2016 Fiction Contest Winner ~ Natalie Sypolt

Congratulations to Natalie Sypolt of Kingwood, West Virginia on her winning story, "The Sound of Holding Your Breath." Fiction contest judge Amy Greene writes of Natalie's story, "In polished prose, ‘The Sound of Holding Your Breath’ skillfully introduces vivid characters and unfolds a suspenseful plot within the tight confines of the short story form. It’s an admirable example of short fiction working at its very best.”

The Sound of Holding Your Breath


            When Clint comes inside, I don’t ask him where he’s been. It’s raining hard. A giant puddle has formed in our front yard and some scrawny ducks have found it. I am watching them out the kitchen window as they glide around and dip their heads down into the big mud hole when I hear the screen door thwack shut behind me.

            “Hello, honey,” I say. I hope that he’ll come up behind me, put his arms around my waist and hug me close to him. The kitchen feels thick and heavy. I finger the tiny crucifix at my throat and say, “Still raining?”

            “It is.”

            “I think it never will stop this time,” I say, and a duck pops out of the puddle and ruffles his feathers. He shakes like a wet dog. “Better build an ark.”

            Clint takes his wet boots off by the door, like the good boy he is. I glance at him over my shoulder and see that he is shaking his head too, like the duck, like a dog, and little drops of water are flying around the kitchen. His hair is getting long. “You should let me cut that mop of yours tonight. It’s starting to look pretty shaggy,” I say, though I know he will not let me cut his hair. He is on pause, waiting. At first, I couldn’t even get him to eat or drink anything. He wouldn’t shower or change his clothes. He just watched out the back porch door and waited. I finally convinced him that he had to act more normal, and if the police came down our drive, he had to be like his old self, or we’d be done for.

            I saw the lights early this morning, while he was still asleep. Our closest neighbor. It is too far away to see the cars, but in the dark early morning, I could see the red and the blue flashing up above the tree tops.

            I waited an hour until the sun was higher and driving by on my way to town wouldn’t look so suspicious. I left Clint a note: “Went in to the market. Don’t go out there today.”

            I drove slow past Rob’s place. It was like always, the house lopsided as if the right side was sinking into the ground; the white paint chipping off the porch; the old red truck and the nice little blue car parked out in front. There were two police cars in the driveway—one of the old white broncos that Sanders or Pete drove, and one of the newer, shinier blue cruisers from the Sheriff's department. They were inside, so there was no way to tell the level of concern, who was taking what seriously. I imagined them sitting around the kitchen table, cups of weak coffee getting cold as Rob’s wife Tiffany wiped mascara across her cheeks. His truck was in the driveway, but she hadn’t seen him in about three days.

            I imagined Tiffany pounding the table with her tiny little fists, crying harder as Pete or Sanders patted her shoulder, and the deputy, whichever one had been unlucky enough to be sent all the way out to our skinny dirt roads, squirmed uncomfortably. Crystal didn’t understand—she never could—because she came here already grown. You have to be here from the start, born out into the dirt and the woods and the mountains and the close inside feeling—like me, like Clint, like Rob—to really know.

            Some days I feel off my axis, wobbly or spinning, but today I feel sharp and clear.

            I don’t know how to explain the quiet here, except to say that there are chirping birds and leaves rustling, but the loudest sound is the nothingness. The house has been in Clint’s family for generations. It is tall and has those windows in the front that look like eyes, always watching me, like it just took a big breath and is waiting to breathe out, if only I’d get out of the way. Maybe that’s the way to describe the quiet: it’s the sound of holding your breath.

            The quiet is a little less when Clint is here.

            This morning when I got home and Clint was gone, the house stared at me in the breath-holding way. I went inside, slammed the kitchen door, and almost immediately the sky grew dark and the rain came, hard like bullets.

            Rob James grew up in that lopsided house out the road. His daddy worked a dirt farm for most of his life, worked himself to death to try and raise a little corn, a little patch of beans and tomatoes. Baking his brain in the hot summer sun to cut the hay for his few skinny cows. He died on that tractor the summer I was 13. Rob was friends with my older brother Patrick, and his daddy paid Pat a dollar a day to help in the hay fields.

            Rob’s dad died on that tractor. He always drove in perfect lines. Pat said that the way they first knew something was wrong was because the tractor started going off course, left to the tree line instead of straight ahead. They were shouting at him, then running because they saw that he had slumped over in his seat. Finally, he fell out and they all watched as the big back tire of the tractor rolled over his body. At least the baler missed him.

            Rob was over at our house a lot that summer. He and Pat would walk down to the creek out back to fish or catch crawdads. I’d follow along when they let me, or when they didn’t see me. Sometimes Rob’s older brother would drive us all to Flat Rocks, a popular swimming hole where the water ran over smooth rocks, creating perfect natural water slides. I was never graceful like my brother or the other boys—I was always a little too fat, a little too clumsy—and would end up falling before I was ready, slipping and bruising a knee or elbow.

            The water collected in a whirling pool at the bottom, and our bodies would bash together. The boys would push each other under. I’d bob around and splash, until I felt a hand on my ankle, knee, thigh, then I’d scream and kick. I was the only girl, but I didn’t feel different. I was included, and that’s all I ever wanted. When Rob would snap the strap of my swimsuit, I’d squeal and try to punch him. 

            Good and bad can be so close together. We all are always brushing up against the line. Evil doesn’t exist. The evil thing is just the quick other side of the beautiful thing. It’s the mouth full of blood next to the boy’s hand moving higher. 

            That year Pat had a job bagging groceries at the market, and Mom and Dad worked until 6.  I don’t know how Rob knew I’d be there alone, but I guess when you live in a place like this, everybody knows everything. The first time he showed up, he said he was looking for Pat. He was 16 then and his mom let him drive the Farm Use truck. He didn’t come every day, but just about, and if I ever told him to leave, I can’t remember.

            Rob started asking if I wanted to go swimming, and he’d tell me to put on my bathing suit, but then we wouldn’t go. He’d look at me and say something like, “When you gonna lose that baby fat, Marley?” He’d want to watch tv or play Monopoly. He’d sit on his side of the table, and I’d sit on mine, but he’d tell me not to waste time changing my clothes. Then, sometimes when we were watching tv, he’d put his hand on my knee or my thigh.

            When he started asking me if I wanted to go back into my bedroom, I’m sure I said no. I didn’t cry, but once I bit the inside of my lip so hard it bled into my mouth. I think I said no.

            Good and bad can be so close together. We all are always brushing up against the line. Evil doesn’t exist. The evil thing is just the quick other side of the beautiful thing. It’s the mouth full of blood next to the boy’s hand moving higher.

            I never told. I bled and cried; Rob threw up and swore never to come back, but he did, and then hated himself again. When Pat got fired from the market and started coming home with me after school, Rob was released from his own horrible self, and never spoke to me again.

            No one ever knew but me and Rob, and it was the slimy grey thread that kept us always attached. We circled each other, but never spoke, never touched. I always knew what he was doing, though. I always caught him out of the corner of my eye. When he got arrested for driving drunk, I knew, and later when it was the pills, I knew that too. Even that one year when I went away, thinking that I could be a college girl, I kept up with Rob through my parents or Pat.

            Then I came home, and there was Clint, the same fair haired boy I’d always known. He’d always been there, just on the outskirts of my gaze. Once I learned how to focus, it all made sense. We got married, and we moved into his parents’ house. They moved to town, but still show up unexpectedly to mow the grass or mop the kitchen.

            Every day I passed the lopsided house. Sometimes I saw Rob out in his yard. I’d slow my car down, and we’d lock eyes, then he’d duck his head and shuffle off.

            Clint is sweet. He has little ambition beyond keeping the house in order, making enough money at his job with the State Road to feed us and keep us warm. He wants a baby and I don’t mind the idea. We have been trying for over a year and every time we fail, I feel Clint getting a little smaller.

            One day earlier this year, Rob’s old truck was not alone in his driveway. There was this little shiny blue car, and Clint joked about how that thing was never going to move once the snow started. Something had changed.

            I asked around, and I found out there was a woman behind the little blue car, a woman with the ridiculous name of Tiffany who was from somewhere else—Columbus or Dayton—someplace flat. I asked my mom how they met, and she said that some people were saying on the internet.

            “I bet she sure was shocked when she got here,” I said, but Mom just shrugged her shoulders.

            “People in town say she seems real nice, and is pretty. And you know, I ain’t heard anybody say a thing about Rob causing trouble down at the Golden Egg for a while now. I guess maybe he’s turning it around.”

             Then the little blue car showed up in my driveway, and out of it stepped a blonde woman-child wearing high heeled boots that sank into the mud. I wanted to laugh as I watched her struggle from the kitchen window, but somehow instead of her looking silly, her sinking boot just made us look poor.

            She walked around the car—her heel sticking just about every other step—opened the passenger side door, and took out a domed cake plate.

            When she knocked, instead of moving over to answer the door, I slumped down against the bottom cupboard. I pulled my knees up to my chest and waited as she knock, knock, knocked. Called “Hullo?” in her high sugar voice.

            She finally gave up, and I heard the car drive away, but I waited a few minutes anyway, just to be safe, before getting up from my hiding spot.

            She’d left the cake plate on the welcome mat, along with a note that said “Happy to Meet You!” in pretty, curling letters. The cake was not so pretty, uneven and frosted with some toxic pink buttercream.

            Later, I scraped the whole thing into the trash.

            According to my mother, Tiffany spent a lot of time in town. She shopped and went to the library. She was going to volunteer for the blood drive. She was charming everyone right out of their pants with her can-do attitude. Every time she came to my door knock, knock, knocking, I hid in a dark corner or in an upstairs bedroom until she left. The cake plate sat unwashed on my counter.

            She came up on my porch three, maybe four times. Once, I was upstairs and could watch her from above as she tried to peek in our windows to see if anyone was home. I thought about spitting on her head, or maybe dropping something heavy—just to scare her off.

            Finally, it was Rob’s old red truck that came bouncing towards the house. He sat in the truck for a long time before opening the door, but then his steps were quick. He stomped up the driveway and was on the porch, pounding on the door so hard it liked to shake the entire house. 

            “Marley, come open the goddamned door,” he said. “I come for Mama’s cake plate.”

            I should have slumped back into the kitchen corner. Or opened the window over the sink and tossed the cake plate as far as I could. Instead, though, I patted down my hair, picked up the cake plate, and calmly walked to the door.

            I opened it just as Rob lifted his fist to pound again, stopping just before punching me in the face. I flinched, but didn’t jump back.

            “I come for Mama’s cake plate,” he said again. It had been a long time since I’d really seen him up close. His dark hair was cut close to his head, but I could tell that it was starting to thin. His face was skinny and the skin looked stretched tight, tiny lines around his eyes and mouth. Nose, cheek bones, chin—all sharp angles.

            “You didn’t have to try and bust the door down,” I said. My voice cracked and I felt as though these were the first words I’d said in a long time, in years maybe.

            “I wanted to make sure you heard me since you didn’t seem to ever hear Tiffany when she came by.”

            “Maybe I wasn’t here,” I said and took a step out the door. Rob took a step back.

            “I ‘spect you were, in there hiding like some little kid.”

            “Why would I do that? Do you think I’m afraid of your little girlfriend? I never asked her to come out here in the first place, you know.”

            “Wife,” Rob said, almost spitting the word at me. He took a step forward, and I did not back up. “Tiffany is my wife, and I got sick of seeing her come home sad because some stuck up bitch out the road wouldn’t answer the door when all she was trying to be was nice.”

            I felt slapped. Being called stuck up was about the worst thing you could be called. It meant you were full of pride, felt better than your neighbors, above your raising.

            “You best watch what you say to me, Rob James. Don’t push me too far.”

            “That supposed to be some sort of threat? You don’t even know me, Marley,” Rob laughed, a mean little laugh just to show how unafraid he was still, after all these years. It was like no time had passed, really.

            “I sure knew you once,” I said, my voice low. All the parts of me were colliding—I couldn’t stop them. I was anger and wickedness; fear and open, pulsating need.

            “Christ Almighty!” Rob said. “That was a hundred years ago. We was just kids.”

            “I was just a kid,” I said. “And if I told wifey the next time she comes snooping around, I bet that’s how she’d see it, too.”

            Before I had time to think, Rob had grabbed me hard by the shoulders and pushed me up against the wall. In his eyes was a darkness I remembered, and I knew he wasn’t so different, wasn’t so changed from the boy who’d told me to put on my swimsuit, who’d left finger shaped bruises on my pale, fleshy thigh.

            “You always were crazy,” Rob said, his face so close to me now that I could feel his moist breath on my lips. His grip on my arms hurt and I tried to push him away, but he held me fast, shook me a little so that my head bounced off the wall. “Watching me, asking about me. You think I didn’t know? I always knew what you were up to.”

            “Let me go,” I said.

            “I love my wife,” Rob said, now nearly breathing into my mouth. “You leave us both be. You hear me?”

            “You did this,” I said, pushing my face so close to his that our lips nearly touched. “You connected us. Can’t undo it now.” I latched on to his lip, biting him hard. I tasted the blood again, his blood filling my mouth, his rubbery flesh between my teeth.

            Rob screamed, the sound muffled from my bite, and released me. He lifted his arm and slammed me across the left side of my head. I fell hard on the splintered porch floor, my ear ringing and on fire.

            “You crazy bitch,” Rob said, and spat his own mouthful of blood. He took a step towards me, but I did not back up. I did not slink away.

            Then Rob was the one moving through the air, his eyes wide as Clint pulled him backwards by his collar. Rob was tall, but skinny and no match for Clint’s strong arms.

            “What the hell?” Clint said as Rob whirled around to face him.

            “Whoa,” Rob said and put his hands up. Then I started to scream. I don’t remember what I said. It could have been something about Rob, about touching my thigh, holding me down, swimsuits. It could have been about 20 years ago, but Clint only heard today.

            I screamed and screamed. I couldn’t stop screaming.

            I do believe that we were put on the road to this moment a long time ago, and there was nothing that could have stopped it from happening. Ever since that day at Flat Rocks when a boy accidentally touched me under the water, and could not stop touching me. Every day had been leading to this. It has to be so.

            How else could you explain the push, nothing more than a hard tap on Rob’s shoulders, that sent him off the edge of the porch? His arms windmilled. He disappeared.

            Clint stood on the edge, staring down. I finally stood and came up behind my husband, who could already tell the truth.

            People survive amazing accidents all the time. They fall from silos, get thrown through windshields. They get shot and stabbed and nearly drowned, but they live. Rob fell from our front porch and landed just right, his head bashing against one of Clint’s mother’s ugly lawn statues: a little stone girl holding a watering can.

            Rob was not moving, and he was not just knocked out cold. His eyes were staring upward. There was blood on the little girl. “Shit,” I said.

            “I’ll call 911,” Clint said and started towards the door, but I stopped him.

            “You can’t.”

            “Christ, Marley. I got to.”

            “Why? What’s done is done and you getting locked up isn’t going to help any of that.”

            “But I had to,” Clint stammered. “They’ll see. He was hurting you.” I shook my head and put my hands on Clint’s face. He was crying. He was a little boy. I kissed him, forgetting that I had Rob’s blood still on my mouth.

            “You can’t, Clint. They won’t understand.” Clint was shaking, crying harder and harder. I never could stand to see a man cry, so I pulled his head down to my shoulder. “We’ll take care of this,” I said. “It will be okay.

            The only way to go about it was to pretend it was a movie, and we were actors playing a role that someone else wrote for us.

            I drove past Rob’s house first, to make sure the little blue car was gone. Tiffany was volunteering at the library, like she did every other weekday until five. I pulled in the driveway and called Clint, who came shortly in Rob’s truck. I made sure that he parked it just how Rob would have. I put the cake plate on the kitchen counter, and left the truck keys laying right next to it.

            When we got home, I cleaned the blood off the stone girl.

            He’d handled Rob’s body all himself—wouldn’t even let me see where he’d dug the hole—and I’m proud of him for that. He said that he dug out the space under one of the big, flat rocks that jutted out, and I hoped it was the one that the big sugar maple tree grew next to. It was smart to dig under that rock, and then put Clint in deep. It’d be nearly impossible to see there, and Clint said that after he’d packed the dirt back in, he’d scattered around leaves and twigs and made it look as normal as he could. Now, if he’d just stay away.

            Every day he goes out there, disappears for hours, and when he comes home he reeks of woods and doubt and regret. He has not been back to work, and if he doesn’t go in tomorrow, people will start to ask questions. That’s why tonight I am going to tell him about the baby.

            I imagine it, a wiggly little tadpole thing in my belly. It is not there yet, but it will be. It was all supposed to happen just this way, and now the baby will come and it will bring Clint back. He will resurface, like a soldier coming home from war, and accept that he has done things that were ugly but necessary.

            When did I see Clint first? Was it before I bit Rob’s lip or after?

            Tiffany will have to go back to Ohio. When she came up my drive that first time, I saw her shirt starting to stretch around the little bump of her belly. If the little blue car comes up my drive again, this time I’ll make friends, and convince her that this is no place for a city girl, alone with a baby. If you aren’t from here, you just can’t understand.

            I hear Clint stomping back down the stairs. He has changed out of his wet clothes and is wearing new ones that look almost just the same—black t-shirt, jeans. His socks are gone, and something about his bare white feet is so tender, so vulnerable, that I want to hug him tight. I only want to keep him safe, inside.

            “Them ducks still out there?” he asks me.

            “Sure are,” I say, and rub my belly, trying again to conjure that picture of a little Clint, a little Marley, baby-worm.

            “You were out in the woods again.” I don’t ask, and Clint doesn’t answer. “You have to stop, honey.”

            “I can’t just let it go,” he says.

            “You have to,” I say, and take a deep breath. “You have to, for the sake of the baby.”

            I feel Clint breathe in behind me. Then, his arms encircle me, his hands spread out over my belly. Familiar and good. All right. He kisses my neck, and then leaves his head there.

            I want the rain to stop, for a rainbow to stretch across the sky, but it does not. The sky is grey, the puddle grows. A duck’s head disappears again, and I hold my breath until he resurfaces, shaking, enjoying the storm.


Natalie Sypolt lives and writes in North Central West Virginia where she works as an Assistant Professor of English at a local community college. Her work has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Glimmer Train, Willow Springs Review, and Kenyon Review Online, among other fine journals. She is also a fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; and the winner of the Glimmer Train New Writes Award, the West Virginia Fiction Competition, and the Betty Gabehart prize. Natalie also serves as an editor for the Anthology of Appalachian Writers.


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