On the day he dies, it has been almost a year since Amelia has seen him. After the police had started knocking on her door, which was his last known residence, and the warrants requesting his remittance to the police department had begun appearing in her mailbox, he’d gone back up North—to get help, he’d said, to get clean. The police had shown up again just last month and Amelia had given them his phone number. Just last week another warrant had come in the mail.
Amelia wishes now that the police had found him. Wishes now that he was safe in the city jail. Wishes that her cell phone would ring and on the other end she would hear his voice saying his own name and the digital recording asking if she would accept the charges. Wishes that she could begrudgingly enter her credit card information and shake her head because she was still paying for his shit even with him in jail. Wishes now that she could hear his voice again. Wishes that she could hear his voice.
He had died in the middle of the afternoon in the bathroom of his mother’s apartment. His mother had given him money, which sends through Amelia a short shock of anger because putting money in his pocket was the same as putting the needle in his arm, and didn’t his mother know that by now, after all this time? It is useless to place blame, she knows, but there is also some relief in it—in the anger itself and in finding a living, breathing body at which to direct it.
On the train north to the funeral, Amelia reads an article in the newspaper. A seven-year-old girl’s parents were found dead in their home after the first grader had confessed to her bus driver in the afternoon that she hadn’t been able to wake her mommy and daddy that morning. She had gotten herself dressed and ready for school and on the bus, but had been fretting secretly about her parents throughout the day. The police had found them dead in their bed. The girl’s three younger siblings—one just nine months old—were also found in the home; all alive and uninjured. The little girl worried to an officer about who would sign her homework for the next day now that her parents were dead.
In a town close to the incident, police had responded to 27 opiate overdoses in a single day. Over one hundred people a day were dying from overdoses across the country with the death rate rising rapidly.
The numbers are astonishing, yet they too give Amelia some comfort; hundreds of people are feeling the same pain that she is right now, every day.
On the evening she had received the phone call from his mother, the pain had been torrential and her entire body convulsed with sobs throughout the night and into the next day. The moans rumbled up from the inside of her and exited her mouth like the wind of a pair of bellows trying to extinguish a flame, but instead only fanning it larger. That night, she kept seeing his face, clear and smiling, as she had seen it early on, when they had first fallen in love, before he’d been dragged down into the pit and everything about him had become cold and muddy and unrecognizable. That night, she kept hearing his voice and his laugh and remembering the feeling of his wide, hard fingertips. She kept thinking, he’d loved her, he’d loved her, he’d loved her. But it hadn’t been enough.
At the funeral, in the bright white room, everyone reveres her as the widow—though by this time they’ve been separated for almost two years—and embraces her with condolences. She sits in the second row of the funeral chapel, behind his family, soaking tissues and balling the disintegrating paper up in her fist and feeling like her chest is the porous surface of a seashell being continuously corroded by salt. The others’ faces aren’t a streaked mess, and she feels like she is the only one whose sadness is beyond control.
This is what she wants: for none of this to be happening. To go back five years to the way he used to be and stop all this from happening. She keeps on thinking: this shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t be happening.
It is soon after Amelia returns home, which was his last recorded residence, that she begins to notice the insects. As she sits on the toilet releasing a slow trickle of pee, a fruit fly hovers near her cheek. Her hand moves automatically to swat it away, but she hesitates, and her hand stops in mid-motion. Her fingers drop to her thigh, and she feels the bug alight on her skin. A thought flashes. It’s him. Maybe, it could be him—a new iteration, a reincarnation of him. The fly floats against her throat and down to her shoulder before drifting away.
The night that she learned of his death had been cold, but now October has warmed, and the mosquitos reemerge. She sits on her stoop in the evening, watching the falling autumn light turn the tops of the trees from green to yellow, and a mosquito lands on her ankle. There is a slight sting as the proboscis enters her flesh, but she makes no movement to brush the insect from her skin. If it is him, and he now needs her blood, she’ll give it; she has blood to spare.
At the office, she stares at the screen of her computer, ignoring the flashing message notifications in the bottom corner of the screen: so sorry … so very sorry … anything I can do … remember when … can’t imagine … thinking of you and … so, so sorry … didn’t know … what happened … sorry … hope you’re … And the endless stream of pictures stored forever in the deep reaches of social media that remind her of what he and she used to be like, together, always together, before he wasn’t himself anymore, before she had forgotten how they used to be.
Now, it is impossible to stop remembering.
In the office kitchen, Annette, the toddler-twin-mother, has left a bunch of organic bananas in the fruit bowl beside the sink. Their skin is wilting, freckled with sweet, brown indents. The flies are breeding. Amelia leans against the counter and rinses her coffee mug in the sink. The flies cloud around her and she closes her eyes and lets them land on her face, her blouse, the tip of her nose. Who knows who he is now? Any one of them could be him.
At home, she discards the sticky blue pools of poison she has distributed throughout the kitchen. Splintering lines of tiny black ants begin to appear. They circle the drain of the steel sink. They cluster atop the lid of the honey jar. She lets them climb up her finger to her arm as she stirs the milk in her coffee and she feels a strange affinity to them.
In the evening, she walks. Over the sidewalk, rounding the block, picking out the stars as they egress from darkness and appear overhead. She begins to cross the bridge toward downtown and feels the edge of the guardrail pulling at her body. Feels the gravity of the ground below, pulling at her. The headlights of cars passing underneath are light vortexes streaming blindingly—vacuums. She stumbles, her head swoops in vertigo, and she fears fiercely the fall. She turns around and walks home.
Her sleep is light and flooded with dreams. After a period of absence she thought had erased the past, his face and voice are once again crystalline. His coarse red sideburns, carved to ridiculous points meeting the deep indents of his dimples. His high, smooth forehead. His wide blue eyes, set just a little too close together, but shaded by dense, curling lashes. The cleft etched into his chin. Smiling, now, always smiling, with an openness that makes her chest expand.
She wakes crying. Her eyes are faucets. Her face is a lattice of salt. Her shoulders quake. She cries until she feels hollow. Until her body becomes a cold, dark, empty well.
On Saturday it is warm enough to be summer again. She sits on the stoop with a book in her hands and is able to read two, three paragraphs at a time without pausing to think: he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead. Feathered clouds disperse into the cool blue overhead. The robins hop about on the lawn, pecking madly at the holly berries. If he were a bird, he’d be a robin; he’d like that, she thinks.
She steps into the grass and examines the small crop of chard and lettuce in the planter box. The lettuce is withering in the heat. She hasn’t watered it in days. She plucks a young leaf and puts it in her mouth. It’s bitter, but she chews it and swallows.
A wasp flits between the black-eyed Susans which bloom beside the planter box. Amelia holds very still and watches as it bounces between the blossoms. The EpiPen in the kitchen drawer is expired. She hasn’t had the money to replace it.
The sun is hot. She flinches to wipe a trickle of sweat from the back of her neck, and the wasp lands on her arm. There is beauty in the black segments of its body, in its hypnotic, folding wings. It could be him.
The sting bursts through her. The pain is wonderful. She watches as the wasp floats back among the flowers. She stumbles backward and lies down in the grass. Her body pushes into the soft green. She spreads out her arms and opens her palms. Stretches her fingers between the bending blades. The blades are soft. The day is blue. A white jet stream diffuses in a diagonal line across the rounding blue sky. She blinks slowly and feels her throat seize. Asphyxiation will be complete in seconds. The light is soft and blue. The edges of everything dull. She is dying.
She is dying, now, like he is dead. But now, dying, his face is not the one she sees. She does not think of him. She does not think of the yellow alley light under which they first met and smoked cigarettes and listened to the thud of the band inside the brick walls. She does not see the small room with the white cinderblock walls, her monk’s cell, where they would lie for hours on her mattress on the floor. She does not see his freckled back or think of the way she could touch it all morning with pleasure, without getting bored. Or how his snores, at first, to her were music. She does not think of running to him across the black and white tiled floor of the restaurant where she once worked and kissing his thick lips and watching him smile, and her old skinny manager shaking his head and saying with wonder, “Boy, you must be doing something right.” Or the way he would put his hand with wrinkled knuckles, lines so deep they seemed to reach the other side, on her thigh while she drove them in her car as the radio blared through the open windows. Or the way they danced, together, everywhere. Or the way he was always smiling, even when he shouldn’t have been, even when he should have been apologizing, and the way he wanted her and everyone else to be smiling too. Even when she was sad. The way he whistled like a bird when he needed to find her in a crowd until she heard and whistled back, the two of them twittering back and forth through pursed lips until they found each other. The way he called her Tupelo Honey. The way she called him Tupelo Honey back. The feel of that name on her lips.
She does not see his face. Instead, it is her mother’s face she sees. Her mother’s face when her mother was young. Before the name of Jesus became the refrain of her every conversation. Before the arrival of siblings and the onslaught of exhaustion dulled the sparkle of her smile and tinged the high melody of her voice with a hoarseness that made it seem foreign. She sees her mother’s eyes, not unlike her own, though blue not brown, and the way her mother looked at her when she was very young, as if she were pristine, a perfect thing, something new, something to be hoped for. She hears her mother’s voice singing, sweet and young and unhurried, singing, the little bird flies through the bright blue sky, and the bright blue sky blows by…
She stares at the blue of the sky, ebbing now, coming close, blue, not unlike the blue of her mother’s eyes. Blue, like her mother is blue. Blue like the sky. Amelia is blue and feels blue and feels like her mother and is her mother and is the sky. The little bird flies through the bright blue sky, and the bright blue sky blows by. She is blue and she is her mother and she is the sky and she is him and the wasp and the ant and the poison and the grass and the sky and all the streaming lights. She is pristine and perfect and new and something to be hoped for. The little bird flies through the bright blue sky, and the little bird sings bye-bye
The little bird sings bye-bye
Elizabeth Mayer is currently an MFA candidate in the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, a preschool teacher, and a cool mom.