The Silences This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

October 24, 2012
The house was broad and tall, perched at the top of a long steep drive. Despite wearing a cape of cool leaves, the Earth seemed to shimmer in the oppressive heat and the plants bowed in the sun. On that particular day, painters crawled up and down the house like ants and re-enforced its shade of pale green-blue. Aside from the constant hum that ­accompanies blistering temperatures, everything was hushed. It was calm quiet where the world seemed to agree that it's too hot for anything but placid, lazy silence.

In the house, things were quiet for the ­moment, too. The little girls were asleep, napping through the most unbearable hours of the blazing day. Lauren smiled, it was something of a miracle she'd managed to get all three asleep at the same time. She slid her fingers up her glass and watched the miniature tsunami of condensation break over the table.

The tranquility was abruptly shattered by a frantic thud on the door ­followed by the doorbell rung twice rapidly. Startled, Lauren peered through the hall to the windows by the front door. A grungy, white man with a severe gaze was staring back, continuing to press the bell. Her first thought was to hide and pretend they weren't home, but the three girls were upstairs.

After that first moment of panic, Lauren re-mastered her calm. This was America. Not South Africa. It was 1997, not 1994. The white men weren't there to hurt her. Besides, the house was being painted and one of the men probably just needed the restroom. She rushed to the door and ­unlocked it but before she could even speak, the man spoke, “I need a phone.”

“What's wrong?”

“I need a-a phone right now.” His urgency frightened Lauren and she unconsciously shrunk away.

“Of course.” She turned and very nearly tripped over a tiny figure with glossy hair and two giant dark eyes.

“Lauren?” the small girl asked.

“Not now, baby” she said, smoothing Jelly Bean's hair as she scanned the counters for a phone.

“Hurry!” the man shouted.

“I am! What's going on?” She yelled. The man snatched the phone and punched in three numbers with trembling, sweat-sticky fingers. ­Lauren bit her tongue, afraid of what he was going to say. The little girl gazed up, mouth ajar. She only knew one three-digit phone number and was very aware of who it called.

“A man. He--he fell.” There was a pause during which Lauren and the little girl wore matching expressions of horror. “We paint houses. And one of our guys – yeah. An ambulance. Two, no, three stories.” Jelly Bean offered the only address she knew, “27 Lake Circle.” He looked surprised then repeated “27 Lake Circle.” “Okay. Okay. I don't think so. Yeah.”

Suddenly, the matter was out of their hands and they were left standing in the hall. He handed the phone back and wiped his hands. Lauren was neatly dressed in a butterfly lace sundress with her bouncy onyx curls were pulled back. She formed a striking contrast to the comparatively enormous, grimy man. He had a name stenciled on his company tee-shirt: James.

“Can I do anything?” She asked quietly. This certainly had not been in the job description. Lauren was just the au pair, only a girl, really.

“I dunno. Miss, I gotta – I gotta get back there.”

“Of course. Of course,” she whispered, still too shocked to be much help.

Lauren was still holding the phone and she punched in the number for the Jelly Bean's mother. She explained the situation and agreed to call back the moment she knew more. The missus assured Lauren that she'd call her husband and he'd come right away. Then Lauren chased the man's steps into the heat with Jelly Bean following, her rosy summer nightgown swishing around her knees. If anything, Lauren was surprised that Jelly Bean's sisters hadn't woken up.

For a moment Lauren wondered if she should force Jelly Bean to stay inside, but knew that the temptation of looking out the window would have the same effect. It wasn't as if she didn't understand serious things like – Lauren hated to even think – death. Jelly Bean was so young; chances were she wouldn't even remember this when she grew up. Bad things were good for little kids. Sometimes.

At the bottom of the hill, Lauren skidded to a stop. Jelly Bean stopped next to her, pale cheeks flushed in the heat. Her tiny hand somehow found Lauren's despite her eyes never leaving the circle of men. They were standing slightly away from a crumpled body, trying to give him space. His back was at a sickly, unnatural angle. Lauren's fingers trembled and she covered her mouth in horror. She sunk down on the step, too horrified to maintain a calm facade for the child. It was too late for that anyhow.

The child's eyes shone with reflections of the leaking blood cutting a path through the pastel chalk ­drawings that laced the driveway. No one said a word. The petrified quiet rang across the street. Panic rushed through the men and the two girls as the figure on the ground let out a single nauseatingly pained moan. Then it was silent again. Utterly silent. They were all helpless.

A distant siren shattered the summer's scalding silence and wailed as it approached. Of the next 30 minutes, Jelly Bean would only remember one image when she grew up: the ambulance struggling to back up the impossibly steep driveway. In the end, the EMTs carried the fallen man to the bottom while his colleagues watched. One of the uniformed men climbed up the drive to Lauren, sweating with the exertion. “Ma'am, are you the owner of the house?”

“No, sir. I'm just the au pair. I'm the-” Lauren's nervous flurry of words spilled from her mouth.

“Did you notify the owners yet?”

“Yes. The father is on his way.” She paused and took a deep breath, trying to master her emotions.

Again he spoke. “Ma'am, did you see the accident?”

“No. But one of the painters probably did. They were here with him. I didn't even hear it,” she'd never spoken to an American official, except at the customs office. She said a silent prayer that she hadn't done anything wrong.

“Alright. Thank you. I want you and the little girl to go inside. Get out of the sun, drink some water. We don't want anyone passing out from the heat and the stress.”

Right after the ambulance pulled out of the driveway, the father arrived, parking at the bottom to avoid driving over the scene. He looked very out of place in his suit, standing in the middle of the empty summer street.

Lauren ran down, stumbling. His familiar face was all too welcome. Her words tumbled out as she explained in as much detail as possible. He nodded but soon got back in his car to meet the painters at the hospital and determine the condition of the worker.

All this while, Jelly Bean peeked over the rock wall but didn't come down to see her father. She sat still on the steps, watching the world turn. The lazy birds hopped about the withering lawn and the dragonflies hummed. When the mister was gone, Lauren was left, completely at a loss.

There seemed nothing to do after such a shock. As Lauren made her way up the driveway, the stratosphere seemed to be collapsing around her. It was too much to take in. Too hot. Too disturbing. Too bloody. Jelly Bean lay on the step, overwhelmed. Lauren looked at the tiny angel with her eyes fixed at the sky.

Lauren, too, was feeling the weight of the world and sank down. They lay side by side, separated by a generation, an ocean, and a thousand experiences. There was nothing to be done but think of all the possibilities, all the lives. Lauren was reminded of the tragedies she'd lived through.

In the aftermath, everything was too calm. Lauren squeezed her eyes shut and wished there was something to do, to clean, to fix – something to distract her from the image of the bloody slashes through Jelly Bean's chalk drawings. In contrast, Jelly Bean's eyes were wide open and glazed over as she came to terms with her new memories.

The world was, once again, unbearably still and blistering. Sweat and tears merged. She felt them dry on her face as the sun heated her dark skin. She couldn't escape the harshness of the world. Not in America. Not after the Apartheid. Not ever. Life was difficult everywhere. The sun burned a blush on her cheeks but she couldn't move from the step.

While Lauren remembered a past she couldn't flee, Jelly Bean faced a surging realization: it would all be up hill. Her eyes had seen enough. Neither girl spoke for the longest time. It was too hot. Too overwhelming.

It was the wretched sort of quiet where the dawn of knowledge sends all the world spiralling into unspoken, hopeless misery.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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