- Prompt: Write a short story, of 700 words or fewer based on the prompt at left. (For mobile users, it will appear below.) You can be funny, poignant, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story.
- Vote now to help choose our winner for Your Story 81!Read the finalists below, then vote for the one you like best by leaving a comment with the title of your favorite or emailing the name of your favorite story to YourStoryContest@fwmedia.com with “Your Story 81 Vote” in the subject line.
VOTING CLOSES: May 29, 2017.
I didn’t just fall. There was a cracking noise that surrounded me, and the slip of my foot—the woosh! of gravity—and air pushed forcibly from my chest as I hit the muddy grass below. There was that long moment of hard wishing: If only I didn’t climb up here! But the rest of it settled into me, forever. No escape. I had seen the fence now, for real.
It’s a funny thing when you believe you are free. It’s not so hard, after all, nose to the grindstone. You can keep going because you imagine it will all be worth it, someday.
I worked in the laundry, under a square of skylight which was often bright blue, seldom gray, or a small sample of great clouds, highlighted with gold from the setting sun.
Below, I struggled to keep my hopes alive, pouring a barrel of steaming lye water back into the vat of dirty clothes. It was backbreaking, but somehow I wasn’t broken, yet. They told me I was nearly there —almost ready to be released.
“When?” I asked. “How much longer?” I begged to know.
But at night, I heard whispers in the camp that there was nowhere else to go. “We’re prisoners!” someone shrieked before friends covered her mouth and pulled her away.
That scream sent shivers down my spine. Over the years, I had learned that there was inside me a deep well of sorrow, and when I allowed myself to peer into the darkness, I started to remember the ones I left behind. There was my handsome man, his cheeks perpetually grey no matter how often he shaved. Thomas. I couldn’t bring myself to say his name in daylight.
Maybe he would be there for me when I came back. Maybe he was laying in his own cot, somewhere, dreaming of me, longing to feel like us again, pressed against each other and safe from harm.
Or maybe he had passed away, after all this time…uncountable days since I was taken from him and stowed here, our guards speaking in rapid staccato, their language unknowable to me.
Thomas. Did he suffer? My Thomas. Would he also remember?
And then these thoughts would always bring me back to my current state of despair. It’s better to forget, I had decided. It’s better just to go on.
It was easy to shake off that feeling on Sundays, when we were allowed outside. I was usually so sleepy, I liked to lay in the sun, gazing at the unencumbered tree leaves against an open sky.
Birds? There were none. I might have wondered about that.
Maybe this is what sent me running, finally.
It was a perfect Sunday morning when I gathered all my hopes and darted out, past the guard tower, slinking along the shadow of an oak and then I began to climb it.
I will see what is out there, I decided.
I will make a plan for escape.
I grabbed at the peeling bark and scrambled to pull myself higher. Arm over arm, all those years of laundry paying off. I am strong!
And then, gloriously, the horizon shifted as I stood up there, leaves shimmering around me as I peered around from my perch.
There were power cables, strung like a giant spiderweb around our camp, and fields as far as I could see, filled with neat rows of crops. Someone must be tending those farms, but today, not a single soul moved into my field of view. To the west, there were orchards, and to the east, there were foothills with rocky outcroppings.
Then my gaze dropped closer to where I stood, and there it was, the undeniable limit to my dream of freedom: a tall chain-link fence surrounding our town.
That’s when gravity mercilessly landed me back down once again, and for all time.
Trista wasn’t ready to move. She loved living in the desert. I never did. It took me years of cajoling to finally get her to move up here to the pacific northwest. When she finally relented, I took care of everything. I found us decent jobs, a place to live and in just a few months after she had agreed to move away from everything she had ever known, we were here.
Trista took to the city immediately. Once she made a decision she was all-in. It’s one of the things about her that I always admired. Suddenly she became an outdoor person and Portland was the perfect place for her to partake in all the outdoor activities that she was suddenly interested in. She joined hiking clubs, running clubs, ‘yoga in the rain’ clubs. Her favorite, though, was one I thought was a joke when she told me.
“I joined a Tree Climbing Club,” She remarked as we shared a drink one evening. “Seriously, we climb trees! Not up too high but high enough to get the heart pounding. No ropes or helmets just free climbing. It’s a total adrenaline rush! Stop giving me that look,” She said as she playfully punched me in the shoulder.
I took a long swig of microbrew as I rolled my eyes while remaining silent.
“I know you think it’s dumb but there is a competition and everything. I’m already one of the best in the local club but there are six other clubs in Oregon and Washington,” her voice squeaked with excitement. “Next month we’re having a competition.”
“What do you get if you win?” I asked.
“Bragging rights! And a small trophy. I could use a partner though.”
“Trista, I think it’s great that you are outside making friends but you know how my work schedule is right now…”
“Everyone else in the group has a spouse or a sibling,” She said while looking downward. “My friends are starting to think you don’t exist. Couldn’t you just come one time?”
“Okay, but I’m not climbing. I’ll just watch you.”
The next week I was there among Trista and all her fellow climbers. Trista was first up and I marveled at the speed she scurried upwards before standing on a thick horizontal branch that was about twenty feet up from where I stood.
“You’re turn!” She yelled with a grin on her face.
My Nikes stayed firmly planted in the dirt as I crossed my arms and shook my head.
“Never seen a man look so scared of a little climbing,” she said, as her new friends chuckled in my direction.
That was all it took to get me halfway up the tree. My fingers dug into the dry bark as I made my way up. Sweat accumulated on my forehead and under my arms but soon I was standing on the edge of the large branch. Trista flashed a grin before turning to make her way forward on the branch. I watched her as a ray of sun broke through the gray clouds and illuminated the leaves all around me. Green, red and yellow leaves flickered in every direction as I breathed in the smell of pine as a smile flashed across my lips. This nature stuff wasn’t all that bad.
I took a step forward on the branch and then another. My heart was beating faster but I pumped a fist as a cheer from the crowd down below spurned me forward. Trista turned and smiled as she saw me approach. Then the smiles left both our faces as the crack of the branch shattered my world.
Since then I spend all my waking hours outside. I run, I walk, I climb. Not because I enjoy it but to keep myself busy and out of the house. Anything that can keep me from seeing the woman at home in the wheelchair, and seeing the disappointment and defeat in her face. And knowing that I’m responsible for all of it.
I was just ten the day my world was turned upside down. It was my birthday. My mom was busy preparing for the party and told me to go outside and play so she could get everything ready. My dad was in the barn doing chores. I didn’t want to smell like barn for my party, so I went down to the road to play next to the woods instead. There were some trees that had fallen in a storm earlier that year and being an explorer, I had some work to do. The sky was blue like my mom’s eyes and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. The grass was new and bright green, praying to the sunshine, although the air was still a bit cool.
We lived in the country and didn’t have many neighbors, so my parents never worried about me playing near the road. It’s funny to think that I could play near, or even on the road, but the forest that ran alongside our property was off-limits. Mom said it was because I could get lost, and dad said it was because there were hunters. So that day, when that man came walking out of the forest and saw me, I figured he was a hunter.
“Hey mister,” I called as I swung down from a branch. He paused and took me in like a drink of water. A sad smile crossed his face as he approached.
“Hey kiddo,” he said. “What are you up to?”
“Just climbing,” I said. “You hunting?”
“You could say that,” he said.
“Where’s your gun?” I asked.
“It’s not that kind of hunting,” he said and patted the large knife hanging from his belt.
“What can you kill with a knife?” I asked.
“Well little darling, just about anything that needs killing.”
I nodded my head, not sure what to do with that information so I told him it was my birthday.
“Well, happy birthday,” he said. He pulled up the left sleeve of his jacket and started to untie a bracelet. “I don’t have anything else, so this’ll have to do.” He held out the faded string and waited for me to set my wrist into it and then he tied it in place.
“It’s like a friendship bracelet,” I said, excited to get my first present of the day. “Does this mean we’re friends?”
“Cool. My name is Cassie. Cassie Dillinger.”
“Nice to meet you, Cassie,” he said. “I’ve got to get going now, but how about I give you one more present. Do you like games?”
“I love games,” I said, fingering the string now around my left wrist. There was a small round charm with initials engraved. CD—the same as mine.
“Alright then, I’m going to turn your world upside down.” He lifted me up from my armpits and set me on a big downed tree branch. “Pretend the sky is down and the ground is up. You need to stay on this log and get to the road without falling into the sky.” I looked down the length of the branch and saw I could make it to the road.
“I’ve got this,” I said and turned toward my destination. I heard the leaves squish as he turned to leave and I looked back. “Hey mister, what’s your name?”
“Just mister,” he said and slowly walked back along the edge of the forest.
I made it to the road without falling into the sky, and then walked down to our driveway to keep my shoes from getting any muddier. There were some balloons tied to our mailbox and when I got home, there were tables set up in the yard, the beanbag game was set up, and dad had the tractor out like I asked. I loved going on rides in the basket.
But the party never happened. I found my mom first, in the kitchen with the sink still running. And then I found my dad, in the pump house. There were two pitchers of fresh milk sitting on the counter waiting to be brought inside. My world really was turned upside down, and it hasn’t been the same since.
They’d come to this place for a serious conversation. It was an old birch tree with only a few fall leaves remaining, but to them, it was their spot. This tree in this park was where they first decided to be more than friends, where he had kissed her for the first time, and now he was going to say he loved her for the first time. He was going—he just hadn’t had the chance yet. It was harder to do when she was in front of him, even though he’d thought it a million times to himself already.
Edgar had been in love with Allison since they met in middle school. Her family moved to his town and she sat by him in math. They’d struck up a friendship that stretched over some of the most impossible years for a friendship to exist, until Edgar finally got up the nerve to ask her on a date last summer. That’s when they became something more.
Now they were seniors in high school and applying to colleges, and he knew if he didn’t tell her how he felt soon, they might end up at different places altogether. They’d been dating for the past six months and it had been everything he’d always imagined it would be during all that time when they were just friends. He still couldn’t believe it when Allison – the Allison he’d liked from the moment she walked into his math class – was staring right at him with her soft brown eyes, looking at him like he was the only one in the room. Dating her was a dream, but he’d kept it to himself.
Today, he decided, it would change. He would tell her he loved her, and they would be together in college just like they had been in high school.
“It’s so cold out already,” Allison said beside him. She pulled her cardigan tighter around her shoulders.
Edgar was sweating next to her, but he nodded in agreement. She was perched like a bird in the branches. He felt heavy and solid beside her. Next to her, he could still remember who he’d always been: the acne-faced adolescent, the awkward preteen. He wondered if she could still see him that way, or if she could ever see him any other way with her soft brown eyes.
“You said there was something you wanted to talk about?” she asked him after several beats. His thoughts were so loud he didn’t notice the silence, but he did notice the wind. It threw the branches in one direction then swung around the other way. Everything turned backward in its wake.
He swallowed, nodded. There had been something he wanted to talk about.
“I’m gonna go out on a limb here,” he said, watching the leaves—brittle but bold—break away.
He scooted out on the branch closest to him, hesitant at first, getting his bearings, and then standing up, perfectly balanced. He did not look back after that. Edgar stepped further and further out. The branch bent under his weight, cradled his footsteps. He still felt solid, but in a good way.
This was the spot where he was going to tell her he loved her. It was easier to leave her instead.
Mallory inched her foot forward, feeling her way along the narrowing branch. Her eyes were open, but unfocused, gazing through the veil of leaves to the hazy sky beyond. The last time she was up so high her family was still alive.
“You’re doing great!” Stephanie called from behind. “Don’t look down. Keep going.”
It was hard advice to follow when the loose bark of the sycamore’s limb tugged at her feet. Not so long ago she performed backflips along a narrow cable fifty feet above a roaring crowd. Walking along this branch should have felt like walking across a highway overpass, and yet her heart pounded and her lungs constricted more with each step.
She concentrated on her next moves. Adjust all her weight forward. Lift her back foot. Hold out her hands for balance. Slowly bring her back foot around in front. Even out her weight. Repeat. It sounded simple, yet every second was filled with the sickening, empty-bellied sensation of free-fall.
Once she loved that feeling. It was like flying. No! It was better than flying. When she was “on” everything felt right. She knew the trapeze would be there when she reached for it, or that her foot would find the wire right where it was supposed to be. The moment of weightlessness as she reached the apex of her flight or landed a complex feat felt like mastery over the world.
“You’re doing great, Mallory!”
When she woke up this morning she did not expect to try this. Instead she planned merely to have breakfast with her life coach. Afterward they walked through the park. They discussed her acrophobia many times, since the support pole fell, killing her husband and daughter, while she watched, screaming and slipping off the edge of the platform. She suffered three broken ribs, a pierced lung, and a broken arm. Those wounds healed, but the certain knowledge that the ground would open up and plunge her to dark depths continued to plague her.
Therapy was expensive, but money was no issue. After the investigation the insurance company made good on its commitment. Realizing the depths of her fear and sorrow she sold what was left of the show. Three generations of the Amazing Mazon’s Family Circus came to an end when its assets were liquidated, its bookings canceled, its roster of talent scattered to the wind.
Only the money remained.
That wasn’t entirely true. Some of her injuries lingered as well. She could feel her ribs ache when she cried too hard or too long. Sometimes her arm pulsed when rain threatened. That combined with her jaw, which ached with the coming snow, made her a living barometer.
Her jaw was a much older injury. One she suffered only a week after marrying George. That had been the last time he hit her in the face. Her bruises and welts proved a distraction when it was time to perform. After that he concealed his fits of rage.
It didn’t happen often, and each time she thought it would be the last. When he turned that rage on their daughter, however, she knew there was only one way to end it.
The decision to loosen the bolts on the tension support had been easy. It was done while Maisie should have been resting. Instead she snuck out to watch her parents practice. George stepped onto the high-wire and it held until he reached the middle. Maisie screamed and ran forward as her father fell. She didn’t see the pole falling like an old sycamore. Mallory reached out for her, her cries drowned out by the crash of timber. Mallory slipped from the platform, the world spiraling around her as she plunged downward into the bottomless pit of her new life.
“You are so close! Maisie would be so proud!”
Mallory’s world swirled about her. She couldn’t remember the last time she breathed. The branch seemed to sway beneath her. She fell into the awaiting fear that would never let her go.