Fall, 2004
24-Hour Short Story Contest
2nd Place Winner!



The red, orange and yellow leaves traveling the river contrasted sharply against the black water. Distant thunder and a bitter wind promised an early winter storm. She shivered and walked faster, ignoring the muffled diatribe coming from the burlap sack in her arms.

Pack Up Your Troubles
by Jennifer Doloski, Seneca, IL

Mary came to the group therapy session this Saturday afternoon just as she had every Saturday afternoon for the past two years, but only because her physician insisted. She visited her therapist every Thursday afternoon, and had for the past two years, but only because her physician insisted. The voice of her most trusted physician was the only one she seemed to be able to pick out anymore. The rest of the world's noise filtered through to Mary like a radio station not quite tuned into one station or another, but picking up words and music from both simultaneously. She had tried several medications, but none worked. Therapy was her physician's last best suggestion.

The room was full and the facilitator, a man she knew was Don only because his nametag said so, began speaking to the group. Many present nodded in agreement. After a while, some spoke in turn. Some cried. Some left. Mary was willing, at least, to stay for refreshments.

As she struggled with her coat's zipper, Don approached her carrying a burlap sack. She had seen him at the door handing similar bags out to others as they left. He said nothing, but waited until Mary met his eyes. Pinned to her sack was a note, folded over, with only her name visible. Though it cost her something to do so, Mary looked from the note back to Don and nodded. He had written her a note explaining the meaning of the bag. She understood.


Mary tossed the bag aside with her coat. Though glad to be home, she looked forward to few of its comforts. The unceasingly vocal tormentors in her head left her unable to enjoy television, sleep, or a good book. A warm shower, perhaps, and a cup of hot cocoa would serve as her entertainment for the remainder of the day.


Wrapped in a threadbare flannel robe, Mary carried a steaming mug into the living room. Situated between the front door and the picture window, she could sit in her rocking chair, just out of sight, and watch the neighborhood pulse with a liveliness she herself had long forgotten. Pushing her coat to the floor, she sat and rocked and watched.

Across the street was a new family; folks who had never known her "before." A woman about Mary's age vacuumed the interior of a minivan parked in the driveway while her husband raked leaves on the front lawn. A child of barely three toddled between the two, offering first her mother and then her father leaves picked from the lawn. A lazy mutt dozed on the front porch, perking his ears only when the child fell and whimpered. The little girl, Mary brightened for a moment, was just the right age to be Peggy's playmate.

The static grew louder and Mary gasped at the thought she'd just had. A wave of nausea gripped her as she realized that while bad mothers may forget their child, only very bad mothers forget that their child is dead. She pushed herself up from the chair and made to run for the bathroom, slipping and sliding across the hardwood floor. The sack was beneath her foot. Flailing and stumbling, she landed on her knees and saw again Don's note, still pinned to the sack.


It had taken the better part of an hour. Don's directions had been clear, but trying to decide what to put in the bag had been hard. Separating good memories from bad was hard, Mary realized, when so many of hers were both. About fifteen minutes into the task, though, Mary realized that with every item she put into the bag, the static seemed to fade a bit, and that realization kept her going.

Into the bag went the outfit Peggy had been wearing the morning she died. Though the velvet jumpsuit was ruined, cut down the front by the paramedics, Mary had clung to it nonetheless. Into the bag, too, went all the newspaper clippings from the accident. She no longer wanted to stare at the face of the drunk driver who had veered across four lanes of interstate highway on a Sunday morning and ripped their car in half, taking Peggy in an instant. In went her divorce papers, along with her husband's old flannel robe. Had her sorrow ruined the marriage or was it her husband's inability to deal with it? Mary no longer cared. A few more things and then she was done. Don's directions said to put the bag in a closet, or the trunk of the car, but with the static so low, Mary was inspired. Pulling on jeans and a sweater, she headed for the back door, the sack in her arms, stopping only to put on her long forgotten gardening sneakers. A pretty note card on her bulletin board caught Mary's eye, and she yanked it down and added it to the sack, a symbol of a relationship long neglected and no longer needed.

A river, swollen with recent fall rains, ran along the back of the yards on this side of Mary's block. The water ran black, brightened only by the leaves spilling down on it from the oak, maple, and elm trees lining either bank. The leaves moved swiftly upstream where, Mary knew, they would tumble over a small but steep waterfall. A bridge spanned the river just before the fall, and it was this destination Mary had in mind as she trudged up the path, her shoes leaving a lone set of footprints in the mud, a muffled static coming from the sack in her arms.

At some point on her journey, Mary realized she could actually hear the distant thunder that signaled yet another storm.


Standing on the bridge, Mary took one last look into the bag. The static fought for volume, but instead of succumbing, Mary yelled.

"No!" She hurled the bag over the railing, watching the contents spill out and fall, disappearing into the rushing water. Only the note card prevailed, fluttering like so many leaves around it, catching an upsurge in the wind, and landing again on the bridge at Mary's feet.

Picking it up, she read, and heard in the silence of her heart, for the first time since Peggy died, the words of another physician she had once trusted dearly. It was the end of a poem by a woman also named Mary:

"The years you have only seen one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you."

The static silenced at last, Mary sat on the bridge and cried.

The 2nd Place Winner received:

$250 Cash Prize
Publication of winning story on the WritersWeekly.com website
1 - Freelance Income Kit Includes:
-- 1-year subscription to the Write Markets Report
-- How to Write, Publish and $ell Ebooks
-- How to Publish a Profitable Emag
-- How to Be a Syndicated Newspaper Columnist Special (includes the book; database of 6000+ newspapers; and database of 100+ syndicates)

Contest guidelines are HERE.

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