The Intruder by Nada Alic
2019 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist
Nada Alic has made the 2019 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for The Intruder.
She will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and her story is published below.
You can read The Intruder below.
Warning: This story contains strong language.
When I got my friend Leon's text to come to an art opening in Culver City, I was in the middle of reading an article called How to Wear Hats Fearlessly and applying body lotion to my face because I had run out of face lotion, so I was, by all accounts, extremely free. I don't even own a hat but a part of me hoped there might be people there wearing hats, acting like there was nothing different about them and I wanted to observe the kind of behavior required to do such a thing.
When he arrived, he didn't get out of his car, instead he just honked his horn incessantly over the sound of his muffler's death rattle. I used to hurry, but not anymore. Over the years our friendship had settled and congealed into the more brutal intimacy of siblings, sparing all niceties. Nothing else in my life could offer me that, not even my real siblings who now seem like total strangers to me.
We arrived late. Almost all the people who were wearing hats were now holding those hats in their hands which either meant that they were too hot or were not ready to fully commit to the look. Very few people could, I made a note of this. A tall man wearing a public radio merch tee waved in our direction and just as I asked, "Do you want some gum?" he was gone.
I drank a room-temperature beer and did a lap before returning to Leon, who was absent-mindedly leaning against a mixed media collage and talking to two women from his yoga class. I stood and waited to be introduced. I waited for the newness of the moment to wear off, but it would not wear off. Eventually, one of the women announced they were headed to a bar down the street and asked Leon to join them. Leon turned to me and said, "You would hate this place, trust me." Annoyed, I pulled out my phone and said something about how I was tired, except I was not tired. I had just taken a 5-hour Energy and still had three hours of energy left. Leon then kissed me on both cheeks even though he has never been to Europe, and took off.
When I came home, I tried to fall asleep but my body was too wired. I stayed up and thought about everything I could remember to think about. I thought about whether I'd already met the person I will spend the rest of my life with and if I had to choose right at that moment, who would I pick? A name appeared in my mind and it surprised me. I didn't even think I had feelings for this person but decided not to question it. It kind of made sense, come to think of it. I thought about emailing this person but knew it'd be best to wait until morning.
Then I heard it: a noise. It was a big, human noise coming from outside my window.
Then I heard it: a noise. It was a big, human noise coming from outside my window. It sounded like the panicked rustling of someone without a plan. This person was too excited for things like plans. At first I did that thing where I decided it was the wind, covered my ears and forgot about it. I couldn't believe how effective that was. What if I just covered my ears the next time something bad happened? What if that's all I had to do, but instead I just made everything more complicated? Then, I heard it again: left, right, left, right, left, right and so on.
I slowly pulled my knees towards my chest, rolled to my side and got out of bed. This felt more real than moments earlier, back when it was the wind. Life was simpler then. Standing complicated things; standing meant walking and walking into what? In standing world, people died in unspeakable ways. In standing world, men cried. They cried because they wanted to do bad things and there was nothing anyone could do about it. They tried counseling, they meditated, but still they yearned to slice throats clean across. I thought about my life; about how stupid it was and continues to be. I thought about how I never knew love but could roughly imagine it and from what I gathered, it was heaven. I thought about my breasts and how so few people have touched them, how I have barely touched them myself.
The noise persisted in a back-and-forth pacing motion. Step, step, step, pivot and so forth. I too began to pace around my living room, reciting the Canadian anthem in French, then in English for the parts I forgot in French. I don't know why, but I felt compelled to as if willed by my ancestors. After three Canadian anthems, I waited to hear the sound again and there was nothing. I stood for an extra 20 minutes just to be sure. I went back to bed and tried to sleep but instead of sleep, I played out every possible break-in scenario in my mind in both English and French, until the sun came up.
The next morning, I got up and stood in front of my bathroom mirror, splashing water on my face like they do in skin care commercials with the abandon of someone who truly loves themselves; someone who is glad to be alive. And I was; I was thrilled. I wondered who it could have been. Was it someone I had wronged? I had wronged so many people in my lifetime, some intentionally but most, accidentally. Little wrongs left unresolved and compounded over time that now seem unforgivable: all of the calls I never returned, all of those times I told someone they had something in their teeth when they had nothing in their teeth or that one time I lost my cousin Anthony at the mall and pretended I didn't for an entire day until he showed up at his mother's doorstep the next morning with a missing shoe and a speech impediment that would never fully fade. He must be in his early 20s by now.
I told Leon what happened over breakfast. He was staring at his phone and asked me if it was all a dream. Then he started telling me about a recurring dream he had about making out with his brother, "I don't know it's him when I'm doing it." he explained. Leon's friend Dale showed up and apologized for being late. Dale worked with Leon at a bar in Koreatown called Beverly's and still lived with his parents. He tells people it's because they're sick, but Leon said he met them once and they seemed perfectly fine.
"Bro check this one out: '79 Porsche 930 Turbo. Mint condition. Seller's asking a hundred Gs OBO." said Dale.
Dale and Leon were the kind of guys you'd see hovering around classic car meetups without cars of their own. In other words, total losers. A better person would get up and walk away. But I am not better, in some ways, I'm much worse. When Leon went to the bathroom, Dale began talking about dolphins, "they have two stomachs" he said, "and they get their periods," as if he'd never talked to a woman before. As he talked, I let my eyes relax and visualized myself back in my room. I'm surprised more people don't do this — you can think about whatever you want and watch it in your mind like a movie. I'm very discrete too, I could be doing it right in front of you and you'd never know.
I imagined myself back in my room, listening to the sound of hot, sour breath against my face. It sounded like this, haaah. haaah. haaah. haaah. I tried to get up but couldn't, each haaah was like the force of a thousand magnets pushing me deeper into my mattress. The haaahs were coming from a man in a ski mask standing over me. He climbed on top of me and pressed the full weight of his body on mine. His breath smelled metallic, like pennies. At first it felt nice, like a heavy wool blanket. I almost enjoyed it until I heard bones snapping. I was flattening under his weight, which had become a hundred times heavier than his body. I focused on making myself as inhospitable as I could. I lowered my body temperature to below freezing, forcing my body hair to sprout into thousands of prickly quills. When that didn't work, I asked him to marry me. He laughed and told me I smelled bad. Even in fantasies, I worried about this. As I died, I said goodbye to all the things I loved most. I could only get to the first three: my niece, coffee and swimming pools.
"And they have their own language too," said Dale. When I came to, my hands were trembling. I gulped orange juice to calm myself. Leon returned to the table and said, "You're blushing!!! Busted!!!"
I couldn't stop thinking about the man and when he would come back and how I couldn't stop him even if I tried.
I rolled my eyes and excused myself to the bathroom, but instead kept walking until I got to my car. I couldn't stop thinking about the man and when he would come back and how I couldn't stop him even if I tried. But in the weeks that followed, nothing happened. Not even the wind. Each night I'd wait for the sound and each night it would not come. Still, I prepared, practicing my visualizations with alternate endings and varying techniques. Sometimes I was covered in sores, other times, I was a bloody, headless monster.
I told everyone I knew about him, "It went like this: haaah haaah haaah," I explained at my sister's potluck dinner. All of the women would nod and say, "You know, that happened to me once." I didn't believe them. Women do that, they like to relate.
I had to leave early to get ready for my date with Dale, anyway. I needed a man to practice my break-in drills with, so I told Leon to ask Dale out for me. I wanted to see if I could handle it in real life. He was thrilled, by the way, so in a sense, I was performing a charitable act. Maybe it was the nicest thing I had ever done.
When I got home, I showered with a lemony body wash and put on the fanciest blouse I could find. I admired myself in the mirror, not because of how beautiful I could be for someone else, but for how beautiful I was for no one; how my beauty didn't need a beholder. Dale would do it wrong anyway, focus on the wrong things — my breasts for example, but he would skip the best parts, like the mole on my arm which made me look exotic.
"Here" texted Dale.
Dale took me to an upscale bistro where the waiters all spoke with French accents, even though some of them weren't French. Some were better than others, but you could always tell which were real and which were fake.
"They're actors" he said, whispering over his menu.
"That makes sense, most actors wait tables," I explained. "Have some," I said, pointing to a glass of wine on the table to test his obedience.
"I don't drink," he said. Dale was Mormon.
I slid my hand underneath the table and rested it on his knee, "What if I don't tell anyone? Would you try it for me?"
Dale looked left and right as if God were watching, then took a sip.
"Do you like it?" I asked.
He nodded and said he felt, "A little light-headed."
I assured him that was perfectly normal and that I had some Aspirin back at my apartment. Dale paid for our meal with his parent's credit card and we left.
When we arrived, Dale asked for a glass of water and sat down on my sofa. I told him my air conditioner was broken and he was welcome to take his shirt off. "I don't care, I'll do it too," I added. He seemed unphased by my offer, as if he'd spent his entire life following instructions by people who did not have his best interest in mind. Soon, we were both sitting shirtless on my sofa acting like two people who still had shirts on.
"How did you learn so much about cars?" I asked, curiously. As he spoke, I interlaced our fingers together and pulled him up while he continued nervously orating about the pros and cons of leasing versus buying. I gently swayed us back and forth. He tried to kiss me and I pushed him away.
"Do you want to try something?" I asked.
Dizzy from the dancing "and all the wine," he said sure.
I proceeded to tell him all about my plan. I told him why it was important, using words like "epidemic" and statistics like "one-in-four." I wanted him to know that what he was about to do was important and potentially life-saving. He straightened his posture, suddenly realizing the magnitude of the exercise and his role within it. We began.
"Ok, so you've gotta do it like this: haaah haaah haaah haaah."
"Like this?" he asked, breathing hoarsely.
"You got it," I said. "Just like that."
I handed him a ski mask and waited for my cue.
"When I cough, you can start, OK?"
He placed the ski mask over his head and gave me a thumbs up. My body tensed up; even though I knew it was fake it felt more real than I imagined it would.
"Perfect, now walk towards me," I said.
Under the anonymity of his mask, he grew confident and uttered "bitch" beneath his breath. Embarrassed, he followed with "sorry."
He sat on the edge of my bed and unclasped my bra, slowly unbuttoning my jeans and pulling them down to my ankles. I could already see how hard this made him but tried to ignore it. He then forgot what he was supposed to do next and just stood there staring at me.
"Come here," I said, motioning him over. He climbed on top of me and relaxed his muscles.
"Like this?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, pulling him down harder. We lay together in silence, exchanging breaths in an up and down motion, our chests like crests and troughs. I thought about dolphins. Dale began to cry.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
He pulled the ski mask halfway up; his nose was running.
"Your hair smells like lemons," he said.
He wiped his nose on my shoulder, and smelled it again, "Like lemon meringue."
"I know," I said, stroking his head. "Shhh, I know."
I didn't know what else to say.
Read the other finalists
- For Pari by David Dupont
- Green Velvet by Krzysztof Pelc
- Black Coffee by Menaka Raman-Wilms
- Green is the Colour of Calm by Meg Todd
Nada Alic lives in Los Angeles by way of Toronto and writes about art, design and maintaining a creative practice. She has spent over a decade championing independent artists through education, content and community with brands such as Etsy, Society6, Girlschool, P.S. Arts and more. Her fiction series Future You, a collaborative project with visual artist Andrea Nakhla, has been featured in Urban Outfitters, Nasty Gal and Cool Hunting, It's Nice That, Metatron and elsewhere. Her most recent project, an animated short titled The Trick, is a finalist at the 2019 GLAS Animation Festival in Berkeley, Calif. She is currently working on a collection of short fiction.
About the 2019 CBC Short Story Prize
The winner of the 2019 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.