Contest #201 shortlist ⭐️


Coming of Age Gay Sad

TW: Language

The living room smells of smoke, cloying ash lodging into my sinuses. The misty heat from outside wafts down the chimney and creates a palpable shift in the temperature around the fireplace—I sit in front of it and press my hands against the wooden floors, noting how the humidity seems to make them dip under my fingertips, makes them soft and waxy.

The heat eases the shiver under my skin, cold from the drenched suit, the source of the dripping that rings into the quiet, empty home. I tap a pattern out on the floor, but with my waning energy, the rhythm falters until it halts altogether. Instead, I put my fumbling fingers to work retrieving a cigarette from the cartoon I had swiped out of my father’s girlfriend’s purse and flick my brother’s lighter to ignite the embers with an exhausted sigh.

Fucking graduation. Four years after—

I take another drag, and my shaking hands tap the ashes onto the hearth. I imagine my father unlocking the front door and seeing me here, smoking a cigarette, my graduation cap off to the side—the cardboard inside warped from the rain, soft and malleable—and my gown lumped up on the carpet in a wet pile, diploma on the kitchen table next to my mother's unopened letter, out of sight.

My father is at the party I left behind. My cheeks ache from the smile I wore the entire night. The streamers, the cards, the cake; I still have wax on my fingers from plucking out the candles. It was fine. Unexpected, unwarranted, because graduating was nonnegotiable, the one thing I sought to achieve in the four years since, the only thing keeping me alive; the celebration was unnecessary, but it was still pleasant—with only one person missing. I imagine gentle hands seizing a ticket with a scrawled note on the back—grad is at 19:00—and tucking it into a suit pocket with a soft smile. As unrealistic as it is, I play the imaginary scene over and over again in my head.

I can feel the persistence of the tears waiting behind my eyes, which had pressed with hot cruelty when I caught myself searching the crowd for a face I could only hope would be there. Now would be the time to cry if there were ever one. No one is around. No one is coming.

I take another drag of my cigarette, and another, until it burns the delicate skin between my fingers. I toss it into the pile of ashes and light another as the tears well up. The night is dampening the hot air to something cold, and I begin to shiver harder, even as I hug my knees to my chest and press my nose into my knee. And if I try hard, I can imagine it’s Johnny’s shoulder I’m burrowing into like a child, even if he has never been as cold as I am. Even if, in the back of my head, I know this solitude is of my own making.

I had this dream when I was just a boy, sitting in the front yard of my childhood home with my family at my side—my brother, my mom, my dad. I was playing with my brother, ten years older than me, as he pulled me into his lap, which I had thought strong enough to hold me together. The sky hummed with an oncoming storm, gray clouds lumbering above, but I was not afraid yet.

Then I looked to see my parents wandering, single file, into the house. My brother had shushed my confused questions, looking into the dark house. I’ll find them, Nate. And he left me to worry on the grass, the smell of his cigarettes the last and only remnant to cling to.

Mom’s card had been the first to come. Heat wrapped around the moist earth despite the overcast sky that persisted for weeks. I swatted away mosquitos on my way to the mailbox.

The letter had been warm as a body in my hands.

It was easy to imagine her writing it, her arthritic joints pulsing until she had to stop with a hiss, taking a swig of whatever liquor she had nearby—because she always had liquor nearby—before returning to that painful pen and paper.

Johnny had been over at the house. He had watched over me as I stood unmoving at the mailbox. When I turned around, he stood in the dark window like a specter. And that ridiculous, terrifying dream came back to me, of the house swallowing my parents and brother and leaving nothing behind. I grit my teeth against the panic that surged forward and dug its claws into my chest, all the way up into my throat, pressing against my tongue.

I walked back up to the house with a new stiffness in my joints; deposited the mail, letter included, on the kitchen table. And I refused to turn to look at Johnny, no matter how much I needed to confirm that he was still there to my traitorous mind.

That was not the last I saw of the dream. It gave my family back as they had once been—real and present, loving—only to take them, one at a time, leaving me alone in the dead grass.

I woke from the nightmare, tangled up in Johnny’s bed the morning of graduation. Unable to move, unable to wipe the sweat that had gathered on my face or rub my chest to soothe the pain of losing it all over again. Tears jumped to my eyes, but with a choked swallow, they faded, leaving me with the heat of Johnny’s form at my side. With a trembling hand, my fingers ghosted across the arteries jumping under his skin until they found his pulse. I breathed in and out, trying to match the steady rhythm until desperation calmed to exhaustion. 

I thought my father would question my absence from home, nervous about any furious messages demanding where I was. But all I got that morning, after sitting up and scrubbing at my prickling face, was an update that he was sleeping at Maria’s that night. I stared at it without blinking, even as my vision began to blur.

—Alright? Johnny asked me when he came back with coffee. I took my mug from his hands, dropping the phone on the sheets. His hand rubbed its way up my hurting back, digging into my spine until the tension bled into his palms.


He knew it was a lie, just like I knew he had been awake during my nightmare, allowing me the illusion of privacy as I dealt with my panic on my own. But he refused to press, and I refused to tell him that the old house had swallowed him with the rest of them—and that he had been the only one still there when the night succumbed to the wills of the eastern sun.

When graduation came around, I was alone again, and the driving mantra that had filled my head four years ago had dulled to an idle whisper; no longer telling me that I had to graduate before I could grieve. I stood amongst strangers, my gown chaffing in the muggy heat of the late afternoon. I tried to feel anything about reaching the goal I had set and accomplished on my own, as I had designed it. But nothing came. I tilted my head back and allowed the murmuring of the graduates around me to fill the space in my silent mind.

Against my will, I wondered if Johnny would be in the crowd. I had left the ticket on his pillow before leaving without a word. Too fearful to watch the hesitance in his face as he declined. You said you were going to leave this summer, Nate. It would never work, Nate. You were the one who said that's not what this is, Nate.

I opened my eyes to the waxy gray above and tracked a winged silhouette to a nearby stadium light, where twigs and moss hung in a messy home. The osprey circled twice before landing in the large nest with its mate, greeting each other against the turbulent sky. The ache in my chest multiplied, wafting out to my limbs like a shiver until all I could feel was pain radiating from my entire being.

And at once, I felt something about my graduation after all: regret.

The sky split and spilled as soon as I reached for my diploma; cracked like an egg and oozed thick yolk. Thunder rumbled and hazy wave after wave of rain waxed onto the entire field. I looked to that light pole, shining opalescent light that knifed into the darkness. And I singled out the two ospreys, stark white against the waxy darkness

My fingers gripped the diploma with dull knuckles. Despite myself, I looked into the stands, scorching desperation in my frantic, darting eyes. But I couldn’t see Johnny, and the principal gave me a commanding pat on the back, a silent gesture to move along.

I hear someone let themselves in. I know I should feel panicked at the thought that my father will find me like this. But the tears are finally falling, and it's a relief to sit there in my aching pain rather than try to fight it. So I keep smoking, keep running my fingers over my brother’s initials, and wonder how I ever thought I could ever make it past this point on my own.

Squelching steps lead up behind me, stopping at my back. I take a final drag and snuff out the spent cigarette on the hearth, along with the others. I wish my father would haul me up by my hair and throw me outside in the mud, or smack me upside the head and call me out on how foolish I had been. He stands behind me, still as could be.

My breath, the traitor, hitches, and I can hear his pause. I sniff and wipe my streaming nose of the snot running down my cupid bow, pressing my head harder into my knees until my eyes explode with light. I wonder when the last time he’d heard me cry was, and figure it was four years ago, after seeing my brother lying in that waxy casket, dolled up in a way he would have never—

I laugh without a sound, my shoulder shaking as I scrub hard at my eyes, my cheeks pushing up and folding over with cold wrinkles. I want to ask where Maria is, but I can feel the fragility in my voice, the reedy ache that sits at the back of my mouth. I want to ask if Johnny was there, or if that glossy ticket sits in a wrinkled ball at the bottom of his waste bin, hesitant note facing upwards like a cruel joke. More than anything, I want to hear him admit that Johnny is real, and he was, at some level, mine like Maria was his. I want him to face me, instead of leaving like he always does.

Behind me, I hear him pick up my gown, shaking out the loose droplets before fabric rustles near the coat rack—hanging it up. Next goes my warped cap, which gets the same gentle treatment. Then he walks away.

But he comes back, kicking off his soaked shoes. A towel falls on my shoulders. And a voice, not my father's, speaks.

—Can I have one? 

I turn to watch Johnny as he sits at my side. I almost laugh again, imagining the sight I must make—eyes swollen and red, ashes smeared on my damp hands, disbelief written all over my face. But Johnny looks as serious as I’ve ever seen him, so I push down the hysterical urge and pass him the packet. And for the first time, I let myself look at him.

The suit clings to his body, the white dress shirt tight around his shoulders, loose around his waist, hanging like a curtain. His hair sticks up in some places, and I see why soon enough when he runs his palm across his part with a sigh, plucking a stick from the box and placing it between his lips, chapped but pink and full. Lips I’d kissed more times than I could count but never really seen. His eyes are luminous and shining, a balm against the grayness in my own. Another tear slips down my cheek; he wipes it away with a sure palm, hands hot against my icy skin. And he leaves it there after I allow myself to lean into the touch, looking unbearably sad.

He uses the other to take the lighter from my limp fingers, flicking it on before setting it on the hearth with gentle hands.

—What’s got you all dressed up? I mumble, my voice as broken as I had thought it would be. I need to hear him say it, that he was there all along, his face staring into mine in the crowd, begging for me to see him.

—Can’t exactly go to graduation in my pajamas, can I? I wish you had told me it was going to rain. He smiles and moves his hand to the back of my neck, rubbing at the pain there as if he can sense it with only a look. 

—I would’ve, if I had known, I say, closing my eyes, using all my energy not to slump against him. The shake of his huff jostles his hand; he clings to me tighter, and the sigh punches out of me without my permission as the smoke wafts all around our conjoined forms.

—All it took was a look at that stadium sky, Nate. The teasing cadence brings me peace like nothing else. 

—If I had known you were coming, I amend, quiet as ever. I feel him stiffen and try to pull away before he can; his grip keeps me in place. More tears slip down my cheeks. I duck my head.

After what feels like an eternity, he speaks.

—You only had to ask.

And, damn it all, I press against him, allowing him to pull me to his chest, and the warmth of his skin soothes the shiver that has plagued me for four fucking years. 

—I can’t do it alone anymore, I croak. 

He cups the back of my neck and runs the pad of his thumb against the baby hairs, up and down, sure and soft and grounding.

—Ask, he tells me.

Fear strikes a lightning path, as it always has, leaving me with a hesitation that bubbles noxious and sour in my mouth. I push past it, fighting tooth and nail to speak the desire that has lived in me since we met, shoved down and hidden for too long. 

—Will you stay? I don't say, for it all, through it all, even if I leave, even if I remain right here, with you? I don't have to for him to hear it. 

—Yes, he breathes, sounding like it’s all he’s wanted, too.

June 09, 2023 19:54

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J. I. MumfoRD
10:55 Mar 22, 2024

I suspect your story has been used without permission. Please search for your story on YT. "Motivational Short Story Today"


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Joshua Lau
13:18 Nov 26, 2023

Amazing! Congrats on the shortlist! Can you check your email as I have a request regarding your story 'The Chandelier'. It's pretty urgent, thanks!


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13:11 Jun 20, 2023

Lovely! Well deserved recognition, too.


Lee Disco
14:59 Jun 21, 2023

Thank you!


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Philip Ebuluofor
12:01 Jun 19, 2023

Fine work. Congrats.


Lee Disco
14:59 Jun 21, 2023

Thank you!


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Sofia Albertini
20:05 Jun 16, 2023



Lee Disco
13:20 Jun 17, 2023



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Mary Bendickson
18:49 Jun 16, 2023

Congrats on shortlist!


Lee Disco
13:21 Jun 17, 2023

Thank you!


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