This story is by Daniela McBeal and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
That asshole was at it again. Casey stood in the doorway panicked. The overwhelming aroma of burnt sugar, motor oil and stale cigarettes had jolted her awake. But for the smoke detector’s alarm she might not have awoken in time to bum-rush the kitchen at 2:00 a.m. It had taken maximum effort to push aside the flotsam barricading the kitchen door—mostly a defunct portable bar with only one good wheel left which had once been her pride and joy. Now, standing in the kitchen barefoot and dazed, she felt neither pride nor joy. Her cheeks flushed as the anger rose from her belly and percolated to a tiny little knot at the back of her throat.
Now surveying the kitchen through the smoke and haze, her eyes darted swiftly from surface to surface taking in a scene from a Roman vomitorium; an array of bottles and bowls disgorged their pale. swampy green fluids onto the dark grey granite countertop abutting the stove. Only now its white surface was completely obscured.
Her jaw tightened at the sight of pots everywhere, lids strewn about haphazardly over her once pristine countertops, now barely visible under the brown and dusty yellow sludge of unnamable concoctions, all spurting their essence into the smoke-filled room. A dark, black cloud billowed up from a large pot like a demonic genie. This shit again?! All week, he’d babbled relentlessly about someday opening a restaurant and was using their railway condo as a test kitchen. Never mind the $6,000 she’d spent remodeling. Granite didn’t come cheap, even in two-by-three-foot squares.
Her brother Ethan was intelligent, creative and also a complete ass when it came to communal living. Two days after the remodel he’d dropped a cast iron skillet on her imported blue Spanish tile and left a mark the size of a moon crater. Her chest tightened at the thought. Could one feel empathy for inanimate objects?
Just the memory of once finding mozzarella soaking in the tub—heaps of it—made her stomach turn sour. Apparently caprese was on the menu. “Who is their right mind wants caprese made with bathroom-soaked mozzarella?!” she’d screamed full tilt into his face. He’d slumped away defeated as usual.
She hurriedly reached to turn off the burners. It then struck her as odd not finding him at his usual post, leaning nonchalantly against the counter, black plastic spatula in one hand with a freshly lit Camel perched precariously at the corner of his thin-lipped mouth that often twitched involuntarily.
Where the hell was he?! The smoke burned her sinuses as her nostrils flared open. She walked toward the pantry, a huge selling point during negotiations as the divot in the south corner was almost as large as the kitchen itself, with no door. Then she saw the tiny yellow, round pills scattered on the floor. The untrained eye might mistake them for dessert sprinkles. The pill bottle rested nearby. Her eyes adjusted to the dim light as she moved toward the back. Her palms felt clammy, her excitement rising in anticipation of finding something for which she was unprepared. For two months, he never deviated from his daily routine. Once he’d used the green spatula instead of the black one and that seemed odd.
Casey stepped forward into darkness and without warning her foot slid into something slick. She hit the floor hard as the ground rose to meet her, landing tail-bone first onto the Spanish tile. It was too dark to see, but she felt its coolness on her bare behind as her robe was now undone. Ack! What was that smell? She picked up hints of fresh vomit and gas. Yes, that was definitely vomit and natural gas, which she had mistook for motor oil. It was the same, distinct odor from when she’d found Mom in the kitchen of their old house, her body limp and slumped over the oven door.
Casey’s mind reached back on its own. “Bubbles, bubbles, bubbles…” she murmured softly. Bubbles: the overstretched therapist had accidently stumbled upon them and miraculously brought her 15-year old patient out of her catatonic state. Casey surprised everyone that afternoon by laughing aloud after four weeks of just nothing. The site of bubbles floating in the therapist’s chintzy office with landmines of Dada art propped on the edge of her desk was too much, and she burst out laughing. A particularly voluminous bubble hovered past the miniature replica of the Duchamp urinal. That was it. The sound of her laughter gushed forth, filling the room like an overflowing spring. Mom was dead. Yet, she felt elated to be alive.
All she had remembered was a constant, overwhelming urge to scream at the top of her lungs how life wasn’t fair. Why had her mom, the most loving person she knew, been so selfish, leaving them all behind? She’d wanted to burst at the sinews and her heart ached in her chest. But she simply lingered in silent agony. Seeing the bubbles float along effortlessly was calming to her. The quiet anticipation of finding a safe landing pad and suddenly bursting into nonexistence was cathartic. She wanted the same for herself. There was no safety blanket. Life wasn’t fair and that was that.
Casey stood up, ignoring the pain. She reached overhead and pulled the light’s bulb string. Without hesitating, she titled her head back and laughed aloud into the empty space. She longed to recapture that day in the therapist’s office—a feeling of absolute freedom. As the laughter slowly took hold, she looked up knowingly to the back wall of the pantry. There is was, just as it had been five years prior—the largest kitchen knife in his arsenal, jammed deep into the wood at eye level, with a note pinned to the wall on paper torn from a spiral notebook. She already knew how it would read:
I know I’m a failure. I see your face every morning when you come into the kitchen. You were always smiling as a kid. You don’t smile anymore. I see the hate and disgust all over your face. You don’t even try to hide it. I really miss momma and I just want to go away right now. Please forgive me. I’m going out there and I fear I won’t return. I’m sorry. Blah blah blah…
By now the laughter had taken on a life of its own. She stumbled back toward the counter leaning on the white, porcelain rim of the sink for support. Tears started to blind her vision. Trimmers heaved her body up and down. She lifted her head to peer out the window. There was Ethan, crouching under the portico in his underwear. Stupid boy. He hadn’t even made it to the end of the driveway this time. A sorry attempt to overcome his crippling anablephobia.
For ten years, he’d imprisoned himself inside their condo refusing to leave for fear of the sky toppling down onto his head. At first she taunted him until she realized this was his way of dealing with Mom’s death. He once confided that he imaged Mom’s last moments half stuffed into the dark confines of the gas oven, swallowed by total blackness. In his 12-year-old mind this somehow grew into a fear of the sky and its infinite expanse crashing down around his head. He never could articulate his fear of the sky falling as much as she wanted to understand. But after six months it became tiresome. After a year, it was untenable. Now after ten years, she hated herself and him for wishing he’d die young of “natural causes.” Life’s troublesome monotonies fell squarely on her shoulders—bills, groceries and HOA fees. She promised Mom to look after Ethan always.
Casey had witnessed Ethan tempt fate before, which explained the pill bottle, the vomit and the abandoned knife. Each time she promised not to call 911 and cart him off to St. Matthew’s General’s pysch ward, under the mercy of endless sky.
Her anger was displaced by the tension in her tight muscles. Her breathing became restricted as she watched him writhing on the brown cobblestone. Why was she like this? He was clearly suffering. Her head hurt. It was funny, because every word of his stupid note was true. He was a complete failure, and she did everything in her power to remind him except utter the words, “You’re a complete failure.” He wasn’t dumb or creepy or hideous and yet he’d never held a job or even had a girlfriend. His anablephobia (a self-diagnosis from WebMD) kept him off the market for ten years.
Casey kept watch. Listening closely, she heard his faint whimpering. After a few more minutes of waiting for the laughter to die down, she walked back toward the bedroom to find her cellphone resting on its charger. As she picked it up and began dialing, her muscles relaxed and a feeling of relief washed over her.