Winter Short Story Finalists
Congratulations to our finalists!
We asked the Writing Academy community to submit their best winter-themed short stories between 1,000 and 3,000 words long.
I hope you enjoy reading their short stories as much as we did!
- Click each title to expand the story.
Happy Reading![expand trigclass=”story-title” targclass=”story-details” title=”First Place: Snow in Tel Aviv by Jana Wachsler”] David was dreaming of Tel Aviv. Home, a word he had slowly ceased to associate with the place in the years he had been gone. Part of him knew he was dreaming, knew he was asleep in his sleeping bag aboard the International Space Station. He had just over six months before he returned to Earth, to his home—the place he now considered his real home–in Texas. Regardless of whether he was in Texas or in space, however, the only contact he had with Israel was through the scheduled video chats on his laptop computer.
In the dream, he had found himself in the living room of his parents’ comfortable apartment in Tzameret, an upscale neighborhood of the city. He looked around curiously. His father, Avraham, was an academic, he had been a professor at the university. Evidence of this fact was everywhere. The familiar clutter remained, piles of his father’s papers on the coffee table, books lying open everywhere. The large bookshelf that dominated the far wall was overloaded, books jammed into every available crevice. The old brown couch was half buried under another mountain of papers, in fact, books and papers covered most of the available surfaces, leaving only a few open places for seating on the mismatched furniture. The curtains that hung in the large picture window were open, the view revealing the familiar nighttime skyline distorted by drops of moisture on the glass. It was raining heavily, which meant it had to be winter in Israel. He inhaled, the scent of his mother’s matzoh ball soup prominent, but mingling with the odors of dust and old books. It was the smell of Friday nights.
But the room was wrong. The more recent images he had seen had shown a modern, sleek decor, definitely not cluttered. His mother Lili had redecorated after his father’s stroke, books and papers relegated to storage. She was proud to show him her handiwork, aiming the laptop’s camera through all of the rooms. It had changed the apartment completely, and it was all her tastes, as though his father’s presence had been erased.
“David! Bo! Ve shev le arouchat erev,” he heard Avraham’s deep voice resonating from the dining room. “Come and sit down,” David automatically translated from the Hebrew. Turning, he made his way to the dining room, stopping briefly in the doorway. He knew his mother had completely replaced the heavy, dark furniture with pieces lighter and smaller “to make the room look bigger,” but the hutch and buffet that had loomed against the wall throughout his childhood were there now. The pieces were made in Austria in the 1930’s, produced in a factory and shop owned by David’s paternal great-grandparents. Avraham would occasionally tell stories about his childhood before the war, relating how he would visit his grandparents’ shop and play hide-and-seek with his brother and cousins among the large pieces.
These particular pieces had been shipped to family in England before the war and had eventually languished in storage until Avraham had paid a large sum to have them and the matching table and chairs brought to Israel. The table, scuffed and worn from decades of use, was hidden under his mother’s holiday linen, which usually only came out for Passover or special occasions. The table was set with her best china, likewise rarely used, and the silverware that had been a wedding present from Avraham’s parents. Two silver candlesticks stood in the middle of the table, the Shabbos candles already lit.
“Bo, David,” Avraham said again, pronouncing his name as “Da-VEED.” The Americans had always pronounced it in their accent, “DAY-vid,” and he had long ago stopped correcting them. Hearing his father say it now made him realize how much he had missed hearing it.
“It’s been too long since you’ve been with us.” Avraham’s voice had been thin and reedy the few times he had spoken with him recently. The stroke had taken its toll on his father, confining him to a wheelchair and robbing him of his vigor and strength, but now he stood at the head of the table with no support, his voice as loud as it ever was. He looked young, younger even than the day David had left Israel, and strong, his vitality reflected in his voice and his carriage.
“Will you sit down already?” The voice from the table was familiar, yet something about it felt out of place. He turned his head, and realized that Rina was there, seated next to Avraham. “Your mother promised that the food will taste much better if we eat it while it’s still warm.” She smiled at him, patting the place setting next to her.
“What are you doing here?” he asked her incredulously as he slid into the seat. He knew that this wasn’t making sense, Rina had never been to his parents’ apartment. She had never even been to Israel, although he had promised to take her there after he had returned from the ISS. He reached for his napkin, putting it in his lap and noticing how the cloth looked out of place against his somewhat dirty khaki pants, adorned with grease stains and a brown splotch that had resulted from an encounter with an errant globule of coffee that had escaped its bag. His NASA blue polo shirt stood out sharply against the muted red of the chairs velvet upholstery.
“You brought me here, silly man,” she answered, leaning over to kiss his cheek.
“I did?” he began, and then stopped, growing aware of a flurry of activity from the kitchen behind him.
“Tireo, Tireo! David babayit,” came a joyful cry. Again, he translated automatically: “Look, look, David is here!” Lili had come in from the kitchen, a tureen of chicken soup in her hands and a wide smile on her face. She, too, looked young, the lines that had been etched on her face were smoothed out, the grey gone from her dark hair. He felt a pang of nostalgia as he watched her serve the soup, a large dumpling in each bowl. “Two matzoh balls for you, David,” she said, placing the second one in his bowl. “I know how much you love my matzoh balls.” She smiled at him, her face suffused with the same pride that always came when she cooked for him.
“Of course he’s home, Ima. It’s Shabbos. David promised to come home for a Shabbos meal.” Rebekah swept past her mother, a basket of fresh challah tucked under her arm and a bottle of wine held carelessly in her fingers. She moved behind him, elbowing him playfully as she went past. “We’ve been waiting for you a long time.” Rebekah was his younger sister. She had not magically morphed into the child she would have been had she matched her parents’ apparent ages. Instead, she looked the same as she had the last time they had spoken, confident, poised, and adult, her dark hair cut short, the stylish dress she wore immaculate. Her face was relaxed, however, free from the stress she carried with her now as she managed the demands of both single parenthood of her two children and her career in biotechnology. “Kids are with their dad,” she said, plopping the bread basket in front of him, although he hadn’t thought to ask.
“It has been too long,” he murmured, looking down at his plate. He could hear the rattle of the rain against the window pane. “I’m sorry for that, Aba.” He looked back at his father, wondering if the man had somehow forgiven him for leaving so abruptly. They had had angry words the day David had told them he was leaving, that he had been recruited by the space program and was moving to the United States.
He felt another pang, this time of regret. Speaking with his father had become difficult, Avraham had word finding difficulties, and often lost the thread of the conversation in mid-stream. David often avoided speaking with him when he called, making up excuses when his mother offered to bring the laptop to him in bed. It was too stressful, seeing Avraham, once a brilliant, sharp mind, now reduced to a mere reflection of himself. The wind blew, again driving the rain against the window panes. David looked up at the sound, ignoring the familiar view and staring at the droplets on the glass.
“Never mind that now,” Avraham said, smiling genially. “Tonight we celebrate! Will you lead the Kiddush, David?”
“What are we celebrating, Aba?” David had automatically begun pouring the wine. Avraham looked at him, blinking owlishly behind his round glasses.
“The return of my son, of course,” he said with a smile. “And his bashert.”
“Bashert?” David asked, surprised. The word meant destiny in Hebrew, although it most commonly was translated as soulmate. He looked over at Rina, but she had turned away, staring out the window. He had been involved with Rina for seven years, and they had talked marriage once or twice, but never in earnest. He was very comfortable with her, but the idea of soulmates was not one in which he believed.
“I wonder if it will snow,” Rina remarked.
“It never snows in Tel Aviv,” David responded.
“Of course it does. It snowed last year, even. But you weren’t here to see it.” David turned, startled. The voice belonged to Rubin, not Avraham. The dreamscape had changed. He was a student at University again, sitting in one of the ubiquitous sidewalk cafés along the boardwalk. He sat, drinking strong Israeli coffee with his college chums Rubin and Tali, as he had done countless times before. Avraham sat with them, sipping coffee and laughing uproariously at something Tali had said. It was a scene that had never happened, although David had often wished that he had made the time to invite Avraham to join them when he was in school.
Rina was there too, sitting next to Tali. David knew that it was tea in her cup, Rina would never drink coffee, especially the dark and bitter brew he enjoyed. She had turned to look at him then, the late afternoon sunlight hitting her face just so, highlighting the delicate lines of her face, her blue eyes smiling back at him.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” David murmured. “Neither of you are.”
“Don’t be silly. Of course we are.” Rina grinned, apparently unaware that her presence with his college friends was chronologically impossible. Rina had come into his life well after he had left Israel for good. She linked arms with the woman next to her. “Tali said that she’s never made a snowman,” she shared.
“No, of course I haven’t. I’ve never left Tel Aviv. Not like David, who’s always had his heart in the stars.” Tali grinned at him. “You’ve travelled very far, haven’t you, Spaceman.”
“Further than I had thought I would,” David answered, smiling at Tali’s use of his old nickname.
“I used to make snowmen,” Avraham said. “When I was a little boy in Austria,” he explained. “Before the war.”
“You have eyes like the sea,” Rubin said to Rina conversationally, gesturing with his coffee cup towards the shore. “And you’re smart. No wonder the Spaceman was in love with you. It’s bashert,” he added. There was that word again. David frowned, trying to read Rina’s face.
“Not so,” Tali argued. “The sea is too grey.” It was true, the sunlight had disappeared, devoured by dark thunderheads, their menacing presence threatening to drop precipitation on the scattered beach-goers. David’s gaze lingered over the sea, watching as a squall suddenly blew in from the west.
“We should move indoors,” Tali said, standing up and gesturing towards the café. “It’s getting cold.”
“No.” Avraham stood, stretching his arms out to catch the first drops that had begun to fall. “I like this.” As David watched, little crystals gathered in his hands, the raindrops solidifying, freezing into glistening spheres of ice. The air grew suddenly frigid. Rivulets of water slowed, drips drawn into tiny icicles, miniature daggers that reflected the dying light. As he turned his head, he saw the first frost appear, the white coating flowed like liquid water, creeping across the sand, across the boardwalk, racing up the palm trees that dotted the grass. Everything it touched, it covered, the delicate crystalline pattern mirroring the whorls and curves of the thunderheads. Icy wind cut through him, and he shivered, goosebumps springing up along his arms. He exhaled and his breath appeared in a puff of vapor. The first flakes began to fall, large fat ones that began to quickly coalesce on the boardwalk.
“It never snows in Tel Aviv,” he said in awe, turning to Rubin and Tali for confirmation. But they were gone, along with the café, the boardwalk and Rina. He and Avraham stood alone, on an ancient stone seawall that stood above the beach, now deserted and desolate. The snow had blanketed the ground, hiding the sand and rushes. There was a creaking overhead. Palm fronds, overloaded with the unfamiliar weight of the snow, had given way, sending down their burden in a cascading avalanche of white.
“Let’s build a snowman!” Avraham exclaimed, rushing down to the beach. He began gathering the snow into a slushy ball, rolling it along the beach as it grew in size. He had grown even younger now, no longer even the father of David’s memory. Instead he was a child, maybe five or six, looking up at him with sparkling eyes, his breath a frosty puff of air. “Come on, David,” he exclaimed, his voice now a child’s soprano. “Help me!” He had finished the first snow ball and was rolling the second.
“It’s really cold,” David called, as his fingers went numb. He jogged down to the beach. “We should go inside.” He could see that frost had started growing, racing up Avraham’s legs as he placed a third snowball on top of the other two. Avraham seemed blissfully unaware as the frost reached his shoulders. David grabbed the small figure and pulled him close. He could feel Avraham’s body shake, and he tried to surround him with his warmth, attempting to thaw the frost that now covered him completely. Avraham’s brown hair had gone completely white, and as he watched, his eyes dimmed, darkened to grey beneath the encroaching rime. In a moment, he was no longer a child, or the vital man of his earlier dreamscape. Instead, he was the thin, wizened figure from the present, his clawlike hands reaching up to touch his face. David flinched as he encountered hard, unyielding flesh.
“Aba,” David said, feeling tears stream down his cheeks. “Aba, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“I know,” Avaham said, his voice now no more than a whisper. “It is all right.” He smiled up at David. “It is all right,” he repeated. “I know now. It was your bashert.” Not soulmates, David now knew. Destiny.
* * *The chime of the laptop’s video chat notification jolted him awake. For a moment, he lay there, still groggy from the dream. The chime sounded again. He checked the time, 0400 aboard the ISS. It was definitely not a scheduled call. He thrust a hand out of the hammock, deftly unfastening the top so he could reach out and flip open the laptop that was secured next to him.
“David?” LIli’s face, lined now, her hair grey, filled the screen.
“Hi Ima,” he said, and then noticed the strained expression on her face. “Did something happen?”
“David, I know it’s early for you, but your father…”
“Aba?” David was fully awake now. “What’s going on?”
“Aba died,” Lili said, softly. Her eyes were red from crying. “He went to sleep last night and…and didn’t’ wake up.”
“He’s dead?” David said. Suddenly the images of his dream came back to him. “Aba…”
“The funeral will be tomorrow,” Lili said. “But…”
“I will come home as soon as I get back to Earth,” David interrupted. “Of course I will.” He felt his stomach clench as tears sprang into his eyes. “And I will bring Rina.”
“That would be…nice,” Lili said. She let out a heavy sigh. “I know Aba very much wanted to meet her.”
“Yes,” David said, “And she wanted to meet him.” He sighed. “But she will meet you and Rebekah, and the children, at least,” he said. He glanced at the calendar in the corner of the screen, calculating when he would be home. “It’s January 8th, so I can be home in late July, early August,” he said. “Depending on how my body acclimates to Earth gravity. He glanced at the calendar again. It was January in Tel Aviv. “Ima,” he said. “What’s the weather like now?”
“It’s funny that you should ask,” Lili answered. “It snowed last night.”
Jana Wachsler is a psychologist by day, mom, amateur chef and all around domestic goddess by night. She writes when she can find more than 5 minutes to herself. Jana lives in the Finger Lakes area of New York with two of her three almost adult children, her partner Len, and two elderly dogs.
[expand trigclass=”story-title” targclass=”story-details” title=”Second Place: Winter at 30,000 Feet by Paul Carr”] Winter is always there at 30,000 feet. Outside my metal bio-tube the temperature is -50 degrees centigrade and winds exceed 200 miles per hour. To my left the Dipper rolls westward. Ahead, thousands of feet high, northern lights billow like curtains in a breeze. There is no life nor hope for life outside the tube, only winter.
Within the tube are miles of wires, thousands of pounds of fuel, pipes flowing with oxygen, compress air, and heat sustaining life. We are safe from the winter outside our tube. On December 12, 1997 I was flying a KC-10 airborne tanker whose mission was to “drag” four Air Force F-15s from Tyndall AFB, Florida to Keflavik AFB, Iceland. They would fly on my wing while I provided fuel, communications with Air Traffic Control, and navigation for the 8-hour non-stop flight.
My crew were all Reservist, “weekend warriors”. Co-pilot Doug Nolan was a university fund raiser. Senior Master Sergeant Benjamin Yoram, flight engineer, worked for an automobile manufacturer. Boom Operator Master Sergeant Patricia Green was from Charlotte, NC and worked in “food services” as she described it. I am a commercial airline pilot.
We assembled at our base in rural eastern North Carolina, reviewed the next three day’s activities and flew to Tyndall. Before departing the next morning, we completed our preflight duties as we’d done countless times before. Patricia checked the air refueling systems and loaded cargo destined for Iceland. Engineer Yoram tested the aircraft’s electrical, environmental, and mechanical systems and assured properly loaded fuel. Doug and I met with the planner and received the mission particular’s: when each aerial refueling was scheduled, how much off-load was planned, the weather along our route and destination, and emergency divert bases.
Florida’s weather was beautiful for the early afternoon departure, an interesting contrast to the harsh winter we would find at altitude and the snow-covered landscapes of Iceland. Christmas was two weeks away and there’s nothing like waist-deep snow to capture the spirit of the season.
Fighter drags plan for an initial aerial refueling at the top of climb, about forty-five minutes after takeoff. Little is off-loaded but all the fuel transfer systems are checked. Better to identify problems before venturing over the ocean.
Patricia operated the 50-foot boom from a small compartment in the lower aft of the KC-10. The winged pipe contained the plumbing necessary to transfer fuel from our KC-10 to the F-15s. Each fighter cycled through and all systems were go.
Ben reported the actual off-loaded fuel was above planned. A greater draw is generally expected on the initial refueling for a fighter drag and there was a comfortable “pad” built into the planning. No reason for concern I thought.
Two KC-135R tankers joined off the coast of Maine. KC-10s are equipped to receive as well as off-load fuel so the four fighters “tanked” from one of the 135s and I maneuvered behind the other. Our careful inflight choreography was complete in 45 minutes. The two KC-135s turned for home and my flight of five pressed on to Iceland as daylight faded behind us. Regrettably I did not verify how much fuel the fighters had needed and was unaware that we were flying into the dark north Atlantic winter well below minimums.
Two hours and a thousand miles later as we passed abeam Greenland’s fiords, the final refueling began. Patricia flew the boom into the receiver’s toggles and Ben turned on the pumps. Minutes later the receiver pilot reported “topped off”.
“Roger, disconnect,” Patricia directed.
“Uh oh. Hey boss, he took way too much, about a thousand pounds above planned,” Ben said.
“Rog. Hey Eagle lead your last guy took about a thousand pounds above planned. What’s the status of the rest of the flight?
“Reach 42 that seems right to us,” said flight lead, “on the curve.”
“Standby,” I said. “Hey Doug, Ben so we will be down another 4,000 pounds after this. Prestwick’s out as a divert but weather’s good at Kef. They have two runways available, and there’s Reykjavik a few miles away. So no problem, right?”
Doug said, “Cat 1 ILS minimums at both places, so I don’t see a problem.”
Ben remained silent.
Eagle lead said, “Hey Reach, we need to start cycling through?”
“I don’t reckon there’s really any choice at this point. We should be ok unless all those runways go down. Even my luck’s not bad enough to lose both them and Reykjavik.”
“Ok Eagle, your next chick is cleared in,” I transmitted.
Each of the remaining aircraft maneuvered for their final off-loads. Counting the overage on the first refueling we were nearly 6,000 pounds below planned. The stress level raised slightly but still no problem. “That’s why we train so much,” I thought to myself.
“Hey Major, we may have… a… problem,” said Ben. “I can’t pump any fuel out of the aft tank.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, hoping he was joking.
“I mean the pumps appear to come on and the valves open but no fuel is moving.”
“How much is in there?”
“5,000 pounds,” he answered.
All of us understood what Ben’s statement meant. Our margins for error were either off-loaded or trapped. Winter was closing around our safe warm tube in the sky.
Doug and I grabbed our clipboards and started calculating. Keflavik was going to be close, but how close?
Doug spoke first, “We’ve got enough for one instrument approach and a tight visual if we miss, then flame out. No pressure Maj,” he added with feeble gallows humor.
Diverting to Greenland was a possibility but required a difficult instrument approach through some intimidating weather and mountainous terrain. If we were on fire or ditching I’d try, but at this point Iceland was a slightly better option.
“Agreed. Patricia break out the survival gear just in case. Better to be prepared.”
Doug busied himself by making a position report to Oceanic Control, Ben continued to cycle pump switches and valves in the hope of finding a way to free the trapped fuel.
MSgt Green remained in the fold-down seat behind me. She seemed lost in thought, staring into the dark winter outside the tube. “Major, are we going to make it?” she asked, her tone calm and measured. “Cause if we’re not I have a favor to ask.”
“Oh yes. A little…no a lot closer than I would like or should have allowed, and I’m the one at fault here, but we’ll be ok.”
“But maybe not, right? We could run out of fuel and have to ditch. And it’s winter and cold and we’re getting close to Iceland. There’s a reason they call it Iceland, right?”
“Patricia I won’t mislead you, this is going to be very close, but I believe…”
“Can I leave a message for my family,” she interrupted.
I wasn’t sure why she felt the need to ask permission, still… “Of course, you can. Do you need some paper or something?’
“No, I mean can I leave a message on the voice recorder? I’d like leave a message for my momma and, well, I’d like her to hear my voice. Besides they might not ever find a note.”
There were stories about people leaving messages on voice recorders but I’d never actually talked to anyone who did. Still, I couldn’t think of a reason not to.
“Well, the recording is on a continuous 30-minute loop so we’ll have to pull the circuit breaker to keep it from being erased. You good Doug?”
“Sure,” Nolan said.
“I might wanta do it too, you know, just in case. If things go wrong later there won’t be time,” said Ben.
“Ok, but let’s agree on a couple of things. We’re emotional right now, understandable, and some personal feeling are likely to be exposed. After it’s done no one talks about what was said and after we land I’m gonna erase it. We all agree that once we’re safely on the deck, and we will be, no one heard anything. Everybody on board with that?”
“I am,” Patricia said quickly.
“Me too,” added Ben.
“Not sure I’ll say anything but yeah, I’m in,” said Nolan.
“Ok, Patricia, guess you have the honors.”
Patricia moved close to the microphone installed on the overhead panel above my seat.
“Momma, it’s Pattie. If you’re listening to this it’s because things went bad on my mission to Iceland. Guess I’ll miss Christmas my favorite holiday. You always knew that and tried to make it special but I know it was hard. It bothered you that Daddy wasn’t around but you never let on. I knew why Daddy left, Aunt Mimme told me some of it and I figured out the rest. He blamed you when Dale turned out to be special. When I was born he was mad cause I was a girl and real plain. That’s the part that I figured out. Daddy blamed you cause he wanted a strong boy and a pretty girl and he didn’t get neither so he just up and left. You never let on it was because of Dale and me and you did what you had to do to make a life for us.”
“I figured out why those men came by at strange times and never really stayed for dinner or anything and that’s ok too Momma. You did what you had to do. That’s why you sent little Dale off. You missed him but knew it was best for him. You told me I needed to learn to live without a man because I was so plain. It was hurtful at the time but I know it was for my own good and you didn’t really like it neither. You knew I was so homely no man was gonna want me and I’d have to take care of myself. That’s what I’ve done Momma, I’ve learned to take care of myself if you aren’t around. Never thought it would be me that weren’t going to be around though. I just wanted you to know I was sorry about…well, sorry things weren’t any better for you and that I love you and appreciate all you did. Bye Momma. “
Patricia turned away as a tear dripped from her chin. I pulled the circuit breaker and looked at Ben. “You ready?”
“Hello Ethan, it’s Benjamin, your bad brother. Oh, I know that’s what you think and you’re right, everyone agrees. Hanukkah is over, or maybe it was over yesterday, see I’m not even sure. But I wanted to tell you that I went by the Synagogue before I left and asked if I could light the Shamash in honor of my brother the Rabbi. See it’s not just our parents who are proud of you.
I know we fought a lot as kids and I picked on you and made fun of how much you studied. You could always do those memory things the Rabbi assigned and I couldn’t. You could do it because you were smart and you didn’t waste time like I did. Now you are a teacher of the Torah, the best of our people. My friends never say “our people” or anything that might sound Jewish. I’m guilty too Ethan. I’m guilty of denying my heritage.”
“That was really the problem when Hannah and I split. She was a good Jew Ethan and a good person. She tried to raise our Jeremiah according to the Torah and Mizpah but I was against it. I said he wouldn’t fit in. Truth is I was afraid he might grow up and not like me because I wasn’t a good Jew. “
“I just wasn’t strong like you. Ethan my brother, my Rabbi, would you ask God to forgive me? But even if there’s no hope for me I want you to know how much I love you and how proud I am. Shalom.”
Again, I pulled the circuit breaker. “Ok Doug, made up your mind?”
“Sure, what’s to lose?”
He pushed the circuit breaker in.
“Janis it’s Doug. How’s the winter weather in Virginia? Charlottesville usually has snow so all those Christmas songs about sleigh ridding seem to fit right in. Not sure why I’m talking about the weather. Maybe it’s because I really don’t know how to start. Just in case we don’t make it there’s a few things I wanted to say.”
“You always give me a hard time about working so much and then complain about not having enough money. You said you deserved a bigger and better house and a nicer car. I sold my college ring so we could afford the club membership, but then you said you couldn’t go to the lady’s groups because you were ashamed of your clothes. Never really understood how to make you happy Janis. If we don’t survive maybe that will do it. You can be the grieving widow and hookup with one of those weekend golfers you’re always bumping into.”
“John won’t have to use my business trips as an excuse to stop by and help you around the house. Yes Janis, I know about John, known about him for a long time actually. Oh, and by the way, so does his wife. She has a plan ready to go whenever the time is right. Hope you weren’t counting on a wealthy boyfriend because I think John may struggle.”
“Don’t know how I didn’t see any of this coming. Guess I was so in love with you and thought you were so hot looking I just ignored a lot of things. Too bad because for a while it was the best time of my life and there’s Lance and Chase to prove it. At least I don’t have to worry because I know how much you love them too. Well, good-bye Janis.”
Doug pulled the breaker and stared ahead.
Everyone looked at me. Each had bared their feelings and now expected me to. What could I say? What should I say? I needed to display confidence and showing emotion in front of the crew wouldn’t help matters. On the other hand, it was a message to my family, the last words they would hear me say, the last thoughts they would know I thought. Should it be about me, about the past, about their future – a future without me?
Should I apologized for the hurt caused by my mistakes? Would they be angry with me? I wanted a few days to think it over, but a few fading minutes was all I had. No one spoke, they just looked at me.
“Logan, Meredith, it’s Dad. I know you know how much I love you and how much you mean to me, but I still want you to hear it. Try to remember all the things I’ve taught you: dollar cost averaging, paying off your credit card, changing your oil regularly, giving to charities. I hope you’ll remember the good times and keep some of those traditions with your own families.”
“There are a few things I regret like a birthday or two I missed while out flying. I’m sorry for a couple of the spankings. Not that you didn’t misbehave but because all you ever needed was a stern word or two. Most of all I am sorry things did not work out between your mother and me. You’ve been pretty good about it but I know it’s caused you lots of unhappiness. Please know it had nothing to do with our love for you.”
“My most…I would like to say…” I stopped talking, lost for the right words. “I don’t want you to let what has happened to me be an excuse to grieve away you life. You have good family roots, great minds, and college degrees, so no excuses. I love you Logan. I love you Meredith.”
I pulled the circuit breaker one last time. No one spoke until Patricia said, “I’m going back to check the survival gear.”
“Good idea,” I said. “Let’s start descent at 90 miles out.”
“Roger that,” said Doug.
The F-15s pressed ahead, landed safely and cleared the runway. One way or another it would all be over in less than 20 minutes.
I’ll be honest, the approach and landing were as stressful as I ever remember, but we broke out of the overcast and landed safely in the midst of an Icelandic winter storm. On roll-out the center engine shut down due to fuel starvation. I directed Doug to shutdown one wing engine, knowing it would flameout any second anyway.
After parking and completing final checks I took a deep cleansing breath, pausing to feel the sense of relief and salvation. The cockpit was quiet, the distant hum of cooling fans humming in the background.
No one spoke but I knew what they were thinking. I selected ‘erase’ on the voice recorder.
“There’s a raging snow storm outside, I’m tired, let’s go find some beers – on me of course.”
Investigators determined that planners had calculated F-15 fuel burn based on conformal external tanks, tanks that hugged the fuselage and were aerodynamically efficient. Instead older and very un-aerodynamic wing tanks were installed requiring a much higher fuel burn. The KC-10s aft tank fuel pumps had failed internally and the fuel was indeed not available.
Doug, Ben, Patricia and I have stayed in touch. Benjamin retired a year later and told me that he and his brother were planning a trip to Israel to visit long lost family. Doug and his wife divorced but have remained friends. Patricia ended up being, in her words not mine, “swept off her feet” by the night manager at Taco Bell. As agreed no one ever spoke of our messages or personal expressions of regret and love.
An ocean crossing at night is beautiful. At 30,000 feet the Dipper rolls, the northern lights billow, and the winter rages.
Paul Carr has been a professional pilot for over 40 years, flying most often to Europe and beyond. He spends his spare time appearing in the first person as “The Spirit of Wilbur Wright” and helping develop the Miracle League of the Triangle, a baseball league for special needs children.
[expand trigclass=”story-title” targclass=”story-details” title=”Third Place: This One’s For Dad by Carol Kalmes”] It’s okay growing up poor if you don’t know you’re poor. Poor people begged for food on street corners or pushed a cup at you for loose change, smiling through holes where teeth should have been.
We couldn’t have been poor because we always had food and most of our teeth, thanks to Uncle Donny. He was my dad’s brother and a dentist, and he came around at least once a year since Dad died and sometimes on holidays. He would carry a little black bag with him just like he was a doctor.
After dinner, Mom would do dishes, and Uncle Donny would hand us a new tooth brush and stand over us at the bathroom sink while we brushed and spit. Then he’d pull out a little red tablet wrapped in clear cellophane and show us how to chew it and keep the red saliva sloshing around in our mouths. Mike had said he was too old to use them. He was practically shaving, after all. But I had thought it was fun. After spitting, I would smile big into the mirror, and then at Mike, grossing him out as the tablet would leave glaring red spots where plaque and food lingered on my stubby baby teeth. Uncle Donny always left us with a supply of toothpaste and a roll of floss that got more use out of slicing dough for cinnamon rolls than it did flossing teeth.
Uncle Donny was also a heck of a hockey player. He bragged how he would have made the NHL if he hadn’t broken his leg in three places during a championship game in high school. I never believed him, mostly because he was tall and scrawny now, so it was hard to imagine him as much of a hockey player. But he did have a convincing limp.
He brought a different black bag when he came this Christmas. Inside was a pair of well-worn hockey skates with shiny silver blades. They smelled of leather and sweat.
We may have been poor, but in one respect we were the richest people in the county, because we had our own hockey rink.
It started out little more than a frozen puddle in the back yard, but over the years it had grown to an impressive sheet of ice.
Living in Minnesota almost guaranteed good ice making weather as early as Thanksgiving and stayed as late as April Fools Day.
In late fall, Dad would mow the grass extra short and we would stare at the thermometer nailed to the side of the garage and wait for the red needle to pull backwards below freezing. Then we would haul out the garden hoses and stretch them to the far corner of the rink. Mike, older than me by six years, would walk across the frozen brown ground, letting water run from the hose. Back and forth until the ground was saturated and holding all it could in its frozen bowels.
It didn’t look like much at first, but night after night we would add another layer of water, which turned almost instantly to ice. We prayed it wouldn’t snow until the new layer of water had frozen. If it did, the snow would melt and freeze into a crusty surface and we’d have to stomp it down and start all over.
Finally, after many freezing, wet nights, the last layer froze to a smooth sheen under the moonlight, and we couldn’t wait to skate on it.
We had kept up the hockey rink even after Dad died. Friends and family showed up late fall to mow down the grass, and they appeared like frozen angels, standing side by side spraying water and holding dripping hoses. And when it snowed, they came armed with shovels.
Tonight, I stood in the kitchen with Uncle Donny looking out with window. The aroma of tonight’s beef stew hung in the air.
“It looks great,” he said. “You boys did a great job.”
He sat in the kitchen chair, careful not to fall off the yellow cushion that was fastened to the metal base by two of four screws.
He bent over and strapped on his skates, pulling them tight with laces long enough to circle around his ankles twice.
I sat beside him with my ‘sissy skates.’ It was all we could find at Ray’s Trading Post this fall. We found them on a shelf in the basement, tucked alongside woolen hats and mittens.
“They’re not hockey skates, Mom,” I had whined, my eyes tearing up as hers brightened at finding them.
“They’ll do for this year. When you’re older we’ll find you hockey skates.” She took them to the counter and pulled out a couple of dollar bills to pay for them.
Uncle Donny tied my skates next. At least they were black figure skates and not white.
“They have toe picks,” I said, embarrassed. “And they’re floppy.”
“They’ll strengthen your ankles,” said Uncle Donny, and then clapped me on the back of my leg, signaling I was ready to go.
We stood on the old yellowed linoleum looking at all the cut marks left from years of skates.
“Sorry, Sis,” he said, looking at Mom, and we walked gingerly to the door.
Mike and his friends were already gliding up and down the ice, slapping a puck between them, making perfect passes. Their friend, Dusty, stood in front of one of the goals, his stocky frame blocking most of the opening.
I skated around the edge of the rink while Uncle Donny warmed up by skating laps, his legs doing perfect cross-overs around the corners. Puffs of frosty air pumped from his mouth, and he looked like a locomotive speeding down a track.
He came to a stop in front of me, snow spraying onto my legs, a smile spreading to his red cheeks.
“Hit a few pucks at me,” he said, reaching into his pocket and tossing a puck onto the ice. He skated backwards toward the net like he’d been doing it his whole life.
I pushed myself forward using the toe picks and leaning heavily on my stick for balance.
“Tap it back and forth like this,” said Uncle Donny, tapping his stick side to side on the ice.
“Watch out, runt,” said Mike, skating past and bumping me with his shoulder, nearly toppling me.
I pushed down the rink, dragging the puck with me.
“Shoot it at me,” Uncle Donny yelled.
I pushed myself, willing my skates to glide across the ice, but they slid out from under me, and I fell onto my knees.
“Looks like your skates could use some sharpening,” said Uncle Donny, skating towards me.
“That didn’t last long,” said Mom, as we came back into the kitchen.
I loosened my laces and pulled the skates from my feet.
Uncle Donny held a skate up in front of him, eyed the blade with one eye, and ran his thumb up and down the blade.
“Yep, dull as a butter knife,” he said. “Is the grinder still in the garage?” he asked Mom.
“It hasn’t been touched since Andy….,” she said, stopping and looking at me sadly. “Since Andy passed.”
It had been two years since Dad died. Why didn’t grownups just say DIED instead of ‘passed.’
Uncle Donny handed me a pair of boots.
“How about we go fire up that grinder and get an edge on these blades?”
I followed him to the single-car garage that never had a car in it as far as I could remember. It had one small side door that hung crooked on loose hinges and big double doors on the end that pulled open like barn doors for a car to drive in. One bare bulb hung over the workbench. It was grimy from the grease Dad had either put on something he was fixing or leaked off something he was fixing. The smell of oil hung heavy in the air and sawdust still lay in patches on the floor, sopping up the old oil.
Mom said he died doing what made him happy, working in his shop. Or ‘putzing’ as she called it.
This was where we had fixed our bikes together and where he had taught me to pound a nail by holding the hammer closer to the end instead of near the head.
Uncle Donny plugged in the grinder and flipped the switch. It came to life with a hum, the wheel spinning. Using only his steady hands, he pressed the skate blade against the stone. Sparks flew out as the blade made contact.
Just like Dad used to do, I thought. Tears filled my eyes as memories filled my heart. Uncle Donny smiled that smile grownups give you when they know you’re about to start bawling.
“Do you want to give it a try?” he asked.
I shook my head no.
“If you practice and get good enough, you can sharpen your brother’s and his friends’ skates and charge them for it,” he said, raising an eyebrow.
I smiled, and he took my hands in his and guided the blade against the wheel. After several passes, he took the skate and held it up to his eye like he had done in the kitchen. Then he licked his thumb, just like Dad used to do, and ran it along the flat of the blade.
He placed my thumb on the blade and I pulled away.
“It won’t cut you if you do it right,” he said. He guided my thumb along the edge. “Can you feel it? How the edges are sharper, and the center is lower?”
Back on the ice I could feel my blades digging into the ice instead of sliding along. I was able to keep my feet under me and use the edges to push myself along instead of using the toe picks.
We skated around the rink, staying out of the way of the older kids. When they finally took a break, the ice was all ours.
I skated from one end of the ice to the other while Uncle Donny chased me, egging me on to go faster.
“Shoot it!” he yelled, stopping in front of the net.
I pushed the puck in front of me, lifted my stick up and over my shoulder and brought it down hard. At the same time it made contact with the puck, my toe pick dug into the ice, sending me sprawling face first onto the ice.
“SCORE!” Uncle Donny shouted.
I lifted my head in time to see the puck bounce off the back of the net.
I pushed myself up to my knees and smiled. I felt something warm dribble down my chin and saw drops of blood on the ice.
Uncle Donny skated over and knelt beside me.
“Hey, you scored,” he said, giving me a high five. “And you lost a tooth.” He lifted my chin for a better look.
I stuck my tongue through a hole where my top front tooth used to be. It had been loose for a week and now it was gone.
“Now you look like a real hockey player,” said Uncle Donny. He swept his hand across the ice and found the tooth. “Better put this under your pillow for the tooth fairy.”
Mom had hot cocoa and warm chocolate chip cookies waiting for us when we came in.
“Look, Mom,” I said, poking my tongue through the gap in my teeth. “I’m a real hockey player.”
Uncle Donny handed her the tooth. “It’s just a baby tooth. I told him he should put it under his pillow.”
Christmas morning, I found Uncle Donny asleep on the couch in front of the tree. Mom was making Christmas pancakes, which were the same pancakes she always made, only she used a Christmas tree cookie cutter to form the batter.
There weren’t a lot of presents under the tree, mostly things we needed and would have gotten anyway, like socks and mittens, but were wrapped for Christmas.
When there were only three presents left under the tree, Uncle Donny handed one to Mom, one to Mike, and one to me. He told Mom to open hers first. She pulled off the green and red wrapping paper and opened a small, flat box. I heard her gasp and saw a hand go to her heart. She looked at Uncle Donny and her eyes glistened.
“He would have wanted you to have it,” he said.
I leaned over to see what it was, and Mike stood up to look over her shoulder.
Mom took out a green photo album, and I saw yellowed newsprint sticking out from the pages. She turned a couple pages and I saw pictures of hockey teams and trophies and a picture of a man who looked a lot like Uncle Donny and a lot like Mike. Dad. Mom closed the book and held it to her chest.
Uncle Donny said, “Mom gave it to me a couple of months after his funeral. All those years she had saved his newspaper clips and game schedules.”
“Thank you,” Mom whispered through her tears.
Uncle Donny looked at Mike. “Go ahead, Mike. Open it.”
Mike tore off the wrapping and opened a box to reveal a blue and gold jacket with ‘Andrew’ stitched on the front.
“Dad’s high school hockey coat,” Mike said, his voice barely able to get past the lump in his throat.
“Wear it proudly, kid,” said Uncle Donny.
“Always,” said Mike, already pulling it over his shoulders.
Everyone turned toward me. I was already blinking back tears and trying to keep my lower lip from quivering. I ran my hands over the gift wrap, my heart beating fast. I had no idea what to expect.
“Come on, kid, open it,” encouraged Mike, his voice more kind than I had ever heard.
I peeled off the wrapping paper and pulled open the box. I didn’t even try holding back the tears spilling down my face. I pulled out a pair of well-worn hockey skates.
“Dad’s? I asked.
“Yours now,” said Uncle Donny. “They might not fit for a couple years, but when they do,” he looked at me, his eyes holding the memory of a long-ago game, “they’ll carry you down the ice with lightening speed. Just like your dad.”
“Don, how can we ever thank you?” asked Mom.
“You already have,” he said, looking around as the tears were replaced with glowing faces. “Hey, kiddo,” he said, looking at me. “Did the tooth fairy leave you anything?”
I had totally forgotten about the tooth under my pillow. I ran upstairs and came back holding two gold medals hanging from red, white, and blue ribbons. Dad’s high school championship medals. I handed one to Mike and put the other around my neck. My heart swelled. I felt like a champion.
After breakfast, Uncle Donny and Mike went to put on their skates for a quick Christmas Day scrimmage.
“Come on, kid,” said Mike, still wearing Dad’s jacket.
I started to pull on my old skates when Uncle Donny handed me another present.
“I found this behind the tree,” he said.
I opened it and inside was a pair of shiny black hockey skates. My size.
We skated most of the day. Friends and neighbors showed up wearing new hockey gloves or carrying new sticks.
“Hey, kid,” said Mike, skating up to me and looking at my skates. “Do you want to be on my team?”
I smiled a toothless smile and lined up beside him on the ice. Mike nudged me.
“Let’s win this one for Dad,” he smiled.
Carol Kalmes loves writing short stories and flash fiction, drawing from memories of her childhood
[expand trigclass=”story-title” targclass=”story-details” title=”Finalist: Frost In The Moonlight by Bettina Karpathian”] When I was young, I loved my granny’s stories of her childhood. She was a natural story teller. She had a lot of time for me, as her only grandchild. “And then what happened, Granny?” I’d say, even though I’d heard her stories many times. Patiently she’d tell me again. It never occurred to me that it might have bored her.
In her day, children were turned outside to play without constant adult supervision. All the children, including Granny and her two older brothers, made slides on the ice on the pavements in winter. Many a grownup lost his footing and his dignity tumbling on those icy slides in the dark winter mornings. We giggled together over that. In Granny’s stories, no one ever broke a hip. However, my favorite story was about how she got her first dog.
Home for Granny, her parents and two older brothers, was a two-room ground floor tenement flat. The dark entrance hall, or close, of the building opened directly from the street. Stone stairs, badly lit from grimy windows on each landing, twisted up to the flats above. An old man with a little, black dog lived in the one above them. He and the dog slipped silently in and out of the shadowy close on mysterious errands, provoking yelps of fright from startled neighbors who did not hear their approach. The whites of his eyes gleamed in contrast to his dirty face and clothes in the gloomy close. He smelled bad. He would occasionally nod, but never spoke to those who passed him. Granny’s brothers, noted ruffians among the local children, loved to tease her with scary stories about him, but never dared to get close. His silence was more unnerving than if he had shouted at them.
One cold winter evening, Granny and her brothers were returning home when they saw the dog running loose. This was unheard of. The dog whined and began to run around them. The boys ran for home, leaving Granny rooted to the spot in terror, ignoring her pleas for them to wait. Eventually she realized the dog was trying to herd her towards the stairs. Heart pounding, she climbed the stairs with the dog behind her. She stumbled over a dark bundle lying on the stairs, gasping in fright as she realized it was the old man, who moaned. The dog whined and pawed at her. Granny whispered that she would get help, not sure if the old man could hear her. The dog seemed to understand, finally bold enough to push her with his nose. She headed downstairs to her own flat and told her mother who gathered the neighbors to help. The old man was taken to hospital and news trickled back later that he had died. Since no family was found, he was buried in a pauper’s grave in the nearby cemetery. The dog was forgotten in all the commotion, but showed up at Granny’s door, dirty and hungry, a few days later. Granny’s mother gave into her pleading and allowed her to keep the dog. Granny called him Bobby. She and Bobby were inseparable until the dog died a few years later. Granny would end the story by gleefully telling me how her brothers never teased her after that day. They were afraid that she’d tell everyone how they had run off and left their little sister to face the scary, old man on her own.
Eventually Granny moved into a little flat in what she called an old folks’ home. Her social worker referred to it as “an assisted living facility.” Granny would have none of that. She called a spade a spade, not a digging implement. Her short-term memory began to fail, which frustrated her. I was her only regular visitor. I’d coax her to tell the old stories which she remembered perfectly, and her mood would improve with the distraction as we laughed together.
Granny gradually needed more and more care and was moved to the nursing home section, mostly bedridden. One frosty winter’s evening, the staff from the facility called me to come urgently. Granny’s condition was deteriorating, and she was upset and agitated. They wondered if I could calm her down. I drove quickly to the nursing home and parked. I saw something move in my peripheral vision as I hurried between the parked vehicles in the dusk, but there was nothing there when I looked around. Inside, the lights were dim, and most residents were in their rooms. Again, I thought I saw a small black shadow of movement in the hall ahead of me. I blinked, and it was gone. It crossed my mind that my eye exam was overdue.
In her room, Granny was lying in bed, moving restlessly, muttering to herself, reaching out to something or someone only she could see. I kissed her forehead and clasped her hand. She stared at me, puzzled, and then smiled. I hoped she recognized me. “Tell them, tell them,” she whispered urgently. “Need help, need help.” I caught my name, then her long dead brothers’ names. The nurses were in and out, settling her and giving her an injection to help her sleep. Granny seemed to relax and doze. The room was dimly lit by a night light and the moonlight coming in through the window. Sitting in the recliner next to Granny’s bed, I nodded, almost asleep, when a black blur momentarily flitted across the patch of moonlight on the floor. I jerked upright, heart pounding, not sure if I’d been dreaming. Granny was lying peacefully, with a small smile on her face. Her breathing was even but shallow. I stroked her hand. She suddenly opened her eyes and said “Wait, wait!” She looked around the room. I followed her gaze but saw nothing. I looked back at her and saw that her eyes had closed and her breathing had stopped. I pressed the nurse call bell, holding Granny’s still warm hand, tears dripping down my cheeks. At least, she had passed peacefully as she wanted, I thought, as the nurses came in. She’d been fierce in insisting that she did not want any medical interventions at the end. “Let a body go in peace,” she’d say.
The nurses verified that Granny was indeed gone and tactfully offered me some time alone with her. I have no idea how long I was there. I was stiff and awkward when I finally rose from the recliner, gently laid Granny’s hand down on the bed and kissed her good bye. By this time, my vision was blurred from exhaustion and tears, so I did not question the dark shadow flitting ahead of me down the hall. I stepped out of the lobby and surveyed the grounds of the facility, shrubs and cars glittering with frost in the sharp, clear moonlight, with contrasting patches of inky dark shadow between the vehicles. I headed to my car. As I opened the door, I jumped as one small shadow moved out of the darkness. With relief, I saw it was a small black dog, some kind of terrier. It sat at my feet, panting happily and wagged its tail. Puzzled, I stood there, wondering where it had come from. Impatiently it jumped up and nudged me with its nose. Still perplexed, I opened the back door. The little dog leapt up onto the seat. I got into the car, and started the engine, glancing into the rearview mirror. The dog’s little, dark, button eyes, bright and intelligent, met mine in the reflection. I gazed at the building in a silent farewell to Granny, then turned around to look at the dog. The back seat was brilliantly illuminated by the moonlight, and empty.
Bettina Karpathian is a retired nurse, originally from Scotland. She has always loved reading and is now happy to have time to try some writing.
[expand trigclass=”story-title” targclass=”story-details” title=”Finalist: First Winter by Nicole Georges-Bennett”] The fragile, crystal shapes of snowflakes fascinated me, as a child born of the fiery Caribbean sun. My mother warned me when we arrived in Toronto a month ago, not to dawdle too long staring skywards. She was worried I would catch something called snow blindness; a thing she once read that people who aren’t used to the glare of the sun on the pristine snow can get. She wasn’t sure if this was permanent or not, but it was one of those little details that stuck in her head when she crammed the “Living in Canada” handbook. I had my doubts about the validity of these facts when she told me she had read this when she was a kid herself, but my mom was not what you’d describe as open-minded. In fact she was stubborn; “wrong and strong” as my father called it. So thus it was we were here in Toronto, in mid-February, because she insisted on buying tickets in the off-season.
I didn’t pick up that something was wrong, until about the third week of our trip. Prior to that time, I had been utterly enraptured by this new world of ice and snow and slush. I was particularly pleased with the days that the sun touched the frosted ground so brilliantly, you could see the glint of diamonds. However my older siblings suffered it seemed. It was just too damn cold, my eldest brother grumbled as he waved his blue nailed hands over the burners on the stove top. My sister, who was usually vivacious and chatty, became withdrawn and sullen. I should have paid more attention to their discomfort.
I played with some of the other children from the apartment building, outside in the snow. We made snow men and snow angels. We had snow ball fights and constructed snow forts. We played for twenty minute intervals, dashed into the lobby to warm up, dripping slush onto the carpet and then dashed back out. One day somebody’s mother made hot sweet chocolate for us to drink and brought it outside so we could sip, singe our taste buds, and jump right back into play. I chewed on the gooey melted marshmallows she put in the drink, and felt the frisson of energy crackle through my body. My own chocolate brown ears turned red at the tips, and my nose ran. I didn’t care. I was not going to lose out on my one and only winter experience. I still remember, that last day before it all changed; my head thrown back, looking at the dancing snowflakes descending, onto my waiting tongue.
On the last day of the third week, I woke and went into the kitchen where a bowl of oatmeal with peaches was waiting for me. I glanced outside, and felt the stir of excitement begin in my abdomen as I saw the sun had laid his glorious rays on the undulating snow mounds beyond.
“Your dad get a job, Charlie. He going to work at Sunshine Restaurant,” my mother announced. She looked at me curiously. I blinked, and stared back.
“But we on vacation. Why Daddy get a job?” I asked.
My mother ate another spoonful of oatmeal before she answered. She might as well have remained silent because I didn’t understand a thing she said: We weren’t really on vacation. We just said we were on vacation so we could come to Canada. Daddy, even though he was a qualified accountant, was going to work washing dishes in a restaurant, and get paid “under the table.” I was going to go to school here, and I probably wouldn’t see my friends or family back home for a long time, until we got “landed”. I mustn’t tell people how we came into the country because we “illegal.”
My oatmeal cooled as I gaped at her, trying to process all this with my 9 year-old brain.
“You understand Charlie?” My mother peered at me and I saw the little anxious furrow come to her brow.
My teenage sister who had sat silently through all this, turned to me and snapped, “We staying here. We not going back home. They trick us,” she burst into tears and fled the room.
“Is so you ungrateful wretch can have a better life!” my mother roared after her.
I heard a strange high pitch whine within my own head that seemed to block out all other sound. My mother, who probably felt she had explained much more than I should expect to know as a child, turned her attention to my older brother and began talking to him about colleges and part-time jobs.
I looked outside. The sun had gone behind a cloud and a gray stillness had fallen over the barren landscape. I saw the snow mounds as the dirty piles of shovelled snow and muck they were. There were apartment buildings all around, crowding out the light. A few pine trees bent with the passing icy blasts of wind. I thought about home: golden sunshine, aquamarine skies, turquoise seas and verdant, luscious green everywhere.
I looked down into my congealed oatmeal with the four pieces of canned peaches slapped on the top. I looked back outside. I had never felt so cold. My mother, told me to go outside and play for a bit. I put on my clothes, then snow pants, and boots and then my jacket. I worried that even with my thermal underwear the cold would seep into the seams and find my vulnerable flesh. For the first time, I didn’t protest as she took my scarf and wrapped my face like a mummy. I jammed my toque all the way over my ears and rammed my fingers into the very tips of my gloves. I wondered if I shouldn’t borrow my brother’s shades to avoid snow blindness.
I waddled to the lobby, feeling the weight of the extra clothing for the first time. How could I not have noticed how cumbersome it all was? Now I would have to dress like this every day for the rest of my life. I opened the door and a snow ball exploded in my face. I gasped as the icy shards made contact with my exposed skin. I wiped my face and saw the sun was out again. The kid who had thrown the snowball was grinning at me, then he and the other kids bent down and began to pick up handfuls of snow. I walked over to them and scooped up the loose flakes as well. As I patted the snow into a compact ball for warfare, I glanced up and saw my mother looking down from our second floor window. She was holding up a tin of Nestle Quick hot chocolate and pointing at it. I waved vigorously to show my approval. I turned and surveyed the snow covered parking lot through narrowed eyes. Yes, it was a new world. I would just have to make it my kingdom.
Nicole Georges-Bennett was born and raised on the island of Dominica. She is a free-lance journalist and writes short fiction in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Her first collection of short stories, “Tales of St.Marts” is available on www.Amazon.com
[expand trigclass=”story-title” targclass=”story-details” title=”Finalist: The Ottosey by Carolyn White”] Use me, Muse, to tell the harrowing saga of the hero,
Otto, by name, who strove mightily with the yuletide mall
To return with the Golden Ring of Engagement
For that highly regarded registered nurse, Penny.
Otto sits in his brown microsuede recliner and works the joystick on his Playstation. Saturdays are the best for playing Nightmare Invasion.
If only Penny were here. She would sit on the sofa, knit socks for him, and nod encouragingly as he fired at the enemy. They wouldn’t have to say much. In their tiny rent house outside St. Paul, life’s just so comfortable for Otto. He can’t believe a woman who smells this good loves him! Sometimes he scratches the underside of his beer belly in front of her, and she even pretends it’s funny.
But Penny’s seat is empty now, as it has been frequently these days.
Otto looks away from the TV and out the window at the beaten-down grass, the bare trees pointing their bony fingers at the gloomyy sky. Inside the house a layer of grime dulls the glass coffee table. Last May, when Penny moved in, it sparkled in the sun.
Over the looping electronic tones of the game, he hears the roar of a Harley.
Damn. Mom. He pulls the earphones off, flips off the TV, and hoists himself up. Better not be in the recliner when she comes in.
The door slams shut.
“Otto Edward? Are you hooked up to that brain-sucking drain of a time-waster?”
Otto held his peace. Grunhilde clumps around the corner in her black boots, leather pants, and jacket. Her metallic gray hair has been blown back in wings from the blustery ride to his house.
Her icy eyes snap. “Look at this place!” She swipes her finger across a book shelf and recoils at the dust swirling in the air. “Who in the name of Hades cleans this dump?”
Otto, red-faced, answers, “Penny doesn’t seem too interested these days.”
“Penny in charge of your disaster of a lawn, too? C’mon, Otto. It’s only a few days until Christmas, and you haven’t put up a single decoration, in or out, as far as I can see.”
“Lay off, Mom,”
“Your first Christmas with Penny, and this is the effort you’re puttin’ in? That’s why I come, Otto. To save your ass. I’m hear to tell ya, son. Things are falling apart, and this ring, it’s the key. It’ll turn everything around.”
She slaps down a glossy magazine ad featuring an oversized engagement ring—a single, gleaming diamond in an elegant gold band.
“You need to fix what ails your kingdom here. Even your cat’s depressed.” It was true, Ethelred slept all the time and had licked himself bald in spots.
“You can’t go on like this, Otto. You gotta prove your love to Penny, or someone like Bryan will.”
Otto scoffs. “Bryan? I don’t think so.” Bryan! What horse hockey. Of course, the orderly did drop off roses at Penny’s work station a couple of times a week, and Otto had seen his name in Penny’s phone contacts. Still—Bryan?
He hesitates. Grunhilde rolls her eyes, reached up, grabs him by the earlobes, and wrenches his face down to hers.
“Get her the ring already.”
A fire, at least a little votive candle, stirs in Otto’s belly. He grabs his Golden Go-phers hoodie and his fleecy aviator hat and lifts his car keys off the hook. His hand on the front doorknob, he stops.
“Aye, mister, there’s the rub,” cackles Grunhilde. “Little light in the pocket, are you?”
She crosses the room and presses a pearlescent plastic chip about the size of a driver’s license into his palm. “I’ve got one thing for ya, from your father. Never said a thing about it, but he took right good care of it. Always kept it rolled in an unblemished pair of tidy whities in his top drawer. Sometimes I’d catch him checking up on it, looking at it, studying it. maybe it will be useful for you.
“The Magical Card of Cash. Use it in your deepest, darkest hour of need.”
________________________________________Otto nearly walks into his neighbor, Carl, on the welcome mat.
“Hey, Otto, how’s it hangin’, man? Where you goin’? I thought we were in for some screen time.” Otto can smell Carl’s basement bedroom on him, must and damp. He lives with his mother and tries to avoid her as much as possible.
“Change of plans, Carl. Heading to Mainline Mall.” Otto works his way down the steps.
“Couldn’t catch me within 100 miles of that great golden money gobbler. Last Saturday before Christmas! Not smart for dedicated gamers like you and me.” Carl grabs at Ot-to’s elbow and steps for the door.
Not to be deterred, Otto answers,
Speak not, Carefree Carl, of the Recliner with Built-in Cupholders,
But assist me with this most fearsome of challenges,
The Quest for the Golden Ring of Engagement.
The Gods have sent Grunhilde to light flames
Under my recumbent tuckus,
To secure the precious Penny and my kingdom.
Carl rolls his eyes and huffs, but Otto silently strides toward his gold 1972 Chevy Impala. Its wide back seat is covered with the flotsam and jetsam of 20 years of bachelorhood and Taco Bell drive-thrus. Otto normally navigates alone behind its steering wheel through Is-saca, but not today. Today he is the captain of his own destiny. He needs a crew.
Otto opens the passenger door. “Get in, Carl, I can’t do this alone.”
________________________________________An overly skinny Salvation Army Santa struggles to keep his pants up with one hand and jangles a bell with the other outside the mall. Santa’s “ho-hos” come out in little puffs of white cotton. As Otto approaches, Santa turns and fixes his eyes, smoldering like burning coals, on him.
Otto stops short, and Carl, head down, walks right into him.
“Otto! Hey!” sputters Carl. Otto silences him with a frantic hand gesture. Slip by Santa—smoothly and quietly.
Sweat beads on Otto’s face and back. It’s like a space heater is blowing at max from under his hoodie.
Santa sings out,
Oh, Most Gentle of Men, Help a Poor Sufferer!
Indeed my bladder swells to near bursting,
Yet I cannot leave my post unattended.
Many scoundrels seek to steal these golden coins,
Given to the worthy poor of Issaca.”
Carl snaps into action first. “Sure, man, we’ll do you a solid. What, we just stand here and ring?”
Santa hesitates, seems to have second thoughts. He says, “Are you pure of heart?”
“Pure? Sure, man, pure as the driven snow.” Carl nods emphatically.
“And your friend?”
“Only one purer than me.”
Santa slings his hat at Carl, hands Otto the bell, runs toward the mall’s sliding doors. “Just a few minutes!” he yells over his shoulder.
Otto rings the bell, and shoppers drop their coins and dollars in. Carl watches, a smile growing bigger on his face as the minutes pass.
He laughs out loud and whispers,
The treasure in this red kettle of cheer
Grows higher by the moment,
And Santa seems to have left it to us,
To make our quest more of, you know, a heist.
Carl’s whistling “The Little Drummer Boy” off tune. “Wait for a break in the traf-fic, man, while I figure out how to open this thing.”
Ring faster, louder. Pretend not to hear.
“Something’s stuck in here.” He pries at the kettle’s mouth. Otto imagines them pulling outwads of dollars, fists of change, stuffing all of it in their pockets, and pealing out in the Impala. They could be living it up in a Chicago hotel tonight. Steaks, beer. Room service. He can smell the baked potatoes with bacon crumbles.
That Santa will never come back, and if he does, we will be long gone.
But then he remembers Penny smiling at him when he’s fresh out of the shower, wet hair combed back and clean shaven. Or when he holds the door for her, shovels a path in the snow to her car. He feels a thousand feet tall. Like Paul Bunyan, but without the blue ox.
Besides, he can’t stand picturing the hungry little children of Issaca crying in their beds, stomachs empty and growling.
Carl’s backed away now, squatting so he can get an eye level view. He’s twisting his head this way and that, closing one eye and pursing his lips. His eyes light up, and he runs over. “Stand in front of the pot, Otto, and cover me!”
“No, Carl! Leave it. The poor people! Santa will come back, and we can’t steal all he’s collected. I don’t want it. You don’t want it.”
“But, Otto, it’s just—“
“Ho! Ho!” Santa booms from behind them. “I’m back, and wow! Am I relieved. Pardon the pun. How’s the money collection going?”
Carl shifts his eyes. “Good. I’d say fine. You sure chose the right guys!”
“Is that so?” answers Santa. He turns to Otto, fixing him with those angry ember eyes.
Otto’s heart drops. “Not so, Santa.” His heart thumps against his ribs. “We tried to take from the pot. It seemed so easy.”
Surprisingly Santa claps Otto on the back and speaks to all within earshot,
Otto, all shall now call you Otto the Honest,
For you have turned your head away from gold,
And toward truth and goodness. I know of no way
In which your name can speak of my renewed physical comfort,
Or I would add something for that.
Santa passes Otto an orange safety lollipop, warm and a little smooshed from his jacket pocket. “Accept my gift for your feats. All I got.”
________________________________________On their way to Make Her Smile Jewelers, Otto and Carl pass the ice skating rink and a lineup of kitschy kiosks. An RC helicopter whirs around in circles just above the milling shoppers. Carl and Otto wordlessly absorb the crowd’s dull roar, the piped in Christmas carols, the flashing lights, the buttery smell of mall pretzels. They are wedged in by moving strollers, packages, puffy down coats. Their pace slows to a crawl and then halts abruptly for no apparent reason.
“What’s going on up there? We got a shopper down?” says Carl. He cranes his neck to find the blockage.
A sweet, cloying warble cuts through the confusion: “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart/The very next day, you gave it away . . .” From a wooden plaque in the Island of Bliss kiosk to the side, a fish with long eyelashes, two dots of blush on her cheeks, and glossy red lips flaps her tail, bops her head, and sings.
“That fish’s flirting with you,” says Otto. He laughs at Carl, who is mouthing the lyrics along with the fish.
“That’s Bessie Bass,” says the stumpy woman at the cash register.
“Someone buys this crap?” Otto shakes his head in disbelief. “C’mon, Carl, we gotta stay focused.”
“This is so stupid. I’ve never seen anything this pointless,” says Carl. “I wonder how much it costs.”
He tries to catch the cashier’s attention.
The other, average fish start in on a cacophony of “Who Let the Dogs Out” and “Mambo No. 5.” It’s pure bedlam until they return to sleep mode, and in the precious pause, Bes-sie wakes up and resumes the ballad of her December heartbreak. Her rainbow scales shine: “This year/To save me from tears . . . ”
Suddenly Otto feels that he’s fallen into a shimmery river that twists through a dim cave, resounding with sad music, and his own sobs are mixed in. His heart is breaking in two. But there’s Bessie—she’s a mermaid! In the water just ahead. She’s singing, beckoning him. If Otto could kick harder, thrust his hand a few inches farther . . . farther . . .
“Whoooo! Whooo!” What is that whistle? Two hands grab his shoulders and jerk him backwards as the Candy Cane Express chugs through.
He resists, pulls toward Bessie’s voice. “Once bitten/Twice shy,” but the hands spin him around. They belong to a teenage boy with curly hair and round, rosy cheeks, an arch-er’s bow slung over his shoulder.
“Remember your true love,” says the boy, “She’s not a fish.” The crowd closes around him, carrying him away.
Penny–her kind smile and gentle nature. Chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven.
The ring! The ring! Carl—where is he?
Carl’s fixated in front of Bessie on the wall, glassy-eyed and bopping his head along to the beat half-consciously. Otto’ll have to rip him away from the siren songs. He pulls down the ear flaps on his aviator hat to block out the sound.
Kids today—bow and arrows in the mall?!
________________________________________The crew of two are so close to the store that they can see the “Make He-” part of the sign up ahead. They assess their final approach together. On one hand, Silly Land, the indoor play place. On the other, a twisting, writhing snake: the line to see Santa in Candyland.
It’s crusty noses, gummy fingers, slobbery bibs, and loaded diapers to the left. Kicked-off Mary Janes, sagging tights, and tight plaid velvet waistcoats in endless limbo to the right. Disgust or despair.
At erratic intervals a gleeful escapee toddles from one side to the other, and an adult determinedly pursues.
Carl stares. “It’s like Frogger with jacked-up rugrats. How we gonna do this?”
“Follow me.” Otto waits until the latest little runner has been retrieved and pulls Carl into a trot down the narrow middle opening. “Keep moving. Don’t make eye contact.”
They’ve cleared ten feet, fifteen. Otto’s left leg is oddly heavy, won’t swing for-ward. He tries to shake he weight off over and over. He looks down. Something—no, some-one!—grips his pants leg.
Oh! It’s a rugrat, giggling like a midget maniac, who only curls tighter and tighter around his pants leg as Otto plants his right foot and hoists the left as high as he can.
More kids! Creeping! Crawling! This way! I’ve gotta get this kid OFF!
And then Otto remembers.
He drops his foot and digs around in his front pocket, coming up waving an or-ange lolly in triumph. “Take my candy!” he says to the little leech.
Before he can think, the boy reaches and —releases his death grip. Otto the Hon-est runs for all he’s worth toward Carl up ahead.
________________________________________Inside Make Her Smile, a manicured jeweler, shiny gold loupe stuck in his left eye, introduces himself. “I’m Paul E. Femus, owner. What is your quest?”
Otto looks up from wiping cookie crumbs off his pants leg. The toddler tooth marks will have to air dry. “The Golden Ring of Engagement.” He holds the ad out and tries not to look at the jeweler’s magnified, bloodshot eye.
“About time,” says Paul. “Ten minutes to close.”
He disappears in his office for a moment and returns with a deep blue velvet box. The ring inside glows, lighting up the store and the faces of all three men admiring it.
Carl whistles, long and low.
“Nice,” says Otto. “What’s your offer?”
Paul sneers and, quick as a flash, flips a switch on the wall. The store’s security gate clangs down. Otto and Carl can’t escape this one-eyed weirdo, and he’s waving a thick sheaf of papers and threatening them. “Layaway zeropercentdown friendsandfamilydiscount 60dayssameascash. We gotta close this deal—Sign here or never, ever leave.”
“Help!” yells Carl out the gate. He turns back to Otto. “Don’t sign anything!”
Paul steps closer and talks faster. “Warranty guarantee service contract fire-theft-loss protection. Sign on this line—HERE!”
Mom’s voice: “Use it in your darkest hour of need.”
Otto pats his pockets—pats again—and—something hard. Trembling fingers. Pulls out the Magical Card of Cash and tosses it at Paul. “Take this!” Paul scrambles for it, eyes flashing greedily—Carl activates the gate. Escape!
________________________________________Otto slides the Impala into the driveway behind Penny’s blue Mazda. The Harley is gone. Snow is falling, sparkling, fat flakes from the dark sky. Warm light spills from the kitch-en windows, and woodsmoke curls out of the chimney. Otto opens the door to the sound of Bing Crosby and the smell of tacos.
Ahh, heaven. No Mom with messages of doom, no Carl from the basement of sloth. Just Penny, the beloved. Otto’s heart thumps, and he calls,
Much adored Penny, I return from a most difficult day.
The smell of your ground beef heartens me, even as it promises a delicious taco repast.
But, before we partake of the banquet prepared by your milk-white hands,
Let me beg your indulgence in this, my fondest wish.
Otto lowers to one knee and proffers the Magical Ring of Engagement. “Penny, would you do me the honor of being my wife?”
And Penny, dark eyes welling with emotion, says, “I will, Otto, I do, can we?” She covers her mouth with her hands.
“We can. And I vow honesty and Saturday mornings without Nightmare Inva-sion.”
Thus Otto secures his queen forever from the threat of Bryan, and his kingdom is green and fertile for generations to come.
Carolyn White is a language arts tutor from Houston, Texas, who was inspired to write this story by reviewing The Odyssey with a ninth-grade student.