1st Place Fiction
I could see more stars out in the country than I’d ever imagined existed. If I let my eyes glaze over, they connected into different shapes, my own personal constellations. We sat side by side on the tailgate of Mr. Gaddy’s truck. I swung my legs, trying not to breathe. I could smell the faint stench of death clinging to the metal. I pictured the pool of dark liquid I’d seen where Buddy’s head had been, then quickly turned my attention back to the stars, the cool night air, and the swinging of my legs. Jeff, my boyfriend, put his hand in mine. Lani, sitting on the other side of him, was prattling on about the mysteries of the universe.
“For all we know, there’s someone looking down on us right now saying ‘Oh look, a little bacteria!’” Her voice was childish and annoying.
“Well, maybe you are a bacteria, but I’m not.” I said.
Josh laughed. He was Lani’s boyfriend, but he showed no signs of defending her honour.
Lani was annoying me, but I understood her desire to speak of something big. I searched my heart for some great words to recite and came up dry. I wanted to speak so the stars could hear me. This was a night bigger than all of us. Peace and silence rested over us, a bubble of silence disrupted by the yearning for something more - for solace.
* * * *
The grave took two hours to dig. Josh had worn flip flops - thoughtless. We laughed at him, never mentioning the fact that he had probably been too distracted by lifting Buddy into the truck to worry about grabbing a pair of digging boots.
“I’m glad we could all be here together,” Ms. Mary, Jeff’s mother, murmured, slapping my arm gently.
I replied that yes, it was great to be back together again. Jeff and Josh had removed their shirts. They were pale and sweating in the humid night air. I adjusted the flashlight, peering deeper into the grave.
“Alrighty, do y’all think that’s good?” Mr. Gaddy asked.
“Yeah,” the boys rested their shovels.
“Wait,” huffed Jeff as he stuck his shovel back in the hole, digging the sides so they were more even. We knew he was stalling. We didn’t say anything.
“I just remembered,” Ms. Mary shouted, startling everyone, “Earlier today I was trying to get Buddy to eat and he wouldn’t,” her voice wavered, “and I told him that it was okay if the didn’t want to eat. I said ‘Buddy, it’s okay. I’ll still love you if you go. I’ll love you forever. You’re such a good dog.’” We all tried to steady our breathing. Jeff stopped digging. Ms. Mary put her hand on my shoulder and said quietly, almost to herself, “Funny thing is, that’s the same thing I said to my dad on the day he died, too: It’s okay if you go.”
* * * *
Buddy looked snuggly in his grave. He was a retriever with honey golden fur and huge floppy ears. Josh had laid him there so carefully, his paws curled and tucked beneath his jaw, just the way he used to nap. We all knelt down to pet him one last time. I didn’t want to pet him - Buddy never liked to be pet. He used to walk away if we tried to touch him. Now, he was all fur and bones. I could see the harsh outline of his ribs. His shoulder was raw where the bone had rubbed through. It smelled bad, an overwhelming combination of death and dog.
But I swallowed my revulsion and patted his ribs slowly while everyone else rubbed his head and back. Ms. Mary was sniffling loudly, blaming it on allergies. Then, we all stood and pushed the dirt back into the grave. And I just kept thinking he looked so...cozy.
* * * *
We emerged from the trees and looked up at the sky. It was clear black, filled with swirls of stars. All was still. Even the springtime crickets had stopped chirping. I turned into Jeff’s chest and let him hold me tight.
“You did good, baby,” I told him, “Buddy will love it out here. He can roam free and take naps wherever he wants.”
“Yeah,” Jeff breathed heavily, I could feel his hot tears on my forehead. “He’ll guard the place. We can call it ‘Bud’s Pass.’”
1st Place Non- Fiction
“Whiskey Lullaby” is a song performed by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss. Released in 2003 on Paisley’s album, Mud on the Tires, it was written by Nashville songwriters Bill Anderson and Jon Randall. The story that is being told through the song’s music video is one of heartbreak, alcoholism, and tragic suicide. A young and seemingly happy couple fell in love just before the man’s deployment overseas. When he comes home from war after a couple of years, he finds his young bride in bed with someone else. He storms out of the house while she chases after him to try to stop him. Their painful ending and his inability to shake the feelings and memories he has of her drives him to drinking. Eventually his reality becomes too much, and he puts a gun to his head and takes his own life. When his ex-lover hears of his suicide, she begins to drink as well and eventually suffers the same fate.
This song speaks volumes to me because of the alcohol abuse and the theme of heartbreak. Before I was born, my mom fell in love with a man who would turn out to be an abusive alcoholic. When he found out my mom was pregnant, he wanted nothing to do with her or me. He wanted my mom to get an abortion. Young love burns hotter than reason can cool, so she agreed. Due to his emotional unavailability, her stubborn ways overruled any reason to be okay with him not loving her back. She was determined to make him love her. She thought she needed him to love her.
Momma went on to the abortion clinic and sat in the quiet and unwelcoming waiting area. When one of the nurses came to get her, she heard her phone ring. Momma had talked to my granny about the operation previously. Granny had called her, sobbing into the phone “please don’t do this.” Momma immediately stood up and walked out. She carried on with the pregnancy, and there I was in all my tiny glory. He signed his rights away and never looked back.
Heartbreak is the theme of the song that speaks to me the most. When Momma finally told me the story, I spent so many years silently dying inside wondering why I wasn’t enough. He hadn’t even met me yet and deemed me unworthy. He didn’t know what I was going to look like yet or what I might accomplish. It took me many years to understand that it wasn’t me that wasn’t good enough. It was him, and it would always be him. My first experience with true, gut wrenching heartbreak came from someone whose blood ran through my veins and he didn’t even know me yet, or much less want to.
The destructiveness of alcoholism is the second theme that stands out to me. My mom and this idiot were happy until he picked up a bottle. He would hang out in the bars all night, cheat on my mom, and leave her home alone to raise his son from a previous failed relationship. The destructiveness was beneficial for me in the long run, but I know it took my momma through hell and back. The emotional toll it took on her would have been enough to kill me. She’s one of the strongest and kindest women I know. I don’t believe I would have survived something this drastic, but in hindsight, it’s for the best.
“But nobody knew how much she blamed herself, for years and years...”. For the longest time I thought I had ruined my mom’s life. She had big dreams to pursue science, and when she had me, those dreams her no longer attainable. I thought it was my fault that he didn’t want to be with my mom anymore. Momma changed my whole perspective of the situation when she told me that I had saved her life because my being born is what took us out of a bad situation. I saved us because her love for me overrode the love she thought she needed from him.
This song tugs at my heartstrings because of the emotion that spills from the melodies. The intro of the song is an acoustic guitar dispersing into an echo. My heart is the guitar and the sounds are my own emotions attempting to be heard without having to explain. I relate deeply to the story in the lyrics because at the ripe age of 13, I used to silently cry in my bed alone while listening to this song and make the connections between the story I was told and the story in the song. I felt like I couldn’t talk about it because I wasn’t sure of how I was supposed to feel. I felt guilty for being curious, because I already had a dad who loved me more than I even dreamt imaginable, and because I could tell how it hurt my mom even at such a young age. This song allowed me to pour my heart out without saying anything. This song served as a friend who could relate to my feelings, an outlet, and as the closure that I will probably never get to have.