For a long time, I couldn’t get the touch of your hand off my ribcage. It was printed there, its mark indelible; pressed. I lay awake nightly, placed my smaller palm in the spot, spreading my fingers, trying to match your ghost. You called twice in the year since you left—left messages each time in a voice that led me to believe that you were somewhere sunny.
Your sentences were stapled with halts. I expected their arrhythmia, knew their tone like I know the fireworks show on insides of my fist-pressed eyelids. The words hardly mattered. That’s what I told Ainsley, while I curled under her hand but shrank from her face: it wasn’t about what you said.
This morning I woke up and sensed the lightness of your absence unbearable. All morning, I paced barefoot through the house, unable to shake a sense of having just watched a blue balloon rise away. I unclenched my fist over and over, leaving crescent indents, aware that a soft, worn string had just lifted out of my grasp.
Ainsley made pancakes, but she couldn’t keep the annoyance out of her tone while they cooled, untouched. “It’s okay if you don’t tell me everything,” she burst, washing the pan in hard scrubs. “Just have the decency, then, to hide it.” She looked resolved in a way I haven’t seen before. “All or nothing,” she said, “Please.”
And what do you know, it was only an hour later that you called a third time. I picked up. My heartbeat was torrential; I could barely hear you over it. I’m not being melodramatic. I wish I could receive with grace.
“My friend,” you said, “It’s been a while.”
“It has,” I said, laughing while tears sparked in my eyes. The connection was bad. You mentioned starfish in one moment, chickpeas the next. I imagined you against a sunset, at a dinner, by the sea. Lighting a candle with those fingers, or holding a plate—leaving your heavy marks everywhere. You laughed at something I hadn’t said. Mid-chuckle, the phone connection cut off.
I sat in a patch of sunlight filtered through the window. When Ainsley walked in, the sun was setting. She plucked the phone from my cradled palms and set it on a high shelf, as if it had no weight at all.
Tonight, Ainsley will try to rub your ghost hand away, but she pushes it in farther. She wouldn’t describe it like this. I often imagine that she sleeps like a shell around me, but really, she rolls away and curls: a tight ball, protruding corners; something spiny and protected. I’m the one who drapes over her and tries to fill our spaces. Tonight, after she has sank away from me, I trace a line around the hand that I have pressed below her chest. I touch very lightly, barely at all, but I believe she feels it.
Kerry Cullen’s fiction has been published or is forthcoming in the Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, One Teen Story, Monkeybicycle, and more. She is an editorial assistant at Henry Holt, she earned her MFA at Columbia University, and she lives in New York. She is currently working on a novel about sex, god, and Christian rock.
Photo by Sarah