Timing Out

Originally published in defenestrationism.net

Willing the Other Line

The thin print paper crackled in my quaking hands. “The usual,” I thought. So I chucked eight inches of directions, disclaimers and diagrams into the bin. Then I peed and prayed.

Trying to fool the gods into thinking they would be cursing me, I circled the house. In the bedroom I swapped pumps for chunky slippers. In the office I scrolled until I wasn’t reading anymore. In the kitchen I drank water over the sink. In the bathroom cheap plastic conducted a countdown to life, antibodies on a stick waiting to attach to a hormone. If they did, they would trigger two blue lines and the course of the next half-century. If they did not, well, there was always n—

“No,” the mechanical voice moaned. “We’re running out of months.”

I rinsed the glass, dried it and arranged it in the cupboard so that the lip did not touch the others. Then I waited. Again. “That should be enough time,” I thought and tottered along the pictureless hallway to the bathroom.

My heart jackhammered through my blouse as I peeked at the waiting plastic.

One line.


Always one short.

The plastic pinged against the side of the bin.

I started dinner to forget. A soft white onion bled when the knife punctured it, so I ran cool water over my sticky fingers, forgetting to rub them. “Maybe,” I thought, “maybe I didn’t wait long enough.”

In the bathroom I cracked open the bin and sifted. Warm wet trickled along my arm when I lifted the plastic promise, willing something to fight through. From the bedroom the nightstand clock ticked a faint warning.

“That was enough time,” I muttered.

“And now there’s not enough,” it whispered back.     

Here They Kill the Mustard by May

While her husband drove, Margaret kept her eyes closed, trying to identify each roll to the right, each jostle to the left along West Road. She had guessed the first curve was the bend around the Tudor house. The one being gutted behind a green privacy fence. “Privacy? Everyone knows what they’re doing,” she had laughed. Moments later a sharp bank had shunted her frail frame into the padded door panel, and she thought they might be at the place with the goats. Her uncertainty, though, had surprised her.

Six long years had passed since they had moved to the hills and found themselves quickly labeled “the kids from the flatlands” after the septic tank overflowed and raccoons tore through the chicken wire. Nearly every day since they had navigated this route, eyes alert to “all” potential threats. Margaret chuckled again, then promptly regretted the expended energy. In the momentary quiet she sensed her husband was staring so that the familiar pang of guilt struck. Six long summers ago she had asked him to trust her as they tracked the petite flags and glossy plastic signs along snaky one lane roads to the Open House. Six long autumns ago they had moved into their “forever” home. She tried to find it funny.

Soon enough, her contrition morphed into something warm as they descended a long, gentle slope. She knew they had reached the huge empty lot where the wild mustard grows. Where tall stalks burst out of compressed cracked earth with spectacular speed, growing taller than her in spots, revealing a radiant splendor seemingly overnight: intense yellow flowers arranged in delicate x’s atop sturdy hairy stems, their billowy ballet summoning dainty white butterflies. Margaret’s mother said that in the parable mustard represents faith. Well, here they chop it all down by May. In early spring, weed abatement notices start arriving. “Dried mustard plants? Highly combustible! Be safe and clear it out!” She chuckled for the last time. “Nothing that invasive is gone forever,” she thought. “After a fire destroys this place, the mustard will be the first thing to come back.” In her life before treatment, Margaret had jogged through the field each night, had stood rigid to hear what swaying sounds like, had heard the crunching beneath her shoes. She understood that well before the trucks and chainsaws rumble up to pull life out by the roots, wild mustard plants have already dropped much of their seed. She opened her drained eyes onto her husband. Oh, how she wished now that they had done the same.


She had to swipe seven times to get to March. Seven.

“It’ll fly by!” they had squealed.

She hated how they spoke for her, for all of them, for all of it. For her, it would be a nine-month battle against the shades of past ruin, every day clenching as she checked the tissue, every night begging the invisible to stay.

“It’ll fly by!” they had squealed.

“Inconceivable,” the blood ghosts whispered back. 

Sara Martin swiped back to August, killed the power button and sank into the sofa. Eyes braced shut, she made out the familiar waft of the large leaves, the muffled swish, the sonorous slither down the ravine, the restful settling back. The small avocado grove along the back slope had entranced Sara when they first moved to the hills so that each morning she had walked under the tousled branches, gently pressing her thumb into the fruit’s rough skin. “Still rock hard!” The Martins did not know that they needed to pick them first, that avocados do not ripen on the tree. Then a neighbor scolded them. “Ripe and mature are not the same!” So Sara boned up. “Did you know the avocado flower has both components? Part of the day the flower’s female, and part of the day it’s male.” She had marveled at the potency in being recipient and donor, then protested when the flowers exploded in spring to block her view of the ravine.

The nausea Sara had expunged an hour earlier began its creeping, so she rose to forget, ambled to the window and pressed her forehead to already-warm glass. Through tassels of green and gold, she could make out the Mennonites’ round sheep to the west, but knotted branches and leathery egg-shaped leaves obscured the Byrne’s massive pool to the east. The family had built it so their daughter could practice crew. Sara never saw the girl use it. She never saw anyone use it. Same with the enormous batting cage two houses down.

Balancing on the sill, Sara wondered if a similar fate would befall the room being saved for “just in case.” Adjacent to the master, the room languished in a confused state of undefined use. In one corner, Ben’s guitars stood propped against a dusty amp; in another, a large keyboard Sara’s aunt had gifted her rested on a squatty table. A drab brown sleeper sofa faced an old television on the opposite wall.

“Too many functions, and not the right one,” the blood ghosts whispered.

She nodded sadly. How hard they had worked to erase all signs that children ever lived here. The week they moved in, the Martins had painted the workout room first, rolling a flat eggshell over so much carnation pink, obscuring with each soggy pass the kaleidoscope of yellow and purple butterflies that had danced along two windowless walls. The following week, they created the office, wiping clean the pale blue room with a matte apricot finish. In a mere two weeks, they had expunged the boy and the girl.

She squirmed on the windowsill. Seven. Her stomach twisting dully, Sara wondered if Mrs. Riley had thought she was in the clear.

The Rileys were expecting a third child and shopping for a larger place when they sold the house in the hills to the Martins. The transaction had felt seamless. The Martins offered the asking price; the Rileys accepted. The Martins asked for two thousand to fix inspection issues; the Rileys complied. The Martins began boxing up their small, tidy townhouse; the Rileys, their sprawling ranch-style. Things moved quickly. Until Ruth called, her voice lacking its customary brightness.

“I just got off the phone with the Rileys’ agent. We have a favor to ask. Mrs. Riley miscarried last week. Eight months, poor thing. She’s just devastated, so she can’t continue house hunting right now. You okay letting them rent back from you for a little bit?”

“But we already sold this place. Where would we go?”

Sara had not known what to feel, but she knew the words had come too quickly. A bloated silence filled all six miles between the two women.

Finally, Ruth lifted it. “I’ll call their agent.”

The sickness rose, and Sara bolted to the bathroom for the sixth time that day. When the still-petite frame feebly emerged, it felt pulled to the silent workout room. The eggshell walls had seen little company since Sara learned she was carrying two, and she scanned the room as if for the first time. Gripping the treadmill’s handrail, she climbed onto the walking belt. It squeaked under her chunky slippers. She ran a finger along the control panel, embarrassed to see she had left a trail. The dangling safety key swayed until it softly tapped her dress. Instinctively, she grabbed it and inserted it into the console, detonating flashes of red, a series of zeroes recalibrating for the promised action. Alarmed, she yanked at the key, and the numbers vanished.

Sara hobbled off the hulking machine to shuffle along the windowless wall being pounded by the sun. Tired eyes burned through the eggshell, searching for signs of the butterflies. She could not find them. She scooted three feet left and squinted to penetrate the layers. Nothing. They had done their job.

She lumbered down the hallway and returned to the sofa, her heavy head atop the hard corner of the throw pillow. Trying to forget, Sara Martin watched the avocado leaves rise and fall on the gales that haunted the ravine. Then she closed her eyes. She could not see the Byrne’s pool, but she hoped someone was using it.

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