Cara just left and already the house is in ruins.
Dishes rise in tetris piles on every countertop. Mark doesn’t remember eating off them. The fridge hums to itself, dumb and empty.
“I’m the fastidious one,” he tells the cat, who saunters out of the kitchen. He trails behind it, still talking. “This isn’t like me.”
A light bulb in the hall flickers out, then another in the downstairs bathroom. Mark understands he is witnessing supernatural events. Something slipped inside the house when Cara left, passing sideways through the door in the early darkness.
He finds the cat staring at the living room wall, where a crack spreads like a scowl to either side of a bare nail.
How can he fight a thing he can’t see, a shadow in the dark corridors that ruins everything? It steals all the toilet paper and tears his clothes off the hangers. Ten minutes after Mark takes a shower, he stinks of sweat. Mold blooms in old coffee cups.
Mark misses taking Cara out for aimless drives, as they did on the nights she was restless or in pain, their hands resting together on the center console. He tries to call her and tell her a spirit slipped into the house, an uncaring thing, invisible and absolute as the moment before a bad diagnosis. Her voicemail plays a few times, then is replaced by a bland voice announcing that her number has been disconnected.
When is she coming home? He’s the practical one, ill-equipped to deal with the paranormal. She’s the free spirit. If anyone knows a magical spell to send the visitor away, it will be her.
He tries to remember if she gave him any clue the morning she left, when he woke to find the bed had grown bigger and he was curled around nothing.
I’m leaving you, Cara said. She sat on the edge of the bed, just near enough that he could stretch out his hand to cover the protruding ridge of her hip.
Don’t joke about that, Mark chided.
If anyone’s allowed to joke, it’s me.
I won’t let you go, he told her. I love you too much.
She spoke gently. That’s not what love does, she said. Trying to hold on to something with love is like trying to hammer in a nail with a pot holder. It’s the wrong tool for the job.
He smiled. She had learned how to explain things in terms a physicist would comprehend. It had taken years. Not all of them were wonderful years, but many were better than he thought he deserved.
Love is the most powerful force in the universe, he said. He thought this was what she wanted to hear. It had taken him a long time to voice these sentiments.
No, it’s not, she said. It’s weak. It can’t even keep me alive, as much as I want to stay. It can’t make the universe do anything it doesn’t already want to do.
I won’t let you go, he told her.
She said, last night I dreamed I stayed with you forever and ever. The grass grew up around us, wild and unchecked as cancer, and the shingles flew off the roof like a flock of birds. The windows thickened and grew white as old eyes.
She moved free of his hand. He reached for her again, but the bed had grown too large.
She said, I dreamed there was nothing left of the house but a leaning skeleton wrapped in a paper hornet’s nest, and we held each other as the rooms broke open and blew away in the wind. Is that what your love desires?
Then Mark knew the malevolent thing hadn’t just stolen into his house. It had entered his mind. It spoke with her voice in his memories. It must have slithered through a crack in his resolve, a flaw in his hope. It occupied him as punishment for letting her go.
When night comes, he sees it in the mirror. It has pulled on his face.
I’ll starve you, he tells it.
I am starvation, his face answers.
We’ll see, he says. There’s nothing left to eat in the house. The face in the mirror winnows, the eyes sinking into darkness.
In the morning, he regards the crack in the living room wall. A glimmer of daylight is wedged in it. Mark leans against the narrow opening, pressing his face so tightly against it that he almost believes he could pass through. He glimpses a sullen sun in an ugly sky.
He’s stopped by Cara’s voice crying out behind him. Wait — I’m here! I’m still inside! I’m hiding — come find me!
He throws himself into the house with fury, pulling down the linen closet and spilling the contents of drawers. He holds up one of her formless shirts and remembers it filled with her body’s warm curvature.
He regards the empty nail and the fissure in the living room. The gap has grown wider, or perhaps he has become thinner. The cat watches him with cool detachment, then turns and wriggles into the opening. The tip of its tail vanishes into the wall.
He follows, turning sideways and pressing forward. Day and night pass in hunger. By the time he breaks into sunlight, there is almost nothing left of him.
He stands by the car. The thing inside the house keens and begs him to return. He feels her gravity, the impulse to bend his trajectory again down toward the well of her loss.
The car groans as if the key causes it pain, but the engine comes to life. The cat jumps in and disappears under the passenger seat. He drives without purpose, the way they used to do.
Cara says, it’s not safe to drive while crying.
He puts his hand where her hand used to be.
Adam R. Shannon is a career firefighter and paramedic, as well as a fiction writer, hiker, and amateur cook. His work has been shortlisted for an Aeon award and appeared in various publications and anthologies. He and his wife live in Virginia, where they care for two rambunctious dogs, occasional foster dogs, and a free-range toad. He is an enthusiastic graduate of Clarion West 2017.