DRIVING DOWN US-50 and it hits. At first like she’s gone onto the shoulder and the rumble strip is shaking the car, something like a whale singing in her mouth mixed with a jackhammer. She puts both hands on the wheel to guide the car toward center and finds it already there. A sign passes on the left, black and white, broad strokes: HELL IS REAL. And gone. And the noise is gone, and she puts her hand up to her ear, grabs her jaw, fumbles her fingers around her face like her sinuses itch.
It’s gray out, faded swaths of leaves carpeting yards and the untended roadside. There’s a radio tower topping the hill, blinking red. The highway is a winding capillary. The road undulates, ribbons through hollows. The grass is yellowing, the trees bare, and between them the houses are visible, the trailers, the broken-down cars rusting away on blocks. Barns with caved roofs. The entire county looks like it’s been smoked.
She turns onto Tarkiln Road. Abby is fifteen today and though there’s enough money to go just about anywhere for dinner, she told Sarah to meet her at the Pizza Alley. Her jawbone is still tingling when she pulls into the parking lot. The corner of the Pizza Alley sign has been smashed, right where the ball should hit the pins. It looks purposeful. When she gets out and shuts the door the sudden bang clears something, and she can hear the highway, and a second highway, a low thunder that stops when her fingers leave the car door.
She gets a blue gift bag from the backseat and walks inside. She smells grease and smoke and the not-unclean smell of people and breath in a closed system. Abby and a few of her friends are sitting at one of the round tables set back from the bowling alley floor. No parents, no mothers. Not even Abby’s. The lanes aren’t open yet but they will be, and that end of the building is still unlit. When she gets to Abby she puts her hands on the girl’s shoulders and looks at her friends.
They all say yeah. She asks Abby for her topping preferences and goes to order at the counter by the blank arcade machines. She places the order and waits for the clerk to ring her up. She knows most of the girls, has gone dress shopping with them and her sisters. The clerk takes her cash and opens the drawer and when he slams it home the arcade lights up, Pac-Man is hunted by ghosts, lights whirl on a pinball machine, glow behind a woman’s Daisy Dukes and thighs. The bumpers retract on the lanes and the pins come down from out of the black. Everything hums, chunks into place. The screens over each lane start to flicker and warm up, the grids burned into the glass. Behind everything there is a lower noise like from before, a faraway engine, a furnace.
Sarah turns away from the pizza counter and pulls up a seat beside Abby, girls scooting to let her in. One of the girls leans across the table and reaches toward Sarah’s arm.
“Guess who’s got a—”
The sound cuts out when the girl makes contact. When she lets go and leans back she is laughing, and Sarah smiles. She managed to lipread “boyfriend” and tries to keep her composure. She looks over at Abby.
“When did this happen?”
“Today at school.”
The other girl cuts her off. “Dalton came right up to her locker after fifth period. He brought her a rose.”
“Niiice. What’d he say?”
The girl goes on. Sarah shifts her body toward Abby. “Why don’t you tell us?”
She blushes and does. Sarah listens, and then the girls all break in and start talking over each other. Sarah sits back. All of them wearing clothes her sisters or she bought them, otherwise it would be ratty T-shirts and worn-out jeans. When the sorority started the group, they made it a point to start the girls off with enough good clothes to make it through a week at school. When they moved on from there and bought them decent dress clothes the girls went crazy. Sarah had been there through everything, picking outfits with Abby, renting a dress for the spring dance last year and getting Abby’s hair done. Things Sarah’d taken for granted.
The clerk calls her name and she stands, brings the pizza back. When she sits there is a roar. Like after a concert but not a ringing. The girls keep gossiping, asking Sarah her opinion on occasion. It doesn’t seem long and they have finished their pizza and are shuffling back from the table, standing. One of them has a car and will take the other girls back, but Sarah and Abby stay. Abby starts cleaning the table and Sarah slaps her hand away, smiling.
“It’s your birthday. You chill.”
“Oh, I can help.”
Sarah shoulders in front of her and picks up the table, taking everything over to the trash by the counter. The clerk is in the back but sees her through the window, just his eyes. For a moment the roar is real and full and gone. More jarring without an echo, and she leans doubled over the trash and rights herself. Shaking her head like she’d drain water from her ears. Abby is looking at her and she smiles.
“My ears have been funky. I keep hearing things.”
“I guess it’s the elevation?” She points toward the exit and they go out. The highway surrounds her, semis and cars. Diesel. Abby is ahead of her for a moment and she spins around, slinging one of her gift bags open to pull something out. With her hair up and whirling, Sarah sees a bruise on the side of her neck.
“Can I play this CD? Colleen got it for me today.” She holds up the jewel case. Some rapper.
Sarah tries to keep her face bright. “Sure. Anything you want.” She unlocks the car and they get in, shut the doors. She waits for some new pop but there is none. “Lead the way.”
She starts the car and Abby holds the CD in front of the player, looking at Sarah before she slides it in. There’s a moment before the music starts, and Sarah’s already brought the car to the edge of the lot. Abby points right and the music is nothing but a shrieking, scratching records and plastic wrap jammed into her ears. Abby is staring at her and Sarah sees her own hands are white on the wheel, they’re halfway onto the road. She looks in the mirror long enough to see a car coming and hits the gas.
“Could you turn that down?”
Abby winds the dial back and instead of getting quieter the sound changes entirely. Keening, whistling. Stellar sounds. Electromagnetic fields and radio waves.
“Are you okay? You got pale.”
“Yeah. It’s this ear thing. I should probably take a Tylenol or something.”
“You’ll go left here.”
She moves into the turn lane and cuts across the other side of the highway, onto the county road. They pitch down quick and then level out. Surrounded by gray tree trunks. A shed behind a barbwire fence, the door open. “Is this your road?”
“No. There’s another turn at the top of the hill.” Her face buried in the blue bag, looking at the skirt Sarah got her.
The road starts upward again and Sarah can feel the vibration of the engine channel through her fingers to her arms and to her face, her cheekbones. Topping the hill she looks at Abby. “Which way next?”
She glances up. “Right.”
The road curves for a hundred yards and then she sees the fork and takes it. The trees back off for a moment as the road dips and she sees the sky has gotten dark. Rain on its way.
“How’s your mom doing?”
Abby shrugs. “She’s fine. She’s been picking up a lot of extra shifts at the hospital.”
“That leaves you at the house alone a lot, right?”
She shrugs again. “Sometimes. Mom’s boyfriend is around most of the time. He said they’re trying to get some money together for a vacation.”
“That’ll be nice.”
Faint smile. “If they invite me.”
Tiny screams come chorus-like from Abby’s teeth and cut out when she turns away. The song changes, the stars moving to a different rhythm, and Abby turns to the window. A farmhouse and behind that, a brief glimpse at sweeping land, bare dirt and corn stubble. Turning back to the road Sarah barely misses a squirrel and she swerves, corrects.
“Geez.” One more surprise and she thinks her heart might blow. The heat is on in the car but she cracks the window and in pours a cold wash of air and the roar, nearer. It is no longer small.
“Right up here. Here.”
Sarah follows Abby’s pointing, slows and pulls onto the short gravel drive. The house is a good distance from the road and the yard bare until the house itself, guarded by trees and bushes. Some hull of a truck is pushed back in the sideyard. The car stops and when Sarah opens the door and steps out she swings with it at the full roar driving toward her. She crouches, is surprised that the ground is blurry, her eyes watery, knees wet in the dirt.
“Sarah? Are you okay?”
She waves Abby back. No sound comes at first. “I’m okay. I just need some … Do you have some painkillers in the house?” Sarah hears a strange note.
“Yeah, we do.”
Abby holds her hand out and Sarah takes it and stands. She follows Abby, watches her jimmy the screen door up and step inside. It’s dark in the house and before Sarah can shut the door behind her the roar turns a corner, and she waits a moment to see if it will come down the road. She wonders if she’s going insane. Near the right age for onset.
“The bathroom’s this way.”
Sarah turns toward the voice, vision spinning. A light reveals blurs of old furniture, dark shag carpeting, smoke-yellowed curtains, a new TV. In the kitchen the microwave has turned a shade of nicotine. Abby reaches for Sarah’s hand again and leads her to a hall. Stairs at the end, a doorway now lit and white. Abby opens the mirror over the sink and the roar comes through it with a wretched belch of heat. Sarah slams her back to the wall in the hallway and closes her eyes. It’s coming from the mirror and from down the hall and now the house is shaking and her heart is expanding, depressurized, beating, vacuumed, banging against her ribs like a rocking chandelier. Abby has pulled her up into the bathroom and sits her on the toilet. Water and two pills in her face. She is speaking through the roar and it comes reassuring but wordless. She swallows the pills and in the bright light Sarah brushes Abby’s hair aside. There is a column of bruises on her neck, blue fingertips. Abby straightens. The mirror is still open and she shuts it. The roar halves and now Sarah can hear it coming. Moving. A train, a tornado, an end.
Abby lifts Sarah to her feet and they go out to the living room. The roar is louder. She sits them on the couch and Sarah smells the smoke rise from the upholstery. Abby is looking away.
“Do you feel any better?”
Sarah nods. “Yeah.”
She says something else and Sarah can’t make it out. She shakes her head and tries to fix an expression beyond pain on her face.
“How’d you get the bruises?”
She twists on the couch, heavy and weak suddenly. “Abby. You know I can’t let that go. What happened?”
Abby sighs. Smiles weakly. “Mom’s boyfriend. Braden. He gets drunk and high and goes a little crazy. He’s not bad most of the time.”
Beyond the roar and the pain of it now there is something pushing at her and she feels her brain ripple like the skin of a waterbed. “What did you give me?”
“Oxy. Braden has a prescription.” Her voice is distant, facing the wall. “You should stay here until you feel better.”
Sarah leans back against the couch and breathes slowly, tries to think the roar quiet. “Why didn’t you tell me anything?”
“Mom likes him. He’s okay when he’s sober.”
“Has he hurt you before?”
The roar and the waves and now someone has drawn all the strings in her arms taut. Her knuckles curl and reach her shoulders. She stands. She feels drunk but through it and all the swimming there is something she now suspects. She is at the door. Abby’s mouth is moving. Moving toward Sarah.
“Is he coming home now?”
Sarah opens the front door. The cold and dim light, the gray trees. And the roar. It is fire, blowing, and smoke. And when the truck comes into view it is small and black and without gleaming. It tears open the gray and Sarah sees flames. Gravel kicks up under the tires. It parks behind her car and out comes a thin man in a blue vest and cap, blue jeans. Each uneven drop of his boots is a drumbeat, a gout of fire. Abby is pulling her back from the door and the man steps through. The roar is everything now. It is everything, and they are made of its wires. He eyes Sarah up and down, looks at Abby and asks her something. Sarah forces a smile and the man moves on into the house. Up the stairs. Abby tries to take her back to the couch but Sarah will not move.
Pounding. The bathroom door opens and Sarah sees the light. She turns around. Behind the open door is a child’s aluminum ballbat. She leans to grip it in her hand and she doesn’t need to see him coming; his footsteps are lights in her brain and his presence is hot and dry. She turns to swing the bat and she sees him with a hand up and finger pointing and his mouth opens. Before he can speak and deafen her she brings the bat over their heads and smashes his. A look with no expression, his eyes cowed in the flesh of his face. He hits the floor and with another one-handed swing the roar is hushed. The blood coming from his lips is bright and singing.
She looks at Abby. The room is warped, bowing outward but coming back. She wants to say something to make her feel better and nothing comes. But she knows what to do. Putting her hands on Abby’s shoulders she hugs her and opens the door. She goes to her car and gets the phone out of her purse. There are no sounds but the normal ones. She knows to call. Looking into her hand the phone has no signal.
♥ End ♥
Eric Shonkwiler has had writing appear in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, and Midwestern Gothic. He was born and raised in Ohio, and has lived and worked in every contiguous United States time zone. His first novel, Above All Men, is due in March 2014 from MG Press. [Author photo by and © Sabrina Renkar. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]
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