Our 2022 Short Forms Contest is judged by Alix Ohlin! Alix Ohlin is the author of six books, mostly recently the novel Dual Citizens and the story collection We Want What We Want. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, and many other places. She lives in Vancouver and teaches at the UBC School of Creative Writing. Enjoy this short excerpt from Ohlin’s 2021 book, We Want What We Want– perhaps allowing it to serve as as inspiration for your own work?
Submit today to receive a one-year subscription to Room, and remember that each entry to the contest counts as an entry to our raffle that gives you a chance to win a free copy of Ohlin’s We Want What We Want! We also have ten free entries to offer to low-income writers for each of our contests in order to encourage barrier-free access to contest submission. We encourage those who may benefit from a free entry, for any reason at all, to contact us at contests [at] roommagazine [dot] com. RoomMates who join us over on Patreon also get free contest entries! Our Short Forms Contest closes November 15th, 2022. Happy writing!
When I was twelve years old my father hired a private detective to follow my mother around. He believed she was having an affair, which she was, and he wanted proof to show a judge, in order to fight for custody of my sister Nicole and me. The detective was a short, dark-haired, overweight man named Sam Postelthwaite, who came to our house one evening with a manila envelope clutched in his meaty hands. My father introduced him, stupidly, as a colleague—stupidly because my father kept the books for a few local businesses and didn’t exactly have “colleagues”—and then hustled him into my parents’ bedroom, where they spoke in whispers for a few minutes, then emerged with somber expressions on their faces and hugged goodbye, as if they’d been attending a funeral service in there. Years later I waited on Sam Postelthwaite at the Blue Dragon Café. He was even more overweight and had not aged well, and I knew he could sense me staring at him from behind the bar while I pulled his beer, but he didn’t seem perturbed by it. Probably it happened to him a lot, in his line of work.
Like a lot of my father’s schemes this one both backfired, and didn’t. When confronted with the photographs, my mother was so angry that she ripped them up and left: him, us, town. We never saw her again. He got custody, and Nicole and I lost our mother, whom we spent the rest of our teen years idolizing as a free spirit who threw off the shackles of the ordinary world. She was our hero, despite having abandoned us, and every time we defied our father, which was often, we did so in her name.
At a certain point, though, I saw how foolish this was—which is to say, I grew up—and came to appreciate our father and his dogged affection for us, which endured the rocky years of our adolescence and was still there, waiting, when we became adults. After I went away to school and came back home (returning to work at the Blue Dragon, as if my education had never happened), I often had dinner with him and his girlfriend, Noriko, who was a stylish, successful real estate agent and whom both my father and I thought could probably do a lot better than him.
Nicole struggled more than I did. She inherited our mother’s dark brown hair and her restlessness and her love of attention. At nineteen she went off to Los Angeles, wanting to be famous. And she sort of succeeded; she appeared on one of those reality shows where she competed alongside twenty other reasonably good-looking girls for the attention of a man with highly defined abs and no personality. When she didn’t win, she came home, in debt and with a drinking problem, and got a job as a kindergarten teacher. She was the most famous person in our town, and people often turned to look when they recognized her at the gas station or the grocery store.
There was no party Nicole wouldn’t go to. She had a string of short relationships, if you could call them that, and she often stumbled over to my apartment on a Sunday morning, still wearing her clothes from the night before, to complain and confess. She wanted me to make her eggs and tell her to straighten up. She had become our mother, and I our father, the two of us performing a script that had been written before we were born. It didn’t feel fair to me, and I told her so; we fought, and then the following Sunday she’d show up again, and of course, I’d let her in.
It was nine o’clock on an April Sunday when the doorbell rang, which was early for Nicole, but I’d been up for hours, drinking coffee and reading the real estate section of The New York Times. Moving to the city was a fantasy so long ingrained in me that I couldn’t let it go, though I had lost any intention of actually doing it. It was an unusually warm spring after an unusually cold winter, and the cardinals and robins were singing loudly, as if both pleased and alarmed by the extremities of temperature.
At my front door stood Sam Postelthwaite. He was an old man now, thinner, his cheeks sunken and wrinkled like a deflated balloon, but I still knew him instantly. He was wearing tan pants and a blue plaid shirt and holding something in his hands. For a second, I thought it was the manila envelope he’d brought to my father all those years ago, and I frowned and said, “Is this about my mother?” and he said, “No.” I saw then that he was holding a woman’s purse, which was light brown and expensive and which I had given to Nicole the previous year for Christmas, and I said, “Is she all right?” and he said, “I’m here to take you to the hospital,” and I nodded and got dressed. I suppose it was odd that I didn’t ask him anything else. I knew the situation must be horrible, and that soon I would be required to face that horror in its entirety. When I was ready to go, he showed me to his car, a Ford Taurus that smelled like French fries, and I sat in the passenger seat with my sister’s purse in my lap. My mind wouldn’t go to her, not yet. Instead it kept dwelling on the strangeness of my being driven to the hospital by Sam Postelthwaite. “Why are you the one who came to get me?” I asked him.
“Your father was worried about your sister. He asked me to keep an eye on her, so I’ve been doing that. Trying to, anyway.”
I glanced at him, then out the window, at the quiet streets with budding trees, the drab early grass just starting to recover from the weight of snow. We’d been pummeled that year.
“Your father and I have been friends for many years,” Sam Postelthwaite said, answering a question I hadn’t asked.
“Is he already at the hospital?”
“No,” he said, which was also strange; but he didn’t elaborate. We rode the rest of the way in silence, and then he pulled up in front of the hospital and didn’t park, and I understood he wasn’t coming in, whether because he had somewhere else to be, or didn’t think he was invited, or for some other reason that I couldn’t possibly calculate. The whole morning felt beyond my calculation. I opened the door. “Good luck,” he said, and drove away while I was still standing in the parking lot.
“The Detectives,” excerpted from We Want What We Want and by Alix Ohlin. Copyright © 2021 by Alix Ohlin. Excerpted by House of Anansi. Originally published in Windmill Magazine.