December 22, 2023
Third Place Winner - CWA First Chapter Contest - “Where They Left Us”
By Becca Hanks
It began, as it always did, in an open field.
Save the rush of wind around her ears, the world was silent. No birds singing, no animals rustling in the underbrush, no chatter from nearby hikers. Soft, golden grass brushed against her ankles, shifting as one with the breeze, and stretched into rolling hills beyond the horizon no matter which way she turned.
She took a cautious step forward, finding the earth soft and inviting. Another step. Another, and she began to run. There was no sense of impact, no strain on her legs, although with her pounding heart came a swell of breathlessness.
She could keep going.
With a start, she realized that she had to keep going, although she couldn’t remember where. As if invited by her uncertainty, a faint roll of thunder sounded from the horizon. The rippling golden fields turned to gray as dark clouds passed overhead, shrouding the field in shadow and mist.
At the same time, the heat on the nape of her neck intensified.
Hot, suffocating sweat clung to her back. The grass surrounding her rose steadily until it reached the height of her waist and whipped violently against her arms.
And although the road ahead continued to darken, she did not break her stride.
Suddenly, she heard a shout. She stopped short and her gaze snapped to the right where, as if it had just sprung from the ground, an enormous hill loomed. A figure stood at the top, swinging their arms over their head. Thick, black clouds swelled behind them. Their shape was blurred, uncertain, as if a dozen fogged windows stood between them.
There was a crack of lightning just as they yelled again, but she could still make out one word: “Sammy!”
She remembered. It was him!
Sam jolted forward and began to run towards the hill, her eyes filling with tears. She tried to shout back her assurances, but the wind swallowed her words and suddenly, her foot caught. Her shoulder thudded against the dirt, and Sam turned back to see that the earth had swallowed her leg up to the knee.
Why didn’t he come down?
Mud squished around her fingers as she gripped the earth and she could feel her chest begin to submerge, could see the hill stretching away from her immobilized body, the dark figure still standing atop it.
She sunk into the earth, thrashing around in frustration, and let out a shriek.
Sam awoke, her shirt drenched in sweat and tears stinging her eyes. She squeezed her eyelids shut until her head began to ache, strangling the blankets beneath her in white-knuckled fists and willing herself to go back to sleep.
When that failed, all she could do was stare at the ceiling as it swirled before her, at the widening tear in the wallpaper above her bed. Fingers of early morning sunlight, muted and gray after passing through her curtains, were just beginning to touch the drooping flowers and fading green leaves across it. Sam pointedly ignored the corner by the window, knowing full well that her real plants had met the same fate long ago.
A few minutes passed before she managed to drag herself out of bed, shivering as her feet touched cold wood. She took a scoop from a bag of oats propped up against the counter, standing motionless over a pot on the stove.
As the flame licked the rounded steel, the milk beginning to froth, her mind flashed back to the dream.
The field, the hill, the grasping earth.
Sam shook her head and opened her eyes a little wider, trying to focus as she poured the oatmeal into a small bowl and smothered it in brown sugar and cinnamon. And with almost an hour left to kill before work, she settled into a lumpy pillow on her couch.
There were a couple of books strewn across her coffee table, each with dog-eared pages and covered in a film of dust. Sunlight peeked through a broken slot in her blinds, glinting off of the black television screen on which she could make out her own drab, unmoving silhouette.
It wasn’t a luxury apartment, by any means, but she loved it. The front door, awkwardly fitted beside the entrance to a tattoo parlor, was covered with layer upon layer of torn-up advertisements for tutors, nannies, drag shows. It opened to a steep set of creaky stairs, and then a hallway that always smelled faintly of mildew and old cardboard. One door led to her place, the other to a studio that was constantly up for rent.
To her mother’s delight, the size of the apartment had made for a short tour. She dragged a single manicured finger across the top of the kitchen counter while the landlord talked, interrupting with pointed questions about code compliance and crime levels in the area.
It was Donna Taylor, Attorney-at-Law, at her finest. When she decided to accompany her brother, Joey, on his college visit to Johns Hopkins, it was no surprise to anyone when he ended up accepting the closer option, the University of Chicago, instead.
Sam signed the lease on the spot.
The trip back home was silent for over an hour besides the static of country radio as they passed by local stations. Sam saw her mother’s white knuckles on the steering wheel and feared that a single word would shatter any illusion of peace.
Was it going to be another screaming match about leaving Wisconsin for New York City without a plan for the future? About putting off college? As soon as she closed her eyes to pretend to sleep, though, she opened them wide as she heard The Bee Gees beginning to crackle through the speakers.
Sam smiled as she remembered her mom throwing her head back in laughter. It was their song, How Deep is Your Love, the one that they had listened to on a million road trips to a million different places, the one Grandma Lily danced to on repeat at her eighty-fifth birthday party, the one featured as a grainy ringtone on their home landline.
The absurdity of it all dissipated any tension for the rest of the drive. Her mother conducted a dramatic retelling of meeting Sam’s father, Jay, a struggling artist with a passion for world history. Sam countered with the story of her friend Emily getting broken up with over text.
They hadn’t talked so much in months.
Now, two years later, she believed as strongly as ever that she had The Bee Gees to thank for an apartment in Astoria Heights.
For now, she was working as a barista at a bookstore and coffeehouse down the street, spending her time perusing the shelves for the newest historical fiction gem or people-watching with off duty coworkers at a back table.
Still, she couldn’t stop thinking of the dream.
The field, the hill, the grasping earth.
Leaving her bowl on the coffee table, Sam paced quickly to her closet to throw on a black turtleneck and corduroy pants. The crisp morning air swirled around her as she yanked the door shut, sending a shudder through the budding leaves on the trees sprouting by the roadside.
It was a short bus ride to the bookstore, but she always walked. It was nice to see the same familiar faces, those little glimpses of early morning life. There was the tall, well-dressed man talking on the phone at the bus stop after his morning coffee run, the elderly woman sweeping up the sidewalk outside her corner store, the young couple with an elegant greyhound prancing beside them. They could all be found in some corner of her apartment, imagined stories about their losses and loves scribbled down on paper. She often wondered if, somehow, any of those stories were true.
A soft jingle escaped from the bells above the unlocked doors as Sam pushed through into the bookstore, cutting through the soft blanket of silence that was common in the morning hours. Angela stood behind the counter looking through the register, her thick black hair tied back into a loose braid. She looked up as the bells sounded, a bright smile flooding across her face as she saw Sam enter.
“Who are you, coming in on a Sunday? What happened to a story a week?” Angela exclaimed, stepping forward with outstretched arms.
Sam smiled sheepishly and welcomed her embrace. Her soft, oversized flannel shirt, permeated by her familiar scent of rosewater shampoo, hid a black t-shirt spattered with a bright array of oil paints.
“Don’t worry, I’m just taking one of Nick’s shifts. A girl has to pay rent.”
“Okay, okay,” Angela said, raising her arms in defeat as she walked past Sam towards the café area. “I’m going to go help Erin. Finish up here?”
That had been the goal, to work at the bookstore five days a week and spend the rest of the weekend writing. But there never seemed to be enough time in the day. Every one of her notebooks were filled with half-hearted attempts at world-building or crafting plot beats, but the prose itself had proven elusive.
Instead of inspiring her, being around books all day seemed to cloud her mind even further, whether with unoriginal ideas or utter self-loathing.
There was no way she could tell Angela. Angela, who scrawled poem after poem in a worn, leather notebook during every shift; Angela, who forced her to come along to a monthly writer’s group to share her work.
Sam didn’t mind reading in front of a crowd, especially not fellow writers. In fact, joining the group felt profound when she first moved to the city. It was so easy to slip into their social circle through the vulnerability they all shared; of their first, shaky breaths after heartbreak, of their lonely nights in small studio apartments.
After a while, though, Sam couldn’t escape the feeling that she was wasting everyone’s time. She couldn’t write anymore, at least not about anything that mattered. Each session was marked by a disinterested short story about someone she had seen on the street that she passed off as another character study.
The worst part, of course, was that she knew she could open up to the group at any time, that they would welcome her pain with open arms. But writing about it would mean it was over, that the dreams could disappear before she had figured them out.
She couldn’t accept that, not yet.
Days spent at the bookstore, at least compared to those dedicated to writing, were the perfect balance of relaxed but constant motion that would keep her mind occupied. Authors, plots, and colorful bookshelves swam lazily around the pool of her mind, their gentle ripples obscuring the darkness beneath.
Although she loved the bustle of the day, the bookstore became truly magical as the city faded into evening. The warm, sherbet orange-pink glow from the setting sun radiated through the windows, illuminating customers as they thumbed through new young adult novels or a biography that they loved but never bought. It got quieter and quieter in the main room as the world was swallowed up by nightfall, allowing Sam to hear the clatter of dishes from the café, Angela’s wheezing laughter, the soft patter of rain on the roof.
Occasionally, a customer’s exit allowed a swirling, chilly breeze indoors, thick with the smell of wet grass and the rich city soundscape. Laughter echoed through the streets, then a droning police siren, and then another --
“We’re good to go, Erin’s locking up!”
Angela appeared, as if out of nowhere, at her side.
“You’re always so spaced out,” she said, and squatted down to begin rummaging through a hefty pile of outerwear.
Sam didn’t have time to say a word before Angela hoisted up their jackets, quickly putting on her own richly embroidered denim and placing Sam’s corduroy on the desk.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” Angela said, untucking her braid from her collar. She grabbed her purse from a hook behind the desk with a clatter of loose keys, lip balm, and spare change, and then slapped her hands down onto Sam’s shoulders.
“My cousin Matias moved to town this weekend -- Aunt Amalia’s son? He’s hosting a little party at his apartment with some work people and friends. We can ditch if it’s boring, I know a few good bars around there that don’t charge you an arm and a leg for cover.”
Sam smiled as she slung her purse over her shoulder.
You could always rely on Angela for an affordable evening out, whether it be breakfast for dinner at a tiny hole-in-the-wall or a couple of cocktails downed before the end of happy hour at a grimy East Side bar. She claimed to have learned all the best spots from her mother, who had first moved to the United States years before as a very poor and very pregnant young artist.
“What’s he doing in the city?”
“Some mapping, software, data consulting bullshit, I don’t know. He’s an amazing guy otherwise, though.”
Angela pressed the door open with her shoulder and pierced through the darkness with the burst of her neon yellow, translucent umbrella. They started heading down the block towards the subway station, the rain a gentle whisper against the plastic over their heads.
“And honestly, for his apartment, I’d have sold my soul to corporate America too… like, Jesus Christ. Ma lost her shit when she saw it.”
Sam laughed. “What, you mean you don’t like getting your packages stolen by your landlord?”
“Oh my god, I forgot to tell you, it happened again...”
Just as Angela launched into her story, a gentle rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. Sam closed her eyes. The field, the hill, the grasping earth were still there, circulating through her mind as clear and menacing as they had been this morning. She could feel the swirling wind buffeting her body and, squeezing her hands together, mud squelching between her fingers.
It was only when Sam stumbled over the final steps of the escalator near the subway stop that she realized that Angela was still talking. As Angela turned around to finish her sentence, walking backwards like an overexcited college tour guide, Sam gripped her purse and prayed that her legs would not give way.
“...friends, so maybe you can do something about that -- are you listening?”
“Your cousin has cute friends,” Sam said, brushing off her uncertainty with a laugh. “Got it.”
“Not cute,” Angela said as she vaulted herself over the turnstile. “Super cute. Insanely cute, and insanely smart. I’m just warning you because frankly, I think we’re walking straight into a romantic comedy with this whole thing.”
It was becoming too easy to jump into conversations halfway. The moment she came back to reality had become no less terrifying, like bursting from the bottom of a dark pool into the blinding sun and arriving into a place that you can only vaguely remember. Did she miss something important? Some kind of joke or story that they would have laughed about? A spark of creativity? The images in her mind were all that remained of that moment, though, a thick blanket draped lazily over her memory.
They boarded the subway, taking two seats next to one another towards the back of the car. Angela fell silent as she responded to a few texts from her mother and began methodically biting what was left of her fingernails.
Despite effusive promises made by gallery owners and fellow artists, sales were low. Soon, she had admitted to Sam a few weeks previously, even the hearty collection of part-time jobs they boasted between them wouldn’t be enough to keep up with rent.
Sam closed her eyes, resting her head on Angela’s shoulder as it swayed with each twist and turn in the subway track. She thought of her large studio apartment, of all the times that she called on her parents asking for help with rent or grocery money in between paychecks from the bookstore and various freelance projects.
Angela lived with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment only a short walk from her own, filled with over two decades worth of lovingly potted plants, half-completed masterpieces, and a sizable selection of worn art-deco furniture that the two had picked up at various thrift shops. It felt like a real home. Warm, welcoming, honest.
Of course, that was easy to say given that Sam didn’t share a single bedroom that was divided into two by a Japanese-style panel divider, that she didn’t have to worry about paying for rent or groceries, and that she had never borrowed a generator from her neighbors to turn the lights on when the utility company decided to shut off the power.
Still, she meant it.
They quickly passed through the lobby after a quick word to the concierge and went up about a dozen flights in the elevator, making faces at one another from all directions in the mirrored walls around them.
Muffled jazz music, loud bursts of laughter, and the sound of clinking glasses immediately drew them to an apartment just a few paces from the elevator doors. A harsh, artificial cinnamon scent drafted through the stale air, a silent collection of mahogany doors peering in judgment down the long hallway.
“You wouldn’t know it, but his neighbors actually aren’t all in their nineties,” Angela whispered, extending her hand to rap on the front door as Sam laughed quietly.
It swung inward after a few moments, and they found themselves face to face with a young man. His face, framed by tightly cropped black curls, broke into a smile upon seeing Angela. It was something that seemed to come easily to him, although his large, deep-set brown eyes betrayed a quiet thoughtfulness as he turned toward Sam, of a lingering question that had gone unanswered. She felt her face grow hot as his unblinking stare met hers, her heart beginning to pound as her brain scrambled in vain to recognize him or to pick up on some kind of explanation for his expression.
He leaned forward to kiss Angela on each cheek and the two embraced, revealing an expansive marble kitchen leading straight into an even larger living area with a collection of mid-century furniture, each illuminated in a bright spectrum of colors as the city lights flickered through the enormous bay window. Guests milled aimlessly about the apartment, talking and laughing as they sipped wine from expensive-looking glasses. Angela squeezed the man close to her, holding him there for a few seconds before pulling back.
“Matias, this is my friend Samantha! She’s from the Midwest too, y’all will have to talk about what it’s like to move to the Big Apple.” Angela chirped, putting an arm around Sam.
There it was again, that flash of recognition in his eyes.
If he had come to some kind of realization, though, he didn’t reveal it. Instead, Matias extended his hand out to Sam with a warm smile. She took it quickly, as if dragged forward by the commanding gravity of his gaze.
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