Hand of Silence
Note: The following is a fictional(ish) short story. The concept behind this story comes from one of the prompts (#55) on Think Written’s 365 Creative Writing Prompts.
The television’s bright lights flickered through the room, passing through my eyeballs and to my brain with no acknowledgment on my part beyond that of knowing I wasn’t paying attention to it. It was still two hours before sunrise and three hours before I could go anywhere. Not that I minded.
The television kept me awake some nights. Working when most people are sleeping wasn’t the most ideal thing in the world, but it gave me enough money to live off of. It wasn’t like my work was hard. Occasionally, one of the potheads or drunks would saunter in, wave at me as they passed by, then make their way up to their room. On the rare instance one of them would stop and talk to me, it was to make sure the building head wasn’t around. It was usually at that point I’d watch as some freshman snuck in a backpack or two that totally wasn’t filled with the cheapest beer you could buy. Since I couldn’t see inside the backpack, I couldn’t say anything.
Every once in a while, particularly closer to mornings, and especially on weekdays, one of the residents would come by my post. Their requests were usually innocent enough. ‘I’ve locked myself out’, ‘Can I borrow your stapler/tape/scissors?’, or ‘What’s the weather like?” topped the common questions list. The first two questions were within the scope of my job responsibilities, while the third was a fact I’d look up early on in my shift, just so I could answer the question when it inevitably arose.
And so it went. Two nights a week from midnight until 8 in the morning, and two other nights a week from 4 in the morning until 8 in the morning. This was my life. I never had to do any projects other than group endeavors during my normal waking hours because I had a ton of free time to spend on them during my job. My boss even encouraged it, as doing homework (generally) kept me awake. So I sat at my desk, typing away on a laptop held together by duct tape and dreams, staying awake for the 5-10 minutes I would actually be needed each night during my shift.
I kept the television in the corner of the lobby on as my way to know if we were having power problems. Though most of the building didn’t have any sort of backup power, the building head’s room and the entry desk had full backup power. Unless the TV was on, I generally wouldn’t know the power was out until someone came downstairs to tell me so. On the nights I worked alone — which was at least 3 of the 4 shifts per week — Sportscenter played on loop for four hours. Its repetition served as a way for me to track where in the hour I was without having easy access to a clock. It also provided me some amusement when people who didn’t understand the show was on repeat saw it for the first time.
This particular night wasn’t my night to work. I generally worked every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, then three out of every four Saturdays in the month. But my co-worker had come down with a case of the early autumn flu (read: she was probably too drunk to come into work), so I was awoken from my Thursday slumber at a quarter until four in the morning. I slogged across campus in the pouring rain, giant energy drink in one hand, massive cup of coffee in the other, and a laptop and charger in a backpack on my back, arriving just in time to see off the two girls who had the shift before this one.
I didn’t like picking up extra shifts at work. Sure, the money was nice, but I barely slept as it was. I didn’t need to further my sleep deprivation. Tonight was different though. I needed to know the end of a story.
Last night, just about this time, a sleepy-eyed girl named Marcie came downstairs to the lobby. For the third night in a row, Marcie told me, she couldn’t sleep. She missed being near her family. She missed her pets. She missed everything that she was used to in her life prior to university.
We sat at my station, me in my underpadded office chair and Marcie in a cheap plastic chair from the arts room, and talked for the rest of my shift. Though my initial goal was to talk to her long enough to get her to fall asleep so I could go back to working on my paper, I found myself more and more interested in Marcie as the night turned to morning. We spent much of the time playing cards and drinking more that our fair share of caffeine — which seems like a terrible decision for Marcie’s sleep habits in retrospect.
Around our fourth hand of gin, Marcie began to tell a story about this terrible date she went on a few weeks prior. She had met this guy, Lucas, in one of her early morning classes during last semester (biology, I think it was). They done a group project together in the first few weeks of class and started hanging out somewhat regularly after that. Summer came and went, with Marcie barely hearing from Lucas. Then, two days after school started up again, Marcie got a call from Lucas asking if they could go on a date.
Marcie planned to meet Lucas for dinner that Friday night. Marcie arrived at the restaurant first, just a few minutes prior to the date’s planned 7:30pm start time, so she sat down on a bench in the lobby and played games on her phone while she waited. Before she knew it, time had passed to a quarter after eight. Lucas was still nowhere to be found.
Marcie went to the hostess booth at the front of the restaurant to see if somehow Lucas might have arrived without her noticing. Sure enough, the hostess recalled seeing someone fitting Lucas’s description, so she led Marcie to the part of the restaurant in question. When they arrived there, Marcie found Lucas laughing and chatting with another girl, clearly on a date of his own without her.
When Marcie pressed to find out what was going on, Lucas explained that he had messed up. He had meant to tell Marcie that their date would be Saturday night, then began to make up some excuse as to how he confused the two dates. Marcie stormed out of the restaurant and back to her dorm room. Though her roommate consoled her with freshly delivered pizza and contraband beer, Marcie was depressed at the turn of events her night had taken.
I told Marcie how Lucas had been a dick to her and that no guy should treat her like that. Marcie then told me how that wasn’t the end of the story, but that she would come find me another morning to tell me the rest. She strode back up to her room — hopefully to get some sleep, I assume — leaving me in the silence of an empty lobby for the rest of the night.
That brings us to tonight. It’s a cool, slightly rainy Thursday early morning. I never know what to consider the time I work. The people who see me at the beginning of my shift always tell me good night. The people who see me at the end of my shift always tell me good morning. To me, it’s night, as I’m still waking up before the sun rises. But it’s whatever day the calendar says it is because that’s how calendars work.
The clock on the wall across from my station read 4:43am when I heard footsteps coming from the hallway to my right. Marcie strode around the corner, her body wrapped in a fluffy yellow comforter and her messy black hair partially obscuring her face.
“I didn’t know you worked tonight,” she said, stifling a yawn.
“Normally I don’t,” I replied, “but someone called off. It’s free money.”
“Do you actually do anything?”
“Sometimes. Usually I just do homework and dick around on the internet. But every once in a while someone will lock themselves out of their room or come get a board game.”
“Does anyone visit you?” asked Marcie.
“Rarely,” I responded. “My roommate will drop me off food at the end of his shift sometimes, but that’s only if I’m working the midnight shift. My boss will stop by occasionally, but that’s really it.”
“Well, hey! Now you have me to visit you too.”
“Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”
“Stressed. Worried. Miss my family. Had the same problem last year too.”
“Any way I can help you?” I asked.
Marcie shrugged. She turned away from me and stared at the television for a few moments. As the screen flickered away showing highlights of some baseball game on the West Coast, an echo of thunder rumbled outside the dorm. I watched outside as the rain began to pick up, its pattering landing making its way into the silence of the lobby.
“Can I change the channel?” inquired Marcie.
“Yeah,” I answered. “The remote should be over there.”
“Okay. I’m going to lay down.”
The building head tended to get upset at the desk staff if we let anyone lay down on the couches. Apparently it was a potential legal issue if students fell asleep outside of their dorm rooms in a supervised area. But if Marcie needed to sleep and the couch happened to be where she fell asleep, I wasn’t going to question it.
“Hey!” Marcie shouted from the couch.
“Come watch this with me.”
I walked over to the TV area and started to sit in one of the chairs beside the couch.
“No,” she scolded me, “come sit with me. It’s cold.”
I sat down on the couch beside Marcie. She leaned her head against my shoulder, then snuggled herself tightly into her blanket. We watched as a pack of ran across the desert, presumably fleeing from some sort or predator.
“I always wondered how anything other than a camel could survive in the Sahel,” Marcie mused.
“The what?” I asked.
“The Sahel,” she replied. “It’s a region in Africa between the Sahara Desert and the rest of the continent. It’s hot there all year around just like the Sahara, only there’s a couple of months a year where it rains like crazy. At least that’s what my geography class taught me.”
“Yeah…you’ve lost me. I don’t know much geography.”
“You don’t need to. No one ever does. I just talk about it to amuse myself. If someone’s there to listen, all the better.”
“Now that much I can do,” I answered. “I’m good at listening.”
“I do owe you the rest of my story,” she said.
“Yes you do.”
“So later that night, Effie decided she was going to go to the store to get us ice cream.”
“Effie’s your roommate, right?”
Marcie nodded. “Yeah. Effie, Steph, Steffi, Stephanie. She answers to pretty much anything you call her. It’s not even her name.”
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“Well,” replied Marcie, “Stephanie is her middle name. Her first name is Andrea, but she hates that name. As long as you don’t call her that, she’s content.”
“Anyway. So Effie and I drove to the store to get ice cream. We picked up ice cream, a 2-liter of root beer, whipped cream, and we were going to make root beer floats. Normally we’d go through the self-checkout but they were all closed down for maintenance or something. So we’re standing in line waiting to check out when fucking Lucas walks up behind us in line with the girl he took on a date.”
“No shit?” I said, trying to feign surprise at his sudden reentry to the story even though I knew he’d be coming back.
“Yeah. Asshole was buying condoms and cheap vodka.”
“So what did you do?”
“Effie hurried us through the check out line as quickly as she could,” Marcie continued. “Lucas was pretty drunk, so I don’t think he even realized it was me standing in front of him. The girl knew though. She made eye contact with me, gave me this evil smirk, and winked at me.
“I broke down in the car on the way back here. I had to pull over and let Effie drive the rest of the way back.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s not your fault,” replied Marcie. “I knew what was going to happen. But to see them out was almost like the universe was mocking me. It’s like I…HOLY SHIT!”
As Marcie talked, the television had turned to a cheetah crushing the neck of an antelope to kill it. It was one of the bloodier things I had seen on TV in some time, catching both of us by surprise
“That antelope is so dead!” I exclaimed.
“This is why you should never trust a cat,” replied Marcie. “One moment they’re laying on your lap, letting you pet them and snuggle them. The next minute, BAM! Motherfucker’s chomping down on the neck of some gazelle in the Serengeti.”
“I don’t think all cats are godless killing machines.”
“That’s what they want you to think.”
A commercial gave us a reprieve from the cheetah’s victorious hunt. Marcie slid her body along the couch, her legs dangling over the end of the armless sofa. She clumsily pulled at the arm of the chair near her feet, trying to drag it over near her.
“Do you want me to get that for you?” I asked.
“No!” Marcie exclaimed. She poked her tongue out of her mouth, trying to focus as she pushed her toes against the soft fabric of the chair. She gave a quick tug with her legs, only for her toes to slide off the fabric and her feet to fall away.
“…yes…” she said, defeated.
I rose from the couch and pulled the chair over closer to Marcie. She lifted her legs over the arm of the chair, then placed her feet down on the cushion. She stretched her ankles and pointed her toes toward the back of the chair, the toenails missing the backrest by just a few inches.
I sat down on the couch beside her, only for Marcie to scoot further down the couch to get her feet further on the chair. Marcie sat her head down on me, her dark hair covering my lap as she rest her head on my legs.
“Do you think it’ll get easier?” she asked.
“Do I think what will get easier?” I retorted.
“The not being able to sleep for my first few weeks here. The homesickness. The missing everyone.”
“I don’t know. I never missed my family when I came here.”
“That’s sad. Everyone should have someone worth missing.”
Marcie freed one of her hands from her blanket cocoon and raised it above her head. She felt around without seeing clumsily smacking my leg and side a few times before hitting my arm. She slid her hand down my arm, grabbing my hand and pulling it back to her. Our hands rest on her side atop her fluffy blanket.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“I feel bad for you,” responded Marcie. “It’s shitty that I’m awake all hours of the night because I miss people. But at the same time, it means I still care about them a lot. If there’s no one you care about, I’m not okay with that.”
“I care about people.”
“Then be quiet and miss them for a moment.”
I sat in silence for a few minutes, trying my hardest to think about my family and to miss them. Thinking about them was easy. I thought about my family regularly and talked to them regularly. Missing them was another story though. They’ve always been there. While I know they won’t always be there, the impermanence of their lives seemed natural to me.
I felt Marcie let go of my hand slowly. When I looked down, it became apparent she was dozing off to sleep. I took my hand back from her and brushed some of her hair off of my legs.
“You should do that.”
“Run your fingers through my hair. It’s calming. It helps me sleep.”
I listened to Marcie, running my fingers through her hair as she snuggled up tightly in her blanket. The television had switched from an action-filled program with cheetahs killing antelopes to some guy talking about bird eggs. Wherever he was looked exotic. I thought about asking Marcie where he was or trying to reach the remote to figure it out for myself. But Marcie had started to fall asleep. I didn’t want to disturb that. I didn’t want to miss out on the silence. She certainly seemed like the kind of person I could learn to miss.