The house stood on the corner of Texas Avenue and Jackson Street right across from Minute Maid Park. It was built in the back lot behind Annunciation Catholic Church, shining in the sun as if it were designed by God himself. Bill got out of the car quickly, followed by a man twice his height, who was supposedly a member of the experiment group, but looked more like a bodyguard. Bill paused, taking in the glass exterior. You could see practically everything by facing the front: the couch and coffee table staring back at you, the kitchen right behind them, complete with a bar connected to the living room, a large dining table sitting to the right. There were glass stairs in the middle that led to a small loft, which also faced the main street, and a bathroom on the first floor to the right of the stairs.
Bill followed the man along as he walked inside. He was astounded by the silence. All of the noise from the outside world had been tuned out, a mute button turned on over the city. It looked pretty much the same as it did from the outside, except now he could tell that the loft was only big enough for his bed—not like he’d be having guests over anyway—with multiple blankets folded on top, and some lying next to it. There was no TV or any sort of entertainment system, something they had informed him of before signing on.
Bill had agreed to take part in a social experiment put on by the Tender Institute for Urban Research at Sequin University. He was supposed to live in a soundproof glass house for the next six months. A permit was cleared with the city to put it in such a public space. They were testing something about visual stimulation, and how the mind reacts without the ability to interact. He called his parents first; they had been slightly skeptical, but hoped for the best. They had always tried to be supportive, especially since he told them he was getting a divorce.
His friends were a little more concerned. Cheryl tried to be encouraging, saying it might be good for him to get away from his routine and clear his head. Steve was the one who took him aside to see if he was insane. “Do you really want to do this?” He didn’t have an answer. “I don’t know. But I don’t see why not.” It didn’t matter much what they thought anyway; his family lived six and a half hours away in Jackson, Mississippi, while Steve and Cheryl had moved up to Colorado last spring. He didn’t tell his coworkers, besides getting his boss’s approval due to a persuasive letter from the university’s research center. They never cared about his life before, and he didn’t expect them to care now. He doubted they would realize he was gone.
Bill didn’t think the experiment would be much different than his life now; wake up, go to work, come home, sit in front of the TV, eat dinner, drink a beer, go to bed. He was an accountant who quietly summed up figures in his own cubicle day in and day out. The only interaction he ever had was with his divorce lawyer trying to flesh out the finer details of his and Susan’s not-so-pleasant separation. Not that there were very many. She got everything, just like usual. He had dropped off the final papers last Monday. Things would be finalized by the end of the week.
Besides, Bill never thought of himself as a needy person, or very eccentric. Susan had always been the eccentric one, begging him to go out more, or to live life on the edge with her. He never understood why their normal life wasn’t enough.
“You’re all set.” The man turned to Bill and smiled, an effort meant to be reassuring, he knew, but it came off as plastic.
“Is there anything I’m supposed to do, anything else I need to know?” Bill ran through the list of everything they had told him in his head.
“All you have to do is relax. It’s like a paid six month vacation. You’ll be fine.” He slapped Bill on the back, practically knocking him over.
“Sounds good, I guess.”
“See ya on the other side.” The man left with a wink and a nod, letting the door automatically seal behind him.
It was odd; Bill couldn’t tell if he was over (or under) whelmed. Spanning the sides of the room, he noticed that even the floor of the house was made of glass: every square inch. Ants would be able to look up and see everything he did inside the house. He reminded himself it would be fine, to just act normal.
The first thing Bill did was set up some makeshift covers for the bathroom. All of its walls were glass like the rest of the house, only it stood on the side facing the back of the church. They also hadn’t provided him with a tub, just a stand-up shower with glass doors. He guessed he’d be wearing shorts.
His main issue was with the toilet, which was open to all viewers. He walked back into the living room and bent down to drag the metal coffee table into the bathroom. He hoped it would block at least one side of the toilet. Much to his dismay, he found the table sealed to the ground. He tried to push the couch; no luck. Even the bar stools and dining room chairs wouldn’t budge. He guessed they didn’t want him to destroy the place. He wasn’t sure how fragile the glass was, especially the flooring.
He walked into the kitchen and began piling through the immense row of cabinets. They were all made of glass, but not the same kind as the walls. They were made with mirrored glass, revealing his round face and freshly-shaved features. Inside were cans, cans, and more cans. He wouldn’t have to worry about food. He started grabbing the cans by the handfuls, specifically the little green peas and canned beets (he never much cared for either), and began taking them all to the bathroom.
In about half an hour, he had successfully created a border of stacked cans that ran along each side of the toilet and connected over the top. He ran out of peas and beets, so he decided to sacrifice some carrots and tomatoes. It went up as high as his waist.
Now, what was for dinner?
The first couple days hadn’t been so bad. It was quiet, but he was used to that. It had been quiet ever since Susan left. She had always lived louder than him. Or maybe because of him. He was never quite sure.
The house was comfortable; the thermostat was permanently set to 76 degrees. The bed in the loft was thin, but it didn’t hurt his back like his old box-spring back at the apartment. He couldn’t see any cameras placed around the house, which made him feel slightly less awkward. Bill also noticed that there was fresh food in the fridge each morning after he woke up. He wasn’t sure how it got there, but he didn’t complain. Maybe this was how they kept tabs on him.
Taking a break from work wasn’t bad either. There were no numbers to crunch, no calculations to correct. For once in his life, he didn’t have to think.
He could almost picture himself on a six month vacation if it weren’t for the stares. Apparently when someone starts living in a glass house in the backyard of a church right next to a baseball arena, people take notice. Bill obviously figured it might be a little uncomfortable having people be able to see him all the time, but he hadn’t planned on those people stopping what they were doing to see him at all times.
There was usually someone when he woke up, and there would inevitably be people when he went downstairs for breakfast. It slowed up a little when they went to work, but there would always be a small crowd of maybe a dozen or so back at lunch time. They would stop and stare on their way home; kids would pull their moms aside to stop and point at the weird man eating SPAM for dinner in an invisible house, and teens would crash their skateboards into the sidewalk and pick themselves up to laugh back at him.
Bill tried his best to ignore it. He’d go about his day like normal, eat his food, sit on the couch, and try not to make eye contact with anyone. Occasionally he’d mess up and quickly avert his gaze, even though he knew whoever was on the other end of that stare would keep looking until he was unavoidably out of sight.
The only time he really felt bad about it was on his first morning in the house. He got up to take a shower, hoping the steam would give him a little more privacy. In the middle of his shampoo cycle, an old woman came running from the back of the church to bang on the bathroom wall. She was yelling, but he couldn’t hear anything. He tried to explain by yelling back, but it didn’t appear that she could hear him either. She threw the Bible up against the glass, possibly trying to cast him out of their property. She backed away in a huff, going back inside the church.
That’s when he noticed a bunch of Sunday school children staring at him through the back windows, struggling to contain their shock and giggles. He forgot it was a Sunday.
Bill was bored in his glass display. He still received a few stares, but he had grown used to them, almost liked them. He’d allow himself to sneak a glance at a person here and there, making funny faces or throwing out a wink. The kids were the best audience; they’d eat it all up. Their moms were less impressed though, as they had grown used to the sight and so avoided wasting any time stopping by. That’s why he loved when it was game day. There would be crowds of people there, too many to count, and most had never seen something so strange and interesting as a man living in a glass house. He was eager to see new faces as well, and began assigning names to them in his head, something he had started doing with his regular crowd of onlookers and side-walkers by the end of the first week.
When this got dull, as it often did, Bill found himself banging pots and pans together, or humming out an old tune. Sometimes he’d get so carried away with himself, he’d bust out into a full chorus of song, belting out old albums of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, sometimes even Queen if no one was around.
He knew he must look ridiculous; if only Susan could see him now. Sometimes he could almost swear he saw her in the street, on the corner, behind the dumpster, in a store window, walking to the church, or leaving the ballpark. It would always catch him off guard, and he’d force himself to do a double take. He had been wrong so far.
After each doppelgänger sighting, he would set down the pots and retreat to his loft. Under the covers, he’d fall asleep with a wet face.
The rain was silent.
The storm clouds earlier that day had grown larger, casting a shadow over the baseball complex and threatening his little glass house. It didn’t start raining until that evening; Bill watched couples running hunched together to their cars, and mothers waiting with their kids under the awning of the park for their husbands to drive around with the car before they all dashed inside. The evening service let out familiar faces obscured by red, yellow, blue, black umbrellas. The churchgoers walked briskly down the sidewalk. This time no one stopped to look, to glance at the man behind the glass. They all knew he was safe, dry. It wasn’t long before the rain began pouring out in gushes of tiny pellets, hitting his house in bright spatters of clear paint. It almost glittered.
He had never felt more alone.
It rained for six days straight. He had started to believe wetness was all there was. Drips, spills, waves, drops of liquid sliding across his vision. The whole earth was drenched. A flood had engulfed the street and risen so high it covered the walls of the first floor. He felt like a fish swimming around in his own house. He spent most of his time in bed, trying to sleep away the pooling time that would never end. Looking at the walls made him dizzy, so he tried to only get up when he thought he would starve. The fresh food had disappeared each morning, but he still had the cans to tie him over.
He was surprised to find the sun wake him up from a grey sleep on the seventh morning. The light glared into his face, shocking his system to a state of being. He climbed down the cool glass steps to the kitchen for some breakfast. The milk had been refreshed, along with the rest of the food in the fridge. Bowl of cereal in hand, he walked over to the couch, sitting up straight so he wouldn’t spill, and took it all in. The walls were still streaked with blotchy residue stains, along with some leaves and dirt that stuck themselves there to outlive the rain. One yellow, tear-shaped leaf peeled off in the drying sun as Bill looked out on Texas Street. The trees were turning a crisp autumn gold, while the haphazard breeze shot each leaf down, across, and around the curve of the block. An ambulance zoomed past, reminding him of a silent movie. He tried to remember what it sounded like, but all he could think of was thunder. The days all felt muddled together in one big, grey, mass. He hoped it was game day.
Each person walking across the street was a glad sight. Everything seemed more vibrant than he remembered. They’ll all come back now. They had to. The weather would no longer detour them, and people were bound to wonder how the man in the glass house had held up after all this weather. Bill bet they missed him too.
But no one stopped that day. No stare, no gawks, only the occasional side or panning glance. Maybe it’s an off day. Everyone expected it to keep raining.
No one looked the next day, or the one after that, or the one after that.
He no longer avoided stares, but gave them himself. He’d always somehow manage to find himself pinned against the glass with bloodshot eyes in search of anyone who would look his way. But he never got pleasant or curious looks back, only fearful or angry ones, as if he was some sort of public menace. One lady screamed at him as she skirted her frightened kids behind her back, obviously not knowing he couldn’t hear a word she said. Most looked uncomfortable, while a few brave souls tried to give a half-hearted smile, but he had forgotten how to respond and stood there unmoved as they gave up and hurried away. He was most infuriated by the people who didn’t look at all, the ones who tried to ignore his presence altogether, as if that would make him go away. He’d stare at those people the longest, hoping for any sort of sideways glance. He always dreaded missing those. They were the closest thing to normal he received. These people didn’t seem to care. Maybe he shouldn’t either.
He even stopped using the bathroom cover-ups—his supply of cans was getting too low to cover up much of anything anyway—until some of the old ladies from the church chastised him one day outside the bathroom wall. They had boarded up the windows after his last incident a couple days after moving in. For the sake of the kids he supposed.
But he couldn’t stop. He wouldn’t stop.
He had begun to hear things, things that didn’t register as his own voice. The words to the songs he used to sing to himself had changed; when, he didn’t know. He had given up trying to be seen, and resorted to becoming inoculated with himself. He tried to remember things, always trying to remember. He was afraid the voices would change his memories too.
Susan used to tell him he was out of his mind, but he always believed she was really the crazy one. It had always been her. Now he couldn’t tell; maybe she was right.
He wanted to write down everything he could remember, so he wouldn’t lose it, but realized they hadn’t given him any paper or pens, or anything for that matter with which he might write or draw to pass the time. It was all a part of the experiment. Take away social stimulation. Take away sound. Take away any form of contact. Take away any form of entertainment that the brain might use as a coping mechanism. When we’re down to our core, just as beings, what do we do?
It was all a bunch of crap.
He frantically searched through the fridge looking for any sort of condiment. Butter, no, too thick, milk, too liquid, ah mustard. That’ll work. He grabbed a paper towel from the roll and laid it on the counter. What to write first? He opened up the mustard and began squeezing it out in messy, rounded lines.
His name seemed the most important. He continued, writing down every person he could remember until he needed more room and grabbed the whole roll of paper towels and spread them out on his six-seater dining room table.
The list went on and on, morphing into tags for the people he named on the street. Blue eyes, blondie, Karl, hippie, dog-walker, teenage mom, Liza, baseball fans #1-10, priest, church girl #12, altar boy #7, homeless man, Heather, headset, skater, marathon runner, George, suit. Every face he could remember he struggled to christen with a nickname.
Moonbeam, braces, mall-walker, Jared Leto-look alike, mailman, Santa, pothead, sorority girl, nun, thug, curly, muscle man, mid-life crisis, nosy grandma, hipster, goth, skipper, paranoid drunk.
The papers were overflowing, reaching out their square tentacles towards the living room and making their way over the couch to crawl back up and along the kitchen bar. Bill tore the last one off from the kitchen and took what was left of the roll up to the loft. He figured he’d start from the top and work his way down, leaving an unintentional trail of yellow slime dripping off the side of the stairs onto the glass flooring.
Not enough space.
Bill looked around for any open surface.
He walked over to the very front, beginning to spell out another name when it stopped midstream, turning into spurts, sprays, and sputters. Damn it.
He threw the empty mustard bottle back on the counter and dug around in the fridge for the ketchup. Turning back to the front wall, he started again. This time he wrote any word he could think of.
Deaf, divorce, papers, money, experiment, telemarketer, office, fax, calculations, taxes, strangers, stares, wife, forty-two, rain, grey, storm, sprinkle, clouds, glass, mirror, invisible. Alone.
A small crowd had gathered around the outside of his house, confused by this odd sight. Now they wanted to look. He continued, bleaching his walls with red words that slimed their way down the sides. His whole house was now one melted McDonald’s.
Bill looked around at the sloppy writing, the words of his life running together into one brightly colored mess. He wanted to throw up. He wanted to throw a chair.
Through the lines of red bleeding down the walls, he could see a woman standing outside, her auburn hair parted slightly to the side and stopping right before her shoulders. Her gaze was transfixed on him in a look of confusion and mute horror. Susan.
He remembered that all the furniture had been sealed down before he moved in, possibly in case of an event like this. He went back to the kitchen and searched through each cabinet, looking for anything that might be strong enough. He dug through cans of food, pots, and pans, before he found the blender. He threw it on the counter, breaking the plastic around it until one of the blades fell out. They hadn’t let him have real kitchen knives, only butter knives—safety purposes, he supposed.
He took the blade and walked over to the front wall. He smeared away some of the ketchup, creating a blurred windshield look as he began to carve into the glass.
H E A R M E
When he finished, he stepped back. If one shard were to come out of this house, the whole thing would come crashing down.
He threw the first punch on the letter “H” and continued, pounding one letter at a time and feeling the shudder of the glass with each beat. His hand was bloody and raw, exposing more skin after each hit. Everyone outside had started backing up. A few camera trucks pulled up with reporters running out to get a closer look at the scene, but they stopped as soon as they fell amongst the crowd. No one could take their eyes off Bill.
He paused after he punched them all, taking a breath and a slight step back. The woman hadn’t moved—she stood there now with a sad, distant look in her eyes. Pity. He gave one jarring kick in the space between the words, causing the front wall to crack. He heard the night sounds of the city open for a split second before being drowned out by the glass crashing all around him, enveloping him in the sound, the chaos, the pain. He was consumed by the time every last shard fell to the floor.
The silence overwhelmed the crowd as they stood—frozen—before an ambulance could be heard turning down the block.
Jessica Simmons is a secondary dance teacher in Fort Worth, TX. She continues to explore her creativity through writing, dance, and embroidery, among other art forms. Her work has previously been published in Miracle Monocle, Parentheses Journal, and Gravel, among others.
Artwork: Anna Dittmann, Storm