Erin Pringle-Toungate, from "The Missing Time"
Thomas comes home from searching. His clothes are damp from night and dark morning, fields, windbreaks and the howling of coyotes and hope. He doesn’t let go of his flashlight. He doesn’t intend to stay long. Long enough to eat, long enough to stand in front of the kitchen cabinet and then realize that he hasn’t opened it or taken down a bowl. Long enough to remember why he’s staring, why he has to go back out. Because Sam went walking. Now he must walk, too.
He finds himself staring at the cabinet pull. It’s white porcelain with tiny blue flowers on it. The glaze is finely fissured.
From the kitchen he can see across the living room. The bedroom door is slightly cracked open. His wife is sleeping in there. He has looked at her in the cracked space enough times to imagine her as though seeing her. The way her body rises over the bed, the way her eyelids flicker when she’s moving into deep sleep. He crosses the living room. He stops at the foot of their bed. Yes, she is as he remembers. Or at least, he can still fit her into the forms of his memory.
Dawn is slipping through the sliding glass door and under the blinds. The world hasn’t yet turned enough to let the light reach her through the dark. But it will, and it will keep turning. And the darkness will come back like a breath.
He flicks on the flashlight and plays the beam over her toes then up her leg, first the outside and then up the inside curve of her calf, her knee, up through her nightgown, up to the rounded bulge of her belly and then up over her heavy breasts.
She is so large now, large as the earth with the baby who sleeps, too, inside her. The baby will die. Will live, age, and die. She and he alone decided that—somehow. Or maybe they didn’t, but if they take credit for giving life to the baby, then they have to take credit for the death, even if the deaths their own parents gave them happen first.
He stands still, and moves the flashlight only with his wrist. He crosses the light up her throat, over her hips, her cheeks, and lays it on her eyelids so that, for a second, he is the giver of the stars she would see if she opened them.
I’m alive, she says quietly. She doesn’t open her eyes. Thomas realizes he has been outlining her as he would outline his brother’s body if he finds him dead at the end of the walk.
I know it, he says.
Are you in?
Not yet, he says.
You need to sleep.
I know it.
You know a lot tonight, she says.
He slides his thumb against the flashlight, turning it off like a fact. He climbs into bed and rolls against her. She is so warm now. She touches his back, and he can feel the wet of his shirt against her palm and the stress in her arm. She hasn’t woken relaxed for years.
You can wake me up? he says.
In two hours?
What time is it?
I don’t know, she says.
One hour, he says.
She reaches into the bedside drawer where she kept the basal body thermometer all the years before the conception, and after the first miscarriage. Now she keeps the fetal heart monitor there. He hears her squirting the gel on her belly. He fights the sleep like darkness and dawn till he hears the washa-washa-washa of the baby’s heart, yes, a baby now, not a fetus, not an embryo, a baby now, closer to the earth now, washa-washa-washa. And her body relaxes. And sleep comes over him like the beam of a flashlight hovering over the ground and showing the weeds. Just outside of the circle of light must lay a dead brother or a scared brother or a brother hunched in a ditch, eyes wide and a week’s worth of beard and dirt covering his face. But as in life, in sleep there is only darkness inside the light and blue flowers on a cabinet pull.