[Image description: photograph of a brick fireplace. A single log is beginning to burn with small flames, and there are brightly glowing embers scattered beneath that.]  Barry Pousman / Creative Commons

[Image description: photograph of a brick fireplace. A single log is beginning to burn with small flames, and there are brightly glowing embers scattered beneath that.]

Barry Pousman / Creative Commons

It was a matter of life and death, and they were directing with large, commanding voices. The plan would never work.

“Just agree with me. What I said is final,” they said. All the money was at stake.                                      

Whatever it was, they were arguing. No matter how much I wished it weren’t true, a sliver of suspicion made me think it was about me this time, or it somehow involved me. And yet, I knew I wasn’t quite that important. Laughing only with mockery and raising voices with a sharp tinge of hate, they went back and forth. It wasn’t necessary for me to decipher whose voice was male or female, who was older or wiser or stronger or more right. I cringed with the fear of knowing what it was that they said, and when I decided it was very important that I not know, I begged to be distant. I drugged myself, gulping an air-coated, air-filled pill and let the nightmare seep from my nose in exhale. I imagined myself away to another time and place. At the same time, my bedroom was the other place. I wasn’t actually there. But, when I tried to listen again when it was imperative that I know what they were talking about, I couldn’t hear the meaning of their words as much as I couldn’t see their mouths form and articulate syllables. 

Minutes before, I had slumped up and, in a crouched, bent-over run escaped to my bedroom at the same time the garage door opened. They came home at 8 o’clock pm, and the show that had been on TV was over. The top of the set was still warm. It was better to avoid the situation altogether than to discard questions of concern, the how-are-you-feelings with the oh-I’m-fines. Those charged wax sentiments pushed with tense, underlying meaning. Anyone, or at least any one of us four, could see right through the performative gush. Daily, we echoed “care” and “don’t worry” in a sing-song back and forth. There was not much more of a breach, not much more besides pleasantries.

Maybe they would think that I went to sleep. They wouldn’t know how long I had sat on the couch and stared at the fireplace. It was so clean, so spick and span that it glowed. Despite the long unused interior of the hearth, everything you could see, seemingly bronzed for posterity, was gleaming: the closed door; the poker; the bellows that wasn’t meant for use; the glazed, polished, treated metal surround. It was a sooty mess inside, unopened for twenty-three years. The chimney brick flecked off and down and into a pile. I didn’t open the door. I just thought for minutes upon hours for days at a time. I didn’t expose the blemish in this twinkling symbol of home and family, appraised as orderliness and spotlessness.

The easiest thing was to avoid situations, elude people, and skirt past the confrontation. Winced smiles would ask you if you were ready to be better now, please. The less they saw me, the better. The less they worried, the smoother. The less I grasped to know it was ok, the simpler. And, the less I questioned, trembling at responses, the more acceptable for everyone. I nestled close up to blankets and things that said what was inside me was ok. Blankets responded how I wanted them to, most of the time. The barren black of the room was much safer. It enveloped me and reflected me. Nonetheless, I couldn’t see fingers attached to my body.

They came home and paused, all three together. The ten hushed beats of quiet prefaced raucous, clattering sound. It was immediately apparent that I wasn’t there. I was sleeping in bed even though it was a little early for me. They knew too that I wasn’t sleeping and that the room they were standing in was still warm. She dropped the keys knowing that it was not time for me to be in the same place as them. He turned the lock on the door to the garage and was aware that I may never leave. One other voice let out a tilt-the-head-back laugh, a little too loud for someone who was sleeping not to hear. Someone maybe stood at the table rapping their hands and looking for something to do. Someone maybe fixed a nightcap. They all decided I was beyond the path of noise, even though it could’ve been time for everyone to turn in.

I nodded out as someone clanked the heavy dishes. The extra-large dish soap bottle fell into the metal sink. I hummed myself quietly into a meditative trance until I heard him yell "Gin."

“There’s no need for it, the car and the house. It’s just that we need more for the house,” he said.

“It was her, I know it was,” she said.

“Shhh. She’s not sleeping.”

“Maggie, damn dog.”

They argued more and into the night. I plugged the alarm clock in only to see that it was 12:00 one thousand times over. Their word salads, the word salads only I could hear, were about me, or maybe they weren’t. Either way, they were the ones who were crazy, who couldn’t keep their emotions bottled up. I heard their words direct at me. When I grasped the sounds, they related precisely what was felt. I allowed their words to be about me, to confront me, and to attack me, and I allowed the utterances to be real.

“All you do is sit around. Why don’t you do the dishes?” she said. I wasn’t even a part of the conversation. “I clean all day, hours most days.”

Anger verged behind those course snaps but wouldn’t spill. They held the burden of, “it’s my fault.” Those same tonal qualities said, “I tried my hardest. Why can’t she be like me?” The built-up stress barked sporadically, so everyone knew it was profound. If you just asked, she would tell you in plain erupting words.

“Why don’t you get new socks? There’s no need for the cheap ones,” he said.

So obviously, everyone could see that she didn’t have the taste, the finesse, or the class that he needed. His benchmark was her socks. Without any of those things myself, except socks, I barely began to know what they were in the world. I hoarded several quarters taken from the guest room, left on the dresser for months. They were my things.

“She hears you. She at least knows. Please, just tell her yourself,” he whispered. S’s blurred speech together.

“You do it, and that’s final. Marge invited us, so we have to go,” she said lopping off his imploring, submissive words. He offered them by mistake.

An awkward cackle as clear as broken day sounded far off from us all. The commotion ruffled my feathers, and it made me feel more of a person because of my embarrassment for the issuer. I wouldn’t check if they were ok. I wouldn’t see what that was about. I could leave this room, this pallor, but only face the world if it sat under me.

I didn’t know, not quite ever. I felt the man and the woman and their meaning. I felt the way it oscillated, shifted energy in massive bursts much too hard and all at once. No one, not even if they were in my exact same predicament, would feel the same particular sonic boom. It hit me, and I adjusted. I dwelled on my sense of being a dead weight sack of grain or potatoes.

“It’s your fault. She never missed it,” she said.

It was me they were arguing about. It was my fault there was never a dull murmur, never an inkling at surrender or a will to cuddle up. It was me that kept them both together. It was my hell that I didn’t allow them to depart. If only I weren’t there, there would be the calm I would never see.

I would find my own resolution if they would just let me push off to drift. I would leave the next morning as I planned a million nights in a row. Only a few more days until my ankles would let me walk a million miles to get to the next place. When healed, I would make my way. I would thank them so much, and they would be relieved. They could remark to their friends about how I am so strong and capable just like everyone else. They would have their own empty nest to complain about then.

I would scrawl my last mark into my grandmother’s hope chest when my mom wasn’t looking. The score would make it mine. It would be the last effort and plea to not lose the drip of hope out of the faucet with the wrench beside it. I could someday be what they thought I would be at twelve. I would have a place for the chest. Just in a few more months, it would pass over. In a few more days, I would be completely well at last. They’d let me stay a little bit longer if I tried just a little bit harder. It would be okay if I could just please hurry up and make things completely different. I sigh sleepily, and it comes out broken and choppy. I’ll stay here in a cloak under the covers, healing, for now. Much later, after this is all done, after I clean the inside of the fireplace, I will be able to come out.

Suzanne Stas is also a writer. She writes about things that are hard to talk about. Her first novel is almost finished, maybe.