Contest #196 shortlist ⭐️


Contemporary Fiction Sad

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

You weren’t allowed to return. That was the rule. 

In Sali, Washington, people disappeared. My grandmother did back in ’92, just after having Mom. She left a succinct note explaining that Pop wasn’t doting enough, and she missed the soft skin and moist lips of her fading yesterdays. My best friend Beck did, the night before her eighteenth birthday, claiming life wasn’t worth living if you only got to be a child once. Even my boyfriend, plagued by the obscurity of our town, a loyal resident through and through until he realized just how stagnant work, friends, life had become, retreated to some other universe in which he could endlessly climb the cooperate ladder, leaving ironed button-ups draped on the rungs. 

I was one of the last young people left. Others were too old, too content with death to tempt time, too used to waking up without grandchildren or sisters or friends from long ago. I supposed you became well-acquainted with death the more years you acquired; you memorized his cold fingerprints each time they grazed your neck. 

Sali used to feel like home. I had lost count of the splinters I’d tweezed out of my feet, the times glass Coke bottles caught or chipped in the antiquated vending machine by Mrs. Dunhamn’s corner store, the moments I’d stilled tracing the shingles of the roof outside my bedroom, just one sliding window and a bit of courage away. 

But there was no one left for me here. Splinters no longer conjured memories of summer, there was seldom a line at the corner store, and killing time on my roof didn’t feel dangerous now that I was of age and there was nobody to forbid it. My parents had dissipated last year, together, and whether or not they ended up in the same universe was something only they knew. 

Some people chose a universe completely unlike this one: a socialist utopia, a tropical paradise, a brush with celebrity. Others returned to past timelines. They wanted to change something dire, reunite with someone dear.

Like with Mr. Clark. Three days after my favorite English teacher’s wife took her own life, we were assigned a substitute, Mr. Dunhamn. His help was evidently no longer needed at the corner store. 

It wasn’t hard to guess what had happened.

I’d wondered, in my sleep, at red lights, while brushing my teeth and my hair, if I should move away from Sali, but I was not sure it was possible. At least, no one had ever managed to before. Perhaps the idea of a new life only restricted by the confines of your imagination was too enticing to pass up. Or maybe it was more convenient, The Procedure. Most of us, the ones left, didn’t have nearly enough money, time, energy to pack up the nothing our lives had become. We thought about leaving—oh, how we thought about leaving—but we were too afraid of failure.

Because the thing was, to leave, you had to die. 

Aside from vanilla ice cream, diesel, and lottery scratchers, Mrs. Dunhamn sold pills. Not pain meds or antidepressants (I’m fairly certain you can’t find them anywhere else, and they’ve somehow escaped outside speculation, as the rest of Sali has. We seem to be cloaked by invisibility, unimportance).

Not typical pills. Leavers. 

You couldn’t just swallow the Leavers. You had to crush one and stir it into a glass of cold water, let the powder dissolve for two days in the fridge, and drink the final product just before bed on the third day. I’d been told the mixture tastes cuprous and bitter, like swallowing liquefied metal and sundried lime. 

All of this was to communicate finality, I think. You had three days to decide if you’d like to go through with it, three days to write notes to your loved ones, the ones that were left. And you must drink the entire potion, every last drop, before going to sleep. In the morning, you’d wake up a different person, with a different life.

Beck had kept an ongoing document detailing her dream life, down to the number of freckles that dotted her skin in July. She showed me her work once, about a month before her departure. 

“This is elaborate,” I’d said, sprawled across her twin bed, flipping through pages of a literary magazine. The Red Pen, February issue. Unease twisted my stomach until it was taut, on the brink of snapping like the band on Beck’s wrist, but surely this was for later. She wouldn’t leave me, I thought, not so soon. I slyly gestured toward my chest with my thumb. “You’re forgetting something, though.”

“What?” She’d asked, almost panicked as she snatched her laptop from me, eyes darting as she surveyed her meticulous work. “What’s wrong with it? Did I forget to specify location? Because I’ve heard some people include the longitude and latitude…”

“Beck, I’m kidding,” I said. But it appeared she wasn’t. 

She didn’t leave me much. One morning, a bleak Tuesday, I woke up to find her collection of magazines on my front porch. A canary yellow sticky note flapped in the wind.

“I want to be a kid again. You understand. You’ve seen how others leave to chase youth. I want to be six, with no problems, with bright eyes, illusioned. I’m sorry, Ava. I love you.”

And she was gone. 

For a while after that, I contemplated those last three days. She’d done so much to ensure her departure: bought the pill, stirred it into chilled water, let it dissolve for forty-eight hours, drank it just before drifting, wrote notes, said her goodbyes—or the ones she could stomach—watched the sun dip below Sali’s flat, grassy landscape one last time. You needed a plan for this kind of thing. You couldn’t just go. 

Though I understood her thirst for naivety, I’d resented her in the stretching spring and summer days that followed. The last time we’d talked was five days prior to Beck’s first death, at a café equidistant from our respective houses, and if she’d shown signs of decision, they’d been tenuous, hidden beneath the musical cadence of her words. 

“I heard you got the promotion. Good job, Av.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not like there’s much room to advance. I’m only getting an extra two dollars an hour.”

“Still, congrats. I’m proud of you. Always proud of you, you know that.”

I surveyed her order.

“That’s a new drink, isn’t it?”

“Yep. A macchiato. Thought I’d try something new.”

“Oh, how adventurous you’re becoming.”

She sipped her drink, lips pinching at the unfamiliar taste. Maybe she’d requested one expresso shot too many. 

“Quite,” she’d laughed.

I wasn’t going to do that to people. Not that there were many left to inform. I was nearing thirty now; the town had most certainly predicted my departure, maybe before I came to terms with it myself. 

Still, I met my old instructors for drinks, left gift baskets on my neighbors’ porches, scribed notes to the kids I babysat on the evenings their father worked late. Now, dropping two envelopes into Reed and Lucy’s mailbox, I understood Beck’s need for anonymity. It was necessary in the same way Catholics build screens between their sins and the robed priest, as if that distance lightened their impending confession. 

“I’m leaving Sali tonight,” I’d written, and I could have left it there. Any native would have known what I meant. But I kept going. “It has been a pleasure spending time with you.” And then, to Reed, I’d told him not to give up on his dreams of becoming a professional MLB player, and to Lucy, I’d implored her to continue creating, whether that meant painting or writing or tracing designs into backyard soil with sticks. “Live well, my darlings. And thank your dad for me.” 

Their mom had left Sali two years ago, when the twins were only seven. I knew it was my choice, my right to do so as well, but knowing I’d be these kids’ next disappointment haunted me, had been haunting me, was the chill in my spine and the tangle of my hair.

I’d had more time to contemplate my departure than most. I’d watched helplessly, my hands bound, my feet cemented to the floor, as friends, family, acquaintances, and lovers left me behind. I know it’s only a side effect of leaving Sali, and their decisions never had much to do with me. But in all my years of waking up to letters and heirlooms, the pain of this groggy realization, one that dawned on me after rubbing the sleep from my eyes, has never waned. 

And now, it was my turn, and I knew some would hurt the same way.

I placed the copper smoothie on my bedside the same way I would vitamins. Would this remedy heal me? I knew precisely where I wanted to end up. It wasn’t any elaborate universe. I didn’t want to be a superstar or to chase unbridled success. I didn’t even want to leave the country.

I just wanted a normal life, a world without Sali, Washington. 

I sat on my bed. The duvet hugged my skin, and I shivered, ran my fingers along my goosebumps the same way I would concrete shingles. My lower lip teased the rim of my glass; I almost retched at the smell. Everyone was right—I was about to swallow a cup of pennies. 

I took a deep breath, perhaps the last I’d inhale in this bedroom, surrounded by this town, and waited for reservations to barrage me in a wet and terrible deluge, for vigor to swat the glass from my trembling fingertips and shatter it, leave shards in the small divots of my scratched wooden floors. 

But there was nothing. I had nowhere else to go and little left to accomplish in a town that had failed so many. We were born waiting to die, and wasn’t that just awful? 

The sooner I could get it over with, the better. 

My first sip. It caught in my throat but eventually passed. My tongue wept at the tang. 

Would there be another disagreeable vending machine in my new city, one you had to chastise with stern visage and hefty sigh?

Did I want there to be? 

My second sip. It went down without complaint.

Reed and Lucy had probably read their notes by now. I wondered if they would miss me at all, if I would miss them, if I’d remember they once meant something to me. Perhaps I’d wake up with different memories and think nothing ill of my lived moments, as if they were always mine to begin with. 

My third sip, my fourth, my fifth. I wanted this to be over now. 

Somewhere, in another universe, Beck was a teenager again. Or, time worked differently where she’d gone, and Beck was still a wide-eyed child.

Somewhere, in another universe, my parents had never lost their oldest son, and they never left me, their spare, to chase him. 

Somewhere, in another universe, wives didn’t die, and teachers didn’t disappear. 

Somewhere, in another universe, I was surrounded by familiar people, and I was content.

This was not that universe.

My final sip. It tasted sweet, which was odd. Like strawberries, with hints of that same metallic substance. I touched my tongue to my teeth and realized it had been blood this entire time. 

Slowly, as if nothing would be different in the morning, I placed the glass on my bedside table once again and laid down, pulling my duvet up to my neck. Already, I felt my eyelids closing, my muscles growing dense and heavy as if filled with those copper pennies and rotting limes. My head cleared, and though a shout of regret tried to escape through my trembling lips, it could not. I was too tired, more tired than I had ever been, and this was final. 

Soon, I would be gone.

May 01, 2023 01:50

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Maya Thoma.MTV
20:54 May 06, 2024

this was amazing but i'm a bit confused can you please explain i loved it though and it was deep amazing!


Show 0 replies
Kathryn Menefee
01:56 Jun 25, 2023

The beginning of this is so gripping and the story didn't disappoint--you really captured the isolation/resignation/despair of living in a place where everyone leaves


Show 0 replies
Amanda Lieser
14:22 May 26, 2023

Hi Charlotte, Welcome, welcome and congratulations on the shortlist. I loved all the things already noted by other incredible writers-the beautiful language of the piece, the tragic theme, and the spin on the idea of death. It felt like a play on the age old idea-be careful what you wish for. How many of us would kill, or be killed, for a chance to run away from our problems or restart life? Nice work!!


Charlotte Kelley
04:31 May 27, 2023

Thank you so much, Amanda!!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Will Oyowe
01:32 May 21, 2023

This was powerful, I thought it was actually a science fiction story but the actual realization of the story's true meaning hit me. It really played with my thinking, and it was a clever use of the double meaning of people exiting, either through distance or death your life might as well be living in another universe or another timeline as we are not with them to experience it with. Congrats on your first shortlist and first submission.


Show 0 replies
Philip Ebuluofor
18:39 May 17, 2023

Fine work and this is your first submission. Make sure you don't disappear here that fast. Congrats.


Show 0 replies
Raizy Beaton
15:01 May 14, 2023

Wow! I have sent the link of this to friends! You are an excellent author... Any tips on how you get your ideas? I love the originality and flair of creativity in your piece. My favourite line was 'Not typical pills. Leavers.' from then on I was hooked. Kepp 'em coming Charlotte your work is so good!


Charlotte Kelley
01:49 May 15, 2023

Thank you, Raizy! That's too kind. I don't feel I'm at all qualified to dish out advice, but as for ideas, start with your own observations and go from there. Inspiration, I've found, comes from the moments you stop talking and listen instead. I, for instance, keep a note of all the small, silly things I've realized over time (i.e. "vanilla will never taste as good as it smells"). My ideas, honestly, derive from those more than anything else. I came up with my latest novel idea by watching a video my friend sent me. Inspiration can come fr...


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mary Bendickson
18:54 May 12, 2023

Well, welcome to Reedsy and what an entrance! Shortlisted on very first try! Good job!


Show 0 replies
Viga Boland
17:54 May 12, 2023

Congratulations on being shortlisted on your first submission. What a start to your Reedsy career. 👏


Charlotte Kelley
18:20 May 12, 2023

Thank you so much, Viga!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
22:06 May 10, 2023

This is my pick for this week’s winner. Absolutely beautiful! You’ve created a world with such a relevant and realistic problem of isolation and escapism and a character with the paradoxical problem of having to cut ties and escape in order to heal. This excellent in both imagination and execution!


15:52 May 12, 2023

Called it! Congratulations on the well deserved recognition. I kept thinking of this story after I put it down


Charlotte Kelley
18:20 May 12, 2023

Anne, you're so sweet. Thank you so much for the kind words!!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.