Short Story by Andrés Carlstein




    “Come out of the box.” 
    “I’m not coming out.” 
    “You come out this instant!” This was the most authoritative Paulita could make herself sound. 
    “I’m not coming out of the dumbwaiter,” Taffy said. He bit the nail off his index finger. It tasted very spicy.
    Paulita was annoyed that Taffy kept calling it a dumbwaiter. She was the one who taught Taffy that in the first place. She taught him practically everything. “Dad says you’re too heavy for it. The rope could break. And then you die.” 
    “If I come out you’re going to kill me anyway,” Taffy said. He was nervous. He always chewed his nails when he was nervous, even though his mother, to prevent the habit, would pinch the tips of his fingers and cut into the skin of a fresh, hot pepper with each nail in turn. But when Taffy got nervous he forgot and bit them anyway.
    “I’m not going to kill you,” Paulita said.
    “Then why do you have the knife?” 
    Paulita could see Taffy’s eyeball in its sullen, puffy lid, squinting through the space between the dumbwaiter doors. Subtly, she moved the knife behind her back. “It’s not a real knife. It’s a cake knife. Mom got you a cake.” 
    “You’re lying,” Taffy said. “Show me.”
    “The cake isn’t here, dummy. It’s in the dining room. We have to go there if you want cake.”
    “No, show me the knife.” 
    Paulita pulled the knife from behind her back. The blade was long and pointed. The edge glinted as light moved along it, like a droplet of water slips down an icicle. Taffy had never seen a cake knife. He couldn’t tell if that’s what one looked like or not. He removed the nail of his pinky finger delicately, with the nubs of his front teeth, to avoid as much of the spice as possible. The burning of his tongue made him drool. He put the pinky nail into the slobbery pile forming in the corner of the dumbwaiter. There were other piles of his fingernails around him, dried hard and sharp as metal filings, from times when he’d been here before. 
    Taffy admired his big sister. She was knowledgeable. More importantly, he’d never known her to lie about cake.  “Well, if they were going to get me a cake, why didn’t they say so?” 
    “It was supposed to be a surprise. But you ruined it.” Paulita deftly flipped the blade in her hand and held it like an ice pick. She put her hand behind her back, concealing the weapon again. 
    Alone in that cramped space Taffy felt guilt. If the cake was intended to be a surprise, then he’d let everyone down. What is a surprise if everyone knows, and there’s nobody left to be surprised? She was making him feel bad, but he was supposed to be getting a surprise. At times like this Paulita was very confusing. He did love his big sister, even though she was better at everything. 

     Their old house had two kitchens, one on the main floor and one directly below it in the basement. Two rooms—formerly servants’ quarters—connected to the downstairs kitchen. But there was only one staircase leading up from the basement. The only other way to access the ground floor was through the dumbwaiter. 
    The device featured an archaic and simple design, with a pulley system that ran the ropes through the middle of the carriage. This meant that a person, if small enough, could fit inside and move up or down unassisted. The doors opened at each floor like cabinets, and a small latch allowed the dumbwaiter to be held in place without falling. 
    The previous owner of the house, they said, was an angry and senile man. He accused his employees of stealing and habitually locked the maid and the cook in the basement at night. He wouldn’t let them out until morning—until he came downstairs to find his breakfast steaming in the dumbwaiter. After finding the food he’d open the door and let them up, so the maid could begin cleaning while he kept watch, and the cook could serve him at the table before she left for the market to shop for the day’s meals. 
    One day the owner awoke to a house full of smoke. He opened the basement door to find the cook huddled at the top of the landing, gasping and soot-covered. There’d been an oil fire on the stove in the basement kitchen, and the old oak cupboard had gone up. The stone construction of the house withstood the heat, and the flames burned themselves out. But before that happened, the maid, desperate to escape, had climbed into the dumbwaiter and gotten stuck in the shaft. 
    The cook was a fat woman—far too large to fit into the dumbwaiter—but she was clever and acted quickly, ripping a length of rubber hose from the faucet in the laundry sink, and then poking it out from under the door at the top of the stairs, where she had managed to crawl in the swirling dark and ash. There she lay, lips wrapped around the tube, plump fingers jammed in her nose, eyes pressed shut against the fumes. She waited, sucking in the draughts of sweet air that she managed to pull from around the corner. There she listened to the screams of the maid, which soon turned to hacks and panicked wailing, followed by soft moans, and finally, silence. 

      The children knew the story. They’d heard it whispered a dozen times—mostly from Paulita to Taffy. She’d repeated it such that the legend seemed more than real, as if the essence of the old man permeated the house, the panicked misery of the cook seeped from the basement, and the faint scent of smoke still inhabited the dumbwaiter’s dry cotton rope. Taffy wasn’t sure what he smelled when he pressed the rope to his nose, but Paulita made a convincing argument. He held himself in place, peering out the crack just below the level of the door. 
    “Listen idiot,” Paulita said. “If I wanted to kill you with this knife, I could just cut the rope, and you would fall down and die, and it would even look like an accident, which means nobody could pin it on me. Why bother to stab you if I could do that? Use your brain. I’m going to get cake.” 
    Taffy followed Paulita with his eyes until she went around the corner where he could not see her. Ever wary of his worldly sister, he finally decided she was telling the truth. Slowly, creakingly, he pulled the dumbwaiter up. Locking the small latch in place, he climbed out. The soft pads of his feet pressed the cool, stone floor through his argyle socks. Paulita stepped from around the corner and brandished her knife with a wicked smile. She drew her weapon arm back and then stabbed Taffy through his pudgy middle. Again and again she stuck him. His blood sprayed out in all directions, all over the stone floor and the scarred marble countertops. It shot out his ears, his nose, and his mouth, she told him, because he was stabbed so bad. 
    “You suck!” she screamed. “Your eyes are crying blood because you’re so gullible!” 
    “Why,” cried Taffy, “why would you? You could’ve just cut the rope!”
    “To kill you to your face. Of course.”
    Taffy lay still where he’d fallen, moaning softly until he expired. What else could he do? He’d been well tricked. His fury was useless and faded out of him in soft, seeping waves. 
    “Get up dummy,” Paulita said. “It’s your turn.” The knife clattered on the floor next to Taffy, and Paulita hoisted herself into the dumbwaiter’s carriage, straining to fit her long legs and close the door. She undid the latch and lowered herself down to just below the level of the opening, so Taffy couldn’t slip the knife through the crack and stab at her. “And hurry up. Mom will be home soon.” 
    Taffy got up, reanimated, but the fury hadn’t entirely left him. The great injustice of it. Without hesitation, without negotiation or cajoling, he snatched the knife, ready to reach in and slice the worn, dusty rope until it snapped, plummeting Paulita the miles down, down to her death in the basement, howling all the way. He couldn’t help himself. He was just so angry and he couldn’t think of another way to get her. Such was the limit of his imagination. 
    Then he stopped. 
    “Hey, Paulita?”  
    “How long do you think it took that maid to die?”
    “The one who died in the fire. I mean, how long do you think she was in there, stuck, with the smoke?” 
    “I don’t know. Who cares.”
    “I was just wondering, because what if it was a really long time and she must have been really scared in there, being stuck, with no way to get out. Maybe if she was in there and she was scared, maybe she would have tried to get out. Like a trapped animal.” 
    “What are you saying?” Paulita now spoke more slowly, more quiet. 
    “I don’t know, I just think if she were stuck in there, maybe she’d try to claw her way free. You know. No way out? Just scratching and scraping away before you die?” 
    Paulita, huddled in the cramp of the dumbwaiter, started to feel the tightness of it around her. It really was a small space. Small for a girl, probably a lot worse for a grown woman. Even a very little one. 
    “I bet if she was scared enough, maybe she scratched so hard that she made big marks in the wood.”
    Almost against her will, Paulita traced one hand along the wood beside her, over the lip where the shelf went, which they always removed before playing in the dumbwaiter, and always had to put back before their parents found the misplaced piece and punished them. Paulita could feel the ridges in the interior, the splinters and lines that could’ve just been normal wear and the grain of the wood, or might have been… something else. “Stop, Taffy.” Paulita tried to sound stern, yet calm.
    “I wonder if there’s still dried blood on the wall there—maybe even skin?” Taffy spoke quietly now, as if to himself.  
    “Taffy, that’s gross.” Paulita drew into herself, away from the walls.   
    “I don’t think fingernails are strong enough to get through wood though. I think the nails might’ve ripped right off.”
    “Taffy, enough!” Paulita put her hands down on the floor of the dumbwaiter and felt the small piles of fingernails there. Some were hard and sharp and others were soft and moist from Taffy’s saliva, but since she didn’t know that, they were probably moist with blood. Paulita screamed and raced to pull herself up and out of the dumbwaiter, falling awkwardly onto her hands and face on the floor of the kitchen, right at Taffy’s feet. She hadn’t secured the latch, so the dumbwaiter slid down one floor to the basement, clattering loudly at the bottom of the shaft below. 
    Breathing hard, Paulita looked up. Her hair swished in her eyes, and stray fingernails clung to her palm as she reached up to defend herself. Too late. 
    Taffy wielded the knife overhead and stabbed down without hesitation. He slashed and slashed and stabbed at his sister, yelping and giggling and killing her dead. He’d never killed anyone before. An enormous smile overtook him, his mouth as wide as the dumbwaiter’s open doors. The blood was bright red, and shot out Paulita’s ears and nose and mouth as if from hoses. Blood even poured out her eyes because he fooled her so bad. Red was everywhere, across the walls and the counters and floor and even across Taffy’s wide, white grin. He laughed and stabbed, over and over, unable to contain his joy.  
    There was so much blood!