(content warning: self-harm mention)
Claudia wakes in the night with a parched mouth. She reaches for the water glass on her nightstand and fumbles. Tepid water fills the jewelry tray and spills under the lamp. Claudia leans to the edge of the bed and stretches her arm out, feeling about for a discarded t-shirt, nothing but a desert of old crunchy carpet. She stumbles from the bed and bumbles down to the kitchen in search of a towel. In the kitchen, the smell of tonight's dinner, Sloppy Joe's, lingers. Claudia sees the to do list under the night light, and she tears off a page to jot down a dream. Her face hovers close to the counter because she is not wearing her glasses. Claudia's long blonde hair brushes against her hand on the chipped Formica countertop. The note is short. She lets the secret breathe as she mumbles a prayer under her breath. Time is not undone even in a dream. She tears-up the secret, feeling sick and small. Claudia finally gets her drink of water then brings the kitchen towel to her chapped lips to muffle the whispers that must go back into hiding. But they will not be shunted as before. Now, they hang in her mouth like halitosis. She leaves the water glass and the towel on the kitchen counter. She's forgotten about the spill. The water will waste away at the cheap veneer of the nightstand.
On the coming Sunday, Claudia switches out her husband's nightstand for her damaged one. She makes the switch while he naps on the couch in the living room, lulled to sleep by the football he so steadfastly claims to love. After rearranging the nightstands, Claudia tugs the sheets and snaps them into place as she makes-up the bed. The sheets really need to be washed. They are dingy in the afternoon sun. Actually, they need to be replaced. They are old and unwanted. Claudia climbs onto the half-made bed and stuffs a pillow into her mouth, and screams. It is her secret that suffocates. She wanders to the bathroom and retrieves one of his new razor blades. Claudia ponders if extraction is the only way to heal. She strips down in front of the mirror, mapping where the indiscretion is seated. Claudia lifts her left breast and digs a corner of the blade into her flesh; a bead of blood escapes with the sharp pain. She slices across. The burn brings tears to her eyes. She lets the thin trail of blood flow, hoping it will take away her sin, but keep her secrets. She holds a washcloth to the incision, and she prays for release from the abortion she had to seek.
Her husband cannot father babies. The adoption papers are spread out on the coffee table. Claudia watches him snoring on the couch. He hasn't filled out the forms. She slips her hand under her sweatshirt to feel the damp bandage nestled under her breast. She is angry until she is empty. She is alone, a skeletal framework of the woman she wants to be. She shuffles the papers into a neat pile and puts them in the recycling bin before hopping on her laptop at the kitchen counter. She starts a search for a divorce lawyer. The first smile in many months sweeps across her face. She can do this. She takes a break from the divorce forms to look at apartments online. She's never had a place of her own. The Google search fantasy is fun, but she closes all the windows. It can never be. Although her husband is less than, he is hers, and she loathes to give up anymore. She watches him walk into the kitchen while she rubs the sore skin under her breast.
"What's for dinner?" he said.
"Hamburger Helper," she said because she knows it will disappoint.
Claudia is stirring and chasing his feelings, no matter how small, just to outrun her own emotional landslide. Neither her husband nor her affair fills the void, which haunts her in a cycle with the seasons ever since Claudia was a child. She has no history, no story to point to, and say this is why I'm empty inside for the vast nothing precedes all of her failures in life. Again, Claudia is falling down another rabbit hole, end over end, never knowing which way is up or where she is going. She crushes the Trazadone capsules' contents onto the cutting board along with the rough cut green bell peppers and stirs them into the hamburger helper on the stovetop. If it doesn't work, she will at least get some sleep.
Leah has two published books of short stories, Swimming Middle River and White Knight Escort Service. Her book Catawampus in Sweetgum County will publish in spring 2022. Leah is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and earned her MFA at the University of Missouri-St.Louis where she teaches in the English department. leaholbrooksackett.com