As promised, here is the next installment of the Short Story Feature. If you had tuned in to Wednesday's post, you'd have seen and enjoyed my friend A.M. Supinger's short story "Savages", created from the same image prompt posted below.
Now I am glad to have my dear friend Suzanne Payne show us her own interpretation of this picture:
Three days. It’s been three days since it happened. Kortney’s mind still swirled with the same memories plaguing her mind. The phone call, the disbelief, his body washing up on the shore kept replaying over and over and she felt powerless to stop them. How could this have happened? Why did this happen? He was so young and an excellent swimmer. We were going to get married in the fall. She glanced down at her engagement ring knowing she’d never see him at the altar waiting for her.
Leaving the house for a while became a necessity. There were too many phone calls from well-meaning friends who were worried about her and what she might do. What do they think I’m going to do? Kill myself? With little sleep and a sore throat and pounding head from crying, she pushed open the screen door. “I’m going down to the beach, Mom. I need some quiet.”
“Todd’ll go with you,” her mom insisted. Sending her brother as a bodyguard didn’t sound appealing. Her family being in her house had been a comfort, but now it felt more like an invasion.
“No, I need to be by myself for a while,” Kortney said, hoping to keep her mom from worrying.
“Take your cell phone,” her mom suggested. The circles under her mom’s eyes showed she was tired from fielding all the phone calls Kortney didn’t want to take and from watching her daughter suffer. With the cell phone shoved into the air for her mother to see, Kortney walked out. Even after celebrating her twenty-fifth birthday, Kortney’s mother still treated her like a kid most of the time.
As she walked through the neighborhood down to the beach, the wind caressed her skin. Today’s sky was cloudy and it would probably rain later, but Kortney didn’t care if she was wet from rain or from the ocean. In this moment she didn’t care about anything. Sitting on the edge of an overturned boat she wrapped her arms around her middle and rested her head on her knee. “I don’t understand this. We were planning a life together.” She was surprised when her sandpapery eyes produced more tears. The salty mist off the ocean burned them because they were so irritated. While she used the hem of her old t-shirt and wiped her eyes out, she suddenly felt like she wasn’t alone. When she raised her head off her knee, she saw a boy walking up the rise of the sand. Clad in a long-sleeved swim shirt and longer swim pants, the navy blue suit made his blond hair look even more shocking. He carried his surfboard under his arm and approached her.
“DJ?” she said. Was this him? This guy looked like him, but she wasn’t sure. Days of mourning had muddled her brain.
“I’m Cole. Mind if I sit with you? You look like you could use some company,” he said, and his gaze held a touch of empathy. “You’re Kortney, right?” A small tentative smile played around his mouth as he shoved the end of his board in the soft sand and sat next to her.
He looked a lot like DJ. Tanned skin, muscular build, blond hair from the sun. She nodded, turning her eyes downward not wanting to hear another apology for her loss.
“I know you don’t know me and this is going to sound really weird, but I had a dream about your boyfriend last night.” Kortney stared at him as rage boiled up inside her. His eyes widened and his words rushed out, “Before you get mad, you need to listen first.” Kortney knew the glare she was giving him wasn’t helping his courage, but she didn’t care. Cole waited before he spoke, looking as if he might jump up and run away at any moment. She turned away from him again, but didn’t move off the sand. His body seemed to relax, but he chewed on his bottom lip. “He came to me and told me to find you. He said he wanted to tell you some things he never got to say.”
“Why are you telling me this? It’s not funny!” Kortney stood up and brushed the sand off her legs. She thought about slapping him, but decided to just walk away. Cole stood up to follow her.
“Look, I know this sounds crazy! But this is what I dreamed and I thought it was important enough to tell you.” Cole paused again, “Please, just listen and then I’ll leave you alone.” Kortney turned to face him with her arms across her chest.
“You’ve got one minute,” she said, still glaring at him. Cole swallowed and gave her a short nod. Taking a few steps toward her, he stopped just out of her reach.
“He told me to tell you he loves you and it was his fault he died.” Cole looked up as if he were trying to remember everything. “He said he knew the rips were up, and he said he was stupid to go in the water and he should’ve waited, but he was too arrogant. He lost respect for the waves and it cost him his life.” Kortney’s stare softened as she listened. This guy didn’t know DJ, but she knew DJ’s arrogance when it came to surfing.
“He never thought there was a wave he couldn’t ride,” Kortney said, gazing out into the ocean and rubbing her arms against the misty wind off the surf.
“It wasn’t the wave that got him—it was the rip,” Cole said, as if the details of DJ’s death were public, which they weren’t. “He also knew if I didn’t find you, that you would try to join him. He said he couldn’t deal with it if you killed yourself. He told me to stop you.” Taking a few more steps, Cole timidly stood next to her now.
Kortney knew contemplating suicide crossed her mind more than once since DJ’s death, but she’d pushed the thought down, until today. Today she had decided she would do it. Just walk into the water and take a big gulp and it would all be over. No more hurt, no more pain, no more feeling lonely.
“He thought I was going to kill myself?” Kortney tried to sound as if it were the furthest thing from her mind.
“He knew you were. He told me to stay on the beach today because he thought today would be the day, since his funeral’s tomorrow,” Cole stood by her without touching her. She could feel the warmth off his body when the breeze didn’t carry it away.
“I don’t believe you.” He sounds legit, but there’s just no way. She argued with herself because she wanted to believe him, but her fear stood between them. “Why did you do this for a stranger? You don’t know me and you didn’t know him…why?” Kortney didn’t mean to sound angry, but the thought of DJ, her fiancé coming to a stranger instead of her, made her a little jealous.
“Look, I didn’t ask for this. I asked him the same thing and he said you were too clouded and upset. You’d just think it was a dream instead of reality and you might still do it.” Kortney stood still looking at the ocean. The rhythm of the waves had always given her comfort. Now they seemed dangerous.
“I think I know why he chose me,” Cole said, not looking at her but out into the gray horizon. His voice had turned softer. Kortney turned around to face him to hear his theory. “Because, a year ago, I was you.” His eyes dropped to focus on her. “My fiancé died in a car wreck. She was hit by a drunk driver…and all I wanted to do was die.” Kortney’s chest tightened and for the first time since losing DJ, she thought of someone else’s pain.
Her eyes widened at his words. “I am so sorry.”
Cole nodded. “Thanks.”
They stood in silence for a minute, listening to the waves crashing against the sand. “That’s why he picked me, I think.” Cole’s voice rose over the sound of the waves rolling into the shore. “I’ve been down this road already.”
Kortney nodded. “I want to believe you, but how do I know you’re not just making all this up?” It all seemed too convenient for him to show up on the beach when she was readying herself to end her life.
“Your choice.” He shrugged. “Whether you believe it is entirely up to you. I did what he wanted. I told you everything he said.” Cole should’ve been offended at her suspicions, but he seemed unfazed by them. He turned away from her and walked over to his board yanking it out of the sand and heading back down the beach.
Kortney’s chest tightened with the thought of him leaving. “Cole, wait!” She called, craving his steadying presence. When he turned around, it was DJ’s face she saw. He waved and blew her a kiss.
“I love you, Kort.” DJ’s voice moved over her as soft as the breeze. “But if you choose me, you choose death. Stay with Cole and choose life. I promise I’ll watch over you, but you have to let me go, Kort—please.” Kortney couldn’t believe it. DJ’s face returned to Cole’s when she blinked again.
“Cole!” Kortney called again. Warmth shot through her as if she’d been hit with a wave of warm Gulf water. This time it was Cole’s face she saw. He smiled, one hand leaning against his board. Fear tore through her as she glanced down at her engagement ring with her hand in a fist.
“Baby steps,” she heard him say. She nodded, taking in a huge breath of ocean air. It felt like the first time she’d actually breathed since receiving the phone call that stopped her world from spinning.
She breathed in and out again. Tasting the salty air in her mouth and feeling it travel down her throat reminded her she was still alive. She worked her ring off her hand and examined how it sparkled even under the cloudy sky. Cole stood in the same spot watching and encouraging her with his smile, but he never made a move toward her. She bit her lip and kissed the diamond before throwing it as hard as she could into the waves. “I love you,” she whispered to the churning ocean. Regret seeped into her gut as she second-guessed her decision to throw away her engagement ring.
Cole smiled at her and nodded. “That was brave.”
“I feel like I’ve betrayed him already,” Kortney said, shaking her head. Tears were flowing down her cheeks again, burning her eyes and tightening her throat.
Cole shook his head at her. “No, you haven’t. I’m not sure you can feel it, but I can feel…” He stopped and began waving his hands upward in circles searching for words. “His light…um…like a lightness…like a peaceful feeling.” He smiled, nodding his head. “I think you made him happy just now.” His smile held a great deal of comfort for her. More than she realized until this moment. Maybe Cole’s right, she thought. All she could feel was pain and loss. There was no peace in her heart. The process would take a long time, but she felt like DJ sent Cole to help her move through it.
“Walk with me?” Cole asked. Kortney nodded and took a step toward Cole and then another. Baby steps.
“Choosing life will be a choice you have to make every day,” he said as they started down the beach. “But I did it and I know you can too.” As they continued down the beach and their sets of footprints were beside each other, a third set walked behind them.
Suzanne Payne writes YA Paranormal/Fantasy when she's not teaching Elementary Music. She blogs at Suzanne Payne and tweets: @suzannefpayne. She's a lady with heart and soul and I've truly enjoyed her friendship.
Thanks, Suzanne, for sharing your story with us. <3