Short Story Award WinnersShort, Story, Award, Winners
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Announcing the Winner of the 2023 ServiceScape Short Story Award

Walter Gunn of St. Louis, United States is the winner of the 2023 ServiceScape Short Story Award.

Walter Gunn
Walter Gunn, author and winner of the 2023 Servicescape Short Story Award

His submission, "Erasing Young Robert," is a deeply moving short story that captures the emotional landscape of an orphanage through the eyes of young Robert. The narrative is rich in sensory detail and evokes a strong sense of place, from the resonating bell sounds to the vivid descriptions of the orphanage and its inhabitants.

The character of Sister Stephin, with her distinctive appearance and gentle demeanor, is well-drawn, embodying the compassion and care that is often found in such challenging environments. The story skillfully portrays the dynamics between the characters, particularly the interactions between Robert and the various nuns, each with their unique personality and approach to caring for the children.

Robert's journey through the orphanage, his interactions with the nuns, and his reflections on his past and present situation are presented with a depth that is both poignant and thought-provoking. The themes of forgiveness, healing, and the impact of small acts of kindness are explored with sensitivity and insight.

The metaphor of the eraser, used throughout the story, is particularly powerful. It symbolizes the desire to undo the past or to erase painful memories, a theme that resonates deeply with Robert's experiences. The narrative shows, however, that while some things can't be completely erased, they can be integrated into one's life in a way that allows for growth and healing.

The story's pacing is well-managed, with a balance between descriptive passages and dialogue that keeps the narrative engaging. The ending, where Robert finds a moment of emotional release and acceptance, is both touching and satisfying, providing a sense of hope and resilience.

In summary, "Erasing Young Robert" is a beautifully written story that offers a nuanced exploration of the complexities of childhood trauma, the power of compassion, and the possibility of finding peace and redemption in unexpected places. The vivid descriptions, well-developed characters, and thoughtful themes make it a compelling and emotionally resonant read.

You can find his story below. We look forward to reading more great submissions for our 2024 short story contest.

Erasing Young Robert

By W. F. Gunn

The bell's liquid tones flowed in waves from the belfry, cascading down through floors and children, through nuns, and into the dark corners of the orphanage. The crisp, clanging sound penetrated the dense surrounding woods and fields, where its call set in motion a migration of children back to the towering brick alcazar.

Sister Stephin's waist rosary clacked against her broad leg and hit the doorframe in a muted tap as she entered the largest of the children's dormitories. Tall and rotund, her body was draped in layers and puffs and folds of black cloth that swayed in counter to her motion as she wove among empty beds. Her face was framed in a stiff white band shaped like a heart that ended in a bow at her chin. Rimless glasses rested on her oversized red cheeks. She stopped at the bed occupied by young Robert.

Robert, frail and given to tremors, was Sister Stephin's charge. A new boy brought in not more than a month earlier, abandoned by his parents. Robert was in school when it happened. That morning he left his house, which was the last he had seen of his home, his parents, and the abuse. At nine years old he was a ward of the court, given over to the good sisters of St. Vincent's and the churn of hundreds of other children.

Robert squeezed his eyes shut to feign sleep. Sister Stephin gently touched the scar of a cigarette burn on his cheek with the back of her fingers until he opened his gray eyes. In a voice perpetually pregnant with astonishment and too petite for her size, she said, "Robert, do you feel well enough to go and find Sister Frances for me?"

Robert looked gratefully at her and nodded. He had been alone with his fake tummy ache since the younger kids had gone off for play period and the older kids had gone to study class upstairs. The sounding of the bell meant they would all be returning to their apartments at any moment. "Yes, Sister. I'm fine, really. I can go, now."

Robert got up and started for the door. Sister Stephin stopped him, saying, "Robert, do you remember Sister Frances?"

"Yes, Sister. I remember her. She is the one with the brown thing on the side of her nose."

"It is called a mole, Robert. Yes, that is she. She is in the laundry room downstairs. Do you know where that is?"

"Yes, Sister, I do," he said in full confidence.

Sister Stephin bent close to him, ran her hand over his blond crew cut, and said, "I knew you would remember, Robert. Well," she said in a conspiratorial voice, "tell her that Sister Stephin would like to see her here in the apartment when she is through with what she is doing. Can you tell her that, Robert?"

"Yes, Sister. Should I wait and walk back with her?" he asked hopefully.

"That would be fine, Robert." she said, motioning him to lead the way out.

Pulling his bony elbows back slightly, fists balled at his side, he walked with great determination out of the dormitory. The room just outside was empty save for an old couch and the ladder-back wooden chairs that formed a semi-circle around a small radio cabinet. The bell stopped ringing; Robert heard the clamor of the other kids coming up the concrete stairwell outside and wanted to be out of the apartment before they came in. Following his shadow, he walked faster toward the door opposite the one they would come through.

The roar of their arrival decreased steadily as the apartment door closed behind him. After a few steps into the long hallway of the main building, he stopped to look at its stark emptiness. Under a tall vaulted ceiling the highly polished terrazzo floor gleamed in muted sunlight as though it were the surface of a calm, narrow lake along the building's backbone, reflecting door after door as far as he could see. The big open stairwell leading down to the basement was to his left, a faint smell of cinnamon coming up from its throat.

He heard a door open upstairs, followed by the shouts of the older children. His thin legs pushed him toward the stairs leading below. He held the wooden rail as he descended glistening steps until he encountered another deserted hallway in the belly of the building, the length serrated by pools of light from exposed bulbs along its low, pipe-laden ceiling. The sounds of children echoing from above became muffled, then disappeared. He tuned his ear to the sound of water and the banging of pots from the kitchen down the hall in front of him. Without knowing why, he tiptoed, making small tapping and swooshing sounds as he went from one puddle of light to another. To his left and right were more doors; some were of solid wood the deep dark color of old blood, others had the dull glow of opaque glass windows, none giving any indication of what lay behind them. Ahead, just past the bright noisy kitchen, a burned-out light created a lagoon of darkness pierced with the light of a partially opened doorway. It was the laundry room, his destination.

He heard a crash and clatter followed by a quick shout. Suddenly a silver pot lid rolled out on its edge from the doorway, across the hallway, and through another open door opposite. Just as unexpectedly, a small thin nun, her sleeves rolled up and an enormous white apron flapping about her black habit, marched stiff armed right behind it across the hallway, disappearing into the same open door. The wa-wa-wa sound of the lid's wobbly landing came to a sudden stop followed by the nun marching back across the hallway, lid in hand, mumbling as she disappeared back into the doorway she had popped out of.

Robert approached cautiously, walking to the edge of the large open double doors of the kitchen. He peeked around the corner to see if the nun with the lid was gone. Just then, Sister Camilla appeared with her hands on her hips looking at young Robert, her scrunched-up skinny face foreboding and stern. Robert began to tremble. Sister Camilla, reached out, gently took hold of his upper arm, and said in a soft, clipped tone, "I thought I saw someone out there. What's your name?"

"Robert." Robert said, too shaken to divulge anything more.

She let go of his upper arm, draped her hand about his neck and, pulling him into the kitchen, she said, with an unexpected sweetness and smile, "You are the new boy, aren't you?"

Robert bobbed his head yes as he took in the enormous bright kitchen. Sister Camilla kept him moving toward the lines of stoves and stainless steel tables and cauldrons. He spilled his excuse for being there as rapidly as he could. "Sister Stephin sent me to get Sister Frances, Sister," he said with great gravity.

Sister Camilla withdrew her hand from his neck and said, "And so you shall, Robert, but first I have a favor to ask of you since you are here. Would you help me? It will only take a moment." Before he had a chance to respond, she turned him around and, with her palm on his back, walked him to the other side of a divider that bristled with knives, dangling handles, and odd shaped shiny objects hanging from pipes.

As they turned the corner, another nun, smaller than Sister Camilla, stood at a shiny steel trough as long as the wall, at the center of which was a gleaming box with guillotine doors at either end. To the left, neat rows of dirty dishes in green-coated wire racks stood at the ready and, to the right, racks were filled with clean dishes. The tiny nun greeted Robert with a mischievous smile and several nods in quick succession. She then turned and placed the last plate encrusted with brown residue into the rack nearest the opening, pushed the rack into the maw of the stainless steel dishwasher, then hit a big red button that said START. A great brashy rush of high-pressure washers rattled the soiled plates and puffed the sides of the gleaming box.

Sister Camilla gave young Robert a tug, breaking his stare from the dishwasher. As he turned, he saw several rows of baskets stacked two high and full of apples. On the table were cutting boards and great mounds of apple slices. A metal trashcan nearly filled with cores and skins held its mouth open just below the counter's edge. Giant wooden spoons jutted out of several large kettles full of sliced apples coated with cinnamon and brown sugar. Robert's mouth watered.

Sister Camilla lifted an apple slice from the nearest kettle and offered it to Robert, saying, "This is how you can help me, Robert. Would you taste this to see if it is ready for pie?" All concern fell away as Robert gingerly took the apple slice and promptly bit it in half. Sister Camilla then called out to the diminutive nun at the dishwasher, "Sister Eugenia, this is young Robert, our new boy."

Sister Eugenia trundled over, grasped Robert's hand, and pumped it vigorously. She gave Robert her bright attention with large brown eyes that overlooked a generous wide nose and impish smile. She said, with exaggerated courtesy, "What a pleasure it is to meet you, Master Robert." She stopped suddenly, putting her doll-like hand over her heart, looked at the half apple slice in his hand, then over at the kettle, and finally to Sister Camilla, who immediately said, "No more for you, Sister Eugenia."

Tiny Sister Eugenia let out an excited chirp, shot her arm right past Robert, snatched up a slice of apple from the kettle, and popped it in her mouth. Her thick dark eyebrows bobbed up and down over her wide eyes, which she shot back and forth between Robert and Sister Camilla. She chewed wildly, barely able to suppress her glee.

Sister Camilla, knuckles to hipbones, hawkish face scrunched, said in mock horror, "Sister! How could you?"

Sister Eugenia thrust her palms in the air and, talking with a full mouth of apple, said, "Why, whatever do you mean, Sister?" Turning to Robert, she put her finger to her lips to shush at him as if to keep it a secret, but only succeeded in spitting small pieces of apple at him through her laughter. She abruptly turned and headed for the churning dishwasher, her delicate shoulders jiggling as she went.

"Well?" asked Sister Camilla, widening her eyes at young Robert. "What do you think of our apples? How are they?" Robert continued to stare in amazement at Sister Eugenia and simply shrugged his shoulders as he put the other half of his slice into his mouth and chewed. "One more then, so you'll be sure," Sister Camilla said, handing him another sweet slice. She wiped her thin fingers on her oversized apron as Robert looked at the apple, then cast a wary eye toward Sister Eugenia before deciding to put the whole thing in his mouth this time. Sister Camilla bent abruptly at the waist till her eyes met his then raised her palms up for his response.

Robert partially swallowed and, with a full mouth, said, "I think it's just right, Sister."

"Ahhhh, thank you, thank you, Robert. Well, you are on an errand, I believe? Sister Frances is just down the hall. Do you know where you are going?"

He nodded his head as he chomped, letting a piece of apple escape his mouth as he said, "Yes, Sister, I do."

"Good. Now off with you," she said, then turned and bent to put apples from the baskets into her apron.

Just then the dishwasher stopped, and Sister Eugenia opened the door on the other side of the steel box. Robert walked slowly past as steam rose from the hot rack of gleaming plates. Sister Eugenia immediately walked back to push the next rack of dirty dishes in the other end. As he passed her, he could hear her humming "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" as she worked amid the great racket.

Back in the hall, he turned right and passed the large empty dining rooms until he stood in the shadow of the burned-out bulb outside a solid wood door with gold letters that said Laundry Room. Just below the letters, as he remembered, was an embroidered picture of the Lamb of God and the words "Blessed are they who labor for the sake of the children." The door was neither closed nor open. The machines were quiet, and the lights were off save for the afternoon light coming in from the window well near the ceiling. He slipped inside.

Sister Frances had her back to the door like a gentle pyramid of coal black wool. She sat on a stool at a large table. She was perfectly still except for her right hand, which moved in time to a scratching sound. Robert tiptoed to one side to see what she was doing. She was drawing a picture of the window high up on the wall. She gave no indication that she had heard him. Quietly he watched her hand float over the paper of a large open sketchbook. Her fingers hovered around the pencil as it wove its quick path. She had captured the walls and floor, the window and curtains, and the ceiling of the basement laundry room. She was drawing the tree outside in the distance when he saw her suddenly stop and make a moaning sound. Quick as can be she snapped up a pale lump of something and used it to vigorously rub away her marks from the paper as if they had never existed.

Robert startled her when he asked, "What is that, Sister?"

She turned with such a flourish that her veil, in a great arc of black cloth, knocked the lump onto the floor. The grayish wad tumbled and bounced about with great enthusiasm. Robert lunged, trying to retrieve it, but kept miscalculating the direction it would bounce. He finally outwitted the drab misshapen thing, trapping it in his hands. He stood up, examined it in his cupped hand, and then looked up at Sister Frances in exaggerated curiosity.

She returned a broad smile and laughingly said, "That is a feisty eraser."

Robert was incredulous that she called it an eraser. His world of pencils with pink nubs on the end and chalk on blackboards erased with dusty felt had never included an eraser like this. "Eraser?" he said, skeptically eyeing the glob as he squeezed it.

She adjusted herself away from the big table to face young Robert, brushing her hands down the front of her habit as if wiping away crumbs, her nails whispering over its slick black weave. She said, "There are many kinds of erasers, Robert, many ways to make mistakes go away." She picked up her pencil, turned to a fresh page in her large folio, and made a delicate arc of lead across its bottom, saying, "Go ahead. Try it."

The tip of Robert's tongue appeared at the corner of his mouth as he gently rubbed the mark off the paper with the soft little ball. He handed the mashed gray thing back to her. "Sister Stephin sent me to tell you that, when you are finished with what you are doing, you should come and see her in the apartment. She said I could stay and walk back with you." He hurriedly added, "You can finish your drawing first though."

"How considerate of her—and you, Robert. I do think I would like to finish this one, yes . . ." She turned to look up at the window. "Pull up a chair, Robert," she said distractedly, half pointing to a heavy wood chair between the large dryer and a trashcan on the far side of the room.

As Robert walked over to the chair, he saw himself in the big eye of the tumble dryer. He could see the bright window high up behind him and Sister Frances silhouetted against its light. He watched for a moment as she quietly drew. He then bent and grabbed the lip of the protruding seat and tried to pull it out from between the trashcan and the large dryer. It seemed to be jammed. He tried moving the trash can, but it too was lodged between a table leg and the chair. He looked in the trashcan at mounds of fluff and fuzz with dried wadded-up paper. He wondered what was on the papers, now so indecipherable. He used his hip to scoot the table, freeing the trashcan and, in turn, the chair. As he dragged it across the highly polished floor, it made a soft raaaaaaaaa sound on the floor. Stopping next to the table, he climbed into the chair and sat on his legs to get a better view. If his noise had disturbed Sister Frances, she gave no indication as she quietly drew a spider's web in the corner of her window that looked exactly like the one barely visible in the real window.

The sudden start of a lawn mower's gas engine prompted Sister Frances to say, "The lawn mower is like an eraser too, Robert. Wally, our custodian, is taking away the old grass so new grass can grow."

Robert rose up on his knees, looked around the laundry room as if inspired by her words, and said, "The washing machines are like erasers too then, aren't they, Sister? They erase the dirt from our clothes."

"Why yes, Robert, they are. Can you think of any others?"

"The toilet!" he shouted quickly, then realizing his crudeness, added, "I'm sorry, Sister."

She suppressed a smile and said, "That's quite all right, Robert. That's not what I had in mind, however, but yes, I would think there is some element of erasure there too." She paused, looking at the sunlight edging his face. His unusually long eye lashes made soft curves over his large gray eyes. It pained her to see the traces of abuse on him. "Can you think of anything that you heard Father Hampel speak of lately that remind you of erasers?"

Robert raised himself up in excitement, saying, "Confession!"

Sister Frances laughed at his enthusiasm, leveling her gleeful eyes on his. "You are close, Robert." She brushed the pencil across the corner of the paper, leaving another mark. "But confession does not make sins go away. God forgives when we have true sorrow for our mistakes. That is the real erasure, Robert: forgiveness." She erased her last soft mark and turned back to her drawing.

He narrowed his eyes at what she said, a perplexed look dawning on his features. "I wish, I could erase Sammy James," Robert said with frustration. "He's mean. He spit on my toast and he's not sorry. I wish I could just erase him."

Sister Frances's forehead scrunched at the thought as she continued to draw, making a small spider appear on the web in the corner of the window. She said to him, "Well, you cannot erase Sammy James, but you certainly can forgive him his trespass against you. By doing so, you allow yourself to move on. Perhaps wiser for the experience." She detected that his mind had drifted to other places. She continued to draw, adding in a light that dangled above the window.

Robert casually asked, as if it were an afterthought, "If I forgive my mom and dad, will it still work even if they aren't alive anymore?"

With four small strokes, Sister Frances drew a pair of birds flying in the distance. She set the pencil down and turned to look at Robert. "Yes, Robert, true forgiveness is good forever."

"But it won't make the hurt go away. Not really. Will it?" he asked plaintively.

"No, it won't, Robert, you are right." Her eyebrows rose in concern. She tilted her head until her eyes caught his and then said, "Here, Robert, I'll show you." She turned her folio to a blank page, slid it over to him, and offered him the pencil. "Take the pencil and make another line on the paper, Robert. A short one. Only this time press really hard so the mark is deep."

He sat back on his heels, toes gripping and releasing in his shoes. Gingerly he accepted the yellow number two from her elegant hand wrapped from the wrist up in soft ebony. He gripped it in his fist as though he held a dagger and pressured the point into an ashen furrow on the soft paper until his hand began to tremble.

Sister Frances's hand stopped him. "Thank you, Robert," she said. He looked up at her, took a stuttering deep breath, and relinquished the pencil. Sister Frances immediately handed him the eraser and said, "Now, Robert, erase it as best you can. Try to make it go away."

He squeezed the pliable gob hard and attacked the paper with ferocious rubbing until its surface began to turn to lint. Despite his best effort, the black streak long gone, a stubborn scar remained imbedded in the paper. He gave up, setting the eraser down without looking at Sister Frances.

"Very good, Robert," she said, "Thank you." She took the pencil, her forefinger at its point directing a flourish of pewter trails high above and around the deep scar. Out of those arcing dark lines, the delicate petals of a rose began to appear. Two quick parallel lines downward created a stem. The pencil, scratching its way upward, left a trail of leaves and texture. Robert's mark had become a small thorn.

Robert, transfixed by her graceful movements, shook his head slightly at the mystical appearance of the rose. When she stopped, he reached out, his small finger tips hovering above the beautiful flower head, then he looked at Sister Frances unable to form words.

"You see, Robert?" she said in a soft understanding tone. "Some mistakes never really go away, because they are deep within us. If we can see them for what they are though, only a small part of our bigger picture, then we can create whatever we want around them. So, it's okay that they are a part of us, as long as they are not the biggest part of us."

Her quiet voice trailed off and they simply looked at each other. Robert's eyes welled up, spilling over his pale cheeks. His breath hitched in his chest, he softly slid off his chair and quietly laid his head in Sister Frances's lap, wrapping his arms around her waist, his cries muffled by black cloth. Sister Frances bent close to him, cradled his small head, and rubbed his trembling back.

Sister Stephin looked up to see Sister Frances walking down the hall toward her, her hand swatting behind her back as if to shoo a fly. A smiling young Robert burst out from behind her and ran to Sister Stephin. "I brought Sister Frances, Stir."

Sister Stephin shot her finger in the air, widened her eyes, and said, "I am not a 'stir,' young man. I am Sister to all." Then she said, "Thank you, Robert. Job well done." She looked up to Sister Frances, who had her hand on Robert's shoulder.

Robert looked up to Sister Frances and then to Sister Stephin and asked, "Stir—I mean, Sister, can I go play now? My stomach feels all better."

"Yes," Sister Stephin said. "The other boys are in the radio room. The Lone Ranger is just starting. Listen, you can hear the music now."

Robert skipped down the hall, his shimmering shadow dancing ahead on the polished terrazzo toward the swelling overture.

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