Fiction Winning Entries
Ellie closed the screen door behind her, taking care not to let it slam. She remembered too late that slammed doors were traditionally part and parcel of domestic quarrels, but she hadn’t enough experience of them that the door-slamming came naturally. This was, in fact, the first one.
She stood quite still for a moment, taking in the full view of the beach and the cool waves lapping gently at the sand. She and Jordan had come to Florida so that he could have a quiet place to work on the new novel, but now he said he couldn’t concentrate here and wanted to go home. She accused him of not really wanting to work. That was all there was to it; she didn’t mean it, and it was stupid to quarrel over it.
But no, Ellie told herself, that wasn’t quite all there was to it. “Home” was Jordan’s big, rambling old house in Connecticut, the one he was born in, in the town he’d gone to school in and come back in triumph to after his first successful book, the town that made Jordan what he was, but which was the part of Jordan that Ellie could never share because it was over before she met him.
Besides, Ellie hated the long, cold New England winters. That was why they had bought the beach house. It was the same cottage Ellie’s parents had rented during her school vacations or whenever her gypsy-spirited father found the money to go there out of season. When Ellie and Jordan were married, the cottage happened to come up for sale, and Jordan bought it for her as a wedding present. The little girl had loved it long ago, but today, from her grown-up perspective, it looked different. She thought for the first time that it might have been a mistake to buy it; it was like trying to buy 1983.
In her bare feet, Ellie padded down the wooden steps. It was very still out. The sun had set, leaving a cool gray cast over everything. Behind the cottage, only an occasional car swished past on Beach Road. The neighbor’s terrier was watch-dogging a few doors away; now and then his sharp bark pierced the still evening, then faded into a low growl and disappeared.
The beach was gray, like the sky, and damp. She started toward it. Her feet crunched on the dry palmetto in the yard and squeaked as she waded through the powdery sand above the water line, then went slip-slap on the wet beach.
She crouched down at the water’s edge. A mound of sand was all that remained of yesterday’s castle. A wave came in and pushed sand over her toes and wet the bottom of her shorts. She bent her head until the strands of bright hair almost touched the sand and studied the patterns made on it by the waves. She dug into the cool sand with her hand, but the tiny butterfly clams that lived there had dug themselves in for the night and would not come out to play again.
She raised her head and squinted up to the far end of the beach. She could see all the way to the new marina, and she knew that the beach stretched even farther than that. Maybe she’d take a walk….
A walk? No, Ellie knew the beach was fenced in now and marred by “No Trespassing” signs. It was no longer clean and free. Oh, why did beautiful things have to change! And why couldn’t one do the same things over again, relive happiness? Like the day she met Jordan.
It had been only two years before, in Italy, in the summer. He had seen her first, on a train platform in Milan, looking very lost and struggling with her Italian and a weary guard.
“Per favore, cuando—um, when is the train to Venice, please?”
“The train to Venice is departed, signorina.”
“Oh. Well, where does that one go?”
“That train do not go to
Venice, signorina. That train go to Bologna. The next train for Venice—”
Ellie waved her Eurailpass at him and was halfway down the platform before Jordan caught up with her and suggested that, if it really didn’t matter, and just for laughs, why not take the train to Florence?
From the first moment, it had been laughter and carnival and the Uffizi on Sunday afternoons. They fell in love, but it was only when they were faced with leaving Italy that they decided to get married—if only to have a reason to go home. She hasn’t wanted to leave, to leave behind everything that had happened, but Jordan told her: “Remember. Remember—and then move on.”
Well, she wouldn’t take that walk. Maybe next year she would. She’d go even farther than she had this time, past the Siesta Motel’s swimming pool and the coconut palms in front of the trailer court, down the length of empty white beach to the south.
“Elizabeth!” Her mother’s voice came from inside the cottage. “Are you out there?”
“Yes, Mummy.” She drew a circle in the sand with her toe.
But things wouldn’t be the same next year. They never were. Maybe there wouldn’t even be a next year. She felt very sad. She squeezed her eyes together until a tear forced itself out and sat on her cheek. That made her feel better.
Poor Jordan. Here she was, denying him his past and his memories, but clinging to her own. Not that he begrudged them to her; he knew it was important for her to remember. But how important, really? She was so far behind Jordan in so many ways, and not just because he was older. She was only now beginning to see what he had known all along, that there really was more between them than laughter and carnival balloons. Perhaps trying to keep them, like the magic of their first love, was like trying to keep the beach as it had once been. How could the child of those days have imagined the wonders that lay ahead? But how could the woman of today think there might not be still more to come?
There was a row of rotting piles across their beach. Ellie ran to the lowest and scrambled up. Days ago, she had begun piling wet sand on the rough wood and smoothing it off, so there was now a soft pillow of white sand on top of each stump of palm tree. The sand felt good on her bare feet, but she had to hold out her arms to keep her balance. The last pile was as tall as she was, and there was no way to get off it except to turn back the way she’d come—or jump off.
She stood on the last pile and looked out to sea. She imagined she could see the edge of the sun on the horizon, but it was just a glow of light. She imagined she was a gull, and spread her wings for flight. She would fly, far away over the soft waves—all the way to the sun…!
She jumped. She hit the beach
with a thud that knocked the breath out of her. She crouched on the sand
for a moment and, behind her, heard the screen door open.
“What are you doing?”
Jordan smiled then, and she
knew the quarrel was over. “That’s a little girl’s answer.”
Good-bye, sand. Good-bye, ocean. Time to move on.
DO-GOODERS GOTTA EAT TOO
by Richard Key Dothan AL
It was the holiday season again, which meant I had to take a wheelbarrow out to the mailbox to bring back all the catalogs. There, on top, was one from Victoria’s Revelation. The model on the cover was wearing a red Santa hat and not much else, so I put her between the Land’s End and Orvis catalogs to keep her warm. Mixed in with the mail-order floppies were donation requests from various charitable organizations, some that we’ve never given to. Others we had given to very recently, and they were hoping we didn’t remember.
Like most folks, I believe in recycling. What this means for me is, I throw most of my mail unopened into the recycle bin. On Friday morning, the recycle truck comes through; they pick out the unopened mail and put it back in my mailbox. Then I do my part all over again. Together we can save the planet.
In this batch of mail, though, was a request from a mission society for a donation. I was about to recycle it along with all the other requests for money. (I know, it sounds like I’m heartless, but are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?) Well, this piece of mail contained, in addition to an appeal letter from the founder, the gospel of Luke in booklet form. The gospel that contains the good Samaritan parable. That Luke. I aimed it at the garbage can, but it wouldn’t go in. It takes a certain amount of crassness to trash a Bible, even part of it. It’s the way I was raised.
I decided on the spot that I could put a twenty dollar bill along with this gospel booklet and a small note of encouragement into a long white envelope. By keeping it in the glove compartment of the car, I would be ready the next time I encountered a needy family camped out on a street corner waving their unreadable sign. You’ve seen those signs—the raggedy rectangles of brown cardboard with illegible and poorly-worded entreaties for assistance. This way I wouldn’t have to fumble with my wallet to see if I had a five to throw out the window. No wrangling with my conscience. No straining to avoid eye contact as I crossed the street on the other side. I could almost feel my tiny Grinch heart growing.
Since I was now prepared for good works, of course, no opportunity presented itself. That is, until my wife Amy and I were on a road trip to Texas. Outside of Houston we were in the middle of several traffic lanes stopped at a red light when a shabbily dressed man wandered through the line with the requisite cardboard sign. Neatly printed in block letters: Homeless Hungry Help. I had to commend him for his legibility and succinctness, not to mention the alliteration.
“Could you open the glove box and hand me that long white envelope?” I asked Amy. St. Francis of Assisi couldn’t have been faster on the draw. I lowered the window and handed the man the envelope. “Bless you,” he responded as the light turned green. I told Amy how I happened to have a gift ready, and she was completely supportive of my beneficence.
“How much heroin can you get for twenty bucks these days?” she asked.
* * *
About a week after our return home, we decided to check out a new barbeque joint in another community, Papa Duke’s Barbeque and Karaoke Bar. Since moving to the South, we have become connoisseurs of pork barbeque and like to stay up on the local BBQ scene. It was a fair distance up the highway, so we entertained ourselves with FM radio. This particular station was playing “the greatest hits of all time.” Unfortunately, the DJ put on this mournful tune from 159 AD, which, quite frankly, had no rhythm. I’ve never been fond of second-century music, I don’t care how many Grammys something’s won.
As we pulled off the road at the restaurant, our first impression was ‘A’ for physical authenticity: smokehouse in back, dark red siding, and ample asphalt parking spaces. The only thing out of order was the karaoke thing, and that, it turns out, is only on the weekends. Smoke was billowing out of the smokestack, and the smell that greeted us was almost worth the trip. The décor was by the book—that is, nothing fancy, nothing that hinted that the owners knew more about decorating than they did about food. And the minimalist approach included Styrofoam plates, plastic forks, and spongy white sliced bread. That’s how you know the ribs must be a real prize winner, that and the big crowd on a Tuesday evening. Only a few sides were offered, principally coleslaw and potato salad. What more do you need?
After the meal, the soiled napkins and thick burgundy stains on our cheeks attested to our hearty approval, and we ceremoniously awarded the place one Michelin pig.
“That was well worth the trip, Mr. Roberts,” Amy declared approvingly.
I agreed and commented that the low price was another point in its favor.
At the cash register, there was no sign asking us to like them on Facebook, so we liked them in person, the old-fashioned way. A nice red-haired lady took my ticket and announced, “That’ll be eighteen-fifty.”
When I handed her my Visa card, she said, “Sorry, hon. We don’t take no cards and no out of town checks.” Somehow I missed that notice on the way in. Cash only! So much for the new economy.
I had exactly one George Washington in my wallet. Amy left all her money in another purse. I thought maybe I could scrounge up enough change in the recesses of the car to make a respectable down payment. “I’ll be right back.”
Amy stayed inside as collateral. I found a few quarters in the console between the front seats, but little else. I checked the glove compartment just in case there might be something there I could barter with. To my amazement, I found the long white envelope with the twenty dollar bill and the gospel of Luke---the one where Jesus feeds the five thousand. That Luke. After restoring our credit and good name, we climbed back in the car and left relieved.
A miracle? A coincidence? It took a while to fit the pieces together, but I eventually did. And I still sometimes think of that homeless man in Houston who received the other long white envelope I kept in the glove compartment—the one with my car registration and tag receipt. That envelope. So, my foray into altruism went a little off course, but in the end, two empty stomachs were filled, and isn’t that what charity is all about?
UNDER A PINK UMBRELLA
By Lisa Pinkowski
It rained so much and for so long that Jayne and Julie were afraid it would never stop. It rained so much that their mother wrote a poem about it, and she recited it to them as she inched the old Chevy station wagon through the flooded streets:
“I started crying on Saturday night,
and the Lord whom I love heard me cry.
With thunder he rumbled and rattled so loud
that His anger tore open the sky,
and the rain came down, and the sun hid its face,
and the world was a dreary and drab old place.
And it hasn’t let up for a week and a day,
since I started crying and the Lord heard me pray.”
She was hunched over the steering wheel, clutching it with both hands and squinting to see the road through the fogged-up glass. She was still crying. And it was still raining.
Jayne didn’t doubt her mother believed every word of the poem she’d written. There were few coincidences in her world—unless she declared something to be one. Her mother had dismissed as coincidence the fact that Jayne had prayed for a week for God to make her little sister stop stealing her crayons, and then Julie got bit by a spider hiding in that very box.
“Stop being silly!” their mother had said. “God isn’t your personal hit man. He probably put that spider there to bite you for not sharing. You’re very selfish, Jayne, and nobody loves a selfish girl. Remember that!”
However, it was not a coincidence that their mother had been crying for a week and that God had made it rain for a week. After all, it had started raining at the exact moment she’d started crying—the exact moment she’d given up running after Mr. Sam’s fleeing car and fallen to her knees in the middle of the street, begging God for help. And it had been raining, without ceasing, ever since—just as she had been crying, without ceasing, ever since.
“See how much my God loves me,” she said. “Even if Mr. Sam doesn’t.”
She’d been claiming the rain as proof since around noon on the fourth day, telling Jayne and Julie that she knew God’s empathy would be as continuous as her sorrow and in equally devastating Biblical proportion.
By day seven, their mother was convinced that God had sent Hurricane Agnes up the coast and stalled it over their little northeastern town not only to avenge Mr. Sam’s betrayal but also a few other injustices she’d recently endured. She offered as proof the fact that Mr. Sam’s house and businesses and the bank where he kept his money were now floating in ten feet of water. The dress factory from which she’d been laid off had not only flooded, it had caught fire as well. And as for the judge who thought she could raise two children on a pittance of child support … well, his fancy riverside home had been completely washed away.
When Jayne asked why God didn’t just put Mr. Sam and his wife under ten feet of water instead of drowning everyone in town, her mother’s hand shot out like a jack-in-the-box and slapped her across the mouth.
“You had better mind your tongue,” she said, giving Jayne the dreaded I’m-so-disappointed-in-you look. “No man is ever going to marry you if you don’t learn to keep that mouth shut.”
Of course, that was just one of an every-growing list of reasons why no man was ever going to marry Jayne—not unless she made some big changes in herself in a big hurry. In fact, as her mother warned at least once a week, it might already be too late. At the ripe age of twelve, Jayne might already have doomed herself to spinsterhood.
The slap had made Jayne bite her lip. She ran her tongue over the spot and tasted blood. She didn’t cry, but Julie did.
“Mommy, are we going to drown?” she bawled from the back seat. “Don’t let God drown me!”
“Stop being silly! God isn’t drowning anyone,” their mother said. “Although I wish he’d drown me! Oh, Sam how could you?” she wailed, stopping the car in the middle of Madison Street and draping herself over the steering wheel.
The driver of the car behind them blew his horn and maneuvered around them, sending a wave of water cascading over their car. He shook his fist as he went by. Jayne found a McDonald’s napkin in the glove box and handed it to her mother, so she could blow her nose.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” she said, reaching over and squeezing Jayne’s hand. “I just don’t want you to end up like me. The world isn’t kind to women like us, baby. We love too much. We give too much. That’s what we are—givers in world full of takers. We’ll always be cheated out of our fair share of happiness. Cheated! That’s what I want on my gravestone: Here lies Isabelle Beckett. She was cheated.”
“Mommy, are you going to die?” Julie cried. “I don’t want you to die!”
“Stop being silly! Nobody’s dying,” their mother said.
Jayne looked out the window at the rain and tried to understand how she could be both too selfish and too generous. And if being one or the other was enough to render someone unlovable and unmarriable, what horrible fate awaited a girl who somehow managed to be both things at once? It seemed everyone was always telling her she was too something. She was either too loud or too quiet, too silly or too serious, too fearful or too bold. What if she never found the middle? What if she never figured out how to be just enough, how to be just right?
Mr. Sam once told her she was too smart and too pretty for her own good—just like her mother. He’d been laughing when he said it, but he’d also been shaking his head. Her father had said the same thing. And now he was marrying a woman who was neither, a woman who yelled at him all the time, a woman he had chosen instead of his too-smart and too-pretty daughter Jayne.
Her parents thought she’d been asleep that night, but she’d been listening at the top of the stairs—listening to her mother forbid her father from taking her and Julie anywhere near that woman ever again.
“It’s time to prove you love your daughters, Jack,” she’d said. “Time to choose between your beautiful little girls and that cheap whore.”
Her father hadn’t said a word. He’d simply slammed the door and driven off. And they had not seen him once in the three months since.
It took her mother longer than usual to get across town in the storm. Even though they were still well above the flooding river, the relentless rain had most of the streets ankle-deep with water. Even scarier were the great, gaping sinkholes that were opening up all over town. Their neighbor’s swimming pool had simply disappeared. One minute it was there, and the next it was just a big hole in the middle of the yard. Two streets over a garage had been swallowed up in one gulp, along with the car inside it.
Jayne had overheard the neighborhood men talking about it as they went house-to-house checking foundations and basements for cracks. They were worried about the flooding in the coal mines which tunneled under the entire region like an intricate ant farm. She’d heard one man say that he wouldn’t be surprised if the whole darn valley collapsed at any minute. And so she’d started walking as softly as she could—holding her breath as she tested the ground with each step. Her mother had tried to send her down to the basement for a jar of peaches, but Jayne swore to God and all the Saints that she would never go down there again—not even for a million and one dollars.
“Oh stop being silly,” her mother had said, as she stomped down the stairs to get the peaches herself.
They finally made it to North Street, and their mother parked the car in the grass at the Grotto of Our Lady of Fatima. She handed Jayne and Julie each a bubble umbrella and a thermos of coffee to carry. Jayne’s umbrella was bright pink and Julie’s was yellow. When she looked at Julie through the two pieces of colored plastic, Julie’s face was bright orange—which made Jayne point and laugh, which made Julie kick her.
“Knock it off, Jayne” their mother said, juggling a big box of sandwiches and her own umbrella. She stepped between the girls, as they carried lunch down the hill toward the river.
Jayne’s big sister Janice and her husband were with a group of volunteers piling sandbags around the county courthouse to protect it from the rising Susquehanna. The river appeared to be winning the battle. They found Janice standing knee deep in the swirling muddy water on the river side of the makeshift dam. She was cold, tired and hungry, but she only took two bites of a bologna sandwich and a long slug of coffee before stepping back into the water to pass more sandbags. They made their way down the line of volunteers, her mother handing out cold sandwiches while Jayne and Julie delivered sips of warmth from the communal thermoses.
“Hey lady, get those kids out of here!” a police officer shouted at their mother.
She sent Jayne and Julie up the hill to wait for her at the grotto. Just as they reached the top, they heard shouting behind them and turned to see everyone running for the hillside. The water was rising fast, surging over the riverbank in a big wave. The wall of sandbags toppled, and water swirled in around the Courthouse. Jayne saw another big wave rolling down the river toward them. The bridge to Kingston crumbled and collapsed, sending muddy water and chunks of concrete high into the air. She watched cars and trees rush by and a whole house and then a bunch of caskets. There were caskets floating down the river!
Seen through the plastic of Jayne’s umbrella, everything was painted pink—the raging river, the stone Courthouse, the broken bridge, the bobbing caskets, the gathering of defeated volunteers. None of it looked real, but she knew it was, and that made her cry. She took Julie’s hand and led her to the grotto. They kneeled on the steps in front of the life-sized statue of the Blessed Mother.
“We need to pray,” she told Julie.
“What should we pray?”
But Jayne wasn’t sure what to pray when it came to floods and cave-ins and coal mines and brokenhearted mothers. All she prayed about were spelling tests and stolen crayons and seeing her father again. If there was an official prayer for a time like this, she didn’t know what it was. She told Julie they should just say the Hail Mary and the Our Father and then ask God to stop the rain. They said each prayer three times because her friend Irene said that if you prayed a prayer three times it was sure to be heard by either God or Jesus or the Holy Ghost, and one of them would answer. She usually only said her nightly prayers twice because she didn’t want to summon any ghosts—holy or otherwise. But this was important, and it was still daylight, so they prayed three times. Then they sat down on the wet steps and tucked their knees up under their bubble umbrellas. They ate bologna sandwiches at the Virgin’s feet and waited for their mother.
“Hey! Look, we did it!” Julie yelled, pointing at the puddle on the sidewalk.
The surface was smooth as glass. It had stopped raining.
How Joe Finally Quit Smoking
by C. Gordon Smith
C. Gordon Smith
Joe was really hooked. He was up to three packs a day and on his way to four. When he awoke in the morning, he grabbed a smoke before he reached for his slippers. Then he coughed for several minutes. At night, the last breath he drew before his eyes closed in sleep was one filled with tars and nicotine.
Joe had no other vices that ruled his life so dramatically. His drinking was limited to an occasional beer. He did not do binge eating. As far as women were concerned, he was a loner.
He was a very lucky man, as he reminded himself every day. It could have been so much worse. He had served with valor in Afghanistan until he stepped on a mine. Having lost one arm and part of a leg, he spent many days in a drug-induced sleep before awaking and starting rehab. The narcotics had been strong and, for many other soldiers, potentially habit-forming, but Joe had never yielded to their mind-altering influence.
He fought off every shackle except nicotine.
His smoking habit became stronger and in control of too much of his life, and of his pocketbook. But wasn’t it better to chain-smoke than to stick a needle into one’s arm, or to pop pills? Smoking also gave him a crutch during those long hours of wondering what civilian life held for a cripple.
After he got out of the service, he lived with his parents. They were not smokers, so when he felt the urge - which was more and more often - he went out on the porch where the blue haze could dissipate harmlessly without endangering anyone’s life - except his own.
Joe tried to quit. He really tried. Many times he sought the advice and companionship of friends who had shaken the filthy habit. He joined support groups. He even went to a “Smoke Stop” clinic where he sat on one side of a glass, smoking, and a counselor on the other side hit him with an electronic burning sensation by means of a wrist attachment every time he took a puff. It worked for a few days.
He finally admitted that his addiction was in total control. But he was alive, and, otherwise, well. Despite having an arm missing and limping on a damaged leg, he was getting to the point where his confidence was returning, and he could start looking for a job. But he admitted to himself that it would have to be a position where he could either work outside or go out for a smoke when the overpowering compulsion struck.
He walked a lot, trying to burn off excess energy and to give his mind and lungs a chance to air out.
On his walk one night, he decided to stop in at a neighborhood bar - something he did rarely - and lift a couple. A baseball game was showing on TV, and before he knew it, the “couple” had become four, then five. When he left the saloon, he was, to say the least, wobbly.
He wandered down a strange street, unable to get his bearings, trying to find his way back home. He did not realize that he was staggering around a “street closed” barrier until suddenly there was no street. He fell off a very high cliff with a 200-foot drop to fearsome boulders below. Fortunately, in his frantic scratching around, grabbing for anything to stop his fall, his one hand closed on a large tree root that stuck out of the exposed ground on the bluff wall. He was able to hold on. Not even Afghanistan had posed such danger.
He yelled, but to no avail. No one could possibly hear him on the abandoned street, long ago completely closed because of the cave-in.
After what seemed hours, he heard the engine of a car and realized that someone was deliberately driving up to the edge of the chasm, past the barrier.
Saved! He started to yell when he saw the headlights shining over his head, but then the loud blast of a rock concert reached his ears from the car radio. Must be a couple of teenagers parking here to neck, he thought. Still he struggled to be heard over the din, but it was hopeless. The kids had other things on their minds.
He hung there until his arm began to go to sleep. His fingers became numb. Thank goodness they were practically frozen around the large tree root.
And then there was a break. The concert’s cast left the stage. The attention of the restless crowd was directed to an onstage live commercial for - guess what - Old Smoke cigarettes.
Talk about adding insult to injury!
The adman started fairly quietly but increased his volume at the microphone until he was as overpowering as a cheerleader at a high school game.
“Old Smokes are smooth. They are relaxing. They give you more pleasure than a steak dinner or a cold drink.”
On and on. Joe could do nothing but listen, waiting for a break so that he could make his cries for help heard - if the car’s occupants could still hear.
But the audience was filling any silent gaps with senseless yells and whistles and rhythmic clapping.
The pitchman reached his highest fervor, trying to lead the audience, both present and out there in radio-land, to want a smoke so badly that they would just have to light up, or go out and buy a pack.
Joe now had two miseries: his hanging on the tree root above certain death, and his need for a cancer stick.
“You know you want one!” the con man shouted. “You know your life would be better and more fulfilled if you had an Old Smoke in your mouth right now. You can feel its softness, taste its richness, smell its aroma. You know you need one right now!”
The crowd was fully into his spiel. They screamed and clapped and cheered. Some were already filtering out to find a coffin nail.
Then came the climax. He held up a small sample pack. “If you really want one, right now, raise your hand!”
And that’s how Joe finally quit smoking.