“Parting Gift,” by Lish Troha, is the winning story for the 15th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an interview with Troha, check out the July/August 2015 issue of Writer’s Digest. You can also view a complete list of winners, as well as an exclusive Q&A with our winner.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Troha’s winning entry.
Some endangered animal lives near the beige rocks we used to blow up for coal and ore, a kind of weasel that was almost shotgun-blasted to extinction by the furious and unemployed. Now we’re shells—little shells within the town-shell—we exist for travelers passing through in need of an oil change or cheap supplies.
Grandpa died six months ago, lungs clogged full of cancer. In the hospital he stroked my hand and said, “Thank you for bein’ good, Peach. Prob’ly time you moved on. Like I am.” I nodded and kissed him on the forehead as the nurse pierced his vein for the final time and gave him a good dose of morphine. He sunk into it quick, it didn’t look so bad. Grandpa stopped breathing and I held it together ’til I got in my beat-up Ford Tempo. I cried for a half hour and then went to work.
I started stripping when I was sixteen, used a fake ID a second-year senior made; he gave it to me for a discreet and fevered handjob in the parking lot during first lunch.
In high school none of my friends were girls. I ignored the ones who wouldn’t smile back, who kept a strict distance between us as to not catch my slut-leprosy. It was the sweet girls who complimented my hair and my poetry but scratched my number in the wall above the urinals who made me cry. During gym Kaitlin McCallahan wrote “CUM” on my Nalgene with a permanent marker in enormous letters, it was beyond salvage. She saw me toss it in the garbage blotchy-faced, mascara smudged from tears, and laughed. Stared me down with her beady eyes. After her friends taped condoms all over my locker—a rainbow pack of Durexes—I stopped trying with girls.
When the second-year senior finished on a grease rag he took from auto shop he thanked me and told me I was cute, that he’d come see me sometime at Pandora. “You’ll do great,” he said.
All the guys said that, even Grandpa.
I moved in with him after Mom killed herself. When was nine I found her in the tub—face a floating white oval in crimson water, gummy blood-sludge around the surface perimeter—and that’s when I became an orphan. “Dad” had always been an abstract concept, a curse word; Grandma succumbed to cirrhosis when I was three. The pastor’s wife brought pies and I got free lunch for a year but my aura of tragedy repelled the other third-graders like a stench I couldn’t wash off.
The day of my first shift a gang of anonymous girls called and told Grandpa what I was doing. He looked over at me from his burgundy smoking chair, phone pressed to his ear. “Pandora?” He said as cigarette ash fell onto his soft Levi’s. I ran to my room and bawled into my pillow. Grandpa’s knuckles tapped my door and he let himself in as I sucked up snot and squeezed my wet eyes shut. Grandpa said, “Shh, shh.”
I mustered “we need the money” between whimpers.
“You don’t mind, Peach? Why should I mind then?”
“I guess you shouldn’t.”
“I don’t. I bet you’ll do great.”
He patted me and left, to light a fresh Lucky Strike and get back to his pre-recorded Letterman.
That night I was so nervous I poured an entire five-dollar bottle of merlot into my empty stomach before wrapping myself in one of Grandpa’s coats and stumbling eleven frozen blocks to the club. The dark was as endless and bare as the ocean floor; if it weren’t for my drunk I would’ve been scared.
When I wobbled in through the backdoor at Pandora the manager took one look at me and cracked a smile.
“Poor thing. Nervous?”
“No way,” I lied.
I fell back and caught myself on a glossy black dressing room wall.
A couple dancers trotted over—giggling in their lingerie and stringy bodysuits—and fawned over me. Some of the others hung back to size me up, arms crossed, tight-browed. I tried to keep my mouth relaxed as one of them applied a berry lipstick to my pout. They combed my hair, put me in fishnets, and called me “baby.”
“What’s your stage name hon?” asked the manager.
“Violet,” he said, “that’s your stage name. You should see the color of your tongue.”
My first performance was sloppy, but the men whooped for my lambish innocence and I made four hundred dollars in three hours. I picked up a rotisserie chicken from a 24-hour Chevron on the way home. Me and Grandpa feasted the next day—first time we’d had more than hot cereal or buttered Wonderbread in weeks—and our utilities were never shut off again.
* * * * *
I saw Kaitlin McCallahan at Target last month. She’s Kaitlin Kotch now. I was waiting in line to pay for some cheap stage underwear when she and her husband came up behind me with their newborn, cherry-red cart full of diapers and Enfamil. I turned my face and caught her eye. There was a leaden silence and I glared at the cashier as he rang up the woman in front of me, like by some force of my burning discomfort he’d work faster. I felt a tap on my shoulder and glanced back.
“It is you,” said Kaitlin.
I didn’t budge.
“I need to tell you,” she said to my stiff back, “I’m so sorry for how I treated you. Back then.”
My posture softened and I turned to meet her eyes.
“I was insecure and I—I hadn’t found the Lord.”
“Thanks for saying that.”
“I know you weren’t in a great place either.”
“The dancing. I know all that was probably a real dark time for you.”
I took a breath and stood there slack-jawed.
“What are you up to these days?” she asked.
“I’m still at Pandora.”
Kaitlin’s face flushed in sympathetic shame. She looked at the shiny floor, shifted, took a few steps back from me, tried to be Christ-like but the judgment in her pig eyes gave her away.
“If you’re looking for other work—”
“I have some bookkeeping at St. Charles’—”
I felt her husband’s gaze on my tits, stuffed into a white crew neck tee, maroon push-up just visible underneath. He followed the line of my torso to my jeans and I switched my hips. Their baby started fussing and Kaitlin stuck a finger in his mouth. The cashier aimed his plastic scan-gun at my clearance priced bra-and-panty sets—flowery, ruffled, lacy and girlish and like nothing Kaitlin Kotch had ever worn.
“I’m moving out to Seattle in a couple weeks. I got some poetry published in a journal over there. The editor wants me to intern, see how it goes.”
“Oh,” said Kaitlin.
I gave a smirk to her husband. He swallowed and stared as I gathered my items, signed my name on the card reader with a rounded stylus, and left.
“Take care,” I said and Kaitlin waved me off.
* * * * *
Earlier tonight the girls draped a purple satin sash over me, one they’d written in cursive with glitter-glue pens “Last Chance” on. My regulars came to tuck fives instead of ones into my frilly garter belt and wish me well.
The true parting gift was seeing Kaitlin’s crisp-suited husband swing in through the creaky gold-paneled door at 1:40 AM. I smiled and pulled him back to a darkened corner, where I take all my favorites. I sat him down and let my hair lap his face. His voice wavered as he begged “don’t tell my wife.”
I rubbed his temples with my thumbs, suppressed my laughter, and said “shh.” I put my thighs on either side of his body—it was paralyzed by lust—and gave Mr. Kotch the last dance.