336. That's how much space I have. 336 square feet of fully furnished confinement. It's all I can afford on a writer's income. And by writer, I mean the chick whose job, real job in the eyes of the world, is as a waitress at a local restaurant. Not one of the exclusive, hoity-toity places. No, just your average, obnoxious chain restaurant complete with flare like in Office Space.
I stare out the window on this a muggy, late November day. Atypical even for the South. My foot is rocking the hammock I'm lying in from side-to-side as clouds drift by. Although the place came with an old-fashioned Murphy bed, I still decided to hang up my hammock to free up what little space there is. It's an odd choice of bed, I'll admit but I spent an entire year living in the Amazon up in a tree.
Despite the paltry accouterments my apartment affords me, an Easy Bake Oven-sized range, a shower tub combo with mold growing around the rim, and furniture styled from the '60s the view from my place is comforting. It looks out onto a heavily wooded forest, a combination of both evergreen trees, some with patches of brown, and deciduous trees recently denuded. In the distance I can hear the birds' sluggish song echoing in the heat.
I need this view today.
I drain the last of my coffee, the third one I've had today. Even though it is only ten a.m., I am tired, wanting to sleep, but haven't been able to in several days. Each time I close my eyes, the memories of all those bouquets of flowers covering his coffin flood into my mind like a sudden thunderstorm. Sure, the funeral had been a week ago but I still couldn’t shake those pictures. The rosewood coffin with the silver plated handles. Everyone dressed in black.
The sounds won't leave me either. Crying, bawling, wailing, and all the other variations of mourning. The words from a somber preacher reciting canned phrases about a man who hadn't seen the inside of a church in years.
Like today, it had been sweltering in the church. I wish it wasn't so goddamn hot! Perhaps then the birds would perk up instead of sounding drugged. Maybe I'd be able to get those funeral sounds out of my head, and my mind could finally shut up enough to let me sleep.
But what could erase images I didn't care to hold onto? I am sorely tempted to go down to the liquor store and get some of the hard stuff. I've been sober for the past five years, now might be an okay time to take it up again. At least it would be a temporary reprieve from the pain and guilt. I think I'll stay away from the drugs this time, though; those'll give me even worse nightmares.
My hand shakes. Caffeine jitters, I hope, as I set the coffee cup down onto the diminutive end table. A stack of mail falls off as the cup bumps it. Angry red stamps of 'Second Notice' and 'Final Notice' blare at my blurry eyes. I shrug. Tomorrow. I'll deal with it tomorrow. I've been telling myself that for a while now, but dammit, I mean it this time.
The cloud cover thickens but does not promise cool rain, just more mugginess. My eyes begin to droop when my phone rings. "Great," I mutter, yet I still get up.
Crumbs from the chips and pizza that have been my diet of late fall to the carpet like carbohydrate snow while I stumble toward the phone. "Dammit!" My pinky toe catches the corner of the lumpy loveseat.
"Hello," my voice is terse. My toe is throbbing and I ponder if I've broken it.
"You gonna come in today?" It was the equally terse voice of my boss.
"Dunno. Still think I'm under the weather."
"Under the weather my ass. Look, I've been real patient with you. You're going through a rough patch and I feel for you, I really do, but if you don't get your act together today and come into work, I'm firing you."
I didn't care to make any promises, so I let the question hang in the ether.
My boss sighs. "Just show up or else," he says and hangs up.
What are you doing to your life? A voice says to me over and over in my head. Hmmm, good question. It gets me thinking about what my twin would have done, which is a futile exercise. Firstly, he wouldn't have lived in a place like mine. Secondly, he wouldn't have let himself go physically. No, he would have just sucked it up and gone back to work right away. Life has to keep moving forward instead of jumping back.
My twin had always been great at bottling up his emotions. Probably why he appeared successful in life. Well, until the end there. You don't exactly end your life when things are going well and you have everything society defines as positive. I guess happiness eluded him; what chance do I have?
My 336 square foot apartment is a microcosm of where I am in my life; the walls and smallness crushing me, crushing my spirit.
"What am I doing with my life?"
I sink into a wooden chair and stare at the cracked wall. To soothe my nerves, I wrap my arms around myself and rock back and forth. Tears flow as they have often the past couple weeks since his death. Every time I think I'm out of saltwater, my body manages to find the resources.
For several minutes I continue on until the tears slow to nothing. My twin had died of profound discontent and I didn't know until the call from our mother. We'd never been the kind of twins who could sense each other's thoughts or could sense when the other was in danger. It's why his death hit me like a semi crashing into a concrete wall. Yet a part of me believed that out of all the people in this world, I, not his wife, not his kids, nor even our parents, should have seen this coming.
The apartment walls are feeling like my own coffin. If I didn't shape up and quick I fear I might die in the same fashion.
I jump up, as if jolted by a bolt of lightning. I sweep into the kitchen and riffle through the cupboards looking for trash bags. After finding them buried under open, molding cans of food, I go through the apartment as if Martha Stewart has possessed me. Half-eaten food, empty soda cans, paper plates, plastic utensils, all of it goes into trash bag after trash bag. I fill up five bags before taking them down to the dumpster.
When I get back, I notice an earthy, curry tinged stench. It takes me a minute to realize it is coming from me.
I was unable to recall the last time I truly bathed. I've been doing the basics, pits and groin, but the last complete shower was the morning of his funeral.
I turn on the water and while I wait for it to warm up, I search my place looking for any bits of clean clothing. It may not have matched but I dug up a pair of holey, acid-wash jeans and a plaid button down shirt.
I avoid the mirror. A monster doesn't need to see itself to know it is hideous.
I rip back the shower curtain and step into the steam. The water is hot, almost scalding, which I like since it will turn my skin a shade of salmon pink. Dirt, grease, and grime slough off my body, down the rusty drain they go as the loathsomeness of the depression I've been feeling leaves me.
A sensation of waking up from a restful sleep washes over me. I'm alive, truly alive. Not the kind of jolt a four dollar cup of coffee provides, but the kind one can only experience after being in a fog. The water has baptized me.
After toweling off, I dress in my Wednesday best, gather up the dirty clothes into a basket and make my way to the laundry room. The door sticks, so I have to press a shoulder into it.
"How ya doing today?" says Mrs. Meltzer. She smiles at me as she folds her laundry. "Been a while since I've seen ya. I heard about your brother."
The smile, the first one I've slapped on my face in a while, drops as I clutch my laundry basket. "Ahhh," is all I can manage.
Mrs. Meltzer places a petite, gnarled hand upon my meaty forearm. "You can always talk to me about it. You remember what I went through last year when my husband left me." She squeezes, displaying more strength then I anticipate. "You don't have to go through this alone. You don't have to shoulder his death by giving up on your life."
Embarrassed, I mumble a thank you.
She releases her grip and pats my arm. "I'll bring over some cookies later and we can talk."
"I, uh, can't this evening. Gotta work."
"Good, good. It's important to get moving physically. Helps with the healing process. I had to learn that the hard way." Mrs. Meltzer, done folding her clothes, doesn't make any motion to leave.
I turn away from her concentrating on loading a couple of washers yet I can feel her piercing gaze.
"Suicide isn't the answer."
The hair on the back of my neck stands up. I don't recall telling anyone how my twin died so how did she know? "He felt differently, I suppose."
"I wasn't referring to your brother, although it is a terrible shame he killed himself. Terrible sin it is. No, I was talking about you. You've got to keep fighting those urges to give it all up." Her voice is forceful.
"I know." It makes me uncomfortable having this conversation. I am not ready to talk about this with anyone, least of all an acquaintance, and certainly not at this moment. I require time to absorb my renewed outlook on life.
"Hmpf. You do, but you don't. Not really. Just keep up with what you're feeling right now. Not yesterday's feeling. Not the pain you felt at the funeral. But today's feeling." She picks up her basket and makes her way to the door. "Anyway, you remember my apartment? Number 301. Stop by before work."
"Thank you for the offer but maybe some other time, Mrs. Meltzer."
"Sooner rather than later would be best."
She leaves and I am again alone with my thoughts. Not desiring to return to my place, I sit in the laundry room trying to read a book, but am too distracted. Mrs. Meltzer spooked me. I wonder if I was wearing my heart on my sleeve too soon.
Stepping out of my apartment had been a big deal and I wasn't quite ready for social interaction. At least the kind she was pushing. Work would be one thing. I know I can BS my way through all the banal social chit chat that comes with being a waitress. Anything deeper than that, though, that I couldn't handle.
After the laundry was done, I approach my front door and stop. On the dirty welcome mat is a paper plate full of cookies and a note taped to the door. One guess whom it was from.
I sigh and put my heavy laundry basket down and snatch up the plate of cookies. I toss the missive on the counter without reading it. As I turn back for the clothes, Mrs. Meltzer startles me with her sudden appearance.
"Don't take the Lord's name in vain," she replies, a typical kind, old lady smile upon her lined face. "Aren't you gonna invite me in?"
"Sorry," I mumble. "Please come in and uh, have a seat."
She sits down and pats the spot next to her. "Have a cookie and let's talk."
"Listen, I appreciate the gesture, I really do, and I promise to come visit you, but I need to get ready for work." I head toward the bathroom hoping she gets the message.
"Are you sure you're ready for work? It took me several weeks before I could get back to volunteering."
"It doesn't matter if I'm ready. I have no other choice. I lose my job if I don't show up." I shrug and glare at her, feeling like an asshole for being gruff, but I can't figure out any other way to get rid of her.
As if reading my mind, she chuckles. "You can't rid yourself of me that easily. Eat a cookie. I can wait while you change into your work clothes."
Capitulating, I grab a cookie and eat it. It's excellent, fantastic even. The chocolate melts right in my mouth despite it being room temperature. I scarf half a dozen, keeping my head down, feeling self-conscious about pigging out.
She says nothing, which surprises me. Just sits there smiling a static, self-congratulatory smile. I don't have time to dwell on her silence, so I go to the bathroom and change into a clean uniform.
After I finish, I re-enter the living room and plunk down in a chair. Eating the cookie has left me drowsy.
Sluggishly, as if I'm clawing through mud, I begin putting my shoes on. "Can we make this quick? I don't need to be late to work; my ass is already on the line as it is." I shake my head to rid myself of the cobwebs.
"Oh, I suppose I could try to make this quick. Not sure if the effects will be total. Might only erase just the last few days at best." She gets up approaching me with outstretched arms, her gnarled hands spread wide.
"Erase? Last few days?" I try to get up, but she pushes me back down. How'd she get so strong? Sweat percolates on my forehead and my heart thuds like horse hooves in muck.
"This goes better if you just relax."
Resistance is pointless although my mind is telling my body to shove her away even if she is old. Mrs. Meltzer's face is serene and a faint glow outlines her body. "No, get away from me."
"But how will you ever be able to move on with your life?" Her dry hands grab my head. There was a dull but painless pressure on my temples as she begins to massage my skull.
"I am moving on with my life," I begin in a weak, low voice.
"You can't ever move on unless you forget." The pressure deepens.
"Don't want to forget." My heavy, bloated body feels light as a summer breeze as my head lolls back. I am paralyzed.
"That's it. Just relax and let me free your mind…"
I float in the atmosphere like a translucent bit of gauze. It is white but a reflection of light causes a prism effect. A photograph from our tenth birthday drifts away from me. As does the fight we had over the car we shared in high school, which ended when I punched him. His face when he found me passed out in the corner at his wedding reception. The phone call from him telling me his first child, my nephew, had arrived in the world. Nothing is solid as I tried grasping onto something. The journey starts off slow but gains a rapid pace until the calm white light was replaced by heavy blackness. My head explodes into pain as my body shakes. I feel solid again, more alert.
My eyes fly open.
Why am I sitting on the floor? Next to me is a piece of paper. Scrawled on it in shaky, neat handwriting is: I have given you a gift. Go! Live your life and do not disappoint.
Who wrote this and what the hell does it mean? Confused, I glance at the clock. "Shit!" Grabbing my keys, I rush out the door.
The drive to work is uneventful except for my thoughts about the puzzling note.
As I approach the restaurant's back door, the smell of garbage that has been sitting out in the sun all day shoves the note out of my mind. "What's up man?" I ask one of the dishwashers. "Are we busy tonight? I hope so. It feels like I've been away from here for ages." I put on my apron and hat adorned with an oddball assortment of buttons.
"Naw. Pretty quiet." He looks at me for a long time while I find my time card.
"What?" I punch the time card into the machine. The heavy noise it makes stamping my start time echoes in the weird silence.
"Nothing. Listen, I'm sorry to hear about your brother." He gives me a sympathetic look, which confuses me.
About the author:
DH Hanni writes both historical fiction and sci-fi/fantasy. Her work has appeared online in Hidden Animals, the Copperfield Review, the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, and now Gravel Magazine. Her work has also appeared in print in the LocoThology 2013: Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction anthology as well as the First Contact Café anthology. She enjoys reading, doting on her three furry children, watching sports, enjoying nature, soaking up history, cooking, and movies. Currently she resides in South Carolina. You can find DH Hanni here.