by Miranda Stone
He cringed at the sound his shoes made on the stained kitchen tile. In the silence even his breathing was amplified. It was a shame he had to creep around his own damn house every morning, but as he took off his coat, he thought his entire life was a shame, some great opportunity of which he’d been deprived. Twenty-seven years old and doomed to work third shift at the plant in town.
It was still dark outside, and this morning it was raining. He took refuge in the hammering sound on the metal roof, allowing himself to move a little more freely around the kitchen. There wasn’t enough food in the place to make a halfway decent meal. Anna hadn’t been to the store in weeks. Some stale crackers, a couple of cans of soup, and a bottle of pop in the fridge. He shook his head, resolving to starve. Hell, he was too tired to eat anyway.
The coughing began from the bedroom, and he swore under his breath. She knew he was home. He could always tell when she tried to stifle the hacking. The raw sound tore at him like dull nails. It got under his skin and settled there, a parasite sapping his will to live. Even at the plant he could still hear it, no matter how loud the machinery was. It was as though Anna was there, clinging to him, refusing to be shaken off.
In the shadows of the bedroom he could see her figure under the sheets, curled up on her side. Anna’s back was to him, and every cough wrenched her body. When she took a breath, he could hear the fluid in her lungs, and he grimaced in repulsion. He undressed and threw his clothes in the hamper. He’d be doing the laundry tomorrow, too. That and a trip to the grocery store would eat into most of his waking hours before he had to go to work.
“Move over,” he told her as he got into bed. With effort she turned onto her other side and continued her coughing fit. He squeezed his eyes shut and put a pillow over his head, but nothing muffled the sound. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d gotten some decent sleep. He allowed her to go on for half an hour before sitting up and glaring at her. Anna’s hair was matted to her head with sweat, and her face was so red he was surprised she hadn’t passed out. “Jesus Christ, Anna, go get a drink.”
Wordlessly she complied, rolling out of bed. She staggered to the bathroom, hunched over with her hands pressed against her face. “I said, get you a drink!”
“I’m gonna be sick,” she told him. The bathroom door closed behind her, and all her hacking and retching was contained in that single space. He didn’t know how long she stayed in there. When he awoke in the early afternoon, she was lying next to him again, every breath rattling her insides while she slept. He noticed droplets of dried blood on the pillow next to her mouth, and in the bathroom he wiped more bloodstains off the toilet seat with a cloth. Anna was too damned hardheaded. If she’d gone on and gotten a drink like he’d told her to, it wouldn’t have come to this.
Another night at the plant dragged by, another night of his life wasted. He got into his truck and drove home. He prayed that tonight she would sleep and he could have a few hours of silence. He’d gone to the store and picked up some cough syrup, even left it by the bed for her before he went to work. She’d looked from him to the bottle dully and then rolled over onto his side of the bed, as far away from him as possible.
Silence waited for him in the shack. He walked inside, holding his breath, ready to slap her if she hadn’t taken the medicine. At least the cough syrup would help her sleep. At least there was food in the house now. He fixed himself a sandwich and sat at the table alone. There were rumors of layoffs at the plant; lately the workers had been looking warily at one another, searching each other’s eyes for withheld information. The paranoid atmosphere made his job even more unbearable. He hadn’t told Anna yet, but maybe when she woke up he would. He needed to talk to someone. He needed her to tell him they’d get by.
He went into the bedroom, hoping she was awake. He made more noise than necessary, watching to see if she’d stir. “Hey, Anna,” he said, unbuttoning his shirt. “Anna, I need to talk to you.” She didn’t answer him. He sighed and climbed into bed next to her, feeling the worry gnaw at his stomach. Probably an ulcer developing. He stretched out a hand to touch Anna’s face and then yanked it away when the cold, thick liquid smeared onto his fingers.
He scrambled to turn on the bedside lamp. Anna’s face, the pillow, her nightgown, the threadbare sheets around her—all were slick with blood. He pressed a hand to his mouth and choked back a wail. A heavy metallic smell clung to his nostrils, and his whole body convulsed with the urge to retch. Anna’s eyes were fixed on a spot above his head, as though she deemed him lacking and now searched beyond for something better.
On the table next to her was the bottle of cough syrup, untouched.
Miranda Stone began writing fiction and poetry as a child. She figured she was onto something when a relative asked why all her stories were so sad. Employing a minimalist writing style, her work is strongly influenced by the setting and culture of the Appalachian Mountains. Her short story “No One Is Invisible” was featured in the fourth issue of the literary journal Parable Press, and “The Confession” will be included in the upcoming anthology Southern Gothic by New Lit Salon Press. She lives in Virginia and blogs about writing, the mountains, and life in general at www.authormirandastone.wordpress.com.