To highlight the winners and honorable mentions of the 2019 Kathleen Downey Short Fiction Contest, Richard Mayne heads this series to share their work on the New Worcester Spy. Each entry includes an interview with the writer followed by their notable piece of short fiction.
A Girl And Her Typewriter
By Richard Mayne
Faith Potts owns a typewriter. She says that she uses it quite often, and regularly. I just wanted to take the time to acknowledge such an awesome tidbit of information. I had the chance to sit down and interview the freshman English major recently.
Described as “a girl’s fight against the chaos that controls her mind,” “Stranger Than Any Other” is, in a nutshell, about an immigrant girl and her family. Though the author herself considers it a piece of philosophical fiction, with much of it being a stream of one’s consciousness, it’s also a story steeped in realism as Potts hopes to shed light on people dealing with mental illness, and epilepsy, basing it on her own struggles. It was good enough to win second place in the Kathleen Downey Short Fiction Contest at WSU.
An enthusiast of philosophy, Potts feels that writing is definitely a career path for her. She’s been writing since she was young, and two of her most frequent activities are both reading and writing. She also has aspirations of becoming a professor.
When asked who some of her influences were, Potts mentioned: Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and David Foster Wallace. She prefers writing short stories over longer pieces, in addition to keeping her stories more realistic. She sounded especially enthusiastic about one future story in particular. Calling it, “an allegory that reveals political power structures.”
I’d like to thank Potts for allowing the New Worcester Spy to publish her story, “Stranger Than Any Other,” and hope you all enjoy reading it.
Note: The best way to contact Potts is through her email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Stranger Than Any Other”
By Faith Potts
When Iryna Petrovich caught him staring at her, she easily could have looked away – but she didn’t. Perhaps it was curiosity that got the best of her, the insatiable need to understand: how, how was he so calm, so unmoved, in spite of what he had seen? It comes to her attention that, if she looks away, she will never know. And it is too late anyways, at this point. Even if she tries, she surely will not be able to coax her eyes away from the stranger.
What do you do in such a situation? What do you do when there is a man staring at you as you’re stuffing a carton of eggs into your coat pocket? And what do you do when he says nothing?
Iryna has heard all the tales of conspicuous theft. She once heard a story about a man who stole training wheels for his daughter’s bicycle and went to prison for three years. Perhaps this was a myth – after immigrating, she’d begun hearing a lot of them – because once she started stealing from Duane Reade, the little convenience store up her street, all the inflated tales she’d heard seemed pompous. You think you will be caught, but nobody in this country cares enough to give you a second look. It’s like a big storm everyone prepares for, but it never comes – both shocking and comforting.
Iryna has lost count of the number of times she’s stolen eggs, milk, bread, all the basics, in order to feed her family. Never has anyone even looked her way, until the stranger. The familiar stranger. He seems a manifestation of the storm she had initially anticipated: a tall, well-dressed man with contemptuous eyes. Still, the encounter is inconsistent with the one she had so often feared. Rather than crying out that the young woman in the back aisle is stealing, he does nothing. He doesn’t even flinch. His jaw is tight, his gaze sharp, and his expression imbued with certainty.
Although she has no idea why, Iryna senses that this is not the man’s first time catching a thief. It even crosses her mind that he is an off duty police officer. Perhaps he seeks the mere thrill of catching criminals in the act. Or maybe he too is a thief, and his passive gaze is a reflection of his indifference.
But then he blinks, as if being awoken from a trance, and reaches towards her. Just inches away from hers, his rugged hand trembles. The dim light flickers above them, as though urging her to do something.
Iryna hesitantly hands him the carton of eggs. He clutches it tightly, lifting it closer to his glassy eyes. “1.80,” he mutters quietly, and he is already marching towards the register, beginning to slip a few dollars from his back pocket. Iryna reluctantly follows. Her eyes are fixated on his curly black hair, which, in its wild motion, seems unfitting for the firm straightforwardness of his face.
The man speaks to the cashier and the light flickers again. Iryna’s eyes sag. She is dazed by a sense of lightness, of her body being lifted from the ground. Somehow, the man’s voice seems distant, as though heard through a tunnel. She reaches for his words, but they escape her.
Moments later, she is outside the store with the man, in the middle of the empty parking lot. Dark grey skies and stifling air enfold their cryptic encounter. Amid a chilling gust of wind, the man clutches his cap tightly to his head, and it occurs to Iryna, in that moment, that she can only vaguely recall leaving the store with him.
Looking down at the carton of eggs, held unyieldingly in her trembling hands, she is at once thankful and bewildered. This man, this stranger, paid for her eggs without the slightest hesitation. Who would do that? He could have waved the carton of eggs at the cashier, viciously bellowing that Iryna had been planning to steal it. Or he could have bought it for himself and left the store snickering – a telling act of spite, a warning that if she were caught by anyone else she wouldn’t walk away without consequence. Perhaps her confusion is only a result of her belief in a cold, selfish world. Maybe it is because she would not do what the man did. Or perhaps she would.
Lately she has taken to mourning the young woman she has become, a woman who knows herself less than any given stranger. She is alarmed, startled, by her own reflection. In the evening she takes long walks through the glowing streets, and she often finds her mind in the bodies of the people who pass by, observing herself from the outside. At home she finds herself screaming without knowing it, or crying when there is no reason to.
The man, though, a stranger stranger than any other, seems to know something about her that she doesn’t. He says, “Hey.” He reaches out towards her, but he quickly recoils. “Well, I hope you appreciate that.”
“Yes,” Iryna says abruptly, her eyes fluttering towards his. “Thank you.” It is then that she sees an air of disillusionment in his gestures. Something in him is young, lost. She turns to walk home so that he won’t say any more. She doesn’t hear him speak again.
After taking a few steps, she pauses. “Thank you,” she repeats, and a wave of guilt consumes her. She quickly turns around – but it is too late, he is already gone.
Underneath the soulless sky, Iryna hurries home. The city is bustling with lonely people, people of haste and disregard. Her father had marveled at the diversity of New York City, instilled a sense of excitement in Iryna and her siblings in the months leading up to their immigration. Although the city is diverse – people of all backgrounds, ages, colors – one thing is the same of most everyone: they do not smile at her. In her entire nineteen years, she has never felt so lonely as she does now, surrounded by some hundred faces.
In the wild crowd, Iryna sees a herd of loud boys, stumbling and laughing. Why are they laughing? The smell of fried food, the flashing billboard lights, the boys’ howling, it all produces in her a sense of oneness. She cannot imagine a single thing in that moment existing without everything else. And yet she detects an incongruous presence, something that is perhaps the foundation of that moment yet is unseeable. She cannot say why, but a part of her thinks it is the man again – it is the man who bought her the carton of eggs.
She tightens her grip on the carton of eggs in fear that she will lose the only good thing that has happened in days. In the distance, she sees a stand with lots of newspapers and magazines. It’s outside of a discount store, and it strikes Iryna that the little stand goes ridiculously unnoticed. She can just make out one of the books, which is a book of crossword puzzles.
As she gets closer, she snatches it and swiftly tucks it deep inside her coat pocket where, earlier, she had intended to hide the carton of eggs. This time there is no grey-eyed man waiting for her to notice he is watching. The world is once again as it was – except now she might have something to save her from the boredom of her home.
Iryna’s stomach growls. She moves quickly, to the point that the world around her seems still. Something in her is unresolved, like a book missing a page. At first she thinks it is her scattered memory of that morning, the few moments lost as she left the store. But she is used to it – she is used to losing time. Her father has recently begun commenting on Iryna’s blank stares, calling her a zombie. As the oldest, her siblings once looked to her like a mother, but now they hesitate to even talk to her. She has lost her sense of humor, she is quiet. Her memory is poor, she is unreliable. She is so used to it that it is impossible for it to be unsettled by it. No, she must be unsettled by the glassy-eyed man who bought her the carton of eggs.
Why must kindness be so troublesome?
Iryna is all of five minutes from home when she grows so tired she must take a few moments to rest in a nearby alleyway. She hurries down the thin alleyway and crouches, setting the carton of eggs on the pale pavement. She flips to the first crossword puzzle. Realizing she doesn’t have anything to write with, she runs through some of the questions and tries to memorize the answers. Each time she stumbles upon a new answer, she adds it to the growing list.
Wolf. Wolf, mansion. Wolf, mansion, fibula. Wolf, mansion, fibula, analog.
She is no longer tired. She gets to her feet, mentally reciting the list. Wolf, mansion, analog, fibula. No! Wolf, mansion, fibula, analog. She is only five or so minutes from home. She won’t forget. She is almost at the end of the alleyway. The trembling light of the billboards seeps in, illuminating then dimming the alleyway so quickly that Iryna feels dizzy. Wolf, mansion, fibula… She is losing her balance. Laughter and silence all at once. Analog! Just a few more steps. She is almost back onto the street. One of the people who walks by looks like the man from earlier, but it is probably not him. Wolf, mansion – she thinks she might fall! Was that the man again? Shaking, spinning, her throat rising through her mouth. Wolf… what next?
The air is crisp, new. A cool finger traces Iryna’s bare shoulder. “Wolf, mansion…” she mutters.
A meek voice comes from above her, barely more than a whisper. Was that her name? The muffled voice wavers, and then there is silence. All she can see is darkness then blinding light over and over again, flickering beneath her eyelids. There is a thought that she is dreaming, but somehow the thought doesn’t seem to be her own. For a fraction of a second, she wonders if someone might be controlling her thoughts.
When her eyes open, she sees a white light that slowly dims to reveal the man. His skin is red and sweaty. Why is she still thinking of him so much? He has even made his way into her dreams. She realizes that it is his hand on her. He is holding her shoulder so she is positioned on her side. The sooty pavement is hard against her arm. He starts speaking and she can barely understand what he is saying – it sounds like gibberish – but just like that, there is a shift and finally he makes sense. “Can you understand me?” he is asking. “Are you alright?”
Iryna begins to feel a bit more awake and with that comes the pain. It is the worst on the back of her head, but every part of her body aches. She has never felt such pain in a dream. “Dream,” she mumbles.
He says, “No, this isn’t a dream.”
Iryna tries to think back to falling asleep that night, but the last thing she can remember is walking down an alleyway. And then everything feels so familiar: the red brick walls, the stained ground. She jolts upwards, sending a sharp pain through her neck. This is the alleyway. This is the last thing she can remember. She feels nauseous as it occurs to her that this might be real.
The man swallows a few times and his lip quivers. “You’re going to be okay,” he says, his voice trembling.
“Tell me what happened to me,” Iryna demands, and she begins to cry. She does not realize until the man asks her why she is crying. “I don’t know,” she says. “Tell me what happened.”
He swallows again. “You must know you’re going to be okay,” he says, placing his hand on hers.
“What happened?” Iryna snarls through tears. Searching for an answer, she looks down the alleyway and into the street, where everyone is rushing, not even turning their heads. They look like little stars in the distance. Although she is sitting up, the man is still on his knees, hunched over her. They are so close, their lips just inches apart. She waits for him to answer her question, and in his silence she has the sudden urge to pull his sweaty body closer.
He sits down beside her. “You had a seizure,” he says. “Have you had any before?”
“No,” she says, although a part of her doubts she knows this for sure. She is tired, so tired. She is still crying but this is the first thing that she seems to actually process. Seizures – she’s heard about them before. Her mother – she had seizures when she was younger. “Where – how – why are you here?” she asks.
The man is quiet. He bites his lip as though hiding something.
“What – um – what did I look like when it happened?” Iryna asks quietly, forgetting her previous question. She imagines herself, thrashing back and forth on the ground, trembling, white-eyed, blubbering nonsense. She flinches, but she wants to know. She must know what happened.
He shakes his head a bit. “Why do you want to know that?”
Iryna starts crying harder, overwhelmed by the sensation that something is missing – a memory, a thought, a moment. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know, the problem is that I don’t know! I lost it!”
He tells Iryna that she will be okay again. “Sometimes it’s better not to know something,” he says, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
“But,” Iryna says, “but I can’t – I can’t.”
The man squeezes her hand. For some reason, this doesn’t bother her. “Hey,” he says. “You can.”
Iryna feels her face twitch. She thinks of going home, to her family, to make eggs. That’s when she turns and sees the carton of eggs on the ground, open, cracked everywhere, the oozing bubbly yellow mess. “No,” she mutters. “I can’t go back now! I can’t!”
“Forget the eggs,” the man says. “I’ll buy some more. Let me walk you home.”
“Okay,” Iryna says before thinking. “Okay.”
He helps her to her feet. She wobbles a bit. Her vision is still not very good. His hand is warm as he guides her. He says she has to call a neurologist. They will give her medicine, so she won’t have a seizure again. She thinks she catches a smile on his face, but she is still confused. Everyone seems like a stranger, all the lonely people, but the man – is he a stranger? Maybe not in that sense. Maybe he is just stranger than any other. And then she sees him smile, a real smile. “I didn’t know I’d see you here again,” he says.
Iryna’s mind flickers. She feels relaxed, like she has been running after something and just now stopped. She looks towards the man. He is here, with her, in the middle of a dirty alleyway. He is here comforting her. He bought her eggs earlier. He may have even saved her life. What more is there to know?