Tears are ticklish. In the vague, unsatisfying way that a self-inflicted feather can be. I cry quietly, no sound escaping my mouth, occasionally feeling myself shake.
I am rocking on a boat setting sail for no place in particular. I am lying in a bed of moss in a hazy forest. I am nursing a cup of tea, bathed in the soft early morning light of my future apartment. I am anywhere but here, my boxy safe haven, suddenly not so safe.
Or is it still safe? Is it me who is unsafe? I’m the one leaving, toppling the raft, spilling the cup of chamomile. College is only miles away and lifetimes away simultaneously. There is no guarantee that I’ll be happy, or even that I’ll be okay.
The alternative is shutting my bedroom door and blocking out my parent’s voices and sounds. They’re lifetimes away right now: the disappearing shore as I swim farther into the ocean. Familiarity that I’ll have to leave soon as I walk into the great unknown.
My foot stretches just far enough to reach my open door. I swing it shut with practiced velocity, trying to seal my tomb.
Warning bells ring as I step through the threshold of my bedroom. I’ve spent nearly a week couch surfing in the dorms of various friends. The air of adulthood that it gave me is unearned, I know, but maybe it’s still useful. Like a radar that will beep furiously whenever I come into contact with fragments of my childhood.
Who was I several year ago? What about several months ago? I was scared of the future, and of growth. My growth was stunted by fear, but not anymore. I’ve been watching as I changed into a better version of myself. Metamorphosis on a psychological level.
Now I’m afraid of the opposite thing. I’m scared of losing my progress, of shaking the Etch-a-Sketch and watching my new self fade into nothingness.
I sit gingerly on my bed, careful not to make too much noise. It protests my weight regardless, groaning with 30-year-old strain.
The stairs leading up to my room creak with my mom’s footsteps and when she gets to the top, I hear her stop to take a breath. Then she knocks on my door and pokes her head in. “Gwenny? How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” I respond, honestly enough.
“You said that you had a stomach ache a few days ago,” she continues, rubbing her lips together as she watches me carefully.
My throat jumps a little. “I’m okay. Thank you.”
She nods, pulling her head back for a moment as if she was going to leave. Then she opens the door more and takes a half-step inside. “Gwen, you need to…to communicate more. You can’t just stay at your friends house for that long without calling me.”
I nod, too, hoping that she’ll either leave or come inside fully. It feels like she’s a correctional officer checking in on an inmate. The thought startles me, like I didn’t even know how I felt previous to thinking it. “I’ll call next time, Mom,” I say suddenly.
She nods more. “Okay. Okay. Well, come down in a few minutes, we’ll cook something for dinner.”
“I’m going to do some homework,” I reply, and her face falls.
“Gwen…” she begins, and shakes her head. “Gwen, please tell me if you’re going through a hard time.”
“What?” I force out, along with a dry laugh. “I’m fine, Mom.”
“No, you’re so—different. Like you used to be.” She presses her knuckles to her lips, averting her gaze from me as she collects herself. “Don’t go down this route alone,” she says next, her voice uncertain and wavering. She always used to get like this when she thought I was having episodes.
My eyes fall from her face as my lips tremble slightly. Each second of silence, I attempt to say something comforting, or at least something reassuring, but nothing comes up. Finally, she abandons her doorframe and starts back down the stairs again.
Christmas break began with the same melancholia that I’ve become accustomed to feel during this season. More time spent dawdling, spent crying, spent couch surfing and imagining happier realities. My patterns were returning one by one: oversleeping, taking exponentially more than the recommended doses of sleep medication, overeating and then eating nothing at all at uneven intervals. Silently observing my life as the college part of it settled into a regular schedule.
I was back in my bedroom. The walls were becoming warped in my perception. I saw the same art that I’d always seen, but the meanings were twisted and unnatural. I let myself fall into this trap: alienating everything nice and good. I let myself fall because I was afraid of staying upright for too long. What if I accidently entered the real world unprepared? What would I do without this safe, simple room?
My friend was with me today. A boy named Lucas who prompted my parents to say, “Gwen, is this your boyfriend?” when he appeared at their door.
Lucas sat on the floor against my bed rifling through my book collection. When he got to my mostly hidden young-adult novels, he cracked a smile. “I can’t imagine you reading these.”
I flick my eyes to him, my lips curving upwards. “Why not?”
“You’re so intellectual. Me and Gracie had to beg you to come to that party with us, remember? The first time we met?”
“Yeah, yeah. Clearly I’m not hiding my true colors well.” I pull the book from his grasp. “You have a very narrow idea of intellect, by the way.”
Lucas rolls his eyes. “Well, it’s hard to describe you.”
I’m probably lucky that Lucas wanted to be my friend at the beginning of the year. Before he did, I kept putting on fake personas, testing out different ones every day in hopes of finding one that’ll stick and attract friends. Lucas caught me on a day that I was just myself and somehow decided that I was worthy of companionship. From there, it was easy to make more friends, as simple as offering them your number and saying, “We have to get coffee sometime!” Maybe that became my persona: quiet Friendly Girl who’s surprisingly untethered.
He carries on from my books to my bedside table. I move to distract him but it’s too late, he already has the drawer open, exposing the ugliness inside. Lucas’s mouth drops open as I stand up from the bed and pace to the window, maybe hoping for an escape. I hear the familiar sounds of my possessions knocking lightly against each other: the heavy metal grinder hitting the light aerosol can of room spray. The rustling of loose papers scrawled with my tiny, frantic handwriting. A pack of cigarettes shaking like a maraca, the jangle of old keys, bottles on bottles of sleep medication and other questionably acquired pills.
“Fuck me, Gwen. You’re like a manic, drug addicted writer.”
I turn to him, surprised at his jovial tone, and see him smiling, pushing the drawer closed. “Excuse me?”
Lucas laughs a little. “I saw some Adderall in there. Mind sparing a few?”
My surprise is rapidly masked with a smile. “Right. Yeah. Go ahead.” His eyebrows quirk up and down suggestively before he dives back into the drawer. “That’s my chamber of secrets,” I add dryly, as he shakes a few into his hand.
Knocks on my door. Endless banging. My name being shouted, over and over again. I jolt up in bed and hop up instinctively.
“Mom, what?” I yell, because I don’t know what else to do.
The door finally bursts open, splintering at the lock. I gasp as my dad’s shoulder barges inside, his body thrown off balance by the impact. He stares at me, shocked, my expression mirroring his own.
“Gwen! You weren’t answering us,” he stutters.
My forehead crinkles, eyebrows turning in. “I…I didn’t hear you. I was asleep.”
My mother steps inside and marches over to my bed, stepping on the clothes and trash on the floor to get there. She picks up a lone pill and whirls around. “That’s it. That’s it. Gwen—”
“Mom, wait,” I rush, feeling tears work their way into my throat. I know, I know, I know what she’s thinking. Therapy, camp, rehab, sobriety treatments, army school, anywhere but here. “Please, Mom, please.”
“Let her speak,” my dad says quietly, and my frantic eyes rake over him.
Mom trembles a little, her lips twisting. “We can’t help you anymore. You’re going to ruin your life, Gwen.”
“Mom, it’s just a little sleep medication,” I reply, hoping my eyes look clear and honest when I need them to the most. “It’s not serious.”
“Gwen. Please.” She sighs, hugging herself tightly as if she’s in pieces. “You know what this is. It’s the same thing as what happened three years ago. You’re depressed, and maybe I was in denial then, but I’m not now. I’m listening, I’m watching, and you need help.”
“Dad,” I whisper, glancing at him. He half turns away, biting his fingernail.
“I don’t want to watch you become a drug addict because of this,” my mom continues, a new resolve in her tiny voice. “Today it’s too much sleep medicine, tomorrow it’s one too many painkillers. When’s it going to end?”
When I’m happy, I want to say, but that’ll just prove her point. So I shut up and let her make the plans, because maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’ll help, maybe I’ll get worse, but maybe it’s also better than staying stagnant.
Stacey is helping me pack up my belongings. She brought dozens of folded-up cardboard boxes and rolls of packing tape. She keeps saying “Aww” to my belongings. Like everything, from a mirror compact to a geometric pencil holder, is adorable. Like my life is amusing for her to witness from this picked-apart perspective.
Stacey and I got released from the program on the same weekend. We drove back to the city together and rented rooms in a communal house together. The experience of making friends in the facility was much different than that of making friends in college. It was more about sanity than genuine affection. Stacey is weird, in ways that I can’t exactly pinpoint. But I’ve started to need her in a way that worries me; if I don’t see her for a whole day, I start to get panicky. It’s like she centers me, gives me the ability to see past my current reality and more towards the future.
When we first walked into my bedroom, she of course gave a patronizing, “Awww,” but I knew that something was wrong. Mom had cleaned in my absence. Lots of my clothes were gone, mostly clothes that didn’t fit me anymore, but it wasn’t just that. The chamber of secrets was cleared out completely; room spray and all. She even found my old journal and took it away for some reason, like I couldn’t even have access to my own thoughts.
When me and Stacey finished packing my essentials at around nine-fifty at night, we sat uncomfortably on my box spring and watched the view from my window.
She glanced around, her head leaning back and around. “I don’t know why you’re so obsessed with this room. You talked about it a lot in group therapy.”
“Yeah, well, it’s important,” I reply, thought my words carry little confidence.
“Why, though? It’s just a room.”
I look around. The slanted walls, the window bench, the sun-bleached floor cushion, the multicolored rag rug on the floor. It is just a room, but it feels like more of a friend. It was a constant in my life when my own brain felt like a foreign entity.
I take a deep breath and shrug. “Yeah, but it’s mine. It’s where I grew up. I watched it change and it watched me change. It was kind of…comforting. It’s, uh…it comforts me.”
“What about when you’re having an episode?” she asks, her lips smacking loudly as she pops in a piece of gum. “Doesn’t it freak you out, being this tiny and all?” She gives another broad look around. “It would scare me.”
“Not everything’s perfect. Even if it makes you happy.”
Stacey shrugs, too, and we look at each other. Her face changes a bit, from carefree to concerned. “What are you going to do?”
My eyes drop to my lap. “Maybe go back to school.”
She blows a stream of air out of her mouth. “Oh, shit. Really? I’m not. I’m going to get an easy office job and die at my desk.” We laugh a little, mostly from nerves. “Schools are starting, like, now, Gwen. Are you going next year?”
I quickly check my phone and realize how right she is. It’s a year from my first day at college, and I didn’t even notice. Stacey realizes that my quietness is fear and wraps her arms around me. At first, my immediate instinct is to create distance. But then, slowly but surely, my defenses drop and I hug her back, melting into the embrace.
I don’t even notice my own tears until I feel hers. They drip onto my head, tickling the hair follicles as they drip down onto my neck. My tears are accompanied by a chokingly loud cry. I discover then that crying can be a good thing. It’s always represented my bad nights and lonely hours, but sitting here with Stacey and letting ourselves be loud and messy and sad is reminding me I don’t always have to hold everything in.
I can just let it out, and stop holding my breath.
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I like the style of your prose. It expertly communicates your main character's mental state. I found the sequence of events rather confusing but this is a solid study of addiction and depression, so the timeline isn't as important. Congratulations on being short-listed.
Thank you! :)
Hi Nina, Some really nice writing here, and I could feel the narrator's struggle. My only critique is more of a question...Just wondering if this is a short story, or more like an essay. If it's any essay, then that's fine. If it's a short story, then the structure could be tighter. I found the first 30 minutes of this Reedsy lesson quite good at laying out the short story structure (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymxZo4yDOf4), in case that's helpful. Anyway, well done!
Thank you, Heather! It is a short story which I know isn't my strong suit. I'm still finding my footing with short stories so thank you for the link, hopefully it helps me improve more!
The bones of your story are good--they would work better as a short story if they were arranged a bit differently. I found that video really helpful, and even though I'm not consistently following the guidance for every story, at least I'm thinking about it. :)
Well, heck what do I know? I'll just be over here eating my humble pie. 😂 Congrats on being short-listed! That means more folks will see your work. Hurrah!
The longer I'm on this site, the more I realize that the people picking winners don't seem apply the tips from the Reedsy made videos to their decisions. The videos are full of helpful info obviously, that info just doesn't have much bearing on the results of this particular contest it seems.
Looks like they've been encouraging more new (to Reedsy) writers, which could be a good thing. Must be tricky to balance giving visibility to the old-timers and the new-comers, it's not a job I envy. Also, the prompts for this contest inspired a lot more personal essays than usual, so I can see why having a traditional short-story structure maybe wasn't so important for this round. :)
Thank you :) I didn't even know that I was shortlisted until now, lol.
Hey, Nina, your story really touched me. The emotions definitely came through! I noticed your answer to a comment below, and I'm also new to writing short stories. Anyway, congrats on being shortlisted. I look forward to reading more of your stories in the future.
Thank you, Sarah! I'm glad you liked it :))
A well deserved shortlist, I think you depicted her mental state perfectly. All the characters felt very real, the mother in particular. Loved the ending, the hope and release conveyed was satisying. Look forward to reading your next story!
Thank you for the compliments! I'm happy you enjoyed this and glad that the ending came across well.