Fiction Winning Entries

1st Place

A Long and Winding Road

by Sara E Barr Palmer

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 9, 1961

Brian Epstein, the 27-year-old manager of the North East Music Shop (NEMS) in Liverpool, stepped out of the front door of his store into Whitechapel Street at 12:30 pm and headed for the Cavern Club to get his first-ever look at a local band called the Beatles.

Two weeks earlier, 18-year-old Raymond Jones, sporting jeans and a black leather jacket, had walked through the door and asked if they carried a record of "My Bonnie," produced in Germany and featuring a Liverpool band. Not the type of customer the store had traditionally catered to, but ever since Epstein had entered his family's business and promptly updated the merchandise from pianos and radios to include a record department, NEMS had begun attracting a younger, hipper crowd.

"Never heard of it," said Epstein. But not one to discourage a potential customer, he promised to make enquiries. He managed to track down a source for the record and cautiously ordered a box of 24. When they were snapped up in less than a day, he ordered 50 more -- in three days they too were gone. himself. himself.

"Why isn't this record out on a British label?" he asked himself. And then asked the same question of Polydor, a Brittish division of the German recording company. Polydor responded that it had no interest in promoting a group that no one outside Liverpool had ever heard of.

Epstein, however, intrigued by the sales response he had experienced, had a feeling that Polydor might be passing up a promising opportunity, and decided to investigate further.

Bill Harry, editor of the Mersey Beat, a local music magazine, told him that the Beatles appeared most lunchtimes at a club called the Cavern, located in the basement of a building three minutes' walk from the store, and today Epstein was on his way to check them out.

******

DECEMBER 14, 1980

Paul pushed open the pub door and hurried inside. It was a miserable day -- damp and chilly with a sharp wind and a continual light drizzle - typical Liverpool weather

The pub, warm and cozy and gleaming with polished oak and brass, was not crowded -- it was only 4:30 -- but a few early customers, who had shed their damp coats and dripping umbrellas, were already seated at tables over which small shaded lamps cast a glow. The walls were hung with sepia photographs of a long-lost Liverpool.

The stout, prosperous-looking landlord bustled up to where Paul stood at the bar.

"What can I get you, sir?" he asked

"Pint of bitter," Paul started to reply, before interrupting himself. "No, something stronger. Give me a whiskey -- make it a double."

"Double whiskey, luv," the landlord instructed the girl serving behind the bar with him.

"Bad day, sir?" he asked, with just the right degree of sympathetic interest.

"The worst! Just coming from a funeral."

"Oh, no. Sorry to hear that. Family member?"

"No, an old friend. My oldest friend, in fact. Known each other since we were around fourteen.

"What a shame! What happened -- auto accident?"

"No, he was murdered."

"Oh, my God," cried the landlord, while the barmaid gasped in horror.

"Yes, he was mugged on his way home from work and stabbed."

"Well there's a turn-up for the books," the landlord exclaimed. "Did they catch the guy?"

"Yeah, they got him right away. He was running away and got tangled up with a chap riding a bicycle. They both ended up lying on the road under the bike. A couple of other people started screaming blue murder, and one of them even had the sense to run into the corner newsagent's and yell for someone to call the police. Meanwhile, the bike rider had gotten to his feet and hit the mugger with his bicycle pump and another fellow who was passing by came over and sat on top of him until the police showed up."

"I think I saw something about that on TV--, so that was your friend! Oh, here's your whiskey, sir."

"How much is that?"

"Under the circumstances, it's on the house."

Paul took a long, comforting swallow of the golden liquid. He felt the tightness in his chest slowly relaxing.

"Thanks. I needed that." Over the rim of his glass, he took a longer look at the man behind the bar. "You look familiar. Don't I know you from somewhere?"

"I was just thinking the same thing about you. Do you live around here?"

"Used to, years ago. Wait a minute -- didn't you used to play drums with some group down at the Cavern? Richie Starkey, that's it."

"Yeah, that's right. Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Imagine you remembering us."

"I used to play there too -- guitar. I was with the Quarrymen. The friend who was killed was the one who first got us together -- John Lennon. I'm Paul McCartney."

"Well, I'll be darned! I do remember you. You had a couple of other guys with you, didn't you? George somebody and Pete something. But I don't remember Quarrymen. Didn't your band have a different name?"

"George Harrison and Pete Best. Yeah, we changed our name to the Silver Beetles, and then John wanted to make it just the Beetles and changed the spelling to B-e-a-t-1-e-s. Like the Beat generation."

''That was it. Gosh, you guys were good. A lot better than our bunch. We only lasted just over a year."

"Well, you seem to have fallen on your feet," Paul commented, looking around. "This is a nice pub. How'd you get into this business?"

"My mum managed this pub from the time I was a little kid," replied Richie, polishing a glass. "Everybody came here -- it was like a home away from home for our neighborhood.

I used to spend a lot of time here with her -- my dad was dead, and there was no one else to look after me. When she got married again, she and my step-dad ran it together. They took me into the business with them, and as they got older, I started taking over more and more. Been here ever since. Of course, the older customers are long gone, but the younger crowd seems to have discovered us, so we're still going strong! And we're keeping it in the family, too. My son Zak helps tend bar during the week. You'll never guess what he does on weekends -- he's in a band!"

"Good for him. Hope he gets further with it than we did."

"You know, thinking back, I'm surprised you guys didn't have more of a success. Didn't I hear something about you maybe getting a record deal?

"We thought we might have a chance once. Remember the old NEMS music store in Whitechapel Street? Somebody told the manager about a record we made in Germany when we were playing a gig in Hamburg back in 1960. He had contacts with some of the big record companies, and we heard he was going to come by and take a look at us. But he never showed up. After a while, we broke up.

"Pete's married with a couple of kids. ·Works at the Jobcentre. My wife runs a photography shop. Does a good business, lots of demand -- weddings, christenings, big parties -- that sort of thing. I've been writing copy for an advertising company for over 15 years. Even write a few of the jingles. Have you seen the ad for Whiskas cat food?"

"Oh, sure, everyone's seen that. Catchy tune."

"That's one of mine. John was a commercial artist -- very talented, very successful.

Married a girl he went to art school with. We both moved to the suburbs, so we didn't get together as often as we used to, but he did a lot of work for our agency, so we never lost touch. George is the one we did lose touch with."

"What happened to him?"

"He joined the Hare·Krishnas."

"You're joking!"

"No, no, it's true."

"What -- that long-haired bunch in the robes who parade around banging tambourines?"

"Yep, that's them. You take a close look sometime when you see them coming -- he's usually in the front row."

"Bloody hell! That's the last place I'd look for any of the old Cavern gang! Well, at least I guess he's stayed in the music business -- if you can count the tambourine as music."

The comment caught Paul by surprise, and he snorted into his drink, which, in turn, struck Richie funny and the two men dissolved into helpless laughter.

"The old Cavern." Paul reminisced after their laughter had eased off. "What a dump! How you guys ever got your drum kits down those stairs, I'll never know. Let alone back up again! But we had the time of our lives there, didn't we? That place was really jumping! Is it still going?"

"Oh, no, it closed up years ago. They tore down the building and built something else -- I think it's an insurance company now. Sometimes I go by that street, but it's all changed." Richie sighed, overcome by the memory of days long gone.

The two fell silent. The years melted away and for a moment they were boys again, caught up in the magic of their music, with a future of endless possibilities seeming to stretch out before them.

Paul downed the last of his drink. "Gotta get going," he said. "Family will be waiting dinner for me. It was great seeing you. Kind of brightened up the day for me -- the funeral really hit me. Hard to imagine a world without John in it."

"Come by anytime," urged Richie. "Made me feel young again, remembering old times."

The pub was filling up, and the barmaid was rushed off her feet. The two men shook hands, and Richie turned to serve his customers.

Paul stepped outside and started walking toward the bus stop. It was growing dark, and a fine mist still filled the air. Scattered fragments of the songs he had once meant to write fluttered tantalizingly at the edges of his mind, as they still did from time to time.

Sometimes they would come so close, he thought he could reach out and grasp them, but each time they danced away, just beyond his fingertips. He lingered in the memory of his young life for a minute or two longer, then shook himself Time to get home. After taking the day off for the funeral, he had to be at work first thing tomorrow -- that ad for Boddington's beer wasn't going to write itself

******

NOVEMBER 10, 1961

LIVERPOOL ECHO: Obituaries

Died November 9: Brian Epstein, manager of the North East Music Store, aged 27. Killed at 12:31 by a speeding motorist while crossing Whitechapel Street outside the front of the store.

         

2rd Place

Black Powder Smoke

by Richard Perrault

The night before his 107th birthday, Shiloh Davenport decided the only reason he was still alive was because he’d simply forgotten to die. But now the pain was a constant reminder he’d overdone his stay. The radiation beads no longer slowed the prostate cancer eating him alive from the inside out. Certain there would be no 108th birthday, he intended to make the most of 107.

He thought back almost a hundred years, to the day he turned 13. His mother had taken him to the moving picture where he watched Tom Mix portion out western justice with his pearl handle six-shooters. That was the day Shiloh knew he wanted to be a gunslinger.

Presents of any kind were few and paltry back then, so when Christmas came Shiloh was surprised to find a toy cowboy pistol and holster under the tree. He made a leather tie-down out of a bootlace, strapped it to his leg, and set to practicing. Come springtime he won a junior quick draw contest at the May Day fair.

On his 16th birthday, he bought his first real pistol; a Colt Single Action Army. Later, with money he’d won in shooting contests and a little more given by a favorite uncle, he added a Great Western revolver, like the one John Wayne would use in his last movie, The Shootist.

For awhile Shiloh managed to keep himself fed winning what were known as shootin’ shows at Devil’s Addition, an historically flawed restoration of old Abilene’s wild west heritage. Then came the Great Depression. Work was scarce, tourism stuffed into a bottom drawer to save for a less rainy day, for a time when there would again be such a thing as an extra dollar.

With no work in Abilene, Shiloh moved to California. His prowess with a pistol soon landed him a string of roles as nameless gunslingers in low budget films. One day, on an adjacent set to where Shiloh had again died early in the script, he met John Wayne. The two hit it off at the drop of ten-gallon hat. Wayne convinced Warner Brothers to hire Shiloh to teach him how to make his gunplay more realistic. With great fondness Shiloh remembered the day he was showing the Duke what he called his rattler strike. The big man hesitated as he reached for his pistol. “Don’t think about the draw,” Shiloh told him. “Before you draw, imagine that you’re already puttin’ the gun back in the holster and the varmint who called you out is face down in the dirt. If you’re thinking about the draw, you’re a dead man.” With a comical smirk Wayne had replied, “Don’t worry about me getting killed, Shiloh. Anybody beats me to the draw, we’ll just do another take.”

Shiloh’s life had been filled with rich, memorable moments, such as the one with Wayne, but something was still missing. An itch that had gone unscratched. He had spent the better part of a century making a living with a pistol, yet he’d never had the chance to test his mettle in a real gunfight. He’d obviously lost some speed over the years, but it wasn’t the quickness of the draw that tilted the scales toward life or death. What mattered most was the calm, smooth squeeze of the trigger.

In spite of making a good living in the movies, Shiloh had little in the way of material possessions; mostly because of his fondness in younger days for chasing fast women and betting on slow horses. But he still had the Great Western revolver, sleeping now beneath a tangled wad of old man underwear in the top drawer of a battered oak dresser. Resting beside the gun was all that was left of his ammo stash: three .45 cartridges. He hadn’t fired the pistol in a dozen years. He missed the acrid smell of black powder smoke, the pungent brimstone that came with the Hell-announcing thunder.

In preparation for the celebration of his final birthday, Shiloh pried open the dresser drawer and dug into a nest of unmatched socks until he felt the cold steel erection of the Great Western’s five-and-a-half inch barrel. Like a man reading braille he let his hand wander the length of the gun until he found the smooth bone handle. When his fingers closed around the revolver, it was like shaking hands with a best friend he hadn’t seen in years. He set the gun atop the dresser and lined up the remaining cartridges beside it. Three dutiful soldiers, awaiting orders for the coming day.

From the middle drawer he removed his best pair of Levi’s. He put the jeans on a hanger and hooked it to the top of the closet doorframe. From the same drawer he took the belt with the trophy buckle from the 1959 Cheyenne Frontier Days pistol competition. He’d been over 50 then, but managed to take a gaggle of whippersnappers to school on his way to winning first place. He no longer had a yoked shirt or leather vest, but there was an almost-new two-pocket denim shirt with pearl buttons hanging in the closet. It would do just fine.

When his clothes were set out, Shiloh slipped the videotape of The Shootist into the player and settled into his only chair to watch the movie for the twenty-dozenth and final time. As always, he balked at accepting total gentleman, Hugh O’Brian, as a bad guy; was as smitten as ever with Lauren Bacall; and found that Opie kid from the Andy Griffith Show still annoying as hell.

When the last drop of life had bled from J. B. Books and Opie had gone home with his mother, Shiloh turned off the television and went to bed. He and sleep hadn’t been on good terms for years, but whether he slept or not, he needed to rest. A glance at the clock confirmed the day had rolled over. It was his birthday.

 

When Shiloh got out of bed, the onset of dawn was not yet evidenced by the ink-black sky. He put on the jeans he’d set out the night before. He made a fist with his right hand, studying the swollen knuckles the size of chestnuts and the color of a gunpowder burn. Then, with the difficulty native to ancient hands, he threaded the Frontier Days championship belt through the loops. The denim shirt he buttoned all the way to the top, including the neck button. He’d been told buttoning the top button made him look like an old man, but if he couldn’t look like an old man on his 107th birthday, when the hell could he?

With a long-practiced reverence he slid the three cartridges into the cylinder of the revolver, each finding its seat with a satisfying click. He set the revolver back on top of the dresser.

It was Thursday morning. Shiloh knew his ever-predictable neighbor, Sidney Hamilton, would be wheeling his trash cart to the curb between 6:55 and 7:00. There was plenty of time.

Instead of the instant oatmeal to which he often deferred, he pried the plastic lid off the can of real oatmeal, the stone cut kind that would take at least a half hour to cook. Proclaiming the decision out loud, he said, “Looks like a good morning for extra maple syrup. Diabetes be damned.”

He didn’t feel like fooling with the coffee maker. He’d always loved the aroma of the hot black poison more than he’d cared for the taste. In the hundred years since his first cup, he figured he’d had enough; promised himself he’d never drink another drop, and smiled because he knew it was a promise he would keep.

At ten minutes until 7:00, he lifted the holster from the hook on the inside of the bedroom closet door and strapped it on. He knotted the leather leg tie around his thigh, hefted the Great Western from atop the dresser and slipped it into place. Standing before a full-length mirror, he drew the pistol. Disappointed, he reholstered the gun, flexed the fingers of his right hand, and drew again. “Bang. You’re dead,” he said to the left-handed gunslinger in the mirror, even though the reflected Shiloh had drawn exactly as fast as he had.

Taking the battered Stetson off the hat tree in the corner by the bed, he set it on his head, tapping down creases in the places they belonged. He checked himself in the mirror and smiled. He still made one hell of a bad looking hombre.

When he stepped onto his front porch, a halo of morning light etched the roof of Sydney Hamilton’s house, laying a mottled copper patina over everything. He heard the clanking of Hamilton’s back gate, and as expected, soon saw his neighbor wheeling a garbage bin down the driveway toward the street.

Shiloh lifted the gun out of the holster.

Sidney Hamilton parked the trash buggy beside the mailbox and was walking back toward his house when the sound of a black powder explosion launched him into a panicked spin, leaving him staring at Shiloh who stood on his own porch, grinning. The Great Western was pointed a few feet out into the lawn where Shiloh had blown a softball-size crater in the turf.

“Okay, Hamilton,” Shiloh called out. “I’ve warned you for the last time. This town ain’t big enough for the both of us. You’ve got ‘til sunrise. If you’re still here after that, the slurpin’ sound you hear will be the buzzards suckin’ on your bones.”

Before his neighbor could reply, Shiloh fired another round, opening another wound in the lawn.

Sidney Hamilton turned and streaked back toward his house. Shiloh, chuckled, then leaned against the porch railing to wait for what he knew would happen next.

In little more than a minute the wail of sirens foretold the arrival of two sleek police cruisers, screaming down the street from opposite directions, sliding into position, nose-to-nose in front of his house.

Shiloh fired his final round into the ground.

The driver’s door of one car swung open. An officer with pistol aimed, dropped to a knee, using the door as cover. “Drop your weapon!” the officer commanded.

Behind the second car, two policemen had positioned themselves with Shiloh in the sights of another pistol and an M4 assault rifle.

“Sir. Drop your weapon,” the officer demanded a second time, taking care to pronounce each word slowly and clearly.

“You drop yours, you sidewinder,” Shiloh challenged. With his empty hand he pointed at the policeman holding the assault rifle. “And you. Put that Tommy Gun away. Ain’t nothin’ sportin’ about a man with a six shooter against a man with a machine gun.”

He slipped the revolver into the holster and turned his body square with the first officer who had spoken.

The corona of the rising sun was now peeping above the crest of the Hamilton house. Damn. He’d set it up all wrong. Keep the sun at your back. Always. Always! How could he have been so careless? In another minute he’d be blinded, at the mercy of the uniformed marauders cowering behind their steel barricades.

With the sense memory of half-million draws, he pulled the revolver from its holster and raised it toward the officer, flush with the satisfaction of getting the drop on the lawman.

Shiloh didn’t hear the click of the hammer on the empty cylinder of the Great Western, or the report of the M4.

The officers rushed forward, weapons fixed on the crumpled mound of Shiloh Davenport who still had a gnarled finger hooked into the trigger guard of the pistol and on whose face an incongruous smile spoke of a long held dream at last come true.
        

3nd Place

THE PROMISE

by Sharon Dorsey

 

The stooped figure pulled her coat more tightly around her and bent her head into the wind. Her gloved hands dug into the dumpster and pulled more things onto the ground. She worked steadily, pulling, tugging, tossing, her breath creating small puffs of white mist in the frosty night air.

Occasionally, she would stop and look more closely at the item in her hand, holding it up high to catch more light from the street lamp. Sometimes, a smile tugged at the comers of her wrinkled mouth. She fished out a piece of white embroidered linen, edged in tattered lace. Erika remembered the day she completed the embroidery and placed it, starched and pristine, on the small table in their first tiny apartment.

It was their first anniversary, and Karl had spent a few precious pennies on a bouquet of lilacs for her. He was in his last year at the university and money was scarce, but he knew how she loved the lavender blossoms with their rich, sweet fragrance. They meant summer was really coming, along with graduation, and, she hoped, more time to spend together - time to find a small house of their own, time to start the family they both wanted.

She touched the wrinkled fabric to her nose. But instead of lilacs, she sniffed only the mustiness of mold and age. She dropped the tablecloth to the ground, returning to her task. She mustn't daydream. She had to find it, soon, before the first sliver of dawn broke through the night sky.

Erika continued to search, tossing more and more things onto the ground around her feet. There was clothing, lots of it, dresses and blouses and shoes. Impatiently, she tossed them aside. But a dusty suit bag caught her eye. Inside was a green woolen Army uniform, embellished with tarnished gold buttons and ribbons. She took it out of the crumpling plastic and held it closer to her body, under her thin coat

When she closed her eyes, she could feel Karl's warmth and strength as he had held her in his arms at the train station the day he left to go to war. They hadn't expected that, so soon after graduation and what was supposed to be the beginning of their new life. How lost she had felt as the train sped away, leaving her there with all the other women and children, waving and wondering if their men would return. She had been one of the lucky ones. He had returned, wounded, but alive. She had nursed him back to health and their life together had gone on, their love for each other, deeper, stronger for the testing.

A faint hint of pipe tobacco clung to the uniform and Erika breathed deeply, feeling Karl's presence. When he had died, and she went through that wrenching process of disposing of his clothing, she had kept the uniform. On the long, dark nights when she missed him the most, she would sleep with her arms around the old woolen uniform, finding comfort in that scent, and feeling like a young bride of 20, instead of an old lady of 72. She placed the uniform back in its plastic bag and laid it carefully beside her, trying not to think about the ten long, empty years since then, without Karl by her side.

She resumed her digging. The next layer was all books. They were heavy and harder for her to pull out. Karl had loved books, all kinds of books, but especially poetry. It was his favorite subject to teach in his literature classes at the University. A small, thin volume fell onto the ground, and she picked it up, smoothing its wrinkled cover. Robert Browning. How many times Karl had read the love poems aloud to her on their many lazy picnic days in the country.

He had read them to her on that day in August when she had told him the news she had just received from the doctor. She wouldn't be able to give him another son, to fill the empty place in their hearts left by the tiny, sickly infant who had left them on his third day of life. She had been so hopeful. But it was not to be. She had wept into his shoulder that day, and he had held her, soothing her, telling her it didn't matter, as long as he had her. He had read the poems to her that day for the first time, and again and again in the years that followed.

Erika shook her head to dislodge the ghosts. She mustn't be distracted. Time was passing, and she still hadn't found it. Beneath the piles of clothing and books, she found all sorts of other things - more linens, dishes, glasses, even kitchen appliances. She tossed them all aside. There were boxes of letters, from friends, from relatives, all long dead, and from Karl when he was overseas. She resisted the urge to open them and relive the stories they contained.

There were other things, personal things, cosmetics - powder and lipsticks, hair curlers. Erika had always taken pride in her appearance. She loved looking pretty for Karl, even when he had his nose in his books and didn't notice.

He always told her how proud he was to have her on his arm at college functions. She was the best-looking woman there, he always said. And the best helper, he would add. She entertained his students and colleagues and in his early days on the faculty, typed his papers and books. Everyone said they were a great team. Even after Karl was gone, Erika still liked to think he was somewhere watching, smiling at her. So she tried to look her best, for him. In the hospital, when she was so ill and later in the nursing home, she made sure her hair was combed and her lipstick on straight. She had no patience for those women who wandered around all day in their nightclothes. She always insisted on being dressed, thinking of Karl.

So much junk, she thought as she continued to search. There were souvenirs of vacation trips to England and France, seashells from their many beach weekends, magazines she'd saved, planning to read sometime. Why had she kept all this stuff?

And then she found the photograph albums, dozens of them. She had become an amateur photographer in her middle years and had spent many happy hours assembling chronicles of their trips. When Karl was ill and confined to his bed so much of the time, they had pored over them, reliving the fun. Toward the end, it was the only thing that distracted him and made him smile. She hesitated, tempted to look through them again, but the time was growing short. It would be daylight soon, and the workers would return to finish clearing out her house. She must find the box before then.,

She was growing quite weary when she finally spotted it, a large white cardboard box in the bottom of the dumpster. The top was squashed, and the box was falling apart, but she managed to summon enough strength to hang over the side and pull it to the top of the dumpster. She dropped it on the ground beside the green uniform. The contents spilled onto the jacket.

There was a pair of ivory slippers spoiled with green stains. Erika smiled, remembering. Their wedding had been in her parents' rose garden early on a Sunday morning when the dew was still on the grass. Carefully, she lifted from the box a chantilly lace veil and a yellowed ivory satin wedding go with long, pointed lace sleeves and a lace bodice that fastened up the back with dozens of tiny pearl buttons. In the bottom of the carton was a black velvet box. Inside was a choker, made of delicate white satin ribbon and pearls, a bracelet to match and a pair of tiny pearl earrings. Erika laid them aside, along with a stained lace handkerchief and a small white beaded purse with a tarnished gold clasp. She barely looked at them. It wasn't here.

She had been so sure it would be in the box. She turned the empty carton upside down, looked under it, and shook out the wedding dress. A cracked and wrinkled photograph fluttered to the ground - a photograph of a slender, smiling young woman in a white satin wedding gown holding a bouquet of lilacs, her hand cradled in the arm of a tall, curly-haired young man, who gazed down at her tenderly.

Tears began to well up in Erika's eyes. She had to find it. She had promised. It was almost daylight. One more time, Erika peered over the side of the dumpster. It was dark at the bottom, so hard to see. She leaned over the side and reached down as far as she could, running her fingertips over the bottom. Her fingers brushed something small and soft. She pulled out a black velvet bag and ripped it open. Gleaming in the lamplight was a gold ring, small and thin from years of wear. Erika closed her fingers around it protectively, wondering how she could ever have allowed the doctors to remove it from her finger when she was taken from the nursing home back to the hospital. She had promised Karl on their wedding day that she would always wear it. And she had always kept her promises to him.

The sound of a car engine startled her, and Erika looked up to see headlights approaching down the deserted street. She glanced around at the piles of things at her feet, the effects of her life. How unimportant they were, she thought. They were just things, that had served their purpose and outlived their usefulness, like her. Sliding the scrap of gold back onto her finger where it had been for sixty-two years, she slipped away into the dim light of morning.

Two heavy-set women emerged from the beat-up truck and stared in dismay at the pillaged dumpster. The older one picked up the photograph of the smiling bride and groom. "I wonder if this is her, the lady who died. So sad, no family, nobody to take care of her things."

"Don't be so sentimental," the younger woman scoffed. "At least it gave us some work, cleaning out the place. And the old lady's dead. What does she care about anything?"

Grumbling, they set about the task of refilling the dumpster.

      

Honorable Mention

Kissing Frogs

by Nicole Cicchino

My name is Avelyn Rose McAlister, and I believe in magic. I know it’s a hard pill to swallow but it’s true and let me explain why.

Back when I was just a kid, Suzie Ann Miller told me that some frogs were not really frogs at all. She said that her great granny told her that they were princes trapped inside little green frog bodies. All it would take is true love’s kiss and that frog would turn back into a handsome prince. Because of that story, I ended up spending that entire summer kissing frogs down at the creek. I know it’s gross but I was like seven and didn’t know any better.

“A frog is a frog and Suzie Ann Miller is a liar,” my brother Bobby said to me. But I didn’t believe him; I didn’t want to. It wasn’t until my Ma told me that I would get gross warts on my mouth if I kept on kissing those frogs that I finally gave up. I’m not exactly a vain girl but warts were a deal breaker. Back then, fairy tales had been a means of escape, something necessary when growing up in the middle of Nowhereville.

Even though I have long since given up on the idea of a frog prince, I still have kept a liking for frogs. Most people think that they are slimy and ugly, but I happen to think they are cute. A frog in need is a friend indeed. Despite my lack of frog princes, it actually was a frog that led me to find true magic.

Last spring, I came across a frog hanging out in the middle of the road. Circling my bike back around, I just had to stop and make sure that it was okay. Old County Rd was not exactly a busy road, but the Dooley’s lived out around there and they liked to drive real fast.

“I don’t know what you’re doing out here, Mr. Frog, but you’re gonna get yourself run over,” I said. Putting my bike down, the frog all but jumped into my hand when I knelt. I moved the frog into the ditch, but he hopped straight onto my foot.  I’m pretty sure that frog was my spirit animal.

“That’s not gonna work. Now you get,” I told that frog and nudged it safely off my foot. But that little stinker jumped right back on me again. Scooping him back up, I tried to move it closer the edge of the wheat field. My plan was to put him down and then make a run for it but that’s when I saw the path for the first time. It was weird and very hard to see, like an optical illusion. You had to look just at the right time, between the swaying wheat and the sun, to see the thing. The field looked like a lot of other wild wheat fields that lined most of Old County Rd, so I had never paid much attention to it.

Aunt Maggie used to call me Adventurer Avelyn back before she got sick, so I had a reputation to live up to. With that little old frog in my hand, I got to walking up that path. So, that’s how I found the very special place I am now sitting in. To the naked eye, it really does look like any other field but it’s so much more than that, it’s magic, real genuine magic.

It really is something, and I’ve never told another living soul about it. In a couple more years, I’ll be out of high school and who knows if I’ll have time to still visit this field. I’d like to think that I will but adults never have time to do anything fun. My Ma is always complaining about how hard life as an adult is and how many more responsibilities I’ll have. But now is not a time for thoughts like that.

Every day, just before sunset, something amazing happens when the wind blows in this field. It lasts about an hour, and it is my favorite hour of the day. A good portion of the land around here is farmland, mostly corn and wheat, but this particular field is a wild wheat field and it is truly beautiful. There is a ridge in the landscape where the field gets higher and that’s the sweet spot. You can see the sun take its final nightly bow while the winds shift, almost as if they converge from all directions. It creates a swirl of energy and the best part is that the wheat sings! Well not exactly sings, but that’s what I call it anyways. It sounds like the most perfect music my ears have ever heard. I think it has something to do with the way the wind funnels through the blades of wheat, almost like whistling.

Dropping down to my back, I use my arms as a pillow behind my head. There is nothing more peaceful than this. The air is crisp and the breeze feels amazing. Closing my eyes, I can feel the wind picking up. I know it’s about to start. A low hum begins to circle around me. Squeezing my eyes shut, I feel a strong gust of wind as it tosses my errant hair around. I forgot to put it in a braid today but that’s okay. It feels nice and tickles across my face. The choir of wheat begins and fills my heart with giddy butterflies. My ears soak up as much as they can as the wind continues to swirl around me. Suddenly, I feel something touch my elbow and my eyes fly open. Titling my head to the side, I offer him a smile. He’s here, as he always is. You see, the best part of this magical field is Jake. Offering his hand my way, I unfold my arm from under my head and unite our fingers. Jake lifts me from the ground and together we swirl along with the wind and dance within the wheat. I never feel as alive as I do in this field, listening to its sweet song, with Jake.

The field and wind create such resonant energy that I can feel it buzzing across my skin. Jake smiles, not just with his mouth but with his perfect blue eyes as well. Every now and then he will twirl strands of my hair around in his fingers. I think he likes that it’s red, not that he’s ever said it. My time with him is the best part of each day. As the wind dies down, so does my happy heart. I hate when it’s time to say goodbye, but Jake is from the mortal world and our hour together is over. The thing is, I know that Jake also believes in magic and one day we will figure out how to truly visit each other’s worlds and then maybe we can have our happily ever after, just like a frog prince fairy tale.

 

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