Winners of our 2024 Writing Contest


Carolina Woman's literary showdown attracted brilliant pieces of fiction, nonfiction and poetry again this year. It was a story slam as the write stuff crowded our Contests inbox.


Perhaps echoing the times, many entries were grim, but others were tinged with optimism and wit. Almost all spotlighted the multifaceted lives of women and girls acting with bravery, intensity and wonder.


Here are the champs from Grand Prize to Honorable Mention. Our judges loved these entries and believe you will, too. Tune in again next month when we'll share Staff Favorites.

– Debra Simon, Editor & Publisher


Grand Prize

"Muscle Memory," poetry by Arlene S. Neal of Granite Falls, N.C.

First Prize

"Simple Mechanics," short story by Teri M. Brown of Calabash, N.C.

Second Prize
"Let Me Introduce You to the Tomato Sandwich," poetry by Suzannah Lynn Cockerille of New Bern, N.C.

Third Prize
"Ode to a Minivan," nonfiction by Jayne Jaudon Ferrer of Greenville, S.C.

Fourth Prize
"Settled As It Seems," poetry by Valerie Nieman of Reidsville, N.C.

Fifth Prize
"I'll Save You a Seat," nonfiction essay by Karen Kent of Chapel Hill

Honorable Mention
"This Is Not a Love Poem," poetry by Emma Marie Duke of Chapel Hill



Grand Prize


"Muscle Memory"


poetry by Arlene S. Neal of Granite Falls, N.C.

Muscle memory
That's what he says he needs
to play guitar with ease but
wonders if that's a chord too far
for old hands whose memory
lies in machining metal, splitting wood
casting a line, dribbling a ball.
Other family hands recall factories –
plane and sand, sew seams straight
feed machines and punch the clock.
My own muscle memory dormant
could wake to prime tobacco
reach leaves break three or four
sling them under my arm down the row.
Here in this room of remembering limbs
we may play piano without thought
milk cows, cut hair, swing a racket
hug a bicycle like it's part of us
tie our shoes (while we're still able)
burp a baby and stir gravy smooth.
It's second nature—in body more than mind
and I think of my old friend in dementia
who does not know her own children
yet everyday she sits in her small room
gnarled hands reaching, reaching
back and forth dragging her basket
Picking beans
picking beans
picking beans.






First Prize


"Simple Mechanics"


Short story by Teri M. Brown of Calabash, N.C.

"Hand me the socket wrench," floated a voice from beneath the car.


"The rocket wrench?" My eyes glance off smudged metal tools lying haphazardly on the floor between a pair of disembodied legs. Nudging handles with my toe, I mumble, "Why do you need a rocket wrench? It's just a tin can car on its last legs, not something headed to Mars."


A hand, seemingly unattached to the legs or the voice, begins groping around, finally snagging a tool, and pulling it under the vehicle. "Socket. Not rocket."


Although he didn't say it, the word 'idiot' floats to my ears. As of late, I could no longer tell if the voice was his or my own.


I finger the locket hanging from my neck. Even without opening it, I see the tiny picture of me newly married with stars in my eyes. A simple reminder that I made my bed, as mother would have said were she still alive to say it.


I quickly catalog my other reminders. The scar on my left arm. The now-titanium ankle. The missing tooth on the back right. The thinning hair. The tension in my jaw. The wariness of my demeanor.


He starts yelling obscenities at the car, another thing in his life refusing to obey his every wish. Metal on metal mixes with the profanity, and the old car rocks slightly on the red tire jacks.


A tiny spark of an idea begins to form. Is it sinister or simply sanity?


I place my hands on the front fender, giving the faded blue Chevy a gentle shove. The steady stream of curse words continues uninterrupted. My eyes dart to the open garage door, looking for a friend, a neighbor, a witness before my hands shove a second time.


The string of words hesitates momentarily before continuing, as if determining the side-to-side motion is of no concern.


With a last glance over my shoulder, I lunge, letting out my anger, but also my hurt and grief at what could have been – what should have been. The expletives turn to groans. The protruding legs bend and kick. I pull my phone from my jeans pocket to dial 9-1-1 but let my hand drop to my side. "It would be so simple for someone who was not an idiot."






Second Prize


"Let Me Introduce You to the Tomato Sandwich"


Poetry by Suzannah Lynn Cockerille of New Bern, N.C.


Today I'll have a tomato sandwich – because it's summer
and I've got this fat tomato, grown in the yard, ripened in the sun.


There is no other way to get the best tomato, the kind like what
my cousin and I would sit in the garden and eat with both hands.
Right off the plant. Warm.


I've tried the wheat bread that's soft like white bread, but white bread has no worthy challenger. Slather it, and I mean slather the bread with mayonnaise, and I mean Duke's –


I do not mean some sweet, slimy, gloppy mess. And for the sake
of all that's holy and right, I do not mean Miracle Whip.


Some people like their tomatoes sliced thin but I like mine thick.
Like a steak. And what you really want here is a tomato that's
big enough for one fat slice to make the sandwich.


Now be generous with the salt and pepper, and slice your sandwich in half – you should do this straight across, not diagonally.


The tomato sandwich is best served in hot weather,
with a glass of iced tea, sweet or unsweet, your choice.







Third Prize


"Ode to a Minivan"


Nonfiction by Jayne Jaudon Ferrer of Greenville, S.C.


I knew it was coming. My "golden chariot" was ten years old, had 185,000 miles on it, was missing a front fender and a rear light, had little dents on the hood, big ones on the side and back. One seat belt didn't work, the sun visors swung at will, the driver's seat was given to random plummets backwards, the transmission lurched erratically, and depressing the brake pedal required Herculean strength and produced a sound akin to Darth Vader's dying breath. In other words, the time had come to buy a new car.


But my champagne (car-speak for gold) Chrysler Town & Country minivan represented ten of the busiest, craziest, messiest, most fatiguing, most frustrating, most wonderful years of my life and the idea of parting with it caused almost tangible pain. Those dents on the hood? My youngest son scaling said minivan like a mini-mountain, showing off for friends. The concave airbag cover on the passenger-side dashboard? Years of spirited in-transit solos by first one percussionist son, then another. The peeling bumper stickers on the back? Proclamations as diverse as my children themselves, and a highly effective means of initiating conversation with strangers in parking lots. ("Hey, lady! You listen to They Might Be Giants? Kewl!")


My minivan made more family outings to baseball practices, soccer games, band competitions, and Junior ROTC events than I could have ever comprehended in my pre-maternal years. It made nearly 2,000 trips through school pick-up lanes; more than a hundred to dentists', doctors', and orthodontists' offices; heard confessions of outstanding grades, abysmal grades, grand achievements, and deep disappointments; made unforgettable road trips as well as interminable ones ("Eight-fifty-eight, eight-fifty-eight. Gettin' pretty late at eight-fifty-eight...Eight-fifty-nine, eight-fifty-nine. Mom and Dad are sad it's only eight-fifty-nine..."); three wisdom teeth surgery transports and an emergency appendectomy; concert treks to six states and camping expeditions to two; carried three puppies home from the pound, and one freshman off to college.


In truth, my soccer mom days pretty much ended when my youngest bought a car and began driving himself to school midway through his sophomore year. And, in truth, none of my guys have played soccer since middle school; as they aged, band and ROTC replaced sports as their obsession du jour. Getting rid of my minivan, though, meant those days would be gone for good – proof positive that I was no longer a necessary or integral part of my children's daily lives – and so I resisted as long as I could.


But the jig was up when my husband got behind the wheel of my venerable golden chariot for a Thanksgiving excursion (first vacation with girlfriends; another milestone!), giving him an up-close experience with my lurching seat and lackadaisical brakes. On the way home, he sternly declared that sentiment was hardly worth dying for, and I knew he was right. Thus began the search for Mom's Midlife Vehicle. Were I rich, it would have been an easy decision: bring on the Jaguar I've always dreamed of. But I'm a self-employed poet, plus I'm convinced gas under four dollars a gallon is a temporary aberration, so after much research and many test drives, a Ford Focus – safe, sensible, thrifty . . . like a serviceable pair of black pumps (and me a fuchsia sandals kind of gal; how sad!) . . . emerged the winner. I cried all the way to the car dealership.


So no longer am I a soccer mom driving the requisite minivan. I have evolved into a middle-aged woman driving a sensible sedan, the mother of three charming, handsome men who no longer play soccer, who can get into "R"-rated movies and sign for loans without my permission, who can join the Navy, get married, or move to Belgium if they're so inclined, and who now solicit my opinion out of courtesy rather than obligation. My sole contribution to their safekeeping at this point is the AAA card I hand them each July when I renew our family plan.


And suitable as my economical compact car may be for this stage of my life, I know its memory banks won't get nearly as many deposits; despite three headrests on the backseat, fitting even one of my 6'2", 200+ pound sons back there is a joke – one that rarely comes up since they each own their own car and rarely join me on road trips these days. These days our time together, when it comes, is spent around a kitchen table, on a cell phone or, more often, via e-mail or Facebook. (One out of the three let me be his Friend; I'm blessed!) Who knew those hurried, harried carpool days would turn out to be our best?


Rest in peace, golden chariot; a good time was had by all.







Fourth Prize


"Settled As It Seems"


Poetry by Valerie Nieman of Reidsville, N.C.


If I wanted something older,
something settled,
then this hundred-year-old house
is not that kind of refuge.
Because it hovers.


It's all windows and doors
with windows. You can see
clean through from the porch,
frame after frame
to the second back yard,
the one behind the screen
of firethorn.


The house is buoyant,
balanced, an airship
freighted with quarter-sawn oak
and granite, the weight
of hundreds of trees pressed
into a forest of books.


I cannot account
for this light-footedness
until I learn it was not
made here, board hammered
to board, but was jostled
up South Main
and down South Park,
to be let down with its bricks


I'm adding concrete
to the foundation,
stuffing rocks in its pockets,
tethering the roof
like a circus tent to the ground,
lest the house some stormy night
when the wind gives it voice
should lift up its seven-gabled crown

and shift us elsewhere.







Fifth Prize


"I'll Save You a Seat"


Nonfiction essay by Karen Kent of Chapel Hill

If I'm ever subpoenaed by a federal grand jury (just go with it) and am asked how many places there are to sit inside our home, I'd answer, "9,455." Then under fear of perjury, I would add, "Give or take." And while most of these places are on the floor, I never thought seating would be an issue around here. Not that it was ever an issue for him. He simply turned up his little wet nose at 9,454 of these places whenever I settled into my favorite chair with my laptop. Seth was a seven-pound Chihuahua. Still, how he managed to squeeze into the two-inch gap separating me from the arm of the chair was a tribute to his sheer determination. Or an example of his lack of spatial awareness. Either way, impressive.


To be clear, I loved cuddling with Seth. But there were times I needed room to work without a small furry head resting on my keyboard. Selfish, I know. That "shift" key must be a lot more comfortable than it looks. Seth and I would awkwardly share that chair for many years until the day he no longer could. That miserable day when all my emails were no longer arbitrarily capitalized.


"Will you be getting another dog?" That question came sooner than expected. A half-smile tugged at the corner of my mouth as I would politely reply, "Not yet." Though, there were times I practically pulled a muscle fighting back inappropriate responses to that innocent inquiry. Responses like "I heard your grandmother died last year. Will you be getting another one?" teetered dangerously on the tip of my tongue. No one ever said grief was pretty.


There just wasn't enough duct tape in the world to repair my shattered heart. And while I tend to lean towards the dramatic and will use any excuse to buy neon-colored duct tape, there is simply no other way to describe how I felt after losing Seth. It broke my heart.


Months later, I entered a 100-word writing contest. It was never about winning (which was a good thing). It was about desperation. I'd soldier through a difficult story (in 100 words or less) and finally be able to shed grief's heavy winter coat. Just like that. Silly me. There are no shortcuts through pain. Only detours that tend to lengthen the journey. Experts call these detours "avoidance." I call the whole thing "annoying." Whatever. It didn't work. Frustrated, I clicked "send" and never looked back at those words...until now.


The shovel made a distinct noise the instant it hit a rock. What followed was a curse word spoken so softly it could have been a prayer. I was sitting on a low brick wall near the newly upturned earth. My gaze settled on the small bundle nestled in my arms. I stroked the chocolate brown ears peeking out from his favorite blanket. "You've been the best dog." My words fell on deaf ears. The shoveling silenced. In desperation, I quickly whispered a final command. One he had never grasped in life, but I prayed he would then. "Stay."


During that miserable time, a visitor arrived. Silence knocked quietly on my door, and like a fool, I let it in. This unwelcomed houseguest instantly made itself at home and grew louder by the hour. Gone was the familiar sound of tiny toenails clicking on my wooden floors. As were the delightful whimpers and barks offered up by my personal welcoming committee.


*Side note: Everyone deserves their own welcoming committee. It should be an unalienable right. Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness, and a Personal Welcoming Committee. I intend to write to the producers of Hamilton concerning this matter.


My unalienable right never spoke, but I filled in the blanks for him as he woofed and whirled in delirious circles of joy whenever I walked in the door.


"Where have you been?? It's been forever! And not in dog years! By the way, you're even more beautiful than when you left to get the mail three whole minutes ago!"


On the day that Silence reached a deafening level, I found myself scrolling through a Chihuahua-rescue website. Part-thrilled and part-horrified that I was being unfaithful to my grief, I stared longingly at the adorable dogs. I wanted all of them. So much so that I had to remind myself that when I was ready, IF I ever became ready, I needed only one.


Ever steadfast in my convictions, I stood firm for three whole days. Then, I adopted two.


This scrumptious pair of sisters came as a package deal. Thelma and Louise. While not my doing, their names fit them perfectly. Which means I intend to keep them away from fast cars, cliffs, and Brad Pitt.


With Silence packed and gone, Guilt likes to pop in every so often. Oh, it's sneaky. I'll suddenly catch myself wondering, "Is Seth happy for me? Or is he upset that Thelma and Louise called dibs on his two-inch piece of real estate?" The good news is that Guilt moves on quickly provided you let it go. That's the tricky part.


How do I know Seth is happy for me? Because he was always happy for me. Especially when I made it back down the driveway after courageously retrieving the mail. I was his hero. An unearned title. Clearly. But whenever I stood at the kitchen counter, sifting through credit card offers and the latest Lands' End catalogue, I smiled at the dancing dog at my feet. It felt good to be someone's hero. If only for a few minutes a day. I pray Seth knows he was mine.


Time to stop typing. My right arm is asleep. It may have something to do with my inability to find a comfortable position for it due to the two furry heads resting on my keyboard. That's okay. Whoever came up with the saying "two heads are better than one" wAS MoSt cErtaiNLy aN AniMaL loVeR.






Honorable Mention


"This Is Not a Love Poem"


Poetry by Emma Marie Duke of Chapel Hill

I know that I'm not supposed to write love poems. So this is not
a poem about how much I love you – it's a poem about your hair.
No. No, it's a poem about sand. Sand is my least favorite thing about the ocean.
Sand is like a rock, but strange and shivering. People use it
in metaphors about very big numbers, and other things
I don't like to write about. Things like always.
Sand is the color of yesterday morning. Yesterday morning
the sun brushed your face. Your hair stood straight,
bed-mussed and pink.
It wasn't like sand though – sand is unlovely.
It recedes, I think.
The waves pull it under.
Bucketfuls, spluttering – and I know.
I know that in a month
or a year
or three,
there will be nothing left but shoreline.
So I will walk along the shore, carrying blankets and shards of glass.
I'll find your eyelashes, and I'll paint each one with gossamer.




Coming next month: Staff Favorites!