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Tank Baby

(2,023 words)

They’re not supposed to reach into the tank, but Claire is careful. She’s bought specialty disposable gloves that go all the way up to the shoulder—meant for farmers excavating cows’ nethers, she thinks—and she takes off her wedding ring beforehand, so the diamonds won’t rip the thin nitrile. After, she immediately tests the tank solution with a pH strip, and again fifteen minutes later, to make sure she hasn’t contaminated anything.

And it’s only for a second. Just so she can pop the baby’s thumb out of his mouth. Claire had entered junior high with braces, headgear, and a lisp all thanks to her own malformed thumb-sucker jaw, and the other kids’ torments had stopped just short of beating her to death. What kind of mother would she be if she set her son up for that kind of experience? If she didn’t nip this in the bud?

Not to mention a baby’s limbs, at 24 weeks, have all the tensile resistance of glue gun glue sticks.

So, just a quick hand dip, using the monitor to see—the sides of the tank are opaque plastic, no light allowed—and boom, pop that pesky sucker out. After, swish the end of a pH strip in the solution and wait ten seconds, then color match against the box. Now, it’s a little too purple, so add a tablespoon of Baby Genius Super Grow Powder Alkaline Balance Excel and test again. Perfect. Peel off and throw away the glove, replace the tank lid, and wipe up any solution that dripped on the carpet. Slip back on that wedding ring and . . .

The ring?

Where the hell is the ring?

* * *

The baby tank is in the hall closet because of the darkness requirements. It’s also very illegal, and not all that easy to move in the event of unexpected company.

Claire drops to the floor and feels the carpet under the tank blindly. Nothing. The closet is a crowded cupboard of craft supplies, bulk toiletries, Things to Sell, cookbooks, paperbacks, cat toys, picture frames, and three open boxes labeled MISC. Several of these she heels aside so she can wheel the tank out into the living room to better inspect the floor. There, she finds three unrelated puzzle pieces and a loose peanut. No ring.

She scours the monitor for a sign that it did indeed fall in from its admittedly precarious perch on the tank lip, but there’s only the baby, floating in a pink liquid galaxy. She read somewhere that the solution is dyed pink because people think it should be pink and that’s the only reason.

She puts on another glove, turns off the overhead light, and takes off the tank lid so she can fish around again, but feels nothing but glue stick baby limbs and hard plastic baby tank walls.

She checks the pH again. It’s fine. So, she replaces the lid, rolls the tank back into the hall closet, and shuts the door.

She notices the rattling almost immediately and spends about two hours telling herself that it’s always been there via the shitty air conditioner, the shitty refrigerator, the shitty dishwasher. She tries to focus on work and puts in headphones when she can’t. Paranoia, that’s all it is.

But when Stan gets home, he says, “Do you hear that?” and starts hunting around, pressing his ear against the walls and the floor vents. He opens the hall closet door, and she can tell from the way his shoulders shift that that’s where the sound is coming from, though he doesn’t say anything. He checks the pH with a strip and adds All-In-One Pure Organik Earth True Balance Solution for Embryos Fetuses Babies, and then comes to sit across the table from her.

They stare at each other. Claire lays her right hand over her left hand’s naked finger.

“So,” he says.

* * *

Stan inherited the tank from his sister way back when tanks weren’t illegal, back before that horror show basement baby farm was discovered in East Palo Alto and words like “human trafficking” started getting bandied around, along with “fetal safety” and “access limits” and “industry regulation.”

At the time, none of this mattered to Stan or Claire, who hadn’t yet met. When it did matter, the fact that they were priced out of the official baby farm services felt very . . . un-American. While they could have gotten a baby the old-fashioned way, Claire’s size 5 ½ feet were important to her, and she knew pregnancy could blow you up a whole size. Not to mention her job didn’t offer maternity leave. Plus, Stan had just read about Meahaler’s Syndrome, which wasn’t routinely tested for at the official baby farms, and even if there were only 50 recorded cases in history, those cases had to happen to someone.

It was much cheaper to go on vacation for a few weeks; to go to a foreign clinic and make a deposit; to then receive a package in the mail a month later with the note:

At TrueLife International we guarantee the enclosed is 100% free of all genetic disease and defects cancer cuasing genetic mutations. Starter instructions inside!

For the price, they could ignore the typos.

“So,” Claire says.

Her ring clicks and rattles in the tank.

If Stan has noticed her naked finger he doesn’t say, and he won’t, because she knows that she’s not the only one who’s been dipping into the tank. Despite already supplementing the pH Balancer with Baby Grow Height Ultra Maxx Tall Child Tall Adult Alpha, before Stan leaves for work, he gloves up to tug on the baby’s legs. Stan is only 5’6” and this is the root of his life’s failures, according to him—but none of their embryos were destined to be taller than 5’8”. He’d wept after he heard that and told her to leave him for someone whose genes didn’t preclude top shelves.

The tugging is supposed to help encourage the growth plates. Or something.

“Can we call someone?” Stan says. He’s pale, and his fingers tap the tabletop nervously.

“Maybe it will be fine,” she says.

Neither of them has thought about how they will explain the baby if everything works out. Probably, Claire thinks, because they’ve been expecting something like this to happen. But the baby is 24 weeks now and as long as one of her size 5 1/2 shoes, but fatter, and it occurs to her that they haven’t thought about what they’re going to do if it doesn’t work out, either. Something that size you can’t exactly put in the garbage disposal.

She’s always just sort of turned off that thought, like a light.


It’s not fine. The pH tester strip in the morning comes out an angry red. It takes four tablespoons of Best Baby Mother Love Healthy Safe pH Increase to set it right again. Less than two hours later, the strip results are back to that same furious color. Stan has always told her the ring is 14 karat gold and six 0.02 carat princess cut diamonds, but now she wonders.

“It must be stuck in the filter,” Stan says. “Or maybe the pump.” They don’t have the tank’s user manual, only its textless building instructions. Stan turns the pamphlet this way and that, trying to make sense of pictures labeled 1B and 4F.

“We’re not going to be able to clean them with the baby in the way,” he says. “We’ll have to put him somewhere, at least temporarily.”

Claire watches the baby in the monitor. He’s spinning like a gymnast. No one tells you how much they move, she thinks. She wishes that she’d dropped her wedding ring in months ago, back when he was the size of a tadpole. Though maybe that would have been more impossible, like trying to get a dirt fleck out of bathtub water. Maybe now she can just reach in and grab him like a carp. She imagines herself hooking her thumb in his mouth and watching his slippery little pink goo body thrash. No, you love this, she’ll say. A thumb in your mouth is the whole reason we’re in this mess.

“Maybe we can get another one?” she says.

“Well, sure,” Stan says, flipping a page. “But we’ll still need the tank.”

“I meant another tank.”

“Oh,” Stan says. “Right. So did I.”

* * *

They get supplies—face shields, plastic aprons, shower caps, heavy duty gloves. They run what they can through the shitty dishwasher’s sanitize cycle. Claire grabs a pair of tongs from the kitchen drawer and washes those too, just in case. Their temporary tank is a stock pot full of fresh pink premixed solution. Before they fill it, she puts one of her shoes inside, to make sure the baby will fit.

“Five minutes,” Stan says. “That’s all it’ll take. He’ll be fine for that long. And,” he jokes, “he’ll get a good sneak peek at what to expect from our family.”

“And from life,” Claire says.

Stan pauses, his smile slipping off, as if she’s said something deeply philosophical. He nods at her sagely.

She flicks off the light and pulls on her gloves. In the gloom, the wedding ring clicks and rattles.

“Ready?” Stan says as he lifts the lid off the tank. The solution bubbles ever so slightly as the baby rolls.

Claire taps the tongs against the edge of the pot.

“One,” Stan says, and dips his fingers in.

“Two,” he says.


* * *

They are not going to get their rental deposit back, based on the state of the carpet. But the baby is in the pot, though whatever neutralized his buoyancy in the tank isn’t working there; the top of his head keeps rising up over the layer of pink like a fleshy island. Claire is in the kitchen, looking for something to hold him down with—a ladle, maybe?—when she spots it on the sink, in the cranny between the faucet and the soap dispenser.

14 karat gold (maybe). Six 0.02 carat princess cut diamonds (question mark).

She stares at the ring, wide eyed, making a clicking noise in her throat. But before she can think what to do, Stan calls out from the living room, “Is this the Apple TV remote?”

He’s been using a coffee cup to scoop the old tank goo into a bucket so he can reach the filter, and now he’s steeped in pink: spattered, splattered, oozing with it. But as she comes into the living room with the ring in her hand, he stops bailing. He sets down the mug and reaches into the slurry and produces from it a stubby silver remote.

They lock eyes and he says, “There’s more.”

“There’s more?”

A gel pen. Stan’s extra set of eyeglasses. An expired Target gift card.

It must have been the cat, she almost says, before remembering they rehomed the cat. Because of the baby.

She shows him the ring.

“Are we bad parents?” she says.

“There are no bad parents,” he immediately replies. “Only bad . . .”

But he’s gotten the saying wrong.

“We still have four months,” he says, turning back to fish in the bottom of the tank again. He comes up with a tangled pair of headphones and drops them into the bucket. “We’ll figure it out by then, right?”

“Right,” she says.

She returns to the kitchen and fills a plastic bag with ceramic baking beans. Stan has now found an elastic hair band in the tank, and she uses that to tie off the bag’s top. She goes to the pot and says, “We love you,” and carefully places the bag on the pale egg of their baby’s skull.

But the bag slips off to one side and sinks to the bottom of the bucket. The baby’s head bobs back to the surface.

“Shoot,” she says. Exasperated, she pushes the baby down into the pink with one finger. Then, to Stan, she says, “How heavy is that remote?”

Ashlee Lhamon has an impressive lunchbox collection and a tuxedo cat named Gumshoe. She'll make a website one of these days, but in the meantime, her other work is currently featured or forthcoming in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Cotton Xenomorph, Tales to Terrify, MetaStellar, Salamander, Grist, Hunger Mountain and Every Day Fiction.

Radon Journal Issue 6 cover art
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