Contest #237 shortlist ⭐️

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Fiction Drama Sad

Sleep hadn't come. Tom brushed up against it—touched it, but it hadn't wrapped itself around him and taken him in. He'd kept his eyes closed, wishing he could slip away but one o'clock gave way to two, to three, and so on. Tom opened his eyes again to check the time. It was a little after seven.

He couldn't lay there anymore. He had to get up. He groaned as he creaked out of the recliner (He hadn't slept in his bed in four days; he just couldn't stand to) careful not to wake Maggie, who had started in her room but was now asleep on the couch. She'd insisted on staying the night and had come down around four because she couldn't sleep. They had turned on the TV and muted the weather channel. Maggie was asleep in minutes. The forecast glowed and flickered against Tom's closed eyelids until five or so when he decided maybe that's what was keeping him awake, even though he knew better.

He went into the kitchen, turned on the range hood light, and started making coffee, mindful of Maggie. He put the kettle on the stove and grabbed his favourite coffee-stained mug out of the cupboard. He dropped in a scoop of instant and a couple spoonfuls of sugar grabbed the cream out of the fridge, and watched the kettle, ready to grab it at the first signs of boiling.

On most days, he would have made coffee in the coffee maker, or at least Cat would have. They only kept the instant for when they were in a hurry. The whistle in the kettle started to build and he grabbed it. Maggie let out a soft groan when he snapped the element off and he waited to make sure he didn't wake her.

Once the coffee was made, he pulled on his coat, grabbed his smokes off the table, and slid quietly out the kitchen door. The February air stung his face as he looked around the yard, lit by the cool blue light of winter predawn. The white clouds of his breath swirled away from him along with the wisps of steam from his coffee. It was cold out and, according to the forecast on the TV, it was going to stay that way.

He took a sip, set the cup on the deck railing, and pulled a smoke from the pack. He was getting low and would need to grab another pack before the service. Usually, he smoked a pack a day, but lately, it had been nearly two. Today... Well, today might be a good day to grab an extra.

He leaned on the railing, smoking and drinking as the sky brightened, trying to push away the sleepless night. After a few minutes, he stubbed his cigarette out in the old, snow-filled can next to the door and drank the last gulp of his coffee, frowning into the empty mug.

He could feel something bubbling in him—an uneasiness, an antsiness. The thought of sitting around all day and waiting for Maggie to get up, waiting to shower, waiting to get dressed, waiting to drive over to the funeral home, waiting to drive to the cemetery, waiting in line to eat at the reception, waiting to go home, waiting to go to bed and then lying there, waiting sleeplessly for the night to give way to dawn—it was enough to make him scream.

It was getting hard to breathe and his legs felt weak. He started getting a strange feeling in his arms and he wondered if it was real or if it was only in his head. Jesus Christ, don't let this be a heart attack, he thought. He imagined Maggie, waking up on the day of her mother's funeral and looking for her father, poking her head out the window and seeing him lying dead on the deck.

He turned and threw the door open, a little harder than he meant to, and grabbed his keys. He hoped he didn't wake Maggie up, but he didn't stick around long enough to check. He flew down the steps and jumped in his pickup. His hands were shaking as he tried to find the key to the Chev, and his breath came in panicked gasps.

Once he found the key, Tom jammed it into the ignition and turned the truck to life. He threw it into reverse and flew out of the driveway, bumping over the curb. Still rolling, he rammed the gearshift into D and the tires let out a little chirp against the pavement as he sped away, the house disappearing from the rearview. The panic became duller and duller the further away from the house he got and once he'd made a few turns, his breath settled back to normal.

After a couple of minutes, the truck finally warm, he got the cigarettes out of his jacket and grabbed one before throwing the pack onto the passenger seat and starting the car lighter. When it was hot he lit his smoke and cracked the window. He didn't know where he was going, but it didn't matter. All that mattered was that his hands and his mind were busy navigating the streets. It was a cold Sunday and the roads were bereft of other drivers. Tom kind of liked that. Despite what lay ahead, the burgeoning day had a quiet beauty as the golden light of the still-rising sun stretched and broke the blue shadows and made the crusty snow sparkle. The lack of cars on the road gave the morning a sense of privacy and secrecy; it felt like the morning was his and his alone.

Tom punched the lighter in again and snuffed out the burnt cigarette in the overflowing ashtray (something Cat hated). He popped another smoke in his mouth and waited for the lighter to heat up. Rounding a corner, he realized where he was going. He took the cigarette from his mouth and tucked it up in his ear—it didn't seem right to smoke it while he was so close to the cemetery where he would be burying his wife later today.

He reached across the seat to open the glovebox, thinking that maybe there was a pack of gum in there. He had to give his mouth something to do if he wasn't going to smoke, otherwise he'd chew his lips to shreds. He pulled the latch and the glovebox fell open. Tom rooted around among the old receipts but when his fingers landed on something small, round, and smooth, his heart sank. He knew what it was before he pulled it out—a tube of Cat's lipstick.

Cat loved to wear lipstick and Tom would've sworn that at one time, she must've had fifty tubes in fifty different colours hiding in purses and makeup cases and the medicine cabinet. Pinks, purples, reds, and colours he couldn't name if his life depended on it.

He thought about the face she would make when he was putting it on, the way she would blot it, and the way she checked that she didn't get any on her teeth.

He closed the glove box and his throat started to get tight. He tried to clear it away as he rounded another corner; the cemetery was at the end of the road. Thinking about Cat's lipstick made him think about kissing her painted lips. The memory of their first kiss flooded into his mind, filling the nooks and crannies of his senses and consciousness: what everything looked like, smelled like, what was on the radio, where they were.

They'd spent the day at the beach with some friends and when their friends left, they stayed behind, walking up and down the shore and talking. It was getting late and the sun's light was starting to be golden; he'd told her that he would drive her home.

They jumped into his car and left. He spotted a little ice cream stand a mile down the road and asked her if she had time for a cone, his treat. He got a mint chip and she got a chocolate-dipped vanilla. They sat on the hood of his car, eating their cones and talking. Before he knew it, during a pause in the conversation, she laid her head on his shoulder. "Cat," he said after a few moments, "I'd really like to kiss you."

"I'd like that," she said, and they kissed in front of the orange sun with ice cream dripping down their hands and onto the hood of the car, a half-remembered song drifting out of the Trans Am's speakers, nearly drowned out by the crashing waves and squawking gulls. Tom thought about the way her lips were cold and sweet from the ice cream, her mouth warm and vanilla. They were practically inseparable after that.

He pulled up to the cemetery gate and shifted into park. He sat there for a second, remembering, before he wiped the tears from his face and killed the engine. He stepped out of the truck and looked around. A few more hours and he would be here again but with Maggie, friends, and family. Cat would be there too.

He walked around the truck and down the salted walkway to the gate. He stood under it for a second to gather himself, took a deep breath, and stepped through. He followed the trail of hard-pack left by the excavator. He knew it would lead him to Cat's open grave.

As he walked, he felt like he could feel the headstones, like they were quiet, solemn idols watching him and welcoming him as he made his way up to his and Cat's double plot on top of the hill. They bought the plot twenty years ago, not long after their friend Amy passed away. They had both watched as Greg scrambled to find a spot for her final resting place in Milford and how much money it had cost him. A year or two after that, Cat, wanting to avoid her or Tom being in a similar situation to Greg, insisted that they buy a plot and start planning for the inevitable.

Tom crested the hill and stopped. There, a hundred or so feet away, was his and Cat's plot, easily spotted from the pile of frozen dirt and snow next to it. Two days ago, the cemetery caretaker called him and said they were having a hard time getting through the frozen ground. They told him they would keep trying but it was probably a good idea to make alternate arrangements with the funeral home just in case they couldn't get through. They got back to him before he'd had a chance to call the funeral home with the good(?) news that they'd managed to get the hole dug.

Tom took a deep breath and started for the grave, where soon his wife would lay and where he too, one day, would lay with her.

It was cancer that got her. Lung cancer. They tried chemo and radiation but it just wouldn't kill the cells. Instead, it ravaged Cat's body until she was almost unrecognizable. By the end, she was so small, weak, and grey that on some nights when he was waiting for sleep to come and take him away from the reality that he was losing her, he wondered where she had gone, because the woman in that hospital bed just couldn't be her.

With fifty or so steps left to go, he started to think about that last night and the last time he had kissed her. Maggie had left a few hours before and Tom was trying to stay awake while reading to her. He was never very good at reading in his head, let alone out loud, but Cat said she liked it and he would lay the book on the bed next to her small frame, holding it open with one hand and holding her shrunken bony one in his other.

He'd just let go of her hand and marked what page they were on when she asked him in a whisper if she could have some ice chips. She was palliative and they knew the end was coming sooner rather than later. He said sure, stood up, and kissed her before he went out. But it wasn't her. Those dry, lipstick-less lips weren't Cat's and she didn't smell like Cat or taste like Cat. Tom would never say it out loud but, God, it was like kissing a stranger. When he came back with her ice chips she was gone. The fight had ended long ago, the battle lost.

With less than twenty steps left, he could see the edge of the grave. That was their last kiss, but it wasn't their real last kiss. It was a kiss that was filled with sorrow and fear and loss, a kiss that was a feeble attempt at comfort, a kiss that came from a place of sad and aching love.

Ten steps left. He could see about four feet down—not quite to the bottom. He tried to remember their real last kiss—the last happy one, the last one before Cat was too short of breath to finish a cigarette and before she started coughing up blood. The last one before their life became a steady stream of doctor's appointments and treatments, of sad phone calls and chemo sickness. There were plenty of kisses during that time, but Tom wanted to remember the last one where Cat was still the Cat she had been for twenty-five years.

He stood at the edge of the grave now—could see the bottom. It was strange to see where his body would go when he was done with it, where he and Cat would finally be reunited after how long? A day? A month? A year? Five? The pile of dirt he was standing next to would be the dirt that covered whatever overpriced box they ended up putting him in. He bent down and grabbed a frozen chunk of dirt—their dirt—and turned it over in his hand. He figured he'd better get acquainted with it.

He dropped the clod and kept trying to remember their real last kiss, but couldn't pinpoint it. He conjured up a pretend memory, made up of thousands or maybe even hundreds of thousands, or Hell, maybe even millions of kisses, but he knew that he wasn't remembering the one. He wondered if it was one before bed, or one before he left for work, or one on some sunny Sunday afternoon while they drank coffee together.

Tom wiped tears from his eyes. "God, Cat," he said (she wasn't there yet, but he could feel her), "I hope it was a good one."

* * *

A half hour or so later, Tom was back at the truck. Maggie was likely looking for him and probably getting worried. He pulled open the door and was about to jump in when the pack of smokes and the overflowing ashtray caught his eye. He reached across the seat, grabbed the pack, and started to turn it over in his hands.

Cigarettes.

It was those goddamned things that got her in the end. He dropped the pack in the snow and stomped on it, twisting his heel as hard as he could. Then he took the ashtray out and, careful not to spill it on the seat, dumped it in the snow and buried it.

He jumped in the truck, closed the door, and started the engine. Maggie had been bugging him to quit anyway, especially since Cat got sick. But, some days, he would swear that the smokes were the only thing holding him together.

But no more. It would be hard and quitting today of all days was going to turn the pain and grief

up as high as they could go. It was going to feel like someone had turned him inside out and was pulling on every nerve he had in his body all at once, but that was all right. He wanted it to hurt as much as it could.

Tom shifted into D and started for home. But first, he was going to stop for a pack of gum.

February 17, 2024 02:15

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12 comments

05:29 Feb 24, 2024

No, that's fine. It was my goal to sob right before bed, anyway.

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C. Charles
12:12 Feb 24, 2024

Hahahahahahaha love this comment! Thanks for reading!

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DalviceDally 456
07:04 Mar 04, 2024

What a romantic style you have! You've woven very expressive imagery with distinct symbolism into this compelling narrative - it's a really good story. You have a way with words and a very sound intro to pull the reader in. The dimensions of Tom's internal conflict was quite evident and evokes sympathy well. The contrasting symbols of lipstick and cigarettes were remarkably memorable and glided well. I was in awe when you connected lipsticks with kisses (love the descriptions), which almost moved me to tears. However, I felt that the sleepl...

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DalviceDally 456
07:10 Mar 04, 2024

I just really like your style; it's very intensive. Like a cup of well-crafted latte filled to the brim, the foam intact? and amicable, offering a certain richness to the one who sips (be it emotional or aesthetic).

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C. Charles
01:55 Mar 05, 2024

Wow! Thank you so much! I really appreciate everything you commented! Very flattered by what you've said about my style! And what you said about the story's construction. Truthfully, I wrote this after a long layoff and in preparation for another contest to "shake off the ring rust" as it were. I was pleasantly surprised by the shortlist! As far as the criticism goes, no story is perfect and I always appreciate any and all feedback. I think everything you commented on is fair and the only thing I think I can say is that some of that is a co...

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Emilie Ann
14:45 Feb 25, 2024

Such evocative imagery and feelings. I love the way you reveal plot details. Fantastic Sunday morning read! Excuse me while I squeeze my partner extra tight.

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C. Charles
15:05 Feb 25, 2024

Thank you! I love trickling plot details lol thanks for reading!

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Eliza Levin
19:35 Feb 23, 2024

Beautiful story--the description of their first kiss set against the cemetery was especially moving. And I loved the little bit of hope at the end!

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C. Charles
20:00 Feb 23, 2024

Thank you! Congratulations on the win!

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Stella Aurelius
16:37 Feb 23, 2024

Very poignant one. Beautiful imagery. Well-deserved shortlist spot.

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C. Charles
16:41 Feb 23, 2024

Thank you and thanks for reading!

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Mary Bendickson
04:24 Feb 17, 2024

Emotional. Congrats on well deserved shortlist! 🎉

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