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*Short Story Winner with @lsmythybooks

“I remember that,” he says with a soft smile. “You were so worried about your parents finding out. Remember when you called?”

I look straight ahead, my heart pounding. The waves crash lightly on the beach, sending bubbles in a rhythmic fan across the sand. Pulling my sweater close to my chest, I take a deep breath and choose my words carefully.

“I must have been really out of sorts. I don’t recall talking to you about it. What did I say?” I ask, attempting to put on an air of nonchalance.

He leans forward, wrapping his arms around his knees, his eyes still fixed on the surf. “You were completely broken. I could barely make out what you were saying between the sobs, but...I knew what was in your heart.”

I sneak a peak toward him as an expression of peace settles on his face. Somehow, despite the fact that I have no recollection of this interaction—or any interactions with him—I can’t help but let my walls down. He seems to care. Truly and honestly. How is this possible?

“And then it was worse than I ever could have imagined,” I say. “I lost everything. My brother and I still don’t talk. My parents split shortly after that, and the girl—”

“We don’t have to talk about it,” he offers.

But I can’t help it. The words pour out of me. I tell him about the morning after when I found her body, limp and helpless on the side of the walkway. I tell him about how I couldn’t stop arranging her hair while I waited for the police. As if somehow that would make it better? That her perfectly smooth ponytail would somehow undo what I’d done? Bile rises in my throat as the images flicker across my retina in perfect detail. The way they have every night for almost two years.

“I know,” he says, his voice almost a whisper. “I know.”

My voice suddenly sticks in my throat as tears collect at the corners of my eyes. Even though I just flayed open the deepest, darkest conglomeration of my experience, it still feels wrong to cry in front of someone I only met a few hours ago.

“Why do you think you’re holding on to it so tightly?” he asks, stretching out his legs, closing his eyes, and lifting his face to the late afternoon sun.

His hair hangs down his back, blowing lightly in the breeze. I inspect his face for any feature that could prompt recognition, my mind reaching for a possible connection. His cheekbones? No, I can’t remember ever meeting someone with similar bone structure. Maybe if his hair were shorter? I imagine it, but still, no. I squint, attempting to morph his face into one with more baby fat, and less rigidity.

His eyelids flutter, and I quickly turn away. “I’m not holding on to it,” I say stubbornly, scooping fistfuls of sand into my palms and squeezing them until they compress into temporary spheres.

He nods. “So it’s out of your control?”

“Don’t you think if I had control over any of this I would’ve done something by now?”

“I hoped you would. But here we are,” he says, turning toward me.

As his eyes meet mine, a shiver runs through my entire body. I open my mouth to speak, but my jaw hangs slack. It’s the eyes. I know those eyes. It’s not even the color that activates something within me, but the kindness. The certainty. He knows me. And I think I used to know him.

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