Thank you to everyone who entered and voted in WD’s Your Story #63 contest!
In celebration of National Short Story Month, the Writer’s Digest May/June 2015 issue will feature a special expanded edition of Your Story that spotlights three winning entries.
Out of nearly 500 stories, readers helped us pick three diverse winners: “Just Pick One” by Nathan Lewis, “Bottom Rocking” by TJ Foster and “Deadly Consequences” by Julie Griffith. These three stories will appear in the May/June 2015 issue of Writer’s Digest.
The winning entries:
Just Pick One
by Nathan Lewis
“Just pick one,” you would say.
“What’s the difference?” I mutter, holding what, for all intents and purposes, look like two identical cans of formula.
Similac? Enfamil? What kind of names are those for baby formula? Wouldn’t something like Young Health be better? If you were here I’d tell you that, and you would laugh and tell me again to just pick one as you nonchalantly perused the baby food.
A “Can I help you, sir?” interrupts my internal debate and I turn to see a boy of no older than 16 peeking at me with disdain from behind a much-too-long curtain of hair. I look from him to the cans of formula in my hands to the basket in my cart containing Emma’s sleeping form, and then back to the teenage employee.
Just pick one.
“Erm—” I fumble with the cans, choosing the Enfamil for no reason at all. “No, I’m fine, thanks.” I drop the can into my cart and fumble through my pockets for the list I’d somehow lost in the last 15 seconds.
Luckily the young man is exactly as interested in helping me decipher baby formula as he initially seemed. He moves past me in a careful combination of urgency and indifference, and soon I’m alone again with my cart of groceries, my daughter and, with a victorious yank from my jacket pocket, my grocery list.
The sudden movement jostles the cart, and in turn the sleeping baby beneath me. “No, shh,” I urge quietly, holding stock still as her small face stretches and yawns. Her meaty fists punch the blankets as she blinks awake.
For an instant we stay like that—me still holding my list above my head, her looking blankly up at me—and I feel entirely incapable as a father.
For that moment I was 23 again. I was young, stupid and barely able to make macaroni and cheese. My living room was decorated with superhero posters and a pair of swords. I drank milk out of the carton. I did laundry only when I ran out of underwear. For that second, I was the last person who should be in charge of another living creature, much less a two-week-old baby girl. Then the moment passed, and the small body in front of me produced the most piercing scream I’d thought capable from such a tiny thing.
“Sorry,” I say humbly to the cashier as I rush my way through the line, juggling my keys, wallet, phone and list, all while digging through the baby bag for something to bribe my daughter with. The cashier seems sympathetic as she folds my debit card and receipt together and hands them to me. I cram them into my pocket and make my way through the automatic doors of the store and out to the parking lot.
Emma screams the whole way, ignoring my offering of nook, blanket and stuffed animal, seeming to crescendo as I approach the back of your car—or my car now, I guess.
“I know, I know. I’m going,” I say to Emma as much as to myself, digging through my pockets, yet again searching for the keys. I catch the eye of a disdainful old woman from across the lot, but I only nod and she rolls her eyes and saunters toward the store.
After a thorough search, the keys remain at large. Emma’s screams are relentless but her blue eyes stay on me. Out of options, I lean forward to rest my elbows on the baby basket and hold my head in my hands, meeting my daughter’s stare, silencing her to my own surprise.
“I know,” I say, smiling to myself. “I should have gotten the other baby formula.”
I see the keys on the ground in the parking space next to me and I retrieve them. I pile the groceries into the trunk and strap Emma’s basket into the backseat in only two tries. By the time I’m sitting in the driver’s seat, Emma is asleep again. I sit still, gratefully sipping the coffee I’d left in the cupholder.
Of all moments, it’s now when I miss you most. I never knew it when you were alive, but god did I love the way you laughed at me when I was stupid.
“Similac,” I whisper to Emma, and back out.
by TJ Foster
I awake to my smartphone’s incessant vibrating. Six missed calls, five voicemails. All from my mother, telling me my father can’t connect to the Wi-Fi from his new tablet. Each message more frantic than the last, as if the world depended on him reading tabloids and checking stocks.
I toss the phone back onto my nightstand and press my thumbprint against the watch on my left wrist. My bedroom door opens and I head downstairs, the lights in the hallway coming on as I pass. I enter the kitchen and the coffeemaker begins brewing one final cup. Light and sweet, the same as every morning.
My friends told me bottom rocking was the quickest high one could ever get. The healthiest of addictions. I contemplate this while sipping my cup of organic French vanilla from a temperature-regulating mug. I’d contemplated it every night while my television solicited things and my central air kept me comfortable at a consistent 61 degrees Fahrenheit. Every morning I have my final cup of coffee, only to return home later to a hot, home-cooked meal. Literally. A meal cooked by my home.
If you drive by a bar late at night, after all the drunks stumble home, you’ll still see a light on. You’ll see a group of people in Salvation Army hand-me-down clothing, modeling the spring line of hopelessness and abandonment. They come for a drink and stay for therapy.
Last month, my friends dragged me out to such a bar, saying “There are things in this world actually worth losing sleep over.” There, I heard stories that changed everything. A girl’s parents murdered in their home after sociopaths hacked their wireless locks. A young woman raped by a man she met on Tinder. A boy shot in broad daylight by a cop, who apparently thought the 11-year-old’s cell phone was a gun. It’s so easy to vent to people you don’t even know.
I step out my front door and lock it by hitting a button on the side of my watch. I slip on my sunglasses, which greet me with “Hello, Jillian,” and quickly adjust for today’s level of sunlight. As I approach my car, something crashes into it and falls to the ground. Startled, I reach down and pick up a plastic drone with a GoPro mounted on top. A kid no older than 8 comes running over with an iPad in hand.
“Sorry, Miss. I’m still getting the hang of this thing,” he stammers. I reluctantly hand back his toy and start my car with the push of a button. I still carry my keys everywhere, but they all open doors that no longer need them. A blue detonation device hangs from the same ring.
I didn’t sleep the night after the bar. My friends were downstairs rigging my apartment with explosives. Tiny little bombs the size of fingernails hidden behind light switches, paintings, appliances. Twelve hours later, they handed me the detonator. They told me if I ever wanted to hit rock bottom, I could join them with the push of a button.
I toy with the device in my pocket as the steering wheel guides me effortlessly to my destination. I don’t even have to press the gas. Along the way I pass a car, engulfed in flames while the driver tries hopelessly to climb through a broken window.
The things we create destroy us before we destroy them.
I arrive at the bar a few minutes later. My car parallel parks itself across the street, exactly half an inch from the curb. In an empty lot next to the bar, people of all ages are playing kickball, a game I haven’t played since grade school. I spot my friends running around in the early morning sun, laughing and high-fiving each other. No group of people seemed more at peace. Bottom rocking is more than a fix. It’s self-preservation.
My phone vibrates in my purse: Mom again. I step out of my car and throw it as hard as I can against the pavement. I snap my sunglasses in half as they tell me it’s 58 degrees outside. When my watch reminds me to eat a well-balanced breakfast, I rip it off my wrist and toss it into the self-cleaning garbage can on the sidewalk.
As I run toward the empty lot, I press the blue button and drop my keys in the middle of the street.
by Julie Griffith
The woman reached the park, the halfway point in her evening run, and headed for a drinking fountain located near the bronze statue of William Pierce, founding father of the town. She sometimes wondered what the Puritan minister would say about the appalling things that took place in the park after sunset, often right beneath of the staring gaze of his likeness.
There was a man at the drinking fountain, so she stood back to wait her turn. When he straightened and turned in her direction, she recognized him as the man she saw in the coffee shop the previous morning—the cute one with blue eyes and nice smile who’d said hello. Any other time, she’d have been happy to run into him. But today, with her messy ponytail and sweat-soaked jogging attire, she was sure she looked awful and smelled worse. She bent over and pretended to tie her shoe.
After a few moments, she glanced up, relieved to find he had moved on. Maybe she’d see him again, she thought, preferably when she was more presentable. After a quick drink of water, she resumed her run.
This was her fourth week of running daily and it was finally getting easier. In fact, she felt so good that she decided to take a longer route, adding a mile to her run. It wasn’t long before she realized she’d made a mistake. It was later than she’d thought, and the sun was hovering just above the horizon. It would be fully dark before she made it back home.
As she feared, it was well past sunset when she finally reached the wooded area near her house. She had an uneasy feeling, as if she were being watched, and her skin prickled in response. She looked over her shoulder at the deserted, moonlit street and tried to dismiss the feeling, blaming her paranoia on her addiction to crime dramas. Then there was a noise behind her, like a pebble skittering across the pavement. She broke into a full-on run.
She rounded a curve in the road, bringing her secluded house into view. When she moved there from her apartment, she was relieved to no longer be an unwilling witness to her neighbors’ loud fights, followed by the equally loud sounds of their making up. Now there was no one to disturb her sleep, but there was also no one to hear her cries for help.
As she ran up her driveway, she reached into her pocket for her keys. To her horror, her pocket was empty. Then she remembered the spare she’d hidden in a place her mother insisted was too obvious. She scrambled onto the front porch and lunged for the flowerpot beside the door. Her hands were trembling, but she somehow managed to slip the key into the lock.
Once she was safely inside, she peeked out the window. No one was there. Maybe she was just imagining things. Her relief soon turned to dread as she realized she’d have to replace the lost keys and install new locks.
As she headed for the shower, she thought of the man in the park and regretted that she may have missed an opportunity to meet a nice guy, all because she was too vain.
The scruffy old man settled down on a park bench beneath the watchful eye of William Pierce and patted the wad of bills in his pocket. He’d no sooner picked up the keys he’d found lying near the statue than a man with icy blue eyes approached him and claimed they were his. The old man was almost certain they weren’t. He’d spotted them right after that fine lady left, in the exact spot where she’d stopped to tie her shoe. But when the guy offered him money, he’d handed them right over.
The blue-eyed man watched from the darkness outside her house, his fingers curled around the keys in his pocket. A good voice inside his head urged, Walk up to the door, put the keys on her doormat, then leave.
But then the bad voice spoke up. Did you see how she avoided you today? She’s just like all the others. Go on, let yourself in. Won’t she be surprised?
The bad voice won. It always won.