What Belongs to Me

Photo: © Sai Mokhtari. All rights reserved.

I started stealing packages the summer after we lost Lina. All through the stickiest days of July, I walked half a mile to the train station and waited for the commuter to take me to a job I’d lose before Labor Day. Of course, I didn’t tell you I was on the bubble at work. Back then I couldn’t even wake you.

Lina was a wriggling ghost who had once lived inside the pinkest parts of you. Your body still clung to her memory with every swollen cell, and I didn’t know how to help you. I didn’t know the right words or how to hold you.

So I slipped into the musky dawn and walked by the blue hydrangeas, the brick colonials, and the white picket fences that lined our street.

That afternoon I’d stayed too long at work, trying to undo a mistake I didn’t remember making. By the time I’d finished, the only train left was the milk run. When the train crawled into our station, a purplish twilight had swallowed much of the sky.

The first package I stole was small enough to fit inside my purse. I’d watched the mailman drop the box by a side door on a wraparound porch the day before. The box was still in the same spot. I slowed my steps. The air was thick with the threat of rain. If someone saw me, I would tell them I didn’t want the box to get wet. I knew the family that lived here. We were neighbors.

I slipped off my shoes and crept up the stairs to the small box in the center of a patchy sisal welcome mat. No cars drove past. No dog walkers called out to darting goldens or sniffing terriers. I clasped the box in my fingers like a claw and shoved it inside my purse before I could stop myself.

On the way home, I saw a plume of smoke above our driveway. You’d given up cigarettes for Lina, but you must’ve found the pack I stashed between the gas can and the lawnmower in our garage.

“You’re late” was all you said before you stubbed the cherry with the heel of your foot.

I waited until you went to bed to pry open the box with a nail file and pull out the contents: a Swedish cream for reducing sunspots, scars, and other imperfections. I re-boxed the delicate tube. I don’t know what I wanted to find—something more expensive or incriminating, something other than false promises in a pretty package.

After that first box, the stealing got easier. Over the next few weeks, while July melted into August, I stole three pairs of jeans two sizes too big, a set of men’s razors, a sequined handbag that was more your mother’s style than mine, and a tin box of washers and screws. Meanwhile, my performance at work dissolved into borderline malpractice. Any talk of projections and quarterly reports fused into a single garbled voice telling me it was time to quit.  At home I spent the evenings counting—pills to make sure you’d slept, days we’d survived, and bills we hadn’t paid.

I stashed everything I stole in Lina’s room like blood-stained treasure. Each time I crossed the threshold, I felt like a criminal trespassing in a pastel mausoleum packed with a crib and stuffed animals dyed impossible shades of yellow.

The world had taken so much from us, why couldn’t I take a little too? Besides, I only stole from houses with tidy lawns and decks. If the car parked in the driveway was a rusty hatchback or the roof was overdue for repairs, I left those families alone. But houses with pools and lush trellises were fair game. I tried to explain my rules to you the day I found you in Lina’s room, surrounded by boxes of the useless clothing and toiletries I had taken from our neighbors. You wouldn’t listen.

“You’re a thief.”

My mask had fallen away: You could see the warts and the rot you’d suspected were there all along.

I agreed to return everything. You put on a blue house dress with shallow side pockets and dropped the Swedish cream in the left one and the tin box of washers in the right. I placed the jeans and the razors and the sequined handbag in three separate grocery bags. We waited for full dark and left the house for the first time together in three months.

We cut across our backyard and popped out kitty corner from the first house. I asked for the Swedish hand cream and crept tiptoe-quiet up the back porch. A light was on in the kitchen; figures moved in and out of the hallway like actors on a dimly lit stage.

Next was the Dutch colonial with a red door where I’d taken the razors and three pairs of jeans. I wedged the grocery bags between the doors. Footsteps thudded in front of me. Before I could escape, the red door flew open. I saw pink house slippers and gray leggings and a small white poodle who bounced with every bark. When I turned to run, you were already on the other side of the street. I chased you through the neighbor’s yard and across a pea-gravel pool deck, certain I could hear the angry footfalls of pink slippers and poodle paws gathering strength and speed behind us.

In the months ahead, we would leave the hydrangeas and too-big house and the spreadsheets and the life we imagined with Lina, one root ripped up after the next. But tonight, I would chase your blue house dress beneath a fat August moon. I would listen to the gasping burst of your laughter and the tinny plink of washers tumbling from your pocket into the pool. I would fling the sequined purse over my shoulder and reach into the emptiness with both hands wide open and grabbing.

Martha (Marty) Keller’s short stories have appeared in Midway Journal, Roanoke Review, Bridge Eight Literary Magazine, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and elsewhere. She is also a reader for Flash Fiction Magazine. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart and Best Short Fiction anthologies. Over the years, she’s worked in strip malls, skyscrapers, and high school classrooms. She lives with her family at the end of a long trail somewhere outside of Chicago.

Appears In

Issue 17

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