Contest #68 winner 🏆

154 comments

Nov 21, 2020

Contemporary Drama Fiction

The orange sun peeked from behind the empty hills and found two sets of furrowed brows. On the driver seat, Michael lowered the sun visor, and his frown dissolved. On the passenger seat, his son did the same, and his frown didn’t move. Kevin’s eyes were lost beyond the hills, his arms crossed, his hands fiddling with the cord of the headphones.

“I hate this time of day,” Michael said.

There was no response from the passenger seat.

The orange hangover sun was flooding the dashboard. The hills came and went lazily on the horizon. They said hi and goodbye and kept going, slowly, on an infinite dance up and down, like sound waves.

Michael sipped from a large coffee to go and pushed the oversized cup back into the small cup holder, struggling to make it fit.

“The sunrise, I mean,” he tried again.

Kevin kept his eyes on the hills. The car was silent except for the droning of the wheels. Michael prayed for the radio to come back to life. He should have fixed it months ago but he never really listened to the radio. He enjoyed having the silence as his passenger. There had been enough opportunities to get the radio fixed, but they had come and gone, and it was still broken. Now he realized this had been a mistake.

He pushed the buttons on the radio, hoping it would magically start playing a song or the news. God, he hated the radio news, but even that would be better than this silence, better than the hum of the tires on the road, singing the most tedious song in the history of humanity. White noise, static from the dead radio. The screaming sound of having nothing to say.

“Why?” Kevin asked.

“What’s that?”

Kevin sighed. “Why do you hate the sunrise?”

“Oh,” Michael gathered his thoughts and answered. “Bad memories.”

The humming kept strong, the blaring of nothingness. He could hear the granularity of the asphalt in the sound, feel the silence vibrating in his chest.

“From when I was just a bit older than you are,” he said. “I used to go out. To parties, that is. In my twenties. And get drunk.”

A new patch of asphalt came in the distance and found the wheels with a different texture of sound, as bland as the one before.

“The time to end a fun night is before sunrise,” Michael said. “If you started drinking the night before and you’re still drinking the next morning, you’re doing it wrong. When the hot sun touches your face in the morning, it’s like you’re getting licked by a dog that’s just licked itself. It’s warm and disgusting. You feel like trash. You’re thirsty, and you’re hungry, and you just want to go to bed and sleep in your clothes, which are all sticky from people bumping on you all night and spilling beer.”

He sipped the coffee while the hills came and went. Hi, they said over the static of the silent radio. Then, goodbye. And the dull humming proceeded.

“God, getting drunk sucks.”

“Michael, that’s lame.” Kevin’s frown was directed at his father now. The furrowed brows were the same Michael could see on his bathroom mirror every morning.

“What?”

“This little rant of yours is a lame attempt at keeping me away from drinking,” Kevin said.

“Wha- No! Not at all.”

“Right.” A smirk and back to the frown.

The drab droning kept unaltered except for the changes of the asphalt. A different shade of white noise here and there, a new radio station playing a new song, as monotonous and hypnotic as the one before.

“I mean, you shouldn’t drink,” Michael said. “Well, you can. You’re going to college. God knows you will. I’m just saying, don’t drink too much. It’s bad. At least in my experience.”

Kevin’s eyes were on the horizon again, riding the empty sound waves of the traveling hills. Hi. Goodbye. Up and down.

Michael took another sip from the coffee, another struggle to make the cup fit.

“Well, do you even drink?”

“I’m seventeen,” Kevin said.

“Seventeen. Right.”

Kevin raised the sun visor. The sun had already thanked the hills for letting it crash on their couch and was now on its journey through the vivid blue sky. Michael raised his sun visor as well.

“And what about that old friend of yours? Do you go out with him?”

“I don’t go out. I spend most of my free time on the computer.”

“Yeah, but do you talk to him?”

“Who?”

“That friend of yours,” Michael said. “The one from school.”

“There were at least two hundred kids at my school.”

“Jesus, seriously? I mean the small kid. The one with the glasses. I think his name was Timmy.”

“You mean Tommy,” Kevin said. “Michael, that was in third grade.”

The static sang its dull song in Michael’s ears. “Third grade. Right.”

He tried another sip but there was no more coffee in the wrinkled cup.

“Hey,” Michael said, “do you remember grandpa's and grandma’s lake house? We used to go there when you were young.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“It’s only a half-an-hour drive from your college. We should go there sometime and hang out. I still go there every couple of weeks or so, to take a look if everything is in order. The place is kind of abandoned since your grandpa died. So I go up there, clean up, and just hang out for a while, drink a beer with my feet in the lake. It’s peaceful. Silent. It’s nice.”

Michael waited but there was no answer from Kevin. There was just the never-ending droning of the wheels.

“Do you remember the swing on the yard?” he insisted. “It’s still there. God, you used to love that swing! You kept asking me to push you higher and higher and I would do it and you’d never get afraid. Your mom was so pissed! She would say I wasn’t careful with you, that I was a bad… father.”

“So you go to the lake house every couple of weeks and just hang out?”

“Yeah!”

“So how come you never come to visit?”

Michael’s heart was as wrinkled as his coffee cup, pressed against the tight walls of his chest. There was a surge of pain and nausea, but he kept his eyes fixed on the road and his face as blank as the song in the silent radio.

Kevin’s eyes were lost on the hills again, and Michael’s mind was drowning in the sound of the dull sound.

“You didn’t have to do this, you know?” Kevin said.

“What?”

“Give me a ride. You didn’t have to.”

“Yeah, well, your mom had a shift at the hospital.”

“I know,” Kevin said, his eyes had now left the hills and were on the screen of his phone, his right hand flipping through a list of songs while the left hand untangled his headphones. “But Bob could’ve taken me.”

Another moment of deafening silence. Another sip from the empty cup. Another shade of white noise.

“Yeah, no,” Michael said. “I wanted to. When was the last time we’ve spent time together?”

“I don’t know,” Kevin said, putting on his headphones. “I don’t remember.”

Michael looked at the horizon, at the up and down of the hills. “Right.” Hi. Goodbye. “I don’t remember either.”

The hills came and went, and then there were only plains of cornfields. And then buildings, and a town, and another. But there was no silence.

#

“Do you need a hand with that?”

“No, I got it.”

Kevin took the microwave from the trunk. He was carrying a backpack, and another bag was strapped across his chest. Michael closed the trunk of the car and pulled up the handle of the wheeled suitcase. They walked to the brick residence hall and he biped the car in the distance.

“Let me get that for you,” Michael said, rushing for the glass door.

“No need to.” Kevin pushed the door with his back.

He let the door go and Michael held it with his foot.

They walked to the stairs, their steps echoing through the empty hall.

“Are you sure you don’t need any help?”

“I’m sure.”

They crawled upstairs, one step at a time. Kevin leading the way, Michael following, on and on up the endless staircase.

“Do you know where it is?” Michael asked when they got to the second floor.

“Yeah, it should be at the end of this hallway.”

“And you’ve got the key?”

“Yup.”

Michael followed Kevin through the hallway, the doors all closed, the walls empty, the fluorescent lights buzzing above their heads, a lonely window in the end wall.

Kevin stopped in front of the last door and shifted the microwave on his arms.

“Could you knock, please?”

“This one?”

“Yeah.”

Michael settled the suitcase on the floor and raised his hand, but before he touched the door, it flung open. A kid with a headset on was standing inside.

“May I help you?” the boy asked.

Michael stared blankly.

“Hey, Li,” Kevin said. “It’s me. Help me put this microwave somewhere.”

He shouldered his way past Michael and into the room and rushed for a table to put the microwave.

“Oh, hey, K.G.,” Li said, “you’re finally here!”

Michael stood outside for a second and then stepped into the room, rolling the suitcase.

“Where do you want me to…” He trailed off, his voice drowned by Li’s and Kevin’s greetings.

“It’s nice to finally see you in person, bro,” Kevin told Li while they hugged.

Michael looked around. Two beds, one empty, the other one with an open laptop. A small clothes cabinet, a lonely, worn-out desk with the microwave, a minifridge, a window overlooking the parking lot. On the wall above Li’s bed, there was a poster of what Michael assumed to be either a video-game or a movie.

The phone rang in his pocket.

“Hey, it’s your mom,” Michael said. “She probably wants to know if we got here in one piece. I’m gonna take this outside.”

He left the suitcase where it was and stepped into the hallway, taking the phone to his ear.

“Hey, Linda.”

“Are you there yet?” the voice on the phone asked.

“Well, hi to you too.”

Inside the room, Li and Kevin were talking, and Michael’s ear turned the volume down on Linda.

“We gotta find a place to plug that microwave,” Li said. “And who’s that guy? Your uncle?”

“Nah, that’s Michael. He’s my absent father, trying to compensate for his absence I guess.”

Michael’s eyes died in a stare as blank as the walls in the hallway. The only sound in his ears was his heart pumping, and in between pumps, the buzz of the fluorescent lights. The dead radio was still playing the white noise song, but it had been thrown underwater, the static distorted into a low frequency. His chest hurt with every beat of his heart and so did his ears, and he couldn’t turn that damn radio off.

From far away came a voice on the radio.

“Hello? Michael, are you there? Michael, answer me! Hello?”

He blinked a hundred times and shook his head.

“Yeah, yeah. Yes! I’m here.”

He walked to the stairs. He needed air.

“What happened?” Linda asked.

“Sorry, I zoned out for a second. What was the question?”

He could hear her rolling her eyes in the brief silence of the phone.

“Are you there yet? Did you get there fine?”

“Yes. We’re here.” He tried pushing the glass door a couple of times before pulling it open. “He’s settling in, his roommate is already there.”

“Oh, he mentioned Li would be there,” Linda said. “Good.”

“You already knew his roommate?”

“Well, they’ve been talking online for a couple of weeks now.”

“Right,” Michael said while he kicked a pebble in the parking lot. “Linda, listen. Don’t take this the wrong way, but did you tell him bad things about me through all these years?”

“What? Michael, why would I? Of course not! What are you talking about?”

“It’s just… that kid hates me.”

Her sigh on the phone carried an emotion he didn’t want to take, but it was the only one she had to offer.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Michael. I truly am. But you didn’t exactly help all these years.”

“I know,” he said, “but I’m trying to help now and he won’t let me.”

“I was talking about helping yourself.”

“Right,” he kicked another pebble.

“He is a grown man now, he doesn’t need your help. He doesn’t need a father now.”

“Yeah. No, I know.”

For a second there was nothing but silence and a cool breeze caressed Michael’s face.

“But maybe he could have a friend?” he said.

#

“Are you sure you didn’t forget anything?” Michael asked Kevin from inside the car, Li was standing at the glass door of the residence hall.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Kevin answered. “Thanks for the ride, Michael.”

“Don’t mention it. I…” He fumbled for words but nothing came.

The setting sun hit Kevin’s face the same way it had in the morning and he furrowed his brows to look at Michael. Everything was silent, and Michael’s crumpled up heart was hurting inside his tiny chest.

“Listen, son. I… I know I haven’t been around much and the only thing I can tell you now is I’m sorry. I can’t go back in time. I can’t go back to when you were that kid I was pushing on the swing on the lake house. I can’t go back to the birthdays I missed, to the hospital when you broke your arm, to Disneyland when you met Pluto, to when you found out you had been accepted in college. I can’t pretend I’ve been a part of your life, and I have no excuses. I used to have them, I used to have a bunch of them. At first, it was weird because of the divorce. And then I moved out of town. And then there was Bob, and I missed a birthday because of that. And then I missed another and another, and it would be just too awkward to show up there out of the blue.

“Life, it’s weird. It’s like a highway in some ways. You get an exit and if you miss it you sometimes have to drive for miles to get another one. And until you get to the next one you’re asking yourself ‘Why the hell didn’t I take the last one?’ And you hate yourself for not having taken it. And you have to keep driving and driving and asking and hating.

“But I finally took the exit, and I’m here now. Because I kept driving and driving and at some point, I noticed I was driving by myself. My mistakes were my only passengers. I don’t want it to be this way anymore. I want to have a son! And you’re really unlucky because I do have a son, and it’s you. But it’s a son who doesn’t even know me. A son who doesn’t feel comfortable enough to call me dad. A son who hates me.”

The lazy breeze swept the parking lot while a small tear washed Michael’s eyes.

“That hurts,” his voice cracked. “That hurts so much, you have no idea. I want to change that. So, if you ever feel like having a beer with your old man, give me a call. I mean, you can’t drink but… you know. We can go to the lake house, you can bring Li with you. We can… go fishing. I’d have to talk to Li’s parents and I don’t even know if there are fish in that lake but, I mean… just call me. Ok?”

Kevin’s frown had a twinge of sadness now.

“Geez, Michael,” he said, “What am I supposed to say?”

“I know, it was too much to drop on you. I’m sorry. I just had to take it out of my chest. So, just… you know.”

He extended his arm and touched his son’s. Kevin awkwardly grabbed his father’s hand and Michael pressed it. A hug for hands. He enjoyed it for a second before bringing his hand back inside the car and turning on the engine.

“Take care, son.”

“Yeah, don’t worry.”

“Bye, Li,” Michael shouted.

“Bye, Mr. G,” Li waved back.

#

Michael sat with a beer on the small dock of the lake house, his feet in the water, the big white moon reflecting off the lake. The crickets and the frogs were screaming in a constant buzz and the sound danced on the ripples of the lake. He took a sip from the beer and looked at his feet.

His phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Michael,” Kevin said.

“Hey! Did you forget something in the car?”

“No, no. It’s just… I was thinking about what you’ve said, about having a beer with you. Li is very interested.”

Michael laughed.

“So, you know,” Kevin continued, “if you wanna pick us up next weekend, I think it could be fun.”

“Yeah, sure buddy! I’m not sure about that beer though. And I’d have to talk to Li’s parents.”

“Yeah, no problem. I think it could be fun anyway,” Kevin said.

“Sure thing. I’ll pick you boys up next weekend.”

“Cool! Thanks… dad. Bye.”

Michael held the phone in his hand and kept looking at it for a few seconds with the stupidest smile. He slipped the phone back into his pocket and drank from the beer.

There was not a single sound in the entire world, only the deepest of silences hovering over the moon-kissed lake. Michael floated on that sweet song.

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154 comments

Esther Salami
20:31 Nov 27, 2020

Simply endearing.

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H.l Whitlock
19:33 Nov 27, 2020

Very touching. I like how you put across the complicated relationship the two share. The tension of a bunch of unsaid stuff. There was some very nice description too. There was a lot I could highlight, but I think my favourite part was the closing line: "There was not a single sound in the entire world, only the deepest of silences hovering over the moon-kissed lake. Michael floated on that sweet song." Great ending. I found it to be a bit unrealistic that Michael would pour his heart out to Kevin that way, unfortunately people rarely do th...

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Splinter Magus
20:11 Nov 27, 2020

I'm glad you liked it. As I mentioned in the reply to other comments, the first version of this story was longer, and I had to change it to make it fit the word count. I wanted to have Michael pouring his heart out in the middle of a discussion with Kevin and maybe that would have felt more natural. But what you're gonna do right? I'm happy with the final shape of the story. And how couldn't I? First submission! I'm still processing. Thanks for your comment!

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H.l Whitlock
20:35 Nov 27, 2020

It's hard to get it into just 3000 words soemtimes isn't it? For what its worth I think you did it really well, congrats on the first story and the win :)

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Splinter Magus
21:01 Nov 27, 2020

It really is! Thank you. :)

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H.l Whitlock
22:41 Nov 27, 2020

You're welcome :)

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The Girl
18:50 Nov 27, 2020

The story is quite simple and I believe simplicity is elegance. I have a question though, did the dad imagine the kid calling him in the drive back? It is hard to imagine the kid to have any warm feeling for his dad after one (but heartfelt) conversation. Maybe after a few more interactions. That is why I thought, the dad is fantasizing in his drunken state.

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Splinter Magus
19:58 Nov 27, 2020

Oh, that's not for me to say. In my opinion, readers have as much of a role in the construction of the story as the writer, so thank you for creating this story with me. :)

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The Girl
05:15 Nov 28, 2020

Well you succeeded in doing just that! Congrats 👏

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Myra Koehn
18:46 Nov 27, 2020

I had high expectations for this one, since it was a first submission, and this story went above what I thought it would be. It was amazing. Thanks for sharing your inspiration, Splinter.

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Splinter Magus
19:54 Nov 27, 2020

Oh, for a second there I thought you were gonna say you had high expectations and were disappointed haha. I guess I'm still shaken for winning the contest. Thanks for the kind comment.

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Cathryn V
18:29 Nov 27, 2020

The interiority of the drive was amazing as is your gift for description. It's an incredibly well done story for one week's development. I love the metaphor of the road and exits. I agree with Jim on the ending. The story drooped when Michael spoke to his ex and weakened with him being at the lake. Certainly didn't kill the story though! \ Congratulations on a well deserved win. thank you for writing!

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Splinter Magus
19:49 Nov 27, 2020

Yeah, I agree with Jim too and the key here is "one week's development". I feel I could've done a bit more with this story but coming up with the idea, writing, editing, and revising in a single week is a real challenge. Also, I'm so happy you talked about the metaphor of the road and the exits. I always try to use good metaphors but sometimes I'm not that sure how well they'll work. Thanks for your comment!

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Alex Fim
18:23 Nov 27, 2020

Wow. The running metaphor of noise and Michael's inner conflict was very well done. I loved how you wove the sounds of the surroundings into the conversation and throughout the setting changes. I loved the contrast of the greeting and easy relationship between Kevin and Li (with the note that they've known each other a couple of weeks online!) with that of Kevin and his father. I have rarely seen paragraphs of dialogue done well, too--yours were realistic and enriching. Bravo. As for the ending. It worked, up until "Dad." As a daughter of...

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Splinter Magus
19:41 Nov 27, 2020

I have to say, I don't really buy that "dad" either. I even asked my beta reader (my wife, haha) if that was too much, but it worked for her. Jim talked about the same sentiment in his comment and I agree. And thanks for your comment. It tells me what I'm doing well and where are the opportunities for improvement. Great feedback! Thank you.

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Karen Gendusie
18:01 Nov 27, 2020

I just finished the book, "Write Like Hemingway," and it was a workbook of a kind, I enjoyed doing the exercises. What he said repeatedly, in interviews and his notes was, "show it don't say it." Usually, many descriptive narrations have too little dialogue, but I felt in your case, there was too much. The back and forth explains to us why dad and son are at odds...but less talk and more behavior might make it more engaging to the reader...remember, we write for the reader, right? Thanks for sharing your story, keep writing!

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Splinter Magus
19:35 Nov 27, 2020

Yeah, I leaned on dialogue a lot in this one. I guess I wanted to explore the awkward silences in their conversation to show the awkwardness of their relationship, but it didn't quite work for you. Thanks for sharing, though. I appreciate the feedback. :)

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Martin Ward
16:25 Nov 27, 2020

Loved this. Realistic, emotional, powerful. For a minute I thought the protagonist was suffering from tinnitus.

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Splinter Magus
19:19 Nov 27, 2020

Oh, I didn't know the word tinnitus, interesting. One more for my vocabulary. Thanks!

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Izzie Q.
04:12 Feb 23, 2021

hey!! you followed the prompt really well and this community is soooo lucky to have you as a part of it!! looking forward to more submissions!!

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Splinter Magus
12:32 Feb 25, 2021

Hey, thank you!!! :)

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Nappy Peak
03:28 Dec 20, 2020

I kept from reading this for awhile, but I'm glad I actually got a chance to. This was beautiful and as a person who had a childhood and parent like Kevin? I felt this. Often I wonder what it feels like to be in my own dad's position. Like what if I turn out like him? Would I want another exit? This was a great short story.

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Splinter Magus
20:11 Dec 21, 2020

I'm glad this story touched you. Thank you for your comment!

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Priyanka Choubey
16:54 Dec 09, 2020

worth reading!! deserved win!! loved it!!

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Splinter Magus
02:25 Dec 23, 2020

Thank you :)

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Splinter Magus
02:25 Dec 23, 2020

Thank you :)

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Sabrina Chen
14:04 Dec 09, 2020

That was so awkward and pretty great to read!

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Splinter Magus
20:14 Dec 21, 2020

I'm glad you could feel the awkwardness between the characters. That was my intent, so mission accomplished! :) Thanks for your comment!

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Mimi Archibold
05:27 Dec 06, 2020

I just got tears in my eyes a;slkjdf;le I absolutely loved the song motif throughout the story. I feel like music has so much meaning and emotion and you made me feel really in the moment

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Splinter Magus
20:23 Dec 21, 2020

Thank you for your comment! I love it when people feel reading the story what I felt writing it.

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18:30 Dec 04, 2020

Wow. Have you thought of publishing this or writing more? It is fan-tas-tic!

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Splinter Magus
22:23 Dec 21, 2020

Hey! Thank you for commenting. :) My plans for this story go just as far as it's gotten. But I do have other stories here on Reedsy (though they're not as good as this one).

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22:27 Dec 21, 2020

I'd like to read them all! :) This is pretty good, and I don't think the others will be bad or anything.

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13:35 Dec 04, 2020

This is a great story. It made me cry. I love your analogy about the exits on the highway and missed opportunities. In reality maybe the son wouldn't have forgiven his dad that quickly but it sweetens the ending.

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Splinter Magus
22:25 Dec 21, 2020

Hi! Thank you! I'm sorry, but I'm glad you cried. haha I mean, I don't necessarily like making people cry, but you know... ;) Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment

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Jen Howell
16:31 Dec 03, 2020

I agree with almost all of the feedback that you have received so far. This was a fantastic story. I felt as if I were sitting in the car with the two of them, sharing the awkward silence. I want to flip the coin though, to those saying the ending was not believable. I think that not every situation where a parent was absent means a child will want nothing to do with them. Sure, that may be the vast majority. I just don't think we really have seen enough of Kevin and how he has felt through the whole thing to really know that he wouldn't w...

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Splinter Magus
22:33 Dec 21, 2020

Hey, thank you! You're right. Short stories are just a glimpse into the characters' life, and that gives us the freedom to imagine things outside of what was framed in the story. And the person who commented Michael was drunk in the ending... I wish I could have thought of that! It's brilliant.

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Suzi Zinn
02:16 Dec 03, 2020

Nice story.

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Silver Night
13:48 Dec 01, 2020

The story was fantastic and was a well-deserved win. I really enjoyed this realistic story with just a hint of a fairy-tale ending. Personally, I feel like I would have ended with him driving away while drinking a beer, then the last line would be a crash, but that's just my style, and yours is still fantastic. Loved it!

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Splinter Magus
22:39 Dec 21, 2020

Ooh, that's dark! I like it! Yeah, I went for a happy ending on this one and I didn't reeeaally buy it. lol But people liked it. I'm glad you enjoyed the too. :)

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Alana Bates
20:52 Nov 30, 2020

Hey this is really great. I have an absent father who helped me when I moved house in a really awkward episode, I recognise so much of this story. It's clever how the dialogue makes up a main part of the story, I am rubbish at dialogue so rereading this to get ideas for creating tension. Love it we'll done

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Shea Redmond
16:46 Nov 29, 2020

"My mistakes were my only passengers." 😭😭 ugh that hit me in the guts. What a sad and tender story, well done.

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Shea Redmond
16:54 Nov 29, 2020

I've read through the comments about how a Kevin called Michael dad etc.... And part of me finds it believable, because BEER. He's a new college kid possibly looking to take advantage of monopolize on Michaels absence. .. I saw this part of the story as a kid trying to use the absent parent. I have a stepdad and a parent that was not as good as he could have been. As well as a sibling who did this exact thing. They took advantage of our parents forgiveness and vulnerable moments every chance they could get. This sibling would argue that ...

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Splinter Magus
02:38 Dec 23, 2020

Hey, Shea. (Gee, it took me long enough to answer this comment. Sorry about that.) Thank you! That's exactly what I was thinking about but I think I didn't make it very clear in the story. My original plan was that Li was the one who really wanted that beer and would tell Kevin things like "hey, give the old man a chance. beer, bro!" Which is basically a kid trying to grab the opportunity of having a new experience at a key point in life. So thank you for sharing your experience and your perspective on this! :)

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