(first few scenes)
A Stranger Piece Of Fiction
Temple Barrow watches his fingers twitch against the faded floral couch.
When the television show clips away to a commercial, his flesh turns from orange to blue.
His wrist lurches, indicating he is moments away from full slumber.
She waits, counts his fledgling snores, and only when she reaches twenty does she tiptoe down the hallway and slide her luggage from beneath her bed. The sound is muffled by the towel she tucked between the floor and the suitcase that morning.
He didn’t fall asleep as quickly as he usually does, and now she must hurry.
Sherwin will be here any minute.
Temple’s phone is on mute, just as Sherwin instructed her, and she keeps the screen face up beside her so she wont miss his text when it finally comes through.
She slips off her baggy sleep shirt, trading it for something more form-fitting. Even though she’s starting to show, she still has all her good curves. Plus, she’s leaving home for good, so she doesn’t need to hide her condition any longer.
If the baby were Sherwin’s, this would all be so much easier.
That’s not true. It would be just as difficult, probably more so. But she’d have a lot less bruises.
She glances to the window and the trees beyond the yard. The sun is long gone, but the branches are still painted with that post-sunset hue impossible to define. Not quite purple, and not quite gold, but a peculiar fusion of complimentary colors, battling for these final moments before settling into harmony among the discord.
Temple wanted to pack some personal items, in addition to a few changes of clothes and the travel toiletries Sherwin bought her. But Sherwin said, No.
No jewelry. No makeup. No books (no books!). Not even a photo of her mother, a woman whose existence was abbreviated by each contraction, every minute spent in labor, until she ceased to exist at all.
She’s to bring nothing, he said. And she’s to leave her cell phone plugged into the wall beside her bed like always.
If anything was flagged as missing, the authorities would know Temple ran away. Sherwin even bought her new luggage, because a missing suitcase would be a dead giveaway. Better to simply disappear. Let accusations flare.
He’ll get what he deserves in the end.
Karma. That’s what Sherwin said.
Temple checks her cell to be sure she hasn’t missed Sherwin’s text. Her fingers tremble. She loses grip of her phone, and when it clatters against the wood, the sound echoes through the house. She holds her breath.
He moves on the couch. A heavy readjustment. A lumbering sigh.
The snoring resumes.
Temple pinches her lips shut and reaches for her overturned phone.
She sits on the rug, her legs crossed before her—Criss Cross Applesauce, that’s the rhyme she was taught in elementary school—and lifts a hardcover book from her dresser, steadying it carefully atop her knees. It’s a scrapbook. A gift from her father when he mistook her love of writing for a desire to collage. But it’s a gift she’s come to use with surprising frequency. An item she dreads leaving behind.
It’s her Vision Book, and Temple opens the cover one last time.
The first image is from a women’s magazine. The model’s face fills the entire page. Her skin has been photoshopped into oblivion, but it’s her eyes that captivate Temple. Large and potent. Brown as an ox. Every striation of her irises has been sharpened to perfection. This is a woman who gets what she wants. The deep wells of her eyes are sinkholes into which the universe delivers all her hopes and dreams. The model’s eyes have been circled with black marker.
The second page shows a woman standing alone in a boxing ring. Her skin glistens with sweat. Her brows are furrowed. She glares at the camera, a challenge, a threat. No one hurts this woman. No one tricks this woman. In the foreground, her fists, bound tightly with athletic tape, have been circled with black marker.
Temple flips through the pages, trying to memorize each thing she’s circled in her Vision Book. The carefree laugh of a blissful woman. The extended middle finger of a rebellious one. The blunt haircut of a bold woman. The crows feet of a peaceful one.
She takes these magazine images into her mind, tries to consume them, absorb them. Like a savage eating the heart of a kill to gain their powers, their knowledge.
Temple’s phone buzzes, and blue light fills the room. She slides her finger across the text notification, and for just a moment, her heart stops beating.
It’s him. It’s Sherwin.
I’m here, it says.
what the mirror saw
The girl is covered in bruises. The mirror noticed this immediately. Elbows. Shins. Even the side of her face is marred with splotches dark as the wood paneled table bolted to the floor. Her lips are pale as the silver lock fastened to the door. Her mouth hangs open and her chest moves.
Up, down. Up, down.
This is the only sign she’s still alive. Her eyes are a unique shade of blue, the color dull and lifeless. Not like the floor, but close. Her hair is the color of faded yellow interior latex paint.
Someone paces outside the door, the shadows of their feet interrupting the light.
Back, forth. Back, forth.
It’s the middle of the night, and the mirror is unaccustomed to seeing lights on at this hour. Outside, rain falls. There are no windows from which to see, but the sound of little pellets hitting the tin roof echoes loudest in this room, where there is no carpet. Only linoleum. Gray with white specks, like graffiti across concrete.
Concrete. That’s the color of her eyes.
The mirror is large, boasting a broad 36” across, though only 18” in height. About 1” deep, as is the case with most mirrors.
The girl shifts in her seat, which is the first motion she’s made in nearly five minutes. She sighs, then cups her hands before her mouth and sighs again, breathing in through her nose. She makes a funny face.
The girl reaches for a bottle of blue Gatorade on the table, and swishes it in her mouth. She looks for a place to spit, but the trashcan was recently emptied, no bag replaced, so the girl swallows it.
The mirror estimates the girl to be about 20” across, 65” in height. About 7” deep. But when she stands to stretch her back, the mirror can see there is more to her dimensions than initially calculated. Her stomach swells slightly, tight and round. The girl places her hands on her belly and pushes her fingers into the meager bulge. The mirror has seen stomachs shaped like this before, but does not know what it means.
There’s a courtesy rap upon the door before two people push into the room, a man and a woman. The mirror recognizes them immediately. It’s seen them many times before.
The girl returns to her chair, curling her fists into her lap and studying her knuckles. The corner of her mouth is smeared with red.
The man takes the seat across from the girl. The woman takes the seat beside her. She holds two cups of steaming coffee in her hands, passing one across the table to the man before taking a long sip from her own. The woman places her hand upon the girl’s shoulder.
“Temple,” the man says, “I’m officer Garin. And this is officer Turner.”
“I remember,” the girl says.
“I wasn’t sure.”
The man pushes a folded paper sack across the table, and officer Turner takes it from him, withdrawing a styrofoam tub and plastic spoon. She slides it before the girl, but the girl only stares at it.
“The best chicken soup you’ll find this side of The Last Frontier,” Garin says. “Just don’t tell my mother.”
Officer Turner smiles. Temple does not.
It must’ve been a joke, but the mirror does not understand what constitutes a joke, and what doesn’t.
“I’m not hungry,” the girl says.
Officer Garin nods and leans back in his chair. He crosses his legs and folds his hands atop his knee. His typical position.
“You are,” he says. “You just don’t know it. Starvation can play tricks on the mind.”
Temple leans over the chicken soup and breathes in the steam, searching for a twinge of hunger. She finds none. But she can tell by the hopeful expressions on the officers’ faces that they want her to take a sip, so she pushes the spoon toward the edge where she can more easily pick it up. Though plastic, it’s heavy in her hand, and she steadies her elbow on the table as she dips the spoon into the broth.
Most of it spills from the spoon before it reaches her mouth.
“There we are, honey” says Turner, exhaling with relief. “Eat slowly, or you’ll do more harm than good.”
Temple lets the liquid flood her mouth. It’s hot, too salty, but she forces it down.
“It hurts to swallow.”
Officer Turner rubs Temple’s shoulder, but it’s not reassuring. It’s not soothing. It’s just irritating.
“Try a piece of chicken,” Garin says. “Then we can talk.”
Temple plucks a shred of meat from the soup with her fingers, and though she grinds it into a paste with her teeth, swallowing is still a challenge.
Officer Garin reaches into a bag by his feet, and withdraws a notebook. It’s the classic composition kind, tape bound and covered in black and white splotches like monochrome camouflage. It reminds Temple of her high school days. She imagines a “Daily Journal Exercise” printed within, or a “Historical Figure Thursday” essay. Beside his notebook, he places his cell phone, unlocking the screen by passcode. He hands it to Temple.
“You should let someone know you’re okay. We can help make arrangements.”
Temple plucks the phone from his fingers. It’s even heavier than the spoon.
Officer Garin taps on his coffee cup as Temple stares at the 10 little block numbers on the screen. She touches none of them.
“Is there a friend you can call?” Turner asks. “Parents?”
Parents. Plural. Why is that always assumed?
Temple lifts a finger, ready to punch in the numbers her father made her memorize years ago, the digits as easily recalled as a nursery rhyme, but she pauses.
No, she can’t call her dad
If only she had a friend to call. What she wouldn’t give for a good old fashioned girl talk right about now. The tell-your-bestie-everything kind. The deepest-darkest-secrets kind.
“No one?” Garin asks.
Temple slides the phone across the table. “I don’t know anyone’s number by heart.”
“State of the modern world,” he concedes. “I don’t even know my own wife’s number, if you can believe it.”
Officer Garin is young. Early thirties, perhaps less. His jawline is peppered with day-old growth, and Temple studies the spread of premature gray vining down from his ears as he tries to appear easygoing, understanding. He wants Temple to like him.
Officer Garin occupies himself with the opening of his notebook, the search for a blank page, and then the tapping of his pen against it. Trying to make her feel as though she’s not being interrogated. But Temple’s seen plenty of crime movies. This is always how the story begins.
She looks around the room, seeing it as though for the first time. The room is bare. No paintings on the wall, just a simple cork board skewered with various papers printed in black and white, wefts of depleted ink through the images. Missing children and missing dogs. Lists of emergency numbers. Take out menus. Above the cork board is a hand-carved wooden sign that reads, Kunot Bay, Alaska’s Hidden Gem.
Officer Turner moves her hand to Temple’s thigh, enraging a bruise beneath her shorts. “The ranger who found you said you were alone, is that correct?”
“Were you hiking alone?”
Temple picks something black from beneath her fingernail, and flicks it to the floor.
There are no plants in the corners. Just a small trash can by the door, small and black, missing a liner. And the mirror. It hangs across from Temple, stretching half the length of the room. She notes the screws in each corner, fastening it to the wall.
As if someone might steal it.
Temple watches her reflection beyond officer Garin’s crossed knees, and leans forward, examining the gauntness of her skin. Her hair is wild, matted and seeded with filth. She doesn’t recognize herself.
“So you were hiking alone,” Turner confirms.
“I was with Sherwin.”
“Is Sherwin your boyfriend? Husband?”
So many questions. Temple grasps the Gatorade bottle so they won’t see her hands shaking.
“Is Sherwin the father of your baby, Temple?”
Her right eye begins to twitch.
“Where is Sherwin, Temple? Did you two get separated?”
Images of Sherwin flash through her vision like a subliminal message, as she stares at the stranger in the mirror. His Cheshire smile. Dimples so disarming they shouldn’t be legal. Chatting with the tour guide. Arguing? Maybe something in between.
She remembers it clearly now, the haze burning off under the hot, fluorescent lights.
The guide told Sherwin there were too many people on the hike already, and they needed to wait for the next one. There were only two other people present, but Temple was too distracted by nausea to consider it an odd statement. While Sherwin persuaded the trail guide with preemptive gratuity, Temple collapsed onto a wooden bench, vomiting across a cluster of recently planted Forsythias. But it wasn’t morning sickness; that’s been gone for weeks. It was something else. The other hikers, a man and woman, spoke to each other in quiet, angry words. The vibe was…off. That’s what Temple thought as another bout of nausea washed over her.
The gut always knows the truth. That sounds like something Sherwin might say.
“Honey, where is Sherwin?”
Temple doesn’t want to say it, and she searches her mind for other responses, other choices, finding none.
Once she says it, it’s real.
Once she says it, there’s no going back.
Temple straightens in her chair and looks to her hands.
“Sherwin’s dead,” she says.
The officers fall silent.
Temple glances one more time to her reflection, and buffs away a swatch of blood near the corner of her mouth. Were it her own blood, she may have licked the smudge from her fingertip. But it is not her own, and she wipes it on her shorts.
Lightning claps across the sky, but the lack of windows in the room shield Temple and the officers from further evidence of the storm. Overhead, the fluorescent bulb begins to flicker.
Officer Garin scribbles something in his composition book, as outside, the rainfall turns heavy, thundering against the tin roof of the Kunot Bay Sheriffs Office.
“Temple,” Garin says, “how do you know Sherwin’s dead?”
Temple runs her fingers along the edge of the table, tracing a seam where the veneer is sealed together.
“I was there.”
Officer Garin inches his chair closer to the table, jolted by the information. He attempts to remain composed, sympathetic, but his body betrays him. His pupils swell, and he bites his lip in anticipation of a more detailed narrative.
Temple pulls away from officer Garin, but tries not to judge him too harshly. This is the kind of town with more snow plows on the road than Ubers. Where no one drinks on Sundays, and the police station shuts down at 5pm sharp. They probably named an intersection after the first local to use a thesaurus.
“My God,” says Turner, giving Temple’s knee a fresh squeeze. “Such a terrible thing to witness.”
“Can I use the restroom?”
Officer Garin breathes slowly, sliding back in his chair. He pushes into the stubble on his chin, as though convincing himself to concede. “Yes. Of course. Officer Turner will show you.”
Temple follows officer Turner down a lightless hallway toward a dark wooden door with a metal stick figure glinting in the dim hallway lights.
“I’ll be right here if you need me,” Turner says.
Temple nods her thanks and swiftly claims the empty room.
The bathroom is spacious, yet the walls still close in on her. She spent days in the forest seeking rescue, praying for civilization. To be found.
It’s all too much. The loss. The interrogation. The decisions in front of her.
But it’s the choice she made.
She can do this. All by herself.
She has to.
Temple closes her eyes and tries to make the bathroom disappear. The walls. The station. The town itself. She tries to smell the trees one more time. Feel the breeze on her skin. The freedom of being completely and totally lost.
Temple turns on the faucet, splashing cold, clean water across her face. She rinses her mouth, spitting into the drain, and looks for paper towels. She finds only a wall-mounted air dryer, opting instead to blot her hands on her shirt.
And then she vomits chicken soup and blood across the porcelain.