Zone of Silence
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
In Memoriam J.G. Ballard
Allison was in the middle of a message to Ryan when her phone stopped working. She had just thumbed in “b/c don’t u just h8 it” when the tiny screen went completely black.
She tried to remember if she had heard the beeping that meant the battery was low on charge. Maybe she had been so engrossed in her texting that she had missed it. It was the reason she had missed her bus as she messaged Courtney from the girls’ room about getting together that evening for homework and Beverly Hills 90210. You would think that Courtney, who had been on the bus in front of their high school, would have texted something about its leaving.
Allison looked up from her phone and discovered a suburban street in a neighborhood that was much like hers but not hers. She recalled dreams like this in which she turned a corner near home, only to find herself somewhere she had never seen before. She had not wanted to phone her mother for a ride and get chewed out for missing the bus; she had figured the walk home would take less than an hour. Now, however, calling her mother seemed like the next best thing to do. She held her phone up and pressed the power button once, twice, then more firmly a third time. Nothing happened.
Warily she shuffled past the two-story houses, each with its wide driveway and patch of landscaping, so familiar yet so strange. She scanned for address numbers on the cream-colored stucco, as though those would tell her where to go. Spotting an intersection just ahead, she accelerated along the silent sidewalk with the street sign in her sites. It told her she had reached the corner of Via Bulero and Via Ballena. She remembered the map function on her phone and reflexively poked a button. She eyed her reflection in the blank screenlet.
The best thing to do, she decided, was to try to retrace her steps. She pivoted and headed back. The street gently curved, so she could not see the end of it. She passed a house with a dog barking in its back yard. Half a block further a garage door across the street hummed open. She glanced inside but saw no one. When she reached the next intersection, the signs told her she was at the corner of Via Bulero and Via Balustrado. She automatically thumbed the button on her phone but learned only that it still was not working.
Allison could not remember turning corners, so she crossed Via Balustrado, remaining on Via Bulero as it arced to the right then back to the left. A black SUV passed her, and for a hopeful second she thought maybe her mother had somehow found her, but it drove on around the curve. Via Bulero finally ended at another street, a straight one called Calle Ballardo, lined with more stucco, tile-roofed, two-story houses. It seemed vaguely familiar, though she did not recall coming this way. After an indecisive pause, she followed the sidewalk to the right.
Before long she found she was squinting into the sun. She guessed about an hour had passed since she had left school, but when she checked her phone for the time, it remained blank. She wondered if her mother had discovered she was not home yet; she would probably assume Allison had gone directly to Courtney’s or Tracy’s or Lindsey’s or even Ryan’s. Mom would not really start worrying until dinnertime, but she would probably get mad first. She would call Allison’s phone before calling her friends. Allison had to find her way home soon or she would be in trouble.
She walked two long blocks before realizing she was in trouble already; a vague visceral discomfort had finally settled in her lap. The message arrived with a red exclamation point: she needed a bathroom. Heart suddenly thudding, she peered up and down the street. Houses, shrubs, cars parked on curbs and driveways. Nowhere to go.
Allison sped her steps, taking the first side street off Calle Ballardo. As her panic mounted, so did her pee-and-flee reflex. On impulse she thumbed 9-1-1, but nothing happened, not even the second time. She was almost running as she swept around one curved block, hunting for release and relief. As she skipped over a sheet of water rippling from a saturated lawn into the street, a fist clenched around her bladder. She froze, thighs pressed together, listening to the gurgle from the gutter. With wide, wild eyes she scanned her surroundings. She spun toward the lawn just before her sphincter surrendered. A cry bubbled from her throat, and she cupped a hand before her mouth to catch it. For a helpless minute, she could only half crouch as warm liquid soaked her jeans. This was a nightmare, she thought. It was worse than those dreams where she found herself in a classroom wearing only her underwear, just as the teacher called on her to deliver an oral report. This couldn’t be real. That would explain why her phone wasn’t working.
When she finished, it was her face that flushed. As her jeans chilled with the damp, she could feel herself breathing again. Her eyes focused on the house in front of her; she glimpsed a drape swinging, as though someone had just left the window. She turned away to eye the dark blue stains inside her thighs. Dropping to her knees on a dry part of the sidewalk, she unslung her pink knapsack and unzipped it. As she rummaged past papers, notebook, and Elle magazine, she feared momentarily that she had left her hooded sweatshirt at home or, worse, at school, but she found it stuffed under her math text. Standing, she tied it around her waist. She caught sight of a woman walking a toy poodle across the street. The poodle paused to lift its leg.
Allison’s nose remained wrinkled in disgust as she shuffled down the sidewalk. She was soaked past her knees, and her jeans clung clammily to her skin. The rill of wastewater trickled alongside her in the gutter. She followed it around a corner and to the bottom of a cul-de-sac, where it tumbled down a drain. There at the terminal curve, on her left hand, spread a grassy, weedy wedge between fenced yards. Beyond a rust-edged sign claiming this swatch for the water district grew some unkempt brush and a pair of small trees. She turned her back on the street and left the sidewalk.
Behind the trees she found a shallow, cemented ditch and a wire fence. Beyond the fence a slope with thick green ground cover rolled down to a freeway, filled with cars for the evening commute. Across the freeway were large windowless buildings surrounded by long trucks, and beyond these some elevated signs that suggested a fast food and car dealerships. The cement ditch appeared to run behind the fenced back yards of the houses on either side. Allison sat on the edge of the ditch, her sneaker-shod feet on the smooth bottom, and cried.
Later she studied the fragment of her reflection in her phone as she wiped her eyes. The sun was low over the far side of the freeway, turning the tall signs into dark towers. Her mom had to be really worried by now. She raised the phone halfway to her ear before remembering again. The smell rising from her lap was unpleasant. She could not sit there any longer.
Allison started walking the ditch, keeping the freeway on her right. On her left back yards were defended with high fences of wood or wire, and often ornamental shrubbery she did not know to be bottlebrush, acacia, and oleander. Occasionally she plucked at her jeans with her free hand, but the denim was too snug to give her fingers purchase. Her inner thighs itched but she didn’t want to scratch. Sometimes she heard voices from nearby houses, but mostly she just heard the sounds from the freeway.
As the sun grew dusky, Allison grew fearful of the gathering shadows and the coming dark. She was getting cold, and she unslung her knapsack again so she could move her sweatshirt to her shoulders. She was hungry now too; emptiness boiled in her stomach. As twilight closed in, it dawned on her she might not make it home for dinner. For the first time, in fact, it struck her that she might have to spend the whole night outside. She would miss Beverly Hills 90210. She might even die. She pictured Courtney and the rest of her friends weeping at her funeral alongside her family. Ryan would be there, of course, and realize too late that he actually loved her. Standing over her coffin, he would vow never to love anyone else.
Allison was just starting to tear up at how tragic it was when she spotted an aura of bright light ahead. She could make out that the back fences ended soon, to be replaced by pavement and structures that were not houses. Not long afterward the ditch dove under the pavement, and she stepped across a patch of weedy grass to a narrow parking area behind a bank that had closed for the day. Further on was something even better: a busy gas station. For the first time since her phone died she felt hope. She bent to study her jeans in the incandescent light; convinced the stains had mostly faded, she tugged her sweatshirt hem over her hips anyway and hustled forward.
Avoiding the cars and the eyes of others, she headed straight for the minimart. Inside, on familiar ground at last, she sauntered into the aisles of snacks. She looked at everything before deciding, knowing she would have to choose judiciously. Finally she picked out a Grab-bag of Ranch-style Doritos, a small package of Oreos, and a plastic bottle of Diet Pepsi. She considered a box of Red Vines, but she couldn’t carry that and her phone too. The guy at the counter looked Arab, and she kept her gaze down on her items as he told her she owed five dollars and sixteen cents. When he asked if she wanted a bag, she nodded.
Allison carried her purchase past the service garage to the corner of the building, where she sat on the curb in front of one of those old-fashioned telephones people used in movies. She went quickly through her Doritos, washing them down with the Pepsi. As she more deliberately munched her Oreos, she studied morosely the dead phone in her hand. How was she ever going to talk to anyone again? How was she going to find her way home?
When she had finished eating, she stretched out the last sips of Pepsi while counting her money. She had seven dollar bills left and nearly another dollar in change. Perhaps enough for two more meals if she was careful. She lingered on the curb, watching cars come and go on the off chance she might see someone she knew. Then, to pass the time, she hunched over her blank phone and texted imaginary messages to Courtney, Ryan, and even her mom, though her mom did not text.
When it occurred to her she needed a bathroom again, she returned to the minimart and stood outside the locked women’s room door until a lady came out, at which point Allison grabbed the heavy door and slipped inside. After using the toilet, she wiped down with some moistened paper towels before pulling her jeans back up and washed her hands twice. She bought the Red Vines on the way out, figuring she might need them to get through the night.
Later on the gas station was not so busy, and Allison discovered that the gas pumps had little televisions in them. She hovered around the island furthest from the minimart, nibbling Red Vines while catching glimpses of commercials and TV shows in between cars. There was nothing she really wanted to watch, but at least it was television. After a long time cars stopped showing up at the pumps and the TV screens fell silent. She tried to check the time but her phone stayed blank.
It occurred to her that the gas station might be closing soon, so she went back in the minimart to use the restroom, even though she didn’t need to. No one was inside but the Arab-looking guy behind the counter, and after trying the restroom door and finding it locked, she left.
Allison felt queasy as she walked away from the gas station. Her feet were sore from the day’s trekking. The long, dark night lay ahead of her, and she missed her cozy bed. She couldn’t go back to the ditch, because there was nothing to sleep on but grass. She stopped at the area behind the bank next door and sat on the pavement at the base of a wall. She lifted her hood over her head. Resting her arm on her knees and her head on her arm, she eyed her phone until her eyes could stay open no longer.
It was the worst night’s sleep she ever had. She was sure of it. She could not get comfortable. Every time she began to drop off, some threatening dream image jerked her awake. Most of the night she simply lay shivering in the chill.
She welcomed the first glimmer of dawn and watched the fading of the night’s dozen or so visible stars with crusty-eyed anticipation, taking the opportunity to brush her tangled hair. She was waiting zombie-like at the perimeter of the gas station, pack on her back and phone in hand, as the lights went on in the minimart. Fortunately, there was a plump, brown woman behind the counter this morning when she entered to tug on the restroom door, and when the woman asked if she wanted the key, all Allison had to do was nod. On the way out she bought a Diet Pepsi and a donut with pink icing and sprinkles. She sat on the curb in front of the old-fashioned telephone to have breakfast and rested there, watching the first cars of the day pass through the pumps. A police car even stopped, and one of the officers sauntered to the minimart. She thumbed 9-1-1 into her phone, maddeningly aware that her emergency would not be communicated, frantic that potential help was so close and she had no way to reach them.
After breakfast Allison wandered to the thoroughfare that the gas station faced. To her right it continued over the freeway. She was pretty sure home was not in that direction, however, so she turned to her left. She crossed the intersection, where a sign hanging from a traffic light overhead told her she was on Sycamore Canyon Road. Still footsore, she started walking slowly alongside a lightly landscaped wall that separated Sycamore Canyon Road from the houses. Periodically she glanced over her shoulder to keep the intersection with the gas station in sight as long as possible, fearful it might vanish from existence completely.
Allison walked several blocks, stopping frequently to rest on corner curbs, looking for familiar names in the street signs she passed. Finally she just sat on a curb and watched the cars pass. Eventually, knowing it was just a matter of time before she needed a restroom and food again, she turned around and headed dispiritedly back. She made it to the gas station just in time.
Allison had a lunch of Snickers and Diet Pepsi, then stood at the corner of the garage beside the old-fashioned phone to count her remaining change. She had a little over a dollar left. Feeling exhausted, she wandered to the bank and stared at the ATM machines. She did not have a checking account, so she had no way to get more money. She crept to the back of the bank, finally stumbling off the pavement onto the grass beside the ditch. Before she knew it, she had fallen asleep inside the ditch with her knapsack under her head, her phone still dead in her hand.
When she woke up, it was the middle of the afternoon, but she did not feel at all rested. One whole side of her body ached from lying against cement. She had a headache and a crampy stomach. Worse, she smelled of sweat and yesterday’s urine — just like a homeless person. She wanted to die. Maybe she should just run out in traffic and get hit by a car, and then when she got to the hospital someone would find out who she was and phone her mom. Mom would show up and take her home, if it wasn’t too late.
Instead, she passed the afternoon resting against her knapsack in the ditch, flipping through her Elle magazine, then thumbing imaginary text messages into her phone until she got hungry again.
This time when she stepped to the Arab guy at the minimart counter with a bottle of Diet Pepsi and a cellophane-wrapped pair of giant white-chocolate chip cookies, she did not have enough money to buy both. Without a word, she picked up the bottle and the package and walked back into the aisles. She traded the bottle for a smaller, cheaper can, but after scanning the rows of candies, cookies, and snacks, she realized she could afford none of them. As she considered her alternatives, her cheeks began to burn. She remembered an incident last year when she had been with Tracy at the CVS, and Tracy had slipped a Hi-Liter pen into her pocket before buying a birthday card and walking out of the store. Allison had been as much titillated as shocked, although she had never been tempted to do such a thing herself. Until now. With a surreptitious glance around her, she tucked the cookies into the pouch of her sweatshirt. After buying the can of Diet Pepsi, she had forty-seven cents left.
It was with deep dismay that Allison watched the sun sink toward another empty, lonely evening. She felt hollow inside, not just her stomach — which begged for something more subtantial than cookies, like a cheeseburger with fries — but her chest and everything. She missed home; she missed her friends. They had to be missing her by now, and her disappearance had to be the big news at school. She missed her bedroom and her television and her phone battery recharger. Her phone pressed to her breast, she wondered how homeless people survived. Did it help to find a stray shopping cart?
That evening, as Allison entered the minimart for the last time to use the restroom, she was sure the Arab guy was giving her funny looks. Deciding not to carry anything else out of the store while he was there, she slaked her thirst at the restroom sink. As the gas station turned dark, she discovered that a pickup truck parked beside the garage was abandoned for the night with a canvas cover stretched across the bed. Despite the phone in her hand, she managed to climb up the rear bumper. The canvas cover felt somewhat like a hammock, although it smelled of dirt and oil. Still, she smelled no better, and the bed was better than the one of the night before. She actually slept.
It was the itching between her legs that woke her just before dawn. In fact, the crawly sensation all over her skin had led to one nasty dream in which she had found bugs and worms writhing in her clothing. She wondered how long she could go without a bath or shower before going crazy.
As soon as the minimart opened, Allison went in to tug on the restroom door, but this time the women behind the counter did not offer her the key. Nervously she hung around outside until business picked up, and only on the verge of growing desperate did she catch the restroom door as a woman came out with the key. She risked stealing only a package of gum, hoping that the chewing might stand in for a meal and a drink.
That morning Allison crossed Sycamore Canyon Road at the intersection and walked the other side of the boulevard. She had a cramp in one foot and could only limp, but she was too weak to walk far anyway. She had gone perhaps a mile when she found herself swaying in place in front of a utility pole, the hand with the phone dangling against her thigh. Something had caught her eye, and her mind kept wandering away until she found it again. A piece of bright yellow paper had been taped to the pole. There was a photocopied photo on it that reminded her of something. It reminded her of her sophomore school photo, which she had not particularly liked.
MISSING, read the capital letters beside the photo, ALLISON FROYNE. 5’3”. 110 LBS. LAST SEEN TUESDAY. IF FOUND, PLEASE PHONE. At the bottom was a phone number she did not recognize.
Allison was horribly embarrassed. Here was her face, and a not particularly good version of it, plastered up in public, along with what she had weighed last year before losing five pounds. She tore the page down, crumpled it, and stuffed it into the pouch of her sweatshirt. How many more were posted around town? Were strangers going to be recognizing her wherever she went? If she didn’t find her way home soon, she would have to disappear completely. She headed back toward her gas station.
She was terribly hungry and thirsty by the time she reached it again. Fortunately it was nearly noon, and the minimart was fairly full. Allison drifted to the magazine section and flipped through the women’s magazines for a few minutes. Then, fighting back nervous guilt, she tucked a six-pack of cheese crackers with peanut butter and a can of Diet Pepsi into her sweatshirt pouch. Allison kept glancing at the brown, round-faced woman serving a line of customers at the counter as she shuffled stealthily toward the door.
“Hey, you!” shouted a man nearby.
Allison’s head whirled toward the voice. It was the Arab guy, coming toward her from the cigarette display.
“You spend too much time here,” he said. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
Allison’s hands jerked reflexively as if in self-defense. One held the phone. The other let go of the can in her pouch. It clunked to the floor and rolled.
“I thought so!” the man cried. “You’re stealing from me.”
Face hot, Allison stared helplessly at the man, trying not to look at the multiple pairs of other eyes that were turned on her.
“Are you going to pay for that?” the man asked, pointing to the can on the floor. “Or do I call the police?”
Suddenly she really needed to go to the bathroom. She also felt like crying. Allison felt her lip trembling, and she knew she was going to start leaking somewhere any second.
“Empty your pockets,” the man growled. “Let’s see if you’re stealing anything else.”
Squeezing her thighs together, with her free hand Allison deposited on the counter the cheese crackers, the remainder of the gum she had stolen last night, her last few coins, and the crumpled flier.
“Now — are you going to pay for that?”
“Can I use the restroom first?” she croaked.
“I need to use the restroom. Please.”
“Only customers use the restroom. You pay first.”
As her eyes filled with tears, she held her phone up to him, as though that would explain everything. The woman at the counter said something in a foreign language. The man answered, and a brief incomprehensible exchange followed during which they both bent over the counter. Allison twisted one leg around the other. If they did not let her go to the bathroom, they would have to kill her. The man looked up at Allison.
“Okay,” he said,”you can use the restroom while we call the police.”
She stayed inside a long time, convinced that her life was over.
When her mom finally showed up in the family’s black SUV, looking almost as sleepless and frazzled as Allison, Allison’s dam broke. She cried as her mom hugged her, cried as her mom guided her into the car, cried until her mom finished her business in the minimart and returned to the driver’s seat. Her mom was wiping her own eyes and cheeks as she started the car and drove out of the gas station.
“I still don’t understand why you didn’t phone,” she said as they rolled onto Sycamore Canyon Road.
“I told you,” Allison sobbed. “My phone wasn’t working.”
“But there are other phones around. Public phones. You could have asked to use the phone at the gas station.”
“You don’t understand,” Allison sobbed. “I couldn’t call. I couldn’t text. I couldn’t talk to anyone. There was nothing I could do.”
“I don’t understand.”
Allison clutched her phone close all the way home.