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Short Story

Leah worked her fingers underneath the box’s glued-down flap. She tipped it over a pot of boiling water. The pasta splashed in all at once. Droplets of displaced water pricked her skin. She stirred.


No sound in her apartment but the burner’s whir and the scrape of her wooden spoon against the no-stick coating.


Her roommate, Shawna, left earlier that day with an overstuffed backpack on her shoulder. She would visit her parents this weekend, get back Sunday evening, and stay up late finishing the homework she’d taken with her, but never touched.


Leah didn’t understand Shawna.

Leah had spent the afternoon cleaning, taking a dozen photographs of the leftovers Shawna let rot in the refrigerator, and was now stirring pasta.


She shook some salt into the water and checked the clock on her phone.



Felix would arrive soon.


Maybe toting a bottle of wine—or champagne if he’d guessed the announcement that she had teased him with.


They had been teasing each other for a couple of semesters now. His hand on her back while she poured stop bath into the film tank. Her requests to photograph him for the portraits he assigned.


Her peers thought they were sleeping together. They weren’t.


He could be fired; she could face the academic disciplinary committee.


She didn’t think about that now—didn’t want to think about it.


Not with the letter open on the table—its first word: “Congratulations!” Not with the hollow feeling stretching from her throat to her stomach.


Felix taught four photography courses and sponsored the photography club on campus, and he always has energy to spare. Passion emanated from him. Sometimes Leah swore she could smell it. Like chemicals and fresh air at once. Electricity and springtime.


It was contagious. Maybe that was why she’d chosen now to invite him over.

Frothing bubbles heaved over the pot’s sides and hissed into the flames below.


Leah swore and moved the pot to another burner.


The boil died down. Leah stirred and then turned off the heat. She toweled down the drip pan and the side of the pot. She heated premade sauce in the microwave.


She laid the table with placemats—Shawna always laughed at her for those. What kind of college student has placemats? She carefully positioned a bowl in the center of each one. Then forks, to the left. She wished there was reason to lay out spoons and knives—it would have been a more balanced composition.


She got out wine glasses and put them away again. She didn’t want Felix to think she was presumptuous.


She fidgeted with the seam of her pants, pinching the denim away from her skin and letting it snap back into place. She tried to think of something more useful to do with her hands. She couldn’t.


She thought through her to-do list for the weekend, intentionally clearing any former plans she’d made for the night. In the morning she would go for a run. Then she would go to the pier—it always made for good photos. The aging wood, the ocean, the people.


From two to five she would edit the photos from the Ericksen’s wedding. Then she would use the rest of the night to get ahead on homework. On Sunday—


Three raps on the door.


Leah smoothed her shirt and pulled the door open. Felix stood on the welcome mat—another something Shawna liked to mock. He cradled a bottle of champagne and smiled at her. Cologne wafted from his dinner jacket. He’d tied his hair back at the nape of his neck.


He leaned in and handed her the bottle.


“For the good news you’re about to share with me,” he whispered in her ear. His face closer to hers than it had ever been.


She expected something to flutter against her lungs.


She kissed his cheek. His skin against her lips did nothing to fill the hollow cavity inside.


“That’s sweet of you.”


She let him in and got the wine glasses out again.


“I hoped you’d let me treat you to dinner,” she said, setting the glasses on the placemats.


“Since it’s a special occasion,” he said. “School related, I assume?”


Leah bit her lip, hoping it looked as suggestive as it did in movies and magazines.


“In a sense.”


She plucked the letter off of the counter and handed it to Felix. She watched him read it.


He started smiling right away. Grinning like an idiot at the words that left her empty, but she couldn’t feel his passion. No longer something tangible. No longer anything at all.


“You got in! Leah, this is amazing! Congratulations!”


She tried to feel his words, his excitement—they echoed off of her cavernous insides.


“Thank you,” she said.


“I knew you would.” He slid his fingers up her arm. “You’re the best in the program.”


She swallowed.


“What’s wrong?” Felix frowned.


Leah shrugged. “It’ll be expensive.”


“More expensive than living in San Francisco?” Felix didn’t sound convinced.


“I have an established client base here—weddings, and family portraits, and senior pictures—even with all of that I have loans to pay off.”


He watched her and said nothing. His blue eyes burned like dry ice.


“I don’t think it’s what I want anymore.”


She scooped the bowls from the table and ladled noodles into them—her back to Felix.


“You know what I think Leah? I think you want to say no because you’re afraid,” he used his lecture-voice. A little peppier than in one-on-one conversations. Trying to be the friendly, approachable professor.


Heat pushed at her skin. The bowls clattered against the counter.


“I’m not afraid,” she said too loudly.


“I think you’re scared that when the pond gets bigger, you won’t be the biggest fish anymore.”


“I don’t have to be the best.” Leah still didn’t turn around.


Felix’s hand wound its way into her hair. She didn’t pull away, but she wanted to.


“You do,” he said softly. The professor voice gone now. Giving way to the him she knew from after-class conversations and stolen dark room moments. “There will always be a bigger fish, Leah. And there will always be a better photographer out there.”


Anger swelled behind her ribcage and tightened her throat with its pressure.


“You think I don’t know that?” her words came out barbed.


Felix stepped back. Scanned her with new eyes. Quiet. She’d seen him look at photographs like that. Like he could see everything that went into their process, everything beyond their frames, every moment leading to that one second of pure, captured emotion.


She cleared her throat and grabbed for his hand. More desperation than affection in her touch.


“Let’s eat dinner,” she said.


Felix shook his head.


“Not tonight.”


He congratulated her again before he left, taking passion with him. Leaving the champagne.


She felt his absence.


She heard someone laughing through the wall.


For a horrible moment she thought it was Felix.


It wasn’t.


You know what I think, Leah? I think you want to say no because you’re afraid.


Leah evened-out the loops in her shoelaces and straightened her pea coat. Her eyes burned for sleep. She hadn’t slept well. Even with the hour gained when she skipped her morning run.


Fog swallowed the pier, hugging Leah so tight that even her tennis shoes lost some of their color. When she held out her hand, it did, too.


Leah liked the fog—she always had—a cloud stooping to touch the Earth, its definite, light-lined edges too vast to make out. Instead, it touched everything. Hid everything. Became everything. Like a wide aperture setting for the world. Blurring out the background and bringing the immediate into focus.


A few ill-prepared tourists wandered the pier in board shorts and flip flops, rubbing their arms and scurrying from souvenir shop to restaurant and back again, crossing in front of Leah and her limited focus.


She heard Felix’s voice in her head.


I think you’re scared that when the pond gets bigger, you won’t be the biggest fish anymore.


She wasn’t scared.


Her camera strap dug into her neck. She took the camera off and zipped it away in its carrying case. She wouldn’t be getting any good photos with the fog, anyway.


There’s always a bigger fish, Leah. And there will always be a better photographer out there.


Leah stood and turned to the ocean, one hand on the railing, the other on the mounted silver binoculars bolted to the pier. She felt a tear slide down her cheek. It felt hot on her wind-chilled skin.


Felix didn’t know her. To accuse her of being a coward—of being so self-conscious that she couldn’t stand the thought of someone taking a better photo than she could? That would be pathetic. She wasn’t pathetic.


She wiped her cheek and bent to look through the binoculars at the blank, white world.


“What, are you scared?”


Leah froze as the far-off words echoed through her body, tensing her muscles one by one. Calling through the fog. Taunting her.


Laughter cut through the whiteness, and she thought of the laugh she heard the night before. She thought of Felix.


Leah clenched her fists and followed the sound, forgetting her camera bag on the bench. She never forgot her camera bag. Never left it anywhere it could be stolen or damaged.


But the voice in the fog became Felix’s, and more tears rimmed her eyes. Two silhouettes emerged against the railing at the end of the pier—the tourists who had walked by her earlier.


“No, I just don’t want to get my hair wet. And besides you felt how cold the water is!” the other silhouette answered.


“All I’m hearing are excuses. C’mon, the tide’s not that low. Jump!”


They had nothing to do with her; she knew that. But she heard Felix in their taunting, and she couldn’t let him be right.


Leah set her jaw and started unbuttoning her coat. She let it fall from her shoulders and left it behind. The two silhouettes snapped into color—tropical print and judgmental expressions in her periphery.


Leah hefted herself onto the railing and swung her legs over one at a time. She teetered on the edge of the pier. She couldn’t see the water.


I am not afraid, her own voice roared in her mind, louder than Felix’s words. Louder than whatever the tourists said to or about her.


She bent her knees, and she jumped.


For a second, the fog surrounded her, and she could have been floating. Only her and the whiteness. Unafraid.


Then she thought of the pier’s wooden legs stretching up, sometimes 30 feet from the water. She thought of the barnacles crusted onto the old wood—the gashes and bruises that would cover her body if the waves thrashed her against them.


She thought of the ocean below: how water could turn to concrete if you hit at the right speed, of how far she would have to swim if she survived the initial impact.


The fog could cover, but it could not erase.


She was afraid.


Afraid for her life. Afraid that she wouldn’t have the endurance to make the swim back to shore. Afraid of the pain that would come when she hit the surface. Afraid that Felix was right. Afraid that she would never be good enough. That all the people who told her she should get a more useful degree were right. That she would end up in a job she hated. That her photography wouldn’t be taken seriously. That she wouldn’t be the best. That she would fail as a photographer. As a person.


She hit the water, her feet together and her arms straight—terrified. She plunged under the cold, gray surface, and silence engulfed her.

Not in a pond anymore. In the ocean.

She felt the fear shoot through her veins. It felt like energy. Like electricity and springtime.


She swam hard, out and away from the pier. When she broke the surface for air, she could just see the pier’s legs through the fog—a safe distance away.


Leah kept swimming. She couldn’t see the shore, but she knew it was there.

When she stepped out of the water, her clothes plastered to her skin, her hair dripping, water sloshing in her tennis shoes, her body shaking from exertion and adrenaline—she felt relief.


Felix was right. She was afraid.


She wouldn’t let that stop her.



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