~This piece previously appeared in North American Review (2004).
Tending the spaghetti, Sandra studied the cabinets on the wall beside her. Their whiteness, she knew, was proof that she had painted them, wasn’t it? After all, they had been brown once, surely. She remembered picking them out with her ex-husband before the house was built, choosing them from the builder’s ragged catalog, and later she had painted them white when the marriage was over, just to make them hers alone. One hand on the stirring spoon, she raised the other to smooth her fingers across the face of the nearest cabinet’s door. It was slightly wet with steam from the boiling pot, and there was a small smudge near the handle. She’d need to clean that up. These too—the cabinets, the steam, the smudge—were real.
Her eyes swept across the kitchen: the sink, porcelain not stainless (her choice); the sponge perched on the corner, sticky with soap and destined for the trashcan; the microwave, the toaster, the can opener; the pass-through window separating kitchen and living room, its ledge decorated with a small gathering of imitation Herend rabbits, and beyond that her boyfriend Curt slapping her nine-year-old daughter Wendy; a spice rack; a series of containers for sugar, flour, coffee and tea, ceramic containers whose surfaces were shaped like basketweave; the jolt of the cabinets as his hand struck her cheek; a stray red oven mitt, just out of reach.
Sandra gripped her thumb and forefinger around the counter's edge, pressed it hard. Then she turned her attention back to stirring her spaghetti—turned her attention, in fact, more completely to its swirl and tumble in the big black pot. She half-hoped that the busy flow of bubbles or even the twist of the noodles themselves would begin to form some pattern, restore her sense of order. She half-expected, after what she’d witnessed over the last few weeks, that the spaghetti might even curl itself into a group of letters: WATCH OUT or HE DEVIL or even HELP. They didn’t, of course, and as the steam formed a film on her glasses, she closed her eyes, fought the urge to thrust her hand into the pot—a burn to chase away the images that were chasing her. She knew already that later that night, after she had put Wendy to bed, after she and Curt had gone back to her bed, after they’d had sex and his snores had settled into a slow, steady rhythm, she would do as she had done too many nights recently. She would lift Curt’s right hand and examine it in the moonlight straying past the dogwood just outside the window, compare his right with his left to see if it seemed any more red or any more swollen, search in vain for some proof of his violence. She would go into Wendy’s room then and sit on the edge of that bed, peer down at her daughter’s cheek in the light from the hallway, gently turn the girl’s head from side to side to look for the bruise that was never there.
Sandra opened her eyes. The film had dissolved from her glasses. The spaghetti was almost done. She looked through the passway beneath the cabinets into the living room where Curt was simply helping Wendy with her homework, just as he’d been doing all along.
“So how much do you have then?” Curt asked her. He held his hands in front of him like a quarterback, explaining the next play to the team. “Take your time. There’s no rush.”
“Twelve?” Wendy said, raising an eyebrow.
“That’s right,” he said. He snapped his fingers, his tone excited, celebratory. “And then all you have to do is subtract the three and—”
“Nine,” she said proudly.
“Great job!” Curt patted her on the shoulder. “Honey,” he called into the kitchen. “You’ll be so proud. Wendy’s really doing just great.”
Sandra watched his muscular quarterback hands, tensed at his snapping fingers, eyed that pat on the shoulder. Innocent gestures all, and yet....
“Dinner’s ready,” she said finally, her voice so weak that she had to repeat herself before they heard.
When had things gone so wrong? Could she now remember clearly the first time Curt asked her out—standing there in his brown UPS shorts, nervously lingering at her desk too long after she’d signed for the package? Could she remember being so unimpressed by the fact that he walked around to open the car door on their first date, and later being charmed that he still did it, so casually, so naturally, on their tenth? Did it matter that when she’d finally let him meet Wendy for the first time, a year and a half ago, he had taken the girl’s hand and dipped all 210 pounds of himself into a curtsy and said, in an admirably poor excuse for an English accent, “My pleasure, mi’lady”? Could the memory of Wendy’s face at that moment—wide-eyed and fighting back a grin—no longer ease her worries? or the fact that her daughter had herself dipped into a curtsy to match?
Hardly. In truth, few memories now seemed as vivid as that Thursday night three weeks ago. Wheel of Fortune had just ended, the pizza from Domino’s had been eaten. Piles of crust sat on a trio of plates atop the small tray-tables they used when they ate in front of the TV. Curt and Wendy arm-wrestled on the coffee table—his biceps the size of her neck, but he was letting her win. Sandra stood up, excuse me, stepped past them, purposefully brushed her bare thigh against Curt’s back, headed down the hallway toward the bathroom. Don’t let Friends start without me.
Minutes later, coming round the corner as she returns to the living room, Sandra sees Curt holding Wendy tightly around the waist, swinging her in circles, her legs flying out into the room. Roughhousing as usual, and Wendy laughing so hard that she’s not making any noise. But in that instant of Sandra’s rounding that corner, Wendy’s foot strikes the TV tray, sends pizza crusts flying, overturns the floor lamp. The lightbulb shatters into a thousand pieces, a million, but Curt doesn’t stop spinning her. And that’s when Sandra realizes that Wendy isn’t laughing but crying and that her voice is silent because she’s being squeezed so hard she can’t breathe.
“Stop it!” Sandra screams, but in the blink of an eye, the bulb is intact, the lamp upright, the pizza still growing cold on the plate. Curt and Wendy still sit on their respective sides of the coffee table, still arm-wrestling, the young girl’s tiny hand pinning Curt’s against a copy of People. Wendy has won again. Sandra leans hard against the doorframe for support as daughter and boyfriend stare at her with wonder and worry.
In the time since, Sandra had found herself holding onto lots of things for support. Several more doorframes, the handle on the refrigerator, the arm of the couch. The seat of her chair at the dining room table, the half-empty salt shaker, a clutch of mail. Once she’d even hugged herself, just to confirm that she was there.
Still, no matter how real the refrigerator door or the toilet seat or even her own self proved to be, the hallucinations continued, seemingly random, and of varying intensities: Curt sneaking up on Wendy as if to say “Boo”; Curt grabbing her too roughly around the shoulder or the ankle while they all sat around watching television; Curt’s hand pulled back as if to slap the girl or actually slapping her or even wrapped around Wendy’s throat; or—the worst—Wendy motionless on the gray-green carpet with Curt hovering over her, his head moving down as if to steal a kiss.
And the reality? The two of them were just playing Old Maid or Nintendo while Sandra read the new Danielle Steel. They were all working together in the yard, Sandra pulling weeds by the house, while Curt and Wendy set up the sprinkler in the backyard. Curt helped Wendy search the Internet, tracking down pictures of Jupiter for an astronomy project. Or they weren’t even in the same place at all—Wendy doing homework alone in her bedroom while Curt read The News and Observer or watched Peter Jennings on the evening news.
But even that paper and that TV conspired against Sandra’s sanity. Was it her imagination or hadn’t there been more reports of child abuse in the news over the last couple of weeks? She read about a woman in South Carolina whose boyfriend had killed her daughter, and the next day a follow-up: Violence More Likely in Non-Traditional Homes. And then the local TV news reported the story closer to home: a terrified young girl accidentally left locked in a preschool after closing, a frantic mother unable to get in and help her child. Sandra caught herself glancing at Curt’s reaction, searching for parental concern. Look up from your Sports Illustrated, her thoughts begged in vain, tell me how awful that story on the news is. And meanwhile the somber reporter kept talking about the neglected child, and the paper recounted more stories of abuse, cited more statistics, and Sandra’s visions became more persistent, more insistent, plaguing her wherever she turned.
Was God trying to deliver some warning? Was some guardian angel confiding a hidden truth? Neither Sandra’s parents nor Sandra herself had ever been much for church-going. Still, she couldn’t help but consider that some force more powerful than herself had perhaps sought her out, and was ultimately responsible for these visions. Or perhaps, she thought, it’s the future I’m seeing, glimpsing through some supernatural doorway. But what did these glimpses offer? A hint of some danger Curt might pose to Wendy, perhaps to both of them? A cautionary peek at what might come to pass if she didn’t take action? Or worse, a cruel preview of impending and unavoidable tragedy?
“You’re just afraid that he’s going to turn out to be your ex-husband all over again,” said her co-worker Beverly over coffee in the Nortel breakroom. No milk, no sugar.
Dan never hurt Wendy, Sandra started to protest, and he only hit me once, but Randy who worked down the hall had come in and was pretending too obviously not to listen. Bev didn’t seem to notice, had already trotted along with her analysis. The possibilities, it seemed, were endless. Maybe Sandra was afraid of becoming too close to another man. Maybe her subconscious was trying to sabotage the relationship. “After all, he’s just started spending the night at your place over the last few months.” Or maybe Sandra was jealous of Curt’s friendship with her daughter. Just a little jealous because it took his attentions away from her? A little envious of how well Curt got along with the girl? Had Sandra and Wendy been getting along themselves? Does Wendy enjoy spending time with him more than with you? “You’re not losing your daughter, you know,” Bev sipped her coffee. “And anyway, I know Curt. He’s a good man. You’ve got nothing to be afraid of. Nothing to fear but....”
Sandra had stopped listening. Hadn’t she believed that Daniel was a good man all those years ago? And hadn’t she discovered how wrong she was about that? The sneaking suspicions, the phone calls that just hung up, a letter that shouldn’t have been left out and then all that anger balling up and lashing out when she’d finally confronted him.
Still, Sandra had already recognized the possibilities that these visions weren’t coming from somewhere “out there,” but from some dark place deep within. She knew that her insides might still be reeling from the way Dan had treated her. She might be readied for the punch this time in ways she hadn’t been ready with her first husband. And she realized the effect that these episodes, whatever their cause, were having on her relationship with Curt—a relationship she had taken slowly, peering into his eyes and his actions for kindness and responsibility before inviting him so fully into their lives. Yet sometimes, just as she had leaned against the wall for support, she had also found herself leaning against Curt, pressing her blond hair against his shoulder, nestling her own shoulder in the hollow of his arms, groping toward some clear, tangible connection. During the few days just after the first vision, she had actually made love to him more frequently and with near-ferocious abandon, striving for some physical understanding, some tactile reality. And afterward, she asked him questions like “Do you believe you’ll ever think of Wendy as your own daughter?” and “Are you ever afraid that things seem too good to be real?” and “Do you think the truth of us is a good truth?” And as much as his touch, his words caressed her battered imagination, and she sunk off into peaceful, even blissful dreams.
But before the second week of her visions had passed, Sandra found his touch less soothing than sickening. She lost interest in sex. She went through the motions for his pleasure at the cost of her own, just so he wouldn’t ask what was wrong. She found herself shrinking away from him in bed, facing the wall, even arching her body so it was difficult for him to curl his arm around her. On several occasions, she woke up in the middle of the night having maneuvered so far from his touch that she teetered on the edge of the bed.
She watched Curt more closely when Wendy was nearby, and even when her daughter was not. She watched the way he moved his hands, the way he cut his chicken, where his eyes strayed. She once loved his compliments, but didn’t he now seem to be doting a little too much? She had admired the way he gathered the laundry or took out the garbage without her asking, but was he just trying to curry favor, force her guard down? She hoped that by paying close enough attention, her observations would bridge the distance between her subconscious and her conscious—or invite that higher power to contact her more directly. After all, wasn’t she truly trying harder to see?
When that connection wasn’t made, Sandra kept watch anyway, hoping that her vigilance would ward off any evil. Before, she had occasionally asked Curt to pick Wendy up from school, but no more. And no more trips with Wendy to the Harris-Teeter for last-minute groceries; Curt could go alone. Sandra always joined them now when they stepped out to Barnes and Noble or the mall. She and Curt didn’t take turns coaching Wendy with her homework anymore, especially if she was working in her bedroom. “I just want to be more involved in your education,” Sandra said. “Is that wrong?” If it meant having to leave the two of them alone, she even put off going to the bathroom until she could simply hold it no longer.
No matter how subtle she tried to be, Curt and Wendy both seemed surprised by these changes—Curt tentative with his questions about how things seemed different between them, Wendy suddenly sullen in ways she’d never been before, sulky and increasingly defiant.
“Why couldn’t I ride to the store too?” Wendy finally challenged Sandra one evening, angry that Curt had been sent off for a package of butter without her.
“Because you needed to stay here and set the table.”
“We’ve already set the table.”
“You can help me finish dinner then.”
“I don’t want to cook dinner. I wanted to ride out with Curt.”
“Don’t you think you sometimes spend too much time with Curt?” Sandra asked. “Do you ever have times when you feel—I don’t know—a little relieved when you don’t have to be with him?”
Wendy stared blankly at her mother for several moments, and then Sandra felt she could see some sad insight creep into her daughter’s eyes. “If things don’t work out between you and Curt,” Wendy finally said, her voice just above a whisper, “I won’t see him again, will I? Not even a couple of times a year like when you fly me out to visit Dad.”
Of course, in the midst of trying to soothe Wendy’s mind again about the divorce, trying to be strong enough herself to ease her daughter’s fears, Sandra couldn’t confide her own fear: the thought that Curt might become the boyfriend in The News and Observer’s next article, the next top story for the nightly news. Sandra couldn’t explain the guilt she already felt about possibly recognizing too late the warnings she should have heeded.
And so she arrived back where she had begun. Was it a warning? Was some higher power reaching down to help her? Was her subconscious telling her something her conscious self was either unable or unwilling to admit?
“You need to go see a psychiatrist,” said her friend Bev later, her words once again strong and bitter and black.
But Sandra went to Circuit City instead, took off work early the next Thursday and went shopping for her sanity.
The camcorder she bought felt real in her hand—more real than even the doorframe, though the camera was tiny, small enough to cup in the palm of her hand. And the instructions, a thick booklet which might have intimidated her at other times, had a straightforwardness that drew her closer. If she pressed this button, the camera would record. If she pressed this button, it would stop. If she used these buttons, today’s date would be set; used this one and the date would be recorded on the screen. If she hooked the red tips of this cord into the TV and the black tips into the camera, she could watch herself on the bigger screen.
She had learned quickly that the smaller the camera, the larger the price, but she couldn’t skimp on this. The size was perfect, it had all the features she would need, and the salesperson—even if he lifted his left nostril at some of her more curious questions—showed her how to hook it up to a motion sensor so that she wouldn’t waste her film.
Once she’d set it up the way he’d shown her in the store, she was grateful to find that it fit easily just between the plates in the top of her china display, the black body of the camera disappearing toward the rear of the cabinet just as she’d hoped. Curt and Wendy never looked there anyway; no one did, and the top shelf had the cobwebs to prove it. She tested the camera out first to make sure that it worked, stepping in front of its gaze and waving, then taking the camera back down and checking herself on instant replay. After she returned it to its place, she drove to school and picked Wendy up.
On Saturday, she woke early to the sound of rain on the roof. It was just what she wanted. She showered and dressed, made a piece of toast for breakfast, checked the Weather Channel to see how long the rain would last, then wrote a note for Curt.
In Wendy’s room, she kissed her sleeping daughter’s cheek then returned to the living room, switched the camera’s power to “On” and grabbed both her car keys and Curt’s. If they don’t have a car, they can’t go anywhere. Since it’s raining, they’ll stay inside. With one last look behind her, she opened the door to leave.
But just before she pulled it shut, Wendy walked into the living room, rubbing her eyes, still half-asleep.
Over the next few hours, as Sanda sat at Bev’s and then as they walked through the mall, Bev chatting constantly to distract her from second-guessing herself, Sandra wouldn’t be able to remember her exact conversation with her daughter, no matter how she searched her mind. What remained in her memory was, she knew, cut from the same fabric as the visions she’d seen. Where Wendy had asked, “Where are you going?” Sandra remembered, “Why are you putting me in danger?” Where she asked, “Can I come with you?” Sandra remembered, “If you took his car keys, how will he take me to the hospital if I’m hurt? How will I get away if he hurts me?” When Sandra answered, “I have to run out. I’ll be back later. Curt will take care of you,” what she meant was, “My world has fallen out of balance. I don’t know how else to restore what I’ve lost. And I’m sorry.”
Could she trust anything she remembered? Yes. Two things, in fact. In both her memories and the moment of her leaving, Sandra was unable to comprehend that reckless woman with the lie on her lips and the hand on the door. And when Sandra had told her daughter, “I love you, Wendy,” she had meant, “I love you, Wendy.”
Of course, even as she said it—perhaps because she said it—a part of her wanted to stop, to not go through with her plan. What if this is the day I’ve been warned about? she wondered. Whether I catch him or not, it will still be too late. The damage will already be done. But what she wanted was not proof that he would hurt her but proof that he wouldn’t. The camera wouldn’t lie, she knew. And when she watched them cleaning the house together or playing checkers together, she’d feel better leaving them next time. And when everything went fine that next time, she would feel even better the third time. The camera would help her to trust him again. But she couldn’t entirely shake the awful thought that crept into her mind as she kissed her daughter once more and shut the door between them.
I’m making a terrible mistake.
Sandra returned home to find Curt fretting over an old clock he’d promised to fix, the pieces strewn here and there across the coffee table while he tapped a screwdriver against his knee. His brow was furrowed and he didn’t look her in the eye. Was it because of some guilt? Wendy, lying on the floor with a Goosebumps book, gave her mother only one furtive look before she turned back to her reading.
But perhaps they had good reason to be ill at ease. Of course they did. It wasn’t like her to just leave abruptly before Curt was up, to spend the day away from the two of them without any notice. As she unpacked the groceries she’d picked up on her way home, she hardly paid attention to what she said to them, could remember later little of what Curt told her. Yes, Curt said, they had cleaned the house just like her note had asked. No, they had not gone out. It was raining and they couldn’t find his keys. She heard these things because she needed to, and she was certain that she’d handed him a shirt she had bought him at the mall, proof of where she had been. But she was too busy looking at Wendy’s neck and arms and at Curt’s hands, watching their gestures and expressions, to listen much to what they said. Was Wendy so quiet because something had happened? Or because Curt seemed so concerned about Sandra’s leaving? Had that lamp been sitting so awkwardly on the table when she left? Had this floor really been vacuumed? Was the camera where she’d left it?
It was. And she kept stealing glances at it throughout the evening, which stretched on like a whole day, a week, a month. Sandra could feel herself age with each minute of anticipation. Hoping that time would go faster if she kept busy, she made a lengthy dinner—lasagna from scratch—and cleaned the dishes herself by hand as they talked about possibly going to the zoo the next day, if the weather got better. Afterward, she pulled down Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly and Life. She tried not to look at the clock and struggled to ignore the TV because she caught herself clicking off the quarter-hours by the appearance of commercials, counting off the half-hours and hours by which show was on.
Ten-o’clock finally came—time for Wendy to go to bed. They followed their evening routine, cleaning up the games and toys before Sandra and Wendy went off to the bathroom together to brush their teeth. Curt even joined them this time, brushing his own teeth right beside them, and he helped Sandra tuck her daughter into bed with a kiss on the cheek—just like we’re a real family, Sandra thought.
But Wendy soon complained that she couldn’t sleep. She got up for water, read another book, fretted and groaned, and the thought nagged Sandra that Curt had joined them in the bathroom and helped tuck Wendy in because he hadn’t wanted to leave the two of them alone, hadn’t wanted to give Wendy the chance to tell her mother what had happened that day. Sandra worried that Curt’s kissing Wendy on the cheek bore with it some malice that troubled her rest.
Sandra stifled her thoughts as best she could, gave Curt another beer. She’d been feeding them to him throughout the night in hopes that he would turn in early. And when Wendy was finally asleep, she led Curt to their bedroom and let him have his way with her, watching the clock as they made love, knowing that he always fell asleep more quickly and slept more soundly after sex.
But after his breath had settled into that same slow, steady rhythm, she didn’t check his hands and didn’t look in on her daughter, didn’t check first one cheek then the next. Instead she went straight for the living room, pulled the camera down from its perch, plugged red tips into the TV, black tips into the camera and set the machine to “Play.” And with that first image—“Sept. 21, ’99, 02:43 pm,” Sandra waving at herself on the day she bought the camera, testing it to make sure that it worked—the tape began to turn.
After it was over, Sandra returned to her bedroom, edged into the chair in the corner of the room and watched Curt sleep with a peace she hadn’t known in weeks. The room was quiet except for the sound of his breathing and her own, still except for the scramble of her heartbeat, the flurry of her thoughts, which raced along so quickly that she knew sleep might never overtake them.
The tape had started fine. Sandra had watched herself move away from the camera after turning it on, watched herself pick up two sets of car keys and turn for the door: “Sept. 25, ’99, 07:47 am.” She saw her daughter come into the room, rubbing her eyes, still half-asleep, and heard the conversation that she had been unable to recall clearly that afternoon, as if the muddle of her memory was suddenly being cleared away. After Sandra left, Wendy walked off-camera, apparently into the kitchen, then returned with a bowl of cereal and sat down to watch cartoons. Soon after, Curt came in, tousled Wendy’s hair and made a bowl for himself. He sat beside her and read the paper while they ate. Sandra couldn’t hear much of their conversation: Wendy talking about where Mom had gone, telling Curt about the note, which he soon found and read before he sat down again.
They watched cartoons for most of the morning—Sandra fast-forwarded through much of this—and then they began cleaning the living room, the dull roar of the vacuum on the tape now forcing Sandra to turn down the volume on the TV. Curt was thorough to the point of exhaustion, even moving the heavy recliner aside and cleaning beneath it instead of around it. Sandra felt her eyes glazing. It was getting late and she had to admit that what she was watching was—honestly, thankfully—boring.
And then the sound of the vacuuming ceased and the image froze, Curt and Wendy suddenly stopped in time: Curt with his arm outstretched, pushing the vacuum across a broad sweep of carpet; Wendy caught in a moment of not helping, instead jumping up and down on the couch, suspended in mid-air. Sandra thought for a moment that she had hit the “Pause” button on the camera, but no, through the tiny window, she could watch the tape still spinning itself out. And then, just as suddenly, the image shifted again, an hour later according to the time on the screen, and Curt and Wendy were playing checkers. But here too the image was still, Wendy caught in mid-move, a checker piece in her hand as she carried it across the board. And then another scene, again motionless: Curt’s hands held high in the air, frozen in a moment of exasperation as Wendy peered beneath the couch—looking for those lost keys, perhaps? There was nothing disturbing about the picture, except for that unnerving stillness and....
A chill shivered down Sandra’s spine as she realized that the camera’s angle had changed. To get this shot, the camera couldn’t have been up on the shelf behind the china, it had to be—she turned to look—over by the fireplace. But when she looked back at the TV to confirm her discovery, Curt and Wendy were no longer looking for keys. Instead they were looking at her.
The angle had changed once more, and now they sat in a different room entirely, the dining room, Curt sitting on one of the chairs with his arm around Wendy, who has settled onto his knee. This too was a still shot and they were posed as if sitting for some Olan Mills portrait, staring directly into the camera, staring directly at Sandra as she watched the screen. The image held for several minutes, no one blinking, not even Sandra, and then the scene shifted once more, a different room again, the bathroom, the sound returning and the image moving at a normal pace as Wendy brushed her teeth, while Curt stood behind her brushing his own.
Sandra felt the anger rise up inside of her, pushed on by her certainty about what had happened.They had found the camera. They were playing a joke on her. All her efforts were for nothing. But that anger and that certainty vanished in the wake of what she saw next: the camera panning just slightly to reveal Sandra herself standing there beside them, a toothbrush in her mouth.
The time display read “10:04 pm” that night.
And then the image jumped ahead again—Sandra and Curt pulling the cover up around Wendy’s chin and kissing her good night, then Sandra staring at the clock while Curt heaved and puffed atop her—and then it jumped further: Sandra coming toward the camera to remove it from its hiding place.
And then—Sandra felt herself mesmerized—further still: “Sept. 26,” the next day, at the zoo, the three of them standing in front of the bears’ den, the weather perfect, not a cloud in the sky. And then “Sept. 26,” at the zoo, the three of them standing under umbrellas in front of the bears’ den, as the rain poured down all around them. And with that, the pictures began changing more rapidly, an MTV video gone out of control. Some of the images were still, some in motion. Some were crisp and polished, others grainy and herky-jerky like old home movies from when she was a kid. The dates and times changed so quickly that Sandra could only read a few of them. Visions like the ones she’d seen in recent weeks, images hinting toward or portraying violence, flashed and folded between others more mundane: the three of them laughing at an Andy Griffith rerun, having dinner at the Golden Corral down the street, playing putt-putt golf at the beach.
Sandra saw herself a year-and-a-half later at a wedding in which she was clearly the bride, and then Curt in a tuxedo gently feeding her a slice of cake. Then she saw that same year-and-a-half unfolding differently, scenes of arguments and fighting, boxes packed, a tearful departure, the same wedding scene on the same date, herself in the same off-white dress, being fed a slice of cake by another man whom she did not know. She saw herself a year later pregnant and then in the hospital delivering a son. She saw a picture of her own self as a baby and then snapshots of her own youth—Sandra’s first day of kindergarten, Sandra’s first kiss, Sandra’s first car, her high school graduation, her wedding to Daniel, his promise to honor and cherish—as the past sped before her eyes. She saw her honeymoon with Dan, running along the beach, dinners and dancing, and then years later, his fist balling up against her, a bloodied nose, a blackened eye. She saw pictures of herself as a child in places she had never been, doing things about which she had no memory. She saw pictures of Wendy flitting past in similar scenes, and then the first day of school, first kiss, first car of her second child, the son not yet born. She saw herself without any second husband, without any second child, raising Wendy alone. She saw future jobs, lovers from her younger days and others she had never met, her first house and houses in which she was yet to live. She saw herself aged and gray and sitting alone in a metal chair on the green front porch of a house she did not recognize. She saw her past as it had been and as it might have been and her future in all of its alternate endings. She saw her self begin to divide, fragments of her straying out along each of the different paths—this fragment with eagerness, that one with dread—and the thought began to grow that she was at once all of these possibilities and none of them, that her existence had no more weight than a sitcom, no sterner gravity than a drama once its hour was up. She felt her fears shed away, her body grow lighter as the images cut so quickly they began to blur, and for a moment, a brief moment, she believed that she might simply take flight. But at that same moment the tape ended, the picture turned blue, then black. In the sudden blankness of the TV screen, Sandra caught sight of her own reflection—stark and haggard—and her mind began once more to shrivel beneath the burden of all those possibilities.
The tape had long since ended, had worn itself out and, Sandra discovered, worn her down as well. How long had it been since she’d come back into the bedroom, sat down in the corner chair? Her eyes were too muddied with tears to see the clock, but she knew it was still night and she could still hear the sound of Curt sleeping.
She dragged her body up from her chair and crawled into her bed beside him. She wriggled herself close against his warmth, pulled his arm around her, felt him shift against her and tighten his hold. She rubbed her hand along his arm, knowing that he could just as easily crush her or Wendy as he could wrap them in a hug. A year from now, which one would he be doing? A year from now, would he even be the man who shared her bed?
The weight of the unknowable pushed her more firmly into Curt’s embrace and she forced herself to focus on the decisions she could make, the events she could control.
I will tell Curt about my visions, she thought, I will tell him tomorrow and I will let him know each time they appear. I will stay with Curt for now. I will stay with him until I don’t. I will leave the house for fifteen minutes while Curt watches Wendy, and there will be no camera to record what happens because I will take it down and put it back in its box. And on Monday I will take it back to the store and return it as defective. I will stop holding onto doorframes and salt shakers. If I get dizzy, I will fall down. If I fall down, I will get up. And tomorrow we will go to the zoo—rain or shine. And I will make sausage and eggs for Curt and Wendy’s breakfast, but I will have corn flakes and bananas for my own. I will wear a blue blouse and white pants....
She persuaded herself into some small comfort with such images, consoled herself with the expectation that when the sun came up it might truly bring with it a new day and a new beginning, might truly shed light where there had been darkness. And as the last hours of night crept past, she fixed her eyes on the window, waiting quietly, desperately, unblinkingly for some hint of morning to appear.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
The first draft of this story was completed in 1999—and went through several revisions over the five years before its ultimate publication. During that time, I myself went through a series of revisions: the end of one relationship and the beginning of another; two career shifts and then a return to graduate school; and in the process, a move to another state. In general, my story-telling here was informed by a sense of uncertainty about my own future and a second-guessing (if not outright suspicion) of some of my own decisions, but the immediate inspiration was undoubtedly my deteriorating relationship with a woman and her young son: a tumultuous relationship marked by both great love and great anxiety, by urgency and fragility, by equal parts open-hearted honesty and lingering distrust. A lot of my fiction arises out of my own fears—exploring them, transforming them, confronting them… imagining the worst and trying to bring some resolution nonetheless. The events of the story are completely imagined, of course, but at the core of it stand questions I was struggling with at the time. How completely can you know another person? How completely can you trust him or her? And in the process, how well can you trust your own judgement, instincts, beliefs?
ABOUT ART TAYLOR
Art Taylor is a fiction writer, critic, and assistant professor of English at George Mason University. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Barrelhouse, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and North American Review, and online at Fiction Weekly, Mysterical-E, PANK, Plots With Guns, Prick of the Spindle, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other publications. He is a three-time winner of a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society, won the 2012 Press 53 Open Award in flash fiction, and also received a 2012 Strauss Fellowship from the Arts Council of Fairfax County. In addition to his own fiction, Art reviews mysteries and thrillers for the Washington Post and contributes frequently to Mystery Scene Magazine. For more information, visit www.arttaylorwriter.com.