Horla Fiction (May 2020)

FEEDING

by LORNA PEPLOW

KATE had lost weight since I’d last seen her. She knelt on the kitchen floor, sliding recipe books out, one by one, from the cupboard under the sink, and the vertebrae of her spine made bumps in her shirt, like buttons running down her back.

“I’m pretty sure it’s a teaspoon of turmeric,” she said, one hand flat on the stone tiles, the other leafing through an index. “I don’t really need to check, it’s just … Maybe it was in the Nigella book …”

The curry spat; I turned down the gas ring. It was dark outside. The black window caught the kitchen spotlights and the brass saucepans hanging over the stove and reflected them back inwards, made strange by steam.

“The recipe’s probably online,” I said. “Why don’t you ask your Alexa?”

Kate’s head tilted back, her ponytail splitting against her collar. “Oh,” she said. “No, it’s not plugged in. Jamie’s going to send it back. Look, it’s fine, it’s definitely turmeric.”

She straightened up and brushed her hands on her jeans; her eyes dipped down at the little black box on the counter, which was turned to face the wall, and immediately slid away again. I stirred the curry. The spices had a warm, orange-red, night-time sort of smell, and they made my nostrils prickle.

“I’d better do the peppers,” Kate said. “Thanks for stirring, Sal. Did you say yes to wine?”

“Doesn’t it work?” I asked.

“What?”

I glanced at her. “The Alexa. You said Jamie’s sending it back.”

The bottle opener resembled a human skeleton: square head, corkscrew backbone, metal arms raised high. Kate poured us each a glass of wine, watching the dark liquid carefully.

“Yeah, it works,” she said. “It’s just, you know, my thing about artificial intelligence. Have I ever …? Oh, do you like green peppers? I know some people don’t.”

The pan of rice simmered, gurgled. Kate’s knife slipped into a pepper and brought out the core; she flicked seeds onto the chopping board, onto the black marble counter, onto the base of her wine glass.

“We argued about it, actually,” she said. “Just before you got here, before he went out. He knows I don’t … But he thinks it’s silly.” She took a long drink of wine, her eyes raised to the ceiling.

“Silly that you don’t like AI?” The wine smelled like rubber. I sipped it, letting it coat my tongue. “I never knew that about you. Is that why you don’t have a smartphone? What don’t you like about it? Shall I add some salt to this rice?”

Kate touched her earring. The wine had done something to her face: it seemed suddenly to have more lines, more shadows. Somewhere outside, a dog barked.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, actually. About what happened. I don’t think Jamie really believes me.”

“What happened?”

The rice began to boil, bringing a starchy smell to the kitchen. A tendon flexed in Kate’s neck.

“It’s a bit of a weird story. I don’t …”

“You know I like weird stories,” I said. “Tell me.”

Kate topped up her glass of wine and leant against the fridge. Her lips were stained purple already, and her eyes quivered like liquid in the electric light, moving across my face.

“All right,” she said, and she told me.

***

“It’s only happened twice,” she said. “So, the first time, I was eight. My mum had bought me one of those electronic chess sets – you know, the kind that were very high-tech in the late nineties. I was in the chess team at school, bit of a geek … Don’t laugh, Sally! Anyway, so this was the first piece of AI I’d ever used, and I remember I was sitting on the floor of my room, sliding my bishop over the squares, trying to predict the board’s next move, and I …”

She cupped both hands around her glass of wine and stared down into it. The curry snickered and clicked in the wok; the rice water bubbled; above us, a strip of paint that had peeled away from the ceiling swayed slightly, as though caught in a breeze.

“I felt something come out of it,” Kate said, and frowned. “That sounds mad, but it was like … You know how sometimes you can sense someone come up behind you, even if you don’t hear them? I felt something come out of the chessboard and into my room. I remember putting a hand to the back of my neck—” she demonstrated “—and I just knew I wasn’t alone anymore. And then I looked over to the pile of teddies at the foot of my bed, and there was something there which … which shouldn’t have been.”

Her voice had grown louder, higher, a little unsteady. She stared sideways across the kitchen, looking into a memory. I slid the diced pepper off the chopping board into the curry.

“There was this thing there which was pretending to be a teddy, but it – it wasn’t. I don’t know how to describe … It had button eyes and fur like the other bears, but … there were too many legs, for starters. And it was flat – like, two-dimensional – and kind of shadowy, more of an energy than a real solid thing. So, it was on the top of the teddy pile, leaning against my Spice Girls duvet, watching me. I had this sick thumping in my chest. Somehow I knew the thing had come from the chessboard – from the thinking part of the chessboard – so I ripped the batteries out and threw the board out the window. When I looked back, the thing had gone.”

Kate’s feet were turned inwards, her toes touching through their pink fluffy socks. Her story sounded rehearsed, as though she had told it to herself many times. She looked at me and then away again.

“I think we need more coconut milk,” she said. “The curry’s looking a bit thick.”

“What was the second time?” I asked.

Red patches stood out on Kate’s cheeks: she held the empty wine glass against one and then the other.

“The second time was years later,” she said. “Dad had given me a sat-nav for my eighteenth. I had this little white Peugeot that always smelled a bit like sick – I’ve probably told you that. Anyway, I was setting up the sat-nav in the driver’s seat, getting ready to go to this new shopping centre, and I glanced up at the rear-view mirror, and my dad was sitting in the back seat. Except, it wasn’t my dad. I mean, at first I thought it was, but it was staring at me, and its skin was … sort of frilly, like … like the gills you get underneath a mushroom. I had this cold feeling. I’m getting it again now, just thinking about it.”

She shook her shoulders in an exaggerated shiver. I put a hand to my face, thinking of skin like mushroom gills. My chest was tight and fluttery.

“Again, I just knew where it had come from: there was the same flat, electrical quality to it. And then it pounced. Like, it came at me, moving in this horrible rigid, spidery sort of way. I jumped out the car and threw the sat-nav on the pavement and stamped on it. And then the thing was gone. I went indoors, and Dad was there. He was proper angry that I’d broken his present. No one believed me.”

My spoon had slowed in the curry, and suddenly the mixture was sticking on the bottom of the wok, an orange skin appearing at its edges. I stirred briskly; Kate came over and took a knife from the drawer, using it to rip open another sachet of coconut milk, which she squeezed into the curry. She smelled slightly of sweat.

“You’re pale,” she said, still holding the knife, pointing the blade towards my stomach. Her hand shook. “I know it all sounds crazy. To be honest, I don’t talk about it much, but it’s affected my whole life. It’s the reason I didn’t go to uni – the reason I live out here in the sticks, working with horses, far away from technology. It’s so good to see you, Sal. I don’t have many friends around here.”

She stepped closer, squeezed my elbow. The kitchen was full of steam: water droplets ran down the tiles, down the fridge, down Kate’s forehead.

“I think the rice is done,” I told her.

She held my gaze for a moment, then turned away, putting the knife down on the chopping board and carrying the saucepan over to the sink to drain the rice. I slid the knife across the counter and down the side of the microwave. I hoped she wouldn’t notice. 

“Jamie thinks I imagined it,” she said. “Can you pass me the sieve? Thanks. He doesn’t like having to wait till I’m out the house before he can use his laptop. He says, artificial intelligence is everywhere. If there was something living in it – some sort of parasite, maybe, feeding on the ever-advancing software, using AI devices as a portal into the world – if that was the case, and it had wanted to harm me, it would have done it by now. Maybe he’s right, but I can’t believe he’d buy that—” she waved her hand in the direction of the Alexa. Her fingernails were bitten right down. “I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about it all so much recently. It’s been ten years since the thing in the car. Should we warm the plates?”

I said I was okay with the plates being cold.

“Sorry,” she said, spooning rice onto the rainbow-striped dishes. “You’ll be wishing you hadn’t asked. I only had salad for lunch, the wine’s gone to my head. But yes, anyway – that’s the reason I won’t make Alexa look up curry recipes for me.”

It happened then. An electronic monotone spoke from the corner of the counter, cutting through the hot kitchen: “Searching the internet for curry recipes.

Kate swung around. Her chest swelled; she stared at the Alexa, a vein suddenly visible on her forehead.

“He’s plugged it in,” she said. “That bastard! After I … So that’s what he came in the kitchen for, after we’d argued …”

She stepped forwards, reaching out to rip the wire from the black box. I grabbed her wrist.

“Kate,” I said, my voice low. “There’s someone in the house.”

Something had grated in the next room; there was a dragging noise, a click. Kate’s eyes met mine, and her throat bobbed as she swallowed. Jamie had gone to stay with some mates for the night. There shouldn’t be anyone else in the house.

A female voice called out from the sitting-room.

“Kate?” it said. “Are you here? I’ve been knocking … Sorry I’m so late – my sat-nav took me miles the wrong way.”

The kitchen door opened and cold air swept through the steam. The real Sally stood in the doorway, still in her coat and scarf, cheekbones pinched pink by the cold night air. Kate had been right: I had got the skin tone slightly too pale.

Kate’s eyes flicked back to me, widening, and she made a strange lowing noise in her throat, like a calf cornered by dogs. I continued to grip her wrist, shifting my body to shield the Alexa on the counter. With my other hand, I held up her knife.

“Fooled you this time,” I said.

 

 

***

Lorna Peplow (née Wilkinson) is now based in Oxfordshire, England, but was born and raised in the county of Devon. Her work is forthcoming or published in The Fiction PoolThe Elizabeth Bowen ReviewThe Literateur and Exclamat!on. She has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and a PhD in English, both from the University of Exeter, and now works in academic publishing. She has recently started a blog at www.lornapeplow.co.uk

Title photo credit. Photo by Helinton Fantin on Unsplash

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