FICTION: Signs for Adeline by Elise Gallagher

It had been seven weeks since Adeline stepped outside of the house, but a knock on the door drew her from the chrysalis she had made of her and Daniel’s king sized bed. At first she remained in bed, waiting to hear Daniel’s footsteps creak across the cold wooden floorboards, for the door to squeak open then slam shut, but there was only the muffled sound of the television coming from the den on the first floor. Curious as to who was knocking on their door at four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, and frustrated that Daniel wasn’t answering, Adeline got out of bed.

She ran past the second bedroom with her eyes closed unable to look at the purple walls painted with yellow flowers, the bookcases filled with children’s stories, their spines stiff, that sat on dusty shelves. The door remained open though it was a little over two months ago since she came home from the hospital.

When she opened the front door there was no one outside. She stood on the worn, cement cracked porch of her townhome, dressed in a loose maternity nightgown beneath a shabby bathrobe, shaking. The crisp air nipped her cheeks, flushed them pink, but Adeline turned her face into the wind to feel the bite as a reminder that she was still attached to the earth. Her heart beat fast and a thick groggy mist clouded her brain. Above geese honked, leaves twirled to the ground. Everything looked the same, nothing had changed, and it hurt that the world had moved on not caring what had happened to her. Even though the November sky was gray, Adeline’s eyes watered and blinked against the sunlight that broke through. Since the “incident” at the end of August, as Daniel so carefully referred to it, she had spent the rest of her summer days lying in their master bedroom, dark blue curtains closed, watching TV, or staring at the cracks in the ceiling.

Adeline stared at the potted plant on the porch with dry brown stalks, skeletons of flowers that, just a few months ago in August, had flaunted deep purple petals with yellow streaks. But now winter had stolen their color. She would have cried if she could but there were no more tears left, only an empty ache in her lower abdomen that was still a little inflated. Adeline remembered the day she and Daniel bought the plant at Paula’s Nursery twenty miles away. The countdown on the chalkboard in their kitchen that started in the double digits was at a large 5. Seeing the number didn’t make Adeline feel relieved but panicked. There was too much to do, the front of the townhome suddenly looked too drab, too depressing, it needed color. The air that day had been humid, so thick in fact that it flattened Adeline’s brown curls and clung to her skin, her throat. Despite the ache in her back, her swollen feet tight in her sandals, she had remained in the greenhouse. She remembered the bird trapped inside; its wings beat a soft frantic rhythm, thunkthunk, as it bounced off the roof, and a loud taptaptap echoed off the walls as its beak hit the glass. She briefly felt sorry for the bird and believed that now, if she had tried to free the bird that she too could have been rescued and spared what was coming, unknowingly, to her.

Sitting beside the dead plant were two new packages from her mother in Colorado, condolences that were forty-nine days late. It was so much easier for her mother, wasn’t it, to mail something than actually show up herself.

Adeline scooped up the packages and cradled them as she entered the kitchen. The first package was filled with white packing peanuts, incense, bath salts, a small golden Buddha (rub his belly and make a wish, the card had said), and a meditation book. The first line said that Karma was a circle, and she knew it was a sign that she should have saved the bird. The second long box held a bouquet of flowers. The sight of the yellow and purple colors made her sick and she opened the trashcan to throw them inside but it was filled with old food, chocolate candy wrappers, and MacDonald’s bags. Adeline and Daniel had been together for six years, married for three, and not once had she seen him eat greasy hamburgers and French fries from fast food restaurants, if you could really call MacDonald’s or Burger King restaurants.

Every Saturday morning they walked six blocks to the Farmers Market, bought kale, organic orange, purple, and yellow carrots, large ripe tomatoes that he bit into on his way home, spinach, apples, and peaches. Even in the winter months he cooked what was in season at the market—squash and turnips. When Adeline first came home from the hospital he cooked her homemade chicken noodle soup and though she refused to eat, he kept bringing her a fresh bowl for lunch. The smell of baked bread filled the house and two slices would appear on her plate with freshly bought jam. When it became clear that she wouldn’t eat anything solid he tried blending vegetables, making smoothies and milkshakes with protein, to keep her healthy. And now that she thought about it, the toast that he brought her recently, was it yesterday or the day before?, had been burnt, the pasta crunchy and the sauce runny, and the soup was salty, cold, obviously from a can. Yet she hadn’t paid any attention to these things, she was trapped in a never ending dream where the real world felt hazy, staged.

Adeline shoved the flowers against the greasy paper bags and forced the lid closed. She looked up at the kitchen entryway expecting Daniel to come in and tell her to go back upstairs but his tall, broad frame and wire rimmed glasses weren’t there. Fatigue pressed against Adeline’s shoulders, tensed her muscles, made her eyes feel heavy and tired. She wanted to be back in bed, curled beneath the heavy down comforter, but her hands were cold and a mug of tea would warm them.

Adeline opened the cabinet door; the shelves were devoid of the green and blue mugs from their wedding registry, the dishes painted with flowers, the handmade bowls they made in a six session pottery class together,. The sink was filled with murky water and when Adeline stuck her hand into it she felt the sharp edges of forks, knives, and pulled out a slimy mug coated with coffee grounds on the bottom. Daniel always scolded Adeline for leaving a spoon in the sink. How many times had he asked her, how hard is it to put the dishes in the dishwasher? It’s right there! And she had responded, Why can’t you just leave it?

Adeline looked at the mug perplexed then reached for the sponge that wasn’t sitting on the edge of the sink. That was when she began to fully see the kitchen, the mail spread along the countertop, the empty dishwasher, the liquefied bananas in the bowl that had fruit flies buzzing around them, the crumbs littered across the floor.

Panic welled inside of Adeline, starting in her abdomen where her stomach tensed, moving up her throat where it lodged itself like a large ball. Her palms sweat, her cheeks flushed red, and she felt light, like the tether that held her to reality, as flimsy as that reality was, snapped and she would float away, lost forever.

From upstairs came a faint steady creakcreakcreak. Adeline knew that rocking sound, it filled her dreams at night, her day dreams when she was awake. Could it be that she had remembered it all wrong? That what she thought was real was actually a nightmare and that she had been sleeping all along? She dropped the mug back into the sink, raced up the stairs using the railing to steady herself. For a brief moment, she thought that she heard that high-pitched cry, the only noise that had managed to escape the baby’s mouth before it fell silent. She ran into the second bedroom and in a daze she stood in the doorway; Daniel sat in the rocking chair holding something in his arms. She walked towards Daniel, smiling, sure that everything had been a nightmare, the still blue baby, the empty bassinet they left at the hospital. Adeline stretched out her arms and said, “Give her to me.” She began undoing her bathrobe, reaching for her nightgown strap. She reached for the baby in Daniel’s arms but he held it close to his chest, kissing the top of its head and crying. Adeline touched the baby’s arm and instead of soft warm skin what she grabbed was cold and hard. The world became solid again and she realized with an aching, sinking heart that this was her reality.

“Why are you even in here? Shouldn’t you be wallowing in bed?” Daniel yelled and pulled hard. The doll’s arm came off and the screams that came from Daniel’s mouth were animalistic. He got up from the rocking chair, threw the doll to the ground and tore the books off the shelves. The baby’s crib rattled as he shook it hard. Adeline backed against the wall, truly seeing Daniel for the first time in weeks. His hair was long and messy, his shirt stained, a beard grew under his nose and around his mouth like the vines that crept up the side of their house, his eye glasses were smudged.

“This isn’t what you want, is it?” Daniel yelled at her. “Well you’re not the only one who lost something! But you have to face it, Adeline, she’s gone!” He grabbed the doll from the ground and shook it in her face. “She’s gone and she’s never coming back. She’s never,” he broke off and sank to the floor, covering his hands with his face.

Adeline’s Daniel who had done everything for her, who had read her stories and poetry, who told her that they could try again, who curled beside her with his arm wrapped around her chest, his chin resting in the crook of her neck, while she remained stiff and uncomfortable at his touch, was gone and she had let him go.

********

The plan didn’t come to her all at once, as some ideas do, but in small fragments, like scattered puzzle pieces she collected and eventually put together. It started with the meditation book her mother sent her; she began reading it when she couldn’t stand the silence in the house, the looks that Daniel gave her when they passed in the hallway. After his episode in the second bedroom he slept on the pull out couch in the den, ate dinner without her, and stopped bringing her food in the mornings. She went into their bedroom closet, ironed his clothes for work, and placed them on the couch during the day when he was gone. It took her four hours but she cleaned the kitchen, put the dishes away, placed the trash on the curbside.

 The meditation author, in his slow voice, talked about how life was full of signs and one had to clear one’s mind and open one’s eyes to see them. We are never lost, the book said, the path is always laid out before us. In the mornings when the sky was a dark blue Adeline opened her curtains and sat on the cold floor, cross legged. She practiced inhaling, exhaling, feeling the way the air tickled her throat and filled her lungs. The sky would change from dark to light blue, then pink and purple. Adeline saw the colors from behind her eyelids and stayed inside of them, opening her mind so she could see the signs around her.

The first sign came in the form of a phone call. Daniel had left for work and Adeline was in the kitchen, making green tea. The telephone rang and for the first time since she came home from the hospital, she answered it.

“Hello?” she said.

“Adeline?” a woman’s voice with a French accent said. “It’s Lulu, the nanny you were going to hire.”

Adeline’s heart quickened but she forced herself to take deep breaths. “Of course, Lulu, I’m sorry I didn’t call to tell you.”

“Please, Adeline, don’t apologize. Daniel told me. I was calling to ask how you are. I’ve been thinking of you both.”

“We’re doing fine,” Adeline lied. “It took some time, but, we have each other.”

“It still breaks my heart. She would have been beautiful.”

She was, Adeline thought remembering the pink cheeks, the small nose. “How are you? Were you able to find work?” Adeline asked in one breath.

“I’m working in Ruscow Heights. It’s not far. If you ever need me, please call me.”

Adeline thanked Lulu and the two women said goodbye. Adeline squatted down, put her head between her legs, closed her eyes and focused on the image of Ruscow Heights. She couldn’t help Daniel if she kept having panic attacks.

Ruscow Heights was a neighborhood, about a twenty minutes’ walk away, a reclusive beehive that the rich built to separate themselves from everyone else. When Adeline and Daniel first moved to Pine Grove Drive, they used to take long walks through Ruscow Heights and fantasize about which mansion they would live in. They’d stroll through Ruscow Park, the center of the neighborhood with large, old oak trees, a man made pond, a dog park and swing set, and talk about bringing their future children there. Most of the park’s visitors were nannies flown over from other countries, given too little money to watch babies all day. Adeline hadn’t visited or thought of Ruscow Park in months. After her phone conversation with Lulu, the image stayed with her, planted as a seed that slowly began to grow into something larger.

The second sign had come at eight o’clock on a Tuesday morning. As the world blared behind her curtains with honking cars carrying people to work, Adeline sat in bed, the comforter pulled to her chin, watching March of the Penguins while Morgan Freeman’s deep, soothing voice leaked through the television. The segment was about the careful, slow, exchange the mother and father penguin performed as they passed the egg from mother to father’s feet for him to keep warm until it hatched. She was about to turn it off, it was too painful to watch the successful exchanges, when an egg rolled off a mother’s foot and bounced along the ground, cracking open at the top. The mother penguin hobbled to the egg but it was too late, the embryo inside had frozen. Wailing, the mother penguin ran to a female and tried to steal her egg only to be pecked away. Adeline’s hand rubbed her stomach.

The third sign came from a fortune cookie that was the only remnant of Daniel’s Chinese food takeout dinner. Adeline had entered the kitchen after she heard Daniel turn on the TV in the den, which was more like his cave, to make pasta for dinner. She forced herself to eat, even if it was small portions. The plastic wrapper crinkled as she opened it, crumbs fell from the cookie as she cracked it, and the black print on the thin white paper read, “Your hard work will yield a great reward.”

The signs unfurled a plan in Adeline’s mind, like deep purple petals revealing a bright yellow line of hope. In order to save Daniel, to save them, they needed to start living the life they had planned and dreamed of. Adeline began to take the things she saw beyond her curtains as signs that she should execute her plan: the full bird’s nest she discovered outside her window, the children that walked down the sidewalk swinging on their parents’ hands, the coupons for baby formula and clothes that still came in the mail.

She went to the grocery store, made dinner for Daniel, and when he came home from work instead of going upstairs so he could have the house to himself, she stayed planted in the kitchen and asked him about his day. When he watched TV, she sat beside him and at night kissed him on the forehead before she went to bed. In the mornings, she blended protein shakes, put salads and cut up fruit in his lunch box, along with a note describing something that she loved about him.

When he began to respond, to hold her hand on the couch, eat dinner with her at the table, sleep in the bed beside her, she knew that it was time to execute her plan, and visit Ruscow Park on a warm day, when all of the nannies would be outside with their carriages, and bring home their last missing piece: a baby girl with dark brown hair, blue eyes, and a small upturned nose.

Elise Gallagher

Elise Gallagher is a fiction author from Maryland. She is a candidate in the University of Baltimore MFA Creative Writing and Publishing Arts Program. When she is not working on her stories she is exploring the outdoors, eating sushi, and reading.

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