40 comments

Apr 29, 2021

Contemporary Fiction

Erica entered the library and instantly wanted to leave. The cold stone architecture and crowded shelves intimidated her. She felt small and overshadowed, walking towards the foreign aisles with little more poise than a tourist entering a bazaar.


“Can I help you?” the librarian asked, apparently picking up on her hesitation. 


“No, thanks,” Erica replied. She didn’t know what she was looking for, anyway. Wasn’t even sure why she’d walked in.


As a kid, Erica hated books. She’d often grown angry at the way the words were stacked together on the pages, black and white and increasingly lifeless, with fewer and fewer pictures in between. 


She’d always loved stories, though. Ones told out loud by her friends, ones whispered in the rippling of Arizona heat atop the pavement. Entire chronicles hidden in the passing gaze of strangers. She liked that none of these stories were ever exactly the same. They were flighty, unbound, free.


Erica wandered through the library, perusing titles and running a dainty finger along worn spines. She maneuvered around the few people who stood bent over the back covers of books, dipping their unaccustomed toes into faraway oceans.


She didn’t understand it.


“I wouldn’t go for that one,” someone murmured behind her.


Erica jumped and took another glance at the book where her finger rested. Pale Fire. She’d never heard of it.


“It’s a bit of a snooze fest,” the teenager whispered. His pallid arms clutched a stack of books, topped with The Catcher in the Rye, and he regarded her from behind frighteningly thick lenses. 


She nodded, struggling to keep a straight face at his serious demeanor. “Thanks.”


He grinned smugly and wandered off. 


Beside Pale Fire, a small, unmarked book caught her eye. It was bound in faded green cloth with a gold vine along the spine. Unlike the other books, this one did not have a sticker or any kind of identification. Curious, Erica pulled it from its place.


The front cover was blank, so she flipped the book open. No author, no publishing information. She turned to the title page, which was yellowed and stiff with age. It read simply:


for the forgotten


Erica frowned and glanced at the first page.


For the kind sons of Cain.


For the sisters of Abel, laid to rest beside the entrance of paradise, under the fiery sword of the cherubim.


Erica thumbed through the book, scanning through entries. Each statement raised more questions than answers.


For the grieving mother who painted her son on the cave wall at Bhimbetka while his blood was still wet on the ground.


For the first man to die in Ashoka’s last war, whose ears rang with fire and fear.


For the boy who charted stars with Galileo, with ink-stains on his young hands and the heavens in his eyes.


She flipped to the end. The last pages of the book were blank, and looked significantly newer. Eventually, she found the last line:


For the woman who sits counting silver coins, waiting for the storm.


Confused, Erica looked around for the bookish teen, but he was nowhere in sight. She tucked the book carefully under her arm and walked to the front desk, where the librarian sat at her computer with a small frown on her face and a large mug of tea in her hand.


“Excuse me,” Erica said softly, “do you have any information about this book?”


The small woman took the book without glancing at Erica. She perused the blank cover and the title page, typed a few things into her computer, and stared up at Erica with a frown.


“It’s not in our database. Where did you find it?”


“On the shelf over there, next to Nabokov.”


The librarian flipped through the book. “Huh. Well, let me catalog it. Then you can check it out if you’d like.”


Erica nearly said no. Instead, she found herself walking to her car minutes later with her first library card and the little green book tucked under her arm, thinking about her sister for the first time in many months.


Danielle used to devour books. There was no other way to describe it, really. Dani fell into worlds of words with the easy gravity of a foal tumbling from the womb. She spent her weekends on the couch, hidden in her books for countless hours. 


When they were younger Erica often thought that, if given the choice, Dani would pick a book over her any day. All these years later, she hadn’t exactly been wrong. Dani worked for a publishing company across the country. They rarely spoke. 


Erica wondered what her older sister would say to see her utterly spellbound by a book for the first time in her life.


She spent the rest of the day and well into the night curled up in her armchair, flipping through the pages. The last sentence clung to her like blood, the image of the woman and the silver coins filled her dreams.


The next morning, she rose early and took the book with her to work, noting with a satisfied smile how the pale green cover matched her scrubs. 


She made her rounds mechanically, smiling at the patients and updating charts with her careful handwriting.


After her lunch break, Erica visited their newest patient, knocking on the open door as she entered the room. Uninspiring paintings of flowers and landscapes hung on the wall. The window was large and displayed a decent view of the sunny sky and distant Arizona mountains, looming over the desert in regal violet hues. 


A diminutive woman sat at the chair by the window, laying silver coins out on the sill. She had short white hair that stuck out in odd angles and was humming an unfamiliar tune.


“Ms. Wilson? I’m Erica, one of your nurses.”


The woman didn’t look up from her coins. There was something familiar about her.


“How are you feeling today?” she asked softly.


“Oh, just fine,” the woman replied, watching the window.


Erica smiled. She checked the woman’s blood pressure and refilled her glass of water.


“Are you settling in okay?”


“Yes, thank you. It’s peaceful here.” Ms. Wilson ran her thumb along the edge of a coin contemplatively. “How long have you worked here?”


“Three years.”


“My brother Paul was a nurse,” the old woman mused and glanced up at Erica with striking brown eyes. “Well, an army medic and then a nurse.”


“How many siblings do you have?” Erica asked, sorting pills into a little plastic cup.


“Two brothers, both gone now.”


“Were you close with them?”


“For a while,” Ms. Wilson smiled out at the mountains, “but life pulled us apart.”


Erica passed Ms. Wilson her pills and the woman swallowed them without complaint, hardly looking away from the coins on the windowsill. 


“I love the smell of rain on the desert.”


Erica froze. “What was that?”


“Rain, dear. I wish it would rain.”


“I do too,” she stuttered. Erica dashed to the break room and pulled the book from her purse. The final sentence hit her like a blow:


For the woman who sits counting silver coins, waiting for the storm.


That night at home, Erica read and reread the last pages of the book. There were names of people killed quietly in wars she’d heard about in the news just days before. There were places she didn’t know existed, but found with a quick google search. 


She set the book down with trembling fingers, unable to look away from the blurred pages that brimmed with forgotten lives. 


A sudden clap of thunder made her jump. Rain began to pour in thick sheets, and Erica hoped for a moment that Ms. Wilson was awake to enjoy the storm. The scent of dust and sage filled the air. 


Erica picked up her phone on a whim and called her sister. It was late and Dani didn’t pick up, so she left a message.


“Hey Dani, just checking in. I’ve been thinking about taking some time off work to visit you. Call me when you get this. I’ll start looking at flights, maybe next month?” Erica picked at the book’s green binding. “Anyway, love you. Bye.”


Flashes of lightning filled the room at irregular intervals while Erica read. She treasured each line, each life, with a reverence she’d never felt before. 


The next morning was rain-washed and sparkling. Erica arrived early to work and headed straight through the maze towards Ms. Wilson’s room.


It was empty. A line of silver coins lay on the windowsill, glinting like raindrops in the sunrise. 


Erica stepped out into the hallway and flagged down another nurse in dark blue scrubs.


“Where’s Ms. Wilson?” she asked.


“Who?” he glanced at his charts, not recalling the name.


“She was in this room yesterday.”


“Oh,” he said. “She passed away last night.”


Erica turned and walked back into the room, frantically trying to recall the woman’s face, her thin fingers atop the silver coins, the way her white wisps of hair caught the sunlight like fire. Erica knew she should be used to death by now, but she never was, and this death stung more than most. 


The other nurse followed her in, face full of concern. “Did you know her?”


“Not really. Have they contacted her family yet?”


He checked his paperwork. “She didn’t have any listed.”


“Oh,” Erica said, and turned away to hide her burning eyes.


He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder for a moment and left her alone. 


Erica pulled the book from her bag and held it tightly. She sat in the chair by the window, tears welling at the sight of the coins that shone in the sun. 


“I’ll remember you,” she promised.


The next day, Erica called her sister again. They talked for hours about nothing and everything and the little pieces of life in between. She stopped by the library to return for the forgotten, opening it one last time to visit with those whom history left behind. 


Erica turned to the back of the book and noted with an unsurprised smile that the final sentence was gone.


She slid the book gently into the book return and tried to picture the people who might hold it in the future, those who held it in the past. 


With a silent goodbye, she drove away, clutching at small memories and a single silver coin.

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40 comments

Amany Sayed
19:59 Apr 29, 2021

Aughhh it just got better and better the longer I read. When it started, I was appalled anyone could possibly feel that way about books. It really blossomed as the story went on. There's an underlying message and I love it. Really wonderful writing.

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Claire Lewis
21:18 Apr 29, 2021

Thank you Amany! I’m looking forward to catching up on your stories a bit soon!!

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Nina Chyll
19:02 May 03, 2021

This may sound strange but I'm glad someone thinks brown eyes can be striking too! I like the magical realism and how it didn't feel forcefully injected into the story, and the narrative flowed.

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Claire Lewis
19:31 May 03, 2021

Thank you! I agree—brown eyes are gorgeous, I feel like people don’t appreciate them enough :)

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Heather Mc Quaid
13:53 Apr 29, 2021

Oo, a mysterious vibe with this one. Great descriptions of the people and settings, and I like the way you portrayed Erica's ambivalence for books. A few comments. Wondering if the writing in the book ought to be italics instead of quotes? And here, wondering if you need to include "bittersweetly"?: “For a while,” Ms. Wilson smiled bittersweetly out at the mountains." I also liked ending, great imagery. :)

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Claire Lewis
21:13 Apr 29, 2021

Ooh good edits, Heather, thank you!! It was a bit of a stretch for me to write Erica’s character but I’m glad it worked... I’m definitely a Dani 😂

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Heather Mc Quaid
22:06 Apr 29, 2021

Yeah, I actually wondered how you were able to channel an Erica, but it was convincing. ;)

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Claire Lewis
00:35 Apr 30, 2021

She’s based off of my sister who has just recently started asking me for book suggestions so I felt like I had a pretty decent grasp on the character :)

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Thom Brodkin
12:41 May 15, 2021

You make me love books. You have written about them more than once and you do it with a love and a reverence that shines through. I love how unique this story was. It was supernatural and yet so plain. It was both happy and sad. It was above all hopeful. I wonder if they could make this into a television series? It would be fun to see how the book affected a new life each week. It was really fantastic. I always look forward to reading you. I posted one this week. I had written it weeks ago but missed the deadline so I was waiting ...

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Claire Lewis
14:27 May 15, 2021

Thanks, Thom! Looking forward to it!

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Sharmishtha Saha
07:57 May 05, 2021

Wow. Loved it.

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Camila Amenero
03:53 May 04, 2021

The way this story evolved was really fascinating. I loved seeing Erica explore in the library and finding the little green book that caught her attention. I think this story could use a little but more elaboration on the small connection between Ms. Wilson and Erica. The story really would have felt more complete, but overall this it a really captivating story.

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Claire Lewis
14:46 May 04, 2021

Hi Camila, thanks for the thoughtful comment! I agree that this story needed more fine-tuning—it certainly isn’t my best haha—but I’m glad you found it fascinating anyways :)

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Frances Reine
12:15 May 03, 2021

This one could do with a second read. I'll be sure to do that later. You're marvellous with pace and flow in this one, Claire. And always with pretty endings. I think this story's been approved already but if it isn't, I have a little suggestion: “Two brothers, both gone now.” “Were you close with them?” Maybe it was intentional but I think the natural response for Erica is: "I'm sorry. Were you close with them?" It can be subtle but out of politeness, I'd say it has some significance. I love the mystery and it's sweet in a way too...

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Claire Lewis
12:48 May 03, 2021

Thanks for the careful read, Frances! I was worried about the pace and the characterization in this one but if you say it’s good I feel a lot better about it haha And yes, that would be a great edit, I knew something was off in that line. This one got approved really early, hardly any time to edit 😅

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Frances Reine
16:50 May 03, 2021

No worries. It's still a gem!

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Alyson Ackman
21:11 May 01, 2021

Love the story and your writing. It all flows so well with beautiful imagery. The only parts that took me out of the story were about her nursing job. You mention two different coloured scrubs but I'm pretty sure all nurses wear the same colour. And I am guessing her handwriting would be pretty messy. From my experience with nurses they are usually pretty worked. I would have loved to see that in her life to maybe add some tension that the book helps her with? Honestly I am really pulling at threads here as this was an amazing story. I wi...

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Claire Lewis
03:41 May 03, 2021

Hi Alyson, thanks so much for the careful read! I didn’t have much time to fact check this one and unfortunately it was approved already. I absolutely agree that I could have fleshed that aspect of her character out more.

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Alyson Ackman
14:11 May 03, 2021

To be honest I didn't find it took away from the actual story. I was really nitpicking for something. Love your writing!

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Claire Lewis
15:03 May 03, 2021

It’s always nice to find a fellow nit picker! Critical comments are my favorite kind, they keep me on my toes :)

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Sam Ackman
03:37 May 01, 2021

This is a really cute story! Your descriptions were eloquently done and the pace during the storm was great. I found I wanted to empathize with the main character more. I enjoyed the secret workings of the book :).

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Claire Lewis
18:07 May 01, 2021

Thanks Sam! It got approved this morning, but I agree her character could have used some fine-tuning.

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Sam Ackman
19:00 May 01, 2021

It was a very interested story. I find I get pulled along by the characters or the mystery. This one was more of a mystery pull along. I actually really expected the main character to find her own name in the book at the end. I really enjoyed the ending though, nice when things end high

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Shea West
16:10 Apr 30, 2021

What a sadly sweet way to make someone love books! How could Erica not hug a book after that "coincidence," I'm not sure. Beautiful as always Claire!

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Claire Lewis
19:37 May 01, 2021

Oops, thought I had replied! Thanks for the kind comment, Shea, I always enjoy your feedback :)

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13:55 Apr 30, 2021

This deserves a win. I cannot say how beautiful this is. My new favourite. I absolutely adire this, Claire, it is a beautiful piece.

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Claire Lewis
19:38 May 01, 2021

Thank you, Sia, I’m glad to hear it resonated with you :)

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06:10 May 02, 2021

:)

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Rachel Smith
05:56 Apr 30, 2021

Hi Clare, I loved Erica's journey, that she was inspired to call her sister. The imagery with the coins was beautiful and sad. I really felt for her when the old lady passed away, being a doctor/nurse must be so heartbreaking. Well written as always. My new story is posted, I'd love to hear your opinion / critique. 🙂

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Claire Lewis
12:45 Apr 30, 2021

Hi Rachel, thank you for your comment! And yes—I skimmed through your story last night but I wanted to read it again when I was more awake before commenting haha! I’ll take another look sometime today 😊

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Rachel Smith
18:29 Apr 30, 2021

Cheers 😁

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R. K.
22:30 Apr 29, 2021

This was a soft story, blurred like a brushstroke. It's nothing overly extraordinary at first glance — but that's precisely what makes it special. Like the stars, that most don't notice surrounded by streetlights or fast asleep. I like how simple this is — the annoyance at something you don't understand, the mundane phone calls, the curious green book and people forgotten to time — a delight to read.

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Claire Lewis
00:59 Apr 30, 2021

Ru, thank you for those edits! The struggles of writing a story on my phone instead of an a laptop... I always miss the little things I’m all about appreciating the simple things that don’t seem special at first glance, so I’m flattered by your comment :) How’s The Starless Sea coming along? Also—I’ve read through everything in my little collection of books and I’m looking for new recommendations if you’ve got any!

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R. K.
13:29 Apr 30, 2021

“We are all stardust and stories.” Oh it's so lovely. I'm not done yet because I've been so busy as of late, so I've mostly been saving this lush book for the coming week or the next when I'll be eligibly more free. Have you read Erin's other book? If not, you could try that. If you like TNC, you could try "The Ladies of the Secret Circus" which I might try. There's also the "The Lost Apothecary" which I got and is intriguing — or the book that I'll probably read next, "Beneath Cruel Fathoms". And oh! "The Witch's Heart".

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Claire Lewis
17:39 Apr 30, 2021

I’m in love with that book! As soon as I finished it I wanted to start it over I haven’t read TNC yet, it’s on my list! I’ll look those other ones up... I wish I had an endless supply of book-buying funds 😂

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Ellie Yu
14:28 Apr 29, 2021

There's a very different vibe going on in this piece and I like it! I'm glad you didn't explain the mechanics of the book or how it worked - I think that would have detracted from the mood. There are lots of super pretty sentences here: "rain-washed and sparkling," "dipping their unaccustomed toes into faraway oceans." If you wanted to cut it down, you could maybe remove her encounter with "Pale Fire" and the teenager. It's not strictly necessary, in my opinion, and even though I do like it, you said the story was a little longer than plann...

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Claire Lewis
21:17 Apr 29, 2021

That’s the scene I’ve been toying with getting rid of, but I kinda like it so we’ll see if I end up cutting it Thanks for your comment, this is loosely based on my younger sister and I (though we’ve got a closer relationship than these characters by far haha)

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Claire Lewis
13:42 Apr 29, 2021

Unedited and a little longer than planned. Critiques would be much appreciated

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Marianna Mills
19:41 Jun 19, 2021

Whoa, I mean, this is decent, heavy, dark, "A diminutive woman...." there is a word, I might have said "A shriveled shrunken old woman", but that is me, and "A foal tumbling from the womb", so dark and heavy......I think you have a brave bold way with words and stories, honestly, I am surprised you havent won more than two.

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J. Storbakken
19:43 May 21, 2021

You are gifted.

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