1st Prize Winner, Nick Barton's piece "The Stranger's We've Become"..

I liked to think we’d spend our last night together singing songs not to mourn or regret, but to smile. With no birds outside to hear us, I wanted the stars to gather in constellations above to listen.

But, that’s not what happened.

Instead, under a hanging light bulb, Stacy and I read in silence while the world outside hummed on without a passing thought as to what we were doing. The quiet between us went on and on until I gave up reading altogether. Watching her reflection in the wardrobe mirror, she sat on the comfy sofa, her knees hugged to her chest and her headphones pressed against her ears made her look awfully cute. She read a paperback open against her thighs and I knew she could see me watching.

When I turned around to glance at her, she said without looking: ‘Stop being so needy, I’m reading your book.’

I went back to my story and she hadn’t even broken through ten pages. Last week I read a novel and said she’d love it and I kidded myself into thinking she’d snatch it up from the nearest bookstore and blaze through it. Instead, she had better things to do and better books to read.

Then, I had had enough. Whether her comment was supposed to cut me or not, I threw my book through the open window into the night.

‘What the hell was that?’

‘Our relationship.’

Her eyes burned into mine. ‘What?’

Then began the argument that woke up a neighbor or two. The echoes of our distress screamed out of the window and the whole district knew that two nameless teenagers had landed at the crash site of another failed relationship.

After an exchange of heated words, I told the truth she couldn’t deny.

‘Let’s face it, Stacy. We’re unhappy.’

Downstairs with her clothes she kept in one of my drawers bundled up in her arms, she turned back, her long blonde hair falling down her shoulders and bid me one final goodbye, a look of sadness I’d never seen before and I’d always remember that I was the one who made such a beautiful face cry.

Which is why I’m here alone on the beach with a pale moonlight shining high above me, the titles of every book we ever read blinking back in the starlight. To my surprise, one cardboard box housed all of the stories we’d shared told from authors we’d never meet and right now, they deserved a burial at sea. I always preferred the beach at night, less people. If there were any, they’d either walk their dogs or stroll along the dying tide wondering where the last ten years went. Me, I was putting a dead relationship to bed.

The first book I fished out happened to be the one that brought us together in the first place, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’. As a newbie at the reading group, Stacy told us all how much she loved the book and when I agreed, we hijacked the meeting and ranted about it. Then, everything fell into place and after a few dates and book exchanges, we clicked. Happier times, I thought as I dumped it in the sand. Beneath that was ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.  I remember the conversation about this.

‘My brother,’ she said,’ recommended this one.’

‘How come?’

‘He said it’s one of those books that you can read a hundred pages without even knowing it. He likes the dark stuff, you know, things that make you think about the mind and whatnot.’

I checked the back of the book. ‘An asylum?’

‘Yeah!’ So enthusiastic, even then. ‘Think it like ‘The Great Escape’, but in an asylum. The main character, McMurphy is pretty much Hilts from ‘The Great Escape’. A man with a plan, and a willingness to dismantle the enemy machine.’

So, of course I read it, and to echo her brother’s words, I read a hundred pages without even knowing it.

I dropped ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ beside ‘The Fault in our Stars’ and tipped over the box and gathered them all up in a pile of ten novels. Each one told a story about us, but not one book narrated the fallout. Maybe there isn’t one, maybe that’s my story to tell. And with that, I guess I have.

One by one, I threw them into the ocean where the waves would only bring them back, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was moving past her and forwarding into the uncertainty of the future. Stacy and I were unhappy, but she meant everything to me and sometimes, I felt so lost without her to guide me. If she was my compass, she’d always take me home.

With the books dead in the water, I wrote my letter, slipped it into a bottle and threw it out to sea as well.

So, if you’re reading this, please note that you’re reading the story of another hopeless teenager who thought he landed on his feet with the perfect girl and ended up hurt like so many others. I’m sorry if the fragments of the bottle hurt you, but if they did, then that’s how I’ve felt ever since I broke up with Stacy.

You’ll never find me wherever you look, because like those books I threw away, I am also lost at sea.


  1. This is fantastic Nick- a well deserved first place winner- congrats.



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