Contest #158 shortlist ⭐️

45 comments

Fiction Contemporary Sad

I came to this beach as a child, but that was before any of the bad things which would happen had happened, so it was another world. My parents smoking and arguing in the front seat as they searched for a park, me and my brothers jostling for space in the back, the scent of coconut lotion on my arms.


As an adult, here in the night, it was a different place. Black water under a black sky. The car park emptied out, the tip of the cigarette glowing in the darkness of the car. 


“Here,” the man in the passenger seat said, passing it to me. I took a long drag and tried to remember his name. He’d shouted it at me, near my ear, as we stood in the din of the bar.


“I haven’t come here since I was sixteen,” he said. There was a story there in the way he looked out at the water, but I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know his stories. He was tall with broad shoulders and thick short hair, that was all he needed to have. Everything else had to be in my imagination.


I turned from him and blew smoke toward the open window. The salt scented air rolling in. 


“When I was a kid, I used to love all the little rock pools here,” I said.


Nodding my head toward what we couldn't see in the dark. This beach you didn’t come to swim, it was too dangerous. If you walked out into the waves a rip might carry you out to the deepest ocean, leave you there to swallow the cold water, to sink beneath it. I’d thought about it.


XXX


I remembered crouching over the rock pools, watching the living things in their tiny worlds. Crabs and silvery fish, snails curled in their shells. Disappearing under rocks.


One afternoon I collected them in a bucket. Half filled it with salt water and made another tiny world in the plastic bottom, sand and rocks and scraps of seaweed. Caught up the living things in my hands and deposited them in there.


“You’re not taking those, Ruby, they’ll die,” my mother said, when she saw me carrying it toward the car.


“They won’t, I’ll look after them,” I said, looking toward my dad.


Those were the last days of him being able to be talked into anything, before he was just tired and pissed off all the time.


As the youngest I was always stuck with the middle seat, wedged between my sprawling brothers, and I sat with my arms wrapped around the bucket, watching nervously as the water sloshed around.


Back home I put it on my dresser and I watched as the living things died one after the other. There was no looking after them. It was not a world but a prison I had made them.


When they were all done dying my mother made me take the bucket outside and tip it out onto the grass. I watched the bodies of those dead things soak into the foreign land.


I cried and she said to me; If you take something from the place it’s meant to be, it dies.


XXX


I remembered her words sometimes. It was how I felt now. As if I’d been snatched up from the world I knew and deposited down in a strange new place. Yet I lived.


When I turned my head to the right I could see the lights of my own house, before the road curved around. Shining there in the darkness.


“So, uh…” the man beside me, the wrong one, said.


“Ruby,” I said.


“Yeah, sorry, it was loud in there.”


In the car, alone in the night, he was quieter and less drunk than he’d seemed. Something darker simmering in him. Less like Nick.


“I’m Wade, in case you didn’t get that either,” he said, and I didn’t look at him but I could tell he was smiling.


I took another puff before passing back the cigarette. I didn’t usually smoke, but I’d never turn one down either.


“You live nearby?” he asked.


One day the ever-encroaching sea here would rise up over the road and claim it all. It was the reason we’d been able to afford to buy our house, me and Nick. It was the reason I probably couldn’t sell it even if I wanted to.


“No,” I said, looking at my house. Beside it the darkness of my neighbours house. At nine each night, like clockwork, their lights snapped off. In summer Hazel was out at seven every morning watering her roses.


The only flowers I’d ever managed to grow out here were orange daisies, spiky leaves pushing up out of the matted sea grass. Everything else I’d planted had died, some of it straight away, some of it slowly. But Hazel’s roses flowered abundantly through summer in shades of pastel yellow and orange and pink.


“How do you get them to grow?” I’d asked her, touching a finger to a petal, like a tiny miracle out there in the sea air.


She’d shown me the trenches where’d she’d dug in dark soil, the shelter belt of hedges. She watered them by hand each morning, holding a hose over each one.


That morning when I looked out my window and saw Len out there instead of Hazel, I’d known something terrible had happened. I ran out of my house and stopped in front of him. He held up his hands, as if warding off what cursed thought was in my head. 


“Hazel’s gone to visit her mother for the day,” he said.


Relief shot through me, the knife of envy following. Hazel was seventy-five and she had a mother to visit, she had her husband waiting at home.


XXX


That day at work I’d seen Katrina. I was standing behind the counter of the pharmacy, masked up, taking scripts, handing out boxes and bottles. 


It was soothing, the repetition. The way I could focus on the names of strangers and medications. I looked up and saw Katrina come in the door. She looked at me and I saw her look, hesitate, look away again. Arrange her face in a blank expression.


“Hi there,” Katrina said at the counter, the bland tone people used for a stranger.


“Hi, how can I help?” I asked, sheltered behind the mask. Katrina could pretend not to recognize me; I could let her do it. I didn’t want to talk any more than she did.


“Just have a script to pick up for my husband, David Wells," she said. Her voice hesitated over the word husband, as if embarrassed to have one.


I was glad to turn away and go to get it. It was over a year since I’d seen David Wells and his wife Katrina, at Nick’s work Christmas function. Katrina had been wearing heels she could barely walk in and kept hanging on to the arm of David, who now needed his script for antibiotics filled.


I hadn’t been drinking that night because I was driving, and Nick was knocking back the tap beer because he hated work functions. He’d leaned over to me and smiled a blurry smile and said-


I bit down on the inside of my mouth to hold back the memory. The feel of him at my shoulder.


“Thank you,” Katrina said as she took her husband’s medication.


“You’re welcome.”


“I hope you have a good day,” Katrina said, and her gaze flicked to me before she turned away.


XXX


After work I’d stood in the kitchen looking at the fridge, thinking about dinner. When I looked out the window I could see straight into Len and Hazel’s kitchen. Saw them there at the table having dinner, sitting across from each other the way they always did.


I’d grabbed my keys and headed out. Sometimes I couldn’t stand to stay in the house and had to go out and drive, soothed by the swooping corners of the road, by the knowing that one day the sea would rise up and wash it all away.


I drove to a bar on the edge of town, some dark place where I didn’t expect to know anybody. Stood against the wall nursing a drink and warding off the men who approached. Not any guy would do.


When I spotted him, he was up at the bar, leaning against it and watching the room, as if he was slightly outside of it all. It reminded me a little of Nick. It had made me want to be the one he let in.


He turned and saw me watching so I held his eye and smiled before I looked away. He was beside me a minute later, offering to buy me a drink. I made conversation as best we could over the noise and music pulsing around us, the two of us there in our world.


When it seemed a decent enough amount of time had passed, I leaned over and asked near his ear if he wanted to go for a smoke. We walked out to the street where my car was parked and got in. He pulled out a packet of cigarettes at the same time as I produced a joint.


“I meant this,” I said.


“So did I,” he said, and grinned, so I smiled back.


I asked if he wanted to go someplace nicer than the side of the road to smoke, and he did.


Some nights as I drove the road with a stranger beside me, I imagined Nick could see me. Look what you’ve made me do, I wanted to say to him. Look what you’ve done to me.


XXX


“What’s that?” he asked, as I took the cigarette back, our fingers touching.


I knew he was looking at my ring, the glint of it in darkness. I always wore it still, and none of other men had questioned it. Didn’t notice or didn’t care.


“My husband’s dead,” I said. The words I used to say aloud as I stood alone in the kitchen, trying to believe it. I hadn’t spoken them for a long time.


“Sorry to hear that,” he said. But he didn’t really sound all that sorry. He sounded like someone who understood shitty things happened in life.


“Right there,” I said. Pointing toward it, the curve in the road where his bike had slid. There was the place. “Just over a year ago, he crashed his motorbike.”


I was sure he would want out of this now, but he just followed my gaze to the spot where my husband had died.


“It’s crazy that I came here, right?” I asked.


I wanted him to agree. Yes, you are crazy. Your husband died and it made you crazy because you loved him so much. No one saw that. All they saw was me getting up each day and going to work and paying the bills. There was no mortgage because his life insurance covered it. Like the lottery you never want to win.


But he just shrugged. “When I found out where my ex and her new boyfriend were living I went around and smashed the windscreen of his car in with a hammer. People do crazy shit sometimes.”


I laughed and then turned away from him again. I had to stop talking to him. I couldn’t pretend he was Nick if I was thinking about him smashing a man’s car with a hammer. Nick never would have done something like that. Nick would speed and crash his bike and die, that’s what he would do.


XXX


I shoved open the door and got out of the car, stepped into the salty air and the loose shingle of the car park. The night was moonless, the water moving in dark ripples. Left him behind in the car. I'd talked to him too long. This wasn’t going to work.


I wouldn’t be able to shut my eyes and run my hands over his shoulders and through his hair and let myself pretend Nick was there with me again. Touching me, on top of me.


I walked past the rocks where I’d played on that long ago day. Walked until my shoes were wet and even in ankle deep water, I could feel the force of the current, pulling the sand from beneath me.


“Hey, be careful here,” I heard him say. He was beside me. Standing in the water with me.


I looked up at the sky and the stars pinning it above us. After Nick died his sister named a star for him and she sent me a card with the constellation and how to locate it. I never did figure out where it was. Still, I found it comforting somehow. Something eternal carried his name.


“When I was sixteen my cousin drowned at this beach,” he said. There was no spot he pointed at, just the ocean out there.


“Were you there?” I asked, already knowing. I could tell in the way he looked out at the water, as if he saw it still. I hadn’t been there when Nick died and I’d never know if it was better or worse that way.


“I swam out and tried to hold onto him, but he started pulling me down. I let him go. I used to wonder if I should have let myself die with him.”


Sometimes I wished I’d died when Nick had too.


“But if you had it would have just been another funeral," I said.


“I know,” he said. “Took me a while to see it that way though.”


I looked at him, Wade.


“I live nearby,” I said. “You want to come back to my place for a drink?”

August 13, 2022 03:14

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45 comments

Zack Powell
16:39 Aug 13, 2022

I had a feeling that if you were going to submit a story this week, it would be for this prompt (which is the one I would've chosen too). Great minds and all that jazz, right? Plus, for us Lit Fic people, it's nice because it establishes setting and character dynamics right off the bat, and you used both of those well here. Similarly to "The Wanted One," I think my favorite thing here is the title. Immediately caught my attention, and I like how you the phrase appears relatively early in the story. We think we know what it's about, but then...

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Kelsey H
06:16 Aug 14, 2022

Thanks so much Zack, always love your comments! You are so right, as soon as I saw that prompt I knew I had to do it, since people are always smoking in my stories (I think as an ex-smoker it must be my way of reliving it), plus I just love the setting it instantly creates. I would have loved to see what you did with it, not that you don't deserve a break after your win of course! I actually had no idea of a plot (sadly that happens a lot) so just started with them sitting in the car and wrote down everything which came to mind ... turned o...

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Zack Powell
13:26 Aug 14, 2022

I'm so glad I'm not the only one who struggles with plotting, or the only one who fixes that by taking their characters and just winging it and seeing what happens. The ups and downs of being a discovery writer, right? And yeah, I totally forgot to mention it, but water = life symbolically in literature, so there's another layer for the "living things" motif you've got going. Extra brownie points for the beach setting now. Your story is a lot better than mine would've been, by the way. I was halfway done with it (tentatively titled "What We...

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Kelsey H
08:28 Aug 15, 2022

Oh wow thanks for the teaser, I love the opening and really want to keep reading ... you could just work it to fit another prompt maybe? Unplanned pregnancy, especially teenagers, is such a good kick off for a story. I just love that kind of real life drama stuff, as you know.

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Zack Powell
13:22 Aug 19, 2022

Congrats on the shortlist, Kelsey! Not surprised to see this get recognized - it was that good.

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Michał Przywara
16:25 Aug 13, 2022

I like this. A beach at night is a good, morose setting for self-reflective self-destruction. It's a story about death and life after it, and Ruby's still very much in mourning. Understandable, she loved Nick very much, and the rest of her life doesn't have much going on. Indeed, she's fixated on loss. The loss of Nick, the loss of her family, the loss of the bucket creatures, the potential loss of Hazel. She flirts with ending it all, but she's not quite ready for it, so in kind of a last ditch effort she seeks fantasy sex from strangers,...

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Kelsey H
09:05 Aug 14, 2022

Thanks Michal, really appreciate your thoughts and insight on the story! Loss is one of those experiences which is both so universal and so unique to each person, it is always interesting to explore. I remember reading something about how young widows can find it especially isolating as generally people don't experience death of a partner until later in life, so I had that in mind too with how disconnected she felt. But I also wanted to end with a sense she was going to find a way to move forward with life.

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Michał Przywara
13:55 Aug 19, 2022

Congratulations on the shortlist!

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Liv Chocolate
07:38 Jan 02, 2023

You're a truly phenomenal writer, Kelsey. This was so subtly powerful! I've been meaning to sit down and read your stories all week (but then good old covid struck). I'd scanned a few lines last week and immediately got the sense your stories were something special. Now reading one in depth, I'm in awe. Those winning stories are absolutely no coincidence! This line in particular was such a clever twist on a common sentiment of what our "exes would've done": "Nick never would have done something like that. Nick would speed and crash his bi...

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Kelsey H
10:03 Jan 02, 2023

Thanks so much for your lovely comment, Liv. I'm really glad you enjoyed the story, sorry to hear you had Covid though - I had it a few months ago and was totally wiped out by it! Love that you picked up on that line too, I was trying to keep from having her romanticize her deceased husband and instead show the reality. I'm looking forward to seeing your next story too!

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Marie White
01:51 Oct 05, 2022

This was so sad, but so beautiful. You had so many great lines here - I really liked the one, "Like the lottery you never want to win." Great job!

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Kelsey H
06:05 Oct 06, 2022

Thanks Marie, really appreciate your comments.

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Amanda Lieser
21:40 Sep 05, 2022

Hi Kelsey! Oh my goodness this was a well deserved shortlist! Congratulations! You had so many brilliant lines in this piece. My favorite was: It was not a world but a prison I had made them. I loved so much that you wove your MC’s past into their present situation and I am dying to know more about her and Nick. My heart was breaking at the end when your other MC revealed their own backstory. I love that you chose to set this story at the beach because it’s always such an interesting setting to choose. I loved this piece and wish to say con...

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Kelsey H
09:35 Sep 06, 2022

Thanks so much for commenting, Amanda. I love beach settings too, and going there at night is a really different feel to going in the day. Really appreciate hearing your thoughts on the story.

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Patrick Samuel
11:18 Sep 05, 2022

There is something hypnotic about that story: its fragmented quality, almost like a dream gliding along from one sequence to another with so many threads left suspended, as if we exited each one right before resolution. And then you realize this is a story about broken people and the apparently disjoincted flow of their thoughts and talk, and their slight remoteness to everything and everyone around them, is the sign that they are still shell-shocked and trying to pick up whatever pieces they can gather, not even sure they fit but they'll ...

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Kelsey H
09:28 Sep 06, 2022

Thanks so much for your thoughts on the story, Patrick. I'm so glad you got what I was trying to do with the slightly scattered feel of lots of short scenes, its always hard to know if it will work out or if it will just feel like its jumping around too much. I wanted to create that feeling of someone who is still very much in a state of grieving but also has to carry on with day to day life like going to work. But I also knew I wanted to finish on a more hopeful note at the end of it.

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Kevin Broccoli
19:39 Aug 24, 2022

I thought the descriptions of the setting were impeccable. It placed me exactly where I needed to be to meet these characters. Great job.

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Kelsey H
21:00 Aug 25, 2022

Thanks so much, glad you enjoyed!

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Lily Finch
21:55 Aug 21, 2022

The Living Things become the purpose after we get passed the dying things. Sea creatures of Ruby's. The passing of her husband, Nick. Then there is the passing of Wade's cousin. Then Ruby believes Hazel to be dead. Then they go back to Ruby's place. Death = affecting "the living things" - very clever. The well done with the flowers and Ruby not being able to keep flowers alive. Just very cleverly written. Specifically I enjoyed the lines: "When I spotted him, he was up at the bar, leaning against it and watching the room, as if he was sli...

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Kelsey H
08:49 Aug 22, 2022

Thanks so much, Lily. It does seem a lot of death in the story when you list it all, once I had the theme of life after loss in mind I guess I just kept on adding to it. I'm glad you liked the ending, I hoped it would seem like it was ending on a brighter note than what it had started with!

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Beth Jackson
02:02 Aug 21, 2022

Kelsey! This was exquisite! Congratulations on the shortlist, this was most certainly well deserved! I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, so beautifully written, I just loved the way the story unfolded. Absolutely stunning. Congratulations! :-)

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Kelsey H
08:36 Aug 21, 2022

Thanks so much for reading and commenting Beth, appreciate your thoughts!

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Philip Ebuluofor
19:49 Aug 20, 2022

Fine work Kelsey. Smoking is like chewing gum over there to both sexes. Over here, it a still a male thing.i think it's the reason many opted for this prompt this week. Congrats.

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Kelsey H
08:36 Aug 21, 2022

Thanks for your comment, Philip. Vaping actually seems more popular than smoking these days here in NZ, though writing "I sucked my vape" doesn't have the same ring to it!

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Philip Ebuluofor
09:54 Aug 21, 2022

My pleasure.

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Tommy Goround
20:53 Aug 19, 2022

(congratulations...awesome story)

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Mary Jo Fortes
12:44 Aug 19, 2022

Hi Kelsey! I can't say enough about your story--it was amazing with everything coming together beautifully from the title to the last line. I love your writing voice and the subtle nuances throughout the story. You arrive at the themes of living vs dying, as well as coping with loss (again, by living vs. 'dying') in a myriad of ways (the sea creatures in the bucket dying), (Hazel's roses growing in an unlikely place whereas most of Ruby's flowers had died), (Ruby's reaction to Hazel's non-appearance, immediately thinking of death), (Ruby an...

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Kelsey H
07:40 Aug 20, 2022

Thanks so much, appreciate the read and comment. I'm glad to hear you thought everything came together. I just decided as I started writing it was going to be about someone who was trying to cope with loss and the story went from there, so I wasn't sure if it felt a bit disjointed or not with the different scenes. I wanted the ending to feel more hopeful too after making a connection with another person. Congrats on your story getting shortlisted too!

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Riel Rosehill
10:24 Aug 19, 2022

Hi Kelsey, Sorry I'm late, I started typing my comment days ago but never got around to finishing it! I'm so behind keeping up with all the stories at the moment. So happy to see a new one from you! Reading this was a great way to procrastinate writing my story for Globe Soup... I admire you lit fic writers, absolutely love reading these stories! Love the title and how philosophical it is - there were so many great lines! And the theme of life and death woven through was extremely well executed. I love the little hint we got here too, ...

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Riel Rosehill
13:33 Aug 19, 2022

OMG Congrats on the shortlist! I had a feeling this would do well - well deserved, Kelsey!!!

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Kelsey H
06:38 Aug 20, 2022

Thanks so much, Riel, love getting your thoughts :) I know how hard it is to keep up with all the stories on here, I never manage to get around to everything I want to read! Will have to check out Globe Soup, I have seen a few people on here mention it. Though there's the time thing again ... I actually want to complete my novel and the short stories are so time consuming, yet also so much more instantly gratifying its hard to stay away! I'm so glad you enjoyed this, I wasn't sure if I was going overboard with the metaphors and such, but I...

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Riel Rosehill
07:14 Aug 20, 2022

I totally get the struggle between the novel in progress and short stories! I think I'll post one more Reedsy story after GS and then focus on the novel more intensively during autumn... (If you wanted to join a motivational group where we all struggle there's the Read Lots Write Lots discord open for everyone) I can't wait to see your finished novel one day! I feel like sometimes the best stories come without a plan - definitely worked out for this one! And I enjoy metaphors a lot, so... No critique from me on that part! 😃 About GS, it's ...

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Kelsey H
07:55 Aug 20, 2022

Thanks, I will look up that discord. I love to discuss things with other writers but don't have anyone in 'real life' to talk to about it. I am thinking of doing Reedsy once a month and working on my novel the rest of the time (even though I don't publish something every week I actually attempt it every week, well most weeks). I feel I have learnt a huge amount from doing these short stories though, so want to keep it up too.

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10:21 Aug 15, 2022

Kelsey, this is stunning. I was captivated by this journey you take the reader on. Stories about grief are actually my favourites, and I’m still working on writing them better, so I learned a lot from this one. My favourite part is when her mother tells her “if you take something from the place it’s meant to be, it dies”. Love it. Thanks for sharing and best of luck this week!

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Kelsey H
10:50 Aug 15, 2022

I have literally just finished reading and reviewing your story and then saw you had commented on mine. Time zone buddies! Thanks so much for comments, I'm really glad you enjoyed, I had some 2nd thoughts about if it was too morbid when posting. The sea creatures dying is from real life, I took a bunch of crabs and starfish home when I was a kid and didn't realize you couldn't just stick them in normal water with some salt :(

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08:42 Aug 16, 2022

Aw that's sad :( I'm curious, did you have a specific beach in mind when writing this? Don't know many beaches in the South Island hahah

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Kelsey H
09:05 Aug 16, 2022

Actually not really, although I was visualizing them at a Wellington beach (I used to live there) the rip and encroachment issues were taken from other places. Even though everything is set in NZ sometimes I just have a vague location in mind with a fictional town, ie central North Island, I like being able to add a lake or forest wherever I want it to be. Also I love making up settings!

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02:29 Aug 15, 2022

Great first line on this! And the pace kept things going nicely. I enjoyed it.

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Kelsey H
08:29 Aug 15, 2022

Thanks I'm glad you enjoyed.

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Aesha Amin
19:06 Aug 14, 2022

Ugh I hate how this made me sad. I love the use of the pulling currents and shared experiences. And I love how you’ve ended it on something can the readers can be hopeful about. My favourite parts (that totally hurt me): “My husband’s dead,” I said. The words I used to say aloud as I stood alone in the kitchen, trying to believe it. I hadn’t spoken them for a long time. Like the lottery you never want to win.

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Kelsey H
08:35 Aug 15, 2022

Thanks for your comment, I wanted to end on a happier note after a somewhat downbeat story.

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Aeris Walker
17:47 Aug 14, 2022

Enjoyed your story, Kelsey. There was a consistent detached sadness in the tone, and I could imagine the narrator telling it with a blank, far away stare. I liked the hint of hope at the end, that her grief might be healing just a bit. These were some of my favorite lines: “One afternoon I collected them in a bucket. Half filled it with salt water and made another tiny world in the plastic bottom, sand and rocks and scraps of seaweed. Caught up the living things in my hands and deposited them in there.” “Like the lottery you never want t...

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Kelsey H
08:41 Aug 15, 2022

Thanks so much for commenting, I can imagine her with that stare too now that you say it!

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Tommy Goround
06:00 Aug 14, 2022

Like the lottery you never want to win." Yep. Nice plotting. Characters? Yes. I like them. Theme? Life springs from sidewalk cracks. Voice? Kept me reading. Worst part? I want to drink after reading. Best part? The human condition.

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Kelsey H
09:08 Aug 14, 2022

Thanks Tommy for your comments. Have to say it made me feel like a cigarette myself after writing about them smoking! I will write something happy one of these days...

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