Melanie had been eating just what she liked: mashed potatoes, ice cream, pudding, but her coworkers at Abbott Northwestern, who had taken a sudden interest in her, were always saying, "You need to eat more. You need more iron," they would say. "You need more protein. You need more fiber." But now she felt they could say nothing because her stomach was gone, rotted away, and she no longer needed to eat. There was no need to put anything in her mouth, no meat or apples or carrots, because there was no place for it to go. She imagined the food floating around her body, fraying chunks of it knocking against her heart, her liver, her kidneys. The thought of it made her sick, and when they told her, "Remember, you're eating for two," she felt light and dizzy like a Mylar balloon. "Congratulations," the balloon said. "It's a girl."
November had been strange, the weather unusually warm for Minneapolis. Most days she left the house wearing not a jacket but a sweatshirt, which now stretched tight over her growing belly. As she walked to catch the 5A, she waded through rivers and pools of crimson and gold, feeling buoyant, light enough to drift like a leaf. She told her husband this when he came home from his job as a carpet cleaner. He looked at her crossly and told her she was silly. This was the word he now used to describe her: silly.
Right before dinner, he launched into a story about how that very morning he had clipped a red-tailed hawk with his work truck. "I didn't even see it," he said. "Just came right up out of the ditch. Really, it hit me. No time to stop. They hunt on the side of the 35, you know, perch right up on the light posts and then swoop down on the sides of the road. It had probably just eaten dinner."
"What happened to it?" Melanie asked.
"I don't know," he said. "I had to keep driving. Couldn't just slam on the breaks to stop with cars behind me. I never—" She stood up to spoon some potatoes on his plate, and he paused, looking up at her. "I'm going to say something before we eat."
"Something," she said.
He shot her a look. "You know," he said, bowing his head. "To God in heaven, we pray. Thank you for this food on the table. Thank you for our health. Thank you for the health of our child who is getting bigger and bigger every day, and with God's will," he paused, his brow wrinkled, "will. In the son's name we pray, amen."
He pulled his head up and looked at Melanie. She tried to conceal her smile, the corners of her mouth pinched; her eyes had been open the whole time. "Eat something," he said.
"I told you I don't have to."
"Well I'm telling you that you do. For both of you."
"It doesn't matter anymore, Ted. I told you."
"How can you say that? You're five months along. I don't know what the angle is."
"There isn't any damn angle. I told you I don't have a stomach and I'm not going to eat anymore. It doesn't matter."
Ted let his fork fall hard on his plate. "I can't take any more of this...this silliness. How am I supposed to talk to you?"
"You don't need to talk to me."
"Why the hell would you say that?"
"You don't talk to shadows, do you Ted?"
He cracked a beer and got up from the table. "You're something else. You know that, you're really something else."
Melanie listened to his footsteps fade into the living room and then listened to the television flipping on. It would be religion that came blaring out. He had taken to listening to this preacher and that preacher shortly after she got pregnant; or rather, shortly after she told him she wanted an abortion. Her periods stopped coming while she was on the birth control pill, and they had agreed when she went on the pill that they didn't want a child.
"We can't afford it," she had said after telling him she was pregnant.
"We can find money," Ted said.
Melanie laughed. "Are you going to ask your mother? Because my parents aren't helping. They can't and you know it."
"She would help us. I know she would…" He looked down, rolling a carrot back and forth between his fingertips.
"You told her."
Ted said nothing.
"You fucking told her, didn't you? Son of a bitch. You had to open your big mouth and tell someone."
"Please, Melanie…" He came to her and held her, confessing at her knees. "I'll do goddamn anything. Just don't get rid of that baby. I won't be able to forgive myself and God won't forgive either one of us." It was a side of him she had never seen before; she froze, rubbed her stomach, imagining familial tableaus.
"Since when does God matter so much to you?"
"It's in the Bible, Melanie."
"Your mom tell you that, too?"
"She's right. She's right about it. You'll never forgive yourself."
"I won't, huh? Is it that or that you and your mother will never forgive me?"
"Please, Melanie, please, babygirl," he said, clinging to her. She had looked up into the the overhead light in their kitchen then, the one they still did not have the money to replace, and felt as though she weren't standing there at all but was simply floating above her own life, above them, above the marriage, and now she could do nothing but sit back and watch the scene. She started laughing, the laugh beginning as a small quiver and building until her whole body shook. And then Ted was laughing, too, and they were both shaking until finally they broke apart, tears running down Melanie's face.
"You're happy now, aren't you babygirl, aren't you? We decided and now you don't have to worry, right babygirl?" Ted said.
Melanie just laughed again, amazed at how easily they had stopped moving lockstep. She turned away, wrapping her arms around a body that was now a stranger, a mess of marrow and sinew that she did not recognize and that—most importantly—she was no longer master of.
"Only in Jesus can man find peace!" The televangelist's voice screamed from the living room. Melanie peered around the corner, watching Ted as he leaned toward the television, elbows perched on his knees, hand gripping a warm beer. "Some people say God isn't here. They say things like 'god is what he is,' meaning that God comes and goes as he pleases. I say that God doesn't leave." The preacher's voice climbed to a fevered canter. "God doesn't take time off from his work," the preacher paused. "God is always right there." The preacher beat his chest, patting his forehead with an initialed handkerchief. "Always right here for you to call him when you need it." The crowd yelled out, "Amen!" And Melanie thought she saw Ted mouth the words along with them. She turned away and began picking at a paper towel, insistent as prayer, until a mound of papery flakes lay before her. Amen, she thought.
When the program ended, Ted turned off the television. She listened carefully to his movements, translating the slightest sounds to actions. In a moment, she knew he would use the toilet and then—then, "Are you coming?" he said.
"I'm coming," she said, slowly pushing herself up from the table.
"You eighty or something?"
"My legs now. It's my legs."
"I guess you could say that."
"Then let's go to bed." He took her arm and began leading her to their bedroom. He ran his hand down the nape of her neck. "Come on, babygirl," he said. "We turn back the clock tonight, you know. Extra hour."
They drew near the bedroom, which was dark, only scant patches of light came in from the street. And though deep within herself she knew it did not matter, the darkness frightened her, the door an open mouth, the bits of jagged light, teeth. "I'd feel bad if that hawk is off somewhere dying," she said. "I'd feel really bad for that bird laying there like that. It might have been miserable and nobody would know it," she said, her voice getting higher as they crossed the threshold. "It might have had to lay there trapped. Couldn't get away if it wanted to."
Ted pulled off his clothes until she could just barely see the white of his underwear in the dim light coming in from the street. He flopped into bed. "You need that extra hour," he said.
He exhaled and turned over away from her so that he faced the door; she was on the inside of the room and she turned away from him, staring at what she could still see of the wood paneling. "Spring ahead, fall behind," she said.
"I said, 'spring ahead, fall behind.'"
"That's how the saying goes."
"Why do they say 'fall behind'? Doesn't it sound bad?"
"You're thinking too much. Get some rest so the baby can get some rest, too."
"I don't need rest, Ted. I don't need anything. I told you. Shadows don't sleep or eat or anything. They just float along. Most of the time you can't see them at all. Now it's going to be completely light when you get up in the mornings. You won't even be able to see me at all."
"You aren't a goddamn shadow, Melanie. You're here in our bed in our house and our baby is inside of you. I don't know why you keep talking this way. If you don't stop it, I'll make you go to the doctor. You won't talk me out of it this time. You'll do exactly what I say."
Melanie kept quiet; it did not matter, but she did not want to push Ted anymore. She did not want to see the doctor; the doctor would tell her that she no longer had a stomach, that there wasn't really a baby inside her, facts she already knew, and then the waiting would just seem longer.
Soon Ted began his measured breath, light and raspy. In the space of being alone while not being alone, her mind drifted. She could see a red-tailed hawk and then suddenly she was in the air, her vision honed to the slightest movement of gray or brown below. The forest by the side of the highway was sparse, carpeted in vibrantly green grass. It was spring, not fall, and the leaves on the trees were the same resonant green. And then as the wind blew and the grass swayed, she saw movement, a small rabbit darted through the strands. Her heartbeat quickened and she swooped down toward it, her talons extended. But before she reached the ground, she was merely watching from above again. Ted's truck appeared in the distance; he was driving, checking the time: "Spring ahead, fall behind," he said. Then she could see the bird, she could see the highway…
Melanie jerked awake, her fingers unconsciously crossing her chest, her heart palpitating wildly. Yes, it would be her heart that would fail next, and she was happy for that. She glanced over Ted's sleeping form to check the time, hoping that when the clock struck 2 and time turned against itself, her body would gain nothing back that it had already lost.
BIO: Darci Schummer lives, writes, and teaches English and writing in Minneapolis, Minnesota