Voices (Short Story) Read Count : 43

Category : Stories

Sub Category : Drama

Voices

Alira Cohen

    When they were teenagers, they used to count red cars in the school parking lot. Otherwise, they would sit there waiting for the bus without much to say. Jules had always been a person of few words, but her brother had never gotten used to that. As they would move past the big yellow school buses all lined up one after the other, Cyril would wave to his friends if he saw them sitting behind the dark glass of the windows. Jules would wave to no one, except for Gabriel, who she had to wave to. Her brother had told her it was rude not to wave, since they both knew him. “You don’t want to lose people because they think you don’t care about them,” he’d say to her. Only a year older, and he thought he was so wise. Jules didn’t know what her damage was, or why she was still pondering events that no longer held the meaning they once did. All she knew was that when she thought about Gabriel, she felt small. Sometimes she would see his face as she was falling asleep, see him grinning at her with his chapped lips and his acne scars. Her brother had always insisted he’d been a good enough friend to her. 

Apartment 206 didn’t feel like home. Cyril promised that it soon would. It was nothing special; small and old, with signs of its age etched into the walls. They were scuffed with grey streaks, marked with scratches in the offwhite paint. There were cracks in the floorboards, but there was also a rug that looked like a sunset, which Jules liked. With the money he had, Cyril had been able to get a little coffee table where a clay statue of a horse he was working on sat. They had another small table in the kitchen, some wooden chairs, and a green couch. Jules still wanted a tv, but they didn’t have one of those yet. She hadn’t wanted to move in with Cyril, but he had insisted. The only thing that made her feel at home was a picture she’d nailed to the wall, a monster she’d drawn, a creature with a fluffy body, sharp ears, a beak, and beady eyes; his name was Gregory.  According to Cyril, there was “plenty of room” and the neighbors were quiet. She knew very well that her brother was just trying his best. His best was making sure she didn’t end up a starving artist on the street, as he put it. Until she learned how to be on her own, she’d be with him. 

            “Ya know, you’re still more than welcome to come with me,” he told her over breakfast about a week ago. He was going to visit their old friends in the city. “This is your last chance.” He shot her a quick smile to show that he wasn’t upset with her.            

“I wanna stay here and work,” she replied, looking down at the napkin she was sketching on. 

Cyril chortled. “On your book with no words?”

Jules’ brow furrowed. She lifted her hand to adjust her glasses. “It’s a visual book. You can say a lot without words.”

Her brother laughed. “I’m just messing with you, man. No need to get all pissy.” He leaned back in his chair and ran a tan hand through his curly dark hair. She could tell that he was trying to be patient, but it was hard. It was always hard, wasn’t it? 

“So, maybe next time, then?” he asked. 

            Jules nodded solemnly. “Next time.”  

    That was possibly a lie. She didn’t want to go back to the old days, back to high school. That didn’t sound like much fun. Not fun, like taking a walk around town alone on a rainy day was fun. Back in those days, she wouldn’t get much time alone after school. Never leave Jules alone, that’s what her father told her mother who told her brother and like a good sport he listened. They would hang out with a group of geeks, some neighborhood kids. These were Cyril’s friends, or at least, he said they were. There were five of them–Jules could remember them just enough: Omar, the leader with his perfect posture and his silver braces; Pete, Mya, and Jonny, blonde triplets who stayed close at his heels. She could remember that Omar wore turtlenecks and long sleeves to cover something up, rashes, he said. Pete and Jonny dressed the same as each other despite not being identical–light blue shirt, a belt, and navy jeans. Mya wore all black sweatshirts and sweatpants and had a faux hawk, she pretended she could skate. Their faces all blurred together sometimes, but Gabriel, Gabriel was the loudest. He was Cyril and Omar’s age, one year older than Jules and the triplets. He made the plans, he knew all the best places. His hair was long for a guy’s and relatively unkempt; it curled and hung down around his shoulders. His glasses were taped in the middle and Jules noticed that he spoke with a slight lisp. But he was large, very large, so the other kids were wary of him. He liked to play with matches and burn ants under a magnifying lens, and when he got bored he’d take out a rubik’s cube that he could never solve. Like Cyril he was booksmart. He was brighter than the triplets, and they always needed to remember that. He wasn’t as bright as Omar, but no one talked about that. The kids would go out to the field near the public school before heading to the park, and when the group would run ahead too fast Jules would always fall behind. It wasn’t just that her legs were much shorter than theirs, but her coordination was lacking. Sometimes she would stumble, and Cyril would go back for her. She could remember the day that Gabriel went back instead.          

When he reached her, he pulled her to her feet. She remembered how the wind blew, the grass moving at her ankles. Then, assessing their respective sizes, he tripped her up and let out a hyena cackle. It hurt. The others had been too far away to see. His green eyes looked so large behind his glasses. After having his laugh, he extended a hand to her.“Ya gotta watch your step there, soldier,” he snorted. Jules looked at him and stayed on the ground. The amusement on his face began to twist into disappointment. “Come on, you can trust me,” he promised. “I won’t hurt ya.” Reluctantly, she reached forward and took his pink piggish hand. 

He got a bit too comfortable before they even exchanged words. He asked why she always tagged along, if Cyril was really her brother, why her skin was so much lighter than his. He was just trying to mess with her, but it didn’t sit well. It made the contents of her stomach burn and bubble like a toxic stew. She could feel it writhing within her body. The field they were standing in seemed to expand around her as he spoke with his booming voice, a grin plastered on every word. He was so loud. So loud. Her ears rang. Did he mean to be that loud? Was it just her mind playing tricks on her again? Cyril had told her that Gabriel was nice enough. 

“He was adopted,” Jules stuttered, she wanted to make him stop. “That’s why, if you gotta know. That’s why.” 

His smile grew. “Oh, she’s not mute! What a twist!” He got closer to her after helping her to her feet, and she flinched a bit. He gave her a look then, a sour sort of look, but it was fleeting. He soon got back to smiling and asking her questions. “So tell me then, do you like him?” he asked.

“Who?” she demanded, rubbing her ear. He was a fast talker. 

“Your brother. Is he nice? I figure it must be annoying sometimes, to always be stuck with you.”

Jules looked away from him. She didn’t know how to approach his teasing, so she allowed it to linger in the air on its own. “Yeah, ya know, he’s nice. Nice as he can be, I guess. He has patience.”

Gabriel looked down at her and smirked as they walked. She felt like a mouse being stared down by a mountain. She glanced briefly, and saw that there was a ragged pink scar on his arm poking just out from beneath his rolled up grey sleeve. “He kinda hovers,” he said, softer now. “That must be a lot, huh?” He was close. Jules felt warm and cold at the same time. 

The girl nodded again. “Well, I can’t be alone much. But that’s ok, if I were alone I wouldn’t know where to go.” 

Gabriel was quiet. Then he said, “He told me you’re autistic.”

Her cheeks went rosey with embarrassment. Something else filled her, a blue hot humiliation coursing through her veins and scorching her arteries. She contemplated it then, how delicate the human ego, how fragile she was. Gabriel’s expression was gentle now. “Well, I am,” she spat, “but that’s not why. He just hovers because it’s me. It’s me, and I can’t be alone.” 

“It’s alright, you’ve nothing to be ashamed of,” Gabriel insisted. “I mean, it’s all complicated, isn’t it?” He chuckled. Jules remembered instances of him mocking her by casting the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and walking with a bit of a hunch, dragging his feet. She decided not to mention that to him. 

The kid hung her head low. “I got lost too many times.” 

Gabriel had taken her number that day with the promise that he’d be able to help her with her math homework. He called a lot and Jules was never one for talking. She supposed that this hurt him somehow, but it wasn’t enough to stop him from laughing at her confusion when she wouldn’t understand him, from shoving her over when she tripped. There was a viciousness disguised as playfulness, but all the same they grew closer. She could’ve guessed that she’d become his clown, his entertainment. He loved explaining to her what she couldn’t understand, and even more so, he loved doing this in front of everybody else. Jules supposed that she was fun to laugh at. Even with this being so, her fascination in him never wavered. He had this sort of grace about him, a charm and an intelligence that she longed to present. She knew that when he put his evils aside, he had a soft spot, and if one were to blink, they’d miss it. He had taken her in as a friend of sorts when no one else would, after all. Him being a gifted artist, he’d taught her a lot of what she knew now. It shouldn’t have been enough to save him, though. She liked the way he touched her when he was teasing, she liked the way he grinned at her. She didn’t want to like it because it hurt, but there was a beast in her that hungered for it. Ultimately, though, that’s all it was, teasing. He made sure to never so much as hug her. Despite everything, people seemed to like Gabriel–she thought about the few times she’d attempted to speak around the others and they’d drowned her out; that made her wonder why people could never seem to like her. Was her silence and somber demeanor worse than his sharp tongue? 

As her memories grew blurrier, the world around her followed suit. She hugged herself tightly. The deep blue hue of night crept beyond the window, open just a crack. If she listened closely enough, which she did, she could hear the old pipes hissing. Nighttime frightened Jules. On the other hand, the electricity bill was a far more terrifying beast than whatever awaited her beyond the blanket of shadow.  All the same, she continued to fight herself over whether or not she should turn it off. When she thought of what could possibly fix this, she told herself that tomorrow if she found the chance she would walk from here to the end of town.  Don’t be an idiot, turn it off. No, they’ll kill you if you turn it off. Cyril will kill you if you keep it ON. Remember, living isn’t cheap. 

It would be OK if she wasn’t in the apartment when Cyril got back. She would watch and listen to the birds, she would record the different calls they made. She would write down ideas for her book, a story about Gregory, a beast lost in a world of humans and animals that didn’t trust him. She would decide whether or not he’d end up finding his way. Making her decision, Jules stood up and crossed the room. The floor boards whined and groaned beneath her feet, sending shivers through her. Within a second, the room was pitch black, and she stumbled back to the couch. Immediately, she felt as though the shadows were gently constricting her. She pulled the blanket that Cyril normally kept draped over the couch onto her body, it was bitten up with holes. After about another hour of lying half-awake, her eyelids sank down and closed.

At 9:30 AM, Jules awoke. She felt how her cloudy grey eyes were sunken from sleeplessness. Compulsively, she picked at the old scar on her upper lip as she leaned back against the couch. She picked up her phone off of the green cushion and checked her notifications. They were all messages from Cyril–he said he was going to be back at about 3:00 PM. There was a desperate silence about Apartment 206. 

She sat there sprawled out on the couch, her face glaring at the white nothing above her. She tried to lift herself, but her limbs felt so heavy. Something was tangled up in the back of her mind, something she could hardly touch. Her leg dangled off of the couch, and her foot brushed against a crumpled up piece of paper that lay on the floor. She glanced down at the paper before bending to pick it up. Her shoulders ached whilst she looked at the drawing, a sketch of a girl wandering through an empty hallway by herself. There were no popping colors to it, just black-tinted grey lockers that flanked the silhouette of the girl like a cage, as though they were closing in. Jules didn’t like this image, and she didn’t entirely recall the process of creating it. But in the same instance, she couldn’t take her eyes off of it. At the edge of the paper, another shadow was creeping away.

It made her think back, perhaps too hard. In tenth grade, Jules would stay behind after school to avoid getting stuck with the pack. Cyril never appreciated this because he’d worry for her and their parents would become angry, but eventually Jules was able to convince them that she could stay after school by herself. Though they’d caved in, they still didn’t like how frequently she would do so. She didn’t have any clubs or friends to use as an excuse–only homework. Sometimes Gabriel would call her when she stayed behind and whisper out: “You’re so ungrateful, looking a gift horse in the mouth like that. Where else are you going to find people who are willing to hang out with you? Huh? We all know no one is going to want you. No one is going to deal with you.” Other times, he would stay after as well, either for Art club or to try and find her. There were days when he’d catch  her and she could muster up the energy to humor him with conversation, but mostly she would hide and when he’d catch her she would reward him with silence. Eventually it appeared as though he was giving in, until one afternoon in late May. 

Jules could remember sitting in the stairwell; she was wearing a blue sweatshirt that she thought went quite nicely with the blue tinted walls of her high school. Her long sandy hair wasn’t tangled that afternoon like it usually was, it was tied back. She’d recently gotten a nasty cut on her lip from a fall a couple days back, and she could still taste its freshness. There was a small cavernous area where she hid underneath the stairs, and the doors that led from that stairwell into the lunchroom were closed. She thought she’d timed it right where nobody would be coming down to enter the lunchroom, but she felt the pulse of primal fear surging through her when she heard someone’s boats hitting the stairs as they walked. This person was humming to themselves, a tune she didn’t recognize. Jules tucked herself away into her hiding spot, the cavern beneath the stairs, and she soon enough saw the silhouette of a boy. He stopped to stretch his arms; she began to sweat when she saw that it was Gabriel. What a horrible friend she’d been not to recognize that it was his humming, that was the second thing she thought. The feeling in the room shifted as he noticed that something was amiss. He turned his head, allowing her to see the side of his face and the purple scars he’d gotten from poking and scratching at the skin on his jaw. His green eyes stared into her when he turned around and saw her sitting in the shadows. She thought he was going to be angry, but he just smiled. 

His smile went away when he realized he should’ve found this confusing. It was replaced with a gentle concern. Approaching her carefully, he said, “Jules? What the hell are you doing? Get outta there.” She wanted to listen but she was frozen in place. “You’re gonna get your clothes dirtier,” he continued, still trying not to seem frustrated. Then he stopped, calculated his next move, and spoke softly to her, “You mind if I sit next to you?” 

Jules didn’t know what else to do; she said she didn’t mind. Her friend crept up beside her and sat down. For a moment quietness lingered between them. Finally, Gabriel said, “You better change soon, Jules.” 

She glanced up at him. “Whaddya mean?” she demanded. 

Gabriel moved his body forward a bit and hugged his knees. “It’s about time for someone to be honest with you,” he answered. “You have nothing to say. That’s why your stories aren’t going to go anywhere. That’s why you’re alone. You have time to change that, but you’re losing that time quickly.” 

When he saw that her face was sinking, he inched closer to her. “You should hang out with us again,” he said. “You can learn so much from people. You’re all alone here, you have nothing to do, nothing to look forward to, nothing to live for. You have nothing.” 

“I don’t wanna,” Jules whimpered, trying not to weep. 

Gabriel’s face was getting angrier, but he quickly softened his expression. “But don’t you have fun when you’re with us?”

“I can never talk.”

“Because you choose not to.”

“It’s lonely being with people.”

“I can make it not lonely anymore. You have to try harder, though.”

He cupped her face in his hand and she strained to avoid eye contact with him. It only made it worse, so she looked at him though it caused her pain. Gabriel smiled again. “You have beautiful eyes, Jules,” he said. 

The anger boiled inside of her, but this time it was mixed with something else. She thought of all the times he’d humiliated her in front of people and she wanted to rip into his skin and tear it away. She thought of the times he’d called her retarted, the times he’d mocked her, and she wanted to suffocate him. But she also thought of the times he’d helped her, the precious moments he’d spent with her. She thought about how he hadn’t allowed her to be alone. These feelings all marinated together and flowed in and out of each other. They took part in a sadomasochistic dance with one another. She didn’t know how to answer these screaming, contorting feelings, so her body answered for her. She pushed forward and, for a moment, her lips touched his. What for a blistering second was a taste of true human intimacy soon became something much harsher, a heavy impact and blood filling her mouth. Jules was on the ground then, with Gabriel screaming at her, words she couldn’t quite remember. The pain shot bursting through her jaw and rattled in her teeth. 

I’m sorry. 

The last thing she recalled was him helping her up. The story was that she’d fallen again. 

Her mind pulled itself out of the memory with the grace of a rollercoaster. Feeling the shakiness of it, Jules’ stomach began to spin like clothes in a washing machine. She threw the piece of paper and stood up too quickly, bumping the coffee table beside her. Something began to fall. She quickly got a hold of herself and caught it right before it could plummet to the floor below. Jules looked down in horror and locked eyes with the object in her hands--it was the clay model Cyril had been working on, the horse. The thought of it hitting the ground and breaking into a million pieces played over and over again in her head. Still shaking, she placed it back on the table as gently as she possibly could. 

“I’m sorry,” she found herself saying out loud. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” She backed away from the table and stood right in front of the couch, just staring forward. 

Her phone buzzed on the cushion beside her and she looked down to see that Cyril was trying to call her. With a trembling hand, she picked up the call. 

“Hey?” she croaked. 

“Hey. You doin’ alright?” her brother asked. 

“Mhm.” 

“Ya sure?”

“Yeah, totally. Yeah, yeah. Don’t worry.” 

He was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “OK, if you insist. Listen, I’m gonna be at the apartment in, like, an hour. I’m just calling to tell you what’s up and make sure you’re OK.” 

The two of them exchanged goodbyes before she hung up. Her vision was getting blurrier, her head pounding. That was fine, she could fight it off. She was just glad she’d been able to leave that conversation with Cyril quickly. The orange flower pattern on the rug looked like a burning sunset, it brought her joy. Yes. It brought her joy. She wished she could be still, so still. Her hands were shaking. 

Retard. 

Desperately, Jules struggled to catch her breath. She felt like a frightened animal, a mouse trapped under a feline’s paw, a victim of her own lunacy. She curled up on the couch, holding herself like she always ended up doing. She figured she should probably disappear before Cyril showed up, even if she wasn’t in this state by the time he arrived. She could only feel that she was an embarrassment, a joke, an overgrown pest. Another hour or so without her wouldn’t hurt him. She tried to get a hold of herself, she knew she had to calm down. Before she knew it, she found herself in the kitchen pouring some of Cyril’s whiskey. Then some more. Then some more. 

……

Jules woke up to the feeling of someone nudging her back into consciousness. 

“Jules,” Cyril’s voice spoke gently. “Come on, get up.” 

Her tired grey eyes pried themselves open. Everything aside from her brother’s face was blurry. Her body was groggy yet trembling. She was upside down, her legs propped up against the face of the couch and her upper body on the floor. There was spilled alcohol, soaked into the cushions. The burning colors of the rug struck her eyes when she looked down at it. 

Cyril carefully helped Jules to her feet. “There, there, easy does it,” he said.

Her face was flushed. As they passed the coffee table with the horse sitting safely on it, she felt embarrassment strike her, though she was glad it was still in one piece. 

The bedroom door creaked as he opened it. The paint was beginning to chip off of it, and Jules’ focus zeroed in on the small white splinters. Upon sitting her down on the firm pink mattress, Cyril placed his hands on her shoulders. “You don’t have to tell me what happened,” he said to her, “you don’t have to tell me why you did it. I’m not angry. I just want to know how you’re feeling right now.” 

Jules looked down at her feet. She was more experienced with alcohol than Cyril probably suspected, but it still wasn’t much experience. She’d bitten off way more than she could chew. She wanted to disappear into herself, become completely and utterly invisible to him. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to run. She couldn’t just attempt to lie because she knew that would only make things worse, so she said nothing. These thoughts tried to reach her from the back of her mind, but in the forefront there was only the swaying of the world around her. It rocked back and forth and shook under her limbs. It made her dizzy, so she couldn’t talk right. She didn’t bother talking at all. She just grumbled in response. 

“How is your head?” Cyril asked. “Does it hurt right now?”

“Hurts,” she told him simply. “Hurts, like you.” 

He shook his head. “I’m not hurt,” he told her. “I just want you to be OK.” 

“I-I tried to draw,” she stuttered. “I tried to draw, tried to draw, tried to write, it’s hard to write.” 

“I know,” Cyril answered. “You just have to keep trying. But not right now. You’ll try again once you sleep this off.” 

“Sleep it off,” she parroted him.

“Yup, that’s right.”

She knew there was still time for her to make this right, or at least, make it better. All the same, she couldn’t bring herself to move. She felt as though she’d collapse if she attempted to stand.  

“Get some rest,” Cyril told her. He stood up while she stayed seated on the bed. Before he left, Jules’ trembling jaw opened again, and she said to him, “I wanted to go, I wanted to go, Cyril.”

He turned to look at her. “Oh?”

“I loved my friends. I loved them. They tried.” 

Cyril smiled gently. “There’s always next time,” he said. “Gabriel was asking about you. He said he misses you. You should really answer his calls, I think he’d appreciate it.” 

The words hardly registered. 

 She watched him leave and shut the door behind him–its echo played over and over in her mind. She looked at the picture of her and her brother on the small desk beside her bed. She forgot whether or not that one was taken by her mother.

Jules wondered how she could rest with all this static noise playing in her brain. Maybe he did understand what she was going through. In her isolation, Jules remained quiet, and listened to the sound of laughter coming from the other room. A small smile crept up the creases of her mouth as she heard Cyril happily talking to someone on the phone. 

I haven’t ruined it, she thought. Life really does go on without me. 


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