They'd been at it again. Harry smoothed down his moustache, his strangely elfin eyes darting up and down the dirt alley rutted with cold grooves in the early, desert winter morning. Bastards. This was the second time this week he'd have to paint the wall. Why this wall? Harry wondered. And why the same damn way every time? "A….WAKEN," he read, tracing the letters above and below the weird, black eyeball. It stared at him brazenly from the otherwise pristine, white adobe wall running the length of his backyard along the alley. Probably some kids from the university. "I'm awaken now, you little shits," he promised the empty air. He stalked across the dirt yard to the glass patio door, then went inside, alone.
The days ate away at her strong urge to do this thing, to make her mark, to act outside the tedious wheel that ground her to a halt every day, pressed upon her like an unwanted lover in the night, stealing her breath, her will; but then, that life grounded her, too. She liked the routine, the appearances, the requirements of her daily business—things like waking her daughter, making sure she was fed, clean, brushed, dressed. Planning meals for the week, grocery shopping, preparing food. Taking care of the garden. Cleaning. All these tasks might have seemed boring to most people, but she found satisfaction in them, completion, stability.
That she was married, with a house, that she was expected and able to provide on so many levels for her family, made her feel almost whole. Almost. There was that again. That thing. That niggling, trying-to-get-out-from-under-the-blankets, wrenching and screaming thing. Sometimes she wished that thing would just go away so it wouldn't trouble her built-up contentment. She wished it would get tired of fighting and just shrivel up, like a plant put out in the sun of a desert garden too soon, shrivel and crumble back into the ground, into nothingness. But it had to be heard. It was a vital thing, a birthing, blasting, bloody thing that had to get out soon before it broke something inside her.
The first time it happened was Wednesday. Harry had gotten in his car, pulled out of the garage, and driven down the alley as usual when the sight of that atrocious eye on his wall made him slam on the brakes, toppling his coffee onto the floor mat. "Fuck!" he'd yelled. How dare they? How dare they? He'd had to call off the morning from work so he could paint the wall. He'd watched the alley that night from his patio, waiting to see if anyone showed up, but no one did. Then, Friday morning, the same thing happened—that fucking eye, almost accusatory, with the "A" above it, and "WAKEN" below, staring out at him from the same place on his wall and severely disturbing his otherwise normal morning routine.
Monday, she'd bought the paint. She'd picked up some potting soil first before strolling down the home improvement aisle. When she'd spotted the spray paint encased behind glass, her mouth had gone dry. Locked. Of course. Quickly, she'd tried to come up with a plausible spray paint story. Cabinets? No, who would paint their cabinets black? A bench in her back yard. Or an art project. Stenciling. Then she wouldn't even really be lying. When the young clerk merely glanced at her then opened the case and gave her the can, no questions asked, she'd felt foolish. Of course she didn't need a story. She was old and buying soil, for Pete's sake. What was she about to do, repot some houseplants then go out tagging all night? Unlikely. "Thanks," she'd said, and headed to check-out.
So many nights, she'd lain in silence, trying to keep her sound footprint to a minimum while mentally writhing in the brown-grey, sleepless limbo of insomnia. Now that she had work to do, she felt even more wide awake than usual. She was cautious, her movements in slow motion, the foot creeping off the bed and onto the cool wood floor, her body sliding out from beneath the soft sheet. But as she moved, she realized that her feet squeaking on the floor, the careful opening and closing of doors, disturbed no one. Her daughter and husband remained oblivious in sleep. Across the backyard, the garage swallowed her silently.
It took a couple nights to finish it. She discovered her drawings wouldn't work when she began to cut, making things that fell apart, and when she achieved a good design, the cutting took longer than she'd thought it would; finally, she had something that felt right. She cleaned up, throwing scraps in the trash, putting the knife in its bin and the Sharpie in her pocket. She tucked the can of spray paint up her sleeve, the rolled stencil down the front of her hoodie. She was already dressed for the job—dark, cavernous clothes, black gloves, ski mask—and she knew exactly where to go. She'd thought about it a lot—it had to be special, this first space for her voice.
Years ago when she'd been pregnant and walking their dog, Buddy, around the neighborhood, she'd passed by Mr. Whitman's house. Buddy had stopped to sniff the edge of the lawn when Mr. Whitman barreled out of his screen door, demanding that she move along. Bursting with hormones and outrage, she'd yelled, "You move along!" Now, she and Mr. Whitman avoided each other. Since then, too, she'd overheard him on his cellphone in his yard, complaining of a "civilization riddled with gynarchy and misandry," terms she'd looked up later, deepening her dislike for him even more.
She let herself out the side garage door that opened onto the dark alley. Her footsteps sounded loud, but it wasn't far, and everyone was sleeping. The work was fast and easy. The stencil worked beautifully; no one saw her shrouded, masked figure crouched by the white wall in the night; and when she got home, her family was still resting quietly, not missing her at all. She felt exhilarated, vindicated, more real somehow, and that thing pent up inside her rang wildly through her blood like the clear vibrations of a bell. She had a secret now, a voice outside her home, her duties. When she went back on Friday, she did the same thing, felt the same way—flushed, alive. She felt she could go on doing this indefinitely but knew it was a bad idea. She didn't want to get caught. Just one more time, she thought. Three's a charm.
On a whim, she pulled the sharpie from her pocket, added "onder" at a slant above the "W" in WAKEN, "sk" above the "A," and was closing a parentheses around "KEN" when a voice above her head asked, "Having fun?" She dropped the pen and jumped to her feet as Mr. Whitman quickly came through his gate with a bat in his hand. He stood in front of her, while behind her, she heard the crunch of wheels turning onto the alley. What she knew must be a cop car flooded the scene with light and came to a stop. Frozen in place, her breath came in long, ghastly plumes.
She thought of nothing. As she heard one of the car doors opening (it seemed everything was happening in slow motion), her body suddenly acted on its own, her right hand jabbing out at Mr. Whitman's chest, her left hand catching the bat as it dropped. She took the weapon in both hands and swung at his shins, then dropped the bat and ran past Mr. Whitman as he crumpled into the alley, blocking the cop car. At the end of the alley, she tore around the corner. She could hear Buddy barking his head off. Even though she wanted to keep running, she thought of her daughter waking up without Mommy there. She jammed the keys into the lock, closed the front door, and stood inside, heart on fire. After she settled a little, she let Buddy in the back door and sat on the floor, petting the dog's golden head, police lights strobing through the window. When her breathing calmed, she peeked in on her daughter, who was not sitting bolt upright in alarm, but sleeping deeply.
In her room, she took off her hoodie, threw it in the wash pile, put on pajamas, then slipped into bed next to her husband. The fan was on—he left it on at night no matter the season because he couldn't fall asleep without the noise. Once he was asleep, though, it took some work to wake him up. She'd have to get up and turn it off. It was too cold in the room. Instead, she stayed where she was beneath the temperate blankets, watching the fan's slow, steady revolutions. She smiled and closed her eyes. She had enough.
Jan Baca holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing and a master's in rlementary education. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in several publications, including Earthships: A New Mecca Poetry Collection, Weekly Alibi, and various local and online rags. She lives in Albuquerque with her husband and daughter.