Edition 2: Duet by Nu Yang
Nu Yang’s Duet was very well received by the judges of the Story Quest Short Story Contest, hence its shortlisting. They were particularly impressed with the dark, psychological overtones of the story, and the hard edged narrative style. GH
My brother came home with a shotgun in one hand and a bag of salt and vinegar chips in the other.
Jason didn’t say anything as he leaned against the wall outside our motel room. That was our home. Room 11. It had been for almost a week now.
I glanced at the gun and waited for him to speak.
“Didn’t I tell you to stay in the room until I got back?” He kept his attention on the parking lot. Only a handful of cars looked back at him including the black SUV we had picked up from a grocery store parking lot two states back last month.
“I hate being cooped up all day.” I scratched my sticky nose. “It’s so damn hot.”
“Watch your mouth.” Jason turned his hardened gaze to my face. “Girls shouldn’t talk like that.”
I frowned. I was almost twenty years old. I could talk however I wanted, just because Jason was four years older than me didn’t mean anything. We could even pass for twins. We had the same dark hair, wavy like our mom’s and thick like our dad’s, and their same brown eyes.
“Rachel.” Jason’s expression softened as he propped his gun against the door. I hated it when he called me Rachel instead of Ray.
“I just don’t get why I can’t come with you anymore,” I said.
“You know why.”
He thought if I went, I was going to mess up. Like last time. I lowered my head. “I’m sorry.”
We were quiet for a moment. I coughed; the air here was too dry. From the other side of the parking lot, the front desk worker—a middle-aged guy named Kyle—came out of the office to smoke a cigarette. Jason cracked the motel door open and stuck the gun inside. Kyle noticed us and waved.
Jason squinted. “Do you think he knows anything?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe we should leave this place,” Jason said. “Tomorrow, we’ll take care of the girl and then we’ll get back on the road.”
I jerked my head back up. We?
“Tomorrow,” he said again. “But you gotta be sure. I don’t want you wimping out on me, Ray.”
He called me Ray.
I grinned. “I won’t.”
“Good. It’ll be the two of us,” Jason said. “Like it’s meant to be.”
“The two of us.”
We were family. Family did everything together.
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.” Jason tore open the bag of chips and offered it to me. He always thought about me first. As I reached inside the bag, I saw the red blood that still lingered under his fingernails. I didn’t ask any questions. I never did.
I didn’t sleep that night. I couldn’t.
I sat on the ground in between the two beds and the television set, writing in my journal. It was the same one I had since I was sixteen. Three years worth of pages that had all my fears and worries locked up.
“What is it this time?” Jason stood over me with a smirk on his face.
I closed the journal. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s not a diary.” I hugged the hardcover book to my chest. “And besides, it’s none of your business.”
“You can talk to me, you know,” he said. “You don’t have to keep all your thoughts stored away.”
I chewed on my lip. Jason could never understand the things I wrote in my journal. He had always been the strong one. He never had to worry or be scared.
He sank down next to me. “Is it about tomorrow?”
I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “It’s just that—we do everything together and I don’t want that to ever stop.”
“Why would it?”
“Because I messed up once, and I’m scared that if I mess again, you’ll leave me.” I turned my body towards his.
My voice trembled. “Please don’t be mad at me.”
Jason was quiet for a moment. He gave me a smile and wrapped his arm around my shoulders.
“I’m not mad at you.” He kissed the side of my head like when we were kids. “I love you, Ray.”
I snuggled against him. “Love you too.” He smelled like gun powder and rain. It made me love him more.
Instead of going to bed, I watched Jason sleep. The only noise in the room came from his soft breathing as his chest rose and fell.
When we were little, we used to make forts in our beds. I was the princess that needed protection and Jason was the knight. He built walls made out of pillows to keep out the evil king that was after us. He made a vow to always protect me.
Now, it was my turn. My brother was all I had.
All I had left.
I picked up my pillows and blankets and I started to build.
I woke up shivering.
Jason was at his bed, dressed and packing his bags.
“You have fifteen minutes before we have to go,” he said.
I rubbed my eyes. “What time is it?”
I sat up as another chill went down my back.
“What happened to your blankets?” Jason asked.
“I gave them to you.”
He stopped packing and glared at me.
“I wanted you to have them,” I said.
I flinched. “I just want to take care of you.”
Jason grabbed my arm. He pulled me to the full-length mirror that was nailed to the wall.
“Does this look like someone who can take care of anybody? Does it?” He shook his head. “She can’t even take care of herself.”
All I saw was a miserable girl with stringy brown hair and glassy eyes. Her cheekbones were sunken and her clothes draped from her body like heavy linen.
“I don’t think you should go with me today,” Jason said.
“No.” I spun around to face him. “Please, let me come. I promise I won’t let you down.”
Jason shook his head. “I think it’s a mistake.”
I grabbed his hands. “Please, Jason, let me come with you. Don’t leave me behind. I promise I’ll be good. I promise—” My voice cracked. I was on the verge of tears.
Jason’s shoulders sagged as he pulled me into his arms. I buried my face into his chest.
“I promise,” I said once more.
He lifted my chin and smoothed down my hair with his large hands. “You’re impossible.”
He sighed. “Get dressed. Hurry.”
Jason grabbed his things, including the shotgun.
I froze when a knock came from our door. Jason set his belongings down and tilted his head toward the window. I peeked out and saw Kyle.
“Answer it.” Jason picked up the gun and hid behind the door.
I wiped my eyes and opened the door to find Kyle smiling at me.
“Morning.” His gaze traveled down my body. I was suddenly aware that I was dressed in only a long T-shirt that came to my knees. I folded my arms in front of my chest.
“Hi.” I glanced at Jason, who was still behind the door.
“Sorry to disturb you, but I wanted to see if you planned on checking out today,” he said. “You only paid for a week, but if you plan on staying longer, you’ll have to come down to the office.”
“Oh, we are checking out today, but we have to go into town to take care of some things first.”
Kyle raised his brows. “Okay.” He looked over my shoulder. “Couldn’t make up your mind?”
I looked back at the two unmade beds. The white sheets were twisted together and the pillows were rumpled along with the blankets.
My gaze darted to Jason again. He had the gun raised and the finger coiled around the trigger. I had to get rid of Kyle or else something bad was going to happen.
“I really have to get ready,” I said. “We’ll be out of here as soon as possible.”
“Noon,” Kyle said.
I nodded. “Noon.”
When I shut the door, I let out a sigh of relief. Jason was still up against the wall, his back rigid and his face stern.
“That was close,” I said.
Jason looked out the window. “I don’t like that guy.”
He turned to me. “Come on. We gotta get going.”
The girl was still alive.
Chained to the wall in the musty basement wall, she blinked as I aimed the flashlight at her. Her left eye was swollen shut. Purple bruises covered her face. Dried blood stained her brown hair and the side of her head. She wore a dirty white sweater and torn blue jeans. Her shoes were missing. She recoiled as I took a step towards her.
“What’s her name?” I asked Jason.
He came up beside me. “Teresa.”
I moved closer. She scooted away until she hit the corner. With nowhere else to go, she sat, motionless.
“Hi, Teresa,” I said.
She shook as I knelt down next to her. She bit down on her lip and closed her eyes.
“She looks like me,” I said.
Everything from her dark hair, her pale skin, and the clothes that didn’t fit her properly.
Jason remained by my side. He lowered his mouth to my ear and whispered, “Does she look like someone who can take care of herself?”
Teresa rocked back and forth, arms around her knees, eyes still shut as though she could wish this all away. It was pathetic.
“Here.” Jason slipped something cool in my hand. “You know what to do.”
I looked down at the large knife. The stainless steel taunted me.
“Don’t wimp out,” he said.
I tightened my grip on the blade.
“She hasn’t screamed since I brought her here,” Jason’s voice was still soft in my ear. “Can you change that?”
“Yeah, I can do that.” I sounded robotic, stiff.
“Good.” Jason gave me a nudge towards Teresa.
I wasn’t going to mess up. This wasn’t going to be like last time.
I put my hand on Teresa’s leg.
She kept rocking.
Back and forth.
We buried Teresa in the open field behind the abandoned house she had been kept in. I smelled like worms and dirt. I wanted to vomit, but I didn’t want to show Jason how much her death had affected me. I could be strong like him. I could handle it.
We drove back to the motel. Jason parked the car, but we didn’t move.
“You did good, Ray,” he said.
I remained silent next to him.
“You didn’t wimp out,” he said. “I didn’t even have to tell you want to do.”
How to twist the blade into Teresa’s gut. How to cut into her skin. How to not gag when the blood poured. How to keep twisting, to keep cutting, so that the blood could keep coming.
“Let’s get cleaned up and back on the road,” Jason said.
Inside the room, I took a shower, scrubbing at my skin until it was red and raw. I dressed and walked out to the bedroom. Jason wasn’t there. My heart skipped a beat at his absence.
Then, I felt it. Someone else was in the room.
“It’s past noon.” Kyle sat at the wooden desk chair.
I dropped the wet towel I was holding. “What are you doing in here?”
“I told you, check-out is at noon.” He glanced at the unpacked bags on the bed. “But it doesn’t look like you’re ready to leave yet.”
“Give me five minutes.” I walked to the bed. He jumped up and blocked my way. I could smell the cigarette smoke on his clothes and the onions on his breath.
He put his hands on my arms. “I’ll take it.”
My mind started shutting down like rows of lights—one by one—until nothing would be left but complete darkness.
“You know what to do.”
Jason’s voice stopped the last row of lights from turning off.
Kyle nuzzled his face into my neck. “What’s a pretty little thing like you doing at a motel by yourself anyway?” He grabbed my breasts. “Don’t you know there’s some creeps out there?” He pushed me down to the bed and started to unbuckle his belt. “You shouldn’t be alone, sweetheart.”
I reached under the bed until my fingers touched metal.
“I’m not alone.”
I brought up the shotgun and jammed it into Kyle’s gut.
He groaned. “What the—”
I fired the gun before he could finish his sentence.
Kyle flew backwards, slamming into the wall and falling to the ground. He gurgled and clutched his bleeding stomach. I stood over him as my insides knotted with disgust and rage.
I felt someone’s hand on my back. It was warm, strong.
“Don’t wimp out,” he said in my ear.
I could do this. I could be like my brother.
I raised the gun and fired again. The bullet entered Kyle’s head. Blood splattered on the wall, on me. The hand on my back disappeared.
When I turned around, I saw I was alone.
I woke up in another motel room, one that was far away from Kyle’s dead body. Looking at the empty bed next to me made my heart ache.
It had been four weeks. Four weeks of silence.
Where are you, Jason?
I sat up in bed, took my journal out, and found the entry I had written last night.
Jason’s mad at me. He won’t talk to me. I don’t know what I did wrong. I did everything he told me to do. I didn’t mess up.
But I had messed up.
I turned to the first entry. I was sixteen. My writing was more rigid, crooked.
Today’s the day. Jason says it’s time. No more bullshit from Dad. No more crying. No more hiding. We can be free forever.
I touched my cheek. I remember the day Dad’s hand came down on it. It was black and blue for days. Jason tried to fight back once. He ended up in the hospital with a broken arm.
We can be free forever. Jason told me that.
After his arm healed, we took the guns from Dad’s cabinet—the same guns we used now—and ran off into the woods.
“I’ll take care of you,” Jason said. “It’ll be better when this is over.”
I believed him.
“Don’t wimp out.” He placed a gun in my hand. It was cold and heavy. “On the count of three.”
I tried to stop my hand from shaking as I raised the gun at him.
He raised his to me.
I took in a deep breath. I wondered if I would feel the bullet hit me. How much would it hurt? How much pain would Jason feel?
I spent the next six months in a coma, and when I woke up, Jason was gone. He had finished the job himself.
My vision blurred as I closed the journal. I wiped at the tears, but more just came.
My apology went nowhere.
I returned to the road. I drove for half-a-day before the silence in the car got to be so unbearable that it gave me a headache.
I pulled over to a gas station. I turned off the engine, but my hands still gripped onto the steering wheel. My knuckles turned white. I closed my eyes, saw darkness, and when I opened them again, the darkness was still there.
“Please, come back,” I said.
No one answered.
The pounding in my head grew. I rubbed at my temples, but it didn’t work.
I got out the car and walked into the station. The only person I saw was the bored woman flipping through a tabloid magazine behind the counter. The nametag on her red vest said: BETH.
I walked down an aisle and picked up a blue bag of salt and vinegar chips.
“They’re my favorite.”
I smiled at the voice.
I walked up to the counter and placed the bag in front of Beth. She yawned as she rang up my order.
“Anything else?” she asked.
I removed the handgun from under my jacket and fired two shots into her chest. She fell back against the wall. Blood splattered on the cash register and the lotto tickets. When she didn’t get up, I walked out of the station, not even bothering to make it look like a robbery.
I got back into the car and Jason was sitting in the passenger’s seat. I tossed him the bag of chips.
“You know they probably have a camera, right?” he said.
“Yeah.” I put the car into drive. “But that’s what I have you for, to take care of me.”
He reclined in his chair. “And don’t you ever forget that.”
As I sped away, I put my hand over his. It was real, solid, and I wanted it to stay that way. Forever.
Nu Yang resides in Southern California, although she is a Midwest girl at heart. She is the editorial assistant with The Log newspaper and Editor and Publisher magazine as well as the assistant editor with New Myths, an online speculative magazine. She has been published with Three Crow Press, Hic Dragones, and JournalStone. Nu is a 2006 graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop and a June 2009 graduate of the Writing Popular Fiction Master’s program at Seton Hill University. When she’s not writing, she sings karaoke, watches too much television, and daydreams about demon hunters, supernatural monsters, and the occasional love story.