"The Bliss of Oblivion" is the second place winner in the Spring 2023 Quarterly Short Story Competition.
The sunlight broke through the gently swaying foliage of the trees above, sparkling like gems and showering the child with its faint glow. The light and shadows created a warm pattern on her skin, the abstract rendition of golden flowers blossoming. The summer breeze blew through her chestnut hair and on her face. She sat on the rope swing and spun. The dirt beneath her feet became packed down, but she kept turning, ever turning, until the two pieces of rope suspending the swing above the ground were tightly wound together.
The stained little sneakers lifted up off the ground, and the once serene landscape became a raging cyclone. The sunlight scattered like dust across the yard became a blur, dashes of color racing past. She seemed to be spinning so fast that time slowed down.
Through her eyes, this was the best feeling in the world.
To Susie, this was flying.
. . .
A very unchanging audience always awaited Susie in her bedroom, to observe and be entertained by her antics. No matter how absurd the performance, from something as tame as a cooking show for dolls, to something as peculiar as a trip to owl inhabited Neptune, their faces remained poised in cheerful admiration. As little feedback as stuffed animals gave, they were good listeners.
Her parents, on the other hand, seemed too occupied with their own affairs to notice. Frequent arguments often resulted in long shouting matches and spending the night in separate bedrooms. The tense silence the following morning seemed to swallow up the house in its black cloud. Everyone who visited felt the chilled atmosphere. Everyone who lived there could feel it too. Everyone but Susie.
The purity of a child’s mind is a wonderful thing, like a pristine oasis secluded from and unpolluted by the world. This naivety was nurtured by the fake smiles, the many gifts and outings given by the five year old’s parents, all to distract from what was said behind closed doors. This innocence is cherished by adults who wish they could go back to the ‘good old days’ of never knowing when things went wrong; yet once the first drop of negativity spreads, it cannot be filtered out.
The dark cloud hanging over the McGinnis home could only be escaped outside. Susie would always decide that if her parents were too busy to spend time with her at that moment, maybe they would be free by the time she was done playing in the backyard.
Her adventure would begin by preparing her things: a magnifying glass, a jar for catching bugs, a book about forest animals, and a lollipop she stashed away from a particularly delicious argument cover-up. She would stuff these various necessities into her small green backpack, pull on her rain boots, and finish the look with a hat her grandmother knitted for her. Then, the pint sized explorer set off into the rough terrain.
Contrary to the previously trekked back garden, Susie’s imagination was an undiscovered, wild place which was always brimming with creativity and ideas. Every leaf and rock and mushroom she saw was reborn as something new and exciting. Swords and fairy wands were found scattered on the lawn, magical fruit that turned people into rabbits was harvested off of the trees, and dinosaur bones were dug up from the ground.
After all the excitement had calmed down, Susie would go back inside the house, and she would always find her mother in the kitchen, hovering over the stove cooking dinner before her husband got home from work.
“Hi sweetheart! How was your adventure today?” her mother’s voice was cheerful, but most people could tell her eyes looked drained and lifeless.
“Good, I played chef and made soup for the squirrel family,” Susie answered, preoccupied with taking her boots off.
“Well I bet they loved it,” Mrs. McGinnis said with a smile. “Do you want to help make dinner for our family?”
Susie answered with an enthusiastic nod of her head.
After a few minutes of being a sous chef, Susie heard Mr. McGinnis arrive home from work. She raced down the hallway to see him, hugging tightly to his leg.
“Hey! How’s my girl?” he asked, hanging up his jacket and walking towards the kitchen, despite the small child weighing down his stride.
“Good! I helped cook,” she said pointing to her mother stirring a pot on the stove.
He smiled. “It smells delicious in here.”
“Well, we’ll just have to see how it tastes,” replied his wife.
They looked at each other. Then at Susie, who was watching them with keen eyes. After a moment of hesitation, her father planted an awkward kiss on his wife’s cheek. To Susie, it looked completely genuine.
“I’ll go set the table,” he announced, abruptly changing the subject.
Dinner went off without a hitch. Susie’s parents focused on how her day went, exchanging as little conversation with each other as possible. Susie was puzzled, yet pleased, at the new attention to her games. Although she couldn’t see it, her parent’s fake smiles had become their whole personality.
. . .
Deep below her oblivious bliss lay a slight confusion. She never quite knew the reason she got so many new toys, or why she was so often shipped off to her grandmother’s house. Yet she didn’t really care. The moment of puzzled contemplation would vanish in an instant, as soon as her attention was captured by her gift.
Her favorite new gift of the week was a pair of binoculars with a pattern of tiny pink and purple flowers dusted across it. As a before-kindergarten celebration, her grandmother was taking her to the park. Susie believed that this day was going to be perfect.
The world seemed so much more fascinating through the lenses of her binoculars. Every detail of the flora and fauna around her could be viewed at a level she couldn’t see normally. It was like a glimpse into something magical.
Susie sat on the swings and people-watched. It was an entertaining pastime. She was currently observing an old lady sitting on a bench with a small white dog on her lap. Then she would switch her focus to a squirrel that the dog was watching intently. Inside her head she hoped the dog would chase it, but apparently the dog was old and no fun. Her imagination was interrupted by her grandmother.
“Susie! Come over here,” she called out.
“Coming!” Susie hopped off the swing and ran to the bench where her grandmother, book in hand, was sitting.
“Are you ready to go to Elle’s?” she asked. Elle’s was a local candy shop owned by a family friend. Susie had gone there with her grandma since she was a baby.
A very excited nod was all it took for Susie and her grandmother to be in the car and driving. A few minutes later, they arrived, and stepped into the little shop, the bell above the door ringing as they went in.
“Oh hello! It’s been a while since I saw you two!” said a welcoming and cheerful old woman.
“Eleanor, it’s good to see you,” Susie’s grandmother answered warmly.
“Hi Elle,” said Susie.
“Hello Susie! So-” she said clapping her hands together, “What can I get you today?”
“What do you think, does a bag of gummy worms and two chocolate bars sound good?” her grandmother asked.
“Yes, please,” Susie answered.
While Elle got their order together, Susie was occupied by gazing at the colorful wall of confections. The shop felt warm and cozy; the rainbow shades catching her eyes and the smell of sugar reaching her nose made her feel at home.
After getting their candy, Susie and her grandmother drove back to the McGinnis residence.
“Are you excited to start kindergarten next week?” her grandmother asked as she drove.
“Yeah!” she answered, swinging her legs in her car seat, feeling the effects of a sugar high.
Her grandmother watched her through the rearview mirror and smiled. “Oh! It looks like you’re home,” she said, pulling up to Susie’s house. “Let me help you with your stuff.”
Susie’s house did not feel like Elle’s shop. Her home had a chill in the air, as it always did. Yet today, the chill felt more like a stinging icy wind. This time, as she stepped inside with her arms full, Susie felt it too. She didn’t see her parents. The house felt gloomy and empty.
“I’m sure they’re around here somewhere,” her grandmother remarked.
Susie put her things down on the floor and scoured around for her parents. They weren’t in the kitchen. Or the living room. Or the office. Her smile and eagerness to see them began to fade into worry as she found each room empty.
She walked upstairs. As she was about to check her bedroom, she heard voices coming from her parents room, behind a partially closed door.
It wasn’t the sweet, calm voices she had become so accustomed to. They were sharp. Angry. Loud.
Susie cautiously stepped towards the gap in the door and peeked through.
They were on opposite sides of the room, with her father sitting on the side of the bed with his head in his hands, and her mother standing there staring. Their expressions were hurt and irritated. Her mother looked like she had cried earlier; her eyes were still teary.
The moment of silence ended and the argument started up again. Their gestures were aggressive as was their tone. But Susie couldn’t focus on what they were saying. She was too stunned. She had never seen them yell, let alone argue.
As she watched silently through the crack in the door, she felt like she was watching strangers.
She felt frightened by the very people that raised her.
Suddenly, her mother noticed her standing outside the room.
“Derek…” she pointed at the doorway, making her husband stop mid-sentence and glance in Susie’s direction. They looked at each other. Then, at what was like a flip of a switch, their attitudes changed completely.
Racing to her side, they wore their best faux smiles and put on their best act yet.
“Hi sweetie! How was grandma’s?”
“Did you see anything cool at the park?”
“Did you eat?”
“Do you want a snack?”
“Which candy did you get at Elle’s?
They rattled off question after question, trying to strike up a conversation. But Susie just stood there. Frozen. She felt the same way as when she was introduced to her grandmother’s friends, the ones that fussed over her and seemed to have connections with her that she didn’t recall; timid, uncomfortable, and distracted. She had seen something she wasn’t supposed to, the behind-the-scenes of an elaborate play, and no cover-up in the world could undo that.
“I should’ve texted when we got back, I didn’t realize it was a bad time,” her grandmother apologized.
“No, it’s not your fault,” Mrs. McGinnis reassured, “You told us what time you were going to drop her off. We just… lost track of time,” she said with a smile.
Her parent’s disguising masks were now as clear as glass.
A drop of black oil spread slick over the oasis, eclipsing the crystal waters in its murky shadow.
. . .
The rest of that week was spent trying to bury the unpleasant event from Saturday. The
McGinnis’s took Susie to the aquarium, bought her a new dollhouse, and fulfilled her every wish.
Yet, the happiness was gone. Every time she opened a present or was taken to a new destination, the giddy anticipation and the pleasure and the excitement were gone.
Her parents weren’t doing this as a voluntary act of affection. She knew what this was really for: so they could sweep it under the rug. If she snitched, their perfect family reputation that they had built up and that she had believed in for so long would crumble before everyone.
It was like the veil had been lifted. She could see every forced embrace, every annoyed glance; she could feel the chilled atmosphere. It was all out in the open now.
The following week marked the start of Susie’s education. The long-awaited first day of kindergarten had arrived.
Her enthusiasm for school had been diminished too. All month long she had spent awaiting this day, preparing for it, dreaming of it. But now she didn’t care; it was just a way to get out of the house.
“I want to get a picture of you before you leave,” her grandmother said, “Stand in front of the house.”
Dutifully, Susie went to the spot her grandma gestured towards. Her mother and grandmother lifted up their cameras. “Ok! Smile,” her mother requested.
With her back against the siding of her house, and her lunchbox in hand, Susie put on her best fake smile.
She had learned from the best.