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I want to live inside it though: pale birds and fragile light and a novel kind of solitude.

Fiction | Fiction, Flash Fiction, Remains, ghosts
December 21, 2022

Appa and I are in a discount bookstore in a far corner of the city. We’re holding hands— mine is eclipsed by his and warm. By the entrance, I let go of him to thumb through themed calendars and album covers. I turn the display rack again and again, watching capital cities orbit like flies. Athens sits next to the square frame of an oceanside city I cannot name. I want to live inside it though: pale birds and fragile light and a novel kind of solitude. Outside the tall, skin-thin window panes are children in bright scarves, soft snow, seagulls pecking at receipts. My neck feels bare, empty. Hands open, I pluck the bathroom pass from its peg on the wall, dawdling in the cookbook aisle. When Appa notices, he makes me give the pass back to the clerk, who smiles a tight smile. I sulk in the education section until he brings me a hardcover: Intermediate Algebra. I make for the fiction aisle.

I watch Appa as he pages through texts, one by one. There’s a rhythm to it, a page for every blink and every other yawn. Appa says, “Time is money,” and I jolt awake. There’s a scene of reunion looping on the television screen, a kind of holiday miracle. As the door jingles open for another family, Appa slips a thin calendar into my hands: ballet-themed. I hug it to my chest and feel the warmth slip past my skin, brush against my bones. 

Neither of us knows it yet, but this is the last moment of peace we will share for a long time. Soon the visits will grow sparse as Appa grows thin and pale, a waning crescent moon. There will be the first diagnosis, then the missed dance recital, then the hospital invoices. Appa will page through rows and columns of red numbers and close his eyes. He will not sleep. Snow will become dangerous and sharp, its whiteness a reminder of enclosure and muteness and bone. There will be no more warmth, only illusions of it: woolen scarves, soft puffs of breath, hands clasped in desperate prayer. On my seventeenth birthday, Appa will say something about the stuffiness of the white room and of his chest. I will wish for birds, for fragile light, for economy plane tickets. Time is a currency, and wishes are just wishes. I will pass Algebra II with flying colors, and Appa will not be there to shake the teacher’s hand. At the funeral, there will be small comforts taken in postcards found in Appa’s wallet: a frame of Greece, of Italy, of a home in Maine with a view of the ocean. 

But until then, there is still the quiet hum of the heater and of laughter leaking through the windows. For now, we will watch the seagulls swallow paper, Appa and I. We will laugh and laugh, because the snow is still soft and we are still here. There is still time to linger by the postcards, the textbooks, the seaside scene. There is still time. There is my hand searching for his, finding it.

This story is part of the Remains notebook, which features art by Chitra Ganesh.