In Her Shadow

By: August McLaughlin

For my mom and dad, for giving me wings and encouraging me to use them.

“Every sin leaves a shadow.” ~ Assamese saying

Chapter One

She gulps the swig of poison like an eight year old inhaling cough syrup—nose plugged, eyes squeezed shut, her face pulled into a tight round ball. Toxic, metallic tasting vapors trail the liquid down her throat, filling her with venomous stench and nausea. Swallow,she instructs. Gulp. Breathe. There, that’s it. She did it.

She trembles on the floor, her sweaty back pressed against the bedside, awaiting action. The wrapper from the candy bar he forced into her mouth lies on the floor beside her, crumpled like an odd bit of wrapping paper on Christmas morning. No celebrations today, though. Well, maybe after. She withholds her tears, clinging as though to a ledge of which she can’t let go. If she cries, the poison might come out and that would ruin everything. Come on, she thinks, work. Damn it, work! If it doesn’t start soon, she’ll have to sip some more.

A moment later she feels it. The gurgling in her stomach, the slight lift in her gut, the poisoned-food-particle-stuff moving raucously around inside of her, ready to be regurgitated. Yes, she thinks, it’s working!

Vomit shoots violently from her, a volcano erupting. It slashes her esophagus, wounds that will sting like paper cuts. She doesn’t mind the pain. In a way, she likes it. Proof of her efforts, her un-doing of the food forced in.

She stands, dizzy, and grasps the countertop for balance. She takes a moment to collect herself. Easy does it. Bumping around or toppling over would make noise, and any noise is too much. She tucks the bottle away with caution, conceals the evidence before flushing. The gushing water obscures the swishing sound in her mouth. She puffs warm breath onto her cupped palm and sniffs it. Well done. No scent, no flavor, no cause for HIM to suspect.

She teeters back to her bed, heaviness pulling like a vacuum on her body. Dizziness makes her head ache, her insides woozy. She tucks herself in, the sheets now cool from her absence. She rests her head on her pillow. Sleep finds her quickly, a far cry from the insomnia to which she’s accustomed. A dream captures her before she can detect the blood trickling from her nose.

Chapter Two

“Happy birthday to you. You’re stuck at the zoo. You smell like a monkey and you look like one, too.”

Elle Taylor giggles on Claire Fiksen’s voicemail. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist. You’re nothing like a monkey—except for the cute part, of course. Man, I wish I was there to celebrate with you. Cookie dough ice cream and champagne, remember? Call me soon. Love you.”

Claire wipes the sleep from her eyes, grateful that Elle’s voice marks the start of her birthday. Their friendship carried her through push-up bras, senior prom and college applications, and though their adult lives aren’t as intertwined as Claire would like, Elle takes time from her career as a New York fashion photographer to stay in touch and commemorate significant days.

For once, Claire appreciates Elle’s absence; she isn’t sure she can get out of bed, much less celebrate. Her brain feels fuzzy, her body heavy. Any other day she might attribute her unease to a forgotten dream, the kind that leaves feelings, a mood, but no imagery. Glancing at her parents’ photo, she knows the reason.

Her birthday equals her parents’ death-day.

Claire has run herself through the psychologists’ ringer on it. She shouldn’t blame herself for their death, and mourning on her birthday is counterproductive. But as with her patients, the decision is hers—does she want to feel happy today?

She stumbles to the kitchen and heaps ground coffee into her Krups. Her phone rings again—her grandparents.

“Hi guys.” She fights tears as she absorbs an encore serenade, this time with Grandpa Gil’s husky voice carrying the tune, Grandma CC’s singsong voice in the background. “Thanks, you two. You didn’t have to.” Yes they did. An annual reminder that life goes on.

“Don’t forget to come see us tomorrow night,” Grandpa says. “Grandma’s already started cookin’.”

“Pot roast, your favorite,” Grandma adds.

“I wouldn’t miss it. Six-thirty, okay?”