THIS STORY WAS A FINALIST FOR THE 2017 NEIL SHEPARD PRIZE

 
 

The night before Elsa left, she and her husband, Landon, discussed the difference between azure and powder blue. Decisions had to be finalized before she left to do archaeological field work in Italy: shaker style or beadboard cabinets, solid surface or subway tile countertop. Landon knew that Elsa couldn’t quite get herself to care about the remodel. He opened up a catalog for window coverings to the first page he’d dog-eared, and she nodded when he presented the options.

“Honestly, I don’t know if it’s worth it to get the Roman shades,” Landon said, pointing to the glossy catalog page.

“Thanks for being honest.” Elsa smiled, but did not look up from the article she was reading.

“I want to be all moved in before you get back in July.”

“You know it’s not really my thing.”

“What’s not your thing?” Landon closed the catalog. “Being moved in? Giving a shit about what it looks like in our new house?”

“Both, I guess.” If Elsa was surprised to hear Landon departing from his no-swear policy, she didn’t show it. “And who names these colors anyway? Dignity blue? As opposed to Dishonorable Blue?” She picked up the paint swatch and shook her head.

The conversation ended like the ones before it had. Elsa started talking about the dig site and the big-brained people she’d be working with. Landon gave up on eliciting design decisions from her and motioned for her to sit on his lap. The 8,500-year-old remains of someone the excavation team was calling “Witch Girl” were more interesting than paint color or wall texture anyway.

“I still can’t believe Dr. Cline asked for me specifically.” Elsa sat in his lap and reached for her article. “This is huge for me. If the radiocarbon dating pegs her before the 14th century, that means my theory about there being witch trials before Val Camonica is right.”

“What do they think happened to her?” Landon wrapped his arms around Elsa’s middle.

“They burned and buried her before stacking some rocks on top.”

“Well, that’s one way to go.”

She stood up and didn’t apologize after realizing she’d smashed Landon’s toe beneath her rubber-soled slipper. The two slept as crescents that curved away from one another. In the middle of the night, Landon tried to put his arm around Elsa, but she twisted away from him. He slept for an hour or two before getting up, brewing a cup of coffee, and revisiting the window covering catalog.

In the morning, Landon drove Elsa to the airport, and she gave him a surprisingly wet kiss before getting out of the car.

“Pick whatever you want for the house. There’s still plenty of money in the joint account for subway tile or dishonorable blue paint or whatever else you decide on,” she said and kissed him again. “You know it’ll be tough to get in touch, but I’ll call when I can.”

“Yeah, yeah. There goes my wife solving the greatest archeological mysteries of our time.” Landon pulled out her bags and set them neatly beside one another on the curb. It didn’t look like she’d packed enough to last six weeks, but Landon didn’t say anything. He tried to kiss her one last time on the back of her head as she started to walk toward the airport’s entrance, but she was already too far away.

When Landon returned to the apartment, it didn’t feel as empty he expected it to. Even though all of their things were boxed up, it felt bigger in a good way. Elsa’s shoes were put away for once and her all natural body soaps and face creams were packed into boxes. There was a time when he’d resented the fact that she expected him to pack everything up and move it while she was gone. Not to mention coordinate the remodel for the house they’d bought. But when someone’s not working, it’s easy to assume that they will welcome any task. It was better this way anyway. He had planned lots of little surprises for when she got back. He would frame the pictures taken at their wedding the year before, and would finally open up the rest of the kitchen gadgets he’d registered for.

Their Albuquerque apartment was hot, and Landon took his shirt off to keep cool. It felt indecent when he saw his reflection in the window, but he’d take indecency over having a shirt stuck to his body by a sweat adhesive. He went to flip on the swamp cooler and realized that it wasn’t making its usual mechanical groan. Landon and his friend, Neil, had just installed it themselves two months prior, so he knew that it should be working fine. He flipped the switch on and off, tried flipping it to “on” one more time, and gave it a little kick before resorting to finding the user’s manual.

“If this thing isn’t still under warranty, we’re going to have a problem. Right, Eddy?” Landon raised his eyebrows at their pet chameleon that was perched on a fake tree branch in its terrarium. The lizard looked in two different directions and continued climbing the branch. If Eddy was good for one thing, it was serving as the other side of a one-sided conversation when Elsa was out doing field work. Landon had surprised Elsa with the lizard on their first dating anniversary. She’d told him that she’d always had a soft spot for their curled-up tails and downward-turned mouths, which he’d made a note of in his mental list of gift ideas. He was a much better gift-giver than she was, and these days, that was about the only thing he had won in the unacknowledged game of “Who’s the Better Spouse?”

Landon could feel drops of sweat dripping down the inside of his elbow as he searched for the swamp cooler’s warranty and user’s manual. He could picture exactly where it had been before they’d packed everything up. He kept impeccable records and regretted letting Elsa pack up the office. “Most of this stuff is mine now anyway,” she’d said before throwing books and paper weights and ink cartridges all into the same box. Her rock collection had replaced his cover letter drafts; her framed doctoral degree hung where a picture he took of the Grand Canyon once had.

Sharp, small letters identified one box as “miscellaneous.” Landon cut through the tape, and at first it looked promising. He found the information for their new appliances and the instructions for assembling the kitchen table they had bought online.

Beneath those instructions, Landon found a box decorated with blue and brown polka dots. The corners of the box were worn away so that the cardboard insides showed through.

Landon lifted off the lid and saw pictures of Elsa and her brother when she was young. No wonder she had shut the photo album when her mother tried to show Landon photos of baby Elsa. She was one awkward-looking kid. She wore thick glasses that extended above her eyebrows and below the plumpest parts of her cheeks. In one picture, she was holding a turtle in one hand and a protractor in the other. Landon laughed. In a school picture, it looked like she smiled closed-mouth to conceal her braces, and she posed with her flute. Seeing his wife as she was then made her flaws seem forgivable if not lovable. Her mismatched socks and frizzy hair suited her just as well then as her dress socks and groomed ponytail did now.

Four weeks later, Landon woke up to a call from Elsa. It was almost 10 a.m., so he tried hard to sound as if he had been awake before she called. The last thing he needed in this heat was a lecture on how he should have contacted the district again to see if any long-term substitute teaching jobs had opened up.

“Hey sweet—.” He cleared his throat. “Hey sweetie. How’s our friend, Witch Girl, doing?”

“She’s been fully excavated now. First tests will run tomorrow.”

“Let me know once you figure out a date for her. I want to know if you were right. You’re always right when you’re with me, so I don’t see how this would be any different.” She laughed a quiet laugh.

“Did you just get up? What time is it there?”

“Nah, just trying to fix the swamp cooler. It’s almost ten here.” He had given up on fixing the swamp cooler three weeks before.

“They’re expecting me back, but I wanted to call you. It’s worse than I thought it’d be. They could tell that the body had been burned before it was buried, but they don’t know whether or not she was already dead. It was bad even by deviant burial standards. There was a brick-sized stone in her mouth, which the lead researcher told me was used to break her jaw. She was also partially dismembered. I knew about the dismemberment, but Jesus, breaking her jaw? And then just leaving the stone in there?”

“You’ve told me about way worse things than that before. Not to say that isn’t horrible, but I feel like that’s the tip of the witch trial iceberg.”

“I’ve never seen one this intact before. The bones look so small.”

The phone cut out before the two could exchange I love you’s. Funny, he thought. The cell phone connection seemed fine. Landon went back to the miscellaneous box. He allowed himself two pictures of little Elsa a day as a treat for fixing up the new house.

So far, he’d seen pictures of her playing her flute in marching band and posing for her prom pictures. It felt absurd, but he was jealous of the almost handsome boy who had his hand placed gingerly on Elsa’s hip.

He reached the bottom of the box, and beneath a photo of Elsa doing a handstand was a thin, glossy piece of paper that had been folded in half. Landon opened it up, and saw a sonogram. That was an odd thing to give to your kid, he thought, but his mother-in-law had given Elsa lots of things back that he felt a parent should keep. Before Elsa’s parents moved to Palm Springs, her mother had dropped off a box that even included gifts that Elsa and her brother, Danny, had given to her as kids. There was a painting of a reindeer with Elsa’s handprints for antlers and a Valentine’s Day acrostic poem that spelled out m-o-m and d-a-d. But the sonogram didn’t look old enough to be from when Elsa was in her mother’s stomach. A small rectangle has been clipped from the upper left-hand corner. He scanned the sonogram for Elsa’s name or a date, but he didn’t need that information to piece the puzzle together.

There was the tiny pooch in her stomach that she said was from stress. “Cortisol is a stress hormone, and it makes you gain weight in your stomach,” she’d said when she caught him staring as she changed into her pajamas one night. He had believed her because she always had little facts up her sleeve, and she said them all with such conviction that there was no reason to doubt her. She knew the main exports of most South American countries, the gestation period of rhesus monkeys, and the etymology of the word “Mesolithic.”

And then there was the crying. Landon worried that she was having trouble adjusting to life living with her new husband. As his mother insisted, they’d gone the traditional route by waiting until they were married to move in together, and he worried that she couldn’t adjust to having his things mixed in with her own. He knew that there was something about seeing his deodorant next to her hairspray that bothered her.

Landon couldn’t tell if it was the heat or the sonogram that he still had pinched between his fingers, or a combination of both, but he felt sick. He ran to the bathroom and retched. The bathroom was dark, and he didn’t turn the light on. The cold tile felt good on his feet. He splashed water on his face and let the droplets run down his cheeks instead of drying himself off.

The new house had four bedrooms, which is what he had fought for when they were house hunting.

“I don’t want to start having kids and have to uproot and move once we’ve outgrown our house,” he’d said. “Could you imagine having to move with three kids yelling at you the whole time?” The realtor had taken Landon’s side, and Elsa had trouble making her case. “I at least get my own room,” Elsa said, arms folded across her front as if she were a child refusing to give in without the sense of being granted a small concession.

His sickness shifted from shocked nausea to excited nausea, and he ran to the bedroom to get his phone. He knew that Elsa didn’t do well with accusations, so he decided to lead by telling her that everything was going to be okay. He’d say that he wasn’t mad that she hadn’t told him since he knew she didn’t feel ready to have kids. He called twelve times, but left no voicemails. Elsa was not the type to check a voicemail before calling back.

Landon looked at the sonogram again and tried to make sense of the image. It didn’t look like a baby; it looked like the entrance to an oblong cave with one small sphere nestled inside.

He compared it to ones he found online to get an idea of how old the baby was, but without knowing when the image was taken, there wasn’t much use trying to see to figure out its age. His search was interrupted by a call from Elsa. She sounded panicked.

“There’s another one,” Elsa said.

Landon’s throat tightened. “Jesus. Twins?” He was relieved that she was the first to bring it up and worried that something had gone wrong. He’d already started to search online to see if constant crouching, inhaling dust, and other archaeological work hazards could be bad for a baby.

“What? No. Another deviant burial about two kilometers from the excavation site. Luckily, they had an archeologist on site during the development of a new industrial building.”

“Oh, well I’m happier with one anyway. At least to start off.”

Elsa didn’t respond for a moment, and Landon listened to her breathe, each breath its own sigh.

“I’ll have everything, and I mean everything, ready by the time you get back,” he finally added. “The most important thing for you to do right now is relax as much as you can, get your work done there, and come back home.”

“Yes, well there’s a lot of work to be done now. Anyway, they’re calling for me.”

Landon wondered how much more Elsa was showing now. He smiled at the thought of her cargo pants getting a little too tight around the waist. He pulled out the paint swatch and started to look at different shades of yellow for the nursery.

In the two weeks that passed, Landon rarely heard from Elsa, and when he did, their conversations were quickly interrupted by a faraway voice saying that Elsa was needed for something or another. She sent him a lot of emails, though, mostly articles about deviant burials, the plague, and the witch trials of Val Camonica. Learning about what she was doing made him feel closer to his wife, so he printed all of the articles out and read them carefully.

One morning, he saw an email sent after an article about the nearby burial and one about Dr. Cline being honored by the Archeological Institute of America. “I’m sorry,” the subject line read. Landon expected an apology about how little Elsa had contacted him. He expected her to say that she felt badly that he was doing all of the work on the house. He expected to be relieved once he read the apology; the little pebbles of resentment that he could feel in the pit of his stomach would be washed away. But when he opened the email, he saw something else.

“I lost the baby.” He read the four words over and over again. They looked especially cold above her signature automatically attached to her emails: Elsa Hutchings, PhD, The University of New Mexico. Without thinking, he went to the nursery to find the sonogram that he’d framed and tossed it into the trash bin next to Elsa’s desk. Before calling Elsa, he fished the sonogram back out of the trash. Instead of greeting him with a hello, she answered by saying, “I’m sorry.”

“Are you okay?” Panic crawled up his throat, made him choke on his words.

“I didn’t know how to tell you. I wanted to do it right, buy the baby hiking boots that look like ours and surprise you when I got home. I wanted me to be the one who was ready.” She was crying, and it was the second time he’d her cry. The other time was when she wasn’t allowed to work on a project because of a torn ACL. She had seemed just on the verge of crying when he’d proposed, but they were outside, and it was hard to see her eyes behind her sunglasses.

“Are you okay?” Landon repeated. He wiped a smudge from the sonogram’s frame.

“My body is fine.” Her cries softened. “When I found out, it was right before I left, and I could only imagine a group of cells multiplying inside me. I couldn’t see a baby that would have your eyes and my hair and your patience and my persistence. I couldn’t see the daycare or the little socks that look like shoes or the cloth diapers. It was just cells, and then when it was all over, it was just cells again.”

“The baby would have been beautiful and smart like you. It’s okay to think of it as a baby. It’s okay not to. I want to reach through this phone and hold you.”

“I wish you could. I love you.”

Landon cried for what they had lost. After hanging up, he let what he’d learned settle into each of his cells. The crib would need to be disassembled and returned. The yellow painted over.

He asked Neil to come help him move a few days left before Elsa would return. He’d painted the walls in the new house white and planned to hang some of their wedding photos—one that pictured her kissing the top of his head and one of her giving the flower girl a piggyback ride—up on the east wall. The disassembled crib still sat in the corner of the room.

Neil picked up the sides of the crib and walked to the truck.

“Is this what I think it is?”

“Oh yeah, just load it up in the truck.” His eyes flitted from side to side as he thought of what to say. “It was a gift from my pushy aunt. Did you ever meet my aunt Leslie?”

Neil looked confused.

“It’s a hand-me-down.” Landon used the line that Elsa had whispered to him when her father had made a gross joke about what would happen on their wedding night. “Apparently, getting married means people can start telling you to procreate.”

The two unloaded the rest of the boxes and drank two beers as if the conversation they’d just had was one about sports or the weather or something else that friends talk about when they’re moving boxes.

Once Neil left, Landon started to unpack the boxes, but couldn’t get himself to return the crib. He’d gotten such a good deal on it that it seemed like a shame to get rid of it. What might it look like when it was assembled and there was a baby inside of it? The baby might wear a blue striped onesie and roll from side to side. Maybe she’d chew on her toes and stare up at a nautical-themed mobile. Maybe it’d be a he, and he’d try to escape once he got old enough. Landon would want to get the baby monitor that connected to your phone to prevent such an escape. Plus, Elsa liked getting the newest gadgets. He smiled thinking about what could happen.

Getting ready to pick up Elsa from the airport felt like preparing for a first date. Landon put on the navy sweater he knew Elsa liked him in, brushed his teeth, dumped out some crickets in Eddie’s tank, and brushed his teeth again.

He was ten minutes early, but didn’t want to risk her coming outside and not seeing him, so he drove in slow circles around the airport. It was hot and abnormally humid, and he blasted the AC so that it’d be more comfortable for her. He was glad that she didn’t have to suffer in the hot apartment with him. The AC in their new house worked great, and he had it programmed just how Elsa liked it. She liked to be colder at night so that she woke up with a cold face and a warm body. As Landon drove in circles, he started to feel like some things he’d chosen for the house were wrong. He knew Elsa would like how he’d organized all of the spices and that he’d gotten a comfortable couch to replace their old one. But he worried about the window treatments in their bedroom. The curtains were too dark, and she might think it felt like a cave. He talked himself back into liking his decisions for the house after the sixth or seventh lap. Each choice had been made with Elsa in mind, and she would know that.

On the fifteenth lap around, he saw Elsa’s luggage before he saw her. She had a wide-brimmed hat that she must have bought in Italy. The style of the hat clashed with the t-shirt she was wearing. As Landon got closer, he saw that the t-shirt fit looser than it did when Elsa left. He’d anticipated seeing her stomach look as flat as it did the day they got married, but the sight still made him feel dizzy. He stepped on the brake without realizing it. The heat rising up off of the asphalt made a mirage that made him feel like he was in a dream. He watched his wife scan the cars in front of her to find his, and he wondered what could be the right thing to say. People behind him started to honk their horns, which drew her attention. She waved, and he couldn’t get himself to wave back, so he nodded instead, mouth still agape like a cartoon character.

He got out of the car to help load her bags, and nearly fell over when she swung her arms around his shoulders and wrapped her legs around him. She squeezed him so tightly, he could hardly catch his breath.

“Honey,” he wheezed.

“I just missed you.” She slid off of him and put her bags in the car. “God, it’s hotter than Hades here, but it’s good to be back.”

On the way to their house, she talked and Landon listened. Someone on the flight had gotten drunk and made her get up so he could go to the bathroom six or seven times. Dr. Cline might be leading another project, but he wouldn’t know if it’d get funding until the next summer. Landon could hardly get a word in. He held onto the steering wheel tight, and accidentally cut someone off. His mind felt like it was floating somewhere outside of his body.

When they got to the house, Elsa tried to slip inside first, but Landon edged her out so that he could give her the tour and describe everything he’d done.

“Nice and cool in here!” her cheerfulness unsettled him. She kicked her shoes off by the doormat, and seeing something more of her there felt good. She rushed in front of Landon and started to explore, pulling out drawers and opening cupboards.

“What do you think?” Landon followed her as she moved from room to room in something between a walk and a skip.

“Great. Just so great.” He wondered if this was her usual brand of sarcasm, but her smile seemed real. When she got to her office, he could feel her whole body sag as she spotted the crib. She pointed at it and then crossed her arms.

“We can get rid of it, but eventually, we might—” He tried to read her, but she didn’t move.

“It was just a really good deal. I can put it in the garage.”

Elsa uncrossed her arms, walked to the crib, and ran her fingers along one of the slatted pieces.

“Keep it,” she said. “I want to keep it.”

 
 
Photo by HousingWorksPhotos

AnnElise Hatjakes

ANNELISE HATJAKES is a current MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Nevada, Reno. Prior to pursuing her MFA degree, she earned a master's degree in writing. She currently lives in Reno, Nevada, where she teaches English.

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