Heartbeat in Shadow
Anthony J. Otten
She hated dolls. Especially china dolls. She had since she was young. Always she’d screamed for her mother to take them away, she’d rather have nothing than them. The puffy curlicue lips, the mongoloid foreheads, the funereal makeup. Like some sort of sinister governess from Victorian London.
And the eyes. Darling orbs with something wormy stirring under the eggshell surfaces.
Only right her daughter had become one. Only sweet and right that God had made it true. That the dark whirled her away into its black wallow and stole something intangible, the precious engine, the capacity for breath, leaving Melanie beautiful for everyone to fawn and mourn properly.
The body cannot live without the blood, and so the blood was the body. And so Melanie was her.
The mortician had left her to arrange the flowers and wreaths and the portrait aslant on the easel. She imagined some mothers were like that. Mothers with more than one child. Tweak the lighting so the coffin’s varnish shimmers, reorient the seating chart by preference, blush her face more, this is the last time they’ll see her you know. Make it something memorable, that people would buy tickets for. I have had a tragedy.
Mr. Curren, the director, kept the light in the parlor to just a whisper of gold gliding along mahogany doorways and rose carpet. As if the light would wound her if too intense.
Instead of blustering the folding chairs or the grief cards for tomorrow’s attendees—a photo of a ruby-throated hummingbird over a white rose, with Melanie’s dates—she stood motionless at the apex of the room, drowning in the silence. Everything seemed hushed with a waxen gleam meant to calm, not to suffocate. Was today really Tuesday? More than two days since Melanie had left. Impossible.
She hadn’t decided whether to have the casket’s panel open in the service. Naturally Douglas hadn’t decided anything—he was at work for a few hours today, stiffly prepared for a fire though there were no fires and wouldn’t be because of the weather. Miles above the thunder was a digestive grumble, the murmur of rain a tickle on the ears. Occasional lightning shattered across the funeral home’s interior with flickering violence.
She used to think Douglas loved his work, but there was only as much love there as a desperate runt has for the sow that keeps him breathing, thoughtless in a task. But she hadn’t told him this. She would only kill him further, thrash a cadaver long cooled.
She skimmed her fingers over the casket’s edge, the smoothness teasing the still-living nerves beneath her flesh. She stopped at the open panel and stared. She’d chosen for her daughter’s burial garments the sable skirt and white blouse she had worn to a performance of the Hillside Church choir at Fellowship Methodist in Ainsley. Mel had been fourteen then but had not grown much. A delicate ribcage like her own.
Her skin a Greek color, a goddess robbed of her blood. If she blinked the flutter of her eyelids could simulate the breathing of sleep, the slow peak and dip of the chest.
She smoothed an apostrophe of hair lingering on the forehead. No sweat there. Rigid as the skin of a birch tree. She turned away. She couldn’t kiss that skin, uniting her warmth to it. It’d be futile. It’d make the wanting come back.
She didn’t care if someone was watching, but still she felt obligated to kneel and pray so she knelt and prayed. She felt haunted for experiencing the slightest sensations of earthly taste and touch, when Melanie could not. All the beauty was like poisonous charity from God.
She lowered her head. She’d never abandoned belief in God—a person could be conflicted without being ignorant—but she’d never really stopped thinking of Him as a cosmic plantation overseer until Douglas had settled her into his church, speaking with such casual knowingness of love as more than an illusion. She held this memory like a withered bouquet to her chest, a charm against the deadliness of uncertainty as she prayed without words.
Anne reclined on Melanie’s bed and let gravity tug the shoes from her feet. The scents, trapped by the door, hadn’t died yet. She hoped to preserve them by rarely entering, like an archaeologist conserving the spicy smells hibernating in a pharaoh’s tomb.
The room still held the tang of peach shampoo and nail polish. Mica sunlight gilded the dresser and the shelf of Beanie Babies Mel wouldn’t throw away—she hadn’t inherited her mother’s dislike of them—and the poster that seemed to change every week. Zac Efron, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner. Lacking was the girl whirling between the rooms pulling on a shirt and using a hair straightener with one arm and no mirror, yelling downstairs at her to check if there were any Froot Loops left.
She sighed. There were enough remnants here to weave together her daughter, but forgetfulness was still a better anesthetic. She needed closed doors and windows, not phone calls and sunlit rooms, hideously quiet, that would make her think of the world continuing beyond her as if Melanie were just a skin cell sloughed from its surface. A girl dead from a fallopian pregnancy is not a national crisis.
Good she wasn’t at work. Here she had a sense of devastation. If she were in Cincinnati twenty miles north from here, monitoring donations at McNeal Fertility Services and Sperm Bank, she’d be forced to pantomime living like a specter clothed in flesh. She couldn’t bear seeing the supervising nurse Mrs. English, jolly as an old housemaid, or the college boys that came in stuttering and scarlet in the face, or her coworkers playing rock-paper-scissors to decide who’d buy fresh copies of Hustler or Playboy to stock the donation rooms. To be normal like that was to murder her daughter a second time.
She rolled off the bedcovers, thinking of the eternal mop, the dishes downstairs begging to lease her next hours. But then she paused. Something was different. Wrong, even. She glanced around the room and found it—something had changed with the arrangement of Beanie Babies shelved next to the Lautner poster, figures so benign she almost never thought of them when she was dusting.
She hooked the chain lock on Melanie’s door, held it firm for a moment with tremoring hands and then returned to the shelf.
One of the stuffed figures, a cheerful lobster, was perched higher than the whale and frog flanking it. She removed the lobster and glimpsed a dark shape among the fluff.
A dread almost supernatural raked through her heart. She stumbled back with a yelp.
But there was no reason for that. The object wasn’t a goblin, for God’s sake. As she calmed, the heat of embarrassment prickled her face, though no one was around.
She despised the constant feeling of an invisible person observing her weaknesses. The feeling was as ingrained in her as an evolutionary instinct, like sexual lust or greed were for others. But this time she rejected it. Still breathless she snatched the object from its niche. A small Staples notebook, the pages brittle from the touch of another’s hands.
She recalled suddenly that she had no other paper than this on which Melanie had written something besides schoolwork. No Christmas or birthday cards, no afterschool Love you, headed to the mall notes. Nothing on which she’d written even a small piece of her heart.
She skimmed the pages. The insect noise of old paper. The text melted before her frantic eyes. A diary she kept from me. Maybe Melanie had intended to show this to her later. But there’d been no later.
She could understand the diary impulse. She’d written in one like this when she was a teen. Even a life of quiet privacy has tempests, temptations that have to be diluted on a page of writing. The urge wasn’t a choice, but something necessary in certain years, when she wouldn’t dare put the whirlwinds into spoken words. Or actions.
She couldn’t remember now what she’d done with her own diary, though.
She slowed her flipping, marveling in a morbid way at thoughts written by a dead hand, the whims of a mind vanished from the world. Then she stopped.
with Miranda. I never want that to happen to me.
She recognized the name. Miranda Stoakes, a girl who’d gotten pregnant Melanie’s sophomore year. The girl didn’t finish school—she’d moved, married and become a waitress at Frisch’s. The father eventually wound a nylon cord around his jugular and let a coat hook do what life hadn’t yet.
A subject of dead conversations from last year, during twilight minutes of dishwashing and table-wiping after dinner, giggling mother-daughter gossip. Like a tumor, these memories—simple to create, hard to excise.
Then two sentences, a snip from a whirling film strip. Jacob jokes about it. But when I asked him if he had or if he wanted, he
She figured she knew what the it was. No, she was sure. And the thought of the legs yielding, the joyful opening of one to another, disgusted her. Love reduced to a luminous thrill across the skin. Her daughter made a conquest.
That world was not for Melanie. And the way she wrote Jacob’s name. Almost calligraphy, as if she’d taken an hour designing it.
No more text until the last page, where three black words crouched. I’ll do it. The only words she’d written there. Would she have known someone would find them, and try to scrape at the layer between their surface and the intention unreachable beneath it?
She had to destroy it. With each look she felt her heart crush deeper into her ribs. If she contemplated Mel again with the images in her mind not yet bled of their intensity—Douglas’s eyes, her daughter in the coffin—she might kill herself.
Only one pebble was needed to ruin a gilt mirror, only one lifting breeze a spiderweb strung on faith. If Melanie couldn’t be preserved alive then she could be enthroned in the thoughts of the living. The diary could never pass outside the windowed quiet of this house.
(previously appeared in Short Story America)