Artifact

1

The frieze was frozen. My chisel bounced right off it, not even scratching the marble. The coffee table beneath it was worse. I had tried pushing. I had tried pulling. I had tried throwing sledgehammers from ten paces away. They'd bounced right off, and they hadn't even chipped the floor.

The carpet I had mostly been able to remove, except for the five by five patch of red entry-hall rug that also contained the coffee table, the frieze, and Laura. I had tried prying that last bit up with a crowbar, but I hadn't been able to angle the teeth of the metal tool underneath the fabric. Sulfuric acid just lay on it in a messy puddle until I vacuumed it up. The dingy tires of the shop vac left stains on the floor...everywhere except for that five by five patch.

I had not tried to remove Laura yet. This was partly because I wasn't sure I could, and partly because I didn't know what it would do to her if I succeeded. For the last three weeks she had stood, poised mid-step, on her way out the front door. Her lips were pursed the way you might purse yours if you'd bitten into something sour but weren't about to set it down. Her handbag hung mid-sway. I had tried to open it once, but my hand-held drill had chipped on the zipper.

Her hair was neatly combed, but she'd been leaving in something of a rush. Strands of it floated behind her, razor thin. You could cut cheese on them. I had certainly cut myself. The blood had lain on the carpet, refusing to absorb, until I went and fetched the shop vac again.

I didn't even dare touch her eyelashes, perfectly made up. It would've been like slamming needles into my finger. Besides, it didn't feel right to have any contact with her, outside of the occasional power tool or string of caution tape. I had wrapped that around her loose strands like a blinding yellow scrunchie. It cut down on the chance of me eviscerating myself as I walked past.

There were probably worse places to have a leftover moment in your house, but I couldn't think of many.

2

Things as they were: picture them, please.

Laura storms past me. She isn't talking. She's done plenty of that already. The air is overripe with our fight.

I'm talking plenty. I'm apologizing, rationalizing, I'll-never-do-it-again-ing. I follow her down the stairs.

I've hovering in her peripheral. I can tell she wants to raise a hand to bat me away, but she doesn't. She's composed and condensed and compact, this little traveling sphere of purpose heading for the door. I ask her where she's going to stay. She tells me it damn sure isn't any of my business.

Stepping off the lowest step, she heads for the entry hall. I remind her that her things are here. That she can at least pack while we talk things out. Left unspoken is the hint that she has a lot of things, and that they weren't bought on a journalist's salary. She tells me curtly that she doesn't care what I keep. In thirty seconds, this will be ironic.

She's walking briskly down the hall now, approaching the coffee table and the little carved stone block I've left on it. It watches me through the eyes of graven angels. Twenty seconds.

I make a last ditch effort. I ask her to stay. I offer to talk things out. She listens politely. Ten.

"No thanks." She's turned around and she's walking. The door opens in front of her. I fumble for the perfect phrase, the one winning combination in a lexicon lottery that will bring her to a stop. I don't find it. She steps out the door. There's a casual shudder as causality is torn asunder, and she leaves herself standing in the hall.

Moments later, her car pulls away.

3

I wanted to call it a haunting at first. That would have been satisfyingly melodramatic. And there was no real explanation for it, so why not ghosts? Unfortunately, it was more like an unsettlingly lifelike statuary. It didn't move. It couldn't talk. You could impale yourself on it if you were uncoordinated, or stupid, or drunk, but other than that it wasn't threatening. As far as spectres went, it didn't pass muster.

I guess I could've called it a metaphor too, but that felt pretentious. After losing Laura, I didn't feel so full of myself any more.

Still, beyond comprehension and beyond definition, it lingered. It got to being part of my daily routine. I would wake up, shower, head downstairs to breakfast and wave good morning to it on the way. When I came back from the office, I'd say 'hi' as I dropped my coat on the rack. I continued my experiments with applied force on the surrounding area. They continued to make no difference whatsoever.

One night, after a bottle of sauvignon blanc, I curled up next to it. It was cool and smooth to the touch, with none of the casual give of skin. I tried talking to it, asking it why it was still there. I tried telling it to leave, and telling it to stay. I even came up with the perfect words, three weeks too late, and forgot them the next morning in a sober haze.

I considered calling in experts. Architects, physicists, Madam Cleo from the psychic hotline. I imagined them camped out on my doorstep, taking readings. I considered the carnival that my life would become, and quickly dismissed them.

As best I could understand it, my leftover Laura was like a graphics glitch framed in space. Or maybe her life was a film reel, jammed and unspooling, and the pictures were pressing up against mine. I paced my house nervously for a few days, expecting to find other ghosts, but none appeared.

Eventually, sick to death of strange, I gathered up a tarp I'd found in my basement and covered it over completely.

4

I met Bethany at work. She was an intern, seven years younger than me, but she smiled when I did and she said 'yes' when I asked if I could take her out to dinner.

At first I tried to keep the conversation light, but when she asked what I did in my spare time the truth spilled out. She asked me if she could see it.

The steps up to my front door were cold, invested with autumn chill. I found my hands were nervous on the latch, but they obeyed and the big oak slab swung away.

In the dim light of falling dusk, I saw a pool of fabric settling on the floor. The space underneath it was empty. I breathed in, and the coffee table and frieze exploded into fragments.