He told them not to make a sound, not even to smile. What better way to make children smile than to tell them not to. They simply could not help it. They tried to cover their mouths with their hands but it was no use. The burst of laughter was inevitable. Their father would clear his throat in disapproval, buying a few seconds of silence. Then their faces would scrunch, air would spurt from their noses, and it would start all over again.
Thrift stores, antique stores, yard sales; he frequented them all looking for her face. The search had transformed him into a collector. Little space was left, the walls of his home were covered in frames of every size, stained in every color, some carved, some gilded, all containing portraits of people without names, all deserving a prominent place to hang, just as her portrait once did, just as it would again someday.
Living out of their car was easy at first, amusing even, like an adventure. After a year, it no longer felt so exciting. Her paycheck covered daycare for her daughter while she was at work, with just enough left over for two meals a day each, nothing more. The girl had stopped asking when they would go home, a loss of hope that broke her mother's heart. It was the knock on her window one rainy morning that changed everything.
The trees bordered the small cabin. She had retreated to the valley three years ago, the last two of which she had spent building the cabin. She had carefully chosen which trunk to fell, making sure not to disrupt the natural shade in the valley. Beside each stump, she planted a sapling. She had to maintain the thickness of the forest. It was the only way to keep their home secure.
Her business had grown immensely by word of mouth. People had less and less time to tend to such things; she, on the other hand, had all the time in the world. The words came easily. She could write them as if she were writing a greeting card, a one-size-fits-all type of operation. Of course, she would change the names and add in a few personal details for humor. All of which her customers received with the utmost gratitude.
She deeply enjoyed the thought of a new book. The cover confidently displaying the author's name and surely poignant title. The front matter with scattered acclaim from novelists and critics alike, reassuring the read would be time well spent. Slowly, she would drink from her optimistic glass. Some days the glass remained full until the very last line. Most days, it spontaneously shattered before she could turn the first page.
The headache had slowly made its presence known, occupying one synapse at a time until it was impossible to ignore. She swallowed 600 milligrams of ibuprofen with a full glass of water, and then chased it with a cup of coffee. By the afternoon, she had repeated this routine four times. When her vision blurred, she called her doctor, who requested that she come into his office. By the time she grabbed her purse to leave, she had gone blind.
She left him sleeping soundly upstairs and crept down to the kitchen. They had talked through every detail until the early morning hours. She had managed to drift off for two restless hours before her alarm rang at 6 a.m. From the sunny windowsill, the cat greeted her with a tall stretch of its back, a deep bow, and a sleepy-eyed nuzzle of her hand. It was unfathomable how they could leave, but leave it precisely what they planned to do.
Everyone wanted an explanation. Everyone wanted answers. Everyone wanted to help, and no one wanted to leave her alone. She no longer wanted to explain what happened, or why it happened, or how it happened. All she knew was that it happened and there was nothing any of them could do to change it. When she refused help, they worried. When she insisted on being alone, they worried. But when she disappeared, they called the police.
Every September, the scent wafted through the air and sent her mind tumbling back to a time that she no longer owned. To a time when she could shake out her hair from its ponytail, reach behind her back, and grab the long thick strands with her fingers. To a time when her shy demeanor made her endearing and innocent, instead of reticent and harmed. To a time when she knew nothing of the outside world, and the world knew nothing of her.
No amount of water or scrubbing could dislodge the grime from his pores, which had penetrated the fibers of his clothes and provided him insulation from the night air. For this he was thankful, despite the mildew and pungent body odor that he could no longer smell but knew was there just by the reality of his situation. He could not say as much for the threadbare blanket that he dragged along with him, but it was all he had.
She watched his face, looking for some clue that he was telling a joke, a crude and insensitive joke, but a joke all the same. He had left, and she stood in the doorway, waiting for him to reappear and shout, "Just kidding!" He never reappeared. She stared at the empty driveway, the miserable words still hanging in the air. Now it was her responsibility to tell her husband. It was this thought, not the initial news, that made her sick.
She was skimming the pages for his name, and simultaneously kicking herself for making the mistake. Paragraph after paragraph, she searched for the error. Her job on the line, his job on the line, the magazine's future in jeopardy because of one Freudian slip. Although it was another finger who keyed it, she was responsible for that finger, she had read the copy as it skidded across her desk, signing it off without a second thought.
They stood hand in hand by the newsstand, each a clear contradiction to those on the covers in front of them. They would probably never grace one of those covers. Yet there they stood, fingers interlaced, connected for life, accepted for life. She sat on the bench studying them, and becoming increasingly distraught over their presence. She was on the cover of one of those magazines, and accepted was something she had never felt.
She enjoyed it, seeing it as an opportunity to visit with old friends confined between the covers she counted. She watched the clock, patiently waiting for close. Then she locked the door behind the last customer and began. She retrieved each book from its perch and rifled through its pages, giving each air before bidding farewell. The task was always predictable. But that night, she found out how fragile the word "always" is.
She spent each day searching the crowds for his face. The patrons in line at the grocery store, the drivers filling their cars with gas at the corner station. She used to take her morning coffee to go. Now she sat quietly at the corner table, sipping the hot drink and surveying the cafe. In a town of 20,000 people, she was bound to run into him sooner or later. She wished for sooner, but she got later.
He was walking through the crowded courtyard to the main library. Although he preferred otherwise, the path took him right past the anthropology building. And again, his peripheral vision failed to warn him. He tried a last-minute swerve to avoid the distracted walker, but she crashed into him, sending papers flying from their arms and into the wind. It was the third time this week. He was beginning to think she was doing it on purpose.
It was later than normal when he shut down his computer and left the building without locking the doors. He was relieved to see his car alone in the lot. He turned the key in the ignition and listened as the car's engine rolled over with ease. He waited patiently for the clock on his dashboard to read 8 p.m. and then pulled out of his spot, making sure to avoid eye contact with the other driver pulling in as he left.
She left her apartment and walked to the bar down the street. She needed the comfort of this bar, some place quiet, some place familiar. It was still early, the evening influx of high heels and oxfords had yet to arrive. She would make sure to leave before it did. She sat on her usual stool and ordered her usual drink. The bartender delivered her glass with a lime and a napkin, and then he left her alone.
Our bellies had never felt so full during so many consecutive days. Each night, we cleaned our plates in record speed. Then our mother would retrieve another basket of rolls or bowl of vegetables from the kitchen and fill our plates again. The idea of eating another bite was unfathomable. We would refuse the extra food but my mother would insist and say, "We may never get another chance to feast like this." She was right.
He drove past abandoned rows of corn, stalks leaning in the wind, draping over the shoulder of the road. He sped by, the blur of green and gold turning the view through his side windows into abstract watercolor paintings. Then the stalks abruptly disappeared. Fields of once tilled dirt left behind for the sun to burn and the weeds to inhabit. He turned off the highway onto a dirt road lined with agricultural machinery he could not name.
She thought she could avoid the inevitable if she moved across town. But that failed, so she moved to another town, and then another after that. In the span of five years, she had moved twelve different times, lived in nine different towns, and attended eight different schools, one town being so remote that it was without a school of its own. She had learned to stop investing in people. She would offer her name if asked, but little more.
His assignment was to inspect each room. The view was always the same, rows of empty desks, each equipped with a flat computer monitor. The scene reminded him of his high school computer science class, although this certainly was not a high school. Each room was windowless and lit by a single fluorescent bulb hanging on the far wall. Below each bulb was a numbered keypad of which he had lacked clearance to use until now.
They had their pick of lettuces to bed their homegrown zucchini and tomatoes. They had tended the garden all summer and felt proud to devour their hard work. Although the carrots, which never grew, were still a sore subject. Her brother blamed it on the rabbits that lived beneath the overgrown lavender bush near the back fence. She, however, blamed it on her brother who had flooded the soil the day they had sowed the seeds.
She could see it nibbling on the cheese, testing its validity before committing to the meal. Sitting atop the rock, her feet braced against a fallen tree, she watched patiently as the fish made its final decision. At the first tug, she pulled up on the pole, the end of the line rising aggressively out of the water, the ball of cheese now in the mouth of her first catch, a beautiful and appetizing rainbow trout.
His skin was moist. His hands clutched his sides in a desperate attempt to stop his body from convulsing. His eyes darted in confusion from one person to the next, he tried to speak but his words coagulated and fell out of his mouth like rocks. Someone was yelling for help. He knew the voice, a woman's voice, but he could not remember her name. His mind was failing, his body was collapsing from the inside out, and he could do nothing to stop it.
Her mother disappeared often for work, absent for weeks at a time. She would return exhausted, her body deformed, her skin red and tough from exposure, yet she would silently slip back into her family's life as if she had never left. The girl had just turned twelve when she discovered what her mother did to earn a living. On an early spring morning, her mother roused the girl from her sleep and explained that it was time to go.
Every once in awhile, she would catch glimpses of the moon through the trees, but the canopy was so thick, she relied heavily on her flashlight to see the road. She had been walking at night to spare her body from the summer heat. It was safer that way anyhow, a fact she had to experience to believe. Her pace was quick out of necessity. By her calculations, she would reach them in three days, but it may be three days too late.
He would be gone for two months and no more, he had promised. The first couple of weeks, he emailed regularly. He would relay stories from the road, difficulties he had with the language, the constant demand depleting the supplies. Soon his email became less frequent until they stopped altogether. When the two month marked came and went without his return, she packed her bag and bought a ticket on the first flight out to find him.
She tried to use the paddle to dislodge the canoe, its bow stuck in the sludge that lined the shore. She should have pushed the boat out into the water before getting in, but the idea of wading through the dark water was simply unacceptable. The current took hold of the boat and she lost her grip on the paddle, it still stuck in the mud, sticking straight up toward the stars, a pinnacle of mockery illuminated by the moonlight.
The truck's engine was loud, the dash was covered with a layer of dirt that had been there since his father had purchased it a year ago. Together, they had walked across town to finalize the deal. The old man had been sitting on his front porch, waiting for them. His father had given the man two hundred dollars and a large sack of potatoes they had dug up that same day. The man was more excited about the potatoes than the cash.
She withdrew a notebook and pen from her red canvas tote and opened to a blank page. With nothing to write, she abandoned the book and pulled out a collection of short stories instead. The book went with her everywhere. Its pages curled with use and its binding could use a bit of reinforcement, but it still read well and that is what mattered. On most days, it gave her inspiration. Today was not most days.
He had heard the secret from a friend of a friend. How that friend had known was a secret in itself. It took a full week, seven aggravating days, to get confirmation, but when the truth that supported the gossip arrived, he was shocked by his reaction. He should have been devastated. He should have felt confused and blindsided, but in fact, all he felt was relief.
She was a survivor by trade. She had escaped unscathed from a hurricane, a tornado, and an earthquake. She had negotiated her way out of being a hostage in a bank robbery. She had swam to land after a rogue wave capsized her yacht. She had walked away from a plane crash, and even a head-on collision with a semi truck on the interstate. That is why it was such a shock that she could not survive him.
At 7 a.m., she drank her coffee black when the barista forgot to leave room for cream. At noon, she ate her saturated salad when the waiter forgot to serve the vinaigrette on the side. At 5 p.m., she listened respectfully to her boss as he berated her for not mailing the contract though it was her coworker that had forgot to do so. She worked relentlessly to avoid conflict every day of her life, until one day when her well of patience ran dry.
He was used to losing his balance, the rush of air from each passing car nearly knocking him off his feet. The work was menial, yet his body and mind ached at the end of each day. His mind ached with worry, too. His job was dangerous, a distracted driver could easily end up with him as a hood ornament. His best friend was proof. He still felt uncomfortable speaking of him in the past tense. So much so that he stopped speaking of him altogether.
He came to a break in the road, a literal crack in the asphalt that ran from embankment to embankment and was the width of a stride and a half. He had to dismantle the cart from the back of the bike and empty it completely to get all his belongings across the divide. All but one item he tossed to the other side. Undoubtedly, throwing the bike would damage it. With the frame hanging awkwardly from his shoulder, he hoped for the best and leaped.
He knew among the missing were mothers and daughters, aunts and sisters, grandmothers and granddaughters. He was not related by blood to any of the missing, but he knew one name. It was a name he never wished to see on such a list. Because of that name, he flew across the country to join the search. For every second of the five-hour flight, he prayed it would remain an effort of rescue, not recovery.
She sat glued to her seat, her knuckles turning white as she gripped the armrests. Her heart was pounding harder than her chest could contain. It happened right in front of her. She felt as if it were a dream, she opened her mouth but no sound came out, her legs were dead weight and refused to move. She remembered her phone in her purse on the floor. She could call for help if only she could manage to retrieve it.
The girl lay on her back on the upper deck of the sailboat. Arms wrapped across her waist, she stared through her sunglasses at the passing clouds. She was alone and recently bored. She had been alone for fifteen days. One day more than years she was old, one day less than the days of experience she had sailing such a craft. She was stranded by choice, but it was a choice not her own.
He used to scour the newspapers, cutting out and saving the articles that mentioned it. He would meticulously fold each article, place it in a manila envelope, and file it by printed date in his desk drawer. He never revisited the articles he saved, though he knew every one by heart. This went on for weeks. Then suddenly, as sudden as the original event, it stopped. It was done. He was done. For good.
Behind her house was a modest backyard, complete with a swing set she had long ago outgrown. Bordering her yard was a rotten fence with a single missing slat. She would climb through this gap to reach the forest, walk through the tall pines to the riverbank, leap from stone to stone to reach the field on the other side. It was in this field, surrounded by lupine and native grasses, that she met him for the first time.
She sat in the corner booth at the far end of the diner to survey the room without conspicuously turning her head. An older gentleman had sat near the door, three newspapers laid out side by side on the table in front of him. He inspected and shook his head in disapproval at the sight of each. For the third time, the waitress stopped to refill his coffee, and for the third time, she returned to the counter without acknowledgement from him.
He lived the life of a minimalist, yet cooped up in his small one bedroom apartment, he found himself in a state of constant suffocation. He no longer felt satisfied by the thin empty walls and longed to join the squander outside his front door. He wanted to be apart of the chaos, contribute to the excess that littered the streets. His time served, his due diligence fulfilled, he forfeited his post and left behind the job for someone else.
They still laughed together as they did forty years ago as young girls. They would cover their mouths with their hands, trying to control the burst. They would lock eyes and knowingly nod in confirmation of the day's shared secret. There was one secret, however, they never dared to share. They never had to. They were both there that night. Both saw what happened. Speaking of it again was unthinkable, on this they agreed completely.
Walking down the main street left him feeling uneasy. How many eyes were on him? How many whispers were about him? He heard them all in a single roaring moment when the light turned green and he was forced to cross the street into view of the community park where the town had gathered in memoriam for their mayor. Heads turned toward him and he saw it in their eyes. They were remembering his mother and he was not welcome.
The house had lost its local prestige as it fell into disrepair. The offshore winds had weathered its memory and erased its value for most. But most was not all, and for her, its value was priceless. She was careful not to trip over the uprooted cobblestones buried under the unkempt landscape. She barely recognized the hydrangea that once lined the front porch. Pushing aside the overgrown bush, she finally spied the front door.
The woman ground the kernels on the flat stone and sprinkled the resulting flour into the bowl. Its contents thickened into a rancid brown paste, which the woman motioned for him to eat. He had dredged his soul for a miracle, and that miracle had brought him here. He had every reason to trust her. With his fingers, he shoveled the dreary slop into his mouth and swallowed. He was unconscious in less than a minute. Then the woman began.
The room smelled of disinfectant, and the man of old books and Mentholatum. Together, the mixture infused the air with an unbearable stench. But he could not escape himself, and therefore, could not escape the odor. He figured this smell was why she had stopped coming to visit, why they all had stopped coming to visit. This month would mark a full year that he had sat alone in his room without a visitor.
Leaning against the glass was a hand-painted sign as old as the building itself. The six letters on the sign had faded and begun to flake off, a condition which spoke volumes. They had driven by the building every weekday for the length of the summer, and each day, the sign had read "Closed." That is, until their last day on the island. Relieved by their air-conditioned car, a stark contrast to the hot August sun, they nearly forgot to look.
The man had been reprimanding her for the last ten minutes. She sat at her desk, twirling the cord to the headset, a complacent expression permanently affixed to her face. The man could do nothing to change the situation. It was a fact he knew well but he still chose to take his anger out on her, his lack of control seemingly increasing his rage. She had no means to change the situation either, which was a lack of authority that delighted her.
He knocked twice and then waited. His patience was wearing thin. His hand spun the door knob but the deadbolt kept him out. Only silence answered his demands to open the door. He walked around to the back of the house, peeking through the side windows on his way. The curtains had been pulled back. There was a steaming cup of something on the table beside the sofa. He found the backdoor locked as well. Only one option remained.
Adrenaline burst from every pore as the ambulance sped down the street. He silently willed an increase in speed, whether for the thrill or simply to get it all over with. The seat cushion became his anchor as his body fell victim to centrifugal force. Then the tires slowed and came to a stop with the accident in full view through the windshield. He froze, paralyzed by fear at the sight of the driver in the mangled car paralyzed by death.
For the past year, she had searched the streets in the early morning, an envelope of five dollar bills in her pocket. Today she was following a tip that a man matching her father's description had been sleeping in the brush near the overpass. She approached cautiously. The campsite was crude, a threadbare blanket spread on the dirt, a pile of clothes encrusted with dried mud shoved up against the concrete wall. Then the pile breathed.
He followed the planks as they wove through the tall grass. The edges of the boardwalk had curled with time, guiding his feet to the middle as a sagging mattress would do to one's tired body. He had walked this path frequently, always alone by choice. It startled him to see the figure waiting for him in the sand. As he drew near, the recognition hit him square in the chest, knocking the air from his lungs and the words from his tongue.
She had been entrusted with this heirloom and set out to take great care of it, but the truth remained, no amount of dusting or polishing could hide the unavoidable wounds of time. When she found it buried, her efforts felt futile. It was barely discernible amid the debris. Though with its sturdy frame surviving the day, the wounds now shone with pride. They were no longer wounds of a wasted effort, but those of life and pure love.
He had walked the beach for upwards of an hour before happening upon the small cabin, though shack was a more appropriate title. It was in a dilapidated condition with a sinking roof, a front porch detached from the foundation, and a brick chimney in pieces on the ground. But nestled up against the ragged cliff, it was the only manmade structure as far as he could see north or south along the coast, and that was the epitome of perfection.
The room was silent. Her listeners were furrowing their brows, wrinkling their noses, preparing their disparate remarks. In that silent void, she heard a small sound resonating from the far back corner. It was applause. She saw heads turn and heard curious whispers. They had all missed the man's entrance and his approving nods during the lecture, but no one missed the ovation.
The beach was littered with folding chairs, unrolled towels, plastic shovels, sun shades, careless trash, and most of all, people. Too many people with too many things, all competing for the same few acres of space. They sat hip to hip, stood shoulder to shoulder, stepped on toes, and got possessive over their temporary plots of land, though the land belonged no more to them than it did to the town itself.
He could still see them sitting in the living room, his father on the couch, clean-shaven with his coffee cup in hand and his eyes glued to the morning news; his mother wrapped in a bathrobe sitting nearby in the armchair, devouring the paper, a stack of books on the side table, eager to take the newspaper's place. He heard the reporter speak of it first, and then his father's commentary. Yet his mother sat quietly contemplating them both.
From the earth, she learned forgiveness. The fire had swept the valley, stripped it of its dressing and simultaneously erased the childhood from the child. She existed because she had watched it unfold from high on the hill. The valley existed but in bare form, primed to grow anew. It will forgive its undoing as will she. She will rise with the trees and time will cover her wounds as clovers cover those of the earth that lay before her.
His car, with its belly exposed to the moonlight, was the first to disappear, though the brief moment it floated on its roof gave him hope he could save her. Then it sank as abruptly as what caused it to surge off the cliff in the first place. His possessions littered the rocks a hundred feet below, ejected from the car during its descent. Items he once needed to survive now fought for their own lives against the pounding surf.
The road wove through a canopy of aspens and led to the front stoop of a small white cottage. It was modest in appearance but boastful in its accomplishments. The moment he opened the door, he became part of its history. He would wash in the same basin, cook in the same kitchen, sleep in the same bed, and most importantly work at the same desk. His presence under that roof for the two weeks he had reserved would eventually define his career.
She was envious. He spoke of the countries he had visited, the hidden nooks of locality, the openness of the people. She wanted that life. He possessed little, few possessions, few dollars. When he felt the need, he simply packed his bag and was on his way, eager to stumble upon the next traveler's treasure. "I'm leaving again tomorrow," he said. "You should come with me."
She captured three red-tailed hawks in a single frame. Each atop a pole, linked by the power line, facing east toward the early morning sun, wings spread to dry the evening moisture from their feathers. She had seized the shot, thankful for having her camera slung over her shoulder at the time. But it was the sign she neglected, it was a failure that would infiltrate the next few days, a failure only hindsight would explain.
Following behind in a second car, she had seen the whole thing: a blind curve stealing the lives of her mother and three siblings. Her father, having been behind the wheel and the lone survivor of the crash, struggled with the guilt and subsequently disappeared from the world. She had grown up wanting to follow in his footsteps, eventually taking over the family business. Now all she wanted was to follow him off the face of the earth.
The day he stopped speaking was the day his life changed. Looking back, whether it was the silence that altered his life or simply the decision to be silent that made the difference, he did not know. It was a tiresome chicken versus egg scenario. Regardless of the origin, the evolution of his silent life had a profound effect on him and those that remained, sometimes unwillingly, by his side.
It began with an unprecedented anxiety. Then her temper slowly began to grow. An unrestrained irritability changed her from the inside out. She lost her sense of calm and her aptitude for kindness. And then came the anger, a very profound anger. One doctor offered psychotherapy. It was "just stress." Another suggested medication. "Your prefrontal cortex is misfiring." She tried both interventions, neither worked.
The glass sugar jar sat empty on the sill, placed there by her grandmother nearly fifty years ago. Now the sill and the jar were hers, an unsophisticated inheritance she gladly accepted. The first night alone after the funeral, she stood in the doorway to the cold kitchen, her eyes locked on the jar in the window. An hour passed, perhaps two. Then she opened a cupboard, retrieved a bag of sugar, and refilled the jar.
The rain had been torrential and constant for the past three days. By the end of the first day, it had saturated the front yard. On the second day, the water rose, flooding the grounds and threatening the cottage. On the third day, it pushed past the sandbags at the front door and ravaged the first floor. The truck was useless, its engine under water with most everything else. The only way out now was by boat.
He still needed a chair. He had a mattress on the floor and a table in the corner, but he needed something to sit on. He searched the dumpster behind his building but came up empty. He moved on to the next building, and the next as well. Before he knew it, he had walked across the city. This he was used to, walking that is, and he could sleep on a bench or the step of an old tenement if needed. He had done so before and he would do so again without issue.
He sat patiently in his seat, his tires hugging the curb, his bumper kissing the next cab in line. He watched the mob shuffle toward the baggage carousels, pause to retrieve their belongings, and then emerge in a daze. His rear door swung open. A woman in a neatly-tucked blouse and pencil skirt slipped into his back seat and announced her destination. She had failed to recognize him, the first of many thankful failures for the day.
The man motioned to the clerk and then pressed his index finger to the glass. The clerk retrieved the necklace directly below the man's finger and held it up for examination. The simple chain was of great contrast to the pendant: a large roughly-cut indigo stone encased in a carved silver perimeter. No money was exchanged. The clerk willingly relinquished the necklace to the man who placed it in his pocket and happily left the store.
The closet was full of shoe boxes, each stuffed with handwritten slips of paper, sticky notes, paper napkins, and postcards. She had found these forgotten treasures in the pages of returned books before scanning them back into the library's inventory. She would trace the printed letters with her finger, and images of strangers would flood her mind. These images gave her a secret purpose by which she lived her life.
Today was her first day as a grown up. The change was abrupt and unsolicited. Yesterday, she was a child. She felt innocent and secure. She was prone to daydreams and unrealistic optimism. Today, she was responsible for everything. Doubtful and scared, her knees began to buckle, the sockets of her eyes burning with the threat of tears. At twelve years old, she was unprepared. No one her age would be prepared for this.
They had been given an address of 395, but overgrown landscapes hid the few remaining house numbers. They were told the house had old timbers against the front fence, but in this neighborhood, every house was lined with piles of recycled construction materials. No residence was discernible from another. Without a doubt, they were lost. They had been told not to get out of the car, but there was no other solution.
He kissed her on both cheeks and then climbed into the taxi. She needed him to look at her one more time, but the car pulled away, his eyes locked on the driver and the road ahead, never once shifting to glance back at her. She should have just said it, before he had closed the door, before he had kissed her, before he had invited her out that evening. She thought she would get another chance.
Her mother had tried to conceal it, turning her head away, soaking up her tears with her sleeve before they spilled down her cheeks. She stared at her mother, waiting for her to turn back around, to face her, to console her, but she never did. With her eyes on the floor, she reached out for her daughter to take her hand, and they walked together, side by side in silence, back down the hallway and out the door.
He remembered Christmas at the beginning, the waking up early, long before the sun rose, and running to the living room where the tree stood in grandeur. He would lay beneath the branches, staring up at the lights, the trimmings festive and alive. He enjoyed this private moment, before anyone else in the house awoke, it fueled him for the day. Things were different now. This Christmas, the tree was missing, as was everyone else.
She sat in the cool shade of the pier, her toes sifting through the sand. The ocean rushed toward her. It crashed against the pilings and flooded the beach. She shifted nervously as the water came closer, her hands braced against the ground, her legs ready to run. The wave stopped just short of her toes, smoothing away the footprints she had left. She had come to face her fear, to face her past, and in doing so, she faced her future.
The boy watched the town disappear before his eyes. He did not want to leave, but his father had decided otherwise. The boy sat near the back of the bus without a choice, the finality of his father's voice still ringing in his ears. He had kicked and screamed, but it was useless. He was a child, forced to oblige the whim of his parent, picked up by the armpits and sent away without even the slightest consideration.
She felt hunger in the deepest corners of her stomach. It overpowered her will and made her fixate on the need. She peeled thick splinters from the wall and cradled them between her teeth like toothpicks. When that failed, she chewed on her fingernails and gnawed at the base of her palm, not enough to break the skin, just enough to ease the craving.
The pain had returned, but he kept this fact to himself. He didn't want to cause alarm, and the presence of pain would cause a full-fledged panic. Four years ago, it would have been different. Something this life threatening could be brought to the attention of his personal physician and promptly treated. But that was no longer a possibility.
She noticed it teetering inside the truck bed as the highway curved around the hill. The tailgate was down and it was only a matter of time. She paced herself, making sure she was a safe distance behind so as not to run it over. When it toppled onto the road, it bounced twice and came to rest conveniently on the shoulder. She slowed, eyes on the truck ahead, watching for brake lights. The truck disappeared. This was good news.
He stood on stage, shaking his head at the man in a poorly chosen orange suit. Despite his skepticism, he obeyed when the man asked him to close his eyes and listen as he counted down from ten to one. He heard these numbers, nine, eight, seven, and felt himself relax. Four, three, two, one...and then nothing. He had no memory after this. Nothing until he was back in his seat, dressed in the man's orange suit.
She sat down on the bench in front of her office, nursing her coffee to avoid burning her tongue, and watched the morning rush of business suits pass by. The women in sneakers with high heels stuffed in purses. The men with briefcases and cell phones surgically affixed to their ears. They pushed and bumped into each other, rarely offering apologies, all with a destination that took precedence.
He opened the drawer and moved his fingers through the alphabetical tabs. At the back of the drawer was a red folder with a photograph paperclipped to the top right corner. The round brown eyes and high cheekbones were unmistakable. On the back of the photograph was the date that confirmed it. He slipped the photograph into his coat pocket, replaced the folder in the drawer, and snuck back out of the office.
She stared primarily at the podium, her hatred of public speaking growing by the second. The pounding in her chest had a dizzying effect, and all the layers she had worn to conceal the inevitable sweat marks were making her sweat more. She had often recounted the many reasons against this recent career change, but on that day, when she glanced up to take stock of her audience, she was grateful to be doing what she did.
She and her brother found themselves often alone. They were separated by four years of age, but never took much notice of the difference. They lived an hour from town, a trip their parents made daily and did not return from until after bedtime. And with no nearby neighbors, they were left to provide for themselves. They had six years together like this, all of which neither one would trade for a seventh.
The door shut. He lay back down on the couch and let the ceiling fan dry the sweat from his forehead. He tried to let his mind wander but it refused to go very far. He was getting a clean slate, a fresh start, a chance to do everything over again. He was getting what he had always wanted, but there was one problem. He had no clue what it was he wanted, nor where to start looking for it.
Cross-legged near the fire, they sat waiting for the man to speak. The young ones fidgeted anxiously with the cuffs of their pants or poked at the dirt with sticks. The older ones stared at the flames, the sky, each other, anywhere but the man himself. The man's eyes moved from body to awkward body, one by one, before landing on a young girl in a red sweater. He handed the book and his flashlight to the girl, and asked her to read the first page.
She could be anyone. She could be the woman sitting next to him on the plane, on the subway, on the bus. She could be his boss, or his mail carrier, or the hostess at his favorite restaurant. She could live halfway around the world, or in the apartment below his and he would never know. He was comfortable with this. He lived a life of anonymity, and this was no different.
The sign clearly stated no parking. Yes, he saw the sign, and yes, he chose to ignore it. He would only need a few minutes anyhow. He parked the sedan with its front bumper nearly touching the sign post. He walked inside the building and kindly asked the receptionist to care for the package. When he emerged from the building, he found a ticket on his windshield. With no care, he crumpled up the yellow citation, and tossed it into the gutter.
She was alone on the road that stretched for miles. It disappeared south into the mountains on the horizon and north into the horizon itself. She had left her car a mile back, but could still see the sun bouncing off its windshield. She knew it was not the best idea to walk, but she was never one to have the best ideas, and so she had set off on foot, a bottle of water in one hand and her high heels dangling from the other.
She never knew what caused a person to want to end it all. She never knew the despair that took root in someone that would create such a solitary solution. She criticized those people that would allow such thoughts to drive them toward such a selfish choice. But in the man's mind, she was the cause of that despair, those thoughts, and that choice. It was in his mind, in the midst of those thoughts, that he had ended it all for her instead.
In a race against the flame, she finished the letter, scribbling toward the end for the sake of completion rather than readability. The candle was burning through its wick faster than she had hoped. She searched the cabinet by touch, finding an extra book of matches but no other candles. The single flame was now the only source of light left in the house. She would make do. Contrary to the obvious, she was pleased with this predicament.
After placing the explosives, he surveyed the floors one final time. He found nothing of concern but a stray pigeon on the second floor pecking at the concrete wall. His demand to vacate echoed across the room. The pigeon undeterred, kept pecking. The man approached the bird and swept his hands through the air. In a flutter of feathers, the pigeon escaped out an open window frame. Then the man heard the first blasting cap explode.
He drank the last few drops and set the bottle on the curb. He had been there with the cardboard sign propped against his shins for the greater part of the afternoon. Each driver that passed he stared down, but the vast majority avoided eye contact. They changed radio stations and searched glove compartments for nothing in particular, pardoned only by a green light. By nightfall, he had abandoned the empty bottle, and walked on.
He had sat on the same park bench each day for the last eight years. He would arrive before the morning rush, stay through lunch, and leave once the sun set. He would sit through any weather, nibbling on a small sandwich, and occasionally nodding toward a passing dog who had come to sniff his feet. Otherwise, he remained quiet in his seat. On the anniversary, he thought little of the woman who had sat down beside him. Then she spoke.
The first pair of hands left the business card on a table at the library. The fourth pair left it propped against a cash register, and the seventh pair pinned it to a bulletin board. The tenth pair mailed it across the country to the eleventh pair, which tossed it toward a garbage can on the street corner. The card landed beside the can to be picked up by pair number twelve, which was the first pair of hands to call the number printed on the back.
She was standing behind him at the kiosk, both needing permits to park. His clothes were disheveled and he was shaking. Short on cash, he looked at her with desperate eyes, so she bought his permit with her own. He took the stub of paper, and ran away without saying a word. Hours later, she returned to her car and found an envelope tucked beneath the wiper. Inside she found a hundred dollar bill. Written in the corner was simply "thank you."
Even from a distance, she recognized him. Not by his face, but by the faded green oxford that hung loosely from his shoulders. That same oxford had gone missing from her husband's closet over a month ago. The man was at the opposite end of the hallway, pacing back and forth with his cell phone to his ear. He was arguing with the caller. In seconds, the dispute had ended and resulted in the man's foot denting the side of a nearby trash bin.
Her voice sounded kind, so he stayed on the line. He listened as she spoke of a new credit card offer, and humored her with questions about rates and fees, finding great comfort in how she articulated the answers. She asked eagerly if he would like to apply, but he declined. Sensing her disappointment, he quickly agreed to hear about the latest identity theft protection. Anything to keep her talking, keep her from hanging up the phone.
He began at the sink. He emptied the basin, neatly stacking the dirty dishes on the counter, and then filled it with soapy water. An hour later, he had finished. His back was sore and his fingers were pruned, but he felt a sense of accomplishment that was worth the effort. Washing dishes at the sink was a simple chore, one he had taken for granted only months earlier. Now he could not think of anything more rewarding.
Her living room was full of customers sitting snugly around bistro tables and chatting eagerly with their neighbors. They were all there for the same reason. Once the magazine has profiled her recipe, she had trouble turning them away. Moments before, she had plucked the new supple leaves from the top of the tea bushes in her garden. A pure fresh leaf, that was her only secret. But in fact, it was no secret at all, so why her?
He read the sign on the door apologizing for the early closure. He knocked on the window, his fist falling heavily and getting the attention of the young girl wiping the counter. She mouthed the word closed and went back to her cleaning. His fist found the window again, this time pounding with intent, harder and harder on the glass, alarming the girl. She retreated to the back room, her steps in sync with his fist. Then the glass cracked.
She sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the matchbook on the dresser. She imagined herself carefully tearing the cardboard of the center match. She would drag it across the rough strip on the back of the book and watch the flame dance as it engulfed the sulfur head and consumed the stick. At the last second, before it singed her fingers, she would place the burning match on top of the book, which still sat on the dresser, and leave the room.
The knot slipped loose and the ribbon fell from her wrist. The balloon floated away, horizontally at first, blown by the breeze down the sidewalk. It bobbed and twirled, shopping the bakery window for indulgent fudge and admiring the schiffli lace gown that called though the glass of the corner boutique. And then it rose, dancing high in the sky to the footsteps of the pursuing mother and to the cries of the child who once possessed it.
He felt a tug on the line and the tip of the rod bent slightly toward the river. He was skeptical, it had been over a month since he had felt a bite, and his imagination had deceived him before. But sure enough, the rod dipped again. He pulled it back, spun the reel a few times, and then pulled back again. He was gentle and methodical, the fish was a luxury he could not afford to lose. This fish was giving its life for their own, and he was grateful.
The cabin drew tenants on a consistent basis. A body or two looking for adventure, recouping from each day beneath thin cotton sheets, feeling protected by a locked door and mosquito netting. Yet the jungle was beginning to wage war on the small structure. The perimeter was no longer passable without a machete. Nature was engaged in a slow and steady battle to reclaim what was hers. It was a battle she would win with certainty and ease.
A count of three. With the right amount of electricity, in those three seconds, the heart would stop. A count of three. Life could end in a count of three. It was imperative that his calculations were accurate. He poured endlessly over his notes, memorizing, reworking. He checked and rechecked his instruments, running tests, ensuring reliability. One misstep and he would fail. He could not fail. He refused to accept another failure.
He was the one that would steal a parking space from those who had waited patiently; he was the one who never tipped the hard-working waitress, or held a door for the person behind him. She should have ignored him. She should have walked away. But each weekday, as they walked the distance from their shared apartment building to their shared office building, her fixation grew. Walking together made her weaker to the idea of walking away.
She was glued to the screen. She had watched his black and white image cross the street and come into focus directly below the camera. His face looked tired, but little else had changed. He pushed a button on the wall, and her buzzer rang from inside the apartment. When she did not answer, he pushed the button a second time, and again her buzzer rang. Then he glanced at the camera and smiled. She knew he knew she was watching.
She slammed the refrigerator door when she realized she had forgotten the milk. "I have to go back to the store," she yelled, sending the words flying across the house with hope they would land on the right ears. A moment passed and then a matter-of-fact "fine" came hurling back toward her. She grabbed her purse and a ten dollar bill from the desk drawer. Below the money was a note. Because of this note, she would never again forget the milk.
She sprinted through the endless woods, splintering twigs, stirring up leaves. She kept running, searching for a clearing that would not come. She heard the engine just over the hill, the small voids between the trees full of its sound. But when she reached the summit, the rumble was just as distant as it had been before. Her body begged her to stop, but if she stopped, they would leave her. They needed her, but she needed them more.
He sat behind the desk, forcefully wiping the coffee stain with a wet paper towel. He tried leaning slightly to the left so his tie would swing from the knot and hover over the proof of his clumsy nature. Sadly, this did little to hide the spot that had now bled to an obscene size. No matter his effort, the stain endured, front and center on the white fabric, knocking him down in rank and locking him in the office for the rest of the evening.
Their routine was the same each night. She would wait beside him in bed, he asleep, she often reading or watching late-night infomercials, until it happened. Once a night, when his breathing would stop, she was to count the seconds. If she reached ninety, she would call for an ambulance. This she had done only once, and yet he gasped for air while she was talking to the 911 dispatcher. Tonight's episode was different.
She spent her youth living in the midst of emotional rubble. She often lost her way among the piles of unwashed clothing and lost her lunch at the foul smell of month-old leftovers. She learned quickly how to tiptoe through the shards of broken dishes without suffering from a skewered foot, and how not to leave the front door open too long for the wind would swirl in the house, turning the many loose papers into a treacherous maelstrom.
She woke with a start at the sound of the siren. She had received the flyer a month ago and was expecting this test. It was a standard procedure she had grown accustomed to living near a nuclear power plant. Although today, something felt wrong. She went to her desk and ruffled through a stack of papers until she found the flyer. The test was not scheduled until noon that day. It was 6:52 a.m. Then she felt the ground shake.
The water roared in distaste for what was in its path. It came quickly, too quickly to outrun and too quickly to outwit. Some tried to swim, but their fragile bodies were no match for the jutting debris. The wave shattered the sliding glass door of her living room and swept her down the hallway. She tried to grab the banister, but the dominant current slammed her into the back wall instead. She stopped fighting. Then the current reversed.
His lungs stung with each inhalation. His chest constricted, refusing to take the air that caused the pain, though this refusal intensified the attack. He stopped running and stood on the side of the road doubled over, his legs nearly buckling beneath him. She came to put a hand on his shoulder, murmured something about turning around. He waved her off. He could keep going. He had to keep going.
Outside the tent, the air was fresh and crisp, tumbled and laundered by the nearby ocean. Inside the tent, the scent of her shampoo still lingered. Gradually though, the mesh window filtered the pungent seaweed and fish and salt from the breeze. The scents intermingled, and soon the ocean had washed away the shampoo. She would smell the sea for the rest of her trip. She could not say the same of the shampoo.
"Come with me. I want to show you something." She had never been on campus so late at night and found it difficult to navigate. The path was poorly lit and each darkened building they passed was indistinguishable from the previous one. They were walking in circles, she was sure of it. When she slowed, unable to see where to step next, he took her hand. She needed to feel safe and he sensed that.
As she nervously spun the earring between her thumb and index finger, the back of the stud fell to the floor. She heard the small piece of platinum bounce twice on the wood and then vanish. She dropped to her knees in a frantic search. She was so focused on finding the missing part that she failed to hear the door chime open. It was not until his freshly polished shoes appeared beneath her nose that she noticed he had arrived.
In front of her on the coffee table sat the small wooden box. She tried to lift the lid, but the rusty hinges resisted. It took a screwdriver retrieved from the kitchen drawer to pry it open and reveal the watch. She twisted the knob on the side of the gold face, and lifted it to her ear. The gears did not spin, the hands stayed quiet and frozen at a time alluded to only by the words stamped on the underside of the watch's leather band.
The frigid air took root in him, maliciously infiltrating his blood and immobilizing his joints. Sharp electric pains emanated from every appendage, his circulation retreating to his core. And then a breach in the circuit as whole body parts went numb. He lay still in his seat, his eyelids too heavy to lift, weighed down by ice that had formed on his lashes, an ice that mirrored the crystals forming on the inside of the windshield.
He sped through traffic, weaving between cars, changing to whatever lane looked to be moving the fastest. He could not believe he lost the letter. He had set it on the table to retrieve his keys from his coat pocket, and in that split second, forgot it there. He yelled angrily at the road ahead, he yelled angrily at himself. A sea of brake lights glowed in front of him. He dialed her cell phone again. Still no answer.
She had to turn the key three times before the engine turned over. Overnight, a thick layer of moisture had compiled on the side mirrors and each window. Her wipers cleared the windshield, but she was blind in the other directions. She thought she could back out of the driveway without issue. She would put the car in reverse, keep the steering wheel straight, and slowly roll into the street, just as she had done a thousand times before.
He was a quick learner, never making the same mistake twice. Although, despite his greatest efforts, his list of mistakes kept growing. If only they would tell him the rules so he would know what to do. But that was how this whole thing worked. That was how they maintained power. Yesterday's ambush had left his inventory depleted too early. He dreaded paying the price of that mistake again.
She had spent the night curled in a fetal position on two armless chairs married together to create some semblance of a sofa. A nurse had brought her a blanket, though it did little to keep out the cold of the room and of the situation. Still, as morning approached, she had heard nothing. She sat up and a sharp pain shot through her shoulder. Only then did she notice the other woman, sleeping awkwardly in a chair on the opposite side of the room.
The man in the thinly rimmed glasses was pacing the sidewalk in front of the cafe. He was waiting, he was strategizing, he was watching from the corner of his eye the woman sitting near the front window. When he noticed her packing her things, he stopped, and stared at her through the glass. She struggled to stuff a thick manila envelope into her bag. She caught him staring and consequently hurried toward the back door.
She refused to spend the money. The cash in her hands burned her palms, the padded account balance churned her stomach. Using it felt like a justification, but there would never be any justification. She had already lost too much sleep, she had moved to a new town, she had even changed her name. But the money always followed. She needed to rid herself of its burden. She would be better off. They would all be better off.
The excessive fabrics spilled over her limbs, concealing any form or lack of form she may have. She guided the fragile-looking man into the small room, directing him to the sofa. His white hair stood up from his scalp and blended in with the long grasses of the framed prints hanging low on the wall behind him. The prints, a triptych of spring meadows, existed as an attempt to calm, but all too often that attempt failed.
She had tossed the take-out container but the car still rank of wilted cilantro, browning guacamole, and burnt beans. She picked up crumpled napkins and torn wrappers, and then relied on the vacuum to remove the remaining layer of dirt from the floor mats. When she stuck the tip of the hose beneath the passenger seat, she heard the suction cease. Blocking the air was an unopened envelope. Her eyes widened when she saw the return address.
The sun was burning a hole in his back. He felt the fibers of his shirt shriveling away in a singed submission. His skin wore a layer of moisture beneath his clothes, and beads of sweat kept dripping from the tip of his nose onto the excavation site. The weather was the one part of his job that he despised. There was either too much sun, too much wind, too much rain, or too much snow. Today was the sun’s turn to make his job difficult.
The radio had played static for the last thirty miles, but at this point, any noise was better than no noise. Ever so often the lines on the road would blur. He would briefly squeeze his eyes together as tightly as possible and then slap himself across the cheek. This bought him another five or so minutes. He could not afford another late delivery. Then the engine sputtered and one of his tires exploded in a deafening blow beneath his seat.
She watched each minute of the first hour tick away slowly and painfully. The second hour she spent doing lunges across her long narrow apartment. During the third hour, she thoroughly scrubbed and disinfected every surface, from floors to counters to walls. The fourth hour gave way to new furniture arrangements and four bags of clothes to donate from a freshly organized closet. It was now the fifth hour and she still could not sleep.
The dryer was hypnotic. She looked forward to that twenty-seven minutes, her mind locked in by the cycle, but free from everything else. The bell on the front door broke her trance. A man, weathered and deep in conversation with no one, walked to the far end of the laundromat. He undressed down to a worn t-shirt and boxer shorts, and stuffed his heavy layers into a washer for their monthly rinse.
Every doctor she had consulted wrote it off as chronophobia and prescribed pills for the anxiety. She had found the man’s address online. It took three rings of the doorbell before he opened the door.
"It's moving too fast," she said as she stumbled inside.
"What’s moving too fast?" the man asked.
"Time." She felt the room spin. "I need you to make it stop."
"Yes, time. Make it stop."
"Are you sure?"
"It's moving too fast," she said as she stumbled inside.
"What’s moving too fast?" the man asked.
"Time." She felt the room spin. "I need you to make it stop."
"Yes, time. Make it stop."
"Are you sure?"
He was uncomfortable. Someone had turned on the air conditioning. Cold air penetrated the thin blanket that concealed him, and he could feel each hair follicle on his legs painfully standing on end. A nurse was in the hallway updating his doctor. She kept using the word unresponsive. He tried to get their attention. He screamed, but his lips never parted. He kicked erratically, but his legs remained dead weights on the mattress.
He could not believe he was sitting on the front step waiting for a cab. Enraged, he used the closest flower pot as a convenient projectile. It shattered against the fence, the pickets sifting shards from soil. He caught a flash of yellow rounding the corner. He met the cab on the street. He had no desire to linger. "Airport," he said to the driver. "Do you have bags, Sir?" the driver asked. "No," he replied. "Just drive."
Yesterday, the cashier asked about his scar. He was elated to share the story of the collapsed scaffolding. "It was a year ago. I'm sure you heard of it. I was on the local news!" The cashier shook her head. The day before, he told the waitress at the cafe of his valiant effort to fend off a rabid dog. He has told stories of muggers, grenades, chainsaws, and even a crocodile. He has told every story he could think of, every story but the truth.
On his first day, a box containing a stapler, two pens, and a cactus was waiting for him in his cubicle. A small note taped to the cactus pot said, "Smile, you won't be here forever." Hopeful, he had placed the cactus on the desk and the supplies in the drawer. Ten years later, the supplies still sit in his drawer, and the cactus still sits on his desk, only he had scratched out the word Smile and replaced won't with will.
In the evenings, she would sit in the worn wingback chair by the window, an unfinished quilt on her lap, needle and thread in her hand. With her husband at sea for weeks on end, she would stitch to pass the time. The needle pierced the fabric as his boat did the waves. Over and under, around and safely through. He would return when the quilt was complete. He always had before and she refused to think otherwise.
She had pretended to faint. They had placed her face up on a gurney and were rolling her down the corridor. With her eyes closed, her lids glowed under each passing light. Seconds passed in darkness and then the glow appeared again. She kept track of this light, counting fourteen illuminations. Then her lids glowed green. This was the exit sign. This knowledge was priceless.
Fear drew passengers to their windows. With oxygen masks strapped to their faces, they stared through the layers of plastic and glass, their eyes begging for a clear stretch of land. A rush of futility swept through the cabin. Mountains pierced the sky for miles, an endless pine forest filled the valleys. Hands gripped the armrests, heads pressed firmly against the backs of their seats. Then the overhead lights went dark.
The desk was riddled with glitter glues and regular glues, dried-out markers, dull pencils, and broken crayons. There was a drawer for colored paper and a drawer for scraps, but neither was distinguishable as such. She plunged a paint brush into the blue paint, and flung it onto the paper. Strokes of red, orange, purple and green already covered the surface. With infinite vision, her imagination soared. She was the masterpiece.
My father was arrested on casserole night. We had just sat down at the dining table, the walnut shone with a coat of fresh oil. Baked tuna and milk wafted from the orange rectangular stoneware that served as our centerpiece. My mother was holding my father's hand to say grace when we heard the knock. I remember his eyes. He knew who was at the door before my mother opened it. I have not eaten a casserole since.
PS 365 2012 Disclaimer:
All stories written for this blog's 2012 project are works of fiction.
Thanks for reading and have a happy day!
PS 365 2012 Disclaimer:
All stories written for this blog's 2012 project are works of fiction.
Thanks for reading and have a happy day!
I will die on a Thursday morning, 6:12 a.m. to be exact. Eighty-four years to the day, hour, minute at which I was born. My mother did not know this date when she gave birth to me in the gas station bathroom just off the Interstate. She did not know ahead of time the day of her own death. I long for those innocent days. But the world has changed. There is no way to unlearn my fateful date. Knowing has changed everything.
The brass burned his palm as he spun the door knob. He squinted, fresh autumn air blasted his face. He felt the hairs of his nose disintegrate. His hands cupped his ears, the noise of the passing cars perforating his ear drums. Then he stumbled back into the foyer, kicking the door shut in the process. The timer read twenty-four seconds. He was proud of this time. Now he could relax, not having to try again until tomorrow.
A man sat on his deck, enjoying a quiet afternoon. A bird cried out from the power line. A fellow occupant was attempting to shove the poor soul to the ground. A flutter of wings ensued, their neighbors voicing annoyance with repeated squawks as the line bounced. The man joined in with a few squawks of his own. It was a useless effort. The victim held tightly to his perch. The line fell quiet, the pecking order in balance once more.
He straightened the soup cans, sometimes alphabetizing the labels. He restacked the containers of yogurt and cottage cheese, and twisted all the milk jugs so the expiration dates faced out. He separated the limes from the lemons, and rescued a bundle of asparagus from the broccoli bin. He had abandoned his practice. Now he spent his days here. He could not be happier.
He used the key from under the terracotta pot and slipped through the back door. Inside, a commercial for a travel agency specializing in virtual vacations played on the television. A grocery pallet containing powdered milk and vacuum-sealed produce sat on the counter. Water was boiling out of a pot and onto the induction stove. He pressed the button to cancel the heat. The bubbles stopped. The house was empty. She had escaped.
He closed his eyes and listened intently to the background sounds of the disc's main menu. A cacophony of footsteps and conversation, a train coming to a halt, and a muffled announcement over a loud speaker. The sounds played on a twenty-second loop. He counted the loops. By the twelfth loop, he had deciphered the announcement and pressed play.
She was a popular health columnist for the local paper. The years of fame had provided her with a lavish bungalow and serious case of hypochondria. When she grew sluggish and began missing deadlines, her boss threatened to fire her. When she shared the news of the cancer, her coworkers were offended she would imagine such a thing. Then her name appeared in the paper, not as a byline for the health column but first in the list of obituaries.
It was late in the afternoon. He stood at the wash bin, cleaning his latest catch. He slit the belly and extracted the guts. Holding the stomach in his hand, entrails falling through his fingers, he felt something hard where nothing hard should be. Through a small incision, he retrieved a gold ring. Inside the band was an engraving. An etched phrase that would soon send him across the sea from which he had just returned.
The porcelain face was frozen in observation. The deep red lips eternally mute, the green eyes in constant memorization of the passersby. The girl was sitting on the grass, caressing the doll’s face from the temple, down the jawline, to the tip of the chin. She paused briefly to circle the chipped ear and then ran her fingers through the doll‘s auburn curls. To the girl, the doll was priceless, it was all she had left from a life long gone.
The girl took three stones from the pile. The boy smiled and took two, leaving behind a single stone. “You get the last one. You lose,” he said. The girl sulked away. “Who’s next?” the boy offered to the young crowd. The game had become a recess ritual. The winner held the power of supremacy. The boy had won each game for the past month. He was callous and took no pity. The children agreed that the only solution was mutiny.
The sign read, “Road Closed.” He glanced around and climbed over the concrete barrier anyway. He knew this was a ruse meant to slow down him and others like him. He proceeded past warnings for trespassers and old street signs that had been spun around to mislead. Then a clearing in the trees gave way to a small hill with an entrance covered by two steel doors. He knocked. The doors strained to open, and he walked inside.
She had used newspaper to cover each window on the first level of her three-story brownstone. The glue with which she had coated each page now coated her fingers. Sunlight penetrated the day’s news and cast a glow over the kitchen sink. She read the headline as she rinsed her hands. Her eyes widened, she frantically tried to tear the page off the glass. The glue held its grip. It was happening and she could do nothing to stop it.
She nuzzled her temple back and forth against the brocade wallpaper. She did this many times a day, nearly wearing the paper away. One morning, she abandoned the nuzzle and attacked the wall. She took claw after claw to the formal covering, scattering strips of the paper about the floor. In her flurry, she tore through the drywall as well. With her mouth, she retrieved the pouch from within the wall and sauntered away, fully satisfied.
They hid behind the couch, under the dining table, within the long drapes, and in the hall closet. At last, keys rattled the lock and the bright light of the corridor filled the room. Everyone leapt out and yelled, "Surprise!" The guest of honor screamed and then burst into laughter. She hugged her friends endearingly. In the commotion, no one saw the man in the corner grab the envelope and slip out of the apartment.
She was a connoisseur of hats. Wool berets, floppy sun hats, and baseball caps. Knitted beanies with crocheted flowers, cloches wrapped in unassuming bows, and one tweed trilby adorned with a lace rosette. Those that could be stacked or folded filled her dresser drawers. Those that needed more careful attention hung from hooks on her walls. Each day, inside or out, she required a hat. Only when she hid beneath them did she feel safe.
That morning, he had purchased a crate of preserved fruit from his neighbor’s farm stand down the road. The fruit he unloaded next to the multivitamins on the top shelf. The next shelf down contained canned vegetables, dry goods, and bags of salt. Below that were first aid supplies, flashlights, and batteries. He stored water on the bottom shelf. When his watch alarm beeped, he shut the basement door and locked himself inside.
She cried in the morning. Her mind felt clearer at dawn than any other time of day, thus this is when she grieved. It was a rational grief. A healing grief. Much to the contrary were her attempts to mourn at dusk. The dishes that sailed across the room, shattering to pieces upon impact. The flowers she shoved in the face of the young delivery man, nearly suffocating him. No, night was not a time to mourn. Mourning in the morning was the only way.
Her face reflected below looked nothing of the image from her memory. She lay prone on the thick branch that jutted out over the water, the soles of her hiking shoes flush against the trunk thwarting any possible descent. Here she had spent each morning for the past year. The tree was the last of its kind. It stood proud within a field of stumps, spared for reasons unknown. It was immune. This trait they shared.
Around the handle of the suitcase hung the luggage tag. Stamped on the leather was a street address and city, no name. She was among many to be sent there, and she would return the tag upon arrival, so her name held no importance. She became fixated on the detail they had made trivial. The tag with no name. The passenger with no name. She felt herself disappearing with each step toward the gate. But the plane was waiting. As were they.
Most of the art enthusiasts has gone by the wayside, leaving him to his thoughts in the vast corridor. The piece on the far wall drew him in. He leaned in, as close as was physically possible without brushing the tip of his nose against the paint. He examined the intricate strokes, admired how they played with the tight weave of the canvas. Then he felt the pang in his stomach. It should have been his work hanging on that wall.
The bus lurched forward before I had found a seat. I was thrown back and nearly fell into the lap of an elderly woman. She gave me a disapproving look, as if I had invaded her personal space on purpose. I grabbed the metal bar and caught my footing, though my body was still susceptible to the sporadic acceleration of the driver. And then I saw her, sitting with her back to me, the fingers of her visible hand twirling a stem of jasmine.
The shoes lay strewn across the lane, the heels torn from the soles, the black suede ground into the asphalt. From the sidewalk, he watched the residents part their drapes in curiosity, then broadcast looks of worry as cars swerved to avoid the debris. He ventured into the street and peeled up a sole. Written in permanent ink on the leather was the dead drop he sought.
She spent her afternoons at the neighborhood thrift, paging through dusty books in search of new lands and new companions. When she happened upon the inscription, her heart stopped. It was simply composed, lacking originality to the outsider, but full of meaning to those who mattered.
The kinds words though were not what intrigued her, rather it was the page on which they lay.
"To the love of my life. Yours, V"
The kinds words though were not what intrigued her, rather it was the page on which they lay.
It was rush hour in the underground station where strangers waited shoulder to shoulder for the next train. They were family for that brief moment. But even in families, things go unseen. The pain overtook him. He grasped his arm and collapsed. The ground rumbled and a rush of air blew through the room. His sideways stare caught feet shuffling around him toward the opening doors of the train. He was left there alone, a dying oversight.
The storm circled, eyeing its target, a proud young maple standing alone on the roadside. The tree shed its leaves in the wind, prominent traces of autumn cast over the ground. The final leaf released its grip and fell to a puddle below. It broke the surface and sent a ripple to the surrounding bank, capsizing every floating piece of orange and yellow in its path, stirring up the calm sea, announcing the arrival of winter.
He spent the morning alone in the library basement, pacing the stacks, skimming every shelf. The mildewed air coupled with the fluorescent lights overhead made his eyes hurt. And then he spotted it, the sea of black plastic binding coils nearly swallowing it whole. His cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He answered. "I found it. Where can I meet you?"
The headlights were following her, she was sure of it. She had sensed she was being watched upon leaving the store. The two bright bulbs in her rear view mirror confirmed it. A few car lengths behind her, illuminating the low thick fog, every turn, every side street, they were there. She pulled into a stranger’s driveway and waited, one mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi...she had seen the lightning, now for the thunder.
One hand clutched a disorganized gathering of papers. The other hand held a plain brown cane and braced the weight of his body as he waited for a break in traffic. A car yielded, the driver motioning him to cross. He leaned his upper body into the street, his legs reluctantly followed suit. The cane gave way as he stepped from the curb. The papers burst from his arms as he fell, a decoupage of parchment on the damp evening road.
A man emerged from the hanger with grease on his hands. He pulled a rag from his back pocket and wiped the first layer of black from his fingers. "What can I do you for?"
"I need a plane," the boy said.
"Can't help you, son. We only got parts here, nothing that'll fly."
“I’ll give you a hundred dollars,” the boy said without hesitation.
The man looked the boy over, shook his head, and tucked the rag back in his pocket. “Come with me.”
"I need a plane," the boy said.
"Can't help you, son. We only got parts here, nothing that'll fly."
“I’ll give you a hundred dollars,” the boy said without hesitation.
The man looked the boy over, shook his head, and tucked the rag back in his pocket. “Come with me.”
There had been a rash of thefts in recent days. Homegrown vegetables had become currency, being the only means of food for most. But she had Hurley, her loyal retriever. He took possession of the garden, napping among the raised beds during the day, standing guard at night. He would patrol the surrounding fence, barking at the slightest rustle of leaves. But she had grown used to his bark. It rarely woke her now. This was a problem.
They had stopped for gas, bought a bag of chips from the convenience store, but otherwise, they had passed every nuance of the road just to ensure their arrival by tomorrow's sunset. They were trapped in the trailer for a thousand more miles. He despised the trailer. Its four walls slowly creeping in on him, no privacy, no distance from his father's rants. He was subject to every word, a thousand words for every mile of the thousand miles.
The northern ridge erupted in flames. Trees exploded and sparks flew across the valley, igniting the opposite ridge. The wildfire encroached on them from all sides, too quickly for their legs to outrun. Their only hope for survival was the creek. They plunged into the shallow water and lay prone. Their heads, propped on a stone covered in algae; their bodies, secured beneath a heavy wool blanket. All they could do now was wait.
She poured the thick liquid into the spoon, its convexity threatening to spill onto the floral sheets. She held it to her son's lips. Then the cough returned. The boy hid his face in the pillow, the burst staining the case red. The woman begged God to quiet the cough, but she ached with each syllable of the prayer. Mothers across town had echoed this prayer, and every time He had quieted the cough, He had quieted the child as well.
She woke on the park bench to something rough and wet sliding down her toes. A glance to her feet revealed a salivating mass of pink. It was Leonard, the town pig, sitting on his hindquarters, thoroughly enjoying the taste of her big toe. She retracted her feet and wiped them dry with her sleeve. Leonard snorted in displeasure. She stood and stared at the pig. Leonard stood and held her stare. She walked down the path. Leonard followed.
She had heard her mother tell stories of the great quake. The day the river's current reversed and the sun turned black. The day the earth opened up and swallowed all the flowers. She had never felt the ground move beneath her feet. She had never seen holes appear in the dirt where no holes had been before. These stories gave her nightmares. So when she felt her bed shaking one night, she thought it was another nightmare. She was wrong.
He stood alone at the water’s edge, shoes still laced and soaking wet. His feet sunk further into the sand with each receding wave. The impact came from behind, shoving him face first into the shallow water. He felt a sharp radiating pain in his core when he tried to stand. His legs buckled and he fell back down. The waves crashed over him, grappling with the weight of his body, trying to pull him out to sea.
She placed the damp branches in a metal bin beside the stove, her boots nearby, and draped her wet socks over the top. The cabin was generations old. She tried her best to maintain it, but she at ten years old could only do so much. She was thawing her toes by the stove when the train sped by, as it did twice a day everyday, precisely on schedule. So when the walls shook and a dish fell from a shelf, she thought nothing of it. Then the roof caved in.