This story is by Cassie Rybka and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Bethany walks down a winding path towards the destination that has gripped her heart in misery since a child. In her mind she can see clearly the sapphire blue water rimmed with trees Christmas green, pumpkin orange, and sunset yellow. Under her soft slippers, the pebbles crunch and pop around as her feet shuffle methodically forward. It is autumn and this usually bustling nature retreat is vacant, leaving only the soft crinkle of foliage floating down with gravity to whisper in her ears.
There is a coolness to the evening breeze. She pulls her black sweater closer, tucking her hands under her arms. The tip of her nose is red and she can feel tears pricking her eyes, trying to fight the dryness of the air. Before long, they will fall freely. The memories will come flooding in and the strongest will won’t be able to hold them at bay. She is tired of fighting them anyway.
As if the thought grants permission, Bethany’s breath catches in her throat, the waves of agony and despair wrapping around her chest, the familiar feeling of drowning overtaking her senses. The water draws near, the wet stones make a precarious path. Her feet falter on them and she nearly loses her balance. It takes all her focus and strength to reach the shore where she stops, panting.
Closing her eyes, willing her heart to slow, Bethany sits down. Mechanically, she removes her sweater and places it next to her feet. She lifts her heels out of the slippers, like each inch deserves her utmost attention, and places her bare feet on the cool shore. Her hands tremble, from cold or in anticipation for the task to come, she knows not. She can’t stop now.
“It’s time,” she says to herself. Opening her eyes, she looks around for the spots of color she came here for. Aspen or maple, it does not matter which one she should pick first; only that she must gather the autumn leaves so that she can let go.
“This one is for you, Mama.” Bethany’s white fingers pick up a yellow leaf, freshly fallen with green veins stretching through its entire length. She lays it gently on her sweater and allows the memory to play behind her eyelids.
It was the fall before her eleventh birthday when her mother, father, and baby brother Jason decided to spend one last day at the beach before the ice made the lake treacherous. The tension in the car was palpable, but her parents were trying their best to hide their problems from their children. They fought often enough that Bethany learned to ignore their strained smiles and biting innuendos. Besides, she remained enough a child that the lake was still a magical place. Nothing could dampen her excitement at returning one last time.
The car rolled to a stop. Her father opened his door first, slamming it shut with such force the passengers involuntarily swayed from side to side. Bethany remembers glancing at her mother; her brown head bowed, her long fingers clasped white around her purse. Two fat tears slid lazily down her cheeks. A broken woman sitting in the front seat, lost in grief stays as vivid as a photograph in her mind.
“This one is for you, Daddy,” Bethany whispers, delicately selecting a large maple leaf, its burnished center mellowing into a vibrant orange. With the utmost care, she sets the second leaf next to the first.
Bethany had not waited for permission to leave the car. Skipping towards the water, she was unaware that her family did not follow her. When she reached the water’s edge, she grabbed her customary handful of leaves and tossed them in. She watched them twirl and scatter, imagining them fairy ships sailing towards their hidden villages her wishes neatly tucked inside.
The sound that soon followed shattered her fantasies and the last pieces of her childhood. Birds scattered, crying out and flying away from the gun fire and the screams that reverberated from the car. Looking back, she saw her mother run towards the trees where her father had entered. For years, Bethany obsessed about why she didn’t pursue. Perhaps if she had, her mother wouldn’t have followed her father towards the eternal sleep.
A sob escapes her constricted throat as the tragedy of her childhood replays in stilted images and waves of pain: the hours waiting in a cold car for someone to find her and Jason; the years of upheaval before finding a foster home. The endless battle with anxiety and depression that left her chasing destructive love and finally, her own attempt to end her unhappiness.
“And for you, Jason,” she whispers leaning forward to lift a cluster of golden aspen leaves off the rocks. “I wouldn’t be here without you.”
At nineteen, Bethany resolved to join her parents, overwhelmed at the prospect of adulthood, convinced her parent’s failures would be her own. Jason had stopped by her dilapidated apartment that night and would later claim his spontaneous visit a miraculous premonition. With one look at the empty alcohol bottles and pink pills dotting her pillow, he sprang into action.
Later, as she recovered in the hospital, the threat of rehab whispered behind sterile curtains. And yet, he remained her constant companion. There was never an ounce of judgement in his soft brown eyes, only understanding. For the first time, Bethany allowed herself to accept anothers love. The years of estrangement melted away as the something broken inside her healed. The experience was nothing less than transformative for both siblings prompting a united mission to help other lost children caught in the net of destructive cycles, to ultimately uncover the love lost inside.
Gathering the leaves to her chest, Bethany stands once more. The sun peaks out from the clouds on the horizon, warming the crown of her bent head as she steps into the icy water. She wills her eyes to open, to take in the backdrop for her old nightmares, to let her mind embrace and release each wave of pain.
“I knew I would find you here.” Jason. Of course he would know. She lets out a breath, surprised to feel her chest deflate as though released from a heavy weight. She doesn’t turn to look, knowing by the shuffle of rocks that Jason will stand by her soon, like he always has. Tears fall anew, crystalline jewels reflecting the depth and breadth of her relief. She did not have to say goodbye alone.
Heartbeats pass as each remains wrapped in their own heads. The invisible thread that wounds around their hearts tightens. As one, they lean towards each other; Jason placing his arm around her back, Bethany resting her heavy head on his shoulder. The breeze picks up and a shudder trembles through her body.
“I found the ring,” she whispers when her courage allows. Jason looks down, shuffling his feet in a familiar gesture of contemplation.
“I wondered,” he said. Turning towards her, he wraps his other arm around her, holding her close and crushing the leaves between them. “Are you OK with this?”
Bethany crumbles then, ugly, aching sobs raking her throat as she buries her face into his jacket. He cradles her head, smooths her hair, and murmurs familiar words of love that have never failed to quiet her internal storms; old storms, old wounds, and old scars.
When her tears slow, and her breath returns, Jason leans back to look into her eyes.
“I love her, Bethany. She’s become my family. I…,” he falters, his own eyes filling with tears.
“I know.” The words are small, barely audible. Bethany continues anyway.
“It’s time, Jason. I can see that now. It’s time to let you go and love someone else. It’s time to let all of this go; the past, Mom…Dad.”
“Nothing has to change. I’m still here. We’ll still work together and hang out on the weekends.” His eyes plead with her to understand.
“Everything will change, brother.”
Bethany stops his words by touching his cheek. She reaches up to kiss the other.
“Thank you for loving me unconditionally for so long. Seeing you find love has given me hope. Perhaps one day I will find a partner, too. But first, it’s time to step out on my own. It’s time I love myself.”
The tears pooling in her brother’s eyes finally find traction on his eyelashes, leaving glistening paths on his cheeks. Bethany is crying too as she squeezes him one last time and steps away.
Bending down, she gently set each leaf into the water. Silently she calls on her childhood fairies to sail her farewell wishes towards the souls of the family she loved and lost. As the sun dips behind the trees and the shadows lengthen, the brother and sister make their way back to the shore and towards the new beginning that awaits them. Pebbles crunch and leaves swirl around their fading tail lights.