Short Story Contest
All winners
About Sarah Marion
Sarah Marion was born and raised in Oxford, Miss.--the home of William Faulkner, no less. Despite living in Palo Alto for the past 35 years, she still finds herself under the spell of her heritage.
"Although I've lived away from the South most of my adult life, I almost always draw on it in my writing," she said. She looks forward to visiting her hometown every few years, and when she's not busy writing, she enjoys reading Southern writers such as Eudora Welty and Larry Brown.
Marion has been writing stories since she retired 10 years ago. She worked in the electronics industry for many years before that and, back then, never entertained dreams of literary success. "I really hadn't given it much thought," she said. "My husband died soon after I retired, so I looked around for something to do."
She thought it would be interesting to write articles for Popular Electronics and began taking writing classes. After writing a few articles, however, Marion found she was more intrigued by fiction. Since then, she has been steadily filing stories away, aided by the support of an informal writing group she meets with on a regular basis.
"For me, the hardest part is developing a plot. Once I have a more or less complete story in mind, it's not that difficult to write," she said.
And when she does begin toiling on a new project, Marion doesn't jump right in. "I don't go immediately for my computer. I just start out with a yellow pad," she said. She also prefers to concentrate on only one piece at a time, finding that working on several stories simultaneously dilutes her focus.
Surprisingly, perhaps, after all these years of dedicated writing, "Seven Years from Never" is her first published work. "I was very surprised to hear I'd won," she said. "I'm just thrilled. It really has encouraged me to work harder on my stories."
--Kate Manning

Seven Years from Never

by Sarah Marion

I walk in as if I'd never left. I'm home for Mom's sake. She didn't say I ought to come, or I must come, or to please come for appearance's sake. She said, "Luke, your father is dying." She left it up to me.
Nothing has changed. This is the everlasting Delta in September: sweat dripping from the tip of the nose and the ear lobes, grey moss hanging like ropes from live oaks, the cloying scent of honeysuckle and Cape jasmine. Cotton everywhere. Dusty wisps clinging to golden-rod stalks, to Jimson weeds along the road. White fields shimmering under a white-hot sky.
The musty smell of boll-weevil poison lingers, permeating these timbers. It follows me down a long, open-ended breezeway. Here is the house where I was born, where my folks have always lived. Dogtrot style, they call it--a twelve-foot-wide breezeway rammed down the middle, rooms on either side. A house to capture a breeze on the stillest day.
I'm heading for the kitchen, last room on the left. That's where Mom will be, cooking up a feast. She always cooks too much for company. I guess I'm company after all this time.
I pass the door to their bedroom. It's open, but I don't look in. That's where he'll be. Across the breezeway, opposite their door, is Annie's room. I try the knob. It's locked up tight.
Then I see Mom. She's hurrying from the kitchen, balancing a pan of water with both hands. Wavy heat lines hover above the water. Smudges of flour streak the front of her apron. Biscuit flour for sure.
"Mom!" My voice cracks, hands tremble.
Her mouth and eyes fly open. She stops instantly. Water rolls over the edge of the pan and splashes her shoes. "Oh, Luke!" she cries, her face crumpling. She stands bawling, bare-faced, without a hand to hide behind. I set the pan on the floor and grab my mamma and spin her around and around. When I let go she wipes her eyes with the corner of her apron. "I was fixing to shave your Daddy," she says.
My mind snaps back to how she has always waited on Dad, to how she forever made excuses for his frightful temper. "We're family," she used to say, "solid as rock," never dreaming that before I was fifteen and Annie was ten that the Martin family would be splintered like an ancient live oak in the path of a Delta twister.
Dad used to say he wanted to raise Annie to be a true lady. Flowers in her hair, lace at her throat. To all of us she was special, sweet and loving, beautiful as dawn. But for me, a boy, he wished a tough body and a fearless mind--traits that, he believed, grew out of hard work and relentless discipline. Sometimes, I admit, I felt jealous of my little sister.
Mom retrieves the pan of hot water and proceeds down the breezeway toward Dad's room. Looking back, she sees me waiting at the kitchen door. "Hurry, Son," she says. "Come while your father's awake."
"Gotta stretch my legs, Mom. Walk off these Greyhound kinks. Won't be long."
I need time. Need to go back to where it happened, let every detail pass through my mind again. I slip out the back door, head for the river.
I remember it was cold that day, drizzling rain. Dead cotton stalks, not yet plowed under, stood ragged in the fields. Two bony old cows had wandered from pasture and were nibbling the stalks. They stopped chewing and watched me go by, their eyes moist and brown. From their nostrils rose double streams of cold breath.
Dad had sent me to break ground along the river bank, preparing land for a winter crop of lespedeza. I have to say this for him: he taught me well. He showed me exactly how to operate the tractor, how to pull the disc harrow and swing wide at the ends. "Cut short and you'll skid smack into the river," he said. "You'll skid sure as hell."
I was good at it, and careful. I loved the smell of freshly turned earth, the beauty of precisely laid-out rows. I'd worked this strip every fall for six years, since I was eight. The lespedeza job was always mine.
That day Annie came running across the field, yelling something. She loved the slow bumpy ride on the tractor and I was sure she wanted to get on. I remember how her hair lifted in the wind as she ran, and how she clutched a doll dressed all in pink.
I slowed to a stop and pulled her up. The drizzle had turned to steady rain. "Tammi's all wet," she said, brushing at her doll's dress. She poked out her lips, about to cry.
"Here," I said, "gimme the doll." I stuffed it under my jacket.
I've re-lived that day a thousand times. Sometimes I think the soft ground along the river caved in and plummeted us down the bank. Sometimes it seems the steering stuck, or the brakes went out, or that my arm movement was hampered by the doll. In dreams I'm fighting for control, but the machine rushes on and on like a hippo headed for water.
Annie was crushed. By the time the workers heard my screams and ran to us, I was crazy wild, stumbling blindly about the plowed ground. I came to my senses when Dad banged my head with the barrel of a shotgun. He jabbed it in my chest. "Get off my land," he screamed. "Go! Get out of my sight!" He waved the gun in my face. "I'll use it, dammit! I'll use it if I ever see you here again!"
Vines now cover the cave-in right up to the water's edge. A stranger walking this river bank today would never suspect what happened here.
I return to the house and find Mom on the verandah, sitting in the swing Her feet barely reach the floor. "You remind me of Granny," I say, taking my seat beside her. "Remember how she used to sit out here after supper and sing?"
"Lordy, yes. Ma was always singin'. Church songs mainly, though she wasn't much of a church-goin' person. She just loved the old songs."
The swing creaks as we gently push to and fro. Then Mom begins to hum one of those old songs I remember. She starts to sing in that lonesome, high-pitched voice like Granny's: "When peace like a river floods over my soul."
I pick up the next line in my twangiest voice: "Or when sorrows like sea billows roll-l-l."
We sit quietly. I can almost hear the sweet long-ago voices of Annie and Granny echoing off the walls of this old house.
Mom drops her hand on my knee. "It's time, Luke." I take her hand and we walk together.
His room smells scrubbed, the way Mom's rooms always smell, soapy and fresh. The window curtains are starched and ironed. A bedside table holds a pitcher of water and a glass. In another glass is a clutch of wild bluets from the woods.
She lingers at the door and lets me move on in. He's there, the sheet pulled up to his chin, eyes half-closed. Before this moment I had always thought of my father as a powerful man. My throat tightens until it hurts. Across his forehead I can see the ridges in his skull. His bones make sharp angles under the sheet.
I quietly draw up a chair and lay my head on the pillow beside his. "It's Luke, Daddy," I whisper. He draws an emaciated hand from under the sheet and rests it on my arm, letting me know he is glad I'm home.

"Short declarative sentences; details that summon vivid scenes in our minds; emotions that make characters inhale and exhale. "Seven Years from Never" has all these attributes and more, taking its greatest strength from the author's gift of language. The story showcases her ability to draw readers in and makes us one with the subject of a young man returning home to his father's deathbed. Even the use of dialect--often so poorly executed--is handled well here, adding authenticity to the characters' voices. This strong story promises even better to come from its author."
--Linda Gray Sexton

"With a lovely, spare style, the writer deftly creates the horror of a boy falling from his father's grace. Perfectly chosen details--bluets in a vase--carry the unspeakable feelings of a son banished from home. What a pleasure to see this physical and emotional world through the eyes of a master."
--Pamela Gullard

"The strength of this story lies in its prose. Spare, evocative and powerful, the language in "Seven Years from Never" convincingly transports us to a new and compelling locale, and leaves us with an indelible sense of how it has shaped and continues to effect the characters who inhabit it."
--Tom Parker

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