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Sad Fiction Coming of Age

Trigger Warning: grief, regret, death, disfigurement.


The sun is drawing away, slowly at first, like an evening steam train. It takes the daylight with it and leaves my room in semi-shadow.


‘Your mum, she left these for you, to open on your sixteenth birthday. I don’t know what they are, I promised I wouldn’t look. I never have.’


I sit and stare at the white envelope and the red velvet box that Dad has placed before me on the dressing table. They lie in front of the mirror I covered eight years ago, half a lifetime back. A blue silk scarf is draped between me and my fears.


‘Do you want me to stay while you open them?’


‘No, thank you. No.’


‘Happy Birthday Liz.’ He closes the door behind him.


For Liz on your 16th Birthday.


Shaking hands lift the letter. I slide a stiffened forefinger into the corner gap and run it under the glued-down flap of the envelope. I force paper from paper, releasing a prisoner from eight years ago, back into the cruel world. Shame-filled air catches like crumbs of self-hatred in my irritated throat.


What will she say?


I feel the same dejection I had felt at six years old when she’d yelled at me for losing her keys. Bryn had been locked out 'til Dad came home. The poor dog was soaking and shaking for nearly an hour while Mum searched under cushions and moved the furniture.


'He can't fend for himself out there! And what if there was a fire!? We'd be trapped!'


She'd left me to sulk in my room back then. She was doing it again now.


The paper inside the envelope is the same pastel pink of my favourite childhood skirt. The skirt I had on in the clinical corridors that day. And have never worn, or looked at, since. It still hangs in my wardrobe. I can't let it go. But it is shrouded in black plastic, shielding me from the memory of that sterile smell, those beeping machines, that doctor's face.


I gradually edge the paper out into the room. The flowing calligraphy brings back dozens of playful memories. That careful lettering in reverse, that backwards font. She’d leave messages in my lunch box or under my pillow or in my shoe. Secrets. Just for me.


I need a mirror. Of all the things. Of all the God damn things.


I count to three, somehow thinking that will enable me to whip the scarf away from the glass, like pulling off a plaster. But my rigid hands stay statue still on the table. Maybe it is a plaster, with a festering wound underneath that will only heal if the air can get in. Ripping it off will hurt. I’m not ready.


I try to decipher the letters myself but her elaborate italics have always bested me.


Breath held, eyes closed, I count to ten. I’m still not ready. I puff out an invisible cloud of despair. My stony gaze lodges on the first mysterious line of text.


The sun is forging its way behind Radley Hill. While the sky is rejoicing in those familiar Battenburg colours, my room is growing gloomy. I light a candle to illuminate the letter with its flickering glow.


She’s forced my hand, so I inhale a wisp of resolve. With one palm resting on the envelope, I reach the other forward. Tentative fingers take hold of the silk scarf that has protected me for so long. I pull back on one corner and it slinks across the top of the mirror. Suddenly the weight of the fabric pulls the rest of it away and the glass is revealed.


My gaze falls on the pine frame, then on the table-top, then back on my hand, everywhere but on my own reflection.


‘How can you look at yourself?’ I hiss under my breath.


I fit the edge of the page to the base of the looking glass. Holding one hand to my brow to avoid any unintentional glimpses of my face, I begin to read.


Darling Lizzie,


I wipe my eyes but the letters still blur.


You will be 16 when you get this, and I will be gone. I’m sorry I asked you to wait so long to read my words. I’m even more sorry I can’t be there to see you on your Sweet Sixteen. My beautiful girl.


I pull my eyes from the page and steady myself for a moment. She doesn't seem mad, but this was so much worse than a shivering, wet dog.


You are beautiful. No matter what you tell yourself. And I ask you to look into the mirror now and appreciate that.


I lift my head but close my eyes. How can she even think that I might be beautiful?


I blindly face the mirror, knowing the girl in it has her eyes closed too. The shame is shared between us.


I feel the paper in my hands, recall her citrus perfume, and gather my strength. I gradually part my eyelids, letting the light in, glimpse by glimpse. The fuzzy colours become an image.


I undertake a half-hearted study of my washed out blue-grey eyes. Encircled in dark pools of sorrow, weighed under a heavy brow. Drained of the sparkle I see in the colourful irises of my friends. Even where the light catches them, they are dull and lifeless. Once they shone like sapphires. Like hers.


My gaze drifts to the edges of my face.


I recall the noise, the scraping metal, the smashing glass, the screams, the sirens.


I recall the colours, the blood red smears against the grey car interior, the flashing blue lights.


I recall being lifted through a broken window. Not comprehending that my eight-year-old body would never be the same again.


A tear leaves my cheek and drops onto my precious letter. I dab at the paper with my sleeve. There's a tiny smudge but the words appear clearly in the mirror:


Your face may not look how you want it to look, and that may have brought you pain. But those scars are the sign of your strength, your resilience, your resolve. My beautiful girl.


I love you, and will always love you, and will always be proud.


What happened was not your fault.


A sob heaves in my chest. It hurts to breathe.


I ask you, I beg you, if you haven’t already, forgive yourself now. You could not have known what would happen.


I trace the largest scar with one finger, from the corner of my eyebrow, as it snakes to my chin like a pale River Styx. I’ve never intentionally touched it before. It is uncomfortably smooth, it makes my spine tingle with intolerance.


Smaller scars keep it company. Some, mere flecks of discoloured flesh, some big enough to hold their own shapes. They intersect each other like a morbid roadmap of what happened on the High Street in 2010.


Dad had tried to warn me.


‘Put it away until we get home.’ He turned from the passenger seat to wag his finger.


‘But it’s my birthday!’


‘Lizzie! There will be no cake and no party unless you put that away right now.’


I’d never held a party popper before, or seen one being popped, only the coloured streamers that were left behind. How I loved those thin curls of bright paper. I'd gather them up on New Year's Day from the parties I was too young to attend the night before.


I took one last look at Mum in the rear-view mirror - slightly jealous of the pale pink lipstick and silver-grey eyeshadow I was too young to wear. I pulled the string taut, not intending to set it off, but there was a pothole in the road. The bump was enough. The noise and the coloured paper startled my mum. She jumped and shrieked in the driver’s seat. The other car came from the right. Ploughing into us, spinning us onto the pavement.


Before I knew it the fire crew were cutting me out. I didn’t see my parents for several hours, they were both unconscious in the hospital. Mum was in for days longer than me. Days of crying and uncertainty. Eventually, one rainy Wednesday, they took her for her final surgery. She handed something to Dad before the operation, 'Just in case.'


Complications, they said. Complications.


There never was a cake, or a party that year. Just flowers and a funeral. And two weeks off school.


Dad didn't smile for a very long time, but insisted on celebrations when I turned nine, and every year after. ‘It’s what your mum would want.’


That might be true but the guilt deepened with every ribbon-tied present. Every party game.


My brave girl. Open your gift. Remember me. Forgive yourself.


I love you.


Mum


Hot tears tumble down my pale cheeks. I protect the letter with both hands, choosing to save it instead of wiping away my sorrow.


I have her eyes. Maybe their colour will come back one day.


I sit and stare. Just sit and stare.


‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’


I look a bit like her now. If it’s possible to ignore my ugly right-hand side. Picking up the hinged velvet box, I feel its softness against my skin. I lift it to my cheek and let the texture brush over the parts of my face that still have feeling. It takes a little courage to turn on the lamp.


The subtle brightness in the room strengthens me to lift the lid. The interior is lined in black satin, and lying in the centre are my gifts. Pale pink lipstick, silver-grey eye shadow, and a small bottle of citrus perfume.


I sit and stare until the tears stop, then wipe my reddened face with tissues until the skin is dry but sore. With great care I apply the makeup and spritz myself with scent.


Slowly the image in the mirror changes. The hair grows darker, and shorter. The face gets fuller. The eyes are bright, solid blue.


Words, like a zephyr in the night, escape her lips.


‘I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you.’

October 17, 2021 16:17

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40 comments

Alex Sultan
01:32 Oct 30, 2021

I'm sorry this didn't make the shortlist, Katharine. I thought it would - at least it was close. You'll get it on the next one? Third time's the charm?

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07:22 Oct 30, 2021

Thanks Alex. I contacted Reedsy. Apparently it was long listed and all of last week's long listed entries were accidentally marked as shortlisted. It's so disappointing. But we'll see what happens this week.

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09:41 Oct 28, 2021

Oop, that made me cry.

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07:25 Oct 30, 2021

Hi Autumn, thank you so much for reading. It really is a very sad tale.

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Tommie Michele
01:16 Oct 28, 2021

Incredible story! Huge congrats on the shortlist :)! I love your description in this one—“a blue silk scarf is draped between me and my fears” is one line that stood out to me and that I loved. Nice work! —Tommie Michele

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04:13 Oct 28, 2021

Thanks Tommie! To be honest I was pleasantly surprised that this got shortlisted. I thought that "Between the Black and White" would be the one. But you never can tell.

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13:51 Oct 29, 2021

So, weirdly, this story was not shortlisted after all! It appeared on my profile earlier in the week and has now been taken away. I'm so confused. And thoroughly disappointed.

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Tommie Michele
15:17 Oct 29, 2021

Huh, that's so weird! Well, it was definitely a deserved shortlist--I'll still think of it as one :)

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00:19 Oct 28, 2021

Terrific descriptions, lyrical images that involve all the senses - and a compelling story.

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03:37 Oct 28, 2021

Thank you for your kind comment. I'm glad you liked it.

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Moony Loony
14:19 Oct 26, 2021

Dang. That was good.

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14:41 Oct 26, 2021

Thank you!

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Faith Ogedegbe
11:11 Oct 26, 2021

Great story.

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11:26 Oct 26, 2021

Thank you Faith, I'm really glad you like it.

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Beth Jackson
17:50 Oct 23, 2021

Wow, Katharine! This story left me breathless. What a great read, thank you for sharing! :-)

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19:14 Oct 23, 2021

Thank you for reading, I'm glad you liked it 😀

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Lily Rama
20:43 Oct 18, 2021

This was a really interesting story, Katharine. You held me on every word and the ending left me breathless. The descriptions were amazing and you captured the emotion perfectly! Great job! Also, do you think you could critique my latest story?? I would really like to hear your opinion and know what to fix!

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21:35 Oct 19, 2021

Thank you Lily, that's very kind.

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Alex Sultan
18:47 Oct 18, 2021

I like the concept here and the poetic writing style you use for it. I'll save on a line-by-line sort of review for now(Since you said you might rewrite) and just give my general thoughts and ideas. On the first read-through, my impression was it is sort of long. It drags a bit near the end, in my opinion. The concept is great, but does it warrant 2000 words? I feel like if you condense it(I'm not sure what could be cut, however) it could have more impact. The poetic writing style with short sentences and lots of paragraph breaks is nice....

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22:29 Oct 18, 2021

Thank you Alex, this is really helpful, gives me a lot to go on. I thought about the lighting too, I'm considering making the letter in mirror writing to force her to use the mirror. Maybe that's a game she played with her mum as a kid, and I thought about how the lighting might change with her mood. Maybe she's sitting in darkness at the beginning and she puts on a small lamp to see the writing but as she gets more confident she puts on a bigger light to trace the scar. Something like that. I am considering a complete rewrite, probably tomo...

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22:34 Oct 18, 2021

Out of interest Alex...the more in depth crit you write for me, and presumably others, are you getting more direct requests from other authors to critique their stuff too? I may be imagining it but it seems like I'm getting a few of those now.

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Alex Sultan
16:18 Oct 19, 2021

I'm glad I could help, and I'm looking forward to the rewrite/next draft. The lighting idea you brought up sounds like it could work. And no, I haven't been receiving many direct requests, yet. Also, for my story this week, I was about to skip(I don't like these prompts very much) but may have had an idea for a good thriller. I'll either have it out Wednesday or Thursday if you have the time to critique.

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20:14 Oct 19, 2021

hi Alex, I should have time tomorrow / Thursday to look over something if you decide to post this week. I've done quite a hefty edit of this piece tonight - if you feel like having another look I'd be very grateful. Line by line would be fine at this point if you have the patience with it, I appreciate you have spent a lot of time on this already. Thanks.

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Alex Sultan
09:16 Oct 21, 2021

I don't think I'm going to finish my story in time - I have a good idea for a fantasy/thriller, but can't find the words for it with a day left. I hate to skip but I'll save it for another prompt. On the other hand, I really like the changes you've made to your story! Your writing is always great with this very poetic style. I enjoyed it all the way through. Here is what I have for line-by-line notes: ‘Happy Birthday Liz.’ He closes the door behind him. [We both feel quiet relief.] - I think you could cut the brackets, as far as I'm aware ...

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18:02 Oct 21, 2021

Thank you Alex! This is great feedback. I have made a stack of changes based on it. I think I will submit it but I don't expect it to be shortlisted. We'll see. It's a shame you're not writing this week but understandable. I'll hope to read something from you next week.

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Keya Jadav
04:59 Oct 18, 2021

This is incredible Katherine, kept me hooked till the end, unsure of the next move. I was so confused/curious the whole time, it's amazing how beautifully unfolded everything. I feel so bad for the poor girl, being so hard on herself. All her emotions flowed through me so effortlessly. Also appreciable, how the letter's message is conveyed step by step simultaneously reflecting Lizzie's condition. My lungs burn and the shame-filled air catches like crumbs of self-hatred in my irritated throat. --- my favourite line 😍. Great read!

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03:40 Oct 21, 2021

Thank you so much for reading this Keya, and for your kind comments. I'm so glad you liked it.

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21:58 Oct 17, 2021

Ideas I might incorporate... The letter is in mirror writing which is what forces her to look in the mirror. Something about how people stare at her in the street and now she is staring at herself. Her mum also left her a gift. It's make up and perfume like hers. She puts them on and that's when she sees her mum's face. She says "I forgive you" in the mirror and her mum says it back.

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Jon Casper
18:04 Oct 17, 2021

Hi Katharine. I feel that the story does meet the prompt. I love that when she finally looks at herself, her description is in the third person. It's a subtle but poignant detail of how foreign the reflection must be to her. Maybe you could delay the transition to describing her reflection in the first person until the resolution -- a sort of acceptance, after digesting her mother's words. You captured her personal torture very well. My heart went out to her. Also the suspense of how she would react created a strong pull to keep reading...

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19:25 Oct 17, 2021

Thanks Jon, that's really helpful. I've had a go at a few improvements if you fancy another read through? I still think it needs work. it doesn't feel as strong as it should based on the emotive premise. I'll sleep on it maybe.

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Jon Casper
10:04 Oct 18, 2021

Oh, I really like what you've done at the end! Got chills actually. Well done. The conflict is much clearer now, too. The flashback to the incident with dog and the locked door works well. It helps us understand what she's afraid will be written in the letter. How the childhood punishment still haunts her. In case you're ready for some line notes: My pink silk scarf [is] still covering the mirror, as it has been since I was old enough to understand. -- I think you need the "is" verb in the first phrase, to agree with the "has been" verb i...

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20:16 Oct 19, 2021

Thanks very much for your helpful comments Jon, as always. I have done quite a big edit of it tonight, hopefully it's improved, but I'm never really sure. If you have the time and the inclination I'd really appreciate your thoughts. But please don't feel obliged.

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Jon Casper
21:40 Oct 19, 2021

Certainly will! Stay tuned.

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Jon Casper
22:48 Oct 19, 2021

Katharine- I love the changes. Excellent job! The sun is drawing away, slowly at first, like an evening steam train -- Nice description. We both feel quiet relief. -- This feels like head-hopping. If the story is in Liz's POV, we don't know what Dad feels. Maybe something like, "He looked as relieved as I feel"? I force paper from paper, releasing a prisoner from eight years ago -- I like this metaphor a lot! And what if there was a fire!? -- I'm not sure about this punctuation. Did you mean for this to be an "interrobang" (a question t...

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22:46 Oct 20, 2021

Thank you! You are right about the head hopping. I'll fix that. The interrobang is intentional. But perhaps it breaks the flow? I'll think about it. Yes, the mirror writing is new. I thought it might help to force Liz's hand and give a hark back to her childhood at the same time. I'm glad you liked it overall. I wasn't sure if the changes to the storyline were an improvement or not. But hopefully they are.

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22:48 Oct 20, 2021

Also, one other thing. You mentioned pavement before. This might be a British thing. Over here a pavement is where pedestrians walk. ? Sidewalk over there?

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16:20 Oct 17, 2021

Very rough draft - I have plenty of word count to play with. General impressions very welcome at this stage - maybe save any line-by-line for when I do some editing? Is the end ok? I'm considering writing her dad or a boyfriend or something at the end to offer a bit of comfort? Does it meet the prompt?

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Keya Jadav
05:00 Oct 18, 2021

The ending is as perfect as it could be :)

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