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Winning Entries

The challenge was to write a 1000 word story in which the “setting affects the character”. The sentence/prompt was: “The gardener had been up since dawn mowing the lawns and sweeping them”. This should be incorporated into the story at some point. It could be your opening sentence or your closing or just appear somewhere in the story.

Our judge was the talented and passionate author Ruth Jacobs. She writes a series of novels entitled Soul Destruction, which expose the dark world and the harsh reality of life as a call girl. Her debut novel, Soul Destruction: Unforgivable, was published in April 2013 by Caffeine Nights. Ruth studied prostitution in the late 1990s. She draws on her research and the women she interviewed for inspiration. She also has firsthand experience of many of the topics she writes about such as posttraumatic stress disorder, and drug and alcohol addiction. In addition to her fiction writing, Ruth is also involved in non-fiction for her charity and human rights campaigning work in the areas of anti-sexual exploitation and anti-human trafficking. Ruth gave our three winners valuable tips. And here are the Winners for the June Contest:

1st Place: Rebecca Young

2nd Place: Simi Kamboj

3rd Place: Apoorva Mishra

We are only featuring two of the stories as Simi Kamboj is developing her story further for possible publication.

The Gardener’s Wedding

by Rebecca Young

Word Count: 996

The gardener had been up since dawn mowing the lawns and sweeping them. For the past 27 years, Tom Fields had cared for these grounds. Watching the early morning light filtering through the trees he thought he had never seen a more glorious day. Perfect for a wedding.

From the big house, a pathway through the formal knot garden led to a sweep of emerald lawn. At the back of this lawn, a sea of white chairs lined up in precise rows like soldiers in front of a white gazebo. The gazebo was framed on either side by pink climbing roses and backed up to a wooded area. It would be a beautiful setting for Charlotte Biltmore’s fairy-tale wedding, which was taking place in just a few hours. By then, the sun would warm the roses, filling the air with their fragrance.

The chairs bordering the aisle had tin buckets attached; awaiting the bouquets that Tom’s assistant Sam was just delivering from the greenhouse. Eschewing her mother Bitzy’s more exotic tastes, Charlotte liked old fashioned flowers like peonies, sweet peas, lilies and English roses. She had asked Tom if he could provide the arrangements for the ceremony.

“It just seems silly to buy them when we have some many lovely flowers here,” she’d said.

He had been happy to oblige, knowing that Charlotte would be pleased with whatever he came up with. They were old friends. Each year, he had planted her a children’s garden, filled with snap dragons, pea vine teepees, purple carrots, licorice, giant pumpkins and fairy houses he built. When Charlotte left for college, Bitzy insisted Tom turn it into a sculpture garden featuring a tacky piece Peter had purchased for her in Italy. That summer, Charlotte caught Tom pruning in the sculpture garden.

“I miss my garden! I suppose I’m too grown up now, but it was magical.” She had smiled, then sighed, “I’ll just have to plant my own someday.”

Never was a girl more different from her mother. Bitzy always wanted the newest and the best. And she always wanted more. For all her wealth and education, Charlotte had remained remarkably unspoiled. At 25, she was still a wide-eyed innocent; marrying an equally idealistic young doctor, Mark Ashcroft.

Bitzy and Peter were just a little disappointed in their future son-in-law. He was brilliant, good looking, charming. He was successful enough, in a way, and had a passable family. But offered nothing to really elevate their daughter’s position (or their own). The young couple couldn’t be bothered by the subtleties of social climbing. They were in love and out to change the world. Their planned honeymoon was a Doctor’s Without Borders trip to Ecuador. Real life would probably disillusion them soon enough, but Tom thought their love would last.

Tom turned his attention to the next task at hand. Instead of just scattering pink rose petals in the aisle, he had wanted to surprise Charlotte by arranging them in an intricate swirling heart pattern he’d found inspiration for on the internet. If his buddies ever discovered his secret Pintrest account, he would never live it down. It had taken several wheelbarrow loads of petals, much, much more than they had, but Tom was able to call in some favors and requisition enough. Starting by the gazebo, he began arranging them according to the sketch he had made. He was just finishing when he heard someone approach.

“That’s nice,” drawled Bitzy Biltmore. “I’m surprised you could come up with something like that Tom. But you do have an eye for beauty.”

Maybe she was fishing for a compliment because she knew her radiant daughter would easily outshine her today. He stood up beside her, examining the effect. “It is pretty,” he said, turning to look at her, “but not as beautiful as you.”

She gave him a haughty smile. Bitzy was still beautiful, but there was a worldliness, a hard edge to her beauty now. She was still long, lean, tanned. But he remembered when he had first met her, so many years ago. Her looks had been softer, more inviting. Her deep brown eyes had sparkled. Now they usually just flashed with annoyance or contempt. Her laugh had been so free, bubbling up out of her. It was so controlled now, like every other part of the socialite’s image. It had been a long time since he had earned one of her laughs.

“Can you believe I am old enough to be mother of the bride?” asked Bitzy, fishing again.

“No,” Tom paused, searching for Sam. He was no where to be seen. “Bitz…” he began.

She started, then stared fixedly at the design, “Don’t call me that.”

“But, after everything. Please tell me about Charlotte, Bitz. I know, but I need to hear it from you.”

“I don’t know what it is you think you know.”

Tom interrupted. “You know exactly what I know! Don’t pretend we haven’t talked about this before. She is my daughter. She has my nose, my height. She doesn’t look anything like Peter! The dates are right. I know it. But I want you to tell me it’s true.”

“How dare you speak to me about this on today of all days,” she seethed. “Just like you to drag out the ugly past now to spoil everything!”

He flushed, ashamed. He lowered his voice, pleading now. “Please Bitz. I just have to know.”

She turned around, facing the house. “No. Of course not. When you are done here, please attend to the ribbons on the topiaries in the drive. Crisp bows please.”

After she left, Tom festooned the topiaries and was then pressed into service helping with the last minute touches in the reception tent on the west lawn. As he worked, he realized he would hand in his notice on Monday. Finally, everything was perfect and it was time. Tom slipped unnoticed into a chair on the back row to watch his daughter’s wedding.

— End —

The Party

by Simi Kamboj

This entry was withheld from publication here as it was entered in a Literary Journal where we are extremely happy to announce that Simi’s story was published!

You may read her story here: The Prague Revue

The Girl in a Saree

by Apoorva Mishra

Word Count: 800

“I am having feeling”, she said. She never took her eyes off me. I kissed her forehead as she collapsed on the bed. I offered her a glass of water and asked her if she said that to everyone. It was her first time, she said.

We still had ‘time’ so I ordered dinner. She refused to eat until I finished eating. When I insisted, she ate the fries while leaving the burger for me.

“My friend recommended this place to me. She said the job was good and the money was better”, she offered to tell me her story.

“Why did you come here?” I asked her as I looked at her. I was angry, at her and myself.

She smiled wryly and turned her face away from me. I regretted asking that question. She never had a choice. I gave her the money and reminded her to ask for money before going any further. It was time to go and she asked for my phone number. I asked her to stay and she agreed.

“Why did you come here?” I asked her again.

“To be free”, she replied.

Before I could ask her what she meant by that, she began showing me the pictures on her phone.

“Do you know what a saree is?” she asked me as I saw a picture of her, looking resplendent in a white saree. I gave her an approving smile. She blushed as she put the phone away and leaned in for a kiss.

I looked over the window and the gardener had been up since dawn mowing the lawns and sweeping them.

“What will you do when you become free?”, I asked her when she said that she had to pay her ‘agent’ a fixed sum.

“I will do anything I want”, she said as she arranged the books on the corner shelf.

“What do you mean by that?”

“I don’t know”, she answered as she sprayed the room freshener generously on the carpet.

She wanted to watch a movie on the weekend and I agreed to go with her. I reminded her that she needed to ask her ‘agent’ first. She smirked and asked me to make coffee for her.

“You have a nice home. I wish I could stay longer”, she said with a hint of sadness in her eyes as her phone buzzed incessantly. I wanted to stop her from going out but the reality of our situation struck me. To be free, is what we secretly desired yet here we were, slaves to our needs. At least she could blame others for being in this situation. My problems, on the other hand, were purely down to my indiscretions. I wanted to help her for she did not deserve this life where the money she earned was just to keep her on the right side of her agent. She needed to leave and leave soon.

I suggested that I pay her agent so she could go back home. She refused and kept looking at my room, content with what she had done about the general lack of order.

I led her gently onto the sofa, knelt down on the floor as I held her hand and asked her, “Why are you here?” I could see that a part of her wanted to say yes and I wanted to hear her say that.

“To be free”, she said yet again.

“Will you go home after your contract expired?” I asked her, clearly looking for an answer that would satisfy the sense of superior moral authority in me.

“I will go home for a month and come back again”, she said as she played with her phone.

I stood up and walked over to the door and bid her goodbye. She reminded me of our weekend plans. I knew she would never be allowed to be emotionally attached to anyone at work. But I wished we could go out and saved her phone number onto my phone.

It has been a year since we met and I await her call, hoping that we meet. Today I saw her again and her smile had lost the sense of familiarity towards me. I walked up to her and asked if she wanted to come with me. She agreed.

“Are you free now?” I asked her as we ate the burger, split in half.

“Yes. I am free”, she answered and for a moment I thought I saw that smile return to her lips.

Later that weekend, we went to the movies. We walked on the cobbled streets framed by the moon above and the rows of rectangular homes below as she pulled me closer and whispered into my ears.

“I am having feeling”, she said. I think I finally got my answer.

— END —

 

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Exercise : NO BOUNDARIES (5 min to write)

Start with the same phrase, and then write whatever comes to mind for 5 minutes non-stop. It doesn’t have to make sense, just get the cobwebs out of your brain and face the blank page.

During the exercise, at regular intervals, new 5 words will be given by the moderator, that we need to embed in the story.  The words are shown below in CAPITAL letters.

 

MY STORY 

Wisps of hair quickly fell to the floor while words spilled from her mouth.  She loved sitting in that chair and pouring her soul out to a total stranger.

She has been HARBOURING her feelings for quite some time and she was anxiously waiting for someone to share them.  She was aware of the DANGER that could surface when talking out her secrets to a total stranger.

“Do you know me well?”, she asked him.

He nodded.

“It is a SHAME to be alive, having gone through all that I had experienced in my life.  You would be BEWILDERED when you start knowing me at a close range.  Many strangers who pretended to be my friends left me in the lurch after knowing my story.  Do you really want to love me?”, she asked.

“I would be a TORCH for you, no matter who and how were you before.  I will show you the light and help you to surpass this darkness”, he told.

She had nothing to say.  She thought that she was seeing a dream.

She told him, “I Love You”

“Found a young man yet, miss?” he grinned as he said the same words every day to the pretty young girl who’d come and share the only bench in the park with him at exactly four in the afternoon.

“No! Don’t be silly, I don’t want a young man!” and she’d shrug as she harrumphed herself on the far end of the bench and look at the book she’d always bring to read. A few minutes would pass and then quietly, “You say that every time.” The exasperation had almost always left her voice by the time she said this.

“I know,” he replied cockily, “just wonderin’ an all.” That too was his stock reply and at this point he’d reach down and pull up a blade of grass to chew on.

After this odd greeting they’d usually just sit in silence, she with her book and he contemplating the sky, watching the geese as they flew north forming that beautiful cursive vee across the heavens.

Ah, spring! Beautiful. So much hope. The sky that special shade of blue. The clouds powder puff white. The sun, a promise behind the clouds. And the cherry trees with their buds straining at the sap.

Summer came and not much more was said. He still had his blade of grass and she her book. The cherry trees had long lost their blossoms and their branches were laden with fruit.

She always left first, at exactly five o’clock, looked at him and said, “Good evening then.” In the 1950s there wasn’t much else that a young woman said to a strange man whose name she didn’t know. And he’d raise his cap to her in silence.

The leaves on the trees changed. The geese could now be seen flying south. The sun was as fitful as a fever and the winds sent chill messages down his neck and up her skirt. It was half way through November and as in previous years she said her last “Good evening then.” And he raised his cap one last time before the next spring when this little silent communion would start again, he with his,  “Found a young man yet, miss?” and his grin, she with her “Don’t be silly,” and harrumphing as she sat on the bench.

She’d grown more slender and dressed more smartly. Sometimes she wore shoes with a slightly higher heel now and in the springtime she’d sported an elegant tan Macintosh with a bright red cap and matching lipstick. He was much the same. The reliably cocky grin. But the hand reaching for the grass now had sinews and was tanned. She glanced sideways at him, but still didn’t say anything and then there was that comfortable fifty minutes they spent not saying anything to each other at all. She with her book he with his blade of grass.

Summer. Autumn. And another spring. She came back. He waited for her now with a tightening in his stomach of anticipation. Afraid she may not come. A minute past four and she was there with her constant book and her equally reliable, “Don’t be silly, I don’t want a young man.” His relief. The blade of grass. The sky. The geese.  All was right with the world.

It was the middle of June; four on the clock plus forty seconds and her feet came tapping down the path to the bench. No book in her hand.

His stomach did a turn, but he continued as always, “Found a young man yet, miss?” only the grin didn’t come so easily and when he forced his mouth into a smile, it didn’t make it to his eyes.

She sat down on the park bench, no harrumphing, it was a smooth elegant movement, he’d never noticed that before. And she looked at him, “Yes,” she said as she searched his eyes. And he, clenching his teeth, bunching his fists. Long moments before he hoarsely whispered, “Why miss I wish you luck then and may you find happiness wherever you go.” The words almost caught in his throat and he couldn’t think why he had any right to anything more. But she’d come to tell him and that was enough. He could live on that.  When he looked up she was gone and there was nothing but a blade of grass on the bench in the space that had once been between them.

He picked up the grass and threw it. It blew away on the summer breeze. The sun mocked him and the cherry trees waved farewell. How dare the sky look so blue! He kicked the bench it skewed groaning to the side. He flung his cap. Then picked it up. Threw himself on the grass and allowed himself to weep. When he arose it was exactly five o’clock.

Summer passed. Autumn and another spring, so many springs. Why did he come back here every day after work at exactly four o’clock in the afternoon? Other people shared his bench, but it wasn’t the same.

The colours faded from the park around him. His eyes had grown dimmer. His cocky grin had disappeared only the blade of grass he always picked up and chewed. His nut-brown hair was streaked with silver and his memories strayed to other years. He was unaware of those around him and now even his coming to the park bench seemed pointless and yet he always returned.

“Silly ol’ man,” he could hear the children say as they walked past. And then one day late in November the sky had turned a steely grey, but the rain hadn’t started yet, when a lady from the city turned up and sat next to him. She had a book in her hand and wore those horn-rimmed glasses that all the fashionable ladies were wearing now in the late 1970s. Her dark hair was pulled into a bun and heavily streaked with silver. He peered at her cautiously then looked away. It couldn’t be, no, she was so slender and slight and this one, she was smart but a lot heavier.

Then she whispered, “Did you never find a young woman, then?”

And it was his turn to say, “Don’t be silly, I don’t want a young woman, I only ever wanted you.” And the park bench creaked as she bent down to pull up a blade of grass.

It was a day in office like any other. She had recently joined an organization but her heart was still back at her college campus, playing basketball with the boys, spending time reading at the library and teasing classmates. There was not a care in the world and she knew her future was full of possibilities. A technical training was in full swing and she tried hard to concentrate, but every now and then her eyes darted to the computer screen to spot new messages in her inbox. He wrote short emails. She wished that he’d write longer ones. At first glance they looked curt but when she weighed his words, they meant to convey so much more than was written.

It had been an hour already since the last email and she felt her body grow more and more restless every passing minute. He should have emailed to confirm. Well, the thing was, he had asked her out over the phone and details were to be shared over the emails during the day. She shivered with excitement for various reasons. One being, it was her first date with someone she secretly had a crush on since the time she had set her eyes on him. It made her delirious when it was reciprocated.

What was taking him so long? “Ping” – you have new email, it said. Promptly her hands took hold of the mouse to open the email and the sight of his name made her want to yelp with joy. He had written that the date was on and details were a surprise. It included a warning at the end, that it would be a long one, so better be prepared. Her fingers that typed the reply to that email were sweaty in anticipation. It was a good thing; she said to herself, that within a month of moving to a new city, her social life had started to buzz. Now the intolerable wait till the evening!

Finally, the day at the office ended. They were supposed to meet at a  mall and then take it further from there. When she entered the mall, she almost kicked herself for not going home to change. She saw a bevy of girls pass by looking absolutely sparkly. She called him to know where she should meet him and he asked her to take the escalator up to meet him at the Cineplex foyer. So it was easy enough for her to guess, that they were going to watch a movie. Soon she saw him standing at the enterance of the hall with nachos and pop corn packets in tow. They simply exchanged pleasantries and moved into the dark hall with the other movie watchers. Soon she realized, it was a block buster movie that she had wanted to watch all along. Within minutes she got engrossed in the movie , the plot, the characters, the twists and betrayal. She did not know that while she munched on her nachos and popcorn, he was intently watching her. He watched her body’s silhouette in the darkness. He watched the chocolate tone of her skin glisten each time the lights from the screen fell on her. He observed that she was unselfconscious and one with the purpose which at that time was watching the movie. He observed that she had just one anklet on her foot and began to wonder if she was the singular anklet wielding boho-rebel. But somewhere, in his mind, he was enchanted by her nonconformist attitude. He imagined her running like a wild child amongst the sunny flowers with a basketful of daisies. She was the one who could chase the butterflies with the same ease as she would conduct a meeting with a room full of suited stalwarts. Would he feel intimidated, he asked himself? That’s not even the right question, he heard himself answer. Funny how oblivious she was while his eyes watched her every movement.

The movie ended and she felt strange about how uninteractive he had been all the time. She felt as if he was getting bored in her company and that made her apprehensive. Surely she had it in her to keep him interested so she decided to drive the conversation from then on. Maybe then she would be able to understand if it was her or whether he was the recluse kinds. It would make it clearer whether there had to be anything to this association, if at all. Having made up her mind, such, she embarked on a verbal diahorrea, quizzing, prodding, indulging and to the extent of simply meandering. He was kind, she understood. He listened like a man who was besotted but never offering his two cents on any topic at hand. She felt like a lone warrior who had lost her purpose in the pursuit. But she liked that he listened.

The date was to extend from merely movie going to an evening at one of the most romantic spots in the city. They drove in silence more times with just the smattering of words when the silence became unbearable.  Slowly the conversation started to dribble in and topic of life partners and marriage took center stage.  She thought that she might just try become a match fixer and try to fix him up with her taciturn room mate. She thought both of them would make a great pair. But she would feel sad, if he didn’t keep in touch with her. She would miss his emails, his song dedications to her and the lovely quotes that kept her engaged for the whole day in a romance that was akin only to the novels. He was definitely a much better person to interact over the emails, she decided. Maybe she should try being a little more flirtatious, open a shirt button or  two, laugh more so and throw her hair around. Darn why was he giving her such mixed signals!

He was taking it all in. Her boisterous talk, the way she threw her hands around while talking, the way she stealthily opened the top button of her blouse and how he couldn’t get enough of the broken tooth whenever she flashed her dazzling smile. His thoughts were interrupted when she started steering towards marriage. On an impulse he knew how the date had to end. He joined her conversation in bits and pieces while noticing the bent of her elbow and the creaseless neck. He did not believe in love at first sight because he was too real to humour himself with such fallacies. But he grew surer of the outcome of the lovely evening.

Gosh!! She thought, those dimples that formed on his cheeks were hard to miss. Half of the evening was over and she was surprised she didn’t notice them before.  She always had a thing for guys with dimples and felt that guys who had them automatically qualified as the ones who were caring and sensitive. The evening light heightened the gold colours on his temples and she almost reached out to cup his strong chin. Slowly as if her eyes were seeing for the first time, she noticed that his skin was golden as it was bronzed; he was clean shaven for the occasion and his hands looked neat. His lips parted every now and then as if to say something but then held back the words. What did he fear? A silly thought perhaps, or maybe a promiscuous pass or the shock of having had a glimpse of the undone top button. She giggled at the thought of it. He must think she was trying too hard, so she turned away a little to button up her blouse. Now he would probably think that it had unbuttoned by mistake. She chided herself at making too much of a normal situation. Here were a boy and girl, meeting to have a good time. Why should they tag other expectations with this rendezvous?

They were seated at an open air restaurant and ordered some food and beverage. There was a tingling sensation that they were aware of and knew the cause. They spoke about the weather, the people at the restaurant, the dogs frisking about and the birds chirping at the height of the dull summer evening. They sipped and spoke, the sipped and listened. There was a rhythm in their banal actions which they both were aware of.  Time passed and she teased him with a prospect of introducing him to her roommate. He shrugged and asked instead, if she was willing to be his. To this, in spite of the shock, she managed to give him a weak smile. Obviously he was joking, only pulling her leg to keep the evening afloat. All this while he hadn’t uttered a word of significance and now he wanted her to be his for life? Ofcourse she was being teased. But his gaze was unwavering. It unsettled her since she knew he meant every word that dropped out of his mouth.  How could he decide so quickly, given that he hardly knew her? How could he? She thought, she was frivolous about life but it surprised her that a seemingly mature man had the audacity to play prank of this order with her.

He had to keep his gaze steady to prove the truth of his sentiments. Not once did it occur to him to reconsider. How could he tell her now that this was what he had in mind the entire evening. He had decided to risk it. He had known a lot of rejection and this was  one risk he had to take because he knew he had never had anything handed over to him  easily. He wanted her badly. Not in the physical sense alone, but her very essence, the light frothiness that she brought about where ever she strode.  He missed that zing in his life, this spring like chirpiness and delusion that life can be fun. He was sure that she would bring it with her into his life, if she said yes.

Only if she said yes.

April 2018
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