“...and you need to remember to come home some time, okay?”
“I know. Don’t worry, I’ll be home for Christmas.”
“That’s six months away! We’re worried about you. Aren’t you working too hard?”
She paused. She smiled, even though her mother obviously couldn’t see it. She felt it made her voice more convincing.
“Mom, I’m fine! I’ll be home soon. I promise. I’m just a little tired, that’s all.”
“Well make sure you’re eating healthy! And make sure you’re doing your tabatta!”
“Well... I love you! And your father says the same. Take care honey.”
The call died. The phone dropped from her hand, her vision fading before she saw it hit the floor.
The room was quiet, except for the dull buzz of the dying lamp and the slurping of tepid noodles. Clothes lay scattered across the floor. The shades hadn’t been opened in weeks, the small rays of light making the room feel even darker.
A few minutes later, she sat up on her knees, under the small, floor table that her brother had gifted her when she had first moved in to the apartment.
Just a placeholder until you get something new!
She’d never gotten something new.
She slurped again, the noodles soggy and gummy, utterly tasteless. She couldn’t taste much of anything these days.
She glanced at the pile of dirty clothes, in the middle of her room. She had to do laundry. She had to buy more food.
She’d do it tomorrow. After work.
She stared at the laptop screen on her desk. She only ever had it on one page. Her bank account was showing, the six digit number on the screen illuminated, zoomed in as far as possible.
It was supposed to make her happy, wasn’t it?
The credit card she’d ordered was still in the envelope somewhere, in the pile of mail she’d never opened. Maybe she’d spend some of it. Maybe that’d make her happy.
Yeah. She’d do that tomorrow.
She stopped eating. She stabbed a chopstick through the side of the Styro noodle cup, on a whim. She watched the hot liquid pour out the side of the cup, onto the table. Onto her legs.
Slow. It was very slow.
It should have been faster, shouldn’t it? But it was just a slow trickle.
She thought about the rat, that she’d seen dying in the hallway outside. Foam flecking from its mouth. It was probably unconscious, so maybe it was peaceful.
But she thought about it’s bulging eyes, it’s bloodied mouth. And she frowned.
Just hypotheticals. It didn’t matter. Buy food. Buy laundry. Tomorrow. Tomorrow she’d do it.
She’d do it later.
She reached up, above the table. Felt it. It scratched her skin. He should’ve gotten her a softer one.
Was there such thing? Did it matter?
She’d buy one tomorrow. Later, after... work. She’d do it after work.
She touched the table again.
And heard someone knock on the door.
“Come on...come on...”
I glanced at my watch. It was late. I didn’t even know why I was here. A bad feeling, I guess. I knocked on the door again, slightly more urgently.
And nearly jumped as my phone rang.
Who was calling me this late?
I grabbed it out of my pocket, my hand still on the door, ready to knock again, when I saw the Caller ID. I flipped it open, quickly.
“Hi.” I said, awkwardly.
I heard her breathing, quietly. Saying nothing.
“Hey? You okay?”
“...Are you outside?”
I sighed with relief, realizing my head was sweating. I wiped it with the back of my hand, nodding to myself.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m outside the door. Uh... I’m sorry for coming over so late.”
“...Did Mom tell you to come?”
Her voice was quiet, but otherwise normal. The subliminal message was clear.
“No, Mom’s gonna kill me. I took a taxi... she doesn’t even know I’m here. She’s probably looking all over the house as we speak.”
“So why are you here then?”
Normal. Her voice sounded normal. Not happy, not sad, not annoyed.
Normal. As normal as it could possibly be.
It scared me.
“I wanted to see you. I miss you.”
I bit my lip.
“Can I come in? ...please?”
There was silence, on the other end of the phone.
A long, suffocating silence.
There was a shuffling noise.
“Okay. I just need to... clean. Just... one second.”
The line went dead. I put my hand to my chest, felt my heart beating heavily.
I heard shuffling movement from inside, the rustle of clothes.
I resisted the urge to knock on the door again.
And then, a creak. The door slid open the tiniest crack. I didn’t make a movement.
I saw her eye, peek out.
Sunken. The bags were obvious, even in the dim lighting. When was the last time she had slept? Probably around the last time I visited her.
She opened it farther, sticking her head out, seeing if anyone else was nearby. And then looked at me. Really looked at me. Like she wasn’t sure if I was actually there. The phone was dangling in her hand, wrist limp.
She sounded tired. So very tired.
“It’s...a bit of a mess right now. So...”
I gave her the best smile I could.
“Hey, you know me. I’m messier than you could ever be.”
Her face slowly lifted into the smallest smile. Like the muscles had atrophied.
“I guess you’re right. Well...”
She took a step to the side, and accepting it as permission, I walked through the door. And felt a chill crawl up my spine.
I felt my jaw drop, just a bit, as I stared blankly at the sticky notes. They were hung up on her mirrors, her bathroom door, the ceiling. Everywhere there was blank space on the walls, everywhere you looked.
“Sorry...it’s a little...intense, isn’t it.”
I turned to her, trying to hide the shock. Trying to... I don’t know. Be there for her? I’m not sure.
She smiled. Or tried to.
“It helps me focus, I guess. I just needed the help.”
Her eyes trailed off, staring at another one on the wall.
I wanted to rip it all down but not yet. I moved past the entry way, walking into the living space of her small studio. Her clothes and underwear were all over the room. There was a stench, old food and sweat permeating everything. I didn’t look at the table I'd gotten her, pushed haphazardly into the center of the room. I didn’t want to.
Instead, I looked at her bed, the sheets conspicuously clean compared to the rest of the room. Lying on top was a portrait. She was smiling, cap and gown as she grinned into the camera, leaning on top of my head. I’d always thought this picture was embarrassing, but I hadn’t seen her smile like this in so long.
A clattering sound came from behind me.
I turned, her phone on the ground. Her fingers shaking.
She fell to her knees, and I rushed over to her, gripping her by the shoulders.
She blinked, slowly, and then turned to me with surprise.
“Oh...You’re here? I didn’t hear you come in. I think I was dreaming and I...”
“Shhhh. It’s okay, it’s okay. I’m here. I’m here now.”
I helped her up, led her by the waist to her bed. Her footsteps were heavy, staggered. I got her to lie down, covering her with the sheets, bundling her in, like she used to do to me when I was a kid. She closed her eyes, as I sat on the side of her mattress, thinking.
She was falling apart. She couldn’t keep doing this.
A buzz, from behind me.
I jumped, Erika sitting up immediately as her phone started vibrating on the floor.
“I need to...”
“No, no. Stay in bed. I got it.”
She stared at me, her eyes darting back between me and the phone, like she was going to make a dash for it. But then she slowly settled back under the covers.
I walked from the bed, grabbing the phone.
I pocketed her phone, walking to the bed and sitting next to her again.
“It’s just spam. There’s been some stupid car insurance thing going around, don’t worry about it.”
I sat there, in the bed with her, as she closed her eyes.
And without saying a word, I crawled in under the sheets, next to her on the too small bed. And silently, she put her head on my chest, just like I did to her when we were kids.
It was a few minutes till she was finally sleeping, the sounds of her heavy breathing unmistakable. And once I was sure she couldn’t hear it...
I cried. My teeth pressed together so I wouldn’t make any noise, tears running quietly down my cheeks.