Runner Up: Norma Bishop
Norma began writing as a passionate “journalist” for her fourth-grade newspaper with an article advocating for whooping cranes. She has written poetry ever since she can remember, and, decades later, took up non-fiction as a regular contributor for the Santa Barbara magazine Coastal Woman. But through careers in the U.S. Navy, as an attorney specializing in non-profit law, and most recently as a museum director, she never submitted her poetry or fiction for publication. With the encouragement of achieving WOW finalist status in her first contest, she wants to tell other writers who’ve held their “personal writing” close to their hearts to let go. “Share what you create. People are searching for connection, for messages of meaning. Your story may be the message that someone out there needs to hear.” She’s taking the lesson to heart and continuing to write poetry and add pages to the novel that’s sitting on top of her piano.
Claire wiped up cold grease spilled from a plate of eggs and sausage and watched him furtively. She had noticed the soft, gray sweater and squared shoulders when he sat down at the counter.
He pointed to a paper. "Mind if I look at the form here?"
"Oh, the racing form. It's not mine. I don't bet."
Claire hesitated. If she answered, he would ask more. "It's risky, like throwing money away." There, she thought, that's got rid of him. He probably plays the horses, and I'm Miss Holier-than-thou.
He smiled, "You know, everything's a risk. Even ordering an omelet."
"Well, betting's a risk I don't need."
"You need to take other risks if you want a life—deciding where to live, to work, who to marry."
Claire was starting to resent his insistence. "I know, but not unnecessary chances."
"Well, some risks are worth taking. I can spot them—horses or people. I can spot bluers. That's what they call favored horses that go out in front, stretch for it, but then hold back."
"Bluers?" Claire tested the word slowly. "Maybe," she said, "they're afraid."
"Could be. Say, my name's Jim. What's yours?"
Later, he gave her a blue-eyed wink. "See you in the morning."
Claire knew it wasn't an off-hand farewell. The wink wasn't casual flirting. After he left, she felt off balance.
Five months ago when her mother died, she had moved into her sister Joyce's apartment. The divorce had been two years before that. Then, Claire had moved into her mother's small cottage. She took the job at Ed’s Gold Cup, an easy routine, early morning, regular customers, home in time to fix her mother dinner. In the evenings, a little television to keep her mother company. Then Claire would read until she fell asleep.
She had thought less and less of her husband, less of the house she had left in Ojai, hummingbird feeders at the windows, classes to get her teaching certificate. Work, dinner, television, reading. The details of an ordinary life began to hum with a soporific resonance, a white noise drowning out regret.
Of her mother's belongings, Claire had kept only a pink-leafed episcia in a glass bowl. It existed in sealed isolation, never needing water, absorbing the indirect light of a north window. Occasionally, it produced outrageous orange-red blossoms that shocked the pale foliage.
Over the next three months, Claire and Jim moved on from breakfast chit-chat to movies, dinners, picnics on her days off. Jim was a telecommunications tech, retired from the Navy and working for a satellite betting company.
On her birthday in May, he took her to their favorite restaurant. He had an opportunity to supervise telecommunications for a hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Would she come when he got settled?
She felt dizzy. "Oh...maybe a visit would be nice."
"Not a visit, Claire."
"But...I can't think what life would be like there."
"You mean there are risks, right?" Jim asked quietly. "Claire, sometime in your life you've got to step out, not hold back. Think about it."
One week later he left. Every three or four days, she would get a postcard, no questions, just a note about his work, signed "missing you."
Her sister was impatient. "How long do you think you'll get postcards? No man will beat his head against a wall."
Six weeks later, one of Ed’s regulars teased her. "Gee, Claire, you and me have to stop meeting like this! Old dependables, that's us."
That afternoon Claire asked Ed to borrow his car. He looked surprised but handed her the keys. At the bus station, she walked up to the window. "Las Vegas, please."
"One-way or round-trip?"
Claire hesitated, stepping back. "Round-trip."
Arrangements weren't difficult. Ed could spare her for a few weeks. Joyce offered to hold a yard sale of her things and send her the money, but Claire protested. "Stop. I'll only be gone two weeks."
On Sunday, Ed drove her to the station.
She waited with a small carry-on, the delicate episcia in its fragile globe, nestled in newspapers in a large shopping bag. Fingering the two-part ticket, she turned it over. Las Vegas to Santa Maria. "Bluer," she whispered. "Blue...bluer...bluest."
"Bluer," she said out loud. A homeless man sitting on the steps stared at her.
She tore the ticket apart and handed him the return portion. "Here. Cash it in."