She was a woman without the comfort of religion. As week slid into week outside her small Victorian house, she sat unmoving in her front parlor, beset by memories. The memory of their lives were her constant companions, filling each moment. In contrast, the rooms of her house ached with emptiness. The dining room was dark with the thick paneling her husband liberated from an old building downtown, and the stones in the hearth were long since chilled by negligence.

In the first weeks after the deaths, neighbors had come and knocked upon her door, holding hot casserole dishes and carefully constructed expressions of concern. The doorbell chimed, and chimed again, as people stood outside the door, shifting their burdens from one hand to the other. They whispered to each other, knocked, and finally set down their dishes on the bench by the door.

Late at night, after the neighborhood settled down to sleep, she'd open the door and bring the now-cold food into the kitchen. There she'd carefully remove the food from each dish, and place it in a zip-lock bag, smoothing the seal shut with one long movement of her finger. Each dish would be scrubbed out, and placed in the dishwasher, while she placed each bag of sympathetic tuna casserole and baked ziti in the garbage can. During the dishwasher's silent churning, she'd write a letter in black ink to each of the casserole owners, thanking them in her dry elegant way that revealed little to the recipient.

Just before dawn, when the sky has become gray but not light, she'd walk through the neighborhood, leaving the casserole dishes and the accompanying envelope on door stoops, porch steps, and kitchen windows. As the gray turned pink, she'd turn up the flagstone path to her door, slip inside, and disappear from the world again.

For it was disappearance, as if she could erase her existence, and then her soul. She couldn't bear to see the plants, once so carefully tended, wither away and die, so in the darkest hours of each night in October, she dug up the bulbs, the roots, the seeds, and threw them in the compost heap. She emptied her flower pots of their bright leaves and promised blooms, and hid their shapes in the darkest corner of her basement.

Her curtains were drawn against the sight of her denuded garden, drawn tight against the light and the echoes of remembered flowers. The heavy winter curtains stayed up through the spring and summer, deadening the light that still seeped in somehow. But with that light came a chill that was entirely welcome, and so she withstood the shafts of light that interrupted her. The chill filled the room, sneaking up her sleeves, and circling around her neck.

Occasionally the phone would ring, but there was no one to whom she wished to speak, and so she'd let it ring and ring and finally stop.

The sounds of children playing outside, the faint shiff-shiff of traffic, the sounds of carolers in the winter were both her sustenance and the eternal salt in her wound. For life pulsated around her and she was dead in almost all of the ways that counted. Her pain filled her and connected her, however tenuously, to living. It alone made her survival tolerable. She'd strain for the sounds of life when they came, trying to remember her children playing the front yard, her husband slamming the door of the car, or the sound of her daughter singing along with Brenda Lee and Perry Como at Christmas.

The images, the remembered sounds, the smells of the past grew fainter and fainter, and she struggled to hold on.

It was June now, nine months after. After. She never verbalized the thought; there was just before and after. There was technicolor and there was gray. Now, she was gray. Sometimes she felt that she had literally been washed out - as if she had been caught in a terrible flood that surged in, around, and past her, taking with it her essence and her world, and leaving behind a shell that approximated humanity. Some days she imagined herself as a thin delicate vase sitting on the edge of the highest shelf, just waiting for a tremor to rock the shelves and send her toppling, to shatter into a thousand pieces - a thousand pieces that could not be glued back together by the beat of a heart or unquiet brain.

It was June now. June, when the sun grew steadily brighter, and the church bells rang far more frequently. June, when the ice cream truck wended its way slowly down the street, and when the sounds of the neighborhood children grew shrill and sharp in the clear still air. The phone rang once, twice, thirty times and was still, it's smooth black plastic stuck firmly together. She sunk to her knees on the chilled linoleum floor, and rubbed it out in circles of soapy water. Hard, she ground into the floor, moving around in perfect circles, driving out the dirt and the grime that barely accumulated. This was Thursday, when she washed the floors to fill the hours, to dwell in that place where the floors needed to be cleaned. Sometimes, when she found a bit of grime or dirt, she would hover, scrubbing it away as if it had stained the floor and would not leave. Her back ached, and her arms hurt, but the kitchen floor was clean again, just waiting for the muddy footsteps that would not come.

June. The word mocked her with its orange blossom weddings, the school Field Days, the picnics at the beach. Her own marriage ceremony had been in late June. A sudden summer shower had come up and she pushed the thought away. It hurt too much. Not today, not today. She sat back down in her husband's chair, perched there on the edge of the cushion, not entirely comfortable. Her back was stiff, straight, aching. She squared her shoulders. She squared them again, so as not to think. She pushed her legs together slowly, and than her shoulders higher. Posture. Think of your posture, she told herself. Ankles aligned, toes pressed onto the thin rug that had been in her grandmother's house so many years ago. She could hear Nana's voice in her head, urging her to be straighter, taller, more serene. That heavy red Webster's dictionary had pushed her crown down, the ratty binding dripped dust. Yes. Her shoulders were perfectly aligned, her hands folded in her lap, and that awful silence tip-toed in.

It had always been like this, the struggle for posture followed suddenly by that hollow fear, and than desertion. When she was little, she'd turn to ice until someone spoke to her, broke the spell with the warmth of a word. Warmth. What good was warmth to her? In December, she left the windows open wide, letting the arctic airs sweep through the house and over her body. In February, she lay in a bank of snow, crying. The cold did not fill her.

When she was six, she read about the Titanic, and how people just drifted away in the cold water; she envied them now. Cold gathered them to her breast and relieved their suffering. She was growing fanciful, ascribing personality to a temperature, blaming it for the inexplicable. There were no answers. There were no saviors. There were only empty days and ticking clocks. There was time and there was loss. That was all.

Increasingly, she couldn't bear to watch herself think, to watch herself drift off into ephemeral worlds where solutions actually existed and the illusion of comfort lived. The only comfort was oblivion, and it was a comfort denied to her. Her fate was to be lost here in the house that was once her home. Sometimes, before she went to bed, she trailed her hand up against the wall, just as she had watched her son do for his entire life, feeling in that smooth rush of latex his small hand in hers. It was too close and too far. She needed to hear him, to touch him, to -

Stop it.

Clamp down on that ... that ... need, she willed herself. Bundle it up tight and hide it away.

Missing them. She was missing them.

She clutched her fists, balling them into the comforter, pushing away the ghosts before they seized her heart. She squeezed her eyes shut. The danger of emptiness was that emotion would move in, and that would destroy her. She must not succumb.

Nights like this, when her control faltered, when she was forced to battle her own loss, were the hardest. She missed those early days when shock and denial easily insulated her from the emptiness. When the act of being numb was enough, when the clouds around her cloaked her movement, hid her thoughts, blurred time. Now, things were too clear. The air was too heavy. The night was too silent. It was all too much.

She wanted to scream. She never screamed, and now was no time to start. Her mother had always said that screaming was rude, lower class, unladylike, and so she had never screamed after the age of four. Her lip had a permanent indentation from biting down so much to muffle the surprises, pains, and shocks of life. Muffling them. These days, she had to stop herself from drawing blood as her teeth drove down through the skin and muscle.

I have no idea what inspired this vignette.