Those who expect something speculative will find this a change of pace, a sweet story about a little girl and her auntie. This short story was first published in July 2018 by Ariel Chart.
The Sleep Game
by DL Shirey
This is wrong, stealing money from Aunt Maybelle. At month’s end, no less, when choices get made by the day, by what’s needed most. Like last night, Mom shuffled the pile of envelopes on the kitchen table. “Pay that,” said Mom and tossed it with ones that had big red-stamped words. “Not that,” as she put the envelope on the taller stack.
Here at Aunt Maybelle’s, choices are different. “Child, bring me my pills,” and I do. It’s a long plastic holder—sort of like my pencil box—with snaps covering divides, each decorated with letters like M, T, W. Auntie chooses not to take all the pills under F. And this morning she saved the bowl of dry cereal Mom and I brought her. She hasn’t eaten yet.
Aunt Maybelle keeps her money in a big, old purse. It’s in the cabinet under the window. The purse is always there so I don’t have to peek, but I want to, just to make sure.
Auntie has a view of the park across the busy intersection; I can see the green grass between the drug store and laundromat. I like looking out the window, watching the sun come up, colors replacing gray. The place where Mom and I live is always dark. Mom fetches me from Aunt Maybelle just when the sun gets dim and by the time we’re home the apartment is black. It’s the same color next morning when I go to Aunt Maybelle’s again.
There’s not a lot to do with Auntie except play cards. We only do it when she’s not in the bedroom. It’s hard for us to play when she’s in bed and she can only sit in the dining room for a little while. “These hard chairs hurt my back, Child.” When she says that I know the card game is over. But Auntie’s nice about it, only quits when I’m ahead. And even though she likes Gin Rummy, we always play my games, War and Go Fish. When Auntie’s in bed I draw a lot, and I can spread out over the whole table if I want.
When I show her my drawings, there’s something else we play: the Sleep Game. Aunt Maybelle never gets mad when I touch her nose and win, as long as I have a drawing to show her. Thing is, it’s really hard to beat her. Auntie says she never sleeps for long. “Child, you miss too much when you’re asleep. That’s why the good Lord wakes me to any little noise around.” Auntie is so good at the game because she sleeps with her eyes half open; it’s creepy with her wet, faded-brown eyes and glasses part way down her nose. If she wakes, she never moves, never blinks until I sneak up close, then she says Raaaaaar, like a lion just before I touch her nose. It’s always kind of scary waiting for the roar. When I jump, she laughs and I giggle, then I show her the drawing I made. Some of the drawings I give to Mom, but mostly they’re for Aunt Maybelle. Especially today.
It’s up to me to start the game. Sometimes, to see if she’s asleep in the bedroom, I’ll cough out loud; not because I have to, but to hear her say “you okay, Child?” It’s no fun to play if Auntie is already awake. Today, though, I don’t cough. I slide ever-so-quiet from the chair and lift the drawing so the paper doesn’t rattle. I know every squeaky board in the house and tiptoe like a cat to her side. The sweet scent of Auntie’s powder fills the bedroom. She says it covers up the old-people smells and makes her skin feel good.
I stop to watch the bedding rise and fall and it makes me hot to see her beneath so many blankets. I know I might win the Sleep Game by the way Auntie breathes. Not always though, because she’s so good at pretending, making sleep sounds when she’s not. Her thin gray hair looks like feathers on the yellow pillow, eyes half open, glasses crooked. Her mouth is a crack, breath smelling like old milk as it rushes out, whistley, evenly, with a dry, sticky sound from her lips. Puh. Puh. Puh. I stand there for three breaths before moving my hands. This is where the roar will come, when the drawing crinkles behind my back and I reach to touch her nose.
The lion doesn’t come. And instead of winning the game, I lay the drawing on top of the blankets and tiptoe back to the other room, to the window.
I imagine the noises before I make them, thinking my slowest movements will stop them somehow. The latch on the cabinet thunks open, then I drag the big, flowery handbag to the floor and its contents shift and tinkle; even more when I dig beneath its cloud of tissues and pull out the red coin purse.
When the metal jaws snap open I hunch my shoulders to the click. From the few bills I unfold a five, cringing at the papery sounds as I stuff the rest back. I don’t clap it shut, just nestle the coin purse atop tissues and return the handbag to its place. I leave the cabinet door ajar.
Only the front door remains and I’d planned for this. When Mom dropped me off this morning, I closed the door behind her and scraped the chain so Auntie could hear it. In truth I let it dangle free so I could keep it from rattling when I snuck out. I know it’s wrong to steal, even worse to plan, but I hope my sin is reduced by the amount of change I return. I’ll leave the door unlocked until I get back from the drug store with Auntie’s favorite powder. Won’t that be a nice surprise?
The door clicks when I open it.
“You okay, Child? Oh look, a kitty cat wishing me happy birthday. Ain’t you the sweetest thing.”