Earlier this year, I decided to revisit an old short story of mine.
I liked the premise, but the execution was sub-standard and there were problems with continuity. It was hard. Let me tell you, editing sucks (says the girl currently stuck editing chapter 5 of a 29-chapter novel). It involves a whole new set of skills where you have to be critical without wanting to set yourself and everything you’ve ever written on fire. It’s often tempting to stop halfway through, but you’ve just got to push on.
Because sometimes, it pays off.
Story completed more or less to my satisfaction, I decided on a whim to send it off to the Bridport Prize. I didn’t think anything would come of it. After all, I’d sent a story a few years back that had received excellent grades during my MA in Creative Writing and it got absolutely nowhere. This was just for laughs. Just because I felt daring and like I had to do something with this piece that was finally ready.
Several months later, while waiting for news of another story that had been submitted to a charity anthology (found out this morning: didn’t get in), I got the big email. I thought it was a promotion at first, then saw it was addressed to me by name. Then, to my mounting shock, saw that they’d actually included the title of my story in the body of the email.
The penny dropped: my story, The Lioness, had been shortlisted. It hadn’t won, but it was in the final 100 out of 4521 stories submitted.
I cried. Hysterically. Then I told my Mum, laughed and cried some more.
But then came the next question: what should I do with it now? Should I tuck it back in a drawer to wait for the next big competition to enter? Should I send it off to a magazine, hoping they’d see in it what the Bridport judges did? It was tempting. It really was. There’s very little that beats receiving that email full of good news…
… but then I looked at it a different way. What if it doesn’t get anywhere in another competition? What if no magazine wants to publish it? Would it stay in my drawer forever? Wouldn’t that be a little bit sad?
So I decided this: if I want to do another competition, I can write another story. But what if it’s not good enough? Well, it’ll be my job to come up with something good enough. That’s what writers do. I can’t just sit on one “good” story forever. I have to let go and move on. It’s the only way to ever get better at writing.
So for your reading pleasure, here it is. It’s a little dark, but I hope at least some of you will like it.
It was mid-afternoon when the man and the girl walked into the bar. Leaning over the narrow zinc counter, Maybelle caught a glimpse of their black pickup sitting alone at the end of the dusty parking lot. Hot air shuddered around it, blurring the license plate.
Not your typical father and daughter, Maybelle noted as she surveyed the pair. They kept a certain physical distance between them at all times. Neither seemed willing to bridge it, keeping just out of reach of the other.
The girl brushed her fingers over the worn leather of a bar stool, stuck her finger into a hole and picked at the loose stuffing. A few foam crumbs tumbled to the floor. The man opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it. He waited for the girl to climb onto the seat and settle, her bare legs dangling, before stepping forward and placing an open hand on the counter. Maybelle’s trained eye spotted a pale strip of skin near the base of his ring finger. She gave the girl a second glance. Her body belonged to a twelve-year-old, but her dark brown eyes seemed to say something more.
The Beach Boys blasted out of the radio, cheap and cheerful. It was a hundred degrees outside and even hotter in the car, despite two open windows and the desert air rushing by. Jane squirmed in her seat. A bead of sweat rolled down the back of her neck, soaking into her shirt. Beside her, her mother was tapping her long pink nails on the steering wheel in time to the beat. She had the same dark hair as Jane, only longer, and a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses kept sliding down her glistening nose.
“Almost there, honey,” she said.
Jane nodded, desperate for a soda. She pressed her forehead against the window and watched the heat play tricks with the land.
“What can I get you?” Maybelle asked, hoping they wouldn’t stay.
The man nodded at the old television where a baseball game was in full swing. “Got the Discovery Channel?”
Chewing loudly on her piece of gum, Maybelle leaned forward and made a show of looking down both ends the counter. Pleasing the locals was always more important. That afternoon, however, Freddy Bale was the only one there. He was slumped in the corner booth with a cap over his eyes and the fizz dying in his rum and Coke. Maybelle shrugged and fingered the remote. She stared as a couple of lions crept through long blades of grass, shoulders rolling.
“Jane?” the man pushed, his voice strained.
Jane’s gaze was already pinned to the TV.
“Milk,” she whispered. “Please.”
A while later they saw the overturned truck by the side of the road. Three men waved, the sun turning their eyes to slits, while a fourth rested with his back against a crate. Brake marks snaked across the cracked tarmac. Jane was suddenly conscious of how wet her shirt felt against her back. An unpleasant clenching turned her stomach upside down, as if she’d only just missed falling off a cliff. Something bad had happened here. Bad things always made her feel that way.
“Looks like they need help,” her mother said, craning her neck to get a better view.
Jane swallowed hard as the car slowed down.
“What if someone’s dead?” she asked, her voice weak.
Behind the heart-shaped sunglasses, her mother shot her a stern look. It was the kind she usually reserved for squeamish patients.
“Exactly. We’re stopping.”
Jane’s father looked at Maybelle, who shrugged and nodded. Bottom lip tucked behind her teeth, Jane paid them no attention. Her eyes were fixed on the lions stalking their prey, following the felines’ every move.
Maybelle went to get the milk. The five rings she wore on the fingers of her right hand clinked against the cold, damp bottles in the fridge. Wiping the icy condensation on her forehead, she hovered over the box of straws. The girl was probably too old for pink. Something about her reserved expression and serious eyes excluded all notions of childishness. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t natural and it made Maybelle nervous.
The pink straw went in.
After all, Maybelle reasoned that it was her job to set people right, even if only for the time it took them to finish their drink. Like when Freddy Bale and the others came in to complain about their jobs and their wives. Maybelle set the glass down in front of Jane.
“Here you go, Miss,” she said, trying for a smile.
Jane muttered her thanks without moving. Maybelle studied the father, but he seemed barely even there.
“For yourself?” she asked.
“Nothing, thanks.” He sighed and jerked his thumb in the direction of the pickup. “The engine’s got a problem. Can you fix it?”
When she saw them up close, the first thing Jane noticed about the strangers was how calm they looked. The man on the floor had some bruises on his jaw and appeared to be nursing a broken arm. His eyes were closed, his brow furrowed. The other three shared an air of mild impatience. The middle one had a large amount of stubble on his face and a dirty checked shirt, while his two standing companions, identical twins, were tall and bald. The sun had baked their smooth heads brown.
“Jane. Wind down your window,” her mother said, leaning over.
Jane did as she was told, focusing on the handle rather than the men. The middle one was approaching. Out of the corner of her eye, Jane saw him drop a cigarette butt on the ground and squash it underfoot.
“Can we help you? I’m a certified nurse,” her mother smiled.
Suppressing a sigh, Maybelle nodded once. She knew the code. Demands like this were infrequent, but not unheard of. She thought of her father. He would have been over the counter with a shotgun, leaving no opportunity for apologies. It was lucky her father was dead.
Maybelle let herself out from behind the counter and headed for the door, the man’s heavy footfalls close behind. The heat outside the building felt as solid as a wall. Maybelle knew better than to rush into it. Her steps were slow, grating on the dirt and stones in a steady rhythm. They walked to the truck in silence. Maybelle popped her gum and made a show of opening the hood.
“What seems to be the problem?”
The man leaned against the passenger door and looked right through her. She wondered what he was really seeing.
“You got any kids?” he asked.
Maybelle frowned and said she didn’t. This wasn’t the sort of chat-up line she was used to. Maybe they did things differently where he was from. She checked the contents of the hood methodically. The temperature made it difficult to touch anything, but she noticed the oil was running low. Her hands left dark smudges across her apron and jeans.
“You’re not used to looking after stuff, are you?” she remarked, spitting out her gum and straightening up.
The man was staring at the ground. She’d wounded his ego, but she couldn’t bring herself to apologise. He deserved it after making her believe all he wanted was a quick fuck. Men and their engines, and all that.
Maybelle thought of Jane, sitting inside the bar with only a slumbering Freddy Bale for company, and blushed. Why did she always expect the worst with people?
“You sure can help us, ma’am,” the middle man grinned.
Jane watched a fleck of spit settle on his lower lip as her mother got out of the car, keys still dangling in the ignition. Jane’s hands hesitated over the buckle of her seatbelt. She wouldn’t be able to drive if something happened. She was too short, too young. She didn’t know how. The sun hit the skin on Jane’s legs as she opened the door and followed her mother.
“That your daughter?”
One of the twins stepped forward, hand outstretched. Jane wanted so hard to back away, but she also didn’t want to be called rude. Relief flowed through her when her mother stepped up and took the proffered palm instead. Her hand seemed tiny inside the man’s much larger one.
“My name’s Monica. We’re headed out West. What happened?”
The middle man pointed to his injured friend.
“That fool thought he saw a coyote and swerved. The load made our truck tip over. No one else is hurt, but we don’t wanna leave him.”
Jane frowned. A thought came to her in a voice that sounded like Mr Travis, the sports coach from her school.
Two can walk and one can stay.
She stared at the man on the ground, at the expression on his face. He looked bored.
“Jane and I have been through a lot, lately. I’ve decided to hit the road until things settle down.”
The man was talking now, his pride forgotten.
“How old is she?” Maybelle asked.
He sighed. “Thirteen next week.”
Maybelle tried to remember what it was like to turn thirteen. She could picture a lot of fights with her mother and the cold, scrutinising glare of her father. Sudden curfews, slack-jawed boys and the first burning sip of alcohol. The heady feeling of suddenly understanding the world like no one else could ever hope to. So much heartache. So many mistakes. Did it always have to be that way?
“How does she feel about going on the road?” Maybelle said, seeking distraction.
“Nothing. She doesn’t talk much.”
Raising her eyebrows, Maybelle blew out a puff of hot air. Clearly, the pickup wasn’t the only thing that needed fixing. She’d never met a girl that age without an opinion about everything. This guy was clueless.
“Go get yourself a drink while I change the oil. Please.”
The man hesitated, then nodded. He seemed relieved to let her take control of the situation. He went back to the bar as Maybelle headed for the shed.
The injured man’s face was dripping.
It was dripping so heavily in fact that the fresh bruises seemed to be sliding down his jaw. He lifted his good arm to wipe the moisture off, but caught Jane’s eye at the last moment and paused. He frowned at her, but she kept on staring. The man put his arm down and looked away. A swollen drop of sweat left his hairline and ran straight through the middle of the biggest bruise. A bleeding line of blue disappeared into the creases of his neck. Jane reached for her mother’s arm and tugged.
“You should have left him in the truck,” Monica was saying. “He’s going to get sunstroke.”
“We thought no one would stop, if they couldn’t see the damage,” the middle man replied.
Jane tugged again, harder.
“Fair point. What, honey?”
“Can I talk to you in the car?” Jane asked.
Behind her heart-shaped glasses, Monica frowned. “These gentlemen need my help. Can’t it wait?”
Jane heard that no-nonsense tone again and realised she wouldn’t get another chance.
“That man over there,” she said, pointing.
“That’s Jesse,” one of the twins offered with a strained smile.
His brother grunted and turned to the injured man. “The lady’s right,” he barked. “Go sit in the truck.”
Keeping his back to them, Jesse shuffled to his feet.
“What about him?” Monica asked. She was staring at the arm that was supposed to be broken. Jane detected a sliver of doubt and latched onto it.
“I think he’s faking,” she whispered as quietly as she could.
Once she was done with the oil, Maybelle went back inside to find father and daughter sitting at opposite ends of the counter. Freddy Bale hadn’t moved from the corner and Jane was still enthralled by the show. Her father had a glass of water in front of him.
“I meant beer or something,” Maybelle said.
The man’s passive mood unnerved her. There was something there she couldn’t touch. Maybelle didn’t like things she couldn’t see or touch. Ghosts, for example, or the desert winds that blew dust into her eyes.
“I don’t drink anymore,” the man said.
Maybelle nodded. Was that why the girl’s mother had left? Perhaps he used to be violent. Maybelle stared at the lines on his brow and the two-day stubble on his cheek. The muscles underneath his shirt seemed weak and unused. He’d had the fight knocked out of him some time ago. Something else then, perhaps… but why should she care so much about strangers?
Jane’s mouth fell open in a small gasp. Both adults turned their heads towards her, then followed her gaze to the screen. One of the lions leapt out from the long grass, limbs pounding the ground, chasing after a startled gazelle. The prey’s panic was contagious. Maybelle felt her painted nails scratch the zinc counter as they all watched the race, Jane’s eyes widening with every passing second. It was all a blur of brown and blue until the second lion leapt in from the left and slammed its body into the gazelle’s fragile frame. The animals toppled over, dirt flying everywhere.
“You’ve got yourself one smart-ass daughter there, Monica,” the middle man said with a grinding laugh.
Jane’s hand flew to her mouth as he walked towards them. Behind him, Jesse had stopped, his bad arm swinging free. There didn’t seem anything the matter with it at all. Jane felt her mother’s fingers dig into her shoulder, but found she didn’t mind that kind of pain. She thought she saw a different kind playing around in the middle man’s eyes. She didn’t like the look of it one little bit. Behind him, the twins drew closer.
“I see you gentlemen will be fine without us,” said Monica, trying to sound firm. “Come, honey. We’re leaving.”
Jane could hear cracks forming in her mother’s voice. She’d never seen Monica this nervous before.
“I wonder, is Jane any good at puzzles?” the middle man remarked to his friends.
He stopped a foot away from the women and leered at them. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out another cigarette and stuck it between his lips.
“Jesse!” he barked.
Jesse retrieved a lighter from the inside of his jacket and brought it over. Silently, he lit the middle man’s cigarette and stepped back a pace. He kicked at the desert floor with his dirty shoe. Jane kept looking at him over her shoulder as her mother pulled her back towards the car. He seemed upset about something, like he didn’t really want to be there.
The middle man’s voice grated against their backs. “I wouldn’t hurry so much if I were you.”
Jane was tired of the way he spoke. She didn’t even glance at him. It was Jesse that fascinated her. She didn’t often see adults wear their emotions so plainly. His expression had worsened. There was pain in the hard set of his lips. It was what he should have looked like in the first place, with a broken arm and a battered face, Jane realized. Hurt, not bored.
“I want to go home,” she whispered.
They were almost at the car when they heard a clicking sound behind them. Jane’s mother turned her head to check on the middle man. Jane heard a gasp and followed the arrow of her mother’s gaze.
The perfectly round mouth of the middle man’s gun made a dirty spot of darkness in the midday heat.
There was blood. Maybelle saw blood all the time, smeared on the faces of brawling patrons and the soft cotton panty liners she threw away each month. Still, she had to look away.
Searching for something to do, she focused on Jane instead. The girl’s eyes never wavered, drinking it all in like a multilayered cocktail.
Colourful. Intoxicating. Deadly.
It reminded Maybelle of the time she’d been watching a movie with her parents and the characters on screen had started having sex. She couldn’t have been much older than Jane. She could still feel the heat radiating off her cheeks as her mother made nervous, offhand comments about what she was going to make for dinner later, followed by the awkward silence when her father found the remote and turned the TV off, mid-action.
Maybelle leaned towards the man. He too had averted his eyes.
“Has she always liked that kind of stuff?” she asked.
More importantly, did he notice the way Jane brought her teeth down on the straw, chewing it fiercely while leaving her drink intact? It made Maybelle wanted to snatch the piece of dented pink plastic away and bury it far out in the desert soil.
Jane’s father rubbed the spot on his ring finger. “No,” he said.
The stuffy air and half-answers were getting to Maybelle. Thinking she’d have a drink, because why the hell not, she reached under the counter for a bottle of Bud. Her hand met only empty space. She sighed.
“Wanna help me carry some beer?” she asked the father. “I could use a hand.”
She led him out across the yard and into the storeroom, where she sat down on a crate and stretched her legs. The bulb had blown out months ago, but she knew her way around so well she hadn’t replaced it. Her own father would have been proud. Maybelle liked the storeroom that way, dark and silent and safe. Especially now.
The man standing next to her, veiled in half-darkness and confusion, was nothing but a man, Maybelle decided. She could look at him without having to see every last line on his face. Here, right now, he didn’t have a wife, didn’t have a daughter. Never had.
She didn’t normally do this kind of thing. Not like that, at least.
“Come here,” she said.
There was silence in the darkness and then he moved in close.
The word was clear and round too, just like the gun.
Just like the wound, Jane imagined, that a bullet might make when passing through human flesh. No matter how much she wished it wouldn’t, the picture froze in her mind and stayed there. Suddenly, there were bullet wounds everywhere, on the mean-looking hands of the leering middle man and the place where the fake bruise had dripped off Jessie’s face. On her mother’s soft, tanned arms and between her sweat-covered breasts. Right on top of Jane’s belly button. Giant bursting sunspots with a blinding pain behind every single one.
“No,” Jane whispered, just an echo.
The middle man didn’t hear.
“I’m afraid you can’t decide, today, Monica. It’s not up to you,” he said.
Jane closed her eyes. She felt her mother inch towards her. A hand rested on the damp skin at the back of Jane’s neck. Despite the heat, her mother’s fingers were turning cold. Jane squirmed. It was distracting. She couldn’t think.
“I like your daughter, Monica,” said the middle man. “I like her so much I’m going to make a deal with her.”
Jane wanted to shake her head. Was it something she could refuse? She turned and hid her face against her mother’s arm. Somewhere, in the distance, she heard a voice. She heard words. Six simple, meaningless words.
“I’m going to let her choose.”
Jane heard them loud and clear, but still they didn’t make any sense.
They kissed and stumbled, a black canvas of wet on wet. Maybelle heard a couple of bottles shatter as they felt around for each other’s body. Shards of glass crunched under the soles of her shoes and the heavy smell of cheap alcohol wafted through the air, enough to fill her with the illusion of intoxication. It wasn’t a particularly good kiss, but it was real.
And then he broke it.
“Her mother’s gone,” he said.
Maybelle straightened, suddenly wishing she still smoked. She considered asking the man for a cigarette, but there were no notes of tobacco on his breath. What a waste.
“I figured,” she mumbled.
The man sighed. “They can’t explain it to me.”
Bending over, Maybelle skimmed the floor with the tips of her fingers. There was a lot of broken glass. Her mouth turned sour. She would have to get that bulb fixed and let some light in. The prospect bothered her almost as much as the abrupt end to their kissing. There might be others again, from time to time, but she would never be able to pretend. No wives. No daughters. Just men.
“They?” she asked, latching onto something, anything.
There was a creak. A blade of daylight pierced the storeroom. Maybelle blinked. Jane’s father had found his way to the door. He looked outside, towards the bar, then shut the door again.
“The cops. The doctors. The school shrink. No one can find me an answer.”
Maybelle stopped her rummaging, back still bent. She hadn’t heard any more noises coming from the bar, but that didn’t mean anything. Most animals ate in silence.
Life. Jane thought about life.
With the sun shining in her eyes and the taste of dust in her mouth, she thought of what it felt like to hold hands with someone and run through heavy rain. Feet skidding on metal grids. Clean drops rolling down dark hair, soaking it through. Towels. Hot cocoa. Marshmallows, if Dad remembered to get some from the store.
Dad. Dad was life.
“Please,” she whispered.
That word again. It seemed to Jane like she was being followed by that one small sound, so definite and so unpleasant. It would be nice never to have to say it again and never to hear it said. It would be better not to have to think or choose. The middle man, whose stubbly face she saw but couldn’t recognise, was asking her to choose.
“Jane,” her mother said.
It was so simple and in this new, horrifying world, simplicity was heaven.
She couldn’t turn away. She looked straight at those heart-shaped glasses, twin shapes far prettier than the ones standing next to her, leering and waiting. Behind the dark lenses, Jane felt the presence of light. Soothing touches on a sweating forehead. A sharp word, pale eyes gazing into the distance. She let the years fall away from her mother until there was only Monica. The woman her father had fallen in love with. The woman who’d learned to process pain, through watching others suffer and die at the hospital on a daily basis. But could she process this?
Me, screamed a voice inside Jane’s head. Me.
She’d been taught the value of sacrifice, like all good kids. But she’d also been taught to think things through. To sift through problems in a logical way, in order to reach a logical conclusion. Would her mother be able to live with this?
“Come on kid,” the middle man said. “We haven’t got all day. Who’s it going to be then? You or her?”
Two can walk and one can stay. One can stay and one must die.
Me, she thought.
It has to be me…
“I waited all night before calling someone,” Jane’s father said. “I thought they’d stopped at a motel somewhere, because Monica was tired from driving.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Maybelle said without thinking.
Why did people always say that? It might have been his fault, for all she knew. He should have been with them, instead of waiting at home. Picking up an unbroken bottle, she pressed it against her brow.
“It was some trucker who picked up Jane,” he explained. “The car turned up in Albuquerque two weeks later, torched almost beyond recognition. They never found her body.”
Maybelle shuddered. She’d grown tired of the dark. It made it all too easy to picture the long desert road and the blood on the ground. Jane’s father had described the blood several times, as though it held some key, some secret message. Maybelle saw only a tiny stain on the parched ground. It was the only thing the trucker had found, beside the overturned van… and Jane, of course. Twelve-year-old Jane, huddled in the small patch of shade alongside the van.
“She really saw it all?” Maybelle heard herself ask.
“Yeah,” the father said. “That’s how I know not to hope. Monica’s gone.”
“But won’t Jane tell anyone what happened?”
The door opened again, blinding her. The man’s silhouette moved out into the light.
“No,” he said and left it at that.
Noise from the TV reached Maybelle’s ears as she crossed the yard. Baseball. When she popped her head inside, she saw Freddy Bale sitting at the bar. He was gesturing at the screen and talking to Jane. The girl was staring straight ahead, as if he didn’t even exist. As if she wished she didn’t exist. Freddy didn’t seem to care.
Dropping a couple of bills on the counter, Jane’s father walked over to her. “Time to go, Jane,” he said.
It cost him all his resolve and energy to reach out across the divide and place his hand on the back of her neck. Jane’s eyes widened and a tremor shook her body. She started to pull away, but caught Maybelle’s gaze instead. They stared at each other for a second, lost for words.
Then Jane remembered herself. “Thanks for the milk,” she said with a faint smile.
The glass was still full, white and tall and heavy, read to turn sour in the afternoon heat. The straw hung at half mast, almost chewed to a pulp.
“You’re welcome,” Maybelle muttered.
Long after they’d left, Maybelle thought about the creature with the dark brown eyes. She thought about it as she cleaned the glasses, then again when she locked up for the night. It stayed with her when she crossed the short stretch of cooling desert road and fumbled for the keys to her parents’ old house.
Because in the midst of Jane’s stare, Maybelle had spotted it. Hidden in those dark irises, tucked away just out of sight. Breath rumbling and shoulders rolling. Biding her time. Waiting.
© Zoe Perrenoud