The incessant hum of the orange streetlamp flickering. The light patter of a rodent’s feet scurrying. The belabored cough of the occasional pickup truck trudging along. The unrelenting soundtrack to my life playing over and over and over again.
The cacophony grows to a dull rumble, an itch resting along the inner wall of my skull, and I roam the damp asphalt streets just as I did yesterday, just as I will do tomorrow.
I peer down at my numb feet, making sure they are, in fact, still intact. My once-white size 6 Skechers stare back at me, covered in french-fry oil and dry mud, bursting at every seam, trying so desperately to cling to my worn out size 7½ feet has grown. One naked toe stares back at me, ugly and unclean, but certainly intact.
I continue forward. Left, right, left, right, left, right…
Bitter and sharp, the cold air bites through the thin layers of clothes and into my skin, stabbing at the vulnerable toe with every heavy step. I shuffle my feet faster, curl my toes in further, hug the tattered sweatshirt closer to my ribs and watch the fog of each sour breath float out of my mouth and into the motionless air.
I keep my eyes forward. There isn’t all that much to see. Pothole, streetlamp, house, pothole, streetlamp, house, pothole, streetlamp, house. Of course, every once in awhile a pair of headlights or rodents will interrupt the cycle; other than that, however, the scenery seems to slide by on an endless loop like the background of an old video game.
A black spot scurries into my peripheral field of view. I whip my head towards a large rat, dashing from a familiar jagged hole at the base of a familiar wooden porch.
Through the dim light of the flickering orange bulb above, I look up at the house to which the jagged rat’s hole belongs, stripped of color, grown over with ivy, struggling to hold itself together with about as much success as my battered, once-white sneakers. The piercing yellow eyes of a black cat peer out towards the darkness from atop mom’s rickety old rocking chair as it creaks back and forth on the sinking wooden porch. A broken beer bottle rolls back and forth beside it, knocking in to the others, disturbing the suffocating stillness of the cold night air.
I turn back towards the road and am immediately blinded. A ball of light as bright as the sun crawls towards me. My hand jumps to shade my eyes and I watch the orb of light split in two.
My body splits in two with it.
In my mind’s eye, I watch myself gathering what energy I can. I watch myself breathing heavier, feeling my heart beat faster. I watch myself running out into the street. I watch myself being swallowed by the light. I watch myself escape.
I watch my feet stay firmly planted on the side of the road. I watch the red pickup limp by, illuminated by the light of the golden arches a few hundred yards back. I watch my only chance inch by and I wish that I was the me I imagined a few moments ago.
My feet drag along the crumbling asphalt, past my childhood home onto the neighboring plot of land, until I reach the faded red door of my current residence.
I’ve lived 23 years and barely moved 23 feet.
I open the creaking door. A wave of warmth, and a perfume of body odor and flatulence washes over me. As I cross the threshold I welcome the familiar sensation. I ram my shoulder into the door, simultaneously turning the lock, the only way to keep it from popping back open the second it closes.
The buzz of the streetlamps. The scratch of a rodent’s claws. The sigh of the engine. They are dimmed, but never fully muted.
Pressing my forehead into the door, I allow myself to absorb the dry heat of the stagnant air. I sigh, preparing myself for the next phase of the routine: Dan.
My boyfriend’s body is slung over the couch, with his mouth parted just enough for a whistle of air to run past his beer-stained teeth and into his tar-filled lungs. A half drunken beer bottle rests just beside the leg of the couch, next to the others. There are more empty bottles than usual.
At least somebody had a productive night.
My knees dig into the hard wood beneath them as I reach over to collect tonight’s round of bottles when a whisper of cold washes over the nape of my neck. I scan the room in search of the source. A fallen plank of wood lies lifelessly beneath the boarded up window, or at least the hole where the window was before the last tornado.
I drag myself toward it as the breeze cuts through the stiff, stale air, but just before I can pick up the moldy slab of weathered wood, I find myself fixated on the small slice of night it leaves uncovered.
I shuffle towards the backdoor and give it a harsh shove. It opens with a loud thump and a crack, but I know it won’t wake Dan-nothing but his own vomit can do that.
I submerge myself into the frigid air and tilt my chin back as far as my stiff neck will allow.
A shroud of suffocating darkness cloaks the world. Like each cloud of breath, everything around me fades into the background, slowly dissipating, melting into the shadow of the night. Not even the drone of the streetlamp or the scrape of the small animal or the pants of the pickup trucks follow me anymore, finally extinguished and replaced by an unbreakable silence. And for a moment I wonder if I will be swallowed by it as well, smothered by the all-consuming darkness weighing down on my tiny world.
So I squeeze my eyes shut, suck in the icy air, clench my frozen fists and wait.
But nothing happens.
I let the crinkles in my eyelids smooth out and release my fists. The moment my eyes open my mouth does too, taking in a sharp breath of the refreshing night air.
The darkness revealed something that the lights kept hidden.
My feet flatten the overgrown grass, my arms pump, my mind spins. Air, raw and fresh, flies toward me, biting my nose and stinging my cheeks and I am running. I am in front of the rundown shack I call home and I am looking out at that same road I travel day after tedious day and I am realizing that I have only ever seen a fraction of it. This road stretches on into the vast darkness for miles and miles and miles, rolling over the side of the earth only twenty or thirty streetlamps down into unchartered territory.
With each step forward, the path ahead grows, another streetlamp pokes through the distant ground. And with the golden light on my back I keep on running, away from that house I know far too well, yes, but also toward the darkness I know nothing of because what I saw in that backyard is something I had always known was there but had never seen before. What I saw was something nobody can take from me: tiny holes poked through night’s veil.
Someone must have made it through.
Maybe I can too.
LEILA SHIRIAN is a writer recently published in several local publications. Inspired by the great fiction writers that expanded her imagination and encouraged her hunger for the written word, Leila is eager to share her own writing, hoping to contribute to the community that has been fueling her passion and excitement for storytelling since she was a little girl.