Today marks the publication of the fourth of our top five stories in the 8th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest. Our second place finalist, Ally Sapienza’s “Check Again,” is a story that approaches the theme of this year’s contest, “The Night Before,” by using deception. As our judge put it, “near the end, there is a meta reveal of Joselyn acting as an unreliable narrator and explicitly explaining why she did what she did.” We hope you enjoy it!
My parents reported me missing about 12 hours ago. What a shame, a heartbreak, it must be to not know where your daughter has been for a half a day. But the truth is, they know exactly where I am. Well, at least they thought they did. Now, they’re not so sure.
“Officers say they have begun searching for 16-year-old Joselyn Baker and that they need the town to keep their eyes out for her as well,” I look up at the TV in the corner of the diner, watching the female reporter as she stands in front of the police station, holding a microphone and telling my story. “Joselyn is 5’7 and 150 pounds. She has black hair and brown eyes.”
Did they really need to say my weight? I roll my eyes.
“She was last seen wearing a blue crew neck sweatshirt and black ripped jeans,” the reporter continues. I tilt my head as I watch, wondering what they’re going to say next. Suddenly, a picture of my school’s yearbook photo covers the reporter on the screen.
I pull my sweatshirt’s hood over my head, covering my hair and most of my face as I continue watching. I guess that’s the only thing this announcement got wrong about me. I wasn’t wearing a blue crew neck when I was last seen.
I subtly look around the diner, making sure that nobody is looking my way. Everyone is busy eating their food or stuck in conversation to even sneak a glance at me. It’s now that I realize nobody is even paying attention to the TV and the reporter who is saying that I’m missing. I suppose that’s a good thing. Based on what I plan to do, I don’t need any more attention drawn to me.
“Miss?” I’m pulled out of my daze when I hear the waiter addressing me.
“Are you finished eating?” he asks me.
“Oh, yes, I am,” I give him my best mannered smile. “It was delicious.”
“Good to hear that,” he says. “Could I grab your payment please?”
“Yeah, of course,” I say, reaching into my pocket.
“Now, in case you didn’t see it the first time, here’s another image of Joselyn Baker,” the reporter says. “Again, she has been missing for about 12 hours now. 5’7, 150 pounds, black hair…”
I watch as the waiter looks up at the screen to see the picture. He looks back down at me, then his eyebrows scrunch up in confusion as he looks back up at the picture. “Hey…are you–”
I don’t give him enough time to figure out that I actually am the missing girl on the TV as I take off out the diner, not looking back. It’s a pity that I never got to pay for what I ate, although I never planned on paying anyway.
Across the street, I see a bike stand with a bike that happens to be unattended. I run across the street, far away from the crosswalk, not looking both ways before I cross. To my right I hear a car’s tires screeching across the pavement, and then a honking sound that I can only imagine is directed at me. I grab the bike, taking off down an alleyway that will take me to the other side of town and far away from the diner and that waiter that recognized me. Although, now that I think about it, he may care more about the fact that I didn’t pay.
He’ll get over it.
Down the long and dark alleyway, for some strange reason I feel more safe here than I have at all in the last 12 hours. Or pretty much my whole life. I stop riding the bike for a second, leaning up against the alleyway wall as I catch my breath. I consider taking off again, but I’ve got some time to kill.
After around a half an hour, I climb back on the bike and ride down the alleyway again.
Up ahead, I watch as a lightbulb attached to a wire swings from its lamp post; back and forth, back and forth. When I look back ahead of me I quickly turn the bike left, almost crashing right into a wall.
Out the other side of the alleyway, I throw the bike down and walk into a coffee shop. Keeping my hoodie strategically placed so nobody can see it’s me, I walk up to the barista.
“How can I help you today?” she asks, giving me a big smile.
“Yeah, can I just use your phone?” I ask and she nods, looking around for it.
“There’s one over by the bathrooms. Behind you and to your right,” she says, pointing in the right direction.
“After a fire in her room, 16-year-old Joselyn Baker–”
“Thanks,” I say to the barista, taking off before she sees the picture of me on the TV behind her. I glance back and see her watching the TV along with everyone else in the shop as opposed to everyone in the diner who couldn’t have cared less.
“That poor girl,” a blonde woman says to another woman.
“Poor family too,” the other woman says, tossing her black hair over her shoulder. “That’s the Bakers, they live up on the hill. Nice family.”
“Oh, you’re right,” the blonde woman says. “What a shame. I hope they find her.”
“Police are also searching for three unidentified suspects of an attempted jewelry store robbery–”
I pick up the phone, dialing a familiar number, one that I dialed not too long ago. I pull the phone into the bathroom, being careful of the wire connecting it to the phone box.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
THE NIGHT BEFORE
It is hard to notice a change, a psychotic change, in a person’s behavior when they have been crazy their entire life. Considering the fact that my parents had me for the tax benefits and to use me to make them seem like a normal family, we have never really had the best relationship. They actually told me a story about a time where my mother used me to distract the cashier of a store while my father was in the back stealing liquor and pills for the two of them.
I wonder if they ever saw me as their child. Although, I try not to think about it all that much. To them, they see me as either being the key to their crimes, their master distraction since nobody would suspect a kid like me to be a criminal, or they see me as nothing at all.
The thing with my parents is, they aren’t like normal criminals or thieves. They don’t steal because they don’t have money, they steal because they like to steal. They don’t commit crimes because they need to, they do it because they want to.
The worst part about it, however, is the only time they steal is when they go through these episodes where they are a little bit crazier than they were before. If they don’t need me to finish through with the crime, I stay as far away from them as possible during those times. It’s hard to tell what they might do during their episodes. It’s like their humanity switches off or maybe their memory or their moral compass. They become strangers during their episodes. Well, more strangers than they were before.
With my parents, I see them as before and during. What they act like before their episodes, and what they act like during. They see me as either the kid that lives in their house or the kid that helps them make a little cash.
Sometimes, when they’re committing their crimes in their episodic state, they look at me, and I can’t help but wonder if they recognize me at all.
Suddenly, I hear footsteps walking up the stairs in an irregular pattern. They sound like they’re walking up two and stopping for a second before they continue. I pull my bed comforter up, exposing the underside of my bed and I throw the journal I was writing in under there and place the comforter back in its place.
My breathing quickens, the world around me beginning to spin. I stare at a point on the wall, digging my fingernails into the palms of my hands to ground myself and remind myself that this is real. Then, my door opens.
I hold my breath so whoever is there doesn’t notice the fear I’m feeling, doesn’t hear the uncertainty in each inhale and exhale that I produce.
I look over to see my mother, looking back at me, a small smirk plastered on her lips and her eyes surveying me. I can tell just by looking at her and by the small movements in her eyes that this is an episode.
My father comes up behind her, looking at me over my mothers shoulder with the same look she has as he watches me cross-legged in the middle of my bed.
I have always thought it was weird, and always wondered how they began their episodes at the same time. Were their episodes intentional? Were they planned? Or did they sync up just from the sheer fact that they have known each other for a long time?
“Yes?” I exhale slowly, steadying my breath.
“We have an idea for later,” my mother says, so slowly that it’s almost painful. “We want some more money for a trip we are planning on taking.”
“Don’t you have a lot of money from the last time?” I ask gently.
The funny thing about all of this is that they have never been caught from any crime they have committed. The personas that we put on for this town basically gives all of us an alibi if the cops come knocking on our doors, or our neighbors doors, for answers. We are seen as the kind and loving family in the town, and nobody has ever questioned otherwise.
The only other reason our cover hasn’t been blown is due to the fact that we live up on a hill, about a mile away from our nearest neighbor. If we lived in a neighborhood, people would be able to pick up on their episodes a lot sooner and far easier.
Long story short, everyone in this town and all the cops in this state are our puppets and my parents have them in chains. They are like clay, in a way, since my parents are able to mold and control their opinions and views of us at the snap of their fingers.
Mom and dad usually drive out to different towns and cities, sometimes different states to steal things, and they are very particular about their system. Their system is what has helped them to never get caught, and I have received the talk multiple times that if I ever mess with their system, well, I’d be dead.
“We don’t need any questions asked…” my father says, quieting at the end of his sentence like he is trying to remember something.
When I realize what he has forgotten, what he wanted to say, I look at him. “Joselyn,” I say my name. “My name is Joselyn.”
He gives me a smile, and a creepy one at best. “We don’t need any questions asked, Joselyn,” he says.
I nod, looking down at my hands. “Sorry.”
“We expect you down in the kitchen in ten minutes so we can begin,” my mother says, and I nod.
“Okay,” I respond quietly, and they close the door.
I take a deep breath before walking to my closet and pulling out some dark colored clothes. I check my watch, seeing that it’s 9 PM and I have until 9:10 to get ready and go down into the kitchen, just like my mom said.
I don’t actually know what would happen if I took longer than ten minutes to go down there, and I’ve never tested the theory any of the other times she has given me a time limit to get stuff done. I have always been far too terrified to go against that and test the waters. I figured that it falls under the umbrella of messing with their system and I can only assume that if I do that, it would consist of the same consequence: death.
After I get ready, I look at my watch and see that I have about five minutes to spare, and I could just sit in my room until I don’t have any time left in order to minimize the time spent with my parents, but I end up deciding to just get it over with. If I spend five minutes in here, staring at my wall, I’m just going to drive myself crazy with what they are going to have me do, what they are expecting of me, how it’s going to go and the chance of us getting caught.
I slowly walk down the stairs, peeking my head around the corner and into the kitchen. My parents are sitting at the table, holding blueprints in their hands and pointing at different exits and entrances.
“What are you doing?” my mother asks. I look at her, stepping fully into the kitchen, keeping my mouth closed as I don’t know what to say. “Who are you?”
I feel my heart tear in half. I know that my parents don’t really care about me for any reasons other than a key to their crimes, and I know that they are different people during their episodes, but it still hurts when they don’t remember who I am.
This isn’t the first time.
I clear my throat. “I–uh, I’m the person you wanted to help you with your, uh, plans. Remember?” I explain. “You asked me to help like five minutes ago.”
“Oh, yes,” my mother says. “I remember. Come here, dear.”
She doesn’t remember. Either way, I put on a fake smile as I walk towards the table, standing behind my mother and looking at the blueprint in her hand.
“This is a map of the jewelry store up north,” she explains to me. “About an hour away.”
“We’re going tonight?” I ask and she nods. I look at my dad who has a magazine in his hand. I scan my eyes along it and see all of the jewelry; necklaces, rings, watches, earrings. He’s writing down numbers on a piece of paper, so I can only assume he is writing down the prices of them, or rather, the amount of money they will make off of selling them. “What do I need to do?”
“Rob and I are going to walk in first and pretend we are shopping for an engagement ring. I will be distracting the cashier, asking a million questions about all the rings, while Rob counts all the cameras and marks all the blind spots,” she begins explaining, however the only thing I can really pay attention to is the fact that she is calling him “Rob” instead of my father. “You are going to be in the car, waiting ten minutes before coming in. When you walk in, that’s when you begin to distract the cashier, making up your own story to why you are there. You are going to get him to turn his back to us, and when he does, we pick the locks off of the case and quietly grab what we need. We put it in our bag and walk out, you keep speaking with the cashier, and then about five minutes later you can leave too.”
“Are you going to leave me there?” I ask the obvious question.
She hesitates, looking ahead of her as she decides whether or not to leave her daughter stranded an hour away from home. “I don’t plan on leaving you, no.”
I nod. “What’s my story for being there?”
“You can come up with one yourself,” she says. “Just remember to keep it innocent and childlike so they don’t assume anything is suspicious.”
I internally groan, not knowing what story I am going to say, or if I even need to come up with one.
“We should get going,” my father says. “They close at 11.”
I watch as the two of them open the little door under the stairs, which I have always been told to never go in. They pull out a black shoulder bag, luckily not big enough to hold a body which was my first concern. They start to bring all of their supplies out to the car, loading it in the trunk and getting everything situated. My mother walks around to the driver’s side and opens the door, but stops to look at me when she sees I am watching them in the doorway.
“What are you waiting for, kid?” she asks, waving me to the car.
“Kid,” I repeat, muttering it under my breath. I close the front door and walk down the porch steps, getting into the back seat of the car.
I put my headphones in and turn the volume all the way up, drowning out the sounds of my parents talking with the sound of music. I’m not sure they are even discussing the plan for the robbery, but I drown out their voices anyway. It’s hard to listen to them talk when they are in their episodes; listening to them is like listening to the psychopaths in the horror movies.
When we arrive at the jewelry store, the two of them get out, grabbing tools and putting it in their pockets. I watch them walk into the store, waiting in the car like they told me to. I look into the windows of the store, seeing the worker greet them and then I watch as my father subtly checks the place out.
When ten minutes pass, I take a deep breath, soaking in the peace and silence, letting it fill my lungs. Then, I open the car door and walk towards the store. When I open the door, the worker looks at me and I give him a big smile.
“How can I help you, Miss?” the worker asks me.
“I’ve been searching for the perfect promise ring for my girlfriend,” I explain, looking around the store at all the glass cases. I make eye contact with my dad, whose eyes narrow at me before I look away. “Our anniversary is coming up.”
“Well I can assist you in a moment right after I help this nice couple with their–”
“Oh, please,” my mother interrupts him. “We’re just going to browse around, you can help her. Their young love seems more exciting than ours anyway.”
The worker chuckles. “Alright, Ms.,” he nods to her. “I’ll be with her if you have any questions.” My mother walks toward me, making eye contact with me as she passes, giving me a look that can only say: mess this up, and you will never forget it.
For the next five or so minutes, the worker teaches me everything I need to know about each ring in the store. I know the prices, the sizes, what stones they include, the type of metal, and even the occasion each ring is for. While the worker is describing a new ring to me, I look towards my mother. She is already looking at me and gives me the signal to begin distracting the worker.
I walk around to the other side of the glass case, making it so the worker’s back is to my parents and so I can see everything that they are doing. However I make sure to note to not look in their direction, because if I do, the worker might look back to see what they are doing.
“So what is the deal with this ring?” I ask, pointing to the first ring I see in the case.
“Oh, well this one is very special,” he says, beginning the backstory to the ring and all the background information that I will never need to know. As I’m listening to the man answer my question, I see my mother finally open one of the glass cases. Then, all of a sudden, my father has a reaction to something, maybe a happy reaction, I don’t know, and I do the unthinkable.
I look at them.
I immediately notice my mistake, switching my gaze back to the man in front of me, but it’s too late. He looks back.
It all happens so fast–the man screaming, the sound of glass shattering, my parents taking off. The world around me begins to spin and then comes to a blur, a high-pitched screeching sound replacing the sound of reality in my ears.
I force myself back into reality, taking off after my parents. Luckily, I made it just in time to get in the car or they would have left without me. We take off down the road at a fast speed until we reach about ten minutes out. Then my father slows down and follows the speed limit so as to not draw attention to ourselves. The whole ten minutes, nobody spoke. The whole time, I felt as if the entire world was crashing around me, because I knew that I messed up. I knew the consequences of messing up.
Then, my mother speaks as if she was reading my mind. “You know what happens if you mess up, Joselyn.”
“You remember my name?” I ask, scoffing.
“I said something to you,” she responds. “What did I say just now?”
I sigh, looking down at my hands. “I know what happens if I mess up.”
“So do you?”
“And you knew that when you messed up, didn’t you?”
“So then why in the world did you mess up that job for us?”
“It was an accident,” I say. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Accidents are not allowed in this business, Joselyn,” she says. “You give us no other choice than to punish you.”
The rest of the car ride home, she doesn’t yell at me. Honestly, I would have rather her yelled at me then calmly tell me what I did wrong. For some reason, her not yelling at me seemed more sadistic than being screamed at.
Laying wide awake in my bed, staring at my ceiling, I attempt to fall asleep, but fail every time. I have been fearing for my life the moment I looked at my parents and messed up the robbery, so sleep isn’t really an option.
I toss and turn, throwing my covers off and putting them back on, flipping my pillows around and biting my nails anxiously. The confusion and wonderment, the question of what’s going to happen to me swirls around my brain.
Would they really kill their daughter? I mean, what would they do without their little puppet to do their bidding for them?
Suddenly, I hear walking up the stairs, and when I hear my door knob rattle, I turn my back to the door and close my eyes, pretending to be asleep. “Joselyn?” my mothers voice calls out to me.
I don’t respond.
Then I hear shuffling, two sets of footsteps walking around my room and whispering things I can’t make out. My fear begins to set in, but I keep my breaths slow and controlled. I hear a liquid being poured on the floor, immediately followed by the smell of gasoline.
No. It can’t be.
This sound and smell combination continues for a few moments before the footsteps walk back towards the door to my room. I hear the sound of a match striking a box, and then the sound of a flame igniting, followed by the door closing.
When I’m sure the door is closed, I throw myself back awake, looking around my room to see a flame spreading rapidly across the carpeted floor. I allow myself to be afraid for only a moment, I allow it to spread through my veins and crawl up my neck and eat me alive, but only for a moment. After that moment passes, I fly out of my bed, quickly putting on the pair of shoes by the side of my bed right before the flames spread to the side I’m on. I stand on top of my bed, thanking God that there is a window behind my headboard. Unlocking the window, I climb over the headboard and slide out, landing on the roof outside my bedroom. I close the window back up and walk to the edge of the roof.
It’s about a one story drop with grass at the bottom, and I smile to myself at just how lucky I’m getting. When I drop down, I immediately start running, taking off to find the nearest phone.
Well, you caught me. I suppose I am what they refer to as an “unreliable narrator”. I guess you can argue that I have had this all planned out from the beginning, back when my parents first started committing crimes and involving me. I had this planned out ever since the time they had 5-year-old me ask the lady at the cash register of a gas station about all of the lollipops so my parents could steal liquor without getting caught.
Going into the jewelry store, I knew that this was the time I was going to finally make a mistake and blow my parent’s cover. I knew that they would punish me, also known as attempting to kill me, and I knew what my plan would be next.
After I jumped out of my window, I made it to the nearest payphone and I called the police, disguising myself as my mother. I said that there was a fire in my daughters room and they couldn’t find my body and that I was therefore missing.
The main reason I reported myself missing to the police was because I knew they would begin investigating what happened and potentially realize that it was my parents doing and maybe get them thrown in jail if my future plan didn’t work. Another reason I did it, however, was because I knew my parents would have to go along with it and I just wanted to watch that go down just for the sake of entertainment. However, another reason could arguably be that I wanted to give myself an alibi for what I was going to do next.
After reporting myself missing, I walked back to my house, hiding in the woods as I watched everything go down. I watched the police pull up, watched as my parents opened the door and watched as they nodded, going along with the story the police gave them. Up until that moment, they believed I was dead up there in my room.
When the cops left, an hour or so later, I went to the spot in the woods where I hid my gasoline. I have to admit, as much as I hated my parents, we did have the same ideas sometimes. Although, what they didn’t realize is that I am my parent’s child–and I am just as crazy as them.
I walked up to the house, opened the front door quietly and shut it behind me. I walked up the stairs and to their bedroom. Mimicking what they did to me hours ago, I set their room on fire where they were sleeping. Although, the difference this time is that they actually were sleeping.
That brings us to the present. I’m in the coffee shop, phone in hand, with 911 on the other line. “911, what’s your emergency?”
“Hi. I was on a walk and saw a ton of smoke in the air in the direction of my neighbors’ house,” I say, changing the normal tone of my voice. “I’d like to report a fire.”
If I had one more minute with my parents, if I got the opportunity to tell them one last thing before they perished, I’d tell them this: when you think you’ve got me dead, check again.