at her with lengthened batons, others talked low into radios.
Mallory tugged the lead officer to one side. “What’s going on?”
“Mummy?” Matilda’s voice was meek. “Huggle?” She stretched out with telescopic arms.
Mallory couldn’t hide the repulsion from her face.
“Don’t,” said the officer, and he held up a hand to stop her. In his glasses, Mallory could see Matilda flailing. “We’ve dealt with this before. Whatever you do, stay clear. Trust us. We know best.”
She nodded and took a step back. “It’s okay. Calm down. They’re going to help you.”
“Stay back, ma’am.”
“I can’t, Matilda.”
“Bitch!” Matilda exploded with a guttural roar. Her eyes flamed red and a forked tongue licked out of her mouth, whipping at her mother’s ear. All around them was closed in and black with riot gear.
“Matilda!” Mallory snapped. “Do as you’re told!”
A dozen sets of hands scrambled at Matilda but she stopped before the restraints were fitted. Her eyes stared upwards—glassy and slitted. Reptilian.
Mallory stayed back. She watched from afar as the ambulance arrived and the paramedics took over. They were incredibly efficient. She trailed the sirens in her own car, to the emergency room, where a team of doctors awaited their arrival.
“Theatre’s prepped. Go!” The doctor in the ER used the same commanding tone as the officer who had greeted her at the scene.
White coats and glasses trolleyed the sedated girl down the corridor where the paint on the walls was so white it was grey. Mallory struggled to keep pace.
“What can I do?” she asked.
“You must be the mother.” The doctor turned to Mallory midstride. “Don’t worry, we’ve seen this before. Wait it out at home. We’ll call when we’re done.”
“Go,” he said, peering down his nose. ‘Trust us. We know best.”
Mallory drove home. She sat by the phone and she waited.
The operation was declared a success. Matilda’s original limbs remained weak but the tentacles were gone. She suffered one permanent side effect—she had developed two faces—and rehabilitation was slow. Or so the doctor’s report told Mallory.
The state assumed guardianship of her daughter after the operation.
Matilda’s doctors thought the mother may have contributed to her mutation.
It felt like years before they let Mallory visit because, in the end, it was.
“She’s in there,” said the nurse in the psychiatric facility. “Left corridor, first blue door you come to.”
Mallory stood unmoving for a moment, taking in her new surrounds: three corridors leading from the reception area, each lined with multicoloured doors.
And there was something unreal about the stretch of the nurse’s smile, like she’d indulged in too much plastic surgery. That, or a partial lobotomy. Possibly both.
“The psych has her on some hefty meds and she’ll need ongoing treatment. But don’t worry, she’s quite safe. You’re safe. We’ve got cameras and guards stationed all over.”
She motioned at the electronic eyes in room corners and at the guards with full holsters, camouflaged into the walls.
Mallory brushed her grey fringe behind her ears and stepped into the darkened room. Even before she saw the figure on the bed, her nose caught the stench of aged urine and body odour. She held a finger to her nose.
“Mother. How nice of you to come.”
The voice came from a figure perched on the edge of the hospital bed, looking towards the dayglow from behind the curtains. The figure turned abruptly, scaled appendages and presence of two faces causing Mallory to catch her breath.
“Sweetheart,” she said. “How are you?”
“Why are you here?”
“They wouldn’t let me call. I came as soon as I could. I wrote.”
“Sure you did.” Matilda’s sneering response came from her new face. Her original face—the one she’d grown up with—was withered in comparison, straddled by a stiff mane of overbleached blonde. She clinched a cigarette between two fingers, wisps of smoke swirling above her head.
“They let you smoke in here?”Mallory eyed the floor which was littered with smouldering ends of cigarettes.
“So what if they don’t?”
“Mmm. Are you keeping well? Have they been looking after you?”
“They told me you screamed to come home.”
“That was years ago!” Matilda laughed coarsely. “Don’t you worry about me, mother. I’m a big girl now.”
“I can see that.” Mallory’s face formed a tense smile. “It seems only yesterday that—”
“People do grow, you know. Become adulterated.” Matilda flicked the cigarette butt. It brushed her mother’s arm, causing her blouse to light. “Why are you here anyway?”
“To see you.” Mallory swatted out the tiny fire.
“To see the freak, more like it.”
“You are my daughter, Matilda.”
“You will always be.” Mallory straightened up. “I love you.”
“I love you too.” The words came from Matilda’s original face. It seemed to surprise itself by giving voice.
“Shut up, you!” the mouth from the stronger face hollered, and Matilda followed with a self-administered slap and a retangling of hair. She turned fierce eyes to her mother. “Love, you say? I think you and I have very different definitions for that word.”
“Maybe not as different as you think.”
“Whatever.” Matilda lit up again and dragged with a lean to the side. “So where is he?”
“You mean the lizard? They didn’t tell you.” Mallory shifted her weight.
“What was its name? Guts?”
“Gizzard,” Matilda spat.
“Oh, he went. At the time. The hospital incinerated what was left of it. They thought it was the source of— Well, whatever it was that got you. They thought it was alive. Was it alive, Matilda?”
“So they killed him. Because of me.”
“To think I let you play with it. I blame myself entirely.”
“I would always have become what I am.”
“We don’t know that, Matilda.” Mallory shook her head over and over, as though wrenching it into the socket of her neck.
“A monster. I know what they say about me. And why wouldn’t they, when my own mother wouldn’t come near.”
“Don’t say that! They told me not to. I couldn’t, Matilda.”
“You’re my mother!”
“You could have tried harder!”
Her mother extended a tentative hand.
“Don’t you dare.” Matilda snatched herself back, concertinaed her knees to her chin, revealing unshoed feet that were lightly webbed. “I see you now. I see why he left you.”
“He?” asked Mallory, even though she already knew.
“Dad! God, you’re so— Ugh! Why did you come? I didn’t ask you to come back for me.” Matilda coiled her body on the bed, folding in on herself, small and tight, smaller, tighter.
“What’s are you doing? Stop it!” Mallory ordered.
But Matilda didn’t stop. She shrank herself down, down, until her body was small to the scale of a child’s toy. She looked rubbery and painted on.
Lizardish. She didn’t move and she didn’t speak.
“Honestly, Matilda,” Mallory whispered, and she moved close to the bed, stroking the ridge along her daughter’s scaled back with the bare touch of three fingers, acting from compulsion and disgust. “Sometimes you’re just like him.”
The head of the plastic nurse appeared at the doorframe.
“You can sign her out now, if you like,” she said.
“I can sign her out? Mallory gestured at the thing that her daughter had become.
“Mmm-hmm.” The nurse outstretched a pad and a pen. “Perfect timing.”
“Is there any chance of bringing her back?” She signed the paper.
“We’ve done all we can here.” The nurse plonked a thick wad of papers on the side table. “She has a care plan. Obviously, she can’t be by herself. If anything goes wrong, call the numbers here, here, and here. In that order. You’re fine with all this?”
“I guess I don’t have a choice, do I?”
The nurse nodded, and Mallory scooped Matilda from the bed. She clutched her daughter under one arm, the hospital papers under the other, and she walked out. No one blinked or stared. No one seemed surprised that she was taking her daughter out of there as anything other than human.
But people did stare when they saw Mallory out and about with the lizard peeking out, over the top of her handbag. She didn’t care. It was her daughter, and her daughter was alive, she just knew it.
So she carried the lizard with her, and strove to meet what she thought its needs must be, though she was yet to coerce a sound or an expression from those scaly lips. And, every so often, she would dangle her fingers in, tempting the bite she feared, the bite she feared would never come.