Voice in the Darkness
A heavy, woolen blanket covered Tris’ synapses, weighted and scratchy. Her thoughts traveled from cortex to cortex with sluggish apathy. Her eyes lacked luster. She didn’t notice the whir of cars speeding by the end of the driveway or the tickle of pudgy ants spiritedly navigating wispy hairs as they crawled up her leg. Congestion gridlocked her airways and the invisible, internal weight reached to the tips of her fingers and toes. The feeling was familiar and Tris despised it, but she had long since lost the energy to argue with it.
Tris sat in a field of overgrown crabgrass twisting a strand around her pointer finger. It was the most she had moved in hours. She looped the blade around and around her knuckle until it snapped. She looked down. Dark green wrinkles spread across its bright viridian surface. She tightened her fist until a slight, sticky dampness coated her palm. Tris peeled back her fingers one at a time. She grimaced. Mangled bits of turf bled green onto the inside of her hand. Gross. She shook it off, wiping her fingers in the jungly sod, and attempted to reset. She tried to imagine herself doing something else. Dancing, humming, taking a leisurely stroll. The thoughts flitted out of her head almost before she could draw them in. Instead, she imagined her body aching, shivering. She imagined water trickling into her lungs and then spitting it up. No, think of something nice. She watched an imaginary hand press her face into the ground as dirt and critters crawled up her nose. NO! Something nice! She imagined a concrete wall rising up from her occipital bone, up to the back of her sagittal suture. A tiny Tris dug her heels against the inside of her skull and pushed the concrete wall forward, boxing out the bad thoughts until they cracked a hole in her frontal bone and popped out onto the grass. She watched the bad thoughts scuttle away through the grass like tiny gremlins with pronged crab feet. The concrete wall in her frontal cortex shrank back into the base of her jaw and tiny Tris patched up the hole with a piece of broken particle board and a hammer and nails. There, no more bad thoughts. A sword appeared in tiny Tris’ hand and she pranced around the empty cavity of Tris’ skull.
“Leave it to me, Your Majesty,” tiny Tris muttered. Suddenly, she saw herself bowing to a ginger-haired, pearl-encrusted monarch with a heart painted on her thin lips. “I will fight the dragon and find the missing maidens. The enemy will never suspect—”
Tiny Tris giggled and the Tris sitting on the grass smirked. “I beg your pardon, Your Majesty, but my name is—”
“Tris!” Tris opened her eyes. Her mother was standing on the back steps, hands on her hips, tied up in aprons that had lost their crisp whiteness and now hung shabby and demure from her thick, matronly waist. “Come help me with dinner,” the woman called. Tris slumped her shoulders and jutted out her chin. “Tris?” her mother’s upward lilt was more of a warning than an actual question. Tris stuck her pointer finger in the air. “Fine, one more minute.” Her mother turned back into the house and the screen door clacked shut behind her.
Tris tried to go back to the room in her mind with the queen and the dragon, but the portal to that world was missing. Instead, she let tiny Tris wander from room to room in the circular hallway inside her own skull, peeking her head through each doorway, in search of a new, imaginary escape. In one room, alien vehicles drifted across the tops of pyramids, in another, a mad scientist operated on another Tris dressed in a ragged hospital gown. Tiny Tris rejected these rooms. She cracked open another door which revealed her own backyard. In the distance, at the edge of the tree line, was a shadow, something Tris’ mind couldn’t see yet. Tiny Tris passed through the door and let it close with a snap.
In her imagination, Tris let herself slowly approach the edge of the woods, with her eye on the black mass she had yet to create. This happened often. A thought would begin as a shadowy mass, slowly forming into faces, destinations, or an objet d’art as the story and its mysteries developed. Tris crept towards this new mystery that was, at this moment, neither good nor bad, trying to make out a hint of what it would become. She looked for the whites of an eye or the bridge of a peaked nose. She walked toe first, silently crushing yellowing grass under her feet.
“Tris! Where are you going?” Tris blinked. She had made it halfway across the yard. The trees stood just as she had seen them in her imagination, but no shadowy figure drifted on the edge of the woods. Her mother’s voice sounded exasperated. “Would you come help me please?” Tris nodded. She turned.
Then, she heard it.
A gentle rustle.
Tris sprung back around. A few trees shivered several paces ahead of her and a knotted aggregate of gray nothing shifted beyond the tree line. The air cooled and everything around her stilled. The birds whose chirrups she had accepted as the soundtrack of silence lost their voices, a few squirrels froze, their wide eyes staring. Even the fur on their bushy tails became immobile. The sounds of the cars on the street died. Tris gasped. The sound of her own breath never reached her ears. There it was, huddled behind the trees. A lumpy, wrinkled dark mass obscured by the first few layers of trees extended from the forest floor to the tops of glossy deciduous hardwoods and blue-green conifers. She hurried to the edge of the woods and jogged along the perimeter.
“Tris!” The sound of her mother’s voice broke the spell. As if nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened, the shadow disappeared, the squirrels darted away, and the birds resumed their songs. The hot sun drew sweat from Tris’ pores as if the disturbance had never been possible. Tris stared at nothing, at the empty space between the trees where the shadow had been and willed that nothing to become something. Nothing.
“Tris, let’s go!” Tris turned and jogged into the house. Her mother followed. “Tris, why can’t you just come when I call.” Exasperation filled the woman’s voice. “I can’t go chasing you around like I could when you were little. My joints aren’t good enough for that.” Tris looked down. “Huh?” Tris shrugged apologetically. Her mother gave her a look and sighed. “Tris, you’re 17. You’re too old for this. You need to take on some responsibilities around the house. You can’t just sit around all day. It’s such a waste of time. You could be doing your summer assignments, helping me around the house. I don’t know why you didn’t go to the donut shop to get your old summer job back. You could be saving up money for college or something. Don’t you think?”
“Sorry,” Tris mouthed the word rather than speaking it. Her mother groaned a heavy sigh and threw her hands up in exasperation.
“Come on, don’t look at me like that. I’m just telling you what you need to know.” Tris nodded, eyes downcast.
“I finished dinner without you,” her mother said. She went to the stove, scooped something from a steaming pot and into a chipped bowl. She dropped it on the table with a heavy clack. Clack, clack, clack. Her brain parroted the sound back and forth like a yodelers echo. A bit of porcelain fell off the edge of the crockery and pinged against the table.
Tris looked at the bowl of gray gruel skeptically. “It’s food,” her mother said. Is it? Tris thought, but she didn’t speak. She tried to think of the last time she had spoken, but couldn’t remember for sure. It had probably been to a customer at the donut shop. That was a year ago. He mother was right. She should have been helping with the laundry, saving up for college, doing her homework. That would have meant going to the library next to the donut shop. She shivered. Or maybe look for a new job. She took a bite of the porridge.
A tightness crawled into her throat that had nothing to do with the tasteless gruel, like a sticky cobweb crisscrossing her esophagus. Sometimes it went away for an hour or two, but most of the time it sat there heavily. It had disappeared when she chased the shadow in the woods. Now, it fluttered behind her tonsils, like gossamer threads caught between shivering trees on a breezy, dew-dropped morning. The dew dripped down the back of her throat. She cleared it silently, staring into the bowl. She tried to imagine working, cleaning, doing homework, laundry, cooking, anything, but couldn’t do it. She especially couldn’t go to the library near the donut shop.
“I’m going to go put my feet up.”
Tris nodded, still trying to think of herself doing the things her mother asked. Her thoughts stagnated, turning into gray, pureed mush as she stared into the bowl. For a long time, she couldn’t move. After a while the ragout of brain cells started to move again. Tris tightened her fist around her spoon and shoveled a few bites of the amorphous porridge into her mouth. Sludge slid down her throat and formed a weighted ball at the base of her stomach. It sat heavy. She stared down at what was left in the bowl. Nope. Can’t do it. Tris wrapped the bowl in cellophane and stuck in in the fridge, spoon and all.
A low hum of voices drifted from the family room. Faded lights flashed against the ceiling and wall. Tris stuck her head in. Her mother was stretched out on the couch, eyes half open and breathing deeply, the television set lighting her veiny, varicose skin with strange patterns. Piles of laundry, dirty dishes, and odd bits of fabric forming unfinished curtains stuck with pins decorated every surface. Tris nodded to herself. Well, she didn’t pick up her mess. Even in her own mind, the thought sounded petulant. She craned her head back and bent her body forward in a mopey expression. She supposed she had the energy for one task.
Slowly, Tris picked up the dishes, flicking bits of old mashed potato and rice off her fingers, stacked them in the sink, ran water over them. She folded a few pieces of laundry and began to lose stamina. She left the rest, looked at the half-finished curtains and decided to skip them and focus on the pins scattered across the floor. Tris sat down, feeling suddenly spent and collected fallen pins one by one with the ends of her fingernails and jabbed them through the hem of a curtain as she went. She ran her hands across the floor. A sharp pain pierced her finger and she looked down. A needle stuck out from the center of her fingerprint, held aloft by the skin enfolding it. Hm. Tris pulled it out slowly, watching more needle appear as it left her flesh. Fascinating.
Tris wiped the needle on her trousers, stuck it through the edge of her sleeve, and pulled herself up using the coffee table and the last of her energy. She trudged upstairs.