The stars didn’t shine in Sarah’s new neighborhood. The glaring neon signs from the city choked the natural light of the sky. Instead of the specks of intense white beams that dotted the deep blue of midnight, Sarah stared into an impenetrable blurred smudge; there was no longer the stark contrast that made each star a startling burst of individual energy.
Sarah sat on a wooden porch facing her backyard—if she could even call it a backyard. About the width of her bedroom, the narrow scrap of grass greeted her with a few oddly placed flowers scattered in a bed next to the fence. Another house rose behind the fence. If she peered at it from her open bedroom window upstairs she could see into her neighbors’ bedroom and, when the windows were open, hear their trite gossip. In fact, from her perch upstairs, she presided over a grid of her neighbors’ tiny slivers of yards. Each house and land were neatly contained in its little cell, safely isolated from any outsider, yet ironically exposed by the proximity. She had never met a single neighbor; still, she had the privilege of seeing into the life of the old widow on her right who treated her strip of landscape like a son and spent hours upon end struggling to keep alive her myriad lilies and peonies that didn’t belong in this part of the world anyway. Behind the woman was a family, a boy and a girl and their parents—the typical workaholic father who was never home and the mother who spent most of her time barking at the maid, shooing the dog, and satisfying her rotten children’s every whim. Then there was the couple that lived to her left, the young, newly married couple that always fought, their voices loud and shameless, like the bickering of Reality TV.
There were many days Sarah had escaped her backyard prison and gone running down the street in front of her house. The homes butted up to the road like soldiers on the front lines, their façades as mundane as the uniform faces of disciplined men. It wasn’t as if each house was ugly—they were quite beautiful, luxurious homes—but they were picked from a pattern, and similarity has an ugliness all to its own. Each was fit with an unused front porch, false-shuttered windows, and attached garage, so inhabitants could go from house, to car, to work without venturing into the unsheltered front yard. The proximity of the buildings left room for no trees, and the harsh sun beat down on the sidewalk; the intense heat rose around her legs. During the day, the sky remained hazy like its night light, only with grey smog that drifted in from the factories in the nearby city. She seemed to choke on the air and the dust burned her eyes; she would never get used to the atmosphere.
Even now, after the sun had set, as she stared at the darkened, parallel planks of her back fence, the air was heavy and hard to breathe. Her eyes fell to her patch of grass, the darkness blending it into black, each blade a monotonous image of the one next to it. It was silent for a lonely moment, oppressively silent, until voices rose from the house to her left. The couple was yelling again, their voices growing steadily louder, closing in on Sarah like the darkness. She clenched her teeth and closed her eyes, sucking in a long breath. But the heavy air stuck in her throat and she coughed. Opening her eyes again, she pleaded for freedom, a place where she could run, laugh, do cartwheels in the grass. But all she saw were the upright bars of the fence that seemed to have marched closer, now standing at attention, mocking her with their blank stares.
She jumped up from her seat; she could stand it no longer. She went to the garage and collected the heaviest tool she owned—a long-handled, five pound sledgehammer. She dragged it out to the yard, lifted it high over her head, and brought it down upon her fence, smashing the boards into jagged splinters. She worked until her muscles ached, her breath came in gasps, and only open space was left where the barrier had once been. Sledgehammer dangling at her side, chest heaving, she stared down at the heap of wood now broken into countless distinct fragments.