Contemporary Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

Sensitive content: mention of death

How crooked his body felt as he edged his way out from the stiff sheets. How brittle his bones felt, creaking like the cold, ancient floorboards did as he shuffled to the bedroom door. How hollow his sigh felt as it slid past his dry lips, lips that had only met blank air for a time too long to measure. How empty the room felt as he left it and edged down the lonely corridor, in the lonely house, occupied by one lonely man.

Movements too slow – those of somebody whose weeks and years were drawn out, a broken tendril of smoke, curling thinner and thinner – soon to dissipate entirely. Days too long – dragging on and on and on, a never-ceasing loop, a ball of yarn forever unspooling.

The ice feel of the hard floor beneath his feet shifted to the familiar ratty carpet of the arid living room. The grey dimness cloaked the stark walls, and a solitary bulb flickered uncertainly overhead, splaying wary beams of sickly yellow, casting shadows on his lined face – shadows that told their own story, hanging beneath his hooded eyes, and draping over his chest, below his bent head.

His callused feet roughed the edge of the one gently handcrafted, faded maroon rug, blanketed with dust, and creased with memories, that sat in front of the fireplace.

He turned away.

He lumbered beyond the haunting space, brushing into the bathroom and glancing everywhere but at the grime-clouded mirror that hung askew on the paint-peeling wall.

His fingers found the buttons of his shirt, and he tugged off his night clothes before stepping into the shower. Today was a day where he had to wash, had to speak, had to face the rest of the world.

Warm streams of water trickled down every wrinkle. Slipped into his mouth. Spilled over his shoulders. Pooled at his feet.

He fell into the feeling – the comfort the sensation brought. He allowed it, this time.

Heat sank beneath his skin, rising in his chest, swelling in his heart. Dreams floated into his mind; memories, that mingled with the warmth: Mornings in a sheltered bed, the woman in his arms, their smiling faces inches from one another, her breath on his cheek. Then her lips. Days spent dancing on a precious rug, her musical laughter rising up the walls. Afternoons strolling, hand in hand, along a cobbled path, whispering stories and sharing secrets only the two of them would ever know. Evenings huddled beneath cozy handmade blankets. Nights, the woman’s head resting against his shoulder or his against hers. And that night so long ago, when they had discovered they could not have the child they had tried so hard for. The night they had held each other close and cried with each other and fostered a new flame between them – a determination to move on and do it together. She had carried him and him her.

With her, he could be honest. With her, fragile. With her, happy.


He could be someone, something. But not anymore.

The tap clunked off. The water stopped. Anguish yawned inside him, but he carved it out. The emptiness returned, and he clustered a towel around him and shuffled back to the quiet bedroom. Another shirt, buttoned to his sagging chin, pants tugged over his churning stomach, socks and shoes covering his wrinkled feet. But his hands were protected by nothing but papery skin, and the single gold band over one finger that pained him to wear but would pain him more to remove.

His eyes were dry by the time the first knock on the wooden front door sounded, seeming to echo through the house.

But his pants felt suddenly loose around the knees, and his feet skidded with hesitation across the floor as he staggered to meet the visitor.

In the foyer he paused, the silhouette of the guest outlined by the pale ruby-toned, thinning curtains framing the frosted window set into the center of the door. And the stained glass rose, blood red, pressing grief in on his heart again. It had always filled him up. First, with joy. Now, with agony.

His shoulders were arched toward the center of his chest, like it had its own pull of gravity. And he fortified his heart with a frail hand clasping around the fabric at the left side of his torso. Then, he reached for the knob and opened the door.


A young lady wearing a pressed blue collared shirt with a logo stenciled across the breast pocket stood on the porch, her fist clasped around the rope handle of a dog lead.

He swallowed his discomfort and rubbed the knot in his stomach before speaking.

“Hello,” his voice was barely a whisper, and the greeting was aged and forced. He had not spoken a word beyond the strangled sobs that wracked him in the dead of night, since the house had first been made empty. It didn’t matter that it had been almost five years – time did not make the pain fade, like everyone said. Those people had never met his wife. And then lost her, like he did.

He glanced to the dog that scrambled around the lady’s boots, the short lead its only restraint.

A pang of hurt twisted in his chest; his wife had wished for a child, then a pet, to love and care for. A Labrador.

And here was a young black Labrador, nosing at the doorstep and pawing its carer’s shoelaces.

“Good morning, Mr. Martino. I hope you are feeling well today, I’m Kira,” The lady smiled and hushed an order for the dog to sit. It did.

“This is Lucy, but you may change her name if you’d like – she is house-trained and very loyal.”

He absently held out a fist for the dog to sniff, then stroked the dog’s soft coat as he contemplated what to do. When the idea of adopting an animal had been offered to him, he had cautiously considered. This was a very big decision… and it was important. But could he really do it? Would he be able to cope? Alone?

He looked to the door swung open beside him, the red rose glowing vibrantly in the now-drab house. He should have kept more of her with him. More than a rug, some curtains, and the colored glass of a window. He had allowed what used to be their home fall into disrepair.

Now, it was just a house.

Maybe, this dog – the dog his wife had always wanted and dreamed about, but that they had never had the money for – would bring more of her warmth into the detached, lonely nights and vacant days. It was what she had wanted. And he had wanted it with her.

Now he wanted it for her.

So, he felt his head nod.

“Wonderful. We can introduce you to one another, and then, when you and Lucy both feel ready, we can move her here.”

Again, he nodded, softly, carefully, as if too big of a movement would throw this delicate situation into disarray.

“Well, Mr. Martino, I do believe this will work out,” Kira smiled, as Lucy nudged his leg with her nose, and gazed up, her eyes full and bright.

In the moment, he felt something stir inside him: happiness, and felt an answer slip from his mouth, “Yes, I do, too.”


Gradually, very gradually, he moved through the process of adopting the dog. Each step felt increasingly solid, and each successful session filled a portion of his heart.

Not only was he doing something, but he was enjoying it. And it was a feeling he had not felt in a very long time.

He remembered how to speak. He remembered how to smile. He remembered how to laugh.

Lucy was as good as Kira had said. When he was feeling active, she would run around with him at the local park, and they would stumble through the grass together. When he was feeling tired, she would stand or lounge next to him as he read a book or completed a jigsaw, in front of the fireplace. And in moments when he was thinking of his wife, more than usual, Lucy sat beside him and rested her head on his knee.

And within the first few weeks, he decided to change Lucy’s name. He changed it to Scarlet, after his wife’s favorite color.

Despite his life being still cloaked in grief without the love of his life with him, there was a shard of happiness found most days. The nights were still empty, but days were often filled.

…Then, his nights weren’t empty anymore.

The day he accepted Scarlet into his house, it became a home.

How healthy his body felt as he slid out of bed to feed Scarlet in the morning. How peaceful the sound to his ears was, the air twined with soft barks and music. How lovely his laughter felt as it leapt past his lips, lips that had smiled more times in this month than they had in the last five years. How full the room felt as he walked to it, and strode down the bright corridor, in the warm home, loved by one happy man, and his dog, Scarlet.

April 07, 2023 05:12

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