She sat in her bed now, leaning against the headboard, pillows behind her back, Prairie in her arms and nursing, a tugging sensation that flooded Willow’s blue-veined breast. She felt shaky and kept glancing at the doorway. Rain had fallen most of the night, but she’d left the bedroom window open, unable to bear shutting out the sound and the cooler, clean air that helped to rid the room of the faint smell of dirty diapers and grief. The old and porous wooden sill was swollen with water, and on her last trip to the bathroom, she opened the closet, grabbed up an armload of Derrick’s clothes, hangers and all, and dumped them in front of the window to keep the rain from flooding the room and dripping down on the tenants below. Derrick, already gone for two hours, was hardly pouring cement in the rain.
She stroked Prairie’s cheek and cupped her hand protectively over the infant’s head. She glanced again at the doorway, still empty. In the middle of the night, with Derrick snoring on the sofa, she fed Prairie and was returning from the bathroom when she stepped into the bedroom and saw the dark form lying on her bed—an arm through the bars of the crib, a shadowy hand on her infant’s back. She gasped and took a step back, her heart racing. The apparition disappeared. She thought to run, and for one brief second to wake Derrick for help. Instead, she gathered her courage and crawled very slowly up from the foot of the bed, putting her hand through the crib slats as she’d done so often that week—a hand needing to rest on Prairie and feel Prairie’s breathing—her own body taking up the space where she’d seen the darkness.
The rain increased as Prairie finished and burped on Willow’s shoulder. She’d sleep now for a couple of hours, but Willow couldn’t, not another day of lying there, her mind chewing on the fat of how she’d been betrayed. She needed to be up, if not painting, then at least moving, even if only to kick over chairs and punch pillows.
In the main room, her eyes avoided the sofa where Derrick spent the last week of nights. She had no appetite, but again, there was the responsibility to eat for Prairie. Hopefully, the milk Papa brought the night before was still cool and smelled like milk instead of the cow. Taking a glass from the cupboard, she poured, but her hand began to shake when she sensed otherness. First visible only out of the corner of one eye, she saw it beside the sofa: a bleak haze. Milk splashed onto her feet. The apparition looked down at the pillow where the imprint of Derrick’s head remained.
“He’s not staying,” Willow’s voice was a whisper, but the Poe-like phantom had already vanished. For some time, Willow sat at the table, stared out at the rain, and thought of a movie she had once seen—the ghosts of dead soldiers walking up and down the battlefield where they’d died, unable to leave the horror, stuck in the memory of the worst thing that ever happened to them. But she wasn’t dead. She wasn’t.
Later in the shower, she let the water drum over her skin, flatten her hair to dark oil down her back, and create a tunnel of sound that mixed with the noise of the storm’s increasing rancor. Every few minutes, she listened for Prairie and then turned the overhead rush back on.
How like Julian she seemed to me, letting the water wash her and then batter her.
When finally her fingers and toes had puckered, she turned off the water for the final time. She stood stock-still, knowing the shadow waited for her behind the curtain. She could feel its nearness, loathsome and needing her. She pushed back the plastic, heavy with hard water stains, the curtain rings scratching along the aluminum rod. The shadow sat on the closed toilet lid, its legs drawn up.
Water ran off Willow’s breasts, over her spongy belly, and from her kneecaps. She stared, less afraid this time. Derrick would never touch her again, but she hadn’t told him to leave because doing so would free him to go to Mary, where he’d be happy. As long as he slept on the sofa, with Papa visiting every evening to be sure he was home—under the guise of wanting to hold Prairie—Derrick was miserable. Miserable. She hadn’t even told him she knew he’d been with Mary because bringing up that bit of news would also force a showdown guaranteed to end in his leaving and going to her. So he remained, not because there was any hope for them, but because she fed more on her anger than she did on milk, vegetables, and protein. All the while, she passed her loathing of him into her breast milk, making it worse than anything in the refrigerator, feeding Prairie swill.
The shadow, dark and sluggish, passed through the steamy air and disappeared.
Willow clutched a towel to herself. She knew the figure was a projection of her mind, very real emotion in psychic form. She was at a crossroads. She could fight to reclaim a life, or she could let the shadowbeing with its slow vibration move permanently into the apartment, into her life, and into her heart until she forgot how to live without envy and hatred. The darkness had already spent over a week passing on torpid sleep, keeping Willow’s thoughts miserly and too dull for honesty. How long was she willing to live off anger—justified as it was? How long would she let bitterness so consume her that it followed her like a specter?
Over the next two days, the shadow spent more time sitting on chairs, staring out windows, and refusing to let Willow near the easel. With each sighting, Willow felt torn. She still wanted her grief, had earned her grief. She’d been wronged, and other than Papa’s watching him, Derrick wasn’t suffering. Maybe he’d even confessed to Father Steinhouse, and for ten Our Fathers bartered an absolution.
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