WARM MILK by Hannah Sutherland (1st place, Flash Nov20)

He’s drinking the glass of warm milk as he’s always done before bed, a ritualistic habit, born from his childhood. Slurps it down, wipes his lips with the back of his hand, says a satisfied “ahh,” then puts the glass in the dishwasher after rinsing it with lukewarm water.

I think it’s the only pleasure he gets in a day now, warm milk.

He slips in beside me, being extremely careful not to touch my arms. I wouldn’t mind, I want to say, if his skin accidentally brushed mine. Wouldn’t mind at all. But of course I don’t, because we don’t talk anymore, and how ludicrous I’d feel, as his wife, saying such a statement.

He’s showered before I wake, pulling on his trousers, straightening his tie. It’s as if with every added pressure and stress at work, his suits get tighter, suffocating him until he’s barely breathing. Hardly able to function at all. He stands, looking at his reflection in the intricate mirror above my dressing table, barely holding it together, but to a stranger, he’d look every inch the professional he alludes to be.

I take myself to the park on my lunch break, desperate for my fix of fresh air, to wipe away the cobwebs, as my co-workers say, pleased with their cliché. I’m walking, kicking my boots through the fallen leaves, shades of yellow and brown, covering the greenery, and I see him. I think I’m imagining it, the way he leans over, cocooned into himself, rubbing his eyes, looking small but finally accessible.

So I stand, observing, hiding behind the overhanging oak, the bark imprinting on my hands, and in my mind, I walk over to him, sit beside him and without saying a word, he knows. He rests his head on my shoulder and he’s suddenly not so heavy anymore. “I’ll quit,” he tells me, and the relief is so strong I vomit. After a while, we kick through the leaves, walking home, holding hands like we used to do when he loved me, when he loved himself. And together we are more powerful than when we are alone.

He gets up and stretches, shakes away his feelings, and he’s back, the steely man in the suit who looks completely fine to everyone.

Almost everyone.

I walk over to him, feeling bold, and as he sees me, his face falters. We embrace, folding into one another’s bodies. I don’t know what will happen next, or if I can help him, if he will even let me, but I’ll try. And just before we break our hold, I whisper into his chest, “I’ve got you.”

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