Interrupting the Quiet
Natasha Saltes

There was a moment when Sarah saw herself through Jacob's eyes. It happened on a white afternoon. They had been reading in the library upstairs when he insisted they leave. He said they were in the way and too noisy.

"Come on then," Sarah urged. "Get dressed and let us go. If that's what father wants." Jacob was perched on the cracked leather chair; his short legs, the cheerful tassels of a plump pillow, dangled over the edge. He turned the page and continued reading, his finger moving methodically across the crisp paper like the keystrokes of a typewriter.

"Come now," Sarah pleaded. "Today I want it quiet. Let us make it quiet today." She rose from the sofa, smoothing the wrinkles in her pants with the soft cushion of her palms.

"But Tom has just entered the cave," Jacob protested. "He is in the cave right now." He continued reading while his sister moved toward the door. "And it's dark in the cave," he added, lifting his head in time to see her disappear into the gray hallway. He retreated back to the adventure displayed before him. How he wished he were friends with Tom, and Huck too. He would have painted that fence for Tom, anything to be his friend.

Sarah, already wrapped inside her ragged wool jacket, returned with her brother's coat and a pair of snow pants she knew were much too small. For Jacob held himself in girth, not length.

"Stand up now. Come here." The urgency in Sarah's voice pitched fear. "Hurry up, before..."

"Before what?" Jacob dared.

"Before the quiet slips away," she murmured.

With muted reluctance, Jacob put down his book. "It's already away," he replied, pointing to the floor. The two of them dropped their ears to the voices that cried and bounced below them. There was their mother, meowing like an agitated kitten, and their father, Dr. Benjamin Balsworth, bellowing like a circus tiger, roving in angry circles. Jumping from one frustration to another, he was a confused beast on a useless prowl.

"It's still quiet with us," Sarah pointed out. "Hurry up." She nodded approvingly when her brother wiggled into his tight winter clothing. Together they made their way outdoors, unnoticed.

Outside it was a bright heaven. A blanket of purity covered everything. Only the pungent yellow of Sarah's coat and the murky brown of Jacob's snowsuit were untouched. Within a rhythmic crunch, they walked across the lonely field that stretched of clear, flat vacancy. They stopped just past the fence where the pond hid under a lid of ice.

Jacob was thinking about Tom. What adventure would he conjure up here on the square, dull field of Dr. Benjamin Balsworth? No forest to camp in like fugitives, no eerie house to possess. Nothing! There was nothing but emptiness. He started on to the ice first, his sister following close behind.

"Are the fish dead?" Jacob asked.

"Maybe," Sarah replied.

It wasn't as smooth as it had appeared further back. The rough points jabbed at the thin rubber soles of Jacob's boots. "We couldn't skate on this even if we owned a pair," he observed.

Sarah nodded. "Good that we don't have a pair then."

Jacob stopped and lowered his head, inspecting the lumpy bubbles in wonder. "Most fascinating," he breathed. "Ice bubbles!" he proclaimed, glancing at Sarah. "Ice bubbles!"

Sarah adjusted her mittens and watched as Jacob began with his foot. He raised a chubby leg and pushed it down, punching in a bubble. It made a satisfying popping sound and the water beneath was released, smiling and winking.

"I need another," Jacob hurried, as though he were sucked inside an instant addiction, and before Sarah could object he lifted both legs, landing with a startling crack and gurgle. How quickly he had gone from a freezing heaven to a frigid wet hell. He was purple almost instantly, puffing in wheezy breaths.

"Sarah! Sarah! My hand!" Now it was his voice that adopted urgency and fear. "My hand! Take it! Take it, Sarah!" His words crouched on anxious shivers. One of Jacob's desperate hands clutched the shaky edge, the other in the air, begging for a tight grasp.

Sarah took a frightened step back. He was too round and the hole too eager for him, too eager for another. Her fingers would slip through his or else succumb to his weight if she reached out to him. Sarah knew the shaky edge in a sense offered a sort of loyalty that she couldn't.

"No." She shook her head, rejecting the frantic twitch of his fingers. The purple already seeping over, blackening the veins, congealing the red. "No," she choked again, trembling.

It seemed as though the figure suddenly appeared before them. He was long and cloaked in a sort of darkness that blemished the white. His limbs were valiant and firm. He swept down with humble grace, plucking Jacob from the greedy hole. Sarah watched, blinking as her brother's purple, shaking body was set gently on the soft shore. The dark figure then soared across the pond, as a voracious raven absorbed by distance. He was just someone from somewhere, but to Sarah he was somehow magical.

She tried to carry Jacob, but it was quicker if he walked. His joints would freeze and paralyze him; he needed the movement, needed to get home. Each step was a puncture of agony, each breath a deep cut. He had to get home. Tom was depending on it. Tom needed Jacob to read him out of the cave. Jacob needed to save Tom.

Inside the house, trays of hors d'oeuvres hovered before glutinous eyes. Cheese drops were shoved inside steaming mouths, pushed down tight throats with pudgy fingers then drowned with shimmering cocktails. Ravenous tongues licked salty lips, begging for more. The music was inviting, lifting heavy arms into spirited lightness while the chatter flirted and grinned.

They fell through the door. Both of them, sprawled across the front entrance, atop delicate leather heels and clunky loafers. "Father!" Sarah yelled. Jacob sputtered painful coughs and flopped on the floor like a fish succumbing to death. Dr. Benjamin Balsworth appeared suddenly, looming over them, his rage tucked under pretense. Sarah struggled to her feet. "The ice broke," she stammered. He lifted Jacob and darted up the stairs. Sarah fumbled after them.

In the bathroom Jacob was stripped. His pants were yanked off him so fast that Sarah was relieved. He would lose the purple. Though he should be rubbed with soft dry towels and bathed in warmth, he was instead pushed forward so the buckle could slap easier. It whooshed in the air and howled against the flesh. Sarah turned her head. It was their code. She wouldn't watch when father interrupted the quiet. She did this for all three of her brothers. She doesn't remember what Dr. Benjamin Balsworth said, if he said anything at all to his purple son. She could hear only the screaming from the belt and the happy music floating upstairs to greet it.

That's when the moment happened. While standing on the top of the stairs, she saw her image on the bottom; her short tangled hair, the tattered yellow coat and her knobby knees protruding from the flimsy fabric of her pants. The image looked up, wincing at the sharp sounds leaking from the bathroom. Through Jacob's eyes she observed her own. They were black planets orbiting in a white universe and they tilted toward the stare that, like the sun, beamed down in blinding rays. Then the eyes turned away suddenly as if scorched with shame. Through his eyes, Sarah watched herself open the front door and slip outside. All the while she remained motionless at the top of the stairs.

Later Jacob would confess that it didn't hurt anyway, that he had been too purple to feel it. The sting from the pond had made it so it wouldn't hurt.

While Sarah's wintry glimpse of insight quickly thawed to forgetfulness it nurtured the betrayal inside Jacob. He would grow up to become a psychologist; Dr. Jacob Balsworth. He would call his sister one day between patients to tell her that he didn't like her. Just like that he would say, "I don't like you," and hang up the phone. Sarah learned from her younger brothers that Jacob frequently invited their father over. The bitter old man would celebrate almost every holiday with his eldest son and grandson, Tom. He would overstay his welcome and be asked to leave, yet he would still grant Jacob his entire estate.

Sarah was asked to relive the scorching summer days of their childhood when her father refused to buy his children -cold Cokes, leaving them to falter in the roasting heat of his clinic, cleaning the shelves and dusting delicate bottles. It was important, the lawyer noted, that she mention the jingle of change in her father's pocket when he explained to them that he hadn't any money to wipe their thirst. It would be good, the lawyer added, if she could point out the nature of having to wear her brother's shorts because dresses cost more. The lawyer also wanted her account of all the times she remembered her father interrupting the quiet. Sarah dutifully made a list because that's what they all wanted. "We suffered so he could save," one brother told her. "We have scars," another insisted. They all agreed she had a better chance, being the girl.

Jacob was late to arrive. He was ushered inside the cold meeting room, the lights of which were so bright his eyes fumbled in a blinding squint. He was seated in plush velvet beside his lawyer and offered a cup of coffee. Jacob declined politely, adding that he didn't like hot beverages. He would prefer something cold instead, and requested lots of ice. Sarah studied him, curious to notice a change, though there was none. His affluence had yet to purchase his release.

Jacob lowered his gaze and watched as Sarah crumpled the paper in her hand. A familiar feeling came over him suddenly. Looking away from her cruel fingers, he peered into those eyes. They were still the same black planets, though that universe they hovered inside was no longer as white. For a long moment there was silence while only the eyes spoke. Then one of the lawyers cleared his throat, interrupting the quiet.

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