Character-driven Short Story Competition - Runner Up

Jodie Rose Carpenter

Runner Up
Our not so perfect lives
Character-driven Short Story Competition


Jodie Carpenter lives in Birmingham where she works in marketing. She has been a winner, runner-up and shortlisted in several Writing Magazine competitions and has also had her short stories published in a variety of other places. When not reading or writing as much Young Adult fiction as possible, Jodie enjoys yoga, playing video games, listening to rock music, watching anime and consuming copious amounts of tea. 

Our not so perfect lives By Jodie Rose Carpenter

‘You’re shitting me. You’re actually shitting me.’ I stare at the pregnancy test some more. It’s not shitting me. In fact, it’s going ‘Yay, Hattie! You’re pregnant! Knocked up! Up the duff!’ I resist the urge to hurl it at the wall. Hard.
Instead, I drop my face into my hands. This can’t be happening. Seriously. I only found out I’d got a place at Brighton University two days ago. And come on, I’ve literally only ever had sex once – if you can even call it that: he was inside me for 83 seconds. I know because I watched the second-hand crawl around the clock above the door – and that was with Joe freaking Cooper. The guy still laughs at ‘Your Mom’ jokes and smells like a hamster cage. I can safely say I’m never drinking Jägerbombs ever again. There’s also the little issue of the squishy things my insides do when I see Abigail Brealey’s face, but I am NOT thinking about that right now.
I push all thoughts of her long, black braids and the way she scrunches up her face when she’s writing firmly out of my mind and try to focus on the problem at hand. The baby Hattie in the oven.
I slide my phone out of my jeans pocket and sit down on the floor against the bath. My thumb hovers over Joe’s name in my messages for a few seconds. But what should I say? ‘Hey, what’s up? Thanks for telling me the condom broke! 😊’ Probably not the best message to send. Instead, I open Instagram and start scrolling through other people’s perfect lives to escape my own shitty one.
I stay sitting on the floor until the Buzzfeed quiz confirms I do actually belong in Hufflepuff, not Ravenclaw (so what if it took a few attempts to get there?). Then I drag myself downstairs, stopping by my bedroom first to pull on a baggy jumper, despite it being 20°C outside. I’m being ridiculous I know, but I suddenly feel like my stomach is drawing attention to itself, as if it’s wearing one of those ‘Baby on board’ signs you get in the back of cars. Goodbye tight-fitted clothes, hello shapeless chic straight from the set of The Handmaid’s Tale.
In the living room, Rory, my twin brother and all-round nerd, is sitting wearing his humblebrag University of Oxford hoody and watching a re-run of The Chase which he’s shouting out the answers to.
‘Spoonbill!’ he says at the TV as I plop down next to him.
‘Turdbucket!’ I direct at him which earns a killer side-eye.
‘If you’re going to mock me, go away.’
‘Man, do you ever take this thing off?’ I ignore him and pluck at his hoody sleeve. ‘It’s starting to smell.’ He pulls away.
‘It’s comfy.’
‘It’s also obnoxious.’
‘Just because Brighton is nothing to brag about, doesn’t mean I can’t be proud of my place at Oxford.’ I don’t want it to hurt, but it does. A lot.
‘You can be a real dick sometimes, you know that?’
His frown at the TV intensifies.
The silence between us deepens as Bradley Walsh keeps up his steady stream of banter.
I’m about to get up when Rory speaks. ‘Look, I’m sorry. That was a shitty thing for me to say.’
‘Damn right it was.’ I’m surprised though. He never normally apologises for being an idiot.
‘You know something? I’m actually jealous of you.’
‘What, why?’
He sighs, long and low. ‘I don’t actually want to go to Oxford.’ The words come out in a quiet rush.
I sit there for several heartbeats trying to process them. ‘Um, what?’
He doesn’t take his eyes off The Chase. ‘Yeah, I realised on the Open Day it wasn’t the place for me.’
‘Rory. You’ve been, like, obsessed with Oxford since you were old enough to know what it was. You have photos of the campus on your wall. You’re sitting there right now in an Oxford hoody! So, sorry if I’m having a hard time believing you.’
‘I thought I did want to go. But seriously, I’d rather go to London Met than Oxford.’ Wow, now I know he’s for real.
‘Then why the hell are you still going?’
He just looks at me and it hits me. ‘Mom,’ I say and he nods.
I’ve been a lost cause with Mom since the age of 10, when she realised I’d rather be doodling manga characters than memorising the periodic table. She was always banging on about how I’d never get into a Russell Group university and saying ‘Why can’t you be more like Rory? Rory’s going to Oxford, aren’t you, my love? You could too, Harriet, if only you applied yourself.’ And ‘Doesn’t having a Maths degree sound better than having an Illustration one?’  Like, seriously. I get that she only wants what’s best for us, but she needs to chill. I mean, what is it with parents and obsessing over Oxbridge anyway?  Man, she’s really going to be disappointed when I tell her even Brighton may be out of the question now.
I always thought Rory enjoyed and even encouraged it though. I didn’t for a second think he was just going along with it.
‘I just don’t want to disappoint her. She’s had her heart set on this for me since she conceived.’
I think of the gatecrasher currently chilling in my womb.  ‘I know, but it’s your life. You’ve got to do what you want with it. Even if that sounds like a cheesy Instagram quote.’
‘Yeah, but,’ he shrugs.
‘Where would you go then if you could choose?’
‘Somewhere by the sea. Falmouth maybe. I’m so jealous of you going to Brighton.’
‘Come on, you were literally just taking the piss out of it.’
‘Only because I’m bitter.’
‘Well, I don’t think you’ve got anything to be bitter about anymore.’
‘Let’s just say, if you drop out of Oxford, I don’t know which one of us Mom will hate more.’
‘Uh oh. I know that face. What did you do?’
‘More like who did I do.’ Am I doing this? Am I really doing this? The crazed hummingbird trapped in my ribcage is telling me I am doing this.
‘You better not be pregnant.’
I concentrate on picking a loose thread in the sleeve of my jumper.
‘Shit, you are, aren’t you?’
‘Surprise,’ I throw up my hands. ‘And do you want to know the really messed up thing?’ If I’m doing this, I may as well go big or go home. ‘I’m, like, 93% sure I’m gay.’ There, it’s out. Or I guess, I am.
Rory just blinks at me. Once, twice, three times. He opens his mouth. It just hangs there.
‘Gross, I can see your breakfast,’ I try to joke, but my voice cracks.
He swallows. ‘Wow, I think you’re definitely the bigger disappointment here.’
‘No joke. Please let me be here when you tell Mom all this. Her head’s literally going to explode.’
‘Shut your face.’
Audience laughter bursts out from the TV, filling the living room. Laughing at us and our lives.
‘Seriously, Hat. What’re you going to do?’
I swallow thickly. ‘I’ve no idea.’
‘Hey. Come here,’ he holds out his arm and I snuggle into him. We watch the rest of the show like this, both of us ignoring my sniffles.
During the ad break, he gently shoulder bumps me. ‘So?’
‘So, what?’
‘Are you going to give me the juicy details?’
‘Do I have to?’ I groan.
I cringe. ‘You know Joe Cooper?’
Rory wrinkles his nose. ‘The guy who-’
‘Smells like rodent pee? Yup.’
‘You did not.’
‘I did.’
‘I know. I’m mortified.’

‘I can’t believe I’m going to be the uncle of Hamster Boy’s offspring.’ He looks at me quickly. ‘I mean, if you keep it.’
‘I don’t know what I’m going to do yet.’.
‘I’m here for you no matter what.’ He looks like he means it too.
‘That…that means a lot.’
‘I’ve got a question though.’
‘Go for it.’
‘The gay thing – was the sex so bad he turned you?’
‘Oh my god, Rory,’ I hurl one of Mom’s sequined cushions at him. I don’t even feel bad when it knocks his glasses off.
‘Too soon?’
‘I don’t want to re-live that night ever again. But also, my sexual identity has nothing to do with him.’
‘I know, sorry. I just couldn’t resist. So, did you know you were 93% gay before you had sex?’
‘More like 71%? I’ve liked girls in the past and kinda like one now, but I thought they were harmless crushes. I’ve never really been attracted to guys, but the possibility of sex became a thing with Joe and I just thought, why not? Everyone else is doing it.’ I sigh. ‘I wish I could take it back though, and not for obvious reasons. I just can’t believe that was my first time. I wanted it to be special.’
‘To be fair, I don’t think anyone’s first time is great. But you can still have a first time with a girl you like and that will be special.’
‘I hope so.’
‘So, how did it make you realise you weren’t into guys?’
‘I don’t know, it just felt…wrong.’
‘Like Oxford,’ Rory says.
‘Like Oxford,’ I agree.
Rory looks away and starts pulling at his lower lip.
‘Hey. Can I bring the sprog when I visit you in your swanky beach house?’
He smiles after a few seconds. ‘I’d love that. Don’t get your hopes up though, I’m sure it would be crappy student accommodation.’
‘Fine by me.’
‘You can bring your girlfriend too – what did you say her name was again?’
My cheeks flare up. ‘Nice try, you’re not getting her name out of me that easily.’
The key turning in the front door makes us both jump and my heart slams to the roof of my mouth. Mom’s back. I’m not ready. But then Rory’s fingers circle through my own. ‘Hey, Hattie?’
I look at him.
‘We’ve got this, okay?’
I smile and squeeze his fingers. ‘Sure, Ror. We’ve got this.’

Judges Comments

Jodie Rose Carpenter's character creation is what gives her YA short story Our not so perfect lives a vibrant realism that made it stand out as the runner up of our competition for character-driven short stories.

Hattie is a teenager who has got pregnant but in Jodie's hands we see so much more of her than her central dilemma: she's brave, questioning, defining her sexuality, having to deal with life's big issues. She's also funny, sparky, frightened, loyal, compassionate and loving. Thanks to Jodie, we don't just see a character dealing with a problem; we see a fully-rounded character responding to their circumstances and thereby effecting the change necessary to give the story's dramatic arc a satisfying conclusion.

Hattie's brother Rory is the story's secondary character but Jodie has created him as carefully as his sister, enabling readers to see him clearly as a fully-rounded person with relatable human responses to the life issues he's facing. In a story about people changing the accepted narratives that have been given to them, it's essential that we see and understand how the protagonists' characters have to shape their destiny. In the case of the characters in Our not so perfect lives, we believe in them. Their dialogue rings true, their relationship is convincing and their problems, which could have been reduced to 'issues', feel real and relevant. By concentrating on delivering their characters, Jodie has convinced her readers to believe in their stories.