He let the water run as he passed the washcloth over her. The slippery, wriggling infant seemed determined to make his task as difficult as possible. Fuck, he screamed internally. This was supposed to have been his wife’s job. He was never supposed to be doing this.
The pain of Emily’s loss was always there, but in moments like this, it was much more acute. He longed for her, the softness of her body, the smell of her hair. He hated her for leaving, for promising to live and to always be there, and then failing, leaving him to face alone the world they had dreamed up together.
He was beyond all attempts to rationalize his feelings. Most days he spent in a haze of morbid and self-punishing thoughts as he merely went through the motions of caring for the child. When he closed his eyes, he saw that cold room, the white sheet, the steady hands that lifted it. Beneath it, Emily’s bloodless face, devoid of that tension that indicates life. Not even the accident, not even death, could ruin her beauty.
If only…, he thought. If only, I could somehow… go back.
A jolt of pain in his toe woke him from one misery to another. He found himself standing in his bedroom, having absent-mindedly walked there and stubbed his toe on the dresser. “Fuck!” he shouted, verbally this time, as the baby was well out of earshot. The pain of mourning mingled with the pain of a split toe nail, and everything before him became the object of fiery hate. His breath became labored. The air that filled them, mud. He needed out of that room, out of that house, and he needed it now.
Hurriedly, he tore the soaked shirt from his body and threw on a new one. Reasoning the baby would be fine if he left for only a few minutes, he thumped down the stairs and grabbed his keys on the way out the door. A moment later, he sat in his car, feeling the rumble of the engine. It was such a welcome sensation that, for a moment, he closed his eyes and tilted his head back. Some things, however tiny, reminded him of how freedom felt.
He picked a direction and peeled out of the driveway. There was no destination for this evening’s trip. “Away for a while” was specific enough. The road was practically empty in the dimming light of sunset. He thought nothing of speeding, taking what pleasure he could in ripping noisily down one residential street after another.
The minutes ticked by and homes became less and less frequent. Soon, civilization gave way to nature and a thick forest loomed over both sides of the road. By now, the sun had completely set and the only illumination seemed to come from his own headlights. With so few distractions, his thoughts turned to his wife. She would absolutely hate what he was doing. “How could you leave the baby all by herself?” she would shout at him. “Don’t you know what could happen?”
Before he could imagine his reply, something leaped in front of the car. There was no time to react. The impact was fast and hard. He jerked forward in his seat as the car stopped short. For a few seconds, he sat there, shaking, hands still gripping the wheel. He took in a few gulps of air, and found himself again. What the fuck was that?
Slowly, he opened the door and climbed out. His anxiety grew as he imagined what he might find beneath his front wheels. Nothing could have prepared him, however.
There, lying quivering in the road, was Emily. Icy pins and needles ran over his scalp and shoulders. Without thinking, he rushed to her. As he lifted her head, she sputtered. Dark red blood bubbled from her lips and ran down the side of her face. Her eyes darted wildly.
“Emily!” he shouted. “Oh my God, Emily!”
She spit out more blood. A gurgling hiss issued forth from her lips.
“Hang on!” he said. “You’re going to be okay. I’m not going to lose you again. My God, I’m so sorry!”
The gurgling hiss gained volume and strength, finally giving way to words. “Go… back….”
Panic turned to puzzlement. “What?” he asked.
“Go… back…,” Emily repeated. “The… baby….”
“The baby’s fine,” he said. “Just relax. I’m going to call for help.”
He began to lower her head slowly to the pavement, but never made it the whole way. Before his eyes, his wife’s face began to shrivel and blacken. Her lips curled upward, her eyes liquefied, and her skin became leathery before falling away completely. The bones beneath turned from white to yellow to brown before disintegrating into dust. The night wind soon carried it all away.
He sat stunned for a moment. Nothing remained where he was sure his wife had been. He looked up at the car. There was no sign that any accident had occurred. What the fuck, he silently demanded. Could he really have created such a vivid hallucination? It had to be, he decided. There was simply no other explanation.
As soon as his legs could be moved, he stood and got back into the car. This, he decided, was a good time to end his little drive through the countryside for the night, and a quick U-turn set him back on the course for home.
He replayed the evening’s events as he walked up the driveway and turned his key in the lock. As soon as he set foot inside, however, something else caught his attention. A sound. What was it? Running water?
Panic seized him all over again. A terrible realization overcame him. Two by two, he rushed up the stairs and to the bathroom. The sound had grown louder, and water flowed freely from beneath the door, forming a puddle in the hallway.
He threw the door open, slamming it hard against the wall. Across the room, the bathtub overflowed. He slipped across the tile floor and dropped to his knees, the water splashing around him.
There was no wriggling, no squirming, no movement at all. Only the water kept flowing, and only a blank, tensionless little face stared up at him from beneath it.
Written by Jdeschene