First Place 2021 Short Fiction Winner Alex Stephenson's "The Kayak"

Updated: Aug 25

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Our local 2021-2022 Writers' group met at AfterWords Tavern and Shelves in rain, sleet, or hail, masked and unmasked; they came to write and talk about our best story ideas. Thanks to this group who juried this 2020-2022 C-Note Contest, celebrates-100 years of short fiction! And you delivered! You sent work celebrating the styles and genres of great classics in short fiction. Our jurors picked this first place winner because of its true-to-life gold and grit. Congratulations, Alex Stephenson.

***



 
The Kayak

A perfect day to glide down the river. He could picture it. The kayak was big enough to hold the three of them. Jack was nine. Chloe was seven. Envisioning his son perched at the bow, he figured Chloe could nestle into the nook in the midsection. It would be fine. He wanted something to rest his discomfort. To bring the sleep that wouldn’t come. They needed this day. The sun would create ribbons of gold along the water’s surface. Morris pictured his children grinning. The echoes of laughter. Maybe they’d see a heron. Perfect, he thought.

The breeze feathered his cheeks as Morris strapped the kayak on top of the station wagon. The family car. Fitting six people inside wouldn’t be an issue, especially if someone plunked themselves down in the back. Only the three of them today, though. Cranking down the ratchet strap and giving the stern a half-hearted tug, it gave him no fight. Chloe plucked dandelions amongst the other weeds. Creating a small yellow smudge as she pressed them into her palm. She cared as much about the mild alteration in her pigment than of her father’s enthusiasm, which grew as he paced unnecessarily around the vehicle.

“Get in, C, I wanna make it down to the river before lunch. Where’s your brother?”

Chloe breathed out like a valve had been released and pointed to the door. Jack stood. His brow creased with a football in his arms. He stared leerily at the station wagon, opening the storm door.

“I’m not going,” he said firmly.

“It’s not up for a discussion. Get in the car.” Morris paused. “It’ll be fun, bud. You love kayaking.”

“Kayaking?!” Chloe, now in the backseat, exclaimed. As if her father’s actions moments earlier hadn’t registered. Morris glanced briefly towards her before placing his eyes back on Jack.

“We’re going to have a good day, Jacky. Ok? Get in the car.”

Jack threw the football inside the house before closing the front door swiftly. Looking toward his father, he sat down on the front steps. Dropping his forehead in between his shoulders as if it had just been filled with cement. Chloe rubbed her hands together. She stared at the dull yellow sheen lingering on her palms. She smiled. Nothing existed beyond the backseat. Morris shuffled to his right and positioned himself a body’s width in front of Jack, tilting towards him.

“Get. In. The car. Now. Do you understand me? Don’t ruin this day. Don’t do it. We’re not staying inside today. We aren’t…. Ok.”Gradually loosening his tone, Morris put a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “C’mon buddy. Let’s go.”

“Fine,” Jack said quickly. Without raising his head, Jack relented. Rising to his feet, he found his place in the back of the station wagon next to his sister.

***

Six years had passed since the divorce. The two children’s memory of their mother was scarce. She’d never been ubiquitous but assisted enough as a caregiver to uphold her title. That lasted three years. And then she was gone. Neither Jack nor Chloe anchored her from moving west. They never saw her pack the trunk or her car. They didn’t see her drive away. And they rarely heard from her since. The departure also took with it an adversary. Voices had poured into each other, and the ire seeped gradually into each day. Without the daily disputes, Morris felt relieved. But the calm did not place a canvass around the sadness. That trickled out and occasionally deluged the home. The children didn’t understand why their father would sit in silence. Or why he’d aim his rage at them as they grew in size and became bolder with him. Loving on them in the larger gaps of time made life seem easier. It came naturally.

In turn, they loved Morris back as he raised them alone, but the atolls of grief were arduous. A man of average height and weight. With large eyes and shortly kept hair, departing slower than his wife had. His sadness lingered through his own childhood, growing accustomed to it as he grew older. Though any additional sorrow caused his condition to spill onto others. His moods were large and frantic. He lived with them. And those around him, for long enough, absorbed their burdens.

Three weeks had passed since another separation. A second marriage stained with familiar difficulties. Morris hadn’t taken to either misfortune well. Cheryl had met him three years earlier. They lived together within the year, marrying the next. With her came a teenage daughter. There was a goodness in her that diffused into Morris and brought him calm. A feeling that felt like a ghost in his first marriage.

Cheryl was kind to him. Loved him. Easing him, even when his mood sputtered. His disposition had propelled a surplus of discontent: unfastening Cheryl's composure. Nurturing Morris's anguish proved more painful than eluding it. The union was strong but pendular, eventually fracturing under the weight of his troubles. Mother and daughter packed up and left while Morris was at work. And he hadn't heard from her since.

The restless nights had pried sleep from him. No night had spared fatigue’s grip since she’d left. The children had taken it hard too. Especially Jack.

***

The drive was going better than he thought. A good day to be sure. Getting closer to what he imagined. Morris decided to indulge the children with pizza first, delivering the news to the rearview mirror.

Chloe erupted gleefully.

Jack introduced a smile. It faded just as fast.

“Hey, Dad,” Chloe called out.

“Yeah, C?” asked Morris.

“I love you!” Chloe flashed a gap tooth grin. Her tendency for extra love came naturally when Jack stewed.

“Love you too, C. Love you, Jacky.”

“Love you, Dad,” Jack said bleakly, staring out the window.

The words were enough for Morris. Content with the exchange, he drove to Tony’s and pulled into the parking lot for lunch.

The plan was to kayak first. But he figured this would work just as well. They were hungry anyway. That and Jack’s mood had improved. A cruise down the river in favorable spirits seemed important. Morris looked at the two of them, laughing as they played with their straws, confirming the decision’s merit. He figured this was a good time to bring up Cheryl.

“I know this has been a hard few weeks. And I know Cheryl was like a mother to you.” He paused. Wishing for different words. Less careless. He worried it may fester, trudging ahead through the statement.

“Anyway, it’s hard. She loved you. But we’re gonna be ok. It’s just us again. Okay.”

Fidgeting in their seats, Jack nodded. Chloe pressed her elbows onto the table and embraced the sides of her head. Judging his decision poorly, Morris steered the conversation like a getaway car squealing from the scene.

“Beautiful though today, right? Holy shit.”

Both kids laughed. They enjoyed when their father cursed as long as it wasn’t hurled their way in one of his fits.

“Stop, Dad!” Chloe said, drawing back the volume in her voice. Disingenuously coaxing him to heed the foul words.

Equally amused, Morris eased back into his seat as the waitress set the pizza down on the table. They didn’t wait long to devour it. Filling their bellies, they ignored any warning of the steam that hovered lazily above the pie. They’d continue to chase the day, Morris thought. Things hadn’t been perfect, but close. And the river waited.

***

Chloe’s disposition swayed when Cheryl left. Letting her emotions unravel only seemed appropriate when her father was present. The tears gathered in a herd, only bursting through a porous door when Morris inquired how she was holding up. He’d hold her tight and make assurances that neither knew were true. The gentle surroundings of her room provided egress from any of the grief she’d let her father be an audience for. She’d spend days inside to slow the trickle of any ill feelings that consumed her, saving those for her father. Or instigating reactions from Jack to help the hours go by. He proved a worthy muse. And her father’s embrace rewarded the retaliation her brother would inflict.

Jack didn’t resent this routine, and he adored his father–after their battles mostly. They shared the same aversion to calm; cursed with melancholic blood, anxiety covered him like moss. Jack loved his sister too, Morris supposed. They’d been allies by default, but still allies. Perched out of range, Chloe would watch her brother draw Morris closer to madness– each word piercing his father’s resolve not to unleash discipline.

He’d never struck Jack. But he’d scare him. Pressing his face against his son’s, his eyes wily and disturbed. His frame shaking with anger, and Jack’s smaller body relenting on cue. Chloe would sometimes scream for it to end. And it would end. Quickly. Usually, within the hour, a football would fly in the front yard. Jack’s tears replaced by fantasies of touchdowns in the final seconds. Morris flinging the game-winning passes.

Cheryl had induced the cherub in Jack. They would sit for hours, sometimes with Morris's father in tow. But often, just the two of them. Jack giving her an inventory of his feelings. His interests. Cheryl listened intently, absorbing each detail. Releasing him from his discomfort became a riskless endeavor. A taut heart eased when Jack sought Cheryl’s company. He knew she’d always grant it. Now she was gone, and Jack pretended he didn’t care.

***

"We're here."

Morris had forgotten how long the drive was. Scanning the time on the dash, it had taken no more than an hour. He found a spot near the hiking path and backed the station wagon in.

This is what they had come for. Yeah, the drive had tested his children’s patience, but they’d find their appreciation on the water. This was what they all needed. Placing the car in park, Morris drew a breath of relief.

Jack and Chloe rambled out. They leaned against the car, watching Morris loosen the kayak from the wagon’s roof. Gently laying it on the ground, he opened the trunk, grabbed two paddles, and placed them neatly next to the kayak. He located three life preservers, draping them around his arm and shutting the door.

“Come here, guys,” he said, handing the oversized vests over.

Grimacing, Heat, and dust already covered them. Chloe placed her arms through and fastened the straps. Jack did the same, although less disgusted. Restricting and cumbersome, Jack and Chloe exchanged glances in between, watching their father fit himself into his. They smiled, and Jack rolled his eyes. Morris placed his car keys in a plastic bag, stuffing them into his pocket.




“Ok,” he hesitated briefly. Pondering if this really was what he’d been waiting for. “We’re ready. You guys ready?”

“Sure,” Jack said, grabbing a paddle in stride and heading towards the mouth of the trail. Chloe followed, disappearing with her brother at the path’s entry.

Morris could hear their laughter as he propped the kayak on his shoulder and hurried after them.

The trail serpentined downward through lush vegetation. Branches of river birch and poplar shading the surface. Jack led the way, trampling atop a dampened soil, still saturated from a downpour days earlier. Before long, they reached a small rectangle of dock at the foot of the trail, the river’s murky water greeting them. Limping along, the water’s speed hadn’t caused Morris concern though its level was higher than expected. He stared at it warily. It would be fine. Just deep. That’s all. This is what they had come for.

Interrupting the water’s rest, Morris lowered the kayak. Inducing small sonar-like ripples where the vessel struck the surface. He held it against the dock and motioned for Chloe first. She wavered but walked over, resigning herself to the center of the structure. Jack was next. Sitting down with more exuberance than his father had seen throughout the day. Jack grabbed the paddle without asking, turning his head and plotting the route ahead of them. Morris carefully settled into the stern. This was why they had come.

Moving against a sapless current to ensure an easier return, Morris cut the blades of the oar into the dark waters. Jack rested his paddle on his lap. Occasionally he made his own attempts. Though less graceful. The accelerant of spray hitting his sister, a flinch of discomfort for each splash.

“Stop it, Jack!” Chloe screamed.

“Shut up!” Morris yelled behind him while keeping his eyes on the water.

“Hey!” Morris said sternly. “Both of you. Stop it. We’re having a good time. Don’t ruin it.”

Neither said any word that could be heard. Inaudible mutters came from Jack’s direction. Jack set the paddle down on his lap. They hadn’t seen a heron. They wouldn’t.

Their pace steadied, and the dock disappeared from their view. Each move closer to the center of the river made its capacity feel wider.

Morris tired, placed his oar on his lap as well. Chloe’s tiny hands took hold of the sides of the kayak as if they needed a combination to become unlocked. At the murk’s surface, a snapping turtle’s head emerged and disappeared below. Chloe gasped and tightened, even more, causing them all to teeter.

“What are you doing!?” Jack turned his head.

“It was only a turtle, C,” Morris said calmly. “Nothing to worry about. Relax… We’re good.”

Jack laughed and splashed his sister.

“Stop it, Jack! I mean it.” Chloe's arms remained frozen, her back coiled.

“There’s sharks in here too, Chloe. Big ones,” Jack claimed.

Chloe’s eyes filled, and her cheeks flushed pink. Priming her weep with a whimper.

“I’m dead serious, Jack. Leave your sister alone.”

“I want to go back, Dad,” Chloe cried. “Please.”

“You’re such a baby,” Jack splashed her again.

“That’s it. Give that to me. Now!” Morris reached for the paddle, but Jack pulled away. The kayak shifted more aggressively. Morris reached over Chloe again. Leaning forward and grabbed Jack’s life preserver.

“Get off me, Dad. Let go!”

“Give it to me.”

Chloe’s cry increased in intensity.

Jack placed both hands on the inside of the paddle and launched it in the air. Hanging for a moment, the plastic struck the water’s surface, disturbing the surface tranquility. Loitering momentarily, its buoyancy gave way to poor endurance, it vanished below.

Morris released Jack’s life preserver and sat back. His posture and tone like a judge ready to hand down a sentence.

“You’re in big trouble. I hope you know that. When we get home, you can forget about any of your things for a while. I’m tired of this shit.”

Neither child smiled or laughed.

“Do you understand me, Jack?” Morris’s voice rose to a familiar tone.

Jack said nothing.

“Do you??” his voice rising another octave. “I’m tired of th-“

“Fuck you, Dad.”

The space between the words coming out of Jack’s mouth and Morris falling into the water seemed minuscule. They may as well have occurred in unison. But moments after Jack’s voice struck its final syllable, his father had risen and lurched forward. The river’s balance was unkind, jerking Morris to his right and pulling him underwater. The kayak shook violently as both children clenched what they could off the deck. Their eyes wide with fear. Morris's vest prevented a deeper plunge, propping his head and shoulders above the surface.

Screams of concern met Morris' ears as he bobbed next to the kayak. Voices rising as if he had disappeared.

“I’m ok. I’m ok…… It’s ok,” Morris reassured them. “Calm down. I’m alright. I’m here,” Morris held on to the portion of the deck between his children, persuading their solace.

“Get back in, Dad. Please,” Chloe pleaded with her father. Jack’s face contracted, turning his stare away from Morris.

“I can’t, C. I’ll pull you guys right in with me,” He said, the cold water inducing an uncomfortable grin. He surveyed the river, noting the sun wouldn’t cooperate for too much longer.

Morris shimmied towards the stern and wrapped the bungee around his wrist, tightening the handle in his palm.

“You okay, Jacky? I’m swimming us in.”

Jack looked at his father. Contorting his expression as he turned his head again. Morris reached his free hand towards Jack’s arm, giving it a gentle squeeze. Twisting his body, he began to move through the water. The river felt like honey. The journey’s last miserable leg was met with silence as an orange horizon hinted at the evening’s imminence. Eventually, the dock mercifully appeared. Once within reach, Morris snatched it and pulled himself up. He swung the kayak closer, planting it against the wood.

Chloe climbed awkwardly at her father, wrapping herself around the drench of his life vest. Jack’s approach varied, leaping from his seat and running urgently into the brush.

“Stay here, C,” he said, guiding Chloe towards a seat on the dock. Abiding her father’s request, she sat motionless as Morris disappeared in search of his son.

Evaporating from his daughter’s view, Morris untangled himself amidst a thick portion of vegetation. He ran through a small section of woods, stepping on ferns and shrubs before finding himself on an untouched strip of shore. Jack’s bottom had found a muddy patch. Sitting upright, tears ran down his face like they were racing to his neck. Morris sat down next to him, covered with a coat of foul river water.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” Jack sobbed as he buried his face in his father’s chest. “It’s my fault. I’m sorry. Please. I didn’t- I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” the stutter of his gasps interrupted his pleas. “It’s my fault.”

Morris embraced him and paused. “No, Jacky,” Morris said as rubbed his son’s hair. “It isn’t. Not one bit.” The river’s current stirred beside them. Undeterred.

The pair rose to their feet and found their way to Chloe, who hadn’t moved. Dusk arrived as they gazed downstream. The kayak drifted into the distance. A souvenir for the river to keep.

***

Driving home, the darkness brought sleep for both children. Morris pulled into the driveway, still damp. Jostling Jack and Chloe’s legs before exiting the station wagon, he broke them from their doze. He opened the front door as they drifted inside, stumbling up the stairs to their rooms. Morris didn’t bother to have them change into pajamas or tend to their nightly routine. Chloe slept before her father could cover her with a blanket. Jack’s room borrowed light from the foyer. His eyes heavy like garage doors, barely managing to keep them propped open when his father entered the room. Morris said nothing; neatly tightening the comforter around his shoulders. He leaned forward and hugged his son goodnight. Like he did every night.

Withdrawing to his bedroom, Morris relieved himself of his clothes. Still undried and odorous, he placed them in a pile in his closet. He showered. And brushed his teeth before putting on a t-shirt and some sweatpants. Laying himself supine on the covers of his bed, he stared blankly at the ceiling. It wasn’t too long before he fell to sleep.


 


A film school dropout, Alex Stephenson has since chosen a far less stressful path working as a firefighter/paramedic since 2007. You can read his published in the Bangalore Review. A father of two, he currently resides in Fredericksburg, VA.

Follow him on IG: @a_stephenson1010



 

Guest Juror: thanks to our 2021-2022 Writers group who met at AfterWords Tavern and Shelves and Sara Kaminski, who juried this 2020-2021 Short Fiction Contest. The C-Note Contest was about celebrating 100 years of short fiction!


Sarah Kaminski teaches high school math, but her real joy is to tell corny jokes to her students to make them cringe. Sarah’s short fiction has been published in several Of Words anthologies, as well as Running Wild Anthology and At Death's Door. Her contemporary YA novels and short fiction fiercely tackle the gamut of tough issues that affect real teenagers. You can find her in Kansas City with her two boys and her husband, where she’s often crocheting, singing aloud to music, or snuggling with her dog, Loki.

 

Upcoming Anthologies: New contests open September 2022


  • Tales from the Deep, Short Fiction illustrated by Alex Eickhoff, Holloween 2022

  • Night Forest, Folk Poetry and Story featuring poets Gary Baumier and Katharyn Howd Machan and artist Elke Trittle, Winter 2022

  • Sprouts Meditations: Artists, Poets & Writers, Feb 2023

  • Universe in a Bottle: Tales from Time, Space & Robot Dogs Winter 2023


 

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