She woke to find him turned away from her, breathing softly. His knees were pulled up tight to his chest, the sheet wrapped snug, up to his chin. The lines around his eyes had retreated, leaving the skin puffy and red. Spooning him, she nuzzled the back of his head and breathed in his soft closeness. Then slowly, so as not to wake him, she slid out of bed to make coffee.
But on standing she felt groggy and light, as though she were staggering and floating at the same time, the motion both nauseous nauseating and strangely somniferous. She swayed down the hallway to the kitchen, frowning as she went.
Sunlight streamed through the kitchen windows, but she felt cold in the shaded house. Draughts curled about her naked feet and ankles. She padded across the floorboards, into the light, but felt no warmer.
It was as though the earth had shifted during the night to an outer circumference, and now even the sunlight was empty of warmth, exhausted by its long journey.
It was then the charms of cold began to claim her, offering her numbness and clear nothingness, and promising to end the dizziness.
But she wanted to make him coffee, to put the mug on his bedside table and watch the swirling steam tempt him into wakefulness. She wanted to see him stretch awake, when for a moment his eyes would shine with confused newness, and she would kiss his surprise and hold it to her like a talisman, to have him always as he was before the veil of consciousness claimed him.
She turned on the tap and listened to the pipes groan as she filled the kettle. The gas whispered to her and crackled into flame, and she sat down on the small step at the threshold to the kitchen to wait for the water to boil. But as soon as she was still the cold came again and she closed her eyes, the numbness lulling her away from her limbs. A darkness found her. All around wafted vapours and distant voices. She crouched, her head between her knees, and began slowly to fall into herself in a dizzying spiral. But then the kettle screamed and she jumped up.
Holding their mugs tightly, she walked slowly back up the corridor, bracing herself against the walls, spilling coffee over her fingers as she went. She didn’t stop to wonder that it didn’t scald her, she was anxious now to get back to him.
He was awake, sitting up with his feet on the carpet, his face turned up to the ceiling as though he was reading the thread-like cracks in the plaster. He was holding back tears, tilting back his head to keep them from falling.
He didn’t want to cry. It was all too exhausting, too debilitating. But when he blinked the spell of water tension finally broke, and the tears fell in quiet streams.
Still, he refused to give in to them. He clenched his teeth as though he were trying to squeeze the tears away. Yesterday his tears had seemed to him as precious as blood, but now he just wanted to squeeze himself dry. He wanted a desert, a simple plain, and a rock to shelter under, to give him time to claim himself back from what was gone.
But she saw his tears and inwardly rejoiced. It was as though rain had come after a long drought, and she felt like running outside to let the raindrops prickle her skin and wet her hair. She saw the softness in him and his loneliness reached out to her.
Shakily, she put down the mugs on the bedside table, and knelt beside him, rubbing his knees as though he were cold, as though it was he who shivered, not her.
For a moment he kept his face towards the ceiling, and then he seemed to relax, his shoulders slumping in relief. His tears stopped and as she watched him take a deep breath she felt a strange weight descend on her. Her head began to ache and her eyes hurt. She tried to put her hand up to his cheek to wipe away the salted snail tracks left there, but as she reached for him she began to feel strangely insubstantial.
Her fingers trembled just above his skin, and she suddenly feared that if she touched him she would fall endlessly. She tried to speak but her words were buried like a lost stone tablet, its language forgotten. She felt paralysed before him, and fearful that at any moment she would fade.
She wished he would just look down at her and help, but instead he stood up and wiped his face, and as he did so the weight on her increased and she slumped to the floor. She tried to get up too but she couldn’t feel her legs.
Ignoring his coffee, he went to shower instead. She tried to follow him, dragging herself by her arms into the hallway. But it was exhausting and she could only watch as he disappeared down the corridor to the bathroom.
She waited, sprawled in the corridor, hoping that he would see her, but when he came back he just stepped over her. Behind her she heard him dress and then he pulled something out from under the bed.
She heard the harsh clicks of a case being unlocked, then drawers opening and closing, hangars screeching along the clothes rail. And then for a moment the weight on her seemed to lift, and she crawled back to the bedroom doorway.
Her suitcase lay on the bed, full of her clothes. Standing by the chest of drawers he was holding her old green jumper out before him. The wool had thinned and it hung limp, out of shape. She could not remember when she had last worn it, though she had scarcely been out of it the winter they first met. Years before she had gone to throw it out, but he had asked her to keep it. And so, she had kept it, too scared as the years went by to ask him again if she should throw it out.
Carefully he laid it on the bed and let his hands linger over the fabric, before slowly folding it again and putting it back in her bottom drawer. And then he left. She was too weak to stop him.
The day wore on into afternoon and the sun penetrated the hallway, lighting up the whirling eddies of dust that slowly settled on her. She listened as cars went by and footsteps came and went, and then it was night and still he didn’t come back. Instead, the next day her sister and a friend visited the house with two large suitcases. They packed up all her remaining things – her shoes, her books, her drawings, the braided ribbons she hung from the curtain rails and door knobs – and left.
A few days later, or maybe weeks, the house was given up to removal men who shifted out all the furniture, stripping the rooms bare. They were followed by real estate agents and couples who walked around with their arms folded. She dragged herself out of the way and collapsed in a corner of the spare room.
But when finally the house was quiet again she found that she could no longer even drag herself around. Her arms had finally gone numb like her legs. It seemed only a matter of time before the numbness would spread and claim her completely.
The little girl ran down the hallway past the still unopened moving boxes, breezing through the kitchen and out into the brick-paved garden. She tore down branches to thrash and chew, stamping on ants and beetles because they moved. She yelled her voice into all the spaces, big and small, filling the new house with whoops, squeals and pleadings. She claimed it all for herself, except for the spare room.
A cardboard box taller than herself barred the way to the door. She went to brush it aside, but it was heavy. She felt the weight of the packaging inside it shifting and clinking. Frustrated, she pushed at the base of it, sliding the box just enough to squeeze through to the door, and then heedlessly rushed inside the room.
It was empty. She yelled and it echoed back at her. She yelled again, spun about in the middle with her arms out and ran around the room, her fingers skimming the walls. One corner, two corner, three corner, and then she tripped. ‘Ouch,’ she shrieked, more put out than hurt. But there was no reassuring echo. Her cry died flat and a curdled silence fell about her, holding her fast like an adult’s hands.
It was then she heard the small voice inside her that had been biding its time. It whimpered as though it could be crushed just like the insects in the garden, like it didn’t belong, like it wasn’t her room, like she was being watched. She scrambled up and banged past the box in the doorway, fleeing from the unseen woman still laying in the corner.
After that the little girl became quiet and nervous. She started having nightmares that sent her parents rushing in to soothe her in the middle of the night. And there were panic attacks that came from nowhere, like a rising intake of breath that wouldn’t stop till she screamed.
Her parents took turns taking her to a therapist, waiting with her in reception, encouraging her to talk during the sessions. At night they asked themselves where this doubt and fear had come from. And they shared their sadness that she had changed, that she had suddenly grown older, become like them.
About Andrew Trounson
Andrew Trounson is a Melbourne-based writer and journalist. He likes writing and sharing very short fiction/reflective pieces because they are readily finished and they make the weight of his dust-covered notebooks easier to bear. He is still writing that adventure story novel.