I am not a semi-finalist in the Write Michigan short story competition. I am however, excited to read these competition pieces. The judging opens up to the public later today, but you can start reading now. As promised, my submission is below. Make sure to take time to visit the Write Michigan site… it’s hard to pass up 30 short stories begging to be read.
Leave the Light On
Stevie shuffled quickly, his body betraying him more as his need for release increased. The longer his strides, the harder it was to keep from peeing himself. So he finally settled on a leg-locked powerwalk that made him feel like the fastest granny at the mall. The imagery did not lift his spirits, as it was overpowered by the fear of having to get through the last two periods of class in urine-soaked khakis.
He could feel his muscles quaking, spasms that signaled the last effort they had left to give. If only Ms. Richmond had let him go sooner. In her mind, she had given him ample time to reach the bathroom. The trouble was that Stevie didn’t go to the bathroom nearest Ms. Richmond’s classroom. Stevie was in 4th grade and graduated to the Southern Corridor, where fourth through sixth grades shared the halls and bathrooms. And though he had graduated another grade higher, Morris Beckett had not.
“Of course he’s a bully, what else would you expect from a guy named Morris?” Alex was fond of repeating this at the lunch table. Stevie usually began the conversation one of a number of statements, each revolving around “But why me? I didn’t do anything to him, so what’s his deal?” They ever reached a conclusion as to Morris’ issues.
Stevie decided his best course of action this year was avoidance. Avoidance, he learned, came with a price as he raced along from the Southern Corridor through the Commons and rounding the corner into the Northern Corridor. His muscles screamed, soon, they would simply give out and Stevie would have a new problem to contend with.
He grabbed the door marked BOYS and threw it open. Though his muscles screamed, and he feared yearlong embarrassment at the hands of his classmates, he waited. The lights in the bathroom were automatic and needed to register movement and light before powering on. He knew the bathroom well enough to find his way in the dark, yet he waited. Standing on trembling legs, waiting for the sound of electricity, Stevie stared into the darkness. Right before the click of the lights flicking themselves on, he heard something else.
There was a chittering sound, as if whatever it was knew the lights were about to come on, and didn’t want to be there when they did. Stevie used to think it was just a part of the mechanism that turned the lights on, but none of the other bathrooms made that sound. Every time, his brain reminded him that there were other bathrooms, and every time, he reminded his brain that there was no oddity he could think of that made him prefer a run-in with Morris.
The door hadn’t even begun to close as Stevie ran across the room, grunting as he fought with his underwear and releasing an audible sigh of relief as the stream hit the bowl. His head lolled back, tension easing from his body as his bladder emptied. He studied the ceiling, an old metal installation. He could see places where rust had eaten larger holes in the tiles and looked like it needed to be replaced, but the school had decided that more paint was enough of a fix.
He moved to the sink to wash his hands. He toweled off and gave himself a look in the mirror, backing up to take himself in fully. If he had peed himself at all, now was the last chance to spot it before someone else did. He stood, shuffling around as he checked himself, then took a couple paces back toward the mirror and froze. In the reflection, a ceiling tile had moved, revealing the darkness beyond. He squinted, and could have sworn he saw large black eyes glinting at him. He turned to get a better look and the tile closed. He didn’t need any further motivation to head back to class.
The rest of the day progressed uneventfully, until the final bell rang and Stevie and Alex made the terrible mistake of being kids that wanted to go home. Morris was waiting on the sidewalk, leaning against a tree. Stevie clenched his jaw and decided he was just going to go past. Morris was the kind of person who didn’t like to be ignored. He grabbed the loop of Stevie’s backpack and pulled, throwing Stevie off balance and stumbling into the school fence.
“Aw, did you fall down?” He grabbed the backpack again, yanking Stevie to his feet like a ragdoll. “Lunch money.”
Stevie looked at Alex, then back to the bully. “What?”
Morris’ heavy brow furrowed. He stabbed the younger boy in the chest with a thick finger to enunciate each word. “Lunch. Money. Now.”
Stevie hazarded a glance at his friend again, who looked equally confused. “I spent it. At lunch.”
The bully hesitated a moment, then stabbed again. “Tomorrow’s lunch money. You think I’m stupid or something?”
Stevie shook his head. He certainly wasn’t going to tell the truth if it was going to get him punched. Morris held out a hand, but Stevie could only shrug again.
“Mom only gives me lunch money one day at a time.”
The bully clenched his fingers around nothing, then punched the boy square in the chest. Stevie stumbled, his breath leaving him.
“Tomorrow then, loser.”
On the way home, to ease the discomfort of walking in silence, Stevie confided in Alex about the incident in the bathroom. Alex understood why he would still be using the “little kid” bathroom, but seemed lost on the possibility of someone living in the ceiling.
“You think it’s some homeless guy?”
Stevie shook his head, kicking a stone unfortunate enough to be caught in his path. “I don’t know who is up there… or what.”
“What do you mean ‘what’?”
“What if it’s not a him, but an it?”
Alex stopped in his tracks, wide eyed. “Hang on. You think the thing in the ceiling might actually be a thing?”
Stevie shrugged. “I told you. I don’t know what it is. But it’s there. I saw it.”
Alex nodded. “I believe you.”
Stevie smiled and they began to walk again.
“So what do we do?”
“We have to trick it out of hiding.”
Stevie drifted through the rest of the evening. His mind was on trying to figure out how to lure whatever it was out of hiding. Normally, he would have been able to pass the night unnoticed, but his mom had made chicken and dumplings for dinner. It was his favorite meal, the kind of favorite that he would rearrange other plans so he didn’t miss out. His lack of enthusiasm was the first thing to be picked up on. Second was the hesitation when his parents inquired about it.
When dinner was served and the smell filled his nostrils, it turned out that the day’s problems were still no match for mom’s home cooking. There was something almost magical about chicken, flour and broth somehow culminating into a creamy masterpiece that was – to a child – much like eating tiny, flavorful clouds. Stevie had declined pizza parties on more than one occasion to instead enjoy a quiet dinner at home with his parents because his favorite was on the menu.
After his first bowl and on the way to seconds, his father inquired again. This time, a bowlful of heaven grounding him to present affairs, he shrugged.
“Just having some trouble at school.”
His father smiled. “Girl trouble, I hope.”
The smile faded when Stevie shook his head.
“Is it anything your mother or I can help with?”
Again, the boy’s head shook. His father paused, and then reached out, caressing the boy’s shoulder. Their eyes met and his father smiled warmly.
“If there is anything I can do – even if you just need to talk – you just say so, ok?”
Stevie smiled back, and nodded, making his father feel like he’d done his job. But there was nothing in the world that his father could do to fix this. He didn’t even know how to approach it. Nothing in Stevie’s eight long years on Earth had prepared him to deal with such conversations with his father. He didn’t think ‘there’s something living and hiding in the bathroom I use to hide from the school bully and I want to find out what’ would go over very well, so he decided a smile and a nod was just as well.
After America’s Funniest Videos, he brushed his teeth, kissed his parents goodnight and went to bed. He laid there, listening to the sounds of the house wind down around him. His parents were still watching television, but they turned the volume down and he could hear the basic elements of their voices through the wall as they talked about something. His mother’s laughter twinkled through the drywall to his ears and ushered him on to sleep.
At school the next day, he and Alex resumed their daily practice of avoiding Morris. It was mostly Stevie’s practice, but if Alex was with him, he followed suit. During lunch, he told Alex his plan: to stay after school to see if he could lure “it” out of the ceiling. But he needed someone to guard the bathroom door. Alex only agreed when Stevie said he didn’t have to actually go into the bathroom.
After the last bell, they met in the hall and waited. It didn’t take long for the halls to clear.
Like usual, he opened the door and waited for the lights to come on. And like usual, he heard the chittering but when the lights came on, it was just a bathroom. He gave Alex a look and then went inside, listening to the door close slowly behind him.
It’s just a bathroom. Nothing sinister about it.
But it’s not in the bathroom… it’s in the ceiling.
Stevie stepped in, using the urinal and then washing his hands. He could feel the eyes on him, but questioned whether it was fact or just paranoia. Either way, he took a deep breath and readied himself for the next step. He stepped into the furthest stall and closed the door. He sat down on the toilet seat and waited. He pulled a flashlight out of his pocket and hummed.
The moments stretch out into forever as he waited. Fear lingered at the corner of his wits, ready to lunge on him as the darkness descended. He pushed the thoughts away and continued to hum.
He raced through songs, any song he could think of, finding it strange that he had never noticed that Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and the Alphabet Song had the same music until he hummed them one after the other.
The whimsy he felt from that realization disappeared with the light in the room. His humming skills left him, his voice now just a series of notes caught in his throat and released haphazardly, until they ceased altogether.
His head snapped up and left as he heard something – metal brushing against something soft. He heard movement, and the chittering. Louder and more insistent now.
“I –“ The sounds of the room ceased, surprised by his interruption. His heart beat icicles through his veins as he swallowed and tried again. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to meet you.”
He listened in the dark, a series of soft taps here and there.
Sounds of hesitation, Stevie thought. Then, the slow insistence of paces moving toward him. The stall door creaked open, and again he heard the metal brush against something that sounded very soft against it. Fabric? Fur? He couldn’t say for sure.
His pulse throbbed in his veins, hard and loud. He could almost see the blood vessels in his eyes, after images being forced forward by the building pressure.
The chittering started directly in front of him and – for a solid moment – his heart stopped. In the darkness, he could feel his hand shaking terribly as he lifted it up and reached forward toward the sound.
“I –“ he gulped, afraid, but overruled by curiosity. “I just want to meet you. My name is Stevie.”
He wondered how long he could hold his hand out in the darkness, shaking muscles reminding him of the day before when his bladder almost failed him. He was glad that he decided to use the facilities before he did this. His muscles already ached, and he was ready to put his hand down when he felt a pressure on his knee.
It was insistent, purposeful. It was examining him.
Slowly, he lowered his hand. He touched it and it stopped moving. It was round, and he thought it might be an arm, but it was furry and what prodded him was certainly not a hand. The fur was short, reminding him of the fuzz on a cat’s nose. He gave it a slight squeeze and brushed his fingers along it. Some places the fur was longer than others, almost bristly. When he touched this fur, there was a loud chittering and another limb pushed his hand away. There were other noises as it prodded him with three limbs now, but he did not feel threatened.
He remembered the flashlight in his hand and pressed the lens down on his thigh.
“I’m going to turn a light on. I will try to keep it dark, but I would like to see you.” He began to depress the rubber button on the flashlight and there was a chitter in the darkness as it skittered back away from him.
It was barely enough light to see anything, but it didn’t set off the automatic lights in the bathroom. In the solid darkness, the ring emanating from his pantleg was a beacon, brilliant and bright, and he could see nothing else for a moment.
When his vision did adjust, he saw eyes watching him from the other side of the stall. Large, black pools reflecting the light. And then he realized: four eyes watched him. Realizing that the light was not dangerous, and neither was Stevie, it came in for a closer inspection, allowing itself to be seen. Stevie held back a gasp as it came into the faint light.
It was a spider. One the size of a dog, its hairs golden in the soft light filtered around the ring of his flashlight, but it was definitely a spider. He held his hand out again, still shaking, but not with fear. He saw one leg rise up, reaching –
It backed away, chittering loud as the bathroom door flew open. It was backing up the wall as the lights came on and instinctively scurried back down away from the light, pushing past Stevie to hide in the corner behind the toilet.
“You in here, loser? I want my money!” Morris bellowed.
Great. He turned to his friend, putting a finger to his lips, shushing. He stood up, opening the stall door.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Are you stupid? Sitting here in the dark?”
“Maybe I’m just not afraid of the dark, Morris.” He watched the bully’s eyes widen.
“You calling me chicken?” His fists clenched and he stepped forward.
“Maybe. Shut off the lights and find out.”
Morris pulled a baseball cap out of his back pocket and hung it over the sensor. They waited, glaring at each other. Stevie could hear the spider shuffling in the stall. He could almost feel its anxiety.
Morris whispered, “When the lights go out, your lights go out.”
“Why are you whispering?” Stevie smiled, watching his bully process the question.
The lights clicked off and Stevie moved as quietly as possible, intent on staying out of Morris’ grasp.
“Come here, loser. I’m gon-“ The sound interrupted Morris completely – his speech, his movement, his thoughts. Morris was dead in the water.
“W – what was that?”
It chittered again, moving audibly in the dark. Stevie could feel it examining the situation. Part of him wished he could see what was going on, but he knew it would probably give him nightmares.
“What is that, Stevie?” Morris was starting to lose his cool.
“I made a new friend. It doesn’t seem to like you.”
Morris turned in the dark and ran in the direction he thought the door was. He miscalculated and ran into a wall, meeting the tile floor with a thud. Slowly, quietly, Stevie stepped away, pressing himself to the wall. Then the spider started moving, repeating its noise, shuffling for a moment and then moving to another spot. It seemed to move around Morris, and he seemed very aware of this, as he spun in place, panicking. All the while Stevie thought he heard something else: like the sound his mother made pulling thread through the eye of a needle. Only much more thread than she would ever need.
Morris let out a yell and took two running steps. That was as far as he got. The trap sounded like a parachute opening in reverse. Then Morris fell with a sickening thud and said nothing else.
He heard the spider pad toward him and he knelt. He reached out and found the back of its head, its – what had Ms. Richmond taught them – thorax? He brushed his palm along it and it shook a little, making a small chitter that – to Stevie – sounded like a purr. It turned around and padded into the dark.
Stevie tried not to think about the dragging sound that followed it up the wall.
“I’ll stop by tomorrow.”
He opened the door and Alex stared at him. There were no lights on. Stevie reached out and pulled the hat off the sensor. Alex peered into the bathroom and saw nothing amiss. He looked at Stevie, who gave him a push toward the doors.
“I’ll tell you on the way home, but you’re never going to believe me.”