The Burrowers

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By Kelsie Qua

Nadine found the love letters in the attic. They’d been hidden in a faded blue container between crumpled receipts, honeymoon photographs, and old tax returns. At the sight of them, a cramp burrowed in her chest, like a sharply-clawed animal on the run from a predator.

Minutes passed as she waited for the pain to recede, breathing in the smell of the attic: exposed pink insulation, sawdust, and forgotten relics of the past too precious to be thrown away but not quite precious enough to keep downstairs. Four years earlier, when Trish and she had moved into the cabin, the attic had only contained an antique bed frame and a few cardboard boxes left by the previous owners. Now the space was as full as the bottom of an hourglass right before the time ran out. 

The pain in Nadine’s chest worsened. She closed her eyelids for a moment, and then opened them. Motes of dust floated in the afternoon light spilling from the dormer window at the far end of the space. A little galaxy of sun-stars, small enough to cup in the palm of her hands. Everything was fine. Everything would be perfectly fine. 

The burrowing animal in Nadine’s chest began to settle, and she carefully picked the letters out of the box and stacked them on the plywood beside her. Steady black lettering decorated the front of their envelopes, lettering once pressed in with such a strong hand the author seemed to be daring time to erase the message. It was just like fate, Nadine thought, to send her a reminder of all she’d once had, just as she was on the edge of losing what little of it still remained.

Blood-orange sunlight sliced through the living room blinds as Nadine listened to the tires of her wife’s Jeep growling over the driveway later that evening. Nadine had to fight the impulse to disappear into the bedroom and feign sleep. Acting for Trish exhausted her. It took such a careful balance to seem well enough not to raise suspicion, but not so well Trish would get her hopes up that Nadine might really be improving.

Nadine forced a smile when Trish came in, a careful smile meant to show fondness but not to encourage conversation. Trish didn’t look up at her. She placed the strap of her messenger bag over the coatrack and undid the top button of her shirt. 

Nadine tried to read as Trish made herself a whiskey sour. Trish didn’t ask Nadine how she was, and Nadine didn’t ask Trish how she was, because they both knew they weren’t fine and there was nothing they could do about it. Nadine tried to focus on just one sentence of her book as Trish sat down on the opposite edge of the couch, turned on the television, clicked on the subtitles, and muted the volume. Nadine never asked Trish to do that, but she did it anyway because she preferred to watch in silence than have Nadine leave the room.

Still, the words on the page seemed an unbridgeable distance away. Nadine looked up at her Trish, and had the strange feeling she was already gone, out of Nadine’s life forever, and this was scarcely more than a memory. 

“I was up in the attic earlier today, looking for beach towels.”

Trish glanced at her. Nadine used to be able to read every emotion on the surface of her wife’s face, but now she felt herself losing fluency. It had started while she had been worried about other things, like the seeming impossibility of ever finding a job again, when the lithium made her so sick every morning. She looked away. A man was riding a bicycle on the television and smiling. Medicinal side effects were spelled out at the bottom of the screen.

“I found some old letters you wrote me. Do you remember when you wrote me letters?”

The words didn’t sound like Nadine’s. They were too formal, almost comically serious.

“What were the towels for?” Trish asked.

“I thought it might help to lay in the sun for a while. But when I found the letters I started thinking—”

Trish’s phone rang. “Sorry.” She stepped away to answer it. Nadine tried once again to read but the words seemed to slide out of her mind as she looked at them. She brought her mug into the kitchen and rinsed it in the sink.

It was Trish’s brother on the phone. Nadine knew just from Trish’s tone. They were discussing Trish’s upcoming visit. No, she wasn’t sure how long she’d be staying, but she’d be over tomorrow, probably around seven. Yes, the therapist knew about it—no, it had been Naddy’s choice as much as it had been Trish’s. But she really couldn’t talk about that right now.

When the conversation ended, Trish came into the kitchen. Nadine was still rinsing the mug, letting the steam rise up all around her like insistent ghosts with unfinished business.

Trish leaned back against the counter about three feet away from Nadine, with her arms gently crossed over his chest. “What did the letters say?”

Nadine turned off the faucet. “I didn’t read them.” She set the mug on the dull white plastic drying rack. “It was too much.”

“Too much,” Trish repeated. “Meaning, it gave you a panic attack.”

Nadine turned, pressed her hands against the chipped counter behind her and leaned into them. Her fingers were still wet, but she was too tired to get a dishtowel from the drawer. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize for how you feel.”

“I’m sorry. I know.”

Trish watched her closely. Nadine couldn’t escape the feeling that the person Trish was seeing was someone different than the person she actually was. 

The burrowing animal stirred, but Nadine ignored it. “I’ve just been thinking about them all afternoon. Those letters. I know I probably shouldn’t even bring it up. What they meant, once upon a time. Especially now…”

“If there’s something you want to say, you should say it.” There was a softness to Trish’s voice, but a hardness to her eyes. 

Nadine didn’t know which to believe in, and found herself staring at the dirty floor tiles as she spoke. “I didn’t think you were really going to write that summer. I thought that was just something people said because it was easier than goodbye. Then I got the first envelope. Just seeing my name in your handwriting—it was like reading a love poem. It was like you’d written my new favorite song. I didn’t sleep at all that night. I thought it was love, I thought all of it was love, but then I started thinking maybe that’s the problem. If just seeing my name in your handwriting was enough to make me so happy, so unbelievably happy, no wonder—no wonder everything else has gotten to be too much.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t feel like I’m even making any sense. I’m not saying what I want to say at all.”

“What do you want to say?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t know. It doesn’t change anything. Obviously it doesn’t.”

“Naddy.” Trish’s hands moved like birds eager to take flight but not sure where to land. Nadine was suddenly overcome with fear that Trish would try to touch her like she used to. Things had been so different, before the medicine. Now, Nadine felt compelled to reject Trish before her body had the chance.

“I think I’m going to go to sleep,” Nadine said. 

The clock blinked. It was 7:23 PM.

She thought Trish was going to say, if you really loved me then you’d love me now enough to try harder. She thought Trish was going to ask to go to bed with her, one more night. She thought Trish was going to say she was leaving now, not tomorrow.

“Okay,” Trish said, without inflection. “I’ll be up in a while.”

Once Nadine had brushed her teeth and swallowed the half a dozen pills prescribed by her doctor, she turned down her side of the bed and got in. The stack of letters on her nightstand watched, insistent. She wanted to tuck them into her pillowcase, as she’d done the summer she first received them, back when this life she was living now had been nothing more than a dream. Then, she’d put the letters there because she wanted to be close to Trish. Now, she just wanted them out of her sight. They reminded her too much of something she no longer had. Of a time in her life when everything, absolutely everything, had seemed so full of promise.

The next morning when Nadine woke it took her a moment to fall down through the stream of time to the present. To remember where she was, and why, and what chores needed to be done, and what crises in the world were supposed to be breaking her heart. It was Friday morning, the twenty-second of April. Trish was leaving—no, it was nine fifteen, she’d already left. For work and then for her brother’s. That meant the house was Nadine’s. That meant she was free. The thought flooded her first with relief, then with melancholy. She pulled herself up and put her feet on the cold wooden floor.

An envelope sat on the surface of her nightstand, where before there had been a stack. It had no lettering on the outside, no hint as to its contents. She lifted the lip and pulled out the pages folded inside. Uncurled them and felt the burrower stir within her chest as she saw her name, written over and over again, in her wife’s firm black lettering.

Kelsie Qua is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna currently working for a small performing arts non-profit in Upstate NY. Her fiction has previously been published in Cellar Door, Gone Lawn, and Black Fox Literary Magazine, among other journals.

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