This is the final version of a short story I submitted to Glimmer Train for a contest. I should be hearing in the next month if it was accepted/rejected (it’s going to be a learning experience either way). This project has been referenced in two posts, one on genre fiction vs. literary fiction and one on meeting deadlines. The text below contains the first 1200-ish words of the 4,600-ish word story.
Gracie Grayson, age 11, recipient of the Perfect Attendance Award two years in a row, sat in the ER waiting room surrounded by people yet inescapably alone. The dull ache in the back of her head intensified in the stark hospital lighting, but she just pulled her hood close so no one would notice her.
Gracie’s father, Senior Director of Marketing and Sales at a company based on the other side of the country, sat next to his daughter. He was trying to finalize his notes for the early morning meeting he had tomorrow in L.A. and not to let the rainy New York weather outside distract him. To people who didn’t know them, Gracie and her father looked like strangers who had accidentally sat next to each other.
The registration desk, staffed by two overworked nurses, sat off to the side and right in front of the entrance. For the visitors, gray and inoffensive chairs formed three sides of a rectangle, opening to the wide hallway that ended in the double doors to the emergency room and trauma ward. That way, no one really had to look at anyone else.
Gracie sat in the back, staring at the doors, stuck in the middle of the row. She had pulled her knees to her chest, almost roasting in her winter jacket—a Christmas gift from her mother, it was stylized to look like a black dragon from one of her favorite movies. Gracie hadn’t realized how much her life would change in just three months, but the jacket had been with her the whole way. It wrapped her in warmth and her mother’s love, shielding her from the sadness and apprehension that gave a tangible weight to the air.
Auntie Kate, Gracie’s father’s sister, arrived then with three sodas from the machine around the corner. Her aunt had strode into the hospital ten minutes ago looking crisp and business-like as usual, even though she had left work hours before. She handed Gracie a grape-flavored soda. The girl tried to smile but only grimaced and looked away. Kate, who had wanted children as much as her brother had, thanked a god she barely believed in that she didn’t have children of her own to deal with. Heaving a sigh at Gracie’s apparent rudeness, Kate sat down and nudged her brother.
“What?” Gracie’s father said.
“No, she’s still in surgery as far as I can tell.” He put his phone down for a moment to loosen his tie and accept a diet soda from Kate.
“Do we know what happened?” she asked.
“Not really. The accident happened about two hours ago. Linda’s been in surgery for over an hour.”
And Gracie had sat in the chair, quietly and politely, for over an hour. It had been a huge improvement over sitting at the edge of the street or in the police car on the way to the hospital. At least here, things were relatively quiet except for the occasional siren or alarm.
Here, she didn’t have to look at her mother and nobody looked at her.
Kate leaned in close and asked in a loud whisper, “And does Gracie, well, does she know about the split?”
Her Aunt Kate had a way of speaking quietly in a manner that suggested she wanted everyone to hear her. Gracie’s father shrugged.
“I don’t know, Katie,” her father said quietly, tensely.
Gracie did know. She didn’t want to talk about it. She turned her attention away from her family and to the other families waiting in hospital. A blond, heavyset man in striped polo shirt and khakis sat awkwardly with his teenage daughter. The girl, who was all eye rolls and sighs in a graphic tee and jean shorts, only wanted to know how her mother had ended up in the hospital, to which her father had no meaningful response. In the corner, as far from the ER doors and the other visitors as they could be, sat two women. One a young, Latina woman and the other, an older version of her, sat in one corner quietly weeping and arguing.
“What will I tell my son?” the young woman said.
“Tell him someone else caused the accident,” said the old woman, “until he’s old enough to understand what his papa has done.”
“We don’t know if it was Emilio’s fault.”
“Don’t we? You said he was still indulging after work.”
“He’s just having a hard time at the office, working so late. He knows better than to come home drunk, he’s never done that. He would never subject our boy to that behavior.”
“Why? It’s not as though you would leave him if he did.”
Gracie stole a side glance at her own father. To Gracie, “drunk” meant coming home late, a lot of yelling or crying, and passing out on the couch. Her father had gotten drunk a few times before, usually after he had flown in from L.A. Her mother got drunk at least twice a week–although she cried more than she yelled.
Only a few weeks earlier, Gracie’s father had come home drunk after meeting his “boys” and putting in a few hours at the office, despite having flown in with the team from L.A. the same day. He had arrived well past Gracie’s standard bedtime, but she had crept out of her room and waited at the top of the stairs for him because he always said goodnight to her when he was in New York. When she had heard the door open and his voice bouncing off the walls below her, Gracie had almost bounded down to greet him.
Then her mother, who was still awake and watching television downstairs, restarted the argument the L.A. trip had interrupted.
“You said you would be home three hours ago,” she had said.
“What? I was out celebrating. We landed a big contract today.”
“Gracie tried to wait up for you until 11 o’clock. You promised her, before you left, that you’d be home in time to say goodnight.”
Here, Gracie had expected some word of praise or approval for having dutifully and patiently waited for her father.
“You let her stay up?” her father had said.
“I didn’t know you would come home at midnight, drunk.”
“You know what, Linda, why don’t you just go to bed? I’ll take the couch tonight.”
“Don’t be like that.”
“No, no, you’re right. I’m a bad father. Spent the last 3 months on this project but you’re right, I shouldn’t have taken just a little bit of time for myself.”
“It’s just that Gracie needs more attention from you.”
“You’re right, you’re right. Having a stay-at-home mom isn’t enough. I’ll be sure to tell my director that he needs to give me less work. It means a smaller paycheck and you might have to find a job, but if it’s that important to you that I never, ever miss Gracie’s bedtime, then I’ll accommodate your needs. Just go on up to bed.”
“Really, I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Just go, Lin. We both know how you meant it. Just go.”
When Gracie’s mom had started to come up the stairs, it took her a moment to realize Gracie had been sitting at the top the whole time. At the sight of her daughter, her face fell and the light seemed to dim in her eyes. She had shuffled Gracie quietly to bed and given her a sad smile goodnight.
The same sad smile that, only hours ago, she had been wearing moments before the big gray truck had hit her.