Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash
The windows are closed, the blinds shut. But the noise leaks in. Happy people passing my house on the way to Friday night. Maybe I should be out there too. But this couch is too comfortable. And everything I need is here.
I take a hit of Amnesia Haze from a glass pipe and stare at the wall. Tom’s been gone for almost a year. Maybe it’s time to redecorate. Maybe I’ll feel like it soon.
The kitchen faucet drips, devoid of rhythm. Tom would have fixed that. He would’ve fixed the leaky washing machine. He would’ve fixed the refrigerator light that flickers on and off. But he’s dead. Nothing works right in this house anymore.
I suppose I could have repaired it all by now. But then what would I have to talk about? My friends still come around, though just a few, and rarely. They cringe when I bring him up. Sympathy’s a shallow well. I refuse to bore them with my grief. So, we talk drips and leaks instead. Complaints are the lies we tell to belong.
I sink down further into the couch, staring at the piles of unopened mail weighing down the console. I’ll get to it all eventually. I turn my attention to the shadowy wall. A demon dances. A cobra strikes. A firebomb explodes. Surely, they’ve been here all along. How is it I’m just noticing now? There’s a difference between seeing and recognizing.
KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK.
I’m startled from my thoughts. Someone’s at the door who shouldn’t be. My body shivers, though the room remains a loyal 75 degrees. I sit up straight, holding in my breath, willing them to go away.
Three more bangs on the door. I could turn out the lights, run upstairs. Or wait them out on the back porch. But that would require energy. Best to send them on their way. Steeling myself with a deep inhale from the pipe, I shuffle to the foyer.
“Who is it?” I ask through the solid oak, knowing they cannot hear me. With no response, I swing the door open.
A strange woman stands on the stoop. She has the air of one of those door-to-door evangelicals handing out Jesus tracts, certain I am doomed without her. She looks older than me, but not infinitely so. Her grey peppered hair hangs long and free down her back. Dangling feather earrings, long loose dress cotton dress that flows to the floor, handcrafted gemstone necklace. Some hippy medicine woman I have never seen before.
“Hello, I’m Meg. Meg Harmon.” I recognize the name. The former occupant—we used to get her mail all the time when we first moved in. Hers and some guy named Bruce Bradford. I assumed that they were together. We’d forward their mail to a place called “The Dragonfly.” From her mail, I gathered this was a shop proffering in crystals, potions, magical odds and ends. And that she was some sort of shaman. Ten years later, we still get letters meant for them from time to time and toss them into the recycle.
“I’m Jenny,” I take the hand she offers, startled by the frostiness of the fingers on this July evening. “You used to live here, right?”
“Yep, was just passing through, had an urge to drop by.” Her smile stops well below her eyes, though she does not seem unkind. Still, I want her to leave.
“Do you want to come in?” She should understand that by my tone, by the door held ajar, by my sideways stance, it is no offer at all.
“That would be lovely.” She breezes by me before I can stop her. She does a slow 360 of my living room. With an eyebrow cocked, she is taking in the half-empty glasses and dirty plates, the bags of chips and cookie crumbs that litter the coffee room table.
“Excuse the mess, I wasn’t expecting anyone,” I say flatly. It is a fact, not an apology.
“Oh, no worries, I completely understand.” Her voice is soothing, benign, and smooth, as though what she says is true. “I love what you’ve done with the place. The colors are lovely.”
I scoff at her flattery, wondering what her angle might be. “My husband picked them,” I say. “He has an eye for color.”
She is mute, bends her head to the right. I wait for the inevitable question. But she does not ask me where he is.
“Are you still in Asheville?” I am annoyed by my compulsive politeness and wonder how to nicely push her out the door.
“Not anymore,” she smiles wistfully. “May I look around?” She drives forward into the dining room before I can reply. My skin prickles as she passes. I am both annoyed and slightly terrified by her breezy pushiness. But I stuff it down inside. The faster I let her run through the house, the sooner she’ll be gone.
“Why all that?” She’s pointing at the black metal security bars I had installed over the back window after Tom died.
“Just a precaution,” the bars make me feel safer being alone. “We’ve got some crime in the neighborhood.”
“That makes sense.” She looks thoughtful, hands clasped in front of her belly. “Though I suppose if someone really wanted to get in, they’d find a way.”
She says it without a hint of malice. But I shiver at her words.
I follow her through the kitchen. Tom was the cook between us. The food processor and fancy knives lay dormant. All I need is the microwave. A little salt and pepper. A pan to fry an egg.
“So many memories,” her voice falters. Something in her is shifting. She seems to be shrinking, tightening. “Bruce and I loved to cook together here. Do you cook much?”
“Not if I can help it.” In the first week of Tom’s death, I was flooded by casseroles, pies, lasagnas. So much I could never eat, tossed in the trash. In the first week, so many friends crowded this kitchen, this house, I had no space to feel him gone. But no one feeds me anymore. Now, I live on take-out Thai and frozen burritos, shoved down at the kitchen counter.
She pats me on the shoulder. Her hand on me shocks, sets my teeth on edge. I have not been touched in months. I flinch and back away.
“Can I see the old bedroom?” she pushes by me up the stairs, oblivious to my hesitation. My heart beats faster, my shoulders tense, though I cannot exactly say why. I want her to go, but I follow her up all the same, subsumed in her willful wake. As we pass the hanging pothos plant, I swear it quivers from its ceiling hook.
She explores the pictures in my hallway wall: our wedding, a summer gathering at the family beach house, our last trip to Provence. Is that curiosity on her face? Bemusement? Tenderness? I am expecting her to ask me something, anything, about the man in every photo. But she says nothing and moves on into the bedroom.
I watch her take in my dirty clothes strewn across the floor, dresses half off hangers, odd shoes lying around. The one side table is covered in dust. The walls are bare. The old quilt, covered in a dingy blue duvet, hangs off the bed. There are water stains on the walls – since Tom’s death, I’ve kept the windows open through every summer storm.
“I barely sleep here anymore, it’s cooler downstairs,” I say, an excuse to ward off judgment. Though her pulled-down lips, her loose eyelids tell me she is more sad than critical.
“Being here brings me right back.” Her voice is shaky, her shoulders slumped. She trembles. Her skin shoots off an icy musk. Part of me wants to comfort her, part of me is inexplicably frightened.
“I’m so sorry,” she apologizes, wiping tears from her cheek with her fist. “Grief is such a funny thing, just when you think you’re over it…”
It finds you again, in that house where you’ve been hiding from it all. I feel her sorrow as though it were my own. Or maybe it is, I don’t know. “Have you lost someone?”
I don’t know why I ask her that. Why should I care?
She nods, crossing her bony arms across her chest. What makes us think there’s a thing in the world we can do to protect ourselves?
“My partner, Bruce,” she is slowly rubbing her arms with her hands. But she is still so cold, I can see her lips turn more and more blue. “Not so long ago. I didn’t realize how much sadness I’ve been hauling around until now.”
“I’m so sorry.” I am surprised that I mean the words I speak to this intruder.
“Thank you, Jenny,” she touches my shoulder. “And I am very sorry for your loss. It’s a kind of a comfort, you know?
“What is?” I wonder how she knows about Tom.
“Knowing you get it. Grief can be such a lonely affair.” A gentle wind passes between us. I know what she means and feel it too. Her words, like a spell, unravel me.
As we return down the stairs to the living room, I feel a little lighter than before. I watch her look around the room again. The empty wine bottles, the bag of weed, the crumbs are still where I left them. I don’t know what to think about this witchy woman, as she turns to me.
“You know what I’m learning through all of this?” Her eyes penetrate me.
“What’s that?” I mutter, compelled by the grey, shining hollows of her eyes.
“In the darkest of times, when it seems like the end of the world…” she pats me on the shoulder with her bony hand. “We always get the help we need.”
I feel reassured, startled, agitated, and petrified all at once. She opens the door and steps out onto the stoop. She takes in a deep breath, looks up and down the busy street. “Such a lovely evening. Go on out there, enjoy it!” she says and takes her leave.
I am sorry to see her go. I think she had more to say. I had more to hear. I consider her words, as she ambles down the street and disappears.
As I close the door behind her, I notice a letter at the top of the pile of unopened mail on the console. Funny enough, it’s addressed to Bruce Bradford. How odd, to receive a letter addressed to a dead man.
I open the door again and run down to the sidewalk in hopes of catching her. Perhaps this note will comfort her somehow. Perhaps it is more of the help she needs. But as I tare down the street, I can see, she is gone. I feel bad that I cannot forward it to her, seeing as she has gone from Asheville.
I return to my house and consider tossing it into the recycle bin. But the morbid curiosity takes over, having never received a dead person’s letter before. So, I rip open the envelope.
It’s a memorial card, decorated in doves and flowers. Condolences from an old friend of Bruce’s, for the untimely passing of his dear Meg.
Jessica McGlyn lives in Washington, DC and is a member of the Capitol Hill Writers Group. She writes short stories in different genres. You can see her most recent work in Spank the Carp, Bright Flash Literary Review, and Adelaide.
2/7/2023 02:37:00 pm
I absolutely adore this. Did not see the ending coming. Very satisfying.
2/8/2023 12:21:31 pm
Thanks for reading it Phil!
2/8/2023 06:24:34 pm
Wow, that was such a great read. I loved it! It's amazing how you could draw such a detailed thumb nail sketch in such a short piece. Really well done.
2/19/2023 04:25:46 pm
Woza Jessica. Cartwheels of emotion. Loved it. Looking forward to reading more.
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