Contest #164 shortlist ⭐️

Another Woman's Son

Submitted into Contest #164 in response to: Write a story in which someone returns to their hometown.... view prompt

46 comments

Fiction Contemporary Sad

This story contains sensitive content

CW: Child loss


My husband had warned me Josh Carter was back. Still when I came out of the supermarket and saw him, the shock of it stopped me.


I stood frozen with a bag hanging from each hand, people parting around me. He was almost exactly as I remembered him. The same dark hair, the same swinging stride.


I knew without having to think how old he was. Twenty-two next month. Just like Ryan would have been. Their birthdays were three weeks apart and I always used to make a cake for Josh too, because I knew his own mother wouldn’t.


He didn’t see me. He had his phone to his ear and was talking as he walked. As he got closer, I saw the broadness of his shoulders, the stubble shadowing his jaw. He had become a man as I would never see my son become a man.


I heard a snatch of his conversation. “Pity she’s crazy then,” he said, and he laughed.


The sound hit me like he had thrown a handful of rocks, raining down on me. He was doing exactly what I had said he should, when I wrote to him as he sat in prison at the start of a three-year sentence. He was going on with his life. I never imagined it would hurt so much to see.


He passed straight by me, just meters away, and then he veered toward the liquor shop. Walked in through the grilled door as if he wasn’t even sorry at all.


XXX


The evening before, I’d made pasta for dinner. It had a tomato and garlic sauce and not much else because I’d forgotten to get the chicken out to defrost.


“It’s a bit boring,” I’d said to my husband, apologetically.


“This is fine, it’s good,” he said. He shoved mouthfuls down his throat mechanically. He ate on the couch with the TV on, our youngest son sat at the breakfast bar watching something on his phone. We didn’t eat at the table anymore. It felt too big for how small we’d become. 


I stood in the kitchen and picked bits of pasta out of the pot with a fork. Once I never would have allowed this. The parenting books said it was important to have family meals, at the table, to come together and talk. So that was what we did. Back then I believed if I did everything right, I would get the end result every mother desires. Happy and healthy children.


Sean finished his plate and loaded it into the dishwasher before heading back to his bedroom and the x-box. He was seventeen but still hadn’t shown any inclination for parties and cars and drinking. I never worried though as he sat there in his bedroom, headphones on. Safe in there.


Craig came into the kitchen and rinsed his plate. I moved aside for him to load it into the dishwasher.


“Thanks for dinner,” he said. Our marriage carried on in an imitation of what it had been.


He opened the dishwasher and paused there, bent over it. “Josh Carters back in town this weekend,” he said, not looking at me. “One of the girls at work told me, she knows his mother.”


I stood holding my second glass of wine. His words washing over me. I’d heard he was living up North with his grandad since he got out, but I’d always known it was likely he would come back. It was where he’d grown up. His mother still lived here.


“To stay?” I asked.


“Only the weekend, his mother’s birthday, apparently. Maybe prison brought them closer.”


He made a harsh sound. As if he were choking on something. I stood there feeling numb, waiting to see what would come next. I had learned this in the last three years, feelings change. In five minutes or a month or a year, eventually one would give way to another. Not necessarily better, but it would be different.


“Anyway,” Craig said. “I don’t know why she told me. I don’t even want to hear his name.” He slammed the dishwasher closed. My husband’s feelings changed too. He wasn’t always angry, but a lot of the time he was.


I finished my wine and looked out the kitchen window at the road, the streetlights strung along it shining in the dark. I was thinking of the long-ago afternoon when I heard the laughter of my son outside. I looked out to see him barrelling up the street on his bike, another boy beside him, both of them going too fast, both of them laughing. Ryan had never brought a friend home before. I didn’t call out to them to be more careful, though I wanted to.


When they walked in the door Josh was ahead, even though it was Ryan’s house. He cemented himself as the ringleader then, and it was how I always saw him. Walked right in and looked at me and smiled.


“Hi, Ryan’s mum,” he said. Only ten then. He won me over in all ways. I look back at her now, that hopeful woman, and wish she’d known what to keep out. Wish she hadn’t welcomed him in, fed him so often she jokingly referred to him as her third son, the boy who would one day kill her real son.


XXX


I put my shopping bags in the boot of the car and got in behind the wheel. For a minute I only sat there, clenching my hands, trying to slow my breathing. The last time I had seen Josh was in a courtroom. Guilty, he’d said. His eyes meeting mine. My heart hammering in my chest then the same way it did now.


I started the car, jumping as a radio ad blared at me. Swore and shut my eyes and opened them again and there he was. Coming back out of the liquor shop, bag in his hand.


He walked back past my car. I twisted in my seat, unable to stop watching him. He walked to a car parked the row over from mine and got into the driver’s seat. When he pulled out, I pulled out. He headed for the same exit I was going to.


I was going to go home and prepare a meal to take to my neighbour whose husband had just been diagnosed with cancer. They were an older couple and their only child, a daughter, lived far away.


“People should always have more than one child, just for this reason,” she had said to me once when lamenting her daughter’s distance, and then a look of horror crossed her face as she remembered. I just waved my hand at her, its ok, I’m ok. I had learned to be forgiving of the thoughtless things people said. The hurt they didn’t mean to cause.


Josh stopped for an orange light, a cautious driver now it seemed, and I realized I’d carried on past the turn off to my own house, going instead a direction I hadn’t travelled in years and yet knew so well. Toward Josh’s mother’s house.


I delivered him home countless times when he was young, when it was dark or wet or both, because his mother would never pick him up. He’s got two legs, she used to say, he can walk. But he was my son’s best friend, his first friend, the one who drew in other friends until my lonely boy wasn’t lonely anymore. I didn’t mind the extra trips, liked it even. It made me feel like a good mother, keeping another woman’s son safe.


I avoided it now, the same way I avoided the road where Josh had crashed as he drove with Ryan in the passenger seat.


Josh parked outside his mother’s house, slotting in behind a car at the curb. I drove past a little way then stopped. Memories pressing in me. My son in the front seat beside me, Josh in the back. Leaning back in before closing the door. “Thanks, Ryan’s mum,” he’d say sometimes, long after he knew my name. A joke between us.


Cars were up the driveway, over the grass of the front lawn. He was here for her birthday party. I felt something pulsing in me. Sadness or anger or envy.


Josh got out and walked up to the house, the bag in his hand. A man smoking outside on the porch raised a beer bottle toward him in greeting.


I forgive you, I had written to him, as he began his sentence. Something about the nearness of my son’s death to me then leant itself to a great tenderness. The pain swelling inside me felt like an aching benevolence I wanted to bestow on him.


But three years on that bright pain had faded to something dark. Had I forgiven him if the sight of him smiling twisted me with anger? Had I forgiven him because I didn’t push my foot down on the accelerator as he walked ahead of me, bottle in hand?


I sat in the car as the evening darkened and the ice cream melted in the boot, and I remembered picking Ryan up from here once when he was fifteen with the smell of alcohol clinging to him as he staggered out.


It was hard to remember those bad days but they were a part of him. And some of the bad days were good too. Like that night as he slept and I sat beside him awake, worried he would vomit in his sleep, angry he had done this to himself. Now I remembered the feel of my son beside me, the night turning to dawn as I stroked his hair.


XXX


The day was gone now, the streetlights on, shadows cast on the road. Josh’s mothers house looked full of life, the dark shapes of people inside, music spilling from it. So many nights Josh slept at ours rather than here. 


The door opened again and he came back out alone. Hours had passed. I watched his steady walk to his car. My phone was in my hand still, and I considered calling the police. Reporting a suspected drunk driver. Or maybe this was only the beginning of his night.


I pulled out onto the road a minute after he did. Followed the red glow of his tail lights. We drove through the quiet streets of the suburbs, the houses lit up. Inside each one a world. The world I was in, travelling in my car, felt impossibly removed from any of them.

Josh turned onto the highway which led out of town, and I felt my stomach tighten. That night three years ago this was the route he had taken. He had left his mother’s house, he and my son, gotten onto this road.


I went after him, following that road into the past. How many times I had wished I could travel back down the path of time.

I had stopped bothering to keep my distance and sat right behind him. He was sticking to the speed limit. That night he had been going too fast, he had drunk too much. That night he missed the corner he now slowed for.


He pulled off the side of the road and so did I. The streetlight above illuminated him sat there in his car, hands on the wheel. Before him the tree he had once driven into. His door opened and he got out, turned toward my car. I could see his t shirt white in the darkness, his hands held slightly up in readiness.


I got out too then, let him see who had followed him here. He knew me now. I saw the pain in his expression, before he smoothed it over. It was a look I had seen before.


One night he turned up late at our door with a bruise under his eye. I sat on the couch with him while he held an ice pack to his face and tried to coax out of him what happened.


“Ryan said you and your stepdad argue a lot,” I said, to give him an opening. For a minute he wavered, then he blinked, set his jaw. The older he got the deeper he buried the bright boy who once bounced into my house.


“It’s from a fight I had at school,” he said, and nothing more. He slept in the spare bed in Ryan’s room that night, safe in our house.


Now he faced me here on the road, and I wanted to say something to be worthy of all inside me.


“Josh,” was all that came out.


He looked at me, hands down by his sides now. “You followed me?”


I looked around, this last place my son saw. The white bulb of a streetlamp hanging below the moon. The trees silvery in the light of it. His eyes had closed to it, out here on this quiet road.


“Why did you come here?” I asked him.


“I don’t know,” he said. He looked around like I had. “I just felt like I had to. Trying to understand it, what happened.”


“You were drunk, that’s what happened.”


He nodded, looked back at me. “Yeah,” he said.


In court his lawyer had read out a letter to us on his behalf. I bet he didn’t even write it himself, my husband said after. But it was so stilted I never doubted he really had. It read like he’d remembered every sentence he’d ever seen on a condolence card and strung them together. Yet in the clichés of it I felt a sincerity, something so immense he had no words of his own for it.


“I followed you here from the liquor shop,” I said. I knew it sounded like I was accusing him of something. I was.


“It was for my mum,” he said. “It’s her birthday.”


“You get on with her now?” I asked. I didn’t know why I poked at that wound. She had been so careless with her son and yet never lost him.


“Not really. Few hours there was long enough.”


He sucked in a breath and I saw the bracing in him. Preparing himself to say something. I put a hand up to stop him.


“Don’t say sorry,” I said. “You don’t have to keep saying it.”


He looked at me and I saw again the lost boy on my doorstep in the night, tears in his eyes. The boy I should have shut the door to and never could have.


I knew him and I knew my son. They had both been drinking that night, they had both decided to go out. They debated who should drive. It could have been my own son home safe and another woman’s son dead and I could wish it was so but it never would be.


He was crumpling before me, dropping his head, pressing a hand over his eyes. I stepped forward and put my arms up and around him. Holding him against me, feeling for a moment the nearness of my son again.


Feelings change. I would forgive him a hundred times more, and I would never forgive him. 

September 23, 2022 21:41

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

46 comments

Laurel Hanson
15:12 Dec 14, 2022

This is superb. It draws you in and keeps you engaged, even though you have a good idea what has happened, you care enough about the characters to find out how they resolve it. Such a great conclusion.

Reply

Kelsey H
00:50 Dec 15, 2022

Thanks so much for your comment, I'm glad you enjoyed the story!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Delbert Griffith
10:32 Nov 22, 2022

This is a wonderfully crafted psychological portrait of a woman who is still living her own personal hell. The story was so delicate and fragile, yet you found a way to imbue it with some underlying steel. My latest story was written in much the same vein as yours with respect to two characters dominating the story, but your is about seven billion times better than mine. I'm gonna read this wonderful story of yours a few times and pick it apart for my own edification. Kudos for being shortlisted. Such a deserving story!

Reply

Kelsey H
06:21 Nov 23, 2022

Thanks so much for your comment, Delbert. I always find it interesting to write about the emotions people go through. I will read your story when I have a minute, I enjoy character focused pieces.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
16:19 Oct 05, 2022

Awesome story Kelsey, it so easily could have gone in a dark direction but you showed us a strong woman. Excellent job.

Reply

Kelsey H
06:02 Oct 06, 2022

Thanks for your comment, Maureen.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Story Time
16:18 Oct 05, 2022

Kelsey, I really admire you for taking on such an immense theme and handling it with such care. It really placed me within the emotion without manipulating me, which is so hard to do when a story can rest on just being sad or upsetting. Instead, there was a lot of insight, which I appreciate. Good job.

Reply

Kelsey H
06:05 Oct 06, 2022

Thanks so much Kevin, I was a bit hesitant on writing about such a sensitive topic so really glad to get your thoughts on how it was handled.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Sophia Gavasheli
21:34 Oct 03, 2022

Woah, Kelsey, this story really go me thinking about loss, grief, and forgiveness. I've never experienced the loss of a dear family member, but the grief and ache in this story were so palpable; for a second, I felt a tiny fraction of what it must feel like to lose someone you love. I've always thought of forgiveness as kind of a one-time, tidy thing, but this story showed me otherwise. The woman's vacillating feelings(anger, regret, blame, grief, pain, shock) about Josh and her son's death really highlight how complex forgiveness and heal...

Reply

Kelsey H
08:37 Oct 04, 2022

Thanks for comment Sophia. This story actually was inspired by another of my stories where Josh was a character, and he refers to the mother of the boy killed having said she forgives him. It always slightly stuck in my head because I was like ... would she really forgive him though? So I always wanted to come back to the subject from her point of view.

Reply

Sophia Gavasheli
11:16 Oct 04, 2022

Ooh, cool!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Philip Ebuluofor
17:49 Oct 02, 2022

Fine work. Congrats.

Reply

Kelsey H
08:27 Oct 04, 2022

Thanks Philip!

Reply

Philip Ebuluofor
17:56 Oct 12, 2022

My pleasure.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Riel Rosehill
09:20 Oct 02, 2022

First things first, congrats! And secondly, I'm so sorry to be this late! As soon as I started reading this story, I though, OMG, is this Josh form "Come Back"?! Love when they get more to their story! And you know I already really liked him. Happy to see a bit more of his backstory and what his life is like after his return. It was a really emotional read, and so very deserving of the shortlist! Well done!

Reply

Kelsey H
09:26 Oct 02, 2022

Thanks Riel! And yes its the same Josh, I have always really wanted to write more of his story. Still want to write something from his pov at some point.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Michele Duess
16:51 Sep 30, 2022

That's a great last line. "I would forgive him and I would never..." What a depiction of a woman struggling with all the thoughts and emotions in her heart. Congrats.

Reply

Kelsey H
02:21 Oct 01, 2022

Thanks for your comment!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Jennifer Cameron
12:11 Sep 30, 2022

This is incredible! You've depicted these characters so well and the last line was very powerful, really tied the whole story together.

Reply

Kelsey H
02:21 Oct 01, 2022

Thanks for your comment!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Keith Rebello
16:41 Sep 29, 2022

A quiet haunting depiction of real grief and it's forms. I loved how raw your descriptions of pain are. They paint a vivid and nuanced picture that pokes at the reality of loss that we've all felt in some way in our own lives. The last line especially resonated with me, "Feelings change. I would forgive him a hundred times more, and I would never forgive him." It really captures the oscillations between acceptance, and anger that she was struggling with.

Reply

Kelsey H
06:34 Sep 30, 2022

Thanks so much Keith, really appreciate getting your thoughts on the story.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Aeris Walker
12:44 Sep 27, 2022

Such a powerful story, Kelsey! The overall mood of this story felt “gray” and slow, (if that makes any sense at all). It perfectly captured the kind of underlying depression I know a mother must perpetually remain in after losing a child. You did a great job of sharing concise background information that gives us just enough to relate to and appreciate every character, even Ryan. These were some of my favorite lines/paragraphs: “We didn’t eat at the table anymore. It felt too big for how small we’d become.” I appreciated how simple this s...

Reply

Kelsey H
06:09 Sep 28, 2022

Thanks so much for your comment, Aeris. I'm glad you liked that line about if she had forgiven him or not, I did feel like it was the main theme of the story.

Reply

Aeris Walker
18:32 Sep 30, 2022

Congrats, Kelsey! I had a good feeling that this story was going places 😉😉

Reply

Kelsey H
19:42 Sep 30, 2022

Thank you, and congrats to you too!!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Amanda Lieser
03:06 Sep 25, 2022

Hi Kelsey! This story was soul crushingly beautiful. My heart was left bleeding for everyone involved. The parents because of the loss of their child, the brother whose left in a ghost’s shadow, Josh because he can’t take back that night. I loved this piece so much! My favorite line was: He wasn’t always angry, but a lot of the time he was.

Reply

Kelsey H
06:20 Sep 25, 2022

Thanks so much, Amanda, I'm glad to hear you liked this.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Michał Przywara
00:32 Sep 25, 2022

A great story! The subject matter is inherently sad, a difficult thing to struggle with. You drag the discomfort out, with the constant suggestions that Josh hasn't actually changed, that he's gone back to his old ways. This uncertainty is what gives us such a pay off at the end. So it's about forgiveness and healing. You need forgiveness to move on and heal, but seeing the person you forgave behave so disrespectfully, where they move on with their life and go back to their destructive habits, sets the healing back. It stirs up all the old...

Reply

Kelsey H
07:24 Sep 25, 2022

Thanks Michal, love hearing your thoughts. That is so true about forgiving someone, I think entwined with being able to forgive may be an expectation/hope that they would have learnt and changed from what they did. I wanted to write the mother as having conflicted feelings due to her history with Josh and having him felt like a part of her family, and its not something she can just switch off from. Also I think maybe it was easier to forgive when she knows he's in prison, presumably having a bad time, and when she sees him out appearing happ...

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:49 Sep 30, 2022

Congratulations on the shortlist!

Reply

Kelsey H
02:28 Oct 01, 2022

Thank you!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Zack Powell
20:50 Sep 24, 2022

I'm glad I sat this week out, because every single story I've read for this contest has been SO competitive. What a firecracker of a tale this was. Very easily my favorite from you, Kelsey. The level of emotion and grief throughout, the portrait of the damaged family, the technicality of the writing, everything was amazing here. Be proud of yourself for this one. Love how you weaved the events of such a complex story into one single evening. The backstory was well-placed, thoughtful, and informed everything that was happening in "real-time....

Reply

Kelsey H
05:54 Sep 25, 2022

Thanks so much for your comments, Zack, I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed this. As you know I love writing (and reading) the heavy emotional stuff but this one I did wonder if it would be just too maudlin for anyone to actually want to read. But as the parent of two sons, one who is nearly driving age, this is all my worst fears in story form, so it was fairly cathartic to write. (and yeah I have realized this is a bad week to submit as all the other entries I have seen are really strong!). I'm so glad you liked the climax scene, funnily eno...

Reply

Zack Powell
15:37 Sep 30, 2022

Not at all surprised to see your name pop up today, Kelsey. This story was perfect to me. Beyond happy to see it get its fair recognition. Congrats!

Reply

Kelsey H
19:44 Sep 30, 2022

Thanks Zack, really happy to get on the list as there were so many great stories!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Amy Ingram
19:49 Sep 24, 2022

Wow you've done it again! You really captured the complexity of emotions. I kind of could see where it was going (well done) but it still brought tears to my eyes.

Reply

Kelsey H
08:20 Sep 25, 2022

Thanks for the comment, Amy!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Jay McKenzie
06:09 Sep 24, 2022

Wow, Kelsey. This is a raw portrait of grief. For me, the saddest part was their day to day life as a fractured family in the wake of Josh's death. Individual lives sort of frozen. Super sad. Well done.

Reply

Kelsey H
08:24 Sep 25, 2022

Thanks for the comment, Jay. I wanted to try and show them having to carry on with life while also having had their lives changed in an irreparable way.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Delbert Griffith
10:32 Nov 22, 2022

This is a wonderfully crafted psychological portrait of a woman who is still living her own personal hell. The story was so delicate and fragile, yet you found a way to imbue it with some underlying steel. My latest story was written in much the same vein as yours with respect to two characters dominating the story, but your is about seven billion times better than mine. I'm gonna read this wonderful story of yours a few times and pick it apart for my own edification. Kudos for being shortlisted. Such a deserving story!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Tommy Goround
18:23 Nov 16, 2022

Clapping

Reply

Show 0 replies
09:24 Nov 01, 2022

Hi, I would like to use your stories in podcast, is it possible? Or do you have some terms of use? I didn't find any. Thanks for your response.

Reply

Kelsey H
03:16 Nov 02, 2022

Hi, what is your podcast please can you give some more info?

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Zelda C. Thorne
10:27 Oct 13, 2022

Wow, this is tender and raw. I really felt her conflicted feelings of forgiveness. The longing, the bitterness. The fact that her sons death has sucked the life out of her relationship with her husband was so sad. The end made me cry. Beautifully written.

Reply

Kelsey H
05:11 Oct 14, 2022

Thank so much for reading and commenting, really appreciate it.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply