Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
"Do you have anything you'd like to say about these?" Her father pointed a long finger towards the battered stack of spiral notebooks on the tabletop.
"Are you sure?"
She stared back at him. "Yes."
"Then get out of here."
She slammed the screen door behind her as she left. A cheap porcelain plate quivered on its shelf. A woman with gray-streaked hair buried her head in her hands and refrained from looking at the man sitting across from her.
The girl stood on the porch, suddenly at a loss. What next? It was almost all of the way dark. Even with anger and embarrassment from having her thoughts raped boiling in her chest, she knew it wasn't safe to leave the house. Not around here. People did things at night that were different than what they did during the day. Getting in the way of those things was potentially dangerous.
She lived in the sort of place people only pass through to arrive somewhere else. Travelers didn't like to stay there. It was only the people like her and her family, the ones with few other options, who were trapped inside of it, forced to bear the effects of being exposed to something potent enough to wear noticeably on those who stayed for only a few days.
The town was dying. It was a knot of frail houses, of lawns littered with abandoned plastic tricycles, of patches of scraggly vegetation allowed to grow unchecked. It was a place of old, maimed , limping things, creatures that had pulled themselves from places of rapid heartbeats and chosen to lick their wounds. Most of the time, they never got up again once they were down. They just laid there. Skeletons covered in shreds of flesh, blank eyes slowly losing memories of what used to be important to them.
They died in the town. That was what the town was for.
Not knowing where to go, the girl slumped onto the steps, ignoring the slight blast of pain in her leg as her knee scraped against the concrete. Her parents were speaking to each other now. Probably they knew she was listening. Probably they didn't care.
"I never imagined she was feeling those things," her mother said, her voice stonewashed by cigarette smoke.
"Who knew she'd be stupid enough to," her father answered.
"They were horrible things. But don't call them stupid, John. They were obviously important to her. Important enough to try to keep them away from us. Important enough to hide them as best as she could."
"She's disrespected both of us," her father growled. "Saying things like that. Imagine if someone else got a hold of those books. Imagine what the people here would think. In a small town like this, what's written in those books would be everywhere. No one would let us live it down."
"She wouldn't let anyone know, John. She isn't stupid. And I don't think she's much on sharing them, not if she did what she did to keep them hidden from us."
"Stop sticking up for her. Don't you dare defend her. Not after what she said about us."
There was a tense silence that lasted long enough for the girl to bite one of her fingernails off.
"Maybe that's the problem. Maybe neither of us are sticking up for her. Maybe that's where we've gone wrong."
"Neither of us have gone wrong, all right? We haven't done anything wrong. Not a single thing. She's spoiled. She's ungrateful. She doesn't appreciate any of the things we've given her. At least she has both of us around. At least she has a roof over her head. She doesn't know how good she has it."
"Maybe you're right." There was another uncomfortable silence. "But that doesn't stop her from feeling those things. She's still feeling them. And we have to do something about it."
"No." Her father's voice possessed the sympathy of an anvil. "We don't. She needs to make a change in her attitude. And until then, she's on her own. Let her think over what she's done. Let her figure it out. It's time for her to grow up."
They didn't speak after that. The girl had bitten off four of her fingernails; she started on a fifth, shivering as a gust of wind ruffled her jagged hair. Stars were starting to come out. They were clearest in the places where light from the lampposts was weakest, each star a pure pinprick of brilliance, infinitely different than the wavering yellow light of the lampposts.
The blistering feeling behind the girl's sternum was beginning to die down. Now, she felt drained, pale. She brought one bitten hand to her eyes but found no moisture to wipe away. There was rarely any. She'd convinced herself crying was nonsensical long before, had grown to see it as weakness. And there was no room for weakness, not in this town. Not in this place, where the air seemed to feed on weakness, sucking it from creatures and houses and objects, reducing them to frail images of what they used to be.
She allowed herself to think of her parents. A spark like a struck match ignited behind her eyes, dying as quickly as it arose. Her parents were the cause of it all. Her parents, with their nosy, prodding hands searching places they shouldn't.
"I won't do that," she whispered, bitterly realizing how the iron in her voice was like her father's. "I won't be like them. Not to my children. Not ever."
Why couldn't her parents see what was happening to them? How were they content to stay without planning to move on? Content with their flimsy, peeling house, with walls thin enough to make her mother nervous each time a thunderstorm arose? With incandescent lightbulbs constantly flickering in their sockets?
She remembered her father promising her mother, "It won't be for long. Just until I'm able to get the truck fixed. Then I'll find another route, and we'll move on. It'll only be for a couple months at most."
But fixing trucks took money, and money was something they didn't have enough of, the reason they'd left their old home in the first place. Her father, stranded without his means of providing forhis family, had taken on a job at a local grocery store. Initially, the job irked him; he arrived home in the evenings muttering,
"Can't stand it. Need to get out. Need to move."
But he'd stopped that months ago. She missed her father's discontented mumblings because it had at least meant he wanted something, had had something to work towards. But then, he'd gotten his first paycheck; the grocer's job supplied him with enough money to keep the lights on, and the fridge was never empty. Which had been better than a few incidences before his truck had broken down and they'd moved into the town.
But she would've been fine with going hungry if it meant they could leave. Couldn't they see she was all right with hunger if it meant escape?
A door slammed in the house behind her. She flinched, hugged her arms close to her sides, and hunkered down. She wasn't going inside yet. She wasn't stupid, even if her father thought she was.
But she hadn't exactly been smart, either, writing things in those books. She should've kept them in her thoughts. But she'd written one page of them on a day that now seemed an eternity ago. A sense of lightness had rushed over her when she'd finished, a sort of childish delight, like she'd just revealed a treasured secret to someone for the fun of it. She'd been addicted instantly. After that, there was no stopping. Not when the feeling drew her in, a sense of strength, of productivity, of making a difference.
"What's that?" Her mother had asked months ago, seeing her bent over a notebook.
"Homework," she'd answered immediately, sitting up straight.
"What kind of homework?" her mother had questioned.
"English," she'd stuttered. "We're writing short stories."
"Oh." Her mother hadn't said anything after that.
But her parents had known there was something going on, knew by the way she hunched protectively over the books as she wrote. Looking back, she realized she should've been more subtle. Her efforts to keep the contents of the books safe had been her downfall. She should've sat up straight when she was writing; she should've attempted to make conversation with her parents; she should've pretended to be comfortable enough to put them at ease.
But disguising her reliance on the books had been impossible. The point of writing in them was to channel her frustration in an effort to keep it under control. Had she known of any other way to deal with her angst, she would've done it. But the books had been everything. And now, her parents had read them. They knew everything about her. They were inside her mind. Nothing belonged to her now, not even her thoughts. They had taken those, too. They would put them in the same place they'd put their own thoughts, and like theirs, her thoughts would wither.
The hiding place had held so much promise. How had they known?
A train whistle wailed in the distance. She perked her ears up, listening as the wail echoed, wafting through trees, touching cornfields and soybeans and roads until it touched her. Was it possible to gather the wail inside of her, to preserve it, to keep it fresh in case she needed proof that people out there were going places and seeing things and escaping?
"Where are you going?" her father had asked.
"Don't be smart with me?"
"I'm not being smart. I just don't have any better reason to give you."
"I can deal without the attitude."
"I didn't give you any attitude."
"Stop being smart with me."
"If I would've spoken to my father like you speak to me, he would've beaten me with his belt."
"It's a pity you don't wear belts then. Pity you only wear sweatpants. Even to work. Because you're not going anywhere important, are you, Dad?"
She regretted letting her temper slip as soon as she'd spoken. She'd crossed an invisible line. Doing the only thing she'd been able to think of at the moment, she'd turned and darted out the door. She'd heard her father's reclining armchair clicking into an upright position and had quickened her pace.
When she'd arrived back hom, her parents had been sitting at the table, her spiral notebooks stacked in front of them. She'd never remembered seeing the lines in her mother's face so clearly pronounced.
And she had.
How they'd found her hiding place for the books, she didn't know. They'd had to have searched her room intensely to have discovered the loose piece of wood in the flooring beneath her bed, to have found her books concealed beneath it. They'd had to have been purposefully looking for the books to have found them.
She must've pushed her father over the edge. They'd wanted to know what she'd been writing about for months. If she'd kept her temper, she wouldn't be sitting on her front steps, shivering terribly, craving to write about what was happening to her but knowing there was no hope of being able to.
She jammed her hands into the pockets of her hooded sweatshirt. Something was inside her pocket. She wrapped her fingers around a folded piece of paper. Her eyes widened.
She'd written in the books just before she'd left the house. Unsure how to finish the last page she'd been working on, she'd ripped it out and shoved it into her pocket in case the answer came to her while she was out. Unfolding it, the girl squinted at the words scrawled loosely across the surface, reading by the dim light of the lampposts.
They're almost dead now. I can see it when I look at them. My mother never stops hanging things on clotheslines. My father never does anything when he's home but sit in his recliner and tell me not to be smart with him. But I'm not being smart with him. I'm just trying to wake him up.
They're dying, and they don't care. I hate them for it. I hate seeing them doing things for no reason, as if they don't have anything better to be doing, as if they have no better way to fill their days. But I know we have enough money saved to get the truck fixed now, maybe even enough to buy a little car we could drive to get out of this place. But they never talk about leaving.
My father hates me. I know he does. Fathers aren't supposed to hate their children, but I know he hates me. Something strange comes into his eyes when he looks at me, like he's seeing something he used to know but doesn't like the things it's making him remember. Like it hurts him to look at me.
They both want me to die with them. They want me to let this fucking town drink the life out of me just like it's doing to them. They want me to be all right with this town and its ghosts and its zombies. They want me to be all right with it. But I'm not all right with it. Not even a little.
We have to escape. We have to wake up. They have to wake up. They're on the brink of falling asleep in a way I can't rouse them from. I can't watch them. I can't be expected to sit back and watch them. How can they expect me to?
Can't they see that the world is going on without them? Can't they see that I'm feeling it, and I want to see it with them? Can't they see-"
The words ended there, in an unfinished sentence. The paper mocked her now, silently jeering,
"What can't they see? What is it that you see that they can't? How can you expect them to be able to see it, if you couldn't even finish a sentence about it, you stupid girl? You'll be dead like them before long. Maybe even worse. Because you don't want to be. And everyone knows we all become the things we hate most."
How could they expect her to begin dying when she hadn't had a chance to see anything yet? When the train whistle screeched every night, audible proof that the world was going on outside of the town, that things were happening, exciting things, living things, things none of them were seeing because her father wouldn't get out of his armchair and her mother wouldn't stop doing laundry? How could they expect her to watch them slowly falling asleep?
And they called her stupid for it, for feeling things they had made a point of becoming blind to because they'd found bland comfort here, in this place with thin walls and unsteady lights and front steps with rough cement that cut her each time she sat on them. How was it enough for them? How could it be enough for anyone, much less her father, the rough, foul-mouthed man who drove a truck across the country and used to send them gruff letters saying,
"I miss both of you. But this pays the bills. And I like seeing places and doing things, even if it hurts not having you with me."
Where was her father? Where had he gone?
The answer flooded into her suddenly. The armchair. That's where he'd gone. It was all the armchair's fault. The armchair was a conduit of this town's power, a way for the town to possess him, to steal him from her.
She made the decision instantly, too overwhelmed by the fire in her chest to take the time to think rationally.
She threw the door open and stalked to the kitchen, pulled open a drawer, and removed a steak knife. Striding back to the chair, she savagely plunged the knife into it. Puffs of stuffing protruded from the places where she'd ripped it.
"What are you doing?" her father roared, emerging from the hallway.
She stabbed the chair one final time. The knife clattered to the floor. She whirled to face her father.
"I'm killing your chair."
"What the hell is wrong with you?"
“Me?" she screamed. "Me? What the hell is wrong with me?"
She pushed the chair over. It landed on its side with a tremendous crash, thoroughly defeated. A plate shook and fell from its shelf, shattering on the floor.
"What is wrong with you?" she cried. She was shouting louder than her father had, loud enough for everyone in the town to hear. "You, not me. You always think it's me, don't you? I'm always the problem. The stupid problem. You think I'm the one turning Mom's hair grey. You think I'm the reason you're gaining weight. You think it's all me, always me, never you. Never, ever you."
"Put that down!"
"This?" She picked up one of her father's beer cans, tested its lukewarm, heavy weight. "What, are you angry because you won't get to drink it? Lost the armchair already. Can't bear to lose the alchohol, too, can you? What would you do without it?”
She threw the can as hard as her body would allow her to. It hurtled through the air, spinning as it flew towards its target. The window shattered instantly.
“Stop it! Just stop!”
“Why? Give me a reason. Tell me why.”
“You’re breaking things!”
“I’m breaking things?” Her voice was smooth, emanating cold fury.
“What about you, though, dad? What about you? I’m the one breaking things? I broke an armchair. I broke a window.
“But what about you, dad? You’re breaking me.”
Her mother was standing in the hallways behind her father, eyes wide and afraid, staring.
For the first time in over twelve months, the girl’s father had nothing to say.
One week later, a seventeen-year-old girl sat in the back of a dented automobile. As the car drove away, the girl closed her eyes and whispered something about a train whistle beneath her breath.
That same week, two advertisements ran in the town newspaper. One advertised a house for sale. The other advertised a job opening for a grocer’s position, needing to be filled.