Content warning–this story is grittier and the language may be rough. The words for the prompt lead to something darker and it may not be for you. You can read more about my thought process, concerns, and insecurities after the story. If you need more of a warning, skip down past the final full image of the boy in the yard to my notes.
The doorbell rings.
The teenager sits in his grey underwear, scratching his crotch, a bottle of his parent’s vodka nestled in the cushions next to him. He’s staring at the screen, the dumb box, his fingers tapping on the remote in his hands, the figure on the screen shooting.
“Wha thu fuuu.”
He wipes the wetness from his lips and stumbles to the door.
“Whoos there?” he calls out, leaning against the dirty paint, years of oily fingerprints have turned the frame black.
There is no response.
“Fuuuu…” the boy grumbles, the world spinning. He looks down at his almost nakedness and starts to laugh.
He opens the door fully, hoping to see a look of surprise at his skinny hairless chest, and sees… no one.
“Anyone there? ANYONE THERE!”
A few birds take flight from the overgrown weedy land in front of the stoop, but everything else is silent. Beyond the yard, there is a fence and beyond the fence, there is a pitted dirt road. Beyond that are trees and forest and Frankie feels the weight of someone watching.
He throws up his middle finger and starts to shut the door when he spots a small square box on the step. There is a sticker on top. A sticker with his name. Frankie. He opens the tattered screen door and leans out, picking it up.
Only his name. No return address. No stamps. Just a plain brown box and a plain white sticker. His name is scrawled in permanent marker and the handwriting is familiar. His leg hairs prickle and he looks back up, into the woods, before turning and stumbling back into the house.
Sitting on the couch, the cushions stained and sunken, he takes a swig of the vodka and licks his lips. It burns going down, but he likes the burn. He rips off the top of the box and drops the torn cardboard to the floor. Inside are black binoculars.
He picks them up, raising them to his eyes, delighting in how the images on the TV screen are suddenly close, pressing against his vision. He looks around the room and can see a fly sitting on the wall.
The kitchen is behind him and he turns to look at the pile of dishes molding in the sink. Little bugs are swarming in the air above the faucet. He can’t make them out even through the binoculars, but he can see them moving. He looks down, fascinated at the idea of looking at the bulge beneath his underwear, but he’s distracted by a note lying folded next to the box.
He unfolds it. It’s torn from a lined notebook, its edges rough, dirty fingerprints on the paper.
“Keep Watch,” it says and the boy looks from it back to the binoculars.
Another knock at the door and this time the teen is curious.
“Hello?” he calls to the door, slowly getting to his feet.
He peeks out again and this time there is a larger box, fat and square. He looks around but sees no one. He looks out into the trees, the white birch bark standing against the shadows of the denser evergreens.
This time he waves to no one, to the forest, tentatively, as he opens the screen and picks up the cardboard box.
This box is thicker and the top is tacked together with a single strip of clear tape. He peels the tape and folds back the cardboard wings. Inside is a camouflage coat. Under that are camouflage pants. They are slick and waterproof and the boy immediately pulls the pants over his dirty feet. They fit his waist perfectly, sitting comfortably at his hips. He puts on the jacket over his bare, hairless chest and buttons it up. It is cold on his skin.
He turns to a cracked mirror with flaking gold in it’s frame. The boy who looks back is dirty and his eyes are hollow. His dark brown hair is too long and tangled and his skin has turned sallow. He has grown tall and gangly in this last year, the shadow of a mustache on his thin upper lip. But the uniform looks good.
Another knock on the door pulls the boy from his reflection. Frankie wants to catch the person now, to know who they are.
He swings the door open wide, not pausing, knowing they can’t get away so quickly.
No one. Only a heavy shoe box with the image of boots printed on the top. He opens them right there on the stoop, glancing up at the trees, listening for some sign of his patron.
Military boots, camouflage beige, leather, and nylon, triple stitched. He rotates them in his hands, his jaw slack. Stuffed in the top of the right boot are thick brown socks, ribbed, and cushioned. He sits down, there on the threshold, the screen door propped open by his legs. He pulls on the socks. He’s never had new socks. His are always worn through the toes and the heel; hand-me-downs and yard sales and donations from Goodwill. Then he pulls on the boots, his feet feeling snug and soft. He laces them up.
“Thank you,” he mumbles to no one in particular, to whoever is leaving him these gifts, unaccustomed to the way it feels on his lips.
He steps inside the door but chooses to wait, to hide just on the opposite side of the hollow core; fist holes through the surface showing the cardboard inside.
This time when the knock comes, he is ready. His hand is on the handle, ready to pull it open.
At the first knock, he throws the door open. The knock has not even finished, and yet there is no one standing on the stoop. No one running down the path to the forest. No one on the dirt road. He steps over a long narrow box on the ground and walks to the right of the porch, looking around the corner. He walks to the far left of the porch and looks around that corner. There is no one.
He walks down the steps, through the weeds to the broken fence, looking down the road through the trees. He sees nothing. He turns back to the house and for just a second, he thinks he sees someone looking out at him from the kitchen window. Someone who looks like him.
He runs back up the path, up the spongey stairs, jumping over the long box, pulling open the screen, and feeling it tear even further. He pushes open the door, wanting to catch the intruder. There is no one in that main room or kitchen.
Attached to the main room is a tiny hallway that leads to 3 doors; a bathroom that is open and the toilet running, no curtain on the shower, no place to hide, his bedroom, and his mother’s. His door stands open; trash and dirty clothes lie heaped. His mattress is crooked on the floor. His closet doors were removed long ago; the closet is empty other than a few broken hangers.
Then he turns to the closed door across from his. It’s been months since he opened it; the smell has faded in time. Whoever he saw in his window, if they’ve gone to hide in there, will know what he’s done.
His stomach drops. It was only a matter of time.
“Hey mom, comin’ in.”
He cracks the door, unsure.
There is his mom, lying on the bed.
“Hi, Mom.” He’s quiet and looks at his feet. “You ain’t seen anyone, right?” He’s trying not to sway.
He doesn’t want to look at her so he looks around her. No one in the corners. No one standing over her in horror. The closet door is still half off the hinges. The smell isn’t so bad anymore.
The bed is black in his peripheral vision. There are splatters on the wall and he can see a shadow of her humped form.
He turns on his heel and stumbles out the door, shutting it with a click before vomiting down the wall; mostly vodka.
He walks back to the front door, grabbing the bottle from the couch on his way. He drains what is left, perhaps a full quarter of the bottle, and throws it against the wall. It shatters, the glass pieces lay sparkling on the floor.
He remembers the box, the long narrow box, sitting on the front step. He opens the front door and there it sits with a tiny red bow on top; the self-stick kind from Christmas. It is flattened and creased. He bends to pick up the box, but it is heavy. Surprisingly heavy.
He steps out, looks around, still feeling the weight of someone watching, but not knowing where. He picks it up, the balance is awkward, heavy at one end. He brings it in, setting it on the couch.
The pleasurable spin of the vodka has begun again, making him want to close his eyes, but the box comes first.
He slides off the top and when he sees what is inside, he gasps in pleasure.
A Winchester .44-40 rifle sits in that box, lever action. He caresses it as he has never been caressed. The steel barrel is old but clean. The wood of the stock is polished black walnut. He lifts it carefully, reverentially, never having seen something so beautiful in his life. On it’s right side is an indented area and he understands that this is where the bullets go.
Bullets. He wants to stick a bullet in that chamber. He wants to pull down on the trigger and hear the explosion. He wants to feel it kick back against his shoulder. He wants to pull the lever and feel the rush of the spent casing as it flies past his ear. There is nothing left in the box.
“Sonofabishhh,” he grunts, just as another single knock sounds on the front door.
When he opens it, he doesn’t look up for a person, he looks directly to the ground for the one treasure he has left. There they sit, a box of .44 caliber bullets.
On the top is a note, in the same course handwriting, “Use them wisely.”
He grabs them greedily and pulls them inside, cackling drunkenly. He counts them.
20. Use them wisely.
He begins to slide the bullets into the chamber and only gets to number 6 when the shooting starts.
The window in the kitchen explodes inward and Frankie looks up from the gun dumbly and sees the broken glass spread out across the sink. He doesn’t feel afraid, not yet. He sets down the gun on the couch when the TV behind him seems to explode backward into the wall. A hole punches through the front door blasting inward and he is showered with bits of wood and cardboard. He dives to the floor. Shocked and angry, but not afraid.
The shooting stops and he waits for a moment, spotting the binoculars now disappearing behind the flat cushions. He reaches up and grabs them, remembering the words, “Keep Watch.”
He crawls across the floor, low and on his forearms with the binoculars in his left hand, the right hand trying to stay away from broken glass. His goal is the door. Time has stopped as he waits for the next bullet.
The door still stands despite the large hole at the top. He reaches up to the handle and twists. It unlatches, but he does not open it. He waits, wondering if whoever is out there has seen the movement. Then he inches the door open, only enough for the lens of the binoculars to peek out sideways. Before looking through the lenses, he uses a single eye to peek between the crack, to see if he can find his foe.
A boy. Another teenager, like him, stands in the middle of the dirt road between the cracked wooden fence and the forest. He’s wearing camouflage and beige boots. He’s holding binoculars up to his eyes. He has a gun, a Winchester .44-40 strapped to his back.
Frankie presses his eyes to the turned binoculars and finds through them the boy who is holding him hostage. The outside boy lowers the binoculars and smiles. The smile is empty, just like his hollow eyes. The boy who looks back is dirty and his dark brown hair is too long and tangled and his skin has turned sallow. He is tall and gangly and the shadow of a mustache stands out on his thin upper lip. His uniform looks good.
The outside boy holds up his hand and moves it minutely, some sort of wave. Then, faster than Frankie could think possible, the boy grabs his gun and points it directly at him, firing.
Frankie flings himself backward just as the door jamb bursts inward. He crawls backward frantically, not noticing the glass and shards of wood that are embedded into his palms. He grabs the Winchester .44-40 and uses the couch as his barricade.
“Hey yuh, Frankie! Whatcha doin’ in there?” The voice calls from outside, closer than the fence.
“Who-er you? And wha-the-fuck do you wan?” Frankie yells back.
“Don’t you recognize me, Frankie? Don’t you recognize your own handwriting?”
Through the haze of the alcohol and his bitter anger, Frankie suddenly realizes why the handwriting is familiar.
Now, finally, he feels afraid.
“Lea-me-ah-lone. LEA-ME. THU-FUCK. ALONE!”
“Are you scared, Frankie?” The voice is closer now, perhaps at the base of the steps. Perhaps on the porch.
“Donchoo come in here!” He is shaking and that pisses him off even more.
The door still hangs on its hinges despite the large hole at the top and the jamb missing below the knob. Frankie can see the edges of a shadow beyond the door. He positions the butt plate tightly against his right shoulder, holding the rifle steady with his left hand, his right hand trembling on the trigger.
“We are harmony, Frankie. You and I. Don’t you see it?”
The door slowly begins to creak open.
Frankie pulls the trigger without thinking and the bullet goes high; into the plaster above the door. Dust and plaster fall to the floor.
The boy outside laughs. Frankie wets himself, just a bit, the urine running down his leg. He knows that laugh. He hears it every day inside his own head. He pulls the lever down on the .44-40 and the spent shell flies back over his shoulder.
“I miss’d on purpose, ya-asshole! Don-come any closer.” He hears the shake in his voice.
Again, that laugh.
The door opens, and there the boy stands, framed in the outside light.
Frankie stands from behind the couch, knowing this is his only chance. He can not miss. He will not miss.
He pulls the trigger.
The gun throws itself back into his shoulder. The sound is sharp and quick. The boy in the doorway opens his arms to the bullet, he holds no gun now. He is only a teenager, with dark brown hair and sallow skin, grown too tall.
He is struck in the gut and Frankie sees the shape hunch over into a ball.
“I gotch-you! I gotch-you, you bassard!”
As he says these words, the boy in the doorway looks up. He is smiling. He straightens and Frankie sees that the boy who is him is whole and unharmed. His eyes are not so hollow after all, they have a gleam.
“I diddin’t miss,” Frankie states. “I diddin’t miss!”
And he was right. He didn’t miss. He feels something wet around his mouth, wiping it with the back of his hand. It is red and bright. He can not feel his legs. He looks down and sees his life puddling on the floor. Puddling the way his mother did when he killed her with his knife. Puddling the way the animals did when he was curious how they looked on the inside.
Sobriety comes a moment too late as Frankie realizes his stomach is plastered on the wall behind him. The boy in the doorway smiles.
“We are harmony,” he says, “just a little wrinkle in this beautiful world.”
Our Prompts This Week
2. Anonymous gifts start arriving at the doorstep
Include: teenager, camouflage, birch, harmony, rifle, screen door, wrinkle, dive, pick-up, sticker
Growing up, I was a huge Stephen King fan. I still am. I read my first Stephen King in 4th grade when I snuck “Pet Sematary” off my parent’s bookshelf. It terrified me and I loved it, hiding under the sheets with a flashlight. I wanted to be a writer like him.
Recently, I reread his short story collection “Skeleton Crew” and I was struck by his story, “Cain Rose Up” which was originally published in 1968 for Ubris magazine. It is the story of a college student who starts shooting from his dorm room. I kept thinking, I don’t think he could write this story anymore. I think this story would be problematic in today’s world.
Then I got these words for Week 2, and it brought up all these questions about what can I write about. What is allowed? Stephen King never had a content warning; do I? Can I make this as graphic as I’d like to? The answer was no and I held back certain parts of the story because I was afraid of going too far. What does that say about me as a writer that I don’t feel safe telling the story I’m pulled to tell? Does it make me too cautious or does it make me realistic in today’s world?
How free can we really be? When do we cross the line? Can Stephen King be more honest with the words he wants to use because of his reader’s dedication? Yes, I think he can. And he’s earned it. Can I? It’s a great question and I don’t know the answer yet. Maybe I won’t ever.
Notes on Possible Endings
I had a hard time finding the end of this story. I had a hard time figuring out who the shooter was. I had no idea that the mom was dead and he had killed her until I wrote it.
One thought was that we never find out, that the bullets always just come from the forest and it remains a mystery. That felt a bit cheap though, like an easy out.
Then I considered, what if the shooter was the ghost of all the other children he had tortured in his life? What if they surrounded his house and he had no escape from all the pain he had caused? Then I thought about all the pain he must have as this tortured soul, and that led to the story you read here.
Once I decided and was headed in this direction, I found another ending that I may try in the future. I was very tempted to change but wanted to find where this current narrative would lead me.
In the other ending, instead of the gifts he receives here, the gifts are all items carried by soldiers in Vietnam (or WW1 or WW2 or Afghanistan). When the shooting starts, Frankie runs from the back of the house into the forest. As he runs, the environment begins to change, the sounds begin to change.
I was considering Vietnam, so we hear the sounds of a helicopter and the air becomes humid. He starts seeing other soldiers through the tropical plants. I liked this possibility, in theory, but it felt too big for a week’s short story. Plus, it brought up the issue I had above… how does it end? This ending felt more Twilight Zone than King.
About the 52-Week Challenge
We are using “Write the Story” by Piccadilly Inc. for our prompts.
Our words for next week…
Week 3 – Mash up two classic fairy tales into one story
Include: fireplace, sword, grove, stroke, underbrush, mourn, seven, friendship, cardboard, giver
Please join us and share! We’d love to read your stories.