A Flash Fiction by Marianne Mandrusiak
Glancing sideways, Sarah raises her dishevelled flaxen eyebrows and gives me the signal. Oh, it’s on! Our favourite game to play is “detective.” We sneak away while the adults are talking about new co-workers or controversial politicians. Awkward flamingos, we walk on our tiptoes to mimic high heels and jut out our ribs, pretending that we have breasts. We hide in plain sight, under mahogany hall tables and behind corners with chipped drywall, patiently waiting to overhear juicy details that we almost never do. Sarah and I are silent as church mice until one of the adults, usually Aunt Carol, uses some ridiculous expression like, “Well, that just won’t cut the mustard,” which sends us running down the hallway, covering our mouths and shaking from laughing so hard. Convulsing, we flop onto Auntie Carol’s guest bed, finding spots amongst the coats that smell of strangers; old cigarettes, stale gum and vanilla bean perfume. We chortle until we can’t breathe, our obliques aching. The adults don’t come in to reprimand us, because much to our chagrin, they knew we were there all along. They also don’t care because we don’t understand politics or sexual innuendos. Bored of listening to fragments of incomprehensible conversations, we decide to play pretend.
My role, as always, is that of the daughter. I hate playing the mom, which I suppose makes sense, considering that later in life, I will declare that I never want to have children. Sarah and I make believe that we are packing for a vacation. We are going to take a train trip, that’s it – first class! Going east, to visit her long-lost twin brother, Billy, in Waterloo. I heard the name of the city in an ABBA song, so I know that it really exists.
Sarah puts on Auntie Carol’s friend Shelly’s fake-fur coat and an anxious thrill makes my face turn beet red. She looks glamorous surrounded by the ebony pelt, like she’s a ten-year-old Jennifer Love Hewitt (except blond). Her look is perfect for our first-class voyage.
“Now, you need a coat too,” Sarah asserts. I’m too nervous about wearing someone else’s belongings. I shake my head, and some hair gets stuck to my fuchsia lipstick. I nicked some from my mother’s purse earlier, but she never minds unless I have a cold sore. Sarah calls me an old “fuddy-duddy.” Ironic for someone who would dare use that insult. I tell her I’d rather get into trouble for going through Auntie Carol’s things than for sifting through those of a stranger, so I open one of the dresser drawers, which is empty. I pretend to pull out a green crushed-velvet dress with a satin ribbon as a belt.
“You can’t just make-believe,” Sarah says, “you need to put on something real.” She feels entitled to make up all of the rules. Sarah has two younger siblings, and you can tell.
Sarah opens the other drawers, looking for something to dress me with whilst saying in a piss-poor British accent, “Come on Luv, I’ll make you a cuppa.” This sends us howling again, remembering the film we saw in social studies class about the children who worked in the mines. (It wasn’t supposed to be funny, and we got in an awful lot of trouble with Mrs. Slavinsky because we kept trying to speak like the people in the docudrama).
We are unprepared for what we see next. Sarah opens the bottom dresser drawer, and at first, I think that it’s full of comic books of some kind. Once my eyes have focused, I can’t make sense of the images. Naked women tied up, bent over with their mouths open. Men grabbing fistfuls of women’s hair, one woman screaming in pain as her breasts are being squeezed. Not just pain, though, her face holds something else…something that fascinates me. I’m not sure if any of the adults heard the drawers open or if the sound was muffled by The Beatles singing something about feeling alright.
Sarah and I should throw the magazines back in the drawer and slam it shut. We don’t. We sit there, silent, on the moss-toned shag carpet for a good twenty-five minutes staring at the pages and acclimating to the images, barely aware of the conversational din in the background. Individually, in our own minds, we speculate about each glossy, naked person’s back-story. Miraculously, nobody walks in on us. I don’t know what we would have done if they had. When we finally break free of our trance and put everything away, we pinkie swear never to talk about what we have seen to anyone and never to go back into that bottom drawer.
Sarah and I exit the room feeling like we have walked into another dimension. Our world has changed, and I suppose so have we. Suddenly self-conscious in our bodies, we slink around sheepish and close-mouthed, glancing surreptitiously at the adults. We see them with new eyes. We are investigating again, seeking some kind of an explanation and yearning to find clues. Back to playing detective, only this time we aren’t teetering around on our tiptoes and sticking out our chests.
Marianne Mandrusiak is a writer and comedian living in Montreal, Canada. She was longlisted for the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize for her short story entitled “Bad Kisser.” Marianne is currently working on a short story collection, as well as a children’s book which introduces the concepts of environmental stewardship and the power of collective action. For details on these projects and others, follow her on Instagram under the handle @mandrusiaki.