Anton Chekhov Award for Very Short Fiction 2020 – First Runner Up
Tiers of Joy
My mom sent me to Carmen’s house with banana bread because her brother Theo died. He had just turned seventeen. Theo was the first person I knew with a hickey on his neck. And the only one I’d ever seen with his eyelids turned inside out. Sometimes he chased Carmen and me around like that when we were little, bloody sockets where his eyeballs should’ve been, stiff-armed like Frankenstein. Twice I wet my underpants. I didn’t want to deliver the bread because I didn’t know what to say but my mom said I’d think of something and to follow Carmen’s lead.
When I got there Carmen took me into Theo’s room. Walls painted black. Posters of Hendrix and Nirvana. We rummaged through his stuff, throwing socks out of drawers, shirts on the rug until we found a stash of rubbers. Ultra thin. We laughed but only for a second. Next we fired darts at the board tacked on his closet. Most zipped into the wood.
After that Carmen said, Let’s play honeymoon. We climbed on the bed and took off our shirts. I’m the groom and you’re the bride, she instructed, straddling my stomach. I still wore a training bra. Droopy little flower in front. We were twelve years old. Any minute I expected Theo to barge in and yell, Boo! His death still felt like a hoax. Carmen’s breath was musky from graham crackers and I tried not to be distracted
—engaged and compassionate, like my mom said—but I felt squished and the cinnamon sweetness reminded me of the s’mores my dad used to make before moving away.
Kissing you is like kissing a tree, Carmen said, sitting up. No one will ever marry you.
We put our tops back on and went out to the garage. Theo’s silver Honda was still smashed from the accident. My mom wants to keep it, Carmen said. My dad wants it gone.
We stood next to the car chewing our fingernails. Hers were iridescent blue, pocked with bubbles and ridges, like a three-year-old had painted them. I recognized the polish because she’d worn Tiers of Joy all through sixth grade.
Figures Theo would do this, she said after a moment. Wreck it so it’d never be mine.
You don’t mean that, I said, staring at rows of see-through plastic containers stacked high. It hurt too much to look at the car. But now I knew for sure he was dead. There were Christmas ornaments in some of the bins, old magazines in another, jumbled toy soldiers in one near the door. The garage was orderly but smelled like something a Dalmatian would dig up.
I tried lightening the mood. Asked if she’d heard about Owen and Kylie.
Who gives a shit? she said.
Kylie must’ve dumped Shane for Owen, I said. Shane! And wasn’t it Trevor before that? They were boys from our class who I’d seen at the funeral, looking muted and clean. Wearing shoes that weren’t sneakers.
She wrinkled her nose, scratched her bare arm. Why are you here, anyway? Some of her knuckles had polish on them too.
Because I care, dummy.
Carmen slapped the hood of the Civic then the side of her head. Tears pooled in her eyes. I wish for once someone would tell the truth, she said. She was bawling by then, the hard gulping kind that makes snot.
Some time back she and I had quit hanging out—we weren’t really friends anymore so I said, All right. Dropped my voice to a whisper: My mom made me come.
Carmen turned away and yanked down a tub. Banged it on the floor and flung it open. Started zinging little green army men at the bent chrome bumper until she pulled a one-legged Barbie from the pile. Clutching the doll she sank to the ground, smoothing its stiff vinyl hair. Then she held it out like a book and gazed admiringly at it, the way I’d seen my dad watch Barry Bonds smack another one home.
Hey, I was joking, I said, kneeling down. But what a rotten thing to say. I’m sorry. Really, I am. I wanted to come.
Prove it, she said. She tossed Barbie aside and scrambled on top of the car.
I followed her up. Pretended she was Shane. Her face was crumpled and shiny. With my sleeve I wiped her cheeks. Edged my thigh against hers. Stayed until she told me to go.
Cynthia Nooney lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2019 she was a Flash Fiction contest finalist of Split Lip Magazine Volume 2 and has work forthcoming in Ursa Minor. She is a graduate of Pacific University’s MFA program.