Cali scrunched in the dark closet with her head against a box of Fruit O’s.
Is this mean? she wondered. I’ve won the last three–oh, ha!–the last four times. Even if he hasn’t stopped playing, he’s not going to like me using food against him.
Her thoughts made way for the sound of her cousin’s soft, halting footsteps. She held her breath, as much as to keep herself from giggling as to keep from giving away her position.
He stopped in front of her door so close she had to move her head to see through the slats at horizontal stripes of a black shirt and blue pants. His head moved on the other side. Through the slats: purple hair, pierced ear, smooth cheek. She could see these details. With the kitchen light, helping cover her in the closet’s shadow, could he see any part of her?
She half closed her eyelids to cover her whites.
The door creaked open.
She sprung up and yelled inches from Hayden’s face. “Boo!”
“Holy–” He jumped back, twisting, hitting his side on the island counter. Grimacing, he slid to the tile floor.
Cali threw herself beside him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Did I hurt you this time?”
“My breakfast!” he cried.
“I know I shouldn’t have,” she cried, “but I realized I could fit and you couldn’t, and–I’m sorry. Are you alright? I’ll get an ice pack.”
One bare foot sank into soft object halfway across the kitchen. She lifted her foot to see the mutilated remains of a cheesecake slice.
“Great, Cali. Making me drop it wasn’t enough?” Hayden grunted with the effort of standing. “My boyfriend made that for me, you know.”
Cali hopped the remaining distance to the freezer on the foot not coated in ick. “You were eating cheesecake for breakfast? What’s wrong with you? You’d hit a sugar low by your second class.” She pulled the freezer door open to grab their ice pack.
He took the chilled pack out of her hands. “You can clean up the mess. I’ll get something to eat on campus. Like ibuprofen and caffeine.”
She yelled another apology to his back as he headed for the front door. He left without any good-bye.
* * *
Hayden returned after dark.
Cali set her history textbook beside her on the sofa. “I sent you messages.”
“I saw.” His book bag hit the floor with a thunk. After his shoes were off, he picked up his bag with a grunt.
“How’s your back?” she asked.
His expression showed as much comfort as a thunderstorm. “Fine.”
“Hey-day, I won’t sneak around the house anymore. The game is over. ”
The sofa creaked from his weight as he leaned against the back. Some of the dark energy in his face and voice escaped in a sigh. “I don’t see the point anymore. You can obviously wake up in time to get to classes. So can I. Wasn’t that the point of creeping each other out?”
Months ago, he had snuck into her bedroom to shake her out of sleep. The anticipation that one of them would scare the other each morning encouraged them to wake earlier and earlier until they were no longer arriving on campus either late or un-groomed.
“But I owe you one, Cali-girl.”
* * *
Mornings passed with as much anticipation as before, at least for Cali. Whenever she entered her bedroom or the bathroom, she locked the door. She padded through the house attentive to sounds of movement and the smell of aftershave. Every time Hayden turned a corner, she couldn’t help but jump. He smiled and acted like nothing bothered him.
And why shouldn’t he? He didn’t have to worry about her popping out of strange places.
The biggest concern for her was in how the old rules were no longer in play. Hayden’s attack could come at any time from anywhere. Pleading to set rules hadn’t help. He refused to say when or how he’d end her debt.
On the third week, she gave in. Doors stayed unlocked, and she turned her back to them as she studied. Other times, she wandered through the house with the hope of entering a trap.
Hayden struck on the fourth week.
* * *
Coming home from a particularly long day on campus, she hauled the front door opened.
“Surprise!” In the living room, about a dozen friends and classmates threw their hands in the air.
Hayden strode from the group to give her a hug. “Happy birthday, Cali-girl.”
Cali glanced over her shoulder at every smiling face. “That’s on Sunday.”
“It’s also today.” He gave her a warm smile. “Surprise.”
At the sight, tears welled in her eyes. A month of waiting and he’d scared her with kindness. “Hey-day, I’m sorry. I never imagined you’d do this for me. Are we even?”
His smile widened. “Just get some cake.”
She grinned in return and drifted to the dining table wait for a piece. The cake made her mouth water. Layers of gooey chocolate dripped onto each plate. She watched each guest who wanted a slice accept a plate.
Her chemistry partner handed her the last piece. “You’re supposed to get the first piece, but you were busy.”
Shiny fudge filling jiggled on her plate. “Thanks for saving me one. May I have a spoon?”
Someone tapped Cali’s shoulder. She turned.
Too late, she remembered the slippery condition of her cake.
Chocolatey goodness lay on the floor as ick.
Hayden leaned on her shoulder and grinned. “Now we’re even. We both can clean up the mess.”
The above story has been revised from a story first published on Cristi Craig’s now-defunct blog. (She has created a new blog.) Cristi challenged me to write flash fiction inspired by a word prompt of “creep”. The result was a contemporary story about cousins living together for college.
Read about another creepy game in “Jungle Jump”.