Contest #35 shortlist ⭐️



I wake up to the grating buzz of Craig’s alarm. He rolls over and silences it with a heavy hand before letting sleep reclaim him. Any other morning I would have rolled back over with him and tried to steal an extra ten minutes of shut-eye before the alarm pierced the quiet again, but today I am wide awake.

It’s the first day of spring. I marked the date in my calendar with shaking hands during the dead grey of November, when the crisp chill of fall had passed through and robbed the world of colour before fading into the dreary, seemingly endless night of winter. I’d flipped through the calendar, running my hands across its clean pages, their emptiness a hint of potential that I wished I could soak in through my fingertips, but my heart was as empty as the pages.

My countdown is finally over; my pact with myself fulfilled. Today’s the day.

Craig stirs with a huff. “Damn birds,” he grumbles.

I hadn’t noticed the birds until he mentioned them. But now that my attention has been pulled to them I’m not sure how I hadn’t heard their cacophony before. I’m keenly aware of the sun sneaking through the cracks in the blinds. It’s rising brighter and earlier than it had through the previous months, a welcome change. The chipper chirping of birds that had been as absent as the sun is a bonus.

Craig’s alarm blares again. He gropes for it and turns it off before rubbing his eyes and opening them properly.

“You need the shower?” he asks, his voice still thick with sleep.

I shake my head, a nearly imperceptible movement. “I took the day off,” I remind him.

“Right. Spring.”

Craig sighs and hauls himself to his feet with a groan.

The shower sputters to life and threatens to drown out the chirps and calls, so I close my eyes and focus on the cheery din with a smile. I’d missed the damn birds.

I soak in the sounds of the world outside until Craig comes back, wrapped in a towel with beads of water threatening to give in to gravity and trail down his shoulders. He trades his towel for clothes and bustles around our apartment, collecting himself for the day. He returns to me before he departs, kisses my forehead gently with rough lips. A quiet I love you hangs in the air between us as he looks at me for an extra moment.

“Have a good day,” he says before walking out the door.

I’m tempted to pull the covers up over my head and go back to sleep, the way I would if I had taken an impromptu Thursday off during the grey months; held in bed by the warmth of the covers and the weight of my shame and insufficiencies. But today the sun is bright and the birds are calling me outside.

I shower for a luxuriously long time, savouring the hot water as it pours down my back. I take the time to lather my hair up with so much shampoo the bubbles pile comically high and hold it in place, tickling my skin as they rinse free. I let conditioner soak in as I exfoliate, giving every inch of my body a little extra love, carefully scraping away the debris of winter with gentle circles. I step from the shower, skin pink from the friction and heat, feeling fresh and fragile. I wrap myself in the fluffy towel Craig had left out for me, still warm from the dryer. It’s a simple act of love, but it sparks the sharp prickle behind my eyes, and I bury my face with a smile.

When I put my rings back on, my thumb plays with the familiar smooth metal bands for an extra moment. ’Til death do us part, had felt too macabre. Instead we’d vowed to love each other every day we have for as long as humanly possibly. The memory of Craig choking on the words before kissing my hands makes my heart ache. I close my eyes and lean into the feeling before turning my attention to the kettle. Craig had filled it and set it to boil on his way out; my teapot placed beside it with a tea bag already waiting inside. I smile at the second gift, but pass it by for a paper cup in the sun.

I pull on a cozy sweater to keep me warm and reach past the thick winter jacket I usually shrug into, opting instead for a thin windbreaker. I wrap the scarf Craig bought me during our last out-of-town trip loosely around my neck and shoulders, for the sentimental warmth as much as to protect me from the cold.

That first drink of spring air is crisp and invigorating. I’ve been able to taste it coming — the freshness of spring has been riding in on the breeze for the past week — but today the cherry blossoms have finally fallen open, and the crocuses are starting to break free of the soil. I stop to smile at the new growth, just the tips of green stems poking out of the dirt. They’re not flowers yet, but they will be.

Craig loves the summer months. He loves the consistent greens and reds of trees nourished by ample sunlight and beds of well-cared-for-flowers, cycling through whichever bloom is in season, the varieties changing but the coloured petals consistent. Summer’s nice, but spring is where the magic is. It sings of hope. After months of decay, seemingly dead trees bud anew; brown branches burst with flowers that promise leaves. Buried bulbs sprout stems that fight their way to the surface, and it makes me wonder if they’d grow at all if it weren’t for the obstacle the dirt provides. I marvel at their fight the same way I admire a lone dandelion growing defiantly in a sea of concrete, making do with the smallest crack it could find. Spring is the proof that life perseveres impossible conditions. Somedays I need proof.

I let my feet carry me to the cafe at the end of the block. I smile and nod to the people I pass. It’s a simple, forgettable gesture, but I like to think it could make a small impact on the complex, challenging lives crossing paths with mine, and it’s impossible not to smile with the taste of spring in the air and the sun warm on my face. I order my favourite tea, a rich Assam that I don’t keep at home. I pay, drop some extra change in the tip jar, and banter with the barista as my cup waits its turn. Her name escapes me, but I always look forward to her bizarre thought of the day and today she does not disappoint. Tea in hand, I consider settling into a corner booth, stripping off my layers, and enjoying my tea while people watching, but I can’t sip the spring air from inside the cafe.

I follow my feet to the water, zig-zagging absentmindedly down familiar streets, smiling at everything and nothing in particular until I make it to the seawall. I join the rest of the people whose lives have brought them to this same place in this same moment, strolling leisurely in the sun. I breathe in the salt air, and pause to lean against a railing, closing my eyes so I can really take it all in: the gentle din of people chatting and laughing, anchored by the rhythmic of waves cresting and breaking against smooth rocks, holding their ground but losing the overall war.

Time will make dust of us all.

I make my way down to the beach, slipping my feet from my sneakers and socks, placing them carefully out of the water’s reach, and rolling the cuff of my jeans up carefully. I choose my steps to the water’s edge, the beach here is still a sharp medley of rocks and shells. I brace myself for the cold of the water as I step into the ocean. The cold is unforgiving, and I feel as if a fist has grabbed hold of my heart and lungs even though the water is only barely touching my ankles. I savour the sensation of the moment: warmth escaping my feet until they pins-and-needles themselves numb, the water lapping playfully at my calves, hands warmed by the delicious tea I’m sipping to replace the heat I’m losing by the second.

Some days I’ve looked at the ocean and thought about just walking in. Walking until the waves are far over head, until my feet lose the ocean floor and it’s hard to tell which way is up. On the days when everything is overwhelming and too much, that closed-in, muffled silence I can only find by holding my head under water is peaceful and welcoming, and it beckons me.

But not today.

The realization makes my eyes sting again, a constriction in my chest that threatens to well up and spill over, but I swallow it down and dab the corners of my eyes with the soft folds of my scarf. I pick up a small, round, time-worn pebble. It’s dark grey and glistening from where the water has kissed it before receding away, promising to come back. I rub gentle circles over its smooth surface with my thumb. If I rub small circles into it for the rest of my life, could I leave a mark on it the way the ocean would? I slip it into my pocket, still circling my thumb against it, determined to try.

I finish the last sip of my tea, take one more deep breath, letting the sounds of the gulls crying overhead, kids laughing further down the beach, dogs barking in the distance, all wash over me with the waves, lapping their consistent, reliable rhythm, before I retreat from the ocean to slip dry socks back over my damp, cold-stung feet.

I fluff my scarf up to protect my face against a particularly cold gust, and head for the warmth of home. I pass the rest of the afternoon next to a sunny window, cracked open to let fresh air in, buried in blankets with a book in one hand and my pot of tea within reach of the other. I look up from the book often, allowing myself to be distracted by the moment and appreciating the sunshine.

Craig's keys clink gently as he turns the lock and lets himself into our apartment. He’s carrying a small white orchid in full bloom, its flowers cascading gently towards the edge of its pot.

“Funny seeing you here,” he jokes as he shuts the door gently behind him. His smile is loose and wide, but there’s a little bit of tension in the corner of his grin and a raw relief in his eyes that betray him.

He lets me take the orchid, giving me a moment to dip my face to the thin petals and breathe in their faint perfume and place them on the dining room table before he wraps me in his arms and pulls me close.

“Thank you for still being here,” he whispers into my hair. He kisses the top of my head and holds me tight. The gentle pound of his heart in his chest is as soothing, constant and reliable as the ocean. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” I whisper back. “Every day we have. For as long as humanly possible,” I promise.

I let my tears fall freely this time. All the emotion I’ve held onto, pushed down and buried deep in my chest bursts forth and blooms across Craig’s button-down. He just holds me tighter and waits out the storm.

When my shoulders stop shaking and my sobs run dry, Craig pets my hair soothingly.

“Promise me you’ll wait until the first day of spring again next year?” he asks.

I nod.

And I promise it to him, and to myself. That I’ll mark next year’s first day of spring again in the dead of winter when fighting through is hardest. I’ll mark the light at the end of the tunnel. The day with the proof.

I just have to make it to the first day of spring.

April 04, 2020 01:39

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