Veronica stood inside the closet and pushed the hangers back and forth, the rattle of plastic, a distraction from the horror film that privately played through her mind. Cady’s death was a thing so bizarre as to be laughable had it happened in a movie. Fuck was the only word to describe her grief and until now she was too afraid to say it out loud. She stepped out of the closet, hands on her hips, and said, “Just what the fuck am I supposed to wear?”
Russ cringed, and the beer tipped off his stomach and onto the bed. The liquid pooled around him before settling into the sheet and then the mattress. Scooping up the can, he jumped out of the bed. Veronica hoped he’d say something, but he stood there next to the bed, the heavy suck of breath coming in and out of his nose as he tried not to cry. She knew he was just as devastated as she was, but she wanted to wreck him, the way she felt every time she saw one of those Rockwell paintings. She walked around the edge of the bed and put her hand on his shoulder and he shuddered like a semi braking hard on a short yellow light.
“Don’t. Okay?” he said. “Just don’t.”
She didn’t know if he meant the cussing or the touching. If she had a can-opener, she’d crank open his skull and wait for his thoughts to spill out on the floor between them.
“Russ, I’ll take care of it. Everything,” she said, dropping her hand to the edge of the sheet.
“Leave it. I’ll just sleep on the couch. I can’t take any comfort in it anyway. I deserve a whole lot worse.”
Veronica hated the way he could take the air out of her anger, popping the balloon rising in her chest, by saying the things she wanted to say. It left her unsettled, unsure of what to say next, especially when she wasn’t sure she was done trying to hurt him. Their marriage didn’t use to thrive on hurt, but the pain from Cady’s death was like an autoimmune disease, targeting her very cells, prodding them until they were about to burst.
“Give me five minutes and you can come back and lay down. Half of it’s your bed too.”
“Forget it,” he said. “I’ll go check on the truck.” He sucked in his snot like a child, the sound stopping them both, each of them thinking of Cady, the things she would no longer do.
Veronica shook out the new sheet, the fabric billowing up between them. When it fell twisted onto the bed, Russ was standing in the doorway, hands braced against the wood, his back to her, speaking into the other room. “I’ve seen people do this in the movies. The man who is so overcome he can’t make it out of the room. I thought it was so fake, so Hollywood, but I get it now. Like those runners who crawl across the finish line. I never understood that level of exhaustion.”
She can’t touch him, can’t punch him, can’t scream, she promised herself that she was done with that. She bent over the bed, the smell of beer too close to her face for comfort, but she fussed with the corner, pulling it tight around the end of the mattress until he left, his steps heavy on the laminate floors. She refused to follow him, thinking that they both deserved their own spaces, not knowing if this more than the act of the death itself would break them.
When she got to the last corner, the sheet bunched in her hand, refusing to move forward. She put the sheet on the wrong way and she would have to start over. She rarely got it right on the first try, but those small domestic hang-ups found the dark center of her grief and anger, each one another indignity. She ripped the sheet off and flipped it into the air, trying to settle it correctly this time, the fabric billowing, like a single tawny cloud, so round, like Cady’s cheeks. This was the difference for a mother, every goddamn thing reminded you of your children. Physical pictures were for the other family members, mother’s had images and snippets of videos that ran through their consciousness, waiting in the background of their minds like landmines, popping up and exploding at the most unreasonable times, without the slightest provocation.
“Fuck,” she said, the sheet falling to the bed, wrinkled and lifeless. They wouldn’t break, she thought. They’d weather together, beat to hell by their grief, where they’d find shelter in each other or they’d erode slowly like islands awaiting the water rushing over their shores until the only evidence of their marriage existed in pictures—like maps of forgotten cities.
Tommy Dean lives in Indiana with his wife and two children. He is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. He is the Flash Fiction Section Editor at Craft Literary. He has been previously published in the BULL Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Lascaux Review, New World Writing, Pithead Chapel, and New Flash Fiction Review. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. It will also be included in Best Small Fiction 2019. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.