Writings: Release

[TW: Death of a Parent, Failed Pregnancy Attempt, Talk of Self-Harm]

I wrote this many years ago after two failed IVF attempts with my spouse, during which one of my parents (survived) a bout with cancer. I wanted to reconcile myself to loss--both the upcoming one I foresaw when my parents died, and the loss of dreams and the future I'd planned as I acclimated to the fact that I was infertile.

I sometimes tell anti-choice trolls that I lost "thirty babies" during IVF, which is not incorrect per their worldview, as thirty fertilized eggs stopped developing one by one. But though I don't feel like I lost thirty children--and am squicked out by fundies who insist I'll meet my excessively large brood in heaven--I do feel I've lost one child. Not a child I carried, but a child I'd planned a future around and towards. This story is my farewell to that child.

This is also a ghost story, which seemed fitting for October and All Hallows' Eve.


The pillow cost two hundred dollars after taxes.

Shannon had never paid two hundred dollars for a pillow--had never paid more than twenty dollars for one, best she could estimate--but the cost would be worth every penny if it would soothe the constant ache in her neck and shoulders. She hoped to god the pillow would help, if only because she dreaded having to box the thing up and trying to coax the mail order place to take it back. She bit her lip anxiously as she looked down at the blue-and-white box and the blissfully-resting blond model smiling up at her; she hadn't remembered to ask if she'd have to pay the return shipping costs. She probably would.

During the two weeks it had taken them to box up her online impulse purchase and haul it down to the shipping company, Shannon had furiously debated with herself whether or not to tell Mike about the pillow. It wasn't that they couldn't afford it; they were lucky to be in a place financially where a two hundred dollar pillow could be absorbed fairly painlessly into the monthly budget. She wouldn't be able to buy any other luxuries that month, but it would be worth it if she could finally get a good night's sleep.

But Mike had a bad habit of treating things like expensive pillows and monthly massages as nothing more than luxuries, and Shannon didn't want to deal with explaining her health problems in detail to her husband all over again. It wasn't that Mike didn't care, it was just that it was hard for him to constantly remember that she was in pain. Pain was a hard concept for people who didn't often experience it. At least, that's what Shannon told herself. So as much as she hated keeping secrets, it would be easier to hide the pillow than to try to explain it.

She'd been obsessively checking the tracking number for the past four days, conscious of the need to get home before Mike on the day of delivery. When the item had been marked as delivered late that afternoon, she'd ducked out of work with a hastily mumbled excuse and sped home. She'd rushed around the house in a flurry of clandestine activity: slicing open the box, emptying the contents onto the bed, and racing up the steps to the attic to hide the box under a pile of old quilts. Once she knew if she was keeping the pillow, she could break down the box the next time Mike went out of town on business and bury the cardboard shreds at the bottom of the recycling bin. Then the trip downstairs again, to slip the pillowcase off of the old and on to the new, before stuffing the old pillow under the bed behind the extra blankets.

Once the pillow was safe from discovery and the inevitable uncomfortable questions that would follow, an anxious flutter set in her stomach. Would the pillow actually feel like a two hundred dollar pillow, or had she been duped into another miracle cure that wasn't? Her hands clutched the paper booklet that had been included in the box, and she scanned her eyes over the instructions. Open the flap on the side, pull out the tiny air chamber tube, twist the dial. The pillow would automatically fill with air, and the level of air would adjust as she lay her head on the pillow. Once she found her ideal comfort level, a twist of the dial would close the air chamber and the pillow would stay at that level of inflation forever.

Shannon frowned at the words "lifetime guarantee" cheerily emblazoned on the bottom of the brochure, but reached over with a sigh to twist open the little copper tube peeking out from under the pillow case corner. A soft, sucking sound issued from the pillow as it started to inflate, expanding gently to fill the pillowcase. While the pillow was inflating, she would go start dinner for Mike and try not to let her hopes get too high. She needed to manage her expectations so she wouldn't be too hurt when it didn't work and she had to send it back. That was the important thing.

That, and hiding the instruction booklet. Shannon stashed it in the bottom of her sock drawer before heading to the kitchen.


That was the first night Shannon dreamed of the baby.

She'd been relieved when Mike had fallen asleep almost immediately after rolling into bed, his deep snores signaling that he was dead to the world. Shannon patted his hand fondly before settling her head gingerly on the new pillow. The pillow had been firm, but the soft sigh of air by her right ear told her that the air chamber was adjusting slowly to her weight. At least, she reflected, this was easier than trying a dozen different pillows while lying on the floor of the department store. When the pillow seemed the right level of softness, she reached up and twisted the valve closed. She shut her eyes and embarked on an extensive internal evaluation--how did her neck feel? what were the shoulders reporting?--that lasted a few minutes before she drifted into sleep.

When she opened her eyes again, Shannon was confused. She was sitting up in bed, the darkness around her complete except for the soft glow of backyard lights bleeding around the window blinds behind the bed. Mike wasn't in his spot beside her, but that wasn't unusual; he often got up in the middle of the night to sleep in the guest bedroom or on the sofa, claiming her rhythmic breathing kept him awake. He always came back before morning, and Shannon had long since gotten used to his migratory sleeping habits. No, what confused her was that she felt unusually awake and alert. She often woke at night to use the restroom, but she was groggy when she did so, barely a step above sleep walking. Now she couldn't understand why she was awake at all: strangely, she felt no pressure on her bladder, and the house was completely still and silent. Why wasn't she asleep?

Shannon turned on her side, intending to lower herself back down and try for sleep again when her eye caught the unmistakable shimmer of light on skin. There beside her on the bed, was a baby. A tiny infant no more than a few weeks old lay with its head resting on Shannon's pillow, its bright alert eyes staring up into her own. Shannon felt her breath catch in the back of her throat as she mindlessly scrambled a few inches away from the tiny creature. As she moved, her eyes stayed locked on the baby who stared at her unblinking. Wide eyes were framed with soft, long lashes. Shannon hardly knew why she should be so terrified, but her heart pounded.

It had to be a dream. Yet it was unlike any dream Shannon could remember experiencing. Every detail of the room was crisp and sharp. Her vision was clear, not muddled with the blinding haze that so frequently accompanied her dreams. She even felt awake: the bed was real underneath her; she could feel a fold of her sleep shirt pressing uncomfortably into her thigh; and the back of her throat was ever so slightly thirsty. Shannon couldn't remember ever having a dream where she felt thirsty.

And yet, here was a baby. A baby with a soft sheen of curly fuzz on its head. Tiny fists clenched together. Tiny thumbs ended in tiny fingernails that seemed to gather all the meager light in the room just long enough to reflect it back at Shannon. A baby with bright brown eyes that looked so precisely like Mike's own warm eyes watched her quietly and seemed to trace over the features of her face. And now the dream really was blurry as tears sprang to Shannon's eyes.

She'd dreamed about babies before, of course. In the weeks leading up to the in vitro fertilization treatments, they'd been happy dreams full of promise and expectations and excitement. In the weeks after the failure, they'd been sorrowful nightmares full of disappointment and loss. Faces faded in and out of her subconscious, choppy amalgamations of the facial meshing programs she'd played with, back when she'd sought a computerized prediction of what her and Mike's baby could look like. Back before she'd had to say goodbye to the baby that hadn't lived even long enough to get a single sonogram picture.

None of those dreams had been like this one. Those dreams had been concepts, experiences, and events that she'd had to say goodbye to. Never before had a live baby invaded her bed to stare up at her. Shannon reached out, and felt warm skin under her tentative fingers. She stroked gently up one leg, her fingers halting when she reached a simple cotton onesie that was an exact duplicate of the one her mother bought and then had to return. Not for a second did the baby take its eyes from Shannon's face. Cautiously, Shannon offered a finger to her, surprised at the sudden dreamy realization that the baby was a her. With a wide smile and a soft cooing noise, the baby grasped her finger tightly in one small hand, and excitedly pumped her other fist in the air, windmilling with obvious happiness. In a single movement, Shannon swept the baby into her arms and held her tightly to her chest, feeling as though her heart might burst from the emotion that suddenly roiled through her.

When Shannon awoke the next morning to the sound of running water, she buried her head in her pillow and sobbed quietly until she heard Mike step out of the shower.


Shannon stumbled through her work for the rest of the day feeling like a zombie.

Physically tired and emotionally exhausted, she listlessly moved numbers around a spreadsheet, trying to herd them into the semblance of order and clarity that she herself lacked. After the first few hours of the morning failed to result in productivity, she popped out to the company restaurant to buy another coffee and spend an hour hiding in the women's restrooms. Not for the first time in the past few months, Shannon was grateful no one seemed to know or care terribly much about her job. As long as the numbers were turned in at the end of the month, no one would notice if she went through a few nervous breakdowns in the meantime.

When Mike called her unexpectedly at noon and asked if she wanted to meet for lunch, she managed her first real smile for the day, hoping that the sound of it would carry through to him on the other end of the line. As she asked him for a rain check, she could hear the relief in his voice; Mike was far too busy at his own job to take time for lunch. She'd known that, that was why she'd declined in the first place, but she was touched he would even offer. Yet her mood was spoiled the moment she hung up the phone when the realization hit her that the offer must mean he'd heard her crying while he was in the shower that morning.

A fresh wave of guilt sloshed over her, a depressingly familiar feeling by now. Shannon eyed the phone and wondered if she shouldn't call Mike back to find out for certain. Was it just the crying? What if she'd said something in her sleep? Wearily, she dropped her head into her hands and rubbed her face. Calling him back wouldn't make things any easier for her, and would only stress him. Whether he'd heard her or not didn't matter, she told herself; he knew she was sad, and why, and the offer was simply his way of trying to help. She didn't need to feel so guilty over it, it didn't help for her to do so, and yet still she'd wanted so much to be... better. Stronger. She should be, after all this time. She should be like Mike.

Mike hadn't wanted a baby. He hadn't not wanted it, either, he just didn't care one way or another. He'd left the decision up to Shannon. Shannon, who'd wanted one since she was a little girl playing with dolls. Shannon, who'd frightened away her fair share of dates in college by telling them right away, right from the start, that she wanted children. She hadn't been trying to scare them off. She'd just wanted to be honest. For Shannon, the decision--once left up to her--wasn't a decision at all. There was only one way she'd ever wanted to go.

In the beginning, back when they'd thought it would be easy and they didn't know the first thing about in vitro fertilization, Mike had joked that the best case scenario for him would be if Shannon never had any kids. Then, he said, he could have her all to himself. Later, after everything had gone horribly wrong, Shannon could read on his face how much he regretted saying that, though he never brought it up. But she didn't blame him; it wasn't his fault that his wish was granted when hers wasn't. If anything, it was a relief to not have to carry the extra burden of his disappointment on top of her own. Shannon didn't think she could cope if Mike was the one dreaming of babies and waking up bawling. He was the strong one. She was the one trying to be strong.

And failing.


Shannon had hit her stride, or as close as she felt she could reasonably come, after her fourth cup of coffee.

She'd managed to turn out three imminently due spreadsheets and had sent them to her boss just in time to receive a rewarding pat on the head via email before he left for the day. She knew she should be grateful he hadn't noticed how listless she'd been that day, but she was too dead tired to feel anything more than a flat relief that the day was over. She'd managed to do her work and now she could leave. Shannon drove home slowly, hoping that the blinding rays of the setting sun would keep her awake enough to reach her destination.

On her way home, she called Mike from the road and asked him if he wouldn't mind picking up dinner. "I don't think I'm up to cooking dinner," she confessed over the phone. He'd cheerily agreed and promised to pick up pizza, but Shannon had felt the familiar guilt once he'd hung up. Good wives didn't make their husbands pick up takeout. Good wives made meals from scratch. It was no use wondering where this latest tidbit of guilt had come from, as Shannon's father had dutifully collected takeout for her mother every Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon of their married life. Wherever the expectation had come from, the important thing was that it was here now to keep Shannon company. She added it to the mental list of things to fix when she was feeling better.

It was a relief that night to roll into bed. Her new, expensive pillow cradled her head and Shannon realized that she'd forgotten entirely to evaluate her neck and shoulders for any improvement throughout the day. She'd remember to do that tomorrow; a decision had to be made before the return policy expiration date. Which she still hadn't bothered to look up, but was probably thirty days. Weren't return policies always thirty days? Shannon wondered if the policy would start from the day of the order, or the day of the shipment, or the day of arrival.

Behind her, she felt Mike's warmth as he snuggled into her and wrapped his arm around her waist. She wanted to say something, to tell him how much she loved him, but her eyes were already drooping closed as the weariness she'd been fighting all day closed in on her. With her last moment of consciousness, she squeezed his hand, hoping that he'd understand the depth of appreciation she longed to convey. Her eyes closed.

When they opened again, she was awake. She was alert. It was night.

And there was the baby next to her, just as before.

The tears that sprung into Shannon's eyes this time were tears of frustration. She was tired, so tired. She stared at the baby as bright eyes stared back at her, and all she could think was how much she didn't want to be tormented with this thing that she couldn't have. "Why?" she asked it, but it just stared back at her, its tiny left foot bouncing softly in the dim light of the room as if swaying to a beat Shannon couldn't hear. "Why are you here?" Shannon persisted. The infant smiled toothlessly at her, its pink tongue soft and wet and impossibly real.

Shannon couldn't bear going through this again, another night-long dream cradling a baby she'd never hold. She inched backwards off the bed, her eyes locked on her tiny tormentor. Once on her feet, Shannon paced the room, trying to trick herself into waking up. If she walked in tight laps around the room, if she pinched herself, if she jumped up and down ten times fast, she should wake. But the laps and jumping jacks made her legs cramp and the pinching didn't do anything except hurt. She didn't feel any closer to waking. Throughout it all, the baby watched her silently, wide eyes following Shannon around the room like a puppy waiting to be picked up.

She knew it was a dream. Shannon knew the baby couldn't be real, that she was just a trick of the imagination. But she looked so vulnerable propped against Shannon's pillow, gurgling quietly as she patiently tried to stuff both fists in her mouth. She didn't want to hold this baby she couldn't have, and at the same time she couldn't think of anything she wanted more in the world. With a sigh of defeat, Shannon climbed back into bed and gathered the little girl back into her arms.

The tears she blinked back in response to the baby's delighted grin came spilling out of her hours later when she awoke at sunrise.


Shannon dreamed of the baby every night for the next three weeks.

The first few days after the dreams, she woke crying. Sometimes the tears were gut-wrenching sobs that left her ribcage feeling bruised and beaten. Other days, the tears streaked quietly down her cheeks in long rivers she couldn't contain. Every day, her eyes were swollen and puffy from crying, and her nose ran raw until even the sight of a tissue made her flinch in pain. Still the dreams came. After the first few days, she started waking to Mike's arms around her, his quiet strength enveloping her while she cried tears she didn't attempt to explain. Shannon was grateful to be held and thankful he didn't ask why she was crying. She didn't think she could explain, not even to him. How could she, without him thinking that she was having a nervous breakdown?

She wondered if she was having a nervous breakdown.

At work, she staggered through her daily tasks, hoping the dark circles underneath her eyes didn't show through her makeup. She created and rehearsed plausible-sounding excuses for why she was so tired, why her eyes were so red and swollen, but no one ever asked. More than once, she fell asleep in the company restroom, waking with a start when she slumped against the cool metal cubicle wall for support. Nobody noticed her long absences from her desk. They were busy with their own work, and if anyone saw that Shannon was struggling to stay awake, especially in the late afternoons when her eyes would close and her chin would drop to touch her collarbone, no one commented on it. A few months ago, she would have been hurt by such obliviousness from the co-workers she had considered to be her friends. Now she was only relieved; whatever was happening to her, she didn't want to talk about it.

After a week of dreams, Shannon stopped crying. She wasn't sure if she reached some sort of adrenaline high from sheer tiredness or if she simply ran out of tears, but one morning she woke without crying and it no longer even seemed necessary to be sad. As exhausted as the dreams left her, she realized it was almost a relief to know they weren't going away. She had been distraught at the prospect of being teased with a baby she could never have, but now it seemed the dreams were actually giving her a baby. She couldn't share it with Mike or with her mother or with the rest of the world, she could only see it at night in the pale light of the moon, but it was there and it was hers. This baby was hers now, and all she had to give up in order to keep it was sleep.

Shannon wondered if this was what madness felt like.

When she closed her eyes every night, she knew she would open them a few moments later to the sight of the baby girl. She would reach out for the girl and draw her into her arms. The baby girl would smile at Shannon, her bright eyes following her every movement. Shannon would sing to her, or rock her, or simply lie on her side next to the girl, tracing her fingers in intricate patterns over her perfect arms, legs, tummy, and face. Shannon stroked her hair, kissed her cheeks, and tickled the little soft spots on the backs of her arms and legs. All the while, the child would kick and wave and gurgle and chuckle, utterly enthralled with Shannon's attentions.

Shannon couldn't imagine a deeper sorrow or a greater joy than being with her baby girl for the few hours given to them every night. She longed for the dreams to stop, to leave her in peace, for her to go back to her normal life at work with her friends and home with her dear husband. Yet she couldn't bear the thought of the dreams leaving her, for her to give up her dream of a daughter all over again, and possibly for good this time.

Wasn't a few hours of her life spent every night with the baby girl she'd always wanted better than nothing at all?


When the hospital called to tell Shannon her mother had died, she had to ask the nurse to repeat herself three times before she understood.

She didn't know if it was exhaustion from having not slept for three weeks in a row, or if her incomprehension was simply the result of being unable to believe what she was hearing. Her mother, who had been the picture of health in every way, was suddenly and unexpectedly gone. It didn't seem possible. Shannon had spoken to her on the phone that morning, and she'd seemed perfectly fine--if a little concerned at Shannon's increasingly obvious exhaustion. Now she was gone?

At the hospital, Mike asked the doctor all the questions Shannon was too dazed to form on her own. The doctor explained that a fast acting cancer had grown in her mother's body since her last yearly physical. She wouldn't have felt any pain or obvious symptoms besides some recurring headaches. The doctor looked at Shannon when he said this. Shannon nodded numbly, feeling some sort of response was required from her. No, her mother hadn't complained of any recent headaches. Yes, her mother wasn't the sort of person who would go to the doctor over some headaches.

The doctor shook his head, looked aggrieved at this information. Shannon felt she was floating, and wondered what would happen if she stood from her chair and slapped him. Did anyone go to the doctor over a few headaches? Beside her, she felt Mike grip her hand in a sympathetic squeeze. There were more questions to be asked, but Shannon felt only exhaustion. Answers weren't going to bring her mother back, and the only questions she had were things the doctor couldn't tell her. Her mother, the one she most needed to talk to, was gone. "Take me home," she whispered, and Mike nodded. He would call the doctor later, he said, right now his wife needed to rest.

They drove home in silence. Shannon leaned her head against the car window and looked out at the bright scenery as it whipped by. It didn't seem right. The world shouldn't be sunny, the grass shouldn't be green. Her mother was dead, her best friend, one of the few people in the world who really loved and understood her. The trees should drop their leaves in mourning, the grass should turn brown, the sky should be covered in black clouds. Shannon clenched her eyes shut, but the setting sun shone redly through her eyelids.

When they pulled into the garage, Mike shut off the car and turned to look at her. "You need to rest," he told her, and Shannon wondered when Mike had begun to look so concerned and pale. Was that because of her? She felt a twinge of guilt, but was too tired to feel any thing more. "Please go lie down?" he said, and since it sounded like a question, she nodded. He looked a little relieved at that, and added that he would call her office and tell them she wouldn't be coming in tomorrow. The words flowed around Shannon like the tide, but they didn't affect her. She headed to the bedroom, wondering if rest was even a possibility anymore.

In the bedroom, Shannon stopped and frowned. Through her haze of exhaustion and sadness, she could see the cat lying on her pillow, staring at her defiantly for daring to come home so much later than usual and without offering treats as an apology. Shannon tried to work out why this scene bothered her so much, before jumping forward to shoo the startled cat off the bed. Her air pillow! As expensive as it was, she didn't want to have to replace it just because the tabby decided she needed a new place to sharpen her claws. Though it seemed pointless to worry about in the face of everything else falling down around her, Shannon couldn't shake the feeling that this one small thing was at least something she could maintain control over.

She lifted the pillow in her arms and pressed on it gently. She couldn't hear the sound of escaping air, and hoped that meant there were no leaks. Still, the cat's weight seemed to have readjusted the pillow somewhat, and Shannon wondered if she shouldn't refill the pillow. She hadn't done so since that first night she received it. Carefully, she pulled out the little air tube and twisted the valve open to hear the soft whoosh of air as the pillow filled in her arms. Then she lay down and twisted the air valve shut, sealing the pillow and closing her eyes.


It was the same dream, and yet not the same.

Shannon was sitting up in bed, as always. The room was dark as usual, yet sharply outlined by the light seeping in through the window blinds. She felt as awake and alert as she always did. But when she turned to see the baby girl beside her, she wasn't there.

She felt panic rising in her chest as she looked around the room. Her baby girl was always there, had never been anywhere else except by her side, head and shoulders reclined back against Shannon's pillow. Now she was gone, but the dream was still here. Shannon didn't think she could bear that.

When she scanned her eyes around the room again, Shannon realized that she was not alone. Sitting in the rocking chair they kept in the corner of the bedroom was her mother. Her outline was frail and small in the dim light, but the cut of her hair, the details of her hands, the outline of her face: these were all things Shannon knew intimately by heart. Her mother, down to the last little detail, was here. She held the baby girl in her arms, rocking her gently while she looked down at the infant with the deepest tenderness in her face.

"Mother?" Shannon barely dared to breathe the word. Her mother was dead. Hadn't the doctors told her that her mother was dead? Or was that the dream and this dark dreamscape the reality? The woman in the rocking chair looked up and smiled the smile that had always belonged to her mother.

"Shannon." Her voice had all the warmth and depth of her mother's voice. "She's such a pretty girl." She smiled at Shannon before returning her adoring gaze back to the infant. "Who is a pretty girl?" she cooed to the baby. "Who looks just like her mommy? Well, except for the eyes, of course," she said, and she quirked a smile at Shannon, in the way that her mother always quirked smiles at her. "Those are Mike's eyes, I'd stake my life on it." She lifted the girl up and bounced her on her knee while the baby chortled merrily.

"Mother." Shannon's voice felt hoarse. "Mother, they told me... you died." Tears leaped into her eyes on this final, horrible word.

The woman who looked so much like her mother lay the baby gently in her lap and looked at Shannon with the saddest eyes her mother ever wore. Shannon recognized that look: it was a look that carried hurt for Shannon, the look her mother held when her daughter was hurting. "Yes, dear," she said quietly. "I died."

Shannon stared at her. "Then how can you be here?"

Her mother gestured at the infant in her lap, now industriously trying to grab her own foot to guide into her mouth. "The same way my granddaughter is here with you, dear."

"Your granddaughter..." Shannon's voice trailed away as she stared at the baby. Hadn't she already been thinking of the little girl as hers? Yet she'd never once considered that the child was anything more than a persistent figment of her imagination, a gift of her dreams. Not a real being of flesh and blood. She struggled to keep her voice from breaking. "Do you mean... she's the one I lost? The one I couldn't carry?"

"Oh, Shannon." Her mother's eyes were full of surrogate pain again. "She's not lost. She's right here."

"But she's gone, just the same." Shannon felt tears building, the lump thick in her throat. "Just like you."

The woman who was her mother looked down at her own feet for a long moment. "I know. I'm sorry."

It was woefully inadequate, yet Shannon knew it was all her mother could offer. "Are you going to stay with me? Like she does?" she nodded at her baby girl, whose eyes were locked up on the grandmother she'd never had a chance to know.

Her mother hesitated. "That's up to you, dear," she said. She looked at Shannon and her eyes held hers. "We're happy to stay here with you, but... I think you'd be better off letting us go."

The anger rising in Shannon wasn't rational or fair. It wasn't directed at her mother, but rather at the universe that would take her mother and her daughter from her in the space of a few months. It wasn't something that her mother--who she might never see again!--should have to deal with. It wasn't something Shannon would want to remember hurling at her in these final moments. But anger seeped into her voice anyway, a flat spitting, "Why? Why would you think that? How could you imagine I'd be better off?"

The woman who had been her mother and would always be her mother gave her a look that said she didn't blame Shannon for her anger. And under the tenderness of that look, all the guilt and fear and sadness that the anger had been holding back could not be held back anymore. Tears streamed down Shannon's face as her mother's soft voice pierced the haze of pain. "Sweetheart, look what it's doing to you. I know you want to be with me, and with your daughter. But you can't live two lives. No one can. Eventually something is going to give."

"Then I want to be with you!" The words were a moan, a little girl crying for her mother. "If I have to make a choice, I want to be with you and with her!"

Her mother rose carefully, balancing the baby girl on her hip, and crossed the room to embrace her. Shannon felt herself sink into the hug, inhaling the warmth of her mother and the scent of her skin. She cupped her hand to Shannon's face. "I know you do, dear, but we have an eternity together in the after," she said, smiling softly. "Let us go ahead now while you and stay here with Mike a little longer. We weren't given a choice whether or not to leave, but you have a choice to stay. Please let us go on ahead."

Shannon stared up at her mother, then at her baby girl. At those bright brown eyes that were Mike's through and through. When she could stare no longer, she choked back her tears long enough to ask. "How?"

Her mother smiled at her, the smile that said she was proud of Shannon and always would be no matter what. "Just open the pillow, dear. Open the pillow and let us out."

Shannon woke crying.


The funeral home opened early in the morning.

Mike agreed to take Shannon there, though he'd tried to talk her out of going so soon. She'd insisted, her throat hoarse and voice dull, and he'd given in when he'd seen she would not be deterred. On the drive, Shannon could feel him looking worriedly at her. She wondered what she would ever be able to say to convince him she was alright. Maybe there was nothing that could be said; maybe she never would be alright.

Maybe they would have to wait and see.

The funeral director was kind, an older woman with silver hair who smiled sweetly when they entered the cool building. She ushered them into the room where Shannon's mother was being held, before withdrawing discretely with instructions to let her know if they needed anything at all. "Can you give me a moment?" Shannon asked Mike, and he studied her for a long moment before squeezing her hand and following the funeral director, leaving Shannon alone in the quiet room with the open casket containing her mother.

"Mother," she whispered, but stopped when she couldn't think of what more to say. A thousand things needed to be said, a millions words fought for control of her voice. Every single bit of it deserved to be said, yet every single bit of it was utterly inadequate. I love you. I'll miss you. I need you. And lastly, I'm sorry.

God, she was so sorry. For so many things.

Before she could lose her nerve, Shannon lifted her mother's head and lay her luxury air-chamber pillow, the one that cost two hundred dollars and boasted a lifetime warranty, behind her head. As her mother sank back against the memory foam of the pillow, Shannon reached into the pillowcase and untwisted the tube. A soft hissing sound permeated the room as the pillow gently expelled its contents. When the sound finally died away, Shannon twisted the open copper tube firmly enough to snap off in her hands. The valve could never be locked again, the contents could never be sealed away for forever.

Shannon stared at the copper that rested in her palm, wondering if she'd done the right thing. She kissed her mother's cheek, gave her one last long look, and walked out of the room, pocketing the little tube as she left. "Can you take me home?" Her voice was low, unwilling to break the silence of the funeral home. "I'm tired."

That night, Shannon rested her head on her old pillow. She felt the twinge in her neck and shoulders return, and moved about the bed restlessly looking for just the right spot to be comfortable in. Beside her, Mike waited for her to get comfortable before he settled his arms around her. His fingers kneaded her neck as she settled into place, and she felt the ghost of a smile steal across her face, a moment of rare and undiluted happiness. This man could never understand her pain, yet he tried his best to relieve as much as he could. She sank into his warm arms and closed her eyes.

Shannon slept dreamlessly and woke with the same smile still on her face.


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