Contest #192 winner 🏆

155 comments

Drama Contemporary Fiction

I am swimming, thrusting my arms through golden water—golden like oil. The water grows thick and syrupy, then it pulls me under. I’m in a bottle, glass sloping above me. Someone tilts and pours, and I slide onto a pan, palms burning from the heat. I slip and roll in the slick spill. Steam rises off my wet hair. Then I am smothered under the sticky weight of raw meat.


“Mommy, can I sleep with you?”

The voice startles me, a breathy whisper in the dark. Then it comes again.

“Please? I had a bad dream.” Jack’s lisped dweem melts my heart, and I can’t say no.

So, into our bed he comes, nestling himself in between me and his snoring father—a hibernating bear on a weeknight in July. Jack curls an arm around my shoulder and buries his chubby face into my neck. I wonder what haunted his sleep—if he too was trapped in a frying pan, being smothered by chicken breasts.

A few minutes later, the door cracks open, and a girl with a halo of curls shuffles in—Maggie. She throws herself onto the bed and wiggles next to me, warm cheek against mine. Soon both of their breathing slows as mine begins to quicken; I’m too hot, suddenly suffocating under their small limbs.

Then a cry in the night cuts through me like electricity; the baby monitor lights up—an arc of color that changes from green to red. The baby is wide awake, though all around me, my family sleeps unaffected. My feet hit the floor before my brain agrees to get moving, and then I’m padding through the hallway and into Ethan’s nursery. It smells sweet, like baby skin and clean laundry and lavender lotion. But the smell has begun to disturb more than soothe me; the dim room, the sweet scent, his throaty whines, it’s an experience I’ve come to associate only with exhaustion.

After a fresh diaper, a belly full of milk, and a few minutes in the rocking chair, he falls back to sleep. I stumble into the kitchen, pour a glass of water, and drink like a woman rescued from the desert. The clock on the microwave glows green: 3:15 am. I stand there staring at the numbers as if waiting for them to apologize that I’m even awake to see them. My shirt feels damp, and limp strands of hair stick to my forehead.

Why is it so hot?

The house is perfectly quiet now; everyone is asleep. Not even the hum of air through the vents disturbs the peace.

The air.

A glance at the thermostat reveals the house is a balmy 83 degrees, and no matter what I push and flick, nothing happens. The house remains silent. And hot. No, no, no. This is not the time for the air conditioner to give out! Not in the dead of summer. Can’t it push on at least until morning?

 I give up trying to resuscitate it and collapse onto the sofa. It embraces me with its worn-out cushions and shabby throw pillows stained with grape juice. The ceiling fan spins in lazy circles above me, and I let my eyes follow its orbit. Visions of homes with white couches and walls free from fingerprints dance across my mind. Women in crisp blouses and bouncy hair, off to do something important—to be someone important. I want to hate them and worship them all at once, despise them but also discover their secrets.

My shirt is itchy, the fabric coarse and irritating. It feels too tight around my neck like it’s slowly inching higher and higher, determined to choke me. I strip it off and toss it over the lamp, then throw open a window before falling back onto the couch.

Crickets chirp outside, and it sounds like they all must be perched on the sill, faces pressed to the screen, competing over who can chirp the loudest. At some point, the sounds morph into the singing of birds, distant and light, sweet and melodic. Then one bellows—an awful, belching noise like a chorus of angry bullfrogs. Then they start speaking to me in their gravelly croaks, and it sounds something like Mommy. Mommy. Mommy.

“Mommy, how come your clothes is gone?”

I force an eye open. It’s morning, and my oldest children are hovering over me—Maggie with frizzy curls standing on end and Jack wearing a Spiderman Halloween costume, his face concealed under the twisted polyester mask. One’s holding a jar of strawberry jam, the other a spoon.

I peel myself off the couch, find my shirt, and plant a kiss on each child’s sweaty head—then I confiscate the jam. Somewhere in the house, I hear the shower running and my husband’s off-key singing—always the morning person.

I need coffee.

The kids chatter on and on while I start the coffee, something about how I look “sorta deadish” when I sleep. Dark grounds tumble into the basket, some spilling all over the countertop. I wait, eyes half closed, as the appliance spits and sputters its trickle of hot water over the grounds and into the pot. It’s barely half full when I hear the baby, his impatient cries echoing through the house. In the reflection of the pot’s glass dome, a frazzled woman looks back at me—a woman not ready for another day.

***

I am swimming, pushing my arms through piles of damp towels, flannel blankets, and grass-stained jeans. Zippers snag and tangle in my hair. The air is moist and stuffy and smells like spoiled milk. I am shrinking, growing smaller and smaller until I disappear into the folds of a fitted sheet. The fabric settles around me like a parachute and I can’t discern which way is up, which way is out.


 “I have to pee.”

The voice jolts me from tortured sleep. A face just inches from mine, quiet but urgent. In the darkness, I see little eyebrows shooting up toward the ceiling and a wide grin—unnaturally alert for the hour. Maggie cups my cheeks and leans in closer, stale kid breath in my face.

“I have to pee now.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

We race to the bathroom together, tripping over toys I don’t remember buying. The too-bright light hurts my eyes, and I feel hungover—drunk on exhaustion. Her short legs dangle over the rim of the porcelain bowl, then there’s a quiet trickling. She’s pleased with herself, but I’m too tired to dole out praise.

“Alright, back to bed with you.”

“Can you come tuck me in?”

“I’ve already tucked you in.”

“Just one more time? I want cuddles.”

We tip-toe back to the room she shares with Jack, and I crawl into the bottom bunk with her, pushing aside piles of beloved stuffed animals. The room is comfortably cool now, thanks to the repairman and our vacation fund which never even had a chance. I guess now we know we can always shut off the air, throw beach towels on the living room floor, and pretend we’re in the Bahamas.

I pull Maggie’s blanket to her chin and sing a song, stroking her hair until her eyes flutter closed.

“Mama?”

“Yes, baby?”

“I miss you.”

I wrap her in one more hug before slipping from the room.

I miss me, too.

***

I am swimming, dragging my arms through scattered heaps of paperwork: receipts, appointment reminders, wedding and baby shower invitations, bills I thought I already paid, and kids’ artwork that all look the same but are things I can’t bring myself to throw away. Somewhere a phone rings, and I can’t get to it. Then the papers turn into Amazon packages, and my feet become wrapped in tape and trapped within the cardboard flaps. The doorbell rings and the dog barks; it’s my mother at the door, but she’s holding a clipboard and is trying to sell me solar panels.


“Mommy, I don’t feel good.”

Light from the hallway silhouettes Jack’s face as he stands beside my bed, peering down at me. He whimpers and coughs and the need for urgency does not register in my foggy mind. I don’t move fast enough before the contents of last night’s dinner find their way out of my son’s stomach and all over my sheets. Fully awake now, I whisk him into the bathroom and lead him to the toilet bowl. I rub circles on his small back as he heaves, and I wish with everything in me I could make it go away—take the sickness from him. We sit there together until he has nothing left. 

When I come back to bed, the sheets have already been stripped and replaced with ones that don’t quite fit but are at least clean. The washing machine hums from the other side of the house, and I smell bleach. I find my husband in the nursery, rocking Ethan back to sleep, an empty milk bottle on the dresser. When I take a step inside the room, he holds a finger to his lips and waves me away. I got this, he says.

And I don’t argue.

***

I am swimming in an endless, black ocean. My hands and feet appear like shadows in the dark, inky water. Something brushes my leg, then grips me with a slick, barbed tentacle; it pulls me down, down where no light touches, where no one hears my screams.


The dog is licking my feet. I jerk them back under the covers and gasp, sitting up. The house is silent, the sky outside the window is purple and blue and tinged with gold—like a bruise just beginning to turn yellow. Pepper watches me stretch, her furry head tilted to the side, and I wonder if she knows what I’m thinking. I grab my running shoes, and she follows me from the room, and together we slip out of the house.

It’s already humid, the air pregnant with moisture. Wet grass clings to my shoes and to Pepper’s paws. Dampness seeps through the mesh of my sneakers and it’s cooling, invigorating. The sky is lavender behind me and golden in front of me where the sun is beginning to peek above the trees. I lift my face toward it like a flower seeking its energy, absorbing whatever strength it will lend.

I am slower than I used to be, more aware of my uneven breathing and of a heaviness that seems to have settled in my limbs, but I push on, down a familiar path I haven’t tread in so long. Pepper trots along beside me, as patient as ever. With every slap of my shoes against the ground, I am reminded of the hope—no, convinced of the reality—that my weariness won’t last forever.

All babies sleep eventually; my children won’t always need my assistance with simple functions. Someday, they’ll grow tall and strong and will learn to do things for themselves. But when that someday comes, they might be too big to hold, might stop begging for cuddles—won’t ask to share my bed. I’ll wish, then, that I could turn back the clock—even turn it back to the middle of a sleepless night.

***

I am swimming, hands gliding through crystal clear water. There’s a village under the sea, where a man sits on his porch, painting at a floating easel: a portrait of a parakeet in a top hat. At a café next door, a woman pours tea from a porcelain kettle, and the amber liquid bleeds into the sea and disappears. The diners smile and sip from tea-less cups. Children push through the water in a slow game of tag. One breaks away from the group and swims up to me, her hair floating all around her like a crown. She hands me a spoon and a jar of strawberry jam.


April 08, 2023 02:40

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155 comments

Wally Schmidt
14:56 Apr 13, 2023

This story balances the joys and despair of raising young children so poetically; it is a tribute to all the moms of young children out there. It is beautifully written and I liked how you gave credit to the dad; they are often the forgotten heros in stories about motherhood. Using the dream sequences was such a great technique because when you are suffering from exhaustion, it can be difficult to distinquish when you are sleeping and when you aren't (Hint: seems like you never are). I remember when I was a young nursing mom and I told my...

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Aeris Walker
23:14 Apr 14, 2023

Hi Wally! Thank you sharing a bit about your own motherhood. I love how we can all relate to some of the same aspects of those early years. And I’m glad you picked up on that detail about the dad in the story. I think perspectives on parenting have shifted so much in recent generations that fathers now fully anticipate and expect to share in the duties of caring for their babies. Sometimes they need a little direction, but there’s always something they can do to help 😉 Enjoyed hearing from you! Thanks again.

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Wally Schmidt
23:40 Apr 14, 2023

Let me add my congratulations for the WIN this week!!! Yesterday when I went to the park with my husband, there were actually more dads there with their babies than moms. So nice to see. And not even on their cellphones but actually paying attention to their kids. I never take for granted my husband and what a great Dad he turned out to be. Counting my blessings for that oh-so-important thing because I know not all moms have that kind of partnership. Sounds like you do, and I'm so glad.

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Kelsey H
07:57 Apr 13, 2023

I really love how the dreams are inserted between scenes to create this sense of one reality merging into another, as if she is never really fully awake, you really evoke that sense of how it is to be sleep deprived and consumed by the needs of small children - and also how endless it feels but how short it really is. Such a beautiful story, I really enjoyed this one. I liked this line - Women in crisp blouses and bouncy hair, off to do something important—to be someone important. I want to hate them and worship them all at once, despise t...

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Aeris Walker
23:02 Apr 14, 2023

Thank you Kelsey! You always hear people talk about how the years fly by and they really do. And while the little years can be so exhausting, there really is some magic in them too. I hoped to kind of reflect that “whimsy” in the final dream. Thanks for reading! Good to see another story from you too ☺️

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Zack Powell
02:31 Apr 19, 2023

If I'd read this story before I took a vacation, I would've put money on it being in the winners' circle. And wouldn't you know it - she shoots, she scores! Very proud of you. Confession: I'm usually allergic to dream sequences in fiction, because I think they're often a cheap/overused tool for the author to say "Look how clever I can be with symbolism and foreshadowing," and then those sequences go on and on and on. The beauty of doing it the way you've done it is 1) Those dream sequences are short and non-meandering, and 2) They're direct...

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Aeris Walker
12:56 Apr 19, 2023

Zack, Your comment was the perfect “treat” to enjoy with my morning coffee. Thanks for taking the time to come read and share your valued feedback after a vacation! (Vacations can often be more exhausting than rejuvenating) 1. I really appreciate what you said about the dream structure. I expressed the same concerns in a comment to Riel, that I was worried they’d come across as “cheap,” vs. intentional and significant to the story. 2. You always pick up on the subtleties I hope will come through in my writing. It’s like hiding Easter eggs...

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J.C. Lovero
12:54 Apr 16, 2023

Popped in to say CONGRATULATIONS! Well-deserved, friend.

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Aeris Walker
17:30 Apr 16, 2023

Aw, thank you, J.C.!! 😊

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Suma Jayachandar
06:54 Apr 13, 2023

Aeris, This weird (but very real) feeling of being sandwiched between your desires and caring for the little humans you love is so well crafted in this piece- it's breathtaking in its dreaminess, raw emotions, and acceptance of it all after gaining perspective of the reality from a distance. I think evolution did a number on us, mothers, by giving us a consciousness to strive for our ambitions and at the same time tagging us with a primal instinct that bonds us with our little ones. It can be quite disconcerting if one doesn't step out of t...

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Aeris Walker
03:59 Apr 14, 2023

Suma, Thank you very much ☺️ It truly is fascinating how that “primal bond” with our children is so strong, while our personal ambitions don’t really go away…maybe take a back seat for a bit…and there’s always this striving for balance in it all. But you said it perfectly: “it can be quite disconcerting if one doesn't step out of the jam and get a perspective on it.” Thanks for reading!! I always appreciate it 😉

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Suma Jayachandar
15:43 Apr 14, 2023

Aeris!! Congratulations on a very well deserved win! A third one, no less. A permanent place in Reedsy hall of fame. 👏👏👏

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Rebecca Miles
17:22 Apr 12, 2023

Being a mum to young kids is just such a sensory overload; it often feels that you have more than five senses and each of them are pumping on overload and overtime as you deal with everything that comes, and keeps coming. And, for me, it's like you've coated this whole story, or dunked it more, in that pot of strawberry jam and it just glistens, and throbs and hums and gets all the senses pulsating. Every paragraph of the homelife, every paragraph of the dream sequences, drips with the heady, sticky, wonderful, yet sickly mess of raising kid...

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Aeris Walker
19:30 Apr 13, 2023

You hit the nail on the head with everything in your comment. Especially this: "it often feels that you have more than five senses and each of them are pumping on overload and overtime as you deal with everything that comes, and keeps coming." In my house when things get a little chaotic--everyone whining/crying/talking/singing/wailing at the same time--my grumpy old dog will just find a corner and start *howling.* Like, wolf-at-the-full-moon howling. So if I ever just disappear, it's because I'm in a padded room somewhere with jumbo crayons...

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Rebecca Miles
15:35 Apr 14, 2023

I think I might be the first (German time, it's early evening) to congratulate you on a mightily deserved win. Three trophies Aeris; there are perhaps no more than a handful of writers on the platform that have this number. All credit to your skill. Bask in the strawberry syrupy glow!

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Aeris Walker
18:03 Apr 15, 2023

When the results posted, I was just coming to from being under for dental surgery (talk about feeling like you’re swimming in oil) and when I read your comment, it just added to that heady, syrupy feeling! I was definitely surprised and not expecting to win. 😬 thank you so much for your kind words.

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Rebecca Miles
10:05 Apr 16, 2023

That must have been very surreal! I've had a few surgeries and coming out is just like surfacing from two many glasses of wine ( swimming through syrupy jam would be the perfect analogy). Perhaps you wrote this prophetically :-)

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Riel Rosehill
10:18 Apr 12, 2023

I love the title so much! And how it ends - it's tied up so nicely. The surrealist opening dream sequence reminded me of a winning Globe Soup story I've read recently, "Crawler" - also really enjoyed the weird dreams coming back (my favourite was the narrator's mother trying to sell solar panels to her and the strawberry jam at the end) The narrator's exhaustion was tangible - I really felt for her, losing herself in the never ending chores - I have pets, not children, but can very much relate to how the chores and responsibility you take ...

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Aeris Walker
01:30 Apr 13, 2023

Riel, Your comments always make my day! I don’t mean to be on your “tearjerker” list lol, but I’m so flattered to know the writing emotionally impacts you. I remember seeing you guys talk about that story in the GS study group, which I so wish I had time for as I love learning about the writing craft, but anyway. Yeah, I know dreams can be overdone, but I hoped it didn’t feel too “cheap” here. Hey, if the way you care for and sacrifice for your animals is any indicator of your maternal instincts, I think you’d make a phenomenal mother ;) T...

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Riel Rosehill
15:59 Apr 14, 2023

I hope winning the contest confirmed you did an excellent job with those dreams! Congrats, you 100% deserved that trophy!

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Aeris Walker
23:06 Apr 14, 2023

☺️☺️☺️ THANK YOU!!

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12:23 Apr 11, 2023

Aeris, this was so beautifully crafted. I love the bleed of the dreams into the reality, and the reality into dreams. The way you encompassed the days and nights of the mother framed by meeting the needs of her family was beautiful, and somewhat melancholy. Your narrator is someone I truly admire. Thank you for this story!

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Aeris Walker
00:58 Apr 13, 2023

Ah! Thank you for your comment: “the bleed of the dreams into the reality, and the reality into dreams.” So well said. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate it ☺️

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Michał Przywara
02:39 Apr 11, 2023

An enjoyable look at parenting young children. You get the sense of overbearing fatigue across very well, and that ties in nicely with the dreams. Reality kind of grows soft when you're tired :) The last passage is particularly interesting. Our protagonist knows that for all the downsides to having kids this age, there are also huge upsides that she knows will be fond future memories. It helps her put things into context, and probably find patience when patience runs thin. So then I wonder - are the dreams an expression of feeling trapped ...

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Aeris Walker
01:22 Apr 13, 2023

Thanks, Michal!! I’m always happy to hear your take. I know everyone dreams so differently, but I definitely think the events and anxieties of our waking hours seep into our unconscious and are reflected in dreams. Then when you’re under-slept, the “weirdness” factor just gets cranked up. So interesting. I could research dreams/sleep for hours. Sorry about your snow. In April! So unfair 🥴

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Michał Przywara
20:49 Apr 14, 2023

Woo! Congrats! A well deserved win :)

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Viga Boland
14:04 Apr 10, 2023

Thanks for reminding me so vividly of what my life was like over 40 years ago: total exhaustion day after day. Reading your superb capture of this beautiful/horrible time in most mother’s lives brought all of that back to me. When I think about it, it reminds me of what one mother told me about giving birth: “While you’re screaming through contractions, you think ‘never again’, but the minute you hold your newborn, you forget all about the pain.”

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Aeris Walker
19:34 Apr 11, 2023

It’s so true—strange how these little creatures who sometimes make us want to pull our hair out one minute completely melt our hearts the next. Thank you so much for reading, I really appreciate it!

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Viga Boland
22:24 Apr 11, 2023

My pleasure to read something so beautifully written and so relatable. ✌️

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Delbert Griffith
08:08 Apr 10, 2023

Every bit of this rings true; it brings back memories of when my boys were small. This tale was written with so much heart and grit and real substance that I can't even imagine a better depiction of raising small children. The dream sequences are very familiar: everyday occurrences and objects taking on supernatural roles. The day-to-day happenings from a mother's perspective was, oddly enough, both heavy and delightful. Every exhausted moment was tinged with love and care. I don't know how to write like that, but I'm gonna use this tale t...

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Aeris Walker
16:55 Apr 11, 2023

Thank you so much, Delbert! “Every exhausted moment was tinged with love and care.” That’s the perfect takeaway. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment—means a lot 😊

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Delbert Griffith
09:10 Apr 16, 2023

Major congrats on the win, Aeris. If any tale deserves the win, it's this one. The writing was transcendental, the structure was superb. Your gift is undeniable, my friend.

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16:02 Apr 09, 2023

Hello Aeris, how well you’ve captured the drudgery and demands of raising a young family! Some beautiful details- the smell of the nursery, the coffee pot, the morning sky- anchored me right in the story. It’s a great portrait of motherhood and all its layers.

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Aeris Walker
12:01 Apr 10, 2023

Thank you, Cecilia! Much appreciated ☺️

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Michelle Oliver
05:14 Apr 09, 2023

I was drawn into this story, such a beautiful retelling of motherhood. My own are long past this stage, they are well and truly into that “Someday, they’ll grow tall and strong and will learn to do things for themselves,” stage and definitely too big to hold. Your storytelling just brought all those sleepless nights, weird dreams, stress, resentment and overwhelming love right back as if I was living it again. Loved all your imagery in this piece from the weird dream sequences to the crickets pressing their faces against the screen. Thanks...

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Aeris Walker
00:05 Apr 11, 2023

Hi, Michelle! Thank you so much for reading! I know everyone’s experience raising children is so different, but I wanted to capture some of the themes most of us could probably relate to. I’m glad to hear the writing brought up fond memories for you :) I tend to have wild dreams in times of stress and sleep deprivation—so motherhood has certainly produced some strange ones over the years… I had a lot of fun incorporating that into this story. Thanks again. I really appreciate your feedback ☺️

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Lily Finch
04:37 Apr 08, 2023

Aeris "Strawberry Jam Under the Sea" is such a magnificent story. I enjoyed your diction and milieu to pull your reader into the scenes. Your balance of presentation and representation in this story is equally impressive as the reader is yanked into the action repeatedly. As you have so aptly captured, the idea of a mother realizing that kids get older and become independent is a fine mixture of emotions. The mother character displays the torment of a mother of small children with a baby still in a crib. Always sweating with stained clothin...

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Aeris Walker
17:07 Apr 08, 2023

I really appreciate your feedback, Lily! I'm glad you felt like there was a balance between showing/telling. (Sometimes it's easy in first person to overdo it with stiff action phrases: 'I do this, then I do that' kind of sentences.) Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts :)

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Lily Finch
19:06 Apr 08, 2023

Yeah, I tend to use do this, then too much. You are welcome, LF6.

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20:58 Sep 06, 2023

https://exampledomain.com/?u=XXXXX&o=YYYYY please come in I beg you

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Lila U
12:29 Aug 08, 2023

Beautifully, poetically written.

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Kaelyn Klaus
23:59 Aug 04, 2023

I loved it!

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Luca King Greek
14:40 Aug 04, 2023

Every sentence rang true!

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T Mithawala
14:36 Jul 31, 2023

This stirred up so many emotions in me. I’m a relatively new parent (I have an almost one year old) and so much is resonating with me. The baby monitor display changing from green to red. Just that image conjures up a whirlpool of thoughts. The idea of being upright before my brain agreeing to it. That. That really is the truth. The number of times I’ve stood up too fast and wobbled, nearly hitting my head on the wardrobe and steadying myself at the last second. My little one isn’t even at the walking stage yet, but I remember my brother w...

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Aeris Walker
18:07 Jul 31, 2023

Hi, T! Thanks for taking the time out of your busy day to read and leave such an awesome comment. I really appreciate it. I'm so pleased to hear that so much of this resonated with you, and you definitely picked up on the repeating themes I'd worked into this with the water/swimming. And you pulled out many of my favorite lines too! Best of luck to you as you get through this season of life with a little one. It does often feel like you're half-awake and just swimming through the days, but you'll get yourself back, and right now, your kiddo ...

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T Mithawala
22:02 Aug 02, 2023

Thank you!! I read this ages ago and only just replying now. It’s reassuring to read “you’ll get yourself back”, so thank you :) thought about this story again today when he was fighting a nap, but I think I’ll re-read it tomorrow!! Thank you again for writing this :)

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D Morrell
15:23 Jul 22, 2023

Lovely imagery and word usage. :)

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