Cheeseburger Brown CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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Pica, a short story by Chester Burton Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

I met the mother at her Killarney Beach home. She made me a cup of tea then left me a moment to check on her sleeping infant daughter. I looked around the living room: a place for every thing and every thing in its place. Very normal.

The mother returned and sat opposite me, a small stain of white baby spit-up on her shoulder. She was apologetic about the delay. I smiled, wondering if this would be just one more blurry camera-phone video of zooming lights in the sky or yet another poorly documented sighting of the Lefroy Golem to throw on the pile. I opened my notebook and clicked my pen. "Why did you come to me about this?"

She held up a recent issue of Footprints magazine. "I heard they'll print just about anything on the last page, no matter how nuts."

"Well, there are some standards," I said defensively, clearing my throat with great dignity. "Why don't you beginning at the beginning?"

"I got married and pregnant in the wrong order," she said.

I nodded without looking up. "When were you married?"

"I'll let you know when it happens," she replied. "Anyway, it was just a while after I found out about the baby that I started getting weird cravings."

Suddenly I felt tired. "Pickles and ice cream?"

"No," she said. "I mean really weird. I wanted to eat wood. And stones. And clay."

I sighed. She was describing pica, a disorder characterized by the consumption of objects with no nutritional value, like string or sand, wallet leather or even glass. It's not uncommon to experience bouts of pica during pregnancy -- my own wife admitted to eating soap when she was carrying our first child. I told that to the mother.

"Pica can take bizarre forms," I agreed as I stood up, "but it's hardly the stuff of a hard-hitting last-page-of-the-magazine exposé. Thank you for the tea, but I have to be moving along now to meet a man who's grown a gourd shaped like parliament. This could be big."

She banged her fist on the table. "It wasn't a garden-variety eating disorder, Mr. Brown! It went way beyond that. This was pica to a purpose."

I raised a brow. "A purpose?"

She gestured at me to sit down. I sat and flipped open my notebook again. She continued, "Some people get pica because of a mineral deficiency, right? I think that's sort of what happened to me. Except instead of my body deciding what I needed it was something else deciding."

"The baby?"

"Not my daughter, no," she said, eyes on her steaming mug. She looked up. "But yes. It was the other baby."

"Other baby?" I frowned over my notebook. "Twins?"

She cast her gaze out the window and into the sky. "I don't know where the other baby came from. I don't know how it got there. But it wanted things. Things my daughter didn't. Like peat moss, cadmium red paint, and quartz."

"You ate quartz?"

She turned back to face me, nodding earnestly. "I ate a ridiculous amount of powdered quartz. I sprinkled it on buttered toast. And I couldn't walk past a light bulb without salivating like a dog, because I'd convinced myself I could smell the delicious tungsten inside."

I asked, "What did your GP say?"

"She said pregnancy-related pica was common. She told me to resist the urge to eat anything toxic, and to be wary of cracking my teeth against hard objects."

"That's probably good advice no matter the circumstances."

"I believed her. But the cravings were so strong. When I gave into them I felt like a failure. One day I went into the big box hardware store in Bradford and shopped like it was a buffet -- screws, washers, steel wool, epoxy -- you name it, I ate it."

"What did the store associates make of that?"

"They videoed me with their mobile phones and put it on YouTube."

I made a note to run a search for the clip. "Anything else?"

"After my daughter was born I coughed up a six inch tall woman with big orange eyes and purple skin."

I spilled my tea. "I'm sorry?"

She explained how a few weeks after her daughter was born she found herself alone in the house with the baby for the first time, her sister having flown back home to Winnipeg that morning. The mother was overcome with a feeling of nausea, and she worried that the crippling morning sickness she'd endured for months during the pregnancy was somehow, inexplicably, reasserting itself.

She ran to the washroom but instead of bringing up her breakfast she hacked and hacked until a small purple woman flew out of her mouth.

"How did you know it was female?" I asked.

"That's an indelicate question, Mr. Brown."

The mother made a shoebox apartment for the tiny purple person, who wore a doll's dress and drank water from a shot glass. She didn't speak, but the mother worked out the needs of her charge intuitively. She felt compelled to put copper shavings into the shoebox, and when she did the wee woman ate them and went to sleep in a bed made from a microwavable side-dish package lined with cotton wadding.

"You didn't tell anyone?"

"No. I was afraid they'd try to take her away. I couldn't allow that. It was my duty to protect her."

"Why do you think so?"

"I don't know. Motherhood isn't a thought. It's just something you feel."

After a few days of eating copper shavings the little purple figure started coughing up miniscule pieces of machinery: cogs and levers, valves and pistons. In the evenings she would wire the pieces together with iridescent hairs plucked from her head. The mother looked on, watching over the process as she fed her own human child and rocked her calm. Only when visibly exhausted would the creature fall into her side-dish bed for sleep. In the morning the hacking would begin anew.

At midnight on the fifth night the mother awoke to an eerie humming. She checked on her daughter then stole into the kitchen, peeking carefully over the edge of the shoebox. The wee woman had built a miniature flying saucer with a greenish orange copper lustre and blinking blue lights around the rim. She sat in the vehicle testing the controls systematically. She looked up at the mother with her big orange eyes, and they held each other's gaze for a moment.

The miniature flying saucer rose up out of the shoebox with an increasingly shrill hum, then zipped away out the open window and into the darkness. Her baby cried, startled by the noise, and then the mother cried, startled by love and loss.

I licked my lips. My mouth was dry. I asked, "What do you think it was?"

The mother shrugged. "It was alive. It couldn't survive alone. It chose me. Would you turn your back, Mr. Brown? Would you pass it off to someone else to suffer who knows what, or would you try to lend a hand? If it happened to you. Think about it."

I thought about it. "You're going to be a helluva mom," I said.


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CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah Cheeseburger Brown
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