Last year, I submitted a story to Good Housekeeping's short story contest. I wasn't really expecting to win -- Jodi Picoult was the judge, and I was reasonably certain I don't have the mainstream/literary chops to impress her. The theme was to write about women's life.
I wasn't really pleased with how the magazine handled logistics. Their site said that winners would be notified by December 15, but no change was made to that page saying that it had taken place -- not through the end of January. When I checked again yesterday, that's when I saw that they had changed it to say the winners had been notified, but gave no clue of who they are.
Okay, maybe they want the first broadcast of the news to be in the May issue when the story appears. If so -- well, their official rules also gave an address and said if you wanted a list of the winners, to send an SASE to that address by January 15. I mailed one in December. If, in fact, they're not sending those lists out until after the May issue is available, then a) they should have said so in the rules, and b) January 15 is a ridiculously early deadline to request it. ETA: I guess I just don't have enough patience. The list of winners arrived in my mailbox Saturday morning.
Long story short: I didn't win, I have no plan to submit this story elsewhere, and so I present it here for your enjoyment (or otherwise, I suppose). Note the pen name I subbed under.
Anna Bennett Strong
Kelly closed the door to the twins' room. Robbie and Gwen would be asleep in minutes, she knew. Knowing that peace was coming almost made the bath water all over the floor, the temper tantrum over the wrong pajamas, and the three bedtime stories (with frequent interruptions) worthwhile. Sighing, she leaned against the jamb for a moment before pushing herself away and down the hall to clean up the bathroom. At least tonight, the water hadn't run down the stairs to damage the oak floor of the entryway.
The mop was downstairs in the kitchen, so she used the kids' towels to sop up the mess from the tiles. What was another load of laundry, after all?
Two hours later with the towels in the dryer and the dishwasher humming in the kitchen, she climbed into bed at last. Deciding she didn't have enough energy even to read a chapter of the book on her night table, she pulled up the stained daffodil-yellow comforter ("Let's get something cheerful to wake up to," her husband had said.) and turned out the light. Exhaling slowly, Kelly forced her neck muscles to relax. She was almost asleep when the phone rang.
It was her husband, Matt, of course. "I would've called sooner, but I ran into Billingsly in the bar before dinner, and we got to talking . . . "
"That happens a lot with him." Kelly remembered the one Christmas party where she'd met Billingsly, an affable man who could chatter about virtually anything, whether he'd heard about it before or not. He'd actually had some interesting insights into international banking that had impressed Kelly's regional manager when she brought them up. "How's he doing?"
"Oh, you know -- same old, same old. He asked me if I could stop by his office tomorrow for a few hours. He wants my opinion on a new system they're trying out."
"I thought the conference went through Thursday."
"It does--" The rest of whatever he said was lost in Gwen's wail from the next room.
"Duty calls," she said. "I guess I'll see you when you get home."
Gwen stood on her toddler bed, pointing at the blanket on the floor. Robbie had rolled over and sat up as Kelly came in.
"In a minute," she told him, leaning over to pick up Gwen's blanket.
"T'ank you." Her daughter clutched it to her chest with one arm and lifted the other toward Kelly, waiting to be picked up.
"Not now, honey. We all need to sleep."
Robbie's sniffles started first, followed quickly by Gwen's louder cries. Kelly didn't wait for them to swell to full volume. Instead, she scooped one up in each arm (though this had gotten harder in the last year, even with lunchtime visits to the gym) and settled into the corner rocking chair, cuddling the twins close and murmuring nonsense to soothe them back to sleep.
Matt always told her she indulged them too much, that they'd sleep through the night better if she just ignored them. Easy enough for him to say -- even when he wasn't out of town on a business trip, he could sleep through anything short of a semi crashing into the house.
Staring at the moon-etched silhouettes of leaves peeking around the window's curtain, Kelly rocked and counted the hours until Matt would be home.
Gulping at her macchiato, Kelly eyed the folders in her inbox. Each one represented documentation for a loan application. Half of them were probably still missing paperwork that she'd have to badger the customers about -- politely, of course.
The top folder was for the McCartneys, first time homebuyers who had saved enough to put fifty percent down on a rather modest house, an amazing accomplishment in the current economic climate. Pay stubs for both of them, bank balance statements, credit reports -- all was in order. Smiling, Kelly stamped "Approved" on their application and moved the paperwork into her "to file" box. She normally grouped her phone calls in the early afternoon; she'd call them then. If only all of the applications could be that easy.
Kelly was filing credit report requests for new applicants when her phone rang. "Second Commercial Bank of the Sierras, this is Kelly. How may I help you today?"
"I was thinking about you the other day and just had to call." The caller didn't bother identifying herself, but Kelly had no trouble placing the voice of Sue, one of her closest friends since high school friends.
She suppressed a guilty twinge at not having called Sue recently, too busy between extra time at work and time with the twins. "Good thoughts, I hope?"
"The best. I wanted to thank you, actually. In high school, I was always jealous of you in art class. You were always so completely absorbed in painting, or in decorating the pottery you were going to fire in the kiln. I wanted something that made me that happy."
Smiling, Kelly touched the bowl on her desk, a souvenir of that art class. It had been a long time since she'd worked in clay. "And you want to thank me for that?"
"You were just so happy doing it, and you never stopped to ask permission to do what you wanted," Sue said. "That probably sounds silly, but I often feel like I have to ask. The other day, one of the radio stations had a call-in show, asking everyone to call and tell her what made them happy in life. That's when I thought of you, and I realized I needed something to do that makes me happy without worrying about what someone else was going to think."
"Glad I could help." Kelly glanced at her computer screen. The site was still waiting for her authorization code, so she entered it.
"Don't you want to know what it is?" Sue's voice was plaintive.
"Of course I want to know. What did I inspire you to do?"
"I put in for a transfer to the overseas division of my company, and I got it. I'm going to France next month! I'll be there for at least a year." The exuberance was back.
"You always wanted to go to France, I remember."
"Though I imagined myself wearing a beret and meeting some incredible Frenchman who would sweep me off my feet."
"I'd skip the headgear, but the man's still a possibility. Just not a co-worker, okay?" Kelly smiled at her friend's enthusiasm. "Send me postcards."
The credit report request had generated an error. Someone had put down the wrong Social Security Number. Kelly didn't know whether it was an honest mistake or if they'd deliberately used the wrong information -- she'd had illegal immigrants from Russia and Ireland before, trying to establish themselves in the country -- but she made a note of the bad numbers. Next up, calling all the customers about missing paperwork, as well as asking for verification of the SSNs.
She'd have to work through lunch, entering the new information. So much for working out to boost her energy levels. Stifling a yawn, she gulped at her drink again. There had been a time when this work could've been done faster, more enthusiastically, but that was BT (before twins), when she'd actually managed a full night's sleep every night. Or most nights, anyway, given the sort of activities that had led to the twins' arrival.
Maybe someone else in the office would bring her back a double caf drink when they went to lunch.
Sue's words came back to Kelly as she was working on getting the kids to bed. Robbie loved to fingerpaint with the soap in the bathtub, and Gwen wanted to look at every single detail of the pictures in her books. In their own fashion, each of them loved art as much as Kelly had growing up. She missed that freshness and joy; it was too bad she had neither time nor energy for such pursuits now.
The twins cuddled one on either side of her in the rocking chair as she read them Goodnight Moon, then lay down without a fuss. Elated, Kelly closed the door and headed straight for her room to catch up on her own sleep. Matt had already called to say he'd be leaving the conference early; the phone wouldn't interrupt her tonight. The only thing on her agenda was resting so she could be fresh and energized the next day.
At one, at two-thirty, at four-fifteen, and at five, the twins woke up.
She thought of Sue again. Right now, Kelly wanted to give herself permission to be selfish, to ignore her family, to do what she wanted again. Her family was supposed to be what brought her happiness now, but it was awfully hard to be happy when she wasn't getting any sleep.
Rocking the children to sleep again, Kelly stared out the window and watched the sky gradually lighten with dawn. The leaf silhouettes falling onto the walls would have made a wonderful pattern on pottery when she had been in high school. She'd narrowed her art focus to painting in college, but her work had been too representative for many of her teachers. Her easel and brushes had been packed away to the attic her junior year, and she hadn't even thought of them since, except when she and Matt had moved into this house. It was time to get them out again.
She could set the easel up here, in the twins' room, and paint the impressions that the night brought. She pictured herself with Gwen on one hip and Robbie curled up, sucking his thumb in the rocking chair. Quiet, peace, acceptance.
Perhaps she still wouldn't be getting any more sleep, but Kelly thought she could live with that. She would have some time that was just hers, without running around taking care of everyone and everything else. Yes, that would work well. She'd start with the shadows of the leaves.
- The End -