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Thank you to all who entered our Creative Minds Fiction Contest! This year, we received more than 800 entries, representing 43 states, 21 countries, and 6 continents. We are thrilled to announce the winners here.
Waking the Dead
by Cole Vandenberg
Brian Terence died in November of 1854 at the age of twenty-three. A few years prior, his wife had given birth to a girl, whom they named Emily. But Death never takes such circumstances into consideration when he works. Brian was lost and mourned, and the world stood lonely without him.
On the day of his burial, the naked trees of the graveyard whined against the grey sky. Winter, it seemed, had her foot in the door. In a few weeks, she would turn the ground to a cold stone that no shovel could penetrate. Today, however, the earth sat ravaged and gaping as Brian was lowered to rest. He was buried with a string that ran above ground to a bell. This was not uncommon. It was very difficult for those who loved the dead to give up hope entirely, as the little silver bells that spotted the graveyard displayed. As long as the bells were present, death’s impermanence remained a possibility.
Hours later, in the dead of night, a man slept by the grave. He sat slumped in his chair, which he had set up beneath one of the trees. His chin nested in the divot of his collarbone and his corduroy jacket was pulled up around his neck, blanketing against the chill that turned his sleep-breaths to ice. He was stationed to listen for a ringing bell that would inform him of a premature burial. He had worked as graveyard watchman for forty years. After twenty he had given up on staying awake. He was not irresponsible, he was merely practical. A ringing bell would call him to duty, and despite his years, he had never heard a ringing bell. That night would be the first.
He blinked, swallowed, and woke moments after Brian Terence did the same six feet below him. The bell had rung once, and the watchman found consciousness just in time to hear the last seconds of its tone die in the wintry air. He looked down at the bell. The string was pulled taut, having snagged on a root. He forced himself to his feet and made his way over to it. His knees popped as he crouched to pull the string free. Upon release, the clapper in the bell sprang to life, splitting the night with its sound. The old man stumbled backward and fell into his chair again. He looked around for his shovel before remembering that twenty years ago it, too, had been abandoned. He climbed upright again and moved himself toward the supply shed on one end of the yard.
He struggled with his keys in the time-rusted padlock. His arthritic fingers quivered in the cold, proving largely uncooperative as well. Apprehension set one knee to bouncing in time with the bell, which continued its ringing in unrelenting desperation. Eventually, the lock clicked open, and the chain to which it was attached snaked to the ground. He pulled out the shovel and moved back toward the grave, cursing at his inability to travel with anything beyond a shuffle.
At the grave, the shovel bounced off the dirt with a low clang. The night had frozen the ground. Driving downward with his heel, he was eventually able to dent the earth. Fatigue ate at him. His anxiety proved to be his only defense against it. Slowly, he made his way downward.
It was monotonous work. Time was marked only by a steady increase in the frenzy of the ringing, and as this progressed, the watchman became more feverish. His movements became quick and sloppy, and he would occasionally knock dirt back into the grave. His nerves jumped and fritzed. The bell did nothing to calm them. Finally, when the stress became too great, the old man reached upward, grabbed the string, and snapped it. The ringing fell to an echo. He paused for a moment and sighed. The tears that had begun to well in his eyes started to ebb. Once calm, he set back to digging.
It was just after the watchman realized that ground level had passed his head that the shovel bounced off the ground for the second time that night. He swept away the remaining dirt and pebbles and gazed at the smooth wood on which he stood. He heard nothing. A light pain in his nose accompanied the downward tug on his mouth and the closing of his throat as the tears began again to press at his eyelids. He pulled open the lid of the coffin. Brian Terence stared back, his hands closed around the severed string. The watchman was too old, too slow, and too late. The dead would remain dead after all. Crippling defeat washed over him, and he fell to his knees and wept. The neat suit of the dead man absorbed his tears.
Even after he had collected himself, he continued to sit silently in the coffin. The stars were out in Brian’s eyes. As a final act, the watchman closed them. Rising to his feet, he closed the coffin lid and began to pull the dirt back into place. His fatigue and the physical strain gave him no breaks now. He moved slowly as ever, guilty and heartbroken. Eventually, he was able to pull himself out of the hole. He gazed down at the grave for a moment before continuing to toss dirt from above. This would be the man’s second burial.
Dawn broke on the horizon as the watchman replaced the last load of earth. He went back to his chair and sat, laying his shovel beside him. An hour later, the people of the town began to stir and an old friend dropped by the graveyard to take the watchman to breakfast.
“You slept well, I trust?” the man asked, with a chuckle.
The bells were silent.
Cole Vandenberg, 17, is a high school junior from Victor, NY. He enjoys playing his guitar, painting and sculpting, and taking walks in the woods. He is thankful for the encouragement of his parents and teachers and for the opportunity to share his work.
Judge’s comments: Along with a very distinctive and mature voice, this story crafts a strong plot that puts its protagonist through a range of emotions. There are some beautiful descriptive details, like: “On the day of his burial, the naked trees of the graveyard whined against the grey sky. Winter, it seemed, had her foot in the door.” The main character’s panic is also vividly described, and the author clearly has a knack for showing and not telling a story. Overall, the story shines for its unique voice, fully developed character arc, and rich sensory details.
by Freshta Rahmani
I feel the pebbles from the road digging into the soles of my feet through my paper thin shoes. Ota Jan¹ promised that we only had a little more to go, but then again, he also promised me new shoes. I look over at my brother’s feet and wonder if he’s thinking the same thing, but his sheer normalcy tells me how accustomed he’s become to our situation.
The wind picks up and I shield my eyes from the dust that is about to hit my face. The wind persists like a bad cough and I pull my scarf around my face and wrap it the way Modar Jan taught me to when these sorts of things happened.
Ota Jan heard about how Kaka Rahman’s family was visiting and how they were from America. As soon as he found out, he told us to put on our best shoes and clothes and asked us to bring him his black vest, the one that had the forty afghanis in it.
Forty afghanis is not a lot―definitely not enough for a new pair of sandals―but it is enough to bring a small gift to the Americans.
I dream about America whenever we take these kind of trips, letting my mind drift off to a place where I can escape to. Ota Jan was always telling me about how they lived in a land where the grass was green and the skies were pink, but the skyscrapers that they had were shinier than anything Afghanistan’s ever seen. He used to sing a little song about the country to me―something he did only when he was truly happy―as a lullaby.
I love to picture myself there, standing underneath a skyscraper that Ota told me was called the “Empire State Building”, smiling and waving to my reflection in the shiny, shiny metal.
Ota Jan thinks that someone will be able to help us. Him.
He makes us walk several miles each time, trying to convince us that this person will be different. But most of the time, it’s himself who he’s trying to convince.
“No, no, bacha jan, this person will help.” He rambles on, gripping our hands while we cross the street, dodging death amongst the speeding cars. “They will. And when they do, I can finally buy you the new shoes I promised you, and we will have dishes with chicken and lamb and oh! You all will grow tall, and big, and strong―strong enough to beat your old man.” He’d laugh at the end with the kind of laugh that sounds genuine. But I know my father. His laughter is forced, and I think deep down he realizes that there’s no hope for any of us.
I ignore the pebbles, telling myself that we only have a few more minutes to go; soon we’ll see Kaka Rahman’s yellow house at the end of the wide alley, and I’ll see kids racing and playing around and maybe I’ll join them. Maybe, this time, I won’t have to deal with the Americans staring. But it’s useless; everyone stares.
I don’t even have to follow my father’s large footprints anymore; I’ve been to Kaka Rahman’s house so many times that its location is etched into my muscle memory. I make a small prayer in the four seconds I have before we reach the front door, asking for this visit to be the last one. Asking for Father to be helped.
He raps on the door loudly, and I hear a dog barking on the other side. A girl who looks only a couple of years older than me peeks her head out, but I don’t recognize her. She must be one of the Americans, then. An Amreekoiy. She lets us inside when Kaka tells her to shut the door, then leads us past the gates into the space outside the living room. We take our shoes off and I long for a chance to freshen up before I take a step inside.
From a quick eye sweep over myself, I notice that my feet and nails are dusty from all the street-walking. I look down upon my dress and see the tiny tear in the collar and the hole in the sleeve that Mother never had a chance to fix. I try my best to smooth out my scarf and tuck in the few strands of hair that escaped from running, and I walk inside after my father and brother, greeting Kaka Rahman as soon as I enter.
The audible gasp I hear doesn’t take me by surprise—in fact, I relax after I hear it. It assures me that there won’t be any polite ignorance as we had the humility to endure multiple times before. The lady opens the door behind her and calls her kids, telling them something in English. They pile in one by one, four girls in total, and begin to stare as I had predicted.
“How long have you had this?” The lady asks my father while she pulls out a large telephone. She paces around him and winces appropriately at parts of the story.
Her camera zooms in.
He tries to stay still during the recording but I can see his pinky start to twitch as slight perspiration makes his forehead look shiny and his breath hitches when he speaks. I grab his hand to stop the shaking.
He has a mass on his right eye double the size of his fist.
When it’s time to go, my father is nearly in tears and can’t stop thanking the lady who promised to send him to India for surgery. She asked for merely a prayer in return, and my father raises his hands to the sky, pleading God for a special spot in heaven for the woman and her family. We bid everyone goodbye.
Father starts humming on the way home, and suddenly, I no longer feel the pebbles.
Freshta Rahmani is a junior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South in New Jersey. Her interests include playing volleyball and badminton with her siblings, writing short stories, and cooking traditional dishes with her mother. She hopes to pursue a career in writing.
Judge’s comments: The ambiance and mood set throughout this piece is impressive. The reader is transported to a foreign land through rich descriptive details and strong internal monologue. The author also cleverly includes a twist that elevates the overall plot of the story. Additionally, the opening sentence for the piece draws in the reader: “I feel the pebbles from the road digging into the soles of my feet through my paper thin shoes.” And this imagery is reflected in the story’s final statement to create a satisfying ending: “Father starts humming on the way home, and suddenly, I no longer feel the pebbles.”
by Jaimie Yue
When art class begins, the cold updraft will blow in through the open door. Sneakered feet shuffle to the storage room with the dying light bulb, water gurgles down the drain. Ethan’s teacher will lumber about. Except it doesn’t begin that way today, because Ethan’s mother asks his teacher in Mandarin when he can start drawing people. High art. Portraits. Ethan pretends not to notice his teacher’s jaw clench.
To have a comprehensive understanding of color was to understand color theory in the context of chemistry and optometry as well as visual art. But to Ethan, the meadow grass in his reference photo is just a plush green. It is the shade woven from children’s quilts and fantasy lands, honeycomb mixed with moss. Ethan mixes the colors listlessly, with his chin propped up on one hand.
He hears his teacher snap at a gaggle of giggling girls to stop talking. Ethan was supposed to work on the horse’s pelt, but his mind is on dou sha bao, red bean buns. Who knew red bean paste was actually ultramarine blue mixed with alizarin crimson and magenta?
The horse is forgotten and Ethan smears the mixture around.
When Mama first heard about Lao Lao’s stroke, four days ago, Ethan hadn’t. It wasn’t until Mama was kneading the dough for red bean buns, just a few hours ago, when she told him. She exhaled “my Mama” and “stroke” in the same breath, and never ceased kneading the dough.
“Is she okay?” Ethan had asked, stupidly, naively. There was only the rhythmic pound of the rolling pin against the dough for a few moments.
“It’s a stroke, Ethan.” Ee-sen. Mama replied, softer now, kneading the dough as if Lao Lao’s life depended on it.
Ethan opened his mouth, closed it, and searched for the words lodged in his throat. But Lao Lao was a fading face, just as Mandarin eluded him. Each character was like a snowflake on his tongue, gone in an instant. He wasn’t worried for Lao Lao, he realized. And all he could say was “I’m sorry”.
“Dui bu qi,” Ethan croaked. “I-it’s really so awful. Dui bu qi. Dui bu qi.”
Because what he couldn’t bear to see was his Mama, gone. Without Lao Lao, what would Mama become? Ethan imagined her smooth eggshell of a face shattering, splintering like glass, and the image fused his jaws shut before he could stammer out a fourth “Dui bu qi.”
If Mama was confused, she didn’t let it show. Instead, she blinked with warm, dry eyes at Ethan.
“Mei guan xi,” was all she said. It’s okay. “Now, can you please roll my sleeves up? My hands have flour on them.”
Ethan wanted to say more. He thought about how his mother’s accented English made Ethan sound like Ee-sen. He thought about the four percent chance of Mama being accepted into college in China after the Cultural Revolution and moving to America, and whether or not it was worth it if he could only mumble again and again, “I’m sorry.”
Maybe he could give this painting to Mama. They could laugh that the horse had accidentally fallen in a vat of red bean paste. He could learn more Mandarin and offer to give Lao Lao a phone call, he could, he could—
It’s not Mama. It’s his art teacher. With sunspots the color of old gravy, bony joints clenched, and spit at the corners of his mouth.
“Get up! Get up!”
The words are like a knife in his ears. Ethan realizes his hand is still curled around the paintbrush.
“Give it,” his teacher snaps. Ethan unfurls his hand. His teacher’s fingernail scrapes Ethan’s open palm, and he resists shuddering. These hands were supposed to be like Ethan’s, made for art, but they felt dead, the skin rotting right off the bone.
His teacher spits that Ethan needs use more color, to stop badgering him about painting people because he clearly wasn’t ready yet even though that wasn’t him, it was his mother.
Gone is the red bean mixture. Ethan’s teacher mixes yellow oxide with cobalt blue, heaping amounts that coat his entire palette.
Suddenly the blue morphs into green. There’s too much green. The bristles give way and Ethan can only watch as his canvas bleeds to death. Greens become reds and entire sections, hours of work, are painted over. Why was the meadow red? Why did the clouds look like waves? His teacher brushes along, colors smear into nothingness, violet becomes gray and the grass looks like linoleum.
“That was for my mother,” Ethan says hoarsely.
“Your mother?” His teacher scoffs. “You think she’d appreciate this?”
Ethan is sweating. He zips his coat up as far as it can go, sweating and shivering, and now his eyes are streaming uncontrollably. He feels a burning sting at the bridge of his nose, which grows until it’s behind his eyes and in the center of his chest.
“1,000 students,” his teacher was muttering. “And 3,000 parents and grandparents. And every time, they have the same complaints! ‘Why isn’t my child improving?’”
Ethan wanted to shout in perfect Mandarin that Mama wasn’t just one in 3,000, but how could he? Art class was just a business, and Ethan was only the wayward student who was too stubborn to buy new paints and didn’t even know enough Mandarin to seem dignified.
The brush handle is warm when his teacher hands it back to him. Ethan gets the gray-green-orange-violet mixture smeared on his thumb.
His teacher stares at the canvas with a rigid frown. He nods.
“There we go. Now you see the highlights and proper colors. Isn’t that better?”
If Mama died tomorrow, Ethan knows he wouldn’t be prepared. But it is this blindness, this immaturity, this complete ignorance to color theory, that allows his throat to finally open. But instead of saying the fourth “dui bu qi”, Ethan raises his head. Locks eyes with his teacher.
And says, “No. I hate it.”
Jaimie Yue, a junior from New Jersey, is editor of her school’s newspaper and literary magazine as well as assistant editor of The New Observer, a state-wide, student-run newspaper that showcases Chinese-American student writers and their cultural experiences. Her writing has been published in Teen Ink and Creative Communications, and she is a first reader for Polyphony H.S.
Judge’s comments: This story shines through its elegant symbolism. The clever correlation between the paint colors and the protagonist’s relationship with his family add a layer of depth. The author also crafted strong dialogue that not only moves the plot forward, but showcases the culture the protagonist inhabits. Additionally, there is a strong character arc that is enhanced by the protagonist finding his voice in the final line, when he stands up to his teacher and says: “No, I hate it.”
by Caylee Weintraub
We swim in circles in the lake, our legs making small waves. The water is cool as it flows between our fingers and for a moment we can imagine what it would be like to have webbed hands, the water filling our empty spaces like a thin skin.
The lake is low this time of year. Our feet touch the sand and we muck up the water till it’s dark green. Our mother is standing at the window, watching us from inside the house. She always worries that we’ll drown. She wouldn’t be able to save us even if we did---she can’t swim. The last time we got her in the lake, she panicked in the deep end. We swam over and she grabbed onto us though we were not strong enough to hold her. We kicked hard trying to keep her head above water but she kept pulling us under, her nails digging into our necks. I wanted so badly to save her, but there was a moment when all three of us were sinking that I thought about letting her go. I thought about prying her arms off from around my neck and swimming as far from her as I could. But before I could make my decision my brother had wrapped his arms around my mother and me and pulled the two of us to shore. We laid there in the mud for hours, with our bodies half in the water. I had looked over to see my brother with his arms still wrapped around our mother, his fingers squeezing her arms so hard he was giving her bruises. He’s always held on to everything too tightly.
Our mother watches us now as we float on our backs through the shallow water. I meet my mother’s eyes, and I know she is thinking of Dad who is sick upstairs because her face gets pale, like a lake drying up.
I wave to my mother but she doesn’t see me. I’m floating on my back, thinking of how small Dad looked in his bed last night, his eyes dark and glossy like two tapioca pearls. His skin was thin and wrinkled, soft like peeled grapes. He did not speak or drink. My mother and my brother and I wetted his mouth with sponges all throughout the night, saliva slipping out of the corners of his lips. He looked around the room, pointing at the walls that had been repainted in different shades of blue. We kept thinking he was asking for more water, but he wasn’t. He’d forgotten the word blue.
My brother and I race each other back and forth across the lake. Our mother is still at the window, rubbing her neck in the place where our father had scratched her the time he thought she was trying to kill him. She’s ashamed of the scars but we like them because we think they look like gills.
For a second, I think I see her smile just before we go underwater. My brother and I wait to see how long we can hold our breath, streams of bubbles floating up around us. Tilapia flee from our kicking feet, and I think of when Dad told us about the time that he and his war buddies had gotten so hungry they had eaten fish that were still alive. My brother and I didn’t believe him when he told us but he promised that it was true. He’d looked at the globe sitting on his desk and searched for the river the fish had been in. He couldn’t find where it was, so he drew it in himself with a blue marker and we were proud to have a father who could make us rivers. Later that same night, he’d waded knee deep into the lake in nothing but his underwear. I could see the marks on his bare back from where his father used to beat him. The scars were long and thin. Above, the moon stuck out like a knuckle. Dad shivered when I took his hand and started to lead him back to the house. He was shaking though it was warm out. But then, he was cold all the time.
When we finally step out of the water, shivering, and dry our faces with old towels, we find our mother asleep in the chair beside our father. She is white and pale, her hair loose all around her, as she kicks her legs and thrashes her arms as she dreams. We don’t need to hear her garbled speech to know she is dreaming about drowning, to know she’s been underwater for some time now.
Caylee Weintraub, a junior at Mariner High School in Florida, lives in between two coconut groves on a barrier island with her dog, cat, and chickens. Last summer, she attended the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference in Tennessee, and this summer she is honored to be attending the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. Caylee is overjoyed to be published in Imagine and can’t wait for what the future holds.
Judge’s comments: This story shines for its beautiful sensory details, particularly of the lake and the surrounding nature. The fear of a worried mother described through the naïve eyes of child is nicely shown, especially through a flashback of a recent near-drowning incident that adds a layer of symbolism.
Diana Rodriguez Wallach is the author of the Anastasia Phoenix series, a trilogy of young adult spy thrillers; three other young adult novels: Amor and Summer Secrets, Amigas and School Scandals, and Adios to All the Drama; and the YA short-story collection Mirror, Mirror. Currently a blogger for Quirk Books, Diana is also an advisory board member for the Philly Spells Writing Center and a creative writing instructor for CTY. She lives in Philadelphia. Learn more at dianarodriguezwallach.com.