The Survey

Enjoy the winner of our Halloween Fiction Contest judged by the brilliant Rin Chupeco. 

By C. McKelway

My father doesn’t believe in the afterlife. You die and then you’re dirt is what he says, and he’s not a big fan of dirt. He likes things clean. Down-on-your-knees-with-a-scrub-brush kind of squeaky clean. He used to wash all the places on me that needed a good scrubbing, but Mama made him stop. “Run,” she said. “Run faster. And keep that bathroom door locked from now on.”

I was little. I didn’t know better. I’m in high school now, but I’d wager if he had the chance, he’d still be trying to clean me up.

I been taking a survey. Door to door, like the census workers. They came around here last year with their clipboards and all kinds of questions. Who lives here? How many rooms in your house? Own or rent? They went door to door asking, polite but greedy for information.

Mama filled out the forms. “It’s just us three in this house now,” she said.

Shows what she knows.

I’m not asking people how many rooms they have when I go door to door. I’m asking about the afterlife.  Who gets in, and what they see is what I want to know. Mrs. Henley, down the block, is older than Methuselah. She can likely see what’s coming. Not with the good eye. It’s the cloudy one that’s looking at somewhere I can’t see.

She says, “Why, aren’t you just the sweetest thing. How in tarnation did you know chocolate-chip cookies were my favorite? And how is your mother? Better?”

“Cookies” © Débora Lacortte https://www.flickr.com/photos/dcortte/7982680854/

Everyone opens wide for cookies, and in I come with my clipboard and questions.

I don’t say who gets into the afterlife. Death makes up his own mind, and I imagine he decorates the way he sees fit whether you like his style or not.

Mrs. Henley has lace curtains in her kitchen and doilies on her living room chairs. She favors a floral motif. The couch with its big blue flowers is worn shiny and dull, both at the same time. I wonder what she’ll sit on in the afterlife, so I ask.

“Why Honey! Everyone knows you stand in the choir. No need for sitting by the TV. Not up there. Everyone is busy singing out praise in the afterlife.”

My dad says, you come into this life naked and alone, and you go out that way. I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about.

Mrs. Henley has photos all over the walls. She holds her daughter’s hand in the one over the TV, and everyone is smiling. Mama used to hold my hand. She painted my room sky blue. “The prettiest blue there is,” she said. One other time she said, “Hold my hand, honey, there’s lots of traffic.” She doesn’t need to watch me now. She’s got enough to do worrying for her own self.

Maybe if she ran faster, once upon a time, back when my dad was coming around courting with his big smile, and his fists all tucked quiet down in his pockets, she’d have less to worry about.

He says, “Loretta, what happened to you? You used to be so lively.”

“You happened.” That’s what she says when she says anything at all.

I asked Mama to take my survey and she said, “Now you run on out and close the bedroom door. My poor head aches something awful.” And no wonder. Death had his heavy shadow laying up on Mama’s head. He had a bad smell. I bet that’s why my brother screamed and kept on screaming before he died.

At the funeral Mama said, “There is no pain in the afterlife,” and I said, “Is it warm and sunny and can I go there?” I didn’t get an answer, just a hug that hurt my ribcage and like to squeeze my insides out. She doesn’t do much hugging now. I’m older and anyway, she’d have to get out of bed.

Death wants something. He won’t say what, so I have to keep my eyes open. The devil’s in the detail as they say. And I’m not screaming no matter how bad he smells. You can put that in the bank. Having Death for a friend is not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m not blabbing about it all over town, or up and down the aisles at Walmart. Even so, I’m not deluged with social obligations, and no one sits with us on the bus.

School is loud. Everyone looking each other all up and down is a noisy activity. I’m doing it too. I can’t seem to help myself. Neither can Death.

Julia’s dad bought her new everything this year. It’s not every day you start high school. She wears a lot of yellow, and it looks real nice. I don’t think Death cares how nice she looks. Far as I can tell, he’s not picky about clothes. Not what he wears. Not what anyone else is wearing. He likes looking around in the school. He wouldn’t come here with me if he didn’t. It’s not for the Algebra.

“Hey Julia. Looking good,” I say. And I’m not lying. She knows it as much as everyone else. It’s as plain as the nose on my face. All that long blonde hair. I particularly like how she fixes her nails so most days they match her shoes, or her jean jacket. It doesn’t impress Death any. It’s hard to say what gets his attention.

“Why thank you,” she says.

Julia has a smile for everyone. She can afford nice. Death isn’t riding the school bus with her or sitting at the cafeteria table while she eats. He could clear a space at her table for his own sorry self if he had a mind to. I take a good look up inside his hood. He’s wearing his usual face. Nothing special. I don’t think he wants anything from Julia. I’d feel sorry if he was sniffing around her fingernails and yellow clothes. I’d try to warn her. Not that she’d listen to me no matter what I said.

“I’m taking a survey. Can you answer a few questions?” I take a step toward Julia with my clipboard. She takes a step back.

I want to know what she thinks about the afterlife, what it looks like. How you get there. What you do all day. I don’t figure girls like Julia give this much thought. When you go someplace you never been, you should have ideas about what you are going to see. Mama says people go, just like that. She snapped her fingers and opened a pill container, swallowed a pill and set the water glass back on the bedside table. It was half empty.

I take another step toward Julia and make my face pleasant, as pleasant as I can. I don’t look like a rock star. I take after Dad, which isn’t a bad thing.  “It’s just a quick survey,” I say and take a pen out of my bag.

“Why I’d love to, but I can’t right now. How about at lunch time?” Julia is perched on her toes like a finch on a dead branch fixing to fly south. She pulls her sweater up over her shoulders like it’s not ninety degrees in here.

Julia has the nicest white teeth. I think Death prefers them less even, and maybe a bit worn down by years of chewing. My brother’s two front teeth were missing. The grown-up ones hadn’t come in yet. I think Death makes exceptions when he really likes someone. I asked him to take my survey. He just smiled and showed me his own teeth.

I look for Julia at lunch, like she said I could. Her table is crowded. Everyone is laughing at something, and no one makes eye contact with me. I put the clipboard back in my bag, and my eyes roam around looking for my cousin Jolene. She’s got a new boyfriend, so it’s not like it used to be. She had lots to complain about over the years and I enjoyed that. I complained too.

“It’s hot enough in this town to knock up sheep,” I’d say. That’s an expression my dad uses. I’m accustomed to it, but a lot of people cover their mouths when I say it and most giggle. Jolene used to think it was funny. Now she gives me a look when I put my tray down next to hers. She takes Joey’s hand and I watch her link their fingers.

I get ready to dump my tray when I can’t stand the way they look at each other anymore. “See you,” I say. I’ve only got the banana left and Death will be waiting for me in the ladies room. He’s my best friend, but it’s not the same. He’s as silent-as-the-tomb, no matter how I complain or what rudeness I entertain him with.

The survey is running about sixty-forty. Sixty percent are with the peaceful afterlife and forty percent are with my dad, anticipating cold, dead dirt. This is important. I shook the clipboard at Death once. He kept his eyes closed, all tuckered out like. He didn’t even point one of those fingers up in my face. That’s what he gets for staying up all night, breathing and pouting.

“Most people are counting on something nice. They say their good deeds are rewarded. They have plans too. Who they’re gonna visit and how happy everyone will be to see them,” I told him, loud and up in his face, so he would notice.

Death just pulled back inside his hood. But I could still smell him.

“Are you listening to me?” I said.

On Wednesday I take Mrs. Henley another batch of cookies. Peanut butter. I am keeping an eye on her. I think she knows something.

“Why, aren’t you sweet. Looking out for an old person like me. I just love peanut butter cookies. I expect they are about my favorite.” She holds her front door open wide, and in I come.

“Always watch your back!” © Craig Sunter https://www.flickr.com/photos/16210667@N02/16419909842/

Death doesn’t usually tag along. He doesn’t care about cookies and he won’t look at the survey sheets. Today he plops himself down next to Mrs. Henley, close up, like they are old friends, relations even. I am admiring his red tennis shoes and the comfortable way his thigh rests against hers, when Mrs. Henley takes a bite of the cookie.

Death takes his hood down. Now that’s something new, so I pay close attention. Even though I don’t like what I see. That’s not a face anyone would want in the yearbook.

Mrs. Henley puts her hand to her throat and coughs. She looks at me. I run to the kitchen for a glass of water. When I come back out, Death has his hand down her throat. Her eyes are open as wide as I have ever seen. She has her hands up. Each finger stretched out as far as it will go, but there’s nothing for them to grab.

“What do you think you are doing?” I say. He can’t be bothered to even turn his head. And I thought we were friends.

Mrs. Henley has one eye almost closed. It’s the good one. The cloudy one is looking at somewhere. One of her bedroom slippers has come off with the kicking. But it’s no use. Death has a grip on what he wants and he is going to get it. Mrs. Henley can’t tell me anything. Even if she wanted to. Death’s arm is down her throat, tugging and pulling. His hoodie is wet with sweat. His grunts are ugly. Nothing I want to hear. Pigs are more genteel.

And finally, he’s got what he came for. I hear Mrs. Henley give it up with a sound I cannot describe and don’t want to remember. It’s in his hand –- like a trapped moth. He stuffs it in his pocket.

I close my eyes. The smell is bad, and I promised myself I wouldn’t scream. I eat a peanut butter cookie and wash the empty plate in Mrs. Henley’s sink. I dry it with her pink dish towel. She won’t be needing it but I hang it up to dry.

Death is slumped on the couch. He won’t look at Mrs. Henley and I won’t either. I don’t like the way her eyes have gone deep inside. I never imagined her mouth could open so wide.

I take out my clipboard and thumb through my surveys. Mrs. Henley was in the sixty percent. Why honey. Everyone knows the good go to heaven. Sometimes I write down exactly what they say. There is a space for comments at the bottom of the survey sheet. I point to Mrs. Henley’s answers. Death just sighs and lifts his hood back up. I put the empty cookie plate in my bag.

“What did you take from her?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer. He taps his pocket. I can hear something in there scrabbling around, trying to get out. He follows me outside and I close the door.

“You can’t come with me anymore,” I say. But Death hovers over my shoulder, shiftless and slow. I’ve told him to beat it more than once. But here he is. “Why me?” I ask. He shows me his broken teeth.

“Where are you taking that?”

I don’t get an answer. My dad would punch his lights out. You’d better cough up an answer when Dad asks a question.

I cook dinner on Thursday, and Death sits at the kitchen table while I wash up. I made hot dogs and beans. Dad was not impressed. Beggars can’t be choosers, I think, and he knows how to cook. I don’t say anything. Even Mama can’t get away with comments like that anymore. I go out on the porch to ignore what I know is coming. Dad doesn’t come out but I’m in for it anyway. He doesn’t lose interest in retribution no matter how long he has to wait.

I don’t have a survey from the next door neighbors. They aren’t home much. Tonight their car is parked right out front and the lights are on inside the house. I can hear their air conditioner groaning its cold into the heat. I go next door and knock. It’s the mister who opens the door. When I offer him a cookie and show him my clipboard, he calls his wife.

“It’s that girl from next door,” he says into the back of the house. I hear her footsteps clicking along the wood floor.

I’m alone on the porch. Death must be in the bathroom or something. Finally, getting rid of whatever was in his pocket. It was squeaking and scratching all last night and I wish he wouldn’t sleep standing up like that. “Get on in the closet,” I said. “You are keeping me awake.” And in he went, but I could still smell him and hear the thing in his pocket. “Why don’t you take a vacation,” I said. He didn’t say anything, just went silent like the dark under the bed always waiting for the other shoe.

“I think she is selling something,” the man of the house says before he returns to his chair and opens the newspaper. He doesn’t think I need to be watched. His wife will deal with me and my cookies. I should have come before dinner because he needs to think about where he is going, just like the rest of us.

“I’m taking a survey,” I tell her and step in, holding the plate out. She takes a cookie and I take a seat on the couch. The windows have blinds, not curtains. I can see the dust on the louvers and in the stripes of light that come in from the street. Mama always said she was glad that light pole was not in front of our house.

“What’s this survey for? A school project?”

“Yes, a project.” That’s easier than the truth — Even if Death’s not at your house sniffing around today, you still need to do some thinking.

“Well, all right.” She takes the clipboard and I watch her check off the boxes. She is one of the dirt ones.

“Honey,” she says towards the man of the house. “How do you spell cremation?” But he is reading the paper. She spells it right. She didn’t need to ask him.

“Have another cookie,” I say.

“I have to watch my waist,” she says and sneaks a look at her husband, heavy and reading in his chair. “Well, all right then, for later.” She puts a cookie in her pocket and gives me a conspiratorial smile. I give one back. I’m glad Death isn’t interested in this house. But when I leave, he is sitting on their porch swing, waiting for me. All pale and sweaty in the cold streetlamp light.

“I thought you’d gone on vacation,” I say.

The missus pushes the door open. It wasn’t all shut up and closed. “Did you say something?” she says.

“Thank you,” I say. I don’t want him taking a look at her shiny floors or the newspaper. Getting ideas. She should shut the door up quick. But, she steps outside onto the porch.

“Why anytime,” she says, and brushes her hair off her forehead. “We’re neighbors, now aren’t we?”  

“GRITA!!!!!!” © Krynowek Eine https://www.flickr.com/photos/krynowekeine/2608424336/

I hear sirens, having their way with the dark. I look back. Death is not on the neighbor’s porch swing. The ambulance stops in front of my house, its red light spinning.

I watch my feet go down the neighbors’ steps onto the sidewalk where Death is waiting. He is right in front of my house and now I see his pocket is full.  I open my mouth and scream. Someone has to do it. Right and loud. So it matters.

My dad opens the door, and two men from the ambulance carry a stretcher inside. Dad closes the door.

“You better take good care of that thing in your pocket. Give it a pretty sky blue room with a fine view. You hear me?” I look up under Death’s hood. I know he heard me. I take his hand. It’s sticky. That something in his pocket has gone all whimpers and sighs. I know what it is and who he got it from.

I take each step up, one at a time, onto the front porch. I open the door to home. Death comes too, holding my hand in his.  

 


 

C. McKelway lives in Maine in a haunted house where plants die from lack of attention and socks disappear into the dryer, never to return.

She graduated from Barnard College and sometimes misses the bustle of NYC.

 

 

Subscribe / Share

2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. […] and won a super insightful critique from Ms. Chupeco. YARN published the winning entry, “The Survey” here so be sure to check it out if you dare. Super creepy and I definitely won’t be accepting […]

  2. Josephine Arrowood says:

    Gripping stuff! Thought-provoking. Liked the pacing and oblique angles that revealed and concealed.

Leave a Reply




What Is YARN?

It's a brilliant thing to have a place where you can read fresh original short stories by both seasoned YA authors and aspiring teens. YARN is a great tool box for growing up writing. - Cecil Castellucci

Imagine. Envision. Write. Revise. Submit. Read.

YARN is an award-winning literary journal that publishes outstanding original short fiction, poetry, and essays for Young Adult readers, written by the writers you know and love, as well as fresh new voices...including teens.

We also believe in feedback, which is why we encourage readers to post comments on pieces that inspire thought, emotion, laughter...or whatever.

So. What's your YARN?

Publication Archive