“That Which Remains” by Timothy L. Jones, is the First Place winning story in the romance category for the Eleventh Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Twelfth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Jones’s winning entry.
That Which Remains
By Timothy L. Jones
He forgot his own name when he met Anna. It wasn’t that she had some sort of kinetic spark that drained him of all reason. Her form wasn’t so stunning that he couldn’t form the necessary letters. His name just escaped him the way breath leaves us all. It was there one minute, and then it was gone.
Her name, he wrote down. He tried to keep important details in the notepad he carried with him. He thumbed past sketches and scribbled text to find a blank page. ANNA. He printed in block letters before repeating the name back to her.
Thin lines cut around her eyes when she forced a smile and offered her hand. There wasn’t any real reason for him to be so flustered. She was an everyday person, weathered hands, not the kind of woman accustomed to manicures provided by a doting husband. His right hand was wrapped up in a cast and sling, so he tucked away the notebook and shook with his left. Her touch was warmly delicate, and he felt as though he held on too long before letting her go.
He wanted to say something, anything to keep her in that moment, to stop her from walking away. He combed his fingers through his hair and straightened the robe that was falling from his shoulder, but still, nothing came to him. Instead, his eyes drifted toward a man wobbling on crutches, hinged titanium from the knees down, cylinders compressing and releasing with each step. Anna was still looking at him, a blurry image in the corner of his eye, but still nothing, he couldn’t breathe. The man inched down the corridor, white tile against white walls, sterile with the smell of Pine-sol filling the air.
He started to follow, just walked away from her. The notebook was braced between his finger tips and his cast as he brushed through the pages. He stopped when he found it, a faceless image, all of his drawings were faceless. It was a picture of the man he was following. He knew because of the robot legs he had sketched out on the paper. The picture was titled Iron Man in block letters, but there was a name at the bottom. “Paul,” he whispered. He said it louder, but the man didn’t turn around, just kept moving.
The clicking of Anna’s shoes following him started slowly, but the sound of the heels on tile grew louder, faster. She touched his shoulder, but didn’t smile this time. When their eyes met, she invited him to have a cup of coffee in the cafeteria.
They sat in velvet high-back chairs over steaming cups. She had ordered, picked out strawberry pastries for both of them. The room was filled with the faint smell of deli meats and burnt coffee, overpowered by the ever-present odor of pine on the waxed tile. He liked that smell, it felt comforting somehow.
The cafeteria was mostly empty, void of life other than the lady leaning on the register and the nurse in pale-green scrubs. Maybe a doctor, he didn’t really know, it didn’t matter. The woman was texting furiously between bites of her sandwich. She was sitting at a table in the corner of the room mouthing every word her thumbs punched out on her phone, half chewed food milling around, ready to spring out if she typed an exclamation point. He had to shift in his chair to hide her, block her out behind Anna’s head.
He stirred two sugars into his coffee before remembering to say it.
“Luke,” He said. “My name’s Luke.”
She paused and forced her teeth to make another appearance. “It must be here.” Her lips were tightly puckered when she returned to digging through her purse.
Luke tossed the notebook on the table and began flipping through the pages. He stopped on the image of a tree, left it lay open there so he could study it, figure out what it was.
“I’m here ‘cause I broke my arm.” He smiled and took sugar packets out of the dish stuffed with jam and sweeteners. “Obviously I broke it. I was in a crash.”
“Tell me about it,” she said, no longer rummaging.
“Keep it quiet, but I was running some moonshine—” “Moonshine?”
“Yes,” he said.
It was stupid, he knew it, but how else could he explain. He didn’t know.
She went back to digging, and he didn’t elaborate. Luke fumbled with the two sugar packs until he conceded to tear the tops off with his teeth. She didn’t look up until she found the wedding band. She held it up. “I can’t wear it at work. Conveyor belts can be dangerous.” She smiled. It was a simple gold band, something that wouldn’t bring twenty dollars at a pawn shop. “I was afraid that I lost it.”
Married. He cursed under his breath as he stirred the sugar into his coffee. She seemed interested in him when she invited him to sit down. The way she tucked her hair behind her ear when he accepted her offer— but she clearly wasn’t interested in anything more than a cup of coffee or she would have left her ring where it was. He sipped his coffee. “And you, why are you here?”
“My husband,” she said, slipping the ring on.
“Well, that’s a disappointment.”
She smiled. Or sort of smiled. “We must accept disappointment but never lose hope.”
“Sounds like something my mother would say,” he said. “My father on the other hand just used disappointment as my proper name.”
She laughed, hiding her mouth with her palm.
Luke touched her hand. “No,” he said. “Your smile, it’s too beautiful to hide.”
Her hand slid away, cheeks falling back in place. Her smile became a curl at the corners of her mouth and her eyes glazed.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“No, no. It’s fine.” She sipped her coffee, avoided eye contact.
Luke focused on the tree again. It was an oak, maybe a maple. No, an oak for sure. He sketched in OAK at the bottom.
“What are you drawing?”
He pushed the notepad across the table, and Anna spun it around so she could see the picture.
“An oak tree,” she said. “Just missing a treehouse.”
“Maybe it’s just a tree?”
“Maybe, maybe it could be more?” Anna pointed at the two large limbs jetting out in a v. “Those could support a good floor.”
“Sounds like you built one before.”
“I helped my husband make one once,” she said. “What other stuff do you have in here?”
Anna turned the page, but he reached across the table and folded the book closed.
“Ah… nothing, nothing that makes any sense anyway.” he said, pulling the note to him.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Staff or patient?”
“Your husband, is he a doctor?”
“Um, no,” she said. “He’s a soldier. He was driving the lead vehicle in a convoy. How could he know?”
“There was a bomb,” she said. She sipped her coffee, caught his eyes for a moment before looking away.
“I’m sorry. You don’t have to talk about it.”
“I do,” she said. “You don’t understand, but I want you too.”
Luke nodded his head, “Okay.”
“They showed me pictures of it, of the Humvee. It was all crushed in like a tin can. The roof almost flat to the top of the doors… The front wheel was missing too. They said it was taken off in the blast, that it rolled three times before it came to rest upright. God, I cried when I saw those pictures, saw what he went through.”
Her napkin was blackened wet with mascara, so he handed her his.
“I can’t imagine how hard it must be.”
“Three hours,” she said. “That’s how long it took them to get him out. You know, when he went over there, I tried not to think about losing him, but now I know how it feels, and I just want him back.”
An awkward silence filled the space between them when she finished. He wanted to excuse himself with an explanation that he had to use the restroom, but instead he took a bite of his pastry and asked if her husband had been awarded a medal. “Not yet,” she said. A travesty he told her, he should have had a parade, been welcomed home a hero, pinned with a chest full of medals.
He watched the news. Nobody gave a damn anymore, they leave without fanfare, and return under the cover of darkness. He told her as much, and then he told her a story about his Uncle Mike coming home from Vietnam, a story that his uncle told him when he was a young boy. It was so engrained in his mind that he could see the protesters screaming, spitting, throwing rocks. His uncle held his head up, didn’t look at them, walked by with the rest of his company. Luke knew they were false memories playing back in his mind, but he held on to them, he had to keep some things.
When he fell silent, she only feigned a smile and told him that it was getting late, that she should probably go. He tore the top off of a sugar packet, but she touched his hand before he poured it into his coffee. “You put sugar in it already,” she said.
He sipped it. “You’re right. Thanks…” Luke glanced at the heap of empty packets on the corner of the table. He fished out his pen and began flipping through the notebook. “I write things down. To be honest, I don’t really know why I am here.” He looked down at the open page. “What did you say your name is again?”
He wrote it down, but then he stopped. He flipped back a page. And then another. “Your name is already here.”
“I should go.” Her purse made a dull thud on the tile when she stood up. She reached for it, but he was already holding it like an offering when he lifted it into her hands.
“Who are you?”
“I’ve been here every day.”
He let go of her purse and fingered the notebook on the table until it was turned to the first page. Her name was written on the inside cover. There was a phone number underneath it. He closed it and slid the notebook across the table. She tried to push it back.
“No,” he said. “I don’t know you.”
“When I look at these, I’m afraid,” he said, holding out his weathered hand. “I expect to see child’s hands, but this is what I am.”
She was biting her lip, hands trembling, he could see that she was trying not to cry as she stood up.
“I don’t want pity, or whatever this is.”
He cut her off. “No,” he said again. He took the notebook from the table and started to walk away, but then he stopped long enough to say, “don’t come back.”
Luke was sitting on a bench in the courtyard, watching a blue jay hopping toward the stale bread crumbs he’d spread in the grass at his feet. It would seize a piece and then flutter its wings to the safety of the tree line before it started hopping back toward his feet again. It was just the one bird, but he was happy to have its company.
He flipped open the notebook and started thumbing through it, looking for a blank page to sketch the bird. The name Sofia was written inside a heart. Underneath, the words don’t forget her were underlined. He closed his eyes and thought. The only Sofia that he knew was in grade school. But why did she matter? She moved away when he was eight.
He tore out the page, crumpled it, tossed it over his shoulder. The next page was a sketch of a car, 01 drawn on the door. He recognized it, he’d watched reruns of the show when he was a child. Hell, his mother said he was named after the best looking one on the show. He flipped the page.
It was the oak tree. He didn’t recognize it, he tried to but there was nothing, no memory. It was just a tree. He tore it out and revealed, Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding scrawled on the next page. Fire blazed up his spine, his muscles tense, he clawed the paper from the notebook. He didn’t stop, one page at a time, no longer trying to understand, he emptied the notebook until he came to a blank page.
Luke exhaled, looked back to the bird still hopping in the grass. He balanced the notebook on his leg and sketched with his left hand. The head of the animal was easy enough, the beak, an eye, a little shading. When he started on the wing, shading in the feathers, the notebook slipped off of his leg into the grass.
“What’s the point?” He kicked it away and watched the bird flutter to the tree line. It waited just inside the shadows for a moment before starting the journey back to him. He tucked his pen away and sprinkled more crumbs.
There was a steady murmur from the river in the distance, somewhere behind the pine trees that stood guard at the edge of the lawn. A lighted path cut into the woods and disappeared into a curve that held the answer to his problems. He imagined it, he could slip off his robe and wade out into the dark water until he couldn’t touch bottom. Luke could swim until he couldn’t anymore. He broke bread in his hand, contemplating how cold the water would be and how far one arm would take him before the sun sunk behind the horizon, before the sky filled with a smoky red glow. It would be a beautiful last memory, to slip away at the perfect moment, at that moment.
“Red skies at night are a sailor’s delight,” the woman said. She sat next to him on the bench, his notebook in her hands. “It’s beautiful, right?”
“Beautiful? Yes.” He extended his left hand across his body. “Luke.”
He held her hand a moment before she offered her name in return. He told her that it was nice to meet her and offered a skydiving explanation for his broken arm. She only smiled, her face fading into shadows as the sky folded into darkness, the bird taking one last crumb before disappearing into the night.
She didn’t ask about the notebook, and he didn’t offer conversation, content to entertain the voice echoing through the trees, an angel calling him to rest. He wanted to sink, settle to the bottom, to be consumed by silt. He wanted to be lost beneath the water, but he knew he would wash up, a mass of bloated flesh on the bank, found by a dog, a hiker, maybe a child. It didn’t matter. He’d be a grizzle story on the morning news, or maybe he wouldn’t. It didn’t matter anymore.
Luke didn’t say goodbye. He stood and walked toward the path, just left her.
Anna left the notebook on the bench and tugged on his robe. “Where you headed?”
“I thought I’d take a walk down to the river,” he said. “I haven’t seen it.”
“It’s pretty dark.”
“The path is lighted. I’ll be okay.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
“I doubt your husband would approve,” he said, pointing at her wedding band.
She took his hand and led him to the hard-packed dirt path. “Let me worry about my husband,” she said. “It will be an adventure.”
He followed her along the path, and as they walked, she began to talk. She said, “Let me tell you a story,” and then she told him a story about her husband.
When he was ten, she said, he had been at a river near his house. He was with his younger brother and they thought it would be fun to swim across. He could never give me a good reason why they wanted too, he’d just say that they were boys. It couldn’t have been more than a hundred yards across, but it was early may, and the current was strong. But that didn’t stop them from diving headlong into the bone chilling water. Her husband was the strong one that reached the other shore first. He’d been swept down river several hundred yards, but he didn’t fight the current. He kept his eyes on the shore and didn’t quit until he got there.
She put her hand on his shoulder and stopped him near the river’s edge. “And do you remember what you did?”
“I had to go back in to pull my brother’s skinny ass out.” He laughed. The moonlight was enough to see her hair streaking across her face. He brushed her hair aside and then she was kissing him. He wasn’t sure how long it was before she pulled back and moved her lips to his ear.
“Luke,” she whispered.
He kissed her again.
On the way back he held her waist with his good arm. She felt warm against him. Natural. He still didn’t remember, but he recognized the connection, the feeling that was inside of him. He wanted to fly into thousand pieces, fall in her arms and cry, but he couldn’t. That’s not how boys were. They walked.
Luke stopped in the path, an unseen wall keeping him from going any further. He let go of Anna and took a step into the trees, touching the bark of an oak. It was somehow familiar, the texture, the massive limbs spreading out into the darkness, even the smell of rain in the air. He closed his eyes and listened.
Luke imagined a fort built from pallets and tarp, suspended in the arms of the oak. Somehow, it was his sketch come to life. Not the way it was, but the way it was meant to be. He heard laughter, a child peering out from a jagged window. Sandy blonde hair breaking over her shoulders and bright eyes, radiant blue eyes. She was beautiful. The girl waved down at him. He smiled and waved back. The thought of rain filled his mind, and a light mist blew through the trees, the leaves whispering to those who could recognize their voice. An ancient voice that only comes when our ancestors choose to speak. A voice he heard.
Luke felt a hand on his shoulder and blinked the vision away before kissing Anna again. The raindrops came in a wave, lifting the smell of fruit from her hair. He didn’t want to move, let go of the moment. He’d stay for the rest of his life if there were a chance that he could keep her.
She took his hand, pulling him along the path. They hurried from the tree line, still holding hands in the courtyard. He stopped, and looked back at the woods, and then above them. He pulled her close and pointed to the sky. The moon was full, bathing the woods in a warm glow that promised hope. She relaxed into him, the rain washing over them.
He remembered the little girl’s name, Sofia. She tumbled through his mind, laughing down at him, until she consumed him, until she was all he could see. Sofia… don’t forget her.
“It’s beautiful,” Anna said.
“I think I have a daughter,” he said.
She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “Would you like to see a picture?”