In the Other Room
Yaël van der Wouden
Frankie dies and comes back to haunt him. She hadn’t seen him in years when they were alive, hadn’t thought of him since maybe that time someone on TV had a name like his. And even then her reaction was, Oh, right, and nothing else.
Now she spends most of her days hovering over his kitchen table. He’s not there much. At night she fits herself into a soft little pocket of a jacket that hangs in the hallway and listens to the house creak. When time doesn’t pass, the eek of the floorboards tend to sound like a tune.
“Could you leave the radio on?” she asks in the mornings, while he bangs doors and drops things and breathes over steaming cups of coffee. She follows him, fingers trailing on walls, pushing the paintings askew. He doesn’t hear her. “If you don’t leave the radio on I’ll have to turn it on myself, and you did not like last time—”
He turns on the radio, absentmindedly, on his way out the kitchen.
They’d dated in their twenties. Must’ve been together for a year or so, a proper run, but she’d always remembered it as shorter than that. Just a few dates, a few walks around the park. He was nice enough, she’d thought at first. That John Cusack type, that nervous sarcastic type, but bone-bare honest when she put her hands on him, would say things like, god Frances you’re so good god do enough people tell you how good you are?
One time they got into an argument over some movie he liked and she didn’t and he shouted at her, then told her to calm down, then stayed in her hallway for another half hour—punched a wall, leaned his forehead against her door. Frances, he’d said. Let me in Frances I’m sorry Frances.
Now she thinks he might be growing old but isn’t sure. Seasons seem to barrel through the living something awful but touch her like a breeze, like someone left the window open in the other room. He makes new friends, forgets to call them. He almost gets married, then doesn’t. He lies on the kitchen floor, sobbing at the ceiling. She walks up and down his chest to see if he notices. He doesn’t.
Early in their relationship he’d shown up at her door with two bottles of moonshine. He’d found the oldest little shop, something from a movie. This one, he held up a purple label, will bring you peace. And this one, the black label, will take it away. She’d said, that’s so fucking morbid, and put them in the back of the cupboard. He’d retell this story when they were still together, when they had dinner with friends and he’d bring out the bottles and pass them around, wouldn’t let anyone open them. They cost a fortune, he’d say.
After they’d broken up, after she’d moved, after the house and the job and the dog, she came across the black bottle in a box in the attic. It had been a long day, and her heart was tender over a fight with a lover. Knees patched in dust, cross-legged on the floor, she cracked open the bottle and took a long drink. The autopsy report said: poisoning.
For a long time he’s alone and for a long time he doesn’t come home at night. A while later there’s a baby daughter but no mother. Frankie spends woolly days inside a teacup wondering if the mother moved or died or became a ghost, too—cursed to haunt the life of a boy she once knew. An exchange student she met over the summer. A family friend who laughed at her jokes and broke up with her over the phone.
When he brings the baby home Frankie puts on a show, loops in the air, kicks over chairs. The babe claps, laughs. Once she’s old enough to speak she tells Frankie about her favorite animal. The frog. Frankie wants to let her know the frog is a good animal to like, but her ghost mouth makes no words the girl can hear. Her sentences sound like the house itself, like the leaking faucet, the humming fridge. Eventually the babe becomes a long-limbed child whose eyes glaze over when Frankie loops over the breakfast table, as though she’s trying to remember something she’d been told just the day before. Soon she can’t see Frankie at all.
Frankie hadn’t loved him except for maybe once. A glimpse of a moment early on when she woke up and he was in her bed. Warm and the back of his neck smelled of deep sleep.
She opens all the cupboards and he closes them. She pushes the sheets off his bed and he wakes up to pull them back over. She turns on the lights, he turns them off. Every day, she leaves a purple bottle on the kitchen table with a glass next to it. She tries to remind him: “For peace.” But her words sound like gas pipes expanding. Like flagpoles ticking in the wind. “Just one glass. One sip and I can go. Don’t you want to let me go?”
But he ignores the purple bottle. He ignores the distant ticking, the heater moaning in the basement. He drops things, bangs doors. Breathes over cups of coffee, eyes closed. Leaves the house after turning the radio on. The day hums, warmed by sun, and Frankie shrinks herself, tucks herself into a sock in the wash hamper. Into the corner of the couch, next to half a cracker. Into the pocket of a jacket that hangs in the hallway.
Yaël van der Wouden is a writer, editor, and mixed-bag-diaspora child situated in Utrecht, the Netherlands. She strongly advises against drinking oddly labelled booze your ex left behind. Her work has appeared in places such as The Sun Magazine, Barrelhouse Magazine, and Cheap Pop Literature. She’s currently working on a collection of short fiction about monstrous women. Find more at yaelvanderwouden.com, or @yaelwouden.