Strange. The keys looked strange to her. They’d been in the back of a drawer in the back of the house in the back of her mind—buried.
Until two months ago, the keys had always hung on the wall beside Claire’s front door. It was their special place—on a hook beneath the framed butterfly her mother had given her. The butterfly, frozen in mid flight and squished between two pieces of thin glass, was a sentinel for that which rested on the hook beneath its watchful, azure wings. But there was nothing to guard after the apartment keys were shoved into the clutter of a dusty drawer three months ago.
Before leaving her house, Claire reached into the drawer, grabbing the keys that were right where she left them. As she stood ready to leave, squeezing the jagged metal into her palm, Claire stared at the butterfly; it seemed to mock her saying, You should have gone months ago. What’s wrong with you? Grow up! Claire ripped the tiny frame from the wall and threw it against the floor. The glass shattered. The butterfly flew out and twisted in the air before flopping on a bed of broken glass blanketed in its own limp wings. Then she left.
Claire stood in the hall outside of Trevor and Katie’s apartment door. The stench of Lysol, cooked fish, and spicy curry filled the air. Muffled music came from the apartment to the left, a television blared from somewhere down the hall, and footsteps thudded down the stairs. Claire looked at the door and swallowed hard, almost tasting the drying Lysol on the moist linoleum beneath her feet.
I should have come here months ago, she thought before sighing and extending the apartment key towards the deadbolt.
Half expecting Trevor or Katie to open the door to let her in, she paused before inserting the key. When her hand began to tremble as it hovered there, she let it fall back to her side and squeezed the keys into her palm.
“Jesus Michael,” she said, dropping her head back and staring at the ceiling for a moment. “Where are you?”
She pulled out her phone and called him again. No answer, again.
She looked at the peephole; it seemed to watch her. She wanted to reverse it, to peek inside before going in even though she’d been there a thousand times before. Claire closed her eyes and took a few breaths.
“I can do this. I can do this.”
Then, holding her breath, she thrust the key into the lock, opened the door, and stepped inside.
The apartment was hot. Sun radiated through the open curtains, and dust frolicked in the sunbeams. Still, goose bumps infected Claire’s skin.
She stood on the multicoloured welcome mat and tried to breathe in the familiarity, but the stench of fermentation and the rot of garbage stung her nostrils. She covered her nose and breathed through her hand; the artificial green apple smell of the gas station hand soap lingered there; it overpowered the stench seeping up from under the kitchen sink and the gasoline she’d gotten on herself when filling her car half an hour before. While pumping gas, she daydreamed about striking a match and dropping it into the gas tank. The pump had clicked off, but Claire kept filling and filling—thinking about that match, the sparks, the flames—until gasoline trickled down the side of the car. She had tried to catch the gas, to save it, but it slipped through her fingers.
Staring into the kitchen, smelling her apple hand, she wanted to smell ginger and Trevor’s cooking more than anything.
“Smells delicious,” Claire said while hanging her coat in the closet. “What are you cooking?”
Trevor poked his head around the corner. “Spaggetios,” he said, grinning. “You know that’s all I can make.”
“Didn’t your father teach you how to make that?” Claire said. She kissed his cheek, stepped around the corner, and saw Katie setting the table.
“Nope, Chef Boyardee did.”
Katie put down the plates and moved towards Claire. “Hey,” she sang with her arms open for a hug.
“How are you dear?” Claire asked, rubbing Katie’s back.
“Great,” she said, glancing at the stove. “I hope you’re hungry.”
Katie moved back to the table. “Where’s Michael?”
Trevor lifted a spoonful of his bubbling, yellow concoction into the air and, cupping his other hand beneath it, said, “You didn’t forget Dad did you?”
“He just ran to the liquor store.”
Trevor moved the spoon towards Claire’s mouth. “Here taste this,” he said.
Claire sniffed and said, “Smells good.” She blew on the steaming spoonful before wrapping her mouth around it. Her eyes widened when the sauce hit her tongue and slid down her throat.
“Mmmmmm.” She wiped her bottom lip and sucked on her finger. “Is that orange?”
“And pineapple and ginger,” Trevor said, nodding and smiling as if he’d just invented the world’s greatest sauce.
He looked sixteen again and thrilled about making ginger snaps with fresh ginger instead of the powdered stuff for the first time. He’d given her the first taste then too. The spice had danced across Claire’s tongue and down to her stomach. She’d never made cookies that good before, but she had showed him how to make his first batch and, until he moved out, was there every time he made something new.
Claire lowered her hand. She could barely even smell the rot anymore, but she did whiff ginger and could almost taste citrus.
The closet was to her right and full of jackets.
I can’t go through those. Everything has to go, but I can’t go through it.
Two pairs of running shoes were in front of her. The smaller pair was orderly with its heels and toes touching, they could have been displayed in a shoe store. The other larger pair was strewn across the floor. Claire knelt, slipped off her shoes, and slid into Trevor’s sneakers—they were big but warm.
The kitchen sink was full of murky water and submerged dishes. The juicer was still plugged in and full of moldy pulp and countless fruit flies. Claire stepped towards the kitchen table where a bunch of spare change, a half package of gum, and a silver wristwatch were. Claire clasped the watch around her wrist. It’s cold, but it’s him. Too big for her tiny wrist, it flopped around as she moved her arm. Looking down at the clear, glass face, she noticed that the hands had stopped at 7:45pm. She thought about winding it, about how she’d wound it and set it before wrapping it on his twentieth birthday. Claire wouldn’t let herself wind. Not again.
She walked down the hall, her clunky shoes clopping against the floor until she stopped in the bathroom. A wilted plant drooped down over its pot on top of the toilet tank. Clare tried the faucet but nothing came out, so she picked up the plant, the dry leaves tickling the backs of her knuckles, and spit into the cracked, dehydrated soil. She watched the bubbles pop and a wet spot appear before tonguing the roof of her mouth and dragging her teeth across her inner cheeks to gather more saliva. When the urge to swallow grew too great to ignore, she spit into the arid soil again. The dirt moistened even more, but not enough. Claire put the plant on the closed toilet seat, removed the porcelain cover from the toilet’s water tank, cupped her hands, and dipped them into the water. It was cold and dripped through the cracks in her hands when she moved towards the thirsty soil. She hydrated the plant until water seeped out the bottom of the pot and her hands were soggy and the floor was soaked and her socks were wet inside her oversized shoes.
Claire held a potted ivy under the running kitchen faucet.
“You’re what?” she asked, looking back over her shoulder at Trevor and Katie.
“We’re getting married,” they said in unison, smiling, Katie jumping up and down slightly.
Claire turned around with the ivy in her hands, the faucet still running behind her. Dirty plant water poured down onto her pants, socked feet, and the kitchen tiles. Trevor and Katie jumped back before taking hold of the leaking plant and placing it back in the sink.
“I’ll go get some towels,” Katie said, turning to leave the kitchen.
“Never mind that,” Claire said. “Come here, dear.”
She grabbed Katie and hugged her. As she squeezed, her tears fell onto Katie’s shoulder, “A daughter. My daughter,” she said. Leaning back and looking into Katie’s soft, chocolate eyes.
Claire giggled and wiped her tears away. Her son was still messing with the plant in the sink, so she sloshed towards him one sopping wet foot at a time, and hugged his back and kissed his cheek. She was afraid he’d never get married. That he’d never have kids.
“Let go of that plant and give me a proper hug … Katie get in here too.”
Trevor’s razor and Katie’s facial moisturizer were on the bathroom counter. Claire looked at herself in the watermarked mirror and rubbed her face, stretching the skin around her mouth, eyes, and forehead to make her wrinkles disappear for a moment only to reappear as even deeper ruts.
I look old, too much mascara, too much blush. Like an old clown.
Suddenly she couldn’t see her face anymore because Trevor had become her reflection. He was shaving, his shirt off and his face lathered. Claire touched the mirror but it was just cold and dirty. She picked up the razor and mimicked Trevor. She ran the blade down her right cheek and then up her left—the soft, almost translucent hairs cutting away beneath the sharp blade. Then Trevor was gone. Claire reached for the mirror again but only touched the reflection of the red irritation left behind by the blade. Her cheeks began to burn, so she put the razor back and pumped moisturizer into her palm. Dabbing her fingertips into the cold cream, she rubbed it into her face, her fingers making tiny circles across her pores, the cream soothing her razor burn.
Claire stepped into the bedroom. The door was open and sunlight radiated in through curtainless windows. Some clothes lay crumpled on the floor. A dark blue button-up shirt clung onto a corner of the unmade bed. Claire stepped towards the shirt, lifted it to her face, and sniffed; Trevor was in the fabric, trapped in the shirt’s fibers. She breathed him in and out until she could no longer smell him. Then she slipped on the shirt and embraced herself with it as if it were a housecoat. As she did, she heard tiny footsteps scamper clumsily down the hall outside the room. Claire rushed into the hall and saw a two-year-old girl stumbling towards her on unsteady feet.
“Look at you,” Claire said, squatting down and opening her arms. “Who’s a big girl?”
The little girl giggled, her wobbly, chubby legs moving quicker as she leaned forward.
“Come to grandma. Come to grandma.”
When the little girl was close enough, Claire saw that she had Trevor’s eyes. She squeezed her tight and felt her own heartbeat in the child.
“Grandma loves you, baby girl.”
Claire opened her eyes, and the girl was gone. She felt her hands gripping her own shoulders and let go of herself. Standing and staggering backwards into the bedroom, she wiped her watering eyes, smearing mascara across her face. When her calves hit the mattress, she flopped down on the bed. With her knees up to her chest and her arms around her legs, she stared at the asparagus-coloured wall directly in front of her.
Where is she? Where’s my little one? It’s the least they could have done.
At that moment, Claire’s cell phone rang, and her entire body flinched as if somehow pierced by the sound.
Claire hurried inside and dropped the groceries by the entrance before picking up the phone.
“Hello,” she said, slightly out of breath.
She pushed her long hair behind her ear and away from the phone. The voice on the other end was unfamiliar; she thought it was a telemarketer and began flipping through the mail on the table as she waited to say she wasn’t interested.
She looked back at the open door and took two steps towards it before stopping.
“Wait wait wait. What kind of an accident? Are they okay?”
She staggered and grabbed hold of the doorknob to steady herself.
“What? When? But they just ... I mean they were just ...”
Claire dropped the cordless phone—it hit the floor and broke open, its battery spun across the tile and disappeared under the dinning table. Claire’s legs gave out. She clung to the doorknob with both hands but couldn’t feel the cold metal. She couldn’t even feel her own heartbeat.
Claire scrambled for the phone and pulled it from her pocket just in time to see ‘One Missed Call: Home’ on its digital display.
“You’re still at home,” she said, clenching her teeth and flipping open her phone. “Always in the wrong place.”
She thought about how she’d cried herself unconscious in the entranceway of their house, about waking up—soaked in her own tears and spit—and calling his office, calling his cell, calling his office, about how she had wanted to leave, Our kids are dead, on his voicemail.
“Probably practicing your golf swing,” she said, “or taking a long, self-indulgent lunch.”
Claire sat up wanting to hit something. But then she glanced at the indented pillows and saw a few short, brown hairs. She collected them one at a time.
“They can’t take these,” she said, shoving a pile of hairs into the breast pocket of Trevor’s shirt. “Not these.”
She stood, dialed, and held the phone to her ear as she made her way past the kitchen and into the living room. As the phone rang, everything she wanted to say ran through her mind.
Where were you? Why don’t you care? You selfish prick. When did you stop caring about your son? About me? I’m leaving. I’m leaving! You already left. I DON’T LOVE YOU EITHER.
She paced and stomped and growled until she saw a pair of car keys resting at the edge of the coffee table. Staring down at the cold ring of metal, Claire froze.
“Hey, I’m just leaving now,” Michael said through the receiver.
Claire cringed at his voice. He sounded like Trevor only older, only dead.
She screamed and threw the phone against the closest wall as hard as she could—its pieces scattering throughout the living room. Grabbing the car keys, she fell to the floor pressing the jagged metal into her chest. Black mascara-stained tears poured down her cheeks, and dripped onto the oversized shirt and shoes she wore. She held her son’s watch up to her ear and heard nothing. She shook it, still nothing.
Rocking back and forth in the dead silence of the living room, Claire cradled herself and began to wail.