We are excited to announce the winner of the August 2023 Chattanooga Writers’ Guild Monthly Contest is LB Blackwell with the submission “Eye’s to See” and runner-up is Sherry G White with the submission “Sadie’s Secret.”
Eyes to See
She stumbled in late one evening and found the note, though she didn’t see it right away. First, she stood for a moment just inside the front door of her double-wide mobile home, one foot on the beige hall carpet and one on the recently laid tile entryway. The room settled as she took a breath.
A thin blue line below the door to her right told her Rick was watching TV in their bedroom. She could picture him, lying on his side, ankles crossed, head propped on one hand. If not for the blue glow under the door, she’d have thought he was sleeping. He kept the volume so low when he watched television. “How can he even hear that?” she muttered to herself.
She looked into the kitchen. The bulb above the stove cast the same dim yellow light as the street lamps outside. It was the light from this small bulb that illuminated the thick black letters scrawled across two cabinet doors. She couldn’t read them from where she stood. Too far away, she told herself. But as she tottered across the front hall, her eyes still strained. She could see now that there were four words, two per door. And she noticed the bottles on the counter–three beer bottles, a jug of strawberry liqueur, and a two-liter bottle of white zinfandel. Her stomach–slightly queasy much of the time–seemed to twist and shrink, as if trying to hide.
She turned back to the writing, now only a foot or so away. Gradually she brought the four words into focus. First she read them one door at a time. This To, said one door; and the other: Has Stop. This To Has Stop? She figured the second word should have been Too. This Too Has Stop. But it still didn’t make sense. She gave up and turned back to the alcohol on the counter.
Whatever the writing meant, it seemed to be connected to this pointed display. Probably Rick’s doing, she thought. He never let up, always hassling her about her drinking. She was an adult, for Christ’s sake. Plus, she had seen the true darkness of alcoholism, as he well knew. She wasn’t anything like her ex-husband. She went to work every day. She cooked dinner. And she sure as hell didn’t smack anybody around. So who cared if she stopped at the bar after work or had a glass (or two) of wine before bed?
She glanced at her older son’s bedroom door, near the far corner of the kitchen. It was closed too and emitted the same blue light beneath the door that she’d seen coming from her own bedroom. In the darkness of the hallway beyond her son’s door, all was quiet. Her three younger children would be asleep by now. The school day started early. Was there school tomorrow, she wondered, then quickly dismissed the question. Of course there was. It was Tuesday. No, Wednesday. Her stomach compressed again, then relaxed a little as she remembered she had already packed a lunch for the twins that morning before she left for work. Or was that yesterday?
She walked toward the dark hallway that led to the back door. Passing the bedroom doors of her other children on one side and the washer and dryer on the other, she felt squeezed by the demands of her family. In the dark she could almost feel the hallway narrowing around her. Just before she reached the door, she had an unreasonable but intense fear that the ceiling was about to crush her like a trash compactor. In her panic, she nearly rammed the door open with her shoulder.
Outside, she sat in a patio chair near the pool. Just after Rick was promoted at the dealership, they’d splurged on a screened-in, inground swimming pool. The water glowed blue like the television screens. Then it changed to pink, then green, then red. This slow four-color loop continued, and as she watched she had a moment or two of peace.
Then the factory of her mind began producing thoughts on its favorite theme: how she’d been misused, especially by the men in her life, starting with her father. He wasn’t abusive, and this fact always confused her when she thought of how she’d ended up marrying an abuser the first time.
No, her father didn’t hit her. Nor did he hug her, except maybe when she was a small child. A freelance graphic artist, he worked late in his home studio, sketching a draft of a cartoon or a signboard. Sometimes she’d slip down to the studio when he was out delivering a piece of work or taking the family van to the shop. She liked the heady scent of paint from the tiny bottles her father used to paint the signs he made. She liked the way the door brushed over the stiff carpet as she opened it. There was stuff everywhere so that the space seemed disorganized. But near his chair, and especially on the drafting table, there was a clear order, though the area was never tidy.
She liked to sit in his chair and swivel back and forth a few times, glancing across the desk. Though it looked like nothing more than some scattered pencils and brushes and random papers, she sensed a cohesiveness, as though she were looking at a painting in progress or a half finished sculpture. If she touched something, she might throw the whole work off course. So she just looked, and wondered.
Once her father came home earlier than she’d expected. She was still swiveling in the chair when she saw his car pull into the driveway, and she thought briefly of dashing out. But fear and a hint of curiosity rooted her to her seat. She may not have had time to get away in any case.
She watched through the windows as he walked toward the side of the house to the office door, heard it creak open, listened for his voice to ask her what she was doing in his studio. But he didn’t speak. She heard him moving around the room just a few feet behind her. He seemed to be looking for something. He was muttering to himself as he rummaged through some of the old shoeboxes he kept stacked against the back wall.
At last he found whatever he was looking for and he made a satisfied sigh. He left the room, closing the door behind him. She could hear the door to the kitchen open a few moments later, and she knew he was going to have lunch.
She had forgotten this incident until just now–the thrill she felt sitting in the chair while her father poked around in the shoeboxes without knowing she was there. When he left the room and the relief of not being caught had washed over her, she noticed she also felt disappointment. At the time she’d been confused by this feeling, but as she stared into the changing colors of the pool she understood too well. She had felt it many times in many situations since. With boyfriends, teachers, husbands. With preachers too she’d felt it on occasion, though some of the men of God paid her a kind of attention that she found more painful than being overlooked.
And that’s what it was–the source of her disappointment in her father’s studio years ago. She’d been overlooked. Of course it wasn’t the first time. But because she had been so sure of being caught that day, the pain of being unnoticed stuck in her memory.
She wondered now, as her tanned and drawn face glowed blue, then red, then green, if it wasn’t desire more than curiosity or fear that had kept her in the chair. Had she jumped up when she first saw her father’s car pull in the driveway, she could have slipped out the studio door and met him coming the other direction, could have pretended to be coming from the back yard. But she’d wanted to be seen. To be seen. Even if it meant enduring her father’s anger. That would be better than nothing, which was what she’d been getting.
A motorcycle roared down the street in front of the double-wide. She didn’t know how long she’d been sitting by the pool, but she could tell she was beginning to sober up. She slid from the chair and dangled her feet in the tepid water. The light in the pool had gone out, as had the glow from her son’s bedroom window. The roof blocked the light from the streetlamp, so she could see the stars.
She lay back on the cool cement patio, her feet and calves still in the water. As she gazed into the darkness, she remembered the writing on the cabinets in the kitchen. She closed her eyes and looked in her mind at the image of the words. She saw them clearly now, and understood.
LB Blackwell teaches high school English and gets up ridiculously early to write. He has a blog and an occasional column in the Chattanooga Times Free Press called The Mundane Way. His short story “Signs of Change” was selected as a winner of the XR Writers Solarpunk Showcase.
“Hold my hand in the parking lot,” Sadie’s mother said as she pulled the 5-year-old girl out of her carseat. Eyes wide, she stretched one arm up to grab her mother’s hand and stuck fingers from her other hand into her mouth. She jogged to keep up with her mother’s brisk pace.
Sadie walked through the door her mother held open for her and looked around the thrift store. This wasn’t Sadie’s favorite store. It seemed like they always had the same old, broken, dirty toys. She followed her mother to the last aisle on the left, the toys.
“Okay, baby,” Sadie’s mother said as she popped the little girl’s fingers out of her mouth. “Stay here while I go find what I need. I’ll be right over there.” She pointed at the women’s clothes.
Sadie nodded and watched her mother walk away. When she was alone, she started chewing on her fingers again and turned to look at the toys. She picked up the colorful xylophone and tapped the red key. Sighing, she set it back down. The mallet was gone. There was a red and blue shape sorter with only two of the yellow shapes left and a plastic barn with no pieces.
“Hello?” a small voice whispered.
Sadie stood up straight and looked around for the source of the voice. “Hello?” she whispered back.
“Hi!” the voice whispered again. “I’m Lydia. What’s your name?”
“Sadie,” she answered. “Where are you?”
“I’m on the top shelf.”
“Oh,” Sadie sounded disappointed. “I can’t see up there.”
“There’s a chair at the end of the aisle. Can you drag it over?” Lydia asked.
Sadie looked around and saw the wooden kitchen chair. She walked to it and wrapped slimy fingers on the round wood bars across the back and started dragging. Once she was halfway along the aisle, the voice whispered, “Okay, that’s close.”
She pushed the chair against the shelves and crawled onto the seat. Standing, she grasped the edge of the top shelf and peaked at the toys on in. Her mouth grew wide as she saw the treasures she had been forbidden before. An assortment of unbroken toys lined the shelf. “Where are you?” she whispered.
“The red dress,” Lydia replied as a doll wearing a red dress fell over, landing close to Sadie’s hands.
She grabbed the doll by its arm then turned and plopped down into the chair. “Hi,” Sadie said again. “I’ve never had a talking doll before. Do you want to come home with me?”
“Very much!” Lydia answered. “But your mommy may not let me come with you if you tell her I’m talking to you.”
“Oh.” Sadie thought about it. “Then it can be our secret.”
“Sadie?” her mother came back with a dress over her arm. “Are you ready?”
The little girl held the doll up to her mother.
“Oh, she’s beautiful,” the woman admired the doll. “Would you like her?”
Sadie nodded and clutched the doll to her chest then followed her mother to the checkout stand.
Purchases in hand, they got back in the car and headed home, Sadie playing with her new doll’s curly hair and bright red dress the whole way.
Grasping Lydia’s plastic arm, Sadie rushed to her bedroom, closing the door behind her. “This is my room,” she whispered to the doll. “Do you want to play?”
“Oh, yes,” Lydia answered. “Do you have a tea set? I would love some tea.”
Sadie sat the doll in a chair at the child-sized table then rummaged through the toy box for the pieces to her old green and pink tea set. She placed two plates and two mugs on the table before taking a serving tray and the teapot to the kitchen. Her mother was unloading the dishwasher so she held the tray and pot up to her.
“Is it tea time?” her mother asked.
Sadie replied by blinking her big brown eyes and handing the pieces to her mother.
With a small smile to hide her sigh, the woman put two cookies on the tray and filled the pot with juice. “Just a little,” she said. “It’s not long before dinner.”
Sadie nodded and took the cookies and juice back to her room to serve the snack to Lydia. She placed one cookie on each plate and poured the juice for her new friend. “Thanks,” Lydia said. Sadie’s eyes widened again when the cookie moved on Lydia’s plate.
“I can’t pick it up,” Lydia sighed.
“Are you real?” Sadie whispered in awe.
Lydia giggled. “Of course I’m real.”
“Cool!” Sadie smiled and drank her juice.
The two girls whispered and giggled to each other until Sadie’s mother called her out for dinner. “Do you want to come with me?” she asked Lydia.
“I better wait here,” Lydia answered.
Sadie joined her parents in the kitchen and pressed the top of her head into her father’s hip as a hello. He patted her brown curls. “Hey, baby. Did you get a new toy today?”
She pulled away from him and nodded as she climbed into her chair for dinner. She picked up her fork and used it to scoop a big glop of mashed potatoes and spread it on her roll.
“I wish I knew why you did that,” her mother sighed.
Mouth still full of bread and potatoes, Sadie smiled and grasped her cup to swallow the mess with juice.
“I wish I knew why she won’t talk to us,” her father mumbled.
“Hush, dear. The doctor said she will when she’s ready. We just need to be patient.”
Sadie frowned at her plate and pushed the sweet peas around, mixing them into the rest of the potatoes.
“What is it, Sadie?” her mother asked. “Is something wrong?”
Her little shoulders raised halfway to her ears in a shrug as she shook her head and poked her roast beef with her fork.
Her father rubbed her back with his large hand and leaned over to kiss her temple. “I’m sorry, baby,” he said. “I just wish I could help.”
Sadie rubbed her hair against his arm then ate her roast beef.
“Are you done?” her mother asked when she put down her fork and drained her juice. Sadie nodded and her mother said, “Then go play with your new doll. I’ll run your bubble bath in a little bit.”
Sadie pushed her bedroom door closed behind her then sat on her bed, twirling her fingers in the corner of her yellow blanket.
“You look sad,” Lydia said. “What’s wrong?”
Sadie shrugged with a deep sigh. “Mommy and Daddy want me to talk to them,” she whispered.
“Why don’t you?” Lydia asked. “You talk to me.”
Sadie shrugged again. “I don’t know. It’s just hard.”
“Oh,” Lydia sounded like she was thinking about the situation. “Maybe if you practice with me it will get easier.”
Sadie looked at the doll’s blue eyes and curly brown hair. “What do you mean?”
“Sometimes we have to practice hard things so they feel less hard,” Lydia explained.
“Like pedaling my bike?” Sadie asked.
“Yes!” Lydia agreed. “And maybe one day, when you’re ready, you can pretend like you’re talking to me but you’re really talking to them!”
“Oh.” She thought for a moment. “Do you really think that will work?”
“I don’t know,” Lydia answered. “But it might. Anyway, for now we can just play. Do you have a car you can push me in?”
Sadie smiled and opened her closet door to dig out the old red fire engine that she lost interest in ages ago then set Lydia on it. She made siren and horn noises as she pushed the truck around the room with Lydia giggling in her ear.
When Sadie was ready for bed, she lay under her blanket hugging her new doll. Her parents turned off the light and, as soon as the door closed, Sadie kissed Lydia’s hair and whispered, “Thank you.”
Sherry G White grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She lived in several states before returning home. Sherry lives with chronic illness and tends to give her protagonists various ailments and physical challenges. On good health days, Sherry can be found in thrift shops and antique stores or sitting in a café with a notebook and pen. On poor health days, she’ll be curled up with her cat, a notebook and pen close by.
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