Contest #237 shortlist ⭐️


Sad Contemporary Fiction

I open the door to the restaurant. The hostess smiles with a set of pearly white teeth asking if I have a reservation and I remember Dan is dead. He had the nicest teeth of anyone I had ever met. “Four years of braces,” he would tease with a rap of his pointer finger against his two front incisors. 

“It’s for seven-o-clock, under Clara,” I say to the hostess with a nod. She looks down at her stand and I am thinking of the last time I saw Dan’s teeth. A morbid book my therapist recommended explained that morticians sew the mouths of the dead shut to prevent them from falling open as muscles relax. It could not have been at the funeral then. I have a framed photo of me and Dan curled up together on our old bed from that last week. He’s smiling with his teeth. Perhaps that was the last time. 

“Leon will take you to your table. Looks like your party is already seated.” I glance at my Apple watch. I am twelve minutes late. Being late was a common occurrence before Dan’s death, though. Everything in my life is separated by that event. There was everything before Dan was dead, and everything that’s come after. I am late today, but I am always running late. I have always blamed it on being creative-minded. My mother once told me it’s because I am rude. It’s possible my mother is right. 

I remind myself to think normal thoughts. Less about my dead husband and my mother. More about what I’ve been up to lately. Painting, again. Working thirty hours a week at my job I don’t hate. Taking Don Draper, our rescue mutt who is kind of a misunderstood asshole, on walks. My rescue. Not our rescue. Because Dan is dead. 


“Piper!” A voice squeals before I even reach the table. I smile. A genuine, dimples-etching-my-cheeks smile as my best friend, Clara, launches up from her seat and wraps me in a hug. It’s been weeks since we got together. We never go this long, but she’s planning a wedding and working far too many hours at a new firm. “Thanks for coming,” she says, a bit too earnestly. I cock my head to the side, pieces of blonde hair falling out of my low, styled bun. I never turn down Clara’s invites. My eyes travel past her to the men at the table I had not yet noticed. 

Her fiancé, Will, stands up to envelop me in a hug of his own. “Hey Pipes.” 

“Hi Willy,” I reply. Over his shoulder, I raise an eyebrow at Clara before my gaze drops to the mystery man watching our reunion with a soft smile. He has chestnut brown hair and deep blue eyes. “I didn’t know we’d have company tonight,” I say, still staring down Clara.

“I know, I know." She drops into her seat with an apologetic frown. “Will insisted.” She narrows a look at her fiancé. They are communicating in that silent, suggestive language only long-term couples can understand. Dan and I once did it too. In the before times.

“Right. Yes. Piper, this is Henry.” Will makes introductions. “Henry, Piper.” The stranger rises from his seat and extends a hand. I am seated directly across from him, next to Clara. 

“Nice to meet you,” I say. 

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” he replies, reaching for his glass of ice water. I know it would be rude to say I’ve never heard a word about him so I turn to Clara with a blink. 

“Will plays pickleball with Henry.”

“Oh.” I try to piece together why this requires him joining us for dinner. “Cool.”

“Do you play?” Henry asks. 

A laugh escapes me. I’m surprised by the sound. I shake my head. “No, I am wildly uncoordinated. I stick to running, if I feel the need to move at all.”

Clara snorts and reaches for her cocktail. Her and Will are eyeing each other over their beverages. A thought occurs to me but the waiter has returned asking the table for our appetizer choice, as well as my drink order. 

My eyes scan the cocktail menu, but nothing sticks out to me. “Margarita on the rocks,” I say. “Salt on the rim. Casamigos, if you have it?” The waiter confirms they do. It’s Dan’s staple cocktail order that became our order, and now, just my order. The waiter disappears after Clara orders a couple greasy-sounding appetizers for the table. 

“Nice pick with the Casamigos,” Henry notes, gesturing to his own drink that resembles a margarita. “I went with the Patron.”

“Also a classic.” We share a smile. 

“How’s work?” Clara asks, swiveling towards me. Her curly brown hair is pulled half back, her cheeks a little pink like they always get when she drinks. 

“It’s not bad.” I shrug, noting the whole table is listening. “My clients are decent. I am still at part time, which works really nicely so I have time for commissions.”

“Commissions?” Henry tilts his head slightly.

“Painting,” I elaborate. The waiter returns to the table and sets my drink down. “I take a few painting commissions every month to make a little extra money. Nice to exercise my creative muscles, too.” 

“Do you paint for yourself? Like non-commissioned pieces?” I take a drink while I consider Henry’s question. It’s a well-balanced margarita. Not too sweet; a mark of a decent cocktail. Dan’s were always my favorite though. 

“I used to, yeah, but I haven’t in awhile.” It’s a safe answer. It’s also a cop-out. Clara’s hand touches my knee. I return the gesture with a pat of my hand atop hers. No, I don't want to explain this to a stranger, but yes I'm good. I’ve learned to let people give me sympathy without crying or running from it. It’s a skill you have to hone, I’ve discovered. 

Will redirects the conversation to news about a friend from their shared sport. The tequila hits fast and I look between Will and Henry. “So is pickleball as sexual as it sounds?”

Henry snorts into the margarita raised to his lips and has a small coughing fit. 

“Really, Pipes?” Clara shakes her head, stifling a laugh. 

“It’s actually even more sexual than it sounds.” Will waggles his eyebrows at me. 

“You two should join us one morning,” Henry adds with a wheeze, nearly recovered from his fit. 

“Only if we can sit on the sidelines to watch and drink,” I counter. Clara extends a hand and I high-five her without a crack of a smile. 

“Deal,” Henry agrees. 

Will winks at me. He and Dan only knew each other for a year, but it had been an instant friendship. They had bonded over baseball and their mutual hatred for the last season of Game of Thrones. Will had been there for me as much as Clara in the after. I was elated to celebrate their marriage next month. No two people were more deserving.

Clara nudges me. I blink repeatedly. I’ve missed something. “Henry asked what you do for work?” 

“Oh, sorry.” I clear my throat. “Graphic design at an agency that specializes in the food and beverage industry.”

“Any campaigns I’d recognize?” 

I think. “The whiskey billboard off the I-5. The one with the dogs?” 

“Oh no kidding.” He laughs, and the smile touches his eyes. “That’s a great ad.” 

“Thanks.” I reach for a crab cake with my fork and do not miss yet another look Clara and Will exchange. The feeling I had, before the waiter asked me my drink order, has returned. Along with a twisting in my gut. I go to take a bite and catch Henry’s gaze on me over his drink. I drop my fork with a clatter. 

“Something wrong with the crab-” 

I whirl on Clara. “Can I talk to you?” Her face turns a shade redder, and I reach for her forearm to pull her to standing. My anger is simmering in my chest, nearly bubbling over by the time we step outside into the brisk, early spring night. “Is this what I think it is?” My words come out barely above a whisper.

Clara looks on the verge of tears. “You would have said no if we asked-” 

“Clara.” I am seething. I have gone through all the stages of grief many times over, but anger is the one I return to again and again. “I can’t date.” 

“No, you won’t date.” Her eyes are watery; her features contorted into frustration. “Henry was really interested in you and Will thought if we all could just hang out-”

I throw an arm toward the door. “He doesn’t even know me-” 

“No, but we do.” She’s openly crying now. “You’re sad, Pipes. You’re lonely. And that’s okay. It is okay to feel that way, but it’s been almost two years.”

Twenty-one months and sixteen days. It’s hard to forget when I measure everything against that single date. “There’s no timeline on grief,” I whisper, echoing my therapist. 

“I know.” Clara reaches for my hands, taking them tight in hers. “I just wanted to try and see if you’d be interested, and I knew if I asked you outright you’d say no. I’m sorry.” She pulls me into a hug. “I’m sorry.”

I nod numbly against her shoulder. When we release, I ask Clara for a minute alone. She returns inside, dejected, but with the promise we'll hang out this weekend just the two of us.

I feel shaky and hot, so I plop down on the curb. Don Draper stares up at me from my phone’s lock screen. The night I changed the photo from Dan to our dog is seared in my memory. It was a few months after the event, during a particularly bad evening. Looking at my phone - at his face - hundreds of times a day had almost eaten me alive. I swipe away from Don Draper and navigate to a rideshare app wishing I had drove since I didn't even get to finish a drink. 

I hear the restaurant door behind me and I turn to find Henry approaching, hands in his jeans pocket, frowning. 

“I’m sorry,” I say with a grimace, quickly turning back to my phone to confirm the wait time for a car. “I am not usually this dramatic.”

Henry sits down on the curb beside me. “I didn’t think that was dramatic.” 

I raise an eyebrow. “I worry about other dates you’ve been on then.”

He chuckles. It’s a rumbling sound that makes his shoulder shake. This close, I can see a tan line from his sunglasses and the way his chestnut hair curls at the ends. He glances at my phone. “Don’t be mad at your friends.”

“I’ll forgive them eventually, don’t worry.” I would. Just not tonight.

“It was my idea,” he adds. 

I snort. “Doubtful. I think Clara’s been hoping to ambush me with a blind date for a year.”


"It might have something to do with my pathetic widow status." I avoid eye contact so I don’t have to see how that statement lands. Lowering my phone, I find the courage to glance at his face. “It’s not you. Just so that’s clear. I just...I can’t date right now.”

He nods; his blue eyes softening. “I understand.” 

“I’m sure you do.” It comes out more sarcastic than intended. There are a few phrases that spur that reaction from me. I understand. Everything happens for a reason. He’s in a better place. 

“I swear I get it.” 

This irritates me more and I cock my head at him. “Do you also have a husband that died of cancer?” 

“Does a fiancé that died in a car accident count?”

I freeze. 

The sarcastic retort on the tip of my tongue fades. I am always the person making a room go quiet with an uncomfortable admission about my dead husband, not the other way around. 

“Sorry,” he adds with a forced exhale of air, “I sort of have to make light of it sometimes or it uh-”

“Kinda feels like you might die?” I surmise.

He responds with a half-shrug, then proceeds to flick a small rock into the road during a temporary pause in vehicles driving by. We sit in silence. The comfortable sort though where there is no need to fill the dead air with words.

I swivel my body towards him at last. “Wait, is that why you wanted to meet me?”

“A part of it,” he admits, still staring into the road. “You don’t meet many widows in their thirties, you know?” 

“Oh I know.” I fight an inappropriate laugh thinking about the one support group I attended where I sat in a circle of wrinkled, graying people. 

“But it was also because Will and Clara made you seem really cool.”

“They must have lied to you then.”

He throws his head back and laughs. “No, they said you had a really dry, sarcastic humor and that’s been spot-on.” I can’t help but smirk. “They also said you love dogs and painting. That you rather stay in on a Friday and read with a homemade cocktail. And that you are one of the kindest people they’ve ever met.”

“And that sold it for you?” I say dryly.

“Did I mention I have a dog?” He pulls out his phone and the screen brightens. A beautiful, open-mouthed golden retriever looks up at the camera. “This is Luna.” 



I show him my lock screen. “Don Draper.” 

“Is he also an alcoholic?”

“He has those tendencies, but I keep the drinks up high.” Henry is smiling, and I am too. I forget, for a brief moment, that Dan is dead. I bite my lip and look back down to my phone. My ride will be here in five minutes. I relock my screen. Don Draper and his uneven ears disappear. 

“You could stay.” 

The invitation catches me by surprise. Henry’s eyebrows are furrowed; his hands clasped together on his knees. If anyone else had asked this of me, I would say no. But there is something about knowing this man has also swam in a grief so deep it likely almost drowned him that makes me pause. There is unspoken intimacy in sharing loss of this magnitude. No need for us to peel back layers to our most vulnerable state. We’re already there.

“Okay.” I answer before I can reconsider. 


I nod. Okay. Henry offers me his hand. Dan is still dead. But I will be okay.

February 13, 2024 00:26

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Eliza Levin
18:56 Feb 23, 2024

I really enjoyed this--the dialogue is so well-done. And I loved the realistic but still hopeful ending.


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Trudy Jas
18:04 Feb 23, 2024

Okay. :-) Congrats on the shortlist. Awesome story.


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Mary Bendickson
17:09 Feb 23, 2024

Great shortlist! Congrats🎉


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Karen Hope
23:27 Feb 19, 2024

I love how this unfolds. Piper's grief and defensiveness feels very authentic, but I was so glad she didn't leave the restaurant. We know the road back will still be long and painful, but she met someone who understands, and that makes all the difference. Really enjoyed this!!


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Paul Simpkin
09:52 Feb 19, 2024

Very good. I like the main character, who is really sympathetic but realistic. The story develops well and you have a strong ending. You have handled a difficult subject with great skill.


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Kailani B.
19:26 Feb 18, 2024

I won't pretend to know what Piper's been through, but it seems very realistic to feel cut off from everything until you can find someone who truly understands what you've experienced. Good job!


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Alexis Araneta
18:23 Feb 17, 2024

This was stunning, Camille. Great job capturing grief and its web of complications. The descriptions were so beautiful. Great job !


Camille Crutcher
01:24 Feb 18, 2024

Thank you!! I so appreciate the feedback! It was interesting to explore how grief over time could sabotage new opportunities until someone that *gets it* comes along.


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15:55 Feb 17, 2024

Love how you've captured the messy emotions and long process of grief in a way that feels so realistic. Hearing Clara’s inner thoughts alongside her interactions with Henry makes you sympathetic to her resistance to be there. The sarcastic humor adds a nice balance to the heavier moments. Overall, it's a compelling read that tugs at the heartstrings while keeping it real. Great job!


Camille Crutcher
01:39 Feb 18, 2024

Thank you so much! I wanted to make her cynicism and anger over a blind date feel very justified, but also leave room for hope and moving forward. Really appreciate your feedback.


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Rachel Brosky
14:01 Mar 06, 2024

I really enjoyed this and could feel both the heaviness and levity displayed by the main characters. Great work!


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Story Time
07:43 Feb 27, 2024

I felt myself so connected to the protagonist through the writing, which is a testament to your craft. Well done.


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Olivia Rozanski
14:04 Feb 26, 2024

Great story! The title reminded me of the fault in our stars. Not sure if that was an inspiration for the story or not. But good job!


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Tracy Phillips
18:34 Feb 25, 2024

Well done- an engaging and insightful story.


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