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First place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2007. 
By Cathy Warner 

The winner of Bookshop Santa Cruz's

5th Annual Sort Story Contest 


If you're going to abandon your toddler at 7-11, forget that you came here for peanut butter, milk and Wonder bread. This is a convenience store and your life is beyond inconvenience. Before you make your break, wait until your daughter stands hypnotized before the Slurpee machine, the blood red concoction sloshing round and round in its drum. Tell yourself she's better off this way if you want to. But do not, I repeat, do not touch her as you leave. Walk to the door, slowly and controlled so as not to attract the attention of the smocked clerk selling Marlboros to a scraggly teen. Maintain your pace until you round the building. Clear the parking lot. Reach the curb, look both ways, just like you always told her, but make it quick. Cross the street. Do not look back.

Run. Brace your toes firmly in your Payless flip-flops and run until your pulse pounds violently in your ears, drowning out the siren wail of her will. No, no, no, flashing red and blue day and night. Run until your sides ache and you double over. Forget the feel of her fists pounding your gut. Don't call up images of her thrashing on sticky fast food floors when they put pickles on her burger even though you ordered no pickles. Don't think about her ripping every dinosaur book from its Dewey decimaled shelf at library closing time. Don't remember the way she screamed I hate you, Mommy, when you held her head between your knees and forcibly brushed her niblet teeth thank you very much, and how she bit you hard, leaving her mark on your flesh.

Run through the neighborhood past Victorians in various stages of decline and repair. Don't think about her, thumb in mouth, tears staining her grubby cheeks, tugging at your shirt, climbing into your lap, screaming when you tried to go to work. Don't remember how you were fired because you were always late, or leaving early, or not all together there once she arrived in your life. Don't think about the father who held your heart carefully just that once in his palm, as though you were a skittish rabbit before he tossed you in the stew pot. Run until your life drops from your pockets like loose change, clattering off the sidewalk onto someone's lawn littered with plastic toys and genuine laughter. Don't stop to pick up the pieces.

Run, panting, until the houses push themselves into conjoined twins, then stack onto each other like stucco baby's blocks, pea green and puke pink. Slow down when the sidewalks become crowded with teens in black leather and silver chains and orange hair and bass comes too loud from proud cars scraping the ground. Take big gulps of air when no one can see. Walk past the shirtless guy who says Hey Mama and resist the urge to answer with Fuck you.

Just keep walking. It's only a few more blocks, past by-the-hour motels and barred window liquor stores selling Lotto tickets and cases of Bud to out-of-towners. You are almost there. Can you smell it? Burger grease and ocean spray, seaweed and burnt sugar. Cross at the signal just behind a pack of sun-hatted grandmas reeking of Coppertone, their chicken skin arms swaying in unison. Walk past the ticket booths, onto the midway, amid clanging games and hanging Smurfs and giant stuffed dogs in god-awful colors. Stay away from the kiddie rides, it goes without saying. Find the stairs and walk down onto the beach.

Kick your way through the loose sand, feel it grind between your toes. Keep going until you hit the water. Let the cold shock you. Let the waves racing in and rushing back to the sea dig custom graves for your feet. Stare past the breakers, past the boats anchored offshore, past the flat gray-green into the nothingness beyond your horizon. Don't forget to breathe.

You can think about her now, if you want to. You should. Imagine your cow-eyed, gap-toothed, spindly-legged baby in the arms of another mother. A mother who breastfeeds and buys Healthtex rompers and carpools to Gymboree. The kind of mother who never sent her fist through a hollow core door, the kind of mother who never suffocated under the weight of need, the kind of mother who sucks in her cheeks with disbelief at the headline your life is becoming.

Don't move. Stay here, on the edge of the surf, until the fog rolls in. Stand still until the cold turns your legs numb, until your vision goes cloudy. Then wipe your palm across your wet face. When you feel that eyelash on your finger, blow it into the water. Watch it disappear. Later, when it's in the paper and your neighbors are shocked and the police say We can't believe it, I will tuck my children under their Disney princess bedspreads and sit in a chair and sob without really knowing why. I will rub my eyes and find an eyelash in my hand. I will examine it and know that the difference between you and me is that thin.