Today we feature the first piece from the Short Fiction Shortlist from our 2015 Creative Writing Competition, ‘Moonlight for One’ by Leslie Calhoun.
As editors, we felt that the story stood out for its clear prose and active descriptions.
What our judge had to say about this entry has been placed at the conclusion of this post, so as not to spoil the twist in prose this piece was picked for.
Moonlight for One
We are alone in the moonlight. Its milky beams illuminate the tension between us like some cold spotlight. I can’t move. One step, and there won’t be any turning back. But maybe that’s what I want.
The brightness almost feels like midday. We should have seen it. Crouching half-buried in a mound of dirt, waiting to snatch a foot, a limb, a life.
Dominik Walesa stands a few feet in front of me. Just a few feet. If I stretch my hand forward, I could almost touch him. His eyes are wide, and I’m certain the fear I see there is just a reflection of my own.
We stand frozen in the field like that for maybe a minute, maybe an hour. Everything is silent. I can’t even hear the crickets in the hedge anymore. But I can almost feel the earth ticking, waiting for the explosion that one step will bring. I know Dominik can feel it, too. The longer we stand there, the louder the ticking reverberates against my eardrums. Step…off…step…off, it seems to whisper.
When the stillness is broken, it’s Dominik who breaks it—not me. His face is sharply demarcated into light and shadow from the full moon above him. I’m reminded of a kid holding a candle under his chin and pretending to be a ghost. Or a demon. As I stare at his ghoulish face, one side of Dominik’s thin mouth lifts in the crooked grin that I have grown to hate, and now hate even more. How could he—even he—smile at a time like this?
But as he starts to lift his hand, like a priest giving a blessing, I forget hatred and even years of back alley punches. All I want to do is collapse onto the rutted dirt ground and cry. Cry about the war. Cry about having to flee from our own homes. Cry about being alone in a landmine-strewn field with only Dominik Walesa for company. But I can’t even do that. My feet are locked to the ground.
“Goodbye, Aleksy,” he says.
Something hardens in my chest. That’s when I remember who he is. What he did to me and my father. How all of this is his fault.
Three days ago, Dominik Walesa stole my bike.
I made that bike with my father. He worked in the machine yard, and he collected spare parts until he had enough pieces for a bike. He told me it wouldn’t be a nice one, or even a good one, like the ones they made in the cities and factories further south. I didn’t mind.
I stayed up late to help my father fit the parts together. The frame was wooden, because most of the scrap metal was being used to make weapons and tanks. He showed me how to measure the right lengths, and then we cut them together. While he adjusted the gears and chains, I sanded and polished the wood. If I hadn’t been so excited to take my first ride on that bike, I would have been happy for those nights by gas lamp to last forever.
My mother didn’t like me staying up so late, especially to work on a bicycle. She was worried. She told my father that a bike would get me in trouble. She said I should be focusing on my delivery rounds or my studies. My father pointed out that the bike would help make the deliveries faster. She didn’t know what to say to that.
Once the bike was finished, I rode it every day. To school and back. On my delivery route. To the shops for my mother. I rode it even after the school closed and my mother made me continue my lessons at home. Even after the shops stopped selling bread every day.
I was hungry all the time. My mother looked more worried as the days dragged on towards spring. My father spoke less and less. After an accident at the yard cost him a hand and his job, he stopped speaking altogether. Still I took my bike out. Every day. Right up until three days ago, when Dominik Walesa stole it.
There was no breakfast that morning. My mother’s eyes were red, but she refused to look at me when I asked her if she’d been crying. Instead, she kissed me on the top of my head and told me to be careful, like she always did. I told her I would be, like I always did.
My father stopped me before I could make it out the door. Without a word, he slipped a wrinkled letter into my hand. I checked the shaky handwriting on the front. Since my father’s accident, he had been trying to learn to write with his left hand and would spend hours at the kitchen table, filling out sheets of paper and crossing out bits in frustration whenever he made a mistake. The name on the front of the letter was little more than scribbles, but I could just make it out: Rolanski.
I looked up and found my father’s eyes boring into mine. He pointed to the name on the letter and then to me. I nodded and stuffed the letter in my jacket pocket. I would deliver it for him.
As I pushed open the door and wheeled my bike out onto the street, I wondered if my father just chose to remain silent or actually couldn’t speak anymore. Perhaps if he had spoken when he gave me the letter, things would have turned out differently.
I pedaled first to the town center and ferried laundry for a few of the families who were still rich enough to pay other people to clean their clothes. Roman waved at me from the door of his shop and promised me a loaf of bread if I picked up a shipment at the train yard for him. Just the thought of the crusty bread made my mouth water, and I tried to ignore my groaning stomach as I sped to the train yard.
By the time I made it back to Roman’s and unloaded the crate of goods for him, I was sweaty and out of breath. Roman invited me into the shop to choose from his selection, and I leaned my bike against his front window. Before I followed him inside, I peeled my jacket off and draped it over my bike seat.
I never would have done that if I had known that Dominik was watching me from across the street, waiting for the perfect opportunity to swoop in.
I took my time choosing a loaf. My father liked the round ones, but my mother said those were impractical for families like ours. For a while, I considered picking one of the glossy braided loaves, but I knew that would hardly be enough to feed my family for two days. In the end, I chose rye. Plain.
As Roman wrapped it up for me in brown paper, I glanced past the window display to check if my bike was still there. It was leaning against the window where I’d left it, and my jacket was still thrown over the seat like a limp saddle. The memory of my father’s drawn face returned to me, and I suddenly felt a chill of fear wash over my back. Somehow I knew then that I should have kept the letter with me.
Roman cleared his throat, and I jerked my head around to see him holding out the wrapped bread loaf for me to take. I managed a smile, grabbed the bread, and mumbled my thanks.
When I turned back to the door, a young couple was coming through it, tossing an argument between them. The man wore a soldier’s uniform, and his dark eyebrows were etched like scars on his forehead. The woman spoke in a shrill accent that I couldn’t quite understand. Flattening myself against a case of flour sacks, I edged around the pair of them and slipped out onto the sidewalk. Then I stopped dead, my boots cemented to the pavement.
My bike was gone.
Panic roiled in my empty stomach and rose like bile into my throat. A sheen of nervousness dampened the skin at my temples and under my arms. Clutching the loaf of bread to my chest and cursing my foolishness, I swiveled on the sidewalk, uncertain what to do.
And that’s when I saw him.
Dominik Walesa was just pedaling across the square towards the bridge, his head turned to watch behind him. He was wearing my jacket. Our eyes locked on to each other, and Dominik whistled and threw a wave into the air like he was wishing me a good Sabbath.
Before I even knew what I was doing, I had shot after him, racing across the street and pounding up the side of the square. He saw me chasing him and stood over the handlebars, alternating between cycling and coasting as though he didn’t have a care in the world. I ground my teeth and imagined knocking him off the bike and into the river.
At the other end of the square, I swerved right and cut in front of a truck to reach the bridge. I could see Dominik just ahead of me on the opposite side, his progress slowed due to the clog of pedestrians. Ignoring the stream of road traffic, I waited until I was even with Dominik and then I bolted across the bridge.
He paused and glanced back down the bridge just as I rammed into him from the side, throwing him against the stonework. His eyes widened as he tumbled off the bike seat. He nearly hit his head against the stone rail but caught himself with his hands just in time. One man passing near us cried out in alarm, but I didn’t care. I snatched my bike away and planted myself in front of it.
Dominik recovered from his surprise and hauled himself upright, using the rail for support. Then he flashed me that crooked grin. I would have punched it right off his face if my hands weren’t full with the bike and the bread.
“Nice running, Aleksy.”
“Give me my jacket.”
He looked down as though he’d forgotten he was wearing it. Rubbing the zipper between his fingers, he suggested a trade.
The jacket for the bread.
I refused and told him both were already mine and he had no business trading them.
He smirked and thrust his hands into the jacket pockets. That’s when he found the letter.
I tried to take it from him, yelled at him to leave it alone, but he read it anyway. The crooked grin melted from his face, and I could see his brow furrowing over the edge of the paper.
Someone shouted at us from the crowd, and two swastikaed soldiers broke out of it and ran towards us. Dominik looked up at the soldiers, glanced at me, and then looked back at the letter in his hands. Then, before I could stop him, he crumpled up my father’s letter and dropped it over the side of the bridge. When the soldiers reached us and forced us break it up, his face had already settled back into that crooked grin.
I had no idea then that three days later, a secret cell of the AK—the Polish resistance army—would be discovered in our little town. That the Nazis would start burning and killing, and that I would have to run for my life across the fields at midnight, with Dominik Walesa by my side. I still have no idea what happened to my parents. What I do know is that Dominik Walesa has never done me any favors. That he would never take a fall for me. So after I heard the trigger click under his foot behind me, I decided not to take one for him.
Our judge had to say about Leslie’s story, “‘Moonlight for One’ is a memorable, visually-strong World War Two tale. The theft of the bike, in particular, is a gripping scene. I like the fact that not everything is spelled out so that the reader has to work to piece the story together.”
About the Author:
Leslie Calhoun, from Spokane, Washington, is a first year postgraduate studying Creative Writing at Kingston University. Before coming to Kingston, she graduated from Baylor University with a degree in English and Creative Writing. She has had short stories published in both universities’ student literary journals. She credits JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis for her love of stories and hopes to be a children’s fantasy author one day. Until then, she’s trying to figure out how to make a career out of traveling, photography, or anything Disney related.