The room whispered to Simon in its language of creaks and fluttering appliances. The small noises seemed to work in uneven patterns like an overheard conversation. It amused him to give substance to these inanimate dialogues and reminded him of the two little girls from the apartment down the hall with their non-stop chatter and squeals like kettles left to boil. When they weren’t talking, they were stomping up and down the hallways, a gale of giggles bubbling in their wake. They only ever came looking for him when they were bored of themselves. But he couldn’t remember now the last time they’d come banging on his door looking for that stale, rippled candy he kept in a chipped crystal bowl on the mantle.
The girls had broken the bowl themselves on one of their many curious visits through his apartment. Their tiny fingers, always turning over the treasures of his life, had pulled the bowl down from its perch and sent it crashing to the hearth. Simon had been surprised when it didn’t shatter at the girls’ feet. The object had no special meaning to him, but he’d grumbled all the same as he rubbed at the sharp fan of missing crystal along the rim. The younger girl had ignored the bowl altogether and scattered to the floor like a starving bird, her dirty, sunbaked hands grubbing up handfuls of candy and shoving them in her pockets. The older sister apologized in her husky, broken voice and made her little sister return what was left.
Simon squinted across the room toward the mantle, there were a dozen little amber medicine bottles and a box of tissue, but the bowl was gone. He must have put it away somewhere, though it didn’t matter now since the girls had stopped coming to visit him. Simon felt a pang of realization followed by the shame of his forgetting. They were grown now, not girls anymore. How could he forget? They moved away a long time ago. He’d even given the bowl to the older one, Florie, when she left. And little Tam, he’d given her that clock from the table next to his recliner. It hadn’t ever done much but tick on its own broken cycle, but she’d asked for it anyway. He remembered her holding it to her ear and smiling before throwing her arms around him.
Tam had insisted that day on making him lunch. The meal was a disaster of burnt things on top of other burnt things, and he teased her. She wanted to cook for him as he had done for them, she told him as she scraped a particularly black bit from some toast. After the candy bowl incident, he’d begun giving them both tall glasses of milk and sandwiches melted with cheese instead stale candy. They started coming to his apartment after school, and he called them his stray cats. They meowed and laughed, pretending to have ears and whiskers with pointed fingers. Simon didn’t like milk. He must have bought it special for them. It had gone rotten one summer when they went on vacation when there was no one to drink it. No, he remembered, not a vacation; it was too long for a vacation. So long, he’d gone back to taking naps in the afternoon rather than waiting at the kitchen table for them to come collapsing into the chairs, slumping their backpacks to the floor.
Simon felt an ache in his chest, and he shifted uncomfortably. He felt the warmth of a hand on his own. His breath steadied, and the pain subsided. He heard a sniff and flinched, remembering that pinch-nosed woman who had come to his door one afternoon well into the winter after the girls disappeared. He hated that old woman and her long, narrow nose, always sniffing from every corner of his rooms and peppering him with impertinent questions. ‘Highly unusual,’ she would say before scratching in her notebook. She seemed annoyed she couldn’t find anything out of place or something wrong enough to satisfy her. She was a busybody, and he’d wished his wife Maggie had been there to put her in her place. Of course, if Maggie had been alive, that cranky social worker might not have gone on prying and finding him so highly unusual.
Maggie would have liked Florie and Tam. He knew that she would have done the same as him and given them extra full glasses of milk and sandwiches. She would have gone with him to the courthouse, too, if she’d been there. He’d worn the suit he’d bought for Maggie’s funeral into the judge’s chambers that day. There were moth holes under the arms, and he kept his arms down at his sides, hoping no one would see. The girls were there with the pinch-nosed lady. They fled her side and stuck to him like possum babies the instant he came through the door. Tam buried her face in the pocket of his suit jacket and looked away just enough to make sure she didn’t stumble on their way back home. Happiness blurred with anxiety, and Simon struggled to keep straight which times were which; they intertwined together.
The girls had changed so much since he’d last seen them. They were razor thin and flinched when the boy rang to deliver the groceries. Their long shining hair had been cut right to the skull. Florie told him it was on account of the bugs, and it made him angry all over. He had lice when he was a boy, and his own mother had sat and picked out every last one to spare his hair so that he wouldn’t be teased in school. It had taken him weeks to convince the girls to go back to their classes. He bought them both pretty headbands to cover up their nearly bald heads. He stood outside a dozen dressing rooms as they climbed into stiff new dresses and jeans, tossing out their stained, old clothes in the bins as they left. But even after all that, Tam had squinted up at him, her eyes full of the sun and tears, and begged him to take her home on the first day back. Home was his apartment, their apartment. Their room was his old room. He’d moved himself into the smaller of the two. He filled theirs with a pair of white wicker twin frames and pink ruffles that seemed to serve no purpose other than to skirt the bed & hide the ever-growing collection of board games and toys.
The years filled up those rooms. Shelves bulged with books, drawings from art classes, and certificates he’d carefully framed no matter how small the accomplishment. As the girls plastered their walls with pictures from magazines and listened to music that sat uncomfortably in his ears, he learned to make cakes in layers and comb tangles from hair without pulling. He ached for Maggie each time he learned something new. He had been old when the girls first came, but by the time he was taking pictures of them in formal gowns and graduation caps, his arms had begun to shake under the weight of the camera. When they left, he couldn’t even help them carry their bags, which were over-stuffed and pulling at their arms. He remembered Florie shoving that crystal bowl into an oversized backpack, tucking it between sweaters. She insisted on taking it with her even though the dorm would be small and she could only carry so much. He called out her name to say something to her before she left, and a quiet voice replied to him.
“Florie went to the store. It’s me, Tam.” Simon turned his head to the soft voice and saw Tam’s pointed chin and her lopsided dimple smiling down at him through the veil of her long dark hair. “Are you okay? Can I get you anything?” She asked, standing up from the chair next to his bed. She reached over the metal railing to adjust the blankets and arrange the pillows under his head.
“I’m okay.” He said, reaching out for her hand. He felt her fingers wrap around his as she perched on the edge of the bed. The room had been spinning before, time mixing with dreams, leaving him unsettled. But with her close to him, he could see the adult lines of her face. The girls were grown now, by many years. The clutter of the past dimmed as he closed his eyes, comforted by the slender hand covering his own. Tam was here and Florie would be home soon.
Deni L. Weeks
Deni L. Weeks is an artist and data visualist living in Utah with her husband of 25 years and their menagerie of small beasts. She has received academic recognition for her writing and research while studying Mathematics and Accounting. Her stories explore the relationships between humanity and the material world. ‘The Candy Bowl’ is her first piece of published fiction.