There is a certain steel and moss a soul gets to know, when left alone for even a little while.

Walking over the threshold, and shutting the door, and smelling the musty air of a house without breath, without circulation, he aged a little more.

Jangling keys in his pocket, he stopped at the entrance to the living room.

Squeezing his neck with his free hand, he rocked on his heels, thinking the house was exactly as he’d seen in the brochure.

“Wonderful.”

The word, lopped and limping in his mouth, felt hateful.

But he did his best to convince himself that it was familiar, deep, and sardonic, and witty, and original. Then, he reached into his pocket and removed the keys from their home, tossing them into the bowl that sat atop the side table.

They hissed among the coins and fell quiet; quickly at home among the metals.

Save for the tassel of flourish that hung over the edge.

The pink and taut leather, the fringe of the key chain.

He looked at the fringe, at the tassel, at the flourish and smiled because,

“That was almost a good day.”

Brow creased, he walked past, hand shaking, ammonia creeping into his nose.

Then, settling onto the couch, the new couch, the rarely used and springy couch, he tucked a designer pillow under his chin and hugged it close to his chest, drawing his legs up to his stomach and sighed like a poet.

The television, the new one, the newest model looked back at him with a blank stare, wondering why he hadn’t plugged it in, why he hadn’t ever turned it on. Why he bought it in the first place, and sitting on the couch, sighing like Byron, he wondered why he had as well.

And outside the walls of his “home,” the world was bleeding and recovering, and biting itself and growing. It was an ugly thing, and he wanted no part of it, other than to pass through.

He, the bullet. They, the skin.

He breathed, deep, deep, and lay on his side, waiting for the thunderclap, for the noise.

The smell got stronger, and behind closed lids he saw the lightning strike closer and closer.

Crash, crash, crashing in the far away, in the far off countryside of his brain; once valued, now chaff.

The storm had burnt so much of it.

Then the lightning flashed brighter, thunder rang out, he tasted strawberries, and

Black.

When he opened his eyes, the Sun was still up, his arm was asleep, and his stomach was cramping.

He blinked and sat up, flapping his arm, and wincing while the pins set in. Grabbing his phone, he checked the time.

“Twenty-seven minutes,” he breathed. “They’re getting longer.”

Rolling his tongue around his mouth, he swallowed the faint taste of blood. But it didn’t matter.

He still had a tongue, still hadn’t lost any teeth, hadn’t bit through his lips.

Just a little bite on the inside of his cheek.

Standing up, he stretched, still flapping his hand about. His gut rang out in derision, and he decided that it was time for dinner. Patting his pockets, he found his pill container decorated with a portrait of Walt Whitman.

“For you the bugle trills,” he hummed, remembering his favourite poem. Popping the lid, he grabbed a pill and tossed into the back of his throat, squirming as he swallowed the awkward shaped medicine.

Casting another glance at the portrait of the dead poet, he stuffed the container back into his pocket, grunting when his medical bracelet caught on a loose thread.

Walking into his kitchen, he found Fumpy curled up and sleeping on the gas burners of his stove. Petting the long haired grey cat, he smiled, receiving the message his companion sent.

“Chinese, then?” he asked. The cat yawned and rolled onto her back, stretching lucratively.

“Mexican it is.” Patting the cat on her belly, he scrolled through his phone’s browser until he found his favourite Mexican restaurant, and placed an order for take-out. Hanging up, he noticed the cat was eyeing him suspiciously.

“Yes, I ordered an extra fish taco. And before you ask, yes, I had them put all the pico on the side. Happy?” Fumpy rolled back onto her belly, yawned, and fell back asleep.

He walked from the kitchen smiling and glowering, both happy and embarrassed that the most impressive relationship he currently had was with a four legged beast that routinely licked her own butt.

“Pathetic,” he mused, walking to the oddly untidy bedroom.

Compared with the rest of the pristine house, it was filled wall-to-wall with strange pictures, trinkets, and books.

And books and books and books.

There were a lot of books.

Very few of them were read, but all were familiar to him.

They were copies.

Endless copies of the same handful of titles, over and over and over.

Wells. Poe. du Maurier. Wolfe.

Over and over, copies of copies, and copies on top of copies. Ribs of literature extending to the ceiling, great stalagmites barely gracing the ceiling in delicate leaves.

Walking into the room, Make fell on his bed, squirreling up to his pillows where he buried his face in the familiar scent of himself and drool. And looking over to the pink pillow on the right side of the bed, he rested delicate fingers on top of it in a touch, a feather touch, and pretended he could feel the heat, the last warmth from her last sleep.

It wasn’t there, but he could almost, almost feel it.

And the crevice in his chest widened one more inch.

Rolling over, he looked at the wall opposite the right side of the bed, opposite her pillow. There were pictures by real artists, and by him, and by artists that wanted to be real.

There was a lot of colour, of movement, of flash and flurry and brush and brisk and snap and shot and lift and levy.

There was a lot of a lot, and the immensity of it helped drown the horrid pain that threatened to end him.

Thus was the power of art.

And therein lay its limitations.

Rolling from his bed, he walked out of the room, flicking the light off as he did, and hating where he slept just a little more.

His throat tightened when he thought on her pillow and

he tasted strawberries.

“No! Not again!” he cursed his brain.

Fumpy didn’t notice and continued sleeping on the burners.

Snorting the scent of cat piss from his nose, he scrambled to the couch, grabbing the pillow he’d had before, and shoved it under his chin.

“No. No. No. What’s the point of this med-“

The lightning struck, and the thunder boomed, and the storm descended, leading him into the black.

And when he opened his eyes, the world was dark, and when he checked his phone it had been roughly, “An hour. An hour?!”

He scrambled to his feet, not realizing one leg was asleep, and fell onto his face as he approached the side table where his house keys were.

Arms flailing, he reached for the bowl, touching the edge and bringing it to the floor with him.

The cat on the stove didn’t stir, and continued sleeping.

But lying there, knowing his order was past fulfilled, and knowing he needed both legs to work to get to his bicycle, and knowing that the food would be there no matter the intensity he gave the situation, his fingers grasped a hold of the leather, of the tassel, of the key chain, and he cried, remembering, feeling the widened crevice let out just a little bit more of his life, spilling onto the living room floor.

And he remembered.

In the midst of the pain, he remembered.

He remembered riding with her.

With Sanjay.

With his sister.

He remembered always looking up to her, wondering why she loved the books, the stories she did, and vowing one day to own and understand and love them too.

And more than that, he remembered sleeping in her room at night when the “scary things” grew too tall, too many, too fierce. He remembered crawling into her bed, under her covers, and feeling the warmth that was her, and resting his head on her pillow, smelling her and knowing that she was she, no matter the fear in his heart. And, in knowing that, he would grow calm, rest peaceably, and sleep near his sister.

But, as his fingers, desperate for a means to get to the Mexican restaurant, closed around the tassel, the flourish, the leather and pink, he remembered something greater. Something bigger, and he missed his sister more.

He remembered the car.

He remembered the car she had gotten when she turned sixteen. He even remembered the scent of the seat he sat in when she looked back at him, smiling, excited that Dad had finally pitched in his fifty percent and she was able to buy her first car.

Squeezing the leather, he remembered looking out the window, watching the world flip by, the trees stretch into one stream of green, the road become a solid block of gray, of the scent of ammonia, and shaking his head to move the smell away. Then he remembered the sound of fingertips tapping the top of the car, of his sister’s car, and wondering why there were fingers tapping on the roof of her car, and then smelling the cat piss more, tasting strawberries, and

then the world turned, spun, spiraled, and he went with it.

He remembered that the firefighters said it was over, she was over, she was gone, she was

dead

by the time they got there.

But he also remembered right after the crash, before they got there, before the thunder. He remembered that he tasted strawberries, that he smelled cat piss, that lightning was very real and crashing behind his eyes, and remembering…

He remembered that his sister was hanging there, in her seat belt, looking back at him, reaching and begging to

“Help me. Please,” she squeaked, she sighed, she breathed. “Help me, M-“

And then the thunder had clapped and the dark had settled in.

And he found himself in the rain, away from the car, away from his sister whom he’d failed to save.

And now, on the carpet, clutching the key chain that was hers for a moment, remembering the books that she loved, having touched the pillow that was hers, he cried.

Wracking horrible cries.

And he hated that he was the way he was.

And that because he was no more than himself, he hadn’t been able to save his sister.

If you liked this you might also enjoy some of these other short stories.

The Ocean the World Ignored

Splish Splash Robbery

The Wrong Way to End

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