The Silent Line
The second phone smashes louder than the first, even though it has the exact same insides. That’s how Greg knows Mom and D-d are in the kitchen now, where there’s no carpet to cushion the cracking plastic. The shouts that follow the shatter sting his ears, even from 20 feet below, even through the wall.
Before Greg bolted into the backyard, their phones had been ringing for about an hour. Then the calling stopped, and the tape was full so D-d couldn’t leave a message. Mom said they wouldn’t want to hear it anyway. But then D-d’s tires screamed in the driveway and the bottom of his boot shook the door and the deadbolt broke the frame and made a hole big enough for D-d to run through. Mom puffed up in front of Greg and Hana, her arms out wide like the school’s crossing guard, Wilma, who always had a joke in the morning that made Greg laugh at least half the time.
It only took one of D-d’s hands to push Mom down alone onto the sofa. D-d’s face was filled with purple, and Mom’s was white as the walls, except for a dot glowing under her nose. The dot was as bright as his red LEGO tower, which had stood still through the door splintering open, but toppled when D-d slammed it closed.
After putting Mom down, D-d stomped backwards to the door, to the small table where Mom dropped her keys and mail and whatever else wasn’t worth holding on to once she was home. He never looked at Greg, only Mom. Everyone’s breaths overlapped like confused thunderclouds, until D-d bellowed:
You can’t pick up one goddamn call?
It didn’t sound quite like a question, so it made sense that Mom didn’t answer. But then D-d picked up the phone from its stand and shook it as his punctuation became loud and clear:
I guess you don’t need this, then? Huh?
He threw the handset against the opposite wall, but didn’t wait to see how many pieces it broke into. He picked up the stand, the cradle, whatever the part that charged the phone was called, and he yanked it over and over until it dragged wires out of the wall. The red spot on Mom’s face spread up around the sides of her nose. D-d noticed Greg for the first time. He barked at Greg:
Don’t you move.
But Greg had his habit of doing the opposite of what he was told, especially when D-d did the telling, so he picked up Hana and fled through the busted front door.
Now he’s stuck on his stomach in the backyard listening to their last phone fall apart inside. He lowers his head and tries to think of someone bigger than D-d to tell. The dewdrops leap up from their blades of grass and attach to his nose, his eyelashes, his cheeks. The water is cool even though it was a hot day before the sun sank, so hot that no one wanted to go outside, so Jeff and him took turns trying to take over the world on a flat board in Jeff’s basement. It was one of those games that was mostly about who was a better actor, who could better pretend that they didn’t want to quit. They gave up before anyone could win.
The water is merciful; it covers and cools his tears as he watched for shadows crossing the windows. Mom loves those windows. Greg can’t see why, with their skinny black lines crossing each other all over. Besides all the time she has to spend scrubbing the tiny rectangles, he hates how anything outside is split apart by the grid of lines. Even baby birds are too big to fit in the frames, at least when they wander close enough for him to really appreciate their colors. It works the other way too; Greg can’t piece together anything through the pane. His sister fidgets beside him without creating noise. The house is quiet, too. He lifts Hana up and rests her on his back, holding her hands like uncooked eggs.
He knows what he should do, but not how. He imagines what’s happening inside. He realizes he hates D-d, not just for what was happening to Mom, but also for how he couldn’t feel anything, not even boredom, at school the next day, how Jeff noticed him being soft and slow during recess. He especially hates D-d for what this must mean: that he’s as selfish as D-d. What other sort of person would think about disappointing dodge ball during this disaster?
His feet and the rest of him can’t sit still with his brain, so he removes Hana from his back and stands. Hana tries to follow him upwards, and manages to balance for a second before falling back on her butt. Fortunately she’s still too young for memories or real underwear and the thick padding’s there to help her bounce back. She doesn’t cry. Greg picks her up.
He begins to move back towards the room he’d escaped, sliding bare feet, keeping his toes at a whisper. He slows down in the side yard to avoid the brittle brown needles of the chestnut tree’s fallen shells. They never eat the chestnuts but the tree brings birds to their yard. Once, it’d brought an old man who’d leaned his cane against the trunk and crawled for hours on his hands and knees, sweeping the nuts into piles with both hands. Greg had wandered out to watch. The nuts popped like a lazy firecracker when the old man dropped them into his plastic bucket. They’d all agreed that the old man must have lived nearby, because he could not have carried the bucket far. But the old man never came back. Maybe the nuts are no good, or just not good enough. Greg steps on a spiny shell and swears and kicks it without thinking. Luckily the thorns don’t stick and Hana doesn’t squirm. He wonders who would ever plant a tree like this, with fruit that isn’t worth the trouble even when it’s free. He wonders why the old man stuck at it so long, and all he can decide is that people don’t like to change their mind, even if it makes them carry something that’s far too heavy.
Greg stops wondering when he sees Mr. Lingenfelter crossing the street and stepping onto their front lawn carefully, like it’s a trampoline loaded with other people. Mrs. Lingenfelter watches her Mr. from her wide window across the street. Greg is pretty sure she can’t see him or his sister, even though his eyes must flash in the dark like the lighter spots of the Moon. He knows from practice that it’s hard to see much of anything at night with that much light shining behind you. It’s better to start in the dark and let your eyes adjust.
Greg slides forward with Hana to keep watching Mr. Lingenfelter, who had reached the porch. It’s not really a porch, because no one ever sits on it, but there’s no better name for it. These miniature facts matter. Without the right details, no one with a gun will believe him. He’s learned from last time.
Mr. Lingenfelter raises his hand and gets stuck on the next step, since the door he’d normally knock on is loose and bruised. Before Mr. Lingenfelter can decide, the door swings in and tosses light out. D-d swerves past Mr. Lingenfelter and into his car, which is red and peeling and still running. D-d reverses the car but can’t take anything else back with him. He wouldn’t want to anyway, at least not until the next day or week, when he’ll send Greg another splotchy letter of less than a hundred words and zero good answers. D-d drives off honking his horn like he’s leading a parade while Greg prays hard to hear one more crash. He doesn’t get it. Maybe if he prayed more often.
Mr. Lingenfelter rushes through the open doorway. Greg runs through the last of the chestnut spikes and to the door in an uneven gallop, his sister’s squishy weight slowing his right hip down. The living room is emptied, but he hears soft voices in the kitchen. He peeks.
Mom is sitting on the floor, her back against the fridge. Mr. Lingenfelter is handing her a glass of water and she’s shaking her head at it. Her face is lopsided again. D-d is lefty, a southpaw. Mom smiles at Greg as big as she can. She pats the floor next to her. Greg goes to her. He hands Hana over to Mom. Their arms go around each other.
Mr. Lingenfelter presses his cell phone to call the police, then he calls Mrs. Lingenfelter. She appears immediately and tries to persuade them all to walk the few steps over to their untouched house. Mom tries to give Mrs. Lingenfelter some of the leftover meatloaf in the fridge instead. Then she tells the neighbors:
You can leave, it’s fine, the cops won’t take long.
When the Lingenfelters don’t sway, she jokes:
Really, they should know a shortcut by now,
even though she knows it’s not the kind of joke that they’re allowed to laugh at. The
Lingenfelters can’t do anything else either. Mrs. Lingenfelter looks at the floor and starts to speak:
and she doesn’t find any good endings for the sentence, but Mom whispers:
anyway, and then the Lingenfelters leave, slowly, like they might be forgetting something important.
The blue and red lights don’t show up for a long time, not until D-d is disappeared for more than an hour, not until they all have completely dry faces. They hear the patrol car’s radio speaking in codes from the couch. The officer writes down everything that Greg can tell them while he stares at all the tools on his belt. Then he wants to speak to Mom outside, so Greg moves onto the floor, where the still-swirling lights are coming through the windows, blowing the tiny rectangles in the panes up into borders large enough to hold his whole body on the floor. He gathers the LEGO bricks into his chosen box, sweeping them into piles with both hands. The dark outline with its changing-color inside is the perfect place to rebuild his tower. He will just follow the outer lines. He will build the walls thicker this time; build from the inside. He will build the tower so that he could never, would never, run out from it, no matter how suddenly the door breaks open to let the night flood in.
About the Author: Derek Stump lives and writes in Queens, New York. This is his first published fiction.