Thriller Short Story: “The Polaroid”

“The Polaroid” by Renee Roberson is the First Prize-winning story in the Young Adult category in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. To see a complete list of winners and read the first-place winners in each genre, click here. For an extended interview with our grand-prize winner, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from the winners, click here.

The Polaroid by Renee Roberson

Click. Whirrrrr.

Emmy vividly remembered the day Harrison took the Polaroid. Her hands were bound behind her back and there was a red bandana tied around her mouth. She had been curled up on the worn, flowered sofa in the basement that reeked of mildew. Tears stung her eyes and dripped through her lashes when she blinked, although she tried not to let Harrison see it, even through the blinding flash of the camera.

Click. Whirrrrr.

It was the ragged breathing of the boy sitting on the other side of the sofa and hiccups through his own bandana that caused her to cry. His fear was so real, so visceral, that it permeated throughout her body. The wound that once ached, then festered, and then contracted until it was only a hard knot inside of her chest.

“What do you think about that?” Harrison danced in front of them gleefully, holding the camera with its ironically cheerful rainbow stripe on the front in one hand and waving the first photo through the air as it developed. “Why have one when two is twice the fun?”

Now, watching the local evening news on the small TV set up on the dilapidated kitchen table in the corner of the basement, she couldn’t believe her eyes. The camera panned in on a close-up of that very picture. The anchor’s voice could be heard over the sight of the photo, her tone reflective and somber.

“A local woman contacted police this morning after coming across this photograph in the parking lot of the Save Rite,” she said. “It is her belief that the girl in the photograph is Emmy Farn, who disappeared five years ago while riding her bike to her part-time job. Since her disappearance, there have been numerous unconfirmed sightings of Emmy here in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. We’ve asked the police department for a statement regarding the photo, but as of right now, they are looking into the matter and have no comment.”

The screen flashed to footage in front of the Save Rite, where a thin, grey-haired woman with concerned blue eyes framed by red glasses was speaking into a microphone.

“I remember plain as day when Emmy Farn went missing,” she said. “I had a granddaughter that age so it was frightening to our community. They found her bike all banged up and assumed she had an accident and someone grabbed her. I recognized her right away when I saw that picture just lying on the ground.” She wrung her hands nervously.

“But how can you really be sure this is her?” the reporter, a young man with black hair slicked back on his head, pressed her. “Her mouth is bound. You can only see part of her face. There are no other distinguishable—”

“Look at her face,” the woman interrupted him. “It’s in her eyes. I saw those eyes staring at me from flyers all over town when she went missing, and they are the same ones in this picture. Her hands are tied. She looks petrified.”

Emmy remembered how long it had taken the first image to develop, watching the milky haze as it slowly spread across the square-shaped piece of photo paper. Harrison held it in front of her face while she tried to breathe through the cloth bandana. First her legs became visible in the photo, tucked under her with the jagged “z” scar on her knee from falling off a skateboard she had always hated. Then the itchy grey t-shirt stained and smelling faintly of oil. Last, you could see her face, with the eyes widened and shining with tears, her brown hair hanging loosely around her face.

Funny, she thought now, listening to the woman on the TV yammer on and on. It had taken her about thirty minutes to fully appear on the photo, but it had taken her much longer to disappear from the self she had always known down in that basement. She had lost track of the days after two years.

“But I don’t think that’s even the most important question here,” the woman was saying on the news report. “The question we should be asking is, who is the boy with her? Where has she been all this time, and who is that boy? Have any little boys his age been reported missing?”

Emmy heard the flush of the toilet in the small bathroom in the corner and then his voice, which had changed in recent months along with the angles of his face and limbs and the inches on his frame.

“What are you watching?”

“Nothing,” she said, pressing the off button on the TV and turning to face him. “I heard him leave this morning, but he didn’t bring us anything to eat.”

His face darkened. “What else is new?”

He stomped over to the cot set up in one corner of the basement and flung himself across it. She could hear his stomach growling from across the room and it broke her heart. Soon, hers joined in.

She waited until his breathing was even and he began snoring lightly before she tiptoed back over to the TV and turned it back on. She turned the volume down low and manually turned the knob, trying to find more mentions of the Polaroid on other news stations. She hit pay dirt on Channel 5. A man who identified himself as an FBI agent was holding up a copy of the picture and pointing to the boy.

“We are 99 percent certain that this boy is Devan Boyles of Clearwater, Florida, who went missing two years ago at the age of 10.” The man yanked at the tie around his neck as if it was choking him. “If it is correct that the other person in this photo is Emmy Farn, and her parents do believe it is, the two were abducted by the same person. We are trying to determine how old this Polaroid is, as it appears to be a few years old, and working to see what else we can find out from it. That’s all we have for now. Thank you.” He turned and walked out of range of the camera, leaving behind a cacophony of shouts from the other reporters in the room, who clearly had more questions.

The investigators knew who they were. They knew they might still be alive. But how much could they possibly figure out from a picture? Emmy tried to squelch the hope rising in the back of her throat. She jumped when his cold fingers clamped down on her shoulder.

“Devan! Damnit, you know you can’t do that to me!” she yelled, and then backed away when she saw the look on his face. Then she realized the TV was still on. “Wait, how much did you hear?”

He stared down at the floor, tears shimmering in his eyes. “Enough,” he said. Before she could say anything else, they heard the key rattling in the lock at the top of the basement the stairs.

Harrison was home.

They heard his footsteps on the stairs first and then saw his hands appear, which were carrying a cardboard drink holder. He plopped two milkshakes down on the kitchen table—strawberry for Emmy, chocolate for Devan—all while watching the breaking news report that will still playing on Channel 5. Emmy froze as her mother, standing on the porch of their house, flashed across the screen, a group of microphones visible in front of her face. As she let out a whimper and clasped one hand over her mouth, Harrison glanced over his shoulder, and with an eerie calm, he walked over to the TV and unplugged it. Devan and Emmy stood frozen on the concrete floor, waiting to gauge his mood.

Mom. A dozen images flashed through Emmy’s mind. How she always told Emmy not to listen to her music while riding her bike, how she should not be so naïve and always pay attention to her surroundings. How angry she would get when Emmy was mean to her younger brother, Theo. How scared she’d been after that skateboarding accident, when they were in the emergency room waiting for Emmy to get stitches.

“Go ahead, drink,” Harrison said, gesturing towards the shakes and bringing her back to the present. “You’ve been whining about being hungry, so what are you waiting for?”

Emmy picked up her shake with a trembling hand while Harrison laughed. Devan had already slurped most of his down. Harrison readjusted his dirty baseball cap and crossed his arms in front of him.

“So who gets the honor of entertaining me upstairs tonight?” The shake threatened to make its way back up Emmy’s esophagus, although she should have predicted it. He only brought them treats on the nights he expected “entertainment.”

Devan stared down at the floor. The sight of the Polaroid flashed in front of Emmy’s eyes again, as she remembered the small boy with the curls and how frightened he’d been when that photo was taken.


She stepped forward. “Me.”

Harrison grabbed her roughly by the arm and began to push her towards the stairs.

“Wait!” Devan cried. He rushed forward and threw his arms her, squeezing her tight. Her forehead furrowed—he was usually so relieved when she volunteered that he tried to make himself invisible as they left. She couldn’t figure out what he was doing.

“Okay, that’s enough!” Harrison yelled, pulling Devan off her. He clenched her forearm so tight she gasped in pain as they made their way up the stairs, to the bedroom in the main part of the house where she only got to go when the mood struck Harrison.

He shut the bedroom door behind him and went into the adjacent bathroom, leaving the door open. She sat on the edge of the bed, a thin veil of sweat forming on her skin, and felt a lump in the back pocket of her worn and faded jeans.

A lighter. She was puzzled, then realized that Devan must have slipped it into her pocket. And where had he gotten it in the first place … unless he swiped it one night when Harrison was in the basement, going off on one of his drunken rants that usually included the lit cigarette that was sometimes pressed against various parts of their skin? Devan, who had always played the subservient role, who had tried to not to make waves with Harrison, was begging her to take action, to finally set them free.

But could she do it? How could she set the room ablaze without Harrison noticing? She held the lighter behind her back in a trembling hand, scooting herself backwards across the bed, closer to the wall. When Harrison went to flush the toilet, she acted. She flicked the lighter and held it close to the sheet hanging off the side of the bed, feeling the heat as the flame caught the material. She stood up and began unbuttoning her shirt as a distraction while Harrison exited the bathroom, a sleazy smile spreading across his stubble-covered face.

As he leaned over her, she reached for the damned Polaroid camera on the nightstand, the one he had blinded her with so many times before in this very bedroom. With her heart in her throat, Emmy swung the camera by its black strap as hard as she could across the front of his face, watching as blood gushed from the open wound there. He screamed in pain as she brought the camera around and smacked him as hard as she could on the back the head, losing herself in the moment before she realized how many times she had hit him.

He fell across the bed, which was now engulfed in flames. Though smoke had begun to fill the air, she stopped long enough to snap a Polaroid of her own, taking it with her as she ran from the room.

In the kitchen, she saw the ring of keys on the counter next to the stove. Shaking, and with a surge of adrenaline coursing through her veins, she fumbled with the keys until she found the one that unlocked the door to the basement. Devan was waiting right on the other side and burst into the kitchen. He stood in the doorway of the bedroom for a split second, watching as the flames filled the room, licking the unmoving figure on the bed.

“Come on!” she screamed, dropping the key ring and then picking it up again as she unlocked the door leading out of the house. It swung open and she grabbed Devan’s hand, dragging him outside in the cool night air, air she hadn’t felt in so many years. They paused in the yard, looking around at what looked like nothingness, no neighboring houses around, until they saw a dirt road. It was pale, white, and seemed to stretch on forever. Emmy wanted to cry as the cold air hit them, her breath coming out in small puffs. They couldn’t go back in the house to try and call for help—what if he wasn’t dead? And the crackling blaze had already overtaken the main floor of the house.

She turned back towards Devan and took his hands in hers. Tears streamed down his face.

“Where do we go from here?” he asked.

Together, they turned back toward the stretch of road, crunching the pebbles beneath their feet with a sound that in the future she would always, always associate with freedom. Taking his hand, she started to run, and he ran with her.

“Wherever we want to go, baby. Wherever we want to go.”

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Horror Short Story: “The Hole”

“The Hole” by John Bowie is the First Prize-winning story in the Horror category in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. To see a complete list of winners and read the first-place winners in each genre, click here. For an extended interview with our grand-prize winner, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from the winners, click here.

The Hole by John Bowie

The first digger glared at the earth. He could hear it beneath the surface calling him. He raised his shovel and stabbed downward. The shovel split the soil, prying away a hunk of dirt. It was there. He thrust the shovel down again.

The fine lattice of grass thatch and weed roots tore away as the blade passed through the humus. The fall of shovel strokes continued, clods of dirt grew into a pile next to the fledgling Hole. Plodding stroke after stroke, he dug. Hours later the digger passed the topsoil, unrelenting as his spade chipped through gravel and sunk into clay. The handle scored blisters across his palms and dirt packed each fingernail. Soil filled the grooves of his shoes until he slipped on the edges of the Hole. He nicked roots and scraped rocks. It demanded he continue.

Near dawn, his confused wife found him. Her scream almost formed but behind the dark rings around his eyes and the sweat sheen staring back at her she saw the answer to her question. He was there to dig the Hole and so was she.

The two of them dug together in silence. The man labored through slow shovel strokes; the woman clawed at the soil with her hands. When her husband collapsed for the first time, she snatched his shovel and continued digging around him. The days passed into nights and the Hole grew.

The next digger came on the fourth morning, a concerned neighbor worried over his friends’ disappearance. As he tested the unlocked door the hungry family dog darted out and fled. Rotten, untouched breakfast sat on the table next to a half-evaporated cup of coffee. The neighbor wandered through the house to the yard. He saw the mound of dirt and knew what they had started. Without question, he retrieved another shovel from the garage and walked into the Hole.

Two more days passed before the missing person report merited a response and officers went to investigate. They passed through the open house and into the yard to look over the edge of the Hole. The first man lay in the clay, his clothes tattered. The concerned neighbor carried a rock up the embankment, no longer concerned. The officers descended the dirt slope and joined the digging without removing their guns or uniforms.

More officers arrived to investigate the disappearance of their fellows. The first cruiser sat on the road, no sign of its drivers. The new arrivals approached with caution. They drew their guns but nothing could harm the Hole. The responding officers felt a moment of curiosity before they understood what they saw below the mound of dirt. The dispatcher cried out over the radio as each officer went silent. Soon, she too would be in the Hole.

Local news heard the calls of the dispatcher and sent their news van to investigate. The reporter steeled herself near the silent police cars and her cameraman started filming. She gave her introduction as they walked around the side of the house. She fell silent. The cameraman wordlessly set down his camera. The glass lens watched as he joined her in the Hole.

The scene beamed from the camera to the news truck to the station. The producer looked up at the monitor, squinting to make sense of what he saw. His gaze relaxed as the realization crept over him and he left his desk. Confused coworkers asked where he was going but he did not answer. Quiet spread over the room as the others contemplated the screen and understood what they saw. Some of them walked to their houses to retrieve a shovel or wheelbarrow. No one thought to take a car as they made their way to the Hole.

The news channel idled on a near-still shot of the Hole. Blades of grass lined the cockeyed image and clods of dirt arced through the air. A digger emerged with a rock or root, her uniform sweat soaked and dirty. In the Hole, they all looked the same. The camera watched, unblinking.

Within an hour, every local news station was empty, programming left to run to the colored blocks of off-airtime space. No viewer needed to ask why; they left their tasks and joined in the digging.

Family members came home to empty houses and waited for loved ones who had not returned from work. Blank news stations stoked the panic in concerned families. Emergency dispatch rang unanswered. The Internet offered no information. Instead, they called one another, assembling the realization that many of their community were missing. They set out to find them but only found the Hole.

Before the week’s end, the entire town was digging. Children old enough to understand dug. Babies were left in their cribs. Fires went unnoticed, pets roamed, and the Hole grew.

Truckers and travelers arrived in the empty town. Some listened to fear and fled. Others investigated the smoldering ruins and found the Hole for themselves. The trucks idled in the street until they ran out of fuel.

The leaders were the first pilgrims. Crisis demanded their attention and summoned them to dig. Cameras followed them as they walked and others joined. New leaders replaced the old until there were no leaders left.

No military could fight the Hole. The missiles and munitions remained unfired while the men marched to dig. Attempts at quarantine dared the soldiers to ask why the silent pilgrims pushed through the blockade. The question gnawed at them until they had to see and they started the walk themselves. Pilots brought their helicopters to jarring landings so they could clamber off to dig in their flight suits and helmets.

More mute pilgrims wandered the countryside, plodding through days and nights and weather. Many died on the walk to the Hole but nothing could stop them once they thought the sweet thought of digging.

Within the month, the first digger was long dead and his house had toppled into the Hole. Endless more diggers broke rocks and hauled red soil from the depths. It stank of sweat and filth. They did not stop for weather or food and would only occasionally pause to bend down to scoop and drink from the water that had pooled in muddy footprints.

Hundreds of diggers turned to thousands, then millions. The Hole compelled its own order, like fluids throbbing through an organ. Some diggers hauled dirt from the depths to the growing hillsides. Others dug crude shafts, while more focused to expand the rim. Some pilgrims used the buckets and barrows to carry water from the depths to the surface, sloshing their load as they struggled through the mud.

Diggers streamed into the depths and the Hole grew to be miles deep and hundreds of miles across. Heavy machinery toppled in unused, as the mouth of the Hole grew ever outward. To call it a monument would only have misunderstood its scale and purpose.

Beyond the rim, a tepid sense of the end started to seep into the remaining pockets of civilization. There was no longer electricity or Internet. The wars that riled human purpose since before memory came to their whimpering end as humanity found peace in the Hole. No one knew why, but they also did not care.

There was baffled disappointment at this doomsday. The tools of learning and art offered no remedy to the Hole: The scientists and the poets dug like everyone else. Priests and prophets claimed the mystery as their own but their rapture only conjured the song of the Hole. The pious dug in tattered robes and collapsed from thirst alongside sinners. The philosophers left before it seized them, thinking an act of will was better than fate. When they arrived, they dug anyway. They all dug because the Hole was an answer.

The depths of the Hole grew hotter and drier as they dug and many diggers died. Others carried the dead out to the dirt mountain. It was a silent three-day walk from the bottom of the Hole to the top of the pile. When they arrived they cast the dead aside to be covered by the next barrow full of dirt. No ceremony or grief, just another long march back to the depths.

The last pilgrims arrived at the end of the second winter. They were withered and hollow after months of travel from distant continents. When they arrived at the edge of the Hole, they cast themselves down the slope without stopping, as though digging might bring some relief.

The final shovel fell without notice. Its worn spade barely pierced the surface before keeling to the side. Dirt spilled next to the last digger as he collapsed. His breathing slowed, vigor drained by thirst and exertion. Rain fell and mud pooled around him. He sputtered as the filthy water crawled past his mouth and nose. The silt-red water inched up his cheek, past his open eyes. He did not move as it filled his lungs. Too weak to reach the shovel, he felt dissatisfaction.

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Young Adult Short Story: “The Holiday”

“The Holiday” by Sophie Myers is the First Prize-winning story in the Young Adult category in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. To see a complete list of winners and read the first-place winners in each genre, click here. For an extended interview with our grand-prize winner, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from the winners, click here.

The Holiday by Sophie Myers

The ewe bleated pitifully, legs kicking uselessly in the air, as it lay on its side in the morning dew, panting with the effort of pushing.

The bite mark oozed blood into the short, dirty wool of the ewe’s leg, where the fox must have sunk it’s sharp teeth.

Jenny didn’t looked surprised to find the ewe in the back paddock. In fact it looked like she’d expected it after they’d passed the mauled remains of a tiny lamb a few minutes ago. It’s mother must have run with the rest of the flock after it had given birth. But this poor ewe was still struggling.

“They’re not meant to drop for weeks. This one looks like it’s been trying for hours, it’s too tired to push. Bloody shittin’ foxes!” Jenny swore loudly.

Evelyn’s eyes widened to hear her younger cousin swear so fiercely. If she’d tried to pull something like that at home, her dad would have smacked her bum hard enough to make her cry. No matter that she was twelve now and supposedly a young lady, swear words were unacceptable, no matter how justified.

“I don’t think this one’s gonna last much longer. She’s gone into labor from the stress. Don’t know how that fox got through all the traps and fencing. We gotta get dad and Rob with the ute.”

Jenny rested her hand on the ewe’s head for a moment before standing back up. Evelyn noticed she had muddy grass stuck to her knees but decided not to say anything. It didn’t seem like the time, and her cousin didn’t seem to get fazed by things like dirt and muck the way Evelyn did.

It was just another difference that marked her as a city girl, clearly out of her element here in the country. Evelyn wasn’t supposed to be here and she felt it more and more with each day she spent out here on her Aunt and Uncle’s farm in Binalong just outside of Yass.

She wasn’t supposed to be out here in the middle of whoop whoop, but rather on the golden sands of the Northern beaches of Sydney with her friends for six glorious long weeks of school holidays. But her parents were squabbling again, and imagining that they could keep it from Evelyn—impossible—they’d sent her off down to her cousin’s so they could yell at each other in peace.

And while Evelyn had visited the farm in the past, it had always been with her mum and dad. They’d served as a buffer between herself and her country cousins, who seemed to think of her as weak and frivolous for not wanting to get her hands dirty plucking the chicken for dinner.

She was sharing a room with Jenny, and although Evelyn was two years older, Jenny had a way of making her feel like she was a big stupid baby. The room was small and cramped, like the rest of the farmhouse, but it was made even smaller by the thin mattress shoved between the bed and the chest of drawers that rested against the wall. The mattress didn’t quite fit into the space, so one of the sides was pushed up revealing the grey fabric underneath.

“You take the bed, Jenny’s on the mattress.” Her Auntie Carly had said kindly, putting her new travelling bag down on the bed.

She’d tried to protest, she was a visitor, she didn’t want to kick anyone out of their own bed. Already she could feel the burden of her being there growing larger and larger.

“A soft bed for a softy,” Jenny had said with only a small amount of snark. She was too good-natured to complain outright, especially in front of her mother. Apparently the concept of country hospitality was introduced at a young age. Evelyn had smiled meekly, determined to show that she hadn’t been hurt by the comment. But that had only been the start.

She’d balked at the sight of the chicken’s eggs she’d been sent to collect the first morning. They’d been covered in all sorts of dirt and bits, and some of them were still wet. But Rob, her older cousin by five years, had only laughed when she’d asked why these eggs were different from the ones her mum usually got from the store.

“You’re all so pampered in the city. Where do you think a bloody egg comes from?” He’d rolled his eyes, chuckled and left the kitchen.

In truth, Evelyn’s family lived outside of the city in the suburbs, but to Rob a house where you could see other houses on all sides meant you lived in a city.

Evelyn tagged along behind Jenny during the day and attempted to help with her chores, feeling small and insignificant when something was out of her comfort zone or new to her. Jenny would sigh, and do the job by herself.

Naturally, Evelyn assumed that Jenny would take care of this sheep now.

“I’ll go get Uncle George.” Evelyn offered quickly.

Jenny tisked.

“You don’t know where the shed is, you’ll take too long. Just stay here and I’ll go.”

The terror gripped Evelyn’s insides like a living creature, squeezing and squeezing till she thought she’d be sick.

“I can’t do it! I’ve never done something like this before.”

“You have to, mum and dad can’t afford to lose this lamb”.

“I’m not even meant to be here!”

Jenny looked at her dumbfounded.

“Who cares where you’re meant to be? Just keep the ewe still and if the lamb comes, help it out!”

Evelyn’s chin quivered dangerously, threatening tears, but she nodded at Jenny, who turned and raced back the way they’d come. Evelyn watched until the hills of the paddock swallowed her up.

They had meant to take a nice quiet walk to the back pond, a tour of the farm for Evelyn, suggested by Auntie Carly, and enforced by her when Jenny had protested. But when they’d passed the sheep paddock and found it empty, Jenny had set off with a purpose, not explaining to Evelyn what was so ominous about a few missing sheep.

Evelyn looked down at the ewe sprawled on the ground; its strange alien eye, with its slitted pupil staring right at her. The ewe was quieting now, her struggles slowing as her energy was spent. Evelyn squatted down gingerly, and she saw a single leg protruded horribly from it’s down there area.

Evelyn knew that babies weren’t meant to come out that way. Head first, they’d learnt in health class last year. What was she meant to have for an emergency birth? Towels, they always asked for towels in the movies, and hot water, but she had neither.

She was alone in a huge field with a huge swollen sheep who needed help, real help, and not the kind she could provide. Breathing deeply through her nose, Evelyn pulled off her flannel shirt that her mum had purchased from Suprè especially for her trip, and pushed it beneath the rear of the ewe. Her bralette covered her small breasts, but Evelyn still felt exposed, and goose bumps appeared on her arms despite the warmth of the morning.

Help was coming, but some instinct told Evelyn that she didn’t have time to wait for them to get here. It was a big farm and she had no idea how long it would take Jenny to fetch her dad and brother.

The ewe had now given up pushing and lay quietly panting, her whole body quivering with spent muscles. Evelyn realized that she needed to pull this lamb out. Wiping her hands on her jeans in an attempt to sanitize them, Evelyn tentatively put her hands around the protruding leg and shuddered at the slimy feel of it.

Her dad’s voice echoed in her mind. “Don’t be a sooky lala, Ev, or they’ll eat you alive. Don’t be afraid to get a bit dirty, show them you’re made of stern stuff and you’ll be fine.”

Her hands were dirty now, all right. The bloody fluid coating her hands smelled like nothing she’d ever smelt before, adding to the unreal sense that this just wasn’t happening. Not to her. She was meant to be at the beach.

Evelyn pulled experimentally on the leg. Nothing happened. The lamb was stuck. She tried to picture what position the lamb was in—inside of the sheep—and reasoned that if perhaps both legs were together, it would be easier to pull the lamb out. Which meant only one thing. She was going in.

Taking a deep breath, Evelyn pushed her hand and her arm inside and almost threw up at the thought of where her arm was. The ewe struggled weakly, trying to roll onto it’s back, but Evelyn steadied it with her other hand and apologized quickly.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” She sobbed.

She was going to kill it, the lamb and it’s mother too. She was sure this wasn’t the right way, sure that she was doing this wrong. But there wasn’t anyone else.

Tracing the leg that was sticking out back inside, she could feel the body of the lamb. Moving to the left, she could just make out what she thought was the other leg.

Gently but firmly Evelyn pulled the limb back towards the opening and drew it through to meet the other leg. Now she had a proper hold, despite the slippery surface of the lamb’s legs, and when she pulled on them, they moved more easily. The squelching and farting sounds as the lamb’s hindquarters squeezed through the opening made Evelyn retch, but she kept pulling and pulling, and bit by bit the lamb’s body emerged, until the head appeared and then the front legs too. The lamb was free!

It was tiny; smaller than any other lamb she’d ever seen, although she knew she was no expert. It wasn’t fluffy and white, and a dark purple cord still joined it to it’s mother. Evelyn had no scissors and hoped that that part could wait. The little lamb’s legs were jerking now as it lay in a puddle on her flannel and Evelyn could see that there was some kind of goo covering the it’s head. She quickly wiped the muck away from it’s mouth and nose, worried that it might suffocate. Evelyn forced it’s mouth open too, worried there might be goo in there as well, but before she could check the little lamb gave a shrill cry that made her jump.

“We did it girl!” Evelyn patted the ewe’s side, filled with relief, but stopped when she realized the ewe was no longer moving.

Shuffling around to the side of the sheep, Evelyn could see the ewe’s eye open and unblinking. Its body was unnaturally still, and she knew that somehow she’d killed this poor innocent creature. The tiny little lamb bleated weakly and Evelyn gently wrapped it in the ruined flannel t-shirt that she had thought would help her fit in down here in the country. What a fool she’d been. A stupid city girl.

Cradling the little lamb to her chest, Evelyn rocked it back and forth, whispering comforting words to it as they sat beside the still-warm body of its mother.

It seemed like she’d been sitting there forever when she finally heard the roar of a motor and the ute appeared over the crest of the hill, speeding towards her.

Her Uncle George was the first out and raced over to where she sat.

“You alright kiddo!?”
Evelyn couldn’t look him in the eyes, she felt so ashamed. “I’m so sorry, I think she’s died. She couldn’t push the lamb out because it was coming out leg first, so I had to pull it out.”

By now Rob and Jenny had arrived and Rob knelt beside the ewe, checking for a pulse. He nodded stiffly at his father and Evelyn burst into tears.

Uncle George patted her back hesitantly. “But this little one’s alive! If you hadn’t done what you did, the lamb probably would have died too.”

Evelyn clutched her little lamb tighter to her chest. “I’m really sorry, I didn’t know how to pull it out properly, I didn’t mean to kill her!”

Her uncle George sat down hard with a thud, and pulled her into a rough hug, the lamb sandwiched between them.

“Jenny said she was probably in labor for most of the night, Evy, it’s a miracle you managed to keep the lamb alive. If you hadn’t been here, they both would have died. You did a real good job, sweetheart.”

Evelyn looked up at Jenny, who was standing by Rob. Jenny wouldn’t lie to her, she would give it to her straight. She was smiling down at Evelyn.

“Ewww, Evelyn, you’re covered in shit! Yuck, you need to go clean yourself up.” Jenny pinched her nose between her fingers and waved her hand in Evelyn’s direction, but she did it with a smile. Something inside of Evelyn’s stomach unclenched and she let out a deep breath.

“Hey! Language!” Uncle George scolded as he heaved himself up to help Rob pick up the ewe’s body.

Evelyn looked down to see the whole upper half of her body covered in a mixture of bloody fluids and muck. Her jeans had turned a reddish brown colour and felt sticky and wet, now that she thought about it.

“Looks like you’re ridin’ in the back of the ute!” Rob laughed, but he helped her to her feet and lifted her up into the bed of the tray with gentle hands. Jenny hopped in after her, despite the empty seat in the back of the cab, and started chatting about making up a bottle for the lamb back at the house and how she would show Evelyn the trick to making lambs latch on. The little lamb struggled feebly in her arms, and Evelyn hugged it tightly as they set back. They bumped up and down as the ute went over the hills, and when one nearly sent Evelyn sprawling, Jenny grabbed her, steadying her with an arm over her shoulder. Jenny stayed close despite the muck all over Evelyn and for the first time since the start of her trip, Evelyn didn’t feel so small and stupid compared to Jenny. In fact, she didn’t feel small at all.

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Romance Short Story: “Widow”

“Widow” by Julia Lemyre-Cossette is the First Prize-winning story in the Romance category in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. To see a complete list of winners and read the first-place winners in each genre, click here. For an extended interview with our grand-prize winner, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from the winners, click here.

Widow by Julia Lemyre-Cossette

I stare out to the sea as I sit on a wooden bench perched on the highest point of the island. The clear blue sky seems as infinite as the sea below it, both stretching on forever in the horizon as though in hopes of finally meeting somewhere in the middle. Though the view is overwhelmingly beautiful, I feel stretched out myself, my heart hopelessly reaching for something I will never grasp again. The salty breeze cools my sun-kissed skin, my blue cotton dress flows, softly caressing my legs. The emerald waves crash into small caves down below in an omnipresent, far-off rumble. The sand-colored cliffs seem to soak up the stifling heat. Will I ever find my home again? “Home is where the heart is,” they say. My heart is nothing more than a dull ache, hardly fit to call home.

He died nearly three months ago, but I am not a widow. It seems so absurd and unfitting for a thirty-three year-old, successful businesswoman to be associated with such a term. Widow, widow … aren’t they supposed to be the bitter old hags of fairy tales? The ugly, wrinkled ones whose only purpose is to add eeriness to the tales. Even so, saying I’m single feels worse, like I failed at something, when really it had all been going so well. We were so truly happy. It’s not as though I’m single because no one wants to be with me, or because I’m one of those workaholics who doesn’t know what a work-life balance feels like. It isn’t that I have commitment issues or can’t figure out how to share someone’s life. I did it all. I did it right. I found my happiness, my true love. Life simply, cruelly, robbed me.

I definitely don’t want to be thought of as single. I barely feel single, in truth. My fingers still mindlessly toy with the rings I haven’t been able to take off. Able to, wanted to … The truth is they bring fewer questions, especially now that I’m a stranger in this village where nobody knows my story and few speak my language. Men who are interested in me walk away when they spy the jewelry. People don’t think to ask me about my love life. I think they would rather assume I’m happily married, are content with the explanation. Sad series of failed dates and complicated boyfriends make for more interesting stories, I suppose.

What’s more, I can’t feel single when I still feel him. He’s all around, constantly with me. In my thoughts. In my heart. When I planned his funeral and burial, I kept picturing the conversations we would’ve had going over all the details, like we used to.

“How can we spend so much money on flowers?” he would ask, hovering over my shoulder as I sat at the kitchen table working on my computer. “It’s insane! I’m not the king or anything, do I even need flowers?”

“Of course you need flowers,” I had replied to my imaginary husband. “I want everything to be beautiful and tasteful. Besides, you deserved all the flowers.”

“But I won’t even know they’re there! You should save your money: No one will notice that you didn’t buy a ridiculous amount of flowers. I promise you they won’t, honey.”

“They will definitely notice if there are no flowers at your funeral! I want everything to look nice for your last goodbye. I want people to feel you were loved … Trust me, babe, they won’t think of how much money I spent on this, but they’ll definitely think I cheaped out if there are no flowers at the service. I want the focus to be on you, not the flowers, and for that to happen, there have to be flowers, so people don’t notice there are no flowers.” I’d heard myself speaking too fast, but hadn’t been able to help it. He had to understand.

“Wow,” he’d respond. “I didn’t get any of that.” He would have blinked at me comically, like he always did when he thought I was exaggerating. “Ok, get flowers if it’ll make you happy, but don’t pay so much for them, please.”

He would wrap his arms around my shoulder until I could almost feel his embrace, and I ended up dropping the order down by half. He was right after all: I was going overboard.

I’m not going crazy. It’s not like that. It’s just my grief. I bet if I were to ask a shrink, they’d tell me something along the lines of: My mind is making conversations up from past memories, to help me cope. Maybe that’s what they are: a healing balm to my broken heart. Maybe he really is sticking around. Maybe it’s my fault for not knowing how to let him go. Maybe it’s everything.

Widow. What a strange word.

The day after the burial, I stood in front of the mirror in our bedroom. I had been wearing his old t-shirt to bed ever since the night he had died. It was almost like having his arms around me. Almost. I could see my hair was still slightly curled and tangled from the updo I’d attempted the day before but had only half taken down before collapsing into bed, exhausted. My eyes were red and surrounded by dark shadows. Standing in the morning light, I said the word out loud to my reflection for the first time.


The sound of my own voice was startling.


The word didn’t have any meaning.


It rang so empty.

Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow. Widow.

A tear slipped from my eye, slowly drawing its way down my cheek, warm. It still sounded wrong to my ears. It wasn’t me. It still isn’t me. I am not a widow. My husband is only dead.

The only things I did that day were buy a ticket to Rome for the very next day and pack a bag. I hadn’t managed to pack nearly enough clothes though, because everything I owned reminded me I was no longer married, and so I brought only his t-shirt, which I couldn’t leave behind, a bikini, underwear, my toiletries and the jeans and t-shirt I wore to board the plane. I ended up using the money he convinced me not to spend on the flowers buying new clothes in Italy.

Once I got to Rome, I ignored all the emails and phone calls from my office. I guess they were from colleagues who were wondering if I’d ever come back to work. I still wonder, really. I bought a train ticket to the Amalfi coast. I figured that at least here I’d be able to wear the bikini I had brought. I found a little apartment in Positano, in a pink villa with a large stone balcony overlooking the sea, tiny at the bottom of the mountain. It feels humbling, to be so small next to something so mighty. I like that. I didn’t speak any Italian when I first arrived, but two months later, I can manage to get groceries, order limoncello at the sea-front bars, communicate with the landlady, and get directions when I go exploring. The language barrier makes it so that I don’t bond much with the people here. It’s a relief not to be able to tell my story. I don’t know that I could, anyway.

I spend most days sitting on the stone balcony on a pile of great, big, colored cushions, drinking wine, eating fresh tomatoes, cheese, and meats. The book I brought along with me has been lying next to me untouched, day after day. It seems I can’t crack its cover, so instead I stare out to the sea and get lost in its waves, in my thoughts and in my memories. I go down to the beach and swim for hours. I bought a mask and snorkel at a local shop, on a whim. I went in to buy a beach towel and flip-flops, things I hadn’t thought to pack. I float on the water’s surface and watch the fish swim below me, while slowly breathing in and out of the purple plastic tube. They seem so peaceful, swimming around, having no other purpose in life than to feed and to breed. They’re hypnotizing, really. So I watch them day after day, while I sway with the waves. I feel lost in space, like I am no one, nowhere, floating.

Sometimes I walk around the village, looking at the colorful stores full of white lace and coral jewelry. When I saw the woman walking down the steep, roughly paved street in six-inch heels I almost felt him put his arm around my waist, like he would, bending down to whisper in my ear: “Why would anyone pretend it’s a good idea to walk these streets in those heels? Is she trying to break an ankle?” In that moment he was everywhere, taking my breath away, tingling through my fingers. I stopped in my tracks, a smile ran from my lips and I closed my eyes, feeling his lingering breath on my cheek and in my ear. Heart racing, cheeks flushed, I fought hard to keep him with me, but I knew when I opened my eyes all I would find was the emptiness of the crowded street. So I kept them closed, and him close, a minute longer.

Last night, I couldn’t sleep, so I hiked to the top of the mountain, in the middle of the night. I followed a path in the moonlight and I watched the sun rise over the mountains, lighting the sea with unimaginable colors. It was beautiful, but I was empty. So empty. I wept a long time for not feeling him at all in that moment.

When I came back down, I walked straight to the docks and took a ferry to Capri. It’s said to be one of the most beautiful islands in the world. I can plainly see why. The town is so colorful and alive with merchants and fishermen bustling around the docks in front of a never-ending line of ocean-view restaurants. I skipped the chairlift to walk up the hill in the little, unevenly paved pedestrian roads. Charming villa followed charming villa, all surrounded by vines, olive trees and flowers of every bright color. The little houses painted in pinks and yellows and blues … The journey up took about two hours, as I stopped to pet the stray cats and smell the plants, basking in the sun. I was sweating by the time I reached the town square at the top, and settled on my bench, hiding under my wide-brimmed straw hat.

The streets behind me are teeming with children running around and begging their parents for gelato, couples taking pictures in front of the viewpoints, friends drinking iced limoncello on the patios, locals talking animatedly to one another, as Italians do so well.


No. I cannot be a widow. Any way I look at it, I can’t make the word mine. It’s like a shoe that doesn’t, can’t, won’t fit.

I walk away from the bench to the far side of the island, farther from the square and the swarms of people, and make my way up to the emperor’s fortress. The great structure is set at the highest point, overlooking the sea by the cliffs. It’s a large stone building in pretty good shape, considering it’s a ruin. The red stone walls keep the empty rooms nice and cool, but as I walk back out onto the ramparts and into the sunlight, the midday heat is made bearable only by the sea breeze. Over the wall, a steep cliff drops down straight into the sea, where waves crash onto the rocks over, and over, and over again. Steady as the rhythm of my heart.

I pull the rings from my finger and look at the silver and ice gleaming in my palm. Slowly, I turn my hand to the side and let them slip out, right over the edge. I never hear them hit the water, neither do I watch them fall.

Home is where the heart is, and I don’t know the Italian word for widow.

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Crime Short Story: “Not in My Neighborhood!”

“Not in My Neighborhood!” by Diana Bredeson is the First Prize-winning story in the Mystery/Crime category in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. To see a complete list of winners and read the first-place winners in each genre, click here. For an extended interview with our grand-prize winner, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from the winners, click here.

Not in My Neighborhood! by Diana Bredeson

I hung up the phone in disbelief—the policeman on the other end had sounded as if he were trying very hard not to laugh at me! REALLY? Here I am, a concerned citizen with a problem, and he had obviously not taken me seriously. The more I thought about it, the angrier I grew. He had actually asked me if I had been drinking and then lectured me on the severity of filing a false police report! I told the officer about the suspicious people coming and going at all hours of the day and night. I told him about how my dog had seemed like he wanted to attack the one man after I had tried to (nicely) question him about where he had moved from and what brought him to our neighborhood and the guy had responded with some very rude words. Now I had the police thinking I was crazy, it had been suggested that I try not to be too nosey (AS IF) and the man had asked if Frankie had a “bite history.” I’m sure it was a result of my joking about my “27-pound attack dog”; but still, couldn’t he tell I had just been kidding around? I couldn’t believe that I had been blown off by the … The ringing phone stopped my mental rant.


My good friend and neighbor Jennifer’s voice, filled with disbelief, came through the phone before I finished my greeting. “Carrie, tell me that you didn’t really just call the station to report that our new neighbors are possibly drug dealers or something?”

“Jennifer?” I asked incredulously, before continuing. “Boy, word travels fast at the police station doesn’t it?”

“Mark, the officer who took your call, knows that we are friends.”

“I don’t see why he told you, you aren’t a police officer.”

“No, I’m not, but he wanted to check with me to see if I thought something strange was going on in the neighborhood.”

“So, you told him about …”

“No, I most certainly did not.” She interrupted me. “Remember when you called the police about the Johnsons across the street, who were working on their own house late at night? It’s a miracle that they are still talking to you!”

“They totally understood.” I protested. “They had told me that they would be out of town. When I saw someone over there with flashlights, I got suspicious. If you hadn’t stopped me from going over there, I wouldn’t have had to call the cops.”

“Carrie, I stopped you because you could have been shot or something if it hadn’t been them.”

‘Well, there you go. I was just trying to protect their house while they were gone. They actually thought it was funny, after they got over the surprise of almost being arrested.”

“You can’t just…”

“Yes, I can. What if it hadn’t been them? What if it had been someone trying to steal their stuff?”

“You are just too stubborn. It is not your job to save the world. One of these days you are going to get yourself into something you can’t get out of.” Jennifer sighed heavily. “I’m sorry, my break is over, I have to go. I’ll come by after I get home, we can talk more then. Don’t do anything silly.”

“Yes, mom.” I laughed.

“You need to listen to me. I’m your friend and don’t want anything to happen to you. I …”

“Ah ha, I knew it, something is going on,” I interrupted excitedly. “I could just tell …”

“No, I didn’t say that,” Jennifer jumped in quickly. “I just know how you are when you think something bad is going on, you always think that you need to fix it.”

“I just want to do what is right!” I protested defensively.

“I know that, and I admire that, but I really don’t think anything is going on. Just think of how horrible you would feel if the police went over there and you were wrong. Besides, if something really were going on, don’t you think I would have heard something?” She said the last part (in my opinion) to placate me.

“Jennifer, you have been out of town for two out of the three weeks since they moved into that house, you don’t know everything that has been going on. I’m not the only one who thinks there is something fishy going on. I know—”

“Carrie, no one else but you has reported anything suspicious, I checked.”

“That is just because they are too scared to get involved.”

“You, of course, are not worried about these people getting upset with you for calling the police? What about Frankie or Charlie? Aren’t you worried about them?”

“You know I wouldn’t want anything to happen to my son, myself or my dog. If I know something is going on, I can’t just sit by and ignore it! What if they are trying to sell drugs to the neighborhood kids? I know and love these kids. They are Charlie’s friends. I talk to them at the school bus, they play with Frankie and ride their bikes up and down the street, I know their parents. I mean, really, what do you…”

“Ok, calm down, I don’t want anything to happen to the kids either. I agree that, if the other neighbors think something is going on, we need to check into these men. I don’t want you going anywhere near there, though.”

“Me, what am I going to do? Like you said, it’s not like I am a police officer or anything. I do, however, have to walk Frankie,” I responded innocently.

“Carrie, I know that tone. You promise me that … just a minute, my commander is calling me.” She interrupted herself and I was suddenly listening to elevator music. “Oh, sorry about that. Listen, I have to go, but I am serious about you staying out of this. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Ok, talk to you then.” I hung up and thought about everything for a little while, then jumped up from the couch and grabbed my keys and the leash. “Frankie, I think you need another walk.”


Frankie was more than willing to go for another walk only a couple of hours after the first one. We took the long way around and walked on the opposite side of the street from what I now thought of as the “sketchy” house. We greeted everyone as we enjoyed the Saturday morning happenings in the neighborhood. People were out everywhere taking advantage of the wonderful sunshine. The slight breeze made the temperature bearable. There were people mowing their lawns, kids riding bikes, teenagers playing baseball in the field and a group of kids and adults playing basketball in a driveway. The Norman Rockwell-esque atmosphere came to a complete stop, though, once we turned the corner onto the street with “that” house. Nobody was outside, and everything was quiet; it was as if an invisible cloud hung over the block.

“This is eerie, huh?” I whispered, sure that although he couldn’t verbally answer me, he was feeling it too. “I don’t even see Tommy and your girlfriend Daisy.”

‘Whoof.” He proved me wrong with that single bark. His body was on high alert, his ears standing straight up, and his tale was stuck flat to his rump.

“I just know something is not right with these people. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I just have a feeling that something is not right with them.” I looked down, expecting him to reply in some way, when the sound of a vehicle coming around the corner made me look up.

“Whoof, whoof, whoof,” he replied as I pulled him back and leapt out of the way of the car. The man in the van laughed as he raced passed us and screeched to a stop in the driveway of “that” house.

“Hey you, lady with the dog,” he demanded with an accent as he stalked towards me. “What are you doing around here spying on us?”

“What are you talking about? I am walking my dog, just like always.” My voice somehow came out sounding calm despite my being scared silly.

“You aren’t fooling me…” He stopped and jumped back as Frankie began growling, bared his teeth and tried to lurch at him. “Keep that dog away from me. It would be a real shame if something happened to him.”

“You can’t threaten me, we aren’t doing anything wrong,” I hollered angrily to make sure he heard me as he rushed back across the street.

The man ignored me, pulling out a cell phone as he ran to the back of the van.

“It’s ok, calm down. He is gone now,” I soothed a still growling Frankie, whose whole body was shaking, as I crouched next to him and picked him up. As I raised my head and started to get up, I noticed that the rude man was leading a couple of young girls, who appeared to be about my teenage son’s girlfriend’s age, to the front door; practically running with them. All at once it hit me, these guys weren’t selling drugs; they were doing something even worse. Those girls had looked terrified, and when one of them tried to look at me, the man had pushed her.


Although Frankie loved the sprint home, I was panicking. A thousand thoughts were flying around in my head. What do I do? I was sure that those girls weren’t with that man voluntarily, but what could I do about it? What if those men knew where I lived?

“Whoof, whoof, WHOOF!” The increasingly loud barking cleared the mangled mess of thoughts and I knew what I had to do. While I couldn’t stand the thought of those girls being hurt, I absolutely could not risk my family being hurt either. I grabbed the phone and punched the buttons to call Jennifer. While the phone rang, I worriedly made sure the locks where engaged on all of my doors.

“Carrie, I am really busy, I …”

“Jennifer, listen … I know for sure that something is going on at that house and you need to get someone over there now.”

“What are you …”

“No, listen to me. We almost got hit by the van and that man came over and threatened us. If Frankie hadn’t tried to bite him, he might have…”

“STOP TALKING!” She ordered, cutting my rambling off. I recognized her work voice; I now had her full attention. “Now, take a deep breath and start from the beginning.

Twenty minutes later Jennifer and two police officers that I didn’t know were at the house taking my statement. Frankie, after sniffing them to make sure they were ok, was now lying on the rug monitoring everything.

“Ok, ma’am—I think we have everything we need.” The younger officer, Jim, closed his notebook and stood up. “Be sure to stay away from the suspect’s house. We would hate to have to arrest you for interfering in a police investigation.”

“But I …” I began in protest.

“Carrie, you have to stay out of this. You can just let Frankie out in the back yard.” Jennifer cut me off before I could get started.

“I have to walk my dog. He loves the exercise and he will not do his business in our yard.” I glared at all three of them and was preparing to start my defense when the lock in the front door started turning and Frankie ran to the door.

“Mom, what are the police doing here? Is everything ok?” Charlie’s worried voice reached us before the door was fully open.

“Why are you home so early? Is something wrong?” I rushed to the door, Frankie right on my heels.

“I told you that we were getting out at noon today because of the playoff game tonight.” He brushed past me, absently playing with the dog before stopping to stare at the crowed living room. “Ms. Wallis, what’s going on?”

“The officers have some questions for your mom about the new people who moved in a few blocks down,” Jennifer answered. “Have you noticed anything, Charlie?”

“You mean the one with all the vans in front of it? It looks like they are moving out.”

“What do you mean, moving out?” The officer that was still sitting, Mike, jumped up quickly.

“When did you observe this activity?” The younger policeman moved towards Charlie, pulling out his radio.

“Not too long ago, when we went by on the bus. There must have been 6 or 7 trucks and vans there. We all thought it was strange because they just moved in a few months ago,” Charlie replied, then added something that really got everyone’s attention: “Some of the guys were crushing on a couple of the girls. They were pretty cute, but some of them didn’t seem very happy”

“I’ll be right back.” The more senior officer stepped outside onto the front porch.

“Sit down son. I have some more questions.” The other policeman instructed.

“Mom, we weren’t doing anything wrong,” he insisted as he dropped his backpack and sat down.

“You’re fine, don’t worry about it. I am right here.” I sat on the floor next to him.

“They just want you to help them …”

“Ok, first of all, is this the first time you noticed anything strange going on over there?”

“No sir, a bunch of us have been watching that house for months now,” my son replied.

“What, why didn’t …”

“Carrie, please don’t interrupt.” Jennifer interrupted, stopping for a second when Frankie started barking as the other office came back into the house. “Charlie, go ahead with what you were saying. Ted, come over here, I think you are going to want to hear this.”

“Ok son, start at the beginning,” the senior officer said after he sat on the couch and took his notebook out.

“Well, um …” he started, only to look a little uncertainly at me. “Mom, we were just kidding around.”

“It’s ok, whatever it is, it is alright. Just go ahead and tell them everything,” I reassured him, wondering what he was worried about me finding out.

“Well …” He started, blushing a little as he glanced at me again before continuing. “The first time we noticed the girls was a few days after you told me about somebody new moving in. Tommy lives on that same block and he said that he thought maybe they were that old man’s daughters or something. He said he had seen two of them once before and tried to talk to them because he thought they were cute. The old man hollered at Tommy and told him to stay away from his girls. Then a few days later he said there were more girls that came late at night with some other men, who were yelling at the girls to hurry up and get inside. When Tommy first told the rest of us, we thought he was making things up since he is always making things up. Two or three weeks ago we saw about ten girls arriving in a van and they were dressed up like they had been on a date or something. You know, with their hair all done and lots of make-up and high heels. They kind of looked like girls do when they go to a club.”

“A club, how do you know …” I squeaked, realizing all at once that my 16-year old son was no longer my baby.

“Not important right now. Carrie …” Jennifer started.

“I know, sorry, I’ll be quiet.”


“Son, you have been very helpful. Now remember, we don’t want you or your friends approaching anybody from that house. If you see or hear anything, I want you to call me at this number at any time. If I am not available, leave a message with the dispatcher.” The officer handed Charlie his card and then turned to me. “Carrie …”

“I know, stay away from that house,” I responded glumly.

“No, actually, I want you to continue your normal daily routine. If you change things up now, it will tip them off that something is going on.”

“I can do that. Do you want me to …” I perked right up, excited to be helping.

“No, you need to continue doing everything the same as you have been doing them. Just be sure to be your usual observant self. If you notice anything, even the smallest change, I want you to let us now ASAP.” Mike looked extremely serious as he gave me his card. “I need you to promise that you aren’t going to interfere in any way. If this is what I think it is, these men will not hesitate to hurt you, your dog, your son, or anyone else who threatens them.”

“Are you sure I shouldn’t just keep Frankie here like Jennifer suggested?” Swallowing my pride as worry for Frankie and Charlie washed over me.

“No, I think you will be fine as long as you stick to your normal routine. They will not want to call attention to themselves if they can help it. Just remember, call me or anyone at the police department if you notice anything different,” he sternly advised as the three of them walked to the front door. “Call me if you notice anything strange.”

The silence after they left was broken by the dog announcing that it was time for dinner.

“Mom …” Charlie started hesitantly as he filled Frankie’s bowl.

“Sweetheart …” I began as I took out the fixings for homemade pizza. We looked at each other, laughed, and hugged, and the awkwardness was broken. “Why didn’t you tell me about the people at the house?”

“I thought it might be a little weird, you know, talking about the girls and how some of the guys were talking about them.”

“I understand, but I thought you knew that you could tell me anything. No judging.”

“Yeah, but …” He began, torn between loyalty to his friends and the need to talk about things.

“If you don’t feel comfortable talking to me, how about one of the officers that were here earlier?”

“Maybe, but it’s ok, I can tell you. Just promise you won’t tell any of the guys. I don’t want them to think I’m a snitch or anything.”

“I won’t tell them anything you said about them. In fact, if it doesn’t have anything to do with the new neighbors, then just don’t tell me. How does that sound?

“Ok, cool.”

While we made dinner together, I found out that Charlie really didn’t know anything more than what he had told the police. He had just felt funny about talking about the conversations he had with his friends with me. After reassuring him again that he didn’t have to worry about me saying anything to his friends, I found out that our new neighbors were the main topic of conversation among everybody on his bus, including his bus driver. In fact, the bus driver had already said something to the school’s front office. This made me feel a lot better—safety in numbers and all. Surely those guys wouldn’t do anything to me if a lot of others were suspicious of them as well.


With a new-found calm, the next morning I set out to take Frankie for a long walk before leaving for church. As we went around the corner to the street with the sketchy house I came to a complete stop. Two houses down, across the street from that house, a six-foot-tall football player was pacing worriedly and talking to himself.

“Tommy, is everything ok? Is something wrong with your mom or dad?” Concern for my friends made me rush to his side.

“No ma’am, they’re fine.” He stopped and looked at me with tears in his eyes. “It’s Daisy, she is gone.”

“Gone, what do you mean gone, where did she go?” My voice raising to be heard over Frankie’s excited barking at Daisy’s name.

“We were taking a walk, and while I was scooping her poop up we heard a funny sound from the house over there. Daisy was gone before I even realized that she had gotten out of her harness.”

“I’m sure she’s ok, let’s call her. Daisy, Daisy!” Her answering yipping had barely begun before Frankie barked in return, pulled his leash out of my hand, and took off like a bullet across the street.

“Oh no, what do we do?” The look on Tommy’s worried face made me realize what a cute little boy he must have been. He looked at me warily and spoke hesitantly. “We need to go over there, don’t we? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want anything to happen to the dogs, but I am pretty sure that I saw one of those guys with a gun the other day.”

“A gun, are you sure about that?” A cold feeling washed over me. My baby was over there and I needed to rescue him. As I thought about how Tommy and I would do this, Officer Mike’s words popped into my head and I pulled my phone out of my pocket.

“Ms. Landers, are you ok? What do you want to do? I’m really worried about the …” He began.

“Hold on a minute, Tommy.” I cut him off as the policeman’s deep voice answered. “Hi, it’s Carrie Landers, you came over to my house yesterday about those people. Do you remember …”

“Yes ma’am, I remember. Is everything alright?” He answered.

“No, maybe … I’m not sure …” I stopped, feeling very foolish. What if the dogs were totally fine? What if those people weren’t really doing anything wrong?

“Carrie, ma’am, are you still there?” the deep voice called.

“Well, I was walking my dog and he got loose to go chase after Daisy and now they are both …” My words rushed out so fast in my nervousness that they ran together into one incoherent sentence.

“Calm down, breathe … Now tell me where you are and what’s going on,” he instructed as I heard a door closing. “Are you in a safe place? I am on my way and I am calling backup. Now, tell me everything.”

The next thirty minutes past in a blur of activity. Tommy and I had, as instructed, retreated a safe distance away. Thanks to Tommy’s report of seeing a man with a gun who seemed to be pushing a young girl into the house against her will, the police had probable cause to enter the premises. Inside, they found ten scared teenage girls who had been kidnapped from various places. A man in the backyard who had cornered Daisy was now cowering due to a growling Frankie, ready to attack at the slightest provocation. I had never been so proud of my little attack dog! It took me five minutes of calling Frankie before he stopped snarling, but he wouldn’t leave the backyard without Daisy. The two of them were happy to be reunited, and Tommy took them both to his house so they could spend more time together.


“Carrie, I have to hand it to you, your nosiness really worked to our advantage this time,” Jennifer said teasingly as she walked up to me. “The police are happy to have broken up the human trafficking ring. The Houston police were close to cracking the ring when a girl escaped and the criminals got spooked and disappeared. Apparently, they decided working out of a small town would work better.”

“My nosiness? I’m not nosy, just very curious and observant!” I protest and then grinned, hugging her. “Hey, maybe I can be a consultant or something for the police on future cases?”

“Yeah, I don’t think so. Just stick to your day job!” She burst out laughing.

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Science Fiction Short Story: “When I Was Your Age”

“When I Was Your Age” by Darren French is the First Prize-winning story in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. To see a complete list of winners and read the first-place winners in each genre, click here. For an extended interview with our grand-prize winner, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from the winners, click here.

When I Was Your Age by Darren French

“When I was your age, back before all this happened …” Grandpa begins, but I roll my eyes, turn on my Strip computer—one of the old zoogity types that graft to your temple—and tune him out. Like most people born before the Accident, he doesn’t get that time doesn’t matter anymore. Which is why he took me out for my birthday in the first place.

I go to grab another slice of pizza, but before my fingers can close around the crust, the slice disappears. Our booth and Tony’s Restaurant is gone, too, and now we’re sitting on a park bench on a warm summer’s day.

“Jee—Gah,” Grandpa blurts. “God-damn-it. I can’t stand this crap. When are we now?”

I shrug, shut off my computer, and watch the ducks swim in the pond down the hill from us. On the other side of the pond, a girl in black shorts and a neon-yellow top jogs past. As she runs up the hill away from us, she becomes a swirl of black and yellow and flesh-tone hues, like wet paint on canvas. A second later, she’s gone, leaving only a faint ripple in the fabric of space-time.

“2019. It’s 2019. What do you bet? Incredible. I was two-years-old in 2019.” Grandpa furrows his brow and looks over his shoulder. “But this isn’t Chicago … where do you think we are?”

“There aren’t any places anymore, Grandpa. No years, either.”

Grandpa sighs.

The park disappears, and now we’re sitting on a couch in a living room. A pirate stands in the corner looking confused, while some show called Leave It to Beaverys on a screen built into a giant television console that must weigh as much as a car.

“I remember this show,” Grandpa says. “Used to watch it on Netflix when I was a kid.”

I nod and look up at the pirate. “I’m Nico. This is my grandpa, Ethan Stevens,” I say, gesturing with my head.

The pirate inches toward us along the wall like a prison escapee, keeping as much distance between himself and the TV as he can. He looks at Grandpa.

“Do you know where the Black Lady is?” he says, which I figure must be his ship. “What kind of witchcraft is this? Where did Barbados go?”

Grandpa looks up at the pirate and sighs. “I don’t know when or where anything is anymore,” he says.

The pirate slumps onto the couch on the other side of grandpa, and they discuss things that aren’t here anymore. I use the opportunity to get up and see if there’s any food.

I find a fridge upstairs in what originally might have been a burial chamber or crypt or something. A girl in a sequined dress and shoes with wheels rolls around the gold coffin. I grab a couple of chicken wings from the fridge and look at the pictures painted on the walls: men in skirts and men with animal heads, and strange symbols. I forget what they’re called.

As I eat my chicken and look at the pictures, the girl disappears. Other people come and go, and after several minutes, someone behind me says, “Beautiful, aren’t they?”

I nod and look over my shoulder. He’s about grandpa’s age, with slicked-back silver hair. He looks dreamily at the pictures, adjusts his glasses, and glances at me.

“Leo Robinson,” he says, holding out his hand.

I shake it. “Nico Stevens.”

Leo nods, stuffs his hands in his pockets, smiles, and looks at the pictures. “There are benefits to the Accident, aren’t there?”

“Huh?” I say.

“Well, look at us here, gazing at hieroglyphics. Never thought I’d do that.”

I shrug, but nod. “Can you read them?”

“Not a word. But they’re great to look at, right?”

“I love the artist’s style,” I say. “Bold colors, and everything looks flat. Never seen anything like it before.”

Leo chuckles.


“When I grew up, people weren’t really interested in the art of it. Just the history.”

“Too bad,” I say.

Leo nods, but he soon begins to melt and swirl. A second later, he’s gone. I look at the hieroglyphics for another minute, and then take the playground slide back downstairs.

In the living room, which is now the inside of a horse-drawn carriage, Grandpa’s still talking to the pirate. All I hear is, “shattered the space-time something-or-other,” before Grandpa hears me and turns around. “‘Bout time. Where you been?”

“There isn’t any time or—”

“Or places, anymore. Yeah, yeah.” Grandpa sighs, turning back to the pirate. “See what I mean?”

The pirate nods, knowingly.

“We should get back home,” Grandpa says to me. “Your parents will be worried.” He furrows his brow. “How do we get home again?”

I sigh and tell Grandpa and the pirate to hold each other’s hand so they don’t get lost in the next shift. A moment later, the stagecoach melts away.

“What did I tell you?” Grandpa says. “It’s easiest on the kids. They don’t know any different.”

I roll my eyes, turn on my computer, and pull up an article on Egyptian hieroglyphics.

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Grand Prize-Winning Short Story: “Snow. Blood. Love.”

“Snow. Blood. Love.” by Ami Cameron is the Grand Prize-winning story in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. For complete coverage of the awards, see the issue. To see a complete list of winners and read the first-place winners in each genre, click here.  For an extended interview with our grand-prize winner, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from the winners, click here.

Snow. Blood. Love. by Ami Cameron

It was a seventeen hour drive every second Christmas to my grandmother’s. We drove in my parents’ blue Oldsmobile. More than once Dad got out, adjusting the chains as we climbed through the mountains, in and out of snow. He’d return to the driver’s seat with a face slapped red from the sting of the icy wind.

A week before leaving, we’d gather our winter clothes from the basement. They weren’t used any other time, though it wasn’t for lack of longing. Many an early winter morning, I’d run downstairs and look out the window, still dark in the country, hoping to see that white light of snow that I loved. Instead, there was only green and grey: winter on the west coast.

But I was a prairie girl, a snow angel.

I belonged at Grandma’s, where there was snow, hot chocolate in thermoses that we drank by the frozen pond, and ice skates tied so tight we stopped feeling our toes go cold.

There were cousins who crawled into high beds under heavy quilts, and aunts and uncles who told stories of shooting deer and tracking elk. All I had to do was slip out my tiny upstairs bedroom, wander through the dark hall, and peer down the stairwell to see the proof of their hunting adventures. Over the staircase hung the head of beautiful beige doe that Uncle Mark shot by mistake when he was thirteen.

Her glass eyes shone, and her chin tilted proudly, as if to ask, “You think I belong here?”

Now, you don’t shoot does, only bucks, and with those black eyes gazing right at me through the shadows, I felt as guilty as if I’d shot her myself.

There was magic at Grandma’s house. We all knew it, though no one ever said it. A kitchen counter cluttered with pots, pans, and canning jars still had room for my aunts to hop up and have a seat, swing their legs and flirt with their brother-in-laws. Meals of lasagna or game roast arrived on the table without anyone being stuck in the kitchen. There was chaos and laughter and kisses in endless supply.

Each morning, I woke to Grandma banging around in the kitchen making her watery version of coffee, and the smell of bacon thick in the air.

More importantly, outside in the sunshine was a new layer of snow. Fresh and clean, and absolutely wonderful.

This year was no different. It was our first day there, and it had snowed during the night. I was just pulling on my winter boots to go for a good tromp when Aunt Meredith arrived, her eyes red-rimmed and bleary with tears.

In one swift and unified action, my aunts and uncles surrounded her. My two young cousins were swept away along with her luggage and winter coat. In a matter of minutes she was sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of hot coffee in her hands.

“Jessica, go put a movie on for the kids,” my mother ordered, not bothering to look at me.

I hurried to get everyone settled in front of Miracle on 34th Street, but at fourteen, I wasn’t young enough to distract. Instead, I slinked back to the kitchen to eavesdrop.

“What has he done this time?” Aunt Rachel asked, referring to my aunt’s husband, Gary.

“Another affair,” Meredith said in a shaky voice to her coffee mug. “He says he’ll take the kids if I divorce him, and I don’t have the money to fight him in court.”

Tears spilled down her cheeks as she searched the faces of her siblings for help. Without warning my Uncle Doug slammed his fist on the table, spilling her coffee and making everybody jump, including me. He ignored us; his eyes were fixed on my aunt’s neck. Her shoulders sagged as he pushed back her long brown hair to reveal a purple welt the size of a grapefruit. My aunts gasped and my uncles swore.

“How long has he been hitting you?”

Uncle Doug’s voice was tight and angry, but Aunt Meredith didn’t answer. She just lowered her head to her hands and sobbed. It was a deep throaty aching sound that made the hair on my arms stand up.

I stood glued to the spot, and my gaze wandered from that ugly bruise onto every face, until it landed on my Grandmother’s back. She’d been doing the dishes. Dunk and wash, dunk and wash. Now she stood very still. Her knuckles were white where one hand gripped the edge of the counter.

Everyone moved into the dining room to talk, but Grandma stood like a statue at the sink. It terrified me to see her so still. I thought my strong stoic grandmother might be crying, which scared me even more.

“Grandma,” I asked, and placed a hand gingerly on her back. “Can I help you with the dishes?”

She stared out the window, a wet spot on her apron where she squeezed a dripping sponge, forgotten, against her stomach.

“He’ll come after her, you can be sure of that,” she said in a voice so low I could barely hear her.

“She’s safe here, Grandma. Everyone will take care of her.”

“He’ll come after her,” she said again, “And when he does, I’m gonna kill him.”

As soon as she said this, the trance was broken, and she dipped her hands back in the water and started scrubbing pots again.

“Can you take the plum pudding out of the oven, darlin’?” she asked, and I turned from her to do as I was told.

That night I couldn’t sleep. My cousin Tessa snored softly beside me while the wind blew against our bedroom window, rattling the pane. I watched the snow, swirls of powdered sugar in the grey sky, until my eyelids finally started to droop. Sleep hovered over me, and was about to descend, when a loud bang jerked me awake.

“What was that?” I said to Tessa, sure she’d heard it too, but her only answer was another whispering snore.

I dropped off the bed and my feet hit the cold wood floor. Careful not to slip, I tiptoed down the stairs, doing my best to ignore the doe that oversaw the stairwell like a royal guard. I turned toward the kitchen, following the noise, and saw the back door was open and banging in the wind. Drifts of snow were billowing in. I ran over to pull the door shut, and saw someone in the back yard.

The door blew out of my hand and banged open again, and Grandma turned around. The streetlamp cast an eerie glow into the backyard, and I could see she was wearing my Grandfather’s old plaid hunting jacket. In her hands she held his rifle. She dropped the gun when she saw me, and it fell silently into a cloud of newly fallen snow. I pulled on some boots by the front door and ran out to her. The snow and wind pelted my face and blew through my nightgown.

The snow covered the top of my boots, and filled them with icy cold. Grandma had her hand over her mouth, and her thin shoulders were shaking.

“Oh no,” I whispered.

It was Gary, lying face up in the snow. His blood made a dark red stain against the whiteness. It reminded me of a cherry snow cone.

“Grandma,” I started to say, but she interrupted me.

“I did it. It’s done now.” She paused, then nodded her head once, decisively, and said, “Help me get him into the shed.”

She went and stood by his head, but I couldn’t move, maybe because of the shock, or maybe because I was near frozen.

“Jessica! Grab his legs!”

The urgency in her voice made my feet shuffle forward. We lifted and dragged, but it was no use. He was too heavy for us. Grandma retrieved the toboggan that was leaning against the garage, and once he was on that, we were able to slide him to the shed. I tried not to look at his face, his jaw hanging slack, or his eyes that didn’t blink when the snow fell on them.

Grandma opened the shed door and we pushed the toboggan in and over, dumping him on his side. Then she closed the door. The snow had covered the blood over, so Grandma picked up the gun and we went inside.

She warmed some milk for us and I stood by the old stove. My skin prickled while it warmed through my wet nightgown. Grandma took some brandy from the cupboard and poured a liberal amount into her empty cup. It sloshed over the sides, and she lowered the shaking bottle to the counter and took a deep breath.

Looking at me sideways she said, “I suppose you could use this too.”

I choked as it burned a pathway down my throat.

By the time the milk was ready, I was damp but warm, and a touch drunk.

My brain had started to thaw from the cold and shock, and tears, or maybe melting icicles, clung to my eyelashes. There was a dead man in the shed. Grandma had shot him. I’d touched his lifeless body. I looked up at her, desperate for this to all be a mistake. The skin on her face was red and chapped, and for the first time she looked frail to me.

“Now I don’t want you to think about what happened out there. I wish you hadn’t come out, but thank God you did, or we’d all be in a real pickle.” Her voice shook as she said, “Now up to bed.”

I drank the rest of my milk too fast, and hiccupped loudly. With Grandma behind me, I climbed up the narrow stairs and crawled into bed. Tessa smiled in her sleep, and I felt hollow and empty beside her.

Grandmother smoothed the hair off my forehead. In the darkness she looked like a ghost perched on the edge of my bed.

“Grandma,” I croaked, but she shook her head to silence me.

“Don’t think about tonight. This has to be my secret. Do you understand? It’s got nothin’ to do with you.”

It has a little bit to do with me, I thought, and shivered as I remembered the thud of Gary’s body as it rolled onto the shed’s dirt floor. Grandma pushed the quilt tighter around me.

“Please,” she continued, “You let it be a bad dream. Let it go, darlin’, just like it never happened.”

She stroked my forehead until I fell asleep, feeling the alcohol hot in my belly.

My dreams were filled with banging screen doors, blood trails in the snow, and brandy in a beaker that steamed like a chemistry experiment.

I dreamt of the bruise on my aunt’s neck. It spread like an ink stain over her whole body, while tears slid down her cheeks. Then I saw they weren’t tears but snow, dropping softly and melting on her face. She smiled at me, and repeated my grandmother’s words, I did it. It’s done now. Little drops of blood dripped from her fingertips.

I jolted awake, my heart thundering, but it was still dark outside. Through my bedroom window the snow fell silent to the ground, illuminated by a single streetlight. It would have been beautiful to me, but now all I could think of was the trail of blood that lay underneath, and the cold body in the shed.

I wanted to go outside, to see if the body was still there, but I remembered Grandma’s words, to let it go. I tried to convince myself that it really had been a bad dream.

Two days later we drove home, our car piled with gifts from the Christmas festivities. Leaving Grandma’s house always made me sad, but if anyone thought it was odd that I cried in her arms this year, they didn’t say.

Once we were home, details of that night became blurred. I had vivid dreams. They were always about the shooting, but I never knew who’d be holding the gun. Sometimes it was my grandmother, sometimes my aunt, but the dreams that scared me the most were the times when it was me.

The police questioned my grandmother and my aunts and uncles, even my parents, once Gary’s absence was noticed. Grandma turned out to be an excellent liar. No one thought to ask the fourteen year old girl a province away who had helped hide the body.

Of course I didn’t tell my parents. I’d seen enough Perry Mason shows to know what an accessory to the crime was. My parents speculated that Gary had some bad business associates, and maybe he’d met with foul play. Or maybe he’d just wanted to disappear. A body had never been found, after all.

“Good riddance,” they said with a chuckle, while I slipped away to my room and hid under the covers, guilt and fear overwhelming me.

Months went by. Gary was all but forgotten it seemed, except by me.

My grandmother died a year later. We packed up the car like every time before, but this time, instead of happy anticipation, our hearts were heavy. My mom’s eyes filled with tears more than once on the seventeen hour journey.

The snow greeted us as we climbed through the mountains, and I fought with my mind, as flashes of truth and fiction tangled together.

Grandma’s house was the same as always. The big stove in the kitchen greeted us with a blast of heat when we walked in the front door. Aunts and uncles gathered around us. Cousins hooped and hollered and ran through the house, crazy as always – a year older and a couple inches taller.

There were tears as my mom greeted her siblings, arms around each other, supporting one another just like they always had. And there were moments when, as we played cards or ate or watched movies, we could almost pretend that Grandma was in the kitchen, finishing the dishes or making her famous plum pudding.

The day of the funeral came. It was a cold morning, cloudy and grim. It looked like snow. We bundled up, our dark clothing hidden under large winter parkas. My aunts’ high heels sank through the crusty snow that covered the ground.

The service was short. At the gravesite the wind whipped at our hair and froze the tears on our skin as the casket was lowered into the frozen earth. The pastor finished just as the first flake of snow hit the polished mahogany lid.

At home there was a big pot of soup warming on Grandma’s stove. After we ate, the cousins settled in front of the television, while the adults talked quietly or went to their rooms. But I was restless.

I went into the kitchen to see if I could help with anything. At fifteen, I realized that meals didn’t just appear, and the house didn’t run itself. Sorrow draped itself on my shoulders because I knew some of the magic of this place had disappeared along with Grandma.

I did the dishes and put the kettle on for hot chocolate. My eyes fell on the back door, and suddenly I needed to be out in the snow. I needed to remember exactly what had happened the year before.

I yanked on my boots and jacket, and stumbled down the back steps. The days were short now, and it was already dark. With the snow falling around me, I was transported back to that night.

I closed my eyes.

I heard the screen door bang in the wind. I felt the snow fill my boots and freeze my skin. I saw Grandma, the shotgun by her side. I watched it drop into the snow. Then….

Tracks in the snow, footprints I hadn’t noticed before.

I wish you hadn’t come out, but thank God you did, or we’d all be in a real pickle.

My eyes snapped open and I swung around. Aunt Meredith stood behind me.

“You’re remembering, aren’t you?” she said softly.

“I don’t know,” I didn’t want to give away Grandma’s secret.

“She said you didn’t see me, but I was never sure.”

We both looked ahead, as if we could see the whole thing like a movie in front of us.

“Where were you?” I finally asked.

“Over there,” she motioned toward the cedar siding of Grandma’s house. “You passed me when you came down the steps, but you were looking at Grandma. I ran in the house and up to my room.”

I imagined her watching from her bedroom window while Grandma and I dragged the body of her dead husband through the snow. We both shivered at the same time.

I wanted to ask if she shot him, or if it was Grandma. I wanted to ask where his body was now. I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t make my mouth form the words.

She reached into her coat pocket and brought out an envelope. My name was written in Grandma’s slanting script. I opened it with cold fingers as my aunt left me alone to read it.

Dearest Jessica,

                        When you are a mother, you will understand.

                        I’m sorry. I love you.


I refolded the letter and put it back in the envelope. Then I went inside and finished making the hot chocolate. I didn’t wipe away my tears.

That wasn’t the only letter delivered that day. Grandma’s confession was sent to the police too. She told them where the body was, and Gary was dug up from a shallow grave in the shed. The case was closed and I didn’t hear any more about it.

Last night I dreamt I saw a herd of deer running through the snow. Grandma was beside me and she raised her gun with the skill of an experienced hunter. The doe lifted her head and looked at us. It was the same doe that hung over my grandmother’s staircase, except her eyes were still full of life.

“No!” I cried, and tried to pull her gun down.

Grandma turned to me and smiled.

“I’m tired of dead things,” she said, and lifted the rifle high, firing a shot into the cloudless sky. The doe bolted, and the herd scattered in every direction. “She deserves to be free,” she whispered, “But freedom comes at a cost.”

She dropped the gun and fell to her knees, and I saw the bullet hole in her jacket, just over her heart. There was blood in the snow. Grandma’s blood. Her love.

And I couldn’t cover it up.

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