Contest #67 shortlist ⭐️

12 comments

Fiction Thriller

Since her official diagnosis with dementia, Gladys has wished to return to her birthplace while she can still remember her family members and landmarks. Her granddaughter has shown her around her old village on the computer, but it’s not the same, of course. She wants to walk the cobbled lane to the family home one more time, feel the uneven stones underneath her feet. She can still manage a few steps on her own, so it is a possibility.

 

It is just past midnight, but Gladys is not aware of the time. The night sky is impossibly black against the bright deck lights. They are so bright Gladys can’t see any stars, except for Venus. The moon is a curved sliver. Gladys’ wheelchair is parked amongst the colourful deck chairs, a clunky thing of steel and rubber that her son has difficulty pushing around the cruise ship, so for the most part she is either in her room, in the dining room or out on the deck. She would like to visit the lounge and watch the people dance, even if she can no longer dance herself. She would also like to buy a mechanized chair, but she has overheard the added mobility could make her a flight risk as her dementia progresses.

 

The thought of being a “flight risk” when she can barely walk strikes Gladys as funny, but it is also frustrating, and is also terribly depressing. Sometimes she calls her son by her grandson’s name, the boy who died as a baby in his crib: sometimes his name just slips out even though he died twenty years ago, and she can see the pain on her son’s face but it means nothing in the moment because she has no idea why it would upset him. When he asks her later if she remembers what she said, Gladys says of course not, because she doesn’t. This seems to pain him more, and he’s been spending a lot of time in the ship’s casino.

 

Gladys assumes that is where her son is now, plopping nickels in the slot machines, pretending everything is grand and probably flirting with the cocktail waitresses. Suits her fine; it is a lovely, clear night and she has her lapghan to keep her warm. The stern appears to be deserted; she could sit out here for hours, celebrity magazine open on her thighs, staring into the darkness and listening to the background rumbling of the engine.

 

Her solitude is broken by a young couple approaching from the left. She has seen them before: a good-looking couple, but quiet. The woman is very pale and very blonde, very thin and very downtrodden. Downtrodden is the right word: her eyes tend to stay down, on her food, on her hands; Gladys has even seen her boyfriend (husband?) pick and choose her food from the buffet line without a word from her. They have a strange energy, and people seem to give them space: they don’t seem to be friendly with anyone else, and even the waitresses don’t make small talk with them; they simply pick up their plates and leave.

 

The man is broad, looks like he works out in the ship’s gym. Big head, buzz cut, muscular biceps, and has probably never smiled in his life. A waste of a handsome face.

 

Gladys looks down at her magazine but tries to keep them in her peripheral vision. The girl leads the way, arms crossed over her chest, head down. Her hair is back in a ponytail. She looks chilly in her little floral-print dress. The boy follows close behind in a pair of blue jeans and a tight grey shirt. They both glance at Gladys, who keeps her eyes on her magazine. They keep their distance from her.

 

Their voices are subdued; Gladys can’t hear what they are saying. The boy seems angry about something: his tone is sharp; he pulls on the girl’s arm and they stop along the handrail across from Gladys. They argue quietly for a bit, a long bit. He does most of the talking.

 

A pair of middle-aged women in short skirts walk through, giggling and chattering. Gladys wonders if they are single and whether they have perhaps flirted with her son in the casino. Her mind wanders back to her husband, long dead, who used to flirt with younger women, quite openly in fact. Many of them didn’t seem to mind, he was such a handsome man and such a fluid dancer. Things are so different now than when she was a girl ... a girl with pretty dimples and bright eyes …

 

Gladys is wakened by a muffled shriek. Her head jerks up; for a moment she’s not sure where she is. She takes in the black sky, the bright lights overhead, the gleaming wooden deck. She wonders what time it is and how long she has been out here. Then she focuses on the couple, oh yes, the strange young couple having a quiet argument. It has become physical, she sees; the girl’s feet aren’t touching the ground. Her little white canvas shoes are being lifted up, up ...

 

Gladys makes a choking sound as she realizes what is happening. The man has deftly picked up his girl and she is now sitting on the handrail. One of her arms is around his thick neck, but in a swift movement she is over and out of sight.

 

The scene is frozen for a moment: he stands with hands braced on the handrail, head leaning over and down. Gladys stares at his back, her mouth an O, waves of terror washing over her, her mind going in four directions at once: Did I really just see that? I need to call the police. I’m on a cruise ship.

 

Please don’t turn around and look at me.

 

She hears footsteps coming from one direction or another, she can’t tell. Her head swivels around and there is her son, hair a bit disheveled, a look of contrition on his face. “Sorry Mom,” he says. “I lost track of time.” His hands are on the wheelchair handles; he unlocks the wheel brake with one foot and turns her around.

 

“Wait ...” The magazine falls from her lap onto the deck. She cranes her neck to see the man, who has already turned away from the rail and is now sauntering away in the opposite direction, one hand in a pocket as if nothing has happened. Nothing at all.

 

“I hope you don’t catch cold,” her son says. “It’s kind of chilly out here.” He steers her through the automatic door.

 

“Did you see that man?” Gladys asks. She tries to twist in her chair to look her son in the eye.

 

He glances down. “What man?”

 

“The man with the girl.”

 

“What? I didn’t see a girl.” He wheels Gladys down the carpeted hall and to their cabin. As he slides the key card into the lock he asks, “What girl? Did someone sit with you for awhile? Keep you company?” He pushes the chair into the room and pulls the lapghan from her legs. “Are you thirsty? Would you like some juice?” He balls the blanket up and tosses it on the foot of her bed.

 

“No!” Gladys’ face flushes with frustration. “I want-”

 

“Oh shit, I forgot your meds. Hang on.” He disappears into the bathroom and returns with her weekly pill organizer and a glass of tepid water from the sink. “There.” He smiles with satisfaction after she has swallowed her pills. “So who sat with you out there tonight?”

 

Gladys stares at her son, hand automatically rearranging the invisible blanket on her lap. She opens her mouth, but the words she’d planned to say are gone. Her head droops: suddenly she is so tired, she simply cannot keep her eyes open.

 

“Alright,” her son whispers. He retrieves the lapghan and spreads it over her legs. Then he removes her shoes and gives her feet a quick massage. “Nap in the chair. We’ll get you in bed later.” He gives her a light kiss on the cheek and gets himself ready for bed. One more day on the high seas and they will be in Scotland.

 

 

 

 

November 11, 2020 17:10

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12 comments

Carrie Andreasen
03:17 Nov 19, 2020

That was very well done. For a moment I thought the old lady was going to kill the abusive husband. This story was perfectly written to keep the reader interested to the last word.

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Elle Boyd
12:20 Nov 19, 2020

Thank you very much, Carrie! I really appreciate your comments. (I also like your idea of Gladys killing the husband, hah!)

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Becky Katsaros
00:04 Nov 24, 2020

I wondered if she was going to kill the abusive husband too! The writing is matter-of-fact and yet it evokes such emotion. I love your writing style. Glad to see you were short-listed. Very well deserved.

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Elle Boyd
15:07 Nov 25, 2020

Thank you very much, Becky! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :-)

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Swastik Ghosh
09:51 Aug 09, 2021

That was wonderful Ellen ...Keep going and bring some violences

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Joy Strouse
17:46 Jul 17, 2021

I hope the girl comes back to haunt him!

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Elle Boyd
11:07 Jul 20, 2021

You never know ... ;-)

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Tilly Dunning
17:56 Jan 22, 2021

my friend recommended this book to be and i am really glad she did!!! this story was GREAT, keep writing :)

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Elle Boyd
21:11 Jan 22, 2021

Thank you very much, Tilly!

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Felicity Anne
15:27 Nov 20, 2020

Hi, Ellen! Congratulations on your shortlist!!

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Elle Boyd
12:41 Nov 23, 2020

Thank you, Felicity! I feel validated now, hah!

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Felicity Anne
14:20 Nov 23, 2020

Haha! :)

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