Strangers

 

Strangers

By Noa Silver

 

July 8: Israel strikes more than 200 sites in Gaza; Hamas fires 150 rockets into Israel
 
Molly wakes to the sound of a siren careening into her bedroom. Morning light dripping into her room, sheets tangled around her legs, a sheen of sweat on her upper lip. The siren sounds long and loud, unbearably loud, a grating whine spinning out into the open air. Molly clamps a pillow over her ears; bangs on the wall she shares with her brother, Dan. It is early in the morning and the darkness has not yet completely left the sky. The darkness persists, stubbornly, in black and blue streaks along the edge of the horizon. The siren moans, wild and insistent, breaking into existence. It is a sound that demands panic, a sound that spurs movement, rush, anxiety. Hands clamped over ears, feet frantic, eyes glancing toward the sky, the still-dark sky.
 
The sound presses, unrelenting, into the empty space that surrounds bodies, surrounds objects, pulsing out in waves, in horrible tremors, making it impossible to think, to think, to hear anything but the siren’s cry. The walls shake with it, the sound knows no barriers, it moves through floorboards and glass windowpanes, it summons those inside houses to come down, down, into the belly of the earth, under the ground where they might be safe from the sky, from the sky which might rain down fire.
 
Molly stumbles out of bed, sleep still in her eyes, shorts and tank top askew, shoulder-length brown hair disheveled. She runs toward the sound, head aching, confused. She opens Dan’s bedroom door, frantic now, angry, and sees him still sprawled heavily in his bed. Five years younger than Molly, at thirteen, Dan can sleep through anything. Molly trips downstairs, rubbing her eyes, the siren still pulsing at her temples.
 
Downstairs her mother, Deb, is sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee steaming in front of her. She is peeling sweet potatoes. She holds the oblong-shaped potato in her left hand and with her right glides the knife along the rough, brown surface. Strips of orange and brown potato skin are piled up on the table alongside her coffee. The siren wails. Deb pauses to sip from her mug. She sees Molly in the doorway, pulling at her hair, face twisted. Deb shrugs, nods toward the porch, continues peeling potatoes.
 
Outside, Adam, Molly’s uncle, is sitting in a blue plastic chair, smoking a cigarette, cupping his iPhone in his hand. A cord connects the device to two mini-speakers. Adam is a professor of Middle Eastern Studies in New York. He comes to stay with his sister and her kids during the summers. He is in the center of the sound, cloaked in the siren.
 
“Uncle Adam!” Molly calls out as she pushes open the screen door.
 
Adam turns to her. He waves the iPhone out in front of him. The siren is billowing out of the tiny device.
 
“Uncle Adam, what’s going on? What is that?”
 
“It’s an app. It lets us know every time a rocket is fired at Israel. “
 
“What?”
 
“Have you been reading the news?”
 
“But Uncle Adam, we’re not in Israel. We’re in Connecticut.”
 
“Yes. Exactly.”
 
Adam turns away from Molly, drags heavily on the cigarette, examines the sky. “Going to be a lovely day, don’t you think?”
 
The dark streaks are slowly fading, melting into the brightening light. The siren blazes out of Adam’s hands for several more seconds and then abruptly ceases. The silence is shattering.
 
*
 
Molly sees summer through the faded smear of her car window, as the rubber of the wipers catches on drops of rain falling from patchy, dark grey clouds. She sees the rain stretch down forty-five miles-an-hour cracks in the road, while trucks careen around hidden drives. The dirt highway is lined with trees that shake down the smell of July rainstorms. Lush and plump, the well-fed greenness drips over signs warning of the soon-to-be-built Walmart.
 
Molly feels the relief of movement, the open sky stretching out above her, alone in her fifteen-year-old Volvo, paint chipped, air conditioner broken. Every summer it is the same thing: Uncle Adam pontificating about peoplehood and homeland, eyes glued to devices, getting his daily fix. “There are people here,” Molly will say. “This is my home,” Molly will say, “right here. Let me show you,” she will say. She will invite him to go hiking, to the movies, to meet her friends. Every time he declines. His world is somewhere else; he can only access it virtually. Molly has overheard the whispered conversations between her mother and uncle on the porch at night. Every summer the same. “There are no Jews in this place,” Uncle Adam says. “It’s no wonder Molly and Dan don’t know who they are.” Her mother always hushing him gently, scraping the dirt out of the lines in her palms after a day spent in the garden. Her mother doesn’t say to him what she has said to Molly again and again: that she moved herself and her kids to this small, Connecticut town on purpose; that she has always wanted them to feel connected to the ground beneath them, the neighbors who live alongside them, the animals they care for; that she has no interest in fostering an ancient and outdated identity in them.
 
At the barn where Molly has worked every summer since she was twelve, Molly pulls on her knee-high leather boots over ripped and muddied jeans. She tramps into the stables, places a halter on each horse, guides them one-by-one out to the wooden post and ties them up. To those she loves the best, she slips half an apple or a handful of grain into their mouths, pushes aside the thick forelock from out of their eyes, shoos away the flies.
 
It is hot, and the stench of the barn is thick and sweet and nauseating. She grabs the heavy shovel, walks into the empty stables, begins to muck out the stalls. Hay crunching, green clumps of shit, hair tied back except for the bangs she is growing out, still too short to reach the ponytail. She keeps pausing to drag them away from her face. Her arms and upper back ache, but she is grateful for the rhythm. Lean in, shovel down, brace, lift, turn, deposit load. Breathe.
 
Her head still aches from the sunrise siren. What is Uncle Adam’s problem? He’s obsessed. He’s deranged. It’s not normal.
 
Brace, lift, turn, deposit. She feels the pearls of sweat sprout up along the skin between her breasts. A mosquito lands on her elbow and she slaps at it, leaving her fingers in place, waiting for the bump to materialize. One of the horses is stomping his feet.
 
She moves between the stalls, turning over soil and hay. When she finishes she leans against the barn wall, unfurling the muscles in her shoulders and neck. She has dirt trapped under her fingernails and she smells of sweat, and flies, and sun, and excrement.
 
This is real, she thinks. This is real, this is real. She can touch, smell this place, it does not exist online, in a phone, on a TV screen, in someone’s imagination. It is right in front of her.
 
*
 
“Mom.”
 
Deb is folding laundry while sitting on the blue, faux leather couch in the living room. She peels each item of clothing out from the heap, hot and static-y from the dryer, folds it and places it in a pile. One for each person. Dan. Molly. Adam. Deb. Each of them has a stack of clothes on the couch.
 
“Mom.”
 
“Honey, please don’t sit on the couch while you’re wearing your barn jeans.”
 
“What’s the deal with Uncle Adam?”
 
“What do you mean, sweetie?” Deb tugs out frayed white t-shirts, collars stretched, underarms permanently discolored. She folds the sleeves in, one by one, bends the shirts in half, places them on top of Dan’s pile. Begins again.
 
“Seriously, Mom? The app? The siren app?”
 
Deb shrugs. “You know how he is.”
 
“Yeah, but.”
 
“Did you remember to get the oil changed in your car?”
 
“What?”
“You really need to do that before too long.”
 
“Mom. I can’t take the siren app. It’s driving me crazy. He’s insane.”
 
Deb pulls out a pair of jeans. They are marked with dozens of tiny blue spots. She sighs. “Would you look at this?”
 
“What?”
 
“I can’t believe it.”
 
“What?”
 
“Your brother left a pen in his jeans pocket. These marks are everywhere! Oh, I’m going to kill him.”
 
*
 
July 9: 64 people killed in Gaza; 180 rockets fired into Israel
 
The siren sounds again and again. Molly’s mother drinks two cups of coffee a day: one in the morning when she wakes up, and one in the early afternoon. She sits on the porch with Adam and they watch the sky. He grips the iPhone tightly in his hands, examining the app as it springs to life, an image of a red police siren pulsing on the screen. He scans the news outlets every ten minutes and keeps a tally of the casualties.
 
Molly is in her room with the cat. The cat is old, almost fourteen, and her belly swings low to the ground, precarious. The cat has always been shy and Molly is the only one she will sit with. She sleeps on Molly’s bed, and clutters her clothing with short, white hairs. Molly strokes her in time with the siren’s shrills. She presses down on the cat’s head, flattens her ears, pulls out tufts of hair each time.
 
Her phone buzzes. It is a text from her high school boyfriend, recently ex. Not now, not now, she thinks.
 
Moll – can we tlk pls? I miss u.
 
 She quickly responds. Under attack. Rockets evrywhre.
 
She closes the phone and lies down on the bed, clamping her pillow over her head.
 
*
 
Molly is riding Dancer, the chestnut mare. Dancer is new to the barn, and she can be unpredictable, sometimes skittish. But today she is sure-footed, relaxed. Molly holds the reigns loosely, eases her pelvis into the mare’s gait. They are riding through the trails that extend out behind the stables. Miles and miles of moss-covered trails, trees hugging the edges, twigs and leaves catching in her hair, branches scratching the skin on her arms. She has to be careful that Dancer doesn’t eat the leaves and flowers. It will give Dancer a stomach ache.
 
The creek flows alongside the trails and Molly can hear it rushing as they pick their way through the mud. Summer thunderstorms have left the air in the forest cool and damp, heavy with moisture. The horse moves from side to side beneath Molly and she lets her lower body sway with the horse’s motion. She keeps her back straight and long, engaging the muscles in her abdomen. Soon they will reach an open field. The forest will break away and a meadow will spread out before them. Molly is excited. Dancer can feel it too. She begins to trot when they are almost there. When the field rises up before them, Molly presses her thighs into Dancer and leans forward, urging her on. Dancer bursts out of the trees, muscles rippling, legs kicking up dirt, and they are galloping, galloping across the open meadow, sky wide and clear above them, dizzying space, wind rich and luxurious around Molly’s face. The strap of the helmet squeezes below her chin.
 
*
 
July 13: Death toll reaches 166 in Gaza; 130 rockets fired into Israel, bringing the total to 800 in the previous five days.
 
“Uncle Adam. Please. Can you turn it off? Can you put it on silent?”
 
“Do you know what’s happening over there? Do you know what they’re living through?”
 
“But we’re not there, Uncle Adam. We’re not living through it.”
 
“People are suffering, Molly. Our people.”
 
“But I don’t even know them. They’re strangers to me.”
 
“How can you say that, Molly?”
 
“Besides, there are people suffering all over the world, Uncle Adam. Do you have an app to tell us every time someone is orphaned by AIDS? Or one to tell us every time a child is sold into slavery? Or a woman is raped? Or someone dies of hunger?”
 
“This is different.”
 
“Why should it be different? And what about the people here, right outside, who are suffering? You would know if you ever looked up from your books and your computer for longer than a few minutes. Go outside. Look around.”
 
“It’s important for us to understand what’s happening to our people, for us to feel what they’re feeling.”
 
“But there are no bombs here! It’s like you’re living in a video game. It’s all simulation. We’re not under attack. There are no rockets. “
“That’s exactly why we need this app. It’s not enough to just know about suffering, Molly, you have to feel it. You have to experience it in your body to even come close to understanding.”
 
Adam lights a cigarette. The iPhone is glowing red in his hands. Molly walks
outside and slams the door. She feels as though she is a character in a silent film. Nobody can hear her.
 
Molly backs out of the driveway and speeds away from the house. It is getting dark and she doesn’t see the squirrel that scampers across the road in front of the car. She feels only the soft thud of impact, the way the car rises up slightly as the wheel rolls over the animal. No, she thinks, no, no, no. She gets out of the car and sees the body limp, fur matted, blood oozing. She does not want to touch it. She gets back in her car and drives and drives, radio on, light fading.
 
*
 
She sees a man standing on the side of the road, dark brown hair sticking out in all directions, a shadow of day-old stubble lining his jaw, his hand jutting out in front of her, flagging her down. She passes him but then stops, suddenly, her recent fight with Uncle Adam blaring in her mind, her fury at his selective empathy still pulsing through her body, and waits for the man to jog toward her, for his face to appear through the passenger side window. She sees that his hand is wrapped in white gauze, and he smells of cigarettes and sleeplessness.
 
“Miss? Can you tell me where the bus stop is, please?”
 
“I’m going that way,” she says. “I can take you.”
 
“Why don’t more people do this?”
 
“I don’t know. I guess people are afraid of strangers.”
 
“Are you afraid of strangers?”
 
Molly shivers. She gropes at the empty space below the passenger seat where she usually tosses her bag. It’s not there. She has forgotten it, along with her phone and her wallet, at home. The hitchhiker slides into the car.
 
Molly drives toward the single street that makes up the downtown, but as they pass a drugstore the man asks her to pull over while he goes inside to buy painkillers. For his hand, he says. He was in a fight, he says. Then:
 
“I’m so sorry to ask, but do you think you could… I don’t have any money… and I was just wondering whether you would…?”
 
The man sits hunched over and thin, peering at her awkwardly. Her hands hesitate over the keys in the ignition. A moment passes before she unclenches her shoulders and, unbuckling her seatbelt, walks into the pharmacy to buy the pills.
 
Molly drives to the bus stop in front of the appliance store. Pulling up to the sidewalk, the adrenaline of her goodwill winding down, she turns to wish the stranger well.
 
But the bus stop is not there. Her face flushes red and she slumps into the back of the felt seat cover, her hands falling slack on the wheel.
 
“I could have sworn it was right here.”
 
The man fidgets with the zipper on his sweater. He rattles the bottle of pills in his hand.
 
“We can get directions at the Dunkin Donuts,” she says.
 
At the drive-through window, she asks the young, pimple-faced boy she recognizes from high school for directions to the bus stop, and cuts him off as he begins to direct her back the way she had come, back to the corner downtown where for years the bus stop had stood. “It’s not there anymore!”
 
A man in a green truck, just ahead of her in the drive-through calls back, “I’m going toward the bus stop. Follow me and I’ll take you there.”
 
He leads them out of the parking lot and onto the main road, but though he takes a different route, they end up back in front of the appliance store where the whole town, it seems, is convinced the bus stop still stands.
 
How can an entire town lose a bus stop? she wonders. And who was it who decided to pick up the pole with the green sign and move it somewhere else?
 
The man beside her is silent. Molly stares at the dirty white stain on the top right corner of her window, just out of reach of the windshield wipers.
 
A woman walks by and Molly calls out to her. “Do you know where the bus stop has moved to?”
 
“Oh, yeah… I think it’s in the next town over. You know when you cross the bridge? Just drive till you get to that big intersection and take a right. You can’t miss it.”
 
Molly drives on and on, the road curving against the marshland that skirts the outer borders of this neighboring town. Gradually, the houses grow few and far between.
 
“You can’t leave me here! What if we never find it?” says her passenger.
 
“We’ll find it.”
 
“You’re a real blessed soul, you know.”
 
 
She stops at a lone gas station on the side of the road, and once again asks for directions. An old man in overalls and long grey hair points her toward her destination, reels off street names, assures her she is only ten minutes away.
 
*
 
Molly drives and drives. She turns the volume on the radio up all the way to drown out the thud of the dead squirrel that is still echoing inside her. A news report comes on the radio and a woman with perfect enunciation reels off the numbers of the dead in Gaza, comments on the new long-range rocket launching capabilities of Hamas. Sirens have been heard in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem, in Haifa. The bus stop is not on either side of the road. Still she keeps driving.  
 
She notices that the gauze wrapped around the stranger’s hand seems to be unraveling, and that white strands of thread are beginning to litter the car floor. She notices the way the light is leaking out of the sky, the shifting tones of blue, the blackness that is wrapping itself around them. She feels the growing sense of anxiety take root in her stomach, in her chest, in her knuckles, as the road curves on and on, as the sirens wail out of the radio, as the bus stop remains elusive, unfound, and the stranger beside her rattles the small, white bottle of pills in his hand like a baby’s toy, steadily, relentlessly.  
 
 
Copyright © Noa Silver 2016
 

Noa Silver was born in Israel, and grew up between Scotland and Maine. She received her BA in English from Harvard University. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, and working on her first novel.



 

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