“Belief” (Short Story)

Wrote this in a Target Starbucks recently to get my creative juices flowing. Based on the following prompt from Writing Prompts That Don’t Suck:

All this stuff needs to go in your story. Do it now: a high school ring, a diary, a crashed UFO

An Unidentified Flying Object spiraled into the ground, leaving mounds of dirt and chaos in its wake.

Julie pointed at the television and announced, “That’s not real.”

Her brother, Max, lifted his feet up on the living room coffee table, crossing one on top of the other. “Yes it is, stupid. Don’t you know The X-Files is based on the Roswell government conspiracy? We’re being lied to and nobody gives a shit.”

“Aliens aren’t real. Aaron at school says so and his mom does science.”

“Shut up, Julie.”

Julie thought the alien spaceship looked like a Frisbee. It reminded her that Oliver was coming over later (if Dad let him, but that meant Dad would have to be in a good mood so Julie had to be careful and nice), and he would want to play outside.

She examined her pointer finger, the nail of which exhibited the final remains of the bright green paint that she’d been chewing off all week with determination. “Mom says she met Mulder at a party once,” she said.

“His name is David Duchovny. And Mom says a lot of things.”

The tattered couch, dented and lopsided from seating and sex over the years, sunk naturally in the spots where sister and brother reclined side by side–a wide groove marking Julie’s spot, all baby fat and criss-crossed legs, and a deeper but thinner dip where skinny Max leaned into the cushions.

Spring sent a cool breeze through the screened windows. This was their daily routine: Julie would come home from school; Max would be home from being home all day, and the two of them would watch shows Max liked because “only adults can control the remote.”

“Did you eat your after-school snack?” Max asked absently, typing rapidly on his phone.

“I had a Twix bar.”

“Jesus Christ. I left an apple on the kitchen table.”

“But I wanted a Twix bar.”

“Look.” Max turned to face Julie, and his face was twisted into a scowl. “Eat your snack, okay? Who knows what time Mom will be home, and I’m seeing a movie with Shauna later.”

Julie giggled. “Ooh. Are you going to kiss?”

Max groaned, running a hand over his face. “Go away.”

Julie scrunched up her nose. She hated days like this. She would come home, and Max would be sad and mad because he hadn’t left the house all day, and he would say mean things. But Julie was eight years old, so why shouldn’t she say mean things back?

“Dad says you’re a…” She paused, recalling the term. “Deadbeat. Dad says you’re not going anywhere with your life. At least have school and friends and tea parties in my room. You don’t do anything.”

There was a long silence except for Dr. Scully recording her autopsy notes onscreen.

“I know what Dad says,” Max replied quietly. Julie crossed her arms over her chest, satisfied he’d heard her.

The afternoon passed essentially in silence. In a combination of boredom and an inexplicable need to fill the space between them on the couch–which had seemed to grow wider and wider with each minute–Julie tried to engage Max. She teased him, poked him, told that him Mom would be mad when she realized he hadn’t made dinner for either of them when she got home, that Dad would yell and doors would slam. “Ooh, Maxxie, you’re gonna get in trouble.”

The clunky sound of the mailbox lid slamming shut outside interrupted the monotony, and Julie jumped out of her seat. “I’ll get it!”

She danced outside, reaching as far as she could with stubby arms into the depths of the mailbox to retrieve a small pile–a few things for her parents, an invitation to Lanie Escabar’s 8th birthday party, and a large, thick yellow envelope on which Julie recognized her brother’s name.

“Max,” she said, throwing the envelope at him as she made her way back inside, “your name’s on this.”

He’d charged toward her before she had finished her sentence, snatching the package and tearing it open. Julie watched, intrigued by his excitement, letting the envelopes marked URGENT fall to the floor.

Max’s brown eyes were big like Frisbees, like UFOs, like Mom’s fancy “company plates.” “Holy fucking shit. I got in,” he muttered, gaze never leaving the pile of papers in his hands. “Central Connecticut State. This fall. Five fucking years in this shithole and I’m finally out!”

He then abruptly wrestled the rusty class ring off his right hand–his senior high school ring, the last indication of any social or academic life he’d had until this moment. It fell to the ground with a clatter. Julie, after staring at it for a moment, picked it up for lack of anything else to do with her hands.

“Out?” she echoed.

Max beamed. “End of August. I’m done.”

Brow furrowed, Julie absently slipped on the ring, letting it dangle on her curled pinky finger. “Oh,” she said. And then she went upstairs. As she walked, she could hear Max calling up Shauna and practically screeching into the phone: “I got in! I got in!”

Julie surveyed her room briefly. Piles of clothes made a protective wall around her bed. She climbed over them, flopping down onto the comforter and reaching under her pillow for the small journal she’d received as a Christmas present from her grandmother a year or so before. She’d been writing in it almost every day since then. For some reason, she felt drawn to it now, opening up to a random page in the middle.

August 26: Max and me went to the playground today and I saw a dog and I got to pet the dog but it didn’t like me and barked. Max said that’s ok and the dog was mean anyway.

September 9: I am board. Max is with Shauna and Mom is watching TV and she says it’s for grownups so I can’t watch and go away.

September 12: Max picked me up from school and we got Frosties. 

Julie flipped and flipped through her journal, feeling something heavy stuck in her tummy. As she lifted her hand to turn another page, Max’s ring fell to the floor, disappearing into one of the many heaps of laundry surrounding her.

She jumped up, stumbling out of the room. Flying downstairs, she skipped one and two steps, dirty sneakers squeaking.

“Max?” Julie said his name in the form of a question as she charged into the kitchen, her quiet voice negating the clattering entrance.

“What?” he asked. He was leaning over the counter reading his acceptance letter again. He was not looking at her. She stomped her foot.

What?” Max repeated, annoyed, peering down at her.

Julie sucked in a deep breath. She wrapped her arms around herself.

“Don’t leave,” she begged. And then she was unable to stop the tears bursting from behind her eyes. What could she say to keep Max from leaving? What could she do? She could be a better sister. She could eat more fruits and veggies and watch Max’s favorite shows.

She wanted to say all this, but instead, she gasped between tears, “I promise I believe in aliens.”

Max’s eyes suddenly looked a little wet too. His usual stiff expression was soft, so much so that Julie thought his lips could turn into either a smile or a frown, his brow could either furrow or rise…in that moment, he was unpredictable. She almost didn’t recognize him.

Until he stepped toward her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. “Jesus, kid…”

He smelled like Max, nicotine and Axe. He felt like Max, spaghetti arms and jutting bones.

Julie reached up to make sure she could wrap herself around Max. Just in case he tried to disappear without saying goodbye.

“I’m not going anywhere yet,” he said. “Come on. Eat the stupid apple, okay, Jules?”

They stood next to the kitchen table. Julie sniffed and buried her face in Max’s shirt. The X-Files theme whistled from the adjacent room.

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