Palo Alto Weekly 30th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Young Adult

The Third Wheel

By Caroline Bailey

About Caroline Bailey

I am a recent graduate of Palo Alto High School. I'm excited to start school at Princeton University in the fall, where I planning on majoring in English with a certificate in creative writing. My story "The Third Wheel" was inspired by the following quote from Yann Martel's "Life of Pi": "Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can." This quote, and the idea of Life and Death being in love, has been simmering in the back of my mind for some time. "The Third Wheel" finally came into fruition during a free write in Ms. Filppu's creative writing class at Paly, and I have truly enjoyed writing it.


Judge's comments

In this very funny and very serious story, the narrator has two friends, one woman named Life who encourages the narrator to get out more, and a guy named Death who is always early when they have a date. The narrator is torn between them but eventually makes a smart though obviously temporary choice. There is life on every page of this story.
-- Nancy Packer

Listen to the story read by the author, Caroline Bailey:

"You're getting out of this stuffy apartment," Life says. She's sitting on my bed, swinging her feet over the edge. "Tonight."

I face her from my bedroom doorway, fighting a smile at her optimistic insistence. Life and I became flat-mates two years ago, and though we've had the same argument about my social ineptitude every Friday night since, she has yet to give up on me.

"Definitely not," I tell her. "Go have fun on your date, Life. I'm not being your third wheel. Again."

"You're not the third wheel," Life insists. "Death likes it when you come with us."

I'm no expert on male psychology, but I'm pretty sure Life's longtime boyfriend, Death, would rather take her out alone. "I am too a third wheel," I tell Life. "There's you and your boyfriend, going on a date. And then there's me, with no romantic attachment, tagging along. That's the definition of a third wheel."

Life's bottom lip protrudes outwards while her eyes impersonate a small dog's. She's almost exactly my age, but she always seems younger. Maybe it's her overly expressive face, with its cute pouts and wide smiles and exasperated eye rolls. Maybe it's the way she wears her hair in two dark braids, which bounce against her back while she walks around our flat. "You," she says fiercely, "are too self-critical. It worries me."

I sigh. "I'm fine, Life. Really." Avoiding her gaze, I look at the shelf by my bedroom door, its books aligned in alphabetical order by the authors' surnames. Maybe I'll group them by subject matter next. "When does he arrive, anyway?"

Life checks the clock by my bedside table. "He should be coming in ten minutes or so."

Three slow raps echo into the room, coming from the flat's front door.

Death is perpetually early. Consequently, Life is always caught off guard by his arrival. As she flops off the bed, I reach for the first book on my shelf, but she snatches my extended hand in her own.

"You're nuts if you think I'm letting you stay cooped up in this apartment all night, rearranging stationery supplies," she says, towing me through our flat. I open my mouth to protest at her characterization of Jane Austen and David Foster Wallace as "stationery supplies," but we've already reached the front door, and Life is pulling it open wider than strictly necessary.

Death is leaning against the frame. He smiles, showing his teeth, and Life drops my hand to jump into his arms. She looks incredibly short, dwarfed by Death's wide embrace. I take a step back, almost inadvertently.

My first encounter with Death has always haunted me, perhaps fostering my lingering discomfort. I met Life and Death on a rainy Sunday afternoon that smelled like lily flowers and damp ashes. I was standing on the sidewalk outside the town funeral home, having suddenly realized I was alone in the world, when Life walked up and rested a hand on my shoulder.

"Hey," she said, round eyes staring into mine. Death was standing a few steps behind her. "Are you alright? You should get out of the rain, it doesn't look like it's letting up any time soon."

After introducing herself, Life convinced me to step into a local café. We started talking and hit it off right away. She mentioned that she was looking for a new roommate, a position I would fill a few weeks later. Death, on the other hand, didn't give a great first impression. When Life went to buy coffees for the three of us, three minutes of awkward silence taught me that he never answers questions about himself. When I learned he was dating Life, my discomfort only increased -- he's older than her. By exactly how many years I don't know, but the gap bothers me. And the way he looked at me was eerie. His smile was too familiar, stretching his face open wide like I reminded him of an old friend. Like he's known me since the day I was born.

I once mentioned this peculiarity to Life. She nodded earnestly.

"I know, right?" she said. "I always feel like he understands me. Better than I understand myself."

After that, I didn't bother trying to explain.

"So," Life says, drawing me back to the present. The kiss of Death still lingering on her lips does nothing to dull her smile. "What should we do tonight?"

"I'm re-reading Hemingway's 'Men Without Women,'" I say. "You can do whatever you'd like."

Life shoots me a glare, an expression that hardly seems menacing on her round face. "You are coming out to dinner. It's already been decided."

"You know, you're right," I say. "Maybe I'll switch to 'A Moveable Feast' instead."

From his stance next to Life, Death laughs. "I didn't know you were a Hemingway fan."

"Death loves Hemingway," Life says. "You two can chat about it on the way to dinner."

"Actually," Death interjects, "the theater downtown is re-running old films, and there's a showing of 'A Farewell to Arms' in about an hour. We should go see that."

"See?" Life says, smiling broadly in my direction. "Now you can't object."

Ten minutes later, I'm sitting in the back of Death's car, which is sleek, black and expensive. Death speeds, which is probably the cause of his early arrivals, but at least he's a better driver than Life. She's notorious for taking unexpected turns, speeding up along scenic roads and slowing down while wandering through bad neighborhoods. At least Death is consistent and knows how to stick to his final destination.

On the way to the theater, Life's chatter fills the car, while Death listens attentively. The two are inseparable -- after years of watching them together I can hardly deny that. Wherever she moves his eyes follow, whenever he reaches out a hand she takes it in a heartbeat. I sit in the backseat, watching both of them and feeling awkward.

"I'm hungry," Life says, once we arrive at the theater. She turns to me. "Want anything?"

"No, thanks," I say. She nods. Life and Death walk hand in hand towards concessions. They look happy together, from a distance. When you can't tell that he's several years older, with an unsettling smile. Or that he utters one word for every 20 of Life's, yet always has the final say.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so hard on him. He loves Life, after all, and so do I, albeit in a different way. So what if he's flawed, right? Ernest Hemingway was flawed, too. He's still one of the finest prose writers in the English language.

Life would make fun of me for that analogy. "If you could pull your nose out of a book for long enough," she'd say, "you might actually smell fresh air once in awhile!" She's been trying to set me up with one of Death's friends for a year now, a proposition that I've adamantly refused. I like things that I have some semblance of control over. Boyfriends do not fit into that category.

Life returns, holding onto an array of junk food and Death's hand. "I got you M&M's," she says. "Your favorite."

"I thought I told you not to get me anything. How much do I owe you?"

"Oh, calm down. The candy's on me. You can't walk into a movie theater without sweets, you know. They'll kick you out."

The movie doesn't start for another 20 minutes, but we walk in and find seats in the empty theater anyway. I pour M&M's into my palm and start grouping them by color. There are a disproportionately high number of yellows in this particular bag.

"Oh, for goodness' sakes," Life says. "Just eat them."

As the theater's lights dim, nearly all the seats remain empty. Clearly showing a decades-old film about World War I was not a great business move on the theater's part. The movie starts, but like all film adaptations of books, the novel is far superior. I start to lose interest in the screening, turning my head towards Life and Death to gauge their reactions.

Strangely enough, both of them appear engrossed. The only thing exceeding their interest in the movie is their interest in one another, which conveys itself in subtler ways. His hand resting on the back of her neck. Her head nestled against his shoulder. Their feet overlapping on the floor below. When one moves, the other shifts to accommodate the change, adjustments so slight I almost miss them in the half-light of the theater. As time wears on, I realize I've spent more time studying this subdued dance than I have watching the movie. I try to look away now but can't, and a chill skates across my shoulders. I shiver in the darkness, sending my neat piles of M&M's skittering across the floor.

Eventually the movie ends. The theater's lights come on, freeing me from my paralysis. As the credits roll, I kick the fallen candy under my seat so Life won't see it. She stands up and stretches. "Shall we head home?"

"Yes," I say. "Please."

As we step into the car, Life lapses into a rare silence, staring whimsically out the window while she tugs on one of her braids. I wait for her to say something, but as the quiet drags on, I make a feeble attempt at conversation.

"So," I say. "What did you think of the film, Death?"

He shrugs. "It was alright. The movies made out of great novels are inevitably a bit of a disappointment, though."

"True," I say. "Hemingway's books are so incredibly good. Trying to replicate them seems like an enterprise destined for failure."

"You two are so depressing," Life pipes up suddenly, and I breathe a silent sigh of relief as her babbling, upbeat conversation carries away Death's attention like a leaf borne on a river's surface. I settle my face into the palm of my hand, noticing that my cheek is warmer than usual.

Once we get back to our flat, Life gives Death a goodbye kiss. I turn my back, trying to look busy and fighting a blush. When I hear them pull apart, I turn around cautiously.

"Bye," I say to Death.

Death raises his hand in a temporary farewell. He flashes a toothy grin that makes my stomach flutter restlessly, and I realize what I've always hated about his smile -- when it lights up his face, I can almost understand what Life sees in him.


Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.