A Shift in the World (Part One)

by Heather Baver

Evenings, after dinner time, were the worst. Most of the retirement community was “plugged in” in the lounge. An electronic bingo game was in progress in the back corner. A tall, silver-haired man presided, his wife by his side. Two rows of boisterous participants hunched over their screens, knobby fingers sweeping to mark the board each time a letter and number combination was called.

Anna paced the lounge, sneakers softly padding the carpet. Hush, hush. The tennis balls on the back of her walker whispered against the short-pile carpet. Her left leg dragged behind every few steps, making its own protest. She frowned down at it as though it were a naughty child.

Big puffy armchairs and sofa held counsel around an electronic fireplace in the center of the room. Tonight these were filled with an assortment of gray-haired men and women, their e-readers cradled tightly in their hands. Anna could see the reflections of the screens in their curved glasses. She walked on, half-tempted to go back to her own apartment. In an empty corner she stopped and reached into a deep pocket of her sweater. Her bent fingers caressed the cool object nestled within the fuzzy blue knit. Anna shook her head and pressed on for one more lap around the lounge. Then she headed down the dim corridor past the elevator.

Anna hated the noise of the silence within her dim apartment. She opened the door and inhaled slowly, looking in the darkness for the faint sounds of neighbors on the wind. Sometimes she could hear a few dampened voices through the thin walls. Some of the residents liked to chat online with children in their own apartments, rather than in the lounge. It was more private that way.

Anna exhaled with a sigh and wished for someone to call, but the only remnants of her family were a few cousins even older than she. With clicks of knobs and grasps of pull chains, she turned on every lamp in the living room. Then she proceeded to the bathroom. Down the hall of brushed navy carpet to the bedroom. Shhh. Shh, the walker whispered, as if it were trying to tell her to slow down. Anna pushed the silver frame into a soft corner by the window. She pressed her ear to the wall by the dark, carved wood of the headboard.

ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ. Pound. Pound. Clang! ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ.

Anna jumped back from the gray cream wall, her ear burning. The sound of metal biting metal ripped into her ears.

No, George. Her lips moved silently against the smooth paint. Anna pressed her hands up and down the wall, searching for a heartbeat. Her ear journeyed along, only to hear some faint buzzes deep in the insulation and Clarence’s daughter asking him about what he had eaten for dinner that night.

With shuffling steps, Anna reached out for her walker and glided into the hall. She stopped at the kitchen sink for a glass of water.

ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ. Pound. Pound. Clang! ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ.

Fainter this time, the sounds were muted by the splash and gurgle of water dancing against the stainless steel sink. Anna rested her knotted hands against the glossy countertop.

No, George.

ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ. Pound. Pound. Clang! ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ.

Why did you have to, George? Couldn’t there have been some OTHER way?

ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ. ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ. Pound. Pound. Thump.

Anna’s shaking finger punched the start button of the dishwasher. She took a deep breath and held it, the air pushing against the hearing aids tucked in her ears. She exhaled, the air curling away from her trembling lips. Only a few glasses and plates jumped under the spray of water in the dishwasher, but it was enough to blot out any other sounds.

Reaching inside her sweater pocket, she gave it a squeeze. The metal pressed cool waves against her sweating fingertips. They embraced for a few seconds. Anna slid her hand out of her pocket and reached for the buttery brass door handle. She pushed the door open into the dim hallway and followed behind her walker. The lights in the apartment cast weak beams of light into the gray night. With her good right leg, Anna pushed the door. It closed with a muffled click. She padded down the hall to the elevator.

The elevator doors slid open as Anna glided past them. She turned right to go back to the lounge. Her left leg began to drag, pleading that she stop, turn back to her apartment. She looked down at it, encased in the thin worn jeans, so tired. No, I’m not turning back now. Come on. Come ON! With a jolt, she propelled herself forward, and the silver walker plowed right into a young girl.

Oh, I’m so sorry!” Anna felt the heat surrounding her face, the wrinkles burning hot trails along her cheeks. She looked into the young girl’s glittering brown eyes, the pink-red mouth open and startled.

To her horror, Anna heard a dull thud at her feet. She could almost see a smooth, rounded object spinning across the carpet and hiding in its tangled floral forest. Her fingers clutched empty air inside the blue sweater cave.

Good evening.” The young girl smiled, remembering her training.

Good evening.” Anna forced herself to look at the young girl’s eyes. Talk to her. Distract her with words. You can look over every inch of this abominable carpet after she’s gone. On your hands and knees, if necessary. “So clumsy of me,” she continued, picking up the stitch of conversation. I should have been looking where I was going.”

That’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” The young brown eyes bounced around the hallway.

You work in the restaurant, don’t you? I think you have waited on my table?” Anna looked for the girl’s name tag, but it was hidden under a worn olive drab jacket.

Yes. I’m Kat. My nametag says Katrina, but everyone calls me Kat.” The curly dark eyelashes flickered, scanning the hallway. “Aha! Found it!” Kat walked over to a corner of the hall and reached under a dusty fake plant. She picked up a dull metal ball. Her pink fingertips scampered over the cloudy metal. “Hey, this is a—”

Please. Give that back to me.” Anna spoke in a hushed whisper. Keep calm. Don’t sound like a crazy old lady. She took a deep breath and continued. “Thank you for finding that, Kat.” Anna held out her hand, the warped fingers trembling.

Kat held the metal ball up to the flickering fluorescent light. One of her soft fingertips traced the pattern etched in black. R-1-3-5 and down to the second row: 2-4. She handed it back to Anna. “Cool shifter knob.”

How did you know?” Anna’s white brows flickered with surprise. “And keep your voice low, please.” She looked up and down the dark hallway. “Even though most people around here don’t hear well,” she added with a smile. Anna gave the cold metal knob a squeeze, feeling it warm up in her hand. Then she tucked it deep into her pocket.

My Gramp.” Kat tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear. “He used to draw pictures for me and my sister when we were little. He loved to draw cars best. But my mom was always hiding the drawings away. I once heard her tell my dad that she should have burned them up, but she couldn’t do that to Gramp. So she’d put the drawings up on a high shelf at the back of the closet. My sister and I would sneak up there sometimes and look at the car pictures.”

I wish I had known your grandfather. He doesn’t happen to live here by any chance?”

No, he took a cross-country transport a long time ago. I think I was about nine when he left.” Kat shook her glossy black ponytail. “And he refuses to be ‘plugged-in.’ We do write letters back and forth, but it takes a long time.”

Anna sighed. “Now I really do wish I knew your grandfather. He sounds like a kindred spirit.” She glanced down at the digital clock glowing on Kat’s arm. “It’s getting late. Your mother will be worried.”

No, sometimes I stay late and help wash dishes in the kitchen. When we’re short handed.”

Well, in any case, we can’t stand around in the open talking about this anymore.” Anna’s fingers gripped the silver handles of her walker. She extended one hand, her dry white fingers closed around Kat’s warm pink ones. “Thank you for helping me. If you ever want to talk more, come visit me sometime.” Without looking back, Anna shuffled down the hallway to her apartment. Shh. Shhh. The walker whispered on the thin carpet. Behind her, she heard the door to the outside open and then close with a sigh of cold breath.

Anna opened her own door and looked around at the glowing lights. Silence covered the walls and the cold spaces between windows and thick curtains. She sat down on the couch, thinking of the sparkle in young Kat’s eyes. Like metal flake paint on a street rod of old. She lay back against the velvet blue couch and looked over at the lamps winking back at her. Again she breathed in the silence. No neighbors could be heard. They must all be in the lounge, asleep, or possibly reading. Anna looked at the large bookshelf covering the wall across from her couch. Maybe somebody out there was turning paper pages instead being washed in the blue light of an e-reader. Anna sighed and felt her hands relax. Her eyes slid closed, and a blanket of memories covered her.

To be continued…

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Posted in Divide and Conquer, Fiction, Science Fiction, Short Story (<7500 words), Workshops
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