“Scrutiny” by Tim Frank

I played with the curls of your clipped auburn hair that I kept sealed in your grandma’s silver locket, because you always said I didn’t truly see you. But I wanted to try; to appreciate your artistic side; your precise makeup; your carefully coordinated skirts and scarfs – and your kindness too; how you fed orange peel to stray cats with dead eyes and split ears, how you searched for your neighbour’s missing children all night in the local park in freezing weather.

I even set a series of alarms for you randomly throughout the day. I remembered your smile at 6pm Eastern Time, and your lilting voice at midnight in Tokyo. But then I noticed the strange messages everywhere, making me think I had to try harder.

The first message was etched on the back of your wedding band, “I’m still here,” it said. I clutched it in my palm, squeezing it so tight it became sweaty, leaving a bold impression. I was plunged into confusion.

I went to the cinema to clear my mind. I shared a screening with an usher slumped in his designated chair, lobbing salted popcorn at gluttonous rats. As the credits rolled, I read the list of production assistants and casting agents. Then the words, “I’m here, talk to me,” appeared beneath the list of gaffers. I sat forward and wiped the thin film of moisture from my brow.

I rushed out of the cinema and felt the blast of city air against my cheeks and exhaust fumes stinging my throat. Car alarms rang out and declared, “Stop running, don’t hide.”

In my car as cherry blossom trees swayed in the wind, speaking their own particular language, I recalled all the messages that I had tried to brush under the carpet – the pleas

embedded in book covers, the prayers in sweater tags, the cries for help in crisp packets, the laments typed on painkiller labels.

I didn’t want messages, I wasn’t searching for answers, but they kept invading my thoughts like hungry animals, so when I arrived back home and took a seat in my kitchen, I prepared myself to communicate with you (it must be you) with an open mind.

But I waited and waited and was faced with nothing but silence. I slammed my hand on the tabletop.

“I’m ready, I’m ready!” I said.

The toaster started to glow, its amber filaments flashing. But still, it didn’t speak.

“I know what you want from me,” I said, as the toaster gleamed red. “You want me to remember you in a different light. Well, I’ve tried. But you’re dead, I’ve grieved for you and I’ve done all I can. I must be losing my mind.”

“Surely you know this is real by now, or would you rather be delusional?”

“Oh, now you want to talk. But you don’t listen – never did. Please, just leave me be. I have to build a new life. Without you.”

Suddenly, babbling voices echoed from every corner of the room – from the rows of Tupperware above the dishwasher, to the kettle coated in limescale. I covered my ears to block out the sound, fighting the forces surrounding me.

I raised my voice above the racket, reaching a violent crescendo, cracking the plates stacked in the sink, sending glassware tumbling from the shelves until finally everything fell quiet and all the memories of you, in this world and the next – memories I had tried so hard to revive – were now lost in the maelstrom.

Tim Frank’s short stories have been published over eighty times in journals including Able Muse, Bourbon Penn, Intrinsick, Menacing Hedge, Literally Stories, Eunoia Review, Maudlin House and The Fiction Pool.
He has been nominated for The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2020
He is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal.

Photo by Amanda Mocci on Unsplash

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