Anna bumped the portly man reaching for the bag of low-fat chips with her cart. "Sorry," she said. Again. This was her third vehicular assault in twenty minutes. The man scowled at his chips -- not bothering to look her way -- and slouched off down the aisle. Anna resisted the urge to bump him a second time.
Shearson's Market was suffering through an epidemic of irritable, last-minute Christmas shoppers -- and Anna realized she was becoming as caustic as everyone else. She glanced down at her dog-eared list. Only the cranberries were left. What aisle were they in? What aisle was she in? Jesus. She put the cart in reverse, trying to glimpse the sign hanging above her head, and backed into someone. Again. "Sorry!"
This was impossible. Why had she listened when Philip blithely suggested switching grocery stores? A few dollars saved each month was not worth this. But would she really tell him that? Not likely. She'd rather brave the throng.
SOFT DRINKS/SNACKS/WATER. What the hell was she doing in this aisle? Anna rotated the cart out of the lane, offered the right-of-way to the two oblivious old ladies at the intersection, and wheeled around the bend. Not because she needed SHAMPOO/DEODORANT/FEMININE HYGIENE products at the moment, but because no one else seemed to, either. Also, she thought she'd spied CANNED something over the next rise of shelves. She'd zip down this vacant aisle, turn the corner -- hopefully without major incident -- and be right where she needed to be.
The strategy worked perfectly until she made the turn. "Sorry!" she said to the startled blonde girl she'd whacked. "Where's your mommy, sweetheart?" And why are you running, you little shit?
The girl stuck out her tongue and ran off.
"Merry Christmas to you too," Anna said, putting the cart in gear. And in about seven months I get one of my very own. Terrific. She continued down the aisle, shaking her head.
And, finally, there were the damn cranberries.
She navigated past the sullen shoppers clogging this aisle and snatched a can off the shelf, feeling let down at the dullness of the prize after the gauntlet she'd run. She turned to dump the cranberries into the cart . . . and froze.
There was already a can there, nestled between the bottles of turkey gravy and applesauce. She must have already been down this aisle. But I don't remember doing that at all, she thought. I don't remember any of that.
She shrugged and wheeled the cart off to the checkout, deciding it was just one of those things.
It happened again on New Year's Eve.
Anna was staring out the passenger's window of Philip's Explorer, counting the houses decorated with holiday lights as they rushed past, wishing for the hundredth time that it snowed more often in Southern California. She also wished Philip would choose a different movie to watch tonight. "I really don't like action movies, you know," she said, hoping it would sink in this time, but realizing there was a better chance of blizzards in LA. "They're all just exercises in male wishful thinking. And my eyes are always covered through most of them. Why do you still want to watch them with me? I don't get it."
Philip put a hand on her knee, etched a figure-eight with his finger. "How about this?" he said. "You give me a son. We wait a few years. Then I'll take him to the action movies. How about that? Sounds fair to me." He laughed, eyes on the traffic ahead.
Anna watched his angular features flicker in and out of existence with the flash of brake lights. His five o'clock shadow was already darkening his chin, despite the fact that he'd shaved before they left the house. "Who says we're not having a girl?" she replied. "Besides -- even if I am carrying a boy -- are you saying I have to wait around for him to grow up before you'll let me off the hook? What's fair about that?"
He smirked. "Hey, time flies," he said, squeezing her knee. "At least you liked this one a little. You said you enjoyed the story, anyway."
"When did I say that? I haven't heard a single thing about this one. I don't even know if it got a 'thumbs up' or whatever."
His thick brows furrowed and he darted a look at her. "On the way out of the theater. You said: 'Story eight. Acting three.' Remember?"
She pushed his hand off her leg. "Very funny. Talk about wishful thinking. We haven't even seen the damn thing yet."
He chanced a full look at her this time, his expression taut. She knew that look. He was considering getting pissed off. "What are you talking about, Anna? We just watched it. We're on our way home. Stop playing games."
She glanced out the window and realized they had turned onto Rosewood Avenue. The house was just ahead. "What?" she whispered. "What?" A nameless fear slithered behind her eyes and she began to shake.
"Philip? Philip? What's happening?"
"Blood sugar a little elevated," Dr. Varza said, tapping a pen against his front teeth. He flipped a page on the clipboard. "But acceptable. Fetus appears healthy." More teeth tapping. The difficulty of translating what he was saying was compounded by his thick Indian accent.
Take that damn thing out of your mouth and look at me! Anna wanted to shout. She felt miserable. More frightened than she'd ever been in her life. And no one, especially not this HMO mumbler, would take her situation seriously. She crossed her arms against her blouse, still feeling as exposed as she had in the sadistic paper-doll gown she'd worn during the examination.
"And no family history of neurological disease?" Dr. Varza shook his head, glancing up at her for the first time since striding back into the room. "I really don't know what to tell you, Anna." The sudden familiarity rang false, especially after his disinterested prodding during the exam. "Except not to worry too much. Pregnancy, you know, is a very difficult time for women." He gave his teeth another tap. "And you say this memory lapse occurred a few weeks ago? And only once? Twice?"
Anna tensed, concentrated on keeping a level tone. The bastard had the bedside manner of an end table. "They're not 'memory lapses,'" she said. "You can't forget something that never happened. I know the difference. I didn't watch that movie. Do you understand what I'm telling you, Dr. Varza? That wasn't me. It's as if something wants in. I can feel her! I can feel--" Her voice was crescendoing out of control. She jerked a hand to her mouth.
Dr. Varza moved the pen aside long enough to manufacture a smile. "Bahram," he said. "Call me Bahram." He laid the clipboard down and patted her shoulder. Then he tapped those teeth again.
Anna bit into her palm, deciding that it was either her or him.
"What about your husband?" he asked, glancing at the clock.
Anna winced, recalling Philip's frustration with her, his mounting disdain -- his hands slamming her against the kitchen counter the last time she broached the subject. She shivered, drew her arms across her shoulders.
Dr. Varza pretended not to notice the reaction. "I'm sure he's there for you," he announced, hand still resting on her shoulder. "Have the two of you discussed counseling? This seems a problem more conducive to therapy of some sort."
Anna could take no more. She pushed his clammy hand away. "I'm not crazy! Something is happening to me."
Dr. Varza picked up the clipboard and moved toward the door. "If your symptoms recur, be sure to call the staff to schedule another appointment," he said, pulling the door wide. "After you've gotten dressed," he added, "there may be some additional forms to fill out."
Anna resisted the pointless tears that wanted to fall. She was tired of fighting, tired of battling this ephemeral thing that pried at the very periphery of consciousness. Most of all she was weary of trying to make people understand what even she didn't understand. She leaned back against the wall, in no hurry to climb down from the table and struggle into her coat. Just a moment to pull myself together, she told herself, closing her eyes. Just a moment of peace.
She woke in darkness, sweating under the blankets. The digital clock beside the bed read 2:26. She put out a hand and felt Philip's warm back beside her. How did she get here? She'd been at the clinic only a moment ago. Not again, she thought. Please. Not again. She threw back the covers and slid out of bed. Why is it so hot in here? Philip kept the house as cold as ice, which was why she always bundled up at night.
She crept into the hall and read the illuminated dial on the thermostat. Eighty degrees? That had to be a mistake. She twisted the dial down to sixty-five. She realized she had to pee, which was also odd. She never had to go in the middle of the night. Another fun perk of pregnancy, she supposed. A nice addition to the relentless weight gain and the persistent ache in her lower back. She finger-tapped down the darkened hall to the bathroom, closed the door quietly behind her, and switched on the light. The brilliance stung her eyes; when they adjusted, her reflection squinted back from the mirror above the sink. Jesus. Have I gotten that fat? I look like a damn chipmunk. She wanted to believe what she'd promised Philip, that it was just the baby. But the scale, now hidden away behind the hamper, knew better. The pounds had been creeping on for months.
Something else, she realized suddenly, was wrong with her face. Her dark blonde hair seemed shorter than it should be. And the style was different: lifted back from her face, where before her bangs had hung naturally. She leaned closer, until she was nose to nose with her reflection. There were crow's feet around her eyes. Not many, but enough. The wrinkles made her appear even more exhausted than she felt. What's happening to me?
She used the toilet, switched off the light, and left the bathroom. The hall was now an abyssal black. Before her eyes adjusted again, she heard a noise. Footsteps, moving slowly toward her down the hallway. They were too light to be Philip's, barely a whisper on the carpet. She backed against the wall, heart racing.
Something grabbed the hem of her nightgown and she screamed.
Anna reached out, felt a small head and chest. "Who are you?" she asked, pulse shifting out of high gear. "What are you doing here?"
"It's me," the child whispered. "Becky. I heard something. You scared me."
"Go . . . go back to bed," Anna replied. "Everything's fine." Who is this child? "Just go back to bed, . . . Becky. Everything's okay."
The hands grasping her gown let go and footsteps trailed off down the hall. Toward the room Philip had prepared for the baby.
Anna's hands went to her belly. Have I lost more time than I thought? she asked, unwilling to accept the implications behind that simple question. Am I losing my life? Is it all being . . . snatched away? Faster and faster? Tears rolled down her cheeks. Her hands had gone numb. Had this happened to other people? If it had, who would know? Who would listen? She shuddered, despite the ungodly heat, and felt her way back to the master bedroom.
She stumbled over to the bed and shook her husband. "Wake up!" she whispered. "Philip! Wake up! Something's happening to me, goddamn it! Wake up! Philip!"
He groaned. "You're having a nightmare, Anna. Go back to sleep."
The hell I will. So what if he got angry again? Someone had to understand this. Someone had to help her! She reached over and switched on the bedside lamp -- an act she never would have dared under normal circumstances -- intending to wake him whether he wanted it or not. Light stabbed her eyes, but she refused to close them to the glare. Her hands trembled. She couldn't breathe.
The bare-chested man in the bed groaned again and covered his bearded face with the blanket. "Anna!" he growled. "For Chrissake. What are you doing?"
She couldn't speak. There were no words. None. She just stared at him with wide, unblinking eyes.
"Anna? Are you okay?"
"Philip?" she whispered, hysteria rising in her throat, wrenching her chest. "Where is Philip? Where is my husband!"
The man sighed. His red hair stuck up from his head. He reached out for her, but she flinched. "He's gone, Anna," the man said. "He can't hurt you anymore. Philip is gone."
Anna shook her head. "Who are you?"
He rose up from the pillow, watching her carefully. "You told me this happened to you before. Where you forget things for a bit? You said it happened back when you were still with him. I thought it was because of him." He shook his head. "And the doctors never found anything wrong, Anna. We never thought it would happen again." He tried to touch her but she slapped his hands away.
"Who are you?" she repeated, thinking: Who am I?
"I'm Brian," he said gently. "Your husband. We've been married for five years." He pointed to the bedside table, waited for her to follow his gesture. "That's a picture of us. You and me. And Becky. Your daughter. My stepdaughter."
Anna looked at the family in the photograph. She saw herself there, grinning into the camera. A rosy-cheeked blonde girl squirmed in her lap. This strange man loomed behind her, hands resting on her shoulders in a relaxed, familiar way. Anna hardly recognized herself. The woman in the picture was so . . . content. That expression seemed horribly out of place on her face. Had she ever been so serene? Had she ever looked so pleased with herself? This is the woman who's living my life, she thought distantly. This is the woman who takes the missing time. The woman who left Philip, when I wouldn't dare. Anna hated that self-satisfied smirk on her face. She hated her.
This time when the man -- her husband! -- wrapped his strong arms around her, she didn't resist. She buried her face against his neck and sobbed. "Gone," she choked out. "The next moment it will all be gone again. I can feel it. It's like this house, this life, this body, isn't mine anymore. It's like I'm . . . trespassing. Someone stop this!"
"Shhh," the man soothed. "You'll be back to normal in no time. That's how you said it happened before. I'll have my sweet wife back in no time at all. Shhh."
She almost told him what she was thinking. That's what I'm afraid of, you bastard. That's what terrifies me.
The flicker of the television caught her eye. She was in the darkened living room, sitting on the couch, feet propped up on the coffee table. A paperback was butterflied open on her lap. The hyperactive man on the television was demonstrating a strange appliance above a flashing 1-800-12B-UYIT and the words ACT NOW! WHILE SUPPLIES LAST! TOMORROW MAY BE TOO LATE!
The front door opened. A young woman with dark blonde hair stepped into the house. "Mom?" she asked. "Dad's not up, is he?"
Anna looked around. "Who? No." Her mind felt muddled, numb with exhaustion. As if she'd labored mightily to return here over some great distance and now could not recall exactly why she'd come. "But I'm here."
"Thank God," the girl said. "He'd throw one of his fits if he knew I was out with Bernard again. You won't tell, will you?"
"No. I won't tell. You're Becky?"
The girl closed the door with a nervous grin. "Are you awake, Mom? You sound a little looped."
Anna found the strength to lift a hand that no longer felt like her own. "Come here," she whispered. "Let me look at you."
Becky moved out of the shadows, concern shining in her eyes. She wavered like an apparition in the light of the television. "Are you crying?" she asked. "Mom? What's wrong?"
Anna wiped away the tears. "I'm fine. Look how beautiful you turned out. Like an angel. Maybe it's for the best, Becky. Maybe you've had a better life this way." She smiled. "Or is this all just a dream?"
Becky's cheeks flamed. "Mom! What's up with you? Are you drunk?"
"Promise me something!" Anna shouted, a sense of urgency rearing up. She reached out toward the lovely stranger who was her daughter. "Promise me you'll be happy. Promise me you'll live every moment as if there might not be another. As if someone more deserving could win the prize of your life. Can you promise me that? Please?"
"Sure, Mom," she answered, amused, backing way. "Whatever." She moved toward the stairs. "Go back to your dream. Good night."
Anna waved. "Have a full life, Becky," she managed, her voice choked with pain. "Have it for both of us."
The television flickered once more and went dark.
The infant cooed in her wrinkled arms, round face puckered and red. She rocked him. Someone somewhere was playing music. A familiar Christmas song. What was it? Anna couldn't remember. Her mind felt sluggish, her memories blurred.
"Are you a grandchild?" she asked, in a stranger's wheezing voice. "Are you Becky's?" The baby squirmed in her lap, bright eyes staring up solemnly. "You are, aren't you? And what a pretty one. Pick of the litter." She rubbed the child's belly with gnarled fingers and was rewarded with a giggle. This is a moment worth having, she thought. This is a moment to treasure. And this one is mine. Anna leaned down, ignoring the ache in her back, and planted a kiss on the child's blonde head. An old woman's tears wet those ruddy cheeks. Her last moments, before the other returned, were of exquisite joy.
Copyright © 2001 Daniel Goss
Daniel Goss has written dozens of short stories and is now laboring melodramatically on a novel.