It starts with a sound coming from the room you don’t go into anymore.
The first time you hear it, you convince yourself it came from the kitchen. The refrigerator is old, having come with the house you bought together twenty-six years ago. Sure, wouldn’t a failing refrigerator make a noise like that? A moan of pain that could freeze the breath in your lungs? When you hear it again three nights later, lying curled on the couch that’s become your bed (and will likely be forevermore), you can’t lie to yourself. The sound is coming from behind the locked bedroom door.
You don’t remember getting to your feet, walking the dozen steps, but you’re standing in front of that door now. You remember how, the day after her body was taken away, you’d locked this door behind you, twisting the nob with a finality you didn’t feel, as though two inches of fibreboard could imprison grief.
When your fingers undo the lock and your hand folds around the doorknob, you’re surprised at how cold it is. Or maybe it’s just that your palm is so warm. You turn the knob and push the door open, walk inside. The bed is still there, long stripped of its sheets. Machines that once stood sentinel over heartbeats and IV drips now hover in silence. The air inside is tight as a fist.
You’re about to leave when you hear a new sound: your name in her voice. You startle, step backward. You’re about to run when your thigh connects with an object: the tray table. It judders but doesn’t fall. Spread across its surface is a jigsaw puzzle, parceling out in five-hundred pieces the likeness of a flock of flamingoes, knee-deep in briny water. The tableau is complete but for one missing piece.
You had honeymooned in Key West because she wanted to see American flamingoes. The Maldives could wait. When you came upon a half dozen of her treasured birds, you thought them ugly. Gangly, scrofulous, shabby feathers in varying shades of almost-roseate. But they had made her happy, and that was all that mattered.
In that final month, when you knew time was dropping beneath you like an anchor, you purchased this puzzle. It would be good for her. Keep her mind off the pain. Eventually, she could only manage fitting in place two, maybe three, pieces a day. Still, the puzzle drew dangerously close to completion, and what would happen then? So, you hid a piece underneath the mattress while she napped.
The call comes again: your name. Your heart flaps like wings inside your ribs. You put your hand under the mattress. It’s so small, this piece of glued layers of paper, but your fingers find it, free it.
You never said goodbye. Couldn’t, even when she begged. The word stuck, jagged and sideways, in your throat. But you say it now, fitting the missing piece into a flamingo’s head. The bird’s eye stares back, releasing you both.
Caitlin A. Quinn lives in Northern California with her partner and two badly behaved Airedale terriers. She spends way too much time imagining conversations between imaginary people. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthology MURDER ON HER MIND, Vol 2., BLOOD & BOURBON (Issue 12), and A THIN SLICE OF ANXIETY. She is a member of Stony Brook University’s BookEnds Fellowship Seven. Instagram: caitlinaquinnwriter.