We are excited to announce the winner of the February 2023 Chattanooga Writers’ Guild Monthly Contest is Sherry G White with the submission “Challenges of Parenthood” and runner-up is Jay Barlow with the submission “Something New.”
Challenges of Parrenthood
The light from the flames cast an orange pallor over the toddler. She sat on a fine layer of sand, covered in a spiderweb-sticky mass of black strands. “Robert!” the child’s mother screamed. “Get the fire extinguisher!” She knelt in front of the little girl and cooed, “What happened, Cassie? Did you fall down and go bump again?”
She began gathering the black threads, dropping them into the smoldering mess that used to be a coffee table. “Poor baby,” she comforted the child. “Did you get an ouchie?” She pulled the last thread off of a chubby little arm and examined the appendage. “No booboo there. How about the other one?”
“What are we going to do, June?” Robert’s lips were pressed into a tight line. He set the used up extinguisher in the box of empties to take for refills and placed a fresh one in the brackets.
Still smiling at Cassie and picking threads out of her hair, June said, “Well, we’re not going to raise our voices, are we? No, Cassie doesn’t like that.” She blew kisses at the toddler, still gathering strands.
“Of course not,” Robert agreed. He sat on the floor next to his wife. “Cassie! Look at Daddy!” He stuck his tongue out and crossed his eyes.
June smiled when the girl giggled and soap bubbles streamed from her mouth and nose. “Isn’t that nicer?” she asked. Cassie giggled again and reached out a finger to play with a bubble, bouncing when it popped. “Do you want to clean this up or bathe her?”
“I’ll run the bath water,” Robert decided.
June watched a line of bubbles follow her husband and giggling daughter to the bathroom. When she was alone, she collapsed on the couch, contemplating the mess. She hadn’t expected raising a child to be easy but she had never heard of a child like this. What kind of child cried sand, had things around her burst into flames when she was angry, or had this sticky gunk seep out of her skin when she was scared?
They tried, oh how they tried, to keep Cassie happy but it wasn’t possible. Children have emotions. It can’t be helped. With a heavy sigh, June stood to find the broom, vacuum cleaner, and a box of heavy-duty garbage bags. Allowing normal, saline tears to fall from her eyes, June began by picking up the large chunks of table and putting them in bags. How were they ever going to take her out anywhere?
Large pieces tied into bags, she started sweeping up the medium-sized bits. What would Cassie’s first day of school be like? Oh lord, what if she had a bully? She could set another child on fire! June bit her lip and gave her head a shake. That was too far in the future. She had to take care of right now and right now she had to empty her dustpan and sweep up some more detritus.
Obviously, she couldn’t go to daycare. June and Robert tried to split the responsibility but it was challenging to have two incomes when your child had such extraordinarily special needs. June briefly wondered if this was how parents of disabled kids felt.
She stacked the garbage bags by the front door. Robert would help her take them out after Cassie was asleep. Maybe they should get a truck. Then they could cart the remains of their furniture off to the dump instead of filling up their bin all the time. She made a mental note to bring it up to Robert later.
At what age could children start anger management classes? Was there a specialist who worked with pyro-kinetic toddlers? Why did she cry sand? Wouldn’t salt make more sense? She scoffed at that. Nothing about this situation made sense. Why not sand?
Listening to Robert singing Cassie to sleep, she plugged in the vacuum cleaner. She cleaned up the sand and the ash and the other particulates missed by the broom. Maybe they could live in a cave. It would need to be big enough to shelter them and allow them to run around but not so big as to attract spelunkers. Awkward!
Do brick buildings burn? They could invest in a company that makes tents and single-handedly keep the profits up! Or not. Camping was never her style. The charred carpet brought out another sigh. Couldn’t the child just spit bullets or some other metaphor for anger?
Oh no. Puberty! Deep breaths, June. Puberty is a decade away. At least. What to do, what to do. Oh, what a to-do! She remembered reading that somewhere but couldn’t remember where. Something about giant owls, she thought. It hardly seemed important now, anyway. Did the hardware store stock fireproof flooring?
She had never noticed if the fire shot out of Cassie’s eyes or hands or where. Maybe that was the key to controlling it. Sunglasses? Gloves? God help the first person to break Cassie’s heart! She could immolate them or turn them cold as ice.
“Hey.” Robert interrupted June’s musings. “Are these ready to go out?” He picked up the top garbage bag.
“Yeah. Think they’ll fit in the bin?”
“Maybe we should buy a truck,” he said then raised his eyebrows at her when she started laughing.
“I was thinking the same thing earlier. Then we can take it to the dump instead of filling the bin all the time.”
“Dance with me.” He grasped her hand and started to waltz, humming softly in her ear.
They danced over the newly emptied center of the room. Robert jerked to a halt when butterflies and cartoon hearts started flying around them. “What the heck?”
June covered her mouth with both hands. Eyes wide, she stared at her husband as she opened her mouth again, allowing more butterflies and hearts to emerge.
“Well.” He pulled her back into his arms and started dancing again. “I love you, too.” He smiled at her when a butterfly landed on her nose. “But maybe you should call your mother.”
June laughed then popped a newly formed bubble.
A native of Chattanooga, Sherry G White is a single mother of two adult children and she lives life with chronic illness. She finds reading and writing to be great ways to pass the time when she is confined to bed. Although she focuses primarily on short fiction, Sherry is currently writing a paranormal romance novel. Like herself, many of her protagonists tend to be single mothers with chronic illness. She was always told to “write what you know” so that’s what she’s doing! She also hopes to contribute to diversity in stories by putting more characters with physical challenges into print.
It wasn’t about the pink Cadillac, not really. A bright pink car stands out in a suburban neighborhood of black and red luxury vehicles and minivans. The last thing I wanted to do was stand out. It was about the work we’d all put into getting here. Twelve women, from different backgrounds and social classes, had come together to achieve greater goals than any of us could have individually. It felt good.
I eased out of the Mary Kay Cadillac. The newest model. Our team just made it to Grand Achiever status. We had to keep our revenue above 4,000 a month in order to keep the car. I’d make sure we did.
Michiko, the second best seller on my team, closed the passenger side door harder than she’d meant to and gave me an apologetic shrug as we headed into the restaurant. Today was our regularly scheduled breakfast meeting. As team leader, I made sure I knew the inner workings of our groups’ dynamic. In order to function as well as we had been, everyone needed to be comfortable and confident. Breakfast was the best time to catch most of the ladies. The kids were all off at school or at daycare and the spouses were gone off to work.
The hostess nodded as we approached. I gestured between Michiko and me, following the woman as she grabbed two menus and napkin-wrapped cutlery as she led us to a corner booth.
I sank onto the plush seat, the faux leather groaning under my weight. “Guess you didn’t get anyone that bad back home, huh?” I said, adjusting the over-sized collar of my sweater where it flopped carelessly off one shoulder.
“No,” she said voice clipped as she slid across from me. Pale autumn light filtered in from the windows to showcase the growing stress lines around her large brown eyes. Her skin was blanched and her lips were pursed in concentration like she was trying not to lose last nights’ dinner. She closed almond shaped eyes and rubbed at her forehead. “Was I really so bad?”
“You offered the woman wrinkle cream, Michiko.”
“Cream I use myself every night. It wasn’t like I offered a maid service for her sty of a house. She was probably breeding rats and four kinds of mold in that place,” she said, a few strands of pitch-black hair clung to her lips as she spoke.
“You’ve got a—let me get it,” I said curving a voluminous curl behind her ear.
She reached up, hand poised next to her face, dark eyes cast down toward the table.
“Sorry,” I said eyeing the two other patrons enjoying their breakfast.
“It’s fine. It’s the ears. I’m a little self-conscious about them.” She sipped her water then chuckled, a bubbly, sunny sound. “They’re so tiny. I could barely get these studs to stay in.”
“They’re nice though. Your earrings—I mean. They stand out with your hair being so dark.” I pulled back my hand and set it to task smoothing down my oversized sweater. I’d regretted the ice cream I’d devoured during Sherlock last night. The bloating hadn’t dissipated by morning and I’d wanted to feel my best with the clients. That left my wardrobe limited to comfort clothes. My favorite sweater was loose fitted. The champagne color brought out the undertones of my skin so that the brown of my hand was a sharp relief to the sweater.
“How’s Julian?” I said finally.
“Julian?” Michiko glanced up at me, brows reaching for her hairline in surprise, like she’d forgotten who he was.
“Yeah. Your boyfriend?”
“Well, he’s—” she paused as our food arrived. She sent a clipped “thank you,” up at our waiter, Tyrell, and watched him lumber off before turning her attention back to me. “Well, he’s not exactly happy with me right now.”
I placed my napkin over my brown slacks. “How come?”
“He says I love the job more than I love him,” she scoffed. “Like there’s anyone on our team who hasn’t heard that one.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You told me last week that you took him to Hooters on your last date,” I chortled, stabbing at the eggs sprinkled with too much cheese on my plate.
“What?” She asked, a look of annoyance crossing her face as she dabbed at her lips with her napkin, “The wings are great and the girls had nice racks for him to ogle in case I got tired of talking to him.”
“Why don’t you just break up with him?”
She drank from her glass of water, lips pursed perfectly around the head of the straw. “I don’t know. My parents don’t like him at all. They don’t want me dating a Caucasian man.” She sighed and picked absently at the lint on her slacks. “More importantly, they want me to get a man with a real job. I told them that Julian teaches acting and interpretive dance at a private school.”
“I’m sure that went over well with them.”
“It’s not them. They want what they think is best for me, like all parents, but I’m starting to think they were right about him.” She huffed and stared down at her the food she was picking at. “He’s a fantastic guy.”
I swirled the water in my glass with my straw. “But?”
“But, he’s just too sensitive. I’m afraid he’s going to ask me to hold his hand while he puts in a tampon the next time we have one of his I-need-to-tell-you-how-I-feel-and-you’re-being-insensitive, arguments.”
I wouldn’t laugh. I wouldn’t.
“I mean the sex is great, but I dunno. I mean, he’s really in tune with me, you know. He takes note of every little thing so he knows what I like and don’t like. He never leaves me unsatisfied but-” she trailed off a minute to gather her thoughts. “I dunno, maybe I’m just looking for something a bit different.”
“How different are we talking, here?” I said as I took another sip of water.
“Let me ask you something now,” she said. “We’ve talked enough about me. We always talk about me.”
I sat back in the booth and crossed my legs, spreading my arms out along the back of the blue, plush seat. “Ask away, then.”
“You never told me what your family thinks about your success,” she smiled, one elbow sliding casually onto the table, the other cupping her chin in the palm of her hand.
“My parents are proud of me. I’m the first to graduate high school and college, so just about everything I do makes them proud. But I’m not married and I have no plans for kids. To them, that’s more important than any scholastic achievements.”
She cleared her throat. “Dating anyone?”
“My last date was over two years ago.”
The smirk on her face made her lips pouty as she played with the rim of her glass. “So what’s your type? Maybe I know someone.”
I looked down at the melting ice in my glass, suddenly parched. “My type? Well, I don’t think I have a type. If we hit it off, then we hook up.”
“Yeah, but surely there’s a type you go after more often.”
I thought about that for a moment, conjuring pictures of past lovers. I answered, “I guess I like petite with dark hair and eyes.”
She laughed. “We are talking about men here, right?”
I gave her a stern look. “Should we be?”
She grew quiet. “Well, I didn’t mean anything by that. I didn’t know you—”
“It’s okay,” I sighed. I know you didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just different from what you’re used to, right?”
She nodded, staring at me oddly again, head cocked to the side and her almond shaped eyes roaming over me for a moment. “I don’t think I ever would’ve pictured you as a lesbian.” She leaned in, a hint of her earlier smile reappearing as she whispered conspiratorially. “Is that the correct term? Lesbian?”
She nodded, head cocked to the side, eyes roaming over me for a moment.
“What?” I said. “Don’t stare at me like I’m a science project. I’m gay, not an alien.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s that, I’ve known you for a little over a year. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Didn’t seem important.”
“My love life is important but yours is off limits?”
“I meant I’m the team leader, I don’t need—”
“Being team leader doesn’t mean you don’t need someone to talk to or vent sometimes.”
I held up my hands in mock defense, a smile etching its way onto my lips. “Fine.”
“What ended your last relationship?” Michiko asked.
“She was one of those curious-but-straight girls you hear about,” I scrounged for the last droplets of water at the bottom of my glass and looked around for our waiter. “I had a girl do that to me in college and it almost broke me. She’d been a walking verbal abuse how-to manual.”
“Sounds like a growing experience,” Michiko said softly. “And if it was, I have one last question for you.”
“Oh?” I asked, pulling out a stick of spearmint gum and folding it into my mouth. “And what would that be?”
“Are you free next Saturday?”
Jay Barlow has been telling stories since they could speak. They battled their way through the streets of Tennessee’s inner city jungle with an action adventure paperback in one hand and a stick in the other. To pay homage to their Southern upbringing, their stories are set in a fictional Chattanooga, Tennessee. Jay pursued their B.A. in English at the University of Tennessee, then graduated from Seton Hill University with a Masters in Writing. They spend most of their time teaching their two rescue pups new tricks and smothering them in kisses. They love fantasy/sci-fi, romance, comics and action-adventure movies. When not weeping over fanfiction or annoying their wife, they can be found serenading passersby with an out of tune bass guitar. They currently reside in Hixson, with all the soul food they can eat.
The Monthly Contests rotate through a pattern of Poetry, Fiction, and Creative Nonfiction throughout the year, with a new theme each month. Go to the 2023 Monthly Contest Series Info page to view the genre and theme for each month.
This contest is free to enter for members of the Chattanooga Writers’ Guild. To become a member, click HERE
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