The Writing District Prize 2023 Winner & Runners-Up

The Writing District Prize 2023 Winner and Runners-Up

Congratulations to the winner and runners-up of the The Writing District Prize 2023!



Anil Classen

Haru felt his hands go cold in the middle of the gas station. The memory resurfaced, gasping for air. It bobbed violently, jerking from left to right. It demanded to be fully inspected like a crazed rubber duck that glared friendliness but was vicious in its buoyancy. He tried to concentrate. He wanted the moment to stand still. He needed it to look him in the eye so that he could scare it away. But it remained aloof, cold, reminding him of the glass he felt as the bottle crashed against his head in the alley that morning.

‘Where are your friends now?’

He tried to turn his attention to better things, to the food in front of him, a cheerless dinner peeping at him through the microwave door. He knew it would lack flavour, but the layer of overflowing salt would wipe his palate clean. He dreamt of his father’s kanikama salad, the crisp lettuce and edamame, paired with only the finest crab meat. His father insisted on using fresh crab, instead of the more convenient crab sticks like everyone else. If Haru closed his eyes he could almost taste the ponzu dressing that was laced with such a sharp citrus, it made him salivate. Last week he had seen a bottle of Kewpie mayonnaise at the Asian grocer and almost burst into tears at the sight of the familiar red-pencilled drawing of a baby on the

But the memory persisted. It placed its strong hands on his jaw. It forced his head to turn so that he could look at it. He’d seen people talk about their helplessness on TV shows. The violence. Their sad faces made them appear weak, suckers for the new age, victims who should have known better. He was not like that. Attacks were always close to home. All he had to do was remain quiet on the tube and listen to the chatter around him. There were enough gruesome stories there to fill an entire Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Their accounts of attacks stood in stark contrast with the dream of London he had held in his head. The reality was harder to digest, spiked teddy bears that were impossible to cuddle. He was not that stupid to be alone in the middle of the night. He would never have tempted fate that way. Brutal and swift was the judgement. His gavel was quick to the wood, it smacked silence into the voices wanting their story to be heard.

‘…should have stayed where you came from…’

Bones crushing. The mask on his face ripped off without a word but the eyes told him everything. Haru saw those eyes all over the street where wet pavements were covered in not just rain, but lost voices, people used to being heard, now listening to craziness that felt easy to ingest like Sunday roast and crisp potatoes, warm pudding and custard.

‘Can you describe the person who did this to you?’

He wanted to turn the fluorescent lights off. The harsh laboratory of cases that would never see the light of day felt overwhelming. Sounds were so amplified that he felt disorientated, his ears overexposed like the rest of him. They had opened the door to the dark room while the photographs were being developed. Now the images lay lifeless in fluid while turning black. The red light, dangerous in any other moment, was the creative warning here. The memories were ruined. The light that was meant to show the way, was now the destroyer.

Truth was, the man looked like anyone who came into the store. He only grabbed the mask off Haru’s face before the first punch. Haru wondered if he needed to see his face. To prove that he was real, a person who could allow it to happen even if it was far from anyone’s own will. He could tell the officer that the pavement was gritty from the leftover snow, that the street looked like that mirror glaze you see on designer cakes in overpriced patisseries. There was a Walker crisps packet on the ground next to his face and he focused on that instead. He would not count the number of kicks. That would only give the moment more dimension and colour.

Instead, he allowed it to seep from ombre to monochrome. Haru chose what was left on the table. There was not much. But there was something.

‘You should be able to leave in the morning. Is there anyone I can call for you?

His mother would be out trying to find the cheapest vegetables right now. Schedule was her security blanket. It was her way of conquering the great outdoors while staying mentally inside. She could step out and look over the tapestry of roofs in Osaka and not feel intimidated. Everything was meticulously timed. All her steps were counted and known by heart. Her mouth moved as if she was in permanent conversation while she walked to the market and back. It made her look crazy, but this allowed her to be left in peace. For once, craziness was a blessing.

‘No. I will be fine,’ Haru said with almost enough conviction to assure the pretty face leaning slightly forward.

Another lie. To save face, to add salt to the wound. He could see the recognition of a falsehood. She had enough experience to notice that tell-tale moment of hesitation. The answer was also too quick. It ran on another need, a need to end the discomfort of acknowledging the loneliness in one slick sentence. The doctor’s blonde ponytail bobbed as she nodded before turning towards her clipboard one more time as her eyes ran through a checklist before she pulled off her bright blue latex gloves. That snap followed Haru for days afterwards.

A month later, the need overcame all reason. Seven beeps thundered down the line.

‘Haru, is that you? You should not call. It is so expensive.’

The knack of not waiting for a response was like honey on a finger cut. It sealed off the outside world for a breathless moment. The anger he usually felt when he heard those words was forgotten. Here were three sentences that showed the loneliness, the knowledge that only one person would call and the selflessness in being unwilling to accept generosity in the simple form of a phone call.

‘Tell me about the Nishikigoi…please?’

The silence in the line made it feel like she had been cut off. There was nothing, black metaverse waiting for him to step up to the podium and speak once more into the mic.

‘Why do you want to hear that old story? Are you okay, Haru?’

The poignancy of hearing that question threatened to unleash every reserved fibre of control. Hearing her say his name was like being pulled into a vacuum. No one could roll two consonants so perfectly like his mother. It would be too easy to break down. She would understand the tears, even if she was shocked at first. She would wait until the sound of constricted air and sobbing stopped before she spoke further. She could be stoic that way. She knew the importance of silence unlike other mothers who coddled and spoke incessantly. It would be fine to cry but the tears were hidden behind hours of denial, days of doubt, weeks of contemplation.

Only as a teenager did Haru realise the risk she took in telling him stories that were challenging in their nature. When she revealed the tale of Tomoe Gozen, a female samurai, she went against all convention, allowing a woman to be both brave and triumphant. As a child, he assumed all children knew of Tomoe until he went to school and learned that his mother had stepped outside of the carefully demarcated lines. Other children were treated to stories of Kusunoki Masashige or Uesugi Kenshin, male warriors fitting the ideal of masculine bravery. Haru was too young to understand the magnitude of his mother’s actions, the risk she had taken in offering another viewpoint, maybe hoping it would find a home, a young seed that would one day flower, cracking through solid ground, seeking light and warmth.

‘Fine. I will tell you,’ she said after a long sigh. ‘You always wanted to hear this story at night, remember? You would crawl into my bed and ask me, tracing the shape of the Nishikigoi on my back until I turned over and told you.’

The promise hovered in mid-air like a moth that was unsure which way to fly. It felt gossamer-thin, elusive to his grasping fingers. And then the tale started, like it always did, with her clearing her throat before she spoke of the water first. She described the coldness, the sheer strength it took for this particular fish to survive that first stage after birth. She brought in colour, comparing it to steel, shiny and dense. She took her time, unlike other parents who may have rushed through the regurgitated lines because they were rightly tired, frustrated even with having the task of having to put someone to bed. Haru’s mother’s voice dipped when she spoke of the scales on the back of the fish, the proud mouth that could be aggressive when cornered, and gentle when mating. This part made her lower her voice as if she were describing something totally inappropriate. Maybe it was. Had her words been heard, she could have been shunned her for telling her child the truth.

When she spoke about the journey of the fish, she painted the water with imagery, bringing every rock and plant to life, from the swaying seaweed that could be a handy hiding place, to the shoals of smaller fish that acted like underwater mirrors, reflecting brightness and colour into the otherwise opaque water world.

She would not leave out the dangers even if it ran the risk of scaring a child who was actually being lulled to sleep with fantasy that should have been warm and friendly. She did not skip over the bulbous hiding crab, or the otter that was always pawing the water for a quick meal. Haru admired her now for that. He knew that talking about the eel could have upended the tale, turning it into horror, because any child would have drawn a comparison to snakes, spelling the end of possible sleep. But she carried on, turning the family of eels into poetic beauty, their long bodies gliding in the water, twisting and turning around each other like synchronised swimmers.

His favourite part was the first sight of the waterfall, seen from below the waterline, as any fish would. The sheer rush of the swirling mass turned the blue powdery white. It could have scared any other animal, but not this one. This fish would not be intimidated by the roaring water, or the incredible feat of swimming upwards, something so daring, it always made Haru widen his eyes as his mother described the determination, the sheer will of swimming against an impossible current that roared as it sent waves of mist into the atmosphere.

His mother built up the tension, dipping and diving between the exhaustion the fish felt and the sight of the top of the waterfall that was a breath away. When the fish finally reached the sacred Gate, it miraculously transformed itself into a beautiful golden dragon that unfurled its long tail as the sun landed admiringly on its skin, turning it even lovelier than the imagination of a child-like Haru. The strength and force of such a mythical beast, a commander of the world through fire and cunning, kept a smile on his face even after his mother asked if he was still awake.

‘Are you still there?’

The story still felt alive. It sparked through synapses and curved through memory before falling into the warmth of remembrance. It was the sacred, the old. It had run from countless mothers’ lips into the ears of children yearning for wonder, but Haru instinctively knew that his mother’s version was the best.

‘Are you still there?’ she asked again.

‘I am. How is Chichi doing today?’

Talking about his father was the easy way out of facing personal questions that threatened the façade. How else could a lie be evaded? How easy it would be to tell her everything, allowing the memory a moment to swim to the surface like a deep-sea diver trained to hold air and fear in place because these were the enemy, these were the anchors that weighed down grace. All that was left was the memory of smell to distract him from telling her what had happened. So, he focused on that. He drifted back to the rice straw of tatami mats and the bitterness of early morning green tea that stayed wonderfully clear as if willing time to stand still. He sank into the pine needle scent of his father’s shaving stick that dripped water on the sink below after he had left for work. Haru remembered how each murky drop would make him look up as he brushed his teeth in the white tiled bathroom that was a luxury in his neighbourhood.

‘Are you sure you want to do this?’

Another question, days later, that seemed to be part of an unending template. It applied itself to so many situations in his life. It was always the final question mark before a jump, not a leap of faith, like he always read on greeting cards in a language he had forced himself to master. Language would make him fit in, even if his face did not. Language would pull laughter out of silence, noise out of loneliness and friends out of strangers. This had been the plan, the dream hatched from countless John Hughes films that were grainy from age and timeless in their message of the joy of camaraderie.

The eyes of the woman remained fixed on him in the mirror. Her body defied her job. She was impossibly thin, bleached porcelain skin, like a body dragged from the ocean, the colour sapped from it by hungry algae.

‘This is going to hurt.’

The laughter shook Haru’s ribcage angrily. It wanted to be set free even if it sounded jaded and unhappy in the room they were alone in. He nodded, but she was already moving around him, anchoring his head before she bent over his shoulders. He took a deep breath and as if sensing his trepidation, the humming started. The sensation was wonderfully peaceful and painful at the same time. Every prick of the machine felt prayer-like. It created a rhythm that made him shut his eyes. There was no space left but to succumb and allow it to happen, to allow the bee-like stings to dance over his skin. It reminded him of the attack, that helplessness, only now, under the strong overhead light, his decision felt powerful, intentional.

Gillian gasped when he took off his shirt in the bathroom. She was already in the bathtub, a rose of pale pink skin wrapped in clouds of foam and a zephyr of almonds. She looked at him, open-mouthed and lost like a child uncertain if it should scream or allow the situation to develop. She stood up, the soap running down her body, hip bones jutting towards him angrily.

‘Come here.’

Her fingers ran along his back and followed the shape in a slow, dreamy manner, each curve answering a call from the past, the sleepless nights he had yearned for the tale. Time suddenly felt like a blister of hope. It ran around in its bubble, illuminated only by the outside chance of freedom, impenetrable, yet hopeful.

Gillian stopped tracing the tattoo before she asked with a light laugh, ‘Why a dragon?’



Fill Me Up

Alex Summer Milne

Nina’s quivering fingers slide into the steaming brown bag. Scarlet stubby nails brush the cardboard inside, and her skin dampens. Heat settles into her palm. Nina raises the box out of the packaging and a salty mist swirls around the house. It clings to the peach sofa and the fluffy custard carpet. The room sinks into a savory cloud. Gallons of saliva pools behind her pulsating lips, parting at the smell of grease and iron. She winces at her sandpaper swallow. Her teeth ache. Nina anticipates slicing them through the thick, hot flesh.

She lifts the lid. Sweet, pungent cheese rolls over shining, moist beef. Floppy lettuce on top. Juicy chunk of tomato above. Grilled onions. Pickles. Hot sauce. Mayo. Hash brown. Yeah. Squidgy, warm bun scattered with sesame seeds.


And her mouth stuffs with stodgy euphoria.

Each bite sends a tickling heat sweeping down her body, forcing the hairs on her arms to grow stiff. She dizzies at the ecstasy swarming through her veins and steadies herself on the kitchen counter. She rips off another chunk and chews it. She is primal, but beautiful. Fat dribbles past her chin and lands in a teardrop on her dressing gown. Her stomach pumps up like a balloon in a state of confusion, as the echoing rumble of hunger quickly morphs into the sickening swell of overindulgence. She fists as many chips as possible into her mouth, then slops in some mac and cheese from the pot next to her, never finishing a mouthful before more food enters her. She is filling up. She is grotesque.

A siren lights up the kitchen royal blue and Nina’s wafer form freezes in the middle of the room. She begins spinning around on the cold cream tiles, imagining someone slicing the flesh off her body in delicate strips. Freedom. The neighbours would look in and see kebab meat turning, as if in a shop window, being cut and prepared for the next customer. Wails from the police car become whispers and Nina is alone again with her banquet. She kicks an empty pizza box towards the wall as she stumbles for the sink, her slippery fingers trying to grip the basin, which catches the gooey cheese that cascades out of her mouth. Licking sauce from her forearm, she takes a lethargic step backwards and inspects the empty containers. Dread and revolution wring in her stomach, which groans and cries in the aftermath. Nina slumps to the floor. The agony and nausea of her distention finally disarms her. She breathes deeply. Her belly is hardly able to accommodate the air which forces its way into her crushed lungs.

Stones crunch in the driveway, as tyres roll up towards Nina’s front door. She hears the clattering of keys and boxes in the back of a van, and strains her neck to see out of the window. The Amazon guy. Bile bubbles in her throat as she clambers to standing. Her bare feet slide across the freezing floor, while her mouth burns with the threat of acid. Doorbell. Nina’s sluggish body drags itself towards the hallway. Doorbell again. Impatient Amazon guy.

“Got a parcel for ya, love.” He states the obvious.

Nina finally swings open the door and is faced with a broad, boyish figure. He leaves the package on the doorstep.

“Have a good evening then, darlin’.”

His modest smile screams wholesome saviour, so Nina crawls onto his back and wraps her legs around his torso. Amazon guy trots down the path, carrying her towards his van, the tangerine sun setting behind the bungalow opposite. They climb aboard his chariot and head to the M25.

Together they deliver thousands of parcels, up and down the country. He does the heavy lifting and Nina giggles and passes him small things. Amazon guy strokes her hair as he undertakes on motorways, and pecks her cheek whilst running red lights. For a short while, Nina’s penchant for starvation, interspersed with compulsive gluttony, subsides. Moist wings with that crispy coating, those eleven secret herbs and spices, are replaced by Amazon guy’s romancing.

One day the pair skid up outside a grubby apartment block in Palmers Green. Amazon guy plods around the van to retrieve the next delivery when he loses his balance and topples onto the gritty pavement. He scans his body and notices his left foot is missing. That’ll be why he fell, then.

“Sweetheart! Could you help me out over here, please?“

Nina finishes chewing and makes her way behind the vehicle. She glances at the space where his foot used to be. Hoisting him up, she steps into the back of the van and pulls him with her, squeezing in between piles of boxes.

“Which one?” Nina inspects the address labels surrounding them.

“Number twelve. Asher Drive.”

She reaches over a sea of cardboard to retrieve a long, slim parcel, with FRAGILE splattered across the front.

“This?” Nina asks.

Amazon guy nods, still confused about his missing appendage, then Nina plucks an earlobe from his head, like a jelly tot. She pops it into her mouth and feels it fizz on her tongue. He stares at her blankly as she proceeds to peel his eyelids off and nibble at the soft treats. She pulls at his arms. They need a bit of force, like breaking chocolate when it’s been in the fridge. She devours them. She crushes his knees up until the bones and cartilage and flesh look like rhubarb crumble, then snaps his ribs into little crunchy snacks. Finally, all that’s left are his pretty lips.

“Aren’t you full, now?”

Nina isn’t.

“I’m here. You can’t still be hungry.”

She scoops up his pink mouth and folds it into her beautiful face. The sound of Absolute 80s trickles through from the radio in the front. I need a hero. I’m holding out for a hero ‘till the end of the night… Suddenly, a gush of neon vomit projects itself across the van. The sour liquid flows and flows until Nina is submerged and treading water. Floating beside thick lumps of Amazon guy, an eyeball and a belly button and a nipple drift by. The sick level rises. She gasps for air. She’s desperate to live and hungrier than ever. Still gorgeous, but hollow as an Easter egg. Nina wonders if she’ll ever stay full.


Kettle Morraine

Christina Reiss

“Did you have trouble sleeping?” Keith asks. “The wind was howling off the lake.”

Susan points to the tranquil scene before them, the sunrise trailing ribbons of silver, pink, and cornflower-blue across the shimmering water. Keith accepts her silent rebuke. He knows she’ll tolerate no criticism of anything associated with her father. Lake Michigan, like everything else in this place, belongs to that man. They’ve rented his childhood home for a long weekend. Susan found it while poking around on the internet for things to do in Sheboygan thousands of miles from where they now live.

Their four adult children are not with them. They claim their mother gave them too little notice of the trip which she did. Keith indulges his wife’s perpetual state of mourning for a father she barely remembers. Their children are less tolerant. They’re tired of hearing stories about a grandfather they’ve never met.

“My father must have loved watching the sun come up. Last night, I prayed to him, asking him to reveal himself to me,” Susan says.

She doesn’t mention that she asked for a sign, maybe blood, and in the gloaming, the rising moon was mottled red. Even Keith has his limits.

“That’s nice.” He squeezes her hand.

Dressed for his morning run, Keith is restless as he sits beside her on a battered loveseat. A tall, angular man with a buzz cut and a clean-shaven face, he looks younger than his fifty-five years. Although he teaches organic chemistry at a military academy and is more scientist than soldier, the U.S. Army’s values are nonetheless woven through him. Since Susan also grew up on an army base, she knows exactly what to expect. No surprises—just dependability and predictability girded by a rigid routine.

A pinkish light warms the breakfast room’s good bones and casts a glow over its sparse, shabby rental furnishings. The sky deepens from rose to red. Susan says nothing, hoping Keith, who notices everything, will not see a fresh wind roiling the waves.

“Are we hiking today?” he asks. His even tone betrays no judgment, no doubt.

“Yes, in the Kettle Moraine.”

Keith stands to stretch before sitting back down. A hike will not be enough for him. He’s calculating how far and fast he’ll need to run so that he can later walk at her pace.

“Go on your run,” Susan tells him. “I’m trying to remember the last time I was here. You’ll only get in my way.”

Keith frowns but asks no questions. They both know she’ll eventually tell him everything she’s thinking.

“I won’t be long,” he says as he rises.

She nods, staring straight ahead.

Straining to recall every detail of her last trip to this house, the memory, like fragile mica, must be lifted carefully from a deep crevice. Extracted too fast, it will disintegrate in her hands.

Before his final tour of duty, her father took Susan and her brother to Wisconsin to visit his parents. They arrived at the big house just as the late summer sun was setting. Grandfather, a spry military man of few words, greeted them at the door accompanied by Grandmother, a flutter of nerves, hovering behind him. As they made their way inside, Grandfather barked an order.

“Look sharp!”

Susan felt faint until she saw that her brother had almost toppled a coat stand in the front hall while bending down to tie his shoe.

In the military, “look sharp” means not only your appearance which must be clean and tidy, but your readiness as well. If you’re not paying attention, if you’re unaware of your surroundings, or if your mind is wandering, that’s how you get yourself killed.

When they reached the parlor, Grandmother embraced Susan’s father, her gnarled monkey paws clinging to his shoulder caps, her face pressed against his chest. He tolerated her for a few seconds before shrugging her off. When he took their luggage upstairs, she spoke as soon as he was out of sight.

“Don’t run around. Don’t make a fuss. Grandfather and I aren’t used to that.”

Raising a trembling finger, her voice quavering, she acted like Susan and her brother had already done something wrong.

At dinner, Susan’s grandparents directed their few words to their only child, seemingly reluctant to share him with his children. Everything they talked about was the war. Susan understood it was raging in some distant land where her father had gone twice and had chosen to go back a third time. Her grandparents seemed proud of his decision; her mother did not. Susan didn’t know if these were her own impressions, or ones her mother planted in her young mind’s fertile soil and cultivated thereafter.

On the second day of the trip, Susan woke early. Outside her bedroom window, a thin band of light separated the dark water from the dark sky. She walked down the hallway to where her brother was sleeping and jiggled his shoulder until he was awake. He looked up at her, his older sister, with a trusting gaze, ready to do whatever she asked. At her urging, they crept downstairs and roamed the house before leaving to play outside on the dewy lawn that led down to the lake. When they came inside, under the soaking hem of Susan’s nightgown and the sopping neon green cuffs of her brother’s pajama pants, their bare feet were covered with blades of fresh cut grass.

Grandfather descended the staircase with Grandmother in tow.

“What have you done?” Grandmother cried, pointing at them.

“You shouldn’t have gone outside,” Grandfather said, shaking his head. “No one gave you permission.”

“You must have unlocked the door when you opened it.” Grandmother lifted her palms to her flushed cheeks. “A robber could have come inside and killed us all.”

Their father came into the room bare-chested, dressed only in gray sweatpants and white gym shoes, ready for his morning calisthenics, which Susan and her brother liked to watch.

“Leave them alone.”

“You mustn’t let them run wild,” Grandmother told him.

He took a half-step toward her, prompting her to hold up her hands as if to ward him off.

“You don’t understand, son,” Grandmother continued almost in tears. “You’ll ruin them that way.”

Grandfather laid a restraining hand on the back of Grandmother’s neck until the scolding died in her throat.

Susan doesn’t remember what happened next. Her memory splinters at this moment of perfect happiness, her father choosing his children over his parents, or anyhow, that’s how it seemed. She could have it all wrong. He might just have been testing his parents’ limits. He might have been preparing them for the body blow they’d receive if he didn’t come back from overseas. He might just have been tired of their interference. He was a young man with a young family of his own. He was just starting out. Who knew what he had to prove?

That’s why it’s so important to get the details right of the few memories she has left. Susan can’t do it on her own, but there’s no one left to ask. Her grandparents are long gone. Her brother claims to remember nothing from his childhood. Their mother stayed back on base, missing that final trip, telling her children she’d seen enough of her in-laws for a lifetime. She, too, was now dead making it possible for Susan to visit her father’s hometown without it seeming like a betrayal. Once she was back in her father’s home, Susan had hoped the gaps in her memory would fill in like batter into a muffin tin. It wasn’t working out that way.

She is still sitting on the loveseat when Keith returns from his run. While he goes upstairs to shower, she goes into the kitchen to prepare their breakfast. When they’re finished eating, Keith will do the dishes, first the glassware, then the plates, and then the cutlery, leaving the kitchen spotless. It’s their system from which they rarely deviate. Their children mock them for it, a favor Susan hopes their own children will return someday.

Leaving Keith with a dishrag in his hand, she goes upstairs to change her clothes. They’ve slept in her grandparents’ room with its porch overlooking the lake. As she puts on her hiking boots, she imagines Grandfather sitting in one of the porch’s wrought iron chairs, cupping a cigarette in his hands, sneaking in a last drag before he’s forced back inside. She imagines Grandmother later sniffing disapprovingly at the tobacco that clings to his clothes. These aren’t real memories. Susan knows that. Still, there is a guilty satisfaction in imagining her grandparents weren’t completely happy. They should’ve tried harder to see their grandchildren once their son was gone. It was all they had left.

Downstairs in the front hall, Keith is waiting for her. He’s packed food, water, and rain gear for their hike. She wants to point out they’ve just finished eating but she doesn’t question his need to be prepared. In the military, you must always be prepared. It’s often the difference between life and death.

Susan’s father was away from his platoon, stranded, when he was shot. Her mother lets this slip on Susan’s sixteenth birthday when they’ve both had too much to drink. Slurring her words, stumbling over each “s,” her mother says that all they found was his bullet-riddled uniform.

“I guess the enemy dragged his body off as a trophy or something. At least that’s what his commanding officer implied. That son of a bitch was cold. The Army is so cold. All of them are like that.”

“Not all of them,” Susan replied before she passed out.

When she woke the next morning, her mother’s drunken disclosure lodged in Susan’s brain like a spent bullet. She got to Keith as soon as she could, telling him what her mother had said.

“Maybe your father was leading his platoon when they got ambushed,” he pointed out.

“Maybe he saved everyone else.”

Susan tried to be convinced. She tried to remember it that way. After telling Keith, she never mentioned it again. Even their children didn’t know how their grandfather died.

She realizes Keith is watching her as they stand in the front hall, his brow furrowed and
his hands outstretched as if any minute he might need to catch her.

“Are you sure it was a good idea to come here?” he asks.

“Yes,” she replies. “I thought if I went to his home, went to his places, I might remember him better.”

“Is that happening?”

“Not yet.”

“Do you want to go home?”

“Not yet.”

Heading out of town, they drive on wide cement streets past trim and modest houses. Susan wants to stop, knock on each front door, ask the people within if they knew her father. She waits until they reach the outskirts of town before her mind resumes pawing over the handful of memories she has left, searching for explanations of who her father was and who he was meant to be.

At bedtime, he used to sit between them on her brother’s bed, denting the mattress with his weight, sliding his children toward him. He told them that while he was out on patrol, he day- dreamed about taking them into the pine-scented Kettle Moraine. As she listened, a whistling tea kettle appeared in Susan’s mind emitting a thick plume of steam.

Soft and slow, her father spoke as if he were still in the forest, recalling how he followed a game trail to a fast-moving stream where he placed his canteen between the rocks to catch the cleanest water. Back at his camp, he chafed a stick in semi-circles against a flat piece of wood until he had an ember which he fed with birch-bark curls. “A hair, a finger, an arm, and a leg,” dictated the size of wood that fueled his fire. Drifting up from the flames, the smoke of his campfire seemed to touch a crescent moon slung low above the tree line.

After they said their prayers, her father walked Susan to her bedroom where he patted her head and left her. He didn’t come in. It wasn’t his way.

She can almost hear the heavy weight of his retreating footsteps when Keith turns their rental car onto the highway. The landscape flattens, tamped down by the glaciers that bulldozed everything in sight, strewing rocks in their wake. They park at the trailhead next to a large U.S. Forest Service map defaced by graffiti. Keith’s face registers his disapproval, but he says nothing when Susan’s finger traces a blue line obscured by fat black letters indicating the loop she wants to take.

A wood chip trail leads them into a forest laden with boulders which the trees try to accommodate by bending, twisting, and sometimes growing on top of them in freakish poses. As they walk in silence, Susan’s mind trots in a familiar, well-trodden circle of grief.

Why did it have to happen? Why did my father have to die? How will I ever accept it? Why should I?

She finds these ruminations soothing even though they leave her gutted. Glancing at Keith, she sees his body thrumming. Their pace is not fast enough for him. He’s struggling to synch his body’s metronome to Susan’s slower steps. He neither complains that they’re walking too slow, nor does she justify her more leisurely pace.

“No excuses, sir!”

It’s what they were taught. You say it when you’re at fault. You say it when you’re not. It moves you past the cause to the solution.

The woods close in from both sides as the path narrows. They continue to walk side by side although it might be easier to walk in single file.

“Watch out,” Keith calls out, pointing to a tree branch that juts into Susan’s side of the path.

“I see it,” she replies.

Moving closer, her hip grazes Keith’s before she moves away.

In the dense air’s cloying humidity, the proximity of the trees is suffocating. Overhead, a narrow strip of ashen sky presses down on them. There is no sound beyond the crunch of their feet on the freshly chipped wood.

“Speak only when spoken to.” “Don’t volunteer information.” “Don’t contradict.”

It’s how they were raised. Their children make fun of this as well.

The sky darkens as if evening is descending although it cannot be more than noon. A hissing sound snakes its way through the trees rustling their branches. Standing shoulder to shoulder like soldiers in formation, even the wind’s whip cannot make them sway.

“My father taught me how to survive in the woods,” Susan says at last, her voice louder than she intended.

Keith startles, perhaps busy with his own thoughts.

“Is that so.”

He makes it a statement, not a question. She smiles at him for that.

“He taught me everything.”

“You were lucky to have a father like that.”

“You fell in love with me because of the way that he died.”

Keith stops in his tracks. She grabs his forearm. It’s important that he remember this. It’s part of their story.

On their first date, in the last car to leave the drive-in, Keith leaned across the front seat to kiss her. As if in exchange, she told him about her father’s death behind enemy lines in a war that everyone else wanted to forget. She described the night her mother shook her awake, saying her father had died in Vietnam, saying little else. She recounted how she stood next to the empty coffin draped with the flag while the cold-blooded drill sergeant her mother would marry a year later chided Susan for her tears, claiming they dishonored her father’s death. She said she overheard her mother telling a friend that her son stopped maturing after his father’s death. Susan said she was worried that’s what was wrong with her too. Keith kissed her again, holding her close. He said every soldier on base dreamed of going out that way her father did.

At the time, it sounded patriotic, legitimizing how and when and where her father had got himself killed. She has long since wondered how anyone could glorify rotting away in a steaming jungle in a fight that couldn’t be won, shouldn’t even have been fought. She has never asked Keith what he meant. She didn’t dare hear his response.

She grabs Keith’s arm tighter, her fingernails digging into his taut flesh.

“On our first date, I told you how my father died defending our democracy. You said you fell in love with me that night.”

Keith’s gray eyes search her face before they anchor.

“Not him.” He shakes his head. “Not his death. You. The longing in your voice.”

She lets go of his arm and walks ahead. She cannot decide whether to let his memory overtake her own. It would be a relief if she did. She wouldn’t need to give up her father, just his death and the struggle to make it make sense.

In a few strides Keith is beside her. He takes her hand as it starts to rain, a steady drizzle that rapidly intensifies. Pulling her forward, not stopping to put on the rain gear he’s packed, they reach the trailhead.

They run to their rental car, still holding hands, laughing, splashing in pot holes filled with a frothy brown soup that bubbles up as the rain hits it. Susan waits as Keith fumbles in his backpack for the car keys, the rain drenching them both. It’s all she can see and hear. She lifts her face to it, her eyes closed, hoping Keith will take his time.

The Writing District Prize 2023 shortlist