Below is the first short story I wrote as part of my Creative Writing course. It is the story of two sisters divided by conflict and how their cousin, Emmett, tries to mediate between them. The narrative follows Emmett and Dolores’ (one of the sisters) points of view as tensions escalate. This story was greatly inspired by my visit to Whitstable Beach in south-east England (and I have used a couple of pictures from that visit here). I’d love to hear your thoughts!
I hate conflict. And there’s nothing worse than being caught up in the middle of it. But it isn’t just conflict that I hate, it’s the unpredictability of it. One minute there’s an argument, the next there is a serious fight and someone’s hurt. Or worse still, dead. Maybe I’m going a bit far, and I have been accused of having an overactive imagination. But my point’s still there: conflict is dangerous and can change its colours in an instant.
My cousin Dolores is like that, but perhaps less so. At times like a chameleon. Although whether she does it to blend in I don’t know. At times it’s like she changes to stand out.
What I understand the least is how two people so alike can turn out so different. With Dolores and Aaliyah, her sister, that seems to be the case. It seems their values have always been parallel, but like parallel lines the two will never meet.
I don’t know. Who do I worry about more? Dolores has more of a violent streak, but Aaliyah has a dangerous turn of phrase. With this, they find a way to push each other over the edge.
Our mothers are sisters. Recently, my mother asked me how Dolores and Aaliyah were doing, and on seeing the look on my face she smiled and shook her head. She told me that that is how it is.
“Sisters have conflicts of interest that when clash, are sharper and more bitter than other types of siblings. Especially when they are quite close in age” she said. She told me that her and their mother were like that, on the same road but going in opposite directions and having to fight each other for a variety of things including space. But as they grew older they began to meet each other again and again on various roads, and soon discovered they were heading to the same place, but had taken different routes.
“After we gave each other the space and time for self expression, we decided to walk together” she said.
“But you’re twins” I said.
“It’s not much different” she replied. “Sisters are sisters.”
She can’t have been right. What was going on between Dolores and Aaliyah was more like a fight to take each other out. It was like in each other they saw a negative reflection of themselves.
I used to love cookies, especially the ones my mother made. Cranberry and white chocolate. Crunchy, sweet and tangy all at once. I would always close my eyes to savour the taste.
I vividly remember sitting out on the veranda of my house. It was seven years ago, when I was thirteen. I was in a rocking chair, with a blue cotton headrest and seat. In one hand was a cranberry and chocolate cookie, and in the other a glass of water with sugar and slices of lime.
I was enjoying the warmth of the day, the cool breeze that blew up from the sea. Our beautiful beach town. My fourteen-year-old cousin Emmett was out in the yard in front of me, kicking a softball about and exclaiming every time he performed a trick with it. The front was like a dirt yard, with a wall around its perimeter and the road to town following that. I could walk that path with my eyes closed, even though it twisted and turned with a hill to descend and a noisy grand hotel to manoeuvre past. This was all before you got to Emmett’s house, in a cosy estate of its own and finally, took the many steps down to the seafront. This is the winding path. But there’s another one: the direct road.
My sister Aaliyah appeared from inside the house, wearing her tweed brown frock and with her short black hair down in waves. She was on the phone, and her voice was so exaggeratedly loud that I was pulled from my reverie.
“Excuse me Aaliyah, you’re really loud.” I said, looking from her to Emmett.
She rolled her eyes then put a hand over the phone. “Shh.” She hissed.
“Mum said I was too loud inside so I came outside, so if you think I’m too loud go inside. I can be as loud as I want here.”
Then she noticed the cookie in my hand. “And whilst you’re on your way, tell Mum to stop making you fatter by giving you that junk.” Fatter.
She walked out to the front of the veranda, her toes touching the edge of the step through her slippers. I had a sudden, though gentle urge to push her, just to see the fearful look on her face as she fell over. Her dress billowed out as a wind blew in. She caught the dress with one hand, and continued her phone conversation with the other. Emmett looked from her to me and shook his head.
“Sisters.” He seemed to have said. Except I didn’t hear him say it. Perhaps the wind took hold of it as it left his mouth, and carried it in the opposite direction from me. I looked in the direction it may have gone, then down at my cookie. There was still half of it left, because I had been savouring every bite, the fruitiness of the cranberry and the chocolate that rolled over my tongue. Now it looked not so perfectly formed, not like something that could be washed down with lime and sugar water. I tried to ignore the feeling, using my usual insult.
“At least I’m not ugly like you” I said. But it may have been a whisper, because she didn’t even look my way. Instead she walked farther, past Emmett and away to the town. Even though she had said before that she would never wear her slippers past the inside of the house. Even though she had just hurt me and she didn’t know. Or didn’t care.
One thing about Dolores is that she never lets things go. She holds grudges for as long as possible until she gets her revenge. She came to my house one evening after her teaching class. Her face had that downcast, eyebrow-knit and jaw-set look it takes on when she’s unhappy. I could see her through the screen door, her eyes grazing the ground. She never lets herself in when like this, but waits for someone to come to the door to ask what the matter is.
“What’s the matter?” I asked her. I pulled at her arm, urging her to come inside, but she pushed my hand away so forcefully I took a step back.
“What’s people been saying?” She said, her voice low.
She sighed, her mouth turned down at the corners. “I heard all of them talking about me. Aaliyah was with them.”
I tried to get her to come in again. She said nothing. She didn’t move at all.
“Where?” I tried, after the silence threatened to consume both of us.
She was silent yet still. Then she looked at me and I instinctively averted my eyes, not daring to stare back into her own large, deep brown ones.
“Mum won’t let her travel. She wants to go and study abroad. In America” she said.
“I know” I replied, my eyes still averted. I didn’t know where this was going, but I knew it couldn’t have been good. Why had she come? So she could tell me her plans? I was used to asking her now, whenever she was upset and needed to do something about it:
What are you going to do, Dolores?
I didn’t ask it out loud. It was only a plea in my mind. Somehow, she heard me.
“Watch me.” she said. She wiped the area under her eyes. I didn’t realise she had been crying.
“I’ll see you tomorrow” she said, and walked the path home.
A week ago, I walked the dimly-lit path home from Emmett’s house. It was a roughened road, dust patches everywhere, like plants had been forcibly uprooted. I held myself together, somehow.
Yesterday evening, Emmett came to the house.
“I have something to say” he looked quite sad. “You’re right, Dolores. They’ve all been saying things. But they say it’s because they’re not sure what to make of you. Nobody can define you and your sister’s joined in because she feels the same. She’s a little scared of you to be honest.”
I smiled to myself.
He didn’t really say that. He didn’t say anything at all, except to ask me how my teaching class was going. For a twenty-year-old with cousins like us, he never has much to say.
We were standing on the veranda, looking out at the cherry blossom trees in the fading spring sun.
Soon Aaliyah came stalking out. From the corner of my eye I saw her take a seat on the rocking chair, my favourite chair. She rested her head on the headrest and closed her eyes, her breath coming out in a drawn out sigh.
I looked at her fully then, at her eyes and her mouth set in an arse-shaped close. I looked at her skin and its buoyant darkness, bumpy and bitter like nutty dark chocolate.
She opened her eyes, and stared straight into mine.
“Dolores” she said slowly, like someone trying to remember the sounds of the syllables. She began to laugh, her mouth opening wide like a cavern, teeth emerging like cat’s claws.
“Stop watching me, will you? I know, I’m pretty. Sunglasses won’t work on this piece of the sun.” She sat forward in her chair.
“I hate Mum. All she does is talk about church and boys. But this egg’s hatched, and this chick wants to explore the world, not just sit and stare at her mother’s arse all day. I mean, I’m twenty-two years for God’s sake. She can’t stop me.”
I imagined her caught in a whirlwind, like the one I had watched from my window the previous night, but more fierce. The kind that took up everything in its wake, that would snatch up Aaliyah and spin and spin her until she forgot herself. I imagined this and thought I should feel bad but I didn’t.
Aaliyah stared at me. “You’re so strange” she said. “I’ve seen you. Acting out your little play, switching personalities. I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but ever since I called you ‘fat’ you’ve been so weird.
“Come on, tell her Emmett. She thinks she’s got everyone on a string but they’re all just laughing at her.”
I bit the inside of my lip and glanced at Emmett. He didn’t say anything, but he pointedly avoided my eyes. No. Not him. Not Emmett too.
Aaliyah stood up. She was tall, taller than me, and slimmer. But I ran, while she walked. I trained, whilst she slept. I had the advantage. She walked towards me.
“What is it, Dolores? You’re fucking nineteen years. What is it?” She stood so close to me, I almost cowered. Before, I would have stayed silent, or said something inaudible.
But there was a fire in the pit of my stomach. It was slowly being ignited. A log of wood here, a few words to add spark.
I sucked in my teeth as far as I could. Then I spat at her.
She recoiled so quickly I barely had time to see where it landed. But it was there, in-between her left eye and the bridge of her nose. She exclaimed. Her hand went to her face. She moved back slightly.
But the fire had not been quenched. If anything it enraged. I pushed her, then hit Emmett’s had as it came forward to stop me. I leaned forward and grabbed her dress from her shoulders as she fought against me, and growled into her ears.
“I hate you. I hate you and I hate you and I hate you.”
It’s evening now, and I can hear seagulls. I lie on my bed as I listen to them, and as their voices break with the sound of branches snapping. I listen to the wind, to the gnarled fingers of trees tapping my window. I imagine my sister among the flock, flying away as fast as the sky allows.
Aaliyah has been at Emmett’s house since yesterday. What is he telling her, or what is she saying to him? Mum is home, and as soon as she found out she told me to find Aaliyah and apologise immediately. I had refused, come into my room and locked the door.
Now I watch the sunset, the golden-red glow with its lilac streak. It casts its colours onto the sea.
I know what I want to do, but I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t want to come face to face with her, to have to make a decision on what to do with little time. Under my bed there’s a locked trunk with red velvet lining. Inside it, among other things, I have a Swiss Army knife, and a cookie. Half of a cranberry and chocolate cookie, frozen from the last batch Mum made, now preserved in a napkin.
Mum is tired, but there’s no guarantee she won’t be awake, especially after what just happened. It isn’t even night yet. Worse still, Aaliyah might have left Emmett’s house already.
What are you going to do, Dolores?
“I’m going home. I’ll take the straight path back.” Aaliyah says. She wraps my scarf around her neck, to match the chill of the evening.
It’s a straight pathway, but it’s eerie, especially now. It curves around my estate and is right on the edge of the hill, before the many steps down to the sea. Like how you would imagine a cliff side, but much smaller.
It’s the direct road, the quiet pedestrian walkway you take when deep in thought. It has the trees and the dust and the uprooted plants to add to this. Aaliyah doesn’t like this road, but Dolores takes it all the time.
I want to tell Aaliyah that it probably isn’t the best idea. That her and Dolores need some time apart. That I know Dolores hasn’t finished yet.
“You know your sister. She can be violent, Aaliyah. She wants to hurt you. I know her, she hasn’t let it go. She will hurt you. Just let me talk to her, I know her better than you. She is hurting and whatever she wants to do she will do it.”
I want to say this but then I think better of it. Dolores has hinted at hurting people but hasn’t done anything, apart from yesterday. Plus, anyone could have reacted like that.
“Okay. But maybe you could take the busier road this evening.” I watch Aaliyah pull on her shoes and walk to the door.
“No. It’s quicker. Plus I need the quiet and space to think.” Her smile is humourless, and her demeanor has changed from the shaken, crying cousin I brought home.
“Alright. Just..I only wish you guys could be chill with one another.” I try, placing my hands in my jeans pockets.
“That’s impossible.” She says, then pauses. She turns to me, frowning. “What’s wrong with her, Emmett?”
I take this as my opportunity to try and diffuse the situation before it escalates.
“She’s upset Aaliyah, about the way she’s been talked about. I think she feels like an outcast.”
“Good.” She says. “I’m happy.”
She walks out the door before I can react, taking the direct road home.
It’s cold. I wasn’t expecting the chill, too busy trying to fold the half-cookie into my skirt pocket. I have the Swiss army knife as well, tucked neatly between my vest and my belt. I’m talking the straight road, and if she isn’t at Emmett’s house then he can tell me where she is. I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do, but I have to do something, and I can’t do it at home.
The fading streetlamps light up the ground, and in the shadows the deeper colours of flowers dance in an out of view. I walk steadily, past the row of trees on my left, staring straight ahead. Until I come to the view of the beach. On this curving road the beach can be seen in all its breathtaking magnitude. The moon has broken from the sky, and illuminates the sea like searchlights.
I bump into someone. We’re so close that at first I don’t know who it is.
“Dolores?” she breathes. She almost sounds scared.
Startled, I move back. She does likewise.
I can see her fully now. She looks at me suspiciously.
“Where are you going?” she asks.
I stare at her, combing through my mind for something to say. She has Emmett’s scarf wound tightly around her neck.
She rolls her eyes. “I’m going home, before you spit at me again.”
She starts to walk away, but I block her path, staring defiantly at her.
“Get out of my way, cookie” she says. Her face twists in disgust. “I won’t be gentle with you this time. I’ll fight back. I will hurt you.”
I clench my hands, my fingernails scratching my palm. “Apologise.” I say, louder than I thought I could.
“Apologise for all the things you’ve said about me. For all the horrible, horrible things you’ve said.”
Aaliyah smiles. If it’s possible for a smile to be boisterous, then this one is.
“If you want to get past, turn around and walk the other way. There’s only space on this road for one of us. But if you say sorry, I’ll let you past.” I warn her.
The smile drops, as if snatched. “Fuck off out of my way Dolores.”
“I can just walk around you. God, I can’t wait to travel, get away from you. You’re a freak. A weirdo. Even Emmett can’t stand you.”
I pull out the Swiss knife and slash it across her face. It catches her cheek and she cries out, falling to the ground and holding her face. Bright blood, caught by the light of the moon, leaks through her hand.
“Dolores” her voice comes out muffled.
I’m breathing heavily. I can’t think straight. The fire is there again, licking the insides of my stomach. I feel like I’m going to explode. I reach in my pocket for the cookie. I don’t ever want to hear her speak again.
I walk closer to her as she moves back, an arm out to stop me.
She begins to talk. I strain to catch her words.
“Don’t come near me. I’ve heard you, you and Emmett, calling me ugly. Emmett laughing at me. I’ve heard you make fun of me too. From when we were young, even before I ever called you fat. You didn’t think I would be hurt by that? My sister and my cousin…” She gets on her knees then stands up, slowly.
I watch her.
“You remember that? You know all of that?”
The tide comes in. The wind courses over my face and through my hair. The fire dies out.
“I need to go to the hospital” she says. “I need to get my wound stitched.”
I move out of her path. The cookie crumbles in my hand.