Edition 12: Serial Fiction: Clutter Coach (Part 1 of 2) by Tom Barlow
Part 1 sees us meeting Kathy, clutter coach, who helps clean up other people’s lives but can’t control her own dysfunction. Giving into her own secret collection compulsions, Kathy comes upon a silver samovar. She may not have bargained on what the samovar brings to her life however. SY
Kathy struggled all through dinner with the thought of the treasures sitting curbside for any passerby to grab. Perhaps if her husband Stuart had stayed home to watch “American Idol” with her that evening, she could have put it out of her mind. But he bowled on Wednesday nights.
Alone, though, her mind kept returning to the blood-orange stoneware she’d helped her client Debbie carry to the curb that morning, for the next day’s trash pickup. Several of the pieces were collectible, Kathy was sure of it. She’d seen similar pieces on The Antiques Roadshow.
What enticed her most, though, was the tall, silver samovar that she’d spotted in the bottom of one of the boxes Debbie had asked her to carry out, obviously thinking it held only old almanacs. Kathy had recognized it as valuable, but she kept her mouth shut and carried the box to the street, piling bundled newspapers on top to discourage anyone from picking it up.
All through the evening news, after Stuart left, Kathy felt her resolve decay. Finally, she gave up and changed into what she thought of as her hunting outfit—black tights, loose black microfiber sweatshirt, black leather half-boots, black beret. As she put on the outfit, she could feel herself changing from the cool, reasoning business Kathy to the acquisitive, thrill-seeking hunter Kathy.
She waited until well after sunset before she got in the car. Stuart had left Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd in the CD player of the Acura SUV and she let it play as she drove across town to the New Albany neighborhood of her client.
Kathy cruised past her client’s house twice, watching for dog walkers, night joggers, or teens walking the sidewalk so they could talk on their cell phones away from their parent’s prying ears. The neighborhood seemed as tranquil as the names of the streets—Olympia, Mt. Blanc, and Kilimanjaro. The only motion she saw was the blue-white flicker of a plasma screen TV through the triple-glazed glass of the mansion next door to her client.
On her third pass up Everest, Kathy stopped next to the mountain of trash she had helped Debbie carry to the curb that morning. Moving quickly, but not so much as to draw the attention of the casual observer, she heaved the bundled newspapers off the samovar. When she picked up the box, the bottom, moistened by an automatic lawn sprinkler, broke open, spewing foam peanuts into the gutter.
“Oh crap,” Kathy said, fishing into the opened box until she felt the samovar. She pulled it out and tossed it into the front seat of her SUV. Before she could locate the box with the orange stoneware, though, the porch light of her client’s house came on.
Kathy dashed back to the driver’s side of her car, jumped in, and drove off. She prayed her client hadn’t recognized her or her car.
She had to stop in the parking lot of the Kroger’s a mile down the road, to catch her breath. Her heart beat a tattoo on her rib cage. She listened to Pink Floyd’s song “Breathe” as she rested her forearms on the top of the steering wheel and tried not to cry.
Once home, Kathy hid it in the back of the storage loft in their garage where Stuart would not find it. She took a long shower and spent the balance of the evening with a box of merlot and the gang from Glee, but even they didn’t cheer her up.
She was still awake when Stuart finally returned home, but she had long before cultivated the ability to pretend she didn’t wake when his weight hit the bed.
Kathy slept hard and woke late. She scrambled to make her first appointment of the morning, with her friend and favorite client, Mary Beth.
Kathy could hear her snoring as soon as she let herself in the back door.
She tromped as loudly as she could to the bedroom but Mary Beth didn’t stir. When Kathy reached out and shook her arm, though, she went from sleep to spasm.
“Jesus Christ. You scared the piss out of me.” The woman scrambled out of bed and headed to the bathroom. “Although, first thing in the morning, that’s not hard to do.”
Kathy looked around the room while she waited for Mary Beth to dress. The whole scene depressed her: the closet so full of designer suits and dresses that the door wouldn’t close, the under-bed plastic storage cases that no longer fit under the bed, the pile of paperbacks and girl-scout cookie boxes on the nightstand. They had purged this room only two months before.
She ran her fingers over a new peach micro-fiber suit, cut to flatter Mary Beth’s trim figure. The suit would have accentuated all of Kathy’s flaws-melon butt, narrow shoulders, short legs, florid complexion.
When Mary Beth came back out, wearing a de la Renta workout suit, Kathy pointed to the closet and said, “I thought we threw that robe away last week?”
Mary Beth grabbed a scrunchee from the dresser, leaned her head forward then snapped it back, catching her lush blond hair in mid-flight and gathering it. “I bought it back at the Salvation Army thrift shop,” she said. “For a buck. I couldn’t pass it up. It cost me over two hundred bucks, new.”
“I feel like I’m spooning the ocean, here,” Kathy said. “You don’t need a clutter coach. You need a storage barn builder.”
“I tithe to the church, but I still break commandments now and then. Why should I treat you better than I do Jesus?”
After Mary Beth made a pot of coffee they resumed work on the garage where they had stopped the previous week.
As Mary Beth tried to decide which of her four garden rakes to keep, Kathy told her about the samovar. Mary Beth was an antiques dealer and had often helped her research her finds.
“Did you bring it?” Mary Beth said.
Kathy retrieved the samovar from her car and placed it on Mary Beth’s potting bench.
“Damn, this is a great piece,” Mary Beth said as ran her fingers over the handles. “You decide to sell, I’ll make you an outstanding offer.”
Kathy looked at it more closely. The samovar was the size of a modern 40-cup tea maker, loving-cup shaped. The teapot on top was also silver, with a dragon engraved on it.
The four feet on which the samovar rested appeared to belong to a dragon, scaled and clawed. The heated water was drawn from the main chamber through a dragonhead spigot with bright eyes, ears and snout. The spigot handle was set in its forehead about where she envisioned the horn on a unicorn.
Mary Beth gently turned the samovar over, then whistled. “See these?” she said, pointing to some tiny stamps in the metal base.
“One of them looks like a crown.”
“That was used to indicate a gift for the Tsar. People loved to give the Tsar gifts, especially when he was on a head-chopping rampage. Notice the date next to it?”
“Nicholas the First. Let me take some pictures and I’ll research it for you. The Russians took fastidiousness lessons from the Germans, so if this ever belonged to the Tsar, there should be a record.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t be so curious. What if it was stolen, like those paintings the Nazis took? What if the Russians want it back?” Kathy set three of the rakes outside on the driveway for disposal, replacing the remaining one back on the rack.
Mary Beth retrieved one of the discarded rakes and placed it back on the rack. “I wouldn’t worry,” she said. “Far as I can tell, nobody is in charge of Russia anymore.”
Kathy arrived home at noon. She checked her email for messages from her children, Trent and Heather. None. She sent them both chatty messages and pleaded for news.
She washed Mary Beth’s garage dust out of her hair, ate a piece of cheese, put a load of sheets into the washer, looked through Stuart’s desk for unexplained bills and notes, and listened to Stuart’s message on the answering machine—another night meeting to mollify another building manager unhappy with Stuart’s number-six cleaning crew.
Her mind kept returning to the samovar like a child in school dreams of the new doll left at home. By mid-afternoon she gave up fighting the urge and retrieved the piece from the trunk of her car.
After washing it thoroughly, she filled the chamber with water, carried it to the deck, dropped a few self-lighting charcoal briquettes into the heating chamber, and lit them.
As soon as steam began to escape the chimney of the samovar, she added water and several tablespoons of black tea leaves to the teakettle and placed it on top.
After an hour of nursing the heat, she prepared her first cup of tea, filling a cup with a bit of the tea concentrate from the pot, and then diluting it with hot water from the lower chamber. She stirred in several teaspoons of sugar substitute, attempting to cut the bitterness of the brew and the faint lighter-fluid flavor infused by the briquettes.
She reclined in a deck chair and let the sun bake her face as she sipped the tea, thinking alternately of Russia and whether Stuart was cheating on her again.
A few minutes after first tasting the tea, she felt the deck shift under her, as though she were back on her dad’s small bass boat on a stormy lake. Before she could scramble to her feet, she had a vision, as unexpected as when her son Trent had once accidentally smacked her between the eyes with the backswing of a whiffleball bat.
She saw herself and Trent, now grown, holding hands with a young woman lying in hospital bed. The woman was crying. Her son’s other hand was in her hair.
The doctor looked at the floor, chewing his lower lips. One of the young woman’s breasts was leaking milk, but nobody seemed to take note.
Then, quick as a hiccup, the vision changed. Pain in Kathy’s shoulder, this time, shooting down as though conducted through her rib cage. An IV running from her neck. A catheter tube full of urine running along her thigh and over the side of the bed. The pain spiked, as though a white-hot needle had been inserted under her shoulder blade, through and out the front of her chest, where her breast used to be. Bandages like handcuffs, and she couldn’t muster up the energy to scream.
When she came back to herself, seated on the deck, she stared in alarm at the half-finished cup of tea, still warm in her hand. A few tea leaves had ended up in her cup, swimming circles in her tea with all the apparent intent of sharks circling blood in the water.
She closed her eyes again, and saw a young boy on a paper route, a canvas bag full of Sunday editions pulling on his shoulder. He appeared sleepy, grumpy, perhaps angry that his mother was following him at a discrete distance in the family SUV. As he tossed the plastic-bagged paper onto the porch of a maroon house with river-stone façade, a Doberman leapt from the bushes to his left, smashing into his shoulder before he could turn to run. The dog took his shoulder in his teeth and began to thrash him. The boy screamed.
Kathy recognized the boy. Their paperboy. Stuart something.
Stuart’s mother drove onto the front lawn and up to the dog and boy. She laid on the horn. The dog continued to chew until a man appeared in the upstairs window and shouted. The dog stopped, looked up, and backed away slightly. His muzzle dripped with blood, as did Stuart’s neck.
The vision faded into the deck, her sugar maple leaves waving in the breeze. Kathy looked at her teacup; the leaves had settled to the bottom. She tossed the remaining tea onto the lawn.
Although the visions had come to an end, she was too exhausted to move for the next half hour. When she could finally move, she immediately called Trent to make sure he was OK.
By the time Stuart returned from work well after dark, she’d polished off half a bottle of Pinot Grigio but still shook inside.
Her husband arrived home from work that evening in the mood to talk, aggravated about a petty squabble in his department. She gritted her teeth as he sat in the loveseat recliner across from her.
“What’s for dinner?” he asked after he finally ran out of complaints about his customers.
She shrugged. “Sorry, I didn’t fix anything. How about pizza?”
He frowned, pulled her wine glass to him and drained the remaining inch. “With what? I’m broke. Did you see the tuition bill that came yesterday?”
She let her mouth droop open, tongue hanging out the corner of her mouth, eyelids at half-mast, their private way of joking about topics they found tedious.
Stuart wasn’t playing along, though. His leg bounced nervously against the footrest. “It’s time you thought about getting a real job. We’re about one sick day away from going broke.”
“A real job?” She sat up straight.
Stuart backpedaled a bit. “Not that the clutter coach thing isn’t a real job, but, face it, you’re not bringing in any money to speak of.”
“Every business has a startup lag,” she said. “And I’m a personal organization coach, thank you.”
He ignored her pique. “Two years is a pretty big lag. All we’ve gotten out of it so far is a house jammed full of junk. I thought clutter coaches were supposed to help other people throw away their crap, not accumulate it themselves.”
“I’m not sure what other job I could do,” Kathy said, taking off her glasses to rub her eyes. “Besides, when Mom’s estate clears probate we should be OK.”
“Maybe you could manage a storage unit place? You already have a good mailing list of potential renters.” No warmth accompanied his sarcasm.
Kathy could feel the gravity of another all-out fight pulling at her, and walked into the kitchen to escape. She gnawed at her thumbnail until the anger receded.
Stuart locked himself in his small home office to make calls while Kathy began to prepare dinner.
The next morning, still stinging from Stuart’s words the night before, she started yet again to clean out her own basement. She crept through the narrow aisles between boxes to his workbench, where she set up her packing station.
By the time he came to look for her, around noon, she had managed to consolidate ten boxes into six. The pitch/sell pile, though, remained disappointingly small.
Stuart took the empty boxes as a sign of progress. “Anything you don’t want for the yard sale,” he said, “put in the back of the Acura and I’ll drop it off at the Am-Vets donation box on the way downtown.”
“I already made one trip there,” she lied. She could feel a blush climb her neck.
He looked at the stacks of boxes remaining. “Maybe we should ask them to put one of their collection boxes in the driveway. It would save us a lot of driving.”
She started to laugh with him, but stopped when she noticed he wasn’t laughing.
Stuart left a short time later, heading for a hardwood lumberyard a couple of counties away where he bought walnut for his furniture-building hobby.
After he left, Kathy dug out the box where she hid items she was sure had cash value—a silver tea service, art deco pin with several tear-shaped fire opals, an ivory-handled, gold-inlay shaving kit, a crystal decanter, and a Victorian child’s death photograph in an ornate gilt frame. With a deep sigh, she selected several items from the box.
Kathy took them upstairs, laid them out on the bed, and took close-up photos with her digital camera. It took her almost two hours to complete the descriptions and upload them to eBay for auction.
When she was done, she checked the clock; 2:00 p.m., too early to open a bottle of wine. She sat at the computer for a while, obsessively refreshing the screen to see if any bids had come in. To pass the time, she also peeked at Stuart’s e-mail messages, but found nothing suspicious.
She decided to go for a walk to clear her head. On the way home, she passed the maroon house. Several chew toys lay on the porch.
The paper was late the next morning, throwing Stuart into a snit. “It’s 9:00 a.m.” he said, shaking the previous day’s paper open to reread it. “Remind me of this when Christmas tip time comes.”
Kathy puttered at the sink, watching the street for sign of the paperboy. As she finished polishing the porcelain, she saw a truck from the newspaper pull up, and two older men began to walk door to door, laying the fat Sunday paper on doorsteps.
Kathy met one at the door. He handed her the newspaper.
“Where’s our usual paperboy?” she asked the man.
“Sick,” the man replied, gruffly. “He quit.” He avoided her eyes and turned away before she could pursue the question.
A short time after Stuart left for the golf course, Mary Beth stopped by Kathy’s house, carrying a stack of library books. She had found the samovar’s maker’s hallmark, in Cyrillic letters, and traced it back to a mid-19th century Moscow silversmith, Aleksander Kordes.
She opened one of the oversized books and pointed to a couple of photos. “Diplomatic gifts. This solid gold snuffbox, for example, came from the Hapsburgs of Austria. That crystal decanter was a gift from the people of Transylvania to thank the Tsar for chasing out the Hungarians.”
She turned to a bookmarked page. “I found mention of a samovar that was presented to Nicholas by a group of Russian intellectuals that he had arrested for sedition. The writers probably included the samovar to sweeten their petition for freedom.
“The samovar went missing from the royal collection during the Second World War. The Russians hid a lot of their artifacts when the German army invaded, and some of the stuff was never seen again.”
“You think this could be the same one?” Cathy said, trying to imagine herself in the throne room in St. Petersburg.
Mary Beth shrugged. “I suppose there’s a chance. The description I read was pretty detailed, and matches this one perfectly.” She handed several pages of photocopies to Cathy. “I read the diary of one of the Tsar’s attendants. He said Nicholas was terrified of that samovar. He used it once, then he had it crated and hidden away in the deepest dungeon.”
“That’s weird,” Cathy said.
“Back then, people still believed in magic. I suppose he might have been afraid the writers had cast a spell on the samovar. Funny, huh?”
“Yeah, hilarious,” Cathy said.
“You don’t seem happy about much of anything, today,” Mary Beth said. “Stuart problems?”
Kathy grimaced. “So what’s new? I’m trying to let go this time, like my shrink says, show some trust. But when he’s gone, and I don’t know for sure where he is, I just can’t stand it. And he’s harping on money again, too.”
“Seems like he’s gone a lot.”
“You’re not supposed to feed my paranoia,” Kathy replied, smiling. “I’m happy that he’s found golf to keep him busy, maybe give him some exercise. Really.”
“What’s he think about the samovar?”
“I haven’t shown it to him yet,” Kathy said. “Don’t give me that look. I just don’t share every thought I have as soon as I have it.”
“Hard to do, anyway, when he’s always off bowling or golfing.” She piled up the books she had brought. “Anyway, I was wondering if you wanted to sell that samovar? I’d give you five grand for it. That ought to make Stuart happy, huh?”
The offer sent a spark of excitement through Kathy, the thought of flaunting a five thousand dollar check in her husband’s face, but just as quickly she thought of the beautiful filigree of the samovar, and realized she had already bonded to it, as she did almost everything that came into her possession.
“Maybe later,” she said, in the way that implied ‘never.’
Mary Beth shook her head in disappointment.
Kathy resorted to yoga that afternoon to calm herself down. However, the Downward-Facing Dog pulled at her hamstrings. The Plow irritated her lower back, the Salutation Seal her left hip, and something in her neck snapped as she twisted into Half Lord of the Fishes.
Her worries about Stuart continued to circle in her mind like a toy train on a short track, even before he called from the clubhouse to tell her he was going to have to work all night, filling in for the night crew foreman that had called off sick.
By 9:00 p.m. Kathy was roundly drunk on Perfect 1845 vodka, the most expensive Russian brand on the state store shelf. While the alcohol seemed to numb her tear ducts, it did nothing to quiet the questions. She looked into the future and saw nothing but emptiness.
At midnight, she decided that a cup of tea might quell her panic about the future.
She retrieved the samovar and set it on the stove, added the briquettes and lit them. After they caught fire, she filled the tea kettle and water chamber and took a seat at the bar next to the stove, with her vodka, to wait.
Again, the vision began at soon as she took the first sip.
She was walking into the law office a couple of minutes late. The receptionist immediately walked her back to the office of Stuart’s friend Dan, where he and Stuart waited, seated on the far side of a small meeting table. She exchanged greetings and took a leather chair across from them, staring resignedly at the stack of papers in front of Dan.
The attorney nodded, looked at Stuart, then down at the pen in his hand. Stuart cleared his throat.
“I have something to tell you,” he said, his voice breaking just slightly.
When Kathy heard the tone of his voice, she had to fight an urge to crawl under the desk. The walls began to bow in toward her. The air thickened. The receptionist placed a mug of coffee at her hand and she grabbed it like it was her mother’s hand.
Once Stuart began to talk, he spewed words. He wanted a divorce. It wasn’t her, it was him, he loved the kids, he wanted to stay involved in their lives; he just needed a fresh start, his life had gone down the wrong track; it wasn’t her, it was him; a new town, maybe a new profession, maybe a sailboat, not her. Crappy timing, but maybe now was the right time, with her mother’s estate to fund it. They could both live unimpeded, a fresh start.
Kathy could sense another woman implied in everything he said, but Stuart never mentioned her.
Dan had the papers prepared. Annulment papers. Split everything down the middle.
“You greedy bastard,” Kathy said when Stuart finally wound down. She held her purse, gauging its weight, wondering what would happen if she swung it at him.
Stuart glanced at Dan, and Kathy intercepted the ‘What did I tell you?’ look.
“The children stay with me.”
Stuart responded with a bit of his own anger. “They’re too old to live with either of us. You think I’d leave if they were too young to handle a divorce?”
“What about me?” she said. “You think I’m old enough to handle it? You bastard.”
They sat in putrid silence for several minutes before Kathy left, promising to sic her own attorney on Stuart, stoking her anger to forestall the tears until she was alone.
She woke to the sound of the samovar still hissing. Rubbing tear boogers from her eyes, she saw a face floating in the white plumes of steam.
Her stomach rolled once. She shook her head a couple of times but the face did not disappear.
The face was white, translucent, neckless; a bearded man, heavily pock-marked, an astrakhan on his head. White eyes with white pupils stared at her from the white face.
She took a pull at the vodka bottle. As she gasped for air, the steam image changed.
She saw a middle-aged man in military regalia, high gold collar and epaulets, silk sash, thin moustache, sideburns the length and shape of a spaniel’s tail, receding hairline, pouting lips, seated on a throne. Her samovar on a table below the throne.
The face, the white steam man, stood before the throne, a soldier on either side. The steam man wore shackles.
A young soldier drew a cup from the samovar and carried it to the Tsar, placing it on a table next to the throne. The Tsar placed his hand above the cup, palm down, palm up again, warming it with the tea. He muttering something and a fat man seated at a small desk, wrote for a moment, and in turn muttered to the soldier at his side. The soldier descended to the prisoner, took him by the arm, and guided him from the throne room.
The scene faded, replaced again by the steam face, dimmer, as the water level inside the samovar began to drop. “Where is Nicholas?” the face said, in a voice deep and slow.
“What is happening to me?” she whispered. “Who are you?”
“When are you?” the face said. “Did the Tsar drink from the samovar? Did he see the future of his fears? Did he despair?”
As he spoke, the steam began to sputter. In a moment, there was nothing of the face left but beads of evaporated water dripping from the stove hood.
Kathy woke mid-morning, vomited, and took a long shower. She thought about dressing, but couldn’t find the motivation to put on anything but a robe. There was no sign that Stuart had been home.
She tiptoed to the kitchen. Only when she smelled the charcoal fumes from the samovar on the stove did she dimly recall the previous night. Jesus, she thought, throwing open the sliding door to let it air, no wonder she hallucinated. She remembered that an immigrant family in town had died of carbon monoxide poisoning the previous Thanksgiving, when they brought their hibachi into the kitchen to cook a goat.
She called Stuart’s cell, and then his office, but could reach no one. She checked the bathroom to confirm his shaving kit was still there, and studied his prescription bottles, relieved to find they were current.
Just as she was about to do what she promised herself she would never do, resort to the daytime television that had stolen her mother from her, Mary Beth knocked on the door.
“Am I ever glad to see you,” Kathy said as she walked Mary Beth into the kitchen.
“I’m hiding out from a catalogue project I don’t want to do,” Mary Beth said, pouring herself a cup of coffee from Kathy’s pot. “What about you?”
Kathy started a light-hearted recap of her day’s experiences, but soon fell into an all-out rant. “Who does he think he is? I put him through school. I stayed home to raise the kids!”
Mary Beth placed her hand on Kathy’s forearm. “Whoa. Whoa. That was a dream, right? Since when did you start taking dreams as real? If they were, there’d be a lot of this town that had seen me without my pants.”
Kathy could tell that, the more she talked, the more Mary Beth tuned out to her words, obviously intent on something else. It didn’t take long for her to bring it to light.
“Sounds interesting,” Mary Beth said. “Do you suppose I could try some of your tea?” As she talked, she picked up the teapot, opened the lid and looked in. “Hey, there’s still some in here.”
“I tell you the horrible sights it brought me and you can’t wait to try it too?”
Mary Beth shrugged. “I like taking chances. And I watch every spooky show on television.” She pulled one of Kathy’s cups from the cupboard and poured the cold tea concentrate in it, now steeped to a deep oak color.
As Mary Beth looked appraisingly at the cup, Kathy mulled over her visions. Had she ever been at a point so precipitous before, a time where her future seemed so muddy, so uncertain? She desperately needed to know what the future held for her.
“What are you afraid of?” Mary Beth said, taking her first sip. “Que sera, sera, I say. Maybe Stuart just wants somebody who is willing to let go once in a while.”
Stung by Mary Beth’s words, Kathy dumped her coffee and poured a bit of the cold tea in her own cup, diluting it with water from the main chamber and a little vodka, to cut the tannin. They carried their tea into the living room where Kathy took the recliner. Mary Beth sat on the couch, raised her cup in toast to Kathy, and downed the rest of her tea.
The visions again came to Kathy almost immediately. Her husband and another woman Kathy’s age, seen only from the back. Maybe older, but tight and muscular; the two of them on a sailboat, tacking, both hanging over the high side, hair drenched. Stuart was smiling hugely. A young boy at the helm, maybe twelve or so, a miniature Stuart. His face was clenched in concentration, body tight to the wheel as though his weight were barely enough to move the rudder.
Kathy heard the knuckles of her hand crack as she squeezed the arms of her chair.
Kathy in a wheelchair, sitting in a wide, silent hallway, polished linoleum and the smell of disinfectant, staring out the bay window at a planting of river birches in an empty courtyard.
She flashed to a group of men huddled around a workbench covered with shears, files, burnishers, mills, and gravers. Seated at the bench, a small, bald man in a leather apron, a magnifying loupe on a band around his head. Light from a kerosene lamp. The smell of shellac and cheap candles. The samovar on the table before him, sans the crown, which lay flat before him, the engraving almost done.
Then a vision of her home. In the dining room, newspapers were stacked almost to the ceiling, interspersed with stacks of cardboard boxes just as high. She could see faint sunlight coming in through the tops of windowpanes not yet buried by the papers. A corridor ran wiggle-wide through the center of the room, disappearing as it turned toward the living room. Behind her was the white wooden door to the kitchen. Something was blocking it from swinging toward the kitchen, but Kathy managed to grasp enough of the edge of the door with her fingernails to pull it toward her. She was able to slide through the opening into the kitchen and as far as the refrigerator before her way was blocked by a solid wall of boxes, floor to ceiling. Just as she decided to retrace her steps to the dining room, she heard a large crash from behind that door. When she tried to push the door back open, it would not budge.
Kathy came to, still in the recliner, at 2 p.m. Mary Beth was gone. Her skin felt gritty; she touched the back of her hand to her tongue, and tasted the dried salt of sweat.
After a glass of water, she called Mary Beth.
“What did you see?” Kathy said, skipping preamble.
Mary Beth chuckled. “I was you. Is that funny or what?”
“I was you. Ten years from now, then probably twenty or so, then old- really old, like a hundred. I’m not afraid of old age anymore, by the way. You hold up really well.”
Kathy began to gnaw on her nail again. “What was I like?”
“Happy. Believe it or not, you were happy. The kids are going to do really well. You’re going to have a shitload of grandkids. I was so happy for you.”
“And Stuart?” She held her breath.
“Well,” Mary Beth said slowly, “I didn’t see him. But I don’t know why.”
When Kathy didn’t reply, she said, “I’m still interested in the piece, by the way. I did some more checking, and I can up my offer to ten grand.”
Kathy begged off, too distracted to even consider the offer. After she hung up, she wandered around the house for a long time, as though cataloguing her home forever in her memory.
She poured the remaining tea from the teapot into a plastic container and hid it in the back of the vegetable crisper, where Stuart would never look.
Tom Barlow is an Ohio, USA writer. He is the author of the science fiction novel I’ll Meet You Yesterday, and his work has been featured in anthologies including Best American Mystery Stories 2013, Hard-Boiled Horror, Best of Crossed Genres #2, Battlespace and Desolate Places, as well as many magazines including The Intergalactic Medicine Show, Digital Science Fiction, Coyote Wild and Encounters.