Jennifer Todhunter

Jennifer Todhunter’s stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions, and Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Pidgeonholes. Find her at or @JenTod_.

THE MELT by Jennifer Todhunter

My son doesn't turn from solid to liquid or liquid to gas when the melt occurs. He remains in the same state physically, but mentally there is a shift. Heat has been applied in the form of my disappearing from his line of sight, or heading to the bonfire for a beer, or talking to a friend who is a guy who is not his dad, my ex. There is a fusion when the melt occurs, his person to my person, a shadow that follows me wherever I go, that demands we leave this instant, that cries as if I've died right there, in front of him.

The attachment is not cute like the therapist suggested it might be when I explained my son's behaviour to her. It is not the same as when he'd wake with nap-flushed cheeks as a toddler and wobble around the house after me, leaving behind a trail of goldfish crackers and blueberries. Suffocation is such an ugly word, she said, and I nodded, but that's how it feels, I said, when he melts, it feels like he's sitting on my chest and I can't breathe.  

When my son was five, his dad taught him Newton's laws of motion, and seven years later he can still ramble them off at the ready, his favourite being the third law: For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. Sometimes, when the melt occurs, so does the leaving. The leaving is the equal reaction—equal as being of similar strength, not equal as being fair or just. The leaving is running down unfamiliar lanes at night, unaware of cars racing around corners. It's stomping down streets filled with loaded semi trucks speeding toward the port. It's walking along dirt roads in bear country, a mess of snot and tears, screaming why doesn't anybody love me.

I worry my son learned the melt from my ex. That these behaviours have been condoned because they mirror behaviours my ex exhibited when we were together. This is what I ask the therapist during another session. Why is it cute when my son does it and unnerving when it's my ex? and she pauses, asks me, why do you think that is? I look at the perfectly-trimmed bonsai tree on her desk, the plate of sand holding a tiny rake. I don’t think it’s cute, I say, and she smiles. 

My son and I inevitably reach an equilibrium after each melt. We are exhausted and hesitant and confused. We pile onto the grass or the couch or the hood of the car and stare at each other. I think about Newton's first law: an object will not change its motion unless a force acts on it, and think: that is me, I am the force, this will change, but I don't always believe that, don’t always believe myself. I sit with the pressure on my chest, pull at my collar and breathe until the breaths come steady again, until my son’s tears have dried, until we reach our base state. I love you, I say as we hug, because I do—I do love him—and I take the worry that this love will change because of the melts and squish it down one more time.

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Hannah passes out with the lights on again, the room as bright as day. Her phone is almost dead from staying up late sexting, slipped underneath the pillow on a bed that’s not hers—a bed she borrowed so she can sort her life, a bed too short for long legs, bent like figure fours on unfamiliar sheets. Hannah preset an alarm (and a backup and a backup for the backup), but she wakes when the alcohol abandons her system instead, her stomach pinched with unease, her brain brimming with a laundry list of what-ifs, always landing on the worst-case:

What if we divorce? 


What if we stay together?

On Hannah’s way to work, the train and bus are filled with people wearing face masks, the hysteria surrounding the epidemic-almost-pandemic a fever pitch. The thought of putting something over her nose and/or mouth, the thought of breathing in her own breath despite having brushed her teeth three times since rising, recycling the fumes from last night, the wine and clams and fries and garlic, makes her want to barf.

Hannah and her husband married on the edge of a river, fifty feet from the spot they’d chosen, and neither one of them noticed they were in the wrong place.

Hannah and her husband honeymooned on Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands, and spent the whole time shitfaced. 

Hannah and her husband both know the Spanish flu is the worst pandemic to-date, killing over 100 million people, yet they’re planning a return trip despite this other flu taking hold—a trip with their kids, so their kids can swim in turquoise water and gorge on calamares a la romana and patatas bravas, while Hannah and her husband revisit the place they first fucked when married to see if it jolts something inside. 

Fact: The odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 3000.

Fact: The odds of being struck by lightning twice are 1 in 9 million. 

Hannah knows in the base of her being, the crunch of her heart—she’s not going to be struck back into anything.

Fact: Hannah’s husband hasn't struck her, but he's struck the wall next to her head and that was close enough.

Hannah stands outside her office building in an inappropriate jacket and casual shoes because living between two places is a bitch and one rarely has what one wants. She watches rain run off the bridge overhead, opens her mouth and feels it fall against the scum on her teeth. She wishes the rain were mucus slipping inside her, pandemic-flavored mucus, the slip more of a twist and a thrust like she told the guy she was sexting last night, and maybe she’ll get infected after all and Spain will be off the table.

Fact: Hannah’s husband is sober but wasn’t always sober.

Fact: Hannah drinks now but didn’t always drink drink. 

Every Tuesday, Hannah and her husband carpool home from work so they can both watch their son play hockey, and they always pre-agree not to talk about anything meaningful or difficult in terms of their relationship on this weekly ride. (Fact: Months pass quickly when counted by weeks.) Hannah always buys each of them a coffeeespresso, milk, honeybefore they start on the long drive to different homes in the same community, veering in and out of gridlocked traffic.

Fact: Hannah would prefer to be on the bus or train, but there’s the damned epidemic-almost-pandemic, and she can’t bear to bring sickness home to the kids she sees only three-and-a-half-days-a-week, so here she is, in a car with her sort-of-husband. Again.

Fact: Kids under five are more susceptible to the flu. 

Fact: Only 30% of women have more than two children. 

Fact: Hannah had two back-to-back babies and was done forever.

Before Hannah’s husband stopped drinking, he liked to explode her friendships. To this day, Hannah isn’t sure whether this was something he did on purpose, a control mechanism, or the booze telling him to act like an asshole. 

This is what keeps Hannah up at night when the booze isn’t.

Fact: Hannah is aware of the irony.

After this week’s hockey game, Hannah and her husband will sit at the dining room table, listening to their kids talk excitedly about Spain, about its sunshine and seafood, about the novelty of going together. Hannah will sip a glass of wine, consider what it means to move on, how moving on is just taking up space in a different moment, moment after moment, and how all these moments equate to a lifetime. 

Fact: Hannah and her husband have one life each of indeterminate length. 

Fact: A life has a start and an end.

Fact: Marriages, however joyful, have a start and an end, too.

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