Silence is louder than a morning alarm, louder than a department store full of thirty blaring TVs. It buzzes, absorbing you and taking another year off your life by watching too many things but never looking.
He sits in a silence like that freshly-fallen log out front that has a mold-green spot on it shaped like Wyoming. His mom tells him to go get some fresh air—fresh is a word that means new or wholesome. He turns on the TV.
Mario Brothers flashes on a wobbly flat screen. His fingers push red and green buttons that tell a small plumber in another world to eat mushrooms. The small plumber eats a red-spotted mushroom and squats into a green pipe like a spaz. He is now in a dark-purple cavern, and Noah the button-pusher smells ketchup-fried meat.
Noah sits in a sunroom and eats meatloaf that’s too friendly with the mashed potatoes that are too mushy and taste more like starchy milk. Canned green beans spill out onto the plate, and they smell like metal. Noah takes a bite, and the taste reminds him of when he pulled out his tooth five years ago— it was the first time he cried out loud.
His mom is chatting about the man who delivers beer at the MiniMart where she works, he’s got a nice stubble, but he might have went to jail once. Grandma serenely grins and scoops spoonfuls of banana pudding in her mouth. The TV in the next room curses at them.
Noah sits in a parlor and eats medium-rare steak with a lonely sprig of parsley on top. Forks scrape plates, and his dad chews with his eyes closed. There is no TV in the next room. Actually, his father is too good for TV, he only reads John Grisham novels. The only reason there’s a TV in Noah’s room is to not make a fuss.
Noah’s cousin Arthur once told him he’s lucky that he has two TVs. Two queen-size mattresses he didn’t ask for. Two refrigerators full of hot pockets and Rocky Road ice cream.
Noah said, “I’m sorry, Arthur, I don’t like being a home slut.” He was trying to be funny. What he really meant is that he wished he could love one bed with his whole body fully. Arthur snickered awkwardly and talked about the imprint in his bed that looks like a giant Cheeto puff—he sleeps in the shape of a C.
His grandma has to go to town, where Noah’s daddy lives. He’s got a nice woman now, she says, and Noah doesn’t understand why she’s saying this in front of his mom. But his mom says mhmm.
His grandma wants to buy him a suit for Easter. They go to Dillard’s. The walls are lined with green and blue pastels, ties too expensive, and the air smells like an old lady’s nightstand. They bustle over to the men’s section, his grandma decides that he’s ready to graduate from the boys’. She picks up something that’s much more expensive than what she can afford and pushes him into a dressing room.
Noah puts his arms into the pink button-up. The last time he can remember wearing anything this nice was his mother’s remarriage that lasted a year. He liked that guy, but he divorced her like his dad did back when Noah wasn’t even crawling yet. He didn’t like the magazines he’d show him sometimes, his step-dad-at-the-time saying it was good for a growing boy to become accustomed to the beauty that is the woman’s body. This was three years ago, when he was ten years old.
His grandma calls out asking if it fits right. It fits just right, and he even likes how there are creased lines splitting his legs into halves like a regular businessman. He likes feeling grown up, looking grown up, because he’s the man in this family.
His dad picks him up from Dillard’s to stay at his house for the night. He looks at Noah’s suit and asks him if he even likes it. Noah lies and says no, and he’s not sure why he lies. His dad says that they’ll pick out an outfit for him for when they have Easter dinner so he can change into something more fitting for his age. Where would he like to go? Noah shrugs. He never chooses. His dad pulls into Target, says he’ll pick up a bottle of wine while he’s at it. Does Noah mind that he has his girlfriend over? Of course not, his dad answers himself.
He lets Noah pick out his own outfit, and Noah feels more grown up than he did at Dillard’s. A tall man stands next to him as he stares at a wall of jeans. The man smells like cologne and has a silver watch on his wrist. There’s little gold pieces on the side of the face, and Noah wonders if they’re real gold.
It’s almost nine o’ clock, kid, he says. Oh, sorry, Noah says and runs out of the row thinking the man was telling him to run along, but as he scurries away, his white tennis shoes squeaking on the sparkles in the linoleum tile. He realizes the man probably just said that because he was staring at his watch. He knew it was nine, he can read analog.
He finds his dad in the produce aisle staring at asparagus, and Noah says that they didn’t have much of anything in his size. His dad says he may need to go outside more and exercise, get some fresh air.
He lays in bed with a Yoshi plush, and its large white eyes seem to emit light into the dark room. His mom bought it for him, but he brought it over to his dad’s. His dad once said while brushing his teeth that it’s a big ass stuffed animal, and it really is, but Noah wondered if he was jealous he didn’t get it for him or if he was just really that honest.
It’s midnight, an hour after he’s supposed to have been asleep, but all he can hear is a little bell in his head. He walks into the living room, and there’s a woman in his dad’s lap. She shuffles off him when Noah turns the corner.
He tells his dad that he thinks he has Tinnitus. He looked it up because his ears couldn’t stop ringing when the whole house went quiet and dark. He saw eyes in the corner of the room, and he heard laughter under his pillow. His dad says he’s having TV withdrawal, this will be good for him. The silence drags him along with its fingernails into the empty halls and a guest bedroom that he knows the guest will not use.
It’s Easter morning, and Noah’s mom is picking him up for church. When he gets in the car, they both hammer him with questions about the lady who stayed the night. Noah just says that it’s his dad’s girlfriend and that she smiles at him when he walks into the room. He doesn’t tell either of them about their cuddling or the fact that she was too uncomfortable to button her blouse back up all the way and that he caught a peek of her red bra. Before he leaves his dad’s he asks if she’ll be at lunch, and he’s glad when he says no.
Noah’s family is the one everyone stares at when they enter the church because they always go to a new one. They can’t even blend in with other newbies because there are no newbies at small Baptist churches that smell like they’ve been rubbed all over with one-hundred-year-old books. It doesn’t make much sense to him, and he hates that people judge him for his ways, being a sinner the rest of the year for not attending their church. He sings the hymns, smiles at the laser-pointer stares from big men in suits shouting amen every time the preacher raises his voice an octave, and he thinks about lunch and how much he’s going to have to change today.
His dad picks him up from church, and he changes in the car. He slides into a green polo his dad used to wear and jeans that he left at his house the other night. The girlfriend washed them for him. He tucks his shirt in, but his dad says he didn’t have to do that if he didn’t want to.
His dad’s parents’ house croons jazz music as they walk in, and he had to take his shoes off. He sits in between the only note-worthy cousins on his dad’s side, two twelve-year-old girls with matching poof dresses and iPhones that won’t stop buzzing. They text under the table like they’re in school. He catches a glimpse of the phone to his left and it’s to his cousin on his right: I can’t BELIEVE we have to sit next to this dork. Noah pats down the curves in the shirt and tucks the loose fabric deeper into his pants.
His dad drops him off at his aunt’s house, and he changes back into the suit that he left in his dad’s car to roast in the sun. He has his second lunch with his grandma’s sister and her kids and their kids. Noah’s great aunt has two twin sons, more twins, one had one daughter, and the other had four kids, two boys, two girls. After them comes a lot of cousins, one being Arthur, the kid who comes over every now and then for chat-less pizza-munching and junk food. They ask if he likes basketball, and he’s honestly only played NBA Jam for the Super Nintendo. He shoves runny mashed potatoes in his mouth and mmms, hoping they either think he really likes the mashed potatoes or he does in fact like basketball.
He’s forced to go outside and assumes they interpreted his gesture as “yes, basketball, yes.” They pass him the basketball and tell him to shoot into the hoop that’s bolted to the side of the disconnected garage. He shoots, and it hits the rim and flies into the bushes that divide his cousins’ house and the forest. He runs after it, dives straight into the tall bushes, and realizes too late that they have thorns all in them. His expensive suit is now covered in little holes, the thorns puncturing through the fabric and into his skin. The pain reminds him of the time he had to get checked for allergies—he lay face down on a cold metal table while the doctor pricked his back one-hundred times. The conclusion was that he had no allergies.
He bites his lip to re-situate the pain and decides without deciding at all to unbutton his pink shirt. He unbuttons each one slowly, watching his arms to make sure he doesn’t find himself with another prick, another harmless wince of quick pain. Once his chest is exposed, he slinks his arms behind him and wiggles the shirt off. His pants still have the lines, but the pin-stripes are betrayed by the thorns and twigs. He undoes his belt and wiggles his pants off too. His socked feet pull themselves out of his dress shoes, and he walks away from the scene into the woods. He stares at the bushes still holding onto his suit. He realizes that he is standing in his underwear.
There is no one around and his cousins seemed to have given up on him, so he turns into the woods and looks for the lost basketball. He feels strangely comfortable walking around practically naked, but there’s no one around. Berries, deep red and round like his new wounds, float on the ends of the limbs straggled about the forest, and he knows they’re the forgotten kind, inedible. Noah finds the basketball sitting under a tree, wedged into a curved root. He doesn’t pick it up but decides to climb the tree. The tree is covered in stalky branches that look like monkey bars, so he wrings his hands around them almost as if it was the most natural thing to do in all the world. He swings around until he’s as high as he wants to go, and he can see the top of his cousins’ house from this height. His cousins are sitting on the ground cross-legged, looking into the bushes, and Noah’s glad they didn’t care to help.
He sits on the limb, and he imagines himself as Link in Twilight Princess. Link dashes through the forest in a green tunic, and Noah sits naked on top of a tree. He sees himself with a wooden sword in his hand, his body transforming into a wolf when his hand glows. The forest spirits telling him where to go and what to do, giving direction to his clueless strides. And when he’s done and ready, he calls his horse by blowing into the grass. Link finds jewels when he cuts through bushes, and Noah remembers his clothes hanging onto the thorns and stares at his arms, little scraps like dashes connect his freckles like constellations. He doesn’t want to go back down and play basketball and eat syrupy mashed potatoes and talk about his dad’s new girlfriend, he wants to sit on a limb and pretend he’s fighting for someone’s life for just one moment longer, but then his cousins started to get up. Noah jumps down, grabs the basketball, runs to his ghostly suit grabbed tight by the skinny arms of the thorn bushes, and he puts his Easter skin back on.
As he crosses the other side into his cousins’ suburban lot, he realizes that they didn’t know a thing, and they didn’t want to play anymore. Noah’s mom had set plastic eggs in the grass with quarters in them, and through his eyes, the house became pixelated. The younger kids snatch the fake eggs and put them on the fake grass in their plastic-wooden baskets, and Noah snatches them too, pretending the quarters are sparkling red and worth points. He scoops fifteen, and the little kids cry saying it’s not fair, so he pours them into their baskets, grinning just thinking about the heavy change in his front pocket.
When they leave, he gets into the car with his mom and grandma, and they ask if he had a good time today. He said it was alright, too loud, and asks if he can build a treehouse. They get home, he walks into his room, and turns on the TV. It stings with a sound quiet enough to wake the silence up slowly, and he finishes the level he had paused.