Contest #183 shortlist ⭐️


Sad Contemporary Fiction

It didn’t matter that their down payments were non-refundable or that their parents were splitting a VRBO; Chelsea had to call it off before she exploded.

Her wedding had been planned with the best of intentions, but she watched Eddy with a more critical eye than before. What had been harmless jokes, a comfortably laid-back attitude, and a deference to her opinion while they dated had been painted crimson in their engagement. He teased her endlessly for how obsessed she was with planning their future life, all while refusing to help or have opinions of his own. Their differences were starting to seem insurmountable. Staring at the gown hanging on her closet door, $3,000 of applique and tulle, Chelsea wavered, once again.

She could hear him in the next room, shouting into a headset about kill shots and location data. She knew that if she glanced out the bedroom door, the trash bag would still be sitting there, slouched over and ready to spill its contents into their living room. She hadn’t asked him to take it out, to be fair. She just hoped he would notice it.

“Ranger stalking the northwest corner! I need cover to engage!” He shrieked. “Damnit guys, I’ve been shot. Who has the healing juice?”

Chelsea’s wedding notebook lay in front of her, open to seating arrangements that had to be changed last minute. Why did he get to relax on the eve of their wedding week when she had so much to do?

Marching into the living room, she considered stepping in front of the TV but chose not to. “Babe?” She waved at him.

He turned to look at her briefly before turning back to the game. “I’m coming to the meet-up point. I found a huge stash.”

“Babe?” She waved again. He sighed and pressed a button on his headset, pulling it off his ear.

“What’s up?” His head shook and the words were breathless as if she had stopped a marathon runner.

“I need help with the seating arrangements. Your cousins RSVP’d last minute and all I know is they can’t sit near your grandparents because of that thing at the family reunion last year.”

“I’m in the middle of something, Chels.” He gestured to the TV, where his avatar continued to run through an exaggerated and colorful landscape. “I don’t interrupt you when you’re doing your thing.”

That’s not totally true, she thought, but she stepped closer to the TV. “This is important to me. I would really appreciate your help after this game.”

He looked around her. Pulling his headset back on, he nodded. “Yeah sure.”

As she walked away, she heard him cackling into the mic “I had to talk to my girlfriend, you shithead. You’ve probably never had one of those.”


He played two more rounds before coming back to the room, where she was already curled up in bed, the seating arrangement finished an hour earlier. She wanted to scream at him. Fight with him, make him show some kind of passion for her and their wedding, but she was too tired. Besides, she had decided to go through with the wedding again. It was a lot of money to throw away just because things were tough right now.

Eddy might be a little rough around the edges, but that was what marriage was for. She would train him up to be just the kind of husband she wanted in time.

On Tuesday morning, her parents flew into town, and she picked them up at the airport to chauffeur them to their rental. Eddy’s parents were already there, having flown in the night before.

“How are you feeling, darling girl?” Her mother wrapped her in a big hug, Chanel No. 5 still miraculously the strongest smell on her after two airplanes and a three-hour layover.

Chelsea laughed. “Oh, you know. Nervous. Overwhelmed. Stressed.” She reached for a bag, but her dad hit her hand away with a wink.

“None of that, young lady. I’ll carry your mom’s things. Just pop the trunk will you.”

“Stressed and overwhelmed?” Her mother pressed her hand against her heart. “What about joyful and in love?”

“There will be plenty of time for that feeling after we’re married.” Chelsea laughed again, looking at the line of cars behind her in the airport pick-up lane. “We should get moving. Charlotte has a lot of flights coming in.”

Millie Trousdale stared at her daughter with narrowed eyes but said nothing as they got in the car and drove off, choosing instead to comment on the weather, talk about the flight, and her husband’s work on their new garden beds all the way back to their rental. Chelsea listened attentively but kept drifting into her own thoughts. Love and joy were lately foreign to her, and she resented her mother bringing them up.

When they arrived at the house, (which Chelsea had selected, negotiated the weekly rate, booked, and bought groceries for) Millie stopped Chelsea while her husband brought the bags into the house.

“You’re in an odd place, duckling.” She grabbed her hand and pulled her towards a bench in the yard. “Let me into your mind.”

“Just the usual wedding stress, mama.” Chelsea couldn’t look flighty in front of the woman who signed the check for their venue.

“I know it’s overwhelming, but nothing should steal your joy about getting married!”

Sitting on the bench with her hands in her mother’s lap, Chelsea pressed her lips together before asking. “How long did it take before dad was like this?” She pointed up to the house, where she knew he was unpacking their clothes, laying her jewelry out on the dresser, and placing his wife’s toiletries in the bathroom so she could freshen up as soon as she went inside. She had watched him do it for her on every vacation for as long as she could remember.

“Like what?” Millie frowned.

Chelsea shook her head. “No, I mean, when did he become thoughtful and attentive? Noticing things? Doing things for you?”

Millie looked off into the distance, a small smile on her face. “Oh, he’s always been like that. He wouldn’t even let me open my own car door while were dating. I finally put a stop to that, but that’s just his way.”

“Eddy is… was more like that.” Chelsea felt like it was a lie as she said it. He did open her car door a few times, and he knew the sidewalk rule. He brought her coffee in bed the first few mornings she slept over.

Millie said nothing, a funny talent she had. She could fill silence for hours, prattling on about everything she saw and thought. But if you needed space to think, she instinctively played the monk.

“I guess I’m just not sure Eddy will ever be like dad. But all my friends say you make them into the husbands you want.”

Millie laughed. “And when your friends get divorced, you’ll know why.”

Chelsea hated that answer. “You don’t understand. Men are different now and dating is so much worse. I was lucky to even find Eddy.”

“I didn’t say you weren’t.” Millie tapped on her daughter’s knee. “I just said that Gerald has always been the man he is today. And people don’t change, dear.”

Chelsea felt the tears she had been withholding since the night before come welling back up. The only thing keeping her from falling apart right there in the garden was knowing that Eddy’s parents were probably watching them right now, wondering why she rudely hadn’t come in yet to greet them. A swollen face would earn her no pity with her future in-laws.

Returning to the apartment, Chelsea sat in her car for a while, composing her thoughts. Perhaps her mother was right; people didn’t change. Training a husband was aspirational at best, deluded at worst. Had Eddy always been such a selfish boyfriend? Was she too eager to be married that she would settle for someone who couldn’t keep his word and didn’t see garbage?

Although she considered herself a sensible person who made good choices, she felt all over again that she might have made the most expensive, bad choice a person could make.

What were her options? Go through with the wedding, live with it for a year, get divorced, and keep the gifts? That option saved face for now (and helped her acquire a KitchenAid Mixer) but it filled her gut with lead.

Calling all their wedding guests and telling them not to come, however, made her want to throw up.

Opening the door, she was immediately greeted by the smell of ground beef and cumin, soft music in the background, and flowers (uncut gerbera daisies shoved in a too-short vase… but still, flowers!) on the table. Eddy stood with his back to her, stirring taco meat in a pan. When he heard the door close he turned around and smiled at her, that dang dimple popping and his blue eyes cutting straight through her.

“Welcome back! Did your parents get in okay?”

She shook her head to clear the smoke. “Huh? Oh, yes, they did. We stayed and chatted with your parents for a while.”

“My mom called. She said they’re having a great time and going out for dinner together.” He turned back to the meat. “They invited us to go out with them, but I told them we had plans here.”

The lead melted away and her sickness turned to excitement. What had she been so worried about! This was him, the man she fell in love with and wanted to marry. He was just overwhelmed and stressed about the commitment, but this guy would be back as soon as the most stressful event of their lives so far was over.

She walked into the kitchen and analyzed his work. He had spilled some of the taco seasoning packet on the counter, and a broken tortilla shell had been trampled on the floor. He had always been a messy cook. But he had a bag of lettuce, good salsa, and a can of jalapenos all lined up on the counter. He’d even set the table with paper plates to make cleaning up easier!

“This looks great, baby.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks for making dinner. I’ve been so overwhelmed lately.”

His face fell a little. “Yeah.”

“I just mean that it’s nice to have something taken off my plate, you know?” She pulled a little lettuce out of the bag and popped it in her mouth. “I feel like this wedding has taken over my life!”

“You did that to yourself, you know.” He kept stirring at the meat, but he had stiffened all over. “It’s not my fault you wanted a big wedding.”

Taken aback, she pushed off the counter. “Are you mad at me?”

He shook his head. “I just feel like you’re always creating problems and then trying to make them my problems too.”

“By telling you what I’m feeling?”

“Look, I’m just trying to make a nice dinner for us. Stop trying to make me feel bad just because you don’t… you know what.” He dropped the wooden spoon in the taco meat, splashing juice across the stove. “I need a minute.”

He walked out of the kitchen and into the bedroom, slamming the door behind him.

Perplexed, but feeling deeply hurt, she stood frozen, meat juice on her shirt. She ran over the conversation in her mind and couldn’t find the trigger point, no matter how many times she tried. The tears wanted to spill over, but she couldn’t lose her cool now, when this whole relationship seemed on the verge of collapse once again.

Only a minute later, he re-emerged, a sad look on his face. He wrapped her into a hug, pushing his face into her neck and breathing deeply.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have lost my cool.”

“Yeah, that’s okay.” She breathed. “It’s fine. You’re right, let’s just have a nice dinner.”

Plating up their tacos (“Damnit, I forgot cheese!”), they made their way to the table and sat, eating in what Chelsea used to call companionable silence, but now felt awkward and hollow. After nearly inhaling his third taco, Eddy looked up and cleared his throat. “I think we need to talk.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Sure. I think you’re right.” Straightening up, she felt her resolve return to her. This relationship had good parts and bad, just like any relationship might. But if they could talk about their problems, they could get through them together.

“I don’t think we should get married.” He said.

The air left the room in a sudden whoosh. She held her breath in the absence of oxygen, the world tipping off its axis. “What?”

“We’re just too different,” he wouldn’t make eye contact with her, staring instead at the hideous daisies on the table. “I never wanted a big wedding like this, and you’ve been so miserable to be around since we got engaged. It’s like you don’t respect my free time anymore.”

“I…” She couldn’t string words together. Her brain went mushy. He kept talking, but she only caught phrases and words in a jumble, like “uptight” and “too particular” and “didn’t really know you at all” stood out but made no sense.

Her own memories had begun to crystalize. She had been doing his laundry since before they were even engaged because she had an in-unit washer and dryer, and he didn’t. He let her pick restaurants and make reservations because she had “the best taste and was so commanding on the phone.” He had never once unpacked anything for her on the trips she booked and planned for them. She was going to break up with him tonight! How dare he beat her to the punch!

“Stop.” She held up her hands. “Stop talking. I don’t know what you’re talking about or why you’re making this decision now, after buying me a $6,000 dollar ring…”

“I’m going to need that back by the w- “

“Stop!” She stood up so quickly her chair fell on the floor. “Listen. This is the dumbest choice you’ve ever made, and I’ve watched you make a million dumb choices. I have been trying so hard to talk myself into marrying you just so I can cook you dinner, do your laundry, and clean up after you for the rest of your life. That’s a good deal for you! I might be type-A and particular, but that is what makes your life good.”

He shook his head. “I don’t want that. I never asked you to clean up after me.”

“Well, you never told me not to! And I couldn’t live in a frat house!” She waved her hands. “That’s not the point. I’m saying it doesn’t matter. I don’t care why it’s over because it’s just over. I’ll tell you who to call in the morning.”

“But you’re so much better on the phone…”

“You’re leaving the apartment tonight. Go stay with Jake or Jeremy or your brother.”

Thirty minutes later, she sat on the floor of her freshly cleaned kitchen with her head against the wall. All traces of their terrible taco night were erased from the house and a bottle of red wine was opened, ready to drown out her confused grief and embarrassment. She considered calling her parents and breaking the news. They would come over right away and she already knew what they would do. Her mother would brain her hair and paint her nails while her dad looked all around the apartment for something to fix or clean. She reached for her phone right as it rang.

“Honey! What happened? The Whitakers just told us!”

“We were too different.” She shrugged. “I’ll pay you back for everything.”

“Nonsense. Don’t even think about it. We’re coming over. We love you and don’t worry about anything.”

Her dad’s distant voice cut through the car noise in the background. “I love you, honey! Can we bring you anything? I’m stopping by the store for cocoa. Do you want cocoa?”

“Yeah, dad.” She smiled softly. “Thanks for everything.”

February 03, 2023 20:22

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Amanda Lieser
19:06 Feb 16, 2023

Hi Danielle! Welcome and congratulations on the shortlist! I loved how beautifully poetic this piece was and I thought you did a good job of painting cold feet as more than just cold feet for this couple. I also loved the pace of this story because it did remind me of how frantic wedding planning was for us. I picked a favorite line: Eddy might be a little rough around the edges, but that was what marriage was for. I liked it because her mother then advises her that people don’t change. It felt like you were taking away her last hope. Nice j...


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Philip Ebuluofor
08:09 Feb 13, 2023

Congrats. Danielle the way to go in your first attempt. Welcome here.


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Laurel Hanson
12:56 Feb 11, 2023

This made me so tense to read, as in- it is extremely real and very effective. You set up the whole situation beautifully with : "What had been harmless jokes, a comfortably laid-back attitude, and a deference to her opinion while they dated had been painted crimson in their engagement" foreshadowing where this is all going. Then you build the house of cards that is their situation before knocking it all down in a twist that is not entirely expected - you kept the reader guessing, which generated a lot of tension. I have to say, I also real...


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Wally Schmidt
17:49 Feb 10, 2023

This story is so relatable-people getting together and staying together for the wrong reasons. Kudos to both of them for realizing it before they made matters worse. Congrats on the shortlist and the portrayl of these two characters


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Marty B
17:22 Feb 10, 2023

Congrats! I think Chelsea came out the winner with the KitchenAid mixer!


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Wendy Kaminski
16:16 Feb 10, 2023

Fantastic story, Danielle! And congratulations on the short list award!


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