By Ashleigh Cattermole-Crump
I’ve planted pansies to splatter purple glow against the fence, but even they cannot beautify the shadows. I’ve closed my windows tight against it, but still the sound continues. They interrupt my sleep. I am alone in the darkness, listening, words jumping out of the approaching midnight. He stole from her, she says. He is a little shit, she cries. She’ll teach him a lesson. His screams fight back, his unbroken voice no match for hers, and I remain awake until morning, as though daylight might make some sense of it.
My kitchen window overlooks their driveway. Cracked and graying blinds block the light from entering the kitchen, but it’s becoming automatic to glance their way; a peek through the slats, a silent check-in. I busy myself with the newspaper. My glasses fog up in the heat, but as long as the windows remain clamped shut, the sounds are deniable. I can clear my throat or think loudly enough to block them.
I ponder putting a note in the mailbox.
“Fuck off,” she says in my imagination.
So, I don’t.
On the weekend, the only noise I hear is the tinny sound of classic rock songs through a phone speaker and the clink of empty bottles. I leave before dawn breaks, hoping if I return home late enough, the boy will be in bed, but as evening approaches, there are more voices than usual, and no attempts to hide her cruel jokes against her child.
I listen for an apology, a kind word. The closest I get when he complains of missing his father are her teary screams: “I took a beating for you!”
Wednesday afternoon, when the boy is at school, I sit outside for a smoke; the blazing tobacco burns my fingers. She is gardening; her puffs of asthma reach over the fence. I rustle around, so she knows how easily the noise transfers.
Thursday begins quietly, but school will be out soon. Today, I hear calls of love, see the whip of her brown ponytail as she hugs him.
“I missed you!” she slurs a little too loudly.
When she starts up again, I’m outside folding laundry. Her muttering from next door draws me closer. My late husband painted the fence the week he died and now, the paint has chipped off—large swathes of timber bare against the deep charcoal he so carefully selected. A small peephole where a knot has rotted from the wood reveals the overgrown, dead lawn scattered with broken toys. With the rising tide of words that slam against the fence, I tuck the laundry basket back inside and close the door.
Friday morning and he has stolen another cigarette.
“Smoke them all,” she says. “See how cool you are then, big man.”
His choking sounds, either from the smoke or the back of a hand, rise over the thin wooden palings. As I plant a stodgy foot on a crossbeam, the creak sends them inside. I close my blinds against the disconcerting thumps that echo into the night.
My to-do list gets longer and still, I sit against the fence. I’m out of sight, the back of my chair under the next door’s jutting roof. A discarded crossword puzzle awaits. The sounds today are different. Quiet. It devolves quite spectacularly. I cover my ears with the gardening gloves, intermittently listening for signs of affection or apology, as if that will negate her hostility.
I will call the police. Child protective services maybe. Will they tell her who called? Will she work it out? I send the details—all the details—hoping to purge them into the nothingness of the internet. The words disappear into the unknown.
I don’t hear her this time. I hear him. I click the vacuum cleaner onto max and allow its droning to suck up his tears, his pleas. The machine siphons his sobs. They’re slapped against a filter and pulled through with a cloud of dust collecting in a paper bag bound for the landfill. I have forgotten to take my angina pill. My chest collapses in on itself, my throat salty and bleeding.
The ambulance doesn’t use its siren. No one knocks on my door or asks if I’ve heard anything. The first responders’ solemn whispers, the clink of badges and batons, and shuffling feet reach me. Police tape flaps freely, and the open backdoor slams in the breeze, wafting the last scents of the family from its bowels.