This story is by Willow Layne and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The crimson circle grew on her corduroy jacket, the pungent smell of rust mixed with sawdust; enough to make anyone cringe.
There were no screams, no expletives hurled, no shards of glass or fragments of porcelain littering the floor. Not out here. He preferred staying indoors… even now.
This was peaceful; loud hum of the table saw; rusty nails, wood slivers, and bent screws scattered along the breezeway concrete.
Sophie spat dust, stared at the wet, darkened sleeve, and turned off the saw. Stupid. She knew better than to cut wood without a push block; now she’d be behind schedule.
A mid-November zephyr played through the elm leaves just beyond the threshold of her workshop. She took off her jacket part way, then peeled the sleeve down her arm with the same delicacy given an overripe banana, blood splatting and puddling onto the metal table.
The cool air hit like a fist; she could feel her heartbeat in the throbbing. She smiled, breathed in the pain, the fall crispness, the thick aroma of cut wood. “What’d you guys think?” she asked them, examining the layout of the wound. “Stitches and bills or a tight bandage and ‘bars?’”
No one answered, of course.
She opened her phone, perused the anemic state of her bank account. “‘Bars’ it is.” Wrapping the jacket ‘round her arm, she went into the kitchen, blinds still shut as though it was midnight instead of midday. Just enough light coming through the turbid window above the sink, she poured a solid glass of Malbec and popped two Xanax “bars” – no, three would be better – with a swallow of the wine.
She needed to dress the wound. She would. “Just a minute,” she argued. “I just…” She stayed at the sink, gazing at the backpack-burdened boy walking along the sidewalk. When did that crack become a tectonic plate shift?
The boy stepped over the fracture, stopped, stared at Sophie’s house, his sneer betraying the unease and fear in his eyes. He hurled a rock into Sophie’s patchwork yard of dirt, weeds, and grass remnants not yet ready to surrender. The rock came to rest near a half-headed angel. He watched, expecting… something.
He moved on, relieved, disappointed.
Sophie moved to the table, tried unwrapping the jacket from her arm; dried blood had glued it in place. How long was I standing there? “Shit.” She looked around the table at them, embarrassed. “I know. I know!”
She grabbed scissors, began cutting the jacket away from the injury. “I was just watching for the sisters,” she said, glancing up at her oldest. “They’re counting on me.” She grinned, the rhythmic snip…snip of the scissors, slowing, slower, then coming to a soft halt.
Only Sophie’s breath now… and the tick…tick of a clock.
SOPHIIIIE. His voice was patronizing. Always patronizing… even now.
Sophie sat motionless, her eyes shifted upward, resting on the back wall. She’d never repaired it, the head-shaped hole. I’m out of spackle.
Three loud bangs, like a sledgehammer against the house.
Sophie bristled, dropped the scissors, grabbed the right side of her head. I’m sorry. I’m sorry! Blood poured down the side of her face. She reeled. Don’t pass out.
SHUT UUUUUP SOPHIIIIE!
Her vision blurred, closing in.
More banging. STOP! CRYING!
Sophie’s eyes were wide, her chest heaving like prey after the chase. The blood on her face was no more. The pounding in her head, the dizziness, gone. Her breathing slowed.
“My girls,” she whispered, leapt from her chair, desperate, reaching out to them. “No. Please don’t go,” she yelled at them. “PLEASE DON’T GO! I’M SORRY! I’LL MAKE HIM LEAVE!!” She lunged for the arm of the quietest one, the daughter whose eyes were pools of sorrow, gentleness… forgiveness?
No one stared back, of course.
“Please,” Sophie whimpered, her arm falling to her side; shredded, stained, stiffened jacket still clinging to the abandoned wound. She stared at the empty chairs, at the undisturbed hole on the back wall; dissolved into her chair. Out of drywall, too.
Sophie hammered the final 1×6 onto the tent-shaped structure. Yesterday’s injury still ached, but she’d dressed it well. And the sisters were counting on her.
She grabbed her sander. “Gonna get dusty over here, girls. Might wanna wait on the porch swing.”
The porch swing remained empty.
The day grew warmer after lunch. She took off her jacket – this one thicker than the ruined corduroy – wiped down the wood, got out a can of stain. “It’ll be dry by tonight. Just in time for the weekend, when it’s the worst for them.”
Her pace was steady; shadows crept over the yard as the sun moved on with its errand. At three-fourths through the can, she checked the time. Shit! Half an hour till school’s out!
Frantically, she finished up, ran inside to the coffee table where the manilla envelope sat, waiting for the last month while she’d worked. She reached for it; saw the round, metal curve of the coat hanger, just underneath the couch. How long had it been there? When did I last vacuum?
Sophie stopped, her hand fell back to her side.
If you’d simply do what I say, Sophie…
Not now. I don’t have time.
She flinched; her fingers reached back, ran along the angry welt on the backs of her thighs. “Please…” The word melted away… like ice on a hot day.
THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.
Her legs buckled, arms flung around in defense of the searing pain across her backside. She curled into a ball, waiting, watching the hanger under the couch like it was the only thing left in the room.
THWA… the front door opened.
“Mom?!” Sophie’s youngest ran to her side. “What happened, are you okay?!”
Sophie turned her head, focused on her daughter, checked her thighs again, now cool and unmarked. “We have to hurry.” She jumped up, grabbed the envelope, and ran outside.
“Mom?” Her daughter followed. “Why were you on the floor?”
Sophie arranged the envelope against the uneven slabs of sidewalk. “The stickers were your sisters’ idea,” she beamed.
Her daughter threw up her arms. “How many times do we have to go over this? They don’t live here anymore.”
Sophie grabbed her arm. “Come on, we can all watch from the window.”
Inside, Sophie’s daughter put away the groceries she’d brought over. “You really gotta stop all this, you know?” she grumbled. “All that, too,” pointing at the Xanax Sophie was downing with a glass of Gewürztraminer.
“It’s Thursday, they’re later on Thursdays. I told your sisters they’d be late.
Sophie’s daughter slammed a bag of potatoes onto the counter. “MOM, enough!”
“My sisters aren’t here! They moved out years ago! Dad’s dead, they left, and… they want nothing to do with you.”
Sophie’s gaze never left the sidewalk.
“I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be mean. But… you didn’t leave him, Mom. You stayed. Year after year you stayed, while he…” she trailed off. “Now he’s gone, but… it’s too late. Everyone’s gone but me. I’m it, I’m all that’s left. Can we please just make this somewhat pleasant when I come over?”
The room’s stillness was aggressive.
“THEY’RE HERE!” Sophie leaned forward, gulping the rest of her wine.
Her daughter sighed, tucked the potatoes into a basket.
The girls were around seven and nine. They held hands, walked in silence. The oldest saw the envelope first, stopped, picked it up.
Sophie held her breath. What’re they saying?! I need another “bar.”
The girl opened it, pulled out the letter and sheets of stickers, read aloud to her sister.
Sophie recited… word for word.
This is for the sisters who live at 403 Minton Lane. My name is Sophie. I live next door. I built you a secret hideout. It’s for you alone. No one else knows about it. Just me and my daughters. But they won’t tell. In your backyard, there’s a hidden gate along the back right side of the fence behind the ivy. I put it in while you were in school and your parents were at work. The gate leads to your hideout. The stickers are for you to decorate inside. I won’t ever bother you. I won’t even know you’re in there. No one will. Use it whenever you want. And when you’re afraid. You’ll be safe there. I’ll put it in place tonight. It’ll be ready for you tomorrow.
Tears slid down Sophie’s cheek, her daughter touched her shoulder. Together, they watched the girls’ faces, confused, considering, then…
The youngest smiled, admiring their new stickers. Her sister stared at Sophie’s house – the house most kids wouldn’t walk by; the haunted one.
Sophie waved. Could they see her through the grime?
The girls slipped their secrets into a backpack, skipped to their front door. The oldest looked back once more before disappearing inside.
Sophie swallowed another Xanax. I’m out of Windex.