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First place entry of the 2022 GT SWC, with a score of 89/90. The prompt was "Past, Present and Future" and I went with an intimate story set in the present with memories of the past, and a glimpse into the future. Click links above to navigate post!
THE WORDS HE NEVER SAID
"A sixty-three? What the hell, Dylan?!"
The boy hung his head, mumbling something softly.
"You promised you'd study with me."
Ben sighed. "I did, but- that's no excuse, you could have studied by yourself- I- something came up, I couldn't." He pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. "This- this is ridiculous. We raised you to take your education more seriously-"
"You also raised me to keep promises." Dylan interjected sullenly.
Ben regarded his son incredulously. He knew he was getting to that age where they start talking back, but he was really not having this. Not today. "What has gotten into you lately? Nevermind, I don't want to hear it. Just go to y-" But before he finished his sentence, the boy had already taken off, retreating into his room with a loud slam of the door.
"Dylan!" He bellowed. Footsteps approached, but it wasn't his son. His wife stood in the kitchen doorway with two bags of groceries, frowning. "What is going on?"
"Did you hear about his math test?" He asked, standing up to help her with the bags.
He scoffed at her apparent nonchalance. "And?"
"And I told him it wasn't ideal, and he said he'll work harder. And that was that." She said simply. They finished putting away the groceries together quickly, and Tanya sat down next to him at the table, putting a hand on his back. "It's one test. And yeah, he should have studied himself, but... I think you've made your point. Let it go. Have a Jubilee." She opened a brand-new box of his favourite chocolate bars and waved one in his face. He sighed, wordlessly accepting the snack as she smirked. She studied him briefly as he bit into it, softening her tone. "This isn't really about the test, is it?"
"It is." He responded sharply. "What else would it be?"
Tanya stayed silent. Minutes passed before either of them said anything. He finished his Jubilee and crumpled up the wrapper in his pocket. Finally, she spoke up again.
"Just- take some time to cool off. You better get going if you want to make it back for dinner, anyway. When do you think that'll be?"
"I don't know. Probably won't be too long. I'll be back to eat with you guys, usual time."
"Okay. You sure you want to go alone?"
"Yeah. It's fine. We'll talk more about that later." Ben exhaled, gesturing to Dylan's closed door before pulling on his coat. "Sixty-three." He muttered as he left, shaking his head.
It was still light out as he got in his car, but the sun set swiftly enough as he drove down the highway. It had been a tough week, and the kid's attitude was just kind of the last straw. The drive was long enough for him to clear his head, though, and he set the argument aside as he pulled up to his destination and exited the vehicle. Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the creaky gate. Unlatched, as always.
The house was a lot smaller than he remembered. That wasn't too surprising - he hadn't been here in nearly 15 years, after all. But aside from that, most things were still as he recalled; there was the small, unkempt yard, the yellowing vinyl siding, the narrow porch... it's a remarkably unremarkable house. They weren't a wealthy family by any means.
As he stepped out of the cold, he looked around at the memories that formed his childhood and felt... nothing, really. No tears fell from his eyes, nor did he feel any kind of warm nostalgia as he stood alone in the house where he grew up.
That made him sad. Sadder than the passing of his father.
But he came here today, as his dad's only remaining family, for a specific task - he wasn't here to reminisce anyway. In a lot of ways, the property cleanout was probably going to be easier because he wasn't really grieving. He still didn't want to be here longer than he needed to, so he got to work.
Stepping into the closest room to the entryway, he wrinkled his nose in disgust as the familiar odor intensified. Guess he still smoked. He could smell it faintly when he first came into the house but thought it might just have seeped into the walls over the years. He always hated it. Even if he didn't have asthma, the smell was nauseating enough, and his father never cared to step outside to do it, despite his many complaints and pleas. But the stench was particularly concentrated in the living room. The man always liked smoking here specifically, in his armchair. Old habits die hard.
He did remember a brief period of respite from it; it was the time the second-hand smoke triggered his worst asthma attack ever, and it still was the worst one he'd had to this date. It was probably the most scared he had ever been in his childhood, and the most scared he had ever seen his father. Although he never actually apologized for it, Ben could tell how remorseful he was. Still would have been nice to hear it. Instead, he just made him the promise he would stop smoking inside. A promise he didn't keep for very long.
He pulled the neckline of his shirt over his nose as he started going through the books on the shelf, but as the minutes passed and his senses had habituated to the odor, he let it fall back in place. None of the books really stood out to him, and they were the first to go into his charity box; he assumed most things will be.
The coffee table was next; it had a small drawer in the center for storage, but it was mostly garbage. Literal garbage - lots of wrappers, empty lighters and boxes of cigarettes. The only thing of note he found was a shoebox of cards. He sat down in the armchair and pulled out a few of them. Dear Dad,
Have the best birthday ever!
2004 Dear Benjamin,
The day is all yours — have fun!
2003 Dear Dad,
I hope your celebration gives you many happy memories!
2002 And so on. He didn't have to read them; he knew there was nothing personal written in these cards. Aside from addressing each other and signing the bottom, it was always just the stock message the card came with, and nothing more. Writing anything else felt kind of awkward. Even the 'Love, Ben' part, and it wasn't that they didn't love each other at the time, they just said it so rarely that the only time they'd ever expressed it to one another were in these annual birthday and Christmas cards. It felt foreign.
It was just a box of worthless paper now, but he couldn't bring himself to get rid of it, so into the 'Keep' pile it went.
Before he finished up in the living room, something else caught his attention; on the little side table next to his dad's armchair sat a lumpy yellow ashtray.
A faint, amused smile tugged at the corner of his lips as he picked up the ugly thing he'd made in... grade four, was it? His finger traced the rough 'DAD' carving at the bottom of the tray. In hindsight, that wasn't the best place for an engraving as ash clung to the crevices of each letter. But what did he know? He was nine. He probably just needed an ashtray. He thought to himself, but a part of him wanted to believe his dad kept this ugly and inconvenient-to-clean ashtray for a more sentimental reason, despite how they'd left things off. He wasn't really sure why he wanted to keep it, but he dusted it out as best as he could and put it on top of the cards box before moving on.
Instinctively skipping the third step, he made his way upstairs - the tread had been broken since he was little, and they both just kind of learned to live with it. He learned that the hard way when he was seven.
Come on, quit your whining. His dad had told him gruffly as he pulled him up by his arm, damn near yanking it out of its socket. 'Whining' was putting it lightly - he was screaming, but at the point his dad came to get him, it wasn't about him falling face-first on the stairs anymore. He remembered the pain from his arm was so intense, he'd almost forgotten he had tripped.
Still, it was a moment of tenderness that followed, when he gently put Polysporin on him and patched up the scrape above his eye.
His old man tried, and he'll always cherish that.
He took a deep breath as he opened his dad's bedroom door. Not much had changed, which made sense; he wasn't really a 'rearrange the décor' kind of guy, so the bed, TV and dresser were exactly where he remembered them, and exactly the same models he'd had back then, too.
The TV was straight out of the 2000s, and even then it was a dated model. Ben almost tripped over the plastic milk crate that was sitting in front of the TV stand; it was just in the middle of the floor, so it must have typically been stored away elsewhere. Peering in, it looked like it was holding a few DVDs.
He bent down over the crate and inspected the discs gingerly, lest he find something unsavoury he didn't want to imagine his father watching, but they all appeared to be fairly innocuous. The labels all read things like 2003 Sports Day, 2004 Summer, 2000 Fair... home videos. Or school, rather. Ben knew his dad never took his own videos, but his classmate Polly's mother routinely did the most by filming every school event and handing out copies of it to other parents.
The position of the crate in the room made it pretty clear, but he wanted to confirm. He hit 'eject' on the DVD player, and sure enough, the disc that slid out read 2002 Halloween Party.
Was this what he spent his final days here doing? Ben pondered. Regardless, these are all his memories, and he was taking them back. His family might get a kick out of seeing him in his cheap Batman costume. He grabbed the CD case resting on the DVD player and popped the Halloween disc in before throwing the pastic container in with the others and bringing the crate out to set by the stairs.
The rest of his dad's room was just clothing for the donation bin, and he got through that pretty quickly since the man had evidently only cycled through a few outfits in the last decade and a half.
As he moved on to his own bedroom, though, a somewhat puzzling scene greeted him. Miniature figurines, all over his desk, and some on the floor. Carefully painted figurines. Some he recognized as his work; he must not have taken it all when he left. But a lot of them were not.
He flicked on the little lamp, remembering all the nights he'd spent hunched over this desk, painting away; he never put them all over the floor like this, though, not since-
Son of a bitch! His dad had yelled that one time, when he'd stepped on some of the figures Ben had laid out. He'd yelled back about him ruining his work and it became a bit of an ugly screaming match, but when the tears started falling, his father backed off a bit.
Shouldn't- shouldn't have put the damn things all over the floor, he'd tried to reason a bit more softly, but Ben wasn't having it; he'd broken the heads off two of the figures he had worked so hard on. He was so mad at his dad, he didn't speak to him for two days.
He remembered fuming as he waited for an apology or something all of those two days, but it never came. Not in the form of words at least, but he took the brand-new set of figures and paint his dad had purchased him as his version of a 'sorry'. He didn't mind so much that time; the extra set really bolstered the army he had been building, and it turned out looking really awesome.
He even got his dad to work on it with him. He wasn't any good at it, and Ben just ended up sticking the soldiers his old man worked on in the back of the army to hide the flaws. But it was the first and only set they painted together, and he really appreciated the time they spent on it.
So it was all the more puzzling now, that it seemed he had been working on the sets he'd left behind, and even purchased some new ones. He recognized some of the sets as ones he had asked for for Christmas or his birthday. Some were wrapped like presents with the same hollow cards like the ones he found in that shoebox attached to them, signed and dated from various years after he'd left. But quite a few of them were just opened and were actively being worked on, it seemed.
He put a lot of work into this. This hobby he'd never enjoyed.
It kind of made Ben angry.
If he cared enough to do all this, if he'd felt some kind of regret, how come he couldn't pick up the phone all these years, to apologize for being a shit father, or ask for a damn address to put on one of these packages, or to say anything?
He had to get out of this room. Maybe he'll come back later. Maybe. He briskly walked back downstairs, almost tripping over that third step from the bottom.
In the kitchen, he allowed the mind-numbing task of wrapping up and loading the nondescript ceramic mugs and plates in the donation box to calm himself down. Might clean out some of the food, too. He thought to himself. His dad was always an instant-meals kind of guy; heating up soup or making Kraft Dinner was really all he was capable of, so unless he picked up cooking in the last decade and a half, Ben likely didn't have to worry too much about rotting food or anything too gross.
He made swift work of the fridge. Not a lot of fresh produce, as he'd guessed. He turned his attention to the pantry next, and yup, cans, cans, instant noodles... these could all be given to a food drive. The box of Jubilees had him raise an eyebrow since his dad never ate these, but he checked the packaging date on it and it appeared to have been somewhat recently purchased. He shrugged, adding the box to his 'Keep' stash. No sense letting good Jubilees go to waste. He thought with a small smile.
But the smile disappeared all too quickly and his heart sank as he got to the back of the pantry shelf. Slowly, he reached in and pulled out the unlabeled silver tin. The rainy-day tin. Still here.
As a kid, he'd never understood why this was here. Or, more precisely, why they weren't using that money. The tin was always buried behind all the food, and he remembered all the times he caught a glimpse of it, silently resenting how they had some money, but was constantly denied new figure sets or clothes. But it was always impressed upon him the importance of keeping this tin here, and he always listened and left the money alone.
Until the day he didn't.
He couldn't have known that day that the forty-two dollars he took from this tin cost them their relationship. Not solely that, of course, but it all added up.
His hand instinctively moved up to his cheek as he recalled the day he left, even though the red mark that had been left then was long gone.
He remembered the shock he felt, and how it was mirrored in his father's eyes. It was the first and last time he had ever struck him.
He didn't wait for an apology that time. He wasn't given the luxury of explaining himself, explaining what he was taking the money for, explaining that he intended to replace it when he got paid, or that it was only forty-two dollars. So he didn't give him the luxury of apologizing either, if he ever intended to.
He remembered how he slammed the door shut that day, coming back only to hastily stuff a few of his belongings into a duffle bag that very the night. Then he ran.
And as he had come to expect, the apology never came. Not in the form of a call, or a text, or a god damn email. He knew he wasn't fully in the right either, but it didn't have to escalate like that. And maybe if one of them had made that first step, things would have been different.
Maybe they could have talked.
But they both stubbornly clung to their pride when the relationship was still salvageable.
And now it wasn't.
Who was right? Who was wrong? What difference does it make anymore?
All that remained of their relationship was fragments of memories, memories of innocuous fights that piled up and turned into resentment. Resentment that culminated into the anger that made him leave. Anger that eventually petered out over the years into nothingness. Nothingness that replaced any love they might have had for each other.
And for what?
He needed some air. It was getting late, anyway - maybe he'll finish this another day. Ben gathered up and loaded the boxes he'd packed into his car.
He entered the house feeling nothing, but cried the entire hour-and-a-half drive home.
He was exhausted as he pulled into their driveway, despite not having accomplished that much tonight. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He wasn't sure how long he sat like this, but suddenly-
"Hey!" A muffled voice came from the other side of the driver's side door, followed by a few taps on the window. His eyes flew open as he turned his head to the left. His wife stared back at him.
What are you doing? She mouthed through the glass. He sighed, opening the door. "Hey." He greeted her back, ignoring her question.
"Oh- didn't mean to startle you, I heard you pull in like, five minutes ago so I came to see what was up. Dinner's getting cold. Do you need help bringing in-" Her eyes fell on the single box in his passenger's seat where the shoebox, ashtray, CDs and box of Jubilees had been rattling around in. "Is... that everything?"
"No, I just- I'll go back another day, I think. Have a bunch of stuff in the trunk I'm gonna be donating, too - those can stay in the car for now. Come on, let's go inside." He said as he grabbed the box next to him.
The smell of Cajun chicken pasta greeted him as they entered the kitchen, and he noticed the table was set for two. "Dylan eat already?"
"Ah. He wants to eat in his room. Figured I'd let him tonight, 'cause, you know." She looked at him pointedly.
"Christ's sake." He breathed out as he set the box down in the hallway.
"Are you sure you don't want to talk about... that?" Tanya asked, gesturing to the random collection of items he'd brought home.
"What? Oh. Yeah, I'm... sure." Ben replied stiffly.
"Well, I'll be here."
"I know, hun. Thank you." He kissed her on the forehead. "I'm gonna go wash up."
He passed Dylan's door on the way to the bathroom. The door was barely cracked open, and he could hear the noises from his video game through it.
The argument from earlier felt so insignificant now. Not unlike many of the scattered memories he'd had of the fights he had with his own dad.
And yet, he couldn't help but think about what "sorry" would have meant to him. For any of their conflicts, big or small. He looked back at the box he'd set down in the hallway. He didn't want that to be their future.
He knocked on the door.
"Hey." He barely looked up from his game. The disrespect- Ben silently fumed, but he put his pride aside and resolved to make this right.
"I'm sorry I yelled at you this morning. It wasn't about the test- I mean, it was, but not entirely-"
"I know." Dylan said quickly, still not looking at him, but Ben could see a small smile forming on his face. It wasn't a smug one though, more so one of relief.
Ben watched silently as the game chirped and beeped until his son got to a checkpoint, and Dylan finally looked up at him, taking a deep breath. "I- I was just kind of looking forward to spending the time with you, is all. And I thought if I waited to study with you... it's- it's stupid, I know."
That hurt him to hear. He knew he had been distant lately; he supposed the news of his father affected him more than he thought. And he'd unknowingly let it take a toll on his own relationship with his son. "I'm sorry. And you're right, I should keep my promises. I'll always make time for you."
"It's okay, dad." He smiled a bit bigger. "I'm- sorry about the test, too. I will do better next time, I promise."
Ben grinned back, tousling his hair. "Glad to hear it."
"I'm sorry about your dad, too." Dylan continued quietly, and Ben was a little taken aback. Not unpleasantly, just surprised. He never explicitly told him what happened and didn't think it was pertinent to, seeing as Dylan had never even met his grandfather, but he supposed he was old enough to put the pieces together. The tears crept back into Ben's eyes, but he managed a 'thank you'.
"Did you... finish what you needed to do there?"
"Oh, no." Ben coughed weirdly, trying to hide a sniffle. "It was, uh, a bit... a bit- too much for me tonight. Think I'll just go back another day."
"I understand." Dylan said simply, and Ben believed him. As he turned away to collect himself, his son surprised him yet again. "Maybe... it won't be too much if I came with you next time. Help you out. I don't know. Carry some stuff."
Words escaped him and couldn't express how much that meant to him, so instead, he sat down to embrace his son.
"Don't cry, dad. It's gonna be okay." The boy's reassuring gestures were beyond his years, and Ben simultaneously felt comfort, shame, grief and pride - so much pride in his son - as they held on to each other.
When the tears stopped flowing and he'd collected himself enough, he stood up and straightened out his shirt. "Thank you, and... I'd like that a lot, actually. Your help, I mean, the next time I go back." He smiled, holding out his hand. "Will you come join us for dinner?"
I don't think I have ever given out a perfect score for the SWC. Ever. What the hell? It's interesting how with the ability to write pretty much anything, it is often the stories that are the most mundane that are the most meaningful and poignant. You masterfully captured snapshots of the regrets of two men who never really knew just how similar they were and in doing so also gave a glimpse of a brighter future for the one that remains and his own son. Developing a character in a story that well almost exclusively through their absence is a very impressive feat and I am consistently impressed by your ability to create nuanced and believable characters and hit powerful emotional highs and lows in your writing. My favourite story from an SWC with a lot of great stories.
Eeee I love this and feel this can relate to many. I like that Ben reminisces both the good and bad with his father and the fallout they had neither of them were in the right. This is kinda why for instance I wasn't into Encanto because it made you want to focus on the grandma's tragic backstory for the reason she caused such trauma for her family and feel sorry for her. Here you have the father's good and bad qualities without villainizing him. I'm so happy that Ben starts early in making up with his son and taking steps to not make the same mistake he and his father had with their relationship.
I really enjoyed this tale - one of my favourites across SWCs I've judged on (which I realise has been a few!). The prompt was very well done, and bar a formatting issue (italics tags) given the length of the story it was very clean. But the atmosphere and emotion being a mix of regret and anger throughout was the strongest point of the story to me. I was moved by the ending as well, which really tied things together. Very well done.
Gonna put what I said in the thread - I'm so glad I was able to pull off and capture the feel I was going for! I took care to choose moments and conflicts that wouldn't have villainized or flattered either characters too much even through his own biased lens, but have the tragedy be how mundane everything that led to their fallout was, and I'm happy that came through in my writing.
While this was entirely fiction, like Bay said I think that feeling is relatable for many and I did get the idea of it at least in part from my own relationship with my dad and the lack of meaningful verbal communication, so I'm glad it resonated with the judges & hopefully other readers, too.
Linking other entries from this year's SWC as they (hopefully) get posted, too!