KATIE BURGESS: Duane’s Still Stuck In That Cave

Flash fiction by Katie Burgess

The Single  

Our dorm was old and full of weird stuff, like the stairs to nowhere. Some people say an international student got sick and died alone over Christmas break in the 50’s, and by the time they found her the janitors couldn’t get the smell out, so they walled off the whole corridor. Some say it was asbestos. Who knows? The top floor, our floor, had slanted ceilings like an attic, and every room was a different size and shape. The room at the end of the hall was tiny, barely big enough for one person. Alex got that room.  

Alex loved black nail polish and Tori Amos. Whenever we walked by, she’d poke her head out and invite us to drink tea and watch The Last Unicorn with her, andwe’d say maybe another time.  

Every morning Alex’s boyfriend would smile and tip his hat—one of those round, flat newsboy caps—as he left her room. Male guests were supposed to sign in at the front desk and leave before midnight, but the RA never enforced it.  

Then her friend Rashon moved in. He’d broken up with his boyfriend and needed a place until his new lease started. We understood. But it was weird always having him in our bathroom, dressed in Alex’s robe, glaring into the mirror and muttering things he wished he’d said to his ex. I lied when I said I liked your play. I bet your allergies are fake. You don’t pronounce the word “annotated” correctly. We got used to him, though.  

Babysitting was how Alex paid her tuition, so that was why the infant showed up. The RA said we were a community, and sometimes members of a community had to make compromises. So we wore earplugs when he cried at night. Around Halloween Alex found a stray cat and named her Bettie Page and made a little bed for Bettie in a drawer. Now when we walked past Alex’s room, we’d see Alex, her boyfriend, Rashon, the baby, and Bettie all curled up watching The Last Unicorn.  

Then her world religion study group came over to practice Buddhist chants, and her cousin’s band needed a place to rehearse, and the women’s rugby team lost their practice field due to budget cuts. That last one was where we drew the line, even though it felt unfeminist, but we were tired of how the constant tackling shook the walls. We told the RA, but she asked if we could deal with it ourselves because she was busy leading a stress management workshop in the common room.  

So, we all went and knocked on Alex’s door. We heard whispers and dozens of feet shuffling. Finally, the knob turned, and right away we were hit with this blast of warm air, a purring, crying, chanting mass that swept us off our feet and pulled us straight to the center of the room.  

When the door closed behind us, it echoed as if it were very far away.  

So that’s where we are now, if we’re even still in a place. We don’t know how long we’ve been here or if we’ll ever leave. Maybe they’ve walled us off and made another set of stairs to nowhere. But what else were we going to do? Graduate? Move away and get married and divorced, raise angry kids on a hot planet, lose our grandparents and then our parents and cry in our cars every morning while driving to our jobs in some office park inside what used to be our childhood mall? We belong here—we understand that now. Later we might watch The Last Unicorn and just chill.  

Where Are They Now? 

THE END   [Closing credits roll]  


Alec got his GED and was promoted to night manager at the popcorn store. He never played adult kickball again after the incident, but he keeps his trophy in his office, dusting it every day.  

Brienne went to New York City to follow her dreams but soon decided she missed small town life—and the people she left behind. She moved back home and spent years attending every local kickball game, hoping to run into Alec. She runs a big cat sanctuary.  

Duane is still stuck in that cave.  

Kennedy stopped pretending to be a Russian robotics engineer after realizing that her true friends liked her for herself. She became a guidance counselor and works with at-risk teens.  

Dr. Marley has not given up on her efforts to free Duane from the cave. Her current plan involves underwater robots. This time she is careful to make sure the robots are designed by actual scientists.  

Tastypop, along with the scene in which he discovers a convenient tunnel into the cave, was cut from the film.  

You, the Viewer, step out into the harsh sun outside the theater. You get in your car and drive around for a while, because you don’t want to go home yet. Because the people at home will want to know what you did with your afternoon, and you can’t tell them you spent it watching another movie.  

You pass a roadside memorial for someone killed in a wreck. It’s piled with dirty stuffed animals. How long have they been left out here? Wouldn’t it be better to give those to a children’s hospital or something? Dead people can’t enjoy teddy bears. You pull over. The stuffed animals are in worse shape than you imagined, moldy and falling apart. You decide you’ll clean them and fix them up and take them to some children somewhere. This is something useful you can do. You start loading the animals into your trunk. As you do, a woman in a van slows down and yells, “Shame on you!” You cradle a one-eyed tiger in your arms and wish you could explain, but she’s already gone.  

Later you look up the ninety-minute romantic-comedy-sports-drama you watched today. You give it one star.  

Zeke became captain of his adult kickball team and finally told Brienne how he feels.  

[Theme music swells]    

Katie Burgess’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Smokelong Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her flash collection, Wind on the Moon, is available from Sundress Publications.

Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela.

Published by poetrybay

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