Reedsy — an online marketplace for authors seeking an “editor, designer or marketer who can help bring [their] book to life” — hosts a short story contest each week based on a series of writing prompts that they provide.
Writers choose a prompt from their list, craft a story between 1,000 and 3,000 words, and submit it for consideration. The winner receives $50 and their short story gets published on Reedsy’s Medium blog.
I entered a short story for consideration at the start of January, titled Imperfect, based on the following prompt:
A person coming home late from a New Year’s Eve Party stops by a McDonald’s. A person staying home for New Year’s Eve goes to McDonald’s for a late night snack.
I decided, however, so long as I had this short story written and edited — and since I’m rather fond of it — I’d publish it here for you to read for free. Enjoy.
* * *
My ass was beginning to freeze to the frigid concrete, and the rough brick exterior propping me up did nothing for my aching back. I’d finished my Thermos of coffee hours ago. I was starting to lose hope when a car pulled into the deserted lot. Two headlights, offensive to my weary senses, illuminated gusts of sparse, fluttering white. The door opened and she emerged into the night. Indistinct, at first, appearing as nothing more than a lean silhouette. But there was no mistaking the rhythmic shuffle of her feet, the sway of her long arms, and the familiar strands of faded blonde caught in the wind, clamped at the ears beneath a knitted wool cap.
She approached taking small steps, examining the building with the trepidation of someone who didn’t belong. Ten feet from the entrance, she noticed me for the first time. “Claude? What’re you doin’ here?”
I got off the ground, rubbing my hands together. For warmth, in part, but also out of desperation to ease the slow torture of arthritic knuckles, the result of numerous small bones broken and mended over the decades. “Just thought I’d pop by for a midnight snack.”
“But”—she pointed to the dim windows—“they’re closed.”
I shrugged shoulders both heavy and sore. “I figured if any place was gonna be open on New Year’s Eve, it’d be this place.” I feigned disbelief with a shake of my head, all the while rubbing my frozen hands with added fervor. “You look good, Sabrina.”
She held my stare and her nose twitched. Just a little, much like a rabbit, as it often did in moments of serious contemplation. It was a perfect nose, I’d always thought, even if she disagreed, electing in her early twenties to have it reshaped. Enhancing her chest had followed a few months thereafter, giving her breasts much too large for such a petite frame, although I’d never thought to voice an objection. Both procedures were expensive and painful but, in her words, life-changing and worth every last penny. After all, nothing had ever mattered more to me than Sabrina’s happiness, and never in my life had money been an issue.
Her pale lips melted into a thin, pressed line. A look of concern, one that I’d seen a thousand times before. “How long’ve you been out here?”
She grumbled under her breath, placing gloved hands on her sides. “Claude…”
“It’s a bit nippy tonight, isn’t it?”
“Why are you really here?”
“I should ask you the same.”
“Just, ah, stepped out for a bite. Same as you. That’s all.”
“A number four, right? With a Diet Coke?”
“Stop it, Claude.”
I counted to three before exhaling a thick cloud of exasperation. “Unless your order’s changed.”
She lowered her eyes. “No.”
I inched toward the windows, smudged from the inside with fingerprints. Some of the tables hadn’t been cleared, which came as no surprise. Staff working on the thirty-first of December had been anxious to get where they were going. “Place has changed, huh?”
Sabrina moved closer to me, placing one hand on my sore back. “Claude, stop it. I mean it. It’s just a burger joint.”
“Remember those booths with the blue backs?” I tried to imagine them, staring past the reflection in the glass, where an unfamiliar man appeared before me. Graying, and much broader than when Sabrina and I had first met. “Those beige walls, too, and the friggin’ wood paneling on everything. You remember that?”
“Yeah, of course I do.” I turned around in time to catch her line of sight, which was trained on one particular booth in the corner. “I’ve, uh, got to get going, Claude. I’ve got to get back to the party.” She studied me for a moment and her mouth began to move but, at first, nothing came out. Another twitch of her nose, then, “It was nice seeing you, all right?”
“He’s expecting you back, I take it?”
She nodded, although not without reluctance, like a small child caught with her hand in the candy dish. “Yes.”
“Does he make you happy?”
“Does he make me…” She couldn’t bring herself to complete the thought.
“Happy, Sabrina. Does he make you happy?” I tried to smile. The widest, toothiest grin I could bear, even though it must’ve looked as insincere as it felt. “Herald, is it?”
“Harry, yeah.” She cleared her throat, focusing on anything but my face. “I’m happy, Claude.”
She said happy, but something about her faint murmur left me unconvinced. “Is he, um…”
“Is he better looking than me?”
“Not this again.” She took a step back. “Please, just stop it.”
“Then what?” A fresh gust of ice-cold stung my face, intent on solidifying the small pools of moisture accumulated on both cheeks. “Is he smarter than me? Is he funnier? Is he taller? Does he have a bigger dick? What?” I was talking faster now and, before I could restrain myself, I’d reached a fever pitch, throwing both fists in the air. “He’s younger than me, too, I bet.”
“Forty years we were”—I drew in a ragged breath before pressing onward, lowering my voice—“married. That’s forty years we had together, not to mention three kids. Doesn’t that count for something, my love? Doesn’t that mean something to you?”
She, too, was in tears, soaking her round, sapphire eyes. Gentle and kind eyes, but the eyes of a woman who’d seen far too much. “D-don’t call me that.”
“I’m not your love, okay? Not anymore.” She tightened her lips once more, forming half a pout, etched at the edges with fine lines. The irrefutable evidence of maturity and the calling card of days long gone.
“You’ll always be my l-love. D-don’t ever forget that. I just, um, w-wanted to see you tonight. That’s why I c-came here.”
“Like this?” She sopped up tears with her gloves. “You wanted to see me like th-this?”
“No, ah, not like this. But I, ah, didn’t know wh-what to do. You haven’t been returnin’ my calls. You—”
“You’re not listening to me, Claude.”
“Come home, please. Tonight. Forget about that stupid party. Forget about Herald—”
“—and come home with me.”
She shook her head with increasing determination, chewing on her bottom lip. “No. It’s over. It’s official now and everything.”
“Why? Because a piece of paper says so?”
“Yes, because a piece of paper says so. That and, well, I moved on.”
“This isn’t over, Sabrina. It can’t be. Why else would you come here tonight? Just come home. Please, I’m begging you.”
“It’s not my home anymore, Claude. I’m at peace now. I told you, over and over again, for years, that this lifestyle of yours…”
“What about it?”
“I couldn’t take it anymore. I just couldn’t.”
“But forty years. More than forty years, come to think of it. This night, forty-two years ago. Right here, in this spot. That’s damn near our entire lives, Sabrina, and I never raised a hand to you, did I? Not even once. I was good to you, wasn’t I? Provided for us? For the kids? I never asked you to get involved. I told you not to ask questions. I never wanted this sorta thing for you.”
“But I did end up involved. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, that I—” But before she could get the words out, I retrieved a photograph from my jacket, dated December 31, 1976 on the back, and held it by its worn edges for her to see. “Wh-what’s this?” But she knew just what she was looking at, despite its discoloration, despite its age, mirroring the two of us. “You…kept it?” She took the photo with care, between her thumb and forefinger, beholding it with reverence. “God, we were so young then.”
I tried to imagine the photo from her perspective, pretending that I might be able to see it through her eyes. A pair of teenagers, pockmarked, pale, and rail-thin. Me, in a leather jacket, sporting a lopsided grin, and her, draped in a grease-stained uniform, sharing with me her stale order of fries. Our first date, confined within the boundaries of her fifteen-minute break, was as short as it was imperfect. Perfectly imperfect.
She peeked over my shoulder and through the window. “The booth might look a bit different”—she held up the photo for comparison—“but it’s still in the same spot.”
“Thank God, right? At least some things never change.”
She smiled, returning the photo to me. “Yeah. Thank God for that, I guess.”
“You came here because you miss me. You were drawn here. Don’t try and deny it, my love. We were both thinking of each other tonight and you somehow knew I’d be here. Besides, this location”—I thrust a thumb toward the building—“has always closed early on New Year’s Eve. We both friggin’ knew that. Just admit it. You were hoping to catch me here, right where it all started.”
Her forehead tightened and she raised her pitch, making no effort to mask her agitation. “All right, so what if I did?”
“You care about me. That’s what I’m trying to say. You’ve still got feelings for me.”
“I’ll always care about you.” She sucked in a lungful of winter’s night, almost a gasp, accompanied by an immediate shudder. “But I meant what I said. It’s over now.”
I tried to remind myself to stand tall, to brace myself for what would have to come next, what she was forcing me to do. “And there’s no changing your mind? You’re sure about that?”
Sabrina leaned in close, giving my frostbitten cheek a tender kiss. Then, placing one hand on each of my forearms, she delivered her unfortunate response. “I just had to, um, see if you’d be here, you know? Does that make sense?”
“Sort of. Sometimes we have to return to where it all began, I guess, just to figure out where we need to go next.”
“Yeah, something like that.” She started back toward her car. “Need a ride?”
“Mine’s on its way.” I waved goodbye as she fired up the engine, mouthing her the words, “I love you.”
Alone once more, I tried to concentrate on the whistling winds, the bitter cold, the few cars out on the road, and the ever-changing streetlights. Anyone—or anything—but her, but it was no use. My thoughts fast returned to the life we’d built, the imperfect creatures that we were. That’s the thing about imperfect people, I realized. They are, almost invariably, drawn to one another, those most eager to justify their own shortcomings. Together, they form imperfect unions and make imperfect decisions. And, when that union collapses, as it was destined to from the start, they’re left to arrange the broken pieces, which only seem to come together for an imperfect fit.
Just then, a set of blinding headlights greeted me. A black sedan tore into the lot, screeching to a standstill mere inches in front of me. A thumping sound paired with the rough purr of the engine, as though it were in immediate need of maintenance.
Leo cracked the window. “Boss?”
“Pop the trunk.”
He did as he was told and, inside, I found just what I’d expected—a man in his early fifties. A fit man in a tailored suit with a chiseled jawline, albeit bruised and swollen to match his left eye. He had thick hair, much too dark for his age. The smell of his cologne filled the trunk, or was that the smell of fear? Terrified, the man writhed to no avail with duct tape over his mouth, wrists, and ankles.
“Herald, I presume?”
His expression widened. “Hrrrggghh…”
“You know, Herald, it’s the damnedest thing. I’ve always figured this spot to be some kind of starting point. The beginning of something new, that kinda thing. But sometimes, it seems we have to return to where it all began if we want to figure out where to go next. You know what I mean?”
“Happy New Year, Herald. Oh, and don’t worry. I’m a professional. I’ll try and make this painless.”
* * *
Thanks for reading, and a big thanks to Sarah Burton for editing Imperfect for me on short notice. Please feel free to share your thoughts (or a short review) in the comments below. And, if you enjoyed Imperfect, please consider…
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