| The Corner Behind the Garbage Can
By Suzanne Rho
“Doesn’t he… talk?” The question is tentative, hesitant, laced with pity. You’ve realized the woman you’
ve exchanged pleasantries - “How’s it going?”, “Be glad when the schools are back,” that kind of thing -
has a child with a problem. You’ve never noticed before because why would you? Seven houses away
barely constitutes as a neighbor, not really. But after what, four years? You probably should have known
something, shouldn’t you?
A sigh, low enough that out of the two of us, only I can hear it, emanates from her. Her lips are pressed
together in a straight line. And then she utters a single word, a little louder, more defiant than she wishes
she needs to be. “No.”
You don’t know what to say to that - most people don’t, so you say nothing. You incline your head and
offer what you assume is a sympathetic smile - an incorrect assumption. You take a step backwards, both
your feet are planted once again within the confines of your own garden. You remark something about the
weather, like you haven’t just put your foot so monumentally in it. You wish the ground would swallow you
whole and like you actually care that that cloud up there is gonna let rip. Your eyes are already darting to
the red Kia two doors up and the silver Megane across the street. Once we’re gone, my mother with her
harsh lines and one word answers and broken child, you’ll round up Kia and Megane and you’ll discuss
me. The nine-year-old who doesn’t talk.
People like you always do.
Her answer used to be different. Like a lot of things. When asked if I talked, she’d say, “He used to,”
which I did, or, “Oh, he will - he just got scared,” before whispering low enough it was plausible I wouldn’t
hear: He got stage fright; we think it will pass. It isn’t technically a lie.
But it wasn’t stage fright that took my voice, so it isn’t the truth either.
“He hasn’t said anything?”
The nurse shakes her head. Glances, then shifts to the side, as though facing just that little more away
from me will somehow render me deaf as well as mute. “He also hasn’t… moved. Though, he doesn’t
seem to show any signs he’s in pain.”
I’m good at hiding signs.
You frown, before deducing I’m in shock. You’ve put the work in, studied meticulously. Having the title of
Junior Doctor has granted you far fewer wins than you thought it would have. Nearly a month of sleep
deprivation, an increase in your depression meds and an onset of irritable bowel syndrome and you’d
diagnosed no more than a cluster headache. When I’m wheeled in and presented to you like a scuffed up
suitcase on an airport carousel, I’m a safe bet. Easy diagnosis. Because what else, other than the
physical injuries he should have sustained but didn’t would a ten-year-old have besides shock? A ten-year-
old who had been stuck inside a wrecked car, with nothing but his dead aunt and the razor sharp tree
branch protruding through the window for company?
I imagine, if it was shock that took away my ability to move my joints freely, it would have returned by now.
But like my voice, it never did.
A long time ago, before my father left, and before I became a mute, my mother would smile sometimes.
The memories are hazy now, but they exist. Occasionally, I’ll be struck by a grainy, colorless image, like a
photograph taken before color ink was a thing, of a real family. And there were photographs even. Before
my mother put them in the garbage. I can remember that, at least.
Years ago I would yearn for those images, the ones in my mind at least. I’d beg silently to any diety willing
to listen to grant me just a few seconds of remembrance to what one might call good times. That was
before I worked out on those days I saw more than just memories.
I would stand, poised, staring at a point just past the garbage can. Since I don’t speak or move much, I
do a lot of standing around staring at the things I wish weren’t there. I would wonder if our house - or
perhaps just my existence, was nothing more than a bigger garbage can, taking up a bigger, sadder
corner in someone else’s bigger and sadder kitchen. My mother would stand and stare at my staring, the
saddest of all.
You’re frighteningly familiar and I don’t know why.
You find me in the same way someone stumbles upon a long forgotten potato, rolled to the back of the
cupboard that’s begun to sprout white, tentacle-like limbs. You’re hauling gnarled, mish mashed pieces of
firewood, mumbling something about how all this wood gathering was nowhere in your job description.
You were hired as a chef - a sous chef, admittedly, but certainly not as Gill’s errand boy. You’re too old to
be considered anything close to a boy. You’d be considered an errand man, if anything.
You see my shoe first. It’s no wonder, the thing is firetruck red. Even in the dull of the shed its brightness
“What the-” you don’t finish your sentence. Probably because you get a glance at a sliver of bare - and
probably blue - ankle, the space between where the crimson eyesore ends and the leg of my jeans
begins. “Oh God,” you say. A pointless exclamation. If there is a God, He stopped listening to all pleas
and prayers regarding me years ago.
You, with a great deal of huffing - seriously, you’re almost purple by the time you’re finished, manage to
shift the pallets. I glare at them and then glare at you. Them for trapping me here and you for freeing me.
You say, “Hey,” and offer me a hand. I say nothing and ignore it.
I learn too much about you as you drive me home. I had to hand you the card my mother wrote, the one I’
m to keep on my person at all times. Our address is printed across it in my mother’s loopy script. I’d done
so only after your threats of calling some kind of authority.
It was a rule, you see. The one my mother had made after the accident. No authorities. They wouldn’t
understand me. Understandable considering I also didn’t understand me. And they’d take me away.
Sometimes I wondered where.
Your name is Kevin and you never wanted to be a sous chef. Your favorite author is James Patterson.
No, I’ve never read him. The cold gnaws at me. The few layers of clothing I’m wearing do little, if anything,
to thaw me. A hot bath, you tell me. This is what will fix me right up. I do nothing. You talk. You make jam
- any kind but not strawberry because you get hives, and you have messier handwriting than my mother.
The phone number scrawled beneath the words Kevin McDade is almost impossible to decipher.
“Call me,” you say.
The fact her son spent the night trapped by an avalanche of fallen pallets in the shed of a nearby hotel
doesn’t faze my mother and yet your words do. I watch her place the paper in the garbage.
Then, much later, I watch her retrieve it.
As much as it irked me, for reasons I hadn’t then deduced, I found myself following Kevin’s advice that
day. I lowered myself, with difficulty, beneath the surface of the water. I stayed there for over half an hour. I
didn’t heat up but my mother had said I’d also need a multitude of hot drinks and several blankets and
time. Probably also professional medical treatment for hypothermia (but no authorities).
I haven’t felt anything other than cold since that day. That was seven years ago and though the night itself
is hazy, the corner of shed I could see through a gap in the pallets remains, clear and unwavering, in my
I saw him then - I only say him because I always have. Just as I saw him in the corner of the auditorium,
the day I got stage fright. Just as he sat - a silhouetted mass of pure darkness, in the car beside my dead
aunt when I lost a great deal of my movement.
That’s when I lost my warmth.
I suppose he’s human. And yet, there’s something so incredibly inhuman about a black shape of a man
who isn’t a man. Who can’t be a man because he’s no more than a dark something who watches without
eyes, examining you, taking stock of you, cataloging your movements. He’s soundless and still. A chill -
even more so than the one constantly present in my bones, comes over anyone close to him. Even my
mother feels it.
He’s always in corners. Sometimes I’ll just know. Perhaps I’ve developed an extra sense as other parts
of me vanished. An acute awareness of his presence.
My mother fusses over her hair and shoes and dress.
“It’s cold in here,” she says, frowning as she wiggles the thermostat. She isn’t wrong. My eyes flicker to
She runs her hands down the fabric for the sixth time and, though she’s been ready for half an hour at
least, still flaps when the knock comes.
Kevin compliments her, hands her a small wad of peonies and offers me a curt nod I don’t return.
“There’s soup on the hob,” she calls as they leave.
And then there were two. He and I. I’m staring at the garbage. A corner of the plastic the peonies were
wrapped in is poking out. He’s in the corner, the point just behind.
He’s silent. He’s still. He’s cold.
For the first time, my gaze rises and though he doesn’t move, so does his. Perhaps this is a climax.
Though shouldn’t a climax be less silent, less still, less cold? He inclines his head and I know it’s time
though I don’t know what for so I close my eyes.
I’m silent. I’m still. I’m cold.
The door opens - so soon? More noise than there ought to be floods through. My mother’s voice is
saying something. There’s a singsong quality there I don’t recognize and that’s stranger than the fact the
noise is coming from the exact opposite direction it should be. Kevin laughs at whatever she says which
is the strangest of all because my mother isn’t funny.
They’re drowned out by a high-pitched caterwauling.
I open my eyes.
I don’t know why my gaze is drawn first to her outfit. Gone is the dress and in its place is… pajamas?
How odd. She speaks again. Something I can barely make out but that Kevin finds hilarious. Her face,
too, is off. The lines she’d tried to conceal with soft, ivory powder not an hour ago were gone. So is the
soup on the hob. So are the purple walls. Instead, they’re wallpapered. A sight I recognize, I think? My
eyes flicker to the garbage. The only thing that looks as it should, even if it is in a different place than it
was a minute ago.
It’s only when the cry comes again do I pay the baby any mind.
It’s Kevin that picks it up. “That’s my boy,” he coos and I try to swallow. I can’t. I back up further though
feel nothing even as I know my back meets each wall that makes up the corner.
The corner behind the garbage can.
My mother hums as she approaches, her hands full of plastic wrappings, and baby blue envelopes. Her
eyes sparkle in a way I don’t ever remember. For a moment, her eyes sweep the corner, the ghost of a
frown flickering over her face as she does. I’m silent. I’m still. I’m cold. My mother looks over her
“Is it just me or is it cold in here?”
|About Suzanne Rho
Suzanne lives in Scotland with
her husband, three children,
one grumpy black cat and two
ridiculous huskies. When not
procrastinating, she can be
found reading, drinking tea, or
writing. Suzanne is currently
querying her debut novel, and
examples of more of her short
stories can be found at
instagram is @rho.writes
|To read other short stories,
click one of the titles below.