Step by Step

Originally Written Short Story, April 2021 for NYC Midnight Short Story Competition

Emily hiked the hem of her skirt a little higher up on her thighs in a desperate attempt to get her other leg up and over the windowsill. Christ, she felt like a whale. Whoever designed the fire escape certainly never considered the girl trying to bail out the window in a pencil skirt and four-inch heels. There was another loud bang at the door to her apartment.

“Emily? I know you’re in there!”

Shit. She was so late, and more importantly, she didn’t have the past three month’s rent for her landlord. With an almighty effort, she pushed the window screen aside and hoisted her other leg up and over the ledge. A loud ripping sound rang through the room, and she gasped. As she turned around to survey the damage to her rear end, the doorknob to her apartment started to turn.

“Emily? I’m coming in…”

“No! Don’t come in! I’m…I’m naked!” Emily shrieked frantically.

“Well can you please get…un-naked then? I need to speak with you.”

Emily sighed. She wriggled her bum backwards and heaved herself back into the apartment.

“Okay…come in.”

Her landlord opened the door cautiously and peered around the door like he was entering hostile territory.

“Hi Mr. Randolph!” Emily said brightly.

He furrowed his brow in disbelief, looking from her to the window and back again.

“Uh…hello there. Your rent is three months overdue Emily. And… wait, were you seriously just trying to get out the window?”

She shook her head emphatically.

“No, no! Just getting some fresh air.”

“Right… look, I really need your rent payments by the end of the week.”

She nodded solemnly, shimmying her skirt down from up around her thighs.

“And Emily…you’re going to have to fix that window screen.”

Son of a bitch. It hadn’t been her skirt that had ripped. It was the window screen.

Emily sat idly on the train, watching the world whizz by outside. To say that her life was in shambles didn’t quite capture it. Despite her very best efforts, she hadn’t worked full-time in nearly a year, her bachelor apartment was a dump, she had put on twenty-three pounds, and her idea of a love life was the one night stand she had had with the busboy at their local bar last weekend. Her phone trilled cheerfully.


“Emily, it’s Skye. You wanna grab a drink tonight?”

“Wish I could girl, I’m on my way to dinner at my moms.”

“Garbage. You just don’t want to see your lover boy from last weekend.”

“Ugh. Do you know that the poor guy actually gave me some million-year-old book of poems from his grandmother? Like we were in the fucking Notebook or something.”

“He did not. I’m not sure if that’s the sweetest or the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Well, sweet or not, the guy had Cheeto crumbs in his bed. And he was sweaty. Really sweaty.”

“Say no more. I can live with Cheeto crumbs, but it’s a hard pass at sweaty.”

Emily laughed in spite of herself.

“Okay girl here comes my stop. You find us another bar, okay? I ain’t showing my face there ever again.”

“Emily sweetie! What’s kept you?”

She hardly recognized her mother, Margot; sharply dressed in fitted jeans, a crisp white tank top and gorgeous flowery pink kimono. For as long as she could remember, her mother had thought that any clothing that didn’t have a drawstring was high fashion. Love did weird things to people.

Margot had met her beaux John at bridge club six months ago and things had taken off quickly. Emily had to admit that he was very charming, in a Sean Connery sort of way, but it was still weird seeing her mother like this.

“Sorry Mom. Ran into a little snag on my way over.”

Margot clasped her arm tenderly as they started towards the kitchen.

“Oh, honey that’s okay; I’m just glad that you’re here. Let’s head outside, John and his son are barbecuing.”

“John’s son?”

“Yes, I mentioned that didn’t I? We thought it would be nice for you guys to meet.”

They made their way out the sliding doors and down the steps to the patio where John and a tall, thin man stood at the smoking barbecue.

“John, Dave, Emily is here!” Margot cheerfully announced.

As the two men turned to face them, Emily froze to the spot, her stomach dropping like a stone. There, standing on the back patio, holding her mother’s barbecue tongs, was the busboy from the bar.

As Dave turned to face her, his expression changed from a cheery smile to a look like Hannibal Lecter had just walked in for dinner. John jovially made his way over and gave Emily a hug.

“Emily! So glad to see you. This is my son Dave. Christ Dave, what’s wrong with you son,” John said, clapping his son roughly on the shoulder. “This is Emily, Margot’s daughter.”

Emily came to her senses first and extended her arm at ninety degrees.

“Nice to meet you Dave,” she said robotically, dully aware that her eyebrows were hovering somewhere up around her hairline.

“Uh, you too… it’s nice to meet you,” Dave said in high staccato.

The four of them stood in tense silence.

“So… shall we head inside? Steaks are done!” John said cheerily.

Emily was certain that at any moment someone was going to pop out from behind the couch with a camera and announce that they were on some reality show. Dave kept looking at her like some kind of panicked hostage trying to communicate something with his eyes, but she steadfastly avoided his gaze. Every time she caught a glimpse of him sitting at her mother’s dining room table, all she could picture was “The Night”. The dirty underwear in the corner of his bedroom, the questionable smell permeating throughout his apartment, the Cheeto crumbs. At least he seemed to be showing no obvious signs of perspiration tonight.

Part way through dinner, Dave excused himself and Emily seized the opportunity to casually follow him down the hall towards the washroom. As soon as the door opened, she placed her palm directly on his chest and pushed him back into the room, closing the door behind them. Dave yelped in surprise and looked genuinely scared.

“Okay, listen…there’s no need to say a word about what happened, alright? Let’s just forget the whole thing.”

Dave’s eyes were wide.

“Are you sure? If they’re going to be together, isn’t it bound to come out sooner or later?”

“Have you lost your mind? What would we tell them? That we got drunk off our asses and had a one-night stand? I don’t know about you, but that’s not typical dinner conversation for my mom and I, alright? We say nothing. Now let’s get back before they wonder what’s going on.”

Emily slipped out of the bathroom and closed the door behind her. As she came back into the kitchen, her mother had made her way over to stand behind John, with her arms around his

shoulders. Emily uneasily sat down, not liking the look of the scene. As Dave entered the room, still looking scared, John cleared his throat.

“So, you kids… we’re thrilled that you could both be here tonight, because Margot and I have some wonderful news to share.”

There was a pause for dramatic effect.

“We’re engaged!” Margot finally exclaimed, beaming with pride.

Dave looked from their parents to Emily with eyes the size of dinner plates.

“What?! So that makes us…”

“Shut up Dave! It doesn’t matter what that makes us…”

What was happening to her voice?

“But…but it’s wrong… isn’t that like… incest or something?”

“Why don’t I pour some more wine, anyone need a refill?” Margot asked weakly, making her way back over to the island and uncorking the nearest bottle she could lay her hands on.

“Incest? Would someone please enlighten me as to what the hell is going on here?” John asked, looking from Emily to Dave.

Dave looked like he was about to hyperventilate.

“Margot, Dad… you can’t get married. I’m sorry, but you just can’t.”

“Dave, can I please speak to you for a second…” Emily interrupted with clenched teeth, pushing her chair back roughly.

“Can’t get married?” John’s complexion was turning an interesting shade of puce. “Dave what in God’s name is wrong with you…”

But the words came spilling out of his mouth like word vomit before Emily could do anything about it.

“Emily-and-I slept-together-last-weekend.” Dave blurted out all in one breath.

Emily’s mouth gaped open like a fish as she looked at him in disbelief. John’s face had crumpled into an expression like he had just sucked a lemon.

“Son, you…you slept with your step-sister?”

Dave brought his hands to his head seemingly involuntarily.

“No! No! What’s wrong with you Dad! She’s not my, well…she wasn’t my…”

Margot’s eyes had widened to the point that her entire forehead had disappeared, and she was frozen in the “pour” position with a now empty bottle of wine in hand like she was having some sort of a stroke.

“Mom? Mom, are you okay? MOM, speak to me please, say something.”

“I think I forgot to take the cheesecake out of the freezer…” Margot said in a strangled voice.

“Wait so…do you mean to tell me, that you two are in some sort of relationship?” John stammered.

“NO,” barked Emily and Dave in panicked unison.

“Alright then,” John straightened his posture, “So, if it was just meaningless humping, then I don’t think we have a problem here.”

Emily winced; the man did not just use the word “humping”.

“If you’ll excuse me for a minute guys…I think I need some fresh air,” she said with as much dignity as she could muster, striding across the kitchen and out the front door.

The front door clicked open behind her, and she turned around to see Dave sheepishly step onto the front porch.

“I’m sorry about that…can I sit down?”

Emily sighed and loosely gestured to the step beside her.

“I’m not in love with you, you know. If that makes any of this better.” Dave said earnestly after a moment of silence. The words came as such a shock that Emily laughed out loud.

“That’s always nice to hear. Well, I’m not in love with you either. But I am sorry about all this. You’re a good guy, Dave. It’s not your fault that I’m such a disaster.”

She paused and then looked at him quizzically.

“So, if you’re not in love with me, then why on Earth did you give me some romantic old book of poems from your grandmother?”

Dave grinned.

“It’s not like it was an heirloom or something. It was just something I got stuck with in a box of trinkets that came from her house when she moved last year. What I actually wanted to give you was inside the book…did you even open it?”

Emily’s forehead creased in confusion, and she reached for her purse beside her. She hadn’t emptied her bag since last weekend, and if she remembered correctly, the book was still there. As she pulled out the worn paperback, and gently cracked it open, her mouth hung open. There sitting crisply inside the front cover, was five one-hundred-dollar bills.

“Why would you… but why?”

“I just felt bad for you, I guess. You were always talking about how you were so behind on your rent… and you always seemed to be so nice to other people. I just wanted to help you out a bit. I never actually meant for…what happened…to happen at all. And I sure as shit never thought you’d end up being my step-sister. But I’m not in love with you.” He reiterated holding up two fingers. “Scout’s honour.”

Emily shook her head with a rueful smile.

“I really can’t take this from you, you know.”

“Sure, you can. What are step-brother’s for!”

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