Mornings were hard for Myra. Many days she huddled under the covers in the pre-dawn hours, clutching a pillow tight to her belly, fighting rising consciousness, feeling the urge to claw with both hands at the soft place above the solar plexus, tear out the snarl of writhing tentacles that formed in the night and grew longer and stronger hour by hour. Relief was imagining an explosion—just behind the rib cage—that place. A slow-motion blast, her innards splattering in a million directions all over the walls and ceiling. She heard the sound, felt a momentary relief from sensation. Sometimes she added a gunshot to the head—more practical and a kind of magical sound. Not as effective, though. It wasn’t her head she wanted to rip off.
If all else fails, was how she thought of it.
This habit had not disappeared with marriage, nor with therapy, though in truth Myra hadn’t mentioned to any of her several therapists the fact that she thought about suicide every day of her life. It hadn’t seemed all that relevant.
“You’ll feel better if you sit up,” was Jason’s observation on many of those mornings. He was right, but that was beside the point. She cherished the idea of annihilation.
Sometimes she played out a fantasy of disappearing, showing up somewhere else—Alberta or Newfoundland (places she had never been but where she was sure you would hear a train in the distance all night long, empty fields for miles and miles). Starting over in jeans and a t-shirt, boots, a backpack but no past. She would have lost fifteen pounds on the journey, arriving attractively waif-like. She pictured the television series—the one about a small town in Alaska, she couldn’t remember the name, with an old lady who ran the general store, and a radio station, and the episode when they catapulted a cow, or maybe it was just a grand piano.
Somewhere like that.
It would be a place big enough that she wouldn’t be noticed, or where the people would be entirely incurious about a strange woman staying at the Motel 6, waiting tables at the Lone Star Diner or Jake’s Truck Stop or maybe the Dairy Queen. Eventually she might rent a room—if she liked the place—and be that somebody else forever—a yearning as deep as it was when she was eleven.
Under the covers, she spun out the story. A bus or train ticket that couldn’t be traced, enough money for the motel, enough to make do for a while without withdrawing from their bank account or obvious charges on the credit cards. Better that Jason should think she’d been kidnapped or murdered than that she’d left him.
Still, they got on fine. Myra was a different person at work, among friends, pretty much all the time except first thing in the morning. And if sometimes she shut off abruptly when she walked in the door after work—felled and silent like a tree downed by a storm—or occasionally in the middle of dinner or faced with the prospect of sex when she hadn’t prepared herself, it was barely noticeable.
The pregnancy surprised them. They had given up on the idea some time back, but there it was. Out of the blue. And as the babies grew inside of her (it was twins, they learned early on) Myra’s first thoughts in the morning were of holding the babies, breast feeding, organic and nutritious baby food, a bigger apartment, a double stroller. Once in a while, if she happened to come out of a dream early in the morning before she remembered she was pregnant, there might be a flicker of dread and the familiar sounds of obliteration—instantaneous, like a default setting that had not yet been erased.
But then she remembered. She was going to be a mother. A mother doesn’t abandon her children. The old images she summoned were flat and lifeless. Sometimes she felt this as a loss. But only for a moment.
The last trimester flew by and they were into the first months of nursing and sleepless nights. Myra was rarely awake without one of them (both were girls) attached to a breast, sucking on her. Their warmth, the sticky oppression of their bodies was often overwhelming, sometimes delicious. Jason was entranced, carried them around the apartment, nestled together on his arm, balanced inside the deep blue ridiculously large terry cloth bathrobe she had given him before they were married. She had imagined him bigger.
She couldn’t recall much about the birth. In the hospital, they encouraged her to deliver vaginally—the babies were normal size, she had plenty of room, they were not late. And so she did, but a wall had gone up around all of it, and while most women loved to talk about their deliveries, Myra drew a blank.
“Was I totally drugged up?” she once asked Jason.
“No, not so much. You did great,” he said.
There were other gaps in Myra’s memory—she was sometimes vaguely embarrassed by how little she remembered from her childhood, bare fragments constructed mainly from photographs. She had been an unexceptional child to look at, had a brother (frequently seen holding her hand), a tremendously handsome father, and a stylish mother in shirtwaist dresses, high heels and bouffant hair holding a long-stemmed martini glass. From these images, she summoned up cocktail parties, vermouth and olives, the taste on her tongue, the glittery darkness of Christmas morning. A tree house her brother built, a large scary closet in one of the bedrooms, broken glass in the fireplace, a green plaid bedspread, her father’s knee, his warm and inviting smile, hand holding out a quarter to stop her crying. Her shame as she wrapped her eight-year-old hand around it.
“Something to look into,” one of Myra’s therapists offered when Myra lost her train of thought for maybe the fourth or fifth time in an early session, gazing to one side, unable to remember even what he had asked, staring at him blankly when he pulled her back with a quiet ‘Myra?’ her head moving ever so slowly as she returned his gaze. They didn’t get much further, and eventually Myra took up transcendental meditation instead.
It seemed strange about the birth, though, so recent.
After Jason went back to work, the days wore on, strange and blurry, full of endless pacing from living room to bedroom, holding one or the other of the babies in front of the mirror, the light, the window—anything to attract and hold their attention. Back and forth Myra paced, jiggling and bouncing colicky Vanessa, pacifier attached to the more placid Jillian lying in the bassinette, naps no more than fifteen minutes long, one or the other of the babies always awake. Feeding sessions that went on and on, punctuated by weak cries of hopeless despair from one or the other of the babies, sometimes from Myra herself.
When the babies were eight or nine weeks old, there were nightmarishly long days when Nessa would not stop fussing well past the time when she might blessedly have been asleep. At the end of one of those afternoons, Myra was in a sort of daze by the time Jason finally came home. He hurried to the shower, promising to relieve her the minute he was out.
When he returned to living room, Myra was standing silent and still, holding Nessa, still fussing, across both forearms out in front of her like an offering. The look on her face caused him to move quickly, closing in on them. In truth, Myra felt merely odd, slightly faint, not thinking at all, her arms just suddenly light and wobbly, then opening ever so slightly, the baby coming loose. Jason had her then. “Okay,” he said, taking Nessa. “Time for a break for mom.”
At the pediatrician’s office one day soon after, the young nurse looked at her strangely when Myra asked about colic.
“We talked about this earlier this morning,” the nurse said gently.
“No,” Myra shook her head, “I haven’t talked to you.”
“You’ve called every day, sometimes more than once,” the nurse said, still more gently.
“I haven’t called. No really,” Myra felt both anxious and defensive. The nurse clearly did not believe her.
“The days can get really long,” she said with sympathy but avoiding Myra’s eyes. “The doctor will be right in,” and she was gone.
Soon enough, though, Nessa was mobile, cruising the furniture, taking her first steps before ten months, happy in the back pack, always busy, Jilly the more contemplative. These were adorable babies, then toddlers—everyone said so. And Myra could see it too, most days, loving them with a fierceness that was overpowering and left her breathless. She cared for them impeccably, only occasionally waiting a long extra minute before checking on them in the bath. Or the time she forgot the outlet covers were missing in the family room or that the child-gate on the stairs wasn’t latched and she had left them upstairs in the hall while she checked on dinner. But sometimes she felt as if she were walking in quicksand or in slow motion—like those dreams about trying to run but not getting anywhere or needing to be somewhere and losing your way over and over.
It was the spring when the twins were two and a half that Myra had the first daydream—Jason hauled off to jail, accused of murdering his two beautiful twin daughters, her the distraught wife in the face of the cameras, weeping, devastated, and Jason in shackles. Like a movie scene on an endless loop, it came back over and over, more detailed and sharper in each iteration—sometimes when the twins were napping, or at lunch time when they were in their high chairs at the kitchen table, mashed sweet potatoes or avocado or apple sauce smeared across their faces and clothes, finding each other’s antics hilarious, talking gibberish that only the two of them could understand.
“Do you need more help, babe?” Jason asked one morning. “Want me to find someone to come in? You seem a little ragged.”
“I’m just tired,” she said. “I nap when they do, it’s all good.”
But he looked at her strangely, as if there were something a bit off about how she said the words. The next day he brought home a flier about a support group for new mothers, pointing out enthusiastically that it was right nearby at the community center, reminding her in practically the same breath about the neighborhood babysitting co-op they could join. Myra nodded, trying to look appreciative. Then one afternoon, she had a call from one of Jason’s co-workers, Jennifer, who said she’d just about gone nuts when her kids were both home and she wasn’t working. Said it made her crazy in the head and wondered how Myra was doing with all of it. There’s an online support group, Jennifer told her—like a chat room, but with a facilitator. I’ll send you the link.
Myra’s thoughts began to twist and turn that summer, with unbidden images inhabiting her mind over breakfast, at nap time, walking behind the stroller. She imagined Nessa falling off the tall wooden climbing structure at the park—from the very top, landing on the sand below. She saw Jilly on the hideous iron spinning thing, slipping on the edge, her head smashed as it spun and spun, never regaining consciousness. She saw herself at the hospital, weeping, waiting for Jason, terrified. Once she imagined a child molester, hiding behind the bushes, grabbing both children, scooping them up, dragging them quickly into his van, speeding off as bystanders held her, screaming, while they called the police. In her fantasy, they were never found, their bodies never recovered, just gone. Horrible fantasies, late at night or first thing in the morning.
Then one day at the park, Jilly—careful little Jilly—slowly climbed the big kid’s slide, step by step, cautiously, all the way to the top, hesitating with trepidation—it was a long way down. With a squeal, Nessa came streaking from the swing set, bolting up after her sister and—in typical fashion—pushed past quiet Jilly, bumping against her with enough force that Jilly was airborne, up and over the edge of the slide, tumbling towards the ground. Myra, standing directly below, reached out automatically and caught her—easily, without a thought. She told the story over and over to Jason that night, giddy with relief she barely understood.
That fall, despite the newfound respite of preschool three days a week, new strange and ugly images crept into Myra’s head frequently. And one day, when the girls were at preschool, she searched out the online support group that Jason’s co-worker had recommended, signing on just to see, calling herself Twisted.
“Hello Twisted from Santa Rosa” the instant response, followed by a chorus of welcoming messages.
Eight or ten women were on the site, with names like Peaches from Bend or Debbie from Philadelphia, Lonely from Austin, Amber from Anchorage, or Barely Managing from St Louis. They seemed to be sharing trials of toilet training, giving each other tips that had worked, agreeing how frustrating it could be, how they had to avoid advice from their own mothers, how their husbands were useless, helpless—or sometimes “He’s so much more patient that I am.”
Myra stared at the screen, not quite comprehending—as if they were speaking a language she had learned in high school but not used since. Nonetheless, she found herself on the site almost daily, though she never posted a comment.
One day it was different.
“Sometimes I have pretty dark thoughts,” a newcomer—Alice from Las Vegas.
“We’d all listen if you’d like to share more about that.” The facilitator’s response was immediate.
“Just dark thoughts, nothing really, they pass. Sometimes I think about doing bad things.”
“Can you say more?”
The screen remained blank.
“Alice, would you like to talk about this offline?” the volunteer asked, “I can send you my phone number. It sounds like you could use some extra support right now.”
Myra watched this exchange closely, but Alice had signed off.
It was three days before Myra noticed that Alice from Las Vegas had logged back on. She sent a private message.
“Hi. I saw you on the site a few days ago. I have pretty weird thoughts, too, sometimes.”
It was another day and a series of messages back and forth before Myra texted bluntly, “I think about hurting my children. Well, not hurting them, actually, just finding a way to get rid of them.”
Immediately, a message came back. “Me too. Like leaving them somewhere. Like Hansel and Gretel—only without the breadcrumbs. No oven, just the long walk through the woods and no way back.”
“I think about leaving the stroller in the mall sometimes. With both of them in it. It’s a double stroller—we have twins. They’re three. How about you?”
“Three and five—both boys. Swimming. I think about swimming accidents.”
“I think about fire. And poison.”
“Antifreeze in their juice.”
“I think about kidnapping.”
“I think about burying them in sand up to their arm pits—hats on to protect their heads from the sun of course—and then just leaving.”
“Sell them on the internet. There are ways. I looked it up once. It wouldn’t be that hard, actually.”
“Trade them for a puppy—a really expensive puppy.”
“Trade them for a case of wine.”
“That’s a good one.”
And for a while, Myra felt normal, making a new friend, sharing silly thoughts, and anonymously. She loved the chat room!
“We could start a club—Mothers for Murder. We can call it MFM for short. An idea a day, the sicker the better.”
“You live in Las Vegas, right?” Myra texted one day.
“No, that’s just my online profile. I’m in Santa Rosa too.”
They decided to meet for coffee on a Thursday in a spot that Alice recommended, out near the south end of town where they would be unlikely to run into friends. It turned out to be a big open space, tables and chairs spread sparsely around—a warehouse where somebody decided to serve coffee. Myra liked it immediately—so blank and cool, all steel and concrete and glass. Soothing. She took her coffee to a table in the corner, watching the door for signs of Alice. She had no description but was confident she would know her on sight.
The coffee was bad, and she was growing impatient as the minutes passed, though she had been nervously early and it was still barely passed the hour.
“Myra?” she heard her name but didn’t immediately register it as no one had come in the door and the sound was behind her.
“Myra?” she heard again and realized there was a presence at her side. But something was wrong.
Looking up, she saw that it was a man who was speaking to her. Slight in build and not tall, dark hair, something foreign about the eyes, but a pleasant enough face. Bland. Pale skin, northern or eastern European features, though it would have been hard to say.
She stared, confused, her mind only slowly taking in the situation, not yet alarmed. He smiled and pulled out the chair across from her.
“Hello,” he said, still smiling.
“Who are you? Where is Alice?”
“I’m Alice,” his tone modest, apologetic.
“What do you mean? Why are you saying that?” Myra felt vaguely alarmed, aware that perhaps she should be more alarmed, but was mainly confused.
His voice was soothing as he explained that he enjoyed the online chat room, enjoyed meeting mothers and offering support and friendship, he was sorry if he startled her, didn’t mean her any harm whatsoever, thought her messages were so clever and fun that he just had to meet her in person.
“Do you even have children?” she finally asked, her feelings verging on outrage but dulled somehow, as if she knew what she was supposed to feel but couldn’t quite muster it.
“Well, not the way you mean,” he responded. “But in another way I have hundreds of children. Like yours. I specialize in children.”
It was a strange thing to say. Myra knew that. Knew she should ask what he meant. Knew, in fact, that she should probably leave, that the deception alone meant that he was not a safe person.
He told her he placed children in homes overseas, children who were so much loved that their American mothers wanted the very best for them. Sometimes he met mothers on the internet. He looked at her kindly, his voice hypnotic in her ear.
Myra wanted to leave, call Jason, the police even, but instead sat motionless sipping her coffee.
“I need to go now,” she finally said, her voice sounding odd, as if it were coming from somewhere outside her.
“Of course,” he said gently. “My number. So you can be in touch if you like.” He passed a slip of paper across the table.
By the time she was halfway home, it seemed perhaps she had imagined it—so blurry in her mind, and not possible after all. She was mainly embarrassed. That was it. She felt embarrassed—how could she possibly explain. And so she said nothing, and within no time it felt like something she must have dreamt.
She didn’t return to the chat room.
“Who’s Alice?” It was a spring morning, nearly the end of the first year of pre-school. Jason was holding a slip of paper, standing at the closet door in his shorts and socks. “Found this on the floor.”
Myra’s gut flinched slightly, though she remained motionless under the covers and her voice came out light and breezy.
“Nobody important. Just somebody I met on the chat line.” She held out her hand, “I might call her some time.”
Jason thought that was a great idea, thought so in a voice hearty with encouragement. “I think it would be great for you to have another mom to talk with,” he beamed as he headed out the door.
Something flickered in the back of Myra’s head, almost imperceptibly and then it was gone. She was having increasing trouble holding on to thoughts, even when she wanted to. She couldn’t think why on earth she’d saved the number but found it was not something she was willing to part with.
It was a Wednesday and the girls were at preschool. They carpooled, and it was not her day to drive, so her neighbor Dee had picked them up early and would be bringing them home later on.
Myra lay in bed and thought about doing the laundry—there was so much laundry. Or cleaning the house. It was littered with toys and dirty clothes, sheets, towels, dishes. Or maybe taking a walk. Or reading something. That would be good.
And suddenly they were coming in the door.
“Myra, hey, we’re here.” It was Dee.
Myra had no idea where the morning has gone. Did she clean? Did she sleep? She couldn’t recall.
But there they were.
The girls ran off to their room, Dee’s four-year-old Mark tagging behind.
Myra glanced around to see that, whatever the morning had brought, it wasn’t cleaning. Seeing it through Dee’s eyes, she was suddenly ashamed.
“Don’t know how the morning got away from me,” she muttered.
“Happens to me all the time,” Dee said, though it was obvious she was lying.
Dee smiled, but she was looking at Myra a little oddly.
“Looks like you’re ready for battle,” she said lightly.
Dee was looking at the knives. Every knife they owned was on the counter, laid out in a neat line. Carving knives, chef’s knives, even the steak knives with the ivory handles that were her grandfather’s and belonged in the dining room.
Myra was perplexed. She couldn’t at the moment think why she had gotten them out.
“Oh, I was cleaning the drawers—can’t imagine how they get so dirty,” she said, “I’d better get those put away.”
“Okay, I’ll see you soon,” Dee was saying, her voice a little tentative, uncertain. But she called her son from the girls’ room and then they were gone.
Myra stared at the knives lined up on the counter, knowing vaguely that something was wrong. Heard the girls squabbling, but the sound seemed far away, muted.
She began to wipe the knives with a fresh white dishtowel. Maybe she really was cleaning? She couldn’t quite remember. She put the carving knife slowly into the wood block, then the chef’s knife. One by one she put them away, some in the knife block, some in the drawer, each in its place—finally the steak knives, sliding them carefully into the individual grooves in the special wooden box that her grandmother had saved.
Myra noticed a steel tool still on the counter. She picked it up to put away, but the feel of it in her hand was pleasant—the hard, cool, smooth curves. She traced the line of it with one finger and thought of mashing potatoes, white and fluffy. Her hand and arm flexed slightly to the remembered rhythm, imagining the smell of oozing yellow butter. Perhaps she would make potatoes for dinner. Maybe sweet potatoes—meaty, fleshy, harder to mash, she liked the red kind, the ones they call garnet. Her mouth watered slightly at the thought of it.
One of the girls was crying, the other calling for her. But the sound came from a great distance and didn’t seem terribly important. Then footsteps, the door opened. It was Jason, smiling down at her,
“Sweetie, what are you doing in here?” Myra saw that she was on the floor of the laundry room, the sheets in a heap under and around her.
“Laundry,” she said after a moment. “There is so much laundry to do.”
“Where are the kids? They go home with Dee?”
His words reached her slowly, one at a time, heavy footfalls muffled by thick wool batting as they landed.
Diane Yatchmenoff has a PhD in social work from Portland State University focusing on the impact of childhood trauma on adults and families. She is a recipient of an Honorable Mention award from Glimmer Train for emerging writers. “Renunciation” is her first published fiction. She lives in Portland, Oregon.