Life’s Still Too Short
Here they are—the winners of our second reader-submitted, short-story fiction contest. It was difficult to choose the finalists from among the excellent entries we received, so congratulations to all the writers who took the time to submit their work. On the following pages you will find an overall winner and three runners-up.
Story by Sarah Bigham (Winner)
Angela’s sandals found the package outside her front door before her eyes did, knocking her off balance, sending overloaded grocery bags crashing to the ground, and startling the squirrels in the yard. Nursing a newly stubbed toe, Angela wrangled the brown box onto the kitchen table. Unfamiliar handwriting made her post-9/11 consciousness question the intelligence of opening such a package, but curiosity won out and she slit open the packing tape. Inside she found a brief note from Walter’s nephew.
Walter had lived two doors down from Angela in Frederick. She met him soon after moving in to the tiny home on Thomas Avenue years ago. The house had been an impulse purchase, driven by the necessity of finding a place to go after her previous world collapsed. At 30, she was the youngest homeowner on the block and besieged with “welcome to the neighborhood” pound cakes from ladies wearing sturdy shoes and comfort-fit slacks with matching flowered tops.
Angela quickly learned that lawns here were regularly mowed and edged, flower gardens were tended and watered, and birdwatching was a full-time sport. In an effort to feel like a real part of her new community, Angela used her well-honed Amazon Prime shopping skills to purchase a feeder, metal hook, and sack full of birdseed. When the shipment arrived she opened it on the front steps, the box disgorging items thoroughly encased in protective bubble wrap. Seeing the ubiquitous Allen wrench caused momentary panic, but then Angela noticed the instructional leaflet featuring a photo of a man standing happily next to an assembled feeder. She froze before erupting in a flood of tears which led to the bubbling, snot-filled sobs of what her southern aunt used to call “the ugly cry.” The smiling man looked so much like Michael she could feel her heart squeeze.
Suddenly sensing the presence of another person, Angela hastily wiped her nose on a convenient T-shirt sleeve, and gazed up to find an older man, thumbs hitched through belt loops, his slow nod of greeting emphasized by the faded Orioles cap clamped firmly on his head.
“Might work better if you took the plastic wrap off,” he noted while squinting down at her. “I’m Walter.” Angela smiled and stood up awkwardly to shake his hand and explain about wanting to have birds in her yard like the neighbors did. “Birds’ll do. Prefer squirrels myself,” he said before methodically unwrapping and assembling the birdfeeder. Angela sat on the front stoop, leaking tears and her story. She started with meeting Michael, the star of a gallery show held in her native Waynesboro, Va. He was an artist, a gifted painter who captured the essence of mountains, inspired by his home near Sugarloaf. Michael never cared much for formality and while Angela longed for a ring and a wedding (any kind would do), that was not in Michael’s plans. But he wanted to be with her, so she moved in to his cabin in the woods, and hoped her love would be enough.
One day she came home from work to find him lying cold on the floor. A cerebral hemorrhage. No way to know. No way to prepare. Family members descended and Angela soon learned that her love was not enough. Angela was not listed on the deed to the house nor included in the nonexistent will. Michael’s family put his home on the market, auctioned his paintings, and made funeral arrangements. Michael had talked to Angela of wanting to be cremated and spread in the mountains he called home, but Michael’s family took custody of the body, had it embalmed and put in a casket, and took it home to Nebraska to bury in the ground.
Angela soon found a new place to live, confounding the real estate agent by selecting the very first house they visited. Angela felt a kinship with the tiny place on Thomas Avenue. It, too, was tired and empty, but “had potential” as well-intentioned teachers had said of her in grade school.
Turns out, Walter wasn’t kidding about squirrels. Each day, Angela saw him feeding the squirrels and talking to them from his porch swing. Walter’s wife Helen died of cancer some years ago and his world had compressed. Every morning he read The Frederick News-Post. Once a week he went to Weis for groceries. Once a month he went to visit Helen’s grave at Mount Olivet Cemetery. Once a year he attended an Orioles game on a bus trip with some fellows from church. The only spontaneous events in his schedule were the walks that he and Angela took at Sugarloaf.
Angela had grown to love her tiny house with its yard full of birds and not-so-tiny squirrels, but missed the mountains of her youth and her life with Michael, and sometimes felt a calling to return, however briefly. When the urge hit, she’d load Walter into her Subaru and they would head down to Sugarloaf Mountain. As Walter acquired the accoutrements of old age, they slowed their pace, but always went to the mountain. Angela loved those walks and hearing stories of Walter’s childhood, service in the Korean War, and life with Helen. “We weren’t blessed with children, but we had a lot of fun and a lot of love,” he said with a slow smile. “I know I’ll see her again. Just bidin’ my time ‘til then.”
One day, Walter didn’t come out to feed the squirrels. A distant nephew from Chicago arrived, handled the details of Walter’s estate, and flew back west. Now he had sent Angela a package with a handwritten note. “Walter had very specific instructions in his will. He wanted to be cremated and have his ashes buried next to Helen. Before his last trip to Mount Olivet, he wanted one more walk in the mountains. Thank you for honoring his request and for taking care of those squirrels. ”
Angela unearthed the accompanying urn, got in her car, and pointed the Subaru toward Sugarloaf.
Story by Ray Nosko (Runner-Up)
It was a cold, damp, dreary evening — the perfect companion to a dreary day. The rain started falling softly before dawn and lasted into the evening. Frederick was awash in gloom and drizzle all day. Amanda had to spend the entire day inside; she hated staying inside the house. Her mother hated it, too. Amanda was a very active little girl, and her mother liked having her play out in the garden where she could keep a watchful eye on her but not suffer her under foot.
At eight o’clock in the evening, Amanda’s father scooped her up in his arms and danced around the living room with her as she giggled in that way only little girls can. Amanda’s mother cleared her throat.
Taking the cue, Daddy said, “It’s time for all little monkeys to get ready for bed.”
“Awww… but I’m not tired. Not even a smidgen. Can I stay up 10 more minutes?” Amanda pleaded.
“What’s that noise?” Daddy asked.
“I hear a little monkey going cheap, cheap, cheap. Hear it? No? That’s because you’re the little monkey!” Daddy said, pulling up her pajama top and blowing raspberries on her tummy.
Amanda giggled and laughed all the way up the stairs.
Amanda’s room was very tidy; she didn’t like her room to be messy. There was a bed with flowers on the duvet and pillowcases, and a purple dresser, whose top was covered with stuffed animals of all kinds and sizes. She had a bookcase full of her favorite stories, and a little table where she served tea to her favorite stuffed friends.
The room overlooked a secret garden. Visitors to the house beside the old church on East 2nd Street were delighted to find a beautiful garden tucked away behind the house. Amanda loved the garden. Every morning hummingbirds came to drink from a feeder hung on a tree branch just below her window. In the afternoons, her mother would let her play in the garden while Millie, her black and white cat, would follow Amanda around the garden as if playing nursemaid. Amanda’s favorite thing to do in the garden was to watch the fireflies on late summer evenings. On those nights, the garden seemed to be filled with hundreds of fairies.
Daddy pulled back the covers and laid her gently in the bed.
“There, you’re all tucked in; I’ll stay until you fall asleep.”
“No, that’s for little kids,” Amanda pronounced.
Trying not to laugh, Daddy said, “Good night, Monkey. I love you,” and kissed her forehead.
“I love you more, Daddy.”
Once her father was down the stairs, Amanda was out of bed. Sitting at the little table under her window, she poured tea for her stuffed pig and a pink lamb, whispering, “Do you want one lump or two, Miss Penelope?”
Then something outside her window caught her attention.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
There was a firefly in the rosebush outside her bedroom window. “But it’s cold and everything is wet,” Amanda whispered as she went to the window and watched for the firefly. There it was again.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
She looked out at the garden for more fireflies, but there were no other lights in the garden.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
“Oh, poor Miss Firefly, you’re all alone,” Amanda whispered. “Are you lonely out there in the cold?”
Amanda watched a moment more before deciding to take action. She put on her robe and crept down the stairs — nearly tripping over Millie, who was napping in her favorite spot on the third step from the top.
“Daddy! I saw a firefly outside my window!”
“It’s too soon for fireflies,” her mother said, barely glancing up from her book. “They don’t come out until late July. Besides, it’s so cold and wet, what would a firefly be doing in my garden in this weather?” In a long, drawn-out, and weary voice, she said, “George…”
“Alright, Monkey, let’s get you back to bed. You know you shouldn’t get out of bed once we tuck you in,” Daddy said, lifting her up. “Unless—”
“Unless I have to go pee-pee or there’s an emergency,” Amanda said deflated. “But Daddy, there really is a firefly. Hawnest, it’s an emergency!”
Glancing back at Amanda’s mother, who had returned to her book, Daddy whispered,
“Let’s go look. You show me your firefly.”
When they got back to her room, Amanda led her father by the hand to stand at her window. They watched for a minute until…
Blink. Blink. Blink.
“See! Did you see it?” Amanda said.
“Well, I’ll be. It’s early for fireflies, but there’s one in your rosebush. When I was a kid we called them lightning bugs.”
“You did? That’s silly,” Amanda giggled.
“Daddy, do you think she’s lonely out there all by herself?”
“Oh,” Amanda’s father said slowly, thinking about what to say. “I don’t think she’s lonely. She’s a … Lookout Firefly.”
“What’s that, Daddy?” Amanda asked curiously.
Thinking fast, her father said, “Well, every year the fireflies send out a special firefly to go and inspect all of their favorite places to dance. And if everything is perfect, the Lookout Firefly goes and tells the others that it’s okay to return.”
“Oh, I hope she thinks the garden is perfect; I do. But Daddy, couldn’t she still be lonely?”
“Maybe,” Daddy said. “But you know what she does when she’s lonely?”
“She thinks happy thoughts. She thinks about all of her friends and how they are going to dance with her in the summertime,” Daddy said. “And when she does, she can’t help but blink.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
Amanda whispered, “She’s thinking happy thoughts?”
“Yes, Monkey, she is.”
Once Amanda was back in bed and had fallen asleep, Daddy went back down the stairs.
“Did you actually get her tucked in this time?” Amanda’s mother said, without glancing up from her book.
“Yes,” he replied, walking down the hall thinking to himself, Happy thoughts. Think happy thoughts.
Story by Cory Matheny (Runner-Up)
The lawn mower choked on its cud and sputtered to an inglorious stop. Bobby heeled its dead weight and straddled the metal corpse. He checked his watch—thirty minutes until work—and shook his head.
“You know,” Mr. Wilkes said, “that’d be easier if you didn’t wait so long.”
“Yeah,” Bobby said, “I suppose.” Bobby looked up from the mower and found a trail of ants running across Mr. Wilkes’s front porch. “Want to toss me that screwdriver?”
“This morning,” Mr. Wilkes said, “Kevin-across-the-street was out front of his house with a damn blowtorch! His wife don’t like poisons. So, to weed, he had to burn the yard. Scorched earth. Smelled like De Nang,” Mr. Wilkes said and fell back into his seat. “Did you know that?”
“That it smelled like De Nang?”
“That she don’t like poisons.”
Bobby didn’t answer; he pulled the crumpled shells of two plastic liquor bottles from the machine’s entrails. “These yours?” Bobby asked.
“That’s not my drink. Those are Fran’s.”
Bobby threw the remains of the bottles at the feet of Mr. Wilkes’s garbage.
“What are you doing?” Liza shouted at Bobby from the living room. “What-am-I-doing, what?” he said.
“I just cleaned this floor, and now you’re tracking dirt inside.”
“I don’t have time, I’ve got to go.”
“Don’t complain. With that beast,” she said and pointed through the back door, “you can mow the whole yard in ten minutes. You chose to start five minutes ago.”
“I’m happy to teach you how to use it. You’re the one who wanted a yard.”
“A yard?” Liza scoffed as she retrieved the laundry basket. “You wanted a baby, and I wanted a yard. That was the deal.”
“Yeah,” Bobby said. He removed his shoes. Flecks of grass and dirt were dashed across the kitchen. From his knees, Bobby checked his watch—twenty minutes until work.
The bar was fat and dirty. The beer coolers and liquor rails were engorged; extra bottles of Miller Lite and Fireball woven horizontal between the necks of their kin. Napkins and forks spilled from the trashcans and bus tubs like receipts and spare change from torn holes in dungarees.
“Don’t forget your nametag,” Taylor said.
“Yeah,” Bobby said, “I’m not wearing that.” He looked across the bar and found a swarm of fireflies—men and women clustered together, phones in hand, standing guard against the night. Their lights were signal fires warning against the encroachment of the morning’s sharp teeth.
“Boss said you have to. Besides, I made you one.” Taylor reached across the register. “There you go, professor.”
“You need to empty the trash,” Bobby said.
“You’re welcome,” Taylor said, and walked away.
Before Bobby could take an order, customers leapt like prairie dogs at the drum-beat of a broken glass. Taylor ran to collect the litter.
“I’ll get it,” Taylor said.
“No, I’ll get it,” Bobby said. “You get the trash.”
A tired woman stood at the bar. “You know, you guys have terrible customer service,” she said. “All these people are trying to relax and you’re making that impossible. You’re a supplier, you understand? If you can’t maintain the liquor supply then we can’t forget our crappy day. Are you trying to lose money?”
Bobby looked at his watch, and rubbed his wrist beneath the band. “Finished?” he said.
“We still don’t have drinks.”
“What do you want?”
“Three IPAs, five shots of Fireball.”
Light from the moon, street lamps, and porch lights collected like silt in the Monocacy River. It settled by weight so that when Bobby turned his chair perpendicular to the front porch and stretched his legs toward the flower box, it was as if he had buried his toes in wet sand.
The bar was closed, Liza was asleep and Bobby could study.
A young man stumbled toward the front porch. He wore cargo shorts and his sandals yawned with each step. “Got a smoke?” he asked before Bobby finished Chapter 1.
“No,” Bobby said.
“How about a nightcap then?” the young man said, and pointed to the six-pack Bobby had squirreled beneath his chair.
The young man fell onto Bobby’s porch. “What are you reading?” the young man said. “Nothing. School work.” Bobby marked his page and placed the book beside his chair.
“What are you studying?”
“I’m a business major.”
“Me, too,” the young man said. “Any advice?”
“I haven’t graduated. You don’t need my advice.”
“But you’ve done things.”
“Do I look that old?” Bobby laughed. He removed his watch. He rubbed his wrist before placing the watch on top of his book and opening another beer.
“When I was 10,” Bobby said, “my father was hurt in a car crash. That winter we got a huge snowstorm. Next morning, I run downstairs, excited, no school! My father called me to the couch. ‘That driveway’s not going to clear itself,’ he said. I told him I didn’t know how. Well, he said, ‘Son, there’s only one way to learn to dig a ditch—with a shovel.” Bobby took a long pull from his beer. “That spring he gave me the same advice about mowing the lawn.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Figure it out,” Bobby said, “and I’ll let you buy me a beer.”
The young man said thank-you as he walked away, but Bobby didn’t hear. It had been a long day, and soon the young man, like his gratitude, was washed away by the tide of cars rushing south toward Baker Park.
The morning sun clawed at the corners of Bobby’s eyes until they opened like the shy maw of a tulip blossom. Bobby collected his empty cans, book and wristwatch. Walking to the street, he bent over and pulled some grass that hugged the tree between his front porch and 6th Street.
“Gotta get yourself a weed-whacker,” Mr. Wilkes said.
“Yeah.” Bobby pulled another handful of grass from a crack in the sidewalk. He threw it into the street and then opened the front door. Liza was still asleep.
Story by Michael Felton (Runner-Up)
CRASH … SMASH “Oh … ahhh,” Brad said, mentally cursing the kolsch-alt-porter-burger-pizza and glass puddle on the floor with a million silent expletives. Dropping the F-bomb was discouraged in the middle of a packed restaurant on a Saturday night.
“Oh no!” “Are you OK?” “That sucks,” came a chorus of voices from the diners nearby. At least I didn’t spill anything on anyone, thought Brad, although a brief image of people running around with glass shards sticking out of their heads jumped into his head, making him smirk.
Returning from the kitchen with a mop, Brad was pleasantly surprised to see a couple of nicely dressed ladies from what looked like a bachelorette party, one even wearing a tiara, lending a hand with the mess.
Brad reached down to pick up broken glass only to clunk heads with the girl in the tiara.
“Ah, are you OK?” Brad said immediately, “I’m very sorry,” followed by more silent expletives.
The girl got up holding her head and said, “I’m sorry.” Their eyes met briefly, but each turned away as a chorus of laughter rose from the bachelorettes.
“Ha, Julie, just your luck! You ran into the clumsiest server!” “Maybe he is the stripper!”
As Brad slunk to the kitchen, Julie followed, heading to the bathroom.
“First I get evicted, then this,” Brad said to Monica, a fellow server. “I’m a walking disaster”
“Evicted!” Monica cried. “You just moved in.”
Julie couldn’t hear any more as Brad and Monica walked through the kitchen door.
Brad braved the snickers and odd looks from the bachelorette table for the next two hours. Monica helped as much as she could, but was swamped as well.
“How was the tip?” asked Monica. “The tips sucked.”
“Brad!” argued Monica, “You should have had one of the managers come over and smooth things over. Life’s too short to stand back and watch.”
Brad cursed his willingness to accommodate. Even though it wasn’t natural or easy for him, he became determined not to repeat it.
“See ya tomorrow,” he yelled leaving the restaurant, only to run into the girl in the tiara and the giggling bachelorette party. He lost it.
“OK, lady, you come in my restaurant, laugh and carry on with your friends, and get a good chuckle at the clumsy waiter,” words flying like bullets. “I’m sure you have a great story for your friend’s wedding. Well, your friends suck and gave me crappy tips. And what are you waiting for? You want to pity shag the crappy waiter?”
Life is short, damn straight.
Julie stood there, blindsided. Smoke almost visible curling off Brad’s tongue.
“OK …” she paused. “My stupid friends think I am asking you out or something, but I overheard you talking about your apartment. I have a friend who handles evictions. Here’s her card. Tell him Julie McMurphy sent you.”
She handed the card to a visibly stunned Brad. He took it, their hands touching for a brief moment.
Open mouth, insert foot, thought Brad. No, both feet. An entire restaurant of feet. He gagged slightly thinking of the taste.
She turned to walk away and Brad suddenly didn’t want to see her go. “I’m going to regret this,” he muttered.
“Where are you guys headed?” Brad said, smiling, “I could use a walk.”
“We are headed down, uh, I don’t know, someplace by the river I guess,” she laughed. “And then the hotel bar.”
“Ok, I’ll show you around if you want.”
“Sure, I’d like that.” Julie beamed.
Somehow, Brad herded the inebriated bachelorettes down Market Street and Carroll Creek to the hotel bar, Spirits and Spires. Julie’s friends clamored to the bar.
Julie spotted a secluded table and grabbed Brad’s hand. Their fingers unconsciously entwined. They reached the table and didn’t want to let go. They sat, eyes locked.
“Where are you from?” Brad asked, suddenly apprehensive.
“Boston,” Julie answered, “I’m here with these people that I went to high school with in Rockville, but I’m not really sure why. They’re so annoying.”
Boston, damn, thought Brad. Life is short.
Brad stood up, reached for her hand. “Go talk to your friends, and in fifteen minutes go to the bathroom. I’ll meet you there.”
Julie didn’t know if she could trust him but took his hand. For a minute, she thought he wanted to meet her in the bathroom. She smirked at his nerve.
Julie waited, butterflies in her stomach. What am I doing?!
Brad walked over, held a finger to his lips, and led her to a service elevator. Following onto the elevator after Julie, he pulled a box-laden cart.
“Uh, where are we going?” Julie asked with a mixture of nervousness and intrigue.
“Trust me,” replied Brad. Julie didn’t look convinced.
Just as she was about to argue, the elevator door opened revealing a panorama of the illuminated spires and rooftops of Downtown Frederick. Julie was in awe as she turned her gaze from the city lights to the moon and stars above.
Brad bustled with the cart, slipping folding chairs from beneath and opening the box to reveal a growler with fresh beer and glasses.
“Ah, a little romance and barley,” Julie said reaching for a glass. “So, why did you do this? Bring me to the roof after the verbal assault at the restaurant?”
“Life is short” said Brad. “A friend said that to me today. I guess it went to my head.”
“Yeah, mine, too,” Julie replied as she kissed him. Their quick kiss followed by more.
The roof door squeaked open ending their embrace.
“Uh, Brad, sorry to disturb,” said the bartender from downstairs, “These ladies just wanted to check on their friend.”
Julie’s friends gasped in unison. Julie turned around with a glowing, but mischievous smile.
“The wedding is off.”