by Tom Jolly
When William and Anna bought their place on ten acres, they had no idea how much maintenance was involved, even if the unused acres were left to grow wild. They were both in their seventies, and even minor work wore them out. It was pretty, but it was hard. The oak trees constantly shed small branches, and poison oak wanted to take root everywhere there was a bit of shade, making cleanup more difficult.
William kept a trash can in a fenced area to hold the twigs and limbs he picked up every day. He made it a regular task to clean up the nearest acre around the house, taking a walk in the late afternoon and coming back with an armload of kindling if it wasn’t raining. Wet kindling was no use at all.
At night, he built a fire in their small fireplace in front of the sofa. It usually didn’t last too long; a trash can full of kindling burned quickly. Anna liked it, though, so William kept it up. She said it was romantic, and sometimes they’d just sit cuddled together on the couch and watch the fire. If the house got too chilly, the propane heater would kick in anyway, if they remembered to have the tank filled.
William started losing his memories after a few years. He’d fill the trash can with twigs one morning, build a fire at night, then give the trash can a shake the next morning, forgetting that he’d already burned it all. “Anna!” he’d shout. “Didn’t I fill this can yesterday?”
At first, she told him he’d burned it the night before. “Did I? I built a fire?” he’d ask. Anna couldn’t understand why he couldn’t remember a simple thing like that. He always remembered to gather more kindling and put it in the can. But the memory of the fire eluded him, like a match blowing out in the wind. She got tired of telling him the same thing over and over. Eventually, she told him, “The trash can must have eaten it.”
“Do you think so?” he’d say, looking at the can appraisingly. “You think we have a magic trash can?”
Anna laughed at that, like it was their private little joke, but it wasn’t really. It was just her own private little joke, and she didn’t realize that they weren’t sharing it at all. William really believed that they had a magic trash can.
He even had trouble remembering that she had breast cancer a few years back, or that it had metastasized and gotten into her bones. He went with her when she drove to her doctor’s appointments, and she had him sit in the car and take a nap while she was inside. By the time they got home, he’d forgotten where they’d gone, and to keep him from fretting she told him that they’d gone out for breakfast or lunch, and he’d complain that it wasn’t a very good meal if he was still hungry.
The joint pain from Anna’s cancer got worse, and the pills weren’t doing much good stopping the pain at all, and one night Anna took too many of her pills. William tried to shake her awake in the morning before finally realizing that she wasn’t going to wake up.
He cried over her, but he wasn’t sure what to do. He looked at the phone a few times like it was some unscalable mountain, but only knew he was supposed to do something with it. The idea of calling 911 was lost to him, and the phone book was no more than cryptic code. He put his hand on the phone once and picked it up and listened to the dial tone for a minute, then hung it back in its cradle, looking around the house. There were a lot of mysteries.
He stood out on the porch, staring down the dirt road, but they were at the end of it. Nobody ever came by, and William couldn’t remember whether they had any neighbors. Trees hid the view, and wind in their branches blocked any sound that might drift down the road. His wife’s car sat in the driveway, but he hadn’t driven in years.
Anna was still in the bed, and he went in and sat in the easy chair in the room and studied her still form, trying to decide what to do, trying to knit together his thoughts with a single needle. Now and again, he thought she was just napping, about to get up. After a few hours, he fell asleep in the chair and the night passed.
In the morning he woke up hungry. He went to the kitchen and sat at their small table but couldn’t remember why, even though his stomach growled at him. “Anna?” he called out. But there was no answer, and eventually he stood up, stretched, and went out to pick up kindling.
When he got back with a small armload, he found that the magic trash can was full, so he started a fire in the fireplace and burned it all, unaware that Anna wasn’t around to tell him how pretty the fire was.
When he went into the bedroom, he stepped into a lucid moment and remembered the previous night and that she was dead, and he cried some more, a little for his lost memory and a little for his lost wife. They were part of the same thing.
He brushed away a fly that landed on her face and figured he needed to bury her, but knew that he was too weak to dig a hole like that, and didn’t remember if they had a shovel anyway. But they did have a magic trash can. The can that would make things disappear.
William struggled to get her in, but he did it. He knew he didn’t want to see his wife with flies on her face, and made sure the lid was on tight as could be. The magic trash can had some holes in it though, and the metal lid didn’t fit as snuggly as it should after a family of raccoons had had their way with it the year before.
The next day, William’s routine changed. The trauma of putting his wife in the magic trash can somehow stuck with him, though he didn’t remember it when he first woke up. He got up and went to the kitchen figuring that Anna was up before him, making breakfast for him, but he was met by silence. He stood in the middle of the kitchen as though it was a stranger to him, and his hunger finally gave him the wits to get a bowl of cereal and a glass of water.
Then he looked out the sliding glass door, saw the magic trash can, and remembered everything and wept. He slid open the door and went outside, then held his breath and gave the can a little shake to see if his wife was gone yet. With each fly or beetle leaving the scene, the trash can became a little lighter.
Over two months, he lost weight, forgetting to eat most of the time, his skeleton pushing at his papery skin like it wanted to escape, but he continued this routine. The magic trash can eventually became so light that he thought it had done its job, and he went to pick up kindling again.
There was a lot of deadfall scattered throughout the yard, but he’d become very weak. He stumbled and dropped an armload, stopped to catch his ragged breath, then slowly, achingly, picked up the dry twigs again and carried them to the magic can. When he pulled the lid off, the smell knocked him down. He gagged, retched into the dirt, and dropped the sticks again.
On hands and knees, he stared at the magic can and wondered why it smelled so bad. He breathed through his mouth to avoid the stench, gathered up the sticks, and shoved them into the can while keeping his face as far away as possible. The cancer had made Anna’s bones brittle and they cracked as the oak sticks were pressed against them.
When night came, the living room got cold, the propane long gone, and he thought about making a fire and went out to the can, but the smell drove him back inside. He wrapped himself in a blanket on the couch and stared through the window at the trash can, not understanding anything. He woke a couple of times to the chittering of raccoons and their scratching and rattling at the gate and fence surrounding the trash cans, trying to reach the wondrous rotten odor that held the promise of a meal. He stood to shout at them until he was hoarse, but they only scattered for a short while. Eventually, he fell asleep and his dreams turned the persistent noises into skeletons rattling the gates, trying to get in.
Another month passed and a large pile of kindling grew next to the magic can. William gathered wood, came to the can, and found that it was still full of sticks, so he piled the fresh kindling beside it. The smell finally died away. He built a small fire and looked around for Anna; she’d like this little fire. There were white sticks mixed in with the oak ones, and they made different colors when they burned. Anna would comment on that when she got back from wherever she’d gone.
William spent his remaining energy trying to work through the wood in the magic trash can and the big pile next to it that had built up over the last month, trying to burn it all, but he was so weak. He threw a stick on the fire, watched it burn down, then stumbled out to the trash can to get one or two sticks more. He made his way back to the fireplace, using the furniture as a walking cane to move across the room, and wondered why Anna wasn’t around to enjoy this.
He sat on the floor close to the fire where it was warm. An ember leaped onto the dirty carpet, where a crusty layer of leaves and twiglets too small to bother with had built up over the months. William grabbed the ember but burned his fingers and dropped it back onto the carpet, where a new fire took hold. He scooted away, but it spread quickly. He finally croaked out, “Anna! Anna! Get out of the house, there’s a fire!”
He crawled through the open sliding glass door, turned and sat in the yard, and watched in dismay as the fire grew. Some vague memory picked at him and he stood, wobbly, next to the magic trash can and pulled it away from the roaring house with the last of his strength, opened the gate and dragged it through, and then they both fell over. The lid came off and Anna’s skull rolled free from the bits of bark and debris inside the can that had hidden it before.
William set his eyes on her skull as the flames painted everything orange and red, and his breath caught deep in his chest as he howled Anna’s name. He took the skull and sat with his legs crossed, swaying back and forth, saying her name over and over and wishing he could just die.
Shaking with weakness, he struggled to set the can upright while the fire ate his house, and he climbed into the magic trash can with his wife’s skull cradled in his arms like a baby. He pulled the lid on as best he could, and wept, waiting to disappear.
Tom Jolly is a retired astronautical/electrical engineer who spends his time writing SF and fantasy, designing board games, and creating obnoxious puzzles. His stories have appeared in Analog SF, Daily Science Fiction, MYTHIC, Translunar Travelers Lounge, and a few anthologies, including As Told by Things, and Tales from the Pirate’s Cove. His fantasy and SF novels, “An Unusual Practice,” “A Game of Broken Minds,” and “Touched,” are available on Amazon. He lives near Port Orchard, Washington with his wife Penny. You can follow him at Twitter (@tomjolly19) or Facebook (@TJWriter), and find more of his stories on his website: https://sites.google.com/view/tomjolly/home, or Amazon author page.
∼ Read July’s story, “Gone Fishin’” by Scott Craven ∼