Nutty Bars on a Porch Swing, by Gail Allan
Anneliese’s muscles ache with the pain of being unable to perform the simple task of putting her car in reverse. She has been trying to leave her house and go to the grocery for the last two hours. Yet even with her nose plug, eye blinders, and ear buds, she has still managed to have three flashbacks before leaving her driveway. The most recent drag into the past ensued because Anneliese forgot to put on her gloves. While reaching for her seatbelt, she burned herself on the smoldering metal and sent her mind reeling into the past.
Suddenly she was six, and climbing into her uncle’s light blue sedan. The flashback was from when she lived in Charleston and followed her cousins home everyday, while her parents worked late. She pushed into the car behind her cousin Chris, watching his butt bobble up and down, hoping he didn’t fart on her. He was chattering on about how high he had gone on the swings that day. She felt her child-sized hand reach for the seatbelt, grabbing the glistening metal without thought. Her skin was already blistering as she pulled it away, whimpering.
When she returns to the present she is still sitting in her driveway, a minute has passed on her Jeep’s clock, but to her body and mind, she had wasted another twenty minutes of her life on a forced memory. If she ever bothered to count up all the hours her mind had spent outside of her present body, Anneliese thinks she would be at least thirty-eight, though her body is only twenty-six. She slips on her gloves and runs the a/c in her car until it is a neutral temperature. Three hours. Only three hours and then she can finally sleep. To someone not suffering from chronic time travel, three hours seems like a long time for a run to the grocery, but to Anneliese, it is optimistic.
On the drive she has two more flashbacks, each only lasting about ten minutes her time. In the present only a second or two passes. No drivers are any the wiser that someone had just jumped into the past while changing lanes. Locked inside her car, Anneliese only glances at the things around her if she absolutely has to, but even a glance has the power to send her back.
She pulls into the hell that is the Publix parking lot. Each row a one way only, with cars constantly pulling out, trying to hit her. She snags a space near the front– not caring if someone elderly is driving behind her, praying their hip will make it from the parking in the back. Cautiously, she takes off her blinders. She places her ear buds back into their carrying case. She wants to wear them into the store, but the last time she did that people gave her dirty looks which sent her back to middle school for hours.
Anneliese centers herself in the car’s neutral air before stepping into the sunny parking lot. It’s mild for a Florida afternoon. Unremarkable weather is her favorite kind. Her eyes train on the asphalt. She crosses the parking lot and walks into the frosty Publix air, exhaling as she gets inside. Breathing as little as possible is just one of the ways Anneliese avoids triggers. Yanking a cart away from its family, she pushes it up and down the aisles, only placing exactly what is on her list into the cart. Keeping her eyes purposefully unfocused and slightly crossed is another tactic.
On aisle three as Anneliese is reaching towards a box of Honey Nut Cheerios, a voice calls behind her, “Anneliese!” It calls in a breathy sigh. “Anne-liese.” Rhythmically, the voice pours over her skin, pushing her mind into the past.
She was lying on a couch in a second-story rec room. She was fifteen and the girl on top of her was kissing her softly. It was her first serious kiss. It had been almost a year since she had relived this moment. “Anneliese,” the girl whispered.
“Mhm?” she replied, lips secured together trying to apply just the right amount of pressure. The girl’s hand moved up her body until it cupped Anneliese’s small breast. The girl whispered her name again, breathy and soft. Anneliese’s lips parted and said, ”Jane” trying to imitate the deeper tone. They kissed again, passing thoroughly chewed winter green gum between them and thinking this was an acquired skill. The door at the end of the room opened suddenly. In walked Jane’s mother.
She wore a navy blue pantsuit, having just come home from work. Her front teeth showed in the tiny gap created by her open jaw. “What are you girls doing?”
At the sound of the door Jane had sprung off Anneliese, whose breast was suddenly cold under her shirt. She lay there, stunned while Jane struggled to explain. “I wasn’t doing– She was all like–” The excuses kept coming and kept being cut off by new, better ones.
“I have to go,” Anneliese said standing up; her legs wobbled beneath her. She walked out of the room, past Jane’s mother and into the blackness of the staircase.
“Anneliese?” the woman in front of her says again. Institutional lighting speckles back into Anneliese’s vision. Her legs are still like string cheese. She is back in the grocery store, the box of cereal in her hand. She places it into her cart and looks at the woman standing in front of her. She’s from work. Her name is Patty or Patricia or something Anneliese can’t remember. “You okay?” Patty or Patricia asks. “You look white as a sheet.”
“Oh yeah,” Anneliese says, aware of her erect nipples and puffy lips. She smiles, pretending she wasn’t just fifteen for the past twenty minutes. “I just had a bit of a dizzy spell.”
“I hope you’re not getting a flu or something. I know Amanda was sick last week and–”
“I don’t think it’s anything too serious.” She smiles some more, wishing Patty-tricia would stop pretending she was a good neighbor and leave Anneliese alone. They stand, looking around the aisle as if someone with a knife might jump out at any second screaming.
“Well, I just saw you and thought I should say hello. It’s a busy day at the grocery,” Patricia chuckles half-heartedly. “See you Monday?”
“Yep,” Anneliese says, still spinning from her flashback. Her condition has been happening for long enough that she is particularly adept at returning to the present without missing a fly on the wall. This time though, she struggles. She’s proud of how long she has gone without thinking about Jane. Their agonizingly secretive relationship that plagued her throughout high school, or running her fingers through Jane’s soft, red hair, or thinking of Jane’s lips, or– no. No thinking of her lips or hair. Only groceries and sleep. Groceries and sleep. She repeats the mantra in her mind.
Anneliese walks to the end of the aisle, sucking in frigid air, freezing her lungs. Suddenly, she remembers that she is standing in the middle of the grocery store. To her right is the deli counter where workers grind the meat slicers back and forth until pieces of turkey so thin they became translucent fall into their gloved hands. She is feet from sucking in the salty tang without realizing it.
“You have to be more careful,” she chides herself, not seeing a man to her left cock his head at her. If she had noticed, it surely would have sent her back to speech class where a lecture hall of students had all tilted their heads, waiting for her to return from some other point in time while her body stood in front of them– frozen just long enough to be odd. If she had not been the center of attention, the lapse in time have been imperceptible.
She allows her eyes to focus on the wheels of her shopping cart, spinning around and around in a safe routine. She stops in front of the wall of breads. Anneliese tilts her head up for a moment, searching as quickly as she can for the bread she likes. It is on the top shelf and to her right. She tries to grab it and look back down, but her attention is caught by a flashing red light at the end of the aisle. Her neck snaps involuntarily to the right, looking over her outstretched arm. The spinning red light is there to advertise half-off sale a selection of donuts. There were chocolate, and powdered, and old fashioned cinnamon ones, all soon to expire. Her pupils widen, pulling in the dizzying light like two black holes. It spins around and around in a much less comforting fashion than her wheels had.
She found herself sitting in a bush; the seat of her jeans was soaking from the moisture in the dirt beneath her. It was too dark to see anything other than the spinning red lights on top of the emergency vehicles parked in front of Jane’s house. Her mother had had a heart attack. Or that’s what the girls thought. It happened a few minutes after she had walked into Jane’s room and found them naked together. She only meant to slip a note of encouragement into Jane’s backpack while she slept, but never made it past the doorway. We should have locked it, Anneliese thought for the hundredth time of reliving this memory.
She slipped her shirt back on over her head, bush branches scrapped against her skin. She tried to look through the leaves. Squinting past the mist left over from the rain. Her nose brushed a leaf, getting raindrops up it. She pulled away sharply, pushing air through her nostrils like a bull. A migraine danced across the back of her eyes from looking at the red light for too long.
She walked in a crouch to the end of the hedges and then slipped around the side of the house, to the alley where her car was parked. The red lights followed her, reflecting off the gray, stonewalls. Looking over her shoulder, she finally saw Jane, covered in red light climbing into the back of the ambulance.
Only half a minute passes in the grocery. As Anneliese comes back into her present body, it looks as if she maybe forgot which bread she was getting. The overwhelming tiredness of her life reaches her, dragging her arm back to her thick side and making her eyes hard to open. The constant time travel pulled non-stop at her mind, while her body slowly chugged along. She gives into her demanding eyes and stands still, enjoying the presentness of her body.
“Excuse me,” someone interrupts.
She opens her eyes and sees a mother of two trying to get bread off the shelf behind her. “Oh, sorry.” She steps aside. The moment come and goes without a memory interrupting it. Anneliese is ready to buy her extra strength sleep aid and put herself into a minor coma. Just long enough to forget a few things.
Remembering like a normal person Anneliese thinks about how after the heart attack she forced herself not to pursue Jane, and Jane took care of her mother, never bothering to pursue Anneliese. They graduated and left for separate colleges, pretending that nothing had happened. That was when the flashbacks had started. Her first episode took place during her second day away at school. Anneliese walked into her dorm’s third floor community bathroom and was smacked with the overwhelming smell of girls flowery body wash. Every one of which clashed spectacularly in the air, causing Anneliese’s nose to twitch and eyes to water. Suddenly she was standing in Bath and Body Works in the mall of her hometown. She was trying to hold hands with Jane, but kept getting brushed away.
“Not in public,” Jane said. “My mom knows everyone.”
“Not everyone.” Anneliese said reaching once again for her hand.
“Please, don’t make this a thing.”
“Not everything has to be a thing. Do you want to hold my hand? Then you should.”
“I do want to, but I can hold it in the car, or in the movies, just not here. Not in public when anyone can see.”
Anneliese picked up a bottle of pink Sweet Pea body lotion. She opened the top with a satisfying click and lifted the bottle to her nose. When she squeezed it slightly, trying to force the fragrance to waft out, a tiny bit of lotion spat on her nose.
Then she was back in the bathroom, holding her towel and waiting for a shower to open up. Nothing had changed, no one mentioned how she had just disappeared and was now suddenly back.
Anneliese checks her grocery list. Everything has been carefully scratched out: bread, milk, grapes, tampons, toothpaste, salt and vinegar chips. The only thing left is sleeping pills. She turns out of the bread aisle, heading towards the pharmacy that is tucked in the back corner of the store. The wheels of her cart, once reliable, catch on something she can’t see and stop turning. The whole cart wretches to the side, crashing into an end-cap displaying Little Debbie products. Ho-Ho’s, Oatmeal Pies, Zebra Cakes, and Nutty Bars fall into her cart and on the ground around her.
“Shit, sorry,” she says to the unseen Publix employee she is sure is rushing towards her. She bends down and picks up the items from the floor, trying to stack them back on the shelf. A memory tries to peek its way into her mind, but she shakes her head violently twice allowing her hair to whip her in the face. Anneliese narrows her eyes trying to see nothing but the mess in front of her. The memory keeps trying; she can see its colorful walls creeping into the corners of her vision.
“Let me help you with that,” a man says. Anneliese looks up and sees a manager bending down next to her. His light green shirt is calming. It pushes the memory back momentarily.
“My cart just locked up and then I hit it accidently–”
“These things happen.” He scoops up an armful of treats and stands to put them back. “Do you want all those in your cart?” He asks trying not to judge but looking at the boxes and boxes that have crashed into it.
“Oh no,” Anneliese says trying to laugh about the whole thing. She takes the Little Debbies out one at a time out and puts them back. She freezes, holding the last box of Nutty Bars. “Maybe I’ll take just one box.”
“That only seems fair,” the manager chuckles. “Give yourself a treat after a long day.” They finish putting the display back. “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
“No, I think I’ve got it.” Anneliese says.
She stands in front of the sleeping pills trying to decide which to buy. Her eyes keep darting back to Little Debbie box. You shouldn’t be buying those. Her hand hovers over the larger box of pills. 40 count, ZZZQuill. Don’t give in. Anneliese lets out a heavy sigh and picks up the yellow box with the little cartoon girl smiling at her.
“Need help with something?” the pharmacist asks from behind the counter. She had been quietly counting pills into bottles, but at Anneliese’s sigh she looks up. “Those go a few aisles over,” she says pointedly, as if she sick of people leaving things on the wrong shelves.
“Oh yeah, I wasn’t going to- I was looking. Sorry” Anneliese puts the box back into her cart. She picks up the big box of sleeping pills and throws those in after. “Thanks,” she says to the pharmacist unsure what she is thankful for.
She picks the shortest line, which was still three people deep. The cashier stops working when she sees Anneliese. “Hello,” she calls over the other customers. Anneliese frowns at the contents of her cart again, wondering why she is letting herself get the Nutty Bars. “Hello,” the woman calls louder.
The man in front of her turns and mumbles, “Say hello back.”
Anneliese looks up. “Hello?”
The old woman smiles and goes back to scanning items. She does routine this with every new person in line. Anneliese prays this moment won’t imprint a memory she will have to revisit every time she enters a check out line.
When it is finally her turn the checkout lady carefully swipes each item in her cart across the faint, red glow of the scanning machine. “Is plastic okay?” the bag boy asks. He can’t be any older than seventeen. She wonders what heartbreaks he has already suffered.
“Yeah, plastic is fine.” The yellow box sweeps by the scanner and into a plastic bag. Why are you doing this to yourself?
“Alright, that will be $52.60.”
Anneliese sticks the chip of her card into the machine and waits for it to yell at her to remove it. The receipt prints out and the bag boy asks if she needs help to her car.
“Not today, thanks,” she tells him.
Anneliese carries her bags to her car, almost getting hit by a truck because she refuses to look before crossing. Once she is tucked safely into her car, the air conditioner returning things to a neutral temperature, she digs through her grocery bags until she finds the yellow box of Nutty Bars. She pulls the cardboard strip away and it opens neatly. The plastic wrap crinkles, making the memory start to creep back into her eyesight. She pulls out one of the bars, smelling the chocolate. This is unhealthy in so many ways.
Anneliese closes her eyes and bites into the layers of chocolate, peanut butter, and crispy rice cracker. Her mouth floods with saliva, breaking down the food as her teeth grind away. When she opens her eyes again she is sitting on the front porch of the home she had moved to with her mom. It was nighttime, and there were fireflies in the yard.
Jane was sitting next to her. There was a half devoured box of Nutty Bars between them. Anneliese’s mother didn’t allow her to eat sweets, but Jane had brought the box over because Anneliese’s mother was on a business trip in California.
“These are so good,” Jane said licking the melted chocolate off her fingers. I honestly could have eaten this whole box by myself.”
“Yeah,” Anneliese’s past voice said, “but you’re super sweet and decided to share.” She stuck her hand back in and fished out the last packet. “Wanna split?”
The street in front of them was empty. Even for a Tuesday, the town was still and quiet. She broke open the package and handed one of the delicious sticks to Jane.
They were both sixteen. The porch swing creaked slightly every time they crossed the pendulum’s point. Anneliese watched Jane slide the Nutty Bar into her mouth and then drag it back out, scraping off the chocolate coating with her teeth. She licked the chocolate away Anneliese’s admired how perfectly pink her tongue was.
“Jane?” Anneliese said. She used her residue free hand to take Jane’s. No one could see them in the dark of the porch. “I think I might love you. I mean, I don’t know for sure, but I think I do.”
Jane looked at her and gave her a smile that looked brilliant, but didn’t make her nose twitch, or eyes crinkle. It sat firmly inside Jane’s chin and mouth, pulling tight along her slightly chocolate-stained teeth. The longer Anneliese looked at it, the more it looked like a grimace.
The next bite of Nutty Bar hit Annelies’s stomach like a ten-pound rodent. “That’s really sweet Annie,” Jane said. She licked her fingers again and wiped the saliva on her jean shorts.
Anneliese let go of Jane’s hand. “I just thought you should know. I mean we’ve been sort of together-ish for a year. It just seemed like something we should talk about.” She kept her voice even, pulling into herself. Anneliese had known there was a chance, a huge chance, Jane didn’t feel the same way.
“I just didn’t expect to talk about it right now. I really like you and I like being together. I just-” She looked out at the road and the fireflies blinking in the yard. “I don’t think this is love. I don’t think we’ll really feel love until we’re with a guy, like in a real relationship.”
Anneliese sat with that thought. “How– is this not a real relationship?”
“It’s not like we go on dates.”
“We just went to dinner last night.”
“But as friends. We didn’t hold hands, and we split the check. Don’t get me wrong, I really like being friends and kissing and whatever else, but it’s just a phase.” Jane’s mother poured out of her.
Anneliese stood suddenly and walked down the front steps to her mailbox. She opened it already knowing it was empty. She thought about her feelings and Jane’s argument as she came back up the walk and onto the porch. She hopped onto the railing, teetering for a second. “Let me understand this. We aren’t really dating because we’re both girls? But we go on dates, I have paid for meals before, and we hold hands and do a lot more in private, but none of that is real or counts because one of us isn’t a guy?”
Jane stood and walked in between Anneliese’s legs. “Well when you put it that way, it sounds silly.”
“Because it is.”
Jane rested her hands on Anneliese’s thighs and her head on Anneliese’s breasts. “But I can’t tell anyone. It’s more real if people know.”
“How does that make it more real?” Anneliese kissed the top of Jane’s head. “I love you. It’s okay if you don’t love me back, but this is real whether you think so or not.” The girls kissed. The rodent in Anneliese’s stomach disintegrated as she traced her finger around Jane’s small ear.
The car goes from hot to freezing in the short time it takes Anneliese to come back to the present. She turns the air down and feels herself melt into the fabric of her chair. She is so tired; every muscle is itchy with fatigue. She should put on her blinders, drive home and take some sleeping pills like she planned. It has now been almost seven hours in her mind of just trying to go on a grocery run. She needs to sleep. Instead she takes the other Nutty Bar from the first package and bites into it. Her eyes close and anyone passing by her car might think that she is taking a second to relax before driving back home, instead of indulging in her sickness.
Gail Allan is an author on the rise, providing a new voice to the literary discourse. She resides in the space coast of Florida and primarily writes contemporary fiction with a strong leaning towards magical realism. Gail is a graduate of Florida State University and currently attaining her MFA from the University of Tampa, while working on her first novel.