Hey, everybody! As part of my week-long lock-up in the Vonnegut Library for Banned Books Week, I was asked to write an original short story (on top of doing my day job as the editor of Jack and Jill magazine, hosting nightly readings and other events, and blogging). As a recent graduate of Butler University’s MFA Creative Writing program, I have several stories that I think are ready for publication. (One, in particular, a darkly humorous post-apocalyptic tale called “Holywood,” is quite good, if I do say so myself!) It would have been easy for me to have used one of those already completed short stories and claimed to have written it this week. But I didn’t want to do that. Instead, I wanted this story to be something that I thought up and wrote during my six-night stay in the library. So, without further ado, here is the short story I produced in that limited amount of time, “Stacie Pigott.” I hope you enjoy it!
by Corey Michael Dalton
According to my mom, the Pigott family had lived in the huge, three-story farmhouse at the end of our lane for four generations. When Old Man Pigott was alive, she said, the family had employed a gardener, a handyman, and an entire team of house painters to give the place a fresh coat of paint twice a year whether it needed it or not.
But Old Man Pigott had died long before I was born. So, for all 10 years of my life, the house had been in a state of disrepair, rotting and falling in on itself. The porch was crooked, there was a raccoon hole in the roof, and half the curlicues that had once decorated the windows were lost in the dandelions.
The only person I ever saw enter or leave the house was Stacie Pigott, a girl who rode my school bus. Even though she was my next-door neighbor, I never played with her. Partly because she was a girl and I was a boy. Partly because she was a year younger than me. But mostly because she didn’t have any fingers. Not real ones, anyway. Instead, she had little stubs that only went to where most people’s first knuckles would be. The kids at school said her shut-in grandma had cut off her fingers because Stacie didn’t pray enough. Everyone knew that the old lady was obsessed with TV preachers and baptisms and stuff like that, so it seemed possible, but when I mentioned it to my mom, she yelled at me and said that Stacie had been born fingerless. I didn’t quite believe her.
One morning in early September, I climbed onto the bus at 7:05 in front of the Pigott place just like every other day. Stacie was late, which was pretty normal, so Mrs. Backfish, the bus driver, blared the horn. As I dropped into an empty bench seat I could see Mrs. Backfish’s eyes in the angled mirror that allowed her to spy on us kids. She squinted with irritation and honked again.
Stacie came running out of the house, a wrinkled plastic grocery bag with her lunch in it tied around one wrist. She was wearing a dress of red and black squares that made her look like a walking checkerboard. It was the first time I’d ever seen her in a dress instead of a t-shirt and sweatpants. Her hair was up on her head, held back with a twisted ribbon.
Mrs. Backfish pulled the lever to shut the folding door as Stacie made her way up the wide steps, teetering from side to side.
“If you’re not out here on time tomorrow, you’ll be walking to school,” Mrs. Backfish said. She said that a couple of times a week.
Stacie paid Mrs. Backfish no mind and headed up the aisle toward me, her eyes on her dirty jelly shoes.
I sunk low in my seat, wedging my knees against the patterned vinyl in front of me. As she passed, Stacie tossed something small, square, and white onto the edge of my seat.
I panicked, recognizing the object for what it was—a note. I glanced around the bus to see if anyone else had seen the drop-off. Luckily, Stacie and I were two of the first kids picked up each morning, and the few older boys at the back of the bus were preoccupied punching each other to see who could hit hardest.
The note was folded so that a single, triangular tab of paper stuck out of one side with the word “pull” printed in clumsy letters beside it. I picked up the note. It was surprisingly heavy. When I pulled the tab, the paper unfurled and a shiny, silver half dollar tumbled into my lap.
The note was short and to the point. “Even though your family is sinners I still like you. Here’s fifty cents to sit with me on the way home. Stacie”
I tried to refold the paper the way it had been, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the little triangular tab, so I just doubled it over a couple times and shoved it in my back pocket.
I studied the fifty-cent piece. President Kennedy’s one eye studied me back, which made me uneasy. I dropped the coin into my right front pocket with my lunch money and settled into my seat.
All that day I felt the weight of the half dollar in my pocket. When I walked to the blackboard, I heard it chime against the other loose change. At lunch, I nearly dropped it on the floor while paying for my pizza. During recess, I refused to hang upside down on the monkey bars for fear it would slip out of my jeans.
Sooner than I hoped, the day was over. I hadn’t mentioned the note or the fifty-cent piece to anyone.
While waiting in line to board the bus home, I noticed Stacie a ways ahead of me. She tilted her head back and her eyes met mine. I’d never noticed how blue they were before. The same fragile blue of a robin’s egg. I looked away.
And then I was on the bus, standing at the top of the stairs and staring down the rows of benches. Stacie had chosen a seat about halfway back. She had one fingerless hand on the seat in front of her and was watching me expectantly with just a hint of a smile.
I stared at her five little nubs for a second and then plopped into the seat directly behind Mrs. Backfish beside a first-grade boy named Patrick.
“Hey, that’s where my brother sits!” Patrick said.
“Shut up,” I said.
Patrick and I didn’t talk again. Luckily, he and his brother—who ended up sitting across the aisle from us—got off the bus after just a few stops, leaving me alone in the front seat. I slid one hand into my pocket and ran a finger along the half dollar’s ridges. They felt warm.
When Mrs. Backfish stopped in front of the Pigott place, I jumped up and fled from the bus. I could hear Stacie’s footsteps on the gravel behind me. After hurrying a few yards down the lane, I glanced back. Stacie always grabbed her family’s mail from their banged-up aluminum mailbox as soon as we got off the bus like it was the one fun thing she got to do every day. That day, though, she ignored the mail, trudging straight up the crooked stairs and into the house. Quietly, she closed the door behind her.
I went home and tried to act normal. When Mom asked me how school was, I gave my usual shrug then ducked into my room to hide the fifty-cent piece in my underwear drawer. At dinner, I groaned when she made me eat three peas, just like every other time she made me try vegetables. When it was time for my bath, I dutifully handed her my dirty jeans for washing.
As the sun began to set, I settled down to watch TV on the living room floor.
“What’s this about?” It was my mom, of course. She had Stacie’s crumpled note in her hand, unfolded.
I wasn’t sure how to answer, so I pretended to be too engrossed in MacGyver to reply.
“Did you sit with her?”
I knew she wouldn’t let me ignore her for long, so I muttered a “huh?”
“Stacie,” Mom said. “Did you sit with her?”
“Where’s her money?”
Mom sighed. “Go get it. You’re going to take it back to her and apologize.”
“But I’m in my pajamas,” I whined.
“I don’t care.”
“Can’t I do it tomorrow?”
“Now,” she said. Her face was turning red. “Or I’ll tell your dad.”
I ran to my room and grabbed the coin from under a pile of unworn black socks.
Mom was still standing in the living room when I came back. She handed me the note.
I tugged on my rubber boots, stuffed my pajama bottoms inside, and headed through the sliding glass kitchen door into the twilight. A slight breeze rustled the standing corn beyond the garage creating a sound like people whispering.
Each step toward the Pigott place made my chest tighten a little bit more. Of course I’d been near the house hundreds of times, but this was the first time I’d actually walked up to its front door. In the dying sunlight, the structure seemed to be leaning toward me, threatening to crush me. As I crossed the stoop I could see the blue flicker of a television set through the window. I clutched the note in my left hand, squeezed the coin in my right, swallowed hard, and knocked.
The door was hanging slightly crooked on its hinges, allowing thin slivers of light to seep around its edges. It swung inward with a wheeze. Stacie’s grandma stood in front of me, a silhouette in a glowing frame. She was smaller than I’d imagined, but her pinched lips and flared nostrils made me doubt my mom’s word about Stacie’s fingers once again. I swear I could have gotten a fist in one of her nostrils.
“Yes?” the old woman asked.
“S-Stacie…” I stammered. “Is she home?”
“Stacie doesn’t talk to boys like you.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant. What kind of a boy was I?
She turned her back on me. “Go home.”
“Wait,” I called, holding the half dollar up. “This is hers.”
The old woman pulled my palm toward her face and squinted at the coin. An image of a meat cleaver severing my fingers flashed through my mind, and I jerked my hand away. Silently, I counted my fingers. They were all still there.
“What do you mean it’s hers?” Stacie’s grandma asked.
Suddenly unable to speak, I lifted the note.
She snatched the paper away and leaned back to read it in the light of the house. After a couple of seconds, she looked up at me. “I knew it,” she said. Then she slammed the door in my face.
I stood alone on the porch, the fifty-cent piece still in my hand. On the other side of the door I heard a thump like someone kicking a basketball followed by a girl’s scream. Then I heard the old woman yelling about whores and sluts.
I covered the half dollar with both hands and lifted it to my chest, protecting it.
Stacie cried out again.
For a moment, I considered kicking in the door and dragging the old woman off of Stacie. That’s what MacGyver would have done.
But I was not MacGyver. I was a frightened 10-year-old boy who turned and ran down the steps toward the end of the driveway. When my boots hit the gravel, I stopped and leaned against the mailbox. I couldn’t hear the sounds coming from within the Pigott place from there. I was breathing heavy, which seemed odd for a boy who had run such a short distance. I realized that I must have been holding my breath nearly the entire time I was on the porch.
I uncurled my fingers to examine the fifty-cent piece nestled in my sweaty palm. What was I supposed to do with it? I couldn’t take it home. My dad might find it. And I didn’t want to throw it away. That would be wasteful.
Then I noticed the crooked metal mailbox. It was still unopened.
I pulled down the bent door to reveal several sealed envelopes inside. Gently, I placed the half dollar on top of the pile of mail, closed the door, and walked home.