Short Story Contest
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About Tara Cottrell
For 26-year-old Tara Cottrell, the hardest part of writing is "finding the time to do it."
When she's not taking a class or involved with a writing group, she has trouble making writing a priority. "I don't write without pressure," she said. Lately, as a production manager for a busy Internet start-up in Silicon Valley, her writing has been mostly limited to content for the company Web site.
It's not the initial idea for a story that can be tricky for Cottrell; it's bringing all the elements together.
"I'll have all the dialogue and details. It's the structure of the story that's the hardest for me," she said.
Sometimes, to prevent frustration, she works on two or more projects at the same time. "I'll jump back and forth between two things--not for the goal of getting them done faster but because I'll get tired of one or think it's not going anywhere," she said.
For "Dying With the Last," Cottrell says she was inspired by the media's fascination with domestic violence and abusive relationships. She noticed that, frequently, "people have the tendency to forget that the relationship didn't start out horrible," she said. She was determined to convey the issue's complexity without relying on stereotypes or pat sentiments. "I wanted to write about this subject without it being cliched," she said.
She brought the first draft to her writing group last spring and received valuable advice on portraying her main character.
"Everyone complained that she wasn't sorry enough--that she should have felt more guilty," she said. It was an arduous task to keep the balance, Cottrell found. "I didn't want to cross either line. I didn't want it to be a vengeful thing (when the main character kills her abuser), and I didn't want her feeling bad for everything that happened," she said.
In the future, the Palo Alto resident looks forward to taking another writing class in January with a teacher from UC Berkeley Extension. Taking these classes helps, she said, because "more than anything else, it's a deadline."
--Kate Manning

Dying With the Last

by Tara Cottrell

The judge at trial today, upset that no one on the jury agreed with his take on the situation, turned to me and said: "You madam, are the most shockingly unremorseful woman I have ever had the displeasure of having in my courtroom." But he knew better than anyone that remorse was not the issue here and he had to let me go. I ducked past my lawyer who tried to hug me. I walked out of the cool courtroom, past a jabbering college newspaper reporter and into the sun. I took three busses to the other side of town. It was as far as I could go. Now I sit in this pathetic Chinese restaurant that no one ever comes to, wondering if I will ever be known for anything but this.
I think as I wait for the waitress that I am lucky Tucson is not a small town. And in my favor it is spread out. Asphalt grows weary of fighting desert and ends in dust and washes in every direction. Newspapers are sold by sweaty men standing at left turn lights and are bought as an afterthought. And so my relative celebrity is more or less confined to the college campus. For that I am thankful.
The waitress, clearly not Chinese, comes to my table, eyes me curiously and says: "The special today is ginger beef." I place my order and watch as she walks away, bends her head and whispers to the man behind the counter. I can tell from here she is saying: "Don't look now." It is a strategy that never works and so he looks now and meets my eyes. He looks away quickly, he knows who I am.
I killed Jimmy Didion on a warm starry night last June. He had been banging on my door for what seemed like hours. I hid in the bedroom, listening to the door rattle in its hinges. Minutes would pass when there would be no knocking, just the steady, high pitched drone of the cicadas. I imagined him pausing, putting his ear to the door, listening for my breath. I wondered how it had gotten this bad, how I had been reduced to hiding, lying cheek down on the carpet of my own apartment so he couldn't see me through the window. But I knew. I knew that I hadn't called the police the first time, the second or the third. When I did and the policeman, who had seen women like me from beginning to end, pleaded with me to press charges, I said I would think about it. He knew that I wouldn't. He handed me a list of numbers, support groups, crisis centers and shelters. On the back he'd scribbled: "If you don't leave with the first punch, you'll die with the last." I folded the paper into fourths along with the petition for a restraining order and put the papers beneath the mattress, right next to the love letters Jimmy had written me.
The banging began again, this time accompanied by his foot kicking at the door. I turned my head and pressed my face into the carpet. I thought: "Knock until your knuckles bleed, Jimmy, I am not opening the door." I heard him trying to get in the window. He yelled into the glass: "I know you're in there you, stupid bitch." I thought about letting him in. He would hit or scream or yell. He would break something. I would have him arrested this time. I would photograph the split lip. I would transfer schools, change my name and always check the rear view mirror.
The waitress brings soup and asks if I would like lemon in my iced tea. She smiles at me when she says this. She tells me my order is almost up and opens her mouth like she is going to say something else but doesn't. She chews at the inside of her cheek. Jimmy used to do that when he was nervous. I used to think it was endearing. I spoon soup into my mouth. It tastes so much better when you're sad.
As I drink my soup, I think how easy it is to call the police when you don't know the person behind the door, trying to get in. How easy to run without stopping when you don't know the man who wants to kill you. When he is a stranger and a criminal. In the movies, the girl on the screen doesn't see that the charming man's firm grip on her arm is a sign of worse things to come. "You idiot," everyone says to the screen. But they forget. They forget that she loved him one time and that she lay in bed with him at night. They forget that she fell in love with him because he remembered she hated mushrooms. They think he was always this way. But no one falls in love with a monster. Not anyone.
Just after we met, Jimmy took me up to Phoenix to see a concert. On the way back on I-10 a bumblebee got caught in the wiper blade. It flailed against the window in slow motion, the wind pushing it into the windshield. I watched it for a few miles, legs rotating uselessly, hoping it would either die or set itself free. I glanced over at Jimmy and saw him notice it too. Without saying anything, he pulled over. He walked around to the front of the car, lifted the blade up, and the bee wearily flew off. It doesn't seem like much of a reason to fall in love with someone, but it was.
A half an hour passed with me on the floor. He knew I was home, he'd probably watched me through the window before knocking. He knew I would grow weary of waiting for him to leave, because I always did. Something had to give. I would open the door because it was the only way to stop the knocking. Which is exactly what I did. I opened the door and stepped into him, chest to chest. I shut the door behind me. I wanted this to happen outside. He said something, it felt like I was holding a shell to my ears, nothing but static and ocean. I had to concentrate very hard, had to watch his lips move to understand. He asked me who was in the house with me. I shook my head, no one. Very slowly he said: "You're seeing someone aren't you, you slut." I smiled at him because I didn't care what he said anymore. He pushed me with his arm so that I was against the window. He raised his voice and said: "What the f------ are you smiling about?" I said: "Jimmy, I do not love you anymore." He punched me this time. Hard against the jaw, teeth shutting on my tongue. I kept my head down. I noticed the cicadas had stopped their deafening hum. I thought, as I tasted the metallic tang of blood about the first time he hit me and how sorry he was. How very sorry. How he came back to me and sobbed like a baby and rocked himself like a monkey in a wire cage.
He stood there waiting for me to raise my head again so he could yell in my face. "Why can't you just leave me alone?" I whispered. He grabbed my hair and banged my forehead into the doorknob. I stood up straight so that my back was against the door. I braced myself in the door jam and and kicked his knee, his bad knee that he tore playing basketball. He buckled for a second and I screamed in his ear to leave me alone. He came at me like a battering ram with his head in my stomach and I hit the stuccoed wall with a thud. I kneed him in the face and heard a crack. For one splendid second I thought: "I've broken his nose."
I knew then that I had already done enough damage for me to get back into the apartment, lock the door and call the police. But I did not go inside. I stepped back, extended my arms and lunged towards him, shoving him with the heels of my hands. I put all my weight behind it. He stepped back, once, twice, then three times. He didn't remember the stairs. He fell backwards, clipping his foot on a concrete step before losing his balance completely and smashing down the stairs, grabbing for the iron railing on the way down. He came to a stop at the last step. The back of his head snapped back and hit the ground with what sounded like a splash. His neck was at a funny angle. He did not move. I walked inside, called 911 and turned on the B-side of a Public Enemy album, because the only music that won't make you cry is rap.
The prosecuting attorney loved that part of my testimony. He strutted to the stand, turned to the jury to watch their reaction and asked: "And what did you do when you saw that he might be dead?" My lawyer visibly flinched when I said, "I went inside and put on some music." The panel, mostly women, thinking they were there to score one for the abused women of the world, did not flinch. A few may have even smiled. At recess my lawyer said curtly, "Your composure could hurt us here. Show them you are sorry." I wanted to peel my own skin off and begin again. I wondered if that was sorry.
When the waitress brings my order she says something and at first, I don't hear her. She says it again; "I know who you are."
She smiles widely: "You're the girl that killed that wife beater?"
"I was not his wife." I say.
"Well, you know. Boyfriend, whatever, I think you did a good thing. Just don't listen to those people that say you did it on purpose, I know it was self-defense. I know you probably didn't really mean to have him die, right?"
"No. I didn't," I say. I pull the chopsticks from the paper wrapper. I hope she takes this as a hint to leave me be. She doesn't.
"So how are you doing, are you going to jail?" She asks.
"No."
"That's good, I can't believe you even had to go to trial. I go to U of A, and I saw an article in the school paper. He sounds like a psycho." She spirals her finger round and round her ear to show me what psycho looks like.
"Mmm, maybe."
She looks uncomfortable. She doesn't like my answers.
"Well anyway, I'm just glad he's dead," She says.
This strikes me as odd, that personally she is glad. She never knew Jimmy Didion but she thinks I have done her a favor.
I put down my chopsticks and look up at her. I want to say something about how I wish I'd called the police the first time, so it hadn't come to this. I want to tell her he was not born poison. I want to slide out of the booth and run until land hits water and then I want to swim. I wish I were a cheetah that could run seventy miles an hour across the Serengeti plain. But I am a girl who killed a boy by accident and I feel as if I am swallowing glass.
She is waiting for me to say something like "Thanks for the support" or "Me too." Something to say we are on the same team. But I can't.


The author's imaginative use of description makes this a strong story. Her sharp eye for the small but telling details that create memorable characters is everywhere evident--from the girl who plays rap music after killing her lover because rap is the only music that doesn't make you cry, to the violent boyfriend who pulls over on the highway to release a bee caught in his windshield wiper. Though the story tackles a subject as "politically incorrect" as spousal abuse, it is executed in an off-beat and interesting manner that keeps both the characters and their sad mutual entrapment quite vivid."
--Linda Gray Sexton

"With impressive economy, this story brings fresh insight and a provocative perspective to a topic all too often in the news and the subject of television dramas. Its action in the past, its setting static, and its narrator both a killer and a victim, "Dying With the Last" takes a huge chance that pays off for the reader."
--Tom Parker

"In this fierce story, a tale of violence winds around a thread of tenderness. The author's genius lies in an ability to make us remember the tenderness. "No one falls in love with a monster," the narrator says, forcing us to examine the boundaries of compassion. I admire this author for tackling anguish with no sentimentality and much courage."
--Pam Gullard