Another round of our annual Literary LEO competition is in the books, and we’re once again blown away by all of the talent that floats through our community. We selected a 1st through 3rd place for each category — short fiction, poetry, color photography, black & white photography and cartoons — and various honorable mentions throughout, but it wasn’t easy.
The short fiction had some tremendous entries, from stories about disconnected friendships that were broken by distance and ruined by time to snapshots of death and desperation. The ability of some of the writers to create developed characters and rock solid plots in a such a small amount of space was outstanding.
Anyway, here are the short fiction winners. We hope you enjoy.
Short Fiction: First Place
By Rachel Mack
Alaina stepped off the plane with a sense of dread rather than freedom—she couldn’t count on L.A. to be anything more than a smog-laden traffic jam under a curtain of oppressively bright sun. She pulled her small blue suitcase behind her and imagined Bec standing at the bottom of the escalator.
“Give me your bag,” Steven said. He had his own, a suitcase identical to Alaina’s, that he pulled in one hand.
“Don’t be silly, I can pull my suitcase.” It was small, filled with a one-piece bathing suit and a few sundresses, plus an extra pair of sandals.
“I can pull it if you get tired.”
Alaina laughed. “I won’t get tired.”
She followed close behind Steven, thinking of Bec every time she caught a glimpse of curly blonde hair. It was immensely gratifying to imagine running into Bec on the streets of L.A. She already knew what she’d say: “My mother is dead.” Bec would draw a hand to her mouth, sorrowful and sympathetic. Alaina would continue: “My baby is dead, too. Miscarriage. A week before my mother died.” For Bec, there would be no massaging of the truth, no smile to lighten the blow, no hopeful assurances that she and Steven planned to try again. Bec would be accountable for her failure as a friend, and Alaina would take pleasure in seeing her panic and crumble at the sound of bad news. She looked forward to it, knowing she’d at least have the shiny satisfaction of putting the friend who’d disappointed her in her place.
In the rental car, Steven leaned over and kissed her. “You’re the navigator,” he said. “Lead me.”
What she really wanted to do in L.A. was be a good wife. Present. Young again. She wanted to be a sickly sweet couple. In spite of everything, she had Steven, the companion she’d never known she needed. It would be shameful to waste such an excellent husband on a woman who’d become rat-haired and wild-eyed in the face of grief, or even worse, a woman who was preoccupied by a friendship that had trailed off into nothing. Bec wasn’t worth thinking about.
Steven had planned this trip in hopes that it would cheer her up. She could show him her old stomping grounds at UCLA and then retreat to the beaches of Malibu for nothing but sunshine and R&R. And maybe… he’d smiled shyly and raised his eyebrows comically. Maybe time to try again?
It had been a year since the miscarriage and Alaina knew full well that it was long since time to try again. Two months ago, without a word to Steven, she’d stopped the birth control that she’d insisted on resuming after losing the baby. It just hadn’t mattered. Since the miscarriage and her mother’s funeral, she’d had no desire to be touched.
He’d reserved a convertible so they could drive to Malibu with the ocean wind whipping their hair. Alaina’s heart jumped at the sight of palm trees, close and in the distance. She hadn’t seen one in the years since she moved back to Kentucky.
“I think you’re onto something with this trip,” she said, and Steven smiled.
She wanted to want him, which had to mean something. The sadness had settled down to a level she could live with, though she didn’t expect it to go away completely. She looked forward to the day that she could surprise Steven with a positive pregnancy test, and even more so to the day that their child was born happy and healthy.
When they arrived at their condo on the beach, Steven removed their swimwear and a spray bottle of sunscreen from the suitcases.
“Let’s go, babe,” he said. “Beach time.”
“Don’t you want to look around?”
“We have the house all week. We’re wasting prime beach time.”
Outside, the sun was perfect and the water sparkled. In a residential area, the beach was nearly empty. Alaina walked toward the water as Steven set out their blanket. Up to her knees in the ocean, she felt just the same as she had on childhood trips to the beach: irrepressibly happy. She ran into the depths, finally diving into a wave. Salt burned her eyes. Eventually Steven joined her, and they bobbed and floated in the ocean together for the rest of the day.
On the way back to the house, they picked two enormous oranges and an avocado from trees in the yard.
“We can eat off the land,” Alaina said.
“I do have a couple non-beach activities planned, if you want a change of pace.”
“I don’t think I will.”
For dinner, they squeezed fresh juice and scooped out creamy bites of avocado before falling asleep on the couch together in a salty, sticky pile.
When Alaina woke the next morning, sun glinted off the water. She walked onto the patio and took a deep breath of salty air. A woman with short-cropped gray hair was close to the shore. She waved at Alaina and continued power-walking down the beach.
Even on this first morning of a surprisingly perfect vacation, she remembered.
“Everything okay?” her mother asked. Alaina had excused herself the day before, claiming fatigue. She’d walked straight to the emergency room, where the ultrasound showed no heartbeat. The baby was motionless inside her.
“Yes. I was feeling a little gassy.”
“Runs in the family.” Her mother grimaced lightly as she settled back onto the pillow. The look transformed to a satisfied smile.
“You’ll be a good mother.”
“Thanks.” Alaina mustered a tight-lipped smile.
She’d thought she was going to tell her, to let her mother comfort her one last time, but she couldn’t do it. There was no reason to add to a dying woman’s burden.
“I’m sorry I won’t be here to see it. But I do see it.”
Bedside crying was frowned upon, but Alaina couldn’t control her sobs.
Alaina’s mother bent an elbow and swept the tears away with the back of her hand, her bony knuckles leaving an imprint that remained on Alaina’s cheek.
Two days later, her mother lost consciousness. Another three and she was dead. Alaina had her D&C the day after the funeral.
It was summer, so she had six weeks to marinate in her grief. A week before school began, Steven put her in the car and drove her to work. She sat on a lab stool and gave half-hearted directions as to how she’d like her classroom arranged. It didn’t seem to matter if she was a good teacher anymore.
A history teacher, Steven’s set-up was less complicated. She burrowed into the frayed armchair in the back corner of the room, picking at the old brown upholstery as he wrote lessons, alphabetized books, and affixed posters to the walls.
Steven had been the best surprise of her high school teaching career, which had started out feeling like a defeat. At UCLA, she’d gone on for her master’s in astrophysics, and though she loved the material, she found it stifling to live in a computer lab.
It was her father, a teacher, who’d prodded her home. “Come teach with me. You get to be up and around, communicating with people.”
Alaina had to admit it sounded appealing. She returned to Kentucky to study for her teaching certificate and landed a job easily.
She’d never imagined that the move would diminish her closeness with Bec, but it did. In L.A., Bec had moved over to USC for her Ph.D. When they spoke every two or three months, Alaina still felt a little burn of jealousy when Bec mentioned brilliant guest lecturers or research breakthroughs. The last time they spoke, Bec had a big announcement.
“You’ll never guess who’s a postdoc in my lab.”
“I don’t know. Yoichiro Nambu? No, Peter Higgs!”
“God, shut up. No, it’s Andy Weinbaum. He’s going by Andrew now. And the girlfriend moved back to Oklahoma or Ohio, wherever she came from.”
“Oh my god, Bec, you have to make a move!”
“I know, it’s just. We’ve joked about it so much at this point that it doesn’t seem like a real thing to do.”
“It’s real. You have to do it.” Alaina smiled a little, imagining a beachside physicist wedding. Her own wedding was six months away, at the church she grew up in.
Bec didn’t come, and she stopped answering Alaina’s calls and would reply with an apologetic text: “Sorry I missed you! Soooo busy!” One of these texts arrived as Alaina prepared a favorite lesson: sending a giant Slinky down the school’s grand limestone staircase in order to demonstrate the properties of waves. The kids yelled as the lime-green Slinky undulated down the steps, and Alaina realized her pride couldn’t withstand another unreturned phone call.
It was at the summit of Mauna Loa Mountain that Alaina and Bec’s friendship transmuted into a lifelong bond. Before that day, they’d been tentative but enthusiastic, surprised by the quick, easy way they’d taken to each other. Both juniors at UCLA, they were the students who sat in the front row of their solid-state physics class and stayed put in those seats for the next class, The Evolving Universe. Bec was a mechanics nerd, while Alaina was an aspiring astronomer. They’d lean into each other and whisper heady secrets about their futures — doctoral degrees, genius, glory. Even as they spent hours speculating about the private life of the physics TA, Andy Weinbaum, they’d giggle imagining the similar conversations their mothers must have had about boys and wedding dresses. Not so for these girls. They would put their brains to good use, no question.
It was during an Evolving Universe lecture that Alaina’s obsession with the Keck Telescopes began. It became the first wish of her heart to see them, and she didn’t have any trouble convincing Bec that they had to make the pilgrimage. They both took a second summer job to save up for the trip to Hawaii. They spent the last week of summer before senior year sleeping in the cheapest motel on the Big Island, and saved their cash for the ride to the telescopes.
Bec and Alaina stepped out of the tour van holding hands, both bundled in puffy jackets the tour company provided. Not only was it cold at the summit, the air was thin.
Alaina’s glee could not be contained. She let go of Bec’s hand and ran in a circle, taking in the view before stopping to gasp for air. She was surrounded on all sides by ocean and wispy clouds. Maui was visible in the distance, an earthy mound in the vast sea.
“Calm yourself, darling.” Bec laughed as she approached. “Long, deep breaths.”
They figured out quickly that speaking was a waste of good oxygen. They moved slowly, examining the informational plaques and taking countless pictures of the telescope domes and the ocean views. There were two white domes that housed Keck I and Keck II, plus eleven other domes that housed less-famous telescopes. They wandered from dome to dome, hoping to see inside a window or an open door.
It seemed like they’d just stepped off the van when the tour guide announced that they’d be leaving in ten minutes.
“Let’s just sit,” Alaina said. The two girls edged away from the crowd and sat quietly on the hard ground, taking in the view without the distractions of cameras or informational plaques.
Resting, it was easier to speak.
“You know what this reminds me of?” Alaina said. “The Sears Tower.”
“Is it freezing and windy at the top of the Sears Tower?”
“No, but you can touch the windows and feel how cold it is outside. And it doesn’t matter who you are or who you’re with. When you’re up there, it’s just humbling. Everyone’s quiet. And there’s this air of romance.”
Bec trained her ice-blue eyes on the clouds and took a deep breath. “Yeah.”
The tour guide had explained that most of the telescopes sent a stream of digital data to scientists working all over the world. Alaina imagined herself at a computer, watching a live feed from the Keck Telescopes, making calculations and consulting with her brilliant co-researchers. They’d work late every night, eating vending machine dinners and publishing major scientific breakthroughs. She’d tell Bec about this vision later, when there was more oxygen to breath between sentences.
“Two minutes! Please reboard the van!”
Back in the van, Alaina and Bec buckled themselves in, relieved to feel the heat venting onto their faces. As they approached the bottom of the mountain, Bec stirred.
“I can’t wait to go to Weinbaum’s office hours and tell him about this trip. He’ll be so turned on.”
Together, they fell into a fit of giggles. They kept a running list of nerdy things they could do to pull Weinbaum’s attention away from his hometown sweetheart, who’d moved to L.A. to be with him as he earned his Ph.D.
After the telescopes, Alaina and Bec spent the rest of their trip on the beach, drinking cocktails out of coconuts and swimming with dolphins.
Back home, they grew closer. Alaina had come to UCLA on an airplane from Lexington, Kentucky, her life boiled down to two suitcases. Bec was from Venice Beach, a child of the ocean. She surfed with her family every weekend and roller skated to (and in) the grocery store. Before moving to California, Alaina’s skating experience was limited to endless circles at the occasional elementary-school roller rink party. She never learned how to brake in skates, instead relying on the half-wall between the rink and the snack bar to stop her. She saw herself careening into the ocean and resisted Bec’s invitations to try on a pair of her old skates and hit the boardwalk together. It was Fall Break of senior year when Bec finally convinced her.
“We’ll stay close to the handrail. We’ll go really slow. You can bring sandals to change into in case we go anywhere.”
It wasn’t so scary, Bec realized, as she bumped along the boardwalk, clinging to the side rail. She knew how to skate, and could use the rail to stop if she needed to. She was wearing a helmet. Bec skated freely, sailing ahead of her and circling back to check on her every few minutes.
Finally, she let go of the rail and pushed herself to full speed. The ocean air raced over her body as she swerved to avoid a woman with a baby carriage.
“You’re doing it!” Bec yelled as she spun in circles down the boardwalk.
Alaina did use the rail as a brake that day, and she fell asleep with a large purple bruise blooming over her right hip. But she wasn’t afraid. A month later, she confidently rolled through the produce section, filling her cart with mangoes and salad greens. Bec had taught her to brake. On graduation day, their parents came to the boardwalk to take pictures and watch them skate. Alaina spun fast, her long polyester robe swirling around her.
Bec jumped up and and cheered. “You’re a California girl now, girlfriend!”
The last day of the trip, Alaina woke to the sound of rain on the beach house roof.
I can’t believe this. In her six years of living in L.A., she could hardly remember any rainy days.
She hadn’t even asked Steven what his non-beach activities were. They hadn’t been necessary. Every day they were in the water. Eventually, they took a break from the orange-avocado diet and went out for sushi, her favorite. Back at the house, they’d made good use of the bed. Alaina slid her hand over to Steven’s and laced her fingers through his.
He’d done his research. The first non-beach activity on his list was a visit to see the Endeavor at The California Science Center, just a short drive from their beach house. Visitors weren’t allowed to touch or enter the spacecraft, but being near it was enough to send Alaina into fits of joy. She squeezed Steven’s hand and hopped up and down as they waited in line.
“Have I told you you’re the best husband in the world? Have I told you?”
She still felt those absences, her mother and her child, dark pillars in the back of her mind, but she was able to turn her focus to the present. It was exactly what she’d have planned if she’d had any interest in planning a trip.
Tickets were sold in groups that entered on the hour. Alaina and Steven’s group included a wide mix of age groups and races, locals and tourists.
“This is the power of space! It brings people together!”
Steven laughed. He was not a space nerd but he respected Alaina’s passion. When the door opened, the white spacecraft overwhelmed the room. Alaina bolted ahead of Steven for her customary rush around the exhibit before she slowed down to take in all the details.
She stopped halfway around, surprised to see a cluster of security guards near the exit door. Between their legs, she could see that a woman from the previous group sat on the floor, her back propped up against the wall.
“We’re getting you a wheelchair, ma’am. It will be here in a moment.”
“That’s not necessary. I have a walker. My boyfriend went to get it from the car.”
The voice was unmistakable. It was Bec. Alaina froze in place as Steven wandered up behind her.
“Ma’am, it’s policy. If you fall in the museum, we provide you a wheelchair for the rest of your visit.”
“I will NOT sit in a wheelchair!”
“It’s a short distance to the exit and the parking lot, ma’am. You’ll hardly be in the chair at all.”
Alaina smiled when she saw a man push a walker into the room. It was Andy Weinbaum. Bec had made her move.
“Sir, we’re required to provide a wheelchair to your car.”
“Oh.” Andy looked at Bec tentatively.
“Help me stand up, please,” Bec said.
“I don’t know, if you’re having an episode…”
“It is not an episode! I tripped!”
The guard arrived with the wheelchair. Deflated, Bec allowed two guards to hold her arms and help her into the chair. She walked cautiously, her steps flat and short. In the chair, she sank back and sighed before looking up.
Alaina and Bec caught each other’s gaze from thirty feet away.
Bec burst into tears.
Alaina’s heart lurched ahead of her, but her feet stayed rooted. One by one, the rest of the crowd circled around to the second side of the spacecraft, obscuring her view of Bec.
By the time she convinced herself to walk in that direction, Bec and Weinbaum were gone.
Outside the museum, Alaina sat on a black iron bench. The sky was pure blue, no clouds. Over and over, she saw Bec, crumpled on the floor, shuffling to the wheelchair, wiping tears from her face.
“You ready, babe?”
Steven had parked the orange convertible right in front of her.
She sank into the front seat, suddenly fatigued. As she buckled the seatbelt, her hand brushed across her stomach. She felt something changing in there. She could see the baby that she would hold next year — tiny like Bec, with the same sparkling blue eyes and a head full of fuzzy blonde hair.
Alaina would cherish her child’s vulnerability and need for care. She’d build a nursery with pale green walls, books to read, and soft, warm blankets. She’d kiss her cheek, wipe the sleep from her eyes. She’d rub sweet-smelling lotion onto her belly and scoop her into her arms. She’d help her learn to walk, how to brake in roller skates. Every day, she’d hold her close and promise: I love you more than the planets and the stars. I’ll protect you. You’re safe.
Short Fiction: Second Place
Lagunitas, 4 a.m.
By Tyler Bell
The lights of San Paulo were like an old memory, making the sky grey and cottony beyond the dunes. Pascual kept his eyes moving from the sand to the surf and back again, making sure his grandfather’s feet found steady purchase as they walked. The moon was high and thinly curved, but the pollution wasn’t so bad this far from the city, and the stars bathed everything in silver light. The ocean itself was black as a broken promise, marred here and there by faint white caps.
“Thank you, thank you,” Abuelito murmured as Pascual set him down on the hard packed sand of the surf. Late summer heat had kept the ocean warm, and the ground itself was not so cold either. Back in San Paulo, at the hospital, they would be frantically searching the room and the grounds for Pascual and his obstinate grandfather. A man who smoked all throughout chemo, who had sneaked out of the hospital at every chance for dalliances with the ladies from the nursing home.
They didn’t know Abuelito had been Oskar Mario Sante once. They wouldn’t recognize the lean brown teenager from the posters and magazines, propping up a long board with one arm and sporting a grin big enough to spite the moon. Pascual pulled that same longboard down off the top of his dinted work truck now, feeling something like Joseph of Arimathea. He smiled and ran his palm over the fresh wax.
Abuelito wouldn’t appreciate that reference much. He’d given up his faith long before Pascual was born. Abuelito’s staunch atheism had been something of a wall between he and Pascual’s father for years. Decades really. Pascual often thought his father’s faith was mostly bluster around Abuelito, bad blood left by a divorce that had rocked their family to the core long before Pascual was born.
But that was all in the past now, as far into yesterday as dinosaurs and the Inquisition. Now Abuelito was a collection of bones heaped into one of Pascual’s old wetsuits, his shoulders barely large enough to keep the collar straight on his neck. It wasn’t great, but it would do for tonight.
“Look at this thing,” Abuelito said, pulling at the collar with his fingers. “You remember I bought this for you?”
“Yes, Abuelito,” Pascual said, smiling softly at the beam of soft blue light at the end of the ocean. Both men looked in that direction as they sat on the beach, the longboard jammed into the sand behind them. Somewhere out there was a brand new day, one that hadn’t reached them yet. The night would endure a little longer, at least.
“I’ll catch my death of the cold if we stay out too long,” Abuelito said, softer now. “This thing’s so loose it’ll never work. You should have run it through the drier.”
“Would that have worked?” Pascual asked.
“I dried a wetsuit in ’82,” Abuelito said, laughing. Something ugly rattled in his chest and he coughed and continued. “I got drunk with Horatio Rodriquez and Kimmy Johnson, the American girl who won in Hawaii that year. She dragged me into a hotel room and the next day I had to pack for Brazil, but my suit was still soaked.” He elbowed Pascual in the ribs, but gently. “I was a little soaked myself too, if you get my drift.” They both laughed, and Abuelito sighed.
“I bribed a concierge to toss my suit in the drier and, you know, all that came out were two little pieces, like this.” He held his hands close together for emphasis. “I had to borrow a suit from, oh, I think it was Saul Curacao, but I won. I found Kimmy again too, and she was—” He coughed. “She—” This time the coughing doubled him over, so that Pascual had to pat him on the back to get him back to rights.
“Oh, promise me you’ll never smoke, eh Pascuito?” he said, his face drawn.
“Promise,” Pascual said.
“Hah, okay,” Abuelito said, pushing himself to his feet. Pascual moved to help him and he raised a hand. “A priest who doesn’t smoke. What a world we’ve left for your generation.” He looked at the surf and nodded. “Let’s do this.”
Pascual swam the longboard into the sea with Abuelito sitting on the front, hands gripping the rim near his hips. The old man wasn’t strong enough to paddle himself against the waves, though he pointed and commanded like a general from that seat. Pascual thought of himself as a child, sitting like this on Abuelito’s board. His father and mother were on the beach so far behind them, worried and excited and anxious and all but helpless if anything happened. But Abuelito took care of him, and that same day he’d stood on the board and ridden it right in to the shore.
That wasn’t here, at Lagunitas. This was Abuelito’s secret spot, that he’d bought from a fishing family before Pascual was born so he could surf at night. When he sat beside Abuelito’s bed with his Bible, saying prayers the old man had little time or patience for, when the old man slept, he said only one word in his dreams. Not a woman’s name, or his, or any of their family members.
Just the one word. Again and again.
Pascual looked around them as they made their first trip back into shore. The space was small and black in the night, though the water beneath them was still and deep between the waves. No coral down there to cut you, just soft sand and plenty of water for cushion. Dark, craggy rocks bordered the circular pool, itself as big as any commercial parking lot. And beyond the rocks, the sea. Forever and always. The sea.
Strength flowed back into Abuelito as they tripped back and forth to the edge of the lagoon. At first, he rode on the front of the board with his legs crossed before him, then on his knees, and finally standing on shaking legs with his arms out to his sides. He pushed Pascual’s arm away when he reached forward to help him just in case he fell. It was a gentle touch, but it firm.
“Never for this,” he said. “I will never need help for this.”
Finally, Pascual floated at the edge of the lagoon while his grandfather rode the board in on his own, rocking back and forth over the soft waves and cutting the moonlit reflections into billions of tiny crescents. His shadow could have belonged to a younger, stronger man as it glided away from Pascual.
He swam for the beach when his grandfather didn’t return immediately, worried something had happened. He found the old man doubled up on the sand, coughing so harshly it sounded like his lungs were tearing. Pascual knelt down beside him and rested his hand on his back, remembering a time when he had been crushed by a wave. Abuelito had dragged him onto the beach and slapped the water out of his lungs. The old man raised a hand to let him know he was okay.
“Did you see me?” he asked. “Ten years isn’t so long a time.”
“No,” Pascual said. “No it isn’t.” They sat for a long time, the silence of the morning surf punctuated by the occasional cough. “Perhaps we should get back.”
“Back,” Abuelito said. “Of course.” He turned his eyes to the horizon. “But I think one more before then. One last ride.” Pascual breathed deeply and met his grandfather’s eyes. They were cool and direct, the eyes of a younger man. The eyes of a man who’d never let himself know fear when he could help it. A flawed, often godless man. The man who’d taught a young boy to surf.
“Perhaps,” Pascual said. A tear fell down his cheek and he turned his face away so Abuelito wouldn’t see. But of course he did. “Perhaps we could come back tomorrow. They aren’t smart enough to keep us in that hospital, right?”
“No,” Abuelito said, looking from his grandson to the ocean. “Never.” He stood and picked up the board. The wetsuit no longer looked so loose on his old shoulders. Perhaps it had always fit. Early morning light was tricky that way.
“A prayer,” Pascual said as his grandfather put his feet in the water. “Stay, for just a moment, and pray with me. Please. Before you go.”
“Grandson,” he said, turning and smiling. “What do you think we’ve been doing?” He gave Pascual a thumbs up and turned to the horizon, where the sky had darkened to almost full black. The darkest moment before the coming dawn. “Look at that. The water’s perfect now, I think.” He turned back to Pascual one last time.
“Goodbye, Father,” he said with a wink, walking into the waves.
“Go with God, my son,” Pascual said. He prayed as his grandfather swam out into the lagoon, and then past the dark rocks at the edge of the calm water. And he wept as the shadow of the man stood on the board, catching an impossible wave that drew him further and further out to sea, toward that brilliant strip of gold dawn had made of the horizon. Where perhaps God waited, at that perfect union of sky and sea.
Short Fiction: Third Place
By Matt Dobson
Damon stared at his dark reflection in the glass of the vending machine.
“Okay, D.… you’ve fucked this up.” he thought to himself. “What are we going to do now?”
“I’ll just leave. I’ll just start walking and keep walking and never look back.”
“Okay, what’s the problem – what exactly did we do? How much trouble are we really in?”
“What are our options?” What are you going to say to Chuck?”
Since the beginning of the semester Damon had been picking up his girlfriend, Angel, and driving her to school. Every morning he’d drive the half-mile from his house to hers, staying off the main road, then drive the three blocks from her house to the high school parking lot. If they timed it right they’d arrive early enough to get a parking spot by the tennis courts. He’d always back into the spot so as people showed up they could see the two of them sitting together in the front seat.
They’d met in the summer. He’d just turned 16 and had a car that was going to be his when he got his license. To impress Angel, he’d taken her out for a few joy rides, and when school started, he couldn’t resist being seen with her in the parking lot. Each morning, he’d wait for his mom and his most recent stepdad, Chuck, to leave for work. His mom was an elementary teacher and Chuck worked first shift at the appliance factory, so they left early. As soon as they were gone he’d head out and be careful to make it home before them and park in exactly the same spot.
Damon and Angel would sit in the car, drinking Mountain Dews, smoking Camel Lights, and listening to Damon’s collection of Heavy Metal tapes until it was time for class to start. They had followed this routine every day for 3 months. For 3 months it had been perfect.
Perfect until this morning. After picking up Angel, Damon’s 1987 White Ford Escort was rear-ended at the stop sign on her street. The impact smashed the hatch part of the hatchback, pushed the car into the intersection, rocked Damon and Angel hard against their seatbelts. Damon’s tape cases were in the back. The plastic crunch added to the sounds of the crash. Tapes went flying.
The next sound they heard was the driver of the car that hit them turning around and driving off.
After asking each other repeatedly if they were okay they got out and walked around to the back. The car was probably totaled, but the accident wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Apparently, Ford had improved the rear-end of their hatchbacks since the days of exploding Pintos.
The main casualty was Damon’s tape collection. There had been hundreds of tapes in the hatchback, organized alphabetically across three travel cases. Most of them were smashed and destroyed.
Looking down they saw a Slayer tape, Divine Intervention, had landed undamaged, his first thought was “Divine Intervention, that’s funny” and his second thought was “Oh shit, I still don’t have a license.”
The irony of Divine Intervention surviving the impact was not lost on Damon. This could’ve been a Paul on the road to Damascus moment for him, a sign from a higher power. But, he was more concerned with figuring out just exactly how fucked he, Angel, and his car were.
The cops had shown up quickly and helped them. They insisted that Angel’s mom take them straight to the hospital to get checked out. He’s assuming they are here now to get the rest of the accident report and ask for his license, which he doesn’t have, and his registration, which said the car belonged to Chuck.
Damon staring at a dark reflection of himself in the glass of a vending machine of the hospital waiting room. He sees himself, two black eyes, a neck brace, and, behind him, in the waiting room the two cops that responded to the accident with Angel’s worried mom, still waiting for Angel to be examined.
So now Damon has to decide what he wants out of the vending machine “Do I get a bag of Doritos or do I turn around, start walking and keep walking past these cops and nurses and get the fuck out of here?”
Leaving with an injury, probably a concussion, might be a bad idea, but the impending interaction with step-dad-of-the-month definitely was. Chuck often reminded him, “You don’t fuck with Chuck.”
Damon needed options. He could stay and talk to the cops. Let them know he didn’t have a license – then deal with that. He could lie and stall – maybe act disoriented – he had just been in a crash… He could try and leave – get past them somehow… He knows he isn’t going home.
Something healthy… Mixed nuts… that’s real food right? Something salty… maybe pretzels…?
Something sweet? Ho-Hos… Giant Cinnamon bun…? That’s more than 75¢.
Staring at the machine, two universes split — one salty, one sweet, one he stays, the other where he runs. The difference between pressing D7 or E5 means a wholly different trajectory, a fork in the road of life to a different set of possible futures.
This is all garbage, he thought. There aren’t any good choices. It is going to be long night, no matter what I decide.
He buys the cupcakes. It’s a two pack. He walks through the waiting room and sits across from Angel’s mom, offers her one of them, and says, after a pause, “…I don’t have a lot of options, I think I’m in trouble, and I’m going to need some help.”
Short Fiction: Honorable Mention
By Robert L. Penick
Her mother does not want to be called Mom when they are in public. Nor Mother, Mommy, or any other parental term. She’s Brenda, the big sister, and is young, attractive, and drug-free, with all her options still open. Even at seven years old, Megan knows this is malarkey. Mom has the look of a meth user: Bad teeth, brittle hair, and eyes like the windows of an abandoned warehouse. Skin stretched too tightly across her face and the blurred tattoo climbing up her neck aren’t helping to make the sale, either. Megan loves her mother and can’t imagine a different life scenario.
They used to go to nice stores together: Macy’s, Dillard’s, Saks. There they’d roam the aisles, Megan scampering gleeful among the pretty clothes and colorful accessories. After getting cited twice for shoplifting cosmetics in a single week, Mom/Brenda gave up on the high-dollar targets. Now they haunt the thrift stores, where they look like the other shoppers and the cashiers don’t care if you walk out with the entire inventory. The haul is less here, and you can’t resell a shirt from Dollar General on eBay, but they never hurt for toothbrushes and chewing gum.
Today the two of them are standing in front of an Olive Garden restaurant. Megan fidgets, wanting to go inside or get back into the car. Mom/Brenda shushes her and scans every incoming vehicle. She has been dating a man she met on the internet and today’s the day he meets her little sister. He’s kind, somewhat naive, and pretends to believe her blurry tattoo is a birthmark. When his Volvo pulls in, mother and daughter wave. Megan pretends the car is an airplane that has spotted them on their desert isle. Uses both hands. They’re saved.
Short Fiction: Honorable Mention
Praying With Pastor Dick
By David Goud
“Do you know why I’m here Davy?’
“I have an idea, Pastor Dick. The holes?”
“That is one reason, Davy. Your mother asked that I come over and talk to you about a few… things.”
“Things? What… things?”
“Okay. Let’s start with the holes.”
“Okay. Sure. Pastor Dick. The holes? What do you want to know about ‘em?”
“There are quite a few in your closet door there Davy.”
“More like several dents, a few little holes, and one big hole in the middle.”
“Well, Davy… did you do all that damage with your fists?”
“The big hole? That was my foot. A jump back side kick actually.”
“So you also kicked the door.”
“Yep. The dents are from punches.”
“Did you ever hurt your hands?”
“Did you every hurt your hands Davy? From punching the door?”
“I heard you Pastor Dick. It’s just that…my Mom never…she never asked me that. About my hands. She did tell me how expensive that door would be to replace and threatened to make me pay for it.”
“Davy. I’m sure your Mother…”
“I’m sure too Pastor Dick. So what do you want to know from me?”
“I simply want to know why, Davy. Why do you feel the need to punch and kick
“Well, ‘cause, I simply…hate it here.”
“Hate is a strong word Davy.”
“It’s an even stronger feeling Pastor Dick.”
“Okay. Okay Davy. What is it you hate?”
“I hate this house, I hate where it is, I hate this neighborhood, I hate having to live here, my school.”
“Have you prayed about it Davy?”
“I used to.”
“So you have given your problem to God?”
“Yep. He gave it right back and then some.”
“Davy. Your Mother has told me…a few things…about…”
“About what?! Whatever she has told you?! It’s worse! She doesn’t…she won’t listen! She doesn’t know! You don’t…you can’t imagine what…it’s worse! She doesn’t know anything!”
“Davy. Calm down Davy. Have you tried talking to your Mother about…”
“Try?! TRY?! What kind of question…what do you think…that’s why you are here! Right?! She knows where we live! I have tried for years…YEARS! Years Pastor Dick! And when I try?! She just screams at me! SCREAMS! At me. No matter what happens to me, no matter how bad, I try…she won’t. She just always starts screaming at me about how my Dad left her and how he picked THIS house. How she is all alone and how hard HER life is! Even after…after…IT happened. We still didn’t move!”
“She is not gonna move just to spite my Dad. You know what she told me? She said she is never gonna even change the mattress in her bedroom. What?! She is the one you need to talk to Pastor Dick. To PRAY with!”
“Easy Davy. Easy. You can relax your fists. Breathe. It’s okay. I’m here to listen. I know you miss your Father, and he isn’t here right now. I am your spiritual father Davy. You actually have two fathers.”
“No. I…uh…don’t actually. I don’t need two. I have a Dad. I don’t need…I’m good.”
“Okay Davy. Okay. So…you obviously punch the door when you get angry at your Mother. Or when you get angry about…”
“I get angry about, at, a lot of things Pastor Dick.”
“Anger is a road to sin Davy.”
“Well, then, all the roads in this neighborhood lead to sin. Would you live in this neighborhood Pastor Dick? I see you looking out the window now and then to check on your car. Would you move your family here?”
“Well, Davy, I…”
“Uh huh. I bet a lot of kids around here could use a spiritual father.”
“I think we should pray about your anger Davy.”
“Uh huh. I’m sure. What other things do I need to be talked to about? That we can pray about Pastor Dick?”
“Well, Davy, those posters on your walls…”
“That Ninja one? Or Bruce Lee?”
“No Davy. The girlie posters.”
“Ha! Girlie posters?! Ha! C’mon Pastor Dick. I know your whole family watches her show. That’s Daisy Duke!”
“Well, yes Davy. We do watch her show. But that picture. That pose. In those shorts. It’s not…Christian. Not Christ like.”
“And I suppose that Farrah Fawcett poster over there isn’t Christian either?”
“Uh, no Davy. It’s not. Especially that one.”
“But how ‘bout Bruce Lee and the Ninja?”
“Those two are fine Davy.”
“Really. Huh. No Daisy or Farrah, but a Ninja and Bruce Lee are Christian. Got it.”
“And your music Davy. We need to talk about your music.”
“Music?! My music?! Wow Pastor Dick. A lot to pray about today. Wow.”
“Your Mother is concerned…”
“Concerned? I doubt it.”
“Davy. Your Mother has told me that you are listening to angry music.”
“What?! Angry music?! Ha! Interesting what she is concerned about. Angry music?”
“What are those cassettes on your desk Davy?”
“Some Van Halen, a Billy Idol, Bon Jovi and a Miles Davis.”
“Hardly Christian music Davy.”
“But hardly angry music Pastor Dick. Have you ever even seen David Lee Roth? He is the complete opposite of angry. I doubt he will go down in history as the voice of evil.”
“You should try listening to Country Music Davy.”
“Country Music is Christ like?”
“It’s less angry Davy.”
“You listen to a lot of Country Music at your house. Don’t you Pastor Dick? Michelle, your daughter, she likes Country Music.”
“I believe she does.”
“When is she due? Is it next month? You know we are the same age?”
“…and Pastor Lyre’s daughter? She’s pregnant too now. She’s a year younger than us. She loves Country Music. A lot. Is there anything else I need talking to about? Or does that about cover it?”
“Before I go Davy, I would like to pray with you. About your anger.”
“Well, Pastor Dick, I guess that is the very least you can do.”
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