24-Hour Short Story Contest
3rd Place Winner!
TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
He turned the knob on the short-wave radio, trying desperately to hear any word from the outside. It had taken them three days to arrive at their mountain cabin on foot and they were relieved that no squatters had taken possession of their property in the mayhem.
While his wife and daughter made an inventory of the scant amount of food they'd left in the cabinets last summer, his son hovered near his elbow, also waiting in silence. He dialed slower and everyone froze when the room suddenly erupted with static and a child's voice...
Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.
by Victoria Bell, Ottawa, ON, Canada
We pull up outside the cabin before night falls with its African suddenness: I'm glad of that, I didn't want to night-drive in this lightless place where goats and children and chickens feel as entitled to the road as cars.
I kill the engine and look at Britta. Waxy pale, she sits in the passenger seat, breathing in shallow scoops, her blonde hair sweat-damp. I beg her to forgive me for juddering her over the rutted road.
She just smiles. "It smells the same," she says.
To me it
smells like wood smoke, sharp red earth, too much humanity, but most of all
like salt and seaweed. The sea is right there, across the road, and as I lift
her out of her seat, Britta stares at it
hungrily with eyes the same blue-gray as the water. Her eyes make me ask, "Beach first?"
Suddenly weary, she says, "No, later," so I put her in the wide canvas hammock where she can see everything.
our backpacks inside. All along she's called it a cabin and I've been expecting,
I don't know, some sort of Swiss chalet, something like my parents' cottage
near Toronto, but of course it's not,
it's a shack, a wooden hovel with sloping walls and a shaky single bed surrounded by holey mosquito nets and one can of corn on the shelf and a two-plate burner squatting over a rusted gas cylinder, and I think
Britta's memory has betrayed her. She spent three weeks here a decade ago, helping to build houses, and in her mind this camp means people playing guitar and strong Mozambican dope and dhows and dolphins in the bay. Maybe it's like that the rest of the year, but rainy season starts in two weeks -- that's the only reason we got this place at all: everyone else has sensibly cleared out.
doesn't think it's even going to take two weeks, and when I go outside to
check on her it hits me like a blow to the stomach, again, that she might
be right. Her eyes are closed, her face dead
white. Frozen, I stare at her chest, waiting for it to rise, and finally it does.
"Brit?" I say, softly in case she's asleep, but her eyelids drag open. "Why don't we go back to that hotel we saw?"
"You hate this place," she says.
"I hate it," I agree.
"I wanted you to love it as much as me. Can't you feel the energy here?"
"I'd feel better if it was the electrical kind. Running water would be nice. Or a phone. Listen... I don't know how to look after you here. I can't keep anything clean. What if you need an ambulance?"
This is the place. Don't have second thoughts on me, or I'm bloody sending
you home," she says, and this flash of my old warrior Britta and the
way one corner of her mouth lifts into a smile make me
the night wrapped around her. It's far too hot and cramped to sleep like this
but I've become conscious lately of the importance of every second, and she
dreams less when I hold her. Most of the night, I bat away mosquitoes before
they can land on her with their little malaria-laden feet, until around four
I fall asleep to the waves and at five wake up again to a rooster that sounds
like it's in the shack with
us, and I hate this place all over again, but then Britta starts to laugh (although laughing hurts) and so do I, and she makes me carry her to the beach to watch the sunrise, and I fall in love with the way the
sun leaps out of the sea and the little boys spike fish from their flat boats and the hermit crabs creep across the empty sand and Britta's eyes shine.
like this for ten days. We deal with the long-drop toilet -- at first, humiliation
makes Britta cry -- but we both love the outdoor shower. We spend every day
on the beach. In the evenings we buy
fish from those little boys, and Paolo, the guard/cook/buyer-of-beer who is packaged with the shack, arrives out of nowhere to cook it for us. Britta is peaceful. I almost start to believe her that this place is
some kind of miracle, but then one morning I'm awoken not by the rooster, but Britta gasping for breath.
she's saying, then something else, but so soft I can't make it out through
the wheezing. I put my face close to her and listen through the static of
her breathing, looking for reconnection, like
trying to find a signal on a short-wave radio. Then she coughs wetly and says, "I can't fight anymore," and I coil into a ball of agony the way those hermit crabs retreat into their homes when they spot you coming.
fly in from Johannesburg. I tell them it's a good day: she's conscious enough
to recognize them, but their lips curl at the sight of the cabin and tighten
at their shrunken daughter in the
hammock. Once she's drifted off again, they drag me up the garden, which is unkempt; "Death is all around here," Paolo said, and he won't come anymore.
"Why isn't she in a hospital?" her father asks, veins straining in his temple.
"This is what she wanted," I say. "No doctors, no hospitals, no chemo."
"It's criminal," her mother says. She arrived drunk; it's noon. "You've kidnapped her."
"Why does she want to let herself die?" her father rails.
"She's a fighter," I say. "But she has all these nightmares about the past. She says she spent most of her life wanting to die."
I look at him. His eyes slide away. Britta's mother looks at the ground like she wants to dig a head-sized hole in it.
to different corners of the garden. I spend the day the way I've spent the
last three: I clean up after Britta, I talk to her, and at dusk I carry her
away from the mosquitoes, to our secret
She's dreaming again, but it's a good dream: "Thank you for taking me home," she murmurs. She said that to me the night we met, on a camping trip -- she was drunk, I tucked her into her sleeping bag.
She wakes up more, smiles. "You always keep me safe."
"Brit... If we'd met before it was too late, would you have had treatment?"
Her exhausted eyes open. "Yes."
"OK," I say. "OK. That's all I wanted to know."
Despite that knowledge, I'm weak without her: I lose the fight to cremate her body here. But in Johannesburg I take some of her ashes and three weeks later, I come back to the cabin. I buy a flat boat off one of the boys.
I stand at the edge of the water and sprinkle her ashes onto the boat, and then, although I don't know which direction to point her in for Valhalla, I let her float away.
What Victoria won:
$200 Cash Prize
Publication of winning story on the WritersWeekly.com website
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