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This Great Society

 
 

Illustration: Joel Bentley


"Why the Sun Still Shines Through Fractured Windows” Short Story by Noah C. Buck
Illustration: Joel Bentley

“It’s unnatural!” Mindy’s grandmother shouted when she found out. “It’s not the way God intended things to be!”
               That mid-February afternoon was the last time Mindy saw her before the fire. When the chief of police called, notifying the girl that her grandmother had died of smoke inhalation before the firefighters could reach her, Mindy couldn’t seem to fend off one desperate thought: “I could have saved her.”  
               The tink-tink-tink of April rain riddled the lone window in Mindy’s cramped studio apartment. Her slumped form perched on the edge of the twin bed like a defeated gargoyle. She stared at the watery pane, watching the grey droplets of precipitation make their jerking trek down the glass to the sill, gathering speed and mass as they slid into an anonymous puddle.   
               She had never asked to be this way, this thing. It was simply a part of her that seemed as woven into her being as her nerves, veins, and emotions. The weight of her grandmother’s disdain draped around her shoulders like a lead shawl. And there was nothing to be done but ignore it, to wish it weren’t so. But it was. 
               To Mindy, walking through walls felt like stepping through water. The density was malleable yet suffocating, although navigable. This ability had become apparent to her for the first time ten years prior, on her thirteenth birthday. From the start it had seemed to carry bad luck. 
               It had been a hot June evening, the warm blue of the pre-sunset sky like burnished turquoise. Mindy pictured her tiny, teenage body rocketing down the stairs from the second floor to the living room, a beaming smile fixed across her rosy cheeks. The guests were scheduled to arrive for her birthday pool party at any minute.
               She recalled the excitement she felt to show off her new swimsuit. Her first two-piece. It had been a gift from her grandmother who had somehow convinced Mindy’s mother that thirteen was an appropriate age for such a garment.
               Mindy’s younger sister, Ellen, had been waiting at the base of the stairs, already in her own swimsuit, eager to make for the water. Without losing any momentum, Mindy careened around the end of the banister, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with her petite sister. The two took off through the kitchen en route to the backyard, Mindy leading the way. 
               She remembered seeing the rippling aquamarine surface of the pool through the sliding glass door; thinking her father had left the door open; charging out into the waning sunshine; the vicious crystal crash of the bursting panel of glass; Ellen’s agonizing screams, too big for her little body.
               The rumble and crack of thunder tore Mindy away from her memories. The rainfall had grown more determined and the sound of the water hitting her window seemed more like a volley of pea gravel. 
               Despite the heckling noise of the elements she still managed to recall her mother’s sobs, her grandmother’s prayers, the image of her bloody baby sister, and her father’s repeated inquiry: “Did you close the door, did you close the door on your sister?”   
               She stood up from the mattress, head hung so low her chin brushed her chest, and walked to the small, rusting refrigerator where she kept little more than a few boxes of leftover Chinese food and fifth of vodka. 
               Withdrawing the moist bottle she thought about finding a glass, but opted to simply remove the cap and drink directly from the narrow neck. After a long, punishing drag she fought the urge to gag and returned to her spot on the bed, bringing the vodka as some sort of company. 
               “Well,” she said to the blue lettering on the label, “here we are, I guess.” Looking around the room for a moment she assessed the damp brick of the walls, the stained linoleum in front of the fridge and kitchenette, and the bleak lack of dividing walls in the space. “We have another unit in this building that you might really enjoy,” the short, chubby superintendent, Mrs. Goldblatt, had told her the week before. “You might find it a bit less, um, well, stoic.”
               “I like my place,” Mindy had replied, “and I like my rent right where it is.”
               “It would only be fifty dollars more a month,” assured the thick woman, “and,” she said the word as if it were the precursor to some grand revelation, “it’s a one-bedroom!”
               “No, thank you,” Mindy had told her, “I’d rather not.”
               “Well, it was just a thought,” Mrs. Goldblatt had said. “I wanted you to have the choice.”
               “Thank you, Mrs. Goldblatt, really. But I chose this place and I’d like to keep to what I’ve decided.” Mindy had closed the door without waiting for a response. She peered through the peephole at the rotund woman still standing outside, the fisheye lens now making her a near-perfect circle.
               “I just thought you might like to have a few more walls,” Mindy heard Mrs. Goldblatt’s parting line through the door.
               “I have more walls than I need already,” Mindy replied to herself. 
               Sitting on the lumpy mattress, staring at her bottle of vodka, Mindy wondered for the hundredth time what she would have done if she’d been there the night the nursing home caught fire.
               The final verdict had been that faulty wiring in the heating system had caused the initial outbreak of flame and, due to the system’s location in the basement of the three floor building, by the time the fire had been realized, most of the lower portion of the structure were already clouded with thick, gritty smoke and angry flames.
               Nearly all of the residents had been rescued from the second and third floors by the ladder men. But the first floor, Mindy’s grandmother’s floor, was so choked with orange and black that hardly anybody could make their way through the pre-war building without getting turned around in the labyrinth of hallways and bedrooms. 
               She thought about how she could have held her breath and made a bee-line, right through the flames, the plaster, the wood, directly to her grandmother’s room and retrieved the terrified woman. But then there would have been the explaining, the coming clean about how she had managed to bypass the burning and debris, the reporters, medical technicians, and formal inquiries. 
               And what if her grandmother had refused? Mindy could imagine the pious woman declaring profound resistance to her granddaughter’s help.
               “I won’t touch you,” she would have shouted. “I’m not letting you do that thing to me!”
               Mindy made a hapless smirk at the sweaty bottle in her hands. A single, lifeless breath, easily been mistaken for the silent beginnings of a laugh, punched through her nostrils, as if she were amused with her own shortcomings. 
               She had not meant for her grandmother to see her step through the wall of the nursing home room that afternoon in February. She had peeked in through the window and thought her grandmother had been asleep. She was going to sneak in, leave a bouquet and some of her grandmother’s favorite candy, and sneak back out. But her grandmother had not been sleeping. The look on the matriarch’s face when she saw Mindy’s body materialize out of the drywall was a combination of terror and disgust. It was as if she was seeing a demon. Mindy faltered, dropping the flowers and candy in her surprise, and immediately tried to make an excuse.
               “I was just— I mean— I’ve been here the whole—”
               “What are you?” her grandmother had demanded, her voice trembling. “How dare you do such a thing?”
               “It’s nothing, gram,” Mindy had tried to sound assuring, “I just—”
               “You just nothing,” the old woman practically screamed the words. “Stay away from me—”
               “But gram! It’s just m—”
               “Keep away! Don’t touch me!”
               “Gram!”
               “I rebuke you in the name of Jesus!” Her grandmother’s words sliced through Mindy like a million jagged shards of glass. She stood staring at her grandmother, her best friend, dumbfounded. The old woman screwed her eyes shut, clasped her hands together, and began praying in earnest, imploring the Holy Spirit for protection from whatever evil had been permitted to enter her room.  
               The noise had attracted a few of the orderlies who rushed in and attempted to calm their fragile tenant now bent in supplication. One of the staff members ushered Mindy out of the room and asked what had happened. Mindy had wanted to tell the truth. But she knew she couldn’t. She said she had come in on her grandmother sleeping only to have the woman suddenly wake with a start and accuse her granddaughter of walking through a wall. The attendant seemed only slightly perplexed, his face holding a stout look, as if he’d just received proof of something he’d expected all along. He then returned to the room where Mindy could hear her grandmother still praying aloud.
               Peering cautiously through the door, Mindy caught one final glimpse of her grandmother’s face. She thought she saw something like pity break through the fear. Then her grandmother called to her above the chatter of the attending orderlies, “You’re not the only one who’s had to fight against something you couldn’t change! You’re not the only one!”   
               Mindy left the nursing home in silent agony, salty tears biting at the corners of her eyes. Later that day the attendant called to inform her that her grandmother had been reviewed by a psychiatrist and while she appeared to be of completely healthy mental aptitude, it seemed to be a commonly held notion that it would better for Mindy to refrain from making her usual visits for a while. 
               The bottle of vodka now lay nearly empty on the floor next to Mindy’s bed. She lay with one leg on, one leg off the mattress, the sole of her dangling foot barely grazing the floor. The shabby room spun around her as she contemplated how many parts of her life had been made totally opaque as a means of hiding behind the one thing she couldn’t seem to penetrate: her guilt for having something nobody understood. 
               She had to be careful. The times she got drunk were the times she tended to slip up and throw herself through a nearly closed subway door or stumble through a lamppost. Luckily, no one had seemed to notice. Then again, she mused, it’s not luck if no one ever noticed to begin with. 
               Throughout high school, Mindy had been all too happy to go unnoticed. On more than one occasion she slipped quietly through the walls of the gym to hide behind the bleachers and avoid the jeers of the football boys and cheerleaders.  
               “Shatter Miranda,” they used to taunt. No one seemed to think she’d suffered enough for her sister’s scars. 
               Even into college Mindy kept her special ability to herself so she could be left alone. Somehow she managed to accomplish her goal with absolute completion. No one got in. And she was always able to get out.
               Swinging her second foot off of the bed to meet the other on the floor, she attempted to stand, her body refusing to find balance. Eventually she managed to steady herself enough to get to the wedge of space that made up her corner bathroom. She started the shower and leaned against the wall for a moment as the weak pressure eventually coaxed a meager series of streams from the small metal head at the top of the stall. Stripping off her clothing, Mindy stepped into the not quite warm spray and let the room continue to spin as she enjoyed the one activity that made her feel like she could be vulnerable. And there she stood until the not quite warm grew tired and turned completely cold.

 
 

 

 
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