I'm deeply honored to have been chosen as the winner of the recent short story competition. I also would love to have some feedback on the story, especially since I've sat on it for over a year not able to tell anyone it's mine and also because I've started writing some more prose fiction recently and any writer welcomes suggestions for improvement. So if anyone had any criticism they'd like to share--both positive and negative--I'd love to hear it. I've re-pasted the story below:
She kept it in her coat pocket for years because it comforted her. It was always there, so she knew the feel of it like an extension of her own hand, but she’d half forgotten what it looked like, since she almost never took it out to see. It was always there until one very short scene in her life that took place on a bitter cold day. She could still call it to mind in its smallest detail even twenty years afterward. It seemed strange to her that she should have such a clear memory of one brief moment in her life when at the time she had not been very upset or frightened by it at all. In fact, she had been aware of being much calmer than she had always imagined she would be in such a situation, even though the man who had stepped out in front of her was very large, and even though she saw that the gloved hand was shaking as it held the trigger. She even registered the strange beauty of the way the slant light of the declining winter day gleamed off the barrel in the same way that it glistened off the ice on the leafless trees. It occurred to her to wonder if a gun would even shoot when it was below zero out like today. Maybe it wouldn’t work right in this weather and he knew that. Maybe it wasn’t even loaded but he figured just the sight of it would be enough. It was. She didn’t look up at him, not that she could have seen more than his eyes anyway in his winter layers. His voice, muffled though it was, came across as both cold and scared at the same time. She handed over her bag. She emptied her coat pockets when asked. Despite the way time seemed to have lapsed into a surreal slow motion, and despite her own calm, she knew she wanted to move away quickly and decisively. She turned her back to him and made her way as quickly as possible along the ice-covered sidewalks without looking back.
It was what she did afterward that seemed like the strangest part to her. When some guy had snatched her purse off her shoulder the year before she had reported it to the police, and when she had gotten those strange phone calls from the heavy breather in the middle of the night she had also reported that and changed her number. She never walked alone at night. She usually played it safe. But now, after she’d just been robbed at gunpoint, she didn’t say a word to anyone. She went back to the grocery store she had just come from and wandered around the aisles, enjoying having all the people there and looking at all the food she had no money to buy even though she was feeling more and more hungry. She hadn’t had lunch and dinner time was soon. After about an hour of wordlessly walking the aisles she left the store and, in accordance with the logic that lightning never strikes twice and muggers never stay in the same place for long, she set out once again on the usual route home. About halfway home, however, she began to regret not having said anything to the people at the store. It was completely dark out now, and fear was beginning to kick in. She started to think she must have been in some sort of shock before. She found her bag tossed casually into some bushes about part way up the block to her apartment building. She grabbed it and rushed home so fast that she slipped twice on the ice before reaching her door. She had bruises for weeks.
After she got in her apartment she went straight to the phone and picked up the receiver with one hand while she opened her bag with the other to see what all had been taken. She had to look twice when she saw her credit card still there in her wallet. The hand holding the receiver hovered in mid air as she took stock of the contents of her bag. The credit card and bank card were still there. The only things he’d taken were the twenty-seven dollars in cash and the few groceries she’d had in the bag. She thought about the groceries: milk, juice, bread, and a little cheese. She hung up the phone, which by now had started to tell her to please hang up and dial again. She didn’t mention the incident to anyone.
It wasn’t until she slipped her hand in her coat pocket the next day that she realized what she had lost. When he told her to turn her pockets out it must have fallen, perhaps into one of the high drifts of snow. She went back during the daylight to the place where it happened and she dug through the snow until, even through her winter gloves, her hands were too cold to move. She found her grocery list, some spare change, a packet of Kleenex, but not the thing she was looking for. She asked neighbors and passers-by if they’d found it, but nobody seemed to know what she was talking about. Finally she had to give up because there was nothing else to do.
It was striking the way the feeling of emptiness in her pocket brought back the taste of peppermint even more sharply than the feel of the object had. She and Mommy had gone for ice cream and they both had peppermint, “because peppermint tastes happy” Mommy had said. The sun was out that day, and you could tell because Mommy had opened the drapes in the morning and let the light in, and Mommy had gotten out of bed and wasn’t crying or hugging her too tight like something was going to tear them apart if she let go of her little girl. Instead Mommy had held her by the hand and taken her out for ice cream, and they had even stopped by the toy store. They went right to the very best aisle, the one with the golden pony. He was yellow, the color of sunshine, with a real mane and tail that you could brush, and he had jointed legs so he could really walk. He was small, but not too small, just the right size for a child’s hand. There was also a stable, and accessories, and a whole bunch of pony friends you could buy, but she knew Mommy would never have enough money to get her any of that. Just that one golden pony would be enough, and on that day, after they had already eaten their wonderful peppermint ice cream, Mommy picked up the package with the golden pony in it off the shelf, carried it over to the cash register, and bought it. When Mommy handed it to her she was smiling a big smile and when they got home Mommy played the piano, which was something she hadn’t done in a long, long time. She made the little pony dance to the piano music and Mommy laughed at that. It was the last time Mommy laughed or smiled. In the coming days it went back to the way things had been before, only worse. Mommy wasn’t like Mommy at all any more. Now she didn’t even cry. She just stared vacantly and said things that made no sense. It was so frightening in those few days, that it was less scary to find Mommy one day lying perfectly still on the bed next to an empty medicine bottle than it had been to see her walking like a ghost who didn’t even know her own child.
It was about six years after the cold day when the mugger had taken her groceries that she visited a local church to see about volunteering in their soup kitchen. She went into the church office to talk to the pastor, and while introducing herself she happened to notice something that made her stop in mid sentence. There was a very small, somewhat dingy, toy horse made of yellow plastic sitting on one of the reverend’s bookshelves. It still had a few remnants of a “real” mane and tail, and it had jointed legs that could dance. When she asked about it, the pastor looked surprised but, being the sort of man who took things in stride, he went ahead and answered.
“That was something that belonged to a little girl I used to know,” he said. “Her name was Nicky, and she and her dad, they used to come to the shelter the church runs when the dad couldn’t get it together for rent. The man had a lot of bad habits, and he wasn’t always nice, you know, but I think in his heart he wasn’t really a violent man and he did love that little girl. I believed him when he said he didn’t mean to shoot that man he robbed. I knew he stole, but he used a gun with no bullets, just to scare people. Somehow he ended up going out one day with a loaded gun and he had the shakes so bad, the gun went off on accident… Anyway, with the dad in prison, Nicky ended up out on the street full time. She had a tough life, and then she got shot in a drive by when she was sixteen. I visited her in the hospital where they took her and she gave me that little toy. She said her dad had brought it home on her birthday one year when she was a little girl, and she kept it with her all the time because it made her remember that her daddy wasn’t all bad. It helped her remember he loved her. She said her daddy smiled when he gave it to her, and knowing that man and his troubles, he can’t have smiled too much. She died the next day, and I kept the toy around because I like to think about it giving that girl a happy memory she could hold onto.” The reverend sat thinking for a moment. Then he leaned forward a little, looking puzzled. “But what made you come in asking about that thing? Did you know Nicky somehow?”
“No, I didn’t,” she answered. “But I know about happy memories.”