Camila found the last of her husband in the kitchen. She watched him open the cupboards at random and run his fingers along the coffee mugs and good china. His inspection then moved from the dishes the countertops. She sat down at their little table in the breakfast nook. It was five in the morning.
“Where are the carriage wheels?” Martin said. He was looking into a drawer full of forks and spoons.
“Next to the toaster.” She knew what he meant.
Martin waltzed around the butcher’s block on the kitchen island, humming as he went. Since he wore nothing but pale blue boxer shorts, he was lovely and absurd as he moved. The boxers seemed to float in the darkness. He opened the breadbox on the counter and pulled out a sleeve of English muffins. On the sleeve was a silhouette of a man riding a horse and buggy. It was the mascot for the muffins.
“Would you like half?”
Camila drew her robe tight. “Have I got a choice?”
“We always share it,” he said.
He split the muffin with his bare hands and dropped each into a slot in the toaster. He pushed down the lever. Soon there was the smell of warm bread in the room as they waited. The world was still dark outside the kitchen window above the sink. From where she sat, Camila could see herself in the reflection. There was only one hallway light on. Her image was faint. Between her and the window, Martin’s body looked like it was cut from wax paper.
It was a long time before Camila spoke. It took a lot of nerve to stop biting the knuckle of her forefinger, to gather herself together. As calm as she could, she said, “What are you doing here, dear?”
Martin kept rocking back and forth ever so slow. “Making breakfast. The carriage wheels from Drury Lane, remember? It’s our favorite, you know.” His tone was curt, as if he were answering the dumbest question in the world. Then a smile grew on his face. He began humming again, and the tune to “The Muffin Man” was very easy to hear now. It echoed in the kitchen. The tune set Camila’s teeth on edge and set off a bittersweet twang inside her head. She lost count as to how many rounds Martin went through before she built up her nerve again.
“But why would you ever need to make breakfast?”
Martin’s humming slowed, slowed, and then stopped. “Because we agreed I would. Who knows how long these morning shifts are going to last for me? But we have to eat. You’ve got the bathroom first and I make breakfast. We agreed on that. It’s our routine.”
“Are you hungry, dear?”
“Of course, of course.” The curt tone was back. Fear too.
“What does it feel like then? To be hungry?”
Martin stopped rocking back and forth, his fingers frozen on the grout between tiles. He was stock still in front of the toaster, thinking. “Hunger? That’s easy. Everyone’s hungry. It feels like…like…” He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to grab the sensation on the tip of his tongue. He smiled once, but then his face faltered. It wasn’t coming. “Ah hell, if you’re so smart, you tell me what it feels like.”
“You don’t know how it feels anymore,” Camila said. “And that’s okay, dear. You don’t ever have to worry about it ever again. Being hungry.”
Martin turned towards her, so smooth and slow that his head might well have been on ball bearings. It was the first time Camila could see her husband’s eyes, pale blue as his boxers. His look seemed to take her for granted, seeing her but not really taking her in. As if it were another morning in the endless line of mornings. He said, “But we always eat breakfast together. It’s what we do.”
Camila crossed her arms below her breasts. She was about to cry, so she looked at the floor around the butcher’s block. “You know, you can tell a lot about our house by the scuff marks. I’ve thought about it a lot over the years. I always told you we needed to replace the linoleum in here. There are divots where we’ve walked the same paths over and over again. Making coffee, washing dishes, using the toaster. It’s about worn through, this floor.” She looked up at him. “You’re like that, dear. You’re the deepest divot left. You’ve lasted the longest.”
She was about to go on, but the toaster lever popped up. There were nice hot slices of muffin ready to eat. Martin’s expression was utter contempt. With quick fingers, he pulled one of the halves and dangled it in front of her. “I can eat alone if that’s what you want. I don’t know what I did to deserve this attitude from you…”
“…I never wake up before eight nowadays…”
“…but I’m hungry, so you can just watch me eat.” Martin cupped the muffin in his hand, defiant in taking a bite.
“Go on then,” she said.
The muffin was an inch from his lips. Martin opened his mouth wide…but then he drew the muffin back, his face puzzled. He looked at it again, rotating it back and forth in his hand. He tried again, this time sticking his tongue out to at least take a lick of one burnt edge. He got closer this time, but his tongue froze in midair, then rolled back into his head. He failed. There was some vital piece of information he was missing between the muffin and his mouth. He screwed his eyes tight, trying to remember. Nothing came. He set the muffin down on the counter and hung his head. “What’s wrong with me?”
Camila pinched the bridge of her nose. Her voice was sad but strong. “The first year, you were everywhere in this house. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with the weight of you next to me in bed. Or the shower would turn on at the end of the day when you’d normally come home from work. I would see you out of the corner of my eye mowing the lawn. I’d see the back of your head peeking up from your favorite chair in the den. I’d hear your voice everywhere.”
“The first year?” Martin said. “What do you mean the first year? The first year of what?”
Camila continued as if she hadn’t heard the question. “After that, the memories started to fade out, dear. Oh, I hate saying that, but it’s true. The recent things went first. The last time I saw you in the living room or the last time we made love. I started seeing less of you here. Your paths were getting lost and covered up—it took a long time for me to figure that out. And now?”
How long had she been crying as she spoke? She didn’t know. Maybe for years.
“I’ve seen the strongest parts of you go away too. Our friends tell me I’m crazy to still talk about you like you’re here and walking around, but look at you! You’ll appear and it’s just like it always was. I’m glad this was the only house we lived in. Most of our memories were here.”
She drank him in with her eyes.
“But now it’s getting hard to remember the finer points. The feeling of you is here, but it’s been months since I’ve seen you, dear. How old are you now?”
“Same as you!” he said. “We were born the same year!”
“Look at me, Martin. Look at me. Can’t you see me? We’re not the same age. Not anymore.” There was a napkin holder on the little table, and she pulled one out to dab her eyes. “You look about the age we got married and moved here.” She nodded at the sound of it, the rhythm of her thought felt right in the logic. “And I burned a muffin to a cinder, and you called them carriage wheels. The ones for the Muffin Man on Drury Lane. What a silly joke. A couple’s joke.” She shook her head. “And when I saw you here, I was the same age as you all over again, pointing them out for you like I used to do.”
“All I want to do is have breakfast with you,” Martin said. “Why can’t we just do that?”
“Oh, dear. I would want that more than anything.”
Camila looked at the kitchen window again. Her reflection was fading as the sky lightened to dawn outside. “One day, it’ll happen. I hope there’s enough of our paths together through this house for us to see each other. All of the years of us lining up.” She looked at her hands, at the strong blue veins branching out on the backs of them, the bony fingers pale but still pink with blood. “One day,” she said.
“None of this makes any sense,” Martin said. He looked at a space above the stove where a lone nail protruded from the wall—a nail that used to hold up a small clock that had been junked years ago. “Listen,” he continued, “I’m already cutting it close for work, and I’m not even dressed.”
“So, I’m going to run upstairs and throw on some clothes.”
“Don’t leave, dear. Don’t go.”
“We can talk about this later tonight when we’re both fully awake.” Martin’s eyes were looking all over the kitchen. Worry lines creased his forehead. There were appliances he’d never seen before and familiar things gone missing from the countertops. “I…I don’t want to be late,” he said.
Camila tottered to her feet. She made her way to him, following the worn tread of the linoleum. “Wait,” she said. “Just stay a little longer.”
“I’ll be back right back down,” Martin said. He was pale enough now for Camila to see through him to the window, to see the ash gray of morning. He gave an uneasy smile when he looked at her. Maybe because he saw the real her this time. “I won’t forget to kiss you before I go.”
“Kiss me now,” she said. She was a few steps behind him. But he didn’t hear her. He was already on his way out, his young gait easily outpacing her old shuffle. He didn’t look back. In fact, he kept his head down and his eyes averted from the house that was and was not the house he knew.
“Martin? Martin. Martin.”
When he stepped into the hallway, he disappeared in the light cast by the lone lamp at the base of the stairs. There were no footfalls.
Camila stood huffing in the doorway. She looked at the carpet on the steps, threadbare from years of use, and waited for something, anything. And as she waited, her shadow was very long in the lamplight.
It was a slow walk back. Her bedroom was now on the first floor since she hadn’t been able to walk up and down steps by herself. She lumbered through the kitchen, feeling the countertops Martin had touched, thinking of him at that age and only remembering a few pieces of that time. She found herself humming, and she wasn’t surprised it was “The Muffin Man.” The one who lived on Drury Lane and rode around on burnt carriage wheels.
Her feet found the familiar divots in the linoleum as she walked, the paths walked by her and Martin again and again through the house. She passed through the kitchen to her room without looking back.
The toaster still sat on the counter, its heating coils now cold. One slot held one slice of muffin, Camila’s half, no doubt cooling with every passing moment.
As for the other slot? That other slot was empty…and
the countertop around it too.
Martin’s half was gone.
M.C. St. John’s work has been published in After Hours Press, Maudlin House, and Unbroken Journal–the latter of which nominated his poem “Telling Stories” for the Pushcart Prize. His short story, “The Silver Family”. was selected by Word Branch Media for its Science Fiction Anthology and will be published in 2016.