Featured Story • October 2014

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Behind Glass

 

Brady Golden

 
 

When the old man is away, it sometimes seems that our eyes might be on the verge of adjusting to the darkness. The black impenetrable wall begins to take on a bit of depth. Hints of shapes come into focus. Then he returns, obliterating our night vision, and it all goes away again. A sphere of light surrounds him. It follows him around the room like a spotlight tracking an actor across a stage, sliding across the hardwood floor. It shifts and churns as though it were casting through murky water.

Sometimes he brings home a stack of children’s books from the library, but tonight he reads to us from The Times, and the young ones are bored. They stir restlessly. He has only been back for a few minutes, has not even thought to take off his jacket yet, when we feel a brief, gentle vibration, and he stops mid-sentence, mid-word even. We ask what he’s heard, but he shushes us. He sits still, head cocked to the side, a finger pressed to his lips. We feel the vibration again. This time we know better than to make a sound. Hesitantly, he rises from his armchair and crosses the apartment. He passes the small table where he deposits his wallet, keys, and a stack of mail each night when he comes home from work. We watch him crack open the door. Whoever stands on the other side is invisible to us. He, she, resists the light.

Yes? The old man’s voice is quieter now than when he speaks to us. Yes, of course. I remember.

We strain to hear the visitor’s words but the voice is so faint, it might as well be coming through a foot of cement. A man? A woman? It’s impossible to tell. And are those muffled whimpers and clicks actually words at all? Are they even a language? We whisper and twitch. The young ones shrink away, nervous. Some of us attempt to console them. The rest simply listen. He never gets visitors.

I see, he says. But if you recall, we did have an agreement—

The visitor cuts him off.

I understand, believe me. And it’s not that I’m unsympathetic—

He stops and waits through another burst of noise.

I’m . . . not sure that’s such a good idea.

A flurry of movement, and the old man staggers back. We flinch and gasp. What violence is this? We press forward to help him, but of course, the way is blocked. Uselessly, futilely, we shout and flail. The young ones begin to cry, and there’s no one to comfort them this time. He straightens, runs his hands down the front of his shirt, and casts us what’s intended as a reassuring glance. We fall still, but it’s an alert stillness, anxious, taut. The visitor, in the apartment now, shuts the door and begins to speak again. The words are the same gibberish, but the tone, at least, is clear. Pleading. Desperation. For a moment, the figure leans into the circle of light, and we catch a glimpse of long yellow hair, a soft jaw-line, a slender arm, and we realize this visitor is a woman. Then the old man steps back. The light follows him, and she is again cast in darkness.

All right, all right, but just for a moment, he says. Then you have to go. I must insist. I’m sorry. I must.

We hiss amongst ourselves. Someone must know this woman, but we saw so little, and for such a short time. And anyway, the memories, our memories, they don’t last. No matter why she is here, no matter what she wants, the old man won’t let her hurt us. He promised us that. No one would ever hurt us, and we would never be alone again. And we trust him. He has never given us cause not to. At least, we don’t think he has. The memories don’t last.

He moves toward us and she follows. We think we have a sense of the shape and size of his apartment, but that’s self-delusion. All we know is him. Everything else is dark and vague. When he gets close, his face bends and spreads in the glass. Frown lines and crow’s-feet cut deep grooves in his face. Patches of white stubble stand out on his chin and cheeks. His skin has a yellow tint. On a certain level, we can tell that he is sick, and yet he contains so much life. To us, he teems with it.

Here she is. Safe and sound. The woman makes a sound that we understand to be a question. No, nothing to see, but I promise you, she’s there.

Which of us is he talking about? She. That should narrow it down. We realize that we’ve never bothered to learn one another’s sexes, which seems absurd, even negligent. We have all the time in the world to talk, to gossip, yet we’ve somehow managed to let this detail slip. We’re unsure if anyone even remembers. Some claim to, but their voices betray their uncertainty. We try to conjure memories, any memories that might help us make sense of what’s happening here, but the flashes collide and tumble over each other. A room with red walls and white-trimmed windows. A little boy with dark skin and pale, wet eyes. Running through a forested canyon, the trees awash in orange sunlight, as sweat runs down our face and fast, giddy rock music blares in our ears. There’s no way of knowing to whom each memory belongs, if they can be said to belong to anyone at all. Maybe if we could control them, we could parse out some meaning, but they come too fast, one atop the other. Longing, love, joy, grief, and whatever else might be floating around in here gets smeared together like a child’s fingerpainting into an aching mess of brown.

A shape rises up before us like some benthic creature drifting through the ocean. It’s a hand, we realize. Her hand, silhouetted in his lazy, murky light. It’s an occultation, the moon blocking out the sun, and it’s coming toward us, slowly, cautiously. We’re transfixed as we begin to understand what she’s about to do. We haven’t been touched in so long. Even when the old man cleans the glass, he wears rubber gloves. We itch with our isolation. We open ourselves up to the sensation. An instant before her palm reaches the glass, the old man’s own hand darts out and latches onto her.

Please, I must ask you not to disturb them.

He has told us before that just as people are hidden from us, so are we from them, but he’s never managed to explain, or bothered to, what makes him different. He won’t tell us if this ability is something he learned, was taught, or was born with. He evades the question, and no one has ever been able to decipher his reluctance. Now, as he stands before us next to this woman-shaped shadow, peering in at his collection, we realize there is something else he’s never told us: Why. What does he want with us?

She is speaking now. He listens with his eyes lowered, his lips drawn tight. When she finishes, he eases a slow, audible breath out through his nose and waits several seconds before he responds.

You’re forgetting what it was like. The slamming doors? The furniture flying around the room? The mirrors shattering in their frames? Have you forgotten how afraid you were? Terrified. That was the word you used when you called me. Terrified.

It takes a moment to figure out that he’s talking about us. Or one of us, anyway, and that distinction is meaningless. We remember none of those things, but we can’t help but believe them. A cold weight settles within us. The glass begins to vibrate.

I’ve been doing this for a long time. She’s not alone in there. There are thirty-six of them. Thirty-six, just like her. They talk to each other. They keep each other company. They’re her family now. And she has me. I take good care of her, just like I promised. I’m a friend to her. She’s not alone anymore. The woman begins to speak, but he cuts her off. Yes, she was. She was alone. You think that because she was in your house, that she was with you, but she was not, any more than you were with her. She has been alone for years. All alone, trying to find you, sensing your presence, calling out to you, but unable to reach you. I know you can imagine what that was like. How agonizing it must have been. How terrifying for her.

Another pause for the woman’s protestations.

Yes, dammit, all alone. All alone since she—

We tense up, crackling and trembling in anticipation of the word, the word that he never says, that no one is ever allowed to say. It doesn’t mean what you think. It doesn’t mean what it means. It is not what it is. There is a popping sound, and a miniature lightning bolt only a few inches long appears in the glass. The old man flinches and falls silent. We unwind, but only just. He should know better.

He takes the woman by the arm and begins to lead her away. When he speaks again, his voice is more subdued than before. I can’t tell you why your daughter failed to move on, and I can’t bring her that peace. But I like to think I’ve brought her some peace, at least. She’s safe here with me. She’s found a home. For lack of a better word, a life, and she’s learned to let go of the one that came before. And now it’s time for you to do the same. Find peace. Let go.

They’ve reached the door. He opens it, and with a hand on the small of her back, begins to usher her through. Icy panic grips us. The things he is saying, they’re not true. We never found a home here; we were brought here, abducted and dumped into our glass world. And we never learned to let go; we forgot. Our memories are vaporous things, and our connections to our lives before are fragile. He exploited that fragility, let us forget when it was the last thing in the world we wanted to do. This woman—this mother—our mother—we cannot let her leave. We cannot lose her again. We cry out. With a high-pitched shriek, the lightning-bolt crack spreads, zigzagging its way down the front of the glass.

As one, they look to us.

No, wait—

But she’s already running toward us, arms outstretched. We surge to her, crashing into each other, until we hit the glass like a train hits a car stalled on the tracks. There is a sharp crack and it falls away. We take flight, we spin, free, uncontained, unconstricted, unwhole, unfocused, lost. We cannot see the woman, but we hear her screams. One word, over and over again. A nonsense word. It has no meaning. A name. Names are for the living, not for us. We look for each other, but there’s only noise and movement. We look for him, and we see his light, but there’s so much darkness in between. The darkness is minefield. There are so many hard things, and their edges are sharp.

 
 

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BGolden_smallBrady Golden’s work has recently appeared in Kaleidotrope, DarkFuse Vol. 2, and on the podcast Pseudopod. He currently lives in Oakland, California with his wife, daughter, and an indeterminate amount of cats.

 

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