SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Lauren Oertel
The heat of the day has set in; it’s baked into the asphalt. The hum of air conditioning units harmonizes with the buzz of cicadas. You’re walking to the end of the street to get the mail, something you skip most summer days, but that narrow slot will get stuffed if you hold off for too long. You hear the rumble of an engine starting, followed by the churning plastic-on-metal sound of a garage door closing.
Your head snaps to the right. The car is on the inside. The door is closing, and you only catch a glimpse of it, the dull black bumper of an old sedan. Nothing else was noticeable about it … except that the engine was started inside the garage, a stuffy rectangular space about to be sealed shut by the large metal-paneled door.
You stop in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at that closed garage door across from you. You look up the street toward the mailbox, then back toward your house. No one else is around. No one else saw or heard anything. You strain to listen for the sound of that engine as your pulse climbs through your body. Is it still running? Did they turn it off?
The screeching silence becomes a faint ringing in your ears.
After you shake your head to banish the image, you start walking again. You’re supposed to be getting the mail, minding your own business. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe the first sound wasn’t the start of an engine. They’re probably fine. You don’t even know them.
You try to think of your neighbor. You don’t know what they look like. You think about how in this neighborhood you don’t know what nearly anyone looks like. Everyone seems to leave and come home through their garage, closing the door after them. No one ever lingers or stands out in the yard to talk to one another. The yard work is done by other people, from other neighborhoods. The neighbors leave their houses through their garages, quickly, silently. Tinted windows hide their faces. But until tonight, they always closed the door when their running car was outside the garage, not inside.
Clutching the stack of envelopes and discount mailers to your chest, you can’t help but stare at the houses on the left as you walk back from the mailbox. Was it that one with the brick and large front window? Wait, the one next to it looks the same. Which one was it? You look down the row of houses all the way to yours at the end. Since when do all of the houses on the street look so similar? And why can’t you picture any of the neighbors’ faces?
A bead of sweat slides down your spine as you cross the street and stand in front of the house that seems the most recognizable. You take one hesitant step toward the driveway, trying to determine if there’s a car engine running behind the closed door.
Is there someone in there on the verge of asphyxiation? Do they need help? What should you do?
A truck with dark-tinted windows turns onto the street, and you realize how awkward you look standing in front of this person’s house. You don’t have any business being at the foot of this driveway. It doesn’t belong to you. To passersby, you must look like a stranger, being inappropriate. Creepy. Someone might call in the suspicious behavior—better move on.
The haze of the heat in the air blurs your vision as you continue down the street toward your own home. Pushing through the door, you’re jolted by the burst of air-conditioned cold inside your house. You drop the mail on the counter, unopened.
Now you’re pacing in the living room. Should you call someone? Go back over there and ring the doorbell? But you aren’t sure which house it was. You start typing and scrolling. The results that pop up ask you to call the suicide prevention hotline if you need help. You’re frustrated—it’s not you who needs help, but your neighbor. Maybe. You’re not sure. You scan the dozens of comments from people who knew people who died that way. Different calculations and estimates of how long it takes for carbon monoxide poisoning in a garage to kill you. Not you, your neighbor.
The clock on the wall ticks louder than it ever has before. You’re running out of time to decide. What if your neighbor is running out of time for their life, though? But what if they’re fine? What if it was all in your head?
Your mind flashes back to just last week. You started your car (with the garage open, of course), then ran back into the house to get your grocery bags. You popped the trunk to throw them back there. For those three seconds, you stood behind your running car; you noticed it: the toxic stink of exhaust that made you cough. Three seconds. And the door was open. But you thought you read that carbon monoxide is odorless, so maybe that’s not it? Maybe you’re confused.
The pacing continues. You can’t read any more stories of people who knew people who died in their garages. The clock keeps ticking.
Maybe it’s not that bad? Maybe they’ll change their mind, and there’s still time for them to open that door, gulp in the fresh air and stabilize their nervous system. Get their brain out of the oxygen-starved fog and keep living. It might not be that bad, you think, grabbing your keys.
You just want to check. Real quick. Just to see. Your finger hovers over the button out of habit. You don’t press it, but instead, get in the car. The engine roars to life, and you sit in the dark garage, waiting for something. You turn down the radio, trying to focus. Should you roll the window down? How does this work? You try rolling one window down. You’re still breathing; your brain still works just fine.
What are you waiting for?
Time is ticking by on the glowing green numbers of the digital clock in front of you. Your eyes start to close, but you’re fine, just like your neighbor is fine. You’re just sleepy from a long day. And it’s hot out. That’s why it’s getting harder to breathe; that’s all it is. Your muscles start to relax, and your body sinks into the cushion of the seat. Almost like you’re floating. Everything is fine. You’re just tired.
Lauren Oertel’s work has been published in The Sun Magazine, Evening Street Review, Noyo Review, The Bloom, Steam Ticket, and The Ravens Perch. She won first prize in the 2021 MONO.Fiction poetry competition, was a winner of the 2022 Writer’s Digest short story contest, the 2022 and 2023 Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference poetry contests, and a finalist for the 2023 Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction. Lauren is a community organizer covering Texas and New Mexico for a nationwide nonprofit. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her partner Orlando.