Life Through Glass
by Hillary G. Anderson
Some mornings the light is a crystal slant, hitting the floor fierce and hot and sharp as a splinter. Other mornings it seeps in like fog, gray and shimmering and cold. But my favorite mornings are the ones like today, when the sun filters in slow, golden honey, kissing my face awake with vague but hopeful warmth.
I rise from my blankets on the floor, stretch my limbs, run fingers through my hair, and walk to the windows. There are no true walls here save the one behind me, with one door to the bathroom, and another with a small flap at the bottom, where food is deposited a few times a day. Everything else is windows, but you’d never know that if not for the morning light shining through the cracks in the boards covering each and every pane. Sometimes I’m sad I can’t see the world like normal people, but it’s for my own safety that I’m kept here. This is not a prison; it is protection.
The only furniture in the room is a wooden chair in the corner. It has uneven legs and a wide fissure in the seat that pinches the backs of my thighs like a spiteful child. Sometimes I use it, but more often I prefer to stand, to keep the small freedom of being able to walk about the room, peeking out through the cracks in the boards at life outside. It is, after all, one of few freedoms I enjoy.
I go to the largest wall of windows and crouch to look through the largest crack in the boards. This wall faces the street and the rising sun. The road is empty and all is quiet. If I angle my head just right, I can see the daisy bushes 10 feet below. Every day I look for blossoms, but there is still nothing but tight green buds poking out between the ragged leaves.
The windows to my left and right look over the neighbors’ front yards. A family of four lives on the left: mother, father, son, daughter. The children are young, the boy perhaps seven and the girl about four. It’s too early for them to be outside now, but I long for the moment they come out the front door to play on the swings the father set up on the lawn. The mother wasn’t happy about it. I heard her talking loudly to him one night about how he should’ve put it in the backyard.
It’s the only time I’ve heard them fight. I’m glad the father put the swing set in the front yard, where I can see the children play. Their smiling faces, their peals of laughter, make me feel like I am there with them, playing in the sunlight, waving at the other kids, hollering gleefully at the ice cream man when he passes by. Sometimes the mother buys them popsicles striped in white, red and blue. I watch the colors stain their mouths and wonder what ice cream tastes like.
The family to the left is fun to watch, but the house to the right is the one I watch most. A man and a girl live there, and the girl is the only person in the world whose name I know: Anna. I only know her name because the man is always shouting it. I don’t know why, but the man is always angry.
Anna will be in the yard, tending to the rosebushes in the corner closest to the street, and the man will stumble out on the porch and yell at her to come inside. The man is often holding a bottle in his hand, its long neck wrapped tightly in his fist. Sometimes he throws the bottles in the yard, where they shatter into beautiful amber shards, pieces of dark sunsets in autumn. I wish I could touch them to see if they are as warm as they look.
But Anna, she never yells, never has a bottle in her hand, never breaks things in the yard. She keeps her eyes downcast, her black hair over her face, her small hands clasped in front of her. She says nothing. She nods and obeys the man, going back inside the house.
But sometimes, late at night when the man must be asleep, Anna comes back outside. She sits on the lawn, leans back on her elbows and stares at the sky. I wonder what she’s looking at, what she’s thinking. I hang on the soft breaths slipping from her lips. I wish she would say something.
As the sun climbs, the light moves in slatted patterns across my floor. I eat the rice and drink the water that comes through the flap on the door. The children come outside. They play on the swings, pumping their legs to see who can swing the highest.
The mother yells from the porch every now and then, telling them to be careful, to not swing so high, but I silently urge them on. Fly, I think. Back and forth. Up and down. Let your feet touch the clouds in the sky and your toes brush the dandelion fluff in the grass.
When the mother shouts, “Peanut butter and jelly!” and the children run inside, I see a flicker of movement to my right. Anna’s door is opening. I move to the right window, the one with a small, circular hole in the center, like someone poked a finger through the glass. She slips through the front door and treads softly across the porch, as if she’s afraid it will crack open and swallow her up.
She stops at the steps, craning her neck, looking all around, then hurries down into the yard. But she doesn’t go to the rosebushes. Instead, she looks at my house; she looks exactly at where I’m standing behind the boards.
Anna stares at my window for a very long time. I know she can’t see me, but I can see her better than I’ve ever been able to before. She is small and dark, her skin a few shades lighter than the wooden floor. Her black hair is tied back so I can actually see her face. Her expression falters between curiosity and fear, and she glances back at her house once before coming closer to the short, rotting wooden fence separating our yards. She leans on a post, cups her chin in her hands, and looks at my window. I hear her sigh and I’m pleading, praying to no one that she will finally speak.
But she doesn’t. Not until she looks at the daisy bushes.
“Poor things,” she says, and her voice is smooth and soft and golden. It’s the honey light of morning made aural. “Doesn’t anyone care for you?”
No, I think. No one.
She looks around quickly, then hops the fence. Anna is in my yard, crouching in front of the bushes below my window. She touches them, whispers things to them that I can’t hear, and I am jealous of a bunch of daisy bushes.
I shift positions, moving to a different crack to see her better, and the floor creaks. Her whispering stops. I hold my breath as I peek through the boards. She’s stepped back from the bushes and is staring up at my window.
“Hello?” she says, and I can’t speak. I shift again, and the window rattles.
“Is someone there?” she asks, and I can see her focusing on the very spot where I stand. She turns to leave.
“Hello,” my voice cracks through the broken pane.
Anna stops. Her body tenses as she turns back towards my house. “Um... hello,” she says. “I’m sorry to come into your yard, but your flowers,” she waves at the daisy bushes, “they need water and I... I thought maybe I could help?”
“The hose is around the corner,” I say, not knowing what else I can say. She nods and goes to fetch the hose, then comes back and sets it on the ground under the bushes, letting the water flood them.
She stares at my window. “What are you doing up there?”
“I live here.”
“But what are you doing up there? Why are all the windows boarded up like that?”
I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing. I can’t believe she’s speaking to me.
She waits for my response, but then she says, “I’ve heard some people are allergic to sunlight. Are you?”
“No,” I say. “I just... I don’t come outside.”
She frowns for a second. “I’m Anna,” she says. “What’s your name?”
My name? What is my name? I can’t remember. Maybe I never even had one.
“Sam,” I say, thinking of the main character in one of the five books I own, the ones lying next to my pile of blankets, tattered and dog-eared and close to disintegration.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you. Do you ever come outside?”
“Never,” I say, but I’m not sure. I can’t remember.
“You’ve never been outside before?”
Her eyes widen and she steps closer. “Why not?”
“I’m not...” I start, but don’t know how to go on. I sigh and sit down on the floor, leaning back to peer through a different crack. “Because I’m... I’m different. They keep me up here to protect me from people who’d hurt me.”
Anna’s mouth opens and closes. She looks down and shakes her head. When she looks back up, her eyes are too bright. She starts to say something, but covers her mouth and looks down again. She crouches and pulls the hose out from the bushes, wandering around the corner of the house. Is she leaving now?
She comes back around the corner, wiping her hands on her jeans. She comes straight to the spot directly below me and looks up. “Sam?”
“I wouldn’t hurt you.”
And I believe her. I believe this girl who lives with an angry man but never raises her voice, who whispers secrets to flowers and has gold in her voice.
The man yells Anna’s name. She jumps and looks towards her house. He’s not outside yet. She looks back up at my window and smiles. “Goodbye, Sam,” she says, and runs back to her house.
The day passes in a blur of sunlight and shadows dancing across the floor. Anna doesn’t come outside again. I hear the children playing in their yard and cars passing through the street, but I never leave my spot by the window, watching Anna’s door and looking down at the daisy bushes.
More food and water come through the flap. I ignore it. The sun sets, and my room is cold, but I don’t move to take a blanket from the pile. The world sinks into night. All is dark and quiet, save the light of the stars and the song of crickets.
Half-asleep, I hear glass breaking, boards groaning, and a voice like sunlight. “Sam, come outside.”
I feel a breeze brushing through my hair, touching my skin with the weight of nothing. And then suddenly, a soft kiss of warmth on my forearm. I look up and see a shape in the darkness, a small figure framed in starlight.
She grips my hand and pulls. I follow, not knowing how to refuse her, not wanting to lose the wonder of her skin on mine. The dim light behind her comes from a large space in the boards. The glass in the window is gone. She guides me through the hole, into the night and onto a ladder propped against the house, grounded around the daisy bushes below.
My feet touch the grass, cool and damp and soft in a way I couldn’t understand until now. I look for dandelion fluff, eager to know if it will feel the same, but Anna takes my hand, and I forget everything else. She leads me to the fence and we climb over the rotting posts into her yard. We walk to the rosebushes, and she guides my hand to a blossom just beginning to unfurl. My fingers touch the new petals and I wonder at how many different kinds of softness there are in the world.
“The daisies will bloom soon, too,” Anna says, and sits on the ground in front of the rosebushes. She leans back on her elbows, just as I’ve seen her do so many nights as I watched from my window. I lie next to her, and we stare up at a sky I’ve only seen fragments of until now.
There’s no moon, just stars, and I’m grateful for the relative darkness, because in it, Anna must not be able to see me clearly. I know she wouldn’t hurt me, but I don’t want to frighten her.
But then she says, “Look at me,” and touches my chin to make me turn my face towards her. My eyes have adjusted to the night and I see her studying me. I wait for her eyes to widen, her mouth to open in a scream, but she just looks at me.
“We’re the same,” she whispers to me. And she holds my hand tightly in hers, and we watch the stars and listen to the roses whisper back to us.
As the black sky turns gray, we go back to my yard and climb the ladder to my room. She stays at the window as I crawl inside. Anna smiles at me. She holds out her hand and I take it. When she pulls away I feel a foreign softness in my palm. I look down and see a red rose petal, pale yellow at its base.
“Goodnight, Sam,” she says from the bottom of the ladder.
“Goodnight, Anna,” I call from my window.
She hurries away with the ladder, maneuvering her way over the small fence and placing the ladder against the side of her house. She looks back and waves before going inside. I wave back.
When the sun begins to rise, I start to move the board over my now broken window back into place. But just before the light is blocked, I look down at the daisy bushes. One bud is barely beginning to open, a hint of gold in the green.
Copyright © 2018 by Hillary G. Anderson