The Vocal+ Fiction Awards Anthology
By Erica Wagner
Twenty-five fresh, contemporary stories chosen from the Vocal+ creator platform.
Extract from Path of Least Resistance by Bernie Bleske
In the morning, I took the little stone with me into the living room, where Keith was on the sofa, watching television. At the time, Keith and I lived in a downtown two bedroom, under the constant press of traffic, working factory and service jobs to pay the rent and buy the beer and all that lazy nothingness. A couple of college dropouts waiting for something to happen to us.
“This guy,” I said, “had me believing this little rock could make wishes come true.”
“Give it here,” Keith said.
I threw him the stone and he caught it one-handed and said to the air, “I wish for some beer. Good beer, not the shit.” Then he threw it back at me. “It’s broken.”
I had not caught the return pass and it went bouncing down the hallway toward the bathroom, which I spent some time using after picking the stone up. In the shower it took on a luster it lacked when dry and it made me think of a river stone, one of millions and trillions along all the wild rivers in the world, pounded smooth, dull gray when dry and slick when wet. If some were magic, how would anybody ever know?
The night before, at the bar waiting for a beer, the guy next to me said, “Check out this stone.”
He held it out and I took it in my palm. Just a small rock. ‘What’s special?” I asked.
“It’s a wishstone,” he said. “Makes wishes come true.”
“Wish I had one,” I said, and the guy smiled at me and left the bar, me with the little rock still in my hand.
It was a pretty good joke.
When I came out of the bathroom Lucas was in the living room and he and Keith were drinking Heineken. Of course, it was Sunday, and Lucas usually came over to watch the games and he often brought beer but that didn’t stop me from holding some small incredulous belief.
“Le’me see that stone again,” Keith said. I had a reluctance now, having spent some time in the shower thinking about the consequences of wishes.
“Remember the Monkey’s Paw,” I told him.
“The wha?” Keith said.
“That short story about the guy who gets a magic monkey hand and wishes for money and his kid dies and he gets the insurance money. Then he wishes for the kid to come back and there’s this knock on the door.”
“Pet Sematary,” Keith said.
“Sort of,” I said.
“Whatever,” Keith said, waving for the stone.
Lucas was saying, “What the hell are you talking about?” as I tossed the stone to Keith and he wished for, in these words, “a girl.”
All sorts of things popped into my head. A Girl Scout, selling cookies. My sister through some disaster with her husband. Still, privately, I wished for the same; who doesn’t?
The mountains are flush with color as we make the drive north. Frost creeps across the glass. I turn on the heat, but the old RV takes time to warm. From the passenger’s seat, Jude huddles in a blanket. Andy sleeps in the back.
“How far north are we headed?”
“Just a half hour past Dahlonega.”
Jude glances out the window. The leaves are brittle and dry from a summer that was full of heat and sun but rare showers. Even the trees are burnt. The clouds hang low, obscuring the mountain peaks around us. The whole area is quiet and still in a way I didn’t expect it to be.
Jude isn’t used to mountains, or to cold. She grew up six hours southwest of here, in a poor Alabama town with less than three hundred residents. The first time she saw mountains was when we flew into San Francisco. She kept looking down at the Sierra Nevadas and back at me like she’d never seen anything so beautiful in her life.
“Do you think it’ll be okay for him?” she asks.
I glance in the rear-view mirror. Andy doesn’t love the RV loveseat, but it’s the only place where he can sleep with a seatbelt on. His preferred perch is the small space above our heads, where he likes to sleep snuggled up against a body pillow.
“It’s so... remote.”
“Remote is good,” I tell her. “It’s people you should be worried about. People are dangerous.”
I can feel her staring at me, but she doesn’t say anything else.
We camp in a spot under some fir trees, which stretch dozens of feet above us. The view is partially obscured, but through the branches, the Blood Mountain Wilderness spreads like blue waves in the afternoon light.
Andy awakens in a foul mood, weeping quietly before Jude gives him something to eat and the attitude slips away. We decide to go for a small hike while Jude sets up. I get him into his coat, which still bears a stain from the last time we went camping. He ties up his boots—a new trick his teachers have been working on with him.
Andy likes to hike in front of me. I prefer this, so I can keep an eye on him. For a seven-year-old, he’s a great hiker. He’s quiet and aware of his surroundings. He stops rarely, usually only to look at a bug or leaf. “Kat,” he tells me. “Look. A Chinese mantis.”
We both stop, stooping on the dirt path, our noses close to the grass and weeds. A large praying mantis rests in a bush, delicate and slim. “The babies are probably somewhere close by,” I say.
Andy sits down in the dirt to watch the mantis. I give him space, wandering around the area to look for any edible plants. I’m at the edge of the path, as far away from Andy as I dare, when a twig breaks nearby. I stop, searching the path. My hand goes automatically to my hunting knife.
The sound comes again from further in the woods. I peer into the thick pocket of trees. At first, there’s no movement. Then, I spot it. A deer. It rests in between some peeling birches about twenty feet away. It’s a strange-looking animal. Bigger than normal and with what look like at least two broken legs. The joints bend in the opposite direction. The eyes are too far forward on its face. It shouldn’t be this close. Wild deer are highly sensitive to tourists.
“What is it?”
I jump at Andy’s voice. When I look back into the thicket, the deer is gone.
You’ve always been a dancer.
You started when you were three. It was your mother’s idea. She’d always wanted to dance when she was little, but her asshole of a father never let her. Realize she’s been living vicariously through you this whole time, that she still tries to, but you’re too different now. She doesn’t recognize you. It’s a weird feeling.
Shake it off.
Mother keeps a photo of soft, round-faced, baby you, chunky arms and chunky legs stuffed in a powder- pink leotard on her nightstand. You were all smiles and baby teeth. You can see her crouching reflection in the mirror of the studio you were posing in. She was twenty- something. All smiles and adult teeth. She thought you were just so cute.
Dancing was more fun then.
Move away to a foreign country you say you’re from. You were much too little to remember being “American” anyway, but that’s what it says on your passport.
Learn that nine years old isn’t that little, and that it’s bizarre that you don’t remember that hunk of your life.
Don’t try to remember it. Everyone tells you a different story.
All you know is that you danced that whole time. And it was fun.
You’re ten in that foreign country you say you’re from and you’ve started dancing for real. Dance academy. You go to school all day just to go to another school all evening. It was never this serious in America, but you’re having fun nonetheless.
Try to remember that feeling.
The taste of it.
You don’t have that anymore. But it’s all you really want, isn’t it? The taste? The colors?
Months pass, and you’re eleven now and you’re actually getting kind of good. Your teacher tells you this. She wants you to be the opener for that year’s summer recital. Shimmer with happiness, smile with crooked teeth.
Let yourself be happy, because you won’t be happy for a long time after that.
I’m so sorry. You didn’t deserve that.
You tell your mother you’re the first thing she’ll see on stage. All smiles and crooked pre-teen teeth.
You both shimmer with happiness at the dinner table, letting glitter fall into steaming plates of rice and beans.
Turn fourteen. Look at your body in the mirror. The big, big mirror in the bedroom of the house in that foreign country that’s your home now.
Fail to understand the hips, the thighs, the belly, and the breasts. Fail to understand why everyone looks at them.
Why people think it’s okay to touch them. To touch you. This is still something you don’t understand.
Cry as you write this.
Allow yourself to cry because you’re alone in your dorm room.
Fourteen was much too little for that.
Go to dance class and stare at your chunky arms and chunky legs stuffed in a black leotard in the mirror of the studio you’re practicing in.
Your mother doesn’t find you cute anymore. You’d be so much prettier with a flat stomach, she says. She doesn’t remember this, yet you never forget it.
At least you’re a good dancer now. A grade three. G3s are usually seventeen. Dancing is still good. Still fun. Although when you look in the mirror, you feel sick to your stomach.
Look away, look away, look away.
Don’t eat dinner tonight. You don’t need it.
Turn sixteen. Your mother asks what’s the matter with you. Tell her nothing, snatch your dance bag from the back seat and race down the twenty-eight steps (1.4 calories burned) to get to ballet class. You’re dizzy by the time you reach the bottom.
Hyperventilate to keep from passing out.
Your teacher asks if you can hang back for a minute. You do.
She stands, tall and lithe. Belly hollow, caving at her ribs. You’re jealous. This jealousy makes your stomach hurt so badly, you can’t look her in the eyes. Look at the wooden floor. At the dents you left with the box of your pointe shoes.
Your head aches. It pinches at your left eye. Ignore it. She asks you if you want to audition for Joffrey.
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