A Burning Thing

It began with one bad morning too many: The dog whining at quarter to five, desperate to go outside; a complete inability to get back to sleep; a husband who slept through the alarm; the previous night’s dishes stacked around the sink and stacked in the sink, all shining with grease; an empty coffee jar, an empty sugar bowl, sour milk, mouldy bread, crumbs in the butter.

It was a morning where every minor annoyance is a mountain.

Audrey Frayzed made herself a cup of black coffee, using the dregs still sitting in the unwashed plunger. She stirred a teaspoon of honey through the thin pale-brown liquid and then sleepily shuffled into the lounge room, almost stepping in a fresh dogshit sitting in the middle of the rug. She cleaned it up while her coffee cooled. She opened the blinds, the cord snapping in two with an audible crack. She sipped at her cup of dreck, staring through the wonky Venetian blinds and out the dirty window, at the grey light of a winter dawn. She shivered, and turned the heater on. She half-expected it to break as well, but it didn’t.

She waited for Andy – her hibernating bear of a husband – to crawl out of bed. After a while, he called out for coffee.

“Good luck with that,” she muttered.

She sipped at her horrible coffee while Andy went through his morning routine. She boiled the kettle and made him a cup of unsweetened black tea. Truck – their staffy – woke up and ran down the hallway looking for Andy, sliding on the floorboards in his excitement.

Andy returned, with Truck at his heels.

“Thanks,” he said sarcastically as Audrey passed him his tea.

He took a sip, burning his tongue. For a moment, he looked at Audrey accusingly, as if burning himself was somehow her fault. He turned away and looked in the fridge. Audrey snorted. What did Andy think? That real food might be hiding somewhere behind the rot and filth?

Andy pulled a dusty box from the cupboard and poured a bowl of muesli that he wet-down with tap water. He took a seat at the table, opposite Audrey. He opened the laptop sitting in front of him.

Audrey sighed. Andy didn’t respond. Rolling her eyes, Audrey got to her feet and started doing the dishes. She sighed again, loudly this time, deliberately and dramatically, hoping that Andy would clue-in and thank her for cleaning the dishes she had used making dinner for them the night before. But no, he just stared at the laptop, his face blank, his eyes dull. The spoon went from the bowl to his lips mechanically, his body a machine almost entirely disconnected from his brain.

Sometimes there wasn’t even any muesli in the spoon.

Audrey dried her hands, leaving the damp tea-towel scrunched up on the kitchen bench. It was a habit that drove Andy crazy, but he was so absorbed in whatever he was reading that he didn’t notice.

Audrey started getting ready to leave for work. Andy kept reading the news.

While Audrey fluffed around gathering her things, Andy occasionally shouted out to her: Trivial non-sequitors chosen seemingly at random, echoing down the hallway, finding her in the laundry as she ironed her skirt, in the bathroom as she applied her make-up, in the bedroom as she packed her bag, in the backyard as she made sure that Truck had enough water.

“It’ll be clear and bright today, but still cold… Huh, another cabinet minister resigned last night… Looks like our train’s on time today… Wow, they’re remaking Masters of the Universe… More bloody celebrity gossip, ugh, I thought they were better than that… You should call what’s-her-name that we used to live with, there’s been an Earthquake in LA…”

When Audrey returned to the kitchen, Andy was still – still – sitting in front of the laptop. She resisted the urge to assume the role that he sometimes forced her into: A school marm cum nanny cum carer. Instead, all she said was:

“I’m leaving on time whether you’re ready or not. I can’t be late today.”

“Right oh, take it easy,” he said as if her stress was entirely her own. “I’ll get the next train, okay? The boss won’t mind.”

“Good.”

She turned away.

“You okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine.”

He didn’t bother trying to interpret her answer, he just looked back to the laptop. She rolled her eyes again, packed the last of her things, hurried out to the backyard to give Truck a pat goodbye, and then returned to the kitchen to give Andy a perfunctory kiss on the cheek.

He finally looked at her.

“Love you.”

“Love you too,” she replied, unable to help herself.

“Don’t forget that it’s date night tonight,” he shouted after her as she walked out the door.

***

Audrey’s workday was exactly like most every other: Indescribably dull. She stopped at the supermarket on the way home, got stuck in traffic, and then knocked over the bins as she pulled into the driveway. After she had hurriedly unpacked the groceries, she took Truck down to the park for a quick walk, rushed home, had a shower, changed into some nice clothes, and then left for date night.

Despite running these errands and doing these chores, she turned up about 20-minutes early to the mid-priced restaurant that Andy had chosen.

She decided to have a drink at the bar across the street while she waited. She ordered a glass of white wine, found an empty table, and texted Andy. Five minutes went by: No reply. She tried not to let that bother her. But still, every ten or fifteen seconds she glanced at her phone, as if it might have decided at that exact moment to switch to silent, somehow complicit in Andy’s impoliteness, and all that she needed to do to make it ‘fess up was catch it in the act

Audrey finished her wine. Still no reply. She ordered another glass. Still no reply. She finished that glass. Still no reply. It was now five minutes past the hour that they were supposed to meet. Audrey kept waiting. Another five minutes went by. She ordered a third glass of wine. She finished it.

Twenty-five minutes had now passed without a word from Andy.

“Typical,” Audrey muttered.

And then her phone beeped, announcing a new message.

“Hey, lover. Sorry, held up at work, crisis time. Won’t make it, home late, sorry. Love you.”

Something inside Audrey snapped. Not wanting to cry or scream or let loose her rage in front of a bar full of strangers, she knocked off her drink in a single hit and stormed out into the night. She stood there on the street, shivering. She didn’t want to go home to a cold house with no company except Truck.

Audrey got in her car and just drove, not knowing what else to do.

***

A few hours later, after she had driven blindly through the suburbs and somehow avoided being pulled over for getting behind the wheel half-drunk, Audrey found herself parked on top of a hill overlooking the city, a hill far enough from town to let the stars shine bright. She lay on the bonnet of her car, a thin blanket over her and her jacket balled up under he head, looking at the sky and trying not to think about anything.

Most of all, she was trying not to think of Andy, of his many flaws, of his irritations and annoyances.

She saw a shooting star, but she didn’t bother making a wish. Time passed. She saw another shooting star. More time passed. She saw yet another shooting star, and then another and another and another, until there were too many to count and the sky was a streaky mess of light and colour.

Audrey bathed in it. She imagined that it was seeping into her skin. And then she went home. She had work in the morning, after all.

***

Andy was already asleep when she got home, with Truck tucked up in the crook of his arm. The room stank of farts, both dog and human. Andy was snoring. Truck started snoring as well, joining Andy in a kind-of groaning choir. They both farted simultaneously.

The globe in Audrey’s lamp blew when she turned it on.

She completed her night-time ritual in the dark, and then squeezed between them Andy and Truck. She tried to think happy thoughts. She didn’t want to go to sleep angry or upset.

***

Audrey woke up before her alarm went off, feeling sicker than she ever had before. Her head was aching, her nose was running, her stomach was churning, her throat was sore. She was a mess of contradictions, as well – her heart was racing but she felt like she could sleep forever, she was too hot and too cold, and her vision was simultaneously blurry and too sharp. It was the kind of sick that makes you think paralysis or death might not be so bad.

Andy lay next to her, still asleep, wrapped around her like some kind of human-octopus hybrid. She suddenly desperately needed to free herself – his touch was too hot, and the weight of his limbs threatened to collapse her. She wriggled free, almost falling out of bed. Staggering, weak and breathless, she still somehow made it to her feet. Truck snorted, woke up, stared at her and then went back to sleep. Suddenly dizzy, Audrey let herself drop back onto the mattress.

She looked at Andy. She smiled sadly as she gently shoved him, the previous night’s disappointment and frustration put aside.

“I’m sick,” she rasped. “Wake up, I need some help.”

He kept snoring. She shoved him again, her palms clammy.

“What? What’s going on? What is it?”

He was panicked and groggy, a combination that for some reason she found adorable.

“I’m sick. Can you get me some water?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, sure. Just hang on…”

He closed his eyes. She knew he hadn’t mean to, but she yelled at him nonetheless.

“Andy!”

“Right, right, sorry.”

He crawled out of bed. Bare-arse naked, he clomped down the hallway. Truck woke up, watched him leave, and then lay his head back down. Audrey could hear Andy peeing with the door open, but she was too sick to care about such minor grievances.

He came back with a glass of water.

“You okay?”

He sat next to her and took her hand.

“Too hot! Too hot!” she complained, shaking him off.

“You’re telling me – you’re burning up. When did this start?”

Audrey drank the glass of water before answering.

“Just now. I was fine last night.”

Andy frowned, his concern carving deep lines across his face. Audrey knew that despite his many-many-many faults, he would do what he could to look after her. For a moment, she was sad about the previous night, about all the petty annoyances that had begun forming a wall between them. And then her sickness once again consumed all of her attention as she began coughing throatily.

She held the empty glass up.

“You got it. You want a cup of tea, or some breakfast?”

The thought of food made her stomach turn and knot.

“No way.”

“Okay. Well, back to bed for you.”

“But…”

“No buts, Audrey. There’s no way you’re going to work today.”

She looked at him and smiled a wicked grin.

“Okay, bossy boots.”

He met her smile and blew her a kiss; she winked and licked her lips. Despite her sickness, she was enjoying the loving familiarity they shared – the black cloud that had been building for months had finally begun to dissipate. Her only regret was being too unwell to really appreciate it.

They were both thinking the same thought, but they didn’t share it with each other: Why can’t things always be this easy?

***

If Audrey hadn’t been so sick, she would have found amusement in the switching of their roles: Andy bustled about getting ready for work, while she stayed in bed. He crashed and banged as he made a stack of sandwiches, wrapping a couple in foil and leaving them in the fridge for her. He whistled tunelessly as he did the dishes, wanting to make her day as easy as possible. He hauled Truck outside, waited for him to pee and then hauled him back inside, talking to him the whole time.

And then Andy crunched and slopped as he ate breakfast in front of the laptop. He kept up a running commentary on his movements, as if he could distract Audrey from the discomfort of her body. Inevitably, this commentary turned to the news:

“Another cold and clear day today. You know, we could do with some rain… Wow, there was a gang-fight in the CBD yesterday… Ugh, my train’s going to be late… Hey, did you know that there was a meteor shower last night?”

He yelled this last question, so that she could hear him from the bedroom. Even though his voice was slightly muted by the distance, it still made her head hurt even more than it already did.

“It says here that some fella named Macintyre Guffing discovered it a hundred years, and astronomers and that lot have been waiting for it to come back around ever since.”

Audrey nodded listlessly, words beyond her.

“These photos look great! You should see them…”

Audrey shook her head.

“You should have been there,” she whispered, all that she could manage.

She didn’t mean for her words to sound so bitter: She really did wish that he had been there.

After a while, Andy checked on her, bringing a fresh glass of water and a cup of tea. He had showered and shaved and put on fresh clothes. He looked as tidy as his head was messy.

“You okay?” he asked.

“I’m kicking goals.”

“Right then – the lawn needs mowing if you’re feeling that good.”

“I’ll get to it after I’ve restumped the house.”

She let her head fall back, their lovingly familiar repartee exhausting her.

“Will you be okay?”

Andy was a worrier and Audrey didn’t want to exacerbate that, so she just smiled and gave him a weak thumbs-up.

“I’ll be fine.”

Her voice was so raspy that it could have stripped wood. Andy bent down and kissed her on the lips, sickness be damned.

“I’ll try and get out on time.”

“Thanks.”

***

It was almost noon when Audrey finally decided to get out of bed. She didn’t feel any better and would have happily cocooned herself all day, wrapped in the slightly musty sheets, breathing in Andy’s smell, snuggling up to the musk of their love, but she was finally hungry.

And besides, Truck was clawing at the back door desperate to be let out.

She let him out, and then shuffled into the kitchen and drank a glass of water. She sat at the kitchen table and ate one of the sandwiches that Andy had prepared earlier. She rushed to the toilet and threw up.

She washed her face and brushed her teeth. She stared out the bathroom window at the stark brightness of a late-winter day. She drank another glass of water, and managed to keep this one down. She wrapped herself in a blanket and went and sat in the sun, with Truck curled in a ball at her feet.

A gentle breeze began to blow. After a little while, Audrey started to feel a bit better.

***

A few hours after Andy got home, Audrey’s sickness started to settle back in. This time, she was overcome with sneezing and coughing fits, accompanied by a fever.

She had been feeling steadily better, sitting out in the sun, thinking idle thoughts or nothing at all. Andy had texted throughout the day, checking in hourly to see how she was feeling, sending cute messages of love, dumb jokes and trivial facts designed to make her smile. Somewhat illogically, she wished that she was well enough to enjoy the closeness that her sickness had ushered in.

She waited at the door when she heard his car pull in, that’s how pleased she was to see him.

But after they had sat together a while and caught up, after Andy had whipped together a fantastic meal from leftover bits and bobs in the cupboard, after they had eaten themselves stupid and then settled on the couch, she started feeling ill again.

“I’m going to bed,” she said fifteen minutes later, barely able to keep her eyes open.

“Sorry, lover – you poor thing. I’ll sit with you a while…”

And that’s what he did, stroking her head until she fell asleep.

***

The next week passed in much the same way: Audrey woke up sick every morning, slowly improved as the day dragged on, and then worsened again at night-fall. It became routine.

She used up all her sick-pay and took the unpaid leave she was offered. Andy fussed and fretted, doing what he could, but the routine began taking its toll: He didn’t take any time off, and every-other-night either stayed at work late or had after-work drinks with his mates. His timing was awful: Most of the nights that he was out, Audrey found herself feeling a bit better, sometimes even almost like her old self.

By the time the seventh morning rolled around, Audrey went to see a doctor. She hated doing so, but she had had enough.

Her regular doctor was unavailable, so she saw someone who was effectively a stranger. He examined her thoroughly, if coldly and efficiently – she felt a little like a machine being serviced by a mechanic. The doctor checked her glands, looked down her throat, looked in her ears, took her temperature, took her blood pressure, took her pulse.

“Well, it seems like you’ve just got a cold.”

“But it’s been hanging around so long, and no matter how much rest I get it won’t go away. It has to be something else, doctor – a cold’s never hit me like this before.”

“Hmmm…”

He ended up drawing some blood and sending it off to be tested. He tried to reassure her that it was probably nothing, and did a terrible job. He told her that he would be in touch. He shook her hand limply. He smiled blandly as he bid her goodbye.

A week and a half passed before the doctor’s office got in touch with her. Audrey was still sick. She answered her mobile with a croak, lying flat in bed wrapped in dirty sheets, almost unable to move.

“Hello?”

“Mrs. Frayzed?”

“Hi.”

“This is Doctor Winkler’s office – your results have come in.”

Hack-cough-splutter-hack was Audrey’s reply.

“Oh, you’re still sick, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s… It’s okay, I’m kind-of getting better.”

The receptionist let out a resigned sigh, as if she had heard past patients say this a thousand times and more.

“Do you think you can make it in?”

Hack-cough-splutter-hack.

“You poor thing. I tell you what – we’re not supposed to do this, but I’ll have your results couried out to you. And I’ll have the doctor write an explanation. Actually, I might get him to type it out – you know what doctors are like…”

A weak laugh, and then hack-cough-splutter-hack.

“Thanks.”

“Get some rest, Mrs. Frayzed. I hope you start feeling better soon.”

***

It turned out that Audrey had become allergic to something. Her doctor didn’t know what this something was, as it wasn’t his field, but he had written a referral for her and included it with her results. She made an appointment with the allergy specialist, and asked if there was anything she could do in the meantime. He suggested that she start a journal, and use it to keep track of when she felt sick and when she felt okay, of what she ate, of what she did and where she went and what happened around her.

“A journal, eh?” Andy asked with a hint of suspicion.

“Yep,” Audrey whispered.

It was early in the morning. She was sick, as usual.

“Will you help?”

“Sure.”

And so they got stuck into it, with Andy leading the way: They wrote a list of everything permanent in the house – the gas heater, the dog, the rising damp, the draught, the hole in the kitchen wall that exposed them to who-knows-what, the mould that seemed intent on occupying the laundry – and then started keeping track of the everyday stuff that came and went. The pin-board in the kitchen was soon covered in lists of ingredients, guesses at the deodorant or aftershave worn by visitors or door-knockers, and graphs of the weather and the wind and the pollen count.

They both wondered if her allergies might be connected to the weather: She always felt better on the dry days, when the sun and wind seemed to wash the sickness away, whereas on the wet days, when she snuggled up in bed and gave in to its embrace, she would improve a bit but still feel pretty seedy.

There wasn’t a list of the places that Audrey went. Still sick every morning and every night, her days were spent resting in the backyard if it was dry or in bed if it was wet.

***

That’s how the time passed: A monotony of days that were almost always the same, only graphed and charted and plotted, reduced to nothing but their minutiae. Andy spent his time either at work or at the pub or poring over their journal. Audrey rested and did little else, too sick to worry about the distance once again growing between them.

Her appointment with the allergy specialist finally came. She endured a battery of tests: Scratch tests, sniff tests, exposure tests. She didn’t seem to have a problem with any of the everyday things that affected people. Mould, dog hair, cat hair, natural gas, sugar, fluoride, artificial colourings and flavourings, petrol, chemical additives, wheat and gluten, oils, fructose and sucrose, perfumes and cosmetics, preservatives, dairy – none of them triggered her allergies in the slightest.

The specialist didn’t know what else to do, and told her that he would get in touch after consulting with his colleagues.

When Andy was at home on a weeknight, after Audrey had gone to bed early as-always, he could be found poring over their journal and the charts on the pin-board, or chatting online to hypochondriacs and the allergy-inflicted around the world, looking for connections or an explanation. When he finally crawled into bed, he would often just lie there and watch Audrey while she slept, his face wracked with a combination of worry and guilt.

He spent his weekends taking care of her. He grew increasingly distant. He started spending more and more time at work.

***

One morning, Audrey woke to find Andy packing a suitcase. For a moment, fuzzy with sleep, she wondered if she was still dreaming.

“What’s going on?” she asked, her voice thick, her words slurred.

She started coughing. She sneezed. Andy hurried into the kitchen, returning with a glass of water. She drained it in a single hit. She sneezed again, a ropey length of snot working free. Andy hurried back into the kitchen, this time returning with a box of tissues.

“Are you okay?”

“Jesus, stop asking that!”

She didn’t mean to yell, but it had become unbearable.

“Of course I’m not okay, Andy. Haven’t you been paying attention?”

“Alright, alright, alright – I’m sorry.”

She could tell that he was pissed at her, and was grateful that he was kind enough to hold it in

“No, I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to snap, I’m just so over it.”

“I hear you… Cup of tea?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

She propped herself up while he busied himself in the kitchen.

“So, what’s going on?”

“Eh?”

“What’s with the bag?” she asked, raising her voice, straining her throat.

“Oh, right. Hang on…”

He returned to the bedroom with a cup of tea and a fresh glass of water. He sat next to her, propped on the edge of the mattress.

“I’m off to that conference today. Remember? We’ve been talking about it on-and-off for a couple of weeks.”

“Have we?”

Audrey had no memory of it. But that didn’t mean they hadn’t talked about – dulled by the monotony of sickness-recovery-sickness, she could barely remember what day it was.

“Oh, right,” she said, lying to assuage Andy’s sudden look of worry and guilt. “How long will you be away?”

“Three nights – I’ll be back around Monday lunchtime.”

“Ok. I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too.”

He looked away, not wanting her to see him cry.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine – I just feel bad about leaving you here.”

He still wouldn’t look at her.

“I’ll be okay. Please, try not to worry.”

“Thanks, lover – I’ll try.

He looked at his watch and then reluctantly stood up.

“Um, I’d better keep getting ready.”

Audrey shooed him away.

“Go on then.”

She sipped at her tea while he noisily packed the rest of his things. She was glad that this goodbye didn’t involve raised voices or a fight.

“I’ve stocked the fridge,” he yelled from the kitchen. “And there’s heaps of food here for Truck. And there’s washing in the dryer – it isn’t quite done.”

“Thanks, babe.”

“You got it.”

Audrey finished her tea. She laid her head back. She fell asleep for a while, without even realising it – the next thing she knew, Andy was standing over her, shaking her with one hand and holding his suitcase in the other.

“It’s time.”

Audrey yawned. She reached out. He bent down and hugged her tightly. He spilled fresh tears that stained her cheeks. He hugged her tighter still. The moment dragged on – she wondered if he would ever let go, and then he did.

“Love you.”

“Love you more…”

***

 

For Audrey, the rest of that day passed in much the same way as any other – she rested, sitting in the backyard with Truck curled up at her feet. She slowly started feeling a bit better. Andy called just after lunchtime; their conversation was brief but full of love, and he made plain how he happy he was to hear that she was picking up, asking question after question about how she felt, what she had been doing and what she had planned.

They finished their call as they finished every other:

“We’ll be back together soon.”

“Soon can’t come soon enough.”

A light rain began to fall in the late afternoon, and Audrey headed inside and made a nest on the couch. When she found herself finally getting hungry, she reheated a surprise meal that Andy had left in the fridge. She fed Truck, and then let him run around the backyard for a while.

She texted Andy, he texted her back, and they flirted for a while, enjoying the novelty of being apart.

When the sun went down, she settled back on the couch. She caught herself listening for Andy at the door. She told herself not to be silly. She watched TV for a couple of hours. Quickly growing bored with it, she muted the sound and put on some music instead. She began reading a book, something that she hadn’t done since before she got sick.
As she caught herself falling asleep on the couch, she realised that she was feeling better than she had in weeks. She crawled into bed. She missed Andy more than she ever had before; well enough to show him how much she really loved him, she felt a desire for him that was almost primal.

She woke up the next morning feeling almost like her old self.

It was another clear and bright day, more a false-summer than true-spring. Audrey seized it, filled with unexpected energy – she decided to clean up the house, which had become hovel-like during her months of illness. Before noon, she had opened all the windows, changed the bedding, vacuumed and mopped the floors, dusted everything that needed dusting and wiped everything that needed wiping.

After lunch, finding herself shocked by how much better she was feeling and how much energy she had, she took Truck for a walk.

Andy called as she and Truck were on their way home.

“Hey lover, how you going?”

Audrey rabbited on for ages, caught up in the excitement of actually being able to do something other than sit around and rest. She told Andy about her day, about all the cleaning she had done, about the meal she was planning on cooking that night.

The longer she talked, the more distracted and distant he sounded.

“Andy, are you okay?”

There was silence for a moment. When he replied, he sounded sad and flat.

“I just wish that I could be there.”

“Me too, babe, me too.”

Later that night, Audrey took Truck for yet another walk. After an hour or so of doing laps around the park, he was beat while she felt like she could just keep on going. When she got home, she settled on the couch and read her book, crawling into bed sometime around midnight.

She texted Andy to say ‘goodnight’ and fell asleep waiting for his reply.

***

 

The next morning, she instinctively reached for Andy as soon as she woke. She fumbled through the junk littering the bedside table, found her phone, and sent him a text full of love and good cheer.

She felt even better than she had the previous morning. She crossed her fingers.

“Better go to it,” she muttered to herself.

Without hesitation, she leapt out of bed. Truck gave her a friendly bark and then went back to sleep.

Audrey made breakfast, had a coffee, had a shower, changed into fresh clothes, made the bed around the still-sleeping Truck, tidied up the house, took out the rubbish and recycling, freshened Truck’s water and measured out his breakfast, and washed the dishes. She kept an eye on her phone the whole time, but Andy didn’t reply. She gave him a call just before nine o’clock, but he didn’t answer. She left a message telling him how much she loved him and how much she missed him, and then hung up.

A half-hour later, he still hadn’t replied.

***

Andy didn’t call back until late that night. Audrey had kept in touch with a few of his friends and family throughout the day, but no-one else heard anything from him either. By the time he contacted her, Audrey had gotten so worried that she forgot all about her anger and frustration and just unleashed her concern.

He laughed lovingly as she finally wound it up.

“You’re a sweetie.”

“I’ve missed you!”

Her excitement was palpable.

“Sorry about today,” he said.

“Don’t stress – I’ve been feeling like my old self, I might even be able to go back to work soon. But not too-soon, I think we need a couple of days of R&R first, if you know what I mean…”

Andy didn’t laugh. He didn’t encourage her innuendo. He didn’t respond at all.

“Babe, you okay?”

Silence.

“Andy?”

“I’m… I’m not coming back.”

“You what?”

“I’m not coming back, Audrey.”

“Good one, dickhead – play a joke on me now that I’m feeling better.”

“I’m serious.”

A moment of silence. Audrey was tempted to just hang up on him or throw the phone at the wall, as if killing the conversation might undo the words he had spoken. Instead, she waited to hear what he had to say next, tempting as it was to just scream at him

“I realised something, Audrey, just after you texted me last night.”

She waited, but his voice caught as if he was trying not to cry. She kept waiting and tried to hold onto her anger, even though it was killing her not to soothe him.

“I’ve had my suspicions for a while, and I’ve been keeping track,” he said after pulling himself together. “Getting out of town just confirmed them. These allergies of yours, I think that I’m part of the problem.”

“You what?”

“I think I’m the ‘thing’ that you’re allergic to.”

Audrey couldn’t speak. For a second, unable to help herself, she thought about what he had said and everything that the idea implied: All those nights when he was at work or at the pub, all those nights when she was well and he was out, all that time alone, the clean house and the freshly-made bed.

And then she banished the thought, or tried to, at least.

Andy coughed throatily and then laughed bitterly, an old habit enacted when he was trying to bring them light at the darkest of times.

“Just like people say: It’s not you, it’s me.”

(Winner of the open division of the 2018 Swancon Awards short story competition)

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