What Cannot Remain
by Tessa Case
It was late summer. Heavy, black clouds consumed the days, weeping furiously onto the sizzling pavement before parting for an even angrier sun that left the air thick and sweltering. Clara, however, felt twenty pounds lighter in the muggy twilight, and she thought to tell her mother of this feeling. She thought to tell her mother that maybe it was the weighty silence in the house that made her feel as if she occupied too much space.
The green bulbs of fireflies flickered, radioactive against the rose and lavender sunset. A handful of storm clouds remained. Lurid oranges and reds bled out from their edges. Clara wondered if that light—neon, luminescent—was the pollution everyone said made the sky so pretty. And how often, then, were the things that killed us beautiful?
Her grease-slicked hair, swept into a lazy ponytail, pulled at her scalp. Clara ran her fingers through it, loosening the strands, hoping it would make it look less flat against her head. She felt her cheeks get hot and wondered why she had to be embarrassed about being embarrassed, why she had to care so much about her hair, or the smell of tender garlic oozing from her armpits, or the way her body shape-shifted before her eyes when no one looked at her. Heat built up in the empty space between herself and the cocoon of her father’s sweatshirt she couldn’t take off. Her thighs brushed lightly against each other as she walked, and she winced, flinching away from the invisible stares of all the people who did not surround her.
Such was the benefit and the curse of the neighborhood: it was just outside the city, scattered with apartment complexes, historic homes being perpetually renovated, or the shells of these former historic homes, their insides torn out and sliced into twos, threes or fours. College students and young professionals littered the streets, droning along in their shiny cars to and from wherever it was they thought they had to be.
Clara was inconsequential to them. No one ever saw her—or for that matter, her brother—as if these afterimage strangers didn’t know how to act around child bodies, couldn’t remember ever having one, and so pretended as if they didn’t exist at all.
A sigh brushed along Clara’s teeth, and she slipped her phone out from her short’s pocket. The blank notification screen stared back at her. She’d wanted to be alone; she’d been certain that was exactly what she wanted, but it hadn’t stopped her from slamming the door on her way out, and it didn’t stop the sour twist of her stomach every time she didn’t get a notification. The phone felt heavy, her arms felt heavy, it all felt heavy, so Clara sat down. Her fingernail clicked against the glass screen before she tucked her phone back into her pocket, swore she wouldn’t look at it again until she got home.
The historic homes loomed around her. The sun, lowered now, louring, cast them into silhouette, only recognizable by their large columns, the wrap-around porches, or the curved groove of tiled roofs. Soft-white light crept out from the windows, breaking up the black space where facades should have been, casting its glow on potted plants and stacks of recyclables and creaking chains of porch swings.
Clara had never seen anyone cross through that light, had never heard voices whispering to each other, or laughter, or crying, or anything. Who lived in these big houses? Were there many people or only a few? Young or old? Couples without children? Never had there been another child body in the street. So, was it five or six college students wedged in there together yet still so far apart they had to wander to find one another? Was it lonely, in those big houses? Did the loneliness feel less heavy when given more space? Did it travel lightly across all the rooms, stretching itself so thin one might not even notice it was there?
She waited and waited while the darkness crept off the walls of the homes and filled the sky. The sun lingered in a dying gasp before vanishing into the cavernous mouth of the horizon. Fireflies glowed off and on around her, and Clara realized she didn’t know where she was, and, more importantly, didn’t care. She rose back to her feet and kept moving farther and farther away from her parents’ little shotgun house—rented, not owned. One or two fireflies flickered at a time, then five or six, and Clara felt a smile on her lips even if she was unhappy.
Her feet carried her along the tortuous roads. Gray shadow veiled the neighborhood until the streetlights kicked on, unmasking the alien world around her. Anxiety took a tentative chew of her stomach, and her wretched fingers reached around and traced the edge of her phone, threatening to break her promise. She must have gone farther than she thought. Balmy air settled in a thick layer on her skin. Baby hair wilted and clung to her neck and the curve of her jaw. Even the breeze was hot. Clara wiped her forehead with her arm, the sleeve of her father’s sweatshirt already damp from the air alone. Sweat beaded and dripped off the corner of her right eyebrow, brushing past her eyelashes on the way down.
The rasping voice startled Clara. Her shoulders jolted up to her ears. She reached around and turned her phone on.
“Rachel, is that you?”
Clara examined the houses around her, their styles slipping out of her mind uninvited. Neo-classical Greek revival, Federalist, Victorian, Queen Anne. Her eyes almost glazed past the old man, his body a misshapen post in shadow, his white-knuckled fingers clinging to the wooden edge of his fence, his shaking arms holding him up. Deep-socketed eyes stared right through Clara.
Queen Anne was her dad’s favorite style. He loved the porches. He would have loved this porch, even though there were balustrades missing, floorboards broken in. Even though cracks split the panes of the big, open windows. Even though the paint looked desperate to get itself off and away from the rotting damp of the wood underneath. The soft scent of decay filled Clara’s nose. The skin on the back of her neck prickled. Sweat dripped in a cool line down her back.
“Rachel.” There was a hitch in the old man’s voice, and his shoulders shook.
Go, she told herself, but her feet did not listen. Go, now. Run, she tried again, and her feet continued to stay glued to the sidewalk. Her whole body lingered, frozen, and Clara wanted to reach up, pull her hair out, cow her body back into something that listened to her.
“Please, please, Rachel,” the old man whispered. His steps, uncertain, betrayed the uncanniness of his body. “Rachel, is that you?” he called, and his voice held all the mournfulness Clara thought she’d hidden deep in her own chest. The big, empty ache of it cleaved apart her ribs.
“I’m not Rachel,” she answered. The old man wasn’t far from her now. His trembling arms threatened surrender, a refusal to bear the weight of his body. Light carved into the lines of his face. Clara couldn’t quite make out his eyes in their hollows.
“Rachel, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I—I need some help. Rachel, I want to go home. Can you help me? I just want to go home.” His long, curled eyebrows furrowed, rose, furrowed into deeper anguish. Clara watched his wordless mouth open and close.
“I’m not Rachel,” she repeated. I’m not who you’re looking for, she wanted to say.
The old man lifted a hand, a feeble swat at the air. “Don’t do that, Rachel, Just come inside now, and we’ve gotta—we’ve got to, you’ve gotta . . . you’re going to help me, right?” He reached his arm over the fence, the wood impassive to the weight of his body, as if he wanted to grab her hand and hold it.
“I’m not Rachel—”
“Rachel, please. Please. Why won’t you—Rachel, why won’t you help me?”
“I’m not Rachel—”
“Stop, Rachel. Stop. Just stop. Why are you doing this to me?”
“Sir, please, my name is—”
“Why are you doing this to me? Why won’t you help?” His voice rose over hers then broke off with a snap. Clara’s ears rung. The old man looked up into the streetlight. His eyes were green. Tears dripped down his cheeks.
Clara lowered her hands away from her ears and stared at them— sentient beings they were— and wondered if they would show her what do next. They would not. The smell of onion and garlic rose into her nostrils. Her skin tingled with painful awareness of each place her shirt clung to her. Sweat pooled beneath the new folds of her small breasts then dripped down the soft expanse of her stomach. Every muscle was taut, and, for a moment, Clara wished she could pull herself apart and burst into a million fireflies.
“You’re not Rachel?” the old man whispered. He shook his head, squinted harder at her. “You’re … not Rachel?”
Why was he asking? Why couldn’t he just say it?
Clara stared at the old man, his violent, racking sobs the answer to his own question. She had never seen a man cry. Her father never cried, just went silent.
Clara took a step back, and another and another, while her mouth stammered half words and sounds that could have been an apology. When she was far enough away, her feet spun her around and carried her home now that her mind was no longer in the way. She stopped running as the houses grew squat and long. Her throat burned; her lungs burned. Her skin was no longer skin, only a sheet of sweat holding her loosely together. She was crying. She didn’t know why she was crying. She didn’t know when she started crying.
She used her forearm as a tissue and cut through the alley that led back to her house. Habit steered her away from the potholes. Dull light shone from her kitchen window, illuminating dented, steel trashcans and decaying relics from torn bags past. Clara took her phone out of her pocket. 9:47 p.m. It had been four hours since she left. There was no notification.
Clara approached from the side of the house, and, through the window, she saw her mother standing over the cutting board, her red, peeling fingers wrapped limply around the handle of a knife. Who knew how long she’d been there? It was a new thing her mother did: freezing mid-action, her stare alternating between going out and going in, too far in either direction to be touched. Her mother directed that stare, now, into her belly, her brows knit together as though something inside her might have answers, if she only knew what questions to ask. Or, more likely, her mother wondered which form of deprivation she should take on next to get back everything she’d given. Her mother, Clara knew, wanted to become small enough to disappear. She’d never said that outright, but Clara couldn’t help but see that she was practicing how to do this, how to disappear. She’d gotten good, except that her pesky body kept getting in the way. An arm could be grabbed and pulled, a hand could be held, other bodies, her children’s bodies, could ask for all those things her body no longer had to give.
Clara gripped the windowsill and pulled herself higher on the tips of her toes. Her mother’s phone sat to the right of the cutting board. Its screen was black. Clara chewed on her lip. She could text her mother. She could see what would happen. She could stand here forever, just outside the window, not even ten feet away, and see if there was any chance she existed in the space her mother inhabited. Clara sank back onto her heels. She’d rather not know, which was a knowing in and of itself.
Had she succeeded, then, in her mother’s quest? Had Clara done a better job disappearing than her brother, who practiced his own version with loud men’s voices, lasers and gunshots, little fingers flying across his controller in such contradictory movements they seemed to have minds of their own?
Clara did not want to disappear. It occurred to her that wanting had very little to do with it.
A black cat groomed itself in the middle of the sidewalk leading to Clara’s front door. At her approaching footsteps, it sprung up and scurried a few feet away. A pathetic mew rasped out of its mouth in warning. Fur bristled along the crescent moon arch of its back. Clara squatted down and held her hand out as her father taught her to. The small cat reared back. Clara waited. The cat neared and sniffed her hand. Clara waited. The cat’s cold, wet nose bumped her fingers, her palm, her wrist. Clara reached forward, and the cat retreated, lips pulled back over sharp teeth in a hiss somehow silent. Clara lowered herself onto the sidewalk and tucked her knees into her chest. The cat’s wide pupils reflected the streetlights like marbles. It stared, and then it took off, leaving through the vast empty space where Clara’s father’s car should have been. Where it hadn’t been for over a week.
* * * *
The knife lay on the cutting board. A stray fly buzzed around the only evidence anyone had even considered dinner: a bell pepper cut in half. Clara threw it in the trash. Her stomach’s growl twisted into a whine. Reese had to be hungry, too.
Clara was not a cook. That had been her father. He’d tried to teach her before, but she didn’t want to know. She liked the magic of not knowing.
There was a tub of peanut butter left. Remnants from around the lid smeared across her forearm as she stuck the knife in, scooping out as much as she could. One fold-over sandwich, two, three, four, five, six. She ate two without tasting, barely chewing. Peanut butter stuck to the roof of her mouth and the dry part of her throat. Water dribbled down her chin as she tried to wash it all down. She left two of the other sandwiches outside Reese’s door and knocked.
She took a cold shower—the only tangible way to experience any cold in her house. The window units tried their best, but their sputtering efforts hardly made a dent in the blanket of heat draped over the world in summer. Clara avoided her reflection in the mirror, cloaking herself in a loose t-shirt and shorts. Her second toe peeked out of a hole in her black sneakers, where the canvas pulled away from the rubber soles.
The front door closed with a soft click behind her. The brown paper sack rustled against her legs. It held the last two fold-overs and an apple with a big, soft bruise. The clouds had vanished, leaving the sky bursting with friendly sunlight. Sunlight too friendly, even, like a golden retriever who couldn’t help but jump on you and lick your face. The little black cat napped in the sunspot where Clara’s father’s car was not. Clara’s steps hit hard against the pavement.
The neighborhood’s streets twisted and turned, met at hard, ninety-degree angles in some spots, and led her nowhere. Clara hadn’t been paying attention the night before. She wondered, briefly, if the old man’s house existed at all, or whether she’d just dreamt it. Her hair had already lost its clean sleekness. The ends frizzed and clung to her neck and back. She’d left her hair tie at home and tried hard not to let it ruin her mood.
Her feet kept going, as did her thoughts:
What are you doing out here?
He looked so sad.
What are you going to do about it?
Who is Rachel?
I could be Rachel.
But you’re not.
Are you less alone if you have to be someone else?
Sweat dripped into her eyes. Her arm swept across her face, taking two eyelashes with it. Clara brushed them off and did not wish for anything.
She’d come from the other side of the street last night and didn’t recognize the house as it appeared before her. The mumbling caught her attention, and the pale groan of the wooden porch boards. The old man advanced from the side of his house with what looked like great urgency slowed down. His back curved, leaving his gait precarious and his shoulders dangerously close to his ears. Unease eroded any resolve Clara had felt in her bones. Each step begged her to stop and turn around. Clara swallowed. She kept walking until she arrived at the gate. Her hand hesitated on the latch.
“Hello?” she said and the bag in her hand suddenly felt very stupid.
The old man did not look at her.
“Excuse me?” she tried again, her voice louder. The old man swatted at the air, kept pacing. “Excuse me!” she said, when she wanted to say, Look at me.
The old man stopped. He frowned. He looked at everything except Clara.
“Are—are you looking for something?” Clara’s cheeks burned.
The old man startled. His eyes landed on her. He looked suspicious. He looked scared. Clara waited.
“Morning,” he said after some time. He looked away.
“I brought you some sandwiches.” Clara held the bag over the fence. Sweat dripped down her sternum, thick as syrup. The old man’s eyes flitted over her. Clara felt the burning in her cheeks sink down to her chest. She gestured to the sandwich bag, as if were a prize on a gameshow, and that made the sweat worse. “Are you hungry?”
“Naw,” he said. His eyes moved past her.
“It’s peanut butter sandwiches. And an apple,” Clara said.
He wasn’t listening. His search preoccupied him. Clara looked around herself. All she saw was an empty neighborhood; all she heard was the sporadic, heat-strangled call of a bird.
The old man had stepped off the porch. He stood in front of the stairs, squinting out into the day. Clara wondered if he wondered, too, where everyone had gone. He checked his watch. Clara stood on her toes, peered over the fence, and saw it wasn’t ticking.
“What are you looking for?” she asked.
The old man did not look at her. Clara watched as his gaze stretched out, so familiar, into nothing. The muscles in his face slackened, until his lip began trembling and his brows lowered over his eyes. “I don’t know,” he said.
He looked at her now. They stared at each other, each immobile, each holding breath deep in their chests. Something fragile grew in the space between them; Clara didn’t want to hear it shatter.
“Please,” the old man whispered. “I want to go home.”
“You are home,” she said. “Right?”
The old man’s face twisted up. He lifted a hand, rested it over his eyes, then looked at it as if he didn’t know where it came from. “I want to go home,” he said again.
Me too, Clara did not say. I want to go home, too. Her grip tightened on the latch of the fence.
“I’m stuck in here,” he said. “They won’t let me out.”
The man hobbled toward the fence. Clara took a step back. The sandwich bag dropped from her hand. Her body did not obey when she told it to pick the bag up. The old man stared at Clara, then down at his hands. He kept staring at his hands, twisting his eyes at them, willing them to do something Clara could not know.
Clara’s hand lifted to the fence. The hot metal of the latch brushed against her fingers, and was she pulling it open? Was that the sound of the hinges groaning? She couldn’t think in the heat. There was no room for her own thoughts beneath the old man’s desperate litany. It happened fast, so fast, maybe not at all, and she moved away from the gate. Her feet pointed toward home, though, suddenly, Clara felt unsure of where and what exactly that was.
She stopped at the end of a cul-de-sac she didn’t recognize. Her head ached behind her eyes. Parasol mushrooms formed a fairy ring in someone’s yard. Her father had told her the name. He’d shown her photographs from one of his many encyclopedias, the same way he’d taught her the names of the styles of homes. She sank to her knees just outside the misshapen circle.
Clara tried to take a picture on her phone but felt dissatisfied with the harsh sunlight, and, anyway, her hands wouldn’t stop shaking. She had one text from Reese: thx 4 sandwiches. The sweat on her body felt cold and sick. She was all salt.
Her finger ran along the flesh of a mushroom cap. It felt like baby skin, smooth and hairless, like her own legs up until a year ago. The tops were soft and yielding on the surface, firm below that, like her mother’s stomach. Her fingertips left soft imprints on the skin of the caps, and she marveled at how gently everything must be treated.
* * * *
She did not go back to the old man’s house the next day. Nor the next. Nor the day after that. Each time she thought about what her fingers may or may not have done, she shook and ached and felt ill.
The heat, anyway, made Clara sluggish and sad, and, on that second day, her mother had appeared, somehow, ready to take her and Reese back-to-school shopping. Clara had held herself so tightly that day, careful not to do anything to spoil the tepid normalcy. It hadn’t mattered in the end; her mother was back in her room now, with no sign of coming out. Sobs leaked out from under the crack of the bedroom door each time Clara approached. Clara couldn’t bring herself to knock, felt breathless at the idea that her mother might not answer.
Reese already sat at the kitchen table when Clara came in. He had a bowl of soggy cereal before him, a spoon in his hand, dry and shiny.
“Do you think Dad left ’cause of me?” he asked.
That had not been the question Clara had expected, and all she could think was how Reese’s skin had turned green. She took too long to answer. Reese shoved himself away from the table. His shoulder collided with hers as he went past. The slam of his door cracked through the air. His lock turned. Stillness crept back in. Clara’s bones turned cold and cramped. The house was too small for the swampy heat and the leaden silence that made the air feel so tensely wound it could snap in two.
She went out the door without eating, her mind blazing hot. Hot enough to burn away the image of her brother’s face, her mother’s tears, her father’s empty parking spot, the way he’d driven off, left her there to bear this unspeakable weight, how he’d left her alone to crumble beneath the heft of absence. Clara walked and then ran and then walked again and ran some more. Somewhere in that walking and running, she realized she’d left her phone at home, but who cared? Who was there to notice? He hadn’t answered her calls before. He had never texted her back. How had it been that easy for him?
Clara stopped running. She stopped walking. She wanted to scream. She did not scream. Birds leapt off power lines and screamed instead. The houses didn’t move. They never moved. Clara dug the heels of her hands into her eyes. She wanted someone to find her. She didn’t want someone to find her. It didn’t matter what she wanted.
No one came. Of course no one came. No one was there to come. Somewhere, she heard a car door shut but she saw nothing. Could not imagine the human who had opened and closed it.
The old man’s house sat just down the street. No one stood in the yard. No one paced the porch. Clara hadn’t noticed how the old man’s presence hid the extent of disrepair. Whole boards and balusters were broken or missing. An old shoe, a rusted shovel, a towel or maybe a blanket, a one-eyed teddy bear, broken plates, not broken plates, dead leaves, rotting leaves, thick, dusty cobwebs and broken glass covered the porch. Some of it was in the yard. Toward the back of the house, whole boards of plywood rotted in the tall grass.
An ant bit her ankle. She looked down and frowned. The lunch bag she’d brought days ago was still there. The apple had turned liquid in the heat; its sugars formed a sour-smelling syrup. A line of ants filed in and out of their rotting cafeteria. Clara swiped at the few that had crawled on her shoes and legs, then moved out of the way. She should have picked the bag up, she knew, but ants needed to eat, too.
The latch was undone, gate slightly ajar. Clara stood by it for what felt like forever. The air thickened around her. Clouds threatened in the corner of her vision. Clara stared through the windows, but all she saw were pulled curtains, except where a broken rod had fallen halfway down. It revealed nothing. Clara looked around her, at the neighboring houses, at the lack of movement within them.
She circled the block, cutting into one of the alleys behind that revealed yards and secret driveways for those who could afford them. Some of those yards were immaculate, with back porches and little sheds, trampolines, or swing sets for all the children that Clara had never ever seen. Wildness overtook others. Rose bushes and vines climbed up useless chimneys. Beer cans galore. Old, broken cars, some left in the open to display peeling paint and rusted frames, others hidden beneath pollen-soaked tarps. Clara jerked at the ferocious bark of a dog. Its muscles twitched underneath its short fur, legs stretching and contracting as it hurled its body against the chain-link fence. She put her head down and walked past.
The old man’s backyard was a ruin. Where the grass wasn’t dead, it came up to her knees. More lost and broken and heart-breaking things littered the earth. Dirt soaked them all. What remained of a small shed slumped against the back fence. Its tin roof had collapsed and now housed pine straw, dead branches, and a small abandoned bird’s nest. Shelf fungus sprouted from the rotting limbs.
Clara did not see the old man. She waited. The sky darkened. Thick, roiling clouds swallowed the sun. Lightning flickered within them. No shadows moved behind the old man’s curtains. Clara bit at loose skin on her lips while the hairs on her arms grew semi-erect.
Should she ask the neighbors? What neighbors? No one was ever here, and even if they were, the old man was as invisible as she was. People had stopped looking at him a long time ago.
Clara chewed on her fingernails. The moisture in the air trebled, worming into her skin and hair and clothes alongside wind that howled in preparation for a storm.
She went back through the alley to the front of the house. Her eyes darted back and forth at the neighboring homes. Clara pushed the fence gate open and slid through. Weeds grew in the cracks of the sidewalk that led to the porch. The stairs moaned under her feet. Maybe she moaned, too, or that sound might have only been in her head.
Someone had left the front door cracked. Clara put her hand against the wood but couldn’t push it open. A hello lingered in the back of her throat. It couldn’t seem to make its way out from behind her teeth.
Lightning cracked, and wind gusted through the broken windows. The front door slammed shut. Clara startled back, and her foot fell into the empty space of a broken board. She told herself to be careful, but she was not, and the splintered wood scraped her skin away from her ankle. Rain poured in sheets behind her, a veil that occulted the world beyond the old man’s porch.
Clara’s ankle throbbed. She thought about her phone, its black screen, its screen alight. She wondered if, now, her father sat outside the house, his car parked in its spot, windshield wipers scraping back and forth, his hands death-gripped on the steering wheel, green eyes glaring out toward what had once been home. She saw him getting out of the car; she saw him driving away. He was never there. She knew he had never been there at all. His disappearance had plucked him out of time and space. His face wouldn’t appear in her mind’s eye. The voice in her head she imagined to be his was an impression, and Clara’s inability to name what was off about it was worse than having forgotten entirely.
The rain continued, unrelenting. The closed door remained closed. Clara wobbled toward the front window. Her hand pressed against the glass. She toyed with a spidering crack, following all the different legs with her fingertip. Thunder shook the boards beneath her feet. Her teeth rattled against each other. She tapped the glass with her finger. Once. Twice.
A hand, a sheeted ghost, pushed against hers from the other side.
“Rachel?” the old man said.
Clara laid her palm flat.
“Is that you?” he whispered.
She rested her forehead against the window, against the old man’s hand. The ghost vanished. The hole inside Clara’s chest threatened implosion. Her hand pressed harder against the glass. She wished it were different. She wished it were all different, but a wish was nothing but a reminder of what was not.
Clara waited. Footsteps shuffled inside. Or was it the curtain and the wind? Clara kept waiting. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do. The shuffling stopped. The deadbolt slid out of its lock. An unseen hand fumbled with the doorknob. Clara watched it go back and forth, back and forth until it fell open. The old man’s body filled the crack in the frame. A shaking hand stretched out toward her.
“What are you doing out in the rain, Rachel?”
His knuckles were thick and warped. Callouses covered his palms. His fingers curved, slightly, upward. Grime darkened the whites of his fingernails.
“I don’t know,” she said. Her hand wove into his. Her foot stepped through the doorway. Dust and must and grime filled her nostrils. The old man snaked an arm over her shoulders and sagged against her, but he was the lightest thing Clara had carried in a long time.
“Rachel?” he said.
The door clicked shut softly behind her.
Tessa Case is a bookseller and writer from Birmingham, AL, where she currently lives with her cat, Coraline. This is her first published short story.