The Chipmunk

Dawn Miller

The Chipmunk is the Third Place Winner of Room’s 2022 Short Forms Contest, as judged by Alix Ohlin. You can find the full list of winners, and what judge Alix Ohlin had to say about each winning piece, here.

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The Chipmunk

At the campsite, my sister and I knot string around unshelled peanuts and crouch behind stones. Pine needles prick our bare knees. She whispers, “Keep quiet,” in strawberry Hubba Bubba breath. Our parents and teenage sister murmur inside the trailer, the scent of bacon and coffee wafting.

A chipmunk skitters around the cooled campfire stones. Stares with its peppercorn eyes as we wiggle our strings. For a moment, I think it’ll run away but it rubs its tiny paws and chipmunks so close I can make out its brown whiskers, fine as our hair.

My sister holds out an extra peanut on her flattened palm, and the creature grabs the dimpled shell and scurries away. She rubs her hand and laughs. Years later, I’ll wonder if the chipmunk sensed she was the vulnerable one, the gentle one, the one who most needed that moment of joy.

We swim past yarrow and creeping phlox. Our parents warn us of dangers beneath the depths—rip currents, sharp rocks, microscopic parasites—unaware danger sits with us at the table, holds our hands as we cross the street, curls around us while we dream.

I straighten my legs and search for the squishy bottom of Mazinaw Lake. My thin legs dangle, weightless as we tread water and shout, “Look at me, look at me,” to our parents on the shore. We say, “Eyes open,” and then dive under. I reach for her in the murkiness, and we burst through the surface, hands clasped, laughing so hard we hiccup. Her hair is slick, a dark halo around cancer cells that silently divide while she sleeps.

At night, our bodies curve toward each other on the shared top bunk with space to spare. We whisper until Dad snaps, “Enough, girls. Go to sleep.”

By the next summer, he is maudlin. Too huggy. Watches me with eyes as blue as hers. My mother holds me less. Pushes me away more. 

I stop playing with chipmunks.

I stop playing.

Mom befriends families at the campsite with daughters about my age whose names I never remember. They track me with their dark eyes. Whisper when I turn my back.

I vow to try harder. I call on these girls and we toss pebbles into the lake. I reply to their questions with one-word answers.

Dad sells the trailer. When somebody asks, I change my answer from two sisters to one.

At fifteen, I try so hard to disappear the gym teacher phones my mother. I wear baggy clothes. Skip gym class.

When I clear out my parents’ apartment decades later, I find a round box, whisper-small, with my sister’s auburn wig brushed smooth. I pack it into a larger box along with her Brownie beret pinned with achievement badges and my mother’s books with titles like When Bad Things Happen to Good People and How Not to Be Angry with God.

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Dawn Miller’s short fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine, The Cincinnati Review, Stanchion, Ellipsis Zine, Fictive Dream, Brink, Cleaver Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, Fractured Lit, Burningword Literary Journal, and Jellyfish Review, among others. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives and writes in Picton, Ontario, Canada. Connect at www.dawnmillerwriter.com or on Twitter @DawnFMiller1 and Instagram @dawnmillerwriter.

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