Sarah Harris Wallman

Her Most Adult Face

Enjoy this excerpt from Future Perfect Tense by Sarah Harris Wallman (pictured).

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On New Year’s Eve, the Roses threw a party. Patsy’s social efforts had borne fruit: at least forty people would be in attendance, sipping their ginger ale, nibbling their mushroom pinwheels, admiring the Japanese screen that cut off the view of the laundry room. There would be champagne, though it was unclear whether the correct amount had been purchased, given that a number of the guests were church friends whose drinking habits were uncertain.

Children were not invited, and Brenda’s involvement was limited to a quick parade in her new nightgown, aloft in her father’s arms like another platter of cubed cheese. Despite his warm smile, when she reached to touch a stranger’s shoulder he swiveled to prevent the contact.

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As happened so often when she put her head on her father’s shoulder, Brenda felt the day his heart, prickly with accumulations, would stop moving his blood.

The atmosphere was surprisingly merry: the church crowd had decided to drink after all. This being the last night of the year, they were welcome to sully it; a fresh set of days was on its way. From her darkened bedroom, Brenda could hear laughter that was more hearty and unrestrained than the usual chortling of adults. Possibility crackled in the air. She got out of bed and crossed the hall to the guest bedroom where the coats were stacked on the bed. A smell of snow-flecked wool and other people’s homes rose from the pile as she dove in and pulled sleeve after sleeve from the mass, squeezing them in her fists and closing her eyes to better receive the signal. By now she had seen the still-uninvented internet, the way people would fall into it, filling their heads with conspiracy theories and personable cats and near-motionless shopping sprees. Everyone’s future flowed into it like water into a cave.

Then: something different. Gripping a damp wool elbow, she was struck with a vision as stark and unyielding as a cement wall. Power surged through her fingertips, enough to nearly short-circuit her heart, but after the initial jolt, the current was invigorating. Someone at her parents’ party was going to do a thing so large it did not fit in Brenda’s vision.

Sleep was now beyond consideration; Brenda lay on her belly on the landing, peering through the balusters at the head tops circulating below. A tray of canapés went by, their cross-sectioned olives staring up at her like flattened eyeballs. Two men who likely did not know how bald they were when viewed from above delivered the decorative crackers into their heads and nodded approval. Patsy lifted her nose in pride and glided off to present her tray to still more glamorous guests.

Until recently, Brenda had assumed that all people received their own kinds of signals. Otherwise, how did her mother know when to pull chicken from the frying pan? How did her father know when the batter would bunt or when he would be intentionally walked? How else did the children in her first grade class know the words to the pledge of allegiance, when Brenda always just put a hand on the center of her chest and whispered pledge pledge pledge? As she grew older, she began to realize that these signals were more uniform than she had first suspected. At times, she was the only one receiving a different set of imperatives. Other children knew whose turn it was to push the merry-go-round and who was supposed to be invited to birthday parties. What she knew was that someone downstairs was a Great Man. A man whose future was more imposing than any she’d ever glimpsed. The dog-and-pony show with the nightgown had been her parents’ way of drawing a clear line between those who would stay awake and she who would not, but that would have to be disregarded. Her mother obeyed whatever it was in white bread that told her to trim its crusts. Brenda had to seek out what she had felt in that coat. She lowered herself from stair to stair as if searching out a new seat.

The crucial thing was to avoid her parents, the only adults who knew for certain that she did not belong in the room, the only ones with the power to speak harshly or spank. At first she considered shuffling, rubbing her eyes, claiming to have had a bad dream, but realized this would result in a speedy delivery to her parents’ arms. Confidence was the strategy. She donned her most adult face, that is to say, the one that brooked no objection, that revealed no desire. Adults did not stare cravenly at candy store windows.

And so Brenda began to move through the party methodically placing her hands on people’s backsides. Most people carried their future especially strongly there. A few people started and whirled around to see who had done it, and at these she gave a stare so impassive that they were the ones to pardon themselves. In this manner she learned that Mrs. Coakley would one day win a medium-sized lottery pay-off, spend it all on a horse named Ginger Beast, and end up selling him when she could no longer pay the veterinary bills. She would buy a lot more lottery tickets.

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Future Perfect Tense by Sarah Harris Wallman
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