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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 2 – Intermediate)
Topic: Garden (09/07/06)

TITLE: While She Was Sleeping
By Jen Davis


Anne’s Doberman, Lucky, greeted me at the front door. Although intimidating at first glance, his smile soon betrayed his daunting appearance. He pressed his nose against the storm door and tried to catch my scent through the glass. I braced myself for Lucky’s powerful reception, but when Kate appeared at the door I was completely caught off guard.

Her dark gown was a stark contrast to her pale skin, her boney frame evident through layers of clothing. I hugged my friend of twenty-one years and we wept until our shoulders were soaked with tears. Every May, Anne and I took a trip together. Last year we had spent the week on the beach. This year I had come to be with my best friend when she died.

Early the next morning, I crawled out of bed and tiptoed into Anne’s room. I found myself listening for her breath, checking for the rise and fall of the sheets. Reassured by the rhythmic sound of shallow breathing, I turned to leave.

Lucky, sprawled at the foot of Anne’s bed, gently slid off the side and followed me into the kitchen where I started breakfast. Soon, the scent of fresh baked muffins filled the air. Just as I placed fresh strawberries on two plates, Anne shuffled into the kitchen. “Smells great in here.”

“Thanks. Would you like to eat outside? It looks like a beautiful morning.”

“The patio’s a mess. I can’t stand to look at it.”

Shortly after breakfast, Anne went back to bed. When I opened the French doors to the patio Lucky bolted outside, and I stepped into the crisp morning air. Last spring, baskets hung all around the patio; pots bursting with color were scattered throughout the flagstone deck. Now weeds grew in the garden like the tumors that spread in Anne’s body.

The sight of the weeds made me furious. I ripped their roots from the ground, yanked fall’s dead plants from clay pots, and filled garbage bags full of leftovers from winter’s refuge.

Later that morning, I searched for Anne’s garden journal. Leafing through its pages, I discovered a meticulous garden plan for spring. She’d not only listed her favorite flowers but what she planted in each hanging basket and every container.

From her journal, I made a list. Later that afternoon while she slept, I slipped off to the garden center. That night after Anne had fallen asleep, I turned on the patio lights and went to work. I planted into the early morning hours.

When Anne walked into the kitchen that morning she found me sipping coffee and flipping through her journal. “Now, I never thought I’d find you reading my garden journal.”

“Actually, I found it very interesting.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Well, there’s something else you may not believe.” I stood up and locked my arm in hers. “There’s something I want to show you.”

Together we walked to the patio door. When she stepped outside, she gasped. “My goodness! How long have I been asleep? Jan, the patio looks beautiful.”

“It does, doesn’t it? But I have no clue how to keep it alive.”

She laughed until tears streamed down her face. We ate breakfast outside that morning. Afterwards, she went inside and brought back her journal. “I want you to have this. Everything you need to know about gardening is here.”

Over the next couple of weeks we ate every meal outdoors and Anne often napped on the chaise lounge. One afternoon while Anne rested peacefully, I rocked in the swing. When Lucky started whimpering, I found him nudging Anne’s hand to be petted. I called out to him, but he was intent on waking her. He got his nose up under her hand and slid it to the top of his head. Her hand gently slid over his ear and down the side of his face before it fell lifeless to her side.

A year after Anne’s passing I sat in my own garden, swinging gently back and forth on a new wooden swing. Perennials I’d harvested from Anne’s garden promised to bloom, while annuals embellished my flower beds. Across the lawn, Lucky slept with one paw over his brow. I called out to him and he trotted over to me, a smile on his face. He lay his chin on my lap and nudged my hand. Smiling back at my new best friend, I held his face in my hands and kissed the top of his head.

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This article has been read 868 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Jan Ackerson 09/14/06
Wow! I was especially touched by your narrator taking out her fury at Anne's illness on the weeds in her garden, and by the new-found friendship with Lucky at the end. Very moving. What a blessing a friendship like this is!
Kaye Petts09/17/06
This is great!! Sad, but wonderful reading. I cried and then smiled....Thanks for sharing and God Bless, Kaye
Debbie Sickler09/18/06
This was really good, but you accidentally called Anne, Kate in the first paragraph. :) I especially liked how you let us know that she had died and the conclusion and like Jan, I also liked the comparison of the tumors to weeds.
Teri Wilson09/19/06
This is very good. Naturally, I LOVED the addition of the dog character. We all hope that when our time comes, we will have a friend like the (human) character in this story (I forgot her name). Very touching. I really enjoyed it.
Donna Powers 09/19/06
Very sweet story. It made me smile, but wistfully. It touched my heart. Thanks for sharing it.
Brenda Craig09/19/06
Jen, your story is simply beautiful and tender. I enjoyed ever last line of it. My heart dove at this line.

Last year we had spent the week on the beach. This year I had come to be with my best friend when she died.

Well, from that point I was undone. I read the rest of it through tears. Excellent writing! You made me feel the intensity of the emotion. And life went on. Wondeful job!!!
Val Clark09/19/06
One of the best pieces I've read about death without being sentimental. Loved the dog and the illusion to yuor POV character developing as a gardener. I do keep a gardening journal. (blush) yeggy
Joanne Sher 09/20/06
OH, Jen - this story was written with such love! It is so sweet and compelling. It warmed my heart. I loved the ending.
dub W09/20/06
This is a beautiful narration, fitting of publication, and a perfect example of the topic. The skill exhibited here is beyond the level.
geoff anderson09/21/06
This is very well written. The subject of death is handled with sensitivity, without falling into sentimentality – a difficult trick to pull off. The moment of death was a good example of this, with the dog finding it out rather than Jan.

It was good that Jan didn’t know a thing about gardening and had to use Anne’s diary to tell her what to do. That added a piquancy to the story which would have been missing if she’d been a know-it-all. It meant that Anne, although dying, was empowered as a character and as a person. Even as she slept (hence the title), she was instructing her friend Jan in how to make a beautiful patio spring garden. And this empowerment continued after her death, in the form of her gift of the diary which enabled Anne’s memory to live on in Jan’s new garden. Hence the significance of the line which is the hinge that the story swings on, like a door opening onto the future of these two old friends: when Jan says she has ‘no clue how to keep it alive.’ Fortunately the storyteller does! The storyteller knows how to keep these two people and their dog alive, even though one is dying, and how to keep the garden alive as well, the garden of their friendship, which is greater than death.

The story is well structured, with the action moving along at an even pace, not dwelling too long at any point, but with no feeling of being rushed. The exception to this was the opening, which DID dwell too long, I felt, on Lucky’s character and appearance. We are told that he’s ‘intimidating’ and ‘daunting’ and ‘powerful’. This paragraph is worth commenting on further, because as we all know, the opening has to count – and that doesn’t mean scaring us to death with a mad Doberman! (I’m not a doggy man, so it threw me when Lucky smiled! Do dogs really smile? I’ll take your word for it!)

You use a wrong word which has a diametrically opposite meaning, so it’s worth noting: ‘his smile soon betrayed his daunting appearance’. Now I’m sure you want to say that the dog’s smile made Jan realise that his daunting appearance was deceptive – he was a big softie after all! So the word you want is BELIE, ('to show that something is not true or real' is an Encarta definition.) ‘His smile belied his daunting appearance.’ In other words his smile told Jan that his daunting appearance was a LIE. ‘Betrayed’ would mean his smile gave away the truth that he really WAS daunting! Let me use the words in new sentences:
Eliza Doolittle put on a good show of being a respectable citizen, but her accent betrayed her plebian background. [gave away the TRUTH that she was plebian]
Eliza Doolittle was a poor flower girl, but she had a natural grace which belied her plebian background. [told everybody that her plebian background must surely be a LIE]

I would like to suggest a few changes to the rest of the paragraph: reducing the number of doors; cutting the adverb ‘completely’ (one is either off guard or not); creating an amusing but slight double-take because the reader will assume that Lucky is a person .. who presses his nose, etc; and giving the Doberman (which MS spell-check thinks should be capitalized) another characteristic besides physical strength (enthusiasm). Plus, I’ve tried to make more explicit your excellent idea that although Jan was expecting to be overcome by the dog, in fact it was her friend’s appearance that shocked her.

A good tip in storytelling is this: when you arrive at a key moment in a story, ask yourself how you can fit this moment within a main verb clause? A key moment in this story is Kate’s appearance at the door. ‘but when Kate appeared at the door…’ buries this vital moment in a subclause. What happened? ‘Kate opened the door’ is what happened and everything else is subservient to that event, that moment.
Another example of this occurs at the key moment which is the discovery of Anne’s death. What happens to alert Jan that something is wrong? Whatever it is, make it a main verb. So instead of ‘When Lucky started whimpering, I found him nudging…’ say ‘Lucky started whimpering. I found him nudging…’ A short, sharp, main verb sentence like that can be extremely effective. It’s like a hammer blow in the narrative. In this case, to the heart.

A few details:
You’ve got fresh baked muffins and fresh strawberries – this breakfast is too fresh! Instead have the scent of baking muffins. Or have plump strawberries but remember to have the scent of freshLY baked muffins if you do.

A typo: should be ‘chaise longue’, French for long chair.

Speech tags? There are none, I don’t think. Mind you, there’s not a lot of dialogue, but even so you should have a few. I noticed a good place for one, where Jan says that 'Anne came in and found me flipping through her garden diary.' Also, a speech, however short, really should start a new paragraph:

‘Now, Jan,’ she said, taking the book from me, ‘I never thought I’d see you reading this.’ The thing is, Jan’s just told us what she’s reading, so we don’t need Anne repeating it.
Try putting more tags in.

Well done and good luck!
william price09/21/06
Way to go Jen!!! I'm proud of you. Super job. God bless.
Suzanne R09/21/06
Wow - what a storyline. This is great. I bet the author is a dog-lover - you've really given Lucky a fully developed character. And congratulations on placing in your level with this piece - it really is beautiful.
Valerie Routhieaux09/22/06
Loved this. Well written and a well-deserved placement. Congratulations.
Pat Guy 10/17/06
This is exquisite in every way! Awesome!