- Prompt: Write a short story, of 700 words or fewer, based on the photo prompt shown here. You can be funny, poignant, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story.
Vote now to help choose our winner for Your Story 87!
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 87 Vote” in the subject line.
VOTING CLOSES: March 7, 2018.
She was the love of my life from the beginning.
The first time I ever saw Ellie, we were just kids. I met her at the Junior High dance. As was the custom, boys on one side of the old gymnasium, girls on the other side. No one was dancing until our gargantuan gym teacher forced all the boys to venture into the great unknown by crossing the gym floor in the last half hour. I’ll always be indebted to the man for that brutal shove out of my comfort zone that night, it changed my life forever.
I think what attracted us to each other was the overwhelming degree of utter shyness we both held. Other boys flocked straight to the cheerleaders, or the smart girls, the teacher’s pets. Some of the girls tilted their heads and smiled at certain boys. In those days that was as far as you could go when it came to flirting.
I brought up the rear of the herd of boys traversing the gym floor. And Eleanor Godsby’s eyes never came up from staring at her perfectly tied patent leather shoes. No one approached her. And no girls even looked in my direction.
Now don’t misunderstand me, there was nothing wrong with her. And as soon as my adolescent face cleared up, there would be nothing overtly wrong with me either.
I shuffled my feet down to where she stood alone, as the other boys and girls were frantically pairing up, not wanting to be the one left out. I wasn’t doing that, though I can tell you I would certainly not be above it. I was somehow drawn to her. But I was so shy, I was taking my time. And she wasn’t going anywhere.
As I got within a few feet of her, I shuffled louder, even cleared my throat hoping she’d look up. She didn’t. Somehow, this gave me a short boost of confidence, thinking she was actually more shy than I.
I stood in front of her and blurted out the word “hi”. The sound of my voice was way too loud, startling her, and me too. She looked up, but sideways, not at me. I said hi again, more under control this time, but accompanied with an awkward side hand waving motion that was in no way in sync with my simple greeting.
At this second attempt, she did look at me. She looked directly at me. It was so swift and sudden that I couldn’t avert my eyes, because I surely wanted to. Instead, at that moment our eyes locked. And I would never see anything more beautiful the rest of my life.
We danced that night. She felt right in my arms. At the end, I told her I loved her, right at the free throw line. She didn’t hesitate in telling me she loved me too. I told her that her eyes were like the ocean, with the calmness of the sea washing up to the shore, but with wild tides lurking behind them. It wasn’t just some line. Frankly, I’m not that good. I just said what I felt at that moment. She liked that. She said the only way we could ever prove it was to go to the ocean to see. I told her that someday we would.
A lot of boys and girls changed dance partners in that last half hour when they got past their awkwardness. Ellie and I never thought of changing partners. In fact, neither of us ever changed partners again, from that day forward.
We went through school together, courted, and got married. We built a life together, had babies, who then had babies of their own. It was probably not a remarkable life to anyone but us. How lucky we were to find our soulmates in seventh grade.
Ellie always wanted to see the ocean, but we’d never gotten around to that, not once, throughout our 60 years together.
I lost my Ellie this summer. I felt compelled to finally go to the ocean, to feel the surf wash over my feet. And Ellie is here with me, I can see her eyes once again.
When I told my school friends that I’d spend spring break in France, even the cool girls spared a wink and word of encouragement. Little did they know that I wasn’t going to ride on mopeds with cute French boys, bake in the sun or go clubbing.
It was my parents’ idea to spend my senior year high school break with Frederick. Yes, Frederick. And yes, he is old–pushing 90, in fact. I’m not sure how the plans culminated, as my 1970s-generation parents could barely plan one month in advance, let alone six. They said it was my grandfather’s dream to visit Marseille, a coastal city with narrow windy roads that I’d seen in that old film The French Connection.
Here I was, heading south from Paris on the TGV—a 190-mph high speed train that zoomed through the countryside. Grandpop sat contentedly beside me. His black suit reeked of mothballs, and his suspenders hugged his round waistline. But he exuded something likeable. A smile was permanently etched on his round, agreeable face. Strangers would automatically smile back, suddenly feeling better but not exactly knowing why.
“Jamie,” he said suddenly.
“Uh, what is it, grandpa?”
“I have a story.” Uh oh. Another story I’d heard 100 times before, like his encounter with a grizzly during his youth in Butte, Montana, or the first time he met my grandmother, who died years ago, on vacation in Long Beach.
“When the Germans surrendered, I didn’t go right back to Montana. I left Paris and went to Marseille,” he said, dreamily. Well, this was new. My grandfather recalled memories like they happened yesterday, but for me, I could only summon pages in my AP history book.
“I met a girl names Colette; she was organizing an underground network of people fleeing the war, the occupation. She had contacts in small villages in southern France, and I don’t mean soldiers. Some were old women and even children, who organized rations and an escape route through the Pyrenees. It was dangerous work.”
I wasn’t sure where he was going with this. Conversations in the foreign tongue hummed around me, and I spied a cute French teenager reading a book two rows up. The boys in Ohio never did this.
My grandfather produced an old-fashioned black hat from his leather bag, which smelled rank. I was embarrassed, hoping the boy didn’t smell the stench.
The train pulled up to the Marseille terminal, and my grandfather silently took my hand and led me to a yellow taxi, half the size of our SUV at home.
As our driver swerved past bakeries, cafes and farmers markets, my grandfather divulged more. He mumbled but I deciphered the basics: a brutally cold winter hiking through the Pyrenees, relying on the compassion of strangers; a young woman teaching the code language they’d need to identify allies in the resistance. My grandfather’s eyes sparkled when he spoke her name: Colette. I wondered what my parents would think.
“What happened when the war ended?” I asked, trying to picture a world of survival, a world opposite of my own.
“I followed her to Marseille,” he said simply.
I was speechless, thankful as the taxi stopped among old tenements bordering the Mediterranean shoreline.
He ambled, but with determination, to the water. He tore off his coat and shoes with little fanfare, until his toes touched the water. His fragile hands grasped the stinky hat firmly.
“She bought me this hat. It was quite the style,” he grinned.
I did not expect this out of a European vacation. But I felt honored. He trusted me, and chose me for this story.
“Two months after we moved here, I lost her. See those apartment buildings? They weren’t there back then, just open beach. She tried saving a child who went out too far into the tide. She had saved hundreds of lives and survived the war, but she couldn’t survive the pull of her heart.”
A tear traced the contours of his aging face.
He lifted the hat. In one swift throw, it soared above the water, then slowly receded from view.
I’ve never been the kind of girl who starts dreaming and craving for a huge family as soon as the first bout of post-25 hormones hits her. You know the sort: Prince Charming + Princess Charisma + A glamorous wedding = 5 children or 15 grandchildren.
Nope. Once you have three sisters and two brothers, you kind of want to take a break from people.
But I am not your typical career-crazy, hardcore activist of pet rights or an energetic and ambitious law graduate with aims of making it as the right-hand woman of the supreme court judge either.
I’m just a regular girl with realistic dreams.
I want to be an accomplished health writer with at least five books to my name by the age of 50 years. And it is not a delusional dream like I’m often told, by my friends and family, especially my mom. There are some people in this world, with similar interests as me, and I’m 92.884% sure they will appreciate my books on health-related topics. At least that’s what I tell myself.
And that’s what I told my mom during our big row that ended up badly. It happened two weeks ago. She wasn’t being supportive enough of my life choices, so I told her she needs to rethink it all and promise me she won’t bring it up when I visit her for Christmas. Guess what? She refused to make this promise, point blank. It left me no choice but to bid adieu to a warm, fun-filled Christmas, surrounded by my family, with the fragrance of flavorful garlic buns and the sound of sweet carol tunes in the air.
Oh God, I’m already regretting my decision.
Anyway, on that regular chilly evening in New York, I decided to visit Central Park. It wasn’t exactly “freezing out there” and I wanted to clear my head. Enough of this anger and frustration!
I was sitting on a bench near the lake. It looked beautiful at the time, believe it or not, it wasn’t frozen (thanks to global warming, I guess). Two nights before Christmas and it was sparkling under the city lights, reflecting the surreal blend of purple, pink and orange colored sky. It was mesmerizing. Really worked on clearing up my head. I could almost feel the fragrance of those garlic buns fading away…
… But that’s when I saw him. Someone’s grandpa. And then the magnitude of a lonely Christmas came crashing down on me again, with full force. Because just three days back my grandpa asked me to not cancel my home trip and promised that he’ll keep my mom in check. But I told him I had made up my mind. And now I only wanted to go there and listen to him joking about how his friends suck at chess and scrabble.
My God, is that a tear? I quickly rubbed my sleeve against my cheek, it was stupid to cry. Too late, I was so engrossed in my thoughts that I didn’t realize that old-grandpa-man had seated beside me and was intently staring at my face.
“I felt a bug,” I started with a constricted voice. Wow, nice try hiding your emotions, Isabelle. I shifted my face away from the old man’s searching eyes to the lake.
“Lonely Christmas got you too, huh? What wouldn’t I give to get back my family to enjoy the red and white spirit of this season… the jingling bells, the aroma of rotisserie chicken and baked potatoes made by my Rose, my Barney’s constant nagging to get my heart checked, my Bella’s persistence that what-was-his-name would prove to be a good husband for her… Why didn’t I die then…with them-?” he broke off, fat tears started rolling down his eyes.
Oh no. “Wh-what happened t-to them?” I stuttered.
The look in his grieving eyes was enough for me. “M-my ego happened… God decided to test me… they perished in a deadly fire on one Christmas I chose not to return home —,” instinctively, I reached for his hand to comfort him.
Everything changed in those 15 minutes. My ego vanished. I was going home for Christmas.
I see the curve of the coastline, a maw rimmed by falling down and half-finished buildings that rise up like jagged, broken teeth cutting into the haze-blurred mountains, and I stop.
I pause here every morning as I walk back along this deserted beach toward the city, looking for a spark, anything to validate why, when I moved here from the last place (and the place before that), I thought ocean and mountains might give me more than empty and ugly in yet another form.
But today, something else stops me, too: an old man at the edge of the shore, strong-shouldered but stooped, stripped down to his undershirt, suspenders holding up his dark, baggy trousers shrugged up to his knees, shoes held aloft in one hand. He is frantically scanning the water, wailing and keening like a hired mourner at a funeral, while tiny waves lick gently at his feet as if trying to soothe him.
Something about the man tugs at me. Despite his odd behavior, I am moved—by curiosity as much as sympathy—and I tap his shoulder. When he turns his streaming, red-rimmed eyes to me, I ask with my limited grasp of the local language if he is all right, if he needs any help.
He pulls out a crumpled handkerchief from the recesses of a front trouser pocket and wipes his eyes, then blows his nose with a honk that scares a nearby seagull into flight. He buries the well-used cloth back in his pocket and turns to look out again at the barely undulating blue-black expanse. A deep, shuddering sigh escapes him, then he answers me in my own language.
“No, sir, you cannot help me. All is lost. Gone. Unless you can summon mermaids, capture sea monsters, or conjure a pirate ship from this lifeless sea, you cannot help me.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, wanting to know as much as I don’t, a dreadful almost-knowing sinuous, snaking through my gut.
He turns and steps toward me, away from the too-quiet water, head still hung low like his neck is broken. “Can’t you sense it? There are no more princesses to save, dragons to slay, distant lands to conquer. No more magic.” He snaps his head up then, surprising me, the red veins in his eyes accentuating the watery blue irises so they are practically alight. “It is over.”
know he’s right. I knew before he told me. I stumble backwards, fall into the soft, forgetful sand. The sun is higher now, blinding me as I look up. I’m exhausted suddenly, my fatigue blurring my vision further so it appears the sad old man is fading into thin air. But then I know it isn’t my eyes—he is truly disappearing, losing substance like those pollution-choked mountains in the distance.
I watch, unmoved and unmoving as he dissolves, thinking instead about how I knew all along that it is not just this vacant city by the sea, no more than the last barren town, that urges me to fill my notebook with meaningless scribbles that vine and choke out those yawning, awful white pages; to destroy their hopeful, naïve possibility so I don’t have to face them, the truth, at all.
Other than footprints where he stood a few seconds ago, the old man is no more. I don’t feel surprised that he vanished into thin air. I don’t feel anything, really, but the blunt certainty, the deep-bone knowledge, that I will never have another story to tell, let alone another book to write.
And neither will anyone else.
Because it isn’t anywhere or anything or anyone. It is everywhere and everything and everyone.
The well is dry. The sea is dead. The mountains are airless. Our imaginations are exhausted.
Nothing is left, except this:
“Wave to Papa.” My mother said. “We won’t see him for a while.”
“No.” I turned my back to the water and refused. He said when I turned seven he would take me on his next fishing trip. When I saw him wave his black fishing cap, I realized my father had broken his promise.
“You’ll be sorry, son. It could be months before we see him again. Do you want him to remember you by your backside?” My mother looked sad.
“No.” I turned to wave, but I was too late. My father had disappeared from view.
My mother was right. I would regret my behavior that day on the beach in Corfu. It was the last day in my seven-year-old life that was normal. After that day, my world changed forever. When we returned home, I found my mother had packed a suitcase with a change of clothes, our cherished Menorah, and father’s gartel. A man collected us at the street corner and drove us to the port where we boarded a large ship.
“We’re going to America,” my mother said. “Uncle Hymie will meet us in New York.”
“What about Papa? How will he find us?”
“Papa has joined the Greek resistance.” I remember how my mother’s eyes dripped tears down her cheeks, but she never cried. “We will see him when we see him.”
We made it safely to New York and Uncle Hymie met us at Ellis Island. He took us to an apartment in Brooklyn where we made ourselves comfortable.
For the first year, I watched at the window day after day, hoping to see Papa walk down the street toward our building. Mother didn’t talk about him even though I asked about him constantly.
Finally one day she ordered me to stop asking. “We’ll see him when we see him.”
In 1942, word arrived that Papa was alive and living in Corfu. He’d managed to survive the onslaught of Germans and Italians invading Greece. By then, I knew about the war. I’d read the headlines in the newspaper stands. I was proud of my father.
I attended Hebrew school in Brooklyn while my mother worked in a garment shop. She’d drop me off early in the morning and then commute to a garment factory in mid-town Manhattan.
In June of 1944 I arrived home late one afternoon and found my mother crying. I’d never seen her this upset. She was holding a telegram from The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. I didn’t have to read it. I knew what it said. Papa wasn’t coming home.
The Germans had captured Papa in a purge. He died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.
I didn’t cry at the news, but my bad behavior that day on the beach in Corfu haunted me for my entire life. When I had children, I told them my story whenever they were being particularly stubborn. My son would interrupt and finish the story he knew so well. I didn’t want them to grow up living with regret for an unkind or selfish act.
Although I wanted to, I never returned to Greece. I talked about visiting Corfu, but life got in the way along with college tuition for my five children. That is, until I turned eighty.
“Papa, we have a special gift for your 80th birthday,” my son Benjamin said. “Laura and I are going to Greece for a vacation and we have bought a ticket for you.”
“I’m too old to travel.” I should have said thank you.
“No you’re not. It’s an important journey for you. We are going to Corfu.”
I couldn’t find words so I nodded.
Once in Corfu, I walked to the beach where I last saw my father. It was the same Mediterranean. The air smelled of the salt, but the fishing boats were gone, replaced with yachts. I removed my shoes, rolled up my pant legs, and stood with my toes in the wet sand, warm water washing over them.
A small boy on a yacht waved.
I waved my cap at him, a cap like father wore, and then I hung my head and cried for Papa.