The air is thick with a bovine stench. We’re driving eight hundred miles through desert and oil fields to our new home on Dyess Air Force Base. Five days ago, I gave birth to Sammy. He came a week late which didn’t change Nathan’s report date. A maxi pad keeps me uncomfortable and every pothole reminds me how many stitches it took to make me whole again. I look back. I hate the rear-facing car seat. It keeps me from watching the rise and fall my new infant’s chest.
“Can you pull over? I want to sit with Sammy.”
“Ilaria, we’re on the freeway. There’s a rest stop in twenty.”
“It’s getting uglier. What if the base is like this?”
“It’ll be a peach compared to Bagram.”
“Are you scared?”
I’ll be alone with the baby for eight months. I can’t admit that I’m terrified. I twirl a strand of hair around my index finger and yank. Outside a distant white cross grows larger and larger until it looms over the Subaru for one menacing second before shrinking in the rearview.
Nathan doesn’t exit at the rest stop. Pressing my lips together I vow not to speak first. When Sammy wakes and wails I offer only a raised eyebrow. Nathan swears and switches lanes. Sammy is a fix-the-marriage baby, conceived without daring to whisper the words.
Our new house is a duplex, a photocopy of every other on the street. Even the trees standing sentry in each lawn are nearly identical. On our front porch, a dismembered lizard tail writhes with ants. Inside, the fire alarms chirp, continuing even after Nathan pulls them from the ceiling. He asks me if I can remember to get D batteries. I tell him I will. We both know I’ll forget and that he’ll have to run the errand.
We explore the house in cemetery silence. No matter where you are, base housing is white-walled consistency. The counters and cabinets are bland and unassuming. Every fixture and every tile is laid out for maximum efficiency.
“Lots of wall space, you should take some pictures and have prints made.” He’s trying.
Staring at the wall I imagine painting it a chipper orange, but then we’d just have to make it white again in a year or two.
I blink as a vast blackness hits the stucco with a splatter. Blind shock causes me to sway on my feet. Strong hands catch my elbows. “Ilaria?”
The black fades and I see only Nathan’s concerned face. “I’m okay. I…”
“Sit. I’ll get water.”
The moving truck is hours behind us. I rest on the cool tile next to Sammy’s car seat. He’s asleep, pacifier bobbing. I start to pick him up, but my hands freeze over his body—what if I drop him? What if he stops breathing and I don’t notice? Nathan hands me a water bottle. In the peripheral, I see the blackness again. Squeezing my eyes shut, I drink until it’s all gone.
Sitting in a nest of crumpled newspapers I caress a leatherette camera case. Inside is an Asahi Pentax 6×7. With both hands, I remove the camera. It weighs almost as much as Sammy. I slide my palm against the smooth wooden grip.
I bought the camera the morning I discovered I was pregnant. Nathan had left for an early hike. My period was never regular and I took the test—my seventh—on a lark. The six before were negative; I’d bought them in bulk figuring when I ran out I’d be infertile and Nathan and I would amicably let go of our marriage.
When the plus sign appeared so pink and certain, I entombed the stick in toilet paper and went for a walk without bothering to lock the door. Life was marching ahead without me. We’d gotten orders for Dyess and I’d have to quit my job. It made more sense for me to be a stay-at-home mom. Being a military wife means you don’t have a career. Sure, you can start an Etsy store or sell candles at parties, but an advanced degree in Art History is useless.
What would happen when I entered motherhood? I’d already lost so much of myself when I became a wife, resigning my dreams to focus on my husband’s ambitions. I stopped at a house with blankets and card tables patch-worked in the yard. Limp-limbed stuffed animals ogled me as I examined the goods. Resting between mason jars and copper molds was the dust-coated Pentax. It looked out of place, a mythic object among brick-a-brac.
“How much?” I asked the old woman settled on a busted lawn chair.
She twirled a flyswatter. “Twenty.”
“Does it work?”
“Dunno. Was my son’s, he took filthy pictures. He’s gone now.”
“Oh.” I searched my pockets. Empty. “Will you hold it for me?”
She regarded me, her eyes cold pinpricks. “Just take it.”
“No, I’ll get money, I live—”
“Take it. If there’s film in it, burn it. Now get.”
The woman waved the flyswatter at me, almost slapping my chin. I jumped back, clutching the camera.
To keep my thoughts from the upcoming move and the creature forming inside me, I read books on photography, on light and shadow. I frequented an eclectic shop that specialized in the obsolete.
Edgar, the white-eyebrowed owner, examined my camera bemoaning its bulk and lack of a built-in light meter. He sighed and said, “There’s just something about the Pentax. Very demanding, but if you use her right, you’ll be able to steal souls.”
When the first set of prints revealed wisps and curls of smoke, double edges, halos of light, tendrils of dark, Edgar set to work. He cleaned the lenses, removed tiny screws, and blew at ancient dust lodged in gears. Still, any picture I took with the Pentax was eerily imbued. Pleased with how the mundane was transformed, I sought out the macabre. I fell in love with the camera’s quirks, the film returning as fresh visions.
Nathan likes that I have a hobby. He enjoys telling the other officers, “My wife, Ilaria, loves photography.” Whenever I share my photos with him, his brow furrows. He’ll shrug and say, “I don’t know anything about art.” I know the truth. He doesn’t want me taking pictures of cracked tombstones or abandoned strip malls. Postcard save-the-dates and baby announcement are more suitable projects for a major’s wife.
He tries soothing the relocation news with an offer to buy me a nice digital camera.
“You could start a little business taking family portraits.”
“Thanks, but I prefer my Pentax.”
“Shouldn’t you unpack the essentials first?” Square-jawed Nathan stands over me. He’s handsome and decent. The trouble is he’s in love with another version of me, the wild girl who cleans up nice. These days…I can’t chameleon anymore. Maybe I don’t want to.
Newspaper crackling, I check for film. “I want to get the oak tree before Sammy wakes up.” I keep my voice light like I’m happy, excited about our new life. He sighs, eyeing the stacks of boxes, the detritus of the move.
Outside, the house and the tree look like a movie set. If you push against the façade hard enough, the entire thing will tip over. The tree vibrates. Not with bees or cicadas but something harsher, like the drone of a thousand cockroaches hissing on the beat. I tweak the lens, pull out my light meter. I press the shutter release.
Each shot with the Pentax is cannon loud. The buzzing stops. Dead silence. I smile tightly, thinking of all those brown-bodied roaches sitting up, paying attention. I take two more shots from other angles, kneeling to capture the rays through the bare branches. Feeling more grounded, more in control, I look up. The noise starts again, engulfing me, as a black beetle smashes into my lips.
“I hate this fucking place.”
“Oh, honey.” A woman’s voice. “It grows on you. Well…not the bugs.”
My stomach drops at the sight of a lady giving me a Miss America wave. How long was she standing there?
“We share a wall. I’m Cheryl Davis. Let me know if y’all need anything.”
“Thanks, I’m Ilaria Holloway.”
“Ooh, pretty name. Could I ask one teensy favor? Keep down the swears? I have three little monsters running around and they repeat everything.”
The drone grows louder. I want to make a joke or offer up an explanation or apology. But my head throbs and my breasts are inflating like water balloons. Is Cheryl smirking? I raise the Pentax, peer through the viewer and CLICK. I have a picture of neighbor Cheryl. Wordless, I go back into the house.
Tomorrow Nathan leaves for Bagram. Tonight, I pose him and Sammy on the couch snapping shots of father and son. I coo to the baby and offer my husband warm-eyed looks. I’m trying to make up for my misanthropic ways, for wanting to slip into a void and never return. My life is gorgeous, even enviable Americana: hero husband, fat baby, 72-inch television, and rooster dishtowels. I should be happy. But of course, I’m not.
I place Sammy in the bassinet. My eyes meet the lamp-lit wall. My shadow sits in the rocking chair. I’m standing. I whirl around and the chair is empty, shifting on its haunches. Hands shaking I turn back. My shadow is in its proper place. Trembling, I flick off the lamp. I’ve never been more tired in my life.
Sammy and I attend a squad wives’ get-together at Marybeth Codair’s house. As instructed, I bring cookies for the first round of care packages. Though the Codair’s home has the same layout as ours, it’s brighter, more open. Manicured hands wave in greeting. My fingernails are ragged, the cuticles peeling away in raw strips. I don’t remember biting my nails, but the evidence is clear. I hold Sammy closer and force a smile.
I’m drowning in conversations, nothing but senseless babble. A puff-cheeked baby topples mid-crawl and yowls, cutting through the noise. Marybeth takes Sammy and whispers, “You’ll want to visit the restroom. It’s down the hall.”
My reflection shows twin stains under my breasts. I forgot to wear nipple shields. I wipe at the spots with toilet paper. It doesn’t help.
Heart and lungs compressing, I linger in the hall.
“Store bought Oreos! Nothing says thank you for your service like trans fat.”
“Not even Oreos, they’re generic.”
My face heats, we just moved in for Christsakes. Swallowing, I reenter. Marybeth flashes her teeth and makes introductions.
“Are you doing baby sign language?” a blonde asks.
“Oh, I don’t think he has anything interesting to say.”
“Don’t you want to be able to communicate?”
“I was joking.”
“Well! We do need more funny in this group.”
I drive home with my index finger knuckle-deep in my mouth. I’m inside before I see what I’ve done. Numb, I pour hydrogen peroxide on the bare nail bed and study the fizzing bubbles.
The days drip by, the baby cries more, and I sleep less.
Day 13, 3:27 AM.
I’m jolted from sleep by the sounds of a serrated voice, knifing along my jaw.
Smother him. Lots of mothers do it. Smother him softly.
Cries sound from the nursery. I rush to Sammy. I swallow him in my arms, and he noses my breast, ready for a feeding. He latches, suckles, and calms. It hurts. I’m not dreaming. My eyes bump along the shadows of the room, searching for any interlopers. The shadows are long and strange but only because everything still feels new. Nothing is out of place. Except me. What am I doing here?
Did the voice come from something lurking in the cracks of my mind or the house? I want to know but I’m terrified by both notions. I could call Mom, but she’d only worry, and if word got out…Nathan would think I’m unfit to care for Sammy. They might even take him away from me. Those marmoset eyes and starfish hands keep my heart beating. This baby boy is my only reason for waking.
Nathan doesn’t Skype or call. Instead, he sends one line emails: Out in the field 24/7. Thinking of you and Samuel.
I don’t reply. What would I say? We rarely leave the house, the sun hurts my eyes, and that droning—late last night I found myself in the garage holding Nathan’s ax. I almost dropped it when I realized I was in my nightshirt about to chop down a tree.
It must be sleep deprivation. I’ve started to lose things. At first just small items, easy to blame on the move, on the piles I’ve yet to sort and put away. The book I’d been reading left splayed on the arm of the couch, gone when I returned with a glass of water. Then it was the vitamins, Post-its, pacifiers, chocolate—all there one moment and the next…like they never existed.
My Pentax is missing. Earlier, I used it to take pictures of my shadow which looks thin and moth-eaten. I want proof of the decay, proof that I’m not crazy. I’m certain I left it on the bed, but it’s gone. With Sammy sleeping, bound to me by a wrap, I search each room. If I find the camera, I’ll blame exhaustion. If I don’t, something else is happening. I can feel eyes on me. I check every drawer, each remaining box, and clutch my baby close when bending to peer in dark spaces.
In the kitchen, I find the fisheye lens resting on the center rack of the oven. It’s cold and heavy. Holding it to my eye, I see an image of Sammy seared into the glass. A shadowy figure is cradling him. One blink and the image vanishes.
Some mornings I wake in unexpected parts of the house clutching Sammy to my chest. When he isn’t there, I run to find him in his bassinet drifting from infant dreams. I wonder if he misses the womb. I miss every place I’ve ever been that’s not here.
At the baby well visit, the pediatrician is gentle. “I’m concerned about Samuel’s weight. It’s time to start supplementing.” He sets a sample of formula next to me. Similac Sensitive. My chin quivers as I try to swallow a sob. The doctor moves a Kleenex box closer and places a stiff hand on my shoulder. The gesture is clinical, nothing more than prescribed empathy.
I wipe my eyes and clench the used tissue. It’s been two days since I last saw my shadow. I try to explain, I want to show the doctor it’s gone, and that Sammy’s is fading fast. Dr. Strunk stops me, saying he’ll refer a therapist who specializes in these kinds of things. His voice drops low, “Post-partum depression is nothing to be ashamed of.”
In the parking lot, I can see the shadows cast by lampposts, cars, and signs. Sammy and I make no such impression. Have we both grown so thin and translucent, that rays of light drift through us unperturbed? I let the referral slip through my fingers and flutter away.
There is no more leaving the house. Outside is loud. It bursts with smells and sights. When the lights are bright and people are chattering, cars rumbling, air conditions churning, I see things. I hear things. It’s quieter in the house. It’s safer in the house.
I order diapers, formula, black-out curtains, and groceries via Amazon Prime. Sammy doesn’t like the bottle; he screams for my breasts. When I give in and offer one to him, he gnaws with feral need. My nipples are raw, ground like hamburger. There’s scarcely any milk, my insides dried up.
Nathan Skypes. The tablet chimes and quits three times before I answer. On the screen, in the little square representing my world, I see a sugar-skull woman holding a sallow baby. Nathan squints.
“It’s so dark. You look…different.”
It’s cold. My shadow is gone. Sammy’s too. “I’ve lost my shadow.”
“You’re too thin. You have to eat more while you’re breastfeeding.”
“I don’t do that anymore.”
Nathan looks over his shoulder, hoping for rescue.
“What do you think it means?”
“Jesus, go to the doctor. Today. Get someone to come help you.”
“I don’t trust anyone.”
“My mom will stay with you.”
“Go outside, get some fresh air.”
“It’s too dangerous, the sun—”
“If you can’t handle going outside you can’t….don’t make me say it.”
“You haven’t sent any pictures.”
“My camera’s gone.”
“Use your cell. Get a shot of Samuel under the oak. Now, I can’t tell what he looks like.”
My mobile contains ninety-seven unread texts and twenty-two voicemails. I don’t remember turning it off. I lift Sammy; he’s so tiny a gust of wind could claim him. “Gotta take a picture so Daddy doesn’t worry.” Sammy whimpers. The floor creaks on the way to the front door. The knob is hot, a warning. I twist it and step out into air that tastes like sulfur. The sun is bright. Blinding. The oak tree stills as I smooth a snowy blanket on the ground and place Sammy at its heart. I hold the cell up to take the picture and choke when I find myself looking through the viewfinder of the Pentax. A large cockroach skitters onto the blanket. The droning vibrates all around, deeper and louder than ever before.
The world winks. And Sammy is gone.
L.L. Madrid lives in the desert with the other feral creatures. She is the 2017 recipient of the Luminaire Award for best prose. She tweets as @LLMadridWriter and shares her stories at www.llmadridmakesthingsup.com.