Wednesday, March 7, 2012

2012 R. Darryl Fisher Creative Writing Contest -- First Prize in Fiction

The Long Goodnight
by Bailey Tulloch
The abbey loomed in the darkness that night. The waves below it crashed into the cliffs. Through the hard sound of the collisions, a wolf howled. The moon peeked out between two long coils of fog. The clouds stretched and bent around the yellow moon, surrounding its eerie face. Though nature’s noise was everywhere, it was a silent night.
            Sister Mary Ann knelt near a ledge in the adobe-looking abbey, her rosary curled between her fingers. Her nails grazed the rough, tan ledge, paint blobs stubbly and prickled. They consumed the entire exterior of the abbey. Sister Mary Ann looked up from the stubble and out at the two cliffs in front of her that looked like fists. She kept her head bowed and silent.
            A small candle was ignited somewhere behind her. Within the shadows emerged a tall woman with a sturdy stride. Sister Mary Ann had pretended not to see or hear her trying to creep by, shuffling down the open hall, hands shoved into her pockets. Sister Mary Ann almost reached out to her. She almost asked her what was wrong. She almost saved her life.

                                    *                                  *                                  *
            Every time Joseph Harrington popped a stick of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum into his mouth, he tasted defeat. And salt. He did not taste the same fruity, candy-like flavor that everyone else extracted so much joy out of. Not anymore.
            He looked over at his aunt, Mary Ann, who was seated in the passenger’s seat. She was more wrinkled than a Shar-pei dog, but never once had she complained about her appearance. She was the most selfless person he had ever met. Which was why he had agreed to come back to the place he hated so very much.
            It had been almost thirty years since he had last been on the island. The same went for his aunt, who had been the one to take him away from the island. She had been a nun at the abbey there, where he had lived with her since he was nine. But being forced to live at the abbey was only a foreshadowing of what was to come.
            Sister Mary Ann took a small package from her bag. Her hands were shaking furiously. With sad eyes, Joe took the little box from his aunt. She looked at him gratefully, thanking him for taking a load off an old woman. And thanking him for putting the load onto his own shoulders by making the trip.
            “It’s for you,” she said in a voice so delicate Joe could hear it crack. He shook his head.
            “Can I open it when we get there? I don’t want to risk crashing the car.”
            For indeed, it was raining, pounding on the windows of his little car. Streaks of water cascaded along Sister Mary Ann’s window. She reached a trembling finger up to follow one. 
            It took two more hours, but Joe and Sister Mary Ann arrived on the island safely. The sky was grey and empty when they got off the ferry. Joe slid Sister Mary Ann’s wheelchair out of the ferry’s storage compartment and propped his aunt up into it. She patted his aunt in thanks, and he wheeled her to the ramp that lead to the cruel sea and the jagged cliffs. Where it had all begun.
            Joe looked at his aunt, and together, they strode carefully down the cement road. Five long minutes later, they were at the bottom. A pathway full of deceit waited for them happily. Joe groaned. His mind flashed back to that night.
            Sister Mary Ann nudged him, but he barely felt it. She asked him to open the small silver package. He obliged. And then he gasped.
            Beneath the wrapping lay a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum.

                                    *                                  *                                  *
            “No, Joe. You may not go to the cove. It’s too risky, and you’re too precious.”
Sister Mary Ann kissed her nephew on the top of his head and sighed. Joe wanted more than anything to be allowed to go to the cove, just once.
            “But Aunt Mary Ann, I’m the most careful boy in the whole entire world. You don’t have to worry about me. I promise. I can handle it. I want to see the wreckage for myself. It’s better than staying around here where all anyone ever does is get angry at me or feel sorry for me,” he insisted.
            He watched as his aunt’s face grew lined with worry and sorrow. She took a deep breath and refused him this for the one hundred and fifty-second time in his life. Joe sighed. His heart had been lifting higher and higher out of his chest. Now it dropped with a thud back in place.
            “That’s the one hundred and fifty-second time you’ve said that,” was all the small boy mumbled, speaking more to the rock beneath his shoe. Tears blurred his vision, and he quickly walked away from his aunt. Joe shoved two sticks of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum into his mouth. The fruity taste consoled his tears.
            Joe wanted so badly to see the rumored debris of the cove down by the cliffs. For two years, the island had had a story going around that one night, a small boat was caught in the waves and shredded by the cliff walls. They said it was a sailboat, stolen off the pier. The Last Goodnight, people said it was called. Joe knew that boat. He had seen the young man who owned it fishing on it quite often. But now his boat was gone.
            It frustrated Joe to be stuck at the abbey every day. He loved the nuns, but it just wasn’t the same as going on adventures and playing with the other children. His aunt wouldn’t allow him to leave. Joe could only play with his friends at the abbey or around the borders of it, never out of sight. The only intriguing thing about the island was down by the cliffs. But Joe could not see it.
            Ever since Joe’s mother died, his aunt had been even more protective of him. It was because she could not bear to see someone she loved so much leave her again. Joe knew this. He just wished she weren’t so afraid of the island. There were hazards in the abbey, too. The island was just so much more frightening to her.
            Joe and his mother were only on the island a couple of months before he had to go live at the abbey. They had moved to the island after his father left when he was nine, and Joe’s mother had needed her aunt and only living relative to help her through it. Joe had come. But only for his mother.
            Joe sat in his room, tallying another lost attempt at going to the cove. He knew the only way he would be able to see it: when his aunt was distracted. But then he shook the thought away. He could never disappoint her like that.
            He stepped out into the colorful hallway, painted with stained glass windows and brightened by softly colored tiles. Rays of deep blue shot out into the darkest corners of the hallways, ensuring that no spot was left in the shadows. Statues and crosses lined the walls. Joe snapped his Juicy Fruit as he left the first hallway and went out into the adobe-like hallway that allowed in the open air of the island. He sucked in his breath. The beauty of salt seeped into his nose. Most people didn’t like the scent of ocean salt. But since he never was allowed to even walk on the beach, the sea’s smell alone was enough for Joe. He saw a few kids running freely through the sandy shores. Jealousy prickled at his spine.
            Joe took a deep breath and stuffed the rest of his package of Juicy Fruit into his mouth. In that one moment, he knew what he had to do. His heart pounded as the abbey’s bell chimed. Mass time for the Sisters, his only alone time. Against, but also allied by his own will, Joe ran.
            There would be no one hundred and fifty-third time.

                                    *                                  *                                  *
            “What were you hoping to do here, Aunt Mary Ann?” Joe Harrington asked his aunt. He kept trying to block the thought of the gift she had given him from his mind. The sweet taste had been diminished years before by a tidal wave of salty despair. Every single time he tried to chew his previous addiction, pain trickled into the once-sweet flavor, slowly but surely poisoning the joy that lay hidden within the stick of gum.
            “Oh, Joe, I thought we would just take a look around the island. I am an old woman, you know. I want to see it one more time before anything happens to me,” she said in a frail voice.
            “Don’t you ever talk like that,” Joe snapped.
            Sister Mary Ann merely nodded, her few white tufts of hair ruffling in the wind, and said no more.
            Joe sighed and wheeled his aunt over to the old abandoned abbey. The nuns who lived there had been moved to a location on a different island, but Sister Mary Ann had wished to take care of her nephew in a more personal and stable environment. They had both had quite enough of islands. Joe wasn’t really sure if it was within the regulations of the nuns or not, but she had taken them both away from the abbey and became the director of a private school. She had sacrificed her whole calling for him.
            “We’ve got to be careful in this area, because it looks like thirty years has done some arguing with the adobe over here,” Joe told his aunt. Her fluffy head bobbed and she laughed a little.
            “Now, this brings back memories, doesn’t it, Joey?”
            Joe laughed quietly but did not reply.
            He looked down at the gum in his hand and knew that some memories had a right to be forgotten.
                                    *                                  *                                  *
            Trampling through the sharp rocks, Joe finally reached the cove. But there was not a shred of damage in sight. Anger peaking, he threw himself down on a wet, sandy rock. Joe traced his name in the grayish sand that lined the entrance to the cave with a sharp stick. But then something odd happened. The stick let out a screech and scraped something steely and metallic. It made a chilling noise, but he didn’t pay attention to it. What was that piece of wood?
            Now it was his excitement that was peaking, growing increasingly hot by the second. He pulled the board out of the gravelly sand and examined it. Joe gasped as he fingered the grooves in the white chipped wood.
            The Last Goodnight.
            But it was in that moment when Joe saw something that did not fit the legend. It did not fit anything he had believed in. It did not belong anywhere.
            Except on his mother’s wrist.
            Under the sand was a ruby red bracelet, one that Joe would have recognized anywhere. It was the one he had bought for his mother, after saving up his money for years, for Christmas. She had hugged him and told him that it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for her. Joe hadn’t understood the tears that pooled in her eyes, but he was just beginning to understand.
            It wasn’t the bracelet.
            It wasn’t the money.
            It was him. It was what he had done for her.
            He slid it onto his own wrist, not caring that it was for girls and he was a boy. It was a piece of his mother, and that was all that mattered.
            Trembling, he inhaled. The salt filled his nose once more. This time, however, the salt was nauseating to his senses. That very salt had destroyed the boat, had destroyed his mother. And now it was destroying him.
            He wanted to look for more evidence. But he simply couldn’t. He could not bring himself to search for anything else.
            “So now you know why I did not want you to come down here.”
            Joe froze. He did not need to turn around to know who was behind him.
                                    *                                  *                                  *
            Joe and Sister Mary Ann sat quietly together in the cove, not saying anything. Just like the day she found him searching the remains of the sailboat his mother had stolen and crashed. Joe closed his eyes and remembered the conversation they’d finally had.
            “Why didn’t you just tell me that she died here? Why didn’t you just tell me that the rumors were true? None of this makes sense, Aunt Mary Ann.”
            His aunt closed her eyes and did not reply. Silence, it seemed, was golden in their family. But finally, she spoke.
            “You will not understand this. But it made sense to me. I didn’t tell you because I did not want this to happen. I didn’t want you to come here and see the wreckage with your own innocent eyes. Luckily, all of the ruins were cleared away, but something happened that I did not expect. Rumors were flying around about the crash. I had not anticipated that.
            “I was worried about you. I did not want you to be afraid of anything, to be traumatized by it. I didn’t want you angry or scared. I know I should have told you the truth. I know I shouldn’t have kept it from you. But I thought it would keep you safe. And that’s all I care about.”
            Joe could not breathe, could not speak. His world had shattered. And all he could do was cling to the one thing that still gave him comfort. With every ounce of determination he had, Joe chomped his Juicy Fruit faster and faster. Maybe if he chewed hard enough, everything he had just discovered would go away and never come back.
            “I saw her the night she took the boat. I didn’t stop her. I thought she needed a night alone, quiet and peaceful. That was the day that you asked when your father would be coming home. It made her very upset to hear that; she had hoped that you would never have to remember him and be hurt by what he had done. The minute I heard about the crash, I couldn’t bear it. I could have saved her. I could have stopped her. But I let her go. Maybe I did not tell you because I could not admit to you what I have tried to bury away for years,” Sister Mary Ann croaked.
            Joe had taken it all in, his gum absorbing his pain. When he finally spoke, it was as though he had matured twenty years in an instant.
            “Aunt Mary Ann, I don’t like any of your reasons. But I know that you were only doing what you thought was best. The past is past now. I’m glad that we both got to be honest today, but now we have to move on.” Joe had hoped that she would agree, and they could both put the moment behind them forever. Sister Mary Ann had chuckled dryly and hugged him.
 In that moment, Joe remembered the gum in his mouth tasting suddenly like salt and disgust. So he had spit it out. And there had not been another piece since.
            Joe opened his eyes and looked at his aunt. She turned her head slowly to face him, her wrinkles smudging as she did so.
            “Eat some of the gum, Joe. Please.”
            Reluctantly, he stuffed a piece in his mouth and chewed. Still that salty, grimy flavor, always followed by the pang of sorrow. Sister Mary Ann reached for his hand and dropped something into it.
The ruby red bracelet. Joe’s mind flashed back to when he saw his mother, when she had kissed him one last goodnight and dropped a present into his hands. When he had awakened the next morning, his mother was gone. But the present wasn’t. Pressed into his palm had been his first ever package of Juicy Fruit gum. He had chewed it nonstop since his mother died. It reminded him of her. But not anymore.
Joe fingered the bracelet, memories flooding inside of him, washing out all of his feelings. Unconsciously, he stuffed another stick of Juicy Fruit into his mouth. He gasped.
The salt was gone.


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