When I get back from their funeral, Mom and Dad are in the kitchen. Dad is at the table, reading the newspaper. Mom is making coffee. They aren’t talking. Doing what they did every day for years, for decades. Just doing what they do. Just like always.
They died a week from each other, barely saying anything by the end. Mom had cancer in her stomach. Once she was gone, Dad just got a little smaller every day, fading into a paper-skinned shell of himself. It only took a week, then he was gone too. It’s just me now, in the two story house where we’ve lived all my life and most of theirs. I know every part of this house better than I know my face, every squeaky window, every crack in the kitchen linoleum. The too-short doorway by the toilet where Dad cracked his head when I was little and he was tall. The antique clock at the top of the stairs that Mom kept wound out of sentiment and I keep winding out of habit.
But I watched them get buried side by side in clay red black dirt this morning, and now they’re back in the kitchen. I guess habits die hard.
Mom gives me a cup of coffee that feels transparent and doesn’t taste like anything. I sit opposite Dad, who doesn’t say anything and reads the editorials. I wonder what he’ll do when he gets to the obituaries. After a while, I worry that I’ve cracked under the stress of funeral planning. The counselor said it can happen. Or maybe because of the grief, though truth be told, I don’t feel much of anything. They were here, then they were gone. Now they’re here again.
But in a strange way, it doesn’t really feel like them. Or look like them, either. Dad has his high hairline and short grey beard, but the rest of him is grey too. When Mom picks up the coffee pot and refills my nearly full cup, it’s like watching an old film, a little too fast and then slow. They move in broken sequences, each motion separate from the next.
I get up from the table and take off my shoes in the hall. When I look in the kitchen, they’re back where they were when I came home. Dad, newspaper, table. Mom making coffee.
When I go upstairs to sleep, I don’t sleep well. But that’s not much different from any other night. My bedroom has been my bedroom since I was a child. The walls and the windows are where they’ve always been, but I moved the bed from corner to corner, in the center, at angles throughout the years, trying to find the perfect spot that will help me sleep through the night. When I was little, my bed was under the windows. There were nightmares every night, of things crawling through the glass and gobbling me up as I lay frozen, watching parts of myself disappear into the dark.
I don’t have those dreams any more, and I don’t sleep under the windows.
My alarm rings at seven o’clock sharp.
I get out of my pajamas and into Irish Spring soap.
I wind the clock at the stair one-seventh turn.
I don’t go in the kitchen.
I go to work.
At work, I take my lunch at one p.m. sharp. Every day. Most people like to take it at noon, but my way, there’s less work after you eat. It’s a trick of the mind, easy to do. People could learn.
I get lunch from my sandwich cart two blocks south, one block east of my office building. They know me there and they know my sandwich. Wheat, ham, white cheese, tomato, salt, pepper. Simple.
When I get back to the office, it’s back to my chair and my monitor and my work.
Mom and Dad are still in the kitchen. Making coffee, reading the same newspaper. Flickering between spaces, starting and stopping in loops. They’re like single frames of film awkwardly cut together, infinitesimal fragments of time missing. Just enough to matter.
I try talking to them sometimes, but they never quite reply. That is, they never say anything back, but I catch myself thinking they do. I can talk at them for hours, and then realize neither Mom or Dad have replied to me at all, I just imagine they do.
And I realize I’m not saying anything either. I know I’ve been talking, but I don’t know about what or why. It’s just a fuzzy streak of words, like the muffled buzzing of the refrigerator as Mom pulls the coffee beans out and starts to grind them.
I wake up and it’s the day time. Or at least the windows are bright and I can see in the darkness. There’s noise in the house, people talking and footsteps. Voices I don’t know. Sounds that shouldn’t be there.
Once I’m out of the bed, I’m not cold anymore. I feel very light. When I walk down the wall and down the stairs and to the door, the house moves around me. Everything is clean and empty. The furniture is gone. The pictures on the wall that have always been there. There’s new carpets on the floors and I hear voices when there’s only me here and I see people walking and talking and inspecting my home at the corners of my eyes. They disappear, they come back. The house is empty.
When I wake up for the second time, I’m safe in my bed and everything is as it should be. When I really wake up.
My sandwich cart is closed. I don’t know why. My lunch hour started, I walked the blocks to the cart for my sandwich, and they’re closed. The window is covered with a shutter and the man makes my sandwich isn’t there. People pass by all around me as I stand staring at the shutter, going to the other carts or drinking coffee or just eating as they walk. There’s schwarma. There’s avgolemono. There’s tacos and falafel and banh mi and satay and bulgogi with kimchi, but there are no ham sandwiches.
I’m hungry when I walk back to the office. Some of my coworkers offer to share lunch with me. I don’t eat anything, and I’m hungry when I get back home and when I go to bed. All Mom makes is coffee and my stomach hurts.
At the top of the stairs, I look at the clock. The tiny teeth, The turning wheels, the dim angles of my face in the brass. The key that winds the circles in circles in circles. Each day, a seventh turn. Every day.
I don’t wind the key.
I go to work.
I begin skipping lunches at work. That way, it’s a new routine, one that can’t be disrupted by a shutter. It’s hard at first, and my stomach is always hurting. But as the days go by, meals seem less important and sometimes I lose track of any kind of food. I don’t eat much at home or at least I think I eat there sometimes. I don’t sleep much anymore, either. No more nightmares, no matter where my bed is.
One day, when I get to my desk, I can’t find it. The desk is in front of me, the monitor is there with its soft red sleep light, my chair is tucked in. But at the same time, it’s not there, it’s all out of focus. But I blink hard and bite the inside of my lip, and everything’s normal. Everything’s where it should be. Chair. Monitor. Desk.
A sign appears outside the house. Sometimes I see people in the house, and then I don’t.
I feel tired, washed out and grey. I go to work, or at least I think I do. I must. I talk to Mom and Dad, I walk up and down the stairs. I don’t wind the clock at all anymore, and I can hear it ticking away, faraway and loud. The circles circle each other, the clockwork keeps moving. I feel tired and my stomach hurts. I’ll go to the kitchen, where Dad is reading his newspaper and Mom is making coffee and she’ll pour me a cup of coffee and we’ll sit together. Drink coffee. Listen to the clock. Just like always.
Nathan is an editor with Asymmetry Fiction.