Submitted into Contest #231 in response to: Write a story about hope.... view prompt


Fiction Holiday

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

Happy New Year! 

New year, new me! 

What’s your New Year's resolution?

“Ugh, enough,” Twenty-year-old Jacqueline Fenwick groaned as she scrolled the newsfeed on her phone. She fought the urge to roll her eyes each time she opened a text and fireworks exploded across her screen. With a deep sigh, she tossed her phone on the fluffy pillow next to her head, rolling over to her side and pulling the covers over her head. She shut her eyes tight as if that would keep the texts and posts at bay.

Happy freakin’ New Year, she thought. It was just another day as far as Jak was concerned. No need to throw a party or celebrate or change any aspect of her life just because the Earth had completed another lap around the sun. Yay Earth. No, there would be no resolutions for her. She’d simply enjoy the day off from work by getting a few more hours of sleep, ordering a pizza, and binge watching some trashy reality dating drama on Netflix.

Jak had almost drifted back into blissful unconsciousness when the shrill tones of her cell phone cut through the silence in her chilly bedroom. She let the tone play for one, two, three seconds in silent prayer that the caller would hang up. When they didn’t, she slowly peeled one heavy eye open, grumbling and reaching for the cursed contraption. She took one look at the name sprawling across her screen and had a split second to decide whether to put this call off and face the consequences later, or just bite the bullet now and get it over with. With a grimace, Jak lifted the phone to her ear.

“Hi, Mom!” she said in a dramatically cheerful fashion. Maybe her mother wouldn’t notice the rasp in her voice that gave away her lingering sleepiness.

“Happy New Year, Jacqueline!” her mom replied with an equally cheerful tone, and if Jak didn’t know any better, she’d believe the demeanor to be genuine. Thankfully, the woman on the other end of the line did not give her a chance to speak again as she launched into a recap of the family New Year’s party last night. Apparently, Uncle Gary went a little too crazy with the Wild Turkey, stripped down to his underwear and cannonballed into the deep end of the pool. 

Uncle Gary couldn’t swim. 

Jak’s mom babbled on and on about the festivities. “And then your cousin Marc dove in head first and pulled Gary back into the shallow end. The whole time your uncle was just kicking his legs and flailing his arms all over the place! He was so scared he didn’t even realize he could stand up!” The woman laughed, the sound a soft jingle that made Jak’s throat swell. “Oh! And Aunt Pam and Aunt Lynn started fighting over the last piece of cheesecake – no, actually fighting! Right in the middle of the kitchen! Pam is small but she can definitely hold her own. You should have seen the chunk of Lynn’s hair that fell out on the floor! And – oh! – Devin and Nicole finally got engaged!” 

There was a short pause, and Jak knew what was coming next. She braced herself. “Which,” her mom said, clearing her throat, “you would know, if you had gone.”

“I know,” she replied, the words a long sigh. Sitting up in bed, she recited the excuses she’d rehearsed in her head a thousand times. “I told Dad already, I had to pick up a shift last night to help pay for books this semester.”

Another pause. “I dropped by the bar last night on my way over to the party.”

The disappointment Jak heard in her mother’s voice sank like a dark, oily pit in her stomach. She swallowed hard. “I gotta go, Mom. I’ll call you later. Love you.” Before her mom could object, she ended the call and chucked her phone away. Then, hoisting herself out of bed, she padded to the bathroom down the hall of her apartment. 

Jak gripped the edge of the sink and stared into the mirror. The emerald green eyes that stared back seemed just a little more hollow, the dark half-moon shadows beneath them a little darker. Strands of sleep-rustled blonde hair stuck out in all directions. 

Jacqueline Fenwick didn’t celebrate holidays anymore.

Not Christmas, not Valentine’s Day, Not Thanksgiving, and definitely not New Year’s. Not since her best friend was killed by a drunk driver on New Year’s Eve last year. Not since Jak had been too busy partying at Luxe Nightclub to answer the phone call from Kate’s mother urging her to rush to the hospital. Not since she didn’t get to say goodbye. 

Now, holidays were no more than aching, stabbing reminders of the hole left in Jak’s chest where her friend used to be. Reminders that Kate was gone, and Jak did not deserve to feel happiness when her friend would never feel anything again. 

The apartment suddenly felt small and suffocating, and she felt like a rabbit stuck in a cage. Knowing that her plans to grow roots on the couch all day were ruined, Jak splashed icy water on her face, ran a brush through her tangled hair, and threw on the wrinkled outfit that lay heaped in the corner of the bathroom.


An hour later, Jak had completed the walk through the historic downtown area in which she lived to a little park that sat directly in the center. It had always seemed oddly juxtaposed with the industrial sights and smells of the city, with its rolling green hills and the creek that cut right through the middle. Normally, the park was bustling with people; children tossing a ball or playing tag, university students sprawled out with a stack of books or sneaking sips of alcohol. This morning, the park was bare and silent, the only sounds the trickling of the creek water over stones and the occasional rustlings of small animals. 

It took only a moment to find their spot. Her and Kate’s. Through the open field and up the creek to a line of trees, deep enough to where the sounds of the normally busy city streets no longer tainted the tranquil view. Here, the riverbank was much steeper than the carefully manicured areas visible from the road. The lip of the bank was about twelve feet above the steadily flowing waters. On either side of the bank lay the split remains of a fallen oak. Jak slung her backpack off her shoulder, setting it atop the stump on this side of the creek. A ghost of a smile lightened the shadows on her face as she beheld the broken tree.

It had been her and Kate who’d done that. Not on purpose, obviously. They’d been fourteen or so when they’d found this little alcove. Back then, the oak was in one piece, stretching out across the creek like one of the bridges carefully crafted in the city. 

Kate had dared her to cross it. 

Jak had told her friend to go first. 

In the end, they’d decided to cross at the same time, holding hands as they inched along the wet bark. Unbeknownst to the girls, where there was wet bark there was also rot, and they were about halfway across when a loud crack cut into the air and they went tumbling down, down, down to the shallow riverbed. She still remembered the bewildered look on their parents’ faces when they’d dragged themselves home soaked, muddied, bruised, and limping. Jak had broken her arm. Kate had been the first person to sign her cast.

The tree was a pretty good metaphor for her life now, Jak supposed. Broken, dead, forgotten.

Her smile faded, shoulders sagging forward.

Taking a deep breath, Jak dug a baby blue blanket from her bag and gently laid it out on the ground. She flopped down on top of it and stared up at the sea of blue, sunny sky peeking through the bits of pine needles and skeletal remains of slumbering deciduous giants. Peering around awkwardly to make sure she was truly alone, she huffed out a breath and watched as it swirled above her and slowly dissipated into the chilly winter air. 

Heat warmed her cheeks as she considered what she was about to do. She felt so, so stupid. It wouldn’t bring her friend back. It probably wouldn’t even make her feel better. But, Jak had tried everything else, and the therapist that she’d visited that one time the week after Kate’s funeral had insisted that this could help her find some kind of closure.

“Hey, Katie,” Jak mumbled into the void.

As expected, silence greeted her in return. The waters of the creek bubbled below, as if nature itself were mocking her for being foolish enough to believe even for a moment that this would work. That she deserved to feel better. Screw it, she thought. She had to try. Anything was better than struggling through another year with a gaping chasm in her chest. So she spoke again.

“Katie, I miss you so much. More every day. I’m pretty sure you can’t hear me, but on the off chance that you are out there somewhere, I need you to know how much I love you. More importantly, I need you to know –” she choked on the next words as tears pricked her eyes. She blinked, releasing them to slide down the sides of her face. “ –I need you to know how sorry I am. I should have been there. I should have been in the car. I should have been at the hospital to say goodbye. I should have –” she broke off. The words were coming out so fast, too fast. Jak focused on her breathing for several long moments and finally said, “I’m just sorry, Katie-Bug.”

There. It was all out now, the words floating up and away to wherever her friend rested in whatever afterlife there was. Jak lay on the blanket for several long minutes, letting herself untangle the threads of her feelings one by one. Jak recalled all the thoughts that had battered her mind in those first weeks after the accident. How she’d blamed herself for not being there, how guilty she’d felt when she’d learned. 

How she’d wished over and over again that it had been her instead.

Sometimes, she’d wished it out of selfishness; the pain of being the one left behind had sucked the air from Jak’s lungs more times than she could count. Other times, she’d wished it because she’d believed that somehow she’d have been strong enough to survive, though she’d seen the car in the aftermath and knew how unlikely it was that anyone could have survived.

“I thought I might find you here today,” a warm, familiar voice said behind her. 

Jack shrieked, leaping to her knees and whirling around to face probably the last person that she had wanted to see today. Or ever again.

“Mrs. Marlow,” Jak mumbled, reining in her surprise.

Kate’s mother.

The woman smiled, Kate’s smile. Her eyes. There was no malice, no resentment in them. A lump grew in Jak’s belly and her eyes dropped to the blanket. She watched an ant scuttle across the blue fabric. “Do you mind if I sit with you awhile?” Mrs. Marlow asked.

Yes, Jak wanted to say. She didn’t reply, but patted the blanket beside her and scooted over. She owed Kate this. At least this.

The woman bent down and sat cross-legged next to Jak, staring down at the creek below silently for a moment. Then she said, “I haven’t seen you in a long time.” 

“Yeah,” Jak responded airily. “I’ve been really busy with school and work I guess.” She hated the way her voice sounded. She didn’t have to look up to feel the stare that Mrs. Marlow gave her.

“Look, Jacqueline,” she said, the tone serious but with a hint of love there. “I can’t stay here long, I just wanted to stop by on my way and let you know that it’s okay to let yourself feel happy again.”

Jak closed her eyes. She opened her mouth – to say what, she didn’t know – but closed it again. “It’s not fair,” she finally got out, her voice shaking as she fought to hold the tears in.

“No,” Katherine Marlow replied, “no, it’s not fair. But rarely is life ever fair, sweetheart.”

Another moment of silence. Katherine placed a hand on Jak’s shoulder. Even through the fabric of her sweater, the woman’s skin was chilly. Jak had forgotten how cold it was out today. “Kate would never blame you for what happened. It wasn’t your fault. She loved you like family – you’ve always been family – and Kate would not want you to torture yourself the way you’ve been doing.”

Jak’s eyes fluttered open again, the tears streaming down her cheeks like the creek below.

“I don’t know how to move forward,” she finally said, her voice barely above a whisper. 

Katherine smiled a small, sad smile. “By taking one step at a time, my dear.” She scooted closer, and the arm around Jak’s shoulder turned into a hug. A moment of hesitation, and Jak hugged the woman back. Her body shook as she sobbed onto her dead friend’s mother’s sweater, the tears and emotion that she had shoved so deep down into herself finally flowing freely. This woman, who she’d avoided so carefully since Kate’s funeral, who had every reason to hate and resent her, was the person telling her that it was okay. That she could be okay.

“I think,” Katherine said softly, “that Kate would want you to live a life filled with enough happiness for the both of you.” She gave Jak a tight squeeze, ruffled her hair, and rose. 

Jak started to object, but Katherine spoke again. “I have to go now, but I’m glad that I got to see you here today.” She smiled. “Here’s to a happier year, Jacqueline.”

“Yeah,” Jak replied, gazing across the creek to the clearing on the other side. “A happier year.” It wasn’t quite a “happy New Year,” but she supposed it was a small step. And for the first time in what felt like a very, very long time, Jak smiled back – not the ghost of a smile that never met her eyes. Not the one she’d had to rehearse in the mirror so many times to not look like a grimace. No, a real smile that wrinkled the skin next to her eyes and spread across her swollen, tear-stained cheeks. 

Jak stood, turning to face Mrs. Marlow. “Thank –” 

But she had already disappeared back through the woods.


Later that evening, Jak sat perched across the dinner table with her family. Truthfully, she hadn’t wanted to make the walk to her parents’ house, but Katherine Marlow’s words had echoed in her head all day. She’d decided that being with her family, even if just for a couple of hours, on this day was a step in the right direction, toward taking control of her life again. And, if she was being honest with herself, she held her chin just a little bit higher and the world seemed to have just a little bit more color in it again. She still felt the pang of her best friend’s absence – knew it would probably never fully disappear and would likely take quite some time for the wound to truly begin to scab over. But today, it was enough.

Her family noticed it, too. They talked and laughed between bites of chicken pot pie, rehashing events from the party that Jak had missed the night before. She didn’t mention that the story of Uncle Gary became more and more embellished each time she heard it. 

Finally, her mother spoke up, as if she couldn’t help herself anymore. “Jackie, baby, you seem different tonight,” her mom said as she chewed on a bite from her plate. “I’m happy to see it.” 

Jak didn’t know what to say to that, so she just lifted her fork in a toast and took a swig of her red wine.

Her dad pressed. “Got a new boyfriend or something?” he asked suspiciously, his tone immediately becoming protective and, well, dadlike.

She scrunched her eyebrows at him. “No,” she said with a small chuckle. “I just had a talk with Kate’s mom this afternoon and, I dunno, I just feel a little better is all.”

At that, a strange silence filled the room. Jak’s parents exchanged a look. Her mom inhaled, opening her mouth to speak, then snapped it shut again. 

“What?” Jak demanded when the quiet became unbearable. 

“Honey,” her mom said softly, reaching across the long table as though she could take her daughter’s hand. “Kate’s mom passed away in her sleep last night. She had a heart attack.”

No, that wasn’t possible. She had just seen Mrs. Marlow this morning. She – 

But the conversation earlier played through her mind. I can’t stay long, the woman had said. I have to go. She hadn’t heard her arrive or depart. And her skin – so cold against her own. Had Jak really spoken with a dead woman? 

“Oh,” she finally said, unable to hide the confusion in her voice. “Oh, that’s right, I must have dreamt it when I fell back asleep this morning.” Her parents exchanged another look, but her mother shrugged and launched into another story from the party. Jak followed along absentmindedly, nodding or exclaiming at the right times, but she wasn’t really listening. Despite what she’d said, she knew that what happened had been real. She couldn’t explain it, and her parents would most definitely check her into a ward if she pushed, but she knew it was real. A last gift from her dearest friend.

And it was enough.

January 04, 2024 21:25

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