A few months ago, a short story of mine won the Rewarding Reads Short Story Contest over at Sammy the Bookworm. This is one of my favorite shorts I’ve written, so I wanted to share it here. Special thanks to Elizabeth Lewis, whose Pinterest board inspired the story, and to the members of my writing group, who made it so much better!
All I Know
by J. Grace Pennington
I stumbled across your blog six months ago, while laying on a hospital bed with my leg propped up so that it kept falling asleep. I was bored, and clicking all the links on my sister’s website, because I wanted to take my mind off everything. Later, I asked my sister how she had found you, and she said she couldn’t even remember.
The first thing I saw when your site loaded was a post about how you had lost your way in life, and were feeling stuck in the humdrum, day-to-day existence of merely surviving. What you meant by that was that you had just gotten a job bagging groceries, and every bag seemed to push you further from writing anything except your blog. Perhaps it actually began then. I think every man is drawn to the helpless and the struggling, with an inborn instinct to do something, even though when he can’t, he only ends up feeling helpless himself. I already felt helpless, laying there with my leg up, not able to move or even hold my sister when she cried and scolded me for driving carelessly. I hadn’t driven carelessly, of course. I am a very careful driver. I had swerved to avoid hitting a little dirty-blonde terrier standing in the middle of the road. The terrier had walked away unharmed, and sometimes I thought about that when my body ached. My sister knew all this, of course, but sisters always scold. I knew this, and pretended to be annoyed, but of course I wasn’t.
There isn’t much to look at in a hospital room, except the fading tulips and lilies everyone brought yesterday. Maybe it really started when I browsed around your website a bit more and found a picture of you. You aren’t what others might call a dazzling beauty, but you made it hard for me to look away. In that picture, your long, blonde hair was in two braids, with a blue bandana tied around them. Your green eyes were squinting in the sunlight, and a cluster of freckles danced across your cheeks and the bridge of your nose. A small white scar was just visible above your left eyebrow. Your teeth weren’t perfectly white, but they showed in a cheerful grin that spread like a spark into your eyes.
I’m not really sure it “started” with either of those things. I can’t say for sure. All I know is that it grew, slowly, as I read each post and saw your heart bleed through every keystroke and onto the internet like magic. I had never kept up with a blog before, and at first I told myself that I just kept reading because I was bored while I was in the hospital. But that excuse melted when I was released, and could walk with a limp, and then when the limp was gone, and I would open my computer at night after work and read your latest posts. I watched you quit your job and try to write, then run out of money and go get another job selling moviegoers little overpriced boxes of candy. You said you weren’t going to try writing again, but of course you were lying. Within a week you were scribbling away, and posting excitedly about your ideas.
You’d always been falling, and getting up again. You wrote of it, wrote of how you’d fallen off your bike when you were nine years old, landing on your face on the asphalt. You remembered vividly how the blood had felt sticky and hot on your face, and how some had gotten into your eye, and how you cried, and felt ashamed because you were too old to cry. You got on your bike again the next day. That was what the scar was from, and you called it your reminder that falling wasn’t the end of everything.
This time you kept going for longer. I knew you were writing a novel, but I didn’t know what it was about. It had something to do with trees, and integrity, and a little boy in a blue suit. You said that your favorite school subject had been writing, because you could take the things that grew in your mind and transplant them onto paper to show other people. Your least favorite had been math, because you did not believe that there was really a perfect solution to every problem in the world. I was an IT manager, so when I read that it made me feel somehow guilty, as if the mere fact that I worked with computers belittled your problems. When you poured yourself into your novel and timidly pushed it out into the market, I wanted to take the publisher who’d turned you down and punch him in the nose for making you cry again. It wasn’t easy to make you cry, and I hated anyone who had done that to you.
It was easy to make you laugh, though. Some days you’d say that you had gone for a walk through the park, and a yellow butterfly would flutter inches from your face, making a little laugh burst out, and I felt my heart grow envious of anyone who might have been there to hear it. Another time a funny song started playing at the theater where you worked, and you laughed even though no one else even grinned. I could almost hear it as I read the post, echoing clear and sharp and joyful in the lull between movie showings.
Many times you posted at two a.m. or later, and seemed apologetic for not being asleep. You were reading, you’d sheepishly confess, and a single sentence had given you a new revelation that you were eager to share, and you were afraid that if you put it off until a proper hour of the day, you’d forget about it. Your favorite books were too many and too varied to list, but usually they were the kinds of books I had seen on my summer reading list as a child but never given any thought to. A Tale of Two Cities, and Les Miserables, and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Of course I went and read them after that, sometimes on my lunch break. I told myself it was because they sounded interesting.
You didn’t mind sunny days, but you preferred storms. At first I thought that this was because it was the perfect weather to curl up with a hot cup of tea and a thick book, but then I discovered it was because the sound of the rain against the window made you feel less alone in the darkness. I’d imagine you then, your knees hugged to your chest, your back pressed against your bed, quietly watching as the iridescent drops pounded against the glass. Not crying, you were too brave to cry very much, but feeling almost as though the clouds had come down to cry for you and keep you company. I knew you weren’t popular. At the theater they considered you odd because you liked quiet but meaningful films that weren’t filled with sex and violence, and they considered you difficult because your mood swings left you in the depths of despair one night, and whistling with bliss the next morning.
You don’t know me. And sometimes, I think maybe my sister is right when she insists that I don’t know you, either. After all, I don’t know your last name, or where you live, or what you like to eat, or if you have annoying mannerisms, or what your political party is, or what you believe about predestination.
All I know is that you have exactly forty-two freckles smattered across your cheeks. There is a scar above your left eyebrow from when you fell off your bike when you were nine. You hate math, because you don’t think there is really a solution to every problem. You like staying up late and reading books. It’s easy to make you laugh and pretty hard to make you cry. You like storms because the sound of the rain hitting your window makes you feel less alone.
I know that I am in love with you, and these are the only things I am absolutely sure of.
Image courtesy of Ashley Rose.