International Short Story Contest
Seventh short story contest winners
The Seventh International Short Story Contest closed on May 1, 2011. Deliberation over the final line-up of winners was long and hard, but by June 2011 the following successful entrants were announced:
Congratulations to Marissa Hauser of Strasburg, Colorado, who wins £200 for her winning story, "An Unexpected Hope". The story is published below.
Marissa Hauser has been a science teacher, news reporter, fitness instructor, pianist, and recreation manager, and was surprised to discover that writing is what she loves best. She manages to squeeze out a paragraph or two when she and her husband aren't chasing their two young children, a task which, happily, occupies much of their time. Marissa resides on the Eastern Plains of Colorado, where water is scarce but story material most certainly isn't.
Ten special commendations go out to the following entrants (in no particular order):
- Alice Natali, Italy, "Chapter One - and Only";
- Johanna Lipford, Italy, "The Only Ladies Left";
- Andrew Campbell-Kearsey , United Kingdom, "Sylvia’s Mother";
- Craig Aron, United States, "Real Love";
- Alice Stride, United Kingdom, "Maggie";
- Mark Wagstaff, United Kingdom, "Leaving Drink";
- Vicky Woodcraft, United Kingdom, "Human Sacrifice";
- Stephanie Attwood, New Zealand, "The Letterbox";
- Eric Guignard, United States, "Solicitors Will Be Deleted";
- Hollie Davidson, United States, "My Name is Larry".
An Unexpected Hope
By Marissa Hauser
When I was six weeks old, my mama and daddy left me and my sister in the car in a casino parking lot while they went inside to gamble.
I found the article about it at the Milton County library and I guess it was right near 90 degrees out that day. I’d for sure be brain damaged or dead if it hadn’t been for a security guard who broke a window to get us out. It wasn’t what you’d call a great start.
My big sister Lou, who was two at the time, was in the car with me. She banged her tiny fists against the backseat window to get someone’s attention while we sweltered in that bucket of rust. Lou started looking out for me then and it’s been her that’s done it for my entire 17 years. In truth, for a long time she was the only person who woulda even noticed if I dropped clean off the side of the earth.
I ain’t writing about my life cause I think anyone will find it remotely interesting, but my English teacher Mr. Hershey is pushing me to get all this junk on paper. “Jenny,” he said to me after class last week. “I think it would be really good therapy for you to write down some of your life experiences. Things haven’t been easy for you and it seems like you don’t have many people to talk to about it.” He claims it’ll help me grow, whatever the hell that means.
My life ain’t resembled in the slightest the lives of the other nitwits at my high school, whose parents are heads of the PTA or organizers of the football booster club. For starters, I lived in five different foster homes during the first 16 years of my life. I also had a baby, although he wasn’t in the world but a couple of years.
I was just a kid when I had Ethan – 15 years old. I didn’t even know I was pregnant until I was three months along, and I bit my nails way down to the quick worryin’ that the drinkin’ I’d done in those early months would cause him some kind of awful deformation. But, incredibly, he was the most beautiful child I’d ever laid eyes on – eyes like emeralds and curly locks the color of chocolate framing his face. My foster mom, Tina, told me to give him up for adoption, but social services determined that she couldn’t make me if I didn’t want to. He was an easy baby from the start – we shared a room and he never got up more than twice a night, even in his early weeks. And Lou loved him like her own – even though at 17 she already had two kids.
Ethan was taken out of this world in what some folks might call a freak accident. Lou was watching him while I was in class and she was carrying a box full of napkins into the gas station where she works. One of those napkins caught flight in the wind and was carried into the street. Ethan, just over two, chased it into the road and got hit by a pickup instantly.
He didn’t die right away. The ambulance came and took him to St. George’s in the city, Lou riding along in the back. But he only made it an hour past that. I heard about the accident and, frantic, wanted to rush in to see my baby boy, but Tina told me she was busy cleaning and I’d have to wait until after lunch. I didn’t have any business raising a child anyway, she said. He died before I got there.
When I lost Ethan, I didn’t think I could go on living. I know that sounds stupid, like some dumb cliché you’d read in a book, but up to that point I’d already realized that my life was going nowhere fast. For the two years he was in my life, it always felt like he was my shot at leaving on this earth something positive and worthwhile. Things weren’t the same between Lou and me after that. Not because I’m angry at her – it was a horrible accident and I know she’s just as devastated as I am. It's just that neither of us really knew what to say to each other. We used to talk mostly about our kids, and Ethan’s absence leaves such a dark canyon between us that neither of us seems able to bridge the gap. When he passed on, I really lost two people – leaving me with nobody. I want to point out that that’s not me feeling sorry for myself. It’s just the facts, that’s all.
There was a small service at Little Shepherd Mortuary here in town for Ethan a week after he passed. I wanted to bury his favorite stuffed tiger with him but I couldn't find it anywhere, and it was a serious distraction for me during the entire service because I felt like he should have it. I don’t have many friends, and only about 10 people came – three other girls who live with me at Tina’s, a couple of my teachers, a daycare provider who watched Ethan two mornings a week while I was in school, and of course Lou. It didn’t seem right that only 10 people in the whole world cared whether or not a beautiful boy like Ethan was dead. But I know that really, that ain't true. It’s just that very few people knew Ethan. Lou and I sheltered him quite a bit from the harsh realities of the world, in an attempt to prevent him from having the same sort of start we did. Makes you wonder what the point is in doing your best – he ended up dying anyway.
I sure as hell don’t go to church, so the minister at Ethan’s funeral was just some hack the mortuary uses for people who don’t have one of their own. I didn’t get a real warm feeling from him when I met him, but he was 50 bucks and I didn’t really care who oversaw the service. I just wanted to get it over as soon as possible. Pastor Sween droned on about how we shouldn’t grieve for Ethan because he’s in a better place now. How it’s all “part of God’s plan.” I just can’t believe that. If it is true, then Our Heavenly Father is one mean son-of-a-bitch and he can go to hell.
Sometimes I can’t help but think folks who believe in God ain’t too bright. There’s this billboard on The Church of New Hope in town that says God Saves. That just don’t make much sense to me. Little kids die every day and I know for a fact there are millions of people starving in Africa. If God was just, he’d definitely take Tina out of this world and off to you-know-where, but instead he lets good people die like Martin Luther King and our school counselor, who was only 30 and got leukemia. Excuse my language, but the world is mostly shit as far as I can tell.
Mrs. Johnson down the street came to the service. Her husband died last year, but I think you’re still supposed to call her Mrs. Anyway, I knew her face only from walking by her house on the way home from school. I take special care to take the route that goes by her place because it smells of lilacs in the spring and roses in the summer. You can see two enormous bird feeders over the chain link fence in her backyard and one of those bubbling fountains. She has a dog – it looks like a cross between a Labrador and a German Shepherd – but it never barks, just lays there and watches you walk by. Sometimes I close my eyes and pretend I’m back there sitting on her porch, watching the finches and sipping lemonade. It always seemed strange to me that someone with a house and yard like hers would have a wreath on the front door that looks like it’s a million years old. It’s dead and withered and it kills me cause it’s downright ugly and it would be such a simple thing for her to pluck it off the door and throw it in the trashcan. Until recently, there were plenty of times I wanted to do it for her, just to make the house look perfect. I didn’t, though, and I'm really glad about that.
Mrs. Johnson gave my arm a squeeze and left right after the funeral. She has that grandmotherly appeal that makes you think she cares about you even if you don’t know her. I was damn near positive she has three or four kids and a bunch of grandchildren. So I was real surprised she wanted to take time out of her schedule to come mourn a boy she’d only seen a couple of times. I wanted to just dive right into her arms and cry for a thousand years.
Tina didn’t come to the service, not that I expected her to. She barely said a thing to me after Ethan passed. I don’t know how she got up on such a high horse. She’s barely over five feet tall, 300 pounds, and, in my opinion, a lot trashier than me or any of the girls living with her. I guess some people might feel sorry for her, but that’s only if they’ve never spoken to her. There’s nothing motherly about her – we just call her our foster mom cause we can’t think of what else to call her. Tina’s been doing the foster gig for something like 20 years and no one checks up on us even though I’m pretty sure they’re supposed to. We pretty much fend for ourselves, although I guess that ain’t worked out too dreamily with me getting knocked up before I could even get a driver’s license. I’m blonde and thin and even though I ain’t got much in the way of boobs, the boys like me. But I seemed to pick the biggest loser around for a boyfriend. Me and Ethan’s daddy’s relationship was very short-lived and I never told Bobby I was having his child. He was cute, but that’s about all he had going for him. He possessed very little in the way of conversational skills, which consisted of little initiation and mostly responses like “no shit” and “no fucking way.”
A few weeks ago I was walking home from school and Mrs. Johnson was out in the yard. She waved me over, which was a cross between a complete surprise to me and a dream come true. “How ya doin’, Jenny?” she asks me. I shrug my shoulders, looking down at the ground and not knowing what to say. It’s been a month now, but the sting of losing Ethan ain’t softened one bit.
Mrs. Johnson asks me to come in, and since I figure Tina’s just sitting on the sofa watching Judge Judy and snarfing down Cheesey Puffs, I accept her offer. The inside of her house is exactly as I dreamed it – all tiny painted birdhouses and geraniums. There’s three fat cats piled up, sleeping on a green recliner in the corner. Right above it, there’s a picture on the wall of a younger Mrs. Johnson and a blond little boy on a paddleboat. I just know that has to be her boy.
Mrs. Johnson tells me about how that’s her son Charlie and how he died from a heart defect when he was five. He was runnin’ in the sprinkler in the front yard and just fell over, dead.
“It’s the most awful thing in the world, isn’t
it,” Mrs. Johnson says. This turns out to be all that I can take and I fold
over, sick with grief, sobbing uncontrollably. She sits on the floor with me,
stroking my hair and patting my back. It’s a real foreign situation for me.
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” I say. I tell Mrs. Johnson how Tina told me I only have three more days to get rid of all of Ethan’s stuff and how I think I’ll die if I have to do that.
I can’t believe it, but Mrs. Johnson – who says I have to call her by her first name, Cora – tells me I can bring Ethan’s stuff to her house. That she’ll keep it safe until I’m ready to do something with it. She says it doesn’t matter how long it takes, that she ain’t planning on going anywhere, and that she’s got lots of extra room. I can’t help it, but I throw up right then and there, all over her area rug and wood floor.
Cora gets up and gets a cold washcloth and a rubber band. She puts my hair in a makeshift ponytail and lays the rag across the back of my neck. When I can finally sit up straight, I feel exhausted but I can’t stop talking. I tell Cora about the creeps who lived with me and Lou in our third and fifth foster homes. How in the first place we lived after we were seized by social services the lady locked Lou up in a dog cage for two days. I say I sometimes hate myself so much for what happened to Ethan. How when I’m at the mall I hear a little boy’s voice and swear it’s him looking for his momma. I still reach for him in the night to twist my fingers around those dark, lovely curls. I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, but Tina rips the covers off every day and tells me to get over it.
Cora doesn’t say a thing and I just yammer on and on. Then she breaks the silence.
“I have one other son,” she tells me. “I don’t know what your school schedule looks like, but my daughter-in-law works part-time and I have my grandchildren on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Those two rascals about run me ragged and I could use some help. Of course I’d pay you.”
I don’t see any Kleenexes in my immediate vicinity and I wipe my eyes on the back of my hand while contemplating this. The alternative is hanging around the house with Tina so it’s not too tough a choice. She says I can start tomorrow.
Cora’s grandbabies are named Tyler and Rori. They are two and four. Sometimes seeing Tyler makes my throat close and my eyes watery. Cora's been reading my English papers and says that my grammar could use a little work but that my writing is beautiful. She thinks I have a shot at getting accepted to junior college if I finish my senior year strong.
Yesterday Lou came over. I haven’t talked to her in a month so I knew it was Cora who’d tracked her down. She brought my nephews over to play with Tyler and Rori. She looked exhausted and Cora insisted we sit down in the chaise lounges and visit in the shade. I watch Lou’s boys, who just two months ago were running around at the park with their cousin.
I don’t have a camera or a cell phone. It kills me because I only have two pictures of Ethan, one when he was first born and another from just a few days before he died. Everybody used to tell me that he was such a handsome little boy, and I’m happy that it’s such a good picture of him. In one of the photos he’s got that little plush tiger I never could find. I've wracked my brain, but I just can't seem to locate it.
I blink my eyes, no longer distracted. Lou is looking at me painfully. She reaches into her purse – and pulls out the tiger. He’s got road rash and I know how that happened.
“I didn’t know how to give it you,” she sobs. “I know this is all my fault. I understand if you’ll never forgive me, Jenny, but please can we still see each other at least? I can’t stand it without you.”
I nod and give her a hug. I tell her I’ve put in my application to Allen Junior College and my guidance counselor says I won’t have any trouble getting in. Cora’s invited me to move in with her until then, but the social worker says that process takes about six months provided the child isn’t in immediate danger, and I’ll be headed to college by then anyway. Lou smiles with approval before leaving to drop her kids off at their daddy’s.
Cora comes and sits by me. She tells me she understands about the tiger – how the wreath on her door is 20 years old but she keeps it up because she and her boys made it at a nursery one summer. She says the little blue bird on the top was Ethan’s idea and how no matter how many years pass, she can’t bear to take that damn thing down.
I ask Cora if it’s ever gonna get any easier. If I’ll be carrying around this stupid tiger in my purse for the rest of my life. She says it’s always gonna be a heartache for me, but that in time this God-awful burden will become a little easier to carry.
I think that’s about as good as I could of hoped for.
Maybe there’s still hope for me.