Short Story: The Corner of Primrose and Water

Forked Street Sign

Maria was a lonely woman. One could see it in her eyes, under her eyes, and the way she carried her skin. She presented herself in an awkward form of hibernation, awake but not present. She would focus in closely on something but never fully realized its presence. It was obvious. It was unhidden. It lingered.

Maria’s mother and father haunted her well into her twenties. Mom was of strict Italian descent, cold and burdened with life’s unfair jabs, and Dad was no peach either. Joseph Lester Trumant used his height and looming stare to control any situation. Together, Nera and Joseph were silent tyrants in a world that bothered them. Foggy in its origin, it was Nera who passed on to her daughter, Maria, this looming fear of germs and impending illness. Maria remembers in segments each sore throat, each virus, each inhaler she endured as a child. It made it even more confusing not to recall full pieces of the weeks she spent in bed.  Maria would continue to blame her parents for her lack of sociability, her people anxieties, and her hypochondriac mannerisms up until their deaths.

Maria was already washing her hands feverishly throughout the day by the time she was a teenager. Nera and Joseph warned her of the impending doom of unfamiliar places beyond the front porch, the millions of germs that lived precociously on other children, and the bitter bite of changing seasons. Home was a safe zone, unfettered by life itching to seep in. Going out became less and less appealing to the point where leaving the house seemed arduous and dangerous. Maria would eventually impart these worldly fears on her only child, Simon.

Simon was an offspring of Maria’s intent decision to rebel against her parents. Sex was a cacophony of microorganisms, and was not to be tolerated or even spoken of in the Trumant house. When Maria was 21, she acted out by sleeping with a neighbor boy. This ultimate act of defiance against her parents had backfired when she took a pregnancy test weeks later. Without a word of her new, shameful news, Maria moved out of the house and bought larger and larger sweaters to hide her belly of sin.

Out of some tortuous form of pity and judgement, Nera would play into Maria’s paranoid secret by remarking that she was looking rounder, and that she should lay off the sweets. When the baby came, Nera pretended she hadn’t known all along, and Joseph was too busy to be bothered with the event. The truth of the matter was that they were indifferent.

Though Maria was now out of the house and raising a child on her own, they controlled her from afar with rotten letters about the infections of life. These letters came complete with newspaper clippings that Maria would end up taping to the fridge as a reminder of how much she despised her parents.

Joseph and Nera died within thirteen days of each other. This was no age-old tradition of one partner passing and the other following soon after from a broken heart. Their hearts were cold. Perhaps this was God’s way of providing Maria with some space. Joseph died from a cough for which he never sought a doctor; the actual cause of his death did not matter to him or to the town that welcomed his absence. Nera’s demise fared worse; it was described posthumously to Maria as gas gangrene, an internal infection that quickly rotted her soul. Nera’s already fair complexion turned disastrously pale, forming into a brittle, ash gray. The gruesome infection literally mummified her skin before she expired.

Simon was seven when his grandparents died. He had only met them three times, and he did not much like the interaction with them. They would ignore him or yell at him during their short visits, which terrified Simon. His mother never spoke of them after their deaths, so Simon never inquired. They were strangers anyway, and now they were gone.

Simon had soft bones. He appeared unused and kept. He was one jawbone angle away from a permanent scowl, but his upright eyebrows saved him from a cynical mug. He had tussled, sandy brown hair that fell loosely around his ears, with a complexion that looked like it could tan well, but had never spent time in the sun. Simon had grown weak from bed-ridden anxiety. He knew the confines of his room so well that he could navigate it in the dark, and often did from boredom.       

Simon wondered why his morning oatmeal always tasted so weird. He would add more brown sugar until the bitterness went away. Whenever he had a stomachache, it was more oatmeal. Simon learned to hate oatmeal. Sometimes he would hide it, but got scolded when his mother discovered it under his bed. But the oatmeal was not helping his stomachache. The only thing that made him feel better was sleep. So that’s what he did most of the time. 

Sleep became an escape. Simon dreamt about playing outside in freshly cut grass with someone else’s friends, eating ice cream from a cone and spilling some on him. He dreamt about learning to ride a bike and falling, poking at his skinned knee like some morbid fascination of unfamiliar pain. His nightmares were intense. They involved beasts and dragons and helplessness, of succumbing to craggily tree branches nipping at his heels. One recurring nightmare involved him running his head repeatedly into a nearby wall until it left a small, red mark in the form of a thundercloud. He woke up sweating, sometimes with his mom already dabbing his forehead clean. She never slept in the same bed with him overnight, but she was often sitting on the side of it when he woke. One time he told his mom it bothered him that she was watching him sleep. She left Simon alone for the remainder of the day, ignoring his intermittent calls for attention. He never mentioned any lack of comfort with his mom’s actions after that.

One of Simon’s favorite things was to look out his window. The window was small and the view was obstructed by a sharp triangle in the roof, so he had to cock his head to catch any life on the sidewalk. Nothing much happened out there, but every now and then he would see a man walking his dog or a woman hurrying to the bus stop with a large, overflowing purse. Simon would carry on conversations with these people as if he was walking beside them, telling them all about how he hated and loved his mom. They never answered back.

The neighborhood wasn’t perfect. None of them was on the Southeast side, but Primrose sounded pretty enough. Crime had dropped significantly the past year thanks to the introduction of a boutique coffee shop and an eclectic bookstore. It would never transform into a desirable place to live, but a place to live nonetheless.

The area of Primrose south of Water Street was all duplexes, making way for more affordable habitation and opportunities to avoid the complexities of owning a single-family home. The yards were tiny, the siding simple, the roof made of undying material. The wooden floors creaked and the furnaces scowled, but nothing seemed unexpected for its inhabitants. The neighbors on Primrose lightly admitted the existence of each other, but not much more.

Warren, Delia, and Isabel Strait moved in next door to Maria and Simon, unbeknownst to them the burning void of neighborly etiquette and code. There would be no pies, no passing acknowledgement, no small conversation at the end of the driveway over coffee and the morning paper. Warren and Delia Strait came to the neighborhood already busybodies in nature, so this cultural avoidance was unfamiliar. Even more curious was this secretive woman next door with vastly drawn curtains.

No one ever saw Simon. Maria would slink out her door and down the street like a phantom once every couple of days. Warren and Delia wondered why this isolated woman lived in a duplex by herself: was it witness protection? An incurable disease?

Isabel knew better. She never spoke of it to her parents, but she knew Simon was next door. The only solid thing uniting them was a thin, plaster laden wall connecting the two houses, and Isabel’s bed was right up against it. It was this wall that permeated the secret between two children who dare never speak of their conversations. It became a badge of honor at the dinner table when her parents would gossip about “ghostly, pale Maria” without ever mention of a child. Isabel knew better. She knew Simon.

It began with niceties shared between them, but Isabel soon found that Simon did not have much to talk about. His life never left his bedroom. She would spend most of their conversations telling him about what the world was like, and Simon could not get enough of it. When he knew she was gone, he would act out Isabel’s yesterday like a Broadway show. The bigger the better. If she got in trouble at school for chewing gum, he would elaborate until the bubble from the gum had encapsulated the punishing teacher until she floated away, never to yell at Isabel again.

Isabel always woke up early to talk to Simon. They would have secret knocks and codes for when parents were afoot. One time Isabel’s mother walked in on her talking to the wall. She chalked it up to a harmless imaginary friend, but Delia couldn’t help but wonder why her daughter had become so reclusive and secretive.

Simon and Isabel were friends. Simon was sure of it. He needed it. Besides his dreams, Isabel was the only connection to anything outside his room and away from his mom. His bedroom door was not locked. He could walk right out. Maybe he could even walk down the stairs and to the front door. He could open it. He could walk down the

front steps and up to his friend’s door, ring the bell, and ask her if she wanted to come out and play.

But who would take care of him?

Just the idea of their friendship coming fully to realization made him anxious and scared. He hated his mom, but he did not want to leave her. He hated being sick, but he had been warned how dangerous the world outside had become. Simon did not want to end up like his mean grandparents, scarred by the unfamiliar. He did not want to be taken by a predator or, even worse, become lost and alone, unable to find his way home again.

Spring was winding down, and Isabel was gearing up for summer. She told her friend behind the wall all about her summer plans, which included swimming, biking, and music camp. Simon wanted to do all those things. But the first day of summer came and, like most days, his mother restricted him to his room.

“Simon, are you sick again?” Isabel asked through the wall.

“I’m not sick,” Simon claimed.

“Your mom said you were,” she answered.

“But I’m not really. Not today.”

“You’re sick a lot.”

“She likes it when I’m sick,” Simon admitted. “I think it gives her something to do.”

Whenever Simon truly was ill, it was a monsoon of activity and justification. Maria swooped in from every angle to satiate and

extinguish the smallest of emergencies: a loose cough, a sneeze, or a stomachache. He sometimes faked it, but eventually came to believe it himself, unable to decipher between when he was sick and when his mom simply wanted him to be. In those rare occasions where he wasn’t smothered with attention, he’d feel some sort of new pain-–be it real or perceived-–that would send his mom bounding back bedside.

While the summer drew on for Simon, it expanded for Isabel. As she grew busier, he grew weaker. The secret conversations had dwindled. It was deep into August now, and Simon had not left the house once, had never seen Isabel’s face, and seemed to be getting sicker and sicker with every passing month. 

Simon awoke, feverish. This time it was bad. He called out to his mom, but a screaming whisper barely made it past his lips. He had scratched his chest to a point where his skin was ripped and blood beaded at its surface. Something was wrong.

His mom didn’t come.

He did the secret knock on the wall. No answer.

Isabel arrived home from a week at music camp, excited to share her new oboe obsession with Simon. It had been a while since they talked, and she missed him. She did the secret knock on the wall. No answer.

“That’s strange,” she thought. “Simon is always in his room.”

Maybe he had finally broken free, thought Isabel. They had talked about it so many times: meet at the corner of Primrose and Water. She ran down the stairs and out the door, down to the corner of Primrose and Water.

She waited until she could not wait anymore.

It wasn’t until after Labor Day that Isabel saw Maria slinking out the front door and down the road.

“Miss Maria! Oh, Miss Maria!” Isabel shouted as she ran towards the slender figure.

Maria turned to face the child and shook a finger at her like an old witch. “How do you know my name?”

“Simon told me,” Isabel said with fervor.

Maria’s face went a lighter shade of her natural pale, and her eyes seemed to sink further back into her skull.

“I don’t know a Simon,” she replied without emotion.

“Don’t be silly!” Isabel said. “I talk to your son through the wall all the time. Don’t be mad. He’s afraid he’ll get in trouble. Where has he been, Miss Maria? I miss him.”

“I’m sorry, little girl. You must be mistaken. I do not have a son. I cannot have children.”

As fast as she had slinked out of her front door and on to the sidewalk, Maria was gone.

Isabel stood in terror on the corner of Primrose and Water like she had seen a ghost. She was angry. She was sad. She was confused.

From the corner, Isabel cocked her head in the direction of Simon’s window, but she could not see over the sharp triangle in the roof. 

A man walking his dog passed by Isabel without a word. A woman desperately clutching a large, overflowing purse ignored her as she ran to make the bus.

She called out for Simon. No answer.

 

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