Exit

     -2 (Title)

     You have it wrong. It was ‘Edit’, I am sure.

      It has changed.

      Why? The whole point was to go back and fix it, was it? Correct whatever went wrong, redress the crooked narratives.

     The first thought isn’t always the best. That one crossed my mind early in the morning, in a moment of unconsidered optimism. And it was pretentious, of course. Truly, I have gotten no chance at redressing a thing, and I don’t care. I am looking for a way out. That is all.

 

     -1 (The Road)

     Afterwards, she can’t remember where she was directed. Not a clue. It happens. Traumatic amnesia is a classic. Though she perfectly recalls how she felt, her determination, her confidence. The velocity (not reckless, always in control, always mastered). She was going because she had and she wanted to. Only where has become impossible to dig out.

     Would a calendar, a schedule book solve the issue? If she doesn’t recall she might be capable of reconstructing. What was the day’s plan? That’s the point. She had no written plans for that Sunday. One of those blessed truces where nothing is due and all can be invented. She was free to follow her whim, whatever… What was that she impromptu embraced with such impetus?

     Sunday morning and the freeway was clear. One of those magic moments when no friction is there, nothing separating her from her goal, her intention. Both (goal and intention) have vanished from her mind. Why should they matter? Why are we even pretending to be concerned? What could her objective have been but a trivia? A detail. That’s not what we are here to ponder.

    *

     Suddenly, with uncanny briskness, she knew she had to go back. Circumstances imposed it with crystalline evidence. What could have possibly changed? She was driving, alone on an empty freeway. A phone call? Did she hear something on the radio? Again, she doesn’t know. She suggests no external input caused her decision. Circumstances irreversibly shifted in her mind due to her thoughts, most probably, unleashed by the linearity of the drive. Velocity does it.

     Her thoughts must have wandered as usual, then found a path of no resistance and acquired momentum, to finally coalesce in a sort of epiphany. Revelation. Nothing strange with it besides the extreme mandatoriness, perhaps, the impossibility of delay.

     She saw a ramp on the right, she later said. Out of nowhere, as if her brain itself had designed it, magically fulfilling her wish. No sign. Weird… Well, not really. The sign must have been there a minute before and she had not paid attention, as a minute before she had no need except for going forward. So where did the ramp lead? Should she borrow it without the slightest notion? She was driving quite fast, a bit too much for a turn.

     The ramp almost formed a right angle. At a glance, she saw a ribbon of asphalt running parallel to the road she was on, cars proceeding the opposite way. The ramp, then, must draw a wide loop allowing a U turn. Quite a large detour—the flow of vehicles appeared small and far, though unmistakable. That was how she could reverse directions, for sure. She started giving the wheel a good yank.

     She froze at mid gesture. There was no ramp at all. A break in the guardrail, then nothing. How possibly? Like I’m saying. A chasm, a sheer precipice. Was she crossing a bridge? Wait. A road was in front of her, running parallel to the one she was about to leave. And she spotted a flow of tiny cars—yes—though distant, on another plane. Other planet? On another level, she meant. Lower.

     Hundreds of feet below. How could she have imagined… Was there something wrong with her eyes? The light had changed anyway. The sky had turned dark. Grey, like on a Good Friday. Like before a storm, clouds blocking the sun…  Was her sight the problem? Had she lost her perception of depth? She felt a kind of vertigo, a strange emptiness in her chest. Her heart seemed to have fallen, slipped down. Her hands squeezed the wheel as if it were the branch of a tree, hanging above a ravine.

      Correct. She had stopped barely on time—car crooked, on a diagonal. Luckily no one was behind her. Empty freeway. Empty Sunday. All of this she neatly recalls, and the aftermath. How the fear left as rapidly as it had come upon her. How calmly, how meticulously she redressed the car, backing it the tiniest of bits. How she squeezed it as close as possible to the guardrail, occupying a slight widening of the lane, a turnout-but-not-quite—an anomaly, a niche, the ambiguous feature she had taken for an off-ramp, a fork, an entrance to…

     An exit, you mean.

     A way in, leading to…

     A way out.

    *

     None of that was true, they explained over and over. What wasn’t? Yes, she parked on the side thanks to a slight enlargement of the lane—an anomaly. Yes, she cut the engine, then reclined her seat and leaned back, staring at the darkening sky through the clear roof. No sun bothered her, she recalls. The sight was very calming, and she fell asleep in a state of profound serenity, knowing she only needed to wait. They would rescue her. Asleep is how the Highway Patrol found her.

     What wasn’t true, they affirmed, is that she saw, imagined, hallucinated a ramp. Even less a cut in the guardrail, which was obviously intact. A false memory she forged a posteriori, sewn up by her brain to bridge over the hole. Not the rip in the fence, no. That’s not what they intended. No. The hole in her consciousness. She has been sick, that’s all. Her heart? Or a microscopic seizure. They will find out.

     She is sure, though, of the distinctive feeling getting hold of her as she drove, hindering her momentum, diverting her course. Yes, she bears the mark of that fulguration—circumstances had shifted, bringing clarity to her mind, hence she needed to retrace her steps, come back no matter how. And that other, later commandment—equally undisputed, pristine in its pithiness—that she should quietly wait for someone to rescue her, bring her home.

 

       0 (Them)

     Mom and Dad? What happened to them?

     Please, don’t call them that way. They wouldn’t allow it. Have allowed it. They are no more around.

     Retired?

     Sort of.

     Gone on a vacation?

     Rather a conference.

     Everlasting?

     Repetitive. Kind of serial. Their stays home between commitments became shorter over time. They preferred to go from location to location, sending the occasional postcard. And the kids had grown up, indeed.

     Weren’t they in their forties the last time we…

     Don’t know. Sort of ageless. And they never celebrated birthdays.

     Not much of a traditional family.

     It depends. Quite conventional under certain accounts. Anyway, rumors say…

     Rumors are ridiculous, especially local ones.

     But they spread. They become legends. Rumors say the old folks truly went nowhere, just kept to their rooms. His and hers, separated. They were complete suits, with bathroom, studio, boudoir, private balcony. Mini apartments. Fair-sized.

     Did they take their meals in their quarters?

     Rigorously. And they received visitors. They made no more public appearance until…

     Their fate dives into mythology, does it?

     Yes, it’s murky at best. They are told to have concertedly committed suicide, been cremated afterwards, their cinders dispersed from a plane. Or they are told to have been hibernated. There are fancier stories, imbibed with religious overtones.

     Ascension? Transfiguration?

     Maybe less explicit.

     Were they simply buried in the garden? If they were still alive, how old…

     I don’t know. To me they seemed immortal.

 

  1 (Prometheus)

     Our last talk was about meta-something. Meta-literature, I guess.

     Why such an abstruseness?

     It came up into the conversation. He asked some questions and then…

     Were you on the phone?

     We had this habit of calling every night.

     What for? Summarize the day? What could he have to say? Not a lot to report…

     Stop the sarcasm.

     Meta-literature! What did he know about it?

     Nothing. But the sound of it struck him, and maybe he got curious.

   

 *

     It sounded weird. Sounded like methamphetamine or meth crystals. Of course, it rang a bell. And, you know, the contents of our conversations didn’t matter at all. I just liked to check if you were awake, how late you would stay up. I was playing a game. Seeing if the phone for once would have just kept ringing, no one picking it up. Then I would have known.

     Did it happen? Did the phone ever rung in vain?

     No. Therefore I never knew.

 

   *

     Did they find him on the rock?

     Sure. He never climbed down. The stairs were too slippery, he used to say as a joke. Then, three hundred and sixty five steps were too many. You can do the thing once, but never again.

     For how long did he live up there?

     I’ve lost track.

     Did you call the police?

     I did when he didn’t pick up the phone. It was lifted by helicopter.

     It?

     The corpse. It stank.

     Who said that?

     I do. When I went for identification it still stank like hell. It reminded me of the Oo.

     What is it?

     I had forgotten about it. When he was a child—small, he barely talked—he had a fascination with him. A beggar. Large and tall, and so covered with rags he looked like a mountain.

     Like a rock?

     Kind of. Scary, I guess. They called him ‘The Woolf’.

     So, that is what ‘Oo’ meant.

     Yes, but the vocalic sound is more beautiful. I hadn’t thought about it since but it comes to mind, now. It looked just like the Oo when I saw it at the morgue.

     Saw it?

     The corpse. And it stank just like him.

 

  2 (Antigone)

     Sitting in the cemetery all night.

     Pacing. She always brings a bottle of wine along.

     Must be something stronger.

     It is wine. You know, from her father’s cellar. He had quite a collection. There are hundreds of gallons in there, good stuff.

     You mean her uncle’s cellar.

     Formerly her dad’s.

     Does her uncle drink it?

     Of course.

     That must piss her off. Must be why she steals a bottle per night. Maybe more than one.

     Then she knows how to hold it because at dawn, regularly, she walks all the way back to the palace.

     On foot?

     How do you think? Four miles. A steep slope. Still cool, at that hour.

     But with nothing in her guts! Two bottles of wine…

     We don’t know. Perhaps one.

     What does she do besides drinking?

     I have no idea. I think she writes something.

     Does she know how?

     I’m guessing.

 

   *

     I learn how to read. This is called an abecedarium and I love the pictures. They are fading. Not only is the thing old. It has been rained upon. It has pictures and letters—one big character associated with each image—one per page, a giant, a kind of mighty construction. It’s not hard to guess that the pattern on the right is the first letter of the figure on the left. Alpha stands for agora (is this a town square?) Pi for peplum. They are out of order, which makes it more fun.

     As I wander around, tomb by tomb, a lamp dangling from my wrist, I decipher the inscriptions. It still takes me forever but I will get faster. Do I want to? I have all the time in the world.

     I spill wine over my brother’s grave.

     He does not have a grave. His body was left unburied. That is why you are here.

     Listen up. Every night I steel a bottle of red from dad’s cellar—now uncle’s—and I come spill it over my brother’s grave. Slowly. It looks like blood. I greedily brush it with my fingertips. Then I lick them. Always a different shade of bitterness. Always a different grave.

 

  3 (Ariadne)

     To die tangled.

     Minotaur, our father. See him shrink. Remember the time when he forgot the keys of the gate.

     Wait, officially he didn’t. Nothing ever happened by his fault, and we sure understood, as it was a matter of dignity. He was angry because someone had made a mistake and we were at the gate and we—he was—locked out.

     Of his own palace?

     When an incident, when a mishap occurred, he did not leave the coach but keep seated, newspaper in hand, intermittently inhaling from a fat cigar—his brow knitted, his cheeks ever redder. He shouted orders intertwined with mumbled reproaches, increasingly frantic but comfortably cocooned in velvet and shade.

     Locked out? I couldn’t believe he dismounted, marched straight to the bars, grabbed two of them, to the left and right of the poor irresponsive latch. He hooked those frigid poles with ten chubby fingers. From the back, his dark suit set against the majestic entrance of his glorious abode, he looked tiny yet compact. Solid. Fiery.

     And he shook, and he shook the bars, wordless yet emitting a weird animal sound. A rumble. Someone would have feared an imminent heart attack. Being young and naive I didn’t, not then. But I saw the pillar on the left side—there, in front of me—quiver. A small crack, a very thin line, drew itself below the pinnacled ball garnishing the top. Was I the only one who noticed?

     Now he is locked in, but he doesn’t know. He is aware of nothing. Believe me, that isn’t the worst. The worst is his fragility, his frame shrinking and shrinking. The worst is his boniness, his sparrow-like brittleness. And the tubes plugged all over. The bruises where the needles come in, getting wider.

     Still, at times he has an uncanny gesture of revolt, or just plain impatience, so much like him. He occasionally tears off things, alas, with bits of himself attached. But he doesn’t react. I don’t think he feels pain. If he does he cannot express it, except by the slightest wrinkling of his once fierce forehead. No more than the grimace of discomfort rippling the small face of a sleeping newborn.

     Poor Dad. To die tangled.

     As I am, because I can’t leave his side. Don’t want to. Have nowhere to go. Should I try, I’d get irredeemably lost, unable—I swear—to ever find the front door.

 

   4 (Sisyphus)

     I liked hiding in silence into recesses. Dusty corners of the servant quarters where they wouldn’t set foot. I liked carrying things in those temporarily abodes, the pockets of my checkered smock filled with treasures.

     Mostly fruit. Nuts, which I had no idea what to do with, as I never brought a nutcracker. My small paws were still unable of crushing them one against another. Truly, I never developed that strength. I have remained a weakling into my adult age. Which doesn’t go without advantages.

     But this is off the topic. My adult age, I mean. Now I am recalling those quiet stations in the shadow. I never turned the light on, secrecy being the gist of those wondrous moments.  I was not scared of twilight or darkness, in spite of my reputation of cowardice. Based upon? Who knows? Local rumors.

     Aren’t they all local?

     Some spread wider than others, but honestly I don’t care. A presumption of fearfulness, again, can be convenient, as it saves you from many a responsibility. For example, I’d never end on a rock like my older brother, blatantly spat out of society, emarginated, pointed at. Does he think his fate brighter than mine?

     Well, I know my remark is unfortunate. He doesn’t think at all. First, his brain (quite brilliant, I admit) dissolved in smoke by his own doing. Then he passed away in solitude. I can’t say I didn’t have feelings for him, at least when I was young. Now I don’t miss him.

     I would never have ended like him or like my sis Antigone, the nutcase.

     Speaking of which. Those wooden balls filling my pockets. I treasured, palmed them, and the solid feeling they delivered filled me. With?

     I haven’t figured out.

 

Epilogue (The Room In The Attic)

     was the room of the prodigal son.

     Daughter?

     Gender doesn’t matter.

     Androgynous?

     It isn’t the point. In the closet…

     Wasn’t it half empty?

     Yes, and I can’t tell you the sadness emanating from the dark alcove, especially from the smell of old wood, swell with dampness. A sort of sweet helplessness, lacerating, grabbing them by their guts.

     What are you trying to say?

     Inside was a navy blue sweater, and a pair of jeans so very stiff they couldn’t be straightened. They zigzagged, accordion like. A pale pink dress, absurdly thin-waisted, hung from a bar so high they had to crane their neck…

     What? Are? You?

     Something forlorn squeezed their throat as they dared pulling the mirrored door, half-stuck, noisy. A kind of suffocation, an engorgement of tears. More than all guilt, as if those they spotted (the dress, the pants and sweater) were not clothes but

     Spoils? Who lived there?

     No one did. A guest room, I said. That is where the prodigal children spent the night on their visits.

     Rare?

     No. They constantly alternated. From the garden I saw shadows move behind the light curtains. I heard music. They turned on the radio in the morning, while they packed their suitcases, I guess.

     They…

     alternated in no particular order. But they never stayed more than one night. That’s the rule of prodigality, of course—extreme brevity. They were totally welcome as long as they kept to the room, and did not overstay the night.

    Did anyone try?

    Why would they? They were anxious to resume the road. They had things to do of the most various, the most interesting kind. They were fully grown up. Though they left a kind note on a pad, each time, dated and duly signed.

     Always?

     Sisyphus forgot once on a while. Ariadne never did.

     The other two?

     They signed, rapidly.

     So that was the rule of prodigality? Day at a time?

     Night. Breakfast wasn’t included.

     What else was in the room?

     Not much. Wait. Three things, but so banal I am tempted to omit them.

     Don’t. I sense you shouldn’t hold back.

     Well, there is no secret. A picture hang from the wall—strange thing, as all others had been removed, leaving an intricate pattern of discolored rectangles and squares. But this one was oval.

     Subject?

     Must have been a landscape. Dampness had eaten it up.

     Nothing they could decipher?

     Just stains, and the horizon line. Then there was a vase of thick glass, moonish, milkish, iridescent and empty. So chubby they wished they could eat it, especially since no breakfast was served. Then there was a book on the bed stand. Old, and hand-bound as they don’t exist anymore. Those who came with a string for marking the page. A thin ribbon so cheap, it invariably crumbled between their fingers. Either red, gold, or rust. And the absurdity of it, because why would they mark their page if they…

     Couldn’t they resume when they returned, few days later?

     No, they couldn’t resume. The books always changed.

     One-night stands?

     Yes. But please… not casually done. First of all, the titles were chosen with care.  A criteria was behind the selection. A presence. Something… dear. Sort of. Obviously, the books were mere decoration as no lamp was provided. The room, truly…

     Have you been there?

     I haven’t. I said those were the prodigal child’s assigned quarters. From the gardens I could see the curtains were pulled, in the morning, as the guests changed in front of the closet smoky mirror. I heard music each time, as they packed their luggage.

 

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About Toti O'Brien

Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in O:JA&L, Scryptic, Voice Of Eve, and Blue Tiger Review.

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