2ND PLACE IN ENSPIREME: PASSION PROJECT’S SHORT STORY CONTEST
I’m on a date with a plate of Totino’s pizza rolls when he crashes through my window.
It’s kind of like the movies, I guess. I scream. Glass flies into my living room. He screams.
He flies into the corner of my coffee table. We both scream some more.
For a minute, it’s silent, save for the wind blowing through the gaping hole in my window.
I rise and approach, prepared to knock him unconscious with my paper plate. He’s massive. A sumo wrestler, honestly, but instead of baby oil, he has a solid layer of hair. A fur coat. He’s got more ink on him than a coloring book, accentuating his grapefruit-sized biceps.
I give the unidentified flying object a little nudge with my foot. No movement. I try a little harder this time. Still won’t budge. I kick him like a soccer ball. Nothing. I’m about to declare the time of death when the moaning begins.
Imagine the whimpers of a stray dog, except the dog is a rhinoceros and the rhinoceros hasn’t eaten in five days and he’s actually a PTA mom on a mission to hunt and destroy. In one cry, the sound barrier is broken from an 800-square-foot flat in Chicago.
He roars some incomprehensible swear as he slowly looks up at me, and that’s when I see the gash across his forehead. I say gash because it sounds medically correct, but really it’s more of a small canyon. A fountain of blood is streaming down his nose and onto my carpet. This is not good because a) now the landlord is going to kill me, and b) I’m not good with blood, and I can feel my head start to swim. But his head wound doesn’t stop to consider my feelings (rude), and I can’t call for backup because I couldn’t pay the phone bill this month. So I try to pull on my very small knowledge of first aid.
“Lay down or something,” I order him, my voice shaking (with confidence, obviously). He stays hunched over, so it soon becomes my job to try to roll this refrigerator of a man onto his back.
“You could help, you know,” I tell him, my hands sinking into his belly fat. He scowls. With a mighty flop reminiscent of a walrus, he finally flips, and I rush to find some sort of tourniquet.
Soon I’m plugging up Niagara Falls with a Martha Stewart Spa Fashion hand towel. I find that I only feel the need to puke about four times, which is pretty impressive.
When I took my single ladies’ self-defense class, they taught me how to aim for the crotch, guard your handbag, all that jazz. They did not tell me how one should respond if, hypothetically, a 300-pound-intruder is is writhing in pain on your living room floor.
So I ask him, innocently, if there’s anything he needs— and he starts muttering a grocery list of drug names that I would not find at my neighborhood Walgreens.
“I’m gonna have to stop you there,” I tell him when he starts mentioning some mushrooms. “Is Tylenol okay?”
He nods, then winces with regret as he does.
“Okay, well, if I’m getting up, you’re going to have to hold your skin in place.” I direct his plate-sized hand to his blood mop, then head to the junk drawer.
“You made me drop my pizza rolls, you know,” I huff as I rustle through paper clips and coupons.
Incoherent grunting echoes from the living room.
I come back holding the pill in one hand and the bottle in the other. He takes the bottle and proceeds to empty it into his mouth.
“I don’t think the FDA would approve of... okay. You know what? Go bananas.” He takes this as permission to swallow them all dry.
Seconds later, he’s out like a light.
He doesn’t wake up until I start breaking out the Mickey Mouse band-aids. That’s when he jerks upright and starts sniffing the air— which confuses me, until I realize he’s tracking down the ramen I made while he was knocked out. I try to hide the container, but when he starts drooling, I hand it over. He doesn’t seem to care, or even notice, that it’s half-empty. He just gives me these huge anime eyes of disbelief until I tell him to go to town.
While he slurps and I stick a Goofy on his eyebrow, I make a little small talk. “I never got your name, sir.”
He turns to me with a noodle stuck in his mustache. “You can call me Reggie.”
I peel the back off of a Minnie Mouse. “And, uh, Reggie? If you don’t mind me asking, seeing as I live here and pay the rent, why did you break into my apartment?”
“I needed a place to stay.”
“Mmhm. And at any point— the climb up three flights of the fire escape, the moments before you body-slammed my window— did it not occur to you that someone might be living here?
Trying to have a nice night in?”
He straightens a little, like he’s trying to defend his dignity, while broth dribbles down his chin. “Ma’am, I never meant to scare you. Straight up? I’m homeless and I’m cold. And I swear, I thought this unit was empty.” He hesitates.
“You know why? Kid, your place— you ain’t got nothing. You got a coffee table but no couch, no TV. You got a sink but no real plates. Your lights are off. So’s your heater. You don’t have magnets on the fridge, photo albums on the coffee table, those little plants on the windowsill. Maybe this is a house, but it’s not a home, you know?”
I’m suddenly self-conscious in front of the homeless giant and the Pluto bandaid on his nose. “Point is, I honestly thought this place was empty. So I went for it.”
He pauses to slurp, shakes his head incredulously, and continues with a full mouth. “Thanks for not selling me out, by the way. And for cleaning my cut. And for making me
ramen. I can’t remember the last time I had ramen.” I try to clarify that, no, that was not his. But I think I see a tear trail out of his eye, so I don’t push it.
He turns to look at me straight on. His eyes are softer now; his wrinkles are kinder. Now I can see that the tattoo on his neck reads For those I love, I will sacrifice.
“You’re either really stupid, or you’re, like, some sort of angel in disguise.” He looks at me with those anime eyes again, like I’m his fairy godmother or something.
He sighs. “I gotta do something for you.”
“No, it’s okay, really. You don’t have to do that.” I’m understandably hesitant about letting the heavy-weight champ with a nose ring do any favors for me.
He doesn’t seem to grasp this idea. “I’m gonna steal you a sofa.”
I don’t think I process it at first, because I let him rise from the floor, staggering a bit, and do what I suppose are a few pre-theft stretches. But when it clicks that he wants to commit a bonafide crime to repay me, I jump to my feet and try helplessly to block the door from this seven-foot-bulldozer.
“No. No, you’re not. You really don’t have to do that. In fact, I insist you don’t-”
“You don’t need to worry. I’ve stolen tons of furniture before, alright?” He tries to reassure me with a paternal look. Then he picks me up, sets me down a few feet away, and heads out the door.
This is how, no more than an hour later, I find myself frozen with horror as six more buffed, inked sumos form a tag team along the fire escape, hoisting a couch up three flights of stairs.
Reggie, sporting a number of Disney bandaids over Valley Forge, stands next to me as we gaze out my broken window and survey their work.
“I’ve done this before,” he grins, clapping a hand on my shoulder and thus knocking me several inches forward. Maybe it’s the Tylenol, maybe it’s kleptomania— he’s got so much energy now, I feel like he’s going to burst into 300 pounds of confetti.
I peer down at the crew, who’s now setting the sofa on the second-floor landing. It hits the metal with an echoing clang, and I’m surprised Chicago’s sleeping through this. I swear, every sound feels louder when you’re trying not to get booked for aiding and abetting.
“You guys okay?” I call out, asking less of an are-you-safe and more of a could-you-please-hurry-up-with-the-illegal-activity.
The one they keep calling Butch gives me a toothless grin and two thumbs-up. If he’s got goosebumps in that sleeveless vest of his, he doesn’t let on. In fact, none of them seem to mind the below-freezing weather, or the sweat they’re breaking with this impromptu moving project.
The sofa inches its way to third-floor landing, and I’m introduced to the lead guys— Butch, Pops, and Snooki, the roller derby queen. Together, they hoist the tail end of the couch through my broken window while Reggie steers the helm. Snake Eyes, Bloodhound, and Rex, the spotters, crawl through soon after. In other words, I end up with a larceny crew of seven bodybuilders standing around my apartment, each wiping their sweat on my blood-stained towel.
“Ta-da!” Reggie’s literally bouncing up and down with joy after we position the couch. The others follow suit, hopping until I’m sure they’re going to fall through the floor. It’s like watching the Seven Dwarves of WWE.
“Guys, this… this is really great.” And it is. I say it with sincerity. “But isn’t this whole thing technically illegal?”
“Technically only applies if you get caught,” Rex winks. “Which we won’t!” Bloodhound boasts.
“And even if we did— I mean, I’ve been arrested for worse. I wouldn’t mind doing time to thank you for saving my buddy’s life.” Pops smiles as he says it, and the others agree loudly with “amens” and “hallelujahs.” What kind of protest am I supposed to give against that?
I think I’m crying when I hear Reggie speak. “You’re not gonna get in trouble for sitting. Go on.”
I do, and I’m immediately showered in applause. Cheers and wolf-whistles echo off my walls. There’s more bouncing, more plaster falling from the ceiling. The whole thing makes me double over with laughter, the perfect kind that burns your abs and takes your breath away.
From there, the night looks like seven giggling giants, each taking turns flopping onto the newly acquired couch as spectators offer Olympic-style scores and eat through my Totino’s supply.
“See, now your place looks like a real home!” Reggie gestures to the couch as Snake Eyes goes for round number five.
I look around at them, each beaming ear to ear like I just won them the Super Bowl. I look at Butch pulling another box of pizza rolls from the fridge, Rex happily wiping the blood off my coffee table, Snooki laughing as she tries to perch on the windowsill.
A real home.
It’s not about the couch, but I know exactly what he means.
Aubrey Gilliam is the second place winner of EnspireMe: Passion Project 2019 in the short story category.