2015 Short Story Contest Winners
Congratulations to the winners of the 2015 Short Story Contest hosted by the Clermont County Public Library. We have a first-place and second-place winner in both the adult and teen categories. The winners were chosen from 66 entries sent by adults and 58 submitted by teens.
First-place – Sophie Dragoo
Second-place – Brieanna Strum
First-place – Kathy Michelich
Second-place – Teri Wellbrock
• Please note, the adult winning entries are poignant stories of grief and the loss of loved ones.
Teen First Place Winner
“The Encounter” by Sophie Dragoo
The winter wind was fierce like a hungry wolf, tearing at the snow that whirled around a solitary figure lost in the blindness of the storm. The figure was Jan Klein … Corporal Klein of Nazi Germany … a man terribly lost in the white Russian wasteland. He was alone and very afraid. He was close to death and saw his life, his deeds, the war, in its revealing light. Being a murderer, he felt he was dying justly. Death was bowing him in submission. As he sank to his knees he came up sharply against the wall of a house.
He fell back on the hard-frozen snow. He had almost passed the house — as he stumbled on to die in the wasteland, unfathomably alone! His blood ran suddenly warm with life. If there were anyone in the house he might live. He crawled along the base of it, feeling with numb hands for the door. He felt it soon. There was a light shining through the window. Painfully he clambered up and beat on the door.
After a pause that seemed like eternity the door opened by a girl with blue-black eyes, holding a pistol. She seemed barely twenty, with rich dark hair threaded with gold.
“Come in,” she said resolutely. She spoke German with a decided accent. The words were music — magic — life. Jan clambered into the room, leaning heavily on the girl’s arm. She took his frost-hardened coat and hat and laid them by the fire. She covered him with three scanty blankets and put a few sticks on the fire. Then she knelt by him, looking at him with curious eyes.
“Corporal,” she whispered, passing her thin hand over the battered insignia on his shoulder. Then she rose and spread another quilt over him.
A quarter of an hour had elapsed before he raised himself .on the couch. Immediately the girl crossed the room and sat on the floor next to him.
“I am Marya,” she said quietly. “What is your name?”
“Jan Klein,” he responded. “I was lost in the blizzard when I found your house.”
“You are Corporal Jan Klein,” she added. “You are with the Germans: and you will find your troop when the storm dies, and fight my people again. And I take you in, and save your life. I am foolish; but if I am as cruel as the Nazis, I am as bad as the Nazis. Corporal, how come you to be lost so far from Stalingrad?”
“I am running away from the war.”
“You, soldier?” she asked amusedly.
“I am no soldier now. I am a deserter. I hoped to reach Germany and find Freya … my wife. From there I hoped to reach Switzerland –and peace.”
The soldier paused.
“Go on, Corporal Klein,” Marya said eagerly. “How did you hope to ever get to Switzerland? It seems a long trek for you, soldier.”
“I only knew I had to get away. One night in the trenches I wondered what victory would mean. I realized what it meant… that peoples would be wiped off the face of the earth if the conquerors considered them inferior. I knew I could not fight for that world.”
“In whatever way you can you must go on,” she said encouragingly. “It is almost impossible to find peace, Corporal Klein. I have tried once to reach Switzerland, where there is peace — the last country left in Europe that has not taken a side and fought. It is a jewel… and unattainable.”
“Perhaps. I will not go back to Stalingrad or any other front, not if they kill me first.”
“What of the cause? And what –” Marya dropped her dark lashes over amused eyes “– of German superiority and their sole fitness to rule the world?”
“Do you think that matters any longer, Marya?” Jan asked soberly.
“I can never forget the front, Marya — and the disease and death–”
“You must forget that, Corporal. There are memories in lives that cannot be lived with … unless one forgets. Tell me about your wife, Corporal.”
“My wife? She is little and slender, with golden hair and dark eyes. And her laugh! It is like wind in the treetops. She married me three years ago and I have seen her only once since then.”
“But you will see her soon, Corporal! You will find her, and go away and escape all this. She must love you still. And it is very late. You must have started as soon as the dusk fell to get so far from Stalingrad. You may sleep here. My bedroom is just off the kitchen.”
Then she took the candle from the table and a threadbare sheet from the shelf and disappeared into the room off the kitchen. With a muffled “Good night, Corporal!” she closed the door and Jan heard the click of a lock. He sunk into a dreamless sleep as the storm screamed shrilly around him.
When Jan woke the next morning Marya was up. She was bustling about the kitchen frying something in a little pan on the stove. Jan threw aside his few scanty quilts and rose like a giant refreshed.
“What is that, Marya?” he asked of his hostess.
“Rations the war has forced us to eat,” she said. “Now I’ll dish your breakfast out, and once I’ve done that you must eat every last bite of it.’
Jan looked doubtful; but he managed to swallow it.
“That is good, Corporal,” she said, smiling. Then, turning suddenly grave, she added, “I am a traitor in my country’s eyes if anyone hears of this. Now go.”
“Goodbye, Marya,” Jan said. He went out into the morning. The snow had frozen and would not let him sink – and he would leave no tracks.
Then Marya’s door swung wide and she called after him, “God bless yon, Corporal!!!”
Teen Second Place
“A Looming Nightmare” by Brieanna Strum
I was running, sprinting so fast I thought my weak muscles would give out on me. Adrenaline was coursing through my veins. Beads of sweat dripped from my pores.
Brandy ran alongside me, moving just as fast as I. Her footsteps matched my own, stride for stride. It was coming. It was after us. Not far behind, we could hear it howling. It’s heavy breathing strongly echoed in the woods around us.
Why was it chasing us? What had we done to anger it so? These questions ran through my mind as Brandy and I raced along the forest floor, leaves crunching beneath our shoes. Where could we hide? How could we lose it?
It was hunting us for fun now, not just to eat us, but for fun. It had been ever since we set foot here. I never thought such a beast could exist until now.
I saw a deep ditch in the tree roots just up ahead. It was big enough for the two of us to squeeze in.
“Jump!” I screamed to Brandy, clutching her left forearm as we both toppled into the dark pit below.
We hit hard, knocking our heads together roughly. All the oxygen I had left fled my body when I hit the leaf covered ground. Brandy and I snuggled together, cowering in the most shaded spot. We waited patiently for it to run past. My heart was racing now, beating against my chest, like a drumstick against a drum. I thought for sure it would hear my heartbeat and find us.
It seemed like an eternity went by as we waited for it to show up – it never came. My thoughts and prayers were that it had given up on us and gone away.
It was dark, so dark I couldn’t see Brandy beside me, but I knew she was there; I heard her heavy, wavering breaths, and the rustle of leaves beneath her as she tried to find a comfortable spot. I, too, tied to readjust my position.
A twig snapped from above. I heard it. I knew instantly what was out there. No mistake about it; the creature was out there. It knew where we were after all!
Thunder rumbled overhead followed by lightening soon after. I thought my heart would stop or beat out of my chest. I could feel Brandy press up against me, fearing her own life.
It was here. The monster of the forest had found us somehow and now it would feast upon our flesh. I prayed a silent prayer to God Almighty, pleading for His protection.
I could smell the horrendous beast’s breath and sense it’s blood lust. It was going to eat us – tear us limb from limb until we were nothing more than ragged pieces of flesh. Hot tears stung my eyes at this terrible thought.
Brandy shrieked as it made itself known to us. It reached for her and hauled her upwards. It roared above the oncoming storm. I watched as Brandy disappeared behind the ditch wall. Her last echoing scream paralleled throughout the forest. It had gotten her . . . And I was next.
My mouth gawked open in silent horror. I couldn’t move; my body was stiff with terror. It had gotten my best friend and now it wanted me. As if in sudden realization of this, my body, in one last burst of energy, scurried out of the ditch.
I ran. My feet crunched on the crisp leaves. I was alone now. My mind raced for a plan to escape this nightmare, but I knew all too well that my death was certain. It would catch me.
I lost my footing. My legs gave out and I came hurling down into the shrubs. As I felt blood trickle down my forehead I knew that running was hopeless. My time was up. I was a goner.
I flipped onto my back, my elbows propping me up. My eyes went wide as I saw it leap out from behind the trees. It howled with pure rage and began pacing back and forth while glaring at me. There was nothing normal about it – it was a monster, a creature of nightmares. And I was it’s next victim.
It stopped pacing before rushing towards me. I yelled and scrambled backwards. I watched it leap at me. I felt its razor sharp claws dig into my arms. I screamed, my voice going hoarse, and then lights out . . .
Panting and sweating profusely, I shot up from my bed. I shakily hugged myself and looked around my room. I swallowed hard before rubbing my face.
The nightmare had been so real, so incredibly real. It was trying to kill me, but it was never alive to begin with. It was all a dream. I let out a calm sigh, a smile finding its way across my paled face.
The wind whistled outside while thunder boisterously roared. Raindrops splattered on the window. It felt reassuring knowing that none of what I had created in my wild imagination was real – it was all just one bad dream.
The smile on my face soon faded when I felt the growing pain on my forearms. I winced and traced a trembling hand across the spot. My arms were sticky and torn up on one side. I looked at my hands – blood was on my fingertips. Blood?
My breath caught in my throat. The nightmare came back to my mind. It couldn’t have been real. Dreams are not real!
My ears twitched; I heard the slight creaking sound coming from outside my room. Someone or something was in the hall. I slowly turned to look at the cracked open door. Red, glowing eyes peered at me. The growling of a monstrous beast filled the room.
“No,” I whispered fearfully then cried, “You’re all in my head!”
It replied in a raspy whisper, “But you have set me free.”
“Nightmares are real,” I croaked.
Adult First Place Winner
“Life Breathed in Bits” by Kathy Michelich
His dad wanted to name him Joseph. I preferred Gerald. One more week and he would have had a chance. Now his motionless body lay just out of reach on a metal tray. From my pillow, I could see the tiny bones of his curled spine pushing through the red skin of his back. I gently stroked the paper sheet at my chest, imagining he was there under my fingertips. If the wetness was wiped away, he would be soft, like a kitten.
The nurse bumped the wheeled cart, unknowingly turning the precious passenger and I could see his tiny parted mouth, lips in a perfect ‘O’ as if ready to suckle, to kiss and smack. He had his father’s nose, my mother’s reddish hair.
The nurse briefly glanced away from her tasks of efficiency, saw me looking at the precious thing and she hurriedly turned the cart, blocking my view. I stared intently at her back until she finally moved out of my way. She had wrapped him in stiff paper, clean and white and sterile, but I could still see a doll-like foot in the shadows, laced with five tiny stubs, barely toes, rounded as if they had been buffed to a glowing sheen. I wanted to fold back the shroud and hold him, study his mouth, his ears, the whispery tuffs on his porcelain head, imagine his eyes flickering open. But I lay quiet and still, obedient to the procedural norms––a good patient. If only I could see him close up, just to study him. I felt a suddenly twinge of guilt. I should be crying. I should sob, and squeeze hot tears down my cheeks and into my ears. But I was simply in awe of the fully formed humanity of him and I relaxed into mere wonderment of the curious miracle. This fuzzy still-born was my child, would always be my child. The sight of his sweet toes was captivating.
Words snapped across the room. Clanging mouths tossed directives, items needed, next steps. Tasks. There was no acknowledgement of life lost; instead, they maintained a healthy distance from their own fragility. As the doctor poked and prodded as doctors do, the nurse darted back and forth, interrupting my study of tiny toes. The voice hidden behind the paper tent rising from my stomach announced, “Nearly done here.” Said too loudly, with confidence, meant to soothe me, guide me back to normal. Was I supposed to respond? I focused intently on the distant tiny toes.
The nurse removed her gloves, came and fussed with my pillow. She bent down and whispered, “Just a bit more and you’ll be ready for a room. I’ll send your husband in and you can go home. When you’re ready.” Her fingers softly stroked the side of my head, smoothing hair behind my ear. She was in my way again. Her fingertips paused until our eyes finally met.
She left to remove the cart, the tray, the child. I started to float away, up through the speckles on the ceiling and away. Suddenly, her warm hand was back. This time she gently opened my fingers, pressed into my palm, closed my moist fingers into a fist, and gently pushed it against me with both her hands. The strangeness of it stopped the floating and I looked at her soft smile, her glistening eyes. “There, Sweetness. Take this. It’s all I can give you,” she hushed out. She patted at my closed hand, rubbed it gently before disappearing.
“All done” noises bounced about the cold room, attempts to reassure me, and one another, of a job well-done. I closed my eyes and endured the bumping, swaying ride down the hallway where I was unceremoniously lifted onto a bed, patted down and left alone. Finally, when the sounds died and my head had sunk to the bottom of the pillow, I lifted my fist. It was as though I was about to open a mysterious package, but I felt nothing there. As I unfurled my fingers, bits of drifty fuzz fell onto the blanket. Tiny fluffs of reddish hair stuck to my open palm and I brought them to my face, wanting to smell them. They tickled my nose. Tiny hairs stuck to my finger, so fine they could barely be seen. I tasted them. They poked at my tongue and I swallowed them down quickly, anxious to get him back inside of me. I plucked up the small lost bits that earlier had found their way to the blanket, not wanting any to be left, unvalued, unloved.
How long had my husband been standing by my bed watching me pick at the blanket, putting fuzz into my mouth? His hand was suddenly there, gripping mine, keeping it from searching the blanket, keeping it away from my mouth. He stood controlled and calm, stoically bathing me in unheard words. His worried eyes begged me to act normal, to be myself again. I stared back at him, waited for him to understand. He firmly pressed at my hand, covering it, silently pleading as he stared. I had lost Gerald. He, it seemed, had lost no one.
I cried later, after the wonderment shrank and the reality of the loss was full. My miracle surrendered to grief. But by then I wasn’t certain what I was grieving. One too many cherubs in heaven? A life that might have been? My future lost? Failing my husband? Perhaps I grieved the forced discoveries only found in the richness of loss, an appreciation and wonderment of things I hadn’t noticed before. Like bits of life in dust—tiny flakes of skin and bits of hair that float in the air. You can only see this wonder when sunlight streams into a room. I find secret richness in breathing it in, that strange taste of air-borne life. Life breathed in bits.
Adult Second Place
“Final Moments” by Teri Wellbrock
“Dad, can I get you anything?” I asked, as he struggled with the flat, lifeless pillow beneath his shoulder blades.
“I would love a Whopper, Jr.,” he breathed. Pausing to catch his breath again, sucking the oxygen from the plastic life lines crookedly falling from his nostrils, he turned his sunken blue eyes to mine. “And I would like to watch . . .” again he rested his thoughts in order to draw in more air . . . “Christmas Vacation”.
His once strong hands, now thinned and shaky, slowly lifted to the nasal tubes, attempting to arrange the hissing air hoses more securely. The tubes fell away, askew once more, as his arms collapsed back at his sides. “Let me help you, Dad,” I said, as I leaned over the bed rail, trying not to tangle myself in the snake nest of monitor wires. I slid the nozzles into his nose and ran my fingers around both sides of his face, the bristle from his normally close-shaved skin pricking at my fingertips, pulling the tubes tighter until my hands met behind his head. I fastened them in place, then pulled that useless cardboard pillow from behind his back and guided his head gently back onto its stiffness.
“Boys, run to Burger King and get Papa a Whopper, Jr. and a Coke,” I said to John and Jake, as I fumbled through my purse. Having found a twenty and my keys, I handed them over to John, now 16, and gave him a feeble grin as our eyes met. I engulfed my baby boy in a hug, having caught the heartache in his eyes, as I urged him to run home, too, and find the DVD Papa wanted to watch.
As the boys shuffled out of the room, I turned back to Dad. His eyes were closed as I studied the man lying before me. He had aged so much in the twenty-nine days since his low-blood-sugar-induced fall into the kitchen table. I absorbed every detail, wanting to remember each crazy grey eyebrow hair; the wrinkled collection of pale skin gathering beneath his chin; his frail six foot six body, sinking closer to the ground with each gulp of air; and his hands . . . ah, those hands . . . enormous, creative and strong no more.
I grabbed ahold of Dad’s hand, sliding my palm beneath his chilled fingers. My thumb caressed his pinky and he gently squeezed my hand, saying “thanks” with the short-lived grasp. His eyes remained closed as mine released their anguish.
The boys returned with their Papa’s wishes as I was wiping the final remnants of sorrow from my cheeks. He must have smelled the burger in his dream, his eyes fluttering back to consciousness, as they pushed open the heavy oak door. Jake found a seat on the mauve sofa near the window. He was quiet, as usual, lost and unsure, a boy in a man’s body. With death lurking and unwanted, he had no clue how to save his Papa (and himself) from its inevitable arrival.
John took my spot as I wandered over to join Jake in staring blankly out the window. After a few bites, Dad raised his shrinking hand, shakily waving off John’s gesture to feed him another mouthful of bliss. Death danced merrily back into the room, our smiles faded, as Papa dissolved, smaller still, onto the rigid bed.
After sending the boys home, quiet gasps of snores escaped from Dad’s slouched mouth, as I half-heartedly lost myself in the movie he had asked to watch. Normally, quoting nearly every line, I would have been snorting with fits of laughter. It didn’t seem right to be cackling, even if it had tried to escape my bereaved body.
“This is my favorite line in the movie,” he muttered, startling me from my trance.
Holy cow! How did he suddenly wake up from an unconscious state for his favorite part of the movie? I mused, half alarmed and half seriously impressed, as Dad began quoting movie lines. I looked at my Dad, laughter brightening his dimming eyes, a smile breaking through, his pale skin radiating a moment of elation and I joined him . . . I set the laughter free. Death stood frozen in the corner of the room, wanting to partake in the merriment but duty would not allow it. So it watched; studying, waiting.
Dad giggled off and on throughout the rest of the movie. My hand and his intertwined in a moment of harmony. A squeeze here. A kiss on the knuckles there. A final farewell in the touching of a hand . . . a hand that had held a tiny bundle of joy on the steps of Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati in March of 1966 as Mom climbed into the red Volkswagen beetle, a hand that had pushed my pink bike with the flowered banana seat as I learned to ride without my training wheels on the Mt. Washington Elementary School playground, a hand that hovered too close to the steering wheel as I pulled out onto Mears Avenue for the first time in Dad’s new silver 1982 Plymouth Horizon, a hand that twirled me around the dance floor in the undercroft of Guardian Angels Church to Al Martino’s “Daddy’s Little Girl”, a hand that gently enveloped my baby boys as he gazed at them in awe, a hand I knew would always be there to hold if ever I needed it.
Death, who had been impatiently hovering, had taken over holding his hand when I made my way from the room. When I arrived back in that chilled room a few hours later, his hand was icy still. The hiss of the tubes silenced. The laughter faded. As I placed a kiss upon his cool forehead, my hot tears cascading onto him, I felt the warmth of his hand upon my shoulder. The spirit of his enormous, creative, strong hand.