FOUR TIN WALLS
BY RHIANNON DICKSON
The Rusty Toque | Issue 1 | Fiction | July 2011
She can feel the walls move around her, wavering beneath her fingers. Dried, matted hair clings to what’s left of her and with every gasping breath through split lips there’s a whimper of pain. Her back is to the corner, her arms, spread along the walls on either side, but she’s shaking and her hands are cracked and bleeding and she can’t let the walls fall now that she’s the only thing holding them together.
Then, there it is: there’s a hole in the wall and it’s creeping in just to get. She scrambles to cover her mouth and nose, but why is it here? It shouldn’t be here, she should be safe here, and it’s still here and it’s getting closer and she’s pressed to the wall with all the force in her body, legs and arms shaking uncontrollably. She’s holding her breath and blocking her nose but it’s still coming closer and it’s going to get her. Her head aches and her chest burns and the world starts to fade but it’s still coming closer. And, when the world disappears and her heart jumps to a stop, it’s a relief because, finally, she’s safe.
She is twelve when they move. Twelve, and old enough to need her own escape. She scours the house for a place where no one will find her, where no one will think to look. For a couple of months, a corner in the basement is her hideout, and she fills it with her favourite books and toys, even a makeshift bed. The first few weeks are spent combing through the place for any bits and pieces that she can find, because no one thinks to check behind the pipes for things they might be leaving behind. By the time she finishes, her collection includes buttons, coins, keys, and any manner of things that she routinely takes out and wonders how they got where they were and what their story is. But when the kitchen starts flooding and her dad comes to check the pipes, she is thrown back into her bedroom. Their faces as they sit her down to talk are understanding and concerned, with only a hint of ‘disturbed’ beneath the surface.
“Jenny,” they say. “Why would you do that?”
“Do what?” she replies, with the practiced ignorance that seems so innocent to her, but probably comes across as guilty avoidance.
“Hide. Lie. Is there something wrong with your bedroom?”
It’s a beautiful room, and they don’t understand what the problem is. It’s filled with all of Jenny’s things and they always make sure it’s neat and clean. They no longer tuck her into bed or keep tabs on everything she does, but they try to keep her safe and happy. A couple of weeks ago they even invited the neighbour’s kids over so she could make some friends in the neighbourhood, but Jenny disappeared at the first sign of guests, and didn’t appear again until dinner.
Jenny’s quiet; she knew they wouldn’t understand. It’s not safe in her bedroom, it’s not hers. She needs a place where she can be alone and no one can find her, where people will just leave her be, and nothing can go wrong. Nowhere else is safe, but her place will be.
“I don’t know,” she says, and it’s over. There are more questions, more concern, but it’s over. After that, she searches the house for a place that no one goes to, but after a week or two her hideouts are always discovered, and, soon enough, there is nowhere new to hide. The concerned looks fade to annoyance when she refuses to explain or stop, and, eventually, they stop talking to her and start talking about her. From her latest hideout in the games cupboard she can hear them moan about how worrying she is, how crazy.
“I just don’t know what to do,” they console each other.
“I think she needs help,” her mother says, and, “Maybe we should send her to see someone,” her father replies.
She doesn’t mind that they think she’s crazy; she doesn’t mind that they’re sending her away. Maybe there she’ll find her place, and it will be alone and safe and perfect. But she waits, and they don’t send her away, except to the therapist in the building across from her father’s office.
She’s outside one day, half-way through a book that held her interest for the first ten pages, when she notices the shed. It’s always been there, a miniature house with one door and one window. It’s cold, uninviting steel walls are perfect, and she walks towards it, hand already reaching up to try the door. Yet as she reaches it she hears the sliding door open behind her and her mother’s voice from across the backyard.
“Jenny? What are you doing?” There’s an edge of irritation to her voice, “The shed’s locked. You can’t get in. Come inside for lunch.”
Her mother turns around to head back inside, leaving Jenny still facing the shed. With her incessant need to know, Jenny tries the door anyway. But it’s locked, and the disappointment that fills her is expected and brief, because it was too good to be true anyway.
“Why’s the shed locked?” Jenny asks her mother later that week.
“Hmm? Oh, the shed. We just don’t have a key.” Her answer is preoccupied, thinking about what they’ll have for dinner now that Jenny barely eats. It was a little worrying, Jenny’s sudden insistence on purely organic foods, but they’d given up trying to convince her to eat anything else after she locked herself in the bathroom the last time they tried.
“Yeah, but why?”
“The previous owners just never left one, and we haven’t got around to changing the lock yet. What do you want for dinner?” She looks to Jenny, her gaze questioning, and Jenny just shrugs, returning to her math homework.
“Whatever. I don’t mind,” and it’s over.
Jenny’s bedroom is filled with the trinkets she’s collected over the years, from buttons to bottle caps to keys to coins. Everything she’s ever found is laid out neatly in rows on shelves along each wall. Every day she picks a shelf and polishes each object on it, so that they’re always neat and always pretty, always clean and always tidy. They’re organised and categorized, a timeline from left to right of buttons, bottle caps, keys and coins.
Her collection from the crawl space in the garage has the key. It’s small and gold and forgettable, and somehow she knows it will be the answer to everything. The shed is just as bare on the inside as it is on the outside – tin walls, tin roof, and a small window that she cracks open to let some air in when it’s hot and she can’t breathe. She sets up a space for herself in that shed, with shelves for books and homework and a lamp and clothes, everything she needs. Each day after school she runs upstairs and locks her room behind her before climbing out the window and sneaking off to her shed. Sometimes she’ll lay the sleeping bag on the floor and set her alarm for 6:00am, just so she’ll have time to climb into the bed inside before her mother wakes her up for school. It’s her place, her own, and no one else will ever know.
She is fourteen when the sickness starts to spread. Fourteen, and old enough to worry. People say it’s just another flu, but she knows better. When someone at her school catches it, she starts to avoid people more and more. A cough, a sneeze, puts her on edge. She doesn’t understand how people can be so calm about it, dismiss it as nothing when it’s everywhere. Everywhere she goes there are red noses and pale skin and wheezing breath, and one day in science class Pamela McGroaty faints and has to be taken to the hospital.
After that, she carries a container of hand sanitizer in her purse, taking it out every few minutes to destroy any germs or sickness that could possibly be lingering. At home, she retreats to her shed and rarely leaves, seeing her family only in the moments before and after school. In those moments, she watches them closely for any sign of illness – a sniffle, the tell-tale dizziness, a sneeze – and relaxes only once they’ve passed inspection. They stopped questioning her strange behaviour long ago, and now simply sigh as she runs them over inch-by-inch with her eyes each day. They’re tired, they’re confused, but the therapist they took her to didn’t help and they don’t know what to do now.
It is during one of these inspections that she sees the eyes: red-rimmed, sick, and accusing.
“Do not even think about running off,” her mother says with desperate malice in her voice, breathing that terrible sickness all over Jenny. “You, you appear only when you want something, when it’s time for food, or money, only to disappear and leave us to deal with the mess! You’ll stay and you will help this time, because we’re your family and we need your help.”
She cringes, backing away from the words, from the disease, and turns toward the stairs. She has to get to her shed. Her breath comes in quick gasps as she runs to her room, intent, even now, on maintaining her secrecy.
“Don’t you walk from me, Jennifer! For once, you’re going to stay and do something for this family!” her mother nearly screams in desperation.
But Jennifer is already out the door and through the window and running across the backyard. It’s following her, she is sure of it. It clings to her, tendrils reaching through her skin to grab hold of her and never let go, making her sick. She just has to get to her shed. She’ll be safe in her shed. She has to get to her shed. So she runs and runs until the tin door is closed and locked behind her and the window is forced shut and nothing can get in.
Nothing can get in.
With a whimper she falls to the ground, searching through her bag for the sanitizer she knows is there. Again and again she rubs it on her hands, on her face, on everywhere she can reach. And then the bottle is empty and there’s nothing to do but crawl towards the corner because what if it followed her in? What if it’s waiting outside? What if she’s already sick?
She can’t get sick, she won’t let them do that to her. So she’ll stay. She’ll stay. As long as necessary, she’ll stay. She’ll stay until the sickness is gone.
RHIANNON DICKSON is a 2nd year student at the Don Wright Faculty of Music and is majoring in Double Bass Performance. She has no previous writing experience except for a creative writing class in Grade 12, and has only taken the one writing class at Western – a fact that she hopes to change next year.