We are delighted to announce that the winner of our short story is competition Jessica Irish, with her story Kentucky.
We received close to 100 entries but Jessica’s story stood out. It was unlike anything we’ve ever read before and made us feel uncomfortable, sad, and hopeless in equal measure and once we started reading we couldn’t stop. Congratulations Jessica, and thank you to everyone who entered.
If the skies start rumbling now, it’s only a sound we register when we’re a moment
from sleep. Otherwise it’s contained within the din of everything else, the trains
whistling away from here, the trucks lugging their loads as if their drivers have a
destination in mind.
The small infant who sleeps in between us, carving a space.
I am not the most selfish human in the world, bringing her here. I am not
wrong to have given her a chance to survive this landscape. I am not broken and
rotting inside, allowing myself to imagine a world where she might thrive.
This is what I tell myself as he kneels down next to us on the plywood floor
and dims the candles in the evening, the three of us preparing to shiver and cling to
each other under threadbare blankets that always end up on my side. I still haven’t
determined if that happens because he makes it happen that way, or if I pull them to
me in my sleep with a desperation that’s fortified by my dreams.
In other words: am I too selfish, or is he too selfless?
You wouldn’t think it would bother you, finding a man who gives you more
than what you need. My friends shake their heads at me, watch him drape his arm
around me in a way that makes my heart itch, and they say to me later that they’d give
three month’s worth of canned food to have their men look at them the way he looks
Can I tell them that I don’t know the precise moment I stopped loving him, but
it had something to do with the night he brought the cat in, dead, holding him by the
tail, and told me we had our dinner problem solved? Without even any anguish in his
eyes he said it, and I knew he was right but he lost me just the same. He could have
done it without telling me, he could have cooked it behind the scenes and spared me
the pain of knowing, but he always treats me like an equal, which is what we all say
we want but when it comes to this kind of survival it’s not worth it. Fuck equality and
grant me ignorance if it means never knowing that Ernest’s guts make a nice broth for
“We’ll be strong,” he whispers in my ear at night sometimes, “for her, or at
least for each other.”
I think he takes my lack of response for agreement, but the truth is that
whatever strength I have left I’ve designated to myself. Nobody needs it more than I
do, not even this little creature who mewls like a kitten, because at least she’s never
known an easier world than this one. At least she’ll learn to be strong from the start.
We’ll take a train soon, we’ve decide, get a ride up to Eugene and then head
inland; it’s a good place to try to hitch, the last stronghold of decency, that’s what
we’ve heard. I think we’re lucky if we’ve got a week left here, I think we’ll be lucky
if the coast doesn’t crash into the water sooner. Those waves getting closer, our food
supply running lower.
What will we do to bargain for a train ride? I sometimes wonder if he’s
steeling himself to do something noble, or disgusting. Like sell himself for our fare,
just me and the girl alone in a compartment full of vagrants, but I don’t think he’d
trust us to survive that way, I think he knows that he’s needed if we’re going to make
What if we stayed, what if we let whatever’s coming just come? The thunder’s
not so jarring anymore; I’ve gotten used to the slow rolling growl of it, and if the
water comes to take us it’s only the end of everything – not much.
He takes it personally, this sort of failure that defines us. I believe he’d give
his life to defeat it. It keeps me awake at night that knowing this about him doesn’t
worry me. I’m becoming less and less of a person worth loving. I watch him try to
love me more desperately with each bit of goodness that leaves me, like he thinks it’s
his fault, like he’s shackled to my mistakes. Well, he is.
I don’t know that she’s a mistake, but she’s a problem we’ve got to solve.
Neither of us is motivated to try, or at least I’m not and he knows better than to ask
me to change.
Tonight he lowers himself down behind us and kisses her forehead,
murmuring a song that sounds like a dirge. He puts a hand on my hip and leaves it
there, the heaviness of it providing something that’s almost like warmth.
“Tomorrow,” he says, “let’s get rolling.”
I don’t know what’s worse: that it’s so simple in his mind, or the fact that if he
decides to make it happen, it probably will.
He must know I’m not asleep yet, but I decide not to say anything. I close my
eyes and try to make my breathing steady and slow.
“It’s time,” he says. “We can manage it.”
The fact is that he’s right. We’ve had two storms today and the cliffs are
crumbling all down the coast. The wind is whistling through this warehouse more
frigid and fierce than it has been. If we stay here much longer, we will freeze. So sure:
it’s time to go.
Tomorrow I’ll find Henley and sell her my store of cans, trade them for
matches or pills – so much lighter to carry – and we’ll take off for the station and find
someone who’ll let us on for a few hundred milligrams of Paxil. Morphine’s the top
seller now, but Henley’s suppliers don’t arrive until Friday and maybe we don’t have
time to wait.
Another fact I’ll admit to: if it weren’t for my cowardice, I’d wait until Friday
and take the Morphine myself, assuming my garbanzos and stewed tomatoes were
worth enough to do a job that only needs doing once.
“Babe,” he says, jimmying my side a little. “You know it’s the right thing to
I’m so tired of thinking about the right thing to do.
“Okay,” I say, and the word costs me all of the energy in my body to produce.
My eyes flutter closed as he pulls me to him, so I can feel the girl against my back,
his body tilted at an angle to make room for her by pulling away from me.
“Good,” he says, and that’s aggravating too, that he can say a word like that
one and believe in it still. “Get some sleep, then. We’ll need it.”
The girl gurgles. I’m already falling into some cavernous sleep-state.
“I love you,” he says, but I don’t pull myself up far enough to respond.
Waking up is different than it used to be; now I arise to a whole body ache,
breasts heavy with fluid and shoulders stiff from the hard wood floor. Today I push
myself up like I always do, careful of the space behind me where vulnerability sleeps.
But today I’ve awoken to emptiness – he got up early, I guess, and brought the girl
with him. She must have been fussing and he didn’t want her to wake me.
Even that, such consideration, causes some sort of angry flinch within me.
I wrap the thin blanket around my shoulders, slip on the shoes that keep the
nails from ripping into the soles of my feet, and shuffle down to the kitchen. Henley is
there, scraping tuna from a can with her finger.
“There you are,” she says. “I was wondering.”
I don’t ask her where else I could have been. I pull myself onto the counter
and watch her lick the tin lid with her tongue.
“Hen,” I say. “You want to buy my stock?”
She stops licking, sets the can on the counter. Stares into my eyes long enough
that I blink twice. I think of the fact that I got double supplies all through the last six
months of carrying the girl within me, how everyone looked at me from shrouded
faces and grubby eyes whenever I entered the kitchen, how I only open the safe when
he’s with me, blocking the door, how when I was pregnant I ate each can so quickly
my stomach burned for half an hour after eating, only to growl again an hour later.
How that rationing, that rushing, kept her growing. How she’s small now, but okay
enough to make it. How I saved more than I should have from what they delegated to
me, how I’m using it to leave them now.
“Sure,” she says. “I’ll buy your stock. All of it?”
“Enough to get us out of here, at least,” I say. “So yeah.”
She bites her lip.
“Extreme. Sure you need to?”
“How else will we…?” I say, and that’s when he comes into the room, a hat
on his head like he used to wear back when I first met him. The light’s strong behind
him and he casts a long shadow.
“I got it,” he says, and his voice is more of a growl than it’s been; there’s
something like pain that he’s shielding. “Passage. We leave in an hour.”
“Still want to sell?” Henley asks me, picking up the can and grabbing a piece
of tuna with her fingers. “I can give you some good shit, I got Prozac and Ketamine
last week and nobody’s buying.”
I look at him, really look at him, but the light’s still behind him and I can’t
find his eyes.
“Sure,” I say. “Just let us keep some sauce, and a few cans of beans.”
“Of course,” she says, bowing her head. “That’ll get you halfway to Kentucky
before you need to sell more.”
He walks up to me, puts a hand around my waist.
“I’m gonna grab my stuff,” he says. I turn my face to his. “You should do the
The girl isn’t with him.
“Okay,” I say.
He lets go of me, walks upstairs. I listen to the scuffle of his boots on the
floor, hear it over the constant din of the world outside of us. A siren hauls off and
starts whining, as if there’s someone who cares about people in pain anymore.
“Good man,” Henley says. “He’d do anything for you, you know that?”
“We’re all jealous.”
I hop off of the counter, pull the blanket more tightly around me until I feel
“I’m supposed to grab my stuff,” I hear my voice coming from outside of
myself, feel myself floating away from my body, “but I don’t have any stuff. I don’t
have anything. It’s all gone.”
“Syl,” Henley says, coming towards me. “Jesus, calm down.”
“I’m sorry.” I don’t know how they got there, but I realize there are tears
streaming down my cheeks.
“Listen,” Henley says, putting a hand around each of my arms. “Here’s what
you’re going to do. You’re going to go upstairs and grab whatever there is to grab.
Your backpack, the cans you want to bring, some supplements. You’re going to find
two pairs of socks in a drawer, and you’ll bring those too. Then you’ll come down
here, and the two of you will hug me goodbye, and you’ll head to the station and pick
up the train that will take you where you need to go. That’s what you’re going to do.
It’s the only thing to do.”
I let out a long breath, nod. Some thunder rumbles again, it shakes me, I startle
in Henley’s hands.
“Good,” she says. That word again.
Upstairs, he has his back to me, loading his bag with what little we have left.
My saliva goes sour at the sight of him.
I know what you did, I almost say.
But didn’t he do what he hasn’t done before? Didn’t he hide it, so I could
pretend not to know? Isn’t that what I thought I wanted, all this time?
“Better get a move on,” he says.
“I know,” I say.
The cans from the safe feel heavier than they are. I take five of baked beans,
two chunky tomatoes, one corn just for taste. I imagine the meal we can make of it,
our first night out on the rails. If we mix them together it’ll be something like chili.
Socks, I find socks, because Henley said socks. It’s true that there’s no better
way to stay warm.
“Got us some water,” he grunts. He throws me a bottle, a huge one, it must be
a quart. Catching it is a feat, it’s almost as heavy as she was. Is. Was.
“How did you – ,” I start, but I stop myself fast. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” he says, and I read his words like code.
Downstairs we say goodbye to Henley, a brief, bony embrace and we’re gone.
The drugs she’s packaged for me clattering against each other in my bag.
The walk to the station is short, but the sidewalks are mostly shattered, the
ground covered in debris, excrement, bones. I sip from my water, careful not to spill a
drop even against my own chin. My ankles almost twist on every block.
“It’ll be better,” he says. “When we get away from this.” He nods to a lighting
storm a few hundred miles away. “Kentucky. It’ll be a new start.”
Maybe that’s what I would have called her, the girl in the blanket. Kentucky.
Maybe what hope I had was in her. Maybe she was to me what this new land is to
“Who bought her?” I say, breaking the pact we never made. The thunder’s
rolling but all I can hear is the rushing in my ears.
He picks up his pace, watching his feet. Steps right onto broken glass and it
crunches beneath his thick soles. We turn a corner, my cheeks burning from shame or
fear or something else I can’t find the name for. The station is ahead of us, just a
block away, a beaten down train waiting behind it, doors to each car open, shadows
“Family,” he finally says. He’s nearly running now and I have to pick up my
pace, my milk-filled breasts so sore as I jog. “One of those estates on the East Side.
Give her a good life.”
“Well then,” I say, breathing heavily, pulling my shirt away from my skin
where it sticks from the sweat. “She’s better off.”
“She is,” he says. He hops onto the train so easily, reaches a hand out to pull
me up. “We all are.”
I don’t know his lies from his truths anymore, but I take his hand.