In case I have not yet shared the good news on As Told by Laura, last month I was honored to win second place in a local writing competition for one of my short stories! Although the competition did not include publication, I thought it might fun to share the story on my blog for those of you who might be interested in a quick read.
Typically I stick to short, lighthearted posts, so please bear with me as we try something a little different today. Also, a quick friendly reminder! If you enjoy my writing, you are always welcome to purchase a copy of my novel. Yes, that is my only shameless plug (for today). I promise! Now, without further ado, I give you “Darwin’s Funeral”.
The goldfish swam to the water’s surface and consumed three round pellets one by one. Myra watched in wonder as the fish ate his breakfast, entirely unaware of her towering presence. Despite her short stature, Myra looked like a giant through the tank’s warped glass. Breakfast proceeded in the same way every day at eight o’clock sharp. Never a minute early or a second late.
Myra’s sister never understood the excitement.
“Don’t you ever get sick of watching that fish eat?” Kate ripped open a new box of Pop-Tarts and grabbed a bottle of orange juice from the fridge. “You do realize that he eats the same number of pellets every day, right? Nothing really changes.”
Myra stared at the goldfish as he darted through a plastic neon tunnel.
“Myra, I’m talking to you.”
Kate’s voice was sharp and frustrated, but her sister never noticed things like that. She tossed breakfast and a package of crackers into their backpacks while Myra continued to ignore her.
“What?” she asked, uninterested.
“What is the big deal with that fish? It’s so boring. Do you seriously have nothing better to do?”
Myra swirled her finger in the water, and the fish hurried up to greet her.
“His name is Darwin.”
“I don’t care what his name is,” Kate snapped as she headed towards the door. “He doesn’t do anything. And if you don’t hurry up, I’m going to leave you here. I can’t be late to school again because of that stupid fish.”
She left Myra in the kitchen to marvel at Darwin’s uneventful life and boarded the bus alone. Kate fell into the first open seat and whipped out her iPod. With eyes closed, she nestled into the rigid seat. She didn’t worry about unfinished homework or her upcoming biology test, despite a total lack of preparation. There was only Freddie Mercury and a sweet squealing guitar.
Moments later, the bus lurched forward. Kate opened her eyes. Myra had taken a seat by herself a few rows ahead, like usual. Sprawled beside Myra was her dearest companion, a pristine copy of Quantum Mechanics: Volume IV. Myra had smiled when the package arrived from Amazon, signaling an emotional high. Kennedy High didn’t offer quantum mechanics, as most students were lucky to pass geometry. The complex workings of science were one of Myra’s many interests and, really, her truest vice.
“Quantum mechanics?” Jeremy Doyle asked, reaching over the seat and snatching up Myra’s book. Overly cruel and handsome, Jeremy carried out his daily round of torture with a gorgeous grin. “Oh, I get it. You’re just so much smarter than the rest of us, right?”
Annoyed, Myra stared into the empty seat.
“I thought she was just a retard,” teased Jeremy’s girlfriend, who whispered just loud enough for everyone to hear. Jeremy leaned across the aisle to plant a kiss on her bronze cheek. His steel eyes lit up at the sound of laughter.
“Well? Which is it? Are you a genius or a retard?” Jeremy asked, swinging the book in front of Myra like a dog. A few kids shifted uncomfortably in their seats, but the rest were simply trying not to laugh too loudly.
Jeremy’s stunt grew awkward when Myra didn’t respond.
“I guess she’s a mute, too.” He slid her book under the seat and launched it towards the back of the bus. “I knew you were just a retard.”
Kate watched quietly as usual. Bullies were part of Myra’s morning ritual, like Darwin’s breakfast. Neither could remember what unintelligent joke Jeremy cracked yesterday or the day before, much like Kate couldn’t remember what cereal she had for breakfast.
In the beginning, there was guilt. Kate used to cry whenever she left Myra to fend for herself. But as days slipped into years, her conscience shrunk. Kate really didn’t know whether Myra understood betrayal, but not once in seventeen years had she seen her sister cry. Years ago, Myra had become a sort of mysterious robot in her mind. Easily managed, but never understood.
After the bus emptied, Myra walked to the back of the bus to collect her book. Her sister had already left. Kate slept through first period and failed a biology test in second, focusing instead on her best friend’s upcoming sweet sixteen. After a deafening lecture on molecular structure before lunch, Kate caught up with her friends near the back of the cafeteria.
Kate lowered herself onto the empty seat across from her best friend, Kyla. She and Kyla had shared at least three classes for the past two years. Despite opposite personalities, close contact made them friends. As soon as she sat down, Kyla slid a folded, paper invitation across the table. If possible, Kyla’s box-dyed hair seemed even darker than yesterday.
“Whoa, an invitation. What is this, second grade?” Kate asked, turning the paper over between her skinny fingers. She crammed the invitation into her already full backpack.
“I know it’s lame, but my mom made me take them to school,” Kyla apologized while taking a swig of her Diet Coke. “She’ll be mad if I come home with all twenty invitations tonight. I know I’ve told you about the party like a hundred times, but I just want to make sure you’re coming. It starts at eight.”
Kate nodded yes, her mouth stuffed with mushy cafeteria food. While Kyla rambled on about her new dress, Andy plopped down beside her with three slices of pepperoni pizza. Every few seconds he shook the hair out of his face, revealing two warm, chocolaty eyes.
“Au naturale,” Andy crooned in a French accent, pointing to Kyla’s barren face. “I like it.”
“Don’t make fun of me!” she squealed, punching him on the arm. “I was running late this morning. I didn’t have time to put on makeup. Geez.”
“I’m not making fun of you!” Andy smiled. “I genuinely like it.”
Kyla’s cheeks burned red as she busied herself with dessert.
“Thanks,” she muttered, nonchalant.
There was an awkward silence as Kyla, the conversation ringleader, scraped the bottom of her pudding cup. Kate texted her boyfriend underneath the table while Andy slathered his pizza in ranch dressing.
“Does she eat alone every day?”
Kate followed Andy’s gaze over to Myra. Her lazy ponytail swung close to her food, and a baggy T-shirt concealed her feminine frame. She read between bites.
“She probably likes eating alone,” Kyla offered, spinning around to join the conversation. “Otherwise she would find some friends to sit with, right? Besides, I never see her talking to anyone. Like ever. Maybe she’s just weird or anti-social, or something.”
Kate nodded in agreement. Suddenly her hunger disappeared.
After the lunch bell rang, Kate dodged the crowds and landed in Evan’s arms. Her father never did approve of Evan, as he was a senior and “too experienced”. At school they could be together, despite the scowls of nearby teachers. Evan pushed Kate up against the lockers. He stole a hot kiss while running his fingers through her straight hair.
“How was class?” Kate asked with arms locked around Evan’s neck.
“You kidding me? I hate this place. The only reason I come is to see you.” He stole another kiss. “Too bad you’re such a goody-two-shoes. If you skip class with me tomorrow, we could have a lot of fun. My parents are gone this weekend, you know.”
“I’m not a goody-two-shoes.” Kate slapped his chest. “If I skip school one more time Principal Wheatley will call my dad again. I’m pretty sure he’d rather have a crack whore for a daughter than a high-school drop-out.”
As Evan’s lips traced her jaw, a familiar face appeared out of nowhere.
“Kate?” Myra asked, oblivious to Evan’s demanding hormones.
Kate shoved Evan off of her and fumbled to smooth down her hair.
“Yeah?” she asked after clearing her throat.
“Are you getting a ride from your friends or are you riding the bus today?”
“Okay. I left my house key on my desk, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get inside.” Myra wrung her hands together nervously. “If Darwin doesn’t eat at five precisely, it will take twenty-one days to reestablish his habitual nature. He has been on the same feeding cycle for three years.”
“Uh-huh,” Kate replied while dodging Evan’s confused stare.
“So you’ll be there?”
“Yes, I’ll be there.”
“Darwin can eat at five?”
“I said yes.”
“Are you positive?”
Kate gritted her teeth.
“Okay. That’s all.”
With no warm goodbye, Myra turned and left. Her half-tucked shirt drew plenty of snickers, but she didn’t notice. Evan’s gaze stayed on Myra, the one-woman show of Kennedy High School. “Who ‘s Darwin? Do you even know that girl?”
“She’s just some kid on my bus.” She felt bad keeping Myra a secret, but never badly enough to be honest. “Anyway, I have to go. Another tardy in Mrs. Manning’s class, and I’ve got a detention.” She wrestled free from his embrace and vanished in the crowd. Kate caught up to Myra and grabbed her by the shirt, leading her around the corner by a broken vending machine.
“Hey, you okay? What’s going on?”
Despite Kate’s calm voice, Myra tried to squeeze out the anxiety by hugging herself tightly.
“I’m just afraid you won’t be there after school. Then I’ll be locked out, and my whole schedule will change. Darwin’s whole schedule will change. I would have to call Dad, and he would be so mad that I forgot my house key.”
“Myra, you know that Dad wouldn’t be mad. Every time you think he’s going to be furious about something, he isn’t even upset. Am I right?”
Myra nodded slightly.
“I promise I will be there, alright? Don’t worry about it.”
Kate laid a hand on Myra, and she winced. Without another word Myra ran off to class. She was always on-time. Never a minute early or a second late.
The day marched on uneventfully, and Kate smiled at the thought of being one day closer to summer. Myra boarded the bus with a slight grin, which amazed Kate. Even though she suffered hell at school, Myra always found joy at the sight of the bus. The bus meant going home, and going home meant seeing Darwin.
The bus rolled to a stop in their neighborhood, and the sisters exited separately. After they were far away from the other riders, Kate jogged up to Myra.
“How was school today?”
“Same as always,” she replied without enthusiasm, quickening her pace to greet Darwin. Myra hustled down the long driveway and left Kate walking alone.
Myra threw down her backpack, ran over to the tank, and resumed exactly where she had left off that morning. Kate stepped in a few minutes later. As the bug-eyed fish wiggled up to the surface, Myra smiled at him through the glass. She dipped her fingertip into the tank, and Darwin nibbled lightly on her skin. Unamused by the spectacle, Kate went upstairs to watch TV and find a suitable outfit for Kyla’s party. After twenty minutes or so, she could hear Myra humming to herself through the paper-thin wall they shared.
“Can you cut it out?” Kate yelled. “I can’t hear my show.”
The humming stopped.
Ghost Hunters resumed as Kate tossed countless shirts on her closet floor. Finally she stumbled upon a tattered black dress she bought last year. Short and ragged, the dress had an appealing edge. Ripping off her fitted shirt and skinny jeans, she wiggled between the layers of tight fabric. Suddenly, the high-pitched squeal of some obnoxious classical instrument pierced through the wall.
“Myra!” Kate yelled with her head stuck halfway in the dress. “Turn it down!”
The dress hardly fit, but she wasn’t ready to accept defeat. The shrill note carried on forever and sounded too much like finely-tuned nails on a chalkboard. After stretching the tiny lace over her curvy hips, Kate marched down the hall and beat on the door.
Her sister peeked through the open crack, humming along with the melody.
“Yes?” she asked innocently.
“I need you to turn. It. Down. I’m trying to do my homework,” Kate lied.
“Did you know that multiple studies suggest listening to classical music while studying can actually improve cognitive performance by a considerable amount?” Myra grinned to herself, like she was proud to have a stake in the discovery.
“That’s great, but you play the same song over and over every day. Look, I get that you like classical music and all. Good for you. I hate it. Please just turn it down.”
“Not everyone can comprehend the abstract movements behind the notes,” Myra conceded, nodding her head along with the melody. “I forgive you.”
Her words stung, but Kate shrugged it off with a familiar numbness. Myra didn’t mean it. She never did. Kate walked back to her room after Myra agreed to turn down the Beethoven. The quiet lasted for eight whole minutes, a new record.
“So, Dad,” Kate began, twirling spaghetti onto her fork. “I got all of my homework done today. Aren’t you proud?”
“That’s great, sweetie,” Paul said with a tired smile. Work often left him exhausted by dinner, but he did his best not to show it. He ran a calloused hand over his balding head before picking up his fork.
“I also cleaned my room. You were right. It was getting pretty messy.”
Paul glanced up. With his index finger, he perched his round glasses up high on the bridge of his crooked nose. He stared down at his youngest daughter.
“What? What do you want?”
Kate pretended to be taken aback. Her hair flew forward dramatically as she laid a hand over her heart. Paul seemed unamused, but Kate pressed on.
“Can’t a girl brag on herself a little these days?”
Paul’s fork clattered as it hit the plate.
“What do you want?”
“Okay, so Kyla is having this huge party on Friday, right?”
Myra shoveled food into her mouth like a bulldozer. Paul folded his hands on the table.
“Kyla?” he asked. “Isn’t she that little blonde you’re always running around with? The one who wears her sweaters too tight?”
“Technically she’s a brunette now, and her sweaters are not too tight,” Kate corrected. “Anyway, her sixteenth birthday is on Friday, and I have to be at the party. I sort of already promised her I would help set up. She’s going to be so disappointed if I don’t go.”
Paul calmly began eating again, glancing up from time to time at Kate.
“Who will be there?”
Kate’s stomach did summersaults while she fumbled over her spoon.
“You know, just my usual friends from school.”
“Is Evan going to be there?”
As a cop, Paul interrogated witnesses for a living. There was no lie he couldn’t spot.
“Maybe, if he can make it.” Kate shrugged casually with a sugary smile. “Well, he might be out of town so he probably won’t even be able to go.”
Her father nodded to himself while gnawing on some bread. Myra glanced up occasionally, absorbing the scene like an anthropologist in the field. After a few seconds, she grew bored with their conversation and returned to her plate of spaghetti.
“I know you hate Evan, but you just have to give him a chance! He is really sweet and mature, once you get to know him. You just haven’t been around him enough, Daddy. If you let me go to this party, I’ll never ask you for anything ever again! I swear on my life.”
Their father chewed and chewed on his garlic toast. Kate squirmed in her seat. Time seemed to stop altogether. After an eternity, a devilish smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.
“Alright. You can go,” he announced.
Kate’s arms flew around his neck as she planted a sloppy wet kiss on his shiny forehead.
“You are the best, Dad.”
Paul stood up from the table to fetch a second helping.
“That is, you can go if you take Myra.”
Kate’s jaw dropped. “What?”
Myra’s head snapped up at the sound of her name. She hunched down to scoop the last bite into her mouth before guzzling down a glass of milk.
“Dad, that’s not fair! Do you have any idea what people would say if I brought Myra?”
“I’m sorry, but if you want to go you have to take your sister. It isn’t fair that you get to go out on Friday while she sits at home reading books up in her room.”
“But she likes doing that crap!” Kate yelled back.
“Kathryn!” her father snapped, slamming down his plate for emphasis. “Watch your mouth. I’m not going to discuss this anymore. You can take it or leave it.”
“That’s not even a bad word!” Kate cried, desperate.
She pleaded her case over and over while Paul scrubbed away at a pile of suds-soaked dishes. His appetite for seconds disappeared, thanks to Kate’s persistent whining.
“Dad, please! Myra doesn’t even want to go to this stupid party. Right, Myra? She likes being alone.”
All eyes were on Myra. She moved freely under the tension that weighed down the room. Seemingly unconcerned, she grabbed a Popsicle from the freezer and bit off the top.
“Myra, wouldn’t you rather stay home?” Kate pushed.
Myra didn’t have an opportunity to respond.
“You two can work it,” Paul announced, throwing down a dirty towel. “You’ve got a few days.”
He shuffled over to the ripped couch and summoned a recorded episode of NCIS. Myra joined him. The conversation died along with Kate’s optimism.
The bell rang, signaling the end of lunch. Kate made her way over to the trash can and spotted Myra on the way. With her nose buried in the spine of a book, she moved briskly out of the cafeteria and toward the flooded hallway. Kate ran after her.
“Hey, can I talk to you for a second?”
Myra considered. “Okay, as long as I’m not late.” She cradled the book in her backpack and followed Kate around the corner to an empty bathroom. “Do you need something?”
“Look, about the party on Friday. I’m sorry if I freaked out last night or said anything mean. You know I didn’t mean it.” Her voice bounced off of the pink tiles.
“I know,” Myra answered matter-of-fact. “Dad said you’re still grieving over Mom.”
A hard lump forced its way into Kate’s throat.
“No I’m not. She died like five years ago.” She glanced in the mirror, embarrassed by her flushed cheeks. “Look, I’m not here to talk about Mom. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings last night, but I know parties aren’t your thing. There will be tons of people, loud music, and hopefully some booze. You would hate it. Trust me.”
Myra looked up at the ceiling while she mechanically considered the words. Myra shuffled back and forth on her feet, Kate watching in the mirror all the while. On the outside, they looked so similar. Myra had their mother’s mouth, but otherwise they could have passed for twins.
“It’s not fair,” Myra finally said.
“What’s not fair? That I get to go to the party? If we don’t work something out soon, there’s a good chance I won’t be going. You heard Dad.”
Myra lowered her gaze.
“No, that you have people to sit with.”
Kate’s mind froze, reaching for words that simply weren’t there. With three minutes until the next bell, Myra grabbed her bag and abandoned Kate in the bathroom.
Friday came quickly, and Kate had decided to attend Kyla’s party. With no compromise from Myra, she laid out the tight-fitting black dress. On the bus ride home, Kate circled her eyes with dark liner and dabbed on bright red lipstick. She needed to leave before Paul got home from work. At best, she would be grounded for sneaking out. At worst, her dad might crash Kyla’s party. Still, it was worth the gamble.
As the bus neared home, Kate listed off everything she would need for the night – mainly clothes, a curling iron, jewelry, and some heels. The bus lurched to a halt, and the sisters began their silent march toward the house. Once the bus had pulled away, Kate sucked Myra into idle conversation that lasted until their feet found the porch.
Once inside, Myra threw her things on the floor and raced over to Darwin’s tank. But something wasn’t right. Kate could tell. From far across the room, she spotted a gold silhouette floating on the water’s edge. An unspeakable heaviness pushed down on the room. Kate’s breath caught in her lungs, paralyzed like her mind. From the hallway, Kate waited for Myra to shatter the silence. Soon she would talk about the life-span of goldfish, or maybe discuss the logical factors in Darwin’s demise.
But she didn’t.
Kate watched in shock as Myra displayed the emotions doctors claimed she would never feel.
“Why, Kate?” Myra’s shoulders began to shudder. “I did everything right. I followed the instructions perfectly. I took exceptional care of him.”
The air left her body in panicked bursts.
“What went wrong?” she asked shakily. “I don’t understand, Kate. I don’t understand.”
She laid down her backpack and took a few steps closer. The room was silent. The silence was deafening and the sorrow suffocating. Without warning, Myra broke.
“It doesn’t make sense!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, slamming her fists slamming down beside Darwin. “I did everything right! Everything!”
Her eyes were wild with hurt and confusion. Despite dry eyes, Myra’s spirit had already drowned with Darwin. She crumbled onto the white linoleum and rocked softly on bended knees.
“I cared for him,” she whispered. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Kate’s heart knocked hard against her ribs. Myra had never acted this way before, not once. It was terrifying and new, but somehow the pain made her seem more real. More human.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Myra said again.
“Not everything has to,” Kate whispered, laying a hand over her back. Myra didn’t shudder under the touch. “Things don’t always make sense,” Kate said, knowing Myra still wouldn’t understand.
With her sister shrunken on the kitchen floor, Kate grabbed a Ziploc bag and scooped out the slippery corpse. Without a word, Kate offered her hand to Myra and pulled her off of the ground. Two sets of watery eyes glinted in the kitchen light.
“Come with me.”
Kate led Myra into the guest bathroom. They hovered around the porcelain toilet, wedged between the countertop and shower. Though Myra had returned to her usual quiet, things were not the same. Maybe they would never be the same again.
“Do you want to say something?”
Myra nodded no. Her silence served as an understated farewell, and the water washed Darwin away. They stood there together for quite some time, looking into the empty toilet.
“You’ll be late for your party,” Myra said at last.
It was an observation, not a concern.
“I wasn’t planning on going.”
Kate didn’t have to understand Myra to understand her pain. It was there, at Darwin’s funeral, that autism ceased to exist.
It’s always entertaining to read your stories. Care to share how this story came from your life to mind to being written? A surprise ending for this guy.
Thanks, Jim. Like most stories, it’s a big, fictional culmination of observations and experiences. Hoping it was a good surprise!