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.