I recently finished “On Writing” by Stephen King, his memoir on how he became a writer and his tips on how to become one yourself. In the book, he gives a prompt to write a short story that takes a traditional idea and flips the genders. I won't write much more about it, because it'll spoil the story you're about to read. I really enjoyed this exercise, and I hope you all find some enjoyment in it as well.

“Shovel” By Ethan Silvernail

James was only four years old when he met Penelope for the first time. He had just finished lunch and went out to the playground for recess. He was sitting in the sandpit when she came up to him. “Can I see your shovel?” James was a polite four year old and was always quick to share, especially on the playground. He handed the shovel over to Penelope. Penelope began to dig the sand with the shovel, moving piles of sand from one side to the other. “Could I borrow your bucket?” James figured there wasn’t any harm in it. He was supposed to share. What good is a bucket if you don’t have a shovel as well? So, he handed it over. “My name is Penelope. What’s yours?” “I’m James.” They continued to play in the sandbox until it was time to go back inside. Recess was over. While they were walking back inside, Penelope asked him how old he was. “I’m four,” James said. “I’m in kindergarten,” Penelope said with a smile.

The next day James went out to recess again. Sitting in the sandbox was Penelope, playing with his shovel. James went to sit beside her, and they played in the sandbox until recess was over again. They played like that every day, and when school was over and it was summertime their moms made playdates for them to continue playing. And when school was back in session they both made sure to meet up during recess and play in their sandpit. However, Penelope was older than James, and when she moved up to second grade, so did her lunchtime. The only time they had to play together was the small overlap between the end of James’s recess and the beginning of hers. But he made sure to wait for her, and if they only played together for a minute, it was the best minute of his day. They grew older and remained friends. When they both hit highschool, they decided to try going out. They had their troubles at first (their awkward first kiss is something James still cringes at to this day), but eventually they found their rhythm. Soon enough, highschool was over and they both went off to college. They decided to split up, as Penelope was going to some small school in the East while James stayed in state. They didn’t stop thinking of each other though. When Penelope graduated and returned home, James proposed, and Penelope was happy to accept. When he had reminisced on Penelope, he remembered the fun times they had in highschool. The late nights driving around, their philosophical conversations, the fun glances they exchanged on their ways to class. . . But now it wasn’t the same. James didn’t have to live with her then. Now he did. What seemed to him normal parts of being a teenager hadn’t left Penelope. “I understand her complaining about her mom having these high expectations for her in highschool, but once you're an adult I’d think you’d have come to terms with it by now,” James said to his friends. “Maybe it's because she’s around her family again for the first time in a while?” one of his friends said. “Maybe her mom really is that bad,” another said. “Eh, I’m sure she’ll get over it,” said another. “I dunno, I’m just glad that I can be there for her,” James said, ending the conversation.

When layoffs hit James’s company, and eventually James himself, Penelope began to get worse. The same complaints that she had thrown at her mother began to get thrown at him. James had never heard what Penelope said to her mother, just what she said to him. He always thought he was bearing the brunt of her nearly matricidal fury, but now he realized he was getting the abridged version. James was “just like her mother,” too cold and too delusional to understand what she was going through. He didn’t tell his friends this time. He knew how Penelope really was normally, and he didn’t want his friends getting the wrong idea about her. It was hard times, and that can bring out the worst in people. Penelope wasn’t perfect, so what? And even if she did hit him that one time, it wasn’t that big of a deal. She had been drinking and obviously wasn’t in control of her actions. As long as they could have their family that’s all that mattered. And have a family they did. Penelope got pregnant and nine months later they had a baby boy. He was named Stephen, after Penelope’s grandfather. After Stephen’s birth everything went back to normal. James got an even better job at a new company, and they both were able to focus on their son now. That was until Penelope started drinking again. They both had drunk throughout high school, like most teens do, but James never had as much as she did. He was always the designated driver. He thought it was fun to watch Penelope get drunk; she had seemed so happy. Now she didn’t seem so happy. The insults began again, but this time the insults were matched with hitting. James was nervous to see how his office buddies would react to his new bruises, and he was even more afraid to go back home at the end of the day. James gave Penelope an ultimatum, either go to an AA meeting or he and Stephen were leaving. Penelope pleaded, trying the charm she always had over James, but he wouldn’t budge. Now that he had someone to protect from her, he wasn’t playing games anymore. He filed for divorce, and eventually a restraining order as well. But what good was a piece of paper going to do. Penelope wanted her child back, and wasn’t taking no for an answer. James was always on guard; everywhere he went Penelope could be waiting to take Stephen back.

One night, while he was sleeping, James heard a crash in the bottom story of his house. He knew it was Penelope. He locked the door to his and Stephen’s room, and then pushed his bed up against the door to barricade it shut. He grabbed Stephen from the crib and ran into the inner bathroom, locking the door to it as well. He clutched Stephen tightly to his chest, sweat dripping off his brow. Then he heard the banging. Penelope was going to get through that door and to her baby no matter what. She began to scream. “GIVE HIM TO ME! HE’S MY SON!” James didn’t say anything back. Stephen woke up and began to cry. Thud after thud crashed against the bedroom door, until finally he heard it break. Penelope was a strong woman, and it was only a matter of time before the bathroom door broke next. James heard the bed scrape across the floor as Penelope pushed it aside. Then she began banging on the bathroom door. Now the thuds were much louder, and Stephen was crying much harder. James was shaking with fear, and nearly began to cry himself. He set Stephen down beside the bath to look for something to defend himself with. “It’ll be okay soon Stephen, mommy’s here” said Penelope between the thuds. But soon that sound was overcome with the sound of sirens. The police had been called by a neighbor who saw Penelope break the window. They broke down the door of James’s house, and rushed upstairs. They found Penelope sitting on his bed. “Don’t move! Keep your hands where I can see them.” They arrested Penelope, and she was sentenced to life in prison. They had found a knife sitting near the base of the bathroom door.

James moved far away from Penelope, and life went almost back to normal for him. He worked hard at a new job, and was able to spend plenty of time with Stephen, who still exclusively slept in Daddy’s room to “save him from the monsters.” Penelope was safely behind bars, where she could never hurt either of them again. At least, that's what James told himself when he was offered to speak at a conference held in his hometown. He hadn’t been back since the trial, and was absolutely terrified to go. But she was in prison; she couldn’t hurt him anymore. The company rented him a nice house to stay in, and offered a full week’s worth of daycare for Stephen while James was at the conference. Normally the talks went until five, but today they ended at three to allow some of the attendees to socialize. James wasn’t feeling it, and decided to head back to the house. It was his first time going home without Stephen in quite a while, and he was looking forward to some alone time. While he was unlocking the door to the house, he suddenly got a strange feeling on the back of his neck. He hadn’t felt this in a long time. He felt Penelope. He didn’t know what it was, more of an intuition than a sense, but he was almost certain of it. But he couldn’t really be certain. She was in prison, and she couldn’t hurt him from there. He went inside the house and put on a tea kettle. While it was boiling, he sat down in the living room and turned on the TV. A middle-aged woman wearing a white dress was on the screen. She was some sort of reporter for a local news station. A giant red banner filled the bottom quarter of the screen with the words “BREAKING NEWS!” The woman began to speak. “Early this morning three inmates from Mabel Bassett Women’s Correctional Center escaped, killing a guard in the process. Two of the convicts were quickly apprehended and reincarcerated, but one inmate still remains at large.” James knew it was her. He knew it as soon as he had gotten that feeling, but now it had to be true. James got up to lock the door to the house. Then he realized what he had sensed earlier, or, rather, what he had smelled. It was her perfume. Penelope had always insisted on wearing the same perfume every day, even if they weren’t even leaving the house. James grabbed a knife from the kitchen and went into the bedroom, the most central room in the house. Maybe his brain was playing tricks on him, but these were too many coincidences for it to be anything but her. He kept on thinking. What should I do about Stephen? He couldn’t just leave him at the daycare, but he was in no position to leave the house now. Suddenly James heard a knock at the door. He didn’t move, staying still and quiet, pretending he wasn’t home. “Hello? Is anyone home?” James barely heard the voice, but he recognized it. She was just outside the door, and she was waiting for him to answer it. How did she find me? The conference speakers had been public knowledge, but the house he was staying in wasn’t. If I wait long enough she’ll think I’m not home. The kettle began to whistle. James had forgotten about the tea, and Penelope now knew James was inside. There were many windows in this house, but none in the bedroom. James had a pretty good layout of the house from his time there, so if he heard any crashes he should be able to guess where she was entering from. But he didn’t hear any crashes. It was very quiet for a few minutes as James waited. Maybe she left anyways? It wasn’t that unreasonable of a thought. Maybe she figured he had left the tea on by mistake, or she didn’t hear it in the first place. Then the knocking began. She was at the bedroom door. It wasn’t like it was on that night. She wasn’t trying to bust it down, she was just knocking. “Please let me in, it's been so long since I’ve been able to see you.” James was silent, but clutched the knife tightly. How had she been able to get inside? He was certain he had locked the door. He began to hear a sound at the bedroom door. Penelope was fumbling with something metallic, but James wasn’t sure what. Then he heard the sound of the lock unlatching. James rushed for the door, using the weight of his body to force it shut. Penelope was pushing hard the other way, and James soon began to lose ground. I can’t let her get in. But she was getting in, inch by inch. James knew his only chance was to take a stand, so he jumped away from the door. Since James was no longer there, Penelope was easily able to get in. Too easily, as she fell down with her weight as soon as the door gave way. James stared at Penelope laying on the floor. A darkness was pooling around her body. Is that blood? James was right, she had stabbed herself in the fall, but that didn’t stop her from standing up just the same. Penelope wouldn’t stop. James saw her take the bloody shiv from her stomach and ready it to stab him. James had never been in a knife fight before and had no idea where to begin. She stepped closer to him. His knife was longer, but he wouldn’t be able to get at her without getting stabbed himself. James skirted along the side of the bed, angling it between Penelope and himself. There was enough room around the bed for James to always be on the other side of her. If she went right, he could go left. If she went left, he could go right. Hopefully that could buy him enough time for the blood loss to overtake her. What James didn’t expect was for Penelope to go over the bed. She jumped on top of it and rushed towards him. In a flash she was almost on top of him. James thrust his knife up into her, closing his eyes while he did so. It went in, and Penelope fell backwards on the bed, dropping her shiv off the side. James followed, leaning over her while thrusting the knife deeper into her stomach, worsening her already bloodied wound. She flailed at him, but the worst she could now do was scratch. In a few moments she was dead. James laid beside her bloodied corpse in the bed. He was exhausted. After nearly falling asleep, he got up to call 911 and tell them what had happened. Then he went to the bathroom to clean the blood off of himself. The police arrived to question him and take away Penelope’s body. They identified her as the final escaped inmate, and no charges were brought against James. After what seemed like hours, the police finally left. James felt a relief he hadn’t felt in a long time, he no longer had to worry about Penelope being out there somewhere, wanting to harm him and Stephen. He was free. He almost began to smile, but then was hit with terrible grief. When they were both kids back at that playground, they really liked each other. James still remembers the first time he said he loved her, back in highschool. He meant it too. They had been married, they’d had a life together, they’d even made a life together. And now he’d just killed her. James left the house to go get Stephen. He missed him so much. When he finally arrived at the daycare, he hugged Stephen so tightly he heard the little boy’s back pop, but Stephen was excited to see his dad too. “How was your day, daddy?” James sat and stared at his son for a moment. “It wasn’t anything special. How was yours?”