2023 Short Story Competition


after the spring runoff,
but before the trees shed life
—sometime in between—
lies Paradise

it calls to me,
and offers an escape—
among the whispering firs and pines,

Paradise awaits

Every day from late June to the end of August (yes, every day) I’d pick Sam up in my dad’s Ford
and we’d go down to our spot. It was everyone’s spot, really, but Sam liked to call it ours. She’d
once told me she never felt more at home than out there, like it was the only place she belonged
in the world. I told her that wasn’t true. But the world had failed to provide her anything that
resembled a fair shot—no stable platform of which she could stand. I wanted to be that platform,
and part of that meant getting her away from the nightmare she endured every day, and spending
time with her at the spot. It was a special place, and when I was seventeen, Sam and I, along with
dozens of others from across the Valley, went there as often as possible. We called it Paradise,
and everyone wanted a piece of it.
To get there, we’d turn off Highway 1 down a windy dirt road. The road twisted along
the lakeside for a few kilometres before meeting an old, single laned wooden bridge. Driving
over the bridge the truck vibrated along the wooden planks. We could see down the whole north
end of the Valley where the lake disappeared. The mountain range still had snow at their peaks,
even in summer.
We came upon the clearing that met a chain-link fence running along a deep wood. This
was where we all parked. I turned my dad’s Ford into the opening and parked in the shade, a
cloud of dust billowing out from the wheels. Sam hadn’t said much on the ride down. Usually on
the worst of her days she was distant, but on that day, from the time I picked her up from the
trailer park, she barely spoke. A wall of quiet anxiety filled the space between us. The whole
drive down I tried to find the words, but they didn’t come.
Before I even turned off the ignition she impatiently hurried out of the car, slapping a
folded note on the dashboard on her way out.
“What’s this?”
She was already at the fence. “Read it later.”
I gave her a curious look. She hadn’t shown me her poetry before, of which she recently
took up that summer. I wondered if this was her trying to break free of her comfort zone. Or
maybe it was something more—maybe she wanted something more.
She smiled, but it didn’t hide the pain in her eyes. I slipped the note into my back pocket,
then grabbed our bags and towels from the back.
Sam crawled through the hole in the fence. I followed. Then it was about a twenty-minute
walk through the shaded trees, slivers of sunlight piercing through the tops as we hopped over
streams and deadwood. Sam was up front. Her cut-off tank exposed her shoddy self-made ‘Rest
easy, Ma’ tattoo poked into the skin of her upper hip. Below it was a fist-sized purple-and-green-
coloured bruise. She had a new one, somewhere on her, every week.
She began to walk faster.
“Hold up,” I pleaded, shifting the heavy gear on my back.
She ignored my entreaty. Her skip broke out into a jog.
“I’ll wait for you on the other side.” Her distant voice reverberated off the trees.
She stopped and turned, breathing heavy. She was far up the path but I could see the
elation on her face. “Thank you,” she said.
“For what?”
“Everything.” She then turned and continued up the path until she disappeared from my
view into the deep brush.

A little while later I reached the opening and emerged from the wood onto the vast, sloping rock
shelf bathed in the bright sun. Dozens of locals laughed and splashed and took Paradise for
everything it had to offer.
Paradise was situated at the end of a long dam runoff, clear water flowing over the
smooth concrete channels to a small waterfall that fed the mouth of a wide-open head pond.
Surrounding both sides of the head pond were high cliffs that looked like the sculpted hands of
God cupping a bowl of sparkling ale. Spruces and wild shrubs protruded from the jutting cliffs,
growing out the sides or pointing up to the clear blue sky. From families to drunk teenagers,
local workmen to drifters passing through—people who, in other circumstances, had no business
bumping shoulders—everyone shared Paradise.
Yet, in all my time there I never saw so much as a scuffle, an argument, or a brawl. The
summer prior, on Canada Day, Sam had gotten a bit too tipsy and dropped a bottle of beer,
shattering it next to a sunbathing mother. The bitter-looking mother turned over, lowered her
bug-eyed Ray Bans, and, as the bubbly liquid trickled toward her, she politely asked that Sam
clean it up.
I had known Sam since before I could remember, since we were both ‘knee high to a
hubcap,’ as she’d say. She always kept her mouth shut if it meant being able to dissolve into the
crowd. But in all the time I’d known her, I never once saw her apologize to any kind of authority
figure. That day she did. She picked up every last shard of glass. I should have helped, but I was
too distracted by the way the sun shimmered off her golden hair, silhouetting her face. Or maybe
it was the cheeky, sarcastic smile she gave me as she turned her head, noticing me notice her. I
made two mirrored L’s with my forefingers in front of my face, closed an eye, and clicked an
imaginary shutter button. She stuck her tongue out and flipped me off. We were best friends, and
nothing more. That’s what always hurt the most.
Even Sam abided by the unwritten rules of Paradise. Everyone seemed to share a
frequency, like a buzzing you couldn’t hear, but feel, ringing between those giant cliffs. The
place had a kind of magic that wouldn’t allow anything but absolute harmony among its visitors.
And that’s what we were—only visitors—and after the sun dipped behind the high range, it was
time for everyone to go home. For me, that meant sneaking in after dark, quietly closing the
screen door behind me to avoid my parents who were probably unaware of my absence anyway.
Sam’s pa, however, always noticed when she came in late.

I couldn’t find Sam. The late August sun radiated on the limestone. I wiped the sweat from my
brow. Across the pond, standing on one of the low benches of the cliffs, was a young man. He
yelled in excitement before making the jump into the water thirty feet below. Splash. People
clapped. I scanned the crowd.
A young boy plugged his nose and jumped into the pond.
A woman in the distance. Brunette. Not Sam.
Shouting. Kids razzing their friend for not wanting to go in the water.
Someone came out from the path behind me. It was a young couple and their Doberman.
I asked if they saw a girl on the path on their way in. They didn’t.
I yelled for Sam.
I made my way through the crowd. “Has anyone seen a tall blonde girl? Loop earrings?”
Nothing. Everyone was having too much fun to even acknowledge me.
At the edge of the rock, I cautiously peered over. I looked down at the water.
I looked out across the pond, to the looming cliffs, to the lake expanding in the distance.
To the long, deep Valley ahead.
A warm breeze smoothed along my face. Despite the warmth of it, my skin chilled. I
turned back to the woods. The tall trees shuttered with the breeze.
I went back to the path, hurrying my step. I called out some more to Sam and was
answered only by the chirping of robins and squirls, and the otherwise heavy silence that
occupies deep woods.
I took the path back to the car. She wasn’t there either. Standing in the middle of the
parking area, I looked around some more. I did because I couldn’t think of what else to do.
Maybe I couldn’t bring myself to the realization because by that point I knew, but refused to let
the thought fully form. I thought about Paradise. How we all extracted every ounce of magic we
could from that place, how we gave nothing in return. How it was different for Sam. All those
times she’d called me to pick her up and take her to Paradise. She wasn’t wanting to escape from
She was escaping to her home.
All was quiet, but for the warm breeze—like a thin buzz in the air.
With a trembling hand, I reached into my back pocket.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *