After the Revelers Depart
A teddy bear face pokes from the tree limb shadows of the hill, and the watchdog in his box growls. The raccoon lifts its snout to sniff the damp night air. Invisible tentacles of smoke, the remnants of barbecues and blown fireworks from the festivities in town, infiltrate the trees along with the scent of the dog some fifty yards away. And then there is the matter of the garbage.
The raccoon settles one paw forward then lifts the other.
The dog’s growls deepen to a low rumble. Its back haunches, overgrown toenails clacking against the wooden planks of the box’s floor, quiver in anticipation.
The raccoon lopes across the yard seemingly determined to confront the dog. But why did the raccoon abandon the cover of the trees for the barren yard? Was it spooked from the bang and crash and the hoots and hollers of earlier celebrations? Or does the half-closed lid of the trash bin at the back of the house offer an irresistible temptation with its greasy scraps of hamburger blood-soaked Styrofoam and wax paper casserole covers?
A ripple of skin rides down the dog’s back. A bark escapes. No, the dog seems to say, those are mine; you are too close. The dog throws its teeth out and sprints.
Stuck within the semicircle of dirt worn by the forward-and-back day-in-and-out of the chained dog, the raccoon churns. Over a fury of barking, it senses higher ground. An electrical pole, leaning slightly, its wires feeding into the frame of the house, resembles a tree. Close enough.
Snagging its stomach fur on the pole’s dry, splintered wood, it climbs. Filmy brown creosote stains its belly. At the midpoint, gripped tightly round the trunk, the raccoon checks below — the dog fights its choke chain twisting its neck. The raccoon chitters and scrambles higher. Met by coils and a tangle of wires, it perches atop the pole’s T, its bulk balancing awkwardly above the gray metal canister of the transformer. For a moment, a slight wind traveling over the valley lifts the hairs from the raccoon’s back, cooling its skin and dampening the dog’s whining. Turning its head, the raccoon blinks and opens its teethy mouth to the current. Then, a slip. A small black hand reaches out to the metal transformer. And the explosion, loud and bright, is a head-on impact.
“Stay down!” the father says, tucking the mother into his chest and squeezing his arms around her. He pants above the crown of her head, and her lungs compress, the bones encasing them about to break. The wiry hairs of his chest scour her cheek as she fights to open her eyelids. He is smothering her. After calling out for a name she does not know, he grips her shoulders and rolls them from the bed.
As they hit the carpet with a thud, her elbow scrapes against a wedged-open dresser drawer, and she sucks in air. “Honey.” But he is already crawling on his stomach, pulling himself along by his forearms like a creature emerging from the water to the sand. She grabs the leg of his underwear. “You’re asleep. Nobody’s hurt.”
His eyes, the whites of them almost swallowing up the pupils, turn on her, and she shrinks back. “Calm down,” she barely manages to say, regretting her words as soon as they leave her. The electric blue flames crackling from the transformer outside their bedroom window illuminate the hollows and twitches of his face, the maddened shimmers beneath. She has experienced many of his faces and thought she had seen every one, but this face is cut out. Elsewhere.
“I’m getting the girls,” he says.
“Wait.” She cannot let him do this no matter how afraid. She grasps the clammy bones of his foot, but he kicks free. “No!”
He turns again, knocks her in the stomach with his fist.
She gasps, and her breath abandons her. Her mind — he has never touched her like that — swirls in riddles of darkness. “You’ll scare them,” she sputters.
The girls, the big sister in her twin bed and little sister in her crib, are wide-awake. Tendrils of light cast from the burning electrical pole flicker along the hillside and across the windowpanes of their room. Wavering along the walls, the ceiling, the floor, the mixture of light and shadow confuses the dimensions of each piece of furniture, every stuffed rabbit and squirrel, and even themselves. Shadows dance over their eyes. This is evidence that everything has a hidden, writhing life lurking underneath.
In the hall, a thundering of footsteps follows the slam of a door. A scream — their mother’s! — follows what sounds like a body being thumped against a wall.
The big sister clasps her knees to her chest and stares at the other who presses her forehead against the crib’s wooden bars and sucks on her balled up fist. Neither moves from where she is. They do not cry or call out. Instead, they anchor to the knowledge that a friend is there in whatever this is, and listen, waiting for the bumps in the hall to cease, the shouts to quiet, and the stillness to return as it must.
Sarah Broderick grew up in the Ohio River Valley and now resides in Northern California. She holds an MA in humanities and social thought from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Her work appears in Moon City Review, Atticus Review, Necessary Fiction, Cleaver Magazine, and elsewhere. She can be found online at perfectsentences.org, Twitter @sebroderick, and The Forge Literary Magazine.
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