This Week in Short Fiction


There are moments when time slows, when awareness is heightened, when every sound and smell and shadow holds a painful kind of beauty. It happens when you know an irrevocable change is coming. It happens during grief. Meghan Lamb’s new story in The Collagist, “Afraid of the Rain,” evokes this feeling so expertly that time may just slow down, for just a moment, for you.

The light within the curtains is the first thing she sees. A tired light. A meager shadowing of lattices. A light like skin stretched tight across an aching ribcage. She breathes in. She breathes out. Turns toward his indentation in the sheets.

The story opens on what at first seems a normal day. A woman wakes, hears her husband in the shower. He gets dressed, comes to the bed to say goodbye to his wife before he leaves for work. But there’s an underlying tension, something not quite right. There’s too much awareness of her husband’s breath. The man doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He says, “Last time I wear this suit.” We think maybe he’s retiring. Maybe he’s getting laid off. But the mood Lamb creates with her precise, ultra-aware prose hints at something more.

She lines the dishes on the drying rack. It’s like a metal skeleton with rows of white ceramic organs. The steam rises. She dries off her hands. The smell of burning leaves mingles with lemon. She stands over the sink, stares into the drain.

She grinds the coffee, pours it in the filter, pours the water in the tank, then waits and listens for that sacred churling sound.

Another wave of steam. She breathes in. She breathes out. She holds the coffee in both hands. She sips it like she’s sipping from a golden chalice.

Lamb’s descriptions are laden with sensory details of seemingly mundane tasks like doing the dishes or making coffee, elevating them to something special, even emotionally charged. She mingles pleasing details, like the smell of smoke and lemon, with ominous ones, like “metal skeleton” and “white ceramic organs.” The pacing is slow, deliberate. The woman sips her coffee as if from “a golden chalice.” She’s cherishing every moment. The feeling of unease grows.

When the groceries are rung up, she does not take her receipt. She does not want to see what she bought or what it cost. It is a challenge, but she knows there is no point to it, that way of thinking. Now. She must try. She does not want to see things that way.

As you read, the details start to add up. The bills the woman is preparing, even if they haven’t come yet. The splurges on rich food and brandy. The careful selection of clothes. The cleaning of the house, the cleaning out of the fridge. Breadcrumbs so small, they almost seem insignificant. But this is a story you should read twice. The second time will be an entirely new experience.

But even as the story rides an undercurrent of unease, it’s also steeped in beauty, in all the wondrous, small details of being alive. The smell of smoke in fall. The sheen of rich oils left on a plate. The sound of children’s shoes on a playground. The heat of a body next to you in bed.

He gets into bed. She feels the halo of his body heat. He breathes in. He breathes out, his halo widening to take her in. Her heart beats faster. Crickets chirping, still. Her heart begins to pound. She reaches for his hand. He holds it firmly in his own.

Even as it moves towards its inevitable end, the story is filled with appreciation of life and of love. The real power of the story lies not in its ending, but in the minute beauty of a moment, the often overlooked pleasures of a life lived with another person, and the fervent hope that we won’t be alone, especially at the end.

Claire Burgess’s short fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Hunger Mountain, and PANK online, among others. Her stories have received special mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American anthologies, but haven’t actually made it into one yet. She’s a graduate of the Vanderbilt University MFA program, where she co-founded Nashville Review. She lives in Pittsburgh by way of the deep South and says things on Twitter @Clairabou_. More from this author →