Reflections Of The Dead: A Short Story
I burrow deep into my blankets as I lie in bed. It’s a king size bed, but I only use a fraction of it. Only the left side. The left is, I mean, was, my side of the bed. Funny, how a person keeps to a side of a bed when there is no one to use the other side, anymore.
“Force of habit”, I say out loud. My voice startles the small black cat curled up at the end of the bed. The cat gets up and stretches, as she makes her way to me. She follows my voice to the pillow. She stretches and curls into a ball as she purrs. She is a tiny blind kitten, that I found outside on a cold Christmas day. I almost didn’t see her there, and, she wasn’t alone. She had a little brother, also black, but not blind, with her. They looked to have been abandoned by someone who didn’t have the decency to take them to an animal shelter instead of leaving them by my porch.
The two kittens were obviously left by someone, a neighbor or just someone passing by, who may have seen me leaving food out for the strays that come to the porch at night and in the early hours of the morning. They must’ve figured that I would take them in or find them a home, because they couldn’t or wouldn’t, do it themselves.
I named the girl “Merry” because it was Christmas when I found her and her brother. Sadly, Merry’s brother, whom I named “Max”, was very ill and he had died sometime during that first night in my home, before I could take him to the vet in the morning. It hurt me to find him gone in the morning, his blind sister, still by his side. I buried him in the yard, the ground wasn’t totally frozen, yet. I took Merry to the vet and I was told that she is healthy, except, for her blindness which was most likely, something that, she was born with.
I held Merry that whole night, afraid that she would follow her brother, dying of a broken heart. I blamed whoever left the two kittens for Max’s death because they must’ve known that he was sick, but left out there anyway. I guess, they thought that both kittens were unhealthy and just left them there to die. Merry didn’t die, instead, she became my constant companion. Following me around, and never leaving my side whenever I’m home. She makes a strange sound that is supposed to be a meow and it always makes me laugh.
I sit up on my elbow and pet Merry’s soft, black fur. She rolls on her back for a tummy rub and I smile. After Merry has had enough, she stretches again and goes back to sleep by my pillow. I stay sitting up on my elbow, looking around the room. It’s a place that I created through the things that I hung on the walls, my paintings and other artwork, written words, and photography, all against a pale yellow background. The room is a little big and I have a couch on one side of the room for when I want to read, but I don’t want to be in bed. There is a big chair near one of the two windows that look out onto the street.
One of the windows still has the air conditioner in it from last summer. I couldn’t take it out because it was too heavy, besides, how am I going to put it back in when winter is over? He is not here to help me do things like that any more. I hear the sound of wet, anemic snow hitting the metal of the air conditioner in the window. The sound makes me shudder, and I pull the blankets even tighter around me.
I remember a time when I loved the sound of the snow or rain falling on a metal surface, the music of the wind on a cold night. The room would be lit by a single, small lamp on the nightstand. A light that threw shadows around it. He would be playing a 90’s song on his guitar, “Black hole sun, won’t you come, won’t you come”, he would sing, as I try to sing along with him.
“Didn’t you tell me that you were asked to leave the choir in school?”, he’d tease me.
“Yes, the nun said my voice was “different” from the other girls.”, I’d pout, trying to act like I’m hurt. I was never a good actress. I throw a pillow at him and try to get up from the bed, and he would grab me around the waist. I fall back on the bed, laughing, and look at him above me.
“You’re so beautiful”, he says and kisses me. It is always the same and I don’t ever complain. I like it. I like being pulled back onto the bed and told that I’m beautiful. I was a little chubby girl, never even had a boyfriend til I was almost 18 years old. I never thought I was beautiful, but somehow, here is someone who is telling me that I am. I felt beautiful then, I felt special and loved.
My eyes fall on a canvas on the wall. A photograph that I had taken a few years back of a window with white curtains and a stack of books lined up on its sill. I had passed by the apartment building with that window several times before actually bringing my camera and taking a picture of it. It had a certain essence that I could never explain to anyone. It looked safe and warm, to me. It looked like a home.
“Why did you make a canvas out of that picture? The money that you spent on that could’ve gone for other things, things that we NEED!”, he yells at me, a scowl of disgust on his face. He’s already yelled at me several times for spending money on nonsense. I couldn’t remind him that the money that I spent was money that I worked for, since he couldn’t keep a job…..or get help for his addictions.
“I like it, it reminds me of what I wanted out of life”, I say, quietly, as I roll my eyes and hope that he didn’t notice.
“Exactly, what DID you WANT out of life??”, he asks sarcastically.
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe a sensitive man that loved me instead of some asshole who doesn’t stop asking me stupid questions that he knows the answers to!”, I yell, but, only in my mind, as I open the front door to check the mail. I could never say that out loud, not after what happened last time. The bruises are still there and I’m wearing long sleeves in 95 degree weather, to hide them from prying eyes.
The canvas with the window and books doesn’t look as nice as it used to, but it’s still on the bedroom wall. I put it back up after he broke it during one of our last arguments because he knew it would hurt me. It still reminds me of what could have been, that is, if I had made different choices. “Simplicity and complexity all in one”, I think to myself, “and no one can take it down now, but me!”.
It’s getting later, I’m lost in my own mind. “It’s gonna be a loooonnnnngggg night!”, I exclaim loudly, which only upsets Merry who just wants to sleep. The way she turns her head to me, as if to tell me to shut up and go to sleep, makes me laugh. Merry yawns and curls back up again.
I pick up the old fashioned radio that I found at a charity shop. It’s a replica of the radios from the 1930’s, not an original. It’s a pretty cream color with real dials and a little window with the stations is an amber brown with a very small light that allows you to see the numbers and letters in it. It came without an adapter, but it also runs on batteries. The batteries don’t last long, still, I like listening to it, sometimes, late at night. I don’t like using my phone or laptop for everything. There is a certain charm to a real radio with dials and static. It is something real, tangible.
I turn the dials, looking for something to listen to. “Black Hole Sun” is on one of the stations, I turn the dial quickly, not wanting to hear more of the song. I finally find a station that I could listen to. Oldies of the 70’s and 80’s. “Tin Man” by America is on, I love that song. It brings me back to my childhood. I grew up in a Brooklyn brownstone in the 80’s. I loved being out in the street in the summer and going only to eat and sleep. Always back in the house as soon as the street lights came on, that was the rule my mother had for me during the summer. Back then, we didn’t have computers and smart phones. I’d go out as soon as I finished my breakfast and knowing that my best friend, Jenny, was waiting for me, so we can whatever. We never had a plan for the day, not really.
The America song reminds of being in my friend’s backyard. She had a little above ground pool that we’d swim in on hot days, our sunburned skin dark and shiny. My friend’s neighbor always had a radio on, in her kitchen window. We’d hear that song coming through to the backyard, the radio sounded far and tinny. “Tin Man” always reminds me of those glorious summers of backyard games and going to Coney Island when we had a little money. The taste of hotdogs at Nathan’s and the salty water of the beach. I often find it sad that children, today, won’t have memories like these because they’re all glued to a screen. They are missing out on truly magical moments that they can remember later on in life.
“Speaking of kids,”, I think to myself, “I better get to bed, I have to be up in a few hours!”. I had landed a job at an exclusive private school as their 5th grade teacher. I loved being a teacher, although, many times, I have to buy my own supplies and the pay could be better, MUCH better. I taught for years before I met him. He never thought much of my profession, since it never afforded him the finer things in life.
He never had much of a career and blamed his lack of work on everyone, but himself. At first, I didn’t mind being the one who paid the bills and the rent. I was happy to do it, but when the name calling, shoving, and eventually slapping started, I lost my job. I couldn’t go in to work looking like I did with bruises and flimsy explanations as to how I got them. I took days off that I couldn’t afford to take off, and eventually, I was let go. I was secretly happy to lose my job. My mind was no longer on my profession, it was on how to hide my bruises, the cuts, and, the marks that they left.
He blamed me for the loss of my job, of course. He worked in IT and to be honest, he was very good at what he did. However, he had habits that cost him his jobs. Expensive drug habits are that way. Sometimes, I would take a couple of his pain pills just to kill the pain or to escape the life that I lived. I was careful that it didn’t develop into an addiction. After all, I was responsible for keeping everything together and my waitress jobs kept food on the table and a roof over our heads.
I was afraid that I would never teach again after being out of the profession for so many years. I went to interview for the private school, a few months after he had passed. He had OD’ed on heroin and I wasn’t home to help him. He had used heroin before when he couldn’t find the opiates that he preferred. He told me that he knew what he was doing, and I didn’t question him much. I learned not to do that because it always ended badly. By the time I came home, he was cold and unresponsive. I called 911 and screamed that my husband needed help and tried to explain what was going on.
The CPR that I gave him, did nothing, of course, because he was long gone. I kept trying and I truly mourned him for months after his passing. Although his body is gone, he isn’t. Sometimes, I see him out of the corner of my eye when I’m in the kitchen or on the way out of the house. He never left. I wonder why he stays? Can he not move on or does he just want to be in a place that he knows and is comfortable in? I try not to dwell on it. Sometimes, I feel a light touch on my cheek when I’m a sleep. I never open my eyes, I don’t want to see him. I try to pretend that I never feel or see him, hoping that he would go away, or, move on, or, whatever.
When I decided to interview for the teacher position at the private school, I was afraid that they wouldn’t want me, but I told myself that I was good at what I did when I did it and to just go for it. I remember the smile that I had on my face the day they called me to offer me the job. I didn’t stop smiling that whole week, I think. I decide that I better get up from the bed and walk around a little.
I had read that somewhere about not staying in bed, if you can’t sleep, and to just do something else for about 20 minutes before trying to fall asleep again. I open the door to the bedroom, and I turn to see if Merry is going to join me. She is fast asleep and dreaming, even though the radio was still on and playing Steely Dan.
I open the front door, but keep the screen door closed. I watch the snow fall for a bit. I like the silence that comes with the snow. The street is completely empty and I feel like I’m the only one left in the whole world. I notice the little shelters that I made for the strays, are in use. It makes me happy that I can give an animal a place to feel safe an warm. There has been a baby skunk that has been visiting the porch and eating whatever I leave out. I see his fluffy tail hanging out from one of the shelters, it makes me smile.
I feel a presence behind me, so close, he is almost touching me. I ignore it, pretend that nothing is there and that I’m just watching the snow fall. Sometimes, when I ignore him like that, he goes away.
I close the door and go back inside. I stand there for a second, unsure of what to do next. I don’t want to read because I tend to read for hours and that will not put me to sleep. I decide to go to the kitchen for a quick snack. I find a cheese danish and I cut it up in small pieces because Merry loves cheese danishes. Once again, I feel his presence near me. I busy myself with the cheese danish, grab a paper towel and leave the kitchen. I bring my snack back to the bedroom and sit on the chair by the window. I continue to watch the snow and the hazy street lights.
Merry woke up when she heard me come back into the room and I think she smelled the food that I had with me. She stretches and walks over to the chair near the window, in anticipation of the treat that she is about to get. I give her some pieces to eat. First, I hold the piece of danish near her nose, so she can smell it and then I put it between her paws, so she can eat it at her own pace.
After Merry and I finish the snack, I climb back on the bed. Merry follows me and rolls on her back for some tummy rubs before going back to sleep. I turn off the light, but leave the radio on. “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police, is on. It makes me smile, remembering a certain English teacher that I had a crush on when I was 17. I used to love when he read poetry to the class and I would fantasize about what it would be like to kiss him. I had never even kissed a boy then, but I wondered about this man whom I found to be very attractive. Even now, the thought of him was erotic to me.
“STOP THAT!”, I say loudly, laughing at the memory and how it still makes me feel. I shake my head at myself and pull the covers over my head, partly, because the thought of my high school teacher made me blush, but also, because I feel his presence in the dark of the room. I wonder if he will ever move on or will I be forever haunted by him?
I often think about the person I was before meeting him. I think about the girl and the woman I was before any this happened. The girl that looked forward to every day and saw her life as one big adventure. A fearless, bright woman who loved being alive, always hoping for the best, even when she didn’t get it. Sometimes, I feel the same as I did before he came into my life.
Maybe the person that I was before he came along, is still in there, somewhere. Maybe, we don’t totally lose who we really are, because of others, even if some pieces are gone forever. This thought comforts me, even if I don’t totally believe it to be true. I try not to be as naive as I used to be.
I leave the radio, still on the oldies station. I reach out from beneath the covers, to pet Merry and to wish her sweet dreams. Merry’s fur, always soft, is suddenly brittle and standing on end. He’s here and Merry senses him, even if she can’t see him.
“It’s alright, girl, he can’t hurt you, Merry. Close your eyes and go back to dreaming, little one.”, I reassure her.
I close my eyes, knowing that he is standing over me.
© 2021 Johanna Elattar