Silence by W.T. Paterson


 
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When my sister told me she’d met someone, I had natural reservations. Not just as a big brother, either: I had real reservations about who this guy pretended to be.

Outgoing, polished, and magnetic, Gabe knew how to draw and maintain crowds. He was a local Christian radio host with ten thousand daily listeners, and his voice was the salve to soothe the burns of the exhausted working class. Underneath, though, I could see a small, terrified boy hiding in the shadows of the man he had become. It was something about the way he interacted with people and bullied them under the guise of helpfulness. Never fully present, never spending too much time with any one person: It was like he was afraid of people seeing the real him.

“So, Texas,” I said the first time we met. I stood next to the grill at the barbecue cooking salmon, chicken wings, and ribs, watching my sister catch the scent of cooking meats in her nose. Summer food made her the happiest. Gabe smiled his toothy grin and pushed a hand through his salon-quality hair.

“You know what they say about Texas,” he said and winked.

“What do they say?” I asked. I flipped the wings and ribs to let the sizzle of the fat roar like applause from a ballgame.

“You know,” he said and winked again. He nudged me with his elbow. “Everything’s bigger…doesn’t matter. Hey, would you mind getting me a fresh brew? One more sip and this bottle is dead.”

He put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed, then pointed to the plastic tub with ice and bottles along the fence in the backyard. I pulled down the grill cover and went to get him a drink. When I came back, he asked if the food was ready.

The day had maybe an hour of sunlight left before the autumn moon would declare victory over the sky; I was no stranger to how the full moon brought out the worst in the world. Neighborhood cats mewled under porch steps with deep, guttural warnings. Dogs paced fenced-in yards with hackles spiked down their spines. Treebound birds sang in furious prose only to fall as silent as a tomb.

People were no better. They drove like maniac heathens, swerving between lanes, jamming on brakes, attempting to break the sound barrier with howling engines, and they got into confrontations with total strangers over the most peculiar things. That morning, a neighbor had knocked on my door demanding that I deal with the stench emanating from my basement.

“Smelting,” I told the short, squat man. “A lost art.”

“Whatever it is, it stinks,” the man said. He thrust his arms and balled hands by his side like a toddler throwing a tantrum.

It was an old New England house with a stone and dirt basement. The previous owners were a family of jewelers from the 1800s, and they had left behind their kiln, lead pans, and scales. Even though I used an exhaust fan—modified into a dryer vent, connected to the furnace chimney—the heavy wet-dog scent always fell back toward the earth like a cursed soul. I bought, sold, restored, and designed silver jewelry, same as my father.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said, pinching my eyes. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a thin silver bracelet. “Take this. As an apology. Made it myself.”

The neighbor collected the bracelet in his palm with a side smirk.

“A man ain’t supposed to give another man jewelry ‘les they…you know. You one of them?”

“One of what?” I asked. I knew what the neighbor implied. My father once said that weak men love to attempt emasculation, but they also crumble under scrutiny. Watching him squirm held a certain satisfaction.

“It’s jus’ I ain’t seen women comin’ and goin,” he said.

“Then I’m like you,” I said, and the man’s bald head went as red as the leaves on the trees. “Single. Nasty divorce.”

The divorce part wasn’t true, but true enough in that it shut the man up. After what happened with my parents, I doubted that I’d ever get married.

My neighbor pocketed the bracelet and nodded his way down the steps.

As the sun set, I watched him through a window, gathering with his friends around a firepit. Their guts pushed against their shirts as round as the moon, bottles of beer in hand, as they passed single malt whiskey around, howling with laughter like the faux dog-men they were.

The bone broth simmered on the stove as the text from my sister Luna came through. He hit me, Riley. Again. Broke the necklace. I turned off the burner and opened the cupboard beneath the sink. Two packed duffle bags ready: our contingency plan, an escape route that never felt like a plan B, but rather something inevitable. We’d meet halfway in the Ozarks at a cabin tucked deep in the woods if I couldn’t talk her down—away from my New England residence, far from her adopted Christian, West Texas town.

Breathe, I wrote back. Suppress the urge.

Of course he hit her. The bastard of a husband had no idea, and some men had an unyielding need to feel strong; they attacked those who show kindness. There was this certain self-proclaimed entitlement to fury underneath their facades, endowed by their perception of nature’s laws. Gabe's show had a following that would blindly side with him if she ever came forward with allegations, but that’s not what scared me the most.


The men next door built their fire too large and gawked at the reaching flames.

Bags are packed, I wrote. You say the word.

Fuck the bags, she wrote, and my heart thumped with dread. She meant business, and inside of that small, Christian, West-Texas town, there’d be hell to pay if she wasn’t careful.

But I guess that was kind of her point.

You don’t have to do anything, I wrote. Just leave.

You sound scared, she responded. Stay quiet, no retribution, move on, and pretend it’s all okay.

That’s not what I meant, and you know it.

The night stalked forward, swallowing the edges of daylight in its mighty teeth. The laughter of the men next door sounded like wild animals gathered around a carcass, jawing and snapping at meaty bones. I pulled open the cupboard with my knee and looked at the packed duffle bags; I’d leave if I had to, but I really didn’t want to.

After moving so much as kids, this two-story house finally had the feel of home—a place where Mom and Dad could visit and be proud. If they ever came out of hiding.

Luna met him at a charity event—one of those minor league baseball nights where a cut of the gate went to wildlife preservation. She was selected from the crowd to play the line drive challenge where people stood in the outfield as professional batters nailed balls toward the fence. Whoever caught the most won $100 plus a special shoutout in the charity’s monthly newsletter.

Luna loved minor league ballgames: the crack of the bat, the fast pitches, the constant game of catch. She was in her element near the field. When her name got pulled, she hustled to the bathroom to pee before making her way out onto the stretch of green.

The first two contestants didn’t catch anything. They both high tailed it from center field, to right, to left. The third got lucky and caught a looping fly ball. But when Luna took to the grass and loaded up on her haunches, she watched the batters and their fly balls with an almost obsessive focus. She caught every single line drive, and I sat back thinking the jig was up.

Gabe, impressed by her performance, introduced himself and explained his status in that Christian, West Texas town before asking her on a date.

“You sure?” I asked her later that night. She was explaining how good of a feeling she had about this one. Luna smiled and nodded.

“Everyone has a role. Everyone has a place,” she said. Christian towns tended to let outsiders know real quick if they were welcome or not. Most often, they silently demanded that a person play their expected part and not deviate. Something about a man’s role and a woman’s place, a mindset stuck in a bygone era.

“And if he expects you to just…obey?” I asked.

“It can be satisfying knowing what someone wants and then giving it to them,” Luna said. I could see in her face that she’d made up her mind.

That night, I packed the plan B bags just to be safe.

Outside, the men around the fire pointed to the ground-level windows of my basement. My neighbor seemed to be talking about the silver and gold I kept down there for smelting. He held up the bracelet and made an obscene, airy gesture with his hand and pranced around in a circle. His buddies laughed, but one of them asked to see the bracelet.

“It’s yours,” my neighbor said, and his friend slid the bracelet on. He admired it in the flickering light of the fire. The irony seemed lost.

The first time Gabe hit my sister, she told me at a local flea market while we waded through the aisles looking for trinkets and treasures. The sun-bleached wooden tables threatened splinters to the unaware. Vendors puffed at cigarettes and barked with promises that all prices were negotiable.

“Leave him,” I said. She’d come to visit for a week to let the dust settle.

“I can’t,” she said. “The community would hate me.”

“Who cares?” I said. I bent over and picked up an old pocket watch. It had stopped at 11:58. Two minutes to midnight, or midday.

“That’s $30,” the vendor said, an older woman with wrinkles so deep that they cast their own shadows.

“For tin?” I asked.

“That’s copper,” the woman said. I looked at the watch again. It wasn’t copper. It still maintained its shine, even though the date etched into the back read 1920.

“Copper oxidizes and turns green. Tin doesn’t. This is tin,” I said and put it back on the table. The woman picked up the watch and held it close to her eyes, then called out for her husband to come take a look. The tone in her voice lilted with betrayal.

“You’re so good at seeing things for what they are,” Luna said.

“Leave him,” I said again, and Luna pawed at me like I was playing.

“Let’s not talk about it anymore,” she said, and shoved everything down to that dark place inside of her that collected pain and guilt—that dark inner kiln that altered the physical makeup of everything locked within.

I should have listened, Luna wrote. Especially after what happened with Mom.

You’re not Mom, I wrote.

She passed on the bitch, Luna wrote.

One time, a boy pushed my sister down the twisty slide at the playground. She tumbled across the plastic bends as static shocks nipped at her exposed flesh. My mother leapt to her feet and grabbed the boy by the back of his neck, demanding to know where his parents were. The kid pointed to a bench where a guy in untied boots and dirty jeans sipped from a paper bag. She marched over and gave the man the what-for so bad that he collected his son and booked it.

“Sometimes, you gotta show the world you have teeth,” our mother told us. We walked home under the canopy of fiery red leaves. It wasn’t the worst I’d ever seen her lash out; once in a blue moon, our father would have to pack us into a car to get away from whatever was causing her rage. Our mother’s sense of justice was a beast in and of itself. Once we were home, the police showed up to ask questions, and they brought my mother to the station.

“But that boy pushed ME,” my sister pleaded with my dad, her sad eyes brown and full.

“I know,” he sighed. “But when a woman shows the world she has teeth, weak men will try to pull them from her mouth.” Later, my mother came home. No charges pressed, but my parents argued with their door closed until the small hours of the morning.

The next night, my mother wore a brand-new necklace that my father crafted. She needed to feel loved, safe: His jewelry was her love language. It was like she was a different person with that necklace on, calm to the stressors of life and carefree. Whatever had been brewing inside of her had been pacified. We never spoke about that incident again, and we never heard a word from that boy and his father after that beyond hushed whispers in line at the grocer.

Sometimes, silence has teeth of its own.

My sister had that same thing—that gene that made my mother snap and change into something feral. Only, no one ever saw it really come out. It never had to.

I had always been there to protect her.

And by the time Luna left for Texas, I thought she’d be able to handle it herself. I gave her a silver necklace I'd made from our mother’s old jewelry to double down, to let her know I cared, just as our father had done. Love languages and such.

But now, the necklace was broken.

Call me, I wrote. My phone buzzed, and I answered halfway through the first ring.

“...I’m sorry to drag you into this,” Luna said. No. My heart dropped.

“Be better than her,” I whispered.

“Scared men…” she said. “I’ll see you at the cabin.”

Over the phone, I heard the tearing of flesh and painful cries of a body in transformation. Luna grunted and coughed as thick fur tore through her tender skin. I heard panting, then the gruesome snapping of jaws.

She was her mother’s daughter all right. Outside, the darkness had settled, and the full moon stood victorious in the dark sky. Shadows had already begun to fall over that Christian, West Texas town. And that town would never see morning. What weak men don’t realize is this: If you back someone into a corner who knows how to fight, you’d better take note of your exits.

As the call went dead, the men next door howled. They peeled off their shirts and swung them like helicopter blades above their heads, their back hair and chest hair patchy and thinning. Whatever they thought they were, they weren’t.

I grabbed the bags and dumped the bone broth down the sink. Steam rose and fogged the windows, creating a moment of solitude—of privacy. I killed the lights, said goodbye to the house that had finally begun feeling like home, and escaped through the front door.

Along the twisting backroads of my small New England town, the moon pierced the tips of the trees to create shadows in the forest. If I squinted and looked away, I could vaguely make out the shape of my mother and father waving goodbye.

 

W.T. PATERSON is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire, and is a graduate of Second City Chicago. His work has appeared in over 90 publications worldwide including The Saturday Evening Post, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Dalhousie Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Fresh Ink. A semi-finalist in the Aura Estra short story contest, his work has also received notable accolades from Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Lumberloft. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to "Get down from there!" Visit his website at www.wtpaterson.com.