There’s something unexplainable at work in Patricia Callahan’s “Life Hack,” this week’s New Voices entry: 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.
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.
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?