Sarah Layden's debut novel,

Trip Through Your Wires, is forthcoming from Engine Books. A graduate of Purdue University's MFA program, her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Stone Canoe, Blackbird, Artful Dodge, Reed Magazine, PANK, Ladies' Home Journal, The Humanist, and elsewhere. She is a lecturer in the Writing Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.


posted Oct 7, 2014

Behind Alice's house, the ducks walked on water atop a scrim of ice, wings unfurled like biblical robes. Orange feet no doubt turning blue. At times they appeared to hover: the indecision of flight.

Alice watched and waited. The babysitter was late. She had texted fifteen minutes ago to say as much, fingers on the keypad in her car. Seventeen years old and she would claim to have been at a stoplight, obeying the no-texting law. Right. Alice had been seventeen a million years ago. Granted, seventeen without a cell phone. They existed, she just didn't happen to have one back then. She remembers the mostly-harmless lies she spun like cotton candy, camouflaging her whereabouts and companions and choice of outfit. There had been a lot of fringe involved. Now there were phones everywhere, phones with cameras. The lies should have been more elaborate and somehow grew blander. Had 2 get milk 4 my mom! Sorrreee…

Now Alice's phone's screen remained black, no follow-up from Mandy, a cease-and-desist from the small thoughts sent from phone to phone, brain to brain. She thought, We are in one another's heads. We are giving each other access to the workings of our minds. Tap-tapping out codes in butchered English. Like perfectly good furniture that's intentionally been made shabby. The store in the mall sold high-end furniture that was weathered on purpose. Dressers that appeared to have been beaten with pine boughs and scuffed by expert hands wearing sandpaper gloves, then sold for way more than they were worth. David's new apartment was furnished with a few such pieces, spare save for his sleigh bed, his rough-hewn farm table and benches. A home that appeared staged rather than lived in. Alice had glanced around quickly when dropping Sylvie off for their daughter's weekend visitation. She managed to see enough.

Outside the breakfast nook window, the broken pond ice glowed in the dusk like ice capades, a trick of the orange and purple sunset. Alice had a date tonight. The ducks were indifferent, hopping and splashing, trying to warm up, or maybe not. They were cold-blooded. Sylvie had fogged the window with her breath that day, laughing for the first time in a long time, watching the ducks shake water off their backs. She arranged her rubber duckies on the windowsill, hoping to attract the real thing. No dice. The males—drakes, Alice remembered, not from school but from watching Sesame Street with her daughter—crowded the lone female. Alice bunched the cotton placemat in one hand, checking the time. In the tub, Sylvie had submerged her duckies one by one, delighting as they popped back up to the surface. "Like swimming lessons," she said. Now Sylvie was pajamed and in bed. Nighty-nighted and lullabied. Asleep, both times Alice checked on her.

The babysitter was a half-hour late. Maybe Mandy had a new boyfriend. Once the babysitter got a social life, forget it. Alice had been that kind of teenager, which made her a suspicious adult. Not without cause. People wanted to pull one over on you, hide from you their true intent and true hearts. They only wanted to give you so much, and sometimes you wanted—needed—more. Someone to look you in the eye during sex, for example. To not glance sadly to the ceiling, the room's top left corner, as if imagining the inner life of a spider.

Sometimes they gave you too much, as a month of online dating had proved. Information you didn't request. What they were or weren't wearing. How they were or were not damaged by the people they had once trusted. Details that were almost always revealed too soon. She shut down her online account after the free trial ended. Tonight she'd have dinner with Bryce, five years out of the state university's top dental hygiene program. He had cleaned her teeth the week before. Bryce was younger, maybe even a decade younger. He flirted, offered an evening out. "What sounds good?" she'd asked, thinking Italian or maybe the new steakhouse. He grinned and stared her down: "What's being offered?" She turned to the display of pamphlets that advertised services and tried not to smile.

You could get Botox at the dentist, not that she wanted it. Not, Bryce said, that she needed it. That vertical line on her forehead was easily hidden beneath bangs; so much for growing them out. The face ought to map your life, she thought. It ought to look used. What happens if you erase where you've been? She was not ready to forget.

David had moved out three months ago. He would've left sooner but it took time to find a place close to what was now Alice's house. Close to his office, too. Which meant close to a particular female coworker. David and this woman did the books for a local Internet entrepreneur. Alice had a hunch, a sense something had been amiss. He would giggle at his cell phone screen and then tuck it in his breast pocket, smiling out of context in a way that had nothing to do with their family. David didn't admit anything, but he agreed it would be good for him to leave. So he left. Too easily, she thought, considering Sylvie. Sylvie missed her father. She sometimes cried out for him in her sleep. She sleepwalked on several occasions, and Alice would wake to find her small daughter curled like a puppy in front of their bedroom door. Her bedroom door. At daycare, where Sylvie once painted and sang and drew pictures and cooked in the play kitchen, she now clung to her mother's pantyhosed leg at drop-off and sobbed. Alice sat at her desk and wore a headset and answered insurance queries while staring at a photo of her daughter reading a book upside-down, and measured the time until she'd pick her up.

Alice stands, walks to the front window, circling the hall like a cat. Damn Mandy, and damn Bryce, too. Truth: She no longer wanted to see either of them tonight. Mandy smelled like Diet Dr. Pepper and baby powder and irresponsibility. Bryce's hands spent their days in other people's mouths. Those hands had been in her mouth. Would he charge a late-notice cancellation fee, as his office did? Alice takes her cell phone outside to the driveway for better reception. The stars were coming out, pinpricks of dazzling light so distant as to be unreal. She stares and imagines the inner life of a star, something she can't know or see.

The pond ice cracks, loud as a snapping tree branch. Early thaw, those ducks, the flap and honk as they send themselves skyward. The front door gapes open; she had closed it, or maybe not. And for that moment, the one that arrives before knowing, she imagines Sylvie with the yellow quilt pulled to her chin, her breathing deep and rhythmic, her mouth open. Taking in air, not water. This is the moment the babysitter's car arrives, headlights panning over the darkening pond out back. In the driveway, the beams shine like searchlights. Alice, racing to her daughter's bedroom, is not there to see.