City of Fairfax Short Story Contest Winner 2021

Rock Bottom

“I’m taking Rocco out,” Bryce shouted up the stairs. No response--no matter. His mom and stepdad didn’t seem to care what he did these days.

“Calm,” he ordered Rocco, a massive German Shepherd who flailed around, climbing and descending the same two steps. “If you keep freaking out, then it’ll be even longer before we can go outside.” Whose idea was it to get this dog, anyway?

Rocco went straight for the trail in the woods behind the row of townhouses across the street. It was funny how you could overlook things right in front of your eyes when you were busy all the time. Bryce didn’t even know this path in the woods existed--almost a mile, extending to Dale Lestina Park across the street from Mosby Woods Pool--back in the Before Time.

Not that he was happy everything stopped the way it did. He’d been on his way to the state championship for winter track and he remembered this feeling of excitement like his life was about to begin, as if he was truly going to get that scholarship his stepdad always talked about. Now how was he going to get a scholarship? Uploading a video of himself running through the woods? At this rate, he was better off trying to make it as some kind of ridiculous TikTok star.

“Rocco!” he shouted. The dog had lurched forward going after some scent, nearly pulling Bryce’s arm out of the socket. “I swear to god.” He shook his head.

Rocco was sniffing around a fresh stump. It was crazy how bored Bryce had gotten: he’d memorized the trees in the woods and now he knew when one of them was different.

He took a step closer. On top of the stump was something that stood out--something obviously not a part of nature. It was a smooth, round rock, just about the size of his palm. It was painted tie-dye with a big purple heart in the center.

Bryce shook his head. “Well isn’t that just the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen, Rocco?” He couldn’t believe he’d said it out loud. That was what quarantine was doing to him--turning him into a crazy person. 

He couldn’t stand all the fake positivity around him. The dumb mindfulness journals from his teachers on his laptop screen, the lame weekly workouts his track coach posted on YouTube, the endless live streams from bands no one cared about anymore. Now some kind of hippie art project in the woods? It was too much. Why was everyone trying so hard to act like everything was okay when it wasn’t?

He thought about how his mom used to do painting projects with him when he was little, but she had gradually stopped suggesting them. That made him even madder.

Just then, Rocco turned away to do his business. It was funny--as annoying as the dog was, sometimes he acted like a person. Embarrassed. Shy.

He grabbed a bag from his pocket to pick up the dog poop. He tied the bag up and held it out in front of him. This Safeway bag of dog poop was much more representative of his feelings than a tie-dye rock with a heart. He placed it on top of the rock.

“Hope that gives them the message, Rocco.”

As he continued walking on the path, he almost started to feel bad for what he’d done. But then he remembered all the reasons he had to be angry at the universe: his stepdad just lost his job and it seemed unclear if they were going to be able to afford the mortgage. His mom wanted him to start working at Freddy’s to help pay the bills. What was he supposed to do, log on to his online classes from the drive-thru? On top of all that, there was a girl on his track team, Andrea, who he had been working up the courage to ask out right before the school closed. He’d sent her a couple of SnapChats, but he was starting to hear from her less and less. Her dad had diabetes, so her parents were locking her down and not letting her see anyone at all. No one on his team had seen her in weeks, not even posting on social media. He was worried about her, her mental health and everything, even though that sounded like a cheesy thing one of his teachers would say in an online “social-emotional learning” check-in.

The next day, he got in a fight with his mom about the job application to Freddy’s. She wanted him to put that he was available to work five days a week. He thought two days a week was already more than generous since he was basically going to be volunteering his time. It annoyed him to think of his future coworkers, who were probably saving up for a car or a video game or just to take a girl out on a date or something. All of his money would go to depressing things. The gas bill. The water bill. The roof over their heads.

He stormed off with Rocco, not even saying anything this time. Honestly, they were lucky just to have someone to walk that big, dumb dog. When he didn’t get enough walks, he got destructive. One time, he ate a mattress in the basement.

Rocco went to the trail again. He seemed to love a routine. It was crazy--this was probably the happiest time of Rocco’s life. Back in the Before Time, Bryce was at school eight hours a day, and then track practice for another two after that. His mom was at her office, and his dad was in DC all day. Rocco spent most of his hours in a dog crate. Now Bryce was going to school from his bedroom, his mom was working from a makeshift basement office, and his stepdad was just hanging out, complaining about his company’s cutbacks all day. All three of them were pretty much miserable, but the dog was in heaven.

He held his breath as he approached the stump. For some reason, he had the feeling like he did at school, right after he cheated on a quiz, just waiting to see if the teacher was going to call his name to stay after class. Somehow, his instincts were correct. The bag of dog poop was gone. The rock was still there, but it was acting as a paperweight now. And at the bottom of the piece of paper was a second rock, but it wasn’t painted.

Dear whoever put dog poop on my rock,

This is a hard time right now. I understand your urge towards anger. But what I am trying to do is find the little bit of positivity I have left and channel it into something beautiful. 

So I’m asking you to do the same. Take this rock with you. Make it into something beautiful and bring it back here. Or not. Maybe throw it through a window or chuck it in a dumpster if that makes you feel better.

Bryce picked up the unpainted rock. He couldn’t even believe this was happening. What were the chances someone would write this note and it wouldn’t get rained on or peed on by a deer or taken by someone else? His first impulse was to throw it into the nearby creek just to watch the water splash. But instead, he obediently tucked it in his pocket.

“Rocco, I’m not the only one losing my mind.”

Who was this person, an art therapist or something? He started imagining what he could do to the rock. Surprisingly, he got a thrill thinking of the things he could paint: a running man to represent his dashed dreams, a burger on top of a textbook to represent his depressing new life. He ran all the way home and was saddened to learn that by not running for almost a month, he now got extremely winded running short distances.

Back at home, he found his mom’s old paints stashed away in a closet. In college, she studied studio art. “In another life,” was what she always said, shrugging her shoulders. Bryce took this to mean that like most people, his mom had high hopes and ambitions, but she eventually had to settle on a boring office job to pay the bills. 

First, he took out orange, yellow, and red. He made flames at the bottom, lapping what looked like an entire cityscape. Above that, he used almost every color in his mom’s art box to create a radiant phoenix rising from the ashes. In some ways, he recognized that this was not much less cliche than a heart on top of a tie-dye design. Just another person’s interpretation of it.

The next day, he walked Rocco to the stump. He left the rock along with an index card, where he’d written: Thank you. Things have been hard these days, but not dog poop hard. 

The following morning, he found himself drawn to the stump once again. It was funny--all real routines had been stripped away, but he still found himself creating new ones regardless. He wasn’t sure what he was going to find this time. His eyes lit up when he saw not his index card, but an actual greeting card with a balloon on the front that said, “I miss you.” Inside the card, the person had written: I loved your phoenix rising. We will all rise up one day, too. Until that day comes, what do you miss? They left an orange sharpie next to it for him to answer.

He wasn’t sure where to begin. My old life, he wrote. Pep rallies. Days when teachers showed a movie in class. Metal concerts in DC. Hanging out in my buddy Nick’s basement. Running into the sunset with my track team. Sitting around in the lobby of the school. Isn’t that dumb? I miss sitting around. I don’t know why.

The next day was his first day of work at Freddy’s. To his annoyance, he’d gotten the job and they wanted him to start right away. Bryce compromised with his mom: he’d work four days a week, which still seemed like a lot, but at least it wasn’t five. His shift started at 10:30, which meant he had to walk Rocco a lot earlier than usual.

This time, Rocco was barking before they even got to the stump. Someone was crouching over it, their back turned. All Bryce could see was wavy hair, cut bluntly into a shoulder-length bob. It looked like she might have cut it herself.

Andrea whipped around and smiled. “Hi,” she said, a knowing smile on her face. “I had a weird feeling it might be you.”

His mouth was wide open. Even through his surprise, he managed to remind himself not to hug her; to stay well over six feet away. “The rocks? The notes? Who does that?”

She laughed. “You caught me. I’ve been doing a lot of things out of character lately.”

He laughed, thinking of his mom’s art supplies. “Me too.”

“Have you been keeping up with Coach’s workouts?” she said.

“No,” he said, shaking his head, thinking back on everything he’d meant to keep up with: discussion board postings on The Catcher in the Rye for English, Precalculus homework sets, SAT prep. But it seemed like everything had fallen away except his addiction to Netflix.

“Me either,” she said. “Man, isn’t it hard to change out of sweatpants some days?”

He looked down at his sweatpants. “Most days,” he admitted.

“Maybe we should start doing Coach’s runs again,” she said, laughing.

Bryce thought of the energy of track practice, all his buddies looking up to each other to PR at the next meet and egging each other on to practice their hardest. “Yeah, but I’m worried it wouldn’t be the same.”

“Maybe we could do it together,” she ventured. “You know, more than 6 feet apart and with masks on, of course.” 

He nodded, his chest loosening. “Yeah, yeah, I’d like that.”

An hour later, Bryce’s manager was training him to make the perfect California-style steak burger. As he carefully stacked the cheese, lettuce, onion, tomato, and fry sauce on the patty, he couldn’t stop smiling.