This story is by ShuJen Walker Askew and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Inside this empty space, I lurk waiting for someone to quench my thirst. It has been far too long. When I think they’ll never come, the door swings open.
A man and woman holding hands solemnly walk in. They sign their names, take the handouts, and sit on the left side of the U-shaped cluster of tables.
The sad, yet hopeful type, I estimate this couple will be the first to quench my thirst.
The door swings open, a young pregnant woman steps in. Juggling her oversized purse and water bottle, she makes her way to the sign in table and falls short into the nearest chair. Breathing hard, she reaches for the handouts.
I watch as the first couple watches her, neither making a move to help. Depressing, yet perfect, a flawless combo. I believe this lonely pregnant mama will be the first.
The door swings open, a man strolls in chatting on his phone. He plops down on the right side of the room, opposite the first couple and continues babbling, oblivious of his whereabouts.
The escapist, one in every bunch, welcome to my reality. I change my mind. You will be my first.
The door swings open, an older couple leaning on each other for support creeps in. Their hapless souls drain the life force from these walls as they leisurely unload on the right side of the room.
Smelling their frail presence, visually appealing I shiver, certain these bittersweet feeble ones will be the first to satisfy my hunger.
The door swings open, girlish brown eyes scope the entire area before signing in and taking the handouts. Once satisfied, the woman sits, places her jacket in the chair next to her and folds her hands.
The analytical type, synapses firing nonstop. Bang bang! Guaranteed to moisten my insides as numero uno.
The door swings open, a muscular fella with slick hair makes a beeline for the jacket, removes it and sits. The woman lands one on his cheek, then plasters the nametag on his chest. Buby, it reads. He smiles, she chuckles.
I gag, my inner beams flexing.
Heads turn, eyes gaze around the room.
I soundlessly shrink inwards, camouflaging my presence.
The door swings open, a tall, thin female lugging a large white box, shuffles in.
She looks familiar, different, aged.
“Good evening. My name is Sandra, the coordinator.”
Sandy my friend, where have you been? I’ve been waiting.
Sandra pauses, glances around then continues. “Welcome to our first class, My Distinctive Voice. In this session, you will learn how to better communicate with your child…”
You’ve changed professions on me, clever.
“Let’s start by introducing yourselves.” Sandra points to the first couple who walked in.
“Hi, we are Katie and Jack.” Katie waves.
“Hi.” Everyone echoes.
The synchrony in their voice vibrates my inner elements, uplifting my spirit.
“We are Rachel and Tom.” The woman with the jacket speaks.
“Jessica.” The pregnant lady shifts her body weight.
“Grace and Samuel.” The older couple leans close.
“I’m David.” The gabber winks.
“Nice to meet everyone. I know it’s hard to be here late in the evening because you all have families…”
Families, the word creates tension, sweating, heavy breathing, and fidgeting, all music to my ears. Who will be the first to quench my thirst, this one, that one, or…that one?
“Let’s talk about playtime with their little one. Who wants to go first?”
Katie smiles. “Our son is smart.”
Jack nods. “He loves to play with cars and trucks, can spend hours doing it.”
“Nice. Do you ever play with him?” Sandra asks.
She squirms. “Sometimes, but I’m always busy cooking, cleaning…”
“What about you Jack?”
“I work all day.
“What about when you get home?”
He juggles his hands. “Occasionally.”
“No, you don’t.” Katie rolls her eyes. “He’s always on the computer.”
“I have work to do.”
“Well then, you should stay at work.”
The outburst makes my heart beat faster. More stimulating than the last class, my insides tighten, waiting for his reaction.
“Let’s stay positive.” Sandra clasps her hands together. “This is supposed to be a fun and enjoyable learning experience. Happy, positive thoughts.”
“You both need to spend time with your son. Interaction is our goal for this class. Can everyone say, interaction?”
In unison, they repeat the word, their voices reverberating my insides making me hunger for more.
“Why don’t we move on? What about you, Rachel, Tom? How is playtime in your household?”
“Not great.” Rachel glances at the ceiling. “I try.”
“It’s hard,” Tom speaks up. “Our son prefers to play by himself.”
“Eight-year-old twin daughters. Sometimes he interacts with them.” Rachel responds.
“What kind of things does he like to do?”
“Similar to Katie’s son. Loves cars, trucks, anything with wheels. Rolls them all over the house.”
“Do you ever join him?”
“Not since he hit my wife in the head with a toy car. Show them, hun.”
Rachel pulls back her bangs, exposing the scar on her forehead.
It tickles. I giggle.
“Did you hear that?” Jessica turns around.
“Hear what?” David follows her gaze.
“The room creaks,” Sandra smirks. “It’s an old soul.”
Tom continues. “Now when he goes to his corner, we respect his alone time.”
“Same happened to us. I have a scar too.” Katie lifts her long sleeve shirt, exposing the pinkish mark on her arm.
The class leans in.
I feel the motion and sway too.
“What was that?” Rachel braces the table. “Earthquake?”
Jessica tries to stand.
“People!” Sandra screeches then half-smiles. “It’s a room, recently renovated. Ignore it. Let’s continue.”
I don’t like you anymore, Sandy.
“For us we took it slow, inching our way into his play area until he accepted us. Try that.” Jack assures them.
“Again,” Sandra comments, “It’s all about…”
“Interaction,” they sing.
I grin then frown. I want more. Repeat, repeat, repeat!
“How about you, Jessica? When are you due?”
“Two weeks, a baby girl.” She bites her lip. “I’m hoping my son will love his baby sister and she’ll love him back. I’ve always wanted a second child, but now I’m uncertain.” Tears well.
I wait for them to drop. Come on pregnant mama, give me all you’ve got!
“Our daughters love their brother. They play, fight, and play again. Siblings. They’ll be fine.” Rachel gives her thumbs up.
Jessica exhales. “Thank you.”
“This is why we’re here.” Sandra’s eyes light up. “To create a community of support! Happy thoughts. Keep sharing. How about you?” She points to the older couple.
Grace swallows hard. “When our daughter ended up in jail, we adopted our grandson. He’s two, nonverbal.” Her voice quivers. “Every day is a struggle trying to connect with him. Our bodies ache but our hearts keep fighting. We love our grandson and will never give up.” Tears form, but don’t fall.
Darn! My patience wanes.
Sandra breathes deeply before speaking again. “This is hard, but we’ll get through it together. And last David, what toys does your daughter play with?”
David twirls his phone then scans the room. “It’s been two years since I’ve lost my wife giving birth to our baby girl. In her memory, a quilting club donated a red bear using her favorite jacket. With its big eyes, pudgy nose, and fake heartbeat, I hated it. I wanted her back.” He chokes up. “My daughter found it recently and started playing with it. I was horrified, but then I noticed a change in her behavior. Her mother’s heartbeat soothed her.”
Thump… thump. Tears well in everyone’s eyes, including Sandy’s. I get ready. Give me those miserable droplets of pain!
“She’s autistic and we’re going to be ok because today she said her first word when she pointed to the bear, Mama, then hugged it tightly.”
“Aahhh…” Everyone says at once.
“I wish!” Katie blurts. “Our son’s first word was cookie because that’s all he ever ate.”
“Ours was Fuffy, the dog,” Rachel smirks.
The others chime in talking about their child’s first words. Laughter fills the room.
Clapping and cheering, tears of sadness morph into joy. Falling like raindrops of acid and burning my insides, I wail. Deafening to my existence, I scream… Stop! Stop!
“Happy tears! I got you!” Sandra yells, throwing her hands up in the air. “Sadness be gone!”
Everybody stops laughing and turns to Sandra.
“Who are you talking to?” Jessica asks.
Sandra recomposes herself. “Oh nobody, in particular, carry on.”
My temperature drops, heart rate slows, and bones stiffen. I become dormant and once again fail as the Tear Collector.
Inside this empty space, I lurk waiting for someone to quench my thirst. It has been far too long. When I think they’ll never come, the door swings open…