In Bleak Space

Fiction by D.L. Poirier

Claire’s son was helping her move. It made her angry to subject him to this moment in her life. Her husband was gone, on the other side of the country now, and she was left, to be pitiful, with the physical accumulation of their life together. She stopped being able to see all the stuff long ago, but forced to deal with it now she was confronted by twenty-six years of life packed away.

“What a monstrous amount of shit,” she said.

Thomas, her son, shifted like he was going to say something, but remained quiet beside her in the uncomfortably silent and dim basement room.

“Okay. Let’s move this stack upstairs and stop for now. You have to get to class?”

“Yeah. Two-thirty.”

“I’ll give you a lift over,” Claire said.

She turned to her son, expecting the usual dismissal of the young man beginning to find himself in the world, but he didn’t say anything. She saw him bite the inside of his cheek, sucking flesh between teeth, before he stepped forward and picked up a large box to carry into the light of the main floor of the house. She looked at the boxes and swallowed the conflux of emotions tightening in her throat. The air was still, paused, and in the brief seconds before her son came back she hoped the floor would open up beneath her.

Thomas came down the stairs and Claire took one side of a heavy box. They moved up the rest of the stack together and Claire knew that her son could move them all without her help. She loved him, hated him, and was thankful that he let her help to shift the weight out of the dark, exposing it so that it could be, hopefully, discarded.

After she dropped Thomas off at his school, Claire avoided the task for as long as she could. She made herself a sandwich and watched daytime television – soap operas – which she hadn’t done in years. She relaxed, watching the perfectly primed and coiffed actors loving and hating. The shows ran into worse television and Claire turned the television off reluctantly. Her stomach dropped when the screen went black and heavy silence filled the room.

She boiled water in the kitchen for tea and, while waiting for the water to heat, looked at her distorted reflection in the brushed metal of the electric kettle. Was she still attractive? Did she want to be? The idea of a new man, a stranger, was unnerving. She wanted to feel liberated; she wanted new-found energy. But all she felt was discarded. She ate four Oreos while she waited for her tea to steep.

With tea to fortify her, Claire returned to the basement to sort some more. In a dark corner, where the boxes she and Thomas moved had been, there was a small cube stool. Momentarily, in the dim light, it was an alien object, but a few steps closer and Claire felt a cascade of recognition. The stool had likely been here since she and her husband, with infant Thomas, moved in to the house twenty years before. She sat on the floor before the stool and ran her hands along the top of it. The old fabric was already threadbare when she was a child, so now it was barely holding together, and the cheap yellow foam of the cushion was clearly visible in places, if not completely exposed. The wooden side panels were loose from where they connected to the legs and the whole thing looked set to fall apart. She opened the lid, the cushion was hinged to one side, and inside was a mess of old, yellowed papers, which had shifted into uncomfortable positions the last time the stool had moved. Claire pulled out the papers, conscious of the rabbit hole and not caring, and gasped when she saw the paper that fell away from the bottom of the stack. In child-sized, shaky lettering, it was labeled: Santa.

Claire’s mother told her that the stool was magic. It began with Santa. Claire didn’t remember how old she was at the time, but she had written a letter for Santa and wanted her mother to mail it.

“You don’t mail letters to Santa!”

Claire was suspicious.

“That’s what his elves are for. They find the letter and bring it to him.”

Claire remained unconvinced. The consensus at school was that you mailed the letter to Santa at the post office. The post office obviously had his address, because it was the post office. The magic stool didn’t convince her, but the mystery was too much to pass up. According to her mother, anything you put in the stool would be, “taken care of.” Over the years Claire put in letters to Santa, her mother got her to write down the subjects of nightmares and drop them in, she put her dreams in along with wishes, and once even her dead goldfish went in as a secret experiment. Claire would pass by the stool intermittently and after a few minutes or half an hour she would pull open the lid and whatever had been inside would have vanished, away in the hands of some magical sorting imp. Even the goldfish only left behind a small damp circle on the fiberboard bottom panel.

When Claire went to college she took the stool with her. Her mother joked that the magic wouldn’t work away from the house. Claire never looked inside the cube and tucked it into the corner of her dorm room. She knew it was silly, but whenever she was anxious about a test she would write it all down and put the paper in the stool. If she got back a paper and wasn’t happy with the grade, it went into the stool. It always made her feel better.

When her mother was hit by a car and died, it felt like she slipped a thousand sheets of paper under the lid.

She considered leaving the stool behind when she married and Thomas’ father didn’t understand why she wanted to bring the ugly and broken box. She used it for college again as she tried to finish her degree while pregnant. She used it when her new husband told her she shouldn’t bother finishing the degree. It was a waste of time.

All those years were in front of her, a hyper-emotional diary. Claire knew that it had been stupid to think the box was really magic as a child, to pretend that it was real. She looked through some of the pages and it was hard not to think that, somehow, all the fears and hopes had led her to this point. What difference had any of it made?

She sat on the floor and picked up the pen and legal pad that she had been using to inventory. She hesitated, and then she listed:

gun in my mouth

hanging from the ceiling

wrists

eat pray bullshit

burning to the ground

old and alone

She tore the paper from the pad and put it in the stool.

She piled the old papers into a neat stack and pressed out the creases and wrinkles. She felt like she needed to carry these things with her now. The stool looked worn and sad, it wouldn’t survive another move. It had been falling apart since before she was born. Claire stood up with her tea and the papers and looked at the stool. She set down the mug and started working at her wedding band. She straightened her finger and wiggled the gold circlet; it sucked at the skin as she pulled it off. She lifted the lid of the stool and set the ring down inside, on top of the list. It was stupid, she knew it was stupid, but she didn’t care.

Claire walked up the stairs, but she had been down there so long that now the sky was dark.

D.L. Poirier currently resides in New York where he is completing his MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, his work has previously appeared in Lyre, W49, and Hiaspire magazines. His article “The Book Was a Book” was recently published at Deadshirt.net. More of his work can be found at dlpoirier.com.

Featured Image photograph by E.B. Bartels, www.ebbartels.com.

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