Honorable Mention Winner, “A Character Study”
By Lucas Jeffrey
Artwork by Coe MacFarlane
He’s laid four hundred and eighty-six strips of wood.
Strip four hundred and eighty-seven is here, at the back end of the shed, sealing a hole
maybe a foot across. He props it up, pounds in four nails—and a fifth, because the fourth didn’t
seat quite right—and that’s wall four finished. That’s the entire shed finished, if he’s going by the
loose definition of it being constructed.
There’s what’s supposed to be an arch in the center of the front wall. Actually, it’s a
jagged bit of plywood he thought looked arch-like, so he stuck it there to be the entrance. If he
ducks his head, he fits beneath it. Inside, the place reeks of moist wood and leaves he never
brushed out. That’ll be first on his list: get rid of the leaves. But if it’s finished—and he does
another check to make sure he didn’t miss any holes—then it’s ready, and he should stop giving
himself other things to do.
He calls her.
“It’s…” she says at midnight, watching him string fairy lights along the rafters cut an
inch too short for their holes. “It’s kinda shitty.”
“But it works, right?”
“I guess.” There’s the sound of her sipping the can of soda she brought, the kind he thinks
tastes like rotten seaweed but drinks anyway, because it’s all she ever brings. “You’re gonna add
a door, right? ‘Cause it’s freezing.”
“Probably.” He’d put a lot of work into that arch. “Yeah.”
“Can’t sleep out here without a door.”
“Tents don’t have doors.”
“They still have zippers, dumbass.”
Weeks later, once his exams are done and he’s not doing anything he can to put off
studying, he waits for a Wednesday evening and drives around town in his dad’s Honda. There’s
no trash in his neighborhood, not yet, because these are trash-goes-out-at-six-per-city-ordinance
neighbors. So he cuts across the mile road and finds other houses, ones that have had couches by
the curb since Sunday, ones that have just redone their house and have three toilets to throw
The door he takes from the trash is blue with green flowers because it fits the best. That’s
the official reason. He repeats that to himself with his hands tight on the wheel, pulling around
into his backyard and settling into park. His measuring tape is stuck shut, and his hands can’t
grip it in this cold, and he’s shaking, anyway, because if he forgets his excuse then his dad is
going to wonder things about why he picked a door with green flowers. The measuring tape
won’t open. He drags the door to the shed, props it against the arch, makes sure the hinges line
up with the strips of wood he’s already laid—it’ll fit without measuring.
“It’s less shitty,” she says the next night, pulling the door open and shut open and shut so
it clicks in the latch the way she likes. “Still kinda rough.”
He doesn’t tell her he didn’t ask to borrow his dad’s drill. He doesn’t tell her how hard it
is to screw in hinges when he’s making guide holes with nails and using his own muscle to
wrench them in so they fit. Instead, he says, “Better than a zipper, right?”
“Way fucking better. Where’d you get this, though?” She kicks the green flowers with the
tip of her shoe and spreads mud. “Some kid’s bedroom?”
“It fit the best.”
“Mm.” This time she opens it and steps through, breathing in the wetness and probablymold inside, and says, “Where’s the furniture?”
“I don’t have any.”
“You need some. Like, a chair and TV, or some shit. Otherwise it’s boring.”
So when the semester ends the week after, he borrows the Honda and doesn’t die in the
snow and pulls into the McDonald’s parking lot, reciting the WikiHow article on how to prepare
for an interview with the pulsing of his blinker. Then he recites it again with his steps toward the
door, again with the sizzling smell of a deep-fryer, again when his name is called, and again
when he’s given an employment contract to sign, even though at that point he doesn’t need it
anymore. He’s still saying it when he gets his uniform and visor. He takes a break when he’s
working drive-thru, because the script isn’t “Welcome to McDonald’s, make sure to smile and
offer to shake hands first when you enter an interview.”
He stops reciting the article when he gets his first paycheck in the mail. That’s the same
day he meets Mops The Floors, bumps into him at the end of his shift and almost steps in his
mop water and exchanges a word or two. Then he’s at Target a week later, and Mops The Floors
is there, too, and they’re there together, somehow.
“This is cute,” Mops The Floors says. “Expensive, though.”
“It doesn’t really need to be big.”
Target has a hundred thousand cheap chairs and beanbags and mini-TVs. Mops The
Floors stops at one that’s got red cushions and dust on the box. Sixty dollars. “This one’s big.
Two cushions, at least. That makes it not a chair. It rings up at the self-checkout as
Loveseat, Red $60.00. He makes sure to trash the receipt before wedging it in the back of the
“Did you say thanks?” she says a week later, sitting on Loveseat, Red $60.00 across from
a TV he got from a garage sale at a house across the mile road. “‘Cause he picked a good one.”
“I said thanks for coming with me.”
She just nods, because the buttons on the remote are more interesting—some kid taped
them down and labeled them for a parent with bad eyesight. All the labels say PRESS FOR
whatever, press for power or Fox News or louder volume. “When’s he gonna come check this
“I didn’t invite him.”
“You gotta invite him. Otherwise you’re an ass.”
“Why does that make me an ass?”
“Just tell him,” she says, peeling off the corner of the tape and then deciding against it,
“tell him, next time you see him at work, to come check this out.”
The next time he’s at work is January twenty-second and there isn’t any snow but it’s
can’t-see-out-your-windshield freezing, and he almost goes home early because driving home is
going to be a nightmare. That’s the real official reason. It’s not because the Mops The Floors
comes on duty at seven o’clock, and if he leaves at six-forty five, he’ll miss him.
Someone in the drive-thru orders forty-five burgers and he’s there until seven.
Mops The Floors claps him on the shoulder when he gets there. “How’s the loveseat?”
“It’s good.” He’s counting money, ending his shift. “Nice.”
“How’d it fit?”
Mops The Floors is putting on his nametag, the cheap plastic one every McDonald’s
employee gets and isn’t really fond of because of the way it catches the light exactly how cheap
plastic does. The name on Mops The Floors’ nametag is Kelly. “Can I come check your shed out
“After my shift?”
At midnight. “Yeah.”
The Honda’s headlights need to be replaced and he knows Kelly knows it, knows Kelly
knows he hasn’t had the money to replace them, especially since it isn’t even his car. Kelly’s a
good driver, or at least he’s good at following behind him across the mile road and into the
neighborhood where people obey city ordinances. They both pull into the backyard.
The door still has green flowers, even in dim Honda light.
“Dude,” Kelly says. “That’s so cute. It’s like a little house.”
Kelly says the green flowers on the door go really well with the color of the wood. Kelly
says the moist smell inside makes it part of nature, which is good, ‘cause they’re outside. Kelly
says the TV remote buttons are fucking hilarious and Kelly says the loveseat fits exactly the way
it should. Kelly says Fox News is bullshit and tears the stickers off the buttons and finds blackand-white horror movies on channel fifty-four. Kelly turns the volume up and says they could
totally sleep in the shed since there’s a door. Kelly kisses him at one forty-eight AM.
“Shit,” she says a month later, after the first real February freeze, knee-deep in snow and
yet still somehow tracking mud. “Raccoons, you think?”
“Are raccoons awake during the winter?”
“No idea.” She keeps tracing her hand over the hole in the shed wall, at the very back,
about a foot wide. “Maybe, like, beavers? They can eat wood, right? Or do they hibernate?“
Inside, the loveseat is more a loose association of stuffing and fabric than a place to sit.
The TV is fine, but the plug is chewed in half, and the remote is missing the channel buttons and
the button that turns on subtitles. She tracks mud on the floor and across the stuffing and pulls
the skeleton of the loveseat out of the mess.
“How much was this?” she says. “Sixty?”
“Go to Home Depot or something. Get a chair that beavers won’t fuck with.”
He doesn’t go to Home Depot. Online classes start in March, and he gives his visor and
cheap plastic nametag back to his manager, and the snow melts around the outside of the shed,
but he doesn’t go back there, not even to do homework and see what sunlight does to the smell of
saturated mold. He calls Kelly during the last week of March to tell him about the loveseat. Kelly
asks when his birthday is and what kind of chair he wants as a replacement.