This story is by Angela Fonner and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Happy You’re Here
Des reaches for the door to the warehouse where she works, packing boxes. It doesn’t open. She pulls again, harder. This time desperately gripping the handle and yanking. There’s no use. Her tiny frame is no match for the steel door. It’s locked.
Exasperated, she brushes her bangs from her eyes. That’s when she notices the cardboard sign. “Closed. Check website for more info.”
“What the hell?” she says to no one. “Now what am I supposed to do?”She removes her phone from the back pocket of her ripped jeans and makes a call.
“They fucking closed it.”
“No, I’m not joking. Now what? If I don’t have a job, I have to go back.”She felt the warm rush of salty liquid pooling in her eyes.
“I can’t do that, Bob. That place will kill me. Why does this shit always happen?” Her thoughts are whirling around her. Sweat runs down her spine. Heat travels up from her neck and invades her face.
“I’m not a bad person,” she gasps between sobs. “I was a good daughter. My mom needed that medicine. What was I supposed to? Let her just . . .? Oh god. I never wanted her to . . . I can’t do it. If they put me back in the shu . . . I just can’t.”
“Ok. Yeah. I’m ok,” she says, still sniffling.
Trying to calm herself, Des wipes the snot from her face with the back of her hand. She takes a deep breath.
“What kind of chores?”
“How many years? Really? Why?
“You’re right. It’s a job. Anything to keep me from going back. Ok. Text me the address.”
. . . .
Des approaches the end of the lane, where the two-story brick Tudor stands, facing her square on, like a single book end. Walking up to ring the bell, a piece of wire protruding from a broken window screen pierces her arm. Dashes of tiny red droplets appear. As she wipes away the blood, she hears it; the low rumbling growl wafting toward her. Dried saliva and fur cake the inside of the glass door panel. Frozen with fear, Des stands stock still when suddenly, the creature releases a bellowing “Wwwooof.”
Careful not to turn her back, she slowly moves away when a crackling voice screeches from the rusty metal speaker above the doorbell.
“Bubba! Stand down! Down boy!” the voice commands.
Bubba immediately complies but his flaring nostrils reveal his vigilance.
“Who’s there?” the crackling voice says.
Des clears her throat and hesitantly says, “It’s Destiny. Destiny Conner. Everybody calls me Des.”
“What do you want?”
“Bob Decker sent me.”
“Who the (crackle) hell is Bob Decker!” the voice says.
“He’s my par . . .”
“I said who the hell is Bob Decker and why the fuck are you walking up here, scaring Bubba like that?”
“Hey listen lady. I’m just here to . . .”
“Don’t you (crackle) lady me you little (crackle) bitch. Don’t you know who I am?”
“Like I was saying. I’m here to . . .” Des attempts again.
“Wait! You’re that little (crackle) jail bird, come here to be my step and fetch, ain’t ya?”
“Not anymore, I’m not!” The instant Des turns to walk away, the sound of cell doors slamming shut rings in her ears. She stops.
“Get back here,” the voice says.
Des turns to find a body who is completely mismatched from the raspy, meanness of the voice yelling at her from the metal box. Hunched over and leaning a little to the left, the body looks more like a ragdoll propped against a wall than it does a vicious gatekeeper. Des stares at the body, readying herself to catch it, certain it will fall over. And it surely would, if not for the wooden cane holding it up.
“What happened?” Ragdoll says.
“Your arm, dumbass. You’re dripping blood on my walkway.”
“I scraped it on that crappy screen,” Des says.
“Wait lad . . .” Des started.
“What’d I say about that! No wonder you’re a jail bird. Ya got no respect and ya just don’t listen,” Ragdoll says. “Stay there. I don’t want you ruinin’ my concrete.”
Des looks down at the weeds growing through the crumbling sidewalk beneath her tennis shoes.
“Yeah, what a shame that would be,” she murmurs under her breath.
Ragdoll hobbles off. Bubba dutifully follows.
Des becomes acutely aware of her scrape. Trying not to “drip blood on the walkway,” she dabs it with the tail of her shirt.
A few minutes later, Ragdoll reappears.
“Here. Put this on it first,” Ragdoll says.
“What is it?”
“It’s alcohol, dummy. You want that thing to get infected? Here. Take it,” Ragdoll extends her shaky arm.
Des reaches for the cotton swab; her young smooth hand barely brushing the translucent skin covering Ragdoll’s bulging blue veins.
The sting from the alcohol makes Des wince.
“Baby,” Ragdoll says.
Des darts her a look only to see the quaking crooked fingers fumbling to peel the paper wrapping from the band-aid.
“Here. Give me that,” Des says.
Ragdoll hands it over.
“I coulda done that, ya know,” Ragdoll says.
“Yeah, I know. But this cut woulda been healed by the time you did.”
Des could feel the slight upturned smirk creep across her face.
“Well. Come on in, then. Let’s get to it,” Ragdoll gives the aluminum door frame a shove with the end of her cane.
Des steps into the entry way and around the corner leading to the enormous living room. Plaster is crumbling from the walls. The air in the room is thick. Everything smells dusty. It reminds her of the antique shops her mother took her to on Saturdays, when things were good. That memory feels like a lifetime ago. Books, newspapers and magazines are piled three feet high on the floor next to a wooden table. Beside that is a sofa where the end cushion is worn through and an indentation is perfectly molded in the shape of Ragdoll’s tiny bottom.
Des accidentally kicks a rusty metal bucket sitting on the floor below a dried water stain under a windowsill. Stagnant, smelly water splashes her leg.
“Gross,” she says. “How long has this been sitting here?” Des says. “No wonder no one’s been in this house for thirty years. It’s disgusting.”
“If you’re so worried about it, you clean it up,” Ragdoll says. “That’s what you’re here for, ain’t it, jail bird? To do chores for me ‘cause you can’t get a job anywhere else? That’s what that Decker fella told me.”
Des stood there, cloaked in shame. She didn’t want it to be true.
“Mop’s in the closet down the hall,” Ragdoll says, her words trailing off as she makes her way toward the indentation.
The walls are adorned with wedding photos and family portraits. At the end of the hall, is a photo of a young Hollywood starlet, signed Love Darla and sealed with a bright red kiss. The adjacent wall is lined with snapshots of a childhood. School portraits, Christmas morning joy and birthday party images, all depict moments of a happy life before the abrupt ending.
“What the hell is taking you so long?” Ragdoll yells.
“Is that you in those pictures?” Des says.
“What’s it to ya?” Ragdoll says.
“You were beautiful. Were you in movies?”
“Was. Til I wasn’t,” Ragdoll says.
“After the accident, just couldn’t do it anymore.”
“Do what?” Des asks.
Ragdoll hesitates before setting her thoughts free.
“People. Couldn’t be around ‘em,” she says. “After a while, no one wanted to be around me, either. Can’t say as I blame ‘em. Probably afraid I’d drive them to jump out a window, too.”
A single tear drips from Ragdoll’s yellowed eye.
“I didn’t mean for it to happen,” Ragdoll says quietly. “Just wanted him to learn a lesson. That’s what good mothers do. I was a good mother. I wasn’t gonna keep him locked in his room forever. It was only a candy bar. I should’ve . . .” Her words fade into thought as she allows herself a moment to feel the pain.
Des sits quietly in the uncomfortable silence. She is familiar with this pain. She has become friends with this pain. This pain has been her most loyal companion, ever since that horrible day when her mother’s eyes failed to open.
Bubba’s wagging tail brings Des back into the moment. He circles to find a comfortable spot before resting his chin on Des’s knee. She gently strokes his head.
“I loved him so much,” Ragdoll’s tears breech the levy of her lower eye lids.
“I know you did. I understand,” Des says, taking Ragdoll’s hand.
“I’m happy you’re here,” Ragdoll says.
“I’m happy, too,” Des says.