At the end of last month, I entered a short story into my first ever public contest. The Blank Page Challenge is a brand new contest for writers to try their hand at creating a story using a picture prompt.
Each story is read by a panel of judges, and then they choose the top three to advance to the voting stage. When those are selected, they are published on the website’s page for public voting (open this time until Thursday, March 15, 2018).
As you can see by the title of my post, I didn’t make the top three. However, I still want to share my story with you. Their next competition starts on March 19th, and I will definitely try again!
She paused by her older brother’s bedroom door and rested her hand on the wooden nameplate he’d made in woodshop his sophomore year. Derrick had showed it off all evening after bringing it home.
“I know it’s just basic block letters,” he’d said while hammering the nail into his door, “but Mr. Crawford said my line cuts were the best in the class!”
“How’d you get it so smooth?” Natalie had asked when she didn’t find any splinters. “And shiny… Why is it shiny?”
“It took me forever to sand it, but the shine is from the glossy polyurethane I added after the paint was dry.” He went on to tell her exactly how long each step took and the specific color of brown he used.
“So big brother…” she interrupted when he began the same story again at supper, “when are you going to make me one?”
“Wouldn’t that be sweet?” their mom had asked.
“It takes a long time, Sis.” He’d shoveled a forkful of broccoli into his mouth. Cheese oozed down his chin when he spoke again. “Besides, you have a hard time waiting for the bathroom in the morning. This would take much longer.”
Now, years later, she was still waiting, and she would always be waiting. Her hand gently moved over each groove as she thought about him. A week wasn’t long enough for her to recover after her brother’s funeral, but she managed to make it through the school day with minimal tears.
Walking by his room and thinking of his cheese goatee made it all hit her again: the eulogy, the three-rifle volley, the folded flag, and the solemn words of thanks they’d received for her brother’s service. Tears that she’d held back all day blinded her as she ran to her room and locked the door.
Derrick was supposed to be home in a couple months for her graduation. His tour should have ended last month, but he volunteered for an extension. He told her it would be okay, though. He promised her they’d still make the trip with everyone after the ceremony.
“Some friends,” she mumbled at the mirror bordered with pictures of the four of them. Becky could only stay for the funeral since she had to be back at college for an exam the next morning. James didn’t even come.
“There’s no way I can make it.” He’d begged her to understand. “I’m on the other side of the country, Natalie.”
“What’s wrong with you?” she’d yelled. “He’s your best friend and he’s gone.” She’d thrown her phone across the room and hadn’t heard from him since.
“Natalie?” Her mom knocked on her door. “Can I come in?”
She wiped away her tears and unlocked the door.
“I found the ones you needed.” She held out the batteries I had asked for two weeks ago. “I don’t want you going up there alone, though.”
“I need to get away from here, Mom.”
“Take your dad’s phone then.” She looked at the pictures. “And bundle up. I’ll watch for the blue.”
“Okay. I will.”
When Natalie stepped out on the back porch, she closed her eyes and looked up as the tiny flakes swirled down and whispered to her. The wind had vanished as if the world was still mourning her brother, too.
She took a deep breath and tightened her grip on the lantern. The silence surrounded her with brief interruptions of laughter from the neighborhood kids playing tag. She smiled at the memories. Her smile faded when she opened her eyes and looked up to see the blue light shining from their spot.
“What?” She sprinted to the edge of the pass they’d cleared so long ago, the pass that led them further up the mountain.
With the sun setting, the shadows emerged up the trail. The trail had been abandoned years before they took over the hunting lodge at the top that overlooked the small town below. No one used it even now, so she wondered who had turned on the blue light. She turned her lantern on and started up the pass. The snow’s pace quickened with her as she remembered the last time the snow was this bad, the last time light was red.
“We’re almost there!” Derrick had said. “If we hurry, we can make it inside before the snow gets too heavy.”
“Slow down, D. It’s too thick already.” Becky had groaned every inch of the way. “This was a mistake. The snow’s up to my ankles now.”
Derrick easily lifted her up and carried her piggy-back the rest of the way. “I need the exercise anyway,” he said. “I leave for basic in four months.”
“D, you can’t be serious. It’s too far.” She tried to wriggle from his grip.
“We’re almost there. Don’t worry,” he said, patting her leg, “this is easy.”
“Need me to carry you?” James asked Natalie.
“No!” She said, even though her heart was pounding at the thought of his arms around her. “I can walk.”
By the time they’d made it to the top, the snow came down in a fierce wall around them. They couldn’t see the edges of the pass anymore, and they couldn’t see their town below the cliff, either.
When they couldn’t leave later that night, Derrick had changed the spotlight from yellow to red. Rescue had come for them shortly afterward.
Natalie breathed in an icy breath. She could still feel the heavy snow on her face just like that day. She paused when harder flakes hit her face. The blue light was now yellow.
“Now you tell me,” she mumbled, wishing she would have gotten the warning light before trudging most of the way up the passage. She stayed close to the rocky wall, too late to turn back now.
She was thankful when she made it to the door of the small, one-room cottage. She started to knock, but she changed her mind and opened the door.
“Hello?” Natalie looked around, but the room was empty. “Hello?” She knocked on the bathroom door. Nothing.
Even though the lights were one, no one was there, so she sat down on the sofa and shrugged out of her coat. She laid it next to a rectangular box on the dusty coffee table, the table that had heard many secrets and seen more than enough tears.
“Why do you have to leave the state for college?” Natalie hadn’t cared that everyone was watching her meltdown. “What about us?”
“I’ll be in college, Natalie.” James had reached for her hand, but she’d pulled away. “You still have two years left in high school.”
“What are you talking about?” She turned and charged at Derrick. “Did you put him up to this?” she yelled.
“It wasn’t him,” James said, gently pulling her back away from her brother. “You know I can’t stick around here for another two years.”
Natalie clenched her jaw then relaxed and reached up to touch his bruised eye. He winced. “I know,” she whispered, “but I don’t want to wait for-”
Derrick had cleared his throat. “We need to head back down before supper.” He’d switched off the blue outside light and took Becky’s hand. “You two coming?”
Becky had whispered something to him, and then they walked out the door.
Natalie turned at the sound of the door clicking. “Hello?” She stood up as it opened.
Someone in a dark blue coat walked in, closed the door, and shook off the snow before removing his hood. “Natalie?”
“James?” She inched toward him. “What- What are you doing here?” She pointed at the snow falling from his coat. “Why were you outside?”
“I was worried about you,” he answered. “I didn’t look at the weather when I flipped the blue switch earlier.” He took off his coat and hung it up, revealing an early summer tan and a tattoo of a Gila monster she’d never seen. He moved closer. “The weather changed, so I had to go looking for you in case you-”
“But what are you doing here?”
“I came to see you.” He pulled her into a tight hug. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it last week.”
Natalie pulled away. “Why are you here, James?”
“I have something for you.” He picked up the box from the table and held it out to her. “Derrick sent it to me before he left on his tour.” He sat down close to her. “He- He said to give it to you if anything…”
“Derrick?” she whispered as she took the proffered box. “What if… What if he would have come back?” She wiped the tears away.
“Then he would have given it to you himself on our trip. It’s your graduation present, but I didn’t want to wait until then, especially after our last conversation.”
Natalie grimaced at the thought of her broken phone before untying the bow and lifting the flaps. She slowly removed the purple tissue paper.
A shiny wooden nameplate with perfectly cut block letters spelling out her name stared up at her. She gently ran her fingers over the smooth surface then clutched it tightly.
James searched the box. “There should be…” he mumbled.
“Should be what?”
He turned the box upside down. “He said there was a…” The box sat empty on the table as he looked under the sofa and coffee table. He lifted up her coat to search under it, too.
Natalie grabbed the Gila monster arm, and pulled him back to her. “What are you looking for?”
“Derrick said there was a note with it, but it must’ve fallen out.” He wrapped her in his arms when he saw her tears forming. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’ll find it.”
As she leaned into him, her hand brushed against crevices in the back of the nameplate. She smiled as the tears formed. “I found it,” she whispered, leaning back into James.
On the back was a single inscription: Some things are worth waiting for. Love, Derrick
I already know what the panel of judges says, so what do you think? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!