by Melissa Ostrom

During the open house, Meg performed like a hostess forced to entertain guests she’d never invited, opening the front door, ostensibly in welcome, but inwardly seething, Go away. She could hardly believe the strangers peeking in her pantry, examining her bedroom closet, experimentally stepping into her glass-walled shower. She could barely tolerate the impudence.

Yes, she and Jim had agreed putting the house up for sale made sense. It would simplify the splitting of their assets. Ease the business of starting over. But as soon as the first stranger patted her refrigerator and asked if the appliances would be included in the purchase, Meg realized she didn’t want to sell. Simply couldn’t. So after the open house, during the subsequent house viewings, she began to quietly sabotage the selling process in small ways, ignoring the realtor’s cheery suggestions: flowers, freshly baked cookies, a picture for the second floor hallway’s bare wall. She didn’t mow, clean, air, or spruce.

But still, the Langdons, newlyweds, scheduled a second visit. Then another.

Meg dreaded the implications. Instead of leaving the third tour to the realtor, as he firmly recommended, she remained in the house and shadowed the young couple, skulking into the rooms (Jan’s old room, Linnie’s, petite spaces that, though long since emptied of posters, perfumes, and trinkets, somehow still contained them) before trailing the Langdons down to the kitchen, as helpless as a wave-washed pebble, caught, drowned, lost in the undertow of their interest.

The day suited her foreboding, gray and intermittently wet. She wanted these newlyweds to peer out back, so they’d discover how the low-lying yard held the rain like a sink and guess at the mosquitoes that would breed in such muck and see how all the bushes needed trimming. Perhaps they’d even note the broken latch on the screen door. Meg had willfully neglected the small repairs. She wished she had more to brandish.

Then twenty minutes into the visit, the great room suddenly drummed a wet noise, interrupting the realtor’s praise for the cherry cabinetry.

A leak! Meg rejoiced.

All four crossed the room to inspect the ceiling.

More than the drip’s occurrence suggested divine assistance. So did its location. The plopping should have happened upstairs, closer to the roof, rather than spanning the great room corner, traveling from the ceiling to the pine floor, past the wall-sized bookcase of crammed volumes.

It fell singly and straight like a determined pilgrimage, like a searching finger, grazing spines, Master and Margarita, Moon-Spinners, Corelli’s Mandolin, Nightingale Wood, Strange Music, and more, some of the dampened titles belonging to Jim, others to Meg, the entire collection soon to be divided, boxed, shelved elsewhere. Maybe read by another.

The patter continued, an erratic heartbeat, the strange drumming of a holy ritual, summoning for Meg remembrances: reading in bed beside Jim, shopping with him and the girls at the used bookstore, reading chapters aloud on long trips, swapping favorite novels, scorning the disappointments.

While the realtor soothed the prospective buyers’ concerns about wood rot and promised to get someone over, right away, to take care of the problem, Meg stood silently. And still, moments later, after he’d escorted the Langdons out, she remained in the corner, striving to recall where she was and who she was for each book, the versions of herself she’d abandoned, the selves she could no longer manifest, even if she tried. So much of what she’d held, ached for, treasured, and fed had departed too, long before this purl began to sound, again and again, on the wide plank floor, trilling the grain, pooling on knots.

Melissa Ostrom lives in rural western New York with her husband and children. She serves as a public school curriculum consultant, teaches English at Genesee Community College, and writes whenever and however much her five-year-old and six-year-old let her. Her work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, Thrice Fiction, Oblong, decomP, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere.