March Flash Fiction: Ghost by Robert Penick

Robert Penick

I open the windows, the patio doors, put the tortoise in the empty bathtub, run water for the mountain of dishes. The first teeth of fall are snapping: Cold rain, the wind an angry postcard from a distant hurricane. The house needs a good airing. We lived in these three rooms together, and your perfume and cooking and resentments hang in every fabric, from the shower curtain to the drapes to the pillows on our bed. My bed. Our previous bed. I cut up strawberries, put them in the bathtub. Your tortoise begins to eat, does not seem to miss you, and this somehow pleases me.

It’s been four months now, a blur of self-distraction and marking time. One week gone, then two, then a month. An entire summer missed due to grief and regret. A season lost in internet memes and Russian novels from the public library. Laying on the floor with the tortoise, waiting for her to blink.

The dishes are washed, then reassembled as a tower in the drainer. Laundry is sorted, floors are swept. A gallon of tea is made and I put my feet on the desk, look out the window at the neighbor’s yard. You could tell me what kind of tree sits between the houses, I think. I had never wondered before.

There are things we can only learn about in a vacuum. Mortality is one, divorce is another. Both involve being painfully alone and appreciating every new moment for its uniqueness. Grief is never boring. There is satisfaction in every small task: The laundry, the lawn, curing a sink full of dirty dishes. Getting up, I wipe the silverware clean, then shut it away. The perfection of a thing finished.

Robert Penick’s work has appeared in over 100 different literary journals, including The Hudson Review, North American Review, and The California Quarterly. He lives in Louisville, KY, USA, with his free-range box turtle, Sheldon, and edits Ristau, a tiny literary annual. More of his writing can be found at