This story is by Anita Webb and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Luke Armitage is the most attractive art therapist she’s ever seen. His eyes are translucent and green as sea glass. His muscular arms are tanned a gorgeous golden-brown, accentuated by the gold ring on his finger. His studio smells of oil paint, coffee, and cinnamon rolls. His voice is deep and melodious—
“I think we made major progress last week, Elspeth,” Luke is saying. “The dragon you drew was powerful, and he had a wonderful message for the Hollow Princess. Perhaps the two of them could become…allies?”
“I dunno,” Elspeth says. “The princess is kind of a loser. I dunno why the dragon would want to hang out with her.”
“What makes you say she’s a loser?”
“Well, she does nothing. She sits around in her tower all day waiting for her prince to show up when he already decided he liked the princess in the neighboring town more.”
Elspeth’s cell phone vibrates. She sneaks a sideways glance at it.
BRAD LAWYER 28: Morning, beautiful.
“Perhaps the princess feels sad? Maybe she’s grieving?”
“She doesn’t need to sit around, grieving. What a waste of time. She just needs to find a better man!” to her horror, tears, and last night’s mascara course down Elspeth’s cheeks in black rivulets.
“Sorry, I’m a little hungover,” she mutters.
“It’s okay,” Luke says. “It’s okay to grieve the end of a relationship, and it’s okay to be single, despite what your mother and friends tell you.
I have an idea. You’re going to hate it, but in the end, you’ll thank me. I want you to go on a Man-Free Diet.”
Elspeth splutters. “A…what?”
“A Man-Free Diet. Thirty days of no contact with men, just to focus on yourself. No chatting on Tinder, no texting Gregory, no dating, no nothing. I want you to continue drawing and painting. Focus on what your characters would say if they had a voice. Write to them. Go for walks in nature. Get to know yourself.”
“Sounds like a nightmare. And writing to the characters in my drawings? My friends will think I’m nuts.”
Elspeth’s phone vibrates again. She angles it toward her.
STEFAN CHEF 30: Hey hey, pretty lady.
Luke laughs. “Just give it a try. You’ll thank me later.”
You know, his eyes are more sludge-green than sea-green, she thought.
Elspeth collects her black fishnets, miniskirt, and sequined top from the floor outside her bedroom and chucks them in the laundry basket. She splashes cold water on her face from the laundry tap and sits outside on the warm concrete steps, lighter in one hand, cell phone, and a cigarette in the other. Her stomach lurches.
RHONDA: Girl, you awake?
ELSPETH: Sorta. I feel like trash.
RHONDA: Yah, me too. My head is pounding.
So, you gonna call that guy from last night? …Do it!
Elspeth lights the end of the cigarette and takes a deep drag. She turns her face to the sun, closes her eyes, and blows the smoke skywards.
ELSPETH: Can’t. My art therapist put me on a Man-Free Diet.
RHONDA: A Man-Free Diet? What the hell?!
ELSPETH: I know, right? He’s got some funny ideas.
RHONDA: You just need to meet a better guy. Then you’ll forget all about Gregory Whatzisface.
ELSPETH: Gregory who? That clown is dead to me. I’m fine.
Elspeth bangs the screen door behind her and slumps down on the couch. She decides to undertake the Man Free Diet for no other reason than to prove to Luke she can do it; that she’s not the boy-crazed airhead he thinks she is.
Day 1: Elspeth does the laundry, mops the kitchen floor, and smokes 15 cigarettes. She pulls out her cell.
ELSPETH: I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to cancel our date tomorrow. I’m just not feeling well.
BRAD: Oh, that’s okay! I hope you feel better soon.
RHONDA: How’s the Man Free Diet going?
ELSPETH: Boring as hell.
RHONDA: Come clubbing with me tonight then!
ELSPETH: Can’t, sorry. I told Luke I’d give it a try.
Day 5: Elspeth lies on the couch, hoeing into a tub of Ben and Jerry’s P.B. and cookie ice cream and binge-watching Love Island. The men on this show are really quite good-looking, she thinks. She opens Tinder and closes it 23 times.
Day 8: Elspeth’s electricity is cut off during a storm. She pulls out her art sketchbook and draws a magnificent dragon, complete with lustrous pearly scales, huge spines along its back and great, beating wings.
The dragon lands in front of the hollow princess’s tower. The wind blows wildly, scattering leaves everywhere. The dragon breathes out a plume of fire, scorching the ground. “Come with me!” he says. “I can carry you far from this desolate place, to a land that is beautiful and green.”
“I can’t,” says the princess.
“What are you waiting for?” asks the dragon.
“For my prince to come back,” she says.
“I don’t think he’s coming back,” says the dragon.
“Why not? What’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing is wrong with you,” says the dragon. “The bigger problem, I think, is that you feel empty inside.”
“Yes, I know. I have this hole in me,” says the princess. “It’s cold and draughty.”
“Then I will sit with you and warm you with my fire,” says the dragon.
Elspeth puts down her pencil and dabs her eyes.
Day 15: Elspeth rips a page from an old school exercise book and writes a letter to the Princess.
It’s okay to feel sad.
You’re not alone. I’m here with you.
Elspeth curls up in a ball on the couch and cries.
That Prince Gregory was a shithead anyway, she writes.
Day 20: Elspeth’s sketchbook is half full. Glossy, magnificent dragons soar in every page, beating their wings against stormy skies. She goes to the art supply store and purchases some clay, molding it into the shape of a dragon. Her breathing quietens, and she hums while sculpting his scales. She shapes a small princess out of clay and sits her astride the dragon. By the time she looks up, it is sunset.
It’s been days since she watched Love Island.
STEFAN CHEF 30: You know, it’s really rude to just stop talking to people.
Day 25: Elspeth renames Gregory in her phone to “DO NOT TEXT”.
Day 30: Elspeth returns to Luke’s studio. “Elspeth!” he says, welcoming her in. “How did you go?”
“Well,” she says, sitting down in the armchair, “I think I’ve found a new hobby.”
“That’s fantastic!” Luke says. “And what have you learned about yourself?”
”Well, I’m not sure I’ve learned anything; only that I like making art, and I want to keep doing it.”
“Well, that’s something,” Luke says; “that’s definitely something.”
Day 37: Elspeth stands in the backyard, holding a lit match over a metal trashcan. In the trashcan are all the presents Gregory gave her: a soft, fleecy sweater, silver earrings, handwritten love letters, photo frames with their smiling faces looking out.
Elspeth drops the match into the trashcan. She watches as the edges of the love letters curl and brown in the heat, the words melting and running together like the meaningless nothingness they’ve become. She falls to her knees and sobs and sobs.
She feels as empty inside as the Hollow Princess.
Day 38: Elspeth awakes, feeling peaceful for the first time in several months. She leaves her cell behind and drives to a nearby forest reserve. She starts walking down a track. Pine needles crunch underfoot; birds call to each other, circling overhead.
After several minutes she reaches a lookout over a lake. Elspeth holds the wooden railing, fills her lungs with forest air and exhales. She stares at the lake for a long time.
Goodbye, Gregory, she whispers.
The wind catches her words, carries them high in the sky to rest upon clouds.
Day 43: Elspeth is putting the finishing touches of gold paint on her dragon.
She glances at her cell. Her heart leaps into her throat.
DO NOT TEXT: Hi, Elspeth.
I think I made a big mistake.
Elspeth reads the text and then goes outside for a smoke or five.
She returns and places the dragon in the center of the table. It gazes back at her with wide, green eyes. She picks up the princess and holds her close to her heart.
Her hands stop shaking.
Elspeth takes a deep breath, opens the text, and presses DELETE.