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Fiction Coming of Age Drama

Day 1

The gravel crunched underneath the car’s tyres as we swerved to the left at the fork in the road. The pink and white dahlias on the side of the narrow road swayed in the gentle breeze and beyond the patch of flowers, a lush meadow stretched out as far as I could see. My mobile, clutched in my hand, buzzed.

“Hi Mom!” I said, trying to infuse some cheer into my voice.

“Hi dear! Have you reached?”

“Yes, I’m almost there. I can see the gate in the distance. Is that it?” I asked, speaking to the driver.

“Yes, ma’am.”

A hundred feet ahead, imposing wrought-iron gates loomed into view. The property was enclosed on all sides by a ten-foot wall, topped with a barbed wire fence.

There was a pause on the line. “This is for the best, sweetheart.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Yes, Mom.”

“I’ll see you when you get back. I love you!”

“I love you, Mom.”

I disconnected the call and tossed my mobile onto the car seat. This was too much. I knew I’d made some mistakes, mistakes that could be considered grave and probably unforgivable. But who sent their only child to toil at a farm for four weeks? Four weeks! It was like going to prison—only, this was worse because my parents willingly sent me here. I blinked hard, trying to stop the hot tears about to spring from my eyes.

The driver rang a bell on the side wall and immediately, the wrought iron gates began to slide open with a thunderous, rattling sound. I shifted in my seat to peer through the windscreen. Around twenty small cottages with thatched roofs and latticed windows dotted half the property; the other half was a field divided into small patches of cabbages, cauliflowers, potatoes, tomatoes and other vegetables. Two men and three women, all wearing white, the women in cotton knee-length dresses and the men in white shirts and pants, were huddled outside a cottage, this one larger than all other cottages, and discussing something. Polite nods and happy smiles all around, but everything a little subdued. They seemed happy but also peaceful, like they had not a single worry in the world. On seeing the car pull up in the driveway, they all turned and waved at me with wide smiles as though we were old friends meeting after a long time. A short, dark woman broke out of the group and purposefully strode over to the nearby cottage.

The sun shone down mercilessly, reflecting off the windows of the cottages. I reached into my handbag for my sunglasses, put them on and turned my attention to my mobile that showed two new Instagram updates, eight Facebook notifications and one Twitter notification. I was sneering at a photograph of my classmate, annoyingly skinny in a halter top and jeans, posing stupidly with her boyfriend outside Starbucks when there was a tap at my window.

“Helen?” A woman of fifty with a leathery skin and kind, grey eyes was staring at me. Her silvery hair was tied into a neat bun and a delicate gold chain hung around her neck. The dark-skinned woman was right behind her, beaming at me, showing pearl-like white teeth.

“Yes. Hi!” I said, stepping out of the car.

I shook hands with both the women.

“I’m Mary, your head coach,” said the older woman. “And this is Sharon, your buddy.” Her gaze fell on my mobile clutched tightly in my hand. She clicked her tongue and smiled. “Please hand that over to Sharon.”

I looked down at my hand, uncomprehending. “What?” I asked.

“Your phone,” she said innocently.

My throat suddenly felt dry and scratchy. “My phone? But why?” I croaked.

Mary straightened her glasses with the tip of her index finger. “Mobiles are not allowed on the property. You deposit it today and collect it on the day you’re leaving.”

“What?” I barked. “No. I can’t give it away.”

My mobile buzzed again and I peeped at the screen while trying to maintain a solid grip on it. I wasn’t going to be separated from my phone, no matter what. It was a text from my Dad, who I hadn’t spoken to since the last incident. I knew he was mad at me and it was his idea to send me here. The Retreat. What the hell was this place anyway?

I forgot to mention one important thing. For the duration of your stay at The Retreat, you will not be allowed your mobile phone. Hand it over to the head coach. Follow their instructions. I hope you’ll find the next four weeks a pleasant change. Love, Dad.

My heart was thumping wildly in my chest. So that’s what this was all about. Punishing me by taking away my mobile phone for four weeks. Four weeks! A thousand things could happen in that time that I wouldn’t be able to share with Brian, or Tracy and Anne. Imagine the number of updates I would miss from my network of 862 friends on Facebook and the 1279 people I follow on Instagram! I would be socially cut off from everyone. And what about my updates? What would people think when I don’t post a single picture for the entire duration of the summer holidays? Oh my God! It would be social media suicide!

“You have to hand over your mobile. Now.” It was Sharon. There was a slight edge to her voice.

I glanced at the ten-foot-high walls, feeling utterly trapped. “Mary, could I please keep it just for today? I need to inform my boyfriend and my friends...”

“You may not,” said Mary pleasantly. “You’ll only find this hard for a day or two. And then you’ll get used to it. You’ll be so glad to be without it, I promise.”

“But if I cut off contact suddenly, people are going to worry...”

Mary quickly glanced at the clipboard in her hand. “The form says your parents sent you here. They’ll inform whoever else needs to know.” Looking at the frown creasing her forehead, I knew her patience was running thin.

“If... if I could have just fifteen minutes... I’ll stay back in the car. I won’t disturb anyone.”

Mary sighed, her head bobbing slightly in a nod. I relaxed a little. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad here...

Just then, a hand grabbed my mobile and snatched it away from me. I turned around, outraged. How dare they? A tall man, not much older than me, stood behind me, something between a smile and a smirk on his face, his brown eyes daring me to try and get back my mobile from his hand, which he held high in the air.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a deep voice that made him sound older than he was. “But you wouldn’t hand it over.”

“Give it back!” I jumped, but it was out of my reach.

“Now Helen, I said you’ll have it back...” said Mary.

“I want to call my parents right now,” I said, my eyes stinging with the effort of holding back tears. This could not be happening. If I could talk to my Mum for five minutes, I could persuade her to let me come home. I would cry and apologize and beg if I have to, but I wasn’t going to spend the next four weeks in this hell.

“Your parents knew exactly where they were sending you when they filled up the admission form. Everything is on our brochure,” said Mary in an annoying sing-song tone. “Now, Sharon will accompany you to your cottage, which you’ll be sharing with her. I suggest you go now.”

Feeling flushed from the heat and the anger and embarrassment of having my mobile unceremoniously snatched away from me, I rolled my suitcase to cottage number 12, following the footsteps of Sharon, whose waist-length ponytail swung behind her as she walked. As I turned around, I saw the tall man handing over my mobile to Mary, who collected it in a small zip pouch without touching it as though it was made of toxic material.

The cottage was small and bare and decorated in earthen shades. When I asked Sharon to show me where the drinking water was, she pointed towards a covered clay pot with a small clay cup on top. I thought she was joking until she strode over to the clay pot, poured some water and drank straight from the clay cup.

“Where’s my cup?” I asked, bewildered.

“I didn’t touch my mouth to it. We share the cup,” she said simply.

“But, why?”

The question encapsulated everything I wanted to know, starting with why my parents sent me here, to who my roommate was and why was she here and for how long, what was Mary like, who was the tall man, why they did they drink from clay pots, what were we going to eat, did this place even have electricity and what was I going to do.

“Your clothes are in your room. Get ready and come outside in fifteen minutes for meditation,” she said, tossing her ponytail over her shoulder and turning around to leave. She paused at the doorstep and turned her head slightly. “It’s not so bad. I promise you.”

Day 7

The fragrance of cooking vegetables filled my nostrils as I stirred the soup. I lifted the ladle to my lips. Umm... Perfect. Just needed a little salt. Salt and pepper were the only spices allowed. When we cleanse our palate, we cleanse our minds, says Mary. I don’t know about my mind, but my body was certainly feeling better without some of the fat that I’d been carrying around for years. It was not just the plain food and the weekly fasts; the fact that everything had to be done by hand burnt a lot of calories. Over the past week, I’d washed clothes — by hand, there were no washing machines — cooked food, tended to the vegetable garden, our only source of food, and mastered three challenging Yoga asanas. I even managed to blank my mind for two full minutes, not thinking about anything and just focusing on the sound of the ticking clock and the movement of my breath — in and out, in and out, in and out rhythmically.

I still missed everyone outside. I envied them, all my friends spending their summer vacations in some cool place, eating whatever they liked and sleeping whenever they liked and doing whatever they liked. I missed Brian and wondered what he’d be doing without me. We had plans, so many plans, about what we’d do this summer. The only consolation is that in three more weeks, I’d be out there in the real world again. And never would I trust my parents again when they talk about a “big surprise” for me. Now I knew what they meant by it.

Day 11

We were not allowed watches so I couldn’t tell the exact time, but it was certainly after midnight. I swung my legs off the bed and slipped my feet into my bamboo slippers, cautiously sneaking out of the room. I paused outside Sharon’s room and listened for her breathing. She was in deep sleep.

Very slowly, I unlatched the cottage door and slipped out with the torch in my hand. The moon hung high in the sky, spreading its silvery moonlight everywhere. I zipped over the narrow pathway as fast as I could, my heart beating wildly in my chest. What if somebody was awake and saw me from their window entering Mary’s cottage? Would I be expelled from The Retreat? And how would that make me feel? Well, I’d stuck around for eleven days and I could stick around for another seventeen. Honestly, it hadn’t been bad here. Not bad at all. I loved the simple food. We were so hungry at meal times that anything would’ve tasted delicious. But the knowledge that the food was cooked from everything we grew ourselves made it extra special. Yoga and meditation were working wonders for my mind. After a long, desperate period of hopelessness and despair, I was beginning to feel positive again, beginning to enjoy life again. Everyone here was so calm. I’d never heard raised voices or angry tones or arguments breaking out. Issues arose, but people sorted them out amicably over cups of tea or shared labour, depending on the hour of the day. There were no hurried mornings, no snarky comments on my appearance by classmates, no disappointment from teachers on my low grades, no lectures by my parents on alcohol consumption or safe sex. I could just be.

Yes, I was enjoying my time here. But there was still a craving to connect to the outside world. I wanted to talk to Brian, Tracy and Anne. I wanted to check Facebook and Instagram and see what everyone was up to. Would there be any big surprises? There was nothing I could post and if I did, my parents would know I had accessed my mobile and they might call Mary. Only, Mary was not around today. She had to leave for a family emergency, something to do with her old mother who had dementia.

As expected, the cottage was unlocked. The door creaked on its hinges, making me jump. In the utter silence of the night, that sound would have carried to the other end of the property. I left the door open and inspected the cottage. It was larger than the other cottages with its four rooms, although similar in every other way. I wondered what the point was of the four rooms since Mary did not share the cottage with anyone. But then, it could be because there were vacant spots in the other cottages and until they filled up, she got the whole cottage to herself. She was, after all, the head coach.

As I checked the various cupboards in the cottage, I kept glancing outside intermittently. Curious how the same place could seem serene by day and eerie by night. I hated being out of bed at this time of the night, but my craving was larger than my fear. At the bottom of the cupboard in the third room, I found a heavy metal box with objects sliding inside as I tilted it left to right and right to left. This had to be it! With shaking hands, I placed the box on the bed and with my torch held between my teeth, opened it. There were about twenty odd mobiles. I rummaged through the contents until I found my rose gold iPhone. I kneeled on the floor in front of the cupboard and from the bottom shelf pulled out a carry bag filled with mobile chargers of various sorts. It didn’t take me long to find an iPhone charger and I plugged it in.

As I waited nervously for the phone to charge, I began biting my nails, which I’d only managed to grow a little. This was probably the first time in my life that I’d managed to grow my nails a little. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d used a nail clipper or actually grown my nails. With my phone charging in one hand, I stared at my other hand. What if Mary was right? What if the source of my stress was the peer pressure and envy I felt each time I scrolled through social media? If I thought about it, I picked up my phone when I was bored or upset and my fingers automatically tapped the Facebook icon and then I kept switching between the various social media apps on my phone for hours, scrolling through the updates of people, some of whom I barely knew, feeling envious at seeing their picture-perfect lives and comparing them to my own pathetic life. If they were so happy, why couldn’t I be? If they were visiting all those wonderful places or doing those amazing things, why couldn’t I?

I stared at my mobile phone, now showing 5% battery. I could switch it on right now — the temptation was strong. Or, I could return it to the metal box and fulfil the promise I made to Mary and the others, the one we repeat every morning. We are who we are when nobody is watching. Hoping I wouldn’t regret my decision and cursing myself, I unplugged the charger, returned my phone to the metal box and the charger to the carry bag. As I closed the creaking door and hurried back to my cottage, I felt a wave of relief wash over me, like I’d finally passed a difficult exam.

Day 28

I couldn’t believe my four weeks were up. It seemed like yesterday that I arrived here with my mobile in hand. And today as I was leaving, I again had my mobile in my hand with one significant difference. I still hadn’t dared to open any of the social media apps on my phone and I’d had it with me for two whole minutes. I leaned out of the open car window and waved once again to Mary, Adam, the tall man who’d snatched my mobile on day 1, and the others.  All the friends I was leaving behind. But we’d planned to keep in touch. I already had the phone numbers of Sharon, Adam and two other friends I’d managed to make.

My finger hovered over the Instagram icon. Four weeks’ worth of updates waiting for me. There would be plenty of time for this later. For now, all I wanted to do was sit back and enjoy the ride through the scenic countryside while relishing the wonderful memories I’d carry with me all my life. Well that, and apply pink nail paint on my lovely long nails.

October 14, 2021 10:21

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15 comments

Kevin Broccoli
15:35 Oct 14, 2021

I really loved the level of detail in the story. Excellent job.

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Kanika G
13:22 Oct 18, 2021

Thank you so much for pointing out what you liked about the story. That's helpful feedback. Thanks!! :)

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Ana Govindasamy
09:22 Dec 22, 2021

I loved this story so much, well done as always Kanika!

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Kanika G
10:15 Jan 05, 2022

Thank you so much, Ana! :)

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Tommie Michele
13:45 Oct 25, 2021

Your details and descriptions are awesome. My favorite one had to be the nails, and the way you used them at the end to symbolize her “growing” her life back, if I can say it that way. Nice work! —Tommie Michele

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Kanika G
10:41 Oct 31, 2021

That's a great observation - the symbolism of the character "growing" her life back. While I had included the detail, I hadn't consciously thought of it. Thank you for your wonderful comment! :)

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Daniel Hayes
05:51 Oct 23, 2021

As usual this was very well written with fantastic details! I was really captivated by this one, and it just might be my new favorite story from you! Great job :) :)

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Kanika G
13:20 Oct 25, 2021

Thank you so much!! I'm glad you liked it. :)

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R. B. Leyland
09:01 Oct 17, 2021

Well i've been checking for this story whilst finishing my WIP, and let me tell you it was worth the wait! I connected with this one more than most, since i deleted most social media last year. You can literally feel the improvement to your mental health within days, so you hit the nail on the head there. Great work yet again, glad to see you back!

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Kanika G
13:21 Oct 18, 2021

Hi Ben! I needed to read this comment and the others on my latest story because I've been going through a tough patch writing-wise. My novel isn't coming out that well and I'm constantly doubting it. I've been taking a break from it and I came back to Reedsy to write a few stories. I'm going to go back to my novel soon. In the meanwhile, I'll probably be writing stories on Reedsy for sometime. I hope your WIP is going well. Thank you so much for checking out my story and leaving a comment. It's been uplifting to read it. Thanks!!

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R. B. Leyland
20:30 Oct 18, 2021

I'm glad it's cheered you up slightly! Don't let your novel get you down; you're probably doing the best thing by taking a break from it if that's how you're feeling. One good thing is more stories to read for me on here :D It's finished! Got it out to beta readers at the moment, so i'm back here just like you!

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Kanika G
13:23 Oct 25, 2021

Thank you so much for your kind words. They've been very helpful. I'm glad to know you've finished your novel. I hope your beta readers get back to you soon with their feedback! The waiting must be killing you. Wish you all the best!!

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R. B. Leyland
17:46 Oct 25, 2021

You're very welcome! It is beginning to grate... I wouldn't be surprised to hear they've barely started yet 😂

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Keya Jadav
11:53 Oct 15, 2021

WOW! Now that was something incredible. It evoked the 'Aeroplane Mode' vibe but rather teaching another beautiful lesson. A young girl digging the depths of tranquillity, it can't get better and you pulled it off just amazingly. I could feel attached to the protagonist's thinking and anxiety when her phone had been snatched away from her. Lovely, how you wrapped it up. Brilliant story Kanika!!

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Kanika G
12:28 Oct 18, 2021

Thank you so much, Keya, for your insightful comment. I'm so glad you enjoy my stories. I look forward to reading comments from you. This was more of a writing exercise for me. I didn't know where exactly the story was going when I started it and I rarely do that. I wanted to focus more on the prose this time rather than the plot. I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)

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