Runner Up: Madeline Mora-Summonte
Madeline Mora-Summonte has written poetry, personal essays and book reviews, but her first love is fiction in all its forms, from flash to novels. Her work has appeared in over 20 publications, including Highlights for Children, Storyhouse, and Every Day Fiction. Her story, “The Empty Nest,” is included in W. W. Norton’s Hint Fiction anthology, available November 2010.
Madeline lives in Florida with her husband/best friend and their tortoises. The little hard-shelled muses are the inspiration for, and the real stars of, her blog, The Shellshank Redemption, where she talks about all things books, reading, and writing.
Visit her website at: www.MadelineMora-Summonte.com
The People We Used to Be
Mama’s smile lights up the dark street like the nightlight we kept in my room. When I had a room. It kept the monsters away, the ones under the bed and in the closet. When I had a bed, a closet, when I thought that was where monsters lived. But they roam the sidewalks and lurk in doorways. They whisper to Mama, words so dirty I wonder if their mouths taste black. They lick their lips at me, their tongues wet and pink and probing, as if they can already taste me.
In the alley, Mama and I cocoon together between the dumpster and the wall, back behind Dom’s Italian Bakery. Tomorrow, Louise will come. She is bumpy and doughy like the fresh rolls she sneaks us. After she hands Mama a hot cup of coffee, she will put a finger to her lips and we will nod in silent conspiracy. The owner doesn’t mind if we eat what’s tossed into the dumpster, but he won’t waste fresh food on us.
The night’s damp clings to us like the silk of a spider’s web. I curl into Mama’s worn down body, searching it for a remembered softness, desperate for a long ago warmth. She wraps her arms around me. Her stomach groans with hunger. Mine moans in response. I decide to dream of Mama’s pancakes—heart-shaped, dotted with chocolate chip eyes, a nose, a smile.
In the morning, we pretend we’re not waiting for Louise. When she doesn’t come, Mama only smiles, shrugs. She rarely speaks anymore. The endless concrete beneath our feet, our bodies, crushed her words, except for the few she saved, the ones she slips me now and then—“sweet girl” and “I love you” and “it’ll be okay.”
We walk a few blocks to the park, where we use the ladies’ room, then wash ourselves at the sink. Our usual bench is free. We sit in the warm sun and watch the children, the mothers, the people we used to be.
A shadow falls across my face. Louise carries a cardboard holder with coffee and breakfast from the fast food place around the corner. The smell of bread and meat and potato thrills me into a shiver of delight.
Mama puts a hand on my shoulder as if to still me. She looks at Louise, waits.
Louise clears her throat. “I got let go yesterday. That’s why I wasn’t there this morning.” She holds up the food, the coffee. “It’s not as good, but it’s hot.”
Mama slides over and pulls me with her, making room on the bench. Louise settles down with a tired sigh, then takes a coffee. Mama gives me the food first, then serves herself. I want to devour the sandwich, to lick the wrapper, but I don’t. I make sure to eat politely, the way Mama taught me. We have company, after all.
“Bakery’s closing down. Been in business as far back as Dom’s great great grandfather and now? Poof. Gone.” Louise shakes her head. Her gray hair looks clean and soft as it moves against her cheek. My fingers want to touch that hair, that cheek, to see if it’s like Mama’s used to be, like mine used to be. I trace my fingers through the grease glistening on the empty wrapper instead.
“Don’t suppose it matters it wasn’t my fault they let me go. Nobody’s gonna want me anyway. Who wants to hire an old woman, right?” Louise keeps her gaze on the children playing. Her words are a whispered prayer to whoever draws the line between her and us. “What do I do now?”
Mama sighs, but then both women fall silent. The food is gone, but they still sit and sip their cooled coffee. I lean my head on Mama’s arm and watch Louise. The hand bringing the cup to her lips trembles; the other curls helplessly on her leg. I slip my grease-stained hand into hers and wonder who will bring her coffee.