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Fiction Contemporary Drama

Colton lies in drink and quotes from poets whose names are now lost during the night. Eventually, his eyes close, and oblivion takes him away until dawn washes the slate of stars above. All around him are dark fields, rags of snow, and darker woods beyond that harbor wolves.

He eats pancakes and syrup in the morning. Then he mounts his horse to hobble across the endless plain. Colton comes to a low rise that looks down upon the town. There’s a plaza filled with wagons and their harrowed velum-like covers. The whitewashed public buildings and the lurching church dome rise from the trees. A light breeze stirs the tatters in his hat as his matted, greasy hair flails like a limp flag in the wind.

Colton’s eyes lay dark in a caved and haunted face. A foul stench rises from the wells of his boot tops. After sundown, the west puts down wreaths of blood-red clouds. Dessert night hawks rise like fugitives from some great fire at the earth’s end. He spits, clinks the stirrups against the horse’s ribs, and they stagger into motion once more. 

Colton rides down a narrow road. There, he meets a dead cart bound with a pile of corpses. A small bell tells the way, and a lantern swings from the cart’s rear gate. Three men sit on a box, not unlike the dead themselves. They look like spirit folk. Their faces are white with lime and phosphorescent from the dusk. The double-horse drawn cart moves up the road in a faint miasma and passes from sight. Colton turns and watches them go. As he does, he pauses for a moment to think of death. 

He moves into the square towards the posted street lamps. Beyond him is the home he left. The same place he swore he’d never return. The pregnant woman he’d left behind months before would be waiting for him. Waiting for him to be a man he wasn’t. A father and a provider. 

Colton moves swiftly toward the property before it becomes too dark. He waits at the field’s edge, watching the house, and wondering if this was the right choice. He hesitates only for a moment, then approaches the house and puts the horse in the barn. Occupying himself as he did before, he cuts wood to light the fire and keep her warm. He stands the ax in the corner and stacks the wood when he enters. Squatting before the fire, he is there for some time before she says his name. 

“What?”

“Will you stay again? When you stay, I think it eases things some.”

“What’s that?”

“The pain.”

“I reckon I’ll try harder this time.”

In the morning, she calls out for him again. This time she has a guttural tone in her strained voice.

“Yes?”

“What is that? Here?”

“I don’t hear anything.”

“Here. Over here.”

He goes to her, and she places his hand. 

“Your waters broke.”

The rain stops, and a gray light laps at the window glass. There is no sound, but for the tiny patter of water drops on the roof. There’s no movement but the small wash over the glade beyond.

“It’s morning.” 

“I haven’t slept near a wink.”

Colton holds watch at the window with a face that is also sleepless. 

“I reckon it wants to clear.”

“I wonder if there’s any fire from under the ashes.”

Colton returns to the hearth, pokes among the dead coals, and blows on them. 

“I doubt there’s a dry stick of wood in the world this morning.”

The sun rises and climbs to a hot midpoint in the sky. In the yard, Colton’s shadow pulls at his feet. There’s a dark stain where he stands. He holds a chipped water bucket in his hand and heads for the spring. Entering the woods, he takes a path goes and follows it through knee-high ferns. There are rotting footslogs across a pale green sedge, and the ground is soft with compost. Finally there's a stream of moss-grown rock beneath which water flows cold over a bed of sun-colored sand. He bends with the pail and watches with blood-rimmed eyes a frog scuttle. 

Colton enters the clearing as he hears her call out. He crosses the glade rapidly towards the cabin. The water licks over the bucket rim and wets the leg of his overalls. 

“All right. All right.”

“It hurts worse now.”

“Then, let’s get on with it.”

It’s not until mid-afternoon that she begins. Colton stands before the bed where she lay, bow sprung and panting. Her eyes are mad, and her hands feel huge. 

“Hush.”

“Can’t you fetch help?”

“No. Hush.”

She writhes with spasms, and this makes him think more of death, but it’s not death that she labors far into the fading day. 

Later in the afternoon, Colton rises to walk into the glade. Doves cross near the river. He hears them calling. When he goes in again, he finds that she's fallen. She lies on the floor, clutching the bedstead. 

He thinks for a moment that she is dying. 

She looks up with eyes that hold nothing. Then her body convulses. She screams. Colton struggles with her, lifting her to the bed again. The head breaks through in a pumping welter of blood. He kneels in the bed with one knee and holds her. With his own hands, he brings it free. The scrawny body trails the cord that leaks down blood-slimed covers. It’s a beat-colored creature that looks to Colton like a skinned squirrel. He pinches the mucous from its face with his fingers. It doesn’t move. He leans down to her. 

“Rachelle.”

He turns her head. There is a faraway look in her eyes, and in her pale face, she slowly flutters her lashes. 

“I’m done, ain’t I?”

“Yes.”

“Thank the Lord.”

When Colton picks it up, it squalls. He takes up the cord like a thin rope of yarn and severs it with a clasp knife he carries and ties it off at both ends. A deep gloom settles in the cabin. His arms are stained with gore to the elbows. He fetches some ripped towels and wets one in the water bucket. He wipes the child and wraps it in a dry towel. It does not stop wailing. 

“What is it?” 

“What?”

“It? What is it?”

“A chap. It’s puny.”

“He doesn’t sound puny.”

“I don’t look for it to live.”

“He sounds strong enough.”

“You best get some sleep.”

“I wished I could. I ain’t never been more tired.”

He rises and goes to the door and stands in the long square light of evening. His elbow is on the jam, and his head rests on his forearm. He opens his hand and looks at it. Dry blood sifts in a fine dust from the lines of his palm. After a while, he goes in and pours water into a tin basin. He washes his hands and arms slowly with care. When he comes past the bed, he wipes his face with the towel, and there she is, asleep. 

The child sleeps as well. His face is flushed and wrinkled. His small fingers are clenched. Colton reaches down and folds the towel about the child, and takes him up in his arms. He looks again at the woman and crosses the door to go outside. 

The sandy road is scored and banded with shadows which keep compass among all the turns. Colton stops from time to time, holding the child gingerly. When he reaches the bridge, he turns off the road and takes a path along the river. The swollen waters spill from a blood-colored spume and fan in a pool below with a constant and vicious hissing. He follows it down and carries the child before him delicately. 

He hurries at a half-jog and keeps one eye skyward as if to measure the sun’s progress against the heavens as the shade deepens. Half a mile downriver, he comes to a creek. He takes a new course into the woods. The country is low and swampy. He veers from the stream to gain dryer ground. Herons explode before him and labor with immense and heavy wing beats. 

Before dark, he comes upon the creek again. This time it is smaller and more transparent. A copper haze quivers like some rare dust in the twilight and the ground holds a fiery nitric green moss. He prods it with his foot for a moment and then lays the child down. It howls with red gums at the pending night. Colton stands back from it and watches it dumbly. It kicks away the towel and lays naked with legs peddling. He kneels forward in the damp earth and covers it again. 

Colton rises to his feet and lumbers back through the brush, too ashamed to look back. He stops and peers at the faint light coming from the west, and in that light, he sees a truth from which he cannot bear to take another step. The light and the child both call him to a different decision. One he swore he’d never make. He rushes back to the child and picks him up. 

“There, there, my boy. Hush now.” 

The air is dank and stormy. Colton begins to weep. 

“I’m just as scared as you are, son. It’s a wicked world, and I ain’t got much to offer.” 

A spectral quietude sits in, and something about it holds Colton in dread. 

“But I’ll try, son. I’ll try.” 

A tear falls upon the child’s face as Colton kisses its forehead. He turns with the boy in hand to journey home. 

March 05, 2022 00:17

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39 comments

Kelsey H
08:23 Mar 17, 2022

I really liked the contrast of the poetic narrative with the plain and brief speech of the characters. You have lovely descriptions and really create a strong sense of place and atmosphere. The dead cart he sees at the beginning is a good link to the birth at the end of the story, and the choice he makes.

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Dustin Gillham
19:34 Mar 17, 2022

Kelsey! oh my gosh, you were the only one that commented on that foil I put in the narrative. That was one of my favorite parts about the story was the contrast I put in between the living and the dead. The glimpse of mortality and the father's decision to preserve his child. I'm grateful and honored you took the time to read and comment.

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Colin Strivelli
15:19 Mar 09, 2022

So it's clear you have a lot of experience with writing; this shows in your prose. You have a strong sense of language and imagery. I do feel, however, that this sort of gets away from you at times in the story. By no means bad - far from it-, it's just that this didn't really feel like a short story. I feel like I was reading an excerpt from a novel. You spend so much time in thr beginning keeping a slow and meticulous pace, carefully describing everything that it feels easy to lose track of what's even going on. With this medium, we have...

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Dustin Gillham
20:33 Mar 09, 2022

Colin! Wonderful critique. Most all of my stories have that tendency, and it is intentional. More often than not, I cut much of what I have written in my initial draft and the reader is thrown into the world of my rhetoric. With that being said, I was really happy with how this one turned out. I’m grateful you took the time to read and comment. Blessings, my friend.

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Palak Shah
15:38 Mar 20, 2022

This is an amazing story :)) Great description and amazing language. I loved reading it. Could you please read my story if possible? Thanks :))

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Cindy Strube
20:26 Mar 16, 2022

Dustin - I meant to write this the day I read the story… Such a study in contrasts. It’s ugly and beautiful at the same time. One of the descriptions really stands out to me: “A foul stench rises from the wells of his boot tops.” Ugh! It’s so vivid, I almost gagged - and that’s not a negative observation. And this one, “fiery nitric green moss”, is really nice. A couple minor editorial notes (because you write exceptionally well, I think you can take it!): 1. First line - Colton lies in drink and quotes from poets whose names are now lost d...

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Dustin Gillham
21:05 Mar 16, 2022

Cindy! You made my day with your comment! Thank you for the encouragement and for your detailed work on some of the grammar. I’ll definitely make these changes before submitting for publication. Blessings.

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Cindy Strube
23:02 Mar 16, 2022

Well, if I can make someone’s day by picking grammatical nits…😁

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Cassandra Chi
15:40 Mar 14, 2022

I can only hope one day my writings will sound just as good.

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Dustin Gillham
20:50 Mar 14, 2022

Cassandra, I am flattered and honored by your comment.

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Cassandra Chi
09:45 Mar 16, 2022

I would appreciate honest feedback from you on my stories. Would help me a lot.

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Lucas Gaier
00:22 Mar 13, 2022

I found it slightly difficult to follow who was talking at times, but I don't think that kept me from understanding what was going on at all. I appreciate the man's choice in the end, but based on his back and fourth nature I fear it may not be long before he heads for the hills again. Hopefully this time he won't take the child's life when he goes.

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20:18 Mar 12, 2022

You write so descriptively! The characters are so vivid and emotional! I was worried that the boy would be in danger but it turned out okay. Thanks!

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Dustin Gillham
21:17 Mar 12, 2022

Thank you Katherine for reading and commenting.

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Kaite Gao
20:17 Mar 12, 2022

Nice description

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Alice Richardson
04:42 Mar 12, 2022

A story well told and written. I was worried for the child for a while, but it turns beautifully at the end.

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Dustin Gillham
05:34 Mar 12, 2022

Thank you, Alice. There is no way I could have ended it with the child in jeopardy! This one had to have a happy ending. I appreciate your time in reading it and commenting. 😊

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La Keisha Hart
02:55 Mar 10, 2022

Beautiful prose! I love the language you use to paint a real picture. Well done!!

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Dustin Gillham
03:05 Mar 10, 2022

Thank you, La Keisha. I’m glad you liked it.

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Chris Campbell
02:27 Mar 10, 2022

A great flowing read, Dustin! Poetic, symbolic, and immersive. Well done!

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Dustin Gillham
03:04 Mar 10, 2022

Thank you, Chris. I’m honored by your comment.

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Graham Kinross
02:20 Mar 10, 2022

You have a poetic style. This was good but reading a story told in present tense throws me off sometimes. It depends on culture. I know in America it’s more common to tell a story in present tense for the immediacy. Im used to hearing everything in past tense. They have a different power I think because present tense is about throwing you into the moment and past tense is about having full hindsight.

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Dustin Gillham
03:03 Mar 10, 2022

I try and write only in present tense for that very reason. I like it because it puts the reader right there with the story. Thanks for reading and commenting, Graham. I always appreciate your time and insight.

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J.W. Mack
21:12 Mar 08, 2022

I love the tone of this and the way you supported it throughout. Raw and simple image - life is hard, for all parties involved.

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Dustin Gillham
21:31 Mar 08, 2022

Thanks For commenting, JW. I’m going to change a couple of things around and see if it is better at the beginning after doing so. The point was to simply show that Colton was a brave man out on his own but somewhat of a coward as a husband and father. Setting things up for him to have to make the commitment to stay and try.

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15:36 Mar 08, 2022

Odd start wasn't certain about the sentences at first...got better as it went along.

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Dustin Gillham
22:21 Mar 08, 2022

Thank you for your Comment, Mc. I made some changes that I hope make the story flow a bit better.

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Francis Daisy
03:10 Mar 06, 2022

Your writing is like poetry. I love everything you write. These lines are the most amazing of all, I kept going back to them: “It’s morning.” “I haven’t slept near a wink.” Colton holds watch at the window with a face that is also sleepless. “I reckon it wants to clear.” “I wonder if there’s any fire from under the ashes.” Colton returns to the hearth, pokes among the dead coals, and blows on them. “I doubt there’s a dry stick of wood in the world this morning.” The part about the face that is also sleepless - that is just so des...

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Dustin Gillham
05:35 Mar 06, 2022

I'm grateful for your comment, Francis. Thank you for taking the time to read and write. That's the thing about these prompts, with such limited time to tell a story, you have to pack a lot in. Have a wonderful weekend. Keep up the great writing yourself. I really enjoyed your last one. :-)

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Francis Daisy
11:32 Mar 06, 2022

Thank you!

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Felice Noelle
00:04 Mar 06, 2022

Dustin: I was blown away with the stark, ugly yet still lyrical quality of this story. You sure know how to set a mood. I need to read this again to fully appreciate the way you use words. How do you think this stuff up?! I wish I could figure out how to do it; do you think it comes from your wide reading habits, or do you just find fascinating words to connect in ways we don't usually connect them? Thanks for writing a story that I can appreciate on several levels. Maureen

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Dustin Gillham
01:09 Mar 06, 2022

Awe, thanks, Maureen. Different prompts make me reflect and brainstorm in different ways. This week was about trying and, perhaps, failing. And everything in between. I confronted some of my own fears about first being a father and chose to take that initial insecurity I felt and run with it. I certainly read a ton. A range of different genres. I love the classics and literature and tend to write in a way that keeps the reader engaged without always having a significant crisis or action driving the engine of the story. I went w...

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Felice Noelle
01:39 Mar 06, 2022

Dustin: I really appreciated your thorough answer. My background in psychology goads me to try to delve too deeply sometimes, but I love to read about how different writers do their craft. Last night I quickly wrote my story for last week's prompts as the story played out in my yard and on my porch the last couple days. Mellie looked ready to leave the nest earlier today and both Rhett and Scarlet have returned to the porch to eat. I haven[t caught him yet, but I think Rhett has been double-timing Scarlet and has been feeding Mellie and...

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Dustin Gillham
03:09 Mar 06, 2022

Sounds like you have plenty to write about from your own back yard! :-) That's the cool part of the creative process. Thank you again. I look forward to reading more from you. I hope you have a wonderful weekend.

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Darrell Grant
19:14 Mar 05, 2022

Nice story. It was tense and Im glad you made the decision to make Colton make a good decision

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Dustin Gillham
21:24 Mar 05, 2022

Thank you, Darrell.

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Sharon Hancock
03:25 Mar 05, 2022

Omg I thought I was gonna be writing a nasty comment for a minute there but you saved it at the end😜. And now that I look back on it, the read was more tense and exciting bc I wasn’t sure what he was going to do with the baby. Great story! I haven’t read anything western-y like this in a while.

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Dustin Gillham
03:28 Mar 05, 2022

Sharon, I wouldn't let you down like that! LOL. It was meant to keep readers engaged until the last line. I'm happy you enjoyed it. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

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03:20 Apr 03, 2022

I enjoyed this story as well. "When one life ends another starts." I love things that involve with this. I've read quite a few stories based off of this prompt, and your's is much more unique, at least I think so. I see the amount of detail you've mentioned earlier! I have one bit of advice, Dustin. About the detail bit, I know cutting detail in a story's always difficult, especially with Reedsy's word limit. Maybe you could find a way to substitute your original word or sentence, with something else- I know this sounds like a no brainer. Ho...

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