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Writer's Digest 91st Annual Competition Genre Short Story First Place Winner: "Shooting Star"

Congratulations to Maura Beth Brennan, first place winner in the Genre Short Story category of the 91st Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's her winning story, "Shooting Star."

Congratulations to Maura Beth Brennan, first place winner in the Genre Short Story category of the 91st Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's her winning story, "Shooting Star."

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[See the complete winner's list]

Shooting Star

She wasn’t much to look at. A stray dog, fur caked with mud, tail between her legs. This was the third day she’d been hulking around the back deck.

“That dog’s here again, Brit,” I said to my best friend, balancing the phone between my ear and shoulder. “She’s so pathetic-looking. I can’t stand to see her out there, alone in the cold. And it will be dark soon.”

Brittany was her usual suspicious self.

“Well, be careful, Izzy, she could be rabid or something. Or just vicious and bite you. You know what I always say, ‘No good deed goes left unpunished.’ Remember what happened to my father? Went next door to help his neighbor unload groceries, tripped and broke his hip. He was never the same. And do you think that piece-of-shit neighbor even came to visit him?”

I breathed a laugh. Brittany and her cliches.

“I know, Brit. Like I wouldn’t remember. You tell me every time I mention trying to do something nice.”

“I’m just saying.”

“Yeah, I get it. But, Brit, you should see this pitiful thing. She’s a pale gray color, with floppy ears, and these spooky light-colored eyes. And she looks real gentle. Maybe she just needs some kindness. Maybe she needs help finding her way home.”

“Don’t we all,” said Brit.

I coughed to clear my throat, rubbed that little indentation right between my collarbones, where it ached.

“You okay, Iz? Izzy, honey?”

“Yeah, I’m here. I’m a mess lately. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“Well, I know what’s wrong with you. You need to leave that son of a bitch you’re married to. You should have called the police last time. Or, better yet, you need to get out of there before he kills you.”

“Right.” I walked over to the window and watched the dog, which had come up onto the deck and was sitting close to the sliding door. When she saw me, she lay down and watched me.

“And, where would I go, exactly? And don’t tell me I could come live with you. Eddie would just find me and make your life miserable. And you have Tom and the girls. So, that’s not an option.” I shook my head, not that Brittany could see me.

“Why do you put up with him, honey? That’s not love, when a man’s that jealous, when he beats you. That’s abuse. It keeps getting worse, you know that, right? I have that hotline number, remember I told you? They can arrange for a safe house for you to go to, give you a new name, some money, a job, even.”

A job. I missed having one. I had lost my job a month ago, after Eddie convinced himself that one of the managers was flirting with me and showed up looking for a fight. You could see the gun in his pocket, bulging where his hand rested on the handle. I had to beg with them not to call the cops. But right then, they told me they had to let me go.

My head felt light, like it might detach. I sat down on one of the kitchen chairs, closed my eyes. “Please don’t send that link to me, Brit. I told you, Eddie looks at my phone, my laptop—everything. He’d kill me if he saw that.” A surge of cold panic tightened my chest, up high, right under my throat, like I was coming down with a cold.

“Izzy—”

“Oh, Brittany, you should see this dog. It’s like she’s begging for my help. I’m going to hang up and see if I can get her into the car, maybe take her to the local animal shelter.”

Brit hissed out a sigh. “You’re changing the subject, like you always do. Izzy, I’m telling you—”

“I feel like I have to help her.”

“Look, Izzy, you should leave that dog alone. If you try to help it, you’ll never get rid of it. And the shelter will probably only kill it anyway.”

“It’s a ‘she’ not an ‘it.’ And, thanks for the encouraging words, little Miss Sunshine. Look, I’m going to hang up and see what I can do before it’s time for Eddie to come home. He’d go crazy if he knew. I’ll be fine.”

“Izzy—”

“Bye, Brittany.”

I hung up and pulled on an old coat, in case I got mud on it handling the dog. I found a pair of leather work gloves in case the dog tried to bite me. Now I was thinking like Brittany. I got the leash from the closet.

Just touching that leash brought back memories. It had been over a year, but I still couldn’t believe Eddie had been that rotten. How I came home one day and he told me that, as he put it, he’d “gotten rid” of my beautiful Lab, Summer, for no other reason than she barked a few times at night and woke him up. I looked everywhere, at all the shelters, checked with everyone we knew, but couldn’t find her anywhere. I told him I’d never forgive him for that. He laughed at me.

“Oh, you’ll forgive me,” he said. “You know where your bread’s buttered.”

“You knew how much that dog meant to me,” I said. “I think you were jealous of her. Jealous of a sweet, innocent dog.”

But Eddie just kept laughing and with every sound something hard and cold coiled in the pit of my stomach.

I swallowed back a taste like bile and pressed my hands to my stomach, waiting for the anxiety attack to pass. That’s what the doctor said it was when I felt like that—an anxiety attack. He gave me pills for that, and sometimes I think, what if I don’t take those pills and save them up? Save them for one time. Maybe that would be the best solution. Sometimes, in the morning, after Eddie and I have had a bad night, I bring that pill bottle down and sit it on the table while I have my coffee. I think about how it might go if I took them. What would that be like—that blackness? I’ve given up believing in angels, in saints even, but a gentle blackness? That might be a relief. Still, I’m always afraid. What if it didn’t work? Then, where would I be?

I opened the sliding glass door and stepped onto the deck.

“Hey, pretty girl.” I said the words in a light, singsong-y voice as I approached the dog. When I got close, I crouched down and put out my hands, holding them below the dog’s face, palms up. The dog had a collar on and my plan was to clip the leash to the collar, then see if I could tell who owned the dog so I could return her. I figured someone must be sick with worry.

As I approached, the dog jumped up and skittered into the woods beyond the deck.

“Damn.” I watched the animal run through the underbrush and then disappear. I doubted I’d ever see her again.

But the next morning there she was, back again. The weather was even worse, a cold, hard rain that stung my skin when I walked onto the deck. This time, I took a bowl of fresh water and some ground meat I’d sautéed earlier. I shuddered thinking of how angry Eddie would be if he saw see me giving his dinner meat to a dog.

I called out to the dog as I put the two bowls on the deck near the sliding door. I wasn’t crazy about staying out in that rain, but I sat on one of the deck chairs and waited, not looking at the dog. In my peripheral vision, I watched as she crept up the stairs and took a sip of the water, then tasted the food. I held my breath, afraid to move. The poor thing ate that food like she was starving. When she finished, she sat and looked at me.

“Hey, pretty girl,” I said. I patted my knee and smiled. I kept up the patting motion till the dog approached and sat in front of me, then reached under the dog’s chin to stroke her neck.

The dog leaned into my hand and looked at me with such longing, my breath caught in my throat and I got that ache there again.

“Oh, poor baby,” I said. Soon the dog’s head was resting on my knee and I could check the metal tag on her collar. Closer inspection of the tag didn’t show the dog’s name, only an address. No phone number or owner’s name. But the dog had its rabies shot at least.

“Well, right now I’m going to clean you up. Then, I’m going to take you home. Come on with me.”

I led the dog around to the side of the house and into the laundry room so I wouldn’t track up the house. Luckily, this was Eddie’s night out with his buddies. He’d most likely come home after midnight, half-drunk, and just fall into bed. He didn’t usually pay much attention to me on those nights. That was something to look forward to.

It was just after nine in the morning, which gave me plenty of time to clean up the dog and get her back to her owner. I hummed as I filled the laundry sink with hot water and dug out Summer’s old shampoo.

The dog was so docile that I was able to bathe her easily. She wasn’t too big, maybe forty-five pounds. I had to laugh when she shook herself and got everything in the room wet, including me.

She was beautiful when I cleaned her up, a striking silvery-gray color, fur smooth and silky-sleek, with blue-gray eyes. When I was a kid, a neighbor of ours had a dog with coloring like this. “I think you might be a Weimaraner,” I told her. “Look at you. Aren’t you a showstopper?” The dog stood next to me, leaning against my leg.

I decided to take the dog out to see if she had to relieve herself. I couldn’t chance any accidents in the house that I’d have to explain to Eddie. I fished Summer’s old retractable leash out of the closet and attached it to her collar, then led her out into the back yard, and let the leash out so she could roam a bit.

In the murky light of the stormy day, she shimmered as she ran—a shot of brilliance darting through the gloom. Like a shooting star, I thought. A star you can make a wish on. She lost no time finding a spot, then ran back to me.

“You’re a good girl, aren’t you? I’m going to call you Star. It suits you. Well, come on into the house, Star. Let’s rest a bit before I drive you home.”

I put a blanket on the couch so Star could get up there with me, made myself a cup of tea, and gave Star a cracker. She chewed tentatively, like she wasn’t sure she should finish it.

“It’s okay, girl,” I told her. I stroked her silky ears and let the tension drain away, just for this brief time. Star laid her head on my lap and I must have dozed off, because I woke up and jumped when I saw the time. Almost noon. I had to get Star back to her home. I would miss her, but Eddie would only make me get rid of her, anyway. And she belonged to someone.

I looked the address up on my phone and led Star to the car. The address was in the next county, about an hour’s drive. I propped my phone up in the cup holder so I could see the directions.

“You came a long way, didn’t you girl?” I said. I put Star in the back seat, but she jumped up, curled herself onto the passenger seat, and watched me. I didn’t mind.

The afternoon was rainy and dark, so I drove carefully. My phone buzzed a few times, but I didn’t want to pull off the road, so I ignored the calls. About an hour later, I found the street on Star’s collar and turned onto it. The houses were well-kept, except the one I was looking for. There, weeds had taken over the yard and a chain-link fence encased the back and side yard. Star began whining when we entered the neighborhood, then panting and shaking.

A feeling of dread took hold of me. I pulled over to the side of the road across from the house. I chewed my lip, thinking. Maybe I should just drive on. Maybe I should pretend that collar wasn’t on her, bring her home with me and beg Eddie to let me keep her.

I didn’t have long to think, because right after I parked, a man opened the front door of the house and ran down the front walk. He pointed at me.

“Hey, you!” he shouted. “That’s my dog you got in your car there.”

I rolled down my car window as Star scrambled into the back seat. The man stuck his head in the window and scowled at me.

“Is this your dog?” I smiled up at the man. “I was bringing her home to you. She was wandering around my neighborhood.”

Writer's Digest 91st Annual Competition Genre Short Story First Place Winner: "Shooting Star"

“Damn stupid dog,” he said. “I’ll have to make sure her chain’s more secure. Come on, you.” He reached for Star, now cowering in the back of my car and emitting a low, rumbling growl.

“Don’t you growl at me,” the man said. He yanked the back door of my car open and grabbed Star. I was relieved that she didn’t snap at him, worried that he might hit her. He took her by the collar and dragged her from the car.

“You can have the leash,” I told him, but he was gone, pulling on Star as she resisted him, dragging her through the gate into the side yard. He turned to me and waved. “Thanks for bringing her back. She’s a lot of trouble, this dog. But I need a watchdog. Not that she’s any good at that.”

He disappeared into the house. I sat there and watched as Star paced back and forth by the fence. The man came out and attached a long chain to her and dragged her away so I couldn’t see her anymore, but I could hear her bark. And then, I heard a loud crack and Star’s whimpering.

Poor Star, alone again and in the rain, being beaten, by the sound of it. I wiped tears from my cheeks. Why had I brought that sweet dog back here? A pitiful, abused dog. I rescued her and she counted on me, and I brought her right back to her abuser.

During the drive home my mind was full of dark imaginings. I pictured Star, beaten and hopeless. Then I pictured Eddie, the way he usually looked these days—face flushed with anger, compressed with rage, veins in his neck distended, hands reaching for me to push me, or worse. It wasn’t so bad before, but now? Now, I had only two options, as far as I could figure. Fight back and maybe get killed for my efforts. Or, that bottle of pills. That sweet bottle promising oblivion.

As I pulled into our driveway I saw Eddie’s car, parked by the garage. I hadn’t expected him until close to midnight. He’d be angry that I wasn’t there to cook his dinner when he wanted it. He’d wonder where I had been, and his imagination would work overtime conjuring possibilities. I entered by the back door, praying that he hadn’t been drinking.

“Hey, Eddie! Glad to see you. I didn’t think you’d be home till later, so I—uh, went shopping. Are you hungry?” I plastered a grin on my face and hoped it wasn’t too obviously fake.

Eddie looked up from his seat at the kitchen table. A constellation of empty beer bottles surrounded him and glimmered in the kitchen light. He raised his arm, newest bottle in hand, to greet me.

“Well, isn’t this fuckin’ peachy? Where you been, Izzy? Didn’t you get my calls?”

“Your calls?” I chewed my lip. Fear shimmied up my spine and I blurted out the first thought that came to mind. “Oh my gosh, was that you? I was, ah, trying on some dresses and couldn’t reach my phone.”

“A new dress, huh? Who you gettin’ all dressed up for? And, where’s your shoppin’ bags?”

“Well, uh, I didn’t buy anything yet. Brit told me a friend of hers is getting married, somebody I know, so we might be invited. You and me, Eddie. I thought it might be fun, a wedding.”

Eddie stood and kicked the chair back with his foot. In two steps he was in front of me, pressing me against the back door. The veins in his neck bulged and his chest heaved. “You still talkin’ to that prick you used to work for? You meeting him behind my back now? Is that it? You’re fuckin’ around on me now?”

“No, Eddie, no. I swear it.” I had nowhere to back up, no place to go. I looked down, put my hand up, trying to shield my face.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you.” Eddie knocked away my hand. And then it began.

***

In the morning, I feigned sleep when Eddie got up. I felt him looming over me, looking at me. I knew my bruised face would cause him remorse and he wouldn’t wake me up. He always felt remorse, just enough to excuse himself, give himself permission for the next time. The bruises on my face and body ached and I wondered if I had a broken rib.

When I heard the door slam and his car pull out of the driveway, I got up. I made coffee and pulled open the drapes on the sliding door. Rain again. Driving sheets of it, the sky a sullen, leaden gray, thunder and lightning adding to the gloom. I took the small bottle of pills from my robe pocket and held it in my palm. About thirty left. I tightened my hand around the bottle. I’d decide later. Right then, I needed a friend. I sighed and called Brittany.

When I told her what had happened, the preaching began. I should leave the son of a bitch, I should call the cops, I should get a gun. I had heard it all before but didn’t mind hearing it again. In a way, it validated the way I felt, made it seem real, but like it had happened to another person. A person who didn’t deserve it. A person who would know what to do. I closed my eyes and let her rage on.

“Iz? Are you even listening, Izzy? What are you going to do? You can’t go on like this.”

“I know,” I said. I fingered the bottle of pills. “I just don’t know what to do. Where would I go? I don’t have family left anymore.” The reality of that struck me like a blow to the stomach. I laid my head on the table, staring at the wall, phone to my ear. Images of my drunken, abusive father and hopeless mother played across my eyelids, like a movie when you close your eyes at the gory parts but imagine them anyway.

“Okay, look, Izzy. I’m texting you that website and phone number I told you about, the hotline for abused women.”

“No, don’t—”

“I’m doing it. There, I hit send. You can print out the information or just press call and it will put you through to one of their sponsors. You can delete it after you print the information. You need to check it out. I’m worried about you, Izzy.”

I stood up. “Oh, Brit, why’d you do that? I’ll have to delete it. Well, it won’t make any difference now, I guess. Look, I have to go. Thanks for listening. I love you, Brit. You’ve been a good friend.” I hung up.

The phone rang almost immediately. Brittany again, but I ignored it.

I took a shower, dressed in jeans, boots, and a warm hoodie top. I wanted to be comfortable, at least. I tossed the pills and a bottle of water into my purse.

An hour later, I parked down the street from Star’s house. I left my car, pulled up my hoodie, and started toward Star’s side yard. There she was, pacing back and forth in the rain, glinting dull silver in the flashes of lightning. I held the leash I had brought close to me.

I cut between Star’s house and the neighbor’s, approaching the chain-link gate. The driveway was empty. I hoped everyone was at work or wouldn’t hear me due to the storm.

As I approached the yard, Star stopped pacing and looked at me. “Quiet, Star, girl,” I said. Star sat and watched me.

I prayed as I approached. So many things needed to fall into place, or Star would be worse off than when this started. I swung the unlocked gate inward and called to Star, coaxing her with soothing words. She crept toward me, crouching low.

“I won’t hurt you, girl,” I said. I reached for her, found the clasp on her collar, placed the leash on her, unclasped her heavy metal chain, and it fell away.

Leading Star by the leash I hurried back to my car. No one tried to stop us. I clicked the car door open, Star hopped in, and I locked all the doors. I looked back at Star’s house. The gate swung back and forth in the heavy winds, screeching.

Out on the interstate, I traveled about two hours to the animal shelter I had looked up on the internet, a no-kill one, far from her home, so I could be sure Star wouldn’t be reclaimed by her abusive owner. I pulled into the parking lot and Star sat up straight, sniffing the air. She stiffened and watched me. I pulled her toward me, caressing her ears and neck. “I’m sorry, girl,” I said. “I wish things could be different. But I have something I have to do. Something I should have done a long time ago.”

“Wait here, Star.” I left her in the car and walked to the front door of the shelter. At the front desk, the young woman asked me how she could help me. I heard the dogs yelping in the background, smelled the fear. I backed toward the door and tried to smile as I grabbed the handle. It felt cold and wet, like something you want to avoid touching.

I’m not sure,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”

Back in the car, Star settled next to me and licked my hand. I took out the pill bottle and placed it on the dashboard. Star laid her head against me as my heartbeat thrummed in my ears. We sat there, I’m not sure how long, as I stroked Star and studied that bottle.

I put the pills back in my purse and pulled out of the parking lot. Back on the interstate, I drove to the first rest stop and pulled in. I found Brittany’s text with the number of the abused woman’s hotline and pressed “Call.”

A woman answered, “Women’s Shelter. How can we help you?”

“I need to get away from my husband. He’s been beating me for years and I’m afraid he’ll kill me,” I said.

“We can help you with that,” she said.

“Okay, good. But look. I have to bring my dog.”

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