Category Archives: Short Story

A Light Found in Darkness

A Light Found in Darkness

For three years of my Coast Guard career, I was stationed as a cook on one of the services most untypical cutters, a construction tender. This was no technologically advanced, drug interdicting, life-saving, high seas ship.  She was over thirty years old, dented, and black with rust protruding from her crevices. A seventy-five-foot tugboat with an eighty-four-foot crane barge strung to the front with two-inch steel cables. It was slow; only capable of moving ten nautical miles an hour. She was a work boat but reliable and steadfast. Her crew was small for a Coast Guard ship; fourteen men including our Captain. We were as close to brothers as shipmates could be.

Our Captain was a twenty-eight-year veteran ship operator. He was a thin, old, and weathered Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate who seemed more like a crewmember than our leader, but knew when to draw the line. Our normal mission was to maintain and construct aids to navigation pylon markers and buoys along the inter-coastal shipping channels between Port O’Connor and South Padre Island, Texas. For three years, things were as normal and mundane as could be until my last patrol where things got a little more interesting – even a little extraordinary.

Moored for the evening at the Coast Guard station in South Padre Island, our intentions were to rest and head back to our homeport in Corpus Christi the following morning. We had spent two weeks reconstructing the channel markers along the narrow Laguna Madre channel. We were exhausted and ready to reunite with our families. It was 3 O’clock in the morning when we got the call. The midnight watch stander broke into the berthing area, out of breath and with a trembling southern draw yells “Get your coveralls on! The bridge fell down and there are cars and people in the water!” I awoke suddenly in disbelief, thinking this was some sort of joke. I saw the watch stander’s face and immediately knew this would be no ordinary day.

The date was September 15th, 2001, four days after the attacks on the World Trade Center. On a ship where the days are redundantly routine, structured, and slow paced, I had never seen movement with such urgency. There were coffin racks being thrown open and the sound of 13 men frantically trying to dress and get their boots on without beating each other senseless with their arms outstretching through their uniform sleeves. Our Captain had us muster up on the bow of the tug but didn’t have a lot of information. All we could do is speculate that this was another terrorist attack. Surely our Captain would have more information as the situation continued to unfold.

The Captain was bewildered and nervous as this was probably one of the most intense things he had experienced within the last two decades of his career. He had no real answers for the crew, only advice, and he said “Prepare for the worst, work together, and safety is everyone’s responsibility so keep an eye out for each other; let’s go see what we can do.” We made quick work of clearing the barge deck by shifting the 60-foot pylons to one side and bringing the smaller construction supplies below decks, anticipating that we would need a place for bodies or wreckage.

It seemed like forever between the time we unmoored and made it through the winding inlet between South Padre Island and the Queen Isabella Causeway but it was only about fifteen minutes and still very dark. As we made our approach, there were already three small Coast Guard boats on scene taking turns shining their high-powered spotlights through what used to be a 500-foot span of the causeway into the dark sky and then alternating toward the churning, murky brown water below in search of survivors. The small boats were shining lights through the opening to warn drivers of the perils that lay ahead.  We could clearly see the streams of light as it reflected off of the dense humidity in the air, but to the unsuspecting drivers, it was not so obvious.

Through the distance, you could hear the sound of screeching tires, but only for a brief second. The drivers only had a second to react but it wasn’t enough time.  Next we heard the twisting metal and splashing as each car made impact with the exposed support pillar and then the water. I had never felt so helpless in all my life. It was like a dream where you’re running but not going anywhere, your muscles unable to work and unable to even belt out a scream. Seconds felt like hours as we just stood there, not knowing how many more cars would come before the police could block the causeway from both directions.

An hour later, the sky grew lighter and revealed an eerie scene of two dozen rescue boats, helicopters, and the wreckage of one vehicle crushed like a tin can against a support beam just above the water line. Department of Transportation workers were surveying the damage, standing at the edge of the 85-foot drop. A water pipe that traveled under the causeway continued to flow. The water cascaded down and became more of a spray as it got further away and contended with the whipping gulf wind. About 500 yards away was a tugboat with a long string of barges attached to it. It seemed like an odd place for a barge to be hanging out, but we thought it might be waiting to pass under the bridge so we paid it no mind. South Padre Island had no other bridge and also no ferry service. Electricity and fresh water were now cut off and no one could get on or off the island. The small city was isolated from the mainland. The warm sun began to shine and it was reported that no one survived. A feeling of hopelessness filled the air and silently we all stared at each other knowing this rescue effort had turned into a recovery effort.

I made my way to the galley to make breakfast for the crew. I was the only cook on board and I instinctively knew that keeping morale high and providing some normalcy was extremely important in a situation like this. The Captain informed me that our ship was going to become a command and control platform used to carry out the recovery mission. He asked if I could keep everyone fed until the Red Cross could establish a way to send meals out. I knew my food inventory was limited since we were supposed to be heading back to homeport that very same day. I told him that I would feed as many people for as long as I could, given what supplies I had.

Before I knew it, we had over 80 people onboard. State and Federal agency small boats tied off to the side of our ship. We had Sherriff’s Officers, Fire and Rescue personnel, and even Texas Rangers. I only had enough food for our crew to last two or three days. For the next six hours, I cooked everything I had in my pantry. I prepared and served an odd assortment of food and I did my best to carefully match the items so they weren’t too outrageously paired. It was quite the smorgasbord. Looking back, it was nice to be away from the scene for a little while, tucked away in my tiny sanctuary toward the stern doing what I loved to do but soon that would change.

Later that day, law enforcement officials informed us that a tugboat pushing a long string of barges had struck one of the center bridge support pillars causing the collapse. I thought back to the tugboat we saw on the side of the channel, and it immediately became clear that it was responsible for the horrific accident. An important part of this recovery effort and the investigation process was documenting the operation on film. The footage would be reviewed later by law enforcement agencies during the investigation process, for training, and for Coast Guard ‘lessons learned’ purposes.

Although our ship seemed to be well-suited and well-equipped for this type of operation, the Coast Guard has never been a part of anything similar to this in the past. Normally, salvaging cars and bodies from the water would be left to some type of salvage barge but we were already on scene and capable of performing the task.  While awaiting the arrival of the U.S. Navy Divers, I continued to provide meals until I had barely a crumb left. The Red Cross responded just in time and began sending meals out to the ship; I no longer needed to cook. With no real purpose after my food was expended, I was asked to film the recovery operation once it began, so I hung up my apron and took to the camera. The divers were ready to go and the camera was rolling.

One by one, we plucked three cars from the bottom with ease. Each car was placed and held vertically on the bow and transported to another nearby barge so the bodies could be extracted, identified, and transported to shore. It was a gruesome scene with the cars and bodies badly mangled. As the vehicles were pulled up vertically by their chassis, water gushed out from their torn open windshields, carrying miscellaneous debris and a heavy smell of gasoline and rotting flesh. Airbags were hanging from the front of each car like collapsed grocery bags half-filled with water; the people inside looked translucent and waterlogged as if they were not even real. The warm water of the Gulf and the blue crabs had viciously taken their toll on the victims in just a short time. Their faces and arms were chewed up and gouged; their skin was loose and pruned with pieces dangling as they were suspended in their seats. The smell of decomposition was inconceivable, like the smell of a million dead and rotting barnacles at low tide times ten. Most of the crew had never seen a dead body before, let alone anything gruesome like this.

The bodies were laid out and their pockets were cut open to retrieve any form of identification. I will never forget one man that we pulled from a car. His arms and wrists were locked in front of him; elbows bent the opposite way as if tried to brace for impact and they buckled backwards. His eyes were wide open and a translucent blue. The look of complete terror on his face will haunt me forever. I remember wondering what it must have been like for them in their last moments. One female was pulled from the backseat of her blue Ford Mustang. A rescue worker explained that she probably crawled to the back to get air when she couldn’t escape. Her hands were badly bruised and a greasy vomit film covered the inside back windshield. He said she was probably trying to punch out the window but eventually the car completely filled with water and she ingested and vomited water back and forth until she died.

I remember feeling a tremendous amount of angst and sadness and a fear of death that I had never felt before. It must have been a terrifying way to die; to be driving along one minute listening to your favorite tunes and the next minute fighting for your life while you sink into darkness. Just as the fourth car was about to be rigged up, the divers described the scene underwater as they examined the best way to attach the crane cable. My heart sank when they reported a male and female couple and a child seat in the car. My son was only a year old at the time and I couldn’t help but personalize the situation. I was not prepared to see a child in the same condition as the rest of the people we had retrieved. I’m not normally a religious person, but I prayed with all my conviction for a miracle.

As we anxiously waited for the divers to prepare the fourth car for retrieval, I noticed a second section of the bridge inching its way off its support pillars. Earlier in the day, there seemed to be about eight inches of overlap atop of the pillars. It must have been the heat of the hot summer day that was causing the bridge to expand, and several hours later there only seemed to be about two inches overlapping. This was not a good sign, since our ship and the divers were right under the bridge performing the recovery and transportation officials were standing directly on top of the unstable structure.

I immediately ran to the bridge to alert the Captain and frantically exclaimed, “Senior Chief, we need to get the divers out of the water and back up, that bridge is coming down!” With no hesitation, he ordered the divers out of the water using the loud speaker. He was also yelling to alert the transportation workers on top of the bridge to get off. We were waving our hands and screaming for them to run. As soon as the last diver was aboard, the Captain started backing down with all the ships might. The transportation workers were running for their lives.

We couldn’t have been more than twenty-five feet away when a second 500,000-pound section of the bridge came crashing down with a deep thunderous crack and then a brief silence just before it made impact with the water. Everyone just froze with fear and astonishment. The fallen section generated a massive splash and a wave that rocked the ship to the likes she had never seen before because she was an inland cutter.  When the sea settled down, I could see the unmistakable look of relief on everyone’s faces. We all knew just how close we were to death and further tragedy.

From that point forward, we proceeded more cautiously. We headed for shore and waited two days for the remaining support pillars to be reinforced with cables. The last few days had taken their toll on us emotionally, and seeing the family members eager for closure was making the situation even tougher to cope with. I remember feeling relieved that we avoided a second tragedy, but the scene on shore overshadowed that. The police lights that were barely visible an hour earlier were now much brighter against the evening sky. Family members of the victims were standing at the edge of the water waiting for answers and for closure. I could tell how dispirited they were to see us coming in and their loved ones were still not found. I wanted so badly to help them, but there was obviously nothing I could do to erase their grief and torment.

As I made my way off the ship to head into town for food supplies, an older woman was standing near the pier holding a baby boy, maybe only a year old, and wearing only a diaper. The woman looked as though she had not slept for days and the cheeks below her eyes were swollen and red, revealing her distress as if she had been weeping for equally as long. The baby was crying hysterically as if he was somehow able to know that something was very wrong. The reflections of red and blue strobe lights were glistening off the tears running down his face. With a motherly instinct, she was trying to be strong and comfort the child, as any nurturing caregiver would do but it was evident that she needed comfort herself. As we disembarked the cutter, she somberly approached us and asked if we had found her daughter or son in-law. She said the two of them had been out celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary and never came home.

I froze—crippled with anguish and unable to fathom her loss. I didn’t quite know how to react or what to say. The only words I could muster up were that I didn’t know anything. My conscience felt heavy and I wanted nothing more than to tell her what she needed to hear but I could not. I directed her to seek answers from the other law enforcement officials standing nearby. My heart wrenched and my stomach nauseatingly turned because I knew exactly where her loved ones were but I was in no official position to inform her of what we discovered that day. Suddenly, it occurred to me that she was holding the baby and we would not find the body of a child in the fourth car.  I was emotionally overwhelmed with sadness but relieved at the same time. The baby was safe,  but his parents were sitting at the bottom of Laguna Madre with a 250-ton section of bridge crushing them deeper into the muddy bottom and this child would grow up without them.

Two days later, we set out to what remained of the Queen Isabella Causeway and urgently began recovering the remaining vehicles.  Throughout that week, we were able to recover all of the cars by dragging them out from under the rubble. The families, although stricken with immense grief, were grateful for our efforts and were at least able to find closure and some peace. I remember getting back home after the mission and hugging my family harder and with more sentiment than ever before. I have never been the same after that week; nor have my shipmates who shared this experience.

I felt like a piece of me was gone but replaced with something more profound; a light that I had never taken the time to see. It was replaced with a greater sense of purpose for my life and a deeper appreciation for the ones I love. The blind piece of indestructibility within me had vanished allowing the light to touch my soul deeply. The incident taught me that life is frail and indefinite and to cherish each day and every moment in it because you never know just how extraordinary the next turn might be.

Jeffrey Lester, 2nd Place in Short Story



Rapidly rhythmic thumps dripped from footfalls moving discretely through an empty manor house.  Silence was key here, and though the feet were clumsy, they were almost inaudible.  The sun had already dropped below the horizon and left the smoky blue of night air.  Any other evening would have been spoiled by even the chirping of crickets.  Would have, had the dashing gentleman thief, The Scarlet Specter, not had anything to do with it!

Though the streets were only dimly lit by flickering oil-lanterns, the night was alive with the song of laughter ringing from the one and only crimson-robed robber of the city as he danced between the grasping mitts of the guards.  Men who stood guard with dignity and stoicism by day, and gave the very air the smell of an absolute certainty now bumbled over their own stuffy uniforms, fumbling for their sabers and muskets.  Though he certainly made a way of ducking and weaving with his body, the guards quickly had him circled up, their bayonets pointed and ready.  Sheepishly, the Scarlet Specter smiled and raised his hands in mock fear at their blushing ears and tight scowls.  The little mask he tied round his face barely covered his forehead to the tip of his nose, making his face mockingly easy to see.

Two of the guards broke formation, saluting the stout man who moved to fill their positions. His whiskers wiggled in his nose as he snorted and straightened his hat.  The foppish blue feather in his hat showing his rank bobbed pompously.

“Good to see you’re right in the streets where I left you.”  The captain’s words growled from beneath their willowy curtain.  Being a dashing man, the Specter replied in kind.

“I’d never dream of leaving without saying goodbye, especially to such a stunning bird,” he punctuated with a gesture to the gaudy blue plume.  “But I should probably get going before too long.”

“Oh, I think I’ll have to insist you stay…” the captain motioned for the guards to move in.

“Sorry, captain, other ladies will want to dance tonight.”  The Specter bowed forward.  When the guards reached for him he leaned and bowled himself over, tumbling under the men grasping at air.  “Give the missus my best!”  He stood and turned on his heel twirling the bright blue feather he had plucked on his way out.  With another sing-song laugh he took off again, the captain throwing his now bare hat on the ground in frustration.


                The Specter tried to stifle his chuckles as he rolled and ran and crouched between and street-stands and empty coaches.  He already knew himself faster than any of those guards, and he knew these streets better than the oldest architects.  But still, moving in and out unseen simply seemed pointlessly boring.  It’s not like he could just sell whatever he stole as the Scarlet Specter, much less what he would even want with that kind of money.  If anything the most valuable thing he could get from these people is the fame within his infamy.  After all, it’s hardly dashing to be a ghost in the night.

He moved fluidly into a half opened window in the governor’s manor-house, more of an aimed lift than climbing.  Even with all his ability he knew it would be down-right foolish to make himself rich with those worthless trinkets, but it seemed good to be dashing.  And a dashing gent always makes himself known.

He walked at a leisurely pace through the tastelessly decadent home, considering how he would make his appearance with his newest prize.  The governor isn’t here now.  He would probably be calming the fuming guards and shooing astounded civilians from the streets.  The Specter finally came upon the cellar door, an angled gate to a staircase in the floor.  He let himself inside, gently leaning the latch shut behind him.  At the bottom of the steps he lit the lantern hanging at the wall and saw the object of the night’s festivities, on a rounded square table, in the back of the room, in a delicately carved chest.

He opened the chest and saw it: small, and very fragile, and all the more beautiful for it.  A rosebud, carved of black volcanic glass held on a stem of gold and silver.  It lay in a box lined with velvet and silk, soft plush forming to the rose to keep it safe.  The Specter let out a soft sigh at the sight of it, and gingerly closed the lid, clasping the pair of locks shut.  He rummaged in his coat under his bright red cloak for his calling card.  After each theft he left behind a pomander of cinnamon and spice, made in a little ball of red cloth.  Ironically these little gifts were the most expensive thing the Specter owned, but that made sure it was unique enough to be noticed.

He grabbed the box and tried to turn away, but was stopped.  Another hand slapped onto the box from the darkness.  It pulled away from the Specter.  He tightened his grip and whirled around, catching the interloper’s arm in his cloak.  He wrapped the grip as tight as he could.  Another thief was here, dressed in all black, a full mask covered all but his eyes.

“What are you doing!?”  The Scarlet Specter’s whisper-scream finally broke the silence.

“I’m taking this box.  It’s worth a lot of money.” The thief’s reply was in a poorly disguised growl, as he struggled, his arm pinned within the cloak.

“Wha-who the hell are you!?  Don’t do a damn voice if I don’t even know you!”

“I’m a thief”

“I can see you’re a thief!  Look at you!”  He pulled the man in black closer.  “You’re head to toe in black, and you’re stealing something worth a lot of money in the night, obviously a thief.”

“Well I didn’t want to be caught or seen.  Black helps with that when it’s dark out.”  The Specter sneered at the sarcasm.

“There’s better ways to be getting money than stealing something like this.  And look at you, no one’s even going to say anything but ‘a thief!’ You should at least make yourself a bit more…” he trailed off gesturing with free arm to his bright clothes.

“What, obtuse?”

“Dashing!”  Without realizing it, the robber lost his grip with his numbing arm, and in an opposite spin the Scarlet Specter was untangled from him, and made a break for the cellar door, the box under arm.  He burst through the gate of the cellar and bolted through the dark empty house, breaking out the front door to a welcome of lanterns held by the city guard.

For what was the first time ever, the ever-boisterous Scarlet Specter was caught paralyzed in the middle of an act of theft.  The guards were just as dumbfounded as he, but they still managed to point weapons at him before a single thought occurred.  The problem here solved itself, as the box was torn from under his arm, and he was knocked reeling.

The black-garbed robber exploded out of the house in a full sprint, and ripped past the guards with the box against his chest.  One surprise after another confused the guards and they yelled after him, weapons still pointed at the Specter.  They grumbled about not caring about the theft nearly as much as bragging about getting the infamous accomplice.  They turned back to the house but only a little red cloth-ball sat at the ends of their muskets.

The captain tore through the line of guards and shoved them powerfully aside as he desperately gasped for breath.  His shoulders shook at the sight of the pomander being the only thing that was cornered.  He ignored their stammering excuses until he heard them talk about the second thief.  His face calmed and he picked up the pomander.

“They aren’t accomplices; just two thieves after the same thing.  Follow the man in black.  We have a better chance of catching him than the blasted clown.”


                Nervous sweat stuck cold and rolled off the robber’s hot-flushed face.  He hadn’t considered that the Scarlet Specter would be there for the same thing, much less tonight.  Even worse he’s just made himself an enemy of the guards who shouldn’t have known anything.  He cursed his stupidity as he panicked and pushed through dozens of locals and regular folk just to get out of the manor.  His breath was becoming ragged as he made erratic turns.  The air felt heavy with cold in his lungs.  He ducked into an alley to catch his breath and form a plan.  He held the box tightly to his chest, swearing he would be running again in just a second.  He heard a giggle.

“Sorry, dear, looks like we’ll have to cut this date short,” the robber saw in the further darkness of the alley was the Scarlet Specter.  He smiled behind a bundle of scented cloth, which was the only thing between his lips and the merchant girl leaning into him.  The thief’s jaw dropped in his mask.

The Specter tossed the pomander at him, catching him by surprise between the eyes.  He ducked out of the girl’s arms and slipped his hand under the box, pushing it through the thief’s grip and high into the air.  He stood posed outside the alley, and caught the box as it fell into his waiting hand.  He met the robber’s glare with a grin.  He wasn’t wearing his red cloak.

“Tell me young thief, what’s the most important thing a man can be?”  The robber didn’t consider his words, and stepped forward angrily.  As a final movement, the Specter sang out:  “Dashing!”  He bent with a spin and tugged his cloak from the ground under the robber’s feet, tumbling him off his feet and on his rear.   The robber gritted his teeth as he saw the Scarlet Specter disappear into the city.  The merchant girl giggled again and left him to fume alone in the alley.  He noticed that the wall was rough with wide spaces between bricks, wide enough for footholds.  He grinned under his mask.


                The Scarlet Specter by now was quite certain he’d made an impression on the young thief.  He had to be young, though his face was wholly covered by that scarf; it was tied neatly in the back with a bow.  It was probably the only tie the boy knew.  He sincerely hoped his antics had not left too bitter a taste with him, after all, it’s all a part of the show, and no one invited the boy on stage.

The Specter considered making a big show of himself tomorrow.  Perhaps make an act of returning the onyx rose in public, only to snatch something else before their eyes!  Being caught before the stage is set can make the whole act a big flop unless one really gives the audience a treat.  He smiled thinking of the girl in the alley who recognized him so fast, and fell dreamily into his arms.

A sudden jolt bowled him off his feet, and out into the cobblestone road from the side-street. The robber in black tumbled with the Specter, grabbing and wrestling any way he could.  They pushed and rolled away from each other only in time for a stagecoach to trot over where they’d been.  The pair’s eyes met contestably for only a moment, before they fell to the pristine box.  It sat silently in the street.  They both dove for it, grappling and wrestling boorishly for control.  They angrily fought for what felt like hours in the cold street.  It could only have been moments, as they finally were stopped by the sound of a gruff voice and a circle of bayonets.  The Scarlet Spector’s eyes met with the captain, his blue feather stuck arrogantly in his hat.  The smile on the captain’s face stretched his moustache across his whole face.


                The two thieves sat at opposite ends of a musty cell.  The floors were wet, and the iron on their wrists was cold as the Specter fidgeted.  They glared at each other through their masks.  The guards were ordered to keep their masks on them, so the captain could make a show of unmasking the two for the governor when he came for his jewelry box.  The Scarlet Specter snorted and finally spoke.

“I can’t believe this.  I can’t believe you!  You got me caught!  I was so perfect at this!  Heroic!  Dashing! And some little sneak got me caught…”  He groaned and sighed as he let his head fall back against the wall.  He stared at the ceiling.  “I think I might hate you.”

“Hate me all you like, it doesn’t make much of a difference here.  And anyway, if some random sneak was enough to get you here it doesn’t seem you were that perfect.”  The Specter suddenly looked back to the robber curiously.

“Hey, yeah, how did you even catch up with me to tackle me?  I was way ahead of you.  I got far enough ahead to seduce a girl when you had a head-start, but you caught right up to me.”  The robber saw genuine childish interest in the Specter’s face and decided to answer him.

“I climbed on the roof from that alley, ran along the top of buildings.  It wasn’t hard to spot you from up there.”

“That’s brilliant, that’s stupendous!  If you can get the look down that would be absolutely enthralling!” His face lit up with happiness at the novelty in the idea.  They both hushed as they heard the sound of a door opening from the front of the building.  The governor’s pompous chattering followed.  Metal clattered on the wet stone floor.  The Scarlet Specter rubbed his cold wrists where the cuffs had been as he stood and stretched.  The robber looked at his own sturdy irons and looked up at the Specter.

“It’s not really dashing to hold grudges at times like these, is it?”  The Specter answered with only a wicked grin.


                The governor waddled into the dungeon proper, showed through doorways by the captain, his gut sucked deeply in to impress.  A new, white feather bobbed with the blue one in his hat; clearly his superiors were happy with his capture.  The color drained from the captain’s face, but quickly filled again with a steaming purple-red as he looked upon an empty cell.  The governor snatched the white feather from the captain’s cap.  Two young guards ran in, in a panic and met the captain with a salute.

“C-captain!  We opened the box and it was empty, no rose!  They must have taken it out before we caught them; maybe they have it on them-” the captain threw his hat on the ground and stormed out of the dungeon, the pudgy governor shrieking behind him.  In the middle of the empty cell was the pair of cuffs, and the black scarf the robber wore, laid out with the shape of a mask like the Scarlet Specter cut out of it.

– Kevin Thomas, 1st Place in Short Story

Ground Zero

Ground Zero


I’ve always loved Lex, but I’ve also always hated him. And that tends to make things kind of complicated.

I am not straightening my hair today, because it is January first. a day for new beginnings, and also because I don’t  feel like it. My head is pounding and my stomach roiling, but I didn’t drink last night. I just kissed Lex at the stroke of twelve.

Yeah, there it is. The first thing I did this year was make out with Lex. Way to go, self. Way to set the pace for the rest of the year. Way to stick with your one and only New Year’s resolution.

But I did it, and there’s no going back. So I leave the house without straightening my hair.

My follicles are for sure singing the Hallelujah chorus.

The stupid private school I go to is the only one in America that makes us show up on New Year’s Day (probably). Don’t they realize they’re just begging for a hungover disaster? I mean, not that there’s been one yet. But you never know, you know?

So I’m walking along and mulling this over when suddenly…

There’s Lex.

First day of the year and Lex wears a lime green suit. Of course he would. And of course he’s the one person in the wide world who looks good in a lime green suit, despite his olive skin and the neon purple streak in his otherwise jet black hair.

And his tennis shoes are blue.

He smiles nervously, showing his toothpaste-ad teeth.

“Good morning. Grayson,” he murmurs, thrusting his hands into his jacket pockets and making me want to thrust my tongue into his mouth for the second time today.

But all I really do is smile (demure is a good word here) and nod.

Lex’s shoulders drop just a bit, but the grin shines on ever so brightly. I know what I do to him, but I do it anyways.

So then he takes his hands from his pockets, letting them swing at his sides for a few moments before holding one hand out to me.

An invitation. Its RSVP will soon pass, so I’d better think – act – fast.

And because I’m feeling different, random, fresh, and new… Because I hate the way he can be so uncoordinatedly matching… Because I didn’t straighten my hair today…

I grab his hand and lace our fingers together, so that Lex and I walk to school together on January first.


Shanna snorted lines off my stomach last night, which is as close as I’II ever get to doing drugs. But Shanna is my best friend, so I basically let her use me for whatever she wants.

Only right now she is looking so trashed that I rethink our whole relationship, the way I always do when this happens.

She groans when she sees Lex and me.

“Hello to you, beautiful,” I laugh in that way that isn’t really laughing. I’m not being sarcastic when I tell her she is beautiful. Even when she’s coming off a high, she is the prettiest girl I know.

“Grayson,” Shanna wails miserably, coming at me with her arms outstretched.

I drop Lex’s hand apologetically, regretfully. His eyes bore into mine for a split second and then he disappears.

Now Shanna wraps her arms around me.

“Grayson, I feel awful,” she moans. I’m used to this too. Shanna never thinks about consequences, and I always hear about it the next day.

“I feel awful too,” I admit. And I completely do. Like I said, my head? My stomach? Both going insane, but I don’t know why and then of course there is the matter of Lex.

Because I don’t know what I’m doing.

I never know what I’m doing when Lex is around. He has a hold on my brain that he won’t let go. I love him with every fiber of my being.

But I hate him for making me so stupid.

Only Shanna assumes that I mean I’m hungover, since she can’t remember enough from last night to remember that I did not drink anything stronger than Pepsi. And I was the one who drove her home.

So since she assumes that I mean I’m hungover, she pulls back from me gingerly. I don’t want her to go. I want her arms around me. She is always very warm and very welcoming.

But I don’t argue with her. It’s no use. The bell is about to ring and the day is about to start, and that is already upsetting enough as it is.

And then there’s the bell. Shanna gives me a sad smile, a tiny wave that’s really just a waggle of her fingertips, and she leaves, and now I will be alone for the rest of the day.


The school is finally going to get the hungover disaster it’s been begging for, and I am going to bear the brunt of it.

If Lex were in any of my classes, he would get his share too. But he never gets his share. It’s only ever me, and that’s because I’m “the promiscuous one,” if your definition of promiscuous is someone who kisses boys unabashedly often, and Lex has only ever kissed me, as far as kissing boys goes.

Oh, and also? I turned Lex on to liking guys in the first place. I’ve always been pretty hated for that.

I could just run away, so to speak. I could skip class and go home, but that would be cowardly of me, to say the least. And I’m not like that. I don’t run.

Chris Hennessy has decided that I was wasted last night and had my kinky way with Lex. No use in trying to convince him otherwise, since he was the one who was wasted, and besides, he’s always harbored a secret crush on Lex. Though it’s not so secret to me.

The second I walk into my journalism class, it begins.

He sits in my desk, for starters. He looks like crap. Or, well, more so than usual.

I sit in the seat behind my usual one, trying to ignore Chris. As if that has ever worked before.

He calls me a faggot, but that doesn’t bother me. He grabs my wrist and yanks me forward over the desktop, but that doesn’t bother me. He wraps his hand around my throat in a choke grip, but that doesn’t bother me.

Everybody is watching, and he brings up Lex’s name. That bothers me.

I kick my legs up so my foot smashes into the back of his knee, the way he’s sitting. He drops his hold on me and lurches forward. I hope he’s in pain.

It would not be running if I left now. I whisper it to myself as I stand up to leave.

But then a fist collides with my face and I black out, so I couldn’t even run if I wanted to.


I wish I could say Lex is there when I come to, but he isn’t even. Neither is Shanna. I’m not incredibly surprised. I wouldn’t expect Shanna to be there, just because she probably wouldn’t find out about something like this until way later.

And I wouldn’t expect Lex to be here since that would mean people finding out about us possibly being on-again. And God knows neither of us can handle that, even though it’s not as if Lex would get hell for it. People see him as the innocent victim, the poor guy suffering from Stockholm syndrome and then there’s me, the evil corruptor who is holding Lex captive forever.

But it so totally isn’t even like that. Lex and I pretty much love each other, I guess, for about ninety percent of the time.

The other ten percent of the time? That’s  when we hate each other, both wish we were dead, both wish the other was dead, and everyone else in the world (except for maybe Shanna, although I do have my suspicions about her too) is thrilled to pieces, because it means no more of the gay boys’ love affair for the time being.

And that is exactly what they fear and hate so much: the gay boys’ love affair. Or possibly the gay boys themselves, although I don’t think that’s it. I think they’re afraid of the fact that we are different and don’t care. We don’t fit in. Never have, never will. So they try to force us into place, but everyone knows what happens when you try to connect two wrong pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Eventually, they break.


So again, I am alone when I come to.

Well. I mean, not totally alone. The school nurse is there, but she’s weird. She doesn’t count. I couldn’t care less if she was there or not. Only she’s all bent over me ,looking  at my face.

“Um…excuse me,” I say. My voice sounds weird.

“What?” she barks. Not even “Yes?” or something polite. Reason numero uno why I hate the school nurse.

“Can I just go?” I ask her.

She sighs and walks away, grabs an ice pack from the mini-freezer and tosses it at me. “Keep the swelling down. You’II be fine in a few days.”

“Can I go home?” My head is starting to throb. I want to go to sleep.

“Go ahead. Here’s your pass.” She hands me a slip of paper and practically dropkicks me out the door.

I don’t drive. Anyone who pays attention knows this about me. I like to walk. It makes me feel more like I’m going somewhere.

So I push open the front door of the school, ignoring the security guard who is screaming at me that I can’t leave.

News flash, dude: Anybody can leave. Just not many ever do.


I pass a storefront and catch my reflection. Both of my eyes are puffy and bruised. I look like hell. I sort of feel like it, too.

It’s not even like I have anywhere to go right now. I’m sort of just walking aimlessly.

I’ve gotten rid of the ice pack ages ago by this point. Don’t ask why, but I’ve always figured that if someone causes me pain, they probably had a reason, good or not, so I should experience the pain instead of trying to make it go away. That’s generally how Lex succeeds in destroying me, during those ten-percent times.

I want food. I’m not particularly hungry, but I want food. So I’m going to go to my one safe haven, the one place where I can’t be touched.

Christian is Lex’s half-brother. He is very gorgeous and very perfect. Very smart and very kind and he can cook like a wizard. He is twenty-three, lives on his own, and is not close to Lex in any way. They’re only brothers in the most technical sense of the word, and even then, they don’t even share the same mother, so as you can imagine, they’re pretty distant.

I knock on Christian’s door when I get there. The most depressing feeling washes over me, an ache in my throat like I’m going to cry. I’m not upset, but it’s just that I know that Christian will be able to make me feel better, and even though I don’t like to make my own pain go away, I so welcome other people making it go away for me.

Christian comes to the door in boxers. Um, nothing except his boxers. His hair is all over the place and he is squinting at the sunlight. Fantastic. I definitely just woke him up.

But then he opens his eyes wide, taking in my bruised face, and he grabs my arm and pulls me inside. “Grayson Ryan Carroll!” Christian exclaims. His voice is even deeper than normal, having just woken up.

“Um, Christian Mitchell Cornell?” I say softly.

His dark blue eyes fill with concern and his brows knit together. “God, Grayson, what happened?” he mutters, leading  me to the kitchen so we can sit down at the bar.

“Uh, well,” I start, “I left school. With a pass, but still. I left.”

Christian sighs. “Grayson. I know that. What happened to your face?”

“Chris Hennessy happened.”

“He’s the one who did it last time?”

“He is.”

“Why this time?”

“Because I was wasted last night and I had my way with Lex.”

I know that Christian will get it. He’ll realize that that’s not actually what happened. He’s got fantastic insight, another reason why he is my safe place.

Christian’s eyes dart back and forth between mine for a few seconds, and then he breaks the stare. “Your hair isn’t straight today.” he points out.

I sigh heavily but grin. That was exactly what I needed. “So,” I say.

“So,” he says.

I shrug. I don’t want to just ask him outright for food. That feels too much like I’m taking advantage of him.

But like I said, Christian’s got fantastic insight. He stands up and walks over to the fridge. “So, do you want something to eat, then, Grayson?” he asks.

.               “I do,” I reply. I can’t disguise my excitement. I am not fat or anything, but food – eating in general – makes me happy, and like I’ve been saying, Christian is amazing in the kitchen.

“Want anything in particular?” He opens the refrigerator.

And here it is again. It’s January first, and I feel different. Which is why I didn’t straighten my hair. Which is why I tell Christian I want bacon.

His jaw drops. “You want bacon?!” he repeats.

“Yes. I want bacon.”

“But…but you’re,l ike, the most diehard vegetarian I’ve ever known, Grayson! You haven’t eaten meat for, what, six years? Why do you suddenly say you want bacon?!”

I shrug. He may think this is completely out of the blue, but I think it’s been a long time coming.

“Geez, Grayson, are… are you sure? Are you sure you want…you want bacon?”

“You may have stuttered, Christian, but I didn’t. Can you please just do this for me?”

He looks at me long and hard, then starts pulling ingredients out of the refrigerator.


I’m sitting at the bar in Christian’s kitchen eating the most fabulous BLT, knowing I’m probably going  to be sick later since I haven ‘t eaten meat in over half a decade, seeing as how I gave it up when I was twelve.

Christian watches me eat, his head resting in his hands. He’s put on a shirt and jeans by now, and I don’t think he’s in a particularly great mood. But then again, maybe that’s just me projecting.

When I’m done with my sandwich, I push the plate away. The crumbs are pissing me off for some unexplainable reason. I don’t want to look at them, but there’s nothing to do with them, nowhere to put them. So I let them sit there on the plate, looking sloppy. They’ll get cleaned up one way or another. It won’t be Christian. It won’t be me.

Time goes by really slowly when we’re sitting there in silence. I think that Christian has fallen asleep, because he’s sitting there leaning his head on one fist, his eyes closed.

Only then he talks.

He doesn’t move or open his eyes, but he says, “Grayson.”


“Can you tell me something?” He opens his eyes now, but that’s all.

 “Um, sure? What?”

“What do you want with Lex?”

“What do I want with Lex?” I repeat incredulously. Why would Christian ask me this?

.               So now Christian lifts his head, steeples his fingers in front of his face, looks me straight on m the eyes.   ‘Grayson Ryan Carroll.” He uses my full name for the second time today. “Tell me what you want with Lex, please.”

It is in this way that Lex and Christian are alike. It is one of the only ways, in fact. Both of them have impeccable manners, in an almost old-fashioned way. Take, for example, Lex’s “Good morning, Grayson” from earlier today. No other eighteen-year-old in the world would say that to their…whatever I am to him.

I stand up too fast. My head spins, my face throbs. I fall to the floor, and so I lay there flat on my back and stare at the ceiling. Until I’m staring at Christian, because he’s come to stand over me.

Generally I could answer this question. I could tell Christian I want love from Lex, but I know I can’t have it. In a place like this, the type of love I want- that I need- is next to impossible to have and hold on to.

Only I know that Christian knows that already, so I don’t tell it to him.

But the sinking feeling in my chest returns now, which scares me, because it’s supposed to stay far, far away from me when I’m in my safe place.

So that can only mean one thing, then.

We’re about to enter into one of the ten-percent times, but this time it’s going to be different, and not necessarily in a good way, either.


Lex and I are a pair. Shanna and I are a pair. When you get all three of us together, though, there’s always a definite third wheel. It’s just never clear exactly who that third wheel is.

Even though I look a mess, Lex is here. Even though Lex is here, Shanna is here. And even though Shanna is here, Lex doesn’t leave.

I am the object of attention – of affection – tonight. Lex sits up on the couch with his back against the arm rest, and I lean backwards into him, his arms tight around me and our fingers intricately Intertwined now that we don’t have to worry about anyone (except for Shanna) seeing. And speaking of Shanna, my feet rest in her lap, and she is giving me a foot massage, the way she always does on weekends.

But something is very wrong. None of us are talking.

Something has shifted inside of Lex since this morning. Something has shifted inside of Shanna, too. I can feel it, both changes, like a negative energy buzzing in the air. Something has shifted inside of me, too, probably, but I’m more concerned with Lex and Shanna and the fact that neither of them are talking to each other or to me.

A phrase that I have always hated is “elephant in the room,” but that’s the only way to describe this. My bruises are just part of it, because it goes deeper than that. Much, much deeper. And Lex and Shanna are just skirting around it.

My face hurts. I’ve got that deep, intense pain going on in my nose that makes you feel inescapably sick to your stomach. I think my nose is probably broken, except I don’t remember bleeding. I don’t think I bled, did I?

When Shanna gets up to go to the bathroom, I think that maybe Lex will talk. But he doesn’t. He remains silent, causing me more pain, and I have to squeeze my eyes shut to ward off tears, causing me even more pain still.

It’s started already. We are so close right now, but still so far away, and that is how I know it’s started already.

Shanna is still in the bathroom. I have to say something to Lex.  “Lex,” is what I start with.

“Hmm?” he replies, barely moving.

“Lex, I’m sorry.” Okay, so maybe I shouldn’t be the one apologizing. After all, I’m the one whose nose may or may not be broken because I may or may not have made out with a guy who may or may not be my boyfriend.

But that’s the sort of power Lex has over me.

Lex still doesn’t move or say anything, and now I am actually getting scared.

Shanna comes back now, but she doesn’t sit on the couch where she was earlier. She instead chooses the other side of the room, as if she can sense the explosion about to occur. But much to my surprise, there is no explosion after all. Shanna leaves, and even when it’s just Lex and me, nothing happens.

My heart is racing. Why isn’t he talking? Silence is so unlike him!

My heart is also sinking as the minutes tick by. It falls deeper and deeper into some unknown abyss with every unsaid word.

My watch beeps to tell me it is midnight, and finally Lex makes a move to leave. I stand up so that he can stand too. There is a brief moment in this in which our faces are close enough that I could kiss him, or he could kiss me, but there is no kiss. His eyes meet mine instead, flashing with a fury that is gone as soon as it’s appeared, scaring the hell out of me.

Why is he angry?! What did I do?!

I walk him to the door, and we stand there in the breezeway, awkward as the first time I walked him to the door.

Usually, this is when we kiss, and he tells me good night, just like that: “Good night, Grayson.”

But now I know that the shift I sensed earlier wasn’t in him, and it wasn’t in me. It was in us as one. And this is a change that was a long time coming, because it was a matter of time before one of us was persecuted for a public display of affection between the two of us. And that is what happened today. He knows it. I know it.

We are too dangerous.

Lex does not look me in the eyes, and he does not touch me.

His voice is filled with grief. He says, “Goodbye, Grayson.”

My heart plummets all the way to the very bottom.


It is a sleepless night, and when morning comes I go through the motions to get ready for school. I straighten my hair, deciding that is where I ultimately went wrong yesterday.

I am dreading this day like I have never dreaded anything else before. I know what Lex does. I know what he is going to do. He has already said goodbye, thus protecting himself from any further hurt. He has already put up his wall. The people have gotten to him. I thought he was strong enough to resist it, but I wasn’t fooling anyone except for myself. Lex has never been strong, except for when it comes to putting up this sort of barrier.

And that makes no sense at all, but that’s the way it is.

I see Lex walking when I leave  my house. His neon confidence from yesterday has dissipated into a gray thermal and a pair of jeans. His shoes are old. His hair is still wet, plastered to his forehead and to the nape of his neck. It is in this that I have some assurance that at least the break wasn’t completely clean and easy on his part.

Shanna is amazingly clueless. I could kill her for all the things she tries to do to make me feel better. She should know that right now I want nothing more than to drown in my misery.

She thinks this is just another one of those ten percent times- when Lex and I hate each other. She doesn’t know this is ground zero; there will never be another ten percent, or another ninety percent, or even, dare I hope for it, a hundred percent.

Lex and I are over.

– Karissa Jones, 1st  Place in Short Story

Heroes Among Us

Heroes Among Us

Checking in at a Days Inn on the outskirts of one of Baltimore’s many suburbs, Chris and I were anxious to get out of the cold and begin our night.  By that point, we had been absent each other’s company for about a week. We were lovers of the worst kind. For the last three months, he and I had been on a rampage of sex, drugs, and crime and I can’t be certain of which we did the most, or which was taking the greatest toll.  We paid for our room at the front desk, and I had the feeling in my gut that the concierge was not ignorant of our intentions.  I did my best to hide my guilty conscience, but honestly, in a few minutes, I wouldn’t care anyway.  His white shirt and burgundy vest would fade from conscious thought, supplanted by the bliss of today’s score.

Chris would have carried the bags if we’d had any.  He tried to be a gentleman like that. We tried to act as if we were just passing through, but we weren’t traveling.  Not in the conventional sense. Truth is, neither of us had a home to travel from any longer. He had lost his parents’ trust, and his younger sisters were terrified of him. The week before, at my mother’s request, Fairfax County Police had removed us from her household on the suspicion that we had drugs in my room, which, of course, we did, and we were both arrested. I was still driving her silver 2002 Honda Accord, having disappeared with it earlier that night, but had nowhere to go. The halfway house couldn’t let me stay if I wasn’t sober, and any friends I may have once had were gone now; his were locked up. Crack-houses were beneath us, so the hotel would suffice.

We were given a room on the third floor.  The elevator ride seemed to take an eternity. Sure, I was happy to see Chris, but underneath it all, I was dying for more of what I knew he had. The room was nice.  Nothing special. It had cable, a coffee pot, and one of those wall-mounted hair-dryers, so as far as I was concerned, it had everything we needed. Tossing the day’s goods down on the bedside table, he took a hit of coke from the pipe he carried in his coat pocket, and went about his usual routine, making sure the blinds were completely closed, and the door locked.

I sat in silence, assessing the assortment of bags and capsules before me. Reaching for one with Batman logos on it, I paused for a moment, remembering that old television show when instances of violence were cut out using screen-flashes of words like “BAM” and “POW.”  I laughed quietly to myself at the irony of the miniature collection of childhood superheroes, whose symbols were represented on the tiny bags that were strewn across the wooden bedside table-top in a hotel room that was a far cry from my childhood innocence. My laughter did not go unnoticed, and the silence was then interrupted by rustling in the comer of the room. Glancing over, my companion was taking turns peeking out the peephole of the hotel room door and casting wary looks in my direction. I sighed, shook my head, and turned back to the little Batman bag.

Sometimes, the tops were seared shut with a flame to keep the precious goods they held from escaping.  This one had not been, meaning I didn’t have to bite it; just open it like a little Ziploc bag. I was grateful for that because I knew for a fact that some dealers would cut the seam behind the front zipper of their jeans and store the bags there. My companion had insisted on testing it first, and judging by his inability to act like a rational human being. I guessed it was pretty good stuff.

I went to work melting a small white crumb into the hand-made metal filter of my glass pipe. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my companion still entranced by the scenes in the tiny, dime-sized window, and seized the opportunity to slide one of the tiny bags into my bra. He’d never miss it, and I could always pretend I’d just smoked it, that he’d been over there longer than he realized. Even after just a few hits, he was too messed up to know better. Once the rock had disappeared and the white smoke began to rise off the hot metal, I put my lips to the other end of the glass tube, and inhaled slowly but purposefully. The sound of the lighter and the crackling of the coke (ever wonder where  it gets its name?) attracted  his attention.   Good thing I grabbed that bag when I did!

I drew in as much as my lungs would allow, and held it until I heard  the bells.  Like the chimes from the read-along books I read as a child, I let their song take me away as I exhaled the thick, white cloud. Euphoria washed over me, and I stared off into the beautiful nothingness. It was like climax during sex, better even than the ecstasy I’d done years ago.  I relished in it, knowing how soon it would pass.  The only hit that matters is the first one, they said, so I did what I could to make it count.  Warmth spread through me; my face flushed. It was freezing outside, but in there. it felt like a sauna.

The room seemed a little less dismal; the lights shone brighter. The wretched floral pattern of the bedspread appeared more fascinating than it had only moments before. Every sound was magnified, and carried the metallic edge of something out of a techno song. My racing heart pounded furiously, almost audibly. My whole body was rigid, and I fought the urge to grind my teeth. I was certain my pupils were the size of moons.  I got up, pipe in hand, and walked over to the mirror, shedding articles of clothing as I went, but not before moving the little hidden Batman bag to the coin-pocket of my jeans.  I was always amused by how big my pupils got.  I looked like a cartoon character. Those black holes in my eyes were the bottomless pit that my soul had become, filled only briefly by the contents of the little Batman bag. I don’t know why it fascinated me so to gaze into them in that state.  Maybe it was that false and fleeting glow of the high, or the tiny flame of hope that sometimes still lingered there. Either way, I didn’t care. I felt on top of the world.

Turning around, I found that my companion had returned to his chair by the bedside table, and was preparing a hit of his own. I joined him, seating myself on the edge of the bed. I was hesitant to speak to him.  I never knew if it would be him that answered, or the demon residing within. He broke the silence.

“Good shit. huh?”

“Yeah, real good,” I answered, smiling.  I was glad he had somewhat returned to his senses.  Not that there’s anything sensible about smoking crack, but at least right now, he wasn’t shushing me, unplugging the telephone, or saying his good-byes before “they” came to get him. I tried to ask him once exactly who “they” were, but I never could get a straight answer.  I think “they” were the shadow people, conspiring against him, waiting to seize him in the night when he least expected it- the ones who only seem to appear after being up for days on end smoking coke. He was always ready for them, though. He had new names for us, fake addresses and personal information if we were interrogated, and plans for where to meet up if we got separated. I never had the heart to tell him that “they” were all in his head. It seemed so real to him, and in those fits of paranoia, had I tried to convince him otherwise, he wouldn’t have believed me anyway.

He was much older than me, about fifteen years my senior.  He had dark blonde hair and dark brown eyes, the kind you stare into for hours while deep in conversation, and yet, never feel like you’ve reached in far enough to see the whole picture. On the surface, he was a joker. Many thought he was the dangerous side of crazy, and I was warned on countless occasions to stay away from him. To me, though. it was like looking in a mirror. I saw so much of me in him.  Often, I resented him for badgering me about what was on my mind. He could see through me.  Every now and then, he’d reveal another secret from that storehouse of mystery that he seemed to carry.  Pain and regret weighed heavy on him, and as awful as some of the stories were, I understood the hows and whys. I think that’s why he enjoyed my company. I listened, but never judged.  I heard, and better yet, I understood, in a way that I suspect no one ever had.

He liked to believe that I loved him, that I’d spend the rest of my life with him. I liked to let him.  I suppose I did, inasmuch as one could in my current state.  He supplied my drugs, so I offered him the only thing I had left: empty promises.  I had already accepted that I might die from this one day. perhaps soon, and had long since stopped caring. On better days, I’d dreamed of somehow rising up and out of the whole situation, living up to my potential, fulfilling my obligations to my family and to my daughter. Then, reality would hit. The high would wear off, and I’d know better. I’d see the truth: that I was a troubled young girl, strung out on some of the most addictive drugs known to man, who had the pleasure of being painfully aware of each and every moment of deterioration in that tornado she called a life.  I missed the black-outs of my drinking days when my more horrific and embarrassing moments were erased from my memory, never to return again.  The truth hurt, and the worse off I became, the more it hurt, and the more drugs I had to do to make the pain go away.

He and I were like the string players on the Titanic, determined to keep the song going until this thing swallowed us.  Even during perilous times, it’s comforting to have company.  No one wants to die alone. No one wants to drown in solitude.  So there we were, making the best of our last moments.  I know that neither of us wanted to go out like that, but it was clear we’d lost the choice.

I was aware every moment of the dire need for change in my life, yet it was as if I were watching it fall apart through someone else’s eyes. I wanted to be someone else – anyone else. This wasn’t me. Yes, I was still present in body, but my mind was not my own.  I couldn’t formulate a rational thought if l tried; all I could think of was where I’d get my next hit, and when it ran out, where I could get more, and when the money ran out, how I could get more.

After a few more hours and a lot more coke, it was time to go to bed. The sun would be up soon, and the outlook for tomorrow was uncertain, so I knew I’d better try to sleep while I could in a warm bed while I still had one.  My companion wouldn’t sleep, but he would hold me while I did.  After shooting up a dime of heroin, I nodded off in his arms.


The sound of the shower woke me.  Peering through squinted eyelids, the clock read “8:32.”  I knew I should get up and shower, too. Rolling to the edge of the full-size bed, I stood up. The aches had already set in this morning, but I wasn’t as queasy as usual. I checked my jeans pocket.  My tiny stash was still hidden there.  I also had a good amount of heroin to jump­ start my day. Feeling better at the mere thought of it, I put the hotel’s trial-size toiletries to good use, and joined my companion in the shower.  My skin had begun its crawling sensation, the same odd feeling of your socks being crooked, but all over. It was cool and damp to the touch, threatening the sweats at any moment, but the hot water eased my discomfort long enough to shower, shave my legs and arm-pits, and get myself looking presentable. My mind was already racing. It had started the moment I opened my eyes, planning for the day, deciding where to go, what to steal.  The thought of getting caught nagged me, but I shoved it aside.

After my shower and brushing my teeth, I felt good again, the last bit of normalcy that existed in my life.  That part of my routine was the one thing I held onto, justifying all else by the simple fact that my teeth were brushed.  Not everyone did that, especially not the ones who got high like I did.  They were lucky to have any, some of them.  I had mine, though, and I took care of them, so that set me above the rest.  I heard someone say once that they were “laying in the gutter, screaming I’m number one!'”  That was me: that was my delusion.

I knew it might be a long day, and I had two dimes of scramble left: one for now, one for later.  They were packaged differently than the raw heroin I had bought in years past. “Pills,” they were called, which made sense.  They looked like oversized medicine capsules, but instead of being pink and white or red and yellow like Benadryl or Tylenol, they were clear. The “medicine” they held, though, did far more than Benadryl or Tylenol ever did, for me at least. Scramble’s rush was supposed to be more intense than Raw’s: it was.  I wanted both pills, but knew better than to run out entirely before the day even started.  One would suffice.

Before I got dressed, I pulled out my kit. Grabbing some water from the sink, I laid it all out before me: a fresh needle, my spoon, the water, my lighter, a little bit of a cigarette filter, and my belt. To the side, still in my purple Crown Royal bag, were a tube of Bacitracin ointment and a bottle of anti-bacterial hand-gel.  I might be a junkie, but at least I’m clean, I thought to myself.  I carefully poured the speckled powder into the spoon, extracted water from the needles’ cap until it reached the little 20 mark, squirted it slowly over the powder, and used the tiny plunger to stir it up.  Lifting the spoon from the table, I waved the lighter’s flame beneath it until the edge of the mixture started to sizzle and the dope dissolved into a nice, light-brown liquid.  Quickly, I threw a little piece of cotton from the cigarette filter into the spoon (you know, to remove the bad stuff, placed the needle’s tip into the cotton ball, drew the liquid into the needle, and flicked the bubbles out.  Almost in the same series of motion, I had wrapped the belt around my arm, just above my elbow.  My veins started to bulge.

I had one that I called “Old Faithful.” It was a bleeder, but the flow was good and it was easy to find.  The brand-new syringe slid in with such ease that I hardly felt its prick. Drawing back slightly, the tiny tube filled with deep, red blood.  Success. Careful not to move, I emptied the needle’s contents into my vein. In another life, I might have made a successful phlebotomist. Releasing the belt, I removed the needle quickly, placed a finger with light pressure over the small puncture, and waited for the rush. My skin went from clammy to warm instantly.  I let out a deep breath, and allowed my eyes to grow lazy.  My arms felt heavy, and the needle fell from my grasp onto the table.  A drop of blood began to form where the needle had broken skin and punctured vein.  I might have wanted to dab it with a tissue, but my mind was too far away to concern itself with such a menial task.  In that moment, it felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders, like I was capable of anything, even as the blood trickled down my forearm.

Nausea interrupted my euphoria, and I ran over to the toilet in the bathroom to vomit.  I was used to it.  It happened every day, and depending on how much dope I shot, sometimes several times a day.  It seemed normal, and I never thought much of it.  It had been so long that I’d forgotten what a day without vomiting might be like.  Whether it was puking from too much beer, hurling from having shot up too much dope, or being dope-sick and then vomiting, it was a constant in my daily routine.  My day didn’t feel right if I hadn’t thrown up yet. It was almost as refreshing as my shower, purging myself, and starting the day cleansed of the contents of yesterday.  I was getting thinner; I knew that.  Unable to ever hold down food, I was wasting away. Whenever I’d visit my mother, she’d comment on how thin I was, and worried that I wasn’t eating enough. It was a valid concern, considering five or six years prior to that, I had suffered from anorexia, and had dropped down to eighty-seven pounds. I wasn’t doing it on purpose this time: bulimia wasn’t really my thing anyway, but with dope, I didn’t have much of a choice.

I leaned against the tub, dabbing the corners of my mouth with a tissue. As I stood to brush my teeth again, I noticed burn marks along the edges of the beige tub. I wondered how many before me had sat in that bathroom and laid their pipes or spoons down on its ceramic edge, leaving their marks like hand-prints on concrete sidewalks.  It was chilling, and I shuddered to think that one day, all that might be left of me is the blistered edge of a tub in a cheap hotel. I always wanted to make a difference in the world, but not like that. My companion’s voice cut my thoughts short: it was time to go.

It was February, which I only knew because of the Valentine’s Day decorations on the store-fronts.  Were it not for that, I would have had no idea.  I wasn’t even sure what day it was. Every week, the crowded lots at the local churches would indicate another Sunday had arrived.  I imagined they were in there, listening to a pastor screaming about how they should change their ways and turn from sin, or else bum for eternity in the fiery abyss. Ha! What did he know about hell? I had no reason to fear death: anything would be better than the hell I was living in.  I lit a cigarette and turned on the radio in the stolen truck.  I wanted to feel bad about it – the truck, I mean-but I hadn’t actually taken it: he had. So, on that note, I relaxed a little. He was driving, and if we got stopped, I could always play innocent and act like I had no clue.

The arrest at mom’s house was my second one.  Only two months before that was my first arrest ever. Six months prior to that, while still in rehab, I remembered thinking it wasn’t so bad because I hadn’t gotten into any legal trouble. That seemed ages ago: twenty-one days of feeling better than I had in years.  I was “president” of the therapeutic community, and I thought I had done well on all my assignments, but the day I left, my counselor had told me she didn’t think I was ready.  My feelings were hurt. I had done everything I was asked to do, and did the best I could at the time, but for some reason, she seemed very worried about me. I was determined to prove her wrong, and I almost did it.  Almost…

After rehab, I had moved into a halfway house, where I met my current companion and a lot of other sober people. Everyone had been so kind. They invited me into their homes and fed me. Some had driven me around town so that I could apply for jobs at places that didn’t serve alcohol (apparently, that was important if you were new to sobriety).  They really tried to make me feel like I was one of them.

Somewhere between early August and mid-October, however, something  in me snapped, and I gave up. I came home exhausted after working my second job.  I no longer lived at the halfway house, or talked to any of the people I’d met, except my companion.  Opening the door that night, I’d found him in front of the television with a beer in his hand. I remember feeling a sense of despair, of impending doom, but before I knew it, I had one also, then another, and another, and another…

Eighty-seven days.  I had made it eighty-seven days before falling off the wagon.  I had never done that before. I knew then that I should have stayed at the halfway house, and should have continued going to the meetings. It was unbearable at times, being sober.  I hated feeling so anxious. I was terrified of everyone and everything. I couldn’t look people in the eye, and never knew what to say or what to do with my hands.  Beyond all of that, though, it felt so good to be able to think and feel again, but my mind never let go of the fear of the unknown.  I suppose if I had done that fourth step everyone was talking about, that fear might have been addressed.  I never gave myself the chance. The next morning, I felt awful.  I never remembered my hangovers being so bad.  Really, it had been a few years since I’d drank; I’d been getting high mostly.  All I could think about was how a shot of dope would give me all the energy I’d need to face the day.

That one pill became several. The days turned into weeks. I lost  both of my jobs, too sick to show up.  I had a custody hearing for my daughter.  Full custody was granted to her father. I didn’t even put up a fight.  What could I have done, anyway?  I was high that day in the courtroom.  Everyone shook their heads in disgust.  I didn’t bother getting a lawyer; I had no leg to stand on.  I just let her go, let her stay where she would be safe.  In my mind, I was saving her from the memories that now haunt me. She would never have to see it.

I thought going to jail would change my mind, or at least instill in me the willpower to change, but it didn’t.   I didn’t want to be a junkie, but I didn’t know how not to be. That was two months ago, on a cold night in December.  We had borrowed Mom’s car.  I forget what lie we had told to convince her to let us use it, but I’m certain that it had nothing to do with our actual intentions.  It was after dark, a bad time for “copping” in the city.  More cops were out, the dealers were sketchier-all around, it was just more dangerous.  But addiction has no concept of hesitation.  We went to the usual spot, and a police officer driving a paddy-wagon caught us conversing with one of the local “yo boys.” My companion thought we could out-run him, and we did, but both of us were so ill from withdrawal that we tried again, only this time, it was the paddy-wagon and six patrol cars. They surrounded us with their guns drawn, warning us not to move. While they frisked us, we insisted we were merely lost and asking for directions.  Neither of us had anything on us except cash, but the “works” (drug paraphernalia) in my purse told the real story of why we were there.  One of the officers found a half-full pill in the driver’s side door. To this day, I’m not certain it was really there to begin with.  Perhaps it was, but I doubted it.  Users don’t lose drugs.  If I had known it was there, we wouldn’t have had to drive into the city that night.  Regardless, I spent that night in Central Booking at Baltimore City jail.

I was released the following morning on Personal Recognizance.  Two months later was when Mom had called the cops and I was arrested in Fairfax on similar charges.  She was under the impression that I wouldn’t be doing the drugs were it not for my companion’s influence. Maybe that’s partly true.  Anyway, her attempt to rid her household of him brought a thorough search of my bedroom, the discovery of more paraphernalia than the cops knew what to do with, and charges for several counts of possession for both of us.  Again, my fight was gone.  I had agreed to let them search the room, and even helped them find all of what was tucked away in drawers of jewelry boxes, in corners of closets, and between mattresses.

It was the beginning of the end for me.  Desperate to stop, I didn’t care about admitting guilt to an officer who would stand before the judge and recall my words verbatim.  The cops seemed grateful for my cooperation, and even let me have one last cigarette before they took me in. The officer driving the car I was placed in seemed concerned that he might need to take me to the hospital rather than the detention center.  Earlier, when I realized Mom was calling them, I had shot up everything I had.  I assured him I was fine.  He asked me about the little bum-holes that peppered the lap of the pink fleece bathrobe I was wearing.  I explained to him that when you do drugs like heroin, you nod off, and I had done this many limes while holding a cigarette.

“Aren’t you afraid you might light yourself on fire.” he asked.

“Not really.”

He seemed utterly baffled by my response.  “Why would you do something that has such an awful effect on you?”

“Sir, if I knew why, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“Maybe, when you get out, you should go to rehab.” he offered.

“Maybe I will.”

I didn’t.  My guilt-stricken mother bonded me out a few hours later. My sister criticized her for it. “You should have left her in there. She’s only going to do it again!”

I wanted nothing more than to prove her accusations false; I lasted a week. Being fed Suboxones by my ex to curb the cravings, I stayed a week at his house, spending time with my daughter, trying desperately to make sense of my life. I tried calling a few rehabs, and even tried the one I’d recently gotten out of.  The man on the other end told me that unless I was still getting high, they couldn’t take me. I was practically begging, but the answer was “no.”

I couldn’t do it. Life got itchy; I tore it off like a wool sweater and ran. It didn’t help that my companion had called and stopped by earlier, looking for me. The part of me that still thought I was having fun was bitter that he was out there and I wasn’t. I tried to leave then, but my ex’s mother literally blocked the door. With a build of nearly three-hundred pounds, she succeeded in holding me hostage.  I considered crashing through the bay window, smashing antique plates as I went, but thought better of it. No, I’ll talk my way out of this. I convinced them to allow my mother to pick me up.

Later that evening, back at my mom’s apartment, I waited for the right moment. Everyone had been watching me like hawks since I arrived there.  No one trusted me, and for good reason. Perhaps an hour or so before, I had rummaged through every pocket of every article of clothing I had, searching desperately for money, but still unwilling to steal it from my family. At one point, my sister and her boyfriend stepped out back for a cigarette, and mom had to go to the bathroom.  My brother sat at the table with his back to me. I knew this was my chance. I muttered something about my allergies, and pretended to get Benadryl out of mom’s purse. I even opened and closed the bottle for good measure, while looping my pinky through the ring of the car keys.  Heading for the door, my brother asked where I was going.

“I’m walking to the store to get cigarettes.”  Moments later, I disappeared with my Mom’s car. The switch had flipped again.  I was off to the races.

I put the bit of change I’d managed to scrounge up into her gas tank, stopped at a Safeway along 295 to boost a few boxes of Crest White-Strips, and hurried up to the Baltimore suburb, Brooklyn, to sell the goods. Seeing the illuminated store-front with the bright yellow awning brought great relief.  I’d made it just in time to cash in at the Fast Cash shop. They paid a third of what the merchandise cost in the stores, so that gave me about $80 to work with.

Even I knew better than to go downtown alone on a Saturday night, so I scoured the streets of the suburbs and went into a bar that was often frequented by the lower-end street dealers.  The man standing outside turned out to be my ticket, so upon his request. I drove him to a nearby house to meet his boy and get the stuff, and being a bit old-school about the whole drug thing, I invited him to smoke a bit before I dropped him back off. It never occurred to me that this probably wasn’t a good idea.  I’ve been called naive many times on many occasions.

We rode around a bit.  He thought I was crazy for trying to smoke and drive at the same lime, so we pulled off into a neighborhood that was vaguely familiar.  The thought of what might happen when the crack ran out never crossed my mind.  He tried to make conversation, and I probably answered him, but I hadn’t come there to talk. We took a few hits each.  I forget what spurred the decision to relocate ourselves, but for whatever reason, a run to the store seemed in order.  Perhaps it was the way he leaned the passenger seat all the way back while he hit the pipe. There was something somewhere inside me that forced me to consider that returning to a well-lit area might be a good idea right about then. Either that or I was just being selfish and unwilling to share my entire purchase with him.

Riding back down Patapsco Avenue, a white truck revved up beside us out of nowhere. I didn’t want to look over at the driver, fearing another arrest, but this guy was driving way too recklessly to be a cop.  Peeking over, it was my companion, signaling wildly for me to pull over.  He then sped ahead of me, turned down a side street, and stopped.  I casually pulled in behind him. I rolled down my window, and greeted him as if I were out for an afternoon joy-ride.  He was not at all amused, and ordered the man in the passenger seat to “get lost.”  My druggie buddy got out, and my companion turned back to me.

“What the fuck was that.” he demanded.

“I wanted to buy some stuff.   He knew where to get it, so I drove him where he needed to go to get it.  I was about to go drop him off.”

“Are you really that naive?  Did you even think about what might happen once you smoked up all your shit?”  His eyes glistened, not with anger, but with great concern.

“No, not really. Should I have?”

He shook his head. “Don’t ever do that again, please.”

Like I said, I never really considered how that night might have ended, had he and I not crossed paths.  I didn’t care to think on it too long, either.  It’s a scary thing, running out of drugs in a place where it seems like everyone you meet is somehow connected to the disease running rampant amongst the countless others out there that were like me. Whether they smoked, sold the goods, or indulged in the girls willing to do whatever it took for the next hit, everyone played a part.  I was just happy to be reunited with a familiar face on that dark, lonely night – the same night my super-heroes  came to my rescue in that hotel room, preserving my safety and sanity for one more day.

– Kathryn Nordan, 2nd Place in Short Story

Outlaw’s Call (excerpt)

Outlaw’s  Call (excerpt)

Robin of Locksley laughed and threw back his head to enjoy the warm sunlight. After two weeks of rain, it was good to see the blue sky again.

Much laughed and shook his head at Robin.

“What?” Robin asked, grinning.

“Nothing,” Much said, the sun gleaming off of his round face. “You just keep dancing about.” Much didn’t seem to be standing still either.

“Well, of course I do!” Robin exclaimed. “It’s a beautiful day! You know I can’t stand to be inside on a day like this.”

“Which is why you’ll never be a blacksmith, and I’ll never be a miller,” Much said cheerfully. “Our fathers’ professions are not for us.”

Robin nodded. “True, true,” he said. “But why worry about that on a day like today? Let’s go get the bows and Eliza and shoot some archery!”

Robin couldn’t help laughing as they ran down the lane to his family’s house. Children played in the fields, farmers shouted at each other as they worked, birds sang, and a light breeze blew. As they entered Locksley village proper, they saw women working in their gardens, the potter twirling a bowl on his wheel; and the carpenter sawing a log.

“Hey, Robin!” the carpenter called. “You looking to earn a few pennies? I got some wood that needs splitting.”

“Maybe in a few hours,” Robin said, waving at him. “Much and I are going into Sherwood first.”

The carpenter shook his head and smiled. “Ah, go off and be youngsters for a little while. But don’t forget to be back soon!”

“We won’t!” Robin called as he hurried onward.

Robin’s family’s house stood near the center of Locksley, near where the stream ran through the village. It was slightly better built than most of the houses around it, but for the most part it looked like all the others, with a thatched roof and earthen walls. A large garden stretched in front, full of herbs, vegetables, flowers, and other things that Robin didn’t know about. Robin smiled when he saw the person who did know about them kneeling in the middle of the herbs.

“Eliza!” he called.

Eliza looked up, a handful of weeds in her hand. She had long red-brown hair tied back firmly with a scrap of leather, and her brown eyes shone in the sunlight. She was not beautiful, but she was pretty enough, and Robin loved his sister with all of his heart.

“Yes, Robin?” she said, dropping the weeds she held into a pile next to her.

“Much and I were going to go shoot a little. Care to come along?”

Eliza sighed and shook her head, but her smile betrayed her. Robin grinned. Eliza was always too serious, but she did sometimes have a point. Not this time, however. “Come on!” he said. “We’ll be back in time for you to finish your weeding.”

“We’d  better be back in time for my lessons with Beth,” Eliza said, but she stood up and wiped her dirt-covered hands on her green dress, the dozens of colorful pouches she wore at her belt dangling down and making creases in the cloth.

Robin walked to the doorway and stuck his head inside. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness so he could see his father hammering away near the forge.

“Father, Eliza, Much and I are going into Sherwood,” Robin said.

His father lowered his hammer and smiled indulgently at Robin. Robin smiled back. “I couldn’t get you to stay inside if I wanted to,” his father said, stretching his huge muscles. “Very well, go have your fun. Don’t get lost”

“As if l could do that!” Robin laughed. “It’s Sherwood, Father. I’ve been roaming about there since I could walk.”

“Despite all your mother and I could do to prevent it!” his father said. “You were born for the forest, lad. Now go, shoo.” He waved his hands at Robin like a hen wife shooing chickens.

Robin grinned and grabbed his and Eliza’s bows and arrows from their place near the doorway. Much already had his, as he never went anywhere without them and the axe that hung from his belt

Much and Eliza were waiting outside. Much had grabbed their target from around the back: a simple sack stuffed with straw. Robin tossed Eliza’s bow and arrows to her.

“Let’s go!” he said.

It was a good thing, Robin reflected, that his mother and father did not mind that their only son had no interest in carrying on his father’s trade. It they had, there would be a great deal more conflict in their family. There had already been enough dissension when Eliza had announced that she was going to learn herb craft from old Beth.

It was clear where Locksley ended and Sherwood began. The transition wasn’t sudden, but you knew when it happened. The trees, aside from being much more numerous, seemed to grow in both size and majesty. The undergrowth grew thick, making it difficult to walk through if you didn’t know how to follow the natural trails.

Robin sighed happily as he led Much and Eliza down a deer trail. He loved Sherwood. It gave him a place of refuge, a place of calm, and yet it was so large that it could be a hundred other things as well. He walked rapidly until they reached one of their favorite clearings. Much ran down to the end and hung the sack up on a low-hanging branch.

“Have you heard about the sheriff’s new law about poaching?” Much asked as Robin stepped up for his first shot.

“New law? No,” Robin said as his arrow hit the exact center of the sack. A warm feeling of pride filled him. It would not be boasting to say he was the best archer in Locksley: it would be fact.

“Yes, new punishments for anyone caught poaching,” Much said as Eliza took aim. “They’re chopping off people’s hands.”

Eliza’s shot banged into the tree behind the bag as she turned to stare at Much. “Their hands?” she exclaimed.

Much nodded. “Anyone caught poaching has their left hand cut off. Anyone found killing one of the king’s deer… they’re put to death.”

Eliza closed her eyes.

“Wait,” Robin said as Much drew an arrow from his quiver. “The sheriff is ruining people’s lives just for killing a small amount of game?”

“Yep,” Much said as his arrow went through the very bottom of the sack. He looked at Robin, his eyes serious. “It’s the foresters’ jobs to enforce these laws,” he said.

Robin stared at the sack hanging from the branch. He knew Much hadn’t wanted to say that. Robin dreamed of becoming one of the king’s foresters. To him it would be the perfect life, spending most of your time wandering the forest and keeping travelers safe.

“Robin…” Eliza said.

Robin shook himself. He would think about what this meant for his future later. “No sense in worrying about it right at the moment,” he said. “Come on, let’s shoot.”

They shot until the sun was well into the west and the sack was riddled with arrow holes. They started playing games as they shot, seeing who could shoot the best while running, shoot the best patterns in the sack, or shoot while being attacked by the other two. Robin managed to win every competition they thought of. Finally, Eliza called a halt.

“If I don’t get back to the village soon Beth is going to wonder,” she said firmly. “And I really don’t want to miss anything she has to teach me.”

Robin and Much gathered up the arrows from the last round and the target before they slowly began to walk back to Locksley.

“So, Robin, are you planning on going to Nottingham Fair next time?” Much said.

Robin smiled. “Whatever for?” he asked innocently.

Much sighed in mock-exasperation. “To shoot in the archery competition, of course. What else?”

Robin grinned. “I might,” he said.

“Don’t be fooled,” Eliza said. “That’s all he’s been thinking about for nearly a fortnight.”

“Hey!” Robin exclaimed indignantly.

Eliza smiled at him. “It’s not my fault your thoughts are plainly written on your face,” she said. ‘”At least, they are for those who know you.”

Robin shrugged. “I was thinking about it,” he said seriously to Much. “I was kind of hoping that I’d win and be able to convince the sheriff to let me become a forester. But if what you’ve said about this new law is true…” he let his voice trail off. He didn’t want to be a forester if the sheriff was making them cut off people’s hands and ruin their lives.

Much shrugged. “A herald came into Wickham this morning with the news. I’m surprised one hasn’t come to Locksley yet.”

Eliza smiled. “Locksley isn’t exactly on the list of large villages,” she said wryly. “Not like Wickham.”

“Hey, Wickham isn’t exactly large, either,” Much protested.

“But it’s closer to Nottingham,” Robin pointed out. “And that’s where everything happens.”

“Not everything,” Much said. “After all, Nottingham doesn’t have you or Eliza.”

Robin grinned. “Nope, it doesn’t,” he said. ”And it doesn’t have Much either. Or Sherwood Forest!”

Robin cast aside his gloomy thoughts about the new law as they reached the edge of the village. It was still a beautiful day. “See you tomorrow!” he called to Much.

Much waved and started off down the road to Wickham.

Robin paused before entering Locksley. Even though both Eliza and Much had to go elsewhere, he was not going to get stuck inside.

“Tell Father I’m at Carpenter Joe’s house, will you?” he asked Eliza.

Eliza nodded. “You go spend the last few hours of sunlight outside,” she said with a smile.

“Of course!” Robin said. “Where else would I be?”


“Father, do you really have to go out?” Eliza said as she held out his belt for him. Her mother stood in the doorway to the back room, a worried expression on her face.

“Yes, I do,” her father said firmly, taking his belt from Eliza.

“David, we don’t need meat,” her mother said. “We can survive without it.”

Eliza’s father sighed. “Love, Joseph and Rachel are expecting their first child sometime this month. They barely have enough to eat as it is. How will they survive when the baby gets here?”

Her mother lowered her head.

Her father walked over and gave her mother a kiss before going out the door. Her mother sighed. “Your father,” she told Eliza, “Is too stubborn for his own good.”

Eliza smiled. “I’m going to help Beth today,” she said instead of answering. “She’s going to teach me more uses of herbs.”

Her mother sighed again and shook her head. “Eliza, why do you keep going over to her house?” she asked wearily.

Eliza bit her lip. They had had this conversation hundreds of times. “I don’t want to marry,” she said. “And if I don’t marry, I want to do something to support myself instead of relying on you or Robin. Herb craft is perfect.”

“But why… oh, never mind. Go on, then.”

Eliza went out the door without saying anything more. Her mother could not understand that she just did not find any of the boys in the village interesting. None of them understood her, or her desires, to her satisfaction. Only Robin did that, and he was her brother.

The beautiful sun of the day previous had faded into clouds covering most of the sky. Eliza looked up at the clouds worriedly as she reached Beth’s hut at the edge of the village.

“It’s not going to rain,” Beth said from the garden.

Eliza started and smiled when she saw Beth sitting on a stool weeding. Beth had tucked her long white hair away in a cap. Her face was lined with wrinkles, but her old, gnarled hands were just as steady as a youngsters’.

“I’m not going to ask how you knew what I was thinking,” Eliza said. “You do it so much to me.”

“Well, it’s obvious,” Beth said. “You’re looking with a worried expression at the clouds. What else could you be thinking?”

Eliza shrugged and knelt beside Beth. Beth pointed at one of the herbs. “Arrowroot,” Eliza answered automatically. “Stops the bleeding, prevents infections. Helps cure bruising, also helps with colds and coughs.” “Good,” Beth said. She pointed at another one.

They continued like this until Beth’s entire garden had been weeded. Sometimes Beth pointed out another couple uses for herbs that Eliza had missed, other times she merely nodded.

“Beth, why is Mother so opposed to me having lessons with you?” Eliza asked as she helped Beth walk inside the hut. It was dark inside, and Eliza paused inside the doorway before heading to the table.

Beth snorted. “Is she still asking you about that?” she asked. She shook her head. “Of course she  is. All mothers want to see  their children  grow  up to be happy  and healthy. Your mother has been very happy married to David, and she doesn’t realize that you might not find happiness in the same way that she did.” Eliza nodded. “Now, tell me what you would do if someone came to you with a bee sting,” Beth said.

Beth quizzed Eliza until they had the table clean, the dishes washed, and dinner on the fire. “You’d better be going back home,” she said. “It’s getting late.”

Eliza nodded and hugged Beth before she set out back through the village. Beth had been right; it was getting late. The sun hung far in the west, and all around people were getting ready for the evening, farmers returning from the fields, the crafters packing up their tools.

Eliza bit back a sigh as Simon, one of her young suitors, fell in step beside her.

“Might I walk you home?” he asked.

Eliza forced a laugh. ”I’m almost there,” she said.

Before she could say anything else, however, she heard a scream that she recognized as her mother’s. “David!”

“Father…” Eliza broke into a run, pushing aside and dodging anyone in her way. She saw Robin and Much running from the opposite direction. In front of their house, her father lay in her mother’s lap, a blood-soaked cloth wrapped around the end of his left arm.

“No!” Eliza screamed, running to his side and gently laying his arm out. He was barely conscious from shock and blood loss. Eliza’s herb lessons from Beth were fresh in her mind. “Simon, fetch Beth!” she yelled. “Robin, get my motor and pestle! And some rags!”

Eliza paid no attention to the shouts of the villagers as she grabbed herbs out of the pouches she wore on her belt. Agrimony, Arrowroot and Calendula all stop bleeding. Arrowroot will prevent infections, and Comfrey and Plantain will help the skin knit back together. “Much, will you get some water?” Eliza asked as Robin came running with her the mortar and pestle.

She pounded her chosen herbs together until they were a soft mush and Much came back with a bucket of water. She rinsed her trembling hands off and soaked one of the rags Robin had brought in the water before putting the herbs in to make a poultice. She blinked back tears and clenched her teeth as she started unwrapping the cloth from her father’s arm, bracing herself for the flow of blood. Before too much more blood could start flowing again, she placed the poultice and bound his arm up with the rest of the rags.

Her mother held a wet rag against her father’s forehead, murmuring softly to him as Eliza worked. Now Eliza joined her, talking quietly until Beth came hobbling up.

She placed her hand on Eliza’s shoulder. “What herbs did you use?” she asked quietly.

“Arrowroot, agrimony, calendula, comfrey, and plantain,” Eliza answered absently.

“Good girl,” Beth said.”Let’s get him inside where he can rest I’ll look at his arm closer there, but I don’t  think I can do anything that you already haven’t done.” She looked at Simon, Much and Robin, who were standing uncertainly a short distance away. “Lift him inside, will you, boys?” she asked.

Eliza let them do the work of carrying her father inside. Her knees had suddenly gone weak and she collapsed onto the ground.

Beth leaned down and helped her to her feet. “Get inside and get a cool drink of water. You have done very well.”

Eliza stared hopelessly at Beth. “But his hand!” she whispered. “How will he work now?”

“Hush. Worry about that when your father can talk,” Beth picked up the bucket of water and ushered Eliza inside.

Eliza’s father lay in the inner room on the bed, his bead on his wife’s lap, his eyes clear, although pain-filled. Simon started a fire in the small fireplace.

“Are you awake now, David?” Beth asked.

“Aye, Beth,” Eliza’s father breathed. “Did you do this?” he gestured at his left arm with his right hand.

Beth smiled and shook her bead. “That was your Eliza here. She did everything as she should have.”

“You are not to use that arm for a while,” Eliza said sternly. “Probably not for at least a fortnight”

Her father smiled weakly. “We’ll see about that, daughter,” he said.

Eliza bit her lip and knelt by her father’s side as Robin sat down next to their mother. “What are we going to do now, Father?” she asked.

Her father laughed weakly. “Well, your mother can do most of the blacksmithing. I didn’t teach you my art for nothing, did I, dear?” he laughed.

Her mother smiled down at him and kissed his forehead. “No, love, you didn’t.”

Eliza took a deep breath and stared at the floor. For Robin’s sake, she didn’t want to ask her next question.

“Father,” Robin said, “What happened?”

Eliza winced.

Her father took a deep breath. “It was the king’s foresters, son,” he said quietly. “They had found one of my traps and were waiting for its owner to come back. I’m sorry.”

Eliza looked at Robin. He stared down at his hands, and his eyes were suspiciously bright. Eliza pulled herself to her feet and sat down beside her brother. She put her arm around his shoulders, and he returned her embrace, burying his face in her shoulder.

“Thank you, sister,” he whispered.

“You’re welcome, brother,” she whispered back. They always had taken turns comforting the other, throughout their entire lives.

Beth picked up Eliza’s father’s left arm, examined it for a few seconds, then gently laid it down. “You are not to use this arm at all for at least a fortnight, you understand me?” she told him.

Eliza’s father smiled wryly. “Since I know the pain that comes when one does not obey you, yes, Beth,” he said.

“How come you can tell him that but I can’t?” Eliza wanted to know.

“The advantage of age and experience.” Beth looked around and gestured at Simon, who squatted by the fire. “Come along, boy,” she said.

Simon got to his feet and looked back at Eliza and Robin, his lip trembling, before following Beth out the door.

Eliza looked at her father, who struggled to keep his eyes open. “You rest now, Father,” she said firmly. “Robin and I will leave you in peace.”

Robin obediently got up. “Heal quickly, Father,” he whispered before following Eliza outside.

Eliza leaned up against the wall of the house and closed her eyes. She was exhausted.

“Are you all right, Eliza?” Robin asked.

Eliza opened her eyes. Robin stood next to her with a concerned expression on his face. She nodded, then let Robin embrace her.

“We’ll find a way through this,” Robin said. “We’ve found a way through every hardship before.”

We haven’t had a trouble this big before, Eliza thought, but she didn’t say it. She knew from experience that Robin would just tune out negative thoughts. “I hope you’re right,” she whispered instead. “Because it’s not going to be just trouble for us, it’s going to be trouble for all of Locksley and Nottingham Shire.”


Robin did not look where he was going as he ran through Sherwood. He knew the forest well enough that wherever he found himself he could find his way out. And right at the moment he needed to be alone. His mother and Eliza had managed to keep him busy for the last three days, and this was the first chance he had had to escape.

His dreams of the future lay shattered. All of his hopes and expectations had vanished in an instant. He would never be a forester now, not after what the sheriff had made them do to his father. But what would he do now? He knew a little of the blacksmithing craft, but not enough to make a life out of it. And besides, he had always wanted a life where he could roam the forest at will.

“No! Please! I beg of you!” The young female voice startled Robin out of his thoughts. He turned to run towards it.

“He’s a poacher, wench. His hand goes off.”

Robin winced as he reached the edge of a clearing. Two foresters held a young man down on the ground, his right arm stretched out over a log. Two men in the blue uniform of the sheriff’s guard stood to either side, unsheathed swords in their hands. A young woman knelt before them, her long light brown hair falling free from its confines and over the bundle on her back as she pleaded with the guards. The young man’s eyes were closed and his face tight, as if he was waiting for the axe to fall.

“Please, he’s a minstrel! He can’t play without his hand. Please, I beg you, let him go!” The young woman grabbed one of the guard’s arms. Robin noticed a lute strapped across the young man’s back, supporting her claim that the man was a minstrel.

Robin knew he couldn’t just stand by and let this happen. “Do as she says,” he ordered. He stepped out from behind the tree, an arrow nocked on his bow.

The four men jerked around in surprise, the foresters letting go of the young man in their surprise. Robin winced as he saw that the young man had already been injured; his right leg was slashed open all the way up his thigh.

One of the guards drew his sword and spoke to Robin. “What’s your name, outlaw?” he asked.

Robin frowned. “Outlaw? I am no outlaw. I’m merely Robin of Locksley, and I’m preventing an injustice here.”

“You will be an outlaw for what you are doing here,” the guard said. “Take him!” The two guards charged. The foresters hung back, as if uncertain what to do.

Robin hesitated for just a second, then released his first arrow. It hit the first guardsman’s leg, and he screamed and fell onto the ground. The second guard kept coming. Robin backed up a few steps as he nocked a second arrow. The man’s face was wild with rage. Robin fired an arrow into his arm, but he kept coming. Robin winced as he drew a third arrow. The guard was just a few feet from him and raising his sword when he let his third arrow fly straight into the guard’s throat, dropping him to the ground as if felled by a falling branch.

Robin snarled at the two foresters. “Get out of here!” They started running, not even bothering to pick up the guard who rolled around on the ground in pain. Robin looked at the second guard and closed his eyes. There was no way any man could have survived that shot. Oh God. Did l just do that?

A gasp of pain from the young man brought Robin back to his senses. The young woman had dragged him out of the way of the fighting and was trying to bandage his leg.

Robin bit his lip as he examined the wound. “It’s bad,” he whispered. “The bleeding’s not stopping.” He looked at the young woman. “My sister’s an herbalist. If you want, we can carry him to Locksley and find her.”

The young woman paused and looked at the man, his face clenched with pain. “Let’s go,” she said. “You saved his hand, and thus our lives. We have to trust you.”

Robin smiled wryly. “You’re going to have to help me carry him. Can you do it?” The young woman nodded as she and Robin each supported the young man between them so that he could hop along on his uninjured leg.

“I’m Caitlin of Greenvale, and this is my brother, Alan a’ Dale.”

“Robin of Locksley,” Robin said.

“You shouldn’t have told the guards that,” Alan gasped.

Robin looked at him in confusion. “Why not?” he said.

“You’II be an outlaw now, if you weren’t already.” Alan said.

Robin looked at Alan, then back at the clearing they had just left, with a guard lying dead and another lying wounded. “Bloody hell,” he said.


Edward de Lacey, the Lord High Sheriff of Nottingham, surveyed the young nobleman standing before him in the audience chamber. He stifled the impulse to laugh. Thomas of Leaford stood a little shorter than Edward. He was slightly pudgy, but there were definite muscles in his arms. His eyes blazed with a light that was a match for the torches along the wall and the candles along the table. Thomas, Edward mused, was headstrong and ambitious enough to be a match for his deputy, Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

“Just why should I help you with your plan?” Edward asked smoothly. All of this was an act, of course. It would suit Edward to have Thomas as lord of Leaford rather than his brother, Sir Geoffrey. He could manipulate Thomas, as he could not Geoffrey.

“I can offer my Lord Sheriff much,” Thomas said, shifting his weight uneasily.

Edward concealed a smile. However ambitious Thomas might be, he was no match for him. “I can be your staunchest ally, open my entire coffers to your disposal, and offer my people to be your guards. All ask is that you help me put my brother in his place.”

Edward raised his eyebrows at the poison in Thomas’s voice, fighting down an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Thomas truly hated Geoffrey, but why he should hate him was something Edward had not yet figured out. He leaned back in his stone chair. “Three hundred pounds,” he said.

“Done,” Thomas said instantly.

“Fifty of your men as my guards.”


“Full support for me in everything I ask of you,” Edward said.

Thomas nodded. “Will that be all, my lord?” he asked.

Edward worked to keep his face blank. “Just one more thing,” he said. “I understand your cousin has recently come to stay with your family at Leaford?”

“Lady Marian of Raedburne,” Thomas said slowly. “What is it my lord requires?”

“I have heard that Lady Marian is a great beauty,” Edward said. “I would be most obliged if you would allow me to visit her frequently.”

A slow smile spread over Thomas’s face, and his eyes opened wide. “Of course, my lord,” he said.

Edward waved lazily, and Thomas bowed out of the room. Edward waited for a few minutes before he nodded to his right, where Sir Guy stood behind a tapestry. Sir Guy emerged, bowing before he took his place standing at Edward’s side.

“So, what do you think of our young friend, Gisbourne?” Edward asked, beckoning a servant to fill up his goblet of wine.

Sir Guy snorted contemptuously. “A fool,” he said. “But a fool who may prove useful.”

“True,” Edward said lazily. He watched, amused, as Gisbourne took a deep breath, obviously working up the courage to speak.

Sir Guy’s short blond hair fell across his face, and he shook it away absently. “I hope my lord intends to allow me a chance at the girl,” he said, finally.

“Of course, Gisbourne,” Edward said agreeably. “That was my intention all along.”

”But… you said…” Sir Guy stammered.

Edward laughed cruelly. “Of course I said, Gisbourne. And if you do not succeed, I might amuse myself by taking her. But Raedburne is not a large enough estate, nor is Lady Marian so wealthy that I cannot do without the money. No, Sir Guy, the first chance goes to you.”

Sir Guy bowed, obviously overwhelmed. Edward felt pleased with himself. There was nothing like earning the loyalty of your followers with a simple, meaningless gesture. “Has there been any news from our foresters?” He asked, turning his attention to the necessary chores.

“Yes,” Gisbourne said, his face darkening.

Edward frowned. “What?” he demanded.

“One of the bands had caught a poacher, a young minstrel from their description. I believe his name was Alan a’ Dale. A “Robin of Locksley” rescued him. This Robin killed both of the guards you sent with the foresters. One he killed outright, the other he wounded in the leg, but the guard has now died. The foresters fled.”

Edward sniffed. “See to it that a writ of outlawry is made for this Robin of Locksley. And punish the foresters. We can have no cowards in our service.”

“Yes, my lord,” Gisbourne bowed and left the chamber.

Edward stared around the large chamber. The law had been necessary. Poaching had been getting out of hand, and the only way to quell rebellion was with harsher punishments. This Robin would soon be caught, and that would be the end of it.

– Tuppence Van de Vaarst, 1st Place in Short Story




It had been a long time since she’d been in the French countryside. Six months in fact, not a day more or less, since she’d last walked these dirty, worn-down, cobblestone streets on her way to what the locals affectionately referred to as the Cat Piss Cafe. The waiter there greeted Marie warmly as she walked up to the old wooden door – she wasn’t a frequent customer, but she was a memorable one.

Richard was already there, sitting at one of the outside, glass tables scanning the crowd – presumably for her. It didn’t take long for him to spot her, and Marie watched with a heavy heart as his face lit up, and he eagerly motioned her over. What she had to do today just became harder. “You look lovely today,” he greeted warmly, rising as she arrived at the table. He leaned over to kiss her cheek but she pulled away.

“Thank you,” Marie replied quietly. Richard’s brow furrowed slightly as both of them sat down, reading the menu. Silence reigned until a waiter came over, chatting jovially with both of them as he took down their orders and departed. “How have you been?”

“Excellent,” Richard replied, face splitting into a wide, goofy grin. “I just recently got a job promotion. Now I get to sit on my ass and give orders rather than busting my ass running and carrying them out. How have you been doing?”

“Fine.”  Marie paused, looking for the right words to say. There was no easy way to break the news…  “Richard, I-”

“How are the kids?” Marie grimaced, but Richard wasn’t paying attention. As usual.

“They’re doing good. Rachel is excited to start first grade next month. She wants you to come shopping with us so you can help her pick out the ‘coolest backpack ever’, her own words.”

Richard smiled warmly, taking a swig of his beer. There was a small growing collection near his elbow, an alarming sight. “I should come visit sometimes. I saw a little blue bear I know Rach would love.”

Marie sighed. “I would prefer it if you didn’t.”

“Why?  You’ve never minded before.”

“Yes, but Richard, I -” Marie abruptly stopped as the waiter returned with their meal.  The soup was steaming hot and she paused to blow on it before eating a spoonful.

“How’s Katie?” Richard asked timidly. His other daughter had been upset by the separation, blaming him.

“She got a scholarship to John Hopkins,” Marie declared proudly, face lighting up. The memory of the smile on her daughter’s face was one that would stay forever. “We took her out last night to celebrate.”

“You didn’t invite me?”

“She didn’t want you there.” Neither of them did, truthfully.

Richard sighed. “Still, John  Hopkins…that doesn’t sound like any local school I know of. Is it in England?”

“America,” Marie corrected him, frowning. “It’s a prestigious medical school.”

Richard beamed. “My daughter, all grown up and going to be a doctor. Looks like she got my brains after all.” Marie coughed, hiding a derisive snort. “She’ll be lonely, being in a country across the sea by herself.”

Marie steeled herself for what was coming. She couldn’t let things continue like this. “She won’t be alone.”


“I’m moving to America.”

“You – wait, what?” Richard stared at her, mouth agape. “But, but, the children!”

“They’re coming with me.”

“You can’t take my kids!”  Richard sat up in his seat, face starting to turn red.

“They’re my children too,” Marie snapped, getting fed up. It was always the same damn argument! ”They’re coming with me.”

“You can’t take them!” Richard insisted, face contorting into a snarl.

“The courts say I can,” Marie spat.

Richard leaned forward, looming formidably over the table. Marie could smell the alcohol on his breath. “You…bitch!” He spat.


The surrounding tables grew silent at the sound, heads turning to stare at them. Marie flushed in embarrassment, heart pumping with adrenaline. Her palm stung from the force of the blow she’d delivered to Richard’s cheek. He sat back in his chair, one hand going to his face as he stared silently at her. “It’s been a long time since you’ve hit me,” he commented quietly.

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” Richard looked subdued. Silence reigned across the table as they finished their meal, a bit of soup spilling in Marie’s lap as her spoon trembled.

“America, you say?” Richard asked, finished with his sandwich. Marie sighed, not answering as the waiter came by to place their check on the table and clear their dishes. He was giving them both an uncertain look.

“Yeah,” Marie eventually replied, heart heavy. Richard would keep badgering her if she never answered.

“That’s not so bad,” he continued, trying to sound casual. “I could always come with you.”


“You probably don’t want us living together, but I’m sure I can find an affordable apartment nearby-”


“I could see the kids more often, maybe even take Rach to school on the bus. Or maybe drive – Americans use cars a lot, right?”


“And we could see each other more often than twice a year, maybe I can even cook dinner from time to -”

“Richard I’m getting married,” Marie blurted, looking frustrated.

Richard closed his mouth, blinking owlishly. “Married?  To who?”

Marie blushed. “An American businessman I met a while back, named Hank. He works with art dealers, and was meeting a few contacts in France.”

“Marie, I don’t want to know.”

She ignored him. It was his tum to listen. “We met at a cafe in Paris. A thief tried stealing my bag while I was eating lunch, and he actually tackled him to the ground, can you believe it? I treated him to dinner as a thank you and…well, he asked to see me again. This was about 5 months ago.”

“Marie, I don’t want to know.”

“You’re going to hear it anyway,” Marie snapped. “I have to get it through your thick skull that we’re never getting back together.”

Richard looked bewildered. “But…but we get along great! I thought we were finally getting closer, I mean…you still keep meeting me!”

Marie sighed heavily. ‘The only reason I agreed to see you every six months was so that you would stop calling me every week! It’s over, Richard. Done. Nothing is going to change that.”

“But I love you,” Richard replied desperately.

Marie stood up, pulling out her wallet. “Not enough to stop drinking,” she retorted quietly. Richard winced. ”Not enough to keep me from hitting you. We’re never going to work, Richard, love or not. And Hank…Hank makes me happy. I haven’t felt this happy in years.” She pulled out her half of the bill.

“I’ll pay for it,” Richard said hastily.

“Keep your money.” Marie dropped the bills on the table, ignoring him. She didn’t want to owe him anything. “This is goodbye, Richard.” She began to walk away.

“Wait!”  Despite herself, Marie paused at the sound of desperation in her ex­ husband’s voice, looking back. “Can I see you again?”  He was wearing that look, that apologetic, teary-eyed, despondent look that always made her cave in and let him back into her life again, and again, and again.  Even now she could feel herself wavering, wanting to erase the pain she had caused him. But…


Marie walked away.  It was for the best…for both of them.




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– Stephanie Smith, 2nd Place in Short Story




It was about 10pm when my mom called from the hospital to tell my dad that he better come and bring my brother and me. I remember watching my dad as he hung up the phone. He had tears in his eyes. Dad never cries.

“Your grandma’s dying. Go get your coats,” he said to us. He went outside to start the car and get the heat going. I grabbed my little brother and tried to help him get his coat on. Jeffrey was only six but already knew bow to get under my skin. He twisted and fought as I tried to force his arms through the sleeves.

“I do it myself!” be hollered.

“Fine!” I yelled back at him. “Just hurry up, will ya?!” I scowled, wishing not for the first time that I had remained an only child. Immediately, I felt guilty. Grammy was about to die and I was basically wishing Jeffrey was, too. I felt like a murderer.

I tried to be the patient older sister as I helped Jeffrey get into the car. We rode in silence on the way to the hospital. Dad clenched and unclenched his bands on the steering wheel and stared straight ahead. It scared me to see him so upset. Jeffrey must have been too; his little hand reached for mine and I held it tight.

As soon we parked the car, Dad hurried us into the hospital, picking Jeffrey up because he wasn’t going fast enough. Once we got inside, we went up in the elevator and then down some white hallways. Occasionally we would pass people slumped in chairs. Some were sleeping; others were reading or staring at their bands. As we hurried by them, I wondered what they were here for. Did they have a relative about to die? I wondered if they asked the same about me.

Just as we were almost to Grammy’s room, Dad stopped us. “I want you two on your best behavior. No loud noises or fighting. You can hug Grammy if you want and say goodbye to her. Okay?”

We both nodded solemnly. He didn’t have to tell us to be serious. We could feel it. But saying this seemed to calm Dad down. He took a deep breath and opened the door. I cautiously poked my bead in the door, but Dad got impatient and gave me a little push. I edged my way in with Jeffrey at my side and stayed close to the door.               Mom was sitting by the bed, looking tired and sad. She looked up when we came in, and Dad went to go stand next to her. They were blocking our view of Grammy, but I could see her old, pale hand lying on the covers, shaking. I knew I should go and say goodbye, but her hand scared me. Her fingers were all curled and bony, and her hand had those brown spots you get when you get older. It wasn’t like her hand looked that much different from the last time I’d seen her, but…seeing it so pale and shaking…l had this strange feeling that if I touched her, I’d die too.

So I stood with my back pressed against the wall, looking around the room, anywhere but at that alien hand shaking on the bed. The room looked the same, decorated with Jeffrey’s drawings and some get-well-soon cards I had made. There were some pictures of us on the table next to the bed, and Grammy’s fuzzy pink slippers were neatly placed next to it. Everything was the same and yet…I couldn’t figure it out at first. Maybe it was the wilting flowers on the table by the window or the smell of fresh antiseptic. Maybe it was the ugly yellow hospital blanket that always somehow managed to be inviting before, because it meant sitting on it, talking with Grammy. Now it just had that wrinkled, shaking hand. Maybe it was seeing the hospital room for what it really was – a room that would soon hold a dead person.

I could hear her wheezing breaths, like she was gasping for air. I wanted to plug my ears, but that would be acting like Jeffrey. Mom turned toward us and told us to hurry up and come over if we wanted to say goodbye. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t want to have a life of regret like the adults I read about in books. I grabbed Jeffrey’s hand and walked around to the other side of the bed. I had secretly hoped Grammy would look like the dying people on TV. You know, the ones who have all their make-up on and smile and tell you to remember them. It wasn’t like that. Her skin looked like crinkly paper and sagged on her because she was so thin. Her hair was all tangled and snarled. Worst were the rattling breaths she took. I stared at her for a minute. This couldn’t be my grandma. Grammy was the one with the warm smile, who gave me hugs and baked cookies. Even when I visited her in the hospital before, she always seemed so…so alive.

I could feel Mom and Dad looking at me disapprovingly. My repulsion must have been more obvious than I thought. I leaned over just slightly. “I love you, Grammy,” I said emotionlessly. It felt weird saying it. Her eyes had been closed, but they opened just a crack when I spoke. They startled me at first ­ where everything else seemed pale and pasty and grey, the sliver of her eyes gleamed at me, as if she knew what I was really thinking. I tried to have a look of compassion and sadness as I reluctantly bent to kiss her cheek. There was a small trickle of drool on one comer of her lips. I tried not to look at it or think about it as I gave her a quick kiss. Her cheek felt cool and rough, and I could feel the sagging folds of her skin. As soon as I was done, I took an involuntary step back and fought to keep from scrubbing my lips with the back of my hand. Dad came over and helped Jeffrey lean over the bed, but he burst into tears and wouldn’t kiss her. Her eyes were closed by then, though, so hopefully she was asleep or something.

I retreated into a comer and sat down, waiting for her to die. I just wanted to get back to my warm, comfortable room and forget about all this. I felt guilty for wishing she was dead, but I couldn’t help it. I tried to pretend I was really sad, but I knew my real feelings were obvious. Fortunately, Mom and Dad weren’t paying much attention to me. They either sat by her side, staring at her or sat as the room, staring into space. I forced myself to be content playing with Jeffrey’s hair. He had fallen asleep on my lap.

Two hours later, the moment came. I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting. After all, I had never seen someone die before. While we had been waiting, I had been morbidly wondering what

it was like to die. Was there a white light at the end of a dark tunnel, or was it all just blackness? Did it hurt? Could you feel your soul leaving your body? I didn’t like these questions, and it made me wish all the more to leave the room.

But anyway, the moment did come. We heard her breath getting really raspy and shallow. Mom and Dad rushed over to her side and grasped those awful, shaking hands, crying. In less than a minute, her breathing stopped. Mom felt her pulse.

“She’s gone,” she said tearfully.

I stared at the body (after all, it wasn’t Grammy anymore, right?) and noted that I didn’t feel any different. I supposed that I must be in shock.

We stayed there for about fifteen minutes. Mom and Dad finally pulled themselves away. Mom gathered all the photos and stuff and Dad carried Jeffrey (still asleep) in his arms. I grabbed the vase with the dead flowers. As we headed out the door, I looked back. Some strange feeling took hold of me, and I ran back over to the bed. With a trembling finger, I reached out and cautiously felt her pale, dead hand. It wasn’t completely cold yet but somehow, I would have known it belonged to a dead person. I wiped my finger roughly on my pants and hurried to catch up with my parents.

The trip back was silent, except for Mom’s sobbing. For some reason, I felt angry and wanted to yell at her to stop it. I was angry at my dad for dragging Jeffrey and me out to the hospital. Most of all, I was angry at my grandma for dying and looking so bad and making me feel this way. I knew I’d feel guilty tomorrow, and deep down, my conscience was telling me I was going to be­ come one of those adults who has lifelong regret. But at that time, I didn’t care. As soon as we got home, I ran up to my room and started getting ready for bed, just like I always did. I scrubbed my hands several times, brushed my teeth, washed my face, and changed into my pajamas. I read a book for a little bit before turning out the light. I had almost managed to block out the image of my grandmother. And then, as I turned out the light, I saw the blanket that she made me, the one that I still slept with every night,  and I burst into tears.

– Elizabeth Williams, 2nd Place in Short Story

The Hands of a Man

It is only September, but here in Pennsylvania there is already a chill in the air and a cold north wind beats against our windows. The thin walls of our house do nothing to warm us, and our tiny iron stove cannot heat this almost empty room. I blow on my frozen fingers to warm them as I read my book while Mama kneads dough for kalács. Though we have little, Mama tries to make Papa’s favorite sweet bread for when he comes home from a particularly hard day at the mines.

All of a sudden, we feel the ground shake beneath us and the windows rattle for a moment. Six-year-old Kati had been huddled by the stove playing with her rag doll. She runs to Mama and buries her face in her skirts. These shudders happen often, for the miners are always deepening the mine, but Kati has not yet -grown used to them. I glance at Mama, who has stopped her kneading for a moment. Though the blasts are not unusual, always we fear for Papa.

“Do you think…”I start to ask Mama. She is staring out the window in the direction of the mine. Abruptly, she turns back to her dough and whacks it across the wooden counter.

“Papa is fine,” she says fiercely. “Kati, fetch me some more flour. Go back to your book, Enri.”

My sister and I hurry to obey. I try to focus back on my science book. Papa bought it from one of the foremen whose son had no more need for it. Papa has promised me that I will one day reach my dream and become a great doctor. Mama always shakes her head and sighs when he says that, but Papa just tells me, “Ne félj álmodni, a flam.” Never be afraid to dream, my son.” I trace my fingers over a picture of a human skeleton. Maybe one day my fingers will be fixing someone’s bones.

A while later, the smell of warm kalács fills the air and I have begun trying to memorize a passage on the muscles of the hand when we hear the clip-clopping of hooves coming down the street. I look over at Mama. Her lips tighten and she thumps the dough a little harder as if to block out the sound. Kati has come to stand next to me and her little hand creeps into mine. I’m holding my breath, praying that the hooves will pass by our house.

Clip-clop. Clip-clop. They stop.

Mama rests the dough on the counter and slowly turns around. She smoothes her hands on her apron and walks to the door. Mama looks calm, but I can see her hands shaking at her sides. She opens the door and stands like a statue. Kati huddles beside me. The Black Maria has stopped outside our door, and we can see a man’s feet hanging out the back of the wagon.

“Mrs. Varga?” the driver asks. He pulls off his cap and I see his red cheeks. I remember that he played Santa Claus last Christmas and gave all of us children a stick of taffy. But he is not smiling now.

Mama looks at him with tears in her eyes. “József?” she whispers. The man just looks at the frozen ground. Mama runs to the back of the wagon.”József!” she cries. My heart feels like it has stopped beating. Papa can’t be gone! I let go of Kati and run to the wagon.

Papa is lying there, covered in dust and blood. I scramble into the wagon and kneel beside his head. His beard is no longer black but white. I run my fingers through his hair, watching the wind blow tiny clumps of dust away. Looking at him lying there, I feel empty inside. Papa cannot truly be gone! my mind is screaming. I reach out to touch his shoulder, but it feels odd, as if the bones are no longer there. I jerk my hand back and look at Mama, who’s crying softly and clutching Papa’s hand. The people  who’ve come out to see the wagon silently go back into their houses.”Mrs. Abramcyzk from next door is cradling Kati, who is sobbing in her arms.

The driver clears his throat with a guilty expression. “I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Varga.” He shifts his feet, twisting his cap in his hands. “I’ll help you carry him in now.”

Mama wipes her eyes and straightens.”lgen, yes, of course.” She closes her eyes for a moment before beckoning me. “Enri, you must help us.”

Numbly, I obey and move to the end of the wagon. I feel guilty but grateful when the man moves to carry Papa’s shoulders. Together, Mama and I lift his feet and carry him to the table in  the kitchen.

“Take Kati upstairs,” Mama commands me. Mrs. Abramcyzk gently pushes Kati in my direction. She is still sobbing. All I can do is grab her hand and tug her upstairs. I do not want to be there when they clean Papa. Tonight the men and their wives will come and pay their respects. I look over at Kati who has quieted and is now staring at the wall.

“Did Papa die because of me?” Her voice is small and scared.

I look at her, startled. “What?”

She looks at me and begins to cry again. “I stole a piece of candy yesterday an’ I was a bad girl an’ now Papa’s dead!” she wails.

I watch her helplessly before going to sit beside her. “No, Kati,” I try to soothe her. “Papa didn’t die because of you. You are a good girl.” I hesitate before patting her arm. She hiccups and burrows her face into my arms. I wrap my arms around her and rock her gently, just as I have seen Papa do after she has a nightmare. Remembering makes my chest hurt and a small tear slides down my face into Kati’s hair. We sit there for a long time before she falls asleep. It is dark when Mama comes upstairs.

“Enri.” Her voice is soft and sad. She knows I do not want to go. Mama carefully tucks Kati into bed, not wanting to wake her. She strokes my sister’s golden curls before turning to me.  It is time.”

Together we go downstairs. Already many have come, their faces solemn. Many of the women are crying and hug my mother tightly. The men shake my hand.

“Your papa was a good man,” Mr. Bercik tells me. “He was proud of you.”

I can only nod mutely. I do not know many of the men here. They are big and tall, with thick, heavy beards like Papa, but none of them smile or seem friendly. I stare at Papa’s face, seeing the wrinkles around his eyes from smiling. Papa always smiled.

I wish that I could run upstairs to Kati. They have placed candles around the room and around Papa’s body, giving it an eerie glow. His face is shadowed and hollow-looking. I pull my knees up to my chest and try to recite the muscles that are in the hand, hoping to block out the sound of wailing. It is several hours before they all leave and only Mama and I are left with Papa.

I slump in my chair a few feet away from where Papa’s cold body lies. It doesn’t seem real. I keep wondering when I am going to wake up from this dream. Mama caresses Papa’s hand and gazes at his face.

“I remember when your papa first courted me…” Mama smiles sadly. “He was a farmer’s son and brought me pink flowers every Sunday when we went to Mass. We were lucky; both our parents approved our match. We married and all was good.” Her eyes grow distant. “And then the soil turned poor and there was no work. We left Hungary and came to America. We thought we were to have a better life.” Mama laughs tearfully as she strokes Papa’s face. “Oh Jószef, how wrong we were…” She pauses for a moment as her voice breaks. “But then we had you. Jószef was so happy to have a son. He called you ‘a fény és öröm az életemben – the light and joy of my life.'” She turns to me. “He loved you so much, Enri – you and Kati.”

I squeeze my eyes shut, trying not to cry as I remember. Papa patting my head and joking that I was either outgrowing him or he was shrinking, Papa winking at me just before he would give me a penny for candy, though we had little money to spare…the memories hurt.

“You know what you must do now, Enri,” she says without looking at me. I stare down at my hands, twisting my fingers together. I feel tears forming in my eyes and I angrily blink them away.

Mama sighs and turns toward me. “Your papa wanted the world for you. He wished you to become a great man, a doctor…to save the sick.” She pauses, but I cannot bring myself to look at her, to look at Papa. She comes over and kneels beside me and lifts my chin so that I look at her.

“You must become a different man now, a fiám.” I raise my eyes to hers and slowly nod. Papa has always taught me what my duty is and now I must do it. A tear falls from Mama’s eye and I catch it in my hand.

“I will, Mama.” I try to make my voice strong. “I will make Papa proud.”


It’s raining as I walk to the hut near the entrance of the coal mine. I stand inside as a short, fat man with glasses peers at me from behind his desk.


“Enri Varga.” I stare at the floor.

“Age?” He snaps impatiently.

“Twelve, Sir,” I mumble.

“You’ll work as a breaker boy.” He huffs his way to the door and sticks his head out. “Jacobek!” He yells. A tall thin boy a little older than me saunters over. “Show Varga what to do.” He slams the door shut.

The boy turns to me with a grin. “It’s really Jakubik. Izaak Jakubik.” He sticks out a cracked and scraped hand. I shake it hesitantly. “So you’re Varga.” His tone turns sober for a moment. “Sorry to hear about your father.”

I shrug, unsure of what to say. Izaak leads me to a large noisy room where maybe twenty boys are sorting coal and breaking it into pieces. Most of the boys are a couple of years older than me but there are a lot that I know are younger than I am, even though you’re supposed to be at least twelve to work. I’ve seen most of them around, but they were almost always in the mines and Papa made sure I never worked there. Now I see why, for the air is heavy with coal dust and I start coughing as it fills my lungs.

“You’ll get used to it!” Izaak shouts over the noise. He points me to an empty seat. “You’ll work here! All you have to do is this!” He shows me how to break and sort the coal. “Make sure you keep your fingers clear of the conveyor belt or you might not have any to worry about! See you at lunch!” Slapping me on the back, he heads off to his seat on the other side of the room.

I watch him leave, wishing that I could walk out the door and run home, but the glare of the foreman tells me I had best hurry and do my job. The coal tumbles past me in its trough, shouting at me to do my work. I grab a piece of coal and try to break it against the wooden frame. The sharp edges of the coal slice the tips of my fingers, and it takes several tries before the piece breaks into two. Squeezing my injured fingers, I gaze at the coal chutes that tower above. The coal flows down to us in a never­ending stream that shows no signs of stopping.

I watch the other boys as I pick up another piece of coal. They hunch over their benches, looking only at their work. I steal a glance at Izaak. Even his face has lost its liveliness and instead he looks like all the other boys-solemn and listless. A tap on my shoulder startles me and I look up to see the glaring foreman. Quickly, I begin my work again, sighing as another piece of coal takes the place of the one I’m breaking.

****     .

Hours pass and still there is the constant drone of coal running through the troughs. Breaking the coal is hard and I work much slower than the other boys. By lunch, my fingernails are already chipped and bleeding. I show them to Izaak but he only shrugs.

“You get used to it.” He shows me his own hands, scarred and rough. I sigh as we head back into the smoky room. I try to forget my dream to become a doctor. None of that matters now. Papa is gone and it is I who must take care of Mama and Kati. And so I continue, breaking and sorting those horrible black pieces of rock.

Finally, the machines stop. The sun is only just beginning to go down, but I can barely keep my head up, I’m so tired. “C’mon,” Izaak says to me. Together we stand in line with the men and boys to get our wages. Even though I am exhausted, I can’t help but feel excited to receive my first wage.

My turn comes and I hold out trembling fingers expectantly.

“10, 20, 30, 40…there ya go. Next!” The fat man shouts.

I turn away in disbelief. Forty cents? That was all? Tears blur my eyes for a moment. How could I be a man for Mama and Kati without Papa? A tear betrays me, trickling down my blackened face. I angrily swipe it away, ashamed, even as I weep in my heart for Papa, Mama, Kati and most of all me and far-off dreams that now will never come to be for sure.

I was staring at a firefly – Photinus Coleoptera, my brain supplied from my book – when I feel a hand on my shoulder.

“You did good today, Varga,” Izaak says. “You’re one of us now.” He tugs on my father’s cap. He gives me funny two-fingered salute, then saunters away. I stare after him for a moment before gazing back down at my hands.

They are blackened and bloody, doctor’s hands no more. But they are a man’s hands now. And slowly, my fingers tighten over my forty cents.


Elizabeth Williams (1st Place in Short Story)