This is Not a Test: Excerpt
I woke up and the last piece of my heart disappeared. I opened my eyes and I felt it go.
I sit on the edge of the bathtub and run the fingernail of my thumb up the inside of my wrist. I trace a vein until it pitchforks out and disappears under the fleshiest part of my palm. Lily couldn’t sleep; a few weeks before she left, she had all these pills to help her do that. I didn’t know why at the time but now I think her guilt was probably keeping her up at night. When I searched her bedroom earlier, I couldn’t find them, which is too bad. I was counting on it. Her. I should know better. It just seemed like maybe the stars would align for this–that the day I decided to die, everything would go right.
But they didn’t and now I’m not sure what I’ll do.
Three sharp raps on the bathroom door–onetwothree–stop me breathing. I look up from my wrist. I didn’t hear his footsteps. I never hear them when it matters anymore, but I hear them now, retreating down the hall. I wait a few minutes before leaving the bathroom and then I walk the same path downstairs he did. His cologne soaks the air, musky and cheap, and the scent is so heavy in my lungs it makes me want to tear my skin off. It’s stronger the closer I get to the kitchen and mingles with a more bitter scent: burnt toast. He burned the toast. He only does that when he thinks I deserve it. I check my watch.
I am five minutes late for breakfast.
Early morning light streams in through the window above the sink. Everything it touches turns gold. Everything looks golden, but it all feels so gray. An envelope sits next to my plate of (burnt) toast. I pick it up and run my fingers along the edge of it as my father explains it’s for the school, about my absence. His cover. This is what we are going to tell them kept me home for so long. I had that flu that’s going around. Do I understand? I had the flu.
He says, “Let me get a look at your face.”
I tilt my chin up. It’s not good enough. In one swift motion, he reaches across the table and I flinch away before I can stop myself. He exhales impatiently, takes my chin in his hand, and turns it roughly toward the light. I keep my eyes on the envelope, like I could turn it into a letter from Lily just by looking at it. A letter that says, hey, I’m coming back for you tonight. I used to read the actual note she left me over and over again and I’d pretend those words were coded between the ones that said I’m so sorry and I can’t do this anymore.
He lets go of my chin.
Things got worse after you left.
How it is now: my father’s face, buried in the newspaper. My mother buried six feet underground. My sister, Lily, gone. Two charred pieces of toast set out before me. I forgot the butter, left it on the counter next to the fridge. I want it badly, but once I’m at the table, I’m not allowed to leave until my plate is clean.
Mornings like this, I remember that one and only sleepover at Grace Casper’s house. Waking up with her the next day, scampering downstairs before we were even dressed. The radio blared the news and her mother and father raised their voices over it to be heard. They had an entire conversation this way. Her brother, Trace, turned the TV on over the radio–it was so much noise–and I was too overwhelmed to eat and no one got mad at me for it. Grace said she could tell by the look on my face it was different at my place and she asked me what it was like and I lied to her. I said it was the same, just slightly quieter.
What it really is is silent except for the clock ticking on the wall, reminding me I have only three minutes left to eat. My father flips to the classifieds. Two minutes. Past them. One minute. Folds the paper. Time. He peers at me and the still uneaten toast.
“You better eat that,” he says.
The edge in his voice closes my throat. I pick at a snag in my fingernail and peel it sideways, trying to open my airways by distracting my body with new pain. Blood prickles at the corner of my thumb but it doesn’t work, I still can’t swallow, so I start to pray instead. I pray for something, anything to happen so I don’t have to eat this toast because I can’t eat this toast. I wasn’t raised to believe in God but Lily is gone and I’m all that’s left and I never ask for anything. Maybe that counts for something.
“But what if–” The words die as soon as they leave my mouth. “I’m not…”
He stares at me.
“If I’m not–what if I’m not… hungry…”
“You know we don’t waste food in this house.”
And then, something:
Our front door starts to rattle and shake.
My father lowers the paper slightly.
“HELP! Help us, please–“
The sound sends shock waves through the room. A girl, screaming. The door continues to rattle, the doorknob turning frantically left and right. I stand before I realize what I’m doing. I stand before my plate is clear. The rattling stops as abruptly as it started. The girl’s voice is gone. But I heard it, I know I did. There was a girl out there. She needs help.
“Sit down,” my father says.
I sit. My father slaps the paper onto the table and nods sharply at my plate, which is as good as telling me it better be empty when he comes back. He leaves the room to investigate, swearing under his breath, but before he does I think I see him hesitate and I have never seen him hesitate in my life. I stare at the toast and forget about the girl because it doesn’t matter, what’s happening outside. I have to eat. I can’t eat.
I hurry across the kitchen. I dump the toast in the garbage and cover it with a crumpled napkin and then I throw myself back into my seat and try to look normal, calm. If he sees what I’ve done on my face, his will purple. His lips will thin. He’ll say, we have to talk about this now. But we won’t. Talk, that is.
Times like these, I need Lily. Whenever I’m about to get in trouble, Lily is (was) the one who reminds (reminded) me to breathe. I try to imagine her next to me, whispering in my ear, but it doesn’t work because now whenever I think of her, I think of her six months ago, slipping that letter under my door, slipping out of the house, slipping into the beat-up old Volkswagen she bought last year, slipping out of my life. I wonder where she ran to, where she’s hiding. If our money’s gone. If she’s spent it all by now.
Now I’m leaving too.
The sound of sirens closes in on our street. I want to look out the window but if he finds me at the window that would be bad. The front door slams shut. Dad storms into the room and I jump from my chair so fast it goes flying into the cupboards. I lose myself in endless apologies–I’m sorry, I couldn’t eat it, I know it’s a waste, I’m so sorry–but he’s screaming over me and his voice is so loud and so panicked at first I can’t understand a word he’s saying.
And there’s blood on him.
“–go, we have to go!–“
I see the blood and my head is full of snapshots: the coffee table. My head against it. Blood in my hair. The floor mashed against my face. My teeth mashed against my lips. Later, more bruises than I could count. I don’t know what he’s done this time, what’s happened, but I don’t want to be part of it. I push past my father and rush down the hall to the front door. I struggle with the chain lock. Slide it out of place. I pull the door open and–
Tires squealing against the pavement.
People running directionless.
This must be a dream. I must not be awake. Or I’m awake and someone ruined our tidy, quiet street while we were sleeping. Broken glass. Doors flung wide open. Cars parked, running, with no one inside of them. An alarm shrieks nearby. Smoke billows out the window of a house down the street. Mr. North’s house. A police car is parked haphazardly on his lawn, its lights flashing. A fire. That must be what’s happened except I can’t understand why this would turn everyone to panic.
Everyone is panicking.
People rush by. They don’t even look at me. A loud crack makes me jump but I can’t source the sound. Another scream. A group of people run down the road, so frenzied their movements are jerky and uncontrolled. I watch one of them fall, a man. The others surround him and they’re so desperate to pull him to his feet they overwhelm him and I can’t tell where he stops and they begin.
A car careens past and takes out our mailbox but it keeps going. I take a few dumb steps down the walk and spot a woman staggering awkwardly across our lawn. Is this the girl that needed help? She is covered in red, half hunched over, her arms reaching for someone I can’t see. I don’t know who she is, but I call out to her; I want to know if the blood on my father is hers. She somehow hears me over all the other noises and turns her head in my direction at the same time my father grabs me and yanks me back inside, throwing me into the foyer. I hit the wall as he slams the door shut–in the woman’s face. I glimpse a crimson-stained mouth just before the sound of her body colliding against the wood fills the house. My father takes me by the arm and drags me down the hall. He walks so fast, I can’t keep up. I trip and land on my knees. He whirls around. I cover my face with my hands instinctively but he hoists me to my feet and drags me toward the door to the rec room–
And then an awful sound explodes from the living room.
Our picture window breaking into a thousand pieces.
He lets me go and doubles back. “Get in the rec room, Sloane, and don’t move!”
Get in the rec room. Move. Don’t move. Move. I crawl after him, crawl until I see the living room carpet glittering in the sunlight. Glass is everywhere. I watch the woman who was on our lawn writhe through our window, oblivious to the leftover shards and blades of it digging into her legs and hands. She streaks blood on the white sill and as soon as she’s through, steadies herself on our pale yellow couch. She leaves a red handprint in her wake. She doesn’t even look like she knows where she is. She pauses, rolls her shoulders and inhales. The air rattles through her lungs and makes me breathless. Her head jerks left to right, left to right, left to right before stopping abruptly. She looks at us, takes us in.
It’s easy for my father to overpower her. Because she’s nothing, she’s small, he pins her by the neck with one hand and with the other, gropes around for something to defend himself with. She gnashes her teeth and claws at his arms so hard she breaks skin, makes him bleed, and the blood makes her wild. She twists her head toward it. My father finds a large piece of broken glass and raises it above him.
He thrusts it into her chest.
And then he does it again.
The woman doesn’t realize she’s supposed to be dying. It’s like she’s becoming more alive, stronger each time the glass is forced into her. She fights to free herself against my father’s waning grip and he stabs blindly until finally, desperately, he drives the glass into her left eye and the woman stops moving.
She’s stopped moving.
He stares at her body and sits there, drenched in someone else’s life, and he looks so calm, like he knew this was coming, like the way this morning started it was only ever going to end up like this. The room starts to spin.
“Sloane,” he says.
I find my way to my feet and back into the hall, knocking into the end table where we keep the phone. It clatters to the floor. The sound of the dial tone steadies me, rights the earth.
I push through the front door again and I keep moving until I reach the sidewalk. I’m just in time to see two cars meet in the middle of my street but not in time to get between them. The raw crunch of metal sends me reeling back and puts everything on pause for one brief, critical moment where I edge around the wreckage and try to focus on one thing that makes sense. This: Mr. Jenkins is spread-eagle on his lawn, in his housecoat. He’s twitching. Mrs. Jenkins is kneeling over him. She rips his shirt wide open. Heart attack, I think. Mr. Jenkins has a bad heart. She’s giving him CPR.
Except that’s not what it is at all.
Mrs. Jenkins’s determined fingers have torn past the material of Mr. Jenkins’s shirt.
And now they are tearing into his chest.