By M.C. Schmidt
At bedtime the screen door slaps, Mom and Dad off to do their fighting where Dorie can’t hear. Mom glances back but doesn’t see her watching from the window above her bed. Dad looks at his feet to step over cracks. They turn with the sidewalk where it wraps around the block, and Dorie switches to her side window where the glass has dirty outlines of frogs and rainbow and unattached horse legs and cat ears where she stuck stickers then tried to pull them off. She watches until the shed is in the way of them. She waits for them until it gets dark.
This happens three nights in a row.
“Where’re you going, squirt?” Dad says on the morning of the fourth day.
Dorie shrugs, secret-keeping being their family’s new way.
She comes to the shed from the back alley, the opposite direction of her parents’ walks. The shed once belonged to the house on the corner until the house on the corner was torn down. Now the yard belongs only to the shed. Its double doors are bowed out at their bottoms, and the lawn is still bald in two arcing wings from their years of being swung open and shut. The shed’s black wood is weathered to look fuzzy and soft, but when Dorie pets it she finds it isn’t.
On the side of the shed that faces the sidewalk, she draws a single, long-lashed eye with purple sidewalk chalk.
Later, at lunch, Mom says, “Eat your sandwich.”
“Dad cooks when he’s home,” Dorie says, challenging the legality of her mother’s ham salad.
“Eat it,” Mom says.
Dad comes into the kitchen. The smile he aims at Dorie is calibrated so none of it spills over to Mom. He plucks an orange from the basket and takes it to eat by himself in front of the TV.
That night when the screen door slaps, Dorie pulls her covers over her head and closes her eyes then pushes her mind across the side yard. She opens it into the shed’s eye and, from it, she stares. When Mom and Dad appear, they stop, Dad noticing the eye and smiling, pointing it out to Mom. He mouths Dorie’s name, but she can’t hear him. Mom begins to cry, staring at the shed, and soon both her parents are acting out shouting with their arms and faces, but to Dorie they’re silent. She watches them until it gets dark, then she closes the eye and tries to sleep.
The next morning, Dorie opens one of the double doors. It stutters across the naked dirt and leaves a rut like the footprint of a snake. Its hinges scream like a fox Dad hit once and blamed on the sluggish handling of Mom’s minivan. She finds the shed empty except for a toilet, stowed away and full of leaves and the leavings of mice who’ve used it for its intended purpose. Dorie closes the lid and sits until sitting on a toilet in an abandoned shed feels too creepy and she has to run out and slam it shut. On one door, she draws an ear—a half-peanut with a detached hole, an earlobe hoop—then goes home to spend the day in her room.
Dad stops her in the hall. “I have an important question to ask you,” he says, his face dark and serious. “If I gave you a million dollars, what would be the first thing you’d buy?”
“You don’t have a million dollars,” Dorie says.
At bedtime, on the sidewalk, Dad yells at Mom about his shop closing: “It was the absolute worst time. We agreed about that. I can’t believe I have to explain this. We don’t even have health insurance.”
“I could have picked up insurance for now.”
“And eaten up your whole paycheck. How is that even an answer?”
“I just—I can’t see how you don’t understand.”
“I do understand. You think it’s not hard for me too? But you accept the reality of where you are and what you can handle. Or I did, anyway. I thought you had too.”
Mom turns her back to the eye, gazes across the street. She crosses her arms in the angry way which Dorie knows well. In a moment, she says, “I understand the financials. I know the struggle it would have been. And I’m not saying you pressured me. But even so, I still felt pressured. By the financials. By the shop closing. Just tell me that you get that.”
Dad’s now staring into the same distance as Mom. “Of course I get it,” he says in a voice that sounds thin, though it may be the filter of the unfamiliar ear.
“Well, that’s all I’m asking of you. Except for maybe a little patience.” Mom exhales, and it’s like she’s blowing away balloons that have gathered to force a distance between them. She begins to say, as if admitting a secret, “I keep telling myself everything happens for a…”
“Oh my god,” Dad cuts in, inflating balloons of his own.
“Are you seriously going to say that? That everything happens for a reason? Jesus, I mean—that’s so,” here he pauses, shakes his head, then bangs his temple with the palm of one hand as if dislodging the desired adjective. “Childish,” he says finally. “And right now? It’s just…it’s such a ridiculous way to think.”
Mom says nothing.
“But you know what? Who knows, maybe you’re right. Maybe everything does happen for a reason. If, I mean, the reason is that we’re cursed. Yeah, you know what? I think that’s what I think maybe: this whole family is cursed. That’s the reason all of this has happened.”
“Oh, get over yourself. Small businesses close. Now you’ll have to get a job. Boohoo for you.”
When Dad turns to lean into her, his cheek and forehead creases are emboldened by streetlight shadow. “Don’t you dare talk about the shop, or the work I put into it. You haven’t thought twice about what it meant to me. You’re too preoccupied with blaming me, after the fact, for a decision that I frankly left to you to make. I never forced anything on you. I only ever pointed out the money.”
There’s a pause. Mom’s hushed when she says, “A bundle of cells. Those were your words. ‘It’s nothing to be sad about. It’s just a bundle of cell.’”
Dad explodes: “At the time that’s all it was: a bundle of cells. I said it because it was true. I was trying to ease your mind about doing what I thought you’d already decided you wanted to do.”
When Mom turns to him, her cheeks shine. “And, what about her?” she asks, staring straight at Dorie via the shed’s eye, “Is she just a bundle of cells?”
Dad walks away, off to where the shed can’t see.
Dorie’s whole family is cursed. Mom says everything’s fine sweetie, Dad just went to visit his brother in Arkansas. She and Mom eat a lot of ham salad.
At bedtime, Mom sometimes walks past the shed alone.
In August, the eye grows dim from weeks of rain. The ear disappears except for the hoop, like a burial artifact that shines through the dust of the body it adorned.
There’s nothing to see, nothing to hear. In time, Dorie goes to bed without checking in on the shed.
Mom’s away for a few days with Liz, whom she knew from college. Dorie’s babička comes to stay at the house to watch her. On the first day, they make apple pie, but Dorie’s forbidden any because she only picked at her pierogis. Babička decides to stay with them, even when Mom returns.
“How are things, squirt? Are you being good for Mom?” Dad asks.
Mom’s phone feels oily against Dorie’s cheek from all the time she spends scrolling and swiping. “Mm-hmm,” she says.
“Is mom being good for you?”
Dorie doesn’t answer and doesn’t answer until the phone call from Arkansas is over. It’s awful, she thinks, feeling forced to deny him.
Babička runs the house with Dad gone, feeding them and forcing Dorie into the bath too early and pulling hard on the girl’s wet hair when she brushes it out. To the strangely dry-sounding rhythm she makes with her brush, Babička tells stories of Mom as a girl, how she’d always wail when her hair was brushed out. Tears of pain come into Dorie’s eyes but never, ever into her voice.
At bedtime, a month since Dad left, weeks since Babička came to stay with them, days since Mom returned home, the old woman explains, in her broken way, their family’s curse: “Do you ever hear story of a drekavac?” she says.
Dorie shakes her head.
“From the time she was baby, your mama was weak in her will. Crying all the time, this and that.” She assures the girl with a small and gnarled hand on her shoulder: “Dorie is more stronger. I never say of you, ‘why is Dorie so fragile,’ the way I do of your mama at this age.
“American women, the drekavac don’t know them, only Slovenians. But it know me from when I come here. I bring its spirit here with me. My own mama lose three babies in Slovenia and all become drekavac: little babies lost to darkness, crying all night, teeth grown sharp and gnashing. Teeth that kill sheep and cow for injustice done to them. Make mischief, screaming for baptism to god that they was denied, watching me even when I leave for here.
“Your Mama put a hole in her heart, and the drekavac find that hole and climb inside, and wail from it. And, poof, Papa leave. And, poof, everyone sad.”
This is the end of Babička’s story. No moral or prayer or reason why things will be better. No suggestion of how to end the nightmares the story inspires. Dorie thinks she might hate her grandmother even more than she hates Mom for making Dad leave. Her nightmares become so bad Mom begins forcing Babička to walk with her at bedtime to save Dorie from stories of old-world superstition.
There’s a piece of pink sidewalk chalk in Dorie’s pocket. She leave’s through the kitchen when Babička’s at the sink, ignoring whatever it is the old woman says to her.
On the shed, Dorie first refreshes the eye, then the ear. Then, below the eye, she draws a large, pink oval and fills it with teeth that look to her like the type that gnash. She steps back from the shed, appraises her work: a one-eyed drekavac.
At bedtime the screen door slaps, Mom and Babička off on their walk. Dorie watches them from the window above her bed then from the side window with its affixed sticker pieces and glue. She crawls into bed in the dark then seeks further darkness by pulling her comforter over her head. She pushes her mind through the side yard and into the shed’s eye and ear and its brand new mouth. The sound of her heart seems to spread across the comforter in dull waves of sound that roll off her body in every direction. She’s begun to cry, with rage more so than sadness for the absolute injustice of life. Hardship laid on her by the very people who were meant to protect her, or at least not prevented by them. Under her covers, she opens her own mouth now. With teeth sharp and pink and menacing, Dorie listens to the shuffling shoes of the approaching women, and she waits.
M.C. Schmidt holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University. His recent short fiction has been published by Litro, Every Day Fiction, Dime Show Review, and The Book Smuggler's Den. He has work forthcoming from Abstract Magazine.