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Finalist
Jury

On any given day you can find Shayla snacking on a treat from Trader Joe's, buying a new book that she'll definitely, maybe find time to read someday, & trying to keep her houseplants alive  [+]

Image of Fall 2020
Image of Short Fiction
Gemmie adjusted herself on the stool and glanced at the clock—5:17 pm. Kevin’s evenings always went the same: an early dinner of vegetables and protein at 5:30, carb loading at 7:30, then nothing until 8 am the next morning. His dedication to his mealtimes was almost religious. It was one of the things she loved most about him.
She watched as he sautéed vegetables, blithe as he whistled a nameless tune. “Bell peppers okay with you?” he asked.
“Oh, shoot. I’m allergic, actually.” She hated saying no to him.
“That’s a bummer. I make a mean stuffed pepper. My mom’s recipe.”
“I wish I could try it.” And she did. Anything to make her feel like she knew his mom. He nodded and resumed his whistling.
His face was just as striking in profile as it was from straight on, Gemmie mused. God, those eyes of his. She wanted to wade in his gaze like she was walking barefoot in the tide, the ocean waves lapping gently at her ankles.
And his lips. How many times had she imagined how plump and perfect they’d feel drifting across her mouth and jaw? She loved when he cooked, not only because she could look at him for as long as she wanted, but also because it made her feel like she was his girlfriend. Like they were a couple deeply entwined in domestic intimacy.
Other than what they were, Gemmie thought with a frown. Very platonic roommates for over a year, living together only because she had answered his HouseFix ad looking for someone clean, quiet, and on-time with half the rent.
She looked at him again now and took a deep breath. If she could just steer things the right way, finally, this night would be perfect. “I’m so glad I found this place,” she said. “This has been a great year, hasn’t it?”
Kevin give a little nod, then turned to her with a smile. That smile of his! It was moments like this that kept Gemmie going, made her think that surely—
“Absolutely, dude,” he said. Gemmie smiled through it, dismissing as always the times that he called her ‘dude.’ “I’m glad it was you and not—ahh!” He jumped up and grabbed his arm.
Gemmie was immediately at his side. “What?! What happened?”
Kevin didn’t even have to answer: she saw it immediately. He had leaned against the stove and burned his forearm on pan. “Shit!” he yelled, pulling away when Gemmie tried to inspect the burn. “Every time! Every single time!” He sucked in air and ran to the sink.
Gemmie cringed. It’d take forever for them to come back from this. Turning away from him, she pulled the worn yellow button, just a little smaller than a hockey puck, out of her pocket. With one last look at Kevin, his jaw set tight as he held his burn under the cold water, she pressed it.
She placed both hands on the counter, looked at the clock. 5:17 PM. Nothing to worry about, she told herself. It was an accident. Just one little thing. She could come back from this, easy.
Kevin’s cheery whistle filled the room. “Bell peppers okay with you?”
“I wish! I’m allergic.” Breezy. A fun girl.
“That’s a bummer. I make a mean stuffed pepper. My mom’s recipe.”
“Kevin, I’m so glad I found this place,” Gemmie pushed on. No time to waste. “This has been a great year, hasn’t it?”
Kevin nodded without looking up from the food. “Absolutely, dude.”
She leaned forward. “It’s like we fit together, you know?”
Kevin nodded. “I totally dodged a bullet, waiting to sign an agreement with that guy. He was...” He paused in his cooking and stared off as if replaying it all in his mind. “...weird,” he finally concluded. “Did I ever tell you about him?”
“No.”
“He reached out on HouseFix. I met with him the day before I met you, but his vibe was all off. He didn’t have a steady job, and he kept asking me all these ‘what if’ questions. ‘What if I can’t pay rent on time?’ ‘What if I break the toilet?’ Like he was trying to set himself up for an easy out if he needed it.” His eyebrows hardened, a movement so slight that someone other than Gemmie might not have noticed.
“Kev?” she asked. She really hoped this wouldn’t end up like last week, when she’d come home to find him deep down the rabbit hole of serial killer Wikipedia. He’d spent an entire half hour outlining the Golden State Killer’s escalation from burglaries to murders before she’d pressed the button.
“A few days later,” Kevin was saying, “I was watching the news and that guy—” He took a deep breath. “He was the one who held that family hostage.”
“Oh.” So this was going to go the serial killer Wikipedia way.
“Yeah,” Kevin said, his beautiful eyes crinkling in horror. “I told him he couldn’t sign a contract because I had a backup. I didn’t, but luckily you came along the very next day.”
Gemmie brightened slightly. “And I can’t believe how—”
“But remember how that family found him squatting in their house?” Kevin continued, as if she hadn’t said a thing. “He had a standoff with police for over 24 hours. 24 hours. And when his face popped up on the news, boom!”—he snapped his fingers—“I immediately recognized him. The guy I had just met with.”
“...Wow.”
“Yeah. Sometimes I still think about it. I think...” He shook his head. “I think he might have been squatting there because he had nowhere else to go. Because I turned him down. And no one was killed, but they could have been, you know? And now he’s in prison for life.” His shoulders sagged. “Because of me.”
Gemmie sighed. She felt for the button in her pocket again, and pressed it.
Okay. 5:17pm. This is it, Gemmie thought to herself, trying to tamp down her rising anxiety. This time it would work. She didn’t want to reset time today any more than she already had. It was becoming clear, though, that invoking the anniversary of their year of living together was not a good tactic. She swallowed her frustration and said, “Smells delicious.”
“Bell peppers okay with you?” Kevin asked.
Gemmie gritted her teeth. “I’m allergic.” The first time she told him she was allergic to bell peppers was a week after she had moved in. And then he had asked again, a month after that. Then again when they were cooking up Friendsgiving dinner five months later.
But no. It’s really such a small detail. Inconsequential, really. Anyone could forget.
“That’s a bummer. I make a mean stuffed pepper. My mom’s recipe.”
She stood and sidled over until she was standing right next to him. “I love when you cook for us, Kev.”
He grabbed a mushroom from the pan and popped it into his mouth. “Which reminds me,” he said while chewing. “You remember Chrissy?”
Gemmie swallowed. “Chrissy?”
“She came to Adam’s birthday a few weeks ago. She was wearing that green dress?”
“I remember.” Chrissy and Kevin had talked in the corner for over an hour. “I didn’t know you two kept in touch.” She could feel her voice rising higher in pitch.
“Did you talk to her that night? You’d like her.” Kevin gave that little smile, the one she didn’t see often enough. “She’s stopping by for dinner.”
“Stopping by,” Gemmie repeated. Her smile was frozen on her face, and she maintained eye contact with him as her fingers drifted into her pocket. She ran her thumb over the familiar groove that had formed from pressing the yellow button nearly every day, multiple times a day, for the past year.
One last time today, she thought. I could fake an injury. Maybe he’d have to cancel dinner with Chrissy and take me to Urgent Care. One last time today won’t hurt. That’s why the button came to me in the first place, just showed up on my bed two days after I moved in. Kevin and I are meant to be together. Right?
She pressed the button.
51

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