Sarah saw the stopper in her husband’s neck before detecting the one puncturing her own: a yellow plastic ring, like a dime-sized piece of bead art, centered two inches below the chin, with a brownish penumbra of irritation blooming around it. She pressed it with her fingertip, increased the pressure, felt nothing. She’d awoken because of post-chardonnay need to pee, nothing more. Arthur was sleeping soundly, making the same nasally half-snore as usual.
“My God,” Sarah said. Except she couldn’t say it. Her mouth shaped to the words like a mold without clay and no sound left her lip, and through this the nature of her alteration revealed itself.
Sarah shook Arthur awake, tapped his neck and hers to explain it. He made a gasp like a punctured tire and his eyes clouded with tears.
Their doorknob wriggled. Frenzied little fists banged “Jig and a Haircut” upon the door: their daughters, Candice and Eunoia, eight and twelve. The wordless quality of the ruckus they made was concerning. Arthur let them in.
Their daughters’ mouths were flapping in their tear-streaked round faces and their hands were tracing question marks over stoppered necks still reddened with panicked scratching. The family huddled together, hugged, and held the huddle a long time, listening to the new sounds they made, the old sounds they did not. Bounder, their chocolate Labrador, came up from downstairs, panting and desiring his share of their warmth. The family let him nuzzle about their knees. Haloed above their bed, the ceiling fan chirred and vroomed, sounding louder than Sarah had ever before heard it.
Sarah grabbed a flashlight, the bedside emergency bag, Eunoia’s little hand; Arthur grabbed the Ruger 10/22 from the closet. They went downstairs to the kitchen.
The parents leaned their elbows on the countertop. The kids sat in the chairs at the table. When their cat Marbles came in yowling, Arthur fed her deli meat direct from the bag. When Bounder barked about this violation, Arthur gave him a slice.
Sarah warmed the tea kettle and poured juice for the kids but she kept her eyes on cups upon the countertop. A question hung in the air about the stopper’s effect on eating and drinking, and Sarah glared at Arthur until he worked up the nerve to answer it. He ate a banana and drank a glass of milk and waited. Then he gave a thumb’s up. Sarah cooked cheese sandwiches on the grill pan and made tomato soup but still motioned the kids to wait twenty minutes before eating. They watched their father, then Arthur grinned and flexed his biceps to demonstrate that things were fine. Then he looked down at his slippers, remembering things were not.
After supper, every hand in the room busied itself flicking through their phones and the room pinged and beeped like a command center. Arthur, wanting something loud and talky, played an old episode of Car Talk until the family stared him down. Then he played a Motown playlist, real quietly, and that was okay.
The kids were getting texts from other kids. Sarah from her parents, her sister, friends near and friends abroad. Arthur from his brothers, including the cop. Everyone conveyed the same mute message. Everyone was stoppered.
Sarah stepped out onto her porch and gazed at their oak-lined street. It looked normal, autumnal. A soft wind whisked and shuffled the leaves on lawns and sidewalks. Sarah remembered September as Ohio’s most constant month, a stable succession of days running from balmy to brisk, a foggy gray less monolithic than the wetter wintry grays to come, a wetness in the air that softened the edges of the elm trees and dampened the bushes where the cottontails slept.
The houses on the street were quiet but they had lights on in unusual rooms. Sarah was surprised by her disinterest in their occupants. Sarah didn’t feel much like seeing how neighbors were doing. She wondered if she might not feel like that a long time.
Around 2:00 am, two neighbors came out and banged pots and pans together like it was New Year’s Eve. Nobody cheered.
Back in the kitchen, Arthur and their daughters were holding their phones across the table and showing them to each other. Videos and pictures. Pictures of stoppers. Videos of necks. All kinds of necks: famous, presidential, old, young, brown, tan, white; necks stuck to the heads of faith leaders and believers and doubters all the same.
And then there were other videos, recently uploaded, in which the yellow stoppers were less visible: videos of bridges impassable with piled-up cars; churches latching doors against the kicking crowds outside them; WalMarts being ransacked by history’s quietest looters; Police Departments guarded by human chains against a sea of other humans. Videos where the staticky noise of wind smacked loudly, and which captured a world that might never pronounce Sarah’s children’s difficult-to-pronounce names again.
The stoppered family set down their phones and placed their shaky hands into each other’s palms. They closed their eyes and breathed quietly for a minute. Then they gazed across the table at each other’s faces, one face at a time, reading whatever they could, hoping they would learn to read a little more.
The phones on the table beeped and pinged.
It was getting quiet out there. The silence was blowing up.
Samuel J Adams lives in northern California and works with adults with disabilities. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Moon City Review, Ruminate, Spork, BULL, Monkeybicycle, etc. He was a 2018 writing resident at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City. Reach him at @SamuuuelJAdaams