top of page

[Fiction] Leftover Effervescence

by Brenna Humphreys

But, oh, the afterlife. How it teases and haunts,

how it bleeds into this life.

—Betsy Sholl, “Concerning the Soul” from House of Sparrows

The key was stubborn, and when the door finally gave way, a rush of air lifted previously settled dust. Meri found herself in the small, dark living room where books and papers, the chaotic clutter of a life left behind, seemed to murmur like someone turning over in sleep. Jade stepped in beside her, nostrils pinched together almost imperceptibly. Most wouldn’t notice, but after a year of apprenticeship, Meri knew the older Realtor well enough to see beyond the Botox. Jade was displeased. She often encouraged Meri to start her own face fund, but Jade would never understand Meri had other things to save for, like car payments and a place to live that wasn’t in danger of being towed. 

The owner’s son, a young doctor, turned on the lights and sent his kids to play in the yard. “Well, obviously this is the living room,” he said with an apologetic grin. “We did a lot of entertaining. My parents had poetry readings, writer workshops, group therapy sessions. Hard to tell which was which sometimes.” They stood in the room a moment, taking in the weathered, green shag carpet and threadbare sofa. Meri had noticed outside he was an extremely tall man, even in scrubs, but he seemed to deflate a bit as they moved through the house. “And voilà,” he said. “The grand dining room.” It was just a corner of the living room, slightly raised like a stage. “We only used it for holidays. Most of the time it was covered in books and papers and whatever else.” He picked up a couple of books, tried halfheartedly to tidy them, but quickly gave up. “Are you sure you can help with all this stuff?” he asked. “I thought Mom would want to keep more of it.”

Jade nodded to reassure him. Meri marveled at how she managed to keep her curled blond bangs perfectly in place. Meri’s own leaf-brown hair was trapped in its usual ponytail. “Just pull it back,” Jade had advised her when they started working together. “Keeps it clean and professional if you’re not going to maintain.” Meri had taken this suggestion to heart and never left the car without a scrunchie. Her own mom had never taught her about manicures and exfoliating, but Jade was slowly schooling her in the art of hair maintenance—as well as its strategic removal.

“Of course, Brian,” said Jade. “Meri will handle…” She gestured vaguely with her perfectly manicured Pirate Red fingernails. “All…this.”

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it,” Brian continued. “My brother and I have already taken little keepsakes. Books and records can be donated to the youth center. Dad would’ve liked that. Everything else…Salvation Army? Trash? You decide.”

“Notebook,” whispered Jade. Meri had an excellent memory, but she dutifully pulled out the notebook with Jade West Real Estate embossed in gold. “A notebook makes the clients feel listened to,” Jade had explained during training, in between lessons on karate-chopping pillows and digitizing Jade’s ancient Rolodex. Meri dutifully wrote Salvation Army. She’d learned never to question clients, but she couldn’t help but wonder why Brian seemed so disinterested in the contents of his childhood home. Meri had always had a feeling about certain houses. This one seemed to have a good, earthy energy. As they walked back through the living room, her eyes were drawn to the books lining the walls, the beautiful handmade pottery—vases, teapots, pencil holders. It was overwhelming but still cozy, with warm tones and touchable textures.

 “How is she settling into the new place?” Jade asked. “The Village must be thrilled to have such a literary celebrity in their midst.”

“I haven’t spoken with her in a few days, but she seemed happy enough, I guess,” he said. Jade was already making her way into the kitchen as Meri rushed to catch up. 

“Tell Mefford he’s going to need steel wool and bleach for this.” Jade began her instructions before Meri was fully in the room. “And have Dina bring a kitchen set with barstools—something eclectic but a little more…now.”

Brian entered the room, and Jade’s face rearranged itself into a warm smile. “This kitchen is positively charming!” she said.

“We ate a lot of cereal,” he said, pulling open the pantry doors, which squealed in protest. “These hinges are a little unpredictable.”

A child’s wail rose in the backyard. “You can’t do that!”

“Yes, I can—it’s in Nana’s Rule Book! She said!”

“I’d better go check on them. If it’s in Nana’s Rule Book, it can mean anything from staying out of the rosebushes to using kind words around the night fairies napping in the garden. Excuse me,” said Brian with a pained smile. He ducked out the side door, which also squeaked.

“Meri,” said Jade, her eyes down and her nose narrowing. “I thought we agreed about the shoes.”

Meri realized with horror she’d forgotten to change out of her flats and back into the Jimmy Choos that Jade had generously provided. “It’s our only uniform,” Jade had half joked when she presented them to her a few weeks before. Meri kept a pair of flats in her bag to change into when a home was clear of clients. She sometimes forgot to switch back.

“Jade, I’m so sorry. No excuses.”

“Professionalism is our edge,” said Jade. “Especially with brows like that.”

Meri wrote down tweeze in her notebook in big letters and showed it to Jade.

“Soon,” Jade stressed. “Meri, this is for you. I want you to have every success I had, and more—but not too much more, ha! If we want to compete in the real estate boys’ club, we must use every tool at our disposal.”

“I know,” said Meri. “I’m so grateful.”

“I’ll be retiring soon,” said Jade with a wink. “But not too soon! Ha! I need you to be at the top of your game.” 

Jade headed toward the stairs, and Meri smiled, which was all she could do during these conversations. At the top was one of the kids’ rooms. “This horrible blue has to go,” Jade said. “Something in an eggshell or tapioca? Keep it clean. And let’s have Dina do something cute with the decor—the Harry Potter thing she does, or maybe something younger. Trucks?” Jade swept out of the room. Meri was temporarily blinded by the glint of the diamonds hanging off her wrist. 

“Last stop,” Jade’s deep, phone-trained voice sang as they entered the primary bedroom. The room was tiny—possibly even smaller than the kids’ rooms. “Ugh, how did they sleep in this crypt?” Jade asked, her nostrils practically closed in horror as she disappeared into the bathroom. 

Meri looked around. Bookshelves lined the walls. More books on nightstands. If this was a crypt, she was okay with experiencing the afterlife. It could use a good cleaning, for sure, but by Meri’s standards, it was far from despicable. 

She put a knee up on the window seat by the bed and peered out the window. Brian and the kids were nowhere to be seen. Something caught her eye up in the large eucalyptus tree. A fluttering? Something…a ribbon…almost alive in its movement, tangled in the branches of the tree, one end loose and propelled by the wind.

“Meri?” Jade’s voice echoed and amplified in the cramped tiled space. Meri broke her stare and hustled to the bathroom to catch up. “There you are!” sang Jade. She was smiling in an odd way that made Meri feel like the last bagel at a breakfast meeting. “Look what I found!” Jade brandished a pair of tweezers and clicked them together like an insect with a voracious mandible. Seeing the look on Meri’s face, Jade added: “Don’t worry. I ran some alcohol over them. Amazing what you find in medicine cabinets!” She advanced toward Meri with the tweezers. “This has been driving me crazy all day!” she said. Meri recoiled—well, as far as one can recoil in a one-sink bathroom already occupied by a diamond-encrusted woman on a mission. Before Meri knew what was happening, Jade had grasped her chin firmly and plucked out a single hair from her eyebrow. The sting was sharp, and her eyes watered. 

But the real shock was being in such close proximity to her boss. Jade had never, ever, so much as touched Meri—not a hug, pat on the back, accidental brush of the hand, nothing. But here they were, face-to-face, so close Meri could see the tiny spots of dry skin on Jade’s nose, the bits of powder she hadn’t smoothed in. 

Then it was over, and Meri was released. Jade stood back and regarded her work. “Oh God, so much better!” she exclaimed, dropping the tweezers into the sink with a tinny clatter. Then in a stage whisper: “It was gray.” Jade turned to inspect her own reflection. “And Meri, I have a treat for you. You know how I’m always talking about my face fund? Well, I had a little left over this month, and Doctor Gelbhardt had a cancellation! You can go in two weeks from Tuesday, after broker’s open.”

Meri’s eyebrow was still stinging. “An…appointment?” 

“My treat. I insist! No one ever forgets their first Botox! Just sell this damned house for me, will you? Or I’ll have to take your face back! Ha!” 

This was so out of the blue. Had she ever even hinted that she’d like to get Botox? Tweezers scared her but needles were worse.

Jade headed for the door. “It’s after two,” she said. “Can you wrap up? Send me the schedge!”

On the way out of the bedroom, her eyebrow still smarting, Meri looked out the window where the ribbon struggled against the tree. It seemed to taunt her. She made a note in her book to get it down. Jade had taught her that was the kind of thing that could distract buyers. She’d never imagined herself in real estate, but working for Jade seemed the perfect solution when Meri’s husband left—was it because of her unkempt brows and unmanicured hands? Whatever the reason. He’d drained the accounts. They’d never had kids, so she wasn’t left with the burden of doing the work of two parents, but neither had she garnered the level of single-mom sympathy her sister had enjoyed. Meri just had to push through. This job was vital to her survival, so as soon as she got back to the office, the calendar came out and “the schedge” was underway.


Meri inspected the cleaning and, as usual, had to haul her own bucket of bottles, sprays, and rags out of the back of the car to finish bits that the cleaning crew had neglected. Working in the empty house with her sponges and the cleansers was usually one of Meri’s favorite things. Peaceful. No interruptions. She didn’t have to think about the bills or where to park her Subaru so the neighbors wouldn’t see that their Realtor couldn’t afford the latest Tesla. The best part was, she could imagine, just for a moment, that whatever home she was in was hers, and she wouldn’t be spending another night sleeping in the back seat.

Meri heard cawing crows outside as she scrubbed the coils of an electric stove. The sound drew her eyes upward to that single piece of white ribbon ensnared in the upper branches of the eucalyptus. The ribbon had been important somehow. A celebration long past. A graduation balloon or birthday bouquet? It was too high to have been placed there intentionally. It must’ve drifted away from someone in a moment of carelessness and lodged there before it could fully escape this town. As the bleaches and vinegars took hold of the house, Meri felt an overwhelming sense of sadness.


It was raining, and Meri hoped it wouldn’t impact “the schedge.” The ribbon clung to the branch that’d claimed it so long ago. Like a victim who couldn’t take much more of captivity but was too weak to leave. Just the day before, it had taunted with its tenacity. Dancing in the wind, out of control and out of reach. But today it was a small, dull, white line on a tree blackened with dampness. 

The house was empty now, and each step was coated in creamy silence since the green shag had been replaced with an innocuous Berber. She was writing the MLS description in her head as she watched the stagers load in furniture from their truck. Three-bedroom, two-bath home, great schools… One by one, a pair of men carried pieces shrink-wrapped in plastic down a ramp and then tried to find the right angle to get them through the small door. 

Back to the house description. The hipsters liked “modern” anything. “Modern Classic” or “Modern Farmhouse.” “Modern Midcentury Modern” was her favorite. But “modern” was a stretch in this case. “Classic,” maybe. The house had been thoroughly lived in and showed exhaustion at every corner. Boards creaked, sinks leaked, paint peeled. The grief she’d felt in the house on cleaning day inexplicably seemed to grow instead of receding with each improvement she made. 


The stager unwrapped plastic and ordered her workers around in a grating voice not unlike the crows outside. Meri made a note to speak with the landscape designer, Banyan, about the birds. Banyan had been a runner-up on one of those survival reality shows and changed her name in episode three of season six after she sawed off her own frostbitten pinky rather than tap out. Meri always built an extra day into the schedule because Banyan insisted on spending a night camping in each yard she was working on to “feel what the earth wanted the yard to be.” Her signature was leaving a wind chime that she made of found objects in each yard. These creations were curated bits of broken things, pieces of brick from walkways, bird nests, and dried flowers. The Hollywood homeowners ate it up. But Meri was convinced most of them tossed the creations right into the green bin. 

These birds did not bode well for grass seed—they’d probably have to spring for the sod. Her eyes followed one of the sparrows as it flew up to a branch, and again, she saw the ribbon. It was practically mocking her now, so high in the tree Meri couldn’t think of how to bring it down easily, but she refused to accept that there was no way at all. She remembered overhearing her sister’s kids at dinner saying that, given enough time, anything in the universe could happen. Just the right combination of wind molecules might randomly untie that string. A squirrel could happen along and twitch in just the right way to dislodge it. A line of ants worrying along at just the right angles could work their way through the knot. But she’d given up on letting the universe solve her problems. 

There might’ve been a way, long ago, when the balloons were first tangled in the tree and there was hope that the thing could be undone. Meri remembered that feeling as a girl when a balloon lifted away—that you might still get it back if you acted fast. Moment rewound, carelessness undone. Not unlike the laugh lines and crow’s feet that Jade reminded her, mercilessly, needed attending to if she wanted a man—or at least to succeed in real estate. “Dr. Gelbhardt is a miracle worker,” Jade had assured her. But Meri was dreading the appointment. She’d much prefer the “perks” of free Botox, designer shoes, and company car washes to simply appear as dollars in her paycheck. But beggars couldn’t be choosers. And, apparently, they also had to be well-groomed.

Nothing was just going to happen. The ribbon was a squatter now. It had rights. Force wouldn’t get rid of it—finesse was required. Access was needed. A crew with a giant cherry picker could get it easily. But that seemed like overkill. Besides, she wanted to be the one who plucked the thing from the tree. It was an itch she needed to scratch. Just the thought of grabbing onto that ribbon and yanking it down brought almost physical relief. 


Meri really, really needed this commission. She needed it now. She was tired of sleeping in her car and showering at the YMCA. Her back hurt, and it was simply not possible to tweeze to her boss’s satisfaction in fluorescent light and 2D mirrors in the ladies’ locker room. The house was almost perfect, but all she could see was the ribbon. It had to go, or, she was convinced, the house would never sell. So she went to the garage, which was a disaster. All the poet’s belongings had been crammed in, waiting for the Salvation Army. The packing crew hadn’t sealed the tops of the boxes so everything was on display. Pottery loosely packed, throw pillows, scarves, lots of books. Luckily, she did discover some kind of claw-like grabbing device old people used to pick stuff off the ground and do-gooders carried at beach cleanups. That could work! She dragged the heavy ladder outside to the tree, clumsily propped it against the trunk, and began to climb shakily up toward her trembling nemesis. It was hard to manage the ladder with the claw, but she found she could clip it right onto the rungs, so she had both hands free to climb. The higher she got, the more the ladder began to sway. She held the cold metal rungs tightly but knew she would be helpless to save herself if the whole thing shifted. Nothing to grab onto. No safety net. 

She got as high as she felt she could safely go, staring straight at the rippling brown bark in front of her. Then she looked up. The ribbon was in her sights. The house and yard looked different from the ribbon’s vantage point. The bark of the tree peeled like paper up and down in both directions. Reminded her of sunburns she used to get as a teen. There were little bugs going about their business in their tree world, oblivious to the intruder. She maneuvered the claw within reach. Vertigo looking up and swaying. Took her a few tries, but she got hold of the ribbon and pulled. The claw wasn’t very strong, so it slipped right off undisturbed. She tried again, closer to the base of the branch, where it was tangled. A piece of bark fell into her eye, and she blinked in pain. The ladder squeaked a warning. She tried pulling and twisting at the same time, thinking the torque might help. The ribbon seemed to give way, and she pulled the claw back in triumph as the ladder began to tilt. She felt the pull of gravity beneath her and grabbed a branch to steady herself. She couldn’t quite tell whether it was shaking or she was. When she dared look up again, the ribbon was still there. 

Just then she saw Banyan down below, coming around from the side to the house with her tools. She’d forgotten it was landscaping day. Banyan must’ve sensed her because she looked up. “Oh, hey, Meri!” the young woman shouted, oblivious to Meri’s precarious position above the earth. “I’m glad I ran into you. Listen, I so love this project! Good energy. But I’m going to need another day.” 

“Um, can it wait until I get down?” Meri climbed back down the ladder. Banyan held it for her.

“Another day?” Meri asked. She looked around the tiny yard, sure she must have misunderstood. Banyan had landscaped grand, multi-acre estates with topiaries, koi ponds, and waterfalls in less time.

“Smaller ’scapes take more time,” Banyan explained. “There’s an art to them. You don’t have room for a single extraneous plant, you know? It’s a tiny little ecosystem. The roots are deep here. Really deep. I can smell earth and snails and rock, you know? Good earth.”

“Definitely,” said Meri. “The house has an old soul.”

“You feel it, too.” 

“I definitely get an old vibe,” said Meri—although she was referring more to the cracked foundation than some kind of connection to the elders. Then it occurred to her. Jade would hire someone to deal with it and not allow the worry to add one more crease to her face. “Banyan. I’m so glad you’re here. Something’s not quite feeling right for me. That ribbon up there in the tree? I’m feeling a real negative energy from it, you know?”

Before Meri knew what was happening, Banyan was scaling the tree with her bare hands. She found each handhold like she knew it was there for her—she just had to locate it. When she reached the ribbon, she used her teeth to break it free. It must have been her imagination, but Meri felt a small tremor when it hit the ground. Banyan turned and gave Meri a thumbs-up before half climbing, half falling, Druid-like, back to the earth. Banyan balled up the ribbon and shoved it into the pocket of her worn jeans. Meri returned to the quiet house, and it felt like the temperature had dropped fifteen degrees.


The ribbon was down. The house was flawlessly staged. And yet it felt wrong. Just wrong. Meri’s phone rang. Jade. Meri instinctively checked her shoes. “Meri! How’s the landscaping? Did Banyan do those shrimpy flowers?” Banyan had indeed put in some of the trendy succulents with drooping shrimp-colored flowers that reminded her of dragon heads or swans’ necks. She’d also covered the earth in bark, which was a nice touch. It made the colorful plants stand out like fresh tattoos, puffy and raw around the edges.

“Listen, Meri, I’m afraid I have to cancel Dr. Gelbhardt for you for tomorrow, my dear,” said Jade in her poutiest voice. Meri’s heart leapt at this unexpected good fortune. “I know you were looking forward to it, but duty calls! I have news!”

Meri wondered what could possibly top the thrill of evading forced Botox treatment. 

“We have a celebrity showing tomorrow! Turns out a very famous certain someone heard about the house and just happens to be a huge fan of our poet friend’s work! I would do the showing, but I have an appointment.”

 “Wow, great,” Meri said, hoping for a few extra hours in the morning to figure out why the house felt weird. Maybe check the heater. The place seemed to get colder by the minute. “Who’s the celebrity?” she asked.

“Oh some famous You-TV guy.”

“You mean YouTube?”

“Whatever. I guess he got shamed in the MeToo movement—some groupie made accusations—now he wants to turn over a new leaf, go up for movie roles. He thinks owning a poet’s house will make him legit. Janice will fill you in when she brings the flyers. Nice description, by the way. I loved ‘Modern twist on a classic home.’ Way to put lipstick on that pig, girl!”

Meri said good-bye and shivered. She didn’t have much time. She tried rearranging the pillows—teal on the outside this time, yellow inside for accent, but that didn’t do it. She considered the plants next and swapped the fake succulents around on the bookshelves. Nope. What was off? It was almost as if the house itself was protesting its fate. 


Meri sat in the foyer, feeling unsettled. Something was very different about the house this morning. It’d been cold and dead the day before. Today, she felt a new kind of affinity with it. She watched Janice walk up the drive, her sundress a yellow bright spot on the dull, cracked driveway. “Hey,” the young assistant said as she entered the home. “It really is cute! Tiny, but cute!” She presented the flyers in a cardboard box as if they were the Holy Grail. “You would not believe what it took to get these, Meri, honestly. Traffic, idiots at the printer. If Blue Dogg wasn’t going to be here this afternoon, I would have just skipped it.” Janice had done a lot of work to look her best, as any Jade West Real Estate employee would, but she didn’t need all the makeup and hairspray. Made Meri feel like an evil stepmother. Even Botox would not put her back to that level of youth. 

 “You said Blue Fog?” she asked, hoping for a little intel, anything to get through this showing. 

“Blue Dogg, silly…you know. The blues musician? He’s that Twitch streamer who composes soundtracks live while people play video games? They hire him for eSports competitions?”

Meri had some vague recollection of a scruffy millennial duplicated in six windows, the same guy playing a different instrument in each pane. Harmonizing with himself. Cool, but not the blues. 

“Too bad he got canceled,” Janice said. “I heard he didn’t even touch that girl. Anyway, I have to run. Luck with the showing!” She swept out the door, leaving the perfumed scent of some generic flower shampoo.

Meri pulled her sweater on, opened the box, and took out the flyers. As she arranged them on the table by the front door, she couldn’t help noticing the photos were glossy and perfect but completely devoid of expression. Barely even recognized this house she’d spent weeks preparing. In every photo, the house was blank. Sanitary. Stripped. Boring. 

It seemed too quiet. Perhaps since blues was on her mind, she found a channel on her phone. She kicked off her heels and moved around the living room, shaking her hips a little, the music reminding her of cleaning with her grandmother. Blues seemed to fit the house. If this guy really was a blues artist, maybe that would set the tone. “Trouble in Mind” transported her.

The doorbell rang fifteen minutes late. Meri opened it and found no one there, until she looked down and saw the crown of a very red head at her knee level. He was…bowing to her? “Are you…all right, sir?” she asked. The young man straightened. He was tall and quite thin in brand new jeans and a perfectly white tee. He had a massive pimple on his chin surrounded by scruff. And he was inexplicably adorned with gray rocks everywhere. A rock on a leather cord around his neck. Bracelets of rock. A rock in each ear. Even a tiny pebble affixed to his nostril. He was accompanied by another young man who also seemed quite fond of rock jewelry. 

 “Allll right,” the redhead said, and the slow, stretched-out way he said it made Meri wonder if he was on something. “Yes, dig it, I. Am. All right. You, on the other hand, are more than all right. You are the voice of a generation, you are one of the most insightful, talented lyricists on this big blue rock, and I am honored and humbled to be in your home,” he said, getting up. The other man just nodded and occasionally interjected, punctuating what the star said with a nod or “uh-huh.”

Meri was profoundly confused. “Please come in,” she said. The young redhead, who must have been Blue Dogg, swept inside and made the living room feel even smaller.

“So this…this is where the magic happens, I presume,” he said. 

“Yes,” Meri found herself saying. “It’s one inspirational home.” 

Blue Dogg was moving about the room. Surveying everything. “You have incredible taste,” he said, picking up one of the awful beach-themed pillows and inhaling deeply. “I get what you’re doing here—you’ve created a negative space—allowed your home to speak to the buyers in their language. You’ve hidden your art in a veil of privacy. Dig it, sister.” He clasped the palms of his hands together in a prayer sign aimed at her. 

It was beginning to dawn on Meri that this kid thought she was the owner. Totally unreal. If he’d picked up any of the poet’s books, he would know Meri looked nothing like her. The woman was at least three decades her senior. But he’d moved into the dining room area, and she realized it really didn’t matter. The home was starting to feel familiar to her. If he needed her to be the poet, she would be the poet. “You’ve found the dining room, I see,” she said, trying on a smoother poet voice. 

“This is, unironically, the best dining room ever,” he said to his entourage of one. 

The friend nodded and said, “Dude, imagine the parties…” 

Blue stood still in the middle of the small space, eyes closed, hands to his ears as if listening to music. “Not parties, man…” he said. He paused for effect. “Readings. I’m seeing open mic nights. Streaming. Right here.” He spun slowly in the space with his hands out, and Meri was afraid he would knock over one of those vases. “I was thinking it could just be storage, but once again, Madam Poet, you. Have. Opened. My. Eyes.” 

 “Dig it,” said his sidekick. “Ah yeah, that is, unironically, your best idea ever.” 

Then Blue abruptly stopped spinning. “I can actually hear music,” he said. “Blues if I’m not mistaken.”

“Yes, Big Walter Horton,” said Meri. “His music really inspires my work,” she added, fighting a weird feeling of vertigo. She felt like she could see the poet, a younger version, right here doing a reading, surrounded by artists. She could smell coffee and wine. She felt for a moment that she saw a little boy in his pj’s at the top of the stairs looking down at the scene. “We used to have readings right here—in fact I liked to stand where you are right now,” she said with confidence. “The acoustics are amazing.” 

Blue shook his head slowly, a grin spreading across his face. 

“Would you like to see the kitchen, where I compiled my first book?” she asked. She could not believe herself. Her first book? How did she even know that? The kitchen revealed itself to her in the same way as the dining room, not as it’d looked when Brian had shown it to her, but way back, with open packages of Wonder Bread and jars of peanut butter on the counter, empty bottles of whiskey from the night before. A bowl of oranges from the yard. 

They proceeded through the house, and every room was giving her flashes, glimpses of life there, and her guests seemed to eat it up as she narrated. “And here’s the primary bedroom,” she announced. She could see from the door out through the window to the tree she’d climbed the day before. Her heart ached for the ribbon that was no longer there. It belonged here more than this young man did. He would never live in this house. Just storage? The house deserved more. 


The poet had awakened to the sight of yellow balloons one morning, a brilliant mystery to ponder with her soulmate as they lay in bed speculating about what might have brought such a display to their yard. Day by day they’d watched them wither and fall, until only the string remained. It’d manifested into a poem about the soul. It was not the poet’s favorite poem, but her husband had liked it. And though that had never been enough for her, it had always been a minimum requirement.

He used to read everything she wrote. Now he was not there, so most of what she was writing was crap. He would’ve said so. He would’ve encouraged her, as usual, to push further, run to her grief, not shy away from it. Put it all into the words. But he was not here to push. And she was too tired to push herself. The condo was to be her new world order. Clean, new, and sanitary. Dust, debris, and memory-free.

She’d finally had that cataract surgery, and now as she packed, she could see the long-forgotten ribbon, still there, dancing with the tree. She’d never had the heart—or the height—to take the ribbon down. When she had suggested he help all those years ago, he had urged her to think of the one who’d lost the balloons that night, and what it might mean to them to see it there every day. 

“Since you put it that way,” the poet had said. This was something she said often, and it was usually when she remembered once again why she loved this man. He had a way of seeing the whole picture, remembering how connected we all were. “Since you put it that way” was what she used to say every time he had changed her mind about something. Seeing the ribbon now as she packed set something off in her. Especially after shredding decades’ worth of paper upon which she’d only committed one or two fruitless lines. “Since you put it that way,” she said aloud to the empty house. 

She stopped packing and decided to leave it all. As she left for the last time, she said a silent thank-you to the crows and the sparrows, the rats and the books and the stove—and most of all the ribbon—for their inspiration. In this house she had seen the universe in a door handle, found happiness in a cereal cabinet, saw doom down a hallway. Here, a pepper grinder held the secret to life. At least the ribbon remained, to remind the house of her. To inspire the next.


Before Meri could stop him, Blue threw himself onto the fake bed like a kid excited for story time. It wasn’t his fault he hadn’t seen the tiny, framed card on the end table that said in minuscule gold script, Please don’t sit on the bed. There was a good reason for this sign. Thin sheets and a comforter were loosely covering a flimsy pool raft on top of a plywood board. Standard staging. Blue’s weight took the whole thing down underneath him. Meri caught the young man’s bewildered eyes as he fell. The illusion was shattered. She wasn’t the poet. His dream home was just staging. His friend rushed to his side to help him up, but the raft was slippery, and he went down, too. 

She moved to the window seat to help the boys from a better angle and glanced outside as she did. Banyan’s signature wind chime was there in the tree. She hadn’t noticed it before. It was quite beautiful, actually. Bits of broken pottery on fishing wire made up the chimes. She had added dried leaves and crumpled pages from a typewriter, laminated to last and catch the light. A small toy airplane. And holding it all together in the center was her ribbon. 

Meri sat down on the window seat, brimming with laughter she couldn’t let out in front of clients. She moved back through the house, adjusting the staging as she walked, ripping off the butcher paper covers and revealing the real books on the shelves, battered covers faded from use. In the garage she pulled out colorful throw blankets and pieces of real pottery to replace the factory-glazed knickknacks on the shelves. She picked real oranges from the tree in front and filled the bowl in the kitchen, chucking the plastic apples into a nearby drawer for the stager to retrieve after the house sold to the right buyer. 

Most people wanted a clean and tidy house with everything in working order and a sheen of disinfectant keeping them apart from the ones who were here before. But that was not the kind of person who would love this house back. 

Brenna Humphreys writes and produces video content for Walkthrough Productions.  She holds an MFA in fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. A mentor for the American Film Institute’s Digital Content Lab for over a decade, Brenna helped break new ground in multiplatform storytelling for leading entertainment properties. She has been a member of the UCLA Wordcommandos writing group and is on the board of SLO NightWriters. Her fiction has been published in Proud to Be, Southwest Missouri State University Press, Dream Catchers: A Writers Coffeehouse Anthology, and several other publications.


bottom of page