This short story I wrote received an Honorable Mention in the 35th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest as a top 10 finalist.
The boy woke up before his eyes would open. The cool, damp wood he leaned against soaked through the back of his favorite shirt, and he could hear the roof-bound raindrops as they dove into reflections to mimic shooting stars. The sunbeams were golden glimpses of heaven, glittering with the grounded rain. Not a single cloud remained overhead, as they likely left with the waning moon. It was just the boy, the shrine, and the light of leftover storms.
Still trying to recall how he got there, the boy staggered to his feet and brushed the wet slab of hair off his face. His shoulders ached from sleeping sitting down, and his neck would stiffen if he turned a certain way. There was only forest for as far as he could see, and the shrine that sheltered him the night before was alone at the center of the surrounding glade.
The shrine was made almost entirely of carefully cut wood; the handsomely built sanctuary was battered from the winter and bruised from the fall. Droplets still clung to the eaves of the pointed roof, and a small, stone statue quietly stood inside. The figure in stone was only the size of his forearm, and it depicted some woman draped in silk—blessed with the most tranquil face and with her palms out hospitably.
The watch the boy wore on his wrist was becoming unbearable. It was his favorite accessory—comfortable, waterproof, sleek—yet something sharp must have been lodged in the strap, so he tugged it off and tossed it into the grass.
“I hope you plan on picking that up,” said a curt voice.
The boy spun around and stumbled away from the shrine. Where there wasn’t anyone before, a girl sat blithely on the shrine steps and stared at him. Her eyes were round and unrelenting; her porcelain white hair flowed much below her waist and even continued onto the steps. She was dressed in unusual clothes, none like the boy had ever seen, as if she belonged to the same era as the shrine itself.
Unable to find his voice, the boy became very still. Behind them, the echoed chirps of unseen birds filled the air.
“Are you lost?” she asked him.
“Who are you?” he murmured.
“I asked first. It’s rude to respond to a question with another question, you know.”
“I…” he started. “I’m not lost.”
“Then how did you get here?”
“I’m not lost,” he persisted.
The girl sighed. Swatting at her dress, she pulled herself up and approached him—bare feet against the grass. Holding out her hand, she grinned with her roseate cheeks. “Well, my name is Welkin. I am the keeper of this shrine.”
The boy relaxed a little and realized his fists were clenched white.
“You don’t talk much, huh?” Welkin shook her head disappointedly, letting the hair that reached to her ankles sway. “That’s okay. Just follow me then.”
At first, the boy hesitated. As he watched the mysterious girl wander deeper into the sunbathed forest, he took off his own shoes and left them behind with the watch.
“Where are we going?”
Welkin snuck a smile. “To get you home.”
The boy stopped, his features afrown. “No.”
She turned to face him. “What do you mean, no?”
“I’m not going home,” he said, louder than before.
The boy eyed his toes—this time quieter. “I’m not going home.”
“I can’t help unless you talk to me, you know.”
They found a glass river tumbling softly over pebbles, and the boy rinsed his face with the biting stream. A songbird fluttered its wings beside him as it bathed in the shallow edge, accidentally splashing him and making him flinch.
“Oh, sorry about that,” said the bird, twitching its head—then picked at its wing. “Another boy? I wonder what’s happening over there. You kids should really be more careful!”
Welkin set a hand on her knee and slipped a hair behind her ear. “Preparing for the spring?”
“Ah! Welkin!” The songbird shook its head hastily. “Tell you what, I haven’t been feeling well lately. My voice—I seem to have lost it.”
“Lost it? Where could it have gone?”
“Not sure, really. It’s worrying me, though. At this rate I won’t be able to sing for anyone!”
Welkin gently brushed the songbird’s head with her fingers. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You sang great last year, so I know you have it in you.”
“I dunno,” said the songbird. “I dunno, I dunno, I dunno!”
“It’s scary...putting yourself out there and meeting someone new.” The words came out of the boy’s mouth before he could stop himself. Even he was surprised by his voice. Welkin glanced back at him, who already returned to pretending not to listen.
“He’s right,” she said. “But remember last year? You put yourself out there and risked it. You risked it all and met someone wonderful because of it.” She opened her arms vivaciously. “I know you can do it! You just have to convince yourself of that.”
Once they left the river behind, the boy asked Welkin a question. “Do you really think the bird will be okay?”
“All you can really do is try your best,” she said plainly. “And if you fail, you can rest knowing there was nothing else you could’ve done.” She suddenly turned to face him. “Tell me, what’s at home that scares you so?”
The boy averted his gaze. “...too much.”
“Too much of what?”
“Everything.” He gradually met her eyes. “There’s too much of everything. I...can’t keep up with it all.”
“Sounds like you were overwhelmed.”
“Maybe I was.”
Welkin pointed ahead of them, and the boy squinted for a better look. The forest path gave way to a massive lake with reeds and grass at the edges. The odd part was the enshrouding mist. Color seemed to have been dredged from the scene, and the opaque wall of grey hid whatever lay on the other side. A lone, red bridge fed into the mouth of the mist, making where it led a secret.
“Is that where we’re going?” the boy asked.
Welkin nodded. “That is where we all go.”
When they neared the surface of the water, the sun was long gone, forbidden from protecting them. The boy felt a tug from the strange bridge—a subconscious desire to gravitate closer. “What’s on the other side?” he asked.
Before the boy could get an answer, he heard a familiar bark echo through the mist. “Charlie?” He frantically glanced around. “Charlie! Where are you?” Then, upon the surface of the lake, he saw the wavering reflection of his dog. The boy kneeled on the grass and reached a hand toward the water, but Welkin grabbed his wrist.
“What are you doing?” The boy’s glare was incredulous. “Let me go! T-that’s my dog! That’s Charlie—he’s drowning!”
“He’s already dead.”
The boy stared at her, his mouth agape. He knew this. He had cried and wailed and dragged his feet to school and back over it. He had sighed and clamped his pillow to his ears on nights he couldn’t sleep because of it. He knew Charlie was gone.
“Who are you?” the boy asked, his stare relegated to a frown.
“My name is Welkin,” she said. Her eyes were endless hours on starless nights; her silver hair looked grey beside the mist, like they were drawn with the same brush; she seemed distinctly perfect—distinctly inhuman. “I guide souls to the afterlife,” she told him. “But I am here to save yours.”
The boy pulled away from the lake, the mist, the girl. “Am I...dead?”
“Not yet.” Welkin kneeled down next to him. “But if you cross that bridge, you will be.”
The boy watched the bridge. It was a beautiful, seductive red against the colorless mist. It invited him, but it yielded no warmth like the sun. “...I don’t want to die,” he whimpered.
And the memories washed over him like a tide.
Welkin held him. “Do you remember?”
The boy lifted his hands and examined his wrists in horror. His neck felt itchy, but he suppressed the urge to scratch it. If Welkin had not been holding him, the vertigo of falling a hundred floors would have knocked him into the water.
“I don’t want to die,” he repeated. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.” He held onto Welkin as if his legs were being dragged into the mist. “What do I do? Where am I now?”
“You’re in the hospital. Your parents are with you.”
“Your brother, too.”
“I-I’m sorry,” he trembled. “I’m so sorry. I felt like the world was sitting on my chest—like my heart was hollow on the inside and filled with holes that only let in anxieties. I’d hide in my room and realize I knew no one who would listen to me cry. I didn’t—I didn’t—”
“It’s okay,” she soothed. “It’s okay.”
“Everyone says that, but it’s not. Nothing is okay.”
Welkin felt his tears against her shoulder. “I’m gonna let you in on a secret,” she said. “Sometimes when I feel lonely, or when I have nobody to talk to, I go to the shrine, and I try to pray. But then I realize that if I listen to human prayers, who listens to mine? I’ve lived for thousands of years, and I’ve forgotten my name so many times. I wonder, if I’ve forgotten my own name, who on Earth would bother to remember mine? I visit this bridge every day; I look as far as I can to the other side, but I can never bring myself to cross. Isn’t it ironic? I guide others to do it, but I’m too scared myself. But you know what? Life can be lonely; the world can pressure us with expectations and threaten failure; but as long as we try our best, I think that’s enough. Maybe someday I’ll muster the courage to cross that bridge, but today, you’ll muster the courage to live. What do you say?”
After a pause, the boy nodded quietly, wiping his eyes. “I want to go home.”
“I’m glad,” she said, smiling. “Let’s go get your shoes.”