Chemical Sounds – Em. Kolbet
“Do you know what sleep means?” joked Jamie. “It’s a combination of be and quiet.” He was bothered again, like a torn-up telegram. Alicia rolled her eyes.
Jamie’s anger may have been mislaid, but it was Sunday night and someone up the street had fired a gun. Frightened him. Two or three times a month the neighborhood delivered a noisy lesson with bullets. Each time, Jamie took to defining words like quiet, silence, still, and peace, giving unscripted instruction, every word worth at least twenty dollars.
The stray bullets operated without defined targets, though that did nothing to make them less worrisome. Eventually the local police, well-schooled in indifference, would respond, but they could overlook property damage a long time, claiming the new holes had always been there. A splintered door was avant-garde ventilation. A fractured window was the price of gravity.
Most of the gunplay let the neighborhood know someone else was angry, looking for solutions. There was no singular enemy to kill, no populace to colonize and massacre or lands to conquer, only the overwhelming squeezing pressure of life. No one ever argued their way out from under a boulder, though. When the stray bullets did go home, piercing flesh, one could imagine the victim speaking—in the somber tones of a monk—well, this has given me something to ponder.
In short, life was sticky. Hard. A candy just as likely to cut as delight you.
As Sunday’s shot went wide, while screams rose and subsided, giving way to shouted threats of retribution, a police car rolled through the neighbor, lights flashing. Its siren erupted once. Quiet resumed. Or if not quiet, the closest thing to it, the buzz of unused energy that manifests in rattling dishes and doors that swing open at irregular intervals. Such energy might murder a stranger in town, or cops in certain quarters where they didn’t belong, showing up only as sentinels. They never looked in first as courteous guests or worked toward neighbor status.
Listening to the Sunday rain force people indoors, Alicia watched Jamie fall asleep before dreaming of grinning skeletons. Unlike her entombed and grieving neighbors, she still wanted to know more about the world.
The police were back Monday morning, feet pounding the nervous flowers in the front yard, those brave enough to believe there would be no late-season frosts. A firm hand knocked insistently on their front door.
The children’s mother had already left for work; their father hadn’t gotten back from his shift. Alicia and Jamie were reading over routine bowls of cereal. He’d grown incredibly curious about black holes. She was still captivated by wizards coaxing colored smoke from cauldrons. Magical chemistry. Settling her bookmark, she moved to open the door.
“That’s him!” The man behind the cop stared past Alicia. At Jamie. His blank eyes had lost all connection with humanity. Whatever business transpired, it would be conducted by looks and hearsay.
For his part, the cop frowned with furious distaste. He hated and loved this part of his job.
“Good morning, miss.” Alicia waited silently. Her parents had reviewed this training countless times. “Mr. Forrest claims your brother broke into his house. Burgled it.”
Alicia wanted to yell, to demand to know what was stolen. And when. And why the world was lacerated with suspicion. Despite the two years between them, she watched out for Jamie as much as he took care of her. She could vouch for Jamie’s whereabouts most days, often to the minute. When he wasn’t home reading Nietzsche, he was at school, or with the track team, or singing in church. He made mistakes. All young people did. But he wasn’t trouble, even if he did quote too often and rail against slave morality and tell you gold always gave of itself. In her head, Alicia’s voice parroted her mother, taking a long walk around the garden of pride.
Despite these fervent inclinations, Alicia simply said “Oh.”
“Mr. Forrest has had a few items gone missing.” The cop peered over Alicia’s head, trying to map the house at a glance, to see through walls.
“They wouldn’t store anything here,” Mr. Forrest cried. “They’d pawn it.” The pawn shop was a ten-minute walk away. “And look at his pockets.” He pointed with his nicotine-stained fingers. Jamie had stuffed his hands in his pockets, but stood and pulled them out slowly. The bulge disappeared, and a dollar bill fluttered slowly to the kitchen floor. Its presence was confirmation enough for Mr. Forrest.
There was an unenviable hunger in the single syllable, like opening a safe with gunfire. Alicia stepped back, her arm unconsciously beginning to close the door. The officer put a boot on the threshold.
“Just wait,” he said in his serious, dead voice. Alicia flinched. A lull often meant something worse. She wouldn’t toy with ruin. Entire worlds, she knew, were lost in delay.
“We’ve got to go to school.” She looked back at Jamie. His eyes had the glossy innocence of stained-glass saints. Mr. Forrest narrowed his eyes, casting doubt on the excuse, prepared to argue that even if school were real, checking things out wouldn’t take that long. He’d argue their clocks were fast, and start an annihilating eternity while the two white men decided what to do with two black children. Alicia shook her head. She’d learned to read social clocks a decade earlier. She read them all the time now.
“We’ve got to go to school,” she repeated, trying to quash any preciosity in her tone. “Can’t lose focus during the last month.” Most mornings Alicia left earlier than Jamie. They both walked, but he was content to show up late, thinking casual tardiness enhanced his reputation.
“And I said wait.” More than policeman’s foot, which wouldn’t let the door close, that might kick it down if necessary, the words were poison, the entire conversation a dangerous chemistry experiment. Alkali metals in water—sodium burns yellow, lithium burns red. Cesium bursts.
Alicia wasn’t blind. They meant to hurt Jamie, not merely adopt him for a visit to the station. Slowly or quickly, the pace of their cruelty didn’t matter, so long as it happened.
They had indelible images lodged in their minds: Jamie on a crowded city street with objects on a table, his hands hidden in his pockets, his movements furtive, his eyes suspicious. They couldn’t help loading Jamie with behaviors they’d been trained to note in movies and lecture halls. They’d grab him when he left the house, or fault him for truancy if he refused to leave.
“It isn’t his.” Jamie spoke at last, shooting a glance at Mr. Forrest. “I know where I get my money.”
“Come on.” Alicia pulled their backpacks down from a pair of hooks. When she stepped into the doorway, the cop retreated a few steps. Mr. Forrest followed suit. Alicia managed to lock the door behind her without letting go of Jamie’s trembling hand. The air held a chill, and a palpable blight, something blown in from other quarters of the city. She squeezed Jamie’s fingers and released them.
If the men didn’t bruise her brother, they’d be happy to see him languishing in prison, another threat neutralized. Another danger removed. If Jamie suffered, the papers would print anodyne stories about the trials young men faced. If he fought back, the authorities would feel justified—what they’d always suspected was coming true.
“Why do you think you saw my brother?” asked Alicia. She didn’t pause for the inertia of the men’s game. “You’re wrong. No one wants to go to your house, you old boogeyman.” Mr. Forrest whirled to the officer, hoping to provoke a reaction, his glower conveying that they were in the same story, they were both insulted. Children must be taught to behave. But Alicia wasn’t finished.
“Maybe you think we don’t belong here. That this street would be better without us. Feeling’s mutual. Least for now. That’s the problem when you see enemies in everyone. You don’t have to wade through Tolstoy or Hemingway to figure it out, but if you want to I’ll lend you a copy. Heller’s more fun. Terry and Tuchman more informative.”
The cop’s hand was on his baton. He’d been tutored another way. A few inches down the duty belt was a can of pepper spray. One shot and her words could be contorted to screams, more useful than silence. If she were hysterical, the word uprooted, people would forget she was a child. A stale day helped quiet minds.
“Morning, Alicia.” Her neighbor, Ms. Tavares, emerged from her house and nodded to the others. “Officer Caldwell. Mr. Forrest.” Alicia loved and hated Ms. Tavares at the moment. Loved her because she wasn’t a mob, liable to join whoever decided to move first, throwing stones or linking arms. Loved her because she was one patch of glue in the community. And hated her because the men listened to her in a way they never would to Alicia, conflating wisdom and age.
Officer Caldwell took another step away from the girl. His name, in the open at last, made him accountable. There was no dissolving now. No disappearing in the dust. He didn’t want to read his name in the papers, even if public opinion cleared him. The union would help keep him on the offensive; his name in print would mean spending his career on defense. It meant people knew what his mirror knew, how his bed frame squeaked.
Ms. Tavares studied the men.
“That girl’s going to be a scientist. And her brother—” but Alicia stopped listening. They were hollow words. From the look on Officer Caldwell’s face, the opinion was mist. Cheap music that did nothing in the cold poverty of the air. In another year of concentric growing up, Jamie would be graduated in pain. Either Mr. Forrest or another stranger would make their case against him, not always bothering to knock first.
Alicia swore a private oath. She started walking.
Her steps were firm, Jamie trailing a nanosecond behind her. As they shuffled down the path, Mr. Forrest reached for Jamie. Alicia swung her bag at him, smashed his arms. The weight of the bag, a miniature universe made of uranium, toppled the old man. He fell, his body as careless as a loose electron.
“That’s my money!”
Officer Caldwell unleashed his baton. Alicia retreated to shield Jamie. The space was unambiguous. She posed no further danger.
“No, boogeyman.” Jamie was paralyzed. Alicia felt spry. She could leap over the city if she had to. “No more lies. What’d you see?” She watched Mr. Forrest crawl to his feet, but gave him no time to answer, no time to repent. “Two shadowy figures. A dark face. Menace. You spotted your stuff at the pawn shop. Jewelry? Silverware? Power tools? Your gun? Secret as the sea, eh. Your wife sold it. That’s truth. Don’t want to pay again, not to get back what you owned once.” She smirked. “She asked where she could sell them. Assumed I’d know, though we’ve never pawned anything in our lives. Never been in that shop. Not once.”
“Miss, perhaps you can explain where your brother got the money.” Officer Caldwell tried to regain control, though his hands didn’t know what to do. Soon a crowd would gather, armed and threatening him with cell phones.
Alicia was spared answering when a car roared into the driveway. Her father jumped out of the vehicle before the engine stopped humming.
“What’s going on?” He rushed to embrace his children. Jamie was weeping.
“Some money. Jamie’s got it.” Alicia pointed at Mr. Forrest. “Liar there says he stole it.”
“Where’d you get the money, son?” Her father was an impatient man, ruled by impulses and the precipitate of dreams. Jamie shrunk away.
“I took it from your desk. In a drawer—”
“So you found that hiding space.” Her father grinned coldly. “Go put it back. I’ll move it later. Find a new spot for burying.” As Jamie hustled back to the house, bickering with the locked door, her father stared at Mr. Forrest and the cop. Said good morning to Ms. Tavares. “Kids, huh.”
Alicia fretted about being late to school. Her father waved her worry away with brisk vacancy.
“Need your help first. Won’t take a moment. On the way home from work, I spotted this in the window of that pawn shop.” He bustled over and opened the trunk. There, resting carefully on some old blankets, was Mr. Forrest’s television. “Got a good price, too.”
Alicia helped him carry the television into the house. When they returned, Jamie had returned, looking chastened. Officer Caldwell was gone. Ms. Tavares had fled to her garden, muttering over plants and praying for the right mix of sun and rain. Her father invited Mr. Forrest into the house.
“If you’ve got time,” he said, his voice shaded. “I’m always buzzing when work ends. Got to watch something to settle my nerves before bed. Night shift is punishing.”
Mr. Forrest nodded. Life was a broken promise. What didn’t kill you instantly just needed longer. He gave a growl, a terrifying patience ready to come into play. Alicia flicked her eyes to her brother. It was clear Mr. Forrest had other notions of how to define night and punish, was still making up his mind about the fragmented parts.