The Houses on Birch Street: No. 2 Birch Street

No. 2 Birch Street.

Starting at 7 o’clock, three alarms in quick succession will break the delicate silence at No. 2. The first two will blare in a room where a plump man and his wife lie in bed, asleep. The man’s arm will slip out from between the covers and hit the snooze button, while his wife will turn hers off and slide out of bed, rubbing her eyes as she heads towards the bathroom. Steam will be beginning to leak out from under the door as the third alarm goes off, this one in the room of a teenage boy. He will sit up in bed and turn it off before pulling his computer towards him and booting it up. He will spend the next forty–five minutes hunched over the screen in the dark, clicking through forums and chatrooms. In the other room, the woman will finish her shower close to 8 o’clock, and shake her husband awake as she leaves the bedroom and heads down the stairs towards the kitchen, where she’ll brew a cup of coffee and start assembling the ingredients to make an omelet. A little brown dog will scamper excitedly around her feet, but she will ignore it, choosing instead to focus on the slowly heating pan on the stove before her. Upstairs, he man will throw on a polo shirt and a pair of worn corduroy pants, and knock on his son’s door as he goes to join his wife in the kitchen. The teenaged boy will throw on a hoodie over his pajama shirt, making sure the sleeves are pulled down right to his wrists, and stumble down the stairs to the kitchen. He will give his mother a kiss on the cheek, and she will murmur a ‘good morning’, her attention still fixed on her omelet. The plump man will clip a leash on the collar of the yipping brown dog, the boy will stuff his feet into a pair of scuffed sneakers, and together they will exit via the front door.

More often than not their walk will be silent, the boy staring at his feet, or the little brown dog, who will yip and bark as he pulls at the leash. On their second loop of the block, they will bump into a young woman wearing oversized headphones and carrying a cloth grocery bag. They’ll talk for maybe a minute, the boy only mumbling a brief hello, before separating again. Once back inside No. 2, the boy will retreat to the safety of his bedroom, and open up his computer again. Downstairs, the plump man and his wife will share the omelet, the man keeping his attention fixed on the newspaper he picked up from the doorstep, the woman researching legal firms on her phone. After completing their breakfast, the woman will collect the dishes, dump them in the sink, and pull out a box of frozen waffles from the freezer. She will throw them in the microwave, and tell the man to fetch the kids for breakfast. He will mutter a response and turn a page of his newspaper, and the woman will glare at him as she returns to the bedroom.

Fifteen minutes later, the man will be finished with the newspaper and will throw it out the backdoor, the little brown dog running after it to begin the process of ripping it to pieces. The man will yell up the stairs, and wait as a young boy and girl race down the stairs, run to the table, and bounce up and down in their seats, waiting to be served. Taking the waffles from the microwave, the plump man will dump two on each of their plates before bringing the remaining waffle up the stairs to the teenage boy’s room. He will knock on the door, and the boy will shout at him not to come in. The man will leave the waffle on the floor outside the room, and head to his study. He will spend the better part of the afternoon there, calling various lawyers and sending emails to his colleges, most of them containing rude messages about his wife. After he has made sure the man has closed the door to his study, the teenage boy will collect the waffle from the hallway, and leave it on his desk, barely glancing at it. He will have turned the lights on, but left the curtains closed, so the air inside will have a musty, stale quality to it. The boy will crawl back into bed with his computer, still ignoring the waffle on his desk. He will spend the better part of the morning there, shedding his hoodie onto the floor once he overheats. The heat of the computer will irritate his arms, and he will scratch at the scabs there, until little beads of blood ooze to the surface of his skin. He will be able to hear the two little children downstairs, playing with the little brown dog, and chasing each other outside to draw with chalk on the cement.

At 2:30 in the afternoon, the man will exit from his study and go to the bedroom, where he will find his wife watching the food network in bed, a large bag of potato chips keeping her company. He will turn off the television at the food of the bed, and the woman will sit up, outraged. Though he will have left his study intending to have a civil conversation, a full blown argument will soon arise, both the man and woman hurling vicious insults at each other, and, in the woman’s case, potato chips. The woman will threaten her husband that he will never see his children again, the man will tell the woman she will have no money to support their children, and the fight will rage on. Though the two small children will be busy playing outside, and will be unable to hear anything, the thin walls will mean the teenage boy will hear every word his parents say, and will stuff his earbuds in, trying to drown out the noise. He won’t succeed, and tears will slip down his cheeks as he bites first his lip, then his knuckle, then the edge of his arm so hard he breaks through the skin. The argument will continue, until the woman will throw the door to the bedroom open so hard the knob cracks into the plaster, and storm down the stairs. The man will rage back to his study, slamming the door behind him. A little while later the boy will judge it safe to leave, and emerge from his bedroom, wearing his hoodie again. He will carry the plate bearing the waffle downstairs, the waffle broken up into pieces to give the illusion that he made an attempt to eat it. After he deposits the plate on the kitchen counter, he will head over to the couch, where his mother will be lying, a damp cloth over her forehead. Hearing the boy, his mother will ask him to get her a valium tablet. In response he will nod, though she can’t see him, and pad back up the stairs.

In his parent’s bathroom, the teenage boy will stand on the toilet seat to reach the top shelf of the medicine cabinet, where he will find a small bottle marked, ‘Valium’. He will unscrew the bottle and shake out two tablets, putting one on a small plate with a glass of water, and stuffing the other one in his pocket. The boy will bring the valium tablet to his mother, and she will swallow it, without a word of thanks. Leaving the dishes on the counter, he will head to the front door to call in the smaller children, and once they are back in the kitchen he will prepare them a small snack of carrot sticks and peanut butter. They will gobble this down, though the girl will refuse to eat any carrots with spots on them. The boy will turn on the TV in the living room, and leave them there, laughing at cartoons. Once he’s back in his room, he will stow the valium tablet in a small bag tucked under his mattress, where it will join close to twenty other small pills.

Close to 7:30, the plump man will leave his study again, and without checking on the teenage boy he will head downstairs, where the two small children will still be watching cartoons, and the little brown dog will be eagerly waiting for its dinner. He will empty a can of food into the dog’s dish, which it will wolf down, and shake his wife awake. The valium will have made her calm, and after microwaving frozen pizza for the four of them to eat, the teenage boy still being in his room, the man and woman will walk about various conditions, and who would get to keep what should they decide to separate. The young boy and girl won’t understand what they’re talking about, but the teenage boy, hanging his head over the stairs, will hear and understand everything. He will squeeze his eyes shut to stop the tears, and sneak into his father’s study, a plastic bottle clutched in one hand. The boy will open a drawer under the desk, and pull out a bottle of scotch, which he will open. After also opening the plastic bottle, which is three–quarters full of scotch pilfered from his father, he will fill up the plastic bottle from the glass one. That done, he will close the scotch bottle and return it to its place in the drawer. The plastic one will join the valium tablets under his bed. The boy will sit in his room with his computer on his knees, skimming through messages from people he knows at school. Though most of the messages will be supportive, he will ignore them, choosing instead to focus on the harsher, more dispassionate ones, the ones that are actually the more encouraging.

At 8:30, the plump man and his wife will go sit on their porch, each clutching a can of beer. They will sit there for an hour, watching people walk by, and talking about nothing in particular. The woman will still feel the effects of the valium, and will not be in any mood to argue. But, after they finish their beer, throwing the cans in a bucket by the door, and head back inside, they will start to bicker again. The fight will start quiet, but build until it’s loud enough for the teenage boy to hear, though not loud enough to wake the two small children, asleep in bed. They will fight all the way up the stairs, past the teenage boy’s room and into theirs, their cruel words carrying easily into the boy’s room. The boy will be sitting on his bed tearing at the scabs on his arms, causing the bite marks to bleed again. He won’t stop until he hears the fighting stop, and the sounds of his father’s snoring rumble through the wall. His computer will still be on, and the boy will read the most recent message, an answer to a question he posted. The message will only contain a thumbs–up, but it will cause the boy to close his computer with shaking hands, and scribble a few sentences down on a piece of paper. He will put on his hoodie, leaving the paper tucked into the pocket, and sit cross–legged on his bed, taking out the stolen valium and scotch. Quickly, he will swallow all twenty of the tablets, using the scotch to help him get them down. His vision will start to blur, and he will lie down, hearing his sluggish heartbeat in his ears. Though his vision will darken and he will struggle to breathe, he will smile, knowing, as he said in his note, his problems will all be over soon.

–G.L. Aster