It was Christmas afternoon when a cab pulled into Melanie’s driveway. The cab was decorated with reindeer antlers, lights strung round the windows, and the trunk wrapped in Christmas paper. The driver’s bulk hid whoever he slowly helped from his vehicle. An old woman. Old old. Someone Melanie’s students would have referred to as Paleolithic.
She balanced a blue hardbody suitcase on the top bars of her walker as she trundled up the pavement.
Melanie opened the door in her pajamas. “Uh. Can I help you?”
“You could get this bag for me, dear.”
“No, no.” Melanie stepped out onto the cold, matless stoop, hands out. “I mean, I think you have the wrong house.” She tried to catch the driver’s eye.
The woman twisted up. “No, this is it.” She raised a hand to the cabbie in farewell and continued.
The cab backed out. Melanie couldn’t decide who to go after first – the cab backing out onto the slush-slick street or the old woman lifting her walker over the threshold of her door.
Melanie found the woman in the dining nook, staring out over the small back yard, covered in snow except for one brown patch where the neighbor’s cat had shat.
“This room didn’t use to be blue.”
“I just moved in.” Melanie stood sweating in her robe, palms up. “Ma’am?”
The woman hefted her blue suitcase into Melanie’s chest. “The front bedroom, dear.” When Melanie didn’t move, the woman clapped her hands. “Chop, chop.”
So Melanie took the suitcase to the room at the front of the house, what was to be her study, the place she envisioned as the perfect spot to write a book. Desk and computer were assembled. An unmade daybed sat along one wall, a good place to read, she’d thought, or perhaps for the odd and awkward visitor.
The woman was now in the kitchen. A kettle had been put on the stove, two mugs sat on the counter, still with their newspaper stuffed inside. The woman held onto her walker with one hand, and with the other lifted one plate at a time to the single cabinet at the left of the stove.
“I had, uh, I had planned to put those over here.” Melanie opened the cabinet over the sink.
“No dear,” the woman said. “They go here.” She stopped a moment and looked round the kitchen. “Why anyone would want red cabinets, I don’t know.” She returned to stacking plates.
Good god, what was Melanie to do about something like this? How do you tell an old woman who’s putting away your dishes to get the hell out?
With a shrug, Melanie found the box with the tea, rinsed the cups, and poured the water when the kettle boiled. She’d ask about family in a bit. See if this fog of dementia might pass long enough for the woman to see where she really was, where she really needed to be. Melanie opened a box. “Where does this go?” she said, lifting out a juice glass, her voice only mildly ironic.
The woman held her gaze with those red-rimmed, saggy-lidded eyes. “By the icebox, dear,” she said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and then a cloud passed over her face, a lapse. Perhaps a recognizing. She shook her head a little, their eyes still held fast, looking both at Melanie and through her, her head continuing to wag as though she might clear whatever mist had settled in. Melanie put the juice glass in the cabinet.
They moved steadily through the kitchen, the woman lifting out one thing at a time and putting it where it went. When Melanie went rogue and tried to put the towels where she’d planned for them to go, the woman tsked and flung a knobby finger to a drawer on the other side of the room. There was a sense of purpose here, coupled with agitation and fear. It seemed the old woman felt they must push forward into the unknown of each box, a physical momentum to forestall any mental reckoning looming in the distance. Tomorrow, Melanie reasoned, she could move everything back where she wanted it. What did it hurt to humor a sad old woman today?
The woman’s breaths came in pants now, she leaned on her walker. Melanie took her hand, the first they had touched, and led her to the dining room. The woman thanked her and then flapped her hand in a way Melanie understood was how she addressed everything – flap, flap, flap. Chop, chop.
Melanie sat down across from her. She noticed a scuff on the tabletop and rubbed at it with her thumb. “Ma’am, can I help you somehow? Should we go to the hospital?”
The woman gazed at her with those pale green eyes, seeming always on the verge of overflowing. She patted Melanie’s hand, her cool dry palm resting on Melanie’s arm. “I reckon I made it here. At my age, I reckon that’s a win!” She held up a finger and winked. “Called that cab myself.”
Melanie nodded. “Sure, sure. A win.”
Melanie went back to the boxes. She hadn’t really planned to unpack much. Not yet. Today, she’d wanted to just walk through her house. Her own house. Thirty years’ worth of Christmas presents to herself. It was nothing special, a small peaked-roof Tudor amongst a sea of similar ones, all squat and small in their little square yards. But it was hers and she’d liked the blue walls, the red cabinets, the way the corner of the floor in the front room sloped visibly down.
So she continued to put things away – she needed something to do, something to keep her hands busy while she reasoned out who you were supposed to call in a situation like this. Opening each box, her first instincts said to put this here, put that there. But halfway to the here or there, she would stop and wonder where it should really go. And then she remembered it was her house, not the woman’s, and yet seeing her hunched there at the table, her thumb working at the same scuff – well, again she reminded herself that nothing was permanent and with all this winter break stretching halfway into January, what was the loss of a day?
“Rolled and stacked in the bathroom,” the woman’s weak voice returned.
“Top shelf of the hall closet.”
“How many you have?”
“Vestibule to the right of the door.”
Early dark fell before they made it to any of the bedroom things. Melanie took a shower to rinse the dust from her skin and when she returned to the front room, the old woman was gone and the door of her study closed. She sat on the couch in the darkness and gazed through the front window. She had no curtains nor blinds, so she kept the lights off except the bulb over the stove. It gave off enough of a yellow glow to keep her from stubbing her toes on the unfamiliar doorways.
Across the street, a neighbor’s car whooshed into the driveway. A patter of slush fell in heavy drops across the road and lawn. Doors opened and children emerged. Their voices were high and whiney, over-tired. They followed their father into the house, arms laden with the day’s spoils. Melanie didn’t bother getting misty over this kind of thing anymore. She’d seen a few doctors, all of whom confirmed that her body was simply not made for having children. Something to do with her ovaries being turned inside out so that her eggs, rather than being coaxed into the fallopian tubes just, well, floated away somewhere. During a first date with Jacks, she’d said her eggs were already scrambled, and that seemed to be a relief to him, as it had been to her, the whole baby imperative swept cleanly away, just so many crumbs brushed off the table with the heel of a hand.
But there were some things she guessed she might have liked. Hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree. Baking sugar cookies and decorating them with red and green icing. Building a snowman. The children across the street began to scream. Their voices reached such a pitch that she could hear them from inside her own house even though they had gone inside theirs. Books and academia were quite enough after all.
She lay down on the couch and pulled a blanket over herself. Tomorrow, she said, drifting down below the film of wakefulness. Tomorrow, it’d get sorted out.
She woke in a cold smudge of her own saliva. The sun, bright and reflective off a new coating of snow, blinded her. The first thing she noticed was the sound of voices coming from the kitchen. The seconds of music and resumption of a man’s voice confirmed it as the radio.
But her radio was still packed in a box out in the garage.
The next thing – and it took her a minute – was her dining room: it was no longer blue. Instead, the walls were a creamy mottled white, a more pleasant version of the slush gathering in the gutters.
She moved toward the kitchen, stubbing her toe on the doorframe. And in the kitchen, the walls were not that pale grey she’d loved, nor the cabinets red. The walls bore a hideous wallpaper: diagonal lines of teal rope and in the middle of each diamond, a pineapple. And the cabinets were painted the same yellow as the ripe pineapple husk.
A woman stood at the stove moving a spatula around a pan. She was in her fifties, maybe sixties, wearing elastic-band jeans and a cotton blouse. She touched a finger to whatever was in the skillet and tasted it. From a spice caddy Melanie didn’t recognize, she pulled out an array of glass jars, opened their lids, and dashed in a little from each.
She turned to Melanie and shrugged. “You look about as boggled as I feel. Eggs?” She flapped her hand at the fridge. “Get me out half a dozen or so.” Then she looked at her hand, flexing the fingers open and closed.
But Melanie turned and dashed down the hall. The door to her writing room stood open, the bed made. Melanie checked under the bed, in the closet. The old woman was nowhere in the room. A sweat had broken out, fear of the stranger and the relief of deliverance. The woman in the kitchen must be her daughter, finally come to pick up her wandering Alzheimerish mother. How and when the old woman had called did not matter; it was over.
Melanie went to her own room, checking the hall closet and bathroom along the way. She changed into the same clothes she’d been wearing yesterday and returned to the kitchen.
The woman stood at the opposite counter now, cracking eggs in the bowl. “I hope you’re not planning to be so flighty all day. There’s still a heap of unpacking to do.” She whisked them briskly. “Eva by the way. Eva Carpenter.”
Doing a little sideways hop, Melanie nodded and made her way across the small kitchen nook to the door to the garage. The cement slab was stabbingly cold. She grabbed a folder off the bench, the closing paperwork. She hopped from foot to foot as she flipped through the pages, then stepped into an empty cardboard box and stood there, a too-large, unwrapped present. There it was – the name of the previous homeowner: Eva and Ron (deceased) Carpenter. Her realtor had said the previous owner let the house sit empty for years before finally being forced to sell to fund her nursing home stay. Melanie jerked the phone from the wall and dialed.
“You’re not making any sense, Mel.” Jacks had clearly just woken up, probably hungover, probably not alone.
“Listen! So yesterday this old lady came in a cab and just walked right in. And she’s like really old and demented, so I couldn’t just kick her out. And then she just went to sleep in my house. And now there’s this other lady, a younger lady, and she said her name is Eva.” Melanie waited for some spark of recognition but was met with silence. “Eva’s the name of the woman who used to live here. It’s her.”
Static flooded the receiver, like Jacks was covering the mouthpiece and speaking to someone else.
“Jacks, I need you to come over!”
“Look, she’s probably just some old lady who wants to see her house before she dies. This must be her daughter. She’ll take her mom back to whatever nursing home she escaped from.”
“You don’t understand . She’s not the daughter. She’s the—”
“Come by the Monk tomorrow if you’re done playing assisted living.” He hung up.
“Shit. Shit, shit, shit.” Well, what did Melanie expect? Jacks wasn’t the kind of boyfriend you kept for his ability to navigate something like this – whatever this was.
Melanie remained in her opened box, twirling the cord round and round her hand. The workbench built into the wall had been charming when she first saw the house, an emblem of the hardworking nature of the people who used to live here. She’d never given much thought to them. It had been endearing that this house had been in the family almost from its construction, passed from a mother to her daughter, and then lived in by the daughter and her husband until his death and her eventual decline. Eva and Ron Carpenter.
Then she noticed the boxes on the workbench were different from the ones she’d bought for the move: older, danker, dustier. She opened the one nearest and found her radio and spice rack, but then other things, things that were not hers. She hefted out a metal juicer. She forgot the frigid floor and opened more boxes. In one, a clock meant to sit on a table or shelf with a shiny brass ring around the face. In another, stacks of photographs, some sepia-toned with solemn faces staring back.
The door to the kitchen opened. “Oh good,” the woman said, “you found the juicer. Come along, breakfast’s ready.” She waited a moment, but when Melanie stared blankly back, she clapped her hands. “Chop. Chop.”
Melanie followed the woman back inside and set the juicer on the counter where halved oranges waited. The eggs steamed in the pan on the stove. The woman juiced the oranges and brought the short glasses to the table.
Melanie ate mechanically. Finally, there had to be words. “So. You’re—. You’re—.” She had no idea how to put this into words. She positioned her hands as though grasping a walker and jerked them forward.
The woman stifled a surprised and mildly offended laugh. “Oh. Yes, it appears I am. I woke up and saw that thing – and it was like, ‘yes, that’s mine’ but it’s not. Know what I mean?”
Melanie shook her head.
The woman sighed.
“But your clothes?”
“They were just in my suitcase.”
“And the wallpaper? The dining room?”
Eva looked around the kitchen. “Like this when I got up. Ron and I put up that wallpaper and painted the cabinets after he retired.” She touched the wall, her finger trailing the raised cord of rope, and gazed around the room. “So, I suppose I was about this age when we did that.”
“Can I call someone to come get you? Kids maybe?”
She shook her head. Her fingers stroked a section of hair fallen over her eyes. She seemed in awe of her own hair, a brown going grey. “Even if I did, what would you tell them? – Your mom was super old yesterday and she’s only a little old today?”
“So, no kids,” Melanie repeated. She took their plates to the sink. She poured them both coffee from the fresh pot, then a dollop of whiskey in each. They sipped and shuddered against the liquor.
“I would have liked to have had though,” Eva finally said. “Just never happened.” Her hand wrapped the mug in an almost prayerful position. “I’d always supposed there was something wrong with one of us. Maybe this was it.”
The rest of that day they worked silently side by side, unpacking and putting things away. As they pulled out items that were not Melanie’s, Eva would exclaim over them. The clock was a retirement gift from the factory where Ron had worked. The photos had been collected when Eva and Ron found an interest in family history, a way to fill up empty grandchildren-less days. The juice press was inherited from his mother when she died and with whole mornings stretching out, they’d used it nearly every day.
At one point, Melanie held up a figurine of an Italian duchess, a trinket from a cruise they’d taken, one of many Eva said Melanie would find. A whole cabinet full of travel mementos. “Don’t you want these repacked? Won’t you want to take them with you?”
Eva shrugged, then chuckled. She broke down an empty box. “I don’t know where I’d take them. Do we even know where I’m going?”
The doorbell rang. Outside, the father from across the street stood on the mat, his three young children roaming around the small front step, picking up a few stones that had peeked out from the snow and throwing them into the yard where they disappeared and would likely eat up her lawnmower come summer.
Melanie opened the door and shook his extended hand. “Thought we’d come over to say hello, meet the new neighbor. Merry Christmas!”
Eva appeared holding a drill.
“Looks like you’re putting up a TV?” He took the instructions offered by Eva. “I could help you and your mom if you want, though you look like you know what you’re doing well enough.”
Melanie and Eva shared a smile and let the man, Nate, and the kids inside. While Melanie helped Nate attach the wall mount and lift the screen into place, Eva took the children to the kitchen and gave them turns squeezing orange juice, laughing at their puckered faces when they drank the non-sugarized version. For hours afterward, she would chuckle and say, “Should have seen their faces!”
In the evening, they turned on the television but neither woman watched the images flickering across the screen. Eva turned at the sound of laughter outside the window. The neighbor children played in the twilight, throwing snowballs in every direction to see which motion sensor lights they could activate. Eva still held one of the mementoes, a pewter Eiffel Tower, and ran her thumb over its ridged skeleton. Melanie jumped when a snowball splatted against the window.
At the door to her room, Melanie stopped and looked back at Eva, hesitating to cross the threshold. “Goodnight?”
Eva nodded. “Goodbye for all we know.”
A beat passed. Then another. Melanie’s weight shifted forward then back. And then Eva turned and closed the door. They weren’t family after all. What could Melanie offer? All she had were two hands with which to carry whatever this was as far as she could without knowing how far it was meant to go.
Melanie lay awake most of the night, her mind leaping forward and back across the chasms of what was happening, what it meant, what it was she needed to – or could possibly – do. She slept deep into the morning, surprised at how dark it was when she woke. Only a thin ribbon of light between the curtains told her it was day. Curtains? Those massive things couldn’t be her curtains – she didn’t have any. But she also didn’t have the dressing table set with perfumes nor the long dresser against the wall. She opened the drawers. Her underwear. Her shirts. Her pants. All folded neat and square as if they belonged there.
She opened the door. “Eva?”
The door to the bathroom was closed and the shower was on. Melanie stood outside the door. “Eva?”
“Out in a second!” The door opened and a slim woman appeared. Her hair was long and brown. She walked into the front bedroom and closed the door. Melanie retreated into her own room. Jesus! She was at least her own age, if not younger!
Melanie waited what seemed forever for Eva. Finally, she appeared in the living room, dressed in a gorgeous vintage wrap-around, her hair rolled and coifed, her make-up drastic and shiny, but perfect in that WWII pin-up way.
“All right, peach,” she said. “It’s a cold one out there. Lend me a coat?”
“Really?” Melanie rose. “Think that’s a good idea?” Outside, there was a stamping of feet, then the doorbell. Melanie sighed both in relief and agitation.
Eva was quickest to the door. On the step stood Nate again. He held a paper plate of Christmas cookies in both hands. His children waited on the walk, shy again at this new person in the doorway.
He held the plate out, and Eva took it with a smile.
“Sorry we didn’t have these ready yesterday, but you know how it goes.” He looked back and forth between them and then further into the house. “Your mom here?”
Melanie stepped forward, her toes on the metal lip of the door. “Oh, no. She had to go home, but my, uh, sister is here for…the day.”
He nodded. “Well,” he gestured back at his kids. “Guess I should get them home.” He leaned in. “It’s ok if you don’t want to eat those,” he said. “The kids made them, so…”
Eva laughed and put a hand on his arm. “Oh don’t be silly. I’m sure they’re wonderful.” Melanie and Eva watched as he gathered his children and shepherded them back across the street. They took the cookies into the kitchen and sat at the table. Eva peeled back the plastic wrap and picked up a tree glazed with green icing and chocolate sprinkles.
“Do you remember what’s happening? Do you remember yesterday?”
Eva thought for a moment. “Sort of. It’s like there’s this fog and if I think real hard, I can move that fog to the side. But I still can’t see much.” Eva brushed crumbs off the front of her dress. “What I do see are just flashes, fragments of the future. Like how I’ll get old, then Ron will die. And I’ll have to sell my house. How I’ll feel so sad one morning and I’ll pick up the phone and get in a cab.” She stopped, her eyes grew vacant and distant, then she was back. “And do you know, you’re there! All the way down that timeline, I see you being kind to a raggedy old woman.”
Eva took Melanie’s hand and squeezed it. There was a terror in her eyes, a hint of it, and Melanie knew that however much this frightened her, for Eva it was a deeper dunk into the frigid unknown.
They spent the day unpacking once again. They came across the box of travel trinkets like Eva had said they would, but when they did, Eva – this Eva – didn’t recognize them.
“I’ve always wanted to go to France,” she said, placing the Eiffel Tower on a shelf. “Was it beautiful? Did you go in the spring? I’ve always thought ‘Paris in the springtime’ – now, that would be something.”
As evening fell once again, the sky darkened and a new blanket of snow began to fall. “It never snowed much when we lived here,” Eva said. “Ron always wished for snow, missed the deep snows of Indiana where he grew up. But I’ve often thought that if we’d had snow, he would have thought about the snowmen he wasn’t building with his children.”
Once more, the neighbor’s children emerged. They ran around, heads tilted back, tongues out until the middle child and youngest ran smack into each other and fell back into the drift. Melanie expected a wail or a dash inside, but the two children, both girls, lay in the snow and fanned their arms and legs up and down, making snow angels.
“I’m sorry you didn’t, er – don’t? – have kids.”
“Me too,” Eva replied, and in her words lingered more than the acceptance of Melanie’s sympathy. There was a commiseration, an offering back of it, and Melanie felt something switch over under her skin. A longing she had forgotten rose and bubbled and broke at the surface. She placed her hand atop Eva’s and they sat together in silence, a kinship growing in that dark space between one woman’s palm and the other’s, until night beckoned them to sleep.
The house remained quiet past noon. In the living room, Melanie struck her knee on the carved arm of a horsehair couch she had never seen before and stifled a yelp. One side of the couch was worn down, the cushion unevenly flattened, the arm on that side also worn. Melanie continued to the kitchen and stood at the sink to drink cold coffee from the day before. Her phone blinked with a message from Jacks, checking in to see if she was coming to the Monk after all; checking, she knew, for the green light to call someone else. She deleted his message, then all of his old messages, then his contact information all together. New snow had fallen. The study door creaked open and heavy feet plodded toward her. Just as she’d been expecting, the twenty-something almost-sister had been replaced by her adolescent shadow.
Eva rubbed sleep from her eyes. Her pixie bob stood up in every direction. She looked tired and sad. And angry. Melanie waggled the coffee pot at the girl. Eva looked askance at it a moment, then nodded. Melanie poured fresh mugs for them both. Eva’s face suddenly clouded, her eyes going splotchy and Melanie realized the girl had been crying.
“Eva, what is it?”
“Yesterday, Junie Olsen called me a name.”
Eva shook her head just as she had yesterday, eyes going through Melanie, down into that foggy distance. “I don’t – I guess maybe not…”
“Never mind. Yesterday, Junie Olsen…”
“She called me…” Her voice dropped. “A bastard. Said I’d never had a father at all.”
“Well, Junie Olsen’s an idiot,” Melanie returned. “Everyone has a father.”
“Not me! Junie said that girls without fathers grow up to be loose women and go to hell.”
Melanie dropped bread into the toaster and tried to stifle her laugh. In the fridge, the stick of butter she’d left in its wrapper now sat in a glass butter dish. Melanie shrugged and took it out, more detritus from Eva’s life that was now hers.
Melanie buttered the bread and handed the plate to Eva. She started another two slices. Eva stood there with the plate of toast in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.
“Well, sit down already,” Melanie said. She clapped her hands. “We’ve got work to do this morning. Chop chop.”
Eva rolled her eyes, but she sat.
The unpacking was nearly done, but Melanie came up with enough chores to keep them both busy in the house. Eva seemed to understand the weirdness of all this, but her understanding was hazier even than the Eva of yesterday or the Eva of two days before.
They started with the artwork, hanging Melanie’s few paintings and photographs. As had happened each day before, when Melanie went out to the garage to gather the next set of frames, she found a new one mixed in with her own. These she handed to Eva and let her decide where they’d go, and when she chose a spot, Melanie could almost see the shadow of their shape on the wall, the outline of a place the house had been saving.
They reached a point where most boxes were unpacked. Those that remained could fit on top of the workbench. Together they cleaned the garage: Eva swept and Melanie tied a towel to her broom and stabbed at the cobwebby corners.
“Has it been so terrible growing up without a father?”
Eva thought about this as she swept her pile of dust and debris into a pyramid. “I guess not.”
“What do you do with your mom during breaks, the summer?”
Eva smiled a bit. “Well, at Christmas time we always go out to the woods to get our tree. Mother chops it down all by herself. And then we make spritz and gnocchi and eat them in front of the fireplace.”
“Doesn’t sound so bad, though I don’t know what spritz are.”
Eva rolled her eyes. “Cookies? And you put icing on them?”
Melanie hid her smile, remembering how often she’d used her own “no duh” voice with her mother. “I don’t have a father either, you know. I mean, I have one, but he was never around. I only met him once.”
“Really?” Eva’s pyramid began to collapse under the weight of its height.
“Really.” What she had had were a rotating cast in a show she liked to call Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Staying for Breakfast? Nothing about them was serious, starting with their names – Chet and Skip and Les and a dozen more monikered with something just as unpromising. So maybe her mother was a loose woman, but she’d always put Melanie first. Suddenly, it struck Melanie that perhaps her mother had chosen those meaningless attachments on purpose, that all those men were supposed to be disposable, walking through the revolving bank doors long enough to make a few romantic deposits and withdrawals and walk back out again, never present long enough to rob anything from Melanie. She hadn’t realized what a sacrifice that must have been, to never get close enough to someone that he might challenge a daughter’s position.
“I used to make cookies with my mom too,” Melanie finally said, “and sometimes she let me have rum in my eggnog.”
That evening, they settled into a companionable silence, Eva on the horsehair couch, her back to the worn arm, her body squishing down the cushion. Melanie went out to the garage to find some papers she’d left to grade over the break. As usual, the box was littered with things that weren’t hers, books mostly. On top sat a novel with orange, thick pages, the font old and blurry. The book fell open to a bookmark, a rectangle of cross-stitch with a tea cup in the center.
“Something to read?” Melanie handed the book to Eva. Over the day, she’d gotten used to the way the girl received every offer of conversation with a roll of her eyes. Somehow, it was endearing, this look like the girl thought a cardboard box would make more sense than you did.
Eva opened it to the bookmark and started reading as if she had put it down yesterday. Who knows? To her, she probably had. Melanie took the wing chair and sorted through the papers she needed to grade. They were all Intro Comp papers, comparison/contrasts of whatever asinine subjects her students had chosen. There was a weirdness to this normalcy – grading papers while a woman who’d stood with one foot in the beyond three days ago was now a teenager giggling through her book today.
“Hmmm?” Melanie put her papers aside.
“Oh, it’s this story about a girl who wants to run off to the circus. I think maybe I’d like that too. Or maybe off to sea on a boat. Just something to get out of this town.”
Melanie smiled, remembering all the plans she’d made at Eva’s age, and how her own, though mostly accomplished, had always taken a different form in her imaginings than they did in real life. First, it was college, but not the college of her dreams. Then graduate school, also a third or fourth choice. Then publish a book, then marriage and family. There was plenty of time for the book, which she now realized would culminate into something vastly different, and probably somewhat more disappointing, than the mirage she carried before her now. Marriage had only existed on her horizon as a terrible tourist trap she knew she’d have to visit and would be glad to escape from. And family? That plan had slipped away so seemingly easily. But seeing Eva’s form curled into the couch, the possessive crunch of a pillow against her stomach, and Melanie remembered how much she had actually wanted that final thing before the diagnosis permanently snoozed her biological clock.
She had lived for each day and whatever she wanted to do with it. Perhaps this wasn’t really enough after all.
“Night,” Melanie called from the hallway. Tomorrow, she knew, would be the hardest one. But if her math was right, after tomorrow’s midnight, it would be over, and her life could resume the track she’d put her cart in so many years ago.
Melanie woke to the bright sheen of sun on a new blanket of snow. The house lay quiet, and once more, Melanie found herself wondering, against all evidence to the strange and contrary, that perhaps it was already over. Even more confusing was her sense that if Eva was actually gone, something – an idea maybe, a permanence she had been missing – would be gone too. And then came the squeal.
Melanie tiptoed down the hall and pushed the door of the study open. The room was no longer the striking jade she’d thought would be so inspiring, but instead, a pale yellow with a stencil of baby bears in brown paint. And on the bed, just as she knew there would be, Melanie found a chubby infant rolling back and forth. The child rolled over and over. Melanie rushed forward and scooped her up before the next roll tumbled her to the floor. Melanie traced the round hill of her cheek, smoothed the brown hair back from her forehead, and gazed into her eyes. Eva slapped one hand to each side of Melanie’s face and burbled, a string of drool floating down into the front of Melanie’s shirt.
Melanie tucked the baby on her hip and went out to the garage. In a box labelled “Keepsakes,” one of the ones she’d never meant to unpack, Melanie found a crocheted blanket, half a dozen outfits, and an old hatbox full of wooden toys. Eva grabbed for a set of wooden rings and gummed them ferociously.
“Oh,” Melanie said, starting to take it away, “we should probably wash these things.” But then Eva shrieked and Melanie shrugged.
Melanie also found a strip of cloth a dozen feet long. Her first instinct was that this was meant to be cut into diapers. And though that idea soon revealed itself as ridiculous once she found an actual diaper, what wasn’t ridiculous was the need for diapers. Already, Eva soaked through the one scratchy diaper Melanie had found and now she was mummied up in one of Jacks’ left-behind T-shirts.
A quick search of YouTube and Melanie learned how to strap Eva to her chest with the cloth sling. She pulled on an extra-large winter coat, zipped Eva in, and the two headed out for a trip to the grocery store a few blocks over. Melanie’s fears of embarking into the city were quelled with this baby, who nestled quietly in and cooed a string of nonsense while they walked.
Outside, Nate shoveled his drive. He did a double-take when he saw Melanie. “My niece,” she offered, to which he nodded, raised one hand in farewell, and continued the slow progress toward the street.
Melanie picked up everything she could imagine she’d need for the day from diapers to bottles to formula. Eva burbled happily when old women veered their carts toward them. “My god,” said one, “look at them eyes. Gorgeous!” Another said, “and she has your hair. Looks just like you!” To everyone, Melanie nodded and smiled, said “thank you” and hurried away. On the walk home, Eva fell asleep, her warm head resting on Melanie’s chest, her hair damp and smelling of ripe milk and powder. Melanie’s heart began to ache, an actual physical pain she’d always thought was limp poetics, but the pain was real, a cord tied from her heart to the baby’s.
Back home, Melanie watched Eva play on the blanket in the middle of the living room. Melanie dumped out the box of toys and brought in a few other things, plastic measuring cups, bamboo kitchen spoons, pots. When it was time to eat, she gathered up the corners of the blanket and pulled Eva, squealing with delight, into the kitchen. It became a game they played until Melanie’s back protested. Melanie showed Eva how a ball would roll down the sloped floor of her living room. Over and over, Eva rolled the ball and Melanie rolled it back.
Once, Eva fell forward onto her belly as she pushed the ball and seemed stuck there. She shrieked in protest, then pushed herself up shakily on her front hands, and rocked forward and back. With one great effort, she heaved forward, lifted an arm and took her first crawling step. Melanie got on her hands and knees too and cooed at Eva to keep coming. Eva alternated between frustration and delight, with squeals to match each, until she reached Melanie. She rolled over onto Melanie’s lap and stared up smiling, proud of herself.
Melanie began to cry. A tear fell off her cheek and landed on Eva’s, but the baby had fallen asleep cradled between Melanie’s outstretched legs.
Melanie kept the baby in her bed that night, afraid she’d roll off the daybed or crawl over to an outlet. She pushed her bed against the wall and built a barrier of pillows across the bottom. Eva lay next to her. They played a game of hide and seek for a while until the baby tired and put her head down. Melanie rubbed her back until her breathing grew deep and even. Melanie stared up, searching in the shadows of her textured ceilings for shapes and images, anything to keep herself above the surface of wakefulness. But in the end, the hum of the baby’s breathing, the sadness pushing down upon her, lulled Melanie below the waves.
When she woke, she pulled the empty pillow against her chest. It smelled of milk and powder. She lay in bed and watched the sun climb into the sky, then disappear behind clouds as a fresh snow began to fall. Eventually, the pangs of her stomach would not be ignored.
Throughout the house lay the remnants of Eva – blanket and toys on the floor, all the balls rolled into the corner; the novel opened over the arm of the couch, waiting; the Eiffel Tower and Marie Antoinette and other tchotchkes in the curio; the pale white dining room; the godawful pineapple wallpaper. She juiced two oranges and cracked eggs in a bowl, whipping them with milk like Eva had shown her.
The smell of cooking eggs overwhelmed her. Hand to her mouth, she ran for the bathroom and vomited. She’d been hungry enough to puke before, but never nauseous of eggs. The smell wafted in from the kitchen and she was sickened again. With the neck of her shirt held over her nose and mouth, Melanie emptied the half-cooked eggs in the sink and used an aerosol spray she’d found in the bathroom to cover the smell. She dropped in two pieces of toast, and that’s when she felt it, a little niggling twitter at her navel. Not a hunger growl or a cramp, but something else. A movement, a shifting. And then there was something else again, an impenetrable, unexplainable knowing. That feeling people talk about when someone has died: that they’re not really gone, only standing just outside the range of our vision, in a blind spot we hadn’t known was there.
The toast burned, filling the house with a new smell, but Melanie was already in her coat, walking to the Safeway in her slippers and pajamas. On her return, the test box in her pocket, she stared down at the exposed, wet sidewalk. In the span of a few hours, the fresh snow had melted. A warm breeze blew Melanie’s hair back from her face. Gutters along the sides of the roads rushed with the melt, carrying away the dirt and dust, all those things hidden under the snow, leaving rivers of fresh possibility burbling alongside her steps.
Amy Foster Myer writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Jabberwock Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Lunch Ticket and Pacifica Literary Review, among others, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Learn more about Amy at http://www.amyfostermyer.com.