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Our Creative Minds Imagine writing contests have allowed us to showcase the remarkable work of many young fiction writers over the years. We hope you enjoy reading their stories.
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 ofThe 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 forPolyphony 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.
How Fireflies Were Invented
by Emily Schussheim
I am unspeakably envious of fireflies. Darwin explains that their descent with modification led to the appearance of a trait with differential reproductive advantage, but both he and I can agree that lightning bugs, anglerfish, and bioluminescent bacteria know something we do not. They dipped their abdomens, appendages and pseudopods in some greasy grey oblivion, bubbling like oil in a fryer, only to come out as glowing embers heated by a star’s exhale.
Thus, my superpower would be to glow.
While a large section of my back or entire head would be ideal, I wouldn’t mind just my pinky, my belly button, or a few strands of hair. When a deity’s secondhand smoke streaks the skies in dusk, I’d wriggle my fingers and be able to make shadows dance like flames. If the bulbs in a closet or corner dozed off to tepid gloom, I could make the mirror shards lining strands of hair shimmer warm and yellow. Even alone, holding a blessed thumbnail to my cheek would bathe my face in velvet, honey light.
The class begins a math test feverishly, air a soupy scribble of sweat and pencil lead. Two minutes into the trigonometry, a boy, leaden circles chaining his eyes to impalpable prison balls and disheveled hair matted like squished spaghetti, notices a faint blinking glow from my stomach. It’s not a cellphone, and its radiance’s tambour is a hue cooler, anyway. Beneath my pale pink sweater, the muted luminosity is golden and organic, reminding him of the star-bugs he chased as a child.
The lady at checkout takes my ten-dollar bill, beating open the register and in a fell swish and pinning a piece of strained silver hair behind her ear. She wrings her hands, veins withered and pronounced like sinuous tributaries, and moves to return my change. The bronze of the coins fades to silhouette over a pinky finger shining as if coated in caramelized sun. Shocked and then at peace with the benign light, she lets the friendly fire kiss the backs of her eyes.
A child sits dejected on a park bench, a tear rolling down her face while half of a decapitated ice cream cone oozes into pavement. I slip next to her and give her a glowing thumbs-up, and she can taste chocolate and feel the bugs’ clumsy flutter against her palms. A man dangles his feet off a bridge and over the highway, whose headlight red and white cells flow thin and artificial through clogged traffic capillaries. From behind, I tap his shoulder and a hissing wind blows giddily warm fragments of burning hair into his now alive eyes. International leaders ferment frozen in shadowed debate, the rectangular table now thick and cold as a coffin. My glowing left eyebrow could save the world.
I used to chase fireflies religiously. Summer nights drained the stew-smelling air that sucked and spat oxygen from my chest with a sacred, watery darkness. I’d sneak up on them from behind as if they didn’t know I was coming, as if they hadn’t known for eons that I’d stretch to cup their fragile glow.
If not made for our wonder, fireflies were invented by accident; we can’t understand them and won’t try. It’s impossible to fathom a star produced from gooey larvae gel, or the memory of wonder’s tantalizing shiver produced from floating antennae-ed entities of light. In glass jars with holes poked in their tinfoil lids, the glowing, godly bodies tumbled and crawled. Their bottom halves every so often blinked with a measured, sage-like slothfulness, proof that time goes on forever.
Emily Schussheim is a junior at Staples High School in Westport, CT. She attended the Kenyon Review Young Writers’ Conference this past summer, has been published in Creative Kids magazine, Canvas, and the Chautauqua Literary Journal, and is very excited to attend the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio this summer. Emily is an avid cellist, mathlete, and ukulele-player, and is honored to have her work featured in Imagine!
Judge’s comments: A Darwinian explanation for the bioluminescence of fireflies is in fact an elaborate set-up for the revelation of the narrator’s wished-for superpower. I love the images in this story, which are all so evocative, such as a student sitting through a math test with a glowing belly. I also admire the story’s tone, which manages to land somewhere between silliness and wonderment.
by Lisa Zou
Eighty-six years mark the wooden calendar while she pours congee to the brim, eyebrows entangled as pungent porridge smoke rises above cracked porcelain bowls. Cracks like the antique spider webs framing the wooden boards in her restaurant. They tally forty-two splintered dishes and they praise my grandmother, a gifted cook, over tectonic plates. French businessmen consumed rice noodles crafted by her crinkled palms, the hands that served soup the morning South Vietnam fell into silent chaos. Even when the foreign man plucked twenty-one plums from her only shrub, she served his empty insides. As each full moon passes, her light leather skin folds itself, each fold counting suns since she last folded my father’s clothes. An invisible Atlas, she pours congee to the brim, as if compensating for the night when she can no longer lift the pan to serve them, him, or me. Each summer, my grandmother knits guilt into my waitress dress and hot privilege lacquers my tongue. I swallow each gated community, each “Made in Vietnam” sticker, one bleached spoonful after the other.
It is July and we play chess on paper with Chinese characters sharpie-etched on origami note cards, fan dancing as his stray hairs float like dandelions. Bobby Fischer rings no bell in my grandfather’s ears, but YeYe plays chess against himself until he can no longer discern the kings from the queens, so he opens the set when the sun rises again. He is the first to sacrifice his knight to keep his measly pawn.
It is August and YeYe adjusts the pawn by its shiny shoulders and remarks that pawns can become queens but knights—well knights—will never stop being knights. That day I learn to castle and keep the queen on her color. I breathe the viscosity in this game of rules.
It is September and the waning crescent above starts to feel like a metaphor I cannot decipher. When it is October, I am the last one standing at the school spelling bee. When the headmistress hands me a tiny plastic card, I travel two spaces from the apartment square to the five-story mall; the glass chess set tastes a few months overripe—I still ingest.
The sentences on the newspaper are foreign to YeYe, but he tears out the picture of me in the local newspaper, completes the weekly Sudoku puzzle before the bus brings me home. Some other questions are easier left unsolved.
It is November and eighth grade graduation costs fifty dollars this year and signatures are sought. He scrawls the few letters he knows on the line. I hum the busy tune. Words like overdue rent and green card fee remain ticking bombs.
It is December and checkmate becomes inevitability, like the stillness in the moments before a solar eclipse—the hush following the pawn’s coronation.
No, I was never baptized, never immersed in the holy lake of San Francisco or sprinkled with pure water. I do remember the church ladies knocking at our door, Grandfather answering with his accented thank yous, the blue eyes glancing at me in pity, probing if anyone else lived with me. I do remember the King James Bibles they left, the red pages leaning against the battered yellow translation dictionaries that never learned the nuances of either language.
I do recall the ring of church hymns, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the idea of purity. I tried to explain to Grandfather the distinctions between the beliefs of the Protestants and those of the Baptists, but could not distinguish them myself. I do remember tea and mooncakes in place of cookies and milk. By night, Grandfather retold fables from The Journey to the West. By day, we trekked behind the Buddhist monk and the monkey king to India for the sacred texts.
The tales are only a soundtrack, but through my grandfather’s soothing tone, I forget about the mosquito bites, The Second Coming, and how the boy next door whispered that only churchgoers go to Heaven. I ask Grandfather if he is afraid of dying. He laughs and asks why he should fear death. I say, because the end seems so ominous. I mean, it’s the end.
I do not remember he once cared for three sons and a wife in a cottage a hemisphere away from here. They are in tianshang, a castle in the sky—their own sort of heaven.
Lisa Zou is a high school student in Arizona. Her writing has been recognized by the Poetry Society of UK, the National YoungArts Foundation, Letters About Literature, the NCTE, and the Center for the Gifted’s Torrance Legacy Creativity Awards. In her free time, she enjoys solving calculus problems.
Judge’s comments: This is such a rich story—for its attention to language and detail, for the tension that lurks in every scene, for the relationships at its center. The third section in particular does such a nice job of allowing history to collide with the present, and the last line is absolutely haunting.
by Eva Lebovitz
“Tashlich (תשליך) is a ritual that many Jews observe during Rosh HaShanah. “Tashlich” means “casting off” in Hebrew and involves symbolically casting off the sins of the previous year by tossing pieces of bread or another food into a body of flowing water. Just as the water carries away the bits of bread, so too are sins symbolically carried away. In this way the participant hopes to start the New Year with a clean slate.”
We go down to the water on a Tuesday, when the sky is a taut-skin smile and the grass is cracked.
“The Boston River is an unwieldy thing,” my older sister reminds me while we walk. “Hanan, don’t grab at the currents. I know you want to, but they’re powerful.”
I don’t want to go through the delicacies of telling her that she gave me this speech back when I was thirteen and that I’ve taught myself how to do tashlich since then, so I just nod quietly and that seems to satiate her.
“Do you have the bread?” she asks and I hold the bag up for her inspection. She nods– it’s met her standards and I can see her shoulders unclench.
“You did a good job,” she says, awkwardly mussing my dark hair. I shrug her off, too busy watching the way the headlights and sunsets dapple the street as we make our way down Fairmount Street. There’s something decidedly urban about city rivers, I think, but I like them anyway. I like peering off gated bridges and even more than that, I like knowing that I have the power to stop myself from falling. There are bridges in Eastern Europe, but they aren’t built like this, built like deconstructed ash.
I wonder what kind of bridges my sister prefers.
I’m still thinking about the interlock of chain fences when a car brushes past us, indelicate.
My sister bites her lip. “So, Dad tells me you’re thinking about Northeastern?”
It’s Tufts, not Northeastern, but I don’t see the point in telling her. I shrug an affirmation instead.
“It’s a good school,” she says. She looks at me, eyes tentative, and holds out her hand for a high-five, adding, “Turns out the Franklin kids really are smart, huh?”
She wants me to, so I high five her. Her hands are cold, and I wonder if she’s getting enough iron. She’s been off finding herself in Kosovo (which isn’t even a real country anyway) for two years, and they don’t have enough iron there. Probably, at least.
Just as the sun slips just below the horizon, we reach the bridge, lined with industrial chain-link fences and highway signs. Something sinks in my stomach, like the Boston River is reaching up and winding itself around my veins. It’s like drowning from the inside out.
The thing about tashlich is I have to acknowledge your sins–this slice of bread for every lie I told, this piece for every unkindness.
I don’t want to think about that.
I’m pretty sure my sister doesn’t either, because when she turns back to me from the precipice of the sidewalk, she seems almost vulnerable. Almost.
“Hanan,” she starts, like there’s something she’s trying to say.
I want to say something.
I want to ask her how she could just up and run away, how she could fly out to the wreck of a barely nation. I want to ask her where she’s been when I had sins to forgive, what it felt like to walk out of our house and not know if she was coming back, where she went for tashlich, why she left me.
But I don’t.
I don’t say anything. I just swallow, hard, and the words tumble back from the tip of my tongue to the pit of my throat and they’re acidic, like vomiting in reverse.
She reaches her hand out to me, palm splayed open and pale to the sky, veins stretched so tightly they might snap.
“Can I have some?” she asks. “To throw away?”
I press a piece of bread into it, and I think I almost touch her skin.
Eva Lebovitz is a 15-year-old writer and student at Newark Academy in New Jersey who possesses a passion for literature, history, music, and human rights. Lebovitz will be attending the Iowa Young Writer’s Workshop this summer and has previously had work recognized by the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards and the New Jersey Council of English Teachers.
Judge’s comments: Much goes unsaid between the brother and sister at the heart of this story, but the writer does an excellent job of suggesting a much larger shared history. The sister, we learn, has been away for a number of years, and the brother wrestles with feelings of abandonment. The central question here—and an interesting one—is whether the ritual they’re enacting together will allow them, in effect, to start fresh.
by Shayley Martin
My mother died the very day I was born, you know, but her mother was sure still living. That was Maw Maw, the bitterest and shortest old woman you ever saw, and it was her bitterness over the whole thing that kept her alive, I think, like the taste of quinine that stays in your mouth. When I was four years old, a frothing-at-the-mouth stripedy cat slashed Maw Maw’s eye plumb out of working order. Well, the next day, Maw Maw put one of that thing’s peepers out with a red-hot poker. That’s how she was. An eye for an eye, and it stopped at that if you were lucky.
She didn’t raise me like a respectable mommy and a daddy would raise a little girl in South Carolina in the year of our Lord nineteen and twenty two. We lived a ways from the post office and the courthouse and you bet nowhere near the schoolhouse, and my shoe never scraped the floor of any of those places. She didn’t make me go, didn’t even bring up any kind of schooling. I didn’t even wear shoes, or socks for that matter, except when Maw Maw said she smelled string worms about the house. Then I slipped old shoes on for fear that they would crawl up through the bottoms of my feet and set up shop in my intestines.
Maw Maw scared the daylights out of me sometimes, when she was angry. She would scrunch up her good eye and her gone eye would scrunch up too, and she would take off her big floppy hat. But if I could get her working in her precious garden, I was all right. I never saw her more at peace then when she was setting pea vines in a trellis, or some such. That garden was her pet, because of course, cats weren’t much count to her anymore.
I took after the melon vines: no school, no hot baths, no friends but the wind and the rain, no shoes. In that sun-soaked garden I lived my whole childhood: I danced around tiger-colored nasturtiums in highest bloom, I let myself be soaked by the rain, I hid under an oversized squash leaf from Maw Maw and her cherry wood whipping cane.
I remember, there was sunlight-flavored cucumber juice running races down my chin when I saw a girl’s eyes, whole, hearty hazel-colored eyes in my garden, eyes I had never seen before. I had mostly seen Maw Maw, the colored fellow named Apple she dragged in for lifting loads of dirt, and the big fat truant officer with the jolly face who drank too much. And Apple just had one eye anyway. I believe that’s why Maw Maw took a gruff liking to him.
There were two of them, the surest sign of a newcomer in these one-eyed parts.
Two big hazel eyes peering, peering ever so curiously out from among a thick colony of sunflower stems. Attached to a girl about my age, eleven or so, but not dressed like a girl. She wore short, dirty tan-colored pants that revealed stick-skinny legs covered with reddish brown hair, and her shirt was a man’s: a pale sun-bleached blue, long and dotted with fraying holes on the arms, one perfunctory button at the top. Her hair was short and wild, and her face was dirty. I convinced myself it was a scarecrow there staring at me, but Maw Maw didn’t use scarecrows in her precious garden.
“Will you help me?” Just standing there like they were her sunflowers.
“What you mean?”
“My name is Maple, will you help me?”
“Help you with what?”
“You be the judge and the jury, I be the ‘cused.”
My two eyes rambled for Maw Maw in her wrinkly sundress. It was high time for her to come out and smell for string worms. I turned my head for a split second, just to let my two eyes rove for a rescue. But all I could see of Maw Maw was a curl of pipe smoke rising from behind the house like a sleepy ghost.
The pocket-knife made a little shadow divit where it rested at the side of her neck, held calmly by her tiny hand. Metal against skin. Just fidget once with a knife in that little crook by your neck bone and
I had never watched anyone die before, so I wasn’t sure if it could really happen. But I wasn’t taking chances.
“Hey, hey, put that down.”
“How come?” Looking earnest, frightened.
“You might die.”
“You don’t know what I done.”
“That don’t mean—” If bad deeds killed you, why, every boll weevil in South Carolina would have gone belly-up years ago.
“I kilt the truant officer.”
Dad-bum. I wondered what Maw Maw would think. I know Apple would start begging the Lord Jesus for forgiveness on the spot.
Well, but even Apple told stories about the officer, his one eye wide. What some white men does to colored fokes drunk? That man do it to white fokes sober.
I don’t know why that one little drop of blood looked so bright and red running down her neck, where the knife just barely moved by accident. Or had she moved it?
“Maple, you got to put that down.”
“Tell me a story,” she said, and I was so flustered that I did. I told her about Maw Maw and Apple, and about my garden, you know, all these things I’ve told you, and as I spoke the moon clambered up into the sky and sat on its perch and the stars came out, and I never noticed when the knife lowered. We were both bone-tired, so we slept between two fig trees.
“You know,” I said to the little bunched-up Maple who wasn’t awake, “you’re safe. Between us all we’ve got five eyes.”
“Six,” said a hazelnut bush with Apple’s deep voice, and here was my family.
Shayley Martin is a ninth grader at Floyd County High School in Virginia. She was honored to place 13th in her fourth appearance in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Shayley likes to write, cook, and learn words of all shapes, sizes, and political affiliations. During the summer, she sells vegetables and eats mostly raspberries.
Judge's comments: This story pulls off the delicate, demanding task of maintaining the protagonist’s dialect throughout without veering into inauthenticity. Smart characterization, interesting dialogue, and a chance meeting in a garden—well done.
by Madeleine Joung
And they wondered why she couldn’t move, like—like she could be happy that her restaurant was going to be some other woman’s and that she was going to be the third wheel in her own damn marriage. Postpartum, post-baby (Kayla, call her Kayla, not “the baby”), post-restaurant, post-Up Days.
She’d heard what they’d said to Jared—give her attention, but don’t fawn, encourage but don’t force her to touch the baby (she hadn’t, not yet, not even once in all twelve weeks since). Don’t give her a hard time. Don’t yell.
He’d stopped the yelling pretty quickly. But it was like he could only not yell if he wasn’t with her—they didn’t talk much anymore. Sometimes at night, when the small-town roads went even quieter than her, he’d tell her about how the work on the bridge was going, and she wouldn’t say anything, and he would shut up. (But she wished he’d keep talking anyways, wished he would know to keep going for her when she couldn’t.)
Andie was sure she was a runt of a hamster that was tired of running on the pathetically squealing wheel and annoying the hell out of everyone, pushed and pressed too much and too long until all it could do anymore was curl up in the wheel and use it like a hammock or a cradle. She was done with her wheel. She hopped off and curled up in her blankets all day long and watched TV while Jared’s great-aunt, Myrna, watched the baby. She couldn’t stand the shows about the cooking she’d never do, but she watched bitterly, wistfully, willfully. Watching the part at the end where the chef tasted the food made her feel like she’d stuffed her nose and mouth with store-brand cotton balls—everything tasted like nothing.
The wheel rocked back and forth, but forward—and changing the restless ground she lay on—loose orbits, while the baby cried and ate and slept and cried and cried.
She felt like she’d fallen asleep on a float and drifted down to the deep end of the swimming pool, and woken up pushing her feet down and feeling only emptiness. Kayla was her alarm clock now.
Great-Aunt Myrna drove her and Kayla to Charleston every Friday for the shrink appointments. As they drove out of town, they could see the new bridge—longer, pushing infinitesimally slowly off the litter-crusted bank towards the outside, trying to get away from the little town and everyone in it—and she wondered which one of the guys hanging off of the scaffolds was Jared. Wondered if he was actually there like he said, building the bridge that took him farther away as it grew.
Every time, Myrna’s little old sedan rumbled past it, and Andie felt like she could puke, and oh God how would she make it to the hospital, she couldn’t see the end, when could she get home again and get back inside where the sun couldn’t touch her and she could sit again, sit without shaking her leg to the jingle on Myrna’s favorite Christian talk show?
She clutched a plastic bag and stared out the window at the horizon like they always said to do.
After they parked, she always sat with the door open, feeling the stillness of the car, until Myrna said, “It’s late, Andrea.” And then they’d all go inside, Myrna carrying Kayla in the portable car seat and Andie dragging behind.
The elevators had wheelchair-height rails on the sides like the ones in wheelchair accessible bathrooms. She held them while the elevator nauseatingly pushed them upwards to the fourth floor, where the outpatient psychiatry was.
Myrna checked her in at the reception desk. The receptionist was always judging—she always stared hard at the people that twitched or muttered.
“Here to see Dr. Melissa?” the receptionist said. She said it plain, like she was drawing in teachers’ chalk—pale and smooth, not bumpy like the sidewalk kind.
Where Jared was during these appointments, God only knew. Fridays were the days where he had an excuse, always. He said he was working on the bridge, but always came home smelling like beer and smoke and s’mores. Why hadn’t he carried some home? Not that she could taste them, and marshmallows were worse than the cottony taste anyhow.
Andie turned around and watched the swaying doors that led to the long hall with the offices. Please wait to enter, said the doors. They always made her nervous, like a little kid about to get a shot. Dr. Melissa was a doctor, not friendly, who had two kids. And how could she possibly claim to be helpful then? God, any woman who put herself through it twice would never get it, would never be able to help. Her husband was a shrink too, probably never absent, probably great with the kids.
Jared wasn’t great with Kayla, but no one was great with this baby except for Myrna, who would probably be dead in ten years—oh God, what would they do then? She pictured a grave in the town cemetery with no visitors—a ten year old in diapers standing in the kitchen—a finished, perfect bridge that Jared had walked over, away from town for good.
Without Dr. Melissa there, in the waiting room, like she’d imagined doing for twelve weeks, Andie leaned over and reached out a hand to Kayla, who was watching a shell-shocked mutterer, with eyes that were too young to be judgmental—too young to know what a mother was supposed to do for a baby daughter.
She stopped her hand and pulled it back, sweaty and shaking. What was she supposed to do—a head pat, a nose tweak, anything that didn’t involve picking her up?—she settled for touching the thin, babyish hair, but her own fingers felt all stiff. The baby shifted out of her tentative reach, rolled halfway over, and closed her eyes.
Madeleine Joung, a high school junior from Boston, MA, has attended writing workshops around the country and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for fiction. She is also editor-in-chief of her high school’s literary magazine. When not writing, she trains as a classical violinist, enjoys learning music theory, and participates in Model UN.
Judge's comments: The voice in this story carries us through a difficult situation with humor and compassion. This piece moves along at a heady clip, propelling us toward an ending that’s lovely in its uncertainty.
A Defector and Family's Guide to the Aftermath of Defection from North Korea
by Olivia Dabich
Part 1 (The Commercial)
Are you experiencing the following signs?
Or are you experiencing:
If you answered “yes” to any of these, chances are that you are a defector or family member of a defector and are experiencing the aftermath of defection from North Korea.
For more information on this condition, please read the following guide.
Part 2 (The Guide)
Generation 1 (North Korea)- When they tell you that your sister has defected, denounce her—wear your best Kim Il Sung lapel pin, the one you bought last “Day of the Shining Star,” and with eyes wide and unbelieving, tell them that you had no idea about the plan, and that she was always the rotten one in the family (though on the inside, you are holding hands with her, thirteen and sixteen caught in the dappled light of perpetual summer). They will take you and your family anyways, but perhaps you will get sent to Camp 14 instead of Camp 18, a better kind of hell.
Generation 1 (America)- You wear guilt like a straitjacket. A week ago, you sat at your family’s dinner table in North Korea, bent, like a perpetual apology. Once, a toothless peasant woman read your lifelines like a pack of tarot cards, telling you that you would live a long life. She did not say anything to your sister right next to you. America is a land of talk shows and therapists, of mending and feeling, of trying to remember and heal, but for you, guilt ticks inside of you like a maddening metronome until all you can see is regret. Perhaps, the best thing to do is to forget.
Generation 2 (gulag, North Korea)- Hunger is the only tattered dress you have ever worn—it does not fit you well. On your fifth birthday, you watched a man get shot, watched him fall to the ground like a ragdoll, and felt nothing. Your mother disappeared with a prison guard and never came back. He came back, however, and stole another woman. Your life can best be explained as a clock, something thought to move forward and change, but really just a circle, a perpetual loop. The best thing to do is survive.
Generation 2 (America)- You will hear about you mother’s past life in the form of a fairytale, an allegory. Your mother is obsessed with the process of baking, of making something whole through a chemical process that cannot be undone. At night, she shakes loose her composed façade and drifts back into her past life in North Korea, crying out the names of ghosts into the implacable darkness. The darkness replies sputtering, with a broken AM radio static. You can never bring back the dead.
Generation 3 (gulag, North Korea)- This is what you know—a barbed wire fence, guards (everywhere), skeletal thin people, and ash. Ash in the clouds, ash in the ground, ash in the eyes of everyone you meet. It was said once that your ancestors lived in the place beyond the fence. And you, a sacrificial lamb, a phoenix, the last generation for and from the ash—survive.
Generation 3 (America)- The best kinds of horror stories are the ones that seem the least real. It was said once that your grandmother defected from North Korea and abandoned her family there. In America, the land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, this place of barbed wire fences and people with paper-skin stretched over sallow-winged bones seems so distant. Be thankful, and embrace opportunity.
Was it worth it?
Olivia Dabich, 17, lives in Dunn Loring, VA. When she isn't writing, she is busy planning events for the creative writing club, Quills to Keyboards, which she founded last fall at her high school. Recently, she received a National Gold Medal from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and was awarded second place in the poetry division of the BYU High School Writing Contest. She attended the UVA Young Writers Workshop last summer.
Judge's comments: I appreciated the formal daring of this piece. The author’s decision to tell a story about history and inheritance through short, imagistic vignettes showed us a glimpse into their protagonist’s world, past and present.
Do You Remember
by Cara Maines
The water lapping around your feet as you dipped them into the river and I told you your veins looked like little rivers of their own, with rivulets and branches and those tributaries crossed like thread? The crystalline patterns of sugar that would form on top of the raspberry jam we spread on bread on Sundays that you always said reminded you of snow and I always said reminded me of the thin crust of sugar on top of the jam? The long drive home as we whispered along the words to every Queen song on the CD, and how you took the long route home so we could finish the disk? The smell of cigarettes that pervaded the apartment building until the vampires who lived next to us finally faded into the dusk like their smoke?
(it was blueberry, not raspberry)
The tangled webs we spun? The mattress of sand that engulfed us as we lay in the sun and you didn’t even wear sunscreen but I slathered myself because you like to live life on the edge and I like my life wrapped in a neat little package of yellow WARNING tape? And the little markings you left in the sand as you walked even though you told me you tried not to because you didn’t like to leave signs that you were there, but everyone could tell you were because afterwards your feet were dusted with sand? The wild game of Scrabble that lasted from six o’clock till four in the morning, and the sleep deprived words we ended up concocting through our unrelenting need for caffeine and possibly each other?
(smaradg is a word)
The tear-stained windows which originally let in a steady stream of light and then became clouded, murky, gauzy, finally so opaque glazed with water that we could see nothing through the glass but the faint glow of spring in the distance but only at three o’clock? The tiny bean sprouts you planted that died within two days or maybe three, and how I laughed and you pretended to laugh along? The tens of thousands of times you told me that squirrels run faster in the winter and how I laughed every time and then we watched the squirrel in the backyard but that squirrel was limping so we still don’t know and I told that joke about squirrels not having feelings because they eat our tomatoes?
(they were alfalfa, not bean sprouts)
The way the candy on our tongues abruptly melted from sweet to sour, saccharine and coated with little granules of sugar to a biting lemon? The plans we made, the roads we traipsed, the maps we highlighted and scribbled over and finally used because it is surprisingly difficult to get places without a map, as we eventually learned? The drippy faucet that would trickle and whine late at night and how I eventually would just let it lull me to sleep like the dishwasher that sang you lullabies? The ivy crawling up the fence that you said reminded you of a snake and I said reminded me of a child learning to walk and we always fought over that ivy that ivy that ivy?
The way we felt.
(the way we feel?)
Cara Maines is a sophomore at St. John’s School in Houston, TX, where she is an avid reader, writer, and dancer. She is also editor of her school newspaper, which recently won a Silver Crown award from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. This summer, Cara will immerse herself in creative writing at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
Judge’s comments: This story paints a vivid picture of two distinct people and the relationship they shared. (Share?) The choice to make every sentence a question is not gimmicky but effective, which is no small feat. The memories are precise, quirky, and authentic; many made me laugh. Of all the wonderful stories I read, this was my winner because its characters and emotion stayed with me long after I finished reading.
by Leo Lion
This is the story of the man on the other side of the parking lot. I'm talking about the one with the black hat, and the navy blue suit, and the single page of the local newspaper in his hand. You walked by him on your way to the car, remember? You were confused, because you didn't understand why anyone would want to keep that one page of the paper and nothing else. You almost stopped to buy yourself a copy too, just because thinking about the paper made you curious about what you were missing. But you didn't, because the lady with the frizzy hair got the last copy. Instead, you just quickened your pace, and walked toward your car, all the while being observed silently by the man on the other side of the parking lot.
But, to be true, this is not quite the story of the man on the other side of the parking lot. In fact, it is the story of the lady with the frizzy hair, who got the last copy of the newspaper. You know, the one who looked very uncomfortable in those heels she was wearing. She seemed barely able to walk in them, and you were hardly surprised, as they were so very incredibly tall. But she managed to walk well enough to make her way over and buy the last of the newspaper. She seemed anxious, frantic even. With good reason, too. There was tell of a widespread fire uptown, where her cousin lives. She hadn't heard from that particular cousin in some time, so naturally she was worried. Nervously leafing through the pages of the paper, she found herself flipping past an article about the biggest doughnut ever made in her state. The man responsible for this monstrosity of a baked good was a stout, friendly looking gentleman giving a thumbs-up to the camera in the newspaper photograph.
In fact, the enthusiasm of the man in the picture was far from genuine. While he was excited to finally be done with the construction of his glazed sugary giant, he was a tired, sweaty man on a street corner with a colossal doughnut and an excessive amount of people. The most unpleasant of these individuals perhaps being the man who persistently said things the baker could not understand, shouting indefinable phrases into some sort of megaphone. The only thing he could make out was what sounded like the man shouting "Bob, thumbs up! Bob, thumbs up!" over and over. So naturally, trying to appease the wishes of this clamorous gentleman, he made the gesture that ended up making it onto the third page of the local newspaper.
The phrase the man with the megaphone was shouting was, in fact, "bottoms up," in reference to the fact that his buddy on the other side of the street was doing shots with a mysterious man with green body paint all over his face. Needless to say, the megaphone man was not with the camera crew shooting the giant doughnut.
And speaking of individuals who had found themselves among people they were not intended to be with, the man with the green makeup was beginning to suspect that this was not the block party he had been hired for.
Unfortunately, the young lady in charge of said block party was not incredibly efficient in giving directions, which was one of the reasons that there was decidedly a smaller amount of people present than was originally intended. In fact, the guy blowing up that huge bouncy castle had come over to ask if he should even bother blowing it up, not only because no one had come, but also because this was a party with lots of alcohol and primarily aimed at an adult demographic.
The fact of the matter was, the reason the bouncy castle man was starting to negotiate plans for the cancelation of the bouncy castle was not that he didn't think he should blow it up, but that he could not. The man had arrived at the site without his pump, waiting for his associate to get there and deliver a new one. But he was starting to get anxious, and it didn't look like his associate was planning on showing up.
In truth, that associate did not have the pump either, but was waiting to receive it from a person who they had arranged a meeting with the day before. This person cancelled for undisclosed reasons. The associate scheduled to receive the pump days later, as it was still necessary to have one and they had no idea where it had gone.
And so the associate stood, days later, after it was far too late for that block party to gain any traffic. Stood, waiting, with the page of newspaper that held the ad for the pump salesman. He had ripped that page out of a newspaper he found on the ground, and was debating calling the number if the salesman didn't show up within the next few minutes. He glanced briefly at you as you passed by, thinking you might be going to your car to unload said pump and offer it to him, but you did no such thing. Instead, you got into your car and drove off into the musty misty morning, leaving the man on the other side of the parking lot to wait, standing there, awaiting a pump that was many days late, and wondering if ever the story was truly his.
Leo Lion, 14, lives in New York City. He is the artistic director of the Firebird Youth Theater, which is currently in rehearsals for their second off-Broadway production. He is also the organizer of Worldcrafters Writing Workshops for children.
Judge's comments: What a clever approach to storytelling! The plot moves forward and around, exploring character, place, and the ways in which we’re all connected—not to mention the fact that we all have a story. A bit random, perhaps (why a pump for a bouncy castle?), but that adds to the fun.
by Siqi Liu
When the people with shotguns come into the library, Lucy is drawing cubes.
At first she thinks it is the school bus. There is some distant shouting, laughter, maybe. She presses her pen harder on the flimsy paper. There are cubes everywhere in the margins of her English notebook—some built on top of each other to form pyramids, others grew into mazes that led to nowhere. She likes the orderliness of the drawing, the straight edges and sharp corners. They remind her of the patterns on her grandmother’s quilts.
She hears the sound first. It’s a loud, smoldering bang that leaves a splotch of red on the librarian’s shirt. She recognizes one of the guys. His name is Bob—or Billy, something like that—and he sat behind her in English class sophomore year. Now he is holding a gun.
Another bang, another spot of red. The redness is what shocks her to her feet. Parts of Lucy’s body seem to move itself in raw spasms of fear, completely independent of her mind, which still lingers on the ridiculous cubes. The right angles and straight lines seemed so safe a moment ago. She ducks beneath the table tucked between the crooks of two adjacent bookshelves and feels the hard wood of a chair jutting against her skull.
Bang. The impact rams her backwards into a stack of books.
It is a boy she doesn’t know. There is a momentary tangling of limbs, quickened breaths as they scramble to fit in the claustrophobic space. He immediately curls into a ball beside her—a fellow refugee under the table. Their eyes lock, and that is when she remembers physics.
In a free space vacuum, electromagnetic radiation travels faster than bullets. Lucy could tell the boy that they are in a vacuum, where no matter exists aside from fear. Time is abstract where clocks do not exist; seconds are only relative to the limited number of heartbeats.
They meet in physics class instead of the library. He makes some off-handed comment about the cubes she doodles in the margins of her notes, and she retorts that geometry is her favorite subject. He quickly learns, however, that she is really no good at geometry—or physics, for that matter. When she asks him to tutor her on a crispy November afternoon, they wind up kissing under the dim yellow lighting of her kitchen. After dozens of movie dates and awkward dinners with both of their parents, they finally become “an item.” It turns out that even they cannot escape the horrid stereotypes of teenage romance.
Outside the vacuum, two students have died in the past sixty seconds. But inside the timeless space, they turn sixteen within a month of one another. That weekend, since they are feeling particularly adventurous, they decide to go skating on a secluded lake where the town dump used to be. She falls through the ice and yells that she doesn’t know how to swim. After he drags her to shore, they huddle in the backseat of his secondhand SUV. That is when they say “I love you” to each other for the first time. Well, she says it first.
Because of their failed ice skating date, they both catch pneumonia and miss a week of school. They have nothing to do during those days except talk on the phone. The problem comes at the end of the month, when her mother asks her how in the hell did her phone bill rack up 67 hours.
Although only minutes have passed in the chaotic world outside, their relationship continues through the summer in the haven of their vacuum. He takes a job at Papa John’s, and she starts working at a thrift store downtown. They use up large portions of their money each weekend buying old music records (he is into eighties’ rock, she prefers boy bands of the nineties) or ice cream at the mall (she likes caramel, he likes chocolate mint). It is a summer filled with cicadas.
They end up in the same biology class when school starts again. He grows to love watching her draw cubes in the margins of her notes. When she cuts her hand on the scalpel they are using to dissect their fetal pig, a drop of blood stains the cubes red.
Outside, there is more than one drop of blood. Inside, it is already October again.
Let’s go apple-picking on our anniversary, he says to her one day as they drive home.
Ditching class has never occurred to Lucy before, but he manages to convince her, partly because they have a hard biology test that day, but mostly because she likes spending time with him too much.
The sky is a glass sheet on their anniversary. She holds his hand as she tosses apples into the basket. With each step, their sneakers produce a satisfying crunch on the bed of dried leaves. Just a little longer, she thinks, giving his hand a sudden squeeze. Let me stay in this moment just a little longer.
Her mother calls as they get ready to pay for their basket.
She probably found out we ditched, Lucy says in dismay.
It’s okay. I’ll back you up.
That is how they find out. She stumbles into his arms, and they stand with their basket of apples, holding each other.
Oh my god, oh my—
I’m so glad we ditched—
—it was your idea—
Good thing we did it together—
—if we had stayed, if we were—
Shhh. It’s okay.
I hope Mary Beth didn’t get shot, or Tyler, what if—what if Emily, or—
Shhh. It’s okay. We’re okay.
And he is right. They leave the orchard, shaken and crying. Safe.
But on that October day, there are no apples, hooky, or memories of pneumonia. There is only a fast-approaching boy with a gun. It only takes two bullets. They are only two strangers.
Siqi Liu is a junior at Naperville Central High School in Illinois. She is editor of her school’s literary magazine, a journalist for The Mash, and a national reader for Polyphony H.S. Aside from writing, she enjoys coordinating activities for ACEnglish, a volunteer program she founded to help local immigrants learn English. Her favorite writers include Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, and Sharon Olds.
Judge's comments: The author tackles two big concepts at once, then deftly brings them both together. The story of what-could-have-been admittedly gets trapped in the “stereotypes of teenage romance,” but it’s overcome by the stark reality of the story-that-is. “Vacuum” starts and ends with bang, and the middle is just as powerful and moving.
Paper Cranes for Japan
by Hannah Knowles
In the fifteen minutes before homeroom ends, you and Liz sit cramped and cross legged on the carpet, folding paper cranes. Hundreds of the birds lie on their sides all around you. They remind you of flowers strewn across the pavement, after a wedding has passed through.
Two days ago, everyone heard on the television about Japan—and you saw the pictures, of smoke pouring out of a power plant and clogging up the sky, of a home swallowed up and regurgitated onto the beach as a dollhouse in its pieces. You remembered the times when your parents used to drive out to the coast so you could see the ocean, and how you and your mother would scour sand because it was a graveyard, filled with glass and the corpses of jellyfish, with wood bleached so white you thought it was bones.
“No Americans dead,” they said on TV. The next day at school, Mr. Anderson announced in homeroom that you were supposed to make paper cranes for the class to send in, and then an organization would donate two dollars to Japan for each bird. When first period starts, you fold one more crane and take it home, where you hang it on a white string above your bed.
At night you watch it spin in circles, slowly turning to face you.
* * *
You are cynical about the divorce. When Liz asks you if you are okay about it, you say something along the lines of, “Fifty percent of the marriages in this country get divorced, and your parents are still together, so I guess it makes sense.”
You wish you could take it back. Hesitantly, Liz says: “Let me know if you need anything, okay?”
“Okay,” you say. That evening, you lie on top of the covers on your bed and mouth the word you forgot to say. Thanks.
* * *
What gets you most about the whole thing, about the divorce, was how, when your mom told you over breakfast one morning what was going on, she said they had actually waited to tell you. You looked to your dad. Your dad, sitting across the table right next to your mom—like a team, you thought numbly—was nodding.
And while your mom went on about how most things are going to stay the same, all you could do was wonder how long it had been since they decided. You watched your mom’s hands as they twisted back and forth and into each other. You wanted to reach out for the hands and grab them hard and hold them still—but it was like in that dream everyone has, the reoccurring one where you can’t seem to move.
* * *
At three in the morning your dad pokes his head around your door. You look up at him and say what you always say: I couldn’t sleep.
“It’s hot in here,” he says. “How about I turn on the fan?” And you say no thanks, but after he leaves and closes the door, you get up and flip it on. The fan beats overhead at a steady rhythm, churning shadows on the floor.
Suddenly, you remember something. It comes to you as an epiphany, although you can’t place why: Physics class. Period 3. Your science teacher pointed to one of his posters, the cheesy one proclaiming that “Our Great Big Universe Came in with a Bang.” Striding up to the whiteboard with something like excitement, he told the class how some of the stars were so far away from Earth that it took millions, maybe billions of years for their light to even reach us. And he went on to explain in hushed tones what all this meant: the universe was so vast that by the time we actually watched the stars die, they had already fizzled out centuries ago. For years without our knowledge, they were really just lumps, frozen and dark and lonely and cold.
* * *
Your grandmother’s funeral is tomorrow. It takes everyone by surprise—puts a halt to all the talk about the divorce. In the wake of your grandmother’s death, everything is strangely normal. How messed up is that, you think to yourself with a vicious sort of relish.
Flowers and notes of condolence keep accumulating on your kitchen table. Most of them are for the whole family, but some are addressed specifically to your dad. No one seems to know that the day before your grandmother died, your dad started moving into his new address. Your mom has to shift everything to one side of the kitchen table so that the two of you can eat dinner, and even then, the lilies have to be thrown out because the sickly yellow pollen makes everybody sneeze. Your mother sniffs a bit at the mess, the way she sometimes sniffs at certain offending houses in the neighborhood with dried out front lawns and paint that’s started to peel off in strips under the sun.
It is awfully hot outside at the funeral, even though it’s morning and the grass is still wet. There are rows of white plastic chairs assembled out on the lawn, and you sit down to find that the plastic is slick with dew; a wet patch slowly spreads up the back of your cotton dress. You try focusing on your few vague memories of your grandmother, of how nice she had been to you, of how once when you were nine and visiting her house, you stayed up late playing Go Fish with her while your parents went out to the movies. But you keep returning to different moments, different things: to Liz, to physics class, to the paper crane hanging in your bedroom. You are thinking about all this, and all of a sudden you wish you could say something to the people in Japan from the television. You wish you could say something— something like, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I am so, so, sorry. That’s what you would have said.
Hannah Knowles is a sophomore at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, where she is an editor for her school newspaper, a member of the debate team, and a leader of her school’s Music for the Community club. When not writing, she enjoys playing piano, painting, spending time with her corgi, and rereading the Harry Potter series endlessly. She has dabbled a bit in poetry but recently has begun writing more short stories.
Judge's comments: A true beginning-middle-and-end short story in two pages, weaving personal and public tragedy. Sad and smart and lovely.
by Noah Kim
There is an abolitionist sitting at a rutted, wooden desk, a desk far too small for him, a desk so small that he (the abolitionist) is forced to write with both his elbows hanging over the sides. This abolitionist, who is looking drained of flesh with dehydrated lips and a tragic countenance shaded in frustration, is tired. This abolitionist, whose magazine The Liberator has “been burned more than any other periodical in existence today” according to the Virginia Gazette, this slightly unwell man, this abolitionist whose writings have directly inspired no less than three separate slave rebellions (each of which resulted in no small amount of deaths), scratches his almost bald head with nails that he hasn’t cut in over two months, ragged nails that make red fault lines across his watery skin as he scratches, and sits back in his chair, imbibing tepid water as he does so, his eyes half shut. This abolitionist, this feeble, girlish virgin, whose eccentricities have sparked more than a little speculative rumor, this tired yet still zealous man “more despised than any other firebrand in existence today” according to the Virginia Gazette, sits back and removes his spectacles and polishes them on his right shirt sleeve. This “not right” abolitionist, whose numerous eccentricities include both eating potatoes and only potatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and lighting fires, roaring fires, in his home during the hottest days of the year for the supposed purpose of “showing the Devil that his fire is not the hottest,” closes—or perhaps more accurately just briefly rests—his bespectacled eyes, dragging a heavy pen over the parchment before him as he does so, making insignificant doodles and curlicues with the very same pen that has sparked riots and rebellions and assassination attempts, the very same pen that has quote-unquote brought a nation to its knees. The abolitionist, whose scholarly face, slightly burnt from prior overexposure to heat, seems more like that of a librarian or a sort of mild-mannered sales clerk, who weighs less than 100 lbs., tilts his head slightly to the left and breathes out fiercely, breathes out in an exhausted yet vehement “huhhhh” that startles the dog, a brown and white cocker spaniel, curled up in a ball on his (the abolitionist’s) carpet awake. This pale, eccentric, thin, ridiculously unhealthy abolitionist, whose skin looks watery primarily because of a severe underexposure to protein (and overexposure to starch), who has ticked off tens of thousands of rich and powerful men, this deeply compassionate (yet obviously rather touched) man raised by his loving mother on scraps deemed unfit for the hunting dogs that those very same rich men held in such high regard, opens his eyes once more, takes a solitary potato slice from the plate to his right, places it (the potato slice) tentatively into his mouth, and continues to write, chewing softly as he does so.
This radically empathetic contrarian, acclaimed by an ever-decreasing number of like-minded men, all of whom he (the abolitionist) despises and frequently labels “weak” or “apologist,” men that he tries purposely to enrage, has never wanted any companions, any friends. This abolitionist, whose consistent and unrelenting criticism of both friend and foe forces neutrals to become apologists, apologists to become radicals, and radicals to become martyrs, who has been described on six distinct occasions by the Virginia Gazette as the “angriest half-breed in America,” shifts his weight to the right and then rubs his shoulder, which is feeling hot, feverish, and sore, like a piece of hot iron placed against rather than a part of his body. This abolitionist, whose very most famous article caused vicious riots nationwide, riots during which scores of men (both black and white) beat one another into bloody pieces of meat. Whose very most famous article featured his very most oft quoted line. This abolitionist, whose very most oft quoted line made it absolutely clear that he was in earnest, that he would not equivocate, that he would not excuse, that he would not retreat a single inch, and that he would be heard, whose very most oft quoted line was, essentially, an oath, a sort of vow that he (the abolitionist) would not cease to continue writing lines that would themselves be likewise oft quoted.
This tough, tough half-breed, this abolitionist, who has survived no less than three separate assassination attempts, who has been dragged by violent and feral men through Philadelphia no less than three discrete times at the end of a rope. This abolitionist, who has ten times more enemies than he has friends, who can “make his way about the country solely by the light of his burning effigies,” has watched and suffered and bled more than any other for a cause that does not directly affect him in any way, shape, or form. This abolitionist, who was, only two years ago, kidnapped by three bearded rednecks while traveling through the hills of Virginia and tortured, brutally, who is missing four fingernails on his left hand because of their having been torn off by the rednecks, this abolitionist, who has been stabbed thrice in total (twice in the abdomen and once in the chest), is still alive.
And so, he looks out into the dark, out over the ocean, the abolitionist, towards Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill and Pennsylvania and Philadelphia and sees the American flag being raised high. And sees the ocean rise up and fade out. And then eats another potato slice and wipes his mouth again and closes his eyes again and dreams and imagines himself floating high up above the clouds, born aloft by winged brown and white cocker spaniels, and sees the dank yet seamless sea spread out proudly beneath him, crisscrossed by dark-colored whales that tell him that all will be well as they draw their vast and loving figures closer to the quiet and distant shore. And smiles, fiercely.
Noah Kim is a junior at Polytechnic School in Pasadena, CA. He has attended writing programs at the University of Iowa and Kenyon College and is the editor of his school newspaper. Kim enjoys fiddling upon the classical guitar and is an avid, voracious fan of the writers Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, and Denis Johnson. In his free time, he enjoys re-watching, analyzing, and rhapsodizing about the HBO television program The Wire. He also finds writing to be very enjoyable.
Judge's comments: Formally daring and full of telling details, this physical and emotional portrait of Garrison artfully demonstrates how heroes do not always come in heroic packages.
Burnt Coffee, Cigarette Fumes, and Stories
by Cara Maines
We are both here, the old man and I, as we have been every Friday night for the past six months or so. Opposite corners of the café, a dotted diagonal apart. He sits, alone, with his cigarette and his burnt coffee, by the counter with the cream and sugar and coffee stirrers. Slowly, he reveals a fountain pen, which he brandishes above his pages.
I sit, alone, with my laptop and my mug of green tea, in the corner by the window, peering out at the street. I submerge my tea bag into the water, bobbing it, listening to the sounds of the café: the clank of metal spoons against porcelain, the feeble bubbling of espresso in the far back of the kitchen. There is an aria drifting from the kitchen, too faint and distant for me to understand.
It is an odd way to spend a Friday night, in this desolate café. Sometimes I go see a movie by myself first, or check a book out of the library. Then I come and sit here, alone but for the old man in the corner and the pale girl at the counter.
Sometimes I look over at the man, and rarely—very rarely—we make eye contact. It is brief, and nervous, and we both immediately look away. I run my hands through my auburn-streaked hair, settling them on my keyboard.
I glance at the counter girl with skin like glass. She’s a ghost, really, whisking her moonbeam hair into a chignon. She peers toward the croissants, checks something on the cash register, and pulls out a bottle of blood-red nail polish, streaking it across her half-moon nails.
The owner, a frail Vietnamese woman, emerges from the kitchen wearing a patched floral apron. The counter girl tries to cover her nail polish, but the owner notices, batting the girl on the shoulder, muttering something in French. The owner exits the café to smoke outside.
I peer out the window, watching the woman puff wisps of smoke into the air. It is late, but the city around her is pulsating with its relentless energy. Streetlamps, illuminated skyscrapers, and Christmas lights are substitutes for stars.
A girl in a skirt too short and heels too high clambers through the streets, clasping her sequined purse while a trio of older men gambles and stares at her from the curb. A middle-aged couple traces their way along the sidewalk. A boy in sweatpants clutches a bouquet of wilting violets.
I glance away from the window to the man in the corner, locking eyes with him. He stammers to his feet. Weaving between the tables and chairs, he emerges next to my table.
“Good evening,” he begins.
“You come here a lot, don’t you?” he asks.
“About as much as you,” I say, smiling a bit.
“Do you know this music?” he suddenly asks.
“Well,” I respond, “I can’t really hear it.”
“It’s from Tosca. It’s called Vissi d’Arte.”
“Do you know it?” I ask.
He seems entranced, lost in his own world. “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore, non feci mai male ad anima viva. I lived for my art, I lived for love, I never did harm to a living soul. Sung in a plea to God, a cry for help. It’s heartbreaking, passionate, breathtaking, desperate.”
“You like opera, then?” I ask.
“I’m a composer.”
“I’m a writer,” I say.
“You and I,” he says “We’re really very similar. I’ve seen the way you observe people on the street. We’re artists. We live for art, we live for love. We use notes and words to tell stories and share our experiences. We find beautiful, or terrifying, or tragic ways to tell the truth, to make people think, to leave our legacies. We create worlds.”
“I’ve never really thought about that before,” I tell him, slightly disconcerted.
“Well,” he says, “consider it,” before stepping between tables and out the door.
Silently, I close my laptop.
* * *
The next Friday when I go to the café, he is not there. Nor the Friday after that, nor after that; months later, I still have not seen him.
Tonight, I sit at the table by the counter instead of by the window. The same aria is playing.
Surrounded by the scent of my tea mixed with the dingy cigarette fumes and the stale brioche, I consider the composer. He is gone now, and I doubt I’ll ever see him again, but his cryptic messages about stories and art resonate with me, inadvertently slipping into ordinary thoughts.
We use notes and words to tell stories and share our experiences. We find beautiful, or terrifying, or tragic ways to tell the truth, to make people think, to leave our legacies. We create worlds…
I am struck by this idea of stories. It’s not his grandiose proposal about art that makes me think. Our interaction itself leads me to a simpler conclusion, but an enormous one all the same. I realize the magnitude of the stories each of us carry. The truths we grapple with. The lives we hold in our hearts, the secrets clutched in our palms. The hundreds of thousands of stories we each hold, burdens and blessings alike.
It occurs to me that the very fact that the man chose to share something so deeply personal with me means that he thought me worthy of sharing a piece of his heart. And I consider that just as important as the thousands of stories we each carry are if, how, and when we choose to share them, as he did. Through deep, heavy conversations, subtle proposals and even our miniscule interactions, we keep each other alive and feeling like we matter.
Perhaps Vissi d’Arte is so iconic and beloved because when we hear Tosca singing about living for art, we see ourselves, for even those of us who don’t create “art” have written and are carrying our own stories, our own worlds, in our hearts.
Cara Maines is a freshman at St. John’s School in Houston, TX, where she is an avid reader, writer, and dancer. When she is not participating in Model United Nations or playing Quiz Bowl, she can be found at musical rehearsals or writing an article for her school’s newspaper, for which she will be an editor next year. She loves studying French language and culture, reading Sylvia Plath’s poetry, drinking tea, and dancing overly enthusiastically.
Judge's comments: A graceful character portrait, evolving in the end into a wise meditation on art and life; shows the instincts of a born writer.
Children of the Eastern Seaboard
by Rachel Bratton
The two of you stand under the bulletin board while you wait for your grandfather to finish parking. He already did so once, but somewhere between the original space and the supermarket entrance he decided that it was too hot to leave the dog in the sun and became hell bent on moving the wagon into the shade around the side of the building. So, checking your forearms for new freckles, you told him that you would go poke at the hanging plant oracle for a few minutes and continued to walk toward the supermarket with your grandmother, driving the heels of your flip flops into the asphalt with each of your clamorous steps.
A slight breeze washes over you with each movement of the automatic door, willing the papers tacked above your head to tear through their constraints and amble across the parking lot. You lean against the wall and examine your grandmother as she moves between large, wilting pots of flowers, wiping dirt from her hands onto the midsection of her linen tunic. She sags in the heat, her hair flat and weighted and chalky like a child in the rain, the corners of her mouth ambivalent, drooping. You overheard her talking on the phone earlier, laughing as she told her friend that you were a brilliant girl, brilliant and funny and asleep until twelve or one on most afternoons. Now, unsure and humorlessly awake, you scan the abyss of vehicles for your grandfather and contemplate the shopping trip to come.
You will enter the store and peruse the produce when he gets back, the air conditioning welcoming at first but diabolically chilly after a few cutting seconds. The cart will fill up as your grandparents walk by bins of fruit, placing an orange and three heads of lettuce into its caged basket, the orbs free to smash around into one another with the turn of each new aisle. Other things will enter the cart, too, but, as instructed by a traveling wagon of physicians, you will have to sneak some of them back into their places on the shelves while their backs are turned, because caffeinated beverages and canned stromboli dinners dry them out like clipped dahlias on the sidewalk.
And then, armed with a carriage of unbagged fruits, the three of you will walk down the wall of plastic meat in the direction of the pharmacy, your necks straining with tension as you approach the site of her fall, the uneven square that bruised her knuckles, her wrists, and her sky. When you get there, grappling across the very same linoleum where she lost her footing and hit the floor, she will pause and turn to look at her reflection in a family-sized package of raw steak with the same ambivalence exhibited by her cheeks on the sidewalk outside. Bill, let’s get these, she will say, drawing the package down from the shelf and placing it in the cart. You will bite your lip as she does so, silently knowing that the meat will drift to the back of the fridge and burst, spilling rotten steak syrup across the shelf, but you won’t say a word about it and the three of you will plow on through the checkout, back into the heat, back into life, back into time.
An advertisement for a gardening service comes loose and tumbles into a stray carriage as you envision the drive home, during which your grandfather will cut through the cemetery by the water and you, tucked away in the back seat with a mysterious congregation of legumes, will roll down your window and sing goodbyes to the salty gravestones, your eyes fixed on the ocean’s indefinite horizon. You grab the carriage and follow your grandparents into the store, each of you pausing in the doorway to say goodbye to your old self.
Rachel Bratton is a 10th-grader from Carlisle, MA, who participates in zero extracurricular activities and spends the bulk of her school day at home, sleeping in. Rachel manages to scrape through the school year by regularly flocking to the local AMC with her acquaintances but feels that she is only able to really come into her element during the summer, which she spends swimming in the aforementioned bay and looking at the stars.
Judge's comments: A visceral description of a trip to the store that somehow becomes a contemplation of the human condition. And all done in the second person--no mean feat.
Floating in the Bitter Sea
by Emma Chu
Since I was a young girl, I always remembered something my father once told me one autumn afternoon many years ago. As we sat on the stone walkway, I was crying because I had scraped my knee against the concrete. As he wrapped the white gauze around my leg, he said, “Shhh, Xiao-Mei, Shhh.” After a pause, he continued, “During the Chinese revolution, your grandparents were forced to escape the Communist persecution. They swam across the shark-infested waters from the mainland to Hong Kong…—Xiao-Mei, be still.” I wriggled against the stinging rub of the tape. “If they had that courage, you can deal with minor discomfort. You must learn chi ku 吃苦, which means to swallow bitterness. Our people throughout history have had one extraordinary distinguishable quality that allowed us to prevail throughout all obstacles we faced. You must be stronger, harden yourself to the world.”
At the time, I did not understand the euphemistic tone to his words and had taken his words literally. That evening I stole outside quickly to scrape with my small fingers the chipping bark of the cherry tree nearby to stuff into my mouth, so as to prove I was strong enough, only to spit it out quickly in disgust.
Now I was sixteen. My mother had always described me as slender, but I was just scrawny. When I was born, my father said my mother was overjoyed for my black hair and my flat nose bridge, but when my little sister Xiao-An was born, with her porcelain complexion, tinted red hair, and wide eyes, she gazed at her in wonderment. I always thought that when I tipped my chin skywards, my neck had the same silhouette mother had. She was beautiful, and it often made me jealous of my sister, Xiao-An, when people commented how they looked alike.
If you wandered outside of our modest restaurant, there are still marks from my miniature fingers all those years ago on the cherry tree nearby. Every day as my sister and I walked to school, we passed our comforting little neighborhood. Our world was small. It felt small to me, so the bitterly angry tone in our home was abruptly apparent as we walked from school one day. My father was sweeping the linoleum flooring when I asked him where Mom was. She didn’t come home for a few days after that.
Winter was very bitterly cold and lonely. Snow weighed the bows of the cherry tree near my window, and I had believed once that it was also the snow that weighed down our hearts. I sensed an ominous presence that something was horribly amiss. When I asked my father why, he pulled me tightly against him and murmured, “ 没关系 mei guanxi, it doesn’t matter”.
That night I dreamt that my father and I were swimming in dark waters, trying to escape to a safe place. I dreamt of sharks tearing at my chest. They laughed when I begged them to stop. I told them if they took my heart, I’d have no way to support my soul. We swam and swam, the frigid water stinging our calves. We could feel the hopelessness of the bitter sea. I felt myself sinking under the weight of exhaustion. Then we saw it. A light on a distant shore, and despite our numbness, we kept paddling, pushing against the rough current. Through my dizzying pain, I knew we would survive.
When I finally awoke, I muffled my sobs, fearing if I let any sound escape it would disappear with shattered pieces of myself. That night, I tiptoed into the attic and saw my father asleep on a spare mattress. From then on, mother began to spend hours at night on the phone, murmuring soft words to someone I did not know. I knew they had been fighting. I had hoped then it was an aberration that their quarrels were temporary and that life would return to normal. I was aware of hushed arguments late at night, when she thought I couldn’t hear. My mother wanted to escape us, but at the time, I did not know to where or why.
On the surface, as the months passed and the snow melted from the bows of the cherry tree, our emotions became an eerie undercurrent. As the wintry days turned to spring, my sister’s laugh grew more whimsical, life felt warmer and brighter. Pink cherry blossomed bloomed, and spring brought out the reddish hues in my sister’s and my mother’s hair; lovely, I remembered thinking. It was the first time I wondered how we could be related when we looked so different. I had brought up the idea in jest while cleaning dishes and my mother whipped the towel at my hands. She said to stop thinking such stupid thoughts.
One day, my father had to go on a trip. It was very abrupt, since someone in our family had taken serious illness. The day he left, he promised in three days to return. It was Saturday when I heard noise in the back; Xiao-An began to cry. My mother rushed into the kitchen, saying Xiao-An had to go to Mr. Lee, the doctor around the corner because she had hurt her arm.
An hour later, I walked around outside the apartment to look for them and ended up sitting on the steps waiting, my knees pulled up against my shoulders. And then I saw them across the street, but they weren’t alone. A man whose back was faced to me stood with them, his arms surrounding my mother in an embrace. He picked up my little sister, and she laughed, reaching out to touch his hair. This simple gesture indicated this was not the first time they had met, but that was the last night I ever saw Xiao-An or my mother, as they disappeared around the bend in the road with the red haired man.
Emma Chu is a freshman at Rye Country Day School in Rye, NY, and has also studied Chinese since the age of three at The Chinese School of Southern Westchester, NY. She is actively involved in the performing arts including theater, dance, and choir. Emma trains as a competitive fencer and is a member of her school’s fencing and track & field teams. In July, Emma will participate in her third CTY summer program at Skidmore College.
Judge's comments: I was amazed that a story this complete could be so brief. The writer has a great instinct for structure and builds a cohesive whole out of small incidents and observations that might mean nothing in isolation but, put together, dramatize the narrator's dawning realization that something is very wrong in her household. Well-placed and well-chosen details heighten the tension and bring this world to life. Sharks mentioned in passing reappear in a dream. Blooming cherry trees are interrupted by a snapping towel. I particularly loved the wonderful moment when the narrator tastes tree bark because she doesn't understand that her father's metaphor about learning to swallow bitterness.
by Shelby Burke
In gym class, you are offered a choice; walk around the track for 90 minutes or play the competitive activity. This week, it’s tennis. All the boys pick up racquets; none of them know how to play, but they still want to win. And they don’t care if they get sweaty. The only people who choose to walk are the four of us. It’s surprising, because Alex is the most athletic girl I know, and Finnley tries unnecessarily hard at gym, the same way she tries unnecessarily hard to get people to like her. I’ve faked being unathletic and incompetent enough that the gym teacher feels a sort of disgusted pity for me and she leaves me alone when I walk the warm up instead of run it. I’ll let her continue believing it. I’m a tennis player, second singles for my school team and I feel a nagging need to show her that I’m good at something. But I play enough tennis outside of school, and I woke up before it was light this morning to curl my hair, so I decide against it. Kate is new, so she doesn’t complain. I thought at first that she was intimidating and strong, but she isn’t. She’s afraid, like me. We are always the last two left after class, applying makeup, fixing our sweaty hair, and talking about everything we hate about ourselves. She tells me a secret and I want badly to keep it for her.
The day is cold, too cold to be outside, and it makes our hands numb and pink. It is the first frigid day of the school year. The cold is something we’ve forgotten the sensation of. I try to conjure up the feeling and come up short. Some sensations are impossible to recreate in the mind; we have to feel them to be true. The bleakness of this day is a whole, complete, real thing, a heavy force that wraps us up and binds us tightly. We move closer together.
It’s just us and the overweight autistic girl who ambles behind us every class, listening silently to our conversations. When she runs during the warm up, the boys laugh. My heart breaks a little but I laugh too. Sometimes I talk to her after class, after Kate leaves. The girl, whose name I don’t know, stays behind, applying mascara with the deft precision of someone who has spent a lot of time trying to look pretty. She tells me she wants to be a veterinary assistant. I hope she will be.
We can see our breath, and the air tastes raw and naked, burning our lungs and rushing to our heads, making us dizzy and high. The sky is gray and yellow. We talk and we laugh, big genuine laughs that stretch out our faces and wrinkle our noses, not the delicate giggles we use when we’re flirting or being polite. We would never make such big, bold noises in front of boys; they are too ugly and too true.
Kate talks about being one of twelve children and never being alone. Finnley talks about being an only child and always being alone. Alex mentions her boyfriend. I used to think I loved him. It took admitting it to him to realize that I didn’t. When she mentions him, I look down at my shoes. They aren’t mine; I stole them from the locker room. I always put them back after I take them, but today I’ve decided I’m going to keep them. I’ll forget to bring my own pair; it’s easier this way. I don’t think of the owner. The sneakers smell like other people’s sweat. I pick off the plastic lining at the heel, liking the way the rubber feels against my fingers. I don’t feel bad for destroying them. When I concentrate on one thing, I don’t have to think about everything else.
Our conversations cut deeper. We’ve covered all of our usual shallow subjects; it’s all been stripped down to the bones. We keep pace in a loose line. Kate breaks the silence. “What makes you afraid of dying?” Alex says she is scared by the fact that the world would go on without her. People continue breathing, even when you’ve stopped. She knows it sounds selfish but at least she’s honest. Before, I never thought she was this truthful, this gritty. You never know with people.
I look down at my arms as my hairs prickle with fear and cold. “I’m the opposite. I want my death to be the end of my world, not the end of the world. The idea that things continue when you’re gone is the last hopeful thought,” I say, feeling the same way I do when I’m alone at night in bed and all I can do is stare into the dead light of the street lamps and think about the sky turning white with a nuclear glow. Every passing car sounds like the rumblings of an atomic bomb in the silence.
“We get so deep in gym class!” Finnley jokes, and we laugh our ugly, true laughs. The whistle is blown. We walk inside, pull off our uniforms, gossip and fix our hair. The white sky of apocalyptica and the yellow-gray expanse over the track are gone, and it’s only blue skies in our minds; boys and parties and our happy, careless teenaged rebellion. We’re young, invincible, resistant to decay. When we leave the locker room, we don’t think about dying anymore. We don’t think about much of anything, until next gym class.
Shelby Burke is a junior at Moorestown High School in Moorestown, New Jersey. When not writing, she plays tennis, volunteers and obsesses over her ever-expanding music collection. She hopes to eventually work in advertising, journalism, or international business.
Judge's comments: This writer has really zeroed in on one of the major feats of good fiction: to combine meaningful insights about life with mundane happenings. Here is a story about four girls walking around a track in P.E. class that ultimately turns out to be a discussion of death. The observation that something as profound as mortality hangs over us even while we're doing everyday things like being bored at school or gossiping with our friends is a wise and startling one.
by Kang Yeon Lee
The night was stifling. Leaning against the vent fan on the bare roof of his office building, Tom could feel the towering aluminum frames shudder with every gust of stale air it spewed out. Looking up, he saw not the sky, but an endless expanse of black light. Like his own life, he thought. Up to this point.
He was having difficulty recalling how his day had gone. The courthouse… what courthouse? The only thing that kept lingering on his mind with regularity was his memory of seeing himself in the mirror just that morning, in the bathroom in his penthouse apartment, him spiking up his long brown hair, then washing his hands in the stream of frothy ice-cold water and rubbing fingers against palms to see if any oil was left, then yes, the glasses, the old horn-rims off the shelf, up to his face, fitting the supports firmly against the bridge of his nose, a sigh, then a look in the mirror again, trying to see how his blood-red tie went with his white shirt, and finally, the cologne—one short psst—then over…
Tom took out a pack of cigarettes. He was not a smoker. This was his first pack ever, one he had bought from the corner store on his way to work with a little hesitation but no regret. Yet he expertly removed the plastic wrapping and flipped open the lid with his right thumb, then reached inside and slid out a slender cigarette.
He weighed the pack in his hands, but his eyes had long lost focus. The smooth white filter at the end, and the bluish band cutting the waist of the otherwise perfect tube… the frilly substance of the tobacco showing, but never sticking out, never. Tom kept the cigarette firmly in his hand, his sweat making it cling.
He strode over to the railing, then in one fluid movement upended the entire pack onto the street seventy floors beneath him. At first, all nineteen floated down parallel to each other—like warbirds flying in some eerie formation of death—then they bumped among themselves, then against the wall of the building, and scattered, disappearing out of sight. Tom watched until the cataracts in his eyes became painful and blurred everything out.
Tom’s feet carried him out of the building, with the single cigarette still in his hand. Outside, a gust of warm, musky air the smell of sweet smoke and popcorn swept past Tom, a lightning storm of flashbacks. But his eyes kept on staring to the far beyond, at least to whatever far beyond that could exist in a crowded city street at night. Tom felt drained of all that made him human. Perhaps it was the cigarette that was leading him on, feeding him health and strength. Perhaps it was.
He walked the streets, glancing at storefronts and people, mainly people. It was as if his undecided legs were floating him without consciousness or conscience. And he saw people for the first time. He saw white-collars grabbing a quick bite, a sandwich each, before the night shift, and college students wrapped in coats as they trudged back to their studio apartments. He saw pretzel and roasted nut vendors and newsstands and people rushing into a subway exit. He saw people playing guitars and electric violins on the sidewalk, and taxicabs speeding away as soon as the riders stepped out. Little kids walked by, admiring the city of night, the night of the city, their eager hands safely encased in their parents’. He saw a couple crossing the street.
He himself had done many things just for the sake of doing them, yes. But this night, just one of the many was consuming him. He would not forgive himself for doing that, and he would also never forgive the others. They had taken away all there could be taken away, except for the clothes on his back, as far as he was concerned. They had robbed him of his life by letting him live.
Yes, they should have killed him, taken away his life instead of his will to live. They should have taken away his apartment and his ’87 Mustang instead of taking away his verdict and sentence. They were convinced he had done any wrong, but he was not. It was his choice over theirs. And the falling cigarettes could not make him feel any better.
He loved life, he loved to live, but he just wished he could live a different life from this, or the life of his younger self. Which one he wished for more, he couldn’t decide. But again, the falling cigarettes didn’t make him feel any better.
All of a sudden, he impulsively wished he had smoked when he was young, now too, for his whole life, somehow wanting to believe that the sin of smoking might cover up a part of everything else he was so ashamed of. He wished he could have been a drunkard, a pickpocket, a mercenary slaughtering natives in their own homes and villages. He imagined crushing, wringing, the cigarette in his hand. The thought left him hollow.
Tom found himself standing at the railing once more—this time, on it. It all came back to him. He remembered the short days and the long nights, the days he spent feeling hopelessly drugged, thinking about things he didn’t know, or understand… not realizing that he was doing so at all. It was like turning on the rear lights on his car—knowing that he flipped the switch, commanded the lights to glare a bright red—but having no way of telling whether those lights were actually on. But for that matter, one couldn’t really know whether one’s headlights were on either. It was a guess at the truth, a guess most people seemed to be most willing to embrace.
Tom just stood there, the wind thrashing his hair. He closed his eyes.
Kang Yeon Lee lives in Seoul, Korea, where he attends Daewon Foreign Language High School as a junior. His many interests range from political history and international economics to Homer's epics and comparative jurisprudence. An avid reader, an active writer, and an enthusiastic photographer, he currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for his school's newspaper, the Beacon, and is on the editorial staff for another student publication, Prism. He has too many "favorite" writers to name them all, but among them are Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Franzen, and Sylvia Plath. When he isn't at his desk or in the darkroom, he rows for his crew team and tutors North Korean child defectors.
Judge's comments: I liked this mystery of this piece and its tight, meditative focus on a single character. This writer has a gift for word choice and visual imagery. Cigarettes dropped off a rooftop float down "like warbirds flying in some eerie formation," and the night sky is "an endless expanse of black light." Language that manages to be both exact and surprising is such a pleasure for a reader--it certainly was for me in this piece.
by Christine Lu
The shabby platform groaned as Ke Jing, panting, sprinted across it, her anxiety of being tardy began to ebb away. Of the numerous people who would step out of a train just hours later, Ke Jing would have her eyes set on only two.
As she sat alone, she relived the last forty years in flashes. The joyous memory of the birth of her two daughters arose, closely followed by the frightful event in which the red guards barged into their apartment and, escalating in despair, her husband’s death, sharp and unmerciful. Traveling backwards now, before she was separated from her family, she remembered shuffling down the street, carrying a treat for her two sisters like chocolates, candies, and sometimes, a new set of clothes. Or trudging down to the movies with them, reaching into her pocket to finger the tickets she had saved up for. Now she came back, facing the present, wondering what was racing through her sisters’ minds and wondered if they needed her as much as she did them.
Suddenly, she heard the rusty train come rumbling down the tracks. With a groan of the bench, she eagerly leapt or rather, pushed herself, to her feet and quickly shuffled down to the train platform. Standing on tiptoe as best as she could, my grandmother peered at the windows of the train as they rushed past her, blending together and blurring whatever was to be seen through them. Then, the train screeched to a halt, and the doors slowly creaked open.
The peaceful and quiet train station was now extremely loud and buzzing with excitement. Still, people were pouring out of the train’s open doors and the platform was getting more crowded by the second. My grandma was fighting her way to get closer to the doors of the train, so she could get a better view of the people exiting it. She stood there, holding whatever was left of her breath in anticipation, watching the doors of the train for what felt like an hour until she began to fret. What if they had gotten into a horrible accident on their way to the train station or missed the train? Like a blow to the stomach, a thought occurred to her. Recognizing even her own sisters could be difficult after the events of the past decades had taken their toll on their appearances. When would they find each other and, if they did, would they welcome the variations in each other? Why were there so many questions and so little answers?
A sea of faces swam around her, stony expressions and lifeless eyes staring back to meet her desperate gaze. Just as her stomach twisted around her heart, it released its tense grip and let the constant, steady beat resume. Her eyes fell upon two familiar faces and, as if to let her know that this was not a trick, met with her sister, Ke Yi’s, eyes. All three of them awkwardly raced toward each other, quickening their steps, each fighting the current of the crowd. Embracing, they gripped each other as if they would never let go and fell silent until my grandma exclaimed, “How I’ve missed you and, we’re all just so old!” Each of the three elderly women broke into laughter with joyous tears filling their eyes and streaking down their wrinkled faces, the tale of the last forty years etched into those faced. Those three sisters had long awaited this moment, each having so much to tell, yet words failed each of them. The empty and lonely feeling that had filled each of their hearts had left them and was now replaced by relief, hope, and love.
“How was our father doing before he died? How did he die?” Her voice quavered but when no one answered, she remained adamant, repeating her inquiry.
“He… He died from a sickness when he was eighty and every time he would see someone, he would boast of his daughter who was trapped in mainland China” replied the youngest of them all, Ke Zheng.
She almost felt her father’s frail hand in hers and she hated herself for not having fulfilled her duty, as his daughter, in his time of need. Tears welled up in her eyes as her sisters told her of how much their father had yearned for her and how much pride he carried for her, even when he had not had notice of her greatest aspirations.
“It wasn’t your fault, you couldn’t have flown to Taiwan during that time.” choked her sisters.
“No!” cried my grandma, breaking down,” you don’t know how many times I dreamt of seeing him again. He was the person I always looked up to, respected, and now he’s gone.” Wiping tears from their eyes, they slumped down on the crowded bench nearest to them.” There was silence between them for a long while, while they thought and collected themselves and their emotions, until my grandma chuckled, recovered from her breakdown and her thoughts sorted, “Look at all of us, our cousin has gotten us reunited and we should be ecstatic and grateful that we’re together again. Father must be smiling and laughing in the heavens right now, looking at us being reunited and all we can do is cry. We were separated for forty long years by our own government and now we should be happy that we’re together. I know father would have thought so too.” Suddenly, as quick as it had gone, a smile spread across their faces and they soon found themselves grinning from ear to ear. They had been separated, and after long, agonizing years, they were now reunited. So they knew that from that moment on, nothing would be able to tear them apart.
Christine Lu is a seventh grader at Central Middle School in Parsippany, NJ, where she participates in clubs including the math club, literary magazine, and stage craft. She plays the flute, piano, and violin, playing the latter in the New Jersey Youth Symphony and the New Jersey Northern Region Junior High School Orchestra. Christine was a county champion in the 2010 New Jersey Mathematics League; in MATHCOUNTS, her school placed fourth in the chapter competition and she placed seventeenth individually.
by Ashley Meng
An afternoon light floated inside the room, disrupted by the streaking shadows of the rusty bars that ran crudely across the window. “Did the mail come yet?” The girl leapt up from her chair and ran to the window. A piece of the chair’s stuffing fell out of the gaping hole in its leg when the girl had moved.
She peered between the bars and dirty glass to the empty street ten stories below. Her head turned expectantly down a dusty hallway that culminated at an old and disused door. Outside the door sat a tray of untouched food that emitted a five-year stench of rot and decay.
“I try to come every day. But Mama, I’ve been waiting an awfully long time for that envelope to come.”
She didn’t know what was in that envelope; she didn’t really wonder. She only knew that Mama had told her once to always wait for it and never, ever leave until she had found it. Mama always knew best.
Except, it seemed as if recently there were a lot of Mama’s things missing, like her hat. Some people called it plain red, but Mama had pointed out all the different depths of color woven in. She had called it an ocean, a big red ocean, but the girl secretly disagreed. She knew that the ocean was salty and the hat didn’t smell like the salt that came in the little rectangles at the café nearby.
The girl looked out from her post at the window and saw the mail truck at her block. She jumped the stairs, two at a time, and raced through the building. The endless rows of colorless doors always seemed to be shorter on the way down.
She peered dubiously into the crack underneath the metal opening of the mailbox. She hoped to see that small sliver of white envelope showing through. The girl held her breath as she groped inside. Her fingers, familiar with the emptiness of the box, felt a new sharp crisp edge of the envelope. It was there; it really was there. After so many days of waiting, the exalted envelope was in her fingers.
Looking up with her hand still inside the mailbox, the girl thought she saw Mama’s hat weaving its way through people who were checking their mailboxes for the monthly welfare money. Mama had found her hat and the envelope had come. The girl grabbed it and sprinted in the direction of the hat.
“Where you going with that?” called the mailman after her as the girl sprinted away clutching the pale, cold envelope.
“It’s for Mama!” she called back over her shoulder. Her hair swept around her neck as she ran, like a dark halo. Her dirty flip-flops slapped the side-walk and the rubber straps burned deep red bands into her feet like angry strokes from a whip. The soles had separated into halves long ago and with each step, they would flap apart like a frowning mouth.
“Mama! Mama!” she screamed over the heads of people. “Mama! I got it!” Her cry became a yelp as her breath grew short. Her legs started to feel weary The red hat seemed to become impossibly smaller as it traveled farther.
“Mama, it finally came!” The girl waved the envelope in the air. She watched as she saw the familiar hat crossing the street at Crown. Her heart ached as it bobbed farther away.
“Wait for me, Mama! Wait for me!” the girl called out. She took a deep panting breath.
“Don’t leave me here, Mama!” She started across the street and, without looking at it, held out the envelope in front of her as if parting the waters of traffic. “Please don’t go,” she whispered wearily. The red hat seemed so far away now.
She was tired for a moment—so tired of running, screaming, and waiting for Mama to respond. The girl looked up and paused to see the sun setting in a discolored, discontented sky. And suddenly, she realized what the hat was. No, it wasn’t Mama’s red ocean that frolicked in its freedom, but the girl’s red sunset that glinted off the last flickering specks of the daylight receding with every second.
When the police examined the case of the little girl who would run away daily from the orphanage claiming to still live in the old apartment unit with her mother, who had tried to cross the street in the middle of busy traffic, whose fragile body had been collected from the very hands of the confused truck driver temporarily blinded by the sunset, there wasn’t anything new to say. Her father had never been known. Her bankrupt mother had never married and spent days crying at night while staring into the street. One day, five years ago, while the girl was sleeping, the hopeless woman had left the apartments, walked down the sidewalk, crossed the street at Crown, and was never heard from again. A neighbor, peeping from his window, had seen her wearing her red hat pulled sloppily over a messy brown bun while teetering sloppily away.
But none could explain the blank white envelope the girl carried, although the post-man had half-heartedly confessed to accidentally slipping into the mailbox. The police chief who had personally come to investigate the scene had waved it around in the faces of the residents and used it as he gesticulated. When he concluded that the envelope would not further elicit responses, he crumpled it up and threw it into the trashcan with slight distaste. It wasn’t anything personal he had against these people, just that—The chief chuckled. He had found a story to tell. He would call it: “The Poor Girl Against the World,” and it would serve as a perfect opener for his charity dinner about the dangers of crossing city streets without looking both ways. That would look good in the newspapers when he’d announce his intention to run for governor.
Ashley Meng, 15, is a sophomore at Hopkins in New Haven, CT, which she has attended since 7th grade. She mainly enjoys science, particularly the life sciences, and writes short stories when she has extra time. She is an avid member of her school's math and JETS teams and Connecticut's ARML team. Ashley also swims on a competitive team, as well as her high school team, throughout the year.
by Richard Nehrboss
And he sits there whispering your name to the wind.
Seeming to take human form, your name pauses, checks itself, and quickly leaps forward into the evening and takes flight. There it joins the others flying over the silent world. Moving swiftly and silently over the hills and through the trees. Into caves where never the sun has shone. And he sits there calling after you, “Oh, come back,” but in his heart he knows that you are gone. He has to let you go.
His shadow stretches across the land as the sun dips nearer and nearer to the horizon. He looks after you flying away without hindrance or hie. He can almost hear your response--come join me.
And he sits there watching you soar over the world. The memories wash over him like a tidal wave over weary sailors in the ocean.
He remembers the lone forest trail. You were with him there in years gone by. There you walked, hand in hand, for hours under the cool trees. Occasionally a leaf would be blown off its perch high in the trees by the fresh June winds. For a moment its silhouette would be clear against the cloudless blue sky; then it would tremble and float down silently to the ground. The bushes were in full blossom and the birds were nesting in the chestnut thicket. It was a glorious day. The Cherry tree by the path to which you attached a rope swing you is still standing, obstinately refusing to fall. Although long ago, he can still remember how you, young and eager, ran up to that swing and launched yourself from the ground, your golden hair flying freely in the wind. “Come join me,” you called laughingly.
The sun is sinking faster now; the tip is beginning to sink beneath the ocean in the distance.
The island where you took your honeymoon. You spent those three weeks with him in wonderful solitude. Together you would play volleyball in the sand, go to the quaint island shop which provided you with your groceries, or just sit and look out into the ocean of crashing waves for hours on end. It was fun. The salty ocean wind blew in your face and an occasional spray sting your eyes as you ran in the waves trying to catch a starfish. You felt exhilarated and free. “Come join me!” you cried.
The cemetery where you buried your first daughter. The sun was gone but for a small tip that occasionally peaked out of the thick clouds. That day the earth had been drenched in a heavy oppressive rain; the entire world seemed to weep. The newly laid head stone was splattered with mud and one could barely read its contents: “Mary Smith: 1957-1963” Like a naive child you sat there. You could not understand the cruelty of it all. “Come join me,” you said quietly.
The sun has almost set. Like a brilliant golden coin sliding off the tapestry of the world.
The large hospital where he fought his first bout of cancer. You were there to comfort him and tell him that it would be all right. The long nights that you had spent with him while he underwent chemotherapy are still fresh in his memory. You had given him the strength needed to keep going and not succumb to the painful disease. When all the treatments were ineffective and the situation was the bleakest, you were there keep his spirits up and not let him give in. When he finally had his first remission you were there to celebrate with him and welcome him back to the world. “Come join me for dinner,” you spoke gently to him. And he did. He got out of bed and hobbled over to the table; although he was in remission he would be weakened forever.
“Come join me,” you call, flying over the fields, “I am free, Come join me!”
The sun sets in a ball of golden glory and it is dark.
You keep flying into the sunset. He turns his head up and looks off into the distance. A single tear trickles down his face.
And he sits there whispering your name into the wind. And all is silent.
Richard Nehrboss, 13, homeschooled in the most remote part of the universe, Bumpass, Virginia, has completed his high school course of study and plans to attend the University of Virginia this fall. He plays competitive chess and placed in the top ten nationally. His interests include math, writing, and robotics. He also finds the challenge of entrepreneurial ventures fulfilling and is currently working on an autonomous helicopter company.
by Jessie Li
Abraham. A triple threat of syllables. Abe. Rah. Hem. Three soft vowels against my tongue, sometimes merging into two when produced by my unsteady lips. To them you were christened in Chinese, Lei Feng, lightning and wind, subtle yet swift. But you would always be Abraham to me, that bittersweet melody lingering in my mouth, refusing to let go.
I met you two years after your family moved here from California, and two weeks before you moved back. Our mothers came across each other at the local Far East supermarket, where they shared dumpling recipes and stories of difficult children. Soon after, they arranged for us to get together.
On our first play date, I hid from you, diving under my bed when I heard your footsteps approaching.
Your voice wavered as you called my name. I lifted the bed dress to steal a look at you, from beneath the silky cloth. You were at least a head taller than me, rather gangly. Your hair was horribly cut—I blamed your mother—a shapely bowl cut draped awkwardly on your head as though unwilling to cooperate. Your eyes widened when you saw me, and the comic book you were holding slipped from your hands. A gentle swish—the pages lay splayed on the ground as you crawled towards me.
Come on, you urged. Hide and seek. A smile played on your cheeks before you dashed off.
Before ten seconds had finished, I was already running, my thick feet slapping the hardwood floors while my mother complained about the noise. Into the attic, behind the pantry doors, under the mahogany desk. Nowhere.
I opened the bathroom door. There. Flattened on the frigid tiles, arms and legs spread like those of a starfish, you were sprawled on the floor, eyes staring straight up and into the skylight window. I’m not sure you even noticed me at first. My body stalled for a moment, struck with wonder.
Thin crystals clung onto the window, signaling the advent of a cold November. The surreptitious call of winter—deceptive sun-framed sky, ephemeral clouds—yet fragile snowflakes already spinning in arabesques, melting instantly once touching the skylight’s glass surface. Abraham. My legs folded beneath me, and I joined you, watching the radiant purity embrace our microcosm of bliss.
In California, you told me, it doesn’t snow. It only rains. Your voice stated this in monotone, as though the Californian rain had already captured you, stealthily threatening your voice. I imagined the pitter-patter of the droplets on windows in that distant place, far from here, where snow falls silently on windows. Yu, you said. Rain. I heard the melancholy in your tone. Carrying heartache and hunger, the burdensome rainwater framing your world.
A few minutes later, you stood up, and I followed. Your turn, you said. With that, we continued our game, the strange event already fading into the past, those beautiful moments, gone.
You moved to California soon after, and I would not hear from your family for another eleven years. It was only when my mother decided to take a vacation to San Francisco one spring that she found your mother’s phone number in one of her various dilapidated address books, to ask if your mother wanted to meet.
I had forgotten about you by then—in eleven years, infants transform into adolescents, some animals complete their lives, hundreds of generations of insects pass away. In eleven years, a boy and a girl who were friends become strangers, two families become foreigners.
When our families met for lunch in San Francisco, you were not there. Belize, your mother said, clicking her chopsticks together. Mission trip. She smiled wearily, her face slightly worn, the years tugging her skin out of shape. The seat next to me was empty, and I wanted to will you into presence. Abraham. A name, no face.
Your mother patted the seat next to her. Come, see. Her hand held a single, glossy photograph. Your arm was draped around your mother’s shoulders, and you smiled shyly at the camera. You were at least a foot taller than your mother, yet you seemed diminutive standing next to her. Still so gentle in your ways, still so quietly alluring.
It was a sense of unreasoned nostalgia that claimed me then, a rush of infinite longing. Yearning the past—huai nian, they say in Chinese, those two sticky and desperate words. The term is sweeter in Chinese, as though it holds memories—images of you and me, watching the world with open eyes. Yet I did not know you anymore, would not recognize you even if our paths crossed.
When my mother and I arrived home, my mother placed the photograph haphazardly among various letters and bills clinging to our kitchen counter. As she opened the mail, she unknowingly pushed the photo off the table. I watched it tremble, then drift slowly to the ground, face down. I bent down to pick it up, but I knew you were already gone. My fingers loosened and I turned away.
You were nineteen years old, and I was seventeen. But in my mind, we were still eight and six, bashful yet eager, our eyes turned skywards, holding teardrops and clouds. Abraham. Your face blurred in my memory—come on, you said. Curious eyes, messy hair, playful smile. Remnants of when we were young.
Jessie Li is a junior at State College Area High School in State College, PA . She is fascinated by language and speaks English and Chinese fluently, while also studying Spanish and Latin. In her spare time, Jessie enjoys writing, traveling, playing piano, long-distance running, and community service. Jessie loves impressionist music and art and is a fan of Green Pony Photography.
by Bronwyn Donohue
White walls with gray-brown stains. Different size cupboards, as if a carpenter made them without measuring first. A stove that can boil a cup of water in just under 45 minutes. This is her kitchen—if you can even call it that. It’s really just one corner of a long room that contains living, eating, and cooking space. Still she seems content.
I’m spread out uncomfortably on the red love seat—its maroon, green, and yellow squares like those of a modern painting placed in no particular order every few inches—an under-stuffed arm digging into my back, another pushing my legs into an awkward crunched position. I’m watching her. Technically I should be studying for a test in biology. I’m distracted though. She looks like a modern dancer as she glides across the kitchen moving her hands and legs, synchronized to a beat only she can hear. And scents of a Turkish bazaar—peaches, cinnamon, caramelizing onions, and roasting poultry—permeate the apartment. That mixed with the yelling, laughing, crying, and fighting of my younger sisters and the pounding of the heavy metal coming from my older brother’s room makes it almost impossible to stay focused.
The kitchen timer’s abrasive buzz brings me out of my daydreaming. I startle as if it’s the Monday after staying up late to finish some homework assignment I kept telling myself I’d do later. I shake off sleepiness and watch as she steps toward the stove, opens the oven door, ready to wrestle with the sizzling turkey. A backdraft of air forces its way out of the oven powerfully enough to make her jump.
I look up quickly. Did she burn herself? She turns around and gives me a gentle smile to say she’s okay. She turns back to the oven, grabs her oven-mitts, and pulls out the seventeen-pound turkey, placing it carefully on the stove. Next she chooses a white, porcelain, serving dish with an intricately carved border of tomatoes, carrots, and beans. The vegetables twist and turn along the edge, luscious vines trying to break free from the platter’s confines. She carries the crispy turkey, the buttery mashed potatoes, the herb-laced stuffing, and the caramelized pearl onions into the dining room.
We are already seated at the dining room table, watching her expectantly as she brings in the food.
She reaches for the carving knife and the meat fork. Like a medical resident making an incision, she slices off the first piece as if to prove to us she knows how to do this, can do this.
The sudden crash of the chair as it hits the ground makes us all start. We look up to see my brother run from the room, hear his bare feet across the wood floor followed by a muffled pounding as he bolts up the carpeted stairs. His door slams against its frame. She flinches as if it is meant for her, as if he were slamming it in her face. The smile she’s been wearing since she announced dinner drains from her face.
“Let’s forget about the turkey,” she says, her voice devoid of emotion. “Mia, pass the mashed potatoes, please,” she tells my youngest sister as an afterthought. Other than the scooping of food onto plates, there is no sound.
“I’ll take a plate of food to Jesse,” I say quickly picking up his plate and adding potatoes, green beans, stuffing, and gravy, trying to leave the heavy silence as soon as possible.
I knock on the door. There is no response.
I wasn’t expecting one.
“Jess, I’m just going to leave your food outside the door, okay?” I say placing the plate outside the door. “I’m leaving now.”
I go downstairs. Nothing has changed. My mom and sisters are staring down at their plates, each one overwhelmed by their own thoughts, their own memories. I sit down and take a bite of the meal I couldn’t wait to eat. I can’t taste it. I take another bite, but it is no better. I swallow the lump of sadness and put my fork down.
Why did there have to be ice on the road?
I pick up my plate and put it on the counter. My sisters do the same and we go up the stairs. On the way to my room I see Jesse’s plate untouched. I take it downstairs and put it on the counter. As I pass the living room I see her. She’s holding his picture.
A tear runs down her face, like a single raindrop down a window. She catches me looking at her, quickly brushes the tear away, and smiles reassuringly. She heads for the kitchen and starts washing the dishes by hand, throwing away the leftover food so it won’t be a reminder.
We were fine yesterday; we were fine today until dinner. It’s the moments we used to spend together that are hard to get through.
I’ll go to sleep and tonight will be forgotten or at least not mentioned. I can take comfort in that thought. The wound that was reopened today by her carving the turkey—he always cut the turkey; that was his job—the wound reminding us that unlike last Thanksgiving he is not with us this year, will heal. Only to be reopened again in a month, on Christmas.
Bronwyn Donohue is an eighth grader. Although she lives in Michigan, she is spending this year in Bochum, Germany, where she attends Hildegardis Gymnasium. She enjoys reading, writing, and riding. She lives with her mother, triplet siblings, and when in the U.S., a dog and five cats.
by Kat Herron
She knew that she had never really had a chance. She knew that perfectly well. Jo realized that she was being silly. How silly of her to sit here crouched against the wall and holding back tears. Still dressed in her private school uniform, plaid skirt and all. She looked like some kind of schoolgirl.
A schoolgirl. She supposed that those were the best words that she’d ever think of to describe herself with. She giggled like a schoolgirl. She acted like a schoolgirl. And she had such a schoolgirl’s crush on Jeremy Smith. It was pathetic. Really pathetic. A pathetic little schoolgirl. Jo’s lips twitched as she forced herself up into a standing position.
Her shiny bubble gum pink phone lay untouched on the oak desk that sat in the corner of her bedroom. She didn’t care how many times it rang or beeped. Jo didn’t feel like talking to anyone. She felt too stupid to talk to anyone. God, she had made such an idiot of herself.
She could still hear his words ringing in her head like he was standing right there in the room with her. Jo could still see the gape of his mouth when she ambushed him with her eager, inexperienced mouth.
“Jo, no…” his words echoed in her head. They were close to meaningless now. She had silently recited them so many times. It almost made her wonder if any of it had ever happened. Then the shame overwhelmed her again. It was real. Then she felt his palms on her shoulders again as he pushed her away. Definitely real. The look on his face. Oh, she wished it wasn’t real! She wished she had never seen the shock in Jeremy’s eyes. The pity that flashed on his face.
Her phone beeped for the umpteenth time that night, vibrating on her desk. Jo stormed over to the oak table top and picked up the small device. She fingered it in her palm. Beep. She hated that noise. Beep. “Stop,” she muttered. She didn’t want to talk to anyone right now. She didn’t want to answer one of Julie’s two missed calls or Rose’s three missed texts. She didn’t want to talk about what happened. She didn’t want to hear what they had to say about it. Beep. She didn’t want any of it! Beep. Jo clenched her fingers around the phone. Would it just stop? With white knuckles, she threw it across the room, satisfied with the loud thud that sounded on the hard wood floor when it landed and slid far away from her view. It didn’t beep again.
Jo ran a hand through her mess of auburn hair. She felt her legs give out underneath her as she collapsed down onto the light pink comforter of her bed.
What was wrong with her? How had she mistaken a look of brotherly affection for the same longing that lit her own eyes? The reassurances of a friend for something more? How would she ever face Jeremy again? It wasn’t like she could just avoid him forever. He was Julie’s brother. Her best friend’s brother. How could she ever face Julie again? Jo turned over on her stomach and buried her face into her pillow. Maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she could just stay here like this forever. A mangled giggle echoed into the cotton. There she went again. Thinking like a little girl that she could just hide under the covers and never face the light of day again. Jo clenched her eyes shut. Come Monday she would deal with what she had done. She curled up in a ball. Not yet. She could just hide from the world for now, couldn’t she?
From underneath the bed, her phone beeped.
Kat Herron is a freshman at Hinsdale Central High School in Illinois. She has loved writing, reading, and anything related to literature for most of her life. She also enjoys music and plays the guitar in her spare time. She hopes to one day study English in college and go on to work in a related field.
by Dalia Wolfson
In an old dance studio on the corner of 236th and Netherland Avenue, Herman Schwartz and his granddaughter Judith stay after hours. Peering through the window of the studio at 8:00 PM, you might see them dancing: they are illuminated by the old yellow light which creates infinities, small rolling suns and chips of moonlight from outside reflected eternal times over in the wall mirrors. Their shadows fall on the floor like petals with greatest transparency, the sort that- when shot through with light- leave only the slightest imprint on the papery surface below. Dust motes accompany the grand father and daughter, specks whirling in the currents of movement.
First Judith dances, twirling on the hard wooden floors. In the amber illumination she is a creature of roses—the pink of her skirt, leotard and cheeks blossoms in eruptions of color in all corners of the studio. Her hair—set in the bun of ballet girls, pins tightly tucked and face sharpened—after hours, is looser than before. She trains for recitals, and when she dances she counts one two three, one two three, one to three, one.
Mr. Schwartz joins her then, when she has pirouetted through leaps and jumps and revolutions. When he moves, he tries to mimic, vainly, her effortless grace. Mr. Schwartz, the former pilot- many times decorated, vision superb- envisions himself to be a plane. Under the wings of his hands he feels the air rushing, and the several hairs on his nearly-bald head quiver in anticipation. Every ascent is a take off for which he counts backwards, three two one, and then departs from the ground, alighting and falling and rising again.
In the evening of the summer days, Judith and Mr. Schwartz practice the art of motion. They twirl and they gallop—for didn’t that French artist paint both dancers and horses in equal proportion, the bodies perfected in movement and torsion? And there are moments of suspension, occasionally, when the feet of their hooves leave the ground, and the two generations—one degenerating, already, still from paralysis to begin later in the autumn; the other, regenerating, inheriting energy as her grandfather slows- the both of them dance hand in hand.
The artist emerges to peer at his subjects. Degas sits cross legged in a corner with watercolors, the slightest of paints and the most dynamic of inks that allow for the blankness of space to grow charged, pulsed through with searing energy. His box contains but three colors: crimson, titanium white and ambient, solar yellow. His brush glides in strokes, the choreography of image, dynamic and printing itself in shadows upon the paper. In a corner of the studio, he delights. And he studies the dancers, those bodies in flight.
Dalia Wolfson is a sophomore at Hunter College High School in New York City. She speaks English, Russian, Hebrew, and un poquito Spanish. In her spare time, Dalia enjoys intense hiking, trying out different tea flavors, drawing with charcoal, participating in school clubs, writing in notepads, playing tennis, and being a bookworm in the Big Apple. Her essay "Vault Forward" won first place in the 2010 Creative Minds Essay Contest.
These Velvet Sheets
by Nicole Foggan
The sun slowly rises from its soft canopy in the trees, and ascends into the sky, a palette of magnificent colors flung sloppily onto the vast canvas. Underneath the morning sky, a concrete path runs foreignly through a large forest, littered with leaves and pine cones, until it comes to a sudden halt at a small group of houses. There is a large house with a white picket fence on the corner of the street that is surrounded by well kept shrubs and trees. Inside, the cream colored walls are bathed in a pool of warm sunlight that flows in from the spotless windows. Down the hallway, carpeted by a deep crimson rug, there is a door, from behind which there is a small stirring. In the corner of the spacious room, atop a large mattress, lays an old man, obscured by a large pile of velvet sheets. He breathes slowly, and there is a slightly concerned look on his face as he tosses in his bed. As the clock on his bedside table buzzes insistently, he slowly sits up in his bed. Now that he has freed himself from the tangled pile of sheets, we can see that his hair is wispy and white, and his skin is tanned from age. He soon rises from his comfortable bed, and begins to get ready for his day. He puts on a crisp, clean suit and combs back his slight hair. He slips on his shiny shoes, and walks over to the tall oak door that leads outside.
For a moment, it seems, a dark shadow is cast over his face, and his smile turns slightly. But, perhaps it was just the lighting, because as he exited the house there was a smile pasted on his impassive face.
He travels to work in his shiny red car, deflecting jealous glances as he speeds down the highway. Like every day, he walks down the slick marble floors of the lofty office building. Like every day, he travels past hundreds of identical cubicles until he stops at one and turns the well worn handle. Like every day, he sits at the knotted wood desk, dwarfed by the tall stack of papers that towers in front of him. And like every day, he walks back down the rows of endless cubicles once again, and over the marble floors, as he exits the mountainous building.
When the man arrives home, it is dark, and as he slowly walks up the gravel path, the sound of rocks crunching beneath his feet echoing in the silent night. In the dark, the trees look frail and delicate, and the white picket fence seems splintered and broken. The house, so warm before, has grown cold, bathed in the eerie light of the moon. The old man slowly walks down the hallway, accompanied only by his tall, lean shadow. At a slight creaking sound, he pauses, turning slowly around. Then, shaking his head, he continues down the long, silent hallway. As he opens the door, he sits down on his bed in the corner of the room. The pale moonlight illuminates the man. His face, previously masked by the morning light, is covered with deep creases and crevasses; his body worn and weary. His eyes are dull and lifeless, as if he might succumb to the night's frigid, extending, hands at any moment. The man sinks down and covers his bloodshot eyes with his withering hands. Then, he lets out a deep breath, like a gust of wind cast into the silent air on a lonely beach, and falls asleep underneath those oppressive velvet sheets.
Nicole Foggan is a sophomore at Old Mill High School in Maryland, where she is enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program and is active in the Key Club, French Honor Society, Art Honor Society, and the sophomore class. In her spare time, she enjoys horseback riding, writing, reading, and spending time with her friends and family.
About our judge: Thirty years ago, Matthew Olshan and his wife, Shana, participated in the very first CTY testing program. Since then, Matthew has spent his life trying to live up to that early promise. He was educated at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Oxford Universities. A few years ago, he spent two hectic summers teaching writing for CTY on the Hopkins campus. He is the author of several books for young readers, including Finn: a novel and The Flown Sky. His latest children's book, The Boxer Lalouche, a collaboration with the illustrator Sophie Blackall, will be published by Schwartz & Wade in 2012. His new novel for adults, Marshlands, was just bought by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Forgiving (PDF) by Kelsey Josund, 15, Washington
Touching the Sky
by Megan Hatch
I made a path toward my friend’s house with a loaf of pumpkin bread in my hands. It was her birthday today, and I had promised to make her my mother’s famous pumpkin bread.
Three houses away from my friend's house, I sighed. I had just passed a pothole in the pavement and annoyed myself; upon seeing it, I had immediately thought of someone speeding over it, losing control of the car, and crashing into another car. Nothing like that had ever happened, of course, but that was one thing about me; I worried.
Honestly, sometimes I thought I was afraid of life. Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t live in a bubble or anything. I loved to play sports, act, and be with my friends and family. But with everything I did, a voice in my head always said, “the stage lights could fall and kill you,” or “you could tear your ACL when playing soccer,” and, my personal favorite, “if you don’t triple check the lock on the door, then a murderer will come in and kill you all.”
“Yes, thank you,” I always thought to the voice. “Thanks for being so weird. Now shut up.”
And even by talking about things I feared, I felt like I was speaking some tabooed word, and was asking for trouble. It was like I looked and acted normal, but really, under the brown hair and eyes, I was a pantophobiac, or whatever those people who feared everything were called.
I broke out of my reverie as someone called my name. “Evie!” Jean called from her garden by the road.
Jean was my ninety year old neighbor. She was active, nice, and… confused. Most of the time she acted like a child, but no one knew if it was a mental condition or not.
“Hi, Ms. Jean,” I replied, trying to keep walking. But she motioned for me to come over to the fence, and, as not to be rude, I did. She then inhaled deeply, her grin lighting up her whole face.
“I love today,” she announced merrily. “In fact, I think that I love life,” she laughed. She suddenly leaned over the fence towards me. “Do you know what the word ‘Life’ stands for?” she asked me, lowering her voice like it was some big secret.
“Excuse me?” I asked, trying to hide my giggle. “I didn’t think it stood for--”
“Oh no, no my dear!” she interrupted me, taking my hand. “Life means ‘Life Is For Ever.'” I stared at her.
“Forever,” I said, crinkling my eyebrows, “is one word.”
“No, it’s two.”
“No, I learned it in third grade. It’s--”
“Dear,” said Jean, giving my hand a small squeeze. “To me, it’s two.”
I didn’t say anything, only smiled, and tried to inch away. It was then that she saw the pumpkin bread. “Oh, dear!” she exclaimed, taking it from me. “Your mother really shouldn’t have,” she laughed, examining it.
“Tell her I say thank you!” Jean smiled, talking over me. She gave me a wave, and walked into her house, leaving me staring at my empty hands.
* * *
I was in a bad mood when I walked home from school on Friday. I had gotten a poor grade on a test, and had spilt pasta sauce on my new shirt. As I passed Jean’s house, she popped up from behind the fence and sang out, “Life is loving in ferocious amounts!” I tripped backwards with surprise, caught myself, and glared at her. She, however, just smiled back at me, as if scaring the life out of your neighbor was perfectly normal.
Jean leaned on the fence and grinned at me, oblivious to my mood.
“Want to know what arm stands for?” she asked, her eyes dancing. But I had no patience, so I shook my head.
“Look. Today has been--”
“All rivers move,” she interrupted me.
I rolled my eyes, but I knew she liked this game. I fought with my conscience, and lost. Jean was my neighbor and elder--I owed her at least to go along with her game. It wasn’t her fault I had an awful day. “What about dog?” I asked, sighing. She paused to think about it.
“Diet often, groundhogs! Oh, this is lovely!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands together. “Let’s play it backwards!”
“Okay,” answered, grinning in spite of myself.
“Letting others' values exist?”
I thought for a second. “Love?”
“Yes! What about Emily always reads?”
And so it went. Once she got me into it, I couldn’t stop. Every time I walked by her house she’d shout out some phrase, and I’d tell her the word. One Monday I walked by, and she rose from her lawn chair to come over.
“Never waking from a bad dream?” she asked me, skipping all greetings.
I frowned. “That doesn’t spell anything. Nwfabd?” Jean looked at me very seriously.
“It spells fear, Evie. Never waking from a bad dream spells living in fear.”
I stared at her, and she just stared back. This was odd. “Fear is rational,” I said, trying to logic my way through it. She shook her head.
“No. Caution is rational. Fear is a dark lonely pit.” She looked at me, unblinking, and I wondered if…. “Evie, life should be enjoyed,” Jean said softly. I only nodded at her, seeing someone different then a child in front of me. After a second Jean smiled, losing all seriousness.
“Jim uses ice cream everyday?”
* * *
I couldn’t forget her comment. For one thing, she had seemed so aware when she had said it. And for another, it had made sense. And since I didn’t want to be stuck in a bad dream, that night I stood in front of my mirror and thought for a while.
“Life,” I said to my reflection, “isn’t fearing everything. Life is… for everyone.”
And the girl in the mirror smiled at me. She agreed with Jean.
Megan Hatch is a high school sophomore from Massachusetts. Along with writing, Megan enjoys playing sports, acting, hanging out with friends and family, and photography. She also love science, reading (awesome) books, and being outside.
une tranche de vie
by Elizabeth Koh
New York is glass and concrete and bright blue skies - it’s high fashion on Fifth Avenue, slender faceless models in Prada and Gucci, the bitter scent of Starbucks coffee on every corner. She revels in minimalist buildings [like crazily stacked figures from geometry books] and high heels and the simple joys of subways. There are people everywhere, so much life and color it makes her head spin. Yet there is an edginess to the city, something bitter that only New York could be built on, something sharp and sarcastic and scintillating. It is a city by the young, for the young—a city for freedom so intoxicating it hurts.
It’s bitingly clear, twenty-seven degree weather, and light streams through the window, leaves little puddles of white on the floor. She throws open the window and sticks her head out, looking down at the street. Ten stories up, it is an overturned anthill of bug-like cars, scuttling over the concrete below. The taxicabs race among the automobiles like dots of sunshine among smog-stained clouds of rain. Framing the congested traffic, warmly clad people wrap their coats closer and hurry on, oblivious to the world around them.
The window clatters shut, doors open and close in rapid succession. Soon she too steps out of her apartment and joins the crowd, feet clicking against the pavement. Above her, the sky stretches out over the city, an endless plain of blue.
A symphony of sound wraps her up in the city: car horns blare in her ears, people bicker on their cell phones, pedestrians narrowly dodge death by mere inches as they traverse fatalistic intersections. It’s almost impossible to hear the thumping of her heart as she mingles with the people, avoids their bulky briefcases and discontent mumbling. She automatically sidesteps another wave of people, ducks into a convenience store sandwiched between two fancy dress shops. The bell overhead tinkles hollowly as she taps her way down the aisles, finds herself a small package wrapped in cellophane plastic. The ring of the cashier echoes in her ears long after she’s tucked her purchase away and stepped back out to catch the subway.
The subway is like a city on its own, rusty iron gates that spit out a traveler or two at a time, only to be swallowed up in the darkness of concrete tunnels and flickering incandescent lights. The platforms are stained with remnants of bubblegum spit carelessly upon the floor, cigarette stains left by high-powered businessmen. She avoids the fairly fresh gum stains, waits for the train to rumble through the darkness. The trains themselves are tired, crammed places, the orange seats witness to one too many midnight commutes. She sits, lets herself breathe for a moment. The walls of the subway fly by beyond the window as her fingers brush the empty seat beside her.
She gets off on Fifth Avenue, returns to the world of the living. The sun sparkles life on the city, scattering little gems of light upon skyscraper windows. Around her is brightness and color again, above her a blue, blue sky. She walks south till she sees trees silhouetted against the skyscrapers, a little splash of color amongst the monochromatic buildings. Hesitating, she reaches for the package in her bag, reassured by the crinkle of plastic beneath her fingertips.
She crosses the street and weaves through the inevitable crowds of sightseers at the entrance—Central Park is always busy this time of year—and finds a park bench. The pigeons waddle by, watching the tourists through beady eyes. She, on the other hand, sees the couples wrapped up in each other as they float by.
She remembers her purchase, pulls it out from her bag. The plastic rips apart easily, and she tosses the sunflower seeds inside to the birds clustered by the sidewalk. With a flutter of wings, they dive for the food, squabbling amongst themselves. Behind her, she hears a clock strike the hour. Instinctively, her fingers crush the packet in her palm. The pigeons turn towards her at the sound, a silent question in their eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she says, to the empty air, even though no one will listen, even though the person she wants to talk to is too far away to hear.
The cold stings at her eyes, makes them blurry with pain. She blinks and dashes away the inevitable tears with the back of her hand. The temporary moments of weakness linger upon her skin, remnants of a rain cloud that never was.
There’s a little bit of I don’t want to wake up if you’re not here and I miss you in her fingers, clenched tightly together. There’s also a little bit of persistence that suppresses the memories, the regret that lingers in the tears she hasn’t shed.
She stands and the plastic bag of sunflower seeds falls from her hand. The kernels tumble out of the wrapping, scatter over the pavement. She walks away, ignores the birds behind her, ignores the rush of life battering her ears.
Hearts break quietly, and no one can hear.
Elizabeth Koh is a sophomore at Oxford Academy in Cypress, CA. Her literary pursuits include poetry, two novels-in-progress, and plans to pursue journalism next year. Aside from writing, she enjoys playing the piano, and is a cellist in her school’s symphony orchestra.
by Maya Aronoff, 10, MI
Once upon a time in a far away land there lived an extremely grumpy man named Mr. Dumm. He was not important, and had no unusual children. He just owned a coffee shop with Cinderella. There, he read the newspaper every day, and went to the park to feed crumbs to the flying monkeys. Next, he would go pick up his grandchildren, Hansel and Gretel, from school and drop them off at home. Then he would eat dinner with Baba Yaga, who was his wife. Finally, he’d go to bed. Then he would wake up and do it all over again.
The cycle was never interrupted. Who knew how fast that could change?
It was a Friday and Mr. Dumm was doing what he did every Friday morning: checking by the coffee shop to read the paper and get a cup of coffee.
He got into his ‘78 Camero and fed the key into the slot. The engine roared for a moment before puttering out. He tried again. Same results.
“Darn drat it!” he growled, climbing out of the car. He lifted up the hood and pulled out his cat. “Scoot!” He got back in the car, muttering under his breath. That darn kitty was always sleeping in there. It was just part of the routine, really.
He started the car and pulled out of the driveway. There was a note on the dashboard.
“What’s this?” He cleared his throat and pulled the break. He picked up the note and squinted at it through his spectacles. “’Go south. I have a surprise for you.’ Sounds promising. I’ve done the same thing over and over again for 476 years, and I guess it’s gonna change now.” As you can see, he wasn’t very bright. He re-started the engine.
As he drove south watching the scenery flash past him and breaking the speed limit for the fun of it, he wondered what the surprise was. That was when something blew up next to his car. He swerved dangerously, the Camero ricocheting off of a tree and spiraling toward a ditch. Mr. Dumm desperately tried to regain control of his car as it spun out of control.
“Ahhhhhhh!” he screamed as he was flung out of the car and into the ditch. Once he hit the bottom of the ditch, he fell through a trap door and kept falling down! It was completely black. Mr. Dumm was annoyed by this latest development. He landed on a soft cushion. Someone stepped out of the shadows.
Mr. Dumm knew at once that this person was a villain, but he didn’t have any of those villainous features that people seem to enjoy pinning on villains. He did not have an eye patch or a peg leg, he was not ugly or green-skinned, and he had no evil lair full of curly-cue potion containers. He had ratty brown hair and plain, ho-hum facial features, with plain old jeans and a plain old T-shirt. Yet Mr. Dumm knew he was a villain because his shirt read ‘I AM A VILLAIN’ in big, bold, letters.
“Are you a villain, boy?” Mr. Dumm asked.
“No,” said the boy. “I’m Zeus.”
“Okay, enough of the smart aleck. Where the heck am I and where is my surprise?” The boy smiled at him. It was a smile that would have sent shivers running down anyone’s back, but not Mr. Dumm. He was too stubborn and twice as shortsighted.
“I believe we have business to conduct, Mr. Charles Isthmus Dumm. Important business.”
“I COULDN’T CARE LESS ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS!” Mr. Dumm screamed. He couldn’t stand his full name, and even more when you abbreviated Isthmus to Is., even if it was true.
“That isn’t very good negotiation tactics. Losing your cool before we even get to the table.”
The boy was smug, obnoxious, and patronizing.
“I want you to kill a dragon.”
“A dragon. I am conducting an experiment to see if the oldest member of the fairy tale community can kill a dragon. It will be a simple matter for you to try.”
“Okay,” Mr. Dumm said. “But what’s in it for me?”
“Glory,” commented the boy and slipped into the shadows. Mr. Dumm found himself outside a large cave. The cave, inevitably, contained a dragon.
“This is so stereotypical. A dragon to be killed at the end of a story,” he muttered, annoyed at the strange development.
The dragon was of medium thickness and emerald green, with a long red tongue and longer claws. It casually spat a fireball at him. It missed and Mr. Dumm did not flinch.
“Listen here, dragon,” he roared grumpily. “I was just sent here to kill you, so stay still, or stop eating the town’s sheep!”
The dragon was perturbed. It didn’t eat any sheep. Why were dragons the subject of fairy tale cruelty? Why? He hadn’t done anything wrong. Now this grumpy little man was being sent here to kill him. Wasn’t that just typical. At least it wasn’t some knight in shining armor. That would be really annoying.
“Hi,” said the dragon. “Don’t kill me, please.” Mr. Dumm scowled.
“How about this. I beat you up, then you fly away and I go back and say you’re dead.”
“Good plan. But I get to fight.” And so the dragon and the old man fought. The dragon slashed with his claws and blew fireballs, and Mr. Dumm revealed he knew martial arts and began doing tae kwon do with his cane.
“Woooooooaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!” Mr. Dumm shouted, flying through the air and kicking the dragon and then thumping him over the head with his cane. The dragon whimpered and flew away, its great bat-like wings thumping the air into currents. Mr. Dumm waddled back to his car and drove all the way to the Not-So-Supermarket to pick up the things for a Friday night dinner. Then he drove home, cooked, ate dinner with his family, played board games, and resumed his routine.
Maya Aronoff is a sixth grader at Chippewa Middle School in Michigan. She loves writing, reading, and all sports, but mostly tae kwon do, in which she has earned a red belt. Her ambition is to publish a book before age 12.
The Washtub by Ariel Pollak (PDF)
by Mike Chen
The factory was the nexus of the village. Three thousand villagers were employed at the mammoth industrial complex, which produced nearly all of the village’s consumer goods. The factory answered all of its village’s desires; the only thing that it couldn’t provide was food. But the river that ran through the center of the village made the surrounding land fertile, so the villagers would never know hunger.
Without the factory, the village would not be able to subsist. Accordingly, the factory was the most important building in the village: the most ornate, the best maintained, the largest–it even dwarfed the church in size and scale. It superseded everything else, so it was natural that young boys and girls started preparing for a future at the factory at a very young age. Education immediately followed infancy: children were taught rote memorization–learning by repetition–and became adept at repeating patterns with their hands and fingers; for instance, a child could tie a complex knot in a few seconds or sew an article of clothing very quickly. These skills were crucial to working at the factory.
Every child was eventually integrated into the factory system, for everybody had to contribute to society. But Mrs. Lloyd’s son, George, dared to resist; his behavior was unprecedented in the history of the village.
From a very early age on, George showed a disinterest in memorization. When he turned fifteen, which was the normal age for employment, he refused to work at the factory. What he was interested in–singing and music–had no place there. By refusing to work at the factory, George essentially refuted all that his village stood for.
And thus, he was denied rations, which his mother compensated for by splitting her rations in half and sharing with him. For a while, it was enough to sustain both of them.
But then one day Mrs. Lloyd was afflicted with a debilitating disease. Deprived of three complete meals a day, she withered away until she finally died.
The neighbors attended the funeral and had great things to say about Mrs. Lloyd–especially about her skill as a garment worker in the factory. They regarded George with subtle criticism and assumed that Mrs. Lloyd’s death would finally motivate George to seek a job at the factory. At the very least, he needed to eat in order to survive.
Alas, the neighbors were wrong. George began to live off of Mrs. Lloyd’s pension–ten years of guaranteed rations–that had been left to him in her will. The indignant neighbors saw how George squandered the resources of the village without making his fair share of contributions. He sang all day and never stepped foot into the factory.
The neighbors petitioned for the Committee to force him into labor. The Committee visited him one night and outlined the importance of each citizen doing his part for the village. But the villagers on the Committee were too kind, and they didn’t have it in them to intimidate George into doing anything.
The neighbors then petitioned for the Committee to deny him rations. But that would be disrespecting Mrs. Lloyd, the Committee responded. The neighbors tried to think of other punishments for George, but they couldn’t come up with any. Their society wasn’t a creative one.
Finally, the neighbors threatened George with ostracism. Ostracism was the worst punishment of all. For weeks and weeks, nobody greeted him. Nobody talked to him. Nobody even looked at him. At first, George didn’t mind–he didn’t enjoy the company of his neighbors anyhow.
But the loneliness soon bit him, and he decided to leave the village. He would rather be alone than a stranger among thousands. Near so many people who refused to recognize him, he was constantly reminded of his loneliness.
Since he was leaving and would likely never come back, he decided to do the one thing he had always dreamed of doing. On the eve of his departure, George stood at the door of the factory and started to sing. The workers who were just arriving for their shift paused in their tracks, awestruck by the beauty of his voice. The workers inside the factory heard him too and all work stalled as many minutes went by.
When his throat was exhausted and he was finally out of breath, he stopped. And then he walked towards the edge of the village, prepared to leave the place he had called his home for all his life.
The villagers didn’t know what to say or how to react. But the music had touched them. For the first time in their lives, they were inspired. And yet, they couldn’t muster the words to thank him or even apologize for their previous behavior.
A stout man on the Committee ran to catch up with him. The village needs you, he told George. You’ll be the village’s entertainment, he asserted.
George shook his head.
Stay, the other villager implored. How will you survive out there? Please stay.
George shook his head adamantly. But he did have one last suggestion for the Committee. It was a suggestion for the entire village, actually.
In a loud, speaking voice, he articulated that if anyone wanted to join him, they should feel free to do so. If anyone wanted to live free of the factory’s shackles and the shackles of society, they ought to do so. They ought to join him.
He stood waiting at the edge of the village, and nobody approached. In his heart, he had truly wished for some company. He had truly wished that somebody would join him.
But these people didn’t know a life other than the factory. They couldn’t imagine a life without incessant work and repetition; it was what they were accustomed to.
Mike Chen is a junior at Amador Valley High School in California, where he is involved in his school's DECA business club and a member of the soccer and cross country teams. Mike enjoys writing, reading, playing violin, and spending time with his friends.
by Kalliope Dalto
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. --William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Truer words were never penned. Please, let me explain.
I used to be a professor of English Literature at an archaic little institution in Massachusetts known to the few who actually cared as Miskatonic University. I have since retired.
I mention this fascinating bit of trivia since it is in the hallowed halls of good old M.U. that my story begins. In the library, of course. Where else does anything happen?
I had been sitting at one of M.U.’s ornately carved oak tables for who knows how long, grading term papers and drinking Johnny Walker (a habit I have since been forced to abandon). At some point, which I am unable to remember, the muffled bonging of the Arkham church clock simply bonged my awareness out of existence, and my glasses began their long, steady trek down the bridge of my nose. I came to the ineffable conclusion that it would be futile to attempt any further toil, and began to sweep my students’ hastily constructed works of mediocrity into my duffel bag, a trusted friend who had seen countless loads of similar content. However, at that very moment, a loud, consistent rapping emitted from just outside the closed doors of the library…doors through which I had been planning to exit…but alas, fate had other plans.
Whoever was knocking had a fist as consistent as a jackhammer. I dragged my duffel bag over toward the exit, and hauled the massive, cathedral style doors open, hoping my guest would be brief.
And there he stood. Imposing as a meat locker, his face enshadowed by an overlarge top hat and hidden within the folds of his dragging grey coat. His outfit seemed custom tailored for concealment. He carried an air of antiquity about him, and also a leather umbrella.
“Well?” I asked him, and tried to push past. It was 3:00 in the morning; I had no time for such things!
He emitted a low moan, then coughed, and spoke normally.
“Are you…the one in charge?”
“Of this library? No. It’s closed now. Go away. The librarian will be back tomorrow.”
At this point I made some ridiculous gesture, repeated myself slowly and loudly, and (rather rudely, I suppose) tried to shove the stranger out of the way.
He didn’t budge. It was like trying to move a bulldozer with your bare hands. He was not at all offended, however…at least, he seemed not to be. It was hard to tell with his face concealed as it was.
He picked me up and dropped me into a chair.
“I am…from…else…where.” Heavy breathing. “Can you…explain…earth?” More heavy breathing.
Then, with an air of sudden assurance and unquestionable decision, the stranger reached up. In one swift motion, he flung coat and hat to the floor, and, looming like a Doric column, he glared at me from deeply set black eyes. Patches of his lightly green body were covered with fine, hair-like cilia, which vibrated at any movement or sound. His face was that of a Grecian god, though startlingly marred by the absence of a nose. His body seemed to generate moisture, and I saw that his coat was completely soaked with water. A clump of tentacles adorned his head, like a parody of hair.
I was terrified. But I was also extremely curious. This was a chance to speak on behalf of the whole human race, an opportunity that should have been reserved for a great leader or brilliant scientist…but by some twist of fate, had been given to me. My visitor seemed impatient, but genuinely interested, and I managed to squeal out,
“I guess so!”
He settled into a chair, expectant. I started with primordial organisms and worked my way up through both history and biology. I told him what I knew of physics, what I knew of theater, and everything there is to know about literature. I recounted current events in vivid detail, I told him about wars and scandals and blue jeans. All this he observed with a purely fascinated look, the very picture of scientific curiosity. I told him absolutely everything about earth, leaving out not a single detail, describing it all as if I were the world’s foremost expert on, well…everything. Finally, when there was nothing left to say, I slouched backward in my chair and asked…
“Fascinating.” Said the visitor. “A truly remarkable culture.”
I assumed he was done, so I sped to the door, eager to phone every newspaper in America and alert the world about our uninvited guest.
“I don’t think you should do that.”
“What? Why not? I mean…I have to leave!”
“I can’t leave?”
The alien sighed deeply and began to explain. He obviously had picked up a great deal of English from my endless ranting, and now spoke in more measured tones.
“This…Stephen Hawking…that you have described to me had a theory about the existence of ‘personal time’. He believed that every organism lived at a slightly different speed, that time was perceived differently by everyone in it. He was…very correct. My planet is proof of that.”
“Well…see…all the while you were…talking…you were in my time. I adjusted what you might call the ‘space/time continuum’ inside this building so that we could speak. It is much…much…slower than yours.”
I could see where this was headed.
“How much slower, exactly?” (I admit, I may have had a touch of hysteria in my voice.)
“In our time…you talked so long…that several hours have gone by.”
“Look out the window.”
I looked. And where I had once looked out upon the Arkham clock tower and the rows of houses and stores beneath it, I now saw nothing but darkness. Nothing but darkness, and the endless, timeless, stars.
Brevity isn’t just wit. Brevity is everything.
Kalliope Dalto, 13, lives in Rockland County, NY. The boundary between reality and fiction grows more blurred for her every day, probably due to her chronic bibliophilic tendencies and the occasional sacrifice to the Elder Gods in the backyard. She is a fan of Star Trek, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Aldous Huxley, Grant Morrison, and the poet Shelley. She aspires to become a Baker Street Irregular.