Short Story Contest 2012 Winners
First Place Winnner
Who Knows Best by Robert S. Barton
Angela was dressed and waiting. While it was not her idea to even take this trip, she knew better than to complain, at least on this day. Actually, she had spent a considerable amount of time and far too much energy of late doing just that. She had also begged, whined, bargained, and cried. Nothing in her usually potent arsenal found its mark.
Are you trying to ruin my life?
Why are you punishing me? What did I do?
I’ll do whatever you want me to do, I promise; just let me stay here.
You don’t really love me. If you did you wouldn’t send me away.
Finally, at the conclusion of what felt like her first tantrum in a very long time, she tearfully asked, “Why do you get to make decisions for my life?
There was no hesitation. The answer, on cue and in unison- Because we know best. That is the kind of line designed to end discussion. It most assuredly ended that one.
So it was that Angela awoke early this spring Monday morning, packed her bags, combed her hair, and trudged downstairs. She now sat, in quiet resignation, in the home’s front room. She had decided to act like a grownup and accept that this move was going to happen. She did not have to like it, she probably would not like it, yet They Who Know Best (They) had decided, and she was wise enough to accept this was going to happen.
At a quarter past their announced time of departure They came downstairs with Angela’s bags. The bags had been inspected, Angela was sure of that. They would not trust her to remember all the essentials. Perhaps it was just to ensure she had not packed any contraband. Angela recalled overhearing parts of conversations about drugs and meds. Were they checking her bags for those?
As Angela arose to head for the car the predictable questions began: “Did you go to the bathroom?” “Did you remember your checklist?” “Do you have a bottle of water for the trip?” Angela responded affirmatively to each question, but not without rolling her eyes and letting out a hard-to-miss sigh. She wondered if They actually thought she was still four years old. Angela wisely kept that question to herself.
Now in the car, safely buckled in, Angela let out a faint whimper. She immediately resolved she was going to try to make this work. “Where did that come from,” she wondered. Maybe she was growing in spite of herself.
The truth is Angela wanted her family to be pleased with her. She hated arguing; she certainly did not like the fact that her family had been in turmoil in recent weeks and that she was at the center of it all. She reminded herself how much she loved Them; she had no doubt They loved her as well. Why, then, was this so hard? Angela was just now beginning to face the fact she was frightened. And that was the aspect of the move she hated most of all.
The drive would not take long, with normal traffic no more than forty minutes. No doubt sensing Angela’s anxiety They attempted to calm her. The assurances, painfully hollow and banal, did not help.
You will meet some wonderful people.
Of course you’ll make friends.
We will visit you frequently; in fact, you’ll probably get sick of seeing us.
Angela did not argue, in fact she did not respond at all. Instead, she thought back to the previous month when the three of them had made this same trip. It was to take a tour and make a decision. Angela now reflected that surely the decision had been made before they had arrived.
It was on the previous drive that the most intense argument took place. The more logical and rational They tried to be concerning the move, the more Angela had rebelled. She was not aware of any genuine problems in her life. She was certain that They had greatly exaggerated the few challenges she acknowledged. After all, her life and choices were not that different from those of her friends. Why was she being treated so differently from all of them? They continued the mantra that this was not punishment but was for her own good. That she would soon be happy with the decision and would be thanking them. Then, finally, their final play: Because we know best. Since they held the power, she truly hoped they did.
The visit had gone smoothly enough. The facility was bright, clean, and well-furnished. Angela thought she detected an overly antiseptic aroma. She wondered if that was her imagination. Those she met seemed to be content, but she was alarmed by several that seemed not to be fully there. Angela could not help but wonder if they came in that way or if this place had done it to them. She prayed it was the former.
The head of Admissions, Ms. Allen, had personally given the tour that day. Angela tried to be on her best behavior, but soon realized that Ms. Allen’s incessant smile was making her nauseous. See what a large and well-stocked library we have? Here is our theatre where we watch movies every Wednesday and Friday. We pop corn and have lemonade and everything. What do you think of our garden? You can just enjoy the flowers or you can get your hands dirty and help out. Angela could not understand how on God’s green earth someone could talk so much and not once stop smiling. (Had she been a ventriloquist in a former life?) Angela was certain that They would see that Ms. Allen was a bit of a charlatan, but They seemed to hang on her every word.
The tour had ended near noon at the Dining Room. Angela was taken to a table and introduced to those sitting there. As They walked off with Ms. Allen, Sharon, on her right remarked, “The grown-ups are off to seal your fate.” Angela had smiled but remembered how the truth had stung.
The meal surprised Angela. Everything both looked and tasted good. She enjoyed the conversation at the table, but also had an eerie feeling that she was back in junior high school. Jane, who was sitting across from Angela, seemed to have a comment about every other person in the room. “Lori wears too much makeup … Al likes Jenny but she likes his roommate … Leslie snuck out and got drunk last week … John has worn that shirt two- no, three days in a row.”
There was much Angela thought about saying, but she was not prepared to make an enemy that day. It occurred to her later that gossip may well be the favored hobby of many of the people here. If her choices were gardening and gossip she was not certain which way she would go. She thought she should make friends with Leslie as soon as possible.
If the girls worried Angela, the boys were worse. Though none made any rude or suggestive comments to her, she heard remarks spoken to others. Was it possible that some guys never get past puberty? As Angela thought about what she would do if any of them tried anything with her, she began to worry. She had led a largely sheltered life and was not sure how she would handle unwelcome advances. She was certain, however, that They would not be any help. Angela knew They were good and loving people, but she was also aware they did not want to hear Angela’s fears or anxieties. They would likely see them as a last-ditch effort to not make the move. No, Angela realized it was best to not argue, especially since she was concerned about something that might never occur. As importantly, Angela did not want them to think of her as a frightened child.
One other memory came back from that visit. It was odd as she looked back, but she had forgotten about it until just now. They had dropped Angela off at the front door and parked the car. As she stood by the front door a man gave her a very friendly smile, then said, “Welcome to the nuthouse! If you are not crazy when you get here, a few weeks should do the trick.”
Angela was taken aback. She was pretty sure she was not crazy, but she was a little sensitive since the subject had been on her mind of late. She was also confident that he was just kidding, but there was one tiny voice, just a whit of a notion actually, that perhaps he was not.
Angela had asked her tablemates about this fellow. She learned his name was Don, and he was known as the town clown. That eased her mind a good bit. Angela asked, rather indelicately she later thought, if there were crazy people there. They laughed, and Mary Jane (not to be confused with Jane), said, “Honey, it all depends on the day of the week.”
Why had she forgotten about that part of the visit? It may have been because Don’s question had scared her. Later, at lunch, the whole episode had simply embarrassed her. Angela was discomfited by the way memories came and went. At times she wondered if someone else was living part of her life. Was this one of the reasons They had given for the move? She honestly could not remember.
This moving day trip was primarily undertaken in silence. They stopped trying to engage Angela after two early fruitless attempts. Lost in her thoughts and scared of her fear, Angela strained to make sense of this day. Thoughts and emotions seemed to be having their way with her. She thought of Don’s words, thinking it might not take her several weeks to go crazy. Was she already on that path? Would it be a gradual process, or would she go right to crazy without pausing at peculiar?
Then, with a suddenness that shocked her, Angela felt a calm assurance. There was a blast of clarity which brought with it the reminder of where she was going and why. They Who Know Best would not do anything to harm her. This was a day of great change for her. Yes, she was nervous, but that was perfectly normal. She did not need to be afraid. Angela fished out a pen and notebook. She knew it was important to remember this. With pen in hand she tried to recall this important revelation.
Just then, the car turned into the parking lot. Angela could see Ms. Allen- her smile at full beam- waiting for them by the front door. Pulling into a parking space, They spoke, each in turn: “Mom, we’re here.” “Welcome to Shady Rest Acres, your new home!”
Second Place Winner
One More Hour by Janet Larkin
Her double bed fills the room. A small oak table stands next to the bed and on it sits a milk glass lamp and photos of her husband and children. She is a child sized lump under the frayed patchwork quilt. Time has left her shrunken and frail. It is fall and Marion is sleeping, restlessly. She vaguely hears a tink… tink… tink.
Marion stirs and runs her stiff, knotted fingers along the quilt’s white satin edge, snuggles down groaning softly for one more hour, rolls over and drifts off to dream of life long ago.
The alarm rang. 4:30 a.m.
Thomas’s calloused hand smoothed his curly chestnut hair as he jumped out of the iron bed and tugged on his woolen socks. His right toe peeked out. “Oh, she’s going to fuss about that.”
He slipped on his clean but worn denim overalls and smiled lovingly at his beautiful, young bride. He tiptoed into the kitchen, rumbled around with the wood pile, lit the stove and headed to the mud room for his irrigation boots. Cows to milk. Another day on the farm.
Marion heard him leave but didn’t move. “Just another hour. Oh please, just another hour,” she pleaded, sleepily, but crawled across the bed to straighten it. “Someday, we’ll have a room where I can make a bed standing on my feet.”
Washed and dressed, Marion padded into the kitchen to start the coffee, “Two hours. Breakfast to make. Bread and pies to bake for church. Eggs to collect. Tomatoes to put up. It’s going to be busy day.”
Locking up the corral gates, Thomas rubbed his stiff legs and noticed smoke streaming from the flue against the pale gray sky. He thought he smelled biscuits and ham and eggs. He pushed through the utility door. “Yup,” he said to himself.
“Marion,” he laughed, “This bachelor isn’t used to such fixins”.
He pecked her smiling cheek and noticed the bread rising. They ate on a tiny table for two decorated with a jelly jar filled with artificial bluebonnets.
Smiling in her sleep, Marion cocks her head listening more carefully. The tink, tink, tink is becoming more persistent. “Squirrels,” she thinks while burrowing deeper into the feather bed, “Just one more hour.”
Marion sewed the last stitch into Mary Alice’s hem, shook out the wedding dress and remembered dreamingly when she wore it. Thomas was so young, so handsome and she was as fresh as a spring breeze. They stood in front of the pastor vowing to love, honor and cherish until death do they part. Her wedding band spun loosely on her finger now but would not pass over her swollen knuckle. Marion noticed the white satin hem round on the floor, absently picked it up and watched it float out of her aching fingers. Shortly, Mary Alice and Hank would stand in the same church and make the same vows. What would her future hold? She and Hank wanted a little house in San Marcos where Hank would teach after finishing his degree. Someday, they would have a family.
“Hmmm?” Over her glasses, Marion looked carefully at her daughter. She had Thomas’s big brown eyes and her golden blonde hair. Marion stood up and danced around the room with the wedding dress.
Mary Alice giggled and joined her mother dancing with the satin and lace gown. “Oh, Mother. It’s beautiful.”
Marion rustles under the quilt and does not want to waken. Her heart aches. The tink, tink, tink continues. “What is it? Why won’t it stop?” Marion whimpers anxiously.
The rhythmic sound lulls her back to sleep.
Marion’s ear picked up a rustling, scratching noise just as the kitchen screen door crashed open. Bill hollered, “Mom! MOM! I got in! I got in!”
Seconds later, she and Bill collided. A slightly graying, Thomas sailed up the neatly painted red steps into the little farm house, “What’s all the commotion! I say, what’s going on?”
He stumbled on Marion and Bill in the middle of the hall with mail flung everywhere. Marion’s cotton house dress splayed out in a perfect circle on the floor. They rocked back and forth hugging and laughing and crying. Marion looked up at Thomas, tears rolled down her plump, crinkled cheeks. She croaked unintelligibly, “Billy…UT!” She cried a second time “Billy’s going to UT!”
Thomas, worn but in good repair, stood stock still, grasped the news. Thomas and Bill steadied a rising Marion. Her dress flounced neatly back into place. Thomas gathered his son into his arms, breathed, “I’m so proud of you.”
Imagine. Mary Alice happily married and a mother. And Bill going to college to become a doctor. Imagine.
With more determination, Marion rolls over. Just one more hour, please. She TOLD Thomas to FIX THAT HOLE. She reaches over to nudge Thomas and sighs when she feels only the cold sheets on Thomas’s side.
Marion brushed back her salt and pepper hair mostly salt now. From her knees to the step ladder, she awkwardly stood up from the tomatoes to look at the sun. “Where’s Thomas?” she murmured to herself. “It’s lunch time.”
She eyed a caterpillar on the next tomato and bent to squash it. The caterpillars would lay waste to her garden. To preserve her tomatoes, she attacked and forgot about Thomas.
The sun inched across the sky and Marion’s stomach grumbled. She remembered about lunch. “Thomas?”
She shook off her green stained gloves, put them in her yellow rose apron pocket and walked out of the small picket gate, past the massive old oak and asked Mateo, their hired man, if he knew where Thomas was. “No. Mrs.” he replied.
Marion walked swiftly, albeit crookedly, down the dirt drive to see if Thomas was in the cow shed. Her eyesight was foggy and she confessed, ‘I need that cataract surgery.”
She moved across the gravel county road and opened the gate to the south pasture. She heard the water trickling oddly in the weir and thought about those carefully laid stones washed smooth. She spied what looked like a misshaped tree limb. Marion twisted her head to see more clearly but she couldn’t. Her heart began to thunder against her ribs as she stumbled through small stand of oaks. She pushed her way to the small creek. It was Thomas’s worn irrigation boot.
“Oh, God! No!” she shrieked, “Mateo!”
Mateo bolted to the creek and saw the little Mrs. struggling to get the Mister out of the water. Marion looked at Mateo then Thomas. Thomas hadn’t moved. Hadn’t blinked an eye. There wasn’t time to call the doctor. They needed to get Thomas to the Buda hospital.
The Carter’s passed by in their washed out pickup and Helen’s neighborly wave and smile turned into a frantic pounding of her husband, Owen. Helen saw Mateo and Marion grappling with a still and lifeless Thomas. Owen slid to a stop and jumped out with Helen close behind. There was shouting and nodding and then the old blue farm truck fired up, spewed dirt and gravel and barreled its way to town with Mateo driving and Marion cradling Thomas on the front seat. The Carters walked up the hill to the eerily empty farm house and called Dr. Clark, Mary Alice and Bill.
Marion, small and scared, still in her apron, sat in the dreary green waiting room on a dirty, green naugahyde chair. Mateo was there. The Carters were there. She heard clicking heels coming toward her and looked up. “Bill?”
“Mom.” He wrapped her in a long, tight hug.
Letting go, he shook hands with the others. As the news of his father got around, more would come. He pictured the church ladies already cooking.
“Bill, can you find out what’s happening? It’s been so long.”
“I’ll go ask.”
Another hour passed. Mary Alice, Hank and the children arrived from San Marcos. Finally, Bill and Doctor Clark emerged from Thomas’s room. Their heads nodded together over Thomas’s chart when they looked up and saw Marion’s expectant eyes. Bill moved to sit next to his mother.
“Mom, it’s a stroke. Until Dad wakes up, they won’t know very much. Be patient. They’re doing all they can.”
Dr. Clark, in a husky voice, said, “Marion, you can see Thomas. And, of course, Mary Alice, too. Just for a little bit. Thomas needs his strength to wake up. “
“For right now,” Dr. Clark looking at the concerned neighbors, “just family”.
Marion rose, pale and shaky. She tiredly walked the long hallway slipping off her apron. It dropped to the floor. Bill and Mary Alice followed their mother into Thomas’s room. Thomas’s eyes were open when they pulled the curtain back. Thomas looked at Marion and weakly uttered, “My beautiful bride.”
He closed his eyes.
Marion wakes with a start and whispers, “Oh, Thomas.”
Her gnarled, arthritic fingers reach to turn on the light. A soft ivory glow fills the room. Outlined on the wall is her walker. She grasps for his picture but it clatters to the floor.
Finally comprehending, she says. “Oh, rain. It’s been so long. “
Marion looks at Thomas’s picture. She looks at the clock. She looks at her room of sixty years. No need to fix breakfast. Thomas has been gone for years. It isn’t a farm anymore. No cattle. No cotton. No garden.
Marion rubs her chest with the palm of her hand. Her white hair flows down her back over her cotton gown. She bundles up with the quilt and wanders from room to room in her bare feet. “Something is going to happen today” she mutters as she touches the dent in the door frame left by Mary Alice’s baton. Memories squat in every square inch.
She still loves the “new” avocado green linoleum floor Thomas laid the year before he died. Stepping onto the back porch, Marion sees the vestiges of Bill’s basketball hoop. She runs her fingers over the countertops, the dishwasher, the microwave oven. The tiny table has long since been replaced by a maple set they bought in the early sixties. So many Christmases and Thanksgivings served. So many graces said. So many blessings had.
Leaving the kitchen and entering the living room, boxes blossom into view. Her life is inside them. Photo albums, baby albums, vinyl records, her mother’s dishes. Marion freezes. Time freezes. Confused, Marion starts to unbox and unwrap the garden of her life. She caresses the pictures, the books, the darning egg, the ring Thomas gave her for their fortieth wedding anniversary.
Bill and Mary Alice find Marion sitting on the floor surrounded by packing paper and empty boxes. Marion holds something in her hand rambles about a vase. She sees Bill and Mary Alice. “Bill? Mary Alice? What has happened here? Who has done this to my things? Everything is a mess. I need one more hour. Your father will be expecting his breakfast.”
Bill whispers comforting words into his mother’s ear. Mary Alice takes her mother’s hand. In another hour, Bill and Mary Alice lead their diminutive, delicate, white haired mother down the bleached, chipped concrete steps, past the overgrown garden with one faded yellow rose and help her to the silver minivan. Marion looks back with her cloudy blue eyes and hears the water trickling over the stones of the weir Thomas built. The bedraggled, plastic bluebonnets drop from her fingers.
“Just one more hour, please.”
Third Place Winner
A Difference Between Night and Day by Caitlin Hernandez
“This way, my daughter.” The light-skinned priest beckoned his way down the hallway. The unassuming young woman slung her hoe over one shoulder and followed. Behind them, several piles of ash were scattered on the floor.
The girl’s green eyes swept the length of the room before she turned back to the priest. One tanned hand swept back the cowl that had fallen over her face.
“What is this?” Why did those things attack us?”, she demanded, folding her arms across the brown rags that she was swathed in. The young woman’s fur shoes stumbled into a pile of ashes and she shook off the remains.
“Those were Shades, tangible spirits that are capable of violence. And where there is one Shade, a larger group is not far behind.” The priest’s voice was low but held a comforting tone. He was clothed in a golden-threaded robe with a hood that covered his eyes. Dark hair peeked out from underneath.
“Shades...? So why did they attack us? ...Who are you, anyway? Why should I be following you?”, demanded the girl.
“I am Darren Mionkur... a priest, and nothing more. And unless you see somebody else who can lead you out of this Shade-infested catacomb, I would strongly urge you to follow my footsteps.”
“Fine,” she huffed. “I’m Igris Talfif, a farmer’s daughter. And I’ve been to these catacombs several times before without some Shade things attacking me!”
“Igris, hold your tongue.” Darren pressed himself against the cold stone walls. Ahead of them was a large open room with several skeletons walking about. The priest sighed. “Some of the dead are walking. I don’t believe I have any weaponry...”
“Then you’re lucky you got me,” snapped Igris. “HAH! COME FOR ME!” She ran at the skeletons with her hoe raised, smashing one over with ease. The young woman dropped her makeshift weapon to pick up a handheld battleaxe that the corpse had dropped. “Hey priest! They have weapons we can use!”
“Excellent!” Darren took after her as Igris bashed another skeleton to the floor. The priest took up the sword it had clutched and cut down another skeleton that tried to sneak up on the girl. It wasn’t long until they had cleared the room.
“So now the dead are walking?” Igris gave Darren a look. “Do you have any idea why they do this?” She dusted herself off before picking through the remains of thier foes, choosing another battleaxe from their bony hands.
“I can’t fathom why, my daughter. But I believe we are almost out of this, dare I say, hellhole.” Darren chose a scimitar from his enemy’s remains and readied it as he pointed down one of the two branching hallways. “Would you prefer this way, or the other way? They appear identical.”
“The right way,” Igris answered, her shoes shuffled over the cold stones towards the right hall. Darren followed after some hesitation, only to grab her arm. “Shades!”
Indeed, the murmur of Shades was audible. Igris frowned. “They’re easy though, right? I mean to get rid of?”
“Incorrect. Just because we can hurt them doesn’t mean they will die. This one can only be undone by prayer. And I will need some time.” He fell to his knees and clasped his hands together as the black Shades swirled around them.
The first Shade smacked Igris, causing here to stumble and nearly fall. Another one clawed Darren across the face, causing him to wince in pain but he continued to recite his prayer. The rest of the spirits closed in on them, circling the unfortunate twosome while preparing to strike.
“Sh-should I attacke them?!” Her question earned a fervent nod from the bleeding man and Igris swung her axes at the attacking spirits. “Begone! Go away! Uh, shoo! Scat! Bye! Ciao!” she bellowed as the axes struck the tangible ghosts. They squealed and scattered, terrified shrieks filling the bastion.
“There...” Darren huffed, wiping the blood from his face. Igris felt a pang of regret run through her. “Are you going to be okay?” she questioned, glancing at her axes. There was some weird black muck on them.
“Yes, my daughter...” The priest took a few seconds to stagger to his feet. He swept back his hood to reveal dark brown hair and pale skin underneath, with large eyes and a small, long nose. Igris frowned as she looked him over. “You sure?”
He gave her a curt nod before a voice broke the silence. “This way, “ Darren commanded, pulling his hood back over his head and turning in a whirl of his robes towards the sound. His sandals scuffed the ground as he ran, with the farmer’s daughter at this heels.
“What the...what is going on?!” demanded a tan-skinned thief. He wore animal hides - deer for his shirt and wolf for his breeches, as well as elk for his shoes. In one hand he held a crystalline staff, its beauty unparalleled by anything Igris had seen before. Three skeletons had him pinned to the wall by their spears.
“Drop the staff and they’ll let you go!” Darren bellowed, almost tripping over his long robes. Igris grabbed his arm to steady the man as the tomb robber shook his head frantically. “No way! This thing’s priceless! I gotta have it - I need the money if I want to make it past the end of the month!” he panted. Now that the two had gotten a better look at him, they realized just how thin and emaciated he appeared.
“You won’t live here for long if you don’t drop it! Let it go and we won’t hand you over to the authorities!” Igris shouted at him. The young man finally acquiesced, dropping the staff. A skeletal hand caught it and placed it back on the altar it had been taken from before the three skeletons climbed back into their crypts and broke into pieces.
“Wha...what just happened?” questioned the thief.
“The spirits were hostile because something that belonged to them was almost taken from this place.” Darren gave him a harsh look. “Have you learned a lesson, my son?”
“...Yeah, I got it. Don’t go robbing tombs, fine. I can always just steal from living person’s house.” The thief crossed his arms looking annoyed and sulky. Igris rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that’s the lesson we wanted you to learn. Right.”
“Hey, I’m trying my best! I don’t know what I was supposed to learn, I don’t read minds!” complained the wanna-be tomb robber. Darren sighed as his feet took all three of them to the exit of the catacombs, his wound no longer bleeding.
“That was fun!” laughed the little girl. “We should do these things again! This time I wanna be Princess Peach!” The young boy frowned at her. “Okay, but I wanna be Ganondorf.”
“Ganondorf isn’t a character,” protested the second little boy. “That isn’t even a person.”
“Yeah he is, you just don’t play video games,” the first boy shot back. “He’s from “Legend of Zelda”. You didn’t play it, did you? My big sister did and she let me watch.”
“I’m Peach! Ooh, did I win?” yelled the girl over both of them.
“Uh oh, looks like Mom’s coming. I guess we gotta go inside...” complained the first little boy. “Wanna play Mario Kart?”
“YEAH! I call Yoshi!”
“I want Luigi!”