Short story contest winner: Normal

Normal sailboat

Normal sailboatWhat do you look for in a winning short story? Plot. Character. Voice. And perhaps most of all: nuance in brevity. But the storytelling has to hold water in the end. That’s why we were drawn to Graydon Megan’s “Normal,” which won our Ocean of Possibility Short Story Contest and is posted below. Megan lives in the Chicago area, earned an English degree in college and worked in manufacturing for most of his career. In recent years, he has had success as a freelance reporter and teacher. “Normal” is his first published work of fiction. We are delighted.

My teammate judges – associate editors Meredith Quinn and Nicki Porter – and I chose “Normal” from hundreds of submissions because of its solid storytelling and structure. Many entries for this contest had tragic endings. I suppose water inspires that. But Megan’s story left the door open for possibility – and each of us imagined her own conclusion about the narrator. “I enjoyed the opportunity to finish the story how I wanted it to end,” Meredith said. “We are never in total control of our own endings; a point the author makes painfully, tragically clear,” Nicki said.

As for me, the plaintive tones, the careful navigation of the narrator and the sadness that infused the story drew me into its world. It completes a journey even as the end is unresolved. It’s worth noting that many submissions felt more like fragments than like fully developed short stories. Perhaps that’s a topic for future articles.

In the meantime, we hope you enjoy reading Megan’s story, and that you will also read 2nd place winner “Nights Like These,” beautifully crafted by Bhargavi Lanka, and 3rd place winner “Ellyn Miranda,” chomping with voice by Jill Meyer. Each of these stories takes risks, each delivers language in fresh and compelling ways.

It’s a privilege to publish original works of fiction under our banner, and we hope it’s an inspiration to read the stories of fellow scribes.

—Alicia Anstead, Editor-in-Chief

Graydon Megan1st place
By Graydon Megan

The sea draws you – or at least it draws me.

Always has.

Before she died, Charlotte and I talked about simply sailing away. Never got past the talk, but always in the back of my mind was the realization that we had to do it before we got too old or too sick.

Too late for Charlotte, whose last stroke came before she slid too far down that Alzheimer’s slope.

I still walk the beach, feeling the pull of the ocean, then the pull of gravity as I creak on crunchy knees up the 20 steps from the beach to the cottage.

And every day I look at the little sailboat under the stairs, beached above the tide line. Like a Sunfish – easy to rig the stubby mast, easy and stable to sail.

But heavy. Made when boat makers thought the way to make fiberglass boats strong was to make them thick.

Still, I’ve got a kind of two-wheeled cart to roll the little boat down to the water. Haven’t done it in a while (months probably – surely before Charlotte died).

Hearts and minds – there’s a phrase from long ago, funny I remembered it – they don’t exactly creak like knees. But hearts can hurt, as mine does, especially climbing those stairs.

And minds forget, as mine has been doing. More and more lately. Did I eat dinner? Must have. The dishes in the rack are still dripping. Did I turn off the stove? Must have. All the burners are cool. Burned my hand pretty badly once testing that, but not tonight.

If I’m going sailing, have to go while I can still manage the boat, especially getting it down the beach, still remember the sails and all the other parts in the shed, still remember how they all go together.

Today’s the day. Up early and feeling clearheaded. Not my usual foggy start.

First my walk. One last time to feel the sea’s pull, knowing this time I’ll respond. Besides, I want everything to seem normal.

Back up the steps for some breakfast. Strength for the work ahead. Just toast and coffee, but cup and plate washed up and in the rack. Normal.

Gather the parts. Light morning breeze, no surf. Just some gentle lapping waves. I can carry the gear down to the water’s edge. First trip, the brightly striped triangular sail rolled around the two slim aluminum poles that frame its leading edge and bottom. Rudder and centerboard in another trip, stubby aluminum mast and life jacket – normal – in a third trip.

Now the cart. I get the boat pointed to the water. Hard work, but somehow I lift the back of the boat enough to scoot the cart under it with my foot. Some chest pain, but it subsides. One way or another, I’m going.

The cart is meant to be under the middle of the boat, but I can’t manage that by myself. So I take a length of rope and loop it through the bow handle and work it over my shoulder so I can partly lift, partly drag the little boat to the water. More chest pain.

I continue right into the water until the boat floats off the cart, then pull it back to beach it. Slowly, catching my breath, I carry the cart back to the steps.

I rig the boat, setting the stubby mast to the sail. Set the centerboard in its slot, hook the rudder to its mount on the back of the boat. Ready.

I push the boat into deeper water, then sit on the side and swing my legs in. Raise the sail and I’m off, slanting slowly away from the beach as the boat gathers way in the light breeze blowing off the ocean toward the land behind me. I wonder if the onshore breeze will hold, then wonder why I wonder.

I look at my watch. Always wear a watch, so wore it today. Same with a bottle of water and a hat. Normal.

Not yet ten o’clock. Plenty of time.

In the past, I’ve mostly sailed parallel to the beach. Today the slant is carrying me further offshore. I can’t decide how far. Just keep going, I guess.

I sip water and keep on sailing. I look back occasionally, surprised at how far I’ve come, how far offshore I’ve sailed. Nothing ahead but ocean. A curl of smoke from a freighter far to the north.

Sun is hot. Could probably use more water, but that wouldn’t seem…normal.

Breeze has built a little, but not enough to raise much chop. I’m sailing over ocean swells, the long rollers that would give the boat a bit of a ride if I was running back toward shore with the waves behind me.

But I’m continuing to head offshore. If the breeze holds and I stop working the boat away from shore, the wind will eventually carry me and the boat back to shore. I wonder how long it will take. I wonder about slipping over the side, or just continuing to sail away.

Wonder if anyone will be fooled. “Forgot to turn around,” one of my children might say. Or “Got confused and couldn’t figure out how to get back.”

One granddaughter won’t buy it. “Gramps still had it together,” she’ll say. “This wasn’t a mistake.”

I wonder if that truth will trouble her – or anyone else.

Suddenly it troubles me. I think I’ll miss those beach walks, even with the creaky knees. And I haven’t burned the house down, not yet.

I turn the boat toward the land. Now the wind is picking up, pushing bigger swells. Conditions like this can cause the boat to broach, flip onto its side. The boat won’t capsize or sink, but it could spill me out. Between heart and knees, I might have a hard time crawling back aboard.

I look around for the life jacket. Must have left it on the beach. Odd – not normal to forget it.