Summer, 2007
24-Hour Short Story Contest
3rd Place Winner!

Mosquitoes buzzed, but kept their distance as the aroma of insect repellent overpowered the smoke coming from the dying campfire. The counselor was getting to the good part of the ghost story and the campers were all quiet, straining to hear the raspy whispers of the protagonist. The sudden sound of footsteps approaching on the pine needle carpet silenced the group. All heads turned simultaneously and the little girls screamed when a man emerged from the tree line, dressed in torn clothing and carrying a pack. The pack started to move as an infant's startled cry joined the panicked chorus...

Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.

Without Joy
By Jennifer Larson, Arlington, WA

Brian should have known when his heart skipped that first beat that things were different than he had imagined they would be. He looked at Joy with trepidation, searching for signs that her mind had somehow shifted as well, but the glassy sheen of denial still glinted in her eyes. They had driven to a barely familiar place on the outskirts of civilization, where no one would hear the screams caused by the delivery of a child they had refused to admit to themselves was coming. The plan had seemed simple then.

"Help me get the boat in the water." she said, walking unsteadily toward the truck and its trailer.

The sun was coming up quickly now, the sky was cloudless, but it was not a beautiful day. When he stopped rowing, Joy scooted herself slowly toward the side and looked over into the water. It was black as hell and Brian couldn't look at it; he kept his eyes on Joy and when she shifted to move the child's small body toward the stillness of the water, he reached out to her.

"I can't do this." he said. She looked him in the eye with a stare as cold and unforgiving as that lake.

"I can." she said, and leaned closer to the water.

A human being could only handle so much, and watching his son flail his arms out in reaction to the cold air as Joy pulled him from her body caused him to cross that threshold. Suddenly it was a blur of pulling and clinging and screams as Brian fought for his son's life and Joy fought for the serenity of her own. When Brian's mind began to pull itself together, he was already on the shore with the horrible memory of watching Joy's face staring blankly up at him as it sank beneath the water's surface.

He ran to the site of the birth and began digging through Joy's knapsack for the keys to her father's truck. It took a while for his mind to catch up with reality and remind him that the keys had been in Joy's coat, which was on Joy, who was on the way to the bottom of the cold, dark lake. He crouched there for a few moments, stunned at the utter horror that his life had become in a mere hour, filled the knapsack with any contents he thought he might find useful, and pulled the baby close to his chest. Between his lack of familiarity with the area and the lack of use of the almost non-existent road, Brian soon noticed that it had been a while since anything had even roughly appeared to be a path, and when he turned to backtrack he saw nothing but muggy autumn forest. He was a nineteen year old man and considered himself to be a level headed person, so it came as a surprise when he realized that fear and the lingering oil of death upon his hands had combined to overtake his emotions so quickly. In a bolt of panic he began to run, fast and hard. After tearing through a patch of trees and falling ass over tea kettle down an embankment with the baby in his arms, Brian took a fleeting moment to regroup. The reality of having to allow his face to smash with full force against a tree trunk because his hands were occupied by the baby had rattled some small thing inside him. He took a few deep breaths as he tucked the baby, unharmed but crying from the rude awakening, into the bottom of the knapsack and strung it over his shoulder.

Hours passed as he walked and he believed that, with the baby's fragile state of being, it would not make it through the cold autumn night setting upon them. It wasn't until the darkness was complete that Brian lost hope for his son. He slowed to a stumbling trudge, ever moving, but coated in a haze of defeat. The night was bitterly cold, the baby had long been silent and he hadn't the heart to prod it for sign of movement. He fell to his knees, somehow unsure of how his circumstances had brought him to this, hot tears spilling down his face. When he inhaled to release a sob that had been dammed within him since Joy had fallen into the water, some small thing struck him and he stopped and opened his eyes. In the distance was a light amidst the tree trunks and the smell in the air was clear and familiar: fire.

When he finally stepped into the clearing he could hardly register what stood before him. Apparently the feeling was mutual, because it took a few moments before the seven or eight young girls he had appeared in front of let out terrified screams and clung to their counselor. The young girls' cries caused the baby to jerk awake inside its knapsack and stretch its limbs in protest. Brian sank to the ground and took the child from its cocoon and pulled it to his chest. He looked up at the counselor and when the woman, who had raised two daughters and six grandchildren, saw the tears in his eyes and the look of magnificent relief on Brian's face, she needed to know nothing more. She relaxed her grip on the shoulders of the many girls around her and announced, "Honey Bees, we are in the forest and someone is hurt and hungry. Let's move!" The girls looked her over for a moment, searching for signs of senility, but seeing none they hesitantly ran in search of supplies.

The next three months were a scattered mess for Brian as he attempted to make the police and Joy's family believe that she had undoubtedly crossed state borders by now. When the police showed up at his door in January, it seemed an old routine to have them in for questioning. He asked them by name if they'd like some coffee. They declined.

"We're gonna make this blunt, Brian, 'cause there's no real way to soften it." The first officer said from the doorway, his eyes never leaving the floor. He removed his hat. "Those paternity tests came back, and that baby ain't yours."

What Jennifer won:

$200 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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