Driving the truck made Siobhan feel childlike as she stretched to reach the pedals. It was annoying, but she always brought it on visiting days. Unlike her car, it had keyless entry. The rest of the week the pickup sat in the driveway, a three-ton reminder that Nick wasn’t there. After finding a parking spot, she slipped her license in her pocket. She squeezed her purse, keys, and phone under the front seat. They wouldn’t allow her to bring them inside with her.
She closed the door and caught sight of her reflection in the window. It was washed out, almost translucent. Strangled by the fear that she was disappearing by degrees, Siobhan didn’t dare check the side mirror. Bony fingers tucked a limp curl behind her ear. A sigh fogged the glass.
She braced herself and headed inside the windowless building. It was stark and astringent brick, authoritative and disapproving. Inside wasn’t any better – unwelcoming decor and the persistence of industrial cleaners that left scent of bleach coating the tongue. Scanning the names ahead of her on the sign-in sheet, Siobhan calculated the wait. Perhaps an hour.
Not long. Not long enough.
She sank into a hard, plastic chair and folded her hands in her lap. It staved off the temptation to fidget with her jacket. This wasn’t like the dentist office, where you could flip through old copies of ‘National Geographic’ to alleviate the tedium. She fixated on the polished tiles, counting the rows. Twelve down, eighteen across. Just like last week. And the week before.
Most of the seats were already filled. An older couple held hands in the corner. The man caught Siobhan’s eye and offered a tentative smile. She looked away, trying to disappear in her seat. A few women across the room chattered back and forth. One laughed at something one of the others said, the sound echoing off the cinder block walls. Siobhan wonder how they managed it. She envied their composure.
How can anyone laugh in a place like this?
Uncomfortable, Siobhan shifted in the rigid seat and smoothed down her skirt. She’d been working overtime and had to come straight from the office. Her sedate, grey suit stood out when everyone else wore jeans and sneakers. They looked comfortable, but there hadn’t been time to go home and change. That would mean being last on the list – guaranteeing a numb backside, and the risk she wouldn’t be called before visiting hours were over.
The minutes ticked forward in slow motion. Siobhan’s skin prickled as she waited. The Sergeant was watching her through the glass. Again. Staring at the floor, she shook her hair over her face to cover pink cheeks and pretended not to see. Her flush was a tangle of pleasure and guilt. The head of security looked handsome in his uniform, and she hated herself for noticing. She glanced around, searching for a distraction.
Across the room a boy of seven or eight squirmed in his seat. Bored, he fussed and drummed his heels against the chair legs. Sometimes Siobhan wished she could cry and complain too. Whine – no scream – that it was all so unfair. Instead, she swallowed down the bitter tonic of her reality. There were expectations, even if they were only her own.
The door opened, drawing all the eyes in the room, and a young man Siobhan didn’t know came through. After all this time she recognized most of the guards. She thought he must be new. He brandished a clipboard where he ticked off names. When he read hers, it was like winning the world’s most depressing lottery. He stumbled over the spelling; everyone always did. She didn’t correct him, pleased that the wait was over. Dreading what came next.
Only six visitors were allowed in at a time. Last in line, Siobhan tried not to drag her feet. Steeling her resolve, she swallowed hard and squared her shoulders. Her discomfort was immaterial; this wasn’t about her.
Chin up, back straight. You should be used to this by now.
The idea of desensitizing to this place, the horrible Wednesday routine, made her queasy.
Ducking her head as the guard waved her forward, she forced herself to move. The heavy door clicked shut behind her. Siobhan held her breath and fought back the claustrophobia. One security door snapped closed before the next opened. Her heart raced. They’d explained it was for everyone’s safety, but logic bowed to the irrational fear.
The inner door buzzed open and she let out her breath in a silent hiss. Uncurling clenched fists, she rubbed half-moon indents where her nails had dug into her palms. When she glanced up, her stomach flipped.
The Sergeant was standing on the other side of the metal detector. His white shirt and blue pants crisp, even at the tail end of his shift. Siobhan knew he was off duty as soon as visiting was over. Sometimes they met leaving the parking lot – she from the visitors’ section, he from the employee area. He always nodded and waved for her to go first, even though she had the yield. The kindness made her self-conscious. It was undeserved.
Inside, the pattern was unchanging. One at a time the visitors passed under the archway. The Sergeant performed a cursory pat-down. Professional and detached, but never rough. His gaze didn’t linger on any of them. He waved them through without meeting their eyes. She was the only exception.
The Sergeant looked up, smiled, and nodded her forward. Siobhan held her breath again as she passed under the metal detector. The flutter in her stomach wasn’t fear of setting off the alarm. If she was honest with herself, it was a surge of excitement. Each week she looked forward to his touch. It was shameful, but she didn’t care. It was the only time she felt alive inside. She’d choke on the guilt later.
* * *
The Sergeant ran a hand over his head as he thumbed through the visitors’ log. Self-conscious about a growing bald spot, he kept it shaved. Combined with his height and broad shoulders, the guys called him Mr. Clean behind his back. He knew but didn’t care. As long as they showed proper respect to his face. There were worse nicknames tossed around the locker room.
Ah, hello Wednesday.
The Sergeant always looked forward to Wednesdays. It was his Friday. His plans for his ‘weekend’ were simple – workout at the gym, mow the lawn, avoid phone calls from his ex, eat leftover pad thai in front of the TV. If he had managed to record last Saturday’s game properly. One of the clerks in Records had spoiled it though. He knew who won, if not the score, but he’d end up watching anyway.
A thrill went through him as he scanned the list of names on the clipboard. The prospect of a couple days off wasn’t the only reason he looked forward to Wednesday. It was the day Siobhan Walsh came in – every week without fail. He watched her from the reception desk, a sedate dove in a neat, conservative suit. He didn’t know how she found the fortitude to sit in that antiseptic waiting room week after week. To suffer the boredom and the indignities of the security clearance, all for 45 minutes of conversation. It wasn’t even private – competing with a handful of other discussions while staring at an orange jump suit through the glass. Was it duty or devotion? Either way he felt she deserved better.
The new kid stuck his head in. “Hey, Sarge. The next batch is ready – numbers 18 through 24. Do you want to call them in?”
He shook his head and handed over the clipboard. “You do it. I’ll handle the body checks for this group.”
He noted the young officer’s flash of surprise. The kid would learn. The Sergeant never let anyone else touch her. She was a contradiction – a spine of braided steel encased in blown glass. He’d never forgive himself if one of the other guards shattered her. Deep down it was just an excuse to touch her. He wanted to know her, be the reason she smiled. But he didn’t have the right. Not as long as she wore that ring.
The door buzzed, and he cleared the visitors through with practiced indifference. He’d learned years ago not to engage. Their stories never played out well and it hurt too much to get involved. Then Siobhan came along, all those Wednesdays ago. For the first time in ages he wanted to listen, but she wasn’t talking. She barely said a word.
The Sergeant could feel the weight of her eyes on him as she waited her turn. They were shadowed, so clouded with sorrow they seemed black. He wondered if they would soften to hazel or to caramel when she laughed. She didn’t seem to have any mirth left in her.
Trying to keep his smile casual, he nodded her through. She tensed as he reached for her.
It hurt more than it should have. Wasn’t he always gentle, respectful? The Sergeant wished she trusted him more. He forced himself to pat, not skim, avoiding anything that could be mistaken as a caress. Softly, carefully. He couldn’t help it; one large hand lingered, cupping her elbow as he nodded again. “Go ahead. You can go in.” She didn’t say a word, but gave him a rare, sad smile. Bittersweet.
Wednesdays were going to be the death of him.
* * *
Nick Walsh tugged at his jumpsuit as he waited behind the window. It didn’t fit well, and he hated orange. It was all so insufferable. His dark curls tickled his ears and he brushed them back with impatient fingers. Frowning, he studied Siobhan as she took up the handset. She looked different. He spent all week with a laughing snapshot in a wedding dress. The woman in the photo was frozen, yet vibrant. It was hard to reconcile the picture to this wraith in the visitor’s chair.
They made stilted conversation. It disappointed that Siobhan didn’t mention how long his hair was getting – she always used to beg him to grow it out. There was a distance between them that had nothing to do with the glass. Each week it grew worse, as if their relationship was moving in reverse. Wife, becoming lover, becoming friend, becoming acquaintance. He wondered what would happen when they were just strangers wearing familiar looking bodies. Would she keep coming out of habit? Perhaps she already was.
Nick had never been a big talker, but since his arrest he’d grown even more closed-mouthed. The heavy lifting of their conversations fell on her shoulders. He could tell that Siobhan made lists of tidbits to share in advance – doling out stale breadcrumbs of week old gossip and minutia. She worked through this week’s menu, item by item. The annoying new assistant at her office and cut worms in the garden. How she squealed when the cat brought a live mouse in the house. The great deal she found on a new carpet for her dining room.
Our dining room. It’s my house too.
It stung, but he didn’t correct her. Nick squashed down his annoyance – it was hypocritical. These days the word ‘ours’ lived in a dusty corner of his mind. He couldn’t blame her if she felt the same.
In the beginning, the allotted 45 minutes flew by. They crammed animated chatter into every moment together. The visits were the highlight of his week. Over time, their repartee faltered and her prepared topics were spent well before their time was up. Part of him resented that visitation was becoming a chore. It wasn’t fair. Wracking his brain, Nick struggled to find something to fill the silence.
“There was a fight today in the cafeteria.”
Some action to break up the monotony.
Siobhan stared at him. A spark of horror flickered in her eyes. Or was it revulsion?
“Nobody got shanked though.” It didn’t seem to reassure her, but at least she closed her mouth. Her lips twisted in an unreadable expression. Perhaps she thought it strange that ‘shanked’ had become an effortless part of his vocabulary. He was an accountant, not a gangster.
Tell that to the judge.
The silence spiraled into eternity. She wriggled in her seat, glanced at her watch. A spike of anger seared through him.
“Must be nice to have somewhere else to be.” He spit out the words. They tasted bitter on his tongue.
Siobhan’s face crumpled but she didn’t say anything. She never rose to the bait. He wished, just once, she’d fight back. It wasn’t that he was truly angry at her – wasting away here, with no trial date in sight, made him furious. He clung to the rage like a life-raft. If it slipped through his fingers he’d drown in a sea of apathy.
“Two minutes.” The guard made a wrap-it-up sort of gesture then folded his arms over his chest. Moans of disappointment from the other pairs drowned out Nick’s sigh of relief. Making their goodbyes, Siobhan held her hand up to the glass. He fist-bumped his side, unable to return the open-palm intimacy. The hurt that flashed across her face was gone so fast someone else might have missed it. Not Nick. It was too familiar.
It’s what I’m best at.
Guilt churned his stomach. Not because he hurt her, but because he realized he didn’t care anymore.
* * *
Chastity snapped her gum. Her boyfriend said it was disgusting, but it was habit. Especially when she was bored. There was nothing more tiresome than Wednesday nights. She was the only cashier scheduled for second shift. As usual, it was quiet. She hadn’t seen a customer for hours and had already flipped through all the tabloids. Checking the clock for the tenth time, she groaned. Still another hour before she could lock up. It seemed like forever.
The door chimed and The Wednesday Wine Woman walked in – The Woman for short. Regulars got nicknames. This one wasn’t inspired, though accurate. Every Wednesday evening, without fail, The Woman showed up at the corner market. Sometimes it was at dinner time; sometimes she skated in just before closing. She bought a bottle of wine – red, never white – and paid in cash.
Today she wore a dove grey suit and low heeled pumps. Sensible. Classy. Chastity admired The Woman’s style. Elegant and simple, it was expensive without being ostentatious. She wondered if she were a lawyer or something. Probably not. She was too quiet. Lawyers liked hearing themselves talk. The Woman always murmured a polite ‘thank you’ at the register, but never said more than propriety demanded. Her eyes were expressionless, like buttons sewn on a doll. It made Chastity curious.
What’s her story?
A late model SUV slid into the parking lot, lights reflecting off the storefront glass. The driver pulled into the far parking space under the broken streetlight. No one got out. Tension ratcheted, as they waited for something to happen. A shiver ran up Chastity’s spine. Was he casing the place? In two years of evening shifts she’d never been robbed.
There’s a first time for everything.
Hands on autopilot, she ran the wine across the scanner. The beep in the silence made both women jump. Chastity slipped the bottle of Shiraz into a paper bag. “Have a nice night.” She shot a pointed look at the SUV as she handed over the change. “Be safe.” The corners of The Woman’s lips curled up, a ghost of a smile. It was a tepid attempt, as if she had half forgotten how.
Chastity watched through the glass as The Woman clambered into her pickup and locked the door. The truck didn’t fit her image, it dwarfed the petite woman. A few moments after The Woman pulled out of the lot, the SUV also drove off. Chastity let out a strangled sigh. The store wasn’t getting held up. At least not tonight.
It wasn’t until she had locked up and started counting out her drawer that a wave of horror washed over Chastity. What if the guy in the SUV wasn’t planning a robbery? What if he was following The Woman? Stalker. Rapist. Murderer. It was all too creepy.
She snatched up her cell phone and had entered 9 and 1, before punching cancel. A feeling of helplessness weighed her down. She didn’t have the SUV’s license plate. She didn’t know where The Woman lived or who she was.
What if I finally learn her name? In tomorrow’s newspaper.
A knot of anxiety in her throat made it hard to swallow. Chastity picked up her phone again and with shaking fingers dialed her boyfriend. There was no way she was walking home tonight, alone in the dark.
* * *
Classical music wafted through the townhouse’s open windows. Millie scowled. That neighbor woman was at it again.
Every damned Wednesday.
Keys jingled in the front lock and her husband, Rick, shuffled in the door, rubbing his temples. He smelled of exhaust fumes and grease stained the creases in his fingers. No matter what kind of soap she bought for him, it never worked well enough.
“Did you stop and get my lottery ticket?”
Rick threw his keys in a dish on the counter before answering. “I stopped. But I think I left my wallet at the garage.” He shook his head. “Or maybe it’s in the other car. I brought home that SUV you wanted to test drive.”
Millie made a noncommittal cluck with her tongue as she peered out from behind the kitchen curtains. The neighbor woman was framed in her large bay window, a bright square of light in the darkness. Millie sighed. Every Wednesday that woman came home late and downed a bottle of wine, all the while listening to that God-awful caterwauling. After the third glass or so she would end up in tears, ragged sobs drowned out by a shrill soprano.
What’s her deal?
“Damn Millie. Can’t you mind your own business for once?” Rick’s voice hinted at amused indulgence.
“It’s just weird, Rickie. She never makes a peep, then along comes Wednesday and – BAM – with the drinking and that ridiculous music.” Millie went back to watching. It was better than TV, and the girls at the salon expected a full update tomorrow.
The crying woman in the window sat in her living room, seemingly oblivious that she was on display for the whole neighborhood. She twisted a ring around on her finger, then nodded to herself, as if coming to a hard conclusion. Turning her back to the window, she busied herself with something on the table.
A few moments later she glided to the window, gulping down a glass of wine. Illuminated by the soft glow of light, she stared out into the darkness. The minutes stretched. Her fingers clutched the stem of the glass, white knuckled.
“Come on, babe. Let’s watch TV.” Rick rummaged in the fridge and popped open a beer.
Millie turned from the window, but the tinkle of shattered glass brought her up short. Face pale, the woman across the street had dropped her crystal goblet. Still she stared into the darkness, arms limp at her sides. Time stood still. Then, in the space between heartbeats, it snapped into fast forward. She crumpled to the floor.
“Rickie! Call 911!” Millie squealed. It was the most exciting thing that had happened all day.
* * *
A rhythmic beeping intruded on Siobhan’s dreams. She didn’t want to wake. It was safe here swimming through a warm seascape of blurred thoughts. Buoyed by the endless security of present. A wave of sound pulled at her, dragging her toward the surface. The swell shattered into fragments of whispered conversation.
…cocktail of wine and sleeping pills… psych evaluation… required for suicide attempts… wearing a wedding ring… no, he’s in State, waiting on a trial date for… a neighbor called it in…
The disjointed phrases jabbed, icy shards pricking her consciousness. Siobhan’s eyes fluttered open. The hospital bed was shrouded behind a dingy privacy curtain. Her head felt fuzzy and her throat was on fire.
Awake then, are you?” A heavyset man in scrubs with a dark goatee smiled down at her. Siobhan shook her head, trying to clear the cobwebs. There was a spot on his shirt. She stared at the greasy smudge; it was easier to focus on the stain than the pity in his warm brown eyes.
“What … ” Siobhan’s voice cracked.
“Don’t try to talk. We had to pump your stomach. Gave everyone a bit of a scare.” He was fatherly. Soft around the middle, but with a kind, steady voice.
Siobhan tried again. It felt like forcing words through shards of glass. “What day is it?” She struggled to drag her head off the thin pillow.
“It’s Thursday afternoon. You’ve been unconscious for most of a day. It was touch and go there for a while.”
Siobhan slumped back. Relieved it wasn’t Wednesday.
About the writer:
MM Schreier is a New England native who writes a range of genres from creative non-fiction to contemporary, literary, and speculative fiction. When not writing, Schreier can be found tutoring science and math to students for whom English is a second language or hiking in the Green Mountains. Recent and forthcoming publication can be found in the Ponder Review, Words & Brushes, and the Writer’s Workout Anthology – Tales from the Cliff.
Image: “Another Reason” by Todd Williamson. Oil on canvas. 36in. x 64in. 2014. By permission.