The Unburdening

 

An Illustrated Short Story

Written by Lindsay Carpenter

Illustrated by Tatiana Ray

At the end of the day there was nothing left to say. 

So she packed up her bags and left.

She figured he’d call later and maybe she’d explain. But maybe she wouldn’t pick up.

 

Drop the phone gently, let it just float away somewhere, be free. But that would be expensive.

 

So she kept walking.

 

Her suitcase was heavy and the wheels were slick in the snow.

She had to lift it over a pile at the corner and she thought,

“This is weighing me down.”

She thought about what was in the suitcase. Mostly clothes. A few books that she planned to read. Toiletries.

She left the bag on a snow drift, wondering what makes snow drift.

So she kept walking,

her backpack firm on her back.

And she thought, “This is weighing me down.”

First him,

      then that,

         now this.

She thought about what she had in the bag. She stopped at a bench. 

 

She took everything out, placing them gently on the bench one by one. She kept her ID, phone, and wallet. She stared at the rest of it. Books, papers, schedules, notes. She kept walking. 

Moving away, she saw a man walk up to the stuff, start to leaf through it. His gloved hands against the snow.

As she went farther away from it, leaving the familiar behind, it started to snow. She walked through an empty park.

Still, it felt heavy, this weight on her.

She left the park and took a creased ticket from her pocket. She stared at it, knowing she didn’t want to go on next week's trip, and left the ticket in a mailbox beside a red door.  She walked along the cold, empty afternoon streets. She passed a barber and smelled shampoo, passed a laundromat and inhaled steam. She wanted to be light. She pulled out her wallet and took out the cards. She kept her ID, her insurance, her debit card, and three dollar bills. She made a funeral of the other cards, a graveyard made from library cards, half-stamped coffee shop discounts, a subway pass, and old movie tickets.

She passed a shallow porch. She wondered if they kept their keys under the doormat. She checked, they did. She wondered if she should go inside, just because she could. She didn’t.

 

She kept walking, but she remained tethered to him. His potential call. For two breaths she stood up straight, defiant. Attempted to be weightless, but it pushed against her and she thought:

“He might call.”

“He might text.”

“I might answer.”

She took out her phone and stared at it. Took off the case, felt its heft. It weighed the same as a stone. What do you do with stones? Throw them at windows, or skip them on water, get rid of them if they’re in your shoes. But how do you get rid of something like this? Something that’s dangerous and knowledgeable and tethers you? You break it apart, break it down. Grind the stone. So she did. Deleted the apps. Broke the sim. And left it there, a shell of a phone, a skeleton in the snow. 

 

She smiled. There was something resembling hope as she walked away from her phone and she thought, “I’m doing this.”

She watched a cat pick through the snow and wondered who it belonged to.

She approached the cat, let it sniff her fingers and found a collar. She realized she had no phone to dial the number. She laughed. She turned the tag over and found an address. She knew the street. She picked up the cat and walked to it. One two three blocks. The cat was warm against her body and allowed her to snuggle it into her coat. The cat was a rarity who liked strangers. She looked up and down the street, counting the numbers. She turned left. The cat pricked up its head, recognizing the houses. “Almost home,” she told it. Her voice surprised them both. Loud in the quiet.

 

She reached the house. The cat was soft against her fingers, but growing heavy. Another thing to get rid of, she supposed. The cat liked her. It squirmed at the sight of its house, but did not push away from her body in an attempt to leave her. It stayed with her. She looked at the door. Set in a brick building that reached three stories high, it was brown-green. Unremarkable. An unremarkable that housed a rarity of a cat. She knocked. Then saw the doorbell and rang. She waited. Suddenly she was cold. Her ears and nose.

The stranger who answered the door was a tall woman in a big sweater whose confusion turned to recognition at the sight of her cat. 

“You found him. Hey, thanks.”

“He looked cold.”

“Here, I can take him.” The stranger picked the cat up out of her arms. She felt colder, the ball of warmth was gone.

“I’m Max,” the stranger said. Maybe because she hadn’t left yet.

“Hi.” The cold was spreading. Her knees were cold.

They stood in silence. She counted the seconds.

“Well…” the stranger started.

“He looks cold,” she said, referring to herself.

Max weighed her. “Do you need to use my phone?”

She shook her head no.

The stranger hesitated.

“Want to come inside?” Max asked. Maybe because she hadn’t left yet.

She looked at this woman before her and realized she felt safe. She followed the stranger in.

“What’s the cat’s name?” she asked. “It didn’t say on the collar.”

“Jeremy.”

“Jeremy,” she repeated.

Max pointed at the couch and she sat. The cat sat on her lap.

“Where’d you find him?”

She couldn’t remember. It was six blocks away, she remembered that. That doesn’t seem to be helpful. She tried to trace her walk to this house, it seemed distant, but she could not think of the street names. She remembered the snow.

“A few blocks away. In a park.”

“A park?”

She nodded, uncertain if it was in a park. She remembered finding the cat. She remembered what it looked like walking tentatively through the snow, trying impossibly not to get wet. She could not remember if it was in a park.

“How did Jeremy get out?”

“My friend’s fault. Sort of. She was leaving and wasn’t paying attention. Left the door open too long and Jeremy slipped out. I didn’t notice until dinnertime a couple hours later—he likes his space sometimes. It’s common for him to just disappear somewhere in the house.”

“He’s warm.”

Max looked at her. “Want a blanket?”

She nodded. She sat in the living room for a while. Max let her. She talked about Jeremy and the stranger answered. Max seemed perplexed about why she was there. In general they didn’t say much and the silences stretched between their words. She was warm there. And light. The reality that there was no next step, no home, no phone, no trip next week, all of it was at bay in this house. In this stranger’s house. There was blue everywhere.

Blue bottles,

blue couch,

blue wallpaper,

blue books and rug,

even a blue coffee table.

The cat’s collar was blue too.

She tried to think of whether she owned anything blue. There were two mugs. She supposed she didn’t own them anymore. They were back with him. There was a blue blanket there too. She tried to decide if she still wanted them. She changed her mind, consciously, to be in the blue house, not at the house she had left. Max was asking her something. She smiled at her.

“Do you want some water?” Max said.

“Yes.”

Max went into the kitchen and she followed.

The kitchen was red. Red potholders, red casserole dish, red paint, red cabinet handles, red lightbulb, red fridge. She’d never seen a red fridge before.

Max poured her a glass of water in a red glass.

It made her smile. Max noticed and raised an eyebrow as a question.

“Your colors,” she said.

Max laughed, “It’s a thing. Look.”

Max showed her the bathroom, inundated in purple.

“Why?” she asked.

“When I moved in, my room was this gross canary yellow, impossible to sleep in. I asked the landlord if I could paint my room and he said sure, if you want you can paint the whole apartment, just paint it back when you leave. So I did. I started with my room—green—then the living room—blue—and then I started collecting things, gathering things. And now it’s just become something I do.”

“I like it,” she said. And she realized she did. She liked the choice of it.

They returned to the living room and relapsed into quiet.

 

Max got out some knitting and started to knit. She liked to stare at the fingers, the way they moved thoughtlessly, looping the yarn and switching it from one needle to the other.

She could see Max wanted to say something. She smiled at her and Max spoke.

“Are you ok—I mean, is everything okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Good. Um, do you have somewhere to stay tonight?”

“No.”

“Oh, okay. Someone you can call?”

“No.”

It wasn’t a real conversation. They both knew that, at least Max did. She watched Max hesitate, watched the words form and disappear again and again on a silent mouth. Max was appraising her, weighing her, finding her empty—finding she weighed nothing, and if she weighed nothing then what should Max do with her. What do you do with weightlessness?

“Do you knit?” Max asked.

She shook her head no.

Another silence grew and shrunk into the next question.

“Would you like to learn?”

She nodded. Max pulled out another pair of needles from the same blue cabinet and let her choose between the balls of yarn. There were three shades of brown, a deep burgundy, and the same blue Max was using. She chose the burgundy. Then changed her mind and chose one of the browns. Then changed her mind and chose the burgundy. Max told her how to get started. It was the most words they had spoken in succession. They sat next to each other on the couch with Jeremy still sitting on her lap. The cat was asleep now. Silence resumed as one scarf got longer and the other seemed to stay the same length. Her fingers moved clumsily. Still, she felt light.

She looked at Max, still knitting, and wanted to ask a question. She couldn’t think of which question to ask. The usual ones (“what do you do? where are you from? how are you?”) felt laughable. Yesterday’s questions.

 

Maybe she could ask “why do you knit?” or “if you could be anything, what would you be?”

 

She realized she wanted Max to like her and that sank into her stomach and hurt.

 

She wanted Max to like her because right now Max was the only one left. And because Max interested her, but mostly because Max was there.

 

And she realized how easy it would be to build it back up again. The weight of it all. The stuff of it all. The connections, the people, the things.

She decided not to knit.

She decided instead it was time to be groundless.

So she lifted off the ground

                              And floated

                                            Floated

                                                 Floated.

Max stared up at her, startled. She looked down at Max and she wished she could go above the roof, and she did. Up into someone else’s apartment, another room in the duplex where a man brushed his teeth and snorted when he saw her and almost choked, but then she was up up up again through the next ceiling and this time she broke away through the roof.

                                           

                                                           The snow falling down as she fell up.

The block she’d walked with Jeremy. The park with her stuff, some of it still visible on the little bench. And then more and more of the town. Visible beneath her. She could point to their home - his home now- down below. Specks below her. A patchwork of snow tinted roofs.

She wondered where she would float to, if she’d hover like a balloon around the world and then deflate in some other country.

                                                                                                                     rising.                                           

                                                                                                          rising                                                         

                                                          Or if she’d just keep rising

She watched the maze of streets below her, the winding cars and tiny humans. Two people shouted at each other from opposite windows. A train on the edge of town rumbled past. She could see a farmers market nestled in white and the dots of people haggling and greeting each other and huddling for warmth and company.

 

She wanted to hear them. But all she heard was the silence that snow makes, muffling the world.

She saw a kid running towards the inaudible sound of an ice cream truck in winter.

She leaned in, craned forward to hear, and

                                                                           dropped. Foof. As though some air was let out of her.

No. I want up, she thought. And began to float again. 

 

Better to not watch, better to not wonder, better to not get dragged back in, back down. Better to notice the snow and the snowflakes and how they hit against her face, cold against her skin, her bare arms, how her hair was half wet now, how she could feel the sting of her cheeks and nose and ears and

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Foof.

She dropped farther now. Half the distance she had risen in a single heartbreak. And she was slowly, steadily dropping. She looked at the birds, she looked at the clouds, she looked desperately at the sky, determined to distract herself with up. She began to rise again.

She let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding and rose faster. She thought about what it would be like to see the stars. She thought about the gentle zig zag pattern she made as she drifted upward. She thought about the little people down there and that she’d never hear them. She thought about Max and Jeremy and what they would do with her coat. She thought about whether Max would try to float now too or whether Max would worry about her, for her, and if Max would try to find a rope and pull her down.

 

 

 

 

                                                                                       Foof.

She stared down the length of rough rope suddenly tied around her ankle, searching for the culprit but couldn’t recognize them, only one dark spot in the snow below.

 

Their urgency made them strong as they yanked her towards them. She could feel each heave as she jolted downward then hovered, then jolted down again.

 

“No,” she shouted. Afraid of her voice. “No.”

 

But if she couldn’t hear them then they couldn’t hear her.

 

And suddenly she was scared it wasn’t Max. That it was him or her mom or someone else, some stranger with the strength to leash her to hold her to tie her. And she knew it couldn’t be Max, she had done nothing to deserve Max on the other side of that rope.

And she tried to look up, to will herself up, to be as weightless as she’d ever been, to fight against coming down. But that was too intentional of an intention and it anchored her, heavier than the rope, and she careened down, a boulder’s fall, faster than she could think or notice or yell.

 

At first she didn’t recognize the person she had almost hit. She lay next to them in the snow and she closed her eyes. Of course that’s who it was.

 

She opened her eyes and turned into the wet snow and looked at them, at herself. 

“I didn’t want to come down,” she said.

“What do you want?” she asked herself.

“I don’t know.”

“Not all of it. Not what do you want in life or next or what will you choose, that’s not what I’m asking.”

“I don’t know.”

 

“What do you want right now, that’s all?”

“To be warm.”

In the blue living room, she turns to Max, “Do you have any tea?”

Max half-jumps, emerging from some reverie where the entire world was blue yarn and knitting needles.

 

“Sure.” Max goes into the red kitchen.

She waits, alone with herself.

 

“What are you waiting for?” she asks.

She wants to see a red mug. The certainty that it will be red comforts her.

She looks at her coat hanging on the wall, the snow has melted on it in a dark, wet line. It reminds her of a phone and a ticket and library cards and a suitcase and books and a backpack and snow and him.

And she thinks, “I still feel heavy.”

And she thinks, “What’s weighing me down?”

She waits, for the big discovery, the big moment, the final piece.

She searches for what’s left, but it’s just her.

Max comes in with the mug. It’s red.