This story is by Barbara Hopper and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Hints of memories…hugs and laughter…float on the notes of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ that drifts in from the patio next door. A time when the world was an untapped canvas of endless possibilities. But that universe is dead. The memories locked up tighter than a North Korean prison camp. Yet every so often one escapes, and threatens to drown me in a deluge of biblical proportions. Perspiration trickles down my cleavage as I stomp down those runaway recollections.
Thunderous footsteps down the corridor outside my condo shatter my fragile equilibrium. As the cold grip of fear crushes my chest with the force of a tidal wave, I freeze in place.
The lines between past and present blur and I freefall downward toward the gates of hell. Rough rope bites into my wrists and ankles. I gag at the acrid stench of dried blood, sweat, semen, cigarettes, and beer. My body screeches with pain.
I don’t notice the footsteps stop a couple of doors down until my neighbor’s voice booms “Glad you made it here, Joe”, and I’m jolted back to the present.
Tremors run through me like reverberations from an earthquake, though I try to ground myself, and notice the silky feel of the Turkish rug against my bare feet. I focus on the familiar books, furnishings, security cameras, and bars on safety glass reinforced windows.
The apparition that stares back at me in the mirror is that of a stranger. Dark circles under hollow, wary eyes. Clenched jaw. The creases around my forehead and ‘laugh’ lines that frame my mouth.
What a joke. I can’t even remember the last time I laughed. What happened to that vivacious, happy-go-lucky girl? How long has it been? Ten years?
A single tear slides down my face. As the saltiness reaches my mouth, desolation surges through me like the barren, windswept terrain of the Sahara Desert. The desolation gives way to anger. Fury churns my insides, whips up sand like an avenging angel that rearranges the landscape. Fury at what those evil bastards took from me, as carelessly as you’d flick a cigarette ash onto the ground.
They took my confidence and joy and robbed me of my future. When I regained consciousness in the hospital, my body was on fire. Everyone crooned how lucky I was to be alive, but I only wanted to die.
Little by little I’ve tried to mimic a life, sort of, as I absorbed myself in complex fantasy worlds. I read with the hunger of somebody who escaped famine. I write about strong heroines, where the bad guys always get what they deserve. It pays the bills. And the best thing about it is that I don’t have to leave the house.
I’ve got my music and my books. I chat with fans online, at a safe distance. In fact, I’ve built an entire virtual world… book clubs, writer’s groups. I even see a virtual therapist. Cocooned in my fortress, I engage safely with the world.
Let’s not forget my version of meditation. I sit for hours by the window and watch the comings and goings of my neighbors. That young couple across the street, the Ellersons, recently got married. Probably because she’s pregnant, but I’ll bet she doesn’t know her husband cheats on her. Amy Weir, next door, thinks her bratty kids can do no wrong, when they steal all kinds of stuff. Talk about living in a fantasy world. And then, there’s that new girl who always looks so sad, like an abandoned orphan.
Most importantly, I’ve got my brother, Dave who delivers my food and whatever else I might need. He’s the only flesh and blood person I see.
Often, I write at night, because I’m afraid to sleep, especially in the dark. I’m petrified of night terrors that smash to smithereens all my progress, and leave me a sniveling, babbling wreck.
Every so often, like with the Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, I’m reminded of another time. What could have been. Rumblings deep within my soul emerge and threaten to shatter the illusion of contentment I’ve strived so hard to create. Suspicions that I want more. Deserve more. And that just maybe, that doesn’t have to be a fantasy.
That’s when the Furies kick in. Both Dave and my therapist harass me to harness that anger, to use it to my advantage to move forward. Or maybe just to move, period, rather than stay on that rusted, broken down barge and pretend it’s a yacht.
But then an icicle of fear coils itself around me. As it sucks out all the oxygen, I’m left paralyzed. Again. Laying low has worked all these years. Hasn’t it? That strong heroine stuff, that’s best left to fiction, right?
As I brew coffee, I hear a scuffle outside, some kids taunt some poor unfortunate, and the unmistakable sound of crying. I rush to the window and see a flash of red huddled by the oak tree. A backpack sits open on the grass, its contents strewn haphazardly about.
Three middle-school girls surround the figure by the tree. They pass around a picture as they jeer at a younger girl, a red sweatshirt crumpled in her trembling hands. It’s that new girl in the neighborhood. She’s maybe 9 or 10. I never see her play with the other kids, but I do hear a lot of angry voices coming from their house across the street. I think her name is, um…Callie.
The older girls rifle through the stuff on the ground, while the younger one tries to retrieve them. The blue-haired girl with a nose-ring kicks a folder away from Callie’s hand. A breeze scatters the papers down the block. Blue Hair pushes Callie and she crumbles to the ground.
I reach to open the window, but that icicle of fear spikes its ugly head. My palms squeeze tight, my breaths rapid and erratic. I can’t get my emotions under control. Fragmented visions stampede through my brain like a herd of panicked elephants. Adrenalin activates red hot anger and spurts out tentacles that burn through the cold dread.
I open the window and assume a voice like a general who rallies his troops into combat, but all that comes out is a croak. Let’s try again. This time, I imbue power in my voice worthy of the Furies.
“If you don’t leave that girl alone, I’ll call the police. You have 5 seconds.”
“Police. We don’t want no trouble.” Blue hair looks at her friends, and they sprint away.
“Next time there won’t be a warning. You oughta be ashamed.”
Callie and I both quake as I slam the window shut.
A few days later, I glance out and notice Callie by herself, hunched over near the oak tree. Her hands cover her face as her shoulders twitch. Her sobs burst forth, a thousand balloons that explode in quick succession. An unexpected wave of pity engulfs me. I don’t understand the pull this girl has over me, yet a powerful magnetic energy draws me into her orbit.
I open the window as I call out to her, but she’s mired too far down in her own misery to hear. To get her attention, I emit several shrill whistles. A few minutes later, Callie raises her tear-stained face.
“Hey there. Have the bullies been bothering you again?”
Callie shakes her head.
The smile I plaster on my face feels rusted and stiff from disuse. “It can’t be that bad. I don’t think the world is coming to an end today.”
Callie looks at me, and I don’t think about my next words. “One of the things that helps me get through tough times is hot chocolate with a touch of cinnamon. Would you like a cup?”
A small smile flickers on her face as she nods.
“Come on up.” What the hell am I doing, inviting this girl in. Nobody but Dave comes over. Ever.
Callie confides her fears that her parents will divorce. Their constant bickering leaves her feeling los and alone. Here we are…two broken souls who emit faint SOS signals in the desperate hope someone will find us and lead us home.
A year passes. I look forward to Callie’s daily visits. We feel safe in each other’s company. And her home situation has stabilized.
“Why don’t you ever go out, Jennifer?”
The question stuns me. “It’s complicated. Something bad happened to me a long time ago. I’m safer here.”
Wise beyond her years, Callie grasps my hand in both of hers. “You are safe with me. My mom wants to meet you. I’m supposed to invite you over for coffee tomorrow. Will you come? Please?”
As the familiar icy grip of fear twists around my gut, another sensation pushes its way toward the light. Tentative, at first, then more persistent, kindling the warm embers of hope. Though I’m not ready yet, perhaps the world is still an untapped canvas of endless possibilities.