What Goes with Us
Annie didn’t see Leslie’s last breath because she’d bitten off a crescent of fingernail and was studying it like it would give her all the answers. Didn’t they say that? That the fingernails bely a person’s wellbeing? Annie did not look into Leslie’s eyes, wordlessly saying, I’m here. Annie did not say, you are not alone. Annie did not say, I love you. Annie flicked the nail and it landed in an open book – a library hardcover that Leslie had been reading before she couldn’t anymore. The book had been read so often that the spine, like Leslie’s body, had given up. It reminded Annie of a butterfly on display or a woman’s body open and ready to give birth.
She had told Leslie this when it first popped into her mind and Leslie rolled her eyes. We didn’t want kids. You didn’t want kids. I know, I know, Annie had said.
In the early months, Annie had watched Leslie in bed, vigilant to every change of breath, every possible ending. She rotated Leslie’s body and read to her Rilke and Garfield comics.
Turned on music in the early evening for softened non-alcoholic happy hours. She had focused on every labored word from Leslie’s parched lips, until those too tapered out. Months passed. Annie sought conversation from the hospice nurses and aids and her mind reeled off to-do lists while she went through the motions and the accompanying dialogue, turn, open up, hi babe, I’m here, turn again, this’ll just pinch, open up.
Annie thought she would’ve gasped and clutched Leslie’s body when she died, envisioning wails and moans, prostrating herself to a God she didn’t believe in. Instead, when she saw that Leslie’s chest was no longer rising up and down under the quilt, she held her ear to Leslie’s mouth, thought about how the proximity of these body parts once meant something else. She sat back down and stayed there for an hour biting her nails even further down, as if she might find something there, underneath.
It was quick – too quick that Leslie’s body was removed, the rented medical equipment whisked from the house, the book returned to the library. Annie wasn’t sure if she did this, or someone else, so hazy was that time, the great yawn between relief, grief, and loneliness. The house was so quiet without the hiss of oxygen or Otis Reading playing softly in the background.
After the funeral, Annie thought of the fingernail. It had been thick, difficult to pry off. It had gone too deep; it still smarted a week later. The nail had been bone white and curved into a half moon, quarter, crescent, whatever. She once knew the phases of the moon – tracking them on the calendar with Leslie, going outside on clear nights. The mosquito bites worth it. The bats swooping in the trees overhead. Annie only knew Orion’s belt, but Leslie seemed to know the positioning of every star. She could guide them on the seas, if they ever needed it, Annie always thought.Annie wanted the nail back. Proof of life in those dead skin cells. The last time it was attached to her body, Leslie had been alive.
What was the book? Annie logged into her library account. No, no, she hadn’t taken a book out in four months it said. She missed when she had the focus, the ability to temporarily leave her own life in a book.
Of course, it would be under Leslie’s account. She searched Leslie’s purse, hands feeling around in the deep leather bag: chapstick, bus pass with a sticker for a local ice cream shop on it, nail clippers – Annie laughed, a bone stuck in her throat. She eventually found the library card and put everything back, not wanting Leslie to lose the things she needed, once.
Annie looked up the account – Leslie’s pin was their wedding date – so predictable that Annie’s breath caught. Leslie had no overdue fines. Leslie had eighteen books on her “for later shelf,” six books on hold, one in transit. The book that had been her last, Annie saw, was a scientific look at the afterlife. How appropriate, Annie thought.
At the library, Annie found the book easily and opened it exactly where it wanted to open, spine still soft, giving. Nothing was in the pages, which were leather-like, soft but strong. She flipped through the rest of the book, shook it, loosening it from its plastic jacket. Her fingernail was not there. Proof of life, gone. She hoped that that cellular piece of herself went with Leslie wherever she went.
A librarian came over. “You can’t treat the books like that.”
“I know,” Annie said. “Sorry.” She sank into a couch and listened to the clatter of people on the computers. The smell of bread and human bodies unique to a library.
The librarian took the book from Annie’s hands. “It’s pretty beaten up.” “I’m checking it out.”
“We can get another copy from another branch.” “No. This one’s good.”
“This should be taken out of circulation,” she said and turned to a young man behind the desk. “Mike, do we –”
Annie snatched the book from the librarian.
The librarian looked back at Mike, for back-up perhaps, but he was already doing something else. The librarian kept looking around the space. Annie held the book tight. The zip of a copy machine, the clickity clack of fingers on keyboards, a child’s shout that was quickly silenced by its grown-up.
“I want this one,” Annie whispered. With a fingertip she pried an edge of plastic cover
“We have a process when the books get too worn,” the librarian said, but she had softened.
She was a librarian because she understood the power of a book. “We probably have more copies. I can check for you.”
“No thank you.” She pulled more of the protective cover off, gradually, trying to evade the librarian’s scolding, though her destruction of the thing was in plain sight.
Mike rounded the desk.
“You need help?” he asked the librarian. The librarian sighed and asked for Annie’s library card. Asked for the book.
“Okay, you can take it,” she said. “It’s a good read.” Annie handed it over. She stared at her empty palms. The librarian scanned it. Beep. Blip. Handed the book back to Annie who clutched it to her chest, allowing the loose plastic flap to tickle her neck.
She read it in a day. Didn’t return it, let the fines accrue until she marked it as missing.
Paid the price. Let her fingernails grow.
Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in F(r)iction, Hobart, PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fiction anthology. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com