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Stress Test Ch. 13


By Alan GoldPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 10 min read

Rollingwood Park, the enclave where the Skinners lived, had Westmore Avenue's convenience without its downscale image.

Rollingwood Drive fed directly into Westmore so the residents could make their way quickly to any part of the city. But when they stayed home, they never had to see or think about Westmore and its ugly utility.

While Westmore, straight as a razor, split the city in two equal parts, Rollingwood coiled through the hills like yarn that a cat had played with. Corky Cartwright, the agent who attached himself to Stephen X and Sandy when they were buying their house, claimed linear streets were relics of the past.

As the little man under the bouffant hair drove them around in his white convertible, he gushed and waved his arms. "This is the modern thing," he said. "People like you folks have been to college. You know Einstein said, `Space is curves.'"

"The space I like is all curves," Stephen X said. "Isn't that right, Sandy?"

The stranger brayed. He blinked and paused for an instant when he saw in the rear view mirror that Sandy wasn't smiling. Then he looked at Stephen X and laughed harder than ever.

"That's right, Mr. Skinner," he shouted as if he were far away. "You and Einstein."

After awhile, Sandy leaned forward to interrupt the men. "Elmwood, Ashwood, Beechwood, Birchwood, Maplewood—all of these streets named after trees go in circles. There aren't even any trees on them. How do you find your way around?"

"That's why they call it Rollingwood Park," Corky said, trying to keep a straight face as he glanced over his shoulder. "They rolled all the wood away to make room for it.

"But seriously, folks, the community's layout is one of its best security features. You can get lost here for hours. Burglars can't stand it. They want to go somewhere they can get in, get out, be gone. That's why you get your high crime rate down on these straight roads like Westmore. They may be crooks, but they're no fools."

The scrubbed, pink brick and slightly pretentious facade of the typical Rollingwood home appealed to Stephen X. He loved the idea of a planned community that prized central shopping, concealed power lines and bump-free streets over sidewalks or vitality. Corky closed the deal and told Stephen X he was going to buy himself a fat cigar and a bottle of sipping whiskey.

Sandy allowed herself the luxury of thinking that other things would change with the move—things more important than bricks and beams; things she never even dared to pull up to the conscious levels of her mind. Maybe life didn't have to be the way it had always been.

It seemed like they had barely unpacked the last box when she learned she was pregnant with Saury.

"How did that happen?" Stephen X snapped, looking up from the wingtips he'd been tying.

She bit her tongue but couldn't keep her expression from saying, "Didn't they teach you that in school?"

He sprang across the room, trailing one lace. "I said, 'How could you let that happen?'"

This time she couldn't help it. "I think you were there, too," she said, lifting her eyes to him.

Stephen X didn't stand much taller, but he had a good forty pounds on her. He had a way of staring hard into her eyes. If she flinched and looked away, they both knew that he had won some victory as significant as it was bizarre. If she held his gaze, she won—as far as that went—but she also lost track of his hands, and that was always dangerous.

"So you think I was there?" he sang it like a nursery rhyme gone sour.

Sandy's head snapped back as he tugged a fist full of hair from behind. She swung around to try to grab his wrist.

"You think I was there, do you?" He gave up the hair and crushed her hand, twisting her arm behind her back at an awful angle. "So who do you think the little bastard's father is?" He wrenched her arm to the limit. "Huh, Sandy? Who is it?"

Doubled over beneath his weight, she felt as if she had only a straw to breathe through. "What are you doing?"

"I'll show you what I'm doing." He released her so she straightened up like a spring. He sprouted a thousand hands in a grabbing, slapping, poking frenzy that drove her backwards across the bedroom.

Instinct kept Sandy rolling when she hit the floor, but his feet struck faster than fear or reflex. The hard edge of his wingtip gouged her back, her thigh, her ribs, her breast and skull before she lost track of the blows.


Sandy never knew how old she would be when she opened her eyes. Time swept her up and threw her back down in the strangest places, like the tornado that nails a straw in a tree. Her life unfolded in such chaos that feelings of pain and injustice at least provided a thread of continuity. But she never knew when she opened her eyes if she would find herself as a child or adult, pregnant or mother, alive or dead.

Her father had hardly ever knocked her unconscious. When he did, she found herself in her mother's arms. That woman pressed Sandy's head to her breast and rocked her. She hummed to soothe her, then dabbed the wounds with cotton and antiseptic.

Sandy thought of the kind of parallel universe she saw when Stephen X dragged her to the horror movies. It was a world governed by its own science, its own math, its own etiquette of pain. It voided clocks and calendars so that no matter how long she was away, it remained unchanged when she returned to it.

She could never visit that other land by herself. A Jack Gore or a Stephen X Skinner had to take her there. When she was in the brighter world, she might even forget that place existed, but it always lurked there, like a bloated, blue-green tumor just beneath the skin. In the dazed moments when she crossed between the two dimensions, she couldn't tell which was the host and which the cancer.

The only constant was the desperate need to protect someone who was helpless against this world that she had somehow created. Maybe it would be her baby sister, Jennifer. Maybe her own baby, Saury. She clawed at the slippery face of consciousness, afraid that the child would be gone when she woke.

In the end, there was nothing she could have done for Jennifer, and that made her all the more desperate to save Saury.

The early signs of womanhood had flared through Sandy's body by the time Uncle Josh got out of the army. Looking back on it, she supposed that meant she was already too old for him.

Funny how in the twelve years, eight months and twenty-four days of her life, she'd never met Uncle Josh before, never heard mention of him. He looked like a younger, pudgier, stupider version of her own father. She couldn't imagine how silly he must have looked in uniform, and nobody seemed to have any photographs to satisfy her curiosity.

"Sandy, Jenny, say hello to your uncle Josh." Jack Gore herded his daughters forward. "He's been in the army a long time."

Even at first sight, Jennifer had tried to duck behind her big sister, pulling Sandy's skirt like a veil across her face.

"Hello, ladies," said Josh through a mouth that never quite closed. Sandy thought maybe gravity had dragged his brains down into his face. That would explain his vacant expression and why his fat, pimpled cheeks promised to burst with the pressure.

Josh lived with them a month—maybe six weeks—washing potato chips and cupcakes down with grape soda. When her father wasn't around, Josh would pretend to be struggling to suppress a belch, then suddenly unleash a mighty, gaseous roar that filled the house. Sandy figured all that carbonation must have collected in his brain.

He didn't bug Sandy much, but Jennifer told her how he always rubbed against her back when he squeezed behind her chair at the dinner table, how he invited her into his room to play or to see his stuff.

"How could you play with him?" Sandy said. "He's even too dumb to have fun."

Jennifer tossed her hair back, strutted and made faces outside his closed door while Sandy tried to contain her laughter. Josh was a joke with a thousand punchlines. All of their father's disgusting and ridiculous traits had been distilled into this fat, lead-brained caricature of him.

Hysteria replaced the laughter when Jennifer burst in and told Sandy how Josh had touched her. Their mother pounded the door.

"Sandy! Jennifer! What on earth is going on in there?"

Sandy opened the door a crack and pulled the woman in by the sleeve. She told her what had happened.

"Why us, mom?" Sandy fought for control of her voice. "What did we ever do?"

"Be quiet. Don't tell anyone about this."

"What do you mean, don't tell anyone? Didn't you hear what I just said?" Sandy's tears came in spurts, like blood from an artery. "How can you let him live here?"

"Shh, shh. He'll hear you." The woman, this stranger, clapped her hand over Sandy's mouth. "Okay, okay. I'll talk to your father."

Mrs. Gore may have talked to Mr. Gore about the incident, but nothing ever came of it. Josh ranged freely about the house, and the girls did their best to avoid him.

"Pass the butter, Jenny," Josh said, breaking the silence at Sunday dinner.

Jennifer stared at her plate. She'd become bone thin, her sunken eyes rimmed in red. Sandy ached to see her smile and laugh again.

"Josh asked you for the butter, darling," Jack Gore said, as if they were all just waiting for some detail to be clarified. "Did you hear me, Jenny?"

Sandy tried to be somewhere else by counting her heartbeats. She pressed her fork into her thigh to keep from screaming.

"Damn it, Jenny, give Josh the butter."

They all knew Mount Gore was about to erupt. Jennifer picked up the butter dish, but her hand shook so badly that when she held it over to her uncle, the margarine slid off. Josh swatted his hand out to catch it. In a single, clumsy sweep, he squeezed the soft stick and batted his greasy hand to his chest. Before he realized what he was doing, he wiped the margarine into his shirt.

"Oh, that's going to stain for sure," Mrs. Gore said.

"Look what you've done, Jenny." Jack Gore couldn't believe that he had spawned such irritating girls. "What gets into you? Tell Josh you're sorry."

Jennifer threw her plate against the wall. "It's not fair," she cried. "I hate him."

She sent her chair crashing to the linoleum and burst out the front door.

Gore had time only to say "What in God's name is wrong with that little—" when they heard the noise from outside.

The important things always happen too fast. But even through the flash of confusion that followed, Sandy would always remember that the horn sounded after the squeal of the tires.

After it was too late.


Go back to Chapter 1 of Stress Test.

Read the next chapter.


Complete novel is available on


About the Creator

Alan Gold

Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.

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