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CATEGORY A - Short Story

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The Room They No Longer Enter
by Susan Braghieri

Jeremy thinks about the white lilies he bought for Sarah that she filed away in the room they no longer enter. He imagines the flowers are wilting to brown, fallen petals littering the dressing table, water turning murky and pungent.
He pauses in the passageway outside the room. The door is closed. His hand hovers over the place where Kate's name used to be. The hand-written 'Do Not Enter' sign remains, red block letters inside a black circle. A warning for intending interlopers: Thou shall not pass.
He deliberates if he should seek Sarah's permission before he enters. She acts as if she is the only one capable of mourning her in the right way. But is there any right way to mourn for your daughter? Apparently so. He turns the handle on the door and meets resistance.
Thwarted, he goes downstairs to find Sarah. She is on the sofa, body nestled into the cushions, eyelids flickering in half-sleep. The TV is muted and flashes images from some chat show peppered with advertorials. He mutters the catchphrase: But wait there's more.
He wants to take Sarah by the shoulders and shake her. Instead, he gently touches her arm. Her body curls in tighter, away from his touch. He remembers a time when she would instinctively move towards him in her sleep, their arms seeking refuge only with each other. He tries again, applying more pressure to her arm. Eyelids shutter open with a startled look. He waits for her to come to wakefulness. He tells her they must talk. 'We must not forget.'
But she stares at something over his shoulder and says, 'Remembering is dangerous.' Her voice is whiskey on ice, a fiery burn with a chilly aftershock.
'You've locked her room.'
'What did you expect me to do? You were getting rid of her things without asking me. I don't want them given away.'
'It's not healthy keeping her room like a shrine.'
'Psychoanalysing me now are you? How about I return the favour. Tell me, what sort of man buys flowers for his wife on the anniversary of their daughter's death? Can you answer that, Jeremy? It's fucked up, that's what it is.' She rolls over. 'Leave me alone.'
Jeremy retreats to the adjoining sunroom. The ironing basket in the corner is overflowing. Someone has to make an effort. He plunges his hand into the clothes, fingers finding Sarah's black, formal dress. He wonders why it's still in there. He sets the temperature on the iron, and pauses with his left hand resting on top of the dress, dwelling on Kate's last moments. Her broken body in that burning wreck of twisted metal. How unbearable was the pain? Could he replicate it by imprinting the iron onto his hand, absorbing the heat until the flesh burns and shrivels away. Would that be enough, to receive forgiveness?
'What are you doing?' Sarah's voice cuts through the silence.
There is the pungent odour of burning silk fused with Teflon. He looks down. There's a hole in the dress and the ironing board cover.
'Shit.' He shakes his hand and brings it up in front of his face. Fingers and flesh intact.
'What's wrong with you?'
She snatches the dress from the ironing board. 'You've ruined it.'
'I'm sorry. It's not like you wear it anymore.' The colour drains from his face. 'I … I thought you might want it back in the wardrobe.'
'Why? So I can see it every morning. To remind me.'
He shakes his head. 'It's … we don't talk about her. At all.'
'And why is that, Jeremy? Did you ask yourself how I would feel when you went round the house turning all the photos of her face-down? Before we'd even had the funeral.'
'It was my way of coping. I couldn't look at them. My family's always done that … when someone dies. My grandmother believed it stopped the soul from putting the mark of death on anyone else in the house. I know you might not believe it, but I couldn't bear to lose you too.'
'Since when have you been superstitious? Or religious for that matter. This is our daughter we're talking about. She was ours for seventeen years. Don't you feel anything?'
'Of course I do. I miss her every day. I have this knot in my gut that won't go away, and it curls tighter every time I'm reminded of her. It's why I started clearing out her room; it was only making me worse. You know I blame myself.'
'Do you, Jeremy? Or is it me you're trying to punish?'
'Don't be ridiculous. It wasn't your fault. I keep going over that night, again and again. Thinking of all the what ifs.'
'Don't. It won't bring her back.'
'I know. But I can't help thinking: if only I'd hadn't been drunk … if I'd been there to pick her up … if only she hadn't hopped in that bloke's car…'
'Stop it. You'll drive yourself crazy. It won't change anything.'
'I know. But I…'
'It's … nothing. Forget it.'
'I can't, not now. Spit it out, Jeremy. Tell me, what's going on in that head of yours?'
'If things had been different … if I'd paid more attention to you … worked less overtime, been home more…'
'Been faithful,' she interjects.
He nods. 'That too. If I'd been a better husband, done all those things, would you still have been out that night? With him?'
Sarah stares over his shoulder again, her grey eyes fixated on the point where their family photo used to hang on the wall. 'I told you, remembering is dangerous.' She shifts her gaze to meet his eyes, 'For both of us.'
She returns to the living room. The sound of audience applause erupts from the TV. He returns to the ironing. Steam escapes from the bottom of the iron in angry bursts. The iron is scalding hot.

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