Emmaline and Alander
by Brooke Bartleson
When Alander was happy, he liked to skate, feeling the wind in his hair as he rolled down the sidewalk.
But ever since his wife left, his skates collected dust on the shelf above the bed.
After a year of loneliness, Alander drank a microwaved cup of coffee, placed the empty mug on the counter, took up his handgun, and shot himself in the head.
He immediately woke as a child on his parents’ bed. He had been asleep for fifty minutes. The sun was shining.
* * *
In an apartment by a river that arched and city lights that sighed, Emmaline was crying on the floor of her shower in her black and blue dress. She was ripping apart from the inside. She was lonely... she’d taken up her sewing scissors and made a party of paper people. She poured herself some wine, and they sat and talked. It wasn’t long before they started to bicker, and they crumpled Emmaline up and threw her out.
Now the water fell hot on her skin and washed off the mascara and blush she donned for her paper acquaintances, but it did not wash away what was wrong inside her brain. She took the scissors and dragged them across her wrist, sawing through skin... and veins... and muscle... The shower went dark around her, and the blood that washed away down the drain did not change the color of the water in the ocean.
Slowly, Emmaline opened her heavy little eyelids. She was wrapped in a towel and her head rested on her mother’s lap while she gently dried Emmaline’s ears with a Q-Tip. Her mother had just given her a bath. It was Wednesday; she didn’t have kindergarten on Wednesdays. The sun was shining.
* * *
The children lived a block apart, their street wound around the edges of an oak forest.
Emmaline was good at smiling, she was good at playing by herself, and she was good at playing with other kids at school. She was especially good at reading; she never stuttered or mumbled when Mrs. Bryant asked her to read aloud. She was good at art class and singing, and could count to veinte in Spanish when the other kids could only count to diez. She was good at talking to adults and looking them in the eye without blushing.
Alander was good at small things, like buttering his toast and stacking the plates neatly when he unloaded the dishwasher for his mother. It was big things like talking to people that gave him trouble. That was why, the first time he saw Emmaline at the bus stop, even though he knew, he waited for her to say something first.
She was busy watching the clouds though, and it took four days for her to notice the quiet boy at the bus stop with her. He got tired of waiting, of knowing and not being able to say a thing. He coughed, she didn’t hear. He sneezed. He sneezed louder. “AAAAACHOOOOOOOOO!”
She turned around, and as soon as she saw him, she knew, too. She stared at his head. “How come there is no hole?” she asked.
Alander stepped toward her, scuffing his white sneakers against the sidewalk. He took her hand in his, and he was surprised when his thumb brushed the puckered cicatrice on her wrist, even though he already knew it was there.
“I keep my hair long,” he said, and guided her index finger inside the cavity just above his left temple. “It goes deeper than you expect it to.”
“Did you tell your mom?” Emmaline asked.
“What was broken, Alander?”
“I don’t know.”
* * *
After school, Emmaline wandered the woods with her purple book bag across her back and her school shoes in her hands. Her bare feet were bathed in leaves and dirt; there was sunshine in her hair. The wind shook the boughs overhead, there was a faint autumn chill to the breeze as it pulled at the lose tendrils of Emmaline’s curly hair. Emmaline hastened through the woods, trying to ignore the cold that climbed up from her bare feet to her calves.
Alander waited for her, standing beneath the other kids’ tree fort, his hands were warm. His fire engine red roller skates were slung over his narrow shoulder. He watched her weave through the trees.
She saw him watching her. She smiled a Jack-O-Lantern smile. They climbed the other kids’ tree fort, and Emmaline sat down on the sloped wooden platform. Alander hung his skates on a branch and sat down on his feet beside Emmaline.
Emmaline unzipped her purple book bag and took out the fundraiser catalog the children were meant to show their parents. She rolled over and lay on her belly, her skinny legs bent at the knee and crossed at the ankle.
Alander leaned forward and studied the prizes with Emmaline, each of them circling the ones they liked best with colored pencils. The air turned from crisp to cold, and the children knew they should be heading home soon.
Alander stood and waited as Emmaline slipped the catalog back into her backpack, pulled her sneakers on and pushed a loose stand of hair behind her ear.
Emmaline always wore a blue ribbon. Alander decided to ask her why. “To hold my hair in place,” she said.
Alander had another question. “Will it be different this time, Emmaline?”
“Will what be different?” she asked.
“You know... Everything...”
“I don’t know Alander, I don’t remember.”
* * *
The cavity above Alander’s temple got smaller as his brain got bigger and his arms got stronger, and the line across Emmaline’s wrist got shorter as her legs got longer and her breasts swelled.
Alander was in orbit around Emmaline. The pull of her bright smile and legs drew him in. He wanted to crash-land on her surface.
Emmaline did not want to talk to Alander anymore. She did not search for him in the woods after school, she did not wait at the bus stop anymore, she drove her second-hand Ford to school instead. She saw him watching her in the cafeteria, and told him they should just forget about it, the secret that they shared. She said there was nothing wrong with her, she would never do that, and it was probably just some childish nightmare.
“Emmaline, how do you explain the scar?” Alander wailed, when she told him to forget about it. “How do you explain the hole, Emmaline? How do you explain it?”
* * *
Emmaline sat staring at the screen. Alander’s text invited her to coffee. She thought for a moment and clicked delete. She preferred tea anyway.
Alander wrote a love letter in chalk on the sidewalk outside Emmaline’s house. The rain washed it away just as she arrived home from dinner with her boyfriend.
But when, on a whim, Emmaline said yes to prom that spring, Alander’s life changed forever.
* * *
Emmaline wore a black and blue dress to prom. Alander slipped a blue flower corsage over her thin white wrist, covering the almost invisible silvery scar.
The school cafeteria was transformed to brilliance and dazzle. Faux crystal chandeliers glistened, black and white tile shone, couples sparked. Clustered throughout the room were giggling young ladies, self-conscious in their delicate dresses and fine corsages, self-important with their smartly dressed dates with their handsome boutonnieres.
Though for years she had paid little attention to her escort for the evening, Emmaline absent-mindedly ran her fingers through Alander’s long wavy hair, her index finger gliding over the hardly discernible crater where something deeper had once been. Has he always been so handsome? she wondered.
The night swirled on, and dance by dance the room grew hotter. The faint tang of sweat blended with girlish perfumes and borrowed aftershave lotions. Elegant hairstyles began to crumble and cheeks were noticeably flushed. Alander suggested they step outside, to escape the cafeteria’s nauseating heat.
Along the hall and down the stairs, small groups of girls giggled together, whispering over plastic cups of punch. Emmaline and Alander slipped through the door and into the dark.
Emmaline shivered lightly, and for a moment she thought Alander might take off his jacket and slip it around her shoulders, the way heroes did in the romantic novels Emmaline liked to read. He did not; rather, he said something that caused her to look towards the sky.
He reached gently for her hand, hanging lightly by her side. She stiffened slightly as he ran his thumb horizontally across her wrist. He flipped it over so that he could see her pale forearm. He lifted it towards his mouth, bending his head so that his lips met the cool gap of skin between her corsage and palm.
She watched his dark head bow to kiss her wrist. She did not pull away. Instead, she reached up with her other hand; again she ran her fingers through his hair, feeling for the indent just above his left temple.
After a long moment, he stood and looked at her. “If it was just a dream, how do you explain the scar, Emmaline? How do you explain the hole?”
“I don’t know, Alander, I don’t know.”
* * *
Emmaline leaned up against Alander’s locker after last period. Strands of yellow hair escaped from her hair tie and curled against the nape of her neck. The small heel of her leather boot dug into the maroon metal, and her body shook because she was laughing at something Alander said.
Alander slung his skates across his broad shoulder.
Emmaline slipped her hand into his, and did not react when his thumb traced the hairline scare across her wrist.
Dream or not, Emmaline was glad he knew.
* * *
Emmaline giggled, bouncing on the bed self-consciously, naked save for her UNH graduation cap. Alander sat across from her, the blue and white tassel hung and bobbed in front of her eye. The card and flowers Alander brought her sat atop her dresser, her white dress and graduation gown discarded haphazardly across the floor. She ran her fingers though his dark hair, cropped short as per New Hampshire State Trooper uniform requirements. The cavity she had once slipped a finger inside was no more than a shallow dimple; a grave freshly filled with soil.
* * *
Alander skated down the sidewalk toward home. The blurred buildings gave way to green oak trees, whizzing past as he neared their modest split-level house just a few blocks down the road from the houses they had grown up in.
Emmaline was still at work, twisting her hands excitedly beneath her desk.
“Well? Lets see it!” urged her coworker, who squealed and applauded animatedly when Emmaline showed her the Tiffany diamond ring, “Oh Emmaline, it’s beautiful! Have you picked a date?”
* * *
Emmaline sighed, wiped the back of her hand across her sweaty forehead, set the paintbrush down and took a sip of her lemonade. Blue spatters of paint covered her face like freckles and spangled across her swollen belly.
Alander smiled; she had never looked prettier. He rubbed his paint-covered hands together and placed them on her stomach, pulling away in surprise when he felt the first kick, leaving behind two perfect blue handprints on either side of the bulge.
Later, Emmaline lovingly slipped the paint-stained shirt between two panels of glass, preserving forever the moment Alander’s hands felt their son kick.
She hung the framed shirt on the walls of the freshly painted nursery.
* * *
Emmaline stood alone for the hundredth, maybe thousandth time in the gloomy, rectangular room wringing her hands, tears brimming in her bloodshot eyes. Her finger traced the gap of flesh where her scar had once been.
The air hung coldly and wore the pallor of neglect. The blue-and-white striped walls had turned gray from time and moisture, fading and peeling in places.
A never-ridden rocking horse rested beneath the window, its kind black eyes seemed grateful for Emmaline’s brief company.
On the adjacent wall a dust covered frame hung along one side.
The room smelled musty, like the ghosts of four unborn children, and long-settled dust.
* * *
Alander practiced each conversation on the porch before going inside. He learned over the years that it was the secret to dealing with his wife’s more and more frequent dark moods. When he entered the house, the first thing he did was open all the shutters to let in a little more light during the day, because their couple’s counselor had told them that might help alleviate her depression.
He heard her car tires crunch against the gravel driveway. Car door slammed. Keys in the lock. He braced himself. Emmaline was home.
* * *
“They laugh at me and whisper lies about you inside my head, Alander.”
“Who, Emmaline, who does?” Alander asked his wife, his voice shaking, his stomach churning, hating to see her this way.
“Our children, Alander, our sons!”
“No, Emmaline, we have no children, there is no one there,” he shouted at his wife, but his heart ached, because he knew she could not hear him over the voices.
* * *
Emmaline stood at the edge, looking down. Still as a statue, gazing toward the pavement far below. Her bare shoulders, fine and pale beneath the moonlight were indistinguishable from the white cotton of her shirt. She ran her fingers across her stomach. Her blonde hair, almost silver in that moment, haloed around her head in the wind, blonde curls escaping to caress the nape of her neck. Emmaline tightened her muscles and prepared to jump.
Before her feet could leave the ground, she craned her neck and looked up instead.
Perhaps the children are lying, she thought in a rare moment of clarity, perhaps he’s just late leaving work, not running off with someone else. Children lie, sometimes. Yes, children lie. She stepped back and started home, shame crawling over her like a plague.
* * *
“Emmaline, I love you.”
“I don’t believe you, it doesn’t sound like you mean it.”
“Emmaline, I LOVE you!”
“OK, then put the knife down.”
* * *
For a while they walked together, and Alander held her hand. But as she moved closer toward the darkness, he had to let go. He watched from afar as she descended into her own Hell.
* * *
The evening passed uneventfully, an oasis of peace in the storm their life had become. Alander sat in near silence through supper with Emmaline, but he appreciated the meal spent in her company, if only because he knew it would be the last.
After he had eaten, while Emmaline swept the dishes off the table and scrubbed them in the sink, Alander went upstairs. He walked down the hallway, stopped to close the door to the decaying nursery, went into the bedroom and began to pack.
He filled his small suitcase, sat down at his desk, and tried to write a letter of farewell to his wife.
He could not put pen to paper. Instead he put his head in his hands. Instinctively, his finger found the now completely smooth spot where the hole had been. He remembered the times her finger explored beneath there.
Tucking cold feet onto the desk chair while Emmaline made her way up the steps, Alander promised himself things would be different this time.
* * *
Emmaline tossed back the covers.
Something had woken her. She sat up furtively, careful not to disturb Alander. She sidled across the clean yellow sheet and placed her feet, one beside the other, on the cold wooden floor.
There was no light for her to see by, but she was drawn down the hallway to the deserted nursery.
She sat down on the floor beside the lonely rocking horse, tucked her nightdress around the tops of her pale knees, rested her cheek in the cup where one white knee met the other, and listened to the children’s voices in her head.
Much later, Alander roused when he could not feel her next to him. He sprang out of bed and crashed into the hallway, knowing he would find her in the decaying nursery.
He saw the pale yellow light spilling out along the floor, and pushed the door with one hand, preparing himself as it swung open for whatever fit of grief gripped his wife’s broken mind this time.
Stepping across the threshold, Alander found the room empty. Hundreds of paper dolls littered the dusty floor, a paper mockery of a child’s birthday party. Cold dread crept upward from his kidneys when he saw something sparkling amidst the macabre gathering of paper people. He reached for the solitary piece of jewelry, and wailed when he recognized the Tiffany diamond ring.
* * *
After a year of loneliness, Alander brewed a cup of coffee. He left it standing on the shelf beside his dusty skates; he would reheat it when he returned home.
Alander got in his car, drove to the pawnshop, sold the ring, and bought the handgun.
* * *
In an apartment by a river that arched and city lights that sighed, Emmaline spun and giggled in front of the mirror, her pale frame draped in the blue and black dress.
The sewing scissors waited patiently on the shelf.
Copyright © 2014 by Brooke Bartleson