12 comments

Contemporary

TW: GUN VIOLENCE



Suffused in the street lamps' golden light, her sunny yellow dress pooling around her knees as she perches on the parking lot curb, Anastasia weighs her options.


One: she could leave. She could clamp her hands around the wheel and steer her car through the evening-shadowed suburbs, back to her apartment that’s always five degrees too cold. It’s a home, but it’s not her home. It hasn’t been in months. And she doesn’t know if she can bear curling up in bed alone again.


Two: she could go inside. Anastasia glances over her shoulder at the bar behind her, pulsing like a heartbeat with booming music and bright neon lights. She could open the door and let herself be swept into the crush of sweaty dancers, carried away by the revelry. She could join the party and stay until midnight, or until the sun rises, just like she used to. She could… Her breathing goes shallow at the thought, and her heart skitters rapidly in her chest. No, option two is out of the question. She moves on.


Three: she could stay here. She leans back and splays her hands across the cement, trying to force her lungs back into a rhythm. The sky arches high over her head, a frosty embrace that hugs every corner of this quiet town. Around her, the parking lot is empty, save for the silvery chorus of crickets that she can hear but not see. She tips her face upward and inhales the cool night breeze, eyes fluttering shut.


Option one feels like surrendering. Option two feels like losing. Option three hangs heavy inside her, anticipating something.


Maybe Anastasia doesn’t want to get up yet, to feel the stubborn tug of gravity pulling her back to the curb. Maybe she wants to float in limbo, to simply fight the urge to go backward.


Her therapist would say that it’s okay for now, at least.


Next to her, from the inside of a fractured slab of sidewalk, a dandelion is sprouting. It’s small and yellow, and it shivers like a fragile thing. Anastasia cups it in her hands, wondering if she looks the same way, sitting here alone on the ground with her eyes bleary and her makeup smudged from nervous rubbing. Two abandoned flowers, or maybe weeds. It’s hard to tell.


Her dress is precisely the same shade of golden. She remembers the first time she’d seen it in the shop window, wandering through the city’s main street after a long day of exploring this strange new land, so different from her sleepy town two hours away. And sure, she’d been tired, and all the city lights had blinked at her like curious, prying eyes, but the dress had caught her and pulled her inside.


It was a small store, not quite remarkable. Because of the late hour, she was the only customer there. An employee had greeted her at the door, her dark hair framing her warm brown skin, her tired eyes. What kind of person goes dress shopping at midnight? A pause. I’m Ines, by the way.

Just looking at this dress, she said. Can I try it on?


Ines had taken Anastasia to the dressing room, where she donned the dress and twirled for the other woman. The golden fabric flared out around her thighs like a blossoming flower. Gorgeous, Ines had said wryly, and Anastasia grinned. 


She bought it, and she gave Ines her phone number. The next week, they met up to see a movie, and again the week after that. Anastasia liked her new friend’s sharp fashion sense, her meticulous penchant for the smallest details. They’d clicked. It’d been nice.


Now, Anastasia tilts her head backward to try to make sense of the sky, its terrifying scatter of stars like spilled diamonds on velvet. She’s never been able to find rhyme or reason in the constellations, only seeing shaky scribbles of silver against the blue. In this quiet parking lot, she feels like she could reach out and seize one of them, hold it close to her chest and let it bathe her in its frosty light.


Sometimes she wonders if it’s lonely up there, if constant light is a blessing or a curse. Where does it come from? Where does it go?

Next to her, a trio of girls hurries into the bar, laughing and shouting as the door closes behind them. Anastasia, still sitting on the curb, traces the faint silver embroidery that lines her dress. It swirls around the hem and snakes up to the neckline, interlocking, interweaving patterns that are only visible when she shifts her weight backward and the light reaches her from through the bar windows.


August probably would have said something poetic about that. The memories are unwanted, unneeded, but they rise stubbornly inside her anyway. His floppy golden hair and wide brown eyes, giving him the air of a shaggy golden retriever. His hands, the way they never lay still, always moving or tapping or writing. Usually writing. And the way he hugged her whenever she turned up at his apartment in the middle of the night, drunk and sobbing over some girl, like he was promising her silently to never let go.


Their relationship was a simple thing: close friends and nothing more. She’d never been interested in guys anyway. They knew the scars on each other’s knees from elementary school gym, their awkward dance moves from middle school parties, and the formalwear that they’d donned for prom. They’d memorized the maps of each other.


That day in the college library, warm and infused with buttery afternoon light, he’d retrieved the book she needed from the top shelf for her without a word from either of them. She clutched it tightly to her chest, leaned against the bookcase, and batted her eyelashes at him. Listen, August, I’ve been thinking about you for a while—

Anastasia, if you ask me out on another ‘date’ I swear I’m going to kick something—

—and I was wondering if you wanted to come to this party with me tonight? Maybe even… She looked up flirtatiously. Come home with me?

He gave a long-suffering sigh and raised his eyes skyward. You live in a college dorm, Anastasia, he said after a moment. And you’re a lesbian.

She dropped her act and laughed. Messing with you is too much fun. Anyway, wanna come to the party? At his wide-eyed gaze, she clarified, As friends. Obviously.

You exhaust me, August said, but he nodded anyway.


That was a year ago. Anastasia thinks she feels her heart throb unevenly every time she remembers him, like her body is trying to compensate for all the time it will never get back.


For her last birthday, August had given her a pair of opalescent earrings that shone pink and blue and green, depending on the light. Anastasia feels their weight now, tugging down on her earlobes. They’re small, but whenever she thinks about them, her head feels unbearably heavy, like there’s no way to hold it up anymore, like she’s alone in her endless orbit, just tracking a meaningless path around the sun.


God. She needs to stop being so melodramatic. You’re only twenty-two, stupid, she chastises herself. Go forth and live, and whatnot.

Except she’s not quite sure how to do that anymore. Except for the fact that it’s been a year, an aching, lonely year, and whenever she tries to summon the fiery girl that loves passion and people, she just can’t find her. She’s Anastasia, but washed-out, quieter, trying to walk the path to recovery even though she’s hopelessly turned around.


And now the rest of the memories come pouring in, a tsunami, a flood. A small, perpetually-open coffee shop where college students came and went, lit by the smoky lavender glow of early evening. Anastasia claimed a table in the corner and sat there for hours, fingers pecking at her laptop keyboard with the energy of a hungry sparrow, sludging through her third essay of the week. The task felt insurmountable.


Around midnight, still four paragraphs away from the conclusion, Anastasia let her laptop slide shut and stared at the wall blankly. She could see the barista rattling around behind the counter, a girl around her age who looked vaguely familiar. Probably a college student as well. Can I get something to drink? she called across the room. You can choose.


A minute later, the barista emerged from the kitchen, carrying two mugs of hot chocolate. You’re up late, she observed. Her eyes were the color of the ocean at dawn.


Anastasia took one of the mugs with a murmur of gratitude. So are you.

Touché. The barista smiled and held out her hand. I’m Quinn.

Anastasia. I’ve been working on this essay for hours, I swear.

Quinn’s eyes lit with a bit of recognition. Are you in Mr. Clark’s English class?

Yeah, I am he gives so much homework


And from there, their conversation flowed as simply as water. It all felt natural with Quinn, whether she was pacing around the room shouting about the horrors of thermodynamics, editing her essay with the other girl’s help, or laying out her plans for the future, delicate and hopeful, like they might shatter with one rough word.


At the end of the night, when the sun began to nudge at the horizon, it felt like jolting awake from a pleasant dream. Because here was a girl in front of Anastasia, a girl with freckles like rose dust and laughter like song, a girl that she didn’t want to leave.


She packed up her things and exited the shop, but not before asking Quinn out.


The next few weeks were a teenage romance come to life: warm and golden and spilling over with love. On their fourth date, Quinn took her to see a horror movie. Anastasia, normally fearless, cried out at the climax and buried her head in Quinn’s shoulder. She felt a chaste kiss pressed to the top of her head, but it quickly lifted away. Later, she finished the job. This time with her lips.


Anastasia takes a deep breath, clutching tightly at the dandelion. The night wind stirs her hair in an intimate touch. It almost feels affectionate, as if Quinn is right here with her, waiting for the movie to finish, for the story to end.


I’ll read it for you.


By the day of the party, they had been dating for three months. Anastasia was happier than she’d ever been. Quinn’s smiles were the sunrise, lighting her up from the inside and everywhere else.


She walked into the party with Ines, August, and Quinn — some rich kid’s house who went to school with them, decked out with LED lights and the kind of minimalist furniture that looks half-finished. The first half hour passed without incident. They swayed together on the dance floor, laughing, drinking. Anastasia felt every inch of her youth, and she vowed to enjoy it for all it was worth.


Until the gunshots.


Anastasia had thought they were fireworks for one blissful millisecond, loud and explosive, battering the air. Sometimes she curses herself for that. Maybe then she wouldn’t wouldn’t have had to watch the first person fall. 


It was a boy, maybe a little younger than her, his hair shorn close to his scalp and wearing a ruby-red shirt. Anastasia remembers that part crystal-clear because of the way it had blended seamlessly with the scarlet seeping onto the ground. She still tastes the heavy tang of iron in the air.


There’d been one tense, horrified moment of silence, as delicate as the last leaf on the first day of autumn, then it’d shattered. And the screaming began.


Looking back on that part now, the memory doesn’t manifest in pictures, but blurred visions and sounds, like looking through a cloudy window. The crush of people surging toward the door, a thoughtless stampede, charged with cries of terror and pain. How some had stumbled and fallen and not gotten back up. Most of all, the driving bang-bang-bang behind them, that sound that tore Anastasia’s chest open with every chaotic burst until she felt like she was bleeding out too. Maybe she was. She couldn’t stop to check. Every step was a desperate heartbeat, a painful inhale; her brain was white-hot and numb besides the pounding thought of, Please. Please. Please. Don’t let it be me. Please.

And then she burst out the doors, kept running down the block, and threw up in the neighbor’s perfectly-manicured hedge. Free from that sudden hell, that tragedy in progress. The fear inside her wouldn’t stop boiling, turning, twisting like some sinuous snake, leaving her shaky and uncertain and filled with so much terror that she didn’t have room to think.


Minutes passed. Then there were hands on her back, warm ones, gentle ones. Law enforcement. It’s okay. You’re safe now. You’re okay.

Anastasia had mustered a single nod, felt her heart thud unevenly in her chest like a box rolling downhill. She reached for Quinn’s hand. It was not there.


Later that night, as the sun came up, she watched the headlines scroll across the police station’s TV. Mass shooting kills 14, devastates small town. Gunman dead.

She’d entered the party with her friends by her side. She’d left alone.


Anastasia feels the dandelion rustle against her fingers. It’s soft, gentle, yet stubbornly resilient, poking out from the concrete as if to say, You can’t get rid of me. I’ll bloom anyway.

Some days, it feels impossible for her to do that. The mornings when she wakes up and can’t even bear to drag herself out of bed, when even eating feels like a struggle. Those days, she sees ghosts everywhere she looks. The sharp rise of Ines’s eyebrow, August’s exasperated voice, and Quinn, always Quinn, her eyes and her hands and her boundless heart. Anastasia wants; she longs to make them proud, but she is just one person and the world is infinite in its sorrows.


It’s been getting better recently, though. She’s been making progress. Today, she’d gotten up early enough to watch the sun rise, and even though the memory of Quinn streaked in rose pink and gold left her breathing shallowly, she was still breathing. She stood there and gazed out the window, a mug of hot chocolate in her hands, until the day had fully broken.


It hasn’t been easy to get here. (Days of grieving, days of tears, days of feeling so empty she thought she might just splinter in two, or maybe three—)


But she’s here. She’s here now. A quiet parking lot, a party behind her that she can’t quite bring herself to join.


For the first time, Anastasia notices another dandelion sprouting beside her, and then another. She reaches for them, rests them in her palms, one by one. Their presence is comforting in her empty hands.


Against the evening shadows, their yellow seems to be a faded sort of color. Until Anastasia shifts and lets the glow from the bar windows beam down on them, and then they explode with vibrance, lacey fireworks bursting from the ground. She smiles at the sight. Here in the light is where they flourish.

Here in the light is where I flourish.

Ines had given her this dress, gleaming with buried silver. August had given her these earrings that glint at the perfect angle. Quinn had given her this glowing feeling, this ember in her chest that burns on and on and on, never seeming to fade.


Anastasia stands up. Starlight pours down onto her. Where does it come from? Where does it go?

The people who love us. The people we love.

Now, she squares her shoulders, looking at the party inside the bar, listening to the muffled music pound in time with her heartbeat. Thinks of Ines’s determination, August’s resilience, Quinn’s love for life that seemed to engulf everyone she met. Maybe she doesn’t have to be the stars, crying uselessly into the cold blank space between. Maybe she can be the moon, seizing the light of others and clinging to it night after night, weaving it into her own aged, youthful beauty.

Here on the ground, the dandelions, those stubborn survivors, look like moons too. Maybe we all are. This light cannot be created, only reflected; and she’ll be damned if she lets it fade.


Anastasia gazes toward the bar, thoughts chasing themselves round and round in her mind. Of the sky, of a rose-hued love. Of what her friends would have wanted for her. Of Quinn’s expectant eyes, waiting for the story to end. For her to begin.


She takes a step toward the bar.


I miss you.

Two more.

I love you.

Four.

I’ll live for you.

Anastasia opens the door.

And I’ll do it brightly.


May 15, 2021 03:39

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

12 comments

T.H. Sherlock
19:33 May 15, 2021

Absolutely stunning story Ellie. I love the use dandelions and light and how you use this imagery to explore themes of resilience, grief and moving forwards after such a traumatic loss. You write with sensitivity and feeling - and the sentences are beautifully written. Some of my favourite lines: Anastasia tilts her head backward to try to make sense of the sky, its terrifying scatter of stars like spilled diamonds on velvet. She’s never been able to find rhyme or reason in the constellations, only seeing shaky scribbles of silver against...

Reply

Ellie Yu
14:22 May 16, 2021

I can’t thank you enough for this wonderful comment! It really brought a smile to my face :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Claire Lindsey
18:18 May 15, 2021

Hi Ellie, This is beautiful. I love the imagery with the dandelions, the starlight, how you use little moments to show us Anastasia’s grief. There are so many incredible lines here, but I especially liked “here in the light is where I flourish.” I agree that some of the flashbacks could be condensed a bit, but I like that each of the people she lost gets a moment to shine in the story. A couple smaller edits: “Anastasia hadn’t even needed to crane her neck and scrabble for the book she needed on the top shelf” You use needed twice in thi...

Reply

Ellie Yu
14:23 May 16, 2021

Ooh good edits, thank you! I’m planning to work on the flashbacks today; hopefully cut it down so I can focus on more important aspects. Thanks for the comment and the well wishes!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Yolanda Wu
11:24 May 21, 2021

Good gracious me, this story! How do you write like this, please share your secrets. The descriptions were so beautiful, but the story was so emotional and raw. I could feel Anastasia's loneliness, and the inner conflict she is experiencing on whether to go inside or not, threaded with her past traumatic experiences and loss, as well as the people she was once close to. Those last lines were so powerful, and I could imagine that scene so clearly. I love the POV choice of third person present tense, because you have the slight distance with t...

Reply

Ellie Yu
14:05 May 21, 2021

I feel like ‘thank you’ doesn’t quite sum up my feelings toward this comment - it brought such a ridiculous smile to my face. But thank you, so much. I really appreciate it <3

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
H L McQuaid
12:04 May 16, 2021

Beautiful and sad, but also hopeful. Lovely writing. One small thing: I didn't know what 'the last' referred to here: "Two weeks before the last, they’d gone.." I don't know what iteration you're on, but I think the flashbacks could be condensed more, and I'm wondering, since this story is about the trauma and tragedy of gun violence, whether the party scene could be more visceral. What does Anastasia see, what does she feel? At the moment, it seems very distant and remote, almost sterile. There's an opportunity to connect with readers by...

Reply

Ellie Yu
14:24 May 16, 2021

I totally get that - writing the final flashback scene was basically fueled by caffeine and a desperate urge to turn the story in before the deadline haha. I’ll work on your suggestion today. Thanks so much for reading!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Arwen Dove
05:13 May 16, 2021

This is such a captivating story! I especially loved the beginning line: 'Suffused in the street lamps' golden light, her sunny yellow dress pooling around her knees as she perches on the parking lot curb, Anastasia weighs her options.' Such a brilliant story! Keep it up!! :)

Reply

Ellie Yu
14:25 May 16, 2021

I’m so glad to know you liked it, thank you! The beginning sentence in particular probably went through five versions before I decided on this one, so it really does mean a lot.

Reply

Arwen Dove
20:34 May 16, 2021

:)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Hoor Amin
14:16 Jun 09, 2021

Oh. My. God. W.O.W.

Reply

Show 0 replies
RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

Bring your short stories to life

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