His boss had scrubbed away most of his assignments when he returned to work the following week, but Charlie was glad to be back to it, in the way that his mind became occupied by the letters and words and sentences of his editing. It was enough to sustain his appetite, but not enough to overwhelm it, like pasta salad in July to his post-funeral palate. There came a preternatural effortlessness to his editing now that he had one less reason to go home; it was like his brain was ready to welcome any tool necessary to forget. He excelled through his first two assignments, inquired his boss for additional work, until he was the most productive in the office, bar none.
But the workday could only last so long, and their home was just that — theirs. There was no separating where Levent’s belongings began and Charlie’s ended. And it didn’t help there were so many things to begin with. Their friends knew them as the packrats of the group, each inherently unable to let go of the bric-a-brac that accumulated seemingly overnight, the kind of people you would ask if you wanted to spend a day trying to make pasta, because, and it was almost a guarantee, Levent and Charlie would have a once-used pasta maker lying around somewhere.
Charlie went as far as to start a small fire in a trashcan, filled to the brim with sheets of paper whose words meant nothing to either of them anymore. A small, phantasmagorical part of himself wanted the fire to catch to the furniture, to spread, to burn the fucking place to the ground, but the sound of the smoke alarm had catapulted him back to reality, where he dashed to the fridge, grabbed a gallon of now-spoiled milk, and dumped the entirety into the trashcan to stop the blaze. Embarrassed though there was nobody around, he stuffed the trash can, still smoking, back into the utility closet and grabbed the smaller trashcan from his desk to use in the interim. Now didn’t seem the right time for cleaning anything, just burning.
The next morning, Charlie woke to find a text message sitting in his inbox, sent during what had to have been a drunk/high/both 3:32 rumination of Levent’s close work friend, Paul. It’s not that Charlie and Paul were mortal enemies or anything, but they had never really had the chance to connect in the way that Levent had. Sometimes, that’s just how it was with friends you made at work, and Charlie understood that. The message was short and respectful, though the last sentence left Charlie feeling too finite for his own good:
hey i hope you’ve been handling things as best you can. sorry to ask but — do you still have lev’s car? he had a spare set of my keys in the glovebox. i kind of need them back. thanks!
The read receipt dangled above Charlie’s head for a full minute before the thought of responding entered his mind. The longer he chewed it over, the more the idea of giving something away felt wrong, the more he felt like everything once considered theirs now seemed to be only his. He would never be able to forget any of it, would he? The food spoiled in the fridge: Levent’s and Charlie’s forever, curdled and covered Petri dishes of mold. Mismatched socks buried in the bottom of the drawer, the lint in the dryer trap, the delicate remains of his skin — all belonged to Levent. These were the thoughts Charlie was too insecure to voice to anyone, but he still considered them undeniably true.
But this was taking things a bit too far, hoarding Paul’s keys because they were mysteriously in the glovebox of Levent’s car. Pathetically, part of him thought he was completely in the right for wanting to keep the keys all to himself, like some magpie collector of a dead loved one’s memorabilia, like a hoarder on one of those unfortunate reality shows who has yet to accept the dark underbelly of psychological trauma associated with the packrat tendencies. “They’re just some guy’s keys. Jesus, snap out of it already and reply,” he thought to himself while his thumbs clicked the response to life.
Sure — no problem. Any time after five today will be fine for you to come over. Just let me know.
The doorbell rang at seven, just as the sun began to think about dipping down and out of sight. Paul stood there in the sort of attire you’d imagine someone would wear on their way to a little league game, a beer garden, or a county fair. Fake flannel, the kind that wanted to look warm but was just a pattern and, oh god, bootcut jeans and flip-flops. Charlie had developed the bad habit these last few weeks of resorting to personal attacks on fashion choices to make the awkward, idle chitchat that occurred after meeting someone who had known Levent bearable. Paul was no different, stretching his arms out to invite Charlie into a hug that was returned not-as-reluctantly as Charlie wanted, since the traces of warmth that touched his skin felt strangely beautiful and foreign to him now. Paul’s facial hair tickled his face; he could almost sob.
Together they walked out to the garage, where the door creaked open for the first time in weeks, dissecting several spiderwebs immaculate in design, never to be spun again. Since the common thread of their quasi-friendship was just as severed as the cobwebs, Paul and Charlie found they had nothing at all to talk about; however, no offense existed in the silence. It just was. Charlie opened the glovebox and, in the semi-darkness of the garage, fished around for the familiar jangle of car keys.
“Here you go. These the ones?” Charlie asked, like there might be multiple sets of keys in there.
“Yep, those’re the ones. Thanks.”
Outside, all around the two almost-strangers, life arranged itself like a table setting. The distant exhaust fumes from passing cars on the thoroughfare caught the golden-hour light and turned it apocalyptic. Trees swayed like lovers waltzing across parquet flooring. A cicada was screaming someplace far off, tucked in between the boughs of a rotting elm tree. To Charlie, the sounds, smells, and sights of the strange world that revolved outside of his control should have been enough to end the conversation between them, to carry Paul off, back into the world he belonged, keeping Charlie in his own bubble of remorse until it was his turn to join Levent in the ground. But no, not today. Paul stood with the expectancy of finality; something had to be said or they’d both spontaneously combust.
Lamely, Charlie asked, “Why did he have your keys, after all?”
It was a simple question, simple like an alphabet poster above a blackboard at a parent-teacher conference. The answer, too, simple on the surface, would come to burn itself into Charlie’s mind like a cancer to which there was no cure.
“Oh, you know…he would come over sometimes and check the mail, take the dog for a walk. Stuff like that. He would also visit my sister when I was gone for work. Did he ever mention her to you? She can get pretty bored, holed up in the house all day with nobody to talk to.”
Thank for reading part two! Part three to come shortly, but then I may need a bit more time to finish the other parts!