- He could read the story.
- I would have something to blog.
- Someone would actually read what I wrote on this dumb thing.
by Stephanie Grove
The numbing patter of water on roofs and leaves had ceased, and the light crouched low in the sky. The evening released its breath in a long sigh. Birds dipped out from sheltering branches and traced arcs in the air, drying their wings. Shafts of dying sunlight sliced through the silvered clouds and bowed toward the earth. Everything was coated with droplets like diamond dust and reflected back the gray and pink and gold of the sunset, which had resumed weaving itself across the western horizon.
Slivers of glowing gold poured themselves in thin streams through the panes of the round window and lit up the beads and various artistic implements in the attic studio. The shifting of the light caught the woman's attention, and she straightened from her work, stretching her back and peering through the window at the damp scenery outside. Locking her arms above her head, she craned her joints upward, and the hem of her baggy t-shirt slipped up to bare the taut gourd of her stomach. Her navel protruded slightly, forming a mound in the fabric as she brought her arms back down. The bead-work on the worktable before her lay in a bright tangle, scattered over with silver dust, and half covered where she had abandoned the rag she was using to polish the strands. Behind her in the small studio hung several more works, dangling in colorful mobiles from the rafters, pewter moons and stars and flowers peeking out from between flourishes of iridescent glass beads, turning in a tight orbit on their delicate wires. Sighing, the woman glanced around at these creations, inspecting them with a critical eye. One hand dropped self-consciously to her belly, and she glanced out the window again. She was restless. Bird calls pressed, muted, against the window glass, and the woman rose from her work. Easing down the narrow staircase, she made her way slowly to the ground floor of the cottage. Lifting a light sweater from the hooks next to the door, she stepped out onto the porch. The damp air welcomed her with its embrace, and she creaked down the stairs, holding the ornate metal railing with one hand, her swollen abdomen with the other. Her soles grated in the gravel of the walkway that led out to the driveway and the road. Everything seemed alive and lazy with the onset of evening. Refreshed, she adopted a gentle gait and made her way toward the road.
Occupying her eyes with the fields and roadside forest of the rural scenery, she let her mind wander. Absently, she fidgeted with the engagement ring on her left hand, twisting it in the groove formed in the skin of the finger. Realizing the motion, she glanced down, paused for a moment, then pulled off the ring, depositing it in her pocket. Though she was dressed in faded jeans and an old t-shirt, the woman didn't have the look of someone who belonged in her rural surroundings. Her highlighted hair was piled high on her head, and her motions, though encumbered by a ballooning belly, still held the brisk urgency of someone who walked city streets and waited impatiently at strip-mall counters for a morning latte-- skinny, no foam. The evening was wearing away at the veneer of stress that pulled at her eyes, however, and she raised her eyes like a penitent to take in the light that dappled the gilded treetops. Autumn was approaching swiftly, running his painter's brush over the countryside foliage, chilling the air with his passage. Deeply inhaling the cool air, she slowed as she passed before a mailbox that hugged the road, bent and slightly dented with age; it stood with the stoic nature of a sentinel who had guarded this road in bygone eras of heavier traffic, and seen it grow old and potholed, covered each year with a thicker and more quiescent coat of fall colors. The cabin beyond it was rustic, constructed of coffee-colored wooden logs which still bore swirls of knotted imperfections, as though whoever had built it had simply hewn down the trees and piled them where they had stood. The place looked old, and could have been abandoned had not a thin trail of gray, pungent woodsmoke coiled up from the brick chimney. The woman gazed at the cabin as she passed, captivated by the old world charm like a tourist in a ghost town. Eventually, though, the protective trees closed it off from her intrusive view, and she waddled on.
The sun was dipping lower, now, and dusk beginning to leech the light from the sky. In the gap between the dimming trees, the harvest moon rested, buoyant in the distance between bordering clouds. Seeing the queen of evening risen from her rest, the woman halted, pulled a cell phone from her jacket pocket. The unnatural glow of the screen lit up her features, ghostly. Turning abruptly, she began the trek back the way she had come. Though she was trim, the exertion of the walk, and the extra weight she carried had labored her breathing, and a light sheen of sweat coated her temples and lips. Nonetheless, she walked a little faster, swaying side to side like a lost vessel on the night sea, instinct driving her indoors before primordial darkness claimed the world.
Hearing a rustle on the other side of the road, she looked sharply, her adjusting eyes craning past the veil of night. A dog had broke from the underbrush and trotted along the road opposite her, tongue lolling from one side of his mouth, eyes forward. “Hey, there,” she crooned, calmed by the sound of her own voice piercing the quieting forest. The dog glanced at her, slowing it's gait almost imperceptibly. It was a gangly thing, with a shaggy coat of fur and alert ears that perked toward her, gaging her position in the thickening air. It looked wolfish, a Husky or Malamute crossbreed, perhaps. She patted her leg, beckoning it over with the delight of a child. “Come here, boy, it's okay.” The animal hesitated, retracting the tongue back into its dark muzzle. It wet its nose, evaluating her invitation. “Come on,” she encouraged. The dog assented, veering off the dirt roadside and trotting over the asphalt road. “There you go,” she soothed, patting her leg again, and holding her hand out, palm up. The animal slowed as it approached, sniffing the air and lowering its head. The night was rapidly darkening, and she did not realize the creature had bared its fangs until she heard the low growl issuing from its throat. Blinking, the woman straightened, took a step back. The dog crouched, hackles raising, growl rising in volume. The woman took another step back, eyes locked on the dark canine shape in the road. Her arms enveloped her stomach protectively, and a throb of adrenaline began to pulse at her temples. Suddenly the growl twisted into a snarl, and the creature leaped at her, forepaws extended. The woman gave a gargled cry as the paws hit her, knocked her to the damp earth. Instinctively, she raised her forearm, and felt a needle of pain fire through the nerves of her arm as the animal's teeth pierced her skin. Now the cry broke free from her lips, filling her ears. She felt the weight of the animal, its hot fur and breath enveloping her, felt the pain as claws and teeth fought against her flailing limbs for purchase. Rolling, she tried to protect her belly underneath her, grasping the back of her neck and screaming. The animal scrambled against her, nosing and snapping at her spine and fingers, growling in a half-crazed pitch like a woman in labor or ecstasy. The woman's sleeve was soaked with blood, and she felt consciousness ebbing and flowing in her mind like a tide. The report of a rifle echoed through the woods, and her mind melded into the darkness of the night.
When she awoke, it was to the sterilized light of a hospital room. The fluorescent glare seemed to set fire to her retinas, and she snapped her eyes shut again. She shifted under the thin sheet that covered her, feeling thousands of nerve endings blare pain like trumpet blasts through her body. Opening her eyes in slits, she hesitantly surveyed the damage. Her left arm was tucked close to her body in a sling, thickly bandaged but not casted. She was propped up on pillows and her stomach where she was bent ached and stung. Lifting the sheet and the thin shift she wore, she inspected it. A neat half-circle of stitches stretched across her lower stomach, and the skin was stretched and deflated like an empty sack. She began to hyperventilate.
A youngish Korean woman with a jet braid and a clipboard walked in, saw the panic in the patient's eyes, smiled reassuringly. “Hello,” she said brightly, melodic American accent pinging off the white walls like the sudden chime of bells. “How are you feeling?”
“Where is my baby?” the woman asked, desperation curling the edges of her voice.
“Don't worry. She's fine. They have her waiting for you in the nursery. Didn't want to wake you up. You needed your rest.”
The woman considered this, chewing her lower lip and studying the nurse. “Is she... okay?”
“Of course,” the Korean woman replied, laugh lines crinkling the sides of her almond eyes. “She's a healthy bright-eyed baby girl, six pounds, eight ounces, fourteen inches long.” The nurse glanced at her clipboard, then back at the woman. “Still waiting for a name though. Would you like to see her now?”
“Emily Lynn,” the woman sighed, resting her head against the pillows and closing her eyes. Then she sat up again. “Can I see her?”
“Sure,” the nurse chirped. “Let's just check you out really quick, and I'll go and get her right away.” The Korean woman approached the bed. Her tan hands, nails and cuticles finely shaped, smelled of lotion, and she held a ball-point pen which she used to track the various lines, numbers, and read-outs on the monitors surrounding the bed, before jotting them down on the papers on her clipboard. “How are you feeling?” the nurse repeated, smiling warmly.
“Okay,” the woman replied. “A little sore.”
The Korean woman laughed. “Well, I'm not surprised!”
“What exactly happened to me?” the woman asked. “And how long have I been here?”
“Do you remember anything?”
“Well, yes... I remember taking a walk. And there was a dog...”
“Oh, is that what it was?” the nurse interrupted. “The man who came in with you just said you were attacked by an animal.”
“Man?” the woman echoed, frowning. “What man?” There was an emphasis on the question, and the nurse lifted a thin black eyebrow.
“I think his name was Henry. He said he was a neighbor.”
“Oh.” There was an odd mixture of disappointment and relief in the word, like the woman had both hoped and feared for who else this man might have been. But the nurse did not inquire further.
“Anyway, he said he heard you screaming and grabbed his shotgun and ran outside. He told us all he could see in the dark was you struggling with some kind of animal, and that he fired off a shot and it took off into the woods. He brought you in unconscious, but you had gone into labor so we had to do an emergency c-section. We also gave you a rabies booster, just in case.” And she winked, as though they were just indulging in a little girl talk.
“And how long have I been here?” the woman persisted.
“Just a little over forty eight hours. You woke up a few times, but you were a little feverish there for awhile, probably just a minor infection. We put some antibiotics in your IV, and that seemed to take care of it.”
The woman gave a short nod, satisfied for the moment, and the Korean nurse wrote a few more things on her clipboard. “May I see my daughter now?” the woman asked.
“Of course. Let me just go get her for you,” the nurse replied, and she was gone. The woman glanced around the room again, resting her eyes on the slit of night sky visible through the windows between two thick brown curtains. It was raining again. A streetlight somewhere out of view threw its glow up against the droplets on the glass, lighting the window like a Christmas scene. The woman looked back at the doorway.
The nurse had returned, pushing a hospital crib-cart. Within the clear plastic container rested a wrinkled infant, wrapped in white blankets. The woman smiled, craning to see her baby as the nurse brought it closer. “Here you go,” the Korean woman half-whispered, bequeathing the bundle into her mother's arms like a sacred offering. The woman clutched the child to her chest, gazing raptly into the scrunched face under the white cotton cap.
“Should I... is she hungry?” she asked, hesitant.
“Well, you should probably just keep her on formula for a while. You want to give all that medication time to work its way out of your system so she doesn't get it through your breast milk. But I can fix up a bottle really quick if you want to feed her.” The woman nodded, gazing at the infant again. The little black eyes peered up into hers, then shifted away, and back again, mouth working open and shut. The hands, buried beneath long white sleeves, flailed and rested in spurts.
The nurse returned with a can of formula and a bottle, and mixed a solution at the hand sink. Handing it to the woman, she cooed. “Aw... she knows her mommy already. Look at that face!” The woman just smiled, fitting the silicon nipple into the tiny mouth like a plug, watching the muscles along the infant's jaw pulse as she pulled forth the warm liquid.
The hospital released them the next morning, and, after filling out the necessary paperwork, the woman called a taxi to take her and the baby home. After tipping the driver, she crunched back over the gravel to the front door and carried her child over the threshold. “There you go,” she breathed, laying the baby down in the cheap plastic bassinet she had set up next to the bed in the little bedroom. Collapsing into a chair, she watched her daughter suck on two fingers, eyes closed. The woman sighed, leaning back against the soft cushioning of the recliner.
When she awoke again, the digital clock on the table beside the bed read 10:34, and the baby was crying, a suppressed wail that barely broke through her mother's heavy sleep. Reaching into the bassinet, the woman brought out the baby, and cradled her in her good arm as she made her way into the kitchen. Her stomach stung, and each step felt like she was tearing out the stitches. Maneuvering the child further onto her hip, she dug her bandaged hand into her purse on the counter top until it closed on a bottle-- a gift from the hospital. Extracting a container of dry formula from a shopping bag next to her purse, she managed to dump most of a scoop of powder into the bottle and carried it to the sink. As the baby brayed its thin cry, she filled the bottle with warm tap water, eying the amount, then screwed on the lid and shook the contents until they looked creamy. Shuffling back to the bedroom, she set down her daughter on the mattress and disentangled herself from the restrictive sling. Then she stretched out on the bed beside the baby and nursed her from the bottle. As the child's whimpers ceased, her own replaced them, quiet sobs that forced themselves from her chest like hiccups. Tears coursed down her cheeks, a few dripping off the tip of her nose onto the baby's forehead and sliding back into the downy hair. The child grunted as she drank, sucking air through her nose and swallowing urgently. When the child was done, she picked her up, tucking her against her shoulder and patting her back gently, tears still coming. The woman glanced at the cell phone on the bedside table, looked away. Her engagement ring lay next to the phone where she had deposited it when she had arrived home, along with her keys; the significance of her life, in three unassuming objects. When the child had burped, the woman laid her back in the bassinet, covering her with a small blanket-- another token from the hospital-- and sat back on the bed, staring at the phone. Shyly, one hand reached for the object, flipped it open, pressed a number on speed dial. She held it to her ear, breath pausing in her throat, listening. The tinny ring quivered in the air... again. Eventually there was a click, and an electronic voice bade her leave a message at the beep. “Hey... it's me,” she croaked at the prompt. “I... just... wanted to talk. Anyway... call me back.” The snap of the phone shutting made her shiver, and she pulled the covers over her head.
The next day was bright, filtering through the lacy curtains until her exhausted resistance became futile and she cranked open her heavy eyelids to confront it. The child was awake, sucking on a miniature fist and gazing inquisitively at the patterns of light on the ceiling above her bed. The woman slowly sat up and dropped her bare feet to the floor, trying to remember how few hours ago the last feeding had been. She had awoken five-- six?-- times in the night, and each successive time had felt more blurred and indistinct. Moaning, she finally pushed herself from the bed and reached for the infant. The little eyes locked on her face, feet kicking weakly in the air until they rested against her chest. Her arm hurt. Her stomach hurt. Her head hurt.
Shuffling back into the kitchen, the woman set the infant on the clean tile floor and searched through a cabinet. Pulling out an old, stained Black and Decker coffee machine, she set it on the counter and plugged it into the wall. A quick perusal of two drawers revealed a stash of individually packaged coffee grounds and some filters, and the woman sighed in relief. Rinsing out the pot and filter basket and filling the pot with water from the tap, she hastily reassembled the machine and set up a pot of coffee to brew. The trickle of liquid as the rich aroma filled the little kitchen made the woman's stomach gurgle, and she opened the refrigerator, inspecting its contents. Extracting a block of cheddar cheese and a Chinese-takeout container of leftover white rice, she grabbed a fork from another drawer and alternately carved fork-fulls from the container or block and plunged them into her mouth. When the coffee was done, she poured a tall mug of it and drank a long gulp, burning her tongue and leaving an acrid taste in her mouth. Reconsidering, she pulled milk and sugar from other niches and adjusted the concoction until creamy brown liquid edged the rim of the cup. Sipping carefully, the woman swallowed and sighed. The baby, still squirming slightly on her back on the floor, chirruped and gave a short cry, and the woman set down her mug and bent to retrieve her, wincing at the pang in her stitched abdomen.
Later, after they had finished off the rice, coffee, and two more bottles of formula, the woman put on her coat and tennis shoes and replaced the white cap on the baby's head. Tucking the old handgun she had brought from home and stored in the bureau drawer into her purse, she nestled the baby in the crook of her arm and stepped outside, locking the cottage door behind her like an older, wiser Red Riding Hood. Breathing deeply and pursing her lips, she walked down the driveway and into the road. The baby gurgled and cooed, yawning against the bright daylight. The air was unseasonably warm. Fluffy clouds scooted across the sky before a teasing breeze, patching the deep cyan with myriads of white shapes. The woods were alight with dancing sunshine that peeked like thousands of blinking eyes through the canopy and winked mischievously at the undergrowth. Occasionally the wind sloughing through the kinked pine boughs loosed a pine cone, and it fell with a soft crash into the mix of dry leaves and needles below.
The woman swallowed, and forced herself to take long, confident strides along the road. Soon she reached the mailbox, and she turned purposefully into the dirt drive past it that led to the rustic old log cabin. As she picked her way over the dips and ruts of the long drive, she attempted to recall the face of the person she was about to thank for saving her life, and likely that of her baby. The nurse had said he was an older man, and the rustic surroundings lended a certain coloring to her imagining of his face. But without features to fill it in, the mug-shot in her mind was merely an empty, wrinkled canvas, cut across with the hint of a friendly smile. She stumbled suddenly, recovering her balance awkwardly as the baby grunted and a skittering of loose stones and dirt echoed up the drive. From the direction of the log cabin came the squeal of old hinges, and the subsequent slam of a screen door. Glancing toward the sound, the woman saw a figure standing in the shade of the porch, still and alert, looking back at her. Straightening her shoulders and scooting the baby back up, the woman advanced toward the figure, attempting a casual smile. “Hi...” she choked out, then stopped to clear her throat. The warm, dusty air had made her mouth dry. “Um, hi,” she began, drawing near the porch. “My name is Jennifer Tankard. I, uh... I just wanted to stop by and, uh... thank you... for helping me, the other night.” And she tossed her head back over her shoulder, as if that night was still following right on her heels like a bothersome stray animal. The man was thin, but tough-looking as if years of life and sun and work had tanned his skin into a thick leather armor over his frail bones. Her idea of the wrinkles had been mostly accurate: laugh lines radiated out from the corners his eyes and rambled haphazardly across his gray-shagged forehead. A short, scruffy beard swirled with pale colors along his jaw line and spread across his upper lip. His eyes were pale, watery-- two ice cubes bobbing in blue punch. They stared out at her from beneath the brim of a brittle old leather hat that was faded at the creases, and they were intense, as if seen through the wrong end of a microscope, larger than life and piercing. The woman dropped her own gaze momentarily, then glanced back up. Now the man was smiling, and he had extended a rough gnarled hand toward her. “Glad t'see yer doin' okay, ma'am,” he said, the warm, hearty voice welling from some hidden source in the withered frame. “We was worried there fer a bit.”
Taking his hand and having her own shook vigorously, the woman accepted his invitation to “come on inside and haver seat.” The screen door repeated its squealing complaint, punctuated with the metallic crash as it raced back to its frame. The inside of the cabin was dark and smelled, unsurprisingly, of wood, sweet and dusty. It was warm and somewhat stuffy inside, and in the big den to her left she saw a dim glow in an old wood stove set into a hearth hollow in the wall. A couple big, faded floral chairs and a sofa that had slouched into itself over a career of decades crowded the room. “Tha's my wife, Eugenia,” the man said, gesturing toward a lump that occupied one of the floral monstrosities, filling in all the corners with loose, pale flesh and a patterned house dress that nearly matched the chair it occupied. At the mention of its name, the figure sort of jerked, sunken eyes in a swollen face roaming briefly in their direction before resuming their accustomed focus on the black and white television that murmured in the background, playing out the tired reels of some old movie. “Nice to meet you,” the woman mumbled hastily, too late to synchronize with the figure's brief attention span. “She's fine,” the man dismissed, as though his guest had hinted in any way otherwise. “Got a touch of Old Timer's. Not all there much anymore.” He chuckled at his own joke, and the woman just lowered her eyes, smiling awkwardly.
“So,” he said, bracing his hands like claws on the edges of the chair where he perched. “Can I getcha anything? I think we have some ice tea...”
“Oh, no, thank you, I'm fine,” the woman replied hastily, and he relaxed his grip, leaning back into the tired cushion.
“Well... so,” he began, eyes roving round the room as though he could locate his train of thought by sight. “So I guess yer better now?”
“Yes,” the woman replied, leaning forward. “I'm-- we're both fine.” He glanced questioningly at the baby on her lap, and she hastily made an introduction. “Uh, this is Emily,” she offered. “My daughter.” She made a brief face after she said that, aware of the idiocy of the explanation. “She was born right after the... ah... attack. In fact, I guess... if you hadn't been there, she may not have been born at all. I just...” she paused, frustrated. “I just wanted to thank you. Is there... anything I can do for you? Both of you?” she added, glancing sidelong at the docile shape in the other chair.
“No, no,” the man said, drawing out the words like a sigh. “Glad to help. Just glad I heard ya out there. Lucky I wasn't asleep yet. We both sleep like logs, dead to the world.”
The woman glanced at the man's absent wife, then at him, carefully avoiding putting that sentence in any kind of disturbing mental context. “Did they catch it?”
The woman snapped back to attention. “Sorry?”
“I asked ya did they catch it?”
“Catch it?” she echoed.
“The, uh, the whatchama-- the animal that had ya. What was it, a moun'in lion?”
“Oh, no, it was a... um... a dog I think.”
“A dog, huh?” he mulled this over. “Musta been a big 'un.”
“It was,” the woman affirmed, warming to the topic. “I think it was a Malamute, or maybe a Husky.”
The man leaned forward, frowning. “Eh?” he remarked, leaning a big ear toward her.
“It was dark,” she explained, and he nodded, leaning back again as though satisfied.
“It could have been a wolf, I guess,” the woman mused, then jumped at the slap of the man's hand on his jean leg.
The man was shaking his head, heaving slightly in silent laughter. “Weren't no wolf, I'll tell yer that,” he huffed. “Ain't never been wolves in these parts, not fer hundreds of years.” The woman shrugged, not responding. “Naw, it was prob'ly jest some stray dog some tourist brought out for a weekend at that campground down the way”-- he jabbed an arthritic thumb-- “an' ran away, went wild. Animal kin live a good life in these woods, s'long as he kin catch 'im some squirrels.” And he laughed again, loudly. The figure in the other chair shifted irritably, leaning its bulk closer in to the television set.
“Anyway,” the man surmised. “'E's prob'ly long gone by now. Had the sense to run when I shot 'im a warning.” He leaned conspiratorially toward her. “I woulda taken a proper shot at 'im, 'cept it was dark, and my eyesight ain't as good anymore. Didn't wanta hitcha by accident.”
The woman smiled appreciatively, and he relaxed.
“So,” he began, changing the subject. “Yore husband work 'round here?” The woman froze, mouth dropping open slightly.
“I'm... uh... not married,” she explained, quietly. The man frowned, glanced toward her ring finger for confirmation. “Well, I'll be. You know who the baby's father is, then?”
Striving to smile past the mild insult, the woman cleared her throat a little. “Yes, I do. We're... um... separated at the moment.”
The man lifted one bushy eyebrow, narrowing his eyes a little. “He know he's a father?”
“Of course,” the woman lied, gritting her teeth and wrestling the smile back onto her face. Her stomach was twisting uncomfortably now, and blood was pulsing in her ears.
“Good,” the man concluded, nodding. “Good.” He waved his hand dismissively. “It'll all work out. You young folks're always splittin' up an' getting back together.”
The woman just smiled.
It rained again that evening, a torrential downpour that set the roof to clanging like a full drum line. The woman cooked a boxed meal and sat in front of the computer to eat it, with the baby asleep on a blanket on the floor. She checked her email, slumping dejectedly when she saw no new emails. The pasta was bland, and she ate only half of it, setting it aside. The calendar on her email was predictably empty, noting only a full moon on Friday night and a couple of bills due. She ignored both, and logged off. The baby had woken up and flopped feebly on the blanket, grunts building into a sustained cry. The woman got up to fetch another bottle full of formula. The rain rushed against the kitchen window out of the dark sky, and the woman glanced out the window, shuddered. Passing by the front door on her way back to the living room, she locked the deadbolt.
Picking up the child, she surveyed the lamplit room. Cheerful country-inspired decorations and generic hotel-room paintings hung on the cream-colored walls. The plaid furniture clustered around an immaculate oak entertainment center, which displayed a hulking television balanced precariously on a small VCR. The computer desk sat in the corner like a reject from some earlier, more peaceful era, bare and inoffensive. The whole room had the appropriate feel of a vacation rental. The woman sighed longingly, and felt at the pocket of her jeans. But the cell-phone had not rung yet. Turning, she carried the baby to the bedroom.
The woman awoke to thunderclaps in the distance. The rain continued its mindless rage against the glass of the bedroom window, and flickers of white light lit the corners of the room sporadically. The woman sat up on her elbows, looking over the wall of the bassinet near the bed. The baby slept soundly on her stomach, little arms tucked close to her sides. The woman dropped her head back to her pillows, staring at the ceiling. She had been dreaming; in her dream a wolf came from the edge of the forest and attacked her, dragging away her daughter. The creature broke and ran back the direction whence it had come, carrying the child by a bloodied shirt. As it ran, it had morphed slowly into a dumpy creature with beady eyes wearing a ragged floral dress that grimaced at her through a mouth like a smooth cavern. The woman pulled the covers back over her shaking shoulders and shut her eyes, trying to block out the sound of the storm.
The next day was a blur of feedings and naps and resting in front of the television. The owners of the cabin had provided a few family-friendly VHS tapes for renters, and the woman dug one after another out of the dusty entertainment center and watched it, until dwarves and flowers and Disney heroes filled her thoughts. On the final scene of Snow White, she broke down, and had to run to the bathroom to find toilet paper to staunch the flow of tears. The cell phone still didn't ring.
Another night passed fitfully, the child waking every few hours for a feeding or change of diaper, and she awoke exhausted in the morning to the sound of her phone ringing. Frantically, she threw back the covers and dug the phone out of her jeans pocket. Answering, she nearly hung up as an elderly voice greeted her. “Hi, mom,” the woman answered, grimacing. Checking the sleeping baby, she quickly exited the room.
After enduring the uncomfortably long conversation with her mother, the woman slumped on the sofa, phone hanging from her hand as a bloodied sword would from a warrior's grip after a grueling battle. The babies high-pitched wail broke the late-morning silence and the woman heaved back up from the couch to fetch a bottle.
Her doctor's appointment that day followed a one-hour drive into town, and she was sore and grouchy by the time she got back out of the car. The doctor seemed rushed, and only tsked at her stitches before prescribing more painkillers and exiting the room. Back at the car, the woman contemplated going to see a movie, then remembered the infant in the backseat, and settled for a trip through a nearby fast-food restaurant's drive thru. The ride back was uneventful, and the baby was wailing for hunger by the time she pulled back into the driveway. The breeze played at her coat as she walked back to the cabin, keys jangling. The night went on as usual, distinguished only by a brilliant sunset that lit up the western horizon like a torch. Exhausted, the woman fell into bed as if the rumpled sheets were the arms of a lover, and sleep claimed her before she could blink.
She awoke well into the day. Bird calls chirupped through her hazy rest, drawing her into animation. She glanced at the clock through half-shut eyes. It was almost noon. Lethargic, she let her gaze rest on the clock, then blinked. The baby had not cried out once during the night. Still, the child was silent, and the woman rose with a start to look into the bassinet. It was empty. Panic flooded the womans veins with the rush of a flash flood. In a liquid movement, she snapped herself out of bed, and dropped to the floor. She lifted the lacy bed skirt, choking on the dust that drifted from the folds. The infant was nowhere to be seen.
Losing all grip on rationality in the wake of the the tide of adrenaline that was now pulsing through her skull, the woman leapt back to her feet and rushed into the hallway. Her bare feet slapped the hardwood floor with vibrations that seemed to shake the whole cottage. She flew through the living room, scanning the sterile beige carpet for signs of the infant's passage, barrelling through kitchen and dining room, tearing the stitches that had just begun to heal in her abdomen as she took the stairs two at a time to the attic and back down. A rushing seemed to be swelling in the air that filled the corners of every niche with a fog. She was crying, hot tears that slid off her chin without her notice. “Emily!” she cried. “Emily!” Her voice was hoarse, harsh-- she didn't recognize it. She grabbed at the front door, twisting and almost dislocating her own shoulder before realizing the deadbolt was still latched. Nonetheless, she strode down the wooden steps, screaming her child's name to the eerily sunny morning. Birds mocked her with playful melodies from the cover of their gilded canopies. The woman coughed out the infant's name again, doubled over on her knees, blood seeping through her pajama shirt and disturbing the pattern of the staid plaids. “Emily...” she trailed off, sobbing. The word was like a prayer.
Rising, the woman turned back to the door of the cottage. The pink frame gaped open like the mouth of some monstrous doll. The woman walked back through it, and stood, framed by the still-open doorway, looking right and left like a lost child herself. She turned back down the hallway toward the bedroom. A movement caught her peripheral attention, and she turned. It was her reflection, contained within the borders of a cherrywood-framed mirror. Her eyes scanned the familiar image, and it took a moment to place the disturbing quality in the image. Her dark brown hair was tousled from sleep, and coiled over her shoulders haphazardly. Her eyes were wide, shadows playing across them like playful imps. Her skin was smooth, milky in the dim light, and smeared with something red. Entranced, the woman raised a hand to the streaks that lined her lips and jaw. It felt sticky and stiff. She tried to move her lips, fighting against the congealed substance that held them like plaster. Her teeth were white, though, glistening in the sparse light. They looked cruel to her, sharp and alien in the cleft of her mouth. One finger poked tentatively at the substance on her face and pulled it away. She inspected it. Smelled it. Rubbed it with her thumb. It printed itself along the ridges of her thumb like a scarlet letter. Carefully, the woman raised the finger to her mouth and tasted the stuff, watching herself warily in the glass. Slowly, the iron spread over her tongue, acrid, bitter. It tasted of life, of pain.
Drawing in breath suddenly, the woman's chest heaved, and she pivoted, stepping out with the other foot like a choreographed ballerina in a B-rated horror flick. The half-shut bedroom door loomed as she approached at a sprint, swung wide at the impact of her clawed hand. She gaped at the bed. Mimicking her reflection, the pale yellow sheets were criss-crossed with bright streaks that had turned a rusty brown in places. Coarse hair lay across the mattress where something sharp had ripped away the linens and exposed it. The woman's feet dragged her forward reluctantly, one hand outstretched, simultaneously reaching for and blocking out the lump under the sheets. The woman flipped off the blankets. What was revealed brought little reaction from her blank, blood-streaked face. A little pile of thin objects, like whittled sticks, lay in a tangled pile on the mattress. Thicker fragments dotted the pile like puzzle pieces or large broken egg shells. Bones.
Sinking to her knees, the woman steadied herself against the planks of the wooden floor, eyes locked on the grisly revelation. Breath came and went in shallow draws from her chest, and everything faded to a still moment, the whole universe centering on this little skeletal altar on the bed. The woman's spine relaxed imperceptibly, her head lolling forward until she gazed at the bones through the fringe of her lashes. She watched the bones like a soothsayer, reading them for signs, awaiting a message from heaven to explain the atrocity that confronted her. None came. Sighing, the woman sat straight again, pushed off the of the floor and rose to her feet. There was a ponderousness to her movements, like her limbs had turned to lead during her repose. Still watching the pile on the bed, she began to move toward the dresser. Reaching it, she finally took her eyes from the bed and focused on the drawer, rifling the contents. Her hands closed on metal, and she pulled the handgun from the mess of bundled socks and underwear. Falling to the bed, she felt the jolt as the firm mattress met her body, but her whole focus was centered on the gun in her hand. Methodically, she checked the chamber, cocked a round. Sliding the cold barrel between her lips, she winced as the metal grated against her teeth, and a shiver passed through her limbs. Instinctively, her hand began to tremble, her tongue struggling against the metal depressor to swallow. Glancing back at the bones-- Emily's bones-- the woman looked back at the dresser. Intently, her thumb, still smeared with red, depressed the trigger.
The sound of the gun going off was like a door slamming in her head. A moment passed, feeling like eons, and she watched the dresser and wall blend into the ceiling as the force knocked her back onto the bed. The pain hit a moment later, and she gasped, drawing in air that burned along the ragged flesh of her palette like a brand. The pain was incredible, like a spike driven slowly through every fiber of her body and rushing to the crown of her head, alighting her hair with wet, sticky fire that poured liquid from the cavity the bullet had left. The woman closed her eyes, concentrating on the pain, waiting for the end. But it did not fade. The damp feeling on her head spread, and she could feel blood resting under her neck and shoulders. Amazed, she reached a shaking hand to her head, touched the blood-matted scalp. Her fingers felt for the hole, and found it, ragged and burning as the salt met the wounded flesh. The woman realized she was crying and tried to stifle the sobs that racked her flaming body. Forcing herself to her elbows, she screamed as the pain instantly expanded in volume. Her screamed turned to an enraged howl, cutting at her bloody throat like a cheese-grater. Blood poured in torrents from the entry hole in her throat, and filled her stomach. She vomited, red dripping into her eyes from her brows and streaming over her face. Again she screamed, like a chained animal. She stood, almost crumpling to the ground. But she did not fall. The pain went on, but it did not end, and she groped half-blinded by her own gory insides out into the hall, swiped at her eyes. The blood streaked across her face like a raccoon's mask, and dripped a slippery trail on the polished wood. The woman raged at heaven, at God, at her own inability to die. Each scream set new fire to the glowing embers of pain in her head, and rivulets of pain rushed to the tips of her limbs. The woman leaned weakly against the banister of the attic stairs, slumped to the floor. Her mind stuttered in chaotic flashes, images of blood and bones and Emily's cherubic face panning across her consciousness. A faint idea crept in the shadows of her delirious mind, fleshing out like the seeds of a nightmare. Her arm where the dog had bitten her burned, pulsed like a thing alive of itself. The woman gaped at it, healed over like an old injury, skin barely dimpled where the fangs had sunk in her flesh. Healed... already. How long ago had the attack been? Five days? But the sealed flesh looked aged by years, tough scar tissue raised a little from the surrounding skin. The woman blinked through the blood that caked her eyelids, mulling in a mockery of consideration over the random elements that were knitting together in her crazed imagination. Bitten by a wolf... it had been a full moon last night... Emily's bones were cross-hatched with grooves like the teeth of an animal... blood... everywhere blood.
The woman's eyes widened. “I am...” she moaned. “I am...” Her arms locked across her chest, and she rocked forward and back, spine bumping against the wooden ridge of the stairs. “I am... I am...”
Shakily, weakened from the blood she had littered in puddles across the house, she stood. The blood had stopped flowing now, and congealed on her face and hair and arms. The air was cold against her wet skin, and burned against the gaping hole in her skull. The woman's lips twitched, and she supported herself against the banister. “It's a … what is it? Silver..?” she mumbled erratically, fingers fumbling against the wood. “Silver... silver... silver...” she repeated like a yogi's mantra. Her voice was light, almost rejoicing. Her eyes rolled upward, and she smiled. “Ahhh...” she sighed, and turned toward the staircase. The steps receded up into the glowing light of the attic, and she set one foot on the first step, feeling like a soul ascending into the light. She grunted with the exertion of pulling herself up to the next step. Each one was conquered slowly, methodically... until her blood-streaked foot rested upon the carpet at the peak of the stairs. She twisted her gory head slowly, taking in the attic. She looked zombiefied, blood-loss clouding her eyes and slackening her pale face. Completeing the effect, she moaned, reaching both arms for the work surface in the attic corner. She stumbled through the curtains of mobiles that glittered like a forest of stars. The woman grinned, fancying herself in heaven. Falling to her knees, she clutched at a small brown glass bottle on the work table, fingers curling around it with a vulture grip. She dragged it from the table, knocking the half-finished mobile to the ground. Her red thumb brushed over the label, and she collapsed to her back on the bloodstained carpet, gaping head hitting ground with a jolt that made her cry out again with renewed pain. Raising the bottle to her dimming eyes, she gazed at the black letters like they held the promise of redemption in their sans-serif forms.
CraftsMan Powdered Silver
Caution: Do not expose to flame.
An unreal cackle rose from the woman's throat. She fumbled with the metal twist-on lid, and as it came loose, glistening dust drifted out onto the carpet. She inhaled and the dust burned her lungs. Coughing, she raised the jar to her lips, pouring the contents into her mouth. It stuck to her gums and cheeks and tongue like flour, and she breathed it into her throat sharply, dry heaving as it coated her lungs. Hacking, she felt the fire of pain blaze to life, and she sighed, smiling. “Emily,” she murmured, curling up as convulsions shook her frame. Somewhere in the distance, she thought she could hear a baby crying. Quietly, violently, she died.
The officer tapped his pen on his knee, waiting. Finally the laboratory door opened, and an older gentleman in a starched white lab coat walked out, peeling the latex gloves from his rough hands. The gentleman nodded at him as he approached, extending a hand in greeting. The men shook congenially. “Got anything for me?” the officer asked smiling politely. The man in the lab coat gave a curt nod, gesturing at an office to his right. They both entered, and the older man eased into a leather chair behind a sturdy desk.
“Looks like the victim died about forty-eight hours ago from a wound to the cranium.”
“That doesn't explain all the blood in the house,” the officer countered. The older man cleared his throat leaning forward.
“Well, that's a little tricky. There are cases of head-trauma victims surviving their wounds for periods of time, even recovering eventually. It looks to me like the shot may have grazed her amygdala and exited through the back of her skull.”
“So she bled out.”
The older man nodded again. “The amygdala has a strong influence on emotions and perceptions. She was probably very disoriented afterward.”
“Well that would explain the way the blood was all scattered throughout the house.”
“Yes it would.” He paused. “Point of interest: I found traces of silver dust in her stomach and lungs.”
The officer raised his eyebrows. “What would that do?”
The man behind the desk shrugged. “Not much, really. It's not toxic. Was the victim a scientist?”
The officer shook his head, frowning. “Not that we know of. She was a single mom, split with her fiance a month prior, on maternity leave from her job.”
The older man stroked the tuft of trimmed gray hair that distinguished his chin. “How about an artist?” he offered. The officer's look brightened.
“We found some mobiles in the attic-- glass beaded things.”
The older man nodded affirmatively. “That's it then. Artists sometimes use powdered silver in their work. How it got in her stomach I don't know though... maybe it was an effect of the delirium?”
The officer shrugged, dismissing the topic. “How about the remains?” he asked. The older man snapped back to attention, lines creasing his forehead solemnly.
“Human infant, female, not even a week old.”
The officer shook his head sorrowfully. “And?”
“Eaten. The teeth marks on the bones match the mother's dental cast.”
“Oh, jeez,” the officer muttered, dropping his gaze to the floor.
The older man continued in a carefully clinical tone. “I'm guessing post-partum depression and severe sleep deprivation combined with emotional trauma from her recent breakup and that animal attack you told me about tipped her mental balance.”
“She went crazy and ate her own baby,” the officer summarized, bitterly.
“Pretty much,” the older man replied. “Although, you'll want to get a second opinion from Doctor Sayers. I'm no psychiatrist.”
The officer nodded grimly, standing. “Well, thanks for the help.”
“Anytime,” the older man replied, extending his hand once more. They shook, and the officer left the office, stalking back down the hallway. The older man sat again, shuffling through some papers on his desk, and checked his watch.