Contest 3 Winners
first place $500
for my grandfather
It would be so easy to forget his past Josh thought, but it was the past that forced him into the future. Trains were a part of his life now. Not in the normal sense of stopping for a line of freight cars at the occasional crossing and counting their number as the iron rails bowed and the blackened wheels screeched. Nor that repetitive clatter everyone knows. Rather, trains defined the end of youth. At sixteen, Josh had become an adult.
As Josh surveyed the train yard from atop the gutted concrete building, he counted the watchmen and noted the routes they took as they swept through the yard. The best place to gain access to an open car appeared to be the closest set of rails – the ones where cars intended for the next outgoing train were positioned. A perimeter fence provided cover and the ditch between the fence and the tracks appeared to have long, sloping sides.
The sun rose higher in the clear sky. Heat whipped up the breeze sending the sharp sting of diesel and treated wood his way. The odor gave him second thoughts, but he dismissed them. His mother always said he fussed too much over the smell of things. That was before. It was time to face the unpleasantries of life. The thought triggered a memory of school when a kid vomited in front of the boy’s bathroom. The janitor spread some kind of powder over the area that stank worse than the vomit. Class was about to begin and he had to pee so bad it hurt. He tried to jump over, but slipped and landed in the middle of the biggest chunks. He thought he’d never get the smell out of his favorite jeans.
School. What of school now. He couldn’t worry about that. There were more important things to think about like food and what to use for toilet paper. He needed to learn about commitment and accepting the consequences of his decisions. There was no replay in life. At the end of the day, the day was finished. If he didn’t accomplish what he set out to do, there was no second chance; no reboot to step back in time and try again. Each moment mattered. He now belonged to the school of life.
From his backpack, he pulled out the papers approved by the court the day before. According to the words in the documents, he was an emancipated minor. He could now live out his grandfather’s story – to ride the rails and find his destiny. The hours he spent building his YouTube followers finally paid off. He picked up his camera and panned the yard.
“To my faithful followers, today is the first day of my new life and you are here with me to share in the experience. I promised I would follow the legacy of my grandfather once I reached a million subscribers. Enjoy the ride.”
Judges' comments: “For My Grandfather" is a complete story from beginning to end, which is not easy to achieve considering the short word count. Rather than internal musings that don’t go anywhere, we’re exposed to a main character who sweeps us into his journey. The story is current and has some zeitgeist, yet also ties in former generations and thoughts of yesteryear.
second place $200
The train horn blares as I watch it roll past and into the rail yard. There's so little between me and the rails. A quick drop; a few bare patches of grass and gravel; a short fence. It would be so easy, to climb on a train and leave.
I eye the jump down. It's not more than 10 feet; less if I hang off the edge first. I'm just gearing myself up to do it when a small voice calls from behind.
"What're you doing, Jackie?"
I turn and see my baby sister perched on the rock behind me, wearing a fierce frown and her favorite magenta leggings.
"How long have you been there?" I didn't hear her climb up. I scan the ground quickly to make sure my cigarette stubs aren't in sight.
"I just got here. Do you want to come play dolls? June’s busy and Cici’s gone out."
I hesitate. Do I want to? No. But will I? "Yes, ok."
We trudge back to the house, Daisy skipping ahead a few steps and singing as she goes. Her voice is squeaky-soft and she gives a slight giggle every time she forgets a word. It makes me smile. "Lavender's blue, dilly dilly..."
"When's Dad home?" I ask. Daisy glances over her shoulder at me and shrugs, then keeps on singing. He travels so much I barely know his work address, let alone his schedule, and I'm almost nineteen. I don't why I thought she'd know.
Daisy's Barbie dolls are scattered across a blanket on the front lawn. The blond one with a bald spot and half her hair hacked off used to be mine. Most of them did. Mine, then Cici’s, then June’s and now Daisy’s.
"Mom inside?" I fiddle with the blond doll's shoes as I speak, popping them off and on, off and on.
Daisy nods. "June's speech therapist is here."
Ah, of course. It is Friday after all.
We play for a while. I mostly just redress the dolls in the clothes Daisy hands to me and Daisy chatters along, spinning out their lives. She doesn't need me for that part; she just likes to have someone nearby.
Light laughter sneaks out the front window and I look around to see Mom and June open the door. I watch them smile and wave to the speech therapist as she walks past us and down the drive.
Mom's smile slips the moment I hear the car door shut, her face settling gently into its usual tired lines. The setting sun glints off the new gray hairs sprouting at her temples.
She glances over. "Oh, Jack. There you are. Can you get Daisy and June in the bath while I start dinner?"
"Sure." I force a smile of my own. "Come on, Dais. Let's get these dolls inside." I bend to gather the blanket and as I stand I hear it once more -- a train whistle fading into the distance. It would be so easy.
Judges' comments: “Make Believe" sets a scene and a tone and shows strong character complexity in a short amount of space. The story feels timeless and has an air of Weltschmertz. Make Believe shows shows the duplicity of life, and the common tension between responsibility and longing, as well as the tension between being in the moment, and being somewhere else.
third PLACE $100
Bobby watched the sun sink a little lower. This was his favorite time. Passing the hours, trying to find something to do, pretending like he was normal, the waiting for something to change, was done, at least for another day. But he dreaded what came after the sun left. This is when he really missed them. The after-dinner hours, watching TV, eating popcorn, fighting over the remote. He missed all of it.
Bobby fingered the wad of bills in his pocket. Thinking about how easy it would be to spend it. He could do it in two days. Hell maybe one day between cigarettes and food. Easy. But he hadn’t yet. He’d been thinking about how to spend it ever since that night Jim let him crash at his place. Jim was passed out cold, face down on the couch, when Bobby looked up and noticed a loose ceiling tile above him. He grabbed a chair and stood on it without making a noise. Bobby was afraid to breathe as he moved the loose tile and waved his hand until he felt a thick wallet hidden there. He looked inside and counted fives, tens, twenties. He took the money, shoved it in his pocket, put the wallet back and slowly moved the tile back into place. Still not breathing he moved towards the door, opened it and ran without closing it or looking back.
Now he was trying to figure out what to do with it. Every time he had called his sister collect over the last five years, she’d say, Come home. You can stay with me. You don’t have to go back to school. You can get your GED, a job. Nobody’s mad at you. But it wasn’t that easy. Wasn’t easy to admit that he was wrong. That it wasn’t better out here.
He came looking for his real parents. He thought they would be happy to have the kid back that was taken away so many years ago, that he would fit in better with them than he did at home. But that didn’t happen. Everywhere he went he felt like he wasn’t enough. His so-called friends only wanted him around because he knew how to drive and he would wait for Lacey at the truck stop until she’d earned enough money. And the gang he’d let beat him black and blue so he’d be one of them acted like they didn’t know him when the cops came. They let him rot in jail by himself for stealing that stereo until his sister bailed him out. Someday he would get his own place, with a garage for his tools and a yard.
The sun was gone now.
He was tired.
Tired of running.
Tired of not working.
Tired of being a scumbag.
Tired of this life.
Bobby climbed down the rusted fire escape, hopped to the ground and started walking. He didn’t stop until he got to the bus station and bought a ticket for home.
Judges' comments: “Sundown" gets in the mind of the main character and engages the reader in thinking about the main character’s options and what he should or should not do. The author takes the reader through several periods of time and along on a journey that ends, or starts, with a decisive choice at the end.
the middle child
For one slippery moment, dangling over the edge of the building made me feel alive. Almost. I'm not sure when the numbness crept in, cocooning my emotions. Perhaps it was something I deserved, like every other thing that spilled into my life.
I'd sat there, willing myself to run away from the evil chasing me. "Straight to the tracks," I said, before slipping off the building, towards the railcars.
Crossing the railroad tracks, trying to be someone you're not. I knew better than to pretend. The middle child of Buford and Mavis Smithers. That's who I was and who I'd always be.
Thinking about Mom and Pop didn't slow my feet any, as I skidded down the hill. Pebbles flew from under my sneakers, like popcorn bursting over an open flame. It felt good to move. Maybe not good, but it felt right.
Mom and Pop's voices filled my head, as I vaulted over the rusty fence.
"Billie Jo, put the baby down."
"Quit bellyaching. We're all hungry."
Almost always followed by, "Why can't you be more like Chester?"
Perfect Chester. If only they knew how it felt living in his shadow.
Perfect, my ass. I heard his voice even now. "Red rover, red rover send Billie Jo right over."
I ran as hard and fast as anyone ever had. Pure joy pumped through me, feeding my heart and fueling my spindly legs moving across the grass. I was looking right in Chester's eyes — love and admiration seeking its reflection — when he clotheslined me. Smack into my throat so hard the scream got smashed before it could escape.
Brothers. Who needed them, anyway?
The baby had gone and grown into Chester's little shadow. "Two peas in a pod," Pop said. Well, now they had each other, didn't they?
My soul felt as worn and tattered as the paint on the cars resting on the tracks. We had a kinship. It was their whisper I'd heard perched on that ole building. "We'll help you escape."
I'd let the words float in, taking over my brain. Mom always said teenage girls are mostly crazy. I guess the folks could just chalk it up to that, when they realized I was gone.
My breath ripped in jagged, slicing up my lungs. I hadn't noticed how hard I'd run. I wondered if I'd outpaced the evil peeking over my shoulder.
All I needed to do was find the right car to slip into and I'd be gone. Before Mom and Pop found Tommy in his bed and blamed me. I didn't expect them to believe me this time. It wasn't my fault. He said he was missing Chester and wanted to be with him.
Besides, I didn't think I could have handled hearing their cries when they realized he was dead, spilling tears like they had when Chester died.
All they had left was me — the middle child. I didn't expect them to notice.
the last train to somewhere
It would be so easy to hop on one of those trains. I looked at my new knock-off Adidas. They were as phony as the rest of this place, with faux brothers and sisters and a fake mom and dad. I hated them. As much as they tried, they could never replace the mom and dad I knew on the Southside. I resented being taken away years ago, but cherished what little memory I had left of their love. I had conjured up an ideal mom and dad whenever I touched my one and only faded photograph of them. Both had gone to prison. Since then, I’d lived in more foster homes than I cared to remember.
I tried not to think about my pitiful life and focused on the trains. How far could one of them take me? The smell of their exhaust fumes transported me to faraway places. I loved to hear the sound of a whistle, the yell “all aboard!” of the conductor, and the chug of the engines as they gained their momentum. Trains fascinated me because I knew I could hitch a free ride to somewhere anytime. I’d done it before, but always came back. This time I wouldn’t.
I had to stop day-dreaming. Make it happen. Everyone knew I would be eighteen soon, but no one knew what I had been planning. What difference would it make to leave now? No one would miss me, especially not fake family number—whatever. I definitely wouldn’t miss Chicago or any of those families or social workers. I needed to find a place of my own, a job I could call mine.
Looking out at the trains coming into Union station, I envisioned where they might take me. South to Miami? West to Los Angeles? It would have to be a warm place like a mother’s hug. Maybe somewhere I’d find myself a girl who could give me the love I’d been searching for. If I landed some place cold, I’d make sure the next train went in the right direction.
I had watched every night for a week atop the rock. I wanted this view to be my last. I would sneak out of the house tomorrow. I knew the last train left from Platform 23. I didn’t care where it went, as long as it headed out of here.
The next night I climbed out of my second-story bedroom window with my backpack, and down the rock maple tree. I paused and looked back at the house that belonged to this last “happy family.” This kid with the wrong skin color in an affluent neighborhood would be leaving on the last train to somewhere. Somewhere I belonged.