Something to Find Me
by Jennifer Wortman
I couldn’t lock the bathroom door and I couldn’t open it. The door swung free, revealing an old woman, small and glaring, in the hallway, her hair long and dark as a girl’s. She wanted me dead and I started to scream. A hand grabbed my shoulder, shook me awake.
My husband had an uncanny ability to sense my nightmares, all the more remarkable because he’d slept soundly. After he died, he stopped rescuing me. I’d thought that whatever magic had led him to me in sleep would persist in his death, for magic that ceases in death is no magic at all.
But now, at last: his hand. I reached for him and found only my t-shirt. Still, he’d left a soothing icy-heat that drifted from my shoulder to the center of my chest, where it spread everywhere I needed it.
After that night, I tried to have more nightmares. I ate strange foods before bed. I swallowed herbs I couldn’t afford. I prayed like a fundamentalist. I visualized scary images: Bees in the hair, snakes on the floor. The spewing skeleton my husband had become. Such thoughts only kept me awake.
In the mornings, after getting the girls to school, I took walks. I was looking for something, or looking for something to find me, something that would change the nature of things. I wove through side streets, past historical landmark houses and houses that were just old, big new houses, apartment complexes, mobile homes. Above all, I avoided routine, the factory it made of space and time.
One day, I saw the woman from my dream. From a distance, she looked like many other women in our town. But up close, her features stunned: dark, drilling eyes, cheekbones sharp as chef knives, a wafer-thin mouth.
“Hello,” I said.
She nodded and passed.
“Wait!” I said. She turned, startled, suddenly the frail old woman she was. At a loss for what to say, I panicked and, with breakneck speed, took her picture. We both froze in place, until her face moved from surprise to rage, and I was back in my nightmare. I clutched my phone and ran, past the town homes and trailer park, beyond the flea market and the new set of shops, until I came to our street and hid inside.
That night, I printed the picture of the woman and put it next to my bed. Certainly she’d experienced worse than her encounter with me. But wasn’t there something threatening about taking someone’s picture? There’s a reason it’s called “shooting.”
If my husband had been there, he would have absolved me, and I would have rejected his absolution.
After he’d become too weak to leave the house, too tired to read or train his eyes for long on a screen, I printed pictures for him: sunsets, mountains, animals. I kept his favorites in a stack on the foldout table next to the hospital bed that filled our living room. I brought him pictures after he stopped knowing what they were. “A sunset,” I’d proclaim. I wanted to shake his shoulder and wake him from his nightmare, so he could wake me from mine. I wanted a man whose shoulder I could shake without hurting him.
Now I stared at the woman in the picture and prayed. I fell asleep, and she entered my head and stood outside my bathroom and glared. Then she grabbed my neck and squeezed my tendons as if they were loose rope. I woke up on my own, gasping. A hand, like darkness gloved, bloomed over me, reaching.
Jennifer Wortman is the author of This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love., a story collection forthcoming from Split Lip Press in 2019. Her work appears in Glimmer Train, Normal School, DIAGRAM, The Collagist, SmokeLong Quarterly, Brevity, Hobart, and elsewhere. She is an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and an associate fiction editor at Colorado Review. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.