Contest #108 shortlist ⭐️



At 1:06 PM, I realize two things. First: I haven’t spoken a single word out loud today. I’ve sent some messages that say things like I laughed out loud and I’m screaming and maybe I did smile or inhale sharply, but I did not laugh out loud, and I did not scream, and I have not said a word to anyone, not even myself.

Second: the wall is empty. Two days ago, I went to a new friend’s house, and he had art on the walls. Art and framed photos. We’re the same age and we both just moved here. But he has art on the walls and my wall is blank, and he lives with his fiancée and I live alone, and he has art on the walls and my wall is blank.

There are holes in the wall where the last tenant must have hung things up. I run my fingers over them. I can’t lose my deposit if there are already holes in the wall. They’re tiny, anyway, from pushpins. Barely noticeable unless you look closely, and of course I look closely because I live alone and my walls are blank.

How do people acquire art for their walls? I mean, I know how. They buy it. They buy frames for their pictures. But that seems like a thing to do when you’re planning to stay somewhere, and I am not planning to stay here.

Still, I’m here for now, and it might be nice if the walls weren’t blank. It might be nice if I had something on the walls besides my Command hooks and my towels and the masks I thought I wouldn’t have to wear anymore. Oh, there’s also a mirror. That’s a fun one. I love leaning back in my desk chair and coming face to face with my own silent self. It’s also good for practicing reactions and dancing badly. Why I watch myself when I dance badly, I can’t explain. Morbid curiosity, maybe.

It does seem like maybe I’d be less sad if I had more on the walls. I tug open my drawer and I find my pushpins, the same box I’ve been carrying around for three years, and then I pick up a postcard my friend sent me a few weeks ago. I stick the pin in the postcard, and I line it up with one of the holes in the wall. “There,” I say, and my voice sounds scratchy, but it still works, and now my wall is no longer blank.

The postcard looks lonely, though, and I wonder if it’s worse to have a single postcard tacked to my wall than nothing at all. See, a blank wall suggests that I might have nothing to put up, or that I might have things to put up and simply haven’t gotten around to it because I’m so beautifully busy with my social and professional life. A single postcard on the wall suggests that I have one friend who took pity on me, and nothing else.

I rifle through my folders and drawers for other objects I can tack to the wall, like a bird collecting litter for its nest. I find an old map and a calendar. They join the postcard. Everything is at an odd angle, matched up to one of the old holes. It feels silly to put new holes in the wall when there are so many to choose from.

“I could put up string lights,” I say to myself, and there, now I’m up to seven spoken words and three objects on the wall. My quality of life has improved exponentially in only a few minutes. Imagine what I could do if I tried.

I drum my fingers on my desk, a flimsy particleboard construct that doesn’t match my other furniture because I bought everything at yard sales and secondhand stores. I thought it would be fun, salvaging items to cobble together my space, thought it would be very ‘quarter-life crisis chic’, but the thing about crises is that they’re rarely as chic as I hope they’ll be.

I bite the tip of my tongue and examine the wall again. I don’t have the money to buy the kinds of decorations that will make it look like home. Or maybe I do, somewhere, but I’d rather spend it on coffee and fancy trail mix than decorations for a place that will never be home. The postcard catches my eye. I like the way it looks. I’ve always liked postcards. The idea that someone would want to send a little piece of their location to a person who is somewhere else. Thinking of you. Greetings from… Wish you were here. And maybe they don’t actually wish you were there, but they cared enough to pick out a picture and buy a stamp and write a cramped little note about what they’re up to. And then they drop it in the mail, fully aware that it’s naked, devoid of an envelope, open for anyone to read. I kind of hope that mail delivery people read postcards. I hope postcards make them smile. I hope they don’t make them sad, these random glimpses into other lives.

Grabbing my bag and my keys, I leave my studio for the first time today and step outside. The sun beats down on the pavement and it’s so hot I almost turn right back around, but I don’t. The sun is hot, but it feels nice on my skin. I thought I would get a lot of sun here. I don’t. I've got a vitamin D deficiency instead. Hard to get sunlight when you’re holed up in your room with its blank walls.

I could get in the car, but the post office is within walking distance, and I need to stretch my legs. I take a gulp of hot summer air and I set off down the street. I hum to myself and I take note of the subtle changes in the neighborhood since my last walk. I’m still learning its character, but there’s a new garden and there’s a fruiting peach tree and there’s an obvious rental car in that driveway where an old truck used to be. I wonder what happened to it.

At the post office, I select my postcards at random. I haven’t decided who I’m sending them to, so I can’t be too personal about it. I buy stamps, including some international ones—just in case—and I’m back on my merry way. Merry is perhaps an exaggeration, as I’m still burning hot and at least a little depressed, but I have a mission now. That gets me back to the apartment.

I make my list of recipients. I ask for the addresses I don’t have. I draft their letters in my journal, and I copy them to the postcards in pencil, and then I painstakingly trace the pencil with pen, trying very hard not to smear my careful print. I prefer cursive, but I think it’s only legible to me, and I’d like it if my friends could actually read these. I tell them everything, or almost everything, coated in a thin layer of rose-colored sugar. Postcards are supposed to be nice and harmless. Remember, anyone can read them! Writing them makes me feel better, but I can’t say what I really want to say, which is: I am lonely. Are you lonely? Write back, make me feel less alone. I drown them in hearts and smiley faces, and I doodle little trees in the corner. It takes all night.

In the morning, I shuffle out to the mailbox, collect yesterday’s mail that I forgot to bring in, and set my postcards in the box. I lift the little red flag—how quaint!—and I shuffle back inside, unsure of what I’m supposed to do now.

Weeks pass. I cave and buy a poster for one of my favorite bands, and another poster from my friend’s Etsy shop. She throws in a frame, which is so sweet it makes me tear up, but I don’t mention that part when I thank her. I send her a postcard. The wall is still mostly blank, but the posters help. I cave again and buy myself some decorative pillows. They brighten my bed up during the day. I never know where to put them at night. Usually, I move them to the couch, and like that we switch places: the pillows get the bed during the day, and I get the couch. At night, I get the bed, and the pillows get the couch. I kind of hate them, but they’re mine now. I buy two plants, and I fuss over them so much that they wither out of spite.

And then, one day, a postcard arrives. The front reads: Greetings from Boston! The back is covered in neat print I don’t recognize. I check the name. My first reply is from someone I wasn’t even sure remembered me.

Somehow this, like the picture frame, is enough to bring me to tears. After reading it several times, I take it inside, rummage for a pin, and add it to the wall. I stand with my hands on my hips and survey my handiwork. It’s not much, but it’s mine.

More postcards arrive, from cities around the country, places I recognize and places I don’t. One of the writers clarifies that she doesn’t live in the city pictured; this was the only postcard she could find. Another apologizes for the delay. Another includes a poem we analyzed together in high school. Several thank me for reminding them that postcards exist. Not everyone replies—not even half—but the replies I do get are heartfelt, and I smile as I tack them to the wall.

The postcards don’t fix everything. They don’t make anyone decide to move in with me, and I don’t acquire better furniture, and the studio doesn’t become home. But on days when I am sad, on days when I forget to speak, I read the postcards out loud, and I admire my no-longer-empty wall, and I feel better. I think that must be why people decorate, even if they aren’t planning to stay. It helps. That’s all we can ask for, right? For something that helps. 

August 28, 2021 01:10

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Cathryn V
04:03 Sep 04, 2021

Sweet, sympathetic character. You've made me feel for her and wish her well. Great story Natalie. Congratulations on making the shortlist!


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Robin Owens
16:02 Sep 03, 2021

"Imagine what I could do if I tried." Well you did try, and you succeeded! I love the style of this, I read it fast as if you were thinking all of this fast. So good!


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Amanda Lieser
15:53 Sep 03, 2021

Oh Natalie! This story took my breath away! I loved, loved, loved that opening paragraph. I also loved the theme around the postcards and what they represent to your main character. I love handwritten cards and letters so this story really spoke to me. Thank you for writing this story and congratulations on getting shortlisted!


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Shea West
13:49 Sep 02, 2021

I've always hoped that the mail carriers read the post cards too. A simple indulgence even if it is illegal😂 This was a slice of life story that many of us can relate to. It made me think of my days in an apartment in college and the attempt at decor. I was awful at it!


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Writers Block
02:46 Aug 28, 2021

Reading your story reminded me the transition from dorm life to my permanent residence.


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Wally Schmidt
19:01 Mar 22, 2023

I am a slap-some-damn-thing-on-the-wall kind of person so I could totally relate to this story. When I visited my son in NYC this winter I could not have been more surprised than if I had stuck my finger in an electric socket to see that he had two FRAMED Matisse's hung neatly on his living room wall. I considered doing a DNA test to make sure we were related. Nice use of the prompt. You created a world out of it and I loved it


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Jeannette Miller
16:04 Jul 11, 2022

I love the inner dialogue about their life and their perspective of it. Congrats on getting shortlisted :)


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Anna Irwin
01:07 Jun 21, 2022

Such a nice story! It's the simple things isn't it. I love how the postcards represent effort to not be lonely and how in the end her life wasn't necessary full of people but she was rewarded with a small sweetness.


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