This is a short story I wrote for Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass: The Art of Storytelling. I liked it a lot, so I wanted to share it here! This is my first short story I’ve posted here, so I hope you like it.
It was the First of November—the night of the burning—and Nan knew that something was different. A brisk wind blew the shriveled leaves, still clinging to the branches, making them shiver. No clouds hung in the sky, which meant no rain would spoil the fun. But Nan felt impending doom.
Nan stood in the village square with Chase like they did every year. They were both dressed in white and not talking. Not many people were.
No matter how long this tradition continued, there was always an uncomfortable feeling that accompanied the familiarity. Who knew what would happen the night of the burning?
The bonfire would be lit at sundown and burn all night. The village square was already full of people. Pumpkins from the night before sat on porch steps and in windows. Branches of red and yellow leaves adorned the doors.
Nan and Chase watched the sunset, in a display of pink, orange, and purple, and the officials—also dressed in white—lit the bonfire. In moments, the flame was above both their heads. Soon night cloaked the village, but the square glowed brightly.
In the light of the inferno, the crowd quieted. The sound of drumming grew out of the crackling of the burning wood, like the heartbeat of the village. A deep thrumming Nan felt in her bones.
Nan wanted to smile but didn’t. The calendar had turned. It was time for a release.
She snuck a glance at Chase and found him looking back at her. She looked away, willing the redness to stay away from her cheeks.
The village elders went first, as per tradition. Their voices rang out above the drumming, a traditional November song. As seasoned participants, they were full of all the wisdom and maturity of being an “elder.” The flame flickered as their bits of paper were tossed into the fire. Once they were done, the flame was open to all.
As people were ready, they stepped forward and threw their own items into the fire. Sometimes it was a cardboard box, sometimes a shoe, sometimes a paper crane.
Nan caught Chase looking at her again. He gave her one of his half-smiles. His eyes were sad, though. He always got sad on burn day. Nan did too, but she was better at hiding it. She was better at hiding everything, even from herself. But Nan could see something hidden behind Chase’s sadness. Things were changing, despite Nan’s best efforts.
The past year, Nan and Chase had both turned fourteen. As if by magic, their lives changed overnight. Chase started spending more time alone; they didn’t share all their secrets anymore. There were some lines that had been drawn and couldn’t be crossed.
Chase stepped into the flickering orange glow. He placed his hand on his chest and joined in the singing. His voice blended with the others’, but Nan could make it out. He sounded so sad.
He didn’t stop walking. He didn’t toss an object into the fire. Singing, he disappeared into the flames, his back figure quickly consumed by the heat.
Nan screamed. She reached forward as if she could still reach him.
At the edge of the fire, where Chase had just been, there was a carved wooden heart. Nan’s own real beating heart broke. Whatever someone produced for the fire was a symbol. A regret. A negative “what if” from the year past. She knew everything had changed, but she couldn’t have imagined this. A friendship full of childhood innocence disappeared like smoke into the starry sky.
Nan pressed her hand to her heart. A heart that was just starting to learn about life’s complications. In her hand, an object started to form. A carved wooden heart—the matching companion to Chase’s. Through her tears, she hurled the heart into the pyre of regret.