My notes for this one are at the end, so there won’t be spoilers… #SFWAPro
The Roaring Silence
James sat behind his desk, listening to the couple in front of him talk over each other.
“These behaviors keep going on –” the wife said.
“But that’s not fair –” her husband tried to interject.
“– no matter what you promise –”
“– because you know how work has been lately –”
“– I understand, you know I understand –”
“– I’m not saying your job isn’t hard but I –”
James held up both hands until he got their attention, and the room quieted. “Okay,” he said in a calm, measured, voice. “I hear a lot of tension and that’s completely normal, but we want to make sure that expressing our concerns isn’t getting in the way of hearing your partner’s concerns, too.”
“Yeah, okay, but –” the husband started in, and the wife rolled her eyes, and jumped back into the argument.
While his patients went at each other, James sat back in his chair, and thought about ordering from that Chinese place for dinner. Maybe he’d have it delivered and eat it at his desk like he often did…
He pulled himself away from that thought long enough to wrap up their session, and ushered the couple out of his office with some pleasant-sounding but generic advice he didn’t quite remember a few minutes later. It was after 6 in the evening, so his Stacy (his receptionist) had already gone home, but she’d left out a couple of menus just in case he wanted to work late again. James thought about the case files waiting for him, and decided, this once, to call it a night and finish up today’s work first thing in the morning.
Downstairs, with his coat collar turned up against the late Spring cold, James pushed the front door open with one elbow, and turned in a half circle to carefully maneuver around an elderly woman who had picked that moment to enter the building through that same door.
“Thank you, dear,” she said softly.
James nodded silently, holding his breath – and his belly – in while she scooted by.
On the street, he exhaled loudly. An attractive woman standing nearby noticed, frowning. She turned away and waved for a taxi before James had a chance to explain. He looked down, his shoulders dropping, and walked in the other direction.
As he turned a corner, the street noise dwindled around him, fading into nothing, damped as if he’d lowered a pillow over his ears, and only the faint sound of tinkling, old-timey piano music floated past him on the wind.
A young couple, laughing over their phones, passed him by, and the sound of the world came back on their heels.
James reached the subway entrance and his stomach rumbled. He tilted his head up and sniffed.
“Popcorn?” he said to himself. He looked around, but couldn’t find the vendor, and didn’t want to risk making eye contact with the young black man sitting on the platform next to an upturned hat and a sign that read Homeless and Disabled Please Help.
“Another time,” James said so quietly it was nearly a whisper, to the man, or the unseen popcorn vendor, or both.
He took the seat second-closest to the train’s doors, just as he always did, with his hands folded in his lap, and counted the minutes until they pulled into his station.
As the train slowed, James took his briefcase in one hand, stood up, and positioned the worn leather case in front of his chest like a shield; he fixed his gaze on the far wall, and took a deep breath.
The doors opened, and the crowd – oh, the rush and pull of the crowd! Like a wave crashing against James’ shore! He pushed himself forward resolutely, made it out of the train car, and up the stairs to the street, ignoring all jostling and elbows, all cries or claims or conversation around him.
He made it the two blocks to his favorite Chinese takeaway counter before he relaxed enough to lower his briefcase.
“Hello, how are you, come in!” the hostess said brightly. “Are you picking up or placing an order?”
“Placing, please,” James said, looking at the lacquered sticks holding her black hair into a loose bun at the back of her head. “To go.”
“Of course, of course,” she said, nodding. She kept nodding as he gave her his usual request: steamed brown rice, chicken with broccoli, and a cup of wonton soup.
There were a pair of tiny pink elephants hanging from the end of each hair stick. Every time the hostess dipped her head, the elephants danced.
“Oh, do you want a napkin for that?” she asked suddenly, pointing at his cheek.
He reached up with his free hand and wiped something greasy away. When he looked at his glove, there was a smear of chalk-white makeup on the fingertips.
“Yes, please,” he said, shook, nearly stuttering. “Someone on the train. Must have bumped me.” He dabbed at his cheek with the napkin she handed him. “It’s not mine.”
“Of course,” she said, nodding again. She moved on to the next customer, and James shoved the napkin into his coat pocket angrily.
By the time he got home, he’d lost his appetite. He put the takeout containers, still in their bag, into the refrigerator, and sat at the kitchen table, turning the napkin over in his hands. The makeup felt warm, soft, but solid. It didn’t crumble.
He had a vague feeling as if he should know what it was, but couldn’t remember.
Later, in pajamas, teeth brushed, and the comforter on his bed turned down, James heard the music again. It was the song he’d heard on the street, before those kids had stumbled by, engrossed by their devices. It was very faint, but it sounded as if it was coming from close by, just outside perhaps, or –
From inside of his closet?
He turned slowly, saw the closet was shut tight, and almost brushed off the whole silly idea, when he realized there was a light coming from underneath the edge of the door. It didn’t look quite like the familiar yellow glow of the light that had been in there for years. It was… smokier, somehow.
The music changed, or deepened? Layered in with the organ was… James wasn’t sure.
He carefully lowered himself to a crawling position, putting his head almost on the floor, but from across the room, he couldn’t see anything unusual.
On hands and knees, James inched toward the closet door.
He smelled popcorn.
He went closer, close enough he could reach out and touch the light that splashed onto his rug, if he wanted to. The extra sound, he knew then, was the muffled chatter of people, dozens or hundred of people, milling around in a small space. He knew that sound from somewhere deep in his childhood, a place long boxed up, put away, and forgotten about.
From under the door, a small blue rectangle of cardboard shot out, gliding over the floor and coming to a stop right under James’ noise. He picked it up, turned it over, and read exactly the words he expected to see:
Richard Baron asked me to write a story about an unseen carnival, and this is the result. It’s another “long” flash story, at 1207 words. The name comes from the title of a 1976 album by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, which included “Blinded by the Light”, my favorite carnival-related rock song (even if it’s a more-fun cover of an unsuccessful Springsteen original).
The feeling I wanted to capture — of distancing yourself from everyone and everything, only to feel something’s missing that you can’t quite put your finger on… that’s just life, for too many folks.
I think it doesn’t have to be.
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You can read more about that, including last year’s flash stories, here.