The Melody Richardson Memorial Contest is open to all writers and offers prizes for short fiction (1500 words) and flash fiction (500). Read the winning pieces below.
2020 Contest Winners
Short Fiction (1500 words)
The Unknown Civilian
by Bruce Hanson
I used to go to school. My teachers told me I was advanced. That meant I read more and was smarter than most of my friends.
Now, I’m fourteen, and there is no school. Instead, I sit waiting. Very quietly.
The afternoon breeze tickles my neck with a leaf. Just like my sister used to do when she’d sneak up behind me with a long blade of grass. I brush it aside and shift my weight, trying to provide some relief to my cramped legs.
The brook sings to me and to every other creature in the forest. Even though they don’t show themselves, I know I’m not alone. Voices chirp and scold from the canopy above. The ground is camouflage for animals burrowing and tunneling, making a labyrinth in the soil.
The air is cool and fresh carrying a mixed scent of new leaves and moist moss. It is a luxury that no longer drifts up the hillside into my hot village streets, now clogged with the rancid stink of diesel, dust and death.
A sound, not belonging to the forest, alerts me. A harsh, grinding mechanical sound. Squinting between the leaves, that form the walls of my fort, I strain to see what’s coming. A tractor—just a tractor—rumbling and clanking weary joints past me on the rutted road. I let it disappear around the corner.
Taking a deep breath, I close my eyes.
My dreams come during the day now. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I don’t dream at night anymore, or maybe because my days are as dark as my nights.
My mind drifts up into the clouds. Taking fistfuls of white vapour, I mould tufts into forest creatures—gentle rabbits with curious twitching noses, squirrels alert and playful, timid mice sniffing and scratching for seeds. I set the tiny forms down, freeing them to run over their fluffy field of snow.
I tear off a large grey wad of cloud. Like grabbing a long balloon in the middle, I squeeze it in a stranglehold, forcing the material to bulge out above and below my grip. With one hand, I peck away at the top to forge a curved beak and strong eyes. Next, I pull wide dark wings from the round bottom. They flap and struggle to get away, making the fabrication of the tail and sharp claws difficult and dangerous.
My creation leaves me in awe of its power, power I can no longer control. I release the bird into the air and watch, helpless, as it circles and swoops, destroying my forest friends one by one until they’re all gone.
With unjustified vengeance, its yellow eyes focus on me as it circles higher and higher above my head. I know what to expect. I’ve seen it all before, the power, the hate, the killing, the revenge. I rip away more cloud and begin to shape a rifle. I glance up. The bird breaks its flight.
With wingtips stretched skyward, it plunges towards me. I rush to draw out the barrel, shape the stock, carve the trigger. The air above me whistles as the great bird grows larger by the second. I take careful aim.
Bullets! I haven’t made bullets.
The fast-approaching talons shine like polished steel.
With the rifle held above my head, I prepare to deflect the knifelike claws.
The grinding sound of an engine engulfs me, shattering my daydream. I peer out of my leafy fortress. This is it. Now, they’ll know pain. Their brothers and sisters and children will know the loss. My feet prickle from no circulation, a thousand needles dancing through them. I dare not flex a toe. My lungs hold my breath captive.
A troop carrier bounces over the bumpy road.
In slow motion, my fingers feel their way into my jacket pocket. A predator always moves slowly before it pounces on its prey. I know this, too. I used to watch the old tom work the fields; I watched young soldiers position themselves in the alleys.
I squeeze the deadly cold metal in my pocket.
The truck is getting closer. The hot air above the khaki hood shimmers. Flashes of sunlight bounce off the windshield.
I can see beyond the cab now. The back of the truck is open, a camouflage-patterned canvas pushed up to the front. There are soldiers. I guess a dozen are sitting in the rear, although I can make out just a few from here—their backs to me, rifles standing at attention between them, their hats shading them from the sun—my only witness.
I remove the pear-shaped weapon from my pocket. As if confirming a marriage vow, my finger slips into the metal ring.
The truck lumbers in front of me. The faces of the soldiers are now clear.
I pull out the ring and hold the lever.
One, for my brother,
Two, for my sisters,
Three, for my mother,
Four, for my father,
Five, for all the forest animals.
Standing up, I swing my arm back and throw with all I have left inside of me. I throw for my family and all the other dead families. The grenade leaves my fingers. It starts upward,
turning end over end as it continues its journey. Then, it arcs down. Tumbling. Spinning. One of
the soldiers sees it—or me. He’s pointing. He jumps up. Others are turning. The grenade is
My throw is off. It hits the roof of the cab. I hear its dangerous kiss above the engine noise. It bounces into the back of the truck. The soldiers start to scramble, to tumble, to spin. The truck stops with a jolt, throwing the men off balance.
I turn and run, my numb feet unable to feel the ground.
I hear my revenge explode, loud, violent. The expanding embrace warms me.
More explosions. Not mine. Short, quick bursts.
My back vibrates. My head jerks back. Arms reach skyward. Eyes follow.
The cloud rifle appears in my outstretched hands. The great bird plummets towards me. Its piercing cry deafens me.
Crashing through the rifle, the claws rip into my back.
The force and pain propel me forward. My body quivers as if chilled.
My chest and face slap the ground.
My only witness shines above me.
Too heavy to hold open, I close my eyes.
by Sharon McInnes
I catch a whiff of smoke when I open the back door. It’s Joe, perched on a chair on his back porch, a cigarette dangling from his lips, even now, at seven-twenty on a cold November morning. I consider going out the front door. But that’s stupid. I’d have to walk around the block and down the alley and sneak into my garage without him seeing me. Get over it, Karen. I pick my way down the frosty back stairs.
Joe hollers over the fence. “Mornin’, Karen! Ya’ off to work?”
I wave. “Yep. Busy day. Gotta run.”
Then, as usual, he butts out his smoke, blows me a kiss, and breaks out in a coughing fit. Very annoying. My father had smoked from morning to night too. All my life. And hacked incessantly. I hated listening to that. When he died, though, it was from leukemia, not lung cancer. He was sixty-eight at the time. I never said good-bye.
It’s possible Dad wouldn’t have liked me much even if I’d been beautiful and brilliant. Maybe he was simply done with parenting by the time I arrived. He had his smart son (Tom) and his pretty daughter (Lisa). No others need apply. The Runt—that’s what he called me. Even though I was taller than Lisa.
I complained to Mom once, when I was ten. Why doesn’t Daddy like me? Her cheeks turned pink and her voice cracked as she tried to explain that Grandad had been mean to Dad when he was little. Uh huh. So? So he didn’t learn how to be a loving father. Oh yeah? Well, he loves Tom and Lisa. How do you explain that? And what about Uncle Jim? He listens when I talk, as if I matter. Mom said Grandad had changed by the time Jim was born. Really?
How? Questions like these led me into psychology, then family therapy. A lot of good that had done.
On a Thursday in the middle of December I come home to find a note stuck to the back door with a thumb tack. Joe is in the hospital. He’d like you to visit, if you’re not too busy. It’s from Doris, his wife.
The truth is, I am too busy. I have things to do. Many things. Not really.
After dinner I sit in the living room in front of the fireplace trying to read Washington Square, our next book club novel. But I keep thinking of Joe and his stories. I’ve heard hundreds of them over the years. I’d be outside, maybe gardening, and he’d wave me over to the fence and let fly. “Karen, did I tell you about the time … blah blah blah.” And I was doomed. Joe loved telling stories. That’s what they were, stories, pure fiction, fabrications fashioned from snippets of memory woven with thick threads of fantasy. I knew that. But telling the truth isn’t always the point, is it? At forty, I understood perfectly well the comfort derived from rewriting one’s past.
On Saturday, I drive to the hospital. Joe is in Room 310 in the bed by the window. As I walk in, I feel the muscles in my throat tighten and my pulse quicken.
Five years earlier, my father lay in another bed by another window, his once-bulky body small and still. He’d been at the hospital fourteen days when I went to see him. I blamed my behavior on the fact that driving from North Vancouver to the hospital in Richmond then back again would mean six bridge crossings and far too many hours. The truth is I had no idea what to say to my father. What kind of deathbed conversation could possibly make things right? By then, Uncle Jim had told me horrible stories about Dad and Grandad, ones that actually made me feel sorry for Dad. But it wasn’t enough. Even if he apologized—I’m sorry I was a lousy father—would that suddenly fix everything? Or what if he finally told me he loved me, said he’d always loved me but was unable to show it? Like Mom said. These were the fantasies of a child. At best, we would dance around the truth, pretend to care, fake a father-daughter connection that does not exist. That would be worse than anything. Except living with guilt for the rest of my life. I finally go on a damp January day.
At the main entrance, the glass hospital doors slide open, welcoming me. In the elevator, my heart pounds like crazy and I feel a little dizzy. The smell of disinfectant hangs in the air. The nurse at the desk says Dad’s room is just down the hall, on the left. I stand in the doorway listening to hospital noises—the beep of machines, the clatter of trolleys, a voice over the loudspeaker—before taking a long deep breath and stepping gingerly into the room. On the window sill, get-well cards stand like brave soldiers. Dad’s asleep, blankets askew, bluish-purple feet poking out at the bottom, shriveled buttocks exposed. He’d be mortified. I reach over and pull a blanket over his bare bum. He doesn’t stir. I tiptoe to the head of the bed, gaze into his sleeping face. How thin it’s become, eyes sunken, once-bushy eyebrows sparse. I’ve never watched my father sleep before. I’ve never seen the sad-mad-scared little boy hiding inside him, either. His eyelids twitch. Is he dreaming? Wishing I would visit? Maybe he’s filled with remorse. I leave then, before the fantasy can be wrenched away.
He died that night.
Now it’s Joe’s pale and wrinkled face I’m staring at. His eyes are closed, his chin thick with white stubble, bits of yellow mucous lodged in the corners of his mouth. When I clear my throat, his eyes open.
“Karen! You came!” He seems so pleased.
“Hi, Joe.” I hand him the bouquet of yellow mums I picked up in the gift shop. “Shall I put these in water?” I scan the room for a vase.
“The nurse will do that. Come closer. I have something to tell you.” He reaches for my cold hand. His is warm and has an IV drip taped to it.
“Yes?” He swallows hard then whispers, “I wish you were my daughter.”
“Oh!” I’m astonished. “Because you always listened to my stories. I wanted to thank you for that.”
“You don’t have to thank me, Joe.”
“No, I want to. And here you are, visiting me! You know, she hasn’t come to see me at all, not even once—and I’m on my way out.” He shakes his head in disgust. But the hurt in his eyes betrays him.
“Does she know you’re in the hospital?”
“Sure. She keeps telling Doris she’ll come. But I doubt it. Haven’t seen her in a year. She’s always too busy, she says.”
“Do you want to see her, Joe?” He shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s too late.”
“Or maybe not.” I feel compelled to do something. “Would you mind if I call her?”
“What would you say?” He looks frightened.
“I don’t know. Maybe that you miss her?”
His brown eyes damp, he whispers, “You could maybe tell her I’m sorry I was such a shitty Dad.” He reaches for a napkin on his bedside table. I hand him a pen.
A nurse pokes her head in the door. “Visiting hours are over, dear.”
Joe finishes writing and hands me the napkin. I fold it up, put it in my bag. We say our good-byes. The nurse stands at the door, waiting for me to leave. When I walk by, she whispers, “Your Dad’s been hoping you’d come. He must be real happy.”
Shaken, I take the elevator to the first floor and duck into a washroom. Decades of grief well up, force their way out. I sob like a little girl who’s lost her Daddy.
Half an hour later, I still can’t leave. I take the elevator back up to the third floor and sneak back into Joe’s room. He’s sound asleep now. I watch him breathe, find myself breathing in rhythm with him. Then, suddenly, I’m at the funeral home, standing beside my father’s pine casket, gazing into his closed eyes, longing for another chance to ask the questions I’d never had the courage to ask. A chance to lay it all to rest, to get on with my life, to say good-bye. My eyes are wet when I finally leave Joe’s side. At the doorway, I stop for one last look at the man who wishes I were his daughter, and I blow him a kiss.
Downstairs, big glass doors slide open when I approach. It’s still cold outside but the sun has come out. On the sidewalk, I unfold the napkin with Joe’s real daughter’s number scrawled on it in blue ink, and I take my phone out of my bag.
by Marie Gage
Beatrice runs her finger along her forehead, tucking her snow white shoulder length hair behind her ear. An ordinary gesture made with a calmness she does not feel. Her thoughts are racing. What is this place? Why am I here? With a pounding heart and laboured breathing she scans her surroundings.
A passerby slips on a slimy patch of fallen leaves and nudges Beatrice as he catches his balance. A quick apology and he is on his way, not noticing the terror that is rising from within the depths of Beatrice’s soul. She sorts through the cracks and crevices of her mind, trying to remember. An innate force, tells her it is imperative that she maintain an outward calm. She must control the terror.
She turns in a circle, scanning, trying to find something, anything, she recognizes. A brightly coloured maple leaf catches her attention as it wafts on the wind, floating in slow motion right into her hand. She rubs its smooth surface between her finger and thumb. The familiar sensation soothes her, as she examines it with the awe of someone who has never before experienced such beauty. She stands rapt as she traces the hues of orange, yellow and red with her eyes.
An unseen force draws her to the trunk of the majestic maple from whence it came. Leaning against it, she closes her eyes and sighs. The tree is rooted, grounded. She is not. A warm, comforting sensation envelops her and her mind begins to relax. Calmer now she separates from the tree giving it a tender pat and a whispered thank you..
Almost immediately the chill of the day begins creeping under her jacket and panic rushes in. “Where am I? What am I supposed to be doing?” she whispers.
Unbearable fatigue invades her soul. She plops down on a bench. Years of meditation training take over. Breathe she thinks. I just need to breathe. She pulls air in through her nose, holds it there and lets it out slowly through her mouth, repeating until the tension in her muscles subsides once again. The musky sweet smell of decaying leaves stirs memories of the joy of jumping into piles of leaves as a child. She smiles. With her next breath she catches a whiff of wood smoke and opens her eyes to see if she can spot its origin.
There is a flash of recognition. It jars her, causing her to sit erect as she stares in wonder at the now familiar house across the road. The flash of cognition is like an electric current lighting the memory cells in her brain one after another. The purpose of her visit becomes clear. It is her daughter’s birthday. She is here for her daughter’s birthday.
How could I not remember? How is it that just moments ago I did not recognize this park, a place I spend so much time with my grandchildren?
Relief pushes the worry away as the fog lifts. She remembers. While parking her car outside her daughter’s home the beauty of the trees in this park beckoned to her and she took a walk before knocking on the door. She was early, there was time.
As quickly as it came the relief is driven away by fear for her future. How is it possible to feel lost in this familiar place? She reassures herself that it is simply a sign of fatigue. She must take a day or two off of her busy volunteer schedule and all will be well. A quick decision is made … no one must know.
She needs to calm herself, prepare for the deception. She sits absorbing the beauty and quiet that emanates from the forested park surrounding her. She enjoys deep, cleansing breaths that bring with them the easily distinguished scents and enjoys more memories of autumns past.
She stands, runs her finger along her forehead tucking her hair behind her ear. She follows the trail to the road, enjoying the rustling of the leaves as she purposefully shuffles her feet through them. Fetching the birthday parcel from her car she mounts the steps to her daughter’s front door and rings the bell.
Her daughter opens the door and Beatrice wraps her arms around her with a whisper of “happy birthday, darling”. Stepping out of the hug she holds her daughter at arms length, soaking in every detail of her features, while casting a smile that belies the fear that engulfs the depths of her being.
Flash Fiction (500 words maximum)
by Jennifer Lemon
You squeeze her to your chest, willing your milk to come in. You know it’s the best thing for her, and you want only the best. Her mewls are muffled as she’s held too tight but your grip is filled with all the longing you have for this baby. She has finally made you a mother. You’re afraid to let go lest she disappear.
You’ll be a good mother, everyone says. You bend down and kiss the top of her head, the way you’ve seen other mothers do. Her hair is soft and it tickles your lip. You smile but it is only a reflex.
When she cries, you’re unsure how to soothe her. You hold a bottle to her lips, imploring her to drink the hastily chosen formula because you have nothing else to feed her. She reluctantly accepts the nipple, taking long sucks as her body slowly settles. She must know how good you are to her. You look at her tiny nose and her big blue eyes, and think that maybe she looks a little like you. You allow yourself to imagine watching her grow, taking her shopping for a new dolly or school supplies or her wedding dress. This will take up a lot of your time.
When her bottle is done, she spits up, offering you a sleepy, milk-drunk smile, but your temper unexpectedly flares. You don’t have another clean outfit for her and you must look the part of attentive mother. You use a face cloth to wipe roughly at the mess, restoring her perfect appearance. She objects, shaking her chubby fists at you, and you feel irritated that she doesn’t appreciate your efforts. Mind your manners, you’ve heard other mothers say. You will have to teach her some.
You rock her in your lap until she succumbs to sleep, finally starting to feel yourself relax. You turn on the television, where a blonde woman is standing at a podium, crying. Her baby girl has been taken. The police officer next to her rubs her shoulder, then looks at you right through your screen. He promises he will find the baby; you worry he will find you, too.
You stand abruptly to turn the television off, to make the blubbering woman go away. The baby rolls from your lap and onto the floor, wailing. Instead of picking her up, you stand over her, feeling enraged.
Tomorrow, you will take her back to the park. You’ll just quietly push her stroller into the shade under the tree where you found her and walk away. You know she doesn’t belong with you.
Everyone told you that once a baby was in your arms, it would come naturally to you. But you do not feel the things the blonde woman does; you do not love this baby.
It is okay, you decide, not to be a mother. Not everyone needs to be.
by Barb Bissonette
Of all the dogs at the pathetic excuse for a rescue center, the Shepherd stood out by virtue of his abject misery and dejection. Ken felt a curious kinship towards the caged animal.
“I’ll take that one,” he gestured to the rescue lady.
“Sure, if that’s what you call him.”
“His owner died and the neighbours brought him here. He was a one-man dog. Shepherds often are. He can be testy. And he won’t live too many more years. He’s getting old.”
“We should get along then. I’m getting old and testy myself,” Ken grunted.
The woman wondered why this strange, distant man wanted a dog at all.
“I have a small vegetable stand,” Ken told her, thawing a little. “Damned kids come and dig it up sometimes. I want a watchdog.”
“Oh, Shep will be good for that,” the lady assured him.
With a grunt of thanks, Ken left with Shep in tow. Neither one gave a backwards glance at the rescue or the lady.
They suited each other, neither caring much for social contact. Ken was a childless widower. He had started to develop a bothersome tremor in his hands. Mainly when he tried to perform any task.
“Purposeful movement,” the doctor told him. “It means that your hands shake when you try to do a task.”
“Not very bloody helpful, is it?” Ken grumped at the doctor. “I mean, that’s when you need them the most.”
Ken lived on the outskirts of town, his land stretching into a small vacant lot. When he brought Shep home the dog ran around and around the lot, delirious with freedom.
“Didn’t know you had it in you, old boy,” Ken said, when Shep finally skidded to a stop in front of him.
“Maybe there’s more to you than I thought.”
They shared from the same pot at dinner. Ken sank wearily onto the couch with his newspaper. His hands trembled with the effort of holding the paper.
Shep approached the couch, thrusting a big paw on top of Ken’s hands. Then he lay his big canine head atop the pile of hands and paw, closing his eyes.
“Well, I’ll be!” Ken exclaimed. “I guess you really are my dog, Shep.”
The unlikely pair became inseparable, shuffling along together for five years. Both of them aging, both of them slowing down, still persevering. Ken’s tremor worsened, Shep became almost lame and totally deaf, yet always ready to ease Ken’s hands with his particular form of comfort and affection.
One bitter, winter’s day Ken struggled in the door, unable to catch his breath, sinking onto the couch. A searing pain filled his entire chest, making its relentless way down his arms, rendering them useless, to steal his last life’s breath in an exhale of agony.
Shep limped to the couch, painfully lifting his paw to rest on Ken’s hands.
His old faithful head flopped atop his paw and, with a huge sigh, he closed his weary dog eyes.
by Pamela Medland
Murray died without a will. No instructions about how he should be disposed of, no funds set aside for a wake. Money was tight. There were still debts on the credit cards and the kids needed help getting through school. I Googled “cheap funerals Calgary” and found Onlinecremation.ca.
“Onlinecremation.ca,” I read, “partners with Calgary Crematorium to provide compassionate, knowledgeable professionals able to cater to the specific needs of Calgary. No longer do you have to visit a Funeral Home. It’s the new way.”
Apparently, you could make arrangements online, save your searches, and go back later to edit your choices. All at the cut rate price of $885.
I filled out the forms and the next morning received a reply: “Dear Madam,” it began, “thank you for your interest in our service.”
The process was straightforward and relatively anonymous. I chose cardboard, no visitation or embalming, no funeral service. The family had twenty minutes to say goodbye and we brought our own wooden box to hold the ashes. We left poems and wildflowers on Murray’s chest and watched as he was wheeled away for cremation.
The problems began almost immediately. I learned I was the first Calgarian to order an online cremation. Would I fill out a questionnaire about the experience? (Yes). Did I want an online obituary? (Yes). Would I act as a reference, presumably for the living not the dead? (No).
I unsubscribed from Onlinecremation’s email list and settled down to grieve. It was the silence that got to me most, the long quiet emptiness. I took to texting Murray’s phone number and sending him emails. One morning there was a text message from Murray’s number.
“Do not grieve for me,” it read. “I am warm among the flames.”
I could have blocked the number but I did not. It was comforting to get messages, if not from Murray, then about Murray. The texts were hypnotic and I read them in a state of suspended emotion.
“Breathe deep, the air is full of cinder.”
“I feel your white fingers in my grey ash.”
I checked Murray’s obituary regularly, but the messages from friends soon stopped. I noticed, however, that someone was lighting virtual candles in Murray’s honour. I decided to light one myself and see what would happen. Almost immediately there was an answering beacon. This went on for days. Soon the web page was full of flickering tea lights.
One day it stopped as suddenly as it had begun. I emailed Onlinecremation and requested an extension of service. They politely wrote back to say their service had ended with the creation of the online obituary. Could I clarify what additional service I was requesting?
“Texts,” I wrote, “tea lights.”
“Unfortunately,” Madame, “they replied, assistance with the grieving process is not a service we can offer online at this time.”
I changed my passwords, unsubscribed from my feeds, deleted my Twitter account. It seemed to be over until one day Murray tagged me on Facebook.
A Parallel Universe
by Barb Bissonette
Every day at exactly 3 o’clock, I allow myself the luxury of a half hour and a shot of whiskey to travel to a parallel universe. That’s it. No more. No less.
I’ve been doing this for six months now. Every day. I pour myself a shot, on the rocks, sit by my window and cast my mind back to the day when Max, my only grandson, phoned and asked me if I would please come and get him. His mom was at work and the neighbour’s sixteen-year-old son, Eddie, was babysitting. I always got the impression that Max was afraid of Eddie, although his mom assured me repeatedly that he was fine. So, I bit my tongue and said no more.
My husband had recently retired. He’d always been a cheerless man but he had become positively dour since his retirement. Max was an energetic eight-year-old and he seemed to get on Art’s last nerve. Whenever he visited, Art would grump and complain and sigh at the top of his lungs, taking away much of my joy at Max’s visit.
On this particular day, Art had been grouchier than usual, for no reason that I could ascertain. Not a single day had passed in years that I hadn’t thought of packing up and leaving. Somehow, though, after all of these years, it seemed asinine. And too much trouble.
Anyways, when I received Max’s phone call I hesitated over his request. I knew it would only lead to an argument. I hadn’t slept well the night before. Art looked daggers at me, taking in my end of the conversation. I told Max as gently as possible that I couldn’t get him today, saying maybe tomorrow would be a more suitable day.
I went about the tasks of daily housework, thinking of Max and longing to see him. I despised myself for being so spineless.
It wasn’t until much later that the phone rang again, bearing the news that Eddie had taken Max out in his car for a reason that has never been made clear. What was clear was the fact that Eddie had been smoking cannabis before driving, maybe even while driving.
This was cited as the reason that he lost control of the car on a bend in the road and slammed into a hydro pole, killing both of the boys on impact.
Six months. It’s hard to believe that it’s been six months since I held his little body and basked in the warmth of his sweet smile.
Six months since I left Art behind without a backward glance. It’s lonely sometimes in my small apartment but it has a certain element of peace, which I am grateful for.
And every day at three o’clock, I sit down with my whiskey and travel to that parallel universe. The one where Max phones me to ask if I will come and get him.
And I reply, “I’ll be right there, Max. I’ll be right there.”
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