Isla smoothed her hand over the worn leather cover — a 1st Edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Her thumb found and lingered on the faded imprints of the gold lettering on the spine.
If she’d known she’d have let him read it, of course she would’ve. He’d always wanted to, but she’d put him off. “You have this lovely new one,” she’d said repeatedly, maybe with an edge of irritation, finding the shiny-covered Costco-purchase wherever it lay. “It’s the same story.”
Now she wondered if that was true. Yes, she’d carefully made sure it was unabridged and that the language hadn’t been modernized — but that’s not all there is to something, not at all.
She placed the new publication by its shabbier yet somehow more intriguing relation on the small pile of to-keep items accumulating on the patchwork quilt. The books slid sideways and covered his embroidered name. She let them.
The antique picture book could fetch close to 200K USD. She considered all the things it wouldn’t pay for now. What a waste. She should’ve let him read it in the tub with a root beer float. She should’ve —
And the purpose of that would’ve been what? Would it have stopped his departure? Would it have made you feel better looking back?
She left the room, shut its door.
“Tomorrow is another day, right, Mom?” piped Charlie’s voice. She jumped and looked behind her.
“So it is,” she whispered in defeat to the empty air. “So it is.”
The room was quiet except for the incessant tick, tick, tick of the metronome that Doctor Caillson, for who knows what possessed reason, thought would be soothing to his clients.
“How are things this week?” he asked when she didn’t break the silence.
“Oh? And what does ‘fine’ look like these days?”
At an earlier visit, the doctor had spoken about visualization, how it could be an effective tool in dealing with grief. “Picture yourself with Charlie,” he’d said. “Tell him all the things you feel you didn’t get a chance to say — ”
Back at home, desperate, she’d tried to take his advice. She was terrified that she was losing her memories of how Charlie looked exactly, the precise angles of his eyes, how many freckles he’d had and so on — certain that she’d try to see him, but would only conjure a fuzzy grey pseudo son..
To her shock, he appeared. Bright-faced and full of life, he grabbed her hand and started pulling her along.
“Where are we going?” she’d asked. A laugh of joy formed in her belly, but didn’t make it to her mouth.
Charlie had turned to answer, but as he did, his body and face disappeared. All that was left of him was his smile, suspended in air, a hand’s length out of reach.
Now she answered the doctor slowly. “Fine… Is that a riddle?”
“How about his room? Last time we talked, you suggested that maybe if you could bring yourself to finish cleaning up Charlie’s room, it would be some sort of closure, some form of good-bye.”
Her head tilted exaggeratedly to one side, and she wondered if she’d gone invisible too. If just her teeth were showing.
“Well,” Doctor Caillson said, “you can’t force things. Healing takes time.”
The door stayed shut. It was better that way. And she’d taken to sleeping in the living room, so she wouldn’t have to disturb the air in front of the door either. That was also better.
The windowsill above the kitchen sink contained a collection of bright coloured plastic bottles. As far as she knew none the contents made her shrink or grow. She wasn’t sure what they did. She was putting the lid back on one of the jars when she fumbled. Pills scattered. The lid rolled like a wheel over the linoleum then down the hall.
When it hit the wall, knocked itself over and stopped moving, she paused, too. She was in front of the door, but the door had changed. The knob was ornate and old-fashioned. It had a large keyhole.
Her first thought was of Doctor Caillson. Was this one of his remedies? But no, she was pretty sure he hadn’t come over. She might’ve offered him tea and there was only ever one mug in the sink. One.
Over the doorknob hung a loop of blue ribbon, stretched into an inverted teardrop by a heavy, iron key.
It still wasn’t time to clean Charlie’s room, but she couldn’t just let it be taken over either. The knob wouldn’t budge. Locked.
The key clicked. The door swung then bumped up against the trunk of a large, papery-barked tree.
She felt along the inside wall for a light switch. Yanked her fingers back when she felt moss.
Forgetting the lid, forsaking the pills, she entered Charlie’s bedroom, though “room” now seemed the wrong word. The birch marked the entrance to an old growth forest. As she tread deeper into the heart of the woods and disturbed their slumber, ancient smells of earth, water and decay rose up to greet her.
Her eyes got used to the dark, and here and there moonlight filtered through the heavy branches and further lit her way.
She was panting with exertion when she saw it beneath a canopy of pine: the bed, its small pile of treasures intact. The two books lay as she’d left them. She shoved them to rest where the pillow should be, so that Charlie’s name was once again revealed.
Crawling onto the soft mattress, she pulled the blankets back and slipped beneath them.
The scent of suntan lotion, dirt and light, and fresh sweat filled her senses.
She opened the older version of the story and laid her cheek down against its ancient pages. Her sigh was heavy with sorrow and acceptance as she let go.
Ev Bishop‘s non-fiction appears in a variety of regional and international publications. Her fiction has been published in 100 Stories for Queensland, Every Day Fiction Magazine, Cleavage (a Sumach Press anthology), AlienSkin Magazine, and is available through Ether Books.