There’s something in the woods behind the house. Laura can hear it through the open window underneath the patter of rain as she nurses the baby. The thud of paws against the ground. The rush of breath as it snuffles, searching for food. Third night in a row. Each night, the something hunts along the same path between the palm trees and the fence line near her bedroom window. Each night, it sounds like it’s getting closer.
The baby’s lips and tongue pull at Laura’s nipple three times and pause, three times and pause. It’s not the consistent rhythm he uses when he’s awake and hungry—tug, tug, tug, tug for minutes on end—but the pull and pause that means he’s asleep again and not drawing milk, just comfort. Laura slips a finger in between her nipple and his mouth and breaks the suction. The baby falls back into the crook of her arm, his mouth still nursing a phantom breast. A slender thread of milk runs down the side of his cheek and pools against the skin inside her elbow. She gently pulls her arm out from under him. His limbs are heavy and loose, his torso and head like little water-filled balloons. Once she’s free of him, he is soft and slack, like a water balloon upended, its open lip spilling its contents across the bed. Laura gets up and goes to the window to see what’s making the sound.
A silken back glistens silver in the moonlight. Florida panther, maybe? Panthers aren’t supposed to live as far north as Gainesville. But it moves like a cat, flips its long tail like a cat. Its head is bent to the ground, hidden in dark. She cups her hands against the window to block out the light, and her knee hits the edge of the half-opened rain-spattered glass with a thwack. The something’s shadowed head pulls up sharply and looks in her direction, crashes off through the underbrush. In a moment, gone.
A soft knock against the wall behind Laura’s head. It echoes in the monitor next to the bed. Laney, turning over, rapping her knees against the bedroom wall. Sloane’s soft snoring in the background. In the two months since the baby came, they’ve been restless sleepers, waking up three and four times a night, calling for her. Tonight, they’re quiet.
On the nightstand beside the bed, her phone dings. Martin. A text and a link.
It’s up. LMK what you think.
A moment later, another:
Fine, she types. Reading now.
She clicks the link on her phone, and there it is: “Into the Great White Open: One Man’s Journey across Antarctica Alone.” God, that fucking headline. She gets up, gets herself another glass of wine. Then she settles back in the bed and scrolls to her husband’s byline: Martin Gunn. It’s the first time she’s ever seen it listed when she hasn’t also been working on a project, when she hasn’t also been waiting to share a link with him. The small, dark thing that lives in the pit of her stomach begins to gnaw. She reads the lede.
Before me, there is white. Behind me, white. White to the east and to the west. There is not a single plant or animal around me, nothing but white until the white turns to blue in places, white that at its edges becomes pink and red and orange where it touches the sun. Nothing but me and my ragged breath, which hangs in the air like a crystalline cloud before it dissipates in the wind as I trudge one more mile across the frozen expanse.
Laura closes the browser, then her eyes. Not now. She can’t do it now. She sleeps lightly, briefly. The baby stirs and stretches, opens his mouth, wide and pink like the inside of a clam, his tongue a pearl in the low lamplight. She picks up her phone, reads the rest of the article. Then she texts Martin.
Beautiful, she types.
He texts back immediately.
You would have done it better.
But that little small dark thing is still gnawing, and now it whispers to her.
Yes, it says. Yes, you fucking would.
The baby wakes at 2:00 a.m. to eat, then again when gray light begins to fill the room. She dozes off while he nurses, and when she wakes again, it’s still raining. Been raining for days. A tropical storm has been hovering over the Gulf, and the rain is heavier today, punctuated with the occasional ting of hail. Overhead, the fan goes click click click as it rocks slightly in its housing, the small chain circling over her like a hypnotist’s bauble. Suddenly she’s aware of the round weight of the baby beneath her. Her heart stutters, and she rolls over. He’s still, his small face pale in the early morning light, and then he takes in a deep shuddering breath and screams and her heart begins to pound its normal rhythm again. She grabs him up and holds him to her. Thank God thank God thank God she thinks as he grouses against her neck. She must have rolled onto him just before she woke. If Martin were here, he would be screaming at her. He never let her cosleep with the girls.
But Martin isn’t here. Martin is in fucking Antarctica and has been there for a fucking month. And so she brings the baby into bed sometimes so he can nurse and she can get some sleep. It’s been fine. But last night she had three glasses of wine instead of her regular two. Never again, she thinks as she kisses the baby’s sweaty little head. He’s rooting at her collarbone, his little mouth trying to find a nipple, so she lifts her shirt and helps him latch. He snuffles and grunts, latches on, wraps his little arms around her breasts, digs his fists in. After a while, he pops off her nipple and gives her a gummy, milk-mouthed smile as the girls start stirring.
It isn’t until she gets out of bed that she notices the pool of blood on the mattress. It’s the size of a chair cushion and scalloped, darker at the edges where it’s begun to dry. Laura strips the bed, takes off her bloody pants and underwear and rolls them into a ball, tosses everything in the washer. She puts on a new pair of underwear and a pad, a pair of leggings without any obvious stains that she finds in the hamper. She doesn’t seem to be bleeding anymore. The mattress is fine—she put a plastic-backed cover on it during her last trimester when she was afraid of her water breaking in the middle of the night. But the bleeding is worrisome. It started two days after Martin left, off and on, and every once in a while in a sudden rush that leaves her scrambling for something to staunch it. So far, she’s bled through four sets of sheets, twice on the driver’s seat of her car, once on the couch, and through almost every pair of underwear and pants she owns.
This didn’t happen with either of the girls. She didn’t have much postpartum bleeding after either birth and no periods at all until she’d stopped breastfeeding when they each turned two. She should call Dr. Thomas. He was the only OB who’d been willing to take her on so late in the pregnancy after the move. He was young. He’d smiled, listened to her, patted her leg, told her not to worry. She’d felt comfortable with him during their appointments. When she arrived at the hospital in labor and found out he was the doctor on duty, she was relieved. But then she asked for an epidural and he’d patted her leg again, said you can hold out a little longer and by the time she was clenching her jaw and gritting her teeth and begging for it, it was too late. The pain had been phenomenal. She’d stayed in transition for hours longer than she should have, tensing and fighting the pain, wracked by wave after wave of contractions, and when she couldn’t stand it any longer, she’d gotten out of the hospital bed and walked back and forth across the floor, naked, holding her belly, blood and amniotic fluid trailing the floor behind her. The nurses and Martin tried to calm her, but she shoved their hands away and hissed fuck off because the thought of lying down in that goddamn bed to ride out the contractions was unimaginable. When she finally felt the urge to push, Dr. Thomas made her lie down and looked between her legs and told her it was time, so she pushed. When she did, she felt him pulling some part of her body aside like it was a curtain and it felt like her goddamn insides were being ripped out and she screamed, and he said you’ve been through this before and patted her leg again and if she hadn’t been having a baby at that moment, she would have ripped his testicles off and shoved them down his fucking throat.
Later, one of the nurses told her that her cervix never fully dilated. When Dr. Thomas told her to push, he was pulling her cervix aside, stretching it like a rubber band. When she complained at her six-week appointment of the ripping pain she still felt when she tried to pee, when she tried to walk too fast, when she laughed, he said it was normal and she’d heal eventually. When she asked why he’d stretched her cervix rather than waiting for her to dilate fully, he smiled at her like she was a child asking a foolish question.
Sometimes we have to speed the process along, he’d said.
Laura can imagine the call. How he’d say in that calm, condescending way he has that every postpartum period is different, that it’s a side effect of the continued contraction of her uterus, that she’s a mom three times over now and she really shouldn’t worry about a little blood. You’re just fine, he’d say. You focus on helping that baby get big and strong.
The thought of making that call, of the effort it would take to insist on an appointment so that he could look between her legs and tell her she’s overreacting, of the work of packing the kids into the car, of trying to keep Sloane from digging in the office garbage, of listening to Laney whine about being bored, of the baby waking up and screaming to nurse—all of it makes her want to climb back into bed.
Fuck it. If the bleeding gets bad, she’ll call an ambulance.
Laura puts the baby in the Moby wrap, and he falls asleep again while she makes the girls breakfast. Laney’s content to color at the table while she waits for eggs and bacon, but Sloane, as usual, is crying for food and pulling at Laura’s leg. Laura gets a fruit pouch out of the pantry and hands it to her. Sloane toddles off into the living room to watch Paw Patrol. After the girls finish eating, the baby’s still asleep, so Laura puts him in the cradle in the bedroom. She should do something with the girls—sit them down to color, read them a book, something—but she is so fucking tired. When Laney begs to watch Frozen, Laura turns it on and goes back into the kitchen to make more coffee. While the coffee’s brewing, she opens Martin’s article again and scrolls down to the comments.
This one got me, wrote tony412.
Great read! wrote isqueeforsloths.
Ugh SO GOOD, wrote queenbey9122. Take me on your next adventure? and then two smiley face emojis with hearts for eyes.
I bet your wife is so proud, wrote arkangel99.
The comment with the come-on should probably be the one that grates, but it’s the last one that gets her. I’ll bet your wife is so proud. What does that even mean? Laura stares at the kitchen wall while she drinks her coffee. Three of her cover stories are framed there: the New York Times Magazine piece on the murders of the five trans women in the West Village. The one for National Geographic on post-Ebola syndrome in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone. The Vanity Fair profile of Hillary Clinton. Has arkangel99 ever written I bet your husband is so proud in the comment section of a woman’s story?
In the living room, Elsa is singing about letting it go for the hundred-thousandth time, so Laura turns on the portable weather radio she keeps in the kitchen. Go to sleep you little fool, sings Colin Meloy. Forty winking in the belfry. You’ll not feel the drowning. Laura turns the music down a hair. The Crane Wife at 9 a.m. Jesus. She rubs her eyes. Her head hurts. Her back hurts. She needs to eat something.
Below Elsa’s grating voice and Meloy’s mournful one, there’s something else: the sounds of the house. The drip of the faucet in the bathroom, which never fully shuts off, no matter how tightly she turns the knob. The creak of the floorboards, which have the give of a mattress in places. The wheeze of the windows, which suck and exhale around their edges like giant mouths. The privacy is nice—it’s tucked away down a long driveway near the end of a cul-de-sac, embedded deep in a cluster of pine trees—but it’s obvious why it was available on such short notice. The whole thing feels precariously alive, some ancient knock-kneed mammoth that’s going to keel over at any moment and spill its guts all around them.
At the end of the song, the news comes on. A voice says the tropical storm has officially turned into a hurricane and is tracking in their direction. Laura’s never been in a hurricane. She knows tornados from her childhood in Oklahoma. She’s got about a week’s worth of nonperishables, some flashlights and candles, but what else? Should she board up the windows? She doesn’t have any boards. More important, she doesn’t have any energy. She looks outside. The one neighbor she can see has their lights on, cars in the driveway. She doesn’t know any of the neighbors. They are all so far away. If it was dangerous to be here, they’d be gone, wouldn’t they? She puts down her coffee and opens the kitchen door, thinking maybe it will help circulate the air, but it’s like the inside of a sauna outside. Steam curls into the air. Everywhere there is the whirr and chitter of insects. The ferns that line the driveway flutter like the wings of a flock of giant green birds, blocking out the only neighbor’s house that she’s able to see, and it feels like the house has been lifted up in the night by an unknown hand and set down again somewhere in the deep of some tropical forest.
Laura closes the door, picks up her coffee again. In the living room, Elsa has finally shut her trap, and the trolls are singing about a fixer-upper.
It’s nearly impossible to breathe here. The air is so cold that each time I exhale, I watch my breath cloud in the air and I’m afraid it’s going to freeze through, drop to the ground and shatter instead of drift away. I can feel a thin layer of ice on the surface of my skin, netting through my eyebrows, trying to seal my lips together. It’s minus forty degrees Fahrenheit here, and I am cold all the way to my bones. I’m going to have to keep moving. I know if I slow down, it will mean certain death. This, in fact, is life in Antarctica—the threat of death at every turn. If the cold doesn’t get you, then it’s likely the disorientation will.
By naptime, Sloane has demanded ten times that Laura braid her doll’s hair and then immediately ripped it out again, and the baby woke up hot and cranky and fussed throughout his feed. Laney asks to go to the lake, and when Laura tells her no, it’s raining, she throws a monstrous fit, screaming and crying and pitching all her books and stuffed animals into a pile on the bedroom floor. The sound of her screams makes Sloane whimper and startles the baby, and he wails, demanding to be picked up. Laura puts the baby back in the wrap to lull him back to sleep. Then she puts both girls in their beds for quiet time.
I wish Daddy was here instead of you, says Laney, her face red and slick with tears.
Me too, says Laura.
She shuts the door. She wants to slam it, to scream, but the baby is finally asleep again in the wrap.
I love you, Mama, calls Sloane. I love you a hundred times.
I love you too, bug, says Laura, but she doesn’t go back inside. Instead, she thinks of the small dark thing that lives in the pit of her stomach, at the way it stops its gnawing to whisper I hate you, at the way she knows without having to be told that it’s not talking about the girls. She lets the hatred seep through every single limb of her body, every organ, every artery and vein. For a moment, she is pulsing with it, she is a great white-hot mass of rage, and she can feel the small dark thing opening its maw, and then she clamps it shut again. The rage dissipates. All she’s left with is herself, standing in a darkened hallway, a baby asleep against her chest, the sound of her little girls murmuring in their beds.
Back in her bedroom, Laura slowly eases the baby’s limp body back into his cradle. Once he’s settled, she sits down on the bed. She needs to write. God, she hasn’t written in months. But there is nothing in this life to write about. And she is so exhausted. More tired than she’s ever been in her life. She’ll lie down on the bed. Just for a minute.
When she opens her eyes again, it’s dark. She checks her phone. It’s nearly dinnertime. Too quiet. The air conditioning isn’t running. Laura flicks the light by the bed. Power’s out. The rain is heavier, the wind sucking through the cracks of the windows. The hail is insistent now, hammering the roof, the windowpanes. The baby is still sleeping in his cradle, his little chest rising and falling. He has two fingers in his mouth and he’s sucking on them. She leans over to run a finger down his cheek, and then she feels the wetness beneath her. She gets up off the mattress. The blood stain is the size of a small tabletop. The mattress is ruined—she thinks of the cost of replacing it, the trouble of getting the gore hauled away—and then she feels the blood still running down her thighs. And something else. She goes to the bathroom, pulls off her leggings. In her underwear are five huge clots of blood, black-red, glutinous. They slide from her underwear and fall to the floor with the splat of rotten fruit. She picks one up. It is large as a plum, its surface shiny, smooth. Suddenly, it moves. She drops it into the toilet, then she picks up the other four and tosses them in. The clots bloom in the water like giant red water lilies, petal-shaped tendrils of blood unfurling across the bottom of the bowl. They move again, like petals in a breeze. She flushes, and they disappear. Her hands are gory, blood already caking under her fingernails, and she scrubs them in the sink. Her heart is racing, her head hot, heavy, throbbing. She presses her damp hand to her forehead. She doesn’t know where the thermometer is.
The bleeding seems to have slowed. Laura calls Dr. Thomas’s answering service anyway as she puts on the mesh underwear left over from the hospital, one of the postpartum pads, and the only clean pants she has left, a pair of old sweats from college. The call tries to connect, but the phone remains silent. After a minute, Laura disconnects, tries again. Nothing. She tries her internet. No wifi, but so far, it’s still working on her phone, so the tower’s not out. Outside, the rain is a waterfall, the windows sucking air in and out like someone panting right outside the door. Lightning flashes across the sky like shattered glass, the crack of thunder right on top of it. The house rumbles around her like someone’s huge hands drumming on its roof. The baby starts, cries. In their rooms, Sloane and Laney both call her.
I’m aware of the dangers. I’m going to make sure that neither death nor disorientation gets me. Instead, I’m going to follow in the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton and see if I can succeed where he failed: to cross the entire continent of Antarctica on foot, a journey of 1,000 miles. I have a team of people along to keep me supplied and focused on my goal. For the next month and a half, I’ll be trying to keep Antarctica at bay and grappling with everything Mother Nature throws at me.
Laura straps the baby to her chest again and gets both girls out of bed.
Why is it so loud, Mama? says Laney. Why are there no lights?
It’s a power outage, lovey. It’ll be okay.
She drags two chairs into the living room from the kitchen, throws a couple of blankets over them, turns on The Nightmare Before Christmas on her computer, which, thankfully, is fully charged. She hands each of the girls a small bowl of Goldfish crackers. We’re going to camp out, she says. It’s an adventure.
There are candles in the pantry and matches in the kitchen junk drawer. Her head is throbbing. There’s no stove, no microwave, so she pulls turkey and cheese and mayonnaise from the fridge, and she makes three sandwiches. The baby is grousing again, and so she lifts her shirt to help him latch and then lightning cracks open the sky again and she sees the water, the slow, dark lick of it making its way up the driveway, and at the edge of the yard, the Something with its silvery back, snuffling in the bushes. Then dark again. A clap of thunder, and the house shudders around her as if it’s been struck like a bell, and her head pulses with it. She rubs her temples. She takes the sandwiches to the girls.
There’s no hot water, so there’s no bath. The girls bristle at the interruption of their routine, bristle at the heat, and they whine and wriggle, struggle to sleep. By the time Laura finds a battery-powered fan in the closet and cools them off enough to get them down, the baby is fussing again. Martin texts just after she’s gotten settled on the couch and gotten him latched.
All good there?
Fine, she writes. Storming. Power’s out.
Can you call one of the neighbors? See if they know when it will be back?
She puts down the phone and rubs her aching head again. What could they possibly tell her that she couldn’t find out from Gainesville Regional Utilities? She doesn’t know any of them. She never got to introduce herself when they moved in three months ago because it was all so rushed, getting settled before Martin left, and then the baby came, and then Martin was gone.
Sure, she writes. I can do that.
Outside, thunder again, and the house rattles as if it is breaking apart around her. Lightning makes it day again. The water is closer, lapping at the wheels on the tires of her car now. Somewhere beyond, there are houses, but they are great shifting things in the distance, almost like they’re floating away. She can’t see the Something, but she can hear it clacking (are those claws? teeth?), closer to the house than it’s ever been before.
Martin texts again.
You good otherwise? Kids ok?
She thinks of telling him the truth, of him reading it on his satellite phone 8,500 miles away. He would pack up his tent, make his team turn the dogs around. It would take him at least a week to get here. And no matter what he said, he’d hate her for it. She would feel it like a warmth in his skin. She would hear it in his voice. Ask me how you know that, says the small, dark thing inside her. She closes her eyes, imagines a hand around its small, dark mouth.
We’re good. Girls are fine. Baby’s eating well.
Send me a pic when you can.
The baby has fallen asleep and away from her breast, his mouth working at that phantom nipple again. She stands up to take him to the bedroom, and there is a great, uncontrollable giving way inside her, a tremendous warmth between her legs and down her pants, and she looks down. Blood is spreading around her feet in a red plume.
Jesus fuck, she says, and she hurries to the bedroom, puts the baby in his cradle. When she turns around, the blood has become a red snake behind her. She goes to the bathroom and strips again and there’s another great giving way inside her and this time, pain, so much that she feels lightheaded, nauseous. She takes a pair of Martin’s pajama pants from his drawer and her last pair of underwear, her last postpartum pad, and she picks up her phone again, dials 9-1-1. The phone says calling . . . calling . . . calling but it does not connect, so she turns to close the bathroom door because she can’t deal with the mess and there is a mass of red snakes on the floor and she nearly screams, but then she blinks her eyes and they’re gone. She sits down on the bed. Her heart is pounding, pounding. She dials again. The phone says calling . . . calling . . . calling but nothing, and she puts her pounding head on her pillow with the phone next to it because if the call goes through and she doesn’t answer, someone will come. Someone will come.
She is in a boat. It lifts and dips and there is water all around her. She is Huck Finn, she is Ishmael, she is Meryl Streep riding the rapids and the sky is cracking open like a roof above her and there is a great bolt of lightning, thunder, and she opens her eyes. Her phone is next to her, its screen black. She presses the power button. Nothing. Dead. The pain in her head is like someone has cracked her skull open with a hammer. The roof is still lifting away in pieces above her, they are floating off into the sky, but she is not dreaming, she is awake, and close by is a thudding sound, like something is trying to break in. The only thing left of the house is the walls. The only thing above her, the great howling of the wind. She lets a hand fall over the edge of the bed, and there is water there, lapping at the bedposts. She grabs the baby from his cradle before it floats away, straps him to her chest again. She stands up and the water reaches her ankles, warm and black-red, and she’s afraid that all of it is blood, that she is responsible. But there’s water in the blood. She can smell it beneath the copper, the earthiness, and she is relieved. Lightning lights up the sky again, and there is a paw at the window, the Something, unhingeing its jaw. She thinks the thudding is the Something, but then she sees it: a small boat, bumping its bow against the porch.
She gets the girls from their beds, carries them to the front door.
Wait here, she says, and she opens the door quietly. Above them, the wind howls and the pine trees whip around like reeds, but down on the water, it is still, and she wades in, past her car bobbing like a cork, to grab the boat. She can’t see the Something. She puts the girls in, one by one, the bottoms of their nightgowns stained red from where they trailed in the water.
Mama, whispers Laney, this doesn’t look like a boat to me.
Laura climbs in and pushes them away from the front porch and then in the corner of her eye, the Something appears, walking a strip of land that hasn’t yet submerged. She is close enough now to see it, the shine of its eyes, the shimmer of its silver back, the dull ivory glow of its teeth. Laura picks up the oars and begins to row out into the vast dark, into the faraway where, somewhere, there are houses, somewhere, there are people. The blood gives way again inside her, the clots slithering out like black-red fish. In a moment, the blood fills the bottom of the boat, and the black-red fish break over the edge and are gone. The Something watches them for a moment, and then it slips into the water after them, only the silver of its head visible above the surface.
Laura puts one hand on Laney and points toward the Something.
I want you to watch that, she says. Tell me when it gets closer.
Laney squints into the darkness.
Mama, there’s nothing there, she says. She looks up at Laura. Why are we here, Mama? Why aren’t we sleeping?
Over Laney’s shoulder, Laura can see the Something getting closer, closer.
Shhh lovey, says Laura, and she begins to row harder. It’s an adventure.