Good Listeners by Sara Dobbie

The cavern inside her chest is dark, full of excerpts. They enter through her auricle, these broken fragments of other people’s lives. Snippets of drama slide through her tympanic membrane, particles of joy and pain. Matters and affairs travel through her throat into her torso. They huddle together, blending, shifting, becoming intrinsic.

“Moira, I have to talk to you.” Her desk is littered with papers, but she turns. Complaints drop like daggers into her lap. Words pour over her, concerns and conceits. Time stretches and bends. It doesn’t matter who it is, they tell her everything. About their mothers, their lovers, things they stole, things they ruined. She fantasizes that one of them will ask, “What about you, Moira, how are you?” None of them do.

She rides the bus home, body pressed between a mother with small children and an elderly man who smells of wine. With stained lips he mutters in Moira’s ear about the brats, about the decay of society. The ache in his joints, the chill in the air. Across the aisle a man sits in tattered jeans with an instrument case on his lap. His coal eyes burn Moira’s cheeks. She doesn’t look away.

In her apartment she flicks through crates filled with vinyl records. She likes classical symphonies and instrumental jazz. Overtures and ambient sounds. No lyrics, no voices. Only vibration. She sits on the floor as a bow glides over a string, hoping to be enveloped in calm. It almost works.

No one knows about the cavern inside her chest, if they did, they would understand why she disappears sometimes. On nights like this when it fills to brimming, the whispers rise like a cyclone. She steps out, locks the door, and walks to the woods. Follows the trail until she finds a clearing.

Everywhere she goes, people tell her things. At work, at parties. Strangers in convenience stores. She never asks, but they say she has one of those faces. They think she is a good listener. They think that her silence is approval, they look at her and see a vault. They spit secrets into their palms, purse their mouths and blow them into her proximity where they disintegrate in a rush of noise. My lips are sealed she tells them, and they nod, reassured.

In the woods, she screams. The mice and snakes perpetrate absolute stillness. Owls rotate their heads and rabbit hearts stop beating. A great dissonance cuts the night, dispersing over branches and leaves. Betrayals, crimes, longings, a mass of tangled narratives unfurling until the cavern inside her chest is empty again.

Then she sits on a fallen trunk, rogue stars blinking through the forest canopy. She doesn’t like to be wanted, doesn’t want to be needed. She doesn’t know how to change her face. She lets the darkness invade the cavern, envisions the vacuous space inside herself and wonders how it figures in her anatomy. Wonders where her own pain and joy, her own matters and affairs, her own betrayals and longings, have gone. Have they been pushed out of her body, or do they hide in some neuron of her cerebellum? Are they stuffed inside a drawer of her prefrontal cortex?

Empty, she calls a cab for a lift to the city, craving an even deeper anonymity. The driver sees her in the rearview mirror and begins confessing his dreams of acting. Garish neon lights flicker through the window, faces spilling out of bars, melting into one another. And there, on the corner, the man from the bus, holding a shining brass trumpet. Moira interrupts the driver, apologizing. Hands him cash and gets out of the car.

Usually, she loses herself in the crowd, where she doesn’t have to nod or smile or laugh at the appropriate moment. But the mournful tone of the trumpet extends its arm to tug at her navel, until she is looking into the coal eyes again.

“I saw you earlier,” he says, “on the bus.”

“My name is Moira,” she replies.​

A young couple pauses to toss a few coins into his velvet lined case. He thanks them and turns to face her. “Well Moira, how are you tonight?”

Her fingers flutter to the cavern inside her chest, whispers seep out of its walls, a choir of ghosts. She opens her mouth and it’s like she’s singing, and she knows that she will tell him everything.

Sara Dobbie is a writer from Southern Ontario, Canada. Her work has appeared in Bending Genres, Ligeia Magazine, Ghost Parachute, Flash Frog, Sledgehammer Lit, Ellipsis Zine, and elsewhere. Her fiction collection “Flight Instinct” is forthcoming from ELJ Editions in 2022, and her stories have been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize. Follow her on Twitter at @sbdobbie, and on Instagram at @sbdobwrites