New Voices: “Life Hack” by Patricia Callahan

July 31, 2023

There’s something unexplainable at work in Patricia Callahan’s “Life Hack”: a concrete chunk falls from a school and crushes a young girl; a house is vandalized over and over by unseen hands; a doll may or may not be coming to life. Just as one mystery is solved, another surfaces and shrouds the story. Stylized by a series of tips to make life easier, “Life Hack” follows a young girl’s attempts to make sense of her friend’s sudden and tragic passing.


The day a chunk of the school broke off and crushed Sharon’s skull, she’d said something rotten.

“Hope you don’t still keep Carlotta in your room,” she’d said, biting into one end of a sour belt, yanking hard on the other.

Sharon’s mom packed the best snacks. Sometimes Sharon would trade me for the granola that my mom packed, but not that day. That day’s granola lay in its dusty bag on the lunch table between us.

“’Cause you know, dolls come to life at night”—her head jerked to the side when the gummy band tore—“and suck the air out of you.” Her tongue folded the shredded strip of candy between her teeth, and it disappeared into her mouth. Watermelon Sour Punch breath.

“I know that,” I said, sliding the granola onto my lap.

The smile as she licked her lips was one of satisfaction.

* * *

When the chunk of concrete fell from the arch and landed on Sharon, a moan left her mouth as she dropped to the front step of the school.

The afternoon was just about to be about something else, then suddenly it was this. An instant of confusion, then a swarm. Then a smaller swarm within the larger swarm took charge, teachers on knees pushing students back with their arms and voices.

The chunk of concrete couldn’t have been thicker than a dictionary. But it was enough.

Sweat bloomed in waves under my book bag’s straps. My body swayed, its blood pumping on the inside.

It’s just an act. The thought hovered, wobbled. Swirled black and disintegrated with a pop.

When the adults yelled, “Get back! Get back!” I did. I turned my back on all of it and ran, and didn’t stop running until the ache in my stomach won. When I dropped my book bag and crouched to the ground, it was now my clean white driveway that stared back at me.

I was supposed to walk home with Sharon. Her mom was supposed to take us shopping for undershirts, the ones with a built-in elastic shelf, like something to wear under our blouses for the winter concert. I don’t know. Sharon knew.

Crouching sent the wrong message to my brain, though. As pee spread all down my corduroy-pant legs, I couldn’t stop going, and I couldn’t tell: Was I scared, or was I relieved to no longer follow Sharon’s lead?

* * *

In my room, I took Carlotta off my pillow and chucked her as hard as I could into my closet, so hard that when her plastic head met the wall, my mom yelled, “What was THAT?” from her corner of the house.

This was our old house. The one with no upstairs.

I crouched down, saw the dent in the wall. Carlotta’s eyes stared at the ceiling of my closet until I buried her and her baby-powder scent in sweatshirts.

The wadded-up corduroys, when they hit the closet’s back wall, made more of a slap. A wet mark smeared down to the sweatshirts. Nothing from my mom. Maybe all it takes is just one loud noise to numb you to the ones that follow.

* * *

Water is an invisible criminal, the school’s notice read. THE CONCRETE FACADE MUST BE TORN DOWN, a parent posted online. All facades will one day fail, it said when I googled facade.

* * *

Scaffolding went up. The candlelight vigils tapered off.

* * *

So precisely was Sharon positioned under the cracked arch of the school’s doorway, it was as if an invisible director had just taken her by the arm and led her there, then backed away, squinting as he held out his hand in the shape of an L, looking up at the arch, then down at Sharon, then up at the waterlogged concrete—

* * *

No one except the family knows where she was buried, if she was at all. I kept myself buried in sweatshirts and blankets, waiting to feel human again. Until the day my mother snapped her fingers in my face and said, “I want my couch back.”

* * *

On what would have been Sharon’s birthday, my mother dusted off the black shoes with the square heel, placed a foil-wrapped dish of food on my lap in the back seat of our Buick. The glass bottom warmed the tops of my thighs.

“Stop copying me,” my sister said from her side of the back seat. She plucked my black ribbed tights, then hiked up the ribbed tights she wore, starting at the ankles. My brother stayed home, to guard the place, he said. The night before, someone had taken the pumpkins from our porch and karate-chopped them all over the steps. Someone had whited-out our windows with shaving-creamed hands. They’d thrown rolls of toilet paper over the branches of our tree.

We left the dish on Sharon’s parents’ leaf-stained back porch. No one had answered the door when we’d knocked. I checked the yard for patches of fresh dirt, wondered what tights Sharon was wearing, what she’d think of mine.

* * *

“I swear on my grave this is true,” Sharon’s last ghost story started, when her birthday meant sleepover, and sleepover meant basement. “On the other side of town lives an old, shriveled lady who lives in an old, shriveled house.”

With both thumbs, she switched on the heavy-duty flashlight that her parents kept in the kitchen. She pointed it at each sleeping bag mound, made moons of the sleepover girls’ faces before swinging the beam to her chin. I shivered my sleeping bag up to my neck.

“And winding around the old, shriveled house,” she said in her stage voice, low but full, “are alive, searching vines. And in her yard: strong, powerful weeds. And in her pockets—”

“Children’s bones,” I said into my pillow. “I’ve heard this one.”

Muffled laughs followed.

“Forget it,” Sharon said in her regular voice, flat but hot. “If you can’t handle a ghost story.” The flashlight thudded to the floor.

“We can,” came a voice quick in the dark. One of Sharon’s newer friends. “Keep going.”

The spotlight returned, aimed now into the pink cave of Sharon’s mouth, which gaped wide open.

“I just saw it,” she whispered.

“Saw what?” her new friend asked, pinching her pillow.

“It’s back,” Sharon said, searching the ceiling with the light.

“What is?” her new friend whispered.

“Guys! It’s entering my body!” Sharon yelled.

What is?” her new friend shrieked.

Sharon shook her head, closed her eyes, turned off the flashlight.

We were all still screaming when she switched it back on.

“Sharon is no longer here,” she said in a screechy voice. “This is the ghost of the shriveled old lady speaking.”

Someone threw their pillow across the circle.

“No more misbehaving out of you,” old-lady Sharon replied. I tried to find the smile in her mouth.

“Very funny, Sharon,” I said, my thin voice betraying me.

The light pointed in my eye. “Do you want to tell them?” the Sharon-witch asked.

She added, “What you and Sharon saw?”

I squinted and slouched under the cover of my sleeping bag, trying to blink away the flashlight spots.

“Or, should I say, who you saw?” The creepy voice told the group as I hid, “They saw me right when I lost my head.”

I scrunched further down in my sleeping bag until my fingers found Carlotta, who was also hiding, by my feet.

“Do you want to tell them how I was on my hands and knees, searching the tall, strong weeds, for my missing head,” the screechy voice asked, “when you two stood on my stoop to ring my bell?”

“Wait, did this really happen?” someone asked.

I squeezed Carlotta, holding her close to my face. Tucked inside my sleeping bag with her, I was surrounded by the doll’s comforting powdery smell.

“It was an accident,” the voice went on, “that I’d had in my garden. I’d meant to dead-head only the plants.” Sharon’s fake voice was creeping closer. “Rule number one of gardening: Dead-head what’s dying,” she said, “so it can grow back and live.”

“Should I go get Sharon’s parents?” someone asked before running up the stairs.

“So I reached into my pocket,” the screechy voice said, “and—”

Sharon’s finger peeled back my sleeping bag’s hood, and her flashlight beam found me holding my doll to my neck, thumb in my mouth. I quickly pretended to be biting the skin from around the nail.

Sharon eyed Carlotta. “I won’t tell them,” she said in her regular voice. Her friend voice. She swept the beam up to the ceiling and swung it around and around. “I won’t tell any of it!” She cackled as she twirled in her unicorn nightgown, only stopping when the basement light blinked on, and her mother in her robe and un-make-upped face gave us a look that said get to bed.

* * *

When we returned home from Sharon’s parents’, my mom said something smelled rotten. We found spilled and spread out across an open newspaper an entire box of rusty nails. Globs of pumpkin innards, all caught up with strings and seeds, on top of wet circles seeping over the fold. Meticulously, my brother had stuck one nail after another from the inside of a pumpkin, sharp end pointing out. “Let’s see them try to smash this,” he said.

The next morning, I counted the number of exploded yolks on the front door, the yellow drip runs that’d hardened. Someone had gone through a whole carton egging our house.

The spiked pumpkin, that landed beside the Buick. Hard shell cracked fresh, pale crust lying in parts. They’d wiped their bloodied hands across our driveway.

Over my bedroom window a bloody finger smear spelled Get a life.

Nobody else’s house looked like ours.

This time, when I didn’t leave the couch, my mom didn’t snap her fingers at me. Instead, she paused while brushing my hair. “There’s an open house this weekend,” she said. “Different school, different neighbors.”

* * *

Here’s how to choose a bedroom in a new house. Keep walking up, to the top floor. If your sister already hung her shirts in the closet, gently ease them off the hangers and drop them over the balcony to the hallway below.

* * *

My mom cooks up a casserole following the recipe printed on the outside of a box. Everyone eats together for a change. For one, it’s my birthday. For another, it’s the first night in our new house. All afternoon the smell of melting butter and simmering sage masked the smell of paint. The fluff of cake rising in the oven promised a familiar sweetness.

Before I slice off slabs onto paper plates, we do the traditional tripod-and-delayed-timer shot, where I tilt the iced double-layer cake decorated with dots of colorful frosting—confetti—and my family gathers around me, gets their faces in real close to mine, so close that my brother swipes his pinkie to smear my name on the cake, and my sister pinches the fatty underside of my arm. I claw her thigh. We out-scream each other for the full countdown over my mom’s pleas of “Girls! Girls!”

The flash goes off. Phantom spots swim in its place. I’m a year older than Sharon will ever be. My brother swipes another fingerful of icing before heading into his room.

* * *

Life hack: How to cut a cake without cutting yourself. Unspool a strip of floss longer than the cake plate. Lightly wrap the ends of the floss around your pointer fingers. Now bring the floss down to pass through the cake, making regular pie cuts.

* * *

When I excuse myself, my mom says don’t go too far, we still have presents to do.

Our new street has a Dead End sign. I guess we’ll get the occasional lost car that does a big loop and goes back the way it came. My mom told us to enjoy the view now because soon every lot on this lane will be full of houses as tall as ours. I hope so. The house with the long grass across the street reminds me of the one me and Sharon used to ding-dong-ditch, down to its shriveled jack-’o-lantern.

* * *

Here’s how to make a mirror. Drag a full box to rest under the bare bulb the last owners left plugged in the ceiling socket by the undressed window. If you grew over the past year, you will be able to reach the bulb once you’re on top of the box. Screw the lightbulb until it’s snug in its base and glows. You should be in the window now. This trick works only at night.

* * *

When I crack open the box, the first thing I see is the tank I wore under my blouse at last year’s winter concert. “I should have just bought you the bra,” my mother said when we’d escaped the hot crowd after the show. “That undershirt did nothing for you.”

I try it on, catch sight of myself in the window. The soft fabric is even shearer now that my body is a year older and shaped up. The warped glass throws waves into my body when I turn from side to side. I jut out a round hip. My reflection follows, its hip with a dent in it. I pose like a flamingo, one leg folded. The dip in the glass now sucks in my abdomen, swells my thighs. I run my frosting tongue over my pouty sugar lips and bend at the waist, and my reflection kisses me back, head smushed, mouth stretched. Sharon wouldn’t recognize me.

Flat Sharon. The thought is there before I can unthink it.

The doorbell rings, setting off a thunder of footsteps as my brother and sister race to see Who knows that we’re here? —the lightbulb flickers, then goes dink. I’m buried in black.

This house holds voices different. Voices here don’t stop at walls. Voices pass through them and crawl up them, make their way through ceilings, then floors, but dampened, as though working their way out from under a pile of clothes.

Here’s how to hear buried words in the dark. Hold your expanded lungs on the inhale, the way you do under stage lights before a big note.

The visitor at the door has a lot to say. My family’s voices climb over one another but can’t stuff this strange woman’s down. They keep coming, sounding just like Sharon’s Are you even a real friend and Give it back, it’s mine.

—Careful, I meant to add. Your knees might lock when you make your body stiff. Listen too hard, you will lose oxygen.

The stranger has the last word. The door slam downstairs rattles the panes up here. Her long figure crosses the street, wavers, snaps back together, then climbs the steps to the hole of a house we all took for abandoned. She disappears inside.

The accusations still live in our house, though; my mother repeats them to my brother and sister.

My breath-fog spreads on the glass.

Whatever is going on, I expect to be summoned next. Each hair on my neck says so.

The voices mimic one another until they all sound the same.

My voice in the house is the quietest: “I was going to give it back.”

* * *

Here’s how to repair a pumpkin. Remove the lid by the stem. Spoon in leftover casserole, filling the cavity until the cutouts for the mouth, nose, and eyes are plugged. The misshapen features should now blend in with the skin, erasing the face.

* * *

An upstairs window in the visitor’s house blinks to life.

Ablaze with light and clear as a room onstage: A wooden dresser, a closet door. A glass of water on a bedside table. And the bed: it’s as short as a child’s cot and piled high with pillows. A lady enters the frame, unzipping and shedding a sweater. Bracing herself against the dresser, she peels off one sock, then the other, with the opposite foot’s toes.

Heat rushes to my cheeks. This is how the outside sees you.

I drop to the floor, closer to the downstairs voices, and tap around until I feel a cardboard box, root until I unearth a sweatshirt. When I peek again, the lady is standing by the bed, drinking the water. All forehead and chin: the missing mouth—that had just been filling our house with noise—swallowed by the glass.

The downstairs voices climb the stairs.

Once my head’s through the neck of my sweatshirt, I see the lady’s unblinking gaze as she parts her stringy hair down the middle, combs the long strands with her fingers, then twists the locks into one fistful at the nape of her neck. Fixed on her droop face is a stare so long it reaches my window. She tugs once and lifts the entire head of hair from her scalp. Where there was hair is caved-in skin.

She takes hold of a string dangling in front of her window and with a yank releases her blinds. The horizontal slats fall and slice her body into sideways pieces. The shadow of her arm twists the window wand so that the blinds flip one way, then the other way, shut.

I pat the ground around me until the wrinkled skin of a sunken pumpkin meets my palm. With the fingers of my other hand, I work the rattling window loose and up.

The door to my bedroom slams open, and my overhead bulb illuminates my head in the window, my sister a faint reflection behind me in the pane.

“What’s that smell?” she says from the doorway. I push the pumpkin lid tight, but the casserole oozes out the eye holes.

“Well,” she says, “that took you no time.”

This is it, I think at the stolen gourd, but when I turn to explain why I have it, a flung sweater hits me in the face.

She whips a tube top, then a turtleneck at me, then launches the whole heap of her clothes that I’d dropped over the banister. Buttons clank against the glass pane, a blouse catches on the stem of the jack-’o-lantern.

“Mom wants you,” she says. “Nice underwear.”

I wipe my nose, scoop up a sweater. Its fuzzy arms dangle in front of my bare legs. “Get these out of here,” I yell, kicking tank tops back in her direction. “It’s my room.”

“You can have it,” my sister says from the landing. “It smells… like you.”

“Wait,” I call. “What did the person at the door say?”

From the foot of the stairs she yells, “You’d better keep that window open.”

* * *

Jiggle and jar the window up and up. Waft night air in, shoo bedroom air out. This is how you’ll get away with it. Give it a second. Wait there as the outside draws in the inside, and the inside sucks in the outside…

* * *


* * *

This is how to do it. Kill the spotlight, dummy. The entire street can see us! Use the sweater. Ball it up and toss it at the lightbulb. Not too hard. Now palm the pumpkin and launch it. Launch it into the starless sky—launch it so it’ll soar up and glide down and crack open on your own front step. Who would smash a pumpkin on their own front step?

* * *

“Glad to see you’re still alive,” my mother says from behind the TV Guide when I enter the living room. The television’s on; my brother’s stretched on the floor with his chin on his knuckles. My sister has a plate of cake on her lap. With her foot, she nudges a wrapped gift the size of a shoebox on the coffee table.

“So,” my mother says, turning a page. “Interesting conversation with our lovely neighbor.”

“That’s from her,” my sister says, pointing her fork, then tapping it against her teeth.

“She thanks you for the invitation to ‘play games’ tonight,” my mother goes on.

Canned laughter on the TV erupts louder and louder as my brother presses his thumb on the remote control. “It’s a cat,” he yells from the floor. “Calling it.”

I kneel at the coffee table to inspect the gift at eye level. The wrapping paper is torn pages from a catalog for dolls shaped like pillows. “Did you make this?” I ask my sister.

She shakes her head, then cocks her chin to the side and with a fake grin, circles her fist by her ear as if cranking an invisible lever. Cake seeps between her teeth.

“Okay,” my mother says, whacking my sister’s knee with the magazine. “Feet off the coffee table, please.”

A chorus of laughter from the TV.

“Did the neighbor say anything else? I thought I heard—”

I’m interrupted by my brother’s guffaws, a helicopter-chopping sound he recently adopted. He rolls onto his back and continues to gaze into the TV set from upside down.

“I thought I heard raised voices or something,” I say.

My mother’s eyebrows go up. “Raised voices? In this house?” Fists in the cushions, she heaves herself off the couch. “Why, I never.” She takes the empty plate from my sister and slides into her slippers on her way to the kitchen.

My sister nudges the box with her toe. “Come on, let’s see it.” She bites the ends of her fork prongs.

“You open it,” I say, sliding the box to her.

“It’s your birthday,” she says, kicking it back.

“What did she really say?” I ask, punching the box harder, picturing the woman’s bald flat head.

“That you really oughtn’t have”—my sister plunges the fork into the top—“taken the room from your sister.” She flings the box at my brother, who bats it away like a badminton birdie. The damaged box sails across the room and clatters into the door.

“Did I hear a meow?” he asks.

The three of us are up and elbowing each other on the scramble to the door, my brother catching my ankle so that I fall onto my sister, and he claws at the box, tearing the thin paper in one go. My sister reaches and tips the box over, and my hand fishes in and extracts a pile of hair connected to a crying baby doll.

“Who’s screaming?” my mother yells from the kitchen.

“The box is warm,” my sister says, peeling her hand away. It’s a foil serving tray, not a shoebox, its lid flapped open and fogged.

Never return an empty dish, the doll says with its eyes.

I move my palm from my mouth and mash it into the doll’s painted eyes and the small black hole between its painted lips, its cries now vibrations against my hand, then slip outside down the cold and slimy pumpkin-and-casserole-caked steps and run. It’s Carlotta, I pant into the night air, back to get me, slapping prints of orange gunk across the same stretch of pavement the lady had just crossed to deliver the baby. The top half of my body feels sucked toward the dead end, my bottom half sucked toward the open expanse of road, but I snap back together as long grass brushes my shins, and the candle I’d removed from the jack-’o-lantern comes into view on the stoop, a flame now lit on its wick.

Blow it out, make a wish, a screechy voice says in my head.

Next to her stoop, where I’d taken the pumpkin, I squash the crying doll into the dirt—

Never return to an empty ditch

and cover it with all the earth that can be scraped and shaped into a mound.

* * *

I don’t know how long I’ve been digging and piling when a flashlight blinks on, exposing me in a never-ending loop, buried up to my chest in the earth, unable to stop piling and patting even as I, and the woman with the flat bald head and gaping mouth standing over me, see what I’ve done.

* * *

This garden hack requires no more than a long blade of grass. If you keep plants in your yard, you must control those that climb. Locate the vine’s tendrils, or “fingertips,” and snip them. Loop the blade of grass around the plant’s stem and latch it to something slender but sturdy. This will direct your vine’s growth in a spiral. Snip errant fingertips that may sprout and try to feel around for a new direction. Avoid direct competition: If your plant is too close to another climbing plant, they will entangle until one extinguishes the other.

* * *

The day a chunk of the school broke off and crushed Sharon’s skull, she’d said something else to me. “Do you know how to do anything?” she’d said on the front step. She pulled my book bag from my struggling hands so she could re-loop the loose shoulder strap herself. “It’s like I have to be you for you.” She slipped the bag back onto my arms and, with a single tug, tightened the straps on my shoulders.

Picturing the way her teeth had torn that Watermelon Sour Punch strip at lunch, I jerked my body out of her grip. It was only a single wheeling step back that she took. But on the front stair of the school, on that day, that single step was enough.

* * *

The woman crouches down. Her eyes travel from the top of my head to my chin that’s resting in the dirt. She sniffs the air. “This pumpkin is rotting,” she says to herself.

Then she slowly reaches into her robe pocket. My body, buried from feet to neck, stiffens. From her pocket she pulls a pair of clippers. The flashlight drops from her hands and rolls away from us so that I don’t see her fingers, I just feel the roots of my hair tug and hear the snip of metal.

The glow of the flashlight illuminates her face again. A fistful of my hair, as long as her grass, hangs from her hand. She looks at me, buried in her yard up to my neck, and the mound I’d created next to me, and she backs up through her tall grass.

Please don’t leave me. The thought hangs in my head, does not turn into my voice.

The woman backpedals across our shared street, stuffing the fistful of my hair into her pocket. When she pulls her robe tight across her body, the ground squeezes tight around mine.

The earth smells like Sharon’s basement. A cool breeze chills my scalp where I’m now missing hair. The shh of the waving weeds makes me drowsy. Get to sleep, girls.

A bright stream of light from my upstairs window opens my eyes. In the window is a figure, standing on a box and tightening a lightbulb into the socket.

She steps off the box, bends at the waist, and kisses our reflection, then raises a hand to a dangling string. Blinds cascade down. Your house is my house, dummy. Sharon’s voice, no longer coming from inside my mind, but from my mirror.

A wand in her hand, the flaps swivel one way, then the other way. The eyes of the house shut.

But not mine. And my arms get to work.

Patricia Callahan’s writing can be found in 
Slice magazine, It All Changed in an Instant, Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak, and the forthcoming second volume of The Strong Stuff: The Best of Fictional Café. She lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. Visit her at


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

Follow Us On Social

Masters Review, 2024 © All Rights Reserved