fiction06 Dec 2010 09:22 am



Sara Hoskinson Frommer

Sam couldn’t leave the house. The cars were angry at him. He whispered it to his brother, whispered it so that the cars wouldn’t hear him, wouldn’t find him. Jonathan was sitting in his living room with the CD player on, nodding to the beat of the music while he read the evening paper and pretended not to notice the cars.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Jonathan told Sam. He didn’t whisper. “Those people don’t even know you.”

“Not the people. The cars! Listen to them!” Their angry voices pierced Sam’s mind, drowning out Jonathan’s music. He ran his fingers through his hair.

“It’s just rush hour,” Jonathan said. “You always think that at rush hour, Sam. It’s time for you to go home. Go on back to your apartment. You’ll be fine.” He went back to his paper.

But Sam knew it wasn’t just rush hour. The cars were angry at him, Sam. You’re trash, they whined at him. You’ve let everyone down. You don’t deserve to live. Come out here, and we’ll do to you what someone should have done a long time ago. Come on out, Sam. We’ll get you. Jonathan had to hear them. He had to know. Unless . . . maybe not. The cars weren’t angry at Jonathan. If Sam was the only one who could hear them, Jonathan would never understand. He’d never believe his brother. Sam wished Jonathan could hear them. Then he’d understand.

Jonathan’s back was to Sam. Peering around the door frame to make sure he wasn’t watching, Sam slipped out of the living room into the front hall. He padded up the carpeted stairs in his socks. The cars were still angry, but up here he was farther from the street. Cars couldn’t climb stairs anyway. The stairs creaked–they’d tell the cars where he was. He walked on the sides of the steps, next to the wall. The creaking stopped.

The old bedroom beckoned to him. His old bedroom, his and Jonathan’s. He stood stock still in the hall, sniffing the air. It smelled old. Old was bad, but not as bad as angry. When Sam pushed the old door, he felt his fingers try to melt into the varnish. He pulled them away, just in time. Touching only the glass doorknob, he pushed the door safely shut. He crawled into the old bed. The cars were still whining at him. He pulled the heavy woolen comforter over his head and curled into a tight ball underneath it. Even though he could hardly hear the cars, he could tell they were angry at him.

Come out here, Sam, they whined at him.

No, he thought back. I need to stay here.

Now screaming filled his ears, drowning out the cars. He tried to curl up tighter under the comforter, but he was cold, and there was no weight protecting him. He squinched his eyes tight, wishing he could shut his ears, too.

“He’s in our bed! Jon, he’s in our bed!” It was a woman’s voice, high and shrieky.

“It’s all right, Abby, it’s all right.” That was Jonathan. And Abby, that was his wife.

“I was so scared.” She was sobbing now.

“It’s all right. He won’t hurt you. You know that.” Jonathan’s voice was quiet, soothing. “Sam, get up. You’re scaring Abby.”

“I’m sorry, Abby. ” Sam opened his eyes, but he couldn’t look at her. He looked down at the worn rug on the floor, instead, at the stains left by a long-ago chemistry set. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Sam.” Abby’s voice was still a little shaky, but she wasn’t screaming anymore. She sounded more like herself. “I’m sorry I yelled. You startled me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s midnight,” Jonathan said. “We thought you’d gone home hours ago.”

Now Sam looked up at them. Jonathan was wearing pajamas, and Abby had on a nightgown. Not a filmy one, but a long flannel Mother Hubbard. She was holding the end of the comforter. Sam shivered.

“I’m sorry. I had to stay here. The cars–” He stopped to listen. The whining had stopped. He couldn’t hear them anymore.

“What cars?” Abby said.

“Sam thought the cars were angry at him,” Jonathan told her. “How about it, buddy? Can you go home now?”

Still no cars. Sam nodded.

“I’m sorry, Abby.” He stood up and looked down at his socks.

“I’ll help you look for your shoes,” Jonathan said. “They must be downstairs. You took them off, I remember that.”

Jonathan trotted downstairs ahead of Sam, who hugged the wall again to keep the steps from creaking. Jonathan looked back up the stairs at him.

“Why are you doing that?”

“Too much noise,” Sam whispered.

“Don’t worry about a few squeaks. We’re wide awake now.”

Sam couldn’t hear the cars. Still, he hugged the wall.

Jonathan found the shoes in a corner. “I hate to send you home on foot so late. You want me to give you a ride?” His mouth was a tense line, and he kept looking upstairs.

“It’s all right.”

“Okay. See you tomorrow, buddy.”

“See you.”

“Not before noon. That’s our deal, remember? Abby needs the morning to herself.”

“I’ll remember.”

“You can stay for supper, if you want to. That way you won’t have to go home during rush hour. I know how much the rush hour traffic bothers you.”

No, you don’t, Sam thought as he walked home in moonlight that hurt his eyes. And it’s not the rush hour. It’s the cars. If you could hear them, you’d understand. But you can’t. No one else hears them. No one understands.

The next day, Sam told himself he wouldn’t go over to Jonathan’s. To Abby’s. By noon, though, the silence in his apartment was throbbing in his brain, and he had to go outside. First, he walked in the park. But the sun beat down on him, the birds argued, and the wind made the hair on the back of his head feel sore. He couldn’t help thinking of Jonathan’s shady living room. Abby’s living room. He wished he were there.

I won’t bother her, he thought. I’ll stay out of her way. Abby won’t mind if I take a little nap on the sofa. He knocked on their front door. The metal door knocker made his hand smell the way old forks tasted. Abby opened the door.

“Sam,” she said, and he could hear that she was disappointed in him. “Come on in, Sam.”

He could tell from her face that she didn’t want him to come in, but the cool, dark living room called to him. The wind couldn’t get him in here, not even through the open window. He sat down. The back of the sofa scratched his neck.

“Do you want a drink of water?” Abby said.

“I can get it myself.” He didn’t want to ask her for anything.

“I’ll get it.” Abby brought him a tall glass with three ice cubes in the water. She didn’t bring one for herself.

What did that mean? Was it because she hated him? He wished she didn’t hate him.

“There you go, Sam.” She sat down in a chair.

“Thanks. ” Sam took a long drink. It felt cool all the way down. He started to set the glass on the little table by the sofa, but Abby jumped up.

“Don’t put it there, Sam! It’ll leave a ring. Here, let me give you a coaster.” She fussed around in a drawer and put his glass on a little tray. On the kitchen radio, Miles Davis was playing trumpet. Sam wanted to hear it better, but he didn’t think Abby wanted him to go to the kitchen.

“I have some work to do,” she said. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay,” he said, but she was already gone. He took another drink and set the glass in the coaster. Dizzy Gillespie started playing “Salt Peanuts” out in the kitchen. Sam stretched his ears to hear. He stretched his whole body out on the scratchy sofa. Now the trumpets were silent, and voices in the kitchen were talking about floods and bombings and other terrible things. “Seventy-five passengers and four crew members are believed to have died this afternoon when a Chilean airliner hit a mountain peak in Peru.” Sam tried not to hear, but he couldn’t help it. It’s all your fault, Sam, he heard. If only you’d stayed at home, none of this would have happened. You didn’t have to come over here. You didn’t have to drink the water. It’s all your fault. Now it’s up to you to make it stop. You’ve got to be perfect, Sam. You’ve got to make it stop.

Sam sat up straight. “I can’t!” he yelled. “I can’t make it stop!”

Abby came running. “Sam, what’s wrong?”

Sam couldn’t tell her. He knew she wouldn’t believe him. He sat on the sofa, shaking.

“Sam, you can tell me, honest.” Abby’s voice was gentle, but the expression on her face told Sam that she hated him. She sat down beside him. She didn’t grab his hand or anything, but just sat there quietly. “Maybe I can help you.”

In the kitchen, staccato voices talked about the terrible accident. Inside Sam, the blame flowed like ice water. It’s all your fault. You knew better. You could have kept it from happening.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t want it to happen.”

Abby picked up his empty glass from the coaster. “It’s all right, Sam. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Outside, a car joined the radio. Yes, you did, Sam, it whined, and other cars joined in: It’s all your fault, Sam. Wait until you come out, Sam. We’ll get you, Sam. The cars drowned Abby out. Sam started to rock. He was still rocking when Jonathan came home. Sam saw him talking with Abby, and then she went into the kitchen and Jonathan came over to Sam.

“The cars again?” he asked.

Sam rocked.

“You don’t have to go home yet, Sam. You can have supper with us, okay?”

Sam kept rocking. The cars kept whining threats. The radio kept broadcasting blame.

“Sam, I wish I knew what was going through your head. I wish I could hear what you hear.”

Sam looked up at him, and somehow knew that his brother was serious. He wasn’t just saying the words. He really meant them. Oh, Jonathan, he thought, I wish you could, too. I wish it more than I’ve ever wished anything in my whole life.

Suddenly it was quiet. All the voices were still, except for an announcer on the kitchen radio, droning about the stock market. Sam stopped rocking.

Jonathan’s eyes opened wide. He stared at Sam with those wide eyes. He looked puzzled. Then he moved slowly toward the living room window. He stared out at the rush hour traffic for a long while, without saying anything. From time to time, he looked back into the room at Sam.

Sam rested on the sofa. The upholstery no longer felt scratchy. He leaned his head back, enjoying the room’s peace and quiet. When Abby came back in, Sam was relaxing on the sofa and Jonathan was staring out the window.

“What are you looking at, Jonathan?” Abby asked, but he didn’t answer. He shook his head, instead, scuttled past her, and peered around the kitchen door. Now his eyes looked wild, haunted.

“Who said that?” He turned his head from side to side. He was running his fingers through his hair, over and over.

“Said what?” Sam didn’t hear anyone. His own hands were still.

“You know.” Jonathan tilted his head at Sam, as if they shared some secret.

Could it be? No, Sam thought. It’s not possible.

Then Jonathan covered both his ears. “No!” he cried. “No, no, no!”

“What’s the matter?” Abby reached out her hand to him, but Jonathan pulled away from her as if he thought she meant him harm. Sam could see that there was no hate in her eyes. She loved Jonathan. She loved him, but she didn’t know how to help him.

“The cars,” Jonathan said. He was quiet for a moment. “The radio.” Then he whispered, “No, please, no!”

“You hear them.” Sam jumped to his feet. He could hardly believe it. “You really do hear them!” Now you’ll understand, he thought. Now you’ll believe me!

“Make them stop,” Jonathan whispered. He hunched his shoulders and squeezed his eyes shut. “Make them leave me alone.”

I can’t, Sam thought. I can’t make them do anything. I never could. But already he was wondering. Was that true? Or had the tormenting voices moved from his head to Jonathan’s because he wished it? But that didn’t make sense. How many times in the past had he wished just as passionately, but in vain, that they would leave him alone? But this time we both wished it, he thought suddenly. That’s what was different. You asked for it, Jonnie, but youvdidn’t know what you were asking. And I wished it, but I didn’t think it would be like this. I didn’t want you to suffer — I only wanted you to understand what I was going through. I didn’t want you and Abby to hate me anymore.

New thoughts tumbled through his mind. They don’t hate me, he realized. They never did, any more than Abby hates Jonathan, now that he’s the way I was. Why did it feel that way before? Why couldn’t I see them the way they really are?

He looked out the window. The cars driving by were only machines, incapable of human emotion. And yet Jonathan was turning his head away from them, closing his eyes to them, and to him and Abby, Sam was sure. Jonathan sat down at the other end of the sofa from Sam and started to rock.

“Abby, turn off the radio,” Sam said confidently. “That ought to help him.”

She nodded and hurried out. When the announcer stopped his drone in mid-sentence, Jonathan stopped rocking, but he kept on running his fingers through his hair.

Spring was pouring through the open window. Sam sniffed. This is wonderful, he thought. I haven’t smelled air like this for years. Why couldn’t I smell it a few minutes ago? But he knew why. Abby came back and knelt between them. Jonathan didn’t look at her.

“You understand what’s happening to him, don’t you, Sam?” Her eyes shone with unshed tears.

“I think so, but I don’t know how to stop it.” Sam looked at Jonathan, his brother, suffering. I don’t want to know! he cried out inside himself. I’m afraid to know. I don’t want to go back there. Life is too good.

Do you want to leave Jonathan there? a voice asked in his head. But it wasn’t the cars or the radio. It wasn’t any of the voices that had tormented him. This voice came from inside him. This was a loving voice he could trust.

No, he answered it. I don’t. I don’t want to leave anyone there.

Especially not Jonathan.

“How could you stand them?” Jonathan cried out, and then he whispered, “Sam, I wish you could take them away from me!” He tugged at his hair, as if he could pull the tormenting voices out by the roots.

“I love you, Jonathan,” Sam said. “I love you, too, Abby. I always did. I want you both to know that.”

“We know, Sam. ” Abby squeezed his hand. “We’ve always known. We love you very much.”

Jonathan had started rocking again, and his eyes were begging Sam. Sam squeezed Abby’s hand back. His eyes met Jonathan’s. And then he wished again.


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