The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2020 Winners Anthology Fueled By Fire here.
“A Dualistic Dichotomy” by Gracie Bratland, Churchill High School
Second Place, High School Level, 2020
A Dualistic Dichotomy
By Gracie Bratland
Churchill High School
Editor’s note: This story includes domestic violence and suicide.
Her heart was beating in a harsh, choking staccato; he was there, in the stairwell. She detangled the bracelet from her shaky fingertips and dropped it into her apron pocket. Turning towards the cabinet she grabbed a bottle of vodka and a glass. The door swung open, “I need a drink.”
“It’s right here, just one moment.”
He approached the counter, and propped himself up against it to watch her pour.
“Whatcha do today, my little matryoshka doll?”
“I was just cleaning at the plant, you know that I started working weekdays again. You drove me there for the interview, remember?” She finished pouring, and set the drink in front of him. He groped the glass and swirled it under his nose. “What the hell is this shit?”
“You haven’t even tasted it yet. How can tell if it’s bad or not?”
“Because it smells like cow piss.”
“Well, I went down to the liquor store on Sixth Street like you told me.”
“Damn it woman, I said Seventh! This—this is like the trash that they hand out in the ration lines!” The veins on his forehead seemed to writhe under his skin, like bloodworms. Her mouth opened, but her throat was made of cement, so she looked down at her hands. They were like lace, tightly woven, bloodless.
“Well? What do you have to say for yourself? Hmm?” She focused her eyes on the warped wood floor.
“Fine then,” he said, flinging the drink in her face. The cheap alcohol stung the corners of her eyes. It burned her sinuses. It tasted slightly of gasoline. He scanned her for a second, and then headed over to his recliner. With a certain pompous rhythm he plopped down, turned on the TV, and held the empty glass above his head for her to take.
The next day was gray. The apartment complexes, the street, the still water in the sink, they were all one entity: inevitable, impermeable, inexhaustible, imposturous, impending—The clock. It was 6:21 AM. She had some time. She could see him on the street below. The momentum of his briefcase pulled him deeper into the city, like a fat bass on a line. It made her smile, the belligerence in his bloated face was laughable.
She watched until he was completely drowned by the sea of heads. Gazing into the sink, she saw her mother’s thin china plates, the glass from last night, some utensils, the fillet knife. It was 6:52. Time had escaped her, and now she was going to be late. It took fifteen minutes to get to the subway, there was a twenty-minute subway ride, and it took a few minutes from there to get to the plant. Work started at 7:30. She scampered around the apartment like a frightened mouse, snatching up her things, before rushing out the door.
By the time she had reached the metro, sweat had glued her thin black bangs to her forehead. Rather than repelling her perspiration, the frosted, dense fog inhibited the evaporation of any droplets from her skin. So she stood at the toll booth, panting, her sweat overwhelming her complexion in a mirage of translucent boils. The lady inside the booth was looking down at some papers and was tagged with a faded badge. The woman was slightly past middle age, had a gourd of a nose, and looked like she ate a lot of sausages; in fact, the woman resembled a sausage. After a few unnoticed seconds, she gave the glass between them three rapid knocks. The sausage looked up. “Do you need a ticket, or do you have a pass?”
“Uh, I have a pass, here—here, take it.” Her voice was shaking as she thrust it through the slot. The woman rolled her eyes over the information on the card.
“OK, Ma’am. Looks like your train leaves in . . .” she checked her watch, “four minutes.” The sedentary woman slid it back to her.
Taking the card, she muttered a breathless, “Thank you.”
The fluorescent lights illuminated the train too well. Every stain on the faded paint, every vein of rust, every remnant of dirt, of food, of hair, she could see everything. Sitting with her ankles slanted to the left, she pulled the bracelet out from her purse, and placed it in the palm of her hand. It was a delicate little thing, gold plated, a little phosphorescent pearl strung onto it. Her father had given it to her when she was a little girl. It was very late when he came into her bedroom that night, still wearing his blue-gray officer uniform. “You awake, Sweetheart? I got you a gift.” He then pulled it over her wrist and kissed her goodnight.
The train car came to a slow, screeching halt, a light flickered out, and the sliding door opened. Woken from her trance, she scrambled through the catacombs of the subway like a cockroach, frantically searching for the staircase that framed the power plant’s three massive vases. She surfaced and ran. Her white breath and the white vapor that rose from the plant both bled into the sky. When she finally reached the entrance, she took a breath in and pulled on the door. A tepid, suffocating air rushed toward her. It was like a wet wool sock was crawling down her throat, burrowing into her lungs. She fell on the floor in chronic choking convulsions. She could feel the air ripping at the flesh of her esophagus, collapsing the walls of her trachea; fire with claws; a phoenix.
Her mind was clouded after that. She heard echoing murmurs. It smelled like floor cleaner. She felt two arms hooked under her shoulders, escorting her back outside. Out there, the air was crisp, and she tried to focus on the little diamonds of dew on the grass. A whisper fell on her ear, “We think that this job might be too demanding for you. We would appreciate it if you took your leave. No need to come back, we’ll take care of your things,” and with that, she floated back under the ceiling of stone, much like the ceiling of fog above it.
“Honey? Where ya at?” He turned his head toward the kitchen “Hun?” He peered down the dark hall and reached behind him to close the door. There was some disheveled black hair peeking out from his leather recliner. He set his briefcase down and walked over to her. “What are you doing?” Her eyes looked as if they had been veiled with the red-veined wings of a dragonfly. “Have you been crying? What do you even—”
“Don’t lie. I don’t need a hysteric who’s a liar, too.” He grabbed her arm. “Out with it.”
“I was fired today.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Of course you were.” Then he slapped her across the face, hard. The veining on her eyes pulsed down to her cheek.
“Don’t come into my room tonight,” he said, and walked down the hallway.
There was a thud of the lock. She bolted up and traversed over to the kitchen with the tactful silence of a black cat. She began to sharpen the knife. Seven times on each side. She slid it across the meat of her thumb, a thin ruby line started to grow. Satisfied, she gathered the rest of the supplies and sat down at the kitchen counter. She started dialing.
It took fifteen minutes for the three leaden knocks to arrive at the door. Static. Three more knocks. Nothing. The door was kicked down, and an intense light escaped the room, blinding the officers. After rubbing the violent, shattered kaleidoscope from their eyes, they saw it. A litany of shouts ensued as they ran into the room, their wide eyes searching for the predator. The victim had a long knife pierced through the armor of their sternum, it must have been fractured in the process. It seemed as though they had dragged themselves towards the door after the fact; they had left a thick, sticky trail, like a snail. More barks, another door broken down, another struggle, another person silenced, captured, condemned. The procession then flooded out of the apartment, except for one officer, who remained in the doorframe. He turned back for one more look, and saw something white. He walked back over to the body and crouched down beside it. He maneuvered the bracelet over the stiff, twisted fingers.
It would be a great gift for his daughter.