by Emily Roth
1st Place – Flash 405, June 2020: “International Travel”
We’re instructed to walk along the beach in total silence, if we want any chance of encountering a nesting turtle. For the first time since we arrived, I’m relieved you’re not here. If you were, you’d crack jokes in my ear, or try to trip me. The only light comes from the moon, illuminating slivers of sand and ocean.
The turtle walk wasn’t on our agenda. When I overheard one of the guides mention it to the Spanish teacher over breakfast, panic seized my chest because I knew how excited you would be.
The turtle isn’t promised. After walking thirty minutes, I think we’re about to turn back. I’m almost relieved, not ready to handle something good happening.
I met you in kindergarten swim class, when I grabbed your hand at the edge of the pool. You were bold, and you pulled me with you when you jumped. From the moment our heads bobbed to the surface, hair plastered to our cheeks, we were inseparable.
There’s a flicker of light up ahead. Something reverberates through our group and we stop still. A whisper rushes backward like steam. The guide is going up ahead. My heart flutters.
I don’t remember you saying the word heroin. I remember the glare of fluorescents against linoleum, the smack of a classroom door at the end of the hall. I remember my body buzzing, tears welling in my eyes. I remember a strange thought, the knowledge that this moment would be a transition from before to after. That this was a moment everything would change. I remember you comforting me, saying I just wanted to try it and it won’t happen again.
The turtle is bathed in golden lamplight, larger than I imagined. Researchers count the eggs as they fall, ciento veintisiete, ciento veintiocho. Our group stands reverent, shoulder to shoulder. Guilt punches me in the stomach. I don’t know how to be here without you.
You spent the last month of your life planning not to do it again. You went to school. You finished reading Jane Eyre, which you found overrated. You slept over on a Friday, and we ate popcorn and laughed at YouTube. You paid your deposit for Costa Rica.
Many stories in this competition could have been proclaimed a winner but I picked Tortuguero Nesting Season because the author delivered much more than a travel-themed story. There was extraordinary depth of character, and a profound sense of loss, but also hope, desperation and regret. The author showed exquisite skill and control in carefully revealing information, providing a captivating, tragic and important backstory. It was so easy to imagine being on a Costa Rican beach, fearing disappointment, then finding something wondrous. I could hear locals count along as an endangered turtle deposited eggs in the sand. In such a short space, I also witnessed an entire friendship, from the earliest memory, to the fatal descent into addiction. I felt so close to the narrator, I understood why she went on a pre-booked vacation after the death of her partner. This story could have won almost any contest, not only one about International Travel.
Emily Roth is a writer and librarian based in Chicago. She has been recently published by TLDR Press and shortlisted for the Smokelong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction. She was the 2020 winner of Brilliant Flash Fiction‘s Lost in the Library competition.
Photo credit: Will Turner