Contest #226 shortlist ⭐️

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Fiction Holiday

The line was already forming as Margaret pulled into the parking lot of the small, unmarked building tucked into the residential neighborhood. The usual characters were front and center waiting at the locked door. 

“Good morning,” she called out, juggling several brown paper bags, careful to keep her keys on hand to unlock the pantry. “Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!”

She was met with smiles and cheerful holiday greetings. Those closest to the door shuffled to the side allowing the older woman to pass. “Please stay in line against the building, thanks so much!” She called out her instructions the same as she did every week to keep the crowd organized. More volunteers would be arriving soon with boxes and bags, some with wagons, and they needed a clear path.

Entering the spacious pantry, Margaret flipped on the light switches then turned to lock the door behind her. There was one hour before they would officially open, and much needed to be done. Looking in the backroom’s freezer she counted fifteen turkeys donated at the last minute. Not enough for everyone, only a select few would receive a bird for the holiday and the decision would not be made lightly.

It would be a longer line than usual based on the traffic they had been receiving lately. Times were tough, she was thankful for the donations that came in over the past few weeks to prepare for the holiday. Pounding the pavement herself, she had collected gift cards from local restaurants and food stores, but her success was significantly less fruitful than in the past. It had been hard times for everyone.

Checking her watch, she noted fifty minutes before the doors opened. Time to get busy.

***

“How did I get back here?” Ashley wondered, feeling pathetic and small, holding the hand of her daughter. She had promised herself to never return to this feeling of despair and embarrassment again. She had kept their heads above water for almost two years, but just barely. One small setback was all it took for the domino effect to send her back to the line of the downtrodden. She squeezed her daughter’s mittened hand and smiled down at her child. She would make up for this, she promised herself. She would.

***

Margaret unlocked the door, smiling at the massive crowd of people waiting. The line, probably twice the length of her original estimation, snaked its way through the parking lot and spilled into the street. Worried about the reaction of the neighbors she knew she had to work fast and stay organized. “Remember the rules, everyone! One at a time, fill up your bag and allow the next person in. Come on in, Freddy. Good to see you!” She propped the door open and allowed entry to the elderly man, always the first to show up, standing out in the cold for hours to ensure a meal for his family. She smiled at Joseph, the second in line, the veteran who stood tall and proud in his torn shoes and open coat with missing buttons. Her heart broke a little every time she saw him. Looking past him was Ronny, pale and thin undergoing another round of chemo. Nobody said life was fair.

***

“Mommy, it’s almost our turn!”  

She looked at Ava, her beauty, and tried not to cry. “Yes! Only a few more minutes,” she replied shifting her weight from foot to foot trying to stay warm, glancing down at Ava’s boots wondering if her feet were just as cold, praying that was not the case. 

***

“Next!” She called out to the volunteers to usher in the next person on line while quickly reorganizing the inventory. The cans of vegetables and boxes of stuffing were going faster than she would have liked. Having a small number of boxes in the back room, Margaret hoped there would be enough. Turning away even one hungry person was not an option even if it meant running out to the store to buy a cart full of groceries herself.

“Come on, Ava, it’s ok,” she heard, turning to see a young woman enter, her hood pulled closely around her face, the little girl a miniature version. There was something about them, what was it?

***

“Oh no,” her heart raced when she saw the older woman at the counter, her worst fear coming true. She kept her hood on, head down and prayed Ava would behave like a silent little church mouse. This was a mistake, she cursed herself repeatedly. Why would she come back after all this time?

***

The pantry was quite warm, but Margaret noticed the young woman kept her hood on while going from shelf to shelf working her way around the room. She couldn’t get a good look at her face. Was she trying to avoid her?  Being at the mercy of strangers can bring shame, making those feel awkward, not being able to look anyone in the eye. She would never think less of a person reaching out for help. How could she judge when she herself was in their shoes once upon a time? She was tempted to greet her, make small talk, but didn’t. She was tempted to bend down to smile at the little girl called Ava, to brush the hair out of her eyes and stroke her cheek but didn’t. She reminded her so much of another little girl in another lifetime. Waiting for them to make their way around the room she stood at the counter thinking about the turkeys in the backroom realizing she had found a good recipient. 

***

“Keep your head down, keep your head down,” she chanted to herself, the heat rising to her cheeks, sweat collecting on her forehead beneath the thick hood. Blindly she put boxes of macaroni and cheese into her bag, followed by muffin mix and cereal. The cereal they could eat immediately, even without milk if need be. The mac and cheese and muffin mix would have to wait, both being poor choices under the circumstances. Feeling the familiar panic, she had no idea what she was going to do. Their utilities had been shut off that morning, as the pile of notices had warned they would. Thankfully they left the apartment before Ava noticed the TV had gone dark, her favorite cartoons silenced. The mac and cheese and muffin mix were nothing more than a reminder of the stove that wouldn’t turn on in their apartment that would be freezing upon their return. She scanned the shelves for items requiring no prep at all to eat in the heated car while driving slowly back home. Noticing the basket of wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, she shamefully took four, hoping she wasn’t being selfish but at the same time grateful for their lunch and dinner. Feeling her face flush she added a handful of energy bars to her bag, her self-hatred and her relief rising simultaneously.

***

The young woman’s bag was filled to the brim as she neared the end of the obstacle course of shelving units. She was approaching Margaret, eyes downcast, cheeks red and glistening with sweat, clearly in extreme distress. “Victoria, please send in the next person and ask one of the girls to cover for me,” she called out to the volunteer in the doorway before giving her full attention to the situation at hand. She was tempted to stay quiet, to let her pass through the system, but was on high alert and needed to step in.

“We have another room in the back, come see if there’s anything else you can use,” she said gently, hoping they wouldn’t bolt. Feeling so drawn to this girl and her daughter she wondered if she knew them from somewhere or were they a modern day version of herself and Liz? A lump formed in the back of her throat at the thought of her own daughter. How many years had it been? Too many, but apparently her crimes were unforgivable, the punishment lasting a lifetime. 

Looking like a deer caught in the headlights the young woman froze, and Margaret’s memories of that night came flooding back. 

***

“She remembers,” Ashley thought, horrified. The worst night of her life, the nightmare that she fought every day to forget, to move on from. The memory was still not crystal clear, the doctors said that all the details may never return, which would be a blessing as far as she was concerned. She didn’t need to remember every slap, every punch and shove until finally falling to the floor whimpering like a dog. She didn’t need to remember every cruel word, every insult from that night, the years of verbal abuse were enough to last a lifetime. 

She did remember the kindness of strangers, the brown eyes of a woman who stroked her cheek, cleaned the blood gently off her forehead while they waited for the ambulance. She did remember her soothing words, caressing whispers promising she would be okay. “You’re better than this,” she had heard, finally releasing the tears that had been bottled up for years, allowing them to flow as the kind woman held her, rocking her like a baby, providing comfort and a glimmer of hope.

Those same brown eyes were looking at her now. The women stared at each other, locked together in a shared memory of that awful night when she had hit rock bottom.

***

“I can’t believe it. It’s her.” How many times did she think of this girl since that terrible night? Being alone in the pantry stocking the shelves, Margaret had been startled by the banging on the door, the terrified voice coming from the other side begging for help. Opening the door, a young woman fell into her arms bleeding from a gash on her forehead.  Fighting her flashbacks, she had dialed 911 with shaking hands, doing her best to comfort the stranger who had taken a terrible beating. With no one else in sight and no cars in the parking lot, she was left to assume she lived in one of the houses on the road. 

When the ambulance came that night, Margaret had desperately wanted to accompany her to the hospital, but the police officers had requested she stay for the paperwork. How long ago was that? A year? Five years? If it were fifty years ago she would still remember every detail, still think about it daily, wondering if that girl was okay. Now she was there again, returned to her pantry.

***

“Want more pie, Ava? We have apple and pumpkin, which are you in the mood for?” 

Ava looked from one to the other, undecided.

“Or you can have both,” Margaret suggested, loving the look of excitement that lit up the little girl’s beautiful face. It had been a year since Ashley and her daughter moved into her house with the plan of being there just one night. 

Staying in Liz’s room, which had remained empty for decades, they took it day by day at first. Ashley, not wanting to intrude, had found it difficult accepting the hospitality. Margaret allowed them their space, not wanting to push, but praying every day for them to stay even one more night. 

Slowly with the passage of time they had settled in, no longer thinking in terms of temporary housing as Margaret’s home became their home as well. Never quite filling the void left by her own daughter, Margaret felt a contentment she hadn’t known in years. The women had many similarities, both had suffered through volatile relationships and debilitating economic hardship. The one difference being that Liz was unable to forgive her mother for the crime of poverty while Ava showed compassion and strength in the face of hardship.

“Come on, girls, let’s finish up. The truck is on its way to the pantry. We have a lot of organizing to do for Thanksgiving. Not to mention our first clothing drive.” Margaret looked worried suddenly.

“Yes, but luckily this year you have us.”  Ashley smiled and gave Margaret a kiss on the cheek before helping Ava with her new mittens. “Let’s go,” she said, picking up the shoes and coat she had purchased for Joseph and the woolen hat she had found for Ronny, whose hair was beginning to grow back. A moment of sadness came over them as they remembered Freddy, always first in line, who had passed away a few months back. 

“Ava,” Margaret called out from the front door, “Do you have the mac and cheese?”

“Yes,” the little girl answered, holding a bag filled with plastic containers. “And the muffins.”

Life was not for the weak, they knew that well, it could be cruel, but it could be beautiful. They were victims, they were survivors, and now they were family.

November 25, 2023 17:20

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13 comments

Mallory Jones
17:41 Dec 08, 2023

I loved the pumpkin pie story, but this one has me convinced that you are the best writer I've come across on here. Wish you had won with this one- it was perfect.

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Hannah Lynn
22:50 Dec 08, 2023

Wow! You have left me speechless!!!! Thank you so much!!

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AnneMarie Miles
15:53 Dec 03, 2023

I really like the perspectives you are choosing in your recent stories. It's a reminder not to take things for granted and to be thoughtful and giving this holiday season. Thanks, Hannah!

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Hannah Lynn
19:36 Dec 03, 2023

AnneMarie, Yes, my imagination really led me to similar themes this time around. Thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed the story! 😊

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Philip Ebuluofor
07:23 Dec 11, 2023

Congrats once again. Are you that same Hannah with her pics here before ?

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Hannah Lynn
14:31 Dec 11, 2023

Thanks again! No I never had pics here. I believe there are a few Hannahs here.

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Philip Ebuluofor
11:14 Dec 17, 2023

I see.

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Mary Bendickson
16:50 Dec 08, 2023

Just realized you have two winners this week. Don' t know if I ever saw that before. Congrats!🥳🥳🥳

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Hannah Lynn
20:57 Dec 08, 2023

Mary, thanks so much! 😊😊 I’m super excited!!

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Zoe King
20:28 Dec 02, 2023

I know I'm always here, but I just want to say I have high hopes for this one! (Sorry it's such a short comment)!

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Hannah Lynn
23:12 Dec 02, 2023

Thank you as always, Zoe! :)

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Mark Burns
18:32 Nov 26, 2023

Beautiful story, beautifully told!

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Hannah Lynn
19:40 Nov 26, 2023

Thank you so much, Mark! :)

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