He shotgunned another beer before he called his sister. She’d been leaving him message after message; the tape on the answering machine was threadbare by this point. “It’s about time,” she said when she heard his voice, hers snappish as ever, because she was the younger sister and never tired of being disappointed by the scraps and hand-me-downs that life had thrown her way.
What did she want, though? She never said—at least, not until after the fact—preferring instead to play the martyr. He got up to find a book of matches and almost knocked over a floor lamp. Tiredness had made him clumsy.
Outside, it was starting to snow. He lit a cigarette, holding the phone between his cheek and shoulder as she rattled off her latest list of grievances. Then, “So what do you have to say about that?” It was a statement, not a real question, and he wasn’t sure what to take from it. Sometimes he was in the mood for her guessing games, or at least a willing participant. Tonight, he couldn’t muster the energy.
They went through the motions. Contrition (on his part, of course), and a short lecture—he needed to get his life together, tomorrow is a new day, et cetera, all the staples—and the call ended on a good note, he thought. He’d managed to hold up his end of the bargain.
She hung up the phone and said, “Well, he was three sheets to the wind.” She drummed her fingers restlessly on the table. It was getting late. She stood and paced around the room, thinking, thinking. But what could be done? He lived two states away. Briefly, she paused at the window, pulling the curtains back and looking outside. Her pulse was racing. “You should have heard him,” she said.
Her husband looked up from the newspaper and nodded. Her pronouncements didn’t usually require much of a response. She just liked the running commentary to be acknowledged. She walked into another room. When he had finished the last few pages, he extinguished the fire and went up to bed. Downstairs, he could hear her clattering around in the kitchen, unloading and reloading the dishwasher, and talking to the dog. From this distance, he couldn’t make out the words. The dog was old and deaf, though, and didn’t seem to notice or mind.
Then he must have dozed off, because the next thing he knew, she was climbing into bed. He could smell the lotion she slathered onto her skin every night in the bathroom. There was a click, and a soft rush of air as the heat turned on. Next to him, she shifted and sighed and pushed her pillows this way and that.
He closed his eyes again and thought of her brother, and the dog downstairs in its bed, and his wife, and everyone else on this cold night, all of them turning and turning and turning, trying to find a comfortable position.
Leah Browning is the author of Two Good Ears and Loud Snow, flash fiction mini-books published by Silent Station Press. Her stories have been published in Harpur Palate, Four Way Review, Flock, Necessary Fiction, The Petigru Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Newfound, Watershed Review, Superstition Review, Parhelion Literary Magazine, and elsewhere.