Joint winners of the Short Story Land 6-Month Competition

5. (Tie) The Rules by Brooklyn J. Frances, Utah, USA $9.50
5. (Tie) My Sophomore Year by Lisa Massimilla, Florida, USA $9.50

The Rules by Brooklyn J. Frances

Brooklyn J. Frances

The Rules

It’s the busiest time of the year for us. In fact, it’s the busiest time of the year for most
people in the Western world. I’ve worked in retail: busy. In food service: also busy. In
education too, and despite the ten-day recess, somehow this time was still a total
frenzy–even more so than usual.
I’m not a fan of December.
Although I no longer work in the call center, I’m well aware of what happens there.
When people who never pick up the phone (other than to text or to check their
FaceBook) are impelled to dial our number, something is amiss. Then those people are
put on hold. How do you think they behave an hour and twenty minutes later?
Thanks to my experience, we needn’t speculate.
By the time their calls reached a representative (me), I was the most despicable excuse
for a human being whom my clients would ever condescend to speak with. These
interactions did wonders for my self-esteem.
All the praise might have gone to my head, though, so after two years I made the
noble sacrifice of transferring out of my dream job at U.S. Postal Service Customer Care.
But on my last day of work there–which happened to be in December–something
threatened to make me rethink my decision.
I took the call which would end up being my last. On one hand, I’m glad of that,
because its memory sweetens all the bitterness of the previous years. On the other, I
wish I had taken a hundred more calls like this one, so I could remember them too. I
wish I had spoken to a hundred more people like him.

“Thank you for calling U.S.P.S.; this is Eliza; may I have your tracking number please?”
My greeting was disappointingly un-robotic. Not only did I have a lump in my throat
from being cursed out during the previous call–I was also crying with joy because my
shift was less than an hour from its end. Soon I would be off this phone for good.
“Oh, dear,” came a feeble but friendly voice at the other end of the line. “I reckon I hit
the wrong button when I heard the list.”
“Which button would have been the right one?” Challenge of the day: hold back this
laugh. My mixed emotions, apparently, were getting harder to control.
“Whichever one takes me to a live representative,” the old man answered.
The chuckles burst forth, unannounced but not unwelcome. “I hate to disappoint a
genial customer like you, but I’m as lively a representative as you’ll ever encounter
here.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean that. You sound as lively as you do lovely. It’s just that I hadn’t
planned on being asked for a tracking number, and, well…” His tone became hushed,
subdued. “…I ain’t got one.”
“Not even one?” I whispered.
“Not a single, lonely tracking number in this whole big world. Can you believe it?”
I could, and I did. Probably half of my callers suffered from the same tragic deficiency.
Usually, I would ask them to call back when they had found the elusive number. (This
caused me to get cursed out a lot.) But I was having too much fun with this one to let
him go, even to a different department. I would push the very limits of my influence to
find him the answers he sought.
“It is a most stunning blow,” I admitted regretfully. “However, if you can move past
this for the sake of our friendship… then so shall I.”
“Oh, that’s mighty good o’ you, Miss.”
“Any decent folk would do the same, I’m sure. So what, pray tell, may I assist you
with?”
“Actually, I hoped I might be of assistance to you.”
“Me, sir?”
“If, indeed, you do consider yourself ‘decent folk’.”
So his issue was to be a test of my character. Would I care enough to involve myself?
“I’d like to think that’s what I am, sir. There’s one sure way to find out.”
“One way indeed, and I’ll tell you what: I got a package here that ain’t mine, and I
figure it’s got as good a chance as any of somebody out there bein’ on the hunt for it.
More likely than not, this person’s called you and made inquiries.”
“I would guess you’re correct.”
“I’d like nothing more than to say the same about you, Miss.”
“Then I’ll have to find you some answers. I’ll have to start with a question, though: Is
your address the one on the package?”
“I reckon so.”
“Perfect. I can use that to pull up our notes.”
He told me his address, and with no little incredulity I told him what I found:
“Someone called about this package earlier today.”
“Didn’t I tell ya?”
“It was very important to him,” I pointed out needlessly.
“Figured as much.”
Sympathetic listeners were a rarity among my clientele. Now that I had one on the
line, details gushed out like the sobs of the man we were presently discussing. “His

6-year-old daughter got in a car accident while visiting relatives. She and the
grandfather are in the hospital, and her dad has no money to get there. He shipped her
favorite teddy bear and blanket for his mother to give to her so she wouldn’t be so
afraid.” At last I remembered to inhale. “I guess she was hurt pretty badly.”
The old man stayed quiet for a while. When he spoke, he got quieter still. “You’re
readin’ all this in the notes, are ya?”
Picturing him right in front of me, I shook my head. “I’m the one who processed that
call.”
“And you weren’t able to help, I take it.”
“He had put the wrong address on the box. Wrote ‘Avenue’ in place of ‘Court’, or some
such silly mistake. Just a tiny slip-up, but there was nothing I could do.”
His microphone struggled to register a sigh. Yet, the accompanying actions came
across clearly, the way I assumed he was able to envision mine. I saw him standing up
from his settin’-chair, re-centering his silver belt buckle, and lowering the brim of his
Stetson over his right eye.
“Well, I don’t see why a man should be punished for an honest mistake, do you? If my
little girl was in the hospital, I think I might misspell a word or two. What’s more, I would
hope that some decent folks would help me right the wrong I’d done, to give my baby
some comfort.”
“You mean you’ll bring her the box?” Starting now, I loved him.
“Can’t make no promises, but this cowboy’s sure gonna try.”
Of course he was. What could he be except a cowboy? “You’re a good man, mister.”
“Solomon’s just fine.”
“Thank you, Solomon. Maya will be so happy.”
“Is that our girl’s name?”
I nodded frantically, almost forgetting to include an audible “yes.”
“That’ll help, I reckon. I’ve only got the grandma’s name on the box here. If I can’t
catch her, I’ll go to every hospital in town ’til I find Maya and her grandpa.”
I hadn’t doubted that for a moment.

Almost a year has passed since my transfer into the mailroom. I don’t miss my old job,
but sometimes I wonder what became of that poor young father. The cowboy named
Solomon, too. Decent folks are hard to come by these days, and my time on the phone
with him was too short. Like the boxes that pass through my hands too quickly, so that
sometimes I don’t even notice what’s written on them.

This one I notice. Though the handwriting on the label is that of a stranger, a sweet
familiarity overcomes me the moment I read it. The name Solomon is there. Below, the
word ‘Avenue’ is spelled out more deliberately, confidently, than I’ve ever seen a street
name spelled.
The sender’s name, also, I recognize immediately. He’s Maya’s dad.
I can’t put the package down. I know too well that things get lost in the mail every day,
and this thing is much too precious to lose. At the risk of my job, I would break every
rule to ensure its safe arrival.

Solomon’s address is a nine-hour drive from mine. The distance is more a test of
patience than an obstacle, because I not only want him to receive this package–I want
to see what’s inside.
It’s late in the day–the day after my confiscating the box–when I arrive on the avenue
in question. I approach the house with the corresponding number. Then I knock, feeling
simultaneously noble and foolish. What will he think of me? Will he even remember
me?
My doubts are quelled when his gruff voice issues from beyond the closed door: “I
thank ya kindly for your patient spirit.”
There’s no way he’s forgotten me. Decent folk like us don’t forget.
The next sound to come is the clink of spurs–he’s wearing his cowboy boots indoors.
Just as I imagined. He opens the door, and the first thing I see is the Stetson pulled down
over his right eye. I knew it.
Then his silver belt buckle. Didn’t I tell ya?
Finally, a look on his face that seems to say, ‘I reckon I’ve met ya, but there ain’t no
tellin’ when or where.’
“I’m Eliza.” I hold out the box without knowing why. Perhaps as identity verification.
He looks at it, then at me. The smile which follows that look is so warm, the colors of
the autumn leaves around us look cold.
“The nice lady on the phone at the post office?” Laughing, he takes the box with one
hand and extends the other toward me. I give him mine in exchange for a tight squeeze.
Since I never knew either of my grandfathers, I like to imagine that their handshakes
were just like Solomon’s. “You wanna step inside?”
I nod. “Do you recognize the sender’s name?”

Shutting the door behind me, he studies the label. “Wouldn’t ya know it! It’s that little
girl’s daddy. Gosh, I hope she pulled through all right. Come on in, kick your feet up for a
spell.”
We sit together on a couple of chairs that are just as dusty and threadbare as I hoped
they’d be. “Did you ever get to meet her?”
He shakes his head. “Doctor wouldn’t let me in, bein’ I ain’t family. Said he’d give her
the box, though, and I reckon he did. What could this be, I wonder?” Taking a knife out
of the pocket of his jeans, he hands it over, welcoming me to do the honors.
I slice through the tape along the top of the box. Each of us pulls back one of the
cardboard flaps, revealing a thank-you note in a child’s handwriting. It reads:

Salamin,
It was vary good of you to breng my barr to me.
It duzzint hert as much wen I hav it heer.
My blankit is keeping me warm so I can sleep.
If I ever stop needing my barr, I want you to hav it,
becuz old peeple hert a lot and I thenk it wood help you.
You are a good man.
Love,
Maya

When we’re through with this paper, we reach for the item that was underneath it.
Both of us are puzzled. What made Maya decide she no longer needed her bear? After
minutes spent musing over the question, we spot what’s lying on the floor of the box.
This second note is written in the same hand as the addresses. I hold it up for us to
read:

Solomon,

If you’ve read Maya’s note already, then you sense how much she appreciated you
seeking her out, giving her the comfort she needed while she was in pain and afraid. The
pain is over for her, thank God, but it has only intensified for me since that week.
Using the money you slipped into the box, I made it to my little girl’s side before she
took her last breaths and turned cold. I imagine it would have been much colder without
her beloved blanket, which my wife had made for her. She passed away when Maya was
just a baby.
In my eyes, she was still a baby when I lost her. That baby had a strong will, though,
and she spent her final moments insisting I pass the bear on to you.
You’ll forgive the delay, I’m sure; it wasn’t easy to let go of something my little girl
treasured. Although we haven’t met, I feel sure that you’ll watch over it, like you
watched over Maya. Thank you for your extraordinary deed. I only wish that kindness
like this could be the rule of everyday life, instead of an exception.
Sincerely,
Matthew Moran

With empty lungs that I just can’t fill, I hug the bear close to my aching chest. Solomon
then pulls me against his. Though he is silent, I discern his thoughts by the tears which
are wetting my hair. He’s wondering, as I am, why it is that kindness must be the
exception. But in the span of a second, we both dry our eyes and straighten our backs,
and I’m certain we’ve come up with the same idea:
Let’s change the rules.

My Sophomore Year by Lisa Missimilla

When I started my sophomore year in a new high school, I was sure it would be epically bad. Besides being the new guy in town with no friends and no social status, I also had to hide the fact that I was gay. Now, I’m not saying I had it easy back in my old neighborhood because I didn’t. Being sixteen and gay is very hard and at times very scary and lonely. Especially, when you haven’t come out of the closet to anyone except your two best friends who you’ve known since kindergarten. Around them, I could relax and act normal and not worry about how I sounded or acted. Now, surrounded by new kids who didn’t know me from squat, I had to go back into hiding and play it straight for a whole year.
So yeah, tenth grade wasn’t looking too bright. Then I met Devon and everything changed. It happened during my fifth-period history class. I was sitting in the back, bored out of my mind when the door opened and in walked tall, dark, and handsome Devon Ward. I couldn’t help staring at him. He was beautiful. Sporting a funny lopsided haircut, he was thin yet toned, like a swimmer or dancer. The teacher had him sit in the third seat from the front in the row besides mine, and for the rest of the class, I kept my eyes fixed on my textbook, afraid even to glance in his direction.
By the end of the week, I was crushing on him bad and nearly driving myself crazy trying to figure out if he was gay or not. I couldn’t just go up and ask him. That would be suicide. So I admired him in secret, stealing glances at him during class when I was sure he wasn’t looking and almost becoming a stalker as I followed him to his other classes. This carried on for six months, and I still had no idea how to find out if I stood a chance with him. Then February came around and with it, the Valentine’s Day dance. That’s when it finally dawned on me that if I didn’t hurry up and make a move, someone else would.
I wasn’t the only one sneaking looks at him during class. Nearly all the girls had tried to catch his eye or gave him flirty smiles as they passed his desk. My only comfort was that Devon seemed oblivious to all the attention or was simply not interested in them. Still, with Valentine’s Day and the dance only five days away, I knew it to be only a matter of time before someone snatched him up. So I gathered my courage, wrote him a note saying I liked him and that we could meet across the street in the park after school if he was interested.
I only put my first name; since there was more than one Kevin in our history class I was sure he wouldn’t guess it was me. Twice I almost threw it away, afraid that Devon would show it to his friends, and I would be outed to the entire school. Praying I wasn’t setting myself up for a beating, I went to his locker Wednesday morning and pushed the note into the slot between his locker door. The hall was empty, it would be at least another hour before kids began showing up. I had to force myself to walk normally down the hall and out into the courtyard where I stayed till the first bell rang. When history class came around I started having a mini panic attack. A million questions flashed through my head. How should I act? What if my face gave me away the minute I saw him. Would he question everyone named Kevin in class if they left him the note? By the time fifth period came around I was so freaked out, I almost ditched the class. Almost, but didn’t because I knew if I did it would have tipped Devon off that the letter was from me. So instead, I all but ran to fifth period as soon as the bell rang, hoping to beat him there because I didn’t want to walk past him to my desk.
When I got to class and found his seat empty I almost laughed I was so relieved. That relief didn’t last long. I no sooner reached the safety of my desk Devon appeared in the doorway dressed in a dark blue V-neck shirt that fit him very well. He stood there for the longest time, scanning the class with those piercing steel-blue eyes of his. I knew he was looking for the guy who left the note. Before I could look away his gaze locked onto me. My chest tightened and breathing became an issue. We stared at each other for what felt like a painfully long time, during which I was sure I had given myself away. When he started walking forward I could feel what little breakfast I ate this morning threaten to climb up my throat and make an appearance. This was it! He was coming towards me to ask about the note and my high school life would end in soul-crushing embarrassment.
The thought paralyzed me to the point that I must have blacked out for a minute because the next thing I knew Mrs. Swith, my teacher, was beginning the day’s lesson and Devon was sitting at his desk. Tension eased out of every muscle in my body, one at a time and breathing fell back to a normal rhythm. I spaced out through the entire lesson, I just stared down at my textbook and notepad. A loud bell shocked me back to reality. It took a minute for me to realize class was over. As everyone rushed to the door in a large mass, I stayed at my desk packing my bag while watching Devon out of the corner of my eye. He was sitting at his desk, waiting for the crowd by the door to thin. When he stood my entire body tensed in anticipation of his approach but he didn’t even look in my direction. He simply gathered his books, walked to the door and left without so much as a backward glance. I hung back until I was the last person before following. Devon’s reaction, or lack of one, confused me. Did he read the note? That long, penetrating look he gave said he did and that he knew I was the one who left it. So why didn’t he stay and confront me after class? Even if he was straight wouldn’t he at least stick around to punch me in the face or warn me to back off? Maybe I just didn’t interest him.
For the rest of the day, I walked around in a funk as a ticker tape of questions and doubt played through my mind. I flipflopped at least five times on deciding if going through with the park meeting was a good idea. On one hand, it was pointless and beyond pathetic to go if Devon wasn’t interested in me and yet if I didn’t go I would never know if he was interested me or not. In the end, curiosity and hope won over common sense and uncertainty.
The park was two and a half blocks away, an easy walk that I took my time with. Anxiety built with each step. By the time I reached the park a thin layer of sweat covered my face and hands despite the cool crisp air. The park consisted of a small play area with swings, a merry-go-round, and a metal slide. A short distance away was a couple of weathered picnic tables and benches. Waves of disappointment threatened to drown me in despair as I made my way to a table.’ Maybe he got caught up after class with a teacher and that’s why he wasn’t here. ‘ I tried to reason as I climbed up on the table to sit. ‘ I’ll give him a half-hour. He has to be coming. ‘I clung to that small hope as I pulled out my phone and played a pointless matching game to keep from tearing up. I knew it was silly but my feelings where hurt and I was embarrassed that I put myself out there like some desperate lovesick nerd only to be rejected. My only solace, small as it was, that Devon didn’t know it was me who did it. I was so engrossed with trying to convince myself this that I didn’t know I was no longer alone until a hand touched my shoulder. Let me tell you, my soul nearly left my body at that moment. Instead, my phone flew one way and I flew the other off the table. I landed with my full weight on a twisted right foot that resulted in something ripping in my foot followed by the worst pain I ever experienced. I was crying loud sobs and I didn’t care who heard me. That was until I realized who was with me.
” Kevin! Holly crap, I’m so sorry. “
Strong hands grabbed my shoulders and gently pulled me up from my fetal position. With tears streaming from my eyes I looked at Devon’s concerned face and thought ‘ Oh god I hope I don’t have snot coming out of my nose. ‘I for sure needed a doctor but walking was beyond my capability at the moment. So Devon carried me home, bridal style, for three blocks. Under different circumstances, I would have been beyond happy and embarrassed by this but the all-consuming burning pain in my foot trumped everything. A trip to the doctor revealed that I had a grade 2 sprain and would be out of commission for 6 to 8 weeks. That also meant no dance though that no longer mattered because I got something far better. During my recovery, Devon visited me every day after school and also on weekends to drop off missed school work and just to hang out. It turned out he was okay with my little crush and that he was open to seeing how things turned out between us. So in a way, I was right. My sophomore year did turn out to be epic.