5.8

This piece was first published in Scrutiny online literary magazine, which specializes in flash fiction.

The summer stretched behind them, a long, exhausting heat and white light that shriveled the grass and the herbs and the watermelon vines. Nothing was stirring the leaves on the copious trees, and the red flag with the turquoise flower she made to welcome the summer hung limp. An intense gold light flooded in the picture window, highlighting the chinks in the wood floor, the spider webs under the edges of the cranberry couches—reappearing faster than she could daily suck them up the nozzle of the vacuum, spider and all.

Gwen reclined on the couch so that the blinding pages of Arthur reflected the sunlight, her shoulders slumped into the throw pillows heaped together at one end. Her pale eyes narrowed at the page, her top teeth biting at her sun burnt lower lip. It took several sentences of speeding text before she registered the low rumble, but then it ripped her from Camelot. She leaned up, alert and confused, with the book limp in her drooping, left hand.

It was the washing machine, no doubt, and yet something in her sensed an almost imperceptible difference from this rumble and the way the house shuddered and thumped when the washing machine was imbalanced and stomping its way across the laundry room to block the door. So she glanced out the window as she sat up straight on the merest edge of couch. She would not be able to see the construction, hidden behind the bungalows and the tall loblollies, a street away. She looked instead at the trees: their trunks, their branches, their twigs. They stood still, defiant, glaring and dusty in the sun.

The rumbling intensified, bloomed up into the floor and the walls, but had a pulse. Perhaps it was slightly irregular, but it was like a metronome set at harried speed, pulsing through the old house, which felt like it was skidding to a halt across the parched earth. Trinkets creaked in time. Glass clinked in time. It must be the washing machine.

Gwen caught Ian’s eye as he swung around from his chair in the office, halfway between Gwen and the laundry room. His outside eyebrow was lifted over his glass frames, toward her, both irked and irksome. He paused there with his arm draped on the back of the refurbished chair, stifling his own momentum to give her a chance to respond to his displeasure, to take his place in running to the washing machine. He was no longer looking at her as the thumping and the clamoring pots and pans intensified.

Surely the washing machine had never affected the house quite like this before. When Gwen jogged after Ian, she was surprised that she did not falter. The ground felt more solid than the raucous around her indicated. And with each step the shaking was more violent, more abnormal.

They reached the laundry room door almost together, and Ian flung it open, still with an air of blame. Gwen’s mind was on the loads of laundry that she had washed and dried that morning. Surely the last load had been thrown in and drowned in suds a couple hours ago? She pushed past Ian and leapt over the dirty linens composing the reds pile, but as soon as she was air-born she realized that something was not right. The house quieted beneath her a moment after she noticed that this particular room was already quiet and comparatively steady. She pulled up the lid on the washing machine and stared inside as if studying tea leaves. The drum was not moving, was not rolling to a stop. She placed her right, thin hand on top of the dryer. The dryer always finished long after the washer, she told herself. It was not shuddering. It was not even warm.

Gwen turned around to where Ian stood tall in the door frame, the deep shadows of the office purpling his silhouette. “It’s  not moving. The dryer’s not even warm.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive. Wait.” Gwen pressed her palms back onto the machines. “It’s still shaking. The house is still shaking.” The hectic rhythm was still pulsing through the floors, but much less dramatically.

“Yeah, maybe.” Ian pivoted toward the shadows and disappeared around the corner.

Gwen pressed her palms down into the machines, leaned against them, for a moment more. She could feel it, but had never been sure she was right about anything. She slowly plodded through the reds pile, out the laundry room door, and past Ian’s impassive back and his clicking at the keyboard and into the sun-flooded family room. She stood at the front window, a giant picture window in three pieces; the two at the sides made up of twelve single panes of glass in a slowly rotting, whitewashed window framing.  She looked past the tiny chips of paint color that speckled the window after sixty years of wall paint changes and trimming, and at the still trees, the sagging leaves.

Gwen heard a sound. A beat coming from the walls, a rhythm small and thin and insistent. She looked around her and her gaze fell on one window pane. It was like a fairy-pitched tinkling. She was sure of it.

“Ian. It’s still shaking. You hear it? You hear that? The window panes.”

“Mmm-hmm.” There was a moment before he turned in his chair and then came to her in a straight line that intersected a bright square of barren wood floor. He stood next to her in the window, with his ear close to the panes, still rattling, so quiet it was hard to hear. “I don’t hear it.”

“It’s there.” She moved her ear close, too. “There! Again! The house is still shaking!” Her enthusiasm trailed off.

“Mm. I don’t know.” He walked away, again. She kept her ear close to the glass, vibrating now, so quiet and so persistent. She set her palm against the pane at face level, so that there was no pressure, except as the glass shivered against her in tune with the remaining vibrations.