SmokeLong Quarterly

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Next of Kin

Story by Jo Gatford (Read author interview) May 3, 2021

Art by Mei Sa Guo (美撒郭)

If one day you find that I died alone, in my own home, my body lying in state for several days, possibly weeks before the neighbours noticed or someone thought to call, became concerned, and asked you to check—the only one with a spare key, unlucky you—and you have to shove the door because of the mountain of mail behind it, the soft muttering of the envelopes judging you for not coming sooner, and even as you realise  something must be very wrong, if the smell of my decomposing hasn’t hit you yet, I know that you will still call out a halloo in the exact tone that requires two Os, as though you hadn’t lived here and slept here and eaten breakfast here, with me, at this kitchen table, watermarked with years of silent coffees, and perhaps that’s where you find me, slumped over a triangle of calcified toast, or perhaps in the garden, still clutching the fork handle, soil burrowed beneath my fingernails, slug trails across my collar bones, or perhaps I died in bed, as we all wish to, an unfinished book steepled upon my chest, and as you lift it you will slide your middle finger between the pages to keep my place, carry it uncertainly through the house as you try to remember what happens next, what to do when you find a person—no longer an actual person, just a congealing body, purple at the edges—when this is not something anyone ever teaches us, and you will, for something practical to do, find some other marker for the book—you never could abide dogearing, something else we disagreed upon—and take it home with you, perhaps feel obliged to read it right to the end, to see what I had missed, even though you hated the books I liked when I was alive, and when you pass the point at which I left off you will pause, hook your thumb into the paper valley and have to remind yourself how to breathe, how to blink, how to swallow, as if all automation has failed, and realise that an absence can manifest as something immovable—the kind that sits on your chest while you sleep, waking as though you are surfacing through water—and if that is what you find, one day, after you leave me and we become old and separate, mere pilot lights of our former selves, remember what we promised when we used to talk of ashes and planting trees and pyjamas instead of dress up clothes, for comfort, in that last little rounded sleep, and if there is anyone left to funeralise with be sure to laugh most inappropriately at the joke only you and I know—the one about the shell—except now it’s only you who knows it and isn’t that a thing, the only person in the world with a joke you can no longer share, with a book you cannot bring yourself to finish, and know that I am sorry for it, for giving you the key in the first place, but that there really was no one else I could trust to do these things, not a single human else, and if you do them, just as I ask, know that I promise to haunt you dearly, the way we have always haunted one another, a slow, inevitable mourning of something we never quite got right.

About the Author

Jo Gatford is a writer who procrastinates about writing by writing about writing. Her work has been published by SmokeLong Quarterly, Litro, [PANK], Aesthetica, and elsewhere, as well as winning the Flash500 Prize, the Bath Flash Fiction Prize, and The Fiction Desk Flash Fiction Contest. Her first novel, White Lies, was published by Legend Press in 2014. She is one half of Writers’ HQ and tweets about weird 17th century mermaid tiles at @jmgatford. She feels very strongly about puns and Shakespeare.

About the Artist

Mei Sa Gou (美撒郭) is a photographer living and working in Hangzhou, China. His work explores the way in which deception and illusion have become dominant phenomena in the contemporary world, from the nature of the food we eat to the pollutants we’re exposed to in the air we breathe. In a world characterized by surveillance and unknown intentions, his work nevertheless expresses a message of love.

This story appeared in Issue Seventy-One of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy-One

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