Another round with eight stories is live. The poll will stay open until the midnight of the upcoming Sunday.
If you have suggestions or criticism about any of the stories or about the competition itself, please share it in the comment section.
Now to the stories!
1. For Society’s Sake by Catherine Sharp
She’d been writing poetry again. Andrew picked up a few scattered sheets and frowned at them. Stupid old woman, he thought; she knew the penalty if she was discovered. The whole family would suffer. At least she’d had the wit to write them by hand. To store this sort of thing in a computer file would be pure madness. She wasn’t very good at handling computers anyway, claiming she was too old to learn. But for Society’s sake, she was only sixty-nine, and there were octogenarians working in his office. Rejuvenated ones anyway… but of course, she refused to go for rejuve treatment.
Whenever he mentioned it, she said that she intended to live out her three score years and ten, and not a day more. She was old-fashioned, that’s what she was. For years, Andrew had put up with her tirades about the state of society, usually started with ‘Why can’t I write poetry if I want to? I’m an old woman and I’m not hurting anyone.’ Andrew had tried many times to explain why uncontrolled creativity was bad for Society, but would she listen? Of course not. She just kept on writing these poems about how everything was so much better when she was younger.
Andrew had tried to explain how things were in a much preferable state now. No-one had to die until they reached at least a hundred years of age; everyone was much healthier (even if a cure for the common cold had still not been found), with plenty of leisure time and such interesting things to do with it. But she generally just snorted, and rattled on about the ‘good old days’ when people had freedom of choice and the opportunity to express themselves properly – as she was trying to do in her poetry.
Doesn’t she realise I’m in a terrible position? thought Andrew. As a loyal citizen, and as a senior Servant-of-Society, I should report her. But if I did, I’d lose my job. And I can imagine the interrogation… ‘How long have you known about her subversive activities, Mr Holmes?’ ‘Well…’ ‘And why have you not brought these activities to official notice before?’
‘Of course, we appreciate the difficult position in which you find yourself.’
‘Well, yes, I hoped you might…’
‘But surely it is your duty as a citizen of Society to report any activities of this nature. Particularly considering your employment in the Department of Arts and Creativity.’
They would imprison her at the very least, and he would lose his job and probably be put in detention too. With luck, he’d be able to convince them of the innocence of the rest of the family; but then, he had no idea who she might have corrupted with her idealistic poetry and maudlin reminiscences.
Naturally, all her work would be destroyed when she was convicted – almost a shame. Although he would never admit it, Andrew thought her poetry was quite good, especially compared to the official stuff that did nothing but glorify Society. Perhaps, he occasionally wondered, he just didn’t know any better, lacking any real kind of suitable comparison for her work. He was vaguely aware of having undergone some sort of conditioning when he joined the Department, but that was the price paid for a good job, and by most
standards, a price well worth paying.
With a sigh, Andrew gathered up the loose pages and tried to decide what to do. It would be simple to stuff them into the basement incinerator, but she might never forgive him, even though he acted for her own good. He was saved from a decision by the arrival of the poet herself. She stared at him for a moment, then held out her hand. Andrew gave her the papers without a word.
‘Thank you. Now turn your back, please.’
Andrew obeyed, but found that he could watch her in the mirror opposite. She knelt to put the papers into a box she kept under the bed, then rose stiffly to her feet. ‘You can turn around again now, Andrew.’
He did so to find her looking at him with her wrinkled face set in lines of disappointment. ‘Are you going to denounce me?’
Andrew shook his head. ‘I would have done it long ago. What’s the use now?
But you should be more careful with your… things.’
Her quick look of a relief was followed by a scowl. ‘Just forget about them, Andrew. Just like you seem to have forgotten it’s my seventieth birthday
Andrew sighed. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It doesn’t matter, not really… What’s that noise?’
From downstairs, they heard the sounds of someone breaking down a door. She turned to him, fierce. ‘You little bastard! You did denounce me! Well, they won’t take me alive, I swear it…’
Andrew stared at her, shocked, as she darted to the floor-length window.
Booted feet could be heard coming up the stairs, and she hissed in annoyance as the window catch stuck for a moment. Andrew could only stand, speechless, as the footsteps came closer along the landing, accompanied by a shout of ‘All citizens remain where they are!’
He moved towards the door – afterwards, he was never sure if he planned to bar it against the arriving police squad or to try and protest his own innocence – but he turned back as she gave a triumphant cry. The window was finally open, and she perched precariously on the rail of the small balcony.
She blew him a kiss with one hand, something she hadn’t done since he was a child. ‘Good-bye Andrew!’ she cried, and jumped.
Andrew rushed out to the balcony as the door crashed open behind him. He stared at his mother’s body, lying fifty feet below, as a voice behind him declared: ‘Andrew Holmes, I arrest you in the name of Society on a charge of fraud and misappropriation of Government funds…’
2. First Snow by Charlie M. Clint
It must have been coming down for hours, turning the neighborhood from ordinary wetness into something mysterious and lovely. Garish trash cans had become white lumps that were no less pretty than lilac bushes when hidden under drifts. The snow looked inviting as it fell to the ground in huge, swirling tufts.
Jack quickly dressed in several layers of clothes, anxious to be out in the extraordinary weather. Would his friend Lucy be able to come, too? He imagined her merry features and remarkable red curls covered by snowflakes. The thought made Jack grin, and he was determined to talk her into joining him.
He crept through the house to avoid waking his sleeping father and step-mom, grabbing two stale donuts as he headed to the door. He stuffed one in each pocket as he slipped outside, pulling on a pair of his father’s old work gloves.
It was so beautiful!
Jack forced himself to walk slowly as he tested the unfamiliar surface, even though the twirling flakes urged him to join their waltz. Dancing was as natural to Jack as breathing, and he couldn’t keep from performing a few quick spins that nearly sent him sliding to the ground.
The trailer park seemed transformed by the snow, making it hard for Jack to get his bearings. Everything was white on white, and the lack of sunlight wasn’t helping him find the proper direction. He glanced back at his family’s trailer and began to count houses, winding his way toward Lucy’s home. He reached her trailer and ducked behind it, using an old box to climb up to her bedroom window. His gentle pounding was quickly rewarded by the sight of Lucy’s smiling face, peeking beneath the old towel that served as a curtain.
Lucy slid the window open a crack and leaned close. “Jack! Do you believe this snow?” Her whispered words exploded with excitement.
“Come out,” he urged. “The next thing you know it’ll start to rain again, and the snow will disappear.” In Jack’s entire life he couldn’t remember a time that snow hadn’t quickly been replaced by slush and mud.
Lucy glanced briefly behind her before answering. Her parents were always difficult, so Jack crossed gloved fingers and held his breath as she considered. “Why not?” she said. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
Jack didn’t want to think about what could happen to his friend as he smiled and whispered his eager reply, “I’ll meet you out front.”
Lucy was dressed in a large hand-me-down jacket that served as her winter coat. The plum shade had faded, but she had assured him more than once that the coat was thick and warm. In Jack’s opinion the peculiar color seemed to set off the girl’s green eyes and fair skin.
Jack led the way as they clomped through the snow, heading toward the far end of the trailer park. The snow was still falling, but seemed slower now.
“Do you think it’s going to stop?” Lucy asked. Her words made foggy plumes that gracefully joined the snowflake ballet.
Jack glanced at the sky and shook his head in reply, wondering what it would be like to take Lucy in his arms and swing her around in the snow. For some reason this idea made his face grow warm, in spite of the chill. Jack stopped and stared at Lucy, taking note of the unruly curls popping out under her knit hat. Her eyes seemed remarkably bright against her pale skin and her lips redder than usual — almost as if she had sneaked some of her mother’s lipstick (though Jack was certain she wouldn’t dare).
It suddenly occurred to Jack that Lucy was very pretty.
“Come on!” Lucy said, smacking one mitten-clad hand against his shoulder. She was leading now, and Jack hurried to catch up, embarrassed by his moment of revelation. Lucy was his friend — one of his very best friends — and the fact that she was a girl made no difference to their friendship.
Or did it?
They climbed the small hill behind the park, heading up, snow still spinning around them as they marched along, knees high. They stopped briefly to eat the hard donuts before continuing on, smiling at one another as they chewed. They spoke very little, but the silence was a comfortable one (in spite of Jack’s occasional sideways glances at Lucy). In the distance the platinum clouds had parted and the sun glinted, making the snow sparkle as if covered in diamond dust.
“Oooo!” Lucy squealed with delight. She bent and scooped up a handful of snow.
Jack wondered if she would dare to turn the snow into a snowball, ready to grab up ammunition of his own, if necessary. But Lucy lifted it to her face, where her pink tongue quickly lapped at the whiteness. “It tastes good,” she offered, glancing over at Jack.
Jack moved closer, then leaned in and took a lick of the snow in Lucy’s hand. It did taste good — almost sweet. He leaned closer and took a bite, reminded of eating sno-cones in summer.
Lucy’s face was right beside him, eyes shining as they reflected the sunlight. Why was Jack’s heart beating so fast? He could feel it thumping madly, as if trying to escape his chest.
“This is our first snow,” Lucy said, her voice soft. “And we’re sharing it, Jack.”
He leaned even closer and pressed his lips against Lucy’s smiling mouth.
Jack’s first kiss would have been special even if they’d been standing in a downpour, but he couldn’t help thinking that it was enhanced by the magic of their surroundings.
“The snow does taste good, Lucy,” he said, grinning widely, “but not as good as you do.” He picked up a handful of snow and extended it to her. “Want another taste?”
3. The Celebrity by Diana Thurbon
It was one of those smiling cats and dogs on skateboards kind of emails. She smiled at the amusing pictures and then her eyes caught sight of the quote at the bottom of the screen.
“Don’t let someone become a priority in your life, when you are just an option in their life.”
As she read the quote, she realised it summed up her life. I’ve let that happen she decided. I’ve become an option to my kids, to my husband, even to most of my friends. My whole life is optional. She gazed thoughtfully at the computer screen and wondered how to change the status quo.
Nick and Bill, her twins were quick to phone when they wanted something. From time to time they called in with a load of washing. Otherwise she never heard from them at all; though they shared a flat 30 minutes away Her daughter called when she wanted her to mind Blake, her grandson, and that was about the only time she bothered calling. Her husband John was into car swap-meets – usually in country towns often interstate. It never even occurred to him to ask her if she’d like to come anymore. Not that she would often, but it would be nice if he asked her once in a while.
She phoned her sister from time to time but it seemed Loraine was always too busy to meet somewhere and most of her friends were behaving the same way. Clearly it was time to make some big changes – but what and how. The quote just said ‘don’t let it happen’ It didn’t say what to do when it already had.
The Internet was her first option she googled “get noticed.” Well that might have been helpful if she’d been looking for a boyfriend, beginning a career in table top dancing or trying to promote a business – but as none applied to her, there was no help to be had from her computer.
She decided to ask the people she knew and write down their suggestions: The first was ‘get a tattoo.’ Then: ‘dye your hair,’ ‘get piercings’; from there it was all down hill. ‘Commit a crime’; ‘get a serious illness’, ‘run away with a toy boy.’ (That was the most appealing of all the suggestions). I need to ask an expert she decided.
The next morning she emailed the relationship segment on the TV breakfast show- “I am just an option in everybody’s life but a priority to no one – how can I change this?”
She was surprised when the host read her email out – even more surprised when they started reading the responses. It seemed hundreds of people watching the show identified with her problem. Alienation and feelings of not mattering and being taken for granted seemed to be a modern boomer pandemic.
Later that day the producers phoned and asked her to come in and be interviewed the following morning. They did her make-up and fixed her hair. She felt important and glamorous as she discussed ‘the isolation of the empty nest in modern Australian society’ with the host and segment’s regular psychologist. “My role has to become a mirror,” she said, I reflect everybody and I feel like there is no me there,”
Apparently she struck a universal chord because the segment was wildly successful. The evening ‘current affairs’ show producer called 2 days later and asked her if she’d be willing to be interviewed again. Of course she said “yes.” After that came the serious social comment TV program where she was given the opportunity to talk about self-esteem and about ‘the lack of community and the attitudes of Australian husbands to their wives in the context of modern day social and family values’. Suddenly it seemed her phone never stopped ringing.
Two weeks later John was forever hanging around the house being annoyingly clinging and looking mournful and anxious. The personal calls were an intrusion too. First the twins, then her daughter wanting to talk endlessly about nothing at all, then her sister expecting her to drop everything to meet for coffee. Even friends she’d almost forgotten-all had phoned frequently in the last couple of weeks.
It was a shame really; pity they hadn’t called before, but now she didn’t have time; they weren’t really a priority in her life anymore. She’d just been signed up to do a lecture tour and she didn’t really have the time for get-to-gethers and social chit chat.
4. Thickest Skin by Jack
Something all of a sudden reminded me of you.
Well not so much reminded, but I had an involuntary memory. That’s not quite right either. Something I saw sparked an involuntary sense of you that is actually a memory. I’m laughing now.
I was walking through the car park to the beach for a late swim, and it was hot and dry. The flags on their masts were flapping madly and the asphalt stank with the burn of the sun. There was a young couple, and he held the car boot open while she coyly reached inside for her bikini. Theirs was clearly a brand new romance.
The wind gusted suddenly stronger and blew up the modest smock-like dress covering her tanned legs.
She giggled and blushed and rushed to hold it down;
but before she could stop the wind from lapping the tops of her thighs and skirting around her perfect behind, it was too late. It happened in a flash, but for the young woman, whose head was now down as she applied brand new determination to the effort of getting changed, it was clearly an ordeal of some significance.
Chuckles inside my head as I tiptoed past. The young woman, the spontaneity of the situation and her reaction to it: so effortlessly charming.
5. Snow Globe by Rakawi Ling
Diz ran down the alley as quickly as he could, glancing back every now and then to see if the old man had followed. “He didn’t manage to catch up,” Diz thought. Relieved, the boy stopped running and rested his back against the wall. His breath turned to mist in the cold winter night.
He kept glancing back as he tried to catch his breath. There was nothing out of the ordinary. “Good”, he thought.
He clutched his backpack in his arms and turned around, but stopped dead in his track when he bumped into someone instead. The first thing that came across his mind was panic. He glanced up and saw a yellowish smile. A balding old man with tattered clothes was grinning down at him with one hand holding a lamp.
Diz felt his leg gave way and collapsed. A second thought came to him, “Run!” He turned back where he came from and made a dash for it.
“Thank goodness it hasn’t started snowing yet,” Diz told himself, as he escaped the alley and back on the streets. “It would have been impossible to run this fast.”
He looked around the street and found it was desserted. A bell started to chime twelve times, signaling it was midnight.
“I must get home quickly.”
Diz glanced behind him. Satisfied that the old man was nowhere in sight, he walked hurriedly towards his home. As he did so, his mind began to wander back a couple of hours earlier.
There was a party at his friend’s house. He had been there for the whole evening, and was one of the last to leave. After saying goodbye, he began to head home. It was a Monday so the streets were quiet, most people would already be getting ready for bed by now. “Mom will definitely nag when I reach home,” he sighed.
A few blocks away from his friend’s house, he felt a tap on his shoulders. Startled, he jumped and asked, “Who’s there?”
“Hee hee. Relax, m’boy. I’m just a harmless old man.” A man who looked like a beggar in his 50’s stood there, flashing his stained teeth.
“What do you want?” he took a step back as he asked, clutching his backpack tightly.
“I just wanted to show you my collection,” his grin widen as he reached into his worn-out jacket.
“A snow globe?”
“Aye, ain’t it beautiful?” asked the man as he held the snow globe in his hand, illuminating it with the lamp which he was holding on the other hand.
Diz slowly walked backwards, away from the man while he was still admiring his globe by slowly turning it around in his hands.
“Why don’t you take a look as well?” the man asked. His smile was almost sinister.
“N-No, it’s alright,” Diz whimpered.
“But I insist,” the man moved closer to Diz as he spoke.
“I don’t have any money,” Diz said, hoping that the man will stop bothering him after hearing that.
“Who said anything about money? I just want to show it to you,” the man grinned as he shoved the globe right in front of Diz’ face.
“I said no!” Diz shouted, and pushing the globe away by reflex.
The globe flew out of the man’s hand. He stopped smiling and tried to catch the globe in mid-air but he missed. It crashed on the road, smashing it into pieces. The man dropped onto his knees, unable to speak. His precious globe was shattered.
Diz panicked. He quickly took off before the man could move or speak. He ran down the street and took a right turn into an alley.
* * *
“Finally, I’m home,” Diz let out a sigh of relieve as his mind returned from its wandering. He was standing in the driveway of his house.
“Looks like everyone’s asleep,” he thought, as he walked up to the door and fished out a key from his pocket. He unlocked the door and turned the knob.
“Hello, welcome home, m’boy.”
The man was standing right behind the door, his lamp held up high to illuminate features of his face. Grinning, he slowly walked forward to greet Diz.
“H-How d-did y-y-,” Diz stammered as fear gripped into his heart.
“How did I know where you live? How did I get in?”
Diz just nodded. His body felt cold.
“All I wanted to do was to show you my precious collection, but you broke it,” he pouted, dropping his shoulders and head as he did so.
“I-I’m sorry, I d-didn’t mean to break it,” Diz said, his backpack slipped from his arms and dropped on the floor with a soft thud.
“Apologizing won’t do, m’boy. I’ll need you to compensate for it,” the man said in an almost gleeful tone.
“I’ll gladly pay for a new one,” Diz gulped. He hoped the man will accept.
“Oh no, that won’t do. You see, my globe wasn’t just any ordinary one. It was special and I tried to show you.”
“T-Then, what do you want from me?”
Once again, the man showed smiled, moving slowly towards Diz.
“No!” Diz screamed. His shirt was wet from his sweat. His heart was beating furiously. He looked around and noticed that he was in his room. The clock by his bedside read 2 a.m.
“It was just a dream.”
Diz reached out for a towel on the floor and wiped his face. He looked out the window, and saw flakes of white falling from the sky. It had started to snow. Taking a deep breath to calm his mind, Diz laid his head on the soft pillow and went back to sleep.
The old man chuckled, and with his lamp held high, he returned to the streets, admiring his brand new snow globe.
6. Silly, I Know: The Tale of a Driving Range Golf Ball by Sean McMenamin
I hate being at the bottom of the bucket. I always feel like such a jerk when everyone else is between five other balls, while I only have to cope with two or three.
Silly, I know.
But what really ticks me off is that I can’t talk. I mean, God gave me thoughts, how ‘bout some words too? I suppose if we all could speak, one would hear a helluva lot of screaming out on the driving range.
Silly, I know.
A pudgy English gentleman picked up the basket which I had called my home for the past few minutes. From my position, I could not tell what kind of driver he had. See, there are two types of drivers for us: the hard hitting woods, and the Sunday-morning-hangover-inducing, titanium-reinforced Big Bertha. I hate both, and-because I’m the luckiest ball in the world, I am going to be hit by one of the two because golfers tend to save their drivers for the bottom of the bucket.
Seriously Silly, trust me…I know.
Sir Twinkie, which I dubbed the man because of his mustard cardigan, dumped half the bucket onto the golf mat. He started by stretching, swinging two clubs at once, causing me and my fellow golf balls an unimaginable amount of anxiety. The first ball was chosen, an eight iron was picked, and Twinkie’s practice began.
Then I saw his driver. It was a Big Bertha. Seriously, it wasn’t my day. Very few people understand the excruciating pain that follows from being hit by one of these things. Add to it that Mr. Rogers was hitting my comrades with a slight hook, which meant that I would never be hit into the water hazard that was placed at the 300 yard flag. I was only hit in there once, and it was better than a long ride in a ball cleaner.
Yeah, I know. Silly.
There were only a few balls left and from my placement on the artificial grass mat, I would be hit last. Seriously, this was a really bad day. No, not bad—horrible.
Fat, sweaty fingers picked me up, just lovely. I was placed on the plastic tee when Twinkie suddenly said, “I say! It’s one terribly hot day! I think I need water before I pass out.”
Seriously? One ball left and he needs a drink? If I could cry out of my dimples…Did I mention I currently reside in Arizona? It was 120°F, and there I was, lying upon the tee, baking in the sun. Sure I may not have a “nervous system” or any sort of “emotions” but I know that if I was out there much longer I would probably melt into a puddle of liquidized plastic, rubber, and some silicone. But hey, I’m just a golf ball! Who cares?
Twinkie was coming back, finally, sans sweater. I guess the genius figured out that cardigans and Arizona don’tgo well together. He seemed pretty red in the face, making me assume that he was mad and/or hot. I further deduced that he may have not gotten his water.
My suspicions were confirmed when I heard him mumble something about the price of water and the stupidity of Americans. He sighed and took out his Big Bertha.
Well…here we go again. The man bent his knees, exhaled, and swung a few practice swings. Those are the real killers. The psychological effects of seeing a block of titanium swing past one’s face is horrifying. I think I know what the narrator in Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum felt like under the razor-sharp torture device.
It wasn’t so silly anymore.
Omitting numerous expletives and cries of pain, my trip can be described in one word: ouch. I do have to admit, it was a pretty good hit. It was such a nice whack that I could see the water hazard approaching, fast. In fact, I was spinning so much I could have sworn that I was going to fly right over the pond.
I did. It would have been just a fine and dandy landing, except that I touched down in a recently watered sand trap. It should be understood that it is often a ball’s dream to land in the soft comfort of a sand trap, but not when it’s watered. See, when ball meets wet sand, one of two things can happen. A, which always occurs, is when the sand becomes wedged in the golf ball’s dimples, and no one likes this. B, which is the cruelest of situations, is when a chunk of wet sand clings to the side of a ball.
I previously admitted to being the luckiest ball in the world, and this still stands true. By chance, this landing caused the additional scenario B. I was left with only a few dimples that were unfilled. Did I mention that golf balls see from their dimples?
Ok, that’s it. I am now an atheist. No omnipotent, loving god would allow a bird to excrete gooey…substance…onto my uncovered dimples. It was particularly welcomed because I was now being baked alive in half bird feces, half now dry sand under the devilishly hot sun.
There I lay for hours upon hours until the cool night breeze came, where I was swept into a short lapse of tranquility and bliss that would last the remainder of the evening.
Silly, I know.
7. The Problem of Breathing by T. M. Colón
Thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five …
Sometime ago, Sam had discovered that the easy part was location: here, there was no resistance other than the sluggish tide that nudged and withdrew from the lake’s shoreline. The water would tug her suspended body lackadaisically, in barely-there sways which put Sam in mind of a kelp forest. No — just the one plant, holding its own. It was more like that. And this location had an anchor. It came from an old oak perched precariously on a bluff, whose roots extended into the lake. One in particular stuck out of the lakebed like a loop of stiff rope, as though it were made to tie something down: a boat, a raft … a person. Sam never had trouble gaining purchase around the root, its knotty breadth easy on her fingers as she held herself beneath the water.
Also sometime ago, she had learned — and she remembered now — that the hard part was fighting against a natural buoyancy that wanted to drag her to the surface. The heavy thumping of a heart between lungs which normally started convulsing for air around the thirty-second mark never helped, either.
Forty-seven, forty-eight …
Another spasm, and her breath exploded from her lips in a flurry of bubbles. Sam forced her legs to still, though the instinct to kick had already produced three out of her.
One minute. She could do this. One lousy minute, and I’ll never try this stupid thing again, I swear!
Fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty —
There was a yank, forcing her to part with the tree root. She didn’t have time to stop herself from gasping in a mouthful of water, and even less to grasp at her neck at the sudden, spasmodic protest of her lungs as she broke surface and was hauled to the bluff.
Dazed, she let her body collapse onto the grass, eyes heavenward as she made futile gulps for air, with only enough mental energy left to muse that this was what a fish stranded on dry land must feel like. She then felt the hands which had brought her up turn her over to one side, towards the lake. One of them smacked her back one, twice before her lungs expelled the water in sputtery coughs.
Even before the fits ended, Sam found herself nose-to-nose with a familiar, freckled face.
“What the hell were you thinking?!” Logan seemed to be breathing a bit hard himself, hazel eyes hardened with a fury that made Sam shrink into herself for a moment. “Do you have any — ”
But some of the haze dropped away from her mind — and in a sudden surge of her own fury, Sam tried to clock him. Missing his jaw by inches, she kept at him punch after dodged punch.
“I was … six and a … half seconds away … you idiot!” It was a tough and tiring thing, trying to beat up on her older brother while gasping for air and speaking to him between gritted teeth.
It was an impossible thing, in fact, for Logan now nabbed each of her arms by the wrist with an ease that forced Sam to give up everything but her scowl. “What?” he asked.
“One minute.” She inhaled again, deeply. “I just wanted to hold it in … for one minute.” More limply than she meant, she shook her wrists within Logan’s grip, indicating she wanted release.
Her brother obliged, with an overt wariness that made her scowl deepen. “Holding your breath?”
“That was all?”
She snorted. “You thought I was gonna drown myself?”
“I’d kill you before you could try.”
Sam giggle-coughed at the tone of voice—Ooo, look how serious we’re getting!—then paused as she noticed his gaze soften.
“Why?” he said.
“Why’d you want to put yourself through … this?” He gestured vaguely at the lake.
She sat back on her heels, toes curling in thought. How could she explain it? How could she describe the joy she’d discovered one day last month within the isolation, the weightlessness water provided? How she was able to find equal measures of peace and challenge in competing against her body’s need for air, of hearing her pulse beat an increasingly louder tattoo in her ears as she waited, waited. She was no Mr. Limpet; she still liked being human just fine. But neither could she keep away from water.
And maybe that was all Logan needed to understand.
“I have to,” Sam said simply. She looked to the grass, shrugged, coughed.
A few silent moments passed where Sam couldn’t feel Logan’s eyes on her. A quick glance told her he was looking at the ground too, picking at blades of grass like she sometimes did when she was thinking.
“One minute, huh?” he said at length.
She looked up, finding that Logan had risen to his feet and was now offering her his hand. She took it, using his arm as momentary support until her stance solidified.
Abruptly, her brother leaned back and inhaled through his nose. “Well,” he said, chest puffed out before letting the breath loose. “First, you have to hyperventilate.”
Sam blinked. “What?”
“It’ll help oxygenate your blood before you go under,” he explained. “More than just holding your breath, at least.”
“Oh … ” As she pondered this, Sam almost missed the fact that Logan had left her side. One brief sprint later and she had caught up with him.
“Hey, what else?” she asked him.
He sighed lazily, scratching the back of his neck. “There’s contracting your ribcage, too. It tricks the lungs into thinking you’ve just breathed — at least that’s what they tell me.” Logan glanced at her. “Shall I continue?”
Sam nodded, and the conversation went on like this long after they had reached home.
8. Driven Mad by a Broken Heart by Katie Wernz
Ella was perched on the edge of a creaky, wooden chair, her hands knotted together on the antique desk in front of her. Her long hair, usually tied back in a tight bun as her mother preferred, now lay like a still, smooth blanket across her shoulders. Her non-blinking gaze appeared to be fixed on nothing. It was not uncommon for her to drift away from reality, buried deep in her thoughts.
She sat rigidly, but without discomfort – her mind was too far from her physical self. Down the hall, her mother opened the door to the linen closet, probably retrieving the good lace tablecloth for tonight’s dinner. Its squeaky hinges rattled Ella from her daydream. She blinked and slowly swiveled her head, as if absorbing new surroundings. Her gaze caught a corner of the framed photo that peeked out from beneath her tangled fingers.
Within the silver frame’s perimeter, a faded newlywed couple smiled back at her. The young man wore a dark suit with threadbare elbows and a mismatched replacement button on his torso. His lackluster shoes were partially hidden by oversized pants, which brushed the floor. Ella noticed the left cuff had found its way beneath his scuffed shoe. Despite his shabby attire, his face displayed a look of utmost pride. He grinned, not at the photographer, but at his bride, who leaned into him, resting her cheek against his chest. She was draped in a simple but oversized, ivory dress, with lace that kissed her collarbone and tickled her wrists. She stood on barefoot tiptoes, her whimsical smile looking perfectly natural beneath her tiara of daisies.
Ella held the photo in sweaty hands, staring hard into the eyes of the bride. A light breeze came through the window, dancing the thin white curtain into Ella’s line of sight and drawing her attention from the picture. Soft laughter brought her focus to the sidewalk below. She spotted her neighbor, Beverly Westfall, who was walking her wiry white terrier, chattering to him as if he were her child.
Triggered by thoughts of the young lovers in the photo, Ella mind shifted to the rumors that had been flitting through her small town for as long as she could remember.
Was it Beverly Westfall they were talking about?
Perhaps it was.
Ella looked hard at her neighbor, scouring her mental catalogue for this woman with cloud-colored hair and skin creased from years of wear.
Yes, it must be poor Beverly.
Ella’s mother never spoke of it, but the stories still found their way to Ella. More than once, she heard the juicy details from passersby in the street below her window. One sticky August day she had been sitting with her doll on the front porch swing. Hidden from the world by the sheet of ivy that wound up her mother’s trellis, she overheard two young women sharing the tale.
As with all gossip, each telling provided some variation in the details, but the main storyline remained the same:
The day after graduation, Beverly had married her high school sweetheart, Clifton. Her family had tried for months to persuade her to wait, knowing the struggles that lay ahead, but Beverly refused. Clifton worked for the local florist and she would earn some extra money working as a seamstress. The young couple was poor and quite unprepared to leave the safety of their parents’ homes, but despite their daily financial struggles, they were blissfully happy. Their long public kisses and private conversations drew the envy of many.
The couple was eager to expand their new family. They discussed their yearning for a baby with everyone. For Beverly it became almost an obsession. Family members often witnessed her stuffing handmade dolls with old rags or assembling patchwork pieces of fabric into a baby blanket, but after three years, doctors determined she was barren.
Not long after that, the problems began. The once-smitten couple began fighting often, even in public. Jimmy Abel said that Clifton once hurled a teacup at his wife during a spat at his diner, loudly accusing her of having gone mad. The fighting continued for months until one day, with no note and no goodbye, Clifton was gone.
For weeks, Beverly didn’t leave the home. Most days she watched the street, as if waiting for her beloved to return from a long day at the flower shop. When a sympathetic neighbor gave a wave or a tip of the hat, she would stare, blankly, through them. Folks wanted to help, but Beverly wouldn’t hear of it. “He’ll be home soon. Don’t worry.”
When Beverly could no longer pay for her house, she was forced to pack her few belongings and return home to her mother. She isolated herself from everyone, rarely leaving the house. When people came to visit, Beverly stayed firmly behind her bedroom door.
Throughout the decades, Beverly has seldom been seen: an annual visit to the doctor’s office, an occasional walk to the park at her mother’s insistence, a short trip to the mailbox. She has become almost legendary in the small town: The woman driven mad by a broken heart.
Ella watched Beverly escort her dog back into the house. She must be feeling better today, thought Ella. Maybe Clifton finally came home, she wondered hopefully.
The door behind her opened and her mother leaned into the room.
“Darling, please put on your nice dress. Our dinner guests will be here soon.”
Ella slowly turned to face her mother, “Who’s coming?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Westfall. They will be here soon,” replied her mother.
“Beverly?” asked Ella quietly. She looked bewildered as her mother crossed the room towards her. The woman stopped beside her daughter and gazed upon her with a mixed look of pity and exasperation.
She ran her fingers through Ella’s long silvery hair and asked, “Ella, what are you doing with that old picture of you and Clifton? I thought we had gotten rid of all of those years ago.”