A big congrats to Rebecca Czarnecki of Denver, Colo., whose short story “Between Shores” won our July Write It Your Way competition. (The theme for the July competition was “Summer.”) Her story ranked No. 1 out of nearly 350 entries. Enjoy Rebecca’s story below and don’t miss your chance to enter the upcoming Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition, which offers a grand prize of $3,000!
by Rebecca Czarnecki
Virginia summers are hot and endlessly wet. Stepping outside is like getting slapped with a damp and molding paper towel. So, when the bodies of Kaylee and her younger sister Hannah were found caught in an eddy of a river, it seemed like maybe they’d stepped in for a dip. They were floating, side by side, still faces gazing at the hazy blue sky.
Kaylee was my lively friend who loved horses, butterflies, and wrote notes with me through English class. Her was life choked out of her by a man they wouldn’t catch for five long years.
Most summers my family escaped with a tent to Colorado and, after Kaylee’s murder, I was desperate to leave. Instead, my parents bought a security system — a Doberman puppy named Kylie. They hoped she would grow into a man eater. It felt like a crummy trade. I wanted to tell my parents that a dog, even a Doberman, would not protect their daughters from a killer who abducted pretty teenage girls with brown hair. Three years later when Kylie only barked at her reflection and fancied herself a 90 pound lap dog, we gave her away.
Already locked in my own despair, I was now chained to this graveyard town just so we could care for a puppy. I didn’t think my parents had to worry about me. At fifteen, my brown hair was an untamable bush; braces and oversized glasses completed the picture. No one would mistake me for pretty. Not like Kaylee.
I couldn’t cry. Even standing in front of her heart shaped tombstone, picturing her under my feet, I couldn’t cry. In place of tears, a fever burned me from the inside out, turning me into a girl shaped vessel with nothing inside. And I was just a friend. What must her now childless parents feel? The rumor was Hannah had not been a target, that she likely got in the way of Kaylee’s abduction — collateral damage.
My parents did their best, but when your kid has never lost anything more significant than a gerbil, it’s hard to know what to say. One July evening, we were eating dinner on the deck and swatting mosquitos when my mom spoke up.
“Girls, I know you’re disappointed we couldn’t take a big trip this summer.”
“It’s okay,” my older sister Molly, replied. I caught her sneaking a glance at me. She’d always wanted a dog.
“Well, your dad and I thought we could get away for at least a couple of days. Maybe board the dog and go to Chincoteague?”
I practically choked on my spaghetti, trying to reply, “For Pony Penning Day?” “Yeah.” Dad smiled, his voice quiet, “Would you like that, Bea?” This trip was for me. Having hashed over every horse book known to man with Kaylee, Misty of Chincoteague was one of our all-time favorites. I felt about Pony Penning Day the way most kids did about going to Disney World.
I could rattle off facts about Chincoteague at machine-gun pace: Chincoteague is an island off the coast of Virginia; it is buffered by Assateague Island, which is inhabited solely by wild ponies; the residents of Chincoteague hold an annual pony roundup and auction to benefit the Volunteer Fire Department; mounted salt water cowboys herd the ponies on Assateague before swimming them across the narrow channel between the islands.
My parents made the plan to escape to Chincoteague way too late to get a hotel room. So at 1:00 a.m. the day before Pony Penning, we piled into our aging van and rumbled off into the darkness with cicadas and tree frogs singing us goodbye.
My sister touched my shoulder. “Excited, butthead?”
Translation: I love you. I’m happy to watch these stupid horses swim if it makes you feel better. “Yeah!” I nodded vigorously. She grinned, put on headphones, and curled up in her bucket seat and fell asleep. I envied her ability to sleep anytime, anywhere.
I pressed my face to the window and peered into the night, remembering the day I saw Kaylee ride in a competition. She was so polished and confident on the back of a big chestnut horse, taking jumps in a fluid motion. Later, she bounced out of the ring with a blue ribbon fluttering from her hand and I was there to hug her.
Choking down a sigh, I tried to squash the hot shards of sadness pushing from every pore. How did you cure grief?
I wrenched my thoughts back to Chincoteague. It was a favorite weekend getaway for us, we’d just never made it to Pony Penning. You could cruise around Assateague on a bike while ponies regarded you like a bizarre flightless sea bird. Kaylee would’ve loved it. She would’ve understood the beauty in the wild, storm-beaten islands.
My parents took shifts on the four hour drive. At one point, Mom reached back and squeezed my knee, her blue eyes glinting. I had heard stories of her as a kid riding her bike, switching it with a stick, and urging it into a gallop.
We got to Chincoteague around 5:00 a.m. — plenty early to get good positions on the shore. My sister awoke with a groan, “Can I stay in the car?”
Mom cut her eyes to me.
“I don’t care.” I shrugged. This moment was mine.
“I’ll stay here with her,” Dad volunteered all too eagerly. “Wake us after and we’ll go get breakfast.”
“You’re going to miss out,” Mom scolded, but it was halfhearted.
She and I left, weaving our way through the growing throngs of watchers. With a little direction from locals we got the scoop on the best place to wait. We slipped off our shoes and waded into the shallows. The sun was coming up, washing everything in pale gold, and a pleasant breeze rippled over the ocean, carrying scents of the warm day to come. Time slipped by, and all eyes were trained on the opposite shore. Suddenly, someone shouted, “Here they come!”
Ponies and cowboys surged up to the beach. Hundreds of hooves danced across the sand. A few sharp words from the herders and they all plunged into the water. In that instant, the ponies transformed into something elemental: air and sea-foam and sandy turf. The light burst over their necks and shoulders, spray flew around them. Heavenly creatures. A gift from Kaylee.
I rolled my shorts up and waded deeper. A well rose inside me, flooding the heat of my grief. My inner tide finally crested and tears coursed down my face. I heard myself quietly call out, “You can make it.”
Mom stood by my side. “You can make it.” She wasn’t looking at the ponies.
The day grew brighter as though the ponies pulled the sun with them. They powered across the channel, snorting salt water. There had never been a morning so brilliant. Everything that would come later flashed through my mind: waking Molly and Dad, breakfast, the end of summer, the start of a new school year. I willed myself out to those horses, caught between two shores, between earth, sky, and water.
“You can make it.”