Fiction

Quiescence

By Ryan Collins

            The Spring when Danny and Sarah decided to start a family was the same Spring the earth stalled and the seasons never changed again. No one realized this at first, of course. The winter was gray and mild, the summer before that usual in every aspect, and Sarah took her temperature every night and every morning, marked the days off her calendar, tracked her ovulation cycles and replenished her over-priced prenatal vitamins whenever they ran out. Danny was supportive, encouraging, and only slightly disinterested. By the end of March, he’d already stopped paying attention to all the fertility planning, and instead started bragging to Sarah about how he was going to finish all the planters for their garden, and the massive bird feeder design he’d drawn up. She kept her discouragement to herself, and he stopped arguing against her buying yet another home pregnancy test.

            But then April had come, and the mercury stayed somewhere between thirty-five and forty-five degrees every day. It always seemed to be raining or on the verge of raining. Danny had gone out to the shed a few times that month, but he gave up after an hour. He’d come inside as Sarah was finishing dinner, rubbing his hands together, complaining of the cold, absently remarking he’d never finish the feeder at this rate.

            “Don’t you think it’s weird,” she said, “that it’s half-way through April and it’s still dark by six?”

            He’d smirk. “Global warming, no doubt.”

            But she’d shake her head and scrunch up her brow. “Whatever. It just seems a little post-apocalyptic, don’t you think?”

            “No,” he said. “I don’t think.” He wrapped his arms around her.

            “Ain’t that the truth?” she said, and even though she really didn’t want to, she smiled up at him.

            “Hey, look at it this way: at least we don’t have to cut the grass.”

#

            By Easter, he’d stopped going out to the shed. It was still getting dark by six, and the talking heads on the news griped about the weather and the weirdness of it. The folks on the left wagged I-told-you-so fingers at the Climate Change skeptics, while the skeptics were predictably still skeptical, harping that there just wasn’t enough evidence to come to any significant conclusions. Danny would shake his head at the TV; “Who gives a shit?” he said. “It’s just bad weather.”

            Sarah would silently leave the room.

            One day in May, Sarah had just finished folding the laundry. She came into the living room where Danny was playing a videogame on their big flatscreen. She balanced a basket full of folded clothes on her hip. “Hey?” she said.

            Danny didn’t look away from the screen. “Yeah?”

            She hesitated a moment. “You want to go on a walk or something?”

            “A walk?”

            “Yeah.”

            “You want to go on a walk?”

            “I believe that’s what I said, yes.”

            He paused the game and looked up at her. “Isn’t it freezing outside?”

            “So? I’m just sick of being in this house.”

            “So you propose we walk in the dark?”

            “We always used to go on walks in the springtime.”

            He laughed. “Well, as soon as springtime rolls around, you let me know.” He started the game, filling the living room with sounds of gunfire, explosions and death.

            She stood there a moment, watching him, wondering what it would take to get him to notice things had changed. “Well, alright then.”

            “I’m glad that’s settled,” he said in a mock-stern voice.

            She hiked the laundry basket up on her hip, looked down the hallway and back to Danny. “So, I’m just gonna go back to the bedroom and put these away—“

            “This is wonderful news,” he said, dryly.

            “—and I was thinking that while I’m doing that, you could come back there and fuck me.”

            He paused the game.

            “Just fuck my brains out,” she said, pumping her fist like a soccer coach.

            He put the controller down and cracked his knuckles. “I believe that can be arranged,” he said.

#

            Sometime around Mother’s Day, Danny came in from the kitchen to find Sarah staring at the TV, chewing on her nails. He was stirring the steaming contents of a small saucepan with a wooden spoon, but when he saw her, he paused. “What is it?”

            She looked up at him, her eyes a little wet. “I’m starting to really freak out about this weather.”

            He raised an eyebrow, stepped a little farther into the room.

            “This fucking weather,” she said. “There’s something so wrong about it.” She turned to the TV, waving her hand at the screen, as if shooing away a wasp. “Everybody says that it’s weird, but nobody knows what the fuck is going on—“

            “It’s just weird weather, baby.”

            “Weird.” She spat the word out like it was snot she was surprised to find in her mouth. “It’s like the world’s stopped turning and you couldn’t give a shit.”

            He shrugged. “It’s just a fluke. Watch, by June, the weather will turn, and everybody’ll be complaining about how hot it is.”

            She looked back at the screen as the talking heads droned on about rising food costs and delayed planting, as if the world could stop and the only thing that mattered was the economic impact. Over the last few weeks, she felt like she was the only one who could see the effigies  of civilization burning all around her. No one else even smelled the smoke. All she wanted was for someone, especially Danny, to just admit something was off, that things weren’t just going about as normal.

            Danny went back to stirring and they both stood in silence for a moment. Finally, Sarah cleared her throat. “What is that you’re making, anyway?”

            Danny chuckled. “Some kind of glaze.”

            “A glaze?”

            He dipped his pinky into the pot and tasted it. “Thought I might make something special. To celebrate.”

            She blinked. “Celebrate what?”

            He screwed up one side of his mouth in something like a smile. “Jack offered me the Project Manager job.”

            “But…” Her tongue was suddenly numb and stupid in her mouth. “I didn’t even know you’d put in for it.” It seemed to her then there was a lot they hadn’t said to each other in the last few weeks. “I thought you didn’t want a management position. Something about how you feel like the more the pay you the more you have to pretend to care.”

            He shrugged. “Well, it’s not official, but I just thought it might make you feel better. You know, show you that, despite your concerns, life is progressing and the world still turns as normal.”

            She held his face and smiled warmly, looking into his eyes. She kissed him, trying not to think about how it seemed the more serious things became, the more distance he put between them. “I love you,” she said. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was all just a fluke and it was only a matter of time before things went back to how they were the summer before. She wanted to believe that.

            He smiled back weakly. “Are you going to try this shit or not?”

#

            The Sunday afternoon of Father’s Day, Sarah stood in her underwear in the bathroom, staring down at the stupid pregnancy test. She threw it away and went out to the kitchen where Danny was pouring a cup of coffee and reading some magazine. She poured a cup for herself and shivered.

            “Did your Birds & Blooms ever show up?”

            He shook his head, slurping his coffee. “Nope. They discontinued it.”

            She got a pair of sweats and a hoodie from the laundry basket on the table. “Discontinued it?”

            “Yeah. I guess there’s not enough bird people around these days.”

            She tried to smile. “Things are looking up.”

#

            For the Fourth of July, they stood around a bonfire in mittens and scarves, sipped hot cocoa and tried not to talk about the snow that dusted the ashen grass. Sarah gazed into the flames. They had their old college friends, Linda and her husband Jeff, over to celebrate. The men were going on about videogames and fireworks, while the women huddled close to each other to keep warm.

            The two husbands argued over which sequel to some shooter game was better before trodding off to the house. Linda watched them go and nudged Sarah with her elbow. “You know, I once heard on a movie somewhere that if a woman wanted to keep having sex with her husband, she would never let him play videogames.”

            Sarah laughed, her breath turning to smoke. “I wouldn’t know what you mean.”

            Linda’s eyebrows bobbed up an down. “Oh? Do tell.”

            She laughed again, but it died quickly in the cold air. She went back to staring at the fire. She liked the color of the flames on her face, the warmth of it. She must have stared for some time, because Linda nudged her again. “Sarah?”

            She pulled her eyes away. “Nothing. It’s just…I think maybe I should see my doctor. Again, I mean.”

            Linda nodded. “A girl I know from work said that she and her husband tried for over a year—“

            “None of my sister’s ever had a problem.” said Sarah, her voice trembling suddenly. “Shit, Bobbie had her Irish twins and she wasn’t even trying.”

            Linda slung an arm around Sarah and squeezed. “Babe, it will take time. You have to be patient.” Sarah nodded. It’s was the same thing all her sisters had said.

            Jeff and Danny trotted up to them, talking loudly. Jeff bent over with a groan and dropped a wooden vegetable crate full of fireworks at the women’s feet.

            “…I told you,” Jeff was saying to Danny. “The countries in the southern hemisphere said they couldn’t handle food production for the entire planet. Not if this extended winter shit keeps up forever. Face facts, bud, we’re going to have to change they way we do things.”

            Danny scoffed. “I don’t think we’ll have to change our whole lifestyle.”

            “Do you think it will?” asked Sarah. “Keep up like this forever?”

            Jeff ruffled through the fireworks. “Does the Pope shit in the woods?”

            “Don’t listen to him,” Linda said. “He’s a libertarian.”

            Sarah glanced at Danny who shrugged. Jeff held up a fat, dangerous-looking cylinder and asked where Danny wanted him to set up, but Sarah didn’t feel like watching fireworks anymore.

#

            In August, Sarah came home to find that Danny stood in the yard admiring a snowman he’d built. The car fishtailed a little as she pulled around the corner and into the driveway. Danny still hadn’t shoveled the drive, even though he’d been off work all day. She gunned it to make it up the little incline that led to their garage, but the back tire just spun and slung snow.

            Her boot crunched when she stepped out of the car, one foot in one foot out. The garage door was open. The snow shovel leaned against the wall, next to the front door.

            “A little help, maybe?”

            He spun around, surprised. “Oh, right,” he said and jogged awkwardly through the snow. “Sorry. I got a little distracted.”

            “Yeah, I can see that.”

            He went to work, hurriedly slinging gobs of snow over his shoulder. When he finished, he went behind the car and pushed. With a little gas, it went right into the garage.

            She slammed the car door and Danny beamed her with a snowball. It exploded on her chest. She shouted and dropped her bags, stood there in disbelief as the cold and wet dripped off her face and down her shirt. She glared at him, her eyes little white balls of anger, but her mouth was smiling. “You!” she growled.

            Danny stood in the drive, bouncing another snowball in his hands.

            She charged and he beamed her again. She tried to tackle him, but he picked her up in a bear hug and swung her through the air. They both came down in the yard, sinking in the snow, their laughter swallowed up by the powder. She shoved handfuls of ice down his shirt, and he smeared it on her face and in her hair. They rolled around until the cold seeped through their layers and the wet darkened their clothes.

            Exhausted, they lay on their backs and stared up at the gray sky, panting and giggling. It felt good to laugh, to roll around in the cold. It reminded her of when she was a kid, in middle school when she and her friends would hop the fence at the country club and go sledding on the hills there. Her friends mainly went for the boys, but Sarah had always loved to race and to crash.

            Danny’s snowman looked down at them; the two rocks he’d given it for eyes peered down over his pinecone nose. The cold stung her skin and she inhaled sharply, like she’d just woken up or come up for air. She saw the both of them lying there, as from a distance, and something came over her, pressed down on her, like a sudden urgency, the kind one feels when walking through the dark, certain someone is behind them, reaching out.

            “Sarah?”

            A hand gripped her heart and squeezed, and for a moment she thought she might freeze solid and lay there forever, like the ghost of someone frozen forever in time from a volcanic blast. She came to her feet, slipping in the snow as she ran for the front door, her eyes swelling with tears.

#

            Labor Day weekend brought the first sunshine in months. With the sun and blue skies came a strong breeze that rattled the naked branches and tossed rotted leaves over the grass. With the breeze came warmer temperatures. Sarah could close her eyes and smell the mud and wood after a thaw and imagine Spring, imagine what it had been like when the world was warm and open. With so much cold for so long, it was getting harder and harder to remember what Summer was, like trying to recall the face of a relative you hadn’t seen since childhood, or remembering the sound of their voice.

            She’d come out of the bedroom in her jogging tights and a little zip-up hoodie, her hair in a ponytail, ready to go. “I’ve got to get out of this house,” she said, leaning against the doorjamb, looking out into the yard.

            “Then go,” Danny said. He was on the couch playing videogames. The same place he always was. “I’m not stopping you.”

            “But I’d like you to go with me.”

            “And I’d like to spend my day off relaxing.”

            She thought, relaxing from what? She peered up and down their street, her breath fogging the glass of the storm door. There was no one, just an empty street.

            “Why don’t you take advantage of the weather and go out to the shed and finish that project from last year.”

            “What’s the point?”

            “The point is that you started it; you should finish it.”

            “But there aren’t any more birds.”

            She shot him a look. “There are birds, Danny.”

            “None around here.” His expression darkened. “What do you even care about a stupid bird feeder, anyway? I thought you hated my bird stuff?”

            “I don’t hate your bird stuff. I just think you should follow through with something.”

            He paused the game. “Wow.”

            “I didn’t mean—“

            He stood, and even though his face glowed red with anger, Sarah couldn’t help but think that was the most emotion she’d seen out of him in a long time. “I know what you meant. You’re still pissed I didn’t get the manger job, you’re pissed because of the weather, you’re pissed because you aren’t pregnant. You’re pissed about a whole bunch of stupid shit you can’t control.”

            She gaped at him, trying to decide if it was worse that being pregnant counted as ‘stupid shit’ or ‘shit they couldn’t control.’ She tried to keep her voice low and steady, but it trembled nonetheless. “Danny, has it occurred to you that maybe it’s not about control? Maybe it’s just that I feel our world is falling apart all around us and no one seems to even fucking notice?” She heard her voice growing louder, hoarse as a buzzsaw. She didn’t care. “Maybe I know I can’t control that—we can’t control that—but that’s not the problem and the problem is I just want you to tell me that you’re scared too, that you see it too, and that I’m not losing my goddamn mind? Anything but just shrugging it off like none of it fucking matters, because it does fucking matter!”

            She glared at him, challenging him; her chest puffing; her fists clenched.

            After a long pause, he said. “Whatever. I don’t care.” He smiled. He shouldn’t have smiled. He should’ve been furious. “Shit happens; shit doesn’t work out. I’ve still got a decent job.”

            Her voice was small. “But you hate that job. You’ve always hated that job.”

            He shrugged. “It’s not so bad.” Then he left the room.

#

            Now she found herself in the woods, jogging along a deserted bike path. The warm air felt good against her face as her feet pounded heavy against the asphalt. Her lungs burned and her legs ached, but it was nice to be outside again.

            It’s not so bad, he’d said. It had played in a loop in her head since she’d left the house. When would it be so bad? How long could the winter last before the world took notice? Or would it never be enough? Would we all just go on telling ourselves whatever story we needed to make us believe everything was fine? She tried to convince herself it was just a matter of time. Their lives would progress past this little hiccup, past this strange weather. She’d repeated it to herself, but it didn’t help, didn’t take away the crushing feeling that had gripped her that day in the snow, the feeling that everything changed by not changing ever again.

            She breathed in the warm air. It will be okay, she thought. The Spring she imagined carried with it the promise of a future beyond the endless winter, the waiting and the uncertainty. She was three weeks late, after all; a fact she’d yet to tell Danny.

            She couldn’t run anymore, so she stopped, panting and wheezing. She was out of shape, pushing too hard. Her mouth was dry and sticky. She stepped off the path, arching her back and resting her fists against her hips as she fought for breath. She glanced behind her and ahead and realized she was alone.

            The world was silent except for the breeze that sang through the skeletal, stretching fingers of the trees. It was disconcerting that there should be no one else out on this first of warm days. She couldn’t be the only one aching to be outside after so long a winter.

            The path ahead bent deeper into the woods. She still had a long way to go and she needed a drink of water. Some ways behind her, a cinderblock outhouse and drinking fountain lay off the trail. The water was cold. She got her breath back and felt a sudden urge to pee.

            She looked at herself in the mirror before she went in the stall. She could already see color coming back to her face, even in the pale light that found its way into the restroom.

            She finished peeing and stood. Her hand froze on the toilet lever. She shook, her breath quavering as she looked down at the dark crimson swirls in the water. She tried to convince herself they weren’t actually there. Quickly, she pulled out the waistband of her pants, looked inside. Dark red spots.

            It took her some time to add up the correct change for the tampon machine, and her hands shook as she put her money in the machine and pulled the knob. The tears welling in her eyes made it difficult to open the package. When she was finished, she tore the paper wrapper into tiny pieces and slammed them into the trashcan, pausing again to examine her sallow reflection in the mirror.

            Outside, the clouds had returned, washing the woods in a gray monotone. She started off again, her legs heavy and cumbersome. She glanced up and down the trail, her breath steaming. In this new light, the path ahead was just as dark as the way she had come.

###

Ryan has been a radio host, folk musician, anthropologist, film theorist, French instructor, and the butt of many jokes. Ryan received his BA in Creative Writing and his MA in French and English Literature from Miami University of Ohio.His work can also be found in The Monarch Review and soon in Evening Street Press. He lives happily with his wife and two daughters in Canal Winchester, Ohio.

Categories: Fiction

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