This story is by Alice Neilson and was a runner-up in our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Alice Neilson is a science communication student focusing on creative nonfiction writing for children. She has loved writing stories since she was small but hasn’t done anything with this hobby until now. Her fiction writing is inspired by endless people-watching and snippets of passing conversations heard throughout her days.
Drip, drip, drip. Her eyes stuck to the laptop screen, flicking through the thirty browser tabs, trying to find the one with the good quote that was halfway down a page somewhere next to the weird graph . . . drip, drip, drip. How strange to hear a dripping sound inside? Oh, how she hated dripping sounds, and where the hell was the quote? And why did everything always. Have. To. Sound. So. Annoying?
Maggie slammed her laptop shut and stood up. The drips grew louder and faster behind her, morphing into a trickle as she turned around to face the kitchen.
The sink was full, the dishes stacked to the side; the tap was on, the water flowing. It ran into a stream that trickled over the bench, through the cupboards, down into a puddle oozing across the floor. . . . “Oh no.”
She sloshed over to the sink, slammed the tap off, plunged her hand into the steaming water, and wrenched out the plug.
Her eyes skittered around the kitchen, over the living room.
They landed on the laundry pile that she’d washed three weeks ago and never touched again. She waded across the kitchen, grabbed the two top towels from the pile, turned around, and tossed them in the water.
She fell to her knees and swirled the towels across the floor, but the more she mopped she realised it was useless. It would take forever to clean up the mess. Her mess.
Maybe she could just go get Stephen. But she couldn’t force him up at 5 am when he had work today. She still couldn’t believe he was with her, let alone had asked her to move in three months ago.
He was always saying he could do the dishes. But she’d smile and say, “No, don’t be silly. You’ve got work. I can do it.”
She couldn’t ask him to do the cleaning as well as pay for everything.
The other students in her course had part-time jobs, but Maggie didn’t. Her mum thought she should just try harder to make an effort, and Maggie wanted to. She did. But she didn’t know how.
It had been that way right from when she was little. When she’d stare at the teacher while her mind lept around the room. She’d see the other kids in the classroom sitting with their legs crossed, arms folded, taking in every word the teacher told them.
She always sat at the back to hide her legs because she couldn’t keep them crossed. She always sat behind the taller kids so she could hide during question time because she never knew the answers. It was like every other kid was given an instruction manual on how to be, and then she got put in a room with all of them, and nobody knew she never got one.
She’d watch the other kids fling their arms up in the air, twinkling their fingers, waving their hands. She’d keep her hands firmly on the ground, and still, the teachers called on her. They never believed her when she said she didn’t know.
“Why won’t you try?” they’d ask. She’d shrug and look down, and they’d roll their eyes and move on. She’d hide her face so no one could see her cheeks burning, the tears brewing. She’d stare down at her legs sprawled out across the carpet.
“I don’t know how,” she’d whisper to the ground.
And now the whole kitchen was ruined. The sopping towels were filthy. The pots in the cupboards would probably go rusty. Stephen slept on in the other room, and Maggie just sat in the water.
She should have just started the assignment the day it had been assigned. She knew most of the other students had. She’d intended to.
But like she’d discovered in high school, she could never concentrate in the beginning. That was fine back when the content was easy enough to cram in the night before an exam and the assignments short enough to whip up a few hours before a deadline. Every time her grades came back, they were always somehow good. Sometimes even great.
When the high school teachers praised her cleverness, she’d smile, say thanks, and hope not to be discovered. She didn’t know how to tell them her accomplishments felt like accidents. Like someone, somewhere, had spelled her name wrong. She hoped no one would notice.
But now, it was all different. University came with more class discussions, more content, and bigger assignments. Stephen always asked if he could help.
“No, it’s fine,” she’d always say. “You have to work.”
As of a month ago, she knew her mind was actually a bit different. It was a relief, in a way, to find out the way she worked wasn’t entirely her fault. She’d been prescribed Ritalin. Her mother thought that meant she could definitely work now.
Maggie didn’t know how to explain that it really just helped her get by.
Sometimes she’d find herself asking Stephen if she could play her favourite video game, and he’d chuckle and wrap her in his arms. “Of course,” he’d say. “You don’t need to ask me that.”
Sometimes she’d leave it there. Sometimes she’d protest, wriggle out from his arms and say, “But I haven’t finished anything.”
And every time, he’d just smile and say, “You don’t have to complete something every day.”
He was great like that. She wondered how long it would take for him to wish she’d do more.
At night she’d roam the house, creeping out from the bed where Stephen snored quietly, chewing the ulcerated skin on the inside of her cheek that never got the chance to heal. She’d pace around the rooms while thick webs of words, sounds, colours sprang from all directions and tangled up her head. She’d trail her fingers across the creamy textured wallpaper, imagining it was her feet scuffing through warm sand on the beach she’d go to in the summer break that she felt would never come.
Eventually, the fatigue would fall upon her, filling her head, tugging at her eyes, trickling through her body until standing was too much effort, and then she’d crumple in front of her laptop and start working. She’d feel herself smile when the ideas finally started streaming through her, when there was nothing else to do, and she was too tired to think about anything else.
Her favourite time was 5 am, when the first pink hues of sunrise were just starting to glow beneath the hills, stars still twinkled through the silhouetted leaves outside the kitchen window, and there were only three hours left until her deadline.
The panic would start as a gentle simmer in her stomach that bubbled up into her chest, boiling into a rage that sent her fingers slamming into the keys, her mind focused like a laser on the screen. Until with three minutes to spare, she’d upload her paper, hit submit, breathe.
Not this time. Not with an assignment of six thousand words that she was supposed to have been working on all semester. Not with the piles of housework needing doing that had somehow started crumbling in around her.
She stared down at the ends of her pajama pants lying soggy in the water as the first rays of morning sun streamed through into the living room, spotlighting the specks of dust dancing in the air just above the carpet.
The old wooden floorboards creaked behind the hallway doors.
Maggie leaped from the water and scrambled through the hallway door.
Stephen stood outside the bedroom, rubbing his eyes.
“Were you up all night again?” he said, yawning. “What’s up?”
She stumbled back until her body blocked the door.
“Ah . . . um, nothing. It’s fine. Just go back to bed. You’ve got work soon.”
Stephan stepped towards her, his messy hair bobbing in the morning light.
She clutched her arms over her chest as he reached out and tugged at the top of her pajama pants.
“Why are you all wet?”
He placed his hands on her shoulders, gently moved her to the side, and walked behind her through the door into the kitchen.
She trailed behind him, watching his back as he stared around the room. Her heart thumped in her ears. He turned back around and slowly walked towards her.
She held her breath.
“Can you move, please?”
“You’re in the way of the towels. Can I get one?”
Maggie shook her head, tears brimming in the corner of her eyes. “No, I can do it. You’ve got work.”
He stepped towards her again and reached his arms around her back.
“I’ve got time to help,” he said, gently pulling her towards him. “Please let me.”
She felt herself fall against him and stared down at their feet, standing together on the carpet.
Tears trickled down her cheeks.
“I don’t know how,” she whispered.
“But I’ll try.”