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Fiction Fantastic 2024 Winning Story: “Let Go” by Nina Kuhl

The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.

You can purchase this story in the 2024 Winners Anthology, Realm of Forgotten Dreams.

“Let Go” by Nina Kuhl, Roosevelt Middle School

Third Place, Middle School Level, 2024


Let Go

by Nina Kuhl

Roosevelt Middle School

How can this be the new reality?

Marilyn sat hunched in the back seat of her mom’s silver SUV, gazing blankly out the window. Her heart began to palpitate, causing her chest to cramp, while hot sweat dripped from her palms.

“Are you OK, sweetheart?” her mother asked gently, noticing her daughter’s pale, panicked face through the rearview mirror.

“I’m. . .fine,” Marilyn whispered, her silvery voice sinking into the silence, barely even there.

Powerful, overwhelming emotions flooded into her brain, faster than a rapid river, drowning all thoughts of happiness and pleasant things. It was grief and fierce worry, mixed with great annoyance that she had to spend her Saturday at a therapist’s office.

“I know this isn’t your ideal weekend activity,” Marilyn’s mom admitted empathetically, sensing Marilyn’s thoughts. “I understand how you feel, but, trust me, this will be good for you.”

“This will be good for you.” Those words weren’t new to Marilyn’s ears. In fact, that sentence was pretty much all her mother had said to her in the last month.

The almost-teenager didn’t feel the need to respond as they pulled into a mostly empty parking lot. Every word that escaped her mouth was another useless attempt at knocking some sense into her mom.

Her body shaking involuntarily, Marilyn hesitated before exiting the car. Her insides squirmed and twisted, refusing to sit still while her head pounded with anxiety. Reluctantly, she directed herself towards a tall windowless building that eerily resembled a prison.

The mother and girl, both anxious for their own reasons, entered the gloomy building and walked into a small, colorful room with a wooden desk and a few bright cushioned chairs, the smell of jasmine immediately striking Marilyn’s nostrils.

Marilyn’s mom stepped up to the desk and began to speak politely to the young lady sitting there, who appeared about as bored as the kids in Marilyn’s social studies class. Refusing to look her mom in the eye, Marilyn focused her gaze on her beaten-up Converse, which rested on the dusty wood floor.

After a long minute, Marilyn’s mom ushered her to sit on one of the comfy chairs. Marilyn collapsed onto a pillow, settling into the peace of the room, which in no way matched the outside of the building.

Her eyes fluttered shut and her breath slowed slightly. Through all the panicked thoughts swirling around her brain, one question poked its way to the top: Why? Why did her mom think sending her to some rando she’d never met would cure her grief? Why did her mom think she’d benefit from confirming the fact that she had a “disorder?” Why did her mom think that this was the only solution?

Sure, Marilyn had struggled with depression ever since her father passed away a few months ago. But throwing her into a neon chair and telling her to express how she felt to an unfamiliar woman was not how to solve that problem.

The low, gravelly voice of a middle-aged man jerked Marilyn back to sad reality.

“Marilyn Clements?”

“All right, honey, that’s you!” Marilyn’s mom whispered, giving her daughter a light push.

“I know my name,” Marilyn hissed back, swallowing her nerves and gingerly following the man as he led her down a dark hallway.

His cold, stern face certainly did not make Marilyn feel more at ease as he gestured toward the end of the hall where a cozy little office lay ahead of them.

“Dr. Katz will be there in a minute,” the guy told Marilyn in his gruff voice. “You can go inside and wait till she comes.”

“OK,” Marilyn stuttered inaudibly as the man marched off, leaving her alone, like she had been for the past two-and-a-half months.

It was awkward standing in the hallway by herself, so Marilyn followed instructions and walked into the little pink office. It looked like it had been decorated by a cat lady who was obsessed with the color pink. Everything was either furry, fuzzy, or fluffy. Pink paintings of flowers and kittens lined the walls, fairy lights and artificial pink ivy dangled from the ceiling, a soft pink rug spread across the floor, and the cushioned chairs and couch were covered in heart-shaped pillows and the kind of squishy stuffed animals that little kids squeeze when they’re upset. Marilyn took a seat on the big fluffy couch and let her thoughts fill the silence.

She couldn’t do this. No matter how much her mom wanted it. It wasn’t fair and it didn’t feel right. This wouldn’t help—it would make everything worse.

“Sorry, Mom,” Marilyn mumbled as she rose to her feet and made a beeline for the door.

It seemed that it was clearly not Marilyn’s lucky day. Just as her hand gripped the door handle, a blonde lady briskly walked up to the door as well, causing Marilyn’s cheeks to turn pink and rush back to the cushy couch, just as the lady pushed open the door.

The woman entered the office and strolled over to the heavily decorated desk in the corner. She took a seat in the rolling chair and grinned as she said jokingly, “I hope you weren’t trying to run away. Don’t worry. I don’t bite.”

Marilyn just stared at her, not daring to answer. The lady looked like she was in her thirties (as predicted), her shoulder-length hair falling around her dimpled cheeks and her warm turquoise eyes sparkling at Marilyn.

“Hi there, it’s very nice to meet you,” the woman said as she settled into her chair and opened her desktop computer. “I’m Dr. Katz, and it seems like I’ll be working with you for a little bit. I assume you’re Marilyn?”

Ignoring all desperate wishes to leave, Marilyn forced her head to nod.

Dr. Katz beamed another pearly white smile.

“Great! So, Marilyn, I just want to let you know before we begin that this is a very safe place. Whatever you choose to say will stay between you and me—I won’t tell anyone else anything, not even your parents or family. The only exception is if you say something that suggests potential danger for yourself or others—for example, if you were to talk about a plan to injure yourself, or someone else. Understood?”

Another reluctant nod from Marilyn.

“Awesome! Also remember that you can share anything you like, and I promise not to respond negatively. I won’t make fun of you or say anything judgmental. I’m only here to help you.”

Marilyn didn’t respond, so Dr. Katz continued.

“On that note, let’s get started! So, Marilyn, how old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“Such a great age. And are you in sixth or seventh grade?”

“Seventh.”

There wasn’t anything Marilyn hated more than peppy adults who try to coat everything they say with an extra layer of sugar. It was so obviously fake and annoying—couldn’t Dr. Katz just say the facts: “There’s something wrong with your brain. I’m here to make you normal like everyone else.”

“How’s that going for you so far? Do you have friends at school?’

What kind of question was that? Did she have friends? Of course she had friends. Did she really seem that pathetic?

“Yes,” Marilyn grunted.

“OK, just checking in! Do you have a good friend group? Or just a couple close friends?”

“I have a group.”

“Wonderful! Do you get along with your family? What is it like at home?”

“My dad just died.” Marilyn showed no emotion as she spoke. It was simply a fact.

“Oh, I know, sweetheart, your mom told me and I’m so sorry to hear that. That must be so tough for you.”

Since when were Dr. Katz and her mom BFFs? Since when was her mom talking about all the personal stuff happening in their house? Wasn’t the mom not supposed to get involved in therapy?

Despite the angry thoughts bouncing around Marilyn’s head, the understanding in Dr. Katz’s eyes—the way she genuinely seemed to feel bad—brought a little blanket of warm comfort to Marilyn’s sad, scared heart.

“Yeah,” Marilyn said. “It has.”

“I know how it feels. My mother died in a car crash a few years ago, and to this day I still can’t believe she’s gone.”

The empathy never left Dr. Katz’s eyes once as she talked, and Marilyn realized why. She had gone through the same thing.

Maybe for once, someone actually knew how Marilyn was feeling. It wasn’t sympathy—it was empathy. Dr. Katz was speaking from experience.

“I can’t believe he’s gone either,” Marilyn breathed shakily. In the past two-and-a-half months she had never admitted how she felt. She stored everything in a pit inside her stomach, and no one got to go near it—no one got to reach inside.

“Have you talked to anyone about it so far?” Dr. Katz asked.

Marilyn’s mouth started to curve into the word “yes,” but she hesitated. This was a safe space.

“No. Never.”

Dr. Katz showed no signs of surprise as she looked kindly at Marilyn.

“Have you ever wanted to talk about it?”

“Yes.”

“What has been the hardest thing for you, since the incident—if you don’t mind sharing?”

At this point, Marilyn had dug herself a deep hole, which she was now trapped inside. And since she no longer had the option to go up, her only choice was to dig down deeper.

“The fact that he’s never coming back.”

The pain in Dr. Katz’s eyes revealed that she, too, had faced that same feeling.

“I just want to pretend it’s a bad dream,” Marilyn surprised herself by saying. “I don’t want to face reality.”

“I felt the same way with my mother—the hope that it isn’t really happening, that it’s all a dream, or your imagination.”

“Exactly,” Marilyn whispered, astonished. Had she really found someone else who shared her emotions, her thoughts? The ones that a few minutes ago she was convinced were abnormal, concerning, weird?

Marilyn’s mother never showed any sign of negative emotion—although she was kind and generous, she was reserved and never let anyone see her crack. It left Marilyn feeling alone in her emotions, never quite sure if her mom was feeling the same way.

Shifting in her seat, Dr. Katz said, “These are all completely normal thoughts and feelings. What you and so many others in the world are experiencing is grief.”

“I thought I was struggling with depression,” Marilyn replied. “That’s what my mom said. I thought I was coming here to be properly diagnosed with a depression disorder.”

Dr. Katz smiled sadly.

“It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes. Both are completely normal and common but, in general, depression lasts for a while and is not always triggered by a certain event. When you are depressed, your interests, eating habits, and sleeping habits can all change. You could feel like there’s no point in anything, in life, and you might sit on the couch for days just feeling sad. Whereas grief is intense sadness caused by a traumatic event, most often death. Unlike depression, grief does not usually qualify as a “disorder” and doesn’t usually need medical attention, unless it lasts a very long time and causes thoughts of self-harm. Nothing about your grief is abnormal. It is very common to still feel sad and heartbroken at this stage. The good news is both grief and depression can be helped by talking to a therapist, so you’re in the right place.”

Relief—warm, friendly, and comforting—sunk into Marilyn’s brain and body, soaking her, the way a sponge absorbs water. She was OK. Her deep sorrow and pain was “normal” and “very common.” And whatever emotions she was dealing with could be treated and learned to manage.

“You know, I had a female patient around your age, about a year ago,” Dr. Katz told Marilyn. “She struggled with very similar grief. Her mother had died in a car crash, and it was a big shock to her whole family. When she came in, she spoke about how she didn’t want to let go of her mother, how she couldn’t deal with the thought of her being gone forever.

“I asked her what something her mother loved was. Something that reminded her of her mom, something that made her think of her. This girl said that her mom had loved dogs, especially their family dog.

“So she collected a bunch of her dog’s loose hairs that he’d shed and the two of us walked over to the river down the street. We stood on top of the bridge and dropped the hairs into the river and watched them fall and float away. It was our way of letting her mom go—watching her float away but still remain on the earth, in the air, in the girl’s heart. I don’t know if you’d find it beneficial, but my patient really did. Would you maybe want to try doing something like that?”

Marilyn considered the thought for a moment. Did she really want her dad to float away—to leave her forever? That was exactly what she’d been trying to avoid realizing.

“I don’t know,” Marilyn said skeptically. “I don’t think that would help me, because I don’t want to think about my dad leaving me.”

“I understand that, but I think of it more as ‘not really leaving’ instead of ‘leaving,’” Dr. Katz explained. “I like to think that even though they are not technically with you anymore, you are still together in your memory and your heart, and they are still out there, somewhere.”

That was a good point. Maybe it was worth a try.

“OK.”

“I don’t want to force you to,” Dr. Katz said with understanding. “I just think you might find it helpful.”

“OK, I’ll do it.”

Dr. Katz gave Marilyn another twinkling smile.

“I think that’s wonderful. We can do that at the end of the month, on the day of our last appointment. but in the meantime, what’s something your dad likes? Something that reminds you of him? Maybe you can think about that—”

That wasn’t a hard question to answer.

“Roses,” Marilyn interrupted immediately. “He loved roses. He said they are a symbol of love and beauty, and he planted them all over our backyard.”

“That’s so nice—how wonderful! Since your dad liked roses, what if we sprinkle rose petals into the river?” Dr. Katz asked.

“Sure.” Marilyn liked that idea. It was beautiful yet meaningful. It represented her dad perfectly.

***

The chilly April air stung Marilyn’s face, but in a good way. A thick sheet of snow-white fog engulfed the neighborhood, tormenting everyone with lingering winter weather, while the bright green grass and pink buds forming on the cherry blossoms promised spring was on its way.

As Marilyn and Dr. Katz ambled up the stone bridge, fighting against the intense gusts of winds, the clouds gave way to a small patch of shining sunlight, creating an effect that many would describe as magical.

A slight smile crept up Marilyn’s face—the first smile in a long, long time. The day that it had all started—the day she talked to Dr. Katz for the first time, trembling from fear—felt like centuries ago, almost non-existent. She never thought the past month was even possible. How could some doctor have created light in the darkest of times? How could some stranger have helped her make so much progress? How could sitting in a room and expressing how she felt make everything so much clearer? That was still a mystery to Marilyn.

As the two reached the top of the bridge, now high above the rushing gray-blue water, Marilyn clutched her Ziploc bag tight to her chest. She knew it was time, but she still stalled an extra minute, pretending to be very fascinated by a rock that resembled a monkey.

“Are you ready, honey?” Dr. Katz asked Marilyn in her gentle, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly sort of way.

Marilyn scanned the river and then turned to Dr. Katz.

“I think so.”

She peeled open the plastic bag and extended it out.

“Here, take a handful first.”

“Oh, sweetie . . .” Dr. Katz looked touched. “That’s nice of you, but this is for you. You’re the one letting go.”

Marilyn began to draw the bag back, but hesitated.

“Take some. For your mother. It’s never too late to let go again.”

Dr. Katz seemed to come to the conclusion that Marilyn was going to persist, and if the doctor had learned anything in their therapy lessons, she would know how stubborn the girl was.

“All right, I’ll take a few. I appreciate it, dear.”

Dr. Katz plunged her hand into the bag and pulled out a small handful of rose petals, each one its own vibrant color.

Marilyn grabbed the rest of the beautiful, dried petals that she had collected from her garden.

“When do we drop them?”

“Whenever you’re ready.”

“OK.” Marilyn took a long, deep breath, soaking in the sun, the air, the sounds of flowing water. “I’ll count us down. One . . . Two . . . Three . . . Go!

The two of them released the petals from their hands and watched them slowly flutter down. When they reached the water, they floated gracefully on the surface of the water and slowly made their way down the river.

Marilyn watched closely, not blinking, not moving.

That was her dad.

He was floating away—away from her, away from her family, away from their city. Forever.

He was beautiful, colorful, peaceful. He made everything around him so much better and brighter.

Marilyn would miss him. She already did. She wanted him by her side, holding on to her. She wanted him next to her, physically.

He wasn’t gone in her memory, though. In her heart, in the air around her, in the river, he still lingered, and she would hold on to him forever in that way.

She had let him go.

But then again, she hadn’t.