Author: Tyler James Russell
We shook her and asked if she was okay but she wouldn’t budge. Even when Davey tugged on her jacket and said Mommy she held her position on the sidewalk like it was something that might be taken from her. She clutched her briefcase, a paper bag of groceries.
911 was already overloaded. Marissa pressed her face to the window while Davey held his belly. I hollered. The operator, thinking it was meant for him, waited for me to speak and I waited for him to speak and in the end, neither of us did.
Outside, Trish still hadn’t moved. I apologized to the kids, held them, the kind of patient that only comes after losing your temper. It was almost dark. We pulled back the curtains and worried, made faces, but she was impenetrable. What are you supposed to do? In the end I went out barefoot, plucked a few groceries from her hands, but even when I said her name, snapped in her face, it was like only her body was there.
For the rest of the night I kept the curtains drawn, and glued myself to speculations. Apparently, this was going on everywhere, all kinds of people. A lot of women, but not only. A stripped-down newscast showed strings of people along highways—Black, Hispanic, you name it, all frozen in place. Corners crowded with question marks. A transgender woman wore a shirt that said, “Until.”
“Experts say this is voluntary,” a newscaster said. It begged the question, expert in what? “That they all chose it, together, at a designated time.”
Another anchor, obviously crying, said, “Nobody knows. What is happening to these people, and will it happen to us too?” After the commercial, she was gone.
I didn’t do this. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t my fault.
In the morning she was still there, still frozen. For days they didn’t move, didn’t eat. Some fainted, others shrugged off paramedics urging them onto gurneys. Counter-actors—spurned spouses, I imagined, involuntarily now-single parents—screamed in their faces. The kids branched around her like little rivers on our way to the restaurant where the waitstaff wear animal costumes, but even there three employees just stood in the way.
“Ignore them,” a manager sighed.
What gave them the right to just stop in the middle of their lives? Don’t we all have problems?
Then, on the news that night, an otherwise normal-looking man was handcuffed and gentled into a police car. He’d been arrested prowling the streets of Des Moines with a rifle. As they zoomed in on his face he showed a palm and two fingers, mouthing, “Beat that.”
I turned my phone off. I sat for a long time in the dark.
There was one else on the entire street. By now the groceries had gone bad in her hands.
I imagined a sort of abstract trauma-cloud in the air and thought of what it would be like to take that into your body, to own it, voluntarily or not. I didn’t get it though, not really.
“Please,” I whispered to Trish, “I just want to listen.”
But I also wanted her to hit me, to snap awake and take a dented soup can to my temple. I wanted to be emptied at her feet, bloodied and begging, a reckoning sprouting into the air like breathable atomic dust.
But she didn’t, of course. She just stood there, frozen, waiting.