Friday, December 20, 2013

My Favorite Stefanie Story for 2013

It's my turn to weigh in on one of my favorite FFF stories written this year by my truly talented crit buddy, Stefanie. It was hard to decide since one of them was right down my usual alley--creepy and smacking of zombie goodness, but in the end I went with her coming of age story, Bud. I loved the heartsick tone and the voice her main character has. This story embodies longing and lost opportunity and unrequited love for me and I enjoyed reading it so much. I really admire her ability to use romance so adeptly in her writing as I have a real struggle doing that most times. So without further ado, I give you Bud for your reading enjoyment. I hope you like it as much as I do and if you do, please let Stefanie know in the comments!


I’ve always wondered what would happen if I stood in one spot at the beach for an entire day. With every wave that swallows my ankles, my feet slip a little deeper into the muddy sand, like the earth is trying to slowly devour me. I’m buried halfway up my calves now and I’ve only been standing here for an hour.

I stick my fingers into the pocket of my jeans to make sure the photo is still dry, even though I know I just checked it eleven and a half seconds ago. The feeling of the glossy paper against my fingertips makes my heartbeat falter.

I know the words that are written at the bottom by heart, but it makes me feel better to read them—to see his handwriting.

I pull the picture out of my pocket and unfold it. He gave it to me the day he left for college. It’s worn and tattered from being repeatedly unfolded and folded back again. Scrawled in tiny handwriting made messier by the fat-tipped black marker he’d used to write it, are the words, “I can always count on you, bud.”

I hate when he calls me that.

But I love it too. It’s a punch-in-the-gut reminder that he still thinks of me as a “little sister” type of friend, but it also makes me swell with pride to know I am the only person in the world that he has given a nickname.

The knot in my stomach rises and sticks in the base of my throat like a lump of biscuit dough. I want to keep my promise, but I’m not sure if I can.

I match the ends of the picture together and press my thumbs into the creases. I fold it into a tiny, neat square, and slip it back into my pocket before the ocean spray can stain his face.

I stare out at the ocean, my eyes not really focusing on anything in particular. Every now and then, the sun’s rays shine on the water just right, making it look like churning, liquid gold.

“Hey, bud!” calls the only voice in the world that can make my blood congeal in my veins. Another wave crashes into my legs, making me sink a tiny bit more. I try not to flinch when I hear two sets of feet tramping through the sand behind me.

He brought her.

I close my eyes for a second and focus on the feeling of the water pulling away from my skin. A line of tears catches in the clumps in my mascara, but I don’t want him to know that I’m upset. I trick my lips into curling into a smile and glance over my shoulder at him. I don’t bother looking at her. I know she’ll be gorgeous, as always, while I stand here, all freckled skin, and tattered jeans, and tangled hair, looking exactly like the reliable friend that I’ll always be.

I count how many steps it takes him to reach me as I stare out at the white caps on the waves. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…

Any distraction to keep myself crying.

It only takes him ten galloping steps to make it to me. He wraps an arm around my waist and pulls me in close for a hug. I hold my breath. I don’t want to smell the scent of his fabric softener mixed with his skin—that scent of his that always makes me forget how to put together sentences—that’ll only make this worse.

“Hey,” I say. I pull away from him and cross my arms, trying to keep my voice from breaking.
He sees the fear in my eyes, I can tell. But he doesn’t say anything. He’d never say anything in front of her.

“How have you been, bud?” he asks, stepping away from me.  I try not to notice how his body leans toward hers, or how they move in perfect sync with each other, like dancers. I also try not to remind myself that only people who are in love do that. I’ve yet to look her in the eyes, but I don’t really care what she thinks of me.

Especially not now.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” I say, finally really looking at him for the first time in six months. Big mistake. I instantly feel like five thousand little blades have sliced open every freckle on my body. Curse those stupid, stare-into-your-soul eyes of his. The picture folded inside my pocket does him absolutely no justice.

I shoot his girlfriend a glance, and it comes across more “if looks could kill” than I mean it to. Her blonde hair catches in the wind and I hate her for being so beautiful.

She smiles sweetly at me and tucks a curl behind her ear. “I’ll stay here,” she says, nodding. “You two go catch up.”

Dammit, why can’t she just be a bitch?

He links his arm through mine, pulling away my invisible armor.  We walk a little ways down the beach, neither of us saying anything until she’s out of earshot.

“What this about, Ellie?” he asks. My lungs crinkle like tissue paper at the sound of my name on his lips. He never calls me by my real name.

I lay my head on his shoulder and squeeze my eyes tight. The roar of the waves and the bantering of the seagulls and the sound of the kids laughing and his hand on my arm—that is how I’ll remember this day. Not what’s about to happen next.

“I can’t be your friend anymore.”

There. I said it. My voice sounds tiny and insignificant on the noisy beach, but I know he heard me. I thought I’d feel better once it was out, but I don’t. I don’t really feel worse, either. I just feel numb.
We both stop walking and he takes a deep breath. Neither of us says anything for a moment, and I don’t move my head from his shoulder. I’m going to miss the way my cheek fits right into the curve of his muscle. 

“But you promised,” he says softly.

I groan. How can he throw that in my face? Things were different then.

“Is it because of Annie?” he asks.

I only nod. He already knew this was coming. He knew I was in love with him a long time ago. He grabs me and crushes me to his chest.

“I can’t lose you, bud,” he whispers against my tangled hair. “I can’t lose her, and I can’t lose you. It’s two different kinds of love, Ellie. I wish I could change it, but that’s just the way it is.”

I make the mistake of drawing in a long breath. He smells like summer, and sugar, and pine straw, and too many other things that I never want to smell again, yet I know I can’t live without.

Who cares if it’s not the kind of love I want? At least it’s love, right?

I pull away from his grasp and look up at him. Those stupid eyes. Why do I look into his damn eyes?

“Okay,” I sigh. “Never mind.”

Because I can never truly be free of him.

And he can never be free of me.

It’s not what I want.

But it’s better than being alone.

Story By: Stefanie Marks


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