I recently discovered that Reedsy has a weekly writing contest and decided to enter. I’m aiming to write at least one prompt a week. My partner gave me the brilliant idea of also posting them to my blog, so I’m going to do that. Hurray.
The link to my first submission, which I titled Karma, is here. The prompt was “write about a character missing a train, for better or worse.” No idea if I’ll win or not, but that’s not really why I’m doing it. It’s nice to keep writing, and short stories aren’t something I have a lot of practise with.
I realized, after I wrote this submission, that the Canadian Criminal Code has been updated and I used an archived version of the law. Wooops. Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t pursue a law career, after all.
Jokes aside, I’m proud of this one. It’s a bit personal, if I’m honest. I went to university in Vancouver, Canada, and let me tell you, the wealth disparity on campus was blatant and depressing. I held a job where I worked with several dozen other students, and out of everyone, only two people didn’t live with their parents and had to pay their own tuition. I was one of them.
I learned what privilege was, and honestly, it stung. I know I’m privileged to have gotten to go, but I was so broke I went hungry at times. Meanwhile, other kids were driving Lamborghinis to campus. In order to survive, I had to hold down several jobs. I also wanted to be a lawyer, and that meant I had to maintain a high GPA, volunteer, and intern on top of everything. It sucked.
Needless to say, I ended up changing my mind and pursuing a different career path. Ironically, I work with a lot of former lawyers. From what they tell me, I made the right choice. No regrets.
Anyways, enough blabbing. Here’s my story:
Concealer under my eyes to cover the bags. Visine to clear the red lines. Mascara, even though it will inevitably smudge. The front-facing camera on my phone is broken. I’ll need a pocket mirror to touch up my make-up on the train. I’m tired of being a broke student.
But after years of schooling, I scored an interview for one of the best paid legal internships in Vancouver. I glance at the stained walls of my crumbling apartment. Paid. With Grace Wexley, no less. A criminal lawyer famous for defending addicts in the Downtown Eastside.
If I get this internship, I can help people and work with the community, all while not starving. Grace usually hires her interns back if they do well, and she pays a living wage. It’s my dream job.
Yesterday, I had a heavy day of volunteering at the women’s shelter, but afterwards I jogged to clear my mind, studied until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and studied more as soon as I woke up. My medication kept the nightmares at bay, so my morning was productive. I’m groggy, but it’s nothing coffee can’t fix. I can do this.
Wool coat, or raincoat? It’s raining, but a wool coat looks more professional. Mine is black, like my pants and blouse. Why are all my clothes black? Right, because black goes with everything, meaning I don’t have to worry about matching colours.
Except now I look like I’m going to a funeral, not a job interview.
I need to change my outfit. It’s not just the drab colours—my tits are spilling out of this top.
I pick up my phone. Shit. I have five minutes to catch my train, or I’ll be late to the interview! How did I let this happen? I don’t have time to change. I just need to get going and pray my boobs stay in place.
I put on my heels and black wool jacket, then snatch my purse, full of study notes and other essentials. I bolt out of my apartment, locking the ancient door behind me, and dash down the cabbage-scented corridors.
I make it to the stairs. The building is so old it doesn’t have an elevator, but it’s only three stories. And the rent is cheap.
I bumble down, nearly tripping. I’m a track athlete, but like most people, I suck at running in heels. Why do women have to wear heels to look professional?
I trip on the last flight and slam into a wall. Pain shoots through my wrist and my head spins, thanks to my medication. Hopefully the sprint to the train gets it out of my system.
I stumble out of the entrance of my musty building, and I’m met with a lot of rain. Sheets of it. Way more than usual. I reach in my bag for my umbrella, but don’t find it. My mascara will run. I forgot my pocket mirror, too. I don’t have time to go back. Shit.
This internship means I can make real change and help people. It will lead to a rewarding career, and not just in a financial sense.
No more black clothes. No more noisy neighbours keeping me awake.
No more pills to numb the constant, overwhelming anxiety caused by living in poverty.
Show my parents that I’m better than them. Make them regret how they treated me—no, don’t think about it. Focus.
The interviewer’s going to test your knowledge of criminal law. Focus.
My parents aren’t going to fuck this up for me.
I race into the monsoon. It ruins my straightened hair and melts my make-up off my face. It soaks through my wool coat and drenches my titty-brandishing top. It floods my over-sized bag.
Shit, this is bad. Bad. Bad. I must look like a drenched harlot, not that I’m one to slut shame, but this is unreal. I can picture my mother sucking on a cigarette, smirking. She croaks through a cloud of smoke: “And here you were, thinking you’re better than us. It’s karma, sweetheart. Karma for being a rat.”
Karma my ass. That bitch can rot in her cigarette smoke-stained trailer. I’m going to be a lawyer. I’m going to be a good person and help people, unlike her. I’ll start by catching this damn train.
The station is a ten-minute walk from my house, or a five-minute heel-laden run. The train is close to arriving, but I can make it.
I grew up running. From escaping my violent parents, to running away from home, to running track to get a scholarship, to running all throughout university to pay for it, and now running towards my future.
No one is taking it from me. No one. Not my parents, and especially not karma.
I bolt, sweeping through the trees and onto the sidewalk, bee-lining for the tunnel that runs under the busy highway and leads directly to the station.
I make it to the tunnel. More stairs. I go down as quickly as I can, heels splashing in puddles filling the misshapen steps. I stagger and recover, dizzy. At least the downpour is cold. It’s keeping me awake.
I turn a sharp corner and speed through the concrete tunnel bathed in harsh yellow tones from flood lights. The clacking from my heels bounces off the walls and echoes. Several homeless people snigger, and one shouts where you going sweetheart? My mom’s voice echoes in my mind. Where are you going sweetheart? She’s standing in the porch, shouting at me as I flee, cigarette burn on my arm sizzling.
Don’t think about it. Criminal law. I sweep around another corner, racing up the stairs to make it back to the sidewalk, then to the station. Test yourself. When can one claim self-defence?
S.34 of the Canadian Criminal Code: every one who is unlawfully assaulted without having provoked the assault is justified in repelling force by force if the force he uses is not intended to cause death or grievous bodily harm and is no more than is necessary to enable him to defend himself.
I hear the train racing down the tracks, its loud breaks beginning to engage.
“Fuck!” I shout, driving my strength into my quads and tearing down the sidewalk, rain splashing into my eyes.
I’m almost there. I can make it. I reach the entrance to the polished station, equipped the freshly installed electronic gates. I shove my hand into my wool coat and reach for my electronic train pass, and—
I stop. It’s not there. Panic shoots through me. I shove my hand into my other pocket. Nothing. I gasp and look through my purse. The ink on my wet notes is smeared. I rip them out, but it’s not there.
My pass is at home. In my rain jacket.
The train screeches to a halt and I hear the cool, automated voice announcing its arrival.
I shove my soaked notes back into my purse and fumble for my wallet, shaking as I pull out my credit card. The new barriers allow you to tap a credit card as payment, like you would a debit machine. I rush up to the barrier and slap my card on the grey pad, waiting to see the green check mark pop up on the small screen.
Nothing. Nothing. Why?
“Seriously?!” I shout and slam my card back down on it. The screen gives me a friendly, green check mark and the barrier opens. I shout in frustration and soar through it, scrambling up the escalator, gasping for air.
A nearby man let out a phlegmy cackle. “You won’t make it, dear!”
You’ll never get into university, dear. You’re dumb as shit, just like that idiot father of yours.
I climb faster.
You’re going to live and die here, just like me.
My legs burn from the never-ending escalator, but I fight through.
You’re just like your father. Just. Like. Him. A deadbeat loser.
I got a 4.0 in undergrad. I got into law school. I have scars from beatings, but I’m still here, besting even my Louis Vuitton-clad classmates.
Doesn’t matter. He’s in jail and it’s your fault, you little rat. Karma will get you, just like you deserve.
Halfway there. The train waits for a solid minute or so. I can still do this. I shove past a woman in a violet jacket, who appears not at all concerned that the next train is a whole ten minutes away.
He could have claimed self-defence if you hadn’t called the police, like the little rat you are.
No, Mom, not accordingly to s.35 (c), because he did not decline further conflict. Dad’s victim begged him to stop, but he beat the man into a coma. Over a bag of heroin. In our living room. I did the right thing. I did the right thing—FOCUS!
Excessive use of force. They might ask me a question on that.
I gasp for air as I make it to the last step, fighting my way to the top, as I always have. The train doors are still open and only a mere twenty-five feet away. The cart is packed with individuals from all walks of life, almost of whom are sporting rain jackets and holding closed, dripping umbrellas at their sides.
A few spots me, eyes massive. I know that look. It’s reserved for those left behind, clinging to some futile hope that they’ll make it onto the train, even though everyone knows damn-well they’re screwed.
Not me. I fly, feet barely touching the ground as I cover those last twenty-five feet like they’re inches. I can see it in the passenger’s eyes. They’re amazed, and they should be. They’re witnessing a miracle, after all.
I could be a stunt woman if lawyering doesn’t work out. I should be. I’m a hero. A real-life hero. Wonder Woman. Fuck you, Mom and Dad. You won’t hold me back, not this time—
My right foot slips and my ankle twists. I can’t recover. My knee slams on the concrete platform and I bounce. I cover my head on instinct, grasping the back of my skull and shielding my temple with my forearm. My ribs collide next, and I hear a crack before I feel the agony shoot through me, starting in my chest and radiating to my spine. My forearm lands, shielding my head, but I bite my lip as I collapse, face inches from the train.
“Oh my god!” someone cries. “Are you alr— “
The doors slide shut before I hear the rest.
Pain. I let out a groan and more hurt shoots through my chest. I can’t breathe. I roll onto my back, grinding my teeth. I taste blood.
“Are you alright? Shit, that’s a stupid question. Of course you’re not,” someone says nearby. “I’m calling 911—”
A familiar image of a bloodied man in my living room materializes in my mind’s eyes. He’s begging my dad to stop hitting him.
“Don’t!” I shout, ignoring the agony in my ribs. I let out of roar as I push myself up. I don’t know if it’s in pain or anger.
“I’m fine!” I shout, then crumble, holding my side. I clench my jaw. I’ve managed worse pain than this. I can still make it. I’ll be late, but maybe I can blame the train being delayed.
I open my eyes and look up at the digital board displaying the transit schedule. Nine minutes until the next train arrives.
As I look to the glistening tracks, I realize I’m surrounded by a gawking crowd. The closest person is a woman in her early fifties or late forties, I can’t tell. She’s well-dressed, but not soaked like me, wearing a violet jacket and emerald Fluevog boots.
It’s the same lady I pushed past earlier on the escalator. She picks up my scattered belongings, including my rain-soaked notes, and puts them into my bag.
“I need to catch the next train.” I wipe my mouth, blood smearing on my trembling hand. “I’m late—it’s,” pain radiates through me, “it’s important.”
“It’s not worth your health, whatever it is,” the woman says.
I bite back a sarcastic laugh. “Trust me, it is.”
“Unless it’s a doctor’s appointment, it can wait.”
“It’s a job interview,” I croak, raspy voice like my mother’s.
The woman frowns. “You’re hurt. Badly. If they don’t understand, you don’t want to work there, anyways.”
God, why now? Why does some privileged boomer need to sweep in now and give me out-of-touch advice?
“I appreciate,” I wince, “the concern, but I’m alright.”
“No offence, but if you go in there looking the way you do, you’re not going to get the job. You’re best off telling them you need to reschedule.”
She has a point. There’s blood on my face. My palm is cut. My pants are ripped, exposing a bloodied knee. My tits are probably out. I look like shit.
“You’re right,” I concede.
“Should I call 911?”
“I can’t afford the ambulance.”
“It’s eighty dollars…”
“I know. I’m poor, alright?” Fresh agony—talking hurts. “Eighty dollars is food for the week. I’ll get the next train. It stops at the hospital.”
She looks at me, long and hard. “I’ll drive you. Can you walk to the car?”
I nod. She helps me up. The pain is overbearing, not only in my ribs but in my knee and ankle. I ignore the onlookers on the platform, focusing on dragging my sorry ass to the elevator.
We cross the platform together, me limping like a lame mutt, and approach the steely elevator doors. The woman presses the down button.
Karma. As the doors open and reveal bottom floor of the station, I let silent tears run down my face.
My mom’s right. Trash. That’s all I’ll ever be. Bloodied and soaked like the drowned rat I am.
We slowly walk to the parking lot and the woman helps me walk to her brand-new Tesla. She must have driven in from the hills where all the rich people live. She opens the door for me, and I fight the urge to cry as I sit on the black leather seat, white-hot pain enveloping me.
She pulls up the car’s GPS and types in hospital, tapping the nearest one. The car starts with a humming noise. She pulls out of the parking lot and rain patters against the windshield, wiped away effortlessly. My seat is warmed. The car smells like it’s fresh off the lot.
I could have been this woman, but I messed it all up, just like Mom predicted. Why, why can’t I be functional, like my classmates? Why does everything have to be hard?
Karma, my mom’s hoarse voice echoes in my mind.
“How you holding up?” The woman asks, a worried look on her face.
“Fine,” I lie, my voice shaking. “T-thanks for driving me, and sorry if you’re late for work because of this.”
She shrugs. “You don’t need to apologize. I can reschedule my morning.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a lawyer.”
I let out a pain-laced snort.
“I know,” she sighs. “But we’re not all bad.”
“No, it’s not that. I was on my way to an interview. For an internship.”
“At Wexley and Oakes?” she asks.
She grins. “That’s a wild coincidence. I was supposed to interview interns today.”
You’ve got to be kidding me. “Are you Grace Wexley?”
“I am,” she says. “Judging from how you were running, you must be Mercedes Burnwell.”
Of course. I laugh, and I stop immediately, the pain too much. Then I start crying.
“Hey,” she puts a hand on mine and squeezes, not taking her eyes off the road, “don’t stress, alright? To be honest, I already made up my mind about you.”
“W-what,” I choke out. “That you won’t take me?”
“No!” She looks aghast. “You were the best candidate. You have the highest GPA and the most volunteer experience I’ve seen in a long time. In the Downtown Eastside, no less. From what I hear, you’re a big part of the community.
“And you held a part-time job throughout undergrad, all while running for the track team. Tell me, between working, studying, training, and volunteering, did you ever sleep?”
“Five hours a night,” I say. “Six if I was lucky.”
She nods, a sad smile on her face. “I was like you. I didn’t get help from my parents, and had to get through university on sports scholarships, too. But it gets easier. I promise.”
“Sometimes—” I wince, fresh pain searing in my ribs. “It seems like—like it never will.”
“It will,” she says, the confidence in her voice so inspiring that, for a brief second, I believe her. “Listen, don’t worry about the interview. I have space for two interns. The position doesn’t start for another seven weeks, which gives you time to recover. The job’s yours, Mercedes.”
“Don’t—don’t you need to test me?”
“I caught a glimpse of your notes. I’m confident you know the law well enough. Besides, it’s an internship. I don’t expect you to be perfect. You’re there to learn.”
I nod, tears running down my face. “As long as this isn’t out of pity.”
“Not at all,” Grace says, smiling. “Your grades, reputation, and experience speak volumes. I know you’ll work hard, and I can tell you’re passionate. No one volunteers like you have unless they genuinely care.”
I nod, silent tears staining my cheeks.
“Call it karma,” Grace says. “With all that you’ve done for the community, you deserve something good.”
I choke out a painful sob, moving a closed fist in front of my mouth. One thing my mom always failed to mention, and I failed to believe, was that karma works both ways.
“Thank you, Grace,” I say. “Thank you so much.”