You’ll return home later than you were meant to. That day. Out with the lads will play in your head, already a worn excuse, and you not yet twenty. You’ll carry with you the boggy remnants of an afternoon drizzle. As you shake the rain from your hair, you’ll notice droplets clinging to the cuffs of your coat, and you’ll wonder at the natural resistance of wool. You’ll even picture for a moment those black-faced Connemara sheep, the ones the American tourists are always photographing like a local landmark rather than a livelihood. The door will close behind you, that old familiar thud, irrefutable, as if slammed by the hand of the council. Or fate. The dankness will close in around you like breath in a bottle. Stale breath. Blutered breath. Generations of drunks will have climbed these stairs before you, the vapors of their defeat buried like mildew in the peeling wallpaper. Your boot will snag on a broken floorboard, and you’ll catch yourself, but barely. Somewhere in the slosh of your mind, you’ll understand that the day will come when you won’t. You won’t catch yourself. Falling will be your inheritance.
On the third floor, you’ll shoulder your weight into the perpetually swollen door. Dusk will have settled into the room long before your arrival, and you’ll shuffle through it slowly. You’ll slip your coat over the back of a chair the way you once imagined a man might treat a lady, and you’ll stare too long at the picked over egg and chips congealing next to an overflowing ashtray. The air will be thick with it all, the fug of egg and smoke clotted with dust. For a moment, you’ll even smell the notes of her voice, imagine her old whisky gravel grinding along to a sad song on the transistor radio balanced on the windowsill. The antenna will have toppled, and you’ll realize that you didn’t even notice the static. You’ll head to the window, but then you’ll hesitate. You’ll press your forehead against the glass, grateful for the cold, for the sharpness of it.
It’ll be the sound that pulls you back. Later you’ll call it a crinkling, something like the memory of Christmas paper. Startled, you’ll knock the radio off the sill, the impact jarring it back onto a station. A song will fill the room, something sappy from the sixties. You’ll spend the rest of your life searching for that song.
You won’t enter the bedroom. You’ll hover in the doorway like you did when you were her son, before you were her caretaker. You’ll barely notice the cigarette burn in the lampshade or the toppled bottle. You won’t really see her legs digging into the tangle of grimy sheets or how her housecoat has ridden up, the puckered skin of her thighs, how dirty her feet are. You’ll glimpse her fingers clawing at her throat, and your mind will puzzle at the restriction there, even wonder for a moment did she go out to the shop to buy tape or was it buried in some dark drawer. But then you’ll catch the spark of gold, the band she still wears even though your father took your little brother and left for London three years ago.
What you will see clearly, what you will always see, is her mouth. You will see the gape of it, how large it is, how greedy you will think, and then the plastic bag stretched taut over it, the movement of it like a membrane, and you will recognize breath. You will understand that there is still time, a chance. But you will wait. You will not move, not this time. And when it is over, you will turn off the radio, empty the ashtrays, collect the dishes, the bottles. You will open the window.
And then you will breathe.
Rebecca Andem earned an MFA from the University of Southern Maine. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in over two dozen literary journals, and her short story collection, The Estrangement Effect, was published in 2020. For a decade, she lived as a nomadic teacher in SE Asia. She now lives in Tucson with a rather talkative cat and a big blue sky.