High School Junior Jack Nessman of Washington, D.C., won a 2010 Gold Medal for his Short Short Story, Ice Cream Memories.

Greg Mills, "Lizard Bar Funsized." Age 14, Grade 8. 2010 Gold Medal, Digital Art.

No one quite understood Peter Larson’s newfound obsession with Edy’s vanilla ice cream. His wife could recall no previous disposition towards sweets and strangely enough could cite only incidents when he had scolded her own unhealthy eating habits. In truth, the eighty-three year-old man could hardly taste a thing. Years ago in the war, the explosion of a nearby enemy shell had somehow robbed him of his taste buds, leaving him perfectly satisfied with the unsavory flavors of his wife’s cooking. The nurses at the hospital suggested that the ice cream was “texturally pleasing.” But this explanation hardly accounted for his sudden fixation. No one thought to ask Peter Larson, but even if they had, he probably could not have told them.

Perhaps it was in his nature. Unlike others, he was inclined to form bonds with things, not people. He found a strange comfort in the company of objects. Larson was not a sociable or openly affectionate man. In his mind, a failed social encounter was the direct result of his acquaintance’s intellectual inadequacies. As he could not understand social conventions, he chose to ignore them entirely. In all likelihood, had he been born a few generations later, he would have been diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome.

Hospital visits were forced and uncomfortable for friends and family. If Larson’s sickly state was not unsettling enough, the tension in attempted conversation was. The old man could hardly speak and was rarely tempted to try.

Mealtime offered a much-needed reprieve from the silence. Entering the room with the customary plastic food tray, the plump middle-aged nurse would offer a hardy, “How have you been, Mr. Larson?” before placing the day’s offering in front of him and inquiring as always, “Anything else I can get for you?”

Today, Mr. Larson made a simple request, noting that a key item was missing from the tray. “I’d like my ice cream as well.”

Exhaling a maternal sigh, the nurse folded her arms. “Your older son’s worried about you. He’s noticed that you’re not eating any of your dinner lately. This time I’ve got to agree with him, although I told him those mushroom extracts of his wouldn’t treat the cancer. I watch out for you. That’s why I’ve got to make sure you eat up all of your food, not just dessert.” Patting him on the shoulder, she returned to her cart and left the room, greeting Mr. Larson’s younger son halfheartedly as he came in.

Michael Larson was his brother’s opposite, which may have explained why he was his father’s favorite. Lifting his gaze from the full food tray to the pitiful pleading expression on the old man’s face, he immediately understood. “On the way over to the hospital, I forgot to get lunch,” he offered matter-of-factly. “Mind if I help you with that, Dad?”

Peter Larson smiled weakly and nodded his head. “I suppose I can spare some of my chicken. Just don’t let the nurses see.”

When the nurse returned half an hour later, the tray was empty, save for a single piece of chicken spared for the sake of realism. Peter Larson had agreed to tackle the fruit cup while his son devoured the rest. “May I have my ice cream now?” he asked her once again, trying this time with great difficulty to suppress a grin.

The nurse eyed the empty tray, first with surprise, then skepticism, and finally realization. But her emotions prevented her from acting on professional instinct. It hurt her to deprive Mr. Larson of his ice cream, and she reasoned that he had only days as it was. “I’ll be right back.”

The nurse returned with only a small mound of ice cream, but Peter Larson did not seem to notice. Dreamily tracing the plastic spoon across the surface, the aches of old age were forgotten and memories of youth fondly recalled. He dug foxholes in the slow-churned landscape of the Ardennes and remembered the men who he had fought alongside of in the winter of 1944. He imagined most of them were dead now and wished he could see them again someday—perhaps in the same snow-covered forest where long ago they had been young and where they had become brothers.

He filled in the foxhole with his spoon, and carved a pair of parallel lines running from the peak of the slow-churned hill. There, he and his brother, David, had sledded years ago in the Michigan winter. He smiled to himself as he navigated the slope, carving to the left and right to dodge trees and bare patches. David was letting him steer and was beaming in pride at his younger brother’s natural ability. Later, he would eagerly boast to his mother that he had been the one who had taught him so well. They had never been so close as they had that day and in recalling this, Peter was seized by an awful realization. He was no eleven-year-old but an eighty-three year-old man dying of cancer, and the brother who he had admired and adored more than anyone else was long dead. It was cruel the way that youth and happiness had been ripped from him. He thrust the plastic spoon to the tray in anger and breathed heavily at the strain the simple act had caused him. His younger son tried to calm him, but was too startled by the unusual display to do anything. For the first time in his life, he watched his father cry.

***

When Peter Larson awoke, he was unusually calm. “Michael,” he spoke weakly. “I slept very well.” In the armchair opposite the hospital bed, his son stirred and gazed with a newfound understanding at the man across the room. He realized now that he father was as human as the rest—emotional and mortal. Michael lifted his body from the chair and knelt at the old man’s bedside.

“I’m happy to hear that.”

“I dreamt, Michael,” Peter Larson whispered. “I haven’t dreamt for a while. Do you remember the ice cream factory I told you about years ago?”

“Yes, I remember. Dad, do you need water?” Michael spoke as he reached to fill his father’s cup. “I know it’s hard for you to speak.”

His father did not seem to hear. “I was only eight when we went there. It was during the Depression.” His eyes glistened with a boyish joy. “That factory was the most wonderful place I’ve ever been. And at the end of the tour, they let us have as much ice cream as we wanted.”

“And that’s why all you’ve eaten is ice cream since you came here?”

His father smiled. “That was the happiest day of my life. In my dream, my mother and father were there.” His voice quavered suddenly. “And so was David. I was so happy to see them and couldn’t understand why. They were right there in front of me, but I felt like I hadn’t seen them in a very long time. I wanted the tour to go on—because I knew they’d be gone when it was over.”

He turned the other way, so that his son could not see the tears in his eyes. As he sobbed quietly to himself, his son placed an arm on his father’s shoulder. “Don’t worry,” Peter Larson whispered. “I’m happy. I’ll see them soon.”

And that night, he did.

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