We hope you’ve all had a great summer and are ready to do some serious writing. After an unprecedentedly profitable first two quarters of 2016, the OWT team were able to spend our vacation touring Greek islands on the Online Writing Tips yacht. The good news is that you too can live like this, by winning the richest literary prize currently offered anywhere on this website.
Yes, the Online Writing Tips Short Fiction Prize is back for 2017, and the deadline has just been announced as midnight on March 15th (GMT). It’s free to enter and international entrants are welcome. There’s no theme, but to get an idea of what we’re looking for, check out the runner up and winning story from 2016. In 2017, first prize will be a sumptuous £100, with £50 for second place, and £25 for third. All the submission information is available here – good luck!
This week’s featured market is an amazing opportunity all the way from Berlin. Don’t worry – you needn’t write in German. This is strictly for English-language stories of 1500-3500 words. The theme is “A Summer Night” and you have until midnight (CET) on May 31st. Best of all, it’s completely free to enter and there are some amazing prizes: first place wins publication in the summer print edition of EXBERLINER, €100, and a goodie bag. Two runners up will each receive publication on the EXBERLINER website, €50, and a goodie bag. And ten finalists will have their stories featured on The Reader Berlin showcase, and have the opportunity to perform their work live at a Reader Sunday Salon event in autumn. Please see here for full rules and submission details. Good luck!
My mother used to say, “Raising a child is like taming wild horses.” She said this so often, I wanted to gag her mouth whenever she did. We lived in Houston, near the Buffalo Speedway. There weren’t any horses – there were only rich people and richer people who probably had a ranch somewhere and a horse to go with it.
By the standards of the neighborhood, our house was small. Unlike my neighbors, I didn’t have a nanny or a babysitter or a cook, because my parents thought it was a waste of money. But I had the museum. Dad was a physician at Ben Taub Hospital and he’d take time off from his day to pick me up from school and drop me off at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where Mom was a docent.
When I was five years old, I wandered up the museum stairwell to the Hall of the Americas. I stumbled before an Aztec god statue who sat under a small, dim light. His head was a detailed skull with a hat made out of leaves and his open mouth and sharp teeth seemed poised to gobble me up. I screamed so loud, I fell backwards. Mom found me and carried me out to the busy hallway.
“Why are you yelling so much?” she asked, holding me close.
“I saw a scary statue. He had big teeth and a skull head.”
“Oh, him? That god eats kids who don’t behave the way their mommies and daddies want them to, but don’t worry – that god can’t keep up with a wild horse like you.”
Mom was a docent at the museum for almost ten years. Then, one night, as she walked to her car after a special event, a group of four armed men demanded her purse and car keys. She pulled out her gun from her purse and shot one of them in the chest. The man was taken to Ben Taub down the street, but he died the following morning. Mom lived with tremendous guilt. She felt she had to stop doing something she loved as penance, so she resigned from the museum.
After the incident, Mom mostly stayed in. She clipped coupons from newspapers, performed do-it-yourself projects around the house, and re-arranged the living room furniture once a month. A couple of times a week, she invited the neighborhood wives over for coffee. They sat at the kitchen table, talking about nothing important. I think she really missed the museum and so did I because it brought us closer together.
The longer Mom stayed home, the more frequent the coffee invites became. The ladies arrived at four pm, discussed the amazing power of a coupon or a sale at the Galleria, criticized our decorations, and then asked when the next coffee get-together would be. Every time I heard them cackling downstairs, I stayed in my room until they left. But there was a time when my stomach rumbled, so I crept to the kitchen on my toes. One of them still spotted me by the pantry.
“No boyfriend at school yet, Verona?” she asked. “You’re nearly fifteen.”
“Not now,” I answered as I reached into a box of granola bars. “Maybe when I’m older.”
“You won’t meet a boy at the museum. Nothing but dusty old bones there.”
“I could have coffee with you if I wanted to see some dusty old bones,” I muttered.
Eventually, Mom let me see my friends only once a week and she always told me she hated the way I dressed. I was comfortable in jeans and an old T-shirt, but she urged me to wear brightly colored dresses with large brimmed hats, which was how the other neighborhood daughters dressed.
“Those girls look like cheap umbrellas,” I said.
She pinched my forearm. “I’m tired of you being a wild horse,” she said. “We’re going shopping this weekend. Mrs. Evans told me there’s a twenty percent off sale at the Galleria.”
“Mrs. Evans would buy a dead body if it was marked down.”
“That’s enough, Verona,” Mom said. “At least her daughter looks like a woman.”
The following Sunday, we went to the Galleria where Mom bought me three neon orange flower print dresses. I never wore them. I shoved them into my backpack and donated them to the clothing charity at school.
Every December, Dad took us to the holiday party at Ben Taub. I never liked going because he always pushed his young doctor friends my way. They only talked to me about all the money they made. Mom asked me to wear one of my bright orange dresses for the event. When I came downstairs in a black dress, she ordered me to change.
“I can’t,” I said with a forced frown. “My dresses were stolen.”
“How did that happen?” she asked as she styled her hair into a bun, the same style the neighborhood wives wore when they went out.
“I took the Metro home from school last week, remember? I had my dresses in my backpack and the Houston Dress Bandit reached into it and took them.”
“We’re running late, Verona; tell me your ridiculous story later,” she said. “Just get in the car and pray the neighbors don’t see you in that black dress. You look like a grieving widow.”
Dad drove us to Ben Taub still wearing his white coat. He spent most of his time at the hospital. On days when he performed operations, he brought his bloody scrubs uniform home in a plastic bag. Mom always took the sanguine scrubs and tossed them into the washing machine along with my clothes to conserve water for the environment. I watched the blood mix together with my dirty laundry.
At the party, Dad made a long, dull, monotone speech about his love for the hospital. He made the same speech every year, so I stopped paying attention after five minutes. I could see the edge of the museum from my seat. I wanted to burst out of the party, run across the street, and go see the dinosaur bones, though I had already seen them hundreds of times. But then Dad suddenly introduced me during his speech. He pointed to me from the podium, asking me to stand beside him as he did every year. I slowly approached him as everyone applauded.
“Here she is,” he said and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “This is my daughter, Verona. And to all you young doctors, she finally turns eighteen next month, and, yes, she’s single.”
After Dad’s speech, three of the “young doctors” spoke to me. They asked me how school was going and if I planned to be a doctor as well. I shook my head. I wanted to volunteer at the museum like Mom did, but I knew that wasn’t realistic. Mom got to volunteer because Dad made more than enough money to take care of us. If I did become a doctor, I doubted I would have any time to visit the museum at all. Dad left for work at 6:30 every morning and he didn’t come home until nine or ten in the evening. I usually saw him for about half an hour each day.
“Why don’t you want to be a doctor anyway?” one of the young doctors asked.
“Too much blood,” I said.
“Who cares about blood? With all the money you’d make, you could live in a nice house and buy whatever you wanted.”
“I can live without all that,” I said. “I really can.”
No matter how many young doctor friends Dad introduced me to, I never dated any of them. Instead, I fell in love with an electrician named Paul. I was working as a wedding planner at an office in River Oaks, when Paul walked in, crying because his fiancée had cheated on him. My manager reluctantly returned Paul’s deposit. Before he walked out, I slipped a gum wrapper with my scribbled phone number into his hand because I thought he needed someone to talk to. I didn’t expect us to fall in love, but two years later we were married, and a year after that I gave birth to our son, Ishmael. We bought a modest house in the Lindale Park area, fairly close to our jobs. Ishmael had his own room and we drove new cars. Together, we didn’t earn anywhere near the amount of money Dad made, but we were satisfied.
Mom adored Ishmael. She started taking a crafting class six months before he was born, and every week she made him a hideous crocheted hat. I’d put the latest repulsive hat on him to be polite, but he’d always grab it from his head and throw it in the air.
“He hates them, Mom,” I said.
“Oh, he’ll grow into them,” Mom said. “He’s just a wild horse.”
Planning weddings turned out to be much harder than I thought. I went to Rice University, but never finished because I didn’t feel like I belonged there with the other wealthy students. My job would never make me rich, but it was still a nice income. At the same time, it was overwhelming. Sometimes I wanted to convince the couples who came in that marriage wasn’t so wonderful if you weren’t happy. I loved Paul, which is why I married him. I loved Ishmael, no matter how much I hated changing his diapers. I didn’t love my life.
The weddings piled in so fast, I worked sixty hours a week and spent less time at home. Paul picked up Ishmael from daycare, cooked dinner, and put Ishmael in his crib at eight in the evening. By the time I got home, Paul was asleep. In the rare times we were awake together, we argued frequently, but I caused all the fights. I got upset at Paul over trivial things, such as an electrical tool on the floor or a dinner I disliked. Eventually, we slept in different parts of our house, but one of us always slept next to Ishmael.
But I think Ishmael knew something was wrong. He didn’t sleep through the night as he used to. Paul said Ishmael refused his teddy bear, his toy car, and his favorite foods. I took a day off to take Ishmael to the museum. We looked at the dinosaur fossils, the Energy Hall, the pendulum, and made our way upstairs to the Egyptian Hall and the Hall of the Americas. Ishmael shuffled around in the Mesoamerica section. He grabbed my hand and led me to the Aztec god. Then he pointed at the Aztec god’s leafy hat.
“Ugly hat,” he said. “Grandma made that hat.” I picked him up and held him close against my chest. He wiggled happily within my grasp.
“Good Mommy,” Ishmael said as he kissed my cheek. “I love my mommy.”
After another couple of weeks, Paul and I finally had a talk about what we were going to do with our marriage. Paul told me I could keep the house if we divorced, but he wanted us to have equal time with Ishmael, no matter who got custody.
“We can’t afford a lawyer to get divorced,” I said. “I don’t even know why we’re talking about this.”
“If you really want to get divorced, we could save up for it,” he said as he fixed the flickering lamp in our dining room. “Put away, say, ten or twenty bucks a month. By the time Ishmael’s sixty-five, we might be able to afford it.”
“We should have a bake sale. We’ll hang a big sign for it in the yard. Every purchase goes towards Paul and Verona’s divorce. Buy five brownies, get a free copy of the decree. Buy ten cookies and we’ll reserve a seat for you at the courthouse.”
“Verona,” Paul said, shaking his head. “If we need some time off, that’s fine with me.”
“Is that what you want?” I asked.
He put his tools to the side. “I don’t want a divorce,” he said. “Not a divorce. At least, not yet.”
“I don’t either.”
“But I love you too much to see you unhappy. Am I doing something wrong?”
“No,” I said as I stroked his thick, brown hair. “Of course not.”
We decided Paul would stay in our house and I temporarily moved with Ishmael to my parents’ home. The separation wasn’t meant to be for very long – we just wanted to see if we were happier without each other. Dad was retired now, but he continued working part-time at Ben Taub, conducting research with medical students. The day I came to live with him and Mom again, he gave me the names of eight male students. All single, all rich, all looking for a wife he wrote underneath the last name. I brought in the last of my belongings and I saw Mom sitting by the television, finishing another hat for Ishmael. When it was complete, she placed it on his head.
“No, Grandma, ugly hat!” he shouted and threw the hat so hard, it landed on my face.
“Mom, you really need to stop making him those hats – he hates them.”
“I keep telling you he’ll grow into them,” she said. “And if he doesn’t, then we’ll just have to make him, won’t we?”
“Nobody can force Ishmael to do something he doesn’t like, trust me.”
“I think I know where he learned that behavior,” Mom said. “Throwing hats all over my house, who taught him to do such a thing?”
“Daycare did,” I said. “All the kids throw hats there. It’s a fad right now.”
During the weeks I lived with my parents, Mom bought me five bright orange dresses, made more hats for Ishmael, and reminded me how raising him was like taming wild horses. Dad rarely spoke to me since, as usual, he was never home. Mom hovered over me all day long. She still invited the neighborhood wives over for coffee and once she made Ishmael wear a crocheted hat for them to see “how cute he looked.” The second the hat touched his head, he tossed himself on the floor, kicking, screaming, and crying until I stepped in to remove the offending headwear.
“Thank you, Mommy,” he said, rubbing his soaked eyes with his chubby fists. I picked him up and he rested his head on my shoulder. The neighborhood wives sneered at him.
“I remember when you were younger, you couldn’t stand wearing nice clothes,” one of them said. “Your son turned out just like you.”
“He doesn’t like having anything else on his head,” I told her. “His brain already takes up too much room.”
Aside from the coffee visits, each time I tried to feed Ishmael his dinner, Mom interrupted us and showed me the correct way to do it.
“Gentle strokes with your arm, Verona,” she said. “Gently show him the spoon. If you don’t do it gently, he will grow up with a fear of silverware. If he’s afraid of silverware, he’ll never go to the dentist and then he’ll die of rotten teeth.”
“You are so right, Mom. I couldn’t live with a son who’s afraid of spoons.”
To get away from Mom and her silverware theory, I requested more hours from my supervisor. One day, right before closing time, there was a woman who came with her nervous fiancé to pick out a venue. She glanced at my venue book for a few minutes and then she asked which place on the list was the most expensive. Couples asked this question a lot because they assumed having a costly venue would equate with having the best marriage.
“Right now, it’s the Houston Museum of Natural Science,” I said.
“You can get married there?” she asked. Her fiancé sunk in his seat.
“Yes,” I said. “The price only reserves the facility, not the catering or decorations or anything else you’d like. I don’t recommend it to couples who make under a million dollars.”
“Oh, you’re funny,” she said and turned to her fiancé. “That’s the place for us, Jon.”
“Honey, that’s too much mon–” the fiancé began, but she kissed his lips before he could finish talking. He grabbed a pen from my desk, unsteadily signed the paperwork, and left a massive sweat stain from his palm over the first sheet.
After work that day, I stopped by my old house to check on Paul. He was sitting in front of the TV, eating a sandwich and wiping off mayonnaise that fell on his wedding ring. He stood up as soon as he saw me. Even though he visited Ishmael at my parents’ house often, I was always working when he did so. We had not seen each other face to face in over three months, but he looked unchanged.
“Forget something?” he asked.
“I’m moving back in,” I said.
Paul wiped his greasy hands on his jeans and hugged me. “I’ve missed you so much,” he said. “I keep waking up at night because I think you’ll be coming home any minute.”
“Just give me time to get my stuff,” I said. “I’ll be back before the end of the month.”
“I haven’t changed anything since you left,” Paul told me and rubbed my hand.
“That’s why I didn’t leave you in charge of Ishmael. He’d still be in the same diaper.” We looked at each other and we kissed for the first time in three months.
When I got back to my parents’ house that evening, Dad was helping Mom serve dinner. I placed Ishmael in his highchair and took a seat next to him. Dad sat across from me, and as we ate he asked, “How many suckers did you plan weddings for today?”
“I don’t know, ten?”
“Marriage isn’t easy,” he said, chewing his food loudly. “Quality time is the real key to keeping marriage fresh. The reason why most of them end so soon is because some people can’t take one damn day off from work and relax with their family.”
“Dad, you’ve been married for thirty-five years,” I said. “And you’ve been home with Mom for one or two of them.”
He glared at me. Then he shook his head and clicked his tongue. “What do you know about marriage? You can’t even keep yours together.”
“At least my husband is involved with our son’s life,” I said.
“Verona!” he said and banged his fork on the table. “I was working to support this house. If you had married a doctor like I asked you to, you wouldn’t be here with us. You could have had a house just like this one and you could have stayed home with Ishmael instead of planning dumb weddings. But you’re just like your mother – too focused on things that don’t matter.”
“Please, both of you,” Mom interrupted. “Stop fighting and eat.”
That evening, I surprised Paul when I arrived home past one in the morning. He had fallen asleep on the couch with popcorn crumbs all over his shirt. He took Ishmael from my arms and whispered that he would put him in his bed. I made my way to my old bedroom at the end of the narrow hallway. The bedspread, pillowcases, and the cough drop wrappers on the nightstand were all the same. Dust covered the tips of the blinds over our window. Our stained curtain hung crookedly on the right side. Paul walked into the bedroom a few minutes later, his hand over his mouth to cover his yawning.
“Did you bring everything?” he said.
“Almost,” I said. “But I brought Ishmael and myself. We’re the important stuff.”
“Verona, I’m sorry I didn’t clean up better around here,” Paul said, in between a large yawn. “Cleaning was the last thing on my mind.”
“Don’t worry about it, let’s go to sleep.” Paul approached the bed, but then he stopped to take a deep breath. I moved part of the blanket for him. He stayed in place, not moving until I got up and stood next to him.
“Are you going to leave me again?” he asked. I wasn’t sure if he was serious or sleep talking like he sometimes did. I touched his light mustache and he looked right at me.
“I’m home for good,” I said. Paul nodded. He collapsed on our bed, his blue electrician cap still resting on his head. I caressed his ear until I fell asleep.
Two weeks later, Mom called me at work. She swore Dad didn’t mean what he said. “Verona, he’s got nothing against Paul or you or Ishmael. Please come over and visit us. You three are welcome for dinner tonight if you want. I won’t even make Ishmael wear a hat.”
“I can’t today, Mom. I have four couples waiting for final plans.”
“Then what about lunch this Saturday afternoon? Would that be okay? I miss seeing my grand wild horse. I’ve got some nice, new hats for him to wear at preschool. I’m sure he’ll love them.” I told her the weekend was fine.
Dad wasn’t at lunch, which didn’t surprise me. Mom said he and a neurologist were working on a genetics project and it took up most of their time. Ishmael didn’t want to eat any of the turkey breast sandwiches Mom prepared. Paul tried cutting them into tiny pieces for him, but Ishmael grabbed every portion and threw them across the room. Mayonnaise, turkey bits, and lettuce were all over the place.
“Have you been using gentle strokes when you show him a spoon?” Mom asked me as she wiped mayonnaise off the curtains.
“I don’t feed him with a spoon, Mom. I throw his food on the floor and he sticks his face in it until he’s done eating.”
“You’re still a wild horse, you know,” she said, though her tone wasn’t endearing. “It’s been over thirty years and I haven’t tamed you yet.”
“Mom, you’ve lived in Houston your entire life. What on earth would you know about taming a horse?”
“Nothing, that’s why you’re still wild,” she said.
Driving home, Paul sang lullabies off-key to Ishmael to make him sleepy for his afternoon nap. He sang the same lullaby over and over again. Ishmael began to cry and he covered his little ears with his hands.
“Ugly singing, Daddy,” he mumbled. “Bad Daddy. You can’t sing.”
“Stop torturing him, Paul,” I said. “It’s bad enough he has five new hats.”
“I’m only trying to make him sleepy, dear.”
“Then talk to him about replacing a light fixture.”
Weeks passed and I didn’t speak to either of my parents. Part of me didn’t want to and part of me said I should pick up the phone, call them, and talk to them, even if it would only be for a few minutes. Paul urged me to at least meet them for coffee.
“Why don’t you meet them for coffee?” I said.
“Because I don’t like coffee and they’re not my parents,” he said and placed two slices of bread in the toaster. “Your mom makes terrible hats for Ishmael, but it’s kinda sweet at the same time. And your dad paid for our wedding, too. When we were separated and I’d go visit Ishmael at their house, they didn’t seem so bad.”
“You didn’t grow up with them, Paul.”
“Verona, you lived in a house on Buffalo Speedway. When I was a kid, I was lucky to have something to eat for dinner.”
Three months passed. I spoke to Mom on the phone twice a week, but I didn’t visit her. Every time we talked, she told me Dad said hello and asked if I had anything to say to him that wouldn’t be blocked by the FCC. I never gave her an answer. Even so, no matter how rigid I tried to be, I really missed both of them. I missed getting those horrible hats for Ishmael. I missed wondering where Dad was. I actually missed Mom calling me a wild horse.
Just three days after I last spoke to Mom, Paul hurt himself on the job. He was installing a chandelier on a twenty-foot ceiling when his leg suddenly cramped. He cracked his kneecaps and landed flat on his back. He had several cuts and bruises and bled through his clothes. An ambulance took him to Ben Taub. I rushed by Ishmael’s preschool to pick him up early and take him to my parents’ house. Before I could ring the doorbell, Dad opened the door for us.
“Paul’s fine,” he told me.
“Shouldn’t you be out looking for more single doctors I’ll never be interested in?”
“I stopped by his room. He broke both knees and needs back surgery, but he’ll live.”
“What about all the blood?”
“It dried up. It’s all gone now,” he shrugged. “Like you.”
“Dad, I just came to leave Ishmael with Mom.”
“I know,” he said and touched my shoulder. “Mom’s not here. She’s at the museum. She’s a docent again. You can leave Ishmael with me or you can take him to her. I’ll be home all day if you decide to come over for dinner later.” He knelt down to Ishmael to speak to him.
“Do you want to play with me or Grandma today, Ishmael?” he asked. Ishmael raised both of his arms up in the air as he happily exclaimed, “Crazy Grandma!”
Dad smiled. For once, he put an arm around me and it wasn’t in front of a group of young doctors.
Mom stood at the entrance to the Paleontology Hall with a baby-blue crocheted hat on her head. Ishmael ran to her and she picked him up and kissed his face.
“Would you watch Ishmael for a little bit while I go visit Paul?”
“Of course, but the Aztec god will eat him if he doesn’t behave,” she said. Ishmael pulled her hat off her head and threw it on the floor.
“Ugly hat, Grandma,” he said.
“Ishmael, that’s mean, say you’re sorry,” I said, but Mom laughed as she reached down for her hat.
“Oh, let him be, Verona,” she said. “Nobody’s ever going to be able to tame this little wild horse. He just needs to run free.” When Mom tried to put her hat back on, he yanked it away from her hand and gave it to me.
“Trash, Mommy, this goes in the trash,” he said. I took the hat and shoved it into my purse.
“Go check on Paul,” Mom said. “We’ll be all right.”
But before I left for the hospital, I took the elevator to the Hall of the Americas. It was as dim-lit as ever. Through a crowd of running children, I made my way to the Mesoamerica section. The Aztec God was there with his skulled head and leafy hat, showing his big, sharp teeth, ready to eat any child who misbehaved. I waved hello to him. The children had run to the Egyptian Hall, and I was left alone, listening as their shouts grew quieter. I stood there for a long time. Then I thanked the Aztec God for never catching up with me.