After you leave rehab, you rent a room in a house in the student neighbourhood of the city. You calculate how long you can stay even if you don’t end up finding a job. Four months, as long as you live on rice, beans, and ramen.
The guys seem cool. They don’t ask for references and they offer you a beer when you move in, with your one backpack of belongings. You never crack the beer but they don’t ask questions, and they find you an extra mattress so you don’t have to sleep on the floor. They bring you a desk to fill the corner, so the room doesn’t seem so empty, and you hang up your shirts in the closet so they don’t get creases.
Your room is papered navy blue, split in half horizontally with a white line. Below the line are tiny white dots, or stars, or asterisk shapes. One of those for sure, you just can’t tell because even when you squint, they’re still blurry. You definitely need glasses. Above the line sits a row of ducks. Four different ducks, repeating themselves over and over until they circle the entire room. They are all brown and drab – definitely female, there’s no green heads.
The first time you walk in you can’t stop laughing. How old is this house? Definitely decorated in the eighties. Your roommate laughs too.
The quiet roommate gives you his spare tie when he hears you have an interview. It’s gray and shimmers in the light. Afterwards, when you walk in the door, the rowdy roommate sees your face and makes you pancakes for dinner. The quiet roommate says you can keep the tie.
You fall into a rhythm: a smooth, steady one. Like walking from the kitchen down the hallway staircase at night, feeling your way to your room. There’s no hall light, so you have to use your hands to guide you. You slowly slide them down the walls, trusting that the stairs are clear. At the bottom you turn left, then right into your room, where you can finally flick on the light.
When you can’t sleep, you turn on your phone flashlight and count the ducks. 57. When you really can’t sleep, you count them backwards. Sometimes you wake up and can’t breathe. You sit up and stare at the one straight across from the foot of your bed. She is slightly smaller than the others and missing her feet thanks to a rip in the paper. You focus on her until you can breathe again.
One day a girl even stays over, and the ducks watch, passing no judgement and giving no praise. Expressionless to a fault. The girl stays, and the ducks smile at you through the whole night when you can’t sleep yet again, this time because your heart is pounding.
You compare scars and stupid tattoos, and the girl leaves her toothbrush in the downstairs bathroom. She says that everyone deserves joy. When she laughs, her whole face crinkles up. Sometimes, when she snores quietly beside you, you wonder how your chest can possibly hold this much inside it without splitting.
Your roommates find you drinking Jack on the back step after you get the news your little sister is missing. They put you in the shower and they clear the house of liquor. They hold you when you cry. Nine days later, the cops find your sister. You can’t afford a plane ticket home, so you talk to your dad on the phone, and then you talk to her.
Hey Sis, how’s it going? You pace around your room as you talk, running your hand over the ducks. She is alive. She is alive. She is alive.
One day you get a job, and you wear the tie, and by God it looks good in the bathroom mirror. You look good in the bathroom mirror.
On St. Patty’s day, you plan to go downtown. Instead, you end up staying home with your roommates, your girl, and the guy who lives across the street. Everyone sits on your bed or on the floor, eating pretzels and drinking neon green lemonade. The ducks sit on the wall, as they do, keeping you gentle company.
Reba Kingston is a writer and wildland firefighter. Her work has appeared in The New Quarterly and has been shortlisted for the Malahat Review’s Constance Rooke CNF Prize. She is currently writing from unceded Sinixt, Ktunaxa, Secwepemc, and Syilx territories in Revelstoke, BC.
image: MM Kaufman