We had saved the curtains for last. I spent the day with my family, condensing our small home into small boxes, and now I stood in our foyer assessing what was left to be done, our belongings stacked in boxes like a cardboard castle, threatening to tumble down around me. I was going to miss visiting my childhood home, not just to open the bathroom drawers and read the messages my sister and I wrote to each other in nail polish, or to use our super strong oven that miraculously cooked everything in half the time expected, but I was going to miss wandering through the gardens my father had so carefully tended, and watching as my mother painted our front door a new color every year. Most of all I would miss basking in the morning light, the evening light, any light, as the home had windows in every room, chasing away shadows and always providing a good spot to read.
“The curtains!” My mother gasped and dashed over to the floor to ceiling windows in our living area, looking out onto our yard and garden. We were a small family, this was a modest home, but the gardens were lush and I caught my father’s expression as he gazed at them for the last time.
Long twilight blue curtains flowed to the floor, crumbs and dust and sparkles likely caught in their skirts. My father dragged his eyes away from what lay beyond the windows and disappeared to the garage for the ladder.
I left my mother in the living room and wandered to the dining room, noting two more sets of curtains to take down. The kitchen, at the center of the home, had no direct windows but was filled with light, and my older sister was leaning against the counter, sneaking the snacks that were for tomorrow’s road trip to our parents’ new home. She swiped at the cheese dust on the counter and then stared at me.
“I don’t want to sleep on the floor tonight,” Alaina said.
“A mattress on the floor is not sleeping on the floor. It’ll be fun! Like camping but without the bugs.” I reached for the bag of chips but she moved it out of reach.
“What was the difference anyways between moving the beds into the truck today or tomorrow?”
“It’s not about time, it’s about space,” I said. I was glad we moved all the heavy stuff today, I didn’t want to sit sweaty in the car all day tomorrow. Not that Alaina would know anyways, as she did not help lift anything heavier than a ceramic vase. She crunched on more chips, keeping a tight grip on the bag.
I left her to check the bedrooms. My curtains were there, seafoam green. Alaina’s still billowed in the breeze from her opened window, sheer lavender. My parents’ bedroom had four sets of windows. All with curtains, why did my mother love curtains so much? I had never noticed that my home was filled with curtains. If we tied them all together could we escape from Rapunzel’s tower?
Even the French door in the bathroom had a curtain over its glazed glass panes. I washed my hands in the sink before I left. It felt odd, wandering from room to room without doing anything. I heard my father using the drill in the living room. The rods were coming down. Soon all the curtains sat in a dusty pile on our well-worn wooden floor, a collection of muted rainbow colors.
“I should’ve washed them maybe once or twice,” my mother murmured to herself. She knelt and folded them neatly, gesturing at Alaina to help. My father took the rods out to the truck and I snuck into the kitchen for a snack. I found the bag of chips empty, sitting on top of the trash pile.
The light slowly began to sink from the sky, the sun sending out flashes of orange and yellow in panic, in a last-ditch effort to hold onto day before it dipped into night.
My family pushed two mattresses together and we rested in the center of our empty living room, letting the colors that leaked through the tall windows wash over us. It felt too early to go to sleep yet our bones called for rest. We had run out of things to do. It was just us and the mattresses and the windows now. I tossed and fidgeted in my spot next to Alaina. She smelled like the damn chips. I wondered if she’d brushed her teeth. Alaina was talking about settling down with her boyfriend soon, maybe starting a family. I hoped she would remember to brush her teeth.
“Curtis?” My mother brushed her hand down my father’s back, interrupting his snoring.
“Marina,” he breathed, soft and low, blowing her name into her face. I suddenly felt uncomfortable to be sharing a bed with my parents. Yet I watched my mother and father whisper in each other’s ears and I felt a burst of happiness for them, happiness for them starting over somewhere new together now that their children had finally fled the well-feathered nest.
I nudged closer to Alaina and she shoved me away. I hugged myself and stared at the ceiling contemplating what was next for me. I considered that my parents were firm on moving because they wanted me to move. To get away, to leave this place. It was no longer a place I could stay, but I imagined them all getting into the truck tomorrow and driving away, me standing in the driveway and waving goodbye before disappearing into the gardens.
The room seemed to become a vacuum of silence, so quiet, and then BOOM.
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. The cracking sound of gunfire shook the room. The sound came once more, like the target was returning fire.
“That doesn’t sound like hunters,” my father said, sitting up harshly, the blanket bunched around his waist, an early drip of drool gathered in the corner of his mouth.
“Who the fuck is shooting each other out here?” Alaina was rising off the mattress, headed toward the window.
We lived around a large section of forest, not many homes in and around our development. Beyond father’s garden was more green, green that stretched on and on.
“I can call the neighbors,” my mother said, lifting the pillows, searching for the phone.
“I’m sure they heard it too,” Alaina said. She had risen on her tip toes, her face and hands pressed to the glass as if she could see the culprits among the trees.
“Alaina, come back from the windows.” My father patted the mattress and she returned, settling next to him.
“Where is the phone?” My mother had become frantic, throwing the pillows across the room.
“It’s right here, Mom,” I said, and handed her the phone that was caught among the sheets. She called the neighbors and no one answered. It was dinner-time, perhaps they were all eating, chewing so loud they could not hear the guns.
My family sat and waited to see if there would be more shots fired, as if counting the seconds between thunderclaps in a storm.
Then, we heard something. We looked at each other, Alaina’s eyes searching my face for confirmation, mine looking to my mother and father’s all of us a picture of concern. It started as a buzzing sound perhaps, but then it grew more solid, more concrete, footsteps, stampeding, headed our way.
The first men to appear held each other in headlocks. They rolled on the ground until one broke the other’s neck. My mother screamed. They did not look at us. More people came, fist fighting and knife fighting in our backyard, in our front yard. They were screaming and yelping and spitting and not once did they ever see us, did they ever glance through our windows.
Their sneakers kicked up the turf in the garden. Gravel flew into the fountain. They were not people but animals, possessing a fury I had never seen, viciously at each other’s throats, hissing and moaning over the spilling of blood. My family huddled on our mattresses, our home feeling so small, these monsters in our yard a mere distance away from tearing us up too. But they did not look at us. They ignored the house.
The golden light of the sky bleached away and the survivors grabbed the fallen and yanked them away from our property and into the trees.
My family was crying, we were all crying, in shock, useless, terrified, unable and not knowing what to do.
“What the fuck just happened?” Alaina was wailing. My mother was shaking. My father raked his eyes over the garden, over every stomped petal, every blood-soaked bush, every statue and trellis fallen.
He turned to my mother. “What do we do?”
“I am not leaving this house,” I said. If I could’ve sunk through the floor, I would’ve. My ears were ringing. When I blinked, I only saw the flashes of knives going in and out guts, in and out, in and out.
“That’s exactly what you want anyways,” Alaina snarked to me, gnashing her teeth, just like the people outside.
“Shut your fucking mouth!” I lunged for her, maybe I could be an animal too, but my father pulled me back.
“Girls! Stop!” My mother pressed her fingers to her temples and rubbed them in slow circles. My father rubbed her back too and she shoved him off. She went stiff, dropping her hands and tilting her head. “Do you hear that too?”
We all strained ourselves, leaning forward, still huddled together on the mattress like it was a life preserver at sea.
Then, I heard it. Voices, growing in volume. I didn’t want to, but I looked through the windows again and I watched as people came out of the trees. They held hands and chanted. They stood in a ring around our home, their faces neutral, no signs of pain, although some still bled from wounds. I could not see the shape their lips made, but their noise was loud.
“What are they saying? Can you tell what they are saying?” My father was searching around our empty home for a weapon. All we had were pillows.
I felt suffocated. Our bed seemed closer to the windows, had we shoved it there in our panic? I stood to push it back but found us still in the center of the room. Was the house shrinking? Was I going mad? Had the world gone mad?
I looked to the people again and they were closer. I could see their lips now. I watched them move, they all seemed to be saying something different, and I could not read them.
My mother gasped and clutched at her chest with one hand, the other reaching for my father. “It’s Andy and Sue!”
Our neighbors were there. Chanting. I gave the rest of the faces a good look and found that I recognized almost everyone. Those who were not familiar to me were perhaps familiar to my family. My Sensei was there, my middle school English teacher, the late-night grocery clerk, and my old babysitter. They all stood outside and chanted. I focused on my teacher’s mouth, my teacher who was so sweet and kind and gifted me books from her special collection. I watched her lips and realized what she was saying.
“Riley, Riley, Riley.” My name over and over. I looked to the neighbors’ and they chanted the names of my parents. I roamed over every mouth that spat at my home, throwing our names to our glass.
“Why is this happening?” My mother searched around the room as if waiting for a signal or a sign to manifest and explain. Every time my family looked away from the windows the people took a step closer. We couldn’t take our eyes off them or they would close in on us. And then what would happen? What would they do?
“Alright, why are we fucking around? We have agency, people!” Alaina grabbed my shoulders and gave them a shake. I grabbed her shoulders right back and shook her too. My parents were in shock. My father watched the lips of someone in the crowd and mouthed, Curtis, Curtis, Curtis, back to them. My mother was wringing her hands, trembling, still searching around the room, looking everywhere but outside.
Alaina shoved the phone into my hands. “Call the police! It’s time!”
The thought had crossed my mind, the thought of calling for help when I watched people dying in my backyard, yet it did not feel like an emergency. This felt like something that was always coming our way.
“Riley!” Alaina smacked me on the head and I faced the windows again. It was then that I saw him, my ex, standing with the rest of them, holding the hands of my best friends. I looked to his lips. He chanted, Alaina, Alaina, Alaina.
I tasted fury and bit down, letting it course through me. I tried to crush the phone in my hands, wanting to shape it into a club and bludgeon Alaina with it. I turned back to her and she smacked me again.
“You’ve got to call!” Alaina was crying. I was crying. Numbly, I dialed 911.
“911, what’s your emergency?” The woman’s voice was curt, almost cute.
Everyone in my family started speaking at once. Then we stopped. There was silence. My mother nodded at me to talk. “Our property is being trespassed by strangers with what we think is malicious intent. They showed violence towards each other earlier. Please send someone to get them away from our home.”
There was no response, then the line went dead.
“Fuck!” My father shouted. He gestured at me to call again.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“We need squad cars here now! Our home is surrounded! Send help!”
There was no response. Then, “911, what’s your emergency?”
I inhaled to speak again, but then I heard it. Through the phone, I could hear the chanting. Riley, Riley, Marina, Curtis, Marina, Alaina, Riley. The operator was there.
“911, what’s your emergency?” She said it with a smile, I just know she did. I looked for her through the windows. I got up, scanning, walking throughout the house, passing by them all. Alaina’s bedroom window was still open, only a screen separating us from the chaos. I cursed my sister’s existence and slammed the window shut. Then I opened it and slammed it again. From the window in my room, I saw her. Standing next to Alaina’s lacrosse coach and my mother’s dentist. The operator had a phone held to her ear and was the only one who’s lips did not move. Her smile widened when we locked eyes.
“911, what’s your emergency?” The phone went dead again.
“Are we going to die? Are they going to kill us? What’s the plan here? Do we stay in here forever or should we try to escape?” Alaina rifled through the trash bag for a possible weapon, using the phone as a flashlight. Night had fallen.
“I think we should wait it out,” I said. We discovered that as long as one person looked through the windows at all times, that they wouldn’t move in on us. I stood watch.
“Of course, you think that, Riley. You always just want things to happen to you, you can’t make them happen for yourself.”
“I’m sick of you talking down to me. I think you forget yourself,” I spat at her. I wanted to rip out her fucking hair, the worst part of this was being stuck with her.
My parents had stopped speaking to us. They only murmured quietly to each other, resting on the mattresses, tangled up close.
Our home was shrinking too. Of this I was almost certain. The bed was still in the center of the room, but now only three steps and you could touch the window. The world was closing in on my family. What did it mean, what did it mean?
And why did I feel like it was my fault?
I looked to my ex again. He met my eyes and gave me a nod. He still chanted Alaina’s name. I had to look away.
“Riley!” Alaina gasped and I felt dizzy. The whole room seemed to lurch. I fell, my knees hitting the edge of the mattress. Before, I was across the room, still in the kitchen. I looked back to the kitchen to see Alaina splayed out on the floor, her eyes rolled back in her head. I crawled to her, and blood trickled out of her nose.
“Mom! Dad!” I shouted for my parents but they seized on the mattress, the mattress now pressed up against the window. The people outside stood only a foot away. I heard sirens. Red and blue lights flashed through the home. I heard more marching. I watched as police, firemen, and paramedics joined the ranks of the chanting. They all stared at me now, their faces illuminated by the porch and garden lights, by the flashing sirens. It became harder to read their lips.
I dared a look away from the windows to pull Alaina into my arms. I brought her head into my lap and checked for a pulse. She was breathing. I smacked her.
The sirens cut off. The chanting had changed. They all spoke one word now. I looked back to the windows and every one had a face and body pressed against it, dark silhouettes illuminated by the flashing lights in the nighttime darkness. Their breath fogged on the glass, their hands created ghostly imprints, they were pressing, pressing, as if they could morph inside.
They all chanted, “Stay, stay, stay.”
Shanna Merceron is a Florida writer whose work can be found in many acclaimed literary journals and magazines. Shanna holds an MFA in Fiction from Hollins University, where she wrote stories that explored the darker aspects of humanity and pushed the boundaries of the strange. She is currently at work on her first novel, and when not writing, best spends her time traveling or with her dog. You can read her work via her website at https://linktr.ee/shannamerceron.
Amy is an artist pursing her MFA at Naropa Univeristy. She is founder of Wisdom Body Collective and the Ekphrasis Salon. Her work explores the body, myth, and human origins. http://blondewanderlust.com.