Wrote this for a competition on inkpop. com! Oh, and I lost. But check it out anyway, and tell me what you think. :) Cheers!
It's not often that you get that perfect summer romance, and Katherine Crane was one lucky girl.
Or so she told herself, at least until it ended. And it was so horrifying and disastrous, she almost wished it had never happened in the first place.
She looked at the photograph in her hand, creased and lined from being folded so many times.
Katherine's mother, a Mrs Judy Redford-Crane, had tried desperately to rein in her tempestuous daughter, to no avail. At five feet four inches, with blonde hair, a slender waist and shapely facial features, Katherine wasn't the type of girl to be reined in.
Honestly, the fact that her mother was trying to do so only made her more determined to rebel.
The family lived in a two-storey building in a quiet suburban area that was filled with trees. Judy missed shopping with the girls and Katherine missed pollution, so in a rare moment of niceness, her father decided that in the spirit of shopping and pollution, the family would spend the summer at a beach cabin.
In an attempt at family spirit, the three occupants of the Crane household packed their bags and themselves into the car on a sunny Saturday morning. Katherine, ever the typical teenager, stuffed her earphones into her ears and zonked out.
Mrs Crane, true to form, started complaining about something. Mr Crane wasn't sure exactly what, since he was too busy wishing he had earplugs. Or maybe even a pair of those white Apple headphones Katherine had plugged in her ears.
Even as his wife's shrill voice harped on in the background, his thoughts turned to his daughter. With a growing feeling of discontent, he realised that he couldn't even remember the last time he had had a real conversation with his daughter – for no reason at all. Their conversations were always forced; there was always a specific reason for one seeking the other out. School, work, misplaced items, leaving the toilet seat up. Stupid, inane complaints and requests made up the majority of the Crane family's communication.
He shook the feeling off. It wasn't anything to worry about.
Katherine wasn't asleep, but she looked it. When she was seven, she learned that if you close your eyes and make your breathing even, it will fool anyone who's not looking properly. In this case, it meant her parents.
Her iPod (and the thrash metal playing loudly) did a great job of blocking out her mother's whinging, and Katherine took a moment to think.
What was she going to do for the whole summer at the beach? It wasn't as if she knew anyone. The kids in her painfully quiet suburban neighbourhood were slow and prudish, too caught up in maintaining an image to spend time with the new girl.
Well, she had a ridiculously large suitcase, her iPod and the adorable black and white bikini she'd snagged (and the beautiful asymmetrical blue strappy cover up), so she'd be okay, she thought.
She wasn't stupid, she knew not all families were as dysfunctional as hers. Sure, they didn't fight. It was more of a toleration thing. She tolerated her mother's ranting, her father tolerated his idiot secretary and her mother tolerated nothing and no one.
She couldn't wait until she left for college.
The seven-hour drive to the beach was agonising in more ways than one. Mrs Crane, defying all normal volumes and speeds of sound, talked non-stop at a rapid pace and a high volume. Mr Crane, in a wildly hopeless attempt to speed the journey (and stop his wife's incessant ranting) gunned the engine and travelled the next few minutes at 140 km/h before he remembered his high blood pressure and slowed down. Katherine's iPod ran out of battery, at which point she closed her eyes and went to sleep for real.
But just as all good things come to an end, all bad things do, too, and the family – if a slightly dysfunctional one – arrived at the beach cabin.
Appropriately named "Slice of Heaven", the cabin the Cranes had rented for the summer was worth every penny. Completely disregarding the 'cabin' aspect, it had two floors, the top of which was an extra-large bedroom with en-suite attached. Mama and Papa Crane immediately disappeared into it, Papa already digging out his cell phone and holding it up to the ceiling in an effort to find signal. It was only after he almost tripped that he turned his attention from his phone to the stairs and climbed up them slowly, clutching his side and gasping dramatically. Although, Katherine reflected, it probably wasn't that much of an act. The man barely got any exercise, besides walking to the car and back.
Slipping into the room that was hers for the next month, she closed the door behind her and yanked the curtains shut. She hadn't been enthusiastic about the beach trip at first, but now she was here, her legs ached with the need to feel cool, salty waves on her toes.
Almost ripping off her clothes, she unbuttoned her shirt and pulled down her Roxy beach shorts, sliding her underwear off at the same time as digging her swimwear out from inside her suitcase.
The bikini was cute, striped with a halter neck. She ripped the tags off and pulled it on, slipping a blue cover up dress over the top. The dress didn't exactly match with the bikini, but the floaty material made her feel pretty, and that was a requirement. Hypocritical of her, since she had snarked at the ones in her neighbourhood who were so vain, but looking good was usually number one on Katherine's priority list. Especially in summer, because what else did Katherine have to worry about? She didn't have any friends anyway.
Her feet encased in a pair of blue sandals, she stepped out of the door and rushed straight to the waterfront, only pausing to slip off her shoes and dress and leave them in a pile with her towel and sunscreen.
She didn't notice the lanky male figure watching her from a nearby sand dune.
Happily splashing around in the waves, she let the cool water run over her toes and back into the waves, curling into tendrils of white foam as the mighty power of the sea took back its own. She was so utterly caught up in her own world, so happy for what seemed like the first time in forever, that she only noticed him when he stepped up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder.
"Excuse me," said a voice. Katherine whipped around, blue eyes wide and startled. If she had known what the boy was thinking at that moment, she would have been amused at the thought of herself with wings and a harp.
"Yes?" she said, her tone automatically reverting to the cool and indifferent tone she used with everyone who was not her cat, Poppy.
"Did it hurt?" the boy asked. Confused, her brow furrowed.
"Did what hurt?" she asked, perplexed.
With the pained look of someone who regretted what he was doing, the boy leaned forward and whispered, "When you fell from Heaven?"
There was a moment of silence. The boy waited.
And then it broke the silence, her laughter. It was as fresh and pure as a mountain spring, and it bubbled up inside her, the giggles tasting unfamiliar on her tongue, unaccustomed to laughing as she was. Shamefaced, the boy took a step back. Noticing this, she grabbed his hand before he could beat a retreat.
"No, it was very sweet," she reassured him when she got a hold on her laughter.
"Really?" he said unsurely.
"Really," Katherine told him, although her lips twitched slightly. The boy's answering smile was breathtaking, and Katherine stood stunned by the full force of it until she realised he was speaking.
"… Ash. What's yours?"
"Sorry, what?" she asked embarrassedly. He smiled and repeated himself.
"My name's Ash. What's yours?"
"Katherine," she replied automatically. "Wait, Ash like the kid in Pokemon?"
Ash grimaced. "No, Ash as in short for Ashley. But I think I've met about six girls named Ashley so – hey, it can be a guy's name!" he exclaimed defensively at Katherine's renewed outburst of giggles.
"Yes, I know," Katherine said as soothingly as she could through her chuckles. Ash rubbed the back of his neck as he waited for her laughter to subside.
"Done?" he said dryly as she finally collapsed, gasping for breath. She nodded breathlessly, kneeling in the waves and tracing patterns in the sand.
"You don't laugh very often," Ash observed. She didn't look up, but her shoulders stiffened. He knelt down beside her and she shivered at the warmth of his body.
"No," she said stiffly. "I don't."
"Why is that?"
"What right do you have to ask me?" she said coldly, without looking at him.
"Curiosity? A need to discover why you've locked yourself down again?"
His words stopped her spiteful return from leaving her mouth and she froze, her head whipping around. Her blue eyes bored into his brown for a full ten seconds before she dropped her gaze ashamedly. "Sorry," she said simply.
He was silent. Taking a deep breath, she returned to drawing patterns in the sand.
"No one cares," she admitted suddenly. "My parents don't. I don't have friends. I left all of them back in the old city and I lost contact after moving to the depths of suburbia."
His hand found hers under cover of the shallow waves. "I care."
"You've just met me," she pointed out.
"Love at first sight?" he suggested. She snorted. "Okay, maybe not. But I can promise you that I do care, to some extent, and that I most likely always will."
"Always," she mused, tracing an eternity sign on the sand. "Strong word. Nothing is permanent," she said, somewhat sadly, indicating the eternity sign. A wave broke in the distance and the water rushed up, removing every trace of it. "Everything changes."
"Memories don't change. And neither do photographs," Ash said, pulling her to her feet.
"Where are we going?" she wanted to know.
Ash kept walking, seeming to be focused on something Katherine couldn't see. "Camera," was all he said as he dragged her to the left.
"I can walk by myself," she said irritably, tugging her hand away. Ash rolled his eyes.
As they walked, the two adolescents surreptitiously studied each other. Every now and then, their eyes would meet and dart away, faint blushes forming on the cheeks of both.
Ash was tall, much taller than Katherine. His hair was a dark brown, almost black and his body was lean, giving him the look of a seasoned surfer. A black cloth bracelet adorned his wrist and an ankh was suspended on a string around his neck. His beach shorts looked well-used and –
"How long have you been here?" Ash asked suddenly, interrupting her train of thought.
"I just arrived. Maybe fifteen minutes ago?" she replied distractedly. "How long have you been here?"
"Three weeks now. My sister and parents are getting ice cream somewhere that side," he said, waving a hand in the general direction from where they had come.
"And where are we going? And why aren't you with your family?"
"We're going to where my things are," he said, not answering her other question. She noticed this, but let it go.
"Camera!" he exclaimed as they reached a pile of towels, clothing and one black camera bag. A monster of a black dog was lying on top of the lot, his eyes wide-awake and alert despite the balmy day. At Ash's call, it roused itself and stood up, shaking the sand out of its fur.
"Your dog's name is Camera?" Katherine asked with a hint of disbelief.
"My sister named him. Do you own a dog?"
"I own a cat," Katherine said snootily, not missing the disdain on Ash's face. "Oh, relax," she told him, stepping forward and offering Camera a hand to sniff. He did so, and immediately began licking her palm with vigour. "I have no problem with dogs."
"He likes you," Ash observed.
"I like him too," Katherine said affectionately, stroking his ears.
"Should I be jealous?" Ash quipped teasingly. Her cobalt eyes sparkled as she turned to look up at him.
"I don't know, should you?" she said carefully.
"Well," he began with a leisurely stretch. "I have always wanted a summer fling like the one at the start of Grease." He winked at her, and she was sure her heart skipped a beat. The thump-thump in her chest was absolutely unfamiliar, and she closed her eyes for a moment, bracing herself.
"I think that can be arranged," she said quietly. She didn't hear so much as feel him coming closer, but then his hands were stroking Camera too, and his smile was out, wider and more beautiful than ever.
And so began the best summer of Katherine Crane's life, a summer full of Ash, and affection, and kisses and hugs, and secret-telling, and Ash. Her parents faded into the background, simply people with whom she returned to have dinner at the end of each day. It was a new feeling, being loved, and the first time she said it, she felt happier than ever before, despite the fact that she was due to leave the beach the day after.
"I love you, Katy."
"Don't call me that," she had snapped. "And… I love you too."
"You don't have -"
"No, I mean it," she interrupted. "I love you, Ash."
His answering grin was brilliant. "Do you use tooth whitener?" she asked after she regained her eyesight.
"No, why?" he asked her perplexed.
"Then why is your smile so white? I think I just lost my eyesight. Temporarily."
He flashed her another grin before pulling his camera out of the bag and snapping a shot of her. She blinked against the flash, rubbing her eyes.
"What was that for?" she asked him grumpily, tossing a handful of sand into his face.
"You said that everything changes, the first day we met. Do you remember that?"
"Well, photographs don't change, and I plan to take as many as possible." And so saying, he grasped her chin, turning her head sideways so she faced the sea, and snapped another picture.
"That's unfair!" she protested. "You need to be in them, too. Why would I need to remember myself? I want to remember you."
"As if you could ever forget me," he scoffed, but he pulled her close to him, and turning the camera around, clicked a third shot. Pulling the camera back around to face him, he pressed play and the picture popped up on the digital screen. He grimaced as he looked it over. The top of his head was cut out of the picture, as was half of Katherine's face.
"Get someone else to take it," Katherine suggested.
"Oh. Yeah. Hey, sir!" Ash called, dropping his arm from her waist and running to tap a lone beachgoer on the shoulder.
Katherine watched silently. The wind blew away their conversation but Ash handed the man the camera and started walking back to her, all the while talking to him, most likely instructing him on the kind of shots to take.
As he arrived at her side, he reached out an arm and spun her around so that her back was to his chest and they were both facing the sea. "Take the picture!" he called to the man.
"Allright," he replied. "Three – two – one – say cheese!"
They kept silent, but he duly snapped the picture anyway. Ash turned her around again so that she was facing him, and reached with his right hand to stroke the hair off her face.
The shutter snapped.
"Thanks, mate," Ash said gratefully, crossing to take the camera from the man.
"Anytime," the stranger said with a warm smile, shaking hands with the boy. The couple watched him walk away in silence, both wondering the same thing.
What's his story?
The remainder of the day was spent swimming, making sand castles with Ash's younger sister and above all, taking photographs. The snap-shut of the camera's shutter lens was a noise that rapidly became common to Katherine's ears and she resolved to buy herself a camera as soon as she got back… home?
Home. It was odd to think about home, because as far as she was concerned, the beach was her home. To think that at sunset the next day, she'd no longer be watching the orange sky from the grassy embankment over the beach, but from the second floor of a suburban house where every residence in the neighbourhood was identical to the next. She'd no longer be able to share ice cream and salty sea kisses with Ash.
Standing waist deep in the waves, and brain-deep in thought, she barely noticed when Ash arrived.
"What are you thinking?" he asked her, floating his hands on the top of the water.
"I'm going back tomorrow," she said softly, sadly.
"I know," he replied simply. "That's why I'm going to go home and develop those pictures tonight, so I can give them to you tomorrow."
"You have a dark room?" she asked, distracted despite herself.
"Well, our cabin isn't rented. It's ours. So yes, I made the basement into my dark room."
She nodded absently and returned her attention to the rolling waves.
"I'll miss you," she said abruptly.
"I'll miss you too," he told her. "But we have each other's contact details… this isn't goodbye forever."
There was a moment of silence as they both tried to think of something less awful to talk about. Katherine broke the silence first. "That ankh around your neck. What does it represent?"
"Eternal life," he answered immediately. Surprised, she looked up at him. Noticing her gaze, he elaborated. "Often, the Egyptian gods are shown holding the Ankh as a key, like the key to immortality."
"Guess that means you have a long life ahead of you," she said affectionately.
"You bet I do. Which reminds me," he said suddenly, pulling her out of the water and up onto dry land. "I have something for you. I got it in the same place where I got my ankh."
Digging into the black camera bag, his fingers emerged clutching a brown leather cord with a pendant attached.
"This is a triskelion," he said softly, turning her around. She held up her hair wordlessly and he clipped the necklace around her throat. "It's of Celtic origin and symbolises the spiral dance of life, or so the seller told me. She said the spiral represents evolution on a circular but upward path. I thought it was appropriate." He turned her around again, and the pendant settled against the tanned skin of her chest. "Because you," he continued, leaning closer, "have definitely evolved from the sad, lonely girl I first met."
Once the lump in her throat had dissolved somewhat, she choked out a 'thank you', squeezing him tightly around the waist. He hugged her back, the cold pendant pressing against both of their chests at the same time. Katherine thought of tomorrow and the agonisingly long trip home, and as she curled into Ash's embrace, she wished the moment would never end.
Katherine was roused abruptly from her sleep by what seemed to be a tall, dark figure knocking at her window. Arming herself with a hairbrush, she crept out of bed, weapon at the ready.
"Katy, open up!" a voice hissed. She sagged in relief, tossing the hairbrush onto the bed. Pulling the translucent curtain aside, she unlatched the window and pulled it open. Ash was there, dressed in a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt.
"Ash, what are you doing here?" she exclaimed as quietly as she could.
"I came to give you this," he said, holding out an envelope. She took it, her fingers moving to open it. "No!" he exclaimed. At her scandalised look, he moderated his tone somewhat. "Open it tomorrow."
"But what is it?" she pressed.
"It's a photograph," he said. "The first one I developed. I wanted to give it to you specially."
"Thank you," she said sincerely, turning to place the envelope on her beside table. "Do your parents know you're out?" she asked when she returned to the window.
"My parents are out with Holly. She was complaining of a stomach ache."
"Oh, no!" Katherine said softly, thinking of Ash's adorable younger sister. "Poor Holly."
"She'll be fine," Ash said dismissively. "It's most likely from all that ice cream she's been eating."
Katherine leaned precariously out of the open window to grab Ash up in a hug. "All right. Give her my get-well wishes when she gets back."
"I will," he replied. After a moment, "I should get back."
"Yeah. It's late," Katherine told him, her eyes flicking to her watch. Three a.m. "Well – it's early."
"Goodnight, Katy. Love you," he called, already walking away.
"I love you too!" she called, not caring if her parents awoke. "And don't call me that!"
He looked over his shoulder, flashing her a grin. His teeth gleamed even in the darkness and she shut her windows and pulled her curtains closed with a small smile.
And that was the last she ever saw of him.
She waited for him the next morning. He never showed up. And when she saw his family, all of them looking like they'd aged a hundred years in a day, she knew something had happened.
She didn't need them to tell her. She didn't want to hear it. Seeing the burnt cabin was too much for her already, and she dropped to her knees in the blackened sand, the world shattering around her, the pieces of what was a perfect summer raining down on her bowed back.
"Police said there was a gas leak and the stove exploded when he tried to turn it on," a voice said quietly. Katherine didn't look up at Ash's mother, but she knew the older woman was crying just as much as she was.
"You loved him," the woman said next. Katherine nodded.
"I did," she said thickly through her tears.
"Everything is lost. The pictures, his clothing… everything," his mother said, and Katherine heard the thump as the lady dropped to her knees beside her.
"I - " Katherine began, but the words stopped in her throat. She reached out, wanting to feel something, anything besides the aching numbness that clawed at her insides. She found the older woman's hand and latched onto it like a vice. The two clung to each other, two broken pieces in a game that they had lost.
An ankh for immortality. The irony was cruel.
After an eternity, Katherine rose. Her tears stopped. She let go of the woman's hand, apologised for her loss and left, leaving the rest of her heart there in the sand. Ash. Ash burned in the cabin, and the ashes scattered on the white sand.
She was silent on the way back to her home in suburbia. She was silent as she climbed the stairs to her room and fell into bed without changing.
The night seemed too quiet around her and all of a sudden, she snatched up a pillow and started screaming into it, her voice muffled by the fabric, her pain unnoticed by anyone, her throat raw and sore. Bright lights popped behind her eyelids from the strength of her screaming and she collapsed, silent sobs ripping their way out of her throat.
It was only then that she remembered the envelope, and she dug it out of her suitcase with shaking hands. Her throat was rough from screaming and she cleared it over and over as her fingers pried the envelope open.
Her breath caught in her throat as the document was exposed. It was a photograph. A stunning black-and-white shot of herself and Ash staring out to sea. The first picture that the stranger had taken for them. With a choking mass in her throat, she flipped the picture over, her vision blurring as she read the words on the back.
For my Katy.
With love, Ash.
Sinking to her knees on the wooden floor, she folded the picture in her hands, unfolded it and folded it again. Restlessly, her fingers made creases in the glossy paper as she refolded and unfolded over and over again. Ash was gone. The cold reality sank in and she caught up the pillow from her bed and began to scream.
It's not often that you get that perfect summer romance, and Katherine Crane was a lucky girl.
Everything changes, but photographs never do, even if the people in them are no more.