Sally has been feeling tired again lately, but she’s not sure if it’s her problem resurfacing or if it’s her father dying. Either way she’s concerned. Especially since she started seeing the shadow in the corner.
She first saw it last week after she came out of the bathroom. It was standing in the opposite corner near the head of her father's bed, unnaturally tall, incomprehensibly dark. She looked around to find the source that cast it but there was nothing.
The shadow’s appeared every day since. She took solace in the fact it was always in the same spot. It must have been cast from something in the room, something she couldn't see.
Her father is asleep now. It's his liver. His skin is yellow like he's wrapped in parchment paper. He looks terrible. He looks like he should already be dead. He would be if he weren't so stubborn. He’s not afraid to die he just doesn’t want to give in. Doesn't want to be beaten.
"Dad it's okay," she says to him. "It's okay to let go."
"Nonsense," he'll say.
Part of it, she's sure, is that he doesn't want to leave her, though they've been estranged for years. Ever since her mother died. Then Sally went to live with the woman she called her wife. Her father didn't approve. It didn't bother her. She never took to her stepmother, an exceedingly boring woman named Amy Butterfield.
Amy was by the hospital this morning. She looks the same as she did ten years ago, her plainness preserved despite the passing of time. Sally resents Amy now. She doesn’t know why.
Sally goes into her bag and takes out a book. When she opens it, she sees letters bleeding together, words that make no sense. This happened the last time, too.
After her wife left, she spent some time in the hospital herself. Exhaustion. She didn't know what she was so tired for. All she knew was that she couldn't focus her eyes. She wrecked her car. Drove it into a ditch. They put her on medication. She’s been taking it ever since.
Her father stirs. He opens his eyes and takes a dry, hollow breath.
She gets him a cup of water. He drinks it. She refills the cup and sets it down on his bedside table. He doesn’t say thank you.
He says, "I'd like some pudding."
"Okay," she says. "I'll go to the cafeteria. Chocolate?"
"I'll be right back." As she leaves the room, she swears the shadow looks at her.
The hall is flush with fluorescent light. When she closes her eyes she sees shapes move before her like dancing ghosts. She’s starting to get a headache.
The cafeteria is empty. She looks for vanilla pudding but they only have chocolate. She doesn't know what to get instead. Her father is prickly and unpredictable. She gets a vanilla yogurt and a chocolate pudding. She empties out the chocolate pudding into the garbage and wipes the container clean with a napkin. Then she spoons the vanilla yogurt into the pudding cup.
This is easier than dealing with her father's dissatisfaction. It’s too heavy. The weight of it had always fallen on Sally’s mother, causing her shoulders to slope forward. When she died, her spine looked like a wire hanger. She was proof that loving someone can be detrimental to the development of good posture. Sally swears it's what killed her, that and all the cigarettes.
By the time she gets back upstairs, her father is asleep again. The shadow is still there. It stands in the same place, not paying her any attention.
Some time passes and her father wakes. He eats the yogurt.
"This is some truly awful pudding," he says.
When the doctors say that there's nothing more they can do, Sally takes her father back to his house. At first, he's reluctant to go. She suspects it’s because he knows he's being sent home to die. But he hates hospitals as much as she does so he relents. Amy is happy to have him home. She knits him a new blanket.
Sally makes a cup of tea and brings it to him. He looks small in his bed. She sets down the mug on his nightstand.
As she's leaving, she sees it. The shadow. It's in the corner near the closet. She doesn't bother to look around to see what's casting it.
She comes back later to check in. The room is empty. Her father’s in the bathroom running the faucet. Something smells like rotten fruit. There's an empty pudding cup next to his bed that's gone sour, but it's not the source of the rotting smell. She decides to change her father's sheets. As she starts to take them off, Amy comes in and says, "I'll take care of those."
"Do you smell that?" Sally asks her.
Amy pauses, lifts her nose up, and inhales, "I don't know what you mean."
"You don't smell it?" she asks. "What is that?"
Amy shakes her head. She doesn't smell what Sally smells. Amy steps closer to her and whispers, "It might be your father. Don't let him hear you. I don't want him to be offended."
Sally nods but doubts it's him. It doesn't smell like a person. It smells like food that's long past expiration. It occurs to her that her father is long past expiration. Maybe it's all the same.
Sally’s wife was named Margaret, but she went by Greta. They first met at a bar in San Francisco. Sally was just passing through. She traveled a lot after her mother died.
Before then, Sally had only allowed herself a vague suspicion that she was gay. For a while, she even thought she might be asexual, too damaged by her parent's lousy relationship to ever establish a loving one of her own. But she felt compelled, so she bought Greta a gin martini and they started talking about how neither of them much liked animals.
"I guess that makes us evil bitches," Greta said.
"I guess so," Sally said.
They went home together that night and were rarely apart after that. They lived in Seattle for a while before moving into Greta's family's vacation house in Napa. Sally didn’t have a job and spent most of her time at home.
The only problem was that the house was haunted. They'd been living there for a few months before she worked up the nerve to say something.
Over dinner one night she brought up her grey sweater. She could have sworn she hung it in the closet but that morning when she came downstairs it was set out on the rug in the living room. She asked Greta if she had done it as a joke.
Greta laughed, "No, must be the poltergeist."
Sally didn't say anything else but thought it explained a lot. Once she was upstairs in the bedroom and heard a noise like all of the dishes in the kitchen had fallen onto the floor and shattered. She rushed down to the kitchen but when she got there all of the dishes were safe in the cabinets. Another time she was setting the dining room table when one of the chairs flew back and hit the wall. She tried to dismiss these things as they happened. She didn't want Greta to think she was crazy. But the sweater was the final straw.
Greta changed the subject and they didn't speak of it again, but the idea of a poltergeist instilled a paranoia in Sally that was hard to shake. She was no longer able to take the happenings in stride or write them off as tricks of her imagination. She would wake up in the night in a cold sweat and watch as the covers were dragged from her body by invisible hands. She would be cooking in the kitchen and the faucet would turn itself on. She would be standing in her closet getting dressed and her shoes would walk themselves across the floor. Everything felt hostile, malevolent.
Then she fell down the stairs.
"I didn't fall. It pushed me!" she said, after Greta picked her up from the doctor. Sally had fractured her wrist in the fall.
"What pushed you?" Greta asked.
"The poltergeist," she said.
"Jesus Christ, Sally! I was kidding!"
As far as Greta was concerned, there was no poltergeist. There was never a poltergeist. Sally unraveled. Greta told her, '"I think you should move out. I think you should get some help." She said she thought Sally was still grieving the loss of her mother. They split up.
That's when she started getting tired and her vision went. That's when she got into the accident, when she went to the hospital and they put her on the medication.
Sally sets her bag down in the guest bedroom. She'd rather not stay over but her father had a rough day and she's not sure he'll make it through the night. She wants to be around in case he goes. She doesn't know why she's so invested. It's not that she doesn't love him. She does. But only in the sense that he's her father. It's a responsible type of love, an obligatory love. She doesn't know if that makes it any less sincere. He's the only family she has left; Amy doesn't count.
The next morning she's surprised to find her father awake and in good spirits.
"Sally," he says, "you want to make me some pancakes or what?"
She goes to make the pancakes but Amy takes over.
Sally returns to her father's room, ignoring the shadow looming taller than ever in the corner.
"Amy says she'll make them," she says.
He groans, "Damn. She makes them dry as hell."
Amy brings in the pancakes. Then she leaves to wash the dishes. Sally and her father drown the pancakes in maple syrup and eat them without speaking.
She marvels at how endings have such mass. She felt it with her mother, she felt it with Greta, and she feels it now. The inescapable significance of the moment, slow and measured, somehow familiar, as if it's a scene you've rehearsed over and over again only you'd forgotten all about it until just now. As if it was always going to happen this way.
She’s always known. The endings are out there waiting. They are patient. They know that we will come. And we do. We go to them, not because we are loyal or obedient, but because we must.
And if we're ever to forget, if we ever veer off course or try to resist, they send the shadows.
She wakes from a nap. The taste of maple lingers in her mouth. It’s freezing cold in the guest room, and her breath escapes like a tumbling frost. She cocoons inside the blankets. Maybe she’ll go back to California after her father dies. Somewhere warm, somewhere west. She drove through Utah once and remembers the dry heat, the ruthless sun, the endless stripes of orange landscape, like the surface of Mars. She wonders what it would be like to live there. Not Utah, Mars.
She considers moving to the desert. She wants to go somewhere too hot for restless spirits, where they can’t rise from the grave without evaporating into mist. She pictures a studio apartment filled with cacti, with a window air conditioner and lots of natural light. Maybe she’ll adopt a cat.
Her eyelids are anchors. She gets up to make herself a cup of coffee. She goes to check on her father. She stops in his doorway. The shadow is gone.