I originally wrote this for the Writer's Digest Short Short Story competition, just to see what would happen with it. I didn't, nor did I figure, that I would win anything, but it was fun to try. The best part I think was having the word limit (1500 words) and having to write something within those constraints. It really polished and streamlined my writing and forced me to eliminate all that was unnecessary until I was left with just what I needed. It did wonders for my writing and I would love to try doing something similar in the future to see what results I get.
Another challenge was writing in the third person, present tense, something I haven't experimented with much. I tried originally writing in the second person, but that proved too difficult and disruptive to the story, in the end I decided on this format.
In any case, below you may read the story in full. I thought I would share it with everyone just so it could see the light of day. I hope you enjoy it, let me know what you think in the comments below!
The Door-Sleeper by Emily Mundell
A draft of air dances over his face from the crack between the floor and the door. The breeze, combined with the kink in his neck, brings him to waking. Blinking slowly, Adam rolls over, the warm fleece blanket shifting beneath him, and sees the red numerals of the alarm clock faintly pulsating in the dark bedroom. Four in the morning. Ellie’s arm hangs off the bedside, bathed in the red glow.
He gets to his feet, dismissing all thoughts of sleep. His right arm is numb as he throws his blankets off into the corner. The soft plop of fabric elicits a gentle sigh from his wife, who shifts a little under the sheets. Adam pauses to watch her, hoping she doesn’t wake. She is beautiful like this, peaceful. Pity fills him, and sadness.
It is too early, and his head hurts and he is tired from a late night of keeping Ellie in the bed and quiet. It was particularly bad that past night, any of her normal inhibitions had been stolen away by four bottles of beer and she had been unable to calm herself down.
But being able to calm herself is one of many things she can no longer do, something Adam must do for her. One of the harder things.
The dark curtains that hang over the window are open, left that way at Ellie’s preference. Even before her illness she did not like being unable to see the sky. For the millionth time Adam wonders if dragging her into the inner city so he could follow his dreams of working at a quality law firm was what brought her down to this state, this state of pain and fear and total dependence. At the very least, he knows it must have contributed. Ellie never liked the city. She hated that you couldn’t jay-walk through the streets, or leave your house unlocked, or step out of your car with the keys inside if you felt like it. She hated the buildings that blocked her view of the sunrise, that trees only grew where humans designated, that her home had no backyard.
It had never bothered Adam before, but it did now. He looked around at what he’d provided for her - a posh apartment in an expensive high-rise in the best part of town - and found it all worth nothing. Not in comparison of what it had done to her.
He moves away from the window and heads into the bathroom to count out Ellie’s morning pills. Xanax, Atvian, and a dozen other anti-depressants and anxiety meds line the vanity, plastic bottles all neatly categorized. Adam hates looking at them. They are doing nothing to bring her back.
It’s been three months since Ellie left the psyche ward and came home. At least, that’s what he’s been told. He isn’t sure he believes them. The woman he brought home on the drizzly day in May is not the same he dropped off in the chill of October.
He finishes setting out the pills placed in the same pattern as yesterday and the day before. As he puts away the prescription bottles he pauses to grab himself a Tylenol, swallowing it dry.
The first time he’d given Ellie her pills had been a disaster. She’d fought him, screaming and kicking like a bratty child when he tried to hold her still.
“I hate you!” she’d shouted, trying to hit him, but he caught her wrist in his hand. Each word drove into him like a knife. “Leave me alone! I don’t want your help!”
He’d been so upset that he had done just that. Walking out of the room, out of the apartment, even out of the building complex. Down the block and onward until he realized what he’d done in leaving her alone, with all those pills. The doctors had warned him multiple times that she was a suicide risk, as mental health patients often were, but there he was, stupidly storming off and leaving her alone with enough drugs to kill her twice over.
He had never been so terrified in all his life when he sprinted back to the apartment, envisioning the worst awaiting him. His lungs were burning by the time he managed to get to the building’s elevator. He pushed past a mother and baby and men in business suits as he sped through the halls to their apartment. By then he was praying, begging whatever deity sat in the heavens to save her. When he stumbled inside, he was met with an eerie silence that chilled him to the bone. But then, a soft sound, like sobbing, drew him into the bedroom and around the corner to the bathroom.
He found her sitting on the toilet, her medication spilled all over the tiles at her feet. Thick, black hair sat in a tousled mess around a white face, framing eyes dark with smeared makeup and sleep circles. Tears were on her cheeks. Tears of anger, and of desperation. Adam knew then that Ellie missed herself as much – perhaps more – than he did.
Dumbly, he stared at her a long time, as guilt came crashing over him, consuming him.
“It’s my fault, isn’t it?” he’d asked her. “It’s my fault you’re this way.”
She never answered his question, but that was all the answer Adam needed.
Last night he’d come home from a few hours at the office to find her standing on the patio, leaning on the railing with a beer in her hand. Surprise and anger filled him. She knew how much he hated alcohol. After what it had done to his father, he’d sworn off the stuff and Ellie had promised to do the same, for his sake.
Dropping his things on the table, he slipped out onto the deck at her side, eyeing the brown bottleneck glass in her hand and the two at her feet with suspicion and resentment.
“What are you doing?” he asked, the liquor burning his nostrils. In the distance a siren was screaming and the air was a hazy yellow. Ellie shrugged, smiling a little, but the smile did not reach her eyes.
“Maybe there’s a way to reverse this,” she said, but more to herself than to him. “Half the time I feel drunk when I’m sober and normal. Maybe I’ll feel normal for real when I’m drunk.”
He couldn’t fault her that, as much as seeing her with a beer made him uncomfortable. Her whimsical tone touched his heart. Ellie had always been a somewhat cynical romantic. It was a small glimpse of her old self.
He’d stood by and watched her drink the whole thing, and then another. Attempting to put aside all of his prejudice as he watched her drop further into the drunkenness she was seeking. He hated to see it, his mind filled only with visions of his father, stumbling around, shaking his fist with a beer in hand, and swearing at the top of his lungs while his mother chased her sons upstairs.
Ellie did not get drunk the same way that Samuel Walters had. She grew chatty and giggly and dark… very dark. She joked light-heartedly of death, and shadows who kept her up at night. Her voice betrayed no hint of fear or sarcasm, and that was what scared Adam most.
He let the alcohol run its course, made her brush her teeth and tucked her in. She’d remained awake for hours, alternating between erratic muttering and dead silence.
Finally she slept, and Adam made himself a bed in front of the door, in case she decided to go wandering in the night. It was a normal thing for him, part of their routine that had been established after he’d awoken one too many times to find her out of bed and gone.
Adam finishes setting out the pills, looks at himself in the mirror and grimaces at the bags under his eyes, the sickly pastiness of his complexion. Ellie’s illness is taking its toll on him too.
He looks up as the floorboards creak, sees her standing in the doorway in the mirror’s reflection in underwear and a t-shirt. She seems distraught, her hands twitching nervously.
“You okay?” He turns to face her, seeing that her whole body is trembling.
“I’m cold.” Adam reaches for her hand, it’s like ice and her lips look blue. Awkwardly he guides her back to the bed and sits her down, wrapping a blanket over her shoulders.
“Just rest,” he says and she does, looking dejected and hurt. He takes a step back, letting go of her cold hand, and is about to turn away.
“Are you going to sleep by the door again, Adam?” she asks softly and he stops as pain cuts deep into his heart. He blinks back tears and then comes and climbs in beside her.
“No,” he whispers into her ear. “I’m staying with you.”