Life’s too Short

Winners of Our First Reader-Submitted, Short-Story Fiction Contest

Posted on 08.14.13 – Feature, People & Places

Here they are—the winners of our first reader-submitted, short-story fiction contest. It was difficult to choose a top three from among the many excellent entries we received, but on the following pages you will find an overall winner and two runners-up. The three writers will each receive a prize package worth more than $100.

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Cub Cadet

Story by Jason Tinney (Winner)

The lawn mower gleams, yellow paint taking on a golden sheen in the afternoon sun, a 173 cc Honda engine mounted on a 21-inch-three-in-one steel deck—“engineered for superior mulching, bagging, and side discharging.” Bob sits Indian-style examining the four knobby tires, front two on casters allowing access to the nooks and crannies of the flower beds, the maple and oak trees, the magnolia and holly bush.

He is drawn to the mower. Cub Cadet. He whispers the words over and over again.

The mower was the last birthday gift from his wife before the separation, before she ran off to Richmond to “rediscover” herself five months ago. She bought it at H.B. Duvall out by the fairgrounds (paid for the extended warranty). He had let the yard go. The lawn mower sat in the garage untouched. The grass grew tall; the violet blooms and vines of morning glories twisted through the tomato plants.

Bob slides back the choke. The engine turns over on the first crank. It sounds wonderful.

He makes short order of the front yard, mows along the sides of the white Cape Cod which sits on the cusp of Baker Park, the house he grew up in. He plows through the terraced back yard, cutting through the thick grass like a sharp knife slicing into a watermelon.

It feels good mowing the lawn; Bob feels like he is reclaiming something, that he, again, has domain over his yard. Sweat rolls through his red hair, runs down his forehead, salty water filling his eyes. His footsteps are firm and even, assured inside the snuggly laced, grass-stained work boots that follow a trail left by self-propelled tire marks.

Out of nowhere, he feels a burning sensation in his neck.

A flash of yellow zips past his eye. A humming noise grows in intensity, drowning out the purr of the Cub Cadet.

Bob realizes the full scope of his predicament when he finds himself standing over a hole the size of a softball erupting with hundreds of yellow jackets who are not too happy with Bob or his lawn mower.

They engulf Bob in a cyclone, bore into his skin, cling to his T-shirt working their stingers into cotton. Irate yellow jackets make him their mad sewing project.

Bob tries to get his jeans off but falls to the ground as they get caught up at his boots. He pulls out a pocket knife and cuts at the pant legs, until they finally come apart at the ankles.

Once on his feet, Bob frees himself of the T-shirt and runs for the house in only his work boots and blue pinstriped boxers. He tumbles into the kitchen slamming the door shut. Welts on his body swell. He pours a glass of water and drinks it down fast. He tries to get his breathing under control as he mixes water and baking soda. He applies the paste to his skin. Then he lies down on the cool tile.

Last summer he knew. Everyone sat around the pool. He looked at Denise and knew. She wore a new bikini. She hadn’t worn a bikini in years, not since before they were married. She had made no mention of a new bikini. She might have said something like, “What do you think?” or “How do I look?” And she had started to work out. But it wasn’t the bikini, or her newly sculptured body that unnerved him as much as it was the way he felt when he looked at her—desperation firmly rooted in his gut.

She laid there, oil glistening on her flat-frying-pan-stomach, her skin turning bronze, her eyes shaded by black wrap-around sun glasses.

It was a party at her parent’s house. Neighbors talked to Denise but she said nothing, only nodded with a slight smile, preferring to simply lay there and bake a million miles away while her father aimlessly talked to his son-in-law about the dismal chances of the Terps football team succeeding in the Big 10 as bits of poorly packed hamburgers fell through the grill grate into the blue flames, her mother leaving the door open to the air conditioned kitchen as she brought out fruit salad, her sister admonishing Denise’s nephew—who had recently discovered the Star Wars saga—for using “the force” on his own sister.

When they got home that evening, Denise told Bob she wanted to go for a walk around Culler Lake to get some fresh air—by herself. When she returned Bob smelled a scent that wasn’t his and wasn’t hers.

All he said was, “You looked beautiful in that bikini.”

To which she responded, “Thank you,” in a voice that a stranger might use to acknowledge a compliment from another stranger.

He gets up slowly, puts on fresh clothes and ventures outside. From a safe distance, he observes the frenzied yellow jackets still swarming around the lawn mower.

It is a perfect summer evening for sitting outside. Bob sets up a lawn chair next to a tank of gas. He secures a head-lamp around his forehead as the sun sets. Then he crawls toward the hole with the gas and long matches stuffed in a back pocket. One by one the yellow jackets glide into a nest that has been mulched to hell. Two bees remain, patrolling the lawn mower.

Bob unscrews the gas tank and pours the contents into the hole. He lights two matches and tosses them into the depression. Wooof! An orange ball of flame rises illuminating the mower. The two black and yellow striped guardians descend into the fire, drawn to the glow as if it were a beacon.

Bob stretches out upon the terrace, smells a wonderful mixture of fresh cut grass and gasoline, and notices how the dancing swirls of smoke block out some of the stars in the sky.

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Love at the Landfill

Story by Dorinne Armstrong (Runner-Up)

Hey lady, you threw a pot in there. Plastic belongs in another bin.”

On a sunny, spring morning, Laura was emptying her trash bag into the GARDEN WASTE ONLY dumpster at the recycling center and had forgotten to check its contents. A man on the other side was doing the same thing and volunteered to retrieve the pot to placate the landfill employee.

“Thanks so much,” she said. “I probably should use those brown bags but I can never remember when the pick-up day is and it just seems easier to do it this way.”

“I know what you mean,” he said. “I forget to buy those bags and you’re right, it’s easier to come here. Anyway, there’s always other stuff to recycle.” They talked for a few more minutes until he said he’d better get going. “I promised my dog a long walk today. Watch that plastic now,” he added, “I might have to bail you out if you keep breaking the law like that.”

Laura thanked him again and watched as he and the big yellow Lab drove away. Gosh, he was so nice, good looking too, she thought, as she continued dropping brush into the dumpster. I wish I’d asked his name.

One evening a few days later as Laura was finishing her sandwich at The Lunch Box on Carroll Creek, she was sure she saw the man from the landfill walk by with his dog. She wanted to run after him but what would she say? I’m the girl from the dump? How stupid would that sound. If he walks his dog here every evening, though, maybe I could just casually run into him. Taking the last bite of her sandwich, she thought, I know what to do. I’ll borrow a dog.

A friend was only too happy to lend her Yorkshire terrier, Spunky, for an evening. She didn’t even ask why, for which Laura was grateful. A week of strolls along the Creek, however, proved fruitless. Neither man nor dog appeared.

Maybe Carroll Creek is too crowded, she thought. I’ll try Baker Park. There he was. She was sure of it, just a few yards ahead. Laura tightened the leash and pulled but Spunky had other ideas. The picnic leftovers were too tempting to ignore. Laura watched as the man and his dog crossed the suspension bridge. With a hard tug on the leash, Spunky followed reluctantly until he saw what lay ahead.

“Come on Spunk,” Laura urged. If the dog had heels, Spunky’s would have been dug several inches into the moist ground. He wouldn’t budge. “It’s a new bridge, Spunky,” she said, thinking that he must be remembering the old one from previous walks.

“This one doesn’t swing.” Convincing the dog, however, was impossible, so she scooped him up, crossed the bridge, and scrambled up the 27 steps to the street only to see her quarry close his car door and drive away.

“I’ve got to stop this,” she said aloud. “Talk about crazy.” Spunky, with a large bag of Bacon Bits, was returned to his owner that evening.

The hot summer days were blending into cooler nights when Laura received what she considered a lottery jackpot, an invitation to a concert at Downtown Piano Works. Arriving early, she was lucky enough to snag a coveted front row seat. The glorious music of Liszt transported her into another time and place until the audience rose to applaud the pianist. As she turned to retrieve her sweater, she saw him in the back of the room.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” she pleaded as she tried to push her way up the crowded aisle but by the time she reached the entrance, he was gone.

The summer concerts in the park ended without any sightings. After spotting her mystery man at Downtown Piano Works, she felt safe in assuming that someone who liked Liszt wouldn’t choose to spend his Thursday nights at “Alive @ Five” with The Drunken Naked Pirates or FlatFoot Sam and the Educated Fools.

As the changing leaves gave promise of an early and colorful fall, Laura agreed to join friends for “In the Street.” Thinking there was little chance of finding her needle in a haystack among the crowd at that popular event, she was startled to see him walking just a few feet ahead. As she started forward, a friend grabbed her arm. “Hey Laura,” she called, “you’ve got to taste this turkey leg.”

So the summer ended and once again Laura was at the landfill with bags of garden debris. Unbelievably, there he was, standing next to the GARDEN WASTE ONLY dumpster just as he had been months ago.

“Hello again,” she said, her heart thumping loudly.

“My God.” He said turning towards her. “I’ve been looking all over Frederick for you.”

“Really?” she said, smiling. “I’m glad you finally found me.”

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Click

Story by Michael Felton (Runner-Up)

Bright. Intense Brightness. Slow motion panic. He raised his arm to block the sunlight that seemed to be ignoring his closed eyelids. Finally, darkness.

“Whhhaaaa!” What the. The NOISE. Kids screaming and crying on the playground. Please make it go away!

Must move. He sat up on the park bench he had been sleeping on. The smell of the summer sun baking the concrete and scorching the grass assaulted him. The smell of slow flowing Carroll Creek. But he didn’t care.

He could now see the clouds, the birds, the friendly people walking their dogs. At least part of him could, a part that was far away. His focus shifted to his stomach, where pain replaced any pang of emotional attachment to the world around him. Maybe it was an ulcer. Maybe it was the lack of food. Maybe it was the intense loathing of humanity from years of bad luck.

It didn’t matter why; the feelings vanished as soon as he stood and grabbed his bag. His pulse quickened. Shoulders raised. No longer gaunt and frail; more Marine than destitute drifter. The power of holding fate in your hand. Fate was in the bag, Fate that he would deliver. He walked down the promenade, across Market Street, to the restaurant.

Martin held his daughter’s hand as she approached the counter. She looked up at him for reassurance. He knew the trouble she had parting with the money she saved from her hard earned allowance and it wasn’t for him to decide how she should use it.

“Honey, it’s up to you,” he said in his deep and gentle fatherly voice, “We can just go for a walk if you want.”

“But Dad, you really love ice cream and it’s your birthday,” Rachel said.

Martin smiled and tried hard to remember this very instant. The happy look on Rachel’s face and the feeling, as if his heart would float away on a river of pride and contentment. Not that he deserved the feelings. The life he had lead was not deserving of touching moments like this.

Like so many times before, Martin’s inner war began. He tried his therapist’s new motto for him, “Nevermind the past, it’s how I choose to live from now that matters.” And right now Martin thought, I should be here for Rachel, I can change for her.

He reached for the door and opened it. The noises from inside the restaurant assaulted him and made him draw a quick breath. He regained his composure and walked forward. A couple walking out stared at him and then looked away. He noticed the woman’s sharp inhale as she passed by and recognized the disgust. Yeah, that was what he was, disgust. Disgust embodied. Lucky for her, he wasn’t ready. A waitress cleaning a table was eyeing him. He reached in the bag and felt the warm metal. The power.  The power was his. He would make them pay.

In one rapid motion, he pulled the gun from the bag and took aim. She stared at him and he saw the panic in her eyes. The moment seemed to go on forever, as he saw her panic grow, and her body start to move. He had never had that power over anyone before. Her slow motion panicked movements brought a smile to his face. He pulled the trigger. She fell.

His ears hurt and the acrid smell of fumes from the gun singed his nose. He screamed, “THIS IS LIVING!!” He raised the gun again.

Martin and Rachel heard the gunshots and shouts as the people around him screamed. He and Rachel grabbed each other as if that would stop the nightmare. As Martin looked around he quickly realized there was no escape. The gunman was at the front door and a waitress lay dying at the entrance to the kitchen at the back. He looked around at the other diners diving for cover and was about to grab Rachel and go to a nearby table. But he didn’t.

Martin saw the shooter’s face. “How I choose to live…,” Martin thought. His choice.

Martin put his hands on Rachel’s tear soaked face.

“Rachel, listen to me. It doesn’t matter if we die, it matters how we live.” After a quick breath, Martin continued, “He may have a gun, and may be hurting people, but he needs a hug. Can we do that for him?”

Rachel took a breath and nodded.

They both turned to the shooter, Martin’s left arm around his daughter’s shoulder and both of them reaching out to the shooter. Martin gestured for him to come.

He couldn’t believe his eyes. There was a big man in front of him hugging his daughter and welcoming him with open arms. The sounds of chaos reigned around him. He raised his gun. They didn’t flinch. No panic shown on their faces. Was he dead? Then the most troubling thought occurred to him…did it matter. Did it matter if he was dead? The man in front of him might as well be God. His mind raced, slow motion panic running through his brain as he held the gun aimed at Martin’s chest. He walked forward almost involuntarily, tears streaming down his cheeks.

It seemed like an eternity, but he reached Martin and Rachel. Three people—an innocent child, a recovering addict, and a mass murderer—held each other. Amid the chaos and broken dreams around them, they held each other. For a moment the world stopped.

“It’s OK, man,” Martin whispered, “I love you.  Everyone deserves love.”

Rachel said to the shooter, “I love you, too.”

He turned.

Click.