Short Story: Good-Bye, Douglas

My older brother’s bedroom door was locked. It usually was, but I always liked to rattle the knob to check before knocking. Each knock varied in strength and landed on a different part of the door. I thought of it as a sisterly tap code, and it only ever conveyed one message: “Come out, Douglas. I’m lonely.”

That night, Douglas didn’t respond to my knocks by screaming at me to go away. He didn’t invite me inside either. From his room, I heard nothing.

A few weeks earlier, he had covered the top half of his door with an illustration of a demon stuffing a young girl into its slavering mouth. The girl’s face wasn’t visible, merely traces of her white-blonde hair and a purple sneaker poking out of the demon’s fist.

Uncoincidentally, I had white-blonde hair and wore purple sneakers.

The child-gobbling demon had kept me away, until my loneliness overcame my fear. I missed Douglas, the old Douglas who had been nice enough to play board games with me and sometimes watch a movie we would both like. He had been replaced with a rageful and melancholy version of himself. I knew that knocking on his door would do nothing but anger him, unless I could tell him something that would tempt him into a conversation. 

“Doug!” I called. “Dougie,” I added, in the hopes of annoying him into a response with a hated nickname.

Two hours earlier, at dinner, we had sat three feet apart at the kitchen island eating microwaved pizza. Our parents had fluttered between the living room, the kitchen, and the first-floor master bedroom, adding layers of fancy evening clothes to themselves and pausing frequently to peer at their phones.

Our dad had spoken to us once, to chide us about our poor performance at school. Douglas was in ninth grade, and his test scores and homework in all subjects had recently become abysmal. As for myself, I made an effort with my work, but other problems weighed on me. My fourth-grade teacher had complained to my parents about my absent-mindedness, a tendency to get tangled up in imaginative threads. “Imagination is wonderful,” Mrs. Carron had remarked at the parent-teacher conference, “but even good qualities need moderation.”

Or, as my dad had put it, “You need to grow up, Emily. Your behavior is getting ridiculous.”

After dinner, the babysitter had turned up. She was a sullen college student who lived two doors down. Douglas had insisted that there was no need for a babysitter, because he was 14, but my parents hadn’t known how late they would return. They hadn’t wanted to give my brother the responsibility of looking after me for so many hours.

Whenever the babysitter was over, she left us alone. As long as the house wasn’t burning down around her or getting burglarized, she would stay squashed up in an armchair in the living room. She would ignore my requests for games and tell me to feed myself if I wanted bedtime snacks. Although my parents always offered her the use of a spare bedroom, she would fall asleep in the armchair in a cloud of soft snores. Even though she was in the house that night, I was essentially alone with my older brother.

I pressed an ear to his door, at the spot where the demon’s clawed foot was embedded in a gray and brown scree. I imagined I could hear the scratches of colored pencils through the door and the puffs of my brother’s breath.

“Douglas!” I nearly whined. “I need to show you something!”

The crack of the lock and the door flying open arrested my speech. My brother didn’t look surly or furious. His cheeks weren’t blotchy with frustration. Instead, he looked as if he had fitted a tight, pale mask to himself, from which his eyes, dark and frantic, sought escape.

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Outage – A Short Story

Inspired by a recent outage in the City of Possibility.

When Joan woke up from her nap, the light she had left on in the bathroom was out. Time to replace the bulb, was her first assumption. But when she shuffled to the kitchen for some water, she noticed that the digital time display on the oven was blank. Several steps across her studio apartment and she was at her desk, where the dead smartphone she had plugged in before her nap hadn’t recharged.

A power outage. Whether it was just in her apartment, the whole building, or many blocks beyond she didn’t yet know. She raised the window shade to find the sun setting on a summer evening and not a single light in any neighboring building. She heaved the window open, letting in hot, stale air. Nine floors up, she expected to hear people or cars, but the street was silent, and what she could see of it was empty.

With a gusty sigh, she yanked down the shade. She hoped this power outage, unlike the one a month ago, wouldn’t last a full day and spoil the contents of her fridge. She pulled off her striped pajamas, which were pasted with sweat to her body, and eased herself into jeans and a baggy brown t-shirt.

Her movements were stiff. Right after that last power outage, she had gotten into a car accident. Stiffness, tiredness, and headaches had slowed her down most days since. On top of these lingering problems, she continued to struggle with legal issues. Because she had zipped out of the building’s parking lot on her way to the supermarket for milk, eggs, meat, and everything else she had lost to her temporarily impotent fridge, she was being held at fault for the accident.

“As if you could call what happened a tragedy,” she muttered. Sliding her keys into her pocket, she opened the front door. Out in the corridor, only the emergency lighting was on. Every other ceiling lamp was dark, leaving most of the corridor in shadow, with deep pockets of darkness at each end. She listened for several moments but heard nothing.

She locked the door behind her and padded towards the stairs. The light in the stairwell was on, a strong yellow-white glow. She pushed at the exit door. The door shivered, but stayed shut. Repeated pushing only made her shoulder sore.

Joan stepped back from the door, panting, and peered up and down the corridor.

At one end, on the edge of the pocket of darkness, a woman stood, short and hunched.

Frowning, Joan made her way towards the woman, who remained still.

When Joan was several feet away, there really was no mistaking who it was. The pinched mouth, the piggish eyes, the hair a dull gray. “Helen,” she gasped.

Helen had been Joan’s neighbor. For decades, they had nurtured a mutual hatred that had made them notorious on the ninth floor.

They stared at each other, before Joan shoved her hand into the front pocket of her jeans. Her apartment keys were gone.

“Not a power outage,” Helen said. Though she had died a month earlier under Joan’s car, she stepped spryly now. Her hand closed around Joan’s wrist, and she drew her old neighbor into the darkness.

Mary Bennet Starts High School

A modern-day Pride and Prejudice character sketch.

For Mary Bennet, high school is a different experience than it is for her older sisters.

Jane, the eldest, is homecoming queen. She’s a cheerleader who’s genuinely kind and sincerely loved, even by people who hate cheerleaders. When she isn’t organizing fun runs for children with cleft palates, she’s volunteering at the pediatric ward of a local hospital and at an animal shelter.

Elizabeth is on the debate team, the soccer team, and the staff of the school newspaper as a photographer. She’s made 99th percentile on her SATs and is running an extracurricular chemistry research project on a local polluted lake. She isn’t as well-liked as Jane, but she’s pretty and witty and fairly good-natured, which means that other people are more apt to accept her unabashed intelligence and occasional lapses in temper.

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Chapters in the Life of a House Frog: A Story

I
Before getting trapped in the swimming pool filter, the frog had not been aware of time and death. He had never reflected on the course of his life or thought about what he was and what would become of him. He had kept his eyes on the small stirring things in the world: a fly darting, a gnat drifting, the crickets quivering in the grass.

The swimming pool had been peppered with bugs. They had dashed across the surface or bobbed around near death. The frog had plopped in and felt a sting of chemicals. For a long time, he had swum around, until he had become exhausted. The filter had drawn him in then, gently into its mouth.

Once he crossed into the filter, he changed. He knew he was going to die. Normal frogs don’t think about death, not consciously. But in the filter, amid cast-off leaves and motionless bugs, he considered his fate. He was trapped, with nothing to eat and nowhere to go; he would die, his body embalmed in chlorinated water.

In this state the young girl found him. She hoisted the sodden filter basket and smiled down at him. Her face was thin, and her skin was pale and almost as translucent as an egg sac. When her hand closed over the frog’s cool flesh, he was too tired to struggle against it. Whether or not she’d kill him remained to be seen. For now, he was alive, with the sun starting to stir his cold blood. He twitched, and her grip tightened. She took him into her house.
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