Track 10 - Cul-De-Sac
It was a typical Sunday during the winter. It had snowed last night, and it was early enough that there were still a few unbroken and unblemished patches of snow covering the roads and lawns. A few kids were playing here and there, making snow forts and snow men. One man was out with his kids, packing together small balls of snow and rolling them around until they got too big to push. Mother watched them from inside her house as she worked in the kichen.
Someone knocked on the front door. Mother put down the rolling pin and hurried to the door, wiping her floury hands on her apron as she walked down the hallway leading straight from the kitchen to the front door. She opened the door to the wintry outside world and smiled. It was Mrs. Laurington from down the street, holding a tin cup in her hands.
“Hello, Mrs. Laurington,” Mother said, licking the excess dough off her fingers. “How are you doing?”
Mrs. Laurington smiled. “Oh, please, Margaret, call me Laurie. You make my name sound so formal.” She held up her tin. “I just came by to see if I could borrow some milk from you. I was going to bake a cake, but we're all out and Henry took the car to go out of town on some business errands.”
Mother nodded, still smiling. “Oh, sure, of course, I was doing some baking myself, I have the milk right out. Let me take the tin and I'll be right back with it.”
Mrs. Laurington handed her the tin. “Would you mind if I walked in with you?” she said as Mother walked back. “We haven't talked in a while, I was kind of hoping we could sit down and chat.”
Mother frowned. It was getting close to the time. She rummaged her brain for an excuse. “I'm sorry, dear,” she called back. “I'm afraid that I need to run errands as soon as my cake gets in the oven. You can come in and chat for a few moments, but I'm almost done.”
Mrs. Laurington waved her hand. “No worries, dear, we'll talk some other time. We really do need to catch up, though, it's been quite awhile.”
Mother nodded. “Of course.” She hurried back to the front door with the tin. A few drops spilled over the edge on the way there, but that was alright. She handed it to Mrs. Laurington.
“Thanks Margaret. You're a doll.” They both smiled at each other for a moment. “Well, I'll be seeing you.” Mrs. Laurington took the tin and walked down the steps toward her house. The garage door was open and a few neighbors were inside – Mr. Zimmer, Mr. Gonzalez, Mrs. Kline, Mr. Torrey, Mrs. Jayles. Mrs. Laurington sipped at the milk as she walked into the garage.
Mr. Zimmer spoke up. “Well?”
Mrs. Laurington shook her head. “No dice. wasn't able to get inside.”
Mr. Zimmer shook his head. “We'll never find out what goes on in that house. It's damned suspicious what goes on, damned suspicious. I'd do something if it wasn't for...”
Just then, the screaming started. Everyone froze in place – the people in the garage, Mr. Jumble shoveling his sidewalk, even Eileen Baker's car stopped backing out of the driveway. It went on for several minutes, then ended. The cul-de-sac slowly resumed activity.
Mr. Zimmer looked back at the group. “Yes, as I was saying, it's all so damned suspicious. I'd do something, if it wasn't for...”
Mrs. Laurington interrupted him. “Look, Margaret's garage door is opening.”
It creaked open slowly, and Mother's car backed out and drove away. The cul-de-sac watched this, too.
Mrs. Laurington waved her hand. “Margaret said she needed to run a few errands.”
Mr. Zimmer's brow furrowed. “What if it's something worse, Laurie? What if she's disposing of a body?”
Mr. Gonzalez spoke up. “Oh, please, Bill. The screaming's been going on for months and there's no reason why it would stop now. If Margaret was going to do something, she would have by now.”
Mr. Zimmer crossed his arms. “I don't like it, I don't like it one bit. Something's going to happen one day, mark my words.”
At that moment, more screaming started. It came from inside Mrs. Laurington's house. The group froze in place at first, then snapped into action. They rushed inside, up the stairway to the top floor, to the source of the screams. Mr. Zimmer was in front; he flung the door open and stepped inside.
It was Mrs. Laurington's son, Nick, blasting music on his computer. He paused the track and looked quizzically at everyone. “What's up?”
The group gave a bunch of broken expressions. Mrs. Laurington finally said something. “It's nothing, son, keep going. Have fun.” The group started to leave and she turned back. “Turn it down a bit, though, please.”
The group slowly petered back down into the garage. Mrs. Kline spoke up. “Could it be like that?”
Mrs. Laurington kicked her toe into the cement. “It's possible. My cell phone alarm goes off every day and I can't find out how to fix it.”
The group murmured the new theory. At one point every voice said the same thing: “Could it be?”
Gradually, the group dispersed and the day went on as normal. Mr. Zimmer stayed behind a moment, whispered something into Mrs. Laurington's ear. Mrs. Laurington nodded; Henry would be gone again. Mr. Zimmer smiled boldly and left. Mrs. Laurington stood wistfully, watching him leave, grinning shyly at herself. She remembered the milk setting on a shelf. The top had frozen a bit; no good. She grabbed the tin and dumped the milk into the lawn.
The next day, shortly before the screaming usually started, Mr. Zimmer knocked on Mrs. Laurington's door. She opened the door, looked briefly around the cul-de-sac, then waved Mr. Zimmer inside. The screaming started again. If you listened carefully enough, you could hear a few noises come from Mrs. Laurington's house as well.
The school bus came by and dropped the kids off. Mr. Gonzalez was sitting in his favorite recliner when his two children came inside. They ran inside and gave him a quick hug and started to run off to do their homework. Mr. Gonzalez stopped them. “Kids, what do you think of the screaming that happens?”
His two children shrugged. “We don't think too much about it. The adults don't seem bothered by it, so we aren't either.”
“We talk about it all the time,” Mr. Gonzalez said.
“Yeah, but you never do anything, so you must not be bothered by it, right?”
Mr. Gonzalez nodded and let them go. They tossed their backpacks in the kitchen and ran outside to play in the snow. The adults don't seem bothered. He remembered the meeting yesterday. They only did something when the screaming came from Mrs. Laurington's house. Why did they never go inside Margaret's?
He grew restless sitting in his chair. He felt like doing something. He found himself walking over to Mrs. Laurington's house and knocking on her door.
Mrs. Laurington opened it a few moments later, dressed in a bathrobe, her hair askew. She looked at him oddly.
“Hello, Mr. Gonzalez. What brings you here so late in the day?” Her face turned yellow. “Did you find out?”
Mr. Gonzalez shook his head. “No, nobody in the neighborhood knows anything, and I doubt they would do anything even if they did. They'd just keep talking about it and talking about it and our ears would fall off before the right thing could be done.”
“And what would the right thing be?” Mrs. Laurington said it reflexively. Looking back, she wondered why she did. She knew the right thing to do; it would have made more sense if she asked him why she didn't do it. But she said it anyway, and there's no right way to unsay something.
Mr. Gonzalez looked over at Margaret's house. “I'm pretty sure we all know the right thing to do, Laurie. I just don't know why we don't do it. Well, whatever, I should be going.”
“Alright.” Mr. Gonzalez left. Mrs. Laurington wrapped herself in her arms and walked slowly up the stairs to her room. Mr. Zimmer was there, lying on the bed, of course. How clever did she think she was? Noises and questions; everyone knew, even if they wouldn't admit it to themselves. The truth has a habit of being known.
She thought of Nick in the next room, how she had led him straight to his room and told him to work on his homework and not come out, and how he should listen to his music if that would help, and he should turn the volume up but not enough to disturb the neighbors. And how high was too high? She didn't know. Yesterday was too high, that was for sure, but that doesn't mean anything. Yesterday is always a distant memory, she thought, and what you heard was what you heard, regardless of what you thought you heard some other time and how loud you thought it was.
Mr. Zimmer smiled. “Come back to bed. Lie with me a while longer, Laurie.”
“Don't be so familiar with me, you pig. My name is Mrs. Laurington. Get out.”
The music was playing in the other room, and it was enough, maybe, to hide their argument. Nick was doing his homework as dutifully as his mother would. He read a story about a couple having a fight and a person overhearing it. The story didn't say what they said. It was probably just as well. Arguments are all the same.
Henry came home early and Mrs. Laurington cooked him dinner and they spoke little over the burnt lemon chicken. Henry complimented it, as always, and Mrs. Laurington smiled. He was such a good man; he worked so hard and faithfully for his family. She noticed a little red on his collar and asked him about it.
“Oh, I must have spilled some ketchup on it when I grabbed a burger for lunch.” It was good enough for her at first.
Mr. Gonzalez waited a day for whatever reason, to think about what to do. You should never do something without knowing for sure what you're going to do and why, right? His kids just shrugged.
The next day, Mr. Gonzalez knocked on Margaret's door.
Mother opened it and said hello – smiling, just as everyone did. She was a very nice lady – a good woman, and a good mother. An excellent mother.
“We need to talk, Margaret.”
Mother acknowledged the name. “What about?”
“About the screaming.” He hoped he was doing the right thing.
Mother looked down at the ground for a moment. She looked back up and her eyes were red. “What took you so long?”
She took his hand and led him inside and upstairs to a small, closet-like room. She opened it and her daughter, Katie, was inside.
Mr. Gonzalez stared sadly into the room. Katie was in a straight-jacket, slumped into the back wall, her head rolling carelessly back and forth, drool dripping down her clothes. Her eyes instantly locked on to him, staring at him no matter how her head rolled. She laughed, slowly, quietly, then quickly, loudly.
“All these months, these blood-curdling screams...” Mr. Gonzalez didn't want to finish his sentence.
“Every day, at the same time as her accident, she would scream as if she was reliving it. You say the screams were blood-curdling to you. Imagine what it was like for me. Imagine what it's like to hear those howls right into your ear as you hold and caress your daughter, as you try to ease her pain.”
“You're remarkably strong, Margaret. I don't know if I could do it.”
“I don't know if I couldn't.”
Margaret closed the door and as she turned away Mr. Gonzalez embraced her. At first she reacted stiffly, and then she softened and returned the hug.
“I won't tell anyone,” he said. “I'll let them keep having their theories. I'll hold this secret for you when you hold Katie.”
Mother buried her head into Mr. Gonzalez's chest. She said something, but it was muffled. Mr. Gonzalez asked what she said. She looked up at him and said it again:
“I feel like Margaret in your arms.”
Mr. Gonzalez didn't know what to say. He did what they did in the movies; covered her head with his hand, hugged her tight for a few moments, and let her go. He said his promise again, if but to say something. Their embrace ended and Mother told him it was almost The Time and that he shouldn't be here for it. He nodded and left, walking aimlessly down the cul-de-sac. Zimmer and Kline and all them asked him what he saw, but he ignored them. The screaming started anyway, and they turned to stare at the house as he continued to make his way down the street to his house. Eventually he ended up back in his favorite recliner. He still felt her in his arms, on his chest.
I feel like Margaret in your arms...
It occurred to Mr. Gonzalez that he would probably never talk to her again.
Down the street, Mrs. Kline and Mrs. Torrey talked about putting down their dogs. Mr. Zimmer divorced his wife and did the paperwork a week later. Mrs. Laurington still slept with Henry, Nick was still in his room, and Mr. Gonzalez still loved his kids. Their hearts screamed too loud for their ears to hear, but the world kept spinning in its circles. It would spin no matter how much truth they refused to admit they knew. And the truth is, they were the only ones who paused; the rest of the world – the next cul-de-sac, and the next, and the next, up to the whole town and county and state and country and world – simply ignored it. They would never do the right thing, because nobody ever did the right thing.
The next day, the screaming started again, and as usual most everyone froze – except for Mr. Jumble. He continued on shoveling through the screaming, whistling as he tossed snow into the embankment. Margaret really likes to play some odd music this time of day...