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First Prize
$1,000 Award


by Carla Burns

“Jordan from Akron, you’re on Wild Kat Radio with Danny Daring. You got a crazy ex story for us?”

“Uh, yeah, total Stacy’s Mom scenario. You know, back when nailing a cougar wasn’t taboo?”

Danny cackled around a mouthful of radioactive orange Cheetos. Typical midnight hour confession. He couldn’t get enough of the stuff. He kept his ear on the caller and his eyes on the newest intern, a slacker college kid who wouldn’t last long if he kept nodding off on the job. Another call came in, jolting the poor chump awake.

“It was totally weird, man. She kept, like, fixing my shirt collar and getting mad if I didn’t do my homework.”

Danny grinned. “Moms, am I right? Anyway, thanks for calling in, man. Appreciate you. Don’t go chasing cougars, or whatever the hell that TLC song says.” The intern held up a notecard with the name Brenda written in chicken scratch, and Danny switched to the other line. “Hey Brenda from Cincinnati, you’re on the air with Danny Daring.” In the background, Blink-182’s “First Date” filled the airwaves.

“Yes,” a woman’s voice replied. “Hello. I’m …” She broke off, and Danny popped another Cheeto into his mouth. “I’m sorry,” she said, and he could hear a fist-sized lump of tears in her throat. “This is so silly. I’m calling because WKAT was my son’s favorite radio station, and he … he took his own life this past weekend, and I think I just … I needed to feel close to him, is all.”

Hell. Danny leaned back in his chair and glared at the intern, who seemed suddenly and deeply fascinated with his checkered shoelaces. Hadn’t he asked her what she wanted to talk about before he let her through? “I’m sorry to hear that, Brenda,” Danny replied. “What was your son’s name?”

“Wes,” came the tearful reply. “Wes Evans. He would have been fifteen in May.”

“Why don’t you tell me about him?”

It took several seconds for Brenda to get ahold of herself. In the meantime, Danny put the Cheetos aside and began clicking through playlists, wading in a sea of Hoobastank, Newfound Glory, Green Day, My Chemical Romance.

“Well,” Brenda began, “like I said, he really loved this station. Always played his music way too loud, but I never told him to turn it down because I remembered what it was like being his age.”

Danny kept scrolling, but his mind was elsewhere. A winter day in 1982. His older brother’s dirty sneakers dangling above the garage floor. His mother screaming and screaming like she’d never stop.

Danny was eleven then, a shitty age for anybody, but especially in the eighties when boys were expected to suck things up. A decent shrink might have told him that constantly sucking it up had killed his brother, had led Danny to a career in radio, where he could turn insomnia into productivity and take the piss out of everything. But his father had never let him see a shrink, so what did he know?

“He was on the baseball team,” Brenda continued. “A great pitcher. He wanted to play in the major leagues someday.”

Danny hadn’t consciously thought about his brother in years, but now he closed his eyes, conjured up his crooked bottom front teeth, the scar on his calf from when he’d cut it trying to scale the neighbor’s fence, the bedroom decorated in posters of cars and girls. He pictured him standing at the bathroom sink, rinsing shaving cream off his razor. You wanna shave, too? Your balls ain’t even dropped yet, you little creep.

“He had dreams,” Brenda sobbed. “How does someone with dreams just … leave like that? I don’t understand.”

Danny heard a sniffle. The piece-of-shit intern wiped his cheeks with the back of his hand. First he didn’t do his job, then he had the audacity to get emotional? He was so fired.

“Listen Brenda,” Danny said, “life is just too small for some people. The day-in, day-out shit like grocery shopping, paying bills, going to college, mowing the lawn—it’s not enough for them. Their souls are too big for that crap, so they set themselves free. I’m not saying it’s right, or that it’s fair, or that it’s an answer to a world going to hell in a handbasket.

“But when you think of Wes, picture him playing in the major leagues with the stars. Think of everything he’s going to become now that he isn’t weighed down by the mundane bullshit of life. And when you see him again someday, I’m sure he’ll come running to tell you all about it.”

Brenda’s breath hitched, and he remembered his mother, curled up on his brother’s bed, clutching his football jersey to her chest.

“This next song,” Danny said, “goes out to Wes Evans of Cincinnati, Ohio, fan of WKAT Radio, son of Brenda, major league pitcher for the stars. Brenda, you take care of yourself, you hear?”

Brenda sobbed again. “I will. Thank you.”

The line went dead, and Danny queued Jimmy Eat World’s “Hear You Me” to play after the recorded phone call. He pushed his chair back and ordered the intern to keep the show going while he was in the can. Then he left the studio office and walked down the hall, the fluorescent lights and gray-speckled white walls making him wince. He pulled out his phone, dialed the number he’d known by heart since he was seven years old, and lifted it to his ear.

“Hi, Ma. Sorry, I know it’s late,” he said, thinking of Brenda, of the thousands of mothers mourning children they never should have lost. “Oh, not much. Just missed ya.”

“Hear You Me” by Jimmy Eat World

Carla Burns has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Western Colorado University. She refuses to stick to one genre, which is sure to vex a literary agent someday. Under her maiden name, Carla Mercado, she published a short story in Flash Bang Mysteries and won a Covid-19-themed writing contest hosted by Western Colorado University. After three years in northern Japan, she settled down in Denver, Colorado so she wouldn’t miss the mountains. You can find her at

December 2023