Fiction: Negative Space

A hole opened up in Holly’s torso on Monday. She showed it to her mother after she’d studied it in the mirror a while. The hole was a little right of her bellybutton, like a lopsided cube. She could hold both edges and her knuckles wouldn’t touch.

Her mother sat down on the closed lid of the toilet. “Oh sweetie.” She smiled and petted her hair. “Barney had a good life. It’s okay to be sad that he’s gone.”

Holly couldn’t look at it. “Will it be there forever?”

“Oh.” Her mother leaned forward and curled over the space in her ribs. “No,” she said. “It gets smaller and then you hardly notice it at all.” Holly stole a glance at the smooth absence in her mother’s chest, like someone had forgotten to draw it in. Her mother patted her cheek. “Come on, Holly Golly. We’ve got a busy day to get to.”

Holly pushed down her shirt and watched her mother leave. She shut the door behind her, picked up her toothbrush and turned on the faucet. The other side of the door stayed quiet and still. Holly squeezed her toothpaste onto the bristles and slipped the brush into her mouth. The hole in her torso itched.

They went to the grocery store and ran into Mrs. Thompson. Holly’s mother hugged her to her side. “We had a rough weekend, didn’t we.”

Mrs. Thompson was a friend from Holly’s mother’s office. She wore her hair piled on top of her head, and had peacock-colored glasses. Holly had never seen her without lipstick. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, looking down at Holly.

“I got a hole,” said Holly, pressing her shoulder to her mother’s waist.

“Oh,” said Mrs. Thompson, very understanding. “Your first one?”

Holly nodded.

Mrs. Thompson patted her side. “I keep succulents in mine. A nice little garden I always carry with me. I’m thinking about putting in some ferns as well.” Holly frowned. Mrs. Thompson smiled. “You’ll be fine, dearie.”

They went to the library. Holly’s mother didn’t say anything about Mrs. Thompson. She left Holly to wander while she headed for the audiobooks. Holly meandered through the stacks, reading clusters of titles every few feet. When she turned a corner, Frank the reference librarian was scanning a shelf high above her head. He looked down at her over the tops of his glasses. “Hello, Holly.”

She slowed to a stop. “Hi.”

He turned back to the shelf. “Looking for something in particular today?”

Holly looked around her. They were in the Gardening and Horticulture section. “My dog died this weekend.”

“Oh dear. Barney?” Frank took off his glasses and let them hang from his neck. “I’m sorry.” She nodded and hugged her elbows. “Have you gotten a hole from it?”

“My first one.” She got squirmy for a moment. “Someone else said she kept plants in hers.”

Frank gave her a little smile. He patted his chest, right below his collarbone. “I keep candy there.”

“How does it get smaller, though?” Holly stared at his shoulder. “Don’t you want it to go away?”

“Well.” Frank put his glasses back on. “Sometimes it doesn’t go away. You just learn to live with it.”

Holly turned back to the shelf. “What kind of candy do you keep in there?”

He chuckled. “Not chocolate, I can tell you that.”

Holly didn’t say anything to her mother when they got back in the car. They drove to the pool with the radio on. The lady from NPR described all the horrible things happening in the world in a calm, distracted voice. Holly looked out the window as they drove past the chain stores and pulled in at the city pool.

She told her mother she wanted to change by herself today, and shut herself into the wet stall with her one-piece draped over her wrist. She stepped out of her shoes, into a puddle on the concrete floor. The whole changing room smelled like chlorine and wet towels. Outside, kids shrieked and lifeguards blew their whistles. Holly pulled off her shirt and looked down at the hole again. When she got her suit on, it clung to the edges of the hole. She tried to puff her stomach out, and picked at the fabric of the suit, but the hole wouldn’t be hidden. It stayed weird and flat. She came out of the changing room clutching her clothes to her stomach.

Holly’s mother was wearing her one-piece too. She smiled and held up the sunscreen. “Ready?” They traded off, making sure to get the places neither of them could reach on their own. Holly’s mother slipped Holly’s flamingo sunglasses onto her face. “Okay. Come on, let’s go have some fun.”

Maddy and Trudy were there with their babysitter. They waved Holly over, and she and her mother laid down their towels nearby. Trudy took one look at Holly’s stomach and pointed. “What happened to you?”

The babysitter sat up. “Trudy! Be polite.”

“My dog died,” Holly said, jutting her chin out a little.

Maddy chewed on her thumbnail, her eyes still on the hole. “My brother got one of those when he didn’t get into Emory.”

Holly crossed her arms. “What did he do with it?”

She shrugged. “He got a little shelf put in. He keeps books there now.”

“My cousin has a bird in hers,” Trudy announced. “I like it. It’s always singing. I don’t think she’ll get another one.”

“Sounds noisy,” Holly said. She twisted and looked at her mother, who was stretched out on her stomach with a paperback. Her torso looked whole from this angle. Holly turned back. “You want to go?”

Swimming was a good distraction. The cold water rushed into the new empty space, but Holly shook it off and kept going. Every time she moved, the water swirled between her skin and the swimsuit. She did her best not to feel it.

They went home. Holly helped carry the groceries in. No one tripped them up as they unloaded their bags. “Mom,” Holly said, when they were putting the last cans away, “did you do anything with yours?”

Holly’s mother stopped. She sat down the edge of a chair and looked at Holly. “It’s private, sweetie,” she said. “And you don’t have to do anything with yours. I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but it will get smaller if you let it. It won’t be there forever.” Holly didn’t say anything. She looked down at the empty floor. Holly’s mother stroked her cheek. “Holly Golly,” she said softly.

Holly could feel her throat start to get thick. “Is yours getting smaller?”

Her mother rested her palms on her knees. “Bit by bit,” she said, and met Holly’s eye.

Inspired by Eulalia, and the first official bit of creative work completed for this blog. A little melancholy and a lot weird. To be honest, I almost wanted to write up a straight-up Redwall-inspired story, but in improv, they always tell you to go for the lateral inspiration, rather than the literal.

I lost Nora, the basset hound I had desperately wanted and gotten at 7, when I was 21, the night before I came home for Thanksgiving. I had never lost anyone that close to me before, and it hit me really hard. I dreamed about her for months after she was gone, to the point of seeing her at the foot of my bed some nights. Recently I saw a guest strip in The Abominable Charles Christopher that opened up some of those feelings again. I can’t imagine feeling them as a 6- or 7-year-old, which is how I see Holly.

I am a hard griever; I don’t know what I would do if we lived in a world where loss opened up actual holes in us.

6 thoughts on “Fiction: Negative Space”

  1. This is really, really lovely, Esther. I didn’t realize until the very end that Holly’s mother had probably lost her partner, the hole in the story was so subtle. And it’s all so clearly written. ♥

  2. I don’t remember if I said anything about this back when you wrote it – I *think* I did, or I hope I did, because I really, really love this story. It’s so beautifully written, and it takes the idea of loss manifesting physically and makes it seem like the most natural thing. It’s stayed with me ever since you first published it and I still think about it sometimes. ❤ (For some reason, the line that really gets me is “He got a little shelf put in. He keeps books there now.")

    1. I’ve been derelict in replying — I’m so sorry! I really appreciate hearing this, thank you. This story has come to mean more to me, I think, than when I wrote it.

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