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Keep Shame in a Box and Bury It Under the Others

by Kathryn McMahon

     "Dad’ll be home soon,” says Eliot, and I’m nervous because Mom has been shopping and it’s taken us twenty minutes to bring it all inside. “Wonder what excuse he’ll make for her this time.” He laughs, but not the good kind, the carbonated kind like a burp sneaking out. If Mom knows you want something, she’ll get it, then she’ll get it again and again. This time, it’s orange juice. Six cartons of it in the second fridge because Dad said he was coming down with something. Once, she heard I liked owls, and now the insides of my closet doors are felted over to hold all my owl earrings. Friends ask why I collect them. I don’t. I bury them in the dark. Eliot used to grin when he got a new video game, but since the big sprees started, he’s been hunting down receipts in the trash and sometimes I steal Mom’s credit card and help him sneak things back to the store. He has a job at the bike shop that he can’t tell Mom about or she’d visit him and empty the place. Claim she was being supportive.

           While Mom lies down with another headache, I grab the mail and Eliot opens the late notices and does who knows what with them. He says Mom’s shopping makes Dad’s hair whiter and grays his skin, that he can’t bear it, that his jokes are just posturing. They started off snide, and now they’re as flat as the Amazon boxes squeezed into our recycling bin. The more Mom buys, the less we see Dad, like he’s living in a basement, though some other basement because ours is where Mom puts all the things that even she is ashamed of. Like the cat tree for Willis, who was already dead when she bought it. She said we’d get a new cat, but every time she goes past the pet store, she stops in to buy for an imaginary family. There’s a hamster wheel topping the cat tree. We don’t have a hamster, never did. I don’t know why she goes to the pet store. We don’t have any pets. We have mice, but they aren’t interested in the wheel though I drop bits of cheese there. When I hear them scratching in the walls, it makes me feel safe, like the house is living, not crushed under clutter. Next to the cat tree on a box of artificial rocks is a set of Christmas flasks. One for every person in the family. Once, we went to watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks, and Eliot and I filled the flasks with cocoa and peppermint syrup. Afterward, I didn’t understand why they were in the basement with the stuff we don’t use. I loved those flasks, loved sitting on the beach under the fingernail of a moon and shuffling together on the driftwood as the sky popped like a blister, like a secret. The booms shook the worries out of my chest until they weren’t mine anymore. But then I discovered the basement flasks weren’t our real ones. They were extras, like a backup plan that doesn’t back up anything, just lets you pretend you’re safe while the floor crumbles away and you decide it’s normal that your legs are dangling through, everybody lives like this.

           Dad’s car pulls up, but he doesn’t cut the engine.

           Before our basement was filled with boxes, it was a TV room. It stopped being a TV room after Mom’s college boyfriend’s sister came by holding a box with her name on it; his family had finally cleared out the last of his things after that car accident. Mom used to watch TV with her head in Dad’s lap, but she stopped putting her head in his lap, and then stopped watching TV with the rest of us and sat in the kitchen, making jewelry. Making my owl earrings. She was suddenly obsessed with beads. She bought pouches of stone pendants, cords of semi-precious gems, and strands of glass seeds, and the packages lounged on the basement sofa where she’d once belonged. At the breakfast table, she threaded wire through a bowl of turquoise chips and owl charms while I was already plotting to give my new necklace away. After all, I had those earrings I didn’t want. But as each bead slid along and crashed into the one before it, I asked why she wasn’t using string. “Because when that goes, it’s all gone.” And she tipped the bowl, scattering owls as heavy as hearts.

Author's Note

The narrator's mother is suffocated by grief, a grief that fills their household. The daughter and her father and brother are literally boxed in, and I wanted the sentences themselves to feel claustrophobic. There is frequently a trimness imposed on flash fiction, but this piece needed a heft to it, like the accumulation of the mother's baggage, for the daughter to stumble around.

Kathryn McMahon is based in the Puget Sound, though she never stays long. Her prose has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Hobart, Wigleaf, and elsewhere, and she has won flash fiction contests at both Prime Number Magazine and New Delta Review. Find more of her writing at and follow her on Twitter at @katoscope.

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