The following is an excerpt from The Space within the Silence by Bre Woods, out July 24 from Yellow Taxi Press. The book can be pre-ordered here.
I chugged my coffee; it was black. “Like my soul,” I always cracked. My mother had smacked me the first time I had said it—right across the face. I was sixteen, and we had been in the back of a dressing room where my sister was trying on school uniforms. Mom played it off as a joke and her eyes urged me to do the same. Her sister, who had stood a few paces from us, had bought it—or at least pretended to—and laughed. An awkward, harsh sound that grated on me like a knife. I had laughed too, and my cheek had ached. After, my mother had taken me to my favorite restaurant and let me order dessert.
A yawn tore through me, and it made my eyes water. I tried to shake myself awake. The room was cold—cold enough to have goosebumps form all along my arms—and I thought if I stayed very still, my teeth might start to chatter. If the room were warm, though, I’d probably have already fallen asleep.
“What if I rip all the hairs out of my arm?” Mel whispered to the side of me. “One by one? Do you think that would keep me awake?” We were all the way in the back row of a large lecture hall. The huge windows let light pour in, reminding us that yes, it was daylight, and yes, we were being trapped in hell. I wish we had sat closer to the windows; it was probably warmer over there.
“Why are we here?” I groaned. “He doesn’t even take attendance.”
“Attendance today is extra credit. And he’s going to give us an extra credit assignment we can turn in tomorrow. Which you and I need. Ten whole damn points.”
“That’s a whole letter grade,” I whispered.
“Exactly. He totally knew nobody was gonna show up the day before winter break if he hadn’t offered the extra credit.” Earth science had been a take home exam; Mel and I had completed it in between s’mores and a drinking game during the Real Housewives premiere.
I let my head drop to the wall behind me. I hadn’t even been listening close enough to recognize extra credit was the topic of discussion. I keyed myself in to the professor’s words and nearly groaned. Professor Richards was going on about the mindless drones of my generation, products of technology and complacency. Millennials are destroying the world. One apathetic adventure at a time.
Blah blah blah I’m old and mad that nobody cares about my opinions anymore, and I can’t say the offensive racist shit I could ten years ago without getting an angry social justice mob after me blah blah blah.
Tuning our professor out once more, I turned to my notebook, uncapped my pen, and began to doodle—random little drawings that meant nothing and kept my mind twisting. Mel played Candy Crush next to me, and I smiled as she cursed and twitched with each loss.
I met Mel freshman year. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the two of us went to a mixer in our dorm room, hoping to make friends and break the tension that being off to college for the first time brought. I had stuck close to my dorm mate. She was bubbly and outgoing, warm and inviting, and I hid in her shadow like a puppy. She struck up a conversation with Mel, complimenting her hair, and then fluttered off like a butterfly.
Mel brightened and welcomed me into a conversation. We chatted all night. Long lost friends on the very first day.
“I hate Leila,” Mel said quietly. “Do you know what that inconsiderate brat did this morning? She left her cat’s vomit all over the living room floor. Texted me ‘oh sorry about the living room LOL I’ll get it when I get home.’ Like it’s the goddamn mail and not animal vomit. I wanted to kill her. Or myself. Or maybe her and then myself, but I don’t know. Why should I be punished for her bullshit?”
I laughed. That sounded like Leila. She was nice—could be the most gracious person you had ever met—but sometimes had her head so far up her own ass I didn’t know how she navigated anywhere on her own.
“Would you visit me in prison if I was convicted of homicide?” Mel asked. She pouted, her bottom lip jutting out and her mouth downturned.
“I’d visit you anywhere,” I replied. I meant it.
The coffee shop was loud. A thundering current of one solid noise as I sat in the metal chair. It dug into my back as I chewed on the cap of a highlighter. It was green. New by a couple of weeks, but old enough for a few indentations of my teeth to already be etched into it. I pressed it down against my book and swiped.
My phone kept buzzing.
The more it buzzed, the more my desire to ignore her grew.
That was a weakness of mine—ignoring things I didn’t want to deal with in hopes they would simply disappear through sheer neglect. They never did. What a pain in the ass.
My coffee cup was almost empty—my third since I had left Mel back in the Brock E. Burns building. She had calculus and I had a three-hour break before work. I worked in the library, and it was more fun than it sounded.
One of my coworkers was full of conspiracy theories and usually showed up to work high out of his mind, ready to tell everyone how the moon landing was fake. Another coworker was always involved in some sort of love triangle and would pour her heart out looking for advice, but it was clear she just wanted everyone to know how dramatic her life was.
My phone vibrated again. It was my sister.
Ian’s here n wants to stay mom is MAD you’re not answering her
One, my mother was always mad at me.
Two, Ian was my step-brother.
My mother had dated a lot when I was a kid. There was my dad, naturally, then Kip, Chris, Johnny, Alex, Tom, and others I never met or just couldn’t remember their names. My mom married Johnny, and he had a son, Ian. Ian’s mother was in prison, and I was not allowed to talk about it or ask any questions. It was rude, she had said.
“That poor boy. His mother is doing god knows what with god knows who and look at him! Skin and bones. And so sweet and generous. He has such a soft heart, give the shirt right off his back if he had to!”
My mother loved Ian as if she had birthed him and was bound to him through the intangible bonds of motherhood. But she wasn’t his mother. Ian’s mother was a woman named Renee. She had been a bank teller with pretty long blonde hair and unfortunately, for herself and Ian, she was a drug addict. My mother had called her a crack whore once, but I had been too little at the time to know what that meant. Ian had lived with us for six years, even after Ian’s dad and my mom divorced. Once Ian’s mother was released from prison, he’d gone to live with her for a time. But he had come back to us a few months later and didn’t leave again until he moved out to live on his own. He was eighteen, and I was fourteen.
I didn’t like Ian, and I didn’t care that my mother was mad at me.
I texted back my sister a series of emojis. An eye roll. A blank face. The monkey covering his ears.
It was a shallow and superficial explanation for how that text made me feel.
Bre Woods lives in Las Vegas with a TV, a cat, and the words “I feel god in this Chili’s tonight.” She can be found on Twitter @itsreallybre.