The first winner of our Really Very Extremely Short Story Contest

click to enlarge October - Susan F. Edwards
Susan F. Edwards

You've been walking a lot lately. Sometimes, you'll wake up in that soft part of the night when the dreams end but the sun has yet to show and all you can think about is walking. So you untangle yourself from all the blankets and clothes on the floor and grab your cigarettes from the kitchen table.

The screen door to your apartment tends to announce to the whole complex that someone is either coming or going, so you're extra careful when you shut it behind you. You also have to be careful when walking across the parking lot since the live oak growing right in the middle has sent roots through the blacktop. You still trip over one, though, every single time. Where the parking lot meets the street, you pause to look up at the sky and light a cigarette. It's this thing you do; you have to identify one constellation or heavenly body before you're allowed to smoke. It keeps your mind sharp and on the universe. Keeps your mind off death and old photographs you can't bear to look at anymore. Now look at how the sidewalk curves in front of you, dipping and rising and sometimes disappearing into someone's gravel driveway. Following it is as easy as one foot in front of the other, inhale, exhale.

Inhale, exhale.

You're never really going anywhere except off. It's not a real walk if there's a predetermined destination, you tell your friends, parents, coworkers, anyone who dares to ask what you did last night or if you're feeling all right. You're really starting to hate that question ... Are You OK? "Yes" is a lie, a hard lie that you have to spit out like a wayward hair or popcorn husk. And you know they don't want to hear "no."

Sometimes you'll see something or smell something or even just feel something in the air on your walk and it reminds you of things. When you step through the door and your roommates are watching cartoons with the puppy, you start telling them about these things and hope your glibness lightens the shadows around their eyes a little. They worry about you, you know. You worry about them, too. You worry that you're bringing them down with you and the ghosts you carry around in your pockets have begun to also haunt them. Anyway, your story. Your Neutral Topic of Conversation.

"I saw this billboard," you say. "Off Alternate 19, in Tarpon Springs, I think."

You often connect cities with footprints on your walks, blurring the limits with dirt and dust, so it's hard to remember what was where.

"It was advertising the chimp farm," you continue. "It was just a bunch of pictures of monkeys and orangutans, shit like that. I think there was a lemur in there somewhere. Anyway, they all looked so happy, those monkeys. It reminded me of this movie I saw once and I can't remember the fucking title. There was this one part where these kids were making home movies about this gorilla that runs around town, randomly knocking on doors and beating people up. It was really, really funny. Did any of you see that?"

Silence. All eyes on you. The puppy stretches and sneezes.

"I don't think that was a movie."

That goddamn gorilla suit.

Your best friend gave him a gorilla suit for his birthday and he didn't take it off for days even though the summer was trying to outdo itself that year by turning Florida into a giant cremation oven. You got gorilla hugged, gorilla tackled, and the dog got gorilla humped. You remember driving to the record store and old ladies staring and him in the passenger seat, never breaking character even though everyone else was laughing so hard, the car shook. The movie was made Halloween night. You feel your heart straining against your ribcage, arteries stretching like rubber bands, and you can see it busting through your chest. You see it falling in the gutter and rolling down the street like a tumbleweed running for the sun.

"Maybe you should see someone," says one roommate.

"Are You OK?" says the other.

The third changes the channel on the TV.

You look from one face to the next. The door is behind you and your hand finds the knob almost too easily.

The streets are waiting for you.

Editor's note: We have had some really very extremely good entries in our new Really Very Extremely Short Story Contest. We put out the call, and Bay area writers took up the challenge of writing vividly while keeping it short. What struck me about this story was the way the author captured the ineffable sadness of loss, the mundane details one tends to focus on when reality is too painful or overwhelming, and the repetitive, almost ritualistic behaviors that accompany coping. The use of second-person singular instead of first person magnifies the sense of separation from self that comes with great pain, the urge to crawl out of one's own skin to get away from it — or as this character does, to try to walk away from it. The language is simple and straightforward without being clichéd. It never calls attention to itself with clever similes or turns of phrase, though it does employ several subtle metaphors. It demonstrates with almost every sentence the old "show, don't tell" admonition to writers.

The author, Monica Wrobel, is a 22-year-old Florida native who works at the Largo library. This is her first published story.

Keep those stories coming. We'll be publishing more of them in coming months.—Susan F. Edwards

Contributing Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected].