Nothing to Keep Us Together
“She shouldn’t have left this stuff lying around.” He kicked at the ball of hemp and they both watched as it bounced and rolled along the wooden floor. It did not leave a trailing piece, like a ball of yarn might, but became looser till it was a blob of strands like a poorly made bird’s nest that stopped under the desk in the corner.
“What would you have done with it?”
He shrugged and turned away from the mess. She’d seen him careen from indifference to obsessiveness enough in the past few days to be unsurprised by this quick change. Freja’s jewelry-making supplies littered the living room floor. The carelessness with which she’d deserted them was fitting. It was very like Freja, Penny thought.
“I’ll clean it up,” she offered.
“No.” He was out of the room by then, standing in the kitchen, looking bleakly at the empty spaces in the pantry where Freja’s food had been. She’d taken that. “Her stuff is my re- sponsibility now.”
“It’s fine.” Penny lowered herself to sit cross-legged on the floor. “I’ll put it on craigslist. Probably could get about $20 for it.”
“You keep it.” His voice grew quieter as he wandered from the kitchen towards the back door. “I don’t care.”
The opening and closing of the door was the last she heard of him. Penny sighed, gathering up wooden and pewter beads in her hand, dumping them into the little plastic compartments of the sorting bins. They’d been all neatly divided up and nestled in the right places until Freja had sent them flying. It had been a petty sort of thing to do, but so had Ryan telling her she couldn’t keep the plastic boxes because he had bought them for her. “Fine,” she’d said. “I don’t want it. I don’t want any of it. You can keep it all!”
Penny rolled a little glass fish with insides like a marble around between her fingers. Ryan had taken it so hard when Freja had announced that she was not interested in finding a new place with him. They all had to go their separate ways now that the house they’d been rent- ing for the past three years was going to be torn down for the new highway. Now was the best time to break up, Freja had said, loud enough for Penny to hear through the wall that separated her bedroom from the one Ryan and Freja shared. It had to happen eventually. There was no point it drawing it out for the length of a new lease.
Penny felt sorry enough for Ryan. He seemed heartbroken in a way she’d only seen act- ed out on TV shows before. At the same time she wished she didn’t have to still be here dealing with his temper and angst, while Freja had found it so easy to take a few things and flitter away, leaving everything a mess for others to clean up.
– 33 –
We should have a rummage sale, she thought. Get rid of all the junk we don’t want along with the stuff Freja left behind. There was sure to be a lot of junk between the five of them. There were three original bedrooms in the old house (two upstairs and one down) and the remodeled basement made four. Penny had one of the upstairs rooms and Ryan and Freja (now just Ryan) had the other. Kristy had the downstairs room, and then in the basement was Clay- bourne’s subterranean domain. He rarely came upstairs since there was a bathroom downstairs. He had his own fridge, his own microwave and hotplate—everything a reclusive gamer needed to get by.
Clay was usually immersed in some video game or another, a pair of overlarge head- phones clamped onto his head as he barked orders to online gaming buddies. If you tried to talk to him while he was engrossed in a game, he usually only reacted with annoyance at being in- terrupted (if he noticed, that is). He would remind Kristy and Penny from time to time that the money he made from streaming his gaming sessions paid his share of the rent, and so when he was in a game they should think of him as being at work. If that were the case, he worked hard- er than any of them.
Kristy and Clay were brother and sister. She worked twelve-hour shifts at two different jobs. Lucky for her she was able to avoid almost all forms of roommate drama by virtue of nev- er being around, though workplace drama was probably just as stressful, Penny supposed. Kris- ty’s bedroom was spotless. Still, Penny sent her a text asking if she’d like join in on a going away rummage sale. Goodbye to the old house. Goodbye to Spirit Lake for most of them. There wasn’t much reason to stay. Cheap places to rent were hard to come by and many of them were about to be demolished just like this one.
Penny still had no idea where she was going to move once their time was finally up here. The landlords said the demolition would take place in early spring, so early it would still be winterish weather, that period in March where you could have flowers poking their way up one day and a foot of snow destroying new buds the next. She hadn’t expected to be keeping any of her current roommates, since they’d have trouble finding another house big enough for all of them together. Ryan had assumed he’d be moving out with Freja, but no one else had been surprised when that fell through. Perhaps it was high time they all went separate ways. Three years out of high school and they were still spinning their wheels in this go-nowhere town. No college for any of them and Clay was the only one who seemed to be doing what he enjoyed.
Penny had often felt a bit estranged from the others, because they came in pairs. Ryan and Freja had dated since middle school and Kristy and Clay, being twins, had been siblings all their lives. She was the true fifth wheel, the one who never got the inside jokes about what had happened in sixth grade, since she had not been to school with any of them. She had come to Spirit Lake, and the house, via a classified ad. A modest old two story on the edge of a quiet town with the rent split five ways was pretty tempting. It had been a good run, all in all, though it had taught her how easy it was to feel lonely in a packed house.
“Clay?” she called, standing at the top of the basement stairs. She didn’t hear him talk- ing so she didn’t think he was in a game. He could be sleeping even though it was the middle of the afternoon. His schedule was erratic and he sometimes boasted of staying awake for days and then sleeping for fifteen hours straight.
– 34 –
“Yeah?” he responded. She noticed the smell of ramen as she descended the stairs. “I was thinking about having a rummage sale. Is there anything you want to sell?”
Clay still wore the headphones even though he was away from his computer, standing at the hotplate, stirring beef flavoring into a pot of noodles. They rested around his neck and the cord dangled, trailing after him as he went to his fridge to grab a Mountain Dew.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. The can hissed as he opened it. “Not gonna start packing already. We’ve got a coupla months yet.”
“I know. I’m just gathering up some of the stuff Freja left behind. We should plan ahead.” She glanced around at bookshelves which lined the walls. Clay had an extensive book, DVD, and video game collection, along with quite a few action figures. The rest of the house had often joked that he was the poster boy for Nerds in Basements, and Freja had called him the Cave Troll on more than one occasion. Penny liked to come down here where the sounds of ex- plosions and rapidly uttered jargon drowned out the sound of Ryan and Freja fighting or having make up sex in the other room. As long as she didn’t distract him and make him die he didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes he set up a single player game on his Xbox for her to play and coached her through the levels. She wasn’t any good but it was as fun a way to pass the time as any.
“When are we gonna develop superpowers and take over the world?” Clay said, adding more salt to his bowl. “I’d like a time table for that.”
Penny smiled. There was one in-house joke she’d managed to become a part of: the one where Clay always said he was going to develop superpowers and take over the world. “You can be my sidekick,” he’d say. “We’ll be super villains, though. I hope you don’t decide to be the hero and take me down.” Last year for her birthday he’d drawn a sketch of them together as the dastardly duo in black and purple spandex. He was levitating objects with the power of his mind and she had a plume of fire hovering in her palm. He was good at sketching… she thought it was a shame that he didn’t spend more time at it, opting to always be at his computer stream- ing live. The art that decorated his walls (where they weren’t covered by bookshelves) indicated someone who had excelled in high school, but the picture for her birthday was the only thing she’d seen him draw in the three years they had been housemates.
“Before March,” she told him now. “Or not at all. It’ll be too late then. You can’t get superpowers without me.”
She turned to go back up the stairs. He just stood there staring at his pot of noodles as if he couldn’t remember why he’d made them. Clay forgot to eat as much as he forgot to sleep. Sometimes she thought he lived on only the leftovers she took down to him and the occasional pot of ramen.
“Wait,” he said, setting the saucepan on the table. It sloshed over a little in his haste. “I’ve got something down here I know you can get rid of. It’s not mine; it was just some junk that was here when we moved in.”
– 35 –
She waited obligingly on the steps as he rummaged through the closet that housed the hot water heater and some of his spare stuff. He emerged a few moments later with a weak, crumbling cardboard box that looked like a sanctuary for spiders.
“Don’t know if anyone will buy this shit, but I’m not taking it with me,” Clay said, set- ting it on the table. Since he was apparently not going to bring it to her, Penny came back down to look through the box. Clay pulled out a framed picture of a family and brushed a daddy long leg from it. “Just a bunch of random stuff from all the people who used to live here, I guess.”
There had been a lot of those. The couple who owned the house had used to live there before they moved to Florida, but they’d been renting it out for the past twenty years. Transient types like Penny herself must have come and gone and left bits of themselves behind; she didn’t know the stories of anyone who had lived there, but Mrs. Collins had mentioned to her once that the longest someone had stayed was five years. People who rent don’t spend very long in one place. Penny looked at the family of four and wondered if they had been the ones. Their two children were toddlers and everything had an 80s look about it, from the blue eye shadow and big hair of the mother to the pseudo-70s mop carefully combed over a receding hairline on the father and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt the little boy wore.
She pulled a necklace out of the box and commented, “Freja would have liked this. At least she could have cannibalized the beads.” They were big and chunky plastic, but Freja could have found a way to make them new, or at least vintage and hip, in her own creation.
“She’s pretty picky, isn’t she?” said Clay.
“What do you mean?” Penny was momentarily confused, thinking he was talking about Freja’s taste in jewelry. She didn’t think Freja was picky, especially since she sold the things she made so she often would try anything out on the principle that even if she wouldn’t wear it, someone would.
“Ryan’s a good guy.”
“Oh.” She set the necklace back in the box. “They’ve been together since they were kids. People can change when they grow up.”
“I guess. It’s been ten years, kinda crazy that she just up and left after all that time.”
“I never even thought about having a boyfriend when I was eleven,” Penny said, pulling a stack of index cards out of the box. They were wrapped in a dried out rubber band that disin- tegrated when she tried to pull it off. “Much less having the same one ten years later. Anyway you know all they did was fight…at least since I’ve know them.”
“Freja always thought they’d go to college together. Before graduation I don’t think they fought much; she just assumed he’d do what she wanted.”
Penny nodded. That’s what they often fought about in their room next to hers. In all rooms of the house, really. Ryan thought he’d found a good enough job at the paper factory. It paid well and there were benefits. Freja wanted them to both move away from Spirit Lake and go to school, someplace like Madison. Penny wondered at Ryan’s obstinacy, considering he’d probably still have the supposed love of his life if he’d just agreed to move closer to a college town so she could enroll, even if he feared doing so himself.
– 36 –
“Hey,” said a weary voice from the top of the stairs. Clay and Penny turned to look. Kristy had come home from work, done with her long 3 am to 3 pm shift at the paper factory. She sat on the top step and rested her head on the doorframe. “I got your text.”
“We were just looking through some old stuff people left behind,” Penny said, lifting the yellowed index cards to show her.
“Cool,” Kristy said. She paused for a yawn, then said, “I’ve been meaning to tell you guys. Delia found a nice one bedroom over in Derby that’s pretty cheap. It’s small but we like it. So I’ll be out a little early. We can take it next month.”
Delia was someone Kristy worked with at her second job. Penny didn’t know anything about her except that she and Kristy had recently been listed as “In a Relationship” on Face- book. Penny didn’t know much of anything that happened in Kristy’s life unless it made it to Facebook.
“So we’re all just going our separate ways?” Clay asked. Something in his tone made Penny look back at him. She guessed being twins didn’t mean Clay knew any more about what Kristy was planning than she did.
“Yeah. I mean I don’t know. The timing is right, you know?” “Not really.”
“We’re all twenty-one now, I mean, we should be moving on anyway. Even if they weren’t going to tear this house down.” Kristy stood up, stifling another yawn. “I’m going to bed for a little while. Delia’s coming over tonight. I thought you might like to meet her.”
“Don’t be childish about this,” Kristy said. Penny felt suddenly very awkward. She was used to Ryan and Freja breaking out into bickering while she stood between them, but not Kristy and Clay. They were each usually outside any drama, Kristy at work and Clay secluded in his basement. “And be nice to her. You’re never been nice to any of my girlfriends.”
“How? How am I not nice?” “You ignore them.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t even met anyone you’ve dated since high school.”
“Oh my god.” Kristy did an awkward turn on the steps, walking down one before re- treating back up two. “I haven’t even dated anyone since high school, I haven’t had the time! But Delia’s the one, you know? We’re moving in together. I’m bringing her to Christmas. And I’m having her over for dinner, so try to tear yourself away from Band of Star Gunslingers or whatever it is for one evening, okay?”
“That’s just great, Kristy. Pretend you don’t know that I have a schedule. How many times do I have to explain to you that I get viewers by having a reliable, regular schedule?”
Penny felt appropriately forgotten. This didn’t have anything to do with her, but she felt unable to leave since Kristy stood on the stairs. So she sat down on the old couch near the TV, where she would sit when she played games on Clay’s Xbox. She looked down at the index
– 37 –
cards, really looked at them for the first time, and slowly shuffled through them. Each had a sentence handwritten on it in neat, capitalized letters:
HE BIT ME!
YOU MEAN NOTHING TO ME. WELL THAT WAS UNNECESSARY.
YEAH, I’M PRETTY SURE IT’S BROKEN. I DON’T NEED LOVE TO BE HAPPY. WHO DRANK THE LAST OF THE MILK?
I DIDN’T EXPECT TO SEE YOU AGAIN SO SOON! DON’T TELL THIS TO ANYONE ELSE, UNDERSTAND? THE RAIN BRINGS THEM OUT.
YOU NEED TO SLOW DOWN BEFORE YOU KILL YOURSELF. WE ARE NOT ALL-POWERFUL.
I AM NOT A GOOD PERSON.
THERE IS NOTHING TO KEEP US TOGETHER.
She put them down. That was kind of disturbing, she thought. Probably there was some explanation for the content of the cards, but whatever the reason she would never know. There were at least 50 cards, all with similarly random things written on them.
Kristy and Clay were still arguing, though now it was more like Kristy lecturing Clay on how he needed to do something with his life. She brought up his art. Where had his dreams of being a video game designer gone? Didn’t he always say he was going to be the one creating concept art, someday? How was he planning on doing that, again? By broadcasting himself playing games other people had made?
All the arguments lately seemed about careers and relationships and school. Penny did- n’t have anyone to argue with about any of those things, which she supposed should make her feel fortunate, because she was more directionless than any of them. She didn’t have a hobby like gaming or jewelry making and no real plans to further her education, though maybe, she thought, she should follow Freja’s example and enroll. Better late than never.
Clay had gone back over to the computer and sat there facing the screen in stony silence. Kristy saw that she was being ignored and just shook her head, glancing over at Penny. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m really tired. I don’t know why I even bother. Going to go take a nap now.”
She shut the basement door, which Penny found a little odd since she was still down there, but Kristy was tired and upset, after all. She got up and put the creepy index cards in the box. If there wasn’t anything rummage-saleable in the box she would just throw it out, she de- cided as she picked it up.
“You’re lucky you don’t have a sister.”
Penny smiled to herself but said nothing. People with siblings were always telling her how lucky she was to be an only child, just as some people in relationships (Freja, really) liked to congratulate her on being perpetually single.
Clay swiveled around in his computer chair. “So anyway,” he said, “I guess everyone’s leaving earlier than planned.”
– 38 –
“Not me. I haven’t even looked for a new place yet.” She knew that she should. Spring had seemed far off, but with Freja and now Kristy leaving already, rent was increasing. They each had only needed to pay $200 a month, but with every early departure that number would go up.
“I’m gonna miss this place.”
Penny looked around at the basement again. It was a dark and musty man cave, to be sure. But it suited Clay, he had made it his own, and that was all that really mattered. “You’ll find a new place and it’ll be good. It’ll be good for us all. I mean, you’ll probably like not living with your sister.”
He shrugged, then steepled his fingers together. It made her think of his dreams of super villainy. “I’m not upset about Kristy leaving. But I will have to find a new roommate now and I’m not really looking forward to that.”
“You could get a one bedroom. Or a studio.” The basement was already kind of like a studio, anyway. He’d feel right at home.
“Yeah but not for $200 a month.”
That was true. The cheapest one bedrooms or studios she’d seen listed were over twice the amount they were paying now for a nice sized house. Living alone was expensive. But that’s what adults did, right? Live alone….
“I’m sure if you start looking now you’ll find something that’s manageable,” she said, hoping that it was true for herself as much as him.
“I suppose.” He swiveled around in a slow circle once more. Then: “Penny. Do you think… I don’t know, maybe… well….”
She laughed and shifted the box. “What? This is getting heavy.”
“Never mind.” He lifted his headphones back over his ears. “I’ll let you know later if I’ve got anything for a rummage sale.”
She carried the box upstairs and set it down in the kitchen. It was just more garbage. Maybe a rummage sale wasn’t a great idea. She felt a little melancholy as she pulled the index cards out again. She took the rest of the box out to the curb and set it beside the trash bin. But she kept the index cards.
They would be the last people to live in that house. They would not be leaving mysteri- ous bits of themselves behind for others to shove in boxes; anything they forgot would be re- duced to rubble. Perhaps it was for the best. No one needed to find a birthday card or passive aggressive note that had fluttered its way down behind the refrigerator (Who drank the last of the milk?) and ascribe more meaning to it than it deserved. They’d made an odd sort of family in that house, but there would be no framed portrait of them to showcase outdated styles.
She wouldn’t have anything to remember her roommates by, except for a stack of odd index cards and a sketch of two villains who would never develop superpowers or take over the world.
– 39 –