Contest #201 shortlist ⭐️


Drama Fiction Contemporary

The white lines flashed by in the headlights of the Chevelle as it rolled along the highway. The clock on the dash read a little after three; the road was empty. The morning commuters wouldn’t hit the road for another hour or so and the late shifters were already gone. 

The car was a ‘70, fully factory restored. Cole had done all the work he could himself and sent away for the work he couldn’t. Rewelded, repainted, rewired, and rebuilt. It even had the original radio. After the ranch, it was the first thing he had bought himself once the money started to really roll in.

Cole didn’t know how fast he was going; the speedometer had quit working. He wondered whether it was worth it to figure out why it had quit before he left next week. 

He checked his mirror and could see the Suburban’s headlights behind him. His chauffeur, Dale, and bodyguard Mick were in it, following him home. He’d called from New York to ask them to bring the Chevelle to the airport; he felt like driving himself. He thought it might get rid of the uneasiness in his stomach. He was sure they had flipped a coin for who got to drive it.

He checked his mirror again. Their lights bored into the cabin of Cole’s car, irritating and bright. Sometimes he just wanted to be left alone. But there was always someone there, telling him where to go and when. Assistants, photographers, journalists, producers, lawyers, and stylists. He couldn’t even shit without someone standing outside the door. Of course, it was a small price to pay for all he had. But sometimes…

He flicked the signal on and changed lanes. He looked again as their signal came on and changed lanes just like he had. “Fuck these guys,” he muttered under his breath. 

He stepped on the clutch and downshifted. He took his foot off the clutch and buried the gas pedal. He was pinned back in his seat as the engine roared.

Good luck, fellas, he thought.

* * *

It was an hour later when he rolled into the driveway of the ranch. He drove as hard as he could the whole way home, his detail trying in vain to keep up. The needle on his fuel gauge was perilously close to “E.” 

They pulled into the driveway after him. He cut the engine and stepped out at the same time as Mick and Dale. “Well that was fun, thanks guys,” he said smiling.

“Fun isn’t the word I would use,” Dale said. He looked rattled.

“Yeah, that was kind of messed up,” Mick said.

“What? I’m not allowed to have a little fun?” Cole asked.

“That was some fucked up fun,” Dale said.

That pissed Cole off. “Look,” he said, “I appreciate you bringing the car to the airport, but I really want you guys to fuck off."

They were good guys, and normally he considered them friends, but tonight, they weren’t. Tonight, they were his driver and his bodyguard.

“Fine,” Dale said. “I don’t need this shit. G’night.” Mick just shook his head. 

“Thank you. See you later,” Cole said. They got into the SUV and left without another word.

Cole watched them pull away and then looked at the barn. Maybe he’d spend some time riding tomorrow and helping the hands. A long trail ride and a little hard work might clear his head. Tanya would want to spend the day with him. She didn’t love riding, but maybe he could convince her to go for one.

He walked up to the house, unlocked the door, and went in. It was dark, quiet, and cool. Usually, the house felt like home, but there were times, like now, when it didn’t.

Sometimes he wished he still lived with his parents in their old bungalow. But they had sold it when he bought them their dream home in B.C.

He remembered when he was moonlighting as a musician, he would come home late from a gig and find supper on the stove. Sometimes he’d eat it then, trying not to wake up his parents with the beeping and humming of the microwave. Other times, he’d just pack it for lunch and take it the next day to work. 

Some days he wished he could come home late and find a pot of spaghetti just sitting on the stove. Nothing fancy, nothing freshly prepared. Just cold spaghetti sitting in a pot, waiting to be reheated. He thought that he could ask his chef, Mike, but it just wouldn’t be the same. He thought about how long it had been since his Mom made him dinner and he sighed.

He expected his Border Collie, Chelsea, to come trotting from the bedroom to meet him, nails clicking on the floor. But she didn’t come. She must be asleep with Tanya, he thought. Still, it was strange that the door hadn't woken her up.

He walked down the hall quietly to the master and looked in. The bed looked empty in the dark, so he flicked the light on. It was empty. No Tanya, no Chelsea. What the fuck? he thought as he turned the light off.

He walked back into the kitchen, and that was when he saw the note on the counter.


I can’t do this anymore. You haven’t been you for a while and I don’t know what to do. And with the tour coming up and you being gone all the time. It’s too much. Maybe we can talk about it later, but for now, I need some space and I’m sure you do too. I took Chelsea with me. I didn’t want to leave her here alone waiting for you to get home. Maybe Dale can come get her in the morning? 



He crumpled up the note and tossed it away. He knew things hadn’t been great lately and he hadn’t been easy to get along with. Finding time for a relationship during the writing, practicing, recording, mixing, promotions, photoshoots, interviews, rehearsals, scheduling, and everything else that came with the territory was hard. He had been trying his best with Tanya, but he guessed it just didn’t amount to much with everything else going on.

He was just under so much pressure in the last year. His last album failed to land with any audience; some said it wasn’t radio-friendly enough and others thought it was too poppy and uninspired. One reviewer called it “meditative” and said that the songs seemed like alternates to a better album. The label had pushed a few singles but nothing stuck. During the tour, the crowd seemed to have learned the new songs just so they could sing along, not because they connected with them.

I need a drink, Cole thought. He reached into the liquor cabinet and pulled out a bottle of Bowmore 25. He poured himself a glass and took a drink. It numbed his tongue and burned in his throat before spreading in his stomach. 

He hadn’t eaten much in the past eight or so hours. He started for the living room with his whisky and wondered what the last thing he ate was. He didn’t eat on the plane because he’d fallen asleep. It must’ve been that sandwich I had after the rehearsal for the interview, he thought.

As he walked down the hall, a frame caught his eye. It was a poster for the movie Underneath Hawk’s Head about a town rocked by a years-old scandal coming to light. 

Included in the poster was a 45 for “Wildfire” from his first album. During the recording of his third album, Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing, he’d been approached to include “Wildfire” in the movie over the end credits. He’d agreed, thinking it might bring in a few more fans. It did more than that. It had sent him from fledgling artist to household name overnight.

Next to the poster was a framed review of his first album, Coward, by a guy named John Pierce for a magazine called Modern Rock. That review paved the way for a lot of Cole’s success. It didn’t have the effect the movie did, but it did help him to get a foot in a few doors. It read:

In the ’70s, Jon Landau called Springsteen the future of rock n’roll. Today’s future of rock? Look no further than Cole Steele. 

From beginning to end, Coward is raw, intelligent, emotional, and honest. He takes the struggles of the latest lost generation looking for their place in society and voices perhaps their greatest concern: in a world that is so staunchly divided and seems to be crumbling, what will be left for us?

While many songs stand out, particularly the title track, it is “Wildfire” that I find myself listening to over and over, long after my initial review. 

If Steele is coming to your town, buy a ticket now because, in five years, I guarantee he’s gonna be a hot commodity. 


He finished reading the review, a piece of writing that he had read hundreds of times. Cole had met John a handful of times and thanked him profusely for that first review. Now, his teeth were clenched and he was gripping the crystal scotch glass with white-knuckle intensity. 

He realized why he’d felt uneasy, irritated, and wistful all night. Right before his interview, he’d quickly read Pierce’s review for his latest album. He’d hardly had time to process what it said, but it was scathing. 

He was ashamed to admit it, but he felt like he could’ve choked John for what he wrote about his latest album Broken Promises. Cole couldn’t remember the whole review verbatim, but he did remember John saying that every album of Cole’s is worse than the last one and that maybe his first album was a stroke of luck.

That hurt, but what he said later in the review cut deeper. He said it sounded like Cole had traded in his worn-out Levi’s and cracked leather boots for designer jeans and shoes. Cole knew that John was just being honest, doing his job, but it still stung to hear that his opinion of him had sunk so low. 

He took another sip of scotch. For the last couple of years, he’d started to be a bit of a connoisseur and collector of fine scotches. He enjoyed testing his tongue for notes of this or that and recognizing the different finishes and scents. Bowmore 25 was a $600 bottle of scotch, one he enjoyed and came back to often. Tonight, it just tasted like expensive fire. 

He swallowed his sip and studied the amber liquid, the little legs trailing down the sides of the glass. Before, he’d been a Jack man and had never spent more than forty dollars on a bottle of anything. 

He turned and headed back to the kitchen. He rooted through the liquor cabinet until he found a half-empty, dusty bottle of Jack Daniels. He tossed his head back and drained the rest of the Bowmore. Then he sat down at the island with the glass and bottle of Jack in front of him and poured himself another drink. He drank it, too, in a single gulp and reveled in the cheap, sour mash burn that no. 7 offered.

Cole thought about how he always said that he didn’t write “Wildfire” so much as he just wrote it down. It seemed to come out of nowhere. It felt significant and definitive. He remembered tearing up the first time he played it through; he was sitting on his bed, facing his closet door, where he'd written hundreds of songs before.

Pour. That was the song that got him his record deal with a small label called Hiss and Pop Records. An “exec” had heard him playing it in a bar (the classic story) and they hashed out a deal to record it on the cheap. He was working in a garage at the time, exhausted from staying up too late gigging and waking up too early for work.

Drink. The label hated what he turned in. “It’s too sad,” they said. They wanted more angst. They were unhappy with how many solo tracks he had and wanted every song to include the band.

Pour. So they told him to record it again, with the band. They wanted the songs to be louder and bolder with a more radio-friendly sound.

Drink. He begged them to meet him halfway before rerecording the whole album. He would add the band to more, not all, of the songs as long as they kept “Wildfire” as a solo track.

Pour. They agreed. He added the band to a few tracks and moved “Wildfire” from third on the lineup to the album closer.

Drink. The results were electric. The label was sure that it was going to be a hit. They all felt that the album balanced the sadness of not knowing your place in a changing world with the angst and drive to keep searching for it.

Pour. It was that struggle that informed all of his writing. He'd felt that struggle his whole life, always out of touch and out of place, like there was nowhere he belonged and that was never going to change.

Drink. But, if he was being honest with himself, it was getting harder and harder to tell that story. On one hand, he still felt lost, but on the other he was comfortable. His problems were consequences of success, and nobody wanted to listen to someone complain about being rich and pampered, with almost anything they wanted within arm's reach.

Pour. Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? 

Drink. With pretty maids all in a row.

Pour. He promised himself when he blew up that he wouldn’t lose touch with the blood, sweat, and tears that got him there. 

Drink. But he was losing touch. Everyday. With every second, every dollar, every interview, and every album, he was getting further and further away from that struggling kid who wrote “Wildfire.” The one that used to write songs and sing them to his closet door while sitting on his bed.

Pour. And he’d never be that struggling kid again. 

Cole sat at the island and stared at the filled glass, the empty bottle still hovering over it. I’ll never struggle again, he thought. Catch-22. Wanna be famous? Write well. Wanna write well? Don’t get famous.

It was the hard work that got him the record deal. And the hard work that made the first album special. Life just wasn’t hard now. It was tiring, sure, but it wasn’t hard. He could retire tomorrow if he wanted. Or he could give away every penny and go back to having a 9 to 5 to make his writing better. But that was a choice. Success had altered the very fabric of his life and it could never go back.

Bitterness burned in his throat. He hurled the bottle at the wall, shattering it. I’ll just pay someone to clean that up, he thought. Pretty maids all in a row. He threw back the last shot of whisky and slammed the glass back on the table.

I've got an idea for a song, he thought. He stood up and stumbled into his studio to grab one of his Telecasters by the neck, the one with the black pickguard and sunburst finish. Guitar in hand, he went to the door and put on a pair of boots. The ones with the riding heels.

He stepped out the front door and stared at the Chevelle. It reflected the burgeoning red light of dawn. Red sky in morning, sailor take warning, he thought.

He walked over to the car with the guitar hanging by his side and stood stock still, his eyes running over it. A beautiful machine.

He took the telecaster in both hands and swung it over his head, (I knew there was a reason they called it an axe) roaring as he brought it down hard into the windshield. The glass buckled and cracked from the blow. He swung again, again, and again. No part of the Chevelle was safe.

After several blows, the neck separated from the body and the guitar was only held together by strings. He grabbed the neck in one hand and the body in the other and went back to work. Sword and shield. Once the neck broke and was no longer tied to the body by the strings, he took the neck in both hands and threw it as far as he could into the trees.

He continued to beat the car until his arms and back ached, his hands were bleeding, his hair was damp with sweat and he was out of breath. He threw what was left of the body at the house and it clattered against the brick.

He walked around the smashed Chevelle to the front and surveyed the damage. Unsatisfied, he kicked in each headlight with the heel of his boot. He looked again. Still not good enough, he thought. He started slamming his fists into the hood of the car, harder and harder until his hands were purple and swollen.

He stepped back again. He took in a deep breath and screamed as long and as hard as he could until his voice started to crack and his throat felt raw. When he was out of air, he bent over and put his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. Doesn’t matter, he thought. Ten years ago it would have mattered. Now? I could have it fixed in a week. And I could smash it and fix it and smash it and fix it until my heart gives out.

He looked down at his hands and tried to close them, wincing. Then he turned his attention east and could see the sun peeking over the horizon through the trees. The air was crisp and cool; it was going to be a beautiful day.

He turned and started for the barn...

June 10, 2023 01:53

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13:04 Jun 16, 2023

I like how much this is focused on the quality of the music—he’s not lamenting that his career is suffering or he’s having money trouble. Avoiding attention is mentioned, but the central issue is that speaking to his audience meant being one of them and success just inevitably precluded him making the art he wanted to make. He doesn’t even seem to regret the woman. I wondered if her taking the dog was a nod to the old joke about what you get when you play country music backward. I really liked this character.


15:24 Jun 16, 2023

Congratulations on the shortlist


C. Charles
17:01 Jun 16, 2023

Thank you! It really is about him losing his ability to connect with his audience and write authentically. Happy you picked up on that! Hahahaha the country song cliché (a genre I think is rife with inauthenticity) didn’t occur to me but that’s funny! Nice read! I really just wanted him to come home and be kind of jarred. Dogs are so comforting and Cole would’ve expected to be greeted and feel better; another reason to start drinking lol That, and my border collie mix was lying next to me while I was writing


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Glenda Toews
03:39 Jun 14, 2023

You captured the heart of this very well. It read like non-fiction, like your real name is Axle Rose or Chad Kroger. Thinking success is satisfying but maybe the disillusionment makes it even more bitter? It makes me happy with being a waitress in a pub and glad I learned guitar in my 40s, an age where I would never do well enough for anybody's good... It was believable and I enjoyed reading it!


C. Charles
10:05 Jun 14, 2023

Thanks for reading! No Roses or Kroegers over here but I’m glad to hear it feels real! If you’re interested, I have another story on my profile called ‘The Watch’ that kind of deals with the inverse of this story; I kept it in mind while writing this one. You might say they’re companion pieces lol Thanks again for the read!


Glenda Toews
00:04 Jun 15, 2023

Too bad you didn't name Cole Matt...wouldn't that have taken the cake...😆


C. Charles
00:24 Jun 15, 2023

It certainly crossed my mind!


Glenda Toews
01:12 Jun 15, 2023

I would have enjoyed he who gave up his janitor position to make it big only to be dissatisfied enough to smash a classic ...there's some deep hurting to take it out on a car like that😬


C. Charles
02:03 Jun 15, 2023

I thought that if I gave Matt the success he always wanted it would’ve changed what he learned at the end of his story. Matt lives a modest life but his story is about “gain” while Cole lives a life of luxury and his is about “loss.” Otherwise, this totally would’ve been a story for Matt. At one point I considered having one of Cole’s songs be written by Matt but I ran out of words to do it lol It certainly hurt to write that he smashed such a beautiful car but it felt like powerful imagery, especially through the lens of toxic masculinity ...


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Mike Panasitti
14:24 Jun 17, 2023

Being overcome by a sense that they're losing their authenticity is a scenario that causes many musicians to lose sleep. You've done an amazing job depicting the frustration, doubt, and social impotence that accompanies Cole's fall from grace. The question is: how will he recover his wings?


C. Charles
14:40 Jun 17, 2023

Thank you! And thanks for the read.


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Mary Bendickson
05:21 Jun 10, 2023

Catch-22. Brake car, brake guitar, brake hands, brake career. Congrats on the shortlist. Agree it is a winner!


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Amanda Lieser
20:15 Jul 13, 2023

Hello! Congratulations on the shortlist! It included so many things that I admire. I loved the internal conflict, I loved the use of repetition, especially with the words “pour” and “drink”, and I’m always a sucker for a good man versus self story. You did an excellent job of creating the hunting the setting of a house that no longer feels like home. Although fortune and fame may be hoped for, the realities of it can’t be fully understood until you experience them. Nice work!!


C. Charles
21:33 Jul 13, 2023

Thank you so much for the comment and the praise! I’m also a sucker for internal conflict (obviously lol) A lot of the time, we’re our own worst enemy. Thanks for the read, I really appreciate it!


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Philip Ebuluofor
11:12 Jun 19, 2023

Description first class. Congrats.


C. Charles
12:00 Jun 19, 2023

Thank you!


Philip Ebuluofor
18:17 Jun 19, 2023

Pleasure mine.


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