“Jen Michalski’s second novel is an intense emotional commitment, but a worthwhile one.” – Ploughshares
“Jen is an astonishingly sensitive writer.” – HTML Giant
“Jen Michalski excels in subtlety that is made possible by her nuanced understanding of voice.” – The Rumpus
“Jen is a writerly heavyweight.” – Nate Brown, American Short Fiction
“We’re lucky to have Michalski before the rest of the world discovers her. But they will.” – Baltimore City Paper
I think someone broke into the house, I say to my brother. We have convened in the tiny bathroom that we share with our parents. The window is open and I can feel cool air breathing around us.
I'll get dad. My brother turns to leave.
Don't. I grab his arm. He won't do anything.
You want to get Mom? His eyes widen. Our preference is Mom, for everything, but not for something like this.
No. All right. We stand by my father's side of the bed, and my brother shakes him.
Dad, I whisper. You need to wake up and call the police. We think someone is in the house.
Go back to bed, he murmurs. Our father is dismissive of most of our worries, awake or sleeping.
Dad. My brother shakes him again. I stand in the hallway as my brother apprises my father, who is now sitting on the rim of the bathtub in the bathroom, of the situation.
It's nothing. My father is bent over, the weight of sleep and possibly alcohol on him. Probably the trees or something.
We're going to check it out, I announce boldly, forcing my father's hand. My brother and I creep down the stairs and into the kitchen. The back door has been forced open. It's cooler and breezier here. I stand at the top of the stairs. The intruders have to be hiding in the basement.
I'm just going to go. I announce my impulsive, risk-averse plan. Something that will plague me for the rest of my life, someone inside me thinks. They'll hear me and leave out the basement door.
I run down the stairs to the basement. The front room, to my relief, is empty. As I creep toward the back room, I notice the door to the outside is still shut. Maybe they have already left, through the kitchen door. But maybe they're still here, hiding in one of the small alcoves—the room where my father has his tool shop, the other where the washer and dryer are. I stand with my brother in front of the accordion doors that house the washer and dryer. The doors are open about a foot, easy enough for someone to slid through and hide behind.
We hear my father milling around in the kitchen. Maybe we feel braver. Maybe we are pissed that he has let us come down here all by ourselves, in harm's way, and we might as well finish the job. He has always left us to fend for ourselves, in one way or another, whining mightily about everything before eventually doing it, but not without making us feel incredibly guilty for even asking. My brother and I look at each other. We don't need him. We never did. He's holding us back.
My brother suddenly darts into the crack in the accordion doors. Upstairs I hear my father say I wish this didn't happen. It is then, as the accordion door opens further that I see the teenage boy, the one who hung out up at the baseball fields smoking on his BMX bike and never up to anything good. We had bragged to him about my father's extensive model car collection in the stairwell by the washer and dryer. He has more toys than us, my brother had explained. I wonder if he has come to steal them. It makes sense that this boy and my father would be interested in the same, stunted things: cars, cigarettes, alcohol.
There is a flash in the boy's right hand. A knife. He sticks it into my brother's gut for what I know is a fatal stab. I pull the accordion door in front of the boy and start punching him repeatedly through it. I know that my brother is going to die and I am going to kill this boy. I feel his skull crack under my fists through the accordion door before I startle awake.
In my dreams, the basement of our childhood home is always my subconscious, and the dreams feel very real—I can feel temperature, air, weight. In real life, my brother and I could never count on our father. We learned all the things a father would have taught us through our mom's father or (poorly) by ourselves. I never felt I was harmed by it—maybe I'm still worried that my brother is experiencing the effects of this paternal negligence (whereas I am, on cue, just angry). But we are adults now. The sins of the father are long gone. It's interesting what one's inner child still holds onto, what plumes out of our subconscious just a genie in a bottle when we are stressed or on the cusp of important decisions or forks in our life.