“Check The Children” by J.M. Brannyk
In the still night, he watches his steps. Balancing his weight from one side to the other, he moves slowly, as if the weight of quietness is pushing against him like a very angry wind.
The scent of soap and popcorn confronts him the closer he slips towards the other people in the house. He imagines the shadows are drawn lines that separate him from them, and the silence colors them so differently. Like animals — here they graze and lower their heads as he sneaks up to them, saliva barely held in by the sharp, powerful teeth. If he could be any animal, he would be a lion. A hungry lion.
Toys are scattered like oracle bones on the carpet and he cautiously doesn’t move them, not out of reverence, but out of disgust. The warmth of children has always carved an inch deeper into his guts. The things that could not be changed after the accident are still solid and immeasurable.
“Have you checked the children recently?” He had asked her before hanging up the phone upstairs, taking a moment to hear his own heart get lost in the corridors of his ears. So much more was at stake than watching tv and talking to her boyfriend, and it hurt him that she was so young but thought she knew so much…
Unimportant thoughts free themselves as he swallows and finds the door to the bedroom –twin boys, bunkbeds. He saw the bedroom through the window when he climbed the tree during dinner time to get to the attic. He had wondered what their hair smelled like. What they would dream?
He’s calmer, much calmer, than he imagined he would be. The handle of the ax is wet under his tight hand. Holding it to the side, he reaches for the doorknob. In a quick, nervous twitch, the door is spreading open, the eerie glow of the nightlight spilling into his eyes. Without breathing, he can’t even hear himself as he moves to their beds.
‘Have you checked the children?’ His words, the nervous gravel of his voice, echoes so clearly as he bends over the bottom bed, but finds nothing but sheets.
After a moment of looking at nothing and becoming used to that nothing, he realizes that she must have taken the children downstairs. To draw her out, to shake her up enough to slip up and keep slipping, he decides to call her again.
And maybe it’s just about hearing her voice and that little tremble that makes him feel just a bit naughty and a bit irreparable. He’s learning that the only thing he exceeds at is damaging everything around him.
The ring of the phone is a soft hum sleeping against his ear and he starts to feel in control again, and so stuffed with power that his breath leaks out the access. There’s a click. She’s picked up. That full breath into the phone, fat with power. “Have you checked the children?”
“Have you checked them?” Her strained voice lands like a wounded bird with a long and slender neck, broken at the base. The repeated question pulls out that confidence, his warm glow of contentment. How could he be questioned? The tone of her voice spirals down his stumbling system without the hope of lifting; he needs to find the children now. Their livelihood is marring his own; their presence is disconnecting him from completion.
His face resurfaces angrily from question after question. Would he like to make a call, would he like to please hang up and try again?
The intimacy of suspense is crushed.
He tears through the house in cyclone strides. Door hinges bend and violently cough when he slams them open. He knows that she knows that she has been violated, that he was here with her the whole time, that there never was any safety.
Each time, after each giant heave and door slamming, there is only emptiness and that stillness that he naively thought he invoked, when she stole it away from him. Pieces of the shadows are ruined by hastiness and rising desperations. Had he checked the children? He should have so much sooner; he should have tied them down or waited for them to come to him. Each room so vast and empty of all life, leading him into further uncertainty like a mirage of a cold desert in the middle of the imposing jungle.
She doesn’t flinch when he finds her in the bathroom, dripping wet, shaking in delicate teaspoon doses. There’s water resting on the floor and the room feels like it’s going through the aftermath of something very loud and fierce – not quite believing what had just happened within its own walls.
In the tub are the two boys, heads under the calm water. Their nighties are soaked and the cloth clings cozily to their limp bodies. Water droplets still roll down the wall.
The ax slips in his hands, but doesn’t fall and he doesn’t understand – things like this just didn’t happen. He doesn’t understand.
Her eyes are sharp and thin like wire, taking the skin of his arm, chest, face right off with her quick glances. The stillness builds against them into such an immovable tower, locking them both in place, together, even mixing them. Who was he? The one with the ax and the anger? Or the one with the resolve and desperation? They both are such inconsistent characters, changing roles and words, balancing them onto nothing and they’re not surprised at the harsh sound of breaking.
In this moment, he learns how to feel horrified. The sounds of the door swinging shut behind him pins him there, with her, forever in his mind. The lights of red and blue kaleidoscope off the window, onto their faces and hands, hers are still dripping, his are still slipping the handle of the ax.
“Why?” he manages to pull out of his mangled, split thoughts. He’s the one to ask why, to break the barrier between them.
“Better me than you.” It’s all she says while their perfect stillness is invaded by noise and chaos as the front door is kicked in and their moment is taken over again by the outside world…
J.M. Brannyk lives in constant duality, like a tossed coin, but is steadily adjusting to the movements. They study geology and other nihilistic interests. Surprisingly, there’s a romantic side that’s hard to kill.