By Phebe Jewell
The house looks like all the others Soledad and Marta clean. Big enough for at least three families, though the sheet says only two people live there. While Marta parks the black and purple Merry Maids car, Soledad studies the front lawn, choked with dandelions. Chipped concrete steps lead up to the front door. If she drew the house, she would play with perspective. The dandelions would reach the roofline, crowd the steps. It’s the usual job. Vacuum. Dust. Scrub all surfaces. Bathrooms and kitchen need special attention. No one should be home. Still, they’re supposed to ring the doorbell, just in case. Last week Marta forgot and opened the door on an old man stepping from a bathroom, his bathrobe hanging loose as he scratched a tired scrotum.
This morning Shirl’s mother leaves early for work and Shirl sleeps in. A good day to skip class. It’s not like Shirl learns anything she doesn’t already know. Throwing off the covers, she pictures the school day as a series of still lifes: Mrs. Arbuthnot standing at the blackboard, waiting for an answer, fingertips dusted with chalk. The front row girls scribbling notes. Shirl’s empty seat in the back. Birds are her real teachers. She kneels by the window, studies the crows’ acrobatic freefall.
Soledad sends money home when she can. The back pages of her letters are covered with drawings. The houses she cleans. People dozing on the bus coming home from work. The skyscrapers marching down to the harbor. Her signature is a smudged scrawl, a bird tumbling from a great height.
The second-story window is the perfect classroom. Today’s lesson: Falling is flying. Keep moving. Be a blur. Never land. Rise above. At a certain distance, people become specks.
If you can’t run, hide, Soledad’s mother told her. Don’t move in the open or the men with guns will spot you. You can’t outrun searchlights or bullets. Make yourself small, so light you fly away. When the men hammered the door, Soledad slipped out into the field. Lying on her stomach, she touched moist earth, watching the men smash windows with the butts of their guns, their faces flat, blank. What did the buzzards see when they flew over her home?
“Shirl is a retard” scrawled on the stall door by a hand struggling to keep the letters in a straight line. How original. A new one to her left: “Shirl is psycho.” Shirl wiped, dropping the toilet paper in the bowl, watching it swirl then disappear as she flushed.
The doorbell. Shirl freezes, holds her breath flat like a window pane. Anyone could look through her and not know she’s there. One two three four. Go away. Voices as the front door opens. No hay nadie. No one there.
Marta opens the door. No hay nadie. Soledad takes in the room. Smudged windows. Heavy bookshelves anchoring a thin kilim. Framed black-and-white photos on the mantel. Though it’s a sunny day, Soledad shivers. Marta starts with the kitchen and Soledad plugs in the vacuum.
Shirl listens to the women working downstairs, the murmur of their voices swallowed by salsa and hip hop from a radio. Maybe they’ll stay below. But no, someone is coming up. When Soledad enters the room, pulling the vacuum behind her, Shirl climbs on the windowsill. The window is a door. She leans back, lets go. The air will lift her up. Soledad drops the vacuum handle, crying out as Shirl disappears from view.
Later, at the police station, Soledad tries to sketch the scene. But each time she presses her pencil to the page, her hand draws the outline of a bird taking flight.
Phebe Jewell’s work appears in various journals, including Monkeybicycle, Spelk, New Flash Fiction Review, Bending Genres, and Milk Candy Review. Her story “¿Cómo Está Tu Madre?” was chosen for wigleaf‘s 2021 Top 50 for (very) short fiction. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for incarcerated women, trans-identified and gender non-conforming people in Washington State. Read her at https://phebejewellwrites.com.