“The room is getting smaller!” Dale’s persistent screaming wakes me out of my accustomed semi-sleep. I roll to my side and one-eye him. Maybe he’ll stop if I don’t react. A lifetime ago I would have jumped at his unease. So much has changed since then. My brother runs his hands along the inner walls of the room. Although his fingers tremble I can hear rhythmic counting in the back of his throat. Soon he will determine that there are the same amount of wooden wall panels as there were the last time he counted. Seventy two long, twenty three wide. These numbers have come to confine us in our current reality. Never more, never less, never changed.
“Sit down man, you need some sleep.” I say out of habit. He disagrees just as he always does, and seemingly he is correct. He hasn’t slept since we arrived. At first I thought we had been abducted after the car accident, you know, crazy horror flick kind of stuff. I expected some lunatic with a machete to bust in through the door (that, by the way, only leads back into this exact room) at any moment and chop us into human sushi rolls. That never happened though. One of the most difficult things I’ve had to do since landing here was come to terms with the fact that my brother and I were not the victims of some crazed psychopathic break. After that realization came to pass, the pressure of waiting set in. It’s like that disquieted feeling you get before a long trip. The sensation that something is about to happen but just hasn’t hit yet. That’s how this place makes you feel.
“Do you know how long it’s been?” He asks me. His eyes are wide and disturbed.
I don’t. Centuries I’m guessing. Logic says otherwise, but I am no great follower of logic these days. Our bodies show no signs of dehydration nor starvation, despite our lack of both water and food. Since arriving here we haven’t had so much as a hunger pang.
“I gave you one job Jason,” Dale lowers his voice and glares under his brow at me, “one goddamn job and you can’t even do that. You were useless before and you’re useless now.” My brother has adopted the coping method of verbally abusing me to make himself feel better. To be truthful the guy can be an asshat and my feelings aren’t anywhere close to ironclad.
“What you do want from me man?” I stand up to match his height. “I tried marking the walls to keep track of the days but they just faded away. There is nothing in this room to keep records on, not so much as a scrap piece of paper! There’s not even a damn window in the place! Can’t you see that we aren’t supposed to keep track?”
There is an unease in my sibling’s eyes, something that use to be a faint glimmer. Nowadays it is becoming more concentrated. Will he ever be able to escape it?
He has not come to the same quiet conclusion I have about our predicament and I am afraid if I let him in on my theory he will lose his few remaining threads of sanity. He turns away from me, I think he is trying to hide the recklessness that is taking hold.
Over these endless eons we’ve become distant. A heaviness pulls over me. Will my brother and I be destined to sit in this room, having these thoughts and anxieties for the rest of time? Will it end? I know the answer, but choose not to confess it. Not right now anyways.
“You thinking about Mom?” I ask.
“Yeah, same old.” He leans heavily on his hands. Even here, in this place we now exist we haven’t managed to lose that extrasensory thing where we can recall an identical thought simultaneously. It’s always the same memory that comes to mind and it’s always the same numbness which it brings. We both become sullen, grim, for what we are seeing is ugly. There is comfort in knowing I am not alone in this feeling.
A woman’s scream tears through the quiet dark. Mother. She is crying and there is a slur to her voice—a sound that is not alien. Mom drinks because Dad drinks or maybe it’s the other way around. She is saying our names, but it is not to beckon us. She finds consolation in talking about her “babies” while indisposed. She is speaking with as much conviction as she can, but her words come out limp and dismal.
“Dumb bitch.” Dad says in a tone that defines normalcy. If not normal, it’s habitual.
A small blond head bobs across my bedroom floor. When it reaches my bed I can see that it is tear streaked and scared. What a face for a three year old, I think, and shove myself over to make room for him. We don’t speak but find sleep easier now that we have each other. Later, once we are too old to share my single sized bed, we will work out a knocking system through hollow walls. KNOCK KNOCK= okay, KNOCK= not okay. Lightly now, we don’t need them hearing our code.
Moments later animalistic grunts and moaning fill the hallways of our doublewide. Their drunken quarrelling turns to love making. I don’t know whether to feel relieved that the scary part is over or confused at how comparable these two sounds can be.
“Do you remember the last thing you talked about” I ask. It seems to be beneficial to talk about the before times. We are sitting in the same giant armchairs that we found when we first arrived here. They are identical replicas of the one our grandmother would rock us to sleep in when Mom and Dad would vanish during one of their proverbial disappearing acts.
“She had called me. She was upset.” I hear him say. For a moment I look around the room and I can envision the kitchen of my suburban home. It is clean, decorated and smells of pancake syrup. My wife sings happily in the kitchen to our children. I smile privately and turn my attention back to Dale. “It was just after the repossession, I told them they could stay with me until they got back on their feet.”
“I can imagine how that went.” I said. How did I have no clue about this conversation of theirs? Why hadn’t it come up?
“Yeah, he is a stubborn old bastard. God knows why she stays with him.” Dale replies. I think of my last conversation with Mother. I am about to tell him but for some reason I stop myself.
“Both of them refused, they wouldn’t even consider it. Said they couldn’t stand the thought of being a burden.” His voice is curling desperately around each word that he says, gripping the significance of it—he is looking for some kind of unwarranted redemption. “I told them they were going to die alone out there on the coast.” He looks directly into my eyes and it shoots a lightning bolt of angst up my spine. “That was the last thing I said to her.”
“That’s not on you man.” I don’t know what else to say. Why hadn’t I made the same offer to them that my brother had? The suggestion hadn’t even crossed my mind. Raindrops of bitterness begin to pop in the deep of my gut. My heartrate speeds. Why does the thought of them do this to me? I am a grown man. A successful man. I’ve made a decent living, I have a beautiful wife. Three happy and healthy kids. Once, I had it all.
“I know.” He says, and we sit in a comfortable silence for what seems like years.
The last time I talked to my mother her voice was breaking up over a bad connection. She was travelling through the mountains she said. Invisible eddies of anticipation, I’m sure, were twirling from her head and out towards the compressed skyline of the west coast.
The voices of men drowned her out; I had to strain to hear her.
“I did it sweetie, I finally did it!” She said.
“Did what Mother? Where the hell are you?” I asked.
“I left him.” A man’s voice that was not my father’s came dangerously close to my mother. He was using the word “baby” a lot and I had a feeling that he was not talking to an infant.
“You left Dad? What happened?” For as many years as I’ve been telling her to leave the prick a drape of sentiment still fell over me for Dad. What was he doing now? Who had made him his dinner this evening? What kind of words had the man who took her away exchanged with my father while Mother flitted around the house claiming her worthless knickknacks and dusty photo-albums?
“That asshole had it coming.” There was a brief pause for some dead air space. “Beck’s been telling me to leave him for months now.” A juvenile giggle was followed by, “oh stop it; I’m on the phone with my kid!”
From the time I was young my mother had attracted attention. My father hated it, but he was partly to blame with the double D’s he had bought her when they were first dating. Back then he wanted eye candy; that notion miscarried though once he got too old and fat to scare away the catcalls.
“Who the hell is Beck?” Had she talked about Beck before? Probably just another regular at the dive bar she was waitressing at.
“Oh you know Beck,” She said, “I’ve told you about Beck before.” Nervousness gurgled in back of her throat. “Anyways…” The phone cut out and all I could hear was static for a few seconds.
“Mother? Ma, you there still?” More static.
The words “north”, “diamond mines”, “roughing it” were intermingling with the harsh sounds of a poor connection. I told her to call me back when she got into a better location.
I hung up and instinctively began to dial Dad’s cell phone but stopped short after the area code. I couldn’t face him; I couldn’t stand to hear what his voice would ultimately tell me. Would it be laden down with guilt and sadness for what he had lost? Would a pitiable half taut noose be strung around each excuse he rummaged up? Would there even be remorse in his words? Worse yet, would his usual predisposed voice answer my call? Would he say, “Yell-o” in his regular way, not vaguely scathed by the evacuation of his twenty-something yearlong marriage? Had he only been waiting, biding his time, for something like this to happen? Would his reaction be as disinterested as it was the day I told him I was leaving?
A recollection of cigarettes and an empty Folgers coffee can flood my brain. A few months before the wreck my wife had placed it on the deck so I would stop throwing my stubs in her garden. The thought uplifts me—always so concerned about that damn garden, I think as I chuckle to myself. My brother and I sit, calmly. I am remembering the oversized tabby that wanders down our back alleyway, surely on the prowl for some easy leftovers. My brother looks towards the roof. He has settled but I have to wonder how long it will be until he begins counting wall panels again. There are so many things I should talk to him about. However, the things I need to say are complicated and more than a little convoluted. My ideas on what has happened to my brother and I remind me of when a plane passes over; leaving a thick cloud of smoke in its wake and then just as quickly disappearing. Moments later the humans on the ground beneath will have overlooked that it was ever there at all.
I try to push the coming anxiety involving my parents away, the same way I did when I was playing tag with my kids or making love to my wife.
“Dale,” I begin, “Do you remember what happened right before we turned up in this room? Do you remember the bus? The screaming?” The stranger’s cries are something I don’t think I can ever forget now. I pause and look at my little brother. He shows no signs of acknowledgement but instead stares off imagining entire universes upon one of the four walls of this room. It is not the right time. He is too fragile. His psyche cannot handle it. So I wrap up my thoughts inwardly.
It would explain why every time I think of my wife and children only an easiness floats through me. For those few seconds I don’t feel the waiting or the anxiety. I don’t feel the unease. They will always be a beautiful memory. It’s everything else that needs to be sorted out. In truth, this notion that has been developing in my mind could explain everything. The car accident, the feeling that something bigger is coming, the way my body yearns for nothing at all. There is nothing left for us in that life, except, acceptance over the bad things that once happened. Soon that life, those memories, will simply be a fading jet stream in a yawning sky.
Eventually I’ll tell him. Perhaps together we can talk our way out of this purgatory. This last thought makes me wonder about the people who have to do this alone. For now however I will join my brother in his quiet reflection. If I’m right about this, then I’m sure we can spare a few minutes, or, whatever it is that keeps time in this place.
We do, after all, have the rest of eternity.