Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Young Adult Honorable Mention

By Your Side

by Sydney Lee

Author Bio

Sydney Lee lives in Palo Alto and is currently a homeschooled rising senior. She had buried herself in books and words for the majority of her life and generally prefers the written word over the spoken. When she isn't studying or writing, she's spacing out and dreaming of the adventures in her future.

Inspiration

The first stories I ever wrote were centered around these two characters. I've had their story mapped out in my mind ever since I was twelve, but their plot line never fully developed. I felt a need to close both this chapter of their story, and this stage in my writing. Having a close friend pass away after a lifetime of having your paths intertwine shakes the foundations of who you are, and it's always painfully hard to move on without them. While this story is full of nostalgia and sorrow, I hope it invokes a feeling of possibility that the pain will fade, but the memories will last. You carry a piece of everyone who has impacted you everywhere you go, so you are never alone.

"April 23rd, 2001, oh, there she goes! She's doing it!" The camera swiveled towards a toddling girl stumbling over her first steps, then promptly tripping over an abandoned doll lying on the floor. She let out a howl, her face crumpling, and flailed unhappily. The visiting neighbors made sympathetic noises as the mother reached for her daughter, putting the video camera aside.

"Aww, look at Kyle trying to help Jessie up," One of the neighbors said, pointing to their toddler son who was now taking careful steps over to the sobbing little girl. She immediately quieted once she noticed him, staring up at him curiously.

She staggered back to her feet, took another careful step and tripped over him, taking him down with her in a mess of giggles instead of tears.

It was the beginning of a heartbreaking friendship.

 

The two of them grew up in the hectic storm of her sibling filled home, and his eventually fatherless family. Constant arguments filled the air when the two of them were together, energy crackled between them when they calculated their next prank. Candy wrappers were constantly left in their wake, muddy footprints stamping the progress of their growth.

 

"We should get souvenirs!" Kyle pointed to the gift shop of the history museum, with a mischievous grin.

"Ms. Lian will get mad if we leave the group," she warned him in a whisper, glancing around at their classmates. "Plus, we're here to learn, not waste money."

"I'll buy something for you." He grinned at her knowingly.

Without another word, she inched away from the group, heading straight into the store, Kyle following behind her.

"But you have to get me something too," he added as she deliberated over a display of cheap jewelry.

"That wasn't part of the deal!"

"Excuse me? Did I say it wasn't?"

Amused adults passed by, covering their smiles as the two of them argued for the next five minutes until Jessie gave in and turned back to the display.

They met at the register, each proudly holding a treasure of their own.

"What's that?" she demanded, pointing at the leather cuff in his hand.

"It's just one of those personalized things. I finally found one with my name! What about that?"

"It's a compass charm necklace!"

"Oh, that's perfect for you, ‘cause you always get lost."

"Look who's talking!"

They bickered as they paid for their gifts and walked out of the store to find themselves alone except for paintings of days long by and relics of the past caged by glass.

"They left," Jessie said blankly, looking around for their classmates.

"Apparently," Kyle agreed, busily clasping the cuff around his wrist.

"We need to look for a map. Ask an adult. We're going to get in so much trouble!" she wailed unhappily.

"It's fine, Jess. It's not like we don't get lost ALL THE TIME."

He grinned at her. "Come on."

A wild light in his eyes, he raced down the hallway, gesturing for her to follow. She laughed, running after him and they danced among the glass and shadows and stories of memories long gone.

 

The gym lights flickered once, then twice, as the high schoolers were all ushered out in their glittery dresses, smeared lipstick, and sweaty shirts. Two stragglers drifted slowly to the exit, talking excitedly with each other.

"Have a good time?" Jessie shot a smile at Kyle, who looked distinctly uncomfortable with his button-down shirt and loose tie.

"Well, I don't like dances. I don't even like high school," he smirked, stuffing his tie into his pocket. "Why am I here again? Oh, because you dragged me here against my will?"

"How dare you, I distinctly remember you whining about never being able to attend a single dance this year!"

"Come on, guys!" their friends called from the doorway, cutting off Kyle's retort. "They're turning the lights off."

And seconds later, they were clapped in absolute darkness save for the blurry glow of the outside lights.

"Ky?"

"Yeah?"

"Dance one last time?"

Shoes squeaked against the floor as they sprinted across the dark gym, smiles stretched across their faces.

Laughter bubbled from her throat as a teacher barked at them from the doors, demanding they hurry up. Kyle extended a hand to her, twirling her around, and she tripped over herself, still laughing.

They raced each other out of the gym, drunk on the night air.

How they loved to dance in the dark. Even when they could not see each other, they knew they were not alone.

Because there were always days when they didn't see each other, and weeks where they were wrapped up in their own worlds.

But the two of them would always find their way back to each other, no matter how lost they became.

 

"Why do we always get lost on these road trips? We only walked two blocks away from the hotel!" Jessie threw her hands up, looking around at the dark alleys and dim streetlights that graced their way. "Can you text your mom?"

"I don't have any data left," he said, holding up his phone. "I used it up on the car ride here."

Jessie stopped under a streetlight, the stale, yellow light highlighting the dust swirling around her, dramatizing the long shadows that stretched around them.

"Let's be realistic then. We are going to die."

"How about we just retrace our steps, drama queen?"

The two of them walked in silence, every sound making them jump. Jessie walked slowly, tensing as they passed smoke-filled alleys and stores with bars over their windows.

"Stop freaking out," Kyle patted her on the head. "We're not going to be lost here forever."

"I'm not freaking out."

"Sure," he said, ruffling her hair. "We always find our way back, don't we?"

"At least I'm with you," she sighed, "You can be my defense against potential muggers."

"Right back at you," he said, elbowing her. "Thanks for always being there for me to throw to the wolves."

She laughed and for a moment, there was no fear in their hearts.

 

The two of them sat on Kyle's bed, leaning against a wall covered in pictures. Frozen memories from the past hanging on the walls, blurry images of laughter and sunshine. Images to remind of the past when memory failed.

"Will you open it already?" Jessie demanded, watching him inspect the clumsily wrapped package in his lap.

"You know that my birthday isn't for another month, right?" he asked suspiciously.

"Of course I know, just open it!"

"Hmm."

He gave her an apprehensive stare, ripping off the colorful paper and went absolutely still, staring at it in shock.

"You got me a camera?"

"Is it alright?" She asked anxiously. "I thought it was the kind you wanted. Now you can enter the photography contest!"

He cut her off by putting the camera aside and hugging her. She could feel his heart pounding quickly through the fabric of his T-shirt, his smile against her shoulder.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," he muttered. "Thank you so much. And you know that I'm not that good at taking pictures."

"I think you are," she pulled away, taking his pillow and hitting him with it, "And it doesn't matter if you're not good. You love doing it, I know you do, and that's all that matters."

"Really explains all the interrogation lately."

He picked up the camera and turned it on. "Wow, you really shouldn't have, Jess."

"No, I absolutely should have," she grinned up at him, "This is for you."

"Wow, you must have such high expectations for your next birthday."

"Maybe..."

 

"Peyton told me you failed your test."

The melancholy figure sitting against a crooked tree, lifted a red and puffy face, and nodded, taking a long, shuddering breath.

"Oh, Jess," he said, kneeling down beside her, "You know you'll do better next time,"

"I'm a failure," she wailed, wallowing further into her misery. All her life, she had always worked her hardest, and to find out that her best was not enough was destructive. "I can't do anything right."

"You can't always be perfect, Jess."

"I wish I was."

"You didn't fail, you just fell short of your own expectations," he said, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. "And I know you'll do better next time, because you'll work extra hard to make sure this doesn't happen again. That's what you always do."

She let out a wobbly sigh, "You're ruining my negative spiral."

"It's a gift."

"Do you have a tissue?" she mumbled, leaning against him.

"No, sorry," he took off his shoe. "Do you want my sock?"

"That is absolutely disgusting!" Laughter soon took the place of her tears as she leaned her head onto his shoulder and they sat against the

 

Jessie had grown up in a family where clothes were recycled ten years later, where anything precious was shared, where wants were sacrificed for the needs of the family.

In a home where fights and arguments were such common occurrences, grudges were inevitable. In a home, where she had to understand the futility of her dreams when she looked at her parents' empty pockets.

She had always depended her loved ones to stand by her even when the world felt like it was caving in on her, blindly believing that they would forever be by her side in the cold world.

But no one was eternal, especially when they met a fate composed of twisted metal, pooling blood, and broken bone.

Her mother had gathered her family in the living room that day, her face white, the fateful words reluctantly spoken into existence. Darkness had flooded Jessie's vision, and for once, she was unwilling to face reality.

A nightmare, only a whisper of one of her greatest fears.

That was what she prayed and begged for it to be when her eyes opened again. But the sun had risen, a day had passed, and the truth remained.

It took days for her to breathe again after hearing of the fatal crash.

But he would never breathe with her again.

No last goodbyes, no last wishes.

He was gone, and so was she.

 

Countless sweethearts, friends, and family had overused the words ‘I love you' around them and they had said it to each other very rarely.

It had never been needed.

Those three words had been all too clear in the little memories of gentle touches, of silver necklaces and leather cuffs, of socks and tears.

Of stories told in the night, of shared music, of dances in the dark.

Of Lost nights, movies of laughter and romance, quiet talks, hidden messages.

Of a hand up and a fall together.

 

One by one, black clad friends and family exited the room, leaving the two of them alone.

The girl drowning in memories and tears, and the boy who no longer breathed.

She cried herself out, screaming into the polished wood, hands clenched in her black skirt, as she said goodbye.

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye, my world, goodbye, my love.

For the last time, goodbye.

A ghost wavered next to her as she stood at his grave, watching his body lowered into the cold earth. A wandering wayward wisp of a thousand memories that refused to leave her, that stabbed her every time she breathed.

An empty void that would haunt her for so many more days.

He had left empty places everywhere. Friends kept looking for him when they entered a new situation, missing his endless confidence and courage, breaking out into sobs at the thought of him. Teachers stuttered over his name when calling role, then dropped it entirely. Even just saying his name brought a stab to the heart.

It was heart-shattering the way his sisters still screamed in their sleep, dreaming about the crash, only to wake up and find that their brother was forever gone. No more would he tease them about boys, steal their snacks. The way his mother sat on his bed , clinging to the last remnants she had of him, her grief too raw for tears. Another ghost in their midst.

Her heart ached when she looked into the mirror, watching herself grow up without him. Watched herself change with only a ghost of a memory by her side.

I thought you would always be there with me, she thought one night, I was supposed to be there for you.

And now you are gone.

 

Through her sorrow and through her grief, she learned to truly treasure the loved ones by her side. To never again take another moment for granted. Her forgiveness came easier both to herself and to others, and words of love were more immediate, because she had already learned that every moment with them was more precious than gold.

Now she loved harder than ever, treasuring each memory she made.

Everything she had learned from him she kept with her.

Now she was the one who spoke first, who was braver than the rest. Now she was the one who threw herself into any situation and sacrificed no matter what.

Starting college alone had been like a lightning bolt to her heart, as she went somewhere forever barred to her best friend. She carried the sorrow of his death for months there, wearing it like a mask, the sound of it ever present in her laughter.

 

Days passed, years passed, memories dulled.

There were still days when she would turn to find him, to tell him of something new, to ask him for advice, but he would not be there. And that alone stole the breath out of her body.

But she had her sisters and brothers who had grown closer to her, because of her open love for them. And there were new friends who would dance with her in the dark and sing off-key in the car.

Life would continue. She learned to love better, without the bitterness, without the pain. A lifetime of memories would not fade so easily, but the idea of life without him became bearable.

And she would keep him with her as she wandered the world.

She was not alone, and he was not forgotten.