Joy of the Pen 2018

The Verdi L. Tripp Fiction Award: Greg Tulonen
for Black Lady, Chase the Lady, Crubs

Fiction Honorable Mention: Zach Brockhouse for On How Fat Jimmy Oates Lost His Leg
Margaret F. Tripp Poetry Award: Patricia Ferrara Fuchs for Artifacts
Poetry Honorable Mention: Lynne Schmidt for The Perfect Dress
Richard F. Snow Nonfiction Award: Lauren Sangster for I Love You, I Miss You Already
Nonfiction Honorable Mention: Ruth Watkins for A Matter of Perspective
TPL Teen Fiction Award: Jack Ouimette for Hidden in the Eyes
TPL Teen Poetry Award: Nathan Deveney for Dances
Just Write Maine-related Nonfiction Award: Lynne Schmidt for Memories and New Beginnings

Verdi L. Tripp Fiction Award

Black Lady, Chase the Lady, Crubs by Greg Tulonen

Hearts is a trick-capturing card game similar to Whist, but while the goal of Whist and its other variants is to collect points, the primary strategy in Hearts is one of evasion.
–Billy Gideon, Gideon’s Rules of Gameplay

The best thing about the divorce, as far as I was concerned, was knowing that I’d never have to play another fucking game of Hearts ever again. No more condescending lectures about how I shouldn’t have led low diamonds or shouldn’t have passed high hearts or shouldn’t have thrown the queen – because seriously, who gives a shit? I might have been able to tolerate the games themselves if they hadn’t always been accompanied by Jeremy’s insufferable little teaching moments. Jesus Christ, would I not miss those.

“Do you understand why that was a bad play, Maeve? Clubs had already gone around three times. What’s three times four?”

“Jeremy, let’s just play.”

“I’m just trying to explain. I’ll think you’ll actually enjoy yourself more if you understand what’s going on. Three times four is twelve, right? Now, how many cards in a suit?”

“I don’t want to do this, okay?” “Come on, Maeve, how many cards?” “Please stop talking.”

“There are thirteen cards in a suit, right? So if twelve clubs have fallen, that leaves just one, the one you led with. You get it? That’s why everyone was able to dump hearts on you. Now do you see? Honey, do you understand? Honey?”

I mean, Jesus fucking Christ, right? Look, I’m sorry about the profanity, but if you’ve ever played Hearts, you understand. And if signing the divorce papers meant I could kiss off game night once and for all, well then, pass the pen.


The object of Hearts is to be the player with the fewest points at the game’s conclusion, which occurs when at least one player reaches 100 points. Points are accumulated for penalty cards, which include all hearts (one point apiece) and the dreaded queen of spades (thirteen points).
– Billy Gideon, Gideon’s Rules of Gameplay

But wait. Get this: Half an hour after we had decided that yes, we actually would separate, and yes, Jeremy would be moving out in the morning, he still expected us to go through with game night, one last time.

We were slumped on opposite sides of the sofa, wrung out and exhausted by this life-altering decision we had just made, when Jeremy stood up and said, “Well, should we get ready?”

I honestly didn’t know what he was talking about. “Ready for what?”

He produced an incredulous puff of air. “Game night, of course. The babysitter will be here any minute.”

I looked at him for a full six beats. “You can’t be serious.”

“Why not? Why should we spoil your parents’ night with our bad luck?”

I was still working out my response to that one when Jeremy spoke again: “Besides, we can’t just send the babysitter away.”

It was easier to pounce on that flank. “Of course we can. What’s she going to do, sue us for lost wages?”

Jeremy flashed an indulgent smile. It was the kind of smile a parent might give an endearingly misbehaving toddler. It was the kind a smile that made me want to scoop out his left eyeball with a grapefruit spoon. Looking at him, I realized that every single thing about him was irritating: His haircut, his collarless shirt, his idiotic waterproof diving watch.

“C’mon, Maeve,” he said. “Be a sport, just this once.”

Just this once. Can you get over that? I was too tired to argue the point. “Fine,” I said, “Let’s get ready.”

Number of times Jeremy has been diving: zero.


The simplest strategy is to avoid winning tricks altogether, ducking every card played with a card of lesser value. However, it is nearly impossible to play out an entire hand without taking any tricks at all, and thus the unskilled player will be left with nothing but “winning” cards as the hand progresses, virtually guaranteeing a late onslaught of penalty cards.
– Billy Gideon, Gideon’s Rules of Gameplay

I’ll be fair. I want to be fair. It’s hard to admit this even now, but here’s what happened on our first date: After dinner (an okay Thai restaurant Jeremy picked), after the movie (a documentary about a paraplegic cabinetmaker – which, yes, he picked), Jeremy invited me up to his apartment, in theory to loan me a Replacements CD – which, being honest, was a flimsy pretense to begin with. We were standing in his entryway, chatting. He hadn’t yet offered me a drink and I hadn’t yet taken off my coat, but these gestures were in the air, waiting to be expressed. I noticed a row of Billy Gideon books on a nearby bookshelf, and I said: “Oh, you like Billy Gideon? I’ve met him, you know.” That last bit was delivered with excruciatingly false casualness, the memory of which fills me with shame. Jeremy actually froze, his mouth dropping open as if I’d just told him I was John Lennon’s niece. Later that night, I let him play with my breasts and finger me a little.


Shooting the moon is a very common scoring variant. If one player takes all the penalty cards on one deal, 26 points are subtracted from the player’s score, or, alternately, 26 penalty points are added to the scores of the other players. Attempting to shoot the moon is often a risky strategy, as failure to capture even one of the desired cards will result in the remaining penalty points (as many as 25) being added to one’s score.
– Billy Gideon, Gideon’s Rules of Gameplay

You don’t know who Billy Gideon is. That’s okay. Billy Gideon is the five-time winner of the World Series of Hearts and author of Gideon’s Rules of Gameplay, which you may have consulted once or twice if you needed to look up whether a straight beats a flush or what the hell Euchre is. But unless you’re among the afflicted, you haven’t read or even heard of his other books, Hearts On My Sleeve and Hearts of Gold and Not for the Faint of Hearts and Billy Gideon: A Heart-to-Hearts Talk.

Don’t worry about it.

You don’t want to have anything to do with that world.

I wasn’t lying, though. I have met him. When I was 14, our family vacation was to the North American Hearts Association tournament in Akron, Ohio. My parents had each anted up the two-thousand-dollar buy-in (which: Jesus Christ!), earning them each a seat at one of the higher-numbered tables (the higher the table number, the lower the player’s world rank, if he or she even is ranked, which my parents are not). This was a tournament, winners playing each other and advancing to the lower tables, all for a chance to take on Billy Gideon at table one.

I mean, other families go to Epcot Center, right? We went to a dumpy convention center decked out with 50 card tables and 200 folding chairs. And bleachers, if you can believe that. People actually come out to these things just to watch. I ask you, what is wrong with this world?

This is what I grew up with. My parents are perfectly ordinary in every way save one: Accountants with their own modest firm, two cars, a butcher they know by name, and a single-minded obsession with the most irritating card game ever invented, an obsession that found me at age 14 on an uncomfortable bleacher seat in Akron, Ohio crammed between two overweight Rotarians rather than working on my tan in Orlando, Florida.

My mother was knocked out early in the tournament by a run of bad luck and a disastrous moon shot attempt, beaten by a very nice gym teacher from Texas. “Fucking fuck me up the ass,” my mother said when she lost, and the Texan patted her hand consolingly. (She only swears when she plays Hearts.) But my father made it all the way to Table One and the man himself. I’ve seen football players who just won the Super Bowl carry on less than my father did that day. He fell to his knees and wept, I swear to God.

I’ll tell you this: Billy Gideon was short, even shorter than I was at 14, four of his stubby fingers encircled by garish rings. His hair, thinning on top, flowed magnificently behind him, down to his shoulders. He greeted my father and the other two finalists (a librarian from New Jersey and a college professor from Maine) with an air of pompous regality. “Congratulations on making it this far,” he said without getting up from his chair. “Are you ready to take on the king?”

“Yes sir!” shouted the finalists, my dad loudest of all.

“Just so you know,” said Billy Gideon, “the king plans on giving his queen away as much as he can tonight.” He winked and added (entirely unnecessarily) “The queen of spades that is.” Like, yeah, we get it. But everybody yukked it up like the loyal subjects they were.

Long story short: Dad won. He shot the moon on the last hand. Billy Gideon had one chance to stop him, but he ducked Dad’s nine of hearts lead and Dad held no other losers. The crowd went bananas and Billy Gideon shook Dad’s hand. Then he sat there on his throne and autographed every card in a comically oversized deck, handing one card to every tournament finalist, saving the queen of spades for my father. On it he wrote, “A queen for the Kingslayer. Congratulations! -Billy Gideon.” Dad had it framed and hung it in his study, right next to his wedding photo and his diploma from Dartmouth. So, my parents spent four thousand dollars between them and came home with a signed playing card. And I’m the unreasonable one.


Every point-value card in Hearts is a penalty card, save one. The jack (or in rarer variations, the ten) of diamonds is worth negative ten points and is highly sought after, but winning it requires winning a trick – a counterintuitive strategy to say the least.
The inexperienced player would do well not to pursue it at all.
– Billy Gideon, Gideon’s Rules of Gameplay

Game night began before we were married, which really should have been enough of a warning. The first thing my father asked when he found out I was seeing someone new was, “Does he like Hearts?” The very first thing, the way another father might ask

“What’s he do for a living?” or “Is he Catholic?”

When I brought Jeremy home, my parents left a deck of cards out on the kitchen table but didn’t say anything about it. Subtle. We ate in the dining room — pork loin and mashed potatoes, a specialty of my father’s. Mom made a salad and cooked asparagus on the grill. Jeremy brought an expensive bottle of wine that turned out to be mediocre.

After dinner, Jeremy, like a good suitor, helped to clean up in the kitchen. When he spotted the deck on the table, as he was clearly designed to do, he picked it up and said, “Do you folks play cards?”

“Once in a while,” said my mom, more casually than was plausible.

“When we get a chance,” added my dad, pretending to be engrossed in loading the dishwasher.

“How about Hearts?” said Jeremy, sealing our fates. “You guys ever play Hearts?”

At that, my mother actually clutched her chest, and my father looked like he was ready to put down a dowry.

Before I even knew what was happening, this was a once-a-week thing. Every Saturday night, God help me, we all sat down together for another game. Even after Ethan was born, this kept up, the teenage girl up the street proving to be a maddeningly reliable babysitter.

And like I said, it might not have been so bad if not for Jeremy’s endless efforts to teach me to be a better Hearts player.

“You knew your father was shooting the moon, right?”

“Jeremy, seriously. Don’t even–”

“You passed him high hearts and no losers.”

“Honestly? I can’t remember what I passed him.”

“I mean, if you’re not going to take the game seriously–”

“I’m really, really not.”

“If you’re not going to take the game seriously, it makes it less fun for everybody.”

“That’s fine. You guys play. I’ll read a book.”

“Come on. Don’t be like that. It’s better with four.”

Then there were the clubby conversations they enjoyed, rehashing among themselves the minutiae of every previous hand: I thought for sure you were shooting… Weird distribution in that hand, wasn’t there? I had a fistful of diamonds… I didn’t know what you were up to with that pass… You sure were deep in spades… For crying out loud, were the games so goddamned fascinating that they had to relive every second of them only minutes after the fact? Christ.

Look, I’m not an idiot. I teach comparative literature at the community college and can name every president since Coolidge. When the rules and strategies of Hearts are being (condescendingly) explained to me, I absolutely get it. What I’m saying is that it all makes sense. I understand perfectly the difference between good and bad gameplay. It’s just that when the cards are dealt, and I hold them in my hand for the first time, all I see is chaos. And after that, people are talking and cards are hitting the table and everybody’s waiting for me to take my turn, and all those rules and strategies float away like mold spores off an old orange. Even now, thinking about those games, my stomach clenches.

When you think about it, the whole thing is unfair: Jeremy’s condescension, my parents’ silent embarrassment, all of it. My brain just works differently than theirs. Should color-blind people be held accountable if they can’t pick out matching clothes? Should someone born with no hands be given a hard time for not being able to play the piano? How is this any different?

All right. I’m going tell you about what happened on that final game night, the last game of Hearts we ever played together, but first, I want to tell you about something that happened six months later. Maybe it won’t make a difference to you, but I think maybe it justifies everything. I’m just saying: People can get too hung up on cause and effect. Sometimes, the chronological order of events isn’t the best way to consider things, if you really want to understand them.

Here’s what I’m talking about: Six months after the separation, I called my mother, hoping Ethan could spend the night with them, single motherhood having just about driven me crazy. The babysitter up the street was off to college, just in time for it not to matter anymore. “I think we’re busy tonight,” my mother said.

I frowned into the phone. “You think you’re busy or you are busy?”

“Well, tonight might not be the best night.”

“Why? What’s going on tonight?”

“I just think we might have plans.”

“Wait a minute. You think you might have plans, or you definitely do have plans?”

“Oh, well, you know, I guess we have plans.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m talking to you on the phone.”

“Mom, this conversation is very strange. Why are you being so weird?”

“I don’t think I’m being weird.”

“Then why won’t you tell me what your plans are? Are you and Dad going to a swingers party or something? That was a joke.”

“Well, I’ll tell you. But I just don’t want you to get upset.”

“Okay, now you’re freaking me out. What’s going on tonight?”

I counted in my head all the way up to nine before she answered. “It’s game night,” she said.

I was confused, then relieved, then confused again, all in about half a second. I was confused because as far as I knew, game night had died right along with my marriage. I was relieved because if my parents had started up game night with someone else, the pressure was off me to ever play the cursed game again. I was confused the second time because if my parents had started up game night with someone else, I couldn’t imagine why my mother would be so reluctant to tell me so, unless…

“We’ve started playing again with Jeremy. And Julie.”

Julie. Jesus Christ. Julie is Jeremy’s new girlfriend, or as Ethan refers to her, “Good Mama.” This is tolerated by all, thought cute by all.

Now, I ask you: It’s not just me, is it? This is a major betrayal, right? Knowing this, couldn’t you forgive me just about anything? Even something that had occurred earlier? Couldn’t you?

“He’s the father of our grandson,” my mother said, because I hadn’t said anything.

“Which means you’re supposed to be civil to him at birthdays and graduations, not

invite him into your home along with whoever he happens to be fucking at the moment. Jesus Christ, Mom!”

“There’s no call for language. Julie is very nice. And she happens to be an excellent Hearts player.”

“Well, that just makes it all better, doesn’t it?”

My mother sighed. “Let’s talk when you’re feeling more rational, okay?”

“Sure. Just don’t count on that being anytime soon.”


In Hearts, vengeance invariably plays a crucial role. A player can, either through malice or poor play, negatively affect others’ chances by deviating from sound Hearts strategies. Such a player should expect retaliation, as the other players are likely to save their penalty cards to deliberately distribute to him or her later in play.
– Billy Gideon, Gideon’s Rules of Gameplay

“Are you ready?” Jeremy called to me, standing at the door, his scrubby deck of blue Bicycle cards pinched in his left hand. (My parents have cards, of course, but Jeremy believes his deck is lucky.)

“Obviously not,” I snapped. “If I was ready, I’d be at the door, yes?”

Ethan sat on the sofa next to the babysitter, watching an animated program about a family of beekeepers who solve mysteries. He glanced up at me briefly. The babysitter’s gaze didn’t waver from the television.

“I just don’t want to be late is all.”

“It’s game night, not a movie. We’ll get there when we get there.”

Later, in the car, Jeremy asked me, “What are we telling your parents?”

“What are we telling my parents about what?”

Jeremy sighed and we drove the rest of the way in silence.


Variants of Hearts include Black Lady, Chase the Lady, Crubs, Reverse, Black Bitch, and Rickety Kate.
– Billy Gideon, Gideon’s Rules of Gameplay

I’ve read that one sign that you’re insane is when it’s perfectly obvious to you that you’re the sane one and that everyone around you is crazy. The reasoning is that it’s far more likely that you’re the one with the problem. But there must be exceptions to that rule, right? The people who work in insane asylums, for example, or people stuck in a family of Hearts fanatics.

When we arrived for that final game night, Jeremy didn’t tell my parents we were separating. He didn’t say anything at all. He just sat down at the dining room table and started shuffling. My parents don’t think that kind of behavior is weird. They just sat down at the table too and Dad said, “Cut for deal.”

I don’t remember much about the game we played that night, but I’m sure there was nothing remarkable about it. I’m sure I fell behind fairly quickly and took the queen of spades more often than not. I know that Jeremy didn’t reveal the slightest indication that something might be wrong between the two of us, and that my parents didn’t seem to notice my tension at all. At one point I said I had to go to the bathroom.

“I’ll make tea,” said my mother.

I went upstairs and sat in the bathroom for as long as I thought would be socially acceptable. Then I sat there awhile longer. I remember wishing I smoked, so I could sneak a cigarette.

When I came out of the bathroom, I had to pass by my father’s study to get to the stairs, and when I did, I saw that stupid framed queen of spades signed by Billy Gideon. Without even realizing what I was doing, I crossed the floor of Dad’s study and took it off the wall. Feeling hypnotized, I cracked open the frame and peeled the card from its matte. I held it for a moment, thinking that I was the first person to actually touch the card since the framer had mounted it years earlier. Then I opened the study window.

My parents’ dining room is directly below the study. Seated at the dining room table, Jeremy and my parents would have a clear view out the dining room window of anything that dropped from the study. That’s what I was thinking as I began carefully, methodically tearing the card into tiny pieces and tossing the pieces out into the night.

This is what I was thinking: I bet it looks like confetti. I thought: I bet it looks like snow.

Greg Tulonen has published fiction and non-fiction in The Florida Review, The Madison Review, Time Out New York, and elsewhere. He was head writer for the award-winning web series Ragged Isle, co-writer of the web series The Kid Who Loved Indiana Jones, and writer of the short thriller films On a Country Road and Sui Generis. He created the non-fiction web comic Actual Conversations With My Sons and writes the upcoming horror web comic Night Is Falling. He lives in Auburn, Maine with his wife Kate and their two sons.


Fiction Honorable Mention

On How Fat Jimmy Oates Lost His Leg by Zach Brockhouse

Story no longer available.

Zach Brockhouse has lived in Maine since 2010 with his wife and two kids. He thinks it’s pretty great. On How Fat Jimmy Oates Lost His Leg is a story he wrote about a place where he grew up—South Carolina. Zach has won NPR’s Three Minute Fiction and this year won the Maine Literary Award Short Works Competition for Fiction.


Margaret F. Tripp Poetry Award

Artifacts by Patricia Ferrara Fuchs

The artifacts of an old house
give silent testimony to the past.

A door latch for a non-existent screen door.
Wall switches that don’t turn anything on.
An old oil tank standing in the basement,
unnecessary, but too hard to remove.
Pickets, hand turned, for a fence replaced
piece by piece over time with vinyl.
Thick wooden doors, abandoned.
Once proud sentinels to front entryways
now replaced by modern, insulated ones.

Small cupboards behind the fireplaces,
made to hold candles long before electricity.

Even boxes and lines of past cable companies,
cluttering up the back of the house.

So many layers of life in this old house,
re-purposed continually since 1840
to accommodate its newest dwellers,
who then leave footprints
for us to puzzle over, smile and accept.

We too will leave evidence of our tenure,
eventually move on and cherish the old things
we can carry with us.
But these house artifacts remain.

Patricia Ferrara Fuchs is from Orrs Island, Maine.


Poetry Honorable Mention

The Perfect Dress by Lynne Schmidt

I chose my eating disorder
The way most people browse a clothing catalog
Flipping through the first three pages
And deciding that dress hurts your teeth
And that one wouldn’t fit right either.
Until finally the perfect one stared back at me
Wax pages glistening in sunlight.
I’d found the perfect one
Submitted a credit card
And cashed out with
No fat reserves left
A hospitalization placement
My partner pausing as he takes my shirt off, saying,
‘I’ll always find you attractive but you need to eat’
Because my bones stuck out.
I found the perfect dress
And decided to put it on
Because it would cover all my defects.
It would make me pretty
It would keep me thin
I would dazzle when I turned this way and that.
When I looked in the mirror
I could see someone I recognized.
So I slipped the dress on
Its silk fabric wrapping around my body.
But it was tighter than I imagined.
When I exhaled my stomach touched the edges.
So I learned to take shallow breaths.
I learned to stand up straighter.
I learned to eat with larger spaces in between.
Ask boys not to touch my stomach if I’m sitting down.
And though they call it remission
Once you put this dress on
There aren’t enough zippers in the world to pull you back out.

Lynne Schmidt is a mental health professional in Maine. Her memoir, The Right to Live: A Memoir of Abortion was a 2018 PNWA Literary contest finalist. Her work has appeared in Poets of Maine, Poets of New England, Maine Dog Magazine, Alyss Literary, UNE Magazine, The Sun Journal, The Portland Press Herald, Her Kind Vida, several editions of Zephyr, and many others. She is the founder of AbortionChat, which received grant funding from the Abortion Conversation Project and allowed her to travel the nation sharing her story. She has been a featured poet at events throughout Maine. She regularly attends reproductive justice and writing conferences where she participates in panels or hosts them. Lynne is a member of PNWA and NEPC. Lynne prefers the company of her three dogs and one cat to humans.


Richard F. Snow Nonfiction Award

I Love You, I Miss You Already by Lauren Sangster

Tuesday, November 8, 2016, was the worst day of my life, and it wasn’t because the election result didn’t go how I wanted it to. I woke up that day with the hope that by evening’s end we would have a newly elected female president. Hillary Clinton was not my favorite choice as president, but she was definitely the candidate more in line with my beliefs about how our country should be run.

I clearly remember the morning my husband left for work to go to his job in Monument Square. I left with him and walked as far as North Street and turned right to go to East End Community School to cast my votes for the election. As I turned away I said my usual, “I love you! I miss you already!”

After I voted, I went along with my daily routine. I exercised, decided what to cook for dinner, and ran my errands. It was a peaceful day with a tinge of hopeful excitement in the air. However, by late afternoon I received an odd phone call. It was from a general practitioner at Maine Medical. A woman. She urged me to contact my husband to tell him that she had attempted to reach him several times and she needed to speak with him as soon as possible. Of course, as his wife, I felt I could ask what the call was about. I was told I could not ask. Our emergency contact information for each other was outdated so she wasn’t allowed to divulge any information to me. Stunned, I hung up and immediately phoned my husband. He answered with his usual calm voice. As I explained the prior conversation he said very little by way of explanation and simply responded with, “Oh, I’ll give her a call.” I know my husband. Demands for an explanation would get me nowhere. And, to be honest, I still felt confused by the previous conversation. I asked that he phone me back immediately after speaking to the doctor and I hung up. I waited. I waited some more. Fifteen minutes passed before I phoned back. My husband answered with his nonchalant cool attitude. I lost my temper. I demanded he tell me what was happening.  He responded quietly so that I could barely hear him, “Darling, it isn’t good news. I’ve been getting tests. I have cancer. It doesn’t look good.” Everything spun. And then, “I think maybe I should come home.” MAYBE? I fumbled my way to the car and sat, trying to comprehend what I’d heard five minutes before. Mike. Has. Cancer. I drove toward his office, my mind in a blur. As I neared, I saw Mike standing there, his 6’6” frame hunched over, head down, causing his long beard to rest on his chest. I hated that as I looked at him, I felt more anger toward him than fear for his life, more hurt because he hid this from me than concern about what he must be going through emotionally. I felt guilty for the feelings. I felt selfish. I felt everything and I felt nothing.

The next few hours were a blur as we learned we needed to pick up film from a scan Mike had the Friday before. How could I not know he was sneaking to doctor appointments and having tests done? The next days were meetings with a surgeon, an oncologist, a radiation oncologist, his endocrinologist, and finally a prosthodondist, a specialist dentist who treat patients with head and neck cancer. We went on a whirlwind of learning about the awful disease whether we wanted to or not. It was intense. It was frightening.

We learned that Mike’s cancer was stage four. I learned that Mike knew he had something wrong for nearly four months. I felt more betrayal. That led to more anger and fear. It was a vicious cycle of emotions that would not give me peace. Mike gave me excuses: I was mourning the death of my mother six months prior, we had a trip planned back to his homeland of Scotland and he wanted to be able to go and return home before getting tested and, more truthfully, he was scared and didn’t know how to deal with what he thought was happening. None of it justified to me why he would keep his concerns from me and why he would do nothing for such a long time. I broke down at one point and screamed that he’d played Russian roulette with his life; he’d played it with mine as well. I had a hard time accepting, a hard time feeling my love for him that I knew was somewhere inside. I felt miserable for us both.

In the middle of all of the emotions we had to go through the process to prepare Mike for treatment. Most important was to ensure his teeth and gums were in the best shape they could be in because after treatment his mouth would be compromised for healing with even the smallest infection. In the span of five days he had a biopsy on his throat, four teeth extracted, a teeth cleaning, and a mediport implanted in his chest. By the end of the day that Friday I implored the doctors to leave him alone. His body was put through too much in those five days and he hadn’t even begun treatment. We were glad he had the weekend for some rest and recovery before he would begin chemo the following Tuesday.

In the same week Mike went through the prep work before treatment could begin he learned he was promoted at his work. More emotions. He had to tell his boss he would need to work from home. He accepted Mike’s explanation that this was cancer but nothing serious, that through treatment but he would be good as new. We were both thankful he worked for a company that allowed its employees to work from home on a regular basis. Mike was thankful that he could continue to work, to distract his mind from what he would be going through. Sadly, I felt thankful for very little. Thus began our new normal.

Mike was treated with a mixture of three chemo drugs every three weeks over a few months. After that he went through seven weeks of radiation, with the weekends off. We thought the chemo was bad with the usual side effects. Even with coaching, we weren’t fully prepared for how radiation to the neck area would change our way of living and existing together.  Mike’s taste buds were destroyed, everything tasted horrible. His throat became unbearably sore. He took heavy painkillers. He didn’t want to eat. The smell of food made him ill. I ate quickly and stopped eating certain foods that he couldn’t endure to smell. We were told it would become an issue for him to keep his weight up. We were overjoyed to discover strawberry-flavored milk from Smiling Hills Farm. It was a godsend that he could somehow still taste that flavor without it making him sick. I mixed it with ice cream and protein powder for extra calories. He lived on the shakes twice a day until he could no longer stand the flavor of strawberries. He tried the banana-flavored milk. It was a hit. I added in a banana to give him more nutrition. That was his new tolerable favorite flavor for the next six weeks. In total, it took Mike nearly three months to be able to try to swallow anything solid. He needed to do speech therapy exercises several times a day to learn to swallow solids again without choking. It took his taste buds nearly four months before he was able to stand flavors; sometimes they were so intense he couldn’t stand it and other times so dull he didn’t care to eat. The texture of food became more important. It was the new way for him to find pleasure in eating again.

While Mike’s taste buds were coming back and gaining strength we were faced with the new task to help him recover weight and physical strength. We were thrilled to learn that the YMCA offers a free three-months long training program geared toward patients recovering from cancer. Spouses are allowed to attend with the patient. We went twice per week and in addition did a workout together at home. My Mike was feeling better and gaining strength! We set a goal to take a trip to celebrate his recovery. We made our plans to travel to Portugal in November of last year, one year after diagnosis. Except for one day, a few days after arriving in Lisbon, Mike walked the hills and stayed out all day. Even his taste buds cooperated well enough so he enjoyed the local foods. We were ecstatic!

We came home from our trip in late November and received the call the very next day that Mike was to go for his scan. It came back clear. Six months clear and we were told no new scan for six months. We felt a new sense of relief. If his oncologist felt there was no need for a scan any sooner, then maybe he really did survive cancer! Woohoo! We knew we could enjoy the holidays without worry!  We’d missed Thanksgiving while traveling in Portugal but had a wonderful Christmas. Our year ended in the usual manner; we bought caviar and champagne from Brown Trading Co. to ring in the New Year. Mike truly enjoyed all of it. Life was good again! To keep a celebratory atmosphere in our home, Mike asked that I keep some of the Christmas lights hanging around a few of the windows. Of course I did.

Our new year was off to a great start. The only thing that kept us down was that our dog, Clara, our fourteen-year-old miniature dachshund, was ill. She passed away by mid-January. We were devastated by our loss but we knew she’d had a great life with us. We mourned her but kept going with the renewed happiness we were feeling because of Mike’s health.

With each scheduled check-up we were told that any hardness Mike felt in his neck was scar tissue. However, by early February Mike began to develop pockets of fluid on the outside of his neck. He had a long-scheduled appointment with his surgeon. We hadn’t seen her for some time. We called her Doctor Doom because it was she who gave us the worst news, Mike’s original diagnosis. The appointment was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, a day of love. Maybe that was a good sign. Our hopes of positive news were shattered, however, when Doctor Doom examined his neck and ordered a scan. The scan showed that Mike’s cancer was back and it was growing near his carotid. The danger, we were told, was that the tumor could overtake the carotid and it could burst, killing Mike within seconds. The moniker still fit. In early March, my darling husband underwent a radical neck dissection to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Pathology showed there were cancer cells that could not be removed.

He was given one year to live, two years at most. His neck healed beautifully at the scar site. We waited. By early June a new scan showed the tumor was back in full force. Mike agreed to a swift round of radiation to reduce the growth. This was the last time radiation could be given to his neck. With no hope of recovery the choice was tough but if Mike wanted a few more months he was willing to do the treatment. The prognosis was adjusted to six to nine months. Mike began twice-monthly treatments of immunotherapy and we once again resumed our lives as well as we could. We went on walks, visited the Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, took long drives; anything to feel we were getting the most out of our days. In August we noticed a small lump on Mike’s clavicle. His oncologist suggested it didn’t look too bad and it might be scar tissue drainage. We didn’t worry because it was far enough away from the neck region. We took a trip to Mt. Katahdin and drove the Gold Road to Canada and back. We visited the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Ten days after our last visit with Mike’s oncologist and an hour after we returned from our trip to the mountain, we had a scheduled appointment with his radiation oncologist. I had watched the small growth on his clavicle grow nearly three times the original size in those ten days. On first sight, immediate decision was to begin radiation to the area, as palliative care. That treatment ended early September. The same day radiation ended Mike had a new scan to see what was happening in the neck. The tumor is growing at full force. There is nothing more to be done. My husband is at the last stage of his life. He has just a few months to live. He opted to have weekly palliative care chemo treatments to try to slow the cancer growth. More time. He wants just a little more time. So do I.

Through all of Mike’s treatment I have desperately wanted to wake up from this nightmare. I want to go back to the time when my biggest concern was whether we would go away on the weekend for a hike somewhere, a beach walk at Pine Point, or drive around to our favorite antique shops to look for a chair for a certain corner of our condo, or maybe we would find a piece of artwork to add to our collection. I want to remember what it’s like to think about what to wear to dinner, to think which way I want to wear my hair, or which color lipstick I want to wear. I love to wear scarves. I want to only think about whether I like this one or that one for a certain outfit. Simple thought processes. Meaningless thought processes. That’s what I long for. As I drive somewhere to run errands I watch people go about their day, stroll along the sidewalks laughing, walk in or out of a store just for pleasure. I see Jacques sitting outside his Wine & Cigar shop on Commercial Street and I want to stop in to say hello and listen to one of his stories, the way we always did but don’t anymore. I long to escape our new normal.

The hurt I felt for so long has finally dissipated. I have tried to pinpoint a thought process that brought me to this day nearly two years later. If I’m honest, it’s because I finally realized, and it seems so logical but emotions got in the way for so long, that at this stage there are no do-overs. This time Mike is not going through these treatments with the hope to survive cancer. He is going through them to buy a few more months. His fragile frame will not see weight on it again. He will not regain physical strength. He neck developed growths on the outside and because of the damage to the skin, they weep. He will have a bandage on his neck 24/7, until the end.

We go on with our daily lives and we find the silly moments and appreciate them. We eat sweets; something we didn’t eat much of before cancer. Hi-Fi donuts are a favorite take-out on any morning Mike feels like it. We drive to European Bakery in Falmouth and sit in for coffee and dessert nearly every week. Mike can no longer go for long walks on the beach but he can do some length. Recently, we strolled Ferry Beach, one of his favorites. We managed lunch out at Dock’s Grill in Falmouth a few days ago. A few days before that, we walked the corn maze at Pineland Farms. I have made a light tree for our bedroom to make the atmosphere warm and cozy. Mike loves it.

Mike can get grumpy. So can I. We decided early on that we would carry on in our relationship as usual, no walking on egg shells with our true feelings. If we feel like arguing about something, we argue. If we feel like acting out in frustration, we act out. However, we are quick to get over it, and the moments of anger or frustration are less because, what’s the point? Instead, we cuddle in the mornings, we hold hands while watching television, and we binge watch silly shows without guilt.

I have fallen in love all over again and have a completely different relationship with this new man. Gone is the so-sure-of-himself Scotsman who I joke suffers from SSC or, “Scottish Superiority Complex”. In his place is a man with a less-sure mentality. Gone is the robust frame carrying a few extra pounds, my bear of a man whose hugs I could get lost in when he held me. In his place is a beanpole of a husband whose blue eyes seem a bit too large for his sunken cheekbones, and when he looks at me with sadness I could cry. Gone is the bushy beard. This man is unable to grow facial hair on one side. Gone is the appetite of a man who had great passion for the best food and wine and would talk about the flavors of a meal or a particular wine for days if he truly enjoyed it. The appetite is fickle now, the flavors are muted, and wine is no more. Gone, even, are the gold wire-rimmed glasses he wore for years. This man wears black-rimmed glasses. My husband is different in so many ways but somewhere inside is the same man that I fell in love with. Altered.

I find myself thinking back to how we met through in 2006. We met in person a month or so after we exchanged several e-mails. I chose the venue, a Starbuck’s coffee shop. I left in plenty of time to meet him but somehow couldn’t find the shop. I knew where it was but I was nervous and kept going passed it. I finally found my way there about half hour after our agreed time. When I opened the door, there sat a tall handsome man drinking coffee. He had a look of complete and utter patience on his face. I apologized profusely thinking to myself how completely unfazed he seemed by my tardiness. He offered to buy me a cup of coffee as he went for a second. We talked for an hour and decided to go to the museum. After that, we went to dinner. We said goodbye a few blocks from my home. I didn’t know whether he would actually want to see me again. I needn’t have worried. He phoned the next day, and the next, and the next. We saw each other a few times before this shy giant of a man decided it was time for a kiss as we said goodbye one night. He planted a quick peck on my mouth before getting into a taxi. After he left I turned around and walked all the way home, unable to wipe the smile from my face, willing the wetness from the kiss to stay as long as possible. That kiss wasn’t the best first kiss and it wasn’t the longest. It was, however, the most significant kiss of my life because at the age of forty-three I finally realized what the fuss was all about when people talked about “love”. I had never felt that particular kind of electric emotion before, the kind that awakens you and makes you feel so alive. If I felt that way with a little peck on the mouth, imagine how a longer kiss might make me feel! Wow! I “got it”.

Mike and I were married in 2008. The time we have been together has been a whirlwind. We have taken in life and we have experienced our relationship with great passion. It has been one continuous adventure with our travels, our dinners, our plays and concerts. And yet, the times I will cherish the most are the times we do things together that cost nothing. Sunday mornings are some of my favorite moments. Cancer can’t take away our ability to listen to classical music and pass the Sunday crossword between us as we drink our coffee. Neither can it take away our ritual, begun from the time we first began to sleep in the same bed, to wake in the middle of the night, talk about silly things for a few minutes, and promptly go right back to sleep. It can’t take away the love I feel for Mike as I watch when, like a child, he pours too much milk and cereal into a bowl and carries it to sit on the sofa and eat, taking baby steps along the way so as not to spill pieces on the floor but, he always spills pieces on the floor. Cancer can’t take away our laughter when we mishear each other’s spoken words and repeat back what we think we heard. It can’t take away the times we look at each other and one of us says to the other, “cute as a button”, even when we feel or look crap, because we view each other through the eyes of love. These moments are our memories; they are my memories that cancer will never take away.

I began to see a grief counselor several months ago, to help me with these last days, because I want, for lack of a better expression, to “get it right”, to help us both during these final days. I’ve come to the understand that to “get it right” means to let it happen with as much grace and acceptance as possible, to accept that this is a messy process and there is no ideal and best send off. There is true grit near the end. I see it in Mike’s spirit, to get out of bed and go out for a while. We both know he will come home exhausted and determined to stay up. I watch as he falls sleep on our sofa, as still as a statue but with a light snore, his finger resting on his iPad where he was swiping across the screen, and I am filled with so much love.

We spend a few days each week at the treatment center. We have developed friendships there. We realize that in many ways, they are the people we have most in common with; it gives us a sense of belonging. The atmosphere at the center is one of hope as much as anything. Many people may not understand that. Even we have hope. We have hope that this weekly palliative treatment will give Mike a few more months. This past week we heard a woman announce it was her last treatment. We heard her ring the bell, signaling she was finished. We hope for her to never return for treatment. We see new people come in for the first time and we hope their treatment works. We have developed friendships with several of Mike’s care staff. We celebrate the new babies that come along and we hope for them happy lives. Hope is our simple common bond we are glad to share the word’s meaning with these people.

My grief counselor asked recently if I tell Mike the things I love about him. I tell her I do regularly, as he does me. I don’t mind putting pen to paper to share: I love Mike’s dry sense of humor and how he can make me laugh at odd times by taking a comment that has no real humor and twisting a word to a different, funny meaning. His humor makes me think. I love that he has the ability to read about anything and remember the facts, the dates, and the names without effort. I love his passion for every kind of music and I love that in this open space we live in, that I have to sometimes beg him to listen through his headphones because “it’s just not my thing”. I love that he looks at my mild OCD need to increase or decrease the volume on the tv or radio in increments of threes, and he sees my quirk as something he finds loveable and accommodates my need by adjusting the volume the same way. I love that he is the calm that settles me. I love that even though he weighs barely ten pounds more than me now, he still invites me to sit on his lap and cuddle into his chest while he rocks his office chair slightly because he knows I find it so comforting and every time I say, “I could fall asleep right here in your arms, right now”. I no longer take him up on that offer. He can no longer endure my weight on his fragile frame. Instead, I suggest we cuddle in bed with my head on his chest and I close my eyes and pretend we’re sitting together in his chair and I utter the same words to him. I love that each year it is Mike that reminds me we should celebrate the day we first met in person, March 11, 2006. I love that out of all the people I could have finally settled down with, somehow I found this man and he decided he wanted to be with me as well. And, I know that if I had to do it all over again and the outcome would still be that today I am facing losing my husband in the next few months, I would still do it all over again. I would because I gained the opportunity to fall in love with the same wonderful man but from a different perspective. I was given the opportunity to find new strengths within myself and to forgive my weaknesses, as well as his. Mike’s life path has allowed me to love and appreciate us both in a way I didn’t know I could.

Mike: you have been my joy, my laughter, my lover, and most of all, my best friend. I have never felt so comfortable with another human being. I have been so very lucky. I love you. I miss you already.

Lauren Sangster chose to enter this contest as a means to do some creative therapy writing. Her husband is dying and she wanted to find a way to sort out her feelings. When she saw she could submit a piece in the Creative Non-fiction category she decided to write about the last two years of their lives, from the time she learned of her husband’s illness until now, when her husband has just a few months to live. She has written her story between doctor appointments and caring for her husband’s needs at home. She feels her story is a last love letter to her dying husband.


Nonfiction Honorable Mention

A Matter of Perspective by Ruth Watkins

I sat in the car watching out the window as trees, houses, fields flashed by. Over and over in my head I kept saying, “This is it. How much time do we have?” Over and over the scene from the night before played through my head. My brother’s girlfriend had been over and we were all eagerly discussing the next day’s trip. The phone rang and my dad went to answer it. He was gone for quite a while. In the meantime each of us had drifted away from the living room. I was in my bedroom as usual and was working on some of my projects. One of my brothers came to get me.

“Dad wants us in the living room.” he told me. I wondered why. I flippantly assumed that it was to discuss last minute plans for our mountain climb the next day. I came downstairs and the rest of my brothers and sisters began to gather around. Once we were all there my dad began to speak.

“Aunt Lee Ann called.” he began.

Is it exciting news? Someone asked. “No,” dad answered and he paused for a moment before continuing. “It’s about mom…grandma.” I felt fear flicker into life in my mind and I knew what he was going to say next.

“She had a CAT scan and she just got the results back…the doctors say that she has lung cancer. They’re not sure how much time she has left. This time it’s not curable.”

Silence reigned throughout the room and I glanced at my mom. She was crying quietly. Tears were threatening to fall from my own eyes and I felt as though my heart was being squeezed. Finally one tear then another began to slip down my cheeks. My sisters were crying too…and my younger brothers. My vision was too blurred to take further notice but I doubt anyone’s eyes were dry.

“She will be taking treatments,” dad was speaking again, so calmly, but I knew he grieved just as much as the rest of us if not more. “depending on how well her body responds to the treatments she may have anywhere from a year to five years…”

One year? That’s all? I thought.

Being a family that believes in God the first thing we did was pray. After all, what else could we do? Then my dad continued to talk.

“Mom doesn’t want us to be upset for her,” he told us, “obviously we will grieve, we will be sad but she doesn’t want us to focus on that. Instead let’s focus on making the time she has left as enjoyable and memorable as possible.”

But how much time? How long do we have? I kept thinking. Memories flashed through my mind just like the scenery outside the car window. One of my earliest memories was of grandma’s apron. She had this dark green apron that she used to always wear whenever she was cooking. It was very plain except for one thing. Each of us grandchildren had signed it in our own messy, childish handwriting. I remember signing that apron not long after I had begun to learn to write. As a child I was amazed that she would let me write on her apron. I was so afraid of messing up and ruining it. She didn’t care.

Another memory came to mind of how she helped me learn to tie my shoes. I must have only been about six years old or so. We had this board with a pair of shoes drawn on it and laces strung through holes. I practiced and practiced on it but couldn’t quite get the hang of it. Grandma patiently showed me how to make the loops and tie them just so. I finally understood and was then able to tie my shoes just like my older brothers did. I was always trying to keep up with them.

Grandma was always baking and making cookies for us. She would read us books and have us over for sleepovers at her house. We would go over Friday nights sometimes and have spaghetti for supper with sliced bread. She spread Country Crock on the bread since we preferred that to real butter. She used to keep toys in her car for the long rides we would take with her at times to different places. Her only rule in her van which was always kept so nice was that we had to keep our hands off the ceiling. Why we had an infatuation with touching the ceiling, I don’t know. One time she took us all on a ferry ride. I was nervous about being on a boat in the middle of a lot of water but she made it fun. We had brought sandwiches with us for lunch because the food on the ferry was rather expensive. It had been cloudy all morning and eventually it began to drizzle then to rain. She was always looking on the bright side of things and she began to laugh saying,

“Well, the ride cost money but the rain is free!” we all laughed with her. She’s always been cheerful. There’s hardly been a time when I’ve seen her upset or otherwise.

She’d had cancer twice before. The first time I was rather young and didn’t really understand what was going on. I just remembered her coming over one Saturday morning because she was taking my sisters, my mom, and me out for breakfast. She was wearing a hat even though it wasn’t winter. She laughed about losing all her hair and said she just looked funny now.

“It’ll grow back though.” Then she took the hat off and I was astonished to see that she was bald. She let me touch her head and tried to get my youngest sister to do the same but she wouldn’t. We went out to breakfast and had a grand time! The parking lot was huge though and we couldn’t remember where we had parked. That was when she taught me how to use the numbers on the poles to remember where you left your car.

“I think we were in row nine.” she said to me. We eventually found the car.

Her hair soon grew back and cancer was forgotten. A thing of the past. Several years passed. Several memories made.

I was probably eleven or so when my dad lost his job. Those were some tough times. I remember a few times when we had very little to eat. Once it was cornflakes and vanilla ice cream for supper.

Another time we had pumpkin soup. Several things that I remembered having as a constant in my life were suddenly no longer available to us. My dad would pray that God would get us through and though we didn’t always have all we wanted we always had what we needed. God always provided. Those times proved to me that God is real. We would be at the end of the line so to speak and then someone would show up with a carload of groceries or a gift of some extra cash. One time my great aunt left us some oranges. Another time a friend of ours brought us breakfast pizza and chocolate milk. One winter was pretty hard for us. Dad was trying to make ends meet with the little work he was able to get as a carpenter. Christmas would be small, I don’t think we even had a Christmas tree. One evening grandma showed up at our house and she brought in two large boxes full of baking goods and other Christmas goodies.

“Now we can do some holiday baking.” she told us. I was speechless with surprise and gratitude.

In 2013, she went on summer vacation with us to Ohio, my birth state. My grandpa had been from Ohio and his mother, my great grandma, or GG as we called her, lived in Lancaster. Grandpa had died before I was born…before my dad was married. He was able to finish building my grandma a house before he died from cancer. Not long before he passed he told my dad,

“If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t have seven kids….I would have twice as many.” He lingered until his brother made it there then he was gone.

Anyways, she came on vacation with us and what an experience! Grandma practically has the map of the east coast memorized. Every route, every road. Which stops are the best, which cities to avoid, what kind of places to stay or sights to see. She and dad had quite a few ‘conversations’ about our route on that trip. One afternoon in the hotel I remember wishing that they would just stop talking about roads and route numbers. We managed to make it to Ohio in one piece though.

June of 2015 rolled around. For several weeks I had noticed what looked like a scab on my grandmother’s face. Once it seemed a little bruised around the scab. I wondered why it wasn’t healing. Every time I saw her in church I meant to ask her about it but I kept forgetting. My dad told us,

“Mom has a cancerous lump in her face. The doctors think they will be able to remove it.” we prayed about that too and somehow I knew that things would be all right. Things would turn out. Grandma had her surgery and when I saw her next she had a large hideous scar running along her cheek near her mouth and nose. The little black stitches were still in it and she smiled a little funny now but the doctors had declared her cancer free. Thank God!

The next spring in March I went on vacation with her to Virginia to visit her daughter, my aunt. We took turns driving and grandma of course had to have her maps. We visited my other aunt in Rhode Island first and spent time with her and with my uncle and cousins.

She went to coffee with my aunt and I went ice-skating with the boys. She cooked and baked and did dishes and I discussed story ideas and writing with my cousin. She told me,

“You write all these stories, and I haven’t seen any of them. Sometime you’ll have to show me what you write.”

I will. One of these days I’ll compile some things for her to read that I have written.

We continued on to Virginia and spent several days with my aunt there. Grandma was constantly having me do things for her on her iPad. She was always ‘messing things up’ as she put it. Technology is still fairly new for her. I can’t say I’m much better with computers or smart phones but she figured I must be since I’m a ‘millennial’.

We watched the Hobbit with her, just the first part and when it was finished she just looked at us and said,

“I didn’t understand a thing that was going on.” We tried to explain but finally gave up. “That kind of thing is for you young kids.” she told us.

Later on in the week we watched Sound of Music and she along with my aunt would quote bits and pieces of it. She had gone to Germany several years before and she remembered seeing some of the places that were in the film.

She was always adventurous like that. I remember when she went on a cruise and came back with a tan. It was one of the strangest things to me that my grandma with her white hair and cheerful ways should come back as dark as a lumberjack that’s been sunbathing. She liked trying things and once she even got on our trampoline and jumped for a few minutes while we took a video.

After that vacation I wrote in my journal how glad I was that God had spared my grandma to me. If the surgery had not been able to take place or been successful then she would not have had more than a few months to live.

And now…now she was going away for real. The thought scared me. The images of my grandma wasting away with the disease, being on oxygen tanks and in a wheelchair…The images were all wrong and misplaced. That wasn’t grandma. Grandma was the cheerful woman who was always bending over backwards to help folks. She was the woman whose simple faith in God was a treasure and encouragement, and she was the woman who was always cheerful and kind, always giving, always caring, always…grandma.

The next day was Sunday. We went to church as we always do and grandma arrived not long after us. She met her friend, an elderly widow in our church who was watering the flowers outside and she told her with a smile on her face,

“I’m going home, Dot.”

Her friend was confused and grandma explained her situation then said, “All our lives we wish we were already in heaven but when it comes time to die we don’t want to go…well, I’m ready and I’m going home.”

Later on she was at our house for dinner and she told us the same thing. “Don’t be sad right now,” she said, “There will be time for that after I’m gone.” Her voice caught a little bit as she told us this and I noticed my mom’s eyes were glistening. My own throat felt tight and my eyes began to water but I smiled and did as she asked. “It’s time to make memories now and be happy now while we still can.” She told us and she was right. Why grieve when she was still with us? The time for that would be later. We needed to view this from a different perspective, it wasn’t time to grieve. It was time to make memories and be thankful for as long as she was with us.

There’s an old proverb about a woman whose price is far above rubies, it says that her “…children rise up and call her blessed…” My grandma’s price I realized was far above anything this world could offer; her price is more than the world can pay. Why wait until she’s dead to talk about her influence, and why wait to rise up and let others know what a great woman she is? In this world’s eyes she’s small and she’s never done anything noticeable or great. She grew up in a family of eleven. She married my grandfather and together they had seven children. She raised them, cooked for them, loved them, prayed for them, cared for them, watched them grow up and marry, move away, have children of their own. She watched her husband die of the same disease that afflicts her. She watched the grandchildren grow up and marry and have their own children. Still always cheerful, always smiling, always helping.

But in my life she’s been a giant among women. It seems that the best people in the world are the ones like her, the ones that impact so many lives, that give so much, that love with no expectation of love in return. She may grow weaker in body but I believe that as her body grows weaker her spirit will grow stronger. I believe that she is a woman among women that few could ever replicate. Even with death facing her, she’s fearless, she’s strong. She still loves and she still smiles. She still gives.

A year has passed. I pray for her so often. We’ve made a lot of memories. We’ve done so much together, shared laughs, shared jokes, baked together, gone out to eat together, worked together. She hasn’t changed a bit. She’s as happy as she has always been, her faith in God is strong. I know everything will be all right. She’s going home, as she said, but she’s not going away. She’s a part of me now. All these memories, they’re the threads of the tapestry of my life and I wouldn’t be complete without them, without her.

Ruth Watkins lives in Topsham, Maine.


TPL Teen Fiction Award

Hidden in the Eyes by Jack Ouimette

Some people say that if you look close enough into a person’s eyes, you can see into their soul. I know my mother always said the best way to get to the truth is to stare into someone’s eyes—face to face, or even through a photograph.

I’m staring at a picture of my husband and me stuck in a frame, resting on the fireplace mantel in my parents’ living room. It’s of the two of us on our wedding day, what was supposed to be one of the greatest days of my life.

My husband, Benjamin, holds my right arm high in the air as we’re walking back down the aisle together—our first act as a married couple. His spirits were flying high. You can tell by the sparkle in his eyes, and the wide grin slapped across his face. He wears a crisp black suit, topped off with a bow tie around his neck and a white boutonniere pinned to his breast pocket. His beard is trimmed, and not a single hair on the top of his head is out of place.

I’m wearing a simple white sheath dress—a little too tight for my waist— that hovers millimeters above the blades of grass. My hair is down and blowing in the wind. The setting sun reflects off my ghost-white skin. My left arm dangles at my side, holding the bouquet of fresh-picked daisies. Father always likes to say that my smile in the photo paints a ray of sunshine across my face. Mother says I was glowing.

Surrounding us are our family and friends, all of whom are standing in front of their chairs, hands in the air, clapping and cheering us on. They are dressed for the occasion, wearing suits and dresses in an array of grays, purples, yellows, and blues. Everyone we loved was there.

This is my mother’s favorite photo of us. She told me that seeing me get married to my soulmate was one of the best days of her life.

It’s easy to look at this photo of my husband and me on our wedding day and see the joy, the daisies, the smiles on everyone’s faces, and the glistening ocean waves crashing along the beach behind us.

However, as I stare at this photo, I can’t help but notice the pain burning in my eyes. I can’t help but notice the fear creeping up inside me, ready to explode at any moment. As I stare at this photo, I see a young woman whose hand is bright red from her husband’s clasp. I see a woman who’s squeezed into her dress because she found out she was with child seven weeks earlier. I see a crowd of adoring loved ones, oblivious to the scandal and controversy that had yet to seep through the cracks of rumor and curiosity. When I look at this photo, I see my mother above my right shoulder in a pink dress pretending to be ignorant to it all, clapping along with a smirk on her face.

I knew my mother knew the truth. I knew she knew the picture told more to the story than what one first notices on the surface.

I’ve heard some people say that if you look close enough into a person’s eyes, you can see into their soul. I know my mother always said the eyes always revealed the truth, face to face, or in a photograph. I don’t know why she keeps the photo on the fireplace mantel. Maybe she has it there to keep up appearances, or perhaps she leaves it there to haunt me.

Jack Ouimette is from Woolwich, Maine, and is a current first-year at Oberlin College. He loves to read, write, and spend time in the great outdoors. Jack is currently working on the fourth draft of his award-winning novel, Until it All Ends.


TPL Teen Poetry Award

Dances by Nathan Deveney

The light and the dark
Fluttering over the walls
Dancing hand in hand
Waltzing before the candle light
Twirling in a vision of beauty
Never really noticed
The light and the dark
Wrapped in an embrace
Never caring
About the unwatching audience

Nathan Deveney lives in Topsham, Maine.


Just Write Maine-related Nonfiction Award

Memories and New Beginnings by Lynne Schmidt

Soon, it comes time for me to drive to Maine and attend a hiring clinic for the position of a snowboarding instructor. There are also two potential other job interviews this weekend, and I’m nervous and excited, or as about as excited as I get these days, for each.

I secure a place for Baxter to stay; Allison, the girl who’d supplied beer the night I took the test, and pack my bags. I leave after work and after packing up my car. In the end, it turns out that Baxter, nor the guy who’s stopped speaking me, would have been able to fit for this trip afterall. With the help of an energy drink, I’m able to drive straight through, arriving at a friend’s house in Biddeford.

By the time I pass the Piscataqua River Bridge, my heart leaps into my throat. I am home. From here, I can navigate the roads to my old university, to my old stomping grounds. To the ocean in several different ways.

I park my car and step out. It’s easily ten degrees colder than the islands I drove from. Liz, with her short blond hair and dark glasses greets me with open arms and food. I step into her living room and am transported back two years. He’s sitting on the couch with his feet up. Liz’s cat rests in his lap, the cat that always, always attacks me. “You’re such a pretty boy,” he coos.

I take a quick breath and shake my head. Dayd, the cat who has always taken favor with me runs to me. I’m reminded why I want to move back to this state, to be closer to people like her. They exist here. She points me in the direction of the spare bedroom, and I collapse and sleep.

I wake up, and try to call one of the potential interview places. They tell me that moving after Thanksgiving would offset the retail season, and so I’m not needed. Fear goes though me, What if the other jobs are like this, too?

At some point, I go to my storage unit and fully commit to this move. I unload boxes upon boxes from my life in North Carolina. After a collapse of boxes and plastic bins, I reset everything, continue the daunting process of unloading, and go out to dinner with my friend Matty who I haven’t been brave enough to tell yet.

We meet at the GoodWill, and he drives us to the restaurant. We hug, and he talks for a majority of the meal. Meanwhile, it’s difficult for me to look at him, to be comfortable in his presence now. I feel like the secret I’m carrying is the dividing line between us. I want to tell him, I want to say that I’m falling apart but at the same time if I tell him, will he even want to be my friend anymore? I’ve never had the insight to ask his views on this topic. Bringing it up now would seem suspect.

For the millionth time I wonder, How many friends will I lose because of this decision?

Matty pays the tab, and I thank him. While this has been customary throughout the duration of our friendship, tonight, I can’t tell him that I have no money because I’ve paid for an abortion.

He drives me to my car. “I’ll see you at Thanksgiving,” I tell him. Truthfully, I don’t want to go to his house for the holiday. I’ve never met his family before, I’m terrified of them hating me, or being like my ex-partner’s mother and physically assaulting me, but months ago I’d told him I’d go.

“Be safe,” he says. We hug and go our separate ways.

I return to the spare bedroom at Liz’s. Upon arrival we chat for a long while, until we both decide it’s time for bed. I set my alarm for 5:30a.m. so I can drive to my interview and arrive a half hour early. I’m going to be an awesome employee, they’ll see that, hire me, and save me from my life on the island.

Instead, the morning of the interview, leaving Liz’s house, it is dark. The gravel driveway looks the same as the surrounding grass, I misjudge where the driveway is. My car sinks into a lesser version of a ditch, but steep enough that when I try to shift into reverse I don’t budge. I wake Liz, and she tries to push to no avail.

“You have to call the tow truck,” she says as we both catch our breath.

An hour later, the truck arrives. I’m irresponsible, I’m not going to get the job…Another wash of self loathing runs through me. The small voice whispers in my ear, Slit your wrists.

I take small, quick breaths. I go to my car to get something out and as the passenger door opens, my lunch, the left overs from my dinner with Matty, falls out of its container and onto the ground.

“Fuck!” I scream hopelessly. I have no other money for food, I gather the noodles and shove them back into the container. Though no one is around I say aloud, “I don’t even care, I’m going to eat it anyway.” When I go back inside, I call the Sunday River and leave a voicemail telling them I’ll be late. I send an e-mail them too.

Close to an hour later, the tow truck arrives. As soon as my car is free, I drive two hours to the interview at Sunday River. When I arrive, I take shallow breaths.

It’s nearly four years before. I’m sitting in the downstairs bedroom of a house I share with my college roommates. I’m dressed in snowpants, a winter hat, and my jacket. My bag is packed with snowboarding boots and a board. I look at the time, I try to call him. He doesn’t answer.

I sigh and sit on my bed. About an hour after we were supposed to have gone, he pulls into the driveway.

I grab my bag and head outside. “You’re late,” I say.

He shrugs. “I know, and I’m sorry. But I figured not showing up would end our friendship.”

I stand in my driveway and stare at him. Does he actually understand me already? “Good call, let’s go.” We pull into the driveway, the same driveway I’m parking in. I grip the steering wheel so hard my knuckles turn white. The fibers in my body scream from the way I’m grinding everything together to keep from bursting. I grind my teeth together. I bite my lip ring. I tell myself to breathe.

Get over it. This is your place now.


As I head toward the building, I contrast the differences; I’ve never been here when there was barely any snow, I’ll be working here, he isn’t here. I’ll be in a state that put me back together when I was 18 and ripped me apart when I was 21.

Though I try to fight it, I still think, But maybe if I work here, he’ll come find me. He said he’ll come find me.

When I walk through the correct door, there are a million applicants sitting in a circle. They all have name tags, they all have papers, they were all here on time. I’m an hour late, lost and shaking, and I feel like everyone here already knows about my last month. I wish Baxter were beside me right now. I wish I could have brought him.

“Are you Stephanie?” a woman at the counter asks.

I nod my head and approach. She has me fill out a name tag, as well as something stating that I’ve arrived. It feels eerily similar to writing my name and appointment time at the clinic. One of the managers grabs me and leads me to my group. My heart is pounding so loud, I can’t breathe. I wish Baxter were here to calm my anxiety. I imagine him sitting beside me, stroking his fur, distancing me from the people around me. I hate talking to strangers.

We go through session after session, the last one being a team building challenge. We stand on a flag, there are about ten of us but I can’t be sure. Without anyone stepping off the flag, we’re supposed to flip it over.

We’re all standing too close to each other. Like I told the nurse/doctor at the first appointment, I hate being touched. The group stands in silence for a second trying to think of how to do this. “I have a suggestion,” I hear myself say.

Everyone looks at me, and I feel the way I had when the drape wasn’t covering me in the clinic. Why am I talking? They’ll all know I’m anxious, insecure, crazy. “There are a lot of us…so if people were willing, we could have people in piggy backs and cut the numbers in half.”

People nod in agreement. I’m hoisted onto a large woman’s back. Another girl is picked up, and we laugh awkwardly. From there the team manages to shift feet and people, and I’m told we’ve accomplished our task.

When we finish a gentleman approaches our group. “I’ve never seen it done that way. I’ve never seen the suggestion for a piggy back ride to cut the numbers.”

People look at me, and I flush, but for a second, it’s almost like I’m proud of myself. It’s the first moment I start to break into my new self; a happier girl, someone more stable and deserving of life. Before lunch everyone is given a small thing that we’re supposed to teach in the next session. Things like; tying a shoe, brushing your teeth, taking a shower. I look at my slip of paper, jumping jacks. It should be easy enough. They go through this entire segment on engaging prior knowledge and applying it to what we’ll be teaching. I’m reminded again that I hate talking to strangers, and I hate public speaking even more.

I talk with another manager who asks what my schedule would be like. Like I’m sane, and happy I answer his questions and it seems like I’m hired, but I’m not sure and I’m still confused. He warns me that the work load varies and that I’ll probably have to get a second job to make it through the season. We shake hands, and I don’t care if I have to work three jobs. One job as a starter is enough for me to have a reason to move to Maine.

When I go to my car to grab my left overs, my headlights are on. I’m a fucking idiot! Angrily, I get my lunch, walk back inside and look for a friendly face. Only, I don’t know anyone and I am invisible.

I sit at a table by myself, like I did the first year of high school, and pull out a notebook so it looks like I’m working on something. When I open my lunch container, green blades of grass are sticking out of the marinara colored noodles. Eventually I tire of picking them out and eat anyway because I’m angry, and nervous, and hungry, and trying to breathe without crying.

Jumping jacks, I think. I try to engage prior knowledge. Jumping jacks are like…come on, dude. You’re a writer, you should be good at this shit. Jumping jacks are like…snow angels! That’s as far as I get before it’s time to regroup.

I walk down to the area I’d been at this morning, and there is a tall guy with dark shaggy hair and dark eyes. He’s sort of cute, and I desperately want to make friends.

We start small talk and he tells me his name is Mike. At the name, my blood runs cold. Don’t be friends with him, I think, he and Fucker have the same name.

Thankfully, before I can overreact or lose my mind, more people filter in. Avoid him the rest of the day. We meet inside and then go on the porch before breaking off again. My group stays on the porch and people teach their subjects. “Are we allowed to have people stand up?” I ask the coordinator.

“Yes,” he answers.

“Then I’d like to go next,” I say. We’re about halfway through the group. Typically I’d try to be the last person but because I can’t stop shaking I want to get it over with.

“Hi, I’m Stephanie,” I tell them, while my heart hammers so hard my tongue takes on a heartbeat. Everyone is watching me. Everyone knows what I’ve done. “Today I’m going to be teaching you how to do a jumping jack, so if I can have everyone come over here, and spread your arms out so we’re not hitting each other in the face…” I pause and look at everyone doing as I say. Reality plays its part and tells me that unless they’re in my underwear, they can’t know anything about me other than the fact I like to snowboard. I continue to act like I’m confident. “Good. Now, who here has done a snow angel before?”

Every single person raises their hand. I make a motion like a snow angel, and explain how it’s like a jumping jack. I do my demonstration, everyone jumps up and down and flails their arms. I end with, “Good, and next lesson we can work on military jumping jacks or star jumping jacks.”

The coordinator looks at me. “What are those?”

I demonstrate these higher caliber jumping jacks, things I’d learned in cheerleading or years of kick boxing classes. He nods in approval. By the end of the day we’re all told that we’re hired, and for the first time I let out a breath of relief.

Thank you, Lord, I pray silently. Something is going right, finally. I have a job. I have a single thread of something to hold onto.

When I get back, I’m positively buzzing with excitement. I get to be a snowboarding instructor! I tell Liz the good news, and she tells me she’s happy for me. Then for the first time since I’d arrive she asks me how I am, and I stall.

“I’m hanging in there,” I tell her.

She’s known me since my freshmen or sophomore year of college. She knows what this means. She waits for me to explain and I do. I tell her about everything; her stealing him, him not coming around, not even taking me to the appointment. I tell her how alone I’ve felt. When I’m done, I feel like I’ve said too much, and my face flushes. I wait for her to start screaming at me that I’m a whore and not welcome in her house.

Instead, she says, “You were having sex without condoms?! You could have gotten diseases!”

The remainder of my stay consists of lectures of the importance of condoms. She doesn’t tell me that I’m never allowed to have sex again. She doesn’t tell me that I’m worthless, or that I don’t deserve to be happy because I’ve killed my child. She also doesn’t call me trashy, or a whore.

No, instead, all of these horrible things circulate in my head all on their own.

Lynne Schmidt is a mental health professional in Maine. Her memoir, The Right to Live: A Memoir of Abortion was a 2018 PNWA Literary contest finalist. Her work has appeared in Poets of Maine, Poets of New England, Maine Dog Magazine, Alyss Literary, UNE Magazine, The Sun Journal, The Portland Press Herald, Her Kind Vida, several editions of Zephyr, and many others. She is the founder of AbortionChat, which received grant funding from the Abortion Conversation Project and allowed her to travel the nation sharing her story. She has been a featured poet at events throughout Maine. She regularly attends reproductive justice and writing conferences where she participates in panels or hosts them. Lynne is a member of PNWA and NEPC. Lynne prefers the company of her three dogs and one cat to humans.