Short Story: What Happened to Us by Dan Chaon

What Happened to Us by Dan Chaon

The Spring 2014 edition of Ploughshares Literary Magazine contains this gem: A story about Rusty Bickers and the family that takes him in as a foster child. Joseph is the narrator and is eight years old. Rusty is fourteen. We know little of what happened to Rusty before he arrived into Joseph’s home except a few hushed conversations between Joseph’s parents, where we hear that ‘unspeakable things… happened to Rusty in his family home,’ and Joseph’s mother’s comment, ‘How long does it take to get over something like that?’


Rusty does talk to Joseph about his past at one stage:

‘Do you know what would happen if a kid like you got sent to a foster home?’

‘No.’ And Joseph breathed as Rusty’s eyes held him, without blinking.

‘They do really nasty things to the little kids. And if you try to scream, they put your own dirty underwear in your mouth, to gag you.’



Although Rusty’s past was disturbing, we follow his summer in Joseph’s home with a little optimism. We are lulled into the meandering narrative, peppered with humour, especially when Joseph’s father dances with his prosthetic arm.

‘After he got drunk, Joseph’s father would go around touching the ladies on the back of the neck with his hook, surprising them, making them scream. Sometimes he would take off his arm and dance with it.’


But this humour is followed by raw understated emotion:

‘Sometimes he would cry about Billy Merritt.’

The story contains some great descriptive passages.

‘Rusty…watching Joseph’s family as they ate their breakfast, his shaggy hair hanging lank about his face, his long arms dangling from slumped shoulders, his eyes like someone who had been marched a long way to a place where they were going to shoot him.’


The story gets progressively more disturbing as the summer passes and we sense that Rusty is a deeply troubled teenager.

‘You could kill the little kids first, while they were sleeping. It wouldn’t hurt them, you know. It wouldn’t mattter. And then, with the gunshots, your mom and dad would come running in, and you could shoot them when they came through the door…’


An excellent and enjoyable story.

Dan Chaon is the author of the short-story collection Stay Awake, the novel Await Your Reply and other works of fiction. He lives in Cleveland.

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