The Estrangement Effect
  Stories by Rebecca Andem
  1  They Were Strangers
2  The Forgetting Bone
3  Inside the Lines
4  Adults Made the Rules
5  Sheltering

  About the Author  |  |  Summer 2020 Fiction Issue

Inside the Lines

Across the border, Valdosta, Georgia, had great air. Like an idea taking form, it hung visibly between the tall skinny palm trees that lined the road. It filled the spaces between the franchised restaurants and motels, and like an embrace, it made them appear cared for. Nikki knew that in a few hours the sun would burn the illusion away, but at that moment dawn and dew infused the air with hints of color, soft like hope, and she rolled down her window to breathe it in.

In the Shoney’s parking lot, she turned off the engine and rolled her head. Her neck cracked with a sound that always satisfied and frightened her, and she stepped out of the car to stretch. The air sifted onto her skin, and Nikki brushed it through her dark hair. Tilting her head back with eyes closed, she let it pool on her eyelids.

They’d only driven a few hours, but she was exhausted. In the narrow beam of the Jetta’s weak headlights, she had counted the mile markers and pretended each was the point of no return, the line on a map where she could surrender courage to practicality, but that line didn’t exist, at least not until she knew what she was doing. Even the state line between Florida and Georgia, that no man’s land between road signs, didn’t feel like an accomplishment. Although it was wider than a black line drawn on paper would suggest – one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi – it was still too small to hold anything but passing.

In the back seat, Allegra stirred. She hadn’t complained when in the middle of the night, Nikki lifted her out of bed and buckled her into the car seat.

“Where’re we going, Mommy?” she had mumbled into the grimy curls of the stuffed lamb she carried everywhere.

Nikki had made the clucking noises she inherited from her own mother and closed the door. She didn’t want to say out loud that she didn’t know.

The need to run away began in a casual remark, a single word that took root inside of her. Nikki was soaking in the tub while Sean read Allegra a bedtime story. When she turned off the faucet, she heard his voice through the thin walls. It was a story about dreams, and it lulled her more than the warm water.

“Ask her,” she’d whispered when the story ended. “Ask her what she wants to be when she grows up.”

And as if he heard her, Sean did.

“An artist,” Allegra answered.

Sean snorted. “Where did you get that idea?”

“Mommy. I want to make pictures like she does.”

Nikki heard the smack of Sean’s lips on Allegra’s cheek and the chuckle in his voice.

“Mommy works in a daycare,” he said. “Where you get to play with Jayden and Mariah? She’s filling your head with nonsense.”

Only four, Allegra was content to allow new words to pass over her. If they appeared again, she’d listen, maybe ask their meaning or try to use them. On the other side of the wall, Nikki tensed, waiting to hear Allegra question the word. Nonsense. She wanted to hear Sean’s explanation. She wanted to understand how everything they had planned had become that word.  She slid down the slope of the tub until only her nose remained above the surface. Magnolia-scented humidity thickened the air in her nose and weighed heavy in her lungs. Its mass was frightening rather than soothing, and without warning a strange anxiety flooded into her and shortened her breath. She gasped, and soapy water burned her sinuses. Choking, she scrambled up, grasping at the slick tiles.

When had all their dreams become nonsense?

She didn’t plan to end up in a trailer in Oak Hill, Florida. She didn’t plan to end, but Sean had been beautiful in a way that absorbed her intentions. She fell in love with the idea of him, with the charming close-ups her mind collected — the freckles on his knuckles, the way he squinted when thinking and talking at the same time, the bend in his wrist when he rested his hand on his chest while sleeping. His hand gravitated to the same spot on Sunday mornings when they would lie naked in bed for hours and dream out loud. He talked about his plans, the studio he would build and the music he would create, and Nikki lay beside him. She fell in love with the distant look in his eyes and the inside of his thigh warm under hers.

“Where are we?”

Nikki grasped her wrists behind her head and stretched her chest open.

“Georgia,” she answered.

In the back seat, Allegra blinked and looked around, and Nikki wondered if the parking lot looked that different to her. Perhaps the unexpected blessing of franchises was the comfort they offered the children of fugitive mommies.

“Where’s Daddy?” Allegra asked.

“Probably at work by now.” Nikki leaned through the open door and reached over the seat to brush the matted hair off Allegra’s sticky skin. The morning air wasn’t enough to counteract the claustrophobic heat of sleeping in a car seat. “Hungry?”

They sat in a booth, Allegra on her knees after a high-pitched refusal to use the booster the waitress offered. Like most of her fits, it was short lived, and they sat together in a comfortable silence, coloring their menus and picking at pancakes that had grown cold and soggy. Coloring was one of Nikki’s favorite activities, compensation for tantrums. She drew dark borders inside the black lines and filled in the shapes with a light, steady stroke. The rhythm always soothed her, but this time it created a space for memory, memory stuck on replay. On a rainy morning, a few weeks ago, she had suggested that Allegra haul her coloring books out to the kitchen table, and for hours they’d colored. The rain on the tin roof supplied a steady bass line for the scrape of crayons and the occasional rip of paper.

“Nature’s jazz,” Sean said when he came home from the construction site. He was drenched and shivering yet happy to have an unexpected afternoon off. Whistling, he had squeezed Allegra’s shoulder and joined them at the table.

Nikki dug her cell phone out of her purse, and Allegra reached automatically across the table.

“No. I need to call Daddy.”

Afraid the ring tone might have shattered her resolve, she’d kept the phone off all night, and as she expected, the voice mail alert beeped a second after she turned it on. She had eight new messages.

She had no complaints about their life or their marriage, except for the fact that they lived it by rote. Their routines were grooved and smooth and should have provided comfort, but Nikki found them grating. She couldn’t stand the soft pluck of Sean’s guitar floating in from the front porch at precisely ten p.m. every night. Barbecued shrimp on Sunday afternoons had stopped being a special treat after the first year, and she was often tempted to tell Sean that. She bought the shrimp live at a bait shop, although they’d been able to afford the grocery prices ever since he’d been promoted to foreman. But he loved the little illusions of satisfaction they had created, and Nikki knew if she shattered them, she would also destroy their vision of each other, their life.

But that’s what she did.

She followed Sean out to the porch. He smiled and touched her leg as she walked by, and as she leaned her forehead against the taut screening, he strummed the first minor chord of their song, the wistful lullaby he had written after their first night together. Nikki winced.

She tolerated the first verse, concentrating on the grid of tiny squares pressing into her skin. She was grateful he chose not to sing the lyrics that claimed to see her so thoroughly, but when he began the second verse, she slammed through the screen door. The clatter of the wood frame stopped the music, and when the clatter repeated, Nikki wondered how many times she had subconsciously recorded that sound.

Sean followed her to the canal, and they stood side by side in the humid silence, their bare toes curled over the concrete edge, the habit they’d developed together.

“Why do you still play that?” Nikki asked. “We stopped being those people years ago.”

“It’s our song.”

Nikki turned to stare at his profile in the darkness. The house lights cast a golden glow on the back of his head and skimmed the outer edges of his cheekbones, but the rest of his face was a shadow. She guessed his bottom lip was hanging slack as it often did when he was thinking. He turned under the weight of her stare, and his face caught the side beam of light, a familiar effect. She had photographed him so often that first year, from every angle, in every light. “Do you even hear it anymore?” she asked.


“That song, all of them. When you play all those old songs, do you hear them?”

“How could I not?” he said. “That’s what I do.”

“But you don’t,” Nikki answered. “You build houses.”

“Just because I don’t play in a band and sleep till noon every day doesn’t mean I’m not a musician anymore.”

“You don’t miss it?”

Sean didn’t answer. He ran his toe along the edge, and after a moment he sighed. “I do an honest day’s work.”

They stood in silence for a while. An owl hooted, and what felt like a few minutes later, a fish splashed. A motorboat droned downriver, and they waited for its hum to amplify and pass. Sean yawned and stretched.

“It’s not a bad life, Nik.”

She shook her head and swallowed the empty words that would agree. Sean stepped closer and slipped his hand under her hair, but her neck was hot and sticky. It was June, and summer was already thickening around them. Nikki rolled her shoulders and shook off his hand.

“I’m hot,” she managed to say.

“We need a thunderstorm.”

“It won’t make a difference,” Nikki answered.

Sean squeezed her upper arm, and when she didn’t respond, he sighed again. “What’s wrong?” His voice sounded tired, as if he were thinking about the alarm clock or maybe just his guitar waiting on the porch.

“It’s late,” Nikki said by rote. She tried to turn, to supply a reassuring smile, but she only managed half of each. She already knew what his face would look like, the concern etched between his eyebrows, the steady gaze that seemed to penetrate but only walled in his thoughts. He’d won every staring contest he’d ever entered, even with Allegra, who had inherited his round blue eyes. His eyes used to drive Nikki nuts. She couldn’t even break through with the camera. They were as infinite and flat as the sky, and they were one of the few things that still startled her.

“I don’t see it anymore,” she said.

“See what?”

She shrugged and rotated her head as if the motion would explain how completely the feeling enveloped her. In the darkness, her life stood solid – the trailer with the screened-in porch Sean had built when she complained of mosquitoes, the Ford pick-up parked behind the faded blue Jetta, the picnic table, the gas grill. Nikki backed away from it, and her heel shuffled into the cooler they had left on the edge of the canal.

Sean reached out to steady her, but Nikki was out of his reach. She held out her own hand, warning him off, and like shadow puppets, their fingers hovered an inch apart in the yellow light stretching from the windows. Nikki dropped her hand first.

“See what?” Sean asked again. “You don’t see us? Me?”

“Sometimes Allie and I walk to the river, or we take the boat across the river and walk along the beach. I used to love it. Now I don’t even see it. I got home this morning and realized the only thing I could remember noticing was that my toenail polish was chipped.”

Nikki splayed her toes against the concrete, but she couldn’t distinguish the chip in the dim light. Normally, she would patch the chip so it would last until Sunday when she would sit at the picnic table while the shrimp marinated and give herself a pedicure. But she wanted the chip. She wanted to see it – when she rested her feet on the coffee table, when she soaked in a bubble bath, when she bent over to gather toys at the daycare. She wanted to be disturbed by a silly breach of paint.

Frustrated, she spun around, but there was nowhere to go. Beyond the cooler, the concrete broke into a boat ramp, an incline they rarely used. Except for the weight of the outboard motor, their boat could have been lifted by hand out of the canal. It was a rowboat really, but at one time it had represented adventure to Nikki. With her camera hanging from her neck, she had puttered past miles of homes on the Indian River. Paying no attention to the sun scorching her face or the breeze cracking her skin, she’d imagined herself in Africa or Brazil, a wildlife photographer. She’d captured the watery reflection of white herons and the indifferent gaze of greasy-eyed sea gulls. She’d learned where dolphins swam and where they danced at dusk, their tails disappearing into a mercury mirror. But now she motored past them. Briefly, she’d point them out to Allegra, but then she would busy herself with adjusting her daughter’s life jacket or sun visor.

When she turned back toward him, Sean sighed. He found the lid to the cooler, and after he popped it on, he sank onto the makeshift seat and stared into the dark canal.

“It’s late,” she said again.

Sean nodded. He reached toward her, and Nikki stepped forward – like she always did. She felt as though she’d been caught off guard. Sean’s finger found a long thread dangling from her cutoffs. He pulled at it, and instead of breaking, it ripped through several inches of fabric. It tickled the inside of her thigh, and Nikki felt a familiar lurch inside her pelvis. Sean must have sensed it too because he traced its tickle with the back of his knuckles.

“Uh-uh.” She wasn’t sure what she meant by the sound. She reached for his head, but it had ducked between her legs. His lips caressed her skin, his hair tickling her other leg, and his thumb searched under the frayed lip of her shorts. She grabbed his hair, and he stood, cupping her with his palm at the same time, almost lifting her. “This isn’t it,” she said.

“So tell me what is. Tell me what you want.”

His arm curled around her back, and he rested his forehead against the bridge of her nose, his favorite intimate gesture, but his hand remained cupped in possession. It felt vulgar, balanced on tip toe, split and vulnerable. With each tiny shift in weight, she rubbed against his hand, and her body responded despite her mind.

“I think this is it,” Sean whispered, his voice too full and satisfied.

“It’s a button. You push it, and a bell rings. What does that prove?”

The words dropped between them, ripping something unseen. Sean dropped his hands, and Nikki stumbled backwards. When she regained her footing, she straightened her legs and lifted her spine in a way that felt foreign, frightening. Sean kicked the cooler, and it skidded past her legs and splashed into the canal.

“When did you become a bitch?”

Nikki shook her head, mute. For months, ever since the word nonsense leaked through the walls and threatened to drown her in the bathtub, she had been fighting a battle she didn’t understand. Anger grew inside her, and caustic comments pinched and twisted her thoughts into ugly shapes she tried to hide. Gasping at her cruelty, all she could do was open and close her mouth.

Sean filled in the gap, his anger cold and cutting.

“If you’re so bored or blind or whatever the hell is wrong with you, why don’t you fix it? Why don’t you show me how it’s done? Show me what a real artist looks like, Nik, because really, I’d like to know. How do you stay up all night caught up in a project and then go to work at seven a.m. because the project doesn’t pay the mortgage? You tell me. How do I get to be twenty-three forever?”

“I didn’t mean...” But Nikki didn’t know how to finish the thought. She didn’t mean to break anything. She’d never meant to end up broken.

“You think I don’t dream?” Sean asked. “You think I don’t get bored with the buttons?”

He spun around and headed back toward the house. Under the loose shirt that hid his skinny frame, his shoulders were hunched forward, and from behind he looked smaller, like a boy defeated by the weight of life for the first time.


He paused beside the porch. After a moment, he turned halfway and rested his hand against the wood frame, supporting himself or taking its measure, what he had made. Nikki couldn’t know anymore. He shook his head, but it wasn’t for her.

The first messages were frantic, and then they became angry. The last was cold, distant. If she hadn’t listened to the last one, she might have dialed home, but Sean’s voice froze her fingers. “Do what you have to do,” he said, but Nikki didn’t know what that was. Across the table, Allegra trotted her lamb over a colored maze. She glanced up when she felt the weight of Nikki’s stare, and her introverted smile slipped into panicked confusion when she saw her mother’s face.

“I want to go home,” she said instinctively.

Nikki shook her head. “We’re having an adventure,” she said, but the words wavered.

She had considered leaving a note, but she didn’t know what to say. Sorry seemed so small, as indistinct as the desire to leave. She had sat on the porch, Sean’s guitar forgotten on the floor by her feet, and listened to his preparations for bed. She knew he was washing his face, brushing his teeth, gargling. He slept naked, and Nikki wondered if he would follow the same routine of undressing next to the hamper in the bathroom, walking bow-legged down the dark hallway to their bedroom, sliding in on one hip beneath the cool sheet. Even after Allegra was born, she was always the one curled in bed first, and after he slid in beside her, Sean would prop his head on his hand, his elbow buried in the thick pillows he considered a luxury, and watch her face. “To see where you are,” he used to say. But she was gone, and she wondered how her absence would alter his routine.

The automated voice continued to offer options to save or delete her messages. She didn’t know which to choose.

The waitress, impatient to turn over the table, hovered nearby, her gaze demanding above the practiced smile. Outside, the sun had climbed above the trees, its light already hot and white on chrome bumpers and bleached concrete. It angled through the window, casting a path across the corner of their table. Normally, Nikki would have tracked its course, noting how it bounced off the syrup jar and the salt and pepper shakers, how it warmed the faded vinyl. In her mind, or maybe even with the digital camera she always carried, she would have recorded the small pieces. That was her specialty, the close-ups. But somewhere along the way, she’d lost her perception.

Allegra reached for the phone again, and Nikki passed it across the table.

“Where would you like to go, Allie? Anywhere in the world.”

But Allegra’s world was small. “Dairy Queen!” she answered. On Wednesdays when Nikki got off work early, they always stopped to share a Peanut Buster Parfait with two long plastic spoons and a pile of paper napkins clutched between Nikki’s knees.

Pressing the phone against her cheek, Allegra pretended to be a grown-up, her favorite game. With her father’s unwavering gaze, she murmured privately to the voice that still offered options. She grinned at Nikki and switched the phone to her other cheek, randomly pressing buttons as she made the pass. The automated voice enunciated the outcome.

“Message saved.”

Nikki dug her camera out of her purse. Through the viewfinder, she studied her daughter’s profile, that familiar slice of crooked grin and freckled cheek. She watched a wisp of sandy hair fall over Allegra’s face, but before she could lower the camera and reach across the table to brush it back, Allegra tilted her head and turned toward the window. Startled, Nikki clicked the shutter, and there it was, the distant gaze of a blue eye caught up in a dream.


  © Rebecca Andem, 2020

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