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The World of Yarn
By Tim Steele
Sarah watched the number 17 bus go by her window every night sometime between 11:14 and 11:19 p.m. Once, it had been unusually late, and she had sat in her chair stiff with anticipation, wondering if this anomaly would be accompanied by another, and the hope that kept her coming back to the window would finally be realized. But as the bus had crept by at 11:27, her heart had sunk the same way it always did. The bus had been empty, as it always was. Sarah had gotten to the bottom of the situation several weeks ago, riding the bus home from the store for investigational purposes. She had discovered that the bus made its last stop right before passing her street and beginning its journey all over again, delivering different people with different lives to the same stops and the same places, a process at once repetitive and always new. As a child, Sarah had dreamed of seeing fairies and goblins and elegantly dressed rabbits lurking outside her window; now she dreamed of seeing someone riding the bus as it passed her street. She thought this was pretty reasonable in comparison. The bus being empty was one of society’s silent laws, an unchanging fact that wasn’t worth the universe’s attention. Sarah knew that for a seat to be filled one night would mean that anything was possible, the walls and boundaries and limits of the world all crashing down in one small but glorious upsetting of the order.
The World of Yarn was painted in sloppy blue letters above the door to the yarn shop Sarah had taken over for her aunt. An average of nine customers a day entered the store, at least four of which would wander in aimlessly, looping around the small corners of the space and taking it all in, as if visiting some sort of yarn museum. Sarah watched these people from the corner of her eye, recognizing the exact moment when it registered in their heads: Oh, it really is just yarn. Perhaps they had expected The World of Yarn title to only speak for a small section of the interior, with most of the store dedicated to the selling of a much more exciting item. Some of these people would proceed to feign slight interest in a particular strand or two before walking out of the shop with deliberate steps, maybe giving her a quick smile as they went or stooping down to watch her aunt’s goldfish for a moment, identifying with the uncertainty of every movement it made. Sarah liked these people. She understood them. She wanted to call after them and tell them about her understanding. She wanted to let them know how much she appreciated their pretending. In some small way it meant they were thinking about her and her feelings. That was nice of them. She wanted to suggest having a party to celebrate their shared social anxiety. They would maybe be funny and suggest a knitting party. Sarah would then disclose that she didn’t actually know how to knit, and they would laugh and laugh and laugh.
At the coffee shop next door, Sarah gave a different name every time she was asked. Julia. Georgia. Yolana. Francine. Pamela (pronounced Paw-ma-luh). Pamela (pronounced Pamela). Milly. Amy. Amelia. Amelia Earhart Jr. Summer. Autumn. April. Mrs. January June. Determined not to use the same one twice, she would return to The World of Yarn and write down what she had said that day in the name journal she kept under the counter. In addition to keeping the records of her daily guises, the journal contained all the interesting names that Sarah heard floating by in her general vicinity. These went in a different section, of course, to avoid confusion. When her imagination disappointed her, Sarah would flip the journal to the overheard names column, pick one, and tell it to the tattooed barista, a man whose ever-present nametag never allowed him to be anyone but Luke. Before Luke, the head barista had been a man named Gene whose irritation seemed to grow greater and greater every time Sarah ordered, his skeptical eyes half-rolling at the sound of each identity she took on. But Luke smiled at her when she came in, and called out her names with accents that gave life to their unique sounds. Sarah liked to imagine that she was the most interesting part of his morning. Maybe even his day.
It was a busy Friday with people talking on cell phones and gesturing to friends and laughing with lots of teeth when Sarah approached the coffee shop counter and waited for Luke to come over. She had nestled a yellow flower in her red hair that morning and had studied her pale face in the mirror just long enough to feel disgustingly vain. Luke announced the completion of Monica’s iced vanilla latte, then came over to Sarah with rolled up sleeves. Somehow the black vines inked across his right arm always seemed to be twisting in a different direction. He scratched his eyebrow and looked at her with a hesitant expression, as if he had something very important to ask. Then he said, “Can I make it up today?”
Sarah nodded eagerly. Luke uncapped a sharpie and scribbled on the cup, then turned it around for her to see. Sarah’s fingers curled around the weight in her pocket and she said, “I like it.”
A minute later, Luke grinned behind the counter and declared Lady Yarnball’s mocha ready for pick-up. Sarah did not have to question whether or not this was the most exciting part of her day.
Sarah’s inability to put a second item in her left pocket wasn’t any big conundrum. She wasn’t a frequent pocket-carrier of all that much. But every now and then the white ball of yarn that she was never without got in the way of her pocket-stuffing convenience. It had been given to her by her Aunt Esther, right before she was committed. Somehow she had seemed to be more present than ever as she had put it into Sarah’s hands and said, “You’ll know when to unspool it.”
Even though it was likely nothing at all, Sarah liked the idea of carrying mystery around in her pocket. Most people rarely encountered mystery and when they did it was something intangible, something they could not stuff in their coats. At night Sarah kept the yarn ball on her bedside table in case she woke up and suddenly knew that it was time, perhaps through some sort of vision in her dreams. She was convinced this was how it would happen, because dream logic made more sense when applying meaning to an act like unrolling a ball of yarn. Her aunt would show up suddenly, perhaps floating in the air or halfway underground, and she would say something like, “Unspool that bitch.”
And it would somehow make perfect sense for her aunt to speak this way because it was a dream and nothing could seem irregular while inside it. Sarah would wake up and grab the yarn and let it roll out wildly, running outside with it and jumping for joy while holding the string high in the air, letting everyone see the splendor of her enlightenment.
She lived in the apartment on top of The World of Yarn, a small and quiet space still full of her aunt’s furniture. Streams of yarn hung across the low ceiling, red and blue and yellow and green. Sarah had left them up after moving in even though it was supposedly how everything had started. Her mother had told the story several times, and Sarah didn’t blame her. Walking in on a sister hanging up yarn from one end of the room to the other and screaming that she had stretched it around the entire world probably beat the majority of anecdotes out there. Sometimes Sarah would close her eyes and put her hand out and walk forward until she felt the soft and affectionate texture of the yarn against her fingers. She would guess the color and location. Yellow. Near the middle of the living room. By her aunt’s logic she would have been somewhere in Africa, probably feeding giraffes or riding elephants or signing up for safaris and then blowing them off to go explore someplace by herself. Sarah would often pause on these adventures and listen to her aunt’s old clock, ticking out of rhythm just as it had for who knows how long. Every so often time would speed up and the bright red second hand would go whirling around the painted yellow numbers. Sarah would move twice as fast when this happened, scrubbing dishes madly or hurling laundry into the washer or racing her eyes across the pages of her book. On other occasions the clock would stop for an uncomfortable amount of time and she would hold her breath and stare at it, silently begging it to let her life go on. At the moment it was moving slow then fast, fast then slow, slow then slower, fast then faster. Sarah lied down on the couch and balanced a pillow on her nose and listened to the random ticking. In her head she pictured the clock alone in a black void of nothing, the only thing in the universe along with herself. She wasn’t sure where she was lying anymore, only that her existence was being measured in enthusiastically inconsistent seconds, all of them unique and different than the last by a fraction or sub-fraction or sub-sub-fraction of time.
Fridays meant working as the receptionist at Dr. Penelope Seedpark’s endodontic practice, making appointments and taking insurance cards and looking through old magazines from the waiting area to see if she could spot any noteworthy names. Sarah had been told that Dr. Seedpark was renowned as one of the best endodontists in the country, which was why patients put up with the awkward difficulties caused by her phobias. She had explained it to Sarah with wide eyes, describing her loathing of the human mouth as an intense and constant one. Consequentially, Dr. Seedpark could never actually examine a patient’s teeth in person, instead requiring a hygienist to film the inside of each patient’s mouth, zooming in with a high quality camera and slowly moving it through the depths of teeth and gums. Dr. Seedpark would then connect the camera to her computer and watch the video, a water bottle and waste basket always by her side. For cavities or root canals or any kind of operation, Dr. Seedpark would take out an extra-long cord from her desk and have a hygienist live-record the patient’s mouth as the on-site dentist for the week performed the task. The dentist would wear a headset and Dr. Seedpark would direct their every move, answering any questions along the way. Sarah had once asked Dr. Seedpark about the difference of seeing a mouth on the computer, and she had said, “Nothing can describe how real life can be.”
The statement had made Sarah feel sad and afraid and alone. It still haunted her a bit whenever she saw the long, thin, rabbit-like face of Penelope Seedpark.
Sarah was rummaging through a dated copy of Mouth Circus magazine and turning the yarn ball over and over in her pocket when the door clinked shut and she looked up to find Luke the barista approaching the desk. He looked at the opened magazine and highlighter in her hand and said, “What are you doing?”
“Looking for names.”
“Can I help?”
“It takes diligence.”
“I can try.”
Sarah nodded, then leaned in and whispered, “Do you need a sharpie?”
When Luke’s name was called he got up and left an opened copy of Mouthsketeer on Sarah’s desk, pushing it towards her as he went. After he had disappeared from the front room, Sarah reached out and grabbed the magazine and examined it carefully. At the bottom of an advertisement for new mini gum massagers there was a name circled sloppily over and over. Zellencia J. Mussman. One of the wackiest names Sarah had ever seen. She quickly took the name journal out of her bag and scribbled it down in the magazine finds column, placing it at the top next to all of her most prized discoveries, including Jackson Strange and Peach Mayfare and Richard Cornpowder. She closed the journal and returned it to her bag. In the back she could hear Dr. Seedpark talking to Luke about his root canal.
“….And I’ll be watching the whole thing on my computer, but there will be a substantially thick wall between me and the inside of your mouth.”
“Before we start, I’ll need you to brush your teeth no fewer than five times.”
The clock above the reception desk did not move in a random fashion, and the hour and 53 minutes it took for Dr. Seedpark to orchestrate Luke’s root canal went by in an excruciatingly consistent manner. Sarah listened to the sound of Dr. Seedpark’s door opening. Her feet moving quickly across the brown carpet towards the back. Her voice-full of relief-telling Luke that it was over, done, successful. Luke’s body emerging from the examination chair, his footsteps scooting back to the reception desk, growing louder and louder and louder. Then still.
“What’s your real name?”
His voice was slightly numb from the procedure. Sarah looked up at him and found that she was unable to speak. In absence of verbal response, she smiled and held up the magazine he had given her, then made a thumbs-up and nodded. He smiled back and made a single wave of his hand, then spent a few seconds trying to push open the door before pulling it back and exiting. Sarah fidgeted in her seat and looked around, hoping to find something he had left behind that she could heroically rush after him with, holding it out and saying, here. I’ll give you this, now you can give me everything that you are in my mind. We can go over the details later and I can put them into audiobook format for you and you can put your headphones on and go to sleep with it playing, engraining it all into your personality. Every strange habit, every character flaw, every hidden layer that I will only discover after two or three months of being together. But Luke had left nothing. Sarah’s eyes returned to the desk as she listened to the steady ticking of the clock hanging over her, each second more devastating than the last.
The last time Sarah had seen her aunt before she was committed was when she had taken her to the doctor after her aunt had crashed her car into a telephone pole. It wasn’t about the car crash; her aunt had been perfectly fine. But she had a standing appointment with Dr. Kline on the last Tuesday of every month despite her excellent physical health, and after the crash she needed transportation. She seemed to have grown old prematurely, and at this point was wrinkled and crinkled and very, very quiet. If spoken to she would nod and respond only if absolutely necessary, saying the minimum amount of words or utterances required. Sarah had stood in the corner and watched her aunt fidget on the bed sheet as Dr. Kline came through the door and thunked it shut behind him.
“I have something to give you.”
This was when Dr. Kline took out a piece of computer paper with BILL OF CLEAN HEALTH written on it and grinned as if it was the cleverest thing in the world. And her aunt had looked up with an expression completely void of amusement and said, “Hmm?”
“You’re very healthy.”
“Do you still want to meet again next month?”
“Are you sure? It’s not at all necessary.”
Sarah thought she had seen a certain disappointment in her aunt’s eyes as they walked out of Dr. Kline’s office and past the sullen receptionist, busy writing out clean bills of health and placing them in a neat stack on the desk. Sarah had held her aunt’s hand and said, “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Do you need me to clean his bowl again?”
“When should I do that?”
“I know Earnest would be glad you’re okay too.”
On the way back, her aunt had suddenly asked her to pull over to the side of the road. When this was done she had leaned over and said in a cautious whisper, “I need to tell you something. I need someone to know.”
“He’s absorbed half my soul.”
“Can goldfish do that?”
After a minute or so of silence Sarah had pulled out and driven a few more blocks and dropped her aunt off at The World of Yarn. Her aunt had gotten out of the passenger seat and closed the door, then stooped down and extended her arm through the window, opening her hand to reveal a white ball of mystery.
On Monday, Sarah used Zellencia J. Mussman. Amidst the buzzing and hissing and steaming of the coffee machines, Luke called the name out louder than ever before, eliciting amused glances from the other patrons. Sarah turned and bowed and collected her coffee, feeling the theatrical personality of Zellencia take hold of her. It wasn’t until she returned to The World of Yarn that she noticed the message, written in a spiral staircase manner around the cup so that she had to twist it in order to read:
Zellencia, would you like to have coffee that I didn’t make? 247-4379
Sarah’s pocket suddenly felt heavier. It was disappointing, this feeling of discomfort upon receiving exactly what she wanted. The inconsequential nature of her interactions with Luke had vanished in an instant, and she realized that this is what she would miss. The smallest bit of eye contact or verbal exchange or widening of the lips would now matter in a way she felt completely unprepared for. She pictured Dr. Seedpark sitting in her office, leaned back with one eye open, grimacing at the sight on her computer screen. Sarah suddenly felt a fresh and terrible understanding of the endodontist, bearing down on her like pounds and pounds of multicolored yarn.
The plan came to her upon hearing the simultaneous sounds of an afternoon bus going by outside and the blunking and plunking of Earnest’s tank in the corner. Sarah smiled. Of course. Even if it would only count as half of a person, who better than her aunt Esther to be that half? She ran upstairs, leaving the shop unattended, and took a clear bottle out of the kitchen cupboard. Returning to The World of Yarn, Sarah filled the bottle with water from Earnest’s bowl, then scooped him out with a fish net and dropped him gently inside. She then screwed the lid on and went to her computer to recheck the 17 bus schedule. Its second to last stop was at Raymond Street, nine blocks away from her apartment. The late bus would arrive there at approximately 11:01. Realizing that there were seven hours to go before she could put her plan into motion, Sarah dumped Earnest back in his bowl, apologizing and whispering to him that it had only been a practice run. There was nothing to do now but to wait.
Around 10:30 Sarah took a deep breath and redid everything, filling the bottle and transferring Earnest and screwing on the lid. Growing heavier with every step, the yarn ball in her pocket was burdensome as she walked down the amber-lit sidewalks, the streetlamps buzzing and humming in the hush of the night. Earnest whirled around the small circumference of the bottle, protesting whatever madness it was that had somehow made his world even smaller. Sarah arrived at the bus stop at 10:57, sitting down alone on the little black bench with her hand clasped tightly around the temporary fish tank. She knew it wasn’t the quiet and empty streets that made her grow sad then, because quiet emptiness did not boast anything to feel detached from. It did not emphasize her distance the same way a busy coffee shop did, the same way her imagination did when it put her into the roles of people with names more interesting than her own, people with places to go and friends to meet and things to see again because they had already seen them once. The bus interrupted her thickening melancholy as it pulled to the curb and its doors opened with a sigh. Sarah put Earnest in her bag and reaching into the yarnless right pocket of her coat for quarters, clinking them into the coin collector and feeling the eyes of the driver as they watched her nervous hands. Before looking up she imagined seeing the rows of seats filled with people holding wool and needles; the spontaneous late night trip of a knitting club to The World of Yarn. Sarah would sit down and they would teach her how to knit and she would tell them the story of her aunt’s white yarn ball, all of them examining it with wide eyes as if it was some sort of ancient relic. At the last stop the knitters would depart and make their way to The World of Yarn with excited steps, like pilgrims on their way to the holy land. Amidst all the commotion the driver wouldn’t even notice Sarah, and she would be the first person on the planet to ride the 17 down Cremeren Street. But there was no one else on the bus. Sarah went to the back and sat down, her coat a solitary splash of red against the pale blue seating. As the bus passed through the streets she had just traversed, Sarah took a roll of duct tape from her bag, then carefully removed the bottle and taped Earnest securely against the padded backrest. Suddenly the driver braked fast and yelled, “Last stop!”
Sarah looked intently at Earnest and promised him silently that she would return. Once outside she began to run as fast as she could back to her apartment, wanting to witness the magic from the same place in which the dream had been born. The bus moved lethargically, only beginning to pull away from the stop as Sarah frantically twisted her key in the lock and opened the door to The World of Yarn. She bounced upstairs and sprinted to the kitchen window, almost slipping on the tile before putting her face to the window and cupping her hands on either side of her head. At exactly 11:17 her aunt’s clock stopped and Sarah’s breath caught in her throat. The apartment began to shake ever so slightly, and then the bus rattled by. Sarah watched the spot of orange that was half of her aunt’s soul riding in the backseat, illuminated by rows and rows of bright fluorescent lights that shined in the night. Her chest tightened and she released her breath as the bus disappeared from sight, looking in triumph at her aunt’s clock, still frozen and stuck.
She seemed to feel her movements more than ever before as she stepped out of the kitchen and back towards the stairway. It was as if the universe had gone still and she had jumped out of it, a character left to roam around in the stationary world of a paused movie. She suddenly realized that accompanying this sensation was the physical absence of weight in her right pocket. Her arrival at the staircase explained the matter, as she found herself standing before an unspooled string of white yarn, running all the way down from the second-to-top step. It had been done in a way that didn’t surprise her; without her knowing why or when or where. Something about this was unsatisfactory, and it demanded action. Sarah retrieved the coffee cup given to her that day with the squiggly black numbers on it, then returned to the staircase, passing her hands through each string of yarn hanging from the ceiling as she went. She squinted at the coffee cup and began to dial, sitting on the top step with her feet on either side of the yarn ball’s beginning. There were three rings, each of them the exact same length and pitch. Then Luke’s voice cut them off, entering her ear in a tone that she knew contained infinite sub-fractions of originality.
“There are two things you should know.”
“The first is that we’re existing outside of time.”
“Good. I never liked existing inside of time.”
“The second is that I’m calling you from the edge of the world.”
“What’s it like?”
There was a pause before Luke said, “Are there any diners around?”
“It might take me a few minutes to get there.”
“That’s okay. I need to retrieve half a soul first anyway.”
“Who is this again?”
Tim Steele is a college student living in Seattle, Washington.