Flash Write: What she’s not thinking…

What she’s not thinking about takes up more brain-space than it ought to. She grits her teeth — an ungainly quirk from earlier than she can remember — and grunts a little as she heaves and tugs. It’s a grueling task, this dragging and pushing along; and her un-thoughts aren’t budging.

A hand slips, her teeth mash against one another so that a grating noise escapes — not thinking, notthinking, NOTTHINKING — 

like sour bile, the eruption:

He is her neighbor.

He is not a biology teacher.

He is heavier than he looks.

His hand grazes the dirt, drags a little trail through the grit like a grubby Hansel and Gretel.

* * *

Three miles away, there is a sad excuse for a rest stop, slouched alongside an idle highway. Cars whisper by in the dark, lights cutting through the murky night hours every so often, no rhythm to their migration. The building is ugly, its cinderblocks every bit as bland as the day they were cobbled together so that passersby could relieve themselves with a shred of decency (but only just). The state department abandoned responsibility for upkeep long ago — a new road was built and traffic redirected toward bigger cities and broader horizons and gleaming stations that were more remote-strip-mall-with-bathrooms than this pop-machine-and-outhouse combo plopped amid a rare stand of trees.

A few shrubs spring from the earth, a bit too earnestly, perhaps; it’s unclear whether they were planted or an accident disguised as a wandering deer’s droppings. Overhead, a light whines. It’s miraculous, really, the glowing orb. Its filaments should’ve burned up years ago. Maybe it’s solar-powered — there’s a thought! This grousing bulb, a piece of nighttime sunlight just hanging over the gray bricks and curling brambles and cracked-asphalt parking lot like a lost lamb in a clearing brimming with wolves.

The bathrooms themselves reek of misuse. The only toilet paper that lingers are the bits sticking to suspect pools of liquid on the floor — is it urine? toilet water? liquified worm remains? — and the stall doors that remain are peppered with angular graffiti dug into the metal with knives.

Call Shanel for a wild time! 555-0872

F*ck you b*tch

The biggest poser in the world is the one who reads these words and thinks “not I”

Out front, where the open-doored entryways gape, a water fountain marks the divide. Water trickles from the spigot whether it’s in use or not, and it’s one of those impotent structures that teases children with a burble so slight they must press their lips to the lukewarm metal or face the consequences of inconceivable thirst.

The rest stop is miles away from the nearest town, but no katydids chirp tonight. There is only the buzz of the light, the soft gurgling of the fountain, the occasional zooooosh of a car.

* * *

It’s been hours, she thinks. Possibly years. The sun shimmied south of the horizon long ago, temperatures sinking right alongside her, but the woman’s sweat pools at the center of her lower back before gliding downward to fester.

She should’ve never come out here, she thinks. Should’ve never agreed to the job, or its constricting terms, or dinner with a man who claimed he helped surly teenagers comprehend the complexities of hibernating tree frogs and the deteriorating ozone. Should’ve never.

* * *

The sun hangs high in the sky, its brilliance off-putting against the cracked hopeless earth. A bird trills nearby, in one of the shrub-trees planted so long ago; the sound is a dirge. Nothing lives here, that much is clear.

The grass crepitates underfoot: a child explores, looking for cicada shells and ground squirrels while her family stretches at the car. Her father glances in her direction — a sliding of the eyes, quick and brief — and calls to her. Amelia, don’t go too far! Her brother squints toward her, freckles one hand shading his brow like a scout searching for enemies on the horizon. Shrugging, he pops the tab on a Coke; she can hear the fizzing from thirty feet away, she thinks. It’s that silent here.

A line parts the dirt path — is it a path if it’s wider than it is long? — and she crouches to peer more closely. The middle, a gully, edged on either side by ridges of crumbling dirt. Little ridges in the middle, here and there, teeny mountainous peaks. The girl looks back, where it began, and forward again — aha! A trail! She shimmies with joy and tramps farther from the ugly gray building. This line is like a treasure map, she decides.

Her father can only just see the blue of her cap soon; but he does not worry. There’s nobody around for miles. Let the girl stretch her legs a bit — after all, they’ve still got hours to drive. There’s no one as far as the eye can see.

* * *

In the side of the small hill, the girl finds a hollow spot where the earth makes a cup, or a little bowl. If she sits in it she’ll get her shorts dusty, but she’s certain her mom won’t mind too long. The ground is crumbly and little clods tumble down when she sits. From here, no one can see her, anyway.

The girl is just beginning to think how lovely it would be if a fairy popped out of that tree stomp over yonder, or a wild Sioux chief piled over the top of the dried knoll on his painted horse, when something does appear.

There, at the edge of the hill-cup, is a lump. A something, but what sort of something, she can’t quite be certain. In a duck-like waddle, she scoots closer, dag-blasting herself for forgetting the plastic magnifying glass in the car. It’s not great (it did come from one of those mail-in thingies on the back of a box of Wheaties, after all), but even the scratched eyepiece would’ve come in handy on this Real Exploratory Hunt.

The girl probes the dirt gently. Delicate fingertips brush aside dirt-crumbs, wisps of dried grass, a hard-shelled beetle with malevolent pincers atop his head. The thing she’s found is stiff, and it’s hard to tell beneath the cover of grime, but she thinks — is it possible? — it must be a fingertip!

She presses her tiny, peach-padded pointer to the filth-crusted one. It is the size of a nickel, she thinks; maybe a quarter. Her fingertip is much smaller, a pencil eraser. She cannot stop marveling at this disparity — large to small, small to large — or the good fortune of stumbling upon this treasure. It’s like a button, pushing up from the earth, and she has always loved buttons.

When she hears her father’s holler come careening over the hilltop, really, too close for comfort, the girl goes running.

The button is her secret. She won’t share it with anyone.

* * *

The woman is hours away from the rest stop. Her car runs hot, no good on a day like today, so she drives without the luxury of air conditioning. Blue-black strands stick to her temples, dotted here and there with sweat that beads up before running down her jawline and carving a path to her seat, where it pools. Dirt crowds beneath her fingernails, pushing in so that she can feel the nail longing to lay against flesh again. She digs a toothpick under the nails of her left hand and her shoulders rise a bit at the excised grime. She looks up, habitually; shudders.

The rearview mirror has been torn from its place at the helm.

The rest stop is her secret. She won’t share it with anyone.

The Neighbor (Part 2)

Part 1: Read here.

I just spoke to the dispatcher. About the boards in her window.

For several moments, there is nothing at all — not even the irritating thrill of three dots appearing and disappearing. Lottie’s nothing if she’s not a drama hog, and we all know she won’t offer anything else until someone takes the bait.

…and?

Almost immediately, the dots appear . . . and as quickly, they disappear. Nothing. Just as we’re all uttering the first syllable of a curse under our breaths, Lottie pulls through. A gray mass of words appears in our Messages, a torrent of gossip she’s surely had typed and saved into her notes for the seven minutes since that call to the dispatcher ended.

Leon figures he saw the husband late last night, says he saw the truck roll in around one. Who works that late?! I clock out the minute that second hand hits five. Anyway, the neighbors called in a noise complaint around four this morning — heard some loud banging — and the sheriff drove by for a look. He said boards were going up, sure enough, but couldn’t tell who was doing the hammering. And since it’s on the inside, and there’s no current noise problems, there’s nothing he can do at the moment. I bet it’s that woman. She’s always been…different.

We absorb this noninformation: a disappointment. In the moments before the message came through, our breath hung suspended at the doorways of our mouths — lips parted softly, stagnant air drowsing in a relieving moment of inaction. I would say that nobody hopes for bad news, but that seems a bit idealistic for this day and age, doesn’t it? We, each of us, salivated over fantasies of doors being broken down by bomb squads and the woman being led from the cracked steps of the front porch, hands cuffed behind her back.

The wanting, the buzzing need for a dramatic denouement: I’m sure it’s a genetic mutation that’s occurred over lifetimes, since humankind reached a state of existence that didn’t demand constant vigilance against the dark of night.

***

The woman slumps against the living room wall, fingers curled around her phone. The screen betrays nothing, no one. Slivers of daylight pierce the drab room, highlighting floating particles of DNA and who-knows-what-else as they drift toward destinations unknown. She can smell the boards, their scent unnatural in the room manufactured by machinery rather than soil, and she hates them for that.

While she sits, the house sings its daily score: from the hallway, the methodic thrumming of the dryer; from the kitchen, a here-and-gone-again hum from the refrigerator; a startling groan from shifting joists every so often. It’s as though the woman is hearing this music for the first time — she sinks into the chorus, allowing her head to tilt back as she considers the rustling nature of silence. How can it be possible to occupy a still space and encounter ceaseless chatter?

When she was a teenager, the woman had an affair with a married man. He’d capitalized on her naïveté, snaking an arm around her shoulders seemingly haphazardly at first; later, with the confidence that accompanies ownership. Quick side-armed hugs goodbye lazily transitioned into embraces that lingered moments longer each time — she was never sure when it was okay to pull away — and then one day, he pointed at his cheek and said Can I have a little kiss? and then seven weeks had passed and she was holed up in the bathroom at the Kwik Stop in town with a box at her feet and cellophane littering the floor nearby and a room full of silence bearing down on her with the weight of ten thousand hands. She remembers, now, that the silence had had a vibrancy then, too: the fluorescent fixture whined at an unreasonably low pitch while the cellophane crinkled in a slow unfurling on the floor, independent of human contact.

Three weeks later, she’d experienced silence for the last time she could remember, in the front seat of her car while it idled in a parking lot she never thought she’d call a resting place. The engine prrrrrrr-ed in alternating levels of high- and low-volume as she retched into a McDonald’s cup — formerly host to sweet iced tea — and moaned into the emptiness around her.

Yes, the woman decided now: silence was alive, and just like her son, incapable of keeping still.

***

From the corner of Elm and Hyacinth, the house looks abandoned. The boarded-up windows are dark, and when the sun hits just right, it’s almost impossible to tell if the windows have been covered or if the house is merely vacant.

Almost.

The garden is a dead giveaway: a healthy growth of weeds dominate, with two or three marigold bushes sprinkled throughout and a miraculous patch of zinnias shouting “Look at me!” to passersby. If the house were abandoned, the zinnias would have wilted long ago, while dandelions and clover and other pests sprouted upright and starved the flowers of sunlight and moisture. The garden would look a bit like Jumanji, after the kids have opened Pandora’s box and they’ve floundered about helplessly for a day or two. An observant neighbor will notice the zinnias, tended — albeit, haphazardly — and know: someone lives there.

***

A phone rings in another room — her daughter’s, she thinks — and its chirpy proclamation is shrill and unwieldy in the heavy near-silence of the house. The woman quivers imperceptibly. The tune plays two, three, four times before cutting off abruptly mid-ring; the stillness returns, the call a brief (but jarring) ripple already fast dissolving.

To be continued.

The Neighbor (Part 1)

A woman sits on the edge of her cracked-cement porch. It is evening, after eight, and the sky has grown dim as the promise of day fades into muted blues. There is nothing in her hands; usually, she grips her cell phone like a life raft to the world Beyond. Tonight, her hands are clasped loosely, elbows propped on ample thighs, eyes boring into the nothingness that looms on the horizon. Two houses down, a child shrieks with ecstasy — his father is teasing him on the front lawn, his mother looking onward with approval; a Proctor & Gamble advertisement in the flesh.

The woman doesn’t bat an eye at the startling squeals. She doesn’t budge an inch, either, when a mower roars to life across the street. She is impervious to sound; maybe to life.

The garage door at her house gapes in a nighttime yawn: the man has not returned. He’s a phantom: we rarely see him, and when we do, it is as though he only exists when the man looks you straight in the eye. At all other times, he is a silent wisp, ethereally gliding about in the background. We don’t know the man at all.

We watch the woman, sometimes. Usually at night, when she’s put the children to bed. When it’s temperate, she moseys out to the porch to stare blankly at whatever fantasy smothers the reality before her. When it’s not, she idles in the front room, every light glaring at full force in the house, even the ones in the basement. We watch her absently grasp the remote, but her face remains unembellished by the glow of the television. She picks up a few items from the floor — probably stray children’s socks and colorful wooden blocks and discarded Cheerios — only to move the things elsewhere in the front room.

Most of us draw the shades in the evening, in search for a bit of privacy; but not the woman.

She leaves them gaping into the night, lets the dark seep into the house in its familiar prowl, until the lights from her house gleam brightest on the block.

***

At dusk, the garage door is still agape. We rub crust from the corners of our eyes, dash our coffee with possibly-sour milk from the back corner of the fridge, and grumble about our Monday agendas. Perhaps the Sandman dosed us extra heavy last night, or perhaps we’ve become immune to caffeine; either way, none of us notice the heavy boards nailed to the insides of the window frames.

It’s gone ten o’clock when the whispering begins. It starts with a text:

Did you see the Garbler place this a.m.?

And then the flood begins; a practically community-wide group chat devoted to unearthing the truth.

No — but I heard the house is all boarded up! WTF?

It’s from THE INSIDE. I just know that woman is holding her kids hostage…

LOL right?! She’s always been a bit unhinged.

I always thought she seemed nice…a little sad, maybe, but not violent.

That’s what’cha get for thinkin’, June.

GUYS. Back to the issue at hand: who’s gonna knock on her door and find out what’s going on?

The silence is characteristic of small towns: we want to know our neighbors’ business, but we damn sure don’t want to know it from their mouths. Most certainly not when that business involves five-inch nails and two-by-fours. Especially not when it involves the woman.

There are several minutes of silence, several dot-dot-dots hovering in the group message, several collective moments of held breath and nervous chuckles — How could they seriously expect me to knock on her door? I don’t even know the woman! — before the ping comes through.

***

She knows they’re whispering this morning. She can sense their fear, can feel its vibration on the air that is curling up from the gap beneath the back door. People are always suspicious of unknown women.

The boards are an ominous addition to her living room; they’re a pale fir, which shouldn’t seem looming, but the absence of light makes the woman shudder. She can hear nothing beyond the walls of her house; truthfully, nothing more than ten inches from where she sits. The boards have blanketed all sound.

It’s only a matter of time, she reminds herself. Only a matter of time before someone comes knocking.

Outside, the sun continues its ascent.