This story is by Kourtney Torres and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
As her breath steadied, a pinkish glow filtered through Paloma’s closed eyelids. Mutating shapes danced in the dim light while she concentrated on nothing. There wasn’t a thought in her mind. There wasn’t a feeling in her body. The quiet settled in and she cradled it. She swaddled the empty thought-bundle, and rocked it back and forth. Meditation helped. Sometimes.
Although the minutes were sharp, the hours grew numb.
A large truck passing by sent a rumble through the floor boards. The jiggling of Paloma’s thighs echoed the vibration as she laid there. Her eyes flashed from darkness to the glued-on stars of a popcorn ceiling. Her breath was rapid, then returned with a steady resignation. She had lost everything but the dull ache of a tortured heart. She couldn’t even pray the pain away. It lived in the stars.
Plastic, glow-in-the-dark stars. She kept meaning to pull them down, but they were all that remained of the life she’d known eight months before. As the sun journeyed into the whole frame of the window, it laid a layer of warmth against her bare skin. The truck had long passed, but it succeeded in pulling her from the depths. What time was it? She should get dressed.
As Paloma looked in the mirror, she saw a woman who had premature wrinkles in the corners of her eyes. Beautiful strands of silver were growing where several black ones used to be a year ago. She would take all the wrinkles and give all the silver she could find in this world for the love that once embraced her.
As gravity played it’s enormous trick on her heart, Paloma realized she had no tears left in that moment. She must’ve used her daily allotment during the night. It was just as well. She had to get to work.
As she arrived, the parking lot was filled with trucks and cars. People were shopping for the holidays. They were just robots wearing different coats and hats. Park, walk, push a cart, fill it up, check out, load up, reverse, and drive away. Paloma watched the incessant pattern until the clock urged her out of the vehicle.
She had become a human-shaped black hole walking through the world, wading through the shadows. She was absent, but her body continued its daily events. She walked past the customers, down the aisle, through each department, to the back of the store. It was the same routine every day. Paloma clocked in six minutes late.
At her register, Paloma greeted the robots. She scanned their items, gave a total, waited for the card approval, then handed over a receipt. Although she wasn’t an exceptional being, Paloma was aware of everything in the world around her. Every movement, every disapproving glance, and every single shred of sympathy. As a returns cart would fill with the items people abandoned at her register, the weight of those stares layered onto her brain. The only difference was that she had nowhere to return that weight or abandon those thoughts at the end of each day.
“You need to smile!”
Paloma looked up. There was a man standing there in a checkered sweater with a close-shaven beard and a carefully groomed mustache. She was scanning his cereal when he startled her thoughts. What did he say?
“What was that?”
“It’s a beautiful day! A pretty girl like you has a lot to smile about. After all, you’re breathing and you’re upright, aren’t you?”
Paloma took a deep breath to make sure that was true. She felt the air pulsing in her lungs as she held it there. What would happen if she just quit? Quit the job, quit caring, quit breathing. She had contemplated that before. As usual, her body betrayed her and the air travelled out into the atmosphere. She wished her breath had color so she could watch as it wafted away.
“Yes. I am breathing.”
Paloma continued breathing, and working. She grew tired of people telling her what she should and shouldn’t do, or think, or feel, or say. She wasn’t sure if she cared, but she snapped at them occasionally. The checkered-sweater-mustache-man was lucky. His card was approved and his receipt printed before she processed what she should have said to him. He was a douche and he could take that smile and shove it. He could never understand the world she lived in.
On her lunch break, Paloma’s supervisor popped his head in the break room. Manny was shorter than she was, and much thinner. He had a bit of a complex about being so petite, but his outgoing personality made him larger than he seemed. He wanted “a moment of her time.” What could he possibly need to talk to her about? She’d finished her chips and orange soda long before. Her appetite was one of the many things Paloma lost eight months ago. She went ahead and clocked in, then followed Manny to the office.
“Paloma. Okay, so I’ve been told that you were a really great cashier at one time. I’m just not seein’ it. What’s goin’ on with you?”
Paloma couldn’t say what she was thinking. She sat silently for a moment. Oh, Manny. You power-hungry, little man. Don’t assume you can fix me. You have no control over this.
“I’m sorry, Manny. It’s personal.”
“Well, you know what I like to tell people? When you walk through our front door, you gotta pack up all that personal baggage and leave it outside. Just leave it right there, and you can pick it back up when you walk out. You don’t need it in here, alright?”
Paloma hated that analogy. It was overused and usually never applicable to situations like this. She knew he was a hardcore company man just trying to do the right thing, though. Poor Manny. He had a tough job.
“Okay. I’ll try, Manny.”
“Great! I love that analogy! Works every time. It really gets the point across, you know? Now, get out there and show me whatch’ya got!”
As Paloma walked out of the office, Janice was standing there waiting. She scooped Paloma up in one of her famous bear hugs. Everyone in the store loved Janice’s hugs, and her chocolate chip cookies. She was the warmest person Paloma had ever met. Janice retired from a government job before she began working retail fifteen years before. She had trained Paloma two years ago and they became fast friends despite their age difference. They didn’t talk much lately, but Janice was always waiting around a corner to give a hug.
“How’d that go, sweetie?”
“It was fine. Manny being Manny, of course.”
“Oh that young’un! I’m gonna have to talk to him!”
“No, Janice. It’s okay. He doesn’t know.”
Janice fumbled for something in her pocket. She outstretched her hand and placed a 4” by 6” piece of paper face down in Paloma’s hand. The side facing down felt smooth and glossy.
“I found this and wanted you to have it. It’s from my Christmas party last year.”
“Janice, I can’t. I can’t—“
“Just keep it. You don’t have to look at it right now. Just hold onto it. You’ll want it, I promise you.”
Paloma slid it into the back pocket of her jeans. As the day passed, it shielded her body heat from escaping that pocket. The warmth was a constant reminder that it was there. Why did Janice have to do that? She didn’t need any more reminders. The sun, and moon, and clouds were enough. The songs, and books, and blankets were enough. The glow-in-the-dark stars were always enough; and somehow never enough, either.
When Paloma arrived home, she settled in on the couch and tried not to look down the hallway. She tried not to hear the echoes of running footsteps. She covered herself with a small, patchwork blanket. Juju, a baby blue teddy bear, was in her lap under the covers. Paloma pulled the bear in close to her chest and breathed in what may have simply been herself by now.
She wanted it to be the sweet, seven-year-old girl her heart longed for. Paloma wandered over to the girl’s room. She checked the window that had been broken into eight months prior. Locked. She laid flat against the familiar hardwood floor. As she stared at the popcorn ceiling and plastic stars, she pulled the glossy 4” by 6” print from her pocket.
It was Carolina with a whipped cream mustache, holding a mug of hot chocolate with the biggest smile anyone could bear. The weight exploded inside of Paloma’s body. Her eyes flooded, but her heavy heart anchored her there. The outside world had become thick with indifference as the mourning inside grew intense and persistent. She only found peace when Carolina appeared in her dreams; and so Paloma prayed for sleep.