“We Will Become Silhouettes”
BY LAURA STUDARUS
The practice runs grew in frequency after She left. Having taken to sleeping on a cot just outside our room, He would come barging in, flicking the bedroom lights to wake us up. His singsong voice recounted a new catalogue of potential horrors each time. Terrorists. Fires. Earthquakes. Chemical warfare so deadly it would cause a man to mutate and explode from the inside out.
“Only a silhouette left!” He would exclaim, gently tugging at my braids.
It was my favorite — the only threat I ever considered seriously. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, the moment when a body became a silhouette. Would a shadow feel itself getting lighter? Would it get nervous with all its new freedom? Would my shadow miss me? What does a shadow do all day? I closed my eyes and pictured it, the darkened outline of my body playfully floating through the oak trees that lined our street. Spread out on the lawn outside our classroom, hunting for dandelions at noon. Flickering as it played a never-ending game of tag with all the other newly liberated shadows in the playground as the sun slowly set.
It wasn’t that scary.
The night drills were always the worst. During the day, we could hear hopscotch chants and ball bounces from the nearby park. Light would filter through a crack in the trap door, creating a single, buttery line against the unfinished floor. But when it was dark, there was nothing to remind us of that the real world was still standing. Some nights, owls would hoot insistently, making the stillness feel that much denser when they finally gave up. I took to carrying my Walkman with me everywhere to cut the silence.
Little Brother hated being woken up for a mission (as He would often call them) even more than I did. He would cry every time, fingers digging into his teddy bear, tears streaming from his clenched eyes. It was my job to toss back his covers and help him into the tiny orange backpack that always sat at the foot of his bed. He would time us, counting off the seconds in a gruff voice. To hush Little Brother, I would sing to calm him, brushing my fingers through his sandy-brown hair the way She always did. “Ba, ba, ba, ba.”
The panic room. In His less manic moments he would call our enviable stay there an adventure. “Think of the exciting opportunities!” He would cry, his voice adopting the ominous singsong lilt again. For…? Neither Little Brother or I were tall enough to see where those opportunities might lay over the endless stacks of Spam cans and dusty Poland Spring water bottles.
In the early days of our practice runs, Little Brother tried to embrace our future home. Fumbling with chubby fingers, he taped a small photo of Her up in the corner of the cupboard, proudly showing Him his handy work. He was unhappy, and failed to hide it.
“She’ll never last a day out there,” He told us through clenched jaws. “It’s my job now to keep you safe. Have you seen the news reports? Air quality is dropping like a stone.”
We hadn’t. TV unplugged, we ran the drill three times that night.
It was all over by the time I hit the ground. I had just celebrated another birthday without Her. By then, I was a soldier. Day drills all but done away with, I was an expert at sleeping at attention, turning over worst-case scenarios even in my dreams. I’m not sure why I didn’t see my inability to knot my dirty shoelaces as a threat.
Rushing—as per our usual—I tripped, sprawling across the dense lawn. My orange backpack was caught in the forward momentum and thumped the back of my head. My face was buried into the dew-heavy dirt.
Dumbfounded, I sniffed. Despite the shock of the fall, the smell of the earth cradled my senses. Brain flooded with hopes for the upcoming summer I knew I’d have no real part in; I turned my head to a side, inhaling deeply.
Hearing me fall, Little Brother stopped in his tracks. He turned back, studying me with a morbid curiosity. I smiled at him and tasted grit between my teeth.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Him take Little Brother’s hand, nearly wrenching his arm from the socket in an attempt to keep the boy moving. I raised my head. Back to the mission.
“Big Sister!” Little Brother howled.
“Leave Her” I heard Him hiss through clenched teeth.
Little Brother planted his feet, screaming his one word protest again and again at the top of his lungs.
“no No NO!”
He stopped dead, sizing up his tiny opponent. A man with a saying, encouragement, or chastisement for everything, this could go in any number directions. Little Brother and I held our breath, frozen with the sudden stream of adrenaline.
He did none of those things. Instead, wordlessly, He turned on his heel and stormed back into the house, leaving Little Brother and I behind. Alone. The door slammed shut behind Him. I couldn’t hear if he threw the lock.
Above us, a breeze rustled through the trees, breaking our silence. Not knowing what came next, we stood clinging to each other and staring up at the night sky, waiting for it to crumble.