Drama Fiction Teens & Young Adult

This story contains sensitive content

Sensitive Content: mild language and substance use

There is a staircase in the church, just down a short hall from what we used to call the haunted room. The perfect red carpet on the winding flight’s first landing is often bathed in pale, pinkish rays that shine through a stained-glass window, tall and narrow, set high in the wall so you have to tilt your head to properly admire it. One of the amber streetlamps outside reflects itself in the magenta glass; if you stand on the landing after night has fallen, a beautiful, rose golden aura will envelop you like the lurid robes of some royal apparition. It’s a marvelous site for deep thought and reflection, if the building is empty enough.

I was standing there on a Saturday in April, listening to the faraway pulses of country music and the joyful shrieks of dancers in the gym, my hands folded behind my back, knuckles pressed somewhat painfully against the stucco wall. My face was painted in ghost colors; outside, the streetlamp flickered, and in its absence I could see the crimson tinge of stop lights proclaiming their electric existence beneath a smoky, tar-colored sky.

“Hey,” a voice spoke from the darkness below.

“Hey,” I said, straightening, trying not to look so defeated. Your hand materialized first, reaching from the void to grab the wooden railing and hoist the rest of you up into the dusty pink nimbus that made your teeth look like pearls.

“What’re you doing?” You asked it in a soft, uninterested way, and I knew you didn’t really care about what I was doing—you wanted to know what we were going to do.

I grinned as you fell back against the wall with me. “What’re you doing? Exploring the dark halls?”

You gave a short little laugh: “hmm,” and even that small murmur echoed up to the sanctuary where the congregation would sit in just twelve hours, many of them yawning and glassy-eyed amidst a sermon that was boring but not quite kill-yourself boring.

“I love dark hallways,” you said quietly.

“Do you want to go through one?”

You nodded, edging closer. “Yeah. Let’s go for a walk.”

The dance music continued to fade as we delved into the abyss, tracing lines along the brick walls with our fingers, and by the time we stopped at the fan of light seeping from the kitchen, all I could hear were your gentle breaths and the occasional click in my ears as I swallowed.

“It’s really nice, you know,” you said. “The dark, and being in it with you.”

My chest tightened as you entwined your fingers in mine. It was really nice being with you, alone, but freedom is a rare currency and for how long would nights like these be possible? How long before Complicated Land caught up with us? 

You turned to me, squeezing my hand a little tighter. “You all right?”

I nodded—I lied. “We should go outside or something.”

“Or something?”

“We should go outside.”

“Yeah… we should go outside.” Your eyes fell away from mine. “Just… my parents can’t find out.”

I shrugged. “How could they? They’re busy being bored at home.”

We went out the side door together, into the night where the stars twinkled and the clouds were made somehow brighter, more vibrant with a silky black expanse behind them. We sat on the gelid stone curb before the front doors; the cold air whistled, and the walls moaned in the wake of its breath. You wore nothing but the burgundy dress you’d come in, the one that revealed your narrow shoulders and didn’t even cover your knees. I had my faded blue jeans and the burgundy shirt I’d bought to match you two days before.

“Woah!” you exclaimed, and one of the dance flyers slapped you in the face as the wind tried to steal it away. You snatched at it, unfolded its wrinkled message:


You surrendered it to the wind and I was mute for a beat. A white car came to a halt in front of the stop sign to our left, and its rattling engine terminated the silence. 

“I love nighttime sounds like that,” you said as the car pulled away.

“Yeah, me too.”

I felt trapped sitting there, wishing for a way to say everything I wanted to say. I could hear life’s timer ticking away like an old-fashioned stopwatch, reminding me how much time we didn’t have to be with each other, to be free.

“Can I be honest with you?”

You nodded.

“I wish we could be alone like this more often. I wish people didn’t care so much.”

“Me too. But… I guess that’s why you named this city Complicated Land.”


         I was reminded again of life’s timer when I gazed down the street at the distant crosswalk lights, the flashing red hand, numbers counting themselves down from 20 seconds. 19. 18.

“Let’s walk that way.”

You grinned at me. “Okay.”

         I was silent as we walked. I loved you, Ellie, but god was I terrible at talking to you sometimes. 

“You sure you’re okay?” you asked.

         I moved my lips around a little, unable to produce a real smile. “I just… I dunno. Today’s just a deep-thoughts day, I guess.”

         “Well, you know you can talk to me about those, right?”

         “Yeah… I do. And I want to, even if sometimes I don’t act like it. You’re, like, the only person in the world I mind being quiet around. I always feel like I have so much to say to you and no time to say it. And… I just end up saying nothing, and­—I’m sorry. I—it feels like we have no time here.”

You took my hand again. You squeezed and I squeezed back and we weren’t moving anymore. I stared into your eyes, viridian and piercing. The world behind you, around you, was forgotten. You told me in January that you couldn’t love me, you couldn’t have that, but I always loved you and on the sidewalk that night, holding your hand, knowing you had chosen to be in the cold with me when you could have been inside dancing with everyone else, I let myself believe that maybe you were wrong. Maybe we could have love here in Complicated Land. 

“I don’t mind when you’re quiet,” you said, and your eyes drifted away but I kept my focus on you, your rosy cheeks and your glossy lips and the beauty of the mind that lay behind those nervous eyes. “It’s not awkward like with other people. It’s just—it’s you. It’s Harkin, the quiet boy I met in Complicated Land, and I’d rather sit in silence with you for an hour than talk to anybody else for five minutes.”

Your eyes came back and they were fiercely serious amidst the brunette curtains of your hair. “But I need you to know you can talk to me. If you’re worried about not having time to talk, we have time now, so…”

I nodded but I was lost in thought again and I couldn’t hold your gaze anymore. My blonde hair hung in my eyes, wet from the mist and messy, the way you liked it.


“It just hurts… thinking this could all come to an end,” I said at last.

“What do you mean, this?

Us, I guess. I’ll miss the days when I meant something to you.” I scoffed, flipping my damp hair from my eyes. “I don’t even know what ‘we’ are, but—”

And then your arms were around me and I learned that Ellie Colley smelled like hemp flowers in June, like Devil’s perfume—dangerous, beautiful things.

“We’re the undefinable,” you whispered in my ear, and goosebumps riddled my arms. You touched my chin, turning my face to you with two cold fingers, and I wished you would kiss me. “You will always mean something to me. No one can tell me we’re temporary—that’s for you and me to decide.”

“It’s not, though. We’re just the hands on Complicated Land’s clock. Your parents—”

“We don’t have to be. Look how far away we are right now,” you said, eyes gleaming. “Church looks so beautiful from here.”

“Everything’s beautiful from a distance.”

Your embrace slackened.

“Not you, though.”

You held me tighter again as we stood on the border of our flavorless lives and the freedom we could never have. We were quiet again for some time, until another crumpled sheet of paper blew past us, rustling like dead leaves, bearing the details of a dance that was long behind us. In a change of current, it came back, and you stomped it under your Adidas sneaker because you hadn’t mastered high heels yet. You bent down, folded the paper into a neat square, and asked if I could keep it in my pocket for you. 

You were adorable and I chuckled. “Yeah.”

Reality was like that to you: a flyer in the wind. It slapped you in the face sometimes and sure, you kept a grasp on it long enough to skim over its message, its rules, but then you would let it go, watch it blow away as freedom washed over you, us. It was a wonderful feeling, watching it go, but of course it always came back. We were young and our love would have been beautiful, but the love of youth is always fleeting and how, how could we escape the bounds of our lives?

You pulled away from me and I saw the uncertainty in you, in your eyes where timidity contended with beauty and made you perfect. Everything about you was perfect, and I always wondered how you failed to see it. You were sheltered, so scared of what everyone thought of you, so caught up in the lack of acknowledgement your parents offered the beauty of your soul and of your body, caught up in your life of homeschool, of lovelessness, of church every Sunday. You didn’t know what to do with me; you were all the way across the street from church with me, just us, and those were big steps for a girl who loved freedom as much as she feared it. No one in Complicated Land approved of love, but Ellie, it could have been ours. If you had just let that flyer go… 

“Look,” you said, smiling now. “They’re all blowing away.”

I turned toward the church and I wasn’t holding you anymore but both your hands were still in mine. The flyers that had been pasted to the walls were all caught in the wind now, a storm of paper and ink and strips of green tape.

You found my eyes again and you stayed there until you settled your gaze on a cluster of skyscrapers looming in the distance. Their windows were shining a warm gold against the night sky.

“Sometimes, I wonder what the stars look like from the roofs of those buildings,” you said, staring past the distant intersection, where the flashing red hands had gone still. The roofs glowed in different neon colours; green, yellow, purple, pink, and red—too bright to be perfect, because you knew what perfect red was: the carpet at church, dead brake lights, and not quite the shade of roses, more like the blood drawn by their thorns.

         “I bet they look incredible,” I said.

Your face was covered in makeup you didn’t need, makeup that gave you confidence, but we were alone now and I wanted you to know how beautiful you were. A tear, brought by the cold, slid down your cheek and I wiped it away, smearing your mask. 

“Stop,” you giggled. “You’re gonna mess up my face.”

“No. I just want to see you raw and honest.”

You smiled at our feet. 

“You’re gorgeous when you’re like that.”

You only smiled, you didn’t make me feel awkward and you didn’t remind me that we couldn’t have love here. Another tear came and you didn’t stop me when I wiped it with my thumb. 

You turned to the skyscrapers again. “I imagine leaving my life behind for a while,” you said. “I’d walk all the way down past that intersection, and I’d climb every step between the ground floor and the roof. And hopefully I’d find you there, and we’d watch the stars together. Or maybe you were with me the whole time. We’d have left church together and walked to the skyscrapers beneath purple clouds, the kind you only see after midnight. We’d pass all these brick buildings, and the only souls conscious with us would be an old, lonely dog walker and the long departed, sitting in their living rooms. We wouldn’t say anything to the lonely dog walker because we’d just want to climb to those neon roofs and see the flickering city lights from the sky. Following so far?”

“Yeah,” I said, smiling wider than ever. “Lying on those roofs and looking at the flickering city lights.”

“And they look like goddamn electrical heartbeats,” you went on, speaking like someone in a dream. “Maybe we wouldn’t say anything to each other as we lay in that radiant place, heaven above us, and that would be perfectly fine with me.” 

You sighed and leaned into me and I held you.

“In that moment, we would feel so free together, so invincible. We would be a part of those flickering heartbeats, beautiful and wild and alone.”

I held you tighter and I felt alive. I would have gone anywhere with you.

“Ellie… that is the most beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me.”

You snorted and wiped at your nose, which was turning pink from the cold. “Thanks.”

“No, seriously—that was, like… I forgot your mind is so beautiful.”

“Shut up,” you laughed. “Thanks… for being someone I can do that with.”

I laughed, too, then thanked you for being someone who would do that with me. “You’re a really beautiful person.”

We stayed like that for a while, your head on my shoulder, my arm around you. You didn’t pull away, because we were not on those neon roofs but we were free… for a while.

“We should keep walking.”

You tilted your head up at me and lifted your eyebrows and the corners of your mouth drew a little wider. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. That way, to the crosswalk.” The red hands had been replaced by a white stick figure, indicating it was safe to cross. “Maybe we’ll even make it to the skyscrapers.”

“Okay,” you smiled.

An old man with a plaid scarf wrapped around his face passed us, walking a golden retriever on a tight leash. We looked at each other, stifling our laughter as we passed him without saying anything, and kept going. The long departed sat in their living rooms and the red hands made a reappearance when we reached the intersection. We stood on the corner, faces turned toward the skyscrapers and their elevated utopias. 

A series of shouts came from behind us. I cast a cautious glance over my shoulder and a fleeting sense of regret passed over me—we’d finally stepped beyond the flavourless boundaries of our lives, and now the night was coming alive… would it hurt us?

There were the scuffling sounds of a struggle. “Give it to me,” a boy whined.

I peeked over my shoulder again in time to see a tall guy in black jeans and a beige Carhartt jacket lug a smaller boy mercilessly into his outstretched foot, tripping him.

Yo, you made me fuck up my hand,” the boy cried indignantly, scrambling to his feet.

You looked a little nervous, like you were remembering all the times your parents had ever warned you against going out after dark, and when the red hand on the crosswalk sign to our right disappeared, replaced by our friendly white stick figure, I began walking that way. You followed me, both our gaits brisk, your hand in mine.

“Hey, you guys want some drugs?” one of the kids called after us.

I turned and kept walking backwards, your hand in my left now. “We’ll have to pass tonight, thanks,” I said. I caught a glimpse of his eyes; they were wild and hungry, but his voice was tame enough. He chased us halfway down the crosswalk, raising his hand and claiming I should at least give him a high-five.

Oh, I’ll give you a high-five!” you exclaimed, letting go of the unease I’d seen in your face.

“No, I’ll give him one,” I muttered, stepping in front of you.

“Yeah, hit my other one, though,” he said as I raised my hand. “This one’s covered in blood.”

“Damn,” I chuckled. He held his left hand partway in his sleeve, so all I could see were the tips of his bloodied fingers.

“Yeah, I ate shit back there,” he said as our hands smacked together. “Sure you guys don’t want anything?” His breath smelled of pot, and I imagined there were contents more illicit than a couple of school books in that army-green backpack of his.

“Yeah,” I said and I made sure you knew to stay behind me. My heart was beating fast and I felt ready to kill these miscreants with my bare hands for you, but my words were calm and I held my ground, shoulders slack. 

“All right, you have a good night,” the boy said and spun around.

“What interesting people,” you said as we resumed our course.

“Hmm,” I laughed shortly.

“I love the dark,” you said as we neared the skyscrapers.

“I know.”

“A lot.

“I know. So do I—it gives us freedom nights like tonight.”

But freedom isn’t something that lasts, and even though we couldn’t hear it anymore, the ticking of Complicated Land’s clock persisted amid twilight’s muted soundtrack.

January 19, 2023 18:53

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KT George
18:34 Jan 27, 2023

Your first sentence hooked me. You did a great job with description throughout. And you captured the angst of young love thru the dialogue and use of emotional expressions. Good job!


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Kelly Sibley
22:54 Jan 24, 2023

I really like the way you showed the complication through the environment description. A simple love story in a complicated land. Well done!


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