Eighty-two.”

Lina Vaduva woke up with the number thrumming in her head like a dial tone. The clock on Lina’s phone read 3:45, but silence was rare in Lewiston, even in the mornings. Somewhere, a dog was barking and the wet hiss of wheels on damp pavement announced the first of the morning commuters making their way across Androscoggin river to the city center. A toilet flushed in the apartment downstairs. Beyond these sounds, or behind them, maybe, Lina heard the number repeating. Eighty-two, eighty-two, eighty-two. Lina could hear it like the sound of her own voice in her head, incessant and perfectly clear. The dog had woken her up and continued to bark, but the phantom number pushed her fully from sleep. She rolled over in bed and muffled her ears with her pillow but neither the dog nor the number fell silent.

While God was walking down the street,

A dog was barking

When god came back, the dog was dead.

                       When Lina’s mother had first told her the prayer to silence barking dogs, Lina had snorted, “all that’s going to do is make someone call the ASPCA on you.”

The sound of the voice still echoing in her head, however, concerned Lina more than the dog. Eighty-two, it insisted, eighty-two. Fully awake, Lina knew that the voice wasn’t some fragment of a dream as she had first thought.

                       “Shut up,” she whispered to the voice,“please.”

 The voice only continued.  Lina reached for her phone, it’s solid weight in her hands and blue-tinted glow calm her. The screen was like a window, Lina could peer through it and stare at the crowd of tiny strangers who stood on the other side, arguing and laughing with one another or looking right back at her.  Eighty-two the voice muttered, sullen at being ignored. Lina struggled to divert her focus but typed into the search bar.

Hearing voices is an auditory hallucination that may or may not be associated with a mental health problem. It is the most common type of hallucination in people with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. 2. However, a large number of otherwise healthy individuals have also reported hearing voices.

Lina breathed out in relief and repeated the last sentence out loud to herself several times. Otherwise healthy. Otherwise healthy individuals might experience and recover from a short break from reality, they might be able to ignore the anomaly until it passed. Eighty-two, the voice said. Lina pretended not to hear.

 

When Lina padded down the stairs at ten after ten, the number had quieted to a soft mumble. Lina’s mother was seated at the wide kitchen table.

                       “Morning,” Lina yawned. Maria had her steepled hands pressed against her chin in morning prayer and said nothing in reply. Ignoring the number her head, Lina poured a cup of coffee and sat down across from her mother.

                       “You’re up late.”

                       “My alarm never went off,” Lina said.

                       “Then it’s a good thing that the bennet’s dog was barking it’s head off.” Maria took a sip from the cup of coffee that Lina handed to her. “Mike won’t be up for a while either.”

“Mm.”

                      Bizon,” Maria spat the insult in Romanian before pressing her lips into a bitter line, a feather of her dyed cherry colored hair bobbed in the draft.

Maria’s exasperation with Lina’s stepfather wasn’t new. Mike was a drinker, in the same way that other men his age were lawyers or mechanics or teachers. Lina looked over at the small statue of the Virgin Mary that sat on a plastic alcove over the sink, her neutral smile and raised, open hands shrugged in amiable resignation, What can you do? She seemed to say.

“I noticed that he hasn’t fixed that window in the stairway yet either. Like he said he would,” Lina said

 Maria’s mouth, already painted her favorite raisin-maroon, twitched at the corners and she sighed,“It’s ok, Lina, you know I’m perfectly happy to shame him by myself.”

Lina only shrugged, feeling the burn of her clumsy attempt to relieve her mother’s lonely indignation. The number eighty-two bounced in her mind and filled up the familiar silence that had fallen over the conversation until Lina left for work.

                       At seventeen, Lina had secured a job at the Shop n’ Save deli counter at the Lewiston Mall just three bus stops away from their triple-decker apartment on Holland Street. Lina liked the work, she liked pushing the fat mounds of meat into the slicer and watching them come out on the other side in silky, sandwich-ready heaps. She liked decorating the glass case where the pastrami, turkey and ham rested in herds under the fluorescent light. The bright-colored labels and orderly aisles made up a world that was separate from the one outside the Shop N’ Save’s sliding doors and Lina had become a part of it. Lina often thought it was something in the native familiarity she had of the deli counter that had kept her there so long.

 A small punch clock sat beside the employee table in the break room. Lina had memorized her PIN number within her first week of working at the deli counter some six years ago now. Numbers weren’t her strength, but Lina could memorize anything. Lina could recall sitting after class with Mr. Baker, trying to understand what it meant to add four and four together, desperate to leave for lunch or recess. Eventually, Lina taught herself that the two fours, who were all lines and angles came together to make the rounded and elegant shape of the number eight. Six eight five two nine. Employee Lina Vaduva clocking in for another day at the Cold-cut Colosseum, the Meat Mansion, the Pastrami Palace, that’s right folks, number six eight five two nine, coming in hot. Lina raised her thumb, the paint on the numbers had faded from the pressure of countless fingers-

Lina snatched her hand back as if she’d touched something hot. Repeated over the LED screen moronically, and at least a dozen times was the number eighty-two.

                       “Little early this morning, Lina Helina Bo-Bina,” Lina’s supervisor brushed by her, taking no notice of the haunting strand of numbers on the punch clock. Lina prodded the backspace button until they disappeared. “What’s five minutes between friends, Tristan?” She said, “Makes up for all the times I’ve been late doesn’t it?” Lina’s voice shook, but Tristan took no notice.

                       “That is not how it works. But you beat Amber at least.”

                       “She’s late every day and I never hear you say anything about it,” Lina grumbled.

                       “She’s too sensitive,” Tristan said

                       Lina snorted loud enough for Tristan to hear it from the break room, but he only smirked and lumbered out, tying the white apron around his broad stomach. Sometimes, with his pinkish complexion and shock of dyed blond hair, Lina thought that he had come to look a little like the ham hocks and turkey rolls he had spent so long slicing. His personality too, was rich and indulgent like honey ham and sometimes as hot-tempered and raspy as the cracked pepper that coated the pastrami. Maybe, Lina thought, in ten or twenty years time she too would be just like a roll of smoked turkey breast in a white apron and Dr. Scholls No-Slip work shoes.

 Eighty-two, the voice interrupted Lina’s unpleasant thoughts, this time with more authority, somehow louder Lina’s head as she took her first order of the day. Eighty two, eighty two Br-

                       “-Sorry I’m late Tristan, Cassie was puking all this morning. Hey Lina.”

Amber blustered in at quarter-past twelve and brought with her the smell of cigarettes and cotton candy hand lotion.

“Is she sick? I’m not getting sick again, Amber.” Tristan began pumping disinfectant gel into his cupped hands.

“No, she’s a kid, Tristan. Jesus. Kids always puke…”

“Six eighty-five for the roast beef,” Lina said

“Well if I get sick I know where it came from.”

“You’re paranoid.”

“Amber, can I get a quarter pound of the turkey ham, extra thin?” Lina said.

Amber pulled her rubber gloves over her large hands and walked to the slicer. Often, Lina had to remind herself that she and Amber were the same age, they’d gone to high school together. Amber stood several inches shorter than Lina, but her stocky body echoed strength and perfect competence. Lina felt that her own long, bony limbs moved through space precariously, unsynchronized with Lina’s mind.  How did Amber find the time, Lina wondered, to have a child?  For Lina, time passed in a straight and unbroken line, but somehow Amber had managed to create an entire human life in the time since leaving school. Not to mention the time it took to persuade the male half of the equation, Amber’s boyfriend Sunny, had been around on and off since the sophomore year. Lina couldn’t imagine sustaining a lover for that long. Lina thought of sex as something of a brief refreshment, like taking a drink of water, washing the glass and returning it to the cabinet.

                       “A pound of low sodium oven roasted chicken,”

                       “That’s eighty-two eighty-two please,” Lina said

                       “It’s how much?!”

Lina paused and returned her attention to the computer screen.

                       “No. No. No. My mistake, it’s four dollars, thirty-nine cents, sorry.”

                       “That’s what I thought,” The man tilted his head back.

Customers waited in line, and made their purchases. Lina sliced meat and passed package after package of cold cuts over the counter. At eight minutes to six p.m. the phone rang.

“Hello, Shop and Save Deli counter, Lina speaking, how may I help you?”

“Oh hey, Leen, it’s David, is Tristan around?”

“He’s restocking right now,” She said.

“Oh damn. Can you tell him that the plumber is coming on Tuesday at three-thirty instead of Wednesday like he said he would?”

“Yeah, lemme just write that down,” Lina said, grabbing a spare piece of wrapping parchment from beside the slicer.

“Ok, bye now.”

Lina pressed her thumbnail into the end-call button and rested the phone back on its cradle. She looked down at the paper, where she had written the message while David spoke.

Lina’s stomach dropped several feet below it’s normal resting place just above her diaphragm. She had written nothing about the plumber coming at four-thirty on Wednesday instead of Tuesday, or whatever David’s message was. Instead, in her own familiar, neat and rounded print, Lina read;

82 Broadhurst Avenue, Monmouth, Maine.

Lina never heard of or visited the address that she’d written in such firm print on the paper. For a full thirty seconds, Lina couldn’t move her eyes from it.

“Lina, who called?” Tristan lumbered out of the tiny bathroom. Lina snatched the paper and stuffed it into her pocket, and shrugged.

“Just David,” she said. “Wanted to tell you that the plumber’s coming on Tuesday instead of Wednesday.”

“Oh God damn him,’ Tristan spat. Whether he referred to David or the plumber, Lina didn’t bother to ask. Eighty two Broadhurst Avenue, the voice said, now confident, somehow excited. Tristan spent the rest of the night in a foul mood, snapping at Amber when she sent a wet handful of knives clattering to the ground. Amber had the news playing on her phone in the break-room, Lina caught snippets of stories, something something gun violence, something something, Iran, something something viral video of a boy singing in a Walmart. How had all of the feverish confusion of the outside world found its way into her own, Lina thought, as the phantom address repeated itself faster and faster in her head.

When her shift came to an end, Lina forced her face into a neutral expression, wiped the sweat away from her hairline.

“See you, Tris,” She said into the dishroom.

Tristan lumbered out, “Have a lovely night, Lina, I’m sorry for being an ass today,”

                       “Don’t  be,” Lina said, “You were a ray of sunshine.”

                       “Oh, shush.”

                       “See you Amber, tell Cassie to get better for me.”

 

Lina waited for the bus outside in the dark-blue gloom. A man slept on the bench in the bus stop shelter and Lina took care to stand sideways, keeping her eyes on both the oncoming traffic as well as the latent heap three feet away from her. His sleeves were rolled up past his wrists, which were dotted here and there by a track of flea bite sized scabs. He murmured something under his breath. From the edge of her vision, Lina saw someone making their way towards the bus shelter. Another man had joined Lina and the homeless man at the bus stop and rested like Lina against the other side of the shelter.

                       “Is that Lina Vaduva?”

Lina looked up from her phone. The man’s face had the deflated look of someone who had once been very fat and lost a great deal of weight too quickly. Purple smudges hung under his eyes and his skin had a dry, flaky texture not unlike that of the man at the bus stop. Nonetheless, something familiar lingered around that face. 

                       “Lina!” The man said again. “It’s Mr. Baker, remember me!” he said. The words of long and lost acquaintance came out of his mouth sounding somehow wrong. Demanding, rather than asking Lina’s remembrance that she couldn’t quite recover. While she knew that the man in front of her had indeed taught her third grade mathematics, his  pale and somehow foul face remained abstract in its familiarity, like a shape or a street sign. More than his face, what struck Lina as familiar was his habit of licking his lower lip and sucking it under his significant overbite. What had the class called him? Rabbit boy. Lina toyed with the word in her mind, rabbit, rabbit, rabid. Rabid seemed more fitting to Mr. Baker now, Lina thought, with his skinny limbs and the way his eyes darted from her to the sleeping man and back.

                       “Yee-es,” Lina said at last. She drew the word out slowly, hoping to make up for the sparseness of conversation that she could offer him.

                       “Well, it’s been a long time since Longley Elementary hasn’t it?” Mr. Baker said, “A very long time.” He paused, giving Lina an opportunity to respond which she didn’t take.

“I don’t blame you if you don’t remember me.” Mr. Baker said. “You look all grown up now though, don’t you?” He said, somehow accusing her of it.

“Well,” Lina said,“What can you do?”

                       Mr. Baker skated over her reply. “Such a smart kid too, those big bug eyes...”

Lina swallowed, “Are you still working at the school,” she said, her mouth had gone dry.

 

While God was walking down the street.

Lina flinched. The voice that had haunted her all day had begun to speak.

“No, I’m not working there anymore” Mr. Baker looked away from Lina for a moment. "Those days are over. For the best, I think” he said, “school board never had a clue what it was doing anyway…” He spoke more to himself than Lina, talking a cocoon around himself and trying to draw her into it with him. Lina kept perfectly still, struggling to ignore the voice and  unable to discern if her stillness was her own response, or a paralysis induced by Mr. Baker’s encircling words.

He returned his gaze to Lina, “You have kids of your own now, I assume,” He said, the softening interest on his face turned her stomach like lemon juice in a glass of milk.

While God was walking down the street.  A dog was barking

“Don’t know what would make you say that,” Lina said.

“Well, you know, parenthood is such a gift, such a miracle,” he said, “It’s so much like teaching- I wish I could’ve had the opportunity myself. I understand children, maybe it’s because I am childlike myself, I’ve always been that way, immature, maybe some would say...It’s true, I’m not perfect. No. I’m not.”

“Mm-hm,”

“Everyone makes mistakes in their lives,” Mr Baker said, the sudden urgency in his voice startled Lina, “is it too much to ask to simply set mistakes aside? To ask complete forgiveness?”

When God came back

“Sometimes, yes,” Lina said, staring at a heap of roadkill on the other side of the street.

“You’re christian, aren’t you? If you believe in God, you have to believe in forgiveness,” Mr. Baker said.

“Well, I’m not sure,” Lina said, “I think it was said that you only have to forgive seventy-seven sins in your life.”

“That is not how that parable goes!”

“Really? Maybe not.” Lina looked into Mr. Baker’s wet and pleading eyes and shrugged, “Oh well.”

The dog was dead.

 

The bright lights of the nine-oh-five bus blinded Lina and the shriek of old breaks drowned whatever Mr. Baker had said in reply. Heart pounding, Lina climbed onto the bus without another word, the bus driver took notice of him either and closed the door after Lina boarded. As his figure shrunk in the distance, Lina realized how poorly dressed the old teacher  had been for the weather, in a pair of khakis and an off-white collared shirt. The bus turned a corner and Lina saw nothing else behind her but the bruise-colored hills and the telephone wires that swooped from pole to pole.

 

On the weather station, the meteorologist had said that any day now it would snow. Lina looked around at the passengers. The driver sipped from a half-empty bottle of Mountain Dew. A young man listened to music loud enough to hear it through his white earbuds. A woman in a yellow scarf slept with her face pressed into the window that she fogged with her steady breath. Lina had seen many of them before. The bus lurched to a stop and Lina got off the bus alone.

                       Only the kitchen light was on when Lina came in. A droplet of water dripped steadily from the faucet and although Lina could still smell food, the room was empty. Lina turned her eyes to the blue draped statue of the Virgin over the sink. Mary’s face had changed since the morning. The hands that had shrugged with apathy so many hours before, were outstretched in celebration, triumph stretched the small smile on her porcelain lips as she extended a tiny glass foot to deliver the fatal stomp to the green-painted serpent underneath it. What was the word for the feeling on the face of the Virgin perched above the kitchen sink, what was the word for the dislodging, excision, and slow ascent that Lina felt just below her ribs?

 

 

Days passed in layers, unhaunted by numbers and street addresses, covering up the peculiar one until it was almost forgotten. A week later, Lina came to work to see that Amber had arrived before her and was looking down at her phone.

“Hey, Amber,” Lina said, tying her white apron around her waist, the strings were becoming threadbare and she wouldn’t wear it much longer. Lina was sick of the apron anyway, sick of the deli. Amber said nothing, but continued to stare at her phone.

                       “Ugh.” Amber said, tucking her phone into her pocket at last. “Just disgusting.” she said.

                       “What is?” Lina said, refilling the soap dispenser with a new bag of blue liquid.

                       “This article I just saw. You remember Mr. Baker? From third grade?”

Lina felt her stomach flinch.

                       “Yes?” Lina said.

                       “Yeah ok, well, get this, apparently he died. Yeah, so sad, right? But that’s not even the worst part, because when they found him the EMT’s said he’d been dead for like- a pretty long time, like he was slightly decomposed, it says. It’s like that story about the lady in New York who’d been dead in her apartment for so long that her cats started to-”

                       “-How long had he been dead?”

“-Eat her. I don’t know,” Amber shrugged, “A while, I guess. No one came to check on him. Not surprising, the guy was such a creep. You know what he got fired for from the school right?”

                       “Does it say anywhere, how long he’d been dead?” Lina asked.

                       “No, Lina. Jesus. Stop being so morbid,” Amber said.

 Lina stared at her open-mouthed.

 “Fine, here, just look at the article yourself it’s nasty, I’m glad they didn’t put any pictures in.” Amber handed Lina her phone. Lina looked down at the wall of text in her hand, she struggled to read the tiny print on the screen but a single passage leapt to Lina’s eyes from it.

                       Alexander Baker was found dead at his home at 82 Broadhurst Avenue, in Monmouth. Apparent heart-failure, first responders said it was likely that Baker had been dead for two to three weeks before his body was discovered. Baker had taught third grade at James B. Longley Elementary school before being discharged six years ago.

                       “Wow,” Lina said.

                       “Yeah, wow,” Amber said, “fucking gross, right?”

                       “Mm.”

                       “I would never want that to happen to me,” Amber said, “Being so alone like that? No one noticed he was gone for weeks? God, it’s so sad,” she said. “I always thought there was something kind of weird about him though,” Amber squinted out over the counter as if she were looking for Mr. Baker himself amongst the shoppers wandering from aisle to aisle.  “Even as a little kid, I always felt bad for you because you had to spend so much time in after school tutoring with him.”

“I couldn’t do fucking math.”

                       “I remember this one time, I came back from lunch a little early, and Mr. Baker was in his homeroom alone, and at first I thought he was on the phone, because he was just laughing. Just  laughing at nothing, and when I realized he wasn’t talking to anyone, I just tried to back out of the room, but he saw me and got really, really quiet and we just stared at each other till I ran back down the hallway. I think that was the moment I knew something wasn’t quite right with that guy.” Amber tucked her phone into her back pocket like a judge striking a gavel and turned to Lina.

                       “What,” Amber said, “Are you sad or something?”

                       Lina smiled, raised her palms and shrugged, “Why would I be?”

She shared none of Amber’s pity, disgust or even entertainment in hearing the story. There were other things to think about. New things.  Lina looked out the window. The world outside didn't seem to feel much like mourning either, because, like confetti, fat snowflakes had begun to fall, covering the dead earth and silencing the world around it.

© Anna Schaeffer