“I need your eyes,” Ben said, scanning the road through the windshield. “You’re supposed to be the navigator and you’re not paying attention.” And then, under his breath, “like usual.”
In fairness, she wasn’t. Amanda was watching a huge group of blackbirds alight from an electrical line, together, a living swirl of beaks and feathers, rapid heartbeats and beady eyes; all moving as one. Oh, to have that intimacy, that instinctual familiarity; to know in their muscles and bones, to not even have to think to be so perfectly synched. There was a word for it, she knew, but it didn’t come.
“Sorry,” she said and looked at her phone. She was given the job of navigating so that she couldn’t daydream, couldn’t use this time to work either, “it’s not for another mile.” She reached over and turned on the radio to cover the uncomfortable silence.
When the voice came on, the reporter only said five words before Ben jabbed the button violently. “Not this shit again.”
First it was just on the TV. A sideways glance from the newscaster as he read the teleprompter. A small tremble of the anchor’s hand on the desk. Catastrophe at a distance. Not here. Everything so very far away. Fuzzy. Indistinct. They didn’t know anyone affected. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as all that? The Whitehouse issued loud declarations that everything was fine. Reports otherwise were lies they said, but it was creeping. Airports felt like bullseyes.
“Just follow these new rules,” the President said. “For your protection.”
Ben shook his head and rolled his eyes every time the talk of the changes came on the news, yet, he still bought months’ worth of meat and a new freezer. He filled the pantry with fruit leather and boxed mac and cheese. There was a wall of toilet paper in their garage. “What’s the harm?” he said, “just as long as we’re together.” Amanda stopped shoe shopping since there was nowhere to go. When she lost her job, no one takes pottery classes in a pandemic, she stopped sleeping and instead wandered the dark house, checking and rechecking their small daughter’s room. “Don’t worry,” Ben said. “I’ll take care of you.” A police cruiser drove past their house every 30 minutes; it didn’t make her feel any better.
The new normal meant no more daycare. Instead of spending her days encouraging students to mold mud into art, or attending gallery openings, or holed up in her studio, Amanda sat on her back deck, worked on her tan while she watched Violet splash in the sprinkler, and talked across the fence with her neighbor. Like Ben, Michael was now working from home due to the new government rules; unlike Ben, he wasn’t holed up in the basement. Amanda was so grateful for his company, that when his wife came home from her job at the hospital each night, and he nodded goodbye, that she found herself pinching her nose and looking to the sky. She hadn’t left the yard for weeks, and Ben progressively went to work earlier, and came back upstairs later. The first week she realized it didn’t matter if it was five or not before she uncorked her wine, and now, she was lucky to make it past lunch. In bed at night, Amanda would tell Ben what Michael’s wife saw at the hospital.
“Shh.” He said. “We’re safe. We’re together. Michael isn’t good for your mental health.” She clenched her teeth, and held her breath until she saw stars behind her closed eyelids.
“I really like this though,” he said, squeezing the new soft of her inner thigh, or the extra curve of her breast. “Sexy. Staying home suits you.”
Soon, the windows in their neighbors’ houses started going dark. She waited on the back deck for Michael all day, but he didn’t show. The hollow in her chest widened. “I think people are leaving,” she said that night over pot roast. “I think we should go, too.”
“They’re just afraid,” he said, with a sneer, like fear was a weakness.
Sitting on the couch later, watching reruns, she asked him what was the first thing he was going to do when this was over. “I’m just going to be sad,” he said. “I like this. I like us all being together. I like you being home. I like knowing where you are.” And at his words she missed her students and her friends with a ferocity that gave her indigestion, and she hid the bags that she’d packed in the back of the closet.
The next night, she saw lights outside, and managed to make it to the driveway in time to see the Ramirezes from across the way turn the corner. Their Honda was filled to bursting and the tailgate bounced. When she woke Ben he said, “we’re not like them.” Amanda bit her tongue and squeezed her fingers into fists until her fingernails left blood in her palms. When the news started talking about thugs and gangsters, about perverts and pedophiles running to the woods to escape the police, she added weapons to her hidden bags and started YouTubing homesteading skills.
In the morning she hauled her body, stiff with insomnia, from her bed and into the kitchen. He was freshly showered, at the table, sipping coffee and scrolling his phone, waiting. She made his eggs and toast and the plate made a louder than usual smack as she laid them on the table. She winced.
“I feel like you don’t want me here,” he said.
“At the table? You wanna eat breakfast at your desk, too?”
“I would have thought that you would have been happy to spend more time with me, more time together.”
“More time together? You’re locked in your office all day. I’ve never been so lonely. You’re close enough to supervise, to pop in and tell me I’ve left the clothes in the washer too long, but if I actually need you…”
“You don’t feel safer with me home with everything that is going on out there?”
“You finally agree that something is going on? Can we please, can we please get out of here. I can pack us up, and we can get in the car, and take Violet and just–”
“You, think we are in danger. You, are afraid and anxious. Don’t I make you feel better?”
Amanda bit the cuticle on her index finger.
“You are my everything. Have I ever given you any reason not to trust me?” he said. He hadn’t, she thought, before.
When the men in uniforms came to the door, she was too afraid to feel smug. She was too busy trying to still her hands and her heart as the men explained that their house now belonged to the government, and they would have to pay a tax in order to keep it, plus fines for all the rules they had broken. As Ben pulled out his credit card and asked how much, the huge men looked at each other and laughed before they said that money was worthless. But Amanda’s anger came as they were shoved into the back of the black SUV, and if there hadn’t been a gag in her mouth she would have told Ben to go fuck himself. Instead she held five-year-old Violet’s hand in hers and tried to make soothing expressions with her eyebrows while her heart pounded in her chest.
The SUV stopped outside the civic center. Amanda hadn’t been here since the concert they attended for Ben’s birthday and she couldn’t parse the difference between the drunken night of flashing lights, and the beat of drums thrumming through her stomach, with this silence and fear. The men in uniform pushed them out onto the sidewalk, pulled their gags, and put headphones on their heads. “Don’t take these off,” they said. At first, she was happy that she no longer had to listen to Violet humming and hiccupping. She wanted save her baby from any discomfort or hurt. But Amanda tasted bile in her mouth, she was just barely keeping control of her trembling limbs, and a respite from her daughter’s terror was a physical relief. The men left them on the sidewalk at the end of a line. A female voice in her ear said, “Proceed to the entry.” Amanda searched for the speaker, looked in the windows of the buildings surrounding, but found no one. She tapped Ben on the shoulder and mouthed, “Let’s go. Let’s run” as she nodded toward the alley.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said, but she couldn’t hear him, she could only see the shapes that his mouth made because the woman in her ear demanded that she move toward the door. Ben headed toward the building and he had Violet’s hand, and so Amanda followed, although she found it impossible to stop looking at the alley and her feet, and thinking about how easy it would be to just move in that direction. In the doorway, she grabbed his arm and shook her head. He pushed the earphone off her ear just enough to whisper over the insistent bitch of a woman.
“You’re my everything. I will take care of you. I would take a bullet for you and Violet. I know in my gut that this is going to be okay.”
She threw up on the floor. It splattered on her shoes. She hadn’t thought about the chance of him having to take a bullet. What exactly the payment was, if not money, made her bowels loose.
The line wound down a hallway. The couples and families were silent and twitchy. Amanda wondered what was coming through Violet’s headphones. The girl was wide eyed, but her mouth was finally closed. They shuffled toward a corner, down an even longer hall, and then through a door. The room was semi dark. The door closed behind them. Amanda wanted to press the crash bar to see if it was locked and they were trapped, but instead looked down at Violet and smiled, squeezed her baby’s sweaty hand in her own.
There were three families ahead of them. She stretched to see what was happening. Two kiosks with lit panels, like where she used to buy tickets at the movies, sat at the front. The adults were directed to the panels by a middle-aged woman. She was round and brunette. Amanda relaxed a little. The woman was not large, or holding a gun like the men who came to pick them up. She looked like a librarian, or a paralegal. There was a table behind her, but Amanda couldn’t see what was on it, the shadows were deep.
The lit panels made her think that they were indeed paying with money. The price must be steep if they had to come in person. It’s just money, she told herself. Ben made good money. More than good money. They would be fine. Money solved everything. The people at the front finished on the panels and the woman turned her back and picked up something off the table. Amanda stepped to the right to see. The headphones made her so unaware of her surroundings, that she was startled when she stepped on the foot of a large man in a uniform. She could see the round woman was holding a silver tray, with three small cups. The couple was arguing. The mother of the family put her hands in front of her mouth. The dad swallowed the contents of all of the cups and dropped to the ground. The mom fell too, but a guard grabbed her, and the toddler she was holding, and pulled them from the room. The round woman pressed her fingers to the side of the man’s neck, and then another guard carried him out.
Amanda couldn’t breathe for the panic rising in her.
Her clothes were soaking wet.
She turned to Ben who was staring straight ahead.
The next couple stepped to the panels; they had no children. They pressed buttons until the woman nodded at them, and they took off their headphones and left. No cups. No one on the floor, or soundless screams. A tiny bit of oxygen made it to Amanda’s brain. They could be like that. She felt something hard against her back, pushing her forward.
The couple right in front of them moved to the screens. They, too, had no children. They pressed buttons. The round woman turned to the table, and when she turned back she had on purple surgical gloves and held a scalpel in her hand. The blade caught the low light. Amanda pulled Violet to her, buried Violet’s face in her abdomen as the woman took the man’s left ear in a swift slice and laid it on a silver tray. She then pulled out a cleaver and a towel and a grasped the woman by the wrist.
Amanda shook Ben’s shoulder but he wouldn’t look at her.
She couldn’t believe what she saw. She was freezing cold and pinched the tender part of her inner arm so hard she drew blood. This couldn’t be happening. He’s a web developer and she’s an artist for Christ-sakes. They live in the greatest country in the world and paid off their mortgage in six years.
The guard pushed her forward, and pulled Violet from her hands. Amanda forced her eyes to focus on the screen. There was a list of items they must pay for. Too much meat in the freezer. Too much toilet paper. Bags hidden in the closet. Weapons unregistered, concealed. The prices at the bottom. Amanda’s stomach rolled. Violet owed her left pinky, but they would also take Ben’s or Amanda’s in lieu. That’s an easy decision, she thought. These bastards aren’t touching her daughter. She put her mark next to her own finger.
She owed her right hand. They would also take Ben’s hand in exchange for hers. She doesn’t even consider this. It’s her debt. She put the bags in the closet. She wondered what would happen if they refused to pay. She wondered if that was what the little cups were for. She won’t be able to pot, to do the one thing she is called to do, but she will be able to watch Violet grow up. That will be enough. It will have to be. She swallowed hard and thought about the cleaver and the towel. Her legs felt like logs, and she couldn’t stop shivering as she put the mark next to her hand in consent. She refused to think about the pain. She kept reading.
Ben owed his right foot.
She thought about him playing in the yard with Violet. About them walking on the beach again someday. Below, it said that they were willing to take her left hand for his foot. She thought about the meat, and the toilet paper, and how he refused to even consider leaving.
She looked at her hands silhouetted against the glow of the panel. She didn’t want to make this decision. She couldn’t take his foot, but she couldn’t make herself completely helpless either. It wouldn’t just be the pottery, she thought, she wouldn’t be able to cook, hold Violet, or wipe herself. She’d be completely at the mercy of others.
She left it blank and pressed finish.
A bright red star appeared next to the question of Ben’s debt. It wouldn’t let her finish without answering.
She looked over at him. He was staring at the panel. It’s clear to her what they have to do to survive this: sacrifice.
Murmuration, she thinks. That’s what it’s called.
She wished he would look at her, a smile, a nod, to tell her he understood.
She clicked on her own hand. and before she could change her mind she clicked finish.
A guard brought a chair and put her down on it. She couldn’t see Violet or Ben. The woman came with the gloves, and the cleaver, and the towels. She took Amanda’s left pinkie with a thunk. Wrapped a bandage around the bleeding hand. The pain didn’t register. Just heat. The woman gripped the bandaged hand and raised the cleaver, she held it over Amanda’s left wrist as she made eye contact. Amanda couldn’t decide if it was grace or torture that they took the pinkie from the hand that she owed. Surely, they could have made one cut instead of two? Hell, they could remove the pinkie from the hand after.
She was dizzy. She decided that she was just grateful to have one whole hand left as the blade flashed.
It was a crunch this time, not a thunk.
Her arm felt lighter, like she put down a bag of groceries. She took a deep breath. Her left arm began to throb. It’s okay, she decided, it’s all over now. She can survive this. He promised to take care of her. They will have two hands between them. They will be okay.
The woman put on new gloves, and the snap of the latex drew Amanda’s gaze. Then she reached for Amanda’s right hand.
The world stilled and the air shrieked, and a whispered, “no” fell out of her mouth as she realized what he’d done.
When she returned to consciousness, the woman was holding something smelly beneath Amanda’s nose, and her head was filled with noise. Amanda realized that the headphones were off. She looked down and her arms were wrapped in gauze, and too short. She dry heaved a little bright yellow bile onto her pants.
“You must have a very good marriage,” the woman said.
They were herded back into a van. They weren’t gagged this time and they didn’t have headphones, but they didn’t talk either. Violet stared at Amanda’s bandages and refused to touch her mother. Amanda rested her head against the glass of the window.
They were dropped at their house. When they got inside, he walked her to their bedroom and tucked her in. She sweat beneath the blankets, her rage hot and futile. He worked, shopped for groceries, and cooked. She watched TV, opened her mouth when he held a bite of food in front of it. One day as he is changing her bandages, the skin no longer red and angry, but withered, pink and shiny, she said: “I thought you’d take a bullet for me.”
He said: “I can’t take care of you with only one foot. The hand is a lesser loss.”
“But both isn’t. Didn’t you see. If you’d taken my debt, and I’d taken yours. We could have been even.” She could see in his face that he knew. He knew and he chose this anyway.
“I told you I’d take care of you,” he said. “And I will. You’re my everything and I can’t lose you.”
In bed, that night, she stared at the ceiling and listened to him breathe, each whistle in, and moan out, built fire in her chest. She could smother him, she thought, her pillow and body weight with the element of surprise might be enough. But she knew, if she couldn’t take his foot, she couldn’t kill him. But more, she didn’t want him dead, she wanted to be even.
She slid from the sheets, and scooped the packs from the hall closet. They should have been unpacked weeks ago, they were risking another inspection, another tax, but Amanda was in no position, and Ben didn’t care.
What else could she lose?
She was almost as angry with herself, for not seeing this in him before, for not protecting herself, as she was with him. She knelt beside Violet’s bed and kissed her daughter on the forehead until she woke. “I need you to be my hands,” she said, before the two slipped silently from the house and into the promise of the night.
Meagan Lucas is a Canadian expat who lives in the mountains of North Carolina. She is the author of the award winning novel, *Songbirds and Stray Dogs,* as well as numerous short stories. She is Pushcart nominated, and won the 2017 Scythe Prize for fiction.
Songbirds and Stray Dogs: www.songbirdsbook.com
Storgy’s Review of Songbirds and Stray Dogs:
Social Media Handles & links: www.meaganlucas.com
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