By Ann Bradley
“The neighbors are asleep,” Marcus muttered as he gazed across the courtyard to an identical apartment window.
“Are they?” The man’s wife didn’t even bother to look up from her novel as she answered. She never did.
“Can’t understand how they get any work done, sleeping at this hour. Sun’s barely down!” The man ranted, fiddling with the button of his jacket. Nervous hands he called them. The top button had been done and undone so many times that the fabric was beginning to fray.
“Maybe they’re old,” Hazel said reasonably, still lost in her pages.
Marcus gave an indignant snort, “I’m old,” he grunted, “don’t see me turnin’ out the lights this early. Couldn’t get any readin’ done.”
The woman bit back her reply that she could hardly get any reading done now, “You’re right,” she managed finally.
“‘Course I’m right. No work ethic, that’s the problem. That’s your son’s problem too, if you ask me. Has No pride in his life. How could he? He doesn’t do nothin.’”
“Our son,” she sighed, “has a job. He’s an artist.”
“It’s ‘cause you read him all those books,” the man continued, oblivious to the sudden frost in the air, ‘ain’t natural for a boy to be so imaginative,” he said the word like a curse. “I let it be with Rose. Female minds are made for that sorta nonsense. But I should have put a stop to it with Will. Just ain’t natural, a boy thinkin’ like that.”
Hazel gripped the armchair so tightly her knuckles were white. The muscles in her neck strained. “Don’t talk about Rose,” she snapped.
Marcus turned to gaze at his wife, startled by her anger. Then a look of recognition flashed in his eyes and he whispered, “No, don’t talk about Rose,” as though he had only just remembered.
The man turned back to the window, eager to return to normal. Hazel stared at him for a second, but the sky was too dark now to see his reflection. She knew what she was looking for even if she wouldn’t admit it.
She wanted tears. If she had seen even a hint of mist in those clear blue eyes she would have forgiven him for pushing away her sadness like it was a fly he could swat, but she had been waiting for tears for 25 years, and she always came away disappointed. She didn’t say a word as she stood up from the chair. The old cushion groaned as she relieved it of the pressure.
Still Marcus couldn’t bring himself to look away from the courtyard and its inhabitants. She felt sure that he knew their lives better than he knew hers; who they walked home with, when they went to bed, what they did with their time, anything that could be seen through an open window, he soaked up.
Hazel went down the hall to the only closed door of the apartment. It used to be open for Rose, so that she would always have a place to come home to. 25 years ago Marcus had shut it, retreating to his window. He shut the door and he shut Hazel out, or maybe she had stopped listening.
Rose’s door creaked open to admit the old woman, and the long squeal of the hinges seemed to cry, “Momma!”
“I’m here, baby,” the mother answered, laying a wrinkled palm against the doorframe. Hazel didn’t have to look around the room to know that Jim Morrison was perched in the space above the bed, staring at the white bookshelves on the opposite wall, judging Shakespeare, John Donne, Bronte and Austen.
“Really, Rosie, him?” she gestured over to the shirtless singer.
“Momma,” the teenager in her memory whined, “he’s so…deep.”
A smirk crossed the old woman’s features as she sat on the edge of the bed. She could make out a picture tucked into the corner of the mirror, yellowing and dog eared. The baby captured in black and white was smiling. The frozen eyes still managed to sparkle. Somewhere in the apartment there were other photos, ones that perfectly displayed the girl’s sandy blonde hair and the green eyes that were the mirror image of her mother’s. They showed summer vacations with her brothers at the beach; Rose holding a high school diploma proudly aloft. That was where they ended, that was as far as they could go.
“I’m going to be a journalist, Momma,” said the voice inside Hazel’s head.
“I know, hun.” Her mother was suddenly exhausted. It seemed with each passing year the energy it took to recall these conversations took more and more of a toll. Always the same words, there would never be anything new. Rose would never come to this room to share stories of her own children or her job, and Hazel’s brain was too tired to make them up.
Her shoulders sagged a little as she stood, “Until next time, baby,” she promised as she turned.
“It ain’t right, Hazel, not after so long.” Marcus’s voice startled her. She hadn’t expected that he would follow her.
Hazel clenched her teeth, barely managing to speak through them, “You think you know what’s right, pretending like nothing happened?”
“We had three boys in this house that needed you! What the hell was I supposed to do?”
Pressure squeezed tight against her windpipe, “You wouldn’t talk about her. You wouldn’t look at her pictures. You left me alone.”
She watched as Marcus’ jaw locked tight. He played with the button on his jacket. Button, unbutton, button, unbutton, button, before he turned his eyes to her again, “She wasn’t comin’ home and you kept lookin’ in there like she was gonna walk right in and ask for supper.”
The room seemed to quake as Hazel’s breaths came in quick, sharp, gasps, “She was there and then she wasn’t. She got in that car and never came back.” She couldn’t even see her husband through the streams of tears cascading down her cheeks. Her heart raged against her rib cage, fighting for freedom, fighting to escape from the pain that squeezed at it.
There was a time when Marcus would have put his arm around her shoulders. Years ago, the sight of her tears pained him as much as they did her, but he had seen so many of them now. They were far more present then her smiles, her laughter. Now, looking at her, he only felt numb.
“But that doesn’t give you the right to lock yourself up and ignore those boys.”
“I needed you,” she whispered into her hands.
“No, you didn’t,” he said, just as quietly, “You didn’t even see me, still don’t. You needed her, and ain’t no one in the world can give you that.”
He was right, of course. No one on earth could reach a hand into that chilled ground and pull her little girl from its depths. Hazel had dream after dream of Rose springing from the ground, as fresh and clean as her name suggested. The girl in her imaginings had pink cheeks and fair skin, still wearing the royal blue dress they had buried her in, the one that was supposed to be a present for her birthday.
If Hazel was strong enough she would reach for her daughter. She would dig into the ground until her fingers bled, until they were caked in the frost that covered the grass. She would lie down beside her until she too, fell into an eternal sleep, but she couldn’t. She was tethered to this spot, tied to Marcus and her boys, tied to life.
“You think I don’t hear you in here talkin’ to her? Every night, Hazel. I can barely get you to look at me, but you talk to a ghost.”
“Talk to you,” Hazel spat incredulously, “what the hell about, Marcus? Nothing is like it was supposed to be. I can’t pretend.”
“But that’s what you’re doin’! Stayin’ here, pretending like we’ve still got a future in this place.
“This was our dream,” Hazel’s voice didn’t even sound like hers.
“Sometimes dreams don’t come to nothin’.”
“If we leave here then she’s gone, Marcus. Everything she ever touched, everything, gone.” She wanted to go to him and bring her hand to his cheek, like she might have done before everything was wrong, but she didn’t break the carefully maintained distance between them, afraid that whatever composure she had would shatter, whatever fortress she had built around herself with their controlled conversations and monosyllabic answers would crumble.
“She’s gone either way, Hazel. If you stay here, you’ll kill yourself with her.”
For a moment it was like he knew her again. Hazel wanted to drown in her daughter. She wanted to hoard every memory close to her chest until it could no longer expand enough to give her air. She wanted to see Rose before her as clearly as if she were actually standing there.Only when she had fully lost the real world, did Hazel feel like she could live again, breathe again.
“You’ll kill me,” Marcus hung his head at the omission. The words snapped Hazel to attention. She took a step closer to him, examining his face in the dim light. She noticed all of the lines that marred his once handsome face, wrinkles from frowns, from worrying. How long had it been since she had actually looked at her husband, really looked?
“Why were you always shouting at her?” Hazel asked suddenly, “Didn’t you like her?”
“Of course I liked her. She reminded me of you.”
“Then why did you yell at her all the time?” Hazel was breathless. She and Marcus always avoided this precipice, careful of tipping each other over the edge, but there was no going back now.
“‘Cause she scared the hell outta me. Always runnin’ off, big dreams and no sense, and you just kept pushin’ her out the door. Couldn’t wait for her to do everything you didn’t get the chance to. I never got to give you the life you wanted. I know that. You wanted Rosie to have more than I gave you.”
Hazel had memorized every inch of their small apartment. Everything was carefully preserved. The dull orange square of a couch hadn’t been moved in all their time there, neither had her reading chair, or the recliner on which Marcus had watched many a football game with the boys.
The kitchen still held the yellow tiles and creaking linoleum floor that it always had. She and Marcus had been so proud of that kitchen. He had bought her the newest stove on the block, and would boast to any neighbor who would listen about how his wife had the best. If she squinted Hazel could still picture her children lined up at the sink, washing dishes, reaching on tip toe for the faucet and splashing each other with the spray hose.
“I don’t blame you, Marcus,” she said presently.
“Bullshit you don’t. You blame me for not bein’ around, for working so much. That’s your right, but you can’t keep blamin’ me for what happened to Rosie.”
“I don’t,” she cried, seizing his shoulders and forcing herself not to shake sense into him. “It’s all me. I shouldn’t have let her go. I should have been more careful with her. She was my little girl and I didn’t keep her safe!”
It was Hazel who pressured Marcus into buying their daughter that brand new Volkswagen Bug. Bulbous and yellow, with its engine in the back, the little car had sat out on their curb, taunting Rose every day with its headlights like eyes. She was always flitting from place to place in it, rarely telling her parents where she was going, always with friends who would all cram into the tiny space and laugh so loudly that Marcus and Hazel could hear them even as they pulled away from the apartment.
It wasn’t like that on the last night. Rose was just swinging around the corner to grab some eggs for their dinner. She could have walked, but the Bug was still new, and she loved the idea of being behind the wheel. Hazel hadn’t even looked up from setting the table as her daughter strode out the door. Marcus had grumbled something about not taking too long, and Will (younger than his sister by nearly a decade and amazed by her ability to drive) had begged to come along, but Hazel had told him that he needed to finish his homework before dinner. So, Rose had walked alone out of the apartment for the last time, and no one had really bothered to note her absence.
They couldn’t hear the crash from their apartment as a truck slammed hard into the engine of Rose’s tiny Beetle, but sometimes in her dreams Hazel swore that she could. The long screech of tires against pavement, of a metal skeleton being crushed, pulverizing the human skeleton inside. Then there was nothing, but long nights of sobbing that turned quickly to days, weeks, months. Her boys cried down the hall, as much for the loss of their sister as their mother.
Hazel couldn’t remember Marcus during those shapeless days, except as the shadowy figure that hovered in the doorframe or shouted orders to the boys such as, “Stay away from your mother, she’s sick.”
Hazel was so close now that Marcus could feel the heat from her desperate breathing as much as he could feel her trembling hands pressed against him. All these years he had thought that her distance towards him was because she hated him for what he did or didn’t do. He had never imagined that it could be because she despised herself. Hazel had always been smarter than Marcus. He hadn’t finished high school, while she’d been accepted to college (she didn’t go of course, she had married him instead). Yet for a quarter of a century she had been under the lunatic delusion that their daughter’s death was her doing.
“It’s not your fault,” Marcus ran a hand through his wife’s gray hair, and she peered up at him with misty eyes.
“Then whose is it?”
“God’s I guess.”
She smiled sadly at him, “Do you even remember what your daughter looked like?”
On the verge of saying yes, Marcus frowned. He knew that she was blonde and had green eyes like her mother’s, but beyond that he couldn’t picture her. He had hidden all the photographs of her in boxes in the hallway closet long ago, afraid that the sight of them would send Hazel into hysterics. In addition to that, the sight of her staring at him, very much alive, frightened him and sent a pang of guilt in his stomach.
Hazel straightened, ushering him into the room, but he hovered at the doorframe, leaning in as though he was afraid a ghost would meet him if he crossed the threshold. The sight sent shivers down his spine. It was as if Rose was still around the corner and would be back any moment to sit cross-legged on her bed, ready to tell him a joke as he passed by. Just looking at the room again conjured her image in his mind, it was fuzzy, but he could remember her quick tongue and her easy smile. It was unnerving. He didn’t like it. He wanted out even though he hadn’t really entered, and he backed away quickly, ready to shut the door forever, or better yet get as far away from it as he could manage.
“Whatever you see ain’t real,” he reminded his wife as he pinched two fingers to the bridge of his nose to clear away the image. He was better off not remembering. It didn’t hurt to forget.
“I know that,” Hazel said solemnly, with the grim wisdom of someone who had seen too much, “but I won’t leave it.”
“It hurts you, Hazel, this pretending. Why won’t you leave with me like you wanted to when we were young?”
Hazel shook her head, she had never expected him to really understand, “I see her here, and that means more to me than anything. I don’t care if you take me around the world, none of it will matter if I lose her.”
“You’d rather lose me.”
The statement was so absurd that Hazel almost laughed, “I already have. I won’t ever be normal again, Marcus. You’ll never be able to make me happy any more than I can make you happy. I’ll always be less than I was because a part of me was torn away.”
“I lost her too,” Marcus tried weakly, but Hazel was already smirking as if she found something he had said funny.
“You make it like you never had her to begin with. I wish I could do that, but I can’t, so I have to stay here, and come into this room, and talk to my daughter. I pretend so that I keep living, Marcus. It’s the only thing I’ve got.”
Hazel did her best to ignore her husband’s stunned look, “What am I s’posed to do?”
She shrugged, “Watch the neighbors.”
Marcus stared at her as though seeing her for the first time. Hazel had always been sweet and kind, loving. Even when she was distant, Marcus assumed that his real wife was buried somewhere beneath the surface, but looking at her now he could see that she had completely disappeared. He backed away, retreating to the living room to do exactly as she had suggested. It was the only thing that made sense anymore.
Hazel knew that she and her husband would resume their routine in the morning. Marcus was far too comfortable with their life to change now. She whispered “goodnight” to her daughter as she flicked the lights off. She imagined the girl in her bed, shifting from child to teenager with each fleeting memory and as she closed the door Hazel wondered if one of her neighbors might look into the darkened room and comment to his wife, “the neighbors are sleeping.”
Ann Bradley recently graduate from Flagler College in 2013 with a Psychology degree. She is currently working toward becoming an English teacher. Ann lives in Palm Coast with my beloved puppy, Henry.