Between the Margins

This short story was submitted by an IB junior at St. Petersburg High. They submitted this story to the Iris & Stanley Shalit Short Story Competition in March 2021. This story won the first place prize of $150.

The morning after the fourth of July comes too soon. I stayed up last night watching the fireworks light up the sky until my eyes couldn’t stay open. By the time I tucked myself into my cozy sheets, even the room-shaking noises couldn’t keep me from sleep. Although the fireworks displays are my favorite part of summer, the mornings after are not. Waking up at noon with a splitting headache and being disoriented is not as glamorous as it sounds. If it weren’t for the soft light radiating from my phone after every text message, I may not have woken up. I roll over, groaning, and grab my phone from its spot on the nightstand. Notifications flood my phone all from the same name. If it were anybody other than Leah, the three missed calls and seventeen texts would be concerning. However, being friends with her for this long, I’ve gotten used to it. My eyes water from the faint glow, but I manage to read her messages. 

Time flies on summer days. One second I’m throwing on a pair of shorts, and the next moment, I’m steering my rusted purple bike towards Leah’s house. The brick roads jostle my bike making the whole frame tremble. The purple streamers on my handlebars flow in every direction as I build up speed. Dad has always refused to let me cut off the thin sparkly ribbons. My rusty bike was a gift for my 11th birthday. The wrapping paper was ripped away to reveal a shiny, purple set of new wheels decked out with streamers and a matching helmet. Every house on the block must have heard my squeals of excitement that day. Now, here I am. Sixteen, same bike, but a completely different girl. I no longer admire the flowy streamers or the way they flutter in the wind, and that old purple helmet must be in the garage behind piles of junk. 

Coins clink together in Leah’s basket as her bike leaves her driveway. They continue to bounce around making noise as our bikes coast down the street to the local thrift store. Leah drifts closer to me and I can smell the sunscreen she must have applied to her pale skin. My bronze, tanned skin has always kept me protected, even on the hottest days of summer. We fill the short bike ride with a simple conversation, only meant to keep the silence at bay. 

“Race you to the bike racks, Samantha,” she shouts. I press on the pedals harder, with my purple streamers flying in the wind as I attempt to catch up.

A bell sounds as the door swings open. I hold it open for Leah while I take in the mounds of clothing and furniture. She enters, makes her way over to a bin, and starts digging through it intently. Instead of looking through piles of clothes, I find myself in the book section. It’s a large bookcase, with several shelves sagging under the weight. Most of the books were thrown haphazardly and cluttered the spaces. I quickly scan the rows and nothing catches my eye, until I reach the final shelf. Pride & Prejudice, the book that sparked my love for reading, is perched on the last ledge. I am more than fond of the book. Everything about it swept me up. The storytelling, the romance, the style, the characters. There wasn’t a single flaw within the pages.  

My finger traces along the spine of the book lovingly. It’s full of little bends and tears all over. I flip to the front seeing the cover sits in no better condition than the backside. The book looks like it went through some rough days. I can’t help but wonder whose hands it has been through, or the places it’s seen. Opening the book, my eyes trace over the familiar words I had read countless times. A smile rests on my lips as I feel every emotion and memory from this classic novel. My memories take me back to the nights I spent dreaming of a kind of love as timeless as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. I blame Pride & Prejudice for my tendency to be a hopeless romantic. I sift through a few more pages and see colors flashing by. I slowly thumb through the pages and gaze in wonder at the colors reflecting at me. I notice how the margins are filled to the brim with little notes and scribbles.  

 My brain snaps back to reality when Leah shouts my name from somewhere in the clothing section. I find her swallowed up by the mounds of clothes while she holds up a tank top. It’s simple, but the bow in the center gives it a dainty flare. The top is exactly Leah’s style. 

“What do you think?” She asks while her eyes sparkle with excitement, “cute or no?” A loud Beatles song plays over the speakers, making it difficult to hear her. I manage to make out her question and I tell her that she’d look great in anything.

I set the battered copy of Pride & Prejudice on the counter along with a pair of tortoiseshell sunglasses I found while wandering. Something about the thin slanted handwriting in the book was too interesting to leave abandoned on the shelf. Maybe it was seeing my favorite book collecting dust that made me pity it, but either way, I had to buy it. Passing over my ten-dollar bill, I glance over at Leah to see her carrying armfuls of clothes. Her thin figure makes it look as if she could collapse from the weight. 

Pink sun rays light up my room softly as I finish cleaning up. My feet brush against the warm carpet below the window as I pick up my dirty laundry. Keeping my room clean has always been a necessity in my life. Having a clean room helps keep my mind clear. After the last stray bottle is thrown in the trash, I settle into my covers with my new book in hand. I riffle through the pages just to hear the sound as they fly past. The smell of old books fills the air along with a significant amount of dust. The reading light above my bed casts just enough light to read the short note on the first page. 

“Happy 16th Wilbur! I hope you enjoy filling the pages with your best commentary.” 

The handwriting on the note differs from the thin scribbles on the next page that I figure must belong to Wilbur. I flip to the next page eagerly, not bothering to read the introduction. I burrow deeper into my sheets ready to leave my dull room and enter the literary world that Jane Austen created. Before I can even read the first line, a cluster of messy writing blocks my line of sight. The writer, who I assume must be Wilbur, describes his love for this book in detail. He expresses his goal to make this copy his own by adding notes and decorating these pages with his thoughts. The tone of his message comes through so clearly that I feel as if I am lying right next to him, as he tells me about the times he’s read Pride & Prejudice. Turning the page, I’m met with fading blue highlights and more written comments. Sighing with content, I begin my journey through the book’s pages. 

For the next few hours, the empty air around me is filled with the sound of pages turning. The moon has long replaced the sun, but I don’t want to stop. My eyelids feel heavier than rocks, but what my body is saying is no longer my priority. I fight off the sleep that threatens to overtake me and I read another comment by Wilbur. The book reads“To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.” Wilbur’s writing in the left margin was perfect.

 “One day I’d love to dance with a beautiful girl and feel love like this, but it seems as if situations like these only happen in books.”

 I found myself staring at the note in awe. In what beautiful universe did boys my age spend their days reading classic novels and savoring every word as I did?

I place the book gently at the foot of my blue comforter. I lie there for a minute, reluctantly allowing myself to sink back into the real world. After hours spent hearing and feeling all of Wilbur’s thoughts, I have to adjust to the reality that I am desperately alone. I’ve now become painfully aware of the building heat in my room. Wilbur’s admirable take on the book sheds a new light. I enjoy his opinions and writings.

Any trace of spontaneity I once had dissipates over the week. Late afternoon beach trips with Leah turn into reading until the sunrise with Wilbur. His words haunt my mind lovingly. He seeps from the book into my reality like sand through an hourglass. I think of his witty comments while my dad makes bad jokes at dinner. I envision what he must look like as I look in the mirror and see myself. I hear his intuitive nature in the questions my little brother asks. Somehow in the past week, he had become my world. 

Page one turned into page 300, and here I sat now in tears over page 312. “Oh, Lizzy! Do anything rather than marry without affection.” Wilbur’s pen lines are darker here as he describes his fear of losing affection. 

“I had witnessed a marriage without affection firsthand in my parents. Since then, the lack of that warmth and care terrifies me more. Is trying to love worth the risk when it will inevitably end?”

 His marks become even more intense as he describes what happened between his parents. I’m overcome with wanting to hold him in my arms and comfort him. I would wipe any stray tears from his cheeks with my thumb and tell him everything will be alright. We could sit on my roof and watch the moon become the sun, but instead of having him here with me, the closest I can get is this small bundle of pages. Is it strange to miss a person who doesn’t know you exist?

 I wouldn’t go as far as to describe myself as addicted, but somehow putting down the book felt like what I could only compare to withdrawal. The same walls in my room with the same dresser and the same necklaces on top couldn’t compare to the world that lay tucked in the folds of the book. My fan blades swirl slowly, fighting the growing summer heat in my room. I hear a familiar ringtone emanating from my phone, which lay discarded in my now messy room. As my feet connect with the carpet, I notice the plastic bottles and makeup wipes thrown under my dresser. My floor had become a sea of trash and it seemed as if I would have to scuba dive between wrappers for my phone. 

The name flashing on the screen fills me with a pang of guilt stemming from my gut. Leah’s number is displayed in big white numbers pulsing as if to say “Answer me!” With a shaky finger, I accept the call, unsure of what would follow. Ever since the day I picked the book, basic necessities became less important. Wilbur’s words are my only necessity. Contrary to my mom’s belief, Wilbur wasn’t an obsession. I just enjoyed the company his notes provided. I consider him a friend now, which I don’t see as weird. I’m not obsessed with him, I just rely on him for happiness. He was better than any real-life person.  

Leah doesn’t bother with a hello when she answers. “Where have you been?” She questions me. 

“I don’t know,” I admit to her, my voice hoarse from the lack of water over these few days, “I’ve had a lot going on and-.”

“-Enough going on that you forget about your best friend?” Her tone is thick with betrayal. “Samantha, how many days has it been since we last talked? Do you even know?” At this point, I could hear tears behind Leah’s anger.

“Like five,” I say, more as a question than an answer. Silence fills the call for a second only to be broken by sniffing from the other end of the phone. 

“Fourteen, Sam,” she pauses, “Two weeks.” My stomach drops and I run my finger along the back of my cheap plastic phone case. It hadn’t really been two weeks, had it? I could feel the heat rushing to my cheeks. My sense of time had warped into a schedule based around Wilbur. I could easily stop reading at any time and call Leah, but I didn’t. I feel a twinge in my heart, but I refuse to believe my world revolves around a silly book. I still have control, I repeat to myself silently as I try to find some sense of stability. 

“You know what Samantha, have fun with your stupid book,” she snaps. After a small beep that tells me Leah has hung up, my room fills with excruciating silence. Strangely, the lack of any noise is deafening in a way no loud sound could ever be. 

Muscle memory takes over and leads my hands to the familiar spot at the edge of the bed. My finger finds the folded page easily. I don’t notice I’m crying until liquid taints the pages of my book. It spreads slowly while the page soaks it up. Sniffing slightly, I run my thumb under my eyes trying to prevent any more tears from falling. My attempt is futile though, and more tears come pouring down. A few cascade off my cheeks and onto a small note of Wilbur’s. I curse under my breath and attempt to wipe off the stain. Instead of getting rid of the excess liquid, the pen lines smudge together. The page swims beneath my gaze as I cry more. My sobbing only intensifies as I realize I’ve just lost a piece of Wilbur. “Please come back,” I beg hopelessly. Who was I begging for? Leah maybe? For Wilbur’s smudged note to become legible again? Somewhere deep down I knew it was for Wilbur. Although Leah was my last string keeping me attached to the fraying rope of reality, I don’t need her the way I need Wilbur. 

My reflection in the bathroom mirror stares back at me blankly. Leaning in, I notice the deep cracks in my dry lips. The mascara I had yet to take off had crusted between my lashes. The brittle hairs above my eyes look as if they could fall off at any moment. I try my hardest and search my brain to remember the last time I put on makeup. Was I really losing touch with the real world? My once well-fitting shirt looks as if it were on a hanger instead of my body. I take in the rest of my now skeletal frame seeing that my arms have become frail as well. I could barely comprehend that the girl in the mirror is me. She stares back at me in a ghostly way. Where did the old Samantha go? My mind races wondering how I let some boy in a book hold this power over me. Wilbur became a drug, I’m dependent on him no matter how badly he damaged me. I need to sober up but all I want is a fix.  

I give in and spend my early morning hours relishing every word as if it were the first. Slowly the number of pages begins to dwindle. It dawns on me as I turn to one of the final pages that once the book ends, Wilbur will too. I wasn’t ready to let go of him. My hands shake at the thought of him becoming a memory. I could feel my happiness being stripped away as I turned to the last page. My citrus candle flares up next to me casting a new thread of light onto Wilbur’s final goodbye. 

 “Every story must end. We have to learn to let go of our favorite characters and realize that ultimately, it’s just a story with some words strung together so beautifully they make you feel something.” 

With that final scribble I realize that in the end, that’s all he was. No matter how much I longed for his words to take on a tangible form, there he would remain tucked into the corners of pages and scribbled between the margins.