Joy of the Pen 2016
The Verdi L. Tripp Fiction Award: Shannon Bowring
for A Marriage of Similars
Fiction Honorable Mention: Sandra Neily for Deadly Trespass
Margaret F. Tripp Poetry Award: David Sloan for Muddying the Waters
Poetry Honorable Mention: Stephen Bloom for Night Bus
Richard F. Snow Nonfiction Award: Pamela Gerry for My Own Savior
Nonfiction Honorable Mention: Nicole Breton for Partial to Blondes
TPL Teen Scene Award: Alexandra Burns for Get Rich (Not Quick)
Teen Honorable Mention: Caitlyn Graney for Dark Woes Howl
Just Write Maine-related Nonfiction Award: Vanessa Furu for Up Maine
Maine-related Nonfiction Honorable Mention: Cecelia Hitte
for Notes to Myself: Community Breakfast
Verdi L. Tripp Fiction Award
A Marriage of Similars by Shannon Bowring
“I won’t be gone long.”
It was the last thing he said to her, as he lifted his right hand in a farewell gesture, heading out the front door of their 1830s farmhouse. He’d stumbled a little on the threshold between the kitchen and the porch, and she couldn’t help but laugh to see him falter as he inevitably did at least once a day. And always he had the same reaction – a roll of his eyes, a sigh, and finally a reluctant back-of-the-throat chuckle. They’d owned the house for seventeen years (God, could it really be that long? Lydia had only been five when they bought it, and Kate had just had her first birthday), and it was the one project he’d never gotten around to. It had become a recurring joke between them.
“Damn doorsill,” he’d say. “Gotta fix that, hon. This weekend, maybe.” But of course he had never found time. Their life together had become a series of weeknight dinners, kids’ soccer games and dance recitals, and lazy weekends full of good intentions and no follow-through. But isn’t that marriage?
The worst part—the hardest part—would be remembering to refer to him in the past tense. His often-reluctant smile, the stoop of his shoulders as he walked down the street in a haze of falling snow, the way he always tapped his index finger twice on the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle as he nestled it into place—–all of that was gone. Everyday realities turned suddenly into mere memories. No matter how much she tried, she couldn’t wrap her mind around it. The suddenness of his departure, the finality of it all.
“I won’t be gone long.”
It was his customary saying before heading out on various errands. The hardware store, for supplies. The grocery store, to pick up the gallon of milk she’d forgotten. The landfill, to bury the detritus of their lives.
This time, he’d been on his way to the post office to mail a birthday card to Lydia. She had meant to go herself, but hadn’t found the nerves to venture out in the Nor’easter blowing outside, even if was for her daughter’s sake.
“John,” she said, wringing her hands together—a nervous tic she’d picked up from her mother. “Her birthday’s the day after tomorrow. If we don’t get it mailed today, it won’t get to her in time.”
“Well, she’ll get it the day after, then,” he replied. He was settled into his chair in front of the card table, a jigsaw puzzle laid out before him, about halfway finished.
“No, it has to be on her actual birthday,” she said, hating the whining pitch of her voice—another of her late mother’s traits, living on in her. “I’ve always made sure she gets a card on her actual birthday, John.”
Her name, spoken in that familiar tone of voice, was all she needed to know everything he was thinking. That she was overreacting. That she was trying, once again, to manage things beyond her control. That she needed to cut the cord, that their twenty-two year old daughter, married herself now and pregnant with their first grandchild (too young, but happy, and that was all that mattered, perhaps), would not be hurt if she didn’t receive a birthday card from her parents on her actual birthday.
But she couldn’t let it go. She never could. Not when he left the ladle facing the wrong way in the crock, not when Kate backed out of the driveway without checking the passenger side mirror, not when Lydia had insisted on peonies rather than tea-roses for her wedding. It wasn’t in Nellie’s nature to let anything go—a fact of which she was constantly aware; a fact that, though she tried, she was never able to overcome.
She’d seen her own mother, Dorothy, act the same way. She had sworn to herself never to turn into her mother, but was, in the end, unable to escape the inevitable. She looked like Dorothy, with her ashy blond hair, her smattering of crows’ feet around her grey eyes, her prematurely arthritic fingers. Her voice had taken on that brassy tone of her mother’s the older she had become, and sometimes when she glanced quickly in the mirror, chills went down her spine, convinced as she was that she was seeing her dead mother, only to realize she was looking at herself. And though John would never say it—he was too kind, too sensitive of how she feared becoming Dorothy—she knew he saw it, too.
Her father, Lewis, used to say that Dorothy would be the death of him. He’d say it with a wink, handing Nellie a piece of forbidden chocolate from the fridge after Dorothy had gone to bed for the night.
“Your mother,” he’d muse, “will be my downfall, Nel. The stress that woman puts me under. Yup, you just mark my words. ‘What a damn shame,’ everyone will say. ‘Only fifty-four, and handsome to boot. Dead of a massive mito-cardio infartion’.”
(It wasn’t until Nellie was much older, married herself, that she finally corrected him. “It’s called a myocardial infarction, Dad.”)
As it turned out, Lewis’s joking predictions weren’t far from the truth. He died at fifty-nine of a stroke, caused by a blood clot. For a man in great physical health with a diet full of leafy greens and lean protein, the doctor concluded it was probably stress-related. Dorothy refused to attend the funeral, claiming the sun hurt her eyes. She stayed in bed, the curtains closed against the light, as Nellie and her two brothers stood looking down into the hole in which Lewis would be buried. When they had returned home, Dorothy had called Nellie to the bedroom.
“The pictures of your father, dear,” she had said. “Please, take them away. I can’t bear to look at them.”
“He’s your husband,” Nellie had said, repulsed, thinking of John, her own husband of only two years, assembling a clumsy cheese and cracker platter in the kitchen below them.
“He was my husband, dear,” Dorothy said. “Take them away. Every time I look at them, I forget he’s gone. I need to get used to the fact that he’s not here anymore.”
“Mother,” Nellie said, staring down at Dorothy, who looked like a sickly China doll hiding under the blue quilt, “I can’t look at you right now.” And she’d turned and left the room, ignoring her mother’s pleas to shut the door behind her.
“I won’t be gone long.”
Funny, it was the same thing Lydia had said the day they dropped her off at the University of Maine for her freshman year. She and John were sweaty and grimy from moving their eldest daughter’s furniture up and down three flights of stairs (the elevator was occupied each time they came in from the car with more stuff), but Lydia was fresh and clean, hair neat and newly styled into what she referred to as her “collegiate cut.” After two hours of arranging and rearranging mini fridges and printers, Lydia had stood in the doorway to her new dorm, already blocking her parents out of her new life.
“Well,” she’d said. “I guess that’s it, then. You guys can take off. I have orientation in an hour, anyway.”
“Why don’t we come with you?” Nellie had asked, trying not to burst into tears at the look of alarm and disgust that passed over Lydia’s face.
“It’s for students only, Mom. Honestly.”
“Don’t worry about it sweetie,” John said, and Nellie didn’t know if he was addressing her or their daughter. “We’re only a three hour car ride away.”
“Exactly,” Lydia said. “Seriously, Mom, don’t worry. Fall break is only a couple months away. I won’t be gone long.”
But Lydia hadn’t come home for fall break—she’d gone to New York with her roommate instead. She’d shown up for Thanksgiving and Christmas that year, but spring break was for Florida beaches, and by the time summer had arrived, she had moved in with her new boyfriend, Derek. Flash forward a year, and she was engaged. Another year, and she had quit school and was married and talking about starting a family of her own.
Dorothy said a version of the same phrase herself, the night she called Nellie to tell her she was in the hospital with a broken hip.
“What do you want me to do, Mother?” Nellie had asked. It was early October, but cold enough to feel like mid-December. The heat was on, the baseboards creaking and popping throughout their old house. “I can be there in half an hour.” But she didn’t actually want to drive over to Prescott, risking her own life with the blind curves and the moose and deer.
“Oh, please,” Dorothy had said, hearing the lie in Nellie’s voice. “Drag you away from your warm house at 2:00 in the morning? Oh, no. I wouldn’t want to be a burden, Nel. You have your own life, I know. It’s fine. I just thought you should be aware of the situation. You know, in case you called the house tomorrow and I didn’t answer. Not that you ever call anymore….”
“I can come tomorrow.”
“There’s no need, dear. I’ll be groggy from the anesthesia.”
“Well, of course. For the surgery.”
“Mother, you didn’t mention surgery.”
“Well, what did you think? Of course I need surgery. I broke my hip, dear. Not a minor injury at my age. Honestly, Nellie.”
“I’ll come whenever you want. Just call me, okay?”
“Oh, don’t make a mountain out of a mole-hill. It’s not like I’ll be gone forever, dear. You can come visit out to the house once I get back home. I’ll make you that veggie lasagna you like… if I can manage to hobble around the kitchen, that is.”
One week later, her mother was dead. Infection of the lungs.
“I won’t be gone long.”
Kate never used that phrase. Despite the errant side mirror-checking, her youngest daughter was actually quite careful. More like – well, more like her, right down to the ashy blond hair and the gray eyes prone to bouts of spontaneous tears.
Eighteen years old, set to graduate in May, Kate had elected to go to community college. She didn’t want to move away. John had tried to persuade Kate to leave her comfort zone and enroll in Bates, which had offered her an all-tuition paid scholarship. But Kate refused, saying she had only applied to that school “for shits,” just to see if she could get in. She had already found a job at the community college, sorting mail for the on-campus post office. John had cried, saying that he couldn’t stand to see his youngest daughter throw away all her potential to become just another minimum-wage, washed-up Dalton townie. It was the fourth time Nellie had ever seen him cry. (The first two times had been when the girls were born. The third time was when his parents died in a car accident on I-95 one rainy night when Kate was only four years old.)
“If that’s what will make you happy,” she told Kate, “then that’s what I want for you, sweetheart.”
Of course, what they all knew but would never say out loud was that she wanted Kate to stay home for purely selfish reasons. Because she got lonely, with no job, while John was working at the mill. Because she liked her and Kate’s weekly tradition of sharing coffee and cinnamon toast over the crossword puzzle in the weekend Bangor Daily News. Because she wasn’t as afraid of a twenty-minute drive to Prescott as she was of a four hour trek to Lewiston.
No, Kate never said she wouldn’t be gone long, because they all knew better than to even presume she might be. A trip to the grocery store was just that. There and back. Lydia used to drive Nellie crazy, saying she was going to the library and calling her six hours later from her friend’s cabin on Porter Lake, claiming she’d just “ended up” there with no premeditated plan. Kate had never done anything spontaneous in her life, and that, Nellie knew, was why they got along so well. And also why they sometimes got into screaming matches, followed by icy silences, concluded with tearful hugs and apologies.
Nellie believed that in a family—any family—there were certain truths. For example, in a marriage, particular chores always fell to one person. This was not necessarily mandated by gender—with her and John, for instance, they had fallen into the habit early on of him doing the dishes and her taking the trash out to the garage—but it was still always a given that each person would take over specific responsibilities.
Each person in a marriage also fell into specific parenting roles. In their case, John was the good cop, she the bad one. John was the one who took the girls to fireworks displays and to the lake on hot summer afternoons to go swimming. Nellie was the one who took them to doctors’ and dentists’ appointments. These arrangements were made without discussion, and neither child ever confused the roles. They knew whom they should ask to sign their permission slips and whom they should ask to take them on an ice cream run.
Nellie also believed that in any family, each child resembled one parent over the other. Not physically, but in spirit. Lydia was like John, of course. The athleticism, the ability to embrace uncertainty, the aversion to excessive displays of emotion. Kate, with her tentative curiosity, sensitivity to tone of voice, and desire to have everything in order, was a younger version of Nellie. A much younger version of Dorothy—this Nellie was terrified to admit even to herself. For that meant that in each family, there is one daughter fated to turn into her mother, no matter how much she has resolved she won’t.
In the end, her pacing was what decided it. Each time she passed him at the card table, the hardwood floor creaked under her weight.
“For Christ’s sake,” he finally said under his breath—Nellie guessed she hadn’t been meant to hear it, but she had. “Fine. I’ll walk to the post office, okay? I’ll mail the card.”
“But it’s snowing so hard, John,” she said, wringing her hands again. “And your sciatica’s been acting up. Maybe I should just go myself.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You know I’m not letting you go out there.”
“Well… if you’re sure.”
“Do we need anything else while I’m out? Milk? Want the paper?”
“No, no, just the card for Lydia.”
John peered out the window, shaking his head at the thick flakes of snow swirling in the wind. “Damn winter,” he mumbled. “Why couldn’t we have had Lydia in summer?”
Nellie smiled and stopped pacing for a moment. It was another of their recurring jokes, made every year of Lydia’s childhood when they had to plan yet another ice-skating or hill-sliding birthday party.
“January’s a bad month for babies.”
It was her customary response. For a brief moment, she considered leaning her body against his, wondered what it would be like to touch her lips to his warm neck. But she hadn’t done that in—God, she couldn’t even recall the last time she’d done that. Ever since he’d started wearing a mask for his sleep apnea and she’d begun suffering from bouts of insomnia, they’d taken to sleeping in separate rooms. He in Lydia’s old bedroom downstairs, she in their master suite on the second floor. That was years ago. Five, at least.
“Good thing we had the sense to have Kate in May,” John replied. Again, the expected answer. And hers, one second later:
“Well, she’s always been the easier of the two.”
John smiled at that, and Nellie supposed he was thinking similar thoughts as she was—recalling those early days, when Kate used to sit in complacent silence watching as Lydia threw temper tantrums, remembering how the two of them used to get into fights over which was better—waiting for things to happen (Kate) or making things happen even if they shouldn’t (Lydia). Then he was sighing, heading to the front door.
As he shrugged into his coat and bundled up with gloves, scarf, hat, and boots, Nellie watched, biting her lip. “Don’t forget the card, John,” she said.
“Already in my pocket, Nel,” he replied.
Then he had offered her a smile, though she noted that he had a faraway look in his eyes. No doubt, he was still thinking of his puzzle.
“Shouldn’t be more than a half-hour,” he told her.
“Don’t you want to say goodbye to Kate?” Nellie asked.
“Why? She’s upstairs studying,” John said. “I’m not going to interrupt just to tell her I’m walking to the damn post office.”
He was unable to hide the tone of irritation in his voice, and she knew he was aware she was affected by it. Instead of apologizing, he just shook his head, that faraway look in his eyes again.
“I won’t be gone long.”
Later, she would take small comfort in the fact that they had shared that quick laugh as he had stumbled over the doorsill. At least they hadn’t fought in those last moments. And even if there was unspoken tension between them, built up over years of marriage and children and intermittent (and then unremitting) celibacy, this was not spoken out loud. The very last moment was a remnant of a marriage that, on the whole, had worked.
No, she supposed, they were no longer lovers—hadn’t been in a long time, even before they had given up the pretense altogether. And they weren’t confidantes—she had many years ago fallen into her own wonderings and dreams and regrets, never bothering to mention them to her husband. If pressed, she might say they had been friends. But it was a thin kind of friendship, more like a tacit living arrangement between two roommates who had shared space for long enough to know how to do so with minimal damage. If she really tried, she could recall how it had felt in the very beginning, when they were young and in love, back when she believed that love would grow over time. But it was like remembering a vague dream.
What she could say, without a doubt in her mind, was that they had been married. They had been wed to one another and had remained so until that day—his dying day, though it would take her a long time to call it that. They had had two children, had a grandchild on the way. They had shared holidays together, taken a couple obligatory vacations to Story Land with the kids, traveled countless hours in the same car. They had shared expenses and balanced schedules and eaten at the same table every night. In her experience, that is what made up a marriage, after all. Not sex, not laughter, and not a passionate love that grows stronger through the years. Marriage was, in the end, tolerance.
There were many memorable scenes featuring her mother throughout her childhood, but there was one in particular Nellie never forgot. She was ten, maybe eleven. She was sitting on her parents’ bed, watching her mother sort laundry. Dorothy folded the towels with care, making sure to crease each one with precision. When she got to the bottom of the basket, Dorothy picked up her speed. She plucked out beige bras, socks, and undergarments, barely folding them before casting them aside. When she got to a blue pair of her father’s boxer shorts, her mother wrinkled her nose in distaste.
“I wish your father would wash his own skivvies,” she said, and Nellie had giggled at that word. Skivvies. But Dorothy had looked at her, not laughing. “You’ll understand some day. Look. Just look at this.”
And she glanced at the door to the bedroom, as if to make sure Lewis wasn’t standing there watching. She then turned the boxers so that Nellie could see the back – there were holes in the seat, and the cloth looked dingy, as though no amount of washing could ever cure them of the sad state into which they had fallen. Nellie remembered thinking her father must have owned that particular pair of underpants for at least a decade.
“Ew,” Nellie had said.
“Ew is right,” Dorothy replied, shaking her head and throwing the boxers onto the bed. “But that’s marriage, sweetheart. Tolerating another person’s dirty underwear.”
She had tolerated John’s dirty underwear for twenty six years. She’d never have to wash another pair. That was one of her first thoughts after the uniformed cop, standing on her front steps, informed her that on his way back from the post office (he’d mailed Lydia’s card—good old John, always reliable, even at the end), her husband had fallen on a patch of black ice on the sidewalk and had hit his head. At first, it had taken her a long time to comprehend what that meant. It wasn’t until Kate had come down to the kitchen to speak to the cop herself and began blubbering, “Oh, my god, Mom, Daddy died, he’s dead,” that Nellie understood.
“Oh,” was all she could say. “He fell and hit his head. I see. Hit his head and now he’s dead. Of course.” Her husband’s death had turned her into a poet, or so it would seem.
They had the burial service several months later, after the spring thaw. The day John was to be committed to the ground – nestled snug and tight into a casket Nellie could ill afford on the money he had left behind, but that she’d felt pressured to purchase nonetheless—she told the girls she had a terrible sinus headache. And the baby—Lydia’s baby, a son named Jonathan (of course Lydia would do that for her father, of course she would)—needed someone to watch him, anyway.
The girls protested, but not as much as she’d feared they would. They’d surprised her the night before, with Kate’s announcement that she would be spending the summer in Bangor with Lydia and Derek and the baby before heading down to Bates in August. She’d accepted the scholarship, after all. Nellie supposed it was Kate’s way of proving to herself she wasn’t like her mother—proving that she could do something spontaneous, something Nellie would never even imagine doing.
It was silent in the house with them gone at the service. Later, the hardwood floors would be creaking under the weight of dozens of relatives’ feet, there to leave frozen casseroles and condolences before heading back downstate, back to their own lives. For now, there was nothing—no sound, no movement save for her own. The baby was sleeping.
By the time everyone had returned, Nellie had removed all the pictures of John from the house. She packed them neatly into bubble wrap and tucked them into two cardboard boxes—one for Lydia, one for Kate. Seeing him every day, staring back at her from behind all those picture frames, she kept forgetting to think of him in the past tense. She forgot he was gone. She still expected to see him come walking through the door at 5:30 every night, smelling of sawdust from the mill.
She didn’t want to forget anymore. And so she set herself a constant reminder—first, by removing the pictures. And then, by nailing down the threshold until it was flush with the door. She tested it out, pacing back and forth from the kitchen to the front porch several times until she was satisfied. It was fixed in place, steady in her mind.
Shannon L. Bowring is 26 years old and lives in Maine. Her work has appeared in The Maine Campus, a print anthology published by the University of Maine (where she attained her B.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing) and the Hawaii Pacific Review, the online literary magazine of Hawaii Pacific University. She is the author of a blog published online by the Bangor Daily News. The blog, Twice Sold Tales, focuses on her adventures to old bookshops throughout Maine and New England, as well as writing, reading, and all things literary. You can read it here: twicesoldtales.bangordailynews.com.
Fiction Honorable Mention
Deadly Trespass by Sandra Neily
I wasn’t really breaking the law. Maine’s a practical state. My ancestors knew they couldn’t slap a deed on something that slithers through fingers, so they made rivers and trout public property and left it vague how we’d get to them.
Last week my biologist boss thumped his coffee-stained map and complained about a billionaire buying up lands he used to fish. I leaned over his shoulder, memorized Carla Monson’s streams, and, on my day off, drove north.
I parked next to a pile of naked logs that dwarfed my car and stared at Monson’s gate. Behind the wire she’d grown a green oasis where “No Harvesting” and “No Trespassing” signs swarmed the fence. Signs that exclude people from large chunks of wild terrain are special invitations to me. I was a trespasser as soon as I could crawl away from my house toward woods and waters the wealthy used a few weeks a year. Behind Carla Monson’s gate, spawning trout had to be flinging themselves upstream under fall leaves as orange as their cold, swollen bellies. They were my kind of invitation.
Pock jumped out the window and crawled under the gate where his nose vacuumed the ground and his wagging tail telegraphed urgent discovery. I slid my bike, pack, and fly rod under the gate, lay on my back, and skidded below nasty razor wire. Up on my knees, I rubbed my lumpy fingers, aware that arthritis was punishment for living past fifty but strangely cheered that cold streams were my choice of painkiller. I saw serrated ATV tire tracks and muddy prints that didn’t fit my dog. Maybe a coyote—a large coyote. I groaned, stood, and yelled Pock’s favorite ice cream invitation. “Let’s go, baby. Yip, yip. Zip, zip.”
No dog. I whistled and yelled again, annoyed I’d have to retrieve a Labrador retriever. When a rising breeze rained pine needles onto my shoulders and blew Pock’s frantic howls at me, I shoved loose hairs into my ponytail, shouldered my pack, and pedaled up Monson’s rutted road. Navigating an unfamiliar track I didn’t want to travel after dark, I crushed late-blooming goldenrod and bent low as the old road tunneled through birch and poplars bent by last winter’s heavy ice.
Behind a cedar swamp, Pock’s yowling rose to a frantic pitch, and he sounded squeezed for space. What could corner a ninety-pound dog? Officially we’d killed off cougars and wolves years ago, but that hadn’t stopped rumors of them roaming the woods. I didn’t want to arrive home with a half-chewed dog—or not arrive home at all.
I dropped my bike and waded into the swamp. Muck oozed down my boots and glued my toes together before I found him, belly down in the dirt, ears flattened toward his back. Between howls he pushed his nose under a fallen white pine, its roots limp and naked over a dirty hole. Ancient mold stung my nose and eyes as I picked my way through amputated branches and pulled my dog away from the body.
Shannon Angeles lay under the massive tree. I knew her shocking red hair, her Flash Fire nail polish, even the smiling moon sticker on her left hiking boot. She wore the same pitch-stained clothes she’d worn days ago when she returned my battery charger and played tug-of-war with Pock. I saw only one collapsed cheek, but I knew my best friend was dead.
I knelt and slid damp hair off her nose and squeezed my eyes shut. I’ve had my hands on dead people I didn’t know, but never a dead friend. I couldn’t smell death—couldn’t smell blood or bowels let go. Shannon smelled like rain and white pine. My head pounded like I was underwater without air. Breathe, I thought. Breathe through it. Open your eyes and do this for Shannon. See this for Shannon. She’d want a full report.
I gulped pine-charged air, opened my eyes, and reached for her left side where I pulled broken branches from her face. Gray, pink-tinged fluid dripped from one ear, and one green eye stared at me the way she always stared at me when I didn’t have answers. I liked answers but I loved Shannon.
A tree limb had pierced her neck in a near-perfect impalement, and I had a bizarre moment remembering a line in a first aid manual—“object stuck in flesh, protruding from flesh.” When I saw bark glowing green under the wound’s stretched tissue, instant sweat glued my shirt to my back.
The cheek I could see was whole, raked raw into purple bruises, and the cheek I couldn’t see seemed propped on a metal box and jagged strap that didn’t look like her tools. When I leaned toward her outstretched arm, my stomach heaved as I saw it all. Dirt lifted her jagged nails—nails that had clawed the ground around her into a frenzied semicircle. How long had she known she was dying?
“Oh, Shannon honey. What happened? What went wrong?” I sobbed and rocked and stroked her hand. “Don’t go. Don’t go. Please don’t go.” Pock crawled to me and licked Shannon’s fingers each time my rocking brought them to his nose.
I don’t know how long I held her hand trying to rub warmth into it. Shivers rattled my teeth, we’d lost the sun, and I wanted help on the scene before animals grew restless in the dark. Thinking about hungry wildlife, I pulled an emergency blanket from my pack and covered the parts of her I could reach. The blanket wasn’t big enough to discourage visitors. I needed a language animals respected—a language one large coyote might understand.
“Pock,” I ordered, “pee here.”
We’d lived in suburbs and cities, so my dog knew how to urinate on the tiniest blade of grass. He wetted the edge of the cloth and backed off, ears cocked at the strangled sound of my voice.
My turn. I bent toward Shannon’s ear. “You’d understand why I’m doing this, sweetie.” I dropped my pants and squatted near her face, pouring a perfect puddle. “Pock and I are marking our territory. Our territory,” I whispered, zipping up my fly.
Then I yelled. “Listen up! This is my friend. Anyone who touches her answers to me.” I grabbed a large branch, and when I broke it over my knee, the snap sent Pock between my legs. I piled broken pieces over the cloth and raised my voice until it was more screech than sound. “I mean it. Don’t mess with me.”
I thought about leaving Pock on guard, but I knew he’d flee anything that howled in the dark. I tugged his collar and waded back to my bike.
I don’t remember much of the return ride over the woods road unless it involved pain. I crashed into a frost-heaved rock and somersaulted over my handlebars, landing on my pack and exploding my water bottle so it soaked my back. Then I picked up my bike and pulled out my headlamp. Following a ribbon of light narrowed the forest’s gloom into a path I could follow. I didn’t bother to load the bike. In the car Pock leaned from the passenger seat into my lap, and I gripped his fur like it was the last firm rock on a collapsing wall.
I drove east, away from the gate where hours ago I’d registered my travel plans and entered Great Nations Forests’ timberlands, lying to the gatekeeper, Sam, about my destination. I always lied and encouraged others to lie. Before she could wear a bra, my daughter, Kate, leaned away from the window when Sam leered in. “Let’s call him Sketchy Sam,” she said, “so we never forget what he really is.”
As Great Nations’ gatekeeper, Sketchy Sam had control of millions of acres under his twitching thumbs, and he liked to think he knew everything. His pickled, beet-red face vibrated under sharp hawk eyes. He knew more than he had a right to know. I didn’t want him to know about Shannon.
I headed toward the nearest north woods phone booth—a tree limb wedged into a pothole, with flagging tape and a battered cell phone case advertising a working signal. I dialed 911 and said I’d found a friend dead in the woods. Under a tree.
The dispatcher asked me if I was safe, and then he surprised me. “Do you have any reason to consider her death suspicious?”
Were 911 folks supposed to ask that? “Why would you ask me that? I don’t know. She’s under a tree.”
“I need to contact the appropriate first aid and investigative response teams,” he said. “Do you know if there were witnesses to this event?”
I knew what that meant. No witnesses to an unexplained death meant he’d call it in as a suspicious death, but I didn’t want to play. “Trees,” I said. “Maybe some squirrels. You going to send the cavalry, or what?”
“Please give me your GPS coordinates.”
“I don’t do GPS,” I snapped. “I’m parked in a phone booth east of Bluffer Brook and any game warden on any road in Maine will know where I am.”
The dispatcher’s voice slowed to the drawl emergency personnel use for people who are not quite right. He told me to lock the car doors and wait.
I was passed out in restless sleep when Pock growled, but I wasn’t worried. The blinding light held high over my car and the strong stride said Maine game warden—and I knew him. After I unlocked the door, Robert Atkins tried to lift me into a hug. His crisp, forest-green uniform creaked leather from belt to gun holster to citation books. Authority poured off his shoulders and greased his black boots. I’d never hugged him before. He was too mythic, too foreign, and too much my ex-husband’s friend. He smelled like fresh wood.
“What is wrong?” he asked.
Wrong? Wrong? I could feel anger crawl up my chest into my mouth, but I swallowed it into a thought. I’ll tell you what’s wrong. My best friend, the one who knows more about trees than anyone up here, just got killed by one. Explain that one.
“What is wrong?” he said.
“Robert.” The name came out as a croak. I’d never called him Robert or even heard his whole name said out loud. “Moz,” I said. I cleared my throat, pressed two hands on his chest, and pushed for space. “Evan never did tell me what Moz means. Secret Penobscot word? Tribal thing?”
“Your husband never asked me,” he said. “Moz is Abenaki for moose.” He slowly swept the light from my head to my feet, stepped behind me to repeat his examination, and then flashed the beam through my car. Pock’s eyes glowed red, but he wagged his whole body in gleeful recognition.
I could barely see his intent black eyes lock onto me, but I knew Moz assessed my chatter. Shock? Disorientation? Some other emotion he’d have to navigate? Hell, I didn’t know and I was the one chattering. “Yeah. OK,” I said. “But that doesn’t explain anything.”
With his free hand he walked me backward and leaned me up against the side of my car. “Will you be able to tell me about your emergency if I explain why I am compared to a moose?”
I don’t remember the entire explanation. I think he dragged it out to settle my adrenaline jitters, but it was clear he’d earned his nickname methodically pursuing poachers through brush and streams. Apparently he chased criminals in a straight line that ignored ground conditions—the way long-legged moose plow through woods without swerving for much. While other wardens searched for easy routes, Moz must have been a quarter mile ahead of them, his hands already on someone’s collar.
He lifted the light to study my face. In the dark all I could see were cheekbones and teeth.
“Alright,” I said. “But let’s do this in the dark. Turn off the light.”
The next day, despite nightmares where Shannon’s one eye lit me like a green searchlight and my throat felt worse than a bad case of strep, I went to work. Near town three TV vans blew by me. At that speed, branches overhanging my driveway would decapitate the crews’ antennas before the reporters reached my camp. I smiled a small smile. My face didn’t feel ready for anything more.
I needed a hiding place—one that was happy to see me. My suit-wearing friends in the legislature wondered why I’d abandoned them to handle dead animals, but I found working the game registration station comforting. I liked the camaraderie of moose, the hunters who killed them, and the scientists who made sense of it all. I needed a place where death was routine—maybe even celebrated by those who’d done the killing—and the wool-clad crew seemed pleased when I showed up. They tested me though, spearing deer droppings on toothpicks and leaving them next to the chips and nuts. On my first day, a pellet made it past my lips before they rolled their eyes to warn me off.
Inside the airplane hangar that doubled as a registration station, moose season had started without me. There was a line of trucks and carcasses outside the open bay doors, wind rattled the building’s metal siding, and across the lake an early snow line outlined Spencer Mountain’s rocks. In the cove geese enforced social order, honking and rushing at less desirable flock mates. I could relate.
Ken Douglas, my biologist boss, removed my name tag, dropped an ancient fedora on my head, and briefed the crew. “Let’s treat reporters to the usual guts and maggots discussion that moves them out the door. None of us is going to know this woman today, and while we’re hiding her, let’s work her hard so she stays busy.”
He studied me with steady brown eyes that peered from under brows so bushy they collected leaves and twigs. He knew about furtive animal behavior—knew I’d moved north to hibernate and lick fresh wounds. I saw his eyes roll just before I saw the reporter hipping her way through the garage, cameraman tethered to her by cables. In three-inch heels, she teetered on a concrete floor slick with moose parts—a beginner sent to the hinterland on a minor story. Her thin leather jacket barely covered a skimpy camisole. Raised bumps speckled her cold bare legs.
She clutched a white-haired man’s arm and charged into an interview. “This is Dory Perkins from station WABW in Bangor, Maine. I’m talking with a hunter at the Greenwood check station.” She pressed her microphone into his beard. “The wardens found a dead woman alone in the woods. Did you know her?”
“No, ma’am.” He fumbled in his camouflage vest and raised a small camera. “Just that she was alone.”
“Do folks up here think it was foul play?” she asked.
With one finger he lowered her microphone. “Excuse me, young lady. Grandson’s big day. I promised I’d get a shot of the weigh-in.”
The reporter scanned the crowd looking for her story. Hunters in brown-green camouflage jumpsuits bumped up against fathers lifting children for a better view. Tourists waved cameras over their heads and snapped unexpected local color. While everyone shuffled cold feet and pointed at the scales, I ducked behind an arriving truck. I wasn’t going to help the press sensationalize Shannon’s death, and I wasn’t going to give up a good hiding place.
Dory Perkins wandered outside, tugging at her captive cameraman like he was leashed for a walk. The crowd pressed against the truck as Ken climbed the carcass. He looked more like a short, squat wrestler pinning a hairy opponent than a wildlife biologist. Grunting as he stretched his arms over the bull’s butchered belly, he strained to connect two sides of a slippery strap.
Soft moose muzzle brushed my lips when I leaned into the truck’s cab. I pressed my weight into the animal’s neck, closed my eyes, and imagined him alive. Four hours ago he’d been knee deep in Tomhegan Bog, flesh rippling with urgency, nostrils squeezed back to suck in female-scented air. He must have heard the hunters stop and open their doors, but maybe a cow grazed upwind. While he swung his nose toward her, men stepped into the road and raised their rifles.
Overhead, machinery coughed into life as I whispered to deaf moose ears. Tonight I will see you back in the swamp. I’d had trouble falling asleep, replaying divorce drama alone in the dark. And how could I sleep anyway if Shannon’s cracked nails were behind my lids when I closed my eyes? Last year my therapist suggested visualizing a serene location, maybe a warm beach. I visualized moose easing their hairy bulk down into leaves. I conjured up dark thickets and crushed grass—willed myself to a stillness that heard teeth grind twigs into food. I didn’t tell my therapist that large herbivores put me to sleep.
I certainly didn’t tell her about my imaginary animal conversations. I whispered again. Tonight I will see you back in the swamp.
Tonight I will be ground into burger.
Not when I close my eyes. I can see you alive.
Can you see the other swamp and your friend alive in it?
Sometimes imaginary conversations don’t go where I want them to go.
Ken hit the switch and webs of cable tightened bloody straps under the animal’s belly. As the bull’s head eased from my hands into the air, its final breath warmed my fingers.
“Nine hundred and eighty-two pounds,” said Ken. I reached for my clipboard and bent to enter the bull’s weight as the reporter marched up to the far side of the truck.
“Are you in charge?” Dory asked, tweaking Ken’s pant cuff. “I’m looking for Cassandra Patton Conover. I’m told she works here and she found a dead woman in the woods. No one wearing a uniform will speak to me. Not cops. Not state police. Not game wardens. All I get is ‘ongoing investigation.’ I need to find this Conover.”
Ken tilted his head sideways and squinted like he was having trouble understanding her question. “You’re not looking for a job are you, miss, because … although we can’t see how we’d ever replace her … we seem to have misplaced Ms. Conover.”
“I’m not done here,” she said. “Something’s not right. Too many cops and game wardens crawling all over the story for this to be an act of God. When a forester for big timber gets killed by a big tree and the uniforms close ranks—it’s a story that smells.” As she huffed away from the truck, men stared at her smooth belly and smooth face. I thought she was just about the age of Evan’s new wife, a woman so young I could have delivered, diapered, and presented her to my husband on our first wedding anniversary.
I considered the eviscerated moose. Yes. I might know what it felt like to be gutted and strung up.
“Patton? Patton? You still hiding? Screwdriver. Need the screwdriver,” Ken said. His gloved hands pried open teeth still green from a pond weed breakfast.
I ducked low and wiggled the tool above my head, suddenly aware I hadn’t spoken all day and that no one seemed to mind. I’d given up on mirrors but would have liked a quick peek to see what the crew saw. Was I leaking tears I couldn’t feel? Had I forgotten essential clothing? I patted down my men’s overalls and layered-on flannel shirts and—thanks to the Baptist thrift store—discovered I was fully covered.
“Down here,” I said.
Ken sighed. “Just pass it up to Moz, de-ah,” he said. “He’s come looking for something to do.”
Moz clenched the screwdriver handle between his teeth, keeping his hands free to pull a Buck knife from his belt. Straddling the moose, Sergeant Robert Atkins looked every inch an epic hero. A dark hero. Straight black hair, black brows, black eyes, and, if he was angry, a black glare that disarmed the lawless like a drawn gun. He seemed impossibly tall even though he was just over six feet, his height rising from an erect posture that straightened his back, lifted his shoulders, and squared his jaw. He looked both sculpted and alive at the same time.
I’d never considered him an animal specimen until that moment when I almost smelled the hangar fill with pulsating pheromones. I wondered if Moz could scent women’s interest the same way a bull moose sniffed the air for mates.
Shannon saw it. “How can you miss that man?” she’d asked. “Is he invisible because he’s your ex-husband’s pal? I never saw that man match up. I think he’s some kind of backwoods angel who guards you. Not ‘cause you need it, though—something else going on.”
Moz sliced his knife down the side of one canine tooth. He wedged the screwdriver under the gum line, popped the tooth from its socket, and handed it, dripping, to me. I slid it into a vial of preservative where it would yield up its secrets to biologists. Moz knocked drops off the wet screwdriver and left it balanced on the edge of the cab where I could reach it.
“De-ah,” Ken said, “Moz needs the combs.”
I handed them miniature combs that called up scary memories of lice checks in elementary school. In two months ticks could suck ten gallons of blood from a moose calf and tilt its fate toward death. The men crouched back to back to comb the hide and count ticks. I scribbled infestation numbers called out to me and tried to feel grateful for all species—even lowlife species like reporters and ticks.
Investigating a tick-ravaged carcass near Bluffer Brook, Moz was the warden who’d caught my emergency call, and next to Ken, he was the only other man I trusted.
Moz jumped from the truck, landed lightly next to me, and turned me toward the doors. “We believe you should walk to the dock and deeply breathe air,” he said.
Ken reached for my clipboard. “The moose under me looks more alert than you do. Take a break.”
Goose droppings made navigation to the town dock tricky, like navigating a field of cigar-sized land mines. Geese screeched and complained. Our turf! Our turf!
I know. I got it. Everyone thinks they’ve got turf.
Go ’round! Go ’round! Our turf! Our turf.
I stomped my way through the flock, thinking geese were spunky but naive. Listen. You need to know our species can take your turf and evict you anytime we want. I mean, I wouldn’t do that, but—but get used to the rest of the world.
Stripped of its masts and motor, a naked-looking boat bumped against the dock. I climbed aboard and lay flat on splintered wood, hoping the heaving deck would rock me to sleep. I was beyond tired, when eyes feel like they’re closing over sandpaper and skin feels nauseous. I pressed the broken sides of my phone together and pulled up my daughter’s last message. She’d sent a picture of her roommate holding a newspaper that said, “Trespasser Finds Crushed Forester.” I groaned.
I was dialing Kate when I felt the boat sink under the weight of something heavier than geese. Off-duty, Moz had traded his black boots for soft moccasins. He crouched on his heels and slid pack straps off his shoulders.
I clutched the phone to my chest. “Thank you for calling someone to drive me home. And for my car and bike. They got home, too.” I watched him watch me and then I looked at the hemline where his green pants brushed against his moccasin beads. Was the law investigating me or was I in a large, quiet Penobscot space? The kind of space my tribe avoids.
“Is this official?” I asked.
He kept his crouch. My knees would have been screaming.
“Are you investigating me?” I said, sitting up. “Is this official?”
It was almost a whisper. “Officially me,” he said.
“That clears it up nicely. You mean there’s more questions? Shannon died under a tree. I saw her.” I was too tired to slap my mouth closed. “You must have figured out why Shannon was behind Monson’s gate. I bet you and your search team fingered every frigging rock behind the gate,” I said.
Moz is a calm but fearless investigator of the world. I should have known something was up when he looked away, but my eyes burned and my throat closed with questions. Tears dripped down my chin and soaked my collar.
He handed me an ironed bandana. “You will want to know about Shannon and the tree.”
The tree looked healthy to me. Did I miss a rogue tornado that shredded only a slice of swamp? How could someone who thought of trees as friends end up under one?
Moz’s black eyes returned to me—softer this time. “After a logging crew cut the tree into sections, they cut the branch near her throat. Only an inch of bark was visible as she went to the ambulance.”
He pressed one finger on the toe of my boot. One finger was OK with me because I had private fortifications like Monson had gates. Last month when Shannon treated me to a massage and the masseuse tried to knead tension from my shoulders, I slid off the table, dressed, and fled. Who knew the fear of never being touched again could be found by fingers?
Moz shifted his crouch toward the lake and adjusted his jaw so its bones tightened his skin. He chose a cool, flat voice. “Ms. Monson insists that Shannon be autopsied. It was a suspicious death occasioned by criminal trespass so she will be obliged. For some unexplained reason, she is not filing trespass charges against you.”
I didn’t want to think about Shannon stripped on a table. “Carla Monson,” I said. “I thought she was in Florida.”
“That appears to be true,” he said. “Do you know her?”
“No,” I said, “but she looks like an ancient refugee—set face, crossed arms, overly long braid tucked into a raggedy skirt. In the paper she doesn’t look like the millions she’s got.”
“Her manager, Gordon Samuels, is camped inside the gate trying to block our investigation. Do you know him?” Moz asked.
“No.” I looked toward the lake where wind tilted waves into swells. Geese bobbed behind us, arched white necks stretched toward us like eavesdroppers—and then they were airborne, squawking and flapping their wings.
Dory Perkins shoved her cameraman down the ramp to the dock, yelling questions without waiting for answers. “Hey, Conover! Since you quit lobbying you’re hard to find. Any truth to the rumors you were run out of town?”
I don’t know how Moz rose to his feet on a tilting boat, but he made it look easy. We were both headed toward our late fifties, but he was limber. I swayed to my knees and flopped over sideways like a beetle struggling to right itself.
Dory clutched her crew as if he were solid ground, ignoring his frantic efforts to skate upright on wet planks. “Can you explain how in nine million acres of woods, you just happened to be on the same patch as your dead friend?” she called.
One foot braced on the boat, the other on the dock, Moz wrote something in his citation book, ripped the page, and stuffed it into the cameraman’s coat pocket. Dory gasped as Moz pulled his knife and let it hang in the air for long seconds before he severed the ropes holding us to the dock.
Dory wasn’t done. “So, Conover, how could you identify someone who was pressed flat by a tree? And you’re guarded by that guy in green because you know something we don’t?”
We blew away while she yelled at her cameraman. “Hey, hey. Get that shot. It’s mine. Game warden and dead woman’s friend … adrift in investigation. Hey, hey. Do it!”
He fiddled with his camera and smiled at Moz.
“What did you give him?” I asked.
“An offer,” Moz said.
“Offer of what?”
“Trout flies in exchange for invisibility.”
“You bought him off with fishing gear? How did you know his currency?”
“His hat has collected many seasons of misdirected flies.” Moz sat and crossed his legs, leaning against the outer wall of the boat’s small cabin. He smiled. “Much like your hats.”
My fly-casting skills weren’t something to brag about, so I crawled over to sit beside him. “No motor,” I said. “No oars. No paddles.”
He raised one arm into the wind and sampled each direction with his open hand. “But privacy for perhaps ten minutes when the wind returns us to town.”
I looked up the length of Moosehead Lake and wished for miles of angry water to shove us north where no one lived. Between what Moz knew and I knew, we’d be fine for days. I liked that option better than town and Dory Perkins.
Moz nudged me. “How would you answer that woman if you spoke truth?”
I couldn’t remember when someone had asked me for truth. I was used to lobbying for the forest’s future and spewing out stuff with an imaginary gag over my mouth—the don’t-be-shrill requirements of the job—but I’d quit the fight to save deer some forest. It wasn’t personal. Legislators don’t want some lobbyist dishing them bad news about a sentimental industry rooted in their constituents’ families. Logging and papermaking were Maine history. I got that. I understood why the elected and the elect essentially clapped hands over their ears—even when I wore lipstick.
Sandra Neily is a native of East Boothbay, and has been recognized for her work to help save the Penobscot River. She’s also been a licensed Maine guide and river outfitter with a history of working on behalf of woods, waters, and wildlife at risk. Her outdoor childhood in Maine’s woods, waters, and wildlife treasures informs her fiction. Her unpublished manuscript won the national Mystery Writers of America’s Helen McCloy award and was one of five national finalists in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest. She is also the author/editor of “Valuing the Nature of Maine,” a report on our nature-based economy and website.
Margaret F. Tripp Poetry Award
Muddying the Waters by David Sloan
The trail, rock-clogged and sodden
after last night’s rain, curls along
the lake’s edge, past goldenrod,
cedar, the last asters, until it opens
to a cove, sickle-thin, half-hidden
by swamp maple, ringed by reeds.
I slip off my pack and sweat-soaked shirt,
then ease into the water, clear
until the bottom billows up murk
with each step. It’s so shallow
I clear the tree line before I’m in
open water up to my chin.
Thoreau stood submerged like this
for hours, fully clothed, but he preferred
swamps, the gnat-hum, sizzle
of dragonfly wings, skimming jesus
bugs, wild huckleberry and bilberry,
the bracing fragrance of decay.
Such attention to minutiae. How
could he not, after losing his brother
to a nicked finger? One careless pass
stropping a rusty razor, he awoke
to stiffness in his jaw, then sweats,
seizures, frenzied final gasps. . .
I exhale under water, follow
the bubbles up. When I surface,
an eerie quiet fills the cove.
The only other witness stands
unmoving in the reeds, a heron,
silhouetted question mark,
whose sudden downward beak
flick and bent-winged takeoff
become one kind of answer.
David Sloan is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Poetry Program, and teaches at Maine Coast Waldorf High School in New Gloucester. His debut poetry collection—The Irresistible In-Between—was published by Deerbrook Editions in 2013. His poetry has appeared in The Café Review, Chiron Review, Houseboat, Innisfree, Lascaux Review, Maine Review, Naugatuck River Review, New Millennium Writings and Passager, among others. He received the 2012 Betsy Sholl Award, Maine Literary awards in 2012 and 2016, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is currently enjoying life’s latest delight—grandfatherhood!
Poetry Honorable Mention
Night Bus by Stephen Bloom
It was late when I got in.
I found an almost empty city bus
resting at the dark end of the line,
aimed back uptown, the
driver smoking outside
without a nod.
I climbed up through the open door,
interrupting only a couple of teenagers
at love in the back.
Eventually the driver followed,
ambled down the aisle for tickets,
squished into his seat,
released the hiss of brakes,
sucked the doors shut,
and nudged the idle out of the motor,
easing us backwards, then forwards
then out into the lonely street.
We headed out towards the suburbs
guided by the rhythm of the streetlights,
through blinking yellow intersections,
along parked avenues
with empty sidewalks,
iron-sided and padlocked,
trash-blown and tired.
Vibrant neighborhoods of my youth,
now lonely and disconnected.
I tried to console them with old memories
of a simpler time.
But the bus window
gave back only my own face,
green and fluorescent,
bare and transparent,
older than recollection.
Steve Bloom is a retired librarian. He lives in Falmouth with his wife, Mary, and near both of his children, his 4 grandchildren, and his brother, all of whom live in Portland. As yet unpublished, Bloom teaches piano to beginning students, directs an OLLI recorder ensemble, and whistles with Irish groups on occasion.
Richard F. Snow Nonfiction Award
My Own Savior by Pamela Gerry
Part I: The Beginning of the End
My hands were shaking and I couldn’t bear to look at all those faces as I made my way across the stuffy room. The carpet muffled the sounds of my heels and I was thankful it softened my wobbly steps. Once I took my seat I hung my head and closed my eyes, taking a few deep breaths. Once I heard the husky voice of the District Attorney asking me to, “Start from the beginning.” I lifted my head in his direction and began my testimony against my husband.
The Grand Jury had already heard the story from the Sheriff and now they were about to listen to me recount the most painful experience I have struggled through. I took a deep breath and felt the power of the moment come over me. For the past few months I had met with too many lawyers, detectives, police officers, abuse advocates, and seen the courtroom more than I cared to. It was embarrassing to me, actually, to be called a victim when I never felt that way in my life. What happened was a rare incident with my husband and my attitude was to blow it off as though it wasn’t a big deal. Over the years he had a temper, but I never truly thought I was in danger. So now here I was about to recount the most personal memories to a room full of strangers that I feared would judge me as either the victim or the victimizer. I took another breath and with a quiet cracking voice I tried to find the beginning.
“Well….um…I…I guess it all started on the night of July 2 when I came home from school. I had asked for a divorce a few days before and that had not gone well. My husband had been going through my accounts and began to question me about talking with an old childhood friend. I was upset and felt violated. He was way out of line and completely wrong about the situation. He demanded that I send messages to this person and when I refused he became more and more angry.” I looked up to scan the faces. I was compelled to look at the people now judging me. I hadn’t realized how full the small room really was. There must have been two dozen people selected to the Grand Jury. There were two rows of chairs lined up to my right and the two walls behind them were lined with people sitting and staring at me. There was also a man and woman at my table sitting near the district attorney. I was unsure of who they were or their role in my case; either way it didn’t matter and I had to carry on. All eyes were on me and I glanced down to continue on with my statement.
Deep breath in, focusing, I continued, “So…after arguing for close to an hour, he kept threatening to break my laptop. He grabbed it from my arms and was threatening to snap it in two pieces. I gave in and said I would send the message that he wanted. What set him off was when I typed an apology in the message. I’m not sure how things happened next exactly because I didn’t see him clearly but, he had gotten out his 9mm handgun and started making suicidal threats.” The room seemed to get warmer and I shifted in my seat. I was trying to think about what I needed to say but I couldn’t help but relive the memories and I could sense it was affecting my mannerisms. My voice was cracking more and it was dry. Time was frozen and I was the center of attention and it was extremely surreal. “This started around 11:30p.m. and after a while he went from threatening his own life to mine. We were in the bedroom most of the night and any time I left the room he would follow me. He never put the gun down. At one point he took my car keys and cellphone and hid them in the house.”
No one interrupted me or asked questions and I felt like I was talking forever. My mouth was dry and my nerves were not letting up. The men and women had become statues in their seats as they listened to me. I was unsure what they were thinking about me. “This lasted all night. He had gone from threatening suicide to killing me, so he could have the children, or forcing me to pull the trigger and kill him so that I would suffer. He just kept saying different possibilities. At one point during the fighting our daughter walked into the room. She had witnessed him trying to shove the gun into my hands as I pushed his arms away. We finally fell asleep around 4am and had to wake again at 7a.m. to take our daughter to Driver’s Ed. He stayed by my side the entire time and while I drove he made sure he had the keys when we were out of the car. When we got back home around 11:30a.m. my daughter began to make sandwiches for her brothers and herself. My husband had gone into the bathroom and I saw it as my chance to get away. I ran straight down the stairs into the basement and out the spare door. I knew there were no windows on that side of the house and if I just ran I could try to make it to the police station, which was around the corner in less than a ten minute walk. So I ran as fast as I could across my yard and into the street. Around the corner and over the railroad tracks. I was almost halfway there. I made it to the baseball field right before the elementary school that was next door to the police station. That’s when I heard the car. He came flying around the corner speeding up next to me. I tried to run faster but I had cramps from lack of food and sleep. He grabbed me by the left arm and squeezed so hard that I had bruises on the upper and lower arm for a week. It was even painful to move for a couple of days. He used my left arm to throw me around into the car. He bent me at his will and forced me into the passenger’s seat. Turning the car around and speeding home all the while making more threats and calling me terrible names.”
I was trying not to cry at this point. I fought back the wetness on my lids, refusing to let them drop down my cheeks. I swallowed hard which only hurt my dry scratchy throat. All the faces still seemed emotionless as they stared back with curiosity. I knew that my tale was almost over and soon I would be free. Everything would be out of my hands and I welcomed that relief. “So once we got back to the house we fought more and more on and off all day. By that night he was willing to let me leave but without the kids or any of my belongings. I went to my dad’s and it was clear I couldn’t stay there. My father did not agree with my choice of leaving the house. He felt I should’ve kicked my husband out. Therefore, I left and went to the police station and by the time I met with the officer and gave my statement it had been 24 hours. We did have contact briefly after he was released on bail the following week. This was when he violated his conditions for release and I contacted the detective to inform them of what he was doing.”
I sat back a moment and waited. I was finally done talking, but with that relief my hands began to shake again as I waited for the questions to come. I scanned the eyes of the jury, observing their posture, trying to read any energy that they would give off. I tried to see how they were looking at me. I felt judged but I also felt protected and that was confusing. I knew they had been in this room for days already. I was just another case in the pile to them. But, I couldn’t help wonder how many of these stories they would remember in the years to come. It would be up to them to decide if my husband deserved felony assault charges for what he did to me. Would they remember our names and our story?
There were only five or six questions from the Grand Jury members and a couple from the blond woman and old man that were sitting at my table. Then I was thanked for my time. As I got up from my seat I could feel the atmosphere of the room had changed from when I first walked in. The emotions of empathy seemed to fill the white room rather than the heat from over-crowded bodies. All eyes were on me and some were full of sadness. A few of the older folks thanked me in soft whispers and I heard one woman tell me I was a brave girl.
Prior to this day, I had not been nervous about testifying. Yet, today it had hit me hard as I entered into that room. I was surprised at how easily it was for the words to flow out. The mental visuals were more painful for me. I don’t like to think about him shoving that gun into my left temple as he forced me to hold him in my arms. Although I have become a pro at covering those signs of emotions. As I walked out of the old courthouse I felt a sense of relief. Now this painful chapter was finally closed. While so many saw me as a victim I never did. I felt bad for my husband really and I struggled with what I had done by going to the police. A choice my young children didn’t understand or fully accept.
A week passed and the phone rang one day while I was at work. It was the Detective who had been contacting me on all updates throughout my entire case. He assured me the Grand Jury had found my ex guilty and he would be offered a plea deal. From the time I asked for a divorce and my husband lost his mind, as I like to think of it, to the time he started his jail sentence it had only been six months. However, it seemed like a lifetime. I was no longer the same young girl who let this man overpower her with his demands, and I no longer felt the consequences of his secret drug addiction. I was no longer afraid to be alone. I accepted the loneliness and found comfort in my children, especially my daughter. We have always been close, and while she had a lot of anger over the divorce, she saw me as an inspirational role model. She was the only one who knew the entire truth, of what happened between her father and I, and that tightened our bond.
Now I register online for my children to visit their father in a county jail. I still struggle with the pain that comes from his choices. I feel as though I lived a lie my entire life. My reality was not the same as my partner’s, the man who was supposed to be my best friend. Testifying against the man who once swore he loved me and would protect me changed my life. I became a survivor of love and hate. A protector of myself for the first time in my life. I became my own savior.
Part II: A New Dawn
Today was the day a meeting had been arranged between my ex-husband and myself. We agreed somewhere public would be best and without the kids present. I suggested the large park in the middle of the town square. It had a few walking trails throughout the park so we could blend in with the crowd. We met at the front gate right on time, he hugged me and I awkwardly hugged back, we began onto the path to our right. We started with the simple gestures of “how are you” and “you look well” then I needed a few moments in silence as we strolled along. So many memories were rushing back to me it became rather overwhelming. I was a teenager when I met him. I gave him half my life and had never known any other man. Now I looked at him and I felt so much hurt. Seventeen years, day after day, side by side, we were always together. Then one day he was finally gone and I was relieved. Yet, it’s not as easy as it looks and until you experience it you never truly understand. Now I understood too much. Cops and courtrooms, mediations and divorce proceedings, prison visitations for the kids were all things I had enough of in the past year. Yet, we never had the chance to reconcile any events and find the closure that a person needs with such relationships. Now was that time and I didn’t know how to do it.
“Thanks for agreeing to meet with me today.” I said in a quiet voice.
“No problem, thanks for asking me.” He responded with some confidence. “I’ve really wanted the chance for us to talk outside of jail. I feel absolutely ashamed for my behavior and I will never forgive myself for what I did to you. And the kids. To our family.” His voice was already cracking and I could see his eyes were full of sorrow and remorse. I knew this was going to be something that we both needed.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly as I began, “I know that you have changed and I understand how you feel. I listened to you during the visits and I believe you. I can see certain changes so far and I wish you luck.” “I’ve been clean a year now.” he interrupted. “I know and I’m proud of you. I hope you can maintain it.” I continued on trying to watch his face and see how my words were going to affect him, “But the fact is a relapse is something that’s not always easy to avoid. The reality is you’ve been an abuser for about twenty years. And I realize that now. I blamed myself for being so stupid. So naive. But, the truth is I understand now that it was you. You were an alcoholic as a teen, before I even met you, and then you did drugs and pills before spending the last two years with a coke addiction and a pill problem. I thought how could I not have known? How could I be so blind to what you were doing every day?” Again he interrupted, “It’s not your fault and you’re not stupid or naive. I had a serious problem I was ashamed of. I didn’t know how to ask for help or how to tell you. I was good at hiding it from you because I was so afraid. I am truly truly sorry. I never meant to hurt you.” He looked down to wipe his left eye hoping I wouldn’t see him.
“I have come to terms with the lies and secrets you kept from me. I do not hate you and I do forgive you. It’s important that you know that. We have four children who still need you and they just lost the past year with you.” He was very emotional now. Mentioning the kids made his eyes redder as they swelled with tears. I could sense his emotions. He was radiating them like an orb encircling his body. I had never seen this side of him in seventeen years and in that moment I knew how much heartache he had caused himself. I felt his guilt and turmoil in knowing that he lost everything that he ever wanted and now can no longer have. He had hurt me physically and emotionally and the name calling at one point was unbearable, but once there was a time when the love we shared was amazing. This man had made me believe in soul mates. I thought we had been destined for each other. We overcame so many battles as teen parents and yet we flourished. We had four amazing children together and the bond we had with each of them was more than spiritual. But, at some point his addiction took over and he became negative with his life.
We walked passed the swings and I couldn’t help but stare at the mom and dad pushing their child together. I felt a sadness wash over me and I rushed us past them. “The truth is I need you to listen to me now. I need you to understand me and the woman I am today. Because you have single handedly changed my life. I was sixteen when I gave birth to our daughter. I didn’t love you, but I fell in love with you over time. I always felt that you loved me, that I never had to question. And because of that I felt special. Like no other girl had that kind of love. It’s silly now I guess.” We both gave a quick giggle as we continued on the path. It was winding through some trees now and it felt nice to have some shade. “But, what I mean is that I always thought you would protect me. You were the one who was supposed to keep me safe. Sure we had a few bad spells every couple of years but we were young and they were brief. We never separated and we were great parents, always putting them first. Well somewhere over the past few years though it seems like you gave up on life.” I looked over at him to see how he was handling my words. His face was relaxed and his eyes were normal again. So I continued on, “You had no real hobbies or any goals. You stopped helping with things around the house. You’ve always been a great dad, but with the kids it’s like you always got the choice of what you wanted to do. While I on the other hand, had every single responsibility. Do you know how overwhelming that was for me? All I wanted was help and then you’d bitch and complain that I’m nagging you. I have been hurt by you so badly. The betrayal is just so deep.” At this point, I needed a moment. I began to walk off the path and sat onto the stone bench next to a small flower bed. I had brought tissues knowing I would need them.
As I began to wipe my tears he sat next to me and took my hand. “I am so sorry. I know it’s never going to be enough, but I truly am. I never meant to hurt you. I was selfish and only thought about my next high. I took you for granted assuming you would never really leave me. It kills me to see the pain in your eyes and know that I am the reason.” He was staring me directly in the eyes as he said these useless words. I couldn’t hold back my emotions and I didn’t want to. It was important that he see the damage he caused.
“The thing is I gave you all of me. ALL OF ME!! Do you have any clue how I feel now? You say I was your best friend, but no. No, I never really was. Because you looked me in the eyes every day for almost two decades and lied to my face. You hid the person that you actually were behind this mask of a fake person you wish you could’ve been. I gave you everything. And not a single day passed where you were 100% honest with me.” I pulled my hand away and wiped the tears. I couldn’t look at him. I could feel the heartache from his betrayal. It cut so deep I felt as though my insides were surely ripped apart. Then the anger was right there, below the surface of the pain, waiting to erupt like a volcano when the sadness was too much to tolerate any longer. My defense mechanism for emotions had been perfected over the past year.
“How could you say you love me so much and that you still want to be with me? I feel like you never really knew me. I never knew you. I have been through hell and back this past year. For crying out loud, you put a fucking gun to my head when I asked for a divorce. I was just so miserable and it’s because you were a drug addict hiding the details of your problems.” I looked at him and only saw a shadow of shame brush across his face. I wanted him to feel bad in that moment. I wanted him to hurt like I had. So I continued on with more of an attitude in my tone. “You know what though, I would have helped you. If you would have come to me at any point in our marriage. I would have helped you. Instead you broke your promises and even your vows. You deceived me and made me blame myself for issues that clearly were not my doing. How is that love? How is that a partnership? It’s not, and it’s just not fair. You took everything I had and threw it away like it was nothing. Years and years wasted and what do I have to show for any of it? Four kids I’m raising alone and all the debt.” I got up from the bench and tossed my dirty tissues into the nearby trash. The moment of weakness was over and replaced by empowerment of anger.
Continuing along the path, he caught up to me after taking a moment lost in his thoughts. As he approached my left side he said, “You are right. I let you down in so many ways. I wish I could go back and change sooner. I wish I could ask for help. But, I can’t change the past. I can only work towards a better future. I know you worry about a relapse, but I hate drugs. I hate what they have done to me and my family. I promise to never go down that road again. My kids mean too much. They are everything and I will spend the rest of my life making it up to them by being a better person and father.” I looked over at him and he seemed determined. His eyes used to seem so dead inside compared to the glow that shone now. I wanted so much to believe every word he was saying.
Continuing onto another path I took a deep breath, gathered my thoughts, and replied “Thank you. However, it’s incredibly painful to know that now you will move on and be better for someone else. Like I wasn’t good enough for you to change. Now I’m just a damaged mess inside who is putting the pieces together while you get to be perfect for someone else. That’s just bullshit. I deserved that part of you. I’m the one who earned it and now it’s too late. Do you know how much that makes me hate you?” The tears were gushing from my blurry eyes and dripping off my chin onto the dirt at my feet.
We continued to walk the path in silence for a few minutes. Both of us knowing that our time to part was fast approaching. I had needed this closure. I needed him to know the pain he caused and the aftermath of his actions. It had been a year, but the damage was still on the surface of my soul and some days it was overwhelmingly unbearable. I needed him to acknowledge his actions and when he did I felt comforted. When you spend half your life with someone they become the person who knows everything about you and I felt I saw sincerity in him that had never been there before. I could feel his remorse and sense his loneliness. I never wanted to cause him any pain, even after all he put me through, I didn’t want to hurt him.
We made our way to the front entrance and he walked me to my minivan across the parking lot. We stood outside the driver’s door and said our goodbyes. “I want you to know that I love you and I have hope in my heart that one day you will give me another chance and I can show you the man I am today, The man that you have always deserved and the one I could never be. A better man.” He leaned in and kissed me on the forehead. As he did, I closed my eyes and the tears leaked down.
“I don’t think you realize how bad you hurt me. I can’t trust anyone and I don’t ever try to rely on people. I don’t think I can ever truly love again. I am okay alone and I actually prefer it most days. I have no idea how to date and the idea scares me honestly. I gave all of me to you and now I can’t imagine trying to start over and do that with another person.” He wiped my tears with his thumbs.
“Don’t cry. I hope that you don’t mean that. No one should be alone and I will always believe that you are my soul mate. I just screwed it all up for us.” I opened the door and got inside the van. I felt drained from crying and feeling so many powerful emotions in such a short period of time.
I put the key in the ignition and pulled my seat belt across my lap. “I’m glad that you met with me today and that you listened to me. The way things ended between us last summer we never got the chance to have these talks. I hope you know that I am sorry you went to jail. The kids blamed me for a while, but now they are just happy it’s done with, as am I. But, I had to do what I had to at that point. You lost your fucking mind and although I knew you would never be capable of hurting me I was scared.”
He leaned into the open window of the door and choked on his words as he fought the tears, “The look on your face that night will always haunt me. I hate myself for doing that to you. It wasn’t me it was all the pills I swallowed and the coke I was binging on at the same time. I will do whatever I can to make it up to you. I am so very sorry.” He put his head down for a minute and we both let the silence consume us.
“I forgive you.” I whispered. It was a bittersweet moment between us. I had loved this man once more than any other person in the world. I felt it was tragic what had happened to us mostly because so much could have been avoided through communication. We had so many missed opportunities to fix problems or address issues that instead got pushed to the side. Now here we were alone, for the first time in a year, trying to recognize the magnitude of our destructive behaviors. We both had things that we were holding onto. Pain and anger that was just causing more damage. By letting go I could finally feel a relief inside me float throughout my body.
Yes, it had been a tragic end to something that once had all the potential of a love story. Through the scars and tears, the stress and tension, the discomfort and hatred I had found myself. I was a better person, a stronger smarter woman, who had gone through hell but refused to come out a victim. I was a survivor. I would not allow negativity to control my life. I would not pity myself for things I couldn’t control. Instead, I found all the good qualities about me, like my loyalty and dedication, and decided that those things made me a good person. The people who see that as a weakness, that they can take advantage of, are the types of people who are weak. I knew after our talk that I was a better person for forgiving and moving forward. I was not what happened to me. I was my own savior and moving forward I would be my solution for happiness again.
Pamela Gerry resides in Bowdoinham, Me with her daughter and three sons. She works as an Administrative Assistant for Literacy Volunteers of Greater Augusta, where she also volunteers as a tutor. Recently, she has also begun a new career as a substitute teacher for a local school district. Pam will be graduating from SNHU in May 2017 with a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and English. Writing is her passion and she dreams of pursuing a life that allows her to travel the world achieving her goals.
Nonfiction Honorable Mention
Partial to Blondes by Nicole Breton
This was it. I knew this was it. After each gut-wrenching shudder, I somehow recovered. After every, “It’s bad timing,” I would cry, vomit, and shake my fist at the universe but I always mended. The squeaks and rattles soon dissolved in the background without a second thought. The rust that threatened to erode my exterior was soon forgotten and smoothed over. I was resilient and my ageless Rav4 was too. We were virtually indestructible and could conquer anything.
I had not taken the proper care, not even close. I was simply coasting along on cruise control. My gears were slipping, my pistons were failing, and my coil springs were splintered. It had been more than a year since I changed the oil. I was running on borrowed time.
The day came. It was dead; utterly lifeless. I was astonished although I had no right to be. This was bound to happen eventually. I grieved my loss. I questioned my destiny and cursed my fate. How could this happen? After all, this was the one constant I could rely on.
At the most perfect moment and quite suddenly, I met Steven. On the third date, he said, “This is my specialty. Let me fix this for you, baby.” My insecurities circled around me like turkey vultures, ready to feed on my carcass at a moment’s notice. Could this really be true? Did he just call me baby? Does he want to fix my car? He barely knows me. Is the universe finally tilting its light in my path and recognizing all of the kindness, purity, and selflessness that I have practiced or am I simply caught up in a lovesick semi-comatose state? Should I be hospitalized and if so, where and for what?
With extreme hesitation and fear, I allowed my personal winter to end and ushered his essence of spring in the door. He cleared the cobwebs and shined the windows. He was the voice on the other end of the line asking if *we* needed anything at the market. Nobody had cared if *we* or *I* needed something at the grocery store in years. Hell yeah, *we* needed cheesecake, wine, and the really expensive coffee.
He cooked dinner and did the dishes. He ran the laundry up and down the 48 stairs to my apartment. He folded it. He even matched the socks, something I had not done in years. He met my friends and family. We cuddled in each other’s arms all night long. He was the envelope and I was the love letter, tucked safely inside of him.
He talked about our future. We talked about vacations. We shared the same birth date and planned the big bash we would throw at the end of August. He wanted me to meet his children. I spent most of those few weeks in awe, unable to speak. My gaping jaw was so intense that I had developed acute cotton mouth. He accepted my bouts of uncertainty and quickly set me at ease. He laughed at my constant “what if’s” and “yeah but’s” and assured me that he was real and true. I had previously traveled with a few heartless vagabonds on my love journey that were so quick to leave at the slightest sign of trouble. It had become a learned behavior to not trust, to not believe, and to constantly doubt the fiber of the human race. Steven would rub my leg and assure me that the past was better left behind.
My dormant flowers began to bloom with the most vibrant colors. He believed in me, in us. My future reflected in his crystalline eyes. Positive energy sprinkled from my pockets, like stardust. My aura was divine and my belief had been restored to a level I had never known before. He was the accelerator hurtling both of us into overdrive.
It soon became apparent that things on the surface were vastly different than what lie lurking under the hood. The more time went by, the more complex this repair became. What once was easy, light, and smooth, suddenly became abstract and convoluted. He turned on me. Ironically, he had spent so much time helping to rebuild the engine and suddenly, he was taking a sledgehammer to it. I became the one supporting him through his fear and doubt. I held his hand in silence and listened to his fears.
I held on. This was a test of my faith, that’s all. This was simply a reversal of roles, quite common in romantic relationships. It’s all about give and take and the careful balance of patience and understanding. My higher power was involved and coupled with Steven’s beautiful energy, I knew this wouldn’t fail. Happiness would be ours forevermore.
We talked about the sheer nakedness of our vulnerability. In true Virgo fashion, we over-thought, we over-analyzed, we discussed scenarios that had not happened and might never happen. We both longed to break free from old patterns of thought. We were committed to reverse the effects of our past and wipe our souls clean, in honor of each other.
Love and logic never seem to exist together. Instead, they feed off one another and seethe with venom. Doubt eventually took the wheel and suddenly we were careening down a treacherous dirt road, full of dangerous curves. The dust made it impossible to see what lay ahead and filled our lungs. Pebbles angrily pinged off our steel foundation leaving countless dents in our devotion. The windshield soon splintered and the muffler gave way, rattling down the road. Above the noise, I heard him say, “I won’t let anything happen to you, you are safe with me.” I wondered if his words were any match for the jagged surface of suspicion we were trying to flee.
We took turns clutching the wheel away from mistrust, desperately trying to find a sinless straightaway to carry us through. We never let up. We knew it would take our combined will to get through this. “Don’t give up, please don’t give up,” I cried. “We will get through this.” He caught my hand and kissed it gently, amongst the chaos, and said, “Don’t let me go. We’re a team. We make our own rules; our own destiny.”
I closed my eyes and prayed. I could feel his heart beat in time with mine. Our spirits were furiously paving the way to our safety. Our errors would be left in our wake never to be thought of again. Separately we were strong. Together, we were fighters.
The car skidded to a stop and we were thrown into the dash. As I wiped the dust from my mouth, I realized my shirt was wet. A careful blood trail stained my chest, near my heart. He had opened the door and was staggering trying to gain his footing. We had made it. I jumped out of the car and ran to him.
He was clean. He didn’t have a mark on him. I was covered in dirt, the blood from my wound was etching an eerie pattern on my shirt, and my arms and legs were covered in abrasions. How was he left so intact? I looked at him and felt emptiness. He seemed like a distracted stranger, struggling with his place. He wouldn’t look me in the eye.
He disappeared and started to assess the damage. I heard the familiar sound of him cracking open a Heineken and remembered that we had two left in the cooler. My mouth watered at the thought of an icy brew.
Through the debris, I caught sight of a disabled red convertible pulled off in the shoulder. A buxom blonde in stilettos and a mini skirt was bent over the hood. An elaborate tattoo weaved up the back of her right leg, straight up her thigh, and disappeared under the denim of her skirt.
As I stared at the blonde, I felt something slam into the back of my knees causing me to buckle over. It was his toolbox. He was carrying it in one hand and the two Heinekens in the other. He brushed past me as if I was invisible, heading toward the convertible. “Hey…are you okay,” I asked him. He didn’t respond and kept walking, his back to me. “Steven Wait! “We made it through…we are safe. It’s me and you, like we always wanted.”
He turned to look at me. His eyes penetrated my soul. “I can’t do this. I can’t be the man you want me to be,” he said. I watched him swagger over to the car, fear and dread filling my insides. Was it the challenge of fixing the car that took him away from me? After all, it was his specialty. Like a veterinarian feeling compelled to help a pet in need, wherever and whenever, right?
As if reading my mind and wanting to expel any doubt, he turned to me and chuckled: “Besides you know I’m partial to blondes.” He reached the car and gently placed his toolbox on the ground. I watched as he traced her tattoo with my ice-cold Heineken, starting at her ankle and continuing up her calf to her thigh, as she giggled.
I’m not sure if he ever reached the end of her tat. I was bent over holding my golden hair aside, dry-heaving every ounce of my belief into the barren wasteland.
Nicole Breton has a BA in English Language and Literature. She is employed as a freelance reporter for the Sun Journal. In her spare time, she can be found at Popham Beach running in the surf with her hound dog. She enjoys writing poetry and short stories.
TPL Teen Scene Award
Get Rich (Not Quick) by Alexandra Burns
“A stitch in time saves nine,” I repeated, “a stitch in time saves nine.”
I had just learned what it meant. It’s better to sort out things ahead of time, so they don’t get mangled and confused along the way. My grandfather taught me this saying, along with the countless other maxims I memorized.
He and I sat cross-legged on the worn, Persian carpet. Beside us hung a large tiger hide and fading photos of my mother and her siblings wearing saris. Sitting there, he talked to me for hours, his words trickling out like water on a thirsty plant. Sometimes I simply listened; other times he engaged me through repetition and activity. Being a chess master, he challenged me to games. I clutched the intricately carved wooden pawn with wide eyes, considering my options. I absorbed, listened and repeated.
“Seven times five beta?” he asked me in a thick, Indian accent.
“Seven times five is thirty-five. Let’s go do a little jive,” I chanted back rhythmically. I came up with a rhyme for each multiplication set.
“Seven times si–”
“Forty-two,” I said excitedly, proud that I figured it out before he even finished asking.
At times, I felt overwhelmed with the depth of his knowledge and what I considered his obsession with imparting it to me. One day, however, my mom explained it. She told me the story of why he came to the United States. He was robbed of everything, in 1947, when the Partition of India occurred. His family lost their money, their possessions, their home, and the land where they once safely practiced their religion. He came from a learned family where education was a priority. Even while living in a refugee camp, they knew they still possessed education.
“Money comes and goes but education is something no one can steal from you,” his mother told him when their stomachs were empty and their feet bare.
Now, I sat beside him again, cross-legged and next to the wooden chessboard, but this time with a first grade, learn-to-read book with size-a-million font and pictures on each page. My grandfather had suffered a stroke the previous week and we had driven down to New Jersey to help.
As an eight year old, teaching an old man how to read made little sense. I learned to read years ago, so why was he learning now? My grandfather was always a teacher to me. He gave me a notebook as soon as I learned to talk so that my mother and I could record new vocabulary words. We called it the word-of-the-day book and we added new words and proverbs each day. As he sat beside me, he could barely remember my name or make coherent sentences. How could this be the same person? This was not Grandpa.
Before the stroke, we sat in his living room for hours, sipping Earl Grey tea. He lectured me about my life plans and human nature while quoting Wordsworth or Socrates. In chess games he showed me how to look several moves ahead and taught me how to put the King in checkmate.
Even as he tripped over the words, I could tell he retained his riches. While some say knowledge is power, it is more than that. Knowledge is a form of wealth that exists and existed for him even when he was rupee-less.
It was in that moment, as he struggled over a story about a dog wanting its’ bone, that I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be opulent like my grandfather, to have an endless pool of knowledge, to be able to see where the bishop needed to go, three moves in advance and even to quote the great philosophers in a knowing manner.
“There is no wealth like knowledge,” I realized, “and no poverty like ignorance.”
Alexandra Burns is a senior at Brunswick High School. When she isn’t writing, she’s busy being the captain of her school’s cross country team, tutoring Spanish, interning at Maine Public Radio or just getting outside. She hopes to major in both English and Latin American Studies in college and become the host of a renowned podcast.
Teen Honorable Mention
Dark Woes Howl by Caitlyn Graney
Dark woes howl in the wind of the night
A moon hidden behind fog, shedding no light
Footprints embedded in the frozen ground
Then the knocking sounds
Hatred eats away at his elderly soul
Feeding on anger caused by his daughter, heart broke
Thrice her past husband has come ’round
That’s when the knocking sounds
The young man calls on his father-in-law’s door
Apologizing, but the crippled man wishes to hear no more
He forever remains loathing in his home where he is bound
Neglecting the knocking sounds
But then nights pass, the knock sounds no more
The young no longer calls at his door
But for the elderly man it still rings in his ears
For he’s heard it every midnight for years and years
Now he cannot seem to get it out of his head
Eating him alive, threatening to madden him dead
Crazed with guilt, for he never had answered the calls
Never forgave, never forgot, and still listens when night falls
He heard it, the noises, but no one was ever there
Until one night he collapsed with a blank stare
Buried in his grave he was, without ever forgiving the man
And never was the knocking sound heard by him again
Caitlin Graney is a seventh grader at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham. She enjoys creative writing, reading, and the arts. She likes to participate in writing/reading events and musicals. She also plays basketball in the winter along with basketball camps in the summer, and she runs track in the spring/summer.
Just Write Maine-related Nonfiction Award
Up Maine by Vanessa Furu
“Hey, Mom, are we going up Maine this weekend?”
“Yes,” my mother would sigh, “when I get everything packed, we are going up Maine.” Up Maine. No two words brought greater joy to me and my siblings when we were young. I am not sure the origins of the phrase “up Maine,” and perhaps it’s a New England thing, but we knew that it meant we were heading north. My family lived in Massachusetts, and we made the trek up to our ramshackle camp in Poland Spring, Maine, many times each summer. People in other parts of the country call these small weekend houses in the woods “cabins,” but in Maine everyone calls them “camps.” My Grampy Grizz built our camp next to Upper Range Pond in the 1950s. The midsection of camp was a dull silver Airstream trailer. Grizz put it on a foundation, knocked the sides off, and added a couple of rooms. It was small but no one cared—we were outside the whole time anyway. Camp was fantastic. I remember feeling very sorry for other kids whose families didn’t have camps in Maine.
Our camp felt remote, but in truth we were only about 30 minutes from Portland. The camp was nestled among the woods, tall pines everywhere jutting into the blue sky. The dirt road leading to camp was marked off the main road by a tree with wooden signs nailed to it, the last names of those lucky enough to have camps on the lake listed down the tree trunk. The road was exactly one-mile long and dotted with seasonal camps. At the dead-end stood ours. We’d pile out of our Ford station wagon (this was the 1980’s) after a long trip up the Pike. “Long trip” equated to an hour and change, but when you’re ten that’s a long time. My father would yell “everybody grab something!” but usually we were off and running down to the sandy beach to greet our cousins, grabbing fishing poles and inner tubes along the way.
I loved fishing. We had a large blue rowboat named Bertha that my cousin Brett and I would take trolling in the third cove, the best spot on the lake for fishing. We’d bring some fruit punch, our fishing poles, and a white Styrofoam cup filled to the brim with dirt and fat, juicy night crawlers. We always made a pit stop at the Dry Mills Goods and Supply on the way up Maine because my dad needed beer and we needed worms. Anyway, I had no problem ripping one of those squirmy little things in half and slapping it on a hook, guts and all. I’d cast my line and stare at the red and white bobber. The feeling of excitement and satisfaction from watching that bobber take a little dip, then a bigger one, and go completely underwater, was immense. “I got one!” Sunfish were abundant in the lake, but didn’t make for good eating, so we tossed those back. We also caught white and yellow perch or bass that we’d proudly bring home to Grizz to clean and cook for us. He used a frying pan and a whole lot of butter. I remember picking more bones than meat from the fish, but we thought they were delicious nonetheless.
My Dad and uncles built campfires at night. We sat on wooden benches and cooked our s’mores while the adults drank beer and got rowdier by the second. They’d send us in to bed before things got too wild. I always preferred to sleep on the King Farouk—a large, backless couch of sorts. I don’t know why it was called the King Farouk or why anyone would name a couch for that matter. For a very long time, I thought it was called the King Fruit. I’d fall asleep on it listening to the sounds of laughter from the campfire and wake to the eerie yodeling of loons on the lake.
My sisters, brother, cousins and random friends spent our days at camp swimming in the crystal blue lake, fishing, eating peanut butter and jelly on white bread, and exploring the glorious woods. We would find large ferns, rip them out of the ground, and plop them on our heads to keep the mosquitos at bay. Hippy Aunt Deb taught us that trick. My mother preferred to spray us with DEET, so when we went cavorting in the woods we’d have both natural and chemical mosquito defense. We built forts and played Indians. I was always Butterfly-Dances-in-the-Wind. We reveled in endless games of gin rummy and cribbage at the picnic table. My older sister Veronica and I sat on our beach blankets and listened to the radio (“hot 95.9!”) on her boom box, waiting for our favorite songs to come on so we could make mix tapes. You had to press “play” and “record” at the same time, and hope the DJ wouldn’t yammer on over the song. We once wrote the lyrics to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on a paper plate, painstakingly starting and stopping the tape to get each word right.
We did not have a phone or TV at camp, nor an indoor bathroom. We had an outhouse to do our business. I hated going in there, but I had to do what I had to do. Wooden and squat, the outhouse smelled like dank earth and had a dirt floor. And it was dark—you never knew what kind of bugs or spiders might be hanging out in there, just waiting for their next hapless victim. I preferred the “heads down” approach. I tried not to look around too much or too closely at anything. Best to just go in, breathe through the mouth, and get out as quick as possible.
The sweet summertimes of my youth spent lazing at camp couldn’t last. As we got older and life got busier, our trips up Maine became fewer. I found myself heading up once a summer, maybe for a quick overnight with some friends. Grampy Grizz passed away, and my cousin Leanne bought the camp. It’s pretty much still the same, but she did put in a bathroom. The lake is still just as beautiful and the pines stand just as tall. Luckily this little slice of heaven has been spared from development and still maintains its woodsy, vacation-like feel. Now I bring my own children up Maine during the summer and every time I go, I am transported back to a time where all that mattered was in front of me. A fishing pole and some worms were what I needed most.
Today I scurry about and worry, anxiously fretting over things like, are my kids happy? What am I going to make for dinner? Will there ever be peace in the Middle East? I dream about lazy summer days, feeling far away from the rest of the world. I wish to dip my toes in the lake and laugh with my cousins. I long even more for my children to have the experience of going up Maine. Because that’s what camp is, not just a place, but an experience.
This is the first piece of writing that Vanessa Furu has ever submitted. She recently earned a degree in English from the University of Massachusetts. She grew up in Maine and recently returned to raise her family here.
Maine-related Nonfiction Honorable Mention
Notes to Myself: Community Breakfast by Cecelia Hitte
Several times as I turned down the road to Cundy’s Harbor, I’d noticed the handwritten sign that advertised the upcoming “community breakfast”.
I first saw that sign almost a month ago when it was brand new, but the weather had bleached and battered it, so while the sign still stood on its little post, I now had to slow down to read the faded letters. It took me until this past week—when I drove Beverly home and passed the sign again as I took the turn—to finally jot it down in my smartphone agenda. When I pointed to it as we turned down the road to Cundy’s Harbor, Beverly had said, “Yes, it’s a wonderful thing. I go almost every year, though I can’t go this year.” I told her, tentatively, that I was thinking of going, and she encouraged me. “You’d love it—people are so friendly.” That comment nudged me into jotting it in my agenda.
“Ok,” I said to Beverly, “I think I’ll go.”
Of course, I stayed up too late the night before, watching Netflix on my laptop. That was a tipoff that I was feeling a little apprehensive. This would be my first foray into the community breakfast/supper realm, and I knew that I was trying to stay up so late that I wouldn’t get up in time to go. But I had jotted it down in my smartphone agenda, and every time I checked it—as I’m wont to do several times a day to make sure I’m on task, it was there: Community Breakfast – Cundy’s Harbor – 7:30 – 10:00 am.
That night, I set a wake up for 7 am into my phone, and vowed that I’d be up and on the road by 8 am. Of course, I woke at the first beep and with my eyes half-shut, reset it for an hour later. But I got up. After all, I’d put it in my agenda, and—most persuasive of all—set the coffee pot on the stove, fully loaded with coffee the night before and ready to perk. With a cup of coffee in hand, I’d be ready for just about anything.
It was a cool, green drive out to Harpswell, and I left the windows on my Prius down, but had thrown a long-sleeved shirt over my shoulders for the first time since last May. The summer’s already almost over, I thought. And this is a Memorial Day community breakfast—it does mark the end of the summer, of course.
I turned left at the community breakfast sign onto the Cundy Harbor Road. Another five minutes, and I’d be in Cundy’s Harbor. I’d called the Cundy Harbor Library and they’d told me the breakfast was at the “snack bar”. I didn’t know where that was, but when I drove down the main street, along the harbor, the community breakfast wasn’t hard to spot—cars were lined up all along the grassy shoulders of the road, crammed into every available parking space, and from the groups of people I saw on the deck at the Holbrook Lobster Shack, I knew I’d found the snack bar.
Wrapping myself in the sort of Buddhist detachment that gets me through uncertain or uncomfortable situations, I walked down the dirt drive toward the lobster shack. Yes, everyone looked like they were having a good time. I climbed up the stairs to the top of the deck/wharf, and walked over to the young woman who was sitting at a booth that advertised a benefit organization, which she told me sponsored the breakfast. She gestured toward the food, which I would have found by its breakfast smells—a double bank of tables—and the place where I could order an omelet. I walked over to the omelet counter and ordered one, and then realized I didn’t know where to pay for the meal. Two teenage girls sitting on a bench next to the counter said, “She takes the money,” and pointed back to the young woman I’d been talking with. When I returned to her table, I said, “You didn’t ask me for any money!” and she laughed. “I guess I’m not quite with it now—I’ve been here since 6 am.” So, wondering if she also let the financially impecunious enter minus payment (did I look that down and out?), I fished out a ten dollar bill – cheap fare indeed for the meal I was about to have.
I should have looked at the food on the tables before I ordered that omelet: lobster pie, cheese strata, bread pudding, chili, melons, muffins, zucchini bread, pancakes (made to order) —and good, strong coffee! (It’s hard to find the sort of strong black coffee I enjoy, and this was tasty.)
The next thing to do was to find a table to sit at. I looked around—there were tables already filled with joking, eating families and friends. No room for me there. There were a couple of empty tables, but I didn’t want to sit there, alone. I looked for a table with just a few people sitting, who might welcome a newcomer. I found exactly that table: the two women were having a conversation, though when I sat down, one of them looked at me with what I imagined was a slightly annoyed expression. To tell the truth, I should have asked if they minded my sitting there with them before I parked myself at their table but I was too nervous for that. I just slid myself into the seat. And they continued talking. I wasn’t eavesdropping exactly; I just kept one ear half open, not so much for the content as just to wrap myself in the warm stream of their conversation.
After a few minutes, it was evident that they were engrossed in a personal topic, and not really wanting to bring me into their fold. But I was saved from isolation when another woman whom I later learned was named Mary came to sit opposite me. (Now she, who obviously knew these other two women quite well, still had the good manners to ask “do you mind if I join you?”. That’s how it was brought to my attention that I’d been a tad rude by just plopping myself down at their table.) Mary made a comment about bad knees making it a trifle hard to slip her legs around the fixed benches of the table, and I responded with a sympathetic “Yes, I know how that feels” because of my own similar situation—and that got the ball rolling. Mary spoke to the other two women; I spoke to Mary, Mary spoke to me, and then to the other women. I ventured in the midst of this new conversational pattern to say that Beverly, one of the residents of Cundy’s Harbor for whom I was a volunteer driver, had told me about the community breakfast, and Joan or Juanita (I forget which) exclaimed, well then you have probably driven my sister, Rebecca. And indeed I had. From there, we discovered that they also knew Beverly—who was also sibling, cousin, or at least close friend of everyone at the table, and that Lucille whom I’d talked to at the general store was Mary’s sister.
We were off and running then. I told my three table companions that I was looking for an apartment in Cundy’s Harbor, and Juanita said, “Why, Rhonda I think, has a place to rent.” Just then, of course, Rhonda walked by, and Juanita hailed her. “Rhonda, this lady is looking for an apartment here. You have one at your place, don’t you?” And it turned out, Rhonda did indeed, and gave me the address. Then Mary told me, “I live at those Millstone Apartments down by the beach. I’ve been there twelve years. They’re quite nice. And you know I don’t know anyone else who lives there.” She said this with an air of satisfaction which I didn’t quite comprehend since she seemed very friendly to me. But I jotted that name—Millstone Apartments—down too.
Then Juanita said, I want you to talk to Bernice—(I think she was one of the movers and shakers in getting the breakfast organized) . And so we moved over to where Bernice was sitting, and with a little reorganization of chairs, we sat together and she talked a little about Cundy’s Harbor—how friendly people are— “but once you’re told about all the community events, it’s up to you to participate,” she said, looking me in the eye. I inferred that sociability wasn’t just an asset of living at Cundy’s Harbor, it was an expectation.
Finally, Juanita took me over to another woman, a lively blonde, who she referred to as the unofficial mayor of Cundy’s Harbor. I wish I could remember her name, but by this point I was in information overload. I know she told me to check out the Cundy’s Harbor Library, and agreed that I should go see the Millstone Apartments, but that’s all I took in. I’ve got to get in training for retaining such details if I’m going to write these things down later! So, I left feeling well-fed at the Cundy’s Harbor Memorial Day community breakfast, and indeed welcomed by Cundy’s Harbor.
On the way out of town, I did take a couple short side trips—to Beverly’s to drop off the cane she’d left in my car last week, and I drove past Rhonda’s place to check out her apartment. But from the road, I could see it was a second floor garage apartment, and my bad knees twinged at the thought, so I didn’t stop. But then on a whim, I drove down the road to the Millstone Apartments. It was a surprisingly long, winding road through forest with several trails entering them, and the apartments were a surprise—three smallish buildings subtly painted in a light gray that blended into the landscape. Most surprising was the bay which they overlooked. One of my breakfast mates had said there was a private beach for swimming there. Hmm, I said. A possibility. On the way back, I saw that the door to the manager’s office was open. I almost drove by, feeling a little tired from the unaccustomed social life. But I said, why not, and stopped. A large dog stood in the entrance and barked at me, but I stood my ground as the man inside called him back. Ed, he told me his name was, and he was not only the manager, but the owner. An hour later, I left the office, knowing about Ed’s physical health, that he was in the midst of buying his sister (who lived across the street) out of the business, and didn’t have any apartments available right now, though the price was right. Heat included but not electric & sewer. You never know, he said. One might come up in a month or two. So, happy that I had stopped by, I walked out of the door, having left my name and phone number, and hoping an apartment would come available soon.
Where does this leave me? One community meal visited, and a decision to start packing boxes. You never know what’s going to happen. I still remember that advice—it’s up to you to participate—and I’d like to be ready.
Cecelia Hitte moved to Maine two years ago from the United Arab Emirates because she missed the color green, the sound of rain and the ability to shiver because of something other than a too-cold a/c. She has written forever and for many reasons. Today she writes because it takes her where she want to be.