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First Prize
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by P. Jo Anne Burgh

Every year, on the first Saturday in May, Ellen Simmons sent out the cards. It was how she lived: orderly, scheduled, everything under good control. Everything that could be controlled, anyway.

This year, the cards were cream with a watercolor design of daisies tied with a nearly transparent blue ribbon. The ribbon was why she’d chosen them. Blue, for all their sons.

The preprinted message inside was simple: Thinking of you. She signed her name beneath it. Nothing more. She addressed the envelopes with care, writing her full name in the return address so they would know it was from her, because the world was full of crazies these days.

Last year, Ellen had received a square white envelope. The paper was thick, almost cardboard. Her name and address were printed in Times New Roman, 12 point. There was no return address.

She set it gingerly back in the mailbox and telephoned the police as she’d been instructed. They sent the bomb squad to retrieve it even though she felt this was an overreaction. If it were a bomb, wouldn’t it have exploded in the mail? Not necessarily, the young man in charge told her. Better safe than sorry.

The envelope did not contain any kind of explosive, but it did contain white powder. The lab confirmed that it was baking soda. Innocuous. Meant only to alarm, not harm. The officer asked if she wanted the note. You tell me, she said. No, he replied. You don’t. His expression wavered between sadness, irritation, and a touch of righteous anger.

On Monday, two days after she mailed her cards, she received one from Neva. A photo of a partial sun over water graced the front. A sunrise or a sunset. Hope coming, or hope departing. The latter, Ellen decided. The notion of hope coming felt false and irritating, like the people who’d contacted her in the early days, before she knew not to open mail from strangers. Many sent messages of hate, but some preached at her. They said she needed Jesus, the Dalai Lama, Oprah. She should go on spiritual retreats so her soul could be cleansed and she could worship nature. She should adopt a holistic lifestyle or a vegan diet. She should try psychotherapy. They had the answers, or so they claimed.

There were no answers. Ellen understood that now. Back then, she thought that if she looked in the right place, she’d figure out what happened, where she went wrong. If she’d gone wrong.

It seemed unlikely they could all have made the same mistake.

Neva’s handwriting was big and curly. Growing up, she was probably the kind who’d dot every “i” with a little heart. Ellen would never have thought she’d be friends with someone like Neva. Assuming “friends” was the right word.

Neva seemed to think it was. I’m so blessed to have a friend like you, she’d written. Love ya, Neva. Ellen could never figure out how such a sweet woman, with her round arms that looked like she’d hug anything within fifty paces, could have produced a boy who did what Rodney did. Then again, maybe Neva wondered the same about Ellen, who’d raised three upstanding sons, and Michael.

Tuesday brought cards from Sarah and Mandee. Sarah lived in Kansas City, Missouri. Her card was a simple mass-produced product; she’d joked once that in Hallmark’s hometown, it was illegal to send anything else. Like Ellen’s, its message stated only that she was thinking of her. Sarah had drawn a balloon after her name, the string underscoring the word, because Liam loved balloons.

Mandee was an artist. Her cards were always handmade. Unlike the other cards, this year’s card was not a foldover. Instead, it bore a carefully-glued mosaic of shapes that appeared to have been cut from a variety of wrapping papers. At the bottom of the back was simply Mandee’s copyright stamp: the c in a circle, followed by ethansmom.

Cards arrived on Wednesday from Beth, Harmony, Kim, and Sofia. Still more came on Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Ellen opened the cards, read them all, and stacked them neatly on the piano. It was like having an audience when she played, an audience of people who understood.

Mother’s Day this year dawned bright and mild. Around midmorning, Chris arrived with his wife Jenn, their three-year-old twins, and the traditional egg and cheese casserole. Brian came with his husband Graham, their newly-adopted baby Jackson, and an assortment of sweet rolls and raisin bread from the gourmet bakery near their condo. Jason and his wife Norah brought eight-year-old Emma who proudly carried in the fruit salad while her parents toted bottles of orange juice and champagne for mimosas. Her children, their spouses, their little ones. A happy, homogenous group. If you didn’t know one was missing, you’d never suspect.

The phone rang just as they were sitting down to eat. “Call from Northern Correc,” the talking Caller ID intoned, reciting only so much of the name as appeared in the display. Northern Correc, for Northern Correctional Institution.

The room was silent as Ellen picked up the handset and pressed the button. “Yes, I’ll accept the charges,” she said as she headed for the privacy of her bedroom. A click, and then she heard his unmistakable baritone: “Hi, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.”

Five minutes later, she returned to the table. Brian was well-occupied trying to spoon cereal into Jackson’s mouth, but the baby spit it out as fast as his daddy could scoop it in. Jason and Chris were focused on their plates. Jenn and Norah coaxed the smaller children to eat. Emma was cutting up her melon. Only Graham met her eyes when she resumed her seat.

“Are you okay?” he asked in a low voice.

It was a ridiculous question, but he meant well, so she nodded. “Pass the fruit salad, please.” After a few minutes, the tension eased, and it almost seemed as if they would have a normal meal.

All at once, the notion infuriated her. Michael was eating with rapists and murderers; that was his normal meal. “Your brother sounded very upbeat today,” she said, not caring that she was interrupting Jenn’s story about finding a preschool.

“Good for him,” muttered Jason.

“His lawyer says he might be eligible for parole early,” Ellen continued, ignoring him.

“Mom!” Chris hissed. “Do you have to talk about that now?”

“The children.” Jenn indicated the twins, who were busy ripping slices of raisin bread into damp shreds.

“I know,” said Ellen. “I’m just excited for him, that’s all.”

“He’s not getting out early.” Jason drained his mimosa goblet and looked around as if for something stronger.

“You don’t know that. You’re not his lawyer.” Jason was an insurance agent. He didn’t know anything about the law.

“His lawyer just wants to run up the bill,” Chris snapped. He was a CPA. “He won’t be eligible until he’s served eighty-five percent of his sentence. That’s years away.”

They didn’t know everything. “He said they might be able to reduce his risk level to 4. If they did that, he could move to a different prison, one with fewer restrictions.”

“Ellen!” Norah frowned as though she wanted to send Ellen to her room for a time-out.

“Who’s in prison?” asked Emma.

“Your uncle Michael,” said Ellen before anyone else could speak.

“Who?” Emma looked confused.

“Ellen!” Jenn gestured frantically toward her little ones.

“They’re only three. They have no idea what I’m talking about.” To Emma, Ellen said, “Uncle Michael is your daddy’s little brother.”

“Stop it!” Norah snapped.

“Have you never told this child she has another uncle?” Ellen asked.

“Why would we?” Jason’s voice was tight. “It’s not like they’ll ever meet.”

“You don’t know that,” said Ellen. “He could get out early.”

“Not likely,” said Brian without looking away from his son’s cereal-smeared face.

“Ellen, is this the best time for this conversation?” Graham sounded like every other social worker she’d met, and his detached tone infuriated her.

“It’s Mother’s Day,” she said. “I think that makes this the perfect time to talk about my son.” She used her best fierce-mama stare on each of them, but none of the other adults would meet her eyes, so she turned her attention to Emma. “Your daddy has another brother, and he’s your uncle, too. Uncle Michael,” Ellen said as if beginning a story.

“Why isn’t he here?” asked Emma.

“That’s enough!” Norah barked.

“Because he made a big mistake,” said Ellen. “And that mistake hurt some people, so he had to go away for a while.”

“Cut it out, Mom!” Jason was on his feet. With a visible effort, he calmed himself enough to control his voice. “Emma, honey, your uncle Michael did some really bad things, but you don’t have to worry, because he’s locked up in jail so he can’t hurt anybody else ever again.” He turned to his mother: “It’s time for us to go home.”

“What did he do?” asked Emma.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Chris. “All that matters is that he’s not going to do it ever again.”

“It’s not that simple,” Ellen protested. “He had problems—”

“I think we should talk about something else.” Jenn’s voice was higher, more strained.

“What did Uncle Michael do?” asked Emma.

“He’s a very, very bad person, and he hurt a lot of people.” Norah’s flat pronouncement dared anyone to disagree.

Emma’s lower lip began to tremble. “If I hurt somebody, will I go to jail?”

“See what you did?” Jason glared at his mother. Then, he sat down, bending forward so he was eye-to-eye with his daughter. “Honey, you have nothing to worry about. You’re never going to jail. You’re our good girl. You would never hurt anybody. We know that. You’re the best little girl there is.”

“But when Brianna and I were playing soccer, I kicked her. I didn’t mean to, but she said it really hurt.” The girl’s eyes were round.

“You didn’t mean to kick her,” said Norah, her arm around the child’s shoulders. “You would never hurt anybody on purpose. That’s not the way you are. You’re a sweet, kind-hearted little girl, and we’re so proud of you.” She kissed her daughter’s fine blond hair. Then, she turned to Ellen, and all that maternal tenderness vanished into a steely glare. “We’re leaving,” was all she said, but it was enough to break up brunch.

Ten minutes later, Jason and Norah were gone, and Chris and Jenn were buckling the twins into their car seats. In the living room, Brian rocked Jackson in the antique chair where Ellen had rocked her own babies. Graham tried to make small talk as he helped her clear the table, but to no avail. “Don’t worry about the dishes,” he said when she reached for the dish soap. “It’s Mother’s Day.”

Ellen wandered into the living room where Brian crooned to Jackson. She stood in the doorway, listening as he sang, “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, Daddy’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.” When he finally looked up, she said, “I used to sing that song to my babies.”

Brian’s eyes were dark. “He likes it.”

“You all did,” Ellen said. “All four of you.”

Brian dropped his head back on the worn chair cushion with a sigh that could have meant frustration or surrender. “It’s not the same for us.”

“He’s your little brother.”

“Was. After what he did—I don’t know who he is, but he’s not my brother. Not anymore.”

“You can’t just—just cut him out of your life, like—”

“Yes. I can.” His voice was quiet, assured. Final.

Michael’s lawyer had said their family should attend the trial together, so Jason took time off from work, and Chris and Brian came home from college in the middle of the semester. They sat on either side of their mother on the second bench, behind Michael and his lawyer; Norah stayed home with baby Emma. Two marshals sat on the bench directly behind Michael, and another sat right beside him. Ellen told herself they must be there to protect Michael. Additional marshals shepherded the family to and from their car each day.

Marshals also sat across the aisle, behind the prosecutor’s table with the families of the victims. The gym teacher’s widow sobbed; the principal’s husband kept his arm around his adult daughter. Parents and siblings of the others made a point of ignoring Michael’s family, huddling together during breaks. Once, when Ellen encountered one of the mothers alone in the ladies’ room, she said, “I’m so sorry,” but the woman ignored her. They washed their hands at adjoining sinks; the only sound was running water. When it stopped, Ellen stepped back to allow the woman first access to the towel dispenser. The woman reached past her and took a paper towel, never acknowledging her presence. Then, as she opened the door, the woman turned back and glared at her with so much hatred that Ellen felt as if she’d been shot.

The survivors sat on the witness stand and described the scene in lurid, heartrending detail. So much blood, they kept repeating. All that screaming, they said. Pop pop pop, they recited tonelessly. Jurors recoiled when the prosecutor showed them photographs that the gallery mercifully could not see, and they glowered with white-hot anger at Michael, who sat motionless at the counsel table next to his lawyer. Through it all, Jason, Chris, and Brian remained stonefaced even as Ellen clutched their hands, tears wrecking her mascara.

The night after the verdict came in, her boys sat dutifully with Ellen as she sobbed that it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, Michael couldn’t have done that. Seven years had passed, and some of her memories of that night were sketchy, but she remembered all too well how none of them had agreed with her that Michael—their baby brother—was incapable of such a horrific crime. They contributed to the lawyer’s fees, and they brought her meals and shielded her from the media, but they never said the verdict was wrong. Like the jury, they had been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.

Now, as May sunshine streamed through the window, Ellen looked at her big strong son cradling his infant with such tenderness. “What if Jackson did something like—?”

“He wouldn’t.”

“Brian.” She waited until his eyes met hers. “The way you love that baby—the faith you have in him, in his goodness—that’s how I feel about my boys. All of you.”

“It’s not the same,” Brian began, but Jackson shifted, and his attention was drawn to the child in his arms. “What’s the matter, buddy? You need a diaper change?” As if in response, the baby began to wail. Brian retrieved the diaper bag from the corner by the front door, spread out the changing mat in the foyer, and executed an expert change with remarkable speed.

“You’re very good,” Ellen commented as he stuffed the soiled diaper and wipes into a plastic bag.

“Everybody’s good at something,” Brian said, tickling his son’s belly.

“You ready to go?” called Graham. Ellen heard the dishwasher begin to hum. Graham came into the foyer and picked up the baby. “Is it naptime yet?” he asked, nuzzling the child’s fuzzy hair while Brian packed up the diaper bag.

“I’ll get rid of that,” said Ellen, taking the plastic bag from Brian’s hand. She thought he might object, but he and Graham kissed Ellen good-bye and took their baby out to the car. She waved as they pulled out of the driveway. Then, she closed the door to her silent home.

The stack of cards still lay on top of the piano. She picked them up and settled herself in the rocker, still warm from her son’s body. She read through them all again. These women understood.

Ellen rested her head against the chair back, remembering. Michael was such a soulful child. From the first, he was different from his brothers. More sensitive. Less resilient when other kids taunted him, especially after his father left with that tramp from his office. Michael was only eight; his classmates barely knew what they were repeating, but they made her little boy cry, and then they mocked him for that, too. His brothers looked out for him as much as they could, but by the time Michael was in high school, the older boys were off at college and having their own lives, so nobody knew the bullying was getting worse. Michael never said anything. He spent more and more time in his room listening to that awful banging music all the kids liked, and sometimes he seemed distracted and just pushed his food around his plate instead of eating, but he never said he was having any problems at school. It wasn’t until afterward, when the police went through his room, that they found the journals and the drawings—those awful drawings she hoped somebody had burned. The things he wrote, where he ranted about how someday he’d get even. She could see how that might be misinterpreted.

If only he’d said something. She could have gotten him some help. She could have talked to the school, maybe even gotten them to stop the bullying. Maybe then things might have turned out differently. Because the person who did such a terrible thing—that wasn’t her son. She didn’t know who he was on that awful day, but he wasn’t her Michael.

Her Michael was the little boy who ran to her with a fistful of daisies on a summer day, his round face smudged with dirt, his laughter bubbling over as he tumbled into her lap. The boy who spent endless hours building fortresses with wooden blocks, who giggled when she sang silly songs as she bathed him, who snuggled against her when she read bedtime stories. That beautiful child, full of love and joy—that was her Michael, the real Michael.

A mother knew her child, knew all the truth that mattered. Even if nobody else seemed to.

Nobody, that is, except the other mothers—Neva and Mandee, Beth and Harmony and Sarah and the rest. Like a club nobody wanted to belong to, and yet their number grew each year. They kept track of each other, looked out for each other, remembered each other on special days when the rest of the world turned its back.

Ellen stood the cards up across the top of the piano, in between the photographs of her family. Then, she went out to the kitchen. Graham had put the leftovers in the refrigerator. She pulled out the half-empty champagne bottle and filled a fresh glass brimful. Carefully, without spilling a drop, she carried it back to the living room. There, she sat on the needlepoint piano bench, opened the keyboard cover, and raised her glass in a silent toast to the women who understood. She set it on the side table and began to sing softly, for their sons as well as her own.

“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word. . . .”


P. Jo Anne Burgh is an author and a lawyer. Her short fiction has been published in a variety of publications, and several of her stories have won or placed in literary contests. Her first novel, State v. Claus (Tuxedo Cat Press, 2020), and her first novella, My Brother, Romeo (Tuxedo Cat Press, 2021), both placed as finalists in the 2018 Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She is currently working on her second novel, a sequel to State v. Claus. She can be found online at; on Facebook at P. Jo Anne Burgh, Author; on Twitter at @PJoAnneBurgh, and on Instagram at @pjoanneburgh.

Photo: Christine Penney

September 2022