BY TAYLOR SYKES
The pillow seems suddenly heavy now, like I couldn’t lift it with the pinch of two fingers, and I can’t—I can’t be in the room with what I’ve done. I leave the pillow where it lies and lock the door when I go.
The room, the house, the world—so quiet now, now it’s done.
The ambulance. I got to call. That’s the next step, to call and lie.
Tremors shock through me, toe to fingertip, as I grasp the wineglass in the cabinet. The cup so clean and pure and proud. My fingers close around the neck to steady myself and I imagine the bowl filling up with dark red. The splash, waves, filling, almost full. I hold my breath and get lost in the mirage. Till my chest is contracting and I can either gasp or pass out, so I gasp. Shake my head no. The glass is for water, only water.
The motions must be gone through. Shame on you for dawdling. The sooner you do it the sooner it’s done. Dial the numbers on the corded phone in the kitchen and mumble about needing an ambulance at the house next to Mrs. Meyer’s Bakery. Hang up. Wander back to the room and light a Winston over the cradle. Look down. Lift the pillow, lift it so you don’t got to read that prayer any more. The words are flashing: hallowed be thy name, hallowed be thy, hallowed be. Do it. Lift the goddamn pillow. Then the pillow slides back under the small weight of the head where it’s supposed to be, where, according to you, it never left.
His lips look purpled already, but it must be the moon’s coloring coming in from the window. I push a puff of smoke into his spit-soaked face. It hits like a burst of water. Then comes the heft in my chest, a weight the size and shape of a fist. Before I can think too much about it, I push him on his side, face down.
Now all I want is sleep and the silence behind closed curtains. But I just got to keep my head low and start saving some money. And after, I can go. Turn away and not come back. Damn Cora if she doesn’t want to come. I’ll be gone. I’m already going. This bad part first and then I’ll be somewhere safe. After this, I’ll finally get out.
I hear the sirens coming and hold my breath till they’re at my door. The cigarette’s dead in my hand but I still try to smoke it.
I wear the same dress as I did to the last funeral, even though it’s colder now. Didn’t own a stitch of black before Dad passed two summers ago, so I bought a sleeveless cotton dress from the resale shop on the square. Black clashed with my skin, so white it was almost pink and all splattered with summer freckles. But Cora was glowing then. Her blonde hair, her tan, her wedding ring.
I got our Momma’s hair and complexion. Just like it was in that picture Dad kept in his wallet. Red frizz tied back in a green triangle scarf. It was a close-up of her face, her neck, cutting off at her slender-boned shoulders. I couldn’t tell where she was. She wasn’t looking at the camera. She wasn’t smiling. We buried him with that picture.
Maplewood Cemetery is right off 9-mile Highway. Always thought it was a strange spot to put the dead with those cars blowing past carelessly at night. The cemetery just another blur on a stretch of flat road. And then the town’s elementary school and a playground planted on either side. Our teachers used to walk us across the street to see the gravestones of Civil War vets. The boys all laughed at dead men and kicked the little white gravestones with their sneakers. There is no rest at Maplewood. But it was a good place to hide. Cora and I would stay there after school till it got too dark to see the plots on the ground. We’d lean against two tall graves with only the name BUTLER scratched in the smooth stone. No dates, nothing. And say if Dad ever let us get a dog, we’d name him Butler.
Cora planned the funeral again. No one expects much from me, at least. No one cries except Cora. No one looks at me besides the preacher.
What I like about praying is that you don’t got to say a word out loud. You just think your thoughts. There’s no need for hiding even the worst thoughts, because according to the book, God already knows. I always thought that God liked the no-good, twisted things about people. My town and I expect the whole world is full of no-good, twisted things. From a distance, breaking away from the preacher’s cloud of words, I hear my 5th grade teacher whisper, "Poor boy. Damn shame."
I can’t keep from shivering when the wind kicks up. Leaves, red like they’ve been licked by bloody tongues, whirling through the air in a tiny tornado. I hold myself, wanting to hold on to Cora instead but I don’t. The coffin lowers. Who’s the man that makes such small coffins? Cora cries into a cream silk scarf. I picture Dad’s coffin and an oversized wooden shoe box sitting softly in the ground, side by side.
Cora makes me dye all my white clothes black. I can’t fight her. She is almost crazed. She doesn’t understand my reluctance. "This is what mourning means," she says like she’s teaching me how to grieve.
All my bras, underwear, slips. Black. That white lace gown of Grandma’s. Black. She even brings out my cotton sheets. Black. Our hands are stained, permanently purple. The clothes hang on the line in the backyard and bleed their stain onto the overgrown grass. Then we sit out on the front porch and she drinks from a flask while I swirl around the water in my wineglass. She never shuts up when she’s drunk so she goes on and on about how Cline’s having an affair with Sue, the woman who sells hot dogs outside the courthouse. The sun’s dipped down by the time she goes. Without Cora, the house is soundless again. I rip out the phone cord. If Cline wants me, he’ll have to come find me.
Alone, I get to thinking about the boy again. I’d have given him to Cora if I could. He should have been hers. So many times I wanted to say, I don’t want it but I know you do so take it, get it away from me. I wouldn’t need to wear black. She could be happy. I could be alone.
I did my research. I was smart about it. When I got pregnant, I took out a book from the library, one of those medical journals that nobody ever reads. I learned all about babies and the kinds of ways they can die. No one would ever be able to prove that I did it. But I did. I know everyone in town would think it a sin greater than abortion. I’ve never even heard of any one who had an abortion. Adoption sometimes if the girl can manage to come up with a good excuse. Like in high school when Lacy Turner was sent off to Chicago to stay with an aunt or a cousin. She had it there and left it there. She never talked about it, but everybody else did. Around here, most times, when the girls get pregnant, they stay pregnant, and they get married and that’s the end. Life’s over.
Cora used to talk to me about getting away from all this. About running away from Dad and the whispers about why Momma left. We would lie in the grassy patch in the center of our cul-de-sac when Dad was too drunk to notice us going outside after midnight and plan our escape. We were going to fly across America to another country when we saved enough money. I was serious. But not Cora.
She started sleeping with Cline Cowin. He was an ass when we were in high school but started making a decent amount of money after graduation. Took over his dad’s electrician business. Cora thought he could buy some property, build her a nice, big house, and give her babies. They got married in the Lutheran Church on South Street. That awful mauve maid of honor dress. Mauve is the dullest color. That was the first time Cline confronted me. I was avoiding the reception hall, lying on the floor beside the pews. Mourning my sister. She’d finally given in and died. No one could see me, except Cline. He told me later that I all but asked for it.
Cline finally shows up while Cora is at her book club. He smacks me and ties me to the bed and I try not to come, but I can’t help it. After, we share a Winston. Cora doesn’t let him smoke. He touches the lace on the bottom of my slip and says, "You do look better in black."
When he’s gone, I look in the mirror. Poke the pouch above my hips, try to flatten it with my hands. Tell myself to lose more of the weight. Or take a knife and just cut it off. Sew the rest of your stomach back together. But that’d leave a nasty scar. And there shouldn’t be a hint of that baby on your skin.
My bicycle wheels split the cracks in the symmetrically paved sidewalks around town square. I imagine my mother’s back cracked and laugh. Decide to ride every night, only at night. When there’s no worrying about the whole town gawking at me. There’ll be enough of that when I go back to work at the library and I’ll have to do that soon. The money’s running out. Cline hasn’t given me a thing since before the funeral. Him and Cora are remodeling the basement. He says there’s nothing extra. If I’m ever getting out of here, I got to be independent. I ride harder, cold air stabbing my eyes, wheels splitting the cracks. My mother’s back, my mother’s back, my mother’s back.
Can’t sleep much anymore. I pace the bedroom, feet sinking into the carpet. Wonder if I could fall right through the floor and let the house swallow me up. Water, I should drink water. I’m walking down the hall to the kitchen when I see it. The other bedroom door open, just a bit. I lean against the wall to steady myself. The door was shut. I did not open it. That door was locked.
A moment of panic. But I breathe and move forward, peering in. The window is open slightly and there’s a chill. The cradle still in the center of the room. The only other furniture is Dad’s old reclining chair and the ironing board that became a dressing table. Everything in its right place.
I slam the window, turn from the room, take the key from the pocket of my robe and lock the door again. In the kitchen, get out the glass, fill it halfway with water. The tip of my middle finger dips in and then I rub it slowly around the rim so the glass makes that shining sound I like. Breathe. The curtains are pulled tight and the door is locked. The house so quiet and still, except for that sound. Me and Cora used to fill all the glasses to different levels and make music.
Dad never liked wine. It was all vodka for him.
First day back at the library. Marianne and Linda don’t say much to me directly. I’m sure they wish I’d kill myself already. That’s what they said at the funeral. "Losing a child..." Marianne started. "I’d just die. I’d just give up on everything," Linda finished. Now they’re whispering just like everybody else.
No one really looks or speaks in my direction. If they do, they’re asking if we got a copy of this or that, some movie or another. Even Mrs. Meyer, who lives next door to me, avoids my eyes by cleaning her glasses as she checks out her cookbooks and Danielle Steel novel. But mostly everyone turns to Marianne and Linda, who chatter cheerily all day and pretend I’m not there. Fine by me. They don’t ask me to restock the returns or alphabetize the tapes. I wander through the day looking at the shelves, books aligned so neat and tight. I find a photography book of exotic locations. A rainforest. The Pacific Ocean. I’ve never been to the ocean, only Lake Michigan once when Dad made us go fishing. There’s one picture of these bright green hills stacked endlessly on top of each other in front of a gray sky. I think I’d like to live there with all the quiet, just wind and some birds. I place the book back in the row. Touching its spine, I smile.
When Cline tells me he’s about to come, it always makes me come too. Don’t know why. Something about his pleasure makes me get there almost instantly. It’s those times he goes without warning. All of a sudden it’s over and I’m both relieved and disappointed. I hate when he makes me come but I always hate it more when I don’t.
He won’t bother with being nice these days. He thinks I’ve gotten used to being pinned down and slapped on the ass. Like there’s no other way to do it. It used to be something we played at. Now it’s like there’s not a choice. I never get to decide if I come or not. He knows what he does to me. He decides. He told me he can’t do this kind of thing with Cora. She never liked it when he rough-housed. But I did like it. I did. Most times I just don’t any more.
Sex exhausts me and helps me sleep. But then I have that dream again. He is alive and sleeping in my bed. Except he is a young man this time and so beautiful. I crawl to him and press his face to my breast.
When I wake, sweat’s just pouring from me. Cline’s gone. I grab my chest and I swear it feels like milk is pumping through my breasts. I throw off the gray sheets and stumble down the hall, still naked. I twist the other bedroom handle right and left and right and left. Locked. Still locked. And why wouldn’t it be? I collapse on the cool tile by the wine cabinet. As I lean against the wood doors, the cups clink against each other.
Cora makes me go with her to Maplewood. I try to tell her no but she won’t listen. She never hears what I say these days. She just talks at me. So I mostly keep quiet and that’s fine.
It’s getting colder and the trees are all dead. There’s a big one right by the graves where we sit on the cracked leaves. Cora takes out Cline’s flask and drinks. Starts to cry.
"Don’t you ever get sad?" she asks. "Don’t you?"
I couldn’t fake it if I wanted to so I don’t respond. The cars go by on the highway. No one sees us here. There’s nothing but the sound of those cars and the wind in the trees.
Cora drops me off in front of the library before my shift. I sit on the steps and have a cigarette, blowing gray smoke at the gray sky. Gray, gray, gray. Gray as a gravestone. A group of teenagers dressed all in red and white for a high school football game pass by on the opposite side of the street. I can hear them talking, voices muffled over one another.
The lady that killed her kid.
They’re staring at me. The girls sneering, the boys laughing. I know they must be saying something else, about Cora or Momma or even Dad, but that’s all I hear. So I toss my cigarette and walk home. Are they the first ones saying that about me? Or are they just repeating what they’ve already heard?
When Cline comes later, I tell him I need more money. That I don’t want to go to town if I don’t got to.
"Cora wants to build a gazebo," he says. "She’s draining me."
So I hit him and he hits me and I start screaming. He puts his hand over my mouth and says that the next door neighbors are going to hear. I don’t care. I want them to. I want everyone to know. He kisses me hard and forces my mouth open. Clamps his teeth on the middle of my tongue and I’m howling. And then he lifts his arm and slams it into my head. So hard there’s no thinking any more. I just curl up on the bed and stay there till he goes.
The heat kicks on. The sound of steam trickling through the pipes. Nights are hard now. I get so tired but never want to sleep. I can’t ride my bicycle or go outside but I got to keep moving. So I wander around the house for a while, pressing my palms to the walls as I make my way up and down and up and down the hall. My stomach makes that sound and I can’t remember my last meal. I eat the leftover meatloaf that Cora brought some nights ago. I eat it with my hands. Cora always cooked. I never could. Dad liked her cooking. If he had a favorite, it was her, but he never cared too much about either of us. He always let us eat with our hands if we liked.
"I won’t be the one to teach you two how to be ladies," he’d laugh, glass in hand.
Cora taught herself. I don’t know if I ever really learned.
After eating I clean all the dishes and glassware till they’re glinting again. I place the wineglasses in the cabinet so they barely touch. The set of slender glasses was Momma’s once. I used to play with them as a kid because Dad didn’t drink wine. Said he had no use for them. All this time and I’ve never broke a single glass.
Next to the glasses is the unopened bottle of wine Mrs. Meyer gave me when I got pregnant, said a little bit was good for the baby. Lighting a cigarette, I stare into the green glass. The shadow of my head floats there.
It’s a cheap cabernet but that doesn’t matter. I’m grinning like crazy as I twist in the corkscrew. Yank it out and lick the red at the tip. I tilt the bottle almost vertical when I pour. Empty, almost full, full. Both hands clutching the glass when I bring it to my mouth. The taste is sour and strong like some childhood medicine. I am practically chugging. A bit spills from my lips and onto the light gray counter. Quickly wipe it with a towel so there’s no stain.
Finishing the wine makes me tired at last. I pass out on the living room couch with the glass and the bottle empty on the floor.
The boy is in his white cradle. A baby this time. But he is filthy. Naked. Covered in blood or dirt, I can’t tell. It’s all over his skin, black and wet. I will not touch him. I will not bring him to my breast. I will not give him what he wants. I know he is screaming but I can’t hear. Just see his little mouth stretched open.
I wake from the dream in a frenzy. There’s a sound down the hall. He’s there. In the cradle. He came back. Crawled from his coffin. Climbed through that window. He’s the one that comes at night. He will never leave me alone. He will never leave me.
I push up from the couch and look down the hall to see moonlight spilling out. It’s so cold and there’s crying, but it’s not the kind I thought. I recognize that cry.
Cora’s on the floor by the cradle, face in the carpet. She turns her head when she hears me and starts pounding the floor. The window is open as if she flew in.
I kneel next to her. Her hair is as tangled as a bird’s nest and I can’t see her face. She keeps hitting the floor and just bawling. I don’t know what to do so I let her go on till she wears herself out. She starts hitting me, smacking my bare legs with her fists and pushing my chest. I just sit there and take it.
After a while she calms down some and collapses in my lap. I fix her blonde hair so it lays flat again. Just when I think she’s asleep, she whispers something I don’t understand at first.
"Just give it to me…If it happens again, just give it to me." Her voice is as quiet as I’ve ever heard. Like she doesn’t want anyone to hear though there’s no one else around.
Cora wraps her arms around my shoulders and breathes deeply. She presses the side of her wet face to mine.
Taylor Sykes is originally from small town Indiana. Shenow lives, writes, and teaches writing in New York City. Her flash fiction was a finalist in NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction Contest and other fiction, poetry, and nonfiction has been published in Alyss, Pieces of Cake, and The Brooklyn Film and Arts blog.