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The Losing 24-Hour Short Story

Remember the 24-hour short story contest sponsored by Writer's Weekly that I entered about a month ago? Well, in case you forgot, you can read that entry here.

Yeah, I told you I wouldn't win. So, as promised, I'm posting my story here. You can also read the winning entries here. I'd be curious to know what you think. But keep in mind that I wrote the story in one day and I haven't edited it since then. OK, I fixed one or two small things. God, I'm such a liar.

Small Sacrifices

From the very beginning, Susan understood that Harry was not a reader. She was aware that such people existed, although she'd never met any of them. People who weren't good readers. People who considered reading a chore. People for whom finishing a book took so long that by the time they'd finished it -- if they ever did finish it -- they'd forgotten what had happened at the beginning of the story. Yes, Susan knew that there were people like this and that Harry was one of them.

She liked him anyway.

When they first met, she thought maybe he didn't like to read because he hadn't tried to read the right books. So she bought him books about sports and adventures and she bought him collections of short stories and thrillers and the Harry Potter books that so many people of all different ages loved so much. These presents gathered dust on his coffee table until finally she picked them up and asked to borrow them, hating to see them go unread. And he would raise his eyebrows and give her that queer look of his, as if to say he suspected all along she'd only bought them for herself.

Which was partly true, of course. But still.

They were married quickly, within a year, because he'd gotten a job in Washington, D.C., they'd had a chance to buy an old house dirt cheap, and he had decided it would be better for both of them, legally speaking, if they were married when they bought it. It was a fixer-upper, a row house below 16th street, with two floors of potential and a damp basement. They packed their things in a U-Haul truck and left New England the day after the wedding ceremony, which was at the Town Hall in his home town. They had no reception and no honeymoon, unless you counted the 10-hour drive to D.C. (Which, if you'd been there, you would not.)

The first sign of trouble was when he complained that her boxes of books were too heavy, and said that she would have to leave them behind. She insisted on bringing them, though, saying she would carry the boxes herself. And she did carry them herself, down two flights of stairs from her old apartment and into the truck and then out of the truck and up two flights of stairs into the new house. He didn't relent, he never offered to help her, even though it was so much hotter and more humid than they were used to and her face was bright red and slick with sweat.

One night a few months after moving they were in bed together and she was reading a book and he told her to turn out the light and she murmured "just one more page and I'm done with this chapter" and he leaned right across her body and clicked off the light on her side of the bed. She'd laughed and turned it back on, thinking he was just teasing. But when the light illuminated his face she'd seen his wounded, angry eyes and had known he was not kidding. She smiled and said "Oh" and put the book down and leaned toward him to gather him into her arms but when she tried to kiss him he'd pulled away and rolled over and told her sharply that he was tired.

"Lights out," he said.

Confused, she'd turned the lights out.

The next time he pulled that trick she turned the light back on. But this time she wasn't smiling. This time she didn't care how he looked at her. Or didn't look at her.

"I have two more pages 'till the end of the chapter," she said, trying for a light but firm tone, as if he were a child who merely needed to be taught a lesson about being polite.

She was distracted from her reading by the tension radiating from his body, by the pout and the scowl that she knew he wore, even though she couldn't see his face.

The following night when she went to bed the lamp on her side of the bed was gone. And she knew right then that she had a decision to make. Would she take the easy way out? Or would she do this the hard way? The decision was complicated by the fact that, by this time, she was pregnant. She was still considering when he climbed into bed and, _click_, out went the one remaining light. He rolled over, his rigid back to her, and she lay awake in the dark, her book open on her lap right before her blinded eyes, and wondered what had ever possessed her to marry a man who didn't like to read.

***

Years later, when her mother died, Chloe came home to plan the funeral and tend to the estate. She stayed in the townhouse below 16th street, which had become, over the decades, a fashionable neighborhood. A glass of wine in one hand, boxes and packing tape in the other, Chloe padded into the second-floor library, which was shelved from floor to ceiling in books. Her mother's daughter, she had read almost every volume in the room, save for some dusty old books in the far corner on the topmost shelf. As she ran her fingers along their familiar spines, she couldn't imagine parting with any of them. She dragged a stool over to the back corner and reached up for one of the dusty old volumes that she'd never read. These, at least, she might be able to sell.

She reached up and pulled down a book. When she did so, she noticed a large book with gold lettering lying on its side behind the others. She pulled it from its hiding place, dislodging other books as she did so. When she opened the cover, she discovered that a crude, square area had been cut out of the pages in the center of the book. Inside the hole she saw a glint of gold - a man's wedding band with an unusual scrolled design. She recognized the ring from photographs and realized that the severed finger must have belonged to her father, missing all these years. When she looked at that finger bone and the gold wedding band, she didn't really feel anything, mostly because she never knew her father -- he'd gone missing before she was even born.

The only thing her mother ever said about him was that he didn't like to read.

3 comments:

Alicia said...

I LOVE this story! The minute I started reading I had to find out what happened to Susan and Harry. And I could really feel for her because it's hard to feel passionate about someting when your significant other doesn't understand and, of course, it's the little things like arguments over the bed lamp that will drive a couple crazy.

The twist at the end was great! I can usually see those things coming from a mile away, but I never expected that!

Alicia said...

What I hate about these contests is I can never fathom just what kind of criteria they use to decide on the winners. Since yours didn't win, I figured the winning ones must be spectacular, but they weren't. The 1st prize was okay, and the other two, frankly, sucked big time. How the heck did you only get an honorable mention???

Gienna said...

AB- thank you ... I had fun writing it, too. It may or may be based on a certain ex of mine who didn't like to read.

The other AB (man, you two confuse me sometimes --thank goodness for the hat) - I was kind of thinking the same thing about the winning entries, but didn't want to come right out and say so. The funny thing is that I wrote my story with the style of the contest in mind. I know they like pretty straightforward writing and a twist ending, so that's what I did.

Just to clarify, I didn't win an honorable mention. My name was picked out of the 500 entries for a random door prize.