As most of our readers are writers themselves, you will understand the special satisfaction of having your work selected out of a field of dozens of other entries. The stories below represent the best entries that we received as a part of our 2013 Summer Short Fiction Contest. The theme itself was summer, and the winners were selected by Editor-in-Chief Matthew Guerruckey and Fiction Editor Pamela Langley.
We received many wonderful selections, but these three stood out for the way that they juggled emotion, sensation, and description. We were delighted to find, once the winners had been chosen and the blind entry restriction lifted, that all of our winners had never been previously published on our site. We are glad to have them here now.
Thank you to all who entered and supported the contest.
When You Die by Diane Pendleton: Grand Prize Winner
I am getting ready to go to the park on this beautiful, sunny and breezy summer day.
My daughter calls me to say, Mom, you know that large painting, the drawing you did with all the faces?
Yeah, the one in my room behind the door, I say.
That one, she says. I want that. I want that when you die. In fact, I want all your drawings when you die.
Okay, I say. You can have all the drawings and my writings. Rose has already claimed all the antiques.
That’s fine, she says. She can have those; I want the drawings and the “Monkey Flower” play that you wrote; but when you die.
Okay, I say.
At the park, I will sit on the grass in the sun, listen to music on my iPod, look out on the river, and pretend I am oblivious to everyone around me. I will sit with my knees slightly bent and my feet on the grass, my hands just tilted behind me. I will take in the scenery — my own movie with my own music.
Before I leave, I look at my silver strands in the mirror – actually, gray – but silver strands sound much prettier. My younger daughter is in college, I lost my job, and the man I adore is on hiatus. I wake up one morning and there is this crown of silver streaks. They must have sprouted in the night. It does not bother me much. After all, I am 53. — I lied; I do care.
I gather my writing tablet and pen to throw in a bag to take to the park. No food, no picnicking. My professor wrote in one of his books that he hates picnicking because of all the trouble of carrying things to and fro, and the trouble with ants and wasps. I have decided that I hate picnicking too.
On the way out, I notice my neighbor’s dog again; a little fluffy mutt of a dachshund mixed with something. It has fluffy hair but it is short and long and stumpy like a dachshund. The owner lets it out long enough for the dog to come to the right-of-way in front of my house, and the dog actually thinks it has the right to do its thing there then run back to its house. This time I catch it red-handed. No! I holler at the dog. Don’t you dare! You go shit in your own yard! Get out of here! It starts yapping at me because I yell just as it is preparing its deposits. A little brown helpless thing, barking and asserting that this is its territory and that I have no business telling it what to do. Get out of here! I yell again. Go shit in your own yard! Shoo! The owner comes out and pretends, as he always does, that the dog got loose and he shouts at the dog. Get back here! He shouts fiercely. He calls the dog’s name. I cannot discern what it is but it starts with an “M.” The dog ignores him, still yapping at me to get lost so it can do its stuff. The owner shouts at the dog again. Finally, he comes down to get M, picks it up, spanks it on the rump and holds it by the tail as he takes it back to the house, the dog dangling like a rat.
I finally get to the park and find a nice sunny spot on the grass by the river. It is a small mound, so I can sit comfortably and look down towards the river. I place my feet on the ground, shoes off, my knees slightly bent and hands slightly tilted behind me. I am listening to folk music and watching the river. It winds from the south; two tributaries with an island in the middle with deciduous trees and evergreen; guardians of the waterways. The two corridors become one at the fullness of the river in front of me. The usually calm and glassy river is repeatedly smudged with rushing rusty wave trails from power boats and jet skis.
I notice young couples and I smile; older couples and I smile; couples in their 40’s and 50’s, and I smile. There is a much older man holding tightly to his young prize, seemingly saturating her with kisses; a smile, pasted on the young girl’s face, of comfort and security and admiration and whatever else a 50-something-year-old man gives his young prize that is less than half his age. I do not smile at this couple; it grosses me out. I would feel the same if it were the other way around – woman to boy.
There are people with dogs; nice responsible owners with nice and well-behaved dogs. I like people like that. My neighbor with dog M is not one of them.
I write haikus that make no sense and make notes of some of the people around me. Three young boys about 12 or 13 years of age pass by me and my little mound and they stop. They look down at the river. I have my music blasting in my ears, so I cannot hear them, but they are motioning to each other, pointing down the slope. The boys are all taller than me, which means you, reader, can presume how short I am if I am comparing myself to 12- or 13-year-old boys. One of them finally lies down on the grass and another pushes him and he rolls to a stop at the bottom of the slope. — How fun! I think I did the same until I was 12. After that, I did not roll down the grass until my first daughter was born and I rolled with her. — The boy stands up and brushes himself off then catches up to his friends who left him behind.
I take time to take pictures of clover in ferns and daisies that keep whirling in the wind so it is hard to get a clear picture. I will send the pictures to my daughters in the East Coast so they can see an Oregon summer day. Then, I get ready to head home.
I come home and think about how the silence and peace of the river kept getting splintered with motor boats and jet skis. It was a real movie. I listen to Carole King who reaffirms my future goals not “so far away;” to change my current life situation for the better. I want to go “way over yonder” where there are no unruly neighbors who let dogs loose for blame and no motor boats or jet skis in the river. I throw my things on the floor and get a glass of water. I kick my shoes off and pull out the mini iPad I won in a survey to record my day’s consumption of food on my fitness pal app. I flick an icon to a movie site, and I sit and watch in the security and comfort of my loneliness in my lonely home, trying to pretend I am not lonely at all.
I wonder what it will be like when I die.
Diane Pendleton is the author’s pseudonym. She studied English Literature/Writing with a concentration in Creative Writing at Marylhurst University, Marylhurst, Oregon.
Clementine by Kyle Coolidge (runner-up)
I peel a fourth clementine as I walk down the street. My bag is full of them and I’ve already given seven of them away to seven strange women. Like the clementines, the women were different sizes and had different skin and probably were varying degrees of juicy on the inside. Many are eager to take my free fruit, but I’m on a quest to find the girl I dreamt of, induced by mimosas and dreamt with a smile dripping from my face. She’ll never know what hit her.
This fourth clementine is sweeter than all the others. An orange light stops me at the crosswalk. Cars stream past in heat and I see glimpses of a sunlit face on the other side and I wish I had saved this fourth clementine for her. But how was I to know? How could I have foretold that through this speckled flaking skin would lie the sweetest little sections– so tight– and to the eye more orange than all the Giants fans’ jerseys in San Francisco? I could never have known. I’m as clueless as a worker down south at the orchard, recently single and laughing it off, peeing at the base of a tree in one of the hundreds of structured rows; grinning as he imagines his pee getting sucked up into the tree and spreading through the branches and tainting the fruit with the smoothest skin of all.
She’s gone when the light turns green. But its okay, I’m not in the habit of crossing a street and saying to a girl, ‘I don’t care if you may or may not have leperosy because I spent the last thirty seconds convincing myself that you have a beautiful soul and a rosy little baby maker.’ I’m just handing out clementines. The anonymous peels are donated to the trash and I’d like to believe they are broken down and reprocessed and made into card stock for fruity love letters. Then I could write to the girl in my dream. I reach into my bag, hoping the next clementine is sweeter and juicier, and perfect. But first, I take it and I hold it and I learn to love her skin, every inch.
A native of rural Wisconsin, Kyle Coolidge is a recent graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he studied Classical Piano Performance with Yoshikazu Nagai. He attended the Interlochen Arts Academy, graduating in 2009 with highest artistic honors. Kyle has performed as soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, LaCrosse Symphony Orchestra, the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra, and twice with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He has performed in masterclasses with many world-renowned teachers, such as Andre Watts, Olga Kern, Misha Dichter, and John Perry.
Heat by Paige LaCour (third place)
The party began on a sticky, bright July day. It was the summer before I began high school and I was 14 years old. Two of my parent’s old hippie friends were a truck-driving couple who held an annual, three-day long festival in their backyard so their buddies could come in from all over the country to enjoy a vacation. They lived in the country on about five acres of land so there weren’t any complaints when vans, trailers, campers and RV’s pulled up for a weekend. The couple had designated cooks to help at each mealtime and since there were typically at least 100 or so men, women and children roaming around at all times, gender-specific Port-A-Potties adorned the corners of the yard behind large makeshift wooden signs. Everywhere you turned you would see people playing horseshoes, making or listening to music, dancing, talking, smoking, eating and drinking. The seclusion provided a perfect space for the grown-ups to relax and visit with one another while the younger ones would play in the nearby creek or make use of the water and yard games that that the adults brought along to keep their children busy. It was kind of an unspoken rule that if we didn’t bother them then they wouldn’t bother us so we kids took advantage of our freedom as much as we possibly could.
There are many details from that day that stand out in my memory. For instance, it was the first time I can remember smelling marijuana. I was walking around with a newfound gang of boys and girls all roughly my own age when we passed by one campsite where some of the parents were huddled around a radio. One of the older kids in our group commented on the smell and when I said I didn’t know what he was talking about, he laughed and told me that they were smoking pot. I nodded along sagely but internally I didn’t really believe that the grown-ups would do such a thing, and it was a shock to me years later when I came across that same smell at a different party.
Sometime in the afternoon of that sweltering day, I was tossing water balloons around with two older boys and a girl who was perhaps a year younger than me. Like most 13-year-olds, I was fairly self-conscious about my developing body (or in my case, my not-quite developing body) and when one of the boys teased me by pointing out that the younger girl had the larger chest, my face seared hot with embarrassment. I tried to laugh it off but I couldn’t help looking at them myself and wishing my wet shirt looked like hers did. That was one of my first experiences with coveting another person’s body, which was appropriate for me given where my night was headed.
The day wore on and I set up my own tent for the night, excited for an unconventional sleeping arrangement. As the sunlight faded from the sky, various musical instruments were brought out and passed around to the adults who lounged around small bonfires. The young children who hadn’t yet collapsed from pure exhaustion attempted to catch lightning bugs while darkness continued to take hold of the night. The older kids and I played card games and as the clock ticked closer to midnight, our group began to fracture. I’m not really sure how but eventually I found myself alone on a squeaky metal swing with a fifteen-year-old boy from Ohio named Eric, a boy I had been practicing my flirting skills on for most of the day. He was actually one of the guys who teased me about my lack of ample bosom that afternoon, and perhaps that made me feel like I had something to prove. Or maybe I was just caught up with the still heat and the fact that I had never before sat that close to a member of the opposite sex who wasn’t somehow related to me. We talked about how it was getting late and how we should probably turn in to our tents, but neither of us moved an inch. We were sitting so close to one another that I could feel his body sway with every heavy breath he took. The sweaty skin on my thighs stuck to the cool metal bars of the swing but I didn’t move because I didn’t want him to think I was leaving. I looked around at the random people moving through the yard and they all seemed oblivious to the raging hormonal field pulsing around the swing. While I was struggling to come up with something witty to say, I realized that Eric’s face was moving towards mine at a startling speed. I froze in place and a few long moments after his lips made contact with mine, I managed to remember to close my eyes. His tongue was in my mouth his tongue was in my mouth and all at once I seemed to become a robotic mass of clumsy flesh as I instantly forgot how to move any part of my body.
After a few never-ending moments, I decided I should be reciprocating and so I quickly poked my tongue between his lips and withdrew it a second later, much like that of a lizard. I did this once or twice more before I realized my eyes were open again and I made a conscious effort to shut them once and for all. Eric’s right hand rested on my left leg and one finger casually stroked my kneecap. His touch seemed to paralyze me in ways I had not realized were possible. The entire kiss couldn’t have lasted longer than a minute or two but when Eric pulled away from me, I felt as though I had lived a lifetime. After mumbling a clumsy goodnight, I stood on shaky legs and managed to find my way back to my tent.
Sleep was not going to happen. I stretched out on my sleeping bag and tried to measure how much space had been between our lips right before he kissed me and then I relived every detail of our embrace. I locked myself in the house bathroom more than once so I could simply stare in the mirror, because I felt so different that I was sure my new look was manifesting itself on my face. I felt older, wiser, and no longer like a little kid. I had kissed a boy. I made faces in the mirror, trying to replicate what I probably looked like while on the swing, and realized that it couldn’t have been very attractive. I was grateful that Eric seemed to know how to keep his eyes shut and I was amazed at the feeling that replaying the kiss gave me. It was as though part of my lower stomach had dropped away but it was such a pleasant sensation that I didn’t know if I ever wanted to find the missing piece. I placed my hand in the same spot where he had laid his fingers. It was around this time that the possibility that I had not been a very good kisser entered my mind.
Did I do it right? Had my breath been okay and what exactly had I been doing with my hands? As I replayed the details from the kiss, my mind began to play tricks on me and I wondered if it had somehow been a magical, life-altering experience for me alone. I spent the remainder of the night agonizing over everything I had initially been so excited about and trying to devise a plan for a second lip-lock the upcoming day. It was not meant to be. I’d like to tell myself that my kissing skills were so bewildering that they intimidated Eric into never wanting to kiss me again but in reality, I think he decided that he didn’t have the patience to give me the practice I so obviously needed. We shared an awkward “Good Morning” when he finally emerged from his tent the next day and after an hour or so of following him around, I realized that perhaps our love was not meant to last. I went home with my parents that night and spent the next few days regaling my best friends with the details of my very first kiss, which they lapped up like hungry dogs as they had yet to have theirs. As time went on, the story became faded around the edges as most experiences do and when I had my second kiss some months later, I had re-convinced myself that I was a pro.
I looked for Eric at the party the following summer but his family didn’t make the trip. If I had felt more grown up after my very first kiss, I had become positively worldly a year later and I had wanted to share that with the boy who had caused my initial change. I actually never saw or heard from Eric again so I can only assume he looks back on our rendezvous with as fond of memories as I do, but it’s more likely that he doesn’t remember it at all. However, I know I’ll never forget the way his fingers grazed my knee or what the night surrounding us felt like as we tentatively kissed in a dark corner of the yard, with the creek bubbling behind us and lightning bugs dancing in the sky.
Paige LaCour is a writer and Chicago transplant. When she’s not stuck behind the desk of her “real” job, she enjoys traveling and has managed to visit every continent except Antarctica. She has been a volunteer at The Field Museum for three years and enjoys spending time with the visitors there. She loves avocados, hates jelly beans and has a cat named The Dude. You can find her entertainment writing under the pen name Paige Tuner at http://www.michianaentertainer.com/ and follow her blog at http://webpaige.wordpress.com/.