SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Carol M. Quinn
We should bring him to a beach, said Henry, put him on a raft and give him a Viking-type sendoff.
We’d have to go to Florida, freedom-loving Florida, with its miles of coastline. We could try a closer-to-home beach—plenty of people did—but the sand was full of snitches and Henry didn’t have tenure yet. In freedom-loving Florida, we could push whatever we wanted into the ocean, and no one would look at us sideways.
Sebastian hovered just above my right shoulder, spectral and round, downy-feathered and dusky purple, while Henry, looking only at my left, made his case. Would I be reasonable about this, Henry asked, could I, and Sebastian fluttered against my cheek.
Sure, I said, I could be reasonable, and Henry left to get his car.
* * *
We’d made Sebastian on a weekday mid-afternoon, early in the semester, my roommate away until dinnertime at one of her lab courses. I remember wishing we’d gone to Henry’s apartment instead; though it was sparsely furnished and a walkup, it felt more adult than my dorm, where the security guard smirked every time Henry flashed his faculty ID to avoid signing in. Even still, I remember enjoying the weight of Henry, all cozy and warm, pressing me into the narrow mattress just hard enough that I was aware of my breath but not so hard that I had to struggle to get enough air. The thought crossed my mind that, if we had a baby, he would have Henry’s round face and weak chin, but my brown hair, and I felt, for the smallest, splittest second, how much I might love him.
One mistake can sink you. Sebastian, in the form of a shimmery green tadpole, floated above us not two seconds later.
Henry rolled off me immediately. “Oh, shit,” he said. “I thought you were on the pill.” “I thought you were,” I said, but he didn’t laugh.
I thought, at first, that we could make things work. Plenty of people tried to live with their hypotheticals; maybe we could, too. The world was changing, I told Henry. People had begun speaking out, actors and influencers, about how they bore their own ugly, shape-shifting might-have-beens, how tending their hypotheticals made them more compassionate, gave them something in common with fellow humans from all walks of life.
Henry was skeptical. “I can think of a few differences,” he said, “between their situation and yours.”
“Ours,” I corrected, while our tadpole turned and preened on the bed between us, shifting from smooth skin to feathers to scales.
For a while, we tried. Sebastian had no physical needs—he was barely tangible, and he shifted his form to suit his whims—but in order to feel secure, he liked to be held gently in mind. I’d imagine him a soft fluffy nest, a candy-colored brain corner all fluffy pillows and rounded edges, cordoned off from any of my more frightening or challenging thoughts. It turned out I was good at this.
If Sebastian did not feel secure, he screamed, unrelentingly, at a frequency only Henry and I could hear. Sebastian’s screams began as a small buzz, a tinnitus-like hum in one ear that grew louder and sharper the longer he was ignored. From a buzz to a hum to a moan to a wail, always in just one ear or the other. We worked out a shared custody schedule, but inevitably Henry would show up at my dorm when he was supposed to be teaching a class, Sebastian a vivid red hummingbird, wings vibrating furiously, shrieking into his ear.
Of course I would take him, and of course there were consequences. My grades were slipping in every class besides Henry’s. One professor, an anthropologist with two real toddlers and a backpack full of her own hypotheticals, offered accommodations and make-up work, but eventually even she seemed to sink a little in her seat when I knocked on her office door.
The worst was my mother. She knew hypotheticals to buzz around people’s heads like swarming bees, to attack their heels like angry dogs. She always drowned hers immediately and never looked back. She was not, she wanted to remind me, in a position to swoop in for the rescue should my scholarship be rescinded. She’d raised me for better, and, no, she didn’t want to meet him. Either him. You know you’re so beautiful, she said. Without him, you’re all potential. You could be anything. With him, she said, I was used chewing gum, a blooming rose with half the petals plucked off, a white dress with a giant coffee stain down the front. Not the same as I had been, not anywhere near what I could be.
* * *
Henry texted that he’d found a not-quite-legal parking spot a few blocks away, and could we please walk out to meet him? We took the stairs instead of the elevator, exited through the side door to avoid having to meet the security guards’ eyes. As I stepped out to the quiet street, Sebastian, still a feathered blob, hovered close to my ear.
“You could fly away,” I suggested. “See what happens.”
He just bobbed up and down, reproaching me with all the longing for a hug his birdlike eyes could muster. Where would he go? Without me and Henry, Sebastian didn’t exist.
“Okay,” I told him. “Your call.”
Henry seemed agitated and sweaty, but he opened the passenger door for us like a gentleman. Sebastian flitted over the headrest before settling down and kittening in the middle backseat. He licked the gray fur around his pink paw pads and gave me an unblinking look.
“That took forever.” I buckled my seatbelt and put my hand over Henry’s on the steering wheel. “Everything okay?”
“Unbelievable traffic,” he said, “if you can believe it.”
I couldn’t. The streets around us were empty and quiet. He smiled unpleasantly, showing all his tiny top teeth. Sebastian offered me a pity-filled head tilt, his eyes glowing orange-red. He made a helpless gesture, paws in the air. He didn’t like the eyes, I could tell. They came from Henry, from whatever kind of bad energy he was putting out.
I’d never felt scared with Henry, and I didn’t then, either, but a faint unease tickled down my neck. I looked back to make sure that it wasn’t Sebastian teasing me, but he just sat quietly, looking out the window, his eyes reflecting flame-like in the glass. He was curious, I knew, about the wider world, wanted more than the limited bits Henry and I had given him.
“I brought Combos,” I said. Henry had mentioned once that he loved them. “And Red Vines. Diet Coke and potato sticks.” M&Ms, too, but those were for me.
“Look,” Henry said. He checked the rearview mirror, avoiding Sebastian’s eyes. “This is going to be a long drive.”
“Hence the snacks.” I turned back to Sebastian. “You’d like Combos, I think. There’s this coating on them that sticks to your teeth and makes your tongue feel weird.” I tossed one back to him, and it fell through his upturned paws, landed with a tiny thud in the seatwell.
He looked at me then with such naked longing that I had to turn around and catch my breath. It was hard to know what was cruel and what wasn’t.
“Could you not?” Henry said. “It’s a pain to clean back there.”
A very specific feeling welled up in me then. I didn’t like it and didn’t want it, but, still: there it was.
“Henry,” I said.
His mouth was set in a grim line. “Henry.”
His shoulders were taut, rigid. “I want to stop at my mom’s.”
“No,” he said.
Sebastian, in the back, shrank down small. He didn’t like it when Henry and I argued, and so I tried not to.
“I need to. I need to stop at my mom’s. I can’t . . . I need her to see him. I’ll text, let her know we’re on our way.” I spoke to the passenger side window, watching my reflection mouth the words.
“Tell me which exit.” He said it without looking at me, but he said it.
* * *
She stood at the screen door, watching. When Henry pulled into the narrow driveway, her silhouette scurried off and the porch light flicked on. I held out a hand to Sebastian, who clambered up my arm and came to rest on my shoulder, claws digging in sharper than any real kitten’s. “Behave,” I breathed at him, “with Grandma.” His eyes cooled to a sea-glassy green.
“Grandma,” said Henry. “Fantastic.”
He knew my mother only from the character profile essay I’d written for his class, which was not a close enough relationship for him to make assumptions. “You behave, too,” I said.
She held the door open as we trudged up the porch. “Get inside, please. The neighbors didn’t ask for a show, so we won’t give them one, okay?” She ushered Henry into the living room, then pulled me in for an embrace. “So stupid,” she whispered, her arm squeezing around my shoulders. I hugged her back, tight. Sebastian gingerly patted her hair.
“It’s very kind of you,” Henry said, “to have us over on such short notice.” He wore his charm as a protective carapace; unfortunately for him, my mother trusted no one, least of all the ingratiating.
She looked at him with open contempt. “Please,” she said, finally, “have a seat.” Though she quit smoking shortly after I was born, her hands still moved as though they should be holding a cigarette. She gestured loosely to the living room’s centerpiece, a large, yellow-upholstered armchair.
I blinked, placidly, at Henry’s questioning look. I had my own reasons for being here; this was between the two of them.
“Thank you,” he said. “Yes, I will.”
“You,” said my mother, turning to me. “Will come to the kitchen. We’ll get cookies.” She looked again at Henry, narrowing her eyes. “And iced tea.”
In the kitchen, my sneakers squeaked on the linoleum floor, yellow squares scattered with brown and once-green flowers. Sebastian dug his claws deep into my neck and shoulder while my mother pulled an open package of Oreos from the pantry closet. She filled a plastic pitcher with tap water and dumped in eight scoops of powdered iced tea mix, and a part of me was glad, thinking about the face Henry, a sweet tea connoisseur, would make when he tasted it. “Okay,” she said, stirring vigorously so that the crystals dissolved in the water and the liquid turned a pale clear brown. “Why are you here?”
When I shrugged, Sebastian giggled, so I bounced my shoulder up and down a few more times. His fur was soft and tickly against my ear and cheek, but his teeth were getting pointier. “I wanted you to meet him,” I said, “before—”
She shook her head and grabbed three plastic tumblers from the drying rack, looked pointedly toward the living room. “You thought that one was going to rescue you from boredom,” she said. “And now you think I’m going to rescue you from him.”
She was wrong, but she wasn’t. I’d felt powerful the first time I looked at Henry from across the little desk in his office, instructing him with my eyes to touch my hair, to reach for my arm. To kiss me, which he had, urgently and with much tongue. I gave myself fully over to the illusion that I had made something happen. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I’d just ceded control, handed myself off to someone else.
Sebastian kneaded his paws just above my clavicle, and I was momentarily reassured.
We’d made something happen, Henry and I. The proof was sitting on my shoulder.
“I don’t know why,” my mother said, “you’re always waiting for someone else to help you.”
I followed her out to the living room, and we sat together on the couch across from Henry. Sebastian climbed down my arm to sit between us, and I willed him not to get too comfortable, too quickly. He thinned and trembled himself into a furry stalk of corn.
My mother looked at Henry frankly, appraisingly. In response, he stared at his own well-manicured fingers, drumming nervously on his expensively-denimed knees. She did not have to say anything to get her points across, but she had some things to say, all the same.
“You let this drag out,” she told him, “for far too long.” She offered Henry a cookie, directly from the package.
Henry shook her off. “With all due respect,” he began, in a tone of gentle rebuke that drew from my mother a richly deserved snort, “this visit was not my idea.”
My mother smiled. She held out the cookies again, and Henry, to my surprise, reached forward.
“You took advantage,” my mother said, “of my daughter.”
Henry grasped an Oreo between two fingers, ran his thumb along the bumpy edge.
I didn’t think my mother’s statement was quite true, and neither did Henry (most likely, neither did my mother), but all three of us could see how easily such a narrative could settle over the situation at hand. Sebastian’s ears began to grow, while his body shrank and cutened until he resembled a fennec fox.
“I’m not threatening,” my mother continued. “I’m just reminding. Both of you need to be at peace with any decisions being made.”
Henry said nothing, but he reached forward and placed his cup on the coffee table, no coaster, no napkin underneath. He popped the cookie into his mouth and chewed, which may not have been the right move; it’s hard to look at all intimidating with a mouthful of crumbs. I listened to the muffled crunching and kept my gaze on my own knees.
Sebastian’s cartoon ears twitched in my direction. If he were real, I’d have bounced him on my lap. Instead, I banished that thought real quick and pictured for him a calm room, white walls and white curtains, a soft bed with white linens.
“None of this,” Henry said, “is what I wanted.”
My mother cast me a look of disbelief that I pretended to ignore. At first, it had seemed as though Henry would be easy, and he had been: handsome enough, kind enough, all clean shirts and clean shave and never a loud voice. But that night I saw him through my mother’s eyes, and what I saw was, in fact, more albatross than steppingstone.
Henry swallowed roughly, cleared his throat. “I might could use your restroom?” he managed.
“Indeed you might,” she said, a mocking tinge to her words. “Please excuse the mess.” She pointed the way, and we listened to Henry’s footsteps creak down the hallway until the bathroom door shut.
She looked at me. “Set your sights higher next time, please.”
I laughed, touched that she was already imagining a future for me beyond Henry, and a little bit sad at how that imagined future seemed to repeat so many of the mistakes I’d already made. In response, she handed me the car keys that she’d slipped, earlier, from Henry’s jacket. “Go back to school. Or go somewhere else, I don’t know. Leave your man, and leave that thing with him.”
Sebastian bared his pointy fox teeth, and my mother chuckled. “No offense,” she said, “but this is about her, not you.”
At that, he shrank down to the size of a tiny pebble, fitting easily into the pocket of my cut-offs. I patted him gently through the denim. “Mom,” I said. “You’re being really rude.”
The pipes groaned as Henry turned on the hot water. Then, the sound of the doorknob moving up and down, the door itself pushing against its hinges.
“Tell me,” I said, “you didn’t lock him in there.”
My mother shrugged, then raised her voice, turned her head in the direction of the hallway. “Oh, dear,” she called. “Is that door sticking?”
I wondered if, for Henry, the walls were moving just barely perceptibly closer and closer, the mildew beginning to flower faster. I wondered if, in the terrible lighting, he looked into the mirrored medicine cabinet over the sink, at his own bloodshot eyes, at the patchy stubble dotting his cheeks as though something animal wanted to take over the veneer of civility he was working so hard to maintain. I wondered if Henry, looking at his own reflection, wondered how he’d gotten here, and if that moment of introspection might be a seed for him that blossomed into a kind of deeply felt compassion for all of us, for every poor human just sort of doing his or her best with life’s twists and turns, and then I felt a vibration in my pocket as Sebastian turned into a wasp. You’re right, I thought at him. Probably not. I tented the pocket into a little cave’s mouth to set him free, and he crawled out, oversized stinger pointing proudly up.
“You might be wrong.”
My mother nodded. “I might.” “You don’t know for sure.” She agreed. “I don’t.”
Henry pounded on the bathroom door. Sebastian rubbed his forelegs together, brushed first the left, then the right, over his antennae.
“Oh, dear,” my mother called to Henry, her voice plasticky with concern. “Let me see if I can come help you. I don’t even close that door anymore. I’m so sorry; I should’ve warned you.” She turned to me. “He has a plan for the way he wants things to go. Like it or not, I know you, and I’m getting the sense that you are not in agreement.”
* * *
Henry’s eyes were wide, his voice raw with the injustice of it all. “She locked me in the bathroom,” he said. “Jesus fucking Christ, your mom locked me in the bathroom.”
In the presence of Henry, Sebastian had resumed his kitten-like form. Now, he curled into a ball in the seatwell behind the driver’s side. His eyes, a murky fish-tank green, sank luxuriously closed, then opened again, slowly, every few minutes. He did not purr, but seemed otherwise content.
“Henry,” I said, doing my best to sound, as he preferred, reasonable. “The door sticks. If she wanted to keep you there, she would’ve kept your keys.”
“Right,” he said. “The keys that I dropped.” He turned to me with an unpleasantly diagnostic look. “I’m sorry,” he said. “She must have been a lot to grow up with.”
“Maybe you could keep your eyes on the road?”
Sebastian yawned, unfurling his tiny cat tongue, the curved white spines standing on end before falling back. He lazily swiped a paw over one ear, met my eyes. Sebastian was more mine than Henry’s. He was, in fact, more mine than Henry’s, and it was better to be honest late, I supposed, than never.
“I want to keep him,” I said.
“You’re tired,” Henry said. He adjusted the airflow on the driver’s side vents. “We can talk about it when we get to the beach.”
“No,” I said. “I want to talk about it now.” Sebastian watched, and I looked away, slumped down in my seat.
“I’m not having this conversation,” he said. “Now,” I asked, “or ever?”
And when he didn’t answer, I made my decision.
“Henry,” I whispered, “I think . . . I think I don’t feel so good.”
“Did your mother poison you?” he asked. “Because I wouldn’t put it past her.”
We pulled off the highway into a half-circle of packed-down dirt that hosted three warped-wood picnic tables, a vending machine, and a small shed that, presumably, housed the bathrooms. Henry parked under a streetlight at the far end of the half-circle. I opened my door and shifted my body toward the buzzy night air, alive with chirping insects, then rested my head down between my knees. Henry shut the engine, but left the keys in the ignition, as careless at the end as he had been at the beginning. We were haloed in yellow from the streetlight. “Henry,” I whispered. “In the trunk? I think there are plastic bags.” I looked over at him. “Please?”
I was quick, after he got out. I squirmed and shifted, pulled my door and his shut, pressed the parent-control button to lock the doors. Outside the car, Henry froze. Inside, Sebastian darted past the middle console and up my arm. Henry pulled the driver’s side handle, paused, and pulled again. Sebastian reached my shoulder and began to shift, his fur tickling away into something hairless and pebbled. He kept moving, and I felt a thousand tiny pinpricks against the back of my neck, a five-limbed, curling suction.
Henry slammed both fists against the roof, and the car trembled. In that moment, he hated me, and the realization hit with such obviousness that I was almost glad. It was freeing, the way he looked at me and Sebastian as though we were obstacles blocking his path to . . . well, what?
Did he think he was headed for stardom? Was he under the delusion that he was smart or interesting or attractive? Did Henry honestly believe that he, or any of us, deserved an easy life? I almost wanted to call my mother, just to hear her snort over it.
Sebastian clung tight. I nuzzled my head back a little, kind of petted him gently with a raised shoulder. Outside the car, Henry stuffed his meaty hands into the pockets of his jeans, and it took great effort not to laugh.
I raised my chin, directed my voice to the one-inch opening at the top of the window. “You have your wallet?”
His body was rigid. “You’re gonna steal my car now?” “You gonna report me?”
He pointed to the glove compartment, which contained his wallet, soft black leather. It was thick with old receipts and every laminated or plastic card Henry had ever received, and so I opened it and showily rifled through. “ID,” I said. I held it up and sent it flying through the window gap. Henry bent down for it, muttering curses, and I said, “Credit card.” Since he was already on his knees, the credit card sailed over his head and he had to turn around and scramble. “ATM,” I said, after he found the credit card and turned around again, and this I sent out gently, so that it fell nearly under the car, and after he found that, he rocked back on his heels and looked up at me through the window as I pushed out one final card. “Health insurance,” I explained, because I’m not a monster.
Sebastian inched down off my neck and over the headrest. He moved to the back seat and assumed the quivering, pulsing shape of a blobfish. He was trying to cheer me up and not doing a half bad job of it.
“Do you even know how to drive?” Henry asked.
I shrugged. If he had figured it out, surely I could, too.
Henry stood and looked at me, arms crossed. Here was an utterly average man, confronting in real time the limits of his own power. But I was learning something, too. I’d recognized from the beginning that he was lonely, but I hadn’t realized how deep his loneliness went, or how precarious he felt. He’d seemed to be a grownup. I’d thought, most of the time we were together, that he knew what he was doing. But now, he looked small to me, and young. He was winging it, I realized, just as much as I was.
“Goodbye, Henry,” I said, and to his credit he smiled a little bit, even waved.
Sebastian and I accelerated onto the highway, and a little piece of my soul I hadn’t even realized was caged leapt up free, ecstatic. Sebastian, though, fell off the back of my neck and dropped, pebble-like, into the cupholder in the middle console.
I would have liked to promise him the world, but he wasn’t wrong to have his doubts. So instead, I decided to be as honest with my little pebble baby as my mother had always been with me.
I told him that I didn’t know what would happen next, and that I couldn’t promise to keep him safe, but that I would try. No matter what, I told Sebastian, I would be here, with him, for all of it. He could stick around, I told him, for as long as he wanted, or as short.
He trembled and clattered against the hard plastic. I kept my left hand on the steering wheel and, with my right, reached for Sebastian and clasped him tight in my fist. “Baby,” I whispered, soothingly. I stuffed my little pebble tightly into my bra, so close to the beating heart of me that I could almost feel him breathe. He pressed hard against my ribs, and I pressed my foot hard against the gas pedal, pushing us forward, I hoped, toward a future where maybe we could still be anything we wanted.
Carol M. Quinn’s fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Greensboro Review, Grist, The Normal School, Orca, and Border Crossing, among others. Her flash, “Epilogue,” was a winner of the 2019 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in New York with her family.