IT’S A TIE for 3rd Place!
Yeah, we had a lot of terrific stories this time around and when it came right down to it, this one was too close to call, so we gave BOTH of them 3rd place.
When you read them, I think you’ll agree: some good storytelling is at work here
(And yes, I know some of you came to see who got third just so you could know who gonna compete for first and second place. Some of you are coming to be sure your name isn’t here today. That’s okay. I’d do that, too.)
Word Weaver Writing Contest
3rd Place TIE
The Fourth Option by Frank Parker
Sick Day by Laura Holian
Too close to call, but winners for VERY different reason – as you’ll see in a moment. Enjoy!
The Fourth Option
The question had been nagging away at the back of my mind for days, but it was Jacqui who was the first to voice it. “What am I going to do about you, Brian?” Meaning: “Am I going to sleep with you, or will I do the right thing and cool our relationship?”
She was holding both my hands in both of hers. She looked deep into my eyes. My innards knotted at the realization that she, too, had seen that our situation had reached a point where a decision had to be made.
We’d been seeing each other for several weeks. Since Easter Monday, in fact. That’s when the fire that had been smouldering deep inside me burst into flames. We had known each other for much longer. As neighbors in the same cul-de-sac we had often gone out together, making up a foursome: her husband, Gerry, my missus, Joan, and the two of us. The residents’ association for our estate had organized a car treasure hunt and we four had made up a team. We’d followed a series of cryptic clues to local beauty spots and historic buildings, finishing up at a country pub. We all got a bit tipsy. Gerry was at the bar getting a round in and Joan went to the powder room, leaving Jacqui and me at the table. I offered her a cigarette. As I lit it our hands touched.
Her hand was soft and warm against mine. It lingered just a little too long holding mine. So long, in fact, that I had to withdraw it quickly to avoid being burned. But the sensation I got was more than could have been explained by the heat of the match. She held my gaze as she allowed a stream of blue smoke escape between her lips.
It was only a moment. I don’t think either of us thought it would lead anywhere. I certainly didn’t. Gerry arrived with the drinks, Joan came back from the loo and the evening progressed as usual.
A few days later I needed to book a room for an important client. Jacqui’s brother owned a hotel in town so I naturally wanted to put the business his way. Instead of the usual receptionist it was Jacqui who answered the phone that morning. The regular girl had pulled a sickie and Jacqui had agreed to fill the breach.
The sound of her voice sent my heart racing. My mind was filled with the image of her hazel eyes and the look they’d contained that Monday evening; as if she was wondering; what if? What if Gerry and Joan were not here? Where might the night lead? Did I imagine it? Was I transferring my own speculations onto her?
“Brian, are you there?”
“I thought we’d been disconnected or something.”
Was it my fevered imagination or was there more than the hint of innuendo in her words? Did she hope for some different kind of connection? I can’t say I am proud of the words that came from my lips then, born, I can only suppose, of recklessness. “I’d hate to be disconnected from you.”
She ignored my naff chat up line and we completed the booking. And then I let that recklessness really take over. It was Joan’s bingo night. I would be at a loose end for a couple of hours.
“What are you and Gerry up to tonight?”
“Gerry’s out of town. He’s in Manchester pricing a contract.” There was a moment’s hesitation before she added the words I had only dared to dream of. “Why do you ask? Did you have something in mind?”
Did I? You bet I did. “Not really, it’s just that Joan’s at bingo tonight and I thought maybe Gerry and I could go for a pint or two.” I held my breath.
“Like I say, Gerry won’t be able to make it. Will I do?”
I exhaled, my stomach doing summersaults, my imagination in overdrive.
* * *
In the weeks that followed we snatched whatever opportunities came our way, and manufactured a few more besides. But we were running out of excuses. It was obvious that it could not go on any longer. It was time for a decision. Did we carry on deceiving our partners by meeting in secret? Did we knock it on the head, or did we bite the bullet and tell our respective partners the truth, leave them, and set up home together?
Neither option appealed. I could not see how we would be able to continue living in such close quarters whilst pretending nothing had happened between us, and her question made it clear that she felt the same. Not that what had happened up to now involved infidelity in its strictly legal sense. We’d kissed, we’d fondled each other. Behaved like a couple of old fashioned teenagers, in fact, but we’d always drawn back from the brink to which desire frequently drove us. It was as though that would take us to a place from which there was no return.
To see the hurt on Joan or Gerry’s faces when they discovered what had been going on behind their backs would be unbearable. Which left the third option: run away together. But that was not an option either. Not really: we might not see their expressions but we would know. And then there were our jobs. Neither of us could afford to walk away from reasonably well paid positions.
There was, of course, a fourth option. But neither of us even voiced that one – not then anyway. No, we did the right thing; agreed not to see each other except in the company of our respective spouses.
If only we’d realized how difficult that was going to be. It soon became clear that both of us were even avoiding meeting as a foursome, finding excuses to decline invitations. It was Joan who was first to notice. “I don’t know what I’ve done to upset Jacqui but she never seems to want to come out with us anymore. Or has something happened between you and Gerry?”
I almost dropped the cup I was drying. “Me and Gerry? No, we’re good – or I think we are.”
“Something is up. Do you think I should ask her? Have it out with her? We’ve been friends for so long, we should be able to talk openly and sort it out, whatever it is.”
I tried not to let the panic show in my voice. “She’s your friend, I suppose you know how well she would react to being accused of ignoring you. There’s always the risk that you’ll end up making it worse.”
Thank Heaven she had her back to me. If she had seen the colour in my neck, the sweat on my brow . . .
Her next words allowed me to release the breath I’d been holding. “I wouldn’t want to do that. No, I think I can be diplomatic, bring the subject up without causing offense. After all, we always go Christmas shopping together. I’d hate for us not to be able to do that this year.”
My relief lasted only seconds. With shaking hands I finished the drying of our dinner things.
I had to call Jacqui. I couldn’t risk the possibility of her looking guilty when challenged. “I’m just going for a walk.”
I didn’t wait to see the expression on Joan’s face or hear her reaction. It was not as if I’d never taken a walk after dinner before. The thought of telephoning Jacqui again set my heart and mind racing. After I opened my phone I hesitated. I needed to slow down, work out what I was going to say, try to keep the anxiety out of my voice. I took time to let my heart beat return to something closer to normal.
Even so, the sound of her voice took my breath away. I couldn’t speak. She had to repeat her first “Hello.” This time there was a harshness, a definite feeling of annoyance, as though she was used to receiving silent calls.
Another pause. Then, “Brian? I thought we agreed . . .”
“We did. The thing is, Joan has noticed that you’re avoiding her. She’s talking about asking for an explanation.”
“Right.” I waited through a long silence. “So,” Another long moment. I could hardly breathe waiting for her to go on. At last it came. “What do you think I should do?”
“She wants you to go Christmas shopping with her like you’ve always done. Don’t turn her down. But be prepared with some excuse for why you’ve been keeping your distance.”
* * *
The usual neighborhood get together for New Years Eve was awkward, especially holding hands for “Auld Lang Syne”. I made sure not to be too close to Jacqui when it came to the bit where everyone hugs the person nearest to him and wishes her “Happy New Year”. But from then on things between the four of us were back to the old “normal”. We couldn’t avoid each other.
Jacqui and I did our best not to be left alone, of course we did. And we did not make any secret assignations. Not at first, anyway. But when Easter came around again, I could not help thinking that it was our anniversary. Not exactly, of course, Easter is quite literally a moveable feast. But we had been drawn to each other on Easter Monday. It was only natural that, when Easter Monday came around again I’d think of that moment. And want to repeat it.
I rang her at work.
Was it my heightened imagination, or did I detect excitement in her voice?. Oh, she prevaricated, said she didn’t think it was wise. But I could tell she was going to agree to my suggestion.
From then on matters started to escalate rapidly towards the point when one of us would once again utter those fateful words: “What am I going to do about you?” Not that it matters, but, for the record, this time it was me. And this time there was no beating about the bush.
We chose the fourth option.
If you are reading this, it means you have found our bodies. Joan and Gerry were both enthusiastic about my suggestion that the four of us spend the weekend of May bank holiday at the coast. Accelerating my car toward the cliff edge will probably be the hardest thing I’ll ever do. But, like I say, if you are reading this . . .
Why did it win?
What spoke to the judges?
I love a tight story with an unexpected ending. It will probably be the most memorable for me because of the ending. – celebrity judge Jenifer Ruff
The anticipation is good. The ending was a surprise.- celebrity judge Allison Maruska
For me, it was a surprise ending but also the way the narrator lived in the painful world of uneasy co-existence, a double world filled with lies and stress. The best part? When the wife wonders what she did to alienate the best friend, and asking if the husband did something. That, I loved. He’s trying to be good by staying away, and his wife is basically pushing him to be around his lover. That was some good tension, and enjoyable stress.
Some of you know Frank Parker from the scary anthology. His story here is very different from the narrative he did in The Box Under The Bed. It’s a different kind of story and requires a different kind of storytelling. Frank rose to the occasion and has shown himself to be a capable, talented and versatile writer.
Great job, Frank!
Please join me in congratulating Frank on this well-deserved 3rd place win. I’m sure he’ll be taking the top spot soon!
“Wait. When are you leaving?” I ask Kent, adjusting myself in the uncomfortable cloth passenger seat for about the trillionth time. I turn and stare past him as the sunset flickers through the trees lined along the I-95 corridor back from Miami.
“Tomorrow!” Of course, it was tomorrow. I should have known. “What time?”
“Six in the morning”
I scoff. I am stewing. I glance at the clock in our old rental. 6:23 p.m. I just finished eating my drive-through burger. My stomach is somewhat queasy, but I can’t drive because I am too tired. I don’t trust myself. We’d be certifiable road kill.
“I can’t believe you booked the flight for tomorrow.”
“I had to.”
“No. You didn’t.” I glance out at the dark shadows whirring past us on the road.
“I’m meeting the CIO of Alfonso and his Senior Vice Presidents.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“This was planned a long time ago, Mandy.” He’s referring to his Half Ironman Triathlon. That’s the reason we are here, jammed in a rental van stocked to the hilt in sweaty, dirty gear. We’ve been driving for hours, I’m exhausted. We all woke up at 3:25 a.m. this morning for this Tri. I glance back at our kids. Nathan, is content finishing up his kid’s meal while staring at the movie playing on his tablet. Katy, is in the seat directly behind me. Her little nose is bright red from all her sniffling. Cheap hotel tissues have rubbed it raw. But we can’t stop. We have to keep driving because CIO’s are the boss.
Three days ago, we were all excited to drive down to Miami. Happy and eager to cheer our daddy and husband on for his National Half Ironman Championship. It’s the qualifier for Worlds. Next year, if he qualifies, we’ll be traveling to Denmark.
“You could postpone it for a day.” I say. Hoping.
“It’s a quarterly meeting. The dates are set.” His hands grip the steering wheel.
I look at him. His eyes are tired, but he manages to keep them open. His glance steadfast on the road. I know I am bothering him. But he just keeps on staring ahead.
“I know you’re tired.” I say.
“I do what has to be done.” God, I hate him sometimes. So stoic. I am the hero. I am the savior. He’s so stupid. He always does this. Plans poorly. It’s like he thinks he’s invincible. But he’s not. And this time it caught up with him. He plans way more than any superhuman can do in a day. And then he does it, or most of it, anyway. But some of us are not superhuman.
I start to shiver again. I put on my sweater and adjust the thermostat in the car from 72 to 78. I’m probably the only person in Florida needing a heater. But that’s the low-grade fever making me hot one minute and cold the next. My hacking cough starts up again. I spit mucus into a fast food napkin and stuff it in the gray car handle.
“This is feeling familiar.” He smirks, “I feel like déjà vu.” I glare at him. This is the second time we’ve gone to Miami and the second time I’ve gotten sick. It’s like this trip is cursed. We did it last year, for his Tri. It’s how he qualified for Nationals in Nebraska. But I got this infection in my finger. The day we were driving to Miami I rushed to my family practitioner and she gave me an antibiotic.
We filled it, I took it and we were on the road minutes later. Only, I got an allergic reaction to the medication. I arrived in Miami sicker than ever. Feverish and nauseous. I was sick the whole trip. When we got back to Jacksonville I had to be hospitalized. The medication had adversely affected my blood and then proceeded to screw up my liver. I was a mess.
Now here I was, feverish again, on the trip from Miami. Only this time it wasn’t a reaction to medicine, it was a hell of a cold. Kent got it first. He was terribly sick when he went on a business trip two weeks ago. I had advised him against it, too. I told him he should take some time off to recover. Just a day or two. But he didn’t listen. He never does. By the end of the week he was home, and still running a fever. His National competition was in a week. He’d been working so hard to train. Running and cycling twice a day. His running times were improving and he was getting stronger on the bike, too.
That weekend we planned to go to the Zoo for an overnight campout with Nathan’s cub scouts group. We had paid for all four of us to go.
“You need to take a day or two off.” I had told him on the phone on Thursday night, while he was on his business trip.
“You mean, I shouldn’t go camping?” he asked. Wait. How was my telling him he needed to not work suddenly turning against me?
I never go camping without him. Never.
“What do you mean?” I ask, knowing this is going to be bad. For me, at least.
“I fly back tomorrow. You are suggesting I take some time off. So, that means I shouldn’t go camping, right?” I can hear his smugness over the phone. Shit.
“Tomorrow’s Friday?” I can eat crow and take back what I said when it doesn’t suit me or I have to go camping with a bunch of nine-year old children. Alone. My own personal idea of hell.
But I did it. For my husband and my kids. So my husband could rest up and recuperate. So my kids could have their fun. And Kent would be ready for his Tri in Miami, and hopefully qualify for Worlds.
I take the blanket I have and roll it up. Trying to shove it by my back. Anything to ease the discomfort in my joints. I try to lift in the seat and hit my shin on the dash. I hate this vehicle.
“We are not buying a van like this. Ever.” I mumble to my husband. My legs are way too long.
Kent chuckles, “Scoot the seat back.”
“I can’t. Katy’s almost as tall as me. I don’t want to cramp her.”
Kent glances back at Katy, “She’s asleep with her feet tucked in.”
“We should’ve sat Nathan behind me,” I say, carefully sliding the seat back while Kent continues to drive. I stretch my legs out in front of me. Every inch of me is sore. I know it’s the fever, but if I am sore, Kent must be in pain, too.
I’m still mad at him, though. Quarterly meeting.
“Wouldn’t it be great if quarterly meetings happened more than once a year?” I say sarcastically. Wishing he would maybe opt out of day one of this week-long meeting and stay.
“They do happen more than once a year.” He replies, clearly not getting my point.
“Stop acting like you’re not tired! Like everything is okay! You had a fever up until the day before your triathlon. You’ve hardly been eating. Today, we all woke up at 3:25 in the morning for your event, then you did a Half Ironman, then we rush out of the hotel, now you’ve been driving for hours, and then you plan on getting what? Four hours of sleep, if you are lucky, to turn around and drive another hour to get to the airport!”
“Stop yelling at me, Amanda! You think I don’t know that?”
Now I did shut up. If he yelled at me, that means he was super mad. Kent’s not a yeller. Not unless I nag him to death. Which I was doing. I was just so heated about this whole mess. It’s like he enjoys dragging himself through the wringer only to turn around and say, Yay! Let’s do it again! Why does he refuse to take care of himself? What is so wrong with taking a sick day? Other people do it. Normal people. It wasn’t immediate grounds for firing. I know he is the sole breadwinner of our family, but what kind of boss would fire you for wanting a recovery day. Not even a recovery day if you count the fever he’s had for the past two weeks. Surely, it could count as a sick day . . . you’re allowed to round a little, aren’t you? I was sick. Katy was sick. I glance over at Nathan. He had gotten this dreadful cold first. Could he get it again?
I stare out at the orange and white reflectors on the dark road. Everything is dark. I am exhausted. We will arrive home and have to rush to empty this entire vehicle of our insane cargo. Sweaty clothes. Tons of laundry. Muddy shoes and bike. Folding chairs and canopies we didn’t use. Bags and coolers full of food that might rot. Countless amounts of entertainment, books, scissors, colors, tablets, chargers, laptops . . . and I would have to deal with it all, along with my fever and this endless hacking cough, and my sick daughter who has the world’s runniest nose coupled with incessant sneezing fits. I just hope she doesn’t have a fever, too. Then they have school, scouts, ballet and cross country. And I will have to tackle it all. Alone. While Kent is on his business trip. No one to even warm me a can of soup.
CIO’s need him to read them a report they should be competent enough to read themselves. Or he could call in and do a telecom. He could get a decent eight hours of sleep in our own sweet bed. He could walk around and work out the lactic acid that is surely building up in his legs. He could help me a bit, just for a day.
I have another coughing fit. My cold seems to be getting worse. I am quickly running out of napkins to spit into. My throat is well past raw by this point. He could go on the flight on Tuesday. I would be better. He would be better. Life would be better.
Why was he so stubborn?
“Who pays for these lights I wonder?” Kent glances at the streetlights as we pass a short section of freeway. This town seems inviting with its lit-up streets, gas stations and hotels. “Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate it. I just wonder. Somebody has to pay for it. Don’t you think?”
I nod. Envisioning the comforts of fluffy hotel beds passing us swiftly as we continue on. I remain silent as I mull over my frustration. Unbidden, my mind recalls a conversation we had about a month ago. We had been in a car then, too. I had a craving for donuts and he had obligingly driven us to the nearest donut shop.
“What would you say if we traveled to Miami and I had to take off to a business trip from there?” he’d asked.
“I mean you could just drive back, right?”
“You wouldn’t do that?”
“No. Drive back? Alone? With the kids? From Miami? Are you nuts?” I couldn’t fathom what part of that scenario seemed doable to him, for me at least.
“You could totally do it.” Obviously, he wasn’t remembering my fear of long distance highway driving. I was defenseless and then I would have to protect not only me, but also the kids. What if some whack job wanted to torment us during the night? No way. Not happening. Or if this rental stalled and I was alone on the side of the road, in this dark. I look out the van window. Then I glance over at the controls. An orange light with an exclamation mark is lit up. Has that always been on? I don’t know what it means. But any warning light is a bad sign. I am really glad Kent is with us tonight.
That day, with the donuts I had scoffed, “You’d be going to that triathlon alone, buddy.” crossing my arms defiantly in front of me.
“You really wouldn’t go?” he’d asked shocked.
I had never missed one of his triathlons. Not once. Even when the kids were babies and it was snowing or raining. I had chased after him with my toddler and stroller in tow. Going from his swim, to his bike mount, cheering in the sometimes freezing wind or the sweltering heat, all the way to the finish line.
“That’s harsh.” He’d replied. I remember thinking it was odd for him to sound hurt. I mean, it was just a hypothetical after all. I had laughed it off. But now I remembered.
I glance over at his pale face lit up by the van’s control lights. He is always so pale after a triathlon. It’s like it sucks all the energy and blood out of the surface of him and can pump it only into the deep recesses of his body. I reach over and touch his skin. He is ice cold. Another after effect of the triathlon.
My poor husband. It’s taken me nearly a month to realize it wasn’t a hypothetical question after all. He is doing this for me. I am the stupid one. Selfish, too. He had tried to think it through. He had tried to figure out a way to not have to drive for eight hours immediately after his triathlon. He had thought he could leave from Miami directly. He could have gotten more rest. Stayed at the hotel one more night. But it meant I had to drive back to Jacksonville, by myself, with the kids and all his Tri equipment. That day at the donut shop, I had told him “no.” That I wouldn’t come to his Tri if that was the scenario. He was doing this madness, for me. To take care of us.
Yes, it means he won’t be there to take care of me with my cold. He will be in Texas with some snotty CIO, protecting us with his job security. He will be there in his hotel room, after traveling for two lactic acid inducing days, still recovering from his fevers, from his triathlon, from the drive, from the air travel and he will be presenting in front of CIO’s as if everything is perfectly fine.
We arrive at Jacksonville in a flurry of activity. The kids are half asleep as they zombie their way out of the van. Kent and I work as fast as we can to empty the rental so he can return it before his flight. We toss our wet, dirty and sticky belongings all over the kitchen and living room floors. I get the kids settled in their beds while he starts to pack his suitcases for his business trip. I am still mad. But I can’t vent at him anymore. Not without guilt.
Frustrated, I ask “What can I help you with?”
“You can get my socks.”
I do. Feeling both useless and helpless to stop him.
When he’s finally done packing and I feel like I have been zapped out of every micron of energy I have left, I join him on our bed. I reach to turn off the light, but instead I pause and turn to look at him, “I’m mad at you because I am scared”. He looks up at me, setting his phone down.
“I’m scared that you don’t take care of yourself.” I take a deep breath, “That you think you are so important to this company that doesn’t even care about you. If you get on the road tomorrow morning with four hours of sleep and get in a wreck because you are too fatigued to stay awake. You could get hurt or worse die. And those CIO’s, they’ll just say you were dumb for getting on the road when clearly you shouldn’t have. And then they will find someone else to fill your spot. But us . . . you are the world to us and if you get hurt or die, we’ll be devastated.” I don’t want to cry. But I am so tired. It has been a hectic day. I wipe the insolent tears off my checks. I am scared for him. And I still have to make it through the night and the morning, before I know he’s safe. Or at least safely on a plane, where someone else is driving.
“I know my limits.”
I scoff, “And I just have trust that it will be ok?”
“It will be ok. Mandy, I wouldn’t do anything that puts me in danger.”
“You might not try to fall asleep on the road, but it might just happen” I reply.
“I won’t fall asleep.”
I give an exasperated sigh.
“You have to trust me.”
I roll my eyes and sit facing away from him. He just doesn’t get it.
“I knew my limits today.” The tone in his voice makes me look at him. “That’s why I didn’t finish the Triathlon. I knew I had given it all I could. I knew I would be really hurting if I had gone the extra six miles.”
In all his twenty years of triathlons, this was the first time he’d ever not finished. I knew it was a big deal for him. I had been shocked when he had met us up in the van parking lot and told us he was through. At first I thought I had missed seeing him pass the finish line, but when I looked at my watch, he was early. Too early. That’s when he told me he was opting out of finishing the second loop on the run. This was a National competition. It was the qualifier for World’s.
He picks up his phone and shows me the finisher stats. I see his name and under the finisher’s time are the dreaded letters DQ. “This is the first time I’m ever disqualified from a Tri.” He says somberly. He could have finished, but that would have jeopardized our drive and then his business trip.
We turn off the lights and hold each other in the darkness.
“If the alarm rings and I don’t feel up to it, I’ll take a later flight, ok?”
I squeeze his arms tightly.
My cough starts up again and I sit up. He takes some extra pillows and tries to prop me up as I lay back to rest.
The rest of the night is sleepless. My cough and hacking keep me up for hours. I didn’t see how I was letting Kent get any sleep. The hours on the clock are quickly approaching four in the morning. Would he really take a later flight?
I open my eyes just enough to see the light coming from the outline of our closed bathroom door. I fight sleep. I need to talk to him. I need to convince him. But it’s no use. I can’t keep my eyes open. After being up most of the night, sleep is overpowering me.
My eyes flutter open once again. He’s standing by my side of the bed, motionless. He’s visible only by the light from the streetlamp as it slips through the tiny gaps in the blinds. I can see him dressed handsomely in his business suit. He must have just kissed me goodbye. I imagine that’s what woke me. I close my eyes for just a moment. When I open them again, he’s gone.
Why did it win?
What spoke to the judges?
Are you kidding? This thing’s hilarious.
“Great story, especially for the theme, with a nice message. The author really let us get into this character’s mind.” – celebrity judge Jenifer Ruff
And what a scary place her mind is!
But not every judge loved each story the same, and if we did there’d be no fun in judging contests.
I thought this story was amazing. It grabbed me right away from it’s humorous, sarcastic voice, and the way she second guessed a lot, but how her firm stand turned out to be so ironic. I didn’t see it coming, and loved the quietly suffering martyr (in a good way) that the husband is. He’s a hero, and she loves him but is embarrassed – it’s all so real to me. This would make a great movie.
Please join me in congratulating Laura Holian for a truly magnificent story.
And that brings us to
the FINAL TWO
the winner and the “runner up”
The second place story and the one that takes home the Big Prize
Tomorrow, you’ll know.
- Flight Risk by Kitty Lascurain
- Sabbath by Suzy Solomon
It was a very tough call, with just 1 point separating the final scores of these two top notch writers, but only ONE can be THE winner.