The Stone House Across The Street

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic


It was simply fate she showed up exactly when I needed her.

Submitted: January 03, 2018

A A A | A A A

Submitted: January 03, 2018

A A A

A A A


The Stone House Across The Street

Gabrielle Watry

Before hiding behind the stone house across the street, children outside in thick, knitted hats and peacoats cunningly tossed bits of bread on the pavement. The house belonged to Ms. Hertz, an elderly woman with a soft smile as warm as an insecure candle.

Ms. Hertz appeared on my doorstep often, perfectly placed in the center of the welcome mat. Her smile never faltered as she lifted a picnic-like basket into my hands. Corners of a cloth napkin draped over the basket edges, and a homemade batch of whatever she had baked rested inside. The first time she knocked her knobby knuckles on our door, she visited the morning after a fight with my husband, Georg. I hesitantly accepted her basket then, for I had never seen this woman before. I had never even spoken to her before, yet here she was, offering me a gift. Confused, I peered down; there, on the embroidered cloth, sat a dozen cookies. The autumn air was so cold and the cookies so freshly baked, hot steam visibly emanated from the dessert like grey breath in winter. I looked to her for reasoning, but she had nothing except a smile. Ms. Hertz nodded and with the help of her cane, hobbled back to her stone house across the street.

Her kindness had illuminated the dark of that yesterday’s night. Since then, whenever Georg and I failed to get along, her weak knocks tapped upon the door, she offered fresh, baked goods, and a smiling silence. I only ever saw Ms. Hertz when she arrived at my doorstep, and I explained her appearances with fate. It was simply fate she showed up exactly when I needed her.

The children outside peered their little, blonde-haired heads around the corner of her single-story house. They waited for birds to swoop down and peck at the crumbs they had tossed about the road; then the children came out of hiding and chased the birds with outstretched hands. Gusts of wind blew brightly colored leaves around their feet as they ran. The birds flew away with at least a couple yard between the birds and the children, yet one claimed to have nearly caught one.

“Did you see that? It slipped right out of my hand! I even felt its feathers!”

Annaliese played with the other kids but while they threw their bread without strategy and chased the creatures wildly, my daughter carefully placed her pieces on the street in a neat line, leading to her where she stood, holding out her last breadcrumb. After the birds had flown away, moments later, one returned. He timidly hopped closer until he reached the trail, pecking the line away piece by piece. The children watched in awe as the bird’s claws reflected my daughter’s rain boots and they faced each other. She knelt down onto the cement slower than time, and the bird cocked his head to the side, examining her possible trustworthiness. He must have deemed her worthy, for he accepted the bread and retired to the cloudy sky. Annaliese grinned.

As I heard the creak of the front door, I pretended to be reading the newspaper. She slid into the chair across from me, staring. I sipped my coffee and without looking up, teased, “Anna, staring is rude.”  

“I saw you and Dad fighting again the other day.”

I had been bringing my mug to my lips for another sip but paused. I stared into the black pool darker than night. Unlike night, in it there were no stars to see.

Mine sat in front of me in loose, windblown curls and an orange coat.

“Did he hurt you?” asked Annaliese.

I never successfully eluded my daughter. It was she that possessed the third eye behind her, not I. Flesh-toned makeup concealed the purplish bruise beneath my right eye, and I even applied bright red lipstick to draw attention towards a different area of my face, though only my husband and daughter ever saw me.

I listened to the ticking grandfather clock pointing at the eight.

My silence served as an adequate answer.

“He did. He hurt you. Again,” she asserted. I remained unspeaking, feigning interest in the newspaper. Anna’s eyes darted around various spots on my body where she had found marks before--my neck, my wrists, my face.

“Anna,” I started before the steps creaked and heavy feet thudded against them. My husband rubbed his eyes, not yet aware of mine and Annaliese’s presence.

“Go back outside to play, Anna,” I whispered, guiding her towards the door, my hands on her back.

Georg had taken my seat at the table. In his hands, the weekly local paper. He shook it out, fixing its creases and wrinkles. A wispy fog swirled from his parted lips, and the scent of the cigar between his teeth clouded the room. I clasped my hands over my mouth, barely stifling my coughs; Georg heard me anyhow. He swiveled around in his chair to face me, and his gaze traveled the length of my body.

“You’re wearing that?” he commented. I smoothed out my already ironed sweater as my cheeks flared red.

I fiddled with the buttons of my shirt, asking, “Should I change?”

He pushed out of his chair, replying, “I don’t know, Greta; what do you think?”

Georg neared my position at the sink and enclosed me with his arms. I began to shake, though our heater was on.

I slightly jerked my head to answer him. Every movement was careful. He touched his thumb to my cheek, cradling my face. I tensed my entire body, more still than a statue. I did not dare lean into his touch, nor away from his hand.

“Now, give me a kiss,” Georg whispered. I must have hesitated a breath too long, for his palm came across the cheek he tenderly held moments before and once kissed affectionately.

“I said, kiss me.”

I felt tears escape my tightly shut eyes and pursed my lips painfully, my face contorted as if I sucked all the juice from a lemon. He tasted similar--sour, but with a tinge of smoke. With his lips on mine, reality ran from me. I felt disconnected, as if I was watching myself star in a movie.

It happened every time. I floated away despite my heart still beating, and my hands felt so far away that I could not reach them. I could not save myself.

After what felt like an eternity, he opened the fridge, grabbed a blue can I knew all too well, and he walked back upstairs, the bitter drink in his hand. When I collected myself and opened my eyes, I saw Analiese standing by the door. She had seen everything.

-

Beyond the thin, transparent curtains draped across Analiese’s window, lights glowed--the moon, the streetlights, and the lighted rooms of others awake as well. Ms. Hertz house was dimly lit. I felt guilty watching her house, longing to be there, when my daughter sat behind me.

Analiese lied on her back, her bedsheets tucked in tightly around her small frame. It was earlier than her bedtime, but I felt safer knowing she was asleep, unable to provoke Georg than her being awake.  

“Mom?” she whispered. The lights outside captivated me. Though my gaze focused and blurred, I could not remove myself from staring.

“Yes?” One of the lighted rooms a block away darkened.

“We can’t stay here. We have to go. We have to get away from him,” she spoke vaguely about the person she spoke of, yet I followed her words exactly. I tugged myself from my subconscious gazing.

“Ana…” I tried, but she continued. I knew she heard me but if she believed in something, the only thing on her mind was that belief. My daughter was stubborn that way.

“I found a suitcase in the closet for us both. We just have to pack clothes and food and-”

“Ana…”

“Mom!” she yelled, “We have to leave him!”

I looked at my daughter, my daughter too mature for her young age, her brain too aged for her smooth-skinned, childish face. Once I saw the desperation on her face, again, the sight held me in a trance. I spoke no words. We sat in silence until she frustratedly shoved the blankets off her and headed for the bedroom door. I stared at her soft pink pillow where her head had lied. Lines wrinkled the pillowcase, and her head left an indent. I reached my hand out. It was still warm.

“Mom!” Analiese called as what I assumed to be a final attempt to sway my decision. I figured she had not yet forgiven me for disagreeing with her plan. Then, I heard his voice.

“Trying to leave me?” Georg slurred.

I sat up abruptly. Ana’s head faced the ground. She had not yet mastered the skill of facing Fear, looking Fear in his eyes.

“Answer me!” Georg screamed, his voice hoarse. The hall light illuminated Georg from behind, effectively making him appear more fearsome than in the daytime. As a shadow, Georg was heightened, more brooding. I still regret not pulling myself out of my trance fast enough.

As if before me the morning replayed, I watched Georg hit Analiese with his palm across her cheek, something he had never done before. The last few years, I had endured it all. He hit, kicked, punched me… but never my daughter.

Her hands protectively held the wound, and she fell to the ground. I saw myself in her.

“No, Dad,” Analiese muttered feebly. He jutted his drink in her general direction, and the putrid, yellow liquid inside sloshed around.

“Good girl,” he nodded. The bobbing of his head threw him off balance, and he stumbled out of the doorway and down the hall. He thumped against the walls as he went.

I leapt from the bed, running for Ana. I cradled her in my arms while both of us shook. I knew we had to leave.

-

I listened with my ear pressed against the wooden bedroom door until Georg’s drunken garbling quieted. When I determined he had passed out, I rummaged through Analiese’s closet for a couple sets of clothes. Because Georg slept heavily, especially when he drank (which was frequently), I did not try to move about our bedroom lightly. I opened the dresser drawers and searched through the clothes as I pleased.

 Back in Ana’s room, a mess of clothes, picture frames, and snacks sat on her twin-sized bed. On the floor, the suitcase gradually filled as I messily folded and stacked the items into its open mouth. I checked on Ana to ensure she stayed sleeping. After Georg hit Ana, I carried her to her bed and tucked her in once more. This time, I sang to her a lullaby until her tears stopped flowing and her eyes shut. Our chests rose and sank in time, but I did not allow myself slumber.

As I lifted my eyes after having zipped the suitcase closed, I noticed the room had become brighter. Tangerine light streamed through the window, indicating the arising dawn. It was time.

I softly swept a tendril of blonde hair behind Ana’s ear. Once she awoke and absorbed her surroundings, she quickly sat up, leaping into my chest.

“Is it time?” she whispered into my neck.

Yes.

-

Analiese carefully stepped down the stairs in front of me, for she knew of all the so-called “safe spots,” that would not squeak under our feet. I held the heavy suitcase, leaning back so the weight rested on my chest; my arms were not strong enough to withstand the weight, but I expected such. I had to fit our whole lives into that suitcase.

I instructed Ana to wait quietly at the door while I headed into the kitchen. Atop the dishware cupboard sat an antique cookie jar the shape of a larger woman. I lifted the top of the jar by her glazed pigtails and overturned the head. There was nothing, only the smooth, ceramic surface of the lid. I stood on my tiptoes and grabbed the body of the jar. Inside, nothing. The jar fell from my grasp and crashed into the ground, blue and white shards scattering about the wood floor.

My ribs seemed to tighten, and it was hard to breathe. The stairs began to creak.

“Greta?” called a deep voice.

My daughter’s eyes widened. Her hand jumped to the doorknob, and she looked at me pleadingly. I felt myself slipping, but I pressed my nails harshly into the flesh of my palm to keep me grounded. Red half-moon indents covered the inside of my hand. I had to save Ana. I could not blank out again.

I heaved the suitcase into my arms, moving as quickly as possible towards the door as Georg called my name again. I felt him nearing but without looking back, I locked the door behind me.

The floral suitcase rolled noisily behind us, but the rush of cars, trains overhead, and bustling people accompanied by suitcases masked the sound. I tugged my daughter’s hand forward, both of us walking briskly along the sidewalk. Each time we tried to cross the street, the chaos of the city blocked Ana and I.

We paused at a crosswalk where I pushed the press-to-walk button. I anxiously tapped my foot as the walking stick figure ahead stayed dark, and the crowd of primarily yellow cars continued speeding past. I let out a noise of frustration as I repeatedly and forcefully pressed the button. Suddenly, the pedestrian sign illuminated. A taxi ran the red light, but the rest slowed to a pause, the noses of the cars as close to the crosswalk as possible.

The moment Ana stepped onto the other side of the street, the cars behind us came back to life.

Hand in hand, we continued down the sidewalk amongst the others. Without money, I was lost and unable to buy train tickets or a taxi ride, yet I pushed forward. My hand around the suitcase handle, my fingers curled into my palm, still digging in. I had to save Ana.

Unwarranted touching was commonplace, the occasional shoving or poking, but not repeated, seemingly purposeful prodding. I turned around, expecting to have to tell off a creepy old man. Instead, I saw Ms. Hertz and her cane struggling to keep up with Ana and I’s brisk pace. She weakly clutched onto the sleeve of my coat, leading me aside with her bluish, veiny hand. I called Ana to follow.

Ms. Hertz looked up at me, her back somewhat hunched. Her eyes gleamed grey, the same color as her thinning hair. Wordlessly, she unzipped her coin purse, digging through its contents.

The old woman reached out for my hands, hers shaking, and I let go of the suitcase and my daughter’s grasp. She placed something nearly weightless in my cold, pink hands. As our skin touched, I felt her warmth, somehow defying the cold outside.

Frankly, I expected to see a small dessert in my hands, but Ms. Hertz had given me two train tickets. My gaze flitted between the tickets and Ms. Hertz smiling eyes.

“Go,” she finally said. I had never heard the old woman’s soft voice until then. Like she had each time she brought baked goods to my doorstep, her hands lingered on mine, and she stared deep into my eyes with a smile.

One thought bit the back of my mind. I turned around towards my red house across the street.

“Go,” Ms. Hertz repeated, “Be free.”

Analiese stared at me. I understood her silence, and I unzipped my purse.

I placed the tickets inside.

Freedom.



 


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