Better Angel

I’m sure it isn’t Tom who’s haunting the place—he was always useless in a crisis. It’s the mean season of grief—sympathy wilts in the heat and everyone’s looking for a bright spot, except me and the girls. The cooler on the porch keeps conjuring up casseroles, but I send the girls out for them so I don’t have to see who’s doing the sleight of hand. I thought things would be better once school let out, but I hadn’t counted on the heat. The humidity feels like loss, its crushing weight making me brittle. Every day I braid the girls’ hair too tight or sleep for far too long or, if I keep it together for hours on end I wind up screaming at them, “how can you laugh at the Disney Channel when your father’s in the ground?” I wrap them in apologies each time, but they shake them off like winter blankets. I can’t help but think Tom sent someone over who he thought could help us out.

I first see her when the freezer in the garage finally gives up the ghost. The girls stare at the dripping shelves. Below the freezer is a puddle exactly my size, like I’d melted right there on the floor.

“Everything’s ruined,” Maddy sobs, “even the snowballs we made with daddy.”

Addison clinches her with a one-armed hug. “It wasn’t daddy, really—saving the snow was mom’s idea.” They’re taking turns, as usual, one twin comforting the other while I hover, helpless. Maddy smiles, because it was only mom.

Addison points out the puddle on the floor. “It looks like the shadow of a person.”

I want to tell those girls that it’s me who’s a shadow of a person, but I run downstairs to the basement, where the cool air fills my mouth with quiet. A turn of phrase drops down on me like a spider: “better angel.” And I wonder about that puddle on the garage floor. Maybe it’s the shadow of the better angel of my nature—an angel with soothing breath as crisp and clean as air conditioning. An angel twin of me, who helps my girls when I can only hurt them.

A brown patch is creeping across our lawn. The girls wait listlessly, in their bone-dry bathing suits and not a smear of sunscreen. What kind of mother doesn’t know how to turn on her own sprinkler system? The dead grass looks like a shadow of a woman, her hand outstretched for the twins. I retreat to the basement, where cool air spirals through the vents and my better angel croons her ice cream truck song through the ductwork. Later, I find Popsicle sticks under the cool shade of the oak tree. The girls probably shared them with her.

In the basement every day, I wait for the compressor to kick in, the cold air making it easier to breathe. A glass pitcher shatters above me. A pool of lemonade for the girls’ stand stretches across the kitchen in the shape of my better angel. She keeps their little piggies from being cut to ribbons by the glass. The mail piles up under the letterbox, making a silhouette of my better angel. My electricity doesn’t go out—does my better angel bring the light, or did I set up auto-pay? I reach that terrible hour where I put the girls to sleep and my bedroom door opens like a mouth, but it’s me who whispers to myself that I want to die, too. My better angel beats her wings and I’m wafted down the stairs to sleep in the basement, breathing rarefied angel air.

Maybe it wasn’t really Tom who sent her. He hated it when I kept the AC on all day. And though it’s heaven when my better angel looks after the girls (I think they’re making breakfast) her infinite exhalation through the vents is starting to sound like she’s shushing me. Doesn’t she have her own children to look after? She’s starting to feel a bit, well, holier-than-thou.

My better angel reads parenting tips on Pinterest. My better angel posts healthy snacks on her lifestyle blog. My better angel crafts.

Tonight the girls and I eat casserole on the living room floor, straight out of the foil tray. We watch “American Ninja Warrior” until past their bedtime. I’m as sure as I can be that no one cried all day.

September’s in the air—if I put my hand on the window, I can feel a morning chill. The basement’s peaceful. I can hear the girls playing with their dollhouse above me. All those angel breaths must have made it hard for voices to travel through the vents.

“Say bye to Daddy, he’s off to work,” says Maddy. No, it’s Addison. It’s hard to tell from down here.

Upstairs, I open every window, letting in the fresh air—better to have the real deal. Tom used to say that. “Open a window and get the real deal.” But then, he never stayed at home with the girls, day upon hot summer day, so who made him the expert?

I go to the porch and open the magic cooler. Today’s casserole has a note taped to the foil, from Amy, saying, “call me.” Although I barely know her, I heard she lost her parents within days of each other, so she speaks the language of grief. My better angel is an expert on bereavement, but she’s a little judgy—she’s an angel, after all. A wisp of cold air rises from the cooler to shush me, but I dump the ice cubes on the porch. They might have fallen in the shape of my better angel, but I’m not sticking around to find out. I go inside to play with the girls, leaving the ice to melt in what’s left of the late summer sun.

Erin Striff writes a short play every year and has been produced in three countries. She teaches creative writing, drama and literature at the University of Hartford. Her publications include plays, articles, poetry and critical essays, but this is her first published fiction.