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Fiction

Self-Storage Starts with the Heart

You’ll notice how the commercials never mention the price. They’ve all got some lab-coated guy with chiseled cheekbones spouting dumbed-down drivel about how emotions have wavelengths, the same as light or sound, which are reflected and absorbed by the objects around us. How this discovery has the potential to revolutionize your life. Yes, you, the one glued to your screen at three a.m., binging YouTube videos of animals-you-would-not-expect-to-be-friends-becoming-friends because you are too sad and lonely to sleep. How would it feel to be free of the feelings which are weighing you down, even now?

Then an address, a website, a punny name. But never the price.

I had to actually go to one of these places, a few weeks after Christopher moved away. I had to suffer a tour through the hallways lined with tiny, ice-blue lockers, had to say “Um, yes, I’m interested in the basic loneliness storage package,” before, finally, the sales-guy slid some paperwork across the table and I was able to find, after scanning the small print, a number, at which point I nearly choked on the complimentary coffee.

Even the smallest locker cost more than half my monthly paycheck. More than the rent on my studio apartment, which has low ceilings and only one window, which I always leave open, even in January. I spend most of my time at home sitting in front of it, painting fleur-de-lis on tiny shields or bloodstains on tiny swords, listening to the scraps of passing conversation which drift up from the sidewalk below.

At the loneliness storage facility, I told the sales guy I’d need to think about it and then I hurried home to sit by that window, ashamed.

I waited for as long as I could stand and then I called Christopher. Before the new baby and the new house, he would come over to my place once a week. He’d pull lancers and Landsknechts from his briefcase, arrange them on my table of papier-mâché hills and miniature forests.

Our battles lasted hours, often stretching late into the night. When we played, everything else melted away. We were generals, kings, leaders of nations. When our eyes met across the table it was like the whole world was just the two of us.

I could have lived in that world forever.

But it had been over a month since I last saw Christopher. I’d been playing solo battles, captaining both forces, trying to pretend I didn’t know my own plans.

“You need to try some different games,” Christopher told me over the phone, “Find new people to play with.” Just the sound of his voice was enough to make me feel better.

“Or you could move back instead,” I said

“Come on, James. You could try some Warhammer, maybe. I know there’s a group that meets over at the game store on Craig sometimes.”

“Warhammer? How can you even suggest that?”

Christopher sighed loudly. “You’re impossible, James.”

Even before he moved to the suburbs, Christopher was always trying to convince me to “put myself out there.” Ask a coworker out for coffee or something, he’d say. It’s not that complicated, James. You’ve just got to try.

No matter how often I explained, he never seemed to understand that, for me, talking to a stranger was like walking onto a battlefield naked, unarmed. At the call center where I worked, we had scripts to follow, finely calibrated for success, and yet more calls than I could count ended with the other person calling me something nasty and hanging up.

If Christopher had one fault, it was his inability to recognize that things came more easily to him than they did to everyone else.

In all other ways, he was perfect.

I asked him, as I had done every day since he moved, when he would be able to come over again. He told me, as he always did, that he didn’t know. Between teaching high school and the tutoring he had picked up after hours to supplement his income and of course the baby and the distance and . . .

“What about Saturday?” I asked. “Just for an hour or two? We’ll do a skirmish.”

He said he would think about it and then the baby started crying and he had to go.

• • • •

The next morning, I called Christopher. The phone rang and rang and rang and then his voice: “This is Christopher, leave a message.” I tried to sound casual. Hey, just had something I wanted to run by you, give me a call when you can. I gave it another fifteen minutes, called again.

On the bus to work, I made frantic mental calculations. If I turned the thermostat to fifty, if I sold the bed and slept on the floor, if I stopped buying salsa to go with my rice and beans, then maybe, maybe, I could afford to store my loneliness.

When I got home, I called Christopher again, but there was still no answer. I called him a few more times just to hear his voice on the answering machine.

That night I lay awake, picturing Christopher and his wife in their big suburban bedroom, curled up, no doubt, beneath a downy comforter, arms wrapped around each other, skin against skin, and my stomach twisted.

Christopher was actually the whole reason I got into historical miniature gaming in the first place. My freshman year, we were in European Civilization Before 1600 together and he mentioned after class once that it was his hobby and I had said, “Wow, what a coincidence, me too,” and then I rushed back to my dorm to google it and learn everything I could.

Back then, I couldn’t afford more than a few miniature soldiers. So I used what I had. I made scenery out of egg cartons and takeout containers. I swelled my ranks with roughly whittled baby carrots glued to pennies. When they were killed in battle, they doubled as a snack.

So, sure, I couldn’t afford the fees to store my loneliness. But maybe that wasn’t the only way.

• • • •

Every night for the next week, I stayed up late researching online. When the weekend came, I went to Pitt Library and scoured the latest scientific trade journals. When we were students, Christopher and I frequently came to the library to study accounts of ancient battles, occasionally for a class, but more often so that we could transport ourselves into them later, hunched over the tiny card table in my room together, sitting close enough that our knees sometimes touched.

I kept calling Christopher. I reached him once, but he said he didn’t have time to talk and that he would call me later.

He didn’t. Maybe the baby had a cold.

Monday evening, I walked to the international market and the CVS and returned home with an eclectic collection of herbs, spices, cleaning supplies, and over-the-counter medications, all of which I boiled down into a pungent, syrupy liquid which burned my nostrils and made my head swim.

Tuesday, I caught a bus to Walmart and purchased a dust-resistant, self-sealing plastic bin with lock-it-tight ™ tabs. Back home, I walked through my apartment and brushed my hand across each item I owned. At the storage center, there was a sensor you could rent to help identify which objects in your home were most imbued with the emotion you hoped to eliminate, but I had to go by feel. Apparently, items absorb emotions at variable rates. This has less to do with their actual physical properties, and more to do with our own subconscious perceptions of them. Which is to say, it’s really just us, people, shoving all these emotions into things without realizing it or being able to control it.

In the end, I selected a single gray sock, the mate of which had long ago gone missing; a stack of flattened cardboard cartons, each of which had once contained a Celeste’s Four Cheese Frozen Gourmet Pizza For One; and a sheaf of smudged scoresheets from the battles I had fought against myself since Christopher left.

I placed them in the bin and did a quick visualization exercise in which I imagined every last scrap of my loneliness flowing into them. If I threw them all away, my research indicated, I might feel better for a little while, but the emotions would inevitably flow back into me. So instead I drenched the whole lot with the deactivator liquid from the night before, sealed the bin, and stuck it in the freezer.

Exhausted by the whole process, I nuked some rice and beans, slumped into the chair by the window, and applied Badab Black wash to the bodies of fifteen-millimeter arquebusiers until my eyelids grew heavy.

As I climbed into my twin bed and wrapped myself up tight in the scratchy sheet, I felt a lightness the likes of which I had not felt in ages. It was as if I’d been lugging around a backpack full of lead shot every day and night for years without pause and had only, just now, thought to set it down.

• • • •

When I woke up, however, I felt like shit. It took twice as long as usual to drag myself out of bed and over to the kitchen section of my studio. When I opened the fridge to get milk, I was hit with a wave of emptiness so strong I almost cried.

I stood there as the cold billowed out at me. I stared at the bag of wilted baby spinach, the stacked Styrofoam boxes, and my bones echoed up and down with the hollow round sound of it. Loneliness.

It had leaked.

It was almost worse now that I knew how good it felt to be free of it. I dumped the contents of the lock-it-tight ™ (yeah, right) bin onto the counter, slapped on some pants, and caught a bus back to Walmart before work to return it. As the customer service desk attendant handed me a receipt, her hand brushed against mine and I flinched away, the touch like an electric shock, so unfamiliar that it was almost painful.

That evening I spent nearly an hour on a bus to the Wilderness Outfitters by the highway. I lingered in the camping aisle before settling on a small cooler which, with rotomolded construction and permafrost insulation, claimed to be watertight, airtight, and one hundred percent grizzly proof.

At home, I transferred the former contents of the bin. I whipped up a new batch of the syrupy deactivator liquid. Once the cooler was in the freezer, I sealed the seam of the door with duct tape. After that, I kept checking. I’d get up from my chair by the window and walk past the fridge, gauge my state of mind, go stand in the opposite corner as far from the fridge as I could, gauge it again. It got so I was no longer sure how I felt about anything. I called Christopher, got his machine, called again. I knew I should stop, knew his phone would show him how often I was calling. I should ration my calls like they were water and the days were a desert.

But there was no one else, so I called him again ten minutes later. And then again ten minutes after that.

I fell asleep eventually, my pillow stuffed into the corner of the window, the voices of strangers from the sidewalk below loud enough that they could almost have been in the room.

• • • •

The next morning, I felt fine. More than fine. I woke early, pulled on pants, mixed up some instant coffee, and went outside, where I sat on the front steps of my building and watched the morning birds flicker through the trees.

I hadn’t been there long when my across-the-hall neighbor Emil appeared, coming up the street from the bus stop. We’d only spoken once, when he’d knocked on my door to ask if I knew the number for maintenance. He was an older guy, maybe fifty or something, with an accent I couldn’t place.

“Emil!” I exclaimed as he approached the steps, which seemed to startle him enormously.

“Good morning,” he said.

“It is!” I said. “Very good!”

“Yes,” said Emil.

“I’m not lonely anymore,” I told him. Normally I wouldn’t have dreamed of telling such a thing to a near stranger. Normally I would never have spoken to him at all. But this morning I wanted to tell someone about my good fortune, so I simply did.

“Ah,” said Emil. He shifted from foot to foot on the sidewalk.

“I got rid of it. Loneliness. It’s gone. I put it into storage.”

“Yes, very well, congratulations.” Emil bobbed his head at me and then, eyes down, began to climb the stairs. There was something terribly familiar about the way his shoulders rolled inward, as if he were slowly collapsing. The way he had barely met my eyes the whole time we spoke.

“Emil,” I said, “Are you lonely?”

He stopped. We were only a few feet apart. If I’d put out my arm I could have touched him.

“Lonely?”

• • • •

Half an hour later, I was standing in his apartment, a mirror image of my own, helping him select the correct items to put into the vault. I had decided to call it “the vault” because that sounded better than “the cooler inside my duct-taped freezer” and I wanted Emil to think I was serious about all this.

He pulled a photograph from a small black album. It was him and a short woman in a white dress. The colors had that brassy seventies look to them. Emil had much more hair. The woman was smiling.

“My wife,” he said, “I miss her very much.”

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry. I can’t do grief.”

Emil gave me a strange look. “Grief?”

“Yeah, I know they seem related, but loss, bereavement, mourning—all that stuff is another category.”

“My wife is not dead.”

“Oh.”

“She just changed her mind.”

“Oh, well, that’s fine, then.”

Emil handed me the photograph.

“Why can’t you do grief?” he asked.

“It’s got different storage requirements.” I’d gleaned some basics from my research. Grief needed to be submerged and well-oxygenated. Anger needed to be kept warm, though it was also highly flammable. Fear and desire required some complex combination of pressure and electric currents.

“Very well,” said Emil.

• • • •

I left Emil’s with a plastic bag full of personal effects. I’d debated whether I ought to take the bus back to the Outfitters and buy another cooler, but the agreement with Emil was that he wasn’t going to pay me until he was sure the procedure had worked.

Besides, the plastic bag was making me uneasy. I’d had Emil do the whole visualization exercise and it seemed to have worked. I felt a vague loneliness, but there was something off about it, like a coat that doesn’t quite fit.

So I whipped up another batch of the liquid stuff, ripped the duct tape off the freezer and gingerly extracted the cooler. I held my breath as I prized the lid free, though I knew this was pointless. I tossed Emil’s things into the cooler, poured the liquid, latched the lid, slammed the freezer door. And then I fell to my knees and buried my face in my hands.

I spent the next five minutes or so curled up on the floor in front of the refrigerator. My lungs ached. My eyes burned with tears. This will pass, I told myself, this will pass. You are alone and no one loves you and no one will ever love you or even like you, really, but this feeling will pass.

Instinctually, I found myself reaching for my phone, dialing Christopher’s number. I stopped myself before I hit call. The feeling was passing. It was funny, though—I realized that I’d barely thought about Christopher at all today.

That was unusual. I had this habit of talking to him, even when he wasn’t there. Not out loud—I wasn’t insane—but in my head. Christopher, what do you think I should I have for dinner; well, James, perhaps a bowl of rice and beans; but, Christopher, I had that yesterday; well, perhaps add an extra splash of hot sauce to it this time, live life on the edge.

I did this often. Did it every day. As if Christopher were simply a part of me. Maybe that was pitiful, I don’t know. Maybe less lonely people didn’t do that. I hadn’t done it even once so far today. Hadn’t even realized what was missing.

• • • •

The next morning, I was woken by knocking. Groggy and with hastily-donned robe askew, I shuffled to the front door and opened it to find Emil standing outside.

“How does it work?” he demanded.

“What?”

“Is it a machine? Where do you keep it?” Emil was peering around me, trying to see into my apartment.

“Oh,” I said, “There isn’t much to look at. It’s mostly down to, you know, chemicals and stuff. Very specialized. You don’t want to mess with it. Best left to experts.”

“And you,” said Emil, “you are an expert?”

“Sure,” I said weakly. Emil gave me an appraising look.

“Look,” I said, “do you want your stuff back? If you just hold on a second, I’ll get it. Like I said, no payment necessary if you’re not one hundred percent satisfied with the results.”

“Ha,” said Emil, “Not satisfied? No, no, that is not it. Not it at all.”

• • • •

Emil said it was a miracle. The men in the labs at Carnegie Mellon where he works spend all their time fooling around with test tubes and fruit fly colonies and they get paid the big bucks and yet who would have guessed that there was better science being done right here, in the apartment across the hall.

“Oh, wow, wait,” I said, “you’re a scientist?”

“No, night janitor.”

I’d invited Emil in, offered him some coffee. It came easy, somehow, now. No one else had ever been in my apartment before except plumbers and Christopher.

“So this is your business?” Emil asked.

“Well, yes, I guess. I mean, I’m only just starting.”

Emil eyed my taped-up freezer. “I did not believe you,” he said. “The other day. I did not think anything would happen. But I thought to myself: Emil, what do you have to lose?”

“Only your loneliness,” I suggested.

“You know,” he said, “that could work as a slogan.”

“Yeah, I guess it could.”

“Tell me again, what is it that I owe you?”

“I was thinking ten dollars a week. Or thirty for a month. I’m trying to keep the cost low, you know, for people who can’t usually afford storage.”

“You have a vision. I admire that. But you must be practical. You are, if you will excuse me saying so, quite young.”

“I’m not that young,” I protested, though it was true most people assumed I was still in college. Christopher had often told me I should invest in clothes that weren’t t-shirts and jeans and also get my hair cut more often, but it seemed like a waste of money.

Emil was telling me how he had, in fact, always dreamed of running his own business. How he had tried several times before. An arcade with a high school friend, a restaurant with his brother. Neither had gotten far off the ground, but he understood now where he had gone wrong. He explained it all to me, throwing around words like expenditure and profit margin.

“And that,” he finished, confidently “is why it would unquestionably be best practices for us to become partners in this venture.” He reached across the table and shook my hand. I didn’t even flinch.

• • • •

People treated me differently all of sudden, out in the world. When I was lonely, people had avoided looking directly at me, had stepped around me on the sidewalk. They must have been able to sense it, somehow, clinging to my skin like the smell of cigarettes clings to the skin of smokers.

I could meet the eyes of cashiers easily, now. Could hold up my end of meaningless chit-chat at the bus stop. The idea of showing up to a game group full of strangers held no terror.

No appeal, either.

I could have made new friends, I suppose, but I didn’t feel much need.

My free time was spent growing the business. Emil and I hung flyers on phone poles, and by the end of the first week, we had ten clients. By the end of the second, we had thirty. We met with each client individually, in Emil’s living room. I talked them through their visualization process and then he gave them the papers to sign while I hurried across the hall to do the actual storage.

Emil had bankrolled, personally, the purchase of a large chest freezer for my apartment. He had also purloined, from the labs he cleaned, a Bunsen burner and an assortment of flasks to help streamline the liquid-brewing process. He said as long as he returned them eventually, no one would know.

At the start of the third week, Emil insisted that we must tap into new markets, diversify our portfolio, so I made an order and a few days later, the lockboxes arrived: unbreakable and dust proof, fire resistant up to two thousand degrees, watertight, made of ultra-high impact structural copolymer, with neoprene O-rings, ABS latches, and automatic purge valves.

Emil, meanwhile, got the idea to use these radiant heating pad things like the ones they used in the lab to warm the rat cages. Those he wouldn’t borrow (he couldn’t bear the rats to be cold) so we made a trip to Alan’s Pets N Plants and bought our own. We put one heating pad under each lockbox and just like that, we were ready to relieve our customers of their rage.

At the same time, we kept an eye out on craigslist for old fish tanks which we could snap up for cheap and outfit with a multitude of pumice stones connected by airline tubing to small pumps, also from Alan’s. That was grief taken care of.

I was plugging power strips into power strips by then. My electricity bill had doubled, but it didn’t matter, because we were turning a profit. That’s how Emil described it. I liked the sound of it, like turning over a new leaf.

• • • •

As I was leaving the call center one afternoon, I saw that I had a text from Christopher. He’d been in the city for a work thing, but it let out early and he was going to swing by my apartment so we could catch up, maybe fit in a quick skirmish.

I felt strange reading it. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I felt very little. Just a few short weeks before, I knew, this text would have sent me into near paroxysms of joy, of relief. I would have rushed home, floating on air. Would have cleaned my apartment in a frenzy. Christopher was coming. My enemy general. My one true friend.

But now I felt, at best, a slight surprise.

I hadn’t even told him. About any of it. I hadn’t spoken to him at all. Oh sure, I’d called once or twice. But there had been no answer and I hadn’t left a message.

He was there when I got off the bus, sitting on the front steps of my building.

“Wow,” he said when I walked over, “You look good, man.”

My stomach didn’t flip, my heart didn’t leap. “Thanks,” I said.

Christopher complained about the mandatory training session he’d just sat through as we walked up the two flights to my apartment. When I opened the door, Christopher followed me in and then froze, eyes darting around the room.

“Is that full of bodies?” he asked, meaning, I presumed, the industrial sized freezer, which took up a solid eighth or so of the former floor space.

“It’s storage,” I told him.

“Storage?”

“I wanted to tell you about it,” I said, “but I couldn’t reach you.”

“Yeah,” he said, “Sorry. With the baby and all, well, you know . . .” He waved a hand vaguely, then knelt next to one of the many aquariums, peered into it. It held a small stuffed rabbit, purple fur rippling in the current.

“The tanks are for grief,” I said. “Like the commercials, you know? It’s the same idea as those big facilities. But smaller.”

“Jesus, James.” He looked up at me with a pained expression. “You have this much?”

I laughed. “No, that’s for customers. Me and Emil, he’s my business partner, we’ve got nearly fifty customers now. New inquiries every day.”

Christopher glanced over at the war table. Well, the former war table. There were now fish tanks where there had once been forests. Lockboxes in place of fields.

“That’s terrible,” he said quietly.

“What?” I had thought he’d be impressed. Here I was, finally doing something with my life. Putting myself out there.

“You’re charging people for this?”

“Well, yeah, but a million times less than the big places.”

“This is absurd,” he said. “This isn’t like you.”

“Look,” I said, “maybe you don’t understand how it works. I could show you how the process—”

“No,” he said. “No, the whole idea is terrible. You can’t lock things away and pretend they don’t exist.”

“Well,” I said, “you can.”

Christopher just shook his head. I wasn’t prepared for this.

When he had decided to move out of the city, I hadn’t—well, I hadn’t snuck over in the night and popped the tires on the U-Haul. I hadn’t sent his wife an anonymous message claiming to be Christopher’s secret first wife. I hadn’t called CPS to report that they were using the baby as a garden decoration. That they’d put a little gnome hat on it, had left it propped up against a rock in the back garden for hours.

I’d thought of all that, sure. But I hadn’t done it. I’d bit my tongue. I’d let him go. I’d let him be torn away from me by his wife, his baby, his stupid house in the stupid suburbs.

“You’ve probably never even been lonely,” I said to him.

“Come on. Of course I have.”

“You’ve always had friends,” I said, “Tons of them. I didn’t have any until I met you. Not even one.”

“James,” he said. “I realize that it’s hard for you to talk to people, but you never even try.”

“You don’t understand.”

He pushed himself up from the floor, walked over to the table. He picked up a slightly crushed miniature tree, which I had made myself, years ago, out of wire and a worn-out pot scrubber.

“You know,” he said, “I’ve been dabbling in the Infinity system lately. It’s pretty decent. And it’s way easier to find people to play with.”

“Infinity? But that’s sci-fi.”

Christopher sighed.

“Look,” he said, setting the tree back down. “I’ve got to admit, when you stopped calling me every day, I was relieved. But mostly I was hopeful. I figured you’d finally found some new people to talk to. I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but sometimes when I’d hear my phone ring, I just couldn’t bring myself to pick it up. It was getting to be too much.”

I felt like I’d been slapped. “Too much?”

“A person needs more than a single friend, James. It’s too much to ask of one person to be your entire support system.”

“Fine,” I said. My cheeks were getting hot. My eyes prickling. “If it’s such a burden, then you can just stop. It’s not like you’ve been much of a friend lately anyway.”

Christopher shook his head. “You need to grow up,” he said. He grabbed his coat off the chair where’d he draped it.

I wanted to shout something pithy and final after him as he left, but my thoughts had turned to one big wordless roar. I sank down into the chair by the window (closed, now) and put my forehead against the glass. I was overcome, but not with loneliness.

It was difficult, in the moment, to untangle exactly what emotions I was experiencing. I tried grief first, since I certainly felt like crying. I grabbed some things that reminded me of Christopher—a half-painted Lancer he’d left here accidentally a few months ago, a bottle of gold paint he’d bought me for Christmas, an overdue payment notice from my phone provider—and dumped them in an empty five-gallon aquarium. I filled the tank up with half water, half deactivator, connected a handful of pumice stones to an air pump, plugged the pump into a power strip.

But it wasn’t enough. How dare he come in here all high and mighty, telling me everything I had achieved was terrible? How dare he just sit there and not pick up the phone for weeks? How dare he care less about me than I cared about him?

And Infinity, really?

So I gathered some more items—that tree he’d picked up, most of my painted soldiers—and threw them in a lockbox. I had one unused heating pad left. I laid it on the floor beneath the box, plugged it in.

Even with my anger gone, I still felt terrible. We weren’t offering it to clients yet, but Emil and I had been tinkering with a pressure cooker and some exposed wires in the hopes of branching out to fear. I pulled a shoebox out from under my bed which contained faded scraps of paper: notes Christopher had passed me in class when we were students. I tossed them in the pressure cooker, plugged it in.

But it wasn’t enough. Loneliness, Greif, Anger, Fear. None of it was enough.

Which left only desire.

I had no choice, now, but to confront what I had always known, but been afraid to look at too closely. I loved Christopher, had loved him for years, but he would never and could never love me back.

I had to let that go, too. Had to tear out my heart.

Emil and I had also bought a vacuum sealer pump meant for storing clothes and a barrel with a valve. It was even more untested than the pressure cooker, but what choice did I have? I tossed my phone into the barrel, hooked the hose of the vacuum sealer up to the valve, plugged it into the last available socket of the last available power strip.

There was a little pop and the room went dark.

I ran to the light switch, jiggled it up and down. No good. I ran around the room, unplugging everything I could. It made no difference. I ran to the window, opened it up, but already I could feel it starting, like a light breeze on the back of my neck.

I ran to my front door, threw it open. A woman who I’d passed a few times in the hall was poking her head out of the apartment next to mine.

“Hey,” she said, “Did your power just go out?”

“Yes,” I said, and then bit my tongue so hard it bled in order to stifle a scream of fury. I would show them all what it meant to be sorry.

I wasn’t sure who I would show exactly, but whoever they were I would definitely show them. Those bastards. How dare they. How very dare they do whatever it is they did to me.

“I was thinking of going down to the basement to see if there’s a fuse box or something,” said the woman.

“Let me come with you,” I said, pleading, suddenly close to tears. “Please.”

“Sure,” said the woman. She sniffed. Made a face. “Is something burning?”

And it hit me hard, then, all of it, all at once. My heart pumped bullets. My throat was scorched earth. There was something boiling up inside me. Something trying to force its way out through my flesh like a cannonball, like a bomb. My body was at war but the enemy was emptiness. The enemy was everything. The enemy was me.

“Ueergh,” I said.

The woman sniffed again and then closed her eyes, put her hands to her chest, bent over a little as if she’d been punched in the stomach. When she opened her eyes again there were tears in them.

“Fuck you,” she cried, and fled down the hall.

Across from me, Emil’s door banged open.

“So it is happening to you, too,” he said when he saw me, “you miserable piece of shit. I thought it was only me. We must have blown the fuses.”

I let out a strangled sob.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s okay. This is all your fault. Everyone will despise you for the rest of your life. You will die alone and in terrible pain. But it is not real. Do not listen to what I say. I do not mean it. These things you feel, they are not even yours.”

“Make it stop,” I said.

“I don’t know how.”

I put my hands to my own throat and tried to squeeze. I banged my forehead against the doorframe. Everyone I had ever known or cared about was definitely dead. And I missed them so much and I hated them so much. But at the same time I felt sure that I had never known or cared about a single person in all my life.

“It will pass,” said Emil. He reached for my arm, but I slapped his hand away. “It will pass.”

I closed my eyes. Took a few ragged breaths. I did not believe him. He didn’t care about me. How could he? How could anyone?

But he was right.

The feelings were already beginning to leave me, slowly at first, agonizingly slow, each fragment of pain floating off to find, I supposed, its original place in the world.

“Perhaps,” said Emil, “this was not so solid a business plan as I thought.”

The feelings were falling away faster now, streaming through me.

“People are going to want refunds,” I choked out.

Emil sagged against his doorframe, moaning softly.

I glanced behind me into my apartment, where nearly every surface was covered with boxes and aquariums and tangled cords. All that suffering.

And I thought of Christopher. This wasn’t like me, he’d said. Well, maybe it wasn’t. I’d been a better person without my loneliness. I’d started a whole damn business. I hadn’t cared what anyone thought.

Hadn’t cared about anyone.

“Emil,” I said, slowly, gritting my teeth, “would you like to, maybe, I guess, go get a cup of coffee or something?”

He frowned at me and I was sure he would laugh, then, or swear at me. In all the time we’d spent together over the last few weeks, we’d never spoken about anything but business. I barely knew him, really. He barely knew me. It was stupid of me to ask him. I was an idiot.

Without Christopher, I was nothing. Without Christopher, I was entirely alone.

The last scraps of grief and anger fell away in a rush, leaving me weak and empty and raw. Emil reached out once more and grabbed my arm just as I was about to fall.

“Sure,” he said, voice hoarse, “Coffee. Okay.”

And then my own, humble loneliness found me and settled around my shoulders like an old winter coat. And it was almost a comfort, then. Familiar, at any rate. Not as heavy as I remembered, after all.

Maria Romasco-Moore

Maria Romasco-Moore is the author of Ghostographs, an interconnected collection of flash fiction inspired by vintage photographs. Her first novel, Some Kind of Animal, is forthcoming in 2020. She currently lives in Columbus, OH, and teaches writing at Columbus College of Art and Design. Find out more at mariaromascomoore.com.