Note: In Loose Strands, you, as a reader, get to make decisions for Roland. So there are several paths through the first chapter. This excerpt represents only a portion of one of these paths.
There wasn’t much point in arguing about chores. His father wasn’t mean, just set in his ways. As Roland’s mother liked to say, “There are two types of people in this world, dear. And sometimes they have to live together.”
(In this case, she meant people who are happy with a certain amount of mess and people who can’t stand it. But sometimes she meant people who need routine and people who like every day to be different. And other times she meant men and women. Sometimes adults and children.)
(Really, as far as Roland could tell, there were an infinite number of two types of people in the world.)
So while his mother and father cleaned the second floor, Roland swept every nook and cranny on the first floor, from the kitchen to the living room to the barbershop at the front of the house.
Tonight the floor in the barbershop looked especially messy. This was going to take a long time. Roland could try to make a game of it, or he could just clear his mind and try to get it done as quickly as possible.
Editor’s note: In this case, Roland chooses to get the chores over with, which has consequences later in the book.
Roland began to sweep mechanically, shutting his brain off as he performed the repetitive work. If he was going to spend two hours cleaning up hair, at least he wouldn’t remember it.
It worked. Although his tired bones told him he’d been working for hours, next thing he knew he was kicking six full bags of hair down the trap door to the recycling bin in the basement. Thump thump thump thump thump thump, they went, and he smiled in satisfaction.
When Roland was done cleaning, his father went over the floor with a fine tooth comb. (Being a barber, his father had many of these.) He always found a stray strand or two, which Roland quickly gathered up.
Finally, his father signalled his satisfaction by tapping his comb against his fat thigh and slipping it into his breast pocket. They all retired to the living room.
This was the one time of the day when Roland really got to have fun. Tonight the family played Tic-Tac-Hair, curling hair for the Os and crossing strands for the Xs. Roland was usually pretty good at the game, but tonight his mother beat him four times in a row. (On this particular night, whenever he chose where to put his Xs, he felt a tingling on the back of his neck. He knew he’d dream about the game later.) Eventually he grew frustrated. His parents tried to coax him into another game, but he pulled out two action figures he had made and played Sasquatch vs Yeti by himself.
Yeti pummelled Sasquatch into a pile of fur.
And this—except for the losing at Tic-Tac-Hair part—was Roland’s typical day. It certainly had its exhausting and repetitive moments. But for all their rigidity, Roland’s parents weren’t really strict. He had never been spanked or sent to his room without food. There was only one rule:
Never go outside.
This had been repeated to Roland so many times and for so long that he just accepted it. Like when your parents tell you not to sleep on train tracks. You just don’t do it, and you don’t ask why.
At least, you usually don’t. Tonight, for some reason, Roland was restless. He couldn’t sit still. Even Yeti’s heroic victory couldn’t hold his attention.
Suddenly Roland blurted out, “Why can’t I go outside?”
His father looked over at him, surprised. “It’s… dangerous,” he said. “I can’t say more than that.”
“But I want to see. Can’t I at least take a peek?”
“There’s nothing for you out there.” Roland’s mother spat out the words. “Unless you love disappointment.” Her face went red. A few of the hairs tucked into her neat bun sprang out.
Then she recovered. She put her hands on Roland’s cheeks and looked into his eyes. “Oh, honey. One day, if things ever go back to the way they were…” she began, then stopped. “Promise you’ll never try to go out there,” she said.
His parents looked so distraught whenever they talked about this that he always promised. “But why?” he asked again.
Roland’s mother began to blink furiously. She turned away.
“I think it’s time for bed,” said Roland’s father, softly.
Roland went upstairs. He felt awful for making his mother upset. He brushed his teeth, hung his clothes on the nails above his pillow, and climbed into his hair hammock.
A few minutes later, his mother came into his room. She sat down beside him.
“You know I’m not upset with you, right?” she said, running her fingers through his hair. (It sprang immediately back into shape.)
“Your father and I will explain everything one day. For now, you just have to trust us.”
His mother tucked him in and turned out the light. “Goodnight,” she said, kissing him on the forehead. “Sweet dreams.”
“Goodnight,” said Roland.
But he couldn’t sleep. He wondered, again, why his parents kept so many secrets, and why those secrets upset them so much. Asking questions usually led to tears, and he hated seeing his mother cry. So he kept his head down, and his mouth shut. It was better not to rock the boat, he told himself.
Just then, as if to prove the point, his shirt fell to the floor.
Now, a shirt falling off a nail isn’t normally a particularly interesting event. You’re probably wondering why we’re even wasting your time with it. But in this case it’s noteworthy, because the shirt wasn’t the only thing that fell. The nail it was hanging on fell too.
You see, there was a window just above Roland’s hammock. It had been painted over and nailed shut, and it was on the tips of those nails that Roland hung his clothes at night.
Roland climbed out of bed and picked up the nail. It must have been pretty loose to fall out on its own like that.
He examined the windowsill. Sure enough, there was a crack running along it, right where the nails had been hammered in.
There were two more nails keeping the window closed. But that crack was bad news. If it had loosened the first nail, the others might be loose as well.
Something fluttered in Roland’s stomach.
Roland decided he had better pull on the two nails, just to make sure they weren’t going to fall out. After all, he didn’t want to find his pants on the floor in the morning.
He took a deep breath. They came out easily.
The window swung open.
There was nothing much to see. The window faced a brick wall, impossibly tall. The edge of the roof jutted out over his window, so he couldn’t even see the sky.
But as fresh air poured in, he felt the stress of the day wash away. Distant noises, exotic and exciting, tickled his ears. He recognized the sound of a dog barking, and he imagined another Rimbaud out there somewhere, dying to be petted. There were other sounds too, strange and unrecognizable. To Roland, who had never been outside before, it was the alien noise of another planet.
As he stared at the wall just beyond his window, he tried to imagine the world around their house. For all he knew, they could be in a desert, or on the side of a mountain, or in the middle of a city, or on the moon. (Since he had never seen these things, he had trouble even imagining the possibilities.)
What could his parents be so afraid of? He longed to see what was out there so badly he could barely breathe.
For as long as he could stay awake, he drank in the air and the sounds. Finally, when he could no longer keep his eyes open, he closed the window, replaced the nails, and went to sleep.
Want to find out why Roland is not allowed outside? Get Loose Strands here: