Fiction Contest Winners
Read this winning story and the runners-up and then enter our 2009 fiction contest.
First Place Winner: Aileen Ridings Bennett
"As we traveled around the country for my husband's engineer job, I collected bits and pieces of characters and scenes," says Aileen, a mother and writer who lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Read her blog at lifeloveandlaughter.blogspot.com.
"I'll Love You Forever"
I knew he ate mayonnaise on his hotdog but I married him anyway. He divided the bun precisely in half, shook off any loose crumbs, slathered each side with enough mayonnaise to choke a horse, carefully split the hotdog with the fork tine, and filled in the crevice with more mayonnaise, topping it off with only a hint of chili. He was a good man, or at least that's what magazine tests pointed out to me each time I took a pencil to one while sitting under a hair dryer at the beauty shop. Of course, with your brains baking under a galvanized hood, you have a tendency to imagine anything, except why the 80-year-old blue-haired lady sitting next to you is reading an article entitled, "Why Not Have Sex While Hanging from a Chandelier?"
Like I said, I married Derrick. He was a college graduate and already an electrical engineer by the time I met him. Mother kept referring to him as affluent, her eyes lighting up like the obnoxious Santa Claus with one eye missing that she put on the front porch every Thanksgiving night. "Turn on the lights," she would yell to Daddy, who lay by the outlet she had insisted he hide under the porch.
"Mother, Derrick has asked me to marry him," I imagined springing it on her, knowing exactly what her reaction would be.
"Thank you, thank you, sweet Jesus, you have answered my prayers," she would say. "Did you hear that Horace?" she would shriek, slapping Daddy on the arm.
I didn't tell her. I didn't tell anyone I was going to marry Derrick.
Mother pressed my yellow-flowered cotton nightgown when we got back home. The five-minute marriage ceremony was in a dilapidated building, performed by a man wearing sunglasses who finally picked up a constantly ringing phone receiver and put it in his desk drawer. Mother was also tearfully exclaiming how absolutely tacky we would look to the townspeople, her baby daughter not having the same showcase wedding she put on for her other daughters.
I should digress at this point and say I really had better nightclothes than a yellow-flowered cotton nightgown. Aunt Jo Lynn Cross Pendleton, Uncle Tad's wife on my Daddy's side, plied all of us girls with silk things for our hope chests. "A woman can't have too many things that slide around on her body," she would say, though at that point I had no intention of sliding my body around anything. Mother kept all of these silk things packed away in mothballs. Sturdy underwear was good enough for her mother and was good enough for us. And I knew if I asked Mother to get me out something silk to slide around on my body she would surely start wondering about me and Derrick. Sex was not a word Mother allowed us to utter, and certainly not something in which I could ever see her participating. According to her we were children of the divine spirit.
"I'll Love You Forever" - Page 2
Don't get me wrong. Derrick wanted a church wedding and told me in his quiet, intelligent voice, "I'll love you forever, and I can certainly hold off ravaging your body to give you time to plan a wedding." I didn't dare tell him I had been sizing up the back seat of the car.
There were other reasons I couldn't chance an elaborate wedding. I had a multitude of family, as in five sisters, two brothers, four aunts who came with four uncles, five uncles who came with four aunts because Uncle Tim caught his wife Grace in bed with another man, and enough cousins to completely surround the lower forty at our farm. There being eight of us kids gave people the idea we were Catholic. Mother delighted in her response: "No, we aren't Catholic. We're passionate Protestants."
When it came to funerals, weddings, a new pew in church or merely getting a new channel on the old black-and-white television, my family declared it a time of celebration. They didn't celebrate like normal people do, bringing out the crystal plates for three-tiered cakes, the real champagne glasses and Mother's best cutting knife. It was more like a No. 4 galvanized tub filled with ice and Black Label beer and a contraption Uncle Tim rigged up after sending Grace on her merry way. All you had to do was turn a knob and a god-awful liquid would fill your glass, making you act god-awful. No, I couldn't take the chance on a church wedding.
It wasn't like we were country hicks and couldn't afford a nice wedding. Mother had three years of college and would have graduated, but Daddy told her she didn't have to finish, that he was going to be rich and she would never have to strike a lick at a snake. And true to his word Daddy did become pretty affluent himself.
Mother was what was known in our neck of the woods as highfalutin. Mary Katherina Jahraus Pendleton was the way she introduced herself to strangers. She was of German descent, but then I suppose the maiden name of Jahraus would prove that in a heartbeat. Mother talked long and often about her German family coming over from Ilbesheim, Germany, in the late 1700s and, although she had never set foot in Germany, she could describe it like it was a town right up the way from where we lived, outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Whenever Mother would gear up with, "Ilbesheim is a small town just on the Deutsche Weinstrabe with an old town center," even the cat would roll its eyes. Everyone would hope to God she didn't go into the Virginia part of her ancestry, where she began with Hans Jorg Jahraus and could name every single grandpa and grandma who carried the Jahraus name. I might add that the name Jahraus was changed to Yearout when they came to America by everyone except Mother. Tilting her nose, she would proclaim, "The German name carries our aristocracy."
Derrick told the family we were moving to Wyoming to build a power plant. I do wish he had waited to tell them at a better time. The entire family was out of sorts about Uncle Tim up and marrying Doris Shakelee, who worked at Bootsie's Bar and Grill. Uncle Tim was Daddy's brother, but you would have thought he was blood kin to Mother the way she went on about Doris. Mother kept referring to her as "that type of woman," until Uncle Tim told her he liked ill-reputed women.
We pulled out of the front yard about daybreak with 8-wide, 20-deep Pendletons waving goodbye. Had someone told me before I went to the Crosswinds Motel with Derrick that we would be nesting in a double-wide in a two-page newspaper town in Wyoming, I might have looked at the back seat of Derrick's car a little differently and forgot about the sanctity of marriage.
Justin Allen Tracener was born exactly 9 months and 20 days from the date we married. Mother said thank God for the 20 days since everyone was counting on their fingers.
"I'll Love You Forever" - Page 3
Bearfoot Village held 500 trailers that held the families of the men hired to build the power plant in Wayland, Wyoming. There were no homes to be found in the sparsely populated town, but I decided a trailer was not the best place to raise a child and struck out determined to find a house. By the grace of God, I beat all the other wives to the house up on Spring Street where a moving van was parked. It was an older home overlooking downtown Wayland. I offered to wax the driveway every Friday if they would rent it to me. I suppose the kind old lady could see the pleading in my eyes because she said I didn't have to wax the driveway, but I would have to put up with the contractor she had hired to restore parts of the house. How much trouble could that be? I asked myself.
Before the contractor left, he practically made me swear on a stack of Bibles I would take care of his antique-barn wood until spring when he returned. I promised to keep it safe.
After we got settled in, I decided to have a party, a nice party, fixing hors d'oeuvres, serving wine and punch, a dress-up occasion, even inviting some of the townspeople. We had a beautiful brick patio where I planned to have this party, which would surely prove to the townspeople we weren't riffraff power plant people. I set up tables around the huge outdoor brick fireplace, rounded up white tablecloths and spent days making paper flowers for the centerpieces. I brought out the Fostoria cut-glass punch bowl Aunt Sara had given us as a wedding present, even if we had technically eloped, filling it with a special recipe I had torn out of a magazine. The punch recipe called for both Riunite wine and vodka, which I questioned but put in anyway, along with ginger ale and 7UP. I wasn't a connoisseur of spirits, but it sounded elegant to me.
The day of the party I polished and waxed and scrubbed and cleaned and made my hors d'oeuvres and special dips. I rented pots of geraniums from the local florist to set around on the brick patio (yes, I said "rented").
Derrick was putting Justin to bed just as our first guests, who happened to be our neighbors down the street, arrived. Tom was the only dentist in town and Cindy was a teacher, and both seemed to be a respected addition to my party.
Following Tom and Cindy, several couples from the power plant bunch showed up. All of the townspeople I had invited showed up, too, about which I was glad so we could prove power plant people were actually normal, well-behaved people. It didn't take long to prove their suspicions true — that power plant people didn't act normal at all.
Everyone began to get into the party spirit and I should pluralize the word "spirits," as they got way into that also. I caught Cindy-the-teacher gulping down the punch, which you were supposed to "sip" out of the Fostoria glass cups, not dip and drink, dip and drink.
Derrick had built a fire in the outside fireplace, and for a second I felt such warmth, not only from the fire but also from friendships and togetherness and the way everyone was responding to our party. Mind you, it was only for a second, as I noticed Chuck loading more wood onto the fire, at which time I dropped the tray of stuffed celery — he was burning the contractor's antique-barn siding! With heart palpitations drumming like wasps in my ears, I went over to the dentist's wife, who had my good Fostoria cut-glass punch bowl up in her arms drinking from it, and politely said, "Miss Cindy, hand me that bowl."
The next morning I felt like I had been hit in the head with a sledgehammer, and was sick as a dog. I found out shortly it wasn't because I'd had a sip of the punch. Jacob Pendleton Tracener made his appearance nine months later on a cold winter morning in February. The snow was blowing crossways on the road as Derrick inched his way to the hospital.
To say that Justin liked Jake would be an understatement. He assumed the role of caretaker, and I couldn't let the two of them out of my sight for one minute. When Jake was six weeks old, Justin decided to teach him how to ride a tricycle. So help me, I was not on that phone but five minutes when I found the two of them in the cul-de-sac, Jake thrown over the handlebars belly-side down with Justin whizzing around in a circle.
I had just gotten Jake to say "potty" when two things happened. I got pregnant and we moved again, which was beginning to be a family tradition. Don't ask me why these two things had anything to do with each other — it just happened that way.
"I'll Love You Forever" - Page 4
Derrick was delighted about the new baby on the way, but he didn't have to eat raw potatoes to keep the heartburn away like I did, finally buying potatoes by the peck.
Firebrand, New Mexico, was a town so small it shouldn't have merited a place on the map. The power plant wives soon met up and we resumed our coffee klatches. As in Wyoming, we tried to fit in with the townspeople, ingratiating ourselves into clubs and the meager social events, one being the opening of a Safeway grocery store.
And then it happened. Being raised in the South, I had warned Derrick about passing any old slow pickup truck on country roads. The minute you tried to pass, the driver would undoubtedly think you wanted to race and pick up speed. Derrick must not have seen the car coming over the hill toward him.
Molly Katherina Tracener came out feetfirst three months after Derrick was buried in the Jahraus Cemetery, where Mother said an affluent person belonged. As I stood at the coffin and looked at Derrick, my first instinct was to slap him. How dare he leave me! I wondered if his life had passed before him at the time of his death, as our life together was passing before me at the moment. As I gently touched his face, I whispered, "I'll love you forever."
I should have known Molly was going to be a handful. That child came out of the womb dancing and singing a Patsy Cline song. She had wild, frizzy red hair that even as a baby she swished from side to side. Derrick would have been bowled over by our baby girl. She looked out of the same sea-green eyes as his.
Grief over losing Derrick had swallowed me up for four long years, until the day Molly decided that she would fix her own hotdog. Something about her movement caught my eye. I started to watch, transfixed, as she divided the bun precisely in half, shaking off any loose crumbs. I knew what was coming next before her fingers had even reached out for the jar: slathering each side with mayonnaise, carefully splitting the hotdog with the fork tine, filling in the crevice with more mayonnaise. And as she topped it off with only a hint of chili, I felt the warmth of life gather in my bones once again.
Second Place Winner: Debra Gwartney
Debra lives in Eugene and Portland, Oregon, with her husband and kids. She teaches nonfiction writing at Portland State University and just published the memoir Live Through This.
Donna Colton talks about Jennifer, whose shining eyes and straight blond hair surround me on every wall, and, because it's my job, I listen. Donna's been talking since she opened the door of their house, situated at the end of a potholed road. She and her husband live a mile from the town of Spirit Lake, Idaho, and a quarter-mile from the cold, blue ball of water by the same name. Now and then Dell Colton, the father of Jenni, the fifteen-year-old who's not been seen for nine days, pokes in from the hallway. Dell hardly speaks to me. He tugs at his hair, rearranges his shirt, lowers himself into a chair and jumps up again. Donna lights cigarette after cigarette, staying veiled in smoke so parts of her fade in and out. Dell springs from dark back of the house then folds into the shadows. He reappears to fix something Donna's said, his mouth gaping and closing like a fish. He makes a correction then vanishes.
Donna says her daughter wouldn't leave that last night without dinner because Jenni couldn't pass on her mother's pork chops no matter what. "Mashed potatoes and gravy, apples fried in butter," Dell adds. I don't write those details down even though I see he wants me to. I admit, the list of food is the color my editor is always asking for. Readers want the particulars, Hal says. But I don't need to know the contents of Jenni's stomach when she faced whatever came upon her. I want to shut my ears to Donna's gushing voice.
Jenni's parents have consented to talk to me because I'm from the local paper. Donna told Hal that she and Dell wanted to be in our pages before swarms of newspapers from Boise and Spokane and maybe America's Most Wanted came for the story about a girl off to babysit at a mobile home court, third trailer in, and never returning. Jenni was caring for twin girls, four years old, while their mother had a night on the town. The woman found her children wrapped in each other and the room heavy with the milk smell of a child's sleep. Jenni's pack was set in a corner and a blanket rumpled on the sofa, but the house was emptied of the babysitter. Emptied of Jennifer.
Donna begins to cry, softly, her face in one tight pinch that looks like it may never come loose. Her crowded ashtray makes me think of the town's swimming pool, white bodies in tan swim trunks jammed together and hardly able to move. Ash cascades out the sides, puddles gray on the coffee table.
"I don't want to talk about food anymore," she says. "What if he's left her with nothing to eat while I'm stuffing my face every day?"
Dell sits down in his wife's cloud. "She's coming, Don," he says with a measure of tenderness I find surprising. "She'll be here asking you to cook her a big dinner." They hug, tangles of arms and legs inside their smoke.
The photographer who's been standing behind my chair snaps a picture.
Hal's holding this issue until I can back to write on Jenni. I'll have to finish in two hours if I want to get to my childcare on time. Already pushing against me as I step off the porch is a promise to my older girl, Ariel, that I won't be late for her soccer game. Maybe we can hold the story about Jenni, I'm thinking, so I can make it. But when I call Hal and ask for the delay, he tells me no way.
"Ever hear of a scoop?" he says. "By then everybody'll have it or she'll be found without our taking advantage of the build up." The point is to keep readers hooked for as long as possible, he says. Then he tells me one more thing: I need an official source before I can start writing. The photographer is staring at me from the car; he won't be happy that we're supposed to find the detective on the case and ask him a string of questions before we can drive home.
"How many people live out there in Spirit Lake," Hal continues. "About 80? Surely not many of them disappear into thin air."
Winding down the road to the highway that leads to the town I've lived in all my life, I wonder if Hal — transferred from Kansas City — has ever been to Spirit Lake. He'd find a hundred or so families dotted through the woods, people who keep to themselves. He'd discover the place has a darkness that can't be explained with words, a spookiness like the charged air around kids who've been telling ghost stories at night.
The lake is the deepest in the panhandle and so clear you can spot ancient trees waving up from the bottom like bodies kept forever from breaking the surface. When I was a kid, my mother had a bad feeling about the place, even before the rumors of White Supremacists wandering through the trees in capes. Hal didn't believe me that such people are out there, but — I swear — all he'd have to do is sniff the breeze around the lake and he'd want to stay away, too.
Inside Joe Malone's office, the detective fiddles with a paper clip and stares me down and tells me he had to make sure that (a) Jenni was not a runaway, and (b) her folks didn't do it. "I'm satisfied now about Dell and Donna," he says, running his hand through his buzz cut. "And nobody's touched the money in Jenni's savings account." He pauses. "I've determined that we're dealing with foul play."
"Spirit Lake" - Page 2
His face droops as he says that, as if he's only said the word "determined" two or three times in his life, and suddenly he seems like he's been run over by a truck, had that much weight dropped on him and doesn't know how to get back up. Then Joe Malone stares as if I have no right to see him upset. He points at my bulging bag, which rests next to me like an old tired aunt.
"Write this down," he says. "I don't want you calling back saying you don't remember."
I transcribe what he doles out: that Jenni had changed into Winnie-the-Pooh pajamas before she left the trailer that night. That she must have answered a knock and taken off with whomever she found on the porch, willingly or unwillingly.
"How about a search party?" I ask.
"I'm not ready to talk about that," he says sternly. "But put in your story that everybody ought to keep an eye out for this girl."
I'm at home after the soccer game, which I arrived to late, feeding my kids mac and cheese and believing the story I left on Hal's desk is done. But then he calls:
"How's a reader going to be hooked by this?" he shouts. "I want to know what kind of search they've got planned. The exact details. You've got an hour to find out."
I hang up the phone scared and tired, edging near the state where doing nothing becomes all I can manage. I phone the Sheriff's office but nobody but dispatch is there, an empty girl named Shelly, and she doesn't know about a search and won't give me Malone's home number. Holding the phone, I turn to tell Ariel, who's got her math book on the table, to put Emily in the tub.
"Don't take your eyes off her!" I shout at Ariel, who scowls at me in that 11-year-old way. Emily, just passed her third birthday, babbles sweetly, a brook tripping through our house.
What I've proved to myself over the past months is that I'm darned good at lying. I lied to Hal when I applied for the job, assuring him I knew how to gather news, which I didn't have the first clue about. I lied to him about my name — he doesn't know my real one. I use those skills again. I tell Hal that I spoke to the detective and that Malone promised that if we run the story as is, he'll return the favor by letting us know first, before any other media, about a search party.
Hal's pissed, but I can tell he thinks like we made ground. My tight skin releases, like air squeaking out of a balloon through a pinprick hole. I give in to the sound of water running in the next room mixed with giggles from my children and the promise of my bed in not too many hours.
Ariel hardly cares that I never meant to be married twice and end up alone before I even hit 35. She can't understand why I didn't make it work with her father who, she assures me, might accept Emily, product of the brief second union, if I'm nice. This child acts as if she lives inside Tupperware where she can't hear a thing past the seal. I've lost track of her dad, Russell. Or he's managed to lose track of us. Still, she tells me he's coming to get her and that I should expect to one day find them gone. I get a shot of panic when she mentions this, my skin tingling and my heart leaping.
"We'll leave an address if you want to be a family again," she says. "But Dad's not waiting around for you. He's not going to beg."
I've known Russell since junior high; I married him after community college and had a baby with him. She's right, he doesn't beg. But he doesn't stick around when things get tough, either. Once the logging jobs dried up, he changed. He registered for a class on making computer chips, where he was supposed to wear a white marshmallow suit, and the two of us talked in bed about how we could diversify along with the state's economy, but he never did go to a class. He said he was, but I heard he was playing foosball down at Pete's Tavern, and I chose to believe the foosball story instead of his.
Russell slipped out of town on one night after a shouting match about money and that's the last we've seen of him. I was alone without a job and had to do something. Four months later, I married Jerry, a dentist I met in my softball league. I married him for safety's sake, for his three-bedroom house near a park, for the good school around the corner and the freedom to buy asparagus and walnuts if I felt like it. Emily was born a year later because Jerry so badly wanted a child of his own. I tried to pretend that nice furniture and a better school for Ariel made up for the flatness, but that turned out to be like pretending that the ocean is full of cool, sweet drinking water. After three years, it was me who did the slipping out. So far, I've done well at not letting him find us. If I keep my head down, maybe he'll forget how he threatened to take my baby if I left him. Maybe he'll get on with his own life and leave us alone.
"Spirit Lake" - Page 3
Later in bed, with Emily beside me sucking her thumb, I decide the father did it. Dell. It's the only way I can make Jenni's disappearance stop twisting the back of my neck. If strangers can come to your door and whisk your child away, I won't be able to trudge along. But a crazy person in a family — I can almost live with that. It's confined. It's got borders. It's away from me.
I look up at a noise and see Ariel in the doorway. "Come on over here," I say.
She walks toward me, her pajama shorts shuddering against her toothpick thighs. "Did you have a bad dream?" She sits down and lets me comb through the knots in her loopy hair.
"Why do you hate my dad?" she says.
"That's not fair," I say, dropping my hand with a thud. "He left us, remember?"
I suspect my tone will chase her from the room, but she sighs and lays her head in my lap. Emily starts to sputter like she's about to wake and ask for a bottle, which she's too old for but which I give her anyway because it's so darned lovely to watch her fall back and suck with blind satisfaction.
Ariel tiptoes around to the other side of the bed and squeezes up to one side of Emily, while I turn off the light and squeeze the other.
Then it's Thursday and Hal wants an update on Jenni and I'm looking for Malone, who's on his way back to the Coltons about "new developments." Hal's exuberance about my finding those developments sends panic through my legs. I don't need bad news of any sort. I'm already emptied out by a letter that my mother, who lives on the other side of town, received from Jerry's lawyer. She read it to me over the phone. The lawyer says I'll be arrested unless I turn Emily over right away and admit that I was wrong to take her.
"You better do it," my mother tells me. "You won't do those kids any good if you're in jail."
In the back of my mind already is a picture of a judge who's seen one too many broke, terrified mothers pleading for their children. A judge who could hand my baby over and prevent me from seeing her because I wanted her too much for myself. I feel like I'm going to pass out from fear and wish I would: pass out and not wake up until it's all fixed and right.
I travel in the right lane of the state highway that leads to Spirit Lake, and turn off on a smaller road. On odd glint of light down a Forest Service road catches my attention. On a hunch I aim for it. I go to keep my job and to distract myself from Jerry's letter. And, just as I'm telling myself it's a fool's errand, I spot the Sheriff's pickup. The air smells like truck diesel smoke and piles of dead leaves, moist and in the first stages of rot. No one's around.
I sit inside my car and wait. I try not to, but I think about Jenni being led into this forest where light has never penetrated. I think of the bad things that happen in the dark. I don't have the courage to go into the woods myself to see what the detective is up to. I can't get out of the car. I close my eyes and plan how I'll go home and pack us up and get out of town by the weekend. With my savings, I could maybe make it to Montana. Maybe to Wyoming — it doesn't seem easy to find anyone in Wyoming. I can start over; begin again. Then I hear the rattled sound of an engine turning over. By the time I sit up and get my car started, the truck's driving by me. Joe Malone's in the driver's seat. A U-turn later, I'm in his dust. He turns toward the Colton's house and I follow, sure he's got evidence of Jenni's death and that I've missed it. A plastic bag with some unspeakable part, or a square of pajamas with a piece of Tigger or Piglet, which I could have spotted if I'd been doing my job. I've got tears messing up my face, wondering how I'm going to explain this to Hal, when I pull into the Colton's drive.
Malone walks toward me, about to say something. He stops when he gets close, and I can tell he's noticed my smudged eyes. I wait for his sympathy, but what I get instead is a growl. "These people have suffered enough," he says. "Don't make it worse." In one jump he's away from me, on the top step, rapping on the Coltons' door; Donna's already there on the porch, puffing on another cigarette.
"A great blue heron flew by here yesterday," she tells me when I get near, a statement that's so out of nowhere that I don't know what to do but look at the sky as if I expect another of those birds, leg dangling like a question mark, to come along. But the sky stays blank except for a couple clouds, as if there's not one drop of trouble in the world.
Donna smashes her cigarette, then she squats, her flat feet keeping her balanced. "I don't know what to hope for anymore," she says. "You ever feel that way? That no matter the outcome you're gonna get knocked over?"
I nod my head. But she stares like she doesn't trust anyone to know the kind of hurt that's pruning her face and curling her shoulders. I want to reach out and touch her arm, but neither of us moves. I want to tell her about Jerry's threat to take my baby, but I'm afraid she'll think my problem is a joke. Nothing I do will help her, nothing I say.
"Spirit Lake" - Page 4
After my story is turned into Hal later that afternoon, announcing no new leads on Jenni's whereabouts, which makes him furious, I pick up Emily so we can watch Ariel practice. After my girls are in bed, I'll sit at the table and start figuring. The answer has got to come to me; it's got to float in on the night air like a big, quiet bird.
For now, I drive to the soccer field, Emily tight in her seat. She's singing a song and my mind drifts to how Donna's probably in Jenni's room, memorizing for the thousandth time her daughter's clothes and her books scrawled on with bubbled teenage handwriting. Maybe she's digging her nose into Jenni's sheets, seeking the last faint smell of her, or looking through carpet for strands of blond hair.
Emily's angel voice trills into the warm afternoon. Then she tells me she wants to close her eyes and guess what we're passing. Lids shut, she starts naming off building and landmarks on the familiar stretch: the grocery store, the bank, the ice cream shop, a tree on the corner.
"Yes, honey," I say each time, amazed she can orient herself simply by the car's lean through curves, by the sound of traffic; I'm surprised that she's soaked in so much during our daily drives. Then she grows silent, her face pointed ahead and eyes so tight she's made wrinkles on her forehead.
"Are you okay?" I ask her.
"Mommy," she says, turning toward my voice. "Can you see me when my eyes are closed?"
Instead of answering, I close own eyes and plunge into the same darkness as my child. I'm moving through empty space and I'm not afraid. For a second or two, I let the car take us down the road, into what we know and what we don't. Then I look again and realize I'm past the speed limit and halfway into the wrong lane, racing and reckless. Emily yells in excitement or fear, I don't know which. Then I hoot, too — loud and long, filling the car with the vibration of my voice until my throat is raw from the sound.
What else is there to do but go on?
Third Place Winner: Arlene H. Platten
Arlene teaches in Los Angeles and also writes poetry. She based this story on her 11-year-old son, Joseph, who was born with Down syndrome.
"Growing a Heart"
The master bedroom was divided into two sections by a partial wall featuring a two-sided fireplace. The rear section was a cozy sitting area, not at all obvious upon entering the bedroom's only door. Though visually pleasing, the fireplace could offer no comfort now. It was the end of July and the outside heat was palpable despite the central air conditioning. But for the time being, the wall dominated Heather's existence as she slumped on the love seat, her newborn son peacefully asleep on her chest. In concert with the tightly drawn blinds, it sheltered her from the carefree murmurings of the typical world beyond.
How long had she been hanging there, with achy head and puffy eyes? What day was it? Thinking it over, Heather figured she had given birth the week before and had spent at least two more days in the hospital, making it a grand total of three days on the sofa. So it must be Wednesday, but what did it matter? For the time being, she had no agenda, other than to breastfeed the baby and put him back to sleep. She had taken an extended leave of absence from her teaching job — just as well. Her heart wasn't in it right now.
From time to time the doorbell might have rung, but she hardly paid attention. She hadn't showered and certainly wasn't presentable. Emotionally, she wasn't prepared to face any visitors and explain the news. It was just as well that no one else was there to open up: her husband Geoff was at work, their four-year-old daughter Heidi was at her preschool class with the nanny, and her visiting mother was off doing the grocery shopping.
Anyway, what would she tell the well-wishers? That their infant son Teddy had been born with Down syndrome, and would never be as privileged as Heidi or their five-year-old nephew Alexander or all of their friends' children? That in school, whatever shape it would take for him, he would be nothing at all like the students in her own gifted and talented program? She had proudly developed the accelerated curriculum, simultaneously chiding herself for never investigating any learning opportunities at the opposite end of the spectrum. She had always been a little leery of special education. Now her reticence came back to haunt her.
She thought back to her first meeting with the pediatric specialist, a woman seemingly hell-bent on convincing Heather that Down syndrome was a severe diagnosis with a plethora of potential complications. Each time Heather had tried to ask a hopeful question such as, "Will he ever be able to go to college? Or drive a car? Or marry?" the answer was a resounding no. And with each no, another door had slammed in the face of Heather's dreams for her little boy, forming another crack in the foundation of her heart.
She had soon found herself downsizing her expectations and wondering aloud if he'd just walk and talk. "Oh yes!" the woman had chirped. "As long as you are willing to accept that the extra chromosome in every cell of his body will make him look different and act differently and be unable to do many things like normal children, you will probably be motivated enough to line up all the appropriate therapeutic services. The important thing is not to be in denial." Her terrible smile had reminded Heather of Lewis Carroll's grinning Cheshire Cat, breezily telling Alice she was sure to get somewhere, if only she walked long enough. Heather could feel all the cells in her own body whipping up in a whirlwind of fury, and she had to fight off a spontaneous instinct to lash out like an enraged animal. But before leaving, she had managed to reply, with forced determination, "It's way too early for anyone — yourself included — to say what he will or will not be able to do."
"Growing a Heart" - Page 2
Heather had much preferred the bedside manner of the physician who had delivered Teddy. The pain had been so wildly intense during the short labor that she could feel her lights dimming, and then Doctor Mousadeh had calmed her with the example of his own peaceful breathing. So expert were his delivery techniques that she had barely felt the episiotomy or the vacuum insertion to facilitate the natural birth; so great was her relief upon the baby's exit that she barely reacted when the initial diagnosis was pronounced, not unlike a quiet death sentence. But before Geoff had been informed — before his bubble of joy had been breached by the harsh anatomical reality — he had come to Heather's side to tell her that their newborn son was beautiful. Heather had never heard such a breathless depth in his voice before. How moved he had been, gazing for the first time at that cherubic face. When the nurse asked them for the baby's name, they gave her the one they had decided on prenatally: Theodore Graham. When she remarked that it made him sound very grand, they had beamed with pride. But when they realized how diminutive he really was, they had nicknamed him Teddy.
Heather now contemplated this child whose tender little head lay on her shoulder. She might have simply contented herself to love him had she not been so tormented with concern. How could so many big problems come wrapped up in such a small package — with a birthweight of just under five pounds? Oddly, the only thing that comforted her was to hold close to herself the very source of her anxiety and dismay. What a bizarre paradox, she thought dimly.
The phone rang, and she moved to place Teddy in his bassinet a few feet away. It was Dr. Marquette, the pediatrician. She had promised a phone call within a few days to confirm her initial assumptions about Teddy's physiological condition. Heather had wondered how Marquette could have been so sure right off the bat. Teddy didn't look different from most babies. This "specialist" had said that his low muscle tone would make it impossible for him to grasp her fingers, but when tested, he had grasped them easily. She had said that he wouldn't manage a firm seal on the nipple while feeding, but he never missed a drop. What else could Marquette possibly be wrong about?
"Mrs. Wilton, it's just as I thought. Theodore's DNA profile is indeed consistent with Trisomy 21, meaning that he does indeed have...." But all that Heather could hear was a triumphant smugness. And then, "He may require some additional tests. At the very least, gastrointestinal and heart functions should be examined. You can go online to...." Heather could only think of stopping this woman's voice. She excused herself and quickly hung up. She was about to break down, and had no intention of entrusting her vulnerability to this pompous bearer of bad tidings.
Then came a profusion of tears, like a torrential downpour bursting through a dilapidated dwelling. When it stopped, she fell back on the cushions into a hopeless trance. But a saving grace found its way. The image of Dr. Mousadeh came to the forefront of her mind. He had spoken so soothingly to her and Geoff in their hospital room. After the delivery, he had been astounded at how stoically they had accepted the premature verdict. But by the next day he wondered if they had maintained their composure and checked on them. When he asked Heather to candidly state her feelings, she immediately answered, "Shock and horror, not to mention gross disappointment." In her dejection, she had regarded the innocent baby with trepidation but also a certain detachment, believing that if somehow he were too weak to survive, she would not grieve. She would feel relieved.
"First off," said Dr. Mousadeh, "get rid of horror. There is absolutely no horror. Every child I know with Down syndrome is precious and loving. They can be stubborn. But usually they are sweet and without guile. Horror applies to a monster, to the behavioral profile of a demanding typical child, if anything." He smiled. He had a soulful and confident way of talking, or maybe it was his hypnotic Middle Eastern eyes, dark in color but luminous in spirit. "Shock," he went on, "is temporary. You did not want the amnio after the alpha-feta protein test showed a positive result?"
"No, doctor. The AFP indicated a one in a hundred chance for an abnormality. But whenever there's just a one in ten chance of winning the door prize at some event, my number never comes up. Besides, I have a vivid imagination and enough pessimism to picture the worst case scenario, so I'm glad I didn't know ahead of time. It would have turned the pregnancy into a nightmare."
"Better then, to accept what God gives you. He knows what he's doing in assigning this child to these parents. Trust him. And as you get to know and love your child, you will overcome this 'gross disappointment', as you call it. Soon you may even realize that for once in your life, you have actually won something." Heather and Geoff had both been grateful for this message of hope.
But shortly after his upbeat visit came a few mood-crushing setbacks. Heather's distant older sister, herself the mother of an autistic son, had called to inquire about the newborn and upon receiving the news had chided Heather for not taking "appropriate" action earlier in the pregnancy. Then Geoff's mother and aunt had entered the hospital room with crying eyes, followed by Heather's mother in the same condition. The only one capable of breaking through the heavy gloom was little Heidi who had accompanied her maternal grandmother. As soon as her eyes beheld Andrew, she clapped excitedly and trilled, "Oh my own brudder, my very own little brudder!!" At that, Geoff and Heather had struggled mightily to put on a happy face for her.
Now Heather fumbled for some tissues on the sofa table and mopped up. She spied her old phone book which she had kept since her adolescence, and a thought came to her. She had been holed up in this little sitting room with Teddy for roughly seventy-two hours. Periodically Heidi had come in to get a hug and see the baby, or her own mother to hold him, or Geoff to study him and bring her meals. In between those distractions there had been ample time for grief. But why should she languish in this self-punishing inertia? She needed to do something different. She needed to find out if the other people in her life would be as receptive and positive towards Teddy as Dr. Mousadeh and little Heidi. If they were, she might be, too. And Geoff. Then things might be manageable at least.
She reached for the phone book and began flipping through its dog-earred pages, staring at the lists. Then she opened the blinds directly behind her just a crack to brighten the names and numbers. It didn't take much to do the trick; it was still early afternoon on a very warm day, and the sun was powerful.
"Growing a Heart" - Page 3
When it entered, she noticed something. Something breathtakingly remarkable — other-worldly. A single beam of light — alive with tiny, dancing, dust-particle sprites — had come to rest on the ingenuous, porcelain face of sleeping Teddy and caressed it with a brilliant glow. Heather rose to get a better look. Her brain couldn't quite fathom what lay before her: a tender, pinkish little orb, bathed in the glorious pastel colors of heaven, quivers at the upturned corners of its lips, shining its light-gift over the entire room! What did Teddy see through those closed eyes that made him smile so?
Softly, Heather stroked his velvety cheek; slowly, a smile enveloped her own being. She started making her phone calls. The first five or so were hesitant, her voice a bit unsteady as she pronounced the news. But with each encouraging response, some accompanied by amazing personal stories about positive experiences with children like Teddy, the hesitation dissipated and a whole new confidence emerged. Her voice changed and became stronger, bolder, as she continued her quest. In the intervals came the incoming calls from friends who hadn't heard the news yet; most of them ended up as music to her ears:
"Heather!! A Down's child!! Don't worry, he'll have his own type of intelligence!" He'll teach you new ways of learning!" Or, "He'll be so sweet and loving — you'll see...." Or even, "Did you know there's a huge waitlist to adopt a Down's kid?" They're so adorable! Didn't I ever tell you about my cousin with Down's?"
There were a few negative reactions — people who expressed dismay, a loss for words, or downright displeasure, presumably to show "empathy." She vowed to distinguish herself from those individuals and dismissed them. She would be okay. Her spirits were like a battery with enough charge to continue functioning despite a bit of drain here or there.
Heather opened the blinds all the way and looked out on the late afternoon remnants of a beautiful day. Teddy was just awakening, and she went to him and picked him up. The room was flooded with a radiant energy that encompassed both of them in a surreal embrace. As his sparkling blue eyes opened, Heather's own welled up, and once again precious smiles fluttered over his tiny pink mouth. At that moment Heidi entered, her whole expression wide with wonder as she took in the scene. Heather put a finger to her lips to signal the baby's peacefulness and Heidi, observing him admiringly, whispered, "Oh, look, mama, he's an angel!"
Not long after, Heather ventured out of the sitting room and out of the house to show Teddy to the whole world and found it most welcoming. When a visit to another pediatric specialist revealed a congenital heart disease and the need for prompt surgery, Heather was struck by how deeply all of their relatives and friends were affected — even her sister. She realized how important and loved Teddy had become in a short time; she could no longer bear the thought of losing him. Why did life have to be so unfair now that she had finally won something? Besides, how would she ever explain Teddy's hospitalization to Heidi, his best little friend? She tried her utmost. Then came the awful question.
"What's wrong with him, Mama?"
Collecting herself, she said, "Teddy needs to have an operation on his heart, honey, to help it grow a little bigger."
In a mysterious way, Heidi seemed pleased. "OOOHHHH," she said knowingly. "Well, that's okay, Mama."
"Why do you think so?" asked Heather, puzzled.
"Cuz. Growing a heart is good, Mama. A new bigger heart will be wonderful!!!" And she twirled around and around Heather, exuberant with anticipation.
How to Enter Next Year's Contest
Do you love to write? Enter our 2009 fiction writing contest.
One grand prize winner will receive $750, publication in Family Circle, a certificate for one online mediabistro.com course (valued at up to $610), and a one-year mediabistro.com AvantGuild membership ($49 value). Two runners-up will each receive $250 and a one-year mediabistro.com AvantGuild membership ($49 value), and will have his or her story published on familycircle.com. To enter, send an original fictional short story of no more than 2,500 words to:
Family Circle Fiction Writing Contestc/o Family Circle Magazine375 Lexington Avenue9th Floor, New York, NY 10017
All entries must be typed, double-spaced, and page-numbered on 8-1/2-x-11-inch paper, and must include your name, address, daytime phone number, and e-mail address (optional). No purchase necessary to enter or win. Contest begins March 1, 2009, and ends August 31, 2009. All entries must be postmarked on or before August 31, 2009, and received by September 7, 2009. Entries must be original, unpublished, and may not have won any prize or award. Up to two entries per individual will be accepted, but each entry must be a unique short story. Open to amateur writers who are legal residents of the 50 United States, or the District of Columbia, age 21 or older. Void where prohibited. Operator: Meredith Corporation.
Official Contest Rules
NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. Contest begins March 1, 2009, and ends August 31, 2009. Entries must be postmarked on or before August 31, 2009, and received by September 7, 2009. Entries become the property of Meredith Corporation, 1716 Locust St., Des Moines, Iowa ("Sponsor") and will not be acknowledged or returned. Sponsor assumes no responsibility for illegible, lost, late, misdirected, incomplete, or stolen entries or mail
LIMIT: Up to two (2) entries per person will be accepted but each entry must be a unique short story. No group entries. Sponsor reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to reject, disqualify, modify, edit, and revise any entries, subjects, stories, or related materials that are nude, obscene, defamatory, profane, offensive, lewd, pornographic, false, misleading, deceptive, or otherwise inconsistent with its editorial standards, audience expectations, or reputational interests or that Sponsor believes may violate any applicable law or regulation or the rights of any third party. By entering this contest, entrants consent to a background check, and Sponsor reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to verify any element of any entry or related materials and to disqualify any entrant whose participation may subject the contest, Sponsor, or Sponsor's advertisers, clients, or customers to controversy, negative publicity, scorn, or ridicule.
ELIGIBILITY: Legal residents of the 50 United States, and the District of Columbia, 21 years of age or older are eligible to enter, except employees of Sponsor, and any other organizations affiliated with the sponsorship, fulfillment, administration, prize support, advertisement, or promotion and/or their respective agents, affiliates, subsidiaries, and members of their immediate families or persons residing at the same address.
WINNER SELECTION: On or about October 15, 2009, a qualified panel of judges will judge eligible entries equally on the basis of sustained writing ability (25%), topic creativity (25%), originality (25%), and overall excellence (25%). One (1) grand prize winner and two (2) runners-up will be selected. In the event of a tie, a qualified panel of judges will determine the winner based on the criterion of overall excellence. Sponsor reserves the right to choose fewer than two runners-up if, in its sole discretion, it does not receive a sufficient number of eligible and qualified entries. Potential winners will be notified by phone and/or mail and the prizes delivered on or about November 30, 2009. Decisions of judges are final and binding in all respects.
PRIZING: One (1) grand prize winner will receive a prize package including $750, a gift certificate to a mediabistro.com course of his or her choice of a value up to $610 dollars, a one-year mediabistro.com AvantGuild membership valued at $49, and possible publication in Family Circle magazine. Total grand prize package $1,409.00. Two (2) runners-up will each receive $250, a one-year mediabistro.com AvantGuild membership valued at $49, and stories may appear on familycircle.com. Total runners-up prize package $299.00. One (1) prize per household. Prizes may not be assigned, transferred, or changed, except at the sole discretion of Sponsor. The awarding of any prize is contingent upon full compliance with these Official Rules. Entrants agree to be bound by Official Rules and agree that if any winner fails to provide proof of identity, refuses to provide required affidavit, is found to have violated the Official Rules, or otherwise does not meet eligibility criteria, prize will be forfeited and the entry with the next highest score will become an alternate winner. Entrants understand that Sponsor is not liable for injuries, losses, or damages of any kind arising from participation in this promotion and acceptance, possession, and use of prize. Sponsor is not responsible for any typographical or other error in the printing of the offer, administration of the contest, or in the announcement of the prize. Decisions of Sponsor are final and binding in all respects.
PRIZING: One (1) grand prize winner will receive a prize package including a check for $750.00, a gift certificate to one (1) mediabistro.com course of his or her choice, up to a value of $610.00, a one (1) year mediabistro.com AvantGuild membership valued at $49.00. Total approximate retail value of grand prize package $1,409.00. Two (2) runners-up will each receive a check for $250.00 and a one (1) year mediabistro.com AvantGuild membership retail value ("RV") $49.00. Total RV of runners-up prize package $299.00. One (1) prize per household. Prizes may not be assigned, transferred, or changed, except at the sole discretion of Sponsor. The awarding of any prize is contingent upon full compliance with these Official Rules. The grand prize winner's story may, in the sole discretion of Sponsor, be published in a future issue of Family Circle magazine. Runners-up stories may, in the sole discretion of sponsor, appear on the Family Circle website, currently located at www.familycircle.com. Publication of winning entries is not guaranteed, and has no retail value.
CONDITIONS/WARRANTIES: Entrants agree to be bound by Official Rules and agree that if any winner fails to provide proof of identity, refuses to provide required affidavit, is found to have violated the Official Rules or otherwise does not meet eligibility criteria, prize will be forfeited and awarded to an alternate winner in a random drawing. Entrants understand that Sponsor is not liable for injuries, losses or damages of any kind arising from participation in this promotion and acceptance, possession, and use of prize. Sponsor is not responsible for any typographical or other error in the printing of the offer, administration of the contest, or in the announcement of the prize. Decisions of Sponsor are final and binding in all respects.
DISPUTE RESOLUTION: Except where prohibited, by participating Contest entrants agree that: All issues and questions concerning the construction, validity, interpretation, and enforceability of these Official Rules, or the rights and obligations of participants and Sponsor and their agents shall be governed by and construed exclusively in accordance with the laws of the State of New York without giving effect to any principles of conflicts of law of any jurisdiction. Entrant agrees that any action at law or in equity arising out of or relating to this Contest, or awarding of the prizes, shall be filed only in the state or federal courts located in the State of New York and entrant hereby consents and submits to the personal jurisdiction of such courts for the purposes of litigating any such action. Except where prohibited, by participating in this Contest, entrant agrees that: (a) any and all disputes, claims, and causes of action arising out of or connected with this Contest, or awarding of the prizes, shall be resolved individually, without resort to any form of class action; and (b) any and all claims, judgments, and awards shall be limited to actual out-of-pocket costs incurred, including costs associated with participating in this Contest but in no event attorneys' fees; and (c) under no circumstances will any participant be permitted to obtain awards for and hereby waives all rights to claim punitive, incidental, and consequential damages and any other damages, other than for actual out-of-pocket expenses, and any and all rights to have damages multiplied or otherwise increased. Some jurisdictions do not allow the limitations or exclusion of liability for incidental or consequential damages, so the above may not apply to you.
GENERAL: Except where prohibited by law: (i) entry constitutes permission to use entrants' entry, name, hometown, voice, likeness, photograph, and any statements regarding this contest for editorial, public relations, promotional, and advertising purposes on behalf of Sponsor without compensation; (ii) potential winners will be required to complete and return an Affidavit of Eligibility/Ownership/Liability Release, Publicity Release and Assignment of All Rights in Pre-Existing Work within ten (10) days of notification or the entry with the next highest score may become an alternate winner. If winner notification is returned as undeliverable, the entry with the next highest score may become an alternate winner. By participating and winning a prize, winners release Sponsor, and its parents, affiliates, subsidiaries, and agencies and their respective directors, officers, employees and agents from any and all liability with respect to the prize won and participation in the contest Subject to all U. S. federal, state, and local laws and regulations. Void where prohibited. Taxes on prizes are sole responsibility of winners. Grand prize winner will be issued a 1099 tax form for the retail value of the prize. For winners' names, available after December 15, 2009, send a separate, self-addressed, stamped envelope to Winners' List/Fiction Writing Contest, Family Circle Magazine, 375 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10017. VT residents may omit return postage.