Contest #23 shortlist ⭐️



When Issa arrives to the cabin, the only car there is her brother’s, and that’s enough to make her want to turn around and leave. It’s not that she wanted to be there at all, really, but when their parents had asked them to come it hadn’t really been a question. It’s just that Maximillian Lacey was a difficult person to be around in the best of environments, and this certainly wasn’t one of those.

She turns her car off and sits there until the heat dissipates. Too soon, she’s shivering too hard to stay, and she’s forced out into the snow to grab her bag out of the trunk and make her way up to the cabin. She retrieves the key from its hiding place, hands shaking a little as she fits it into the lock. She tells herself it’s just the cold. 

She almost has herself convinced, until she steps into the foyer and it hits her all at once how much she hates this place. 

The cabin itself is nice. The pretension of owning a cabin makes her skin crawl, and that’s before she gets into all the memories she tries not to touch. They used to come here more. She would’ve been happy never coming back. 

She heads upstairs, passing two rooms on the left with closed doors. One is Max’s. The other she doesn’t look at. She stalls for time in her own bedroom, savoring the time alone before it will inevitably be broken, unpacking painstakingly, putting everything in its place and then rearranging the whole thing twice. As she’s reordering the coats in her closet, her phone rings. 

She takes a breath and lets it out slowly before answering.

“Issabella.” It’s incredible how her father’s voice can make even her own name seem impersonal. 


“Are you at the cabin?”

“I got here about half an hour ago.”

“Is it only you?”

“Max is here.”

“Ah. Keep an eye out, make sure he doesn’t break anything.”

Issa makes a face at that, because technically, Max is a grown adult. Technically, he’s 24 and a year older than her, and should be the one in charge of making sure he doesn’t break anything. Still, she says, “I will.”

“Good. I’m calling to let you know that your mother and I won’t be able to make it until at least tomorrow. The snowstorm is too bad near us, and we won’t be able to get there until the roads have been plowed.”

As a thought exercise, Issa tries to imagine any emotion in that statement. Sad that he won’t get to see his children for another day, perhaps, or maybe frustrated with the inconvenience. Relieved at being able to stay home. Anything that would imply that this isn’t simply a business transaction with his youngest child. 

“Issabella?” She’s been quiet too long.

“Okay. I’ll let Max know.”

“Good. There should be canned goods in the kitchen from the last time we were here.”


“Then we’ll see you tomorrow, or as soon as we can get there. Goodbye.”

The call cuts out before she can say it back, even if she wanted to.

She takes a couple more minutes to refold her sweaters, and then finally heads down the hall to the first door. 

She knocks, a little more tentative than she’d like to be. “Max?”

“What?” Issa can’t tell if he’s already irritated or if his voice has just stuck that way, in a permanent state of annoyance.

“Did Dad call you?”

“Not any time in the last year, no.” Max opens the door, then, revealing a room just as neatly organized as hers, almost clinically so. 

Issa’s not sure what to say to that, so instead she says, “They won’t make it until at least tomorrow. Snowstorm’s too bad.”

“Absolutely tragic,” he says, before pushing himself off the doorframe and heading down the hallway. 

Following him can only be a bad idea, but Issa does it anyway, trailing along after him. 

He heads downstairs, heading through the living room and down the basement stairs. He opens the door to the wine cellar, a converted closet stacked with neat grids and dusty bottles. Issa can probably count on one hand the number of times she’s been in here, and even now she hovers outside for fear of breaking something. She wouldn’t even know where to start. Max clearly does, though, heading directly for the back right corner, running his fingers over a row of bottles before pulling out two. 

It’s not until he turns to leave that he sees Issa, starting a little. “Jesus Christ. Did you follow me all the way down here?”

Issa nods. 

“It should be illegal to be that quiet. Jesus.”

Issa catches her first glance of the bottles he’s picked out, and although she can’t claim to be any kind of wine expert, the labels are enough to tell her Max has made some expensive selections. 

“You know they’re gonna be pissed, right?”

“And?” He starts heading up the stairs, back to the kitchen. “I need you to understand that I really, truly, don’t give a shit.”

Issa follows him up. “Alright, I’m just saying...”

“Oh no, what are they gonna do, treat me like a disappointment?” It comes out vicious, razor-edged, but somehow if this is a knife fight, it feels like one Max has already lost. 

He sets the wine down and searches through the cabinet for a glass, discarding narrower white wine glasses and selecting a deep one, fit for a red. Issa’s half-surprised he doesn’t decant it, really drive home the absurdity of the whole thing. It’s not like he won’t finish the bottle regardless. 

He pours himself almost half of it, then offers it to her. “Want some?”

Issa shakes her head. 

“You’re not gonna get in trouble.”

“I’m fine.”

Max shrugs, and tips a little more into his glass. “Alright.”

Issa’s phone buzzes once and she ignores it. It won’t be work at this time, and the couple of friends that actually text her are accustomed to extended radio silence. Then it buzzes three more times in rapid succession, and she sighs before picking it up. 

Texts from her mother are rarely short, and this is no exception. It’s a list of instructions for everything regarding the cabin, from precise thermostat temperature to which pots and pans they’re allowed to use to which doors should remain closed off. The wine cellar is on the list. 

She scrolls through, replies with “understood,” and takes the bottle off the counter. Max passes her a glass. 

“Let me guess. Mom?”


“That bad, huh?”

Issa shrugs and pours herself half a glass, then reconsiders and adds a little more. “List of things we’re not allowed to touch.” 

“Mmm, and how many of those rules have I already broken?”

It’s not like he doesn’t know the answer, so Issa takes a drink instead. Just that first taste is enough to remind her that she’ll never understand the appeal of expensive wine. It’s almost sour on her tongue, almost bitter, something she can’t quite place. 

Max finishes off his first glass, and pours the rest of the wine into his second one. It’s not much, and Issa drinks to try and dispel the feeling of dread that the empty bottle gives her, a feeling that she knows will only double when he uncorks the next bottle. 

It’s a small blessing that Max gets distracted, rummaging through the cabinets and pulling out a couple of cans.

“Alright, so we’ve got our choice of soup or green beans. I feel truly provided for.”

“They didn’t know we’d be up here alone,” Issa says, wondering as she says it why she feels the need to defend them. 

“Yeah, whatever. Soup or beans?”

“Soup, I guess.”

Max opens the can and selects a pot, almost definitely one of the ones they’re not supposed to use. It could be coincidence. It’s probably not. Still, he hadn’t listened the last time she’d told him not to do something, so she doesn’t waste her breath trying to stop him this time. 

She finishes her glass of wine as the soup heats up, and she’s rapidly realizing it’s been a while since she’s drank much at all. 

He slides her a bowl of soup, and they eat in silence, each on their phones. Issa suspects she’s not the only one wishing she was home, or at least anywhere else other than here. 

Max finishes and gets up, dumping his dishes in the sink. She expects him to leave them, but he goes through and washes them, taking special care with the pot, and Issa thinks about his perfectly neat room and tries to understand the order of his self-destruction. 

Just when she’s starting to wonder if she’s been wrong, he uncorks the second bottle and drinks straight from it for a second before pouring himself a glass. 

She makes a face, unable to stop herself. If he gives himself alcohol poisoning, they’re on their own, but it’s more the spectacle of the whole thing that wears on her. He needs it to be known that he’s ruining himself, and it’s already exhausting.

He gives her a look. “What? You also wanna call me a disappointment? Go right ahead.”

“You go out of your way to act like one,” Issa says, surprising herself a little bit. The alcohol is bringing out some bite, apparently, something that’s been missing for a very long time. She has to believe she’s ever had it. 

“Yeah, well. If they were always going to treat me like one, might as well become one, right?” Max raises his glass, the toast of a man on the gallows, before drinking. 

Still, if he’s on the hanging platform, he’s put himself there. 

“You didn’t have to.”

He sets his glass on the coffee table, and flops down on the couch. “Listen. Oldest children can’t just fly under the radar. Oldest children get impossible standards set for them and can never live up to that. And then, their younger sister comes along and actually meets those impossible standards, and that’s kind of the end.”

“So you hated Ever because she made you look bad?”

To Issa’s surprise, that stops Max dead, and he’s quiet for a moment before he says, “I didn’t hate Ever. I couldn’t- that’s not fair.”

Maybe it isn’t, but Issa remembers looking up from trying to rub ink off her fingers where the “In Loving Memory of Devereux Lacey” program had bled onto her hands to see Max walking out the door. 

“You left her funeral early.”

“I couldn’t stand the way Mom and Dad were looking at me.”

As with a lot of things this evening, Issa knows before asking that she’s going to regret her next question, but she asks it anyway. “How do you think they were looking at you?”

“Like the wrong kid died.”

“Max, that’s not-”

“Not true?” He props himself up, then, looking her directly in the eye. “You tell me, Issa. You’re the one who looks like her.”

It feels like someone’s knocked the wind out of her, like she’s been hit in the chest with a sledgehammer. She can’t figure out what she would say to that, if she could catch her breath long enough to say anything at all.

Before she’s even begun to react, though, Max runs a hand over his face, flopping back down on the couch. “Jesus. Fuck. I didn’t mean to say that, okay? I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Issa says, although she’s not really sure how it could be. She takes a seat on the couch, legs crossed under her.

They’re both quiet for a minute, before Max says, “I don’t know. Maybe they’re right. Maybe it should’ve been me.”

“It shouldn’t have been anyone.”

“Well yeah, no shit, nobody’s heart should give out at 22. I’m just saying, if it was gonna be one of us...”

She remembers getting the call about Ever’s death in perfect detail. She wonders how she would’ve felt if it was Max instead. The same guilty part of her, buried deep down, that told her she hadn’t mourned enough for her sister tells her she wouldn’t have felt even that much for her brother. 

In an attempt to drown that voice, she gets up and goes to take the bottle from Max. He hands it over, and she drinks straight from it. She thinks she can understand the appeal, at least a little bit. If nothing else, it proves you’re hurting.

She passes it back to him, and he takes a drink, and then hands it back to her. She settles on the floor, and for a while they sit in silence, passing the bottle back and forth. 

After a while, when the alcohol has had time to wreak havoc on all the safeguards that keep her from talking, she says, “Do you remember how we used to be?”

Max tips his head to the side to look at her. “Like... when we were little?”

“Yeah. Like... the three of us.”

“The three of us,” Max repeats. “God, I think I was, like, nine, the last time it was the three of us.”

He’s probably right, if Issa’s remembering correctly. The next year, when she and Ever had turned nine, Ever had started private flute lessons on top of the piano lessons they’d all had, started Chess Club and Science Olympiad, and Max was already struggling his way through travel soccer practices and math tutoring. Trying to remember a “before” feels like sorting through boxes in an attic when you weren’t the one to put them there in the first place, only knowing that the thing you need is there somewhere. 

Still, there’s one memory she can find without searching too hard, one of the last days when they still got to act like children. “Remember the time we were out here and we all took over the basement-”

“The time where we made the castle?”


“I remember that you wanted to be the dragon. Which was funny, because even then, you were quiet.”

“I wasn’t.”

“You were. But you weren’t... I don’t know. You didn’t kind of disappear until later.”

An hour ago, that would’ve been a jab, another cruelty from a brother she hadn’t seen since the funeral. Maybe it still is. It doesn’t feel like it anymore, though, it’s just an added ghost in a room full of them. Something she used to be, like Max used to be a prince, like Ever used to be a knight. How their cardboard kingdom has fallen. 

“I think it was easier to disappear,” she says, and it’s almost a surprise as she says it. Maybe it had been. Grades that weren’t stellar but were good enough, a couple extracurriculars but not too many, a few friends who didn’t really come to the house- it hadn’t been a great existence, not really. But in looking at Max, looking at Ever, it feels a little more like it could have been worse.

“I was honestly more jealous of you than I was of Ever. Like, yeah, she had the grades and the achievements and everything, but you just... survived.”

Issa winces a little. “Bad word choice, maybe.”

“Bad word choice. But you know what I mean.”

“Yeah.” They’re quiet again, but this time it holds a different weight. The space between them has been bitter, and now it speaks of something carried between them, something they can’t quite say but both understand.

Into the silence, Issa says, “I think the thing I hate the most about her dying was realizing that I didn’t really know her.” It’s something she hasn’t admitted to anyone. Not to their parents, certainly, but also not to any of her friends, not even really to herself. 

“Me too.” 

“I didn’t know my twin sister. How stupid is that?”

“I don’t know if anyone actually knew Ever, you know? Like... there was a lot of distance between her and everyone else.”

“I still should’ve.”

“You and me both.”

It’s again, long enough that she nearly falls asleep, but she thinks about the empty bottles and the consequences, and she thinks about Max, always on the verge of self-immolation. “When they get mad about the wine, I’ll take the fallout.”

“Nah. It was my fault.”

“We can share the blame. I drank some too.”

“They’ll assume it was me anyway. Don’t worry about it.”

She remembers another part of the memory. Max, age nine, in a paper crown and a blanket robe, getting yelled at for the grey paint on the floor. He’d painted the red pennants for the towers. She and Ever had painted the walls. 

“Thank you,” she says, and she wonders how the game would have ended if they hadn't grown up.

January 11, 2020 04:58

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