Christian Courier is pleased to announce the 2nd place winner of our 7th Annual Short Story Contest – Adult division. The final entries were evaluated by a panel of three judges: James C. Schaap, author and professor emeritus of English at Dordt College, Iowa; Hugh Cook, author and professor emeritus of English at Redeemer University College and Angela Reitsma Bick, CC editor in chief. The judges were not able to award a first place winner this year, but would like to congratulate Joyce Stigter of Medicine Hat, Alberta, on her second place win for her story, Garbage Day. They were impressed with the attention to detail in this story, and commented that the conflict and the dialogue were handled well. Joyce will receive a one-year subscription to Christian Courier in addition to having her story printed in this issue. Well done, Joyce!
Lucy the cat was a loaf-shaped silhouette on the back of an armchair. She observed the world from here, from a comfortable distance – insulated from the outside by a large picture window, as if in a glass bowl. Right now her eyes were closed against the early morning light, and she was, by all appearances, sound asleep.
Darkness and silence began to ebb in equal measure. From within the recesses of the house came an almost imperceptible buzz, then the click of a light switch. Next was the groan of the shower, a muffled rustling of fabric and the resolute padding of slippers in the hall. A triangular shaft of light cut through the living room and touched Lucy’s armchair. She opened one eye, the one closest to the kitchen.
Roy Pringle came into view, heading straight for the coffee pot. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man in his late thirties with the kind of natural athletic build and warm manner one might not expect in an accountant. Some people assumed from his manicure that he was a surgeon, and perhaps in some purely mathematical way, he was.
Roy ran the cold water, his gray-green eyes watching intently as it crept up the sides of the glass carafe. If today had been Saturday, he would have waited to let the water climb all the way to 12. On Fridays, he bypassed the coffee pot altogether and gave himself the luxury of stopping in at his favourite coffee shop on his way to work. He always parked the car and went inside. Service was faster. There were never more than two people ahead of him, as long as he got there before 8:15.
But today was Thursday, and from Monday to Thursdays he made coffee for himself and for Charlene, to sip together at breakfast and then take along. Roy stopped the water when it touched the line marked 8. As he measured out the coffee grounds, the familiar tug of aroma stirred something else inside of him. He recognized its raw, sharp edge and consciously pushed it down, further down.
From the direction of the bedrooms came the usual commotion of doors and running taps and slapping of voices and bare feet. Roy set out the cereal and counted out slices of bread for toast. Plates, knives, peanut butter. Fresh oranges, cut into eighths, to the left of every plate. Boiling eggs for Charlene and Zachary, six minutes. Egg cups, salt, spoons. The girls only like scrambled eggs. That was reserved for Saturday mornings when they had time for bacon.
Lunch kits had been prepared the night before, and soldiered onto the bottom shelf of the fridge. Roy pulled them out and added Greek yogurt, spoons and raw, unsalted almonds, then set them back carefully. Emma’s horse-themed lunch kit was always first on the left, then Zach’s motorcycle racing one, then Bailey’s pink and yellow princess one with the puffy decals.
By now the coffee was ready.
He filled his black RenCada mug halfway then set it down again, remembering the cheese he had cubed the night before. Stretching to his full height, he reached to open the half-cupboard above the fridge and found the green glass dish Charlene had inherited from her grandmother. He arranged the cubes into neat rows and set the plate out where the girls could easily reach it.
“Remember the Greek yogurt and almonds,” Charlene’s voice called from their bedroom. There was the sound of hangers clinking on the rack. “Golf lessons start up again today. They will be hungry after school.”
“Okay, gotcha,” Roy answered.
Absently, he lifted his mug to his lips and then stopped. Maybe he should have changed the tablecloth. The pink and green florals looked too busy against the orange sections and the cubes of cheese. And, he noted as he looked out the window, there were low clouds gathering from the west.
“No, you can’t put that there! You’ll break Emma’s art project if you’re not careful!”
“Mom, Zachary’s making faces at me!”
“Mom, Zachary’s making faces at me!”
Roy set down his cup and went in search of the cat’s water dish. Lucy had the strange habit of pushing it around the kitchen with her nose when it was empty, as if to say, “See! See how light this is! Fill it for me!” Bending down, he scanned the kitchen floor – under the table, under the computer desk, behind the . . . oh there it was, behind the garbage can. It was bone dry, as usual. It was hard to say if Lucy actually drank that much water, or if she spilled it while she played her little game. Roy filled it at the kitchen sink and set it down beside her food dish, untouched from yesterday.
He paused, hands on his hips, surveying the dish. He and Charlene had had this discussion before. Does a cat really care if its food is fresh every day? Not every cat wants to eat right away. They like sleeping.
“And,” Roy said aloud, “she doesn’t even like me.”
Roy looked at his coffee, then at the cat dish, then shrugged. After emptying yesterday’s breakfast into the garbage, he rinsed out the dish and found a new can of Salmon Delight in the pantry. He peered in at the glistening contents. Visible chunks of salmon were embedded in a perfect circle of gelatinous . . . something. He paused, held it close to his nose and sniffed. Cat food was edible for humans, at least in the context of an adolescent dare contest.
Could it actually . . .? He dipped his nose lower and sniffed again, longer this time. Real fish. He touched the edge of his tongue to a large morsel that was jutting out slightly, allowing his senses to sift through the nuances of flavor. He lifted the edge gingerly with his fingers and placed it on his tongue.
Ding! The egg timer went. Roy swallowed without chewing and rescued the eggs. While he was cooling them under the tap, two arms wrapped around him and squeezed from behind. Emma, sweet Emma.
“Super stealth mode this morning,” he said, smiling down into her emerald green eyes.
“You were distracted by the cat food,” came her honest reply. He heard the hint of a question under her teasing tone. Why would you think about tasting cat food anyway? What kind of a strange person are you? Almost 12 years old, she was hovering in that awkward intersection between childhood and the unknown.
“Just want to be sure it’s fresh for Lucy, you know.”
Inwardly, he hoped his words sounded rational, fatherly. “Here, can you put this out for her?”
Emma nodded, but held the dish at arm’s length as she walked away. Roy tried to catch her facial expression before she turned away, but he was too late.
Zachary raced by him, hotly pursued by his younger sister. Both he and Bailey were wearing their shirts backwards and inside out.
“Breakfast in two minutes,” Roy said calmly, walking to the front door to fetch the paper. They ran circles around the living room coffee table before disappearing down the hallway again.
But today is Thursday
Holding the screen door open with one foot, Roy pulled the newspaper from the mailbox and stared across the street to where Kate Michaels was carrying her garbage can to the curb. Her blonde ponytail bobbed in the breeze. She was wearing another new running outfit, all pink with white racing stripes down the sides of her thighs.
Roy gripped the paper to his chest and prepared a smile. She was a neighbourhood standout – single, attractive, mid 20s, permanently tanned and toned. Wednesday’s paper featured her weekly piece on health and fitness, essentially an advert for her business as a personal trainer.
She turned her head to the right and dispatched a dazzling smile.
“Morning, Alec,” she called across the street. “Great day to put the top down!”
Roy froze, then pulled back into the frame of the doorway an inch or two. She was referring, of course, to Roy’s left-door neighbour and his new, cherry-red Tesla roadster.
Alec didn’t reply right away. He emerged from the garage with a golf bag over his shoulder. The ball cap over his shaved head made him look even younger than he was.
“Yah, thinking about it. Taking a new client out later today. Coming in from Seattle.”
“Again? Wow. Good for you!”
It was apparent Alec thought so too. His tech start-up was gangbusters.
Lucy’s loud purring broke Roy’s concentration. He closed the door to see Bailey sitting in the cat’s chair, stroking Lucy behind the ears.
“Hey cat-girl, time for breakfast,” he said, and Bailey scampered away to the kitchen. Folding the paper carefully, he set it underneath his briefcase to read later. A rolling sound from outside drew his eyes to the front window. It was Alec, trundling garbage to the curb on a dolly.
Roy strode quickly to the kitchen. He looked again at the calendar.
“Mmmm, coffee smells amazing!” Charlene exclaimed. She had filled her to-go cup and was sipping contentedly from her white RenCada mug. A warm smile directed at him. “Perfection, as usual.”
“That’s strange,” he muttered.
Charlene turned to scurry kids to their places at the table but managed a backward glance.
“Okay, I’ll bite.” She sat down. “What’s so strange? Besides the fact that you’re the only person not sitting down for breakfast right now?”
Zachary giggled. Roy’s cheeks felt suddenly warm.
“At least he doesn’t look stupid, like you,” Emma’s defense of her father was sharp.
Charlene stopped Zachary’s fist before it connected with Emma. He scowled and poked his cereal instead.
“You know better,” she said quietly, her hand resting on Zach but her eyes firmly on Emma. “Let’s remember what we know.”
Emma frowned, spreading peanut butter on her toast and then cutting it on the diagonal.
“I don’t know why the school has these dumb dress-up days anyway. Wacky hat day, super-hero day, inside out day. It’s just dumb.”
“I don’t think it’s dumb,” Bailey spoke up, one cheek full of cereal. “I think it’s fun.”
“Me too,” agreed Zachary, aiming a pointed look at Emma. “All my friends do it.”
Emma’s eyes darkened. Roy could feel strength draining out of him, as if a heavy blanket was holding him in his chair. Zachary took the opportunity to elaborate.
“Remember when Mason Cooper wore underpants on his head on Wacky Hat Day? Even the teacher said it was cool. She put his picture on the school website and everything. It was awesome!”
“Yah!” Bailey giggled. “And they were even little kid underpants with firetrucks on them.” She rolled her eyes.
“Wow, so mature,” Emma mocked. “Grow up for a change.”
Bailey stopped rolling her eyes and looked down at her plate.
“You’re mean,” she said. The tears started to flow.
“Emma, apologize,” Charlene said sternly.
Emma’s hands had balled up into fists on the tablecloth. Roy wanted to reach out his hand, to say something, to stop something.
“I just can’t wait ‘til September when I can go to Junior High and don’t have to be with little kids all the time,” Emma’s voice trembled.
“Yah, like your friends are so cool,” Zachary needled.
Flushed with anger, Emma stomped over to the sink and dropped her plate. It rolled and clanged around in a circle of noise that pulled at Roy’s stomach like surgical steel.
A tangled mess
Charlene pushed back a strand of chestnut hair from her forehead and drew Bailey onto her lap, wiping her cheeks tenderly. There was a painful silence.
“Well,” she began, her cheek tucked next to Bailey’s. “Where were we?”
Roy’s face was pale. He felt like Charlene knew all the tangled mess inside him, the disarray, the turmoil, all laid open for her eyes to see.
“You said something was strange?”
Roy’s hands were tightly wound around his half-full coffee cup. He licked his lips.
“Today is Thursday.” The words felt like sand in his mouth.
“Mom,” Zachary said, “Can I wear my underpants inside out on my head?”
Bailey started to giggle.
“I think your inside-out shirt will do for today, young man,” Charlene smiled. “Oh, Roy, look at the time.” She pushed back her chair.
“You can warm up the soup from Tuesday around six. We’ll be home by six-thirty at the latest. Should be fun, right guys? Now go and brush your teeth and then get backpacks to the mudroom.”
She started scraping food off the plates into the garbage.
“Honestly, sometimes I think outside supervision is easier to manage than the hormones flying around here. Honey, can you finish up? I’ve got to check in with Emma before we all head off for school.”
She was gone before Roy could nod.
“Today is Thursday.”
He knew that because yesterday was Wednesday, the day when Marcus had called him into his office. Two VPs were already standing there. Andrew had handed Roy a coffee. One cream, right? Chandler was wearing that hideous yellow tie, the one he had brought back from Vegas last Christmas. Who goes to Vegas at Christmas anyway? They had all stood there awkwardly in a circle like teenagers at the prom, until Marcus sat down, and then they all sat down in numb synchronicity.
That was when the words fell: “Downsizing.” “Streamlining.” “Outsourcing.” “End-of-the-week.” The words pummeled and twisted and thrashed him inside. Hammer words, knife words, whipping chains. They pinned him into the chair without mercy. His hands were shaking so much, it was all he could do to keep his hot coffee from spilling all over himself.
In the end, he was grateful for the hideous yellow tie. It gave him somewhere to look.
Roy emptied his coffee into the sink. He finished scraping the plates, then started on clearing away the rest of breakfast. The oranges were hardly touched, the cheese cubes not at all.
Charlene swept past him to grab the kids’ lunch-kits from the fridge.
“Wow, it stinks in here. When is garbage day?” she asked.
“Today,” Zachary announced, sliding into the kitchen on his socks and taking his lunch. “I saw old Mr. Anderson picking up dog poop from his yard.”
“Poop,” sang Bailey, “Poop, poopity poop poop.”
Charlene sighed. “Zachary, let’s empty out that garbage before it stinks up the whole house. It smells like fish guts or something. And all this breakfast stuff might as well go in there too.”
The whirlwind ofpeople, lunches, backpacks, jackets and shoes pushed forward to the mudroom and then to the garage. Roy turned off the coffee pot, picked up his briefcase and followed after. The kids were already in the van, and Charlene was loading up their golf bags into the back.
“So?” she threw the questioning look at him between trips. “What is it about Thursday anyway?”
Roy found his voice. “Today is Thursday. Garbage day isn’t until tomorrow. I checked.”
“What?” She shut the van door just as Roy opened the door of the garage.
“Tomorrow is –” Roy’s voice was drowned out by the loud honking of a van at the end of their driveway.
“Looking forward to tomorrow night!” It was Gail Cooper from across the street. “Just wait ‘til you see the place, Charlene, it’s so posh! And there’s tons of things for the kids to do – they’ll have a blast!”
“We’re almost packed!” Charlene responded. Roy heard the smile in her voice. “Drop by after supper for some coffee and you can fill me in!”
Gail honked again, waved and drove off.
Charlene turned to get in the van, then looked at Roy. Roy was looking across the street at Ed Cooper, who was putting out his garbage. Charlene’s eyes followed his. There were now four cans out at the curb.
“Just put out the garbage, Roy,” she said.
“But today is not garbage day,” Roy said. His hands shook in front of him. “Charlene, I know it, I checked the calendar, it’s –”
The van door slammed shut on his words. Charlene rolled down the window while she backed out of the garage.
“Roy – just do it, okay? Do it for me.”
And she was gone.
Some hours later, the clouds had thickened into dark, looming masses. The wind was starting to bend the tops of the trees. Old Mr. Anderson’s garbage can, being lighter than the rest, was the first to succumb. Next was Alec’s can, filled mostly with cardboard and plastic that he had meant to recycle. One by one, the rest of them went too, lids rattling, canisters clanging in wobbling, spewing circles. Bits of paper, wrappers and empty tins escaped their holds and bounced down the street, clanging against light posts and parked cars. A Salmon Delight label whipped furiously around the branches of the Pringle’s apple tree, then slapped against the front window.
Lucy arched her back into a long, luxurious stretch. Her tail swishing behind her, she jumped lightly off the armchair and padded over to the pet door, where her electronic collar signaled it to open. It was time for some fish dinner.