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At A Time

What happens when the past pays you a visit?

By sleepy draftsPublished 2 months ago • 12 min read
At A Time
Photo by Amith Nair on Unsplash

It's been a long time since I've seen a Christmas tree in my living room. Small, with plastic firs poking at odd ends, my thrift-store Christmas tree glows with pride in the centre of my one-bedroom apartment. Small lights twinkle from its base to its top, and every second-hand ornament smiles with untold stories.

For once, my living room walls are hung with holly. A poinsettia raises her head from my kitchen table, and the smell of coffee fills the room. From my side table, a cinnamon candle flickers and burns. Outside, snow drifts gently down, covering the railing of my balcony with a thick coat of frosting. I adjust the final touches to my cozy, winter wonderland, and stand back to appreciate the sight. Every detail is precise, each decoration deliberate.

After years of struggling, it feels good to have a place to finally call home.

A sharp pang shoots through my chest. Memories of holidays past, tug at my edges. If I focus on the moment in front of me, though, I can quietly shut those memories away.

I move myself to the kitchen, inhaling the bitter scent of fresh coffee. My hands move automatically in front of me, preparing the new cup, like an act of meditation. I study each mug, lined together in clean, narrow rows, and my mind tries not to wander as I take my first sip.

Despite the snow, I decide to go out onto the balcony. I stuff my sock feet into a pair of slippers and pull my hoodie up, over my head before heaving open the sliding door. From my balcony, I can watch Lake Ontario glisten with sun and ice. Skaters dot and glide across the lake, some playing hockey with friends, or holding hands on dates. Some, embark on the adventure of skating across the lake from Kingston to Wolfe Island; a trip that takes twenty minutes by ferry when the water is not frozen.

Weekend mornings, skaters get ready to start their full-day trek across the lake. From my balcony, I can see them gather in bunches, doling out stories from their week, hot chocolate from their thermoses. Laughter travels upwards from the waterfront, turned ice rink as backpacks are adjusted and skates are laced. Their journey will take about two hours to the island, then two hours back.

Once at Wolfe Island, the skaters rest and have lunch at the single restaurant in the area, before beginning their journey back. The goals are: have enough energy for the whole trip, and make it back before dark.

I only know this part since last weekend, when I went down to the pier to watch the skaters come home. Bundled up in a blanket scarf and snug beanie, my eyes followed each skater as they collapsed from ice into snow, panting and cherry-faced. One skater, who looked like he was also in his late twenties, began stubbornly plucking at his laces with stiff fingers, cursing under his breath. He looked over, "These damn things. My fingers, not the skates."

His face broke out in a broad smile, his cheeks ruddy against the chill. From under his forest green toque, a dark curl stuck to his face. He laughed, "Now, don't look you cozy!"

I looked away and laughed back, "I'm just here, admiring. You must be exhausted."

He nodded, "Every weekend. It feels great, though. And the island is always gorgeous. I take the ferry in the summer to visit. It's pretty amazing to be able to skate the trip in the winter."

The skater struck out his hand, "My name's Noah, by the way."

I smiled, "I'm Calla."

He told me while taking off his skates and organizing his gear, about the weekend trips to Wolfe Island with the others; about lunches at the restaurant, about worrying each time on his return journey, that he'd fall flat on his face, exhausted, before making his way home. As Noah talked, I found myself staring at his lips, the way his eyelashes fluttered in the snow. I wished for a moment that I could be the kind of woman he might be interested in: active, outdoorsy, and able to skate across Lake Ontario in negative thirty-degree weather.

Instead, I wished him luck on his journey next weekend and headed home to my perfectly organized mugs.

Now, I find myself leaning over my balcony to see if I can find his forest green toque and turquoise puffer jacket amidst the crowd. My eyes scan the confetti explosion of skaters below, but they are too far away to make any single person out. In the distance, among the sound of laughter and activity, there is another noise; a faint buzzing that grows increasingly louder the more I try not to look in its direction.

When the sound becomes too close for me to ignore any longer, I look up. In front of me, a drone wobbles in the wind outside my balcony. Its camera eye-lens blinks once at me, and pauses to process the image before it continues. Satisfied with the facial recognition, the drone whirs to my balcony doorstep and lowers a slim cardboard box onto my welcome mat.

Without waiting for further instruction, the drone zips away, leaving me with the unmarked package.

I pick up the box and drift off the sprinkle of snow on top of it. Bringing it up to my ear, I give it a soft shake and hear only the shuffling of its contents. There is no address, either "to" or "from," and the package is entirely devoid of logos.

I've never received an anonymous package, before. Is there a protocol? Am I supposed to do something with it, other than open it?

Since the box doesn't smell nefarious and isn't ticking, I decide to bring it inside. On my kitchen table, though, the box somehow looks even more foreboding; this unknown intruder, impeding on my carefully crafted sanctuary of peace and stability. The lights, twinkling from my tree grow dimmer. The cinnamon candle is suddenly suffocating.

My head swims the more I look at the box until finally, I grab the kitchen knife and begin to slice through the packing tape.

I recognize it before I even finish opening the package.

A small, blue rectangle, stained, wilted, and torn around the edges:

My old journal.

As I peel apart the cardboard, every memory I had been trying to shut out hits me at once. I don't want to read over my own, past words.

Anger, embarrassment, and fear rush through my face. My body feels hot and shaky, my stomach, a deepening hole in my torso. My hands are weak as I lift the journal from the box until I see what's underneath.

My rage is replaced with dread when I see my father's blocky lettering, neatly printed on a plain envelope in the centre of the box. My father's handwriting is distinctly his; my name is spelled out in familiar square letters, the A's replaced with triangles. I am angry, I am scared, but mostly I am heartbroken.

When I left my father's home years ago, I must have forgotten my journal.

While living there, I journaled almost every day. Every good and bad thought that crossed my mind breathed from those pages. Including, every shame-inducing feeling I had, living in company of the side effects of my father's alcoholism.

The thought of my father reading the words I wrote while angry with him tears me in two. No one was ever meant to read that journal.

With a sinking feeling, I open my dad's letter.

Dear Calla,

I hope this finds you well. I understand if you choose not to read this letter, or look at these photographs. That is to say, I understand if the damage is already done. But I hope that you can bear with me, just a little while longer.

It's been two years since I've seen you, and in those two years, I've been going through the steps of recovery.

Maybe I should have told you sooner. Maybe that is another reason for you to be angry with me. But I had to be sure this time. In celebration of receiving my two-year chip, I wanted to write you this apology.

I'm sorry, Calla.

It wasn't easy for you to leave, and I'm proud of you for keeping yourself safe when I no longer could. I'm sorry that I ever put you in that position.

I love you, Calla. I hope to hear from you one day.

I understand if I do not.

Love, Dad.

p.s. I found your journal while I was cleaning up your old room. I thought you might want it back. Don't worry, I remember how you are about privacy. I didn't read a word. Love you, kiddo.

Under his letter is a photograph. Beaming, proud as the sun, is my father holding his two-year chip. I press the picture to my face, and can see, even in the grainy quality, my father's eyes, clear and confident.

For the first time in years, I look into my dad's face and recognize him.

One by one, I flip through the collection of photographs. An old picture of me when I was in kindergarten, missing two teeth and grinning at the camera; a photo of the childhood home we spent the most years living in. A faded Kodak, dated from the year of my birth, of a field that bursts with calla lilies; the same field my parents fell in love in, decades ago. On the back of the Kodak, there's a small poem, scribbled in my mother's handwriting:

The calla lilies

so pure and open

bud with fairness

and certainty.

One day,

my beautiful, Calla

I know you will


I don't know what to feel at first. Childlike hope and adult pain swim together in my chest. Part of me doesn't want to believe him, in case it all goes wrong again. A larger part of me, though, perhaps that childlike part, aches to hear my father's voice.

My apartment is darker now, as the sun begins to fade. I look over at the tree, the holly, the poinsettia, and I feel hollow. The only gift under the tree is the one I bought for my mother in September. My walls, although decorated with holiday cheer, are otherwise empty of artwork or photographs.

I can't stand to be in here, anymore.

Before I register what I'm doing, I pull on my boots and winter jacket, and head to the pier.

Standing by the water, even frozen, makes everything seem more manageable. The sun, low and sinking, refracts warm, blood-orange rays across the lake. Above me, the sky is a deep indigo, as tiny pinpricks of light begin to make themselves known. Every breath of fresh air is clean and cold, opening my lungs, and electrocuting me from the inside. I pull my scarf tighter around me, as I rest my weight against a stripped tree. My head feels lighter now, calmer. Like the pier, after all the families have gone home for roast beef dinners and egg nog. I rub my temples.

"Hey, you!"

I look up. Coming towards me, awkwardly punching his skates into the semi-frozen snow, is Noah. His hat looks almost black in the fading sun, his jacket more cerulean now than turquoise. Smiling at me, though, his face is just as bright.

I smile, "Hey. How was the journey today?"

Noah collapses beside me and puts his legs up in the air, relieving his feet. He exhales a loud groan. "Honestly? I almost didn't make it, today. Well, I mean I had to. There's no other choice when you're in the middle of a frozen lake. But, damn. All I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and pray the elements would be cool to me."

He thrusts himself to an upright position and begins to unlace his skates. He continues, "Obviously, I didn't. But, holy crow."

Suddenly he stops, aware of himself. "Sorry, that was probably more than you were asking for. How are you, Calla?"

I can't help smiling at his openness, and the way he so easily remembers my name. "My day was..."

I'm tempted to lie at first. But after Noah's honesty, I feel compelled to open up. "Honestly?"

I mimic his own reply, "I almost didn't make it today."

Noah raises his eyebrows. "Oh?"

I nod, and he moans as he removes his foot from his skate. Rubbing it quickly, he slips it into his boot, pulled from his backpack. Tying the skates together, he stands up. "Well, Calla. Would you like to talk about it over dinner?"

"A hot meal, and a long conversation sound incredible."

Chatting with Noah was fluid, like no tangent was a delay.

I asked him, "So when did you decide to skate to Wolfe Island for the first time?"

He sipped his wine. "Four weeks ago, actually. I used to be a smoker and I was curious if my body could make it. The first time was hell. The second time, also hell. The third? More bearable. Today was hell again, but hey, you know how it goes."

He smiles, "One day at a time, right?"

He leans over and pulls something from his backpack. It takes me a moment before I realize, it's a photograph.

"I got this photo of the lake last time, and I don't know. It feels worth it for moments like that."

The photograph is all sunlight and ice, much like the vision I lingered over each day from my balcony. Except, in the photograph, the perspective is from Wolfe Island, looking back onto Kingston. In the very distance, I can see the faint outline of my apartment building, although Noah doesn't know that.

I look up, and see he's watching me.

"It's beautiful." is all I can manage to say.

He reaches across the table, "Here."

Delicately, he hands me the photograph. "It's yours."

By the end of dinner, Noah promises to teach me how to skate.

When I come home, the lights on the Christmas tree are still twinkling, brighter now against the dark. There's no candle lit, but somehow, everything still feels warm. I walk over to my junk drawer in the kitchen, and pull out a roll of scotch tape. Next to the tree, under the holly, I press Noah's photograph against the wall.

Suddenly, my home feels more full than it has in months.

I glance at the package, still a mess of cardboard carnage on my kitchen table. I pick up the letter and trace the words, before taping my father's photographs to the wall, too.

That night, beyond any reasonable hour, I call my dad.


There's a pause before he responds. Relief fills the empty space, "Calla."

He sighs, "It's so good to hear from you."

familyMysteryShort StoryLove

About the Creator

sleepy drafts

a sleepy 26-year-old named em :)

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  2. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

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Comments (16)

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  • Lisa A Lachapelle17 days ago

    A beautiful story.

  • Em Starrrrr17 days ago

    A delicately and cleverly woven story, rich with symbolism and emotion. Love your work! Hearted and subscribed. Ems unite!

  • That scent is filling my living room. I have the plug-in from Yankee candle. I love it.

  • Zahra Movassagh18 days ago

    very good

  • Carol Townend19 days ago

    Em, this is an amazing story!

  • Keila Aartila19 days ago

    I loved this story, and the incredible, emotional journey you took us on. A very good read! Thank you for sharing this. :)

  • Heather Hubler20 days ago

    This was painful and beautiful to read. You captured all the emotions so clearly. Wonderfully written :) Congratulations on your Top Story!!

  • Great writing and well deserved Top Story

  • F Cade Swanson23 days ago

    Addiction is so painful. This story is lovely and captures so many relatable emotions, especially the ways that holidays can bring up so many complicated emotions. Thanks for writing this!

  • Jordan Twiss2 months ago

    This was a very sweet tale, one of my favourite reads of the challenge so far. I love how you built that spark with Calla and Noah, and her situation with her dad. It all felt so authentic and the emotion shone through. Excellent work!

  • U.Rdiya2 months ago

    a wholesome story! well written.

  • Babs Iverson2 months ago

    Brilliant!!! Lovely story hopeful, warm and tender,loving it💕😊❤️💕

  • Gina C.2 months ago

    Oh, this was wonderful!! I really, really enjoyed it. I loved learning about how the skaters would skate all the way to the island during the winter, and was unwrapped in the blossoming spark between Calla and Noah. Also, everything was described to incredible detail - I would read a part II to learn more about Calla and Noah 🥰❤️

  • Dana Stewart2 months ago

    You really pulled at the heart-strings with this one! Well done. Emotional, character driven, great pace. Love it.

  • Jasmine S.2 months ago

    This was great. It gave me all the feels. Nicely written and impactful. :)

  • Cathy holmes2 months ago

    This is beautifully written and incredibly heartwarming. Love it

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