“Loud as a Murder” by Sarah L. Johnson
A crow glares through the rusted leaves of the birch tree in my front yard. It’s Tuesday morning, and I’m looking out the window, waiting for my package. The crow probably isn’t glaring at me. It’s just a crow. It probably isn’t glaring at all. But it sure feels that way, like a message. A scolding.
I like Tuesday mornings, and the reason why is because I’m in love with the UPS guy. Before that, I was infatuated, and I know the difference. I’m smart, but I have difficulty speaking. Strangers usually think I’m deaf. Then they start talking really slow and loud, like that’s helpful. Someone famous said it’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt. That guy must have been smart too.
Outside the wind stirs up little cyclones of fallen leaves that whirl out of my yard and into the yard of my next-door neighbors, Mrs. and Mr. Middlethorpe. I’ll rake them up soon. The leaves, not the Middlethorpes.
I get to see Dev, the UPS guy, every Tuesday morning, unless there’s a problem. Sometimes there are problems. That’s when I call the depot. I have the supervisor’s extension number. Buford is his name. Buford understands my difficulty with delays. He thinks I’m crazy, but I’m not crazy, or deaf. I’m autistic. High functioning. Low functioning. Depends on the day.
On good days when I ride the bus to the grocery store or the movies, I can force myself not to flap my hands, or bounce on the balls of my feet, or talk to myself in a Kermit voice. Sorry Fozzie, they don’t serve food in ninth class. I can pass for neurotypical, but it wears me out and feels like lying, so I don’t leave my house or talk to strangers very much ever.
The brown delivery truck pulls up and stops in front of my house with a gasp of the air brakes. I pick up a white manuscript box from the coffee table. The doorbell rings. I stick a shipping label to the top of the box, careful to make sure there are no wrinkles.
My job is to proofread manuals and textbooks. I won’t proofread stories and the reason why is because the narrative is distracting and I make mistakes. My boss Shonda tells me mistakes are okay, but I don’t like getting copy returned to me because of errors. I insist on printed manuscripts because studies show fewer errors are overlooked on hardcopy.
I’m taking a long time to answer the door, but Dev knows I’m here so he won’t ring the bell again. He’s patient and doesn’t act like he deserves an award for it. That’s part of why I love him.
When I open the door, the wind blows it back hard.
“Whoa, happy Tuesday,” says Dev, catching the door before it can hit me in the face. “Blustery morning, yeah?”
Over the gale I hear the smile in his voice, but I’m looking at his feet, laced up in sturdy boots. I move my gaze upward over the white socks showing at the tops of his boots, smooth brown calves, and delicate knees that disappear into the darker UPS-brown shorts. I follow the buttons up his shirt, pausing at the hollow of his throat where little strands of chest hair sneak above his white undershirt.
“Go on,” he says. “Eat your heart out.”
A joke is how he means it. It’s also an idiom. It would be impossible for me to eat my own heart. Finally I work my way up to eye contact. Dev’s eyes are nice to look at. Dark, almost black, and soft. Like a dog’s eyes are soft.
I do my best to smile. “Yes…I am.”
I’m not handsome like Dev. I’m not bald with skin problems, and I’m not fat either because I do my exercise on the treadmill every day. I’m also clean, because I take a shower after doing my exercise. But I don’t have big soft eyes and beautiful brown skin that shimmers like there’s gold underneath. Not like him.
Dev glances at the crow in the tree. “Friend of yours?”
For some reason I say the first dumb thing that comes into my head. “It…doesn’t like me.”
Dev frowns. “How could anyone not like you? It’s probably me she doesn’t like.”
I want to ask how he knows the crow is a ‘she’, but I’ll never get that many words out.
“Sign here,” Dev says, same as every week. It’s a script. I like scripts. I say them in my head all the time. Hi-ho, Kermit the Frog here… I sign Dev’s machine and hand it back to him. He hands me one box. I hand him another. He scans the label with his machine and then tugs at the brim of his UPS cap. “See you next week, buddy.”
My name isn’t Buddy. He just means it like we’re friends. He knows my name is Henry Graham. It’s on the shipping label. I don’t know Dev’s last name. He doesn’t wear a label. I do know he has a beautiful body, a sweet smile, and I think about him a lot in the shower. That’s the infatuation part.
Dev waves as he heads down the sidewalk. I try to say ‘bye’ but it jams in my throat and turns into a weird ball of sound that isn’t even a word anymore. A gust of wind stings my eyes and rips a shower of orange leaves from the birch. The crow is still there, her clawed feet digging for purchase in the white bark.
I carry my package down the hall into my office. The wind screams around my house like a monster baby so I take the construction earmuffs out of my desk drawer and put them on. Then I split the tape on the white box with my letter opener.
I don’t know if Dev is attracted to me. I don’t even know if Dev is a faggot. I do know ‘faggot’ is not a nice word and I don’t say it out loud ever, but it’s the word my inside voice always uses. The reason why is my dad. He used to drink a lot of alcohol and call me a retard and a faggot. At the time I was too young to understand what those things were. Now I’m almost thirty and I know I’m not retarded, but I am a faggot. Mom says being gay is fine. So does Dad. He doesn’t drink alcohol anymore, but the script is set.
The problem is where to go from here. I’m not a virgin, but there’s a reason I haven’t had a date in five years. Why would someone like Dev be interested in a dweeb with sensory issues whose attempts at speech usually end in a lock-jawed gurgle? I’m a realist. Even I don’t want to work that hard for sex.
“It’s not easy being green,” I mutter in the Kermit voice.
I lift the lid on the box and the stink of scorched paper fires up my nostrils. I recoil so hard I nearly tip my chair over. Covering my nose with my hand I peer into the box. No evidence of fire. Only a pristine title page that says The 2015 Pocket Guide to Pre-owned Cars. The smell is gone. My nose feels hot inside. I have one week to complete the proof.
I place the manuscript face down on my desk and flip over the last page. Then I use my window tool, a ruler with a slot cut out in the middle, to isolate the last few lines on the page and work my way to the top. Working backwards is the trick. That way I don’t get caught up in the narrative. Even car audio instructions have a narrative; otherwise they don’t make sense.
I don’t have a car, but I have a stereo in my living room. I listen to different things on it. AC/DC for chores, and Stiff Little Fingers when I do my exercise on the treadmill beside the couch. I also like Taylor Swift.
I don’t listen to music when I work. Proofreading requires concentration. Otherwise you start speaking for the book instead of letting the book speak for itself. Your brain automatically corrects spelling, spacing, punctuation, and inserts the missing words because that’s what it expects to see.
Through my window tool I concentrate on the last few lines of the new manuscript.
When tempteD, remember the wOrst mistake you caN make is tO pull ouT your waLlet and purchasE a car on a whim. The informaTion in tHis guIde will give you peace of Mind knowing you’ve Invested your moNey wisely.
Yeesh. A depreciating asset is hardly a wise investment, but that’s narrative and therefore not my department. The scattered caps, however, are. Some style guides allow capitalization for emphasis. I don’t care for that. Capitals are loud. I don’t like shouting. I use my window as a straight edge to strike out the offending words. I press my blue pencil too hard and the lead breaks, creating a dark blotch in the middle of my perfect line.
I nod, travelling up from his feet to his face. I don’t have a box to give him because I finished the car guide early and took it to the UPS store myself. Variation in routine is important if not always pleasant. The people at the UPS store are strangers, but I make sure the box already has a shipping label. Most of their questions can be answered nonverbally.
There’s no sign of the crow today, and only a few frost shriveled leaves still cling to the birch tree. Soon Dev will trade in his brown shorts for brown pants. I’ll miss his beautiful knees during the snowy months.
Dev gently pushes his machine into my hands. “Gonna sign for me?”
“Oh, right.” I take the stylus and scribble something like a signature. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. I was daydreaming.”
“Well, how about that?” He hands me a white box. “He speaks.”
He’s right, my mind wandered and the words slipped out. Of course now I can’t make a peep, so I shrug.
Dev’s black eyebrow arches. “Are you a writer?”
“Bet you read some interesting stuff.”
“Gotta read carefully, yeah? Catch all the mistakes.”
I nod and shift foot to foot. It’s all I can do not to bounce up and down. This is way off script. Dev stares at me with those dark eyes. Curious, I think. Or not. Faces are hard for me to read.
He tugs on the brim of his brown cap. “See you next week, buddy.”
I step onto the porch as he heads down the sidewalk. “Have…have a good afternoon.”
He grins and leaps like an impala into his truck. I give myself a mental high-five.
In my office I don’t take out my earmuffs. It’s not windy today, so it’s a good day to rake leaves. Mine and my neighbor’s, Mrs. and Mr. Middlethorpe. I also mow their lawn in the summer, and shovel their snow in the winter, and the reason why is because they’re old. Mrs. and Mr. Middlethorpe have been married a long time, and I suppose that means they’re in love, but like a lot of married people they don’t act like it.
I slice through the tape and open the box. No smell this time. Just a title page that reads, The 2015 Pocket Guide to Pre-owned Cars.
Shonda always writes a note if there are problems. I pull the stack of paper out of the box and flip through the pages. No note, but even a cursory glance shows multiple errors I’ve overlooked. Extra spaces, rogue commas – is that an exclamation mark? I always catch exclamation marks. I’ve made it my mission in life to blue pencil those shouty bastards out of existence.
I drop the brick of paper on my desk. Whump, it says, hitting the varnished oak. I’ve never made this many mistakes in a single manuscript. Is Shonda angry? I’m an adult. I need my job to pay my mortgage. Also, I don’t want to lose my regular appointment with UPS, and Dev. Strained clicking noises come from my throat, the ghosts of aborted words rattling their chains. You know that’s the first thing to go on a frog, his tongue…
I think about emailing Shonda, but she wouldn’t have sent it back if she didn’t want it done over. I don’t like confrontation. I’ll redo the proof. This time I’ll be extra careful.
My eyes blur and I start to cry a little, which I really hate and only do when extremely frustrated. I’m good at one thing. One. Thing. Of all the tasks I perform on a regular basis, proofreading is the one thing I know I’m not going to fuck up. But this manuscript is a disaster.
I turn the thing face down and flip over the last page.
tempteD, remember the wOrst mistake you caN make is tO pull ouT your waLlet and purchasE a car on a whim. The informaTion in tHis guide will gIve you peace of Mind knowing you’ve Invested your moNey wisely.
The words weren’t bolded. I’m sure they weren’t, but they must have been because that’s my blue pencil. Only I use a blue pencil. Shonda uses red pen. How I know it’s my blue pencil is because I can see the spot where my lead broke and left a blotch.
A shrill caw punctures my concentration. I glance up into the glare of the sun through the blinds. The crow is back, flapping her wings and making a racket. I put on my earmuffs.
“Hi-ho, Kermit the Frog here…Hi-ho, and welcome back to the Muppet show…Hi-ho…”
The monotonous recitation does nothing to calm me. Damn, damn, damn. I grab my phone and stare at it. I know I shouldn’t call. I know I shouldn’t. It’s still technically Tuesday morning.
Fuck it, I’m calling.
UPS’s electronic voice goes through the options, asking me to state my request, but I can’t yet talk so I use the buttons to punch in the extension number. I wait and breathe, trying to relax my throat. I peer out the window. Still no delivery truck, but the crow is there, perched on the bony white branches of the tree.
“Hello, Henry,” says Buford in the kind of voice only a man named Buford can have.
“I’ve got the manifest right here. Your package went on the truck. It’ll be there soon.”
“It’s on Elliot’s truck. It’ll be there.”
Elliot? Who the hell is Elliot and why the hell does he have my package? Was Dev fired? Did he quit? Change routes? Take a vacation? Why wouldn’t he tell me? I have a terrible feeling about this.
“You all right today, Henry?”
I try to speak, to elucidate, to communicate the seriousness of the situation. I slap the wall and squeeze my eyes shut, but the only sound that makes it out of my mouth is a tight rasp.
“Take your time,” Buford says.
This is why I like Buford. He doesn’t treat me like a nuisance. He waits. He doesn’t try to put his own slow loud words in my mouth either. Like Dev, Buford wants me to speak for myself.
“I’m…worried…very worried…” I trail off as the doorbell rings.
“That what I think it is?”
I didn’t hear the air brakes but I glance through the blinds and see the brown truck. “Yes…it is…thank you, Buford…I really app…appreciate…”
“It’s no bother, Henry.”
I hang up the phone and race for the door.
“Happy Tuesday…” Dev pauses. “You all right, buddy?”
I bypass the boots, the knees, the brown buttons and everything, going straight for his face. “Who…who’s E-Elliot?”
Dev smiles, but it’s a sad smile. No, not sad. Worried, maybe? Confused? Weirded out…people have too many damn facial expressions. There should be three, or four, no more than four. That would make things easier.
“Buford said…said Elliot…” a low whinny in my chest heralds the death of my words.
“Elliot caught your package by mistake. I nabbed it off his truck. Haven’t had time to put it in the system is all.” The crow squawks and Dev looks up. “She’s watching over you.”
“I bet.” He checks his watch. “Hey, sorry I’m late. I know that’s rough for you.”
“It’s okay…I don’t mind,” I say, a total lie because it clearly isn’t and I clearly do. “It’s rough…but I don’t mind.”
Dev winks. “That so?”
I don’t always catch on to innuendo – okay, I rarely catch on ever – but I catch this one and my face feels like it’s on fire. Maybe it’s because I’m so embarrassed I don’t care anymore, but the door between my brain and vocal cords swings wide open as I reach for the machine. “I can sign for that if you want.”
Our fingers touch. He’s wearing gloves but it feels electric. I scribble and he offers me the white box. I hesitate.
“Just paper,” Dev says. “It’s not going to bite.”
Cardboard slides cool and slick into my hands. “You must think I’m the biggest freak.”
Dev reaches out, giving me time to step away if I want to. When I don’t, he rests his gloved hand on my shoulder and pulls me forward until we’re closer than we’ve ever been before, only a cold white box between us.
“There are worse things,” he says. “Don’t forget that.”
I stand in my open door, watching him leap into his truck. Then I glide down the hall to my office. Something happened. Nothing I can put words to, but something happened, and I’m so happy. I cut the tape on the box, lift the lid and find The 2015 Pocket Guide to Pre-owned Cars.
I push away from the desk leaving the manuscript in its box. No, I don’t think so, Miss Piggy.
I pick up my phone and thumb out an email to Shonda asking what she wants me to do with this fucking manuscript. Except I don’t say fuck. It’s not a nice word and I usually don’t say it out loud ever, or put it in emails to Shonda. I’m respectful. I just find it weird that she hasn’t said anything.
After sending the email, I go outside and rake up the leaves on my lawn and Mrs. and Mr. Middlethorpe’s, and stuff them into clear plastic bags – the leaves, not the Middlethorpes – which takes hours and then I’m too tired to do anything but make a grilled cheese sandwich. My manuscript – and I do think of it as mine – stays on the desk behind the closed office door.
I switch on my stereo and select a Taylor Swift CD. I like her songs about white dresses, kissing in the rain, and all her ex-boyfriends. I’ve never had a boyfriend. Taylor Swift doesn’t speak too highly of the experience. I lie on the couch and doze off to her sweet twangy voice.
In my dream I’m standing in my office at nighttime and it’s dark but not really. There’s light coming through the window, but not regular light. Red light, like the kind in a photographer’s dark room. Dark and red. On my desk there’s a pile of ashes. I smell smoke, and I hear myself talking. My voice, but not my voice.
Hi-ho, welcome back to the Muppet Show. And now, as threatened, we proudly present the punishment for everything you did right. The radiant, the all-consuming, LOVE! Take it awaaaaaay!
Instead of applause from a crowd, or jokes from two old men in a balcony, it’s a crow in a naked birch tree. A single crow cawing loud as a murder. Caw, caw caw…
Thump, thump, thump. I sit up on the couch. Dizzy. Drowsy. Someone knocked on my door. I think. It’s dark so I can’t see the cars through the living room blinds. I’m not expecting anyone. My parents always call first. Maybe they did call. My phone is locked in the office with that horrible manuscript. I wait for whomever it is to knock again but they don’t. Maybe that’s why I get up and open the door.
Dev stands on my front porch, haloed by orange light from the street lamps. This isn’t UPS Dev. This is sneakers, jeans, and long black coat Dev. No cap either. His dark hair is neatly combed without looking dorky like mine does when I comb it. His smile is different too. Nervous, maybe.
“I, uh…figured I’d know what to say by the time I got here, but…” Non-regulation Dev shoves his gloveless hands into his coat. “You seem kinda blue lately.”
I rub my hands over my face and hold out my arms, examining my skin for a blue tint, which is a sign of hypoxia, or cyanide poisoning, or blood loss. How I know is because I proofed a paramedic training manual one time.
Dev grips my shoulder again. “I meant blue like sad, or depressed.”
“Oh.” Just when I think I’ve got a handle on idioms. I feel stupid, but it’s mitigated by Dev’s bare hand on my shoulder. “D’you want…to want…to…”
He steps back. “It’s okay, Henry. Take your time.”
I nod and breathe, visualizing unrestricted airflow through my vocal cords. “Would you like to come in?”
We sit across from each other at the kitchen table, not talking and not drinking the tea I made because it’s polite to offer guests a hot beverage on a cold day. His skin glows with gold undertones and his obsidian eyes hold mine prisoner. Outside the wind starts to howl.
Dev comes around to my side of the table and pulls me to my feet. I walk my fingertips up the column of his throat to rest against the rough grain of his jaw. We don’t say anything. We don’t need to.
I kiss him, or he kisses me. What matters is we’re kissing. Then we’re moving. Down the hall, past the closed office door, into my room. Clothes rustle, tug, and snap, and we’re skin-to-skin on my bed. It’s so dark I can’t see my hand in front of my face, and between the soughing wind, the body heat, and his weight crushing the breath from me, it’s like we’re twins tangled together in a giant womb, blind and grasping, our shared blood circuit hooked into an enormous heart beating somewhere above us.
Dev utters an incoherent stream of words I don’t recognize in a looping lulling rhythm. It’s a script. I like scripts. And I love the sound of his voice chanting endlessly in the black.
“Stay,” he whispers into my neck. “Stay with me. Stay…”
“It’s my house. Where would I go?” I find the words so easily I feel as though I could talk the ears off a herd of African elephants. How’s that for an idiom? But I don’t talk, and the reason why is that my mouth is busy doing other things.
“You’re too good, Henry. Too good. I had to come.”
And he does. We both do. Then we sleep.
It’s still dark when I wake up, and I don’t know what time it is because I left my phone across the hall in my office and I can’t have a regular alarm clock otherwise I stay up all night watching the numbers change. I’m weird that way.
Dev sleeps beside me, his arm heavy on my chest. I carefully slide out of bed and go to the kitchen for a glass of water. I drink my water, leave the glass in the sink and head back down the hall. I pause outside my bedroom door. Part of me thinks I dreamed it all. When I go back in my room, my bed will be empty. I hear a muffled ding. Instead of going back to bed I go into my office and pick up my phone. I have one email.
I was surprised to hear from you so soon after getting your note about taking a long vacation. Regardless, I’m not sure which manuscript you’re talking about. I don’t think we’ve ever bought a used car guide.
If you’re ready for more work, I’ve got several projects I could use you on. Maybe send that manuscript back and I’ll see if I can sort it out.
I put the phone down on the desk. Red light bleeds through the blinds onto my manuscript. And it is mine. I know that now.
I turn around to find Dev standing in the doorway, robed in red-black shadows.
“There is no…muh…manuscript.”
He points to the window where the outline of a black bird sits on a skeletal tree branch. “She can’t stop me, but she does require that I warn you.”
“There are rules governing my nature as there are rules governing yours. See for yourself.”
He points to the desk. I turn around and the manuscript I left in the box because I was too ‘blue’ to face more errors, is now out of the box, facedown on my desk, with the last page flipped over, bathed in bloody light.
tempte D, remember the w O rst mistake you ca N make is t O pull ou T your wa L let and purchas E a car on a whim. The informa T ion in t H is guide will g I ve you peace of M ind knowing you’ve I nvested your mo N ey wisely.
It’s obvious now. I talked when I should have listened. I wrote when I should have read. So caught up in what I thought was correct that I made a mistake, and this time it’s not okay.
“Underhanded, I admit,” he says. “The warning has to speak for itself, but people see what they want, and there’s no rule against using that to my advantage.”
“Narrative…not my department.”
Dev shrugs. “I gave you three chances. In writing.”
“Love,” he said. “Concentrated, personified, manifested. I’m what people search for their whole lives. Most are lucky enough not to find it.”
I pull my arms into my chest and rock back and forth the way I haven’t done since I was little. On the desk my manuscript blackens and curls into a pile of ashes, filling my office with the smell of burnt paper. Dev’s smile gleams like a blade.
“I meant what I said, Henry. You’re too good, and I wish you weren’t. The truth is no one deserves me more than you do, and no one deserves me less. What’s the word for that?”
“Paradox,” I say in Kermit’s voice.
He reaches for me with a crimson hand, radiant and all consuming, the punishment for everything I did right. There are worse things than being a lonely freak. But I can’t complain. I let him in.
About the Author
Sarah L. Johnson lives in Calgary where she can usually be found reading, running, and kicking over rocks to see what’s underneath. Her short fiction has appeared in Room Magazine, Shock Totem, and the Bram Stoker nominated Dark Visions 1. Her first novel, Infractus, will be published in late 2015.