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The Things They Left Behind

"After years of noise, the stillness in the Cartwright house lay heavy."

Published onAug 09, 2023
The Things They Left Behind

Photo by Paula:

Mama stood on the porch clutching a geranium like blood from a blossoming chest wound. Her eyes flitted from the parqueted floor to the crown molding before settling on Crystal’s face.

“Come in,” Crystal said, bouncing on her sock feet.

Mama pressed her shoulders back as though realizing she was a guest in the house and not its maid. “I can only imagine what you paid the Millers to sell when they hadn’t even listed,” she said, crossing the threshold. “What were you thinking?”

Crystal caressed the hand-carved bevels as she closed the front door. “I’ve always loved the Cartwright House.”

The Cartwrights had all moved on or died out long before World War II, but the house retained the name regardless. As a child, Crystal had imagined stepping off the sidewalk, climbing the broad porch stairs, and dropping her book bag beyond the front door. Each time she passed, she allowed herself three seconds to stare before walking to lesser streets in town.

 “Don’t you think it’s a tad much, Crystal?”

 “Not at all.”

Mama raised an eyebrow and pressed her lips in a hard line.

The massive Victorian, which had been expansive for the previous family of six, was obscene for a divorced, childless woman in her mid-thirties, but Crystal wanted everyone in her small corner of southwest Virginia to know what a success she was—professionally. Owning the Cartwright House guaranteed a certain level of respect. She could tell Mama the home was an investment and use big words like portfolio diversification and physical assets. Maybe it would be, just not days after she’d paid a premium to get it. Mama narrowed her eyes as if sensing Crystal’s intent to lie. Crystal dropped her head like a sixteen-year-old caught out past curfew. “I don’t want anyone to pity me,” she huffed, irritated her mother could still make her feel and sound like a teenager.

“Ain’t nobody pitying you, sweetie. You’ve no business with a home this big.”

“Let me show you around,” Crystal said, taking back her place as the owner of the most expensive house in town. Mama clung to the potted plant while they walked from room to room, though Crystal offered to take it twice.

“I don’t see how you’ll keep it up on your own,” Mama said when they finished in the family room.

Crystal grabbed the geranium and set it on the closest window sill, spilling dirt on the white paint. “I’ll hire help.”

“It’s about warm enough to plant that outside,” Mama said, brushing the dirt into her calloused hand. “Best find some furniture before you worry with a cleaning service.”

Crystal stared at the poor physical proof of her decade in the North: a sofa, two end tables, a few decorative pillows, and a lamp too small to light her new living room. For the first time, she had space. The Hoboken apartment she shared with her ex always felt crowded: Aaron’s gym bag blocking the doorway to the bathroom, dishes squeezed in slim cabinets, and a couch too large for the couple to pass side-by-side. In the Cartwright House, the sofa hovered like an accidental island in a vast floorboard sea. Crystal considered buying a pair of roller skates to glide around the hardwood simply because she could.

“If you don’t have enough of your own in here, you’ll feel it,” Mama said and left with her handful of dirt.

* * *

That night, Crystal stared at the unfamiliar ceiling and listened to the house settle. She jolted upright with each pop and groan of the floorboards, even if ghosts or retained energy or whatever psychic babble Mama believed weren’t real. By midnight, Crystal decided to buy a few area rugs to muffle the noise.

By 2 am, she’d explored every cabinet, closet, and corner of the Cartwright House and found all the things abandoned by the previous owners. Remaining out of context, the things they left behind were ordinary, yet absurd. A floral Muumuu clung to the rod in the master walk-in closet. In the upstairs hall bath, a half-used tube of anti-itch cream perched on the edge of the tub.

With no one to claim them, the items took hold of the house itself. Plastic garbage bags commandeered the cabinet under the kitchen sink, along with a rusting ball of steel wool and an unmarked spray bottle containing a bluish-green liquid. Windex, maybe. In the basement, a thin plywood door led to a room with earthen walls where shelf after shelf of Mason jars, most empty, some with foodstuff of indeterminate age, assembled like a waiting audience. Peaches in cloudy syrup. Pale hard-boiled eggs peeking behind deep purple beets. Tomatoes. Green beans. Brown meat of questionable origin.

The things they left behind in the attic alone would have filled Crystal and Aaron’s apartment. She pictured the abandoned lamps, papers, and broken toys crammed into every corner and spilling down the hallway, which wasn’t a hallway at all, but a narrow living room pulled taunt between their bedroom and kitchen, each room stacked to the next like boxcars on a train.

Even with their impressive brood, the Millers were unlikely the source of everything in the attic. The chair with the sagging cane-bottom seemed old enough to belong to an original Cartwright. Someone had woven mid-century Christmas lights throughout the rafters, illuminating a cracked Formica table in avocado green and stacks of tattered boxes. After sifting through papers of varying age and importance, the sheer thought of carrying everything down two flights of stairs to the trash sent Crystal to bed exhausted.

* * *

She unpacked her things in the morning, making fast progress until she slit open the box of dishes she’d used every day of her married life. As she unwrapped each piece, she counted: nine plates, ten bowls, eight mugs, and twelve saucers. She hadn’t used the saucers. The small plates never had a chance to break. She tossed one across the room where it shattered on the tile floor. Nine plates, ten bowls, eight mugs, and eleven saucers went into the cabinet by the sink.

She unpacked her luggage, hanging her suits by the Muumuu, though they were as useless to her now as the over-sized dress. The yoga pants, sweats, and pajama bottoms that made the trip south in her dresser were all she’d need to work from home. She reached for the Muumuu but stopped. Her childhood friends, all of whom still lived in town, would get a good laugh from it when they toured the house. Until then, she had ample space.

Crystal tucked her suitcase behind the Muumuu and marveled at the room that remained. When she asked for the divorce, Aaron had answered by taking his clothes from the overstuffed closet and dresser they shared. She’d sat on the bed while he folded his shirts and slacks with aching precision. When he had nothing left to fold, he placed everything in garbage bags and left. He never said a word. As he closed the front door behind him, Crystal thought the closet still looked full. The Cartwright closet could hold both their wardrobes with space to spare. Crystal rearranged her suits, leaving several inches between each hanger, and closed the closet door.

After setting up her laptop and printer in the office, she considered what to put in the built-in bookcase. She walked through each room, looking for boxes to unpack. Finding none, she grabbed the geranium to stand lone sentry on the shelves.

* * *

“You need furniture,” Mama said when she arrived later that day with a pizza.

The pizza was disgusting by New York standards—over-sweet tomato sauce, mushrooms from a can, and a doughy crust that clung to the roof of Crystal’s mouth. “I’ve been here one day,” she said between unhurried bites. “I’ll go shopping soon enough.”

“Looks like you kept everything from the apartment. Did Aaron rent something furnished?”

Crystal flopped her slice back in the box. “I have no idea. Why would I?”

Mama sighed and reached across the small table. “Did he step out on you?”

Crystal yanked her hand from her mother’s grip. “No, Mama. We just wanted different things.”

“What things?”

“Things we couldn’t have together.”

They stared at each other, Mama waiting for Crystal to elaborate, and Crystal determined to keep Aaron’s sperm count and her inhospitable womb to herself.

Finally, Mama sighed and said, “I could check the paper for yard sales. You just need a few basics to fill the empty rooms. It don’t need to be anything nice.”

“I can afford new furniture, Mama,” Crystal said, grabbing her slice again. “I’m not buying junk other people don’t want.”

“I suppose you have come a ways from where you started.” Mama stared at the ornate chandelier above the table and chewed her pizza, her eyes shining.  

Like all of Crystal’s clothes growing up, nearly everything her mother owned had belonged to someone else. The pizza in Crystal’s hands blurred. She may have come a long way from the girl who envied her classmates’ clothing, but she knew to never take things for granted.

“You’re right. The old stuff is made better,” she said. “We’ll go early tomorrow before it’s all picked over.”

Mama nodded and swallowed, hard, as if jagged words clung to the sticky pizza in her throat.

* * *

The next morning, Mama scanned the yard sale like a lioness seeking prey. Crystal followed in her wake, carrying the most expensive handbag she owned. An older man flipped through DVDs by an azalea and a woman stood behind a folding table that blocked the entrance to the house. Thankfully, Crystal didn’t know either of them. The woman waved. The man glared at Mama.

“Morning, Gerald,” Mama shouted. “I’m helping my daughter find furniture. She bought the Cartwright place.”

Gerald scrutinized Crystal from her sculpted brows to her Tory Burch flats. “Well, if all’s you want is furniture, I suppose you won’t be swooping in on my finds.” He pulled the cases close anyway.

“Not today,” Mama said. She leaned into Crystal and whispered, “I found a pristine copy of Gone with the Wind while he messed around with some scratched Die Hards. I doubt he even wanted it. He just can’t stand I found it first. I think he’s a hoarder, bless his heart. He don’t let a soul in that house of his on Everly, and he’ll buy about anything as long as it’s a deal.”

“Sounds familiar,” Crystal mumbled. They squeezed around Gerald and the over-grown azalea to a sofa and low tables. Crystal tapped her knuckles on an end table and shook her head. “It’s particle board, and the sofa smells like cats.”

“Suit yourself, sweetie. Let’s get to the next one. There might be something left worth buying.”

Crystal pushed aside a stack of dusty books on the table and picked up an orange vase. “This is Murano glass,” she said, rubbing her thumb across the signature etched on the bottom. She righted the vase and frowned at the price tag. “Why would they ask twenty? I saw something similar in Tribeca for almost a grand.”

“Maybe they don’t like the color,” Mama said as she gave the yard a second scan. “This is the only furniture they’ve got. We should move on.”

“Let me buy this.”

“Don’t pay the sticker,” Mama hissed as they approached the woman at the folding table.

“This is exquisite,” Crystal said, handing the woman a crisp twenty. She felt Mama’s disapproval like a laser beam on the back of her skull.

The woman flashed a smile that didn’t touch her eyes. “I got that as a wedding gift back in the seventies. Orange was in fashion then. Truth be told, I got tired of looking at it in my curio after all these years, but I hope you’ll enjoy it.”

Crystal tightened her grip on the cheery vase. “I’m sure I will.”

At the next sale, Crystal found a set of silver-rimmed dishes that complimented her wedding china.

“Don’t you have twelve place settings?” Mama asked as they stacked the dishes in their arms. “You can’t possibly need more.”

“I broke a saucer unpacking.”

“So, buy a saucer from one of those replacements sites.”

“Now that I have the space to entertain, I need more. I’m throwing a housewarming party once I’ve finished decorating.”

“Let me negotiate. There ain’t no way I’m letting you pay the sticker twice in one morning.”

* * *

“Looks like you’re going about this backward,” Mama said as they hefted the china into Crystal’s kitchen. “You ought to get the basics first.”

“I got what I liked. We’ll try again next week.”

 Mama smiled at Crystal for the first time since she’d moved back to Virginia. “It’s so nice, being able to make plans with you outside of a short visit.”

Crystal nodded. Her throat felt too tight to speak.

“I know this might not of been what you planned,” Mama said, patting Crystal on the shoulder, “But you’ll do well here.”

After Mama left, Crystal pulled the garbage can from under the kitchen sink and dug through the crinkled wrapping paper. When she found the shards of broken china, she used the delicate scrollwork as a guide to fit the parts together. Minus a small chip, the plate appeared whole. She’d been impulsive to throw the dish, tired and irritated at the Millers for leaving a mess behind. She shouldn’t have let it upset her. She could pay someone to clean out the junk in the attic.

Crystal tucked the broken pieces in an empty drawer and added superglue to her shopping list. Instead of stuffing the wrapping paper in the garbage, she folded each sheet and placed them in an empty cabinet in case she needed to ship something later. Next, she washed her new dishes and stacked them with her wedding china. Combined they filled one cabinet, leaving just enough room to remove the top plate with ease.

She grabbed the orange vase from the kitchen counter, climbed the steps to her office, and set it on the shelf below Mama’s plant. Sunlight from the window turn the glass into a drop of fire and cast orange shadows across the near-empty case. Crystal frowned. Used books would fill the shelves with minimal effort or expense. She’d switched to an e-reader to save room in her tiny condo, but it’d be nice to hold a book again. She regretted not browsing the hardbacks at the first sale and decided to pay more attention next time.


On Monday, Crystal logged into her weekly status meeting wearing an ironed shirt and pajama pants. Her boss, Kayla, leaned into the camera and smiled. “You’re wearing sweatpants, aren’t you?”


Kayla laughed. “How’s our Virginia office coming along, Well-Heeled Wanderer?”

“Well-Heeled Wanderer. Hardly. I moved back to my hometown, not Tibet. Where do you come up with these names?”

Kayla shrugged. “Something stands out with each demographic. I figure most of our clients are bored out of their minds.”

The software they developed merged census data with survey-based consumer profiles before creating distinct, stereotyped groups. It then provided the makeup of any zip code, allowing clients to determine which market best suited their product. It didn’t take a software engineer to know a Gucci store would fail in Crystal’s town, but the nuances of ever-changing regions like Manhattan required careful analysis.

“I guess humor is an added advantage,” Crystal said.

“True for men and software. Speaking of which—”

Crystal held out her hands. “Don’t. I’m getting my house in order before I even think of going there.”

“Well, when you tire of the Jesus and Jeans dating pool, let me know. A friend of mine from undergrad teaches at Roanoke College.”

Crystal nodded but steered the conversation to one of the bugs they discovered while beta testing the new release. Based on the boys she’d known in high school, finding love in the hills and hollers of Southwest Virginia seemed unlikely. She’d give it a year, two tops, to find a man who didn’t fear IVF would send him straight to hell before she used a sperm donor.

After the meeting, Crystal typed her current zip code into the software. She wasn’t holy or casual enough for the Jesus and Jeans segment that made up most of her town. The Big Wallet, Small Pants group met her income level, but typically included children. As a married, affluent woman without children in Hoboken, Crystal best fit the Concrete Power Couple segment, which didn’t exist in her hometown. At least she wasn’t Coupons and Clutter anymore. Crystal decided she didn’t fit any of the profiles listed. The software wasn’t perfect, which brought her back to the bug she needed to investigate.

On Tuesday, a stack of new resident promotions slid through the mail slot with her name above the Cartwright address. Crystal smiled at the official proof of her rise in the world, but as she went to trash the junk mail, she stopped. The promotions offered substantial one-time discounts. Even if she wasn’t part of the Coupons and Clutter demographic, it seemed silly to throw away money. Crystal flipped through the mail a second time, looking for what she might use and decided to keep everything until she knew what she needed for the house.

By Wednesday, Crystal missed Kayla’s animated hand gestures when she talked on the phone and Frank in accounting’s exotic tie selections. Both had entertained Crystal in the open-concept office when she took a break from her screen. Though she caught glimpses of each in Zoom meetings, the near-empty bookcase across from her desk offered little in the way of stimulation. By Friday, the stark white paint glared at her like a beast with a gaping maw waiting to be fed.

Crystal spent Saturday with Mama looking through other people’s things and returned with seven hard covered books. Some she’d read, some she hadn’t, but they all looked great on a shelf.

“I understand not wanting to waste money on something you don’t like,”
Mama said as she helped Crystal slide the last book in place, “But you need furniture.”

“If I don’t find anything in a month, we’ll drive to Roanoke and meet with a decorator. I have all the basics, even if they’re small. These empty shelves drove me crazy all week. Yard sales are perfect for finding what I need to fill them.”

“Well, if that’s what you want, sweetie. Just don’t junk up the place before you buy a bigger sofa.”

* * *

In Hoboken, Crystal was surrounded by people: Strangers on the train, the barista at the café who knew her order without asking, her coworkers and friends. Even in the privacy of her condo, she was never more than a room from Aaron, so close she could hear his light laughter at the television, his off-key notes in the shower. Crystal had forgotten silence. After years of noise, the stillness in the Cartwright house lay heavy. Whenever it smothered like shrink wrap, she researched upcoming yard sales and swap meets. She didn’t buy furniture. At first, nothing appealed to her, but after a month, she stopped looking for tables or bed frames or sofas. Who would carry it? Who would sit on it or sleep on it? Crystal had all the furniture she’d needed to live with Aaron. Now that she lived alone, she had more than enough. She stopped inviting Mama, who only wanted to glance at the furniture and leave for the next sale. Instead, Crystal spent hours sifting through old photographs in tarnished frames, lockets, baby shoes, and souvenir spoons. The possibility of finding castaway treasure pulled her from bed each Saturday.

She spotted Gerald on occasion. At first, he watched her like a secret service agent as they scoured the sales in tandem. Once he determined she wasn’t interested in DVDs or children’s toys, he greeted her with a nod. She hoped to God Gerald had a dozen dote-worthy grandchildren or made a living selling crap on eBay.

Crystal browsed a few online auction sites without success. More than the things themselves, she wanted to meet the people selling them. Did they smile? Did they smell of cigarette smoke or beef jerky or hand sanitizer? Did they seem sad to part with their things, or were they bored, grabbing Crystal’s money without a second glance at what she’d take? Sometimes she’d leave with stories like the one that came with the Murano vase, but more often she gained a vague impression and added details in the quiet hours at the house.

As weeks passed, Crystal filled the silence with her voice, inventing stories about the things she bought and those left behind. The emptiness surrounding her possessions, even as they grew, made each object precious. She spent hours studying them. She learned the detail of every jar in the cellar before constructing a life for the woman who labored over food she’d leave to rot.

“She died,” Crystal announced to the assembled Mason jars. “She passed suddenly, and her family left all this untouched to remember her.”

Each week, she allowed herself a handful of papers from the attic, words belonging to people whose names remained in faded ink or smudged pencil. Tizzy Cartwright excelled at Home Economics. Perhaps she’d become the ill-fated canner. Letters to Santa from the 30s proved at least one Cartwright had kids and carried on.

There was no order to the attic. Scraps of life from Cartwrights to Millers and everyone in between shuffled together in a mosaic of paper. She left the attic wild, but tried to keep her things in neat piles on the second floor. By late July, however, the piles began to flow into one another like a gentle current. When her collection expanded to the downstairs, she started inviting Mama out to lunch on Saturdays.

* * *

The first week of October began with the team’s third-quarter review. “I’m pleased with the feedback metrics from the last survey,” Kayla said. Though separated by New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Appalachian Mountains, and a computer screen, Crystal bobbed her head in unison with the rest of the team while Kayla read a summary of the responses.

As her boss droned, Crystal’s focus drifted to the portion of screen that mirrored how she appeared to her New York colleagues. She admired the tasteful artwork behind her desk. Aaron had given her the watercolor for their third anniversary. Abstract and predominately orange, it was not what she would have selected herself. She’d grown to love it in the Cartwright House. She had her back to the painting most of the time, but in meetings, it gave her a visual personality that surpassed the cold boardroom surrounding her coworkers. The painting made Crystal appear whimsical, yet polished, a description that better suited her ex.

Aaron would have loved that she worked in designer blouses and flannel PJ bottoms. As Kayla rambled about the launch metrics, Crystal thought of Aaron’s full, unaffected laugh. The memory made her smile until it didn’t. He’d never know this version of her. Did his laugh even sound the same now that he had become someone apart from her?

“Have you settled into Jesus and Jeans land?” Kayla asked.

The rest of the team chuckled, giving Crystal a moment to bring her mind back to the meeting. She focused on Frank’s palm tree tie instead of the painting behind her head. “I’m avoiding both, but the house is coming along.”

 “You’ll have to pick up that laptop and take us on a tour,” Kayla said. “We’d like to see the rest of the place.”

Bile climbed a burning trail up Crystal’s throat. The camera only captured the small space behind her desk. “Sounds good,” she said. The words rubbed against her stinging throat, forcing Crystal to swallow before she spoke again. “I may have found a fix for the bug you mentioned last week. Let me show you.”

“Great job,” Kayla said once Crystal demonstrated the bug fix. “Working from home suits you.”

After the team signed off, Crystal stared at the shelves across her office wall. Her mother’s geranium had succumbed to dehydration months ago and scattered brittle blossoms like a petulant flower girl. One had landed in the Murano vase in a Hail Mary attempt for water. She hadn’t realized before how much the orange glass complimented Aaron’s painting.

She tapped her bunny slipper on the hardwood floor in time with her frantic heartbeat before swiveling her chair to face the wall behind her desk. Perhaps she should mail the painting to him—or rather his lawyer. Despite a decade of shared morning coffee, laundry duty, and hunts for missing keys, she didn’t have Aaron’s new address, just as he didn’t have hers.

As Crystal considered what that meant, the doorbell rang, followed by a firm knock. She sent her chair crashing into the desk when she stood. The rational part of her brain assumed it was FedEx, but the part that believed in the power of things left behind, in the stories she told herself of people she didn’t know, felt certain it was Aaron. He had found her because, after all these months of feeling nothing, she missed him. She rounded the corner in the upstairs hallway at a sprint and tripped on a stack of framed prints. She leapt over the broken glass and slid in her slippered feet before thumping against a basket of unfolded clothes. She needed to hang those damn prints. And fold her laundry. Another knock, the rap rap issued with more force and less pause between, sent her down the stairs two at a time. She reached the heavy door out of breath and yanked it open without checking the peephole.

“You look ill, sweetie,” Mama said, placing her hand on Crystal’s forehead.

Crystal stepped onto the porch and pulled the door shut behind her. “I’m fine.”

“I thought I’d stop in to see what all you’ve done. I haven’t been by the house since early August.”

“Nothing,” Crystal said. “I’ve been so busy with work. I should get back now.”

“You’ve been here six months. When’s your Housewarming Party?”

Crystal gripped the doorknob and prepared to run inside. “Mama, I’m too busy to throw a party.”

“You bought this house so nobody would feel sorry for you. Hiding in your office seems the fastest way to earn their pity, if you ask me.”

“I didn’t,” Crystal mumbled.

“Your friends must be giving you a hard time about all those empty rooms.”

“They’re too busy with their husbands and kids to worry about my decorating. Besides, they haven’t been by since spring.”

“That’s it?” Mama crossed her arms and waited.

“I guess I haven’t invited them over. We talk on the phone.”

“The phone, Crystal. You probably saw more of them when you lived in New Jersey.”

“I told them I needed space to settle in.”

“Seems to me all you’ve got is space. Let’s go inside and make a list of the furniture you need. It’ll only take a minute.”

Crystal’s fingers ached from her hold on the doorknob, but she squeezed tighter. Her mind cycled through excuses to keep her mother on the porch. Flea infestation. A virulent stomach bug. Vanilla-scented candles burning in every room. Her mind was too jumbled with the past and the stories she’d told herself to think of a good reason to keep Mama on the porch. She decided to go with a slight truth. “I have to clean first. I know how particular you are.” The moment the words left her mouth, Crystal wanted to rip them back.

Mama stepped toward the door. “I told you this place was more than you could handle. Let me help.”

Of all the stupid things to say. Of course, her mother, a professional cleaning woman, would insist she come inside. “I need to get back to work, Mama.”

“You work. I’ll clean.”

“I can’t concentrate with you vacuuming around me. We’ll make a list when I take you out Saturday.”

 “Suit yourself,” Mama said and started down the porch steps. She stopped midway and turned. “I suppose you like keeping busy.”

“Who doesn’t?”

Mama raised an eyebrow and waited. Crystal unclenched her fingers from the doorknob and crossed her arms over her chest.

“We all fill the hours somehow,” Mama said softly. “I’ll bring pizza on Saturday. We can measure for area rugs while we eat.”

Crystal nodded, fearing her breakfast would empty onto the porch if she opened her mouth. When Mama’s car turned the corner, Crystal went inside and squeezed through the narrow path in the hallway to the living room.

Clutter was the enemy of tiny spaces, but the emptiness of the Cartwright House held a weight of its own. Little by little, she’d tried to fill it.

“I’ll pick up,” she said, sorting through the nearest pile. Hours later, she’d moved everything to the dining room and blocked her only path to the kitchen. With a sigh, she went to bed.

The next morning brought the first cold snap of fall. A strong wind rattled the shutters and sent a chill through the house. Crystal dug through her dresser until she found her favorite sweater. As she dressed, one of Aaron’s gym socks untangled from the sleeve. She clenched the soft grey fabric until her fingernails whitened.

She walked slowly downstairs and pushed a path through her things to the kitchen. The trashcan under the sink was empty since all the egg cartons, cereal boxes and moldy bread stayed on the counter.

“There,” she said, placing Aaron’s sock in the empty bin and shutting the cabinet doors.

She couldn’t breathe. The room dimmed and spun. She groped under the sink while spots of red and black clouded her vision. The moment her fingers clasp the sock, she laid on the cold tile and savored the air rushing into her lungs.

The other sock might be tucked with the rest of her winter clothes. Or perhaps Aaron had it and was patiently waiting for the day he found its mate.  She could send it to him with the painting, if she wanted.  Or, at the very least, use it to dust.

Hoarder. Mama had called Gerald one. Crystal thought of all the labels her company’s software spat. Despite mountains of data and precise calculations by zip code, it couldn’t see through walls. It said where people might like to shop or how much disposable income they probably had, but it couldn’t tell why they bought the things they did, why they kept them, or why they threw them away. It couldn’t see the truths held deep inside. It didn’t account for longing, love, or even the ways families were made and lost.

She returned to her bedroom and opened the closet door. Unlike the rest of the house, the inside was the same as the day she unpacked. She’d worn, washed, and rehung blouses without realizing she’d left room for him.

Crystal carried the sock to the attic and plugged in the antique Christmas lights, holding the last of Aaron while she looked at all the things left behind, things that should have been treasured: birthday cards, love letters, a bible with names of long-dead Cartwrights. Things that had been worth saving, but not keeping.

Born in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, Kathryn Hively has been migrating northeast for two decades. She holds an MA from Rutgers University-Newark and an MFA from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in Ravishly, Philadelphia Stories and Prime Number Magazine, among others. "The Things They Left Behind" is part of a short story collection-in-progress about obsessive-compulsive disorder and other forms of neurodivergence. She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters.

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