There was an absence in the house.
Cressida could feel it, an ache in her bones, a deep hollow in her chest. She shivered, pressing the memories back into the depths of her mind. Her eyes burned, and she blinked hard, breathing unsteadily.
The baby fussed in her arms, driving away the last of Cressida’s spiralling thoughts. Softly murmuring nonsense, Cressida rocked the child, who yawned widely and stuck a tiny pink fist in the air. Cressida cooed and leaned forward, kissing the hand. She smiled down at her son, who stirred again and returned abruptly to sleep.
Cressida didn’t know what time it was. The hours blurred together like running watercolours, night flickering into day and back into night again. She pretended it was simply because of the baby, because her schedule had been usurped by the newborn, but she knew it was more than that.
The baby was sleeping now, mouth slightly agape as unknown dreams swirled behind his eyelids. Cressida placed him in the cradle with painstaking slowness, the infant not even stirring. The mother straightened. Her chest felt cold without the child in her arms, and she rummaged through her closet until she found a sweater. It was an old hoodie, a vestige of her days in Photography Club at university, and it didn’t fit as well as it had when Cressida was younger, but the fabric was thick and warm, armour against the absence.
She could still feel the hollowness. It shrunk when she held the baby, caved in on itself until she barely noticed it, but every time she put the child down, it blossomed larger at her core.
Cressida peeked back into the nursery. The child lay where Cressida had placed him, cut into pieces by the smooth white bars of the cradle. It had always bothered Cressida, the similarity between cradles and cages, but she found she cared less than she had before. The cradle was a small place, a cozy place, safe from the wild whims of the world. Her baby was safe.
She descended the stairs to the kitchen, leaning heavily on the polished wooden bannister. The hardwood groaned beneath her, and Cressida startled at the noise. Andrew had always joked that the floorboards had been possessed by an eldritch being that made strange noises in the night, probably to distract her from her queries about renovation.
The hollowness ached.
The kitchen was dim, illuminated only by what little sunlight managed to crawl around the edges of the blinds. Cressida made her way in the semi-darkness, her hands flitting from cupboard to kettle to countertop. It was a dance well-rehearsed, and Cressida barely thought as she prepared the tea. Chamomile, sugar, water, patience—all the ingredients she needed. Cressida was just bringing the mug to her lips when the phone rang.
She flinched. Would the sound wake the baby? But no—the nursery door was closed, and the child was a heavy sleeper when he wanted to be. The phone’s peal rang through the silent house, twisting like a knife in Cressida’s ears. She sat at the kitchen table, eyes still trained on her tea, but the phone continued to ring, discordant and piercing. Cressida waited until it finally fell silent, and moderated her breathing again. There was anxiety prickling in the base of Cressida’s skull, knocking on doors in her mind she did not wish to open. She squeezed her eyes closed, savouring the darkness. It helped, sometimes, to ignore the world, but only when she could forget that the emptiness had taken root inside of her.
Cressida abandoned the tea and rooted through the basement until she found a bottle of wine. It was Pinot Noir, and Cressida poured it into a plastic cup, watching as the deep, burgundy liquid rippled and rose toward the cup’s rim.
She liked the way the shadows cast doubt on everything. Cressida could have been young or old, her face obscured from the stubborn threads of sunshine. She could have been holding a cup of something else—grape juice, maybe. She tried to ignore the way the dimness made the dark wine resemble blood.
Cressida stared at the empty chair across from her and downed the wine in one long gulp. She deserved it, didn’t she? It had been nine months since she’d been able to drink, after all. Cressida might have been day drinking, but who was to say? Her house was its own world, dark and quiet and—
There was a loud knock at the door.
“Cressie?” A voice called. “Cressie, are you there?”
Cressida stiffened. Her body was heavy, glued to the chair by imagined gravity.
The knocking became pounding, and Cressida cringed at the drum-like bursts of sound. She rose slowly, the chair tugging at her like a magnet. Barely registering her own movement, Cressida crossed to the front door. It was an eternal journey. She passed the mantel, cluttered with framed photographs and cartoonish cards from the baby shower. Half of the pictures had been turned around to face the wall, their images firmly out of view.
She passed the coffee table, where her old Polaroid camera sat. How long had it been there? Weeks, at least. Cressida could remember how childlike Andrew’s excitement had been, waiting for each picture to emerge.
The door was still throbbing with the knock, the voice still calling for her. Cressida unlocked it and turned the handle, swinging it open with unwilling fingers. Sunshine spilled into the entryway, blinding and irreverent. She shielded her eyes, blinking first at the brightness, then at the woman on the doorstep.
“Willow?” Cressida asked. Her voice was hoarse, catching on the name.
“Cressie.” The woman’s voice had turned from insistent to nervous.
Cressida stared at her. Willow’s hair was shorter than it had been, and dyed black. It should have been brown, like Cressida’s. But the face—the face was the same, if a little more weathered than it had been. There were freckles scattered across Willow’s cheeks, and the premature laughter lines that Willow had somehow had since they were teenagers.
“Cressie, are you all right?” Willow was staring back at Cressida, her forehead creased. “I know—I know it’s been a long time, but...well, you’re not answering Mom’s calls.”
“I don’t answer the landline,” Cressida murmured. “It’s all telemarketers.” But it wasn’t. It hadn’t been a telemarketer that day, that last day.
“Well, she says she’s been getting voicemail on your cell, too, and you haven’t answered her texts. I texted too...” Willow fidgeted. “Nobody’s seen you since you left the hospital, and we were worried.”
Cressida pushed her thoughts back down. “What do you care?”
Willow cringed. “I’m your sister. Of course I care.”
Cressida turned away and made to close the door. Willow lunged forward, wedging her body into the doorframe.
“Cressie! You can’t shut yourself away! I know that it’s hard—”
“You have no idea.”
“Please, just let me in!”
The hollow place pulsed in Cressida’s chest. Her hand fell slack from the door, and Willow slipped inside, closing it abruptly behind her. The newcomer squinted in the darkness.
“What are you doing like this?” she asked, reaching for a light switch.
Cressida’s eyes watered as Willow flicked the lights on, flooding the living room with yellow-toned light.
“I’m fine as I am.” Cressida’s throat was still rough. “I don’t need—I don’t need you to return to my life, not after all these years. You don’t even know me.”
Willow glared at her. “Don’t criticize me for having dreams.”
“I’m not. I’m criticizing you for hightailing it to New York and ghosting me for five years.”
There was silence. Sweet, beautiful silence that wrapped around the sisters, the Polaroid, the pictures on the mantel.
“I’m sorry,” Willow said. “Is that what you want to hear. I’m sorry, and I regret what I did, but I can’t go back, I can’t fix it anymore.” A pause. “I just want to make sure you’re okay. And meet my nephew. Please?”
The thoughts were spiralling back into Cressida’s mind. They were out of their cage, and they tore the hole wider. Cressida was a vacuum, an echo, an absence.
“He’s upstairs.” Cressida turned away and led the way to the upper floor, hoping Willow couldn’t see the way her face contorted with pain.
“Why?” Willow’s voice was much softer than before, a whisper of air in a still, stagnant house.
“Why are you shutting yourself away.”
“Andrew’s dead.” The words were flat, final.
“That’s not a reason.”
Cressida wished she could make her sister understand what it was like to love and lose, to be the child who reached for the fire and was burned. She had been collecting pictures for a family calendar, with her and Andrew and the baby’s ultrasounds. Cressida had had a life with him, a future of love and laughter, anniversaries stretching off into the distant horizon. How could she stand the rest of the world, when her own had been stolen?
Willow opened her mouth, as if to ask again, but she closed it as they entered the nursery. Cressida and Andrew had painted it pastel blue, with framed pages from fairy tale books on the walls. At the far end of the room, the baby woke and began to cry. Cressida darted over and picked him up, shushing his wails.
Andrew would have loved him. No—she couldn’t think of that, couldn’t look at the place where he should have been standing.
Willow approached cautiously, until she stood beside Cressida’s shoulder. “Can I hold him?” she asked.
Cressida placed the baby in her sister’s arms, and watched as Willow’s face lit up in a grin.
“He looks like you,” Willow commented.
Cressida snorted. “He looks like Winston Churchill.
Willow gasped. “You can’t say that about your own child!”
“Freedom of speech says I can.” Cressida had almost forgotten the old banter, that camaraderie of sisters from before their lives split apart.
“He looks like his father,” Cressida whispered.
His father who had never seen him. His father who had been driving the car to the shop, to get the airbags fixed. His father who had never come back.
Cressida didn’t want to remember the phone call from the hospital, the lights behind her eyes that flickered out when they told her he was dead. Dead, dead, dead. It echoed in her head like an ear-worm. Andrew was dead, smashed through the windshield of his own car.
The baby shrieked, and Willow swore. “What do I...” she asked.
Cressida took back the baby. "He’s just hungry. I’ll feed him, don’t worry."
Willow nodded, shifting her weight from foot to foot. “Are you okay?”
Cressida blinked. She hadn’t even noticed.
“I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” Cressida murmured. “I never thought—I had Andrew. I didn’t think I’d be raising him alone.”
“You don’t have to.”
Panicked, Cressida held the child more tightly. “I’m not giving him up!”
“No—that’s not what I meant! You don’t have to be alone.” Willow was looking everywhere but into Cressida’s eyes. “I mean, I’ll be in town a lot more now, so...I can help, if you want.”
Cressida was still.
“Give me a chance, Cressie,” Willow whispered. Give the world another chance.
The tears were streaming down Cressida’s face now, and she couldn’t see through the watery veil. She didn’t know why she was nodding, only that it was right, that maybe it would help.
Willow swallowed loudly. “What’s his name?” she asked.
Defying the absence, spurning the hollowness of her heart, Cressida smiled. “Funny thing," she said. "His name is Chance.”