by Allie Manner
“We’ve been waiting for you for hours, Cynthia.” All the lights are off in the dusky house. White, hazy sun filters in through the blinds. Cynthia tilts her head to the side and carefully pulls her right hand behind her back as the front door swings shut. She fumbles for the light switch with her other hand, but nothing happens. They’ve cut the electricity. Cynthia frowns, wrinkles her lips.
“Fine fine fine, then,” she says. She feels like admitting defeat. “I thought you weren’t gonna just show up in my house anymore.”
Nothing. Just the silence of cut electricity and unwelcome guests. Cynthia shuffles forward, feeling for the back of the chair, swinging around and landing in it kind of gently. She’s settling in.
Hazy, hazy light. Cigarette smoke, if the committee allowed smoking, or vaping, if The New York Times hadn’t been dragging it through the mud so much lately. They might have thought about it if not for The New York Times. They’re always reading it and listening to it and subscribing to it. Rich people and rich news. Cynthia heard that NYT reached out to personally thank this HOA for its devoted readership.
“What do you have in your hand, Cynthia?” That’s Stan talking. He’s always the one talking.
Cynthia shrugs, looks away.
“Cynthia, darling. I’m just wondering.”
Cynthia slowly pulls her hand in front of her, peeling open her fingers. Smooshed little white blossoms. Lily-of-the-valley, all alone, like keys from off the body of a flute. They’re bell-shaped and barren looking without their copious greenery. She looks at the flowers, thumbing through them for a moment, and she looks up.
They’re sitting across from her, the three of them, behind the kitchen table. Just three feet away. Stan is slouched in the armchair, knees crossed, right forearm listing perpendicularly. His fingers are relaxed and curled. His liver spots are all lit up. Elizabeth is brooding, white floating hairs caught in the haze, her back up against the chair, looking off into the distance. She could never be bothered, but she’s never going to leave, and they all count on her so much. Rick is standing on the other side of Stan’s chair, square-footed, flat-shouldered, hanging jowls (like a basset hound) outlined as he looks directly at Cynthia. Gunning. Gunning for it. Cynthia hears the rest of them, eighty other ones, listening in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in the dining room and everywhere. Cindy, Rachel, Frank, Rick, Graham, Brooke, Amy. Cynthia looks at all of them, and each of them looks back at her. They are ghosty outlines in the dim light, with hearing aids, or, with the younger ones, freshly sprouted grandchildren and active boating lives. They want her bones, and her energy. It’s a cult with manicured lawns and nails, and she lives here because she wants to. She already knows all of this.
Cynthia sighs, filling her body with white noise, sagging in her chair, looking at the flowers instead of Stan. She holds them up to her eyes, wondering if they knew what they had cost her. Their curly scalloped edges. She lowers her hand again, so that the flowers rest in her palm, in her lap. They look like they floated there, or crash-landed since they were a little creased and bruised.
Stan says, “Didn’t you know?” They always did find out, with their internet forum and their casual driving and their gossipy lunch dates. “We always do find out.”
Wincing a little, she says, “Elizabeth said you were thinking about bargaining chips? Material goods, services rendered, that sort of thing?” Cynthia is trying to wiggle out of it, and who can blame her.
“Since when do we bargain?”
“Tuesday. Elizabeth told me.”
Stan looks at Elizabeth. Elizabeth shrugs. “I did tell her. We played tennis on Tuesday, and it came up.” She winks at Cynthia, who smiles. Stan shrugs a little, too, and looks back at Cynthia.
“You don’t even play the game fair, Stanny boy,” says Cynthia. That makes Stan smile, and Cynthia smiles, too. “Stanny boy, oh Stanny boy.” Rick even relaxes his shoulders a little bit.
“But, really, let’s talk about bargaining, Stanny, Ricky, Lizzie,” says Cynthia, down to business, placing her free hand squarely on her knee, and the other hand is still holding the petals. “What do you want? What can I give?”
“For you to stop.”
“Obviously. But it’s too late. That’s why you’re here. What do you want now.”
“We want an extra kidney, or you could lead the next blood drive, or there’s the basil plant you’ve managed to keep alive,” Rick says.
“Not the basil.”
“Maybe, then, all the more reason for the basil.”
Rick sighs a little, and Stan and Elizabeth swivel to look at him. He’s not relaxed anymore. Stan sits in the chair, and everyone listens to Rick.
“It’s not about material compensation,” Rick says. “Never your money, never the appliances. It’s that you promised you wouldn’t, Cynthia. There was an oath, there was initiation, there was paperwork. We have it all, and we were all there, and you were there.” There’s a murmur of ascent from the onlookers, who are all remembering when they were there, too.
Cynthia stares at the flowers. She’s thinking about that paperwork, where she signed her name, about the candles and the expensive salad. She really does like the salad, and she likes Elizabeth, who is a feminist with Marxist ideas and a healthy outlook on her own sexuality, even an open marriage, Cynthia suspects. Rick always uses his truck to pull trees out if they need to be pulled out, and gives people bread on Sundays and snow cones on the Fourth of July. Stan donates to the NAACP every month, for goodness sake, and has a husband on the city council who’s always advocating for the homeless. Cynthia will miss them all. She will miss them terribly.
“And that’s important to us,” Rick continues, gunning. “It’s all about commitment, integrity, community.” Everyone in the kitchen nods, and murmurs to each other: “Commitment, integrity, community.”
Cynthia opens her mouth and lifts the lily-of-the-valley up and eats it. It’s very bitter between her molars and on her tongue. After she swallows, she lifts her head, gazing unfocused across at them. Stan is scowling. She can see it (his face) now that her eyes have adjusted to the lack of light and the cut electricity. Elizabeth has straightened and turned to look at Cynthia now, and is dripping in subtle disgust. The eighty in the kitchen have gone quiet, no more murmuring.
Cynthia sighs, stands up, shoulders her way into the kitchen (through Steve and Diana and Phil) and braces her hands on either side of the sink. “It’s an HOA. It’s a Home Owners Association. A Humble Ovation, Alright? Why can’t you all eat kale, and just do that and nothing else? I get the community. But can’t it just be that and nothing else?”
Stan rolls his eyes.
“Besides, lily-of-the-valley has 38 cardiac glycosides. It’s just poisonous. I’m just taking care of it for you. You can have the basil, the kidney. Not the blood drive, not the summer festival. But I guess you can have the blood itself. I guess if you can get it fast enough, and if the lily-of-the-valley doesn’t ruin it. I have no idea if it will. I know nothing about that sort of thing.”
Stan shoots her in the head, and she falls away from the sink, the HOA members (who are sighing) in the kitchen spreading away from her, like oil and vinegar, like the Red Sea and Moses—haven’t you heard it all before? Cynthia is the dry land, Pharaoh shrieking after her like pariah he is.
Twenty minutes earlier.
“If I only had a brain…” swish behead the many-headed lily-of-the-valley! “Give me liberty and give me death, sing me to sleep with your last breath…” stomp well equipped to be beheading, decapitating, thanks man, I like your boots, too.
Cynthia grins, breathing heavy, dancing a little bit. The sky is fading but still glowing, and stretching very, very long over the street and the grass.
“I am seeeeking asylum, after all.” Her eyes are hot and bright, and tiny white bell-shaped blossoms are strewn along the path behind her. She feels free in the wake. What about the HOA? The HOA will charge up to TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS just if you track mud into the neighborhood. The Home Owners Association. There’s a sign posted all about it, the aggressive, official kind that looks like speed limit signs and stop signs. What about the flowers, though? Do the flowers count. Does anything count, at this point? She stops, and turns around, and stares at the lily-of-the-valley heads. White on gray, casting shadows, very tiny. She goes back and crouches down, her knees up around her jaw, and picks up the blossoms with her left fingertips, putting them inside her right palm. She straightens, her knees aching and flooding (with blood?). It’s very tingly, very white noise. “I will save you from the HOA! I promise I will.” They hear her, she knows.
She, Cynthia, turns around again, balancing blossoms in her right hand, continues on her way home, but silently now. Eyes still hot. She turns right at the driveway, and, one foot on the grass, one foot on the sidewalk, walks up to the front door. Opens the door.