How to Feel Alive

Submitted into Contest #86 in response to: Set your story at a park during a spring festival.... view prompt


Sad Teens & Young Adult Suspense

tw: abuse, suicide

“You know, a cycle of rebirth implies a cycle of death, too.”

Lyla forced a smile. “I’m sure people back then knew that. That was winter, right?”

“Eternal death,” Derek’s head fell back. Shouts and laughter of those at the festival below rose up to them, echoing and filling the empty air. “Except winter ends.”

“So . . . Alaska would be eternal death then.” She swung her legs out, perking her body up with the words.

Derek’s attention did not sway. “Alaska has summers. More like the inside of an iceberg. Frozen. Unmoving.” Listless, that was Derek. His eyes stayed fixed upward.

“Okay,” she said. His focus finally fell. His eyes stared at hers, and Lyla reminded herself that she loved his intensity. She forced a smile. “Okay.”




They’d met in high school. Well, they knew each other before, technically. They had been in the same class for years, but they’d left the eighth grade without even glancing at each other and returned the following year as freshmen (“Fresh, man!” he’d yell), and they had fit like a lock and key, butter and cream, and all the other romantic clichés she whispered nightly not as, but certainly after, her prayers. She had sworn they were going to love like crazy and keep the torch flamed and be lifelong high school sweethearts, and he – he had agreed. She was Juliet, and he was Romeo, even if there were no Capulets and Montagues to keep them apart. They’d met, and it was a whirlwind romance that teetered into steady courting, and she had lived out her clichés behind the bleachers, at church picnics, and during all the dances. So, they had met, truly met, in high school.





He had captured the sound. That’s what her romance novel would say, Lyla had thought as she slid down a little more. She was about the same height as Derek, so she had stopped wearing her wedges and changed to more practical footwear. At times, it still wasn’t enough. Now, though, now it was easy to have him over her, and goodness, didn’t that sound right out of a Harlequin. She flattened her hands, almost scared to press them against him for fear they would go right through.

He pulled away first, and Lyla tilted her head back, resting it at an angle and looking up at him. Her lips throbbed, and she’d sport bruises on her shoulder and hip. His hands moved to her face, her cheeks, her bones. She held still. It felt real. She felt alive, and he did, too. She knew that, so she didn’t ask him to let go or loosen his hold or step away.

He closed his eyes, leaning his forehead against hers, his grip impossibly tightening. “I love you.” His breath ghosted over her nose, swirled in front of her tendered lips.

“I love you, too.” She hadn’t smiled as she wanted to. Her face might’ve broken.




She pulled away first, away from his gaze that she knew, she knew, continued after she had stopped hers. The lights of the festival, undeniably closer than the stars, felt just as far. Her sister was there. And her mother. It was supposed to be a triple date, but their father had gotten called into work last minute, and James had the nerve to call it a girl fest, so Derek was the only lover to come. Fiancé, technically, she supposed, but the other rang more powerfully to her.

Straightening, she turned to him again. “You want to go down now?”

His stare had continued, as she knew it would have. He moved his head to the left. A shake.

Lyla jerked her attention back to the festival below. She had always come when she was younger, her sister, her mother, and she. They’d danced around the informal and incorrectly used may pole, caring only for the laughter and energy it brought. They’d shot darts and thrown hoops and won goldfish at least four times. The spring festival was the only celebration – save the Fourth of July and Memorial Day – that the whole town celebrated. They technically had a Lumberjack Jubilee every fall, too, but that had log throwing and log running and log races, and no one had time for carnivalesque games then.

This festival, Derek had played a few games with them, smiling when the dart popped a balloon, buying a pretzel with an extra serving of melted cheese, winning his first-ever goldfish that was right now sitting in the trunk of the minivan. He had gazed out over the festival-goers with the same listless intensity with which he had done the stars, with which he now did at Lyla. She shivered. Delightfully, of course, just as in the novels and because she loved his intensity.

“You cold?”

Lyla twitched, eyes darting back to Derek. She smiled shyly, lowering her head. “A little.” Out of her periphery, she saw him nod the same way he had shaken his head.

When she looked up, his eyes were back on the stars.




“Enjoy your summers, kid.”

Lyla had paused, paper plate in hand, and smiled at Derek, tingling growing in her stomach as Derek scooped up a heaping spoonful of coleslaw for six-year-old Elizabeth. Elizabeth grinned at him with an entirely toothless mouth. “Thank you!”

Derek gave her a smile, already turning back to his choices of hamburger, chicken, and hotdog. He glanced at Lyla, also pausing and meeting her gaze. Her smile grew. His eyes narrowed. “What?”

Lyla shrugged, humming to herself as she plucked one more chunk of watermelon from the bowl, placing it on her plate before licking the cool, near-flavorless juice from her fingers. She smiled again, peering out from the corners of her eyes. “You used to hate it when people said that.”

Derek stared, a burning intensity that morphed the tingle into a low swooping in her gut. “I should’ve. Enjoyed them more.”

Lyla brought up her other hand to steady her slouching plate. “There’ll be other summers.”

Lyla’s mother suddenly appeared behind Derek with a fixed smile. Lyla kept her face plain and moved her head to the side, a subtle no Derek would miss. Her mother frowned, but busied herself with straightening the cups and plates at the beginning of the table, very near to Derek.

The meat lay forgotten on the picnic table as Derek pulled a shoulder back, dispassionate eyes stuck upon hers. “You work all school year for the summer. Then summer comes, and it’s gone, and then you work all year again for that short summer,” Derek spoke, and Lyla shifted on her feet, eyes flicking to the fruit juice beginning to soak into her hotdog bun. “What are you working for? To get out of school. So you work hard to get out of school, and then you get a job, and instead of a summer, you get two weeks, and some people keep working hard because they’re waiting for retirement or for those short two weeks they’re going to spend in the Bahamas or, let’s be honest, for everyone here it’s going up north for freezing their asses off while snowmobiling or ice-fishing and shit. And that two weeks comes and goes, and you’re working again.”

He shrugged, jaw clenching and paper plate inverted in his fist. Behind him, Lyla’s mother glared with her own set jaw. Eyes blazing. Steam coming from her ears. Lyla decided that her bun, now tinged pink, was a lost cause, as was the previously pleasant feeling in her gut. She blinked a few times, tilted her head and asked sympathetically, “You don’t like your new job?”

Derek turned his eyes onto the hamburgers, muscles tightening briefly before he put one on his plate and moved on. “Something like that.”




“Don’t you ever want to feel alive?”

Lyla glanced at him. Again. She couldn’t help herself. Even now, after six years of dating and an engagement ring, his strong profile still snared her. The skies were clear, the moon bright and casting pale shadows upon him. It was a night – and a sight – that refreshed after a winter of low-hanging clouds. Lyla swung out her dangling legs again, still not completely comfortable sitting at the top edge of the outlook tower instead of standing safely behind the rails. She kept her eyes on him as she answered. “I feel alive with you.” He swallowed heavily, his Adam’s apple bobbing, like a barrel of apples at the Lumberjack Jubilee. Lyla didn’t say it. He’d call it one her inane remarks. She blinked several times, thumb running over the inside of the ring. She asked, “Don’t you feel alive?”

His eyes stared on the stars. “I used to. With you.”

Lyla looked back out over the festival, cursing the prickling in her eyes. This was a road bump. She felt it. Just a road bump. She knew.

“We can feel alive again,” he said. The pit in her stomach yawning, Lyla already felt alive, alive and horribly gutted. Derek climbed to his feet, pulling himself up by the rail and shifting until he was balanced on the thin strip of wood between the sturdy rail and the drop. He looked down at her. “Come on.”

Her body froze. Her stomach curled into itself. She forced her lungs to take a breath. “Derek?”

His hand jerked upward. “Come on.”

The moon still silhouetted him, and his hand – as strong as ever – waited for hers, and . . . and . . .

A sharp bright laugh. “What are you doing?” Her voice was too bright. Too loud.

His mouth was turned upward, the corners of it, like she was a half-amusing comic that he had read when he was young. “We’re going to live.”

Her body leaned away from him. She was being coy. “How about we live on the ground? Mom will be wondering where we went, and Hannah probably hasn’t eaten all the cheese curds quite yet.”

His eyes were shadowed, dark and unseen. “You want to live, don’t you?”

“Derek,” a giggle, “you’re making me nervous.”

His head began shaking. “You want to live, but you haven’t, and you don’t know – you don’t know what it feels like to live.”

“Derek . . .” Her blood filled her veins, and her stomach twisted, and gravity tugged. “We’re living now.”

He crouched, his arm reaching up and gripping the rail as if he were going to do a sideways pull-up. His eyes were different shades of black. Lyla’s side turned towards the rail. Her hand crept up the rail until she, too, held it firmly.

“Not really. You think we are, but we’re not because tomorrow it’ll be back to work and late nights and social calls, and nothing will have changed. We’ll be waiting for tomorrow again. See right now we’re alive, love. We’re alive, but tomorrow we’ll die. It’s a cycle.”

“Derek . . .”

“We’re alive.”

And his hand was tugging at hers. And she was losing her grip. And she was screaming. Screaming. And the festival lights blurred, and they were too far, and she was screaming and nearly clawing the wood, and there was a splinter – there had to be a splinter – and blood and her legs kicked up and at him, and her other arm wrapped around the rail. He wrapped his arms around her waist, and he leaned back as he pulled at her, feet leveraged against the wood of the platform, and she was screaming and screaming. Her spine stretched and nearly tore, and her hands were slippery and gripping each other behind the rail, but he pushed, and her grip was slipping, and she sobbed and the screaming, and her legs were kicking

“Oh,” he said. He gasped. Pain and surprise, his face so near, too near.

He was gone.

She took a breath. Her body was light -

There was a thump below.

- light to pull up and under and she crawled to the center of the platform and collapsed twice, and her knees came to her chest, and her hands gripped them, and her eyes shut. The darkness surrounded. She sat, and the darkness surrounded, and the wood was steady and rough and real beneath her, and the breathing was loud, too loud, and the screaming rang on and on and the thump. There had been a thump. And the darkness surrounded, and she couldn’t hear anything over the jagged breathing and sobs and everything and - there had been a thump - and the darkness surrounded. The darkness surrounded, and the moon shone, and the stars

The stars stared.




“We’re just living in a cycle.”

Her eyes had jerked to his face. “Love isn’t a cycle.”

He raised an eyebrow, coolly regarding her. “Isn’t it? She loves me. She doesn’t.”

“It isn’t.” She was shaking her head and grabbing his hand. “It’s like Romeo and Juliet.”

“Romeo and Juliet,” he had repeated, manipulating her hand back and forth. He stopped and brought it up, kissing it slowly, eyes on hers. “Then it is a cycle.”

She repressed a shiver, laughed, drew her hand back. She had kissed him on the cheek. “Yes, of course.”




There are always other options. For free and confidential support: 1-800-273-8255 (suicide prevention lifeline)

March 25, 2021 22:25

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.