Keep Out by TJ Alexian

Topic: Exhaustion

Somewhere outside, I can hear a drunk boy arguing, then burst into tears. Men are so unattractive when they cry.

His words are muted. Instinctively, I turn the lights out in the apartment and move close to the picture window to hear more. I’ve always been nosy like that.

But it’s no use. I move the curtain back a sliver and look outside into the cold, dispassionate evening, searching for this infrared pocket of heat.

I can hear two or three muted voices, but can’t make out what they’re saying. I hear the boy trying to speak, but then his words grow even more indistinct, becoming sobs, low, guttural sobs, and then even those start to fade.

There’s the sound of a car starting up, then pulling away.

I lie on the bed in my apartment, cross-legged, my computer in front of me. From the other room, Ashes is snoring loudly, Tiger is squirming in his sleep.

And then, another sound, coming from my hallway. A woman’s voice, clearly on the brink. I lift myself up from my bed and quickly shuffle into the living room toward the door.

Her voice becomes more distinct. She sounds as though she’s in her thirties, most likely not too old, but old enough to no longer have that youthful blush. Clearly intoxicated. There’s another voice, a masculine one, but I can’t make out his words.

I hear hers, however. “I don’t care anymore! I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care anymore.” She’s crying, too, and her sobs flow like the tide, like breathing in, breathing out.

Something falls to the floor, smashes. A plate? “I’m dying I’m dying I don’t care. What do you want?”

The masculine voice, indecipherable, a low sonorous growl. But she doesn’t give him much of a chance.

“Shut up. I want to be with my kids. They’re my kids and I want you to shut up. You have no clue what kids are about, so just shut up. You, shut up.”

Another growl.

“You know what? I don’t even care. Kill me, kill the kids. You feel so freakin’ proud about it, go ahead and do it, just do it, just do it, okay? Dad would be so proud to know you were a fucking asshole.”

Low tones start to say something. Mumble mumble mumble.

“…all those other jackasses…I haven’t BEEN with ANY OTHER jackasses! I haven’t had sex since…since…see, I can’t remember. I can’t even remember. I don’t care. I don’t. I’m too tired. So murder my kids! Go ahead! Just…”

She starts to sob, hysterically, and there’s that rhythm again, that breathing in, breathing out.

They talk. I can’t hear their words, although I wish I could. I imagine them sitting there, probably on the staircase. I wonder whether they’re close together. Is he holding her? Is he leaning against the side of the wall, keeping his distance? Is he threatening her?

I think of my ex-wife, Josie. Thank God we avoided this. Thank God it never ever went there.

Her voice rises in volume. “I never want to be involved with anyone EVER I never did anything to anyone ever…I don’t fucking WANT to TRY anymore I FUCKING HATE YOU ALL, fucking kill me, just kill me don’t ever fucking threaten my kids, you fuck I hate you I hate you I hate you…”

A noisy stumble up a flight of stairs. Her sobs start to fade away. Silence.

Then, more stumbles. Her voice, again. It sounds as if she’s alone. Talking to herself, close to my door, mumbling about this apartment and she’s not crazy and this is not the way she is. Then, she moves away.

Ashley snores grow a little louder, taking me out of the trance I’ve been in. The kids. Have they been taking this in? No, they haven’t; they’re fast asleep.

There’s a knock. Downstairs. Not on my door.

(But what if it had been my door? What would I have done?)

A click as the neighbor downstairs opens up. He’s a gentle man. Brown hair, slight squat, thick glasses. I think he’s disabled. I hear him talking to her, whoever she is.

Then her voice, a hysterical stream. “I don’t think he’s a murderer. I don’t know where my car is, I don’t know where he is. I’m just tired, tired of all this. You must think I’m crazy, I’m really not crazy, I don’t usually get like this. I don’t think he’s a murderer, I really don’t, I just don’t know, but I don’t know where my car is and…”

”Relax. Keep it down.”

I hear that, distinctly, but then the words start to fade. Slowly, I move over to the couch where Ashes is sleeping, sit down next to her. I place a hand against her cheek, feel the warmth of her skin. Brush one of her wet sweaty curls away from her face. Her snoring is steady, even. Peaceful.

I glance over at the door, the door that separates us from it. It, exactly. The cold outside world I want so badly to protect my kids from. I won’t always be able to, though.

Not forever, at least. It will never be enough to simply lock a door or pull back a curtain. That only keeps the real world at bay for a moment, at best.

Downstairs, a door clicks shut. The cold outside retreats.

For now, that is. Only for now.

4 Responses to “Keep Out by TJ Alexian”
  1. TJ – What an incredible piece of writing–so compelling with the dialogue and your careful observations. I am struck how that neighbor’s gesture to knock on that door, to intervene, even in a small way, is so important–just the word, “Relax” may have have helped that woman little bit. It helps her know that someone else is there, and there might be safety somewhere. Thank you for this. -Alexandra

  2. TJ Alexian says:

    Alexandra, Thank you for that! What always strikes me when I re-read the piece I wrote, and also think about that night, is my level of inaction throughout the story. Why wasn’t I that neighbor? is there something I could have done, other than stay locked in my place, thinking about the safety of my kids? I do hope that his soothing words helped her, and for the record, I never heard another word from that lady, ever again. I’m not certain what ended up happening, but I certainly hope she’s in a better place, now.

  3. K-Rock says:

    Powerful stuff….I often wonder if I would open the door….I think I would….but you never know until you have to make a split second decision. This reminds me of this apartment complex I lived in in TN. Before I moved in there, a girl was stabbed late at night….before she died she managed to escape her apartment but none of the neighbors would answer the door….makes me think that one gesture of kindness from a stranger can change a person’s entire life….

    • TJ Alexian says:

      Exactly. Exactly! I’m really glad the guy downstairs was there to open the door and provide a warm voice and some help. And feel a little guilty that I couldn’t have been that warm voice. Although had she been stabbed or something like that, I certainly would have been there. I know that!

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