Back in October 2018, I entered a short story contest held for the Blimey Cow patron community (or “cowmoonity,” as we call it). Our prompt was to write a story with the following elements:
- Theme: “Things are not as they seem”
- Music should be featured prominently
- Including one of the following: a broken television, a cobweb, or a cassette.
So I decided to enter the contest, and ended up winning three of the five categories (Best story, best character, and best overall). To be honest, I was totally surprised and honored to be one of the finalists (let alone a winner)!
Since then, the story was accepted for publication in my school’s literary journal, The Peregrine Review. Since I spend most of my time working on larger writing projects, I’ve become rather proud of this little story and how far it’s come. Since I mentioned it a few times recently, I thought today would be a good time to share it!
Read on to check out my short story, “Time After Time.”
Time After Time
By Maggie Shive
The man slouching behind the RadioShack checkout counter raises an eyebrow at me as I pull three crisp fifty-dollar bills out of my wallet. “How’s a kid like you got a hundred and fifty bucks just lying around?” he grumbles.
“I work hard,” I say. I don’t tell him that I stole the money from Dad’s safe, which is only for emergencies, but this qualifies as an emergency because I saw my name on this cassette tape mixed in with Isaac’s belongings and we already sold his stereo and I needed to listen to it immediately.
I wait while the cashier puts my money in the register’s drawer and hands me the plastic bag with my purchase inside. “Thanks for coming to RadioShack,” he says flatly, going back to repairing the broken TV behind the counter.
Outside, I sit down on the curb and unwrap the plastic packaging. The box tells me it’s a Sony Walkman WM-501, but I don’t care about the fancy features. I just need it to play my cassette.
As I press play, I hear Isaac’s voice crackle through the headphones.
Hi Tracy. Happy Birthday.
I pause the tape. Take a deep breath. Resume.
Sorry I couldn’t give you anything cooler. You know how it is… Angela and I’ve been planning the wedding, and it’s so expensive… There’s a sigh. Sorry, I shouldn’t be complaining. It’s your birthday! Hope you enjoy it.
I stay sitting on the curb when the tape transitions into the first song, some rock anthem. I can’t remember the name, but I know where I heard it the first time. I tuck the Walkman into my pocket, hop on my bike, and speed away from the RadioShack.
“Did you want something, Miss?”
I look up at the waitress standing over my table. I’ve been staring at the menu on my table for ten minutes, even though I don’t plan on ordering anything. “No thanks,” I say, wincing at the crack in my voice.
“Are you waiting for someone?”
“Well, when they get here, just give me a holler.”
I put the headphones back on my ears after she walks away. The Starlight Diner is too loud during lunch rush, and I need to be in silence for a little while.
“Why do you have to leave for college?”
Isaac smiles. “Because someone’s gotta look out for you.”
I cross my arms over my chest. “I think you’d do a lot better job looking out for me back home.”
Before Isaac says anything else, the waitress walks up and takes our orders: two double-scoop chocolate ice creams, one with rainbow sprinkles (Isaac) and one with hot fudge (me).
“You know I’ll be back to visit,” Isaac says when he sees me still pouting. “I’m not going away forever.”
I don’t say anything, just listen to the rock song playing through the restaurant’s speakers.
Isaac chuckles. “Chill, Tracy. We’ll still have adventures.”
The waitress comes back to the table. “Still waiting?” she asks.
I glance at my watch – it’s been nearly half an hour. “I don’t think they’re coming,” I reply sheepishly.
“Is there anything else I can get you?”
I hesitate. “Double scoop chocolate ice cream, with rainbow sprinkles please.”
I listen to the next song on the mixtape as I walk out of the diner with my ice cream cone. It’s a power ballad, and I’m trying to remember where I’ve heard it before as I walk down the street, leaving my bike locked up outside the diner. I almost walk right past the record store on the corner when it hits me – we were here.
“Have you ever listened to this band?” Isaac asks, holding up a record. He brushes a cobweb off of the corner.
I glance at the cover. “Heart?”
Isaac nods emphatically. “They have a girl lead singer. You might like them.”
I make a face.
“Relax!” Isaac smirks. “But really, they’re a good band. You should listen to them sometime.”
“You lookin’ for anything in particular?” a gruff voice behind me says.
I jump and whirl around, finding myself face to face with a young, leather-jacket-wearing man, probably close to Isaac’s age. The lanyard around his neck reads “JOSH” in big bold letters. He squints at me for a second, and his breath catches. “You… you’re Isaac’s sister, aren’t ya? I remember seeing you here before.:
I nod, my vocal cords frozen.
“I… I’m so sorry about what happened. It’s awful, he-” he coughs. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” I reply, parroting the words I’ve been practicing since the funeral.
“If you see anything you want, it’s on the house today,” Josh says. He coughs again. “You know. For Isaac.”
I look over the sea of vinyl records and used cassette tapes. “Actually… Do you have anything by Heart?”
I leave the record store with a cassette tucked under my arm – according to Josh, Heart’s latest album. I stuff it in my backpack for the time being, because I still have other songs to listen to.
When I hear the first beats of the next song, my heart stops, because I immediately know exactly where I’ve heard this before. And before I can tell myself not to, I run back to the diner, grab my bike, and pedal down main street, out of town, out to the overpass.
“Doesn’t this song just make you want to drive fast?” Isaac asks.
I eye the speedometer warily. “You should really slow down, Isaac. What if a cop sees us?”
He laughs. “It’s 2am, no one’s gonna see us.” But he slows down all the same.
We’re taking the offramp on the interstate when he speaks again. “I think I’m gonna propose to Angela.”
I blink. “Already?”
“Yeah. I really love her, Tracy.”
Maybe it’s because I’m only sixteen and I don’t understand love, but I didn’t expect them to get married so soon. “You’ve only been dating for a few months.”
I don’t really have an answer, but thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach all the same.
I’m standing beneath the overpass, looking up at all the cars and tractor trailers speeding along the interstate. We drove on this road dozens of times – it was the highway that took us from home to Isaac’s school, then to Isaac’s apartment later on. It was the first highway I drove on myself. Dad said it was safe, hardly anything bad ever happened on it.
Watching the cars is making me dizzy.
“Is this the King residence?” the unfamiliar voice on the phone asks.
“Yes. Who is this?”
The woman answers, but I only hear some of her words – Officer something, a terrible accident… bad weather, lost control, they tried to save him…
I know I should be crying, crumpled on the floor sobbing. “Let me go find my dad,” I say, and my voice only shakes a little.
No one should ever have to see their parents break down sobbing.
My vision is starting to blur at the edges again, and I swipe my jacket sleeve over my eyes. I knew coming here was a bad idea – I can still see the last scraps of caution tape where Isaac’s car landed, and I can hear Angela’s wails when Dad went to break the news to her.
I’m traveling at the speed of light…
I fast-forward to the next song and pedal away.
I don’t hear the next few songs as they blast through my headphones. The music washes over me. I’m numb. I’m not even crying, I’m just sitting on the curb outside of the record store, watching the traffic go by. I’m blocking out every memory of that night, the phone calls and funeral arrangements and family members. If I don’t think about it, I’ll be okay.
Then the music stops.
There’s static in the background as my brother’s voice comes through the headphones again.
Hey, it’s me again. The tape’s not over, but I felt like this song needed an introduction. I wasn’t really sure about including it, since, well… it’s kind of a love song. At least, I thought it was, until I listened to it with you.
My heart stops because I know exactly what song it’s going to be.
Don’t tell Angela this, but this is the song I want us to have our first dance to. I want it to be a surprise. He laughs. But it reminds me of you, too. I know it’s gonna sound cheesy, but even after I’m married, even if I have five kids or whatever, I’ll always be there for you, time after time.
Without any warning, the static cuts and I hear the opening of a song I know all too well.
The car radio crackles before it adjusts and tunes into a station. Isaac sighs. “This is Angela’s favorite song.”
I roll my eyes. “Is it just a sappy love song?”
My brother shrugs, but as I listen to the song, I start to think that maybe it’s not what I thought.
When the radio fades to commercials, Isaac turns the knob down. “What’d you think?”
I shrug. “I don’t think it has to be a love song. I think it can just be about someone you care about very much without being in love with them romantically.”
Isaac is silent for a few minutes as he navigates the streets of our town. “Y’know, I never thought of it that way.”
I don’t know how I ended up in front of Angela’s house. I want to say the music brought me here, but the words feel silly to say out loud. So when I ring the doorbell and Angela answers, wearing a nice blouse and slacks even though it’s nine o’clock on a Saturday night, my only explanation is, “I wanted to see how you were doing.”
She invites me in, tells me her parents are out with some friends of theirs. Isaac’s cassette tape is in my jeans pocket, weighing me down like a ball and chain.
“How are you doing, Tracy?” she asks.
I shrug. “I’m… okay. I, uh, found… I found something of Isaac’s earlier today. I thought you might like to see it.” I pause, then quickly add, “Only if you want to though. I know that can be… difficult.”
Angela smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “I’d love to.”
So I put the cassette tape in the small stereo at the kitchen table, and fast-forward to the last track, all while explaining this was the birthday gift Isaac was going to give me.
A tear trickles down Angela’s cheek when she hears Isaac’s recorded voice, especially when he talks about this being their first dance. But when the song begins, I realize I’m the one who’s sobbing more. I don’t know why it’s different this time – maybe because the second time around, I’m not too caught up in nostalgia that I realize Isaac won’t be able to keep his promise.
When the song’s over, Angela reaches across the table and cups her hand around mine. “I know,” she whispers.
“He promised, no matter what-” my voice cracks. “He wasn’t even doing anything stupid, he was just driving! Why would-” the words get caught in my throat, and I can’t finish.
Angela is silent. She doesn’t say anything until my sobbing has calmed down.
“I know it feels like he’s gone from us forever,” Angela says softly, staring at the wall behind me. “But we still have pieces of him.” She turns to look at me, smiling through her tears. “He picked those songs for a reason. Hold onto them.”
And I start to smile back, because even though things can’t go back to how they were, I still have Isaac’s music and words by my side.
If you’re lost, you can look and you will find me, time after time. If you fall, I will catch you I’ll be waiting, time after time.