For Round 11 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest, we asked you to send a story in which a character finds something he or she has no intention of returning. The winning story for this round was "Reborn" by Ben Jahn of Richmond, Calif. Stories are published in their original form.
The love of his life had been married for five years before he met her, and dead for five days before he'd found out. Clandestine lovers weren't notified in the event of a tragedy. The police and medical examiners had waited days before releasing the names of those killed in the concert fire to the public.
The paper had published profiles of the victims, and that's where, halfway through his usual breakfast of a slice of toast and a banana, the news had found him.
The funeral had been yesterday, but, of course, he hadn't gone. How could he look at her husband, and her children, and explain away the grief that had become as much a part of his face as his nose?
Instead, he'd come to say goodbye on the same grass she'd died on. He wasn't alone. Shrines ringed the police barricade. Flowers, pictures and candles were woven into the temporary steel fence, the flotsam of a tide of communal sorrow.
As he looked now at the lawn, it was hard to imagine how anyone could have been crushed in such a wide open space, but the fire on stage had been fierce and thousands of people had packed the event.
It had been a country concert, of course.
"You know what you get if you play country music backwards?" he'd asked.
It had been a day as beautiful as today, with sunlight streaming across their bodies as they lay on a hotel bed and listened to an old song she'd just put on. Cash? George Jones? He'd have to look it up. Funny how he wanted to remember everything now, even that.
"That's such an old joke," she'd said.
He'd finished it anyway. "You get your wife back, your house back, your dog back ..."
She'd pushed him softly, "Stop it, you're making fun of me."
"Seriously, why do you like this stuff?" he'd said.
"Because it tells a story," she'd said. "Each song has its own life, they create their own reality."
"Yeah, but it's a depressing reality," he'd said. "Life's messy," she'd said and kissed him.
As he stood in front of one of the shrines, he saw something glint in the grass, just beyond the fence. He carefully stepped over the guttered candles and reached his fingers through the mesh of wire and pictures to dig after the glint that was smashed into the grass. It was an earring, gold with small stones, long and dangling.
He'd never seen it before.
She'd have liked it.
They'd never given each other anything, every trace of their relationship had to be hidden: text messages deleted, evenings accounted for with plausible alibis, clothes washed to remove cloying traces of foreign scents. His only picture of her was the one that had accompanied her profile in the paper. The only footprints left by the passing of their love were in his mind, and he could already feel their edges eroding.
Without his really deciding on it, the earring became hers. He could see her wearing it, smiling at him across a table or from the other side of a rental car. He'd given it to her, and now he'd found it again.
This one small thing would bear evidence to their love, to its existence. Like her country songs, he'd create his own reality.
"Life's messy," he thought, as he turned away.