Chewed fingernails sit in a pile next to his keyboard. Daniel slowly gnaws down on the corner edge of his pinky. A napkin spotted with blood is crumpled up on his lap awaiting its next dab. He sits there chomping on what’s left of the pinky nail until he eventually strikes blood. Only then, does he remove the ends of his finger from his mouth and wrap it in the napkin.
Daniel sits at the counter most evenings and unsuccessfully treads the stormy waters of anxiety that fill his head. The bottoms of his feet are tingling from swinging erratically back and forth under the bar stool. His hunch is so bad that his upper back cracks every time he straightens to gaze out at the surrounding buildings starting to light up for the night. Daniel looks down at his laptop again and stares at the cursor on the screen. Each blink threatens his will to write another word.
He re-reads the last paragraph again for the fifth time and is about to hit the backspace bar on the whole story, when he hears the hallway elevator door ring. The metal doors screech open and high heels click loudly on the hardwood floor as they approach the apartment. He quickly slams his laptop shut and jumps to his feet. Daniel leans on the counter trying to steady himself as the room starts to turn gray. ‘How long have I been sitting there?’ he thinks as he stumbles over to the sink. He winces with each step as lightning bolts shoot up his legs.
The apartment door creaks open as his wife Kristina walks in. He quickly shoves his fingers into the cold stream spewing from the gold faucet and winces as blood washes down the drain.
“Hey babe,” Kristina calls from the living room, tossing her overcoat and over the back of the couch. She leans up against the upholstery in order to pull off each heel.
“You know, what they say about romance,” she says walking into the kitchen.
“Hmmm.. I can’t think of anything. What do they say about it?”
“That it starts in the kitchen.”
Kristine stands next to Daniel and reaches behind him to pinch his butt. He flinches and sprays her with the water.
“Ughhh Daniel! Now I’m soaked.”
“Shhhhh. I got Riley to go to sleep an hour ago. If she wakes, it’ll be you in there telling her stories this time.”
Kristina holds her hands up in surrender. Spinning on her heel, she walks quietly into the hallway towards their daughter’s bedroom.
The golden knob on Riley’s door slowly turns and light pours through the opening from the kitchen. Kristina clutches the door frame and peers down at her daughter. Riley lays on her side clutching her three favorite stuffed animals. The rest of her friends sit along the windowsill in a neat row waiting for their turn to snuggle. Kristina smiles and closes the door.
She walks into the kitchen and finds Daniel placing dishes on the drying rack. “I just have a few more minutes before I need to get back to the office. We have our final edit meeting before we send the final copy off to the printer,” she says.
“December is the big one huh? I’m surprised you don’t have a cot next to your desk by now. Maybe Santa will get you one this year,” Daniel laughs.
“Gee thanks babe, you always know what just what a girl wants.. It’s just that, this month is always the toughest on our team. The sponsors fight us hard to get their fair share of attention in the Christmas Edition. It’s a frenzy in the office. I also heard this month’s feature story already has several hundred submissions.”
Daniel glances over his shoulder at her. Kristina is leaning over the counter with slumped shoulders looking half dazed. He tosses the drying towel at her. “Wake up sleepyhead,” he says, reaching out to hold her hand. She pouts her lip and takes it. Daniel pulls Kristina into his chest and puts his arm over her shoulder like he’s about to give her a pep talk. He just pulls her close and kisses her temple instead.
“I’m ready for this magazine marathon to be over, I want to be home with you and Riley again ⏤ It’s been a non-stop grind for three years! I feel like I’m missing her childhood, Daniel.” Something warm trickles down the inside of her hands and stops her train of thought.Kristina pulls up her husband's hands in front of her eyes and gasps at his bloody finger beds.
“What the heck Daniel!” she shrieks.
She glances over and sees his bloody napkin and fingernails by the laptop.
“You have to quit this nasty habit ⏤ your fingers are going to be nubs.”
Daniel stairs down at his fingernails silently.
“What’s going on in that silly head of yours?”
“I can’t help myself, Kris. I feel like I’m losing my sense of identity here. Every day I finish teaching Riley her lessons and just sit up there at that counter wondering if this is it?”
“If this is what?” He can hear the strain in her voice.
“If homeschooling and taking care of Riley is the best that I can do for our family. I have something I’ve been working on Kristina. This one could be big.” Daniel has a spark of hope in his eyes as he pleads with his wife.
Kristina sighs. “Daniel, you’re a dreamer. It’s one of the things I love most about you. But, I’m a realist and right now our family needs you here. You have to actually put one of these dreams into action for me to come behind you on this.”
The sound of traffic below fills the silent room. Kristina stands there grappling with reality while Daniel battles his insecurity. “It sounds to me like you’re tired of making bolognese sandwiches,” Kristina finally says, trying to lighten the mood. She lifts his downcast face and sees his eyes glistening with tears. Heartbroken, she pulls him back in for a long hug. “You’re the best husband and father a girl could wish for Daniel. You are enough for Riley and me.”
Kristina lets go of his hands and slowly walks over to the couch to gather her belongings. She glances over at her husband once more before leaving. The city lights surround his silhouette as he stares out of the window.
Daniel waits for the elevator doors to close, then walks back to the kitchen counter and flips open the laptop. He hovers the mouse over a folder labeled Recycle and double clicks. Dozens of files with random names appear on the screen. He scrolls over to the most recent word document. Beneath the icon is the word autosaved. “Thank God,” Daniel murmurs. He double clicks the document and it opens up to a title page with the prompt: What is your one wish this Christmas?.
He breathes a deep sigh of surrender and minimizes his screen. Once again, he glances over his older stories in the folder and thinks back on all of his former dreams Kristina had mentioned. Daniel looks at each title and is overcome with shame. He contemplates deleting all of them right then. Competition deadlines have come and gone and yet, here his stories sit undiscovered by the world. ‘They might as well have been stored in the ancient Library of Alexandria,’ he thinks to himself.
He sits there at the counter paralyzed by the thought of people actually reading these stories. ‘What would they think about them?’ he contemplates. Daniel shakes off the thought and clicks back over into his story. He scrolls to the last page and reads the last paragraph again.
Moments later, he pulls up the website and pastes the story into the submission box. As he’s doing so, Daniel glances at the remaining time. The red numbers show only 5:00 minutes remaining. The room starts to grow around him as anxiety creeps in. He tears at a hangnail on his index finger and doesn’t press submit. Instead, Daniel starts to re-read his story.
Negative thoughts strike at him every few words trying to distract him. His eyes flash left and right scouring the story for mistakes. He tastes salty blood in his mouth and spits out the hangnail before wiping his wet finger on his jeans. 1:00, :59, 58, :57 blink across his screen as sweat accumulates on Daniel’s palms.
‘It’s not ready,’ he thinks and reaches for the top of the laptop ready to slam it shut. Suddenly he hears a small voice. “Daddy, I can’t sleep.”
Daniel whips around at the sound of her voice. His heart is still racing. Standing behind him is their daughter clutching her turtle pillow-pet tightly to her chest.
“Riley, what are you doing up this late sweetie?”
“Can you tell me a story? Please?”
She looks up at him with her mother’s big green eyes. Softened by her sincerity, Daniel finally gets up from his stool.
“Sure sweetie. Do you want me to tell you the story about the Tortoise and the Hare?”
“No daddy, I want you to hear your story.” Riley smiles swaying back and forth with her turtle.
Her genuine response surprised Daniel and he stood still for a moment. Right then it finally clicked as he watched her dance in purple pajamas that he had an obligation to share this story to the world. He smiles at her, and turns back to his laptop. He hovers his bloody finger over the mouse and finally clicks submit.
By the time Kristina reaches the office, her entire staff is already seated around the conference table chatting.
“Okay people, this is a big one,” Kristina says. “Let’s go around the table and finalize each page of the December Issue.”
One by one her staff members share their screens with the group and give their final updates. This goes on for the next two hours.
“Alright folks,” Kristina finally says. “Y'all really rocked this one. We’re almost home free!” Some of the staff members hoop and holler when she says this. She joins them, knowing they are all running on fumes tonight.
“Last on the docket is the final vote for the winner of this December Issue’s short story competition.”
“I got one that is going to make you all cry happy tears,” one of the assistant editors says, as she waves her hands in front of her eyes to simulate drying tears.
“Now remember, we can’t choose a story asking for a Lamborghini or something outrageous like that. Our budget unfortunately won’t allow us to grant that wish, you hear?”
She pulls up the list showing 500 submissions. Her eyes grow big at the sheer number of participants this year. Next to each title is a checkbox showing they have been read. She breaths a big sigh of relief, “Whew, thank goodness ya’ll. I was hoping we could all get home back to our families before midni-” Kristina pauses. At the very bottom of the submission page was one story written by an anonymous writer highlighted as unread.
“Well well…looks like we missed one.” she says with a sarcastic tone.
Her staff begins to fidget in their leather chairs.
“It must have been submitted right at the deadline, ma’am,” says one of her assistants. “Plus look at the name ─ we can’t even award this unknown writer.”
“Well, since we’re all here, let’s just read it together aloud shall we?” Kristina suggests. She can hear a tinge of excitement in her voice. It was no secret to them that she loves the Christmas prompt the most. Every year her teams gets the opportunity to change someone’s life.
They all tilt their heads up at the screen as she pulls up the story and starts to read. The professionalism and creativity of the writing stand out immediately. It becomes clear to everyone in the room that this was not the anonymous writer’s first rodeo. As the story reaches its climax, they all slowly stop reading and shift their gaze from the screen to their boss sitting in the front chair. She is still reading aloud but hasn’t quite caught up with the rest of the room. Kristina finally reaches the middle paragraph and her voice, which was booming with giddy enthusiasm up until this point, begins to gradually fade. She reads the next lines with little more than a whisper.
“My wife doesn’t know just how proud of her we both are. But, the pride isn’t enough to fill the void in my heart as I tuck in my daughter by myself almost every nigh─” the lump that had already begun to form in Kristina’s throat finally jumps up and she can barely breathe. Panicked, she grabs her purse and runs out of the conference room.
Kristina barely makes it into the hallway before she collapses and begins to weep. The rest of the staff sit motionless in their chairs listening to her muffled cry through the glass. After what seems like eternity, Kristina picks herself up and walks out of the building.
The apartment elevator opens to a quiet hallway. Kristina shuffles through the metal doors and heads down the hall to their apartment. She pauses at the door and takes a deep shaky breath. ‘Where do I even begin?’ She asks herself, thinking back to the story. She is still in awe of her husband’s ability to write, but the reverence isn’t enough to keep away the guilt welling up inside of her. She recounts the life that he and Riley gave up so that she could pursue her dream three years ago. Defeated, Kristina walks into the apartment and takes off her heels at the couch again. As she stands there trying to keep her balance, something on the kitchen counter catches her attention. Daniel’s laptop sits on the counter still open.
Kristina silently walks over to their bedroom to check on him. She cracks the door open and peeks in. She’s surprised to find her side of the bed is taken. Daniel is snoring covered in his usual sheet and blanket. Next to him is a huge lump of comforter and sheets. Riley’s curly hair slips out of the top of it covering her pillow. Kristina smiles down at them and quietly shuts the door.
She logs in to the laptop using Riley’s name and their anniversary date as the password. She clicks on the most recent files and there it is ─ Her husband’s short story.
Kristina brings her hand to her heart as she fights the urge to open it and re-read his heartbreaking Christmas wish. Instead, she clicks back and sees the recently opened folder labeled Recycle. Puzzled as to why he recently opened that folder, she clicks on it and opens the first file. Kristina pulls in a deep breath of shock. It was another one of his stories. She realizes that all of Daniel’s stories have been hidden here in plain sight for all these years. She never once thought to click through this folder.
The next morning, Daniel wakes up to sounds coming from the kitchen. Confused and still groggy, he lifts up the comforter to wake up Riley and Kristina. He’s surprised to find the bed empty. More noises come from the kitchen again. It sounds like someone is scrubbing pans, which Daniel finds odd because he is the one who normally cooks breakfast while the girls get ready. Daniel swings his legs out of the bed and walks out of the bedroom in his oversized shirt and boxers.
The aroma of roasted coffee and bacon fills his nose as he turns the corner. He’s surprised to find Kristina standing there waiting for him with a cup of black coffee and the newspaper in her hands. He looks over at the dining table and sees it covered with a spread of delicious food their family normally cooks up on the weekends. Riley sits at one of the chairs on her knees trying to stab bacon with her plastic spork. “Good morning Daddy” she yells while waving her food in the air at him. Bits of bacon fall to the floor in the process.
“What’s all this Kris?” Daniel asks, hiding a nervous smile.
Kristina didn’t respond. Instead, she hands him his cup of coffee and falls into him pressing her forehead into his chest. He can feel his shirt getting damp beneath her face. Confused, Daniel runs his hands across her back and pulls her in tighter. He peers over the top of Kristina's head into the kitchen. Strewn all across the counter are piles and piles of papers.
“Kristina are those -”
“Yes Daniel,” ”Kristina interrupts, wiping the runny mascara from last night with the heels of her hands.
“How could you not tell me about all of these stories Danny?”
Daniel hears the hurt in her voice and starts biting his nails in order to avoid coming clean about his hobby. Kristina sees him struggling to respond and grabs his hand. “Come with me,” she says, leading him over to the dining table.
In front of his breakfast plate lies a stack of papers neatly clipped together with his name printed across the top. He turns and looks at Kristina with wide eyes. She smiles at him with tears in her eyes and nods. Daniel begins to cry, pulling Kristina in for a long hug. Riley scoots out of her chair and runs in between their legs trying to climb up between them. They both look down at their daughter and laugh with joy. Daniel sweeps Riley up and the three of them stand there hugging for a long time.
On the table next to them is Daniel’s submission. Watermarked across the page is one word in big red letters.