Pearl

by Sarah Jackson

This is where I landed when Jack broke us. The apartment is small, it’s nothing special, but it was the only place I could let myself unravel. Touching up my brave face all day long was exhausting. Some days I came home and just fell apart; I’d kick off my shoes and lay on the floor for ten, twenty minutes, staring at the cracks in the ceiling and listening to the building. My neighbours coming and going, the soft thunder of the elevator, a door slamming somewhere. I’d pretend I didn’t exist. I’d try not to think about Jack.

One day I got to my door and realised I’d left my keys at work. I sank down and started sobbing right there in the hall. The elevator doors dinged and I heard the rustle of grocery bags, and I knew it was Pearl. She said “Oh honey, what’s wrong?” And I lifted my face, my real face, pink and wet, blurry red eyes bruised with mascara.

She steered me into her kitchen and sat me down at the counter with a box of tissues. Soon she was pressing a mug into my hand. I started talking, and I couldn’t stop. I poured it all out. Jack, my job, my keys, the 3am tears, the terrible dates… I remember her neat helmet of white hair nodding sympathetically, brown eyes blinking behind her enormous peach perspex spectacles.

After that I avoided her. If I heard the click of her door I’d wait until I heard the elevator rumble away before leaving. One evening, after a few weeks had gone by, she knocked on my door. I didn’t answer. Instead I watched her through the peephole. She waited patiently while I tried not to make a sound. Eventually she turned away and shuffled back to her apartment.

I know how bad this sounds. But I was afraid. I knew I could never repay the debt – I don’t have it in me, I’m not that type. I can’t stand being needed, and I try not to need anybody else, and that feels fair. But Pearl put me in the red. I imagined her sitting on my sofa, drinking my coffee, not leaving. Coffee might lead to changing lightbulbs or picking up shopping or taking her to the doctor. One day she might need me, really need me, and I’d be in pieces on the floor.

In the end it was the caretaker who raised the alarm, when she didn’t empty her post box for a few days. A stroke. I heard the commotion in the hall and watched through the peephole as the paramedics carried her away, a heaped shape under black plastic, blank and terrible.

I sank into the sofa, shame rising in my throat like bile. I should have invited her in. Made some fresh coffee. Asked about her life. Said thank you. But I didn’t, and now it was too late.

I got the date of the funeral from the caretaker, and I really meant to go. I picked out a black dress and a jacket, I booked the day off work. But in the end I couldn’t face it. The thought of a row of crinkled, questioning faces and grasping, grateful hands made me sick. They would ask and I would say “I was her neighbour,” and it would be a lie.

That night I was watching TV to drown myself out when I heard the elevator ding in the corridor. I still don’t know what made me creep to my door, but when I heard the shuffling feet, I knew it was her. I peered into the dim fishbowl and fear washed through me like bleach.

She was standing, swaying, in front of my door. Her white hair stood up in tufts above her cement grey face, her eyes milky blue and shifting like opals. Her dress was filthy. I could see black earth under her nails and crumbed at the corner of her mouth. With a jerky movement she reached out her hand and I felt it thud damply on the door inches away from my face. I swallowed a scream. She waited and I watched, holding my breath, until finally she turned away and lurched towards her old apartment.

My heart twinged. She’d given me another chance. I reached up and scrabbled with the chain, fear tugging at my bones like tar. I cried out “Wait!” as I stumbled into the hall. But she was gone.

END

AUTHOR BIO: Sarah Jackson writes gently unsettling stories. Her flash fiction has been published by Ghost Orchid Press and The Cabinet of Heed. She lives in east London UK and has a green tricycle called Ivy. Her website is sarahijackson.com/writing

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