2013 Writing Contest Grand Prize Winner
Building from the Ashes
Sometimes when you're trying to fit into a small New Mexico town,
it takes the worst to bring out the best in people.
by Cheryl Gardarian
What makes an outstanding short story? As our Grand Prize Winner by Cheryl Gardarian shows, it's characters who jump off the page, a sense of place and a story in which things are not the same at the end as they were at the beginning.
The angry vinegaroon scuttled across the floor, disturbed from its hiding place by the inquisitive fingers of my now-screaming child. Mindy, both attracted and repelled, picked up a stick and, while continuing with her ear-splitting screams, leaned forward to poke at the monster.
As her hand moved downward, I yelled, "No! Don't touch it."
Behind me, someone inhaled sharply, then made a tsk-ing sound. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her back up, as did the next several customers queued in line at the mini-mart.
Mindy let out a screech and, using the stick like a sword, stabbed at the ugly, scorpion-like creature. A thin stream of spray and the stink of vinegar answered her attack. Instantly, Mindy's scream became a howl. Turning to look at me, her eyes filled with tears and her little mouth puckered. She charged and buried her face in my skirt.
Helen, the cashier, let out a tired sigh. She motioned with her head to the bagger. "Bobby, get a broom and a can of deodorizer."
"I'm so sorry," I said, raising my voice over the loud cries of my child. "I'll pay for the spray."
Helen's expression was sour — I wasn't sure whether from the stench or her feelings toward me — when she answered, "It's fine. Things like this happen."
Someone behind me muttered, "Way too often."
My eyes burned. Embarrassed again, I watched the clerk scoot the bug out the door and exaggeratedly spray the whole area with a nauseating floral scent. He handed Helen the can and she rang it up.
Extricating my purse from Mindy's grasp, I counted out the dollar bills. That can would cost us by the end of the week. Bobby must've grabbed the most expensive deodorizer on the shelf. He didn't offer to help carry out my groceries.
Tucking the bag under one arm, I tried to get Mindy turned around.
"Nuh-uh," she snuffled. "Bad thing there."
"It's gone now, sweetie. Let's go home." I patted the top of her head and pushed a little.
She clung tighter to my leg. The sound of someone loudly clearing their throat filled my ears. I pushed harder. Mindy clung tighter. I began to waddle like a penguin toward the door, my daughter stuck to my leg like Velcro, wishing for a quick moment she'd never been born and wondering if I'd had an amniocentesis, would I have… then immediately chastised myself.
The asphalt parking lot shimmered in the hot New Mexico summer sunshine. Its glare scorched the landscape. Billows of heat radiated out of my beat-up old Chevy when I opened the door. Throwing the groceries into the back, I yanked Mindy off my leg, picked her up like a sack of potatoes, and not very gently plopped her down on the front seat. I was instantly rewarded by renewed howling. The plastic seats were blazing and she was in shorts. Springing up like a jack-in-the-box, her head clocked me under the chin and my teeth sank into my tongue. "God damn it!"
"Mommy! Bad words. No, No. God loves you."
Rubbing my sore jaw, I nodded as I put my arms around her. "I know, sweetie. Sorry."
She looked up at me with her sweet, wide-set eyes. "I sorry, too."
Hugging her close, I reached for her jacket on the floor and arranged it over the seat. "Okay, it's better now."
"'Kay, 'kay, 'kay," she parroted.
I rolled down her window, as the air conditioner had stopped working at the start of the summer, fastened her seat belt, then walked around to the other side. Taking a deep breath, I lifted the hair off my sweaty neck, and composed myself a moment before I got in.
"Mommy, where we going?"
"To put away the groceries."
Lord, give me patience today. "Because some of it needs to go in the refrigerator."
"To keep it cold." I held up my hand. "No more questions."
She pouted. "Wuh…"
My death-stare cut her off. We drove in blessed silence down the hot, dusty street.
After lunch, we went to my part-time job at Paws and Claws. I was the weekend dog-walker. The owner, Mrs. Claus (yep, it's her real name), was a sympathetic woman, and she let me bring Mindy along. I couldn't afford a babysitter on Saturdays and Sundays. I was barely able to stay ahead of my bills as it was.
Most of the time, Mindy was a plus; she loved the animals and never tired of throwing a ball for the kenneled dogs. Several of the regulars would hand her a little tip for giving their pets extra attention while they were away on a trip. Mindy's eyes would glow with pride and that huge smile would light up her moon-shaped face. However, I had the sinking premonition that today was going to be different.
Dog-walking is an art. You quickly learn which animals are compliant and which ones spell trouble. When taking out several dogs on leash at the same time, it's imperative to immediately establish control and keep it. I checked out the pups on my schedule. I recognized most of them. Several had already become fast friends while playing in the "dog park enclosure." I figured they'd walk nicely together.
I watched Mindy wander over to a cage holding a cute apricot poodle. "I'll put her in the playpen for you when I get back. Why don't you check with Mrs. Claus and see if there's something you can do to help her."
Mindy had her own special bucket, broom and mop. She'd sweep and scrub all day if you let her. Mrs. Claus loved having a sparkling, clean waiting room.
My left hand was full of husky, chow and shepherd and my right held a retriever, a boxer and a terrier when the bell over the door announced someone had entered. I frowned. Pickups and drop-offs are scheduled in the mornings. Usually the front door is locked for the afternoon.
"Hello?" I hollered. "I'll be there in a minute."
As I hurriedly guided the pack down the hall, my heart sank when I heard: "Hi, little girl. Can you take my kitty?"
Too late. The woman foolishly handed my daughter her cat carrier. Mindy's prying fingers had the cage door open before another word could escape my lips. That lady's sweet pet went from a cute, purring furball to a claw-raking bobcat in 60 seconds. Mindy's screech was drowned out by the cacophony of barking dogs as they ripped their leashes out of my hands and tore down the hall in pursuit of Pansy the cat.
Mrs. Claus exited her office, a storm-cloud of anger on her face. She helped me round up the dogs and rescue Pansy from her perch atop the filing cabinet, then gave me my two-week notice. I kept my composure long enough to gather my belongings and secure Mindy in the car, then burst into body-racking sobs.
"Mommy, no. No cry."
Ignoring her pleas, I cursed. My outburst was met with a gasp and a spurt of her own tears. Now we were both crying.
People gawked as they strolled down the street intent on their business, obviously too busy to even ask if they could help. I cranked the key and shoved the car into gear.
I wanted to go straight home, but it was Saturday, and I needed to pick up my mail. I cringed at the thought of running into more judgmental citizens. I'd been a resident of this small town for only two months, but it seemed to me like everyone here seemed to know and disapprove of Mindy. Anger at my neighbors surfaced. Nobody cares.
When I pulled into the post office parking lot, the smell of rain was in the air. A summertime monsoon was approaching. Big billowing thunderheads lined the horizon. Better hurry. Mindy's scared of thunder.
"Stay in the car. I'll just be a minute."
I pointed a finger at her. "I mean it."
Her face was angelic. "I be good."
I swung my legs to the ground and walked up the steps. A grizzled, middle-aged man sat on a bench outside the building. He was reading a newspaper, a Styrofoam coffee cup and a pile of mail placed on the seat next to him. He eyed me over the edge of the local periodical. I nodded to him as I passed.
I'd just inserted my key in the mailbox, when I heard a gruff voice holler, "What the hell!"
Somehow I knew Mindy was the focus of his anger. I rushed outside. The man was still mouthing expletives as he whisked the liquid off of his pants and stared at his brown-stained mail.
He paused from his frantic brushing and pointed. "That weird little girl plopped down on the bench and spilled hot coffee all over everything."
Mindy's head was bowed. She sniffed. "I didn't mean to."
I turned to the man. "So sorry." Those words seem to be the only thing out of my mouth today. Grasping my daughter's hand, I hauled her back to the car. "Thought I told you to stay in your seat."
"Loud boom scared me. Thought man could help.
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