Short Story Contest (158) - Theme: "Persuasion" Congratulations @BeckyJean for your excellent story, "When Brandy Speaks". Send me a PM with your theme for the next contest. And we'll use it in two weeks. @Wreybies will get your medal to you soon. Competition was tough all entries getting votes. Congrats as well to @Serious D and @BookLover for their second place tie. Thanks again to the other authors that entered and all the forum members who voted. ________________________________________________ When Brandy Speaks [3050 – language] “Sheila…” Sheila, who was curled into a fetal position and burrowed under the covers, was startled by Brandy’s voice. Ugh, not again, she thought, annoyed. It had been a long and brutal day. Sleep seemed to have magically grown legs and was actively running away from her. Her recent bout of insomnia - three full days of it so far - had been pure hell. Her brain and all that it contained felt full of holes, like gray, mushy Swiss cheese. She was mentally fried and had no intentions of talking to Brandy. If she stayed quiet, maybe she would think she was asleep and just go away. “I know you’re awake.” Shit. Sheila concentrated on not squnching her eyelids too tightly. It would give her away. Nobody sleeps with pinched looking lashes. Only people pretending do. She also worked on breathing more evenly. That was an important part of fake-sleeping, too. “Why do you do this? You can’t fool me, Sheila.” Brandy said, heaving a sigh. Silence. “Okay,” Brandy continued, “I guess I’ll do the talking then. Where have you been? It’s not fair for you to leave me alone like this. I thought we had a deal; I’ll be there for you, and you’ll be there for me. Wasn’t that our deal? It seems I’m the only one trying to keep up my end of it.” Sheila realized she was holding her breath. There was truth in Brandy’s words. They had made an agreement of sorts. The moment she made it she knew it was a mistake; a life changing one. But she had made it anyway. Brandy was very persuasive. “You keep me waiting, and I’m always here – just as promised. Ever notice that?” Brandy asked. “You know, I don’t understand you. You were never like this before. What’s happened? Is it me? Did I do something?” “YES!” Sheila shouted, “You ruined my life!” She was suddenly unable to contain herself. “That’s a bit dramatic, don’t you think? Even for you.” Sheila could hear the smile in Brandy’s voice. It pissed her off even more. It was condescending…patronizing. Typical. Brandy always acted like she knew better. “Of course you would think so, but you’re not the one who…” She paused. Sheila hadn’t said the next part out loud yet; hadn’t been able to. “You’re not the one who lost everything…everyone!” she blurted. “It’s all your fault!” She turned her face into her pillow, angry tears threatening. She couldn’t help it. It wasn’t as if this was the first time they’ve had this conversation. But she was on zero sleep and feeling raw; bare, in fact – as if her soul had been stripped naked and stretched out on the clothes line for the vultures and crows to peck to bloody shreds. “I know it’s easier to blame me,” Brandy told her. “You always do that when things go wrong in your life. But we both know it isn’t really my fault. You made your own decisions, Sheila. You were the one that chose to hurt the people you loved.” Sheila rolled onto her back and glared at the ceiling. Blinking hard, a sob in her chest, she started counting bumps in the acoustic ceiling, what she always did when sleep stayed away. “One, two, three, four…” “Please… that again? Is this how you intend to deal with me?” There was that smile again. Sheila could hear it - feel it in her voice. Damn her! “Why won’t you leave me alone?” She flung her forearm over her eyes, wishing, praying it would shut her up. “Just GO AWAY!” “You need me.” Sheila threw off her covers. Most of them landed on the floor as she jumped out of bed and marched into the adjoining bathroom. She slammed the door shut and dropped the toilet lid down with a clang. Climbing on top of it, she hugged her knees to her chest. “Sheila…” she heard through the door. “GO AWAY!” Sheila screamed, weeping, her body racked with emotion. “Go away go away go away…” she said over and over, more to herself than to Brandy. “Please leave me alone, I’m begging you.” “I don’t understand why you’re being like this. I’m here for you… I’m always here for you.” “But I don’t WANT you here! I don’t need you!” Sheila shouted through frustrated tears. “I think we both know that’s not true.” The confidence in that statement nearly broke Sheila in two. It was true, or at least close to true. She didn’t have to let it be, though. “Why don’t we stop all this? I miss the way it used to be. I know you do, too…even if you say you don’t. And we had a deal…” Brandy said. “Well I fucking revoke that deal!” “I know you don’t mean that, Sheila. We’ve been here before. You’ve said exactly this…how many times? You never mean it.” “M-maybe,” Sheila stammered uncertainly, her tears abating. “Maybe you’re right, maybe I haven’t meant it before. But I mean it now. This has to end.” “Come out of there, Sheila.” Brandy said impatiently from the other side of the door. “Come out here and talk to me. I deserve that much – don’t I?” Sheila eyed the door warily. A small part of her was tempted to do as Brandy asked. She knew it could be dangerous. Conversations with Brandy often were. Or perhaps she could just pretend she wasn’t there. Yeah, she thought, a tingle of bravado in her gut – I’ll just ignore her! She stood up, wiping clammy palms against the flannel of her pajama pants. They were all sweaty, her body’s way of telling her she was about to do something questionable, something she knew was wrong; like willingly walking into a fire pit, and all the while telling herself it’s just a puddle of rain water. She took two steps toward the bathroom door and gripped the antique, porcelain doorknob. It was smooth and cool in her hand; comforting, the way it always feels. Quickly, she twisted the knob and pulled the door open. She walked, feet thumping loudly on the hardwood, through her bedroom, past the bed, straight into the kitchen. Coffee; she’d make coffee. Clearly sleep was off running a marathon. She would be getting none of it tonight. She snatched up the carafe and stuck it under the running faucet and then back under the drip of the coffee maker. Then she dropped a filter into the machine, dumped grounds into it, and switched it on. Leaning back against the table, she folded her arms across her stomach and waited for the water to trek up the tube and begin its unhurried trickle into the glass globe. “Sheila…” Brandy spoke from behind her. “Dammit, I don’t want to talk to you.” Sheila muttered, already forgetting to ignore her. The truth was she was too easily triggered. They both knew this. Brandy knew it most of all. “I wish you would let me help you. Why are you being so stubborn?” Brandy said gently. The concern in her voice - the tender, maternal way she spoke… it made Sheila want to throw up. She despised it when Brandy tried to mother her. It made her feel violated. She couldn’t explain why. It just did. “I have no intention of pressuring you. You know that.” “HAH! Really!” Sheila laughed sarcastically. “That’s a load of crap and you know it.” “Have I ever pressured you, Sheila? I mean really pressured you? If you think about it, if you’re truly honest with yourself - you’ll know I haven’t.” “Well I don’t see it that way.” “I know you don’t. But you’re not so good at being honest with yourself. Are you, dear?” There was more than a smile in Brandy’s voice this time. There was a smirk. A haughty, know-it-all smirk. Sheila wanted to rip it off her face and feed it to the neighbor’s cat, Bonkers. Yeah, he would like that. He was the kind of cat that would hunt and make a meal out of just about anything. The thought of Bonkers chowing down on that grin made Sheila smile. She heard gurgling. The scent of brewing coffee filled the air. Just like the smooth porcelain doorknob in the bathroom, the steamy aroma was comforting to Sheila. She inhaled deeply and drew that comfort into the basement of her lungs. Suddenly she was reminded of her last morning with Jerry, her almost-ex-husband; the day he left for the last time, nearly two months ago. She had been brewing coffee that day, too. Or was it he who had been? She had come out of their bedroom, or stumbled out, rather, to find him sitting alone at the kitchen table, a bizarre blend of shattered vacancy on his face. “Why do you do this, Sheila? It does no good to torment yourself.” Brandy said, interrupting her thoughts. “Stop mind-reading me! My thoughts are mine… they’re private! Stay the hell out of them!” “I know you too well, is all. Nobody’s reading anyone’s mind here.” Sheila pictured Bonkers gobbling up that grin again. “You do understand that he would have gone anyway, whether I was here or not. I wasn’t the one that drove him out. Surely you knew that.” “No – I don’t know that, and you don’t know that either! He loved me…” Sheila said, humiliated by the whimper in her voice. She cleared her throat and tried again. “He loved me and nothing you say now can change that. He only left because…because,” Sheila couldn’t finish. If she did she would have to admit that Brandy was right, and that would be the end of her. Her heart couldn’t bear the weight of that admission; it would simply cave in, implode, evaporate. “Uh, b-because…” “Because he was never meant to stay.” Brandy finished for her. “No, you’re wrong. He loved me, I know it! And –" “Yes, he loved you. No one’s denying that. But people love and leave others all the time. Loving someone doesn’t mean they stay. You know that’s true. Just look at your mother. She did the same thing, remember?” The soft sincerity in her voice very nearly made Sheila vomit this time. It took all she had to tamp it down. Her gag reflex bobbed up and down her throat like a pogo stick before settling down. “Don’t you talk about her! Don’t you ever…” “It’s no great secret, Sheila.” Brandy cut in. “Everyone knows; they’ve always known. Saying it out loud won’t change the past. You need to face this. You need to stop believing these lies you’re constantly tell yourself.” “She – she didn’t know how to stay. That’s why she left! It was too hard for her with him… with my father. It had nothing to do with me. She loved me. Don’t you dare say she didn’t!” Sheila suddenly felt like the five year old she had been when her mother went away. She remembered crouching down, peeking through the spindly wrought iron of the second floor banister, watching her parents fight in the foyer below. Her mother was grappling with the doorknob; a white, antique, porcelain doorknob. All of the sudden it dawned on Sheila why she's been drawn to them her entire life. Why she felt compelled to search for them at consignment stores, garage sales, estate sales. Why it was so important when she and Jerry bought this house that they replace each doorknob with the antique porcelain knobs she had spent years hunting down. She could still see her mother at the door, hands gripping the creamy porcelain. Thin slivers of white peeked out between her fingers. She remembered her father grabbing a fistful of her mother’s hair, twisting the long strands around his fingers like spaghetti on a fork. He yanked her head back, dropping her onto the floor. She scrambled up faster than Sheila would have thought possible; like a determined insect blown head-over-tin-cups by a gust of wind and, without missing a beat, flipping over to truck right along. Back on her feet, her mother kicked her dad’s legs out from under him. He went down hard, hitting the back of his head with a loud smack. What she did next was something Sheila has never understood. She smiled. She looked down at her husband, Sheila’s dad, and a creepy, self satisfied grin erupted across her face, sending shivers down Sheila’s spine. Then she shoved his limp legs out of the way with her foot and opened the door. Sheila had stood up then; sure her mother would look up and see her. Certain she would beckon her to come down, saying “Let’s go! We’ll be safe if we stay together!” Certain she wouldn’t –couldn’t leave her behind in this house of horrors with this awful, violent man. But she didn’t do any of that. She didn’t look up and see her, and she didn’t try to take her with her. And apparently she didn’t care if she was safe or not. Because she left. She yanked open the door and stepped into the black night and never looked back. Sheila never saw her again. “You see? She was never meant to stay,” Brandy said, as if reading Sheila’s mind. “But you know you can always count on me. I will always be here for you – no matter what.” Sheila tried hard not to start crying again. The tears of that five year old had been shed way too many times over the years, and her mother didn’t deserve even one more teardrop. Only now that her heart was primed, Sheila couldn’t contain what was desperate to spill out. Before she knew it, she was bawling… just like a five year old. She cried for a long while. “Come now, let’s end this nonsense. Let me help you.” Brandy said. Sniffling, Sheila grabbed a paper towel. She blew her nose and wiped her face. “Let me help you…” Brandy repeated. Silently, Sheila walked to her pantry. She stood there for a moment, staring at its door… thinking, contemplating. Exhaling deeply, she pulled it open and looked past the flour and baking powder. She looked to the row of little brown bottles near the back. With sweaty palms she grasped the tall, round one withMcCormick Pure Vanilla Extract on the label. She pulled it out, rubbing her thumb over the red cap. Then she set it on the counter and stepped back. “Sheila, what are you thinking?” Brandy asked. “Shut up,” Sheila said and headed to her bedroom. She went into her walk-in closet, to the boxes in the corner containing her tax stuff. She yanked folders out and tossed them across the floor; they weren’t what she was looking for. She fumbled around the bottom of the box. It had to be there. Ah, finally; under all her old receipts. She pulled it loose and looked hard at it. The pewter had begun to oxidize, a slight patina tint at the edge of the engraving. Lillian, it read in fancy script. It had been her mothers. As a child, Sheila was surprised she’d left without it. It’d been among her most prized possessions. Perhaps that was why Sheila had held onto it for all these years – even if it was simply stuck in a box of old tax returns. Sheila shook it. Something splashed inside. She walked it to the kitchen and set is next to the Vanilla Extract. “What are you doing, Sheila?” Brandy asked more sternly. “I said shut up.” Then Sheila walked to the linen closet. She reached into the folded, cotton quilt that Nana, her father’s mother, had made for her when she turned six; something to distract Sheila from the knowledge that her mother had abandoned her. But also, Sheila believed, something to make up for the fact that the son Nana had raised was a monster. Nothing could make up for that. And when her dad no longer had her mother to torment, he turned all of his attentions toward his daughter; none of which was welcomed. Not long after, Sheila met Brandy. She had been a good friend of her mother’s, so it only made sense that she would want to befriend Lillian’s daughter. Sheila found what she was looking for tucked between the folds of the quilt. The smooth glass with the paper label felt good… it felt right. She caressed it with her fingertips – gave it a jiggle. Slosh, slosh. Half full, at least. Her mouth began to water. “Sheila…” Brandy said quietly, calmly. “Please, Brandy. Just… please…” She walked the bottle back to the kitchen and set it on the counter, next to the Vanilla Extract and the flask. She lined them up, like little soldiers of descending sizes standing at attention. “I’m always here for you. I will always be here for you.” Brandy said. Sheila twisted off the cap on the Vanilla Extract’s bottle. She passed it under her nose, inhaling. Just as she expected; not even an inkling of vanilla scent. She’d hid something else in there a long time ago. She tilted her head back, tipping the bottle ass-up into the air, guzzling its entire contents. It stung, making her eyes water. She coughed hard twice. It’d been a while. Then she grabbed the flask. She twisted off the cap and threw it across the room. Feverishly, she drank the liquid down. She coughed several times, but it didn’t smart as badly this time. Finally she snatched up the glass bottle. Christian Brothers Brandy VS, it said. It was her favorite. It had been her mother’s favorite, too. She unscrewed the cap, hovered the bottle under her nose and breathed it in. The smell instantly took her back to her mother. All that was missing were the hints of Chanel No. 5 beneath the warm, honeyed tones of the liquor. Rejection, longing, sadness – it all welled up inside of her. She wrapped quivering lips around the bottle’s mouth and leaned back, letting the amber liquid fill her belly in huge gulps. “That’s it, dear. That’s it. Don’t you worry. I am always here for you,” Brandy said.