His hands shake, trembling on fragments of the cool autumn breeze, but the subtle quiver of his upper lip says it’s nothing to do with the dropping temperatures. Darting eyes, wide with anger and resentment, seek out a place to rest themselves but spy only treason and heartbreak. Pressing in on the periphery, memories of the street compound him and compress against his ribcage.
The gnarled apple tree on the unruly lawn, long barren and withered, is scratched and carved with the sounds of his youth – of unrestrained laughter and broken bones. Below the dying branches that continue to reach for God, a chipped mailbox stands, flag demurely flush against the wood. The red plastic flag had once pressed neatly against his lower vertebrae during his first kiss. Under his feet, now cramped with aimlessness, lay a universe of small stones. Each pebble perfectly round until, during a fall from a bicycle, cheek skinned against the asphalt, the eyes can spot the fissures in each stone that absorb a single drop of blood. He kicks the loose rocks, sending ancient helixes scattering across the street.
Through lacey curtains, a neighbour peers. She spots him, frozen at the end of the driveway his feet shuffling on the edge of suburbia. Her house is warm and yellowed, heated by an electric fireplace that dances meticulously in the exact same pattern- repeating, repeating. She cannot handle something as misaligned as a wood fire. Behind her the house groans with safety, with perfect lines and counted threads in all her sheets. But across the yawning chasm of the street, she spots a galaxy of scars and pricks that have tinted the man’s left arm to the hue of gluttony, of loneliness. There are no straight lines there – a cosmos of chaos and black holes. A tug in the lining of her stomach tries to draw her eyes away, the metered ruler of consciousness, but her curiosity is morbid. His clothes are loose, held together by gravity and bone marrow, resting on the sharp and crooked angles of his jutting elbows and collarbones. In the light of the coming evening, a shadow clings to his hollowed clavicle. She watches it shift, writhe; the absence of light dances a waltz, beat by the percussions of the thudding chambers and resounding valves.
The neighbour mentally tugs at the seams of the man outside, gently at first. Each thread is wound tightly in her mind between memories and judgements. She pulls lint off a thin golden string. Unknots a thick tangle of brusque and prickly burlap. Lets a thin shard of satin fall to the floor. She pulls him apart, from his childhood to the waif in front of the home of his youth, unravelling the life that always was. She watches him twist and strain his neck, unsure if he should turn around or step off the curb into oblivion.
The space between him and her is infinite. She is close enough to peel away the layers of coarse clothing, to slough off bruised memories, but the air that separates them is thick with prejudice. She sees his body, fallen and pitiful; she mutters to the empty room about shame for his father. She sees the ochre staining his cheeks and clinging to the sagging skin; she draws air through her clenched teeth, tutting to the window frame. She cannot see the clefts that have drawn themselves on his heart; even were she to be pressing her upturned nose to his, she could not see the depths of his pupils. Could she lift herself up on the tips of her toes, could she let everything fall away, she would see the rim of the pupil – lush green forests surrounding the edge of eternity, waterfalls pouring into chasms of memories. She would glimpse at the bottom the fading faces of those who shaped him, glimmering words of paternal advice, memories that fade and fracture. Could she let herself listen deeper into the man before her, swaying, in the stillness between heartbeats – that pertinent moment where life hangs in the balance – she would hear the deafening sound of a father’s whisper; ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ And the splintering, the shattering of a son.
Her breath fogs up the glass, obscuring him from view. For a brief moment, his shape is soft, his peninsular bones melt together. She turns away from it all, from his loneliness, from his abandonment, and sets her sights on the mug of tea sitting on the table. A skin has formed, the milk clinging to the edge of the stained porcelain cup. A clock chimes gently in the warm, heavy air – as it has on every afternoon that she has lived in the house.
His hands shake; the street before him, paved from his youth, has never seemed so foreign. He hesitated, wanting to climb the apple tree one more time, to press his spine against the firm mailbox before the very molecules in the air change. With a single step, he watches the world he knew, the memories he cherished, pour over him and dissolve into the parched earth.
Stephanie Clark has been a freelance writer for over eight years. She finds her passion in the pause one takes when looking for the right word.