Plonk, plonk…plonk. Mae shifted the bucket on her bucking wood floor slightly to the left with one toe, minimizing the splash that was starting to soak into her favorite Calvin and Hobbes socks. I really need to get that leak fixed, was one of the thoughts that floated across her mind, but it was quickly swept aside by the hunt for a particular shade of burnt orange. Most of Mae’s practical thoughts were swirling at the very back of her mind. Her left-brain life put more importance on the new sable brushes arriving in the mail next Monday than on winterproofing her funny little house.
Mae loved her crooked, leaky island home. Sure, it had about a thousand problems, anywhere from a beetle infestation in the attic to cracking in the concrete slab it rested on, but who else lived in cozy one-person castle surrounded by a rippling lake and crowned with maple trees? As far as she was concerned, the lack of visitors to her remote home was a boon and not to be lamented in the slightest.
A soft chime from a glass domed clock on the crumbling brick mantle shook Mae from her shade searching. She blinked, breathing in through her nose the faint linger of that morning’s rain and damp moss, and pushed her too-wide glasses up with a finger spattered five different blues and browns. Mae made a face as she felt the tension in her neck from sitting forward too long. Then she yelped, realizing her left leg, tucked under the right one, had fallen asleep some time ago. Carefully working the bloodflow back into her leg, she checked the time. 4 p.m. Leaning back until the chipped white chair legs tipped away from the braided rug on the uneven floorboards, she stretched, her chestnut brown ponytail nearly touching the floor as it swung its way loose from a piece of velvety green ribbon.
“Well, I suppose that’s enough for today,” she said, letting the chair legs come down with a thump. She squinted at her progress on the canvas. Swaths of Windsor blue bled into streaks of eggshell white and pure black on a background of pale yellow. There wasn’t much form to it as yet. Mae had been feeling her way through this one, trying to explore sensations more than concrete images. She still needed the right shade of orange.
“Hm. Maybe orange is still too warm for this anyway. Maybe I need to do another piece…an angrier one…” She continued to muse as she turned from her little corner studio into the tiny kitchen and switched on the radio. Trumpets and crooners from the 1940s swirled around her other thoughts and she hummed while putting on a shiny stainless steel kettle for tea. She sashayed over to the chubby, vintage yellow fridge and began to make a tomato-mayo sandwich.
“CleanSweep Services of Greenville is the one to call for all your house cleaning needs,” a commercial blared into the tranquil space of Mae’s kitchen. “Known for three counties wide as reliable, quick, and thorough, CleanSweep makes it easy to–”
Mae’s hand rested on the dial for the radio. Her whole body seemed to be paused, unable to move through this moment to another. The mantle clock ticked on, the kettle began its whistle, but still Mae could not move. She was caught. And she was somewhere else.
“NOOO!” Mae’s mother screamed.
“Diane, come on back inside, come sit down, ” Mae’s father half-heartedly tried to pull on her mother’s elbow. It didn’t seem to make an impression.
“Are you telling me–” Diane’s grief choked her and she grabbed the police officer’s jacket, as if it would help her grasp what he was saying. Because Cameron couldn’t be dead.
“Are you saying to me,” Diane had to gulp twice more before she got the words out, “that my little boy is–is gone?” Her eyes were wide, mascara ran down the sides of her face into her bleached blonde hair, although she didn’t seem to realize she was already crying. She stared wildly into the face of officer, still gripping his blue jacket. He let her hold on, but he didn’t look at her. He was gripping one of the handlebars of Cameron’s blue bike, knuckles glowing white in the dark.
“Mr. Burnham, I’m so sorry for your loss,” the officer said carefully, so carefully. Like the wrong words could blow up a bomb in his face. “I am going to need one of–” his eyes flicked to Mrs. Burnham, still staring, “–I need someone to come downtown to identify the body.”
The bomb the officer tried to avoid went off in his face.
“MY SON IS DEAD!” Diane screamed, pushing herself back so hard she staggered and her husband caught her. She clutched his forearms, twisting to face him. “Ken, please,” she pleaded, her voice cracking from the strain, “He’s not a body! He’s our Cameron, our 8 year old little boy! And he’s dead…dead…” She crumpled, sank to the ground in the front yard and covered her mouth with one hand as she sobbed.
Ken Burnham and the officer began to quietly talk while Diane lay in the yard at their feet. Shadowy figures began to leave their driveways, heading for the wreckage of the Burnham family.
Mae stood in the doorway of her family’s neat suburban home, golden light pouring out of every window. Her lanky fourteen-year-old body shivered in the late summer chill. She hadn’t grabbed a jacket or shoes, thinking the adults would come inside to discuss things, so she was standing there in boxer shorts and an old college t-shirt of her dad’s. The headlights from the police cruiser were blinding, stinging her eyes. Tears started to form as Mae blinked. Her shivering turned into shaking.
“Mom?” She tried to say, but no one could hear her from the house. Not when Mom was crying so loud and the police were busy talking to dad. She saw the dim shapes of neighbors slowly moving, cautiously approaching. Her shaking got worse and her teeth began to chatter. “Mom?” she said a little louder, but no one turned around. She felt dizzy, the edges of her vision seemed to close in on her. Then she felt a sharp pain in one knee before everything went black.
When she woke up, she was in her bedroom upstairs. She turned her head to look at the Nickelodeon alarm clock on her vanity. 9:37 p.m. Why are the lights still on, she wondered. The alarm clock’s radio was playing just audibly, some 80s rock station she never listened to. Mae tried to remember when she had gone to bed, but her head felt too heavy and her thoughts were slow.
Someone turned the doorknob to her room and opened the door a crack, peeking in.
“You came around quicker than I thought,” said a short, plump woman with a mass of faded red-orange curls like a helmet and an orange knit sweater vest festooned with grey kittens. She was carrying a tray with water and a sandwich as she quietly stepped into Mae’s room and gently pulled the door closed. Mae could see a bottle of Tylenol on the tray as the woman came to sit on the pale yellow comforter at the far end of the bed. The woman set down the tray, looking at Mae with concern and curiosity. Mae squirmed, and winced as pain shot through her left knee. She looked down and saw a bandage over her kneecap, a small dot of blood beginning to seep through the center.
“I’m Mrs. Ortiz, dear,” she said, seeing Mae’s confusion. “I live three doors down. When I saw the police cruiser, I knew there had to be some news about your little brother. We’ve all been so worried, ever since he went missing this morning.” Mrs. Ortiz gave Mae a small smile that was somehow sad and sorry. Her face was nice. She looked like a mother, maybe a grandmother. She had that warm, comfortable feeling about her, the feeling that it didn’t matter what she looked like because she knew how to love people. “Then your mama took the news so hard, I thought I better come see to you.” There was a pause. Mrs. Ortiz looked away for a moment, then took a breath. “Mae, do you remember what happened tonight?”
“How long was I asleep?” Mae asked, the words coming out slowly and too soft.
“It was only for a few minutes, really. You fainted, Mae. Your father carried you upstairs, I bandaged your knee–you banged it on the doorstep when you fell–and then I went to get you a little something to eat. How do you feel?”
Mae was overwhelmed by the sizes and number of the feelings that rose up to be identified. She shrank from the clamor inside of her, keeping her eyes down. Without knowing exactly why, she felt her eyes prick with oncoming tears.
Mrs. Ortiz took another breath in and scooted close enough to put a warm, gentle hand on Mae’s shoulder.
“Mae, dear…” she said quietly, “do you know your little brother has passed away?”
A commercial kicked on the radio.
“….Known for three counties wide as reliable, quick, and thorough, CleanSweep makes it easy to make your home feel brand new! Call now for a special on all floors, carpet and hardwood…”
So this is the first of my Visual Prompt short stories! I’m pretty happy with this result, as it happens. I almost feel like this one was just gifted to me in order to keep me going for the next one, and I will take it! Initially, I felt like I needed to go back to Mae in present day to bring it full circle, but the tension of leaving her in the past felt more appropriate to the feeling I wanted to portray. I hope you enjoyed this! I don’t expect every short story to be this long, actually, so props to everybody who made it to the end. Please let me know you liked it by giving it star or leaving a comment about what you specifically liked (I love that). Okay, thanks, byyyyeee.